Elsewhere Home–Leila Aboulela

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Short stories are experiencing a renaissance, their bite-sized narratives fitting into our shortened attention spans, the print version of our preference for sitting down for an episode rather than a movie (and then watching until we’ve finished the series).

Aboulela’s collection of stories features people living between England, Scotland, Egypt, and Sudan.  Most of the narrators are women, but not all.  Some are in couples uniting Africa and Europe.  Several involve characters native to Africa who are transplanted to England or Scotland for school or work–forced to leave home in search of opportunity.

The collection begins with the story of a young girl and her mother making their annual pilgrimage to Cairo to visit family.  Nadia’s mother laughs at her daughter’s reaction to the realities of Cairo and Nadia teases her mother for her flawed English pronunciation.  The man who comes to Sudan to marry his bride and finds himself facing unexpected cultural boundaries and the need to prove his own connection, his legitimacy.  The young girl who braves expectations to wear glasses.  The collection ends with a story of a woman inspired by an author whose characters go far beyond the realities of the author herself.  After her second opportunity to meet her favorite author, the narrator writes, “It made me miss the voice on the page, the fluid lives you had written down.  There was nothing more I could take from you.  Nothing in addition to what I already had on my shelves.”  In the pages of Elsewhere, Home, Aboulela has offered us a great deal.

Aboulela has met the challenge of Chimamanda Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story.”  Her collection allows us to peek into the lives of several “outsiders,” whether native to the UK or Egypt and Sudan.  Unlike the fossilized colonial view of Africa confronted in “The Museum,” Aboulela’s Africa, through the eyes of those who call it home and those who visit it, is modern and specific, far from the pastoral images of savannah animals and silent, stoic native safari guides.

Elsewhere, Home is so worth the read.  I rather suspect it will be the choice of book clubs and likely assigned in many college classrooms.

Finished 8/5/18

Advance copy courtesy of netgalley.com

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The Lost Letters of William Woolf–Hellen Cullen

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William works for the Dead Letters Depot, a position he inherited and that was meant to give him time to write.  When writer’s block hit, William kept the position and settled in, with rituals for selecting lost letters from the bag and a particular interest in letters to the supernatural.  His wife, Clare, has also left behind her artistic intentions for the stability of the law in a firm where she is almost partner.  They live in the same small apartment of their early married years because William insists that they split the mortgage and he cannot afford more.  Clare is ready to move on to a life like that of her peers and for her husband to have an ambition that matches her own.  Their marriage is in trouble when William finds a letter from a woman named Winter to a mysterious love.  Winter’s words stir something in him, something that sends him across England in search of Winter and his sense of himself.

The premise, a frustrated writer who works in the Dead Letters Depot, and the idea that such a depot exists, is amazing.  Clare could be further developed, which would make her frustration with William more understandable.  The mystery of Winter and the addressee of her letters is alluring, but Cullen could do more to make us understand why William would risk his marriage to chase the mirage.  She might also explain how someone surrounded with so many flashes of insight into strangers’ lives could not be moved to write.  I enjoyed this read, but had moments of questioning the story’s internal logic.

Finished 7/18

Advance copy courtesy of netgalley.com

Backstrap–Johnnie Dunn

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Callie Byrne is ex-military MP who served in Iraq, recovering addict, and all-around bad ass who has lost custody of her son to her yuppie sister and whose best friend is a priest with a strong moral core and a need for absolution.  When her friend and former lover, Rachel, disappears in Guatemala after sending Callie a message asking for help, Callie ditches common sense and her parole officer, picks up her fellow ex-MP, Angus, and catches a flight to Guatelmala.

What she finds is a drug cartel hiding within a leather goods company as well as a human trafficking ring–and a chance to do the right thing for the right reasons and regain her pride.

This is a debut novel with language that is engaging and fast-paced.  There are no glaring plot holes, out-of-place language, or moments where our suspension of disbelief is torn away.  Callie is a compelling character, with Angus a close second.

Advance copy courtesy of netgalley.com

Finished 7/18

Every Other Weekend–Zulema Renee Summerfield

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I have been a stepmother for over two decades.  I have spent my share of time waiting to exchange children in grocery store parking lots or in front of the ex’s house.  A novel from a child’s perspective about the year after divorce, about living with new parents, new siblings, and two homes was appealing.

And then I opened the covers.  Nenny is a captivating narrator.  She is funny and anxious, and funny about her anxiety.  Like many middle children, Nenny does not make waves, preferring to accommodate the waves created by those around her.  In her new home with her mother and Rick, she shares a room with her older stepsister, Kat, and tries to stay out of her way.  She bestows occasional kindness on her youngest brother, Tiny, and watches Bubbles disappear into a world of scientific details.

Nenny’s father struggles to adjust to his new life–in his small apartment with the empty pool. Kat and Charles’ mother lives in a trailer park with her abusive husband.

Nenny’s voice is addictive.  Her worldview drug me from brief chapter to brief chapter, and entranced my eleven-year-old daughter, who began reading chapters to her best friend before I was even finished.  I had to wrestle the book back from her.  I finished within a day and she was nearly done the next day.  This is a debut that looks like a masterpiece and left me anxious for novel #2.

Finished 7/18

The Burning Girl–Claire Messud

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Some stories tell you up front they are going to break your heart, but you feel compelled to read them anyway.  Julia, “Juju,” and Cassie are best friends in a small town outside Boston.  Juju’s parents live in a renovated Victorian home with her dad’s dentist office in the carriage house.  Her mother is a freelance journalist.  Cassie’s father is dead, her mother a hospice nurse.  Their paths are intertwined, but as they start middle school and adolescence, they separate, as is so often the story.  Cassie builds a bad reputation while teachers and parents assume Juju is headed for college.  Cassie’s mother begins dating a doctor, against whose strict rules Cassie chafes, and Juju watches from afar, concerned and quietly documenting.

Like all good stories of misbegotten youth, this one involves a forbidden gravel pit and an abandoned women’s asylum, as well as a boy desired by one friend and spurned by the other.

I loved this story and its close look at the friendships of girls.  I adore the craft and the language.

“It’s a different story depending on where you start: who’s good, who’s bad, what it all means.  Each of us shapes our stories so they make sense of who we think we are.”

Juju and Cassie’s story haunted me, but I kept waiting to understand the title, to see the burning.

Finished 7/18

High Dive–Jonathan Lee

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My father refused to visit Ireland because of “the troubles.”  Catholic Irish and English Protestants blowing each other up was part of the backdrop of my American Midwest youth.  I did not understand the whys, but I felt the terror of death coming at any time on the street.

Dan’s Catholic Irish dad bought his family a house on a quiet Protestant street, but it did not save him from dying amongst Catholics on the street.  Dan became a man in a field with an IRA leader when he passed an inscrutable test and was found worthy of killing Protestants.

Freya Finch is not going to university, despite the wishes of her father, Moose Finch, assistant manager of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, chosen this year for the Conservative Party Conference.  Freya works at the hotel and despises her home town and nearly everyone at the hotel.

Dan agrees to set the explosives for the Conservative Party Conference and his path crosses Freya’s at the reception counter.

Moose reflects on the sadness of his failed promise, athleticism and talent on the divine board as well as his failed marriage to Freya’s mother, and hopes for a promotion after the conference.

Dan tries to convince his mother to move and works to reclaim their crumbling overgrown garden.

Like all stories based on reality, the ending is unhappy.  This one is unhappier because Hall has done such a convincing job creating characters we care about.

Finished 7/18

The Feather Thief–Kirk Wallace Johnson

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I heard this book reviewed on Fresh Air and was intrigued.  Micro histories have had a surge in popularity, perhaps because the truth is so often stranger than any fiction.

Kirk Wallace Johnson became interested in the theft of over 200 tropical bird specimens while fly fishing.  He was intrigued by its puzzle, but also attracted to the idea of a distraction from his draining work with Iraqi refugees who had helped US troops.  Johnson takes us into Papua New Guinea with Alfred Wallace, into the scientific community with Charles Darwin, and into the fate of the obsessive bird collector, Walter Rothschild, and his Tring Museum.  He also takes us into the world of Victorian feather collecting and its resurgence with fly tiers, then to the childhood of Edwin Rist, whose obsession with Victorian fly fishing leads him to the Tring Museum and the theft of priceless bird specimens, among which were birds collected by Alfred Wallace.

I listened to this book on Audible, in part on a long drive with my 11-year-old daughter, who at times said she thought the book was going into too much detail, particularly about the intricacies of tying flies.  Why the detail?

Like his subjects Wallace, Rothschild and Rist, Johnson discovers his own obsessive streak as he hunts for the missing bird specimens across the western world and across years.  He dives into this story, these histories, and buries himself in the layers of intricacy, inoculations against the failures he experienced in trying to help the Iraqi refugees.

Focus is a highly heralded attribute, but Johnson’s histories become morality tales of the dangers of obsession.  Johnson also asks us to reconsider the value of dusty old museums for the present day, how we value crimes and criminals, and our own role in breaking the law through any number of rationalizations.

Finished 7/17/18