Friday, January 29, 2016

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart - he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm, she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season's first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning, the snow child is gone--but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them. 

* * *

I remember being struck by the austere beauty of the cover art when this book was first published. I added it to my stupidly huge ‘To Read’ list with no clear idea of when, or if, I would ever find time to discover if the book was as good as its cover. So, when I was trying to gather a list of suggestions that were suitably wintery, I jumped at the chance to include this Pulitzer Prize nominee.

It may have been the snow gently falling past my living room window, but I found that the author painted a wonderfully vivid picture of life in the Alaskan wilderness. Living in Maine gives me some appreciation of snow and ice, cold and darkness, but at least we are not as removed from civilization as the characters in this book. Indeed the bitter remoteness of their existence had me shivering along with them. It is difficult to imagine living in such a desolate situation, although I know that some people still choose such a lifestyle. Whilst I can understand their desire to be independent and self-sufficient, I would not be happy at the thought of moonshine as the main medical treatment available in the local area!

Strangely, the remoteness of the setting gave this title a rather timeless quality. With the possible exception of communications, I am quite sure that life in some areas of Alaska is very similar to that depicted here. Even in the 1920s, Jack and Mabel were turning their backs on many of the comforts of modern living when they moved from ‘back East’. Personally, I could probably live without electricity, but I would struggle with an outhouse in the middle of the Alaskan winter: I definitely approve of indoor plumbing!

Of course, remoteness was precisely what Mabel wanted when she suggested the move to the distant North West. I found her experience of miscarriage and family expectation very understandable. As a childless woman myself, I know how difficult it can be to continually have your differentness highlighted. It is awkward enough in the present day, so I can only imagine how much worse it was then. I was particularly aggrieved for her because the family knew about the miscarriage and should have shown more understanding that she simply could not have a child. However, I am aware that in this regard Mabel is a very unreliable narrator: the tactlessness and hints that she perceives may have been purely in her imagination and a creation of her own depression. That she is clinically depressed at the beginning of the story is shown quite explicitly when she walks out on to the frozen river: she has tried to make a new start and it has not solved her problems.

Needless to say, the beginning of the book is very dark in tone as both she and Jack spiral down into their own private wells of despair.   Perhaps most depressing of all, at the beginning, is their isolation from each other. Each has retreated behind a barrier into a world of self-imposed expectations. They are both painfully lonely, even when sleeping together in the same bed. Their days have become an eternity of monotonous drudgery and self-sacrifice that seems to be leading them into exhaustion and, ultimately, failure. Both fear that they will be forced to abandon their dream and return to their old lives. However, neither of them is willing to share their fears with the other and so each is suffering without the vital support of their spouse.

Fortunately, all this changes when they are moved to make a snowgirl one evening. It is a testament to their lack of communication that neither of them mentions the apparent disappearance of the snowgirl next day. They are both so far withdrawn inside themselves that neither wants to reveal their thoughts about what seems to have happened. Of course, the girl soon returns to them and begins to transform them from tormented individuals into the loving couple that they once were. The process is slow and not without setbacks, but they gradually heal and transform into happy, productive people with an extended support system of friends and adopted family. In many ways, their journey is the real focus of the book and the mysterious Faina is simply the agent that causes this change.

However, the book seems to be Faina’s story as well sometimes, which does lead to my only issue with it. At first, it seems that she is a purely magical being. There are no footprints leading to the snowgirl, only ones going away from it, which suggests that she was somehow created from it. Also, her connection to the natural world certainly seems supernatural. She makes no real indentation in snow when she walks across it and seems impervious to the intense cold. She also has an uncanny ability to find, or perhaps direct, the local wildlife and appears to create snow and ice at will. The author even chooses to report her speech without the use of quotation marks, suggesting that it is telepathic rather than truly spoken. Of course, all of this is reinforced by Mabel’s repeated references to the Russian fairy tale contained in her book.

The author then makes what I believe is a misstep by providing an all too real backstory for the magical child. Whilst this allows her to then grow older and finally fall in love, it was very jarring to the original, magical, portrayal of the girl. One book group member suggested that perhaps an earlier repetition of the present circumstance: Faina being summoned by another person grieving a lost child. Whilst that fits some of the story, I felt as if that might be going a little beyond what the author intended. She seemed to make a definite attempt to convince us of Faina’s ‘realness’. I find such uncertainty rather unsettling, so I would have preferred to have had a clear identity for the agent of change.

However, I suppose that Faina’s nature is incidental to the transformation that she inspires, just as the beauty of a snowflake is not lessened by its ephemeral existence.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Books for February

After a couple of months tagging books I struggled to find suggestions for the vote this month. However, we settled on The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, which several people have recommended to me. Even more surprisingly, the group selected Old Man's War by John Scalzi, which was one of the audio books that kept me sane during the tagging process. I cannot wait to hear everyone's reaction to these two titles!

Both titles are now available on the Nooks.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

FRANCE, 1939. In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France...but invade they do. When France is overrun, Vianne is forced to take an enemy into her house, and suddenly her every move is watched; her life and her child’s life is at constant risk.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. When she meets the compelling and mysterious Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, she falls in love as only the young can...completely. Then he betrays her and Isabelle races headlong into danger and joins the Resistance.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife's grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the Colonial Defense Force. They don't want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You'll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You'll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you'll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

Friday, January 15, 2016

January Meeting - Update!

There is a slight change of plan for the meeting. We have been assigned to one of the Teen Study Rooms on the third floor - I will put up signs to help you all find it!


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

January Meeting

We will be meeting at 6pm on January 21st in the Sibley Meeting Room. This is on the third floor and I will provide signs to help you find it.

Happy Reading!


Saturday, November 14, 2015

Books for January

One of our choices for this month is Autumn Moon, the last in Jan DeLima’s Celtic Wolves series. The long break means that anyone who has not read the previous two volumes can catch up before finishing the adventure. Both Celtic Moon and Summer Moon are available on the Nooks already. The second title is The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. The new choices have been added to the Nooks.

Whilst I am assured that the library will definitely reopen on January 4th, I will wait until later in the year before confirming the date for the January meeting. At the moment it is penciled in for the 21st, but anything could happen before then!

Autumn Moon by Jan DeLima

For centuries, Cormack has lived between worlds—a man trapped in the body of a wolf, shunned by humans and shifters alike. Only one person has ever welcomed his company: Elen, a kindred outcast who is feared by others of her ancient Celtic race for her strange healing abilities. 

Cormack has always valued Elen’s kindness and understanding, but after a desperate act of friendship causes Elen to free him from his curse. Except before Cormack can win Elen’s heart, Pendaran, the evil leader of the Guardians, captures her, determined to manipulate her incredible power to aid him in his twisted war against the shapeshifting tribes. 

Now Cormack must use all of his skills as a warrior and a wolf to save the woman he loves—before Pendaran’s vile schemes destroy them all… 

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart - he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm, she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season's first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning, the snow child is gone--but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Books for November

We pride ourselves on being unusual in our book selections, and this month we have again chosen one rather silly title and one that is much more serious. For comic relief we have Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan whilst Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline should give us plenty to think about.

Both books are now on the Nooks

Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan

Abattoir worker Terry Borders' love life is crippled by the stench of death that clings to his skin from his days spent slaughtering cows; teenage vegan Geldof 'Scabby' Peters alternates between scratching furiously at his rash and baiting his overbearing New Age mother; and inept journalist Lesley McBrien struggles forlornly in the shadow of her famous war correspondent father and the star journalist at the Glasgow Tribune.

Then an experimental bioweapon is unleashed and suddenly cows want to chew more than just cud . . .

 Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from "aging out" of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.

Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers that she and Vivian aren't as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Books for October

After the silliness of last month, the group has chosen some slightly more serious reading this time. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is categorized as YA, but is supposed to be truly excellent. Dog On It by Spencer Quinn is a mystery novel written from the perspective of a dog . . . how could we NOT choose it?

Both books should now be available on the Nooks.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier. Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.

It's a small story, about: a girl; an accordionist; some fanatical Germans; a Jewish fist fighter and quite a lot of thievery.


Dog On It by Spencer Quinn

This fast-paced and funny tale is narrated by the inimitable Chet, Bernie's best friend and canine partner. Bernie's enterprise, the Little Detective Agency, limps along, waiting for the next job to arrive.

During a nighttime stroll through their neighborhood they encounter a panicked neighbor, Cynthia. Waving a wad of bills, she beseeches Bernie to find her daughter, Madison, a 15-year-old who has been missing for several hours. Madison soon returns home on her own, only to disappear again in short order. Intrigued by the young girl's apparent connections to a group of Russian thugs, Bernie and Chet follow a trail of clues that leads them into more danger than they'd bargained for.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

From Harper Lee comes a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch--"Scout"--returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise's homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past--a journey that can be guided only by one's conscience.

Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor and effortless precision--a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to an American classic.

* * * * * 

As I said in my review of To Kill a Mockingbird, I had somehow avoided the book before we chose it as one of our titles last month. However, I immediately fell in love with Ms Lee’s writing and characters: it is very obvious why this title is considered to be a masterpiece. With this in mind, I was a little wary about this supposed ‘sequel’ and the controversy surrounding its discovery and publication only added to my concern. I tried to approach the book with an open mind, but within a few sentences I was already filled with a sinking feeling of disappointment.

Let me begin by saying that the writing is flat, dull and at times really horrible to read. Knowing that this is supposedly an uncorrected draft can excuse some of the mangled sentences, but the whole tone of the writing is lifeless. I do not think this is helped by the decision to write it in the third person, because this creates a certain distance between reader and character that is difficult to overcome. To Kill a Mockingbird is written in the first person, drawing us into Scout’s world and allowing us to see it through her eyes. Although this restricts our perspective on the world, it makes the book so much more personal and interesting as we see her learn how to relate to her environment. In Go Set a Watchman we are able to follow several characters in an omniscient kind of way, but this distance makes Scout’s behavior more difficult to understand, which is very unfortunate as she comes across as a rather spoilt and uninteresting person.

Many reviewers have commented upon the seemingly impossible inclusion of Atticus at a racist town meeting. He himself argues that he is only there to see what happens and influence things from the inside, but then goes on to expound some highly insulting assertions that the freed slaves and their offspring  are mere children and are, therefore, incapable of handling the demands of full citizenship. His ideas about States’ rights and how they should be free to ignore the Supreme Court seemed to me to be a lawyerly way of finding a reason to retain a social system based on racism. The inherent racism in Maycombe society was not a surprise to me, but Atticus’ attitudes were. Strangely, in this book the Tom Robinson case is very different from the one we are familiar with from To Kill a Mockingbird. His accuser is only fourteen years old and yet Atticus is successful in gaining an acquittal. This seems totally impossible, given the rampant racism in force twenty years later on.

Other than Scout and Atticus, we see very little of the other familiar characters: Jem is dead and Dill is travelling in Europe. The characters that we spend most of our time with are rather flat and two-dimensional. They are there merely to provoke Scout to her final epiphany and not fully functional people in their own rights. This leads me to my final criticism: the plotting of the book is sloppy and haphazard. The last third of the book comprises of Scout ranting at her father and engaging in a childish decision to leave Maycomb and never return. By this stage, I was so uninterested in her that I was not overly shocked by her tantrum, although I do think that she should have been past such things by the age of twenty-six! The paternalistic and patronizing responses from her father and uncle were smug and thoroughly infuriating: a suitably depressing end to a book that was supposed to be so great and yet was desperately underwhelming.

There was one moment of sunlight in this whole mess: a brief glimpse of Scout, Jem and Dill having their own Revival meeting in the neighbor’s fish pond. I can only assume that when the publishers saw this draft back when it was originally written they saw that one spark of brilliance and told her to scrap the rest and write more of like that.

I truly wish that I had never read this book. More importantly, I truly, madly, deeply wish that the cynical person who decided to get it published as a sequel had displayed a greater moral character and put it to one side until Ms Lee’s death. At that point it would have made fascinating reading as a historical artifact and a lesson in how a terrible first draft can become an amazing masterpiece.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Books for September

After two months of more serious titles, I thought it would be fun to try something a little lighter and with an emphasis on humor. From my list of suggestions, the group selected two of my favorite titles: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

I promise to offer up some more brain-straining titles next month!

Both books are now available on the Nooks

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

On Discworld life is never quite what it seems.

At first glance, Maurice is your typical rodent-eating moggie, but too many days spent on the rubbish dump outside the Unseen University have made him a little unique. Maurice is a talking cat who has recruited a bunch of equally loquacious rats and a dumb kid, called Keith, to ‘pull the pied piper trick’ on unsuspecting villages. All is proceeding smoothly: widdling rats . . . screaming peasants . . . a boy and his cat arriving just at the right time to lure the plague away . . .

Then they reach Bad Blintz and Maurice is faced by a strange absence of normal rats and rat-catchers waiving bootlaces and claiming that the town is overrun with rodents. Can Maurice save the rats and escape with some of his nine lives intact?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

          It begins as just another normal day for Arthur Dent and then everything goes wrong.

A demolition team arrives with the news that his house lies along the route of the new bypass, which is more than a little annoying, but then a large fleet of interstellar aircraft arrive to relay the exact same news to the rest of the planet. Oh, the irony!

Follow Arthur on his bizarre adventures through the universe armed only with his trusty towel and the most invaluable book ever written: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Discover the ‘wonders’ of Vogon poetry, the strange but massively useful Babel fish, an android with a brain the size of a planet and the reason why mice always look so smug.

December Meeting Cancelled

We have just been told that the library will be closing completely from November 16th into early January. This will allow the new staircase to be installed and give us a block of time to fit the new cataloging chips to all the items in the collections.

Unfortunately, this means that I have to cancel the NYOBG meeting that I had scheduled for December 10th. Once I have a firm date for the reopening I will select dates for January through to May and let you know.

Thanks for your patience!