Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good by Jan Karon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In this, the tenth book in the Mitford Series, we are back in Mitford, shortly after Fr. Tim & Cynthia return from their trip to Ireland (as related in In the Company of Others.) Tim is still trying to figure out how to be retired, Cynthia is working on a new book, and there are the usual struggles with the Barlowe kids. There is also, of course, the usual cast of colorful characters in the town of Mitford, with their own ups and downs. Reading one of these books is like a family reunion - there are the relatives you love, the ones you think are kind of quirky, and there are always those for whom 'drama' is a lifestyle. But they are all your family, and you wouldn't trade them for the world.
As usual for these books, there are several story arcs that weave their way through the narrative, some of them heartwarming and some of them heartbreaking. But the tone of the book is never depressing, even when dealing with some of the harder issues. There is a sense of 'everything will be all right' even when things don't work out. Since this is pretty much my philosophy in life, these books really resonate with me. And this one is no different. Despite the hard situations (Sammy, Hope's baby, Fr. Talbot), Tim & Cynthia face life with courage and hope. (No pun intended.)
The ending of this one makes it seem like the next book will be about Dooley and Lace, but there are still some loose threads that need to be addressed (Will Hope and her baby survive? Will Fr. Tim be able to publicly acknowledge his black half-brother?? Will Sammy ever fully come around?) which I really want to see wrapped up, so I hope we will still have more Fr. Tim books.
Sunday, June 28, 2015
A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the second book in the Inspector Gamache series. (The first was Still Life.) Like the first, this one involves a murder in the quaint Quebecois village of Three Pines, and Inspector Gamache once again finds himself observing the villagers in order to find the killer. I love his style of investigation, which is to watch and listen. This makes the ambiance of the book quite delightful, as we are treated to many little vignettes of him interacting with the residents of Three Pines - often over food, so be prepared to be hungry while reading this!
As with the first book, I had quite a bit of the mystery solved before Gamache did, which is one reason I didn't give this 4 stars. The mystery of 'B KLM' and the bag lady was very obvious to me. But the real joy of reading this series is the wonderful characters that populate Three Pines, not so much the mystery to be solved. The people seem very realistic - not always likable and often with not the purest of motives. Each person is distinct, and has his or her own foibles.
Another carry-over from the first book is Gamache's team. Once again, Gamache brings on a rookie, to try to help him become a better investigator - this time it's a local officer. Thankfully, he turns out to be a better choice than the nasty Nichol (from the first book), who returns to the team (assigned by Gamache's boss) and does her usual bit of in-fighting and muddying up the investigation. Nichol brings a bit of an edge to the overall tone of the book - she's not likable and is quite underhanded. We also learn a bit more about why Gamache is not universally liked by his superiors, which made me like him even more.
But the real star of the book, like its predecessor, is the village of Three Pines. It's a storybook locale, especially during Christmas, which is when this book takes place. But, like its populace, it can also be quite unpredictable and even deadly, with terrible snowstorms and frigid temperatures. Ms. Penny keeps it from being too perfect, with her quirky characters and their all-to-real issues.
I will definitely be reading the rest of this series!
Sunday, June 21, 2015
All Clear by Connie Willis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is also a review for Blackout, as the two books are really one long story. The end of the first isn't really even an ending - the story stops, and is immediately picked up where it left off in the second. Don't read Blackout unless you have a copy of this one at hand!!
These two books tell the story of several time traveling historians, from the year 2060, as they observe events in Britain during WWII. Each chapter follows a different time period and different characters - sometimes it's a single character, sometimes it's a group of them. (PAY ATTENTION AT THE BEGINNING OF BLACKOUT!!!! The first few chapters are kind of confusing, but lots of very important things are said and done - or not said and not done - which you have to know for the rest of both books.) The tension in the plot comes from both the circumstances the characters are in (the London Blitz, the evacuation at Dunkirk, driving an ambulance), and also the fact that there seems to be something going wrong with the whole mechanics of time travel. (I won't get into specifics to avoid spoilers.)
We end up following three main characters, Polly (observing the Blitz, driving an ambulance), Eileen (observing evacuated children in the north of England) and Mike (observing the evacuation at Dunkirk.) Each of these characters is fairly well-developed, with their own personalities and motivations. (Personally, I think Eileen deserves sainthood for not killing the Horrible Hodbins!) It can be a bit confusing, however, as the historians don't always use the same name in each time period. Again - pay attention.
As we observe each historian, we also get to observe the events in which they are embedded. This history is wonderfully researched and presented to the reader. I really felt as if I were there during the bombings! (In fact, at one point when I was reading outside, a prop-plane flew over the house, and my first thought was that it was the Germans!) These books would be perfect for anyone who wants to know what it was like living in England during WWII.
At times, I was a bit confused as to what was happening (I didn't pay close enough attention at the beginning), and the time travel sometimes made my brain hurt, trying to keep it all straight. And, I did feel as if the pacing was on 'full speed ahead' the entire time. Even the humorous bits with the Hodbins or the acting troupe all came during fairly stressful events, so there didn't seem to be any let up in tension or action. However, all that notwithstanding, these were two very enjoyable (and educational) books. Willis knows how to write!!
Saturday, June 20, 2015
In the Beginning by Chaim Potok
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Chaim Potok is an amazing storyteller. One of my top 10 books of all time is The Chosen, which I reread on almost a yearly basis. This novel is just as good, though one I probably won't read as often, due to its nature - it is a bit grimmer in tone and feel.
The story is a coming of age tale of a Jewish boy named David Lurie. It begins when he is five, and continues to adulthood. He lives with his younger brother and parents in New York City, beginning in the late 1920's. His parents are immigrants from Poland, and staunch Zionists. His father is someone who believes Jews should fight back, and not let themselves be passively killed; he is a man of action. David is not. He is a sickly little boy who is ill almost monthly. Because of this (and also sometimes because he is Jewish) he is often bullied. When he is ill, he has high fevers, and Potok does a stellar job of describing how it feels to have fever dreams – I remember my own from my bout of scarlet fever.
Little David also has “accidents” – things that go wrong due to his clumsiness or actions. He can’t understand why people get so mad at him, when these incidents are not really his fault. (I think this is really a metaphor for what happens in life; often bad things happen for no reason.) After one such accident, David is afraid to speak, and goes for months without saying a word. His insights into silence are similar to the same theme in The Chosen and The Promise - obviously, a theme that is important to Potok.
I found this book compelling, but sometimes hard to read because of all the difficulties faced by David and his family. And for some reason, the part where they find out that all of their extended family was killed in concentration camps during WWII hit me extremely hard. I've read many books that deal with the Holocaust, but for some reason these few paragraphs just took the wind out of me. Maybe it was just the cumulative affect of all the other trials they faced, or that David's parents had tried to get their parents out of Poland, but they refused to leave. Whatever the reason, I was deeply touched.
Overall, this is a moving, powerful book about growing up, discovering self, and Jewish/American culture. Highly recommended!
Thursday, June 11, 2015
The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This would have received 4 stars but for three pretty egregious problems:
1. Anachronisms! At one point the narrator (Timothy Wilde) talks about the 'data' in relation to the crime he is investigating. While the world 'data' certainly existed at that time point, it was not part of common-day usage. It did not become common until well into the 20th century. The other BIG anachronism was a reference to razor wire. Barbed wire was not patented until 1860-something, and razor wire was invented after WWII!!
2. Reliance on the "raving Christian conservative lunatic" as a major character. Really, this trope is SO over-used! And having this be the motivation for one of the pivotal crimes/plot-points is just lazy.
3. The 'voice' of the narrator. Timothy Wilde was orphaned at 10, and raised by his drug-abusing older brother. They practically lived on the streets, and yet Timothy's musings include Latin references and a vocabulary that bespeaks a fine college education. While I did like this character, and found his musings and observations to be insightful, they just didn't sound like a young tough from the streets of New York City. This bothered me the entire book, and really interfered with my enjoyment of it.
All that being said, this was a fine 'true-crime' historical novel. For the most part, the characters were well-rounded (with the exception of #2, above - which I will refrain from naming to avoid spoilers) and had complex motivations. The action moved along nicely - the last half of the book, especially so. The descriptions of the city and its denizens made it seem quite real. I also like the fact that while the main mystery was solved, there were still some open-ended situations with respect to Timothy, his brother and other principal, though secondary, characters. As this is the first in a series, I do hope we'll find out about how things pan out for these people and their lives.
So, despite the three problems listed above, I do hope to read the next one in the series - though I'll probably just get it from the library, and not buy it.
Tuesday, June 9, 2015
In the Company of Others by Jan Karon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I love Ms. Karon's Mitford books! They are good for the soul: uplifting without being smarmy, comforting without being cheesy. In this, the second of the "Father Tim" books (which take place outside of the village of Mitford), we find Tim and Cynthia on their long-awaited vacation to Ireland. The events in this book follow hard on the heels of the previous book (Home to Holly Springs) where Tim discovered he has a half-brother. This book continues the overarching theme of family - what it means to be a family, good and bad.
Tim & Cynthia are staying at a fishing lodge inn/B&B, run by a husband and wife, with their troubled teenage daughter. Tim & Cynthia become entangled in their extended and estranged family. We are treated to the usual loving and fun interactions between Tim & Cynthia, and also with the various guests in the lodge. As events transpire, there is a mystery that unfolds, but it isn't the main focus of the story. (And any regular reader of mysteries will 'figure it out' well before it's revealed in the book.) The focus, as always, is on people and the redemptive power of love.
I read that Ms. Karon likes this book the best, out of the series. But it's not my favorite. I think it's because a good part of the book is spent by Tim & Cynthia reading an old journal of one of the former owners of the place they're staying. The journal is written in the style of the 1860's, so it's kind of hard to read. It serves to echo the themes of family and redemption, but I was always impatient to get back to the "real" story of Tim & Cynthia. Still, it's always good to spend time with these characters, and I did enjoy this book, overall. And I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good!
Monday, June 8, 2015
PartnerShip by Anne McCaffrey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Even though this was written in 1992, it has the feel of old school, classic Science Fiction. There's a hint of sexism, though not as bad as stuff from the 50's and 60's, and the science still has that "gee-whiz" feeling you get from early SF. It's a quick read, and an entertaining story - though I had things figured out quite early on, as far as what was going on with the bit of mystery and intrigue that drives the plot.
Brainships are intersellar craft that are really human cyborgs - a human being (born physically deformed) is hard-wired into the ship, and the ship's functions are controlled directly by the human "brain." The "brawn" is the able-bodied human partner who provides literal legs on the ground, so to speak. In all instances of the series so far, the brain is female and the brawn is male. I would love to see this change in later books in the series, but I don't know if it does. (This is part of the mild sexism.)
This book begins with a newly commissioned brainship - still without a brawn - assigned to ferry 5 young aristocrats to their first job postings. Nancia, the brain in the ship, is also from an aristocratic family, but she is immediately shocked by the rude behavior of her passengers, and does not reveal herself as a brainship; her passengers think they are on a simple droneship. As such, they do not censor their behavior, and Nancia overhears them all plotting to achieve riches through underhanded and illegal means. Being a new ship, she does not know what to do with this information, so she tells no one.
As the story progresses, Nancia is paired with a brawn and they run into some trouble, related to the 5 aristocratic plotters. Her brawn is injured, and she takes on a temporary brawn and gets pulled deeper into the intrigue surrounding the actions of these 5 people.
It has a fully satisfying ending, of course - the bad guys are caught out, Nancia mends fences with her family, and she finally gets a decent brawn. We are left with the prospect of the "partnership" becoming something of an investigative team and solving more crimes through their ingenuity.
There is nothing really deep in this novel. And certainly, by today's standards, nothing really groundbreaking with respect to the ideas. Nevertheless, it is a fun, light read, especially if you like classic SF.
Sunday, June 7, 2015
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The first time I read this I was probably in grade school, and I was captured by the spirit of Buck, the dog who survived being kidnapped, beaten, and abused to eventually break free and "run with the wolves" in Alaska. I was aware of the abuse by men but somehow all I focused on was Buck and his ability to survive. (And it was MEN who abused him - the only woman in the book was a sniveling spoiled brat, typical of London's idea of women.) Reading this as an adult, all I could see was the cruelty of almost every man Buck encounters. It was terribly hard to read, at times, because of the severe abuse. I just kept picturing one of our dogs in the same situation, and nearly wept with the thought of it.
The main theme of the book is the inherent wild nature of dogs (and man) and we see Buck transformed from a pampered house pet to the ruler of the wild as leader of a wolf pack. It is through the privations and abuse that Buck learns who he really is (a wolf in dog's clothing, as it were) and we are led to believe that Buck is finally fulfilling his destiny, once he breaks free of men and becomes the leader of a wolf pack. Clearly, this is London's view of what it means to be a "real man" as well: breaking free of the pampering and strictures of city life and conquering one's fears and one's enemies. It is a very "alpha wolf" view of life; to succeed, one must subdue all adversaries - there is no compromise. I found it very tiresome, and almost comical, if it weren't for the horrible cruelty. Only one man, his last owner, treats Buck with kindness, and their relationship is nicely portrayed. But still, Buck heeds "the call of the wild" and leaves his loving master to be killed. (Of course, Buck takes vengeance on those who killed him, like any "real man" would!)
I suppose this book is worth reading as an example of the "macho" literature of the era. At least it's short, and London does write well. But I don't know if I'd even recommend it to children anymore, given the extreme abuse of dogs it portrays.
Saturday, June 6, 2015
Patrick: Son of Ireland by Stephen R. Lawhead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I remember reading Mr. Lawhead's Merlin/Arthur books and enjoying them, so when I saw this at the library book sale, I snatched it up. I was not as enchanted by this one, but it was still an enjoyable piece of historic fiction.
First off, however, you should know that if you're looking for the story of how St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, this is not the book. This book tells the story of Patrick's early life, and how he came to be in position to convert Ireland. I'm sure it's 98% conjecture, but the details of his daily living lent a sense of reality to the story. And it's a pretty depressing story, mostly. It seems like the entire first half of the book was him getting a savage beating every other chapter!
When we first meet him, Succat (as he was called) is the son of a rich landowner, living the high life. He is cultured (Roman), educated, and nominally a Christian. Irish raiders come and he is captured and enslaved. He becomes a shepherd, living in a crude hut, always on the edge of starvation and always trying - and failing - to escape.
After being befriended by a Druid, Succat goes off to be a servant in the Druid house, and then becomes a Druid himself. During this time we see hints as to his spirituality and his future. We also learn that there is a sect of Druids who are Christian. (I don't know if this is historically accurate - I had never heard of Christian Druids.) During this period he also falls in love with the sister of one of the Druids. But he's still plotting his escape, and finally manages to get on board a boat back to Britain. There, he discovers his family estate in ruins, his family is dead, and all the towns also greatly reduced in population and general prosperity. He meets an old friend, who is now a priest, who convinces Succat to go to Gual with him. It is in Gaul that the next part of his life ensues - that of a Roman soldier.
Because he feels he has nothing else he can do, he joins the Roman army, as a mercenary. In his first battle he saves the life of an important Roman politician, who decides to take him back to Rome. Succat becomes part of Roman high society, and even falls in love again. But circumstances drive him back to Ireland, as he finally receives his calling to return.
It was interesting to read of his life in each of these very different societies. Some reviewers have said that he was an unlikable character, but I didn't find him so. He was stubborn, and didn't always choose wisely, but that seemed to make him more human. Others have complained that he was not portrayed as a "good Catholic" which makes me laugh. This was the very early years of the Church, and he lived thousands of miles away from Rome. I am sure that most Christians of that time would not measure up to today's version of Catholicism! (For one thing, priests could marry back then.) Others took umbrage with him being portrayed as a Druid. Even if you discount the idea of Christian Druids, having him be a Druid makes his 'conversion' to Christianity that much more profound.
Overall, it was an entertaining book, and I certainly enjoyed the portrayal of life during that era.