Crooked Heart

Crooked Heart

Noel Bostock is ten years old and he has no family. His godmother, Mattie, is a wonderful caregiver for him except… she is beginning to forget things. At first it’s just things like the name of the church they can see on their walks to Hampstead Heath (St. Paul’s Cathedral). But then it progresses and Noel writes words on labels and tapes them to objects like Mattie’s shawl.

Mattie has taught Noel many things, and after a while their roles are reversed. Even though he’s only ten he’s pretty self-sufficient… but then she begins to skip meals and stay in bed. And then one day she leaves the house and doesn’t come back.

What will happen to Noel?

Noel is a great kid; not very attractive and not well-liked at school but smart and quick on his feet. When the children are evacuated (because of course this is a novel set in World War 2, one of my favorite time periods to read about), Noel is one of the last two children to be taken in. And what a character Vee, his new caretaker is!

“What do you mean, you were wrong about me?’

Well, I…’ Vee huffed a bit, searching for an answer. ‘…I didn’t think you were all there,’ she said, finally.

He turned and stared at her. ‘You thought I was feeble-minded?’

‘You had a bit of a blank look, that’s all. And you didn’t say much, did you? And you packed a fur coat. In June.’

‘Not for wearing,’ he said. ‘It’s a memento.’

‘And the rock?’

‘A memento mori.’

‘And there you go! she said triumphantly. ‘That’s why you can’t do the talking. Every time you open your mouth, out comes Latin.’

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even with some raw and difficult situations (the bombings, the lack of empathy in some of the characters, the ‘every -man -out- for- himself’ philosophy so evident in some characters). I found I was there with Noel, experiencing hunger, fear, and wishing I were back with Mattie. I became angry for Vee at the way her indolent, selfish son Donald took advantage of her. And in reading this book so quickly (I couldn’t put it down!), I wondered at myself, since this isn’t usually the type of fiction that engages me.

That the author can create such quirky, believable characters is only part of her talent; the atmosphere itself is so realistic; the bombs falling, babies crying, the darkened streets suddenly illuminated by flares and the crowded, uncomfortable shelters. And as Noel’s circumstances change (and he changes with them), paralleled by Vee’s own deteriorating life events, their developing relationship brings a much-needed freshness to them both.

Perhaps it is because I admire reading about the sheer resilience of the human spirit and the creativity that some are gifted with. (Although, maybe creativity isn’t such an admirable trait when it comes to deception …) When coupled with the sheer determination to survive, I wonder at the ‘guts’ some folks have (and I know that for myself, I could never take those steps… or could I?)

 

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Welcome Friends

welcome

I see some new followers have come along.  A warm welcome!  May you enjoy reading, writing, and reading some more, as much as I do!!!

Some books leave us free and some books make us free.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.

–C.S. Lewis

Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?

–Henry Ward Beecher

The only important thing in a book is the meaning that it has for you.

–W. Somerset Maugham

There is a great deal of difference between an eager man who wants to read a book and the tired man who wants a book to read.

–Gilbert K. Chesterton

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Child of the River

Child of the River

Persomi is born into a poor white sharecropper’s family and has little to look forward to in her struggling life. When she discovers that her violent, abusive father is not her biological parent, her life begins to take a turn. Persomi learns to stand up for herself, the complete opposite of her complacent mother, and thus her personal battle to earn acceptance and a place of her own in society begins.

Although her life seems bleak on the outside, she has two sustaining factors; one is her mountain to where she runs for refuge, and the other is her older brother Gerbrand.

“Her mountain was ancient. Unchanging.
Her mountain had deep crevices and tall, hard cliffs. The crevices lay sheltered in cool shadows, the cliffs stood proud and warm in the last rays of the sun.
Her mountain was always there. Always. The river could run dry, the moon could darken, the trees could shrivel and become firewood and vanish into ashes – her mountain would remain.”

When the Second World War begins, Gerbrand enlists and is sent first to fight in Abyssinia and later to El Alamein. Persomi continues to write to and receive letters from her brother and the correspondence is her lifeline while she attends boarding school and learns how to use a knife and fork for the first time.

The author describes her own experiences with young girls like Persomi: “At school I knew many Pérsomis: girls who sat with me on school benches, shared dormitories with me at boarding school. They had never before slept on a bed, bathed or showered in a modern bathroom, nor knew how to use a knife and fork. These were the needy children who were handed down charity clothing and who had to collect state subsidised textbooks in front of gawking class mates. Their fathers were drunk weekend after weekend and their sisters were pregnant by age fourteen. My heart went out to them instinctively.” (from http://www.historyandwomen.com/2016/1… )

The reader’s sympathy is immediately drawn to Persomi and her fighting spirit. Persomi is smart, athletic, resilient, and able to maintain her composure when confronted with difficult situations. She finds solace in her friendships, and her success in the academic world prepares her for future encounters in her law career.

This book is not just about a young girl overcoming difficult circumstances, however. The theme of apartheid and prejudice is also addressed and illustrated in volatile situations and various characters, some of whom become Persomi’s friends. I learned much about the history of Africa and its laws, certainly enough to realize that I have a lot of reading still ahead of me to understand the complications of this turbulent period in Africa’s history.

This book had me transfixed from the very first page! I became so absorbed in the story and lives of the characters, I could not put this down.

“Child of the River” has it all… intriguing and likable characters, a captivating plot, and a satisfying conclusion. My daughter gifted me with a copy of this novel and I’m so glad she did!

Highly recommended.

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America’s First Daughter

America's First Daughter

‘America’s First Daughter’ is a historical novel portraying the life of Martha Jefferson Randolph (Patsy), Thomas Jefferson’s daughter. The book takes the reader from her childhood through her growing up years, into marriage and motherhood, and later years with the loss of her father and husband. Each chapter begins with a quotation from one of Thomas Jefferson’s many thousands of letters written throughout his career.

Patsy (her childhood nickname) lost her mother at the young age of eight and had promised to not only care for her younger sisters (Polly and baby Lucy), but also to keep her father, the famous Thomas Jefferson, from grieving too deeply.

“You’re my strong strapping girl, so like your father. You’ll care for our little doll Polly, and our baby Lucy, too. Won’t you?”

I wondered how I could. Polly was a willful child who never listened and Lucy was just a baby, crying for milk. Still, I couldn’t deny my mother. “I’ll try, Mama.”

“She sank deeper into the feather bed, alarming me with the labored rasp of her breath. “Help your father through his sorrow.”

And so this book centers around the role of Martha and her lifelong quest to support her famous father. The first half of the book centers on Martha’s growing up years, much of it in France when Thomas Jefferson was sent as ambassador. Patsy finds Paris to be a whirlwind of splendor and gaiety…

“… the whole city fanned out before us in splendor. Stone archways, domes, and pillars all reached for the sun. In truth, the bustling seaports of Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore were mere infants in comparison to the ancient majesty of this grand city.

I was giddy at the sight, and I wasn’t the only one.”

Patsy is educated in a French convent but as the American stateman’s daughter is allowed to embark upon a whirwind of gaiety; balls, state dinners, even tea at the home of the English ambassador. The Marquis de Lafayette himself asks her to dance at her debut ball. However France is soon to endure a revolution and much bloodshed.

“The start of the French Revolution was orchestrated in my father’s parlor. The leading reformers consulted Papa for every scrap of news of America. Our country’s independence served as proof men could throw off the chains of tyranny and rule themselves.”

Much of the first half, after a few introductory chapters, deals with Patsy’s growing affection for her father’s aide, William Short. I found the second half of the book more interesting as there was more historical material in it, especially in the latter chapters. Throughout the book Martha struggles with her father’s seemingly complacent attitude toward slavery and the birth of her stepbrothers and sisters, born of a slave woman.

“Papa had been asked to advocate more actively against slavery. William Short had all but begged him. Friends like the Coles who had sheltered us in our flight from the British all those years ago and tried to shame him into it. And now my father was old, tired, and often in ill health. Sometimes I believed the love of Virginians – the love of the nation – was all that sustained him.”

However Martha’s admiration and loving esteem for her father never ceases. The last few chapters relate the difficulties of the family’s later years. Inheriting her father’s estate, nonetheless she also inherits his numerous debts and eventually Monticello will be sold.

The authors explain in the endnotes the areas that are fictional and those that are factual. Although the book is lengthy I found it interesting and always enjoy reading about the history of our nation.

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The Masterpiece

The Masterpiece

I couldn’t wait to read Francine Rivers’ newest publication and I wasn’t disappointed!

“The Masterpiece” has a LOT in it to love. Roman Velasco is a famous artist and a former gang member. His journey from rebellion, graffiti and despair is chronicled as a parallel story to that of Grace Moore, his personal assistant.

Grace has a background of tragedy; losing her parents at a young age she is raised by a strict, no-nonsense (and very little affection along with it) aunt. Both characters pull at the reader’s heart strings and are realistic, intriguing, and likable (well, ok. I didn’t like Roman that much… not at first!) Both Grace and Roman have their own personal dragons to slay; memories that affect their actions and goals, desires that ultimately are doomed to failure (because none of us are really capable of healing our past).

Is there any hope for Roman, (aka ‘Bobby Ray Dean’)? Secretly nicknamed “The Bird”, Roman is sought in several countries for his adventurous (and illegal) graffiti paintings on government buildings and places of business. “Bobby Ray kept to himself, kept to his studies. He had to remind himself over and over he shouldn’t make friends or count on anybody. It always led to heartache.”

Is there hope for Grace, left with a young baby to raise, struggling to make ends meet and to find a place of safety and security? Francine Rivers thinks there is, and she writes this story passionately and realistically.

“ She longed for answers. What had made her father snap? Why had her mother stayed in an abusive relationship? Was she her mother’s daughter, as Aunt Elizabeth believed, prone to make the same mistakes? Did she have to repeat the same patterns?”

Roman is rude and self-seeking. Grace is desperate for a job that pays enough for her to maintain a home for her son. Both personalities clash over and over again but continue to maintain a working relationship until events (in the form of a road trip) begin to change their outlook. The outward journey is a catalyst for an inward journey that holds promise for them both.   In many ways, this is a story about the power of human choice and the necessity to move past fear to build relationships between both God and man.

This novel certainly kept me going, hoping all the way to the end for closure, for healing for both characters, and for a solution to their emptiness.

I am familiar with this author and she *does* introduce topics that may be uncomfortable for some. In order to portray a realistic character Rivers does not gloss over the ugly side of life or human nature. With that warning, I do love this author and hope she continues to write many more stories of hope and redemption for those who are completely broken by life and utterly without hope.

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The Caxley Chronicles

The Caxley Chronicles

‘The Caxley Chronicles’ is a two-volume novel about a small village in England during the early to mid twentieth centuries. It centers around two middle-class families; the Norths and the Howards. Both shopowners as the first book begins (“Market Square”), the story follows their struggles and triumphs in a difficult period of history.

“Market Square” begins with Bender North and his hardware shop. His relationship with Septimus Howard, the baker across the street, has been established since their schooldays, although they are vastly different in both temperament and physical characteristics.

“The Norths were middle class. They were respected tradespeople, church-goers and, best of all, comfortably off. Bertie was glad he was not in the class above his – the gentry. Their children were sent away to school or had stern governesses. Their fathers and mothers seemed to be away from home a great deal. It would not have suited Bertie…

Other people – far too many of them for Bertie’s tender heart – were also poor. He saw them in his father’s shop, thin, timid, unpleasantly smelly, rooting in their pockets or worn purses for the pence to pay for two screws, a cheap pudding basin, or a little kettle. They were pathetically anxious not to give any trouble…

… It seemed strange to the listening boy, his head not far above the counter, that the poor whose money was so precious, should be content to accept shoddy goods, whereas those with plenty of money should make such a terrible fuss if there were the slightest fault in their purchases.”

The families become interwined through marriage and support one another when difficult choices must be made and financial upheaval affects both businesses.

When the first World War comes along, the author does not describe life in the trenches of Europe or give a picture of wartime life from the soldier’s perspective. ‘Market Square’ is just that; written from the perspective of the villagers, the book focuses on how the war affects the lives at home; food shortages, the wounded returning home, and the losses.

The second book, “The Howards of Caxley”, continues the story through the Second World War and beyond, and the fortunes of the various family members. The indomitable spirit of England as it stands alone for a time in the war is portrayed, each villager possessing their individual manner of persevering through the dark days of the war.

“The raids now began in earnest. The phoney war was at an end and the evacuees again began to stream from the stricken towns. Many of them spent the rest of the war away from their own homes. Many had no homes to return to. Many adopted the town of their refuge, grew up, married and became happy countrymen for the rest of their lives.”

Marraiges among both families take place, children grow up and take their place in the village (or not), and English village life changes and moves into a new period of history with women taking part in the workplace and businesses expanding. The market square has changed forever; Bender North’s hardware shop is now a restaurant and the bakery has expanded; motorcars have replaced horses and war evacuees return home to the city.

Although the war years in themselves are tumultuous enough, this book has been described as a ‘comfort read’, easy and relaxing, and I certainly found it so. Of the two, I enjoyed the first book more although I was engaged enough with the characters to follow along with the events in each family.

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The Light Years

The Light Years (Cazalet Chronicles, #1)

“The Light Years” is the first book in a five book series by Elizabeth Jane Howard, chronicling one family’s story in early twentieth century England.

The Cazalet family’s story begins just as World War 2 is looming on the horizon; a period that I love to read about. The changes just around the corner that would so deeply affect everyday life within the maelstrom of impending war is a topic I think I will never tire of.

William Cazalet (‘the Brig’), is the head of the family, and he and his wife Duchy are minor characters in this first book. His sons Hugh, Edward and Rupert and daughter Rachel take more of a center stage, and the grandchildren also are well-drawn. With servants, extended family and an aging, impoverished governess, the author has deftly woven a believable story.

It has been a family tradition to take a summer holiday in the country at the ‘Home Place’, and with such a large cast of characters, there is plenty going on to engage the reader. Even the school-age children have their own particular foibles, problems, and pursuits, and are depicted sympathetically and true-to-life.

I enjoyed the realistic portrayals of each character (although I did not admire some of them!) There is Villy (Viola), Edward’s wife, and her hidden regrets for the life of the stage; the young, self-absorbed Zoe (Rupert’s wife) who finds it difficult to accept her step-mothering responsibilities, and Hugh’s wife Sybil (seemingly the most content of the three). Rachel, the spinster daughter, is self-sacrificing and always seems willing to be inconvenienced for her family’s sake. Rupert as the youngest son had escaped military duty in World War 1 but his brothers Hugh and Edward have not. Edward seems to be the most resilient of the three brothers but on the other hand, Hugh’s injuries will never let him forget his wartime experiences.

And of course, there are the children. Angela who finds her first unrequited love, Christopher who isn’t athletic but intensely longing for his father’s approval, Simon’s dread of boarding school and Teddy (who most seems to be like Edward). Cousins Polly and Louise are friends until Clary (whose mother has died in childbirth and now has the inexperienced Zoe for a stepmother), comes along. Each child has their place in the family and each one is dealt with so that the reader is caught up along with them in their frustrations, challenges and joys.

When Louise’s mother has had some painful dental work, her young teen daughter Louise, finds herself useful: “She had helped Villy upstairs, helped her to undress, found bedsocks and her lacy jacket: her mother was very cold. She had lit the gas fire, drawn the curtains, rushed out the door when Phyllis knocked and taken the hot water bottles blocking her view of the invalid. She had administered the aspirin and arranged the pillows, drawn up the eiderdown and throughout her mother had seemed acquiescent and grateful….

She sat on the stairs for ages, on the curve so that she could hear if her mother called and see when her father returned, wondering whether perhaps she ought not to sacrifice her career to become a nurse. She was gliding about darkened wards at night with a lamp, relieving the agonized sufferings of wounded soldiers with a touch of her delicate but experienced hands, soothing their last moments with her gentle voice…

The attitudes of post-Victorian England are portrayed with tongue-in-cheek humor:

“(Lady Rydal) disapproved of any reference to religion made by anyone other than herself (levity); she considered politics an unsuitable subject for a lady (Margot Asquith and Lady Astor were not people she would invite to her house); any discussion of the Royal Family’s private life was vulgar (she was probably the only person in London who, from the outset of that affair, had ceased mentioning Edward VIII and who had never pronounced Mrs. Simpson’s name); any reference to the body – its appearance, its requirements and, worst of all, its urges – was utterly taboo (even health was tricky since only certain ailments were permissible for women).”

I finished this first book in the Cazalet family chronicles with somewhat mixed feelings. I became so caught up in the personalities and lives of the characters that I was eager to pick up the next volume. I decided to read a few reviews to help me ascertain exactly what the author’s purpose in writing the series is. When I discovered that the books were largely autobiographical, the pieces began to fall into place. I have to admit I was a little taken aback by the treatment of some sensitive topics. The author’s seemingly blithe attitude toward adultery and tacitly resigned tolerance of especially one character’s promiscuity caught me off guard (although not explicit or graphic in nature and the fear of discovery is a moral statement in itself). However when I read about the author’s family life and background the connections made were easily recognisable.

The human experience, the various ups and downs of country life, the small frustrations and the momentous (to the characters themselves and therefore, to the reader also) difficulties that arose were woven together realistically for the reader. The servants seem to be run off their feet (especially the cook, but no less the housemaids) and their employers oblivious to the discrepancy in roles. The author certainly had talent in crafting a large sprawling story with several characters, all from different walks of life and different ages. I found it very absorbing and although am eager to start the next book in the series (“Marking Time”), have to admit it is also with a little trepidation for the unknown. Certainly Elizabeth Jane Howard is not to be taken for granted!

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