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My book club is reading Case Histories. I really enjoyed Atkinson’s Life After LifeA God In Ruins, and Transcription, so I figured I would like this. I did, although this first in the Jackson Brodie detective series is very different than her other books. I always say I’m not much of a mystery person, although if you have been with me here at bookconscious for a long time, you know I dip into them from time to time. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the detective-at-work part — usually that is very interesting, to see how someone would puzzle over the facts, inferences, and hunches until they’ve deduced who committed a crime. But I’m more of a Mrs. Pollifax and Maisie Dobbs sort of mystery fan. I prefer books like those books, that don’t have much description of violent murder.

So I almost stopped reading Case Histories after the first 44 pages, which laid out the three main cases in the book, because there was plenty of description of violent murder. However, right after that, Jackson is introduced, and I liked him. I liked many of the characters, and I really appreciated that Atkinson offers some good hearted folks, like Theo, alongside the really awful ones who do others bodily harm. The imperfect people in Case Histories — like Julia, who although not a psychopath is a bit of a narcissist, or Kim, who appears to be a very kind person but is also dating a gangster — are memorable and multifaceted characters.

I did find it strange that there would be multiple psychopaths in one city of just under 100,000 people, but maybe there are and I am overly optimistic. One of the things I liked is that the three main cases also point to other, less serious but still creepy and/or illegal activities, and the way Atkinson unravels these threads is interesting. When my “to read” pile gets a little shorter I will probably look for the other four Jackson Brodie mysteries. I’ll just have to remember that I’m there for the writing and the characters, and skim over the violent bits.

Because Atkinson’s writing is worth it. Here’s a passage about one of the characters’ lives after her three year old daughter disappeared: “Rosemary had slipped out of her own life very easily. She had shown no tenacity for it at all when she discovered that the baby girl she was carrying when Olivia disappeared had a twin, not Victor’s longed-for son, but a tumorous changeling that grew and swelled inside her unchallenged. By the time anyone realized it signaled a life ending rather than a life beginning, it was too late.”  Has cancer ever sounded so beautiful? There are equally lovely descriptions of a woman’s deep loneliness and a man’s asthma attack — Atkinson’s writing makes even the most unpleasant things lovely to read, in the same way that Ali Smith can manage to transform awful current events with her incredible writing in her Seasonal Quartet books.

Mysteries are good for summer, for tense times, really anytime you want an escape. Case Histories is plenty twisty and chilling, but also a really good read.

 

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I wanted to like this book. First, I wanted to like it because it took me two weeks to slog through The Trial. I was ready for a quick, satisfying read. I wanted to like it as well because people I like recommended it and my book club is discussing it.

But, as a fellow librarian told me today, it could make for better discussion since I didn’t like it. Maybe. Anyway, I couldn’t warm to the characters or the story. For the same topic — woman overcomes emotionless  (or damaged) upbringing, allies with desirable man, uses her own talent to launch him and pretends to all the world that she is just a muse and not the real talent — see Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. Which to me was still a strange story about people I couldn’t identify with, but which seemed both wilder and more complicated and somehow also more likely. I just can’t accept the premise of The Wife. I didn’t dislike the writing, so I kept reading, but in the end, it didn’t work for me.

 

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When Nichole Bernier visited Gibson’s Bookstore in September, I asked what she’s been reading. She raved about a novel that my friend Sandy at Gibson’s also recommended highly: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman. I love a book that moves me. And a story that makes me want to stay up just a little longer to find out what happens. This novel is both.

I am going to tread lightly because I don’t want to spoil the story. Here’s what I can tell you: Tom is a WWI veteran, haunted by the war and by memories of his lonely childhood and the loss of his mother. Tom’s also in the Commonwealth Lighthouse service, and he arrives in a small town, Partageuse, at the southwestern tip of Australia to take up his new post on a small island off the coast, Janus Rock, as keeper. In Partageuse he meets Isabel.

They have  a brief courtship, he starts his work on Janus, and they correspond when they can (a boat only comes every few months to resupply Janus Rock). They marry. Isabel has two miscarriages and a stillborn. And then one day the tide washes up a boat on Janus. On board? A baby, perfectly healthy. And a dead man. Boat, body, baby. What would you do?

And that is what the rest of this novel is about, what Tom and Isabel do, how it impacts their lives and everyone else’s. It’s an incredibly thought provoking book — this is perfect for a book club, because Stedman does an excellent job of making all the possibilities plausible and in evoking great empathy for all the characters. She also makes them whole — no one dimensional villains or heroes here.

Writing wise it’s also a beautiful book. Everything is vivid, from Tom’s dreadful childhood home to the lighthouse and everything in between. Stedman writes with rich detail, but as my Grandmother used to say, with no extra words. Stedman makes Tom’s life perfectly clear even to someone like me who knew exactly nothing about how a nineteenth century lighthouse works. Every detail she includes does its job, with no flowery extras.

Here’s an example:  “Outside, the metal gallery circled the tower, and a perilous ladder arched against the dome, up to the thin catwalk just below the weather vane that swung in the wind.” Or this: “The town draws a veil over certain events. This is a small community, where everyone knows that sometimes the contract to forget is as important as any promise to remember.” Or a scene where a young man working in the town bakery helps a young lady with her shawl,”draping it around her in one fluid movement.”

I could go on but you should read this novel for yourself. Once you do you’ll want to talk about it with someone. Let me know what you think!

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I heard about The Baker’s Daughter, by Sarah McCoy, on Books on the Nightstand. It was the first library book I tried on the iPad’s Kindle app. I’m still not impressed with e-books, but I enjoyed this novel.

McCoy explores the trauma of war not only for soldiers but also for civilians. The cautionary tale? There’s no redemption in this story for soldiers who follow orders they know are wrong or make a bad situation worse. One main character, Elsie, has a fiancee, Josef, a Nazi officer wracked by psychosomatic migraines and insomnia; another, Reba, is the daughter of an alcoholic Vietnam vet suicide victim. Neither man deals adequately with the part he played in their respective wars. Both women live with their families’ war ghosts, both ultimately make their peace.

In fact, one of the nicest things about this book is Elsie’s ability to let her sorrows go. I don’t want to give too much away but she’s a very strong, interesting character who experiences real redemption and forgiveness and makes peace with all that happened. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Baker’s Daughter is set both in WWII Germany and present day Texas. Reba is a reporter in El Paso, with a troubled childhood and a fiancee, Riki, she isn’t sure she can commit to. Riki is the child of Mexican immigrants working for the U.S. Border Patrol, torn between his loyalty to America and its rule of law and his moral compass telling him that many of the people he deports are victims, not criminals. And that even those who try to enter illegally might be better served by compassion than scare tactics.

Reba meets Elsie and her grown daughter Jane at their bakery when she’s writing a magazine piece on Christmas traditions. Elsie doesn’t reveal all of her past in their interviews, but the book alternates between her life story — and that of her sister Hazel, who was a mother in the Lebensborn Program — and Reba’s, with brief forays into some of the other characters’ stories, especially Josef and Riki.

It was an interesting read, with characters facing many moral dilemmas and family secrets. The teenage Elsie begins to sense through her sister’s letters and her first Nazi social event with Josef that what Hitler’s Germany stands for is nothing like the ideal her father believes in. When an older SS officer assaults her, a Jewish boy who was made to sing at the party comes to her aid. He shows up outside her house hours later, begging for protection. Despite her extreme fear, she can’t turn him away. I loved this part of the story.

I also enjoyed the way the novel explores how people don’t know the whole story of an event as it’s happening. Riki and his fellow Border Patrol agents have to guess about the people they’re chasing. Elsie and her sister believe propaganda at first because it’s what they know, but the war begins to impact them in ways they never imagined and shades their understanding of the world. Josef is a young man who feels conflicted about carrying out his orders. When a younger Nazi gets carried away, Josef exacts his own justice, and is haunted by the event for the rest of his life. His story is echoed in that of Reba’s father who goes mad because of what he did in Vietnam.

Riki makes a different choice, following his conscience to find a different job.  All of these characters act within a community of family and friends; Reba and Elsie’s family represent those who love people living with hard choices. A book club could have fun hashing out the repercussions they all experience. There’s a particularly poignant scene between Reba and her sister when they discuss their parents.

McCoy presents several of Elsie’s secret Schmidt family bakery recipes in the back of the book. I copied down the recipe for “brotchen” which my son thinks are the rolls he ate when he went to Germany a few summers ago to play soccer. He called them “dope rolls,” which is teenager for “really good.” I hope I can do them justice!

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