Friday, March 16, 2018

Book Review: The Music Shop

One of my all-time favorite novels is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce (see my review). Whenever I talk books with a stranger, I recommend it, especially if they exhibit any kind of love for England. Now, if I come across individuals with an intense love of music, I can direct them to this novel, The Music Shop. It is a love song to music. But, even if you are not necessarily a music lover, or not familiar with the pieces mentioned in the book, you will be swept away by this tale of love and loss and reclaimed life.

The premise of this novel is quite like the book I am listening to at the moment, called The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George. In George's book, the main character runs a bookshop where he prescribes books to meet every customer's personal needs, serving as a sort of literary pharmacist. In a similar way, Frank, the shop owner in The Music Shop, has an uncanny ability to assess each customer's need for particular music. He sizes them up and makes his suggestions, even providing specific instructions like "Lie down while you listen."

Frank's vision for his music shop is simple and direct. He will only sell vinyl records, despite the growing trend toward CDs (the story begins in 1988). His shop exists with a handful of other small establishments on a crumbling side street, but he takes joy in serving each and every customer. When Ilse Brauchmann faints in front of his shop one day, she ends up leaving with a recording of "The Four Seasons," fresh with Frank's instructions of what to listen for within the music.

Frank hasn't allowed himself to love anyone since the death of his beloved mother, the one who nurtured his deep and abiding love of music. But it feels safe to grow close to Ilse because she has already declared the existence of a fiance. When she begs him to give her music lessons (teaching her about the pieces and how to best experience them), he hesitantly agrees and then pours out his soul to her as he describes his favorite pieces and the ways the music transports and changes him. Unfortunately, both Frank and Ilse carry burdens and baggage from the past. They will need to tap into the healing power of music.

Just as she did in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Joyce manages to create a situation where the whole community bands together to rally behind a cause. I don't wish to provide any spoilers, but the community's grand gesture to reach out with the power of music brought me to tears. I relished learning about the music, even when it was unfamiliar (a difficulty remedied when I discovered a note at the end of the book offering a Music Shop Playlist on Spotify - now to figure out how to access Spotify, ha!). I was shocked to learn (at least this is what Frank's mother asserts) that Bach lost his vision because of a botched surgery performed in the market square by a con man posing as a doctor and then Handel went to the same doctor for the same operation with the same results.

Although I still prefer Harold Fry's story, this one definitely tugged at my heart strings. The music interlaced within the story held meaning and purpose. The sympathetic characters were endearing. The build-up to the resolution was dynamic and powerful. I would happily read another offering by this fine author.

Cover love: The cover at the top is the library copy cover, but I also found these other two (my favorite is the bottom one).

For another brilliant novel that presents a love song to music, try The Song of Hartgrove Hall, by Natasha Solomons.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Humorous Hoop Sketch

I have been laid low with an extended bout of bronchitis and have been unable to muster the energy or concentration for reading. Thus, I'm resorting to sharing one of my favorite video sketches made by my boys back in 2016:

Friday, March 9, 2018

Book Review: The Woman in the Window

I started this 427 page thriller just two days before the library due date. Wouldn't have really mattered! I blazed through it in no time flat. It was an absolutely riveting page-turner. The writing flawlessly sucked me in and held me fast.

With a premise similar to Hitchcock's Rear Window, The Woman in the Window plays on the idea of a peeping-Tom who observes a crime through a neighbor's window. Former child psychologist Anna Fox lives alone, trapped in her Harlem house by crippling symptoms of agoraphobia. She has little to bide her time and much on her mind. She spends most of her time photographing what she sees out of her window and thinking about her estranged husband and daughter. In gradual increments, the reader learns Anna's secrets - what caused the separation, what triggered the agoraphobia, and what now propels Anna to get so involved in the neighbor's lives and affairs. But, always, the reader is left to wonder whether the narrator is really reliable. After all, she drowns her sorrows continually in alcohol and pills.

I really enjoyed A.J. Finn's writing style. Words were clearly chosen with care. Here are a few of the passages that truly sing: "A storm. The ash tree cowers, the limestone glowers, dark and damp. I remember dropping a glass onto the patio once; it burst like a bubble, merlot flaring across the ground and flooding the veins of the stonework, black and bloody, crawling toward my feet." What a powerful, well-worded image! At other times it was simply the play with words that delighted. "The glow blossoms, the blossoms glow." "Wedged in the library wingback, thoughts tumble-drying in my brain." "The phone lies there immobile. An immobile mobile."

Finn sets the scenes so well. The atmosphere is dark and dismal. The players strut across the stage presenting lines to mimic the old black-and-white movies Anna uses to dull the pain. Moreover, the pacing of the plot is frantic. Just when you think it is all wrapped up, the mystery picks up again with another unnoticed clue, another avenue to explore. I did think the story could have functioned perfectly well without the one sex scene, but modern writers seem to feel every book should have one. Plus, it took over 100 pages to actually introduce the crime; nonetheless, it kept me reading, waiting to know what was going to happen.

I tend to approach mysteries with Agatha Christie's rule in mind. I attended a Christie play once and heard in the pre-play commentary, that Christie usually addressed the dilemma of "whodunit" by asking herself which character seemed to be the least likely suspect. I also think about details very carefully. When an author introduces a minor character and puts particular words in their mouth, it is always for a reason, so I take note. Thus, I did guess the perpetrator long before the mystery was solved and had a good idea of how they managed to pull it off. Still, it was every bit as fun getting to the final sentences. I can see why there's quite a buzz about this debut novel. The author blurb on Amazon indicates that the book is being made into a movie and the author would like to have a cameo appearance. Ha!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Book Review: Faith, Hope, and Ivy June

I think Faith, Hope, and Ivy June is the first Phyllis Reynolds Naylor book I've read since Sean and I finished reading her beloved The Boys Start the War series (a set of twelve books we couldn't wait to consume). This stand-alone novel was every bit as perceptive and faithful to a youthful spirit. The characters were sweet and endearing and the conflicts were serious and engaging. But, this book provided more depth than the fun and frolicking series.

Ivy June Mosley and Catherine Combs have been selected to participate in a two-week exchange program between their different schools in Lexington and Thunder Creek, Kentucky. Ivy June begins by staying in the city with Catherine for two weeks. It is a whole new world for Ivy June as she experiences daily showers in an indoor bathroom, is driven to Catherine's private school, and enjoys time at both a horse farm and a performance of Oklahoma. Catherine then visits the rural coal-mining town where Ivy June lives with her grandparents (due to the large number in her family home). She uses the outhouse (encountering a wild animal Ivy June's brother trapped inside for a prank), takes a bus to the country school, and observes the beauty of the mountains. Both Catherine and Ivy June have secrets to share and stereotypes to unravel.

The story provides an outstanding opportunity for discussion about prejudice and stereotyping, about similarities and differences between social classes, and about the importance of faith and hope when confronting situations beyond our control. I think it would make an excellent read-aloud selection for 5th-7th grade classes. I enjoyed the audio narration by Karen White and will happily keep my eye out for further opportunities to enter the fictional worlds created by this outstanding prolific author.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Book Review: The Grave's a Fine and Private Place

I'm always eager to crack open another Flavia de Luce mystery. Alan Bradley has written quite a string of them (this is the ninth novel in the series, plus a short story I haven't read). I didn't seem to enjoy the tale as much when Flavia was transplanted to Canada for a year of school, but now that she has returned to the English countryside in this volume, she was back to her usual antics and Bradley's writing back to its stellar form.

In The Grave's a Fine and Private Place, we find Flavia travelling with her sisters down a river while taking a holiday with Dogger. It is no surprise when Flavia happens upon a dead body in the water. Nor is it a shock that she plans to ferret out the clues and solve the mystery. In this novel, there are five dead bodies to account for. Two years back, three women died after taking communion and the vicar was tried and executed for their murder. But, when the vicar's son shows up snagged by the teeth from the river, Flavia feels certain that there's a connection somewhere.

I think my love of Flavia stems from several aspects of her personality. She is plucky and strong. Her love of chemistry flavors every situation. And, best of all, she has wonderful asides where she thinks aloud to herself about her own precocity. It makes me laugh every time. Flavia de Luce is truly the best twelve-year-old sleuth I've encountered. I agree with the Daily Mail, she "is as addictive as dark chocolate."

I was touched by the section in the author's acknowledgements devoted to Bradley's wife. He writes, "And finally, as always, to my wife, Shirley, who has allowed Flavia to occupy our days, our nights, and our home for nearly ten years. If anyone deserves a medal, it is Shirley, and so I hereby award her the first and only Companion of Valor, First Class, for love and patience and tolerance far, far beyond the vows of marriage." Beautiful! I pray her patience endures and Bradley continues to conjure up more Flavia for readers in the coming decade.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Book Review: Goodbye, Vitamin

I approached this book club pick with mixed emotions. I wanted to read it because it deals with the topic of dementia, yet I worried it would hit too close to home. Although my mother has dementia, I've never lived nearby to experience her struggles firsthand. I'm not close enough to see the daily differences, the mood swings, or the memory lapses. Moreover, my father assures us that he has her care well-in-hand. There will come a day when it morphs into something beyond him, but at this point, she is most at ease being primarily in his presence. I thought the book would tug at my heart strings more. In the end, I much preferred Lisa Genova's heart-breaking Still Alice to Rachel Khong's introspective Goodbye, Vitamin.

Thirty-year-old Ruth is reeling from the loss of her engagement when her mother approaches and asks her to spend a year living at home. Ruth quits her job to help care for her father, a history professor who has recently lost his own job due to his growing dementia symptoms. Life at home is tricky to maneuver. The lingering residue from her father's infidelity haunts her mother, while Ruth struggles to make sense of where her life is headed.

I think the story center, with its focus on Ruth's perspective of her father's decline, was a valid one. However, it felt disjointed and uneven. For one thing, the reader is constantly handed token tidbits of trivia and sideline observations in such a random manner. (For example, a comment on a mother who has named her children Sandy and Katrina, possibly after hurricanes, or a woman in the supermarket curling a bone as if it's a barbell.) Moreover, the stream-of-consciousness writing was somehow wearying, instead of satisfying. It is presented as journal entries, yet doesn't read like a journal. I'm curious to know why the author began the book using individual dates and then thirty pages from the end switched to monthly headings and more general snippets of memory, beginning almost every paragraph with "Today I ..." or "Today you ..." It felt like the author began to grow weary of it herself (although another book club member suggested this was a way for her to signal the shift in the disease to a more general experience, capturing snippets of moments or memories as they appear - and that sounded plausible).

If you are looking for a book with a clear direction and plot line, you might want to try something else. Still, the book didn't feel like a total loss. It was a quick and easy read. I just wasn't sure exactly where it was headed or what it hoped to accomplish. Thankfully, I felt more positive about the book after discussing it with the others (hearing other insights often triggers a better understanding).

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Book Review: And Thereby Hangs a Tale

When I recently reviewed Jeffrey Archer's collection of short stories called Tell Tale, I wrongly attributed it as his sixth collection of short stories. It was his seventh. Moreover, I discovered a collection I had not yet read, And Thereby Hangs a Tale. My interest was piqued even more because I recently attempted to break out of my novel-writing mold and write my own short story. After reading that Michael Chabon benefited from imitating Arthur Conan Doyle's style in his early attempts to mimic a Sherlock Holmes story, I decided I would attempt to mimic my favorite short story writer, Jeffrey Archer. While I'm certain my story will not rival any of Archer's, I did my very best to present a story that brings the reader to a whole new level of understanding once they reach the final sentences.

And Thereby Hangs a Tale, once again holds stories gleaned from Archer's wide experiences with people and from his vivid imagination (the ten stories based upon truth are indicated with an asterisk). Some were more predictable than others. I guessed the ending of "Stuck on You," long before I read the final sentence, yet still enjoyed reading the tale. I was quite taken by surprise by the endings of "The Queen's Birthday Telegram," "High Heels," and "Politically Correct." All of the stories are well-written and fully-engaging. I will continue to admire (and hopefully emulate) Archer's expertise in crafting a fine story with interesting characters and unexpected plot twists.