GARDEN SPELLS by Sarah Addison Allen

When you see a pretty cover and a title that has the word ‘Spells’ in it, and the author has three names and the first one is Sarah with an ‘H’,  you know there will be some light magic, some kind of love story, and possibly fireflies.

Well, we lost out on the fireflies, but there was plenty of fanciful stuff going on, and love is definitely in the air.

OK, it’s chick lit, but it was lovely, basically about home and what constitutes home, and abandonment and reconciliation.   Sounds terribly heavy, but you know how a spoonful of honey etc. etc.

Claire Waverly was pretty much a recluse, a gal in her thirties who lived in the big old house her grandmother left her.  It has a bossy apple tree in the garden, which throws apples and demands to be in on everything.  If you eat an apple from that tree, you will learn what the biggest event in your life will be.  Since one’s death is usually the biggest thing in their life, it is not a good thing to know.

Claire has been estranged from her sister Sydney for ten years, ever since Sydney left town and never made contact again.  Claire never knew her father, and her wild-living mother  came back to town to stay with her mother, (Claire’s grandmother) when Claire was 6, because she was going to have another baby.  When that baby was six, she left again, and died in a car accident.

There is a wonderful character, a distant relative, Evanelle, who feels a strange compulsion to give people things, and it always turns out the recipient always needed the item in the future.  Everyone in town looked forward to seeing Evanelle, and her gifts.  Me, too.  I wish she lived around here.

After being physically abused by her current boyfriend, but afraid to leave because of their 6 year old daughter, Sydney finally has enough and escapes in the middle of the night with her daughter and comes back to the Waverly house as the only safe place she can think of.

We have the requisite attractive single male next door neighbor, the requisite best guy friend from second grade, now conveniently single and attractive, some snobbish women who look down on the Waverlys, and let me see, what else.

Oh yeah.  Claire makes a living baking and catering.  What makes her stuff special is that she uses botanical magic in her products, this flower for one thing, this herb for something else.  Like that.  Her products are in great demand.

Sydney is a hairdresser, and when the town sees the fabulous transformation that Sydney did to Claire’s hair, she now realizes she has her own share of the Waverly magic.

Do the Waverlys overcome all obstacles, and find the right guy?  Well, of course.  It wouldn’t be chick lit if they didn’t.  Do you wish you had a little light magic going on in your life?  Well, of course you do.  But look closely, maybe you do, and just haven’t recognized it.

As you know, I love happy endings.  Because being happy is its own sort of magic.

Advertisements

NICKEL MOUNTAIN by John Gardner

This lovely story is set in the Catskills, and, though the names of the main towns are fictional, the story gives a sense of reality, a sense that the places ought to exist on a Rand McNally map somewhere and, if you had it, you could drive through New Carthage and park in front of the run down Stop-Off, the diner and gasoline station Henry Soames owns, operates, and lives in at the edge of the woods beneath Nickel Mountain.

As the novel begins in the snow of December 1954, Henry is middle-aged, obese, and afraid that a second heart attack will kill him within a year. Business is bad, but Henry keeps his place open late, even if just for drunks. Then, in the spring, Callie Wells, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a woman Henry had wanted to be his girlfriend when they were in school together, comes in, looking for a job.  Although Henry doesn’t really need help, he hires her for a few days a week.

Callie is enamored of Willard, a young man with plans to escape his farmer heritage for something better.  She gets pregnant right before he is to leave for college.  But he goes anyway, and assures her he will return.  But of course, he does not.  1954 is not 2017, and Callie needs to get married.  Henry, who over time has come to love this dear girl, proposes to her, and she accepts.  It is a way out of her dilemma.  They set up house in the room behind the diner.   She finally, after a tough delivery, her son is born, and Henry falls in love with the child and considers him his own.

There is not so much a story line as a cast of characters which come in and out of the picture.  It is a story about people, about coping and making do and making things better.  There are a number of deaths in the tale, and we are encouraged to contemplate it  with acceptance that “Things live and then they die”.   It is a story about …… well, about life, I guess.  Just about life.

Nickel Mountain was published in 1973 and was nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction.

THE FAR PAVILIONS by M. M. Kaye

A long….. and when I say long, I so do mean lengthy …. epic historical novel  of British and Indian relations, set in the late 1800s in India (and incidentally, Afghanistan).  It is the story of the life of one man who eventually ended up in the British army stationed in India.

It was written in 1978.  Did you ever read Anthony Adverse?  That long, rambling adventure story set in 1800 and written in 1933?  I think that one was about 1100 pages, while The Far Pavilions clocks in at something a bit over 700 pages, and I read EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. OF. THEM.   I also read every single page of Anthony Adverse, too, back in my thirties, and if you think I am going to tell you when that was, you can just boogie on down the road, Bub, because that is a secret that only my hairdresser knows for sure, and I lied to her.

Ashton Pelham-Martin (gotta love those British names) was the only son of a British couple who are doing some trekking up in the mountains, going pretty primitive with only about 10 people accompanying them as porters, cooks, etc.  Really roughing it, you know.   Mrs. British Person gets pregnant, dies two days later of some unnamed cause, and fortunately for the dad, who really was not interested in the child, the Hindu wife of one of the camp helpers had lost a child and could act as its nanny and wet nurse.  The father put all the documents about the boy into a large envelope with money.  At about age 4, cholera hit the camp, everyone died except Sita, (his nanny) and Ashton, and she took him off to find the General that the father told her about to deliver the child to him to be sent back to his father’s family in England, taking as her sacred charge the envelope with the documents and funds.

They start off, and find themselves in what would turn out to be the Sepoy uprising of 1857, where danger lurked everywhere.  She finally finds the house of the general only to discover all had been massacred.  What to do?  She sets off to find a quiet area of the country where the uprising was little known.  She tells the boy his name is now Ashok, and that she is his mother.

This is one of those ‘and then’ stories.  And then they eventually find refuge in the kingdom of Gulkote where Ashton, now going by the name Ashok, forgets his English parentage and grows up as a native Indian boy.  And then, while working as a servant for crown prince of Gulkote, Ashton befriends the neglected princess Anjuli, in addition to the master of stables, Koda Dad, and his son Zarin. And then, at the age of 11, Ashton uncovers a murderous conspiracy against the young prince and learns he himself will be killed for interfering with the plot. Promising Anjuli he will return for her one-day, he and Sita escape the palace with assistance from friends Sita and Ashok have made within the palace over the years, and flee from Gulkote.

And then,  the ailing Sita dies en route, but not before revealing to Ash his true parentage and entrusting him with the letters and money his father gave her before his death.

And then, Ashok makes his way to the military division Sita instructed him about, and they recognize him; And then, now known by his English name, Ashton is turned over to English authorities and sent to England for a formal education and military training.  And then, at age 19, Ashton returns to India as an officer in the Corps of Guides with Zarin on the Northern Frontier. He quickly finds that his sense of place is torn between his new-found status as Ashton, an English “sahib”, and Ashok, the native Indian boy he once believed he was.

And then, and then, and then, and then.  It goes on and on, and really, if you want to know all that happens, read the book.  (Or watch the movie).  It is a compelling story line, and honest to pete, you really do get wrapped up in it.

There is a lot in the book about injustice, both personal and political, about the British Raj and the harsh realities of India, about the injustice of the British in wanting to take over Afghanistan as a buff against Russia, about the injustice of the Indian tradition of suttee, when the widow dies on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband, many times not at all willingly, about the caste system, about the division of the religions.   It is wonderfully written, compelling in its detail.   Go read it.

 

WHEN THE DEAD SPEAK by S. D. Tooley

A typical, predictable police procedural mystery with less police procedure and lots more woo woo Native American spiritual hocus pocus.   Why is it we invest Native Americans with higher spiritual attributes than European descendents?   Why do we like to believe that they all have special spiritual powers?  I think if they had special spiritual powers they could have woo-woo’ed away that pipeline.  But that is just me being a cynic.

This book stars Sam(Samantha) Casey, a police sergeant, has a special talent of being able to lay her hands on a dead person and have instant knowledge about them.  Wow.  Turns out she is part Native American, and lives with her mother, who is full blooded something, and has a lot of woo woo powers, and can predict the future and even possibly change the future. That whole Native American thing was clumsily treated, awkward and really unbelievable.

OK, sorry.  This just didn’t work for me.  The basic plot is that a big rig collision into a pillar of a highway damages it so badly, that when the repair crew came to inspect it, they discovered it contained a body of a Black male, conveniently clutching a clue!  A clue!  (Remember Blue’s Clues?)  He is holding a pin.

When our gal lays hands on him in the morgue, she gets all kinds of visions.

What also was really just too much was that she disguises herself and thereby enters houses and snoops around and plants bugs in phones and gets into safes with surprising ease, taking out the contents and photographing them, yada yada yada.

She is assigned to a different district where she is partnered with a (gasp. surprise!) good looking single guy.  Due to some plot machinations, he meets her mother and the mother decides they belong together romantically.

Crummy mystery, with the bad guy over the top and over drawn, so no mystery as it is practically revealed to us long before the end, a typical romantic angle, and the awful hook of the gal who reads corpses.

Meh.

 

THE DERVISH HOUSE by Ian McDonald

Did you ever read a book just because you liked the cover?  Yeah, me, too.  That is why I sometimes comment on the cover, especially those I think are awful, or cheesy or didn’t fit either the quality of the writing or the atmosphere of the work.  Well, here is a book I started to read because of the cover.

It is set in 2027 in Istambul, the Queen of Cities.  Good start.  Lots of robots, and especially nanobots and the police use swarms of them for surveillance and crowd control.

But the problem for me is that it is set in Istambul.  With all that entails, which is lots of references to things I have no knowledge of, lots of Turkish words tossed in, but the atmosphere!  The Atmosphere!  Really great atmosphere building, and gives us the feel of this ancient city, with its ancient neighborhoods and its ultra modern sections, its diverse population of Turks, Greeks, indigenous outer tribes, Europeans.

It stars the Dervish House, perhaps the oldest all wooden monasteries of the ancient dervishes, now profaned and turned into a hodgepodge of apartments and shops.  Everything that happens revolves around the Dervish House and its inhabitants and neighbors.

It features 8 main characters, and each chapter alternates character perspectives.

  • Necdet, an underachieving pothead who is on the bombed bus and subsequently sees djinn while experiencing a confusing religious awakening.
  • Can Durukan, a homebound boy with Long QT syndrome, who feels the vibrations of the distant blast. He sets his monkey-bot to investigate the scene and stumbles onto some dangerous clues.
  • Georgios Ferentinou, member of the Greek minority and retired experimental economist. Georgios is mentor to young Can, and participates in an intellectual think tank tasked to anticipate future terrorist plots. He is also a member of a group of older Greek men who frequent the neighborhood tea house.
  • Adnan Sarioğlu, a scheming big money trader who, along with his “Ultralord” buddies, devises a scam to sell tainted gas from Iran to his corrupt investors.
  • Ayşe Erkoç, wife of Adnan, and atheist curator of an upscale religious artifact shop, which is located near the dervish house. A mysterious buyer entices Ayse to locate the legendary mellified man.
    Leyla Gültaşli, a recent marketing graduate whose big interview is thwarted by the aftermath of the bomb. A distant cousin offers her a position in his experimental nanotech company, the success of which is threatened by a contract set upon the lost half of a miniature Koran.

I found it confusing learning about the characters, and keeping them straight until I printed out a list of them, partly I think because of the ‘foreign’ names, and partly because there are two main threads:

(1) the terrorist bombing on a tram on which Necdet was a passenger.  He watches while a woman touches her necklace and her head explodes.  Somehow, he escapes being killed, but begins to experience what seem to be hallucinations, djinn, (are supernatural creatures in early Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology) and then the green god appears to him and offers advice and commentary.  He also sees a karin, the mirror image in the earth of people and he can now make predictions.  His brother has set himself up in their Dervish House quarters as a community judge and now he sees his brother as a kind of holy person because of the visions.

Ten-year-old Cam with Long QT syndrome (a heart rhythm condition that can potentially cause fast, chaotic heartbeats. These rapid heartbeats might trigger a sudden fainting spell or seizure. In some cases, the heart can beat erratically for so long that it causes sudden death), has been treated with earplugs that deadened all sound, so that sudden noises do not trigger a seizure and possibly death.  He is a smart kid with a nanobot system that he controls from his computer and tablet, that is a swarm of nanobots that can form a snake, or rat, or bird, and he uses it to snoop on the residents and neighbors of the Dervish House.  When he senses the bomb explosion, he sends his nanobot to investigate, setting off a series of events what I am not going to tell you because read the book.

He becomes friends with the isolated, overweight and depressed out of work professor of experimental economics, Georgios Ferentinou, a Greek expat who lives in a room in the Dervish House.  He has a multiscreen computer set up on which he surveys the city.  He also has tea daily with some other old Greed retirees across the street in a cafe.

Necdet gets kidnapped, Cam sees it, and sets off as Boy Detective to solve the case.

(2) The other thread as about money, greed, corruption and the search for the things that do not exist.  This is the thread with Adnam, the futures trader, who together with his three friends concocts a scheme to sell tainted gas to the corrupt pipeline company, sell the futures, get out after making a huge fortune, and live happily ever after.

His wife, the religious artifacts dealer, is approached by a man asking her to find a mellified man.  This is a honey infused corpse.  It is a sweet, human medicine, said to cure any illness. An elderly man would diet on, and bathe in, nothing but honey, until he became ‘mellifluous’.  His body would be interred in a stone coffin, also filled with honey, and sealed for a hundred years. After the allotted time, the result was a mummified human corpse, preserved in a sweet substance – a much sought after medicine, capable of curing a wide range of ailments.

This is for me the most interesting of the threads, following her search.  She eventually comes in contact with a young man, obsessed with finding the seven letters of God, and has decided that they can been seen in an overview of the city.  He can find 6 but cannot find the final letter, and it is through him that Ayşe finally finds the mellified man.

In this thread also are Lyla and the two guys with there bionano startup and their search for funding.

The two main themes/threads come together in the end in a finale that is fun, predictable and satisfying.

So basically the book is about searching.  Everyone in the book is looking for something, and the ending allows them all to find what they need.  Once you get the characters set in your mind, it is really a good book.  Actually, it is one of those books you like better after you have read it, rather than while you are reading it.  It kind of stays with you.


ANTARTICA by Kim Stanley Robinson

This was written in 1997, after his Mars Trilogy (which by the way I LOVED LOVED LOVED.) In Antartica he does what I think Robinson does best –vivid, living descriptions of the land, the landscape, the environment. He makes the readers feel that we are there. That’s why I loved the Mars Trilogy. The characters were fascinating, but the descriptions of the planet were just wonderful. It made be believe in Mars. lol  The same for Antarctica — I had to put on a sweater to read this book! Yeah, that good.

Set in a future that is about 50 years from now, where the earth’s population has grown to 10 billion, the story is built on a peripatetic U. S. Senator whose focus is the environment, and the Senator’s staff guy. The Senator learns of some illegal groups searching for oil in Antarctica so he sends his staff guy Wade to investigate, see what he can find out. Wade travels to McMurdo Station, the only sizable settlement on the continent and checks in with the woman in charge.

The characters  each have a storyline of their own, and the interest is in how they come together.  There is Val,  an Amazon of a woman who leads tours in the Footsteps program, where groups follow the routes of Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen, some groups trying to replicate not only the route but with the same kind of equipment.  There is X, shortened from Ex, as in ex boyfriend, a man who came to the Antartic to find something interesting in life, and who was dumped by Val, hence his nickname.  These are the most prominent in a big cast, but the basic plotline is the idea that Antarctica belongs to no one, no one owns it, but a multi-nation treaty has established strict guidelines as to who can visit the continent and what activities they may engage in and where they may go.  There is a small group attempting to live primarily off the land, leaving no footprint, as an experiment, but it is difficult because the continent has no sources of food except the penguins and a large fish which can be caught.

But really, the principle character of the book is the continent itself, its vastness, its intense cold, its unending whiteness, and its emptiness, “a fifth element beyond space and time, emptiness in its supreme degree.”  And the effect that global warming or climate change is having on the various features of the continent.  Secondary to this is the history of the exploration of the continent, told through a Chinese tourist who is a feng shui master, visiting different landscapes of the world, and through Val on her Footsteps treks.  There really is quite a lot of painless history of the explorers, and I loved it.

There is also a lot about the greed and corruption of nations and individuals, which we saw in the Mars Trilogy, and about what is happening to the earth, and some exposition about capitalism, the dominant economic order, which subsumes everything else.

Really liked it.  I didn’t feel it was as strong as the Mars Trilogy, which felt like a passionate undertaking, nor as strong as 2312, which was about Mercury,  but I found it a page turner in its own right.

FINDING THE GRAIN by Shulamit Hartal

Translated from the Hebrew by Aloma Halter and Joyce Klein

This is basically a story of the mind, and secondarily a love story. Set in a city in Israel in ….. well, I could never figure out exactly when: the principal figure had a laptop so the nineties? A little later? Her mother was a young girl during the time of the holocaust, and her husband, who was bit older than she lived through those times in Poland. Hard to say exactly.

Chani, in her late fifties? Sixties? stumbles over a pile of books at the recycling center, which had been left on the ground. They were a course in “Psychology in Education”, published by the Open University. She breaks her ankle, but insists on bringing the books to the ER with her, she didn’t want to lose them.   In her diary,  she says

All of a sudden, I became aware of the possibility that there is a lot in me that is way below the surface, and that powers that I don’t understand are at work in me — against me. It’s frightening! And along with that discovery came the comforting knowledge that a person has the ability to change.

Confined to her bed for a few days, she begins to read the books, and thus begins her journey inward, to discover her true self. She decides to confine herself to her room while she studies.

She begins a diary of this journey, which is how we learn of her process/progress. Her friend, a psychologist, comes over every day and acts as a listener and prodder, pulling more and more memories out of Chani, forcing Chani to consider the source of some of her emotions, or rather lack of them.

Chani knew her husband since they were ten, although they had not had much to do with each other during their adolescence. Eventually, he returned from his military service and they were married. They were married 36 years, so I guess that makes her in her sixties now.

We learn the story of how Robbie, the husband, was born in the forest in Poland to a young couple escaping the horrors of the Germans as they herded the Jews into ghettos and then into trains to the camps. We learn how he finally made his way to Israel.

But the real story is Chani’s mother, a thoroughly awful person and we learn about the damage she did to her three daughters. It is really a psychology lesson about dependency, fear of abandonment, and how the damage is passed on generation to generation. Her mother often used the expression “Even a blind chicken can sometimes find a grain.” when she had to grudgingly admit her daughter did a correct thing or was right about something, and the title refers to that expression, meaning that even when we stumble around in the dark, we can often stumble upon the truth.

Nothing much happens, action-wise, it is all in the memories that are beginning to surface in the older woman. She is determined, with the help of her psychologist friend, Iris, to reclaim everything and become the whole person she was meant to be.

We learn of the dependence of Robbie on her, and of his own fears of abandonment, despite his outward appearance of calm and control.

Chani suffers an embolism, and dies, a sudden thing that shatters all the family. She was also a well known sculptress, so her passing affected many of her students, contemporaries, and admirers. Her shiva was packed with people. Her granddaughter, Yif’a, rummaging through a kitchen drawer for a knife, found a bunch of pages, and it was the diary. She pulls it out and begins reading. The book alternates diary entries in bold type with current activities in normal type.

The author, Shulamit Hartal, was herself a talented sculptress, and the book is based on autobiographical elements of her own life. She passed away several years ago.

I really liked this book. The characters are wonderful, and the style and structure of the book is impressive — smooth and compelling.