Friday, December 9, 2011

Second Reading, Jonathan Yardley

Every year my Christmas wish reading list is LONG!

This year it is definitely NOT a short list either: WOW, there are so many wonderful books that have been recently published, and of course I am waiting for a number of TBP (to be published) to go on my TBR (to be read) pile! This book by Jonathan Yardley (Second Reading) is definitely on it, as I need to mark up my own copy, with my agreements, disagreements, further recommendations, and just general comments! This book is a series of book reviews from his column of books that he reread over the course of two years. I understand how difficult it is to find time to read books, let alone reread them, but I do have a handful that I always go back to (e.g. Tolkien has been read about every five years! At the end of each reading I write my comments in a book journal and enjoy the progression of my thoughts.). We are not the same people who read some of these books as a teenager or early (busy) adult. It can be very worthwhile and enjoyable to reread these classics. Second Reading is composed of many books that you have already read, that you really should give another go at reading, re-reading, or just comparing your thoughts to his. I love his columns, second only to Michael Dirda, both superb book reviewers.

I was intrigued by his review of Rebecca by Daphne DuMurier, having also just reread it when I was sorting my bookshelves. It has such a classic opening line. This time, I was certainly much older on rereading it, not relating to the naivity or the acceptable social polish/manners of a different time. BUT then of course I discovered that I hadn't seen the film (well there are several, but it is the Laurence Olivier that everyone raves about). So there I was off to the Library for the dvd (Second Reading is also available at the Library!) Excellent, especially with a cup of Earl Grey tea, on a snowy afternoon. I highly recommend this, especially in the throes of Christmas shopping. And the story isn't over. I also mentioned his thought provoking analysis at one of my book clubs, where we always try to read at least one classic a year. Several people sheepishly revealed they had not read it, and viola! We ordered the BOOK GROUP IN A BOOK BAG from the Library!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Chris Bohjalian The Night Strangers (2011)

Evidently I didn't post this review - so here it is!
Bohjalian is a new Vermont author for me- I was very excited to find him in the mystery section with an entire series to read. My first reaction was how had I missed him!? The first chapter was riveting, well written, and quite intriguing, especially with the local detail of my home state. I do not normally read about airplane crashes, so there was some trepidation, but after having become a pilot myself, his information was pitch perfect and interesting. I was sucked into this book, recognizing people, locations, seasons, traditions....until it hit me. He is Vermont's answer to Stephen King....oh no! How was I going to finish this? I am often told that King's books are "just fantasy Helen not real!" Ha. His books are peopled with characters I am very familiar with in my everyday living! Which makes it extremely scary to think my next door neighbor is an axe murderer, bodies are buried in the cellar or back yard....and I did have a car that was nearly Christine.... I like sleeping at night so often avoid King's novels....(loved Shawshank, highly recommend his book on writing, enjoyed many of his short stories, but am NOT going to convert to horror anytime soon...).

So what was I doing in the middle of The Night Strangers??? I panicked- I went to the last three chapters, trying to avoid some of the nightmares. I did figure it out fairly correctly, but still didn't sleep well for two nights.... I do not know what distinguishes some of the horror genre from mystery...Many of John Connolly's books are equally disturbing with similar violence and supernatural, but I would recommend each and every one. He is an extraordinary Irish writer! His latest The Burning Soul continues the story of Charlie Parker (please read in order!!)

I loved reading Bohjalian's bio online - recommend checking out a number of his sites. I had not made the connection to one of his first books : Midwives (1998) about a rural VT midwife Sibyl Danforth, which was selected as an Oprah Book and won the NE Book Award (2002). Bohjalian lives in a small Vermont town (pop 900) and found his writing voice here. He is known for thoughtful characters making the reader interested in their stories. Which is why I did finish the book The Night Strangers, as I needed to know what happened, not necessarily all that happened! I enjoyed reading that the Night Strangers was a ghost story inspired by a door in his own basement (definitely the kind of door that I don't want to find, and one that he said he boarded up and hoped the walls of his house didn't bleed). He has long been a fan of ghost stories; the only book he owns from his childhood is Edgar Alan Poe's Great Tales.
I continued to think about this book long after I left it; and have continued to read more of his work. Excellent material.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Skeleons at the Feast, Chris Bohjalian

Skeletons at the Feast is a novel by Vermont Author Chris Bohjalian (2008). I purchased several of his books while I was in one of my favourite bookstores: Rivendell in Montpelier, Vt this autumn. I read his Night Strangers (2011) first as it was an ebook from our library (Rochester) and reviewed that earlier. I was intrigued enough to continue through his repertoire, and delighted I did.
Skeletons at the Feast is also a well written historical novel that is absolutely fascinating, extremely well researched and based partly on a WWII Prussian diary (1920-1945). Both the diary and the novel detail the brutal last days of the war when many Poles and Germans fled through a Nazi Germany they barely knew ahead of the Russian Army, hoping to reach Allied lines.
The characters include 18 year old Anna Emmerich a sheltered daughter of Prussian aristocrats and her younger innocent brother Theo. There is also 20 year old Scottish POW Callum Finella, who was forced labor on their remote sugar beet farm. Another important character is Wehrmacht corporal (of many names, many taken from German officers whom he killed, assuming their identities), who is in reality Uri Singer, a jew who escaped his fate in Auschwitz and is hiding in plain sight. In a parallel storyline, Jeanne and Cecille are French Jewish prisoners on a forced death march to another concentration camp.
These descriptions are unforegttably haunting, depicting harrowing treacherous times of man's inhumanity to man. Very clearly no one wins in war, yet we are all susceptible to the hope that lies in this novel. Plan ahead - I don't know how you will put this book down at night; I read straight through. I am still asking questions about personal responsibility, moral deliberations and thinking of the concept of justice vs revenge.

This book is a beautiful, moving tribute to his friends and neighbours, their lives and ours interwined. There are so many aspects of history we never learn, so many personal stories that give you the realism you can't (hope to never) repeat. Another fascinating read on this theme is by Sparrow Author Mary Doria Russell, A Thread of Grace about the flight out of France into Italy, where 43,000 Jews were hidden during the war.
"There's a saying in Hebrew... 'No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there's always a thread of grace.' " Both novels are more than 'holocaust literature' and deserve a wide audience. Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself.
HWM Dec 2011

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ransom Riggs "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children"

Ransom Riggs Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2011)Are you tired of vampires and werewolves?
Do you also love the “odd little book”?
If you love Lemony Snickett or John Connolly or Adam Gopnick (teen fiction series) this is book is definitely for you. It is quirky fantasy/adventure story combined with unique photography, which made the book utterly fascinating, charming and intriguing, especially for a debut novel. The complex/detailed vintage photographs added an unusual level of immersion with the story, with the reader visualising what Jacob is experiencing. The descriptive writing is so evocative that the unusual photographs interspersed numerously throughout the text, while not crucial to the story, certainly provide an additional element of realism (and surrealism!). Especially knowing that they are actual photos. Wouldn’t you love to make up your own story with these? (NB However, they are difficult to read/view on the Kindle.) The detailed prose creates a rich and magical otherworld of peculiar children and monsters that precariously co-exists with our human world which is all too realistically at war.

In the novel, Jacob Portman is an average, seemingly normal teenager, wanting an adventurous life, as described by his colourful, larger than life grandfather throughout his childhood. Jacob is not popular or overly smart and has one best (and only) friend. But with his grandfather death and the horrific monster that plagues his nightmares, Jacob’s world crashes around him. Then on his 16th birthday a book from his grandfather sets him on a voyage of discovery to an orphanage on a small isolated island in Wales. Once there, Jacob understands more than he ever could have believed about his grandfather and himself. His world is now separated into “Before and After”. He stumbles into time loops and uncovers his peculiar talent that transforms his previous reality. Jacob's dark adventure turns from creepy to scary, then to a poignant coming of age. It also foreshadows a sequel!

“My grandfather was the only member of his family to escape Poland before the Second World War broke out. He was twelve years old when his parents sent him into the arms of strangers, putting their youngest son on a train to Britain with nothing more than a suitcase and the clothes on his back. It was a one-way ticket. He never saw his mother or father again, or his older brothers, his cousins, his aunts and uncles. Each one would be dead before his sixteenth birthday, killed by the monsters he had so narrowly escaped. But these weren’t the kind of monsters that had tentacles and rotting skin, the kind a seven year old might be able to wrap his mind around – they were monsters with human faces, in crisp uniforms, marching in lockstep, so banal you don’t recognize them for what they are until it’s too late.”

"The trees parted like a curtain and suddenly there it was, cloaked in fog, looming atop a weed-choked hill. The house. I understood at once why the boys had refused to come.
"My grandfather had described it a hundred times, but in his stories, the house was always a bright, happy place---big and rambling, yes but full of light and laughter. What stood before me now was no refuge from monsters, but a monster itself, staring down from its perch with vacant hunger. Trees burst forth from broken windows and skins of scabrous vine gnawed at the walls like antibodies attacking a virus--as if nature itself had waged war against it---but the house seemed unkillable, resolutely upright despite the wrongness of its angles and the jagged teeth of sky visible through sections of collapsed roof.

‘I gathered up what scrawny courage I had and waded through waist-high weeds to the porch, all broken tile and rotting wood, to peek through a cracked window. All I could make out through the smeared glass were the outlines of furniture, so I knocked on the door and stood back to wait in eerie silence, tracing the shape of Miss Peregrine's letter in my pocket. I'd taken it along in case I needed to prove who I was, but as a minute ticked by, then two, it seemed less and less likely that I would need it."

“…stars, too, were time travelers. How many of those ancient points of light were the last echoes of suns now dead? How many had been born but their light not yet come this far? If all the suns but ours collapsed tonight, how many lifetimes would it take us to realize that we were alone? I had always known the sky was full of mysteries – but not until now had I realized how full of them the earth was. I came to a place where the path emerged from the woods. In one direction lay home and everything I knew, unmysterious and ordinary and safe. Except it wasn’t. Not really, Not any more. “

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Dorothy L Sayers

Tomorrow, June 13th, is the birth date of one of the greatest mystery writers of all time: Dorothy L Sayers, best known perhaps for her Lord Peter Wimsey series. I will never forget reading the first novel of hers and rapidly read my way through all of them. Periodically I reread them, especially after publication of some recent biographical materials. Gaudy Night remains my favourite, although you must read them in order. Lately, Jill Paton Walsh has delightfully continued the series. (After the drought, it was fantastic to be transported back in time and place).

On the centenary of her birth in 1993, a celebration of her work was published as a collection of essays by various esteemed authors, edited by Alzina Stone Dale. I recently discovered this well hidden in the stacks of our library and highly recommend your perusal. I loved three of the essays by Amanda Cross (Carolyn G Heilbrun), Anne Perry and Sharyn McCrumb. Each brought an interesting perspective and fascinating tidbits about Sayers works, her life and her legacy in a short compact form. Most of the essayists have strong connections to DLS. I always glean something new - CK Chesterton's whimsical The Man who was Thursday was a favourite book of hers (as well as Anne Perry). I need to find the Wimsey Papers as well, to make sure I have read those!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mysteries - Nicola Upson

Nicola Upson, An Expert Witness and Angel with Two Faces (2008, 2009).

I just discovered this series, in our Library collection. I cannot wait for the August 9th third book (Two For Sorrow - reserve your copy now, behind me! I requested purchase.) And while you are waiting, catch up on the Josephine Tey novels/mysteries so you have some great background reading. She had three pen names (she was Scottish), there are a host of interesting websites and there are a few interesting biographies as well. Did Catherine Aird's write a biography?

Upson's very credible mystery series features Josephine Tey, as an author writing her first and second novels (so far) with unfortunate murders complicating her life. The historical detail is accurate, and feels very familiar (particularly after reading the Maisie Dobbs series, although this latter is set slightly earlier). The second novel is set in Cornwall (after the debut novel in the theatre world of London). The descriptions made me feel right at home with my childhood memories. Ms Tey is developing a relationship with Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Archie Penrose, a Cornishman, whom she has known for over 20 years. Their lives have held much tragedy and they are attempting a fresh start to their friendship. Both of these are fairly typical English mysteries, well written and well paced. The polished surface of polite society has a great deal lurking beneath, especially when dealing with mystical Cornish people. Indeed, this is not for the faint of heart. But I found the stories immensely satisfactory and a good read. I hope you will also enjoy them.