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Archive for the ‘little brown and co.’ Tag

Pervasive Superstition   Leave a comment

Hannah Kent has a gift for describing squalor and the role of superstition among the most vulnerable. This talented writer, whose debut novel, Burial Rites, was set in Iceland, now transports readers to rural Ireland in The Good People. The ambiguous title refers to the name given to evil faeries and those with virtuous, albeit misdirected, intentions.

Set in nineteenth century rural Ireland, Kent’s engaging narrative follows three women: Nora, a recent widow, with a sickly grandson; Nance, known for her curative powers; and Mary, the young maid Nora hires to help care for the boy who can neither speak nor walk, although he once did.

Nora’s shame for her grandson is so extreme she keeps him hidden and is surprised to learn from Mary that the villagers know of his presence. In fact, they have already deemed him a changeling, a creature from another world, that of the Good People. How else can the locals explain the ill fortunes that have recently befallen their community: death, cows no longer milking, illness and more.

Nora unsuccessfully seeks medical help, then solace from the new priest who both believe the lad will soon die.

Imagining that her grandson has been abducted and the withered but breathing body is left in his place, Nora turns to Nance who is certain she has a cure. Young Mary empathizes with the helpless child and is caught in the middle. She’s skeptical of the older women and their motives. Yet, the question regarding Nance’s powers lingers.

The Good People
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
380 pages

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Half a Review   Leave a comment

 

Luminaries

I’ve written once before about giving myself permission not to finish a book. I usually make the decision within the first 50 pages. I just stopped after 360 pages of Eleanor Catton’s 830 page tome, The Luminaries. The strange thing is, I will probably finish. Someday. Not now though; I have too many other books on my nightstand, and the library copy I’m reading is already overdue.

I can’t say it took me more than 300 pages to get into the 2013 Man Booker Prize winner, but it was no easy trek to make it that far, which is not even halfway.

The tale begins in January 1866 when Walter Moody arrives in a New Zealand mining town seeking his fortune. His first night in town finds him among 12 men ready to discuss a series of events to which they are all directly or tenuously connected. Catton pays meticulous attention to detail. Each character is exhaustively described from appearances, mannerisms, likes, dislikes, self-perceptions and reputation. Moody and company aren’t the novel’s only characters: a few women of mystery and ill-repute and several men who have either died or gone missing are also fastidiously introduced. Yet.

The relationships through business, friendship and happenstance actually do make for an interesting story. Hidden gold, lost fortunes, prejudices and the association of the characters is a maze. while easy to follow from one possible explanation only to be thwarted by another, is eventually, and finally, enthralling. I just hate to have library fines.

The Luminaries
Undecided on Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Co., 2013
360 pages of 830

From Dust to Ice   Leave a comment

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It should come as no surprise from the title of Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites, that death plays a major role since it overshadows the entire plot. It is also obvious from the onset who will die and why. What is less clear is the unexpected empathy that develops for the condemned.

Kent creates an unlikely protagonist in Agnes Magnusdottir, charged with the brutal murder of her former lover. While awaiting her execution, Agnes is sent to live with a farmer’s family apprehensive of have a murderess in their home. Like the harsh, cold Icelandic setting in which the story occurs, warmth toward to Agnes is slow to kindle.

The beauty of Kent’s writing lies in her ability to develop an emotional response in readers in much the same way the host family members relinquish their reluctance, revulsion and fear of having Agnes in their midst. The transformation is hard won.

Told in part from Agnes’s perspective, a few official letters, and an omniscient narrator, each character is skillfully portrayed through personality quirks, physical descriptions, and overt reactions. It’s easy to envision the pompous, narrow-minded District Commissioner who inflicts his will. Kent is equally successful in developing Toti, the young assistant reverend Agnes has requested as her spiritual advisor. This uncertain young man, and his faith, evolves as Agnes grows more comfortable sharing details of her life.

The novel, a fictional account of actual events, demonstrates hardened hearts can be softened by honesty, profound interaction, and a good storyteller.

Burial Rites
Four-and-half Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
322 pages

Vanishing Acts   2 comments

bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is engaging, funny, poignant, and even a bit silly. Set primarily in Seattle, the story also includes a few situations in Los Angeles and the Antarctic as Bernadette Fox tries to ward off a nervous breakdown in an environment seemingly designed to push her over the edge.

Bernadette is a semi-misanthrope; she dislikes nearly everyone except her husband, Elgie, and their daughter, Bee. Bernadette doesn’t make it easy to like her. She refuses to get involved with the parent groups at Bee’s school, and she avoids interaction – no matter how casual – with others to such an extreme that she relies on a virtual personal assistant who lives in India.

Semple has created an appealing dysfunctional family that has trouble meshing with an often-dysfunctional world. Bernadette, a one-time architect, is, in fact, a genius; she’s a past recipient of a McArthur Foundation Genius Grant. But she responds to stressful situations through radical reactions, including disappearing. Bernadette’s story is told through emails, letters and mostly Bee’s eyes. Bee is no intellectual slouch herself. She’s convinced there’s a logical explanation for her mother’s absence. And here’s where the real adventure begins as Bee sets off to find Bernadette.

Russian spies, potential identity thieves, private school students, and parents blind to their children’s excesses and foibles are just a few of the extras populating Semple’s novel. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud situations as well as a few shoulder-shrugging moments as Bee, who has a very good understanding of her mother, refuses to stop looking.


Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Co., 2012
326 pages

That Sinking Feeling   Leave a comment

It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally after finishing a book I’m uncertain
how I feel about it. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan leaves me ambivalent.
It’s an interesting premise: a group of 40 adrift after their ocean liner explodes
at sea. The year is 1914, so the event is sandwiched between the (unrelated) sink-
ing of the Titanic and the Lusitania.

Grace, newly married, is the narrator whose story is based on journals she is
asked by her attorneys to prepare after the fact. Perhaps some of my hesitance
to rave or rant lies in Grace. It’s clear as she relates how she came to marry her
her husband that she is a manipulator, if not an all-out gold digger. Few of the
characters act admirably in the adverse conditions, but remember Grace is tell-
ing the story. However, even she admits her memory is faulty, at best, from the
extreme conditions of being lost at sea for an extended period of time (at least
two weeks).

Where Rogan shines is descriptive writing: “The boat pitched and rolled as it
alternately climbed the foamy heights of the waves and then descended into hell-
ish troughs so that we were surrounded on four sides by walls of black water.”
It’s enough to keep me away from a boat of any size let alone one meant to save
lives.

Rogan’s boat is a metaphor for choices made and the motivation behind them.
The question I’m struggling to answer is if the idea’s strong enough to hold water?

Lifeboat
Three Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Co., 2012
278 pages