Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road

TITLE: 84, Charing Cross Road
AUTHOR/EDITOR: Helene Hanff
FORMAT: Paperback
COPYRIGHT: 1970
THIS EDITION: 1990

Another find on the library date, 84, Charing Cross Road, is nothing but a series of letters that follow an aloof writer/reader and a bookstore from 1949 to 1969.

Basically, these start with her writing from NYC to London, a request with a little bookstore to find a book she’s craving because she saw their ad in a magazine and their “antiquarian” expertise is something she equates with money.

What follows is quite charming – a $5/book cap on prices, which inflates to about $50 today, that seems quaint even though it wasn’t, a friendship that includes powdered and fresh eggs and nylons when they couldn’t get them because of post-war rationing, and a friendship that continued in letters for decades, ending only in her main friend/contact’s death.

I love that the letters were all kept to the point that this book could happen.  We don’t have this kind of society anymore.  We don’t have quaint bookshops that will operate under the honor system and mail a book across the ocean and send a bill.  We have e-Commerce sites and anonymous people and warehouses and not shoppes.  Credit cards and anonymity.

This book made my heart sing and it made me happy for a time that I wish I could have been a part of.

Life today is easier, but it isn’t better.

I’m giving this a 5 out of 5.  Beautiful in its simplicity.  (Also, they’ve made it into a movie, if you’re so inclined.)

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Book Review: Spirit of Steamboat

Title: Spirit of Steamboat: A Walt Longmire Story
Author: Craig Johnson
Published: 2013
Format: Hardback

Longtime followers of the blog may have noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. I’m a little ashamed to say that the reason I haven’t posted is that I haven’t *read* in a while. No, really. I haven’t read a book in something like nine months, and I haven’t written more than 3k since December.
And I’ve been itching to, I really have, but life has gotten in the way and I just haven’t managed a book that has held my interest into chapter two.
So, one Friday, I got off early from work (woot!) and decided to take myself on the best kind of date – the library. So I started in adult fiction and I walked the stacks slowly, running my hands down the books, touching the spines, picking stuff up and putting it back down. I took the aisles out of order, coming in in the middle, heading back and forth, dismayed at the fact that they were actually taking shelves out of my library because of a lack of books on them.
That has something to do with this book, I promise.
So anyway, the first row I went down was H-J, and this was one of the first books I touched. I liked that it was small, novella-ish. I had decided that if nothing could hold my attention that a smaller book had a better chance. The dark, teal green of the cover stood out amidst a sea of much more boring black and white and uninspiring.
Until I turned to the front cover, I hadn’t realized that it had anything to do with the TV show – a plethora (okay, two, but they’re big and the book is small) of library stickers covered up half the spine. And I haven’t watched the TV show, so I read the first paragraph of the flap and decided that I could read this without knowing that.
So in the story, Sherriff Longmire is reading Dickens on Christmas Eve (because that is the most overdone Christmas trope ever in books), and somebody shows up in his office that he’s sure he’s never seen before but is adamant that she needs to see the old sheriff and that she knows them all.
So Walt takes her to the old guy and she starts her tale of how they know her, which is pretty much the rest of the book.  [NOTE:  This story takes place at Christmas, but it is most certainly not a Christmas story.]

So, because this was the first piece of fiction that I have held attention to in *nine months* I really wanted to give this book a full five page rating, but I just can’t.
For starters, the book is shelved as a mystery – there’s a sticker from the library that says it and everything – and really the only mystery in the whole thing is who the chick is and we figure that out pretty quick. Even the acknowledgement page says that this is a “weird little book that was supposed to be a short story… and is not a mystery per say, but a thriller with mysterious elements.” And while I’m not necessarily taking off points for expecting a mystery, that’s mostly because the author told me that on the very first page.
Second of all, there was a bit of an issue with the present day/flash back thing. Like when the flashback was over, the story pretty much was, too…there was nothing at all to wrap it up at the end. So either he could have just told the story of the rescue and not flashed back or he could have put a little more meat on the story. I felt that *all* the present day stuff was rushed to get to the 1988 flight.
That said, the 1988 flight part was *fabulous* I could just about feel the snow and having come from somewhere that got blizzards, just reading about it made me cold. That’s a sign of a good author. There was the right amount of suspense and detail, the right balance of slang and explaining things for the reader, and I didn’t feel out of place trying to read about pilots and doctors and whatever else.
And the old Asian woman in the story isn’t a bad stereotype. She’s written as kind and sympathetic.

So, there are a few things that needed help, which I think are an unfortunate product of this starting as a really short story and ending up at this length, but with a little tweaking this story could be perfect.
I loved the author’s writing style, and as such have another book of his waiting for me to pick it up at the library as I type this.
I will give this book a very sold – and very happy – 4 out of 5 pages.

Book Review – Objects of Our Affection by Lisa Tracy

Title: Objects of our Affection: Uncovering my family’s past one chair, pistol and pickle fork at a time

Author: Lisa Tracy

Format: Hardback

Published: 2010

 

In this memoir, Lisa and her sister have to consolidate, sell, dispose of, or just generally displace several generations worth of stuff after their mother dies.  In doing so, Lisa starts evaluating her family’s history.

Okay, when I saw this memoir at the library, I jumped at the chance to check it out and immediately pushed it towards the top of my TBR list.  (Heck, I even took it out of my bedroom and into The Rest of the House, where it would be read sooner.)  I mean, we all have weird stuff somewhere in the house that we only keep because it was somebody’s.

Rght now, for instance [note, the review was written in December, I just didn’t run it till now], I’m looking at nesting dolls that my great-aunt-in-law Ginny gave me, ceramic plates featuring artwork from my Aunt Susan’s father, the Santa that my great-grandfather Nazareno gave me when I was two that still plays but no longer rolls or jiggles his arm, and the painting that was behind my grandparents – Ray and Joanne – ‘s piano for the longest time until we took it home and gave it new life.  I’m sitting on hand-me-down furniture that we’ve had for a decade and has been moved with us a couple times, and looking at the Nativity set that we’ve had since childhood – ceramic, Precious Moments, and bought from Avon with my mother’s 45% discount. There are family photos – grandparents, great-grandparents, my Uncle Kenny with his mouth hanging open stupidly when he was something like three.  Just yesterday, I added to it, hanging an enlargement of my Grandmother, myself, and the family dog, Maggie.  She was my Uncle Randy’s dog, but spent time with Gramma and Papa, and we treated her like another cousin.  Maggie’s been gone since spring of 2001, Gramma since thanksgiving of 2009.  I miss them both like crazy.

This is just one room.  We all have our stuff.

 

As I started to read the book, I started to feel a bit of Tracy’s family.  They were the fifth generation of military family, and could trace their roots back about as far as America goes.  The furniture and spoons, Canton China and packing blankets all told something, and as she went through piece by piece she told us some of these.  Life on the frontier, the 1000-lb limit her grandfather’s military position allowed them for their stuff, etc.

And some of it was extremely interesting.  She regularly talks about how almost-famous her family was.  Just one or two people removed from incredible in so many places.  So what we ended up seeing was a portrait of the upper-middle-class through the generations.

Unfortunately, book is a lot disjointed.  We get a secretary desk and then a family story from the Philippines in WWII and then a chair and a family story from the author’s childhood and then back to the china that they talk about a dozen separate times but never give us the full story of, so a partial story then, of the American West in the late 1800s.  We swap around from one person to the other, one side of the family to the other, and there’s no good way to tell them apart.  At least in my family, the Italians belong on one side, the rest on the other, so you know as soon as you see an Ursiti or Fracasso that we’re talking Gramma here.  So when there’s more than one person with the same first name, several people they call Grandma, whatever, you sit there going… erm, who is this again?

 

But what I never really felt in this was, well, feelings.  The catalyst for this memoir was going through the family’s stuff, and Lisa Tracy and her sister planned to auction a lot of stuff off.  So when they’re going through and deciding, we get stories, and then we get “well, this would get money at auction, so I should totally just auction it off, even though I want it and I remember the story and…”  Wait, what?  And there’s a point in the auction where a cousin comes to the auction to buy something.  The guy is named after the relative that used to own whatever it was that he bought, but he had to come to the auction to buy stuff?  Seriously?

Really, what I felt was that these were people that didn’t care about their family history.  People who were only interested in the here and now.  Heck, they didn’t even care that much about the furniture – they had originally put it in climate controlled storage, but when the storage company had to move it, they were fine with it ending up wherever.  Seriously?  You went to the trouble to climate control it in the first place, but didn’t care that stayed that way?

A lot of the research Tracy did was because the auction company said “if this can be traced back to somebody famous…”  so she’d research because, you know, more dollars at auction.

Maybe it’s the difference between the author and myself?  I mean, I can look at Santa and immediately tell you who Naz was, how he was related, where he died, how, stories about that, etc.  But the author of this book didn’t have a clue for a lot of stuff and it was just weird to me.  Behind me is a small secretary desk from my great-grandmother Delores.  She died six years before I was born, but I still know stories about her, how she died, where she was from, etc.  And if Lisa Tracy’s family found it important to pass down a secretary desk for four generations, why did it take trips to archives and old newspaper clippings to know anything about them?  I could have seen a story like “The old desk was big and heavy, but we kept it because it was so useful…”  but there weren’t stories like that.

 

In the end, I’m giving it a three.  If you like the little bits of military and American history you get from this, give it a go.  But if you’re looking for more than a sad comment about how Americans store stuff they never use and we don’t know why, just move on.  There’s better stuff out there.

Book Review – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Title: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Author: Ransom Riggs

Format: Hardcover

Published: 2011

 

Jacob Portman has a fairly quiet life – he works at a drugstore, which his family owns, has one friend, and a grandfather who he adores.  The grandfather has a thousand stories of the peculiar children he lived with when he was sent to Wales to escape WWII.

Everyone thought they were just stories, until the night his grandfather was attacked.  The night Jacob saw the hideous creatures in the woods.  The night that Grampa Portman tells him that he’s not safe, and to go to the island.

All he has to go by are the old stories.  And the cryptic message he tells Jacob as he dies – “Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave.  September third, 1940.”

A gajillion shrinks later, Jacob thinks he’s on the road to recovery, and he asks to go to the island.  He wants to know what his grandfather meant, even if it is all hooey.  More importantly, he wants to know who his grandfather was.

 

Now, I can relate to this book on a lot of levels.  My grandmother was my best friend, and now she’s dead.  As a writer, I often think about all the stories I’ll never know.  Even if I had written them down all the time, there’s no way to fit a lifetime of stories into a few chances to write them down.  So I totally get it that Jacob wanted to know – the stories he thought were just stories, well, they sorta came true when he saw his grandfather and the creature that did it.

He makes it to the island, and what he finds there is less than expected.  There’s one pub/bar/restaurant in town, and the only rooms available are upstairs.  Jacob takes one and his father, who leaves him alone to work on a birding book, the other.  There’s not much else.

He’s introduced to another kid on the island, who’s supposed to show him around but doesn’t want to take him to the orphanage where his grandfather lived, although he eventually gets to it.  The bombed out shell of a house that stands in testament to the events of 9-3-40 and all that happened there.  The only thing remaining that even hints anyone used to live there is a trunk full of old photos that somehow hasn’t turned to mold or dust in the past 60-ish years.

The peculiar children his grandfather always talked about.  Kids with talents akin to a Ringling Brother’s side show.

I can’t talk too much about what happens after that.  I really don’t want to ruin the story for anybody.  I think the thing that got me on this one is how different they are, but also how the same they are too.  Yes, the book talks extensively about these children, but the way they’re presented is awesome.

I don’t want to scare you off.  This isn’t a book about the circus; its not a book about freaks.  It’s about love and protection and the people that matter in your life.

Read the book.  It’s an incredible story, well told, and the characters are awesome.  And, seriously, consider buying the book.  I love the layout with the sepia dividers and grainy black and white photographs (true photographs!) throughout.  This is seriously a five star book.

When you finish, tell me what you think.  I can’t decide if I want a sequel or not.  On one hand, I will always want more, and it leaves you with several more stories to tell.  On the other hand, the book is magic, and I wouldn’t want anything that could spoil that.

Five out of Five pages for sure.

Book Review – Nancy Wake: A Biography Of Our Greatest War Heroine by Peter FitzSimons

Title: Nancy Wake: A Biography Of Our Greatest War Heroine
Author: Peter FitzSimons
Format: Paperback
Written & Published: 2001

Nancy Wake was an Australian who was highly decorated by several countries for her efforts during the Second World War. This biography covers her life from birth to 10 years prior to her death at 98 years of age. It paints a stunning picture of a woman too stubborn to give up, who used every resource she had at her disposal to leave the world a better place than she found it. The biography is based heavily on interviews with Nancy and those friends who were still alive to share their memories.

To read this book is to truly see the meaning of determination. Nancy’s personality is clear on every page, and her decision making process is obvious. The biographer is compassionate in his telling of her life, while also managing to maintain a sense of balance with current ideals about what is and is not acceptable.

At first Nancy was nothing more than a young woman living a dazzling life of parties and alcohol, and by the end of it she was a hardened veteran who had killed a man with her bare hands. Her evolution is born of a natural disgust at what was happening in the world and a simple promise to make that evil stop. She held the lives of thousands of men in her hands, and every day that she was on the field directly impacted the capacity of the German war machine.

There are passages within this book that leave me asking questions about myself. Would I have the courage to do what Nancy did? She rode 400km on a bike over mountains that were heavily patrolled by Germans, and she did it in 72 hours with only 5 hours of sleep. She jumped from a moving train through the window while Germans fired on her in the darkness. She calmly called the bluff of a man who had planned to seduce, rob and kill her after she tried to help him. These incidents would be harrowing for anyone else, but for Nancy they were just another moment where she had to act fast.

This biography also covers what it was like to go from being a decorated heroine to being just another secretary in an office or serving coffee to wealthy travellers. The sense of change is dramatic, along with an awareness that while she and the world had both changed, they had not changed for a harmonious fit. There was a struggle to fit in anywhere, to find meaning after such a dramatic experience.

While Nancy’s story is gripping and a true page-turner, there is a strange quality to the text that continually ejected me from the narrative. It is almost as if Nancy’s voice and the biographer’s voice have tried to merge unsuccessfully into a united whole. The text is consistent in its style and, despite being comfortable with the slang used, at times it felt painfully forced. Readers who are unfamiliar with the Australian vernacular will struggle. I give this book 4 out of 5 pages.

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