Gardens

The two books I just finished reading—
The Sparrow Sisters and The Forbidden Garden—evoke the same sense of place that I was discussing in my last post. Rather than being specific to a country, however, that place is a
small world created anywhere that it can thrive:
a garden.

Next to reading books about books and books about art, I love books about gardens and gardening. While both reading and painting keep me busy enough not to have time for many other things, I aspire to be a good gardener, a better one than the person who plants a few herbs and a couple of tomato plants every spring and vows to do more next year. The truth is, if I didn’t love reading about gardens quite so much, I might do more actual work in my garden—well, I think at this point you’d have to call it a yard, but oh, I have visions!

GardenGate

My favorite garden-oriented books are inevitably the ones set in England, because where are there better examples of the cottage garden, the kitchen garden, the parterres and the knots, the maze, the giant rhododendrons lining the drive to the estate? From The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, one of my most favorite books as a child, to The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton in fiction, or the factual but bewitching writings of such gardening titans as Vita Sackville-West, Rosemary Verey, and Gertrude Jekyll, the wonderful natural world comes alive in tales of lush plantings of azaleas, of bright poppies and peony buds weighing down their stems, of orderly beds of herbs surrounded by low box hedges, of espaliered pear and apple trees and wildernesses of blackberries. When my cousin and I took a long-awaited trip to Cornwall in 2003, although we had gone because our favorite writers set their books there, we ended up spending four of our eight days tramping around the gardens of Trebah, Glendurgan, Trelissick, and the National Gardening Museum at Trevarno, as well as a visit to the garden on St. Michael’s Mount, and counted it all as time well spent.

With a preference for this kind of reading, picking The Forbidden Garden, by Ellen Herrick, off the shelf was a natural for me. The cover blurb described a Shakespearean garden on an English estate that had gone to ruin, and the hiring of a woman with almost magical gardening powers to bring it back to life. The cover itself was beautifully ornamented with a botanical painting of peachy-pink peonies, and the quote from the New York Times called it a “rich tapestry of family lore, dark secrets, and love.” Who could resist?

Upon beginning to read, however, I discovered that although it said so nowhere on the book, this was a sequel to Herrick’s previous work, The Sparrow Sisters, to which it referred back on almost every page in the first few chapters. So I put it down, picked up my Kindle, and ordered up the first book from the library.

SparrowI’m not sorry for having read either book…but I couldn’t rate them as highly as I would have liked, given that all my likes come together in their pages. The Sparrow Sisters is about three young women (20s and 30s) in a small town in New England. They have suffered tragedy in their lives—the loss of mother, then father, then their fourth sister, Marigold. The way they eventually pull through the tragedy is to band together and rediscover the legacies of their mother and grandmother, who were gifted master gardeners, by opening a vast and bountiful garden center and selling their various wares. Sorrel, the eldest, is the grower of flowers, while Nettie (short for Nettle) specializes in fruits and vegetables (and is the family chef) and Patience (a shortening of Impatiens) found her calling in the growing of a physic garden and the compounding of “remedies” that would do any hedge witch proud.

The sisters have a special gift for raising plants that extends beyond a mere green thumb into the realm of magical realism, and this is where the books fell short for me. I am a big fan of magical realism, but even magic has to correspond somehow to its own rules, and the expression of it in this story was all over the place. The author didn’t seem to be able to decide, at any given moment, just how far outside of reality she wanted to travel with their abilities, and it resulted in uneven and slightly confusing story-telling. I stuck with it because I enjoyed the personalities of the three sisters very much, and the tale itself, of a town that turns against the people it formerly treasured, is a compelling one. But the magical bits were too isolated, too abrupt, and not sufficiently integrated to work well.

forbiddenI liked The Forbidden Garden a little better, once I got to it, but with much the same reservations. The story of the blasted and desolate (possibly cursed) Shakespeare garden at Kirkwood Hall is the backdrop for a scene of inclusive family life amongst the Kirkwoods. Graham Kirkwood decides to solicit the help of Sorrel Sparrow, asking her to bring her extraordinary talents to England to resurrect his garden from its barren state. He and his family welcome her into their home and treat her like one of their own…except that the truth is, Graham has brought her in because he is afraid for his wife or his daughter to take on the garden project, the presumption being that the curse will affect only Kirkwoods. But when his wife’s brother, Andrew, recovering from a broken heart, strikes up a relationship with Sorrel, she essentially becomes one of the family…so what now?

The best parts of the book are the vivid descriptions of the work Sorrel does to restore the garden, intricately detailing the overall design, the plants, and the process. The love story is also gratifying. But the twists and turns as Graham reluctantly reveals the background details of what his family (generations back) did to kill the garden are overwrought and somewhat confusing, and both the consequences and the ultimate discoveries take too long to resolve themselves, occurring in the last 30 pages of the book! And again, the author can’t make up her mind whether there is true magic or whether it’s all coincidence based on a talented gardener, and keeps turning tail on choosing either option. So while I enjoyed pieces of the books—the characters, the settings, the gardening bits—quite a lot, the magical realism, of which I am usually such a big fan, worked against the writing to fragment the stories and ultimately render them confusing.

If you, like me, are a gardening book fan, here are some recommendations of other titles you might enjoy, both fiction and nonfiction:

An Island Garden, by Celia Laighton Thaxter
The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, by Edith Holden
In and Out of the Garden, by Sara Midda
Second Nature, by Michael Pollan
Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, by Linda Lear
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton
The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver
The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman
Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen
Thornyhold, by Mary Stewart

CottageGardenD30

Another chance

If you have been a reader of the Book Adept blog for a while, you will perhaps recall my review of Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black, and the depth of disappointment I experienced on reading it.

It took me a while to be willing to assay another of her books, but I found the description of Once Upon A River, published in 2018, to be too enticing to resist, so I bought a copy and read it this past week. I am happy to say that it fulfilled my expectations, which included the lyrical language of her previous books but also contained a satisfying story arc, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and resolution for the varied and mysterious characters involved.

River

As its title promises, the book is framed as a fairy tale, or at least is fairy tale-like. The river in question is the Thames, and the river is the central character of the book, as it affects everyone who comes in contact with it—those who live along its length, in pubs, villages, towns, and isolated huts, those who punt along in its shallows or ride its currents on barges or private yachts, and those who end up drowned in its depths.

“They sat on the bank. It was better to tell such stories close to the river than in a drawing room. Words accumulate indoors, trapped by walls and ceilings. The weight of what has been said
can lie heavily on what might yet be said and suffocate it. By the river the air carries the story on a journey: one sentence drifts away and makes room for the next.”

This is the story of three children, and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town who are caught up by chance in the events that restore one of them to life.

Amelia is the daughter of the Vaughans, a wealthy couple, who gladly pay the ransom when she is boldly kidnapped right out of her bed, but don’t receive her back again after their payment. Alice is the child of a desperate mother who, abandoned by her ne’er-do-well lover and unable to care for herself or her little girl, ends it all in a jump from a bridge above the roiling waters of the Thames, after first dropping her daughter in to drown. And Ann is the sister of Lily, a poor unfortunate who makes her way by keeping house for the local parson, but who isolates herself in a hovel by the river because she is making amends for something dreadful she did as a child that lost Ann to her forever.

Along the borders of this world lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place.

On the night of the winter solstice, the regulars at The Swan, an ancient inn at Radcot along the Thames, are occupied in their usual pursuit of telling stories. The door bursts open to admit a stranger, badly wounded and scarcely able to keep to his feet. He is carrying what everyone present at first identifies as a doll or a puppet, but after calling for the local nurse to examine and treat his injuries, someone realizes that it is actually a child, a little girl, already dead.

Hours later, however, the girl stirs, takes a breath, and comes back to life. No one can account for her previous deathlike state, but all are happy to have a child returned to life, against all odds.

But whose child is she? Helena Vaughan, who has been deranged with grief over her daughter’s kidnapping, is ready to embrace her as the missing Amelia, even though two years have passed. Someone else recognizes her as Alice, the granddaughter of another local family, who would be happy to welcome her although she is the love child of their wayward son. And Lily is convinced her sister Ann has returned to life. The girl herself is mute and unable to answer the questions of who she is, where she came from, and to whom she belongs. Both the principals and the villagers who were present at her dramatic denouement involve themselves in theories and possible solutions, and under all runs a dark current of deceit and, some would say, evil.

oldswan

This is a compelling, thoughtful, and engaging read. The ins and outs, the possibilities, the theories and discussions encompass not only the fate of one small child but the bigger picture, the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, what is the best way to pursue them. The discussion includes the new theories of a man called Darwin, who posits that man comes from water and from animals and is therefore related to and also responsible for all life, not just that of humankind. The historical details included in the occupations of some of the characters are engrossing (farmer, charlatan, photographer). And all of it is entertwined with the constant presence of the river, the giver of life and death to so many who move along its banks and in its depths. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique.

I think perhaps Diane Setterfield has, with this book, surpassed The Thirteenth Tale, as wonderful as that book was. But it’s hard to compare them, for although they both have literary language and a timeless feel, they are completely different stories, sharing only the theme of magical realism. Now that I have regained my confidence in her work, perhaps I will return to that book for another look—it’s been a decade since I read it.

 

A mixed bag

In my last book review (too long ago, I know—things have been hectic), I mentioned that I was going to read another book by Cathy Lamb, because I was so enamored of the first line of the book:

“I left my wedding dress hanging in a tree somewhere in North Dakota.”

JuliaIt turns out, unfortunately, that the first line was the best thing about that book. Although I did finish it, and although I did enjoy certain aspects, I concluded that this author is just too disjointed in the way she structures her novels. There is a challenge for the heroine that seems perfectly realistic and commonplace, and yet the way it is addressed in the novel is through the cultivation of that heroine by perfectly unrealistic, silly, contrived people and circumstances. As I indicated in my previous review, it’s like someone took a book chock full of magical realism, tore out all the pages, and dumped them in a cauldron with the ones from a straightforward realistic novel, and then drew pages out at random and put them together to make a new book that jumps wildly between fantasy and real life.

And yet…I ended up reading two more of them.

One of the (poor) reviews of Julia’s Chocolates on Goodreads commented that the book was “sappy chick porn.” Her justification of this was that whenever a woman in such a book left an unhappy marriage, a horrible relationship, or another life-threatening situation, there is always around the next bend a delightful little town, a wildly successful talent that she can immediately turn into a new career, and a perfect Prince Charming. None of this resonates of truthfulness for anyone, but those are probably the exact reasons why books such as this enjoy a wide readership. Julia’s Chocolates was not a particularly well done example of one of them, but in the next two books, I did find some saving graces.

prettyThe next book I read is called Such A Pretty Face, and it is, as you would surmise, about a fat woman plagued by the constant cliché of supposedly well-meaning people telling her that if she’d only lose weight, everything would be divine. But I have to give Lamb credit: In this one she managed to avoid a lot of the clichés that plagued the previous book, and she actually drew a realistic picture of a woman so inundated by horror in her life that all she felt able to control was her eating, her eventual size protecting her in some aspects from dealing with the world around her.

The portrayal of Stevie Barrett’s terrifying childhood and the precipitating event that sent her from a loving though troubled home into a dysfunctional, belittling one was sensitively done, with details so perfectly personal and intimate that they evoked the scenes almost too powerfully for the reader. Similarly, her struggles as an adult to come to terms with herself are touching. After a heart attack at age 32, she undergoes bariatric surgery and loses more than half her weight, but inside she is still the fat, unattractive, deeply unhappy person she was never able to confront. Slowly, with assistance from friends and relatives, she begins to turn this around.

The criticisms of this book are two: One, Cathy Lamb doesn’t know how to write dialogue for the bad guys. She can depict them realistically, but when it comes time for them to speak, they sound like the villain in a melodrama, complete with handlebar mustaches and maniacal ha-ha-has! Two, of course, is the perfect love of her life who discovers, pursues, and wins her in the course of the book. As my friend on Goodreads said, “I mean literally, the next man she meets will always be handsome, sexy, available, and perfect for a long-term relationship.” This book deals with that topic more realistically than did Julia’s Chocolates, but it still seemed a bit too ideal.

Actually, let’s make those criticisms three, which goes as well for the next novel: the completely generic book covers. There were so many interesting images in this book that could have been featured on the cover to give it a little pizzazz as well as some intrigue, but no. Also, in the last book I will review, the sisters all three had black hair. Ahem.

sistersMy favorite, The Language of Sisters, is about three women—Antonia, Elvira, and Valeria—Russian sisters who escaped Communist Russia with their parents when they were young children, and moved to Oregon to be with the rest of the noisy, loving, extended family of Kozlovskys. This book, as do most of Lamb’s, has a touch of magical realism to it: The sisters are able to hear one another in their heads at times of danger, sadness, or trial, and can call out to one another for help. The book is narrated by Toni (Antonia), and is essentially her story, although it encompasses both her sisters, her extended family, and the “extra” family she has created on the dock of the tugboat (floating in the Williamette river) that she calls home. It’s not a surprise that those characters, given Lamb’s propensity for exaggeration, include an interracial couple, a lesbian couple, a high-priced call girl, an elderly opera singer suffering from dementia, and a husky blond DEA agent jonesing to be Toni’s soulmate.

The things I enjoyed about the book were the secrets that are gradually revealed throughout the course of the book—some in the recent past, and some left over from the girls’ Moscow childhood. The flashbacks to Moscow were particularly powerful. And I will admit that I also enjoyed, even while scoffing at, Toni’s blossoming relationship with Nick (the DEA agent). Apparently even a cynical reader can’t, in the end, resist romance.

I’m still not sure I would count Cathy Lamb as among the authors I like or would return to for more; but this has been a pleasantly fluffy, cozy, romantic interlude in my reading habits for which I have been grateful while confronting so many challenging pursuits in the real world for the past few weeks. (Let me just say that “I hate Microsoft” encompasses almost all of those challenges.) Although I will now return to my regularly scheduled programming of fantasy, teen fiction, and anything else that strikes my fancy, I won’t rule out another Lamb interlude in my future.

 

All about books

I accidentally found another book about books! It was also about a lot of other stuff, some credible, some fantastic, and most of it a little over the top. It is All About Evie, by Cathy Lamb.

I said, after my months-long dedication to Kate Atkinson’s convoluted mysteries interspersed with the literary but somewhat bleak novels of Jane Harper, that I wanted something fluffy; but fluff overwhelmed everything else in my first choice of 2020, and my second was a promising but ultimately disappointing one. This book definitely brought the fluff, along with some magical realism, but in this case it was fluff with which I closely identify, so the reading was a much more pleasurable experience.

EvieEvie lives on one of the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest, in a remodeled carriage house painted in my color schemes, stuffed with toppling towers of books and surrounded by a rose garden. She has many animal friends—the list includes dogs, cats, goats, sheep, horses, and alpacas—who live with her and keep her company. She has a bookstore in town, where she lectures people on expanding their minds by reading out of their chosen genre, and serves delectable pies and cakes and interesting kinds of tea while conducting book clubs for diverse demographics. She has a mother and several aunts who live nearby and who give her love and quirky advice and don’t smother her too much. In essence, it sounds like my idyllic lifestyle.

She also (here comes the magical realism) has premonitions. Some are good, some are horrifying. Some she can do something about, others she can’t fix no matter how hard she tries, and some she doesn’t want to alter because sometimes karma should be a bitch.

Cathy Lamb has definitely bought into the idea that the first line is everything in hooking her readers’ attention: Hers in this book is, “I knew she was going to be hit by a white truck.” (In the next book of hers that I decided to read, it is “I left my wedding dress hanging in a tree somewhere in North Dakota.”) In this way she introduces Evie’s premonitions. Evie sees a future for someone—you could rather refer to them as precipitating events—and feels compelled to act on her knowledge, and yet what do you do? Walk up to someone and say “Excuse me, please be late for work today so that scaffolding doesn’t fall on you and kill you”? Try that and see what happens. In Evie’s case, it taught her to be secretive, made her overly anxious most of the time (obsessively watching her surroundings for signs to determine when the premonition will manifest), and occasionally led to criminal acts such as locking her favorite librarian in her home so she wouldn’t get hit by a train, or risky behaviors like climbing up to the peak of a two-story house to fix some shingles so that her elderly neighbor wouldn’t try to do it himself and break both legs in the fall.

These premonitions are why Evie has buried herself in a small town, in a small bookstore, with mostly animals as friends—a lower incidence of premonitions than would hit her in the overcrowded press of the big city. These precautions have not eliminated her problems, but have certainly reduced them to be almost manageable.

Evie has only ever had one premonition about herself, and it’s about her death, in a car accident, when she meets another woman driver on a one-lane road on the edge of a cliff; but she never sees the ending. She feels like someone dies, but doesn’t know if it’s her or the other woman, and she has an odd feeling that she knows the other woman, although she’s never seen her before.

This leads us to an alternate narrator in the story, a pregnant teenager locked up for murder in Portland, Oregon in 1975, whose sole defense in her trial is that she “saw” her boyfriend’s father trying to kill her boyfriend, and the vision led her to a pre-emptive strike to prevent that act.

This alternate narrator also lets in a big dose of reality to this so-far quirky and not-so-serious story. The book turns out to have a darker vein of truth about misogyny and abuse of women and children, which is both powerfully handled and disconcerting as a contrast to the extremely lighthearted nature of most of the rest of the narrative. Setting these incidents against the backdrop of Evie’s aunts, who construct and wear fantastical hats on all occasions and do nude yoga on the beach, is sort of like when renowned magical realism author Alice Hoffman abruptly transitioned from 1995’s Practical Magic, with its witchy tequila-drinking women who could fly, to 1997’s Here on Earth, a tale of a twisted adolescent love that returns to poison the adults who participated in it. But Alice kept those in separate books. Lamb does not.

It didn’t make me dislike the book, exactly; but it did pull me up and make me wonder whether it was wise to try to pack it all into one volume.

There are some wonderful scenes, on both sides of the narrative. One that was a favorite was when a goth teenager came into the bookstore looking for yet another vampire novel, and Evie lost her patience and insisted that the girl read a memoir.

I pointed to the seats by the windows. “Sit. Open the book. Read it.”
“I have to meet my mother soon.”
“Text her. Tell her to come here when she’s done doing whatever. You have got to expand your closed mind and read about other people in this world who don’t bite necks and have long teeth.”

The other I particularly enjoyed was when the temporary police chief, who has decided that Evie should date him despite her patent dislike of him, attempts to intimidate her and gets owned by the townspeople, who all gather around him in the street to comment loudly and unflatteringly about his particular style of bullying and ask if he can’t get a date any other way. Both are wonderfully written; I just had trouble shoe-horning them into the same narrative.

I liked All About Evie well enough to try another, so I am on to Julia’s Chocolates (the one in which the wedding dress is abandoned in a tree in the first sentence). I’ll let you know my conclusions soon…

 

Call Down the Hawk

The mind of Maggie Stiefvater is a strange, labyrinthine forest of compelling characters, lyrical prose, and tantalizing half-formed truths not quite available to anyone but her.

HawkThis much-anticipated book is the first of a new trilogy that nonetheless revisits some familiar characters. Starring in this series are the Lynch brothers—Declan, Ronan, and Matthew—previously seen in Stiefvater’s Raven Boys books, plus a new dreamer, Jordan Hennessy, and her creations, a host of doppelgangers pulled from her sleep-time. All of these actors—familiar and unfamiliar—are fascinating, fallible, and easy to like or at least to follow.

Less sympathetic because harder to fathom are the “Zed” (dreamer) hunters who are on a mission to kill due to some nebulous vision that a dreamer will end the world if not stopped. The only one of these we get to know in some measure is the enigmatic but sympathetic Carmen Farooq-Lane; the rest of her “crew” by uneasy association (Lock, Ramsay, etc.) are mere names and occasional paragraphs of words, all hired, paid, and spurred on by an unnamed organization about which we are fated to know nothing, at least in this volume. Equally puzzling are the Visionaries who are in on the kill by association, in that their visions lead the hunters to the dreamers.
But it’s hard to understand where they came from, what was their original purpose, and why they are cooperating in the death of people who are, let’s face it, more sympathetically aligned with them than are these killers.

You will get from this description that there are parts of this book that are clear, linear, and engaging, and other parts that are frustrating, tangential, and confusing.

I was happy to see Ronan in the driver’s seat. I was less happy with the few glimpses we get of his paramour, Adam, away at college, but there are implied promises that Adam will reappear down the road. I loved the revelations about Declan’s persistent efforts to present a false face to the world, because in The Raven Boys and sequels I found his stance unbelievable and knew there was something better underneath the smug, preppy exterior. The new character(s) Jordan Hennessy, with her skills and her plight, are interesting and endearing and make you hope for their salvation. The exterior details surrounding everyone—the art forgeries, the black market, the odd foreshadowy people who turn up here and there, the bizarre real estate—give an extra depth to the story.

SaintMagsThis is definitely not a stand-alone work, what with all of its many implications left hanging. Truths are almost but not quite revealed about so many puzzles left over from The Raven Boys books or opened up for speculation in this one—the origins of Niall and Aurora Lynch, the disembodied voice of Bryde hocking Rowan from his dreams, the as-yet-unknown Dreamer X who is responsible for the hypothetical apocalypse…. This book is made of dreams and, like the dreaming mind, it all seems to make perfect sense until you wake up and realize you have a lot of questions! Can you please write a little faster, Saint Mags?

 

Charmed by books

After dwelling in darkness with Sharon Bolton for a couple of days, I felt the need for lighter fare. I initially chose these three books because of their titles and covers, which revealed they were all books about books. As an avid reader, I’m always looking for more of those!

charmerThe first one I read—The Book Charmer, by Karen Hawkins—also has the element of magical realism going for it. It did, in fact, remind me of Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, in some of its elements, notably the two sisters who are dumped at a young age for someone else to raise, and in the fact that books actually talked (maybe out loud or maybe just in her head) to one of the residents of the small town in which the story ultimately takes place.

It was, indeed, a charming book about books, about family and friends, about small towns and the very real dangers of their dying out in the face of progress. It also dealt delicately and accurately with the issue of Alzheimer’s disease.

I would have liked more about the growing-up years of sisters Grace and Hannah, and the parallel years of Sarah Dove, lucky seventh daughter (and the book charmer) of the Dove family of the town of Dove Pond. But after an introductory chapter about each,
we jump to present day when everyone is an adult, and proceed from there. Not that the “there” wasn’t a good tale, I just wanted a bit more of the back story.

I thought the portrayal of Grace was excessively curmudgeonly, although I could understand her point of view. But she could have relented a bit sooner in instances where people were actually trying to help or befriend her, or both.

I liked this book’s gentle quirkiness, and will probably seek out the author’s subsequent stories about the same town.

ninahillThe next book I took up was
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, by Abbi Waxman. Talk about your basic wish fulfillment!

At the beginning, given that you are a person who thinks like me, Nina has it all: A job in a cool bookstore, a lovely guest house lined with bookshelves filled with books, a companionable cat named Phil, and a busy schedule taken up mostly with book clubs and trivia contests.

Only child: check
Likes books better than people: check
Likes cats better than many people: check
Enjoys her work putting together readers with books: check
Likes her routine and doesn’t want to be dynamited out of it: check

Then, Nina discovers that the father she never knew has called her out in his will to receive some sort of legacy, thereby putting her in touch with a raft of unknown and unsuspected brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, aunts and cousins…which is in one way kind of a dream come true for a wistful only child who has previously been an observer but not a participant in family life…and in another way kind of a nightmare for a self-sufficient, slightly anxious introvert.

Also, the team leader of one of the competing trivia teams in her league is showing definite interest in Nina…but it will never work out, because he’s not a reader. Oh well… But he IS good looking, and persistent, and maybe…no, definitely not. But…

You can guess how things play out from fairly early on in the book (obvious portents), you can see the “event horizon” clearly, but you’re so caught up in it you don’t really care. This is the ultimate feel-good book for the bookish and the romantic.

overdueI didn’t think I’d be a fan, initially, of The Overdue Life of Amy Byler, by Kelly Harms, because of the whole martyrish deserted mom thing. I mean, I get it, and she had a perfect right, and I’ve been there as the deserted wife, although not with the mom thing piled on top of it; I just didn’t think I’d enjoy a book about it. But I did, quite a bit!

Amy is soldiering on as a single mother after being completely abandoned by her husband and partner, John. When the children were 12 and 9, John went to Hong Kong on a business trip, and never came back. Amy had to go back to work full-time as a school librarian, and scrape absolute bottom to keep her kids in their school and put food on the table. Not only did John desert them, he didn’t pay child support or communicate with any of them for three years. Small wonder that Amy harbors major resentment.

Then John comes back—because he misses his kids and wants to make things up to all of them. They all know that’s not possible, but Amy agrees (with some counseling by her friend, Lena) to give John a week with the kids, and she takes off for New York City on a part-professional, part-personal trip. The week stretches into a summer, and Amy finds herself at loose ends (and somewhat uncomfortable with it) as all her responsibilities are picked up by someone else.

I loved that the book included attendance at a librarian convention, accompanied by a presentation by the protagonist about a concrete idea (Flexthology) on how to promote reading to reluctant teen readers through choice and anonymity. This made the character feel solid and real, and made the subsequent events (even though they were more fanciful) seem plausible and possible. Her makeover (to be featured in a magazine article) by her publisher friend, Talia, was fun (and only a little patronizing). I adored Daniel, the “hot librarian,” and rooted for him despite Amy’s #momspringa (a play on the Amish Rumspringa) dates with other guys. Part of what kept the book going was the witty banter—Harms knows how to write dialogue.

These books all three definitely fit the bill when you’ve been reading a lot of brooding thrillers or books heavy on emotion and description—while there is still poignancy, these authors keep the tone light while exploring some serious issues. They are all three great additions to my rapidly growing “canon” of books-about-books-and-readers!

 

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.

 

Addressing bigotry

I have read two books recently that dealt with the ideas, emotions, and results of bigotry, both focused on the Muslim experience. One was, somewhat weirdly, the third volume in the Chocolat series, by Joanne Harris, called Peaches for Father Francis (I reviewed the other two books earlier on this blog); the other was a newish young adult novel, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, by Tahereh Mafi.

The first was a story of clashing cultures trying to co-exist in the same small French village, while the second was the devastating effect high school ignorance has on one Persian Muslim girl in a sea of white kids, one year after 9/11. Both were powerful statements and, while quite different, arrived at some of the same conclusions.

PeachesFrancisIn Peaches for Father Francis (otherwise sold as Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé), it is eight years after the events of the original book Chocolat, and Vianne and her two daughters have made a life for themselves in Paris, floating on the Seine in a houseboat with the traveler Roux, father of Vianne’s daughter Rosette. Then comes in the mail a posthumous letter from Vianne’s old friend Armande, via her grandson, Luc, summoning Vianne back to Lansquenet because “someone here needs you.”

It’s August in Paris, which means it’s stiflingly hot and empty except for the tourists, so Vianne decides to indulge the impulse to take Anouk and Rosette for a holiday in the country. Roux somewhat surprisingly decides to stay behind, in Paris.

What Vianne discovers when she arrives is that the derelict housing on the other side of the bridge from Lansquenet, near where the travelers used to dock their boats, has been appropriated by a rather large immigrant Muslim community, the Maghrébins, and although their occupation had initially been accepted with cautious enthusiasm by many of the other villagers, now factions have broken out on both sides of the river, and friction is growing. Somehow, despite their formerly oppositional roles, the solution comes down to a cooperative relationship between Father Francis, the town priest, and Vianne to solve the impasse and narrowly avert a war.

The characters and situations in this novel are masterfully drawn. While it still retains a bit of the magical realism for which the first book is known (the shadow of Pantoufle still follows Anouk), this third tale is deadly serious in its exploration of warring cultures, tolerance, and understanding. It clearly and sometimes horrifically demonstrates the degree of misperception that can exist when people make shallow and blatant assumptions about one another and fail to take either human nature or love into account.

OceanThe young adult book, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, was more problematical for me, partly because it relies so heavily on high school tropes, which become wearying after so many teen novels based on them; but the fact is, they do still exist, and are potent, especially for the teenagers experiencing them.

I found the protagonist, Shirin, confusing because she is so vulnerable and yet so hardened in her angry cynical belief that no one will ever give her a fair shake. Several things baffled me about her character, the first being that she spends almost a hundred pages (basically a third of the book) being angry about how people react to her because she covers her hair with the hijab; then, when asked why she wears it, her reason seems inadequate. Her parents don’t require her to wear it, and in fact questioned her decision to do so; while she celebrates Ramadan with her family, she isn’t particularly religious and doesn’t otherwise have any kind of spiritual practice; and what she finally reveals to her new boyfriend is that wearing the scarf is a control issue for her—she gets to decide who can see her hair. I was kind of stunned that she would put up with the treatment dealt out to her post-9/11 for such a stubborn but singular reason.

While acting and talking like she doesn’t care whether anyone sees and knows her or not, she seems completely blown away when her brothers’ friends, who are in the siblings’ break-dancing club (the side story of a break-dancing hijabi was one of the best images of the book), tell her she’s beautiful. This scene may have been constructed so that the black friend, Jacobi, can subsequently tell her that she’s also scary and mean, and that she has let her anger convince her that all people are assholes when in fact they’re not and she needs to let go of that belief; but the degree of her investment in her looks, after rejecting every superficial nice remark and compliment from absolutely everyone, felt a little off.

There is one raw-ly honest moment in the book when a teacher embarrasses Shirin in class and then keeps poking at her (after she cuts his class for three days) to find out why she’s so upset that calls out white privilege and is probably the penultimate speech Mafi wrote the book in order to include:

“I’ve been trying to educate people for years and it’s exhausting. I’m tired of being patient with bigots. I’m tired of trying to explain why I don’t deserve to be treated like a piece of shit all the time. I’m tired of begging everyone to understand that people of color aren’t all the same, that we don’t all believe the same things or feel the same things or experience the world the same way. I’m just—I’m sick and tired of trying to explain to the world why racism is bad, okay? Why is that my job? It’s not.”

But there are also a couple of bigoted remarks by Shirin herself—like when she somewhat snottily hopes that the boy who likes her will just give up and “find a nice blond girlfriend.” Ultimately, though, the book does a good job of breaking down stereotypes and misperceptions on both sides of the divide, and provides along with it a sweet, satisfying, and occasionally swoony romance. Most significant, perhaps, is the reaction to the book by this former teenager on Goodreads:

“Y’all mind if I cry? because if you’d told 16-year-old me that one day I’d read a NYT best-selling book where a Muslim Hijabi teen gets her own coming of age story and her own big romance instead of being the token (stereotyped) minority character or some cultural prop used only to further the writer’s favorite white girl…it would have made a world of difference.”

(Despite searching its pages, I have not figured out the title of the book: The boy protagonist has the unlikely first name of “Ocean,” but other than that, there’s no reference to a large expanse of sea. I’m sure it’s hugely symbolic and that I’m just being obtuse; if you get it, please enlighten me!)

 

Magical realism

The terms “magical” and “realism” seem antithetical, don’t they? If there’s magic involved, isn’t it fantasy? How can it be realism if there are magical elements in the story?

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The literary movement of magical realism began with Latin American authors, and it has often been used by them as a genre of political subversion. The fantastic and magical elements of the story are presented as normal aspects of everyday life, thus putting the standard structure of reality into question; this allowed authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende to question the political regimes of their day without being instantly labeled as dissidents. Essentially, magical realism allowed these authors to show or even suggest an alternative to an accepted or established political reality.

As it diversified from the Latin American authors, the genre has taken on additional qualities, adding surrealism, with its irrational juxtapositions and combinations, and fabulism, incorporating fables and myths into a contemporary setting. Unlike fantasy or science fiction, which set up worlds separate from our own, authors of magical realism simply introduce into our world some slight distortion that forces the reader to question what is real and opens up additional avenues for our minds to ponder. It can be quirky and fanciful or fraught with significance, but the specific characteristic that makes it magical realism is the author’s refusal to define which elements are real and which are fantastical. It is for the reader to decide.

Some original classics would be One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez; Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel; and The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna, by Isabel Allende. Other more contemporary examples include Life of Pi, by Yann Martel; Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami; most titles by Alice Hoffman; The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton; and you could also include such offbeat books as Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough, by Robin Sloan.

Here’s the thing about recommending books containing magical realism: You have to be sure that your readers understand what it is and welcome its inclusion in the story, because they will either be delighted by it or they will be massively irritated. I am a person who has always enjoyed magical realism, and even I have a tolerance point beyond which I say to the author, “You’ve gone too far!” My breaking point, and it may be this way for others, is when the author begins to “fix” parts of the story as it unfolds by simply making things magical, instead of addressing the situation as it demands. When it is used as a crutch instead of as a delightful element or purposeful metaphor, that’s when magical realism can get out of hand.

All this has led up to my current reading, which is the trilogy about a French chocolate-maker who lets the wind dictate her destination in life.

321574Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, is a quintessential example of magical realism. It is especially potent because of the contrasts between the rural, parochial, cautious inhabitants of Lansquenet-sur-Tannes versus the mother and daughter who are swept into town with not only an ability but almost a mandate to upend everything traditional and narrow about the townspeople and insert some charm and whimsicality into their environs by opening a chocolate shop.

I had seen the movie version of this book several times, and so I felt I could dispense with reading it and move directly to the sequel, but it turned out I was wrong—the book has essential similarities, but also some crucial differences. So I actually ended up reading this trilogy in 2-1-3 order, which skewed my viewpoint of the books somewhat.

The first book is a nearly unalloyed delight. Using the device of injecting this footloose, free-spirited, pagan, magical woman into the humdrum life of a traditional French Catholic town allows the author to examine issues of tolerance and acceptance, religion, relationships, happiness, and even death in a serious but lighthearted manner. The touches of magic only serve to highlight these issues and keep the book from becoming too intense (and the constant talk of chocolate will have you noshing with one hand while you hold the book with the other).

2227371The sequel, The Girl with No Shadow, on the other hand, was a puzzle to me.  It’s four years later, and it’s clear that Vianne is fearful about something, though it’s hard to tell what or why. She and Anouk have assumed new names, their spirits have dwindled, and I couldn’t figure out how we got from the mostly upbeat Vianne at the end of the first book to the weirdly passive, unhappy, and self-deluding widow living in Paris at the beginning of the second. I became impatient at times with the levels of apprehension and timidity exhibited by Yanne, the name under which she now masquerades. She has developed a panicky need to be “normal,” supposedly for the sake of her daughters, that has left her open to the machinations of the malevolent trickster, Zozie, who shows up and essentially tries to steal Vianne’s life (and elder daughter) out from under her.

The story examines the debilitating effects of fear and the dangers to which it can expose us if we let it rule our lives. It also examines the sometimes desperate choices we make to obtain the things we need.

Even though she introduces some wonderful elements into the story, I so disliked the character of Zozie that it was hard to read about her triumphs and the way she insinuated herself into the lives all around Vianne. Ultimately I liked the book, but felt that it was a vehicle, a second designed to get you to the third—a long episode, if you will, to transition Vianne out of her fearfulness and back to embracing life.

I also felt that in this book, the author crossed that fine line from magical realism into manipulation. There was too much solving of problems with the flick of a finger or the drawing of a symbol, combined with an inadequate explanation of what magic was being sourced to do so.

I’m going to leave the discussion of the third book, Peaches for Father Francis, to a subsequent post, because it weirdly melded with a new young adult novel I picked up a couple of weeks later, and I want to put the two together. For now, suffice it to say that the third book documents a return to Lansquenet and also to the original spirit and intentions of Vianne.

 

Saints and Miracles

crookedsaintsWhen I first finished reading All the Crooked Saints, by Maggie Stiefvater, I was eager to put my thoughts about it down on paper. But when I actually sat down to write, I realized that I couldn’t figure out what I thought of this book. Part of me thought “It was amazing…” but on reflection, I didn’t know if I liked it. Let me try to make more sense.

I am a pragmatic person who isn’t really into saints, miracles, or allegorical tales about same, so I wasn’t sure I even wanted to read this book. I have intensely disliked such books as Paolo Coehlo’s The Alchemist and Dan Millman’s Way of the Peaceful Warrior, and wondered, based on some reviews, if that was where Maggie was going. (I also presumed VOYA magazine was way over the top in comparing it to Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, and I have read a few dissents about appropriation of other people’s culture that I took somewhat seriously when approaching this book.)

But…I have always enjoyed good magical realism (Alice Hoffman and Anna-Marie McLemore come to mind), and I presumed that Maggie Stiefvater, with all her speculation about Welsh kings and making something out of nothing, would possibly do a good job at this. Also, I was intrigued by an essay she wrote on her Facebook page talking about the extreme difficulty with which she birthed this book, given that she was suffering from a severe, initially undiagnosed autoimmune disease. So I picked it up.

At first, the sheer number of incidences of magical realism overwhelmed the story for me. It was too much, too fast, and way too facile, and I felt like I wanted to quit reading. But gradually, I was intrigued enough by some of the characters that I wanted to know what happened to them, so I kept going. I didn’t find it an easy book to read, perhaps because my skepticism of the outcome was high, so it took me a lot longer than I expected this slight volume to last. (Although it is 323 pages long, the type is set generously with about 1.5 line spacing—leading, if you want the technical word—between lines. So if it were single-spaced, it would probably have been about 200 pages.)

Ultimately, I was beguiled by this book, for several reasons. The first was the language and the way Stiefvater sets about exploring the miraculous within the mundane through the agency of her characters. I actually copied a couple of quotes from the book, after they had forced me to read them three or four times, savoring them more with each reading.

 

“The problem with ideas is that they never come all at once. They emerge like prairie dogs. An edge of ear, or the tip of a nose, and sometimes even the whole head. But if you look straight at an idea too fast, it can vanish back into the ground before you’re even sure of what you’ve seen. Instead, you have to sneak up on it slowly, looking out of the corner of your eye, and then and only then you might glance up to get a clear look.”

The second was the epiphanies experienced—or made—by both the Soria family and the pilgrims who seek them out. They seemed simultaneously true to life and completely allegorical, which I believe was the author’s intent, although perhaps she was more fixated on storytelling than I believed when I first finished reading. Certainly it turns out to be a gripping story, but so permeated by meaning it almost overflows.

I also loved the folklorish use she makes of the natural world—the owls in particular, but also the overwhelming atmosphere of the desert, the black roses desired so persistently by Francisco, the rain and butterflies that follow Marisita—and their parallels to emotion.

SaintMagsAfter I read this book, but before I wrote this, I went on Goodreads and looked up a couple of the books mentioned in my second paragraph—the ones people think of as a combination of allegorical revelation and self-help. In a comment about The Alchemist, one reader said, “This is either a beautifully written and fable-like illustration of simple and universal truths, or a load of crap.” One could probably react in the same way to All the Crooked Saints—but ultimately, I don’t believe either of those summations. It’s a story. If you read it first just as story and then come to appreciate the other mysterious and lyrical elements hidden within, I believe it deserves the encomiums it has received from reviewers. Readers of Barbara Kingsolver might also enjoy this.

One warning: It’s not like anything else Stiefvater has written, so if you go into it expecting that it will be, you will be disappointed. Also, I would in no way categorize this as young adult fiction. Some teens may read and appreciate it; but it is not specifically written for that market, even if that was the author’s intent (which I find hard to believe). It’s just the next story to come out of the complex being who is Maggie Stiefvater.