Thursday, April 19, 2018

Beartown by Fredrick Backman

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

* * *

We almost unanimously loved A Man Called Ove, so it seemed likely that Mr Backman’s next offering would be just as good. Dare I say that I think it is better? Certainly, the group members had a much higher opinion of this book, although that could have been because we found the central theme, of a small town obsessed with hockey, a little bit more relatable than the struggles of a depressed widower.

Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else's forehead and pulled the trigger.

This is the story of how we got there.”

It is a clichĂ© of episodic television to show a shocking event and then go back and show the steps leading up to it. While this is a familiar structure, it is also a good way of imposing a sense of tension and doom over events that could otherwise seem relatively innocuous. It also creates not only a ‘why done it?’ but also a ‘who done it?’ that constantly undermines our ability to trust the characters that we encounter. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to talk about the book without revealing the exact nature of the event that precipitates the ‘shotgun to the head’ scenario, so please note:

*** Spoilers below ***

We are introduced to Beartown, which is actually in Sweden, but could easily be in Maine. The local forestry industry is dying and taking the town with it. The only thing left for the townspeople to rally around are their hockey teams. There is a ‘professional’ team, although it seems to be of a very low standard, and the promising junior team, which is having a particularly good year. It should be noted that nobody has any interest at all in ladies hockey, which seems to be an attitude that also mirrors the situation here in Maine. The town has a shared delusion that if the kids’ team wins their championship then everything will be fine again: the town will attract investment and jobs, regaining its sense of pride. Whilst this could be a good focal point for local activities, it has become more of a blind obsession, which is placing unbearable amounts of pressure on the team, especially its star player: Kevin.

This has its benefits, such as unwavering support that the team receives from their fan base. We also see that players with financial problems are helped by the wealthy in the town, but often in a sensitive, anonymous way that does not damage their pride. However, placing so much responsibility on the shoulders of teenage boys creates an awful lot of anxiety, which threatens to overwhelm some of them. It also leads to them being held to very different standards than the other students. They have come to believe themselves above the normal rules of society because they are allowed to be insolent, rude and inconsiderate of other people without rebuke: as long as they play well, they can do no wrong. We see this in an appalling incident told from the perspective of a class teacher at the school, where the team is sexist and disrespectful to her and the head teacher refuses to ‘upset’ them before the big game. This has been happening for a long time for Kevin: we are told that he spends endless hours shooting goals in his backyard, which produces a noise that can be heard by all his neighbors, but none of them complain about it, even when he does it at night or in the early morning.

I can understand that the boys’ parents and supporters see this laxity as a way of compensating the teenagers for the huge amounts of time and energy they spend on their hockey: they give their all to the game from a very early age and seem to have very little other than it in their lives.  However, such a lack of accountability is a dangerous thing and can lead to highly entitled behavior. So, when the team wins their semi-final game and have a party afterwards to celebrate, it is not much of a surprise that they choose to blow off steam with the help of lots alcohol and zero adult supervision. Riding on a high of achievement and unrestrained by self-discipline, Kevin takes advantage of the situation to ply a younger girl, Maya, with alcohol and then invites her to his bedroom. They begin kissing, but when he tries to take it further she tries to make him stop. Even though she repeatedly screams “No!” and fights with him, he holds her down and rapes her. A younger teammate hears her shouts and walks in on them, so she does have a witness to the event and her lack of consent.

Whilst I find this behavior totally abhorrent, I am sad to report that I was not surprised that it occurred. Not one tiny bit. Nor was I surprised that the overwhelming response is to excuse the boy’s behavior and blame the victim, mainly because she did not report the crime straight away.

This reminded me very much of the conviction of Brock Turner for sexual assault and the appallingly lenient sentence that he received and the pleas of his family that the incident “shouldn’t ruin his life”. We see exactly the same victim-blaming and attempts to excuse or condone the attacker’s actions in Beartown. “She must have wanted it because she went to his room.” “She shouldn’t have got drunk.” “She waited until the day of the final to tell the police because she wanted to ruin his chance to play.” Whilst some people are willing to believe Maya’s ‘version’ of events, many more want to persecute her because she ‘ruined’ their chance at winning the title and that is the only important thing to consider.

Needless to say: this made me very, very angry. Also, it made me unutterably depressed because this happens all the time and it seems like we should be better than this. Why is this sexist behavior still alive and kicking in our modern, ‘enlightened’ society?

Fortunately, Mr Backman gives us a little catharsis in a happyish ending. The male witness steps forward to do the right thing even though he risks losing his place on the team and ostracizing the entire community. He bravely stands in front of everyone and speaks the truth. Ultimately, this has no impact on the legal outcome of the accusations leveled at Kevin, but it shows us that not all people will blame the victim: there are still some decent people out there who will hold people to account for their transgressions, regardless of the consequences.

I will not reveal who the characters are in the ‘shotgun scene’, but I will say that the incident is massively powerful and brings a sense of justice to the end of the book. This is supposed to be the first installment of a trilogy, but we are given brief glimpse into the futures of some of the characters. However, some of these are far from the happy ending that we would like to see for all of them, retaining the more realistic tone of the novel. At no point does Mr Backman give us a syrupy, fairy tale resolution to the conflicts that litter Beartown.

I should add that there are plenty of other themes explored in this marvelous book and often by looking at their effects on different age groups. We see grief at the loss of a child, but also of a long term spouse; we follow the struggles of people coming to the end of their careers and near the beginning. Obviously, many of the themes are related to the adolescent experience, especially those of parenting styles, gender identity and peer acceptance. However, we also explore the immigrant experience, both for an adult and a teen, and the diverse experiences afforded by the different social classes in the town. This is a book with a lot in it and it is a most satisfying read. I recommend it very highly.    

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Books for May

It seems that the recommendations from BPL patrons continue to be excellent, so here we have two more, and there will be another pair next month!

They are both now on the Nooks and available to download.

A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner

September 1911. On Ellis Island in New York Harbor, nurse Clara Wood cannot face returning to Manhattan, where the man she loved fell to his death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Then, while caring for a fevered immigrant whose own loss mirrors hers, she becomes intrigued by a name embroidered onto the scarf he carries …and finds herself caught in a dilemma that compels her to confront the truth about the assumptions she’s made. Will what she learns devastate her or free her?

September 2011. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, widow Taryn Michaels has convinced herself that she is living fully, working in a charming specialty fabric store and raising her daughter alone. Then a long-lost photograph appears in a national magazine, and she is forced to relive the terrible day her husband died in the collapse of the World Trade Towers …the same day a stranger reached out and saved her. Will a chance reconnection and a century-old scarf open Taryn’s eyes to the larger forces at work in her life?

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

You can’t stop the future.
You can’t rewind the past.
The only way to learn the secret . . . is to press play.

Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a strange package with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker–his classmate and crush–who committed suicide two weeks earlier. Hannah’s voice tells him that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out why.

Clay spends the night crisscrossing his town with Hannah as his guide. He becomes a firsthand witness to Hannah’s pain, and as he follows Hannah’s recorded words throughout his town, what he discovers changes his life forever.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Books for April

After the intensity of the reads for last month I hope that these two are a little lighter, although I doubt that The Hate U Give will be a fluffy story.

They are both now available on the Nooks.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy. All this means that Eleanor has become a creature of habit (to say the least) and a bit of a loner.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond save Sammy, an elderly man who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil's name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr. But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Archiving Nook Books

I was a little confused when I tried to read Beartown yesterday because my Nook refused to download it. Before We Were Yours appeared in my library with no problem, but Mr Backman’s novel would not appear, no matter how often I hit the ‘Sync’ button. I checked my Wifi connection . . . I switched the Nook off and on again . . . I checked that I had actually bought the book and not hallucinated the purchase . . . nothing helped.  

Eventually I decided that I must be overlooking the book somehow and chose to ‘Search’ for it. Lo and behold! It appeared, but the title was grayed out and I was given the option to ‘Unarchive’ it.

This highlights one unfortunate aspect of the Nooks we use for the book group. We have three accounts, each with five Nooks applied to it. This means that any alteration done to the library on one Nook will automatically be done to the others on the same account once it is connected to Wifi. So, please remember not to add books to the archive, even if you have read them, because it will move them for other people as well.

Happy reading!


Monday, February 26, 2018

Why I Love Brandon Sanderson

Sometimes I start reading a book and it feels a little like sinking into a warm bath or settling my feet into an old pair of slippers and it makes me smile a big dopey grin. I snuggle into my chair, knowing that I will be transported to a wonderful place populated by characters that will make me laugh and cry whilst making me think about the human condition and ponder the meaning of life. Few authors have the ability to do this to me on a regular basis, but those who do are the ones that my friends, colleagues, library patrons and random strangers are sick of hearing about.

And then there is Brandon Sanderson . . .

Mr Sanderson is a surprisingly young author, considering his publication history. His first novel, Elantris, was published in 2005 and since then he has published more than 20 full-length titles, plus many novellas and short stories, while taking time away from his own stories to complete the epic Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death. I might add that many of his titles are seriously weighty tomes, so I have no idea how many pages he produces in any one year, but he is pretty much a writing machine. However, it is not his sheer productivity that makes him so wonderful. After all, I love George R.R. Martin’s writing even though he writes painfully slowly and I am seriously worried that he will actually die before finishing A Song of Ice and Fire. But I digress; it is not the quantity of Brandon’s output that impresses me so much, but the quality of his writing and the spectacular imagination that he continues to display.

This is a man who excels at creating fascinatingly diverse worlds with astonishingly unique magic systems. For example, in Warbreaker (2009), the magic involves an enigmatic element called Breath: each person is born with just one, but they can transfer it to someone else. Many chose to sell their Breath as it is a very valuable commodity, but it leaves them a monochromatic Drab, unable to perceive color. Those with multiple Breaths perceive a greater range of colors and can even Awaken inanimate objects with Breath in order to give them a semblance of life. This sounds really cool, but is even better when applied to the reanimation of a dead rodent, which is then deployed as a diversionary tactic in a sword fight. His other magic systems involve such things as the ingestion of metal powders in the Mistborn series or the use of chalk line drawings in The Rithmatist (2013). As I said, he is rather inventive, which is very nice in a genre that can often get a little stale.

However, Mr Sanderson does not restrict himself to simply creating highly detailed magic systems: he mimics J.R.R. Tolkien in producing worlds with languages, peoples, cultures, mythologies and histories. Admittedly, he does not tend to write them in the dry scholarly way Professor Tolkien wrote about Middle Earth, but that is probably a good thing. This thoroughness of creation can be seen most clearly in The Way of Kings (2010) and its sequels. Set on the planet Roshar, many aspects of everyday life are shaped by the Highstorms which rage across the planet moving from East to West. The initial stormwall is a massive wave of water, full of debris and lightning, whipped by savage winds and easily capable of throwing boulders around. This destructive force has molded the ecology of Roshar, with even plants in the worst affected areas adapted to withdraw into protective shells or casings during the worst of the storm and then reach out to absorb the life-bringing water and minerals that it leaves behind. However, these deadly storms fuel the magic system on this world, because gems left outside during a Highstorm become filled with stormlight which can be used in a variety of ways. Then there are the spren which are seen everywhere, reflecting elements, emotions or even concepts. Rain, flames, joy, anger, anticipation and even creation all attract their own different spren: windspren look like ribbons of light swirling through the air, whilst awespren appear as rings of blue smoke that burst and spread like a ripple from a stone dropped into water. Also there is the Purelake, which withdraws its waters underground to avoid Highstorms, and the Reshi Isles, many of which are actually large wandering crab-like things, oh, and there are the people who are made up of thousands of invertebrates joined together to look like a human . . . Plus, all his adult titles take place in a single universe called the Cosmere, so that there are characters who pop up in various series and an overarching history that binds the books together.

Of course, an imaginative setting is irrelevant if we do not care about the characters inhabiting it. This is another of Mr Sanderson’s strengths: he gives us three dimensional characters to love and hate. Some of them are even delightfully amoral and possibly evil, such as Warbreaker’s Nightblood: a talking sword that yearns to kill evil-doers. Unfortunately, although it is sentient, Nightblood has no moral context to inform its desire and so it tends to come across as a tiny bit psychotic. Once drawn from its sheath, it leaks a black smoke and attracts evil people to possess it. This usually ends badly for them as they become homicidal, attacking everyone in sight and eventually either committing suicide or being killed by the good guys. Good people find it difficult to touch, or even be around, the blade because it makes them nauseous.

He also places us into the minds of people doing some appallingly bad things, but for what seem to be the best of reasons. This is certainly true of Szeth, the Assassin in White that we meet in the books of The Stormlight Archive series. As we learn more of Szeth and the reasons why he commits his crimes he becomes an increasingly complex and tragic character. He is not a truly evil villain, as you might expect of a merciless killer, and it could be that he might eventually become a hero, if he is given the opportunity to do so. All the characters are suitably gray, with both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ traits and reasonable justifications for their behavior. This makes them seem much more real and a lot more interesting than many heroes and villains who are very stereotyped and rather two dimensional. Mr Sanderson’s heroes are often a little frustrating because they do stupid things that make their situations worse, and yet their actions are perfectly in character and suited to their mindset and understanding of the events unfolding around them.

One aspect of his writing that I particularly appreciate is his examination of religious systems. At the beginning of Mistborn (2006), we see the people crushed beneath the heel of a ruthless Theocracy led by the apparently immortal Lord Ruler. As the Mistborn series progresses we learn how this Theocracy came to be founded and how incremental steps caused a man with the very best of intentions to gradually become a ruthless despot. I find the examination of belief systems fascinating, especially when we are given some answers about the nature of the divine, or supposedly divine, elements within them. This is another area where the Cosmere adds an extra layer of interest, because we come to learn that the mythologies on the various worlds are founded in the larger truth of a ‘god’ who was killed and broken into sixteen Shards. These pieces of the divine embodied certain facets of the god’s power and were taken up by sixteen humans who then became personifications such as Honor, Ruin and Devotion. They spread to various planets in the Cosmere and became the source of magic on those worlds. Thus, all the magic systems share some form of Investiture, where magical abilities are derived from receiving a tiny fraction of the divine power.

I could go on, but ultimately Mr Sanderson’s work needs to be read to be appreciated. I thoroughly recommend him to anyone with even the vaguest interest in the Fantasy genre. As a short introduction to his writing I suggest his YA series, The Reckoners, which begins with Steelheart or a novella set in the Cosmere called The Emperor’s Soul. Otherwise, start with Elantris before to moving on to the Mistborn series and then the Stormlight Archive. Enjoy!


Saturday, February 17, 2018

Books for March

At the end of 2017, one of my colleagues in Circulation asked patrons to vote for their favorite reads of the year. It produced an interesting and varied list, so I decided to offer some of the winners to the group this month. We liked so many of them that we have already decided on what we want to read next month as well!

Beartown is the second book by Swedish author Fredrik Backman, whose A Man Called Ove we enjoyed last year. Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate has been compared to Orphan Train and The Nightingale and won the Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction in 2017.

Both are now available on the Nooks.

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize that the truth is much darker. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together—in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancĂ©, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions—and compels her to take a journey through her family's long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or redemption.

Monday, February 5, 2018

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy.

* * *

This is a book that I read a few years ago after watching the amazing film “Capote” with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whilst I often read books and then recommend them to my friends, there are a few titles that I will push almost mercilessly and this is one of them: it is THAT good. It was the first non-fiction title that I suggested to the book group, but it took a few other enjoyable ventures into the genre before they finally choose to read it.

It is often credited with being the first ‘non-fiction novel’, although there are a few earlier examples, and it is certainly very different from other non-fiction titles that I have read in that there is no feeling of a narrator laying out their research. In this way it reads like a typical fiction novel: Capote presents everything as truth and adds no speculation or discussion of possible actions or motivations. This is most obvious in the details of the Clutters’ last day, where some events are related in explicit detail whilst others are barely mentioned, presumably because the witnesses involved refused to cooperate with him. At no time do we feel as if we are looking through the author’s eyes and this adds a disquieting tone of inevitability to the events that he relates. His matter-of-fact approach makes the events seem even more mundane, and thus more disturbing.

One of the group related the terror that she felt after watching the 1967 film based upon the book and it is easy to understand how the Clutter murders created such a sense of panic and unease in rural America. At that time people generally knew, and trusted, all of their neighbors and rarely locked their doors, even assuming that their doors were fitted with locks. This murder helped to shatter that sense of security and inject a feeling of paranoia into many peoples’ lives. If this could happen to the Clutters then what was to stop it happening to you or me or the Smiths down the road? Unfortunately, the case provided little comfort even when the culprits were caught because they had the thinnest of reasons for approaching the Clutter house and seemingly no motive for the ensuing carnage.

Capote creates an uncomfortable sense of dread by taking us through the Clutters’ last day. Not only does this make us sympathize with the victims, but it builds suspense before the inevitable crime. Their very niceness and ordinariness makes the murders even more horrific because they did absolutely nothing to justify what happened to them. The tension is heightened by interweaving their boringly normal day with details of the murderers’ road trip to Holcomb. The fact that Mr Clutter was notorious for NOT conducting his business in cash and so was a poor ‘mark’ for the intended robbery adds more pathos and makes us increasingly anxious as night falls and the perpetrators arrive. We hope that somehow history will re-write itself and the Clutters will escape to live the long and generally happy lives that they surely deserve.

We are spared a vicarious replay of the murders in favor of eye-witness testimony of the bodies being discovered, although this conveys its own horror as we see the reactions of friends and neighbors. A detailed recounting of what actually occurred is left until later in the book, when it is given during the suspects’ questioning. Whilst we will never know exactly who did what, the physical evidence does corroborate a lot of the account presented. Chillingly, we never learn why the Clutters’ were killed: whilst Smith claims to have killed all of them he provides no reason for killing Mr Clutter. Logically, once the father is dead Smith needs to kill the other family members to remove potential witnesses to the murder, but he never explains why he took that first step. He claims that Hickock repeatedly said that there should be no witnesses, but then recounts the first murder as if it happened without his conscious intent. Capote does not debate whether this is Smith minimizing his culpability or a true recounting of his loss of self-control.

The pointlessness of the crime is the most depressing and troubling aspect of the book, although the seemingly ordinary life stories of the two criminals add to a general sense of hopelessness and bewilderment. Capote leaves us to draw our own conclusions about the effects of the pair’s upbringing upon their actions and personalities. In doing so it seems to be much easier to find sympathy for Smith who had endured a classically ‘bad’ upbringing. He suffered prejudice as a half-Cherokee, his mother was a promiscuous alcoholic, his father was exploitative and abusive, he was abused by nuns in an orphanage because of his bed-wetting and then he suffered debilitating injuries in a motorcycle crash which left him with shortened legs and in continuous pain. A stint in the marines failed to instill him with personal discipline and he drifted into a life of petty crime and inevitable incarceration. In contrast, Hickock had a normal, happy childhood although he suffered severe head injuries in a car accident at the age of 19, which left him with a noticeably damaged face.

By providing a narrative of what the pair did both before and after the killings we are given a chilling glimpse into their thoughts. Both felt superior to their fellow man, and in many ways they were: both were of above average intelligence and had talents that they could have exploited to live productive, honest lives. However, both harbored a grievance at the unfairness of the world and saw people only as a means to acquiring what they wanted. Both had some seriously antisocial attitudes, possibly resulting from life experience or, in Hickock’s case, brain damage. It should be noted that two of Smith’s siblings committed suicide, whilst his surviving sister refused to have any contact with him or their father. It is also very telling that Smith insisted that he killed the Clutter women because he felt sorry for Hickock’s mother and did not want her to think of her son as a killer.

Their actions after the murders are bizarre in that they had a very good chance of remaining uncaught but instead chose to return to the United States from the anonymity of Mexico and continued to write bad checks, making it relatively easy for the police to find them once they became suspects. It is also chilling to realize that they spent some time actively seeking car owners to murder: one gentleman escaped death only due to the timely appearance of a hitchhiker. They bickered like a dysfunctional married couple adding to their aura of sad desperation and making us wonder why they stuck together at all. Their apparent inability to settle into any form of normal life suggests that they would have continued wandering around the States until they were caught for some crime or another and returned to prison. I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but these two men were a real danger to society and needed to be removed from it permanently. They remain the most likely suspects in another case where a family of four was murdered by shooting although no definitive evidence has been found to link them to the crime.

It is very rare for me to find myself impressed by a writer’s expertise as I am actually reading their work: but this is one of those cases. It is one of the most beautifully crafted pieces of writing that I have ever read and I heartily recommend it to everyone.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Books for February

During the last month we have suffered some unpleasant weather, so in an attempt to distract us from the ice and snow I offered a selection of books set in sunnier climates. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter will take us to one of my favorite destinations: Italy. Death Comes as the End is our first foray into Agatha Christie’s writing and is unusual because it is set in Ancient Egypt.

Both books are now available on the Nooks.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio's back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

Imhotep, wealthy landowner and priest of Thebes, has outraged his sons and daughters by bringing a beautiful concubine into their fold. And the manipulative Nofret has already set about a plan to usurp her rivals' rightful legacies. When her lifeless body is discovered at the foot of a cliff, Imhotep's own flesh and blood become the apparent conspirators in her shocking murder. But vengeance and greed may not be the only motives...

Saturday, January 6, 2018

2017 in Review

Last year I built upon Goodreads’ review of our reading in a blog post. Here are this year’s numbers, with comparisons to 2016:

How much did we read?

As in 2016, the group met 9 times and read 19 titles. Altogether we read 6,334 pages, which is a huge drop from the amazing 7,247 that we managed last year, with the average dropping from an impressive 381 pages per book to a more sedate 333. Our shortest read was The Uncommon Reader, which is actually classed as a novella, at 120 pages. However, this was balanced by All the Light We Cannot See that filled a much more Pulitzer-worthy 531.

Who did we read?

This year the male authors outnumbered the females by 10 to 9, although both Terry Pratchett and Brandon Sanderson are authors that I love and will continue to suggest to the group. All the other authors, whether male or female, were new to the group, although I suspect that some of them will make repeat appearances in the future.

How old were they?

The oldest book we read this year was The Haunting of Hill House, which was published in 1959, a whole 6 years earlier than The Left Hand of Darkness, our oldie last year. Again, the newest titles were from the preceding year, with both Behind Closed Doors and My Name is Lucy Barton published in 2016. Also again, the others showed a definite skew towards newer reads, with 14 titles published after 2000. I keep looking for older titles, and I do suggest them at meetings, but the ladies seem to prefer something newer and unfamiliar.

What genre were they?

We read a wide range of genres this year, falling into 16 categories other than ‘Fiction’, up 1 from last year. Last year we read a lot of Fantasy (11 titles), but this year the most popular categories were Mystery (8 titles) and Historical (5 titles). I am not sure if this is due to me being more varied in my suggestions or just the luck of our selection procedure. Of course, it helps that so many of my favorite Fantasy / Sci-Fi titles are monstrous tomes that I can never suggest, even over the summer hiatus – I am looking at YOU George R. R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson!  

Did we like them?

Yes, although we were more ambivalent this year, with an average rating of 3.4, down from 4.2 last year.

We had one title that we all absolutely hated: Behind Closed Doors. Goodreads does not allow a 0 rating, but that is really what we wanted to give it. I personally could not complete it once a puppy arrived to be tortured and / or killed by the dastardly villain. Also it was badly written with poor characterization and a ludicrous plot. Many in the group were seriously under-impressed by The Woods by Harlan Coben and also Louise Penny’s Still Life, which both received 2 star ratings. All the other titles earned 3 or 4 stars, and whilst some of us would have given some of them a full 5 stars, no one title was unanimously declared outstanding, although A Man Called Ove and All The Light We Cannot See came closest.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Misery by Stephen King

Paul Sheldon is a bestselling novelist who has finally met his number one fan. Her name is Annie Wilkes, and she is more than a rabid reader—she is Paul’s nurse, tending his shattered body after an automobile accident. But she is also furious that the author has killed off her favorite character in his latest book. Annie becomes his captor, keeping him prisoner in her isolated house.

Annie wants Paul to write a book that brings Misery back to life—just for her. She has a lot of ways to spur him on. One is a needle. Another is an axe. And if they don’t work, she can get really nasty.

* * *

It seems amazing that this is our first venture into the works of Bangor’s most famous resident. Of course, as most of Mr King’s books are tomes of gigantic proportion, they are often too long to meet my criteria for nomination. I was looking for a diverse selection of Horror stories for our Halloween reading, and this fitted provided a nice alternative to all those vampires, ghosts, serial killers and ravening beasts.

Horror is a strange genre, in my opinion, because it can be difficult to predict what will be truly horrific. For example, I am much more upset when the victim is an animal, especially if it is a trusting domesticated one. I know that this is completely illogical, but it has stopped me reading books in the past; for example, Behind closed Doors by B. A. Paris, which involved the abuse of a puppy. However, I can be somewhat unmoved by the death and mutilation of humans, especially if they are disposable characters which the author sacrifices without even trying to get me emotionally attached to them. Some of the group could not cope with the physical aspects of Annie’s treatment of Paul and so did not finish the book, whilst I found it only moderately horrific. For me, the true horror was the way that Paul’s soul was slowly destroyed by the isolation and hopelessness of his situation.

The whole book is seen through Paul’s eyes, although there are a few sections where he imagines how events are unfolding in the outside world. He speaks to us in a stream of consciousness, so that we share thoughts and follow his dreams into some very disturbing visions. Perhaps it was this very intimate voice that made people highly uncomfortable reading Paul’s experience of Annie’s attacks. It was even more difficult to distance yourself from his pain because you were stuck in his head with him: and just as powerless to stop what was happening. Indeed, powerlessness is something that Paul experiences from the very beginning of the book, when Annie has to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He feels assaulted and invaded: describing it as rape even as it is occurring, before she has given him any reason to dislike or fear her. 

This first ‘assault’, dragging him away from the peaceful blackness of death, sets the scene for a series of attacks that become increasingly violent. At first it seems as if Annie, who is a trained nurse, is actually trying to help Paul to recover, but it soon becomes clear that she may never have intended him to leave. She splints his broken legs with no effort to set the bones in place, so that they are anything but straight and one is several inches shorter than the other. She also chooses to give him huge doses of an opioid whilst being totally aware that it is extremely addictive. All of this makes it surprising that she bothered to save him in the first place – especially as she did not know his identity until she checked his wallet. That she happens to be his ‘number one fan’ is pure coincidence, and one is left wondering what she might have done to him if he had just been a random person.

Of course, Annie’s adulation of Paul is cut short when she reads the latest Misery book and finds that her beloved character is dead. Paul is saved by his quick thinking exploitation of Annie’s desire to see Misery rise from the grave, and so begins his role as Scheherezade. At first he uses Misery’s Return as a way to postpone Annie’s decision to kill him, just as Scheherezade’s stories buy her night after night with the murderous king. However, it later becomes clear that Paul’s writing is also giving him a reason to live, so that he becomes Scheherezade to himself as he chooses not to commit suicide. Eventually, he values the book so highly that he decides to save it as part of his plan to escape captivity.

Sections of Misery’s Return are included in the text, and it should be noted that we all found them laughably awful! They are horribly melodramatic, with massively improbably plot lines, terrible dialogue and totally unlikable central characters. We all agreed that we would never want to read the book in its entirety. At the beginning of the book, Paul would probably agree with our assessment of the series: he hates it and resents its popularity in comparison to what he considers to be his more literary works. Of course, we have no idea if they are equally badly written, although it seems that Paul probably has an inflated opinion of his ability as an artist. He is genuinely shocked when there is little effort made to search for him until his car is found: it seems that nobody is really upset that he has gone missing. We wondered how much this reflects Stephen King’s opinion about his own work and value to society.

Annie Wilkes is possibly one of the best villains ever written and is especially creepy because she can appear very normal at times. Perhaps her ability to seem normal is what allowed her to remain undetected for so many years as she killed patients in her care, although it seems likely that she was also cunning enough to move on before suspicion led to hospitals to act against her. Interestingly, unlike that other famous serial killer, Hannibal Lector, she is not godlike in control of her environment: she seems to suffer from some form of mental illness, although we do not know if that caused her murderous behavior or is a symptom of it. I suspect that she is an amalgamation of many fans that have been ‘over zealous’ in their admiration of Mr King’s writings and is his way of telling fans that they have no say in what an author chooses to write.

For those with a strong stomach, I would heartily recommend this claustrophobic exploration of powerlessness and obsession. It will also make you much more careful when driving your lawn tractor!