Saturday, May 13, 2017

Recent Reads

Nostalgia Rules

Helen Simonson's previous book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, gently but firmly took on Britain's classism and racism with a charming love story. The Summer Before the War adds in sexism, homophobia, militarism, pacifism, socialism and almost every -ism you could imagine in a book that somehow pulls it off, even as you see the author's hand in this story of a young woman facing adulthood.
Nostalgia is the emotion that colors most of the book, looking back to a time before a World War was even conceivable. There's an intersection between young folks of the upper class and the upper middle class in the bucolic English countryside. Young men and women dreaming of love and duty become caught up in the hard realities of all those "-isms," and their struggles to reconcile them echo to the present day.

I prefer my novels to have invisible authors; perhaps an aside or two is permissible, but in novels I want story to be the key. The timing of outer events, the wider historical ones, felt off to me; the white feather girls seemed to appear way early in the story and they didn't show up in reality until August 1914, the end of summer. But if you were ever a swooning teenager, it's hard not to be lifted out of the story to admire every young poet's longed-for death scene: Noble! Tragic! Beautiful! Even as the tears washed my face, I was congratulating the author for fulfilling this fantasy and pulling it off beyond cliché. You will like this one if you liked her previous book or are an Anglophile! 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Tale of Heart and Passion

BeartownBeartown by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It begins with a cliffhanger: "Late one evening...a teenager picked up a shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else's forehead and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got there."

I read it in one sitting, for it reads like a thriller, even though it's all flashback. Backman's previous books have been wise and funny and a little tragic, but this is a masterpiece. It centers on a small town seeking glory from its hockey club. I know these kids and these families and so will you. You'll recognize "how we got here", too. Backman brings to life their hopes and dreams, frustrations and difficulties--adults and teens alike. "Beartown" should be read and discussed in every high school; it's topical and yet these events have happened for centuries. It takes place in Sweden, but could be any small town in America, too. In sports and life what we hope our children learn is to make good choices in a very un-ideal world. Fiction is a way to enter into an age-old discussion framed so beautifully by one of the characters: "This town doesn't always know the difference between right and wrong...but we know the difference between good and evil." What is the right thing to do when things go very wrong? You'll be compelled to find your answer. Backman is the Dickens of our age, and though you'll cry, your heart is safe in his hands.

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Short Takes

Friday, April 14, 2017

Starting Over

A Hundred Pieces of MeA Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lucy Dillon's stories always have a dog and therefore are love stories. Not romance, but "women's fiction," so-called because it deals with the messy details of life like relationships, home, and life and death. This particular book is good for Green Valley folks, since most of us have either recently had to sort through our "stuff”, or will soon have to. The main character has just been through a divorce after being clear of breast cancer for two years; she's a project manager/designer for homebuilders and renovators, and in the face of having to rebuild her life she's taking the opportunity to downsize and reframe. She decides that out of all the knick-knacks, party frills, enhancers-but-not-necessities, she will keep only 100 items that will suit her life now and what she hopes it will be. There are great descriptions of the inner process of appreciation, memory, and letting go that certain items trigger, and Gina's story is told a lot in flashbacks that were confusing sometimes but interesting always. I've loved all of Dillon's books, and this one is very special, not only for the greyhound, and the insights into letting go, but for being a lot like life. Gina doesn't find a happy-ever-after; she finds the grace and strength to grab and build on love and happiness in the now. There are themes of youthful folly, love and regret, and some humor, too. A truly satisfying read for all Brit lit fans.

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One of the Best

All the Winters AfterAll the Winters After by Seré Prince Halverson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a rare pleasure and treasure! A novel that succeeds as a thriller, as literature, as travel guide and as love story: love of place as well as love of family and romance. Kache's mom and dad and brother all died in the same plane crash and survivor's guilt drove him from his native Alaska for 20 years. Now his aunt has called him to face the past.
She told him no one had checked on his family's remote, isolated home in all that time, but when he gets close, he sees smoke coming from the chimney. Nadia has been living there in hiding for the last ten years, no contact with the outside world. Kache's return brings both redemption and danger to the family he's got left, and the family he hopes to build.
Halverson manages to pull off great characters in youth, midlife, and old age. Though diverse in most ways, they all ring true. I enjoyed the story as a thriller: what or who is Nadia hiding from? What the heck is Kache hiding from? And Kache's remaining family are a big part of the story, too: his aunt and failing grandmother. There's gentle humor amid the elements of reconciliation and grief; there's coming to terms with changed perceptions, through maturing or compassion. Every family has its unspoken griefs and resentments...and unspoken forgivenesses, sometimes, too. It's also a true pleasure to have the state of Alaska, the landscape and attitudes, be a character intrinsic to the story. Alaska rings as authentic as in the Kate Shugak novels by Dana Stabenow, but Halverson sings her own tune beautifully. ~Em Maxwell

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Curious Charms

The Curious Charms of Arthur PepperThe Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a journey we get to take with 69-year-old Arthur Pepper as he discovers the life of the woman he never knew, his wife before they married. He's clearing out her closet on the one-year anniversary of her death when he discovers a solid gold charm bracelet hidden in a shoe. Readers may be reminded of Harold Fry, another fictional Englishman on a journey, but this is a sweeter, funnier, and ultimately more tender book than that one.
Arthur has mourned his wife greatly, but this discovery makes him doubt everything, especially their love. Arthur's journey over the course of the year as he finds the history behind the charms—she was a nanny in India! partied with the hoi-polloi! lived in Paris!—shows the path of a heart opening up to living again (for when grieving it seems we wait ourselves at Death's borders).
Arthur finds in himself a man he never knew, as well: adventurous, helpful and kind, and by the time his 70th birthday rolls around, he is ready to celebrate life and love again and cherish his wife's memory. In the end, this lovely book is life-affirming, charming, humorous and quirky—the perfect read, in other words. ~Em Maxwell

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