My Year in Books 2018 (Part II)

Last week I reviewed four entertaining novels: The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Secrets of a Charmed Life, Honolulu and A Dog’s Purpose. Below I include some more worthy books with brief descriptions.

I’m not a big reader of nonfiction and was disappointed in some of those with high reviews (but that’s just me). One worth mentioning however is Thailand in Perspective by James King. King is an entertaining writer who lives in Thailand and has written a trilogy of these books including: 15 weeks (Vol. 1 – free on Kindle) and Driving Thailand (Vol.2). I’ve never been there, but his writing makes me want to go. Even if you are not planning a visit this is good travel-armchair reading.

Other Novels I enjoyed last year are:

 

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks –a compelling story about a missionary’s daughter and a Native American student at Harvard – one constrained by his skin the other by her sex. Moving and at times triumphant; set in mid 1600’s.

 

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

A charming and wise little fable. A shepherd boy travels through Spain and northern Africa in search of treasure and finds simple truths.

 

 

Winter Garden by Kristen Hannah – written in present tense, about a dysfunctional family, and in past tense is the haunting saga of WWII Leningrad. Two sisters come to understand their dynamics in a satisfying conclusion.

 

 

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman – Enjoy the plot and the writing, full of symbolism – look for the flowers, birds and all the “opposites.” The story, set in St. Thomas, is about artist Pissarro’s extraordinary family life.

 

shoppingA Gentleman in Moscow – To be honest I had trouble getting through this highly acclaimed book. Amor Towles’ fans will be appalled I know, but here’s why: it is long with no page-turning plot. That said, Towles is a literary writer and I appreciated the fine writing about post-revolutionary Russia.

 

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Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. Unusual story about strangers who band together, to escape the Black Plague wreaking havoc in a bleak, muddy landscape. The pilgrims have been compared to the Canterbury Tales, also set in the14thcentury, each has a secret. Slow but worthwhile with a surprise ending.

 

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Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is also good. A novel about two families and how each member’s life is changed by an affair between two of the parents. Bel Canto is still my favorite Patchett book.

 

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A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline, a real story of Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth . I think those interested in art will like it. Orphan Train is my favorite book by her, but many would disagree with me.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Do you have others to recommend?

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My Year in Books for 2018

I selected a number of books I read in the last year to review for this blog. They tend to lean toward historical novels with a sprinkling of multicultural ones. I am neither as prolific a reader as so many others, nor a literary critic, but as an author I am occasionally asked to review manuscripts. I can recommend these books as entertaining reads.

 

At the top of my assemblage are Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner, and The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea

But before I say more, first a proviso: most of them are not recently published so if you are looking for new books I’m afraid by the time they make it to the top of my reading list they are no longer new!  Still a good book lasts forever.

The Hummingbird’s Daughter is an extraordinary tale, full of magical realism, based on historical facts and folklore. Teresita, the 16-year-old, illegitimate but cherished daughter of a wealthy rancher becomes regarded as a healer and saint.  Urrea breathes life into his three main characters: Teresita, Tomas and Huila… and secondary fictional characters like loyal Segundo seem genuinely real too. The stage is 19th-century Mexico as civil war is fermenting in Mexico. The time and setting swept me away, along with – in spite of – the social struggles of the indigenous people. I enjoyed reading the cultural elements, the food and even all the swear words “chingado, bruto, cabron, pendejo,” that I rarely heard in my youth growing up in Latin America. Some reviewers have not liked the sprinkling of Spanish, but it does not distract from the story; rather it enriches it, especially if you know even a few words. If not, don’t feel you’ve lost the meaning. On the publisher’s page is the standard disclaimer: “the characters and events in this book are fictional” but the author’s note in the back states “Teresa Urrea was a real person,” and a relative in author’s family.

Secrets of a Charmed Life I’ve read SO many WWII stories lately that it took me awhile to pick this one up, but I did because it is by master storyteller Susan Meissner who wrote the Fall of Marigolds. Could she create another tour de force? –Yes and here it is. I found it hard to put the book down. It starts out full of hope and even joy, then fate leads us to heartache, but finally redemption. Here’s an excerpted bit of prose I found enthralling yet chilling, on the day the Blitz began (pg.147):                     “while London was going about its Saturday afternoon…hundreds of Luftwaffe pilots were climbing into their cockpits….the RAF pilots had never seen so many aircraft in the air at the same time… like a sheet of black across the sky…a (radar) WAAF couldn’t believe what she was seeing, “What is that?” … pointing to the monstrous cloud across the screen…Then the Dover radar picked up the giant shadow….oh, the chatter as they took to their radios to warn their brothers at arms that an armada from hell was streaking across the Channel toward them.”                                                            This is a story of ordinary people whose lives are forever damaged and the grief and guilt a teenager had to bear due to a moment of incaution.

Competing for top billing is Honolulu by Alan Brennert, and – a totally different genre – A Dog’s Purpose, by W. Bruce Cameron.

512pSDFUcoL._AC_US327_QL65_I met Alan Brennert at a book-reading at Orinda Books and have been a fan ever since. He weaves a heartwarming story in Honolulu about a young Korean girl who wants more in life than her confining birthright. Jin/Gem decides to become a “picture bride” and travels to Hawaii to discover her new husband is not quite how he presented himself and his life is certainly not what she imagined. Her existence is in the pineapple plantations and in canneries, where she toils – and triumphs – to better herself. As time goes on the Korean picture brides come together, help each other and finally climb out of poverty and lead comfortable and happy lives. Much research went into this accurate portrayal of Oahu. As a frequent visitor and a lover of Hawaii I really enjoyed this story as much as his Molokai.  Anyone who likes a good yarn will appreciate this novel.

517GxBFnZqL._AC_US327_QL65_A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron. This wise and magical book is about one endearing dog’s quest for his purpose through several reincarnated lives. A delightful dog story, but also at a deeper level it asks the age-old question, “why are we here?”  Bailey is astounded to find himself reborn as a boisterous puppy into the loving home of 8 yr. old Ethan.  This dog is a being so caring, affectionate and “highly evolved” he deserves sainthood, yet Bailey seems like a very real character. Does he exist somewhere?  He will make you laugh and cry and affirms that love never dies.  (Alas at least one of his lives is quite sad, but Cameron adapted a version for young readers which I bought for my granddaughter.)

Have you read any of these books?  Do you have others to recommend?

I’ll add a few other books I enjoyed this year in my next post. Meanwhile HAPPY NEW YEAR and keep reading!

 

End of Year Sale on e-books

READERS: Smashwords is having an End of Year Sale on e-books which runs only through January 1. “Discover tens of thousands of deep-discounted e-books from thousands of the world’s best indie authors and publishers.”

(OK there’s some junky books on the list but also some good ones, I especially noted good biographies at 75% off.) You can pick up some books for only a $1 (like mine 😉 ) to $3 – there are even some freebies.

https://www.smashwords.com/books/search?query=A+Place+In+The+World

From Rainy UK to Chile

I discovered ExPat Magazine interviews expats just like I do – so … “Meet Nina, serial expat who been living out of a suitcase since she was 18. With a background in luxury travel, she was thrilled at the opportunity to move to one of the most beautiful countries in the world, Chile.” She says the weather in the capitol, Santiago, is fabulous!

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photo from worldtravelguide.net

 

Chile occupies a long, narrow strip of land between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean so the climate ranges from dry desert, Mediterranean, to snow capped peaks and glaciers. The arid Atacama Desert in northern Chile is famous for beautiful green rocks full of copper. The population and agricultural resources are concentrated in the central area with its mild Mediterranean climate. Southern Chile is scenic with forests, volcanoes and lakes and the coast is a labyrinth of fjords, peninsulas, and islands.

Nina was interviewed on her experiences and answers practical questions on expat life in Santiago and beyond:

“My name’s Nina, and I’m from the UK. I moved to Chile with my family in January 2018.”

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photo: Expat.com

 

“Prior to this, my husband was working in Nigeria, and the original plan was to meet up there. However I was pregnant, and with two kids already we weren’t sure our situation in Nigeria was going to work for us, so we switched to Chile. Right now I’m blogging and enjoying getting to know this fabulous country. My background is public relations for luxury brands and I’m working as a freelance writer and blogger.”

See the interview and check out the expat blog (full of practical tips about living abroad): https://www.expat.com/en/expat-mag/2318-a-british-expat-in-chili.html

 

 

Where There’s Smoke…again

Last year California had record breaking fires – that record held for almost 100 yrs. Now we’ve broken last year’s record for the most destructive fire ever. Normally we would have had rains by now and “fire season” would be over – and acres of land and homes – not to mention lives, would not have been lost. We haven’t had any rain since early spring and the land is very dry. ( In October, San Francisco had weeks of temperatures breaking 80 degrees and in November it was in the 70’s – until the fires darkened the skies.)

Plume from the Camp Fire in Butte Co. on Nov 9.

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Another larger view from NOAA shows the plume covering an extensive region and shows the Woolsey Fire in southern California as well. (I can’t find a date on this image, but it was 2-3 days later).

https://abc7news.com/time-lapse-how-camp-fire-smoke-plume-choked-northern-california/4694952/

The town of Paradise is Paradise no more, in fact very little is left of it. People have died and many more are homeless in this area… because of global warming. Think about that.

Although we live 180 miles south-southwest of the big Butte Co. fire, we are being advised to stay indoors with windows closed. Public schools are closed from Butte Co to well south of  San Francisco; even the Cable cars shut down, as we now have the dirtiest air in the world. The skies vary from hazy to a dirty orangey color and are predicted to continue this week to plague us.

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Taken at noon – smoke blocking the sun.

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We can hardly see our nearby hills where my husband hikes almost every day. Today they have “disappeared.” (photo taken 2 days ago)

It has been 8 days now since that fire started (there are others). Yesterday it was announced it was only 40% contained; today they say they are making progress.

In the first days, the sun’s rays were sometimes bent to cast an unusual gold-red glow that was ironically pretty. It reminds me of the shadows we saw during an eclipse. Smoke particles filter sunlight, scattering short wavelengths and leaving the longer reddish wavelengths of the light spectrum behind. This allows more orange and red colors to pass through the smoke.

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I have a cough and sore eyes, but the bigger picture is… that smoke is coming from people’s lost homes. There are horror stories of people running from the flames into swimming pools and creeks, but you read the news. My heart goes out to the thousands affected.

Centennial of World War I 1914-1918 – Effects on Personal Lives

This does not fall under the usual themes for this blog but, I’m writing to honor those who fought in WWI because this year marks the 100th anniversary of the end. All wars are horrible, but what brought it to life for me were the highly acclaimed Australian movie Gallipoli (back in the 1980’s), the novel Birdsong and discovering my own grandfather’s brother had been killed in France shortly after his 19th birthday.

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My great uncle Earl – one of the millions of young men who never got to marry or enjoy his youth – or the life he should have had. He left no direct descendants – he has only us to preserve his memory. (Wouldn’t he be surprised to know people would be reading about him 100 yrs. later?) I might have met him in my own youth if he’d lived.

Many puzzle still as to why all the  world’s great economic powers were drawn into this war over an assassination. But the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was just the trigger. Once the Austro- Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, the international alliances (pledged to defend each other) fell into place like a line of dominos.

Once I happened by chance, to be walking through the countryside near the German-French border and I noticed a long, straight ditch that was grown over and partially filled in. With a jolt I realized it was a World War I trench.  On that spot, and in the whole area, so many young men died on both sides.  I will never forget the eerie sensation – more disconcerting than any other grave site – it was hallowed ground.  It began to thunder and I could almost imagine the fear of hearing the shells overhead.

 

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Canadian soldiers going over a trench.

 

Sebastian Faulks’ novel, Birdsong, introduced me to a wonderful writer – and the incalculable suffering during WW I. It starts out with a love story in Amiens, France where Stephen, the English protagonist, will return to fight – and a surreal existence in the trenches. From there we see lives ruined even among the survivors.

 

In spite of the horrors, it is a magnificent book.  After years on the bombed out fields destroyed of all vegetation, Stephen marvels  to hear the songs of birds again, when the war is finally over.  I also don’t normally read books about war with many battle scenes, but once I started reading this one, I couldn’t put it down.

Constant fear, noise, mud, barbed wire, cold with no end in sight was the daily fare for men who lived in the damp trenches, which occasionally flooded. Men died on the battlefield but many, who would have lived with modern medicine, died of their wounds from delayed treatment and gangrene.  After a year or more, the men felt forgotten and sacrificed; enlisted men hardly ever got much leave (although officially they were due a week every four months). They were in bitter despair at best, crazed at worse. Almost all entered an altered mental state of numbness.

Gallipoli, a narrow peninsula in northwestern Turkey was the site of the disastrous defeat of the allies, due to poor planning, leadership and insufficient artillery.

owen.cholerton.oghttp://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/the-gallipoli-campaign/introduction

The campaign is often considered as marking the birth of national consciousness in Australia and New Zealand, where many felt the ANZAC soldiers had been used as “cannon fodder.”  Allegiance to the British Empire was now questioned –- this occurred in Canada as well.   Most of the surviving soldiers were then sent to the nightmare in France.

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Aussie recruiting poster needs no comment.

 

 

Another recruiting poster showed  a man in uniform with a beauty on  either arm.  Thus were patriotic    young men lured into the war.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living in New Zealand in the 1980’s made me aware of the part the “colonials” played. I learned that 40% of the New Zealand troops were wounded and 19% never came home. The experience of Premier Seddon’s three sons was typical: Richard was killed in France; Thomas decorated for bravery, returned and became a Member of Parliament; the  Stuart spent the rest of his life in psychiatric care as a result of the trauma.  20% of the  men had serious health or mental problems and many more “could not or would not relate their experiences – it was so hellish in relation to civilian life they could not explain it.”

Driving through the country, one is struck by hundreds of war memorials, found in towns small and large they reflect the communal grieving and the profound effect these casualties had.

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Dedication of National War Memorial Carillon, Wellington, New Zealand 1932

 

Inglewood war-memorial

 

The USA entered the war in 1917, when spies discovered a message from Germany to the Mexican government, promising them Texas and New Mexico if they sided with Germany in the war. When the Americans arrived they brought fresh hope to the allied troops. In France they were welcomed with open arms; too young to drink at home they developed a taste for French wine, while the French developed a taste for jazz, thanks to the African-American troops.

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This is the original Uncle Sam recruiting poster. (Cafepress.org)

 

(If you’ve been following me for a time this post may look familiar. I am republishing for the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI for Veterans Day)

In Flanders Fields (excerpt)
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) Canadian Army

                   In Flanders Fields the poppies blow,                                                                          between the crosses row on row….
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields…(where poppies grow).

Have books, movies or some personal experience made a war seem more real than the history books to you?

 

 

One Dog’s Tale

This is the story of Gaston – who originally belonged to Guide Dogs for the Blind.

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Baby Gaston

 

He learned everything he was supposed to do and he was patient with the younger dogs.

 

 

…but this was a bit much. Really? That puppy thinks she’s the boss of me?

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Sadie leads Gaston ( who has exchanged his fuzzy pale coat for a curly red one)

 

 

There was just one problem….unlike the other young guide dogs Gaston didn’t really want to work.

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This is the dog who flunked guide dog school because he just wanted to play with his toys.

Hey look guys ..TOYS!  TOYS! pse.1664

Hey here are some more! toys pse_1669want that 1_pse.1665

That one, I want that one ..

Can I have one, can I can I Huh, huh huh?can I pse.1667

I’m not leaving unless I can have one. Just one?

And so Gaston lived lazily….happily, ever after….Gaston n bunny_886ps

 

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