The Book Adept

Summer reading #1

I noticed this week that several teachers and students who are members of the “What should I read next?” page on Facebook have posted that school is already or is about to be finished for the year, and wanting suggestions for things to read over the summer. While lots of suggestions of popular bestsellers were made in return by all the readers there, some of these requestors are more specific in their wants. One said, “I like mysteries and thrillers, and would love to get socked into a good series, but there are so many out there, I don’t know where to start. Any suggestions?”

Since my mystery list is the longest amongst my genres, only given a contest for first place by fantasy, I put my Goodreads list of “mysteries read” into order by author so I could see those series I have faithfully pursued and make some suggestions, and since I was doing it there, I thought I’d do the same here, with a little bit of summary attached to each.

I will note that I tend to favor procedurals, lone detectives, and partnerships (many of them British), and none of these are light, cosy reads. Perhaps I’ll do a separate blog post including some of those, because everybody likes to read them once in a while; but for a steady diet of mystery, here are the ones I go back to with each new release, in alphabetical order by author:

SHARON J. BOLTON: A host of stand-alones, plus a short series with Detective Constable Lacey Flint, all good. Her stand-alones are more thriller than mystery, and are set in intriguing locations and have unusual plots. The series stars a young iconoclast risk-taker who gets too closely involved with her cases.

MICHAEL CONNELLY: The mystery master. If you haven’t read them, the Harry Bosch series starts with The Black Echo. Harry is a combination of dogged and intuitive that gets the job done, a loner with a commitment that goes above and beyond. If you like them, you can spend the entire summer…

ROBERT CRAIS: He has about five stand-alones and a series. The stand-alones are great, particularly The Two-Minute Rule and Demolition Angel. The series features a smart-aleck private detective named Elvis and his dead-serious and deadly war vet partner, Joe.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: A British duo, Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. Gemma starts out working for Duncan, and then roles shift and change as the series progresses. Good writing, intricate plotting, and she makes each the lead in alternating books to keep it fresh. I really like these.

DICK FRANCIS: An oldie but goodie. Each book has some peripheral relation to horse-racing. They are a little “formula” and a little old-fashioned in terms of man-woman relationships, but they are some of the greatest escapist reading ever. (Don’t bother with his son’s continuation of the series. They’re not bad; but they’re not good.)

CAZ FREAR: A relatively new series starring a British rookie cop, Cat Kinsella, whose background keeps getting in the way of the job. There are three so far, and quite gripping.

The amazing TANA FRENCH: She has a loosely related Dublin Murder series, with a different protagonist starring in each one (my favorite is Faithful Place), and also several stand-alones. You have to like LOTS of detail and literary language. Quite immersive.

ROBERT GALBRAITH (shhh, it’s J. K. Rowling): The Cormoran Strike series is wonderfully weird, and Cormoran himself is a tough nut with a gooey center, especially when it comes to his new assistant, Robin Ellacott.

ELIZABETH GEORGE: The Inspector Lynley mysteries. He’s a British lord who some say is “slumming” as a cop, while his partner, Barbara Havers, is fiercely proletariat and dresses in clogs and sweatpants. The mysteries are intriguing.

ALEX GRECIAN: The Scotland Yard mysteries, detailing the beginning of forensics. Quite engaging, but sometimes dark.

JANE HARPER: Only a few books, but all solid. A couple of stand-alones, and a series featuring Federal Police Investigator Aaron Falk, set in the wilds of Australia.

CHARLAINE HARRIS: The Harper Connelly quartet. After being hit by lightning at age 16, Harper can tell you how your loved one died by standing on their grave. Yeah, I know…but they’re GOOD.

CYNTHIA HARROD-EAGLES: The Bill Slider mysteries. You have to like procedurals, and it’s a bonus if you “get” British humor. There’s also a lot about Bill’s personal life, which rounds out all the mystery stories. I like them a lot and laugh aloud frequently while sitting alone reading these.

CRAIG JOHNSON: Walt Longmire, Wyoming sheriff. They are like the show, if you have seen it, but the plots on the show went off-script fairly early, so the books are a different experience.

KATE MORTON: I love her books, but consider them more “puzzle” books than mysteries. They are not populated by detectives or police—they center around somebody on a quest to solve a weird thing in their past history. Quite detailed, and character-driven.

LOUISE PENNY: The inimitable Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Three Pines and the Sûreté du Québec. Start at the beginning with Still Life, and keep going! She releases one every August, and I pre-order them all. Have French pastries on hand, you will need them.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of every mystery series I read—I follow several other historical series, as well as some featuring legal eagles in place of the detectives and private eyes, and some starring people with weird murder-related professions—but these are the most accessible, most immediately engaging, and hopefully with enough variety in their composition to give everyone an idea about an author they’d like to try. Please let me know what you think if you end up assaying one of these.

Quandary

Sorry for the seeming stretch of inattention to this blog. I usually try to post at least once a week, and preferably two or three times, but there are occasions on which I can’t, for various reasons. One of the most distressing is when I get into a book slump—either the book I read isn’t deserving of a review, or it is, but I found it so offputting that I don’t want to give it the attention. Both of those happened to me during the past 10 days. First I read the sequel to a book I had reviewed here, and it was so much the same as the first and had so insignificant an impact that I decided not to talk about it. Then I picked up a book that had good language and description and all the elements of a gripping suspense story, but the contents were so unrealistic, melodramatic, and deeply disturbing that I chose not to give it the attention of a review, since I couldn’t recommend it but didn’t want to trash it. After that I started reading a book that had come highly recommended, but I couldn’t shake off the effects of the previous read to give it proper attention, so I put it aside and picked up something escapist (a Dick Francis mystery) to cleanse my palate.

Now I’m reading something that I will definitely want to highlight; but since it is the first book in a trilogy, I don’t know if I’ll want to do that after reading just one or wait for the impact of the entire series. So I’m writing this to say: I’m still here, I’m still reading, and I’ll be back in a short while with something to talk about!

The plight of women

I didn’t know what to expect when beginning A Woman Is No Man, by Etaf Rum, although the title of course gave me clues. And having read it, I’m not sure what exactly I was able to take from it.

The story is an intergenerational saga about Arab women. The two main protagonists are Isra, and Isra’s daughter Deya, separated by 17 years but experiencing many of the same life choices. Isra was born and raised in Palestine in a restrictive, traditional home, with a mother obsessed with getting her married off properly at the youngest age possible. Although Isra realizes her life is not ideal, in Palestine she has at least the beauty of the landscape in which she lives, and which she loves. But when her mother picks the suitor from America, whose family is visiting Palestine to find him a bride, Isra can’t help letting a tiny bit of excitement surface about what her new life might be like in America. She envisions certain freedoms her parents would never have permitted her, and she hopes to find love with her taciturn young suitor, Adam, the eldest in a family of three boys and a girl.

The reality is far different. Her home is in the basement of her inlaws’ house, with one window that looks out on a street barren of all greenery but a plane tree or two. Her mother-in-law, Fareeda, is every bit as conservative as Isra’s own family—all she wants from Isra is for her to relieve Fareeda from the cooking and cleaning and to produce a male heir for the family. There is no question of college, a job, or even a walk around the block on her own; Isra is essentially a prisoner of her new family’s culture, as stultifying as the old. Fareeda’s obsession with a male grandson prompts pregnancy after pregnancy for Isra, who is “unlucky” enough to bear only girls.

Seventeen years after Isra came to New York, we see the same household, headed by Fareeda, from the viewpoint of Deya, Isra and Adam’s eldest daughter. Adam and Isra are dead, and the girls are being raised by their grandparents. Deya is now the one in the hotseat being exhorted to pick a suitor, and though she has expressed interest in college and some kind of life outside the home and the marriage bond, no one is listening to her…until she meets a strangely familiar woman who urges her to stand up for herself and refuse to perpetuate the life of restriction and abuse experienced by her mother.

I’m really torn by how to react to this book. I feel like the representation rings true, but I’m not sure how widespread is this author’s experience in the context of present-day Palestinian Americans. I applaud the author for taking on the difficult subjects of generational discrimination and family/spousal abuse, but even though the point she is making is that the women who suffer from this are essentially prisoners of a tiny sequestered life, I found myself becoming bored and impatient with the incessant, repetitive details of that life. Despite being the recipient of awards and encomiums from critics, this is not beautifully written literary fiction, but simply a straightforward narrative. There are occasional flights of fancy that draw one in, but it’s mainly kind of a slog.

Also, the usual result of telling a story from the perspective of two generations is that the more recent one has learned something from the experiences of the previous one; but in this book, I feel like in some ways Isra and Deya are almost interchangeable, both in their experience and their thought patterns; neither of them is able to articulate their situations. They dither a lot without drawing conclusions because the basic question, “What do you want?” seems to be so far beyond them, which, while possibly being the point, is also deeply unsatisfying. It made the story both horrifying and boring, and I don’t know what to do with that. I kept reading to the end, and was confused all over again.

I can’t say I’m happy to have read this book, but perhaps I can express gratitude that it’s in the world for those who need it and will benefit by it? It gives a voice to a certain sector of the Arab Muslim community, but its lack of nuance will enrage some, even as they acknowledge the representation.

All the feels

His thoughts were all cerulean.

Linus Baker, The House in the Cerulean Sea

From my first glimpse of the whimsical cover illustration with its charming lettering,
I had high hopes that I would love this book. It reminded me in some ways of another unexpected pleasure, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, by Trenton Lee Stewart. They have some similar central themes—difference, acceptance, empathy, friendship—but I would say that whereas Nicholas Benedict is primarily written for children, this book—though certainly appropriate for youth above a certain age—is definitely targeted towards the adults in the audience, despite its population of characters who are six years old. Just like another favorite of mine—The Last Dragonslayer, by Jasper Fforde—this is fantasy that, while it may appeal to people of all ages, can only be fully appreciated by an understanding of the nuance, the inferences, the underlying message.

Linus Baker is the quintessential civil servant. He works hard at his mid-level job, refrains from involvement in the petty office politics that surround him, and spends his scant leisure time snug at home with his cat, Calliope, and his vintage record player. He is occasionally made unhappy by the arbitrary pronouncements of his immediate supervisor and her lackey, and is also sometimes discouraged by the unrelenting rain that afflicts the city in which he lives, but since these things have been essentially the same for the past 17 years, he doesn’t think about it much.

Linus works for DICOMY, the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, as a Case Worker. His job is to investigate the state-run orphanages specifically designated for the housing of children with special powers and gifts, and to make recommendations regarding the best care of the orphans. He is painstakingly thorough at this job, but has learned not to look past his final reports to wonder what happens once he has been and gone.

One particularly miserable morning, Linus is summoned to meet with Extremely Upper Management, and they tell him that because of the excellence of his reports related to previous endeavors, he has been selected to investigate Marsyas Island Orphanage, a level-four classified institution that houses some of the rarest and most dangerous children, to comment on the welfare of those housed there and also on the caretaker, one Arthur Parnassus.

Linus’s journey to the island is the beginning of an adventure that initially seems wasted on this stuffy 40-year-old bureaucrat, but which proves to be a transformation for all involved.

This story was an unalloyed delight from start to finish. The level of exaggeration in the set-up is borderline ridiculous, and yet renders the rest of it perfectly realized. It’s a character-driven tale, and oh what characters! In contrast to the stereotypical nature of those appearing in the first section, the children of the orphanage are as diverse as an author could imagine: The six children are either completely or virtually unique, either the last or only of their kind, or at least exceedingly rare, and this isn’t just a commentary on their magical natures but also on their personalities. Likewise, Arthur Parnassus is an enigma worth exploring, and Linus Baker soon discovers that he is very much interested in doing so, though it be against his conscious will, which is obsessed with strictly following the Rules and Regulations.

Linus has been allotted a month on the island to do his research, write four weekly reports, and deliver his conclusions to Extremely Upper Management, and though initially dismayed by the prospect, Arthur and the children soon draw him into their isolated little world and cause him to embrace feelings he has never before experienced. The level of unconditional love and kindness expressed is heartwarming, and yet this is not a cloying story but rather a plea by the different among us to be seen, recognized, and accepted with all their idiosyncrasies. It asks tough questions about prejudice and complacency, and challenges our need to categorize people into stereotypes in order to deal with—or forget—them more easily. But ultimately the book is all about hope and about love that doesn’t discriminate. As I said in my title, it has all the feels. I can’t give it higher praise than to say that while it made me laugh and entertained me thoroughly, it also made me want to be a better person. It’s the perfect book for that moment when your faith in people is slipping.

Just for fun, I decided to illustrate one of the opening scenes when Linus Baker arrives on the island and confronts some of the children. The green blob is Chauncey, whose sweet nature belies his monstrous form, and whose most dearly held wish is to become a bell-boy at a hotel in the city (thus the bellman’s cap). He has come to greet Linus and deal with his luggage. The Pomeranian peeking out from behind him (and faintly visible in his entirety through the amorphous blob of Chauncey’s body) is Sal, a large, shy, silent boy who shifts, in moments of panic, into the form of a small dog.

But IS it a PP?

As I remarked in my previous review (Sam Hell), I wanted to read one of Robert Dugoni’s series to benefit from the skill of his writing without dealing with the religious overtones I found offputting in his latest bestseller. After too many disappointments in that subgenre, I tend to avoid the courtroom drama series now; apart from a few standouts, I have found them to be too cerebral, as well as inevitably repetitive. So when given a choice between his courtroom series and the one described as a “police procedural,” I chose the latter without hesitation.

My Sister’s Grave is the first in the Tracy Crosswhite series. Tracy is a Seattle-based homicide detective, but in her former life she was a schoolteacher (science) living in a small (fictional) town called Cedar Grove. Then her sister Sarah disappeared and was presumed murdered, although her body never came to light, and that shifted Tracy’s trajectory towards police work. She quit teaching, went to the police academy, and became a detective, all the time focusing her skills and attention on solving her sister’s disappearance.

The twist in the story is that a man was convicted of her murder; but it was on purely circumstantial evidence that Tracy has always found highly suspect. Then Sarah’s body is finally discovered, 20 years later, and Tracy is drawn back to Cedar Grove and into the storm of lies and betrayals that are keeping her from learning the truth about what happened to Sarah.

Sounds good, yes? Hm. I set out with high expectations: In Sam Hell, Robert Dugoni painted such a vivid picture of his characters and their lives that I assumed I would be equally drawn to those in this story. But everyone in it had a strangely lackluster quality, with insufficient physical descriptions, clichéd reactions, and such a low-key affect that I just couldn’t get a handle on the book’s atmosphere or bond with anybody.

Also, and this was a bigger problem, about 85 percent of this book isn’t a police procedural at all, it’s a courtroom drama! Although Tracy is assiduous in pursuing certain clues, no one else is interested in helping her and, of those few who do, they keep their results from everyone but Tracy (including the reader), so we are left with nonsense along the lines of “Ah hah! I thought as much,” but with no answers. When the answers finally come out, it is within the context of an appeal by Sarah’s convicted killer, and all plays out through courtroom testimony.

It isn’t until the last 15 percent of the book that it actually turns into an action-oriented, exciting narrative, and then it’s pretty straightforward, because you already have nearly everything you need to solve the mystery, it’s just a matter of waiting for it to be confirmed and clearing up the mess. And after a slow, almost sleepy three-quarters, the author provides a whole lot of mess, in graphic detail not telegraphed by the rest of the book. It was kind of disturbing, not because I haven’t read anything like it before but because of the juxtaposition.

I may give Dugoni the benefit of the doubt and try another before I give up, because so many people have raved about the two prequels and the rest of the series; but if the next is as monotone as I found this one, that will be it. At the moment, I’m disappointed.

Overcoming

As with other recent choices, this book came to me through the multiple raves of members of the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook group. Like the others I have read, I did my best not to learn what it was about until I decided to pick it up myself.

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell is a coming-of-age tale with something of a twist: Sam is born with ocular albinism, which results in him having red eyes. Everyone who encounters him does a double-take, starting with his father, when he takes one look at his new-born son and exclaims, “What in the Sam Hell?!” Their last name is Hill; they christen him “Samuel,” and the nickname sticks.

This story was so engaging, from page one. Sam’s mother is definitely the heroine of the early years, as she fiercely stands up to all the people who discriminate against Sam because of his weird appearance, starting with Sister Beatrice, the Catholic school principal who wants to exclude him from her school because he “may be a disturbing influence.” His mother is quick to point out the inherent lack of Christian charity in this attitude and the concomitant opportunity for her students to practice tolerance and, when this fails to accomplish her objective, takes the story to a friend at the local newspaper. Score one for Mom—Sam is admitted on day two. It’s not a blessing to Sam himself, however, who is shunned, mocked, and called “devil boy,” and eats his lunch alone on the bleachers. His salvation comes in the form of Ernie Cantwell, the only African American kid in the school, who makes common cause with Sam, and Mickie Kennedy, whose mid-term banishment to Our Lady of Mercy is a blessing in disguise for all three of the children over the length of their extended friendship.

As a child who was targeted for being fat (despite the fact that there were at least three other kids bigger than me in my grade), I completely sympathized with Sam’s plight as a bullied outsider, although no one acted against me beyond hurtful words. But after a while, I wondered just how bad he really had it, especially when he became old enough to choose to wear contact lenses that hid his secret from the world, a luxury not afforded to those with more obvious “flaws.” I appreciated Mickie’s perspective on Sam’s “disability” when she finally delivers it to him, and wished that this had happened earlier in the story: When bad things happen to Sam and he is bewailing the results of “God’s will” (as his mother has always insisted on calling it), Mickie points out to him that despite his red eyes, Sam has grown up with two loving, involved parents, friends who have always had his back, and pretty much every other advantage, while Mickie lived with an alcoholic mother whose dysfunction caused Mickie to be the adult in the household from age 12. This perspective is a bit arresting for Sam and causes him to rethink some things.

The writing style flows easily, and the characters in this book are so personable and real that I thoroughly enjoyed reading about them, up until about 15 percent from the end. The book began to drain me of interest when Sam lets guilt over a terrible circumstance he could not have foreseen nor prevented run his life off the familiar track into a prolonged period of atonement for a nonexistent “sin.” Although he does eventually have an epiphany that brings him back to himself, I felt like the book turned sentimental and overtly religious, and I didn’t like the dragged-out ending, although I appreciated the author’s final conclusions (shorn of the religious overtones).

I found out in the afterword to the book that Robert Dugoni writes a mystery series about which many people rave. I can well believe, from his writing chops in this book, that they are good, and will regard this as my fortunate introduction to an excellent writer. Someone with fewer buttons to push regarding Christianity will no doubt love this book, as attested to by the many five-star ratings on Goodreads; I’m not sorry I read it—the characters will remain extraordinary in my memory—but I do look forward to enjoying some of the author’s product not focused on religious themes.

Euphoria

After my previous reading experiences with Lily King,
I was intrigued by the concept of her book Euphoria. Although itself fiction, it is said to be based on a small portion of the life and experiences of the great anthropologist Margaret Mead.

In the book, Nell Stone, her enigmatic and combative husband, Schuyler Fenwick (called “Fen”), and their colleague Andrew Bankson are all studying tribes along a river in the jungles of New Guinea. Each has his or her own way of going about their research: Nell provokes the villagers with constant questions reinforced by various activities, taking copious notes that she transcribes and reflects upon daily; Fen immerses himself in some aspect of the tribe’s activities and in essence becomes part of them as best he can, apparently without much reflection and sometimes with massive misperceptions; and Bankson (at least up until he met Nell and Fen) subscribes to a much more traditional and passive observational method that leaves him feeling unsatisfied and sometimes duped.

Although the description of the book implies that the three of them are transformed by working together, there is only a brief period during which this is true; the rest of the time, Nell is constantly refining her research methods and publishing her results to great acclaim, while Fen looks on them with contempt (but also with jealousy for her success) and goes his own way, and Bankson moons after Nell and wishes he could simultaneously be with her and be more like her. The description also remarks on “a firestorm of fierce love and jealousy,” but again, the depiction was (at least for me) a pallid version of what is implied. For me, the center of the book was Nell, and I wanted to know a lot more about her personally and also about the thoughts behind the work she was doing than I was given by King.

Honestly, I can’t quite define how I feel after finishing this book. The language and imagery were so immediate and so incredibly beautiful…and yet the characters seemed oddly elusive. The way it’s written, from one person’s viewpoint (Bankson) interspersed with another person’s diary (Nell), was a little off-putting to me, perhaps because the narrator’s part of the tale was inhibited by his innate Englishness, while the diary was written in truncated entries that didn’t quite fulfill my curiosity. And of course there is a third person in this book (Fen) who is a main character and yet remains largely a mystery, both to the reader and to his fellow anthropologists.

Some of the thinking about the similarities and differences between so-called civilized people and the native tribes they are studying—and how that study inevitably impacts and changes those being observed—was fascinating, and the “grid” they created to divide peoples and individuals into types felt like as big a breakthrough as when the characters depicted it, inspiring me to want to read the works of Margaret Mead directly. But I wanted a lot more than I got from the core relationships in this book, and was ultimately left feeling dissatisfied, depressed, and a bit disturbed by the whole thing. So, a mixed bag for me, despite my admiration for the writing.

Note: Gorgeous, perfectly appropriate cover. It depicts the colors of the rainbow gum tree growing up through the center of the protagonists’ house.

Open ended

Writing a book review by basing it on this readers’ advisory concept may be unfair, in that it’s a sort of spoiler. If you plan or planned to read this book but decide not to because I reveal that the ending is somewhat inconclusive, then I apologize. But I mention it for the good reason that I usually avoid open-ended fiction like the plague, being a person who wants my stories resolved, if not tied up with a too-tidy bow—but I enjoyed the questions left by this one and applaud the author for ending it in the manner she chose.

The book I am talking about is Verity, by Colleen Hoover, and I have been under subtle pressure to read it for a long time. Most of the pressure came from my own mind, but some from friends who urged it on me. It is one of the five books continually discussed, lauded, and recommended as “best” on the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook page of which I am a member. This week, I discovered that the e-book was actually available from the library, and I finally succumbed.

Too much hype is almost always off-putting, and I think I probably would have enjoyed this book a little more if I had come to it with fewer expectations. Fortunately, I had never previously read a description of it, so some semblance of surprise remained intact. I knew Colleen Hoover was a romance writer, and for some reason I expected this to be romantic historical fiction, so when I opened the book to the first line, I was shocked and somewhat taken aback, but also intrigued.

In case you know nothing about this book (which seems impossible but probably isn’t), it’s the story of a self-effacing young author, Lowen Ashleigh, who has had some critical success but is on the verge of financial disaster when she is asked to “collaborate on” (which turns out to be code for write) the last three books in a series by the well known and immensely popular writer Verity Crawford. Verity has been in a debilitating automobile accident and her condition is “uncertain” at the moment, according to her publishers. Lowen accepts the lucrative offer made by Verity’s husband, Jeremy, and travels down to the Crawford home to look through Verity’s notes to get an idea of how to proceed. Although she plans to be there for only a day, financial difficulties paired with the sheer volume of material to peruse (plus her undeniable attraction to Jeremy) causes her to stay a while. But the entire sojourn is made increasingly uncomfortable by the discovery of an autobiography written by Verity that reveals a horrifying side to the Crawfords’
tragic story.

On its face, this is a rather typical gothic plot: Our heroine, young and unsure of herself, is put into a situation where she craves the attention of a seemingly unavailable man who may actually be more receptive than she initially believes. An obstacle (this time in the form of a critically injured wife) presents itself, but there may be a way around it, resulting in the union of the star-crossed couple. Victoria Holt mastered this one many times over, back in the 1970s.

That’s not to say that this book is a cliché, only that it’s not as unique as some would paint it. There are several things that set it apart: the frank depiction of sexual activities, which was verboten in the gothic oeuvre; the extenuating circumstances that occurred before the current timeline in this disaster-prone family; and the sheer creepiness of the alternation between the protagonist’s and the author’s voices as we jump back and forth between the present-day narrative (Lowen) and the words of the autobiography (Verity). And there is also the dark quality of life in the Crawford domicile in this moment, which is not to be discounted.

The final difference is that in the gothic romance tradition, all is resolved by the end of the book. Not so here, where a crucial piece of information casts all certainty into doubt and the reader is left to ask, What the hell just happened?

In the past in this column, I have complained of authors who just couldn’t resist putting the fix on every single dangling detail of their plot, to the detriment of the book, as in my rant about the epilogue of Things You Save In A Fire. At the same time, I am a person who does in general like a clear resolution to a story; it doesn’t have to be absolute, but if something is left hanging, I want it to give the implication that there will be satisfaction at some point. But having read Verity, I will say that there is something incredibly effective about making your reader say “Whaaaat?” at the end, which is that it keeps them thinking about your book for days after!

Perhaps you will read it and see what I mean; or perhaps you will curse me for leading you down this path without a pretty conclusion. Either way, be prepared for an interval of wild energy, uneasiness, confusion, and dread, wondering about the sanity of anyone who would willingly stay in a situation permeated by those emotions, regardless of the incentive.

Upbeat fiction

I have been enjoying an interlude of positive stories this week while I work hard on some paintings. It seems like I can’t read anything too taxing while I’m focused on making art, so I put aside the dystopian sequel, the historical fiction about a difficult period, and the literary masterpiece waiting my attention and instead checked out two Jenny Colgan books from the library. One (yay) was the third in her series about the village of Kirrinfeif, on the banks of Loch Ness in Scotland, and the other is (as far as I know) a stand-alone.

500 Miles From You takes us back to the site made famous by Nina, the former librarian from Birmingham who lost her job, impulsively bought a van from a couple of old codgers, and turned it into a traveling bookshop with a base in the Scottish countryside. The second book brought Londoner Zoe and her son, Hari, in answer to an advertisement for a nanny, to a grand baronial house on the lake, with a family of unruly children needing to be tamed.

Both Zoe and Nina make cameo appearances in this one, which is about Lissa, a nurse for the NHS in London who is suffering painfully from PTSD after witnessing a shocking crime. She is determined to keep on with her job, but her supervisor realizes she needs a complete break with everything familiar while she heals, and arranges for a swap. Cormac, a nurse practitioner in Kirrinfeif, is restless and up for a change, so he moves into Lissa’s nurse’s housing in London for a three-month upgrade on his skills, while Lissa retreats to the eerily quiet town on the loch and tries to get her feet back under her. As they trade files, write emails, and text one another for updates on the patients they have inherited, they develop an unexpectedly close rapport, each of them wondering if it will become something more, once they finally meet.

This was nicely told, and I enjoyed several aspects of it quite a lot. Although both her other books touched on this aspect, Lissa’s and Cormac’s experiences really point up the difference between living in an anonymous city where you avoid the glances of others, don’t speak on the subway or in the elevator, and bolt your doors at the first sound of trouble on the street, vs. in a small town where everyone knows you (and probably knows too much of your personal business), greets you, sees you, and expects you to run out your front door to help if you know someone is in need.

I also liked the gentle and sympathetic treatment of mental health, and the truths about how thoroughly and even devastatingly we are affected by our experiences, sometimes without even realizing the damage until someone helps us figure it out.

These are definitely “formula” books, but they are intelligent, quirky, and interesting. In Colgan’s case, the formula seems
to be:

  1. Move to Scotland;
  2. Fall in love with somebody there;
  3. Find some kind of work that expresses your best self;
  4. Never go “home” to [fill in the ugly depressing dirty dangerous big city here].

Every time I read one, I think, “I’m down with that!”

The stand-alone is Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend. I worry a little when I read a Colgan “single” that I won’t like it; I read her first-ever novel, Amanda’s Wedding, which made me tell everyone to avoid all books before 2012 and stick to the warm-hearted series of series about finding your place in life and making good. This one violated my rule, having been published in 2009, but it had the recent re-release date on it and I was fooled into believing it was new!

It was better than Amanda’s Wedding, but not nearly as good as her later books. The reason I disliked her first book so much is that the “women” in it were billed as charming wisecrackers but were, in reality, just mean girls. I could find nothing to like about them for a good part of the book, and the fact that they were out to stop someone even meaner than themselves from marrying their friend for his money and title didn’t endear them to me until the absolute end, and not much then.

In Diamonds, the mean girls make a reappearance, and the protagonist, Sophie, starts out as one of them. They are all in a set of shallow, entitled rich people who don’t acknowledge anyone below a certain level of money, status, or fashion sense. Fortunately (for the reader, not for her), Sophie almost immediately loses her protected status and her allowance (via the 2008 crash) and has to fend for herself for the first time in her life. She rents a room in an apartment with four guys and, in lieu of a deposit, she agrees as her contribution to clean their truly disgusting habitat. The mishaps that ensue when this person whose morning latte used to arrive on her nightstand every morning courtesy of a housekeeper has to figure out how to scrub a toilet, clean an oven, and cook something are fairly entertaining, as is her pursuit of a paying job; and the romantic relationships on offer also spice up the narrative. I still didn’t care for the mean-girl setting or her continued interactions with her former so-called friends, but having this be about someone who conquers that, even if it’s not initially by choice, made it way more palatable.

I enjoyed my sojourn with Colgan so much that I have now moved on to another series by Phillipa Ashley, set in Cornwall. Those other books will have to wait yet a while longer.

Tender

When I ran across the quote in This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger, after which the book was named, I thought the reference too slight to justify calling it that. But there are, in fact, many tender and poignant moments in this book to be enjoyed and appreciated, not the least of which is expressed in the beautiful narrative of the natural world through which the characters pass.

I didn’t know what to expect from this story, but my pulse beat a little faster when I saw the description of four children traveling downriver by canoe; ever since having read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a child, I have loved the adventurous nature of travel by water, somewhat in control of your vessel but ultimately subject to the whims of the ever-changing river. And yes, I know that Huck Finn has fallen out of fashion since its reexamination for egregious racism but, despite that, the central narrative of a couple of disadvantaged people at the bottom of the rungs of society encountering others supposedly more elevated along their way but themselves turning out to be the more ethical and compassionate is a powerful theme, repeated in this tale by Krueger.

Odie, 12, and his brother Albert, 16, are the only two white children at one of the notorious “training” schools for Indian children, this one in Minnesota. Albert is stolid and even-tempered, an engineer by talent as well as by nature, but the more volatile Odie is constantly in trouble for one reason or another, and at this school under the reign of Superintendent Brickwood (the Black Witch, as the boys call her), the last thing you want to do is stand out. The brothers have a best friend, Moses, an Indian boy about Albert’s age, whose tongue was cut out when he was too small to remember; due to the brothers’ having had a deaf mother, they are able to teach him American Sign Language and he is thus able to communicate.

The boys survive an existence marked by ragged clothes and and shoes with holes, too little food and too much labor, and constant persecution from the staff of the school by focusing on the good: They have a champion in two of their teachers—Herman Volz and Cora Frost—and Mrs. Frost does her best to ensure they spend carefree time in her company, helping out at her farm and playing with her beloved daughter, six-year-old Emmy, while Volz tries to protect them from the worst of the punishments inflicted upon them by Mrs. Brickwood and her henchman. But disaster comes calling, and the boys decide their only option is to run away from the school. Rather than take to the roads or the railroad—both almost guaranteed routes to recapture—they hit upon the idea of rowing Mrs. Frost’s canoe downstream from the small tributary near her house to a larger river within a few days’ travel, ultimately hooking up with the mighty Mississippi. They also, against their better judgment, take Emmy along with them, knowing that the charge of kidnapping will bring more avid pursuit.

The helpless and downtrodden yet stubbornly optimistic outlook of the main protagonist, Odie, is endearing and captivating. Likewise the natures of his three companions—his brother Albert, a realist with a soft heart; their friend Mose, unspoiled despite the terrible treatment he has received at the hands of multiple offenders; and the small but immensely matter-of-fact Emmy, with her weird fit-induced pronouncements—immediately draw the reader in and engender commitment to their fates.

The four Vagabonds, as Odie calls them in his made-up stories told around multiple campfires, go from bad to worse to better in the course of their journey. Ultimately, each is looking for “home,” whatever that means to them, and each finds a version of this waiting for them, although it may not be what they expected when they set out. This is a beautifully told odyssey of privation (it takes place during the height of the Depression, in 1932) and the powerful bonds of love and friendship that overcome all hardships. The epilogue, of which literary device I am usually not a fan, gives a look at how this significant period in their lives impacted everyone who participated, and brings the journey to a satisfying conclusion, once more along the banks of the Gilead River. I’m so happy I took this trip with the Vagabonds.

Bonus feature: Odie’s talent (other than storytelling) is that of playing the harmonica, and the author mentions a Spotify playlist (This Tender Land, by Jen Hatmaker Book Club) that enables the reader to experience the songs he (and other characters) played in the book, popular in that era and location in history.