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.
For those who want to use these last 10 days before Christmas to get themselves in the mood (or to dwell in a more traditional head space in the midst of this unquestionably nontraditional year), I thought I would remind readers of all the many holiday short stories, novellas, novels, and nonfiction offerings out there. I did a pretty comprehensive overview last year of a bunch of alternatives, so let me just give you those urls with a brief explanation and you can explore your options!
For a classic Christmas, check out this list of beloved read-alouds and come-back-tos:
For a book-length experience, here are some novels and true-life experiences:
And for those who want something unsentimental, here are some that are a bit more tart than sweet:
Finally, to hark back to a recent find, read Connie Willis’s latest Christmas offering:
Have yourselves a lovely reading holiday, while I attempt to finish Troubled Blood in time to make it #130 on my Goodreads Challenge for 2020!
It’s been a while between posts because instead of dropping the witchy mystery series by Shawn McGuire that I was reading, I kept going and am now on book #9. I’m not even going to bother to list the titles, because they are all a variation on the word “secrets” with another word plugged in front of it.
It’s not that it’s the best (or even close to the best) mystery series I have ever read, but there is a certain satisfaction to be had in pursuing a series from the first book to the last (if this is the last—there will probably be more), and also a certain inertia. Once you get going, the characters and setting are already familiar, and if you have invested in them at all, you just kinda want to know what happened. So I have been following the exploits of Sheriff Jayne O’Shea, her employee / boyfriend / business partner (in their bed & breakfast called Pine Time) Tripp, and her extended “family” that includes her mom, dad, and sister, her deputy, Reed, and the whole cast of characters from the part-Wiccan, part-circus folk, part-psychic, and altogether unusual town of Whispering Pines.
I will say that this town must hold a record for “small town in Wisconsin with the most murders in a 15-month period,” which is the time that is roughly spanned by the nine volumes. The series also gets credit for some of the most unusual ways to die, from ricin poisoning to hypothermia. And there is, of course, the entertainment value of the kitchen witches and green witches and psychics and ex-nuns in town who are either secretly counter-cursing one another or trying to hold the line with positive thoughts, milk baths, and herbal teas, or holding bake-offs of their deliciously described food. If it weren’t for the high murder quotient and the below-freezing temperatures for a large part of the year, a reader might actually want to go there!
I’m halfway through the last, and I promise to get back to reading and reviewing new material soon!
I’ve also been having some fun painting some of my reader friends. Here is Michael, who read Tai-Pan as I suggested, and is now on to the sequel, Gai-Jin.
On impulse, after finishing Once Upon A River,
I picked up and re-read Jenny Colgan’s The Bookshop on the Shore, which I reviewed here when I first discovered it. Since I thoroughly covered all aspects of the book in my first review,
I wasn’t going to bother to bring it up again; but re-reading it set me thinking on various tangents that I thought might be worth discussing from a readers’ advisory standpoint.
The first tangent was Colgan’s treatment of Zoe’s son, Hari, in the story. Hari is a four-year-old boy, perfectly delightful in every way according to his mother, except that he doesn’t speak. There’s nothing physically wrong with him, and all the doctors consulted by Zoe say it’s a psychological thing and will “probably” resolve itself eventually when something shifts and he simply starts to talk.
This is small comfort to Zoe, who has to live her life explaining something big about her child. Everywhere they go, people bend over and say “Hi, little guy, what’s your name?” and are at first offended at the lack of response and then pitying when they discover the reason why. At every daycare, at every school, with every new acquaintance or stranger in a shop, both Zoe and Hari are called to account for his not being able to do what many parents probably wish their children would do less of—speak, shout, cry. In all these aspects, happy or sad, Hari is silent.
Even Hari’s father, Jaz, judges him by this lack of ability. While he loves his son, Hari’s inability to speak is a constant nagging flaw that Jaz seems unable to get past. Colgan evokes a genuine sense of compassion for Hari and for Zoe for having to deal with all this heavy expectation every time Hari is given the opportunity to open his mouth.
When the pair move to Scotland and Zoe becomes an au pair at a “big house” with three children, for the first time Hari is accepted for who he is, by the five-year-old Patrick. Patrick is, by his own estimation as well as everyone else’s, incredibly clever for his age, and with that quite outspoken.
In short, he’s a talker. Their first encounter:
Hari put down his tablet, got up and padded over to the newcomer.
“Who are you?” said Patrick.
“This is Hari,” said Zoe. “He’s living here too.”
Patrick regarded the boy with some suspicion. Hari glanced over at Zoe worriedly, but she smiled at him as if to say it would be all right.
“Hmmm,’ said Patrick eventually. “You don’t talk too much. I like that. I like to talk A LOT. Do you like dinosaurs?”
“Okay,” said Patrick carelessly.
And just like that, Hari’s situation was normalized. Later, when Jaz visits, Patrick steps up to him and says, “I am absolutely Hari’s best friend.”
“Oh. Well. Good,” said Jaz. “Can you teach him to speak?”
“I absolutely like Hari how he is,” said Patrick.
This was such a simple and beautifully done example of both the hardships encountered by the differently abled and the potential for them to be loved no matter what. I realized, upon re-reading this book, that one of the things I enjoy about Colgan’s writing is her evocation of a sense of empathy with all her characters. This is a key element in readers’ advisory—does your reader want to identify closely with the characters in their book? Some people enjoy being alienated by the protagonists of their stories, but there have been books (notably, The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling) that I have refused to finish because I found the characters so repellent and so totally lacking in any redeeming qualities that I simply didn’t want to spend another minute in their company.
By contrast, I love reading about people who are different from me, whether that means significantly older or younger, of a different race and country, gay, male, extraordinarily gifted or limited in some way—as long as I can somehow identify with them through the agency of empathy. When I ran my high school book club, I remember some of the parents being puzzled by why all the girls in the club seemed to consistently choose books with gay male protagonists. The reason was not specifically that they were gay or male, but that the author had done a good job both highlighting their differences and conveying their similarities.
The second tangent that came to mind upon re-reading this book was place. Colgan’s books are, at least six of them, set in the wilds of Scotland, up among the hills and the lochs and the sheep, with the wind whistling in off the ocean and the weather subject to change by the hour. If someone asked me objectively if this was my ideal locale to put down roots, I would most likely say no, since I hate wind, don’t like being cold, and greatly value the close proximity of my Trader Joe’s. But I live a comfortable, mostly middle-class life, with a (small) house to myself, a driveable car, and enough income (most months) to keep me going. If I had lived (like Zoe, the protagonist of this book) in a small, dark, stuffy bed-sit in a bad neighborhood of London with my little son, worked two jobs just to maintain that life, and had to drop off my kid at a questionable daycare while I did it, those same hills and lochs and freezing but beautiful views might seem like heaven. In fact, if I lived here in Los Angeles in a grotty little apartment, sharing walls with noisy neighbors who smoked and fought loudly, and had to take the lousy public transportation system to two jobs to get by, Scotland would be a dream come true for me, as well.
This is the talent of the author who can evoke a palpable sense of place for the reader, whether by contrast as in this example, or by the use of lyrical language and detailed description (also employed by Colgan). Since one of the reasons many people read is to be transported out of their everyday lives to another time and place, to a lifestyle they may have dreamed of but never dared to attempt, or even to a lifestyle they wouldn’t voluntarily choose but might wonder about, the sense of place is a powerful tool when advising people on what to read.
The talent of the writer is to make wherever the reader lands more palatable, or at least more fascinating and foreign or perfectly homey. For instance, while none of us might want to live in the bed-sit in Edinburgh or in London, where Colgan’s characters Nina and Zoe originated before embracing Scotland, that’s partially because of the way the accommodations, and their surroundings, are described: Dim light, dirty streets, noise, confusion, traffic, bad air, crowded buses and trains, the pervasive smell of takeout drifting up from the café downstairs—a thoroughly unappealing situation.
On the other hand, what if the bed-sit you were living in, just as tiny, were at the top of an old house in the Latin Quarter of Paris? What if, even though it was small, and you had to climb four flights of stairs because the elevator was always broken, once you arrived at the top and entered your little space you could see out the dormer windows to a perfect view of the dome of the Sorbonne? What if you painted your tiny flat a beautiful shade of seawater green, and put up diaphanous sheers at the windows, and hung a few favorite pictures, painted by talented friends, and had a cozy little stove to keep it warm? What if outside your tiny room and down four flights of stairs was Paris?
The quality most closely related to a sense of place as an appealing quality of a book is the desire (or need) for escape—to experience something different, somewhere else, and live there for a while. Try out your readers’ advisory skills by describing the setting of the book you are suggesting and see if your readers’ eyes don’t light up at the prospect of going there.
Because of an extraordinary amount of rain and snow this year, many parts of the country (mine included) have had a particularly colorful spring when it comes to both wildflower superblooms and the overflowing roses, peonies, and daffodils in cultivated gardens. Observing this bounty has caused me to take a look at some books, both fiction and nonfiction, that deal not only with the appearance but also with the language of flowers.
Although flowers and other plants have had symbolic significance for centuries, the full blossoming, if you will, of the use of flowers as symbols for emotions was in the approximate 75-year span of the Victorian Era in England. Restrictive social conventions prohibited direct expression through conversation between those whose interests were loverlike, so whatever was deemed unacceptable by etiquette to share openly was encoded in the giving of particular flowers or combinations of flowers to convey specific meanings. This practice became so commonplace that the language of flowers was christened “floriography.” The practice has also captured the imagination of various authors, who have used it as a vehicle to tell their stories. Among them:
The Language of Flowers,
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
From the title, you’d think this book would be soft and romantic, but it’s not at all. The main character, Victoria, is an 18-year-old who has just aged out of the foster care system. She has no friends, no family, no history, no prospects, and no skills, and soon she is homeless. Once she had a foster parent who taught her the language of flowers (i.e., asters = patience, red roses = love, etc.), and since she left that home, she has pursued her knowledge further. Based on this, she finds a florist willing to give her some under-the-table work, and creates for herself a small, regular life—for awhile. The book is told in alternating chapters between the one good foster home she was in at age 10 and her present existence, and the level of tension maintained as you wait to find out what happened that brought her to her current fix keeps you eagerly reading. The protagonist is engaging despite herself, and you don’t know whether you feel sorry for her or want to shake her. It’s a poignant story, and although Victoria isn’t always a likeable character, her courage is inspiring.
Forget-Her-Nots, by Amy Brecount White
While researching the Victorian language of flowers for a school project, 14-year-old Laurel discovers that the bouquets she creates have peculiar effects on people. Her mother hinted at an ancient family secret, and Laurel suspects it has something to do with her new-found talent, but her mom was never able to share either the gift or its use with Laurel. Unfortunately, Laurel uses this talent to meddle, and a string of incidents that involve the misuse of flowers threaten to mess significantly with everyone’s prom night experience. Clever, fun, and informative, too. (Young Adult fiction.)
The Art of Arranging Flowers, by Lynne Branard
Ruby Jewell grew up in a harsh environment, her only comfort being her close relationship with her sister, Daisy. Daisy’s death when Ruby was in her early 20s was devastating as well as life altering. Instead of pursuing her studies to become a lawyer, Ruby just wanted to curl up and die, too. It was the flowers that saved her. For 20 years now, Ruby has created floral arrangements at her shop in the small town of Creekside. With a few words from a customer, she knows just what flowers to use to help kindle a romance or heal a broken heart. However, Ruby has a barrier around her own heart and is determined that she will not allow it to be broken. It takes an extraordinary group of people to bring Ruby out from behind her wall.
If reading any or all of these causes you to be intrigued by the background these authors used to create their floral fantasies, you can read about Victorian identification in…
This is a charming reproduction of a rare volume by a 19th-century illustrator that includes a full-color illustrated list of more than 200 plants and their supposed meanings: tulip = fame; blue violet = faithfulness, etc.
And if you feel further inspired, you can read some germane nonfiction delving into the scientific significance of blooms:
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World,
by Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan has a vision in his garden that leads him to question the interrelationship between humans and plants. He postulates that the plant species humans have nurtured over the past 10,000 years may have benefited as much from their association with us as we have from ours with them. He decides to investigate four plants—apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana—and he digs into history, anecdote, and personal revelation to do so. It’s entertaining, philosophical, and smart.
This is a comprehensive examination of the roles flowers play in the production of our foods, spices, medicines, and perfumes. Buchmann also goes into the cultural history of flowers, examining everything from myths and legends, decor, poetry, and esthetics to their basis for various global industries. From the flowers to the pollinators to the people who pursue the many intertwined careers sparked by these natural wonders, Buchmann inquires about it all. A fascinating volume, liberally illustrated.
If you want more, there is a 17-book list on Goodreads on the subject of floriography.
Here’s hoping your next tussy-mussy conveys the emotions you desire!
Literature lovers, along with historians, devotees of iconic architecture, the religious who revere its atmosphere and symbolism, and those who are simply moved by beauty, have all mourned this week at the devastation by fire of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. The cathedral was inspirational to authors as diverse as Marcel Proust, Sigmund Freud, and Victor Hugo.
It is the story of Victor Hugo, author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that may console us the most in the midst of mourning; at the time of his book’s publication, reverence for and upkeep of the cathedral had fallen out of fashion, and his book, written to generate interest in its architectural glories, succeeded in its purpose: the cathedral was renovated. We will hope that it will rise from its ashes to inspire a new generation of writers, artists, poets, and reverent visitors.
J.R.R. Tolkien says that “the world of fantasy is accessed by a meeting between the narrative skill of the author and the imaginative willingness of the reader.” This is a powerful quote, because it underlines the readers’ advisory tenet that only a collaboration between reader and writer determines reading preferences.
There is a huge body of work written about how to define fantasy, too long to cover here. One definition I appreciated, by John M. Timmerman in the book Genreflecting, and condensed down to a summary paragraph:
The job of the fantasy story is to create a world and characters so believable, a plot so urgent, and a conflict so daunting that the reader must live with and through it to the end. The story must have relevance to the everyday lives of the readers, and the way fantasy creates that relevance is to create protagonists with a common nature, regular folk with beliefs and values. The fantasy world must be different enough from that of the readers’ so as to engage them in its uniqueness; but it can’t be too obviously fictional. The evocation of the world must be immediate; the world is provided and we as readers step into it. There must be an essential conflict, usually between good and evil. There is oftentimes a quest, with a specific goal, usually to restore the society’s well-being. There is the presence and/ or use of magic. And fantasy is, for the most part, persistent in its optimism for humankind, with a positive resolution.
Contained within this broad description are nearly endless small differentiations of subgenre, which are defined by their world (unique, alternate, paranormal, crossworld), by the kind of protagonist (hero, commoner, adventurer), by the origins (unique, faerie, fairy tale retold), by the setting (legendary, urban, dark), and by the tone (humorous, epic, frightening). Lou Anders, an editor at Pyr Books, says that “nothing will land you an ax in your skull or a dagger in your spine faster than trying to define fantasy subgenres.” He notes that there are always exceptions to the rule.
With all that as lead-in, let me tell you about a particular fantasy I just read. It fits into the “fairy tales retold” subgenre, but the setting could be described as a “crossworld,” since the primary protagonist is physically transported from our own contemporary world sideways into a fairy tale. She is a “commoner” dropped into a role in a medieval kingdom still defined by swords and daggers as weapons, horses as transportation, and rulers and servants as characters. The world-building is fairly minimal, but both sufficient and believable because of its extreme familiarity. The conflict is provided by the specific fairy tale trope, but the author has inserted some twists. There are multiple conflicts, both personal and kingdom-wide, with enemies and heroes within and without. There is a specific goal; there is magic; and there is a resolution.
The book is A Curse So Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer. I bought it along with four other fairly new young adult titles, and I left it until last to read because I was almost sorry I had chosen it. First of all, I am not particularly enamored of fairy tale retellings; I’d rather have an original story any day than one that is restricted by a precursor. And “Beauty and the Beast” is among my least favorite fairy tales, for so many reasons, paramount among them the compulsory nature of the romance—she either loves the Beast or experiences an epic fail, but who (besides sufferers of Stockholm syndrome) believes this is possible? I equally dislike the dark, original tale (the father’s love being used against him), and the first Disney version (with the dancing dishware). There’s just too much coercion and self-effacing pity involved for it to survive as a believable romance.
Second, as is usual with YA literature, the critics, the publishers, or other readers are way too busy comparing it with other books. At least a dozen sources said, “If you liked A Court of Thorns and Roses, you will like this.” Well, I didn’t read ACOTAR (heresy, I know), because I read Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas, first. A brief synopsis of my review is that the protagonist (and thus her author) couldn’t decide whether to be a ninja or a Disney princess, which was really irritating. Other readers opined, “If you loved Caraval, by Stephanie Garber, you should read this book!” I hated Caraval. Apart from the flimsy world-building, vague story line, and confusing game, here is my quote, which should also enlighten re: my previous caveat: “The protagonist, Scarlet, reminds me of the supposed badass assassin, Caelena, in Throne of Glass, who can’t decide whether to kill the male characters or to ‘pillage’ them (plural). I call it ‘dithery fiction’ because we spend the entire book listening to the characters saying ‘what if’ a lot but never settling to a decision. Yes, they show moments of resolution…which dissolve like sugar in water at the first sign of opposition, and then it’s reset: start over. It’s tiresome.”
I have said all that to emphasize that taking read-alike claims seriously will sometimes backfire, either on the reader or on the publisher. I got it out of the way in order to give an original review to this book, which I read in less than 24 hours and couldn’t have loved better.
First of all, major props for originality on the part of Kemmerer. The protagonist, Harper, is a tough lower-class kid with a brother who’s an enforcer (but only because he owes guys money) and a mother with cancer. One of Harper’s legs is affected by cerebral palsy, so she isn’t as strong as she could be, and moves with a limp, but she doesn’t let any of this stop her. One day, she sees a guy attempting to kidnap a girl off the street and, realizing there’s no other help nearby, she tackles him. Somehow, the girl has suddenly disappeared, and the guy and Harper are…somewhere else. Somewhere that looks like a medieval fantasy, with a castle and swords and horses, filled with food and drink, posh accommodations and fancy dress, but no people except for her kidnapper, Grey, commander of the Royal Guard, and a guy called Rhen who says he’s a prince. Is she sticking around for this? She is not. They lock her in; she climbs down a trellis, steals Rhen’s horse out of the stables, and tries to escape…but where, exactly, is she going to go? She’s in the middle of nowhere, she has no idea where her home world is or how to get there, and so, when she’s recaptured by the two men, she decides to let things play out and try to figure out what’s what.
There is quite a lot of revelation about her circumstances, unlike in the original fairy tale; Rhen lets her know that he’s been caught in an enchantment loop for many years, and the only thing that will get him out of it is if one of the girls he sends Grey out to kidnap falls in love with him. Upon hearing this, Harper is not just skeptical, but aghast, and determined not to fall for any wiles. What does move her, however, is her eventual knowledge about the sad state of his kingdom and the people in it while he has been otherwise occupied; apparently a horrifying wild beast has been savaging and killing whole communities every year! This is the one factor not revealed to Harper (that Rhen becomes that beast). So she turns on him and chastises him for not caring about the people he was sworn to protect while he ruled, and together the three of them—prince, warrior, and girl from another world—begin to take that commitment seriously. But there is more to his curse than she knows, and more evil awaiting his subjects than he himself offers them in his guise as the beast. And amidst all of this, Harper yearns to return home before her mother succumbs to cancer and someone makes a permanent example out of her brother Jake.
The book is written from dual points of view—those of Rhen and Harper. This proves quite effective, giving the reader the inner thoughts of the proud but needy enchanted prince, who wants nothing more than to resolve his situation but can’t quite bring himself to trust, and the scrappy import, who has to figure out, on the fly, how to deal with a completely new situation. This book is the antithesis of YA “insta-love,” and the emotions of the two protagonists are ably portrayed from every angle. The writing is good, the scene-setting and details are excellent, and the story moves along at a satisfying pace, with little of the “dithery” bits included in each character’s self-examination. The side characters are equally well fleshed out and provide extra drama without distracting unduly from the main story. Finally, although there are threads left hanging at the end that will be addressed in a sequel, the book has a satisfying resolution and could be read as a stand-alone, if you’re not a sequel kind of person.
If every fairy tale was retold this well, I would happily read them all.
Answer in the comments—let’s trade reads!
As a regular feature here on the blog, I’d like to furnish an image of someone reading, and ask you what books you are enjoying. Please leave a comment and tell me what you’re reading this week!