Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Longbourne

Mapped onto Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Jo Baker tells the tale of the Bennet household from the servants' perspective. (See an interesting interview with JoBaker published on NPR.) And a very well told tale it is, with rich characters, gritty description of the hard life of those living at the whim of the "upper classes," and great relationship building. If you were not already aware of how onerous a class system can be in "civilized" society, this novel will certainly bring it home.
Mrs. Hill is the housekeeper, which means she is responsible for everything that happens in the house, from making sure the chamber pots are cleaned, to cooking meals and doing the laundry. Of course, she has help in this work from the industrious Sarah and the mooning and lackadaisical youngster, Polly. Up before the rest of the household, Sara, pumps buckets of water to fill the tubs for laundry day as the story opens. On her way inside, she steps in pig shit, slips and has to start all over--to say nothing of cleaning herself up and coping with the bumps and bruises from her fall. But she is an orphan and will have few prospects for a decent life outside this semi-slavery of being a servant in a good family. Everyday incidents and interactions highlight for the reader how little regard for the consequences of their actions the Bennet family has or how vaguely they seem to see their servants as actual human beings with thoughts and cares and feelings of their own. When the Bennets decide to hire a new footman, the balance of things begins to shift dramatically. Sarah can't decide whether to hate him because he does not give her the time of day, or love him. He certainly makes their lives easier as he takes up much of their work, and eventually Sarah does in fact fall in love with James. Only eventually do we learn that James is Mrs. Hill's illicit son with Mr. Bennet; James was sent off as a day old infant to a farm, and was never seen again by his mother until now. One section of the book tells us of what James has endured before coming to the Bennet's household and how he longs for home, only to have it destroyed by a self-righteous soldier, Mr. Wickham, who inserts himself into the Bennet's lives through the daughters' socializing. There is a short author's note that briefly describes how this book matches up with it's inspiration, but you might never have read Pride and Prejudice and still very much enjoy this period piece.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Year of Wonders

This book by Geraldine Brooks is a more compelling read than some of the others I have read or tried to read. One of the very first books I read as a member of a book group in Seattle was her non-fiction account of Muslim women, Nine Parts of Desire. That was years ago, and then more recently I read Caleb's Crossing, which I quite liked. I have started and not yet been able to finish People of the Book, but intend to do so before she comes to Bend as part of the library's "Author, Author" series of talks. Like Caleb's Crossing, this book is based loosely on an actual event: in 1666, a town in England chooses to isolate itself--no one leaves or comes in--to prevent the plague from passing beyond its borders. In this account, only the wealthy landowner defies the  minister's exhortations to take on this burden, and that family flees. Our narrator/protagonist, Anna Frith, already widowed by a mining accident, quickly loses her two young sons, and rather than lose herself to grief, begins to work at the rectory and to help the minister and his wife care for plague victims. When some drunken miners instigate the murder of the two women who have served as midwives and makeshift doctors for the town, Anna and Elinor, the minister's wife, seek to master the herbal lore to relieve some of the suffering. Anna and Elinor become close in spite of the significant differences in their social standing; Elinor teaches Anna to read and confesses dark secrets of her past. And Anna ponders on the fact that we never really know those around us. More surprises are in store--up to the very end--and Anna  will move on with her life in a most gratifying way.

far far away

I really loved this book by Tom McNeal. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and deservedly so IMHO. In the town of Never Better, somewhere in a contemporary mid-western part of the country, people get excited when the green smoke from the bakery chimney indicates that Prince Cakes are going to be made that day. The first bite is rumored to be so magical, that you will fall in love with the first person you see. Or at least that's the story. And it is the story that Jeremy Johnson Johnson is given to explain why his mom ran away with another man when Jeremy was a youngster, leaving him with a grandfather who opened the Two Book Bookstore to sell his 2-volume autobiography, and his father who subsequently takes to his bed. When grandfather dies, Jeremy is bereft in so many ways but tries to keep things going without his father's contributions, although now the bank is threatening to foreclose on the shop and their living quarters. However,  Jeremy has received support from an unlikely source in recent years--the ghost of Jakob Grimm. Jakob has been caught in an in-between world, unable to pass on, and Jeremy is the first person he has encountered who can hear him. Jeremy is now 15 and a feisty red-haired girl at school, Ginger, has taken an interest in the reclusive boy. At first, the pranks she invites Jeremy to join in seem to bring a world of trouble down on the already unfortunate boy, but then she has an idea for Jeremy to get onto a quiz show--supposedly as an expert in all things related to the brothers Grimm-- and win the money to pay off the bank. When this fails, through no fault of Jakob's, the situation seems even more desperate. The baker, a victim of Ginger's prank for which Jeremy took the blame, seems to have take a benevolent interest in Ginger and Jeremy and offers to pay them for doing work. Then his interest turns out not to be so generous after all, and it is up to the ghost of Jakob to save them from a terrible death if he can.
There are richly developed characters, a wonderful sense of place and an intriguing plot line to recommend this book. Suitable for all ages.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Shakespeare's Counselor

This is the final installment in Charlaine Harris' "Lily Bard" series, which makes me sad as I really like this damaged but determined heroine. Lily was kidnapped, raped and tortured for days as a young woman and she has never really talked about it to anyone, at least not in a professional capacity. She has in fact tried very hard to keep anyone from knowing about this part of her past. She has moved to a small town, Shakespeare, Arkansas, where no one knows her story and started cleaning houses for a living. Eventually though the word has gotten out to some people, she has made a couple of friends, and even found a new love and husband, Jack. They have not told anyone yet that they are married. Jack has his own past problems he is trying to keep on the down low. But when Lily has a nightmare one night and attacks Jack thinking he is trying to hurt her, they both realize she needs to get some help. Lily soon thereafter sees a notice for a support group for rape victims at the local health center and it seems like a sign. She learns in the course of events that the counselor leading the group, Tamsin, has problems of her own--a stalker--which gets to be everyone's problem when a new group member ifs murdered and pinned to the wall of Tamsin's office on group therapy night. Lily and Jack get involved against their will, face a heart-rending event that brings them closer, and narrowly avoid becoming the subject of a new "true-crime" novel. Strong plot, continued development of characters, and good local color all add up to a fast-paced and enjoyable read. I have one other review of this series in my blog (Shakespeare's Trollop), but they are all good. The Lily Bard series is here.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Rook

The supertitle of this book by Daniel O'Malley is "On Her Majesty's Supernatural Secret Service" which gives you a pretty good idea of what is coming. This is a very clever book. Along with the  tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top descriptions of gooey, gorey no-good-niks, is an inventive plot. Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in a park surrounded by dead bodies wearing latex gloves and she has no idea how she got there or who she is. She does find a couple of letters in her pocket, though, that give her some clues. There is a wallet with credit cards in two names and instructions to go immediately to an ATM and get money under the name Ann Ryan and then check into a hotel under the same name. She gets further instructions in the letter to retrieve one of two safe deposit boxes at a certain bank, depending on whether she wants to take on Myfanwy's life, or escape altogether and start her own life from scratch. Oh, and she gets some advice to get regular check-ups since colon cancer runs in the family. This wonderful mix of the semi-serious and the absurd make this a thoroughly entertaining book--totally British sense of humor, even though the author is Australian. Reminds me a lot of the series by Gail Carriger ("The Parasol Protectorate"--see my reviews of those books) except this one is set in contemporary times and forgoes the bodice ripper element.
Myfanwy--a Welsh name which she chooses to pronounce Miff-un-ee--is a Rook in a very secret organization called the Checquy which protects England from supernatural threats. The organization has been around for hundreds of years and its existence is known only to the monarchs, the prime minister and a few other very high-up officials in the government. A Rook (or castle in the game of chess) is quite an important member of The Court in the Checquy, co-managing (there are two of them, sort of) any domestic threats while the Chevaliers (knights) manage international operations, and the Bishops oversee the entire organization under the leadership of the Lord and Lady (they did not think it right to call them King and Queen for obvious reasons). Someone in The Court is a traitor and has attacked Myfanwy, obliterating her memory. Fortunately, Myfanwy had warnings that something like this would happen from not one, but four different psychic sources (including a prophetic duck) and so she has prepared for the event by writing her future self letters and a detailed notebook of information and instructions.  When the new Myfanwy decides to take on the old Myfanwy's life instead of escaping to South America to become Ann Ryan, she has her hands full. Fortunately, her retainer/ secretary, Ingrid is there to pick up some of the slack, even though she doesn't have "powers." Although this is a bit long at almost 500 pages, I would recommend this highly if you like the supernatural and enjoy British humor. I would give this one 4.5 stars (out of 5). There is a 2nd book coming and I can hardly wait!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Jump the Gun

This fluffy little mystery from Zoe Burke is the first of a proposed series starring Beatrice Annabelle Starkey, book sales rep. Unlikely that she would meet the man of her dreams at a book convention in Chicago, but there he is, and even more unlikely is that she agrees to accompany him to Las Vegas for a little vacation after knowing him just one day, but she does. Before they even get unpacked in their luxury suite, she is kidnapped at gunpoint while Mickey is downstairs in the gift shop. Turns out Mickey gets kidnapped too, but they knock out the bad guy and tie him to a table with ....the big roll of dental floss that Annabelle always keeps in her purse. While escaping from this thug, who turns out to be a bent LV policeman, they run into a woman who used to be in the same nursing home as Annabelle's recently deceased Nana. Then they barely escape more bad guys posing as cops by hopping in a cab being driven by a suspended LV policeman. When Annabelle finally has a chance to call home and tell her cat sitter Cassie that she will be a little delayed getting back, the phone in her apartment is answered by yet another policeman who tells her Cassie has been murdered. Mickey and Annabelle hop a flight to San Francisco and, yet another coincidence, the investigating officer is a former college chum of Mickey's. The coincidences keep piling up and it's hard to tell who is on the up and up and who is part of the conspiracy. References to movies are liberally sprinkled throught as Annabelle is a big movie buff. Reminds me of another somewhat preposterous and thoroughly enjoyable book called Agnes and the Hitman. Read both for some light entertainment.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Dreaming Tree

This is a compilation of The Dreamstone and The Tree of Swords and Jewels by C.J. Cherryh. Although the writing is lovely in places, I found it just confusing and the storyline too condensed in others. This is an astoundingly prolific author of science fiction and of high fantasies. Usually I really like this type of thing but found the heavy use of Welsh/Celtic/Old English names really tiresome at times. Maybe I was just not in the mood. This is the story of Arafel, last of the Elves left behind after the rest have departed the world of "Men." Arafel continues to stand guard over the Faery world of Eald as well as the mortal world of Man with their poisonous use of iron (roughly a Medieval time frame). She is lonely and occasionally tries to befriend a particular human but is often disappointed as humans are both in awe of and in fear of the Faery folk--not without reason. There are still plenty of other magical beings around, some mischievous, some cold and calculating, and others downright dark and evil. Generations of men pass is a blink of Faery time. The main characters in this book have elven blood in their background which allows them a somewhat increased access and affinity--or fearfulness--toward all that is Faery. One has asked Arafel's help in winning a war and she agreed and has indeed continued to exert beneficent oversight on this human, his subsequent family with two children, and the lands over which he is now lord. Farms have prospered, peace has reined. But Lord Cieran's brother, Donnchadh, as well as other lords are being advised by darker beings who foster distrust of Ciaran, particularly with the King. When things don't move fast enough, Donnchadh and the other greedy lords kill the King, and now war--not just among men, but among all things Faery--is coming and sweeping everything before it into destruction.