Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Bookshop

A friend recommended books written by Penelope Fitzgerald who started her writing career in 1960. The Bookshop was first published in 1978 and was her second novel. The author's experience of having worked in a bookshop in Southwold provides the background for this book.

It was 1959 and Florence Green had lived in Hardborough on the East Anglia coast for almost ten years when she decided to open a bookshop in The Old House, a building that had been vacant for many years. It was then that Florence encountered opposition from a section of the established community - initially from the bank manager, then from Mrs Violet Gamut, a power broker in the town, who decided that The Old House should be used as a cultural centre and finally by neighbouring premises when the bookshop had partial success. However Florence did have some supporters including Mr Brundish and also eleven year old Christine who helped out in the shop. This short novel explores the challenges faced by Florence in establishing her new venture, including dealing with a poltergeist who occasionally makes his presence felt in the old building, and how she deals with them. The story is told with humour and understanding of living in a small, isolated community. A series of correspondence between Florence and a lawyer, when Violet Gamut attempts to close the business, demonstrates Florence's understanding of the situation and her place in the community.

Penelope Fitzgerald uses words economically in portraying the characters in this community, the situation in the village when the new venture is undertaken by Florence and the injustice that can occur when people try to introduce something different into an established community. Although this is a character driven book the setting of the seaside village also plays a prominent part in the unfolding of the story. In only 100 plus pages the author involves the reader in the affairs of this small community and the struggles of Florence to live life as she wishes. Parallels can also be drawn between the opposition to change in a small town, as portrayed in the novel, with opposition to change that can occur in many community groups.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hello from the Gillespies

The catalyst for this novel is the Christmas letter that Angela Gillespie circulates to a growing circle of friends on 1 December each year. The letter always lists the good times being had by all the family members, however this year has not been a particularly good year and writing a cheery letter is difficult. Instead she writes about how she really feels and what she thinks of family members. Angela never intended sending the email, however when she leaves the computer to attend to a family emergency another family member decides to help her and, without reading the email, presses the Send button.

The novel is about family, especially families functioning under pressure. It is also about communication or more correctly lack of communication between family members. The Gillespie family depends on Angela to keep them functioning but this leaves her with no time to be herself. It is only when she is removed from the family for a time that the other members of this at times dysfunctional family begin to re-evaluate their lives and values. Genealogy research is also forms a sub-plot throughout the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this family saga set in rural South Australia written by Monica McInerney. The Gillespies certainly have their problems but the story of how they individually approach the challenges of life is told with humour and understanding. If nothing else, you will view Christmas emails in a different light. As December approaches I must start thinking about what I will include this year.

As a postscript, the two blank pages midway through the book are there for a purpose.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

More Torie O'Shea mystery books

Died in the Wool is the tenth title in the Torie O'Shea mystery series of books by Rett MacPherson. When the opportunity arose to purchase the house at one time owned by the Kendall family Torie decided that the house would be ideal as the location for a textiles museum especially as as a previous inhabitant, Glory Anne Kendall, had been renowned for the quilts she crafted. Initially Torie set out to purchase of any of the quilts still on the property and enlisted the assistance of Geena Campbell to appraise the collection. The women soon discovered, however, that the house had a history and Torie needed to use her genealogy skills to unravel the true story of the Kendall family.

The eleventh (and possibly final) title in the series is The Blood Ballard. When Torie is contacted by Glen Morgan who suggests that there is an error in her family tree, Torie re-investigates her research and uncovers a long hidden family story with links to a recent murder. This title was published in 2008.

The Torie O'Shea mysteries are not just 'enjoyable reads' but also provide interesting examples as to how genealogy techniques and resources may be used to unravel mysteries - not just crime but also in general family history research.

Notes about Rett MacPherson - Yahoo Answers

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Gone Girl

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was published in 2013 and has been on the reservation list in the library for most of that time, so when it temporarily became available I borrowed it. The screening of the film has renewed interest in the book and the reservation list for this title has once again grown.

The plot is relatively simple. Nick comes home to find his wife, Amy, missing and the police consider Nick as the main suspect. However as the story unfolds the many twists and turns keep the reader guessing as to the outcome. The story is told in alternate chapters by Nick and Amy. The story is also revealed by the two main characters in different time-frames. In part one Nick's account begins from the day Amy disappears while Amy's account is told in segments from her diary dating back to when she and Nick first met. Later in the book the accounts run parallel to each other. We learn what is happening therefore entirely from the viewpoint of Nick and Amy. There are other characters but we only know of them when Nick or Amy refer to them.

The book is therefore largely about relationships. How well does one really know another person? It looks at the progression of a marriage over time and how well the husband and wife really understand the feelings of their partner. Amy's disappearance is investigated as a crime and and there is some suspense as different characters become suspects. However we do not really get to know the supporting characters apart from comments made about them by Nick or Amy. What we learn about Nick and Amy is also discovered by piecing together their stories and as the book progresses it is difficult to separate the fact from fiction.

I did not really like any of the characters in the book - Nick and Amy are definitely not likeable characters - and this made it difficult for me to really feel involvement with their story. However the device of alternating the two voices was good and some of the twists in the plot worked well. Generally I thought that the book was too long and it was really only determination that made me finish reading the book rather than a desire to find out what happened.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Torie O'Shea Mystery series

Between 1997 and 2008 American author, Rett MacPherson, wrote eleven books in the Torie O'Shea Mystery series. The main character in the books, Victory O'Shea, is a genealogist and local historian who uses her genealogy skills to help solve crime.

In Sheep's Clothing is number 7 in the series. When Torie, her husband and her step-father visit her Aunt Sissy, Torie is shown a manuscript that her aunt found hidden in her house. The aunt asks Torie to try and discover who wrote the manuscript and, if possible, find out what happened to the writer. Her quest not only uncovers a mystery that occurred 150 years previously but also leads to solving a more recent murder.

Dead Man Running is number 9 in the series. Torie's step-father is running for mayor against the incumbent who lives next door to Torie. When the editor of the local newspaper asks Torie to locate family trees for both candidates Torie discovers discrepancies in the information supplied by the Mayor. When a number of sinister looking men visit the town and appear to be spying on the Mayor plus a body is found on a float in the Oktoberfest Parade, Torrie is determined to find out what is going on.

Books in the cosy crime genre usually involve characters with a passion of some description - food or quilting for example. Using genealogy as a tool is the unique characteristic of this series of books.  Cosy crime books are also normally set in a location where the characters are grouped in a small community and in these books Rett MacPherson introduces the reader to an assortment of interesting characters living in, or near, New Kassel, Missouri. The main character is often, but not always, an amateur sleuth with the ability to solve the mystery. Torie is a flawed character who has the knack of sometimes upsetting people as she pursues her investigations. However if something does not appear right she persists in finding out what is happenening. Her perseverance, active community involvement and ability to work with her supporters ensure she achieves her goals.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The lives of Australian Prisoners of War when building part of the Thai-Burma railway for the Japanese Army in 1943 is the background for this novel by Richard Flanagan. Dorrigo Evans, a doctor at the POW camp, endeavours to assist the malnourished men forced to work under horrific conditions to meet the deadlines set by their captors. Episodes in the story are portrayed through the experiences, not only of Dorrigo Evans, but also via some of the prisoners and also their guards and the Japanese officers. Dorrigo Evans is regarded as a hero but he is only too aware of his weaknesses. Over time he needs to come to terms with the horrors encountered in the war and also his relationships, particularly with his family. 

Life in the POW camp is the central part of the book which portrays the brutality, disease, and challenges of trying to keep alive faced by the prisoners. It also illustrates the humanity and comradeship that can survive in such extreme conditions. However the novel also focuses on Dorrigo Evans' relationship with women before and after the war, initially with Amy, the wife of his uncle, and then with his wife, Ella. Later sections of the book also reflect on lives of some of the soldiers who survive the war as well as some of the Japanese officers and POW guards.

This is a study of love and war and death and the search for truth and understanding of events beyond an individual's control. It took me a short while to adjust to the flow of the narrative but then I just had to keep reading until the end.

The title of the novel refers to a poem written by a Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694).

The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the 2014 Man Booker prize.