Fresh look: old book

Continuing this occasional feature…

Barbara Kingsolver achieved her greatest fame with the book
I honestly like the least of her entire list—The Poisonwood Bible, nominated for a Pulitzer and multiple other awards. But before she wrote this serious tome, Kingsolver penned several shorter books that caught my imagination:

Taylor Greer grew up poor in Kentucky, with the dual goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting out. On her drive west to seek her fortune, she is unexpectedly “gifted” with a three-year-old American Indian girl, who is dumped in her car in obvious need of mothering and more. So Taylor’s plans change abruptly, and she puts down roots and begins to build a community to help her care for her new foster daughter, Turtle. This is the story of The Bean Trees; in the sequel, Pigs in Heaven, Turtle witnesses an event that has repercussions for her life with Taylor, exposing her to her heritage and her past. These two books are a wonderful combination of charming and heartfelt, with lots of humor but also with a serious message about the family you inherit and the family you choose.

beantrees      pigsheaven

The third book Kingsolver wrote right around the same time period is Animal Dreams, a love story, an environmental inquiry, and an exploration of Native American culture. I was captivated by all three of these books and have revisited them several times. If you are looking for short but intense fiction with an American southwest setting and eccentric characters, try any or all of these three by Kingsolver.

andreams

I featured the original covers here, because they are the ones with which I am familiar (and also, I really like them), but all three of these books have been re-released in trade paperback and are easily obtainable, if in a more bland, less culturally celebratory package.

 

Awakening

Some of the symbolic meanings of peacock feathers are “awakening,” “vision,” and “protection.” When I finished The Peacock Emporium, by JoJo Moyes, I wondered if she had specifically chosen that as a surname for the main protagonist (even though a married name) to foreshadow the action.

peacockThe story revolves around Suzanna Peacock, a woman of 34, who returns, with her husband, Neil, to live in a house provided by her landowner family, near the small town of Dere. They are there because of financial troubles—Neil lost his job, and Suzanna ran up credit card debt—and Suzanna greatly resents the need to be obligated to her parents for providing them with shelter, when what she wants is to be as far from her troubled background as possible, preferably in London. Restless and at loose ends in the country but not willing to consider Neil’s solution of having a baby, Suzanna decides to open a small gift shop and coffee house on the main street of town. She calls it The Peacock Emporium, and Suzanna soon loses herself in collecting all the unique and wonderful items she wishes to sell in her hybrid shop.

Suzanna has never come to terms with her background. Her mother, Athene Forster, first wife of her father, Douglas Fairly-Hulme, died in childbirth, and Douglas’s second wife, Vivi, is the only mother Suzanna has ever known; but the difficult relationship between Douglas and Athene, a self-absorbed, reckless glamor girl, has always overshadowed Suzanna’s complicated relationship with her parents, and has caused her to be withdrawn from the family dynamic. She can’t help but feel that everyone in her family views her through the lens of her mother’s doubtful character.

Putting together the Emporium is the first real accomplishment of Suzanna’s life, but although she takes great pride in the exacting way she has set up the shop, her introverted affect makes her less than ideal as a shopkeeper. What luck, then, when the irrepressibly upbeat Jessie shows up at her door, determined to befriend Suzanna despite herself, and equally committed to turning Suzanna’s showpiece into a neighborhood haunt. As the shop begins to take on the personality of both women, the community embraces it, and Suzanna’s perspectives slowly and subtly begin to change, until a disaster shows up all the cracks in her life that need mending—or rending.

I had a hard time getting into this book initially; the first 80 pages consist of three disparate timelines in different locations, and the story jumps from one to the next with no apparent connection. I hung in there because I have enjoyed this author’s other books, but if things hadn’t started making sense soon after that, I might have put the book down. Fortunately they did; we arrived at the present day with Suzanna and the shop, and subsequent events revealed the necessity for all the previously gleaned information.

This is a book with Moyes’s usual compelling cast of characters who engage you with their issues and quirks, although in this book there are a few that you positively dislike, or at least for whom you lack empathy. It’s also a book containing strong messages, including generational differences, changing cultures, and moral dilemmas. There is an underlying lack of trust amongst many of the characters, primarily due to a dearth of honest communication, but with all of that there are also moments of extraordinary generosity and love. It’s an odd, sometimes depressing, sometimes poignant, and ultimately joyful story that’s not for everyone, but I’m glad I read it.

featherThere are three covers for this book, and none of them gets it right. The hardcover features a woman in a dress from no known era that is associated with this story; the paperback at least has women dressed as Debs from the 1960s (the era of Athene Forster’s debut); but the more recently released paperback features a girl on a bicycle, even though no character in this book ever rides one. I say again, as I have lamented before: Doesn’t anyone in the art department ever read the book? Or at least look at a synopsis? Ask for advice? Care about being true to the story? C’mon.

 

Secrets

Although the title of Liane Moriarty’s book is The Husband’s Secret, many more secrets abound in this book about responsibility, guilt, culpability, and consequences.

secretThe initial secret is contained within a letter, addressed from Jean-Paul to his wife, Cecilia, to be opened only in the event of his death. She finds the letter in with some filed tax papers, and though she itches to open and read it, she reluctantly decides that this would be too great an invasion of her husband’s privacy. She admits to him that she found it, only to be somewhat stunned by the extremity of his reaction when he learns that the letter still exists—he thought it was lost or destroyed long ago. He tries to make light of it (he wrote it right after the birth of their first daughter, now a teenager, and claims it was in the emotional heat of the moment), and asks her not to read it and to give it back to him. But something happens that makes her no longer willing to respect that wish, and all the rest of the consequences of this tale about three families follow.

I had some initial trouble with how, exactly, these three stories would interlock; even though they lived in the same town, there were generational differences, outside influences, and a lot of time and space between some of the events, so the book was hard going for the first part. But after the secret is revealed and everything begins to tie in, I read with increasing fascination and momentum. Part of the fascination was that I did not expect that to be the secret. When you think about something that one spouse is keeping from another, your mind automatically goes to the usual stories: past infidelity, Johnny is not your son, I’m leaving you for the pool boy, etc. But this secret is BIG, and affects so many more people than just the wife to whom it is revealed that it makes the story extra compelling. And of course, the minor secrets people hold that either directly or indirectly impact their relationship with and reaction to the big secret further that suspense.

The particular ways in which all of the characters’ lives entwine one with another is the main appeal of this book, and bring you to various conclusions that are then offset by a catalogue of what-ifs in the epilogue: What if this had happened that way instead of this, what if this person hadn’t been in this place at that time, what if anyone had been able to show a little restraint at the proper moment, etc. That is the core of this book, those what-ifs, and they lead you to look at your own laundry list, past and future, and try to decide (about the events of the book and your own list) whether they are black, white, or gray.

Weirdly, although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, part of me would have preferred other stories to grow out of it. Because all three family dramas were sublimated to the central event, some felt incompletely told. The story of Will, Tess, and Felicity, for instance, had its own trajectory that I wish the author had either explored further here or turned into a separate novel. I really wanted to know what happened there! So far, no joy, but perhaps Moriarty will finish their story someday?

Parenthetically, I’ll say that I am not a fan of the “floofy” covers they put on Moriarty’s books. They definitely downplay the narrative.

 

 

Memory and time

About her book What Alice Forgot, Liane Moriarty says the following:

I had always wanted to write a story about time travel but I found the logistics made my head explode.
Then I read a story about a woman in the U.K. who lost her memory and behaved like a teenager – she didn’t recognize her husband or children. I realized that memory loss is a form of time travel.
So I came up with the idea of a woman, Alice, who loses 10 years of her memory. She thinks she is 29, pregnant with her first child and blissfully in love with her husband. She is horrified to discover
she is 39, with three children and in the middle of a terrible divorce. It’s like
the younger Alice has travelled forward
in time.

aliceforgotIt’s 2008. Alice Love is 39 years old. She is at her spin class at the gym. She didn’t eat any breakfast or drink any water before she began the class, and as she begins to sweat, she becomes faint and falls off the bike, hitting her head quite hard on the way down.

These are all details that you find out later in the book. The opening scene is one of confusion—Alice opening her eyes to discover she is lying on a cold floor with a bunch of people staring at her, and not knowing where she is, why she is there, or what has happened. And when people start trying to explain it to her, she is more confused than ever. She remembers that she is pregnant with her first child, who she and her beloved husband Nick have nicknamed the Sultana (since that’s about the size of the fetus at this point). She doesn’t understand why she was at the gym, because she hates working out, and she is baffled by the thin and taut state of her body, since she remembers it as larger and softer. Once the hospital calls her contacts, she notices that her sister is acting weird around her, almost like a stranger, and when she calls Nick (who is for some reason on a business trip) to tell him she has had an accident, he yells at her and hangs up the phone. What in the world?

Alice has a temporary case of amnesia. She thinks it’s 1998. She doesn’t remember anything at all subsequent to that, including the fact that she now has three children and is in the midst of a nasty and bitter divorce. How is that possible? She and Nick are so happy! After a couple of days at the hospital trying to come to terms with all of this, she returns home to confront what was a ramshackle fixer-upper but is suddenly imbued with every single advantage Alice and Nick had daydreamed when they bought it. Her husband returns from his weekend with the three children, ready to drop them off as usual on Sunday night, and Alice is in a panic—she’s never cared for one child, let alone three, and hers are now actual little people, with personalities and phobias and quirks with which she is completely unfamiliar! She doesn’t know what to feed them, or the addresses of their schools, or that she’s supposed to drop Tom at swim class and take Olivia to her violin lesson—none of it rings the faintest bell. And Nick looks at her with anger and disgust, when all she longs to do is throw herself on his chest and cry.

Readers tell me that what they liked best
about this novel was how it made them
think about the choices they’d made and
wonder how their younger selves would
feel about the lives they are leading now.
—Liane Moriarty

This book is a journey of self revelation, but not just for Alice; because of her condition, she has suddenly gone back to being who she was 10 years ago, and all the people surrounding her must similarly take a look at who they have become in the decade she is missing. Alice discovers that she doesn’t much like many of the decisions she has made that have brought her to this point, and because she can’t remember her life, she busily goes about reversing some of them. This is my favorite part of the book, because her simple naiveté leads her to mend fences that she couldn’t and wouldn’t choose to attempt if she remembered why they were broken. The story is, indeed, a form of time travel, and at this point, I was actually rooting for Alice to remain contentedly in the past!

The book is by turns serious, looking at such subjects as infertility, infidelity, and bullying, and comical in its recounting of Alice’s mishaps as she flails around trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. It similarly challenges the reader to think about decisions made that have led to this point and to wonder—would I do things differently, if I could suddenly revise them?

Both an enjoyable and a rewarding read.

 

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!

 

Big Little Lies

I hadn’t previously read anything by Liane Moriarty, although several librarian friends had recommended her to me, so I decided to start with Big Little Lies, since the TV series stars some of my favorite actors and I’d like to have read the book before embarking on that.

biglittleliesI didn’t know anything about the book, except that it’s classified by some as “women’s fiction,” a category title I have always found insulting. Joyce Saricks, readers’ advisory guru, defines women’s fiction as consisting of “books written primarily by women for women, that feature female characters, and that address the issues women face in their professional and domestic lives.” I find the descriptor “women’s fiction” to be dismissive and ghettoizing. When men were the primary writers of fiction, it was all just fiction, whether literary, mainstream, or genre-based. Why do we need to use condescending terminology that puts female writers in a “less than” category?

It is true that the three main protagonists of Big Little Lies are women with issues (some of them dark): Madeline, Celeste, and Jane. It’s also true that this is primarily a book about white privileged people whose children attend private school. But it’s ultimately a story of parents acting badly, and it features the real lives of children, teens, friends, husbands, wives, second wives, and exes. And the interplay between all these characters, primary and secondary, is smart and witty, making the book completely engaging.

It’s also suspenseful, given that the pivotal moment (which is mentioned at the beginning and then built up to in timed chapters) is a death at the annual Pirriwee Public School Trivia Night, an annual fund-raising event. You know what happens, but not to whom, nor how, nor why. There are small glimpses fed to you in the guise of gossip shared with an unknown interviewer by various secondary characters at intervals throughout the book, which lend further tension as some get it entirely wrong and others come perilously close to guessing secrets they’re not supposed to know.

I loved the way Moriarty sets up the story—the countdown to the trivia contest, the fragments of gossip and commentary, the glimpses into all the lives involved in the broader story. But I particularly loved the entire array of characters, both main and secondary. This is a quintessential example of a character-driven plot, and although its stated theme is suspense, the real content of the book lies in understanding every woman portrayed here. The character development is fresh, intuitive and nuanced, and doesn’t stop with the first few moments of set-up on their personalities, but portrays complex, flawed people with real issues. Moriarty is equally good at capturing the quirks and personalities of all the children involved, and she seasons serious interactions with moments of humor and even hilarity.

I didn’t figure out the climactic moment ahead of time, and honestly spent the second half of the book hoping passionately that she wouldn’t kill off any of the people in which I had invested so thoroughly!

I have put three more books by Moriarty on hold at the library.

 

Autism in fiction

A few years back, I read the book The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. At the time, I didn’t have what you would call a significant reaction to the book; it was more along the lines of “charming, funny, and enjoyable relationship fiction.”

I did comment in my notes on Goodreads that the protagonist, Don, put me in mind of an adult version of Christopher Boone, the kid from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon—I could see him growing up to be Don: precise, literal, frustrating, yet engaging in his innocence and bewilderment about the social norms that escape him.

rosieprojectDon Tillman, Australian genetics professor, is an odd duck. His lifelong difficulties with social rituals and situations have caused him to create an orderly, easily navigated life with a precise routine and little human contact. He does have a few friends, and one of them comments to him that he has many attributes that would make him a good husband. This sets Don, who has never gone on a second date, to thinking about how best he could find a partner for himself with the least amount of fuss. His conclusion is The Wife Project, a questionnaire he devises that he intends to submit widely (mostly via a dating site) to weed out the things he can’t abide and narrow his search to the perfect woman for him: no smokers, no vegetarians, no late people, no messy people…the list of what he doesn’t want far exceeds the list of what he does!

Rosie Jarman shows up at his door intending to ask for his assistance on a genetics project, but because she has been sent by his friend and mentor, Gene, Don thinks she is there in response to The Wife Project questionnaire, and asks her out. He is baffled when he discovers that she is a smoker, a drinker, perpetually tardy, and in no way his ideal woman. But when he questions Gene about her, Gene (with some suppressed mirth) says he threw her in as a “control,” and encourages Don to continue to see her. Don takes up the challenge of Rosie’s genetics project, and begins to learn that perhaps the ideal woman on paper isn’t the one for him.

Although it is obvious to other characters in the book that Don is “on the spectrum,” as it has become modish to say about degrees of autism, Don has not self-diagnosed as such. When he is asked by Gene to substitute for him at giving a lecture and the lecture turns out to be on Asperger’s Syndrome to an audience of children with Asperger’s and their parents, Gene’s wife, Claudia, a psychologist and also Don’s friend, asks him if, in preparing his notes, anything seemed familiar. Don seems baffled by her question and doesn’t arrive at the answer she is obviously implying.

A few readers’ reactions to this novel have been negative, because they felt it mocked or made fun of autistic people, but the book’s author has noted that when he wrote it, he didn’t research Asperger’s, and in fact had based Don on “people I met in physics, information technology and doing a Ph.D.” He follows up by adding, “Experts in the field assure me that Don has Asperger’s and that community says the same thing. It was not my intention to make light of Asperger’s, and the Asperger’s community…regards Don as typical but not stereotypical. He’s seen as a good role model; readers generally love him, and that’s a good thing for the image of ASD.”

Remembering how I had enjoyed this somewhat light but entertaining and thoughtful read, I was pleased to see that while I wasn’t paying attention, Simsion had written two follow-up novels, continuing Don’s and Rosie’s story, and I snagged both sequels from the library’s e-book collection as soon as I could get them.

rosieeffectThe Rosie Effect picks up fairly soon after the events of the first book; Don and Rosie are married (sorry, that’s a spoiler, but you kind of knew how it would end, right?) and living in New York City; they both have satisfying work, and everything seems to be going according to plan, which makes Don feel happy and secure. Then an unexpected pregnancy throws everyone for a loop. Don had always agreed, in the abstract, that he would enjoy having offspring, but as far as he knew, birth control was in place and nothing along those lines would happen without a lengthy discussion and negotiation. Rosie, observing their friend Sonia’s struggles to conceive, realizes she isn’t young any more in terms of optimum child-bearing years, believes it could take some time to become pregnant, and “decides” to forget to take her birth control pills, resulting in an almost immediate “success.”

Don does his best to cope with this news, but approaches it with his usual lack of emotion, choosing instead to make lists of tasks and goals that need to be accomplished before the baby is born and setting about them in typical Don fashion, which is to say he almost immediately finds himself in trouble on every front. Meanwhile Rosie, who was happy as Don’s wife, begins to question what kind of father he will be able to be for their child, and as Don seems increasingly incapable of understanding the emotional commitment she needs, Rosie withdraws. Don will have to rein in his various projects and focus instead on his relationship with his wife and child, or all his good intentions will be for nothing.

I had a little trouble with the evolution of Don’s and Rosie’s relationship as a result of the pregnancy. Don continued to be himself; but Rosie, confronted with parenthood, had an extreme reaction to everything about him that she had previously found charming (if maddening). Her reaction seemed over the top, even for someone whose instincts were telling her to place the welfare of her child over the viability of her marriage. For the first time in their interactions, you see Rosie have as little emotional understanding of Don as Don has of Rosie, and it’s unsettling. But it’s a strong story over all, and with the help of their friends they are both able to attain clarity.

rosieresultThere is a considerable hiatus in years between the ending of the second book and the beginning of The Rosie Result; Don and Rosie’s son, Hudson, is now 11 years old. The family has returned to Melbourne, where both Rosie and Don are working full-time in their professions. It soon becomes clear, however, that one of them will need to suspend a busy schedule to give time and attention to their son, who is having trouble fitting in at school and needs more parenting. Coincidentally, Don does something that is typical (and without agenda) for him but which his students find offensive, and concludes that putting some distance between himself and this problem is congruent with his goal of tutoring Hudson in how to get by in a world that thinks you’re weird. Don quickly realizes that the best thing he can do for Hudson is to “outsource” some of this instruction to people with better social instincts than his, and the following year becomes a good example of a “village” raising a child.

In this third book, Simsion openly confronts the topic of autism; while its effects in Don’s life were duly noted in the first two, it is Hudson’s difficulties in school that bring the topic into focus, and Simsion uses the interactions of the Tillman/Jarman family with school administrators, teachers, and counselors, other parents and students, and their unusual group of friends to highlight various sides of the issue. He shows the prejudices that confront people who don’t fit in with perceived social norms, and specifically discusses the pitfalls that lie in allowing a child to be “diagnosed” with something that will follow them for the rest of their school career and beyond. Labeling and identity, both specifically with regard to autism but also in a wider sense, are prevalent themes, and the book directly questions people’s assumptions about autism.

There is a particularly effective scene in which Don and Rosie attend a panel discussion about autism, participated in by a mother who has taken every route—including intensive tutoring, medication, and behavior modification—to help her daughter conform to neurotypical norms, as well as an activist who maintains that autism is not a disease but an identity. Her example is that she doesn’t ‘have’ lesbianism, she is a lesbian; therefore, she doesn’t ‘have’ autism, she is autistic—it’s part of who she is, not something visited upon her that she needs to confront and conquer.

Far from turning the book into a polemic, I felt that this debate, fictionalized and exemplified by the relationships amongst the participants in the story, made it all the more compelling. It is particularly touching as Don, who is determined to make Hudson’s life better than his own by teaching him to cope with society’s expectations, comes to realize that perhaps his response isn’t the best one for Hudson, and that if Hudson can navigate his life by being himself, there may be more wiggle room in his experience than his father had assessed. While maintaining the gentle humor inherent in Don’s (and Hudson’s) misunderstandings of social norms that Simsion portrayed in the first two books, in this one the intensities of the relationships become truly heartfelt. The arc of this three-book story is completed with vastly more depth than one would expect from light, “relationship” fiction.

 

On the shore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Another flower book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Two steps forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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