I did not expect to post this review on my website … where I review books that I truly like. It’s a Book Club read, and my first reaction was that this is an odd book. But it turned out to be a gift. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen 83 ¼ Year Old is written as an actual diary of a pensioner in an assisted living home in Amsterdam, a novel translated from Dutch to English. The reality of the setting was spot on, no mincing words here. The characters were true to life with a lot of whining about old-age maladies, and the main characters in the Old but Not Yet Dead club were delightful and genuine. I, myself, am close enough to this age to relate and sympathize, but the surprise for me was the perseverance of this group of friends. And, there, is the gist of this tale. Friendship. A true, deep love for each, a love that was often held inside but loyal to the end. Of course, in this setting you can expect a lot of ends. But there was also great dark wit, well-placed cynicism, out-loud laughter, and such tender moments. I was uplifted by the spirit of this novel. The author is unrevealed, and there is a sequel, On the Bright Side, recently published. Though I must admit I am quite jealous that the Dutch apparently now have a TV series based on Mr. Groen’s escapades.
Degrees of Darkness by Lori C. Thompson
Degrees of Darkness is quite the roller-coaster ride through time, through locales, through danger, and more. The tension Lori C. Thompson has nurtured and unfolded throughout this story has the reader on the edge of his seat, breath held, heart racing … and the same goes for the romantic trysts as well. Ms. Thompson’s writing reveals this story in such authentic scenes as Julia’s journey flows to its conclusion (at least, for now). The author’s use of language to describe Julia’s journey through time, back to the Civil War, is spell-binding, almost magical, e.g. “… the wind picked up, caressing my skin and whispering through my hair. The trees, heavy with moss, seemed to lean in closer… readying themselves to fulfill their duty. … The pressure in the atmosphere increased, causing my ears to pop.” I loved the sensuous descriptions of time travel. The characters are so well developed that the reader is living right through history with them, by their side. And the history … quite thoroughly researched and brought to life. I believe I need to time-travel back to the twenty-first century just to leave this wonderful read … and I am on the edge of my seat waiting for the next Julia Elliot novel.
The Good People by Hannah Kent
The Good People. What an amazing work of art! Once I was immersed in this dark and magical place, I could not put this book down. This is not a tale for everyone. The tale clearly sprung, as shared by the author, from a newspaper article and from the books and Irish folk legends and was exceedingly researched … but, only Ms. Kent has a way of bringing characters to life as she did near Killarney in 1825. I walked beside them, fearful. The language she used, at times difficult, was as a clever time machine carrying us to a new land. At times, I wanted to hug Nora or Nance; at times, I wanted to slap them. Oh, the emotions! My heart went out to Mary. Mary: “There was no telling the shape of a heart from the face of the one who carried it.” This tale … filled with lessons learned, lessons not learned. The conflict between the church and the cures. Thank you, Ms. Kent, for a true journey to such a dark valley in dark times where I had wont of a bath and respite from aching bones. Of course, I cannot wait or her next novel!
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
First of all, I loved how this story was told from the perspective of Frank, a 13-year-old boy. This gave a unique life to the story of the loss and suspense in New Bremen in the summer of 1961, as well as gave the reader a true picture of the freedom of childhood in small-town America during an era much unlike today. Young Frank was a bit of a “go getter;” rules meant little to him and all that eavesdropping he did gave us much greater insight into this story. Underneath the tragic losses in this community is the current of relationships, prejudice, God and family. Frank’s father is a pastor, and the struggle of faith runs clearly through this story where grief changes everyone. And, ultimately, a child shall lead the way. Because of this novel, I will likely delve into some of Mr. Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series … but I do look forward to his writing another stand-alone novel with the depth of this one.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
I do not usually read fantasy … or is it magic realism? But what a delightful and strange tale of Ava and her equally odd and fascinating family. The images Ms. Walton has created with her words within this book are so akin to something I might see Tim Burton coming up with on the silver screen. Little Henry, so absent is many ways but not others, held a special key to this story. Sweet Henry. I loved the characters, even the yellow bird, Pierette … some dark, some gentle. And the Seattle rains … the rains! Oh, the joys and agonies of life brought together on Pinnacle Lane in such a magical way. My first favorite fantasy novel.
Napoleons’s Glass by Gillian Ingall
Ms. Ingall has pulled me into the chaos of the nineteenth century with her new novel Napoleon’s Glass. This is a heavily-researched tale of one young woman’s journey amongst the wars and turmoil throughout Europe as Napoleon failed to hold on to his kingdom. We meet Adele Valentin as she greets womanhood and leaves her studies at the Abbey, and it is then we see her independent streak that carries her through the adversity of life that lies ahead. I was surprised at the extent of Adele’s travels as she traversed her way through Europe’s events and conflicts that changed her life’s paths at whim, but I am certain Adele’s status and connections eased her ability to travel so far. Ms. Ingall describes the Chateau de Malmaison in such a way that the reader is actually walking through the rooms where Empress Josephine’s guests danced and celebrated centuries ago. Sometimes the dialogue seemed a bit formal; however, this was true to the time and to the upper class of France. Within the story there are surprise revelations, but the foretelling clues did not escape me … or maybe some did. Adele’s character was well developed, as were some of the other characters with their back stories woven into the tale. According to the author, Napoleon’s Glass is based on and inspired by true events, and as I became absorbed in the story I could not help but wonder which characters and events were imagined and which were truly historical … the author achieved such an intricate melding of the two in this page-turning historical saga.
I did receive a copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review; however, I must share that I enjoyed the opportunity to read Ms. Ingall’s novel. I love stories of women who, through adversity, become courageous … this is just such a story.
Allie and Bea by Catherine Ryan Hyde
After reading Take Me With You for our Book Club a couple of months ago, I was excited about Catherine Ryan Hyde’s new novel, Allie and Bea. I did not connect with the story right away, but when young Allie joined Bea in this tale, I was in. This story raised so many issues in our modern society … such as identify theft and the targeting of the elderly, the warranted fear faced by a child entering the foster system, and more that I won’t give away here. Allie and Bea’s journey is certainly a physical one, but the true tale lies in the journey of awareness that Ms. Hyde has created. Even when I started to worry about the cat, she would be okay and all would come to light. As the author wove this tale, she cleverly provided scenes that would have the reader imagining all kinds of different endings to the novel … but this story is not predictable. Loved it! Oh, yes, and my favorite line: “But it doesn’t pay to argue with a cat.” I certainly need to toss another one of her novels into my to-read list.
The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark
Elle Newmark’s story, as she herself describes, is the convergence of two love stories through time, one in the eighteenth century and another in the nineteenth. This novel is a great read as well as an intriguing discussion.
In 1947, Evie and Martin, a young couple with a young son from Chicago, travel to India for Martin’s historical research of the exit of the British Empire amidst the contentious partition of the nation of India. With many hours and days of isolation at home, Evie finds letters hidden in the family’s cottage and clandestinely explores the life of the young women who had once lived in her home. Her search is not without its own dangers.
In India, in 1850, the Sepoy Revolution endangered the early English colonists, and it was during that time that two young and marriageable English women, rebellious of the strict English standards of conduct and expectation pressed upon them, found escape and solace in each other’s company in the Indian countryside, in Masoorla. Conflicts flourish between the characters, all struggling to find their own way through difficult times as they negotiate their way among teas and gossip and the abundance of Indian flavors and traditions. Surprises abound.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Poetic prose, through and through, evoking visions of the locale and the hearts of the characters. This retelling of a nineteenth-century historical event in Iceland leaves few stones unturned in its merging of facts with conjecture, revealing these historical figures in a poignant way. The physical and emotional connection between the priest Toti and Agnes is interesting as he is clearly attracted to her in a sexual way in spite of his commitment to save her soul, while she is always “reaching for his hand.” I found this connection and interdependence between the two moving and authentic. The District Commissioner Blondal was clearly threatened by Agnes’ confidence and intelligence, and it appeared these traits threatened Agnes’ survival throughout the story.
The smells, the chill, the brutal work of the croft farms, the doom … I felt it all in Ms. Kent’s language. In a place and time where the deck is stacked against most, the author brought these characters to life, some with naught but foibles, most with some gift to share. I could not put this book down as I read it; I enjoyed the journey in spite of its bleak setting and, most of all, I am glad that Agnes Magnusdottir is not forgotten.
Proud Flesh by Cynthia Bowen
I do not usually read memoir, but here is the first thing I want to say about this one, Proud Flesh, the Resurrection of Baby B: It does not read like a memoir, but like a character-built, edge-of-your-seat novel! Ms. Bowen’s writing style grabs you right from the Prologue. It is there the author describes herself as just like the rest of us, with her doubts and her life plans to relish her golden years, but we soon learn she is truly a superwoman who endears herself to us because she never sees herself as such. Faced with a choice to walk away or provide a quality of life to an abused infant, the author embarks on an endeavor filled with heartbreak and bureaucracy like a maze with hope as the goal. As one travels the passages with the author and her family, profound quotes greet us at the beginning of each chapter, foreshadowing each leg of the journey. The descriptions throughout Proud Flesh detailed, in a meaningful way, the scenes brought to life with authentic similes and metaphors.
In Chapter 20 there is a scene where the author finds vegetable seed packets on the table and ponders a bountiful garden, representing a journey of unforeseen obstacles while embracing the prayed-for outcome, a trait unique to humans (as far as we know). Ms. Bowen is a master of words and images. Her descriptions of locale throughout this memoir take the reader visually to her story. Beyond this beautifully written memoir, Ms. Bowen’s story is the definition of perseverance and courage coupled with heart and family. I am so grateful to have crossed paths with this book!
Like I Used to Dance by Barbara Frances
The first thing that struck me about this book is the unique storyline, 1950’s small-town Texas, before the era of civil rights and in the midst of the Klan. Ms. Frances has thoroughly drawn characters we can relate to, even in more modern times, and they feel well-known to the reader. She delves into the fears and inadequacies of the major characters, revealing the histories that developed each personality. The major characters are husband and wife, Bud and Grace Wolansky, and their three children. There are supporting
characters that interact in the story, and the main outside characters are Mayphelia, an old African-American woman, a beloved medicine woman and dispenser of wisdom, and Ciel who arrives from California and stirs things up.
Each of Grace’s children is maneuvering through their own dilemma, and Ms. Frances expertly ties all of these stories together, like a tapestry. The Wolanskys are a Catholic family, and Catholicism is clearly a character in this Texas tale. The demands, judgments, and comforts of the Catholic Church impact, for better or worse, the choices and emotions of this small-town community. Like I Used to Dance addresses insecurity, conflict, revenge, racism, abuse, religion, sexuality and marriage, loss, resentments, “catharsis,” and atonement; the story spiced with a bit of irony. There are a few places where flashbacks or timing are awkward, but, for me, this did not distract from the story as a whole.
This is a story grounded deeply in the 1950’s, the good and the bad. In reading this one-of-a-kind novel, I encountered some laughter and some tears, and, or course, the necessary “newly ironed handkerchief.” A true delight, and I must share that my favorite scene is the one with the fox!
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
This is a unique and delightful novel about Ove, of course! A crotchety old widower, overcome by grief, is forced to move forward with his life by a cast of unusual characters. The tone of the writing cleverly reflects Ove’s personality, an old man set in his ways and meticulous about details. This is a story of a man who cannot accept change who is thrust into his worst nightmare … change!
Update: I recently watched the movie, Swedish with subtitles. Endearing. I kept thinking how amazing to watch a story that elicits both tears and laughter throughout!
One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus
… an interesting perspective of a headstrong woman in the plains, written by a man. We discussed this historical and action-packed story at length at Book Club; it was a lively discussion. The characters were colorful, though at times too predictable. Tragic history of the Cheyenne and the western tribes was woven through the tale told through May Dodd’s journals of her escapade west, a journey that was her chosen escape from an unjust commitment to asylum. The losses were palpable; the bravery, inspired. Though a fictional tale, I found myself immersed in these women’s journeys, their grief, their loves, and, most of all, their embrace of a free life. The codicil at the end, by the young priest, touched me deeply … as if this young woman’s journals had truly existed. Jim Fergus has written several novels set in this era; I look forward to reading another.
Update: (11/4/2017) The sequel has recently been released … The Vengeance of Mothers. It will certainly be on TBR list!