A Spool of Blue Thread

spool of blue thread

Knopf, February 10, 2015

 

A Spool of Blue Thread is Anne Tyler’s newest novel. It is broken into four parts, three of which are about the present day lives of the Whitshanks and two are about previous generations. Initially, Tyler’s exploration is what we expect from a writer who has always been attuned to the rhythms of family life. There is Red and Abby, and their four children, Amanda, Jeannie, Denny, and Doug. With gentle pacing and a gift for illuminating the flaws and foibles that make each family unique Tyler shares the outer and inner lives of this Baltimore family who live in the home Red’s grandfather built and carry on his in legacy in his construction company. For Red, it’s as simple as

“Houses need humans…You all should know that. Oh, sure, humans cause wear and tear—scuffed floors and stopped up toilets and such—but nothing compared to what happens when a house is left on its own. It’s like the heart goes out of it. It sags, it slumps, it starts to lean towards the ground.”

Two of his children follow him into the business but it the youngest son, Denny, who provides the counterpoint to the familial unity as the odd one, the child who can never be pinned down. He doesn’t stay in touch, no idea of his personal life and even at the later stages when he moves in there is no sense of his presence as being one that can be counted on.

A Spool of Blue Thread left me perplexed. The first two parts of the novel are a gentle stroll through family life, a genially paced novel that speaks to the solidity and fragility of family. It is not all hearts and flowers but as Tyler explores the intricacies of family life she does so with a style of acceptance for the oddities of the individual.  It isn’t until part three—the story of Red’s parents, Linnie and Junior, where things get sour and cold.

It echoed the pattern of their lives together—all the secrets he had kept from her despite his desire to tell. She would never know how deeply he had longed to free himself all these years, how he had stayed with her only because he knew she would be lost otherwise, how onerous it had been to go on and on, day after day, setting right what he had done wrong.

Their truth is dark and the stroll becomes a shuffle. From there even when the novel switches back to the present day it is with a more jaded eye, not something I associate with Tyler. This change in tone makes the novel feel bifurcated. This may also be due to the fact that it closes with Denny, the perennially unreliable, mysterious, disruptive Denny. There comes a point in a character’s life where inscrutable needs to have some kind of meaning or they have no purpose and in Denny, Tyler never reveals anything deeper about him, leaving me without anything to hold onto. A Spool of Blue Thread is layered and filled with Tyler’s beautiful prose but its beginning and end are bifurcated in a way that leaves two unmatched pieces.

This book is available for purchase online at:

The Boatmaker

boatmaker

Tin House, February 3, 2015

In a place where there is a Small Island, a Big Island, and a mainland, there is a man, given to very little speech, but too fond of drinking. When he is sober he is a carpenter

A wonderful worker in wood. Every piece he works on comes out right, with nothing wasted. But this skill comes to him without effort. And because it came with no effort he has never respected it—or himself for it.

Within his mother’s house there is a sideboard of such craftsmanship it is a marvel to him and all who live on Small Island. She has never spoken of where it came from or how she got it, but he thinks of it often. He sees it in a fever dream, along with the other lands, places few on their island have visited, and when he wakes he builds a boat and leaves Small Island to discover a new life. He is The Boatmaker, the narrator in John Benditt’s debut novel. We will never know his name but we will follow him from Small Island to Big Island and then the mainland and through dangers and discoveries far beyond anything he saw in his dream.

Benditt writes with such precision that it was unsurprising to learn he was a science journalist, but it may be that is exactly what makes his prose so observational without being dispassionate. The narrator undergoes a myriad of experiences as he moves from the islands to the mainland but the quiet tone with which Benditt presents those makes their fantastical nature stand out even more. Events such as the narrator being inducted into a religious cult where he is groomed to save humanity, his apprenticeship in a wood-working factory run by a Jewish family with whom he later becomes involved, are all recounted with a quiet surety that few could pull off.  It is these elements that, while literally happening to the narrator, create the sense of parable that permeates this novel. The outer story is not meant to stand alone, it is meant to stand for the greater inner journey of the boatmaker. In doing this, Benditt expands the novel past its starkly creative prose to a place of contemplation for the reader. The Boatmaker may only take a day or two to finish reading but it will generate thought and questions for long after that.

John Benditt will be at the University Book Store tonight at 7pm with Nancy Pearl, a well-known library and book advocate, to discuss The Boatmaker. I will definitely be there and if you’re in Seattle you should stop by!

 

This book can be purchased online at:

The Boatmaker
by John Benditt
Powells.com

The Headmaster’s Wife: Giveaway and Review

The Headmaster’s wife was one of my favorite book of 2014. Its paperback release is tomorrow so I wanted to remind anyone who might have missed this book what a gorgeous piece of prose it is. Plus, I have 2 copies to giveaway so you could win one to read!

 

headmaster's wife

Picador, paperback release- February 24, 2015

 

Some books are written with the intent to stun a reader with surprise and don’t offer much beyond that. Others, like The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene, use the surprise (the double surprise, even) as a jumping off point to much deeper issues. It is also a life lesson, one that I failed, because I jumped without thought into the novel’s initial trope of a middle-aged man lusting after an eighteen-year-old girl to justify his life, and was all for pitching the book at the end of the first part. My righteous anger and disgust were fully fanned by Arthur Winthrop’s intimate recollections of his time spent with a student, Betsy, and how his ardor led him to risk the rest of his life for her undivided attention.

And now here I find myself, on a cool fall night under the stars on the old campus that has been my home for fifty-three of my fifty-seven years, peering through the window at an eighteen-year-old girl. 

There are clues that Arthur is an unreliable witness to his own life. The novel begins in a police station where he is taken after trying to walk through Central Park naked in the middle of winter. It is the police who ask him to explain how and why he has ended up there. A respected headmaster of a small private school in New England with a loving wife, and a son off fighting in Iraq, is now in custody and will, in short order tell the police that he killed the young woman so she would not leave him. So ends part one.

Part two of The Headmaster’s Wife is the story of Elizabeth, Arthur’s wife. She recounts her early years at the school and how they met. Her version of events mirrors Arthur’s but in the way of mirrors everything is reversed. It is here that readers who judge too quickly (i.e. me) will have questions. Things don’t add up. Who is telling the truth? Like any kind reviewer it is time for me to stop talking, as the story is now one to read on your own.

She turns them over and over in her mind, things she has not thought about in years, and she can see now how obvious it all is. Every small event begets another one, each one built off the other until you have a chain of events that all lead to this heartbreaking room with the day slowly fading outside the windows. 

What is left to know (without giving anything away) is that Greene uses memory in a way so quiet and subtle it feels like walking on quicksand. The truth is somewhere but who has it? Mystery and suspense can be abused in the wrong hands but Greene plays with the psychology behind the story so deftly there is no feeling of suspending belief or being toyed with, instead, there is love, tenderness, and the sad truth of what the mind does to ensure survival. The Headmaster’s Wife is a painfully beautiful look at where our decisions and expectations take us. And, more importantly… where they leave us.

I have two paperback copies of The Headmaster’s Wife to giveaway- with NO requirements to enter. Just leave your email address in the form so I can contact you and that’s it!



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Midmonth Mini-Reviews

February is more than halfway gone but for the sake of brevity let’s just call these midmonth mini-reviews. Three quick hits of books I’ve read while being waylaid with this season’s mega-cold. I hope you’re all reading this from a place of warmth and comfort and not the huddled against records levels of snow and below zero temperatures.

 

mini-reviews

Little, Brown and Company, January 2015

 

Her by Harriet Lane: This novel has been getting a lot of attention but it’s appeal slipped right past me. The story begins with two women, Emma and Nina, whose paths seem to cross by coincidence. Nina is a middle-aged painter who lives with her husband and teenage daughter. She is at the stage of life Emma yearns for as she struggles through the chaos of life with an energetic toddler. As the novel unfolds—told from each of their points of view—it becomes clear there is a connection between the two, and it is not a happy one. Simplicity is a virtue in well-written literary fiction but in this tale of suspense and mystery it just felt skimpy and weak.

 
 


 

mini-reviews

Gallery Books, January 2015

It’s odd to say a novel about cancer is light and humorous but Colleen Oakley’s debut novel Before I Go is just that. When Daisy Richmond, a young married woman is diagnosed with an aggressive cancer she decides the best thing she can do with what’s left of her life is to find her husband’s next wife. The premise is both endearing and upsetting because it’s likely there are real victims of cancer who have thought/felt this way. As someone who is fortunate not to have lost anyone close to me to the disease I was torn between finding Daisy’s actions silly and touching.

 
 


 

mini-reviews

Ballantine Books, December 2014

What if there was a shop with walls covered in fabric that changes with the season and music that changes to suit the customer as she walks in? A woman who sews silk dresses that nurture and brings to fruition the client’s deepest desires? This is the kind of dress shop I’d love to find but it exists only in Menna van Praag’s novel The Dress Shop of Dreams. Etta Sparks is the owner and seamstress and her gifted hands make these dreamy dresses. For a woman with no confidence but a secret longing to take charge of her professional life, Etta has made a dress. But she won’t lead you to it, it is for each woman to take a chance and reach for her dreams herself.

 

If the magical realism were the bulk of the story this novel would have been a sweet read for me. Instead, van Praag over-constructs The Dress Shop of Dreams by adding a grand-daughter whose parents died in mysterious circumstances, research on genetically modified seeds that could grow without water, a bookseller without the bravery to claim love, mistaken identities, a priest with a secret…it goes on from there. The stories aren’t bad, they are simply too much. And in an effort to wrap everything up neatly van Praag is forced to work against her material, which every great designer knows, is always a mistake.

The Sacrifice

sacrifice

ecco/HarperCollins, January 2015

 

Joyce Carol Oates is not one to shy away from the tough subjects. The last book of hers I read was Daddy Love and it was a very difficult look at child abduction and pedophilia. In The Sacrifice she is back with the story of a black teenage girl found in an abandoned factory, raped, beaten, covered in feces and with racist obscenities scrawled on her torso. For those of you younger than 40 this may sound new but by chapter two I knew Oates was reprising the Tawana Brawley case—one that in the 1980s pushed every American button we’ve got: police brutality, rape, and racism. Oates takes these themes and runs with them, writing each chapter in the voice of the various participants. There is the mother Ednetta, who seems uncertain as to what has happened to her daughter but who is so afraid of the system that she refuses to allow doctors to do a rape kit and forcibly removes her from the ER. In the immediate aftermath of the attack the girl herself, Sybilla, is a disconcerting mix of frightened and sly. She feigns unconsciousness in order to avoid all medical attention. When pressed, the only story she has is that four, five or maybe more white men with badges kidnapped her and held her hostage for multiple days.

There are authors who lead gently into their story but Oates is not one of them. In the same way that she is taken over by the characters—indeed, their voices are so authentic she seems to be channeling them—she throws the reader headfirst into the narrative. Either you swim with her or you sink. In The Sacrifice this occurs when the charismatic Reverend Marus Mudrick shows up and any chance at a clear resolution is lost. Sybilla’s hole has been dug and whatever was the truth is buried in a landslide of self-serving grandiosity. She is now the face of racism in America despite there being no evidence whatsoever that anything happened as she says. Instead her team of advisors uses charges of racism to impede the police investigation and to keep the media in a state of frenzy for the truth.

 The Sacrifice takes what was an explosive incident in American history and renders it back with high-intensity immediacy—what unfolded over months is now condensed into several hours’ worth of reading that cannot be put down. Because Oates writes the novel in a surround-sound manner with even the most ancillary characters having a say The Sacrifice swings the reader back and forth between incredulity and sympathy, doubt and conviction, anger and sorrow. Whether you know the facts of this story or are approaching it from a purely fictional angle, this is reading that will evoke strong emotions.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

The Sacrifice
by Joyce Carol Oates
Powells.com

Of Things Gone Astray

things gone astray

The Friday Project, February 2015

 

Magical realism is the moving force behind author Janina Matthewson’s, Of Things Gone Astray, an enchanting novel about the everyday realities of life. In it she follows six different people in London who wake up one day to find that something important in their lives has disappeared. For Mrs. Featherby it is the entire front wall of her house, for Robert his job—literally. His office is gone and all his colleagues are no longer listed in his phone. Marcus goes to play his beloved piano and its keys have disappeared. And then there is Cassie who waits at the airport for the return of her girlfriend and after many hours and no sign of her, realizes that her feet have begun to grow into the floor. Jake’s father moves them after his mother’s death but as they try and get used to life without her they find they are disappearing to each other.  None of these things are a metaphor; they are real and can be witnessed by the people in their lives.

Matthewson uses a literary speed dating format by giving each of the six characters only a page or two of their own to share their story before moving on to the next. At first this can be disconcerting because just like real speed dating it doesn’t foster any sense of connection. Thankfully, the similarities end there as Matthewson packs so much into each of these individual chapters that, much like Cassie’s roots, the stories take hold and fix themselves into place. Then they spread until, with Matthewson’s careful ministrations, they are entwined. And while each of the losses feels like a disaster they can be seen as catalysts of change. Mrs. Featherby’s missing wall allows her to meet neighbors, including Robert’s daughter Bonny whose childish inquisitiveness gives her pause about her restricted life. As Delia wanders trying to find home, she encounters Anthony, Jake’s father, and so enters their lives, helping them see what they can’t.

There seems to be quite an influx of magical realism in the book world recently. I attempted another such book after finishing Of Things Gone Astray and quickly abandoned it. The style requires the perfect touch or it becomes mawkish and silly. Matthewson makes no such mistake and the novel shines all the more for it. Even as the magic plays out, she is careful to stay away from the realm of fairytales, instead quietly keeping realism in the forefront.  Some of the characters do indeed effect almost miraculous change in their lives but there are those for whom it is too late. All of this makes for the best kind of reading, the kind you don’t want to end, and that is where the real magic is found.

I received a copy of this book compliments of TLC Book Tours. To see what other book bloggers are saying about Of Things Gone Astray you can visit here to see the rest of the tour.

TLC logo



This book can be purchased online at:

Of Things Gone Astray
by Janina Matthewson
Powells.com

The Missing One

missing one

Quercus, February 3, 2015

 

The Missing One is billed as a psychological thriller but by page 218 I’m convinced that the novel is actually about the joys of motherhood and the psychology of toddlers. Debut author Lucy Atkins spends more time on the smell of the protagonist’s small child than she does describing any other element in the novel. And the adjective used most often is “sweet”—sweet and milky, sweet and sleepy, sweet and tangy. We repeatedly read that he “toddles” and has “little star hands”. Maybe for young mothers reading the book this kind of verbiage spent on an eighteen-month-old will be reassuring and engrossing but it does nothing to build the purported suspense of the novel and at a certain point becomes annoying.

Beyond adjectival overload, The Missing One hurtles pell-mell into the action on such slender threads of premise that it not surprising they snap before the novel gets to the thick of things. Basically, Kal’s mother has just died and despite their difficult relationship she decides to take off from England shortly after her funeral to go to Vancouver, B.C. to try and learn more about her mother’s mysterious past life, as her father has no wish to discuss it. She does this largely because she has seen texts on her husband’s phone that seem to indicate he is having an affair with his ex-girlfriend. She takes their son and does not tell her husband where she is going or why. I may understand wanting to get back at the husband but hauling a toddler on a transatlantic journey with only the few items packed for a quick trip? Really? Once in Vancouver, she looks up an old friend of her mother’s, despite repeated warnings from her father that this is a dangerous and untrustworthy person. From there on in, the plot progresses as you might anticipate. Kal is the character  in bad movies who, while alone in a cabin in the woods, goes into the basement to see what all the screaming is about.

For those of you who have been around for a while, you know I don’t often write negative reviews but this novel was overburdened with plot points, unnecessary details, and implausible actions, as well as the aforementioned overuse of a limited number of adjectives. Having said that, it is clear that Atkins has a great imagination. What she seems to need is an editor who can rein it in. There are aspects of The Missing One that are intriguing but like so many things in life more is not always better.

 

The Marriage Game: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth I

marriage game

Ballantine Books, February 10, 2015

 

There is no shortage of books written about the Tudors and Elizabeth I in particular, but Alison Weir takes the Queen’s life in a very specific direction in her new novel The Marriage Game: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth I. There is so much of Elizabeth’s life that can be covered but in this novel Weir begins with the year Elizabeth is crowned queen and covers the 45 years of her reign from the singular perspective of marriage. Or the lack thereof. Because even at age 25 Elizabeth has already decided she has no wish to be married or to give birth, to the great dismay of her chief advisor Sir William Cecil, all of her council, and the many royal houses of Europe.

When she ascends the throne Elizabeth does so with the knowledge that she will treat the men in her life, those who woo her and those who advise her in the same way her mother, Anne Boleyn, dealt with her father, King Henry VIII, before they were married. She will flatter and tease, obscure and avoid, yet dole out enough of what these men want to keep them at bay. Where her skill lies is in her willingness to pretend that she is open to offers of marriage in order to promulgate better relations with the European community, specifically Spain and France.

She realized that, as a woman, it would take all her skill to manipulate them to her will; but there were ways of handling that. She smiled to herself. She would ration her favors so they would be all the more prized, make her servants work hard for their rewards, and lead them on to live in hope.

And while the men around her certainly believed they could force her to capitulate she never did. Instead, one of her first acts as Queen was to name an old friend and companion, Robert Dudley, to a prestigious post in her household largely so they could pursue their budding romantic relationship. At some point, Dudley did believe she would marry him and elevate him but she never did. The Marriage Game makes it clear through the details of events that this was not an easy thing for Elizabeth. She loved Dudley dearly and they spent a great deal of passionate private time together but they never fully consummated their relationship. Weir makes Dudley both Elizabeth’s romantic partner and her confidante. Through their conversations we learn of the psychology behind Elizabeth’s fear of both marriage and childbirth, namely that, given what she saw in the household of her father, neither state was one that promoted security and a long life. She was determined to never subjugate herself to any man and lose her power.

It could be said that Elizabeth leads these men and their countries on an exhausting dance but what The Marriage Game shows is the effect that such machinations had on Elizabeth herself. A certain part of her nature was prone to procrastination and indecision but it becomes clear as she enters her thirties that it is an onerous task for her and one that takes its toll. What she really wanted was to be able to focus on her kingdom and bringing it back together after the bloody years of religious intolerance imposed by her sister Mary and yet, she had to spend an inordinate amount of time personally wooing ambassadors and their sovereigns. As prince of the realm she is held captive by this demand and through Weir’s intimate prose we see that the marriage game was no game at all but a battle.

This book is available online at:


The Elliott Bay Book Company

The Nightingale

nightingale

St. Martin’s Press, February 3, 2015

 

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah begins with Viann Mauriac, living comfortably in a small town in the south of France with her husband and daughter. Her younger sister Isabelle is in one of the many boarding schools their father has sent her to. When she is expelled again she goes to live with him in Paris, which he does not want, as he has ignored both young women since their mother died. Shortly after her arrival, Germany invades France and both women get caught up in the chaos and strife that follows. For Viann, with her husband a prisoner of war, she wishes only to keep her daughter and herself alive until he comes home. For the nineteen-year-old Isabelle it seems as if the excitement she has been waiting her entire young life for has arrived and she becomes a courier in the French resistance.

Isabelle had always simply reacted in her life. Someone left her behind, she followed. Someone told her she couldn’t do something, she did it. Every barrier she turned into a gate.

Hannah illustrates the differences between the two sisters in a way that moves beyond the individual to reveal the greater human dilemma in Vichy France. Viann hopes that by keeping her head down and staying quiet she will be ignored and will survive. When the Germans move into her town and she is forced to house one of them in her home she realizes there is no safety anywhere. As the years pass, she endures greater privations and witnesses increasing acts of brutality. She realizes she cannot stay quiet, even if it means risking her life and that of her daughter. On the other side, Isabelle sees that even greater risks are necessary and so harnesses her recklessness into bravery as a daring guide for Allied pilots who have crashed in German-occupied territory. She becomes known as the Nightingale for her many journeys across the Pyrenees, delivering the pilots to safety. Through the sisters Hannah delves into the indefinable turning point in a person’s life where their own survival is not enough and they decide they must do something more.

The Nightingale is a classic tale of war with a flawlessly crafted plot that moves between the surface and its illusions to the truth that lies beneath. Viann and Isabelle are the focus but Hannah employs a broad range of characters that illuminate all sides of an infinitely complex time and brings forth a stunning portrayal of the countless ways individuals fought against the Nazis. She writes with such heart of love, family, loss, and redemption that The Nightingale does not release its grip even after the last page. When done poorly, a story of this magnitude, with its depths of pain and sorrow and its depiction of the devastation of war can feel overwrought. I don’t like books that manipulate emotions by using well-worn ploys but those that leave me crying without knowing it earn a special spot in my reading heart. The Nightingale is one of those books.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

The Nightingale
by Kristin Hannah
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

The Word Exchange: A Novel

I’ve finally been hit by what so many of you have in the last few months- a whopper of a cold that has left me unable to formulate even the simplest thoughts. The Word Exchange just came out in paperback and as it was one of my favorite books for 2014, I’m sharing the review for the second time.

 

word exchange

Anchor, pbk release February 3, 2015

A meme (/ˈmm/ meem) is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. – Coined by Richard Dawkins, 1976 (Wikipedia)

 

If you are a lover of the books and the printed word (and my guess is you are or you wouldn’t be here) then The Word Exchange, author Alena Graedon’s debut novel, reads like your worst nightmare. Imagine that in the not-too-distant future we have all but abandoned libraries, book stores, and books of any kind. Any and all the information we need to run our lives is available on a marvelous little electronic device called a Meme, produced by the Synchronic electronics company. The advanced and intuitive processing capabilities of the Meme mean that there is less and less need for any thought processing on the part of the individual. And like any good corporation, Synchronic is working on the next generation of device, to be called the Nautilus, which integrates with the users’ neuronal structures through cellular fusion, making every thought a command.

Memes even have an app called the Word Exchange for all those pesky words that might come up in text or conversation that you no longer remember. For a tiny fee, it gives you the definition, ensuring that you always sound smart. This is an unpleasant and unacceptable situation for Doug Johnson, the editor at one of the remaining dictionaries in the world. As a lexicographer, words are his life and despite being considered difficult and old-fashioned, he fights back hard against those who see the Word Exchange as a tool to make people smarter, pointing out that

“You’re restructuring supply lines. Understand? Once you go down that road, you can’t go back again. The road’s gone.”

His daughter Ana works with him and when he fails to meet her for dinner before the release of the dictionary’s newest edition, she goes back to the office to find him. He is not there but her search takes her to the building’s basement where she sees large groups of people burning the original files that comprise the definitions for every word in the dictionary while others, with small devices on their foreheads, are replacing the meanings of words in the dictionary’s electronic index with new terms bearing no relation to the original word. She doesn’t find her father but begins a quest to do so and to avoid these people who are beginning to exhibit the strange trait of being unable to speak clearly. Their sentences are sprinkled with words of gibberish. Before long this mysterious phenomena is spreading and has been dubbed “the word flu”.

Graedon does a stellar job creating a literary maze of a world gone crazy. It would not be difficult with a concept like this to descend into dystopian madness but Graedon has no need for such theatrics—reality is unnerving enough. Even as the epidemic grows with larger swathes of the population unable to speak intelligibly Graedon keeps the novel from having a Mad Max feel. Instead, she takes a young woman’s fears about her father’s disappearance and layers that very real concern with the surreal event of watching the world she knows shift around her like quicksand. Reading The Word Exchange is like reading any news about advances in technology today. Sounds hard to believe but…wouldn’t it be marvelous? Or maybe…the cellular fusion capabilities of the Nautilus mean that a server virus can be downloaded and uploaded ad infinitum, allowing it to spread from one person to the next virtually unchecked. No matter where you stand on technology, Graedon’s linguistic finesse makes The Word Exchange smart and scary reading.

This book can be purchased online at:

The Word Exchange
by Alena Graedon
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

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