A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Story: 3.5/5 Historical depiction: 5/5

In 1933, Violet Speedwell is one of the many “surplus” women — women for whom there simply are no men, WWI having depleted the stores. This quiet, slow-paced, and yet utterly engrossing novel follows the 38-year old Violet as she slowly makes an independent life for herself without the availability of traditional options.

Leaving her home in Southampton and her embittered and critical mother, she takes a low-paid typing job and a room in a boarding house in nearby Winchester. It is there that she becomes drawn into the community of Cathedral Broderers who have taken on the task of producing the Cathedral embroideries (360 kneelers, 62 stall cushions and 96 alms bags). I am in no way “crafty,” but I found the description of the entire effort, from overall design, to process, to individual effort to be fascinating. As one of the volunteers (also a Latin teacher) says, “sic parvis magna — from small things, greatness,” commenting that these may be the only mark they are able to make on the world. I liked the fact that the lives described may have been “small” by modern dramatic standards, but were rich and full of meaning to those who lived them.

There is more: early forays into independence; friendships with other women who have not made conventional choices; beautiful descriptions of the natural beauty of the region; and some utterly fascinating descriptions of bell-ringing (did you know that in campanology (bell ringing) a “Peal” is a pattern of bell ringing that goes through 5,000 changes without stopping and can take over three hours? I did not. Don’t forget — each bell is pulled at the precise time by an actual human being.)

Excellent historical fiction based on real events and organizations and beautiful writing that stays true to the mores and habits of the period.

Thank you to Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

When I was Yours by Lizzie Page (historical fiction)

Writing: 3 Plot: 3 Characters: 2.5

I loved the beginning of this book — tight prose, humorous, great writing, and the promise of a story that spanned two world wars (as told in alternating chapter time periods). In 1914, Vivi Mudie-Coates is the young, beautiful, and conventional British woman who wants nothing more than to marry Edmund, the handsome, upper crust friend of her cousin Richard. In 1939, she is indeed married to Edmund, but is anything but happy. When the children begin to be evacuated from London, the childless couple are given Pearl, somewhat against Edmund’s wishes.

The parallel stories wander through all the standard places — nursing on the continent during the Great War, the bombing of Britain in WWII, the evacuation of London children, driving ambulances, friends and relatives killed… There is a theme of casual anti-semitism threaded throughout that becomes more personal to Vivi as the story evolves. This book has all the elements of a great story but it just didn’t work for me. The plot was dragged out, so what started as a tight beginning just went on and on without any of the depth that would make the time spent feel worthwhile. Instead, it veered into pure melodrama with increased bombing deaths, close calls, suicides, and missed opportunities for true love. Even worse (for me), I found the main character to be shallow and kind of stupid. She did not behave in a way that I found at all believable. I never warmed to her, and even towards the end — when she finally started to do the right thing — she did it in a petulant, selfish manner that I found quite off-putting.

This is possibly the first book I’ve reviewed that kept me going to the end because I wanted to know what happened, but that I really disliked. I hate to be so negative — I tend to only review books that I like because I don’t bother finishing the others but …

Thank you to Bookouture and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 16th, 2019.

The Lost Man by Jane Harper (Fiction)

Writing: 5 Plot: 5 Characters: 5

A completely absorbing book. The kind of great writing that lets you forget that you’re reading at all as you become completely immersed in the world described. Part mystery — part family drama, all playing out in a landscape that is real, but unlike any that most of us know — the remote Australian Outback.

Cameron Bright has been found dead of exposure and dehydration a mere nine km from his car packed (as usual) with enough survival gear to carry him through any outback mishap. Cameron runs Burley Downs — the largest station in the region at 3500 sq km. His older brother Nathan runs the adjacent homestead — a three hour drive away. As Nathan and the rest of the family struggle to find out what happened to Cameron, they also must contend with the difficult environment and with all the broken spaces between them — none of which is ever discussed in this culture where extreme quiet is the norm.

With vivid characters, deft pacing, tight prose, and breathtaking descriptions of the landscape and way of life it represents, you won’t be able to put this one down. I carried the hardcover in my carry-on simply because I couldn’t bear not to finish the last 40 pages… My first Jane Harper, but definitely not the last.

A few of the great lines…

“He hugged her back. The movement had the rusty edge of underuse.”

“The kid lived in a city. He couldn’t cope with quiet like the rest of them.”

“It was funny how high and bright the red flags flew in hindsight.”

All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski (Historical / Foreign Fiction)

<New word (to me) stichomancy: divination by opening a book at random >

As explained in the prologue, Kemposwki’s mission in life was to ensure that the detailed history of this time and place did not get lost. He compiled an immense archive of the diaries, photos, letters, and other memorabilia from East Prussia during WWII and its aftermath and used it to inform the characters and plot in the novel.

The book centers on an aristocratic family that has retreated to their country villa to wait out the war. The time is January, 1945 (remember that the war in Europe ended in May 1945); the place a small town in East Prussia. Eberhard von Globig is an officer in the German military — stationed in Italy he is assigned to manage supply (he is currently “busily confiscating wine and olive oil from the Italians” for use by German troops; in the past he has been responsible for requisitioning topsoil from the Ukraine for use in Bavaria!). His wife, Katharina, is a seemingly vacuous beauty from Berlin, an unwilling and incapable mistress of the estate. 12-year old Peter, Auntie, the family spinster, and workers Vladimir the Pole and the Ukrainian girls, Vera and Sonia, complete the household.

The Russians are heading their way and there is a constant stream of visitors heading from East to West. The visitors bring news and their own stories, which they often feel compelled to keep repeating as if otherwise they would be lost completely. While multiple people urge the family to leave soon, there seems to be a lassitude with regards to any real action — or perhaps they don’t feel they have agency in this regard. Everything is carefully controlled by the authorities — nothing is allowed without a permit.

The story is meticulously, yet concisely, detailed. There are no long streams of names and dates and actions, but instead the intimate particulars of lives disrupted by war and imminent invasion. Each character has their own perspective — some pepper their commentary with “Heil Hitlers” and mean it, others warn the family to hide any evidence of Naziism before the Russians arrive; some are appalled at seeing books by Jewish writers displayed, others whisper about the strange prisoners in striped shirts at the local brickworks. There is constant refrain — “Where did these things come from? Where would they end up? Who knows what may happen?”

Things don’t end well — it is inconceivable that they would — but the slow unwinding of events, the minutiae of survival, the confusion of authority, and the unremitting examination of life and attitudes in a failing Germany is incomparable. I found it darkly interesting that while everyone is afraid of the Russians coming (and with good reason), most of the bad things that happen are a result of the Germans and their system — there appear to be just as many authorities ensuring obedience and punishing “bad behavior” as there are those out fighting the enemy.

It is told in an unemotional style — while a character might be thinking “I am terrified,” the reader is not exposed to any of the literary tricks that would evoke a sympathetic emotion within them. I’m grateful for that — those are not emotions I want to feel, even briefly.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

(translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Writing/Translation: 3/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

An odd book about an odd woman who is trying to survive in a world she finds confusing. As a child, she proposes eating the dead bird found in the playground. This seems practical to her, as her father loves yakitori and she can’t see the difference, but the other children and mothers are appalled. She never manages to get more “normal” or accepted than that.

When she gains part-time employment as a convenience store worker at 17, she feels reborn — a successful part of the “machine of society.”  19 years later she is 36, still in the same part-time employment, and has never had nor wanted a sexual relationship. She tries to be normal, mimicking facial expressions, manners of speech, and even clothing items from those around her, but she is getting messages that it is still not enough. So she tries something very, very, different.

This is a book about conformity and fear of expulsion from the herd — a Japanese version of Eleanor Oliphant, The Rosie Project, or The 600 Hours of Edward. The author did a good job of getting us inside Keiko’s head and there are some masterful portrayals of other characters as seen through her eyes.  I always appreciate a book that can describe the world through a differently structured brain.  I liked the ending — it wasn’t a typically happy ending (as in the books I just mentioned) but it was an ending that was happy for Keiko.

Small Country by Gaël Faye

Thank you to Crown Publishing Hogarth and NetGalley for an early review copy of Small Country by Gaël Faye, which will publish June 5, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4.5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

A powerful coming-of-age novel in the politically charged climate of Burundi in the 1990s. Gabriel (Gaby) is the son of a French father and Rwandan mother living in Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi. He is 10 years old when the country — filled with hope and expectation — holds its first multi-party election in 1993. This is a personal and humanistic version of the ensuing events in both Burundi and nearby Rwanda. Told from a the perspective of a child, it blends observations of surroundings, tensions, and shifts in the interactions between people who used to simply be “part of the neighborhood.”

Told through the memories of an adult Gaby who is visiting Burundi after living in France for 15 years, the novel is imbued with nostalgia for the innocence of childhood and the beauty of the home he remembers, while simultaneously mournful at the irreparable damage done. Beautiful descriptions of the landscape, childhood diversions, and familial relationships. The story is necessarily sad, but not depressing or hopeless.

I hadn’t heard of the author before, but apparently he is a well-known French rapper and hip hop star. Originally published as Petit Pays in France in 2016, the book is the winner of five French literary prizes. You may enjoy listening to his song of the same name – I found it absolutely beautiful: