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How many times have you finished a book, and it was so good that you wanted to go back to the beginning and read it again? I’ve felt that way; I think we all have. But how many times have you actually done it? I’m guessing you haven’t, and until now, neither have I. Until I read The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee.

This is an amazing historical novel, written in first person by a young woman, who, at the opening of the book, is making her entrance at the Sénat Bal in Paris, autumn of 1882. She is “La Genérale”,  Lilliet Berne, famed opera singer and a falcon soprano. She is approached by a novelist who dares to get her attention, and asks her to listen to his proposition – a story he has in his possession, to which a score will be written by a promising composer, an original role created just for her. Such a thing is the apex of an opera’s singer career. And then Lilliet hears how much of the story is her own past life, which, if it came to light, would destroy her career. So few know her past; who would want to see her fall? And so begins our story.

We return to Lilliet’s beginnings in the then free-state of Minnesota in 1866, sixteen years old, when she loses her entire family to scarlet fever. Alone and practically penniless, she decides to cross the country, and then the ocean, to find her mother’s only sister in Switzerland. The ensuing story unfolds in endless twists and turns of Lilliet’s trying to survive, becoming a circus equestrienne, a courtesan, later purchased by the tenor, the keeper of the empresses’s furs, and an opera singer. This all takes place largely in Paris during and after the reign of Emperor Louis Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie.

The Queen of the Night is a very complex novel. There is subterfuge, characters using each other and being used, and many unexpected betrayals. Set against the backdrop of an opulent Paris as well as the utter desolation after the Prussian attack, there is also opera, loyalty, friendship, devotion, and most importantly, love. One might say that this is a love story, but truly, it is so much more. When I decided to reread this book, I was initially aware it was because there was so much going on, that I knew I had missed certain things, and I needed to feel that I really understood everything.

But as I approach the final chapters this second time, I know that a major attraction for me is Lilliet Berne herself. I found Lilliet to be an amazing heroine, who fights to stay alive, to try to be whatever it is she is born to be, despite not knowing at all what that might be for so long. She starts our story as an orphaned girl of sixteen, and ends … well, I can’t really tell you that. I can say that this is a demanding book, not one to be read when you’re tired or distracted, because I guarantee, you will miss something critical. But it is also one you cannot put down. Alexander Chee is highly successful in writing a story with fine attention to rich historical detail, and also for creating characters who will live in your imagination between each reading and after.

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One of the very compelling features in a good novel can be place, where an author writes with such depth and attention to the environment inhabited by his characters that the location becomes a character all its own. I just finished The Ice Bridge by D.R.Macdonald, and was amazed at how quickly he had me immersed in the landscape of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. This is an outstanding book in so many ways, not least of which was my having moved to the harsh, wintry landscape of Cape Seal Road right along with one of the main characters, Anna.

The intensely rich descriptions of the land and the nearby sea in every mood and facet imaginable captured my imagination. Anna is an artist, moved here from California, leaving her soon-to-be ex to rediscover her artistic self. Her drawings of the landscape, animals, and the many found objects she retrieves from both water and shore, further expand the reader’s feel for Cape Breton.

The story of her settling into the “weather-wracked” house once belonging to next door neighbor Red Murdock’s grandmother is a story in and of itself. While the jacket flap is right in saying it’s a story about love after love, it is also a story about a fading Scottish culture which once thrived in the area, and the changes that modern life has exacted on its residents. Each character in this small, somewhat forgotten community adds to the sense of place in Macdonald’s novel. He is, in my opinion, a brilliant writer who has seemingly effortlessly made me care about his characters in this slowly unfolding tale.

When Anna does something extremely foolish, it is hard to criticize her because the author has already portrayed her so completely and compassionately that we can only wonder what would make her do such a thing. The characters are real, and the conflict builds slowly through the friendships, past loves, danger, pain, and wonder of them all. And always the sea and sky, forest and field, so beautifully, beautifully rendered, from the challenges of winter through the final warming of spring in July.

What a masterful writer! What I also loved about this novel was Macdonald builds the suspense to the very end, and even with the ending given us, one can still wonder what might happen next. This is one where I was sorry to close the book and leave what I’d come to love in Cape Breton.

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While I have been rather remiss in blogging, at least I have been reading. Life can pull us in many directions, and some take our blogging time. So be it.

ByTheLight-FathersSmile-AWalker2As I am beginning a new book – chosen from among the many that sit on my shelves waiting to be read – I remember exactly why I picked it up at the big book sale awhile back. I’d read a short story titled am i blue? by Alice Walker over 20 years ago in a magazine. It was about a horse in a meadow alone, bored, betrayed. The meadow was outside a home where Walker was living, and her experience of Blue told me volumes about her appreciation of the hearts and souls of animals. This story was later banned, I found, by the California School Board in 1994, as was, of course, The Color Purple, by all those who feel they know best what you and I should read and think. (You can read am i blue? and some commentary on the The Westcoast Post blog.)

At some point later in time, I came across this (now very famous) quote by Alice Walker, “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.” And though it was not a period in my life when I had the time to read novels, I simply liked her even more.

Fast forward to a few years ago, and I came upon her novel, By the Light of My Father’s Smile. How could I not pick up a book with a title like that?  Knowing that, if nothing else, she and I shared something so important in common – a respect for, and appreciation of, animals.

LayItOnMyHeart-APneuman2I’m looking forward to starting this novel by Alice Walker, but admittedly, my heart is still half living with Charmaine Peake in Kentucky. I just finished Lay it on my Heart by Angela Pneuman, a novel about a 13 year-old girl whose father is, or believes himself to be, a prophet. Living in a small town crammed with churches of every faith possible, where one third of all the men are preachers or studying to be one, Charmaine and her mother Phoebe have been barely getting by in the year while her father has gone to the Holy Land, instructing them to live by their faith alone. This is a coming of age story where Charmaine must come to grips with all that is implied in having the father described, a mother who has felt compelled to honor his wishes, and a growing awareness that perhaps she isn’t and cannot be the holy and God-fearing person that has always been expected of her.

Charmaine’s relationship with her mother is best-described as that beginning struggle for independence, yet she feels constrained by her father’s beliefs of how she should behave as defined by the Old Testament and her desire to please him. Charmaine makes her own way in this story slowly, finding hypocrisies and truths all along the way. She grows to find friendship where she would have least expected it and a willingness to look at life in a way she would have never thought possible. The characters and relationships in this novel are very well-defined, so much so, that you are almost unaware at times of the truly impoverished state she and her mother are forced to live in because of her father’s choices. My one criticism of this book, even though I understand why they’re there, is the seemingly never-ending quotations from the Bible in the first third to half. I have no doubt that this is indeed the reality for the population written about (especially since the author is from Kentucky), but it often felt excessive, and made me wonder should I continue on. I’m glad I did, and I’m still digesting it all. Alice may have to wait just a wee bit.

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There are so many ways one can get lost on the web, between websites, social media, blogs, etc., but then there are places where you simply feel found. One of those places is on the ANHonestHouse-CReyes-Cover2lovely blog of Cynthia Reyes, where I find myself on a regular basis. Not only is Cynthia a wonderful writer with something to say, but she is also a published author whose second book, An Honest House, has just been released.

An Honest House is a memoir, designed to be read as a standalone or as the sequel of the memoir she started in 2013 with her first book, A Good Home.

Perhaps a step back is in order as a backdrop to Cynthia’s latest accomplishment – A Good Home is described as a “profoundly emotional book about the author’s early life in rural Jamaica, her move to urban North America, and her trips back home, all told through vivid descriptions of the unique homes she has lived in — from a tiny pink house in Jamaica and a mountainside cabin near Vancouver to the historic Victorian farmhouse AGoodHome-CReyes-Cover2she lives in today … Full of lovingly drawn characters and vividly described places, A Good Home takes the reader through deeply moving stories of marriage, children, the death of parents, and an accident that takes its high-flying author down a humbling notch.”

Fast forward to the release of An Honest House three years later which picks up “from the early days of her recovery from a car accident, as told in her first book, A Good Home, she shares in this new book intensely lyrical stories of life with her husband Hamlin in their historic farmhouse north of Toronto …You will be challenged as the author immerses you in the reality of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and the courage it takes to live with chronic pain. And you will say a wrenching farewell to the farmhouse as she opens a new chapter in a life still devoted to creating beauty out of the materials life serves up to her, be they dark and haunting or light and joyful.”

From everything I have read about An Honest House, and from what I’ve learned over the past few years of Cynthia through her blog, the journey with her through her challenges and successes, her fears and her triumphs, will be one well worth taking.

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This past weekend was the wonderful, huge, annual library sale that I go to every year, and below you see my haul.

EmptyShelves-Bowl-KayPat2

What? You don’t see any books? That’s because I never got there. Being under the weather for a few days, plus it was raining non-stop, I knew my best bet was to stay home and feel better. I missed the excitement of just being around the thousands of books, and certainly the traditional follow-up lunch with my friend in which we go over our multitude of finds, but in the end, I am hardly bookless.

I still have books from last year’s venture; friends share books all the time; I have bookshelves stuffed with selections I’ve yet to read or would happily read again; and … the local library is in a decent walking distance from my home. I am living in a very book-rich world.

AllTheLight-ADoerr2Not to mention, I am still living in the world of Anthony Doerr, Pulitzer Prize winning author of  All the Light We Cannot See. Yesterday, before I closed-up shop for the day on my work, I read a bit online about him and his other books, and watched a video of how he came to write this phenomenal book. I also looked at photographs of Saint Malo, the walled city on the coast of Brittany, bombed practically beyond recognition at the end of World War II, and an important location for much of the story. Doerr wanted to write a different tale about the war, and much like the outstanding author of The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, he certainly has done that. I am at times brought to tears at the beauty of Doerr’s use of words, and am moved by the story he tells.

As I approach the end of the book, I am deeply saddened by what has happened to one of the characters, but am holding out hope for the others. Soon I will be returning this novel to my local library, never knowing if my next book will be in the stacks, sitting in the $1.00 shelves at the front desk, or waiting for me here at home. I don’t own a kindle, and don’t read online. I thoroughly enjoy the weight of a book in my hands, the smell of paper and ink, the turning of the pages, and the placing of a bookmark where I’ll begin again as soon as I’m able.

We who love to read are a lucky lot, are we not?

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ShadowOfNight-DHarkness2Deborah Harkness is on the top of my list right now for being a simply brilliant writer. I just finished Shadow of Night, her second in the All Souls Trilogy, and am as spellbound as I was when I finished A Discovery of Witches, her first.

What blows me away, aside from the sheer endurance it must take to write a nearly 600 page novel, is the fact that Harkness sets most of this book (which, although it begins in modern day France and New Hampshire), in Elizabethan times —  in England, Prague, returning to the Blackfriars in England, and finally a return to France in the present day.

When one of the two main characters, Matthew DeClermont, a centuries-old vampire and modern day geneticist, time walks back to 1590 with the last of the Bishop witches, Diana Bishop, we see him as Matthew Royden. Royden, a spy for Queen Elizabeth, actually once lived and was a member of The School of Night, which also included Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, George Chapman, Thomas Herriot and the Earl of Northumberland. Part of the author’s genius is writing a story that integrates all the above-mentioned, plus others who lived at the time, with fictional characters against a backdrop of historically correct time and place. It is simply amazing. DiscOfWitches-DHarkness2Some of the characters are witches, daemons and vampires; some are human. In the back of the book, Harkness lists all her characters with an asterisk next to those who actually lived in Elizabethan times, (including Shakespeare, though he didn’t belong to the School of Night.)

Harkness’ characters, whether human or creature, are rich, complex and utterly believable. I don’t know if her novels fall under the category of urban fantasy or perhaps fantasy, but I can tell you, she is hardly riding the coattails of anyone who has created tales in the popular vein of vampire mythology. She is in a category all her own. Although I have highly praised Deborah Harkness’ talents, I have not revealed the story line of the All Souls Trilogy, and for this I suggest, if interested, you read more about the two novels published so far. You can find a concise summary of Shadow of Night here and of Ms. Harkness’ first novel, A Discovery of Witches here.  About the latter, goodreads.com says, “Debut novelist Deborah Harkness has crafted a mesmerizing and addictive read, equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense.”

Like so many good novelists, Harkness demands your full attention; the novels are challenging, but so very worth the journey.

 

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ManiacMagee-JSpinelli2How did Jerry Spinelli manage to cover the subjects of race, homelessness, bullying, friendship and the loneliness of the elderly all in one middle grade novel AND do it with humor, insight and compassion? This book was a revelation to me, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants an excellent, (and fast), read even though it’s hero is 12 year old Jeffrey (Maniac) Magee.

I began to read Maniac Magee and found quickly that Maniac was into sports – how fast he could run, how far he could throw a football – and I thought it might not be for rather unsporty me. Was I wrong. It’s not about sports; it’s about an orphaned kid on his own who encounters a variety of life’s toughest situations, (aside from losing his parents), and how he deals with them. He finds more than his share of challenges, some friends and/or admirers along the way, and some pretty scary antagonists. Maniac/Jeffrey loses some of his naiveté but his optimism always prevails.

Spinelli writes in a beyond-engaging style. His word choices and phrases and his sense of humor had me turning the pages and never wanting to put the book down. Every character is developed beautifully, but of course, especially Maniac. It’s no wonder this book earned Spinelli a Newbery Award.

And what’s also surprising is that although Maniac Magee was written in 1995, it is totally contemporary. Somehow Spinelli wrote a timeless tale – almost a folk tale or legend – that is as meaningful right now – maybe even more so – as it was back then. I am in awe of this author and in love with this story. Walk – no, run – to your library or bookstore and get Maniac Magee.

p.s. I have also read Stargirl, Eggs and Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli – all worthwhile reads as well.

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Did you know that J. K. Rowling has written her first novel for adults? The Casual Vacancy, published by Little Brown and Co. is making it’s debut tomorrow, September 27.

A member of the town council of Pagford, Barry Fairbrother, dies unexpectedly in his early forties. The competition for his seat is fierce, and further exemplifies that the quaint town with cobbled streets is not at all what it seems. In fact, everyone is at war with one another and nothing is as it seems.

Want to read more? Here’s J. K. Rowling’s web site with more detail.

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When was the last time you danced?
A question put to the sick by a Native American medicine man

This headed up the June 24th post by Mark Nepo in his The Book of Awakening. And I had to stop. When was the last time I danced? When was the last time I sang? Or really laughed hard? And the answer I came up with was that whenever it was, it was too, too long ago. And that got me pretty bummed. I love to dance.

There are periods in our lives when dancing is just so low on the agenda that we forget all about it. Although I vaguely remember dancing about the kitchen, holding one of my cats when she was really not doing well. I thought a loving waltz might help. I’m guessing it did, I’m sure as much for me as her.

Dancing is wonderful and I’ve been dancing for as long as I can remember. Lately? Not so much. With all that’s been going on I’ve barely listened to music or read a whole book. Yesterday, with a number of stressful situations at least partially resolved, I decided to change all that. I looked through my CD’s and put on a favorite that I haven’t listened to in a long time, p.s. A Toad Retrospective from Toad the Wet Sprocket. I  came across them in the early 90’s and  have several of their albums; I love their sound and this compilation is their best.

I hit “Play” and grabbed my book, Skinny Dip, something cool to drink, and sat down on the sofa and read. And read. And read `til I finished the book. (Yes, I did make dinner for all those who were hungry and then continued reading.)

OK, I didn’t dance.  But I listened to music I love and allowed myself something I rarely do … to simply relax and enjoy. I admit I am still feeling a wee bit guilty, but all the things I didn’t do are still right here waiting for me, and today is another day. Dance? That might happen at any time.

So you might ask yourself … when was the last time you danced? sang? laughed so hard you couldn’t stop? I’m certainly no medicine man, but if the answer is anything like mine was … maybe you, too, need to carve out a little “you” time. Put on the music and see what happens.

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This story by Robert James Waller is a wonderful, short novel – the depiction of a romance, an affair, between two people whose paths crossed in a juncture in time and space which neither expected. The thought that seems to stay with me about the author’s style is that he writes with the heart of a woman, but the pen of a man. This is not a criticism, but rather a compliment. He tells the story of  Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson with the lush feel of romance that a woman knows in her heart, yet without a touch of cloying sentimentality. Waller writes with a rich, but simple and straightforward style that I would generally attribute to a man. It’s a great combination and makes The Bridges of Madison County a fast and engrossing read.

The gentle unfolding of this once-in-a-lifetime experience for the two of them and the simply told background of both characters made them especially real to me. I also really appreciated how the loose ends were tied up in the discovery of Kincaid’s belongings and Francesca’s letter after her death to her two adult children, then followed by an interview with a jazz musician in Washington who’d come to know Kincaid before he died. It was all beautifully done.

The romantic affair that lasted for four days while Kincaid was on assignment for National Geographic and Francesca’s family was away for the week at the state fair was the focus – and gem – of the book. Who wouldn’t be sent dreaming a bit after reading this novel?

As for the movie, I added it to my Netflix queue, but I must say I have my questions about Meryl Streep, brilliant as she is, as an Italian. I know Clint Eastwood plays Robert Kincaid, but I see Clint Eastwood as a bit more hard-edged than I saw Kincaid. He’s an excellent actor, but I’m not imagining that wild romantic streak of Kincaid. I guess I’ll just have to see on that one. I’m always ready to be surprised.

Here is the video and song that Robert James Waller created based on his book. Quality not great, but the song is fantastic. What a talented man.

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