Thursday, May 28, 2015

'The Best' is very subjective

Jane Austen wrote the following paragraph in her personal papers, about people's reception to her books. I loved stumbling upon it on an Austen website.

'Cassandra liked 'Emma' better the 'Pride & Prejudice' but not so well as '
Mansfield Park.' Mother found 'Emma' more entertaining than 'Mansfield Park' but not so interesting as 'Pride & Prejudice'. Mr Cockerelle liked 'Emma' so little, Fanny wouldn't even send me his opinion. Mrs A Bramstone thought 'Sense & Sensibility' and 'Pride & Prejudice' downright nonsense, but decided 'Mansfield Park' is the worst.'

Having written nine novels at this stage, I found I could relate to her. If I relied on public opinion to help me decide how I'm going, I'd be very confused. Some people have said they prefer 'Picking up the Pieces' to anything else I've written, because of the strong forgiveness theme. Others think 'Best Forgotten' is the best, for the mystery thread, while a few even choose 'A Design of Gold,' including one man who was touched by my hero's past as it was similar to his own. Others say my latest, 'Imogen's Chance' drew them in more than all the others.

The only clear conclusion is that 'the best' is subjective. I follow a reviewer from
America whose opinions I often agree with, and she shocked me last week by writing a harsh review about a book I loved. To add to the confusion of opinions, any person's feelings can change down the track. I once read Beverly Cleary's 'Ramona' books with my kids. I remembered them as a series I vaguely enjoyed as a kid, when I identified with the heroine. To my great surprise, years later I found myself identifying strongly with the mother as well as both daughters, and loved the books!

Differing opinions may be explained partly because all readers process books according to their own unique attitudes and life experiences. Last year, I read a memoir by a lady named Rebecca Mead who followed the footsteps of George Eliot. She wrote, 'My 'Middlemarch' is not the same as anyone else's Middlemarch', and not even the same as my 'Middlemarch' of twenty-five years ago.'

It would seem that in spite of what we may expect, the experience of any given book isn't something that simply strikes a generic impression into every heart. Life would be pretty simple if this was so. What if each reader brings part of his or her own personality to the experience of reading our stories? That's why differences of opinion can be poles apart. It also means that not only the writer's character and way of expression is responsible for good impressions, but the reader's too. This leaves us free to simply shrug and accept random reports that a particular person hated our work. We needn't believe that we're bad authors just because we didn't strike a chord with Jane Doe.

On the flip side, I'm well aware that whenever a reader thanks me for a good read, it's more than just a throw-away compliment. It means that while they read my novel, something deep in their heart responded to something in mine. Imagine if somebody with admirable, heroic qualities ever attribute them partly to reading our books. Now, there's a thought.

Monday, May 25, 2015

'The Pharoah's Daughter' by Mesu Andrews

2015 Reading Challenge, Week 21 - A Book that was based on a true story.
This one, of course, is based on very ancient Biblical history. 
Anippe has grown up in the shadows of Egypt’s good god Pharaoh, aware that Anubis, god of the afterlife, may take her or her siblings at any moment. She watched him snatch her mother and infant brother during childbirth, a moment which awakens in her a terrible dread of ever bearing a child. Now she is to be become the bride of Sebak, a kind but quick-tempered Captain of Pharaoh Tut’s army. In order to provide Sebak the heir he deserves and yet protect herself from the underworld gods, Anippe must launch a series of deceptions, even involving the Hebrew midwives—women ordered by Tut to drown the sons of their own people in the Nile.
     When she finds a baby floating in a basket on the great river, Anippe believes Egypt’s gods have answered her pleas, entrenching her more deeply in deception and placing her and her son Mehy, whom handmaiden Miriam calls Moses, in mortal danger.
  As bloodshed and savage politics shift the balance of power in Egypt, the gods reveal their fickle natures and Anippe wonders if her son, a boy of Hebrew blood, could one day become king. Or does the god of her Hebrew servants, the one they call El Shaddai, have a different plan—for them all?

I've been told about the sight of the wonderful, life-giving River Nile lying in the scorching Egyptian climate, the only strip of blue. And I've been fascinated with the lavish pyramids and burial sites of Egypt. This story takes us there, to the time period of the first few chapters of Exodus. Anippe is an Egyptian princess who was forced to make a political marriage to Commander Sebak and move to the Delta, with its grain fields and Hebrew slaves. This is the story of how she becomes the adopted mother of Moses, when she went down to the river to bathe and discovered his basket. 

This time and place takes the phrase, 'Our lives have never been our own' to a crazy level. So many characters find themselves forced to do what's regarded as expedient for their people and country. Even those who make cruel decisions are shown to have been victims of the same phenomenon in their own lives. My heart ached for Tut, the confused ten-year-old boy who was forced into marriage with an older woman, even though I hated the cold-hearted monster he becomes later in the story when he made his edict about the Hebrew boy babies. I guess when you consider that Ancient Egypt was a place with so many gods for everything you could think of, it's no wonder trying to determine the person at the top got a bit confusing. How creepy that Anippe, who grew up alongside her brother, honestly came to believe that his emotional state translated as turmoil in the natural elements.

Mesu Andrews took quite a bit of poetic license with the plot, giving characters such as Puah and Shiphrah, the two midwives, their own stories of intense drama, tying in with that of the Egyptian princess. I can't help thinking of the flak certain biblical movies such as 'Noah' have received in recent years, making me wonder whether she 'Hollywood-ised' this story to some extent (such as the deal made between Puah and Anippe). The ruses Anippe goes through to claim the son she rescued from the River Nile is put forward as very tricky and underhanded in this novel. What a lot of personal and political intrigue gets drawn out of one simple passage in the Bible about young Moses being retrieved from the River.

I think the biggest strength of this novel was also the greatest weakness for me. The author did such a lot of research, the authenticity makes it harder for me to bond emotionally with any particular characters. Even 'good' guys, like Sebak, come across as a bit harsh. The ancient Egyptian mindset, which I'm sure Ms Andrews has nailed, leaves me cold, and thankful that I escaped being born into that time and place. 

So overall, although this novel has all the hallmarks of another brilliantly researched Mesu Andrews novel, it's not my favourite title of hers. However, this won't stop me reading more.
Some of my favourite quotes.
'Mered (Puah's husband) didn't understand Egyptian gods and symbols and legends, but neither did most Egyptians... At least El Shaddai was unchanging, though many Hebrews had given up hope of his ancient promises.'

Thanks to WaterBrook Multnomah and Blogging for Books for my review copy

3 stars

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

10 novels in which deceased people are main characters

For this week's Top 10 (which, being an Aussie, I've posted again on Wednesday instead of Tuesday, as we're always a bit ahead) we were given free reins to choose our own topic. I'm going with this one, for reasons you'll see below. Thanks again to The Broke and the Bookish for hosting these Top 10 weeks.

I got the idea because I'm researching the life of my grandfather, who died before I was born. It made me wonder whether it's really true that when we pass away, the spot we occupied simply closes over without leaving a mark.

 Soren Kierkegaard said something like, 'A tyrant's influence ends when he dies, but a martyr's influence begins when he dies' (or words to that effect). I don't believe you have to be a martyr for the influence of your life to keep making ripples long after you are no longer living it. Rather than being completely forgotten, our loved ones live on in our memories, and in the results of their influence and actions, which become part of a greater tapestry. 

The ten books I mention here are from a variety of genres, authors and eras. The main thing they have in common is that one character, who has clearly died before the story begins, still wields great significance to the point that they are clearly main characters, despite being deceased. These are just a sample of books I've read within the last few years. Let me know if you can think of any others.

A Man Called Ove 1) Sonja from A Man Called Ove (by Fredrik Backman)
Ove's wife, Sonja, passed away about six months before the story begins, but the loving hold she has on her husband is still huge, to the point where he wants to join her as soon as he can figure out a way. He still has the house set up as she left it, talks to her and prioritises his visits her gravestone. We see from flashbacks what a truly good person she was, whose attitudes and way of living shine from the pages. My review is here.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society 2) Elizabeth from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (by Mary Ann Shaffer)
In this story told by letters, Elizabeth McKenna comes through in reminiscences as a heroine in a million. It's obvious that even though she's no longer with her friends and family, having been killed as a result of her acts of bravery, many of the good things they're enjoying wouldn't have been possible without her input. My review is here.

Making Marion: Where's Robin Hood When You Need Him? 3) Daniel, aka Henry from Making Marion (by Beth Moran)
The heroine, Marion, has beloved memories of her father who died when she was a child. He was the polar opposite of her mother, who traumatised and almost ruined her life. The reason Marion is in Sherwood Forest is to learn as much as she can about his youth. The details she discovers make him a very touching main character. My review is here.

Still Life 4) Julian from Still Life (by Christa Parrish)
A plane crash takes this hero's life at the very start of the book. We learn a lot more about Julian through flashbacks. His young wife, Ada, discovers more about just how loving her husband was as the story progresses. My review is here.

The Prayer Box 5) Iola-Anne from The Prayer Box (by Lisa Wingate)
This elderly character is discovered dead in her bed by fellow heroine, Tandi, who later turns her life around as a result of a wonderful discovery. Iola-Anne has left stacks of old diaries beginning from her girlhood. Their contents show that people generally misjudged this wonderful lady. My review is here.

African Hearts 6) Marcus from African Hearts
In this Australian novel, the heroine, Gina, is called to Africa, as the result of her brother, Marcus' death. To her shock, she's inherited her brother's worldly goods, and custody of his son, Justin. We learn more about Marcus' good work and vision for his adopted country, along with Gina.

Book of Days 7) Jessie from Book of Days (by James Rubart)
Cameron's beloved young wife, Jessie, died in a tragic accident a long time before the start of the book. Cryptic challenges she left him are so compelling that they send him on an extreme search for a very important book. My review is here.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1) 8) James and Lily from the Harry Potter series (by J.K. Rowling)
The fact the these two are dead is at the crux of the whole series, to their orphan son's regret. They died trying to protect him, and the further we read, the more we discover how crucial the Potter couples' role was in the whole intriguing story.

The Kitchen Daughter 9) Ginny's parents from The Kitchen Daughter (by Jael McHenry)
This couple, who looked after their Aspergers daughter, died at the beginning of the book, but are there in spirit, and she discovers more about their hidden lives after they are dead than she did during their lifetimes. My review is here.

Imogen's Chance 10) Hayden from Imogen's Chance (by Paula Vince)
This novel is one of mine, which I'm pleased to fit into this category. The character was 'Dad' to Asher and 'Uncle Hayden' to Imogen. I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not he was good. No matter what you decide, you'll see that even though he died five years before the novel's start, he's still large as life in my protagonists' decisions and thought processes.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

'Deception on Sable Hill' by Shelley Gray

"The World s Fair is nearing its end, but the danger in Chicago lingers."

It s mid-September of 1893, and Eloisa Carstairs is the reigning beauty of Gilded Age Chicago society. To outsiders she appears to have it all. But Eloisa is living with a dark secret. Several months ago, she endured a horrible assault at the hands of Douglass Sloane, heir to one of Chicago s wealthiest families. Fearing the loss of her reputation, Eloisa has confided in only one friend. That is, until she meets Detective Sean Ryan at a high-society ball.

Sean is on the outskirts of the wealthy Chicago lifestyle. Born into a poor Irish family, becoming a policeman was his best opportunity to ensure his future security. Despite society s restrictions, he is enamored with Eloisa Carstairs. Sean seethes inside at what he knows happened to her, and he will do anything to keep her safe even if he can never earn her affections.

Eloisa longs to feel normal again in the midst of the danger surrounding the Chicago World s Fair, but a killer is on the loose. In the last month, three debutants have been accosted in the city by an assailant wielding a stiletto. As the danger in the city increases, and as Eloisa and Sean s romance blossoms, they both realize they want to be seen as more than how the world views them. But will they catch the killer before all their hopes come tumbling down?"

The premise of this novel sounded intriguing. A criminal known as the Society Slasher is at large, committing crimes that sound like an inverse of Jack the Ripper. His victims tend to be elegant women who are the cream of Chicago society in the Gilded era.

Irish working class policeman, Sean Ryan, finds himself falling for Miss Eloisa Carstairs, who he's attempting to protect in the line of duty. His partner, Owen Howard, a man of noble birth, is having the opposite problem, as he's attracted to Sean's younger sister, Katie, who doesn't believe she'll ever be suitable for him. All the while, the Society Slasher keeps committing his gruesome deeds. I really wanted to get stuck into the story, but in several ways, it didn't meet my expectations. I'll try to explain why.

It's not the sort of interactive mystery in which readers get to have a go at trying to figure out the Slasher's identity, because we aren't given many clues. We are not introduced to a range of key suspects or society men. The main male characters are the two cops, who are, of course, above suspicion. It got to the point where I didn't care who the crook was, as he was obviously somebody who was not given much page space. And Sean and Owen, who were supposed to be on the case, seemed to spend more time pondering their romantic dilemmas than trying to put together a list of possibilities. Parts of the story seemed to drag a bit, as neither of them had any more clue than I did.

The romances were a combination of fast and slow to me. Fast in that both attractions seemed to be instantaneous and based on first impressions, and slow in that they were full of the sorts of deliberate misunderstandings that tend to crop up in these stories of unequal social yoking. Hero snaps at heroine, believing it's for her own good, and she goes off devastated, determined to forget that she ever gave him a thought, but we know that the misunderstandings will be ironed out in the end. 

Now, here's what redeemed the book a bit for me. The ways in which each social class tended to judge the other as inferior was handled very well. Eloisa's snobbish parents are stereotypical as we may expect (they even have a butler named Worthy), but the attitude of Sean's older sister, Maeve, toward Eloisa reveals a lot. When Eloisa volunteers to help at Maeve's charity house, Maeve is quick to sum her up as a shallow princess type with time on her hands who simply wants a reason to give herself a pat on the back. It really shows that even when people wanted to reach out to others, it was often impossible, as their motives were questioned. It makes me glad that we've come so far, and not the least that the police force is now a more respected profession, as it deserves to be.

So for me overall, it was thumbs down for the mystery, thumbs down for the romances, but thumbs up for the social commentary. Perhaps if I hadn't expected a mystery in the Agatha Christie sense of the word, I might have felt differently.

Thanks to Net Galley and Zondervan for my review copy

2.5 stars

Monday, May 18, 2015

'The Kitchen Daughter' by Jael McHenry

2015 Reading Challenge, Week 20 - A book from the bottom of your 'to read' list.
I dug down to my first TBR page on Goodreads, which as you can imagine was started a long time ago. This is the first book from it which arrived at my local library, so this was the one it turned out to be. I'm so glad, as I loved it! 

After the unexpected death of her parents, painfully shy and sheltered 26-year-old Ginny Selvaggio seeks comfort in cooking from family recipes. But the rich, peppery scent of her Nonna’s soup draws an unexpected visitor into the kitchen: the ghost of Nonna herself, dead for twenty years, who appears with a cryptic warning (“do no let her…”) before vanishing like steam from a cooling dish.

A haunted kitchen isn’t Ginny’s only challenge. Her domineering sister, Amanda, (aka “Demanda”) insists on selling their parents’ house, the only home Ginny has ever known. As she packs up her parents’ belongings, Ginny finds evidence of family secrets she isn’t sure how to unravel. She knows how to turn milk into cheese and cream into butter, but she doesn’t know why her mother hid a letter in the bedroom chimney, or the identity of the woman in her father’s photographs. The more she learns, the more she realizes the keys to these riddles lie with the dead, and there’s only one way to get answers: cook from dead people’s recipes, raise their ghosts, and ask them.


Ginny Selvaggio is a 26-year-old with Asperger's Syndrome whose parents have died suddenly in an accident. Cooking is her stress outlet, and quite by chance, she realises she can summon ghosts when she cooks from recipes written in the person's own handwriting. But she only has a short time with each of them before the fragrances of their dishes waft away, and visits are limited to once only.

My heart warmed to Ginny straight away. She couldn't avoid a complex that she lacks something essential, since people treat her different from others. It's easy to shun what we don't quite understand, but this book makes it clear what a lot we may miss when we don't make the effort. I like Ginny's 'Normal Book' in which she tries to convince herself that she really is the same as everyone else, and most of all, I enjoy the way she perceives people's voices in terms of food and drink. Amanda's is like orange juice, sweet but sharp, Dad's sharp and round like tomato juice, David's dark and muddy like coffee left on the burner, and Mum's, like regular spearmint but with a laugh like popping bubble gum. From those descriptions, I could certainly hear them. 

How interesting that Amanda was cast as the antagonist, since she seems pretty 'normal' to me. Perhaps she represents a side of most of us which we flinch from facing. It's easier to criticise somebody else than acknowledge it. The desire to want to run the show has definitely surged up in me at times. I hated the way Amanda fobbed her sister off whenever the subject of the house sale came up, yet as this story is told from Ginny's point of view, Amanda is bound to show up as domineering and controlling. It's obvious from the things she says that it's a different story from her own vantage point. Maybe it's a bit of a worry that so many of us are ready to come down so hard on a frazzled young mother who has just lost her parents.

In the author interview at the back of the book, Jael McHenry states that agents advised her not to include the Asperger's aspect, thinking it might be harder to sell the book, but she stuck to her guns. I'm so glad she did, as the Asperger's theme was definitely a highlight, and it would've been a poorer book without it.

The story leaves us with the comfortable feeling that just because people may not understand us, doesn't mean we're bad. It's about keeping our wits about us, because when well-meaning people like Amanda 'put a word on us' it may mean the difference between whether we prosper in own unique way, or cave in to the labels which are thrust on us. And so many us really don't fit at the top of the bell curve when it comes to definitions of normal. Let's not think harshly of ourselves for not fitting neatly into the world's narrow definition.

David: What have you got?
Ginny: A personality.

I'll be careful to give no plot spoilers here, but the part near the end where Ginny makes the hot chocolate - I'm sure many of us figured out what was happening before she did. I groaned out loud. I wish that part of the story could have worked out differently, but it's a neat wrap-up for all that, and I consider it an upbeat book in spite of everything.

It's a story I recommend to all foodies and anybody with an Asperger's diagnosis in their family.

5 stars

Saturday, May 16, 2015

'Travelogue of the Interior' by Karen Dabaghian

Most travel tales begin and end with the book in your hand. Not this one.

As Karen Dabaghian shares the adventure of her year in the Psalms, you’ll embark on an ancient journey for those hungry to know God more intimately.

The Psalms were the hymnbook of the Hebrews, Jesus, and the early church. Today, we tend to pluck a verse here and there for a word of encouragement, but we have lost the Psalms as a guidebook for spiritual formation.

You can rediscover the Psalms as a traveler. Explore the terrain where your interior life and the Word of God intersect. Begin speaking to God with raw honesty. Listen as God replies with personal, life-giving words.

Above all, discover at the feet of the poet-king how to “taste and see that the LORD is good.”

Some books are best read slowly and reflectively. This is one of them. Karen Dabaghian was invited by her pastor to attend a course he was running on David's Psalms. Participants were to study them along with the corresponding narrative in 1 and 2 Samuel, then write their own poems of lament and praise in response. She expected to feel out of her depth, but it turned out to be an amazing and enlightening time of personal growth.

Dabaghian is convincing in her appeal that we should all write poetry. She believes that if she can rise to the challenge, anyone can. She wishes poetry were not the 'exclusive domain of the intellectual elite', because this scares ordinary folk from believing that we too may capture the ebb and flow of our lives, if we only dare try. Each reflective chapter ends with a beautiful and heartfelt poem which almost does encourage me to have a go.

Here are just a few of her interesting musings inspired by the Psalms.

1) She ponders the chicken and egg conundrum with regards to faith and works; which comes first? We assume that God has a master plan which we need to figure out like clues in a mystery novel, but what if the process is actually more malleable, and our perspectives and desires shape God's heart, as well as the other way around?

2) She challenges us to consider our motives to be sure why we even want to worship God. Is it because He gives us good things, or simply because of who He is? And she looks at the problematic aspects of using exclusively male terminology when referring to God.

3) If joy is the sensation we have in the presence of God, then what if the term 'worship' simply covers the spontaneous things we do in response to this. It would follow that these will be way different for everyone.

4) She tackles what I think of as 'the big question' stemming from what seems to be taken as a given in many Christian books. What does the prolific phrase, 'God told me...' really even mean? Since people generally agree that it's not audible conversation, could our personal feelings be signposts along the way? They seemed to be springboards for David in his writing.

5) Then she gets into another 'big question' about sin. Could it be hardwired into our cells and tissues, making it impossible to ever completely squelch? I took notice because I'd just finished reading a science article which told me our selfish impulses are wired into the brain. But even if this is true, isn't it what the Gospel is all about? I have to say, it's refreshing to see a Christian author tackle the sacred cow of creationism versus evolutionism, making us wonder whether it's even worth arguing about.

There were personal lessons for me too. At first as I read, I got the impression that Karen might be the sort of person I hate to find myself stuck with in small groups. Just from random remarks she made, I pictured her as the type who monopolises sessions with questions and comments while others can't wedge a word in. There's usually at least one in every crowd. I might be totally wrong here, but my feelers were waving. Yet as I got used to her style, I came to love her depth, honesty and wisdom. Even as our methods of approach may be different we're pretty similar in many ways. Personal doubts about our own worth, depression and feelings of floundering may be common to all types of personalities, although we wouldn't believe it of others who appear to be going along just fine. I love the appreciative way she writes about her family and friends.

What are my favourite parts of this book?

Honest, probing quotes, such as, 'The only thing we could safely say when asked, "What would Jesus do?" is "Probably some option I'm not even considering at the moment."'

Overall, the beautiful, over-arching sense of God watching over our lives, not so that He can fix what is broken, but simply because He delights in us. Kudos to Karen Dabaghian for writing this, and I hope she has more to come.

Thanks to David C. Cook and Net Galley for my review copy.

4 stars

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Marginalia - love it or hate it

Defined on Wikipedia as 'The scribbles, comments and illuminations in the margin of a book,' you come across this practice everywhere. Marginalia is generally handwritten by readers who believe they have something to add to an author's words, or simply wish to remember them. For such a simple habit, I was amazed by the polarising opinions expressed by the general public in a poll I saw.

I'll get the negative out of the way first. Some people seemed to react as if they were being asked about murder. Since some book lovers consider their books to be living friends, maybe that makes sense. Others tend to treat it like graffiti. Vandals who may consider themselves artists deface public property, in the same way that disrespectful or know-it-all readers deface the pages of books. Since some profanity and coarse language is probably bound to make it into this sort of writing at times, they may have a point. However, I believe that if we're willing to think outside the square (and I realise that's a sort of pun), there's lots of good to be said about marginalia.

For a start, old books with marginalia may retain something of their former owners' presence, giving you a buzz, or even a bit of insight when you come across it. In Lucy Maud Montgomery's 'The Golden Road', the Story Girl receives a Christmas present from the Awkward Man. (Montgomery's tendency to give people labels as names really comes out in this book.) It turns out to be an old book with a great many marks on its pages. The Story Girl's pretty and worldly cousin, Felicity, accuses the Awkward Man of being cheap, and the Story Girl quickly sets her straight, saying she'd rather have her friend's marginalia than a dozen brand new books. She used different words, but that's the gist of it.

It's more likely remarks scribbled down as marginalia will be honest, heartfelt reflections which might benefit others, otherwise the person who wrote them wouldn't bother. For the same reason, they are often witty, interesting and well worth adding. Spontaneous and fluent thoughts are often the best, and they are what we so often get with marginalia.

If you can call it a hobby, it's a good, cheap one. All you need is a nice sharp lead pencil. Personally, I think this is stretching it a bit, and wouldn't recommend that we go jotting margin notes all over library books, calling it our hobby. In fact, if you think a book is worth lots of marginalia, you might as well get a writing pad, jot it all into a longer article and make it a book review.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote, 'In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin ... for the facility it affords me of pencilling in suggested thoughts, agreements, or brief critical comments in general.' If I came across that in an actual book, I'd be tempted to underline it and write a margin note saying, 'Yes, I agree!'

Perhaps the saddest bit of marginalia, as mathematicians would surely agree, was written by Pierre de Fermat in a text book entitled 'Arithmetica'. He wrote, 'I have discovered a truly marvellous proof which this margin is too narrow to contain.' And Fermat's Last Theorem remained unproven by fellow mathematicians for another three hundred years.

To prove that this practice shouldn't be marginalised (hey, another pun), I'll mention three novels, including one of mine, in which a bit of marginalia turns out to be integral to the plot.

1) The Kitchen Daughter, by Jael McHenry
The Kitchen Daughter One of the main characters, David, jots a little margin note in the heroine, Ginny's, cookbook. It's simply that she should add a pinch of ancho powder to her hot chocolate to improve the flavour, but the effect is devastating. You have to read it. My review is here.

2) Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Harry Potter, #6) In this sixth book in the series, Harry finds himself in accidental possession of a second hand Potions text book. The former owner had filled it with all sorts helpful additions, jottings and advice. In the short term, this marginalia helped Harry shoot to the top of the class in Potions. Only later does he learn the cost of owning the Half Blood Prince's book.

3) A Design of Gold, by Paula Vince
A Design of Gold I wrote this novel in 2009, long before I'd heard the term, marginalia. While planning this blog post, I was really pleased to remember this, as you can imagine. My characters, Piers and Casey, discover a book owned by their son, Jerome, in which he has scribbled all sorts of margin notes, giving them vital clues about how troubled he has been in his mind, and why. 'A Design of Gold' contains a lot about the enormous impact a random book may have on the life of the individual who happens to find it. I'd love it if you'd read that one too.

I'm sure there are many other novels, such as mystery stories, in which marginalia features strongly. If you can think of any, please let me know in the comments. I'd also love to hear any interesting true stories about marginalia you might have come across, not to mention your own feelings about the subject.

Monday, May 11, 2015

'A Man Called Ove' by Fredrik Backman


2015 Reading Challenge, Week 19 - A book which has been translated from another language.
This story was originally written in Swedish, and I can understand why it's been translated to English and become a word-of-mouth sensation.  

 In this bestselling and delightfully quirky debut novel from Sweden, a grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He's a curmudgeon—the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him "the bitter neighbor from hell." But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn't walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove's mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents' association to their very foundations.

A feel-good story in the spirit of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, Fredrik Backman's novel about the angry old man next door is a thoughtful and charming exploration of the profound impact one life has on countless others.


Ove is introduced as the quintessential grumpy old man. He has recently lost his one big reason for living, his wife, Sonja. His main goal now is to do away with himself in the most efficient way possible. However, his neighbours, from a new family who just moved in all the way down to a stray cat, unintentionally prove to him that life still has meaning, and he keeps having to put off his big deed.

From the first few chapters, I expected that Ove would annoy me. He's the sort of person positive living articles warn us to steer clear of, because they're happiness suckers. Not content to gripe about what's right in front of him, Ove walks around looking for things to give him more fuel. And he's the type who only has bad things to say about progress because he can't understand it. He treats the internet (capital I for him) like the enemy.

Before long, I was amused by the grains of truth in his observations. It was fun to see what he'd come up with next. People may call sarcasm the lowest form of wit, yet sometimes sarcasm and cynicism can work to lighten our moods more than cheery platitudes. That's the sort of book this is. And it's worth contemplating some of his reflections, such as 'nowadays, people changed their stuff so often that any expertise in making things last was becoming superfluous. Quality - no-one cared about that anymore.'

The flashback chapters reveal the making of the man. They are the ones which begin, 'A man who was Ove'. His admirable, hard-working father died while Ove was in his teens, and remained his role model. As his dad was one in a million, Ove found it easy to compare others unfavourably to him as people with bad work ethics who didn't do the right thing. Although it wasn't stated outright, I began to sense what it is about Ove. He's conscientious, and resolved to do the right thing himself, but expecting the same behaviour from others may be his downfall. Perhaps being a crusader in the 21st century is setting yourself up for disappointment. Other characters, especially Sonja, accepted the flawed world and decided to make the best of it anyway. It's interesting to compare their happiness levels, quality of their lives and outlooks, and wonder if it's simply because of this decision.

I like the way the nature of friendship is presented. You don't have to be on complete, best buddy type terms of intimacy to be considered a friend. This comes across when Parveneh, his pregnant Iranian neighbour, and Adrian, the delivery boy, both say, 'Me and Ove are sort of mates,' much to his surprise. Small gestures aren't any less meaningful than large ones. In fact, to earn the grudging respect of somebody like Ove is a treasure. Parveneh accepts her loveliest compliment from him, 'You are not a complete twit.'

Ove doesn't undergo a dramatic personality change, like Charles Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge. On the surface, he's pretty much the same at the end of the book as he is at the start, but that's part of the beauty of this story. It indicates that the gold was always there, you just have to persevere at tapping away. That turns out to be not as hard as people may expect. I love his relationships with the cat, with Jimmy, the young, tech-savvy neighbour who has a bit of a weight problem, and most of all with Rune, the man who'd caused him so much irritation, but who, deep down, was one of his best friends.

The quality of writing contains some gems, making us nod because we know exactly what he means. Ove's opinion of people in positions of authority is an example. 'White shirts, empty eyes, nothing but shiny shells, walking around, grinding at normal people and pulling their lives to pieces.'

4.5 stars

Friday, May 8, 2015

'Until the Harvest' by Sarah Loudin Thomas


"Once in a while a new author...makes you sit up and take notice."--"Library Journal" When a family tragedy derails Henry Phillips's college studies, he's left unmoored and feeling abandoned. Although Henry tries to find escape in bad company, the only things that can tamp down his anger and grief are the family farm, his fiddle, and sweet but unusual pre-teen Mayfair Hoffman.
Unfortunately, Mayfair's older sister, Margaret, with the freckles and cute, turned-up nose, has the opposite effect. Worse, she's his grandmother's housekeeper and helper, so she's always around and ready to push his buttons. At first he thinks she doesn't care about his loss, before beginning to understand she's facing her own struggles. Mayfair's health and unique gift sit at the heart of those worries, and Henry and Margaret soon find themselves relying on each other as both Henry's future and Mayfair's life are put at risk.

There's something I find most compelling about this series. Maybe it's the freshness of not knowing what to expect. (The first few chapters are guaranteed to make us say, 'Hey, what?) Maybe it's the delicate touch of the supernatural in the real world, proving that it doesn't just happen in fairy tales. In this story, a sudden event upsets young Henry Phillips' plans to return to college, while his grandma's helper, Margaret, is always around the place, rubbing him up the wrong way.

I initially took a dislike to Margaret, for paying a guy out at his own father's funeral, then complaining about his manners to his grandma. But I changed my opinion, and really came to like her. She's an introvert who's uncertain of her value, and has a low expectation of being loved. This is partly because of her freckles and sturdier frame in a decade when Twiggy set the fashion standards, and partly because she was the child of a self-focused, socialite mother and ineffective, but well-meaning father.

It's refreshing to see a heroine who likes tidying and cleaning and just wants to live on a farm and raise a family of her own. For so long, girls have been rebuked for admitting ambitions like this, and told to aim higher. Good on Margaret for recognising the nobility and value in her goal! She's not afraid to wipe a bit of toothpaste from a sink. As the character Beulah Simmons points out, 'Too many young women these days are all caught up in their rights.'

Henry's character comes across believably too. Reeling with grief but still wanting to keep up his man-of-the-family front, he makes some bad decisions while trying to convince himself they're sound. Henry is impulsive at times, and lured by the siren call of prestige and possible influence. His theme turns out to be similar to Margaret's, in his case whether or not the humble peace of what he really wants to do deep down will be enough to carry him through.

The cool, supernatural gift in this story comes through Margaret's twelve-year-old sister, Mayfair. It's activated through love. Mayfair suffers a chronic illness (Type 1 diabetes), and it's nice to see such a young and vulnerable character presented as the voice of wisdom. Often, Mayfair sees to the heart of things when her sister is too close to a situation to do the same. For example, she stands up for Henry, reasoning with Margaret, 'Don't you sometimes act one way when you feel another?'

It's good to see Perla's gift from Miracle in a Dry Season still operating, although I wonder why she kept it secret from her son. He considers at one stage that his dad had done most of the cooking while he was growing up, which I found a bit sad, considering how Perla enjoyed using her special gift in the prequel. Why would she stop? It also seemed a bit odd that Margaret had been working for Emily since she was sixteen, yet comes across as a vague aquaintance of Henry's and Perla's at the start. Still, it might have happened that way.

On the whole, I enjoyed this as much as Miracle in a Dry Season, and it seemed to be better balanced. The first book focuses more on Casewell than Perla, while this story spreads time equally between both main characters, Margaret and Henry. As the first book takes place in the 50s, and this second one in the 70s, I wonder if the third will be set in the 90s. I just hope it won't be at the expense of another lovely Phillips man.

Thanks to NetGalley and Bethany House for my review copy.

5 stars

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The wonderful Tom Swifty

Tom Swift and His Flying Lab  (Tom Swift Jr, #1)

Tom Swift was the hero of a series of dime novels published early in the twentieth century. He was a young scientist who had adventures with the technology he created. Ostensibly written by an author named Victor Appleton, they came from the E.L. Stratemeyer writing syndicate. Different authors, including Edward Stratemeyer himself, sat at their desks creating Tom Swift stories. Down the track, a variety of authors were employed to keep churning them out. They were better businessmen than authors, because the books were poked fun at by readers for the variety of speech tags they put in their hero's mouth. Tom Swift rarely just 'said' anything. He declared, stammered, barked, exclaimed, sobbed, ejaculated, grinned, mumbled and sang, just for a start.

No doubt the authors thought all these words gave their stories more colour and variety. Even I can remember my Primary School class being told by teachers to think of something more descriptive than 'said'. Nobody back then seemed to realise what a neat little word 'said' is. It's not a sign of laziness and lack of creativity. It's a gem, which enables readers' attention to flow and not be jarred from the story with every line of dialogue. Nowadays, every decent editor recommends that writers simply use 'said.' The fact that Tom Swift authors were teased about not doing so proves the point.

Tom Swift and His Giant Robot  (Tom Swift Jr, #4)

Anyway, the critics of Tom Swift started making parodies of the way the characters spoke, turning sentences into double meaning puns.

'There are one hundred lollies in the jar,' Tom recounted.
'I've decided to come back to the group,' Tom rejoined.
'We've struck oil,' Tom gushed.

 The art of the Tom Swifty came to include adverbs, which were also way over-used in the stories. Many editors now advise us to use them sparingly. They slow down a story as our eyes skim over the page, and may even be an insult to readers' intelligence. We don't need to be spoon fed the way in which a character delivers dialogue. The mood should be evident from what was said, without having to tell us that it was spoken snidely, sincerely, tearfully, mournfully or any other way.

Tom Swifties are a great fun way of sharpening our wit, and perhaps if we come up with enough of them, it might help us to weed out our own speech tags and adverbs, seeing how silly they are when taken to the extreme. Some examples I've come across from others include the following.

'Who turned out the lights?' Tom asked darkly.
Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship  (Tom Swift Jr, #3)'Will you lend me your pencil sharpener?' Tom asked bluntly.
'I'm no good at darts,' Tom said aimlessly.
'Lay your guns down,' Tom said disarmingly.
'Careful with the chainsaw,' Tom said offhandedly.
'I don't know what groceries to buy,' Tom said listlessly.

I came up with some of my own.

'Pass me the sandpaper,' Tom said roughly.
'I want hot fudge on my sundae,' Tom said saucily.
'You don't have to dress up,' Tom said casually.
'I enjoy parachuting,' Tom said airily.
'He stole my chair,' Tom said upstandingly.
'You forgot to water my plants,' Tom said witheringly.
'I'd better get back to the shearing shed,' Tom said sheepishly.
'I'm always last to know,' Tom said belatedly.
'These suspenders will hold up your pants,' Tom said bracingly.
'There's a snowman in the garden,' Tom said frostily.
'I need a ruler to draw this graph,' Tom said rigidly.
'I want to pat that poodle,' Tom said doggedly.
'It's underwater,' Tom said sinkingly.
'There are bugs flying around everywhere,' Tom said waspishly.
'I'm the king,' Tom said majestically. 
'Someone else has stripped all the apples from this tree,' Tom said fruitlessly. 

And one for Harry Potter fans.

'I want to play Quidditch,' Tom said snitchily.

Now it's your turn, assuming I've convinced you that this is not a pointless activity ('I've lost the tip of my pen,' Tom said pointlessly). This gets easier. Are you game to see how many you can come up with?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Seven novels featuring amnesia

This theme started intriguing me at about the age of 11, when I read one of the Trixie Belden mysteries entitled, 'The Missing Heiress' in which Trixie and her friends come across a lovely young woman from a car accident who can remember nothing. Around the same time, I was probably watching the 'Gilligan's Island' episode in which Mary Ann, and later Gilligan, lost their memories, and the other castaways were trying to help them recover.

The human brain is a fascinating organ. How bizarre that it is possible to lose a chunk of data to the extent of forgetting your identity. Even more so when you consider the information isn't really gone at all, but just stored away from the consciousness somewhere. The human brain has been compared to a computer, and this missing files theory helps me understand why. I'm no scientist, but as a reader and writer, I could always sense the huge scope for mystery and confusion in a plot with amnesia. For years I aimed to write one of my own, and loved it when I actually managed to do so.

I have another theory about why the subject may intrigue us. I don't want to start a debate about whether or not life starts before conception, but have you ever heard the suggestion that when we go through the passage of being born, our slates are wiped clean, so to speak? All our wonderful identities as unique creations of God are completely forgotten. In this school of thought, total amnesia may be part of the general human condition, and we don't even realise. Even if life begins at the moment of conception, our experiences in utero are generally completely forgotten. (As a child, I used to think it curious that people can't remember being born, but that's the subject of another post.)

I have a short list of amnesia novels to get you started if you'd like to explore the theme. Feel free to add more in the comments.

1) Being Henry David

Being Henry David This is a Young Adult novel about a teenage boy who wakes up in a train station with no memory or identity. There is a copy of 'Walden' by Henry David Thoreau in his pocket, not much of a starting point but it's all he has. He decides making his way to Concord, Massachusetts may be a good way to get memories moving.

2) Under the Sassafras

Under the Sassafras
 This is a romance about a jaded young woman who pulls an unconscious man out of her swamp. She wants to hurry him on his way, but when he comes to, he's lost his memory. Too compassionate to throw him out, she's determined not to get used to his presence.
I've reviewed it here.

3) A Gift to Remember

A Gift to Remember
It's a Christmas story in which a young woman riding a bike to work across the slick ice knocks a pedestrian off his feet. She feels responsible for his subsequent memory loss and tries to help him remember his past, creating all sorts of muddles.
I've reviewed it here.

4) Freefall
A young woman is involved in a hiking accident in Hawaii. She comes to with no memory of her identity. Although this is just the tip of the iceberg, as she quickly regains her sense of self, it was a good place to start.
I've reviewed it here.

5) The Forgotten Garden 

The Forgotten Garden  
The little girl in 1913, at the crux of this story, suffers a bout of amnesia from which she never completely recovers. This memory loss turns out to be integral to the mystery of this story.
I've reviewed it here.

6) The Healer's Touch
The Healer's Touch
This is a light-hearted historical novel incorporating amnesia and mistaken identity. A young woman discovers an unconscious man in her barn, and assumes he's a local ruffian. When he comes to, he's lost his memory and unable to tell her any different. Thinking she must know more than he does, he assumes he is indeed an outlaw.

7) Best Forgotten

Best Forgotten
I took a slightly different angle to several others. Rather than remaining unaware of his identity until the end, the hero, Courtney Lockwood, is told who he is a few chapters in. As he learns snippets about himself from others, he puts together a composite picture of a man he doesn't like. What's more, he's afraid his old self may have been responsible for a lot of trouble. There's a chilling mystery to be solved about the whereabouts of his friend, Joel, who disappeared on the same night as his accident. Courtney's girlfriend, Jasmine, behaves evasively whenever he questions her about anything, so he's beginning to think he might have had something to do with it. As well as being the hero, he becomes the detective of his own story, and hopes he won't be found to be the villain. Understandably, he doesn't know whether he wants his memory back or not. I liked exploring the questions this story raised, such as the extent to which an individual's personality can be tied up with his sum of experiences.

I'd like to offer a free copy of 'Best Forgotten' to three random readers who comment on this post. It's fine for young adult, new adult and adult readers alike, and won the CALEB Awards fiction prize in 2011. I'd love to know your thoughts about amnesia stories, suggestions for more, and maybe why you'd like to read it.

Monday, May 4, 2015

'Freefall' by Kristen Heitzmann


2015 Reading Challenge, Week 18 - A Book set somewhere you've always wanted to visit.
This novel is set, for the main part, in Hawaii. I adore tropical settings, and this one is brought vividly to life, with all its colour, customs and underlying symbolism.  

When a young woman stumbles out of the Hanalei Mountains on the island of Kauai with no memory of who she is or how she got there, Cameron Pierce reluctantly agrees to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding her arrival. Now known as Jade, the woman begins to recall fragments of what led her to this place, and she realizes the danger isn't over.

A young woman in a hiking accident suffers temporary amnesia. She ends up at the home of Monica (Nica) Pierce, who gets her PI brother Cameron onto the case. Nobody expects the girl to turn out to be rising Hollywood star, Gentry Fox. And it seems the cause of the accident may be more sinister than a simple fall.

The tropical Hawaii setting for most of this novel is gorgeous. The wonderful surf, papayas, avocados and guavas growing in people's gardens, the symbolism behind rituals such as hula dances and luaus all make me wish to go there for real. Wise Okelani, one of my favourite characters, demonstrates with her life how the locals work at preserving a culture filled with awe and gratitude. As I read, I wondered whether cultures with English roots tend to be more removed from our own spiritual heritage because everything in our culture and education systems emphasise the cerebral and provable over the deeper, more spiritual and symbolic parts of life.

It's quite a long novel, and I can see why, as many issues were jam-packed into the one book, and not just from the main characters. The motivations of minor characters and 'baddies' were written with equal care. Three of the most unlikeable characters turn out to have similar motivations for their unpleasantness - loneliness and alienation from a history of being overlooked. All the characters' inner lives were written with such depth, it felt as if they could belong to a different story as main issues rather than sub-plots in this one (such as broken marriage issues from some characters' pasts). It made the book a bit like an ocean with lots of peaks and troughs.

Another side issue is Nica's fragility. We're told about it all through the story, yet I only ever saw the opposite. Her brother seemed to treat her with kid gloves and called her a vortex for traumas, yet he seemed by far the more vulnerable of the two. I couldn't help loving Cameron, with his suspicious and abrasive outlook and the depth of his feelings. He could have worked on his phone manner, though. He took several calls during the story, and answered brusquely every time. I wish someone had said, 'Hey dude, remember you're running a business.'

I was a bit disappointed at the end, when what seemed to be the main theme petered out. Gentry had suffered such deep anxiety over the tension between living her life as everyone's public darling, and the suffering she received at the hands of the media. I'd expected things to come to some sort of a head after all the build-up, but didn't feel as if she'd come to any sort of real resolution at the end. It was still, 'I'll keep acting for now and hope the paparazzi don't get too intrusive.' I imagine the same thing will keep happening, and it's sad to think of them living their married life with the same old issues. I can't imagine it will be smooth sailing for them.

Heitzmann has a lovely, descriptive way of writing and I have many other books of hers on my kindle. Maybe it's just a case of more points to notice, in novels which are around 460 pages.

4 stars