The Custodian of Paradise

 The Custodian of Paradise by Wayne Johnston

This is the story of Sheila Fielding, who struggles with questions about who she is and where she fits but determinedly lives on her own terms without apology or excuse. She's beautiful, intelligent, and fierce, and often her own worst enemy. At 6 '4" with a crippled leg she is stared at and sometimes mocked for her physical appearance, but it's her emotional handicaps, created by a life starved of all affection, that keep her angry and unable to form relationships. Her sharp tongue and sometimes cruel wit keep everyone at a distance.

In many ways she's symbolic of Newfoundland itself. One reviewer described them both as "huge, beautiful, with an unknown heart and a drinking problem." Her independence and solitude are so like Newfoundland's that it's hard to separate one from the other, or determine which is the main character. Sheila, too, is stormy and full of contradictions, and utterly fascinating.  

My book club read this a while back and reactions to Sheila were varied and strong. Some disliked her, some felt pity for her, others didn't know what to make of her at all. Whatever opinion you form of her, Sheila Fielding will get into your head, under your skin and maybe even a little into your heart. 

I've struggled to find words for my thoughts about this book, probably because it didn't leave me thinking so much as feeling. It's an unlikely story, but reading it is an intense experience that leaves you unable to simply argue it away as improbable. Sheila's pain, her agonizing emptiness, hurts to read. It has haunted me. But as hard as it was to get through parts of it, I loved it in there between the covers of this book. When I read Wayne Johnston's books, or Michael Crummey's, I'm homesick for Newfoundland for weeks after - homesick for a place I've never lived. That's good writing. 

And Sheila Fielding - she's why it's important to read fiction.  

The Mill on the Floss

 The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

This is the story of a young girl whose family suffers a loss of fortune and status, and how that affects her relationships and options in life. 

The writing of course is wonderful; I haven't read anything of Eliot's that I haven't loved. For this one I had an audio version, and it was great, but hearing it does not compare to reading it. With experience I've learned that for me audio is a good option for some books but not for all. Great writing needs to be read slowly, savored to absorb every rich sentence, and given enough attention to recognize when I've come to a passage worthy of underlining so I can find it again later. For that I need a printed book.

These are a few of my favourite quotes from The Mill on the Floss:

Childhood has no forebodings; but then, it is soothed by no memories of outlived sorrow.”

“What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known and loved because it is known?” 

“No anguish I have had to bear on your account has been too heavy a price to pay for the new life into which I have entered in loving you.”

“There is something sustaining in the very agitation that accompanies the first shocks of trouble, just as an acute pain is often a stimulus, and produces an excitement which is transient strength. It is in the slow, changed life that follows--in the time when sorrow has become stale, and has no longer an emotive intensity that counteracts its pain--in the time when day follows day in dull unexpectant sameness, and trial is a dreary routine--it is then that despair threatens; it is then that the peremptory hunger of the soul is felt, and eye and ear are strained after some unlearned secret of our existence, which shall give to endurance the nature of satisfaction.” 

Wonderful, wonderful writing; her books are a gift to the world. I love Eliot, and I loved The Mill on the Floss.  

The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden

 The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

Nombeko, 14 years old, intelligent and ambitious, works as a latrine cleaner in South Africa before becoming cleaning lady for, and prisoner of, a nuclear engineer working for the government. She spends years plotting her escape, using the time to learn the principals of nuclear science (because her boss is manufacturing bombs), and how to speak Chinese (because it's the native language of some of the other servant/prisoners).

As a servant she is ignored by most of the politicians and other influential visitors to her bosses office, but she observes and listens and files what she learns away for future use. When assigned the task of shipping a bomb to Israel, she uses the opportunity to escape, but then through a bureaucratic mix-up the bomb is sent to the wrong address and is delivered to Nombeko, herself when she settles in Sweden.

In Sweden she gets involved with a man named Holger and his brother, who is also named Holger and whose burning desire is to bring down the Swedish monarchy. The radical Holger's girlfriend shares his belief that the monarchy is corrupt and must be destroyed. The foursome have a series of unlikely adventures with an assortment of characters including Swedish and Chinese officials, Swedish royalty, and the girlfriend's flaky aunt who believes herself to be a Countess. Through all of this they cart the bomb around, trying to keep it hidden and looking for a way to be rid of it. 

It's a quirky story, full of improbable circumstances and coincidences that in the end make some kind of weird sense. It's fun and funny, but not weightless; you end up rooting for all these characters. I liked it. 

Murder on a Midnight Clear

 Murder on a Midnight Clear by Sara Rosett

A light-hearted mystery. The guests arriving at an English country manor for Christmas have secrets to keep, and they manage quite well until amateur sleuth, Olive, shows up. She wasn't meant to be a guest, but has followed her boyfriend, Jasper, there because his unexplained absences are becoming suspicious. Her snooping leads to a car accident near the manor, which results in her spending several days there to recover from a minor injury.  

A snow storm keeps her from leaving, which is just as well, because someone is reported missing and then found dead. The only thing anyone knows for sure is that the butler didn't do it, because the butler is it - the dead body, and it turns out he had secrets, too.

Jasper's original business at the manor is a bit of espionage that will be explained later in the book, and Olive's crime solving activities are common knowledge, so the Lord and Lady of the manor ask that they look into the murder before Scotland Yard arrives, which will be a couple of days because of the storm. Secrets, so many secrets, come to light in their sleuthing that the plot becomes quite thick indeed. It took me a minute to connect some of the dots, but that's what makes a good mystery a good mystery. 

This book lands somewhere in the middle of a series about Olive's investigating adventures but is the only one of them I've read. It was pretty good on its own; only Olive and Jasper's relationship might have been clearer to me if I'd read earlier books in the series. I enjoyed this one, but haven't decided yet if I'll read more of them.