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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Review: 'Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy'

By Karen Foxlee
Middle grade fantasy
January 2014
Knopf Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-0385753548

Ophelia is an intrepid tween who prefers science to magic, fact to fantasy and, right now, the past to the present. The last is because her mother died a few months ago of cancer.

Her father has buried himself in his work as a sword expert, taking Ophelia and her older sister, Alice, away from their London home to a European city filled with snow. They're to spend their time ice skating while their father puts together an exhibition of the greatest swords ever gathered together.

The girls are bored as well as in mourning. Ophelia explores the vast corriors and twisty exhibit halls of the museum where the exhibition will be held. The nooks and crannies of the museum are far preferable to the company of the museum curator, a vaguely menacing young woman named Miss Kaminski. She may be beautiful, and her father and Alice may think she's spiffy, but Ophelia wants nothing to do with her.

Ophelia soon has her hands full with a quest. In one of the locked museum rooms, she discovers, is a boy. He has been there for a long, long time. Ages ago, the king who he was met when he was sent across the water to defeat the Snow Queen had him locked up at the behest of his new wife. As Ophelia battles fantastical things she knows cannot exist, but which do, the boy fills her in on his story.

As Karen Foxlee's new novel, Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, picks up speed in an action-filled adventure, her heroine finds she has also embarked on a personal journey that involves honoring the spirit of her mother, a fantasy writer who loved to spin tales about frightening things. Foxlee knows just when to switch scenes to what Ophelia's father and sister are up to, when to tell the reader more about the marvelous boy and when to move Ophelia's quest forward.

One of the great aspects to this story is that it is not sad. It is filled with life and making time count. Foxlee knows how to spin wisdom into her tale with light and laughter. She also has a masterful touch at description.

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a fabulous fantasy for middle grade readers who love fairy tales, adventure and stories of courage and love.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Kevin Barry

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without added commentary or context:

This is the story of a happy marriage but before you throw up and turn the page let me say that it will
end with my faced pressed hard into the cold metal of the Volvo’s bonnet, my hands cuffed behind my back,
and my rights droned into my ear – this will occur in the car park of a big-box retail unit on the Naas
Road in Dublin.

-- "Wifey Redux" by Kevin Barry, Dark Lies the Island

Monday, January 20, 2014

Review: 'Hunting Shadows'

By Charles Todd
Crime fiction
January 2014
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0062237187

Returning for his 16th novel, WWI survivor and Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge is on the road again, solving murders in the appropriately named Hunting Shadows.

This time, the story begins with an old soldier who largely keeps to himself but feels he needs to pay his respects to another soldier by attending his funeral in the Fens country. He stops short of entering the church upon seeing an old enemy, a former officer. He waits until the man returns to the area for a wedding and, drawing on his sniper experience during the war, kills the man in front of the bridegroom.

The public slaying horrifies the area. People are even more scared when another man, a quiet country solicitor running for Parliament, also is killed by an unknown assailant in public.

En route to the small villages where the murders took place, Rutledge is lost in the fog one night on the Fens, guided by a ghostly presence who leads him to eventual safety. As with many people Rutledge meets in his investigations, people are suspicious of the police yet expect them to solve crimes, preferably before they happen.

Mixed in with the prickly characters are those who intrigue Rutledge as people, whether they may know much about the murders or even be suspects. There are at least two who would be worth seeing in subsequent novels in this series.

One of the highlights of this novel is the focus on the role of snipers in WWI. Although they saved many lives, their ability to blend into their surroundings to kill was seen by many as cowardly, as not forthright or sporting. The snipers often keep their past a secret, to avoid being shunned. It's an interesting commentary on warcraft and the needs of the battlefield.

The novel also does a wonderful job of bringing the bleak, blandly treacherous Fens to life. This is the landscape in which Lord Peter Wimsey got lost in The Nine Tailors, and this Todd novel recalls that classic tale as well as tells its own strong story.

Rutledge remains haunted by Hamish MacLeod, although the corporal whose execution Rutledge ordered does not disrupt the narrative. He serves as Rutledge's inner guide, asking the right question at the right time and being a bit of a worrywart. Rutledge still suffers from being in the trenches. As his investigation brings back the horrors of those times, he relives them as well.

But he also is soldiering on in that he shows signs of trying to move on by doing his job with diligence, wishing happiness for those he cares about and showing a wee bit more of his human side in his consideration of people he comes across in this outing.

Hunting Shadows is a superb entry in one of the most consistently entertaining historical mystery series around.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: 'Benediction'

By Kent Haruf
Literary Fiction
January 2014
Vintage Paperback edition
ISBN: 978-0307950420

When the big things in life happen, people often take stock and realize what really matters to them -- what people, what events, even what principles. When a big thing happens to a character of a novel, bringing the perfect tone to that taking stock -- and being able to show, rather than tell what really matters -- can make a sad story transcendent.

That's what happens in Kent Haruf's Benediction. Dad Lewis has owned and operated the hardware store in a small high plains town for decades. He is now dying of cancer. His wife Mary is overdoing it and ends up in the hospital. She's one tough cookie -- she walks home after the enforced bedrest. But the Lewises are pragmatic and are the kind of people who naturally do the right thing. In this case, it's sending for their daughter, Lorraine, to come home from Denver to help and be with them.

As in other Haruf novels, there are other small families and groups of people who enter the orbit of the main characters. Next door, Berta May's young granddaughter has come to live with her after the child's mother dies. Alice is a quiet little girl. Lorraine, who lost a daughter, is drawn to her, as are Alene, a teacher probably ready to retire, and her widowed mother, Willa.

Also coming into the Lewis circle is the new preacher in town, fish-out-of-water Lyle, who has an unhappy wife and teenage son. He is a fascinating character -- someone who believes deeply in doing the right thing, but who is unable to communicate that belief or put it into action effectively. He was sent to the Lewises's small town after mucking things up in a bigger church. He's destined to repeat his mistake here.

As Dad Lewis grows more ill and loses his strength, the biggest regret of his life is the estrangement of his son. Frank turned out differently from his father, and his father cast him aside in hurt and anger. Although Dad and Mary saw Frank after he left home, it's been years. Lorraine was in contact with him for a bit, but she also has lost touch.

The depth of Dad Lewis's failure with his own son contrasts with the way he treated an employee who was stealing from the store. Dad fired him and told the man to leave town with his wife and kids. His wife offered herself to Dad in lieu of paying the money back and he turned her down. Months later, the man kills himself. Dad later found the young widow and kids, and helped them financially until she made a new life.

It's the kind of punishment and assistance Dad was never able to give to his own son.

The other characters also find ways in which to make up for the people who were taken from them, and for the things they were not able to do in the regular course of family events.

There is a quiet strength in Haruf's prose that gives the smallest acts the grandeur of epic movements. One afternoon, Mary and Lorraine grant Dad's wish for a last drive around town. They park in front of the store and watch the normal business going on inside the store. A customer buys something and leaves:
 ... and then the man swung around and came out through the open doors onto the sidewalk with the paper sack in his hand, coming directly toward them in the car, so near that they could see the buttons on his summer shirt, before he turned and went up the block in the bright sun.
   Who was that, Daddy?
    I can't think of his name. But I know him. I'll think of it, he said. His voice sounded odd and then suddently he began to weep.
Dad then has them drive him out to the country, where the reader learns what happened to the main characters in Haruf's beautiful novel, Plainsong. It resonates even for someone who hasn't read the novel since it first came out in 1999.

This quiet strength works to great advantage in a major setpiece in the novel, when Lyle tries to deliver a homily about the Sermon on the Mount, and loving one's enemies. With the war on terrorism in full bloom, his sermon does not go well. Although Lyle's sermon does a wonderful job of explaining how there can be such a thing as a progressive believer in Christ in guiding how an individual can feel about both foreign and domestic policy -- ""And what if we tried it? What if we said to our enemies: We are the most powerful nation on earth. We can destroy you. ... But what if we say, Listen: Instead of any of these, we are going to give willingly and generously to you. We are going to spend the great American national treasure and the will and the human lives that we would have spent on destruction, and instead we are going to turn them all toward creation. We'll mend your roads and highways, expand your schools, modernize your wells, and water supplies, save your ancient artifcats and art and culture, preserve your temples and mosques. In fact, we are going to love you." -- the preacher's speech has a point about the way people act in everyday life as well:
 And so we know the satisfaction of hate. We know the sweet joy of revenge. How it feels to get even. Oh, that was a nice idea Jesus had. That was a pretty notion, but you can't love people who do evil. It's neither sensible nor practical. It's not wise to the world to love people who do such terrible wrong. ... what if Jesus wasn't kidding? ... What if he meant every word of what he said? What would the world come to?
In Haruf's novel, time and unsought opportunities provide the chance to many of the characters perhaps not love their enemies, but to do good despite the evil or sad things that have been done to them. That characters in small towns living lives, but not of quiet desperation despite setbacks and heartache, would choose to carry on and do kind things for others, is in itself a benediction to the idea of a life well-lived. It is a way to seek goodness rather than evil, to seek the things that matter.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Sunday Sentence: 'The Infatuations'

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without context or commentary:

The passing of time exacerbates and intensifies any storm, even though there wasn't the tiniest cloud on the horizon at the beginning. We cannot know what time will do to us with its fine, indistinguishable layers upon layers, we cannot know what it might make of us. It advances stealthily, day by day and hour by hour and step by poisoned step, never drawing attention to its surreptitious labours, so respectful and considerate that it never once gives us a prod or a nasty fright.

-- Javier MarĂ­as, The Infatuations

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Review: 'The Cleaner of Chartres'

The Cleaner of Chartres
By Sally Vickers
Contemporary fiction
June 2013
ISBN: 978-0670785674

Some novels are less than what they appear, others are more so. Some can be read as entertainment only, while some can be read that way but have other things to say. Salley Vickers writes novels that are unassuming yet have wise observations about people and how they like to judge others. The Cleaner of Chartres is such a novel.

Agnes Morel is one of those quiet women who appear as if they are going through life trying to be undetected. She arrived one day in Chartres, no one remembers exactly when, and has made a meager living for herself cleaning and occasionally watching children.

One priest tries to turn Agnes into his confessor, not of crimes, but of his crisis of faith. Two catty old women who employ Agnes use her in their game of oneupsmanship. A lonely professor turns his life around when Agnes begins to organize his messy office. A psychiatrist worries whether he helped Agnes or made her life worse. And a man involved in a cleaning project within the cathedral finds her fascinating.

Perhaps because she is quiet and makes no demands of her own, others either want her to listen to them or assign all sorts of activities to her. She is often regarded by others are a character not unlike that of Chauncey Gardner in Being There, in which others mistake simplicity for being profound. But in the case of this novel, there is no satire involved.

There is, however, past tragedy and that is used against Agnes when it becomes known. And that's when the narrative becomes really rather interesting. Vickers is good at pointing out what the foibles of each character mean in terms of what kind a character each is. She also is good at slipping in some asides that showcase what's behind what some people do and what's behind their thinking.

In this exchange. Abbe Paul is speaking first while Agnes responds:

"...But since no one knows what it quite was there's no reason why you wouldn't be the one to uncover the mystery." 
"Maybe it is better left uncovered." 
The Abbe Paul looked at Agnes rather as Alain had, with respect. "How sensible. People are desperate to probe mysteries which for the most part are best left unprobed. It is the modern curse: this demented drive to explain every blessed thing. Not everything can be explained. Nor should be, I think." 
"Some things should be, though." She was thinking of the riddle of her own birth. 
"To be sure. I often wonder if happiness isn't knowing what should and what should not be explained." 
"But how can we tell which is which?" 
"Hmmm," said the Abbe Paul. "That, I suppose, is wisdom."

This exchange encapsulates what I like about Vickers's writing -- my initial reaction is to question what's wrong with trying to explain every blessed, and cursed, thing. At first, Vickers's plot seems to suggest that this dashing about trying to explain things, especially when not equipped with all the necessary information, can lead to trouble and hurt people.

But then something else happens, just when it looks like the entire plot is going to collapse upon itself as the smaller-minded characters ascend. As more characters find out what actually happened in the past and what recently happened, things don't just straighten themselves out. Situations actually improve for several characters.

The results are plausible but, depending on one's outlook about other human beings, either likely or barely possible. How one responds to fiction is largely a matter of what one brings to it, and responses could be viewed as a Rorschach Test of sorts. Reading a novel by Vickers, who is a Jungian psychotherapist, it's possible to take a step back from reading and reacting to see what one's own reaction might mean.

Or whether it's just an entertainment.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted by permission