A to Z Challenge Theme

OK, I know I’m ten days late. Revealing my #AtoZChallenge was supposed to take place on March 21. But hey, I didn’t learn about the A to Z Challenge until March 28. So I’m catching up.

My A to Z Challenge Theme will be places I have lived or stayed long enough to make it to my list of favorite places in the world. Revisiting places in alphabetical, rather than chronological, order may even help me uncover some subconscious insights. I hope you’ll come along with me to see.

For more information about the challenge, check out the A to Z Blogging Challenge blog.

A to Z Challenge

I just signed up to take part in the 2016 A to Z Blogging Challenge. Wish I had heard about it sooner because some planning would probably improve my posts. But the lure of discovering other writers and their thoughts was greater than my fear of looking silly.

So each day in April (excluding Sundays), look for my alphabetically organized posts on reading and writing and anything else that strikes my fancy that isn’t one of those.

Book Review: The Orchid House

Three starstheorchidhouseLucinda Riley’s New York Times 2012 best seller, The Orchid House, spans seven decades and two continents, and addresses the lives of three generations of landowners and their employees and their descendants in Norfolk, England. The three generations of the Crawford family, owners of Wharton Park, are on the verge of losing the estate throughout the novel, but saving Wharton Park remains at the center of all the twisted tales and secrets revealed when Julia Forrester, the granddaughter of a gardener at the estate discovers a diary at a sale by Harry Crawford, the grandson of the owner when her grandfather worked there. The two discover the diary in the old hot house and assume that it must be Julia’s grandfather’s. Rather than opening the diary to read it herself, Julia brings it to her grandmother, Elsie, assuming she would like to keep it. But Elsie knows the diary wasn’t her husband’s. And she knew it was time to share a secret that involves both the Crawford and Forrester families.

While the story is beautifully told, I felt the author tricked the reader rather than simply revealing details about the secret in layers so the reader could willingly suspend disbelief. The central premise, that a half-Thai, half-British child, described as the spitting image of her Thai mother, would be accepted as the natural child of a British couple, spoiled the story for me. The happily-ever-after ending also resolved both the personal and financial tension of the tale too neatly, too quickly. I was surprised to find the book was categorized as historical or literary fiction rather than romance. The full story line more closely matches a classical romance than literary fiction.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, British and Irish Fiction
Length: 468 pages
Publisher: Atria Books (February 14, 2012)
Publication Date: February 14, 2012

Book Review: Farewell to Manzanar

Four starsfarewelltomanzanarJeanne Wakatsuki Houston revisits the three years she and her family spent in Manzanar, one of ten internment camps run by the US War Department for relocated persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Her father had been taken away earlier, arrested for presumably supplying fuel to Japanese submarines from his fishing boat off the coast of Southern California two weeks after the bombing of ships at Pearl Harbor. She survives. Her parents and older siblings, less so. The Japanese-American way of life did not. Houston supposes the traditions would have died anyway, but internment accelerated it.

Houston tells of how camp life for a child was part adventure, unlike the burden it posed to the adults. She also tells of how camp life began the disintegration of Japanese family life as extended families were separated from one another, and even when they could remain together, there was insufficient space for family events, such as eating a meal together, to happen. Yet in spite of this, families did what they could to make the overcrowded and insufficiently insulated homes as much like homes as possible. Setting rocks among raked sand in gardens outside the entrance to bring a bit of beauty, a bit of familiarity in the midst of a hostile environment.

Houston told her story in 1973, more than forty years ago. But the lessons of the story are important today as well. Fear of those who look different, whose traditions are different, whose language is different, can lead to intolerable policy decisions, as was the case during World War II. We must learn from the mistakes of the past so that we do not repeat them.

Book Review: The Liars’ Club

theliarsclubMary Karr’s The Liars’ Club set a new standard for memoirs when it came out in 1995. In it, Karr tells the story of her well-educated, artistic, alcoholic mother and the uneducated, hard-drinking, doing-the-best-he-can dad her mother married as they struggled with life in east Texas and Colorado.

It isn’t a story of a financial struggle; Karr’s father had a steady job and her mother at one point inherits so much money that buying fur coats for both daughter and herself and then living it up for lunch at a fancy restaurant in a big hotel seems almost commonplace.

It is the story of the complex relationships we humans get entangled in as we look to someone else to make our dreams possible instead of taking responsibility ourselves or adjusting expectations into the realistic range.

The Liars’ Club sets a high bar for wannabe memoir writers. There is a meltdown moment for conflict and drama when her mother’s Nervousness (always capitalized to acknowledge it as a euphemism for a severe mental breakdown) destroys much of their possessions and removes her from the lives of her daughters for many months. But most of the tale is of a slightly unorthodox upbringing of a feisty child and her more traditional older sister. Karr’s father includes the younger in the rituals of his drinking and fishing buddies who make up the liars’ club, exposing her to language and behavior some would consider inappropriate even were she many years older. That Karr addresses everything in her life openly, not hiding behind secrets imposed from outside, provides the charm of the story.

The sisters, the author Mary and Lecia (pronounced Leesa), end up fending for themselves from time to time, proving that children understand more than adults around them assume and make adult decisions when the adults around them behave like children.

I loved Karr’s story. If you enjoy family stories, especially stories involving secrets adults have chosen to hide from their children, you’ll love it, too.

Genre: Biographies and Memoirs
Length: 354 pages
Publisher: Penguin Classics; 20th Deluxe ed. edition (November 10, 2015)
Publishing Date: 2015

Book Review: The Glass Castle

Five StarstheglasscastleIn The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls tells of her unorthodox upbringing by her artist mother and inventor father, during which she and her siblings—older sister Lori, younger brother Brian, and younger sister Maureen—survived frequent moves across the country, inconsistent access to school, and long periods of poverty so severe the children had nothing to eat and survived by foraging. Her parents believed children needed to learn to fend for themselves instead of being watched over and protected. In spite of the resulting challenges, the children were identified as gifted in most schools.

Throughout her childhood, Jeannette believed in her father, even when she knew he was lying to her and was willing to take the little money the family had for food in order to buy liquor. She recognized his brilliance at the same time as overlooking his destructive behavior, at least until she and her older sister Lori were able to devise a plan to escape and live on their own. Yet even after all four children had escaped their parents’ influence, Jeannette kept in contact with her parents, accepting that their lives were consistent with their principals even though Jeannette, Lori, and Brian at least, rejected their parents’ free-thinking foundation.

The Glass Castle is a tale of the resilience of children under extreme circumstances, an optimistic story of life moving forward. It is story of love, love by parents of their children and by children of their parents. It is a story of survival against bullying, the effects of poverty and hunger. It could have been a depressing story, but Jeannette’s warmth and humor come through, turning it into a story of redemption and optimism.

Genre: Biographies and Memoirs
Length: 288 pages
Publisher: Scribner
Publishing Date: 2005

Book Review: The City

Five StarsthecityDean Koontz knows how to tell a story. And his readers know there will be some fantasy, magic, or horror in his stories. In The City, there is no horror, and the fantasy or magic is understated, treated almost symbolically, as nine-year-old piano prodigy Jonah Kirk’s tells his story of confronting evil and protecting his mother from Jonah’s father who abandoned her and the near psychopathic group he ends up following.

Jonah experiences troubling dreams—the magic in the novel. Convinced there is truth in the dreams and that it is essential that he act on the knowledge he gains through the dreams, Jonah recognizes he must choose carefully whom he will tell and turn to for help. His choice: Mr. Yoshioka, a middle-aged neighbor living alone in an upstairs apartment, though he shares only as much as he believes he must to gain Mr. Yoshioka’s cooperation. The unconventional partnership offers both Jonah and Mr. Yoshioka reconciliation for events in the past and hope for the future.

Jonah doesn’t tell his mother about his fears because of his concern that, as the man in the family, he must protect her. Each of his thoughts and actions is believable for a nine-year-old boy. And because his behavior is reasonable, I willingly set aside the mystical source of his knowledge and enjoyed Koontz’s narrative. Jonah’s tale is about his childhood, but he tells it as the 50-something man, looking back, sharing with us both what he learned at the time and the larger lessons he has since realized as an adult.

I found the perspective of the tale—from the viewpoint of a child—refreshing. Because of this as well as the superb writing, I liked this book very much.

Genre: Paranormal; Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
Length: 593 pages
Publisher: Bantam
Publishing Date: July 1, 2014

Book Review: Death at Bishop’s Keep

Three starsAt the end of the 19th century, plucky, Irish-American Kathryn Ardleigh, orphaned as a child and raised in New York by an aunt and uncle on her mother’s side of the family, is without employment due to the recent death of her employer. Satisfied that she will be able to support herself minimally as an author of penny-dreadful novels, she receives a surprising offer from an unknown aunt on her father’s side of the family to come to England to work as the aunt’s secretary. Kathryn agrees, thinking that even if the employment doesn’t work out, she will gain knowledge of value for the protagonist of her novels. Once in England, she discovers she has two aunts she knew nothing of and they are keeping secrets she must solve in order to succeed in her new home.

This Victorian cosy features a modern and independent female protagonist who find herself thrown mid-stream into upper crust British society where servants and masters coexist, but not often graciously. Befriended on the train from London to Dedham, near the home her aunt has invited her to live and work, by Eleanor Marden, a lady of leisure somewhat younger, her brother Bradford, and Bradford’s friend, Sir Charles Sheridan. Sir Charles is Kathryn’s foil, a modern scientist, enthusiastic that photography, fingerprints, and detailed examination of evidence when solving crimes. Yet he can’t make up his mind if Kathryn’s modern ideas are rational or acceptable.

The pace of the plot in this story could have been faster since the title crime doesn’t occur until the last third of the book. Since this was intended to be the first in a serious of Victorian mysteries featuring Miss Ardleigh, the authors seem to feel the first two thirds of this book were necessary to set up the series, not just this first novel.

Genre: Historical Romance, British Detectives, Historical Fiction
Length: 304 pages
Publisher: Berkeley, reprint edition
Publishing Date: July 1, 1998