Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Wishing Thread - Lisa Van Allen

Every year at the turning of the summer season, I start looking around for 'October-y' reads. The perfect read has a bit of magic, maybe some ghost elements, maybe a hint of romance, maybe a touch of horror or mystery. The Wishing Thread gave me just the easy segue into fall that I needed. It's been a busy summer full of piecing quilt tops, canning garden produce, traveling for vacation, and garden puttering. I haven't read for the complete abandon the way I usually do. I've been reading for gaining knowledge and for fulfilling book group obligations. After a particularly demanding (and upsetting read (Ann Packer's The Children's Crusade) for which I won't even bother posting a reaction, I needed a truly light read - one that I could have a few laughs over, one that would make me remember that a good story can be told without gut-wrenching and depressing exposure of the human dark side. Thank-you, Lisa Van Allen.

After Packer's slow and meticulous de-construction of a family, it was a relief to settle into Van Allen's re-affirming story of what family really ought to be about ... losses that make people stronger, make them pull together, make them gently confront each other's foibles, mistakes, screwed up actions with love and forgiveness, make them move forward positively.  What can I say? I like happy endings.

Van Allen's sisters Van Ripper - Aubrey, Bitty, and Meggie have gathered at the Van Ripper homestead to mourn the loss of their Aunt Mariah. After losing their mother to a mysterious disappearance and presumed death years before, the girls were raised by Mariah. Losing her is a hard loss, as she was the relative that stepped in when they lost their mother. She is a matriarch with a strange magical power that has groomed them to live out the Van Ripper tradition of being the area's guardians of mysticism. These women cast spells ...

The loss of Mariah comes at a crucial time for the family and its neighbors. Their old, established neighborhood is in danger of being bulldozed by the city of Tarrytown, New York to make way for an urban renewal project that will gentrify the entire area of the city. Their personal lives are in tatters, but they pull together to make one valiant attempt to save their home and their long-established family's place within the fabric of the neighborhood ... and they do it ... after a fashion.

This is a fast read. Van Allen moves her story right along. Her sisters are a good combination of quirky, straight-laced, and kinky. They're different enough to make the family dynamics interesting, even if they do seem a bit contrived. I can get past that when the story moves as fast as this one does. There's a bit of romance, a bit of psychological angst, a bit of political wrangling, and a bit of humor.

Perfect beach read or curl-up-in-bed and forget the clock read.

I plan to pick Van Allen's next book, The Night Garden, when I get to the library.  I'm sure it will give me another good read. I still have a few other books to clear off the bedside table, though. Next up, Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train, Rachel Cusk's Outline, and Nele Neuhaus's The Ice Queen. Oh, and Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. I'll get back to you.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Moloka'i - Alan Brennert

What an interesting read! Not only is this book an accurate account of how the Hawaiian leadership and the US government dealt with a significant leprosy (Hansen's disease) outbreak, but it tells the story of one young girl, Rachel Kalama who is diagnosed with leprosy very early in life and what her ensuing years look like, as she is exiled to the government sanctioned quarantine community of lepers on the island of Moloka'i.

This was a sad story, but make no mistake in thinking that the life of Rachel was a total downer. Alan Brennert has created a cast of strong characters that support the story of the leper colony and the changes it goes through, as doctors and missionaries work to learn about the disease, develop treatments, and attempt to make life as normal as they can for the people being ravaged by the disease. The book is a fictionalized story of Rachel and her family and friends, but the history of the colony on Moloka'i and the information about the disease is very well researched and presented.

The historical novel centers on Rachel Kalama. She is a young Hawaiian girl who is diagnosed with the disease when she is seven. Rachel comes from a large close family, but the moment her diagnosis is confirmed, she is removed from her family and shipped with other afflicted people to the leper colony on Moloka'i. She is housed at a Catholic mission school with other girls and grows up in a loving, but isolated community. Because society doesn't understand the disease and fears the ravaging nature of the illness, contact with with others is discouraged and made very difficult by the strict rules of quarantine. Thus, a vibrant community grows within the colony amongst those living there. The story follows Rachel as she grows up, makes friends, loses them to the disease, marries, takes many experimental treatments, and finally has some success in fighting her form of the disease. No spoilers ... it's a great story and she is a strong, smart, and feisty character that never gives in to total despair.

The book is also a terrific read for those who don't know the the story of Moloka'i's history or the particulars of what leprosy really is. I learned so much about the disease by reading this book. I don't know that Alan Brennert has written any other books, but he did an awesome job on this one ... enough said.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Saturday Snapshot ... This I Believe

It's Saturday morning and it's starting to feel like summertime. The gardens are coming on. While the comfrey draws hoards of fat bumbling bees and the chive plants draw me out to cut long spears for snipping over mashed taters or tearing and adding to the garden green salads that are plentiful now, the finest of early June flowers fade in the porch bouquet. The white bleeding heart has crisped its hearts on the stem and the deep purple columbine has dropped its delicate petals in a perfect circle beneath the flowers. Their time was glorious, but gone and it reminds me that time is fleeting.

Our time is short in the scheme of things and we'd best chew the chives, enjoy the greens, dig in the soil to set the basil and move on to other good garden deeds. Sharing the strawberries with the neighbors and the chipmunks, dividing the perennials and passing some on to friends, scrubbing the watering can and sprinkling the rose bushes with some insecticidal soap so they come to bloom, rising in a sweat from weeding chores to wave a neighbor on their way down the dirt road, making time to sit in the garden and sip coffee on sunny mornings, and marveling at the seasonal splendor seems crucial these days. These flowers, these berries, these opportunities for connection, this sunrise will never be again. They're to be appreciated now and wondered on ...

Indeed, time is fleeting. It's never too early to realize that we are a speck in the grander scheme of things. We have very little chance of making a difference in the grand scheme of God's plan, but we can surely make great things happen in our little 'back yard'. So my thought is to care for plants, animals, and friends - new, old, and unknown. If I can live this premise, I can't go wrong.

This, I believe.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Black Tower - Louis Bayard

I grew up in the extreme northern reaches of New York State. That being said, there was this lovely but decrepit chalet-type home that sat on the outer border of of small town called Fort Covington (near Massena, my hometown) that had the legend of the lost Dauphin attached to it. I was always intrigued by the legend that Louis-Charles, the son of Marie Antoinette and Louis the XVI was somehow spirited away from the Jacobin prison in which he and his sister were held. The story goes that royalists helped him flee prison, cross the Atlantic and settle in anonymity in a rural backwater in order to keep him from forces that would see him dead. I wondered and built fantastic stories in my mind how a prince might be guarded by faithful and monied allies and sent to safety to live out his life away from the horror that he'd surely witnessed during the Reign of Terror.

Finding Louis Bayard's rollicking story about the legend of the lost Dauphin, a rowdy, raucous French detective called Eugene Vidocq that has a penchant for outlandishly accurate disguises, a young doctor who is pioneering the study venereal disease at a time when it was ravaging the French elite, and a young French gardener who is mysteriously innocent for one his age was such a fun experience! This mystery/historical thriller is masterfully written and even more masterfully narrated. It was wonderful!

I'll not spoil the storyline by giving away plot, but just know that there is murder, subterfuge, hidden relics of the Reign of Terror and the following Napoleonic era, royals and gentry who are less than honest about their past, bawdy humor, and wonderful characters that are endearing. Great read, even better listen. Simon Vance is a professional reader for the Royal National Institute for the Blind as well as a radio announcer for the BBC radio ... he does an incredible job developing the character of Vidocq. His command at reading and interpreting the story is just stellar!

Okay .. have I gushed enough ? If you're doing a road trip, working at home at a sit-down project or puttering in the kitchen this would be a worthy audio experience. I'm off to return the 'book' to the library and check out another by Louis Bayard.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Saturday Snapshot ... Lilacs !!!

My bank account may say I'm poor as a church mouse, but during lilac season I feel as rich as a queen!

... shared at Melinda Ott's Saturday Snapshot photoshare because everyone should experience springtime lilacs ...

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender - Leslye Walton

In preparing to write my reaction to this novel, I did a bit of research on the literary technique of using mystical realism in one's plot development. My only experience of the sub-genre (?) is with certain Latin American authors whose stories were so mystic that they were far over my head. I left this type of novel alone for years until I read Like Water For Chocolate, at which point, I thought that I'd fallen back into the mystic just enough.

The point is that this type of writing is not for everyone. You have to let go just a bit of what you consider real and true, latch onto the images and experiences of the characters and accept that what they experience is based in reality - their reality - a reality that serves to say something about life, higher ideals, et cetera. That being said, I found Leslye Walton's debut novel a winner. It's already being short-listed for awards across America as one of the best new young adult reads. I'm not so sure that it is strictly for young adults, but I often think that much of what is written for young adults is really 'cross-over' stuff. That's another rant post, though. Suffice it to say, this story addresses a bunch of issues like opening one's self to love and its messy possibilities, loving enough to allow one's children to become their own distinct personalities, fulfilling one's dreams and not being afraid to fail in the attempt, finding one's self in the midst of one's strong family influence and history, and overcoming society's sometimes harsh assumptions about one's self. Among a bazillion other things ...

Ava Lavender looks back on her life and her family history to tell a tale that will make you feel like you've entered a fairy tale. This is a love story, but it's not about the heart thumping happy ending of romantic love fulfilled. It's about the messiness of love, the development of love over time, the way love is nurtured by some and destroyed by others, the way one comes to love oneself enough to survive sorrows. The members of Ava's family experience love's foibles in vastly different ways and Ava reflects on these joys and sorrows, as her own life moves toward a strange climax.

I loved this book, but I'll warn you. It's not for everyone.