Tag Archives: friendship

NIGHT OF MIRACLES: Arthur Truluv #2

Thank you, Netgalley for the copy of The Story of Arthur Truluv and thank you to my local library for a copy of Night of Miracles.

Lucille Howard, the baking matriarch of idyllic Mason, Missouri, insists that the success of any baking endeavor requires assembling the ingredients in advance. Following Lucille’s lead, I recommend reading Elizabeth Berg’s The Story of Arthur Truluv to fully enjoy Night of Miracles. The Story of Arthur Truluv is the cake’s basic layer and Night of Miracles is the frosting. If you liked watching the Andy Griffith Show with Andy, Opie and Aunt Bea, you will like both books.

The Story of Arthur Truluv is a tender story of love, loss, friendship, and acceptance. Arthur Moses, an elderly widower, mourns the loss of his wife, Nola and spends each day eating lunch at her grave-site. Tucked away from view in the same graveyard sits a young troubled teen, Maddy, spending her lonely lunch hours observing Arthur and his one-sided conversations with Nola. In time, they meet and form an enduring friendship. Lucille Howard, Arthur’s crotchety yet kind-hearted next door neighbor and friend, suffers the loss of her childhood true love, Frank, shortly after they are reunited in old age. Arthur’s kind heart draws the sorrowful and depressed Lucille into the circle of love he shares with Maddy. The trio becomes an unconventional family. Arthur, with one leg in the afterlife and the other seeded to the living world is the heart and soul of the book. Maddy, not without flaws, finds Arthur to be more than a surrogate grandfather. When she stumbles, she finds him to be a loyal and accepting friend. She calls him Truluv. Lucille finds a new purpose in life guided by Arthur and his eternal optimism and kindness. The ending is as it should be; Arthur gracefully slips into the next world and joins his beloved Nola.

Night of Miracles feels like a trip back to the old neighborhood. Life has moved things along. Maddy inherited Arthur’s house. When she and her daughter, Nola, (named for Arthur’s wife) left town to attend college, Lucille holds down the fort and continues to host her infamous baking classes to an ever growing number of students.

Maddy and Nola return to visit Grandma Lucille and you can feel the love and smell the fresh baked cookies in the cookie jar.

Our view of Mason, MO has widened and we meet more townsfolk and learn their personal stories. It seems that the good folks of Mason really like to eat. The story is primarily set in Lucille’s kitchen but a lot goes on at Polly’s Henhouse Diner.

Monika Mayhew, a waitress at the Henhouse has her eye on Tiny, a long-distance trucker and a giant of a man with heart of gold. Tiny is infatuated with Monika but extremely shy and fears rejection.

A new character, Iris escaping the aftereffects of her decision to divorce her husband, Ed, was heading for California from the East Coast and became charmed by a stop-over in Mason, MO. Her new neighbor is none other than Tiny. They enjoy each other’s company and soon become good friends. Tiny reveals his interest in Monika and Iris sets out to break the impasse between these two gun-shy lovers.

Meanwhile back in Lucille’s kitchen, Iris, in need of a job, and being more of a consumer than a baker, is hired to help with the odds and ends chores. Lucille, now 88, is well aware that her life’s journey will end soon. Lately her dreams have been filled with repetitive visits from a heavenly spirit wearing of all things, a flannel shirt. Despite his insistence that her time is up, Lucille banishes the thought and tells him to go away. She has more to do before she joins her friend, Arthur.

Our reading journey takes us through other homes where we experience sorrow, joy, love, fear, and hope. We cheer as Monika exhibits courage. We hug Tiny when his big heart is breaking. We share in Maddy’s joy at finding the man of her dreams. We are there to witness Lucille’s transition to the afterlife in a manner totally fitting her personality. The final chapter will make you laugh and cry and hope you get another chance to visit Mason, MO.

My one complaint? Why didn’t Lucille give us some of her recipes! I was constantly drooling. Maybe Elisabeth Berg will put out a cookbook of Lucille’s favorites!

Great books with a touch of spirituality, fantasy, and small town ambiance.

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THE LAST WOMEN IN THE FOREST: a novel

It’s a terrible thing to have loved someone and not know the extent to which you have been deceived… – Marian Engström

Marian Engström scanned the seasonal conservation job listings for her next position. Her latest job had taken her to South Padre Island, Texas to rescue sea turtles but the contract ended and time to move along.

As a dog lover, she was pleased to find a position with Conservation Canines through the University of Washington. The study would be in the bitter sub-zero cold of the snowy mountains near Alberta where oil exploration in oil sands was taking place. The team of dog handlers and trip orienteers would be based out of Whitefish, Montana in a place the group called “The Den”.  Marian, and the other orienteers, would assist the dog handlers setting up trip navigation in designated zones locating wolf, caribou and moose scat, bagging each detected specimen, and charting the waypoints. The purpose of the study is to examine the effects of the oil drilling on the wildlife in the area. This aspect of the novel is well researched and reads a little bit clinical but very interesting.

The book opens with the vividly described murder of a trusting young woman charmed by someone she perceived to be a good Samaritan. Labeling the murdered girl, (Stillwater) Victim #1, alerts the reader to watch for clues. One of the primary or secondary characters is a serial killer!

We meet Marian six months after she has moved to the Whitefish base camp. She is wading into Bull Creek sprinkling the ashes of her boyfriend and dog handler, Tate, and watching them flow downstream. The accident that caused his death unknown to the reader.

It was a beautiful spot…Tate had chosen this location…had pressed the river rock against her palm and asked her to remember.

Marian stands in the cold stream reflecting on their brief relationship with its sweet and sour tones. Heading back to camp, she’s left with an edgy feeling that something was off.  Did he really loved her as much as she loved him? Where to begin to unravel her contradictory feelings?

Tate would share life stories with her making her cry in sympathy for him. One tear-jerker described a stray dog he adopted as a child that died after falling into a swift stream.  Another time, out of the blue, he tells her he found the body of one of the four Stillwater murders. She decides to confirm the accuracy of this story to ease her mind.

She contacts Nick Shepard, a retired forensic profiler, known to be intimately involved in the Stillwater murder investigations. Although he is dying of cancer, a fact he tries to keep from her, he agrees to help confirm or dispel the facts of Tate’s story.

With Marian and Nick narrating, the story gymnastically flips back and forth in time beginning when Tate picked her up at the airport and ultimately reaches present day where we learn about Tate’s fate. Juxtaposed between Marian and Nick’s chapters are vivid tales of the other three unsolved Stillwater murders that may be a bit disturbing to some people. The final chapters pull together loose threads leading to a dramatic conclusion.

The isolation and loneliness of the job were palpable. As one person said, “It a way of life – not a job”; someone comfortable with themselves alone or someone running from life and reaching the end of the line. It’s do or die time. Survival is not so much the result of luck as it is of skill and training. The overarching themes of observation and situational awareness crisscrossed Marian’s job as well as her personal life.

The job was never a problem for Marian. She was well-suited for the conditions and the work. The issue was emotional and her insecurity with humans. Was she as gullible as it seemed or was she out maneuvered by a mastermind of evil? Surrounded by macho mountain men with personalities like Jeremiah Johnson, was it easy for a young woman to be drawn to a man seemingly devoted to her? Did Nick find peace for the families of the murdered girls?

A good solid book worthy of a read. There’s something for everyone -love, friendship, trust and distrust, murder, dogs, freezing cold and stark wilderness settings.

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OUR HOUSE : a novel

She must be mistaken, but it looks exactly as if someone is moving into her house.

The van is parked halfway down Trinity Avenue, its square mouth agape, a large piece of furniture sliding down the ribbed metal tongue.

Fi watches … as the object is carried through the gate and down the path.

My gate. My path.
Whose things are these?

No one expects to return home from a weekend trip to find themselves homeless, their spouse missing and all of their belongings gone. Fi knew that Bram had issues, but she never saw this one coming!

This clever and dark suspense will have you up all night reading!

Fiona (Fi) and Bram Lawson were separated after she found her husband shagging a neighbor in the kid’s new backyard playhouse. (His second transgression in their twelve-year marriage.) But the martial breakup was based on much more. It always is. Booze, lying, fits of anger, and speeding tickets in Bram’s case.

Anna and Bram reveal the story in alternating viewpoints. Anna, seeking to make sense of what happened, tells her story in a lengthy podcast on a site dedicated to victims; aptly named The Victim. Bram’s detailed story, written while in self-exile out-of-country, is a confessional Word document that begins with a simple bout of road rage that is compounded by one bad decision after another, speeding toward an ending you never saw coming.

The drama is revealed like a cat’s cradle, weaving in misdirection and building intrigue. British writer, John Ruskin, aptly wrote: the essence of lying is in deception, not in words.

Anna, at times, comes across a little too goody two-shoes naive. But there is no doubt that she is caught in a vortex of evil not of her doing. Bram, unable to curb his base instincts, finds himself trapped between a rock and a hard place, spiraling out-of-control.

Other characters latch on to Anna and Bram like leeches pushing them to the edge; some with souls dark as the devil. How do you define a friend? How do you know friend from foe? How far would friendship go if betrayed?

Somewhere in all this miasma, love lives, despite divorce, albeit now reduced to a level of caring and compassion one would have for an old pet. Humming just beneath the surface are age-old moral codes serving as a balance beam between right and wrong. Who will find a way to stay on the beam; and who will fall victim to the “dark side”?

How would you handle a world turned upside down? Internalize it like Bram; suffocating under the weight of deception? Or project it outward like Anna; broadcasting her pain in attempt to find her way out of the black hole where her life disappeared?

Look for the book in August, 2018.  A good read.

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ONE IN A MILLION BOY : a novel

 

Monica Wood
Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt | 2017
Review source : Personal copy

★★★★☆

I was married to Howard for twenty-eight years and yet he made only a piddling dent in my memory… certain others … move in and make themselves at home…

Ona Vitkus, 104 years old. The One-In-A-Million Boy

The eleven-year-old boy scout, never named, is dropped at 104 year-old Ona Vitkus’ door by his scoutmaster for the purpose of “doing a good turn” for a couple of months. Other scouts have been here before; each sent packing on day one after failing to meet Miss Vitkus’ idea of what Sir Baden-Powell intended in his first boy-scout directive  – provide assistance to the elderly. Ona took a look at this boy and sensed he needed her as much as she needed him.

Saturday after Saturday, the boy arrived without fail, to fill the bird feeders, mow the lawn, and empty the trash. Something about the boy enchanted Ona; perhaps it was his sincerity, his enthusiasm and his precocious observation skills. The boy’s mind was a sponge for facts and compiling lists of everything; always in groups of 10. Unable to make friends and bullied in school, he found a friend in Ona.

On one of his visits, he asked Ona to help him with a homework assignment. He needed to gather information from an older person about their life. At first, Ona flinched. She had never discussed her past with anyone, including her husband, and 104 years has a lot of suppressed memories. But she soon agreed to be taped, of course, in 10 separate parts.

This is Miss Ona Vitkus. This is her life story on tape. By the time they reached the ninth Saturday, the pair had plotted a way to enter Miss Vitkus in the Guinness Book of World Records for the oldest licensed driver, taped ten sessions of her life history, identified birds, and shared more in those nine weeks than words – they found they had become the most unlikely of friends. You will fall in love with these two as they look beyond age and see inside each other.

On the tenth week, the boy never showed up. And the week after. He had dropped dead, from an undetected heart problem, while riding his bicycle at 5 am, waiting for sunrise, and listening for the morning chorus.

The twelveth week, his father arrived to complete the boy’s contract with Ona; goaded to do so by his ex-wife for his failures as an absentee father. He didn’t explain his punctual boy’s absence to a puzzled Ona but it doesn’t take a wizard to know when someone is grieving.

When Ona calls him on his silence about the boy, Quinn Porter begins a journey to examine his relationship with his son and the loss of his marriages and two divorces to the boy’s mother, Belle. As the family heals, new love blooms, futures look bright for Quinn in his life as a professional musician, and Ona faces her past head-on with their help. The boy’s presence seems to live at Ona’s house; drawing all these imperfect people together as if his spirit is directing things.

The stories of the boy’s parents and their struggles to deal with the death of the boy is alternated with the boy’s visits to Ona prior to his death. The boy’s story is never told from his viewpoint but reflected in his interactions with others; the exception is the ending of the book. An ending that will have you love the boy even more.

Don’t think it is a sad story. There is sadness but there are so many more smiles than tears. The message I took away? You don’t have to be born into a family, to form one. You don’t have to accept that you can’t improve your life. And people are remembered by the tracks they leave in life. One of my top 10 books this year.

My absolute favorite sections of the book are Ona’s taping sessions with the boy; his voice depicted by an ellipsis. His absent voice as clear as if the text was there on the page. Reminiscence of the parents’ absent voices in the Peanuts cartoons.

If you want a real treat, listen to the book. Ona’s voice and mannerisms reminded me of Estelle Getty’s feisty character, Sophia “Ma” Petrillo, on Golden Girls.

Highly recommended.

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LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES: a novel

LOVE AND
OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES

by JAMIE FORD

In 1909, Seattle hosted a world’s fair known as the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, The long forgotten extravaganza was featured in a 2009 DVD celebrating the fair’s 100 year anniversary. The narrator, Tom Skerritt, while discussing human oddities featured at the fair, mentioned that a one-month-old baby boy, named Ernest, was donated by the Washington Children’s Home Society, to be a prize at the world fair’s highly publicized raffle. The ticket was drawn, but no one claimed the baby.

Gobsmacked by a society willing to use an orphan as a contest prize, Jamie Ford draws the winning numbers and does what didn’t happen in reality – he hands over Ernest, as a 12 year-old, to the prize winning ticket holder.

The story unfolds in Seattle in 1962 as Ernest Young’s daughter, Juju, a reporter, discovers a family secret about her father while researching the history of the 1909 world’s fair, a past her father is very reluctant to share. Ernest begins to remember events and people he had submerged years ago. As his past comes flooding back, he realizes that sharing his secret would hurt his wife, Gracie, now sidelined with memory issues. Juju is relentless and the battle with her father to spill the beans is a backdrop to an extraordinary life filled with both pain and happiness in the most unusual of circumstances.

Ernest’s memories take us back and forth from 1962 to 1909; his earlier years described so vividly they feel in technicolor compared to the muted colors of his older years.

Ernest Young, known then as Yung Kun-ai’, was born in China around 1900. Yung Kun-ai’s father, a white missionary, was murdered and his mother, near death from starvation, offered her son a chance to live selling him to smugglers. As a bi-racial child of a white missionary and a Chinese mother, Yung Kun-ai had no future in China; no matter how unpleasant his future would be in America, he would be alive.

His journey to America was fraught with peril dodging death along the way. After a very rough start, a wealth patron, Mrs. Irvine, sponsors Ernest, sending him to an expensive boarding school where he is discriminated against by staff and students. Ernest remains silent about his treatment but tells Mrs. Irvine he is ready for a change. She obliges. She surprises him with tickets to the world’s fair to celebrate his twelfth birthday; traveling to the fair she tells him three things:

 . . .that he would finally be given a good home, . . he would see the President of the United States and that his legal name was now Ernest Young.

Mrs. Irvine, ignoring his pleas to stop and look at the exhibits, walks him to the area where highly popular daily raffles are held. She whispers to him, they are all here for you! They’ve all come to see you and find out who has the special ticket. . . As she steps away from him she says gleefully, someone is taking you home with them. Ernest then realizes – he is today’s prize.

Mrs. Irvine nearly dies of apoplexy when she discovers the winning ticket is held by Florence Nettleton, recognized in Seattle’s prosperous brothel trade, as Madame Flora. The winner never in doubt, as Flora rigged the raffle; she wanted a house boy.

As Miss Maisie May, Madame Flora’s little sister, welcomes him to the Tenderloin, Ernest stands in the doorway stunned; all his senses were on high alert. Whatever my life holds for me now, he thinks, it is not going to be like anything I have ever experienced. That felt like hope; an emotion foreign to him in the past. He asks himself, what goes on here?

The building’s entrance was magnificent, with a glittering voltaic chandelier, the foyer accented with finely polished mill work. . . Everywhere he looked there were tapestries, lace-covered walls, plush French furniture in crimson and gold . . . There was a black man in blue tuxedo playing a piano. He smelled perfume, flowers and savory spices roasting in some unseen kitchen.

Fast friends are made, first kisses shared, and a true family develops supporting everyone when the moral crusaders and powerful community leaders reveal their hypocrisies and lust. Tears are shed and tragedy strikes, but Flora’s family of misfits and outcasts endure together.

It would seem odd to describe a novel where teenage girls are auctioned off for their virginity or succumb to dangers of the trade as heart-warming but Jamie Ford pulls it off. Much like his previous novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, he scratches the surface and reveals their humanity and emotional needs. His descriptions of Seattle and its culture in the early 20th century- both good and bad – seem real and draw the reader into the novel.

You will not forget Ernest, Fahn, Maisie, and others.

Recommended reading.

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SILVER SPARROW: a novel

ALGONQUIN BOOKS | 2012
340 pages
FICTION : AFRICAN-AMERICAN | COMING-OF-AGE
REVIEW SOURCE: PERSONAL COPY

★★★☆☆

James Witherspoon is an “accidental” bigamist. He didn’t  plan on his mistress becoming pregnant. But she did. (As a matter of fact, he didn’t intend for his wife to become pregnant at age 14 either, but she did.) And now he does his best to provide time and money to both families; just not equally, and the disadvantaged family knows it.

His wife, Laverne, operates a hair salon in their home and the place becomes a daily hub of neighborhood gossip and commentary. But one thing that Laverne, and her daughter, Chaurisse, never discuss with their customers is James’ second family. They are oblivious to his duplicitous life and he wants to keep it that way at all cost.

James supports both families with his successful limousine company assisted by his life-long friend and business partner, Raleigh.  “Uncle” Raleigh slips in and out of both families suggesting normalcy but under the circumstances, nothing is normal. The only other person to know of James’ secret life is Willie Mae, Gwen’s best friend and a weekly visitor to Laverne’s beauty salon.

Gwen lives with the hope that James will leave Laverne, but while she waits, she resents his “real family” and makes darn sure that Dana doesn’t feel second best – but of course she does. With Willie Mae’s help, Gwen is able to follow the goings-on in the Witherspoon family to make sure that Dana never is short-shrifted in favor of the “first daughter”.

Over the ensuing years, Gwen becomes more and more bitter about sharing James and tires of hearing about Laverne. She and Dana begin to take devious side trips to spy on the “first family”. Dana wonders what it is like to have her father 24 hours a day. Why would a father have two families at the same time? Which family – which daughter  – does he love the most? She feels like a sparrow whose survival relies on sharing crumbs that fall from the nest of the favored.

Dana’s narrates the first part of the book and is the stronger voice.  The second half is narrated by Chaurisse. It is an interesting contrast in points of view. This bifurcated life works well for 17 years but the wheels start coming off the bus when Dana and Chaurisse accidentally meet at a science fair. Inspired by Gwen’s jealousy, Dana sets out to revenge her mother by befriending Chaurisse. Slowly over time, the two girls become real friends. Dana is careful to stage their contacts to avoid her father and not to arouse Chaurisse’s suspicions.

James Witherspoon’s life explodes the  same night Chaurisse’s car has a flat tire on the way to a party. Chaurisse does what any daughter would do – she calls her father to come help her.  The problem? Dana is riding shotgun. The gig is up.

The two worlds collide and the fallout warps each player as they find their place on the new chessboard. In the end, James and Laverne reconcile and plan a recommitment ceremony. Gwen never gets over the loss of James’ affection and remains a sour and bitter woman the rest of her life.

With her mother all but lost to her, Dana is left wondering if she has lost her father as well and confronts him:

Don’t you love me?

It’s not about loving people, he said. You have to go home now, I have made my choice, just like you made your choice when you went bothering Chaurisse. You almost took my whole life away from me.

What did you think was going to happen? Did he think that I could live my entire life tucked away a dirty photograph? I’m your daughter.

Everyone knows that now, James said. That’s what you wanted. You got it.

But don’t give up on either the young girls, they are stronger than you think. Wait until you meet their grandmother, Bunny. And the romp through 1980s Atlanta is a delight. In the end, you aren’t sure who should have been the grown-up in the story – James, Laverne, Raleigh, Gwen . . .

A good read.

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FOLLOWING ATTICUS

A friend of mine who is not into mountains or nature or the simple blissful feeling that comes from wind in your face once asked me, ” What’s the big deal? You get to a mountaintop and you see the same view you did from the last mountaintop. I don’t get it.”

While I was looking out on . . . the forty-eight [mountains] we’d encountered. . . I had my answer. How many times can you look upon the face of God?    Tom Ryan, Following Atticus

FOLLOWING ATTICUS

FORTY-EIGHT HIGH PEAKS, ONE LITTLE DOG,
AND AN EXTRAORDINARY FRIENDSHIP

Much like a good country western song packs as many red-neck images as possible in the lyrics, Tom Ryan in Following Atticus reveals a full life packed with heart-wrenching drama complemented by the discovery of the healing nature of the natural world and the power of friendship.

This memoir of an out-of-shape newspaper reporter and his dog, Atticus, is a love story. A love story that opens as Tom Ryan, eleven-years into a one-man community newspaper operation, has grown weary of gathering gossip and political dander in his adopted small town. He struggles with a fractious relationship with his father and yearns to find a source of peace and harmony within himself to counterbalance all the stress in his life.

The story begins when Tom is asked to help find someone willing to adopt an elderly dog no longer wanted by its family. After failing to find anyone else, he reluctantly agrees to adopt the dog himself.

For days we stared at one another thinking, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”

Although Max was with Tom for a short time, it was time enough for Tom and Max to bond; to share a friendship and to experience love. Tom was ready to take the leap into the next chapter of his life.

Maxwell Garrison Gillis had opened a door,
and Atticus Maxwell Finch was about to walk through it.

ATTICUS TILTED

Together, Atticus and Tom would take the world by storm. The tiny Miniature Schnauzer with an independent streak and the dispirited out-of-shape human became bonded by respect and an intuitive language known and understood only to them.atticus perched.png

A serendipitous opportunity to hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire opened a new window in the lives of this oddly paired couple. Day after day, year after year, this unlikely duo forged ahead climbing unimaginably difficult summits in the most extreme winter weather. Their adventures are accurately and vividly described. I’ve been there.

MN and SS on washington[A friend asked me if the winter climbs were actually as arduous as depicted – I assured her they were. See me on Mount Washington with my husband, grasping the summit sign to avoid being blown over.]

Tom found he had deep personal reserves both mentally and physically. He learned he was capable of achieving the nearly impossible.  It never got physically easy for him. But he never quit. Plagued by life’s sorrows and unfair burdens, Tom found the strength to overcome emotional defeat while alone with his thoughts in the isolation. His lifelong fear of the dark traveled with him in the stark dark of night surrounded by things that go bump in the night. He survived these terrors because he wasn’t alone – he had Atticus for company and comfort.

For Atticus, his role changed in the mountains. In town, he played by civilization’s rules; he allowed Tom to be his guide. Surrounded by the natural world, Atticus took charge, roles reversed. Puffed-up proud, the “Little Giant” strode ever onward, stepping instinctively toward each summit, seemly oblivious to the possibility of failure. With one eye on Tom and the other on the way ahead he led Tom ever on and ever upward in more ways than one.

Off the mountain, the emotional rifts and causalities continue in Tom’s life.  Life is a line graph and not every point on the grid is an uptick. There are some seriously Debbie-downer moments; this is true life not fiction. You can’t write away reality. Have tissues nearby.

I was awed by the compassion and affection of strangers when life hands the “guys” a life-altering blow. I was gripped with a sense of Déjà vu over Tom’s dysfunctional childhood. And I share the need to become one with the universe; to be part of a bigger picture.

In conclusion, I  found this book fabulous for so many reasons. There’s something for everyone – small community dynamics, dealing with aging parents, child abuse, puppy farms, mountain climbing, geography, weather . . . et al.

Highly recommended.

Thank you, Tom and Atticus.

 

 

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The Trouble With Goats and Sheep

I don’t understand, whispered Tilly.
How does God know which people are goats and which people are sheep?

I think that ‘s the trouble, Grace said,
it’s not always that easy to tell the difference.

 

THE TROUBLE WITH GOATS AND SHEEP

by JOANNA CANNON

SCRIBNER | 2016
Hardcover: 353 pages
Genre: FICTION / COMING-OF-AGE / MYSTERY
Review Source: PERSONAL COPY

1st Published in UK in 2015

★★★☆☆

In the midst of an extraordinary heat wave enveloping England, ten-year-old Grace leans out her bedroom window hoping for a breath of cool early morning air and overhears a neighbor tell his wife, “Margaret Creasy never came home last night. Perhaps she finally buggered off.”

She stumbles downstairs for breakfast sharing the news and sets off a tremor that shakes the neighborhood’s complacency. Thus begins a tale about community secrets buried in the past that now begin to bubble up to the surface, one by one, in the blistering heat of that 1976 summer. The story’s lens never leaves a small middle class England neighborhood where it focuses on the ten or so homes tucked into the curl of a cul-de-sac.

What really happened in 1967? Who knows the truth? Has that nosy Mrs. Creasy figured things out? What has happened to her?

Our narrator is young Grace, a budding ten-year-old, teetering between adolescence and childhood. With her feet still glued in the world of friendships and games, she has begun to view life outside her home as something to explore and challenge.

After attending a local church service, where the Vicar lights a fire in her mind, Grace enlists the help of her best friend, Tilly to investigate Mrs. Creasy’s whereabouts and the reasons for her abrupt departure.  She knows what she must do to help. Assured by the vicar that the lost can be found when they find God, they set out to find God.

How do you stop people from disappearing?
You help them to find God.

How do you find God?
You just have to look.
And if we find God, everyone will be safe?
Of course.
You know that the Lord is our shepherd, Grace. We are just sheep. If we wander off the path, we need God to find us and bring us home.

Oblivious to the buzz in the adult stratosphere, Grace and Tilly set off on their myopic quest of finding God inside the various homes on the Avenue disguised as Brownie Scouts seeking a way “lend a hand”. Through their journey through the neighborhood we see things about each resident that the girls do not.  The rattled adults toss clues to the girls left and right that just fly over their heads, at first, but gradually, the more astute Grace begins to see discrepancies in the neighbors’ stories about Mrs. Creasy and others. They take their little investigation up a notch often to the consternation of everyone, at times jeopardizing their safety.

Those expecting this to end with some explosion of horror will be disappointed. This cozy mystery amuses at the same time offers insight into the dangers of discrimination, innuendo, malicious gossip and the potential for mob violence.  Layered at the girls’ level are lessons on friendship and the frailness of life. The lesson I learned, sometimes it is better to be a goat than a sheep.

I rated the book three stars but do note that it is a good read.  I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest this book to my friends. As a matter of fact, I had received an e-reader advance copy from Edelweiss a while back and forgot; then purchased my own copy that will now be available in my local library. I’ll leave you with my two favorite quotes:

People tend to believe things just because everyone else does. . .They don’t search for proof, they just search for approval from everyone else. [Walter]

I still hadn’t learned the power of words. How, once they left your mouth, they have a breath and life of their own. . . I hadn’t learned that, once you have let them go, the words can then, become the owner of you.” [Grace]

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Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE

by Gail Honeyman

Pamela Dorman Bks  | 2017
Hardcover: 327 pages
ISBN: 9780735220683
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Review Source: ARC e-book from Edelweiss

★★★★☆

When people ask me what I do…I tell them I work in an office. [I work] for a graphic design company…Bob, the owner [must have felt sorry for me]. I had a degree in Classics and no work experience…I showed up for the interview with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm.

First thing before I write another word…you are going to love Eleanor Oliphant. She’s had a rough life but there’s something very special lurking inside her and she has a quirky personality that makes her endearing.

Pity isn’t a word Eleanor would use about herself. She’s pretty straightforward about everything – one of the first thing you will notice about her is her lack of a mental filter. She is a recluse but when she bumps up against the world she has a way of expressing herself that is unique and sometimes seen as abrasive.

In her first 30 years Eleanor has learned that the world is a cruel place. She only has to look in a mirror to see that half her face was burned in a fire but she has only limited memory of how it happened. She has grown up  in foster homes; passed around like a white elephant gift. It was easier to pack her up and shove her into a new spot than to address why she doesn’t seem to fit into a normal family life.

Yet despite all of life’s misfortunes, Eleanor is perfectly happy just as she is…she sees the world as out-of-step and strange.

I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I’m a sole survivor…I don’t need anyone else – there’s no big hole in my life…I am a self-contained entity.

Then two things happen that crack open her self-contained world.

She wins tickets to a rock concert and is star struck by one of the musicians.  This immediate infatuation sends her on a mission to upgrade her image and is convinced that he marry her.

Next, her company computer breaks and she meets a disheveled computer repairman with a gentle spirit and a kind heart. Raymond is the only person in the office that sees her as a person not an object for ridicule and scorn. They begin a routine of lunch hour trips and in time form a social relationship that expands Eleanor’s world.

Eleanor crashes and burns when she learns that her rock star is a jerk. All of her hidden memories of childhood flood back. Her protective shell cracks as she deems herself undeserving of happiness and love. Reaching rock bottom in her life, Eleanor finds the strength to step on that last rung and begin to climb into a brighter and happier future.

As rough as this story sounds, it is not a maudlin book. It reminded me, in a way, of my favorite character in the recent bestseller, Man Called Ove. I was sorry when the book ended but I was cheering and calling out to Eleanor- you go girl! You deserve your new life.

Highly recommended.

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry / The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey

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St. Bernadine’s Hospice
Berwick-upon Tweed
Monday, 11 April

Dear Harold,

This may come to you as some surprise. I know it is a long time since we last met, but recently I have been thinking about the past. Last year I had an operation on a tumor, but the cancer has spread and there is nothing left to be done. I am at peace, and comfortable, but I would like to thank you for the friendship you showed me all those years ago. Please send my regards to your wife. I still think of David with fondness.

With my best wishes,
Queenie Hennessy

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, published in 2012 in the US, quickly reached international success. Harold Fry, a dapper Brit from a tiny town of Kingsbridge, finds himself unable to post a letter to a dying friend. Each time he reached a post box, he walked on to another, until he found himself on an unintended walk across England. As he walked on, Harold believed that as long as he walked, Queenie would stay alive waiting for him.

Twenty years earlier, Harold and Maureen Fry were rocked by the suicide of their only child, David. The Fry marriage, already on fragile ground as David slipped further from them emotionally, became a shadow relationship after his death. Maureen became caustic and unlovable.  Harold, unable to express his grief, put his life on remote control, living each day as a robot.

As Harold walked on in his yachting shoes, inadequate footwear for a 600+ mile trek,  he meets many side characters that provide levity, sorrow, inspiration and friendship. Memories of better times become loosened from a locked place his mind and by the time he reaches St. Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-upon Tweed he has learned much about himself and has hope for his future. 

After finishing Henry Fry’s pilgrimage,  I wanted more! What was Queenie Hennessy’s backstory? More details please! I wanted to hear things from Queenie’s point of view.

So, I was thrilled when the author deftly crafted Queenie’s story in 2014. This second book, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, is written from Queenie’s perspective as Harold walks across England. It is the perfect companion book.

When my book club chose The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy for our March (2017) selection, I thought I would skim The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry to refresh my memory. In the end I found myself re-reading both books in quick succession.

Both books begin with Queenie’s letter to Harold; Love Song includes the entire text of the letter while Pilgrimage hits the high points. It has been 20 years since Queenie suddenly left her job at the brewery. Her recent letter catches Harold off-guard as she writes that she has terminal cancer and wants to tell him, ” Thank you for the friendship you showed me all those years ago.”

As Queenie learns that Harold is walking across England to see her, she is encouraged to write a letter about her life. We learn her side of their relationship through these letters.

Queenie’s unrequited love for Harold, a secret social relationship with Harold’s son, David, and her willingness to sacrifice herself for Harold drove her to leave Kingsbridge in sorrow and grief. With no destination in mind, she simply heads away until she reaches the end of land and faces the ocean. As she walks into the water to drown herself, she stops herself when she discovers the mysterious life beneath the water. She finds an abandoned house on the shore and begins creating a massive sea garden with representations of persons and events from her past. Along the way she finds she is able to make friendships and to live a simple quiet life.

Like the first book, Queenie’s story is filled with hospice patients that show all of us that life isn’t over until the last breath.

As much as I loved Harold’s book, I think seeing their story through Queenie’s eyes was a deeper and richer experience. Describing Queenie’s hospice life and her interactions with the staff and fellow residents is heartwarming and heart wrenching at the same time.

If I go into more detail about either book, I will spoil it for the reader! The stories touched my heart strings. Please do the author the honor of reading both of these books. I highly recommend them.

Sources:
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (personal copy)

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (Advance e-book provided by the publisher and Netgalley in exchange of my honest review.)

 

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I’ll Push You

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camino-collage

★★★★

I’LL PUSH YOU :

a journey of 500 miles, two best friends, and one wheelchair.

by PATRICK GRAY and JUSTIN SKEESUCK

Tyndale House | June 2017
Hardcover: 272 pages
ISBN: 978-1496421692
Genre: Personal Memoir
ARC e-book from edelweiss in exchange for an unbiased review.

Every once in a while a book jumps off the shelf into your consciousness and you realize it will change your life in ways you never expected!

Two best friends, Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck, headed to Spain in 2014 to hike the El Camino de Santiago (also known as The Way of St. James). There was print and video press coverage of their journey but I don’t watch much TV and frankly I missed it all. When I saw this book offered as an advance read, I eagerly checked out the synopsis and investigated clips of the video coverage on You-Tube. I was hooked.

It all began in 2012 when Justin watched a travel program featuring the El  Camino and became inspired to hike it. He shared the taped program along with his desire to do the trail with his best friend, Patrick. Without hesitation, Patrick responded, I’ll  push you.”justin

Why do you ask would he need to push Justin? Justin has a rare progressive autoimmune/neuromuscular disease that has left him unable to move his upper and lower limbs.

The friends realized that this was going to require extraordinary effort on both of them to pull this off.  Justin’s daily medical and personal care would have to be undertaken by Patrick. That full time job would be accomplished after grueling day pushing, tugging, lugging, and carrying Justin through mud holes and over steep mountain terrain.

Two years later, on June 3, 2014 this awesome twosome set on their life altering 34 days journey.

This deeply personal memoir interlaces the arduous hike with personal vignettes of their shared childhoods, personal struggles with addiction, marriages, spiritual growth – and most importantly their love and loyalty to each other. Their relationship defines the meaning of friendship.

As a long distance hiker myself, I acknowledge the bonds and community of fellow pilgrims that develop in the intimacy of a long walk. The reader will be amazed at the selflessness of others to slow their own Camino experience to lend a hand when needed. I personally wasn’t surprised when complete strangers were willing to discuss their reasons for hiking, often exposing their life warts, and to share their difficult internal journey toward personal peace. It happens on the trail but it will probably come as a surprise to the non-hiking community.

Recommended.

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Looking For Alaska

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# 1 Challenged Book In 2015

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Looking For Alaska

Author | John Green
Dutton Bks | 2005
Hardcover: 256 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-245660-1

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Genre: Fiction/Interpersonal Relations
Audience: High School

PRESS RELEASE – 2005

Before.
Miles “Pudge” Halter is done with his safe life at home. His whole life has been one big non-event, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave “the Great Perhaps” even more (Francois Rabelais, poet). He heads off to the sometimes crazy and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young. She is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart. Then. . . .
After. Nothing is ever the same.

Challenge History
Looking for Alaska, first published in 2005, was John Green’s debut young adult novel. The American Library Association awarded the book the  Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature in 2006. Visit the link Awards and Challenges for more information about this book and book challenges in general.

The first challenge to the book occurred in 2008 when the book was used as course material in an 11th-grade English class in a high school near Buffalo, N.Y. Some parents challenged its usage in class because of its liberal portrayal of students drinking, smoking, using explicit language and having sex. The school board ultimately voted to keep the book in the school curriculum

Following the phenomenal success of John Green’s A Fault In Our Stars in 2012, Looking for Alaska received a second look by many and soon appeared on the NYT children’s paperback bestseller list at #10.

The American Library Association received  270+ different titles challenged in 2015 but the most challenged book was Looking for Alaska. The ALA has summarized the challenges as offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group. Other challenges to the book focused on religious objections.

John Green’s Youtube defense of challenges

My Review

First off I was disappointed (tongue-in-cheek) to learn that the story wasn’t about the cold northern state, Alaska; I had hoped. Alaska is a “gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating classmate” (according to the publisher) not an Alaskan musher.

Having gotten over my disappointment, I looked at the bones of the book. Unlike most novels, the book is uniquely arranged in one continuous story-line. No separate chapters.  Breaks in the timeline are spliced into the story by bold headlines – a countdown to some unknown event beginning with one hundred thirty-six days before. This layout did keep me reading page after page always looking for clues, ever aware that something significant is going to happen. A very useful tactic if encouraging a reluctant reader.

My overall impression was positive. I thought the book was age-appropriate for senior high school students. Parents of younger children should probably read the book in advance and make their own decision if their child is mature enough or prepared for some of the themes. The sex scenes and underage drinking reflect the mind of the intended audience as they transition from youth toward adulthood; even if as a parent, you would like to keep your child innocent and close to home. It is my opinion the book could provide a medium through which a parent and child can discuss sensitive topics at a time when it is hard to talk about anything with your child without sulking or surly rebellion.

I particularly liked that Miles’ father, an alumnus of Culver Creek, having been a mischief make himself, advises Miles, “Don’t do anything stupid…No drugs, No drinking, No cigarettes.” While Miles had no initial interest in these activities he was so anxious to belong that he was willing to suspend his better judgement at times.

The heaviest topic, suicide, threads through the story, often disguised as bluster and bravado. Again, with teenage suicides the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, the book provides an avenue for discussion about the symptoms and signals of teenage depression.

I was struck by the deliberate absence of parental contact and limited supervision by school staff during the school year; parents and teachers for the most part seemed to speak in the Peanuts cartoon “wah wah wah” voice as background noise. The “Eagle”, Mr. Starnes, dean of students, appears as a nocturnal guard against late night mischief with little interest in the life of students exhibiting social problems.

By and large, one of the best themes of the book was the world religions class. Miles was not raised in a deeply religious setting but he is intrigued by the metaphysical nature of the class. It speaks to why he reads biographies to learn people’s last words and to his reason for attending this school- searching for the Great Perhaps. The topic of death and the meaning of life is central to the story. As Miles “Pudge” Halter absorbs his thoughts about the meaning of life, the reader follows Alaska’s personal torments toward tragedy.

Mr. Hyde posts Simón Bolívar’s last words, often quoted by Alaska, on the chalkboard as a source for class discussion and reflection.

“Damn it. How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?”

The author places each character in a myriad of labyrinths. Each labyrinth, whether Miles’ efforts at developing friendships, Chips disapproval of the wealthy day students, or Alaska’s deep history of family tragedy and sorrow, lends itself to self-reflection and/or shared dialogue.

When the unexpected event happens and “the before” ends and “the after” begins, life is altered for each character. As in life itself, the characters learn how tenuous the future really is and their self-discovery in response to the “event” casts a bright light on friendship, loyalty, trust, love, religion and reality.

Despite the dark overtones, the book has many positive messages.

The world religion class receives their final exam question two months in advance and the characters’ reflections and discussions on the topic are thought provoking.

What is the most important question human beings must answer?
Choose your answer wisely, and then examine how “Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity attempt to answer it.

Pudge’s final exam begins…

Before I got here, I thought for a long time that the way out of the labyrinth was to pretend it doesn’t exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world in the back corner of the endless maze and to pretend that I was not lost, but home. But that only led to a lonely life accompanied by the last words of the already-dead, so I came here looking for the Great Perhaps, for real friends and a more-than-minor life.

And ends with…

Thomas Edison’s last words were: ‘It’s very beautiful over there.’ I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.”

I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking and writing what has turned out to be a lengthy discussion of this “banned book.” If this book has such a lasting impression on me personally, I hope it is helpful and enlightening to others as well.

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