Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

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.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Although I do not write book reviews in the summer months, I do continue reading, perhaps more than ever. Lucky enough to spend summers in the cool pines of Northern Arizona, I walk a lot and an audio book is my constant companion. I was having a difficult time trying to choose which book to review as I start a new season, so I elected to do eight mini reviews instead of one long one.  I’ll try to capture their essence briefly. Here’s the first four:

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas.  If you like sagas, you might want to follow the life of Eileen Leary, born in Queens, NY, to Irish immigrants in 1941.  Her life is an epic journey as she overcomes a tough childhood striving to better herself and live the American dream.  She becomes a nurse, marries and has a son.  Although these events are not particularly extraordinary, the story is a good reflection of American society in the late 20th century.  It is also a poignant tale of living with a husband who eventually suffers from Alzheimer’s.  This debut author is getting rave reviews, possibly because he writes like a seasoned one.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters.  The setting is London, 1922. The Great War has left Frances Ray and her mother alone in their stately home on Champion Hill without a father and a son and also without an income to support themselves and their former lifestyle. To keep their home, they take in lodgers, The Paying Guests, Len and Lily Barber. The Barbers are a notch below the Rays on the social scale but in Frances’ boring world, they are “like sunrise in a gloomy room”. What follows is an illicit romance, a murder, a trial and a moral dilemma for Frances.

One reviewer says Waters is a master of the slow build, of the gradual assemblage of tiny random moments that result in a life-altering love.  I agree that her descriptions romantic liaisons are sensual in a subtle manner. When Frances falls madly in love, it is described as,  "It was as if all her senses had been wiped clean of a layer of dust. Every colour seemed sharper. Straight edges were like blades.”
Although this is Waters sixth book, it is the first one I have read and, evidently, skillful plots with twists and turns are her trade mark. I would read another.

I read Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty because I enjoyed her best-seller, The Husband’s Secret so much. Big Little Lies has more humor and wit but still deals with murder, in this case in the opening scene. What follows are all the events leading up to the unfortunate occurrence at, of all places, a parents’ night at the Pirriwee Elementary school fund-raiser.  Strong cocktails they are downing without appetizers that don’t arrive due to a traffic jam complicate the evening further or perhaps contribute to the tragedy. Like The Husband’s Secret, the setting is her native Australia and again told from different viewpoints:  Madeline, Celeste and Jane, all mothers who have children at the same elementary school.  When one of the children is accused of bullying another child on the playground, the mothers start acting more like children, as they exclude one mother from their “clique” without verifying the accusation.  Moriarty’s story illustrates how often little lies can have big consequences. Although it’s been many years since I belonged to the Mom’s playground set, I could relate to all these characters that Moriarty has a knack for developing so vividly.

One reviewer says she has sharp insight into human nature. She is “spot on, Mate”.


The Secret Place by Tana French is #5 in the Dublin Murder Squad Series, but you don’t have to read her previous books to enjoy this one.  The Secret Place is actually
a bulletin board at St. Kilda’s,  a private boarding school where girls can post their innermost secrets anonymously. When Holly brings Detective Stephan Moore  a note from the board that says “I Know Who Killed Him”,  the cold case  of a murdered sixteen-year old boy at a neighboring school  is re-opened. The story is told from multiple viewpoints:  Holly, her three friends and Detective Moran, who I think you’ll like, especially his interaction with his superior, a hard and abrasive lady named Conway. They both have something they need to prove.
In real time, the story takes place in one day, with flashbacks (400 some pages worth) leading up to the day of the new investigation.

Speaking of pages, one thing all the books above have in common is their heft.  All are over 450 pages, We Are Not Ourselves tops them at 641.

Hope your summer was also full of good reads, by the pool, the beach, or in the comfort of your air-conditioning.  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

If you are reading a book review column, I assume you enjoy reading.  If so, it’s furthermore safe to assume that The Storied Life of A.J. Firky will have great appeal to you. As one reviewer claims “...this book is a love letter to the joys of reading.”   
Independent book sellers across the country are singing its praises.  It’s been called a romantic comedy, a spiritual journey, and a celebration of books: the people who write them, read them and sell them.  A.J. is of the belief that “You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question.  What is your favorite book?”

A.J. owns a small bookstore on the remote fictional Alice Island in the northeast. (Think Martha’s Vineyard). His bookstore is aptly named Island Books.  The sign above the door was for me like the saying, You had me at Hello. It reads, No Man is an Island, Every Book is a World.  When we first meet A.J. his world is not so good.  At age thirty-nine he has lost his wife in an accident. She was both his soul mate and business partner.  Book sales are down, his alcohol consumption is up and he is becoming more despondent and cantankerous by the day.  The final blow fate deals him is when someone steals his copy of Tamerlane, a rare and valuable edition of  Edgar Allen Poe poems.  This was his nest egg, his retirement, his security.  Now not only is his present situation miserable but it appears his future will be also.  He plods on doing what he does every day with a heavy heart and a cranky disposition.  As author Gabrielle Zevin describes him in an interview, “...he is a person who is at the end of his rope.”  Zevin’s philosophy is that reading can help us engage with other people, yet she purposely places A.J. on a island where he’s isolated physically, geographically and uses reading as a way to not engage with people.

Yet in the depths of his despair there is a delivery to the children’s section of his store that causes his life to take a turn.  While out for a run (he no longer locks his bookstore door because he feels there is nothing valuable left for anyone to steal) he returns to find an abandoned toddler in the children’s section immersed in the pages of where the Wild Things Are.  Beside the toddler is a well-worn Elmo doll with a note pinned to its matted red chest.  The note in part reads, To the Owner of the Bookstore:  This is Maya. She is twenty-five months old. She is very smart, exceptionally verbal for her age...and I want her to grow up to be a reader.  I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kinds of things....I love her but I can no longer take care of her.  Signed Maya’s mother.

A.J. is dumbfounded and takes Maya to the local police station where just a month ago he reported the loss of his valuable book to Police Chief Lamblase.  Lamblase sets a plan into motion for Child and Family Services to take the baby until the mother can be found.  But getting to a remote island, accessible only by ferry, in a storm on a Friday night is not the easiest thing to do. Lamblase suggests several islander families who might keep the baby until Monday but as the toddler clings to A.J., he agrees to keep her for the weekend.  By Monday morning, he is smitten and so begins the story of their life together.  It is one of the three love stories in this novel.  I won’t be a plot spoiler and discuss the other two. Also, there are a few mysteries to be solved: Who stole the book and where is the baby’s mother?

The island is small; there is not a large cast of minor characters but I found myself cheering for the entire motley bunch of them.  A.J.’s sister-in-law Ismay, the high school drama coach,  is unhappily married to a best-selling author, repeatedly unfaithful, who finds it hard to resist the groupies who attend his book signings.  Lamblase, the police chief, was never a reader but with A.J.’s influence becomes one, so much so that he starts his own book discussion group, Chief’s Choices.  And there is Amelia, the book publisher rep who A.J. rudely insults on their first meeting (it was during his cantankerous stage) and practically throws her out of his store when she knocks over an entire shelf of books.  

The theme, the power of stories in our lives, is carried out not only with A.J.’s personal story but each chapter is introduced with a short story title (A.J. loves short stories) and his reflections after reading each one. So we re-discover the likes of authors such as Roald Dahl, Raymond Carver, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger and Bret Harte.   But more importantly, we hear the little nuggets of wisdom A.J. imparts to his daughter, the intended recipient of his musings.  For example, his comments after reading The Girls in Their Summer Dresses (Irwin Shaw, 1939), A.J. writes, (for Maya) “Someday you may think of marrying. Pick someone who thinks you’re the only person in the room.”  If only every daughter were so fortunate to have a father who imparts such loving wisdom.

On a side note, I found it quite a co-incidence that the last book I reviewed (The Light Between Oceans by Stedman) also took place on a remote island where a baby arrives mysteriously.  The similarity ends there however.  Stedman’s story leaves us with an aching heart while A.J.’s story was best captured by one reviewer who said, “There’s joy in my heart and a skip in my step after closing the last page of this jewel of a book.”

I tend to agree with A.J. ...that you will know all you need to know about a person by how they answer that one question.   So don’t be surprised when I see you around the neighborhood and can’t resist asking, “What was your favorite book?” Just trying to get to know you. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Light Between Oceans by M.E. Stedman

Often in doing research to write a book review, the story behind the story can be as interesting as the story itself.  I found this to be the case in The Light Between Oceans by M.E. Stedman.  It began as a short story of 15,000 words written in three weeks.  After sending it to an agent, the author was told it had the makings of a novel.  So began Stedman’s intensive research on lighthouses, including a visit to the bleakness of Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse to find living inspiration for Janus Rock, the setting for her story off the Australian coast.

In an interview with Stedman, she says, “There is something that appeals to the human psyche about lighthouses because of their isolation. Their presence offers up a marvelous set of dichotomies the human imagination likes to explore—darkness and light, safety and danger, stasis and movement, isolation and communication.”

Lighthouses have been a source of myth-making in literature for years. They have stood for sanctuary, knowledge and reason, their pulsating light symbolizing silence and surety, the steady march of time. Their beam of white brilliance slashes through black nights and dense squalls to reach beyond the curve of the Earth.  The white stone lighthouse of this novel also serves a dramatic purpose, illuminating the tension between right and wrong, good and evil. And like this beacon, the characters in this story pull us in to their world and the choices they make that lead to unbearable sadness for all involved.

Tom Sherbourne has just returned from a four-year tour of duty on the Western Front, feeling guilty for surviving when so many of his mates did not. In an attempt to flee from the dark memories of the war, he accepts the position of lighthouse keeper on the island of Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast.  It is so isolated that the supply boat comes only once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best.

On a visit to the coast, a young and adventurous girl, Isabel, falls in love with him and wants to spend her life with him on his chosen lighthouse mission. Once again, he cannot believe his good fortune as they marry.  Their early days on the island are filled with love, exploration of the island and each other, and the beginnings of a beautiful life together. Their fortune, however, sadly turns after two miscarriages and one stillbirth.  Tom would do anything to alleviate Isabel’s pain and sadness.

When a boat washes up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby of a few months, Tom, being a meticulous record keeper and a man of deep moral principles, wants to report the incident immediately.  But Isabel has taken the baby to her breast, still producing milk from the recent stillborn.  Isabel interprets the baby’s arrival as divine benevolence, God’s gift to them, while Tom struggles with not abiding by the rules of honest and accurate recording of the event. Against his better judgment he allows Isobel to keep the baby. They claim her as their own and name her Lucy.

For several years Lucy thrives on the island basking in the love of her parents and the safety of her world.     Although isolated, this family seems complete and everything they need is on the island.  But as Stedman tells us,  “the story throws up the role of isolation on morality...when you don’t see the impact of your actions.  Perhaps it’s easier to fool yourself when you cannot see the face of those who are affected by what you do.”

There, however, comes a point in the story when Tom and Isabel must confront other faces and as a reader, you become as torn as they are.  And that is when the author’s soul-searching questions are pondered:  “Is there error in an action motivated by best intention? Can a right make good a wrong? Is there wrong in greater good?” 

These universal themes as well as the strong imagery of place evoked captured the attention of nine British publishers, producing a six figure offer for Stedman’s first novel.  She interviewed each publisher, stubborn in her intent to find someone who recognized her endeavors to explore life’s eternal questions about truth, redemption and the nature of happiness.

Stedman goes on to say, “Happiness is a modern idea. I think we can live good enough lives when we don’t think we get the things we thought important.”

What’s important to Tom—doing what is right—drives this story.  I found it to be compelling and thought provoking. By creating many other believable characters. Stedman is able to make us see this situation from many viewpoints and draw our own conclusions. We are swept into a story about ordinary people seeking to find their North Star in a world where there is no right answer, where justice for one person is another’s tragic loss.  It reminded me of many Jodi Picoult stories where moral issues are explored. Whereas her settings are contemporary, much of the beauty of this story is the setting--the time and place it evokes.  It would make a good discussion book choice.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Mission Impastable  by Sharon Arthur Moore has all the ingredients for a scrumptious reading escape—delicious recipes, two very likeable and believable main characters and of course a murder with plenty of red herrings to keep you turning the pages.

When Gina and Ali, lifelong friends, form a personal chef business, little do they know their first client will provide challenges far beyond the kitchen and dining room. Some despicable minor characters and a delightful mother, Maria, provide
just the right amount of seasoning to this culinary adventure. Set in Arizona, Phoenicians will enjoy the references to local sites, Southwest landscaping and desert weather.

Mission Impastable is Book One in the Dinner is Served series and I look forward to the next course.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Orphan Train-a Novel  by Christina Baker Kline

Orphans portrayed as heroic figures are not new to literature.  W have sympathized with many through the years, such as Jane Eyre, Mary Lennox ( Secret Garden), David Copperfield, Harry Potter, and even Superman to name a few.

In Orphan Train we meet yet another.  Niamh (pronounced Neeve) Power,  is a young Irish girl whose immigrant family settles in New York City in the 1920’s.  She is orphaned at age nine when a fire tears through their tenement housing and consequently she is put on the “Orphan Train” heading to the Midwest.

The story is fiction but based on the actual Orphan Train Movement founded by
The Children’s Aid Society and later the Catholic Foundling Hospital who in the 1850’s, in New York City alone, placed over 30,000 children in foster homes throughout the country.  The children were transported to their new homes on trains which were labeled “orphan” or  “baby” trains.  This period of mass relocation of children ended in the 1920’s with the beginning of organized foster care in America.

The trains would arrive in a Midwest town where local community leaders had assembled interested townspeople. The children would be put on a stage-like podium for viewing and inspection where they would often dance or sing to attract attention.  The town’s people would examine the children, perhaps feeling muscles and checking teeth and after a brief interview take the chosen one home. Sadly, many siblings were separated during the process because some people only wanted one child.  Historians report that adolescent girls were the last chosen as they often seemed a threat to the women of the household.  Boys could live in the barn or shed and provide the needed labor on the farms.  Interestingly enough, redheads were rarely wanted.

In spite of her red hair, Niamh is taken in by the Minnesota Nielson family to work as a seamstress but not allowed to attend school.  When the depression hits in 1929 she is let go (another mouth to feed) and placed with the Brynes who name her Dorothy and take her in as a “mother’s helper” for a family of five children. Although she is allowed to attend school, the home conditions are terrible resulting in an incident that once again leaves her homeless.  She walks miles to the schoolhouse in the middle of the night through blizzard conditions where a compassionate teacher takes her in until a new foster family can be found.  With the Daly’s, who name her Vivian, she finally finds a stable home environment. She remains with them until she is an adult.   Her life story is told in flashback as the novel opens with the 91-year old Vivian, revealing her story in bits and pieces as she and a teenager named Molly go through the possessions in her attic.

Molly is also a foster child, a Penobscot Indian, who has had a troubled adolescence.  Now seventeen years old  in 2011, she is assigned a project by her caseworker to complete 50 hours of service to avoid “juvie” and remain in school.  Her “project” is to help Vivian clear her attic.  What starts off as a strange partnership and penance gradually turns into a friendship between the 17 year- old and the 91 year- old.  As they work together and Vivian’s story unfolds, Molly discovers that she and Vivian are not so different after all.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a novel of upheaval and resilience and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are. In an interview with the author, Christina Baker Kline says Orphan Train wrestles with questions of cultural identify and family history.  There is also the interesting concept of “portaging”. What possessions does one choose to take with them and are left behind.  These issues make this an excellent book discussion read.

In her research she interviewed hundreds of orphan train children (survivors are now all over 90 years old) and read hundreds of first person testimonials.  She also traveled to Galway County in Ireland to research the main character’s Irish background.  She attended train riders’ reunions in New York and Minnesota and interviewed the orphans and their descendents.  They were eager to tell their stories and tended not to dwell on the considerable hardships they’d faced but focused on gratitude for their children and grandchildren—lives that wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t been on those trains.  The most surprising thing that came out of her research was that many train riders believed their train was the only one. They didn’t know they were part of a massive 75-year experiment until their own children and grandchildren got involved.  According to some estimates, there are more than two million descendents.

The National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas maintains an archive of riders’ stories and also houses a research facility. Between 1853 and 1929, more than 250,000 children rode the Orphan Train to new lives.

Kline brings this time in history alive. Previous novels by Christina Baker Kline are Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be.

In the culmination of this story of friendship and second chances for Vivian and Molly, you may want to have a box of tissues handy.