I can’t help but quote Mr Rogers this morning… “It’s a beautiful day in the neighbourhood”. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, it’s mild and pleasant, a perfect “January thaw” day. I’ve got a steaming cup of chai in front of me and a fresh date loaf in the oven, and while I have a million things to do today, I have to take time to write this post. Last week I had a book club meeting, I finished an audiobook, and I read a Children’s novel, so I had to determine whether to leave something out of the post or just give brief sections on each. I decided to touch on all three this morning.
For our Friends Book Club meeting on Monday night, we discussed Julia Keller’s novel, A Killing in the Hills, the first in the “Bell Elkins” mystery series. Bell is a small-town prosecutor in Acker Gap, West Virginia, where poverty and desperation pervade. Having grown up there and endured her own horrible past, she returns with her daughter to try to make a difference, to help those who seem to be beyond help. When an unidentified gunman kills three elderly men in a downtown diner, Bell pairs up with her long-time friend, Sheriff Nick Fogelson, to find the killer. Bell’s daughter, Carla, was in the diner when the shooting occurred, and when she has a chance to think about it, she discovers that she recognizes the killer as a guy who came to a party she was at where drugs and alcohol were plentiful. She can’t tell her mom about this because then she would have to admit that she went to a party like this, so she determines to find the identity of the killer on her own and then ask for help. Bell, meanwhile, has to deal with her own past demons, as well as work on a case where a developmentally challenged man killed a little boy as they were playing together in the boy’s basement, and to determine whether he should be sent to jail or institutionalized. I thought the book was ok, but not as good as I expected from reading reviews and the front flap of the book. I found it repetitive and overly descriptive, particularly when introducing new characters. The author also described the town many, many times, emphasizing the desperation and poverty and hopelessness. During our discussion, we agreed that she did a good job of comparing and contrasting the beauty of the natural surroundings, especially the mountains, and the hopelessness of the town and its people. We felt that Bell was a strong female character, and that her relationships with her ex-husband, with Nick, with Carla and with other townspeople seemed mostly authentic. But we generally agreed that the ending was so far-fetched as to be nearly unbelievable, and that it just ended too quickly and neatly. We all thought that the subplot involving the dead boy deserved more attention and would have made a good novel, and also that of Bell’s relationship with her estranged sister, Shirley (this is surely explored in subsequent books) . All in all, it was not the kind of book we usually read, and it was fairly well received, evoking a lively discussion about the novel and related topics.
I finished listening to I Am No One by Patrick Flanery last week, which sounded like a really promising book. Jeremy O’Keefe is a history professor at NYU, recently returned from a decade living and teaching in Oxford after the breakup of his marriage and dismissal from Columbia, where he clearly did not receive tenure. He is waiting to meet a grad student in a coffee shop on a Saturday, but she doesn’t show up. A young man, a stranger, approaches him and begins making small-talk. Jeremy leaves, and finds an email in his inbox from this student agreeing to reschedule their meeting, a response to an email supposedly sent from Jeremy making this request. He does not remember any of this correspondence. He later receives a box with no postage and no return address containing pages and pages of his internet searches over the past decade or more. He finds these two incidences strange, and suddenly begins to wonder if some government agency is watching him, which doesn't make sense to him, as he repeatedly claims that he has done nothing wrong, that he is no one of interest. Over the course of the novel, more of these incidents occur, and we the reader are offered small details about Jeremy’s life over the past decade, details that may make him the target of surveillance by American or British government agencies, or both. The novel was an exploration of privacy and surveillance, what it means to be the watcher and what happens when the watcher becomes the watched. Sounds riveting, right? Not so, in this listener’s opinion. I found the character of Jeremy so frustrating, so passive, I wondered how he ever became a professor in the first place. And the writing went off in tangents on a regular basis, offering such lengthy segments of backstory that I forgot what the original point was, and was surprised each time when we returned to it. The audiobook was divided into 10 parts, and I kept hoping that it would turn around and become the gripping, compelling story I thought it was going to be, but by the end, I felt relieved, knowing that this was about 12 hours of my listening life that I would never get back. I would not recommend this novel, despite what the reviewers say.
And I finished The Grifiin of Darkwood by Becky Citra last night. It is one of the Forest of Reading Silver Birch nominees, and I always try to read one or two of these each year, as well as one or two Red Maple nominees. Will Poppy is a twelve-year-old boy whose mother dies shortly after completing her novel. Will wants to be a writer, too, but after her death, he decides that he is done with writing. When his horrible Aunt Mauve moves them to an old castle in a small village, he feels that his life is ruined. Then he meets Emma and Thom, and learns of the curse on the woods behind the castle. He discovers a photo of his grandparents and a small cloth ripped from a magic tapestry, and with the help of his friends, as well as Flavian, the bookshop owner, Will can begin to discover who he really is, to escape his horrid aunt, and to uncover the truth about the curse and hopefully lift it from the woods. Oh, and he may be able to help catch the art thieves who have been roaming the country and evading capture at every turn. This novel reminded me of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in a few different ways. Not in complexity or depth, but in tone and also basic storyline: orphaned boy living with horrid relatives discovers magic all around him, resists magic but can’t escape it, finds new friends and must fight evil and allow good to triumph. It certainly read like a first installment, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the author is working on a sequel. It was a light, interesting read that would appeal to both boys and girls in grades three to six, and I would happily recommend it to these classes at both my schools.
And a final note: My Friends Book Club has been getting together for nearly six years, so I made a list of the books we’ve read over these past years, which I’m including here. These books are not in chronological order.
Half-blood Blues - Esi Edugyan
Saturday - Ian McEwan
The Help - Kathryn Stockett
Tell it to the Trees - Anita Rau Badami
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
The Silent Wife - A S A Harrison
How to be Lost -Amanda Eyre Ward
One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Sweet Hereafter - Russell Banks
The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery
Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
The Painted Bird - Jerzy Kosinski
Big Brother - Lionel Shriver
The Mistress of Nothing - Kate Pullinger
The Bookseller - Cynthia Swanson
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert Pirsig
Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
The Story Hour - Thrity Umrigar
The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Husband's Secret - Liane Moriarty
What Alice Forgot - Liane Moriarty
Defending Jacob - William Landay
Ruby - Cynthia Bond
Ruby - Cynthia Bond
The Illegal - Lawrence Hill
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers
The Green Road - Anne Enright
Be Frank with Me - Julia Claiborne Johnson
The Secret Keeper - Kate Morton
Barney's Version - Mordecai Richler
The Silver Star - Jeannette Walls
The Woman Upstairs - Claire Messud
A Killing in the Hills - Julia Keller
Sisterland - Curtis Sittenfeld (upcoming)
That’s all for today. Get outside and enjoy the gorgeous weather!
Bye for now...