Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review: The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna

Others have dubbed this one atmospheric and disturbing.  I alternate between stunning and unsettling.  Make no mistake, this beautifully written story of the civil war that took place in Croatia in 2007, contains brutal text, ugly scenes, gut-wrenching episodes of inhuman behavior.  But it also provides the reader with a protagonist who is able to look objectively at his life and present us with an attitude of acceptance, sorrow, hope and revenge left unclaimed.

Duro Kolak, local handyman and hunter, agrees to help vacationing Englishwoman Laura and her two children, to repair and restore "the old Blue House".   Duro does not divulge his memories about the house or the friends who once lived there. Many of the scenes are centered on hunting - a necessary means of providing food for the village, but a form of carnage that is not one I'm fond of. Forna goes back and forth from present to the past to show the devastation caused by the war.  Her juxtaposition of the native villagers and their actions during the war with the fairy-tale vision Laura espouses of the beautiful mountain town provides a broad spectrum of emotions and reactions in the characters and the reader.  Duro's attempts to mesh his memories of the past (arising from his work on the Blue House) with the delights of the restoration work keep the reader turning pages to the end.

It's a book that will stay with the reader long after the story is finished.  It's on the short list for the Maine Readers' Choice Award this year, and it will certainly be one to which I give serious consideration when it comes time to choose the Finalists.

Title: The Hired Man
Author: Aminatta Forna
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (2013), Hardcover, 304 pages
Genre: historical fiction
Subject: Croation civil war
Setting: Fictional town Gost Croatia
Source: Review copy from the publisher.
Why did I read this book now?  It's on the Maine Readers Choice Short List.

 My thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Happy Saint Paddy's Day!

With all the glitzy shamrocks, green beer, outlandish outfits, and leprechauns bounding about today, I thought I'd try to share something more historic. This stained glass window is in St. Benin's Episcopal Church in Kilbannon, Galway, Ireland.  Interesting that the great St. Paddy himself is shown with shamrock in hand.  No matter how you do or do not celebrate the legends, achievements and/or stories of the great Irish Saint, best wishes for a happy Monday and the beginning of the what we can only hope will be a glance at spring coming the end of the week.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Slowing Down...Digging Out....and ......... OH FORGETTABOUDIT!!

This past week I finished reading all ten of the short listed books for judging in the Maine Readers'Choice Award competition. The next step is to narrow those ten down to three finalists. We'll do that in early May. I've definitely eliminated two of them and have several others in the 4 out of 5  star range that will probably not make my cut. But then I wouldn't be horribly upset if the group voted any of them in. I have my top two pretty firmly established (and I will be very upset if they DON"T make the finalist list) but I'm really conflicted about choosing that third book.

I went back and re-read and listened to Transatlantic and Benediction.  Since I read both of them months before the long-list ever came out, I wanted to have a current assessment of them against other entries.   This week I finished Visitation Street (review coming soon) and was very very pleasantly surprised.

With the exception of The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope, I ended up reading them all in print and listening to the audio versions too, thereby giving me a pretty good handle on all of them.  I'm actually glad a couple of them turned out to be such duds for me.  It helped to narrow the field..especially since they were for me duds in both formats.

This week I'm going to take a breath, excavate my library/office ( it's so bad I couldn't even take a photo that would make any sense - if it were not enclosed it would like this outdoor market in Spain!), make a few phone calls to friends and family members, and try to gather the paperwork I need to do my taxes. UGH.   So my reading is going to be of the total fun, "not anybody making me do" it variety.

In the dock:
Snow in May - a review copy of Russian short stories on my nook - pub date in May
Bruno, Chief of Police - an audio I got from the Library, recommended by a LibraryThing friend. Just what I need-- another good detective series.

I also have "next ups" standing by - Colin Cotterill's latest Dr. Siri Paiboun adventure, and the newest Ely Griffiths book, as well as the audio of Bill Bryson's One Summer - a long one that will probably take me until the summer to finish.

I've got several Audible credits waiting to be spent, and lots of books on the wishlist to use them up.

The weather was gorgeous yesterday, so I got nothing done except to plan some meals for next week.  In the meantime,  it's time to stop procrastinating and get to the taxes.  Maybe later....but it's supposed to be very cold, so I'll need to curl up in front of the fireplace.  So....maybe  Monday...or Tuesday...or........wish me luck!

Oops....forgot that I have bookclub on Wednesday, so I'll have to grab my copy of Christopher Morley's Haunted Bookshop which I read years ago and refresh my memory before then.  Like I said.....wish me luck!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: Bird Lake Moon by Kevin Henkes

Every once in a while I like to read something from our YA collection at the library.  This was actually recommended by an adult patron, and I wanted to see if it was something to recommend to my 13 year old grand-daughter. This one is definitely on the recommended list!
Birk Lake Moon is the story of two boys and the summer they spent next door to each other at Bird Lake.  Mitch Sinclair is living with his rather rigid, not much fun, grandparents while his mother recovers from the trauma of her husband (Mitch's father) having just walked out on them to take up life with a younger girl-friend. No one seems to catch on that Mitch is grieving also. Spencer Stone arrives at his family's lake house several days after Mitch.  The Stones have owned the house for years, but have not returned for about 10 years since Mitch's little brother drowned there.  Spencer's parents aren't sure they can handle the memory, but want to try.  Spencer's little sister provides some delightful and typical little sister humor to the story.

The two boys meet, take a bit of time to decide whether to be friends, and discover that grief and loneliness is better handled with friends to help.   It's a beautiful book, written with great insight into the emotions young people often try to handle without the help of adults who may be too busy handling their own problems.  I think today's adults, both teen aged and older would enjoy this short but stunning novel.

Title: Bird Lake Moon
Author: Kevin Henkes
Publisher: Greenwillow Books (2008), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 192 pages 
Genre: realistic fiction
Subject:  divorce, grief, moving, friendship
Setting: Lake in Wisconsin
Source: Public library

Monday, March 10, 2014

Review : Mrs. Queen takes the Train by William Kuhn

From the publisher:
An absolute delight of a debut novel by William Kuhn...Mrs Queen Takes the Train wittily imagines the kerfuffle that transpires when a bored Queen Elizabeth strolls out of the palace in search of a little fun, leaving behind a desperate team of courtiers who must find the missing Windsor before a national scandal erupts. Reminiscent of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, this lively, wonderfully inventive romp takes readers into the mind of the grand matriarch of Britain’s Royal Family, bringing us an endearing runaway Queen Elizabeth on the town—and leading us behind the Buckingham Palace walls and into the upstairs/downstairs spaces of England’s monarchy.

What a fun book! This light, cheery, and surprisingly introspective work looks at the burdens of isolation, old age, and changing mores not just in Merry Olde England, but with enough panache to allow us to apply it anywhere. Some might see it merely as a somewhat pedantic view of the value of maintaining a monarchy. Kuhn chooses to portray a Queen who is struggling to do her duty as she has been taught and to be human with all the fatigue, self-doubt, and anxiety that goes with growing old, watching loved ones die, worrying about children, and trying to figure out what life is all about before it's over.

Just imagine Her Majesty traipsing through the streets of rainy London with no umbrella, wearing her trademark head scarf and a borrowed hoody with a skull and crossbones on the back.  It can only get better from there.  This one is a short read, but is not one to be brushed aside. For me it was a perfect palate cleanser from a steady diet of ponderous, dark, and often pompous literary fiction. Books like this one make reading fun, and at the same time give us a glimpse of what might be ahead.

I got this one in audio because it was right there for the picking. It was a great choice. Definitely recommended. 

Title: Mrs. Queen takes the Train
Author: William Kuhn
Publisher/Format: Harper Perennial (2013), Paperback, 384 pages
Audio edition Dreamscape Media; Unabridged edition 9 hr, 33 min
Narrator Simon Preble
Genre: fiction
Subject: Queen Elizabeth goes rogue
Setting: various settings in England and Scotland
Source: Public library

Friday, March 7, 2014

Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

This imposing chunkster demands a significant commitment of time on the part of the reader. The story is long, taking the protagonist from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, through the world of art, antiques, drugs, and dysfunction, from the age of 13 to about 30, and still leaving the reader gasping at the end. It's a book that inspires awe at the level of detail the author presents. It arouses sympathy for some characters, and rage at others. It infuriates, cheers, exasperates, and still produces belly laughs. At the end, the reader is stunned and must sit for some time digesting all that has happened, trying to decide if the implausible scenes are at all plausible, if the plot isn't a bit too contrived, if the protagonist and all those around him aren't just too well-drawn to be believable. the end, it all works to leave me able simply to say "This is a very good book."

Without major spoilers, this is the story of 13 year old Theo Decker, victim of a terrorist bombing in a New York Museum of Art in which his divorced mother dies. Theo somehow manages to "save" the painting entitled The Goldfinch from the carnage, doesn't tell anyone he has it, and begins a journey of several years trying to decide what to do with the painting and whether (and to whom) he should return it. In the meantime, he is also the victim of a modern day sin - lack of parenting. His father (who lives in Las Vegas) doesn't want him, his grandparents don't want him, and he ends up under the temporary care of very aristocratic upper-crusty New Yorkers whose son is a classmate.

When his father finally appears to whisk him away to Las Vegas, Theo begins a terrifying fall into the pit of drugs, crime, and gambling debts, and a life-long friendship with Boris - son of a Russian immigrant who leads him down the garden path of adolescent misdeeds, misadventures and sometimes downright crime. 

As Boris and Theo mature (at least in age), so does their involvement in nefarious situations. Here is a picture of two young men, both very intelligent and cunning, with no moral compass and nothing to prevent them from becoming mired in page after page of "how did I get here and how do I get out of this?" There were times when I had to put the book down and let each adventure perk for awhile before I dared pick it up again to find out what could possible happen next. That Theo arrives alive at the end of this period of his life is as much a tribute to Tartt's writing skills as it is to the caprices of real life.

This is a major piece of fiction with more than the usual number of words. Normally, I'd be put off by its length, but Tartt uses words to paint pictures, to evoke feelings, to stimulate all our senses, so that we can place ourselves in the moment with Theo and all the powerfully portrayed  supporting cast of characters who exert some influence on his eventual arrival at adulthood. I'm not sure about the ending. But then, I'm sure that there are many who will love it.

The novel is certainly a worthy candidate for all the accolades it has garnished. It's on the short list of those being considered for the Maine Readers Choice Award, which is how I came to read it and it's going to be one of those that will be a top contender for me to advance to the finalist list.

Title: The Goldfinch
Author: Donna Tartt
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (2013), Hardcover, 784 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: art, antiques, adolescence, parenting,
Setting: New York, Las Vegas, Amsterdam
Source: review copy from the publisher
Awards: New York Times Best Ten Best Books of 2013
National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (Fiction, 2013)
Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction Longlist (2014)
Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist (2014)
Maine Readers'Choice Award 2013 Short List