Wednesday, September 23, 2015

CLOSE YOUR EYES HOLD HANDS – CHRIS BOHJALIAN

Books about surviving a cataclysm are of interest to me. Also ever since Dad taught my brothers and me about nuclear energy and energy plants I have worried about the danger. The first line on the first page reading, “I built an igloo against the cold out of black plastic trash bags filled with wet leaves,” was my hook.

The voice is that of 16 year-old Emily Shepard. Her dad is the chief engineer of a Vermont nuclear power plant and her mother in charge of communications. Both parents are raging alcoholics and very unhappy people. Though Emily is very bright and does love her family, home, and pet dearly, she acts out both at home and at school and appears to have behavioral problems even before the disaster. When there is a terrible explosion at the plant and thousands are immediately evacuated Emily is thrown into the world orphaned, homeless, powerless, with no money and no idea of where to turn. Not only are both of her parents killed at the plant, but the news media and and most people think it was Mr. Shepard who was responsible for the catastrophe. Emily can never go home to the contaminated area even leaving behind her dog, Maggie. The heartbreak in the book of Emily is almost tangible. Bohjalian makes the reader feel her anger, frustration, and hopelessness, but also her determination and resourcefulness.

Because of the rabid animosity Emily detects towards her and her family she decides to flee the social workers who are trying to help. She ends up in nearby Burlington surviving by her wits, stealing, hanging with drug users, visiting shelters, and inventing a new identity. She is also cutting herself and having sex for money at truck stops. She is an angry young woman and the harsh language and graphic sexual encounters show that.

Just when it seems like there is no way for Emily to make it out of the cesspool of the dark side of Burlington there is a change. Bolstered by a friendship, her love for poetry especially that of Emily Dickinson, and her determination to protect another younger runaway, Cameron she rises to the occasion. As she spends weeks doing what she has to do to protect, feed, and shelter Cameron and herself, Emily begins to realize she has no way to escape forever. Not from danger, her grief, or her past, and she cannot run endlessly. When Cameron becomes seriously ill she realizes she can no longer keep him safe.


There were so many times that my frustration for and with Emily actually made me a bit mad. I did not care for her endless use of the “F” bomb or her flippant use of sex to get what she needed but then again I am not an expert in working with troubled youth. Why wouldn't such a child in that situation ask or seek help eventually? There are pretty complicated issues in this book, and if you can't handle thinking about how troubled runaways survive it is not for you. But if you want an edgy book to make you worry and think and maybe even perhaps gain some empathy for the homeless, pick it up at your local library for an afternoon read.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN – KATE MORTON

Part puzzle, part fairy story, part mystery, and a tale of lost heritage that affects a persons psyche is this one. I promise, if you embark on the travels of Nell and Cassandra you will be entranced. In 1930 Brisbane, Australia a young beauty finds out that the family that raised her is not related to her biologically. Indeed they “found” her in 1913 and kept her even though she was obviously lost and belonged to another family. This knowledge is a huge blow to her idea of who she thought she was which affects her relationships with her sisters and later with her own daughter. In 1975, in her 60s Nell follows her heart on a soul search which ends in Cornwall, England. There she buys a cliff cottage on the estate where she is sure she was born. But the details of her heritage won't fall into place. She must return to Australia to take care of her business and make her plans to return to finish her quest.

Unfortunately circumstances intrude and Nell never gets the opportunity to complete her research into her heritage. She dies in 2005 knowing where she came from but still not knowing who her biological family was. Nell's much beloved granddaughter Cassandra inherits Nell's Cornwall cottage, Nell's notebook of family research, and her treasured book of fairytales. Thus begins her own quest to learn Nell's background.

The early chapters mention young Nell's unusual looks and bright red hair. Thus for the rest of the book it becomes a puzzle to try to attach her to every redhead that appears in the plot. If you have worked on jigsaw puzzles very much then this book will feel like putting a complex puzzle together. It will all come together in your mind's eye close to the end and suddenly the pieces fall together quickly. So, yes you do have to pay attention and remember key points in a pretty long book of 550 pages.

I love a book with a map and The Forgotten Garden has a map of the Blackhurst Estate as it was in 1913. You may want to put a sticky note on that page for reference as you read. My favorite chapters in this non-chronological story are about Eliza Makepeace who becomes known as “The Authoress.” Her tale begins in London in 1900 when she is a child living above a rag and junk shop with her twin brother and single mother. On page 112 Eliza's dying mother tells her, “You mustn't wait for someone to rescue you. A girl expecting rescue never learns to save herself.” That, dear reader sets you up to expect Eliza to be the heroine of the book and in my opinion she is. Eliza is a natural storyteller, transfixing whatever audience she has even as a child. As an adult she publishes her fairy stories in a book illustrated by a renowned artist. How can Eliza not be your heroine when upon receiving a copy of her book from her publisher she opens the book, lifts it to her face to smell the binding, the glue and the ink? Every book-sniffer reader will understand. A copy of Eliza's book in Nell's possession, which Cassandra takes with her to England, is a key factor in pulling the puzzle together.


The Forgotten Garden has a bit of that English mystery noir about it with dark and brooding relatives and plenty of damaged people trying to keep dark secrets. Of course there is also a bit of freshness as Cassandra finds not just family history, but friendship and a bit of romance. When Cassandra realizes that Eliza's fairytales are based on real family history another puzzle falls into place for her and for the reader. On page 125 Georgiana tells Eliza, “Always remember, with a strong enough will, even the weak can wield great power.” So it is that the weak and the dead wield great power in this book. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN – PAULA HAWKINS

If you liked Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and/or you like to remain confused until you find out that characters in your book are not what you believe them to be, then this book is for you. What a hoot! I did not want to put it down as soon as I started it. But then it wouldn't have been prudent to be late to work so it did have to be put away on Thursday long enough for a 5 hour shift at the library.

Billed as a psychological thriller, it isn't actually all that “thrilling” until right before the end, then it all comes together so fast. The girl on the train is Rachel. She rides the train every day into and home from London. She has many emotional problems and is an alcoholic. Having recently been fired from her job she continues her routine in an effort to prevent her roommate from finding out. In London every day she goes to the library, visits pubs, and walks. The daily train ride takes Rachel through her old neighborhood. At a stop Rachel has a few moments every day to be a voyeur for she can see into the back yard and through the windows of the house where she had lived in happier times. Her ex-husband, Tom still lives in her old house but now with a new wife and a baby. In another house up the road from Tom's lives a nice looking and seemingly loving young couple whom Rachel calls Jess and Jason She dreams up a wonderful life for them in her imagination and very much enjoys looking for them every day to see what they are doing.

Rachel's depression and alcoholism are debilitating. She is very unhappy and still in love with her ex. She continues to contact Tom and his wife which is considered harassment, some of which she doesn't even remember. Then one day from the train Rachel sees the woman she calls Jess kissing another man. A few days later Jess, whose real name is Megan, is reported by her husband Scott as missing. Rachel tries to get involved in the case by notifying the police about what she has seen but she is an unreliable witness and not taken seriously by the police because of her reputation of harassment and public intoxication. When she contacts Scott things don't go well either.



Many in this book are not who they appear to be and some have mysterious connections. Scott is a very possessive hot-head and a bit violent. Megan had at one time been an nanny for Tom and his wife Anna. Anna had been the lover of Tom's while he was still married to Rachel. The mysterious man that Meg was kissing is her psychiatrist. There are dark secrets, lies, hidden motives, and confusion. I guarantee by the time you get to about page 244 the power better not go off unless you have candles or a book light because you will not be able to stop reading.

Isn't the cover art clever? The scenery is blurred representing what things look like on a speeding train and the double lettering which is how print in a jostled book often looks when reading in a moving vehicle.  

Friday, September 18, 2015

ORDINARY GRACE – WILLIAM KRUEGER

Ordinary Grace is a book about unexpected grace breaking through the human condition of debilitating grief. Frank Drum is telling the story of the summer of 1961 when he was 13 trying to make sense of his world. Frank's father is a Methodist minister, his mother is the music director not only for the churches but for community events. New Bremen seems to be almost Mayberry like with kids playing in the neighborhoods, sodas at the local drug store, and everyone on good terms with the policemen. Then death arrives to the small town in Minnesota. Four deaths in quick succession. Deaths which threaten to tear apart Frank's family and shatter the idyll of the town.

Besides death, other themes running through this book are, secrets, prejudice, fear, sacrifice, and redemption. Frank's dad has a secret from the Korean War so terrible that it changed his career plans from being a lawyer to the ministry. Frank's brother Jake keeps secrets about things he sees and knows about the deaths while his sister Ariel keeps a life-changing secret from her parents. Ariel's boyfriend keeps a secret so dark he hates himself. Emil Brandt the resident celebrity and recluse keeps the darkest secrets of all.

Xenophobia and racial prejudices create a rift between families of New Bremen and between the community and a Native American family. Reverend Drum's persona is one of calmness and caring. When disaster and grief threaten the town and specifically his own family he still turns to his faith and helps family, friends, and neighbors to keep calm and not overreact. He steps in to try to diffuse hatred and prejudice when it erupts. He is stoic in demanding that all the facts be in before passing judgment.

I found this to be a very satisfying one-day read. The characters were believable, and likeable. Mrs. Drum has a hard time being a preacher's wife. College educated with social aspirations she feels unsatisfied and perhaps cheated since she thought she was marrying a lawyer not a clergyman. Reverend Drum is what we all want for a preacher. He is also college educated, unassuming, kind, nonjudgmental, and caring. The adolescent interactions ring true and the mysteries believable. This book comes highly recommended for those of you who like mystery, nostalgia, and an easy read.

Once I finished this book I went to read the author's blog where I found this quotation about libraries,
Libraries are nothing less than the archives of our culture. These are the places that house the books that guide us to an understanding of who we were and where we came from, help us make sense of who we are now, and maybe point the way to who we might become. When our libraries and librarians are gone, with them goes everything we are as a people. Free and open access to knowledge is an essential right in a democracy. Keeping our libraries alive and vital is as important to our freedom as anything spelled out in our Constitution.”


Of course I know this to be true and I love it being so eloquently stated.

Friday, September 11, 2015

INFINITE JEST – DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

Three years ago I read Foster's Pale King which I described as a novel-in-stories and said was full of “run-on sentences and stream-of-consciousness type writing” and all that is also true about Infinite Jest. Paragraphs last many pages and the stories are not even remotely chronological in this 981 page tome. The story is followed by another 100 pages of footnotes, some of them being pages long. Even motivated by a great desire to read this book I still found it a difficult read. Also, I had to keep the online dictionary open.

What genre would best describe this book? Perhaps futuristic dystopia, political satire, dysfunctional family comedy? All of those and more. It is multi-layered with many characters and most, if not all, of those characters are unusual bordering on the bazaar. The vehicle for presenting to the reader philosophical questions about government, families, cultures, morals, etc. is through vignettes of dysfunctional families, primarily between a drug rehab facility and a tennis academy. America as we know it does not exist. The United States and Canada compose some kind of unified entity called Organization of North American Nations or O.N.A.N. governed mostly by corporations who can buy anything including naming rights to years. On page 223 is a list of all the years covered in the book chronologically.

  1. Year of the Whopper
  2. Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad
  3. Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar
  4. Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken
  5. Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster
  6. Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade for Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems for Home, Office or Mobile [sic]
  7. Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland
  8. Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment
  9. Year of Glad

There resides on my own personal library shelf a skull named Yorick so I know the title comes from the line in Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which Hamlet holds the skull of the court jester and says, "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest...” and the plot revolves around a piece of failed entertainment (a film) or “jest” that is missing and declared dangerous because all those who view it become obsessed with watching it doing absolutely nothing else. Some anti-O.N.A.N.s have launched a plot to acquire the master copy of the film in a terrorist plot to use it against the United States. The plan is that by mass dissemination they can get Americans to do nothing, therefore destabilizing the country and the organization of O.N.A.N.

Infinite Jest is full of sarcastic humor and I am glad I read it. It is often referenced in book blogs and articles, and now if some of my “more literary” friends comment on it I can participate in discussion. My favorite lines from the book are as follows: “That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness.” - Narrator voice pg 203.


Monday, September 7, 2015

THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS – VANESSA DIFFENBAUGH

Years ago a friend gave me a beautiful little book about the meanings of flowers and the messages that can be conveyed through the use of them in bouquets. I enjoyed it and still have it. I like to lay it on the coffee table in the spring. What a pleasure to encounter that idea in a contemporary book. The Language of Flowers is a heart wrenching story about a troubled young and homeless woman who has a flair for arranging flower by their color and meaning.

Victoria is a very confused and angry young woman. She is emancipated from her group home on the day she turns 18 after having spent her life bouncing from foster homes (at least 32) and group homes. In only one foster home had Victoria been loved and made to feel special. In that home her foster mother, Elizabeth taught her the language of flowers. But Elizabeth's family had its own problems and Victoria ended up being deeply hurt. After that she never found a place again to fit in or to feel loved. Now, at 18 she has no place to go and no one who cares and so lives in a public park in San Francisco sleeping in the bushes. Victoria is actually very bright though. She makes her own tiny garden in the park with plants she pilfers and nurtures. Renata, a florist, finally notices her and asks her to help her out. Victoria ends up landing a job at the florist shop where she gets to display her genius with flowers. She also researches and begins to create her own flower dictionary. Renata rents her a tiny apartment and Victoria becomes respected and loved. And yet, she cannot make it work.

When Victoria meets Grant, a flower farm supplier for the local florists, and who is also painfully shy it seems she may make it and have a true family. But just like a train wreck that you can't look away from, with doom the reader watches as Victoria struggles.

Those of us who have worked with youth have seen this attachment disorder before and it is a heartbreaking mystery. Victoria is self destructive. She does not understand herself or her desires, let alone other people. Every relationship she fosters she eventually destroys. After building a clientele, living clean, and creating a home for herself she methodically proceeds to destroy it and hurt everyone who helped her. The saddest thing is that she doesn't even understand why she does what she does and cannot seem to stop herself.

I don't know if all the editions had them but my book had both a Victorian flower dictionary included and a representation of the one created in the book by Victoria.


GIRL IN TRANSLATION – JEAN KWOK

Bildungsroman anyone? Well I don't see or here that literary term used very much except in the library cataloging circles, but that is what Girl in Translation is, or in other words a coming-of-age story where psychological character and moral growth is important. I enjoy a good bildungsroman very much whether it is of another culture altogether like Amy Tan's novels of Chinese immigrants or of American subcultures like the Greek-Americans, or African-Americans.

Girl in Translation is written in first person from the perspective of an adolescent from Hong Kong immigrating with her mother to the United States. Kimberly Chang is a middle school age girl who desperately wants to do well and fit in at school. Kim speaks and reads only a little English and also needs to work. She and her mother have arrived with little money.

Mrs. Chang's sister and her husband have helped pay for Mrs. Chang's medical bills (she has tuberculosis), arranged for green cards, and made their living arrangements in NYC. Kim and her mother are much indebted to their relatives. However, they end up in a heatless squalid apartment. Kimberly works long hours for very little money. The reader can see how easy it is for immigrants to get into this catch-22 of never being able to get out of their poverty. Once here they have so few options and very little choice. But Kim is resilient and dedicated to bettering their situation. The author illustrates through the story the sense of duty and obligation to family and to honor that is so prevalent in the Chinese culture.

As a reader of little experience with Chinese people I enjoyed how Kimberly would think about the Chinese ways and ideals and then relate them to how Americans think and feel. What a great reminder to a reader of how different cultures are thus making it important not to judge always using our own perspective. When Kimberly struggled because of language barriers or educators would make assumptions about her abilities to do homework because she did not have the simplest supplies my heart broke. When her school friend assumes Kimberly is lying about her job because she is sure that kids in America don't work in factories I had to think about how easy it probably is to have illegal factories in big cities that will employ immigrant children.


When I read books like this and those of Amy Tan, Firooza Dumas, Ishmael Bea, and Julia Alvarez I understand better how difficult it must be to leave everything you know and try to assimilate into a totally different culture. I do not think I have what it takes to learn a new language while trying to get an education, work, and take care of a family. What must it be like to not understand most of what goes on around you when you are trying to survive and dig your way our of poverty? What courage. I think I am going to go reread Funny in Farsi.

RIVERS – MICHAEL FARRIS SMITH

Water. A lot of it everywhere and every day it rains more. Climate shift has continued for years and now the lower half of the country is “lost” to continuous hurricanes, tornadoes, and deluge. The federal government has tried and failed to rebuild and help people living in the South so a line of demarkation has been drawn across the middle of the country east to west 90 miles above the gulf coast. Anyone living below the line must fend for themselves. Lawlessness, murder, gang warfare, pirating, you name it and it goes on below the line. A dreary picture the author paints here for sure in this post-apocalyptic thriller.

If reading a book can make you feel wet, slimy and dirty this one would be it. Cohen is the protagonist and we find him living below the line in the quickly molding disintegrating home where he once was happy with his wife Eliza. She has died along with their unborn baby. It was not clear to me if he had stayed after the evacuation of the South because of grief or some sense of rebellion but so far Cohen is surviving on his own with his Jeep, his dog, and a horse getting supplies from a traveling trader/scavenger, Charlie. Charlie is a previous “survivalist” who always thought the world as we know it would end and like the preppers on TV today he actually seems happy being the local hero-type, scavenging, hunting, and trading.

Then Cohen is robbed, beaten, and left for dead by two young scavengers he sets out to vindicate himself. When he finds the two they are being held against their wishes by a strange kind of snake-handling cult leader, Aggie. Aggie has created a kind of commune in a FEMA trailer park where he has slaves and captives and is building an army. Cohen is originally welcomed into the commune. When Aggie's vision of how he intends to repopulate the south is clear Cohen knows he must move on. Cohen liberates Mariposa and Evan, his two assailants, and Evan's little brother Brisco. The small band heads North hoping to reach the line. The road is long and dangerous and all the while there are the continuous storms and heavy rains.


We learn a lot about Cohen that we didn't know along the flight and also about treasure and treasure hunters. This is an unusual apocalyptic novel and not so very far fetched. I felt a bit of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and maybe even a little of Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood. I do so love a good end-of-the-world novel.

DELICIOUS! – RUTH REICHL

A lot of descriptions of food in this book so you might get hungry. This one I really like about as much for the character descriptions as the plot. In a way I was reminded of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender because this book also hinges around a person with exceptional taste buds.

From page one we know Billie Breskin is running from something painful. She has fled California where she and her sister had a successful business called Cake Sisters and dropped out of college. Really, before half-way it isn't too hard to figure out where her idolized older sister is. But, until then we get to know Billie as an angst-filled young woman trying to find a place to be where she can use her talent of taste. She can taste anything and describe exactly what all the ingredients are. She lands a job at Delicious! a food magazine office which is in an old mansion in Greenwich Village. But the dream job doesn't last when the magazine is closed. Billie is the lone employee who stays on for a few months to take calls and fulfill the magazine's obligations to send refunds to subscribers who find the magazine's recipes lacking.

In a secret room of the mansion where all of the correspondence of the magazine reside Billie finds a series of quite inventively hidden letters. They are from WW II between a former Delicious! chef, James Beard and a young girl named Lulu Swan from Akron, Ohio. There the plot gets much more interesting as Billie tries to find all of the letters and then to find Lulu. Lulu's letters complain to Beard about shortages and he in turn encourages her with making improvisations to her recipes. I was reminded of my mom and my grandmother who had collected recipes from the 1940s that creatively worked around the shortages of the times. They used to like to get them out a make them for our family. I in turn have kept those recipes and therefore I very much enjoyed hearing about wartime recipes in this novel.

I enjoyed the quirkiness of the characters introduced like Sal the Italian cheese shop owner, Jake the beautiful editor man for whom life is too easy, and Sam the sensitive eccentric gay writer and more. But along with that I liked the interjection of some history such as the cultural persecutions in America during the war and of the 1950s McCarthy scare tactics leveled against communists and homosexuals (not unlike some of the prejudices promoted today). Yes, this may be a bit too sweet (or saccharin) for some readers, but still it is good escape fiction and really quite fun.


Maybe not the most literary choice or even very deep or insightful, but I liked it. 

THE ART OF HEARING HEARTBEATS – JAN-PHILIPP SENDKER

Beautiful cover on a beautifully written book which I found at Half-priced Books in Fort Wayne. The cover art is very elegant and even though mine is a paperback it is a quality one and a joy to hold and read. I can't say enough about the rich writing style of this German writer and this novel.

In NYC a prominent lawyer leaves for a business trip and never returns. Four years later his family finds a love letter he wrote to a woman named Mi Mi in Burma where he grew up, and which he never mailed. His daughter Julia, also a successful lawyer but with a troubled heart, decides to go to Kalaw, Myanmar to investigate. Possibly her father went there and perhaps he might still be there.

Thus begins an unusual and rich journey for Julia Win and for the reader of this multilayered novel. When Julia gets to Kalaw she encounters an unusual and mystical old man named U Ba. U Ba promises to tell her the story of her father’s life before opportunities facilitated his leaving for New York where eventually he met and married her mother.

The story U Ba tells has that ethereal quality of a fairytale unraveling slowly and mysteriously. As a child Julia's father, Tin Win was born and grew up in a village ruled much by superstition and religion. He was abandoned by his mother, who was told by an astrologer that he was “cursed.” Tin Win is taken in by his kindly aunt who loves him dearly. However, when he is plagued by a mysterious illness and gradually goes blind his home becomes the local Buddhist monastery. The monks teach Tin Win how to tap into the wisdom of the heart and to use hearing and his other senses to compensate for his blindness. His heightened sense of hearing escalates until he can, almost magically, hear and interpret heartbeats. Thus it is that he hears Mi Mi's heartbeat. She was born with crippled feet and is also much of an outcast in their village. The two become friends and then as teens lovers.


The love story of Tin Win and Mi Mi is revealed slowly and beautifully. They almost become as one when circumstances occur offering Tin Win opportunities he cannot deny but which separate the lovers. In New York, Tin Win never revealed his past life to his American wife or his children. The writing is so eloquent that as the reader I almost could hear my own heartbeat while learning with Julia the rich and multilayered story of Tin Win. This book will make your heart ache, sometimes with pleasure and sometimes with pain. I do not read what is called “romance novels” and this is not one of those at all. The romance feels real and poignant. For sure I will keep a copy in my library.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP – S. J. WATSON

This psychological thriller will make your hair stand up and your arms break out in goosebumps. Every day when Christine wakes up she has forgotten the last 20 years. She is really 42 but thinks she is 22. So every morning she is appalled that she has slept with someones husband. Then she must learn from sticky notes her husband has posted all over the house, and by reading her journal, who she is and where she has been. It's heart-wrenching for her every day to learn about her illness and to every day relive grief over the loss of her livelihood as a writer and her son who died years before.

Christine also learns from her journal that she is being helped by a doctor who wants her to keep their work a secret. He schools her every day about how to hide her journal, how he will call to trigger her need to find it, and that she is to call him on a secret phone that he provides. She remembers a best friend but can't find her and her husband doesn't want her to. So what is that all about? Painstakingly and slowly like removing layers of dried paint she learns about her accident, memory loss, and recuperation. Desperately every day she works on trying to keep some memories, but every time she falls asleep she loses them again.

When she starts to retain some memories her husband begins to get too controlling and secretive. When he plans a romantic trip for just the two of them she begins to suspect something amiss.


This book is billed as a thriller so you know there will be a huge twist and much spine-chilling action at some point and when it comes you will not be able to read fast enough to get to the end.

THE SHADOW OF DEATH – JAMES RUNCIE

I very much enjoyed this first of the Grantchester Mysteries about Sidney Chambers. The series on PBS over the winter so charmed me into checking out the book from the local library. If Sidney Chambers was a real person I would have a crush on him. Tall, muscular, brown-haired (red in the PBS TV series), sensitive, kind, thoughtful, and a dog lover, who wouldn't admire him?

Set in the village of Grantchester, apparently not far from London, in 1953 Sidney is 32, unmarried, and the Vicar. His best friend is Geordie the local police inspector. It does have a bit of the “Murder She Wrote” feel except with no Angela Landsbury. There are quaint and funny stories about the locals but each chapter has a major crime to be solved. Sidney and Geordie team up because Sidney can snoop, ask questions, and listen to gossip where legally the inspector cannot. Sidney also has practical understanding of human nature which helps his friend sort out the clues of each mystery.

Sidney's life is complicated by his crotchety housekeeper Mrs. Maguire, his apprentice Leonard Graham, and his dog Dickens. He also has a complicated relationship with one young and beautiful socialite Amanda Kendall and a love affair with a German widow Hildegard Stauntan.

Bike-riding Sidney helps Geordie with a suspicious suicide, a murder of a jazz club owner's daughter, a jewelry heist during a dinner party, and a really creepy incident with an art forger. Not without getting himself into some hot water though! Social issues crop up like the freedom of women and homosexuality too and it is interesting to me to see those issues from the filter of the 1950s perspective.

Sidney himself is a deep and interesting character. Having survived WW II he is not unscathed himself and is very good at ferreting out the raw feelings of people hidden beneath their carefully constructed shells. I liked this book a lot and hope to read more of the series.



THE LONG EARTH – TERRY PRATCHETT & STEPHEN BAXTER

Ah, Sir Terry (he died in March), we fans do miss him and will continue to. It breaks my heart to think his brilliant mind is silent forever. But I haven't read all of his books yet and there is a plethora of them. About half of the professional reviews say this book isn't good. Well, I am not a professional and I liked it. This is the first in a collaborative series by two great British fantasy authors. It promised to fill my heart with joy and boggle my mind with ideas about parallel worlds, parallel earths to be exact. This first one certainly did that. It does have a lot of characters to keep track of and the plot is a bit convoluted so if you want to read it make sure you have the time and inclination to concentrate.

The phrase “the long earth” refers to the fact that there are millions of parallel earths that are in the same space time and are similar to “Datum Earth” which is what people call the one we live on, and which is the only one that has naturally evolved homo sapiens. The other earths can be visited by using a device called a “stepper” which is a small box powered by a potato. The closer worlds, or those that can be visited with few steps, are similar but as one steps further away the worlds get more and more different as each one evolved in time differently containing different flora and fauna.

Joshua Valienté is the main protagonist. He is a natural stepper who does not need a box to step and was actually born on another earth when his pregnant mother, another natural stepper, stepped away from danger and gave birth on another earth. Joshua journeys to the farthest earths with Lobsang, who claims to have been a Tibetan now reincarnated as an artificial intelligence with the ability to step and to generate matter. The two join up to step as far as they can to study the other worlds. On their travels they have fantastic encounters with trolls, elves, dinosaur descendants, and other human settlers. It becomes clear that Datum Earth is in great danger of an uncertain but devastating cataclysm. Millions of earths away a force, called First Person Singular is absorbing sentient life forms and taking over everything on an earth before stepping to consume another. It is moving towards Datum.

Back on Datum Earth there are also signs of disaster. There is a shortage of land, there is unrest, new and radicalized colonies are forming, and strange political movements are spreading. People are wanting to step away from Datum Earth but not all people are able to step nor do some want to resulting in families being fractured during a strange migration.

Also on Datum a group of anti-steppers called Humanity First plans to disrupt stepping by detonating an atomic bomb in Wisconsin. When Joshua and Lobsang learn of the plot they return to try to stop the bomb. Chaos ensues. Joshua blames Lobsang. What will humanity do without Datum and with their numbers scattered throughout the stepped earths?

Fantasy, science fiction, apocalyptic... all of those. Yes, in the middle I got a little bored with some of the travel description but so what? It was fun for me and will be for you too!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

ASYLUM – MADELEINE ROUX

Have to admit I'm a sucker for a beautiful book. Asylum is another elegant photo illustrated book like Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. It also has the rich looking end pages and chapter dividers. It is freakish looking yes, dark and disturbing, but it isn't long and this is my mood, so …

Dan Crawford a college prep student is excited to get into an exclusive summer program. However, when he gets to the school he finds out that some of the dorms are closed and he is among students assigned to stay in Brookline, a building that was once an insane asylum.

Dan and his friends Abby and Jordan are curious. They explore the basement finding old medical records. The students begin to have horrifying dreams and Dan begins to have blackouts. He also finds unusual emails and texts on his computer that he does not remember, and is told of conversations he is sure he did not have. Other students begin to be attacked and the horror escalates to tragedy.

The premise of vibrations or hauntings buried in the bricks and mortar of buildings is covered often these days on TV shows like Ghost Hunters and is a popular concept that works well in this book. The eerie photographs accompanying the chapters creates a dark ominous feel to make your skin rise up in goosebumps. The acknowledgments at the end include citations for the photographs and they are all from actual asylums.


Good young adult book even for adults. I would read it again.

PROMISE NOT TO TELL – JENNIFER MCMAHON

Isn't finding a good book to fit your mood like trying to settle on a good recipe for dinner? When nothing on the shelf seems to hit the spot the library is always a great place to browse. I just wish libraries hired reader advisory people to let you bounce ideas off of and get good ideas from, and librarians are trained NOT to give you an opinion. So I returned home with several in the supernatural vein and settled on this little tome. Just what I needed, a one afternoon read with a combination of ghost story/mystery/coming-of-age. Yeah!

Kate Cypher is now 41, divorced, and a public school nurse. Her mother, Jean still lives in a declining Vermont hippie commune where Kate grew up. But now she needs help and is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Kate reluctantly returns home to help out and to make arrangements for her mother's care. Upon her return a murder occurs which seems eerily similar to one thirty years earlier.

In 1971 the local school outcast, and Kate's secret friend, Del Griswold was brutally murdered. In 2002 two young girls sitting with boys at a campfire are telling ghost stories of Del when one of them is murdered in a similar manner. The murder is close to Jean's cabin and that night Jean had been wandering the woods returning home with blood on her hands. Kate is forced to relive her coming-of-age years when she was one of the “hippie kids” and desperately wanted to be accepted at school. She loved her wild and spirited friend Del but she kept their friendship a secret because Del, taunted as “The Potato Girl,” was the school outcast. Her family was poor and rough and scary. Del's death scarred Kate with guilt and grief. When Kate escaped the commune life she never intended to return. But her return immerses her in the two crimes. She reconnects with her old flame and embarks on a quest to solve the murders.


There is enough supernatural intrigue, romance, conflict, and tension to keep the reader turning the pages. You won't be disappointed if you need a short read of a ghostly nature. I really think that the author did an excellent job of illustrating how childhood bullying occurs and insight into the mind of a child that so wants to fit in that she cannot speak out or try to stop abuse of a friend. 

THE LOST – SARAH BETH DURST

This fantasy novel did not seem to be my particular cup of tea, but come to find out, I liked it after all. Try not to judge me but when I saw the publisher was Harlequin I prepared to hate it. Why be such a book snob you ask? Indoctrination by my parents would be a good guess. On the day my librarian father saw me reading a Harlequin Romance (I was 12) and expressed his disappointment I never touched another one and remained repulsed by them ever since. But Harlequin has been purchased by Rupert Murdoch and is now run by HarperCollins so perhaps I should lighten up a bit?

The Lost was actually a fun tale of a young woman named Lauren Chase who slips into an alternate dimension where all the people are lost or have lost something important to their being. They all want to go on or go home and are aided by two important community members, The Finder, and The Missing Man. The Finder is Peter, a beautiful, muscular, tattooed young man whose job it is to find people and things and bring them to the city of Lost. The Missing Man helps the stranded travelers to sort out why they are lost and how to go on. It seemed a bit Neil Gaiman-ish to me, or anyway reminded me of The Ocean at the end of the Lane which also deals with places not visible to everyone and magical beings helping or hindering poor souls.

Lauren wants to go home where her mother is terminally ill with cancer and needs her but she isn't able to until she finds what it is she has lost. Her quest involves helping others in the village, but some villagers are intent on her demise. So, there is adventure, danger, intrigue, and a bit of romance.

The writing was clever and witty and the interjection of literary references, mainly from Peter “The Finder” and consort of Lauren, was fun. The first fun quotation though was not literary, it was:
Work is the daily activity that sucks your soul but pays your bills. It’s the path your feet walked down while your head was stuck in the clouds,”
which is what Lauren says to Tiffany, the girl who mans the hotel desk in the village of Lost. I also much enjoyed this response of Lauren's when she is told she has lost something important on page 66:
“But I haven't lost anything. Yes, I've lost socks and earrings. I've left a book on the bus and an umbrella in a restaurant. I've lost track of friends. But I've lost no more than anyone else in the world. Less than many.”
Much of what Peter says is made up of quotations from poems, the Bible, fairy-tales, and children's books and they always fit the moment perfectly. I am not sure I caught them all but the following are those I recognize:

  • Pg 24 Lauren refers to a lady in the Moonlight Diner in a “Dorothy Gale dress,” which is a reference to The Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum.
  • Pg 42 Peter references the fairytales Hansel & Gretel and Red Riding Hood.
  • Pg 43 Lauren compares Peter to King Sisyphus in Greek mythology who was made to endlessly roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. Zeus had enchanted the boulder into rolling away from Sisyphus just before he reached the top.

  • Pg 43 Peter's reference to a damsel in distress & his being a knight is probably from Tales of King Arthur by Pyle.

  • Pg 46 Lauren talks about the abandoned houses as if they are in The Wizard of Oz.

  • Pg 54 “To quote a certain cat, ‘we’re all mad here,”  Merry says to Lauren in the diner, which is from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

  • Pg 64 “Are you Voldemort?” Tiffany says to Lauren which is a reference to Harry Potter by Rowling.

  • Pg 69 “Will you walk into my parlor? Said the spider to the fly. Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy,” Is what Peter cites to Lauren referencing a children's poem by Mary Howitt.

  • Pg 73 Peter makes a reference to the curious cat from Alice in Wonderland.

  • Pg 96 Peter says, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in,” referencing The 3 Little Pigs fairytale.

  • Pg 97 Peter says,All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust,” from J. M. Barrie's book Peter Pan.

  • Pg 100 Peter says, “How dreary – to be – Somebody!” which Lauren completes on pg 101 and is from Emily Dickinson's poem “I'm Nobody, Who are You?”

  • Pg 110 Peter reminds Lauren of Peter in Peter Pan by James Barrie.

  • Pg 110 Peter refers to Claire as “Goldie-locks” of fairytale fame.

  • Pg 115 Peter says, “The calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them,” which is a reference to Isaiah 11:6 in The Bible.

  • Pg 129 Peter sings the nursery song “Hush Little Baby” to Claire.

  • Pg 146 Peter quotes, “Because they could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for them” which is a parody of Emily Dickinson's poem “Because I Could not Stop or Death.”

  • Pg 150 Peter reminds Lauren to remember, “Not all those who wander are lost.” which is Gandalf in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

  • Pg 151 Peter says, If they come back they're yours. If they don't they never were." and then Lauren thinks, “"If you love someone, set them free."” That's the start of that quote,” which in that form may be from the book Johnathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, but there are multiple other similar versions and no one knows for sure where it originated.

  • Pg 165 Peter says, “If you believe clap your hands, don't let Tink die,” from Peter Pan.

  • Pg 166 Peter says to Lauren, what we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope,” which is from George Eliot's Middlemarch.

  • Pg180 Peter quotes part of the poem She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron to Lauren.

  • Pg 182 Peter quotes, “Why can't you fly now, Mother?... to Lauren and it is from Peter Pan.

  • Pg 185 Peter says, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven,” which is from Paradise Lost by John Milton

  • Pg 188 Peter talks about Sean's meatloaf by quoting Act V scene 8 of Shakespeare's Macbeth when Macbeth confronts Macduff in his castle, “lay on, Macduff; And damn'd be him that first cries, "Hold, enough!"

  • Pg 191 Peter refers to Lauren as Persephone from Greek mythology. Zeuss' daughter and queen of the underworld.

  • Pg 200 Peter sings, “Eat drink and be merry...” from 1 Corinthians 15:32 of the Bible.

  • Pg 201 Peter quotes Emily Dickinson again from her poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul.”

  • Pg 209 Lauren refers to the story in the New Testament Matthew 8:24 of the ship at Galillee when Jesus slept through the storm.

  • Pg 243 Colin's name is from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

  • Pg 264 Peter refers to his “unbirthday surprise,” which refers to the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll

  • Pg 277 another referral to Alice in Wonderland when Peter says, “Wrong as usual, said the Red Queen...”

  • Pg 299 Lauren's mother refers to several children's stories rabbits particularly Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh by a.A. Milne, but also Peter from the Beatrix Potter series, Uncle Wiggley by Garris, Thumper in Bambi by Salten, Brier Rabbit by Harris, Bugs Bunny by Disney, Edward Tulane by DiCamillo, Velveteen Rabbit by Williams, Bunnicula by Howe, and Harvey an old movie.
Those are the ones I caught, and I may have missed some but it was fun. The ending didn't feel quite satisfying to me but I understand she left the novel open for a sequel.