Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

Inti is on a mission here in this sheep farmland of Australia, and these farmers are not going to stop her. Can they not understand that after they had hunted the wolves to extinction, their ecosystem faltered and the forest became unstable because of it? Here she is, with her team of scientists, trying to save the forest with her proven method of rewilding the landscape with the reintroduction of wolves and they are fighting her at every step. Out of fear? Out of ignorance? Who knows? But as Inti battles these townfolk, she is also battling her own demons – hers, and those of her twin sister, Aggie. And maybe, anger and fighting can blind a person, dangerously, to what is right in front of them.

This is a stunning novel with a lofty mission. We are carried into Inti’s story, her mission to save the forest, a suspicious death, and her past that is entangled so deeply with her sister Aggie’s. Complex plot, complex characters, engaging from page one. But we are also afforded a window into the unique and mysterious wonders of the wolf – its habits, its predatory prowess, and its deep loyalty to its pack. We learn how essential the wolf as predator is to the whole ecosystem of the forest, keeping its prey in check in order to maintain the balance that evolved over centuries and that man did his best to try to destroy.

One can read article upon article about our endangered environment, but when we connect with it in a story such as this one, I believe it has a much stronger impact emotionally. By creating characters whom we relate to and who become heroes to us, we become more personally committed. Even the wolves are characters here, and we become attached to them, come to know them and their personality traits as Inti surmises from her tracking of them. And even though we know this is fiction, albeit with much fact woven through, because we are so invested in these characters and their outcome, we are also invested – enlightened, even – in the urgency of saving our planet – so much more than an article could ever accomplish.

It is a lofty mission that is absolutely accomplished, and beautifully so. Very highly recommend this – and if you’re environmentally inclined, consider it a MUST READ.

Faith by Jennifer Haigh

Sheila has always harbored a soft spot for her brother Art, a tender-hearted guy always destined, it seemed, for the priesthood. His gentle manner, his lack of pursuit of earthly possessions beyond books, and his deep faith made him perfectly suited, even as she herself was filled with doubt. Sadly, though, when he was caught up in the maelstrom of accusations of child molestations by priests in Boston in the early 2000’s, even Sheila was forced to examine her own faith in her brother. Did she think he was capable of doing what he was accused of? What was the truth?

This novel was told with such authenticity that throughout the reading of it, I honestly believed that it was a true story written in novel format. Sheila’s character, her mom, her dad, Art – were all so real, so 3-dimentional, I felt this could have been a very plausible story of any of the priests accused of abuse at the time that so many were. 

The story has many layers that beg to be unpacked. One is the issue of celibacy in the priesthood, as is highlighted here, so radically conflicts with man’s natural, physical urge. Does this contribute to the abuse of women and/or children by priests? Who knows? It certainly would be interesting to see if things were to change if the celibacy rules were lifted. Wouldn’t it be worth that very experiment, given the lives it would impact? Who really benefits from a priest’s celibacy anyway? Certainly not the priests themselves, I would imagine, although I am the last person to actually know that for sure.

And what about the cover-up of all the priestly misdeeds by the church? Surely it occurs in other religions as well — it is not only the Catholic church —  but it has notoriously been present there for centuries. Because of the hierarchical structure of the church and the stringent code of silence among those involved, not to mention the power the church has had over so many over so long, it is not surprising that those who witness any wrongdoing are terrified to come forward in any sort of public way.  And even in that rare instance when one is found to be guilty of sin, there has merely been a notorious shifting around of the wrongdoer rather than actual punishment, so that the wrongdoer is not ever really held accountable or condemned. 

That said, as this story illuminates, not every priest who is accused is, in fact, guilty. Or at least not guilty of what they are accused of doing. Because of all of the revelations in the Boston diocese in the early 2000’s, we are likely to make assumptions about priests that are likely unfair, even cruel. In our country, thank heaven, we are still innocent until proven guilty. This is what this story is trying to highlight – and does so in a beautiful, profound way. Art has his own struggles, but they may be different from what we surmise.  We can never be inside another’s heart, but we must try to see what is their truth.

I think this is an important read in our time. Important to understand how we can be surprised by getting to know another’s actual circumstance, how we can be surprised by our own assumptions and prejudices. 

 

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

The dust has barely settled and wounds have certainly not yet healed from the second world war when Charlotte finds herself dragged by her mother across the Atlantic on the way to take care of her “Little Problem” in a clinic in Switzerland. While her mother is determined to erase this “stain” on Charlotte’s reputation, Charlotte has a very different mission in mind. While here in Europe, she sees an opportunity to uncover the whereabouts of her beloved cousin Rose, who has been missing and presumed dead since returning to France just before the German occupation. With the name and address of Eve Gardiner which she has scribbled on a small piece of paper, she unlocks an adventure that leads her to discovering much more than just what happened to Rose. She discovers a network of brave women who risked their lives for their countries and she uncovers her own inner strength as well.

The Alice Network is another suspenseful novel by the author of the Rose Code (see my prior entry), which will similarly have you on the edge of your seat as you turn each page. There is a great deal of historical fact woven into the fiction here, as Quinn celebrates the unsung female heroes of the first and second world wars.  We learn of the undercover spies that wore skirts and makeup instead of slacks and blazers. They were often ignored because they were “just women,” which sometimes enabled them to sneak through borders undetected, but sometimes led to them being ignored even when they carried valuable information that might have saved hundreds of lives. 

The writing here is crisp, acerbic and intricately plotted. We float back and forth between Charlotte’s pursuit in 1947 and Eve’s back story (WW I). The characters are, each of them, hardened and broken, wounded in one way or another by war. When we meet Eve, for example, she is in a drunken rage, threatening Charlotte with a Luger in her face and trying to send her away.  She is emotionally and physically crippled by her experience in her war.  We see so starkly how women were affected by our wars – whether working under cover, nursing, or being on the front lines in other ways – and their wounds are obviously just as deep. 

I highly recommend this novel – it is historical fiction at its best. 

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

When a Latin tutor gazes out a window, barely listening to his charges recite their verb conjugations, his eye catches sight of a bewitching woman with a falcon on her arm. Suddenly taken with her, he extricates himself from his classroom duties and goes to find her,  feels he needs to know who she is.  He soon comes to learn that this woman, Agnes, has a sense not only of birds, but of so much of nature,  human nature, and natural remedies – more than most. It is only when tragedy upends their lives when they both learn that one can only control so much of what happens in nature and that man will always have limitations.  

Underneath this love story is also a fictional version of how the play, Hamlet, came to be written by William Shakespeare. The tutor, of course, is Shakespeare, and Hamnet is his son, a twin, who died at a young age of the Black Plague. The plot is vividly imagined and lovingly told, but it is no wonder that a tragedy was borne from it. It is a heart-wrenching story.  And not to worry – even knowing this, there are still a few twists that keep the reader guessing until the very end. 

For me, there was quite a bit of hype surrounding this book, which was maybe/maybe not deserved, so I don’t want to build it up for anyone else. But it is a worthwhile read, particularly if you like historical fiction.

I’d be very curious to hear what others felt about this one!

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

All Elizabeth has ever wanted is to be given the freedom and the respect to pursue her theories and experiments in chemistry. Unfortunately, given that it is the 1950’s and America is just not ready for a woman to be anything but a wife or a mother, she is thwarted at every turn. That is, until she meets her match in Calvin Evans, a fellow scientist who recognizes, appreciates and encourages her endeavors. When Calvin has an unexpected accident and their lives are turned upside down, Elizabeth finds a way to meet her new challenges in the most unexpected way imaginable.

This is a sort of Eleanor Oliphant meets Julia Child story, if you can imagine that! It is a bit of an outrageous plot that actually, somehow works. While much of it relies on just going with it, if you do you are rewarded with a delightful and imaginative ride that is at once pensive, philosophical and, occasionally, true laugh-out-loud moments.

Elizabeth feels like a hard character to get to know. She’s been used poorly, taken advantage of, and not respected in spite of her vast intellectual capacity. Because of the time she lives in, she has a hard time trusting and has a very closed circle of those she can open up to. We feel her vulnerability and root for her throughout the story, feeling protective of her, in spite of her awkwardness and abruptness. Most importantly, we love what she inspires in others – the confidence to be smart and one’s authentic self, which was not an easy task in 1950’s America for women. It’s really an ideal scenario that would have been a wonderful reality for so many had it been true.

There are a number of interesting commentaries on religion here as well. When she admits that she does not believe in God, there are severe repercussions to her reputation.

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

In this second in the Beartown trilogy, we happily find ourselves back in Beartown, where we learn that the sacred hockey A team has lost its funding. That is, until a shadow company suddenly appears through the machinations of an ambitious politician, propping up Peter Andersson, the team’s general manager. There is one minor condition, however: the team’s most ardent (and most intimidating) supporters, the “Pack,” will lose their spot in the stands.  Because of Beartown’s small town interconnections, this stipulation has big implications, further dividing the population in mean ways.  As their games approach, their rivalry with the opposing team of Hed grows fierce, and what should be “just a game” goes far beyond.

Backman once again has kept this reader utterly glued to this novel, as it has everything one could want – complex characters with palpable hearts; a plot that is elaborate but clear; and writing that is insightful but not preachy.

The warm love Backman feels for his characters is contagious.   Backman has a way of showing the vulnerability of some who are troubled, where it may originate from, and how those who are labelled as “bad” may actually be so good, particularly when it really matters. The members of the “Pack,” for example, who, on the outside, appear as “hooligans” are fiercely loyal to each other and to so many folks in Beartown. When someone is in need or disaster strikes, they are the first ones there to help, to do whatever menial task is necessary. That is loyalty and that is what good people do. While they are described as having unconventional ways of expressing themselves, yes, and they may sometimes end up on the wrong side of the law, they are nevertheless the ones folks rely upon. 

This is a beautiful story, once again. And I look forward to when #3 comes out, next month – I am guessing we won’t be disappointed! 

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Bert Cousins has managed once again to escape his home full of young children (and another on the way, somehow), this time to attend a christening party to which he was not even invited. Oh, he knows Fix Keating, a bit, but he never knew Fix’s wife was so beautiful – stunning, really. After aiding Fix in locating the just-christened baby who seemed to have gone missing, Bert finds himself alone with the lovely Beverly. It takes just one kiss between them to set their lives, and the lives of their children, on a whole new trajectory.

Ann Patchett has imagined very realistic characters within the pages of this novel, each of whom is coping with the fallout from this decision between Bert and Beverly. The characters are richly portrayed, as are their familial relationships. The children’s connections are strong, strained, tender, and challenging. In spite of the physical distance from each other that grows as they do, their connection is instinctual, reflex. And like in most families, their attachments are complicated by their tangential stories, layered with both love and resentment.

There are times in our lives we say or do something, make a certain choice one way or another, that we think inconsequential, but may actually have ramifications far beyond anything we can imagine. This story exemplifies this over and over again in a very powerful way.

 

All That’s Bright and Gone by Eliza Nellums

6-year old Aoife has had a very rough day. On a trip to the mall to buy new shoes, her mom stopped their car outside the mall and started crying and yelling loudly enough that she was brought to a special hospital. Aoife knows her mom’s been having some difficulty – even at 6, Aoife knows most moms do not talk to their dead sons. Now Aoife is being taken care of by her Uncle Donny. It feels like it is now up to her to solve the mystery of how her brother came to be dead, because maybe that will bring her mother back home. When she enlists her imaginary friend, Teddy, and her next door neighbor/best friend to solve this mystery, things get all the more complicated.

I was hoping for more from this story. Relaying the story from the perspective of the 6-year old with her imaginary friend was a clever move. However, from the outset, there was minimal description of the characters themselves, and because I couldn’t picture them, I found it hard to connect to them. I did feel for Aoife – her relationship with her mother was endearing and I felt compassion for her mother and her mother’s circumstances. But the other characters, such as the uncle, the mother’s boyfriend, and Aoife’s best friend, were all obtuse and unidimensional. Similarly, because the voice was continuously from Aoife, the plot felt simplistic and even the twists were blandly delivered.

I think the idea was creative, but ultimately I was not impressed by the execution. I’d be curious to hear what others think…!

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler

Julia cannot believe how far she’s come. Considering where she started – a teen mom, struggling to keep a roof over her head – she’s feeling almost embarrassed at the size of her new home, with its pool and its technology that her husband Brad insisted on installing. When she meets her new neighbor, Valerie, she learns about the stately old tree whose roots they’ve apparently encroached upon with the building of their pool. She also meets Valerie’s son, Zay. And so does Julia’s daughter, Juniper. And here is where it all starts to get complicated…

I loved this book. Therese Anne Fowler confronts two common themes – climate change and racism, both obviously serious and challenging – but does so without preaching and with warmth, tenderness, and suspense. Creating characters that are entirely relatable, she wraps us up in their lives as if we are living right there in the neighborhood with them. She also uses an extraordinary narrative voice of “we” (presumably the neighborhood voice, perhaps even the book club members from early on in the book) which gives the reader the feeling that we are chatting over coffee with the neighbors about what is happening in our back yard. But we’re also inside the heads of the characters, so we understand their past and why they choose the actions than impact their futures. And just as if we’re watching a bad accident in slow motion, we can’t help yelling for them to not move forward, as we see them heading toward disaster. We are so invested in them because it feels like they really are our neighbors.

One concept that I’d not really heard much of prior to reading this was the “purity pledge” which this book brought to light. This is a vow of celibacy that girls (of course, mostly girls) take during a ceremony in their (often Southern Baptist) Christian church. It was most popular in the 1990’s and was apparently a source of great shame and struggle for so many. Yet another way to oppress women, deny their sexuality, and keep them under wraps, I suppose. (see article in NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/06/us/abstinence-pledge-evangelicals.html)

A Good Neighborhood is a quick read, but a valuable one. I’d even go so far as to give it a MUST READ rating. I think the writing is excellent, I think the story is valuable, and the message is critical, especially in this moment.

 

 

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Alice has recently arrived in Kentucky from England, with high hopes and romantic ideas on how she’ll begin her new life with her very handsome husband, Bennett. Sadly, she’s been quite disappointed so far. Expecting to embark on newlywed adventures, she instead finds herself living with not only Bennett, but with his very demanding and intrusive father, who has been dictating exactly everything that goes on in the home. When Alice hears about a chance to work delivering books to the folks who live in the more remote areas nearby, she sees it as her only means of escape. Only as she becomes more committed to this reputedly “radical” venture does she begin to see a way out of the hold her new family has on her.

Unknowingly, I stumbled upon yet another book about the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky in the 1930’s and 1940’s – and this story was just as gripping as the last (the last one being The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek). The plot builds and surprises and we root for Alice in a way I wasn’t expecting. The characters are strong but multidimensional. Even Alice, who appears meek at first, grows into herself and emerges as a hero in many ways. Other characters may start strong and break, just as in real life.

What is beautiful is the bonds that build amongst the women of the packhorse library – those who work together to create the team who deliver the books to the people of the area. They are as different as they could be: different ages, different abilities, different backgrounds. Yet, they work together as a team and respect each other’s talents. Their bond is what gets them through.

This is a beautiful story that depicts an interesting moment in American history – the packhorse librarians of Kentucky. It is also just a beautiful story.