If it’s August, it must be time for the annual Inspector Gamache mystery by Louise Penny. It’s amazing to me that she can keep turning one out every year, no matter what. A few times I feel like the series has suffered, but mostly they are intricately plotted, with intelligent dialogue, in-depth philosophy, and compelling characters. This one was no exception, although there were a few moments while reading it that I wanted to say, Where is your editor in all of this?
The setting is once again the village of Three Pines, south of Montreal, Quebec (the previous book in the series occurred while the Gamaches and Beauvoirs were on a visit to Paris), and it is post-covid. I’m sure that when Penny wrote it, she anticipated a legitimate post-covid world in which everyone was going about their normal lives again instead of one plagued by variants that threaten to keep us in masks and in isolation for yet another season (or year). But at the heart of her plot is a moral issue that has sprung to life partially as a result of the medical shortages and triage of the worst days of the epidemic, and it’s dark.
Never assay a Penny mystery expecting it to be an ordinary police procedural. She incorporates not only philosophy and politics, but also art and poetry, and while the police work is meticulous, the feelings and intuitions of the officers involved (with Gamache at their head) are always as essential as are the bare facts of the case. One of the things I enjoy about Penny is that she inserts real poems and quotes and books into her fictional works; the title of this one is based on a book by Charles Mackay, called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. She immediately made me want to seek it out.
This book uses its characters and story to explore such social issues as disinformation and propaganda, xenophobia, and eugenics. I feel like her pivotal character, Professor Abigail Robinson, is consciously modeled on some of the charismatic but wildly morally skewed characters who have appeared as players in the recent American story, in the way that she divides the culture in two over the validity of her theories with the sheer strength of personality and certitude.
One Goodreads reviewer opines that this novel is “the most allegorical of Louise Penny’s work. The actual murder is incidental to the plot, serving only as a springboard to examine morality on both personal and societal levels.” I’m not sure I would go that far; but there is occasionally an arms-length feel to the crime they are supposed to be solving, as opposed to the debate they are constantly having.
Gamache is asked to provide security at a lecture being given by a professor of statistics. Given the presumably dry content of a speech on statistical analysis and the fact that it’s taking place at an obscure university auditorium in between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Gamache is puzzled as to why anyone would approach the Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec to oversee this task; but then he does a little research on the likely content of the professor’s speech and immediately musters a far bigger response than anyone would expect at what should be an incidental, poorly attended event. More people show up than the venue can accommodate, and Gamache has a volatile and angry crowd on his hands as the professor steps up to speak.
One thing that bothered me about this book is how long it takes to reveal the specific contents of the professor’s government-solicited (but later repudiated) report on which her call for action is based. Another was how long it took to get to the actual murder, using some “foreplay” crime to keep the reader going until we arrive. And a third was the resolution of the mystery: There were multiple individuals who could have been the culprit, and none of them stands out for long, as facts are discovered that exonerate each one, only to raise more doubts about the others and then circle back around again. It felt like Gamache, Beauvoir, and Lacoste spent an aeon going over basically similar theories for why each person was or could be the murderer, and they all made sense! This is one of the few of her books that didn’t have that “Ahah!” moment in it when the unexpected solution arises and proves to be the truth. I think this is probably because Penny wanted the social commentary, rather than the murder, to be the star of the show…but it made the actual mystery a long, drawn-out process.
With all this caveating (is that a word?), I was still thoroughly engaged by and absorbed in the story. We are reunited with familiar villagers, get to know others who haven’t been prominent before, and are also introduced to a variety of strangers, each of whom brings their own twist to the plot. The physical details are, as usual, spot-on for a winter interlude in coldest Canada, and made me want to drink hot chocolate even in 100-degree Los Angeles! (I sometimes wish that her annual pub-date was in February, so I could be in accord with her characters as they snuggle up with comfort food and beverages around the fire.) And the moral dilemma around which the entire plot is wrapped is likewise riveting, albeit deeply disturbing.
I made a comment in my review of A Better Man (two books back) about a stylistic shift I saw taking place in Penny’s writing structure and, while I noticed that it mostly disappeared again in All the Devils Are Here, it’s back in this book. She does this short-phrase, incomplete-sentence thing that can occasionally work as a device to emphasize something, but is less pleasing when it constantly occurs. Perhaps she (or her editor) will see this comment, here or elsewhere and, taking it to heart, go back to the more fluid literary construct of yore. But even with that, I still give the book four stars out of five.
The topic for this list is fantasy. I’m going to include both stand-alone and series, both old and new, and from different subgenres, so all is hopefully represented. I will note that some of my choices may be found in the Young Adult section of the library, but I include them here because I believe them to be works that probably should have been released as mainstream, rather than under the YA banner; they would appeal to anyone who likes the fantastical, the speculative, the magical, the offbeat and quirky. Adults who read fantasy should seek these out!
This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the best fantasies out there, merely my choices from among my extensive pursuit of the genre. I hope you find something new, or new to you, that satisfies your preference as well.
Alphabetical, by author’s last name:
ADAMS, RICHARD: The Beklan Empire. This is a duology—Shardik and Maya—and although some of the events of Maya predate those of Shardik, that book should be read first and Maya treated as a flashback, or there will be many things that are unclear. This is what I would term an epic fantasy, featuring in the starring roles a giant bear and a simple hunter, Kelderek, who believes the bear to be divine, a prophesied savior of his semi-barbaric people. Kelderek follows both his and the bear’s destiny, first as a humble devotee and ultimately as a priest-king of an empire. The story continues in Maya with a very specific viewpoint (from the perspective of a “bed girl”) on how the empire has evolved under the priest-king’s stewardship.
BARDUGO, LEIGH: The Six of Crows duology—Six of Crows, and Crooked Kingdom. Some are more familiar with Bardugo for her Shadow and Bone trilogy about the Grisha, but I much prefer this duology, written later, set in the same general universe, but without all the magic and (mostly unrequited) angsty teen love. This duology features a gang of characters—a thief, a sharpshooter, a spy, and more—fighting their way up from the underbelly of their society to get what’s theirs and wreak revenge on those who took it from them. There is attraction among the characters, but it’s subtle and doesn’t take over the story. The books are set in an alternate universe much like a slightly medieval Amsterdam, in its alley-ways, bordellos, warehouses, and other haunts of the city’s outcasts. The language is beautiful, the plotting is compelling, and the characters are unique.
CASHORE, KRISTIN: The Graceling Realm—Graceling, Fire, Bitterblue. I absolutely adore Graceling, but it’s not for everyone. But if you like a story with an underdog who triumphs, with magic but also encompassing real, tangible hardships and joys plus a love story, you may feel about it as I do. Graceling is set in the Five Kingdoms, where children who are born with eyes that are two different colors are recognized as possessing some exceptional skill or Grace. For some it’s as mundane as being able to curl your tongue, while for others it’s a power akin to magic. In one of the five kingdoms, the ruler requires that any child who has a gift revealed by the two-color eyes be given up by their parents and delivered to his service. This is how Katsa becomes the king’s assassin: Her Grace is killing. But the darkness of her gift casts a heavy shadow over Katsa, so when the opportunity comes to stop killing but nonetheless put her associated skills to good use, she takes it, embarking on an adventure that will require all her resources. This is an odd grouping of books: Fire, the second in the series, features another protagonist from a different one of the kingdoms and with a peripheral relationship to the first book, and Bitterblue, the third book, is the actual sequel to Graceling, but takes place some years later. I enjoyed them all, but the first the most. They remind me of the books of Robin McKinley.
FFORDE, JASPER: The Last Dragonslayer, The Song of the Quarkbeast, The Eye of Zoltar, and the upcoming Jennifer Strange: Humans v. Trolls. This series has been promoted (although I’m not sure the author had that intention) as reading for children. In fact, the content is filled with satire, parody, and sly, inside jokes about the British Empire that no child reading it will ever perceive. And while some teens like the series well enough, I have found it to be much more popular with adult readers who can appreciate its subtleties. The story is about a 15-year-old foundling named Jennifer Strange, who runs Kazam, an employment agency for magicians. The problem is, magic is fading, and where magicians used to take on major projects, now the guy with the magic carpet delivers pizza. The magicians who live at and work from Kazam (an old hotel) rely on faded glory rather than actual present talent, and it takes an ideal combination of tact and motivational speaking on Jennifer’s part to keep the agency going. But then a precognitive vision starts circulating the land, predicting the death of the world’s last dragon at the hands of an unnamed Dragonslayer. If the visions are true, Big Magic is on its way. There are currently three books in the series, with the fourth promised “sometime in 2021” (I have this direct from Fforde himself, in an email).
GODWIN, PARKE: Firelord, Beloved Exile. This is one of the best, most realistically depicted stories about the life, triumph, and death of Artorius Pendragon—the legendary King Arthur. The first tells his story, in the wake of the Roman abandonment of its British holdings, and the second is about what happens to Guinevere and his kingdom after his death. Gripping, gritty, and also lyrical.
HARTMAN, RACHEL: Seraphina, Shadow Scale, Tess of the Road. If you are an aficionado of dragon books and dragon lore, you must read Hartman’s take on them. The story is set in the kingdom of Goredd, a medieval world where there has been an uneasy truce between dragons and humans for about 40 years. The dragons, shapeshifters who can take on human guise, bring their gift of rationality and mathematical expertise to humans as scholars and teachers at the university. Seraphina Dombegh, a gifted musician who plays in the court orchestra, has become aware of tensions between humans and dragons, and when a member of the royal family is murdered in a specifically draconian fashion, she is drawn into the investigation. But Seraphina herself has a secret, and she struggles to protect it as she teams up with the captain of the Queen’s guard to discover a sinister plot to destroy the interspecies treaty. Original, thought-provoking, with sly humor and dark moments. The third book is not a direct sequel, but takes place in the same “universe” with a few of the same characters appearing in minor roles.
HOBB, ROBIN: The Farseer Trilogy—Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, Assassin’s Quest. I have only recently discovered Robin Hobb and am currently halfway through the third book in this trilogy. The world-building is absolutely riveting, and the depth and complexity of character development carries you away into the land of the Six Duchies with no desire to leave. The protagonist, FitzChivalry, is the bastard son of the King-In-Waiting to the throne of the Six Duchies, but his very existence causes his father to abdicate, leaving it to the second son, Verity. But son #3, Regal, is determined that he will be the one to rule, and he is willing to take any measures to make that happen, including eliminating all competition—his father, his brother, and the Bastard. This is a fascinating look at a kingdom and a dynasty from the perspective of one of its lowliest subjects, who is, despite his own wish for a simple, peaceful life, destined to be the Catalyst to resolve the kingdom’s problems or die trying—to which fate he comes perilously close on multiple occasions. There are magical abilities manifested by some of the characters, but these hinder as much as help, and it is the raw humanity that sticks with you from this story. Hobb has other series, which I will be seeking out soon!
KLUNE, T. J.: The House in the Cerulean Sea. An unalloyed delight from start to finish. Here is my recent review. Don’t miss this one.
LEGUIN, URSULA K.: The Earthsea cycle—A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other Wind. This started out many years ago as a self-contained trilogy, but then LeGuin came back to it and wrote three more books (one of them is short stories). LeGuin is a masterful storyteller, with a combination of simplicity and profundity that no one else can match. The boy known as Sparrowhawk, a herder of goats from a small outlying island, gets a taste of the power of magic and pursues it to the Isle of Wizards. But in his quest for skill and knowledge, he tampers with powers beyond his abilities and looses a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing: how he masters the mighty words of power, confronts an ancient dragon, rescues a girl from an unimaginable life, discovers a prince, and crosses death’s threshold to restore balance to the world.
de LINT, CHARLES: The Newford books—too many to list here. De Lint writes urban fantasy, set in the mythical city of Newford (compared to Montréal, Canada). They are wonderful in that they seem to be about a group of regular friends, but then magical elements seep in from across the veil to invade everyday life with whimsy and wonder. My favorites of his are Trader, about a musician who doesn’t appreciate his life until he has it forcibly taken away from him when a loser manages to use Inuit magic to swap bodies with him, and Memory and Dream, in which a young artist learns to physically paint her fantasy people into real life. But there are many other titles to be enjoyed.
MARCHETTA, MELINA: The Lumatere Chronicles—Finnikin of the Rock, Froi of the Exiles, Quintana of Charyn. This is a trilogy that is harder than it should be to promote because, although the first book is good, it’s not far beyond the ordinary. (I shouldn’t downplay it too much—it consistently receives five stars on Goodreads.) But the second and third books in the trilogy are so amazingly conceived of and written that I am on a constant quest to convince people to read the first so that they can benefit from the others! In Finnikin of the Rock, a false king has taken over a kingdom, slaying the entire royal family; he has also put to death the high priestess of one of the goddesses worshipped there. As she dies, she curses the kingdom so that all still in it are trapped inside, and all outside its borders are exiled. The story starts 10 years later, as Finnikin, best friend of the young prince of the true ruling family, meets Evanjelin, a strange novice from a religious retreat house who claims that they both have a role in restoring the kingdom. Froi of the Exiles and Quintana of Charyn pick up with characters we met in the first book, about three years after those incidents. The richness of the world, the depth and versatility of the characters, the emotion infusing everything make this a magnificent series worthy of much more attention by fantasy readers.
McGUIRE, SEANAN: The Wayward Children series—Every Heart A Doorway is the first, and there are five more so far. Among all the old tales are those of children who have disappeared, who have departed through the back of a wardrobe, jumped down a rabbit hole, walked through a mirror, and have arrived somewhere else. But nobody ever talks about what happens to those children who return from their alternate worlds. How do they adjust to being regular people in a mundane life? And what happens to those who just can’t? Eleanor West runs a home for those wayward children, whose parents believe Eleanor is attempting to bring the children back to a sense of their place in the real world. But Miss West’s actual intentions are to enable them to return to the worlds where they truly feel at home. These books are little jewels, more novella length than full novels, but fully realized, beautifully imagined, and skillfully written.
McGuire also writes urban fantasy; I love one of the series (The InCryptids), and dislike the other (October Daye), but you must decide for yourself.
McKINLEY, ROBIN: Almost all standalones, too many to list. McKinley’s success for me is uneven; I absolutely love some, and don’t care for others at all. Her Damar duology—The Hero and the Crown, and The Blue Sword—are wonderful classic fantasy. Of her others, I also love Deerskin, Chalice, Sunshine, and Shadows, all completely different one from another.
NOVIK, NAOMI: I reviewed her book Spinning Silver here; it’s the only one I have read as of yet, but I fully intend to follow up with her.
OWEN, MARGARET: Reviews of her duology are here for The Merciful Crow and here for The Faithless Hawk. I was blown away when I discovered these were first books for her; they are so full of nuance that I believed her to be a long-established writer.
PIERCE, TAMORA: The Beka Cooper trilogy—Terrier, Bloodhound, Mastiff. Most of Tamora Pierce’s books about the kingdom of Tortall, a semi-feudal land populated by knights and ladies, craftspeople and thieves, commoners, and some supernatural creatures, are written specifically for middle-school readers. But one trilogy from all the Tortall “cycles” stands out as something quite different. Beka Cooper is a young woman, but she is more woman than girl, and virtually everyone else in the books is an adult. The series fluidly combines medieval fantasy with mystery and police procedural, using a memoir format. The characters are engaging, the themes are sophisticated, and the mysteries are well paced and satisfying. Beka is a “Dog,” which is the nomenclature used to refer to police officers in the Provost’s Guard. In the first book, Terrier, she is in her trainee year, assigned to two veteran officers. In Bloodhound, the second book, she ends up with a canine partner, a scent hound she rescues from an abusive handler. She, the hound, and one of her former training partners are sent undercover to another city to research the spread of counterfeit silver destroying its economy. The third book, Mastiff, pairs Beka with the other of her training officers, on an assignment critical to the fate of the Tortallan royal family and government. The supernatural element is the hardest to accept for some readers—Beka gets messages from the recently dead by listening to their voices, which are carried by pigeons, and she also gathers clues by standing in the middle of dust devils, picking up conversation the dust devil has absorbed. But these details, plus the made-up dialect for the Tortallan lower city inhabitants, gives a more special cast to this already compelling series. One warning: The books start out with a flash-forward to the journal of one of Beka’s descendents, and this element is completely confusing (and somewhat off-putting) in reference to the rest of each book. I would skip these prologues and perhaps return to them after reading the rest.
PRATCHETT, TERRY: The Tiffany Aching books—The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight, The Shepherd’s Crown. One of the most delightful fantasy series ever written, in my opinion—a wonderful combination of sincerity and message with tongue-in-cheek hilarity. It begins with young Tiffany, granddaughter of the Witch of the Chalk (although to Tiffany she’s just her granny), having to stave off an attack by an evil water sprite on her baby brother while armed only with a frying pan. When the Queen of the Faeries later kidnaps her brother, she seeks allies in the Nac Mac Feegle (the wee free men of the title), a clan of sheep-stealing, sword-wielding six-inch high blue men with Scottish kilts and the dialect to match. Subsequent books show Tiffany preparing to herself become the Witch of the Chalk, through various means and with a highly divergent cast of characters. By turns vastly entertaining and quite touching, with puns galore and lots of witchy wisdom, plus the Feegle for leavening.
SCHWAB, V. E. (VICTORIA): The Shades of Magic trilogy—
A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering of Shadows, A Conjuring of Light. In this world, there are four parallel Londons: Red, Grey, White, and (no longer accessible) Black. Kell is an Antari, a magician with the ability to travel between them. Kell was raised in Red London and serves the monarchy of that empire as an ambassador. He’s also a smuggler, not attuned enough to the dangerous consequences of his actions. When an exchange goes badly, he escapes to Grey London, where he encounters Delilah Bard, a pickpocket with aspirations (she wants to be a pirate), who first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, ultimately convincing him to take her to a London with magic. The two end up being major players in events of consequence to all the Londons. Great characters and a gripping adventure.
Schwab is also the author of the books Vicious and Vengeful (more sci fi than fantasy), with a third book upcoming, and the recent bestseller The Invisible Life of Addie Larue. So different are all these one from another that they truly showcase Schwab’s masterful talent. Vicious is one of my favorite books of all time—don’t miss it.
STIEFVATER, MAGGIE: The Shiver trilogy, the Raven Cycle, the Dreamer trilogy, The Scorpio Races… Do NOT let the fact that these are all shelved in Young Adult deter you from reading an amazing fantasy writer. The Shiver books are more YA than the others, but if you like tales of werewolves and doomed love you will enjoy them. The Raven Cycle and the Dreamer trilogy take place in the same universe and are complex, interesting, and original. The Scorpio Races is another favorite of mine (I was a horsey girl at age 12). Check her out.
TAYLOR, LAINI: Strange the Dreamer, and Muse of Nightmares. At the center of these two books is Lazlo Strange, a foundling, a librarian’s assistant with his head full of stories. He never believed, while growing up as an orphan with the priests, that his adventures would extend beyond his current world. But humans, gods, and monsters all conspire to make Lazlo the protagonist of this fascinating tale, luring him across the great desert Elmuthaleth to the city now known as Weep, which cowers in the shadow of a giant metal seraph in the sky with nightmares at its heart. Lush language, complexities of emotion, and conflicts of conscience characterize this sophisticated fiction that simultaneously manages to deal with larger issues but still be a whale of a good story, with conflicts and twists and gripping love.
TURNER, MEGAN WHALEN: The Queen’s Thief series. This series has suffered from two unfortunate circumstances: It was billed for some reason as a series for children, which it emphatically is not; and because of this fact, the cover art on the original book was juvenile in appearance and served to sink the series into the realm of unread 5th-grade fiction. (The publisher also stubbornly maintains that the books in this series may be read as stand-alones, which is emphatically not the case. You must read them all, and in order!)
In reality, while the writing is deceptively simple, the story line is sophisticated, sly, and engaging to the most adult of readers. This is one of those series whose first book is good but maybe not great, but in which each subsequent book grows in interest, in style, in sophistication, until by the end there has been an exponential increase in enjoyment. The first book is The Thief, narrated by a rather mysterious young man named Gen, who has gotten himself into hot water through his daring thefts and now must serve as a guide to a hidden treasure for the king’s mage and his companions. The journey (and the story) seem fairly commonplace until the ending, when everything you know gets turned upside down and makes you immediately want to reread the book with this additional knowledge. The second book is narrated by the queen of an adjacent kingdom; the third by a soldier who serves that queen; the fourth by the heir to a perilous heritage he is being prevented from achieving; the fifth by a slave of a great power across the ocean, and the last brings us back full circle to Eugenides (Gen). The series is set, unlike most fantasy, in more of a Greek islands type theme, with the islands being ruled by various royal houses who are all threatened with conquest by the Medean Empire. This is my favorite fantasy series ever, hands down.
WHEW! that was a long post! But I hope it enables you to you spend a summer immersed in fantasy, if that is your wish!
I didn’t know what to expect when beginning A Woman Is No Man, by Etaf Rum, although the title of course gave me clues. And having read it, I’m not sure what exactly I was able to take from it.
The story is an intergenerational saga about Arab women. The two main protagonists are Isra, and Isra’s daughter Deya, separated by 17 years but experiencing many of the same life choices. Isra was born and raised in Palestine in a restrictive, traditional home, with a mother obsessed with getting her married off properly at the youngest age possible. Although Isra realizes her life is not ideal, in Palestine she has at least the beauty of the landscape in which she lives, and which she loves. But when her mother picks the suitor from America, whose family is visiting Palestine to find him a bride, Isra can’t help letting a tiny bit of excitement surface about what her new life might be like in America. She envisions certain freedoms her parents would never have permitted her, and she hopes to find love with her taciturn young suitor, Adam, the eldest in a family of three boys and a girl.
The reality is far different. Her home is in the basement of her inlaws’ house, with one window that looks out on a street barren of all greenery but a plane tree or two. Her mother-in-law, Fareeda, is every bit as conservative as Isra’s own family—all she wants from Isra is for her to relieve Fareeda from the cooking and cleaning and to produce a male heir for the family. There is no question of college, a job, or even a walk around the block on her own; Isra is essentially a prisoner of her new family’s culture, as stultifying as the old. Fareeda’s obsession with a male grandson prompts pregnancy after pregnancy for Isra, who is “unlucky” enough to bear only girls.
Seventeen years after Isra came to New York, we see the same household, headed by Fareeda, from the viewpoint of Deya, Isra and Adam’s eldest daughter. Adam and Isra are dead, and the girls are being raised by their grandparents. Deya is now the one in the hotseat being exhorted to pick a suitor, and though she has expressed interest in college and some kind of life outside the home and the marriage bond, no one is listening to her…until she meets a strangely familiar woman who urges her to stand up for herself and refuse to perpetuate the life of restriction and abuse experienced by her mother.
I’m really torn by how to react to this book. I feel like the representation rings true, but I’m not sure how widespread is this author’s experience in the context of present-day Palestinian Americans. I applaud the author for taking on the difficult subjects of generational discrimination and family/spousal abuse, but even though the point she is making is that the women who suffer from this are essentially prisoners of a tiny sequestered life, I found myself becoming bored and impatient with the incessant, repetitive details of that life. Despite being the recipient of awards and encomiums from critics, this is not beautifully written literary fiction, but simply a straightforward narrative. There are occasional flights of fancy that draw one in, but it’s mainly kind of a slog.
Also, the usual result of telling a story from the perspective of two generations is that the more recent one has learned something from the experiences of the previous one; but in this book, I feel like in some ways Isra and Deya are almost interchangeable, both in their experience and their thought patterns; neither of them is able to articulate their situations. They dither a lot without drawing conclusions because the basic question, “What do you want?” seems to be so far beyond them, which, while possibly being the point, is also deeply unsatisfying. It made the story both horrifying and boring, and I don’t know what to do with that. I kept reading to the end, and was confused all over again.
I can’t say I’m happy to have read this book, but perhaps I can express gratitude that it’s in the world for those who need it and will benefit by it? It gives a voice to a certain sector of the Arab Muslim community, but its lack of nuance will enrage some, even as they acknowledge the representation.
From my first glimpse of the whimsical cover illustration with its charming lettering,
I had high hopes that I would love this book. It reminded me in some ways of another unexpected pleasure, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, by Trenton Lee Stewart. They have some similar central themes—difference, acceptance, empathy, friendship—but I would say that whereas Nicholas Benedict is primarily written for children, this book—though certainly appropriate for youth above a certain age—is definitely targeted towards the adults in the audience, despite its population of characters who are six years old. Just like another favorite of mine—The Last Dragonslayer, by Jasper Fforde—this is fantasy that, while it may appeal to people of all ages, can only be fully appreciated by an understanding of the nuance, the inferences, the underlying message.
Linus Baker is the quintessential civil servant. He works hard at his mid-level job, refrains from involvement in the petty office politics that surround him, and spends his scant leisure time snug at home with his cat, Calliope, and his vintage record player. He is occasionally made unhappy by the arbitrary pronouncements of his immediate supervisor and her lackey, and is also sometimes discouraged by the unrelenting rain that afflicts the city in which he lives, but since these things have been essentially the same for the past 17 years, he doesn’t think about it much.
Linus works for DICOMY, the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, as a Case Worker. His job is to investigate the state-run orphanages specifically designated for the housing of children with special powers and gifts, and to make recommendations regarding the best care of the orphans. He is painstakingly thorough at this job, but has learned not to look past his final reports to wonder what happens once he has been and gone.
One particularly miserable morning, Linus is summoned to meet with Extremely Upper Management, and they tell him that because of the excellence of his reports related to previous endeavors, he has been selected to investigate Marsyas Island Orphanage, a level-four classified institution that houses some of the rarest and most dangerous children, to comment on the welfare of those housed there and also on the caretaker, one Arthur Parnassus.
Linus’s journey to the island is the beginning of an adventure that initially seems wasted on this stuffy 40-year-old bureaucrat, but which proves to be a transformation for all involved.
This story was an unalloyed delight from start to finish. The level of exaggeration in the set-up is borderline ridiculous, and yet renders the rest of it perfectly realized. It’s a character-driven tale, and oh what characters! In contrast to the stereotypical nature of those appearing in the first section, the children of the orphanage are as diverse as an author could imagine: The six children are either completely or virtually unique, either the last or only of their kind, or at least exceedingly rare, and this isn’t just a commentary on their magical natures but also on their personalities. Likewise, Arthur Parnassus is an enigma worth exploring, and Linus Baker soon discovers that he is very much interested in doing so, though it be against his conscious will, which is obsessed with strictly following the Rules and Regulations.
Linus has been allotted a month on the island to do his research, write four weekly reports, and deliver his conclusions to Extremely Upper Management, and though initially dismayed by the prospect, Arthur and the children soon draw him into their isolated little world and cause him to embrace feelings he has never before experienced. The level of unconditional love and kindness expressed is heartwarming, and yet this is not a cloying story but rather a plea by the different among us to be seen, recognized, and accepted with all their idiosyncrasies. It asks tough questions about prejudice and complacency, and challenges our need to categorize people into stereotypes in order to deal with—or forget—them more easily. But ultimately the book is all about hope and about love that doesn’t discriminate. As I said in my title, it has all the feels. I can’t give it higher praise than to say that while it made me laugh and entertained me thoroughly, it also made me want to be a better person. It’s the perfect book for that moment when your faith in people is slipping.
Just for fun, I decided to illustrate one of the opening scenes when Linus Baker arrives on the island and confronts some of the children. The green blob is Chauncey, whose sweet nature belies his monstrous form, and whose most dearly held wish is to become a bell-boy at a hotel in the city (thus the bellman’s cap). He has come to greet Linus and deal with his luggage. The Pomeranian peeking out from behind him (and faintly visible in his entirety through the amorphous blob of Chauncey’s body) is Sal, a large, shy, silent boy who shifts, in moments of panic, into the form of a small dog.
While my belief is that black history is history and should be taught as such, calling it out for a month a year at least gets some attention, since our school curriculum is still not what it should be. Likewise, calling out some black authors, and some non-black authors who have written effectively about black history and culture, is always a good idea, but the prompt is helpful to remind one. So…
Science fiction is one genre that can definitely usher you through time. Octavia Butler‘s Kindred, which some say is the first science fiction written by an African American woman, is a combination of memoir and time travel that transports 26-year-old Dana from 1976 California to antebellum Maryland, where she arrives just in time to save a white boy from drowning, then jumps back just before the shotgun staring her in the face can go off. Like Henry in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Dana’s jumps are inadvertent, but they serve a purpose in her life history. Butler manages to provide both a conversation about serious issues—slavery, human rights, and racial prejudice—and an exciting and complex story about human nature, love, and loss.
For a glimpse into the future instead of the past, try Parable of the Sower, set in that familiar dystopia known as Los Angeles in the year 2025 (not so far off!), and following the fortunes of Lauren Olamina, an 18-year-old pioneer of a new philosophy known as Earthseed. Parable of the Talents is the sequel.
Since Butler died tragically young (in 2006, at age 58), there will be no more of her seminal works featuring female black heroines, but her contributions to the science fiction world won her both the Hugo and Nebula awards multiple times, and she was the first science fiction writer ever to win the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.
Like a little mystery with your history? Try Barbara Hambly’s mystery series that begins with A Free Man of Color. Set in New Orleans in the 1830s (right after the Louisiana Territory was acquired by America), the characters are a rich mix of French, Spanish, and American, Creole, African slave, and “free people of color.” Benjamin January (or Janvier, depending on the language you’re speaking) is one of the latter, a Paris-trained surgeon who must earn his living in New Orleans as a piano player. Between his two professions he mingles with all levels of society, and inevitably someone turns to him for his appealing mix of compassion and good sense to help them solve a dilemma, a puzzle, or even a murder. There are 18 books, so if you’re hooked by the first one, you can relish Ben January’s world for a sumptuous long time.
Another book set in the same time period and also on the subject of the gens de couleur libre is Anne Rice’s second novel, The Feast of All Saints. If you thought Rice was only about vampires, think again: She researched this while in New Orleans planning out Interview with the Vampire, and in my opinion it’s the best thing she ever wrote (and I’m a fan of the vamps, and the witches too). Rich with the history of pre-Civil War New Orleans, with truly compelling characters, it is beautifully written, poignant, and emotionally overwhelming.
Some other books to which I’d like to draw your attention, that encompass the history of the present and the recent past:
The Rock and the River (about the Black Panther movement), by Kekla Magoon
How It Went Down (an account of a shooting, from 17 different viewpoints), also by Kekla Magoon
Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith, about a black girl pilot trying to participate in World War II
Tyrell, by Coe Booth, a young adult novel representative of all too many young black men with few alternatives. A compelling voice and an engaging story.
March, by John Lewis, a series of three graphic novels about the Civil Rights Movement, by the senator who was by the side of Martin Luther King
Please note that this is a short, random, partial list of books that in no way represent the richness of writing available out there, but simply reflects some books I read, enjoyed, and appreciated for their topic and their tone. I hope you find something to enjoy.
Impersonation, by Heidi Pitlor, is described as a book about a professional ghost writer, Allie Lang, who is hired to write a memoir. The subject (and supposed actual author) of the memoir is Lana Breban, a lawyer and women’s rights advocate with (it turns out, big surprise) aspirations to run for office. Her “people” have concluded that her tough image needs softening, and what could be better than a tell-all about her experiences as a feminist mother raising a son?
What this book is actually about is much less clear—in fact, it’s a bit muddy. First off, Allie, who has made a minor career working as a ghost writer for those who can’t write their own, is less memorable for her experiences in this arena and more as regards the perils of trying to live your life as a freelancer when you are a single mother. Given her status—sole support to herself and her boy, Cass—one would expect her to be tougher, feistier, more proactive about standing up for herself. This is a major disappointment of character development.
When she first gets the gig writing Lana Breban’s book, she’s excited—Lana is a sort of heroine to her—and she fantasizes about all the time they will spend together while Lana recounts her motherhood stories so Allie can craft them into a powerful narrative. The actual events, however, are far less satisfactory—Lana is too busy with the rest of her life to give Allie any time, and (oddly) refuses to divulge the details about her life as a wife or as Norman’s mother. Allie garners a few facts, but it’s like pulling teeth, and Lana basically tells Allie to do her research, put together some materials on feminism and boys, and cobble it all together with a thin strand of relevant detail.
Unfortunately, neither Allie’s editor nor her publishers are satisfied with the conscientious research approach, and Lana’s own people concur—they want the personal, not the educational. But Lana still won’t budge, and Allie is caught in the middle. This is where the book really begins to fall apart for me. Allie takes up her difficulties and reservations with both her agent and her contact at the publishing house, explains that she can’t do her job properly without more cooperation from Lana, and is basically told to get it done no matter what she has to do. They both essentially give her the brush-off. I found this part of the plot to be wholly unbelievable—surely at least one of them would be willing to take it up with Lana, or at least with her people, and give Allie some support.
The rest of the book talks unendingly about Allie’s problems—with the book and in life—but Allie never seems to figure out how to stand up for herself. Admittedly, people of Lana’s class and stature (the truth that begins to emerge is that her son has been raised by a nanny and never sees his mother) don’t understand or care about what people of Allie’s class go through when it comes to personal privations experienced in trying to make ends meet, no matter what lip service they pay. But there are so many points in the narrative at which the reader (or at least this reader) just wants to shake Allie and scream, Are you crazy? Do this! Don’t do that! SPEAK UP! When she finds herself in an unresolvable predicament, I felt like it was her just desserts.
The book explores such themes as class blindness, economic instability, how to raise empathetic sons, the MeToo movement, the distress of seeing Trump elected President, conflicts between mothers and daughters, and more. But all this “topicality” overpowers the story line and ensures a lack of connection with its main characters, who end up being both boring and unlikeable.
I have probably given too much away for a reviewer, but honestly, I kept reading waiting for a payoff that was so minor and with an ending so odd that I regretted not paying more attention to the fact that the majority of ratings on Goodreads were two or three stars. I feel like the title unintentionally gives away more about the book than was meant—it’s impersonating an important read, but really it’s just some sad people coping poorly with life. It is characterized in its publisher’s description and in author quotes as satirical, timely, insightful, and bitingly funny; of all of those, I could maybe agree with insightful. The satire, if such it was, was painful, the timeliness is contained in the context but not in the details, and I failed to find the humor.
Maybe I was just having a bad week…but I don’t think so.
I just finished reading An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. I can’t remember how I came across it—I ordered it from Book Outlet, but whether I browsed it and decided on it or it was recommended by one of the readers on Facebook’s “What Should I Read Next?” group, I don’t remember. The plot, which speaks to contemporary situations, intrigued me, and there is much to like about this book.
The basic story is this: Roy and Celestial meet, then meet again, and eventually fall in love or decide they have found the right partner, or whatever people do who decide to marry. Roy is in business but has greater aspirations, and Celestial is a fabric artist, specializing in making eerily lifelike baby dolls. They are married for about 18 months and are celebrating the anniversary of their first date when a crime is committed nearby and the victim identifies Roy as her rapist. Although Celestial knows it’s impossible (he was with her at the time, and neither was asleep), she is the only witness and is apparently less convincing to his jury than is the victim; Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison.
For the first three years of Roy’s incarceration, Celestial stays true to Roy, although her sense of him, herself, and their marriage suffers as time goes on with little reinforcement as to its reality. She continues to pursue a dream first articulated by Roy to open a shop to sell her “poupées” (dolls), and allows her work to consume her as she feels increasingly alienated from her marriage.
André has been Celestial’s neighbor and best friend since they were small children. Although she has always regarded him as a friend, he has loved her since he met her. He was also friends with Roy, and is actually the one who introduced them and watched while they made a match of it; he has been Celestial’s constant companion since, never crossing the line, until Celestial’s doubt in the viability of hers and Roy’s relationship after several years apart gives him hope for something different. They eventually drift together almost as if it’s inevitable, and have begun to form a solid relationship when Roy’s lawyer’s efforts to appeal his case surprisingly pay off and Roy is released at the end of a five-year stint.
Roy knows that he and Celestial have been estranged; but he expects she has been faithful and hopes to rekindle or restart life with her now that his time in jail is over. Celestial, meanwhile, looks at the time they have been separated versus the time they were actually together, and sees it as something of an uncrossable gulf.
The book has several things to recommend it: The format is intriguing, with the narration of the first few chapters before Ray’s arrest alternating between Roy and Celestial. After the arrest, the alternating narration continues but becomes epistolary, contained in letters from the prison to Atlanta and back again. Shortly before Roy’s release, André steps in with first-person narrative, and the rest of the book is mostly from his and Roy’s alternating points of view. I found all of it absorbing.
The language in which the story is written is engaging, with an extended vocabulary and unusual, evocative phrasing by the protagonists in both their conversations and their descriptions that constantly catches the ear.
The premise itself is what drew me to the book: The knowledge of how easily and how often mistakenly a man of color is arrested in this country is an issue in the forefront of many people’s minds right now, so the opportunity to read a book about that actual event was appealing.
There are, however, also some things that are lacking about this book. The first, for me, is the pivotal incident—the misunderstanding that led to accusations that led to conviction and incarceration. I understand that the author’s purpose was more about focusing on the outcomes of the wrongful conviction and that the conviction was in some ways a foregone conclusion, given our society’s blind spots; but I would have liked a little more attention paid to the mechanics of how Roy ended up in prison than the five scant pages it is given. It was, ultimately, a he-said-she-said situation, and although it was unlikely to conclude differently, I would have appreciated seeing that drama enacted on the page instead of being nearly incidental to the story.
The second is the treatment of the characters. Interestingly, the secondary characters (Roy’s daddy, Big Roy and his biological father, Walter; his mother, Olive, and Celestial’s father, Franklin) were beautifully drawn and seemed like real people from the neighborhood. But there was a disconnection for me from Celestial, which I found particularly strange considering that the author is a woman. There was a lot of noise made by Roy in the attempt to keep Celestial; but she was such a reticent, inarticulate figure that I never got a sense of exactly what it was that made her tick. Even though I understood, by the end, what was happening and had a sense of why, the words are never actually said by Celestial, and I was, along with Roy, so frustrated by that. It came to the point, during the pivotal decisions about their marriage, where he was speaking for both of them, almost holding a conversation with himself by claiming to know what she was thinking and how she felt, and although he may have been intuitive enough to guess those things, I actually found it rather offensive that the author wouldn’t just put the words that needed saying into Celestial’s mouth. She ended up such a passive, helpless, weepy creature when she started out as the strong and independent one, and it left me unsatisfied, particularly because we get to find out the conclusion to everything through one of those “six months later” epilogues that I hold in such disregard.
Still, despite all this I see the value of this book in explaining the crippling disconnection of a whole segment of society from their roots, their relationships, and their continuing lives by the mechanism of wrongful imprisonment, and the struggle it must be to reconnect with any of those once the separation is over. The total disruption of lives is unforgivable. There is much here that is profound and moving, and Roy is not a character I will soon forget.
I haven’t made a post for a while now, for several reasons: I’m still finishing off Charlie Higson’s dystopian series for teens (I’m reading The End and hoping that all my many questions are answered); I started teaching my Readers’ Advisory class at UCLA this past Tuesday and have spent some of my time preparing for that (mostly cleaning up my combination office/art studio so it’s fit to be seen in the background of Zoom); and I’ve been rather caught up in the political events of the day (unhealthy obsession with Facebook posts). But I should be at the end of The End soon, and on to my next read.
In the meantime, the combination of contemplating “appeals” for readers’ advisory and doing a massive clear-out, clean-up, and re-shelving of my entire library of fiction in my four bedroom bookshelves caused me to think about the nature of “character” as a dominating force in fiction.
To explain a bit for those who are not up on librarian lingo, appeals are what we call the various reasons why people enjoy what they read. Some people are motivated by adrenalin and want something fast-paced and exciting; others love beautiful language and want to be wooed by unusual or lyrical phrasing; and one particularly powerful appeal is that of “character.” The ability to identify with or, alternatively, loathe a character or set of characters in a book is one aspect that draws people to read more. The success of the belabored Harry Potter franchise is largely due to the desire to find out what happens next to the maturing Harry and his friends, and all of us can probably think of a book or five whose characters were what kept us coming back to its pages. A few recent books in which character dominated include Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, A Man Called Ove, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. (A major clue as to whether the book is character-driven is if the main character’s name appears in the title. Witness Harry Potter and the….)
As I have mentioned here several times, belonging to the Facebook group “What Should I Read Next?” is sometimes an exercise in patience, because most of the readers there have become caught up in the bestseller craze and all end up reading the same 12 books. So in the effort to find them—and you—other compelling reads, I thought I would spend a blog post examining some of my past favorites that are wholly about the character.
A compelling writer of character-driven works is the author Mary Renault, and although her entire oeuvre contains much to appreciate, there is not another that rivals The Persian Boy, her tale of a bed slave named Bagoas who was abducted, gelded, and sold as a courtesan to King Darius of Persia. When Alexander and his Macedonian army conquer the Persians, Bagoas finds himself in a rather untenable position and decides he will achieve safety only by ingratiating himself with the conqueror himself. Although Alexander is quick to see the appeal of this highly motivated slave, he is slow to take advantage of his utter dependency, and the courtship between the two of them is both touching and fiery.
The Persian Boy is actually the second in a series of three books Renault wrote about Alexander. The early years, when he rises from a beleaguered son of warring parents to become the master of all lands he surveys, are covered in Fire from Heaven, in which he experiences love and trust for the first time with his best friend and fellow warrior, Hephaistion. But that book is far more event-driven, whereas The Persian Boy, being narrated from the point of view of someone with whom Alexander had a solely personal connection, is limited in scope in terms of world events but much more specific about the relationships. It is, in fact, a love story, and I would regard it as one of the great ones, containing as it does not just attraction or romance but also loss and pain, desire and jealousy, joy, courage, and cowardice. It is an exceedingly intimate view of Alexander the man beside that of Alexander the great warrior, and is filtered through the emotions and psychology of a patient bystander.
At the beginning of the third book, Funeral Games, Alexander the Great lies dying, surrounded by his former generals, satraps, and wives, all competing like wolves for the prizes of power and land. Only the two loves of his life, Hephaistion and Bagoas, realize and truly mourn what has been lost. Funeral Games documents the disintegration of the mighty empire built in 20 years and brings Alexander’s saga from age 12 to 33 to its close.
There is a variability of voice in these tales that lets them be read as a series but also allows the reader to experience them as stand-alone novels. The first is told in the first person by Alexander; the second is the purview of Bagoas; and the third is written from a third-person observer stance. I discovered and read The Persian Boy first, only picking up the others afterwards, and felt no sense that anything was missing in that first reading. When people ask for an LGBTQ love story that goes beyond the contemporary meet-cute or the simultaneous struggle with coming out that invades so many of these stories, my thoughts immediately return to the yearning and transcendent happiness contained with the pages of Renault’s classic work.
Another protagonist with whom I have been in love since the first time I read the book is Shevek, the humble man and brilliant physicist at the heart of Ursula K. LeGuin’s book The Dispossessed. The book is a recounting of an existential thought experiment: The author posits what would happen to individuals in a social system that rewards conformity, although that social system in this case is based on a sort of group anarchy. Urras is a world much like our own, driven by commerce. Within its teeming millions is a group of individuals who wish to live their lives quite differently and, because Anarres, the moon of their planet, is suitable (though not ideal) for human life, they are allowed to colonize it. The two societies make a pact that neither will invade the other and, for more than 100 years, not one individual from either society has crossed the line between them except for shipments of supplies that arrive and leave the small port on Anarres.
Shevek grows up in this ascetic society, a planned utopia where no one takes precedence over anyone else, where each is valued but all are expected to make their contribution to society in return for a place in it. He does his part, planting trees in the desert, drawing food service or waste management tasks for 10 days at a time, and through it all manages to find a great love, Takver, and have children; but while he goes through these tasks of daily life, his brain is operating on another plain—trying to understand temporal physics—that demands discussion, the exchange of ideas, and a close relationship with those on his mental level who are capable of understanding his brilliance. Ultimately, he makes the choice, despite the possibility of losing his home, his family, perhaps even his life, to go back to Urras to see what the scientists of that world have to offer him.
The fascinating part of the book is how the society on Anarres was originally founded as a profound act of nonconformity, and yet ends up suppressing originality and demanding obedience from a man chafing under its restrictions. LeGuin achieves her objective—the exploration of the concept of freedom—by letting the reader recognize the virtues of the system under which Shevek lives and
then realize how stifling it has become, without being either polemical or strident.
If it weren’t for the “stigma” of being categorized as science fiction, I believe this book would take its place amongst the most important of classic novels, and that Shevek would be a much more well-known protagonist in the reading world.
Some books you love for a protagonist, and some for an entire cast of characters. In the second category are the books by E. F. Benson that were latterly brought together in an Omnibus volume called Make Way for Lucia. There are six Mapp and Lucia novels in the series, and they must be read in order, for events take on importance in a specific sequence that must be appreciated.
At first glance, you might not think that a view into the social world of upper-middle class Edwardian village dwellers would be particularly compelling. But what you have to understand about the Mapp and Lucia books is the exaggerated degree of sheer triviality that guarantees a contrary fascination. Benson had a disdain for middle class people pretending to a rank to which they are not entitled, and his satires of these mushrooms trying to push their way into high society are brilliant and also funny as hell.
The books feature the feuding doyennes of Riseholme and Tilling, whose decidedly bourgeois residents get flustered in the presence of noble titles but king and queen it in the presence of everyone else. The main protagonists—or should we call them pugilists?—are Emmeline Lucas, designated “Lucia,” and Elizabeth Mapp. Though the stories begin with each of them ruling their respective roosts with total social supremacy in their separate villages, fate brings them together to hilarious effect. But the reader is not solely reliant on Lucia and Miss Mapp in these stories; Benson has created a whole cast of characters, including the dashing Georgie Pillson, aging bachelor, with his elbow-length cape and carefully trained piece of hair draped over his scalp; the drunken and slightly naughty Major Benjy; artist and naked sunbather Irene Coles; Mrs. Boucher with her daughters, Piggy and Goosie, in tow; and so many more. The tempests in the teapots that are the meat of these ’20s and ’30s comedies of manners are hilarious, witty, and slightly nasty. In other words, inspired. Auberon Waugh, eldest son of Evelyn, said,
“I might have gone to my grave
without ever knowing about
Lucia and Miss Mapp. It is not a risk
anyone should take lightly.”
It’s about time for me to read them for the third time.
I hope you have enjoyed this meander through some character-driven books, and that it will inspire you to look them up for yourself or to reflect on the characters that have come to life for you during your lifetime of reading. If any compelling ones occur to you, please share!
While scrolling through the Los Angeles Public Library’s e-book offerings, I came across a young adult novel that had been hyped to me, and it was available so I checked it out and started reading. The book is This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp, and I was curious to see how it would explore the incendiary subject of school shootings.
One of the reasons that several people encouraged me to read this book is that it is written by a “We Need Diverse Books” member, and has two female lesbian protagonists (and one is also Latina), a prominent character who is Middle Eastern, and so on. But what I found was that this was more of a problem than an advantage, because the author gave their credentials as if she were cherry-picking specific examples of ethnicity and sexual identification to appear in her novel for the sake of that alone. I guess what I’m saying is, not only did their diversity make no significant difference to who they were in the context of the story, but it seemed to further accentuate “otherness.” She stereotyped them.
The basic plot of the book is that a boy, Tyler, who dropped out of school the year before, is scheduled to come back and try again, but instead, while the first student body assembly of the year is taking place in the auditorium with only a handful of students and a couple of teachers missing, he locks all the doors from the outside, enters through a stage door, and begins shooting people.
The story is told from four points of view, two of them in the auditorium and two of them outside trying to figure out what is happening and hoping to help their siblings and classmates to escape. There are also some other viewpoints represented via a few students’ texts to one another and one boy’s entries on his blog.
The narrative jumps back and forth between flashbacks and the present moment. The protagonists are all related in some way to the shooter—one is his sister, one is his ex-girlfriend, one is his sister’s girlfriend, and the last is that girlfriend’s brother. All have a history with Tyler, and each of these, as recounted, gives perspective on their interactions with him. You do gain some knowledge in this way about what may be some of Tyler’s issues, but because there is never any internal, first-person view given by Tyler, most of that is left unexplored, and this becomes a huge flaw. Tyler is largely painted as an evil guy, and since he isn’t allowed to speak for himself, we never find out the nuanced details that brought him to this place. I’m not an apologist—I realize that not every kid who is abused or friendless or bullied turns into a murderer. But this book had the opportunity to explore that, and instead Tyler is a smiling, vindictive, one-dimensional jerk with a gun. And the protagonists, despite the sharing of their back stories, are also one-dimensional to the point where the two female characters’ narratives sound so similar it’s easy to get confused about who is speaking.
The book initially confused me as to its power, because it is written on a breathless timetable in which minutes are literally counted down (one chapter being the action taking place between 10:00 and 10:06 a.m., etc.), and that gives the book a pace and a tension that builds on initial foreboding to boost the reader onto an emotional high. The countdown and the jumps between narrators keep you enthralled as you wait to see what’s happening inside the auditorium while you’re outside, and what’s happening outside when you’re inside. It took arriving at the end of the book and feeling strangely let down (and also emotionally manipulated) to make me realize that although the pacing pushed me to the end, once I got there I was devoid of answers, or even of much content. The book is so thoroughly focused on the events of 54 minutes that it fails to provide sufficient context to explain them.
The charitable interpretation of this book would be that the author was well intentioned but simply overwhelmed by the scope of the issue and therefore told it as best she could but without diving below the surface. This problem was accentuated by the time frame she set herself in the plot—I feel like the need to keep the tension at a certain pitch precluded her flashbacks from going into sufficient detail to satisfy. The less charitable would be that this topical subject was sensationalized for the sake of book sales.
My recommendation would be that you read Jennifer Brown’s Hate List instead, a book that is successful at breaking down the barriers between victim and villain in its shooter, at explaining the survivor’s guilt of the people who knew him best, and in showcasing the dark thoughts that everyone has but most never act upon.
In these very serious times, I’ve been doing some reading of not-so-serious books. I like to think of them as junk food, although I don’t want to seem like I am denigrating these books or the reading of them by me or anyone else. I’m just saying that, like the difference between eating a gourmet four-course dinner or grabbing some cookies to satisfy your sweet tooth, there is a difference, both in the writer’s skill and in the reader’s level of engagement. Even if you are eating cookies, you are getting some nutrition along with your treat,
whether it’s from oatmeal or nuts or dark chocolate. You just aren’t participating at the level of a good salade niçoise or some mushroom bourgignon! (In these self-isolating times, many of us are also participating to a greater degree in cooking and baking—
can you tell?)
Anyway, my latest foray into relationship fiction is a duo by Irish writer Felicity Hayes-McCoy that, predictably for me, have to do with books and librarianship. The Library at the Edge of the World (Finfarran Peninsula #1) is described by its publisher as “a warm, feel-good novel about the importance of finding a place where you belong, perfect for fans of Maeve Binchy.” I think that stretches its importance a bit; I would be inclined to call these “Binchy lite.” But it is a lovely look at a few key people and a bunch more peripheral ones in an interesting locale teetering between community and estrangement. It reminded me a bit more of Jenny Colgan’s books.
Hanna Casey works as the librarian in Lissbeg, one of the small towns along the Finfarran peninsula. Her family goes way back on Finfarran but, until a few years ago, Hanna had embraced a much more active, well-to-do, and interesting life in London with her lawyer husband, Malcolm, and her daughter, Jasmine. Then she was devastated to discover that her husband had been having a long-term relationship with a colleague at work, a woman who purported to be her good friend, and in her anger and hurt she decamped with Jazz back to Ireland, telling her husband she wanted nothing from him. A few years later she is beginning to regret that hasty decision, as living with her outspoken and idiosyncratic mother in a small cottage is definitely beginning to pall, particularly since their buffer, Jasmine, has finished school and is pursuing a career elsewhere.
This is not the typical librarian pictured in this kind of feel-good fiction: Hanna wanted to be an archivist, dealing with great works of art in the rarefied atmosphere of a city museum or gallery, and somewhat resents the “depths” to which she has fallen as a small-town public librarian. She is in her early 50s, yet acts like some of the crotchety old-school librarians we all dreaded in our youth, who shushed us or kicked us out of the library for every tiny noise infraction and weren’t interested in providing such heretical innovations as computer classes or toddler story times.
Hanna’s saving grace is that she has come, gradually over the years, to believe in the power of reading, and spends two days a week driving a bookmobile to the far-flung tiny farming communities that populate most of the peninsula, developing a feel for what books to bring the many characters she encounters.
She has recently rediscovered a legacy left to her by her aunt, a piece of property that she couldn’t imagine being of any use to her while she was raising her daughter and decorating her beautiful home in London; but it has suddenly occurred to her that it might be an “out” to her nigh-intolerable living situation, and she thinks if she is careful with her money and can also get a loan, she can renovate Maggie’s old cottage and live in splendid isolation on the bluffs above the sea.
Then, plans by the bureaucrats of Finfarran come to light, which will polarize the peninsula by centralizing services in a grand new center located in the most populous town, thus cutting off all the small businesses and tourist attractions everywhere else, and also closing Hanna’s library. Hanna wakes up from her dazed existence and suddenly discovers within herself the will to fight for what she wants, and seeks allies to preserve a lifestyle she didn’t realize she had come to love.
I enjoyed this story quite a bit. I liked getting a look at rural life in the Irish countryside; the quirky characters were well developed and fun; and the story line was a good message about inclusiveness and community being more important than short-sighted financial success. The ending was a little pat, but played nicely off of Hanna’s former aspirations as an archivist.
The sequel, Summer at the Garden Café, was good, but not quite up to the first one. It furthered some of the relationships established in that book, it gave some interesting insight into the relative who left Hanna her house, and it moved some pieces around on the chessboard between London and Ireland. Basically, it was pleasant and innocuous, connecting here and there with real emotions when it details the situation of Hanna’s daughter, Jasmine.
There is a third book, The Mistletoe Matchmaker, which pulls in a different family mentioned peripherally in the first books, and sets up a romance for the Canadian granddaughter visiting her Irish family. I placed a hold on the e-book at the library, and will eventually report on the last of the trilogy. (If it is the last…)