The Lewis Man

//by Peter May//published 2012//

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Okay, I was UBER EXCITED to read the second book in this series.  The Blackhouse was a 100% win for me, my favorite read of February, and a book I added to my always-growing list of books I would like to actually own and add to my personal collection.  In case you don’t remember, it’s all FictionFan’s fault that I’m reading these books; here is the link to her review of The Lewis Man…  she’s always significantly better at writing coherent reviews!!  Mine seem to involve a lot of asdf;lkawer;l!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Overall, I absolutely loved The Lewis Man. The narration was brilliant; the story-from-the-past narrated by Marsaili’s father is absolutely gut-wrenchingly beautiful; and the story itself is so engaging that I could barely put this book down.  It was another easy 5/5, and so exciting to read a sequel that was every bit as enjoyable as its predecessor.

Our hero from The Blackhouse, Fin, has left his job and returned to his childhood home on Lewis.  Meanwhile, a body is found, perfectly preserved, in the peat bog.  The DNA test indicates that the murdered man is a close relative to Marsaili’s father…  except he doesn’t have any close relatives.  As Fin helps Marsaili search for the truth, May gives us access to Marsaili’s father’s thoughts.  Stricken with dementia, his narrative is at times garbled, especially when he is trying to understand the present.  But, as is the way with such disease, his memories of the past are hauntingly clear.

What if everything you thought you knew about your parents wasn’t true?  It’s really just a brilliantly simple idea, and May plays it perfectly.  As the reader, I actually knew much more about the murdered man and Marsaili’s father’s past than Fin or Marsaili did, but that does nothing to ease the tension and intensity of the book.

May also delves into the way we, as a society, tend to shrug off the elderly and their concerns, and he handles it exceptionally well.

“We walk into that nursing home, and all we see are a lot of old people sitting around.  Vacant eyes, sad smiles.  And we just dismiss them as…well, old.  Spent, hardly worth bothering about.  And yet behind those eyes every one of them has had a life, a story they could tell you.  Of pain, love, hope, despair.  All the things we feel, too. Getting old doesn’t make them any less valid, or any less real.  And it’ll be us one day.  Sitting there watching the young ones dismiss us as…well, old.”

I loved the way how, throughout this story, May really brought home the reminder that everyone we know, everyone we think we know, has a story.  Something inside of them that no one else knows about.  A secret that they keep safe, something deep and important and hidden.  We naturally judge people by what we see/understand of them, but how often do we even consider all the layers below what they’ve chosen to share?

And he realized that you can never tell, even when you think you know someone well, what they might have been through in their lives.

Another thing about May’s writing that I really appreciate is that even though the stories are grim and intense, there is still a spark of humor throughout.  It really keeps his characters feeling very human and real, the fact that they can laugh and tease a bit.  It’s an excellent balance to could otherwise come off as quite bleak.

So I may have used this example before, but I worked on a dairy farm for years, and every year the milk inspector would come and check the parlor and the equipment and give the farm a grade, which determines what the milk can be sold for.  And there is this saying among the dairy farmers that you can never get a perfect grade – the better and cleaner your farm is, the pickier the inspector gets.  This, I find, applies to a lot of life, and books are one of those areas – the better the book, the pickier I get.  :-D  So yes, below are some rather nit-picky issues I had with this read.

When I read The Blackhouse, I griped a bit about the portrayal of religion/Christianity in the story as being a grim, hypocritical, self-righteous lot, while all the “good” and likable people were, of course, the people who had shaken free of those terrible chains of religion.  FictionFan (who is from Scotland and probably knows more about the religion there than I do :-D) had some good thoughts in the comment section of The Blackhouse, reminding me that religion has developed differently and different regions of the world, and that the Scots’ version does, in fact, tend to be a bit more on the grimmer side than in other places.  And while I understand and agree, it still frustrates me that the development of Donald Murray’s character is that basically he has to not believe in God in order to become a decent person.

And Fin realized that Donna knew only the bible-thumping, God-fearing, self-righteous bully that Donald had become.  She had no idea of the real man who hid behind the religious shell he had grown to conceal his vulnerability.

I just…  yes, I understand what he’s saying, but I really just can’t get behind this concept that the only way someone can become a kind and thoughtful person is if they ditch God.  I guess that I just wish it was a bit more obvious that what Donald needs to ditch is his understanding of God, because that understanding is wrong, not God Himself, if that makes sense.

Anyway, another minor problem I had with this book was Marsaili’s mother.  Just, I don’t know.  She’s been married to this guy for a really, really long time, and “Oh he has dementia so I want him out of the house right now and I’m throwing away all his stuff and I’m going to pretend like not just that he’s dead but like he never existed.”  It felt weird to me.  Unnatural.  It was probably the only point in the book where I found myself going, “Wait, what?  That does not seem like what this character would do.  At all.”  I can see where May was going with it, and how he wanted to be able to tie Marsaili’s father to his past in the end, but still.  It really turned Marsaili’s mother into a rather dreadful, selfish person.  I think her desire to have her husband not live with her any more could have been handled in a way that wasn’t so harsh, especially since in the first book Marsaili’s mother is portrayed as such a kind and loving person.  It wasn’t the fact that she felt like his dementia was too much for her to handle and that she needed him to stay somewhere else that felt strange, it was the fact that it had to happen TODAY like I HAVE PUT HIM IN HIS COAT and then just a couple days later she already has his stuff completely boxed up and ready to go out with the trash??  Without even asking Marsaili if she wants any of it??  I don’t know, it just seemed unnecessarily harsh for an otherwise gentle character.

Third and final personal dislike – this story was all about the past.  Like, a decently distant past.  Thus, the tie-in to the present-day danger felt a bit contrived and quite a lot rushed at the end.  It was plausible, but not likely in my mind.  Still, May manages to pull it off, and guess who stayed up late to finish the last several chapters?!??!  (Who needs sleep??  Not like I can sleep with all those loose ends hanging over me anyway!)

Overall, though, The Lewis Man was brilliant and gripping writing.  I came away loving pretty much all of the characters even more than I loved them in the first book.  May has created a community of characters who are, despite their many flaws, still striving to be good, decent, hardworking people – people you root for, people you want to see win in life.

5/5 and highly recommended…  getting read to start The Chessmen next and I can hardly wait!!

Lion Hound

//by Jim Kjelgaard//published 1955//

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When I was probably 11 or 12, I found some old books in a closet at my grandma’s house.  The books had belong to my dad and his sister.  Those books were my introduction to Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague), Jean Craighead George (My Side of the Mountain), and, perhaps most importantly, Jim Kjelgaard.  Two of his books were in that closet – Lion Hound and Wild Trek.  They were older copies, hardcover, from the Scholastic Book Club, and had originally belonged to Grandma’s mom, who was a school teacher.  While I eventually ended up with Wild Trek (and My Side of the Mountain), I have no idea whatever happened to Lion Hound.  And then, the other day, I realized that I really, really wanted to read it again.  Thanks to the power of the internet, I had no trouble finding a copy, although the Bantam-Skylark paperback version isn’t the same as the old hardcover Scholastic – even the cover picture was more exciting on the hardcover!

61u9QVXXtZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_But no matter.  The important part is that I found it again and 100% enjoyed my trip down memory lane.

Jim Kjelgaard has been weirdly influential in my life.  His books encouraged me to cherish and enjoy the outdoors, to learn as much about wildlife as I could, to appreciate the balance that responsible hunters and trappers provide, and to realize that dogs are far superior to cats in almost every way (sorry, Mary Rose).

 But I didn’t realize, the first time that I read Lion Hound, that I was reading a book that would stick with me for the rest of my life, and would cause me to snap up every Jim Kjelgaard book I came across.  I just knew that I enjoyed the story.

Johnny lives out in the mountains somewhere west.  He lives with his grandpa, who used to be a bounty hunter (for animals, not people…  hunters would get paid for killing livestock-eating animals, like mountains lions and coyotes).  Johnny has grown up loving the outdoors, but recognizes that the day of the bounty hunter is drawing to a close.  He is planning to attend college and work in the forest service.

But for now, in high school, he is an average student who enjoys spending his weekends, whenever possible, hunting with Jake Kane.  Jake, an older man (but not elderly like Grand Pop), is a bachelor who lives with his hounds a little ways from Johnny and Grand Pop.  Jake is the last  bounty hunter of the region, and knows the wilderness like the back of his hand.  Although the area is more populated than it used to be, mountain lions are not uncommon, and Jake spends a great deal of the winter hunting them.

At the beginning of our story, a big lion has come into the neighborhood.  Kjelgaard tells us what the humans in the story never know – the lion’s back-story, and why he has an extra dose of hatred for men and dogs.  At the beginning of the story we also meet Jake’s new litter of hound puppies, including a little red one, Buck.  Johnny is very impressed by Buck and wishes he could have a dog just like him, but Buck is a one-man dog, and that man is Jake Kane.

 I’m not sure I can explain why I love this story so much.  As an adult, I realize that it is really a rather strange story in many ways.  We never find out why Johnny lives with his grandpa, or what happened to his parents.  We don’t know exactly where he lives, or really very much about him at all.  The same is true with Jake.  How did he become the bounty hunter that he is?  When did he start raising hounds?  Why is Sallie his favorite one?  It is, really,  a rather sparse story.  We know more about the lion’s childhood than Johnny’s.

However, that seems to fit what Kjelgaard is doing.  He is writing a story about straightforward, hardworking men and their dogs, who live in a sparse, rugged country doing difficult, dangerous work.  And the story works.  I didn’t wonder about any questions of background or character backstory.  Kjelgaard told what needed to be told in order to tell the story.  And despite the fact that I don’t know anything about Johnny’s parents, Kjelgaard manages to paint a vivid character study of Johnny himself, and the two men in his life.

There aren’t really any females in Lion Hound.  Most of Kjelgaard’s stories are about boys and dogs and their adventures.  Somehow, despite the lack of female role models in the stories, though, I devoured them as a child.  I read constantly nowadays about how critical it is that girls read stories about girls doing amazing things, otherwise girls won’t be able to realize that they, too, can do these amazing things.  And while I have nothing against female protagonist, I don’t really understand this kind of reasoning.  Even though Kjelgaard’s stories were about boys, I never doubted that I could do everything they did.  I knew that I was just as intelligent as they were, and that I could learn to do anything any boy could learn how to do.  I daydreamed and wrote stories about living in the wilderness, and had an imaginary pack of dogs at my heels every time I played outside.  I climbed trees and built forts and dams, and learned about birds, animals, trees, and edible plants.  Even though there weren’t any girls doing those things in Kjelgaard’s stories, even as a child I had no doubts that Kjelgaard wrote about boys because he was a boy, but that I was a girl and could anything any boy could, if I cared to try.  I didn’t need a female protagonist to take me by the hand and reassure me, and I don’t think most girls do.  It seems rather insulting, really, to say that girls will only realize that they can do things if they read/see/hear about other girls doing them, as though they are too stupid to make the connection otherwise.

But I digress.  The point is, Kjelgaard’s books are a delight to me.  Some I loved more than others, but I’m getting ready to binge by reading every Kjelgaard book I own, so you’ll be hearing about those in due time.

 Lion Hound was a childhood favorite, but it was well worth the read as an adult.  A simple, rugged story of a boy, a dog, and an enemy, with quiet lessons about hard work, loyalty, and integrity.  5/5.

The Merlin Conspiracy

//by Diana Wynne Jones//published 2003//

merlin_conspiracy_us_hdOkay, so this is totally my new favorite Diana Wynne Jones book!  I thoroughly enjoyed The Merlin Conspiracy.

This book is a sequel to Deep Secretalthough not a strict one – there’s really only one character who overlaps.  Still, I definitely recommend reading Deep Secret first (especially since it was such a fun read, too!).  In these two books, Jones has created a world similar to that in her Chrestomanci books, where there are many worlds, interconnected, that are much like each other.  The really fun part about this is that she can have a Britain that really isn’t anything like the real one, but because it’s similar, you have a good idea of distances and where places are.  (Or at least you probably would if you were from there.  I still have to constantly reference my map!)

The Merlin Conspiracy is told in alternating voices between Roddy and Nick.  Roddy lives in an AU Britain.  Her parents travel with the king all around the country, so Roddy does, too.  Her best friend/young sidekick is Grundo.  Roddy has been sticking up for Grundo for years, and he always manages to tag along with her.  The second voice is Nick, our friend from Deep Secret.  His adventure starts when he gets knocked clean out of our world and into another, with no idea of how to get home.

Both Roddy and Nick are really likable protagonists with distinct voices.  Jones does a great job of weaving together their two stories that, at the beginning, seem to have no connection to each other.

Per usual, the story is also full of rather exasperated individuals who have been swept up into the adventure unwillingly (usually my favorites).  Plus, in this story, we also get a talking elephant, which is a definite bonus.

Jones always seems (to me) to have a tendency to let her stories run away from her a bit, and this one is no different.  There are definitely a few points/wrap-ups that left me basically going “?????” but, in general, this story did a pretty decent job of tying everything together.  And, as always happens when she is really on a roll, Jones did manage to make me not really care if there were a few loose ends, because the overall tale was so enjoyable.

Overall, The Merlin Conspiracy is just an incredibly fun frolic of a story, and one that I highly recommend.  5/5.

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.

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.

The View from Saturday

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by E.L. Konigsburg

Published 1996

So I’ve begun to realize that there are books I loved as a child, books that have become beloved classics in my personal library, and that these books were written by people who wrote other books.  Part of me, though, is a bit terrified of those other books.  What if they don’t live up to expectations?  Wolves of Willoughby Chase is one of my dearest books, but the rest of the series, which I recently read as an adult, was rather dreadful.

One of these beloved childhood books for me is The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I can’t explain why, exactly.  Something about the brilliance of running away to a giant museum closely paralleled my dream of living in a library (specifically Wagnall’s Memorial, which is like a castle!), and just the magic of the whole idea.  As I got older, I was able to better emphasize with Claudia, and the struggle to be an individual and to do something special, something unique – to have a secret that was yours.  

Point is, a couple months ago I was looking at my bedraggled copy of The Mixed-Up Files (no covers and it’s taped together) and I thought to myself, I’m pretty sure Konigsburg is a famous author and wrote lots of other stuff.  I should try one of those!  So I typed in her name on the library website, and there was The View from Saturday, and I decided to give it a whirl.

Overall, I’m not a huge fan of slice-of-life kind of stories, and I have an inherent suspicion of award winning/classic books, which too often are dreary, depressing, pointless, and full of stupid, whiny people who never do realize how good their lives actually are.  And so I approached The View from Saturday with some trepidation.  What I read was a book that I purchased the day that I finished it so that I could add it to my collection.

Here’s the tricky part, though – I can’t explain why.   I don’t really know what it is about this book that so completely captured me.  It wasn’t anything like I expected it to be; it was a perfectly crafted story in every way.

It is a story, sort of, about Mrs. Olinski’s sixth-grade Academic Bowl team, which has somehow  managed to beat not only the other sixth-grade teams, but the seventh-and-eight-graders, too – and beyond.  How did these four completely different children end up on the same team, and why do they get along so well?  How did Mrs. Olinski choose them?  The story unwinds, partly taking place during a current quiz bowl competition, partly told by each of the four children as they recall a critical event in their recent lives that led them to where they are today.

And while that is the bare bones of the book, it’s nothing like what the book really is.  This was a book full of insight and beauty, yet told in a way that is simple and readable even for a someone the same age as this eclectic sixth-grade team.

After The Souls had won the Epiphany Middle School championship, Dr. Roy Clayton Rohmer paid a visit to Mrs. Olinski and asked – guess what? – why she had chosen this team.  She still didn’t know (and wouldn’t until after it was over), but by that time the success of The Souls (even if she did not yet know that they were The Souls) had made Mrs. Olinski less timid.

Dr. Rohmer announced that he had just completed a three-day workshop on multiculturalism for ed-you-kay-toars.  Mrs. Olinski had always been amused by educators who called themselves ed-you-kay-toars.  So, when he asked her how she had chosen the four members of her academic team, Mrs. Olinski knitted her brow and answered with hushed seriousness.  “In the interest of diversity,” she said, “I chose a brunette, a redhead, a blond, and a kid with hair as black as print on paper.”

Dr. Rohmer was not amused.  He gave Mrs. Olinski a capsule lecture on what multiculturalism really means.

“Oh,” she said, “then we’re still safe, Dr. Rohmer.  You can tell the taxpayers that the Epiphany Middle school team has one Jew, one half-Jew, a WASP, and an Indian.”

“Jews, half-Jews, and WASPs have nothing to do with diversity, Mrs. Olinski.  The Indian does.  But we don’t call them Indians any more.  We call them Native Americans.”

“Not this one,” she replied.

“Mrs. Olinski,” Dr. Rohmer asked, “would you like it if people called you a cripple?”

Mrs. Olinski gave up.  Everyone believed that she could be wounded  by the word cripple.  She could never explain to Dr. Rohmer, nor would she try to, that the word itself does not hurt, but the manner of its delivery can.  For all of his training, Dr. Rohmer would never believe that cripples themselves are a diverse group, and some make jokes.

I think I loved this book because it explored different life-situations without making any seem better or worse than another.  Happy parents, divorced parents, widowed parents – kids who had lived there all their lives, kids from someplace else, kids from a different country – Konigsburg manages to explore the concept of true diversity – that we are, by nature, diverse – that diversity has nothing to do with skin color, and everything to do with the simple fact of being.

I strongly recommend this book.  It’s a short, easy read, and one  that I could barely put down.  Even though it is not a plot-driven story, it engaged me completely as Konigsburg wove together such different lives into one whole.

It’s truly rare for me to embrace a book so completely.  As an adult, I so rarely come across a “magic” book – one that becomes an instant classic, one that I know I will read time and again – but The View from Saturday did just that.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  5/5.

“Ginger Pye” and “Pinky Pye”

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by Eleanor Estes

Published 1951, 1958

These are two of my favorite children’s books.  While I don’t love Pyes *quite* as much as the Moffats, they are still an endearing family.

First off, I have to brag that my edition of Ginger Pye is a first – “Newberry Award Winner” is actually written in pencil in the front, probably by some librarian in years past.  Secondly, I have to confess that I stole this wonderful edition from my mother …  books are a precious commodity in our family, and book snitching is pretty acceptable, as long as you’re willing to return the book if the person from whom you “borrowed” demands a return.  :-D  (Pinky Pye I picked up from a book sale in a perfectly respectable manner.)

The Pyes consist of Mama, of Papa the bird-man (he’s an ornithologist), Jerry, Rachel, and Gracie the cat, plus Mama’s parents and her little brother, Uncle Bennie, who is actually younger than his nephew and niece, since Mama was married at a very young age.  (The story of how Papa and Mama met, when he was running up the down escalator, is just one example of the delightful anecdotes that fill the pages.)  In the beginning of Ginger Pye, however, Jerry is contemplating adding a new member to the family: a dog.  The story describes how he earns the money for this amazing dog (“He’s purebred, part fox terrier and part collie”), how Ginger gets his name, and, tragically, how Ginger is stolen!  The mysterious foot-stepper, the man with the yellow hat – there is a bit of mystery to Ginger Pye, especially if you’re a young reader.  As an adult, the solution seems quite obvious, but this is a delightful read for children who are just learning the joys of reading a chapter book on their own.

In Pinky Pye, the entire family heads out to small island to spend the summer with Mr. Pye, who has a job watching birds, and working on his latest book.  Pinky, a small kitten, joins the family.  While there isn’t quite as much mystery to this one, the simple story of how the family spends their summer is sweet and restful.

While for some these books may be a bit overly nice, I highly recommend them as incredibly relaxing and delightful books for adults, and very fun and exciting books for younger readers.  If you’re looking for a read-aloud or a book to recommend to a young relative, you should definitely check out the Pyes.