Monday, June 27, 2016

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie

Reviewed by Jeanne

Sidney Chambers, vicar of Grantchester, is an unlikely sleuth.  He is as surprised as anyone when he’s approached by an attractive woman who wants him to investigate the suicide of a local solicitor.  Mrs. Pamela Morton is convinced that her husband’s partner, Stephen Staunton, would not have killed himself because they were making plans to run away together. She can’t go to the police because that would mean the affair would be made public. Sidney can make inquiries, she believes, because he is a priest and people will tell him things.  For his part, Sidney isn’t certain that this is part of his job description; and yet, if what the woman says is true, then there may be a murderer in the community.

So begins the first in the series of Sidney Chambers mysteries. This book is actually composed of several novella type stories, linked closely with characters and subplots but dealing with other crimes, including  the theft of a valuable ring at dinner party and an art forgery. The time is 1953, and the social mores of that period are important to the books: this is an era where England still has the death penalty, opportunities for women are limited and advancement is often through marriage, and the shadow of World War II still looms large. 

  Sidney served in the War and has seen his fair share of death and violence, but he hasn’t become jaded.  In fact, quite the opposite: he looks for the best in everywhere.  He loves jazz, detests sherry (he prefers Scotch), and at 32 is still unmarried, though he is definitely attracted to Amanda.  She’s not the sort who would be happy as a priest’s wife, he feels, so he tries to keep their relationship strictly on a friendly basis. He also finds himself drawn to Stephen Staunton’s widow—who happens to be German. 

Geordie Keating, a local police inspector, is a good friend as well.  They meet to play backgammon at the pub, and Geordie isn’t adverse to encouraging Sidney to ask questions at times, question that the police wouldn’t be able to ask.  Geordie and Sidney don’t always see eye to eye; Geordie’s world is much more black and white, while Sidney’s experiences make him see more shades of grey and his faith demands that he judge not.  And though Sidney finds he enjoys the challenge of the mystery, he is bothered by how it changes the way he views the world.  As he himself notes, being a priest requires that he think the best of people but being a detective requires that he think the worst.

I picked this book up because I had seen the series Grantchester on PBS and was intrigued.  The characters had so much depth and were so nuanced.  I found the book to be even more fascinating.  Sidney is the sort of person we would like in a clergyman: compassionate, understanding, and devout.  He’s more likely to judge himself than to judge others.  But he is also a passionate man, one who sometimes feels he falls short in carrying out his duties, who indulges himself at times, and who can be impatient and frustrated.  He is trying very hard to be a better person and a better priest, and that’s what I find most appealing. 

The relationship between Sidney and Geordie is complex and intriguing:  they are both men of integrity, but their views are sometime quite different which creates a certain amount of conflict between them. I like that there have been no easy answers, no sudden capitulation on either side. 

In addition to Geordie, there’s an interesting cast of supporting characters including the housekeeper who isn’t sure Sidney is up to the job.  She’s also most unhappy when Sidney acquires a puppy, a Lab named Dickens.  Sidney's curate, Leonard, is quietly gay; after all, at this time in British history, homosexuality is a crime punishable by imprisonment.

I also felt that the author did a good job at evoking the 1950s without beating us over the head with it. Some authors feel obliged to stick in all sorts of showy detail to convince a reader that research has been done.  This was more low key, but effective because it dealt more with attitudes and social convention than with physical trappings.

After reading the book, I wanted to know more about the author.  James Runcie knows his subject better than most because his father was an Anglican priest and in fact became Bishop of Canterbury.  While the books aren’t biographical, Runcie said he wanted to pay tribute to his father through the character.  

Runcie was also interested in portraying how British society has changed over the years.  He chose 1953 because it was the coronation year for Queen Elizabeth.  The plan is for there to be six novels that cover 25 years.  I find that idea fascinating and am anxious to read more. 

Note:  The library owns a copy of the first season of Grantchester. Author Runcie is also a filmmaker, which may explain in part why the transition from book to film went so well.  The episode plots vary a bit from the book, but the spirit of the story and the characters translate very well from paper to film at least in this first series.  I gather the differences are greater in the second.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Reviewed by Ambrea

Suyuan Woo, An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying-ying St. Clair are members of the Joy Luck Club, a group of women who meet weekly to play traditional Chinese games and share stories from their daily lives.  But when Suyuan passes away unexpectedly, her daughter, Jing-Mei (June) Woo takes her seat at the Joy Luck Club to simultaneously remember her mother and honor her memory.

As she exchanges stories with her mother’s friends, June learns a stunning secret:  the twin daughters Suyuan was forced to leave behind in China are alive—and they wish to meet her.  Thus begins June’s journey to uncover her mother’s past, marked by the ravages of World War II, and meet the sisters she never knew.  Together with Rose Hsu, Waverly Jong, and Lena St. Clair, she will learn to reconnect with her mother and reclaim one more piece of family history.

Simultaneously heartwarming and heart-wrenching, The Joy Luck Club is a fascinating collection of individual stories that recounts the lives of mothers and daughters—one being a Chinese immigrant, the other an American-born child—as they struggle to bridge a gap in language and culture to communicate and, more importantly, find common ground.  It’s a lovely novel that confronts the realities of love and loss, culminating in a journey of healing and understanding that’s sure to enchant readers.

One of the most appealing qualities, I found, is that it’s readily accessible for readers.  Although The Joy Luck Club prominently features Chinese culture in America (and individuals learning how to embrace and/or acclimate to one or the other), Tan’s work focuses heavily on mother-daughter relationships.  Specifically, it focuses on the challenges of mother-daughter relationships, which, regardless of culture, has a universal impact.  It’s about human emotion and experience, perspectives of mothers and daughters as they learn to listen to one another and, finally, connect.

Tan creates wonderful, poignant stories with beautiful imagery and emotional, thought-provoking narratives that shed light on both Chinese and American cultures and, sometimes, the vast differences between them.  I was especially moved by the stories of Suyuan, An-mei, Lindo, and Ying-ying, mothers who have a past steeped in tradition and tragedy, love and hope.  They lived through World War II and faced the turmoil of that era.  They experienced damaging social upheaval, tragic personal loss, political strife and human depravity, and their stories reflect the terror their faced and the tribulations they endured in immigrating to America; however, it also presents a picture of strong women who have fought for their daughters.  Women who have managed to find hope, love and stability, and who have managed to pass these qualities on to their daughters.

The Joy Luck Club is an amazing novel, and I can’t wait to read more by Amy Tan.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Nevermore: Theodore Roosevelt, Hearts, Munich, Autopsies, and Middle Earth

To kick off Nevermore this week, we welcomed back an old friend to our midst and eagerly listened to her review of David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback.   A National Book Award-winner, Mornings on Horseback:  The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt was a fascinating biography on the Roosevelt family and the indomintable Theodore Roosevelt.  Our reader was particularly impressed by McCullough’s incredibly thorough—and highly detailed—biography, especially since she had read it during a visit to Medora and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.  She was fascinated by the personal correspondences of the Roosevelt family, which McCullough included, saying she was struck by the amount of insight they offered into their family life and, more importantly, how the Roosevelts’ would sometimes navigate around personal issues (such as Theodore’s ill health, or his brother’s mysterious addiction, or his sister’s childhood injury).  Overall, she said it was a fascinating book and offered unparalleled insight into the Roosevelt family.

Next, our readers discussed Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King.  A dark and haunting collection of narratives, Hearts in Atlantis follows several stories that are deeply rooted in the sixties—and the Vietnam War.  In “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” eleven-year-old Bobby Garfield learns a haunting secret about his idyllic hometown and discovers that adults are not always rescuers, but dangers; in “Hearts in Atlantis,” a group of college kids become addicted to a simple card game and discover the possibilities—and dangers—of protesting the war; while in “Blind Willie” and “Why We’re in Vietnam” and “Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling,” recurring characters find themselves in a post-Vietnam America with the haunting images of the war lingering over their lives.  Our reader said Hearts in Atlantis was a complex story that developed intriguing, fully-imagined characters.  He called it an excellent novel, saying he finished it in just a week—and “at 672 pages, you know it was good,” he said.

Switching gears from the Vietnam War, Nevermore ventured back to the early days of World War II with Jacqueline Winspear’s favorite detective, Maisie Dobbs.  In Journey to Munich, Maisie is once again drafted by the British Secret Service.  This time, she’s sent to Dachau to recover a recently released British prisoner—but there’s a catch:  she has to go under the guise of his daughter to whom she bears a striking resemblance.   Not all is as it seems in Munich, and Maisie Dobbs must once more put her life on the line if she hopes to save herself and her mission.  Our reader said Journey to Munich was a fantastic spy adventure with plenty of mystery and intrigue.  She noted she became really attached to the characters, growing anxious when they were in danger and hoping for the best possible fate.  She became completely immersed in the book, which is a hallmark of a good mystery.

Additionally, Nevermore looked at Morgue:  A Life in Death by Vincent DiMaio.  Gritty and enthralling, DiMaio’s narrative is a look at the complex technology and craft of medical examiners, following his 40 year professional career—and spanning more than 9,000 autopsies (some of which made national headlines).  Both informative and compelling, Morgue:  A Life in Death is a fascinating that manages to chronicle the history of medical and criminal pathologists and offers insight into one of the most macabre—and intriguing—professions in the justice system.  Our reader, who is an ardent fan of true crime novels and police procedural and mysteries, said she really enjoyed DiMaio’s book.  She loved the attention to detail and the author’s personality, which shines through the entire narrative; moreover, she liked that it gave insight into what really happens in morgues and offered an intimate glimpse into the science behind criminal pathology.  She had only high praise for Morgue, especially since pictures were included.

Last, our readers stopped to look at a classic:  The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Taken from the stories he sketched throughout his illustrious career, The Silmarillion is a fascinating and enthralling look at the First Age of Middle Earth.  Before The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, before even The Children of Hurin, J.R.R. Tolkein’s Silmarillion explores the world of Middle Earth when the elves reigned supreme and the first Dark Lord set his sights on the three Silmarils, rings of power created by the most gifted of elves.  Overall, our Nevermore reader enjoyed looking through Tolkien’s collection.  He said, “[It’s] curious, but good.”  It’s well-written and detailed, since maps and a lengthy appendix with additional stories, genealogies, glossaries and elvish dictionaries are included, reflecting much of the style that he liked in The Lord of the Rings; however, he was most impressed by the story.  Intricate and beautifully written, he said it’s an amazing novel for fans of Lord of the Rings and any of Tolkien’s other works.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Trouble with Goats & Sheep & Elmer

Reviewed by Jeanne

England is experiencing a scorching July in 1976 when Mrs. Creasy disappears.  It’s the talk of the neighborhood, but the talk is all in whispers and unease spreads like the heat.  There doesn’t seem to be any explanation. Ten year old Grace and her friend Tilly are fascinated by this turn of events, but the adults give vague answers or refuse to talk about it. Is Mrs. Creasy dead or has she run away? No one will say,  But God knows everything, Grace is told, and God is everywhere.  This gives Grace an idea of how to spend her summer holiday:  she will find God and ask Him to bring Mrs. Creasy back.
Grace and Tilly decide to visit everyone’s home in case God is there, and their visits sometimes evoke strange reactions.  There is something else going on, some secret than lingers among the neighbors.  Why does everyone shun Walter Bishop? Why did Mrs. Creasy disappear?  And just what did happen nine years ago?  
I was impressed with the writing in this debut novel from British author Joanna Cannon.  The book itself is a sort of cross between To Kill A Mockingbird and Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries.  It’s part coming of age story, part mystery, and part sociological examination.  Cannon certainly knows how to turn a phrase and some of her observations are both witty and insightful. She does an excellent job of fashioning the story using multiple points of view and occasional time shifts back to 1967 but avoiding the confusion this could have caused.  There’s a great deal of humor in the book but the reader gradually becomes aware of a dark undercurrent running through the neighborhood.  She also lightly pokes fun at British mores and prejudices of the time, including the shock when an Indian couple moves in.
Many reviewers have praised the book for its setting and atmosphere which worked well for me, though I am certain it has a much greater impact for British readers.  Cannon drops names of candies, talk show hosts, and television programs suitable for the period; I will be curious to see if those things are altered in the American edition of the book. 
The best part of the book for me was the way Cannon turns a fine phrase.  There are wonderful passages and bits of dialog that inadvertently reveal character.  Grace is a delightful creation, a sharp observer of adult behavior but also very much a child.  My only quibbles arise over certain astute observations that conflict with Grace’s naiveté—the wording is sublime but at odds with the rest of Grace’s understanding.  For example, Grace takes the vicar’s words about God being everywhere quite literally and yet can make some mature, psychologically astute observations; when a policeman asks her mother a difficult question, Grace says that she can’t see her mother’s face but she imagines it “stretched over the question like a drum.” Or, when her father is being questioned, his voice becomes small and he sounds “like someone who was trying to remember how to be valuable.” Lovely stuff, but pretty sophisticated for a ten year old peeking in sheds to look for God.
I admit I did get bogged down at times.  Grace knows all the adults by their surnames (Mr. Creasy, Mrs. Morton, etc.) but when the point of view changes to one of the adult characters they refer to one another by first names.  I sometimes had to go back to check to see who Harold or Dorothy are. Almost every character had multiple psychic burdens, many leading back to “the incident.”
I can see why the book was so well received in the UK.  Cannon is a talented writer with a gift for creative language.  The payoff is very well done, and Grace is a marvelous and memorable creation.  I am sure we will be hearing more from Ms. Cannon in the future.

Note:  The book pictured is the UK edition.  Elmer is, well, Elmer.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Reviewed by Jeanne

Jean Perdu considers himself a literary apothecary, a man who prescribes books to help people heal.  That’s also the name he gives his books shop, which is actually a book barge located in the Seine.  Perdu won’t sell books to people if he feels the book is not right for them; he queries them about their lives and then decides what book is needed.  He lives a rather solitary life, until the day that a broken-hearted woman moves into his building, a woman whose husband has left her for another woman. Perdu is drawn to her against his will, unable to stop himself.  When she needs furniture, he opens up an unused room to give her a table and chair.  

When he sees her next, she presses a letter on him, a letter she found in the table.  A letter from Manon, the woman Perdu loved and lost twenty years previously.

What he reads changes his life profoundly and sets him on a journey to find his life again. 

Nina George’s book is about a band of lost souls who set out on a quest to find the next chapter in their own stories.  The descriptions of Paris and the French countryside are evocative and lyrical.  The book listed a translator, so I assumed the author was French—but you know what they say about assumptions. George is actually a well-known German author and journalist who writes both fiction and non-fiction.  However, the description of the journey to Provence the characters take is a reflection of a real life journey taken by the author:  all the little villages exist. The descriptions of the food and wine are just as delightful and delectable.

The book is as rich with literary allusions as it is with fully realized characters, all of whom revel in the power of the word to change one’s life.   It is, as one reviewer said, a love-song to books but it’s also a mediation on love and loss, life and death, grief and peace.  I’ll admit I got a bit bogged down at times—the characters, especially M. Perdu, are given to introspection—but the writing is lovely.  The book references are both classic and contemporary, and cover all genres including children’s books, which is why readers find the book so irresistible.  There’s a happy jolt of recognition when a book or author I know is mentioned, especially if it’s unexpected:  Tom’s Midnight Garden or Pippi Longstocking or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy co-exist with Kafka and Cervantes.  The last section of the book contains a list of books and what they will cure, much like a list of medicinal herbs.

Overall, The Little Paris Bookshop is a sweet and charming book with passionate characters in search of happy—or at least bittersweet—endings. It’s also a call for every person to enjoy the things life has to offer instead of waiting and regretting.

(And yes, there are cats. Why are you not surprised?)