Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday Book: SHADOW TAG by Louise Erdrich

shadow tag This was a creepy book. On the one hand, it’s scarier and more ominous than many thrillers I’ve started but never finished. On the other, it’s about marriage. Draw your own conclusions.

If I had to choose one word to sum up this book, ironically enough it would be “Complex.” The complexities of how people exhibit love, whether love and hate really are two horns on the same goat, and what it means to belong to as opposed to live freely beside someone are all explored with some fairly high-concept stressers added. The couple are Native Americans. They are successful artists. They are alcoholics. And whether they love each other or use each other or even like each other is up for grabs in the eyes of the reader.

And get this: she creates that complex effect with simplicity. Her writing, lyrical though it is, is pretty simple. The dialogue where the couple are arguing about love and divorce, interjected with tossing a salad and setting the table, had me weeping with laughter. “You don’t understand love at all. Do you want croutons?”

Also, Irene, the writer, is writing two diaries at the same time to confuse her painter husband Gil, who is reading the one he thinks is real. And she gets confused between them herself. Which is kinda funny, kinda tragic.

What is clear is that chaos creates chaos creates complications, and that the kids are incredibly well-drawn characters in this novel. Your heart breaks over them, and I suspect no two people would read this book in quite the same way. It’s just a jumble of ideas that are strung together in a story line, and sometimes it’s a series of descriptions rather than a “this happened next.”

Which works and adds to the chaotic doomed feeling of the book.

All I can say is, don’t read this book if you’re in a really good mood, or a really bad one. Read it when you have time to think about the complexities, puzzle over the “why did she and why didn’t he” moments, and feel. You’re gonna need a lot of time to feel, and you’re not always going to know why you feel what you feel. At least, I didn’t.

Two head scratches and a thumbs up for this beautiful, scary novel.

Leave a comment

Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing, YA fiction

The Monday Book: Bridget Jones – Mad about the Boy by Helen Fielding

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy – Helen Fielding

 

Regular readers will know that I (Jack) tend to read more non-fiction than fiction, but I do make exceptions. So when ‘Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy’ slid into the shop, I made one of these exceptions.

My introduction to ‘Bridge’ was through the movies of the first two books in Fielding’s series, which led to me reading them as well. And enjoying them.

This latest addition is very much in the same style as the previous ones and I agree with many reviewers that Fielding really does have a knack for capturing a place and a life-style. The life-style is that of engaging and fashionable 30 to 40 year olds and the place is modern day London.

My problem is that I’ve always hated London – actually, I’m not that keen on any big cities, but London is right at the bottom of places where I’d like to live! So it’s meant as a compliment that I’ve enjoyed all the ‘Bridge’ books despite their setting.

I could say the same for ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ as well as ‘About a Boy’ – also about the same kind of social group and in the same setting. Maybe there really is getting to be a specific genre that we need to create a special shelf for in the bookstore: Trendy 30-somethings in the Big City. We could title it ‘Cheers’ or ‘Friends’ – – –

Seriously, though – I did enjoy ‘Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy’ as poor Bridge dealt with being a widow with two small children, the guilt of wanting a new companion, school events, life on Twitter, and the inevitable daily catastrophes. I particularly liked Fielding’s cheeky inclusion of Bridge’s negotiations with a movie company over her updating of ‘Hedda Gabbler’ by Anton Checkov (yes – Gabbler with two ‘B’s and, yes, Anton Checkov!). Fielding’s writing is just short of madcap, and paints word pictures one can’t forget.

Two glasses of sparking Evian Water up for ‘Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy!’

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Sarah Nelson, Scotland, small town USA

THE MONDAY BOOK: The Light Between Oceans – M.L. Stedman

oceansI really wasn’t sure I’d like this book at all when I read the blurbs on the back. I mean – a book about a couple living on a remote lighthouse – surely nothing much would happen.

But Stedman’s writing very quickly sucked me in. Well crafted lines and beautiful descriptions, including some about the technicalities of lighthouse technology in the 1920s, kept me hooked.

But the real story isn’t about the lighthouse. The real story is about Tom, a First World War survivor, and his younger wife Isabel. After two miscarriages and a still birth, one day a small boat is washed up on the island containing a dead man and a living baby. Tom is determined to report this to the authorities ashore, but Isabel is equally determined to keep it quiet and bring up the baby as their own.

I loved the characterization of both the main players. Tom as the older, somewhat tortured veteran of the war, focusing on the routine of the lighthouse to keep out memories of the battlefield. Isabel – the younger kind of flighty and adventurous non-conformist trapped in a small remote coastal town.

“The log is the gospel truth. Janus isn’t a Lloyds station: it’s not one the ships depend on for forecasts, so once Tom closes the pages on the book, it is unlikely that any eyes will glance at it again, perhaps ever. But he feels a particular peace when he writes.”

“Looking into those eyes was like looking into the face of God. No mask or pretense: the baby’s defenselessness was overwhelming.”

There are many other memorable players in this drama and none of them are treated as ‘bit players’. Stedman gives them all of her best!

I won’t spoil your enjoyment by revealing any more of the story, just say umpteen thumbs up!

5 Comments

Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Scotland, small town USA, Wendy Welch, writing

The Monday Book: THE POOR HAD NO LAWYERS by Andy Wightman

poorEvery year when I run my small group tour of Scotland I try to find a book for the times it’s my turn to guard the luggage on the bus while the group are visiting an attraction or having lunch. Of course, having a continuing interest in Scottish politics, I often seek out books about such matters.

This year my choice was ‘The Poor had no Lawyers’ by Andy Wightman.

 

This fascinating and very well researched book traces the scandalous story of what can only be described as blatant theft, all the way from the Reformation to the present day. It tells the story of land-owning Lords sitting in the non-elected upper chamber of the UK parliament deliberately sabotaging any attempt to modernize the law; of plucky crofters and islanders taking them on and winning; of the recently re-constituted Scottish parliament finally having the time and inclination to make changes that the House of Lords can’t block.

 

What I should also make clear is that the book mainly deals with the ownership of very large areas by a very few people with often highly dubious legal claims.

 

In case this sounds terribly serious and parochial, there’s a great deal of humor and not just from Wightman. Some of the official reports produced down the years by serious minded researchers are hilarious in places! There is also much comparison with land ownership in other parts of the world – particularly de-colonized countries in Africa and Asia.

 

What really sticks out is that the separate legal professions in England and Scotland are both tied tightly into the ruling (and land-owning) establishment and, rather than offering a means to redress the obvious injustices, tend to ‘circle the wagons’ and protect their own interests.

 

I found this book completely absorbing, eye-opening and revelatory. For anyone with even a passing interest in Scottish social history or politics this is a ‘must read’!

Leave a comment

Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: ENTERING THE SILENCE by Thomas Merton

capI picked this up in Philly at Neighborhood Books, run by the kind colorful local character Curtis. I didn’t know at the time it was a near-famous book; I was writing about silence and thought it would be interesting as research. But it’s actually the second volume of Thomas Merton’s surprising bestselling autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton became a Cistercian (Trappist) monk and wrote a lot about his spiritual journey. In Silence, he wrote about visiting two other orders, and how he decided to join.

The book is in three sections, each dealing with an order. One is the hardworking Trappists, who Merton says pretty much consider prayer, work, and hardship as all under the umbrella of prayer. When he asks one of the monks what it feels like to be part of such an order, the monk asks, “Have you ever been in love?” When Merton affirms, the monk says, “Well, like that.”

The first description will speak to writers, because it’s as much about Merton–who has come to the silence of the monks to get away from distractions and allow himself to write–discovering he is distracted by the silence. He needs to fill it up, get away from it, silence it. He almost fears it. And it doesn’t help him write, not until he gets to a new idea of time and commitment and passion (which is very eloquently described).

The next two descriptions are more just depictions of the living Trappists and the deceased Capadocians, where he visits the little caves that used to be their homes and pretty much comes out of that description thanking God it isn’t a choice anymore, or he might have felt compelled to make it. (That’s them in the photo at the top.) This isn’t a book with a story, more like getting inside someone’s head for an hour. If you’ve ever read A Grief Observed, it kinda reads like that – completely different subject matter, but just “here, and that’s all I have to say.” Yet said with such thoughtful eloquence.

1 Comment

Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, small town USA, Wendy Welch, writing

The Monday Book: WHERE TROUBLE SLEEPS by Clyde Edgerton

Edgerton’s books tend to circle a few themes; think of them as small circles that actually go down into the core of human beings. On the surface it looks like a simple, small concept, but the roots go into the fabric of what makes us tick.

Like when “rootless amorality meets deep-rooted morality” as he puts it – drifters come through, they do wrong, they’ve been doing wrong, they meet people who do right, and don’t you forget it. Little old ladies who sing in choirs. Churchgoers whose idea of sin is fishing in Sundays. And then this guy shows up driving a stolen car….

It’s kind of adorable, and symbol of Edgerton’s genius, that the Gypsy Man driving the stolen car takes a cabin at the Settle Inn.

It all kinda goes from there, in hilarious yet poignant directions. Gypsy man, the call to repent, the church goers, and life in small-town North Carolina in the 1950s. You laugh until you cry. E

Especially at the ending, which I won’t give away, but suffice it to say, never miss with a church-going little old lady who isn’t as old or as little as you think.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, humor, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, small town USA, Wendy Welch, writing, YA fiction

For a Murderer, He’s an awfully nice Guy

temp welchSo I was asked to speak on a panel at the Appalachian Heritage Writers Symposium, on developing ideas into stories. The symposium was about an hour away, a beautiful drive through the June-green mountains.

Jeffery Deaver, of crime thriller fame, was the keynote, but hadn’t arrived yet because a family event had intervened, the moderator announced. Also, regrettably, Mr. Deaver would have no books with him because of the glitch.

As a collective sigh of disappointment arose from the assembly, my mind flew back to our mystery room’s “D” shelf, better known as “DeMille/Deaver” with a few James Dosses thrown in.

I offered to fetch the 40+pre-loved thrillers and sell them at the book signing after his talk, but–on finding Mr. D was unreachable in transit–hesitated. Authors sometimes have love/hate relationships with second-hand book sellers and seizing the day at someone else’s expense just seemed uncouth. Once the organizing committee grasped the question, they agreed to ask when he arrived, while I headed home; if he wanted them, no problem and I’d head back.

Not to worry; when the keynote speaker arrived he said, “That is an amazingly generous offer and yes please. And I’m a big fan of independent bookstores, by the way.”

It was a win-win-win. The speaker got to talk to people in a structured setting after his keynote; the people attending could buy books they wanted to read; and I sold – HANDSOLD – fiction with the author at my left elbow. Believe it or not, bookslingers LOVE to handsell; doing it in tandem with the author just doesn’t happen every day. At one point a sweet lady asked for one “with the least possible horror content” and I reached for SPEAKING IN TONGUES.

“Oh no, no, this one,” said Monsieur Deaver, picking up another – might have been TWELFTH CARD but I couldn’t swear to it. (Is this the moment to admit I haven’t read them all?) We depleted the stock of titles to about 1/3 in just 30 minutes. It was handselling on steroids, and it sure was fun.

temp welch IIJeffery Deaver is a very pleasant person, quick to generosity toward an offer not every author would have appreciated, invested in his readers while signing. He asked people about their own works-in-progress, chatted about the day’s speakers, and generally gave off a laid-back cheerfulness in the face of a rather long line. He then personally authorized (and illustrated) a book for Our Good Chef Kelley at Second Story Cafe. Who was the teensy bit jealous that I had spent the afternoon with her favorite author.

Judging by how his characters die, one might not peg Jeffery Deaver, bestselling thriller writer, for a mellow, pleasant individual with a passion for Celtic folk music. But he is, and it was a delightful afternoon.

Thanks Mr. Deaver!

1 Comment

Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, small town USA, VA, Wendy Welch