Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey


Penguin (1 Jan. 2015)


I’m blaming dismal cold and wet weather on my grumpy reading mood. I have never suffered mediocre books gladly. I do not hesitate to throw dull books aside with such force they dent the walls. The older I grow, the less latitude I’m willing to give as time grows shorter.

Reviewing books more than fifteen years has accustomed me to high quality prose, spoiling me in receiving these books for free, so when I splash out with my own funds I expect they’ll meet or surpass my best hopes. The last two books I’ve read have not quite hit the mark.

This makes me very, very irritable.

Before I get into the first book, let me qualify it’s not a failure, per se. My mood is sour today because the second book, finished less than an hour ago, was just such a read. Worse, I paid for it in hardback, not a cheap secondhand copy. The first missed the mark with me, but by no means is it not worth the read.



Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shops and forgets why she went. Sometimes her home is unrecognizable – or her daughter Helen seems a total stranger.

But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it.

Because somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answer to an unsolved seventy-year-old mystery. One everyone has forgotten about.

Everyone, except Maud . . .


Books with unreliable narrators, especially involving memory gaps, grab my attention. Coupled with the premise of the mystery, I needed this novel as soon as the seller could ship. The “Costa Winner 2014” sticker slapped on the cover sealed it.

As a young girl, Maud’s life is ripped apart when her glamorous and beautiful older sister Sukey (Susan) disappears under menacing circumstances. A young wife with a husband home from war, her life appears content from the outside – until Maud and her father begin exploring further. Her husband Frank, neighbors and the police revealed, was both volatile and involved in shady black market dealings in rationed goods. Seen leaving the house in the middle of the night carrying a suitcase, his story was Sukey was being menaced by a mad woman well known in town, a woman driven out of her mind by the death of a daughter who’d been run over by a bus.

But where had she gone, and why had she not gotten in contact with her family?

Told in alternating narrative, Healey follows the young Maud’s traumatic loss of Sukey, then skips to modern day when she’s grown old, rapidly losing her mind. Despite both a carer and her daughter Helen checking in twice a day, Maud manages to slip out of the house and get herself into scrapes. There are silly things like constantly buying sliced peaches when she already has a cupboard full, to, more seriously, getting lost and dangerously muddled. Over and over, she takes the short walk to Elizabeth’s house, knocking on doors and peeking in windows. As the house grows emptier, so does her suspicion.

Maud keeps notes in pockets and drawers, desperate to keep a grasp, but disjointed words and phrases rarely make sense when found again. There are just two things for certain: buried inside her head is the answer to Sukey’s fate, and her only friend, Elizabeth, is missing.

With Elizabeth, the elderly Maud shared adventures and companionship. Less well cared for, Elizabeth appreciated both Maud’s company and the treats she brought. Together they enjoyed outings to local charity shops, buying cheap knick-knacks that gave them pleasure. In these brief moments, both felt the burdens of old age slipping off their shoulders. Then, suddenly, Elizabeth herself seemed to disappear, the jolt triggering Maud’s memories of her sister’s unresolved mystery 70 years earlier.

Maud began searching as well as she could, repeating ad nauseum to anyone who’d listen, “Elizabeth is missing”. The more she uttered it, the less anyone took notice. She was a silly, demented old woman who spouted random memories and fancies.

For most of the book I was riveted. Healey did a magnificent job getting inside the head of a very muddled elderly woman. It felt authentic, the desperation and frustration of Maud, her daily life and slipping away from reality. Not having dealt with the situation first-hand, the descriptions felt real.

My quibble is perhaps minimal but nonetheless interfered with my complete absorption in the book. If my daughter went missing I’d be absolutely frantic. While the family was concerned, I was never convinced this was an all-consuming, desperate event. They did a perfunctory search, talking with neighbors and trying to gather clues, but I never felt in my gut this was a major upheaval in their lives. I never felt the immediacy.

Then, none of the characters were fully fleshed out as Maud. Realizing the story’s told through her eyes, not often grounded in reality, I still felt it came up a bit short. The challenges in conveying characters seen through a clouded lens are huge, but I missed that. What Healey does well she does very, very well. What she left out continues to niggle at me, perhaps more than it should.

Still, I recommend the book. Maud’s story is heartbreaking, the twin mysteries compelling. The approach of winter seems an appropriate time to add this one to your reading list. If you do, or have read it, I’d love to hear what you thought. Tell me I’m overly particular if you wish, and I’ll be surprised if you don’t find something to love about it.

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell


 The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell is published by Profile Books (£14.99).


Monday, 3 March

Online orders: 9

Books found: 8

Another beautiful day, marred at an early stage by a customer wearing shorts and knee-length woollen socks who knocked over a pile of books and left them lying on the floor. Shortly afterwards, a whistling customer with a ponytail and what I can only assume was a hat he’d borrowed from a clown bought a copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, I suspect deliberately to undermine my faith in humanity and dampen my spirits further.

A book we had sold on Amazon called Orient-Express: A Personal Journey, and which we had sent out three weeks ago was returned today with a note from the customer that reads: ‘Unfortunately not as expected. Require a more pictorial version. Please exchange or refund. I suspect that the customer was treating us like an online library and had read the book.

Till total £90

customers 4



Reading books about books is what I do when I’m not reading books. Doesn’t make a lick of sense, but bibliophiles will get it. And what’s more delightful than a snarky, acerbic daily diary written by a bookseller?

Answer: perhaps a wee kitten sleeping, but precious little else.


Cute overload.


It didn’t take long to start ordering books from Amazon.co.uk, once I’d settled back in Scotland. As I slammed the last drawer in my dresser, clothing folded away, my hand’s muscle memory awoke, typing A-M-A. Google knows me. Like a crack addict, I had to have it. Like an enabler, it provided.

An unabashed Anglophile, my “Buy Later” queue of books only or more readily available in the UK is already longer than most people’s list of “books to read in my lifetime”. I pop one in the cart with every order, and I order everything from Amazon. With Prime free delivery, I’d be silly not to. The price of a taxi to and from the local mall costs the equivalent of an average paperback.

Tell me I’m not penny-wise.

Shaun Bythell’s book was the first to jump the queue. Bythell is the owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland, the largest second-hand bookshop in the country. One of the most entertaining and satisfying works of humorous nonfiction I’ve read in quite a while, I’m struggling to remember what else has made me snort-laugh so hard. Bill Bryson’s sent his share of coffee spraying out my nose. Ditto David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs.

I love a good curmudgeon, especially a man with so great a knowledge of books. Shaun Bythell doesn’t hold back. Were I ten years younger, and not living in the house of another bookish man, hoooo boy. I’d throw myself across his path.

Hey, big boy.

Summary: it’s damned funny. I don’t hand that compliment out often. It’s difficult writing funny prose. Or prose I find funny, the important point. I’m a tough audience. I don’t throw my laughs around willy-nilly. Not for me the polite laugh. If you delight me, my reaction’s genuine.

Read this book if you love books. Read it even harder if used books are your thing, hardest yet if you have a streak of evil a mile wide.

N.B.: I must lodge one little complaint: I sent The Bookshop a Facebook message inquiring if they have any novels by Muriel Spark. I need to replenish my supply and thought what better way to compensate the man who’d just entertained me with his biting wit for several days, but never received a response.

It’s been over a week now, and nothing. Sorry, I may love your book, but I take my book buying awfully seriously. I’ll have to take my business elsewhere this time. Now I’ve given you a reason to snipe at me.

Feel free to run with it. I can take it.



My generally crappy week in review: reading and other complaints

Books mentioned in this post:

Muriel Spark – The Comforters

Muriel Spark – Robinson

Muriel Spark – Memento Mori

AJ Finn – The Woman in the Window

Peter Manseau – The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost

Michael Wolff – Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House

All the Louis Penny

Charles Dickens – Nicholas Nickleby

Peter Ackroyd – Hawksmoor

Martin Stannard – Muriel Spark


A combination of seasonal depression, big changes at work, and a slew of exaggerated, looming negative thoughts combined to bring back insomnia with a vengeance.

The general rule is I tire myself out mentally every day, so when my head hits the pillow I’m out like the dead. A couple nights this week I lay wide awake until 3 or 4 in the morning, dropped off abruptly, then woke an hourish later, up for the duration.

At that point, you may as well say screw it.

I made good use of time knocking out household tasks that wouldn’t piss off the neighbors who share walls with me, enjoyed a decent breakfast, and treated the dog to extra outdoor adventures.

Of course, I felt like shit by evening.

What’s nagging me is a confluence of small things blown out of proportion by virtue of an ongoing battle with depression. That’s how it works. Grounding is a practice useful to combat insomnia. Lying in bed, notice and be grateful for the warmth, the roof over your head, the food in your kitchen, the clothes on your back. You’re safe, nothing’s going to happen in that moment. Then, the next moment, then the next. I’ve had days it’s been necessary to practice that moment by moment for hours, very dark days in the grip of a serious and dangerous slide into the pit. I’m not there anymore, thankfully. It’s not that dark.

Routine is equally important. Rituals are a good thing, training mind and body that sleep is preceded by set steps.

I know all these things, but threw them out the window.


Memento Mori (1959)

Moving on … Reading!

In Muriel Spark news, after recently finishing her first novel The Comforters and second astonishing Robinson earlier in the week, I’m working on her third novel, Memento Mori. Funny, when you think about it. I had this grim week, and the literal translation of memento mori is “remember you can die.”

Uplifting, that.

I won’t talk a lot about it now, but thus far it’s extraordinarily depressing, wickedly sniping at older people. It deals with, among other things, the dismissive way they’re treated, and the horrors of dementia.

I need to see where she’s going with all this before I decide if I’m enjoying it. Then, I’ve not been reading it with full attention. Once I’ve finished I’ll go back through and re-read parts I haven’t granted full justice.

Sometimes that happens. Readers get it.

In general Spark news, I asked the incomparable Ian Rankin which were his favorites of her novels. Here’s his reply:


The undeserved IT book of 2018


Also knocked off this year’s Gone Girl, the big-ass book and film adaptation combo of 2018. SPOILER: Unimpressed.

It’s an extremely fast read, very unsubtle and undemanding. A thriller needs to be razor-sharp, lean and menacing. The Woman in the Window is none of these. Yes, it’s a great premise. A woman with agoraphobia spies on her neighbors, sees a horrific crime, and no one will believe her because she’s a drunk who mixes heavy depression medication. Her erratic behavior soon brands her as unreliable.

It would have been a wise move to leverage that a bit more than Finn did, to do so with stronger writing.


I know what I saw.



The problem was the plot played on a loop, dragging on without much advancement for more than 100 pages. It should have been at least that many pages shorter.

Good thrillers aren’t repetitive. Hence “thrill.” They’re lean and mean, menacing and horrifying. Finn never quite managed to hit these notes, though I’ll grant him at least one decent revelation. Despite a promising start, the main character’s love of old thriller movies hinting at use of Hitchcockian understatement, it didn’t deliver.

The writing wasn’t bad. It was actually better than average, and his outline has merit. It just lacked urgency, for which major points are deducted. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, and I should have been. I wasn’t cringing, worried about the main character’s safety more than a brief moment. I should have been.

I haven’t even touched on the worst part. The denouement is related flatly, almost in monotone. Don’t set up a book with the promise of nuance then deliver bland prose. The last 75ish pages twisted and turned so quickly it was like watching a tennis match, after not much happening for ages. While you want twists in a thriller, you also want more development, more doubt put into the reader’s mind this could be true, before yanking the rug out from under again.

Stephen King loved it? Gillian Flynn? I gotta read this! Sigh. It’s all part of the game.


Read this in place of The Woman in the Window…


No one will ever know what I went through to secure those negatives. The world can never appreciate it. It changed the whole course of my life.  – Mathew Brady


In recent nonfiction, The Apparitionists is an utterly fascinating book about the early history of photography as well as its use in spiritualism: the hoax perpetrated by a certain group of 19th century photographers purported to have the ability to capture images of the dead in photos of the living.

It also covers Mathew Brady, famous Civil War photographer, and his peers, explaining how they got the images they did. Shockingly, many of the images we’ve grown to associate with the Civil War dead were staged. Some were live soldiers posed dramatically, borrowed from the war then sent back to fight. Begs the question if any of them wound up legitimate subjects later in the war.

Gruesome thought.


Photographer Mathew Brady


Photojournalists of the time were attempting to convey the war’s true horror and devastation. Those without family or friends on the front lines saw only lists of the dead. In cities like New York, especially, it was an irrelevant, far-off happening. Photos brought everything home.

It’s gripping, packed full of fascinating detail. Love the photos, as well, though being a proof copy they’re not the sharpest. I expect I’ll be back to it this evening.


Playing on desperation of the grieving


The principle of the thing


God, I hate seeing that face on my blog.

Do I think this is totally nonfiction? No. Do I believe it’s politically motivated? Absolutely. But I hate this man with a vengeance. He tried to censor the book, threatening to sue to stop publication. Then the publisher moved up the release date…


I don’t know that I’ll read it. We all know he’s unbalanced, stupid, inept, a lech. I see enough of him in the daily news. I bought the book because he didn’t want me to, because it’s my First Amendment right.

I have enough on my reading plate. It can sit on my Kindle.




This is what happens when you hobnob with editors and other literary folk. I regularly bump into Louise Penny’s US editor on Twitter, largely because we share the same political views. I mentioned I’d owned several Penny titles, but had to sell them when I moved to Scotland. She said, well, then, let me fix that.


If you’re bookish you won’t ask the question. The answer: when I can get to her.


Some books have slipped by the wayside, as tends to happen when you’re a greedy binge reader. I didn’t make this month’s meeting of the classics group at my library, and hadn’t finished Nicholas Nickleby, anyway.  I intend to, mind. I’m largely enjoying it, though unusually frustrated by some of the side-track plotting.

Also languishing are Hawksmoor, for the Bowie read, and Stannard’s bio of Muriel Spark, which I’m reading but slowly.

Then there are two books I’m overdue in reviewing. Glasgow Review needs a date from me regarding a book I’ve had since my summer in Scotland, and NYJB hasn’t asked, but I owe them one immediately, as well. It’s timely, so I need to get off my arse. Another in the NYJB queue awaits, partially read but nowhere near reviewed.


That’s a wrap on the basics of my reading week. I have today’s New York Times sitting beside me, which is a good slow simmer guilty pleasure. Unfortunately, I also have a headache from hell (allergies), and work I need to get done.

Ah, but it feels good firing off a summary post.

Next post will likely be personal again. Much to say that doesn’t fit well in the scope of a bookish theme. Until then, good news is the days are lengthening and I have so much exciting stuff ahead.


Reviews: One big ol’ pile of ’em

I’m tossing several reviews together, like a reading salad. This saves your inbox (or web visit) the agony of separate, multiple posts. It’s out of love. Don’t say I never do anything for you.

Resuming formal tracking of my reading has had the unfortunate side effect of inspiring me to read more. I KNOW.  Awful. My determination to fill this journal is a 2018 goal.



Here are the first few I’ve recorded:

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

  • Hardcover
  • Publisher: Raven Books; 1st edition (2017)
  • Purchased via Amazon.co.uk

Where did I hear about this book? I don’t know. In some UK publication, probably. In that case, why didn’t I just buy it there? Was it not out yet? Did I not have time to beg a freebie?

Does it matter? Why am I asking so many questions?

I love creepy gothic books as much as darkly psychological portraits of murderous psychopaths. Makes you wish you could spend a night in my spare bedroom, doesn’t it? Don’t be silly. You wouldn’t wake to find me looming over you.


I relish the dark and brooding. Heathcliff is my ideal romantic hero, which explains the irresistible attraction I have to a certain type of man. I pursue the troubled ones, the mentally unstable. I can save you, angry man with a violent past!

Alas. Sorry, no one can save you but yourself. Seven years of therapy taught me that. Come back once you’ve graduated from therapy, balanced with help of medication. But then, I may not like you as well, because you’d be normal and – GASP – possibly kind.

It’s not me, it’s you.

In literature as in life, the grim attracts me. A very dark stripe runs through my soul – or the empty space it should be, where no sound is heard save the sinister creaking of an empty rocking chair, the tell-tale beating of a disembodied heart. But then, a lot of people must be similarly afflicted, because books like this fly off the shelves. Which makes me normal. Which I resent.

I didn’t enjoy The Silent Companions at first. For at least the first quarter, it irritated me I’d paid across the pond shipping, and an inflated exchange rate, to get my grubbies on it. A haunted house, a woman who’s lost her mind, strange and shifting wooden figures that resemble people she’s known …

Yet, I just wasn’t feeling it.

Tossed to the side of my bed in a huff, I read a couple other books while it lay there, gathering dust. Then I decided dash it! I’ve paid for it, I’m going to give it a few more pages. And you know, I enjoyed it a lot more after letting it sit and stew. Still far from the best gothic I’ve read, it got one hell of a lot better.

The wooden figures – the “silent companions” of the title – are ghoulishly creepy. It’s their shifting around that does it. You know how in horror movies every time a main character works up the courage to jerk open a door, hearing a noise in the hallway, it’s guaranteed as soon as the door closes the monster/killer/icky thing will be RIGHT THERE? That, but in a surprising enough way it’s not as cliché as it could have been. Still a bit predictable, but done well enough.

The heroine develops more fully as a character through the last half of the book, enough that I’d stopped hoping for her swift death, just so the book would be over. It bothered me the plot seemed lifted from Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, done less gracefully. If I hadn’t just watched the Netflix exclusive series, I’d have been blissfully ignorant of the similarity. Purcell is no Margaret Atwood.

If you aren’t familiar with Atwood’s novel, at its center is a woman in a mental asylum. Charged with murder, her mental instability and a lack of firm evidence are enough to keep her locked up, the prospect of execution looming. In The Silent Companions, the main character is unable to speak. Interviewed on an ongoing basis by a man determined to get at the truth, she communicates her story in writing. In Alias Grace, Grace is able to speak, spinning tales like Scheherazade. Grace is completely unreliable as a narrator, the story much more suspenseful. And the ending?


The Silent Companions isn’t the smoothest book. The dialogue tends toward the stilted. The attempted replication of a 19th century writing style comes off cheesily fake. As a lover of Victorian literature, I’m far less inclined to forgive missteps as huge as this.

It was, as you see often in reviews, “readable.” I finished it; that says a lot.

The ending irritated me. Again, picking it up so soon after my experience with the phenomenal TV adaptation of Alias Grace, it did not fare well. The power of Atwood’s novel, compared with the slow fizzle of The Silent Companions, did it no favors. I wonder if Purcell’s read Margaret Atwood’s book, if the similarities were intentional. If so, my opinion drops further.

I don’t hesitate throwing books aside. It’s ridiculous feeling you owe a writer anything. They owe you, the reader. It’s their job. They’ve produced a product, and you’ve paid for an anticipated experience. The writer needs to deliver as promised.

Not a ringing endorsement, I realize. But if you’re into gothics and aren’t looking for something either too heavy or terrifying, this may be it. And if you haven’t read Alias Grace, and aren’t an afficiando of Victorian literature.

Sorry, this just went even further South. The more I wrote, the less impressed I became. Go figure.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Catapult (October 3, 2017)

Holy lyrical and technical perfection. No wonder many lovers of hard-core literary fiction felt this short-listed novel should have won the Man Booker. I own a copy of the winner – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – but have yet to give it a proper read (as opposed to skimming pieces). Which deserved the win, I don’t know. All I do know, this one’s a beauty.

The trouble so many readers express is nothing much happens. It’s about perfection of writing, not a story that progresses in the traditional sense. A young girl in a remote English village goes missing. For years, residents search for her. Clues are tossed in occasionally, but they’re so few and far between the trail goes cold.

In place of a suspenseful plot, there are stories about everyday people, human experiences and the drama of everyday life in the space of time a tragedy becomes a distant memory. The parents of the girl are silhouettes on the edge. Hard details about the investigation aren’t well-defined.

If you’re looking for another Gone Girl, this isn’t your book. It’s a novel to be read slowly and savored, appreciated for the beauty of writing executed with perfection. It’s the kind of book you can pick up and put down without loss of continuity. I read it at a snail’s pace.

Every word is a treasure.

Miss Jane by Brad Watson

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (July 11, 2017)

Another beauty, this one with a plot not fast-paced but progressive. And the lyricism, just breathtaking.

Drawn from the story of his great-aunt, native Mississippian Brad Watsons’s Miss Jane is about a woman born malformed, neither her female parts, digestive nor urinary systems intact or functioning normally. She could control neither her bowels nor bladder, her life made painfully difficult.

Participating in normal society required pre-planning, and the constant worry she’d have accidents. From childhood, she was ostracized. Always on the outside looking in, her yearning to be normal, to go to school and live the carefree life of a child was heartbreaking. Forced to wear a diaper, she starved herself to avoid humiliating accidents. She wasn’t always successful.

Eventually dropping out of school, she’d learned enough rudimentary basics to allow her to read and perform basic math functions. As she got older, the dawning realization she could never have a romantic relationship in the traditional sense was a slap in the face. A strong woman, she not only endured but made a satisfyingly full life for herself, not that she never regretted what she couldn’t have. It would have been abnormal not to.

Start to finish a beautiful book, it does have lagging moments. I’m not sure I’d edit them out, though. That’s the thing. I had to pull my way along for brief periods, but overall, very worth it.

Miss Jane has literary prize written all over it.

It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree

by AJ Jacobs

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (November 7, 2017)
  • Courtesy of AJ Jacobs, because friend.

I’ve put off talking about this book because I knew it would be both very personal and time-consuming. I wanted to go into the whole back story of how I’d gotten involved in AJ’s project from the beginning, our personal friendship, and the ways I’d supported him throughout.

Flying out to Manhattan for the Global Family Reunion – the event that is the crux of this book – right around the time my divorce was finalized, it was a defining experience. I hoped to throw in pictures, too, because I went to NY and it was cathartic.

Oh, what the hell. Here are some of the pictures.


9/11 Museum at Ground Zero, Manhattan – a child stares in wonder.


I’ve known AJ at least a decade. His book The Know-it-All, about his experiences reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, helped bring me out of a deep depression following the loss of a soul-mated friend. Written in short bursts of his thoughts on specific entries, it was both funny and interesting enough to suit my all but non-existent attention span. Losing a friend similarly passionate in his devotion to books, I’d lost the will to and interest in reading. AJ brought me back.

I wrote a deeply personal review of The Know-it-All, which AJ had seen. Meaning to find and get into contact with me, he just never did. Years later, I wrote asking him for an interview following publication of another book. He knew me immediately, telling me then how much my review had moved him.

By the time he started his world genealogy project, we were friends who communicated regularly. An editor of Esquire magazine, a very big deal, he’s still a reference on my resume. I have his personal cell number. AJ is good people.

He described his vision: what if the world traced its roots and realized we’re all cousins. I was hooked. I joined Geni.com, the site virtually hosting the project. Genealogy began to consume me. The problem: once you start, it’s hard thinking about anything else.

My then-husband was furiously jealous of the amount of time it took up in my life, manifesting in hostility toward anything I tried sharing. The rift already there after decades of a terrible marriage, we’d be divorced by the time I attended the Global Family Reunion.

No, I don’t blame that on genealogy.

One World Trade Center.

Long story short, I followed AJ through what turned out to be a tortuously difficult project to get together this real-world family reunion, held in the summer of 2015. Though his friendliness never faltered, I could see the toll it took. He was still AJ, still kind and caring, frantically busy, but never so much he didn’t return my emails. This one nearly got away from him.

The book itself went months overdue. Intending to finish sometime around March of 2016, publication didn’t happen until November 2017.

The resulting book shows the strain. He doesn’t shy away from admitting he’d gotten in over his head, that pulling together a virtual campaign getting people to join Geni and dig into their roots enough to connect with him, plan an actual event with celebrities and publicity and all that goes with it, and gear up to write this book came dangerously close to breaking him. Normally a jovial writer with a sharp edge of self-denigrating sarcasm, the style of It’s All Relative comes off almost depressing.

This book doesn’t sound like AJ to me.

Ultimately, he drew together thousands who traced their ancestry far enough they realized he was right: we are all interconnected. Real life friendships were formed between total strangers of different races and ethnic origins, small celebrations were held around the world. People who couldn’t make the official reunion held their own.

Though it rained torrentially the day of the actual, mostly outdoor reunion, feet and chairs sinking into inches of mud, he pulled it off. Sister Sledge was there, singing “We Are Family”. I saw the celebrities backstage. That part was semi-amazing.

When I saw AJ that day, met him face to face, he was so distracted it didn’t register who I was. It didn’t help I was an unrecognizable drowned rat, caught in the deluge in Manhattan while tracking down a cab. By the time I caught up with him, the strain from all that had gone wrong had him so near distraught he shook my hand absently.

Leaving the event, I couldn’t find a taxi to take me the staggeringly expensive and long route back to Manhattan. In a shady area of Brooklyn, I wandered for hours. My feet were so sore from a poor choice in footwear – fashion over function – I walked the sidewalks barefoot, lost beyond hope. Returning to the venue, I tearfully asked for help. My phone dead more than an hour, the volunteers kindly ordered my taxi.


Times Square

Back at my hotel, I threw things around, irate I’d paid a tremendous amount of money flying out and staying in Manhattan just to have it turn into a virtual shit show. I tossed my backstage pass lanyard in the garbage. I couldn’t wait to leave New York City.

A few weeks later, once I’d cooled a bit but not completely, I fired off an email to AJ. It was a little ranty. And god, he was sorry. So sorry we set up a Skype call so he could talk to me, apologizing as face to face as technology allows.

Fences were mended.

I guess I did wind up writing a personal review about the book, after all. It was a life experience I won’t forget – not a completely great one, but all’s well that ends friendship intact.


So ends a quick summary of the first few books I’ve finished thus far in 2018. I’m close to finishing more. Hopefully I’ll have time to discuss those singly. We’ll see. Lots of other book-related thoughts, but time has been kicking my arse lately.

Either way, I’ll be back soon. Until then, happy January reading.

Educated: a Memoir by Tara Westover


  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (February 20, 2018)
  • Review copy, courtesy of Amazon Vine


Growing up sheltered from the outside world, her home birth unreported out of fear her father’s imagined “Illuminati” (i.e., the U.S. government) would swoop down and morally corrupt her, Tara Westover was the child of devout Mormon survivalists, marooned in the mountains of Idaho.

Physically and mentally abused by her father and brothers, semi-neglected by a mother brain-damaged by an automobile accident, she grew up with little to knowledge of the outside world. She had never heard of the Holocaust, knew nothing of historical events save the warped, grossly inaccurate versions fed to her by her father.

Tara was not allowed to attend school. Treated solely by her herbalist mother, she never saw a doctor.

Her resilience saved her. Taking control of her education, in her early teens she began buying text books. Despite no formal schooling, she met the requirements to enter Brigham Young University. Boosted by scholarships and sympathetic, influential people, eventually she would graduate from Cambridge with a PhD.

Educated is about gritty determination. All is laid bare, yet the telling is balanced. It’s an emotionally difficult read. I cringed so many times, caught up in the horror of beatings she took, horrific injuries sustained by herself and family members. She saw her brother’s severe burns fusing jeans to his legs, the same brother with a hole cracked in his skull exposing his brain, her father’s melted faced from fire he shouldn’t have survived.

Treated by her herbalist mother, survive they did.

The prose style is matter of fact, detached. This is not a negative. It avoids the distraction of emotional outbursts, tempering justifiable rage and fear. She does not allow the characters to be villainized. As in life, none are without redeeming qualities.

Despite what she endured, Tara Westover loved her family.

I wanted her to hate them. Infuriated by what she endured, my visceral wish was to see the innocent avenged. She knew best, keeping a calm head even when I couldn’t. I wondered how can she keep going back? Why is she risking her safety?

Unconditional love for family, that’s why.

Educated is Tara Westover’s story of personal strength, without the slightest bit of self-righteousness. Very like Jeannette Walls’  The Glass Castle, it’s not as lyrical but no less forthright and moving.

At its conclusion inspirational, even hopeful, Educated is one of the finest memoirs I’ve read.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker


The age of miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Random House, 2012

269 pp.

[Library copy]


The premise is simple but brilliant: one day the earth's rotation begins to slow; from that point things rapidly degenerate, endangering all life on earth. It starts with birds falling from the sky, the earth's gravity thrown off, confusing their internal system of navigation. It only worsens as the planet continues shifting and changing.

The story is told from the perspective of a young girl named Julia, around 11 years old when it all begins. Her parents – a father who's an obstetrician, her mother an aging former actress – partially due to an effect from "the sickness" associated with "the slowing," watch their marriage disintegrate as they grow further and further apart. Meanwhile, despite the increasingly dire conditions, children remain children. Julia struggles to grow into maturity enduring the ups and downs of budding adolescence, suffering through the politics of middle school.

Everyone else loves the book; that's what I'm hearing from all corners of the literary world. Praise is generous, though if you read the acknowledgments it quickly becomes clear a high number of cover blurbs were written by her writing teachers. Walker has an MFA and is a former editor at Simon & Schuster. She's done everything right; her qualifications are stellar. Unfortunately, her writing skills are poor to forgettable.

My problem with the book wasn't the storyline, which is an excellent framework. The flaw is I was seldom moved to feel any of this. What should have been a terrifying tale of man's fragility in the face of forces beyond our control was instead a monotone relation of happenings. All well ordered, mind. For that I give her credit; I just didn't care about her characters, save Julia.

Yet, periodicals such as The National Post had this to say:


"This is not a disaster novel, per se: there are no ticking clocks, no handily placed experts to explain away any confusion, no epic finales. The Age of Miracles is refreshingly, and realistically, human-scaled, less about the disaster facing the world than it is about community, family and growing up. For 11-year-old Julia, the novel’s narrator, the Earth’s rotation may have slowed, but the world keeps on turning."


 By now I worry I'm crazy, that I missed something pretty much everyone else saw. Are there no negative reviews out there?

The Telegraph loved it, as well:


"The Age of Miracles is a gentle reminder of what adolescents learn and adults try to forget – that the world is alarmingly mysterious and that the talismans of modernity are no defence against the “unimagined, unprepared for” miracles or calamities of love and loss."


Karen Thompson Walker is clearly the latest darling of the publishing world. Why I didn't feel it, why it didn't reach me is confusing and a little awkward.

Aha! My favorite book critic, the one with which I agree most often, Ron Charles!:


“The Age of Miracles” leaves us, instead, only with the typical tropes of tween anxiety set awkwardly alongside the death of the planet. Poor Julia must somehow cope with a new training bra and the destruction of the human race. That’s enough to make sixth grade a real bummer."


Victory! At last. Ron Charles has hit it right on the head, explaining why I could hardly care less about this book, why I struggled my way through it solely because almost everyone was raving. I was afraid I was missing something, not giving the book a fair shake. Turns out, I'm not the only one left cold:


"What “The Age of Miracles” would need to work, though, is more consistent quality. Its opening and closing chapters are fairly effective, but the bulk of the novel vacillates erratically between plain and melodramatic. Straining the ordinary pains of adolescence toward profundity, the story slowly winds down long before we get to the End."


Ah, what a relief. This is why I can't recommend this novel, an apt observation expressing my thoughts exactly. The novel was detached to the point of boredom, one long slog through the eyes of an 11-year old. If you want to read a truly masterful book on a similar topic, read Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now. Then come back and let me know how you feel about The Age of Miracles. Rosoff's novel is the perfect illustration of how this genre is done right.



Slow to the Finish, Though I Eats Me Spinach: January reading, etc…

I haven't finished one book yet in 2012. Not one. I've started a few, and made some good progress but I keep getting distracted by other books and can't finish a single one. It's getting a little frustrating, especially seeing so many other book bloggers joyously declaring they're ready to post their first – or even second, the over-achievers! – review of the year, then here's me – six days into Apocalypse 2012 without a single finish to call my own.

I hang my head in shame.


LonglongwayI'm just over halfway in A Long Long Way, Mr. Sebastian Barry's previous Booker nominee. It tells the tale of Willie Dunne, of the recurring Dunne family, and his experiences in WW I. Positively gut-wrenching stuff. The description of death by mustard gas was an agony to read. How could human beings be so cruel to each other?

It's not all horrific, thankfully, but much of it is dedicated to expressing the brutality – and frustrations – of war. Impossible not to love Willie Dunne and wish him anywhere but along the front lines. Also difficult not to feel enraged when his superior officer denigrates the Irish, putting them down as stupid for going and getting themselves killed. As if they'd done so on purpose? I could have slapped the man which goes to show you how Mr. Barry creates such emotion in – in this case – a more stripped-down example of his prose, a less-poetic book than On Canaan's Side but powerful nonetheless.

During Willie's visit home on leave it feels so easy identifying with the glory of being bathed for the first time in ages, though I've never been that dirty I assure you. Reading it made me feel the itch of the nits (I'm scratching my head as I type this!) and the relief after the scrub down by his father, while Willie stood in the tin tub shivering but enjoying the personal attention from the parent who'd always found him lacking before. Such a simple scene, really, though not simple at all from the standpoint of their fraught relationship. Having been tested and coming through one stage of the war raised the boy in the opinion of his father, disappointed as he'd been by his son's short stature and inability to prove himself strong and manly otherwise. Sad knowing it took so much to get his father's attention though Willie himself seems proud enough of the fact. 


MagnificentobsessionIn a nonfiction work for review it's the story of Victoria and Albert, specifically Victoria's obsession with death and mourning, contrasted with Albert's complete resignation he had no doubt he would die young. Many readers will find it eerie how accepting of death Albert was, though Rappaport does a brilliant job explaining reasons for it. For one, he was a German having to live away from his homeland and all his family. For another, when he married Victoria he was discriminated against for being foreign and also emasculated for his status as mere husband of the monarch, until made Prince Consort.

Ironically, it turns out he's the one who put the ramrod iron in Victoria's spine, disciplining her from a silly thing (Victoria?!) into a serious ruler. But even then he was every inch the king, though not in name. He answered official correspondence, heavily influencing the direction Britain took, necessarily using his persuasion on Victoria herself, as well.

My idea of the romance between Victoria and Albert was smashed by the reading of this book. Certainly, they loved each other, and when Albert died Victoria was devastated. Only, she was one for indulging herself in deep mourning, almost taking pleasure in its austerity, judging from her reactions to other deaths in the family. It's all riveting and shocking, not at all the story I was expecting. Fascinating stuff. During this year of the celebration of Dickens's 200th it's a wonderful addition to my reading, thanks to Library Journal!

And should you read an LJ blurb on the back of the finished U.S. edition that would be ME. The first time I saw a quotation from myself in the guise of Library Journal (individuals aren't credited) I was taken aback, I was so impressed. I told the person I was with, "I wrote this review, so I know I said this, but I don't remember it!"

So it goes as a review churner-outer. I expect I'm all over the place and don't know it. I'm too focused on what's next I seldom look back, though I may wish otherwise someday. Ah, but it will still be there now, won't it.


Bleakhouse2On to Dickens (happy birthday in a month and a day, old chap!) and Bleak House! It's a huge, huge book – weighing in between 900 + and 1,000 + pages depending on the edition – and I'm just past the middle reading it on my new Kindle Fire.

Until last night I was so proud I'd been keeping all 5,000 characters straight, then I hit a scene in which I had no concept on earth what had just happened, nor did I recognize to whom it did. I soldiered on, hoping it would come clear but then it never did after another 50 or so pages.

The remedy for that will be a quick look at Spark Notes or the equivalent, which I believe an excellent resource when you're actually reading – or have read – the primary work and have a question to be answered. Because falling behind in a Dickens novel is a serious thing, indeed.

This is at least my second read of BH, if not my third. I can't keep anything straight I live in such a muddle of books. I'm not as irritated with Esther Summerson this time around (reserving that feeling for Ada, the long-suffering fool), and far more annoyed with Richard Carstone. Mrs. Jellyby is still a nuisance of a thing I'd love to slap, and her Peepy adorable beyond words as a background character you can't help but love, the poor duck.

I just don't remember the covers of the book being so far apart,or the distance between mentions of Lady Dedlock separated so much. If this were a modern book I'd be screaming WHERE IS THE EDITOR?! but it's funny with Dickens I push through all the diversions.

But I honestly don't recall all these side-plots… The Smallweeds and granddaughter Judy, for one, though any scene featuring them is grimly hilarious. Old Smallweed is tossed around, as an elderly invalid, but the reader feels no sympathy at all for the calculating old coot. When he's pushed too close to the fire and his stockings begin to burn the reader almost wishes he'd been pushed a little closer.



Nasty old thing.

And here's a wonderful link with Bleak House illustrations in case you're looking for them and you hopefully will be someday, if not today.

So, having lots of fun with this but I'm getting a little nervous about finishing on time for the group discussion in another week or so. I read 'til I can't keep my eyes open every, single night and get through hundreds of pages but did I mention the book is VERY  LONG?


And don't even ask me what's up and coming or I'll slip into a coma. A publicist for Barry Unsworth sent me a note asking if I'll review his new one,  The Quality of Mercy, coming out January 10. Well, if I can I love to post a review right as a book's debuting and though this one's not so chunky as BH it's still over 300 pp. of thoughtful reading, with the Victoria and Albert review due January 8, no less.

Next week I'm attending a signing for Sara Levine (and three other writers but never mind that…), author of Treasure Island!!! with which I had mixed reading success. For her I'll be working up a review-y, maybe interview-y thing for local papers,  plus of course the blog. With photos, video if possible but don't hold your breath.

As if that's not enough to make a woman a raving lunatic, my library is hosting a TREMENDOUSLY PROLIFIC BIG NAME AUTHOR during National Library Month in April and I've, to date, read only one of her 20ish books. SO I WILL NEED TO REMEDY THAT. And she may be bringing along another writer, first book coming out in May, and I NEED TO LAY MY GRUBBY HANDS ON A COPY OF THAT AS WELL.

And no, that's not all that's between January and April, just all I'm willing to type.

I may not come up for air until June, during which I'll have roughly two weeks to cry piteously until time to gear up once again and read the works of NUMEROUS WRITERS I WILL BE MEETING AT BOOKTOPIA 2012 in Oxford, MS.

For all or  most of these writers my work will include much of my usual services. Of COURSE there's much joy and rapture in all my endeavors – or damned if I'd do it – but it makes my brain feel squeezy sometimes, you must understand. Occasionally it becomes so squeezy all the blood flees my brain, my head flops to the side and I stare at nothing for hours until someone comes along and pushes me over, allowing my blood to again flow freely. Then I eat chocolate and all is right with the world.

So all this is a very round-about way of saying, "Gosh I'm busy." You could have just read this last bit and avoided everything else. Makes you want to kick yourself, doesn't it?


NaNo…. NoNo

I fell behind. The wagon hit a bump in the road and I fell off. I was trampled by the horses, scraped off the street and tossed onto the sidewalk.

Yesterday was November 30, 2011. In order for me to have finished NaNoWriMo I would have had to write something along the lines of 30,000 words by the end of the day. That didn't happen.

What bothers me most isn't that I didn't cram 50,000 words into 30 days. I'm concerned by how embarrassed I've been to come online and admit defeat. If anyone else said to me, "Hey, I tried, but you know how much else I have going on. I just couldn't get there." I'd say, "No worries. You gave it a shot." I need to extend to myself that same empathy. Chin up, woman! There's nothing saying I can't take what I started, finish it and rework it into something, now is there. Besides, I changed my mind about the entire direction of the piece and wasn't sure how to go on, leaving the first 50ish pages hanging while twisting the plot, mid-novel, into something totally different. I just wasn't feeling it this year, I guess. Or I was, but knowing I didn't have time to go back and revise made me reluctant to go on.

I'm raising the white flag of surrender. NaNoWriMo, you have officially kicked my lily-white, Irish/Dutch/English posterior.

I haven't been idle, though. I published an interview with Michael Cunningham in the Illinois Library Association Reporter. I also submitted a couple book reviews: one on Caitlin Flanagan's Girl Land for Booklist and the other Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina for Library Journal. Don't think either of those have been published yet, or at least I haven't had time to check.

Also, there are the blog posts in our local online newspapers (Patch.com and TribLocal), book reviews and an interview on behalf of the library:  an interview with Michael Popek, author of Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller's Collection of Odd Things Found Between the Pages; my thoughts on Hillary Jordan's latest When She Woke; and also Peter Ackroyd's latest London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets.


What am I reading now, you ask? I'll tell you!:

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Plus my latest review book for BookBrowse.com, one I can't reveal just yet, mostly because it makes it sound mysterious and exotic. All I'm saying is: grim, short stories, southern. That narrows it down.


Soon to start:

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

2012 being the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birth, I plan to read several other books by and about my favorite Victorian. One is Claire Tomalin's latest biography: Charles Dickens: A Life and the other possibly Michael Slater's Charles Dickens, about which I've heard only great things. I've missed Victorian literature. 2012 is my year to revisit a few old favorites and also give some new ones a try.



Also, I've been tremendously blessed by several publishers who answered my clarion call, sending me review books I requested, plus those who continue to send titles they'd like me to cover. Here are a few of those, received over the past week:




Special thanks to Coffee House Press and Yale University Press. Wow!

Loads of things bookish happening here, plus the inevitable pull into the holiday season. It's going to be a busy month.

Julian Barnes – The Sense of an Ending reviews

Will be the Man Booker winner for Barnes? Express.co.uk:


"The Sense of an Ending is spare in its telling with not a word wasted on its 150 pages, but so much is packed in. By the time one reaches the end, it is not just the novel but the title itself that inspires the reader; not just the end of a life but how a story is told."

Fourth time the charm?



From Bookbag.com:


"It's a joy to read. Thought provoking, beautifully observed with just enough mystery to keep you turning the pages to find out what happened. Books that involve the narrator examining their own actions can get too easily bogged down, but by keeping it brief, this never happens with Barnes. There's insight into the human condition and gentle philosophy without it becoming too introspective. It's very readable literary fiction."



From TimeOut Sydney:


"It’s a strange, slight story given weight by Barnes’ exceptional writing – a description which could equally well apply to his near-thriller Before She Met Me – and at 150 pages, it's barely more than a novella. Perhaps it’s because his rhythms are as familiar as an old friend that The Sense of an Ending didn’t demand my attention the way that his best writing has done in the past (I’d recommend Flaubert’s ParrotA History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters and/or Talking it Over as the finest examples of his craft, myself), but a solid Barnes book is still head and shoulders above the best efforts of most contemporary fiction writers."

The Sunday Salon – August 7, 2011 edition


Welcome to this week's edition of The Sunday Salon, in which I bring to you a mere fraction of what I've been reading throughout the week, because my ADD renders a full transcription a superhuman ideal to which I cannot live up.

Books finished:

Howtolivesafely A plot line centering on time travel would have had much less success with me before I became enamored with Doctor Who and his grand adventures in the TARDIS. Honestly, the absolute hotness of the present (Matt Smith) and prior (DAVID TENNANT) actors playing the lead role in the series did have a little something to do with my initial interest, but beyond that I became sucked into the world of time lords, quirky aliens and unpredictable plots. Now I'm a rabid fan, making the idea of time travel – though, in reality, negated by Stephen Hawking – irresistable.

So, in the mail comes Charles Yu's book, arriving at pretty much the height of my Who-mania. Main character Charles Yu (coincidence!) opens the book describing his job involving policing time travellers, in order to keep them from bending or breaking the rule declaring one mustn't mess with the past, or God alone knows the ripple effect. He travels around in a box sounding for all the world like the TARDIS, guided by his computer, TAMMY, and accompanied by a sort of robotic dog.

Sound familiar at all, Doctor Who fans? Me, too. A little too familiar.

The main theme is the alienation Charles suffered from his father – the ubiquitous constantly-distracted/disconnected from real life scientist – before and after his sudden, unexplained disappearance, and how this has haunted Charles all his life. The book bounces back and forth betwixt a young  Charles desperately seeking his father's attention and the adult Charles, operating the very time machines which his father's life's work involved, in the midst of searching for his father in order to find the proverbial closure.

The only time travel book I can recall reading previously is H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, an odd eyebrow scruncher/head tilter of a book, one I didn't particularly care for aside from the fact it was an early attempt at science fiction writing and interesting as such. I can't recall what led me to read it, whether it was for a book group or lark, but the impression it left me with was not positive. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe went better, but didn't replace Doctor Who in my heart. Yu's work lacked a certain something in the way of plot complexity, and general tension. It felt incomplete to me, though I thoroughly enjoyed the writing style – witty, and generally lovely. Pity, that, but can't win them all.

Bunnersisters A much better experience came in the form of a short foray with my beloved Edith Wharton's novella Bunner Sisters, the story of two impoverished spinsters – Evelina and Ann Eliza – living modestly, operating a small sewing/millinary business in their home. The two live miserly lives, but things are satisfactory; they can meet their needs through their own work, without need of a husband to support them.

"The Bunner sisters were proud of the neatness of their shop and content with its humble prosperity. It was not what they had once imagined it would be, but though it presented but a shrunken image of their earlier ambitions it enabled them to pay their rent and keep themselves alive and out of debt; and it was long since their hopes had soared higher."

But then enters a MAN – Herman Ramy – who sells Evelina a clock she gives Ann Eliza for her birthday. When the clock proves to need repair one of the sisters takes it back to his shop. It turns out there was only a speck of dirt in the way, after removal of same the clock was in perfect order.

What starts as a simple transaction blossoms into something suggesting more when the man decides to visit the ladies again, to ensure the clock remains in working order (lame, dude). You can see this one coming: the two sisters begin spending more and more time with him, each believing his attentions are due to her. One is left giddy, and the other broken-hearted, until…

Twist! Turn! Delightful stuff.

As far as actual finished books, let's say these two make up the total list, as I need to go grocery shopping in a few minutes.

Books in Progress:

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. Reading this with The New Yorker book discussion group, which I didn't even know existed until last week but had to join because, hey, it's THE NEW YORKER. Roughly halfway through, reading on my iPhone Kindle app. Plot: a rather eccentric/artsy, brilliant brother and his adoring but less exceptional sister and the lives they lead, narrated by the sister. Kind of short on actual plot, come to think of it, but interestingly character-driven.

The Infinite Library by Kane X. Faucher. Shazam! No idea how I found this Kindle book, but so far I'm torn between thinking it brilliant and merely approaching/mirroring brilliance as it's heavily influenced by Borges' "The Library of Babel," and no writer can live up to THAT. A mysterious man approaches a book researcher/lecturer asking for help filling in obscure titles in his library, using less than legal means. Reeeallly interesting.

Luminarium by Alex Shakar. Good stuff! Twin men, one in a coma, one participating in a study in which the objective is something approaching becoming one with the universe, with a spiritual slant. Not very far into it, but it's great so far. Reading with The Rumpus Book Club.

Have a lovely week.