It’s Here!

Today’s the day – it’s finally here.  As in previous years, I advised you to cancel your appointments, call in sick to work and to be at your local bookstore first thing this morning to buy the newest Louise Penny book — Kingdom of the Blind.

Didn’t do any of that?  Oh well, you’ll just have to swing by your bookstore on your way home.

Let me tell you why I’m being so bossy insistent about this.

 

 

Ms. Penny is a mystery writer with a trio of talents – not seen in very many mystery series writers.

First, she has keen sense of humans, their frailties, their emotions, their kindnesses and their dreadfulness.  Her characters are multi-dimensional and fully realized.  Second, Ms. Penny creates an all enveloping sense of place – her settings are always fall-into-the-page realistic — from the cozy bistro in Three Pines to the dirty, drug infested back streets of Montreal.  Combine this with her page-turning, yet complex multi-layered, mysteries, and well you’ve got one of the best mystery series being published.

While you can read any of her novels as a standalone, I do suggest you try and read them in order as some of the story lines do carry into the next and the characters become more developed and evolved.  You can see her whole series of books in order on her website – HERE

Kingdom of the Blind picks up a few months after the last book (Glass Houses).  Armand Gamache was suspended as head of the Sûreté du Québec having deliberately allowed some seized opioids to slip though his hands in order stop an insidious street drug operation. Amelia Choquet, one of his cadets has just been kicked out of the police academy due to her own drug use and is now thrust back onto to the seedy, drug infested back streets of Montreal.  A coincidence?  We wonder…

Meanwhile, wintry Three Pines remains the idyllic oasis for its residents and friends.  But they have  lost power and are buried in snow:

Reine-Marie, at the bistro:

Why do we live here?  Oh heaven…do you have power?
Non. A generator.
Hooked up to the espresso machine?
And the oven and fridge, said Gabri.
But not the lights?
Priorities, said Olivier. Are you complaining?
Mon Dieu, no, she said.

Comfort foods that rarely fail in their one great task are abundant.

Gamache, psychologist and bookseller Myrna Landers, and a young builder have been called to an abandoned farmhouse just outside Three Pines to meet with a notary.  Once there, they find out they have been named the liquidators (executors) of a mysterious woman’s will.  The three adult children, who are the beneficiaries, have no idea why their mother chose these three unknown people to oversee her will.  It turns out there is more to the story than anyone thought — a family story of a lost European inheritance dating back hundreds of years, embezzlement, and murder.

Ms. Penny is a master of plotting and just when you think you know where she’s going (and if you’re like me, you dumbly believe you have it figured out) the plot twists in an unexpected direction. This had me flipping pages as fast as I could read, and yet I made myself slow down to savor the writing.

All Ms. Penny’s novels have a theme woven into her mysteries and this one is about blindness or our blind spots.  How humans see what they want to see.  Masterfully we are given insights into what at first seemed one thing and is reveled to be something else entirely.  A drug wasted transvestite has goodness underneath.  A beloved godfather has a nasty streak.  A trusted financial advisor should, or should not, be trusted.

Don’t worry devoted Ms. Penny fans, the cast of characters is still there from Three Pines and there’s a smattering of Ruth chuckles — but this installment is especially focused on Gamache and his second in command (and now son-in-law) Beauvoir.  Both are contemplative and confronting major decisions that will inspire life changing events.  One of which is revealed in the last chapter and will have you wanting whatever is up next in this wonderful series.

I’m going to leave it here, no spoilers and I’m really at a loss to review The Kingdom of the Blind in the fashion it deserves, so I will quote one of my favorite professional reviewers, Maureen Corrigan:

Any plot summary of Penny’s novels inevitably falls short of conveying the dark magic of this series.  No other writer, no matter what genre they work in, writes like Penny.

 

Kingdom of the Blind – don’t say no — just buy it.


Many (many) thanks to Minotaur Books for providing an Advanced Readers Copy.

 

 

 

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger was a deliciously creepy Halloween read which kept me up well into several October nights — but I’m only now getting around to this review.  Pretend it’s Halloween, which was only a few weeks ago.

It’s post-war Warwickshire, England and Dr. Faraday has been called to Hundreds Hall, the Ayres family mansion.   The doctor was here before, as a child, accompanying his mother, a housemaid for the family.  As a child he was entranced with the hall’s decorative wall panels and he secretly pried loose and pocketed a carved walnut. 

Now it’s thirty years later and Hundreds Hall has lost former grandeur. In amongst leaky ceilings and musty carpets lives the Ayres family: Mrs. Ayres, a widow who longs for the old days of her family glory; her son, Roderick, a veteran who is still suffering both physically and mentally from the war, and his sister, Caroline, a young woman who desires a life of her own.

But the most important character is Hundreds Hall  — the author spends pages (and pages) describing the crumbling and dilapidated mansion.   This provides an eerie backdrop for presenting a family tormented by the past.

[When] I stepped into the hall the cheerlessness of it struck me at once.  Some of the bulbs in the wall-lights had blown, and the staircase climbed into shadows.  A few ancient radiators were bubbling and ticking away, but their heat was lost as soon as it rose.  I went along the marble-floored passage and found the family gathered in the little parlour, their chairs drawn right up to the hearth in their efforts to keep warm.

The Ayres are stuck between the pre-war world and the post war one.  But, as we discover, they are also stuck between this world and one inhabited by spirits and secrets.

Yes, the house is haunted — mysterious writing appears on the walls, there are unexplained small fires, unexpectedly locked rooms, and creepy noises through the antiquated pipes.  Roderick succumbs to his demons (and the house’s) and is sent away to an institution.  Carolyn struggles to maintain some sense of normalcy in the highly abnormal Hundreds Hall and Mrs. Ayres begins to go mad.

At the center is Dr. Faraday, attending each family member as best he can but also striving to get to the bottom of the frightening incidents at Hundreds Hall.  Despite his lower class upbringing, Dr. Faraday not only becomes the family doctor, but also a trusted friend, and eventually, Caroline’s fiancée.

The prose beautifully builds a chilling atmosphere and a looming sense of dread.  More eerie than scary. Slow and languid but at the same time, exciting and suspenseful.  Although the novel could have benefited from some major editing, I was totally invested — reading on and on, even when I got slightly spooked — hearing things go bump in the night.

Some readers said there is no resolution – no ending.  However, by re-reading several key scenes and the last few pages — I figured out who is the little stranger and had goosebumps along the way.

 The Little Stranger is not at all like some of today’s merely adequately written thrillers, whose readers only require a ‘page turner’.  This novel is slow, subtle, literate and requires a little more thought — a thinking reader’s thriller.


Once again, they’ve made a film from a book I’ve just read.  It looks properly creepy and atmospheric.

Trailer HERE

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night is a beautiful, hopeful book – but alas, not everyone’s cup of tea. 

Set in a small town in Colorado, Louis and Addie are neighbors, both in their 70’s and both widowed.  They know each other, chat when they see each other — just neighbors of the same age.  

The book opens with Addie visiting Louis and proposing they spend their lonely nights together – sleeping in the same bed,  companionship, no sex, also with the hope they will both be able to sleep better.

The characters Louis and Addie unfold naturally through their nightly conversations telling about their lives—the happy and sad moments, their regrets, the unfulfilled dreams. They discuss their late spouses and their children. They talk about life. But most of all, they find comfort in each other’s company.  They are achingly human in their loneliness and need for companionship and they ignore what the townspeople have to say about their arrangement.

When Addie’s troubled grandson comes for the summer, their relationship deepens (yes, that’s just what it means) as they give the little boy a special summer filled with softball games, overnight camping, and the responsibility of his first dog.

Many readers are put off by Mr. Haruf’s spare writing style – his lack of quotation marks and sometimes clipped dialogue. But I admire his deceptively simple language which conveys complicated relationships, heartbreak, and humorEvery word is essential. There is nothing extra. Our Souls at Night uses elegant, almost poetic, prose to move the story forward quickly — it can be read in one evening — yet there’s a leisurely sense of time.

The ending is sad and, for me, a bit unsettling as Addie is portrayed as a capable woman who isn’t afraid to make her own choices, yet she conceded to her controlling son, and gave up a relationship that was bringing joy to her life.  But then again, Our Souls at Night is all about humans, their frailties, and the way life really is. 

All Mr. Haruf’s books are worth reading and re-reading on so many levels, for their simplicity and accessibility — but especially their literary qualities, an unfortunately rare combination. You know you have read “literature” when you have read Haruf, but the experience is effortless.

Netflix made a film based on this novel starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and after you’ve read the book it’s well worth watching — these two actors do a wonderful job of capturing the characters and their relationship.

Trailer HERE

Sadly, this was Mr. Haruf’s last book as he passed away in 2014. 

The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge

“Pick up an Elizabeth Goudge novel and from the first page you will feel your shoulders drop.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The above quote comes from from Cornflower Books, one of my favorite book blogs.  Cornflower hails from somewhere in Northern England and her two blogs are filled with the joy of books such as this, but also gardening, knitting, cooking and art — a kindred spirit.  Click above or on the blog list to the left to see for yourself.

 

Based on Cornflower’s review and in a desperate mood for an old-fashioned read, I got The Bird in the Tree –with this dreadful cover — from the library.  (I much prefer the vintage cover above).

Elizabeth Goudge is a British writer, probably best known for her novel Green Dolphin Street (nope, haven’t read it). The Bird in the Tree is set in 1938 and is the first in a trilogy about the Eliot family and their beloved home, Damerosehay on the Hampshire coast.

Nothing better than a British house setting I thought as I opened the book, trying not to form images of the characters from the tacky 1980’s cover.

The first thing to strike this reader is that Ms. Goudge is verbose.  She obviously loved nature and takes pages to describe the beauty in her settings — from the gardens, to the sunsets, grand water views, and even   the individual birds.

Soon, however, as the quote above predicted, my shoulders lowered and I relaxed into the slow rhythm and realized I was enjoying some very nice writing.

Early in the novel there’s a flashback to when Lucilla and her young grandson first discover the house that would become Damerosehay.  The descriptions (there’s pages of them) of the abandoned home and its gardens makes for some enchanting reading.  Here’s just a taste:

…for it was such a garden as neither of them had seen before.  It was a wild, crazy garden, the kind of garden in which the sleeping beauty and her court lays sleeping for a hundred years.  Once it had been planted with orderly care and neatness, but now all the flowers and trees and bushes had gone mad together with a sort of jubilant madness that was one of the loveliest things Lucilla had ever seem. The rose trees, bright with their new green leaves, were running riot everywhere, climbing up over the old wall, festooning themselves over the cherry trees and oak trees, cherry trees to the east and oaks to the west that grew in the tangle of wild grass that had once been lawns and flowerbeds …

Lucilla,with the help of her children, purchase the house and it is transformed into the warm and beautiful place she wants as a safe haven for her children, their children and generations beyond.

Lucilla and her family are far from perfect.  The characters are revealed through both their actions and innermost thoughts and thus, we discover the Eliots share heartbreak and wounds — not to mention the art of manipulation and resentment — all bubbling just beneath the surface.  There’s an ill-advised love affair that threatens the Eliot family relations.  Some past secrets are revealed and others stay – well secret.  But mostly this is a novel about people and a home they love.

Lucilla’s son Hilary (don’t you just love British names) although the least clever of the Elliot family, turns out to be the happiest, in his role as village vicar:

…Fairhaven liked to hear the [church] bell tolling out every morning, sounding through the winter darkness as though to tell them that the night was over or ringing through the spring and summer birdsong like another bird calling in the sky.  The ungodly, rousing from sleep, set their watches by this bell, and the godly whilst also setting their watches, remembered that, at this hour Hilary was praying for them.  They were glad of that, for they liked Hilary.

Hilary as expected does give deliver advice and counsel, but it’s nothing compared to the morale high ground voiced by Lucilla and her long time ladies maid, Ellen (yes, there’s a lady’s maid).  I shook my head in amusement and dismay at their self assurance when weighing in on other people lives.

But in the end, the Eliots love each other and while they suffer from an excess of contemplation, they are good people who do the right thing – and yes, there’s a neatly-tied-up-fairly-happy ending.

Old fashioned, overly sentimental and, at times, melodramatic —  The Bird in the Tree was just what the doctor, or in this case, Cornflower Books recommended – I felt better having read it.

The second in this series – Pilgrim’s Inn is on my list for the next time I’m in need of a restorative read.

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

This book has languished on my shelf for years, and for some reason the other day I decided to give it a try…and got lost in it for days.

I didn’t just read this book — I inhabited it.

Published back in 1998 (which may be how long I’ve had it), One Thousand White Women is a fictional re-imagining of a true event. In the author’s note, Mr. Fergus writes that he came across an interesting historical record.  In 1854 at a peace conference, a Cheyenne chief made a request to trade white women for horses. The Cheyennes astutely saw the future and were looking for a peaceful solution. The women would become brides and their children would allow easier assimilation into the white man’s society.   The request was soundly rejected by the US government. 

But, Mr. Fergus wondered, what if it did happen?  What if the government agreed to this absurd proposal and sent white women to marry into the Cheyenne tribe?  The result is this wonderful and devastating book.

The novel imagines that the government recruited women volunteers from brothels and institutions under a so-called BFI (Brides for Indians) program to “assimilate the heathens”.  One Thousand White Women centers on May Dodd whose story is told through her journals and letters. 

May Dodd comes from a prominent Chicago family. When she runs off with a common laborer and has two children out of wedlock, her influential father has her committed to an insane asylum and has taken her children away to educate properly.  With nothing left to lose, May volunteers for the program:

Frankly, from the way I have been treated by the so-called civilized people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the savages.

And so we’re off with the first trainload of white women bound for the Great Plains and their new lives as brides of the Cheyenne nation.  On the train are a troupe of vulnerable women and these supporting characters start out predictably stereotypical.  We have Irish twins out to scam everyone, a fallen Southern belle (who hates blacks and uses the N word), a large homely Swiss woman — well the list goes on. I must admit, here the writing became clunky. But as the novel goes on, we learn each woman has their own reasons to want to start new lives.  During their long journey the women get to know each other, reveal their various sad backgrounds, and as Fort Laramie draws closer, they grow more frightened and are drawn closer.

Eventually, they reach Fort Laramie where they are told to take only what they can carry and continue their journey on horseback.  Once they arrive at the Cheyenne camp, there are nowhere near 1,000 women, merely 40-50 total and the women question their decision.

So what is our position then — officially speaking?  Are we nothing more than sacrificial lambs?  An interesting, but unsuccessful political experiment? Missionaries stranded in the line of duty?  Or perhaps easiest to explain, white women gone astray, taking up with savages of our own volition? 

After they are left behind, the women inevitably have to adapt to the camp and its inhabitants.  They are eventually paired off with Cheyenne men and wedding plans are made.  May is pleased to marry the chief, Little Wolf, some of the other women are less fortunate.  But all make the best of the situation. 

And here is where I fell headlong into the wonderful descriptions of the challenges, beauty and even the drudgery of daily life with the Cheyenne. The wild landscape, hunting for game, bathing in ponds, cozy teepees, and the Cheyenne wedding ceremonies.  But all is not idyllic, there are battles with other tribes, violent rapes (yes that’s plural), and the Cheyenne’s first experience with whisky (not good).  Mr. Fergus has done some fine research on 19th century native American culture, and his writing shows both compassion and insight.  

There’s a poignant turning point when, after six months, the women return with their husbands and tribe to visit Fort Laramie.  Wearing deerskin dresses and many now pregnant, they are not welcomed but rather met with revulsion and horror by the residents.  They now look, act, and smell like squaws and bear no resemblance to the white women they once were.

How strange to recall that six months ago we departed Fort Laramie as anxious white women entering the wilderness for the first time; and now, perhaps equally anxious, we leave as squaws returning home.  I realized anew as we rode into the cold north wind on this morning that my own commitment had been forever sealed by the new heart that beats in my belly; that I could not have remained even if I so wished.

Some readers may have trouble with the plausibility of this story and many other reviewers found One Thousand White Women ludicrous.  My only quibble was the modern day insights and actions that leaked into the journals and letters of what was supposed to be a typical 19th century woman. There were even some thoughts on global warming, which I doubt was on the minds of anyone living in the late 1800’s.

But still, I found One Thousand White Women captivating and completely different.  I often forgot reality and the fact that I was reading a novel.  I was living in a different world — in a different time. A stay-up-late adventure story filled with action, humor, romance, insight and beauty.


BookBarmy Warning: there is graphic sex and violence – this is not a book for the faint of heart or prude. Nonetheless, I’m passing it on to my mother – as she is neither.

 

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Right up there with my love of books and reading — is a love of music.  Music of all sorts really — from jazz to classical, early choral to classic rock.  There are CDs and records aplenty in the cupboards and I nerd out creating Spotify playlists for both entertaining and my quiet reading times.  There’s most always music playing in our house (with the exception of football season).

So when The Music Shop came to me, I was jazzed (sorry).   Not only because it was from the author that wrote THIS, but also because it had been highly touted by other book bloggers.

It’s 1988 in a provincial town in England, and down on Unity Street is a dingy music shop run by the shy, socially awkward Frank.

There was once a music shop. From the outside it looked like any shop, in any backstreet. It had no name above the door. No record display in the window. There was just a homemade poster stuck to the glass. FOR THE MUSIC YOU NEED!! EVERYONE WELCOME!! WE ONLY SELL VINYL!!”

Unity Street also boasts a pub and six shops facing a row of Victorian houses.  The neighborhood is slowly deteriorating as shops face economic decay and reluctantly sell out to developers.  We’re introduced to the cast of characters on Unity Street — a grim tattoo artist, a recovering alcoholic ex-priest who runs a religious gift shop, a hand-holding twin brother team of undertakers, a grumpy tea-shop waitress, the overly-enthusiastic adolescent music shop assistant, and of course, Frank, forty, single and living above his music shop.  This band of motley neighbors and shop owners are somehow endearing – as they care and help each other.

Frank is somewhat of a music savant — he can sense the music that will help those who come into the music shop searching for some sort of solace in a record.

Frank could not play music, he could not read a score, he had no practical knowledge whatsoever, but when he sat in front of a customer and truly listened, he heard a kind of song.

His shop was permanently occupied by people who would otherwise be roaming the streets or weeping in bedsits.

Frank made listening booths from old wardrobes:

[these booths] Frank had made himself from a pair of matching Victorian wardrobes of incredible magnitude he had spotted on a skip.  He had sawn off the feet, removed the hanging rails and sets of drawers, and drilled small holes to connect each one with cable to his turntable.  Frank had found two armchairs small enough to fit inside, but comfortable.  He had even polished the wood until it gleamed like black gloss paint, revealing a delicate inlay in the doors of mother-of-pearl birds and flowers.

I can just imagine listening to music cocooned is such loveliness.  Chapters start with music titles, so as I was reading The Music Shop, I would play the exact music.  And because this book is all about music — The Washington Post called it “an unabashedly sentimental tribute to the healing power of great songs”, The Music Shop has its own soundtrack.  I will link the music where I can throughout, making this an interactive review and will give you the entire playlist at the end — no charge.

For Maud (the tattooist), Frank recommends Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, eight minutes of music that convinces her that while her life is not that great, or even fair, it may be worth living anyhow. (One of my favorite pieces of music ever, always brings tears to my eyes.)

For a groom whose bride cheated on him, Frank pulls out one of Aretha’s early albums and puts him in the listening booth to hear one song — Oh No Not My Baby

Frank’s unconventional and troubled mother, Peg taught him about music and the book flashes back to a younger Frank on the floor listening to records with his mother.    Just a couple of my favorite passages:

if you listen, the world changes. It’s like falling in love. Only no one gets hurt.

This is the record that will change history,’ said Peg. ‘Why?’ She blew a plume of smoke towards a tea-coloured patch on the ceiling. ‘Because it takes music to a whole new place. Miles Davis booked all the best players but they had hardly any idea what they were going to play. He gave them outlines, told them to improvise, and they played as if the music was sitting right with them in the studio. One day everyone will have Kind of Blue. Even the people who don’t like jazz will have it.’

But wait, there is a plot in The Music Shop.  One day, Ilse, a mysterious German woman faints outside the the music shop and while Frank and his assistant come to her aid, Frank falls in love with her.

Ilse falls for Frank as well, but neither are ready or willing to show their feelings yet.  Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music and they meet every week in the tea shop (with the grumpy waitress) and Frank talks and talks about music. Not knowing how to express his love, he instead shows his heart through his love of music.

He was perfectly fine with emotions, so long as they belonged to other people.

Franks tells her of Pérotin a 12th century European Composer.

Once you’ve heard Beata viscera, you’ll never forget it.  It’s just a single human voice but it feels like stepping onto a bird’s back.  The moment it starts, you’re flying.  It takes you up, it swoops you down, and then it lifts you so high you’re a pinprick in the sky.  But if you close your eyes and really listen, it holds you safe the whole way.  Until I heard [it] I had no idea human beings could be so beautiful.

There’s a hidden identity, a misunderstanding, Ilse flees back to Germany and it appears Frank has lost the love of his life – or has he?   Meanwhile, the neighbors and shop owners must fight developers who want to take over Unity Street.  The threat of gentrification looks inevitable and Frank’s beloved shop may have to close. Broken hearted Frank no longer cares – or does he?   You’ll have to read the book to find out —  no spoilers here.

Where Ms. Joyce really shines is in her literary ability to bring music to life — all forms of music.   The solace and joy of music. Why we listen and why we need music in our lives.  But most importantly — how music can change a life and perhaps even save one.

 The silence at the beginning of a piece of music is always different from the silence at the end.

As you may have surmised, this is not Dostoevsky, it’s a simple plot, but with a great deal of heart. The Music Shop is a book you’ll read with a smile. This is the type of book I love reading and I suspect you will too. 

We can tackle The Brothers Karamazov later.

Complete soundtrack:

You Tube

Spotify

A digital review copy was provided by Random House via Netgalley