The Postmistress

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by Sarah Blake

published 2010

So I picked this up for a quarter at the library booksale.  I wavered, because it does say a novel on the front, and I’m discovering more and more that a novels are just not for me.

The language in The Postmistress was beautiful.  However, the story was an incredible downer – nobody ended up happy, and we are left with a very hopeless perspective on life.

The story focuses on several different people.  One group lives in a small town, Franklin, on the “arm” of Massachusetts.  This group includes Iris, the postmistress.  Middle-aged and single, Iris lives a peaceful life, viewing herself as a small but critical part of the United States Government: her job as a postmistress is sacred to her.  Iris is falling in love with the town mechanic, Harry.  We also meet Emma, the bride of the town’s doctor.

Meanwhile, in England, a war is on.  Frankie, an American, is living in London and reporting, via radio, about the Blitz.  She loves her work, and Blake ties together her two locations frequently through Frankie’s stories, as the people in Franklin listen to what Frankie is reporting.  (Frankie and Franklin…  ha, just noticed that!)

Like I said, some of the language is beautiful.  The descriptions of London life during this tumultuous and terrifying time are wonderful –

A draft of night air hit her, and the sounds of bombs falling now, further along to the west.  A thick gust of smoke crossed as the wind shifted off the river carrying the stink of the explosions.  …  There was no veil, no protective curtain where it happened out of sight, “over there.”  This was the shock.  This had always been the shock, and it seemed to Frankie the most important thing for people to know.  Over here, there was nothing between you and the war.  …  That was it, wasn’t it?  The nothing between.  That scant air between the couple kissing this evening: their bodies leaning against each other before going underground was the same air between the gunners and the bombs, and it was the same air that carried her voice across the sea, on sound waves, to people listening in their chairs at home.

Or this bit –

One day someone you saw every day was there and the next he was not.  This was the only way Frankie had found to report the Blitz.  The small policeman on the corner, the grocer with the bad eye, the people you walked to work with, in the shops, on the bus: the people you didn’t know but who walked the same route as you, who wove the anonymous fabric of your life.  Buildings, gardens, the roofline, one could describe their absence.  But for the disappearance of a man, or a little boy, or the woman who used to wait for the bus at the same time as she did, Frankie had found few words:  Once they were here.  And I saw them.

As the stories unwind, the characters are woven together.  Through various circumstances, Frankie meets Franklin’s doctor in London.  Later, after she’s traveled through occupied France and part of Germany, Frankie returns to the States, and finds herself drawn to Franklin.  Because it is a novel, though, no one is allowed a happy ending.  People die (just to prove that people died), and Frankie never finds the answers for which she was searching.

Also, because it is a novel, we have to have at least a couple of random sex scenes – and, for me, details of someone losing their virginity is really just not all that interesting, you know?  And ditto for the shagging of a random stranger up against a wall outside the bar.  I mean, really?  So unnecessary.

And finally, as a novel, we have to have at least a bit of time devoted to a woman being on her period, because apparently it’s important to emphasize that women have menstrual cycles now.

(Keep in mind that this is literally out of nowhere.  The paragraph before, Frankie is just hanging out, thinking about life.)

A clot of blood released into her underpants.  Then another.  Christ.  She shimmied the three steps over to her bureau, holding her hand between her legs so nothing dripped onto the landlady’s carpet.  She reached and found a Kotex and a pair of clean underwear and fastened the one to the sanitary belt around her waist, pulled the other up, and tossed the soiled underwear on top of the blouse already soaking in the tiny sink by the door.

?!?!??!?!?!  The end.  No purpose whatsoever.  I do not understand this trend of talking about menstrual cycles.  Why….????  You know, it’s one of those things that I have to think about enough in real life, really not interested in reading about it in my fiction.  Sheesh.

But you know, I could have gotten past all that, even gotten past the fact that the first chapter is all about Iris going to the doctor in Boston so she can get a “certificate” stating that she is still a virgin so whenever Harry gets around to shagging her, she’ll be able to prove that he’s the first (!?!?!?!?), if there had been even the slightest glimmer of hope at the end of this story.  But there wasn’t.  Like most a novels, this one ended bleakly – “We can’t change what’s coming.  Something is always coming.”

I think that part of Blake’s point is that tragic things happen all over the world, but we only care about the things that touch us.  The implication, of course, is that this is wrong.  Frankie felt passionately that the States should have been involved in the war long before they were, hence her desire to tell the everyday stories in an attempt to tell the people home how everyday life in Europe was terrifying.  But as somewhat of an isolationist, I’m not sure that I agree with a lot of what Frankie has to say, or with a lot of Blake’s attempted parallels to the modern world.

If you enjoy a novels, you will probably like this book.  It is written well, and the story is engaging.  Personally, though, I really like something with at least a glimmer of hope.

ALSO something else really torqued me off about this book, but involves major spoilers, so I’ll put the minirant below the break.  ;-)

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The Moving Finger

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by Agatha Christie

published 1942

Even though it’s been a while since I’ve read them, I have this vague feeling that I really didn’t like the Miss Marple books as well as some of Christie’s others.  And I’m not sure whether or not it’s Miss Marple herself, or the fact that more books with her as the main character were written later in Christie’s career – I find myself trending towards her 1920’s and 30’s books myself.

At any rate, The Moving Finger was not one of my favorites, mainly because Miss Marple isn’t really a part of the story.  The story is about a young man named Jerry, who is recovering from a long illness by leasing a house in a small village.  With his sister to keep house for him, Jerry settles in for what he assumes will be a quiet life.  However, it isn’t long before he and his sister receive an anonymous “poison pen” letter.  Jerry finds out that several – that is to say, most – villagers have been receiving these letters.  While uncomfortable, the letters don’t seem dangerous – until a woman commits suicide after receiving one.

This is not a bad story, but it’s not a great one, either.  The characters are a bit flat, and both Jerry and Joanna’s love stories feel a bit contrived (and a bit out of place as they don’t move the story forward much).  Miss Marple pops in at the end, magically knows all the answers, and wraps everything up.  I much prefer going along with the person who knows the answers in the end.  Because Miss Marple wasn’t really a part of the story (it isn’t even her village!), it felt odd to have her be the person who pulls it all together.  In my opinion, this story would have worked better without her – as a stand alone with Jerry as the amateur detective, perhaps.

Still, a fine if not stunning addition to the Marple tales.

Digital Fortress

Digital-Fortress

by Dan Brown

published 1998

First off, I just want to take a moment to say you all of you beautiful WordPress people – I love you.  All of you are so friendly and encouraging, and even when we disagree we have such good conversations.  You all make me love book blogging.  I post all of these same posts over on my old book blog on tumblr, and yesterday’s Harry Potter post caused another tumblrer to go a bit ballistic on me – they created a counter-post explaining how everything I said was wrong, and they did it all while calling me names and using clever gifs to point out how stupid I am, and how I’ve obviously never actually read the Harry Potter books (because I have so much spare time to make posts about books I haven’t read!).  And, you know, it’s the internet so that was their prerogative, but still.  It just felt like we could have had a really engaging conversation about our two differing opinions, but instead the other poster started out by telling me that I’m a “f*ing idiot” who has never read the books and who is stupid and couldn’t understand the books even if I did read them.  When I created a post (because actually this wasn’t the only person to respond, they were just the most virulent) simply saying that it’s my blog and I can have my opinion, and others are welcome to disagree but shouldn’t expect me to engage with them if they start out by name-calling, they reposted it and said that I was just a whiny whiner who expects people to kiss my ass and only listen to opinions the same as mine.  All of this has made me feel very sad about book blogging today.

So anyway, the point is, I love hearing from all of you, and love hearing what you think, even when you disagree.  And I especially love the way that we can have great conversations without calling each other stupid idiots.  Thanks for listening to me whine.  You guys are great.

Okay!  Digital Fortress!  This book was actually reviewed by my blogging friend Sophie a while back.  Here’s the ironic thing – I wrote it down when she reviewed it, but I can’t remember anything she said about – I can’t even remember whether or not she liked it!  So I’m going to write my review, and then read hers before closing to see if there is anything awesome I missed!

I’ve never read a book by Dan Brown, and it was actually mildly funny to me that I got this book and it says that it’s the author of The Da Vinci Code, which I’ve never gotten around to reading (whoops).  So I came into this book without any real preconceived ideas of what to expect, especially since I couldn’t remember what it was in Sophie’s review that made me want to read it in the first place!

The book, set in its current time (so late 90’s), is actually about a top-secret and little-known branch of the American government…  the NSA.  (It was actually quite intriguing to read a story from before 9/11, before Snowden, before anyone really know what the NSA was all about.)  Susan is a cryptographer, and she works in a secret-secret department with a huge computer that reads every email, deciphering codes as it goes.  Our story begins because someone has created an unbreakable code, which could destroy the NSA’s ability to uncover secret information before it happens.

There was a lot going on in this book.  The story was gripping and fast-paced.  Such a delight to read a third-person narrative!  Susan is a fantastic protagonist.  She’s incredibly intelligent, brilliant at her job, and a complex individual. She’s also deeply in love with her fiancee, David, who spends most of the book overseas trying to find another piece to the unbreakable code.

Cons for me –

  • lot of killing.  Nothing dreadfully gruesome, but, let’s face it, lots of people die.  Almost everyone, really.  I’m not really a big fan of bloodbaths, and some of the people were killed for fairly minor reasons.  It was hard to get emotionally attached to anyone when I was afraid they would be dead in the next chapter.
  • While I loved the third-person narrative, Brown tends to jump perspectives a lot, and without really any warning.  So at one point we could be following one person’s thoughts, and then we switch to another person in the next sentence.  At times, it made the narrative a bit disjointed because of that little jolt that comes when you find yourself thinking, “Wait, who is ‘he’ exactly??”
  • Language/a bit of sex – nothing crazy, and nothing that really detracted from the reading for me, but I’m throwing it out there.  One scene in particular with a prostitute getting it on with her customer…  all just a set-up so we could kill them in the next scene…  it felt weird.  Definitely not a G-rated book.

Pros –

  • Short chapters.  I have a serious love/hate relationship with short chapters, because I can’t resist them.  Some of Brown’s chapters were only a paragraph or two long.  It’s like candy.  I couldn’t stop.
  • Susan.  I just really liked her.  I liked how she was strong, independent, and intelligent, but still very womanly.
  • PLOT TWISTS oh my gosh this was a great book for suddenly flipping everything upside-down.  Loved it.

All in all, this was a great read.  It was fast, exciting, and engaging.  It was the first book in a long time that I stayed up past midnight, elbowing my husband to make him stop snoring, just to finish it.  I literally could not go to sleep until I found out what happened.  An easy 4/5, and I’ll be looking for some more works by Dan Brown soon.

And hey – I just reread Sophie’s review (so much more coherent than mine lol) – and she liked it, too. So that’s two opinions – you definitely should give it a whirl.  ;-)

A Bit About Harry Potter {Part 3}

Part I

Part II

So I finished this series (again) a couple of weeks ago.  Per usual, Deathly Hallows kind of ruined my life for a couple of days because I really can’t get anything else done when I’m reading that book beyond reading the book.  Even though I know how it ends, it still completely engages me every time.

For my final discussion, I’d mostly like to talk about Snape.  In the Harry Potter fandom, I frequently come across people who are die-hard Snape lovers.  They laud him for his faithfulness, his willingness to risk his life, his ability to walk the dangerous edge of being a spy.  They quote his famous “Always” line as though it is the most romantic thing anyone has ever said.

However, I disagree with pretty much all of that.  In  my opinion, Snape was a selfish and cruel man with an obsession for an idealized woman he had created in his mind.  Nothing that he did was truly altruistic.  He never really matured or changed as a person, other than to become more twisted and bitter.  Snape lived his life as could-have-beens that never really could have been, and blamed everyone else for his own failings.  When given the opportunity to truly do good, he never did.

It’s obvious throughout the story that Snape never really loved Lilly for who she was.  He never truly appreciated her skills, talents, beliefs, or dreams.  While he acted as though James never deserved her, it was Snape himself who chose to walk a path completely different from the one Lilly was following.  Where James matured, Snape stagnated.  In the end, Lilly married the man who had actually become a man.  I think that their patronuses illustrate this mostly clearly – James and Lilly’s are a matching set – different, yet complementing.  Snape’s becomes the same shape as Lilly’s – obsession, rather than love.

Throughout his career at Hogwarts, Snape does nothing to show that he has changed or developed as a person.  He is cruel and taunting towards students he doesn’t like – the same sneering bully that he ever was.  Given the opportunity to help Harry, he does a bare minimum, just like he always did with Lilly herself.  He’s unwilling to see Harry as a unique and talented individual.  Instead, Snape only sees Harry as a product of James.  While he agrees to keep Harry alive for Lilly’s sake, he hates Harry for James’s sake.  That is not the mark of a man who has truly changed his stripes.

In short, Snape’s so-called love for Lilly is not romantic.  He is not faithful.  He always did what he wanted to do, no matter what it hurt or cost Lilly.  The fact that he still obsesses over her doesn’t make his character compelling – it makes him a fool who can only look at the past with regrets over Lilly’s choices, not his own.

Beyond Snape…  let’s see…  well, I actually like Dumbledore.  A lot of people are down on him and say that he used Harry, etc.  I say that he was only a man who was doing his best.  He never forced Harry any step of the way; everything that Harry did was of his own free will.

Also, side note, I really, really tried my best to read a homosexual relationship into the friendship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, and it just was no soap.  It makes zero sense.  Really.

I love the development of relationships between Harry, Ron, and Hermione – as a trio, and as each pair.  Personally, I think that the fact that Ron and Hermione end up together is perfect.  I also think that Harry marrying Ginny is excellent.

The ending of this book is amazing.  Harry’s sacrifice, followed by the way that Voldemort is no longer able to touch the people for whom Harry sacrificed himself – the fact that Neville pulls Gryffindor’s sword from the hat – the way that Voldemort dies like any other mortal human – all excellent.

Not excellent?  Rowling’s haphazard killing of loads of people just to try to make an emotional impact.  It really wasn’t necessary, and it kind of annoys me.

Overall, though, I really enjoy these books.  Per usual, any time there’s a huge series like this, there are lots of continuity questions (like if Harry saw his mom die, how come he couldn’t see the thestrals all along??), but I don’t really get fussed over things like that.  These books are a thoroughly good read, and more books set in this world would indeed be a fantastic thing.

Archer’s Goon

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by Diana Wynne Jones

Published 1984

So this may be my favorite DWJ book to date.  This was a fun and rollicking story with a family that works together, and a whole troop of annoying enemies (who are also all siblings; I have a thing for sibling groups).  The interactions and dialogue in this story are fantastic, and there were several points where I actually laughed out loud at something particularly ridiculous.

Howard comes home from school one day to find the Goon sitting in his kitchen.  The Goon explains that he’s come to collect 2000 words from Howard’s father because Archer wants them.  Absolutely none of this makes sense to Howard or his sister at the time, but we gradually find out that Howard’s dad, an author, has been “paying” 2000 words to Archer, who “farms” a section of town–and these words are apparently powerful, because Archer isn’t the only who wants them any more.  All of his siblings, who farm the rest of the town (not geographical areas, per se, but departments – utilities, banks, crime, education, etc.) are also trying to get their hands on those words.  When Howard’s dad goes on strike and refuses to produce them, things get a bit…  chaotic.

Summarizing a DWJ plot is a difficult job, so you’ll just have to take my word for it and give a go.  Jones also actually ended this book strongly (in my opinion), which was a fantastic change from many of her other books I’ve read.  As always, her world-building is excellent, especially in this book where it turns out that normal life isn’t so normal after all.  Archer and all of his siblings are written well and Howard’s family is a team that works together throughout the story.

A solid read for fun and relaxation – 4/5.

Family Grandstand

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by Carol Ryrie Brink

published 1952

I’m not sure what has happened to our society, but I can’t seem to find books like this any more.  This is a happy book about a happy family.  There are two parents and several children.  The parents have rules and the children obey them.  Everyone respects and loves everyone else.  The adventures are funny and not stressful, and emphasize kindness, selflessness, inclusiveness, the importance of a good attitude, and respect for those in authority (like parents, the elderly, and teachers), all without sounding preachy.  There’s no divorce, no discussion of sexual orientation, no realization that parents are actually evil and stupid and selfish.  Instead, it’s everything that a children’s book should be:  innocent and fun.

I understand when people say that there need to be children’s book where children are in the same situations as the potential readers, e.g. story-children whose parents are divorced.  That’s well and good, but at the same time, we have to remember that books are, in many cases (possibly even most cases in children’s literature), a presentation of an ideal.  I don’t think that normalizing divorce (which is just one of many examples; extra-marital sex amongst under-15-year-0lds would be another) by presenting it in every single story for every single child in that story is a good trend.  What you’re saying is not just “Hey, it’s okay if you’re in this situation,” but also, “Hey, this is the way everyone is, and it’s all you can really hope for for your future, too.”  I’m really over modern children and YA literature insisting that it’s impossible for two adults to get married (without having sex first to “make sure it’s going to work”…  because yes, I think we should tell young adults that your marriage is going to work or not work based on whether or not you like to bang…  that could be what’s leading to the high divorce rates later..???), and then stay married…  you know, forever.  Until one of them dies.  Like they promised to do when they got married.

Books like Family Grandstand aren’t trying to insist that every family in 1952 was perfect.  But in 1952 the ideal was still perfect:  a happy family with happy parents in a happy home full of love and respect.  I think that modern literature could do with a bit of an idealist lesson from those “hopelessly old-fashioned” 1950’s.

An Old-Fashioned Girl

by Louisa May Alcott

published 1897

So, here’s yet another winner!  The other day I talked about two of my favorite Alcott books, Eight Cousins and its sequel, Rose in Bloom.  An Old-Fashioned Girl is another of those dear, dear favorites, a book that I’ve returned to time and again, and come away with some new lesson – or an old one remembered – to strengthen and challenge me.

In this story, Polly, a quiet country girl, comes for an extended visit with her city friend, Fanny.  Fanny’s family, the Shaws, are well-off  and comfortably placed in society, while Polly comes from a large, poor family – the daughter of a country pastor who has frequently received clothes from charity, and has learned the importance of work and determination.  Polly struggles a bit to find her place in the Shaw’s home, so different from her own, but by being true to herself, Polly becomes an beloved friend and a quiet example of selflessness and kindness.

The second half of the book jumps forward several years to young adulthood.  Polly returns to town (although she has obviously been back for visits in the meantime) to live and earn her way as a music teacher while her younger brother attends college near by.  The challenges of adulthood are different, and Polly does not always succeed in resisting her small temptations, but she grows and learns, as do her dear friends the Shaws.

While many may scoff at the idea of Polly having anything to teach to the modern girl, I believe that the truths she discovered then are just as relevant over a hundred years later.  Who can argue with the validity of “When you feel out of sorts, try to make someone else happy, and you will soon be so yourself”?

Alcott deals well with deep subjects, keeping them light enough to be refreshing reading, but with a strong challenge underneath.  Her preface for this book is telling:

The “Old-Fashioned Girl” is not intended as a perfect model, but as a possible improvement upon the Girl of the Period, who seems sorrowfully ignorant or ashamed of the good old fashions which make woman truly beautiful and honored, and, through her, render home what it should be – a happy place, where parents and children, brothers and sisters, learn to love and know and help one another.

Lessons of true femininity run strongly throughout this wonderful story, and it is a story I strongly recommend.

ReRead: “Black Sheep”

BlackSheep

by Georgette Heyer

published 1967

I originally read this delightful Heyer tale back in August 2012, and it was definitely worth the reread.  The dialogue is fantastic, the characters delightful, and ending perfect.  The interaction between Abby and Miles is really just wonderful from beginning to end, making this book the perfect relaxing love story, one that I highly recommend.

Do Butlers Burgle Banks?

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by P.G. Wodehouse

published 1968

Okay, so how can you resist an author whose little biography on the back of the book reads:

P.G. Wodehouse is 87 years old and has written a million books, or else he is a million years old and has written 87 books.

Anyhow, the figures are incredible.

That’s it, by the way – the whole biography section.  Brilliant.

Anyway, Wodehouse is still the best cure-all for when you’re feeling sad or wondering if life really is worth living.  It is worth living – at least as long as you can keep reading Wodehouse.

In this absolutely delightful story, there are all the usual twists and turns.  One of my favorite things about Wodehouse is the way that he throws in a game-changer as the last sentence in a chapter – just when you think things are going one way, they veer off onto another track.

And, of course, there is the descriptive language that only Wodehouse can produce –

Horace burned with remorse and shame.  Contrition flowed over him like a tidal wave.  Only a moment ago he in his haste had dismissed this man’s intelligence as inferior to that a retarded rabbit, and he now saw how mistaken h e had been.  In the matter of brain and when it came to solving problems, no retarded rabbit could hope to compete with him.  Even one with an exceptionally high IQ would have to acknowledge that it had met its match.

Wodehouse makes me laugh out loud every time I read one of his books, and if you haven’t tried one of his works, you should do so without delay.

Colliding with Destiny

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by Sarah Jakes

published 2014

This book was provided to me free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.  I apologize to the publisher for taking so long to review this book.  Personal life has been a bit crazy.

I’ve always loved the story of Ruth.  It’s the story of a patient, self-sacrificing, kind woman who, while working to take care of someone else, finds love and security from a man who admires her for her faithfulness and determination.  So I was intrigued to read this devotional about that woman’s life.

The format of this book was excellent.  Thirty short chapters make it an easy one-month devotional.  There were just a few journal questions at the end of each chapter.  While I didn’t actually journal my way through this  book, they were still good to read and take pause, a moment to help digest the chapter and apply it my life.

While I liked Jakes’s writing, there were times that I felt she was extrapolating quite a bit to make a point.  In my mind, this book could have used a larger dose of Ruth, as most of the chapters opened with a couple of verses from Ruth, and then a story just from random life.  The Jakes would spend a few paragraphs connecting that story to the couple of verses from Ruth, and that was where sometimes things got a little shaky.

For instance, this passage –

Ruth learned quickly that her arrival into a strange land acquired the attention of many.  As a new convert, she may have faced some speculation on the validity of her faith.  Perhaps they even questioned her motives.  Why would a young woman stay with this aging, grief-stricken woman?  What would  motivate her to wander out into the fields, looking for leftover grain in someone else’s fields?  Surely she must be up to something.  What was her game?

The rumors spread so rapidly that everyone knew her story before getting to know her.  The conversations about her, whether idle chatter or  malicious gossip, made her journey more difficult.  It’s one thing to struggle; it’s another to struggle on stage.  When private battles become public performances, it’s hard to remain true to yourself.

And just…  that’s not in the book of Ruth?  There’s nothing about her struggling with gossip, malicious or otherwise.  Boaz does know her story when he speaks with her, true, but Boaz is also one of Naomi’s closest relatives, so it’s natural that he should know about Ruth.

The overall point that Jakes was making in the chapter – the importance of being true to ourselves even when we are wrestling with difficult circumstances what people are saying about those circumstances – was solid.  But her tie-in to Ruth was weak, tweaking the story to fit what Jakes wanted to say, instead of saying what the story was teaching.

This was a consistent pattern throughout the book.  While I (mostly) didn’t disagree with what Jakes had to say overall, she repeatedly stretched and extrapolated from Ruth to make her point.  I personally feel that she would have been better to either write a devotional about Ruth, or write a devotional about the things she wanted to say; they really didn’t seem to be the same.  Sometimes, like above, it was just deliberate padding the story to make the point.  In other areas, there seemed to be a lack of understanding of culture and traditions in the time of Ruth.  One chapter is based on the “fact” that Ruth wasn’t allowed to glean with the other women…  again, not in the story.  As was cultural, Ruth, along with other poor women, was allowed to glean in the fields behind the reapers.  This is actually a part of the Jewish law of the time, one of the ways that God set up to provide for the poor of the nation.  Saying that Ruth “didn’t allow rejection to keep her from doing what she could” makes no sense because she hadn’t been rejected.

Like I said, many of Jakes’s lessons were good, and a few were actually thought-provoking, but if you’re looking for a devotional that really delves into the story of Ruth and brings out truths from it, this isn’t the one.