The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

fikryWith the death of his wife, A.J. Fikry isolated himself in the small bookstore on Alice Island that they had started together.  A literary snob, A.J. does his best to push everyone out of his life, including the idealistic and energetic sales rep from Knightley Press who refuses to be put off by his bad attitude.  But A.J.’s world is turned upside down by the theft of a valuable book of poems and an unexpected delivery to the bookstore.  A.J. is given the chance to re-examine his life and become reinvigorated by books and the people that surround him.

“We are not quite novels.
We are not quite short stories.
In the end, we are collected works.”

I wanted to LOVE this book, after all it is a book about a bookstore!  And while I did LIKE the book, I didn’t find it to be anything spectacular.  It was a pleasant enough read – good for a rainy day or a day at the beach.  But for some reason, I just did not connect with the characters or the situations in a meaningful way.  Many of the main story lines felt rushed and superficial.  The elements are there for an amazing story – good characters and a good plot line – it just felt underdeveloped.  Again, it’s an enjoyable story, it just seemed like it could have been much more.

Title: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 272
Publication: Algonquin Books, April 2014

Under the Wide and Starry Sky

wide and starryThis biographical novel retells the historical love story between Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne and Robert Louis Stevenson (called Louis throughout the novel).  In 1875 Fanny leaves her philandering husband in San Francisco and sets off for Europe with her three children, Belle, Sammy, and Harvey, to study art.  A terrible tragedy occurs compelling Fanny and her children to go to an artist’s colony in Grez, France to recuperate.  While there, Fanny meets Louis.  In spite of being ten years her junior, he is immediately smitten with Fanny, although she does not return his affections.  Stevenson is persistent and becomes Fanny’s lover when she moves back to Paris.  When Fanny returns to San Francisco to give her marriage a second chance, Louis follows her there, against the advice of family and friends, the journey nearly killing him.  Once there, Fanny gets a divorce and nurses Louis back to health.  In 1880 they are finally married.

What follows is a tale of Fanny and Louis’s married life together, with all of the tumultuousness that married life can bring.  They spend much of their lives travelling the globe for Louis’s health, trying to find a place where he will recover from tuberculosis, eventually settling down on the Pacific island of Samoa.  But Louis’s health is not the only challenge that the couple faces.  While Louis eventually becomes famous for his writing and is able to support his family, there are many years where the couple lives near poverty, counting on the kindness of family and friends to sustain them.  Fanny’s desire to be recognized for her own writing, to be seen as an individual with individual worth, while living in the shadow of Stevenson’s brilliance, is often a point of contention.  Fanny eventually ends up with a strained relationship with most of Louis’s friends, save their close friend Henry James who seems to remain dedicated to Fanny throughout. Louis’s artistic temperament coupled with Fanny’s own mental health struggles adds even another layer of complexity.  But somehow, they keep coming together, keep supporting and forgiving one another, and remain together throughout Louis’s lifetime.

I enjoyed this biographical novel on several levels, as a historical novel capturing the essence of the time, as literary history, and as a love story between two very lively and difficult personalities.  With my recent reviews of The Adventures of Henry Thoreau and The Remedy, the fact that tuberculosis was in itself a major part of this novel only increased my interest.  It seems impossible to read about anyone from that time in history that was not affected by this horrendous disease.  Robert Louis Stevenson spent much of his life trying to run away from it, only to die from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 44 and be buried in the very place where he had finally felt well.

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

–“Requiem” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Title: Under the Wide and Starry Sky
Author: Nancy Horan
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 496
Publication: Ballantine Books, January 2014

Mystery Mayhem

steeped in evilThe Tea Shop Mysteries follow Theodesia Browning, the young and beautiful owner of a tea shop in Charleston who seems to have a knack for stumbling on dead bodies and getting embroiled in solving the mysteries of their deaths.  She is aided by the stodgy and proper Drayton (her tea master), the young and quirky Haley (her chef/baker), while running up against the gruff Detective Tidwell.

In Steeped in Evil, Theodesia leaves behind her normal beverage to attend a wine-tasting at the Knighthall Winery, but the party quickly comes to an end when a dead body is found in a wine barrel.  The dead body belongs to the son of the vineyard’s owner, Jordan Knight.  Dissatisfied with the police investigation, Jordan turns to Theodesia for her help.  With everyone lying, someone has to be hiding something, and Theodesia will inevitably solve the puzzle!

The setting is beautifully described, as is the food prepared each day for the tea shop, and both make me want to head to Charleston simply for tea.  I want to put on a fancy dress and a big hat, wander through the quaint shops in Charleston, and have some afternoon tea.

Title: Steeped in Evil
Author: Laura Childs
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 320
Publication: Berkley Hardcover, March 2014

blackberry pieThe Hannah Swensen Mysteries follow Hannah, the owner of The Cookie Jar, a cookie shop in Minnesota.  As she stumbles on dead bodies, and gets caught up in solving the mysteries, she is joined by a cast of supporting characters – her mother, sister, co-worker, and of course – the two men she can’t seem to choose between.

In Blackberry Pie Murder, Hannah actually causes the death when she happens to hit someone on the road during a storm.  Worried about whether she will be arrested, and trying to plan her mother’s wedding, Hannah dives into discovering the identity of the dead man and what he was doing there.

Unfortunately, this series is getting a little dull.  The recipes were the best part of the book.  Hannah’s indecision about Norman and Mike is tired, and the ending was not an ending or a cliffhanger – just a pause in the story.  Probably it’s supposed to inspire people to run out and buy the next book when it comes out, but I’m not sure it worked.

Title: Blackberry Pie Murder
Author: Joanne Fluke
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 368
Publication: Kensington, February 2014

killer physiqueThe Savannah Reid Mysteries follow plus-size California PI Savannah Reid, a former police officer and owner of Moonlight Magnolia Detective Agency.  With assistance from a great supporting cast which includes her new husband Dirk, her employee Tammy, and her friends John and Ryan, along with her seemingly endless Southern family members.

In Killer Physique, newlyweds Savannah and Dirk attend a movie premier with John and Ryan.  When the leading man, and John & Ryan’s friend, is found dead in his hotel room the initial evidence points to death due to doping.  Unbelieving, Savannah and Dirk promise John & Ryan that they’ll get to the bottom of things.  Meanwhile, Savannah desperately tries to get ready for the first meeting with Dirk’s birth parents.

Another fun installment in this series, the mystery was engaging and it’s interesting to watch Dirk & Savannah trying to settle into their new married life.  I did miss Granny, maybe she’ll be around next time…

Title: Killer Physique
Author: G.A. McKevett
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 320
Publication: Kensington, March 2014

by its coverThe Commissario Guido Brunetti novels follow the Venetian Commissario as he delves into crimes in a city full of corruption.  With an idiotic and useless boss, an inventive and talented secretary, and several steadfast and talented officers, Brunetti always finds the answers, even when they are difficult to accept or understand.  More than a simple mystery, these novels are about human nature and the intricacies and contradictions that lie in all of us.

In By Its Cover, Brunetti is called to a private Venetian research library.  Someone has been stealing rare books and cutting illustrations out of valuable texts.  The suspect is an American researcher who disappeared shortly before the thefts were discovered.  But when a patron of the library who was a former priest and a theologian is found murdered, Brunetti must delve deeper to find the answers.

The Brunetti novels are among my favorite mystery series, and this one took place in a library, so I have little to complain about!  It did seem short on character interaction which I have loved in the previous books.  The interactions and discussions between Brunetti, his wife, his children, his in-laws, and his co-workers have always been central in contemplating, and struggling to understand, life, crime and human nature.  Hopefully they will be back in Brunetti’s next installment.

Title: By Its Cover
Author: Donna Leone
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 288
Publication: Atlantic Monthly Press, April 2014

Attachments

attachmentsLincoln finally left college after over ten years of getting degrees.  Now he’s back home, living with his mom, and working the night shift in the IT department at a newspaper.  His job?  To read employee emails that have been flagged by the system, hand out warnings, and delete the emails.  But then he starts reading emails between Beth and Jennifer, a movie reviewer and a copy editor, and best friends.  For reasons even he can’t explain he reads all of their emails and never sends them a warning.  Lincoln finds himself falling in love with Beth, in spite of the fact that he has never actually seen her, even though she has a live-in boyfriend.  But where can it go from there?  Can he just find her, walk up to her, and tell her that he’s the guy that reads her email and that he’s fallen in love with her?

The chapters alternate between telling Lincoln’s story and telling Beth and Jennifer’s.  Their story is told via their emails to each other.  While this style of storytelling could be awkward, it’s not.  Their conversations flow naturally, their story is clearly told, with even their periods of silence contributing to their story.  I loved Lincoln and a situation that could’ve been creepy was instead touching and funny, even while it was a little sad.  Beth and Jennifer share their daily struggles honestly, with a nice touch of sarcasm and humor.  Even the secondary characters are memorable – Lincoln’s mother, Doris, the D&D gang, Chris, Mitch… are memorable and relatable, like real people that we all know.

I LOVED this book.  The proof is in the fact that I am typing this in spite of having burnt my hand tonight, which means I am slowly and painstakingly getting the words down while I hold an ice cube in my hand.  There is something so refreshing about Rainbow Rowell’s writing.  Her characters are likable and relatable.  Her stories are fun, touching – real.

Title: Attachments
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 336
Publication: Dutton Adult, April 2011

A Star for Mrs. Blake

978-0-307-95884-6[1].JPGIn 1929 Congress enacted legislation to allow Gold Star Mothers who had lost sons in WWI to make the pilgrimage to visit the graves of their sons.  A Star for Mrs. Blake, while based on fact, is a fictional tale of Cora Blake, a librarian from Maine, who unofficially heads up a small group of women on their pilgrimage as Cora goes to visit the grave of her only son, Sammy, buried in Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.  She is accompanied by other mothers – an Irish maid, the wife of a Jewish Russian chicken farmer, a wealthy socialite, and a woman who has been in and out of mental institutions – as well as a young nurse and recently commissioned Army officer.  While in France, Cora meets an American journalist, Griff, who was injured during the war and now needs to wear a facial prosthetic to hide his wounds.  The time he spends with Cora and the article he writes about her pilgrimage brings about several surprises.

There were moments in the book that I really enjoyed – moments of lightness as the women are overwhelmed by new cultural experiences – and moments of real sadness as they stand over the graves of their sons.  I am a mother of a young man of that same age and I emotionally connected with their stories and their pain, the universal pain of a mother who has lost a child.  I loved Griff as a character, in spite of his weaknesses, his courage and his pain and his humor made him extremely relatable and likeable.  The historical settings seemed realistic and I found the stories of these pilgrimages very interesting since I had not realized that they had occurred.

In spite of all that I liked about this novel, there were also parts that bothered me.  The women on the pilgrimage were often betrayed very stereotypically, with stereotypical behavior, biases, and issues.  Parts of the story, like the existence and background of one of the early members of the group, seemed to be cut short for no reason.  And there were times when I felt like the author tried to throw too many things into the same novel – issues of race, thoughts on war, grief, loss, poverty, military structure, injured veterans, illegitimate children, treatment of women, romance, foreign relations, …  While they were all applicable to the time and the story being told, I felt like a deeper dive into these women as individuals (and not stereotyped individuals) and their lives and their loss could’ve been more effective without all of the other distractions.  The issues that the author wanted to address could’ve been done so more subtly, as a background to the mothers’ stories, without being stories of their own.

 
Title: A Star for Mrs. Blake
Author: April Smith
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 352
Publication: Knopf, January 2014