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 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.