The White Robin and Village Centenary (#14, #15 in The Fairacre Chronicles)

Two more wonderful books from this series. I have only five left to read and I'm torn between reading them all right now or going back to hoarding them. When I'm reading other books - so many stories of war, crime, disaster, loss, and the general misery of the human race - it's nice to know these books are there to return to. Sometimes I need a comforting dose of charming characters and life as a mostly happy thing. Not that they aren't realistic - the characters have all kinds of flaws and sad things do happen - but Miss Read is gentle with the reader in the telling. These books are just such a relief after the intensity of others.

The White Robin by Miss Read

The White Robin is about just that, an albino robin (I looked it up - they exist) appearing in gardens around Fairacre, to the amazement of the villagers. The school children are particularly enamoured of this lovely white bird with its rust coloured breast and Miss Read, good teacher that she is, gets them involved in it's care and feeding. But one day a troubled young boy...well, I won't spoil it for you. And lest it sound like a children's book, be assured the lives of the villagers carry on in the usual way providing Miss Read with lots of interesting stories to tell.

Village Centenary by Miss Read

Village Centenary is about the 100th anniversary of the Fairacre School, of which Miss Read is current head mistress. There are only 2 teachers now, and a handful of students all under age 10, but most of the villagers were educated there and have good memories of their school years. Celebrations are carefully planned, Miss Clare (the previous head mistress we fell in love with in earlier books) returns to tell stories of the past, the Vicar takes up bee-keeping, and Mrs. Pringle (the curmudgeonly cleaner of the school and teacher's house) has another run-in with her troublesome niece, Minnie. Miss Read receives two surprises, one from her old friend, Kay, and one from Miss Clare. One will offer a brief, pleasant diversion, the other will have a profound effect on her future.  

The writing is lovely, the characters endearing, the stories gently humorous - everything you could want in a series of comfort reads. I'm grateful that when I finish this series there's another one waiting. The numbers may sound intimidating - 20 in the Fairacre series and 13 in Thrush Green, but they are brief and easy to read and I so wish there were more. 

True Believers

 True Believers by Linda Dorrell


Set in the southern U.S. in the 1950s, this is the story of a woman using her share of an inheritance to buy an old church and fix it up for a local preacher and his congregation. There are those in the community who aren't happy with her plan, particularly her three rather unpleasant sisters who think she's foolishly throwing her money away. In spite of the town's disfavour, and a forecast storm that could destroy everything they've worked for, she and the preacher set to work, aided by a hard-working, good-looking itinerant carpenter. The three become friends but they all have secrets and their relationships are tested as these come to light. They must face the mistakes and tragedies of their pasts and hope that faith and good intentions will make things right. 

This is a story Hallmark could make into a movie, though not a Christmas one. Do they make non-Christmas movies? It has all the right ingredients - family, romance, people in need, people who want to help, and people who believe - in God, not Santa Clause, a more reasonable faith to my thinking. It's a bit cliched and predictable, but it's a nice, uplifting story many will appreciate.  

The Silent Ones

 The Silent Ones by Linda Coles 

This one is a mystery, more in the style of Agatha Christie than James Cameron. It reveals itself slowly but still stays interesting. I didn't know till I was almost finished that it's book #3 in a series about private detective, Chrissy Livingstone. Fortunately, I didn't find that made any difference at all and it held up well as a stand-alone book. 

The story begins with Chrissy and husband Adam, her sister, Julie and husband Richard, settling into a vacation rental in Ireland. They meet another vacationing couple at the local bar and spend the evening enjoying each other's company. But when Chrissy decides to drop in to say hello a few days later, they are nowhere to be found. Only their baby son, Flynn, remains in their vacation rental. Horrified at finding him abandoned, Chrissy packs him up and takes him back to their place to try and figure out what has happened to his parents. 

Because new clues are given out bit by bit, I developed a different theory every chapter or so about what was really going on, every single one of them wrong. I like it when a mystery can still surprise me. 

I enjoyed the story, implausible though it seemed at times, but I may have liked it more for the narrator's lovely Irish lilt than for the plot itself. Her voice gave it a charm I might not have found in its written form. Even after using audio books for a few years, I'm still surprised by how easy it is to overlook not-so-well-written parts when a melodious and expressive voice is reading them, and equally how an unappealing voice can ruin a book I might otherwise love. Am I influenced too much by the narrator? Should I be able to get past the voice to the content? I'd like to hear your opinions and your experience with audio books. 


The Melody

 The Melody by Jim Crace

Alfred Busi is an aging performer struggling to find purpose after the loss of his wife and his career. He lives alone in a part of town where developers want to tear down all the older homes to erect modern new high-rises. Their plans also include clearing the nearby wooded area that shelters the homeless, several species of wildlife, and according to local legend, Neanderthals, or "humanzees", a feral hybrid of wild man and animal.

When Alfred is attacked in his own home by what he believes to be a wild boy, and again later on the street near his home, it fuels the town's desire to clear the area to protect the "haves" from the dangers the "have-nots" present. And in one surreal, half-crazed day, they do just that.

There is a third party narrator through most of the book, until the last quarter when he introduces himself and finishes the book in the first person. Alfred sort of fades away toward the end; he's still there, he just isn't the main character anymore. That was disappointing.

The story deals with grief, aging, and loneliness, but it also makes a statement about humans encroaching more and more on animal habitat, and the widening gap between people of comfortable means and those who have to scavenge for their daily food. 

It's different, fascinating in sections and tedious in others. There's a dream/nightmare-like quality about it, or maybe it's more like a fairy tale, the kind where danger is always lurking just off the page. 

I don't know how else to describe it. It's a weird one.  

The Innocents

 The Innocents by Michael Crummey


The haunting story of a brother and sister - Everett 11, Ada 9 - left to fend for themselves after the deaths of their parents and baby sister.
 They stay in their remote and isolated cove in Newfoundland, living in the tilt that had housed their family - I had to look up "tilt" - a "temporary structure built of logs set in the ground vertically." Alone they stuggle through brutal winters and summers filled with hard physical labour, fishing and growing whatever will keep to feed them through the long frigid months. In the spring, when the ice moves out, a boat comes to take the children's catch of cod in trade for supplies, and each year the captain is surprised to find them still alive.

Through every hardship they persevere, huddling together through the freezing nights to stay warm, but then, as they get older, taking more comfort in each other than brother and sister were ever meant to. This creates a new tension between them, both drawing them closer and driving them apart. It becomes the focus of the rest of the story, affecting everything else that happens and further complicating the struggle and danger of their daily lives. Crummey's powerful descriptive abilities render it all chillingly vivid and terribly painful to read.  

I love Michael Crummey's writing; he takes me out of my life and sets me down in the middle of a story like few other writers can and his Sweetland remains one of my all time favourites. Reading this one I was again awed by his genius, but it was hard to get through. Their pain, their unnatural relationship - it was heavy stuff. I finished it because I had to know if they survived to the end, but once the story took that turn I lost my stomach for it.  

Island

 Island by Jane Rogers

Inevitably drawn to any book with "Island" in the title, I was quite eager to start this one, and it gave me things I crave: windy cliffs, sandy beaches, rocky beaches, waves lapping the shore, waves heaving and breaking and pounding the shore, and pungent salt air. When I can't quench my thirst for the ocean in person, books are a nearly adequate substitution.

The island of this book is Aysaar, in the Hebrides. As far as I can tell it's a fictional place, at least I couldn't see it among the 63 island names I could find in the Hebrides. To this tiny island comes Nikki Black, 29, seeking revenge on the mother who abandoned her as an infant, and on whom Nikki blames every single problem she has ever had. That got a little tedious but the story kept me going, if only to see how it could possibly come to any conclusion. 

Nikki's plan for vengeance is complicated by the existence of an unsuspected brother, a strange boy who collects found objects and lives with his mother on the island. She keeps him on a short leash, with good reason, but he and Nikki become close and he changes Nikki's life in profound ways. 

Parts of this book were hard to read, maybe because ugly and unnatural thoughts and actions stand out more starkly against the beautiful, clean backdrop of sea and sky. But there is loveliness in the story, too, especially in the island folktales Calum learned growing up and now passes on to his sister.

It was a pretty good story, though bogged down by Nikki's obsession with hating and blaming her mother. It's different from anything else I've read, and though it moves slowly, you're always waiting for something dreadful to happen and that keeps you turning the pages. 

I have mixed feelings about the ending. Things get sort of worked out, but not in any way that can last, and you're left with an ominous feeling about what's to come. The author does leave room to imagine a fairy tale future, but it would be inconsistent with the rest of the book. Thought-provoking endings like this are always interesting.

Another Gospel?

 Another Gospel? by Alisa Childers

Today there is a movement within the Christian church to abandon some of the basic tenets of the faith, things that have long been the foundation of the church, its very reason for existence. Not that this is new - there have always been and will always be those who seek to make faith easier to practice, and God easier to live with, to get around the more uncomfortable aspects of faith. Being questioned are the reality of heaven and hell, the virgin birth, Jesus as the sole way of salvation, His deity, and the necessity of His sacrifice. One popular idea is that we can be Christians without believing in Christ at all, and that doing what good we can in this life will assure us a place in a beautiful afterlife.    

These views of Progressive Christianity are what Ms. Childers addresses in this book. She's done extensive research to back up her defense of the church's ancient creeds, going back to the beginning, seeking the historical Jesus and studying what the early church believed and why. Here she presents her findings and it is evidence both credible and convincing. I will read for myself some of the materials she quotes from, but for now what she took from them and shared in this book is enough to answer some of my questions and encourage me to hold fast to the truth given to us in the Bible. 

We've all had, or at some point will have, doubts; I think that's part and parcel of a life of faith. And I believe asking questions is healthy. No one ever asked us, or ever should ask us, to check our brains at the door. But questions are one thing; inventing a new 'gospel' out of those questions and doubts, without going back to the beginnings and asking why it is that we started believing what we believe in the first place, is another. The author has asked those very questions and shares with us what eye-witnesses to Jesus' life believed and how we came to have the Bible we depend on today. 

This book, if not particularly well written, is easy to read and understand for those of us not formally educated in theology. I recommend it to any who may have doubts and questions about the Bible and traditional Christian faith, yet do not find credible answers in the easy believism of Progressive Christianity. 

Pardon My French and Those Who Walk Away

 Pardon My French - How a Grumpy American Fell in Love with France by Allen Johnson

It was ok, but I didn't love it. I was hoping for more about France and less about the author, but to be fair, I had no reason to expect that. He genuinely is a very talented person, excelling at many things, just maybe dwelling a little too much on that. And there's this - I read A Year In Provence a few years ago and now everything else in this genre seems pale in comparison. I can't resist them though, and since this is how I do my traveling now, I'll keep reading them.


Those Who Walk Away by Patricia Highsmith

Ray Garrett is grieving the loss of his wife, Peggy, who recently committed suicide. Her father, Edward Coleman, blames Ray and will not be satisfied until Ray pays with his own life. Edward shoots Ray at close range and walks away, assuming Ray is dead. He is not. Only slightly injured, Ray remains determined to convince Edward that Peggy's death is not his fault. Both of them become hunter and hunted as Edward looks for vengeance and Ray insists Edward just listen to him. 

Set in and around Venice with its unique canals, upscale hotels, and elegant restaurants, the story has a charm that reminded me of the 2015 film Man From U.N.C.L.E. with its slick characters and much drinking of cocktails. There is lots of skulking around in the dark of night and a few twists to keep it interesting, but there's not a great deal of action. It's more of a psychological mystery.

The conclusion was not quite what I expected or even thought was fair, but the author doesn't owe the reader that and overall it was satisfactory enough. A good story, well written.

The Shipping News

 The Shipping News by Annie Proulx


A great novel.

Kirkus Reviews, whose opinions I take probably too seriously, wasn't thrilled with it, but it won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction so I feel justified in appreciating it as much as I did. I found the first part a little slow but once the story moved to Newfoundland, I was transported too. To the salt air and the crash and roar of the ocean, and to all the oddball, lovable, infuriating characters that people this story. They became my neighbours, my people, and I hated to leave them. I want to call to see how everybody's doing and catch up on all the gossip.

Back in the 90's I saw the movie and loved it, but somehow never thought about the book. I don't like to see the movie first because then the characters in the book all come with Hollywood-assigned faces. I guess with this one it's been long enough that they didn't stick, accept for Billy Pretty who I saw clearly, and happily, as Gordon Pinsent, who is one of my all-time favourites.

The main character, Quoyle, is a newspaper man barely getting by in New York. When his wife, a truly horrible woman who treats him like dirt, is killed in a car accident, he agrees to start over with his aunt and two daughters in Newfoundland, where his aunt grew up. 

They move into the old family homestead, an abandoned shell of a house without plumbing or electricity, sitting far out on a point of land above the ocean. Quoyle gets a job at the local paper writing reports on car wrecks and the shipping news, and they settle into the rugged lifestyle of coastal Newfoundland. There are wild storms, drownings, a party that goes way off the rails, a murder, and a lady named Wavey who offers Quoyle hope that love might not always be a lost cause.       

The author is gifted at creating atmosphere. This is how she describes the crowd at a school play:

"The auditorium was packed. A sweep of best clothes, old men in camphor-stinking black jackets that gnawed their underarms, women in silk and fine wools in the colors of camel, cinnabar, cayenne, bronze, persimmon, periwinkle, Aztec red. Imported Italian pumps. Hair crimped and curled, lacquered into stiff clouds. Lipstick. Red circles of rouge. The men with shaved jowls. Neckties like wrapping paper, children in sugar pink and cream. The puff of scented bodies, a murmur like bees over a red field."

I love this bit of conversation:

"Champagne! That's what I enjoy," said Tert Card. "With a ripe peach floating in it."

"Go on. That's something you read. There's never been a ripe peach in Newfoundland."

And the creative wording in these lines:

"The wires between his house and the utility pole keened discordancies that made his scalp crawl.

and

"...he was wondering if love came in other colors than the basic black of none and the red heat of obsession..."

This is a book worth reading. It's funny and sad, and so intensely real you can feel the heartbeat of Newfoundland and its people. The movie's worth watching, too. After the book.

The Spoon Stealer

 The Spoon Stealer by Lesley Crewe


I read the author's first novel, Relative Happiness, several years ago but didn't enjoy it, so when The Spoon Stealer was chosen as one of our Book Club selections this year I was hoping for better. Unfortunately I didn't like this one either.  

The story is about Emmeline Darling, a well-meaning, if somewhat loud and pushy woman, and her dog Vera, who she talks to and who it appears talks back to her. I was never quite sure if I was meant to believe in the talking dog or to see it as the author's method of revealing Emmeline's inner dialogue. I'm going with the latter.  

Emmeline is living in England when the story opens, far from her childhood home in Nova Scotia. She's been out of touch with her family for many years after making decisions of which they didn't approve. It's more complicated than that of course, and to give credit where credit is due, Emmeline's life is interesting, if increasingly unrealistic. 

She joins a memoir writing group at her local library, meeting the women who will become her best friends as the story progresses. Each week they read to the group parts of what they've written, with Emmeline's generating the most interest, gasps, tears and generally over-the-top reactions. I found the writing in the memoir passages to be better than that in the general story. It's less dramatic, more concise, and much more enjoyable to read. I wish the whole book had been written like that.

When Emmeline learns that she has inherited her family's farm in Nova Scotia, she and Vera plan a trip back to her childhood home, hoping to make peace with her family and figure out what to do with the property. As they all get to know each other again, more of her memoir is revealed, with the last few secrets brought to light only at the end, though you do begin to suspect some of them earlier. 

The last two chapters - oh, dear, the last two chapters - tell us how Emmeline, the all-wise, magnanimous saviour they've all been needing, has arranged to see that everyone gets exactly what they need/want to make their dreams come true and live better lives.   

I wanted to like this, but it all feels too exaggerated and improbable. The best I can say is it might have been better if it was toned down. Way down.  

Resonance

 Resonance by A.J. Scudiere

Dr. Rebecca Sorenson, biologist, has discovered 6-legged frogs near her family's home, and she's hearing reports of bees hovering in column formation and birds leaving their normal migratory patterns. Dr. David Carter, geologist, is seeing changes in the geology of the rocks he's digging up. Drs. Jordan Abellard and Jillian Brookwood of the CDC are investigating the rising number of cases of people dying only a few hours after complaining of stomach distress or ear pain. And all of these things appear to be happening in hotspots where magnetic polarity has begun to reverse, hotspots that are quickly expanding. The earth seems headed toward a total polar reversal with unimaginable consequences for all living things. 

There's a great build-up to the shift happening as the scientists share their findings, suggest explanations, and face the terrifying reality of what is about to happen. It's tense and exciting and then, suddenly, the shift has happened and focus switches from what could happen to figuring out what has happened and how to live now. Half the population is dead, but a few keep slipping in and out of consciousness. Every time they go "under", their vital stats drop dangerously low, but when they wake up, they clearly remember living in a different reality while unconscious in this one. 

I found it confusing when a character was dead on one page and on the next was having a conversation about other dead people who weren't dead at all in the last chapter. But just before it got annoying the explanation came, bringing a whole new set of questions with it. Earth...or maybe time...split when the poles reversed creating two different earth's or realities. While under in one they are awake in the other, but this is only true for a few people; the rest are alive in one and dead in the other, or dead in both. The determining factors for who ended up in each world become a matter of much speculation. More complications arise when two of them choose to stay in one particular reality and then have to figure out how to get rid of themselves in the other one. 

I'm sure I have you completely confused but, truly, you should read the book, which is much better written than this attempt at a summary and will make it all clear to you. Well, most of it. I thought it fizzled out a little at the end and left a lot of unanswered questions, but then half the fun of sci-fi is being left with inexplainable things to think about for days. This page-turner was that nerdy kind of fun.          

The Mitford Murders

 The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes

The author, Jessica Fellowes, is the niece of Julian Fellowes, creator and writer of Downton Abbey. Jessica wrote the popular series of Downton Abbey companion books and is a well known public speaker on the subject. This is her first fiction book and she's followed it up with four more in The Mitford Murder Series.

In this one Louise Cannon, eighteen and living in poverty in London with her loving mother and a degenerate uncle, dreams of living a better life. Her dream seems to be realized when she lands a job as nursery assistant at the estate of Lord and Lady Redesdale. There she finds a friend in Nancy, the oldest daughter of the family, but remains fearful her uncle will come and cause trouble for her.

When Florence Shore, a woman known to the family's Nanny, is murdered on a local train, Nancy and Louise look for clues as to who the murderer could be. They enlist the help of Guy Sullivan, a railway policeman who helped Louise when she first arrived and is grateful for any chance to see her again. 

Switched identities, a will conveniently changed just before the murder, and lots of secrets and lies all come together to create a mystery that involves both the the upstairs and downstairs cast of characters. It probably falls into the "cozy mystery" category, which I think I understand to mean lighter reading fare with happy endings for all but the guilty, who are rightfully hauled off by police to answer for their crimes. If I've got that wrong please let me know because I'm still not sure about the meaning of "cozy" when it's paired with "mystery".  

The Mitford Murders provided an enjoyable few hours of diversion with a good story, nice writing, and likeable characters. And it's always fun seeing how the other half lives - the upper class lifestyle, beautiful houses, elegant fashion, the lovely richness of it all. I did enjoy it but I probably won't continue with the series. Then again, one never knows; a good sale or another day's need for a pleasant bit of escapism might easily change my mind. 

Death of a Salesman and Babbitt

I've been meaning to read these two for a long time. The reviews didn't particularly interest me but they've both gotten a lot of attention over the years and I was curious to know the stories. I began enthusiastically enough, lost interest part way through both, and had to force myself to finish them.  

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is a play about the mental decline of Willy Loman as his disappointments pile up and his dreams slip away. Willy lives with an illusion of life as he'd like it to be, but his reality is far different and facing it is more than he can take. The few pages of this book are filled with enough emotional pain, anger and sadness to haunt me for a while I think. I'd like to see the play performed - maybe there's a film I can watch - because I'm not convinced I have sufficient imagination to be a good reader of plays. Nevertheless, my goal was to find out what the story was about and I have done that.


Babbit by Sinclair Lewis
 was described in reviews as a "satire of middle class American life", and a "comic novel of mid-life crisis". I listened to an audio version, which usually helps me get through books I'm not looking forward to reading, but oh, my, I found it dull. And not very funny, or even funny at all. George Babbitt is an unlikable character in a book filled with unlikeable characters, and his story is long and boring. I'm sure it has literary merit, I just can't work up enough enthusiasm to find it. But, as with Death of a Salesman, I wanted to know what it was about so mission accomplished. 

Trick

Trick by Domenico Starnone

I'm not sure yet how I feel about this one but maybe I can figure it out as I write.

Daniele Mallarico is a successful illustrator whose best days are behind him. At over 70 years of age he doesn't get as much, or as lucrative, work as he once did but he manages to keep his hand in. Recovering from minor surgery at home while working on illustrations for Henry James' short story, The Jolly Corner, he receives a call from his daughter, Betta. She asks if he can come to Naples to watch his four year old grandson while Betta and her husband attend a mathematics conference. His first instinct is to decline, but parental guilt sets in and he agrees.

All I knew of this book was that it told the story of a boy and his grandfather getting to know each other. It sounded charming, heartwarming. It was not. By the time I was done I wanted to throttle the kid and his parents. I understand the book is about the grandfather coming to terms with the changes that aging brings, but I found myself more focused on the boy and his emotional problems. He can't seem to distinguish fantasy from reality and he has no feeling except for himself. Children his age are capable of compassion for others, but when his grandfather is in real distress and needs his help, the boy calmly says no and goes to watch cartoons. This is the kind of child that ends up as the unsub on Criminal Minds.

Kirkus Reviews describes this book as "vivid and devastating" and it is truly both, so painful you want to look away, but so real and present that you can't. I was particularly drawn to the sections on Daniele's memories, and moved by the mental/emotional storm wrought by his desperation to find meaning in his later years and declining abilities. A fascinating character - passionate, intelligent, gifted, deeply flawed - he's facing the consequences of his less than stellar track record as husband, father and grandfather.

As he works on the illustrations for the James book, many parallels are drawn between the two stories. If you're going to read this one, it's a good idea to read at least a summary of The Jolly Corner first, and then the introduction to this book. It's a complicated story and I think all three are needed to gain an understanding of what the author is saying; even the title, that one word "Trick", can have different connotations. You'll probably spend more hours thinking about this one than actually reading its 191 pages, and that alone is a great reason to read it.

So in the end I did like it, not so much for the plot but for how it's told, because it's amazingly well-written and constructed. The story is multi-layered and the characters complicated and messy. It was exhilarating to be inside Daniele's head riding this mental roller-coaster with him. He's a great character. 

The four year old Mario...he's just creepy.  



A Virtuous Woman

 A Virtuous Woman by Kaye Gibbons

"She hasn't been dead four months and I've already eaten to the bottom of the deep freeze."

With this opening sentence, Jack begins telling the story of Ruby, his wife of 25 years who recently passed away from cancer. The chapters alternate between his voice and hers, also moving between past and present, but it isn't difficult to follow. Their voices are so distinct that it's easy to tell which one you're reading.

Ruby, raised by doting parents with the means to make her life easy, never had to do much for herself. When a man of questionable character starts paying her attention, starry-eyed she believes everything he says. After they marry she realizes her mistake; he lies, cheats, and lives it up while she works manual labour jobs to provide for them. When he dies, she welcomes Jack's quiet steadiness into her life. 

Jack, twenty years older than Ruby, has lived alone and never thought of marrying until he met her. As a tenant farmer he has little to offer her, but they meet each other's need for a quiet, dependable life partner so they marry and make a good life together. 

A Virtuous Woman isn't a romance but it is a story of love, true and wise, and of grief and second chances and hope. It's told mostly through their memories and though there's not a lot of plot, the characters ring true and their voices are vivid and intimate and you feel Jack and Ruby are talking directly to you. These are real people, the kind of folks who could live just down the road from you. 

I loved this one.


The Alaskan Laundry

 The Alaskan Laundry by Brendan Jones

Great story. Tara Marconi arrives in Alaska young, angry and running - from the loss of her mother, a father who kicked her out, a boy who's upset with her for leaving, and an assault she's been silent about. She knows what she's running from but has little idea what she's headed for.
 

She will be belittled and harassed by men who think women don't belong in the wilds of Alaska and aren't capable of doing the dangerous work needed to bring in the loads of salmon and crab that provide their living. And she'll have to cope with fierce and unpredictable weather, unfriendly bears, betrayal by friends, and a bad-tempered boss who might have become a friend if she hadn't hit on her in a hot tub. 

She commits to a year working at a salmon hatchery, then moves on to better jobs until finally landing a lucrative position on a King Crab boat headed to the Bering Sea. In all these situations she struggles to prove she's strong and capable enough to be of worth to her bosses. Her colleagues won't make it easy.  

Soon after arriving Tara sets her heart on buying an old wooden tugboat tied up at the dock, taking on arduous jobs that pay good money in order to buy it before someone else does, or the harbourmaster gets fed up with it taking up space and sinks it. It's the dream of owning and living on it that keeps her pushing through the hardest days. Well, that and letters from the boy back home.  
 
Alaska stands out as character in itself, and though it sounds magnificent, I didn't finish the book eager to pack my bags. For me the images of Tara's gruesome jobs and brutal working conditions overshadowed descriptions of forest, ocean and quirky people. Actually some of the people weren't so much quirky as loutish and unlikeable. I was quite happy when she finally clocked one of them.  

I got lost in this story and hated to put it down, even when the descriptions were vivid enough to make me gag and the f-word was used to the point of monotony. You just can't help but root for this kid. She's fearless when it comes to making her own way in the world and doesn't back down from the most harrowing challenges. One minute you're frustrated with her, the next you're holding your breath willing her to survive.  

Brendan Jones has given us a protagonist for the ages. I may forget her name, but never that indomitable spirit. She's a force to be reckoned with. 

When Books Went To War

 When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

Lots of interesting information here. It's the story of what happened to the world's books in the years leading up to, during, and after WWII, most of which I'd never heard before. 

Once Hitler took control of Germany he began burning books that didn't agree with his idea of the way things should be. As his armies invaded and occupied countries across Europe, he destroyed their books, too. Anything written by a Jewish person, and later by a British person, in fact anything considered "un-German" was burned. Authors considered heretical included Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, and even German authors whose writings were thought "harmful to the German spirit". From what I've learned since reading this book, the Nazis burned more than 100 million books. Millions more, and hundreds of  libraries, were destroyed by bombs during the war. 

In response to what was happening in Europe, and to provide soldiers with reading material, American librarians started book drives to collect and ship books to camps and deployed soldiers in the U.S. and overseas. People responded and books were donated and sent, but most of them were hard-covered and were too heavy and bulky to be of practical use. At the request of the government, American printers and publishers began producing more paperbacks and eventually American Service Editions (ASEs), which were a small, standard size that could be easily stowed in a pocket or kit bag. Servicemen wrote saying how important, how necessary, the books had become to them: 

"One sailor remarked that a man was 'out of uniform if one isn't sticking out of the hip pocket!'"

"Whenever a soldier needed an escape, the antidote to anxiety, relief from boredom, a bit of laughter, inspiration, or hope, he cracked open a book and drank in the words that would transport him elsewhere." 

I was fascinated with most of this book, if perhaps a little bored with all the pages given to the political wrangling that goes on behind the story. Still, it was an education; I had no idea about any of this. It raised all kinds of emotions, from rage at Nazi tyranny, to despair at great books willfully and gleefully reduced to ashes, to excitement when the new ASEs found their way into the hands of reading-starved servicemen. It was disturbing and exhilarating at the same time. 

The book begins, and I'll end, with this quote from President Franklin Roosevelt:

"Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man's eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know, books are weapons." 

Afterward

 Afterward by Jennifer Mathieu

A poignant story of two families struggling through the first year after their kidnapped sons are found and returned home. Dylan, an 11 yr old with autism, was held for four days, but being largely non-verbal is unable to tell anyone what happened to him. The other victim is Ethan, taken when he was 11 and held for 4 years. He remembers a lot but his mind has blocked the hardest parts out.                                                                                              
The point of view alternates with chapters told by Ethan and Caroline, Dylan's older sister. They don't know each other, but one day Caroline's curiosity gets the better of her and she bikes over to Ethan's house, hoping he might be able to tell her something of what Dylan experienced those four days he was missing. They become unlikely friends who, through their shared interest in music, are able to help each other face the worst.

Ethan's family sends him to a therapist - my favourite character in this book - a compassionate, intelligent man who gently gives the boy a safe place to speak of unspeakable things. As Ethan is able to express the emotions and fears that paralyze him, he begins to remember agonizing details, bringing him to a difficult choice: tell Caroline what he knows about her brother's abduction and risk losing her friendship, or try to stay friends with a terrible secret hanging over them. 

As difficult as the subject matter is, this book is really about recovery and hope. As the heartbreaking truth comes to light and gets more disheartening to read, it's balanced by the healing that facing it brings. The overall tone of the book becomes one of encouragement rather than despair. The pacing is good, with revelations coming in small increments to keep the story moving and some tension building. The characters are well developed, the dialogue is good and it comes to a satisfying conclusion. I would like to have read more about Dylan and his progress though. His part of the story felt unfinished.

The Madwoman Upstairs

 The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

Samantha Whipple is the last surviving descendant of the Bronte family. 
Her father, whose recent death is the topic of much rumor and speculation, was believed to have inherited a family fortune consisting of diaries, paintings, notebooks and first editions, a fortune believed to have been passed down to Samantha. She has never seen any of it, but her father's will is now in the hands of lawyers who have been trying unsuccessfully to get her to return their calls.

She enrolls at Oxford, where she is tutored by a handsome professor with whom she has a contentious relationship and for whom she has an unwanted attraction. Some of her father's books, Bronte novels full of his own notes, books that were supposed to have been lost in a fire, inexplicably begin showing up in random places around campus. Samantha must follow the clues to track down who is leaving them and why.   

What first drew me to this book was the literary mystery aspect; books about books are rarely not interesting to me. The best parts of this novel were the conversations between Samantha and her professor about the Bronte novels. I could have read a lot more of that. The mystery of the supposed fortune was also interesting, but the romance became in the end what the book was really about. I don't tend to read contemporary romances unless they are secondary storylines in more complicated plots, so I was sorry it took that direction. 

The ending I can only describe as underwhelming. The mystery of the appearing books was resolved in a way that meant little to the story, and the inheritance question just sort of fizzled out. After quite a promising start with a few nice twists, it came to an abrupt and unsatisfying end. There is an epilogue which basically says "and this happened" so we know the answer to at least one question, but others remain. I very much enjoyed the first three quarters of it but was disappointed with the finish.

The Manuscript

 The Manuscript by Nathan Hystad

Seattle detective, Jeremiah Trent, lives a solitary life until it's interrupted by an invitation from someone out of his past. Jay, now an incredibly successful author, asks Jeremiah and two other old friends to join him for a week at his mansion in Aspen, flights already booked and paid for. Jeremiah hesitates to reply because these four people have a long-held secret and getting together after all these years could bring a story best kept hidden to light again. 

They all decide to go, if only to see what it's all about, finding upon arrival that Jay has written a new novel he wants them to read and give feedback on. He allows them only one chapter at a time and while they read he sits in his locked office writing their reactions as things unfold. They soon realize that what they are reading is their own chilling story, just set in a different location and with the names changed. Each chapter makes them more uneasy and as the tension grows, questions and accusations arise. Then a buried body is discovered by local police and questions and accusations turn to fear. 

The first couple of pages reminded me of 1960's television detective-speak. Matter-of-fact, just-the-facts-Ma'am stuff. I could almost hear Jack Webb's expressionless voice reading the first line: "The dead eyes stared at me from across the room." I hoped the whole book wouldn't read like that, and thankfully it didn't; another few pages in and I was hooked. The tension builds as one surprising truth after another comes out, then suddenly it all hits the fan and you can't turn the pages fast enough. I had it figured out before the end but still there were surprises. The writing is average and the plot has a hole or two, but the suspense is definitely there and that makes it a pretty good read. 

Phantom of the Opera and The Henna Artist

 Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

I've never seen the stage musical but I watch the gorgeous movie musical starring Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler at least once a year. That feast for the eyes and ears being my only experience of the Phantom, I had high hopes for the book, but to be honest I wasn't as thrilled as I'd hoped to be. I feel guilty even saying that; one should love the classic novels, right?

I'm not sure why it didn't appeal to me. With much more story than the movie tells, a creepier tone and plenty of suspense, I should have loved it. And I might have if I'd read the book before seeing the movie, but as it was I just found it long and tedious at times. Maybe the glorious music and lush settings of the movie spoiled me for the book, I don't know, but I'm pretty sure the problem is with me and not the book.   

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

Lakshmi Shastri, 30, flees from an arranged marriage and abusive husband to the city of Jaipur, where with the help of an influential acquaintance, Samir Singh, she begins a thriving business as a henna artist and herbalist. Just as she reaches the height of her popularity with Jaipur's elite ladies and begins to enjoy the benefits of years of hard work, a young sister she didn't know existed enters her life, setting off a chain of events that could tear down everything Lakshmi has built. 

This first book in what will be a series was an interesting story with credible characters and realistic dialogue, yet I never came to care enough about the characters to want to read the next book. They didn't step off the page and come to life for me. I did get a lot out of the cultural experience, seeing life in India from a woman's point of view and learning a bit about henna painting and other aspects of Indian life, but even after reading the lengthy excerpt included from the next book I'm still not inclined to keep going.

One aspect of the book that got annoying was the frequent use of untranslated Indian terms. The author does include a glossary of terms at the back to help understand them, but with the e-book it's not easy to flip back and forth. Some of them I could get pop-up definitions for and others could be understood from context, but quite a few I ended up skipping over. There were a lot of them. Even with a print book I don't think I'd have wanted to be looking up words in the glossary every time I turned a page. A list of characters is also included but I'd recommend reading from a paper copy rather than audio or e-book to make better use of the lists.

The topic is interesting and the plot well paced, the writing flows well and it held my attention right through to the end. But I didn't find the characters relatable, or maybe approachable is a better word, and that made it less than great for me.

To The Lighthouse

 To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf


Told from the point of view of various character's thoughts, it covers two separate days, ten years apart, in the life of the Ramsay family. 

Mrs. Ramsay, her husband, and their eight children are staying at their somewhat rundown summer house on the Isle of Sky, along with several guests invited to join them for a few days. Mrs. Ramsay wants to take James, their youngest, to the lighthouse across the water the next day, but her husband insists that it will rain and they won't be able to go. To her thinking, he gets too much enjoyment out of repeating his prediction and seeing their disappointment. 

In the first section of the book, we are privy to Mrs. Ramsay's thoughts about her role as a woman, wife and mother; her conjectures about their guests; Mr. Ramsay's musings about his family and his own self-doubt; and the reflections of some of the visitors. 

To be honest, at this point I found myself getting bored, but then, suddenly, it took a new direction. After several deaths in the family, the Ramsays stop coming to the summer house for a period of ten years. An aging housekeeper is left to look after the place but it is too big a job for one person and things begin to run down. The description of the deterioration is so well done, so hauntingly beautiful that I found it the most interesting, and most moving, part of the book.

Ten years after the family's last visit, the housekeeper receives a letter telling her to get the house ready - no small job - for the family to return. This part is told through the housekeeper's thoughts about putting the house in order and her speculations about the family. Once they arrive, along with some of the same guests oddly enough, Mr. Ramsay and three of his children set out to finally make the trip to the lighthouse. 

I can't say I loved the story but I do admire the mind that conceived and wrote it. Revealing the character's attitudes and desires and the nature of their relationships through their thoughts rather than plot and dialogue gives the reader deeper insight into them than we would gain from only their actions and words, but it's a bold thing for an author to do. It was unusual, and refreshing in a way, to be taken into her character's minds and to hear the entire story from there. I've read only three other books written in the stream-of-consciousness style: Ulysses by James Joyce, which I gave up on half-way through and with which I was not nearly as impressed as the scholarly reviewers (who admittedly know far more than I) said I should be, and William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, both of which were absolutely mesmerizing. It's a style that's beginning to grow on me. 

I can see why this is a classic and still being studied after all this time. Like all good books it helps us to understand the human race, including ourselves, just a little bit better.  

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

 Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

I'm not an avid reader of mysteries but "Bookstore" in the title is hard to resist, so when Kobo offered it for 2.99, I was in. 

When Lydia, who works at the Bright Ideas bookstore, finds Joey, a young customer she was fond of, hanging from the rafters by his own hand, she is devastated. When she learns that he has inexplicably left everything in his apartment to her, she starts looking for answers. What was his life like? What led to his tragic end? And why her? 

In his apartment she finds a book with small rectangles cut out of the pages. The words themselves she can guess from context, but they make no sense when put together. When she realizes the sticker on the back of the book is actually for a different book, she locates that title and discovers that the holes in one book, held over a page in the other, reveal a message. And it isn't just that one book, she finds several more with further messages.

As she unravels the puzzle Joey created for her she is shocked to find a connection between Joey and a traumatic childhood incident in her own past. Her life will be changed forever by what comes to light. 

It's been a while since I've read anything I'd call a page-turner but this one had me hurrying through whatever I was doing so I could get back to the story. It was nice to feel that again. 

The writing is good, the dialogue realistic, the characters plausible and relatable, and there are enough reasonable twists to keep it interesting, even surprising. It's a solid, entertaining mystery and a good read.  

My Name is Asher Lev

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

I read this for the second time when it was chosen for our Book Club and and though I still can't say I liked it, I did get more out of it this time.

Asher Lev is a young Jewish boy with a passion for art. He is enormously talented, but his family and religious leaders consider his gift a hindrance to him both morally and spiritually. Growing up he's in constant conflict, trying to be true to his faith and to his art, causing considerable turmoil in his family. He is eventually introduced to a famous artist who will become his mentor and help him develop his skills, an arrangement to which Asher's father strongly objects. Over time the boy becomes successful, his paintings are shown in a distinguished gallery and subsequently purchased at high prices, but these same paintings cause much suffering in his personal life, damaging the relationships that are most important to him.

Though I didn't particularly enjoy the story I am glad I gave it a second shot. I was fascinated with Potok's writing and spent some time looking at how he kept the tone so consistently dark and ominous feeling. The words he chose, the short, abrupt sentences, and the state of tension he kept us in (always expecting some tragedy or another) created an unsettling mood from the beginning to what was for me, an unsatisfying ending. I understand there is a sequel now, so some questions might get answered there, but I don't know at this point if I want to read it.

In the second half of the book there's a lot of discussion about art and artists. There were so many names I didn't recognize that I decided a little art history education was called for, so I looked up over two dozen of them to have a look at their work. In the process I became a bit more familiar with various styles - is the correct term eras, schools, genres? - of art: Baroque, Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Impressionism and others. I still may not know a lot about art, but I'm more sure of what I like and what I don't like now and why, so I guess I'll be satisfied with that.

This is a book that seems to generate intense opinions for and against but I don't feel strongly about it either way. I'm iffy about the story but I did get a lot out of it the second time through. If you've read it I'd love to know your thoughts, pro or con, so please do post your comments.  
 

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