The Book Adept

Cross-genre delight

One thing you learn when becoming a readers’ advisor is,
you can’t be a book snob. Some people pride themselves on only reading “worthy” or “classic” or “literary” fiction. Others believe that while mainstream fiction is legitimate, anything that falls within a genre description is somehow less-than. When you read so as to address the interests of every type of reader, the fortunate outcome is that you discover there are “worthy” books—that is to say, engaging, well written, and with something to say—within every category of fiction.

I have wondered whether I should bother reviewing older books here, or whether I should just be addressing newly released works, to keep up with the ever-changing whims of contemporary readers. My conclusion so far has been that it’s all right to cover older reads, because no matter how long ago they were written, they will be new to someone.

Today, I just finished rereading Bloodhound (Beka Cooper #2), by Tamora Pierce. Pierce is much beloved by many fantasy readers, and has been incredibly prolific in the number of books and series she has written that are all set in the kingdom of Tortall. Tortall is a semi-feudal land populated by knights and ladies (and some knights who are also ladies), master craftspeople and master thieves, commoners both honest and corrupt, and the supernatural creatures who also make an appearance. The gods are definitely present (though mostly in subtle ways) in Tortall.

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Rather than write one long series with a particular cast of characters, Pierce has broken down the Tortall legend into small “cycles” of three or four books each, that come at the world and its events from many different perspectives. While all these novels are immensely popular with a wide variety of people from 10-year-olds to the elderly, it does seem to me that the earlier books were specifically written to appeal to middle-school teens. Although many adults read them, there is a large percentage who do so out of nostalgia, because they read Pierce as a child and want to revisit the world of Tortall.

The first thing I like about the Beka Cooper series, therefore, is that while the books are completely teen-friendly and accessible (and are, indeed, marketed to teens), they are written from a much more adult viewpoint. While Beka, the narrator, is a young woman, she is more woman than girl, and the others with whom she interacts are likewise more mature. This is yet another in the growing list of teen fantasy series that could equally well (or perhaps more successfully) have been marketed to adult fantasy readers.

The second thing I like about the series is that it so fluidly combines medieval fantasy with mystery and police procedural, using a memoir format—basically, all my favorite genres rolled into one. The characters (and there are many) are engaging, the situations are surprisingly sophisticated (how many young adult novels expound on the effects of counterfeiting on a nation’s economy?), and the mysteries are well paced and satisfying. Beyond this, Pierce has exerted herself to provide a made-up language, reminiscent of the “thieves’ cant” you find in Regency romance novels, that give the books a particular flavor. The inclusion of this lingo also cleverly circumvents any criticisms she might get from parents who ban language and sexuality by expressing things that she couldn’t do in a teen book if she put them in contemporary English. Pierce has taken pains to spell out the differences in rank from that of the King in his palace down to the lowliest gixie picking pockets amongst the slums. There is no difference made in the characterizations between children, teens, and adults in terms of attention to detail, and while Beka remains firmly the main character, the people with whom she partners, the neighborhood from where she rose to the police force, and the “coves and mots” she encounters in the course of her work are all given a real existence. Finally, the books feature strong female heroines, a welcome departure from some fantasies.

terrierTerrier, the first book (released in 2006), takes us away for the first time from the lords and ladies, knights and squires of the other series and introduces Beka Cooper, an orphaned 17-year-old with some special gifts that lead her from the Lower City (the worst neighborhood) of Tortall into a career as a “Dog,” or police officer, in the Provost’s Guard. She is assigned as a trainee (“puppy”) to two veterans, Tunstall and Goodwin, and proves herself as an officer who hangs onto a case like a terrier until it’s solved.

bloodhoundIn Bloodhound (2009), her second year on the force is also documented in the pages of her journal, and it’s quite a ride. As a new Dog, she is matched up with four different partners who don’t work out, and she ends up instead working solo with Achoo, a scent hound she rescues from an abusive handler. She and Clary Goodwin, one of her former training partners, are then sent by the Provost General, Lord Gershom, down the river to Port Caynn, on a secret investigation to discover who is behind the spread of counterfeit silver coins that are destroying the economy. She falls in love, falls afoul of the Port Caynn Rogue (Queen of the thief caste), and earns her new nickname as she doggedly (pun intended) pursues the solution to the case.

mastiffThe third book, Mastiff (2011), is equally compelling. Three years after their mission in Port Caynn, Clary Goodwin has finally opted to promote to a (stationary) command position, and Beka is now paired with Goodwin’s former partner (and her other former training officer), Tunstall. Beka has suffered a recent tragedy—her fiancé, a fellow Dog, has been killed while pursuing slavers—and she doesn’t know how to go on, mostly because she was on the verge of breaking up with him when he died, and now she’s feeling guilty for receiving unwanted attention as the grieving almost-widow. But an assignment abruptly pulls her away from her familiar surroundings and sends her, her partners both human and canine, and a strange mage assigned to their team on a hunt the outcome of which will determine the future of the Tortallan royal family and government. As with the second book, the pacing ramps up as the Dogs get closer to their quarry, and unexpected elements throw several wicked curves into the story before it ends.

BekaThere have been two things against this series when I talked it up to others: The first was the truly abysmal cover art on the original paperbacks, which was actively ugly and made it almost impossible to “sell” these books to anyone (especially teenagers). The photographic image chosen to represent Beka was both laughable and disrespectful. The recent re-release of this series with new covers may give it a chance; if you are a librarian reading this, please consider immediately replacing your originals with the new versions!

The second is the supernatural element, which I sometimes completely leave out of my descriptions. When you say that a book is about a girl who gets messages from the recently dead by listening to pigeons, and who also gathers clues by standing in the middle of dust devils and picking up bits of conversation the dust devil has been hoarding, people look at you like you’re crazy!

This fantasy series has so many facets and is so hard to adequately describe that I don’t often find myself promoting it to anyone—but after rereading #2 on impulse this weekend, I decided to make another pitch, because these books are a worthy, intriguing, and entertaining addition to the mainstream fantasy canon.

 

Is privacy overrated?

Almost a month ago now, I read two thrillers by author B. A. Paris that I enjoyed quite a lot. At the time, I mentioned that I still wanted to pick up her debut novel, recipient of many rave reviews on Goodreads, and I put it on hold at the library. On Wednesday I had a bunch of errands to run over in North Hollywood and decided that when I was done with them, I would treat myself to breakfast at Jinky’s in Studio City. I had heard good things about the café and wanted to try it.

When I was only a few blocks from the restaurant, I suddenly realized that I had no book in my purse! I had finished Kate Morton’s tome yesterday, and hadn’t started anything new yet. I don’t know how you feel about eating alone; I don’t mind it a bit, but the catch is that if I’m going solo, I must have a book to read with my breakfast! Fortunately, I was only about a mile from the Studio City Bookstar (Barnes & Noble), so I turned right instead of left, parked, dashed, remembered my desire to read Paris’s book, grabbed Behind Closed Doors off the shelf, paid, and was back in the car five minutes later on my way to Jinky’s.

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What a story! Unlike the slow build-up of her other two books, you find out what’s going on between Jack and Grace almost immediately; even the opening scenes, when you’re still not quite sure, are redolent with a vague feeling of dread and anticipation. The picture the pair paint for the world is of a couple madly in love after a long wait for the right person (Grace is 32, Jack is 40, and neither has ever been married). Jack is a successful attorney who is revered for his work championing battered wives against their abusive husbands, and he has never lost a case. Grace, post wedding, has quit her job to become a charming and talented housewife and hostess for Jack’s friends at perfectly cooked and served dinner parties. But a nervous twitch here and there lets you know there’s something not quite right about the pair, although you don’t dream of the extent to which the picture is false.

Grace has a 17-year-old sister, Millie, with Downs Syndrome. One of the reasons she hasn’t so far married is that she is adamant that she and Millie are a package deal, and that once Millie turns 18 and leaves school, she will come to live with Grace. Jack has no problem with that condition—he says he loves Millie and would never separate them. Jack buys Grace a beautiful house, furnishes it perfectly (including a bright and cheerful bedroom set aside for Millie in her favorite color, yellow), and tells Grace she will see the house when they return from their honeymoon in Thailand. They tie the knot and embark on their honeymoon…but from the first night of marriage, everything has changed. Jack reveals an agenda that has Grace both horrified and defiant, but no matter how badly she regrets throwing in her lot with Jack, Jack manages to anticipate her every move, and seemingly her every thought, and Grace is unable to maneuver her way out of this disastrous decision.

behinddoorsThe brilliance of this book is the fact that you know almost everything up front, and the suspense lies not in discovery, but in action. What will happen next? What new psychological trauma will Jack visit on Grace? Will she be able to escape from her marriage (or even from her bedroom), can she protect her sister from Jack’s plans, and how will she effect any of this when Jack controls her life so completely? The answers ramp up the tension and horror from the beginning right to the last sentence.

I will freely confess that I read a good bit of this last night before I went to sleep, and had nightmares half the night. It’s a truly disturbing book, scarier in its way than any horror novel full of zombies or monsters. The emotional investment, the headlong pacing, and the nerve-wracking build-up to the finish filled me with both fear and fury. I loved it.

 

Birdie

The books of Kate Morton are at once endlessly fascinating and absolutely maddening. Each of them is a lengthy 450 to 650 pages, and they are as chock full of detail as any leisurely reader in search of information on a plethora of subjects, or in relationships as entangled as the particles in quantum physics could desire.

clockmakerMorton does write with a certain formulaic reliability: Each of her books contains some kind of perpetuating event that sends a person from the present day searching back into the past, whether it’s their own, that of a mother, aunt, or grandmother, or the history of someone who has at some point become significant in their lives. Most palpable in all her books is the sense of place—as focused as she is on character development and interaction, those characters operate from within a distinctive location—usually an old house, a garden, a bend in the river near a country town—and without that place, the lives and events about which the story turns would be greatly diminished.

Lastly, every one of her books contains a mystery, but not the sort easily solved with a little sleuthing on the part of a detective; not a straightforward murder, nor a conventional sort of crime. Instead, the mystery has multiple parts: a disappearance, a misunderstanding, a missing object, a mistaken identity, a masquerade. And it is up to the reader to bear with Ms. Morton and her characters as they painstakingly unravel all the elements to arrive at an eventual truth—but what a convoluted process that is! She weaves her characters’ lives together across generations, wars, marriages and divorces, sibling rivalries, and fated friendships, and it usually takes three-quarters of the book to bring each character together with the other person(s) in the story whose existence, actions, or contribution make him or her significant in the continuity of the tale.

The result of this form of story-telling is, as I noted, both fascinating and maddening. As you read and the story jumps from 1862 to 2017 to 1912 to 1962 and round about again, there are moments when you want to shout, Enough already! Extract all the bits about 1912 and tell them in a line, and then tell me what happened in 1944, and then in 1962, so I can see the progression and the logic and better encompass the story! But without the mystery of how all these people connect up across time, whether it is as relatives, lovers, or strangers who meet upon one single occasion, the reader would no doubt pay less attention to all the surrounding details, which are likewise sumptuous, atmospheric, sometimes educational, and always satisfying. And perversely, as you near the end of the book, there arises a strange reluctance to finish it; after all, you have just gotten to know all about these people, and now you have to let them go!

Kate Morton says her favorite part of writing a book is the research phase, when she is accumulating all the data that go into fleshing out the story in every direction. She has an obsession with houses, with objects, and with history, and likes nothing better than the opportunity to put them all together in an immersive relationship. And her background in speech and drama means she does it in a lyrical and literary voice.

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John William Waterhouse

I was particularly excited to read her latest offering, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, because I knew it involved an artist, a portrait painter whose style resembled that of the pre-Raphaelites, and his model and muse, a beautiful girl with long red hair named Birdie but known as Lily.

Although there are many parts to this mystery, the understanding of just who Birdie was, what happened to her, and where she ended up is at the soul of this book, as is the house around which much of the story revolves, a gabled house with eight chimneys on a bend of the Thames river in Lachlade. Birchwood Manor and its surroundings come to life in this book, to the point where you long to be able to pass through the small wood, cross the meadow, and arrive at the surprising view of its façade before entering and making yourself at home.

It’s really difficult to describe the events of this book, as elaborate and jumbled together as they are. I think the publisher got it right in depicting the central scene as the one in 1862 when Edward Radcliffe, several of his artist friends and their spouses or models, and Edward’s little sister, Lucy, all descend upon Edward’s newly purchased house on the upper Thames to spend an idyllic summer in a daze of creativity and picnics by the river. By the end of the summer, one person is dead, another has disappeared, and a family heirloom is missing, and these events prove tragic for more than one of the participants.

More than 150 years later, a young woman archivist discovers a forgotten satchel containing an artist’s sketchbook with drawings of a house that seems overwhelmingly familiar to her, although she knows she’s never been there, along with a photograph of an arrestingly beautiful woman. Her curiosity about these items sparks an inquiry that connects in odd ways to her own past, and stirs up the memories of all who were both directly and tangentially involved.

The book reads like historical fiction, like a ghost story, like a memoir, and tantalizes with the mystery central to it all. Although it took time and patience to work my way through it, and an occasional bout of paging backwards to reread a passage, a paragraph, or a chapter, the arc of the story was well worth the trouble. I only wish I could have read it while sitting in the library at Birchwood, nursing a hot toddy, in wintertime.

kateIf I didn’t know better, I would believe that Kate Morton has found some incantation or charm, during all her researching, that has interrupted the aging process; she has both a degree and a masters, acted on the stage for a while before settling down to write, has a husband and three sons, and has written six books, with either two- or three-year intervals between the publication of each, and yet in her pictures and videos she looks like she’s about 30 years old. I’m hoping that the sole secret is that creative expression keeps one young!

 

 

Minimum requirements

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Small-town shenanigans

I’m usually more of a thriller or police procedural kind of mystery reader, with an occasional psychological plot thrown in to keep me thinking, but I couldn’t resist either the town setting or the engaging amateur sleuthing trio of Kate, Jack, and Sara in Jude Devereaux’s Medlar Mysteries, and decided to read #2.

justifiedThe victim in A Justified Murder achieves the equivalent of being hung, drawn, and quartered; the nice little old lady Mrs. Beeson is discovered by her cleaning lady sitting at her dining room table, poisoned, shot, and stabbed! Who could hate this seemingly innocuous woman so much? And why does everyone in town seem determined to whitewash or downplay his or her own personal relationship with the victim?

After their last murder and some close calls with danger, Jack, Kate, and Sara decide they’re not going to go near this one, and stubbornly turn to their daily routines while trying to ignore what’s happening in town; but everyone else, from the sheriff to Sarah’s old nemesis (and Kate’s boss at the real estate office) to a strange man stalking them from afar, is determined that they will take it on and figure out who killed Janet Beeson.

The “triple murder” of one victim and the delving into her background for reasons was an intriguing beginning, but I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I did A Willing Murder. I felt like Devereaux took the character development of her protagonists to a point in the first novel, and then in this one, when we should have deepened our knowledge of the three detectives, we just got more of the same. We didn’t find out, for instance, anything substantive about Kate’s father, which is the sole reason she initially went to Lachlan to meet her Aunt Sara; we got a lot of flirty behavior from Jack but likewise not much depth; and Sara just kept getting mad and either locking herself in her room or taking out her anger on a punching bag with her boxing gloves.

As far as the mystery was concerned, there was a whole lot about the three protagonists protesting too much while continuing to follow up every clue from beginning to end. I would have respected them more if, at some point about halfway through the book, they had said, “Hey, let’s get real, we’re doing this,” and quit pretending they weren’t. Also, there were so many peripheral story lines involved, not to mention a kidnapping subplot, that it became confusing more than once. Someone would show up at the front door at 2 a.m., crying, and I would have to page back three chapters to figure out who this person was and where they fit into the puzzle of the town’s many involved citizens.

The book wasn’t bad enough to discourage me from perhaps reading her third when it comes out (and I did like the surprise ending), but if that one likewise ignores the expansion of character knowledge, that’s it for me. Half the motivation for reading a cozy mystery series is finding out more about the inner workings of your sleuth(s). I hope Ms. Devereaux figures this out.

 

Branching out

Because I’m not much of a romance reader, confining myself to anything by Georgette Heyer and most things by Jenny Colgan, I have never previously read anything by Jude Devereaux. I am, however, a big fan of mystery and, noticing that she had written her first, decided to check it out of the library and see whether there was a reason Devereaux is a best-selling author.

I did enjoy this mystery! It’s not the best plotted or most literary or twistiest I’ve ever read by a long shot, but Devereaux’s gift for creating engaging characters immediately drew me in. I’d definitely classify this as a “cozy” mystery; it’s set in a quirky small town and features a cold case solved by a trio of smart amateurs, so it fulfills the criteria.

willingmurderA Willing Murder opens with a prologue that sets up the crime from back in the ’90s, and then turns to the present-day to acquaint us with Kate Medlar, a young woman burdened with a sensitive and overly dramatic mother. Kate has always wanted to know more about her father, but beyond idealizing him and never ceasing to mourn him, her mother isn’t generous with the details. Then, Kate’s mom lets slip that her father has an older sister still living, and this mobilizes Kate. It turns out that her Aunt Sara is a successful and wealthy novelist living in a small town in Florida. Kate researches the town, discovers that she can make good use of her real estate license there, finagles a job, and then writes to ask her aunt if she can stay with her until she gets her own place.

Sara is rattling around alone in her palatial house in Lachlan, and has just invited Jack Wyatt, the man who renovated the house for her and also the grandson of her childhood sweetheart, to move in while recuperating from an auto accident. But there’s plenty of room, so she says yes to Kate. Before the aunt and niece can get to know each other very well, they go with Jack to look at one of the properties he’s just bought to remodel and sell, and come upon a gruesome discovery. On the property was a beautiful royal poinciana tree riddled with termites, and it has been taken down in order to avoid its falling over more destructively in the next hurricane. While Sara and Kate are photographing the prone tree, Kate slips into the muddy hole and discovers that 20 years earlier, someone planted it over the freshly dug grave of two murder victims. And Jack thinks he knows, to his shock and dismay, who they are.

19WWMblossomingThe sheriff, a long-time townie, is afraid to open the cold case, because he thinks he knows who murdered the two: Jack’s father. Sara, Jack, and Kate don’t believe this to be true, and decide they will confirm this (and possibly find the murderer) for themselves. But someone is one step ahead of them, throwing out suspicion and committing mayhem to conceal the truth.

While there were a few things in this debut mystery that were a bit obvious, it has amusing and witty moments to go along with the tragedies that occur, and the veil of secrecy kept up by the long-time residents of a small town is perfectly portrayed. The way the reader arrives at the conclusion is sufficiently (though not overly) intricate, and the conversations amongst the trio of amateur sleuths make the story vibrant and personal. Over all, it was a sturdy and entertaining book, and I plan to read the next of the Medlar mysteries to reunite with Sara, Jack, and Kate.

 

On the shore

In yesterday’s mail, I received my advance-order copy of Jenny Colgan’s new novel, The Bookshop on the Shore. Although I had just started reading another book, I promptly put it aside, because I was so in the mood for this book. I’d had a difficult week, and Colgan’s signature combination of can-do attitude with gentle romance plus her evocative setting (northern Scotland) were the required remedy.

bookshoreThis novel is not exactly a sequel to my favorite of Colgan’s books—The Bookshop on the Corner—since the protagonist is new. But it is set in the same locale, most of the characters from that book are here in a peripheral role, and Goodreads characterizes it as “Scottish Bookshop #2.”

Zoe is a young mother of a four-year-old son, Hari, who is practically perfect in every way—sweet, loving, smart, well-behaved. The only issue with Hari is that he doesn’t speak. Zoe has taken him to multiple specialists, all of whom conclude that there’s nothing wrong with him, and that he will “probably” speak when he’s ready. This worry is at the top of Zoe’s list, but is by no means the only problem with which she is dealing. She’s living in London in a tiny bed-sit in a bad neighborhood, working at a daycare job inadequate to pay her bills, and her ex-boyfriend, Hari’s father, is a go-with-the-flow kind of guy who’s more interested in making it as a deejay than he is in contributing childcare funds to support his son. When her landlord leaves her a rent hike notice, Zoe knows that she will at that point be truly beyond her means, so she appeals to Jaz for help, not expecting much but ever hopeful. Jaz disappoints, as usual, but fortunately the interaction results in a helping hand from an unexpected source.

Jaz’s sister is Surinder, Nina’s best friend from The Bookshop on the Corner, and she has just received a call from Nina, who is desperate to find someone to take over her business (she travels around rural Scotland selling books from a van converted into a mobile bookshop) during the rest of her pregnancy. Surinder sends her Zoe, with Hari in tow. But working in Nina’s business isn’t enough to keep Zoe afloat and also doesn’t provide her with a home, so Nina finds Zoe an evening-and-weekends job as a
live-in au pair to the local “big house” family.

Zoe approaches her jobs with a will to succeed, but rapidly discovers that both are going to be uphill work. She hasn’t Nina’s gift for matching every customer with the right book, and the bottom line is making that obvious during her first weeks with the book van. And the au pair gig seems like a bigger nightmare than her horrible life in London, with three rude, uncooperative children who ominously refer to her as “Nanny Seven,” and a father who is obviously checked out and not coping. But with little other choice, Zoe has to seize her opportunities and make the best life she can for herself and her silent little son on the admittedly beautiful shores of Loch Ness.

This is a trademark delightful tale from Jenny Colgan that fulfills all the requirements her readers have come to expect. The characters are wonderfully delineated (particularly those of the three miscreant children, the curmudgeonly housekeeper Zoe and Nina refer to as “MacDanvers” after Rebecca, and Zoe’s son Hari), and the setting in rural Scotland is, as always, a major factor enriching the scenario with descriptions of nature that make the city dweller long to catch the next flight to Inverness. Colgan has the skill to engage the reader with the protagonist’s plight such that every challenge and triumph are taken personally. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it set me thinking again about whether a retirement in a rural setting would suit me better than my current situation as one of the million citizens of Los Angeles!

bookcornerThe only caveat I have, and I had it with the book’s predecessor, is calling the mobile book van a “bookshop” and depicting it on both covers as a stationary location! Don’t the publishers read their books? There has to be a better title for both books, and better artwork as well. But, I suppose that if you had called this one, for instance, “On the Shore,” where much of the action takes place (both the selling of books and the live-in nannying), it wouldn’t hook in all those readers who want a book about books and readers; and we are a big and focused readership. Oh, well….

 

 

YA authors, adult fare

This week, I picked up two books to which I had been looking forward: Jane, Unlimited, by Kristin Cashore, and Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil, by Melina Marchetta. I didn’t look forward to them because I’d heard anything at all about their contents, but simply because of my sheer adoration of both authors’ previous work. Both have been exclusively young adult authors up to this point, Cashore with her fantasy series set in the Five Kingdoms that begins with Graceling, and Marchetta for a combination of realistic stories (Saving Francesca and sequels) and her fantasy series (Finnikin of the Rock, Froi of the Exiles, and Quintana of Charyn).

GracelingThese two YA authors share something else that I have puzzled over since I have been reading YA: Their work doesn’t necessarily appeal to teens as much as it does to adults. Although Marchetta’s contemporary realistic books seem to have teen fans, the teens I coaxed into reading Finnikin liked it well enough but not sufficiently to go on and read the two sequels (which is a shame because I think they are her two best books). Similarly, the minute I read Graceling, I was raving about and recommending it to every teen fantasy fan I knew, and although a certain percentage connected with it, that percentage wasn’t nearly as high as I estimated it should be, given that it’s a brilliant story with a feisty, personable heroine. I keep talking it up, but I have sometimes wondered, in both authors’ cases, if they shouldn’t have released their fantasy series as adult books rather than sequestering them in the teen section. Certainly many adults I know have loved them.

It’s always interesting when a teen author branches out into adult, or when an adult author writes for teens. I have previously blogged about the sometimes disappointing results when adult authors tried to write teen books and only succeeded in diluting the spirit of their adult books in the mistaken belief that teens need things to be dumbed down. Similarly, there are YA authors I adore whose books for adults have left me cold. Of the two books I read this week, one incited that reaction, while the other was exactly the opposite.

JaneUnlimitedMy friend CeCe on Goodreads says about Jane, Unlimited, “It’s a bizarrely delightful puzzle box of a book, and I enjoyed every second of it.” Other friends similarly adored and raved about this book. I’m glad they had that experience, and extremely sorry that I can’t echo their enthusiasm.

After I somewhat guiltily decided to put the book down at 132 pages and not finish it, I went back and read Kristin Cashore’s afterword about it, and discovered that it had started life as a “Choose Your Ending” type book and then evolved into its current incarnation. This might offer a possible explanation for my poor reaction, because I have read two of those books in the course of my tenure as a book club leader for teens, and greatly disliked the experience both times.

Before anyone accuses me of such, I want to say that it’s not that Cashore didn’t follow in previous footsteps by providing another gripping fantasy story set in the Five Kingdoms; I am eclectic in my tastes, and perfectly willing to read from all genres. But to me, this book didn’t know to what genre it belonged (which is, according to some reviewers, one of its delightful strengths), and the beginning of it was so disjointed and confusing that it just never took hold in my imagination.

It reminds me of The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, beloved of middle-schoolers everywhere, apparently. We read it for my teen book club, the kids gave it an 8.5 out of 10 rating, and I hated every minute of it. It was confusing, went off on tangents, provided no character development for its quirky tribe, and left me floundering.

That’s exactly how I feel about Jane, Unlimited, which begins with a similar setting—a strange mansion, set on an island, belonging to a reclusive millionaire, with a lot of puzzles to be solved. (It harks back to Agatha Christie as well.) I had an inkling of a feeling for Jane, the one person in the story with a tiny bit more character development, but as the rest of the array rushed past in dizzying numbers, I couldn’t muster up any enthusiasm for learning more about them; and if I did, I was doomed to disappointment. For instance, at one point Jane’s mentor and host, Kiran, offers a private conversation that seems to promise more enlightenment about what her thing is (for the first 100 pages she has been merely a sulky looming presence), and just as my interest was piqued, Jane thought to herself, No, there are more interesting mysteries than this one to solve in this house, and said “See you later!” to Kiran, who wandered, off, disappointed. She wasn’t the only one! There was instance after instance of this, when I thought a story was about to take off, but nothing ever did.

I guess that if I had stuck around for something to finally gel, there are interesting developments to be had (CeCe says so), but my patience was exhausted, and I decided to go read something else. So sorry, Kristin. I know you worked hard on it.

ShametheDevilProvidentially, the “something else”
I decided to read (not without trepidation, considering this experience) was Melina Marchetta’s adult suspense novel, Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil. In this instance, not only was I not disappointed, but I finished the 400-page book in two days. Although this book contains a bunch of teenagers as significant characters, it is from the adult point of view that the story unwinds, and the adults in the story have the typical hard time fathoming the teen mindset.

Bashir “Bish” Ortley is a cop who is “on leave” from his department after having lost his temper and threatened a superior officer. His daughter, Bee, is on a school field trip in France when word arrives that her bus has been bombed in Calais, and that children are dead and injured. Bish rushes to the scene, and discovers that his daughter is shaken but unharmed, but the same can’t be said for other people’s children. Partly on his own initiative and partly because the French inspector on the scene seems to need the help, Bish finds himself getting involved in the conundrum of who did it and why. Then it’s discovered that one of the girls on the trip (who has been rooming with his daughter the whole time) is the grandchild of one of the most notorious bombers in recent British history, and the daughter of the woman who confessed to making that bomb. The question is whether Violette is a suspect, a simple victim, or the intended target of the bus bomber? Things get more complicated when Violette and a boy she befriended on the trip disappear, somehow making their way across the Channel to England, and fears for their safety combined with the need to find out how they were involved cause the Home Office to unofficially but peremptorily commandeer Bish to do their research and liaise with the girl’s family.

I loved that the principal protagonist, Bish, plays dual roles in this book—frantic father and analytical cop—and that he is such a flawed human being and yet somehow capable of connecting with everyone in his effort to arrive at the truth and also to protect the two wayward children. The differing viewpoints, the lack of trust of everyone for everyone else, the convoluted nature of the crimes, past and present, all add to the suspense and provide for a truly satisfying reading experience. I felt like the book portrayed sensitivity in its dealings with a difficult topic, and yet was honest and true to people’s natures. The story arc held my attention throughout, and I loved the ending and even the epilogue (not usually a fan of epilogues, but this one didn’t end the story, it added to it).

Bravo from me!

I’d like to say that it’s possible Jane, Unlimited truly is something new and innovative that some readers may love, and that it may be my lack of imagination that causes me to prefer a more traditional story arc discernible as such. You’ll have to try them both and see for yourself.

 

Another flower book

flowerarrangementIn the course of writing my post “Flower power” a couple of weeks ago, I looked at a few lists of novels with flowers as their theme, and decided to expand my repertoire regarding the language of flowers by buying and reading The Flower Arrangement, by Ella Griffin.

In the midst of severe distress over the loss of a much-wanted child, Lara decides to leave her career as a graphic designer and open a shop she calls Blossom and Grow, in the heart of Dublin. Although, as her doubtful husband warns her, the work is backbreaking, the sourcing of the flowers challenging, and the hours long, the venture turns out well, and Lara loves her little jewel of a flower shop with its beautiful pink façade decorated with hand-painted trompe l’oeil ivy.

Like the protagonist in The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Lara has a special gift for putting together the right flowers with the right person (even when it’s by accident!), and this theme of people buying flowers for an apology, a declaration of love, a sick friend, a marker for a special day, or simply a spontaneous gesture carries the plot forward. Each chapter is titled with a different flower and its meaning, and there are delicately detailed descriptions of all kinds of blooms throughout the story.

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This book probably falls into the category of “cozy romance,” or perhaps you could call it relationship fiction? It’s cleverly done, and is definitely the sum of its parts. Yes, I know that’s not the saying, it’s supposed to aspire to be more than the sum of its parts; but in this case it is appropriate and I’m not denigrating it—the parts do come together to make a whole.

I confess, however, that I was a little disappointed by the way the story evolves. In the beginning, I invested quite heavily in Lara’s tale, which is told first, and assumed that the entire book would be about her; instead, it consists of vignettes that, while tangentially connected to her, don’t necessarily reveal or forward her plotline. There is a central cast of characters played by her brother, her father, and other significant relationships, but then we branch out in turn to those characters’ relationships, and also check in on random people who are connected to the flower shop, it’s true, but sometimes by the thinnest of threads. The author does do a good job of weaving them into a cohesive story, but I simply wanted more Lara.

The one thing that tells against this being considered a romance is that you don’t get your  traditional (requisite?) HEA (happily ever after) in the end. Although there are some happy tidings for various people, many loose ends are left, and not because there will be a sequel, I don’t think, but because the author simply wanted them that way. I always think I’m okay with open-ended books until I read one, and then, when I get to the last paragraph and realize my ultimate curiosity won’t be satisfied, I sulk. So this book’s ending made me just a little sulky! I don’t mean to say not to read it, however; it’s a charming, engaging story with a lot of heart, decent writing, great characterization, and an interesting story line.

I had two issues with the physical presentation of the novel: The first was the cover, which, while cute, doesn’t match the description of the shop (thus my little painting, above, to recall the theme of pink!). The second was the title of the book! I don’t understand why the author didn’t call it Blossom and Grow, after the shop; not only would it have been a more memorable title than The Flower Arrangement (which is so generic as to be forgettable, and I did several times when people asked me what I was reading!) but it actually better expresses what happens in the course of the story.

Perhaps Ella Griffin will see this and let us in on her reasoning.

 

Two steps forward

I was looking for something a little lighter to read after my foray into post-apocalyptic zombie-land, and I realized that I had never gone back to pick up the sequel to the delightful The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Alas, all copies of the sequel were checked out at both libraries where I hold membership, and my book budget for June (and truthfully for July) was long since spent, so I opted instead for something else by Simsion. I had heard nothing about it previous to borrowing the e-book, but Two Steps Forward proved to be a new favorite.

walkwaterI didn’t know much about El Camino de Santiago previous to about 2014, but in that year one of my Facebook artist acquaintances, Jennifer Lawson, decided to walk 500 miles along the Camino route and record her progress with sketches. Once she had achieved the feat, she came home, sorted out her sketchbook, and documented the experience in her book Walking with Watercolor.
I promptly bought it, mostly for her delightfully lively and effervescent watercolors rather than because I was intrigued by the topic, but as I read it, my interest grew. The idea of making such a walk, whether on the Appalachian Trail, through the Pacific Northwest, or meandering England’s Lake District, had always been appealing to me. It’s not something to which I could aspire at the moment, given the state of my knees, but who knows? Could happen someday before I die!

2stepsSimsion co-wrote Two Steps Forward with his wife, Anne Buist, and it is loosely based on their own experience of walking the Camino, although it is fiction. El Camino de Santiago is a centuries-old pilgrimage route that ends in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. People walk the Camino for all sorts of reasons, though—not just as pilgrimage but as an athletic challenge, as a meditative exercise, as a vacation choice. They start the route from separate points, depending on where in Europe they are coming from, and all converge at the end to receive a certificate of completion and (if they want it) a blessing.

There are two main protagonists, and each author wrote from the viewpoint of one, then traded their writing, edited, added to and refined it, and put together a seamless story narrated by two.

Californian Zoe has recently taken some devastating hits in her life. First, her husband Keith has died in a car crash, a sufficient reason for grief; but a few weeks later, Zoe learns from her accountant that Keith’s business had been in trouble, and if she sells her house she may just barely be able to pay off the business debt—if she’s lucky. Devastated not only by this new catastrophe but by the thought that Keith didn’t sufficiently trust in their relationship to be honest with her about their financial situation, Zoe is at loose ends (and in a daze) when a friend from childhood invites her to France. Not knowing what else to do while waiting for the house to sell, Zoe decides a visit is in order. While out window-shopping in France, she sees a shell charm that inexplicably calls to her. When she discovers the scallop shell is a symbol for El Camino de Santiago, and that the town where she is visiting is a beginning point for part of the route, Zoe impulsively decides that a time-out from her life to grieve, ponder, and find a new direction is just what she needs and, spending most of the last of her money, kits herself out and departs on the route.

Martin, meanwhile, is walking the route primarily for commercial reasons. He is a British engineer, and has designed a cart that he believes will be a wonderful solution to pilgrims who have trouble carrying their belongings on their back. Since every prototype must be tested and proven before manufacturing takes place, Martin decides that the perfect antidote to hanging around dealing with the aftermath of a nasty divorce is to take his cart on “the Way.” With the promise of some interest by investors once they see the results of his walk, the “Buggy man” embarks only a day or two after Zoe on the same part of the path.

Zoe and Martin, along with a host of other colorful and memorable walkers, show the differences in the kind of walk or pilgrimage that is to be had along El Camino. Zoe, flat broke from the get-go, is hoarding her funds by staying in the cheapest of hostels, occasionally even sleeping in a church or barn, and cooking for herself or snacking on what she can carry. Martin, much more flush, is trying out B&Bs and hotels and savoring the local cuisine in the better restaurants in each town. Some travelers don’t think twice about taking a bus or a cab over a rough patch, while others believe that to gain one inch of progress on the Camino under anyone’s power but their own is cheating and nullifies the whole experience.

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This illustration shows one of the stone markers with its distinctive scallop shell that indicates the Way for the travelers to follow, with three pilgrims walking in the background.

The delight of this book is its slow build as the walkers continually cross paths with one another. One will have a short day and the other a long one, and will pass each other, unknowing, but land in the same town in the same restaurant on the same night. Some are up and out the door at the crack of dawn, and walk until dusk, while others nurse a hangover, stop for a leisurely déjeuner, dawdle along for 10 kilometers, and call it a day. This all leads to both expected and unexpected encounters and near-misses.

The accompanying theme to the walk is, of course, what each walker gets out of it, and as both Zoe and Martin make progress in their individual quests for meaning, understanding, forgiveness, or whatever else they have come to see that they need or crave, their interactions with one another also change and grow. The book comes to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion, and then further gratifies the reader with an epilogue to reveal what happens to the characters after their “time out of time” interlude is over. Two Steps Forward is nearly as much a journey of discovery for its readers as it is for the walkers.

If you like this sort of book, you might also consider The Distance from Me to You, by Marina Gessner, a novel about a young woman who walks the length of the Appalachian Trail alone between high school and college, or Skywalker: Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, a humorous nonfiction memoir by Bill Walker.

And if you liked what you saw of Jennifer Lawson’s drawings in her book about the Camino, be sure to check out her current series on Instagram. She’s drawing, painting, and collaging 100 dogs in 100 days, and they’re all delightful.