Lilac Girls

 Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

My thoughts on this one won't be popular with the many who loved it because I found it had more weaknesses than strengths. It covers some intense subject matter and seems to be very well researched, but in the end the writing simply wasn't strong enough to tell the story well. 

In alternating sections three characters share the events of 1939 to 1959 as they experienced them:

Caroline, 37, does volunteer work for the French Embassy in New York City, assisting the many people trying to either get out of France or get home to France with war looking more likely every day. Her work and her involvement in the organizing and shipping of care boxes to children displaced in Europe's chaos lends some gravitas to what otherwise seems like an often frivolous character. 

Kasia, 16, and two friends are outside when low flying planes approach and she  watches in horror as the first bombs are dropped on their small Polish town. Caught helping the resistance movement, she, along with her mother and sister, will be sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women. There Kasia and her sister will be among a group of women subjected to horrific Nazi medical experimentation.

Herta, a young German doctor frustrated by the lack of jobs open to females in civilian practice, is excited when she hears of an opportunity to work at a women's 're-eduction' camp. On arrival at Ravensbruck, she is at first unsettled by what she sees being done to prisoners, but then comes to see it as necessary for the protection of German racial purity.

Is anybody else getting tired of the alternating viewpoints and timelines device? It seems to be the go-to format in fiction now, but for me it's wearing thin. It works here to a point, but only Kasia's comes to any sort of conclusion, with the other two just fading out. 

A number of things seemed off. The title has little to do with the story and the cover art is a little misleading. It can't represent the three main characters, who would never be found arm in arm like chums. Some of the dialogue, especially Caroline's, felt shallow and tone-deaf. Inconsistencies in her character show her being kind and compassionate with some people, then inexplicably rude with others. Her story relies heavily on a romance that never ends up going anywhere. Kasia's coldness toward her daughter and husband don't come across as reasonable, and there's no explanation of Herta's quick change of attitude about the brutality in the camp.

The three women are based on actual people and though the sections dealing with their true experiences are riveting, it falls apart in the purely fictional parts of the story. I want to admire Caroline and Kasia for the heroes they are, but the attitides and dialogue given to them make them unlikeable, which to me defeats the purpose and prevents any emotional connection with them. 

This story had a lot of potential, with solid subject matter and real people to build it around, but I think the writing let it down.  

The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted

 The Provence Cure for the Broken Hearted by Bridget Asher

To appease her mother, Heidi and her son Abbot head out to spend a summer in their family home in Provence, ostensibly to begin renovations after a small fire, but really because her mother feels they aren't recovering from the loss of Heidi's husband two years earlier in a car accident. She hopes a change will help them move on.

Travelling with them is Heidi's teenage neice, a sullen girl who doesn't seem to get along with anybody but Heidi. She's going because her father and Heidi's sister have just married and want some time to themselves, but Heidi has a secret nobody will be able to ignore for long.

In France, they get off to a rough start when they are robbed of their luggage and most of their devices before they even get to the house. Fortunately a neighbour rescues them - a man Heidi knew as a child when she spent summers in Provence. He's handsome, kind, and also dealing with loss since his wife divorced him and took up with his brother. The fact that she and their daughter now live with the brother brings another layer of family tension to the plot, and on the romance front,  well, you can guess where that is heading.

It's fairly well written with mostly credible characters and plot, and it addresses real life issues, albeit in a romantic setting that isn't anything like real life for most people. It's predictable and a little corny, but as Anna Quindlen said in "How Reading Changed My Life":  

"...reading has as many functions as the human body, and ...not all of them are cerebral. One is mere entertainment, the pleasurable whiling away of time."

The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted is that: a pleasureable whiling away of time. I enjoyed it. 


 Seveneves by Neil Stephenson

"The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.

With that first line I was hooked. And it get's better, or worse as it happens for characters in the story. An extinction level event is coming. The earth has two years to figure out how to make sure the human race survives what is being called the Hard Rain, when the moon's debris will start falling to earth. It will bombard the planet like nothing ever before, creating a dome of fire that will cook everything on the surface. 7 billion people will die.

The book is divided into three parts:

Part 1 covers one year after the moon's disintigration. Scientists and world leaders make desperate plans to put as many people into space as they can, while others choose to try their luck underground, and some even under water. A "casting of lots" in every country decides who will be sent to the Iternational Space Station, which is being expanded and stocked as fast as possible. 

Part 2 covers the year leading up to the Hard Rain, the event itself, and then the desperate attemps of those who were sent "up" to survive in space. They have to avoid colliding with fragments of the moon without getting too close to the burning earth, and then deal with unrest and violence among the survivors. Eventually, they reach a place of safety, but by then there are very few left.

Part 3 jumps ahead 5000 years - 5000 years! - to see how the human race has fared. The earth is being "TeReFormed" and contact, at times hostile, has been made with descendants of those who went underground and under water.

The story is fascinating but the amount of technical information left my head spinning at times. I must confess I scanned some of those parts instead of really reading them. I didn't dare skip them entirely for fear I'd miss some things. And there are So. Many. Things. A little overwhelming at times, but much too interesting to quit. 

861 pages of science fiction - or anything really - is a lot, but I guess it takes that long to destroy and create a whole new world. The world created in Seveneves is complete with new scientific, cultural, economic, and political realities. The thoroughness of it is amazing. 

That's not to say it's without its flaws. The last section being 5000 years in the future, all the characters you've gotten invested in are gone, and although they are still, in a way, part of the continuing story and referred to often, the break is jarring. It's a little like starting a new book, one that isn't quite as riveting as the last one because you aren't holding your breath to see if the human race survives. They have survived and flourished, and once you begin to read about how that happened it grabs your full attention again.

There is a lot of detail - enough to make me wish I had a degree ...physics...orbital something? but there is also great writing and strong, likable characters. And a plot that is nothing short of an epic vision. 

I thought it was brilliant.

Fairwell to Fairacre & A Peaceful Retirement

These are the final two in the Chronicles of Fairacre series - twenty books in total and every one a delight.

#19 Fairwell To Fairacre sees Miss Read suffering declining health and considering early retirement. But until that time her days are filled with the antics of her school children; run-ins with Mrs. Pringle, the disagreeable school cleaner; the never-ending problems of friend, Henry; and a marriage proposal from a charming man with "silvery hair" and "devastating blue eyes". 

#20 A Pleasant Retirement finds Miss Read adjusting to a busier retirement than she had anticipated. Visitors at the door, telephone calls, and friends and neighbours seeking her participation in community activities now that she "has all this empty time on her hands" give her little opportunity for solitude. Henry's problems come to head, John continues to propose regularly, and Miss Read enjoys a vacation in Italy with her best friend Amy. The series concludes with a new beginning for her as she puts pen to paper and begins chronicling tales of Fairacre and its people.

Reading through this series is one of the best things I've ever done for myself. When I grew weary of more troubling stories - war, grief, illness, disaster - I'd return to Fairacre to be reminded that there are gentle people in quiet places doing the best they can and appreciating the beauty in everyday things. Not that it's all sweetness all the time. No, Miss Read's often barbed wit injects enough reality - not to mention entertainment - to make the books both comforting and realistic. They have been my "happy place" for the past few years and I'm sad now to have come to the end, but happily our library still has the full series in their catalogue. I'll probably read them all again one day.

I've quoted this from Publisher's Weekly before but it sums these books up so beautifully that I'll use it one more time:

 "Miss Read has created an orderly universe in which people are kind and conscientious and cherish virtues and manners now considered antiquated elsewhere...An occasional visit to Fairacre offers a restful change from the frenetic pace of the contemporary world" 

And I'll throw in the one from Kirkus Reviews too:

"A soothing oasis of tidy living for the frazzled reader weary of an untidy world." 

Wonderful, wonderful books. It's best to read them in order but you'll be doing yourself a favour by picking up any one of them and spending a little time in Miss Read's Fairacre village.  

To Dance With the White Dog

 To Dance With the White Dog by Terry Kay

I very nearly missed this one. I've tended to shy away from dog stories since reading Fifteen Dogs. It was brutal and did nothing to encourage my already somewhat tenuous relationship with creatures of the canine variety. I'm not afraid of them as I once was, but I still don't completely trust them. Sure, they can be loving companions - I know dogs who are exactly that - but I've heard too many stories of sudden, unexpected violence to let my guard down entirely. 

All that to say, I happened to come across a review of To Dance With the White Dog that made me think I'd like it, and indeed I did. Loved it, in fact. It's a heart-warming story about Sam, an elderly farmer, who has just lost his wife of 57 years and doesn't know quite how to live without her. His well intended children fuss over him when all he wants is to be left alone to figure it out. 

One day he sees a white dog watching him from a distance. He leaves out scraps of food and eventually gets the dog to come closer and then into the house. At first no one else can see the dog and they worry their father is imagining it, but after a while they begin to see him, too, though they never hear him bark.  

Always seeming to know when help or comfort is needed, White Dog becomes Sam's companion in all things. Without his children knowing, Sam and the dog sneak off to attend a school reunion in another town, but on the way Sam becomes confused and loses his way. After spending an uncomfortable night together in the truck, a kind stranger rescues them and takes them home with him so Sam can rest and have a hot meal.

Collected by his children and safely home again, he realizes his days of venturing off on his own are over, but he finds other ways to fill his time. White Dog stays with Sam until he knows he won't be needed anymore, then he disappears as quietly as he came. 

A simple story, but it isn't about plot it's about Sam. We get to know him - and he's worth knowing - through seeing him in everyday situations, struggling with grief and the changes aging brings. His story is a celebration of life, written with tenderness and humour, reminding us that life goes on and is worth living even in changing circumstances. And, yes, he does dance with the White Dog.

I'll end with one of my favourite lines:

"he knew her voice would be the same - light, lilting,rushing to the next word and the next, her voice as cursive as her signature."