Tag Archives: book

The Nightingale

At Mrs. Poolman’s suggestion, I picked up The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah after Mrs. P had finished it. I had some initial doubts, since I suspected it was “chick book.” In fact, it probably is, but there were enough other plot elements to keep me interested.

The NightengaleThe book is the story of two French sisters living in Nazi-occupied France during World War II.  Each in her own way resists the Germans. When they were young, their mother died and their father essentially dumped into the care of a guardian. The “chick” part of the plot deals a lot with the two sisters’ ambivalent feelings towards each other and towards their remote and mostly absent father. To be honest, it was this part of the story that kept me from finishing it sooner.

On the other hand, the author places the characters and their family angst into an interesting and active time and place in history. One sister is active in the French underground. Her adventures keep the story moving along. The other sister stays at home and mostly just copes with the occupiers and tries to survive and protect her daughter. About half way through the book a crisis involving her best friend forces her to take a more active role in resisting the Germans. Things pick up at that point.

There is no equivocating about whom the author considers the good guys and the bad guys. Although one Wehrmacht officer is depicted as a decent human being, the remaining Germans are painted as purely evil.

The entire World War II story is told as a flash-back as one of the sisters is remembering it in 1995. You don’t know which sister is the modern character, and I won’t spoil it for you.

I had one major complaint with the book, and it was one I repeated to Mrs. P several times. I wish the author had taken a little more care with the history in which she has planted her story. Time after time she describes war-related events that, if not totally impossible, were at least highly improbable.

She has characters discussing how the war was going badly for the Germans in North Africa before they really were. She has one of the sisters smuggling downed American fliers out of France months before Americans actually began any kind of aerial activity. (There were American fliers in the RAF, so this isn’t totally impossible, just unlikely.) She has an American Mustang (Hannah makes a point of saying it is a Mustang.) shot down while strafing a German airfield in the middle of the night She places this a good year before Mustangs were used in any numbers. And no one was strafing airfields at night any way. It’s night, so the pilots can’t see what they are doing. They also risk flying into the ground or into trees while making low-level passes.

In summary, The Nightingale isn’t bad. I’m not sorry I took the time to read it. However, I think it will appeal more to readers who enjoy stories about women’s feelings and relationships (Mrs. Poolman, for instance), rather than those who prefer a more action-focused plot.

‘Life After Life’ — Different but interesting

life-after-life_originalEvery once in awhile, I’ll read something that is miles outside of my usual material. Usually, I’m pretty happy I did, and “Life after life,” by Kate Atkinson is one of those books. I read a review when it came out last spring and when I saw it on the library rental shelf, I went ahead and checked it out.

This is the first book I have read in which I was really waiting for the main character to die. And Ursula Todd does die… a lot. That is the point of the story. Ursula is a girl born to a middle-class British family on a cold, snowy night in 1910. Over the course of the novel, she dies and then is reborn as the same person to the same parents on the same day. However, in each new life there a slight change in events which steer Ursula’s life onto a different course. (Think of the movie “Groundhog Day” but on a larger time-scale and fewer laughs.)

In the very first chapter, Ursula attempts to kill Adolph Hitler in 1930, before he reaches power. (No spoiler alert here. The reader will know this in the first ten pages.) Atkinson leaves it until the end of the book to resolve the issue of how that transpired and the result.

Atkinson is creative in the way she offs her protagonist. Ursula initially dies as she is being born. She falls out a window. She is murdered. Eventually she starts to develop déjà vu feelings about her previous lives and starts taking steps to change her fate and prevent her pending death. She doesn’t always get it right. Although she succeeds in changing the course of events, she ends up in the same place anyway and still dies. She usually takes several tries to get it right.

Ursula is an interesting character, so as a reader, I didn’t mind living her successive lives with her. After some of the longer sequences, I felt myself wishing, “So hurry up and die already, so we can get on to the next story.”

I won’t spoil the ending, but I have to say I was not happy with it. Maybe I just didn’t understand it, but I was left with the feeling that Atkinson did not resolve all her remaining issues.

Otherwise, it was an interesting, although different book that I would recommend.

“American Nations” — A very interesting book, but a bit snarky

American nations 1 I read an interesting book a few weeks ago, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” by Colin Woodard.

Woodard takes a very interesting, historical look at North America, mostly the USA, and the various cultures that comprise us. It goes a long way to explaining the cultural and political differences among our national regions, such as the significant differences between the Deep South and New England.

Woodard’s approach is historical and not overly technical. It’s a fascinating story.

My only issue with Woodard is towards the end of the book, as his narrative starts to approach the present. A New Englander himself, he makes no secret of his contempt for the South, where I spent most of my adult life. He allows himself the satisfaction of making some snarky comments that undercut his credibility. For example, he suggests the South needs research universities that don’t look to the King James Bible as a primary science text. I trust he meant that comment a little tongue-in-cheek and not literally. However, it does make you wonder how much his personal prejudice influenced other descriptions in the book. That having been said, I still found the book very interesting.

In case you are curious, here is a map of Woodard’s, 11 nations of North America.

American Nations 2

“The Age of Miracles” — interesting read

AGE OF MIRACLESMy most recent read – “The Age of  Miracles” — by Karen Thompson Walker – is a long way from my usual read-for-fun fare. This short novel is half a “coming of age” story and half a science-fiction end-of-the-world story.

The story is told in the first person by 11-year old Julia, who lives in Southern California with her parents. The world awakes one morning to discover the Earth’s rotation is slowing down. While Julia is working her way through the perils and pitfalls of being a bright, thoughtful, but socially inept adolescent, she and the rest of the human race are dealing with a series of calamities associated with the “slowing” as they call it.

The Julia half of the story is pretty much standard young-adult material. Best friends drift away. Julia has issues with her parents. There is a boy who interests Julia, but he doesn’t know she exists. And so on.

What makes it different is the setting in the world that is changing rapidly, and not for the better. Days and nights become longer. Gravity increases, killing birds and causing “gravity sickness” in some humans. Plants die. Entire ways of living change. No one knows what the world may look like tomorrow. In this book tomorrow may be 50 hours away.

The entire book is filled with angst. Julia deals with the usual young adolescent uncertainties. At the same time, the reader watches the changes happening on Earth with impending doom. The author intersperses Julia’s narration with comments like “And that was the last pineapple we ever ate.”

The ending is not what I expected, but I won’t spoil it by telling you what it is.

“The Age of Miracles” is a different kind of story, and one I would recommend.

‘Mad River’ is an excellent read!

If you take a look at the “Books” tab at the top of the page, it will be no secret that I’m a big fan of author John Sandford. I just finished his most recent Virgil Flowers novel, “Mad River,” and loved it.

Sandford’s books aren’t great literature; he doesn’t even try for that. He just tells a great story.

The Virgil Flowers series is one of two of Sandford’s crime novel series. His primary, and longest-running series is the “Prey” series, which he began about a hundred years ago. That series of books focuses on a Minneapolis police detective, turned assistant chief, turned state investigator, Lucas Davenport. Davenport is smart, rich, urbane and smart-assed. Several years ago, Sandford took one of his secondary characters from the Prey books, Virgil Flowers (also known by his friends and colleagues as “that f_cking Flowers”) and created a second series of crime novels. While Davenport and his crew work the Twin Cities, Flowers works crimes out in rural Minnesota.

While it is helpful to read some of the books in order, it is not necessary. While with some authors (Patricia Cornwell, for instance) there are often important plot references to previous books, that is not so with Sandford’s books. It helps to know the characters, but you can pick up any of his books and fully enjoy it without having read any others.

Sandford’s strength is in his characters. His protagonists are the kind of people you would love to go hang out with for a while. He even creates bad-guys who can generate some empathy. And since all his main characters are wise-crackers, the dialogue can be great.

In Mad River, Flowers is standing on a street corner drinking beer with a friend when he gets a call from Davenport to work a multiple murder in a small down several hours drive away. When Flowers tells Davenport he won’t be in any shape to drive for a few hours, Davenport agrees and tells Flowers to be careful with the alcohol and driving.

“It would be best if you were gunned down in the line of duty and not killed in a drunk-driving accident.”

Mad River focuses on a trio of teenagers who start a minor killing spree across the Minnesota countryside – a kind of Bonnie and Clyde with a sidekick. The main plot isn’t a mystery, since there is never any question about who did the deed. It’s Flowers’ job to catch the kids before they kill two many more people, and hopefully before the local sheriff’s department takes things into their own hands and kills the kids first. There is also a sub-plot about what prompted the trio to start their crime spree to begin with.

As always, Mad River is a well written and compelling crime novel. Grab it for your own enjoyment or buy it as a Christmas present for a good friend or family member. They will thank you for it.

Teen love, cancer and an unfinished sentence

I stepped way outside my normal pleasure reading comfort zone with “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green. However, it was a good trip and one I recommend.

The book is narrated in the first person by Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16 year old girl with thyroid cancer who is being kept alive by a new miracle drug. Her parents think she is depressed and  force her to attend a support group with other young cancer patients. That is where she meets Augustus, a bone cancer patient/amputee in remission. Initially, she doesn’t want to get involved, but (as you can probably guess) the inevitable happens and they become a couple.

Hazel is also obsessed with a fictional book “An Imperial Affliction,” about a girl with cancer. “An Imperial Affliction” ends in mid-sentence with many plots unresolved, because, it is assumed, that Anna either dies or becomes too sick to write. Hazel is determined to track down the reclusive author to find out how the various fictional stories played out.

The story is a little bit of a romance story and a little tragedy. Green does a good job telling  a story about a depressing subject without the story being depressing itself.

I thought it was a little odd for a middle-aged man to be writing a first-person account through the eyes of a 16 year old girl. His writing seemed very believable, but then again, I’m a middle-aged guy so I don’t have any real reference to judge it.

It’s not all giggles and fun, but “The Fault in Our Stars” is an interesting read and well worth the effort.

“Death of Kings” is a good read!

Sometimes I read for knowledge or understanding, and sometimes I just read for pure fun. The sixth book in book in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, Death of Kings, is just plain fun.

The series is set in ninth and early tenth century Britain, at a time when the Danes (Norsemen) have invaded and occupied the central part of the island. The Saxon king, Alfred (the Great), is attempting to unite the other feuding parts of Britain to fight off the invaders and preserve Saxon Britain. The stories are told in the first person by Uhtred of Bebbanberg. Uhtred is a Saxon who was orphaned as a boy and was raised by a Danish family. So he has sympathies in both camps.

Uhtred is quite a character and it is his personal version of events that makes the stories so interesting. Uhtred is a sly, smart and very talented warrior. While serving a devoutly Christian king, Uhtred clings to the Norse gods, like Thor and Woden. He believes firmly in the “fates” who weave the outcome of human lives.  Much of the first five books revolve around Uhtred’s hot-and-cold relationship with Kind Alfred. Alfred doesn’t approve of Uhtred’s pagan religion or his disrespectful attitude towards the Church and the West Saxon nobility, but he needs Uhtred’s sword and his leadership.

In Death of Kings, Alfred dies. Uhtred is caught up in the scheming and back-stabbing as the Saxons and Danes all use the death to advance their personal agendas for their own futures and the future of the island.

Cornwell is an excellent writer who does a great job putting the reader in the middle of the action.

My only complaint is that sometimes it was difficult to keep track of all the characters, many of whom have strange, but similar names. In this book alone, for instance, there was an Aethelred, Aethelflaed and Aethelwold, all of whom were important characters in the story. When I read the next book in the series, I think I’ll keep a slip of paper stuck between the pages and use it to jot down some of the names and their roles for later reference.

You can read Death of Kings as a stand-alone, but I would suggest you will enjoy it more if you go back and start the series with the first book, The Last Kingdom, and work forward from there.

One fair warning – While the books do not contain much sex, they are full of violence. And Cornwell does not pull any punches. If you are squeamish about reading about someone losing his head, you might not enjoy them as much as I did.