Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Bookish Confession

I have to come clean.

I have a Kindle.
What's that you say?  You didn't hear me?

I have a Kindle.  
You still can't hear me?  Alright, alright!!  I HAVE A KINDLE!!

There.  I've admitted it.  Me, the book elitist who put up a Pledge to the Printed Word.  I have succumbed because I think the Reader in me ultimately was stronger than the Booklover.  I never thought I would find myself saying those words and I am just shaking my head in wonder at this turn of events.

It was a gift.   That's how it started.  I expected to hate it.  And it did take some getting used to.  I can't tell you how many times I went to turn a non-existent page (you must press a button instead).  And I read so fast that I found myself pushing the button too fast as well, going on to the next page before I had read the last few words.  So in a way, it has forced me to slow down.

It is unbelievably, and expensively, convenient.  Two o'clock in the morning and you have nothing to read?  No problem.  With one click a book is delivered, usually less than $11, to your device.  And in less than a minute, you are reading.

Many Kindle versions of books are ten dollars or less.  But those ten dollars can rack up really, really quickly when you read three or four books a week.  And then you feel you don't even have anything to show for it.  At least with a book you can still look at it, put it on your shelf, see it in all it's tangible bookish glory.  The Kindle is all about virtual.  Your book is just a title on your Kindle home page.  Yes, you can read it again.  But it is still not the same. And, at least for my model, there are no pictures!!  So that leaves biographies out.  I love biographies and the pictures are my favorite part.  However, there are also a lot of free books out there in the public domain, great stuff like Twain and Jules Verne.  One of the free books I read was The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne.  Before he wrote the Winnie the Pooh stuff, he wrote one of the first modern detective stories and, while it was dated, it was great fun.

Because of my limited mobility, I have not been able to browse in a bookstore in a long time.  I truly miss that.  That, to me, is the all time high point in book shopping.  To be intrigued by the cover art, a title, and then to have a synopsis on the back be as promising as you would hope, it doesn't get any better than that to a geek like me.

Until I get a lift for my power chair, which is $1900 away, I am forced to virtual browsing.  I wouldn't say I have a love/hate relationship with my Kindle.  I don't love it and I don't hate it either.  It is more like a grateful/tolerant relationship.  I tolerate it's shortcomings as an un-book and I am grateful I have access to such a wonder of technology.   It will never, ever take the place of a real, in-your-hands book.  But, at two in the morning, it is a nice substitute.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Another Perspective on "The Help"

The Help by Kathryn Stockett has been a publishing, and now a movie, phenom. On the immediate surface, it is a nicely written story of triumph over racism by oppressed black maids. But scratch that surface just a tiny bit, heck just blow some of the dust off of it, and you are left with some considerable problematic issues at the heart of the book.

Because of who I am, I was ripe for The Help. When I originally went back to school for my Master’s, I started in the Social Work program. I am simply fascinated by people’s stories: where they came from, how they got to where they were, how their lives were different, or the same, as what they had envisioned for their future. Unfortunately, that fascination did not extend to helping people solve their problems. I just wanted to hear their stories and yell “Next!” Not helping people with their problems is less than a stellar quality in a therapist. So it was time to reconsider my goals. But my love of a good story has abided.

Therefore, when I found The Help last summer, I really enjoyed it as a decent, engrossing read. The book told many intertwined stories and it told them smoothly. I am a sucker for a well-crafted narrative and I especially love it when it is complex and multi-dimensional, which The Help was. Contrasting the experiences of middle class white women and their maids in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960’s, individual stories abound. Even though it is fiction, the stories in The Help ring utterly true. Black women labored for white families cooking, cleaning and raising their children with insulting pay and crushing hours. They were heaped with abuse and insults, both petty and egregious. You just know every anecdote about racism, indifference, paternalism and humiliation told in The Help has a basis in reality. As you read you cheer on these women who are brave enough to share their experiences with Skeeter, the character who is the driver of the plot. A forward thinking recent college grad, she has the brilliant idea to interview the help to get their perspective on the inequities in the South of the early 1960’s. Initially reluctant, multiple women are eventually persuaded that they are answering a call from God, serving a higher good…WAIT!! STOP!!!!

While it bothered me a little at the time, it took almost a year for some things to fully occur to me.

The 1960’s? Mississippi? Where beatings, shootings and church burnings to prevent integration were routine? Where Medgar Evers was murdered in front of his wife and children in 1963 (as is briefly referenced in the novel)? Where in 1962 the Governor of the state defied the President of the United States by blocking the enrollment of a black student at the University of Mississippi?!?! In this setting, black women, maids, of humble origin and little education and with absolutely no one to protect them, chose to tell their stories for a book? For a white girl?!? Amazing!! Then this must be the story of how that happened and, boy, do I want to read that original book!

Except…there was no original book. Nothing like this ever happened. Oppressed and exploited women did not rise up at the behest of friends and their preacher to tell the stories of their mistreatment. Because, pure and simple, it would have cost them their lives. Right there, we have a major plot problem for The Help – the characters are lively, the stories are compelling, but the entire basis for the book is not only improbable, it is impossible. No black woman was going to risk her life and that of her family to indulge a white girl in her curiosity. They were too busy simply surviving. That is why there is no tell-all book.

So it couldn’t have happened, big deal, you say. So it is a fairy tale. Other books are about made up scenarios. Well, I still have a problem with it, because it does not promote itself as a “what if” book. What if black maids banded together and told their stories in the 1960’s? What if it became a best seller and discussions about race led to a better understanding and an abbreviated civil rights struggle? The Help does not ask those questions. It tells us, this is what happened. It tells us to feel good about the victory of good over evil. And we know in our hearts it didn’t.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I cannot comment on it with any credibility. I have watched several trailers for it and, to be honest, it looks beautiful. The acting is earnest and funny. The dignity of the main black character, Ailbilene, is transcendent as portrayed by actress Viola Davis. But I became more and more uncomfortable as I watched the clips and listened to commentary by people involved in making the film. They spoke of the bravery of these fictional women. Check. But they spoke of the bravery of these women speaking out as if it were an actual fact, as if this had happened. And that was just embarrassing to listen to. There was cheering as ‘the book’ was published, a triumph for these ladies. But in real life there was no such triumph. There were just more years and years of subjugation and exploitation.

The Association of Black Women Historians took enormous issue with the film and book and issued a blistering condemnation. A published statement says, in part, The Help “distorts, ignores and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.” I do have to disagree with that. If anything, the book creates rich, multi-dimensional black characters that are worthy of admiration and honor. The ABWH goes on to denounce the perpetuation of the “Mammy” stereotype “…asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites.” Again, I disagree. In the novel, these strong and decent women seethe against the injustices they face every minute of the day. I do agree with their opinion that The Help misrepresents history and minimizes the Civil Rights movement.

There are others in the black community who argue this book is significantly racist, written from the perspective of a white savior (Skeeter) raising these poor downtrodden beings out of the mire. Once again, I do not see that. Maybe that is because I am white and inherently insensitive to the nuances of racism. I am the first to admit that is entirely possible. But I had the reverse impression about the albeit mythical situation. The characters were doing Skeeter the favor by sharing their private and personal experiences. She is clueless really, they are the ones who have the knowledge and ultimately the power to make or break her book.

I do agree with the argument that racism is presented as an evil centered in that period only and we can sentimentally look back and say “Phew, thank goodness we don’t act like that anymore!” I have been doing a lot of reading about the controversy and some of the comments people leave make it obvious the concept of ongoing racism is truly foreign to them. They really believe that people of color no longer face discrimination or injustices. Others are clearly astonished by the perceptive and intelligent black characters. It is both appalling and embarrassing to see the ignorance that people demonstrate with remarks like “Why do we have to talk about such unpleasant things?” and “I don’t even notice people’s color” or, worst of all “I have a black friend and she…”

On the whole, I think the novel has opened an interesting door for discussion and consideration. I am disappointed that Stockett and the story, movie and book, have produced such vitriol. Because the novel is well intentioned. And because it is a perfect opportunity to talk about the status of race relations in America today in an amicable way. Racism diminishes all of us. It should go without saying that we need to always try to have insight into what it would feel like to be on the receiving end of it and do what we can to eliminate it. We need to recognize subtle racism and how it reduces value in our culture. We need to transmit these messages to our children in the strongest way possible.

What I would love to see is a real “Help” created. Like Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project, let’s get these true voices and stories recorded before they are gone. There was and is strength and courage and nobility in the lives that were led and we need to know those brave women who were the help but were kept silenced by danger and disrespect.

I would say read The Help if you like a good, if fantastical, story. The narrative in The Help may be told through a white lens, but that is the only have the lens white people have. We can try to imagine another's experience, but that is all we can do. I feel even if it is imperfect on many levels, the book still tells a story that many people need to read. I suspect it presented some people with ideas and concepts about race that they had never considered. Just as some people are astonished by any controversy surrounding the book and movie. But even if imperfect, someone expanding their humanism cannot be a completely bad thing.

However, an even better representation of the black experience can be found in Isobel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. It is an analysis of the south to north diaspora told through the perspective of three real individuals. An absolutely haunting and gorgeously written epic, it should be required reading in every school. You read this book and you get some inkling of what it is like to feel fear and experience deprivation every waking moment just because of the color of your skin.

I wrote this in a comment in response to a woman who said “I wish we could stop looking at color.” I don't think we should stop looking at color. I think we should stop assuming things based on color. I wish we could consider things like skin color and national heritage to be beautiful, fascinating but superficial features. Maybe someday that will happen and we will be able to celebrate our common humanity. But until that distant day arrives, we have to continue to discuss the realities of the past and the present.

I think more than anything the book reminded me that we are all human beings. At the end of the day, we are the same in what matters to us, dignity, respect, our families, our friends, the lives we lead. We have to keep working at understanding each other and at getting it right.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sorry I’m running late this week!!

The winner for the April 9 giveaway is – drum roll please – Rachele!! Yay! Congratulations Rachele and thank you to all of those who stopped by and left comments. There were actually only 4 of you, but that’s ok, it is a cozy group! Lol

Rachele, just send me an e-mail with your address and I will get the books out to you.

Alright, this week’s giveaway…

The Last Kashmiri Rose
By Barbara Cleverly

Set in Calcutta in 1922, this is the first in a mystery series featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Joe Sandilands. The Inspector is a survivor of the Great War and he has been stationed in India for six months. He is about to head home when he is asked to investigate a suspicious death. His inquiries find there is probably a connection to a series of mysterious deaths that have occurred over the preceding decade. All the vicitms have been offiecer’s wives and they have all died experiencing what has been known to be their greatest fear.

A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, this is a well written and memorable story with an unusual twist in the solution to the mystery.

The Thirteenth Tale

By Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale contains all the Gothic elements: a reclusive writer with a secret, a young writer with a troubled past, the unraveling of a long ago mystery. I found it a bit long, but it was a huge hit in 2006 when it was published, becoming the number one bestseller on the New York Times list within a week.

The New Yorkers

By Cathleen Schine

This book follows five people who live on the same block in New York City and end up being connected by their dogs. Over the course of a year, we follow their ups and downs, falling in and out of love and learning about each other and themselves. A really nice story about engaging people, set in one of my favorite places in the world.

Water for Elephants
By Sara Gruen

A huge bestseller, I resisted this book for over a year. I am so contrary. For one thing, I hate going along with the crowd. For another, I hate, hate, HATE circuses. Even when I was a kid.

So I was really shocked when I started reading and couldn’t put it down. Not your typical circus story, it is mostly a story about love and loss and devotion. And it has pictures! It is wonderfully illustrated with archive photos. Simply wonderful.

So there you have it. Leave a comment between now and Sunday, April 24 and you will be entered in a drawing for these books.

For those of you who don't win but are interested in these titles, I added links to Amazon.

(Because the pool of entrants is so small, I am going to apply an amendment, borrowed from the radio station I listen to, WQXR in New York. To give everyone a chance, winners will be limited to once every four weeks.)

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Saturday, April 9, 2011

This Week's Giveaway

Congratulations Nicky! You won this week’s drawing!! Four fabulous books will soon be wending their way to your hands. Just e-mail me with your address and I will get them out to you.

Thank you to those of you who stopped by and left comments! I really appreciate your readership and your kindred love of books. Jeremy, don’t worry about missing the cutoff, I have four more books for this week!

Second Violin: An Inspector Troy Thriller
John Lawton

Set in England and Europe in the days leading up to World War II, this novel tells the converging stories of several people. The Troy family in England, with their enigmatic patriarch, is prominent and powerful. The youngest son has chosen a different path, that of an ordinary London policeman. While he is investigating what he believes is a serial killer murdering rabbis in London, there are parallel plots about the situation in Germany and internment camps in England. There is a lot going on, but the author ties everything together and, at the end, even gives a brief run down of how the characters fare through the years.

The Various Haunts of Men (Simon Serrailler Crime Novels)

Susan Hill

The first in the Simon Serrailler series, a demented killer is targeting victims in a small cathedral town in England. The author makes the characters very real and it is ultimately a very sad story.

The Girl She Used to Be
David Cristofano

In the Shadow of Gotham
Stephanie Pintoff

Both reviewed 2/12/11

Leave a comment through Friday, April 15 and you will be entered in the drawing.

Good luck and thanks for reading!

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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Too Many Books

Did I say that?!?!

I am someone who believes you can never have too many books. But I am up to my eyeballs and have nowhere left to put them. I have bookcases in my living room, bedroom, den and upstairs and books are still double and triple stacked. While I have a pathological love for an overabundance of books, my practical side realizes that I really should weed some out.

Pant. Pant. Pant. I’m hyperventilating.

So after taking some deep breaths and a boatload of Xanax, I have decided to do some giveaways. Every week or so I will offer a few books, drawing a name from anyone who leaves a comment that week.

These are second hand books, but they are in good shape, read only once and FREE to the lucky winner. Yay!

So here are this week’s books:

The Alibi Club by Francine Mathews (reviewed 4/1/11)

I didn't love it, but maybe you can keep track of the action better than I could.

The Fate of Katherine Carr by Thomas H. Cook

Writer George Gates is haunted by the unsolved murder of his son. He becomes involved in the case of Katherine Carr, a woman who went missing years earlier and has never been found. Is her disappearance linked to his son’s death? An interesting novel about justice.

Missing by Karin Alvtegen

Sybilla is a 30-something woman living by her wits on the streets of Stockholm, occasionally fleecing a businessman out of a meal and a hotel room. When one of her marks is murdered, she goes on the run and tries to prove her innocence. The novel goes back and forth in time, telling the story of how and why she chose the life she leads.

Birth Marks by Sarah Dunant

Hannah Wolfe is a London based private investigator. She is asked to find a missing ballet dancer who is later found, pregnant, drowned in the Thames. She continues to follow the case, not believing the woman was a suicide. Written in 1993, the book's premise is dated by current science, primarily DNA testing. But it is still a tolerable mystery.

Leave a comment from now until Friday, April 8 and you will be entered in the drawing. Good luck!

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Recent Reads

Kate Atkinson was a tall act to follow, so I am not surprised that the other books I’ve read since were just ok to really good, but not nearly as wonderful as Started Early.

These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf is told chapter by chapter from different character perspectives. Not my favorite technique, especially when some of the chapters were only a few paragraphs long and some of the individuals sound exactly same.

The premise is a crime committed by a teenage girl, previously considered to be a paragon. While the story is slow in building and coy, you guess right away, correctly, that it has something to do with a baby and an unwanted pregnancy. It develops that she gave birth unattended and disposed of the baby girl in a river behind her house. She is subsequently convicted of murder, but as a juvenile is out in five years. She is sent to a halfway house in her hometown, tries to reconnect with her sister and start over.

The plot was pretty predictable, but there were a few twists, one I expected and some I didn’t. The ending makes it worthwhile.

I have enjoyed most things I’ve read by Penelope Lively. Her prose is elegant and spare, which makes even a commonplace plot worth reading. Although most of her stories are pretty original. I did not love Family Album, her newest. I felt like I was reading something I had already read. The characters seemed stock and the story, two disparate parents, six children and an au pair over the years in a huge Edwardian house, was just as expected. It picked up a little towards the end, but by that time I was tired of slogging through everyone’s Life Review. However, the writing itself is marvelous. She just has a perfect way of wording something or describing something that makes it wonderful.

A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell is the first in a series that is set in Germany in the 1930’s. Hannah Vogel is a newspaper reporter barely eking out a living as the Weimar Republic ends and the Third Reich begins. Her younger brother is murdered and, heartbroken, she vows to find the killer. A good story, nicely written and interesting historical perspective.

Francine Matthews is a pseudonym for Stephanie Barron, who writes the Jane Austen mysteries. The Alibi Club couldn’t be more different from the Austen books. Set at the beginning of the German occupation of France (I’m going through a WW II kick), it is violent and confusing. Filled with real life characters and fictional characters based on real people, it revolves around stolen material for creating an atom bomb. I think. I found the dozens of characters distracting and hard to follow. And the murder that opens the book is gratuitously violent and grotesque.

I was really looking forward to The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. Beginning in 1940, it tells the parallel stories of Iris, the postmistress of a small Cape Cod town, Frankie, a war correspondent based in London during the blitz and Emma, the young wife of the town doctor. One of these three has a letter in her possession that she is supposed to deliver, but never does. The plot revolves around these women and how they are affected by war. The quote that introduces the book is by writer Martha Gellhorn, who covered conflicts from WWII to Vietnam: “War happens to people, one by one. That is really all I have to say, and it seems to me I have been saying it forever.” Well written and thought provoking.

If any of these interest you, just click to purchase from Amazon!

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

A One Sitting Read

There are some books that are so engrossing, if you have the luxury to do so, you read them in one sitting. Or at least in a few sittings close together.

Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog is such a book. I opened it at 6 p.m. on Friday and read straight through, until after midnight. And I read as slowly as I could, just savoring the story, the characters and the twists in the plot. Her wit and talent are engaging to the extent I didn’t want it to end.

I don’t know which she is better at, plotting or characterization, because both are outstanding. I am torn between admiration and gratitude and bitter jealousy knowing I will never write anything as good.

There are a myriad of characters in her stories and every one has a role to play in the plot, sometimes minor and sometimes in a major way you never see coming. They all have a back story, told succinctly, some captured in a sentence. One snobbish woman was “…always rigged out ready for an impromptu invitation to lunch with the Queen.” Another minor character, a miserable, stingy B & B owner:

“Divorcee or widow? Widow, Jackson guessed, she had the look of someone who has successfully out-survived a sparring partner. Some women were destined for widowhood, marriage was just the obstacle in their way.”

The plot revolves around the missing, the stolen and the dead. Jackson Brodie, the protagonist of three previous novels, is a retired police officer, current private detective. Haunted by the long ago, unsolved murder of his teenage sister, he makes a career of finding the lost. Tracy is a middle aged, unhappy Security director, also a retired police officer, who in a mad moment rescues a screaming child from an abusive prostitute by buying her. Tillie is an elderly actress descending rapidly into senility. The actions of these people in present day are linked with past events, told in flashbacks. There is no one superfluous to the story line, everything connects. Although there is one tantalizing mystery left at the end.

Kate Atkinson’s other books featuring Jackson Brodie are Case Histories, One Good Turn and When Will there Be Good News. Each of them is brutal and sweet at the same time, with violence counterbalanced by characters who are fiercely protective of their dogs and their children. There is always a kind of justice as well, even if it is not above board. There can be all kinds of justice.

All of these are One Sitting Reads.

If you are interested, you can get them here:

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Finding Books

A reader today left a comment asking how do I pick out the books I decide to read. That is such a good question I think it deserves its own post.

I have dozens of sources for promising titles and I am always on the lookout for more. I am not usually a fan of traditional best sellers, so I have a lot of different places where I look for books that pique my interest. I am pretty picky and, I will admit, pretty snobby about what I read. My taste runs to good stories with some kind a twist, especially English mysteries, and they have to be artfully written. I also love biographies, memoirs and history.  It is fun to read older books, written in the 20's, 30's and 40's.  I love that time period and I feel reading those books is a window into that time.

The Best of All    

My absolute favorite and prime source for finding great books is the New York Times Book Review,  which I have been reading practically since I was old enough to read. I do not remember who first showed me the section, someone had to have, I don’t think I was independently reading the Times when I was seven, but every week there were at least two pages of reviews of children’s books that I poured over. When I was old enough to write them down and make lists, I would note the ones that appealed to me and take it on my next visit to the library. Of course, most of them were so new the library didn’t have them yet, so I would just bide my time.

Twice a year, in the Spring and in the Fall, I would wait for the thick, special edition of the Book Review that featured children’s books. All those gorgeously illustrated picture books, all those promising new stories! That always resulted in a long list.

I still get excited by the Book Review. I know, it’s sad. But every issue holds at least one book that I know I want to read and usually there is more. A new book! What could be more exciting!

Other sources for ideas and good books:

• I have read many books after they have been dramatized, such as Poldark and The Jewel in the Crown. I really like to read the original book when I’ve seen a good movie.

• If I like an author I always look for other books by them. Sometimes I am disappointed, but most of the time I am not. I have read everything by Winston Graham, for example, the author of the Poldark series. He wrote many other novels, not all historical, he is simply a great story teller and a wonderful writer.

• Friends are a good source of recommendations too. Most of the time you have enough in common with your friends that your taste in reading is similar. Often that is how I have met my friends, who were mere acquaintances until we discover we loved the same writers.

• These days, Amazon is a way of exploring new titles, although I take their reviews with a grain of salt. But I have found some interesting books there.

• Since I like mysteries, I look for new titles on sites that review mysteries, such as and Those are really great sites.

• Just browsing in the bookstore and library is also where I have found books I have really liked. First it is the art work that catches my eye, then the title and then the blurb describing the book itself.

Those are just a few thoughts, but the Book Review definitely is the top resource.

Thanks for a great question, Cube!

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Some Recent Reads

I have read more than I realized lately. Here are a few from the past month.

Half Broken Things
Morag Joss

Sad, sympathetic characters intersect in this story that builds suspense from the first page and you realize right away this is not going to end well. Yet you keep hoping for the best, because the protagonists are so hapless and wounded.

A middle aged woman who has spent most of her adult life house sitting with an impeccable history is on her last assignment, a luxurious country house in the English countryside. She is rapidly unraveling and the story builds as two others join her in a fantasy life. I could definitely see Judi Dench in a movie version.

The Distant Hours
Kate Morten

Kate Morten’s previous two books were great reads, really imaginative stories and well written. I found the formula is getting tired in this book about an eccentric writer, his three daughters and a mysterious connection with a modern day book editor. It starts out promising, but gets confusing before too long and leaves too many unanswered questions. She is a very good writer though and there are sections that could stand alone, but felt like they belonged in another book. Disappointing.

Her other two, much better:

In the Shadow of Gotham
Stephanie Pintoff

This was a nice little mystery by a first time author, a bit farfetched but creative. Set at the turn of the last century, this, the first in a series, tells of a murder that takes place in a suburb of New York City. The main character is a police detective who spends most of his time investigating in New York. The author adds nice period detail but the story line is a bit thin and predictable.

The Kind One
Tom Epperson

I really liked this book, set in 1930’s LA. It reminded me of James Elroy’s books and it is pretty violent, but the story is original and the characters memorable.

It tells the story of a Danny Landon, recently out of the hospital, who works for a vicious gangster, very ironically nicknamed The Kind One. Danny has amnesia from a head injury and is an extremely reluctant criminal, which contradicts stories he has heard about his own brutal past. He lives in a quintessential California apartment court and becomes involved particularly with two of the other residents, an ex-pat Englishman and a neglected little girl.

The ending is a little improbable and wild, but over-all it is an entertaining read. A movie version starring Casey Afflek and directed by Ridley Scott is due to be released next year.

The Girl She Used to Be
David Cristofano

An utter fantasy that could only have been written by a man, but a fun read nonetheless.

Six year old Melody Grace McCartney’s craving for a special treat led her family to witness a mob killing. In return for their testimony (which does NOT result in the mobster’s conviction), the family goes into the witness protection program. Melody’s teenage rebellion and disclosure of the truth causes her parent’s deaths and now, at 26, she is still in the witness protection program, riddled with guilt.

Enter Jonathan Bovaro, son of the murdering mobster. He tracks her down, obstensibly to kill her for his family, but it seems he has fallen in love with her. She soon returns his feelings and most of the book revolves around discussions of guilt, personal identity, resolution and family ties.

Believe it or not, the overall tone of the book is light hearted, despite the subject matter. The ending was creative and surprised me. This is a quick, entertaining diversion.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

When There is More Than One...

Finding a great, well written story is always a treat. But when it is part of a series, when you know there is more to come, that just adds to the pleasure. Here are a few of my favorites.


I got hooked on Poldark after about five seconds of Robin Ellis’ smoldering performance on Masterpiece Theater. That was in 1978. I started reading the series written by Winston Graham and I plowed through them with glee.

Alistair Cooke, the host for so many years, later said Poldark was not one of his favorites in the Masterpiece Theater series, that it was too much of a soap opera. With all due respect to Alistair, I couldn’t disagree more. It is a melodramatic story in many ways. But the characters are true to life, full of flaws and bad decisions, good deeds and altruism when you least expect it. They experience grievous losses and hilarious escapades. In other words, nothing is black and white, just like real life.

There are twelve novels altogether, covering a time period from 1783 to 1820. The stories take place mostly in Cornwall, England and revolve around the Poldark family, with elements of the politics and social standards of the times thrown in. In the first novel, Ross Poldark has fought in the Revolutionary War in America and returned to find his home in shambles and his fiancée about to marry his cousin (she does, too!).

He sets about rebuilding his life, restoring his family fortune and finding love himself. Subsequent books chronicle the lives of the people around him including his wife, his children and even his archenemy. I re-read the series every few years. They are wonderfully written and fun to get lost in. I always find something I had forgotten or rediscover a terrifically wrought phrase. Winston Graham died in 2003, so I treasure what he left to us.


The Jewel in the Crown was another Masterpiece Theater series that was so wonderful it was a gift to discover there were four novels behind it. Four! Yippee!

The TV series began in December of 1984 and was absolutely beautiful in the way it unfolded. It is a heartbreaking story of love and jealousy and revenge on the eve of India’s independence from England. It was based on the novels by Paul Scott, an Englishman who was stationed in India through World War II and the subsequent partition of India and Pakistan. He fell in love with the Jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown and wrote several novels with India as the setting. The Raj Quartet was not initially well received but has since gained popularity and respect as a work that tells a lush saga intertwined with history and a complicated, beautiful, mysterious country.

The four novels that make up the Raj Quartet, The Jewel in the Crown (1966), The Day of the Scorpion (1968), The Towers of Silence (1971) and A Division of the Spoils (1975), loop from the 1940’s to the 1960’s and back to the turn of the century. The narrative encompasses dozens of characters, each memorable in their own way as part of plot, but also because they are so rich and well developed. Their stories are absorbing and tragic. This series will make you want to hock everything and go to India to explore it’s magnificent geography and turbulent history. It is well worth reading for so many reasons.

If you are interested in any of these books, there are links below to Amazon.

There are other great series out there that I'll share in upcoming posts.

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Friday, January 28, 2011

My Favorite Author

First, an apology. I should rename all my blogs “I’m Sorry”, I have to apologize so much for letting months long lapses occur. Or, maybe a better idea would be to get my act together and keep them timely!

Let’s try that last one.

Thank you to my faithful readers. I am so grateful for your support and encouragement, even when I fall down on the job.

So who is my favorite author?

I actually have many favorites and they have corresponded with stages in my life. High school had J.D. Salinger, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Harper Lee. In college I adored F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, John Dos Passos. Since then, there have been many more I have been fortunate to discover and I will share those over time.

But when I was in eighth grade, our reading book that year had ‘further reading recommendations’ at the end of each chapter. I was always looking for new and interesting books and one that caught my attention was “The Little White Horse”.

This was a children’s novel written in 1946 by English writer Elizabeth Goudge. It was enthralling. Set in the 1840’s, it opens with the orphaned Maria Merryweather arriving with her governess at her new home, Moonacre Manor, where she is to live with her guardian and cousin, Sir Benjamin.

There are secrets and fantastic characters at every turn, along with magical touches and a heavy dose of coincidence. Everyone has a story and a past, all neatly entwined and interconnected by the author as you race to the delicious and, naturally, happiest of happy endings.

Elizabeth Goudge’s writing was sentimental and old-fashioned and charming. I was totally hooked and proceeded to devour everything she had written from the library.

Most of her books were for adult readers, but they took place in a world that was unique to her, one that was full of noble emotion, forbidden love, honor and devotion to duty. Her prose now would be considered by most people to be hopelessly out of date, but that is one reason I continue to love her and re-read her work constantly. Her stories are safe and predictable, but written with heart and full of wonderful quotes to support the themes of her novels. I read as much poetry reading her books as I did in my whole college life as an English major. She was also very spiritual and I found that to be inspiring.

Elizabeth Goudge was born in Wells, England in 1900, the only child of an invalid mother and a theology professor father. Her carefully worded and discreet autobiography, The Joy of the Snow, describes the challenges of growing up with her mother’s mental illness and how she adored her father. Her earliest writing was not successful and it discouraged her for years. But in 1934 Elizabeth wrote Island Magic, based on stories her mother had told her about her own childhood on the Guernsey Islands. This was a success and she became a renowned and well loved writer for the rest of her life. She died in 1984.

She is most well known for Green Dolphin Street, a story of star-crossed love, and then for her series on the Elliot family, The Bird in the Tree, The Herb of Grace and The Heart of the Family.

For years my great challenge was discovering her books at second hand book sales, each find a triumph. Then EBay came along and, while I was eventually able to collect all my favorites, it definitely took away the thrill of the hunt.

I actually wrote to Elizabeth when I was in college and she wrote back! She wrote me a charming thank you for my fan letter and I treasured it. It was lost when my parent’s basement was flooded. But I will never forget her sweet and friendly reply.

Whenever I need a true comfort fix, Elizabeth Goudge is where I turn. There is always a place for me in her delightful, gracious and bygone world.

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