Category Archives: writing

The Monday Book: VINEGAR GIRL by Anne Tyler

This week’s review comes from crowd favorite Paul Garrett –

anne tyler

Dr. Battista, an obscure researcher of autoimmune disorders, has been slaving away in obscurity, almost forgotten by his employer, Johns Hopkins University. Now he feels he is on the verge of the breakthrough he has been searching for all his professional life. There is only one problem: Pyotr, his research assistant and right arm is about to lose his visa and be forced to return to the Eastern European country of his birth. Dr. Battista is terrified that all his work will go down the tubes (pun intended? Maybe, maybe not.) without Pyotr there. He hatches a plan to save his project and his lab assistant. All that has to happen is for Pyotr to marry Dr. Battista’s daughter.

Nobody thought to ask his daughter.

Kate Battista is a tall lanky girl approaching what used to quaintly be called spinsterhood. Almost thirty with no love interest and no prospects, she spends her days gardening, working as a teaching assistant at a preschool and looking after her widowed father and younger sister. She is awkward socially and has a habit of saying exactly what is on her mind, to the detriment of her relationships with just about everybody, especially the parents of the little crumb crunchers who are entrusted to her care.

Anne Tyler’s novel Vinegar Girl (Hogarth, 2016) Is a nod to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as the poor and equally awkward Pyotr, along with the help of his boss try to woo the standoffish Kate.

Tyler is one of the few authors (along with Kurt Vonnegut) who can make me laugh out loud.  Her tragicomic style is on full display as the characters careen from one mishap and plot twist to the next.  The rehearsal dinner scene alone makes the book worthwhile.

Unlike in T.C. Boyle’s preachy Tortilla Curtain, Tyler avoids the controversies of the American immigration system, preferring to stick to the Shakespearian template and leave the intellectual heavy lifting to others.

This is a small volume for Tyler, but she manages to pack it full of her normal cadre of oddballs, miscues and mishaps. The story ends with an odd (for today’s audience) soliloquy on the plight of men in society.

The book’s brevity may be the only drawback, as Tyler felt the need to add an extensive epilogue. Brief or not, Tyler fans won’t be disappointed.

 

 

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The Monday Book: A FORGOTTEN PLACE by Charles Todd

The last of our Todd reviews – we hope you’ve discovered some new series ideas!

A FORGOTTEN PLACE: Unforgettable!Forgotten place

 

Looking at the cover of this book, if you are an avid follower of Bess Crawford (British WW1 nurse who has been to the front line in France many times), you have to wonder what sort of post-war trouble the heroine will encounter.  You can tell she is in a desolate place, a surprise since the story picks up after the Armistice in 1918 and her return to England.  Bess is looking away from the reader, and you expect her to turn her head and ask you where you’ve been and what took you so long to arrive. It isn’t your fault it takes so long to get your hands on the book that follows A Casualty of War (2017, Harper Collins/Wm Morrow, ISBN 978-0-06-267878-2), but you cannot tell her that.  You just go with her into the depths of a forgotten Welsh village named Caudle, located on the Gower Peninsula.  And I promise, you will not sleep a wink until you get to the end of this book because the darkness of it seems far worse than the Great War itself.

Bess Crawford’s work in France is done when Matron sends her back to England with a Welsh unit commanded by Captain Williams.  Every man is an amputee, and as they are miners, they have no future in their coal mine village. Bess is worried about her charges and goes to Wales to check on them—without informing her parents or friends of her intentions. By the time she arrives in the village where Captain Williams said he’d be, almost everyone in the Welsh unit is deceased, and she hurries to Caudle to check on the Captain when she finds out he left to help his widowed sister-in-law with her meager sheep farm.

From the moment of her arrival, you realize that every word you read moves Bess, the Captain, and Rachel (his sister-in-law) closer to danger, closer to death.  But you cannot help yourself because the story is so compelling, and the characters of the village make life dark and dangerous.  There is jealousy, greed, several brutal murders, and neighbors who watch Bess’s every move.  She is stranded in Caudle, a guest in Rachel’s home, and each day she digs for the truth about the village, the residents, and the dark secret they have kept through many generations.

The storms and murders, and the residents’ unwillingness to let Bess leave the village or settle with her lot because her parents and Sergeant-Major Simon Brandon do not know her whereabouts, make you stakeholder in her resolve to get to the bottom of a mystery and survive.  You, the passive participant in this adventure, cannot stop puzzling over the characters, the clues, and the desire to find a murderer before Bess, the Captain, and Rachel come to any great harm or end up buried in an unmarked grave near the Rectory or tossed into the angry sea to wash ashore weeks later.

The village has a secret it protects. Newcomers are not welcome. No stranger leaves alive, and you set your jaw and resolve to make sure Bess Crawford gets away before the killer gets away with murder. Hers.  When Simon discovers her whereabouts, you want to relax and see how it all falls into place, but you cannot—because he has to leave temporarily, and it is up to you to stand watch as you read.  Before he returns, Bess has to figure out a way to protect the villagers and their dark secrets without letting the killer get away.

As it is with all Bess Crawford novels, you marvel at A Forgotten Place because the last pages are a reveal that leaves you in awe.  Even if you think you know it all, you discover you do not!  When Bess leaves Caudle and heads home, you wonder if you stand to live the year in your time while she moves within a few weeks of hers. You want her to settle down and stay out of harm’s way, but you cannot resist counting the days until the next Bess Crawford mystery is in your hands.

 

 

 

About the Reviewer:

Liz Phillips is a middle school educator and writer living in Southwest Virginia, another forgotten place. Contact her at lizphillips.author@gmail.com.

 

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The Monday Book: A CASUALTY OF WAR by Charles Todd

This week’s Monday Book comes from writer Lizbeth Phillips, author of a pending YA fantasy series set in Abingdon.

A CASUALTY OF WAR toddby Charles Todd

(2017, Harper Collins/Wm Morrow, 377 pages)

ISBN 978-0-06-267878-2

The Great War: Living Casualties and Murder

 

Bess Crawford, a British nurse stationed at the front lines in France during the Great War, understands that the Armistice is just weeks away. Yet, the fighting continues.  On her way to the front line after her orders are changed, she meets an English officer, Captain Alan Travis, who is from a plantation on the island of Barbados in the Caribbean.  After a cup of tea, they part ways, but their brief encounter sets the novel into motion.

In the midst of all the gunfire, Captain Alan Travis arrives at a medical station with a bullet graze that skimmed his skull.  He tells her that his cousin, Lieutenant James Travis, shot him as Germans were fleeing Allied forces. He is sent back to the front lines after being patched up.

He returns in an ambulance days later with the same claim about his cousin.  Bess is curious about his unusual case and decides to investigate as the war comes to its end. She discovers the accused was dead when the shootings took place, but she cannot believe Captain Travis is lying or has lost his mind.  Who shot at him if it was not his cousin?  The war ends, and Captain Travis is evacuated to England to be treated at a brain injury hospital.

When she finds time, Bess travels to check on Captain Travis and discovers he is locked up for a brain injury and shell shock.  Everyone thinks he has lost his mind. Everyone but Bess.

Determined to prove the officer has not lost his mind, she follows leads to expose the truth about cousin James Travis, a complex family history, and greed that threatens the Captain’s life.  She will not stop until she has the truth, even when she puts herself in grave danger.

A Casualty of War drives the reader to the realization that the war is over, but the fighting at home has just begun.  Dark deeds committed under the umbrella of war have come home to England to haunt villages and to taunt Bess Crawford in hopes she will give up.

 

 

 

About the Reviewer:

Liz Phillips is a middle school educator and writer living in a forgotten corner of Southwest Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains. Contact her at lizphillips.author@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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The Monday Book: ARE THESE MY BASOOMAS I SEE BEFORE ME by Louise Rennison

basoomasLouise Rennison wrote ten books about her heroine Georgia Nicholson, a typical English teen who kept adults laughing. From titles like Away Laughing on a Fast Camel to Then He Ate My Boy Entrancers, she captured the worst of being 15 and made it funny.

I got the last of the Georgia books out of our local library a week or two ago, just to see if the magic held. Yep. Georgia utters lines like “Everyone is so obsessed with themselves nowadays that they have no time for me” and “He said, ‘Hi, gorgeous,’ which I think is nice. I admire honesty” with her usual bluster and bravado.

Plots aren’t really a part of the Georgia mystique, although this one is ostensibly about putting on a production of Hamlet at the all-girls Catholic school. Really, though, each book is about boys, snogging, lip gloss, and great shoes. It’s just that Rennison is soooooo funny you don’t care. Each book is written like a diary, with entries such as

12:01 “I hate him.”

12:04 “Hate is a bit strong. He just rang up and asked me out again.”

That kind of sappy, hormone-driven humor has always been Rennison’s strong point, but apparently when writing Basoomas, she knew she was finishing the series, because where she’d held back before, she didn’t this time. All her books had a gentleness toward sex and snogging that let teachers at least pretend they could be used in literature class, but Basoomas never misses a joke. Talking about the band finishing up practice, “I waited while the Lurve God put away his equipment. (Leave it.)”

Etc. etc. for a hundred pages or so. If you want some escapist, snort soda through your nose laugh out loud fun, pick up a Louise Rennison novel. She died in 2016, so enjoy the ten that are around, and have fun.

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The Monday Book: WE NEED NEW NAMES by NoViolet Bulawayo

bulawayoI got this book out of the library on CD to keep my company careening up and down I-81. It was very good company indeed.

The opening chapter was the winner in a short story contest, and sets up the whole theme of the book: the innocence of children observing the folly of white people trying to “save” Zimbabwe (and a neighboring country or two). The whole book is one long lesson in irony. Had she taken a different approach to the writing, Bulawayo’s book could have been non-fiction history. Or horror.

One of the best features of her writing is how the children who are its heroes run through the insanity around them. They find a woman who hung herself because she had AIDS, and take her shoes to buy bread because they’re hungry. They run to meet the NGO truck that passes out toy guns without food. They lament that they no longer go to school because life is so boring, then they play “funeral,” imitating the machete-hacking death of a local leader who encouraged the citizens of the “Paradise” refugee village to vote. When the BBC crew that covered the actual funeral find them playing this game, they are horrified.

Not the children. They are living their lives in the circumstances surrounding them, watching the crazy go down with the sweet, confused, triumphant, intent on getting food and staying out of trouble for the most part. Not unlike the adults around them, just a little less aware of the subtleties.

I actually recommend this novel to people writing about trauma, because it shows how the voices of children narrating terrible things can make space for people to read about it without blaming the narrator or the writer. (It takes the me-me-me out of memoir.) That said, I don’t want to cheapen what Bulawayo has accomplished here. More than using innocence to point out guilt, shame, horror, she’s written with an internal voice of honest brutality that comes off as gentle. Her writing is lovely. What she’s writing about is not, on two levels: the violence of a country coming apart, and the whiteness that haunts both its dissolution and its recovery.

In a quest to be “woke,” several of my friends have begun a challenge: reading books or watching movies that represent African or Caribbean voices without white saviors. Bulawayo’s books should be at the top of this list.

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Elwyn (by James Ryan)

As reported earlier, the short story competition was a close run thing. James Ryan’s was the first entry to arrive –

“Ahhhhhhhhhh….free at last.” How many seasons have I been lying under that bush? I hope it’s been long enough so that damned cat is dead. I don’t mean to sound like an animal hater but, it’s hard not to hate someone who buries you under a bush after peeing in your face. Don’t laugh. It was not funny at all. I’m not sure how many seasons went by before the smell left. I suppose I should be thankful that he didn’t do the other thing on me. If he had, I would probably still be stinking. Yuck!

I know you’re wondering what and who I am. My name is Elwyn and I am a Sylvan. Sylvans are associated with trees and bushes. We can be found in any woodland of any size. Our job is to keep the forest in good working order. It was my misfortune to be caught by the cat that day. Normally, I stayed high enough in the trees not to be in any danger. That day I was on the ground straightening an oak seedling that had been stepped on by a large bear the night before. It was a tiring job and when I finished, I leaned against a rock to rest from my labors. The sun was warm and the leaves were so comfortable that I fell asleep almost immediately.

The next thing I knew I was in the cat’s mouth and being carried towards the house in the distance. Talk about being scared. I was sure I was going to be eaten alive. He carried me to the bush in the yard where he played with me as if I were a ball. He batted me around and every time I tried to get away, he would let me get far enough to get my hopes up, then he would pounce on me again. He finally grew tired and went to sleep. Unfortunately for me, he went to sleep with his paw on my chest. I was just glad he had stopped throwing me around. After a while I started thinking about getting free.

The problem was that his foot was rather large and heavy. And every time I tried to move, his claws would extend and keep me where I was. I’m not quite sure how long he lay there sleeping, but it must have been several hours. I didn’t really mind because it gave me time to rest and begin to feel better about the whole thing. So far, I wasn’t dead or crippled up beyond recovery. So, I spent the time thinking of ways to escape. However, as hard as I tried, nothing came to mind.

The cat suddenly sat up, yawned, picked me up and carried me further under the bush where he dug a hole threw me in it and pissed in my face. Then he covered me up and there I stayed until the lady found me.  NOW PUT ME BACK INTO THE WOODS!

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The Monday Book: EVERY BITTER THING by Monica Wood

woodIt is SO GOOD when you discover not just a book you like but a new author whose other books you intend to hunt down. Monica Wood has a lovely poetic way of writing. Lyrical, that overused term, comes to mind.

The premise of her novel Any Bitter Thing is that a priest winds up raising his niece after a tragic car accident, and another accident years later, in her adulthood, brings many things to light.

You know I love a character-driven book, and for the most part the bouncy protagonist’s little girl grown into a woman drives it. And for the most part everything is believable in how people make decisions, and yet there’s an undercurrent of one step removed from the characters.

For instance, when the priest is falling for one of his parishoners, does she use this and him to get something she needs, or is it accidental? The question is left unanswered in the book. You have to rely on how the characters acted to make your own decision.

Wood authored a few other novels I plan to find at the library, but meanwhile, lose yourself in Any Bitter Thing. It’s got a surprisingly heavy plot for such gentle writing, and yet it feels like relaxing with an old friend. The kind of book you have a cup of tea with, and try not to think too hard about people you knew who remind you of these characters.

 

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