Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Reading in Buffalo

I have a new laptop. This news is conveyed rather sadly, because the entry I was just about to post has disappeared for good. I don't know what key I hit, but it's gone now. I cannot at this time reconstruct it, but I want you to know that I am enjoying a historical novel, Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross.  It was originally published in 1996, but came out in a second edition in 2009. I highly recommend it, though I must caution I've read just 167 pages out of about 400 pages.

Yes, I'm travelling, doing research in Buffalo, in far western New York. I will have to write about what a wonderful 9th-century historical Pope Joan is. New computer, new hazards. More later.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

There's Nothing Like a Good Gothic

About three or four years ago, I chanced upon the gothic fiction of a writer from Minnesota. Wendy Webb lives in Duluth, on Lake Superior. Each of her three published novels is set on the shores of the Great Lakes. My first, The Fate of Mercy Alban, was perfection. When I started reading it at the time, I didn't realize what an insatiable hunger had been breeding inside me for gothic fiction. The craving had been denied too long. So I devoured it, and, perhaps because of my appetite, I found it perfect.

Right now I'm nearing the end of Wendy Webb's debut novel, The Tale of Halcyon Crane. Once again, I'm entranced. Yes, there's the bit about ghosts from previous generations that appear to be creating havoc. Or, are the other-worldly events simply the antics of unhappy villagers who are angry that Hallie had the audacity to return to Grand Manitou Island, where only a few people want her?

I like gothics as long as the so-called "paranormal" does not get out of control. And in this novel it's not, or perhaps I'm just willing to suspend disbelief. In any event, I don't want this book to end!

Fortunately for me, I haven't yet read The Vanishing, the third novel, published in 2014. And, from Wendy Webb's blog, it seems that in October 2015, she was hard at work finishing her fourth gothic.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Obsessed by Original Sin by P.D. James

I am so deeply, wondrously engrossed in the Adam Dalgliesh novel Original Sin by P.D. James. This one was published in 1995, and, as some critics noted at the time, James was at the height of her powers in this grand mystery. This novel is so fine a work of literature that I find I must read slowly, deliberately, and must reread at times to make sure I've caught all the slightest of nuances. What a mind James had at the age of 75 when this book was published! That is what staggers me--the intricate complexities, the turns, the twists.

I've been putting off reading this for a really stupid reason. I don't want to ever come to the end of the novels she's written. At this rate, however, I had better hurry up while my mind is still sharp enough to appreciate her devilry.

I think I love P.D. James the most for her exquisite handling of atmosphere and setting. Every setting is described in intricate detail. I love that. Notice that there really are six exclamation points after that last statement, although you may not be able to see them.

I haven't read her novels in at least two years, maybe three, so I'm going to move forward now. Yes, I'd better, while my brain is not too far gone!

Oh, and if you're contemplating reading
it, consider skipping that glass of wine before delving into her mysteries, or read her only in the mornings with coffee. Even 3 ounces of wine muddles her acutely drawn mysteries.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Nest and other Current Titles

This post is a mere update.

I still have books I read in March that I very much want and plan to comment on. So many great books! Coming very soon.

And now I'm in the midst of a bunch of April titles. Yesterday I finished the murder thriller In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware, set in northern England, a book that Travellin' Penguin and Cath of Read Warbler have recommended highly in the past.

The new book The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney is a wonder. I will fully comment later, but if you've held back from reading or ordering it, I would recommend that you plunge forth and get it. Characterization is fascinating--the story absorbing. In a few words, four (very interesting) siblings' lives are turned inside-out, all because of their expectation of "The Nest," money that their father put in trust and that he expected would give each child a little something extra to help with a life goal. Instead "The Nest" grew exponentially into an inheritance that each child expects will be there to rescue them from financial disaster. I must confess I experienced tremendous vicarious pleasure from witnessing these interesting people commit all sorts of financial malfeasance, the kind that I would be way too timid and sensible to engage in. Very skillfully written debut. True. Humorous. Fun. Loving it. (By saying humorous and fun, I must admit Sweeney is very serious about portraying family and love relationships.) I found her tone and voice to be tremendously engaging.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

March: The Month of Books Galore

For close to six weeks, we've had neither winter nor spring, in a time period that is usually filled with the most snow of the season. It's been sad, really. According to local meteorologists, this was the warmest winter on record for our region. Our local economy is dependent on winters that have sustained cold. As long as it stays below freezing, even if there's little snow, the mountain resorts can make snow and keep area businesses humming and people employed. And if there's the bonus of sufficient snowfall, we have boom winters.

Our snowshoes have lain in a dusty pile all season, never used. We hiked with micro-cleats over hiking boots when the ground had a bit of snow or ice, but overall it was not a good season for winter hiking.

On to Books!
I've been promising to reveal more about A Free Life by Ha Jin. I enjoyed this novel thoroughly, and its 667 pages sped by. A Chinese couple with a young son are exiles to the U.S. after the time of the Tianneman Square tragedy. This novel follows their experiences and struggles as they try to construct a financially secure life. They begin their marriage in the Boston suburbs, but when they realize they are not making a secure future there, they move to Georgia, to the outskirts of Atlanta, to start a restaurant business. For Nan, the husband, who is an intellectual and has dreams of becoming a self-sufficient poet, this life is not easy emotionally. For both Nan and his wife Pingping, running the restaurant consumes their entire lives, yet they persist at it, acquire a dedicated clientele, dream up tantalizing dishes to increase their business (don't read this book hungry!), buy a small house on a lake, spare themselves no luxury whatsoever, so that they can pay off their mortgage and gain financial security.

I realize that what I've described may sound uninteresting, but it was anything but. Nan continues to challenge himself writing poetry and eventually realizes that he needs to write in English, not in Chinese (just as the author Ha Jin has done in his life). Nan has always had a facility with English and he realizes that to express what he wants to say, he needs the English language to do it. He pursues his dream, meets lots of poets, and continues this life. A fascinating picture of Chinese-American immigrant life just before the millennium, and I think the themes and situations are familiar to immigrants everywhere.

Girl at War by Sara Novic: Reads like a memoir but it's a novel of a young Croatian girl in the very early 1990s at the start of the Balkan Wars. We see her enjoying the remnants of a normal life for a girl of Zagreb, the capital city. The war breaks out and destroys every bit of normalcy. Food and water vanish first. Then her baby sister becomes very sick, and her parents risk their lives over and over, traveling first to Slovenia, then to the border with Bosnia, to send their baby with renal failure on an airlift to the U.S. The baby departs safely, but the return to Zagreb is a nightmare. In the chaos of tragedy, the ten-year-old protagonist becomes a soldier for the Croatians who are trying to save their country.
This novel was my first read of the Balkan Wars by a Croatian native. It was well done and very much worth reading.

The Past by Tessa Hadley: This is Hadley's most recent novel. Four supposedly mature adult siblings, all very different from one another, reunite to spend three weeks in their grandparents' home in the country (England) as they try to determine whether to sell it or not. This home was always a nurturing vacation home for the children, and each has widely different memories. I found that Hadley's characterizations made the siblings seem remote from the reader. I caught glimpses of the essence of each one, but maddeningly I found them all to be hard to relate to. I didn't find the characters likeable (which is not necessary), except for Alice, perhaps, but then again not so much. I think this can be true of siblings within a family of multiple children.
Pluses: The atmospheric, detailed description of the house. The summer setting. The view of Wales across an estuary? (Do tell: Where do you think this novel was set?)

Gosh! I still need to give a wee synopsis of All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage. Next time!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Winds of Skilak--A Memoir of Life on a Wild Alaskan Island

I simply *adored* this memoir of a young couple in the early 1980s who choose to homestead on a supposedly uninhabitable island, surrounded by the moodiest, most tempestuous lake you will ever meet in literature. This is an adventure memoir, and the thrills are sustained throughout. Because of the location, downwind from an enormous glacier, the island and lake are subject to the most horrific weather.

I hated turning to the last page. The memoir covers their first two and a half years on the island, and they lived there 15 years. I was so enthralled--the wilderness, the hardships, the challenges and the surmounting of obstacles, the wildlife, making a living from the land--all breathtaking.

The Kindle and Nook price are only $5.99, though the paperback is nearly $19. If you have an iPad, or an e-reader that does color, there are wonderful color photos scattered throughout the book.

The author Bonnie Rose Ward was 25 years old at the beginning of their adventure, and her husband Sam was 36. My only so-called "warning," and to me it wasn't a problem, is that she is a very traditional wife and he a very traditional husband. A love and faith in God is mentioned in nearly every chapter. But this is not a Christian memoir, to my mind. It's a fascinating view of life on the wild side.

This title has received multiple awards. Unfortunately I took a peek at some GoodReads reviews. Most were highly favorable, but two reviewers complained that Bonnie was "too weepy" to be a "wilderness woman." I was aghast. Obviously these reviewers have never ever been in true wilderness to know the challenges, emotional and physical.

I have been so inspired by this book. Fortunately, Ward is in the midst of writing her second book. Okay, I say, Godspeed!

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Book Trip to Indian Lake

The Town of Indian Lake Library, which is about 27 miles to the north from my home, has the best and the brightest book collection around with lots of the most interesting new books, both fiction and nonfiction. I admire the head librarian who really knows her stuff and obviously consults multiple book review publications before she orders books. Best of all, this small town has the good sense to be exceedingly generous to its library, quite unlike my town, if I must say. I found three of the new books I've purchased in the past month on their shelves. The year-round population of this town is only around 1300 people.

Crandall Library, which is in the city of Glens Falls 38 miles to our south, has an even broader collection, BUT it serves a community of nearly 100,000 people. So for new books, there are long waits and a very limited time period permitted (2 weeks) to read a new book. Indian Lake, on the other hand, is a very small community (except for the summer) and one doesn't have to wait or rush for anything. It's a beautiful wilderness drive as well. 

Today I picked up In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ward, a mystery that has been recommended by several bloggers. I found many wonderful books for Ken, who loves legal thrillers, and a book by a mystery writer whose detectives are a man and his dog. For instance today, I picked up Spencer Quinn's Paw and Order. Ken has already read the most recent title in the series, Scents and Sensibilities. He says they are a wonderful change of pace.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

March 2016 Reading Extravaganza

For many reasons, I've somehow managed to read like crazy this month--eight (and a half) novels so far--even though one was nearly 700 pages (Ha Jin's A Free Life) and a number of others have been over 300 pages. Believe me, I'm not boasting--I'm just amazed at my good fortune--that I had the time and the focus to hunker down and enjoy so many absolutely fascinating books. I will never forget this month.

Perhaps my favorite, or the one that had me turning the pages with a determined compulsion, was A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton. She and her family live in Glasgow now, so as to be near the university, it seems. After a career as a journalist, Copleton entered the writing program at Glasgow University, and sometime later this novel emerged, among a number of prizes for her short fiction. This novel is on the Longlist for the Bailey's Women's Fiction Prize, as I mentioned in a previous entry

Okay, the story in bare bones. In her early days, Copleton was a teacher of English in Nagasaki and Sapporo, Japan. It was there that she conceived the original plan for this novel, and I admit it's very difficult to give a nutshell commentary. Set in Nagasaki, the most central characters include a mother and grandmother (one person) and a former lover who, despite her determination that he should not, manages to insinuate himself into her life and the life of her entire family from the 1930s through the 1970s to the 1990s in the U.S. Imaginative, believable, epic, and my need to say, "Don't miss it!" This is a fine novel of how love can destroy and can resurrect. 4.9 stars for enjoyment and quality. If you are drawn to historical fiction, that will increase your understanding and perhaps your appreciation, but you don't need to be a devoted reader of the genre, because this book goes beyond genre.

I don't think there's space here to write anything about Ha Jin's 2008 novel A Free Life, which I appreciated immensely.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction 2016 Longlist

I discovered this year's Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist from Danielle at A Work in Progress (please see the blogroll). All of them sound interesting, and no doubt you have read a few.

I've borrowed two of the longlist titles from the library today, and I own a copy of Geraldine Brooks's The Secret Chord. I'm so happy to see that Brooks is on the list because I believe that she is one of the best authors writing in English today. As of tomorrow, I will be reading A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton, which deals with the generational repercussions of the American atomic destruction of Nagasaki over many years. Copleton lived in Japan, teaching English.

The other novel I've borrowed and hope to read soon is Girl at War by Sara Novic (NO-vich), by a Croatian writer who endured the War in Serbia/Croatia in the early 1990s. Although there have been a number of Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian authors whose novels have been translated into English, very few have been openly recognized or even reviewed in English-speaking media. I can't really understand this, particularly because English, Australian, and American U.N. forces contributed to the "peace-keeping" effort in the Balkans. I don't know.

Have you read any on the list? Do you see any that interest you?