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Thursday, February 9, 2017
2:57 pm est
When you stop
and think about it, every book starts out as a blank page. A tabula rasa, waiting for someone to think of an idea, put it
into words, and then write it down. I have spent countless hours staring at a blank page in a notebook or a computer screen,
waiting for inspiration to strike… I am not as fortunate, like Lori Shepherd, to have an Aunt Dimity to fill up the
pages of a blue leather notebook. Which is a dead (pardon the pun if you’re already familiar with the series) giveaway
and the key to Nancy Atherton’s amazing mystery series.
Set in the small rural village of Finch in the English Codswolds, each of the now twenty (and counting) novels
is a mini-cosmos depicting human nature at its best…and worst. The universal themes that transverse the series and
shroud each story include the effects of past actions on the present; family values and traditions; a smattering of English
history; and wonderfully uplifting (often moralistic) happy endings. Each is told with flavorful humor and the welcomed elements
of surprise plot twists. And, of course, sprinkled with the musings and wisdom of Aunt Dimity, who really isn’t a character
so much as a presence…
You see, Aunt Dimity
really isn’t Lori’s aunt. But she was her mother’s best friend and who, explained in the first novel Aunt Dimity's Death, has left Lori her a whole lot of money and a honey-colored cottage a mile or so from downtown (if you could call it
that) Finch; just over the humpback bridge spanning the Little Deeping River. Lori, of course, is the amateur sleuth who solves
and resolves all sorts of askewed circumstances in and around Finch with Dimity’s guidance, written from the vast beyond
in a large blue tome using calligraphical script, which only Lori can read...
At first, when explained to me by a dear friend and fellow avid reader, I thought the premise a bit bizarre.
I mean, why start a twenty-book series with the death of the eponymous title character? “Makes no sense,” I said.
“Try it,” my buddy urged. “Go to the library…try a few…” I took her advice and found
a whole shelf devoted to what is now my most favorite whimsy mystery writer, picked up three of her latest and settled in
for some delightful binge reading.
Finch is a
place I would love to actually live in right now. Which, in a spiritual and literary
sense, I have been for the past three days. It’s a friendly, laid-back village, with everyone being friends, knowing
everyone else’s business, but chipping in to help whenever, wherever help is needed. The homes are centuries old; its
history ripe with secrets and skeletons; its people delightful, diverse, down-to-earth, and varied. Exactly the sort of folk
I’d love to have as neighbors…and their community is my idea of a perfect retreat...the ideal getaway. The author,
who lives in Colorado Springs, writes in the first person, using a very chatty-Cathy style. It’s like sitting down with
a close friend you haven’t seen for a while and catching up on all the news over a cuppa (or two of Earl Grey).
Atherton’s characters are true-to-life, each with
their own quirks and back-stories. While each novel is a standalone enabling you to read them out of the order they were written,
the characters do grow and change as the series progresses. I first read three of the latter ones – Aunt Dimity and the Village Witch, Aunt Dimity and the Summer King, Aunt Dimity and the Buried Treasure -- but now, having been totally immersed in Finch, I am eager to start the series from the beginning, which I
did last night. If, for no other reason, then to see how the residents of Finch progress. And what earlier conundrums Aunt
Dimity has guided Lori into solving.
So, if you
don’t see or hear from me in a while, it’s because I’ve "moved" to Finch, disappearing into the
pages of the Aunt Dimity (the paranormal detective) Mystery Series… meandering through the thoughts and ruminations
of Atherton’s and my own imagination. The perfect escape.
Won’t you join me?
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
5:10 pm est
The Night Circus
I have to get this written before the illusion fades and my memory of it disappears…
all strange occurrences in The Night Circus, an eerily great gothic read without the macabre, by Erin Morgenstern.
A large lot three doors down from my childhood home was called “The Battle Field” because a Civil
War skirmish was fought there. It was where I played baseball and touch football with the neighborhood gang and where, each
spring, the circus would pitch a red and grey striped big top and myriad smaller tents. “The circus arrived…”
as in the opening line of this most interesting and gripping novel, “…without warning”. And, after five
or six days, it would silently disappear. As a young girl, I, of course, thought it all mystically magical… A feeling
of awe that I haven’t felt in a long time until I read The Night Circus. Déjà vu not withstanding
and all that…
Celia and Marcos, each
with strange magical abilities, are raised by adversarial fathers to be opponents in a contest for and of life. Their arena
is a mysterious circus created by ageless Chandresh Lefèvre who, with a cadre of the most interesting characters I’ve
met in a long time, are foils, seconds, and participants in the twisted, entwined lives of Celia and Marcos. The miasma of
who is “in on the secret” and which part each plays is as convoluted as the complex array of tents, the décor
of which is stark black and stripes – good alongside evil – with only smatterings of color. Unlike the circus
of my childhood, this seemingly bizarre venue is opened at dusk; its exhibits close just before dawn. What occurs inside in
the middle of the night is the substance of what dreams, nightmares, and great novels are made.
Morgenstern deftly juxtaposes harsh realities of human nature with the elusive
illusionary vagaries of love in all its forms. Besides the two main protagonists, who is attached to whom – and why
– forms an intricate framework upon which this young, talented author hangs her stories that are about and occur within
the black and white stripes of the circus walls. And perhaps what the author is telling is that, in reality, folks, most of
life is a circus…and it is very difficult to tell who are the audience and who are the performers… Not
to mention trying to figure out on which side of the fence the dream actually is…
The Night Circus is, by far, one of the most uniquely creative and interesting mainstream
novels that I’ve read in the past few years. Morgenstern is a lyrically terse writer, whose choice, often clipped phraseology
transcends ornate descriptions. There is an economy of the literary spirit here, akin to Ernest Hemingway at this best. She
minces no words, yet conveys a vastly rich alternative world that mirrors – and often distorts – the careful reader’s
realities. Like the circus that is meant to be enjoyed at night, this novel is best savored in the evenings, when the starlit
literary abilities of the author touch and brighten the darkest, deepest recesses of your heart.
Enjoy the read!
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
2:31 pm est
Queen Victoria: From Her Birth to the Death of the Prince Consort
You just gotta love
PBS/BBC’s Masterpiece. It’s the only show on television (I am addicted to all things Netflix) that I
consistently watch and one of the only presentations on broadcast media that has inspired me to read about history. Downton
Abbey sent me on a quest to learn more about British life in the early 1900s (now one of my favorite eras of, um, all
time). The Durell’s in Corfu had me searching for works by Lawrence Durell, noted British novelist and travel
writer. And Victoria, whose first episode of Season One aired just this past Sunday evening, now has me engrossed
in Cecil Woodham-Smith’s** seminal biography, Queen Victoria: From Her Birth to the Death of Prince Consort.
I found my copy of Woodham-Smith’s opus on a high shelf in my basement library. It is a 1974 Book Club
edition purchased when I was living in Louisville and I’ve schlepped it along with me for these nearly 43 years, barely
opening its pages except to insert a receipt for watch repair from the jeweler who designed the Kentucky Derby trophy and
an old Ash Wednesday service leaflet dated February 27, 1974. (Boy, did those bring back memories!) It wasn’t until
Monday afternoon, thoroughly intrigued by the Queen’s life portrayed in the PBS presentation, when I finally began reading
the biography in earnest.
The one thing about watching Masterpiece and then reading the book(s) the
period piece might have been based upon is that you can readily picture the characters as you read. Jenna Coleman as the Queen
kept on flashing in and out of my mind; the voice Catherine Flemming as her mother rang from the faded pages; Paul Rhys as
the self-serving, selfishly manipulative Sir John Conroy was as annoying as all get out. All of these brought what could have
been deadly-dull history to vivid life. It is – as I am only a third through the book (I will once again be sequestered
with it this afternoon, as I was all day yesterday) – like reading a very well-researched historical novel; rich in
details of court intrigue, mores, mannerisms, and dress; replete with political intricacies, betrayals, and secrets; laced
with romance; and chuck full of finely-wrought aspects of the life of young Alexandrina Victoria Kent as she matures into
her role as Queen, wife, and mother.
This is – along with Elizabeth Longford’s Queen Victoria,
first published 1964 – is the perfect intellectually challenging companion piece to Masterpiece’s visual,
often fictionalized, account which was severely romanticized in a November 2016 novel. To be honest, I’d rather read
pure history about the subjects the show tackles than a novel. There is enough fiction in "based-upom-the-life-of"
television scripts to readily skew realities. When I want to learn about an historical figure, especially one as important
as Queen Victoria, I don’t need it to be watered down by sometimes unguarded, misleading conjectures.
said… If you haven’t seen the first episode on PBS, I hardily suggest that you do. You can catch it on PBS.org/Masterpiece. Watch it and sebsequent ones, and search for a copy of Woodham-Smith’s biography. While unfortunately out of print,
there are a few copies out there for sale amongst the more than 100 pages on Amazon listing books about the Queen. However, Queen Victoria: From Her Birth to the Death of Prince Consort seems to be one of the first written and, in my humble opinion, the most reliably comprehensive read of them all.
born Cecil Blanche Fitzgerald in Wales in 1896, possessed a love of and talent for historical writing. But, as most married
women did back then, she deferred following her passion until her two children by her beloved husband, George Ivon Woodham-Smith,
a distinguished London solicitor, had entered boarding school. It wasn’t until 1950 when the publication of her first
historical endeavor, Florence Nightingale, shot her to the top of her profession. This was followed in 1962 by The
Great Hunger: Ireland:1845-1849 and then by The Reason Why, about the charge of the Light Brigade, in
1963. In 1965, she began her greatest, seminal work – a two-volume comprehensive biography of England’s Queen
Victoria who reigned for 64 years (1837 to 1901). It was to be entitled Queen Victoria: Her Life and Times. Started
relatively late in life, Woodham-Smith was only able to complete the first volume, Queen Victoria: From Her Birth to the Death of Prince Consort. published
in 1972. The author died in 1977 at the age of 80.
Monday, January 9, 2017
3:17 pm est
For the past few years, books
have been stacked in my living room according to whether they are simply to be read and enjoyed, ones from my personal library
that I have chosen to read and review, and those that publishers send to me requesting a review. Now that I am spending more
time writing and promoting my own novels, the last stack has dwindled down to next to nothing. So, last week, looking for
a book of my own to read and review, I turned to the second stack where, lo and behold, on the bottom I found a misplaced
copy of Maud's Line by Margaret Verble that a publicity manager
from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt sent to me back in May of 2015. Oops!
My apologies to Stephanie Kim for this oversight.
It has not been like me to be so absent-minded. But, considering lately I find myself looking for my glasses perched on top
of my head or in the pocket of a sweater I am wearing… Well, it all comes with the territory (of getting older). So,
after two years, here’s my better-late-than-never review.
Maud Nail, the main protagonist of Verble’s
finely-tuned debut novel, is an 18-year old Cherokee woman living in 1928 in Oklahoma on land parceled out years earlier by
the United States Government to Native Americans. It is for Maud and her friends and family not an easy life. Her days are
rife with daily chores and hardships made worse by the death of her mother; the roaming proclivities of her stern and belligerent
father; the lack of modernities, including electricity and indoor plumbing; the profusion of copperhead and moccasin snakes.
She yearns for something else, something more. Someone to sweep her off her feet and take her away. Her only solace is her
younger brother who, like her, escapes from the harsh realities of their life in the pages of books borrowed, mostly, from
Mr. Singer, an elderly white potato farmer who is kind to Maud. Enter Booker Wakefield, a school teacher turned peddler whose
mule-drawn wagon has side canvas flaps as “bluer than the clear summer sky”…
Maud's Line was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I can see why. Its prose is lyrical, yet straightforward. Verble pulls no
punches when it comes to describing Maud’s daily life filled with violence mingled with the simplest of details –
the killing of a cow, the pouring of coffee in the morning, the murder of two brothers, the buttering of biscuits. There is
a bit of raw sex, too, but not in the least bit pornographic. It is matter-of-fact; a part of life. The author, a Native American
herself, does not dwell upon nor flaunt that fact. This story could easily have been told about any young girl of any heritage
living in and struggling with impoverished circumstances. A black girl in Alabama; an Irish maid living in a New York ghetto;
an Italian or Chinese woman living in a poorer section of town – seeking the better things in and of life. Maud just
happens to be mostly Cherokee and lives on a reservation. Yet, that fact is precisely what makes this novel so unique. And
so grippingly interesting.
My readings, as you know, have been eclectically diverse. But, to be honest, I don’t
remember being so deeply seeped and immersed in the daily life of a Native American. This was, truly, an eye-opener, in more
ways than one, considering I spent the better part of the last two nights staying up to read it. And considering that I know,
knew next to nothing about the plight of Native Americans in the first half of the last century. I do now.
Maud's Line, however well-written and interesting, is not without its flaws. While a stunning depiction of life on the
plains, it is, in essence, a romantic tale laced, as I said, with violence, sex, and gore; not a read for the faint of heart.
However, it does not go as deep as one would expect into the heart, soul, and mind of the main character. Verble follows Maud
around as if writing a documentary, showing us her doing this, doing that, while waiting for her man to return. She, Maud,
doesn’t seem to do anything to help herself out of her own circumstances, instead settling her loneliness with the crude
affections of an old boyfriend, depending upon the help of others, and reading novels. She does get into a “bit of a
pickle” as the saying goes, but she refuses to face the consequences and, in the end, is predictably saved by the benevolent
author a la deux ex machina. I am all in favor of happy endings, but this one was too pat, too shallow and short, and all
too surprisingly unoriginal.
Still, all in all, this was a good read. One not to be missed. Especially by those mature readers who want a glimpse
into the lives of people in a different place and time.
Enjoy the read!
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
4:20 pm est
Still Life with Bread
been carrying this book around with me, you see, for about a month now. Every night up the stairs to read before falling asleep,
but I was waylaid by a game or two of Word Chums or Gin Rummy Plus. Every morning I’d tote it back down the stairs,
where I put it on the coffee table thinking I’d catch a chapter or two before dinner. But, again, I was waylaid by household
chores, FrankieBernard walks, and all the trappings of Christmas. But… But! Yesterday was a rainy morning, so I finally
settled in and opened the covers of Still Life with Bread Crumbs: A Novel by Anna Quindlen and couldn’t close them until I had finished reading.
Not only a prolific writer
(seven novels, eight works of non-fiction, and two children’s books, as well as being columnist for Newsweek)
Quindlen is a talented, insightful writer whose plot lines are unique and whose characters are so real they seem to be drawn
from reality. Who, in this case, is the main protagonist Rebecca Winter inspired by the author in an earlier age when she
began to question the meaning of each stage of a woman’s life. Her life, the life of Rebecca, who, at first, is valued
by her work assayed by others, not by herself. Once renowned and rich, our sixty-year-old heroine is reduced to financial
straits; forced to lease out her New York City apartment and rent a run-down cabin in the rural woods. Rebecca finds herself
bereft of luxuries, lacking amenities, and “reduced” to fending for herself.
In the process of going
from “riches to rags” (and living on the edge of poverty), puzzled into an existence she never knew before, Rebecca
learns more from life as she discovers who she really is. All of this may sound like a bit of lofty banality, but this author
is a master of couching the major, deeper meanings of life in minor events; all of which are somehow, sometimes humorously,
interwoven. Sarah, the tea shop and bakery proprietress; Jim Bates the roofer; Polly, Jim’s sister; small white crosses
with talismans inexplicably placed in the forest; Jack, the dog; Sonya, her father’s maid and companion; and Ben, Rebecca’s
son. Each is complex with his/her own philosophy; each with their own deepening message in which Rebecca comes to find the
true meaning of her own.
For those of you who would deem this a “chick lit” romance novel, think
again. It is a well thought out and well-written literary gem that sparkles in the dark recesses of the mind and lights up
the gloomiest winter chambers of the heart. And, unlike most of Quindlen’s other novels, she moves its moments of darkness
into light richness with a very satisfyingly moving happy ending.
I would call this the perfect holiday read;
but as the last days of December are quickly passing into the uncertain nether regions of the coming new year, I recommend Still Life with Bread Crumbs as an anecdote to what
may be many dismal weeks ahead. A breath of spring time reading in the midst of the winter of our own discontents. Who knows?
You may find hope and solace within the covers of this novel. Just as I did.
J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is
an author, poet, and librettist. Her currenty published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations,
volumes of poetry, stories
for children (of all ages) and
a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville
during World War II
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members
of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A
Collection of More Spiritual Poems
We Three Kings
Beauty and the Beast
Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding
Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She
is currently working on her fourth novel.