Monday, September 14, 2015

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

image by LibraryThing
Now this one I liked - a lot!

This builds on The Winter Sea and moves the story along. This is the story of Anna, Sophia's daughter.  Anna's life could have been a tragedy - given up at birth by her mother and raised by a neighbor and later sent to live with nuns and finally landing with a new family in Russia.  But it isn't a tragedy - instead it is the story of strength and poise and love.  Anna accepts each stage of her life for what it is and what she can learn from it. That sounds a little ridiculous, I know. But, I really liked her plucky attitude and stamina for a 1720 girl!

This story is told in pieces by Nikola - an English girl with a gift for 'seeing.'  Her connection to Anna is not through written words like Carrie's was - but by touching an object and 'seeing' the history and the events that the object was involved with.  Nikola is a Russian art dealer who was asked to appraise a small carved bird - the firebird. She sees the Tsarina of Russia handing this bird to Anna - but doesn't know who Anna is or how she can prove the object was actually important.

Nikola enlists her friend Rob to help with the process - Rob has a stronger inner eye and together they embark to Russia to discover Anna's story. In the same way that Winter Sea told a double story  - so does The Firebird. As the story of Anna is being told - Nikola and Rob's story is also unfolding.

I liked this book much more. I was very vested in the characters!  There were a couple twists that I didn't quite anticipate that made the end very engaging.  The history was important - but somehow it was easier for me to follow along without really knowing all the details.  Maybe that happened because I cared for Anna more.

I would recommend this one!  It was a fun and quick read.

Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

image from LibraryThing
I had high hopes for this book. I wanted something to remind me of Jamie and Claire in the Outlander Series.  But this didn't quite make it.  Had I read this first - I think it would have been fine. But my hopes were set a bit too high!!

This is the story of a writer (Carrie) researching the Slains Castle in Scotland for a book on the reinstatement of King James. She is mysteriously drawn to the castle as she works on the book - and discovers that her attention is taken by a young girl named Sophia.  A girl she 'sees' at the castle. No - not as a ghost.

Instead, Carrie is somehow channeling Sophia and watching the story unfold in front of her as the words flow from her fingers in her writing. That is interesting and all - but becomes a bit more unsettling when further research shows her that Sophia was a real person and actually was at the castle in the time frame she was writing about. It seems that Carrie has discovered a window into the past.  Add to that a love story unfolding both in the past at Slains and in Carrie's current life and this makes a pretty good story!

The book is a strong piece of history.  The people are real as are the events.  It does assume the reader has a rough understanding of Scottish history in the 1700s that I did not have. That made it a bit tricky to really appreciate the history.

Kearsley does a great job of creating scenes that draw the reader in and invite us to understand history through the characters' eyes.  But, I was just looking for a bit more I guess.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

image from LibraryThing
A mystery first spun in the mind of an alcoholic divorcee and then spilling into her reality.  Rachel imagines and wonders and stews and buries her loneliness and despair in a bottle.  She just can't let go of Tom, her ex, or the fantasy of the couple she glimpses through the flickering windows of her train car.  This story comes out in flicks and sputters just like those images. 

As a reader it took me a while to get into the book - the chapters alternate between voices and dates. And the story is mostly told by Rachel in various states of drunkenness - which adds to the confusion, and adds to the story, to the unreality, to the despair and regret.  

The story is also told by Anna and Megan. Anna is the current wife of Tom, Rachel's ex and Megan is the mystery woman Rachel sees from her train window.  

Very early in the book Megan disappears - completely and totally.  And Rachel decides that she may know what has happened - because she was in town the night of her disappearance.  The problem is that she can't remember anything, really, because she was black out drunk.  How do you make others believe that you know something that you can't really figure out yourself.  How do you face the demons that are there and everywhere?

Our most recent book club book.

Friday, July 3, 2015

STiLL ALiCE by Lisa Genova

I have read many books, some that are forgettable, some that I can't put down, and some that I know I will haunt me.  This is one that will stay with me for a long time, a very long time.

Alice, a brilliant professor, loses her place on a jog- suddenly the streets surrounding her home shift to an unknown terrain.  And when they shift back to the familiar she realizes that her life has also shifted.  This book walks with Alice to the first doctorĘ»s visit, to the first neurological test and to get the moment that her terror is named- Alzheimer's. At each of these moments Alice is both her old self and this unknown new apparition that Alzheimer's is creating.  

This isn't a melodrama or a feels-good-happy-ending kind of story where the family lines up and cheers for this poor mom.  Instead, John, her husband, is sort of an ass - avoiding conversations and pretending that HIS life needs to not change.  Lydia, the youngest daughter, on the other hand, connects with her mom in a way she never could with the old Alice.  I liked the reality of the mixed reactions and emotions- because it allowed me to confront my own avoidance and patronizing habits.

Although this is a deeply sad story it is more than that.  Walking hand and hand with the loss of her memory Alice speaks out for those with Alzheimer's in a refreshing way.  She advocates for herself and others even speaking at a conference.  This is not the story of a battle but of a rugged path that absolutely no one would choose!

Through it all Alice is herself with an Alzheimer's coat wrapping her more and more tightly.  

Read it!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

This is one of those books I thought I should read.  I wasn't especially enamored with the cover or the concept of the book - people who are part of an ancient text.  But, the story caught me and has held me.  I have found myself talking about this book to several different people.

So - what was it that changed my attitude?

The story is about Hanna, a book restorer (my title, not hers).  She is a rather non-descript woman who has grown up in the very tall and dark shadow of her brain surgeon mother who sort of sucks all the air out of any room she enters.  Hanna has made quite a name for herself in the world of book conservators, but will never measure up to her mom's ideal.  That is the back story.

The real story is of the Haggadah - an ancient Hebrew text used at holy Seder meals.  This book is rediscovered in Sarajevo following the Bosnian war and Hanna has been invited to check it out and rebind it for the next millennia.

Hanna discovers three minute artifacts in the binding - an insect wing, a hair and a blood stain.  This is where the book really launches, because it tells the story of each of those artifacts in real time. So it is really a story inside a story.

What I found the most intriguing was the story of the book itself.  I am not a historian - so the generations of anti-Judiasm woven into this story really took me by surprise.  I know about WWII and how the Jews were treated - I just didn't really understand that this hatred had been part of their lives forever.  So as the Jews are admired for their wisdom and their abilities they are also scorned for their wisdom and their abilities.  AND woven throughout this entire book are stories of Muslims and Christians who have been able to look at the person and not the religion to help save this ancient text.  It really struck me!  We live in a world where we think we have evolved yet we are muddling through the very same problems that existed thousands of years ago!  That doesn't say very much for progress.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in history and in the secret life of a book!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

I knew who Frank Lloyd Wright was - but just barely.  My mom took me on a birthday adventure to Cedar Rock house in Quasqueton, Iowa a few years back.  It was an interesting place - full of straight lines and dark corners and very beautiful.  And I remember reading a young adult book, The Wright 3,  a mystery in a Wright house in Chicago

So it was with that little bit of knowledge that I read this book.   The story is fictionish.  I mean it is built on the actual story - you can research the events.  I think this famous story makes it a bit tricky to create a believable ficitionalized story -straying from the known facts would be so obvious. Especially when the truth of this story reads like fiction!  But, I sort of wish the story had moved a long a bit faster. Some parts drug a bit.

Loving Frank tells the love story of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick.  Both are married with numerous children between them.  Frank had been the architet for the house that Mamah and her husband built. After the house was built and it was time to make plans to add the garage - Frank and Mamah gave in to their attraction.

This was a long time ago  - and although Mamah's husband, Edwin, eventually grants her a divorce. Frank's wife, Cathrine refuses to release him from their marriage and their eight children.  So they live a tough life of never fitting in to the society that Frank creates in his houses.  Living in both Europe and the US.  Withstanding the scandal that rocks Frank's career and his poor management style.

Eventually Frank convinces his mother to give him land in Wisconsin and he builds Taliesin for Mamah.  And it is there,  in the Wisconsin countryside that the real tragedy in this story happens.

 I found myself not wanting to fall for Frank.  He was an intense man - maybe manic depressive.  Watching Mamah Borthwick give in to her better instincts was actually a bit difficult.  Edwin seemed to be a simple man who loved her deeply - Frank provided her intellect with the sparring and stimulation she longed for, and giving in to that longing caused her to destroy her family - loosing children.  Eventually she found peace - but it took a LONG time!

This is an intriguing story - but slow moving and a bit to 'worshipful' of Wright for my taste.  May book club book.

Ashfall series by Mike Mulin

 I read these three books following the Iowa School Librarians Association Conference in Des Moines.  Mike Mullin, an Indiana author, was a featured speaker on Sunday afternoon and evening.  I was so intrigued by both his encouragement to us to write and the process he used to write these stories.  I am disappointed in myself for not reading these before the conference - because I have questions I would love to chat with him about!

The catalyst of these books is the eruption of the super volcano under Yellowstone National Park. There really is a volcano there and the prediction is that the eastern edge of the ashfall would be the Mississippi river.  It was with that bit of information that Mullin created his story.  Alex is a 16 year old boy left alone for the weekend at his Cedar Falls, Iowa home while his parents and sister travel to Apple River near Galena, Illinois.  It was that Saturday afternoon that the eruption occured.  Alex's house is destroyed and he barely escapes to his neighbors' across the street.  This house is not safe either as civilized society quickly unravels and they are attacked by a group of youth.  Alex barely escapes and decided that his only option is to travel east and find his parents.

That is the beginning. Ashfall is the story of that trek east.  Everything we take for granted - water, sunlight, warmth, food, transportation - have all disappeared under the weight of the ash.  And with an earthquake opening the local prison - you never know who you will find when you stop at a farm house.  Alex's one amazing piece of goodluck was stopping at the home of Darla and her mom.  Against Darla's better judgement she and Alex become friends and eventually they are the key to keeping one another alive.

Ashen Winter and Sunrise continue the story - and I don't really want to give too much away in my summary.  Instead, I want to comment a little about how these books have affected me...I am not a doomsday person. I tend to believe that human nature will move ahead and life will remain mildly pleasant. It is almost impossible to believe that as you read these books. Life is impossible.  Really impossible!  Laws don't make sense anymore and so people in each enclave create their own law - at the cost of the next village down the road.  It is a dark time - both literally since the sun is gone for more than a year and figuratively!  These books are not fluffy reads - there is death and violence and cannabilism and general sadness - as well as love and sacrifice and hope.

The presentation by Mullin really brought the story to life as he shared about choosing the house and the road that Alex would follow.  He pictured these places as he wrote each part of the book. I found that fascinating!  As a reader I set the books in a known place - so to think of this for the writer also is really interesting!  Mullin was very approachable and welcomed questions from the librarians and the students he talks to.

I would love to chat with someone after reading these books. I would like to trade stories and thoughts and preparedness!!  Highly recommend these!