Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Crop of Authors

Within a few weeks, I've run across two novels that use the "Choose Your Own Adventure" model in parts of the story to advance the narrative. I have to wonder if this is a coincidence or if it says something about the age of the authors.

I had read two other novels by Gabrielle Zevin before I picked up Young Jane Young. Her novel The Storied Life of A J Fikry is a book lover's book. I listened to it on audio and then bought a hard copy, hoping she'd provided a list in the back of the books referenced in the novel. Her YA novel Elsewhere gives a picture of the afterlife quite different from the one in The Lovely Bones. In her latest novel Young Jane Young, Zevin tells the story of a mother and daughter--or two sets of mothers and daughters. The title character adopts this new name after reaching the kind of infamy associated with Monica Lewinsky. Midway through the book, the narrator begins to instruct, "If you think she...turn to page..."

When I read Nathan Hill's debut novel The Nix, the author tells another tale, weaving the story of a son and his mother, follow childhood and adulthood of both Samuel Andreson-Anderson and his mother Faye Andreson-Anderson. The story opens as Faye is arrested for throwing a handful of gravel toward a political candidate, earning her infamy in the news as the "Packer Attacker." Meanwhile, Samuel, the son the abandoned when he was young, is an adjunct literature professor wrestling with a study guilty of plagiarism but unwilling to accept the rap. Meanwhile, he has made no progress on the novel for which he has already spent the advance money. He spends far too many hours playing the video game Elfscape. Hill uses the same Choose Your Own Adventure technique following Samuel's choices.

Flashbacks introduce readers to Samuel's childhood spent with his friend Bishop, falling for Bishop's twin sister Bethany, a violin prodigy around the time his mother leaves. Hill also takes the story back to Faye's teenage and college years before she dropped out of college barely into her first semester to marry Samuel's father Henry.

The novel casts a wide net, bringing together a cast of characters that pull the story lines together. Pwnage, one of the notorious members of the Elfscape online gaming community meets Samuel in real time.  Samuel learns eventually that his literary agent, under another name, was part of Faye's life too.

 Protest marches, often turning violent, appear in at least three different times of the story. Faye is caught up in a march in Chicago during the Democratic Convention. One particular entertaining side story shows Hubert Humphrey obsessed with bathing to rid himself of the stench from the nearby slaughterhouses. Later, Samuel joins Bethany in a march, carrying mock-up caskets, to memorialize American soldiers killed in the Middle East, including his old friend Bishop.

Both Zevin's and Hill's novels move through both time and place to round out multi-generational narratives rich enough to grab hold of  readers' memories and to give them plenty of adventure ripe for the choosing.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

What Blogs Should I Be Reading? Staying a Step Behind in Social Media

I get it! Facebook is for old people. I read it in the newspaper (also for old people, according to one of my comp students). What about blogging though?

I confess that while I try to stay current on my reading posts, I had not checked my favorite blogs list in awhile. Sure enough, more than half had been abandoned. I would still prefer to having a few places to go for book suggestions and such without having to sift through my backlog of emails.

My question, then, to those who take time to read what I write: Are there blogs you read regularly or often? I don't necessarily need more book suggestions. I could be snowed in for months without running out of reading material. But I enjoy book suggestions, book lists, book chat. I am also interested in other bloggers who have something to say worth reading. Humor is a plus. I'd like your feedback.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Great Alone: Kristin Hannah's Alaskan Adventure

When I heard Kristin Hannah had a new novel, I was expecting something like The Nightingale, her last book set during World War II. Instead, she tells a story that begins in 1974 with Leni Allbright, a young girl whose father has returned a changed, broken man after released from captivity as a POW in Vietnam.

Throughout the story, I'm reminded of how much the world has changed, how much we know now that we didn't when I was a teenager. This tale is set in a world in which PTSD is still considered "shell shock"--if considered at all. Abused women have no legal defense if they take action against their abusers. DNA testing isn't an option in the event of a crime, and it's not yet possible to track down someone simply by Googling.

Leni and her mother Cora walk on eggshells around Ernt, her father, who wakes with night terrors and the slightest thing can cause him to snap violently. When a friend he lost in Vietnam leaves his cabin to Ernt and the family, the family makes the decision to move to remote Alaska. They arrive completely unprepared for life in a small town without indoor plumbing or even electricity in most places.

Leni finds herself torn when she falls for Matthew, the only boy her age in the small school and the son of the relatively wealthy family that first settled the town. Her father connects with the family of his lost friend, a branch of survivalists preparing for the inevitable showdown they refer to as WSHTF. He despises and resents Tom Walker, Matthew's father, and Cora's evident attraction adds fuel to the fire.

Hannah peoples the town with many colorful characters, a crazy man who claims to be married to his duck, and a former lawyer calling herself Large Marge, who befriends and helps the Allbright women as they learn to survive. Leni has to learn to farm and to hunt. She has to be wary of bears and other predators. She has to be wary of her father's sudden mood shifts.

As they have to work fast and hard to store up food for the long winter, Leni and her mother realize that the extended darkness will bring out the demons in Leni's father.  He becomes increasingly physically abusive toward Cora, whose toxic love keeps her from pressing charges or leaving him.

Throughout the story, the author maintains tension as the characters, even levelheaded Leni, make wrong moves with dire consequences. What develops is a love story for the wilds of Alaska, and the complicated love/hate story that many children--and adults--endure.

As in The Nightingale, Hannah sometimes tests the reader's "willing suspension of disbelief," and her heavy use of parenthetical expressions sometimes made me want to suggest that she should trust her readers to recognize the significance of these side details.

Without adding any spoilers, I must say that I wrestled with some of the plot resolution, but the narrative kept me turning pages long after time for lights out.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Column of Fire: Follett's Kingsbridge Trilogy

I first read Ken Follett's novels years ago, starting with Pillars of the Earth. It remains on my short list of favorite books, especially since I enjoy historical fiction that covers a long span of time--including works by James Michener and Leon Uris.

When I traveled to Europe with students and visited some of the great cathedrals, a colleague insisted I read Pillars. I'm glad I did, and I've seen how the book has touched so many other people close to me. For example, I have a brother-in-law in the building profession, he says, because he read this book. Another teaching colleague recalled the impact of one of the early scenes, which brought him to tears since he read it when his own first child was still a baby.

I enjoyed several of Follett's suspense novels too--The Key to Rebecca and Eye of the Needle. It took him years to get back to writing epics, first World Without End, the sequel to Pillars of the Earth, and then the Century Series.

A Column of Fire, the third of this trilogy, is set in and around Kingsbridge, the fictional town where Tom the Builder first started his cathedral, but these characters spread across Europe as well.  Set primarily during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods in England, during the time of the Spanish Inquisition and the Spanish Armada, this book gives a close look at the impact of the division between Catholics and Protestants.

The main character Ned Willard comes from a family of tradesmen with Protestant sympathies, but early on, he falls in love with Margery Fitzgerald, the daughter of a prominent Catholic family. When her family pushes her instead to marry Bart, next in line to become Earl of Shiring, she complies after a lecture by the priest about her duties to her parents.

After Ned's family loses everything because of some legal maneuvers of Margery's brother Rollo, Ned ends up serving Queen Elizabeth under Walsingham. For most of his life, Ned fights for the principle of tolerance, working to make Elizabeth I's  goal that no one die for faith in England become a reality.

A second narrative thread follows despicable self-promoter Pierre Aumand, an illegitimate offspring of the Guise family in Paris, who through deception maneuvers himself into a position of power, which he uses again French Protestants, including the strong, sympathetic character Sylvie Palot, a member of a Protestant family of printers who work to smuggle religious texts in French into the country.

Through the novel, Follett follows Ned's brother to the New World, where he falls in love with Bella, a Hispaniola rum maker. He also traces the life, marriage, and death of Mary, Queen of Scots and her fictional lady-in-waiting and childhood friend Allison.

Any student of this historical period will appreciate the attention to detail--including the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English navy, beheading of Mary, and the uncovering Gunpowder Plot. In the epilogue, Follett lets readers know which characters are real and which are his creation.

After experiencing the decades of Ned Willard's life, I had a glimpse of the possibility that there might be a fourth book in the sequel, as his grandson Jack, a Puritan, makes plans to head to America.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

From the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Love Song of Miss Queen Hennessy, I was happy to discover a new novel.  I loved the way Rachel Joyce brought together such unlikely combinations of characters. The Music Shop is no exception.

The story is set in a neighborhood in a declining section of London as the streets up and down the street are being forced to close their doors, some selling out to pushy developers. In 1988, Frank, the owner of a music store, refuses to give in to music trends. He has resisted cassette tapes and now refuses to add CDs, to the dismay of the music sales reps. Frank loves vinyl. He also has a gift for matching up just the right music for each customer--part retailer, part counselor.  He has a listening area set up in a repurposed piece of furniture. He employs an accident prone young sales assistant, and he interacts with the neighboring business owners--twin brothers running the family funeral business, a former priest selling (only occasionally) religious icons and bookmarks, and an eccentric female tattoo artist with a not-so-hidden attraction to Frank.

Resistant to love, Frank's life changes when a lovely woman in green passes out just outside his store--and then disappears. Claiming ignorance on the topic, she pays Frank to give her lessons in music outside of store hours. The only obstacle is her fiancé.

Joyce also develops the back story of Frank's childhood, the son of a quirky single mother, negligent at best. Readers learn his mother is the reason he can't bear to hear "The  Hallelujah Chorus."

The Music Shop may not be the stuff of literature classes, but it is a fun reading experience--especially for music lovers--with a nice love story. As an added bonus, the author provides a play list on Spotify:  Who doesn't love a playlist that ranges from Chopin and Handel to "Stairway to Heaven" and Aretha Franklin?