Books I Want To Read Before The Summer’s Over

It’s nearly the end of August but Summer’s not over yet, despite what the Halloween candy in the grocery store has been screaming at me. (If I, an autumn-obsessed witch, say it’s too early… it’s way too early.)

I was reading a stack of New York Times Book Reviews from the past few weeks, and a few titles I’d not considered earlier jumped out at me. So before Summer breathes his last humid gasps, I want to check these brand-new-ish books off my list. They were all featured in recent NYTBRs, so check those out for the in-depth reviews.

The Government Lake – Last Poems by James Tate

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I don’t know much about poetry. As proof of this: I didn’t know who James Tate was until after his death. But these seem fascinating, rather prose-y, more like ideas and fragments than proper verse. I’m keen to give them a try, and will probably try more of his work later. We shall see!

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Recursion by Blake Crouch

This one might be a little too intense for me, as it has neuroscience as a major plot point, but I’m curious to finally read a Blake Crouch book after Dark Matter got so many good reviews. More appealingly, Victor Lavalle reviewed Recursion in the NYTBR and I will try anything that he deems worthwhile.

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Stay And Fight by Madeline ffitch

I don’t know if this book can possibly be as good as I think it will be, based on the power of the title alone. I just love the phrase “stay and fight.” I want a poster for my bedroom. Anyway, this is about an urban millennial who decides to settle in Appalachian Ohio. Pipelines encroach and parenting is questioned… it sounds good.

I still need at least one seafaring adventure for my trip to Acadia national park in September, but these three will likely be in my bag as well. (On that note, anything similar to Treasure Island!!! or We Are Pirates that’s escaped my notice this year? I’ve got my eye on When We Were Vikings but it’s not quite nautical enough to satisfy this very particular itch.)

Audiobook review: There’s A Word For That by Sloane Tanen

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Star Ratings:

Story: 4/5

Writing: 3/5

Characters: 5/5

Audio recording: 4/5

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I listened to There’s A Word For That via Libro.fm, which I recommend enthusiastically. A percentage of all purchases helps out indie bookshops! Please go check them out.

This was very much an impulse download; I needed something distracting and contemporary to temper all the unhappy classics I’ve been reading lately.  While I thought the story sounded interesting  — love me a dysfunctional family, any day — I didn’t expect to get so hooked!

Here’s the publisher’s summary of the book:

Introducing the Kesslers: Marty, a retired LA film producer whose self-worth has been eroded by age and a late-in-life passion for opioids; his daughter Janine, former child star suffering the aftereffects of a life in the public eye; and granddaughter Hailey, the “less-than” twin sister, whose inferiority complex takes a most unexpected turn. Nearly six thousand miles away, in London, celebrated author Bunny Small, Marty’s long-forgotten first wife, has her own problems: a “preposterous” case of writer’s block, a monstrous drinking habit, and a son who has fled halfway around the world to escape her.

When Marty’s pill-popping gets out of hand and Bunny’s boozing reaches crisis proportions, a perfect storm of dysfunction brings them all together at Directions, Malibu’s most exclusive and absurd rehab center.

The plot is essentially just that: a family and its satellites hash out their long-festering problems when things finally come to a head at rehab. While the psychology of recovery isn’t necessarily the subject of the whole book, it certainly drives up the stakes and gives each character’s journey emotional clarity.

I hesitate to call There’s A Word For That a comedy, since addiction; suicide; depression; and teenage angst all feature heavily, but I’m sorely tempted to do so. A few moments had me laughing out loud, and many others made me smile, sometimes ironically, sometimes due to the optimism that shines through on every page. This is ultimately a hopeful book about overcoming past obstacles, enjoying the flawed present for what it is, and looking towards the future. I was rooting for each character (especially Janine and Bunny, my favorites) as they faced their self-made demons and cracked jokes along the way.

Therese Plummer does a great job narrating the audiobook with only a few minor exceptions. Her voices for each member of the Kessler family were totally spot-on, from Marty’s ironic old man voice to Amanda’s high-strung, self-important chatter. Bunny and Martin were each unique as well, I only wish the British accents had been better. But once I got over that hiccup, I couldn’t get enough of their chapters.

Bunny, a famous and acerbic writer with a penchant for gin, put words to so many of my secret complaints about the world. She was a ferocious delight. Honestly, I would read an entire book just about her.

Give There’s A Word For That a listen if you like Arrested Development, California sunshine, screwed up families, and a drink or two.

Staff Pick: The Changeling by Victore Lavalle

My most recent staff pick at the bookshop:

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Victor Lavalle mixes family drama, horror, folklore, and vivid realism in this absolutely gripping novel about parenthood and American culture. Appollo Kagwa is a “book man” and a father, devoted to his wife Emma and their newborn baby. But Emma’s postpartum depression soon turns into something far more terrifying, and she vanishes with Appollo’s son into unknown and fantastical parts of New York. His journey to find them brings him to the edge of reason, while the people he meets prove that there’s more to America than what fits into the boundaries of imagination. This book is startling and sweet, haunting and harrowing. Highly recommended for fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Currently Reading: Courting Darkness by Robin LaFevers

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Remember how much I liked Grave Mercy? It was years ago, and I never wrote reviews for the other two books in Robin LaFever’s excellent His Fair Assassin trilogy, but the stories of Ismae, Sybella, and Annith have stuck with me for ages and have, quite honestly, made other historical fantasies pale in comparison. So imagine my joy when I saw, newly arrived on our YA shelves, Courting Darkness!

I’d been in a book slump ever since finishing Normal People. I needed something gripping, intricate, and not so close to home.  Enter my old assasin-nun friends, the girls I’d grown to love over three books and miss terribly in their absence. Even better, we get to meet new characters with connections to Saint Mortain in Courting Darkness.  I’m already so invested in the betrayals and connections at court, and can’t wait to read more tonight.

It did take me a few minutes to re-adjust myself in the world of 15th century France and Brittany.  Luckily for those of us who don’t have such canny memories, Robin LaFevers’ website has quite a lot of helpful information. A quick break to absorb it all and I was right back in the action (and the romance, and the drama… all that good stuff.)

I’ll try to post an actual review when I’ve finished the book. I imagine it will be soon. It’s been so long since I dove headfirst into a time-period and setting so rich as this, and I’m so happy to be back.

Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

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Sally Rooney’s novels have away of finding me right when I need them most, and they always hurt my feelings.  There’s not much I can say about Normal People that other reviewers haven’t already said, so I’ll be brief.

I liked Conversations With Friends quite a lot when I read it this time last year, though again I took it right to heart and needed a moment to recover after. On the surface, Normal People is very – almost overly – similar, in style and structure especially.  Normal People also focuses on the internal workings of some complicated and intense relationships. The settings are even similar: Trinity College, a summer house abroad…  But Rooney’s already good writing has improved tenfold in this second offering. Her characters feel so real I miss them. And the joys and anguish they suffer through, though dramatic, are flawless mirrors held up to the experiences of so many individuals learning to be adults and trying to be people.

The plot, quickly, is as follows: Connell and Marianne are schoolmates in county Sligo. He’s quiet but popular, concerned about how others perceive him, secretly intellectual.  She’s friendless and refuses to alter her abrasive personality to remedy this. Normally the two of them would never come into contact, but Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house for a living and in this pocket of the world the two become something like friends, something like lovers.  The narrative skips ahead days, weeks, months every chapter to show us the progressions and regressions of their entanglement. Eventually, both characters are students at Trinity, where Marianne has found herself among like-minded people and Connell feels isolated. Though their circumstances have changed, their fraught reliance on one another has not.

We follow Marianne through abuse, genius, friendships, and attempted self-destruction. We watch Connell struggle with class, creativity, love, and depression. All the while, I was desperately hoping they’d be there for each other. And sometimes they are.

Even though the characters in Normal People are teenagers, it’s definitely a book for adults. I would have enjoyed it as a young person, but part of the magic here is that they were slightly younger than me, and I felt oddly protective of their feelings even while they were destroying mine.  (There’s also quite a lot of sex and misery, so, like, not a book for people under 13.)

It will take me a few weeks to get my heart back on straight(ish) after reading this.  Normal People comes out in the states this April. Buy it – locally! independently! – and fall right in.

Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Writing:**** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Tana French said in an interview: “You can be a perfectly healthy person without having kids or having a romantic relationship – you can live a full, happy, healthy life. I’m not sure you can do that without friends.”

Well, I’m not sure if I’d call the group of girls in The Secret Place healthy or happy, necessarily, but there’s no denying that their lives are full, full, full.

Full of each other: Holly, Julia, Selena, and Rebecca don’t care what anybody else thinks. They have each other, a stolen key to the door out of St. Kilda’s, and a vow to stay away from boys while together at school. The four girls consider their group a family, their lives at the prestigious Dublin boarding school the best they could imagine. A future without each other is not worth thinking about – the important things are now. here. together.

Full of magic: chilly nights in a moonlit cyprus grove on St Kilda’s grounds. Light bulbs that burn out when they will it. Something they all feel, four different ways: a balance that needs to be kept at all costs.

Full of secrets. Someone falls in love. Someone meddles. Someone else thinks she knows how to put things right. Someone can’t keep what she suspects to herself. The girls, in trying to keep each other safe, stop sharing everything.

* * * * * * * * * *

Last year, Chris Harper was found dead on the grounds, killed with a garden tool to the head. The groundskeeper they arrested after the fact didn’t do it, but with no other clues, the lead detectives moved on.

Then Holly Mackey goes to the police with a card off St. Kilda’s confessional post board, “The Secret Place.” Unlike the boob jobs and shoplifting on most cards to be found there, this one has a photo of Chris and the message “I know who killed him.”

This is detective Stephen Moran’s chance to get out of Cold Cases and into Murder. He knows Holly from when she was a witness in a case years ago. (I guess this was in French’s previous book, The Faithful Place, which I haven’t read.) Moran figures he can get the St. Kilda’s girls comfortable enough to talk to him, while the belligerent, insensitive, ultra-clever Antoinette Conway takes charge. Conway’s not easy or fun, but she could be his ticket into Murder. Dodging Mrs. McKenna’s iron rule over the students and reputation of St. Kilda’s, the two of them narrow their pool of interest down to eight girls. Two cliques: Holly’s friends and the bitch-princess Joanna Heffernan’s. While they originally suspect one of these girls as the confessional card maker, one excruciating day investigating and interrogating leads them to be sure that one of the eight girls is actually their murderer. No amount of Stephen’s charm or Conway’s doggedness will get the truth out easily, though, because these girls will lie to protect their own even when they don’t know the truth themselves.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Secret Place dragged me into its claustrophobic little world after around fifty pages, and was constantly on my mind. Police procedurals aren’t my usual jam at all, but I’d heard great things about Tana French, and this book in particular. Someone at a dinner party recommended The Secret Place during a conversation about how much we all loved boarding school books. Her suggestion was so spot on.

The novel’s timeline was spliced up interestingly: the detectives’ time on campus takes place over one single day, while alternating chapters lay out the whole year previous to their involvement. I’ll admit that whenever a sentence stated, so casually, “Chris Harper has X number of weeks to live,” I felt a little chill. Once the story hooked me, the St. Kilda’s girls, the Colm’s boys, even the hallowed halls seemed like my own personal acquaintances. Such a reminder of cruel fate seemed unfair.

 Unfairness is a prevailing theme, here. When a girl tries to do the right thing, or makes a difficult choice, things should work out for the best from then on. They are so loyal, the believe so hard, and the damned world just doesn’t reciprocate. I’m only just growing out of those convictions myself, and it’s painful. Tana French has done a wonderful job balancing between cold realism and sympathy in showing how teenage girls’ inner lives can’t protect them forever.

There were, of course, some things I didn’t understand. I haven’t read any of the other Dublin Murder Squad books, so the stuff about Holly’s past as a witness left me curious. Our main gang of girls – the four we live with for a year and more – develop some strange powers that may or may not be real, but we’re left hanging on the subject by the end. I liked the surreal touch of magic, myself, but I wonder if more specific crime readers might find it frustrating. Detective Moran’s easy repartee with young people didn’t quite match up with his calculating, almost desperate, interior monologue.

The detecting chapters that didn’t focus intensely on the girls or the school weren’t nearly so vivid as the chapters leading up to the murder, though I did love the alternating format as sometimes it let the reader know more than the characters, sometimes less. Sometimes I thought I knew something, only to learn one hundred pages on that I was very wrong indeed. You’ll never have a chance to get comfortable while reading this book, but you’ll want to stay in it for a long time anyway.

* * * * * * * * * *

This is the first book to grab me and not let me go since I finished The Raven Cycle while I was in Scotland. Tana French’s writing isn’t quite so sharp and lyrical as Maggie Stiefvater’s, but she has a similar grasp on the intense bonds of friendship, the lengths to which which teenagers are willing to go, the real magic of secrets and trust. This is definitely a book written for adults, but older teenagers still nursing a series-hangover after The Raven King might find some distraction in the dorm rooms and midnight grounds of St. Kilda’s.

I’ll finish now with a stanza from the Katherine Philips poem that hangs over Rebecca’s bed in their dorm room, because it is so appropriate:

“Why should we entertain a feare?

Love cares not how the world is turn’d.

If crowds of dangers should appeare,

Yet friendship can be unconcern’d.”

Near the end of the book, Detective Moran remembers that poem, but its meaning has chanced after they face three hundred pages of secrets and revelations:

“…That doesn’t mean nothing bad can happen, if you’ve got proper friends. It just means you can take whatever goes wrong, as long as you’ve got the. They matter more.” (p. 429)

So much bad happens in this story. But the sentiment proves true, and so we never fall into complete despair: they matter more. Intense? Yes. Unsustainable? Maybe. Who cares? The Secret Place reminded me how real and powerful even the smallest details can be when you’re young and your friends are your entire world. So even the wild overreactions and incomprehensible lies make sense. It’s all to protect something too rare and magical and important to let go without a fight.

YA Books To Buy For Your Graduation Gifts

I’m away from the Somewhat United States at the moment, ceilidh dancing in Edinburgh and haunting my old haunts in St Andrews, but high school students all over America are getting ready to graduate within the next few weeks.  Congratulations to you all, especially to the young adults who are regulars at my bookshop.  I’m terribly proud.

It will come as no surprise that I recommend books for everyone’s graduation gift-giving needs.  Buy them from your local independent bookshop!  Fun, fast, creative YA novels are especially good for the end of the school year.  Seize the five seconds of not being a student anymore, before whatever further studies await, to treat your brain to something purely enjoyable.

Here are a few YA books that would make nice presents.  They’re clever, they’re intriguing, and they have wonderful characters.  Buy all three and your local bookseller might even gift wrap them for you.

The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

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Not only has Patrick Ness created a group of friends who deserve six seasons of their own television show, he’s put them into a brilliant spoof of popular YA fiction trends.   Mikey and his friends just want to graduate high school and get on with their lives, but the “indie kids” in their school keep having to save the world from vampires or zombies or whatever eerie blue lights keep showing up in the darkness.  Patrick Ness’s subversion of the “chosen one” trend is witty and charming but also tremendously moving. Mikey, Mel, Henna, and Jared all have to fight their own battles in terms of mental health and identity, while the fantastical events around theme act as mere backdrop. I loved the notion of focusing on kids who aren’t the “chosen ones,” but just have to live there, doing their best to fall in love and find their place while the world keeps falling apart around them.  Give this book to someone who has already read a ton of YA – fantasy or realistic or both – and wants something totally unique for the summer.

2. Rebel Of The Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

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For someone who has already read all the fantasy books you can think of, or someone who is tired of Euro-centric settings for their magical worlds, try this new gun-slinging adventure inspired by the 1001 Arabian Nights.  It’s the best of American Westerns (sharp shooters, fights on speeding trains) mixed with Middle Eastern mythology.  Amani needs to get out of her dead-end town, Dustwalk, where her dead mother’s family hates her and the best she can hope for us an unhappy marriage.  In secret, Amani is one of the best shots around, when she’s disguised, sneaking around at night, “not up to no good,” but not “exactly up to no bad, neither.” Her chance to escape comes raging into town in the form of Jin, a fugitive and a foreigner.  Amani sees Jin as a way out.  He looks at her strange eyes and her unusual talents and sees powerful origins that might not yet be known to herself.  Rebel Of The Sands picks up speed and keeps racing across the desert to a rebel camp, creatures from stories, and a clashing of forces that will broaden Amani’s world farther than she used to ever imagine.  I was happily swept away into Alwyn Hamilton’s exciting new fantasy realm.  Amani is a heroine to cheer for, and I think determined graduates who want to get away and see wonders will love her story.  Mythology nerds and action lovers will dig this one.

3. The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

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The Raven Cycle is seriously the best YA series I’ve read in over a decade.  The final installment just came out, so buy it for the graduates you know who have followed Blue and her Raven Boys to the ends of the earth and beyond.  If they haven’t started the series yet, do them a favor and buy them all four.  The character development, the intense magic, the sharp dialogue, and the creative use of Welsh mythology are absolutely out of this world.  In this final installment in the quartet, all the mystifying, intricate threads from the previous books come together to weave a web that’s beautiful and heart-breaking.  Maggie Stiefvater is a master writer.  Give her books to the literature devotees in your life, or the kids who made intense groups of friends and can’t imagine a life without them.

 

Unhappy Women Being Mysterious In Paris part II: Unbecoming

Earlier this month I noticed that my reading habits had taken on a brief trend: books about secretive young woman hiding from their problems in Paris.  Patrick Modiano’s In The Café Of Lost Youth introduced me to the inscrutable, magnetic, restless Louki.  The book’s three other narrators found themselves consumed with interest in Louki’s past, her motivations, and her preference for the “neutral zones” in Paris, where everything seems either suspended or in transit.  The next book I picked up to read was Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm.  It so transpired that Unbecoming also features a secretive, no-entirely-heroic female protagonist who tries to hide by melting into the Paris scenery.

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Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

Star Rating:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

“The first lie Grace had told Hanna was her name.” That’s the first line in Unbecoming.  Grace was the beautiful, accommodating, clever girl from Garland, Tennessee.  In Paris, she introduces herself as Julie “because it was sweet and easy on the French tongue.”   Already, we’re focused on a woman lying about her name in Paris.  Excellent.

The tense descriptions of Grace’s furtive life in Paris immediately made me curious about what had happened in Tennessee to make her so determinedly ignore-able. In a small antique refurbishment workshop, with only her co-worker as anything like a friend, Grace repairs gold plating, oils hinges, and worries constantly that the boys she knew in Garland will find her.  In between scenes at Parisian flea markets and intriguing peeps into the goings-on at Zanuso et Filles (where not all the antiques are necessarily being repaired), hints at Grace’s reasons for leaving America transform into the real story.

The real story is that Grace wanted to be part of Riley Graham’s perfect, loving family ever since she was a child.  The real story is that she learned how to be a good girlfriend, a good daughter-in-law, a good member of the group, and perfected it to an art form.  Grace’s motivations for this assimilation into a life of Southern charm were largely innocent – the scenes in which she adores Mrs. Graham’s lifestyle and looks after Riley’s feelings show how sweet she can be – but in her practice at becoming what other people want her to be, she honed how to use her skills of manipulation more seriously.

Falling in love with Riley’s best friend definitely wasn’t part of the plan, but it shakes Grace up so much that her relationship struggles lead to a bigger, badder, better plan: robbing the historic Wynn house for it’s overlooked valuables.  With her knowledge from a stint with antiques at college in NYC, Riley’s unimaginative but impressive painting techniques, and two slightly unhinged cohorts (one of them Alls, the aforementioned best friend) the nervy crew of teenagers sets about to pull a heist that goes from a funny hypothetical to potential disaster real fast.  Not everyone can hold up under the pressure.  When the boys get caught, Grace hopes that she’ll be able to disappear from the town’s memory in Europe, but the two men get let out on parole right where the first chapter of Unbecoming begins.  We don’t know who Grace is afraid of, but she’s sure one of them will try to find her, and she desperately does not want to be found.

Grace’s morally ambiguous, totally conniving mind kept me racing to catch up with her every step of the way in this gripping but occasionally over-dramatic debut novel.  I don’t know if I liked Grace by the end of the book, but I was always interested to see what steps she would take to ensure her own security.  The best moments, in my opinion, were the ones in which the (anti?)heroine recognizes what sort of person would succeed in a situation, then takes careful internal steps to become that person.  The idyllic Graham house could have seemed too cloying had not their comfortable family scenes been shown through the lens of Grace’s intense desire to play a role in their daily life.  Grace’s introduction to the outlandish world of New York art students almost had me convinced that she was really an innocent country girl at heart, had she not then betrayed the only truly innocent country heart in the whole novel soon after.  Even in Paris, where I thought she was trying to become a better person, Grace – or Julie – has a really big trick up her sleeve.

The plot twists weren’t nearly so clever as those in The Goldfinch, which stopped my heart, but Unbecoming does have a plot that might appeal to fans of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer winner.  This is a much lighter book, without the deft touches of characterization, but there’s old stuff and plotting and best friends who make enemies superfluous. Plus, women being mysterious in Paris!  The differences between Garland – where everyone knew everyone, where Riley painted pictures of beloved buildings that the whole town called “art”, where Grace thought she would be a good wife in her favorite family – and Paris were jarring and nicely done.  I closed the book feeling a little annoyed at the note on which it ended, which was satisfying if not terribly thoughtful, but I also wished, at the end, that Grace had been able to experience Paris the way she dreamed she would: with her husband, loving the scenery, absorbing the art.

That’s not how unhappy women being mysterious in Paris end up, though.  Grace gets what she deserves, and I’ll admit that the person she becomes at the end of Unbecoming is much more her style – more glamorous, happily manipulative, and even more mysterious than before.

Unhappy Women Being Mysterious In Paris Part I : In The Café Of Lost Youth

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In The Café Of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

Star Rating:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

When one of my favorite regulars at the Bookshop recently asked me what I’d been reading, the only thing I could think to say was, “Mostly novels about unhappy women being mysterious in Paris.” What a genre! It turns out that there are all sorts of enjoyable books on the subject, and for a week I was stuck on them. Something about the notion of disappearing into a city full of history and art, seedy cafes and “neutral zones,” clearly appeals to morose young women struck by wanderlust. Louki and Grace (from Unbecoming, the next book I will review) feel it as they try to camouflage themselves within the scenery in their novels. And I felt it too, reading from my unseasonably damp corner of New England.

In The Café Of Lost Youth is the first Modiano novel I’ve read, though he blipped onto my radar with his Nobel Prize win in 2014. It’s a short little book, just over a hundred pages, but reading it made me feel like I’ve lived in Paris for years. The novel is broken into four sections, each narrated by a different character, but it all revolves around Louki, “the waiflike figure” who draws their interest like planets circling a sun. Even the section narrated by Louki makes her only more attractively unfathomable. Aside from Louki, In The Café Of Lost Youth also considers the places where the atmosphere broadcasts exactly what part of Paris you are in versus the places where time has no dominion.

“There was a series of transitional zones in Paris, no man’s lands where we were on the border of everything else, in transit, or even held suspended. Within, we benefitted from a certain kind of immunity. I might have called them free zones, but neutral zones was more precise.” (p 83)

These neutral zones could exist anywhere, and it’s easy to see their appeal to people looking to hide out from their pasts. Louki, who makes a habit of disappearing from whatever family life begins to form around her, sort of becomes the patron saint of these places. Roland, who struggles to put his thoughts about these spaces into words, is powerfully moved by their potential, struck by their propensity for the “eternal return”. On the other hand, certain scenes near the Moulin Rouge; on certain hilly streets; or in the cafe where we meet our characters for the first time, are so vivid they could never be neutral for a moment.

I particularly like the first narrator’s description of the Conde; he a shy student entranced by the regulars:

“Along with Le Bouquet and La Pergola, it was one of the cafes in the neighborhood that closed the latest, and the one with the strangest clientele. I often ask myself now that time has passed, if it wasn’t her presence alone that gave this place and these people their strangeness, as if she had impregnated them all with her scent.” (p 7)

I’ve no clue if the characters make the settings in this book, or if the settings amplify the characters, but the sense of place is a fine reflection of both. While the writing occasionally becomes sorrowful, hung up on the unattainable past, Modiano finds the perfect location for every scene and redeems the tone with astonishing details.

After reading, I learned that some of the characters were real people among the political and bohemian set in 1950s Paris. Ed van der Elsken’s photos are a great illustration of the novel’s atmosphere and characters. Not knowing the first thing about the theoretical groups of this time period didn’t stop me from enjoying the abstract conversations and tangled gossip at Condé. Being a chronic cafe-dweller myself, I relished every scene that took place at regulars’ tables or in garish late night public spaces. The novel, especially the first narrator’s chapter, is immensely satisfying for the eavesdropper in all of us.

My one major gripe with In The Café Of Lost Youth has to do with its conclusion. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that there are a few events which seem to befall beguiling, unpredictable young women in novels written by men. It’s gotten to the point that every time a character such as Louki – ethereal, charming, secretive – gets introduced into a male narrator’s story, I hold my breath and hope she won’t be just another chick who does something drastic, teaching dudes that they can never really know a person. Modiano is a tremendous writer and handled Louki’s character very well, I thought, but he does give her one of the plot twists I was dreading just at the end of the story. Does this make since given her character? Sure. But I still think that enigmatic women deserve a few more options at the end of their stories.

In perusing his Wikipedia page, I’ve learned that the majority of Modiano’s novels deal with the reigning themes I detected in The Cafe. Questioning identity, the puzzling permanence of time, the unknowable nature of people, all in a French accent. (A note: Modiano’s Wikipedia page is actually quite interesting to read.) If all of his books send me into a similar stupor of introspective moodiness, I might wait a while before picking up another one. But I felt right at home among the cafe tables and the midnight streets, so the next time I want a mental trip to vintage Paris, I know where to look.

 

 

Book Review: Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8-14

I’m so excited that Alice Hoffman is putting out another novel for young people!  I loved her books when I was a teenager.  She captures moments of “everyday magic” like fireflies in jars, and puts them on bookshelves to shed light on the little magical corners of mundane life.  Cursed girls, powerful sisters, dangerous misconceptions: these are common, timeless themes in Hoffman’s books.  Nightbird is like a little jam jar, stuffed to the brim with twinkling lights, that can be put on the shelf next to her more weighty books or placed on a child’s windowsill to shine alone.  (Forgive the fireflies in jars metaphor.  Night Bird made me miss the summertime.)

Nightbird is a middle grade book, appropriate for ages 8 and up.  It will come out in March, 2015.  I read an ARC of the book, so some details may change before publication.

Twig lives on an apple orchard with her beautiful mother, who bakes pink pies to be sold at the general store and diner in town.  Sidwell is a small Massachusetts town where everyone knows each other and tries to look out for their neighbors.  But Twig’s mother doesn’t want to socialize with the people in town, no matter how friendly they try to be.  Ever since she moved back home from New York City, without Twig’s father, they’ve kept mostly to themselves.  It’s not because the town will judge them for being a single-parent family; this is a supportive and fairly open-minded place.  The problem is that Twig’s family is cursed.  A witch used to live in Mourning Dove Cottage, next door to Twig’s house, and she took magical revenge upon one of their ancestors way back during the Revolutionary War.  They can’t let anybody find out what they’re hiding.  Mourning Dove Cottage has been abandoned for a long time, but now a family of new neighbors has moved in.  Fun neighbors, with a girl Twig’s age.  Despite her mother’s rule not to hang out with Julia Hall and her glamorous older sister Agate, Twig finds herself pulled into a true friendship for the first time in all her years living in Sidwell.

But there might be a reason for all the secrecy. Their town is supposedly home to a monster.  The Sidwell Monster appears on goofy tourist tee shirts and features in local legends, but there’s definitely something truly strange making appearances and stealing from peoples’ yards.  Strange graffiti has been showing up on rocks in the forest.  Twig knows the woods better than anybody, or so she thinks, but change is stirring among the trees as well as within town.  In between her efforts to keep her family’s secret safe and discover who might be creating the mysterious disturbances, Twig and Julia start learning about Agnes Early’s curse, and how it ties their families together.  The girls are helped by a mysteriously knowledgeable librarian, a secretive journalist who’s new to town, a perceptive old man, and someone (or something) else, as they do their best to keep Sidwell from caving in to old fears and new threats.

Loving Hoffman’s typical themes and patterns as I do, I kind of knew what to expect when I read Nightbird. Good characters, small miracles, and complex family relationships.  It’s a quick book, with a story and setting you can fall into as easily as hopping down from your favorite tree branch.  (Thank goodness it wasn’t terribly long, as I had only one night to read it before attending a dinner to celebrate Hoffman’s new work.  Thank goodness, too, that the book was completely worth celebrating.)   Sidwell was brought to life beautifully; both nature and the town hide sorrow and wonder beneath their surfaces. Parts of it reminded me of my home, even though I’m not very near the Berkshires, just by virtue of that small-town love for a place.  Any town with a wise librarian is a town worth reading about, and Miss Larch does not disappoint.

It’s not a perfect place, of course.  Twig’s mother is right to worry that people would not know how to react to the family’s difficult situation.  But people are generally kind – if overly curious – and little glimpses of extra kindness from a waitress at the Starline Diner, or the kind encouragements from strange old Dr. Shelton, made me wish alongside Twig that her mother would let more people into their secluded life.  Unlike some of Hoffman’s books for adults, there’s no overwhelming sense of persecution in Night Bird: more of a nervous tension brought about by bad communication.  It’s a nice way to create friction in a Middle Grade novel, and a lot more emotionally resonant than the slightly cheap evil villain just likes being wicked tradition that perseveres in some series.

Twig is a steadfast young narrator.  She’ll be an instant kindred spirit to any young readers who have worried that they’ve done something to deserve loneliness.  Her family is loving and supportive, but a lack of friends takes its toll on a girl.  Who can blame her for breaking the rules and basking in the warmth of the family next door?  At the same time, how can we be surprised when she tries to push her new friends away once school starts, worrying that they’ll find out she’s boring and dump her before she has the chance.  Luckily, the Halls are good people who can recognize an extraordinary young person when she falls out of a tree.  The connections Twig makes with the people she’s barely known for years, getting involved in the community for the first time, are a gratifying benefit to the reading experience.

Nightbird reminded me an awful lot of The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, a novel for older teenagers by Leslye Walton that came out last spring.  Well, in fairness, Walton’s book had a theme and style that called Alice Hoffman’s early writing to my mind almost instantly.  The similarities are all good though: magical-realist events taking place in towns that seem so real, you’re packing your bags to visit twenty pages in; brave women trying to extract themselves from the weight of their fore-mothers’ pasts; and delectable descriptions of baked goods.  I highly recommend that anyone who enjoyed Ava Lavender pick up Nightbird, if ever you’re in a similar mood on a starlit night with only a few hours to spare.  Teenaged readers who liked Hoffman’s book should check out Walton, too, even though her debut novel has much more adult issues in it.

Kids in late elementary school, and definitely middle school, will find Nightbird to be transporting and enchanting, with just enough mystery and suspense to keep the plot moving.  It’s neither fast paced nor scary, but has lovely emotional depth.  Fans of A Snicker Of Magic and Rooftoppers will have a great time in Twig’s town, and history fans will be delighted with the curse’s origin story.  I, myself, loved the rumors of witchcraft and the children’s inventive attempts to break the curse.  I always like Hoffman’s magic; it flows through the characters and settings so easily, you might get convinced that every town and strange woman has magic at the ready.

And maybe they do.