Saturday, December 27, 2014

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

Although I have always enjoyed Jodi Picoult books, I never feel compelled to buy them as soon as they are published. As a high school librarian, I bought most of the books because my students enjoyed them and I would read them when they were on the shelf and not being held for a patron. When it was announced that she would be speaking for the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture series, I decided to buy her new book. I usually like to read books before I hear the lecture, but didn't have time since her book debuted only a few days before the lecture.

Elephants for one reason or another are fascinating animals. In Leaving Time, the reader will learn a massive amount of information about them, their habitat in Africa, and the process by which they come into this world and what happens to their herd when they die. Picoult has researched meticulously for this book and presents it in a scholarly, but approachable way. 

The novel is narrated by the four main characters and switches location between a New England elephant sanctuary and the savannas of Africa. Jenna Metcalf is the 13 year old daughter who has been left virtually an orphan as a result of her mother, Alice's disappearance. Alice was an elephant researcher in Africa before she became pregnant with Jenna and returned to the United States. As the novel opens, Jenna is searching and determined to find her mother. There had been an accident at the sanctuary during which a handler had been killed and her mother had been seriously hurt. Mysteriously, Alice disappears from the hospital and is never heard from again. All of this was too painful for Jenna's father and he is now in a mental institution with no recollection about all that happened that night nearly 10 years before where the novel picks up. And so Jenna enlists the aid of a down and out psychic, Serenity Jones, and a washed-up, alcoholic cop, Virgil Stanhope. Stanhope was one of the original investigators of the accident and feels compelled to help the teenager because of the lack of a thorough investigation when it happened. 

Jodi Picoult autographing Leaving Time
The story becomes much more of a mystifying journey to find out exactly what has happened to Alice. The narrators relate their views and hypotheses and clues the reader in on what might have happened that night.  The characters are well-developed and unique. Jenna has spunk and is a great protagonist. Virgil and Serenity both have a past that has sorely affected the struggles with which they deal on a day to day basis and that color their lives.  The book moves quite quickly and takes some turns that enable the reader to formulate a solution. And just when that happens, you are hit square in the face with what has to be the most unforeseen, dramatic, and shocking twist in literature. 

Once you start this book, it holds you mesmerized until the end. Great read and a great lecture by Jodi Picoult.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

My first experience with Gabrielle Zevin's books was as a school librarian when her book Elsewhere hit our library shelves. It was an immediate hit and created a group of Zevin fans. When I discovered that she had written an adult book, I was anxious to read it. I was not disappointed. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is charming, enticing, suspenseful, and a delightful read. Our Gables Book Club always tries to read a shorter book for the December meeting. This was our selection.

Set on fictional Alice Island, off the coast of Massachusetts, the novel opens as the reader meets the protagonist who is a curmudgeonly book store owner.  His demeanor as he meets an new publisher's rep. Amelia Loman,  is dreadful; but then we learn the back story of his young wife being killed and the resulting loneliness and reliance on the bottle to get through most days. Adding to this malaise are the pesky seizures that he has during which he can black out for seconds or hours. He has a prized possession in an very valuable edition of Tamerlane by Edgar Allen Poe that he reads to soothe his sorrow. To his horror, the book is stolen from under his eyes and his life changes. He has lost his source of retirement income, but larger than that his family circumstances change. Mysteriously, a baby is left inside the bookstore. He is taken with Maya and she transforms his life, giving it purpose once again. 

As two mysteries unfold, the whereabouts of the lost Tamerlane, and who is the child, the readers meets others on the island. Officer Lambiase conducts the investigation and eventually forms his own book club that centers on police and detective books. Ismay is A.J.'s sister and is married to Daniel Parish, a bit of a rogue and philanderer. And then there is Marian Wallace, whom we eventually learn is Maya's mother. She walked into the ocean and drowned, an apparent suicide. 

The book is a tribute to reading, bookstores, and the human soul that both touch. Each chapter begins with an excerpt  of a short story or novel that is annotated with Fikry's thoughts. As Maya grows up from the precocious toddler in the beginning to her teenage years, so does A.J. grow to love and accept the changes that he feels in his life toward people and his beloved books. The book begs to be read by those of us who so love to be surrounded by writing and our books. Borrowing a quote from C.S. Lewis and expanding on it on page 249, A.J. comments: "We read to know we're not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone."  That pretty well sums it up. A wonderful book to contemplate and enjoy.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Winter of the World by Ken Follett

The second part of Follett's Century Trilogy, Winter of the World, continues the saga begun in Fall of Giants. It didn't take nearly as long to read this book as the last. The novel begins in 1933 as Germany is struggling with the rise to power of Hitler, fascism, and economical distress. England is dealing with much the same issues and the United States is trying hard to avoid another international conflict.

It would be impossible to summarize this book of over 950 pages. Follett again centers his novel on the families of Fall of Giants with the children of the significant characters becoming the protagonists. They are there at the center of the action, but also give voice to the philosophic ideas of the time leading up to World War II and when they are living out parts of that tortuous time in the history of the world. Paramount among those are Daisy Peshkov who marries into British political royalty, but who loves another, Woody and Chuck Dewer, sons of a powerful American senator, Carla Von Ulrich, a young German girl who dares to challenge Hitler's policies, and Russian spy Volodya Peshkov. It is around their stories and the historical events that the novel turns. 

Although the book continues through to the end of the war, there are a few seminal scenes that will stay with the reader long after the book is finished.  One will never forget when the Carla finds evidence of Hitler's killing of the infirm and mentally challenged children. It is painful to read and the reader is as outraged as she is. Would any of us have had the courage to do what she did. The bombing of Pearl Harbor is described in such detail that you can hear and feel the bombs falling and see the planes above. It is tragic for not only for our nation, but also for those characters who were in close proximity. And then there is the crushing London blitz, the plan to invade France and the landing on Normandy Beaches. The Battle of Midway is portrayed as a real turning point in the war and where the code breakers managed to outwit the Japanese. We can detest Stalin as much today as many of his contemporaries did. Follett's roots as an espionage and writer of spy fiction shine through as he focuses on Russians gathering intelligence on the development and production of nuclear bomb.

The book is a compelling read and this reader is anxious to have a block of time to be able to read the next installment in the trilogy, The Edge of Eternity.