Monthly Archives: February 2016

‘The Golden Hour’ by Todd Moss

The Golden HourstarstarstarWhat a great little read, sort of “Ludlum-lite” for those who enjoy political thrillers, but not too heavy or too complex. It’s a bit like watching an episode of ’24’ but with less violence. This is the first instalment in the Judd Ryker series. Mali has just experienced a coup and Ryker is the man from the State Department to turn it around. The ‘Golden Hour’ is a medical term referring to that critical first hour that makes all the difference in the chances of recovery in a patient with a medical emergency. College professor turned diplomat Judd Ryker, called away from his wife and children on the beach during a vacation, is determined to road test his (up till now academic) ‘Golden Hour’ theory in the realm of global politics, and reverse the coup as soon as possible. But there are so many things going on…various players vie for position in the crisis, and there are many factors like drug smuggling, kidnapping, and terrorism activity that confuse the issues. Plus it’s hard to know who is telling the truth.

What I loved about this book was how easy it was to read and even though I often didn’t have a clue what was going on, neither did Judd and that was very endearing and reassuring. At the same time, it was interesting to learn about how a crisis like this is approached by those working in international affairs–it feels very current. The book has short, snappy chapters that really move things along and the ending was priceless! There is a second instalment in the series already available called Minute Zero and a third is in the works.

Todd Moss brings his own experience to the novel, having worked as a senior State Department official and has himself responded to coups and crises in West Africa. This is his website which is totally worth a visit, especially the ‘About Todd’ feature.

‘Olive Kitteridge’ by Elizabeth Strout

Olive KitteridgestarstarstarstarstarOlive Kitteridge, a stern retired school teacher from a small seaside town in Maine, is the central character in this book of linked short stories. Each chapter is a complete snapshot in itself, but all together becomes an album of sorts, a well rounded and masterful novel that won the Pulitzer prize in 2009. Elizabeth Strout is an amazing writer. Years ago I read her book Abide with Me, which is also set in a small town and also is a novel full of the tough stuff of life. If you like books by Mary Lawson (Road Ends) and William Kent Krueger (Ordinary Grace), you’ll like books by Elizabeth Strout. And incidentally, if you are not a short story fan (like me) don’t be put off. I found these short stories easy to get into and superbly done.

New England is an atmospheric setting for the story. Olive is an enigma. At once cantankerous and compassionate, testy and trustworthy, ferocious and faithful,  her harshness results in driving people away, but she also saves lives. Her manner is off putting, especially next her to long-suffering and kind husband Henry, but her character is so complex and full of surprises that we are intrigued about what makes her tick. Each chapter introduces new characters from the town, but people we’ve already met do pop up in other chapters. As I started each new story I was already anticipating how and where Olive would appear.

Telling the story this way, creates a well rounded view of the town as well as of Olive herself. “There is no such thing as a simple life.” Olive may at times seem like a beast but deep down she has the same flaws, fears, and longings as anyone, making this a profound human story that I found very real and satisfying.

Also fun was watching the HBO four episode TV mini-series after I finished reading. The television version is very true to the book and also very well done.

‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’ by Sarah Winman

A Year of Marvellous WaysstarstarSeveral book groups in the borough were given free copies of this new book and invited to a promotional evening with the author. I never read her previous bestseller When God was a Rabbit–I remember trying, but I couldn’t get into it. It’s probably just me, because both of these books are bestsellers and enjoy very favourable reviews.

Marvellous herself is a most interesting character, something like an earthy fairy godmother who lives in a caravan, regularly swims nude in the river, and has a mermaid for a mother. Drake is the shell shocked broken young man who comes to her healing ways because of a promise to a dying soldier.

It’s hard to know what to say about this book. Some reviewers say they found it magical, poetic, lyrical and wise, but that part didn’t work for me because what I encountered was rather cliché like “she died of a broken heart” or “he could say nothing because his heart was in his mouth.” It’s more like a dreamy reading experience than a novel and it left me feeling slightly disoriented. Some say it represented Cornwall quite poignantly, but again, it did not evoke my experience with the area which is not limited. If it wasn’t for this being a group assignment, I probably wouldn’t have finished it.

However, at the same time, I didn’t dislike it either. The characters were well described and it was easy to enjoy tactile pleasures like wafting smells of fresh bread from the bakehouse (even if each loaf was different because the baker had been instructed to include her emotions as secret ingredients)! I’m not against magical prose, but there is a fine line between something that we are touched by and willing to suspend disbelief over, and something that’s just too quirky to work.

‘The Versions of Us’ by Laura Barnett

The Versions of UsstarstarstarLike the movie Sliding Doors, some moments seems pivotal. What if you’d not said yes? What if you had missed that airplane? What if you had taken that job in Australia? Do thoughts about what might have been ever haunt you? Given the same set of circumstances, would you have made the same decision?

This novel offers three different versions of the lives of Eva and Jim, two young students at Cambridge. One day Eva must suddenly swerve her bicycle to avoid hitting a small dog that darts onto the road, just as Jim is walking along the lane. What happens next will determine the rest of their lives.

The concept is intriguing and with chapters alternating between the three versions, Barnett offers a sort of ‘Choose Your Own Love Story’ experience. But I have a confession to make. When I read reviews of this book before I started, I noticed that a lot of people found it confusing, reading short chapters that alternate between three different story lines with roughly the same people. SO, I’ve been naughty (although the Readers Bill of Rights would back me up I think).

Instead of reading the book straight through, alternating the versions, I read each Version by itself, skipping ahead to do so. Then went back for the next Version etc. Had it been two versions, I think I could have coped but with three I think it helped keep things straight and I found the suspense in thinking about where the next version was going to diverge, irresistible. While reading I was looking for strengths and weaknesses in the characters and hyper aware of pivotal moments that might indicate fault lines. It was such fun to get to know the characters so thoroughly in various circumstances, and think about how people can bring out the best or the worst in each other.

I wonder if I did miss something by reading it this way, instead of the intended alternating chapters (which was actually the way the author wrote it, based on what she says in the youtube below). I’d love to know what you thought or if anyone else read it the same way I did? I actually met a woman on the train to London who noticed I was reading the book and said she’s just finished it and loved it! She read it straight through and said she only found it confusing at the start, so perhaps I overreacted. Either way you read it, it is a clever novel with much food for thought.

Highly recommended for book groups, I think there would be a lot to discuss, but get ready for some people not to like it because it does feel a little muddled at times…in the end it’s not so important to remember exactly what piece belongs to what version, but focus on the general trajectory of each version and how each story brings out different qualities in the characters.

Note: Reading in different orders seems to be in vogue. Ali Smith’s How to be Both (Bailey’s winner 2015) was purposely offered and printed in two versions. This is the brave new world of readers interacting differently with the same material! From the publishers of Smith’s book: “The books are intentionally printed in two different ways, so that readers can randomly have different experiences reading the same text. So, depending on which edition you happen to receive, the book will be: EYES, CAMERA, or CAMERA, EYES. Enjoy the adventure.” 

‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ by Judith Kerr

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbitstarstarstar(Grades 3-5) Judith Kerr was a child in Berlin before the outbreak of the Second World War. Her father was a journalist who had to flee with his family first to Switzerland, then to Paris, and finally to England where Judith has lived ever since.

In the story, Anna (Judith) sees posters everywhere of a man called Hitler who she thinks looks like Charlie Chaplin, but has no idea who he is. Why does her father have to leave? Why is it suddenly so dangerous to stay? Where are they going to go? Because of Hitler they must leave everything they know and love behind, including a stuffed pink rabbit.

Judith Kerr writes and illustrates books for children. You may also know the Mog series based on the family cat, and The Tiger who Came to Tea. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (first of the Out of the Hitler Time series) was written to convey to her children what it was like for her to be a refugee during the war. Her son had seen The Sound of Music and said, “now I know what you went through in the war.” She wrote Pink Rabbit to set him straight.  Even though her family was displaced, she has good memories of how her parents made it seem more like a positive adventure than being uprooted. She said she never realized until much later how hard it must have been for her parents to make the decision to flee to foreign lands. She has always been thankful they did.

Today I had the pleasure of being in the audience at a BBC recording and asking Judith Kerr a question. She is a very youthful 92 indeed and it was wonderful to listen to her speak about her life, art, and writing. There were several elderly war veterans who attended, having some connection to Judith and her family as well, and she enjoyed meeting them. In the interview it came up that sometimes people think that Pink Rabbit is a metaphor for “childhood.” She replied in a down-to-earth tone, “Absolutely not. Don’t read into it, it was just a stuffed pink rabbit!” She said her husband came up with the catchy title because he thought it would help sell the book. Well, he was right!

Teachers will find plenty of teaching resources online to use with this upper elementary book, focussing on the refugee experience as much as the Holocaust. Other similar books are Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry.

‘The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island’ by Bill Bryson

The Road to Little Dribblingstarstarstar
“When England is lovely there isn’t any place I would rather be.”

Twenty years after travel writer Bill Bryson published his hugely successful and endearing book Notes from a Small Island, comes more of the same. More interesting anecdotes, amusing stories, mini tirades about how stupid people can be, and way more absurd and trivial things than you ever wanted to know about parts of Great Britain. Some people find his books laugh out loud hilarious while others just don’t seem to have their funny bone tickled at all–they actually find this trivia king’s keen descriptions and facts rather boring. I am definitely in the chuckle camp, annoying fellow housemates and train companions with sudden snorty outbursts and guffaws. In fact, because I know my merriment is frowned upon, it makes me want to laugh more, like in church when stifled sniggers threaten to explode.

Bryson clearly loves the British countryside and the British people whenever they don’t exasperate him. He is a rather rambling guide, this time roughly focussing on what he calls the “Bryson Line.” A straight line drawn on land from the north to the south of this island nation (from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath). It is this line and its ‘thereabouts’ that determine his route in this book, although how Cornwall fits in I’m not quite sure. I also failed to discover where Little Dribbling is unless it referred to what he did with the first sips of the many pints he consumes along the way. I probably missed it and will likely be called a ‘ f***wit’ by Bryson himself for my stupidity (there are a variety of words he likes to use when he’s annoyed and that is one of them).

I do love travelling with Bryson. It is of course more pleasurable to read about a place that is familiar to you, so the parts of the book where I had not been, were not quite so engaging, except for being useful for making notes for my UK bucket list. Bryson, who once was American, has now signed on for good to this country that he loves, becoming a citizen as well as a resident. True grit has now become true Brit.