A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot:4/5

Beautifully written story about five members of a strict Mormon family as they struggle with the death of the four-year old daughter, Issy. Extending far beyond your typical grief story, each family member wrestles with competing urges and goals — what it means to be a good person, the boundary between faith and thinking for themselves, and their relationships with each other, the community, and the church.

Ian is a bishop within the church. While I personally found him too sanctimonious for my taste, he (like most humans on this planet) is a complicated man trying to do his best — based on a firm belief in the foundations and practices of the church. Claire is a willing convert to Mormonism but is angry at God and is simply unable to keep going. Zippy (16) struggles with her attraction to a boy in light of the very strict teachings on the role for women; Alma (14) grapples with his belief and guilt over an (as yet to be detected) infraction; Jacob (7) just misses Issy and is working on using the Church’s teachings to resurrect her — confused between what is possible in religious stories and what is possible in everyday life.

For me it was not an attractive view of Mormonism, but then I am not very religious and am unhappy about people telling me what to do based on my gender :-). The characters are presented realistically, some offering comfort based on faith and others offering censure, and while I would bristle on the constraints on women, many of the characters appeared perfectly happy in their lives. Like one of my favorite books — A Place For Us — this book offers an inside view of another culture.

Some good quotes:
“I know something about being good. If you’re good and you get lost, someone you love comes and finds you.”

“It feels as if her hopes are leaking from a small perforation between her lungs, and although each escaping wish is small and ordinary — for Dad to think before he speaks, for Mum to get out of bed in the mornings, for Adam to serve a mission — the hurt as they trickle away is considerable.”

“Dad stops and she thinks she’s done enough, but he’s too wound up so intent on being right, that he’s forgetting to be kind.”

“Girls need to be careful — you like him; you love him; you let him; you lose him — that’s what happens.”

“He keeps talking but Claire can’t keep up with his words, she can’t catch them, they’re flying past her ears like tiny birds, fluttering to the open door and out into the hospital corridor. He has made Issy’s recovery contingent on her faith and she doesn’t know how she will ever forgive him.”

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

A family drama steeped in a colorful Punjabi travelogue.

The three Shergill sisters reluctantly make a summer pilgrimage to India to fulfill their mother’s dying request. Plodding through an extensive and detailed itinerary, each is simultaneously dealing with a personal crisis she is unwilling to share with the others. Hyper-responsible Rajni is reeling from the discovery that her 18-year old son has vowed to marry a woman twice his age; Wild Jezmeen is suspended from her role as DisasterTube host due to an unfortunate interaction with a highly sensitive Arowana fish (the fish didn’t make it); and Shirina, who arranged her own marriage to a traditional Indian man and his controlling mother, has a particularly distressing secret mission for the trip.

Good writing with some interesting and topical social commentary. I consider it chick-lit — disasters are all successfully avoided and it willingly supplies the mandatory happy ending. The family is Sikh and there was some information on Sikh heritage, practices, and monuments, though not as much as I would have liked. It did spur a quick Wikipedia check which I found useful and interesting.

Many of the story threads address different issues faced by women in this region of India and traditional Sikh communities around the world. These affect the story in multiple ways, though primarily from the outside (our heroines are second generation British immigrants with little identification with their Indian heritage).

Overall an interesting read.

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.”