Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Thursday, March 12, 2015

All The Light We Cannot See by Doerr

As I complete yet another book with a World War II setting, I can’t help but wonder how bare our literature shelves would be without the countless stories of heroism, bravery and sacrifice of those who lived at that time, both in our country and abroad.   Although most of the books I read are fiction, I am certain the stories are based on truths that have been passed down through the generations. I highly recommend All The light We Cannot See by Anothony Doerr if you want to be transported to a time and place in history through excellent descriptive writing and characters you wish you had known in real life.

Instead of following persecuted Jews to the horrors of Auschwitz, Doerr weaves together the stories of two unlikely heroes of the time--a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a German orphan, Werner.  Their paths collide in occupied France as they try to survive the devastations and horrors of World War II.

Marie-Laure’s father works at the Museum of Natural History in Paris where he is the master of a thousand locks.  When his daughter goes blind at the age of six, he teaches her self-reliance in many ways. For example,  he builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way from home to the Museum.  Their loving relationship will touch your heart and then break it when they are separated, shortly after her twelfth birthday, as the Nazi’s occupy Paris. Her birthday gift from her father that year was a Braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne which becomes her most prized possession. When her father is taken away, Mari-Laure finds safety in the walled citadel of Saint-Malo where her reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea.  One of the most touching scenes in the book is the first time she experiences the rush of the sea on her bare feet.  And to add a touch of mystery, among the few possessions she was able to take with her just might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, critic Vollman says “Marie-Laure is an exquisitely realized creation….her self-reliant intelligence, nurtured by her father, allows her to carry on bravely…each time Madame Ruelle at the bakery sells her another ordinary loaf with a slip of coded numbers inside for her great-uncle to transmit on illegal radio, the girl calmly does her duty.”

We first meet the young Werner in a German orphanage with little sister, Jetta, who he is devoted to. They become enchanted by a crude radio they find when they discover a copper wire that allows them to tune into foreign broadcasts.  “After prayers and lights out, Jetta sneaks up to her brother’s dorm where they lie hip-to-hip, listening till midnight, til 1, till 2.”  

Werner, through his early fascination with the radio, becomes a child engineering prodigy at building and repairing these crucial new instruments. This talent earns him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, and allows him to escape his destiny of the coal mines which killed his father. However, he pays a dear price for his escape. Like Marie-Laure, he is  now separated from the one person he loves, sister, Jutte.  We follow Werner through the ravages of the war and when he is assigned to track the resistance movement, he makes his way eventually into Saint-Malo where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

Ten years in the making, Doerr says,  “Writing the book was a huge puzzle. I felt like I was building a big model house. I had, I think 187 chapters and each one alternates in point of view or time.”   Don’t let the number of chapters scare you off.  The chapters are short and the narrative is easy to follow as we alternate from Marie-Laure to Werner.

Besides a mesmerizing tale, the writing itself is filled with exquisite physical details and stunning metaphors.  And because Marie-Laure is blind, we experience her life through all the other senses she must employ.  We smell, taste, touch and hear the world through her.

Like any story of World War there are villainous and evil characters, yet in All The Light We Cannot See, Doerr manages to illustrate through these two young characters, and against all odds, the ways people try to be good to one another. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


The definition of a  psychological thriller has been defined as a “suspenseful book which emphasizes the psychology of its characters more so than the plot.”

I have just completed three British psychological thrillers and I might add that my definition is each of these characters are in definite need of some time on a psychologist’s couch.  Their motivations and behavior are so bizarre—in some cases downright creepy. Yet, I was compelled to keep on reading to see how their twisted minds worked.  

Take for example, Mr. Hemming, a successful and trusted realtor in a small British village.  He has spent hours with you acting in your best interests, searching properties and negotiating a price that  allows you to move into your dream home.  You trust him…but you shouldn’t.  Unbeknownst to you, he has kept the key to your home, as he has every home he has sold in the last seventeen years. 

He visits your home often when you are not there, not to steal, but to observe your lifestyle.  He opens drawers in offices and bedrooms and prides himself on knowing some of your most intimate secret habits and pleasures.  Did I mention creepy?   He doesn’t consider himself a criminal or dangerous. However, when he falls in love with Abigail, one of his clients, he sets into motion a series of events that show how dangerous his twisted mind can be.  She is unaware of his affection but when he discovers through his prowling that the man Abigail loves is a philandering predator, he sets out to discredit him as a means to protect her.   His plan turns disastrous and the plot thickens.  Mr. Hemming is the narrator of his story and that makes it even more compelling.  The book , The Pleasure of His Calling: a Novel by Hogan is a tense read, so much so that you might want to consider changing your locks after reading it.

Also set in England, The Girl on the Train by Hawkins, has been dubbed the new Gone Girl and hit the best-seller list shortly after publication. The main character, Rachel, becomes obsessed with a couple she observes from her daily commute into the city by train. As the train passes a suburban area and stops at a signal that allows her to watch the same couple daily as they breakfast on their patio, she fantasizes what their perfect life must be like. She even gives them names.  (More creepiness) Because her own life has recently fallen into shambles their  “perfect” existence grows out of proportion in her mind.  “They’re happy, I can tell. They’re what I used to be. Tom and I five years ago. They’re what I lost; they’re everything I want to be.”

Then one day on her commute, she observes a scenario on the patio that destroys the perfect couple image. She feels compelled to let one of the partners know what she has seen.  Similar to the scheming realtor, she tries to protect a person who doesn’t even know she exists and in doing so, complications arise, including a murder.  Because alcohol is her constant companion after working hours, often leading to memory lapses, she questions what she has seen and even her actions, not being able to account for hours of her time.

It is difficult to discuss any more of the story without plot spoilers but leave it to say there is suspense and tension. The Girl on the Train has also been compared to Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

The third book, Her, a Novel, by Lane, also set in England, is the story of two seemingly very different women.  It seems at first glance that Nina and Emma have little in common. Emma, who left a thriving television career, is now the mother of toddler Christopher and pregnant with her second child.  Her once glamorous life now consists of picking up rice cakes and Legos.   Nina, on the other end of the spectrum, is an artist who has already raised her family and lives a seemingly ordered  and successful existence, which includes posh dinners and a vacation home.

From the opening sentence, when Nina recognizes Emma, we are aware that something chilling is about to unfold.  Told in both women’s voices with alternating chapters, we hear first from Nina, “The sensation of it, of finding her there in front of me after all this time, is almost overwhelmingly powerful: like panic or passion…I’m scared of seeing her, and I’m scared that I’ll never see her again.”

Their paths begin to cross frequently.  Little does Emma know that Nina is orchestrating every “chance” meeting.  We are aware of Emma’s rage while Nina is totally oblivious to it and so the tension mounts with each chapter as it builds to how Nina knows Emma--and an ending that is too horrific to imagine.

I chose to review these three books together because of so many common elements—the British setting and psycho characters who try to orchestrate the lives of people who are unaware of the evil lurking so near them.  Besides changing our locks, these books remind us to close our blinds and perhaps be leery of strangers who want to befriend us. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

 Fireproof Home for the Bride

Did you ever pick a book strictly on an appealing title drawing you in or arousing your curiosity?  Often, not the best way leading to disappointment.  This was not the case with A Fireproof Home for the Bride by Amy Scheibe.  Although the meaning of the title was not revealed until nearly the end of the story, it was good reading getting there as Emmeline Nelson comes of age in the 1950’s in northern rural Minnesota.

Not only were the winters cold in Minnesota but so was Emmy’s home with a strict Lutheran up-bringing—strict parents, strict milking schedules and strict morals. At
age twelve Emmy’s best friend is college-age Ambrose,  who teaches her to shoot her deceased grandfather’s rifle.  The long-awaited morning of her first deer hunt with Ambrose is filled with anticipation.  Emmy has prepared herself since age eight by building strong arms performing her chores-- carrying milk buckets and tossing hay bales onto flatbeds.  Now, killing a deer with her first shot, Emmy impresses Ambrose, but upon seeing the dead animal, she resolves to never shoot again and the reality of the long-anticipated moment passing so instantly fills her with regret. 
“Is that it?” she asks?

This opening scene is symbolic of the entire story as so much of what is supposedly something to look forward to fall shorts of her expectations. She tries to follow the path her parents have ordained, yet there is a constant growing awareness that the life and expectations they chose are not right for her.  Betrothed to Ambrose by all the parents’ consent at age eighteen, (he is now twenty-four) she struggles with feelings of disdain when she realizes the boy she admired for years is now an older man with strong arrogant opinions, which often grate like fingernails on a blackboard to her.  And when she becomes attracted to Bobby, a boy her own age, she longs for the freedom to be a normal teen-ager, going to dances and riding in fast cars.  And Bobby’s large Catholic family is appealing to her—warm, affectionate and loving -- the opposite of everything in  Emmy’s home. 

Emmy struggles with her desire to please her family, yet is lured to a different way of life. She makes scary bold choices, including leaving home and a job—unheard of.  Her work at the local newspaper leads to an awareness of many evils of society in her sheltered community, including the KKK , corrupt politics and family secrets that have been buried for years. 

Emmy is a brave heroine whose story many women will be able to relate to if they grew up in the 50’s and 60’s. It also has the charm of details of the era—the music, the fashions, the trends of the day.  For the younger female readers who may take their independence today for granted, it is a vivid account of women’s struggle for a voice in that period between WWII and turbulent 60’s.

The Minnesota landscape is beautifully portrayed and the weather itself becomes a factor in the story’s ebb and flow.  In spite of revealing many sordid events in American history, it is what I would call a gentle read.  One review describes it:  The setting is Kent Haruf, the heroine is pure Annie Proulx.

One other thing I liked about the book (which is about as silly as buying it for the title) is that it has interesting chapter titles—such as,  A Delicate Web Unwoven, The Fragility of Stars, A Cold Day Gone Hot. .  The titles lend a touch of mystery—what does it mean?  I’m thinking it’s also possibly because it takes me back to the early days of first discovering the joy of reading with The Bobbsey Twins, Boxcar Children and Nancy Drew.

If this review has drawn you in, I’m sorry to say the book will not be available for distribution until March 2015, but in the meantime, you might check out two other books it was reminiscent of:  Wingshooters by Revyor (blog review 10/25/13) and Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kreuger. (blog review on 6/14/13).

In summary, the title, A Fireproof Home for the Bride, enticed me and the story delivered.

Friday, December 5, 2014


We live now in a wonderful age of instant access to digital books on Kindles, Nooks and IPads, but for any book lovers on your gift list, there is still nothing like a real book, crisp pages yearning to be turned, in their hands Christmas morning.  Here are a few of my favorite authors’ recent releases which do not disappoint and also a few suggestions for the young adult and toddler on your list.

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult
Jodi Picoult fans can count on her for a page turner with well researched moral dilemma issues.  In the past, for example, she has written of terminal illness, donor children,  and teen suicide. In Leaving Time, she weaves a mesmerizing fictional tale that makes us aware of the plight of endangered elephants. At the heart of the book is the extraordinary behavior of elephants as research scientist, Alice Metcalf, devotes her life to investigating how elephants experience grief.  Teenage daughter, Jenna, begins a search for Alice, ten years after her mother mysteriously disappears when a co-worker is trampled to death.  Jenna refuses to believe her mother would leave her behind and she corrals two unlikely allies in her quest:  Virgil, a police detective whose career crashed when he botched the investigation ten years ago of the trampling, and Serenity, a nationally famous clairvoyant, who also fell from grace when her spirit guides deserted her in the middle of the search for a senator’s kidnapped child.  The three characters share the narration for a fascinating tale that involves noble pachyderms and not so noble humans.   And by the end of the book, I wanted to save every elephant and one of my own.

Gray Mountain by John Grisham

Grisham has created a new legal heroine in Samantha Kofer as she tackles the villain in this story: Big Coal industry in Appalachia.  As he has done in the past, Grisham has us rooting for the underdog as they battle against seemingly invincible evil forces.  The story opens when Samantha, along with hundreds of other associates in her Wall Street law firm, are furloughed on day ten after the fall of Lehman Brothers in September, 2008.  At age 29, a graduate of Columbia Law, she was working 100 hours a week at a tedious job she hated, yet a slave to her salary of $180,000 a year and on track to  a lucrative partnership by age 35.   Shortly before being escorted out of their high-rise offices, the firm offers a fig leaf to former employees. They can keep medical benefits and possibly be re-hired if they agree to intern with a non-profit agency for a year.   As Samantha scrambles to find an internship, she, a magna cum laude grad, faces ten rejections the first day as other unfortunates have dialed the non-profit numbers more quickly.  Finally, she is granted an interview at the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in the heart of Appalachia.  Just mere pages into the story, we follow Samantha from glamorous Manhattan to Brady, Viriginia, population 2,200, where she encounters people and situations unlike any she has ever known.

Her new unpaid job takes her deep into the dangerous world of coal mining where laws are broken, rules are ignored, and regulations are flouted.  Danger lurks around every mountain pass, not only for the employees but for those who would attempt to expose Big Coal’s  infractions. 

But for the first time in Samantha’s career, she has an opportunity to “help real people with real problems”.  Also a first, she prepares a lawsuit and sees the inside of an actual courtroom.   And like most Grisham novels, there are secrets to uncover, an untimely death, some romance, colorful and humorous characters.  And the ultimate question: Will Samantha return to the glamour of NYC or stay and fight the battle of the impoverished.

While we are engrossed in a good story, we cannot escape Grisham’s message loud and clear: the power of big business, specifically the coal industry, to corrupt a community and the land both with little regard for the honest and hard-working  people who call Appalachia home. 

We Were Liars by e. lockhart
This young adult novel tells of the Sinclair family who spend their summers on their private Beechwood island off Martha’s Vineyard.  Of the dozen or so members of the family, “No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure.” These three lies, the first of many, are the opening lines of this story of three teen-age cousins and one outsider friend, Gat Patil.  Strikingly different than the beautiful blonde haired, fair-skinned Sinclair children, Gat of Indian descent is dark-skinned, handsome and charismatic.  Fifteen-year old Cadence, the narrator, falls in love with the interloper at first sight (the summer they were both eight.) However through the summers that follow, his passionate political beliefs, far different than the Sinclairs’, create problems. When Cadence suffers a catastrophic accident her fifteenth summer that leaves her with crippling migraines and amnesia, she struggles to remember how it happened.  She can’t and no one will tell.

Two summers later she returns to the island, trying desperately to remember, to reconstruct what happened, leading to the climax of the story. The book jacket for We Were Liars says, “If anyone asks you how it ends, just lie.” 

The author, who goes by e.lockhart, might be familiar to readers who have read her four previous books featuring character Ruby Oliver. Lockhart received a Cyblis Award for Best Young Adult Novel, The Disreputable History of FrankieLandau –Banks. We Were Liars has been optioned for a movie adaption.


For the young children in your life.  I recommend two picture books that, I promise, you will enjoy reading aloud to them.  Both are about colors. One is beautiful both in verse and illustrations and the other is just plain fun, yet thought provoking. 

Hailstones and Halibut Bones, by Mary O’Neill was first published in 1961 and is now an American classic, at twice the length of most children’s books.  It is recommend for  ages 8-13 but its beautiful rhythms and illustrations will hold a toddler’s attention as well as an adult’s.  (A great relaxing bed-time story). The poet explores 12 different colors in 12 poems.   One thing that makes the book so special is that the colors are connected to all the senses, not just sight. Ms.O’Neill was the first to describe color to those who cannot see with Braille versions.  For example,  “What is white? White is a dove and lily of the valley, and a puddle of milk, spilled in an alley.  Red is a hotness you get inside, When you’re embarrassed and want to hide.”

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywelt.  Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers.
If you had to describe this picture book in four words or less, it would be, “Crayons have feelings, too.” Poor Duncan just wants to color. But when he opens his box of crayons, he finds only letters from the crayons, all saying the same thing: His crayons have had enough! They quit! Their complaints were various: Some felt overused or misused; others, neglected. Beige is tired of playing second fiddle to Brown. Black wants to be used for more than just outlining. Blue needs a break from coloring all those huge bodies of water. And Orange and Yellow are no longer speaking—each believes he is the true color of the sun. And red, clearly overworked. Works all year and even on holidays for Christmas and Valentines.
What can Duncan possibly do to appease all of the crayons and get them back to doing what they do best? This spontaneous strike calls for quick action. Almost instantly, the aspiring artist becomes a mediator.  A fun and creative read yet without enough depth to warrant many lesson plans and classroom discussion.
I close with the words of Neil Galman, Books make great gifts because they have the whole world inside of them. And it’s much cheaper to buy someone a book than it is to buy them the whole word. I hope that you will explore many new worlds through books all year.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Waiting for Heaven by Heather Gillis.

Holidays can be a difficult time for families who have recently lost loved ones. In Waiting for Heaven, an Ahwatukee resident, Heather Gillis, reaches out to parents everywhere who have lost a child and are struggling to find peace within the midst of their pain.  As the book  jacket says, “Life can sometimes lead us to unexpected places, only to leave us broken, desperate and hurting.”  Ms. Gillis tells of her personal struggle when their baby son, Bowen, died thirteen days after birth of a fatal kidney disease, autosommal recessive polycystic kidney disease(ARPKD).

Although Heather and her husband, Mac, had no history of kidney disease, they discovered, after Bowen’s birth, that they had the mutation on their chromosomes, making them both carriers of the disease. One in 20,000 babies is diagnosed with ARPKD and they had a four-in-one chance of having a child with it.  Fortunately, their first two children, Brooklyn and Blake, were not affected. Unfortunately, they were totally unprepared for Bowen’s diagnosis, with healthy ultra-sounds throughout the pregnancy.  Her story would be an inspiration to other parents who search for a way to explain the death of a sibling, including a list of books to read to toddlers.

In addition to Heather’s encouraging personal story of faith, hope and renewal, there are many resources listed—books, blogs and websites.  She created to help spread hope to other families with ADPKD. Adult onset of this kidney disease is termed PKD and affects 1in 500 adults, typically diagnosed in a person’s early forties.  Her book can be purchased through her website at $1.99 or Amazon (price varies) and proceeds go toward helping children on dialysis.

Although a sensitive issue, Waiting for Heaven could be a beautiful gift to those struggling to find answers to their loss.  Heather shares honestly the painful grieving process she and Mac went through, yet there are nuggets of wisdom.  For example, “Through this experience I have learned where the answers will never be found. The answer will never be found in anger and any desperate search for an answer will leave one only weak, empty-handed, and more angry.”  Heather finds beauty in the midst of pain through her faith.

The book covers the time period from the day of Bowen’s birth (4-7-11) through the spring of 2013 when Heather, as part of her healing process, began training for the Boston Marathon. Shortly after she crossed the finish line and was looking for her family, she heard a loud sound that she thought was thunder, but in fact was the bomb.  What she experienced that day, as well as meeting many of the Sandy Hook families who lost children, gave Heather a higher awareness of the price of freedom in our country, as well as a greater appreciation for the gift of life, regardless of what we have had to endure.   Like ripples in a pond, Heather takes her personal loss and expands it into a universal message of hope and renewal for all.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, The Untold Story.

As we approach the 51st anniversary month of the assassination of John Kennedy, a new biography of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis by Barbara Leaming is released. The subtitle, The Untold Story, is appropriate as it reveals intimate details, conversations, and correspondence which I think the American public has not been privy to earlier.  As a devoted fan of Jackie’s like so many of us young women were in the 60’s, I continued to admire her through the years and thought I had read everything written about her.  Yet in this biography I felt I was getting to know the real person, not the public figure.  I think Ms. Leaming has captured Jackie’s thought processes and motivations for many of her actions following the assassination. Although not always presented in a flattering light, by the end of the book, I found myself admiring her even more, yet with a deep sorrow for what she endured throughout her life that the public was probably not aware of. 

It was often difficult reading to discover that the lady we credit with holding the grieving nation together as the “staunch warrior” at President Kennedy’s funeral suffered greatly for most of her life with what we now identify as PSTD.   Although the terms shell shock and combat fatigue described soldiers’ from previous wars, it wasn’t until the 80’s and Vietnam that the severity of PSTD was recognized. The description of the assassination was the most graphic I have ever read and perhaps that was intentional so we could understand the full extent of the trauma Jackie experienced that day. 

Today advanced PSTD recognizes the terrifying inability to control the responses of body and mind to an ever-expanding network of triggers which traumatizes the sufferer anew. In the days following the funeral she would relate relentlessly the graphic events of Nov. 22,1963, to anyone who would listen as she re-lived the scene repeatedly in her mind.  Although she was unable to cry at the funeral, eighteen months later she would cry uncontrollably, not able to stop.  Sadly, she did not seek counseling for many years until after the death of Robert Kennedy in June,1968.  She flew to his bedside where he died, twenty-six hours after he was shot. The body returning to Andrews Air Force Base, of course, triggered similar sadness and memories of 1963.

Then came Jackie’s fall from grace with the American public when she shocked the nation by marrying Aristotle Onassis in October, 1968.  She went, as the author says, from being idealized to being stigmatized. The headlines read “Jackie, Why?” “Jackie How Could You?” “America Has Lost a Saint”.  I can personally recall my moment of disillusionment and revulsion to the news, much the same as we remember where we were when Kennedy was shot or when the Twin Towers fell.  However, as I entered her thought process of  fleeing the states, seeking safety for herself and her children following Robert Kennedy’s death, I sympathized once again. When a close friend, Bunny Mellon, asked her point blank, “Why are you doing this?” Jackie answered, “I have no choice. They’re (assassins) playing Ten Little Indians and I don’t want to be next.” 

Although she sought refuge in a foreign country, the marriage encountered problems. When Onassis’ son died in a plane crash shortly after the marriage, his daughter Christina blamed Jackie, saying she had brought the Kennedy curse to their family.  Because Jackie was not in Greece when Onassis died and photographers caught her with a rare smile on her face in the airport on the way to the funeral, she was once again depicted as a heartless woman who had married a “blank check”.

The years remaining tell of her trying to re-invent her life in New York by working at Viking Press in 1975 and later Doubleday where she strove to earn the respect of her colleagues by working diligently, to be accepted as a regular person with no special favors.   “There had been a time when it had fallen to her to show America that she was the good ordinary wife, ever doting on and deferring to JFK. Now she encountered the rather difficult task of proving herself an independent working woman. As Onassis’ wife she had known great wealth. As his widow she waited in line at the office copy machines, made her own coffee, did much of her own typing.”

This biography is as much about world events as it is about Jackie. I think it is a must read for students of history and politics of the years 1960 until her death in 1994.  There is correspondence and conversations with prominent world leaders, especially during the tumultuous sixties and insight into the people who fought for Jackie’s alliance as they pursued her for their own political ambitions. They believed as Jackie went, so would go the nation.   A thirty-page bibliography lends much credibility to Ms. Lemmings work.

Jackie’s comments in October, 1980, perhaps best describes how she perceived the arc of her life.  At a dinner party, the British poet, Stephen Spender, who had not seen her since before JFK became president, asked her what she considered her greatest achievement.  “Notably it was not her fabled tenure as first Lady, nor the conquest of Paris, or the myriad other triumphs of the White House years, nor her demeanor at President Kennedy’s funeral and what it had meant to so many Americans, that Jackie replied without hesitation, ‘I think it is that after going through a rather difficult time, I consider myself comparatively sane. I am proud of that.’”

I think I will always be proud of Jacqueline Kennedy, even more so as this biography reveals her strengths, her weaknesses, her humanness.  I wish she had lived longer once she had found a way to be rid of her demons, yet perhaps fate was kind in ending her life before she had to witness the tragic loss of her son.  A remarkable biography of a remarkable lady.