The Book Adept

The Man

Twice in two weeks I was able to read the latest in a mystery series I have followed from the beginning. What a treat!

Robert Crais has been writing the saga of Hawaiian shirt-wearing Private Investigator Elvis Cole and his sidekick, the inimitable Joe Pike of granite mien and special (forces) skills, for 18 books now, occasionally interspersing them with a stand-alone thriller here and there. Although I have mostly preferred the stand-alones to the series, I never miss any of Crais’s books, because he tells a good story and because I like that they are set in Los Angeles.

dangermanThere’s no denying that this series, like any other long-running one based on the same people in the same city, has had its ups and downs. There have been books I couldn’t put down for 48 hours straight, and others I could barely make it through. I liked A Dangerous Man for the very reason that a few other people cited for disliking it—it was straightforward. There have been a few of these that got so complex and brought in so many extraneous people and details that it spoiled the lead, which for me is always the partnership between Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, and how they have developed such synchronicity.

The initial encounter in this one was, as I said, simple—nobody calling the office with a long and complex tale to be sorted. Joe Pike goes to the bank, and Isabelle (Izzy) Roland is the teller who waits on him. Her boss asks her to take an early lunch, so she leaves the bank only minutes after Joe, who is still on the street by his car. A couple of guys in an SUV pull over next to her on the curb; one gets out and engages her in conversation, and before she knows it, she’s being forced into the car and abducted. Joe spots the look of panic on her face, and does what Joe does—he follows, he outwits, and he rescues, wreaking a little havoc on the kidnappers in the process and then turning them over to the police.

From this point on, it does grow a little more complicated, because the power behind the kidnappers redoubles efforts to get hold of Isabelle. When she calls Joe in a panic because SUVs have been trolling her street and then disappears, Joe appoints himself her bodyguard and avenging angel, but at this point also decides it’s time to pull in both John Chen (medical examiner) to run some fingerprints, and friend Elvis to use his P.I. contacts and figure out why these people are so determined to get control of a 22-year-old bank teller with an old car, a falling-down house, and no apparent reason to be of interest to anyone in particular.

It’s a believable story, well told, and holds your interest start to finish. The question I was left with was, is “the dangerous man” of the title the person who is relentless in his pursuit of Izzy? or is it Pike himself? In a showdown, I know who I would pick.

READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: This is a series you could suggest to a mystery lover who is a fan of Michael Connelly, the other guy who writes a series (Bosch) based in Los Angeles. Although Harry Bosch is a policeman and Elvis and Joe are private/independent, they share the characteristics of being mavericks who take direction from no one and who are relentlessly determined in pursuing their objectives. Because of the locale, the scene-setting is quite similar, and I have always wished the two authors would get their characters (neighbors in the Hollywood Hills) to meet up and collaborate! Also, either series might appeal to people who like noir fiction, as all of these detectives tend to be involved with the darker elements of their trade, and sometimes the books feel like an offshoot of 1940s Hollywood, a lá Walter Mosley or Duane Swierczynski.

 

Book women

There has been a recent controversy in book world about which librarians have been (sometimes vehemently) taking sides. I decided that, rather than go with the most convincing or simply abstain from the argument, I would read and find out for myself.

Two novels have been published about one subject in recent months, that subject being the Pack Horse Library Project. This was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program established during the Great Depression that delivered books to remote regions in the Appalachian Mountains between 1935 and 1943. Nearly a third of the population of the United States had no access to library materials, and Kentucky led with an illiteracy rate of 31 percent. The terrain meant that traveling libraries couldn’t access most people in eastern Kentucky, so the Pack Horse Library Project picked up the slack by sending single riders into remote parts of the Appalachians with books in their packs.

Carriers_in_Hindman,_KY

It also, of course, provided a much-needed income for those women who participated in the project. The WPA would pay $28 a month to women who were for various reasons the sole breadwinners for their families. This was, at the time, a salary that many men would have envied.

The two books in question are Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, and JoJo Moyes’ The Giver of Stars. Book Woman author Richardson has raised the dreaded specter of plagiarism, due to some striking similarities between Moyes’s book and hers, while Moyes says she has never read Richardson’s book.

The timing was interesting: Richardson’s book was published in May, while Moyes’s book was slated for October. Moyes was still finishing up her book in September of 2018 when Richardson’s was being made available via both electronic galleys and advance review copies. A blogger who received one of the ARCs brought the similarities to Richardson’s attention, and this was echoed in a tweet by a bookseller. Moyes says she had no knowledge of Richardson’s book at that time.

Since both books are based on historical events, one would assume that similarities would arise based on common source materials consulted by each author. But Richardson maintains that the similarities are not, in fact, anything in the historical record, but are rather “fictional devices/plot points I invented.”

The truth is, if you read just the list of passages that Richardson calls out (there are eight of them), it does seem damning. And no one but Moyes herself can know whether she did, indeed, read Richardson’s book and incorporate these plot points into her own. But having read both books, I can say that the overall plots, the manner in which the books are written, the differing focus, and the cumulative effect of each novel as a story are significantly dissimilar, and that one person could easily read both books and be entertained.

bookwomanAlthough The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is, indeed, about one of the WPA Pack Horse librarians, the focus of that book is almost entirely on a singular character, a coal miner’s daughter, Cussy Mary Carter. Cussy (or Bluet, as she is more commonly known to the people in her neighborhood) is one of the last of the blue-skinned people of Kentucky, a group that suffered from a rare genetic anomaly that caused their skin to carry a pale blue tint that darkened, with a blush, to the shade of a blueberry. Because of her skin color, she is feared or hated by a large percentage of the population of her rural Kentucky settlement, treated even worse than the regular “colored” people, and this proves to be a danger as she goes about her work as a Pack Librarian. But it also allows her a little hope, as the people who are grateful for her efforts to bring them books and reading begin to be open to the idea that she is no different from them despite her peculiar shade.

There are two parallel, almost equal protagonists in The Giver of Stars, and both to some extent also represent “the other” in their interactions with their society. One is Alice, an English girl who is wooed by Bennett Van Cleve, son of a wealthy coal mine owner, a big fish in a small town in Kentucky. Alice is desperate to escape her claustrophobic life in England, and decides that marrying Bennett and moving to Kentucky will be just the ticket. But her new life similarly begins to pall as she realizes that women have not much more than an ornamental role at her level of society. Just in time, the opportunity to be a Pack Librarian opens up, and in the face of no other volunteers, Alice jumps at the chance to do something different with her life.

starsThe other protagonist is Margery,
a tough hill woman who has had to make her own way in the world, and who is the de facto leader of this branch of the Pack Librarians. Although Alice admires Margery for her independence and accomplishments, Margery is reviled and looked down upon by the rest of the town for both her heritage and her present devil-may-care conduct when it comes
to men.

Although both books focus a fair bit on women’s rights (or the lack of them), their affect is quite different. Bluet’s story is an inturned one of a person who has been raised to be self-effacing—in fact, self-hating—and humble, while Alice and Margery are outspoken in their desire for and expectation of different treatment. Book Woman, despite its detailing of routes, methods, and circumstances of book deliveries, is more squarely a biographical piece about the solitary Cussy Mary Carter and her difficulties as a shunned minority, while in The Giver of Stars, much more detail is to be had about the workings of the Pack Horse Project as a whole. Richardson’s book is written in a more formal language, a literary collection of adjectives meant to give the reader a picture of both the extreme poverty and oppression and the transcendent beauty simultaneously present in Appalachia. Moyes writes with her usual straightforward narrative style, focused more on her excellent character-building than on language.

For these reasons, I can enthusiastically recommend both of these books as worthy of your time. I can’t honestly say that I prefer one over the other; both have merit in different arenas.

Regarding the similarities Richardson has called out, as I read through both books I attempted to explain them as coincidence, and was able to do so for about half of them. Ironically, one of the non-historical things that both authors included as part of their stories did, perhaps, make sense in terms of separate points each wished to make, but was not logical in context of the times.

As for the rest, since the publisher has declined to consider that the two works are substantially similar, which is the main test of copyright infringement, they are a matter for JoJo Moyes’s conscience; but unless you simply refuse to give her the benefit of the doubt, they should in no way preclude your enjoyment of both The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek and The Giver of Stars as good stories and fine contributions to the historical record.

BlogDingbat

Parenthetically, does it bother anyone else that the skin of the girl on the cover of Book Woman is NOT BLUE?

 

A feast

The mail brought me a delightful surprise this past week: Deborah Crombie’s latest in her Kincaid/Duncan mystery series. (I had forgotten that I had excitedly pre-ordered it a few months back.) It’s one of the British police procedural series that I follow religiously, but patience is required for this one, because Crombie is not a speedy writer. This is #18 in the series, and #17 was published in February of 2017, so it’s been a long 31 months in between.

bitterfeastIn A Bitter Feast, Scotland Yard Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his wife, Detective Inspector Gemma James, have been invited for a relaxing weekend in the Cotswolds countryside at Beck House, as guests of the family of Melody Talbot, Gemma’s detective sergeant. The Talbots are wealthy and somewhat notorious as the publishers of one of Britain’s major newspapers, and except for Duncan and Gemma and her friend Doug, Melody has been completely silent about the family connection so as not to influence her co-workers (for good or ill) due to her prominent family connections.

The weekend for which they have been invited is to feature a charity luncheon hosted at the Talbots’ home and catered by chef Viv Holland, whose current position as co-owner of a local pub doesn’t reflect her illustrious background as a Michelin chef. Lady Addie Talbot, always mindful of her own influence and desirous of helping her friends and protégés, sees this luncheon as an opportunity to increase the usually self-effacing Viv’s fame, and accordingly invites national food bloggers and restaurant critics; but this action sets some unexpected events into motion that will scar the day with tragedy and provoke additional crimes to cover someone’s tracks.

This was a somewhat subdued book in the series. That’s not to say it wasn’t thoroughly enjoyable, but it was a bit different in that Duncan and Gemma weren’t the principal cops on the case. You just knew, when the book opened with the prospect of an idyllic country weekend away for the entire Kincaid/James clan, that it was too good to be true, and sure enough a car accident puts Kincaid out of the picture before he can even arrive at the Talbot estate. When the investigation of the two people in the car that hit him turns up a finding of suspicious death, Gemma and Duncan both become involved in the solution of this and another, later crime; but because it’s not their turf, the lead is taken by a local inspector, and they are demoted to the role of helpers. Additionally, because of Duncan’s injuries he’s not his usual competent and capable self, distinctly shaken by the accident and its aftermath.

The mystery is a good one; I enjoyed the past-and-present details of the life of Chef Viv Holland, including all the delectable descriptions of the food she was producing, the cast of characters inhabiting her restaurants (Ibby, Jack, Antonia, Bea, and the charismatic but volatile Irishman, Fergus O’Reilly), and the complications of her personal life. Likewise, the disclosures about Melody Talbot’s parents, Ivan and Lady Addie, the picturing of their beautiful home with its Gertrude Jekyll-inspired gardens, and the sleepy autumnal setting of the golden Cotswolds is compelling and lends additional charm.

One thing that put me off a little: The book became particularly busy, with too much back-and-forth trading off of cars, duties, and childcare, because of the presence of the entire family. Although son Kit plays a somewhat pivotal role in this book, the constant need for Gemma or Duncan to find someone to watch Toby and Charlotte so they could go off and solve crimes added a lot of unnecessary detail, as did all the descriptions of places and activities pursued specifically to entertain the children, from zoos to ice creams to croquet. The story might have been less cluttered if the kids had all gone to the grandparents for the weekend, leaving Gemma and Duncan to enjoy their holiday unfettered and (later) to pursue their sleuthing. Of course, life is messy and cluttered and busy, so perhaps I am just reacting from the perspective of a single person without too much patience for this kind of thing!

Although this is not my favorite of Crombie’s series, it certainly stands up as a worthy participant, and is well worth the time. I just wish she were a faster writer; it’s a long time between books, and I miss Duncan and Gemma while they’re gone!

upper-slaughter-house-cotswolds

Upper Slaughter, The Cotswolds

READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: This is a great series for dedicated mystery readers whose preference is for detectives with whom they can become familiar and develop continuity and relationship. Both the personal and professional lives of these two are intriguing, and even more so for being lived together. Crombie’s usual habit (not seen in this one) of alternating the lead in each book between Kincaid and James keeps the series fresh. The mysteries are usually satisfyingly complex and mystifying, and maintain attention throughout. And for those whose preference is specifically the British mystery, you can’t beat Crombie, her surprising nationality as a Texan notwithstanding.

Heist

I haven’t read a book by John Grisham for many years, and my reading was mostly restricted to his legal thrillers (not being a fan of baseball, his other main focus), which I enjoyed quite a lot, particularly A Time to Kill and Runaway Jury. Honestly, when it comes to those kinds of books, he is as much of a screenwriter as a novelist, because they are so aptly suited for the visual medium. I have enjoyed both reading and watching them.

caminoIn recent years, it seems like he has been trying to expand his repertoire (or soften his image?) to include other kinds of fiction—A Painted House, Playing for Pizza, Skipping Christmas, and this one I just finished, Camino Island. I’m not sure that these efforts have been entirely successful; while these books have all been pleasant, interesting, and well written, they don’t seem to me to have the snap of his legal dramas.

This book is billed as a “heist” novel, but although the theft of five original manuscripts written by F. Scott Fitzgerald from Princeton University is detailed in the first part of the book, there isn’t much excitement surrounding it. The heist planning was interesting, but because it was all done undercover, so to speak, with distraction rather than direct action enabling the crew to pull it off, it wasn’t all that gripping.

Then there are not one but two abrupt shifts in the book—one to a bookstore owner and his history as a bookseller, and the other to a broke, blocked writer trying to figure out how she’s going to survive. These are initially confusing, until you realize that both these people are going to have some role in the further history of the heist.

Bruce Cable has a bookstore on Camino Island, in Florida, and the tracing of certain industry connections of his has led the insurance company to conclude that he may know something about the missing manuscripts that the company will be expected to pay out on if they aren’t located and returned to Princeton. The company hires an unnamed investigative entity who in turn hires Mercer Mann, a writer who had some success with her first novel, but is now blocked on her second and has just been let go from her teaching job. Mercer has ties to the island (her grandmother lived there and she visited every summer as a child), so the investigators feel it will seem natural for her to “infiltrate” by staying at her grandmother’s cottage, ostensibly to write, and inserting herself into the local literary scene at the bookstore. They hope that by doing so, she can discover whether there is any truth to the rumors about the manuscripts being linked to Bruce Cable.

I most enjoyed the evolution of the bookstore, with all the details involved; I hadn’t picked up this book specifically because it was about books and reading, but luck took me there, and I always like to hear about the set-up, philosophy, and day-to-day business practices of bookstores and their owners.

I least enjoyed the character Mercer (the young woman writer), who whined a lot about not being able to write but didn’t actually seem to be trying that hard amidst all her other distractions.

A little excitement comes back into the book when the FBI and the insurance company catch some of the thieves and it seems that Mercer’s rather flat-footed undercover work with Bruce Cable may actually lead to one or more of the stolen manuscripts being located. But the ending itself was rather a sterile wrap-up. I suppose everything was resolved adequately, but again, not particularly excitingly.

It was a pleasant read, but not a gripping one, and definitely not my favorite of Grisham’s.

I was somewhat embarrassed to discover that while I’ve been ignoring his recent adult works, I also apparently missed that he’s been writing a series for young teens about a 13-year-old lawyer, Theodore Boone. These sound like books I could promote to reluctant young male readers; I’ll have to read one and see!

 

Discussing appeals

Speaking of best opening paragraphs—or lines—I just rediscovered one of them:

“I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.”

beantreesThat’s the first sentence of The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver. I decided on a re-read, following my rediscovery of her as a writer with Unsheltered, last week. Since I already gave a brief review of the book in my “Fresh look: old book” series, I thought I would instead go into the appeals of the story, the reasons why someone might want to read it and you might want to recommend it, while the details are fresh in my mind.

Since I already shared it, let’s start with that opening line—what does it tell you about the book to come?

  • The protagonist probably lives in a rural setting, since tractors are in use.
  • Referring to it as the “Standard Oil” sign could give you a clue about the time period in which the story is set.
  • The name “Newt Hardbine” gives a clue to what particular type of rural setting it’s going to be—most likely somewhere in the South. It could be a name found in Yankee territory, I suppose, but it’s definitely not Sebastopol, California, unless it’s by way of Oklahoma.
  • There will probably be something in the story to do with tire maintenance.

That’s a lot to get out of one sentence, and that is the gift of a writer who knows her characters and her story and gets right to them.

The protagonist of this book is immediately painted as a vivid and complex character. Within the first 30 pages, you know and understand where she came from and her connection with her past, you understand her love for her mama but her need to get away from Pittman County, Kentucky in order to find her place in the world, and you can even grasp why she is the sort of person who, when faced with the challenge of taking on an orphaned three-year-old, would flinch a little but then get on with it. If you, or the person for whom you are trying to find a good read, is a reader who loves character development, this book is a good bet. Every character in it has an individual, one-of-a-kind persona, and each is lovingly developed in whatever way he or she needs to be in relation to the main character. These are characters that you would recognize on the street if you walked past them.

The other thing this book has going for it is pacing. If you view it from a superficial standpoint, there are big swathes of it in which nothing much happens: People get and lose jobs, find places to live, make some friends, and live fairly mundane lives. But the overwhelming experience of this book is an exquisitely maintained tension: From the moment the Indian woman dumps the three-year-old in Taylor’s car and drives away, you realize that this is a never-ending source of questions that will pervade the rest of their story.

I should note here (as would a good readers’ advisor for this book) that although it stands alone and is in no way concluded as a cliff-hanger, the reader will probably experience a certain feeling of incompleteness without reading the sequel, Pigs in Heaven, and learning Taylor’s and Turtle’s ultimate fates.

Other elements of the book (and its sequel) that could be significant in appealing to a certain reader:

  • It is issue-oriented—it explores several themes that could be considered controversial, and which broach ethical and social problems;
  • Although it is realistic fiction, the world-building, better described for these purposes as scene-setting, is beautifully realized. The atmosphere of rural Kentucky, the characteristics of desert living in Tucson, Arizona, are wonderfully detailed;
  • The tone of the book is simultaneously serious and upbeat, with unexpected moments of hilarity;
  • The writing style is engaging, with a conversational tone and descriptive language that employs regional dialects to advantage.

These are all ways to examine and perceive the requirements of the reader and match that reader with the story that will suit their taste, temperament, and interests. Think about some of the readers you know, and also consider the books with which you are intimately familiar; pair up the desires of one with the appeals of the other to see if you can accurately predict a good match. This is the gift of readers’ advisory.

 

A reach

I wish they were all like this…

midnightlineI started out by reading a large swathe of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, as one does when first enamored of a character, and then, after I grew bored with reading them one after another, I continued to dip in here and there whenever I was in the mood and/or there was a new book out. The one truth in picking up a Jack Reacher book is that you never know what to expect. Well…
let me revise that statement: One ALWAYS knows what to expect in terms of the character, because he’s a pretty reliable personality. But I have been both pleased and massively disappointed by the stories/events surrounding him from book to book, so although I approach the familiarity of the series with pleasure, I still have some uncertainty about whether or not this particular book in my hand will be a good read.

I liked The Midnight Line quite a lot. The premise (finding the owner of a precious West Point ring spotted in a pawn shop window) was a good one, and just quirky enough to be a typical Reacher quest. While there was violence committed in this book, it wasn’t nearly as vicious as it sometimes can be; it felt like Reacher stuck to his inner code of responding rather than initiating (which he has not done in several recent disquieting examples). I also enjoyed the “educational” aspects of this plot, including facts about the state of Wyoming, and the opioid epidemic and how it has played out in this country, particularly as it affects veterans. Reacher’s collaboration with a male partner (a former FBI agent turned private investigator) was refreshing, since it didn’t contain the now almost obligatory “hook-up” portrayed in many of the Reacher stories featuring a female lead. In fact, Child’s treatment of the female characters in this book (the FBI guy’s client, the local police detective, and the veteran owner of the ring) was respectful and their characters were well developed.

I agree with some that the other characters’ impressions of Reacher (in panicky phone calls to colleagues and subordinates) as “Big Foot” and “The Hulk” and Child’s own descriptions of his turkey-sized hands and so on are probably a not-very-subtle swipe at the temerity of casting Tom Cruise in this role for the movies. Although Cruise has done his best to pull off the stone-faced confidence and world-weariness, there’s no denying that he can’t intimidate or make an impression compared to an almost-seven-foot specimen of honed Army manhood. I must confess that the Jack Reacher projected on my mind’s eye as I read bears more likeness to Alexander Skarsgård…

alexskars

 

More bookstores…

Here are two more in the “books about books and readers” category.

yesterdaysIn The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson, 28-year-old Miranda is teaching history to middle schoolers in Philadelphia, having just moved in with her boyfriend Jay, the school’s soccer coach. Then she gets the news that her Uncle Billy has died. She hasn’t seen nor heard from him in 16 years, but she remembers him from her childhood as that glamorous uncle who always showed up with gifts from his travels (he was a seismologist). Billy also owned a bookstore in Silverlake (Los Angeles), and Miranda is surprised to discover that he has left her the bookstore. This despite the fact that Miranda’s parents live in Los Angeles, and his sister might have been the more logical beneficiary?

Thus begins her trek back into the past: What was the falling out between Billy and Miranda’s mom that caused him to abandon the family so long ago, and why has he reached out now, when it can’t make a difference, with hints and clues to tantalize Miranda? Her parents aren’t talking, so Miranda has no choice, if she wants to figure out the family dynamic, but to follow Billy’s clues. She also has to decide what to do about the bookstore…

The Bookshop of Yesterdays was a well plotted and skillfully written debut. I enjoyed the parts about the bookstore most of all. It made me, as always, want to have one of my own…even though the financial risk (as portrayed here) is daunting and undeniable. The author was clever with literary references, and with the portrayal of all the bookstore personalities, as well as the pasts and quirks of Miranda’s family.

printedletterThe title of The Printed Letter Bookshop, by Katherine Reay, came up as “you might also like” in a search on Amazon, and it sounded appealing, so I bought it.

Madeline has been doing her due diligence in a law firm for several years, in competition with her former boyfriend for a partnership. When the news of the partnership doesn’t go her way, she uses her recent rather bewildering inheritance of a bookshop from her Aunt Maddie as a distraction from her derailed career. Although she initially intends to rid herself of the property, Aunt Maddie’s two remaining employees attempt to convince her otherwise…and a surprising romantic entanglement makes her consider other options as well.

As I read this book, various themes kept nagging at me, making me think I had read it before. Then I realized its similarities to The Bookshop of Yesterdays, which I read last year. In that one an uncle owns a bookstore, in this one it’s an aunt. In that one, the uncle has a falling-out with the parents when the protagonist is 12 years old. In this one, the protagonist is eight, and the supposed reason for the falling-out is bad financial advice from the protagonist’s father to his sister (the aunt), causing her to lose her savings. (None of the parents in either book will talk about the fight.) In both books, the bookshop owner dies and leaves the store to the niece in the will, hoping his or her legacy will be continued. And in both books, the back stories of the other people whose lives are tied up in the store prove to be the icing that holds the layers together and turns them into a tasty cake.

I think I liked this one a bit more, perhaps because I identified more closely with the back stories of the two women clerks, Claire and Janet, and also liked Aunt Maddie more than Uncle Billy, and Madeline more than Miranda!

If you like Jenny Colgan’s books about young women who realize their lives and careers are not “all that” and decide to make a radical change, you will like these. And of course there is the added enticement of being set in a bookstore. But in retrospect, I would probably just pick one, the stories being so similar.

 

Ch-ch-changes…

I had forgotten how vivid are the characters in a Barbara Kingsolver novel. It’s mostly because she doesn’t write her novels vaguely; she sets them solidly in the events of the present-day, whatever that time period may be, and allows (or forces) her protagonists to confront the facts of their lives and of life, without filters.

unshelteredKingsolver is the founder of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. There is a reason for that—Kingsolver does not write fiction that isn’t political. Unsheltered, her newest novel, is no exception, but it is political in such a simultaneously personal and universal way that it fastens onto the mind of her reader with a compelling message it’s hard not to understand.

Unsheltered is the parallel stories of two people—and two families—living at the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland, New Jersey, an unlikely setting for revelation, one would think. The contemporary family is narrated by Willa Knox, wife of Iano Tavoularis, daughter-in-law of the irascible Greek Nick, mother of Zeke and Antigone (Tig), grandmother of Aldus (Dusty). Circumstances of life (loss of tenure at a previous job, the disappearance of a profession, the death of an aunt, the death of a daughter-in-law, the end of a romance) have brought them all together to live in an inherited, falling-down house in this small town, each of them trying (though no one harder than Willa) to figure out how to get back on their feet in the face of tragedy after disaster after unfortunate circumstance.

The second family, living at the same address in the 1870s, is headed by Thatcher Greenwood, a young man who started out poor and made good, married to a girl who started out wealthy and fell from status when her father’s failures and her marriage to Thatcher reduced her circumstances. Rose and her mother, Artemisia, live lives of constant discontent, filled with complaints about their straitened circum-stances (one of which is the drafty house falling down around them), while Rose’s little sister Polly is Thatcher’s one bulwark and champion within the family nest. If it weren’t for his unexpected friendship with his eccentric neighbor, self-taught botanist and biologist Mary Treat, his curtailed life and thoughts would have no refuge.

The political story of this book is in the confrontation of its protagonists with a shift in the wind, a change in society so profound that only a few can acknowledge it properly and understand its significance. In Thatcher’s case, it is the emergence of the discoveries of Charles Darwin, which make complete sense of the natural world, and which are being stifled at every turn by religion, fear, and willful ignorance. In Willa’s case, the realizations are brought home to her by her daughter, Tig, a small but mighty whirlwind seemingly sent to blow away all the illusions from Willa’s eyes. Tig would make a fitting companion for the Alexandra Ocasio-Cortezes of this world, with her insistence that capitalism is dead, that the old white men still clinging to growth as a signal of good are deluding themselves in the face of the real possibility of human oblivion within decades of this current moment. The metaphor of the house in which each family is living, which is literally falling to pieces, leaky roof to collapsed ceiling to failing floor joists, brings the whole message home.

But there is light within all this darkness, there is new life both botanical and human, there are hopeful interactions and solutions and triumphs. Ultimately, Unsheltered calls for living in a more authentic way, and the reader, if he or she is in sympathy with this message, can only rise to the challenge.

redwoodOn Goodreads, one reader noted that “If there was such a prize this one might win The Most Polarizing Novel of 2018.” Being a fairly enthusiastic fan of Kingsolver’s (I disliked Poisonwood Bible but have loved everything else she has written), I found it hard to believe, when scrolling through the ratings, that some people gave this book a one- or two-star rating, in the face of my solid five. People’s reasons for these ratings varied, from “preachy” to “didactic and heavy-handed” to “too much dialogue.” My suspicion is that at least some of these readers were as at odds with the book’s message as were the general public in the novel with the realizations of both Thatcher Greenwood and Willa Knox, that the message made them uncomfortable, and they took it out on the book. As one who found it profoundly moving and distinctly eye-opening, I will have to say, read it for yourself and see where your vote falls.

“Unsheltered, I live in daylight.”

Heyer surprise

I was browsing in Overdrive and it did that thing where it suggests a book because of other books you have read, and surprise! it was a Georgette Heyer novel I had never read. So I promptly downloaded it to my Kindle, only to receive another surprise…

Talisman1Cousin Kate was certainly not standard Georgette Heyer fare. While presenting many of her books’ usual initial plot points (a penniless but plucky heroine, an unexpected suitor, some previously unknown relatives, a firmly supportive servant), this one turned gothic in the extreme. Rather than a frothy Regency England plot that takes place amongst the diverting events of the London Season, it could easily compete with any of the tomes with a slightly menacing air written by such authors as Victoria Holt, Anya Seton, or (latterly) Barbara Michaels. All the keynotes contained within those books are here too: the magnificent but slightly sterile and dark estate of Staplewood; the cold-hearted aunt with an ulterior motive; the strictly sequestered frail old lord of the manor; and the devastatingly handsome but equally strange and volatile son and heir.

I really liked certain elements of Cousin Kate. It was fascinating to try to figure out exactly why Kate’s Aunt Minerva was making so many kind gestures—inviting her to stay, giving her a new wardrobe—while patently not feeling anything for her (or anyone else). The servants and companions, the cousin, and the heir were all puzzles to be solved. And although the loyal servant—Kate’s former nurse Sarah Nidd—and her crusty but knowing old father-in-law were probably my favorite characters, their good-natured common sense didn’t prevent the slide into pure melodrama. The somewhat abrupt (and pat) ending was less than satisfactory, and left the reader with questions that wouldn’t be answered. I’m glad to have read it, as it was among the few Heyers I had missed; but from now on I’ll stick with rereads of my lighthearted favorites from among her novels.

TALISMAN2The above cover is the latest among many to convey the nature of this book; perhaps if it had had this older but much more accurate depiction, I would have known what to expect!

 

 

Fresh look: old books

A friend reminded me recently of the purportedly “best opening paragraph of all time,” which, according to LitHub author Emily Temple, is the one that opens We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson.

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

always

Whether or not you agree with Ms. Temple, you do have to acknowledge the brilliance of this book, in which two sisters live an exceedingly reclusive life sequestered in Blackwood House, caring for their ill and aged Uncle Julian. The narrative, which is carried by the younger sister, Mary Katherine (Merricat), gradually reveals that there is a sinister tragedy in their past, that the town holds a grudge against the family, and that in fact they are reclusive for good reason. All of Ms. Jackson’s trademark creepiness eventually prevails over the almost mundane initial tone.

Thinking about this book put me in mind of a different book with “castle” in its title. Dodie Smith wrote I Capture the Castle in the 1940s, and its opening paragraph is also beguiling, though with a completely different vibe:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring. I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry
is so bad that I mustn’t write any more
of it.”

captureThis book is also about two proud but poor girls who live a quiet life in a moldering castle, but that’s where the similarity ends. Rose and Cassandra Mortmain live in this ruin with their famously eccentric writer father, his statuesquely beautiful nature-worshipping second wife (who has the habit of wandering naked about the grounds), and their precocious little brother. The father has a massive case of writer’s block, and hasn’t published in years, and the family is all but destitute; the rundown property is all they can afford. When two handsome and wealthy young men move into the neighborhood, the entire household collaborates to change the family’s luck by ensnaring one of them as a spouse for the beautiful Rose. It’s obviously not a feminist tale on that account, but the younger, spunkier Cassandra has aspirations to be a writer, and the book is entertainingly narrated through her journals.

blandingsAnother old book with “castle” in the title that everyone should experience is Blandings Castle, by P. G. Wodehouse, a set of 12 short stories about the dotty Lord Emsworth and his bone-headed younger son, the Hon. Freddie Threepwood; his long-suffering secretary, the Efficient Baxter; and Beach, the Blandings butler. The stories add to the main saga, which begins with Something Fresh and continues for 12 volumes. Although in my opinion they are not quite up to Wodehouse’s inimitable pairing of the clueless man-about-town Bertie Wooster with his enigmatic puppet master butler, Jeeves, they are similarly riotous in their mostly fond mockery of the British class system.

And there you have the results of poking about in my reader’s brain for books with little in common beyond a word in their title! Was this too thin a pretext for a book review?