05 September 2009

August Book Report

First of all, who knew it would be September so quickly? And second of all, why were a couple of the books I read in August real losers?

In any case, here's what kept me busy.

A Girl from Yamhill, by Beverly Cleary. What a disappointment this book turned out to be! It's a memoir of the early years of Beverly Cleary, writer of the Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins stories for children. I was always a big Ramona fan in particular, but loved just about anything I read by Cleary.

A co-worker loaned me this book, and I read the entire thing, but I wish I hadn't. It basically details her life as a young girl, until she leaves to go to college. She starts out on the family farm in Yamhill, Oregon, and the bulk of the book takes place when the family moves to Portland.

Beverly Cleary's family life sounds very dull, stilted, and like there were not many happy memories. Her parents come across as discontented, and at least from her perspective, not very emotionally attached to their only child. There's no terrible tales of abuse, but a lot of benign neglect, or insane control over every aspect or her life. She is taken care of, but not necessarily paid attention to.

At the same time, she doesn't write about herself as someone all that appealing, so it's hard to get too wrapped up in the whole story. There are not parts of the book that seem to have any life or spirit to them.

I would recommend skipping this one. I wish I had.

Evil Angels Among Them, by Kate Charles. This is another new mystery series to me, and I want to read at least one of two of the earlier books after finishing this one.

The story takes place in a small English village, where the minister and his new wife have returned after their honeymoon. When the wife starts receiving mysterious phone calls, talking about sexual activities, her happy world begins to crumble. In the meantime, one of the town busybodies is making life miserable for new arrivals, and there are controversies going on among the church council. Add a murder of one of the villagers, and it's another instance of a small town with a lot going on!

The "detectives" in this series are Lucy Kingsley, and artist, and her boyfriend, David Middleton-Brown, a London solicitor. They arrive in the town at the request of the minister and his wife, who are friends of theirs, to find that there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.

This was not a perfect novel/mystery, but a good read, with interesting characters, and enough twists and turns to keep you guessing.

*East of the Sun, by Julia Gregson. Let me start off by saying that I'm not 100% certain why this book appealed to me as much as it did. Yes, it's well written, and the characters were interesting, as was the time and setting. But maybe it also had something to do with the fact that as the characters were dealing with the excessive heat and humidity in India of 1928, I was at work dealing with the excessive heat and humidity of Philadelphia in 2009 ...

Anyway, this was an enjoyable read. The main character in the story, Viva Holloway, is an aspiring writer who lived in India with her late parents and sister as a child. At the beginning of the novel, she has placed an ad in a London paper, offering her services as a chaperone for anyone who has a child that is traveling to India. Though she calls herself "experienced," and "knowing all about India," the truth is she has gotten it into her head to retrieve a trunk belonging to her parents that someone wrote her about, years ago.

She ends up chaperoning two young women, Rose - who is getting married - and Tor - her bridesmaid - and Guy Glover, a young man expelled from his school and being sent home to his parents in India. They embark on a sea journey that is not quite what any of them expected, but with the exception of Guy, they become good friends.

Once in India, the book covers each person's experiences and manages to keep them involved with one another. They are there at a time when Gandhi is coming into power, and many Indians are less than thrilled with the British being in charge. This aspect of the story, as well as the problems of Guy Glover, put a dark cloud over a lot of the story, but does not ruin it.

I found the female characters to be interesting, particularly Viva. She is a little bit too modern for her times, though in the end, she seems to want a lot of the same things as her contemporaries. Women's roles, activities, and interests were so incredibly restrictive at the time, reading the book is as much a sociological study as anything else. Which is not to say it's all "intellectual" - just that it can be enjoyed for a number of different reasons.

I thought the author managed to write a book that is entertaining as well as thoughtful, which is never an easy combination.

*The Day the Falls Stood Still, by Cathy Marie Buchanan. This book was a great read! It tells the story of Bess Heath, who is a 17-year-old at the beginning, as she leaves her junior year at Loretto Academy, in Ontario to head home for the summer. She learns once she is home that her father has lost his job, and her sister's engagement is called off. Her mother has started taking orders for dressmaking, in order for the family to survive. The family is falling apart, and Bess learns she will not return to school.

The story begins in 1915, the beginning of the hydroelectric era of Niagara Falls. The Falls are as much a character in this story as any of the humans. Bess meets Tom Cole, when he offers to carry her trunk from the trolley to her home on the day she is leaving Loretto Academy in the company of her mother. He appears to be a loner, and someone who does not have any permanent, respectable position.

Bess' story, and that of her family, takes a dramatic turn when something tragic occurs involving her sister, Isabel. Tom Cole is the one who brings the news, and in spite of herself, Bess is drawn to him.

There are also all types of people - business and daredevils - who see the Falls as their future and their fortune.

The story of Bess, her family, Tom, and Niagara Falls makes for compelling reading. The ending I must warn you is sad, but don't let that put you off from reading the book.

By the way, the character of Tom is based on the life of William "Red" Hill, who is a legendary character for those living around Niagara Falls.

Coastliners: A Novel, by Joanne Harris. Apparently, I am on a kick where I read books that don't turn out to be that enjoyable. Having enjoyed two other books by Joanne Harris, I thought this would probably be a good one too. Not so much.

This is the story of a group of families who live in a village on an island off the coast of France. The narrator, Mado (short for Madeleine), returns to the island after her mother's death in Paris to visit her childhood home and see her father. (She and her mother left years before.) Upon returning home, she finds that most of the people she remembers are still living there, still fighting the same age-old feuds, and still harboring the same suspicions towards outsiders.

The writing is descriptive, and parts are pretty interesting, but I never really felt like I cared much what happened to any of the characters. There are all kinds of struggles among the people, for land, money, love, etc., but I couldn't really work up the interest for what was happening. The ending was especially unsatisfying, as far as I was concerned.

There are people I know who would probably like it a lot more than I did, but in general, I can't say I would recommend it.

*Addition, by Toni Jordan. I read an Advanced Reader's Copy of this book, and I really enjoyed it. The main character, Grace, leads her life according to counting. She counts everything, and numbers rule her existence. She has had to stop working at her teaching job, due to her obsession overwhelming her. She is also very conversant on the life of Nicholas Tesla, and keeps a framed picture of him next to her bed.

Yes, Grace has serious problems throughout the book, related to her counting, and also related to the results of therapy to get her to stop counting. Her relationships with her family are strained, except for one niece in particular who seems to "get" her. She begins dating a guy and he talks her into therapy for her problems. The therapy helps her stop becoming so involved with numbers, and living her life accordingly, but a lot of the things that make us like Grace begin to disappear.

I liked this book because it was different, and it was sloppy. Things didn't tie up into a neat bundle by the end. Were things improving? Yes. Would they ever be perfect? Probably not, and that is a relief once you have gotten to know Grace. By the end of the book, you understand at least in some small way why she has become such a singular character.

I also enjoyed the descriptions of her group therapy sessions. Since she is fairly unique, she is put in a group with a bunch of germaphobes. It's really entertaining to hear her perspectives on these people that have problems that she thinks makes them seem kind of crazy, all the while not thinking the reason she is there is all that strange!

I also enjoyed this book because I will admit to having some of the same obsessions with numbers that Grace does. Fortunately for me, they have not rendered me unable to function in my daily life, or hold a job. But I have to be honest and say that they do play a large part in my behavior, in my mind if nowhere else.

The book is a quick read, and if you enjoy stories told in a quirky manner by the main character, I think you'd enjoy meeting Grace.

Absolute Certainty: A Crime Novel, by Rose Connors. This was a book that I saw on my last trip to the library, and it sounded like something that might be interesting. It was, and it turns out that the author is originally from Philadelphia!

The main character in the book, Martha "Marty" Nickerson, is a divorced mother of a teen-age son who works as an Assistant D.A. for Barnstable County, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. As the story begins, she is finishing up the trial of Manuel Rodriguez, on trial for murdering a local college student. When Rodriguez is found guilty, Marty feels that all of her hard work has paid off.

Shortly afterwards, though, another murder occurs that has characteristics very similar to the one Rodriguez allegedly committed. Marty begins to wonder if she did indeed find the right person, and has a hard time convincing her boss to reopen the case.

Though the crimes discussed are grisly, this book was very interesting and well-paced. Marty seems to be an intelligent woman, and at least in this installment, manages to maintain her self-reliance. She has the usual human frailties that all of us have, but she is also strong-willed. The plot is involved but never convoluted.

I think this is well worth the read, and hope she will publish another book soon!

Affinity, by Sarah Waters. Well, this book was not really what I was expecting. First of all, it concerns a young woman, Margaret Prior, who attempted suicide, but was discovered while she could still be saved. Her doctor suggests that she may benefit from being a "Lady Visitor" at Millbank Prison, in London.

Millbank Prison was a real place. It was a solitary confinement prison, housing men and women in separate wings. The prisoners were silent, and performed work in their cells. It's design allowed for the guards and matrons to keep track of the prisoners from central locations. This reminded me so much of Eastern State Penitentiary, my current place of employment, and added much to the story for me.

Margaret becomes involved with Selina Dawes, a "spiritualist" who has been convicted of murder as a result of one of her seances. Selina has a particular attraction for Margaret, and becomes one of her reasons to continue visiting the prison. Though Margaret's family discourages her from her visiting, and from becoming close to Selina, she continues.

This is a story of a vulnerable woman, who feels lost in her world upon the death of her father, for whom she was a helpmate. Selina, as well as an accomplice, convince Margaret that they can be together in a place where they will be happier and freer, and Margaret takes several dramatic steps to have this happen, only to be betrayed.

I enjoyed this book, though at times I was suspicious of Selina. I had no inkling of what might happen, so was surprised at the ending. The book is very interesting, as well as sometimes disturbing and/or puzzling. But it is definitely worth a read, as far as I'm concerned.

I have marked the books that I can share with you with an asterisk, and just in the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that they are all Advance Reader Editions. Also available is a book I wrote about in my July report, *Under This Unbroken Sky, by Shandi Mitchell. Leave a comment to let me know if you would like one of them by the end of the day on Wednesday, September 9. As usual, if more than one person requests the same title, I'll do a random drawing.


SissySees said...

So many books, so little time. I enjoy your book reviews. Sorry to hear Cleary's wasn't worth the read, as I too enjoyed her books.

mary said...

How do you decide what books you are going to read? Where do you get all these titles from?

joan said...

I appreciate your reviews and also wonder how you pick your reads. I'd love to have your copy of *The Day the Falls Stood Still*.

sprite said...

I didn't like A Girl from Yamhill either. It felt disjointed and it was hard to believe such a celebrated storyteller had penned it.

If no one else wants it, I'd be delighted to receive East of the Sun. It sounds like it would be a great read!

Anonymous said...

I am never not impressed by how much you read and how thorough your reviews are.

You are a wonder.

Chris said...

Do you feel like you need to finish reading every book you start? (Just curious - people vary widely on this one!)

Ally Jay said...

I want to read some of these now, especially the one by Sarah Waters. I agree with your thoughts on East of the Sun, and enjoyed her other book The Water Horse as well

Marie said...

Bridget -- I'm interested in East of the Sun and The Day The Falls Stood Still.

You almost always report on books I never heard of, and you make even the ones you don't like sound interesting.

Lorraine said...

Bridget- I read alot of Beverly Cleary- Fifteen, Otis Spofford, Henry Huggins-

ah childhood.

Carrie K said...

Sarah Waters always has a twisted view of things, it's why I like her so much.

Not reading the Beverly Clearly bio! Sad, that. Oh well.

Looks like you found a few gems!