The Storied Life of AJ Filkry by Gabrielle Zevin

I have my friend Jimmy to thank for this one…

AJ is aware of how ornery he has grown and still cannot help himself – no, he almost delights in it, even as it might actually be responsible for driving away the few customers who might visit his tiny, fledgling island bookstore.  But when he is outright nasty to the attractive, new publishing company rep, he actually feels a twinge of remorse.  Two discoveries after this, one a loss and one a find, both that occur in the confines of his bookstore, lead to major changes in AJ’s life that open up his heart once again to the possibility of love and connection to others.

While this is a somewhat unlikely story, and requires some bit of blind acceptance, it is a sweet one, nonetheless.  We’d all love to believe that a middle aged man, set in his ways, living alone, would take in a completely strange toddler left on his doorstep.  It is a beautiful image, but I’m not sure how realistic it is.  But this is fiction, so we’ll go with it.

On the other hand, the setting is a bookstore on an island (a mashup of my 2 favorite kinds of places). The characters are utterly endearing, from the awkward Amelia, the publishing rep with the bad taste in clothes and the great taste in books, to the police chief with the expanding taste in books and the predictable taste in party foods.  They are characters we engage with easily and comfortably, as we would an old armchair.  Even the plot winds around our hearts and tugs gently but surely.  It will get you.

This is a sweet novel and perfect for anyone who loves talking about books – and reading about others who love talking about books!

 

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

where the crawdads sing

At only age 5, Kya watched her mother carry her suitcase and walk away from their shack in the swamp, without even a glance back.  Most of her siblings already having gone, her older brother Jodie, her protector and confidant, soon said his goodbye as well.  It was then down to only Kya and her father, Jake, who was as stingy and unpredictable as his disability checks.   Fortunately, Jodie had coached her well on how to navigate her way around the swamp, how to make herself disappear, and most importantly, how to appreciate the natural wonders around her.  Because of the caring eye of a few who did look out for her, Kya  did become much more than merely the “Marsh Girl.”   But did the Marsh Girl also become someone capable of murder?

This is a riveting story, yet one told with subtlety and beauty and utter sadness.  The innocent heartbreak of young Kya just tears at your heart and you can’t help feeling her loneliness yourself.  Because the writing feels so intimate, as Kya grows, you feel her loss and vulnerability and her few victories personally, as if going through them yourself.  And the analogies from nature all around her are quite striking.

My favorite writing technique of flipping from one time period to another is used in this story to full advantage.  Going from when Kya is tiny and left alone to fast forward, when  a dead body is found in the marsh, helps to lay down the root of a suspense that grows over the course of the story.  It doesn’t play much of a role in the earlier part of the book, because we are so taken with little Kya, but it builds greatly later on as it comes to a crescendo.  It’s really quite patiently and beautifully constructed.

If you haven’t guessed already, this is definitely a “MUST READ.”  It’s beautiful, well-written, so very sad, but also suspenseful – definitely could not put it down!  Highly recommend it!

 

 

 

 

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Nikki has been caught between feeling like she’d let her family down by walking out on her legal education and feeling resentful that they’d tried to control everything in her life.  She couldn’t imagine letting her family arrange and control as much as her sister did – even going to the extreme of seeking a possible arranged marriage! – but then again, here she was, working in and living above a bar.  Was this a better option?  When an opportunity arises to teach women in an Indian cultural center to write stories about their lives, Nikki applies and gets the position.  Little does she know that these women have stories to tell that will shock and amaze her.  And as she comes to know these women, she comes to also uncover the mystery surrounding a single voice that has been stifled forever…

This book was surprisingly engaging and ultimately suspenseful.  What started out quite innocent and almost superficial grew into a much more complicated plot and twisted and turned quite unexpectedly.  Characters that one would have guessed would have been staid and traditional showed not only a cheekier side, but actually true, deep-seeded bravery.  This made a book that I initially felt nonchalant about become much more meaningful to me.

I am still unsure if the sexually explicit scenes in this book are totally necessary.  I am not prudish and I do not shy away from this.  I know why they are here.  But I felt they were a bit too long.  (I almost got a little bored with the off -shooting they provided.)  I’d be interested to hear what others think about this.

A worthwhile read, in the end, though.  Please add comments –  I’d really be interested to hear what you all think about my issues with this book!

 

The Girl who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes

girl who wrote in silk

In the late 1880’s, Washington territory, Mei Lien’s whole world revolved around her father and grandmother, both of whom she revered and loved with all her heart.  But with one unthinkable strike, both of them were torn from her and her entire life trajectory changed.

Fast forward to current day, and we find Inara, whose favorite aunt has died, with a wish that Inara take her estate and turn it into an island inn.  In her exploration of the estate, Inara stumbles upon the sleeve of a robe, embroidered with an elaborate scene that appears to be communicating an urgent message from long ago.

What is the connection?  And what will that connection mean for Inara’s family?  What did it mean, more importantly, for Mei Lien?

I feel this book, while powerful in its message and matter, just missed its mark in the telling.  The idea of the story is a brilliant one, based in a historical reality that needs to be told – and one that I, for one, was beforehand, ignorant of.  In the late 1800’s and well into the 1900’s, the Chinese who immigrated to the US and Canada were treated abominably, often with prejudice at best and with violence at worst.  This story brings that racism to a very personal level, highlighting the loneliness, despair, and abject terror that racism induces.

On the more literary side, the resolution of the story that is told is just too extreme to be believable.  The family connections are too improbable.  The way Inara finds a chef for her kitchen for her inn is too coincidental.  And the ending just slides into home plate for that grand slam in a way that almost trivializes the story.  I am not saying that the ending is not what anyone reading the story would have wanted, but I think it was too neat and tidy.  It’s not real life.

But maybe that is why it’s called fiction.

I am still glad I read this book and would recommend it to others as well.  If not for the literary sparkle, for the historical perspective it provides.

 

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

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Aaron Levy cannot believe he will have to abide the sullen nature of his new mentor, just to be able to have a peek at the rabbinical documents and letters found under the stairs of an historic home outside London.  Helen Watts, this new professor he’s been asked to assist, seems not to have smiling nor social graces in her repertoire.   In truth, he realizes as time passes, that they both have issues to work out as they work together to uncover the secrets that have been buried under these stairs for centuries…  And centuries ago, in the 16oo’s, after taking 2 orphans to London with him as he fled the Spanish Inquisition, Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, blind, but trying to teach a few students, has compromised and allowed one of these orphans to be his scribe.  Ester, the bookish adolescent who dreams of nothing but to study and learn as much as she can as any boy might, has taken her seat at the writing table and begun to scribe the rabbi’s letters for him.  But as she grows older and reaches the age of marriage, this becomes more and more controversial and Ester devises a plan almost in spite of herself.

This is a magnificently crafted work of historical fiction.  The author weaves the plot by gracefully swinging back and forth between the modern day historians and the original characters, layering each of the characters’ stories on each others’ in order to build the connections — and the suspense as well.  And as the story builds, the characters deepen, and they each become much more sympathetic in their own ways.  As the scribe Ester becomes more and more real to the two historians, both Aaron and Helen become more and more human themselves and discover that each of them has used history as a way to escape their own humanness.

The writing in this book is brilliant.  It is beautiful, rich, and full.  The characters are complicated and imperfect and human and they are hard to leave when you finish the book.

You will also learn a lot of history from this book.  The time is the 1600’s, when there were many who had just fled the Inquisition.  People were terrified to speak their minds, fearing that if they said anything against any church, they’d be tortured and killed.  Women had one role in society and that was to marry and raise a family – and if they did not marry, their lot was to struggle and do housework for someone who was married and it was a hard life if you chose that route.  And then came the plague in London, which devastated much of the population.  It was a gruesome time.

But in spite of the ugliness of the time, the beauty lies in the resilience of the people living through it – and that is what is captured here in this story.

I loved this book – I am confident you will too!

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

faithful

After a devastating accident leaves Shelby with an onerous survivor’s guilt, she wilts into a depression and essentially withdraws from her life.  People around her — particularly her mother — try very hard to pull her out, but it is only when she begins to discover her drive to save mistreated animals that she finds a purpose in her life and a reason for her to actually connect with other people as well.

This story actually starts off so simply and slowly that it seems almost too simplistic.  But it builds insidiously and the characters develop a charm and sweetness that work their way into your heart even before you know it.  Even while Shelby is being rude and harsh, you can only feel sadness for her because of her tragic brokenness.

The writing here is remarkable as well.  It is written in the present tense, which I usually find annoying.  (I can’t even say why that is so.)  However, in this case, I actually think it works.  But Shelby can only live in the moment, in the here and now and has trouble thinking about a future; therefore a present tense is a logical way to express her story.  There is also an intentional stiffness to the writing in general – to the description as well as the dialogue.  It is very effective in relaying how awkwardly Shelby relates to others.  There is only a comfort or warmth that shines through with very few people, and that becomes obvious as time goes on.

This is a heart-wrenching story but very moving and well-written.  Another winner by Alice Hoffman!

 

Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb

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“Ike” Goldah seems to be finding his way to adjusting to life after the concentration camps of World War II.  He has come straight from the DP camp to live with his cousins in Savannah, Georgia.  His cousin has set him up with a room in their house, a job in his shoe store, and he is even looking into doing some writing on the side, which was his previous career before the war.  That is, until he has a surprise visitor who is like a ghost from his past – and seems to turn his world upside down.

I really like this book for its many plot threads and themes.  You can look at the Jewish Holocaust themes, but there are also comparisons between the Jew/non-Jew and Black/White race relations that are laid out so starkly here.  In addition, Goldah’s cousin is involved in illegal dealings with his shoe business that are a bit murky but that give the story another dimension.   Goldah’s love interests also create another side story, giving his “visitor” addition a real shock value.

I actually think the book could have been expanded upon.  It felt like it ended much too soon.  The characters were great and there was so much happening in it that it could have been broadened further.  I was left wanting much more.

I think this book was a good read, but probably edited down a bit too much.