Monday, February 27, 2012

How it All Began

How It All Began is Penelope Lively’s marvelous new book about the Chaos Theory or if it’s more understandable you (And me too!) could use the science behind If You Give A Mouse A Cookie as your template. No she hasn’t become James Gleick on us. How It All Began is a novel, a fabulous novel. The title is the kind that tells you the whole story and none of the story at the same time I always like that.

Lively’s chaos starts with Charlotte Rainsford’s mugging. When Charlotte gets mugged her hip is broken, when her hip is broken she has to stay with daughter Rose and family to recover. This chain of events stretches into other households unknown to Charlotte revealing among other things: an adulterous affair, the opportunity for an affair, career opportunities for advancement and failure.

The chapters alternate between all of the lives that Charlotte’s fall impacts. This technique has two potential pitfalls. In some authors’ hands this method often creates a short story collection rather than a cohesive novel. The more common problem with this strict back and forth between characters lives is the authors’ inability to build the same level of interest between each character. Inevitably you are spellbound by one or two characters and the rest? Ho-hum. Not to worry with Penelope Lively. This is a novel where each life is individual and a part of the whole AND you are happily invested in each character.

Each of lives in How It All Began is beset in some way by the problem of aging. As the most senior characters in the book Charlotte and Lord Peter have the most straight forward aging issues. They are edging their way toward the loss of independence and mental sharpness. The rest of the main characters in the novel are years younger than Charlotte and Peter but age has them all by the throat. The clock is ticking away and there are past, present and future choices to evaluate.

How It All Began, like Lively’s other novels, is a disarmingly gentle story keenly observed. These are characters with recognizable problems, good and bad habits who all live in the same world that you and I do. How does Penelope Lively make a novel so accessible so interesting? She imbues her characters and storylines with a complexity, a richness that despite their familiarity keeps them intriguing. All this is accomplished without sacrificing Livelys’ satirical wit. How It All Began was reading love for me from beginning to end.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Mapmaker's Wife

The Mapmaker’s Wife is nonfiction that falls into the age old Reads Like Fiction category. Although we all have examples of fiction that we would rather nothing reads like. In the case of The Mapmaker’s Wife however I mean it as a compliment.  Author RobertWhitaker has written an un-put-down-able that is all the more fascinating because it’s a true, history.

In 1735 a party of French scientists left for South America.  Their mission in Peru is to measure "the distance of one degree of latitude at the equator". Easy-peasy, right? I’m sure somebody packed the tape measure so what are we talking about? A couple weeks? No, it is planned that this expedition will take approximately ten years. Of course  it is 1735 so the job the scientists were sent to accomplish is going to be done under the harshest of circumstances no matter what century you judge it from.

The dramas of the endeavor are hostile land, hostile animals, hostile native peoples, the hostile Spanish colonists, hostile politics, scientists’ hostility to one another, and then a little murder as the icing on the top. Enough action and history for several books but for Whitacker they are the ancillary tales of this incredible adventure. His focus is the story of the youngest member of the French team, Jean Godin and his Peruvian bride, Isabel Gramesón.

When the expedition had finally (and successfully) completely its mission Jean and Isabel had the length of the Amazon in between them. The politics of the day made it impossible for Jean to just send for his bride right away. What ended up being a twenty year separation for the couple caused by politics and Isabel’s determination to get across the continent of South America (from Peru to French New Guinea) to reunite with her husband made headlines around the world.

The Mapmaker’s Wife is exciting, real, human history. In the eyes of the World this is small history: no wars were started as a result of these events, no economies collapsed, women didn’t get the vote and no disease was cured but it is just as captivating as if every one of those things had happened as a result of Jean and Isabel’s heartbreak.  In this book Robert Whitacker has effectively used his research and writing skills to incorporate a complete picture of the times. Given this background the Godin’s story becomes all the more amazing.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Child of My Heart

It isn’t uncommon for a teenage girl to experience an intense friendship with a younger child; to have an overwhelming affection for a living doll. This relationship is based on companionship, mothering and anxiety about growing up.  This type of relationship is the basis of Child of My Heart by Alice McDermott.
Theresa is a parent approved Pied Piper in her 1960’s Hampton neighborhood. Her working class parents moved to this affluent area when Theresa was a child in hopes that access to a more cash heavy world would better her chances in life. So far it’s brought her access but through the back door. Theresa is the most desired babysitter and pet-sitter of the rich.

During her fifteenth summer Theresa gets a tag-along. Her eight year old cousin Daisy is spending the summer with her. Daisy is a loving little girl. Her family life is crowded and Daisy has been lost in the shuffle. She and Theresa are a perfect fit and it isn’t long before Theresa sees all that is going on with Daisy.

As the summer progresses we get an insider’s view of the neighborhood: the grieving, the absentee parents, divorces, leering fathers and runaway mothers. Theresa and Daisy are the anecdote to their affection-less lives for most of the children they watch.  However, as mature and perceptive as Theresa is she is still only a fifteen year old. It’s impossible for her to save everyone or to always make the right choices for herself.

McDermott has filled Child of My Heart with the kinds of details that evoke an emotional response from the reader. Her depiction of Theresa’s movement between her charges and the adult world she’ll soon be a member of is both touching and alarming.  This is a bittersweet jewel of a novel. Alice McDermott has captured a moment in time with a delicate and seductive hand.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

No One Is Here Except All Of Us

When you are a child putting a blanket over top of yourself renders you invisible. This powerful cloaking device means that you are impenetrable, impervious to outside forces and best of all-- invisible. Author Ramona Ausubel elaborates on this kind of child’s logic regarding safety in her new novel No One Is HereExcept All Of Us.

After a brief, intriguing prolog Ausubel begins the story in 1939 Romania. In an out of the way, quiet Jewish village with a whole lot of Norman Rockwell done by Marc Chagall going on, the greater world has been largely absent from the villagers lives. When WWll threatens the village a plan to protect themselves is devised by Lena, the young daughter of a cabbage farmer and seconded by a mysterious stranger washed up on the village shores part shaman part harbinger. The plan is to just not accept that bad things are headed toward them.  The villagers decide to shroud and redefine their world. They allow the roads leading in and out of their village to become overgrown and inside the village they start over. Relationships are reordered, family groups reorganized and jobs reassigned. By covering over the physical and emotional past they hope to fool the future into walking by them.

For a while the plan keeps evil at bay but of course this kind of Brigadoon cannot last forever. Hope gives way to fear and then to terror. The now grown Lena must take drastic action to save her children and find her husband. The future has come upon her and survival is all.

Ausubel had me entranced for the first half of this novel. The folktale quality of No One Is Here Except All Of Us perfectly fits Ausubel’s lyrical and vivid writing style. Her mapping out of the newly remade village and its citizens is magical. Unfortunately when the second half of the story has Lena and the others on the run the story and the writing disconnect. The introduction of the real world into the novel has some suspense but overall has a disjointed and somewhat haphazard feel.

On the very welcome strength of most of No One Is Here Except All of Us I will be looking forward to Ramona Ausubel’s next book.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Old Romantic

~sigh~ Comic novels.  I don’t know why but fictional humor doesn’t do it for me. What do you think? For me having someone describe a novel as funny, amusing or humorous is the kiss of death. It positively guarantees that I will never read that book.  Why??? I like to laugh. I find tons of things funny, really I do! Just not the written word apparently.

So here’s The Old Romantic by Louise Dean. The New York Times said that it has ‘great comic touches’ and Publisher’s Weekly described it as “grimly hilarious” and I liked it. Did I laugh? No. Was I meant to? No, I don’t think so. Was I amused? No. There are numerous humorous situations but in the hands of this gifted writer they are mixed with a little too much realism, a little too much truth to be comic. They are more emotionally squirm worthy than laugh out loud.

The Old Romantic is set in England but it is the universal story of the successful adult snob who is ashamed of his parents. We all know that story. It usually ends with ungrateful brat having a crisis or epiphany or meeting a talking horse with the wisdom of the ages at his hoofs and realizing the value of Mom and Dad. Cue the happy ending. In Louise Dean’s version of this classic tale family feeling and acceptance are not achieved so easily or with such Hallmark results—giving the reader the happy ending instead of the characters.

As successful as eldest son, Nick has been out in the world, he’s been just that bad at relationships. As a teenager he squealed to Mom about Dad Ken’s affair and thereby ended his parents’ marriage.  After the divorce Nick lived with odd, angry Mom, Pearl, while peacemaking younger brother Dave felt compelled to live with Dad. Twenty years and more bad water under the bridge later Dave manages to bring Nick home for a reunion with Ken.

Ken, now 80, and on his second divorce, has decided that he’s dying. He wants Nick to help him with his divorce from current wife, June and with writing his will not that Ken is leaving Nick anything. Nick, who has achieved poshness above his station as a lawyer allows himself to be guilted into helping his father. Ken is self involved, anger spewing, maudlin and has left a trail of hurt behind him.

As we get to know Nick and the rest of the family we have to question Nick’s version of the past. Is Ken really the epitome of ignorance, bad taste and blaming? How much of Nick’s upbringing has he been able to jettison and how much has he carried around with him shaping his relationships?  How far beneath the fine clothes does Nick’s refinement run? What is at the heart of his relationship with the attractive Astrid? Is Nick only a slightly more socially acceptable version of Ken?
The Old Romantic isn’t the kind of novel that you read to find out what will happen next so much as what the characters will say next.  Louise Dean constantly shifts your sympathies from character to character in The Old Romantic. Ken, Nick, Pearl, Dave, the poor funeral director- everyone gets a turn being the victim. Instead of plot this novel is stuffed with intricate relationships, the kind of commonplace moments that reveal our own prejudices and foibles and some extra snappy dialog.

Friday, February 10, 2012


On November 14th, 1940 the city of Coventry in England suffered through horrific bombings from the German Air Force. Coventry was a big industrial area and its manufacturing included munitions. On that night 515 bombers were set from Germany to destroy Coventry’s factories. By the end of this blitz two thirds of the area’s factories were either destroyed or severely damaged, public utilities were out of commission, 2 hospitals had been destroyed, Coventry Cathedral was a ruin, over 4,000 homes were gone , approximately 1,100 people were hurt and an estimated 600 people were killed.
Set on that same awful night, Coventry by Helen Humphreys follows three people during the bombing: Jeremy a young man who has recently moved to Coventry to find a job in one of the war related factories, his mother, Maeve and Harriet. Maeve is a devoted mother and artist who has spent her life going from job to job in an effort to keep herself and her fatherless son afloat. Harriet is a long time widow. Her husband died in the first few weeks of fighting in WW1. Even twenty years after that loss she has been unable to find happiness in life.

Fate brings Harriet and Jeremy together as firewatchers on the 14th. They spend a night together that is appalling and fantastic. In between the horrific damages, the devastating loss of life and the constant attempt at rescuing, Harriet realizes that she has a connection with Jeremy and his mother.  When the bombing starts Maeve heads home to wait for Jeremy’s return. Before that happens she gets caught up in the exodus out of the city. When the night is finally over the lives of all three of the main characters will be forever altered and forever connected.

This huge story is told by Helen Humphreys with a minimum of muss or fuss. Her writing is spare and direct but not in a bullet point, journalist style. Rather Humphreys calm, matter of fact prose juxtaposes the horror of the events in Coventry with her very ordinary characters who are living through it in a way that leaves the reader transfixed.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Flight of Gemma Hardy

The jacket on The Flight of Gemma Hardy tells you right out in the open that this novel is “a captivating homage to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre”. That was enough of a come on for me. I made the purchase.  How did that work out? Good and not so good.

For all but the final third of The Flight of Gemma Hardy author Margot Livesey sticks closely to the plot of Jane Eyre. In fact this first chunk of the novel is not so much“homage” in my opinion as a flat out retelling.  Gemma’s story takes place in the late 1950’s and early 60’s in Scotland and Iceland as opposed to the 1840’s and England other than that? Gemma Hardy is living the Jane Eyre dream.

Livesey’s writing is lovely and has an appealing gracefulness to it. Her descriptions of landscapes especially are stimulating and evocative.  I wasn’t always as aware of the quality of her writing as I could have been since I was too distracted by all the parallels between Gemma’s and Jane’s lives.  With each of the new to Gemma experiences that Livesey detailed I was too busy ticking off the Yes This Too Happened To Jane Eyre Checklist to enjoy the actual writing. Was this my fault? Having already been told that this novel was a “homage” was I too focused on finding all the similarities? I say no. If you have read Jane Eyre you cannot ignore the identical storylines and characterizations that Livesey uses in Gemma. It’s more of a challenge to find George Washington’s head in the cherry tree in a hidden picture illustration than it is connecting Gemma’s story to Jane’s.

In Jane Eyre once Jane has left Thornfield Bronte takes her on a journey of self discovery. When Livesey gets to this part of Gemma’s story she too has Gemma runaway and embark on the same type of journey. However, Livesey does take this point in the novel to make The Flight of Gemma Hardy less of a Jane Eyre revival and more singular. It is here that you get to really enjoy how well Livesey writes.

I can’t say that I would recommend The Flight of Gemma Hardy to a Jane Eyre fan but if you have never read that classic why not try Gemma?  Margot Livesey can write and although The Flight of Gemma Hardy was not for me reading it has made me interested in perusing Livesey’s other novels.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy Birthday To Charles But I Got The Presents

Today is Charles Dickens 200th birthday!
The 200th birthday of someone who has brought me an immeasurable amount of pleasure and influenced my reading tastes more than any other writer. Charles Dickens has filled my life and imagination with his characters and stories. I’m grateful for the unhappy childhood his parents provided him, the inspiration his times brought him and all of his hard work.  All that and his writer voodoo  magic married up to create books that would bring me (and some others) great joy.
 Lucky us.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son

Yea! Another novel set in Korea, this time North Korea. Maybe Korea really is becoming the new India for publishers. Given my semi-obsession with both Koreas I’ll take it. This new novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, is getting a lot of attention and you know what that means my friend. More titles about and/or set in the Koreas. No mission statement in publishing is as hard, fast and adhered to as “Publish as many titles as you can that mimic a bestseller.” Need proof? One word: vampire.
Back to my reading The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Let me repeat, Yea! Pak Jun Do is the orphaned son of a singer or so he’s been told. He was told this by his Father, Jun Do, who is the Orphan Master. Do runs his orphanage, Long Tomorrows, with a steel hand sparing no one including his son. Like another unhappy, literary orphan, Oliver Twist, Pak Jun Do is requited into a secret crime organization. Unlike Oliver however, Pak’s new job is as a government sanctioned kidnapper. Too bad for Pak his Fagin is the government of Kim Jong ll. There is no happy reunion with a loving family waiting on Pak’s horizon.
Pak’s career as a kidnapper has him bringing Koreans and non-Koreans back to the mother land. Writers, filmmakers, doctors, etc. living outside of North Korea who “need” to be returned home.  His specialty is recovering these misguided souls in Japan. Pak’s rise among the party faithful hits a snag when a diplomatic mission to the U.S. blows up.  His Golden Boy success in tatters, Pak reject his punishment and takes it on the lam.
The Orphan Master’s Son is at its wonderful best when Johnson is writing about North Korea. He paints an affecting portrait of a population living under the thumb of a dictator. Johnson touches on almost every level of society in Korea. There are economic and educational disparities between people but they all live underneath the sediment of constant propaganda and chilling fear. This country is not for the faint of heart.
Adam Johnson delivers an ingeniously plotted and engaging novel. The Orphan Master’s Son lives up to the attention it has generated. Pak is a fascinating hero in a cast thick with unique characters, but quite honestly the real star of this novel is North Korea.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Quality of Mercy

In the spirit of full disclosure I want to tell you that Barry Unsworth is one of my favorite authors. His Man Booker Prize winning novel Sacred Hunger is one of my all time revered, most  recommend, if-it-turns-out-you-don’t-appreciate-it-don’t-tell-because-I-will-think-less-of-you books.  When I found out a few months ago that Unsworth’s new novel would be a sequel to Sacred Hunger, The Quality ofMercy, my excitement was strong enough to be slightly embarrassing.

There is always a question with sequels, “Do I have to read the books in order?”  That question is also a dead giveaway. Real readers never ask that question. They HAVE TO read connected novels whether they are a series of two or twenty-two in order. It’s hard wired into the DNA.  So I answer the question for all of the less obsessive readers in the world. The answer is, “Yes.”
It is inevitable that in putting down my thoughts on The Quality of Mercy I will be spilling out some plot from Sacred Hunger as well. There will be absolutely no spoilers concerning The Quality of Mercy in this review but there will be a couple spoilers regarding Sacred Hunger.
The Quality of Mercy is set in 1767, two years after the end of Sacred Hunger. In Sacred Hunger Unsworth designed his brilliant turmoil around the deadly slave triangle of England, Africa and the New World.  The central plot in The Quality of Mercy centers on a court case resulting from the mutiny of the slave ship in Sacred Hunger.  Erasmus Kemp is looking for financial compensation for slaves lost on his Father’s ship. His legal nemesis is the abolitionist Frederick Ashton. Ashton’s passion for ending slavery extends as far as freeing the slaves and sending them back to their homeland but not as far accepting them as equals.
On other fronts mutinous members of the crew are still on the loose and need to be rounded up for prosecution and as witnesses. Kemp is looking to purchase a mine. This particular mine is desirable because it is worked by children and therefore more of a money maker than most mines. This subplot highlights the many forms of slavery that existed across races and countries. The mine workers were as hopelessly tied to mines as the African slaves were to the plantations.
Barry Unsworth is the historical novelist that all other novelists daydream about being. He writes from a position of authority. He has every social and historical detail in place, every conversation is pitch perfect, every thought or action ascribed to a character is in keeping with the historical period and with that character’s personality.  All that is amazing but what is truly astonishing is the nuanced way in which Unsworth carries all this research and plotting into what we all want the most-- captivating and rewarding storytelling.
P.S. What do you think of the cover art on the Brit edition?
I'm not in love with it but I adore it in comparision with the U.S. cover? That cover is a snooze and a half--completely expected. The Brit cover is at least unexpected and interesting.

Friday, February 3, 2012


How do you solve a problem like Sister Bernard? Now 90, she fell from grace 60 years ago taking others with her and has lived her life like a penance ever since.
In Obedience, by Jacqueline Yallop, Sister Bernard’s story unfolds in a tantalizingly measured manner. Going back and forth between World War 2 and the present day we see the Sister’s downfall and the effect it had on the rest of her life and on those around her. At the start of Obedience Sister Bernard is one of the three nuns left in the once busy convent where they have spent most of their lives. The convent is no longer needed and will be closed so the elderly nuns are heading for retirement.

At age 30 Sister Bernard unknowingly became the target of a cruel wager between several occupying German soldiers. Their bet involved her seduction and it ended with her infidelity to her vows and a member of the resistance and the loss of God’s presence in her daily life. Ever since she was a young girl Sister Bernard had heard the voice of God in her head but when she betrayed her vows and her community that voice was lost to her. She has spent the intervening years longing for the return of her lover and her God.

In Sister Bernard Yallop has developed a very interesting and not always likeable character.  She is an anti-hero. She is a participant in her downfall and a victim of it.  She is a simple, uneducated woman who is often viewed as stupid by her fellow sisters. This leads one of her fellow retirees, Therese, to feel duty bound to stay with Sister Bernard in retirement until Therese is made aware of Bernard’s past.

Obedience is a powerful, seductive read that touches on among other things: aging, dishonesty, love, loneliness and duty. Jacqueline Yallop has used her gifts for good. Her Obedience is a well constructed, polished, intensely discussion worthy novel.

P.S. The Cover? Gorgeous.