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In today’s New Hampshire Sunday News I review two New Hampshire authors — both prolific, both excellent in their genres — Jeremy Robinson, who writes what I think of as sci-fi thrillers with a dash of political intrigue, and Margaret Porter, whose historical novels are richly detailed.

Their new books are MirrorWorld, a thought provoking page turner set right here in New Hampshire and A Pledge of Better Times, about real members of the British royal court in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, a real treat for Masterpiece fans and history buffs. Here’s the beginning of the column:

NH writers spin altered reality of two sorts

Jeremy Robinson’s new thriller “MirrorWorld,” which comes out this week, is set mostly in New Hampshire, but not necessarily the one we know.

Josef Shiloh, former special forces soldier and CIA assassin, knows himself only as Crazy. He can’t remember anything about his life or identity and he is quite literally fearless; it’s an emotion as unknown to him as his past.

A woman appears at the mental hospital where he lives, offers him a chance to leave and takes him to a mysterious company called Neuro.

He finds out that Neuro exists to counter a race of mythical creatures called the Dread that have co-existed with humans since the dawn of time and are the source of terror and violence in the world.

– See more at: http://www.unionleader.com/article/20150426/OPINION02/150429344/0/SEARCH#sthash.JPLUvhU4.dpuf

 

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I spent most of the first three weeks of May traveling, which is something I love. First of all, it’s exciting to go someplace different, try new things, see new places. Even if its somewhere I’ve been before, it’s never the same as home, and never the same as the last time I visited. Second, for a person who sees narrative and image everywhere, it’s great fun to insert myself into my imagination for a change – travel makes me think of how my own story might be different if I lived where I’m visiting or visited where I live. So it’s a creativity boost.

And there’s the bonus that long plane or train trips are perfect reasons to read a book in a sitting or two, one of my favorite things to do but one I rarely allow myself in everyday life. It’s a goal, although not one I really expect I’ll keep, to let myself have one afternoon a week to get lost in a book.

As in April, my May reading was partly focused on England, where we were meeting up with Teen the Elder to celebrate the end of his Gap Year. We spent a week and a half and visited London, Bletchley Park, Paris, Bath, Hayward’s Heath and Brighton. It was great fun.

Before we left I read Susan Allen Toth‘s My Love Affair With England. Part travel book, part memoir, this book is about her visits to England over thirty years, as a student, a professor, and a professed Anglophile. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Toth writes with candor and affection and she’s a very thoughtful traveler, not only enjoying herself but examining her experiences, synthesizing them with her life, analyzing what makes England a pleasure for her. I love the way she writes with such insight, clarity, and intelligence. She reminds me of one of my favorite college professors.

She captures the culture, warts and all, and one chapter had me calling the Computer Scientist over so I could read aloud about her daughter’s experience with a host family in college, because it was eerily familiar. She definitely made me want to visit more of the English countryside, the North, which I didn’t see at all this time, and National Trust houses (yes, this book fit the Bookconscious Theory of Interconnectedness of Reading because Toth mentions visiting Fellbrigg Hall, where Mary MacKie and her husband lived and worked as I mentioned when I read MacKie’s book last month).

In London we rented a flat in Holland Park, which amplified my wild inner narrative of an alternate life in which I’m a Londoner. It also made my reading of Queen of the Tambourine, by one of my favorite authors, Jane Gardam, that much more atmospheric. This was my fifth Europa Editions book of 2012, on my way to my goal of reading twelve for the Europa Challenge.

Gardam is such an amazing writer that I can’t really do her justice in a few sentences. This book is such an incredible read . I was enjoying the writing so much I didn’t see what was coming, even though the blurbs refer to the main character, Eliza Peabody, dealing with “manic delusions.” Gardam writes with such humanity and humor, her characters are so rich and full, that it never mattered to me how little actually happens in this story, plot-wise. A great deal happens in Eliza’s interior life.

Eliza is writing to a friend, Joan, who as far as we know has taken off for the East, traveling around England’s former colonies and leaving her husband, nearly grown children, dog, and lovely home. As the book progresses the reality of Eliza’s “observations” and Joan’s identity become clearer, but slowly. You get to know Eliza and the people in her life very well, until every small thing that happens matters terribly, and you are longing for this very kind but very troubled woman to make it through.

One of the things I love most about Gardam is that in her books there is nothing minor about the minor characters. She brings every one of them to life in three dimensions, even those who only appear in a scene or two. Barry, an AIDS patient Eliza visits in hospice, will go down as one of my favorite supporting characters in contemporary literature — he is Eliza’s foil and muse and shadow self, all in one complicated package. Lucien, a twelve year old boy who we only meet a few times very briefly, is a voice of wisdom and plays a key part in bringing about Eliza’s renewal and healing. As Eliza says, “Oh, all the different kinds of love –”

The emotional and psychological depth of everyday life is so vivid in Queen of the Tambourinethat it’s left me considering people I know only casually, wondering what is going on in their minds, how they are seeing our shared experience. That’s really what this book is about; the way that perception is shaded by our psyches as much as our senses. And the way our psyches are filled with the bits and pieces of our lifetimes’ experiences.

Gardam fits each shard of Elizabeth’s psyche together, showing us how they are cemented into place by her childhood, her young adulthood, her loves and friendships and losses and aging and even all the little moments in each day. But we don’t see the author working this all out, it just happens beautifully and naturally as the book unfolds. Which is what makes Queen of the Tambourine so lovely and True with a capital T.

Another of my favorite English writers is Alan Bennett. In a small bookshop in Bath I bought his memoir A Life Like Other People’s. This is mainly the story of his family, especially his parents and his mother’s family. Like the fiction and essays of Bennett’s I’ve read, it’s sad and beautiful, observant and unflinching.

Like many books I love, there’s more to it as well. It’s also an interesting view of England’s postwar decades. And it’s a touching examination of adult childhood, a time when many people re-experience their early lives even as they must assume more and more responsibility for their parents. An added bonus: for those who’ve read The Lady In the Van, Miss Shepherd makes an appearance in A Life Like Other People’s when she discusses Bennett’s parents with him.

My final literary trip into England was a book I picked up at the Five Colleges Book Sale, Angela Thirkell‘s Coronation Summer. I admit I have Diamond Jubilee fever. This weekend and next Tuesday, I plan to park on the couch in front of BBC America, and eat scones with a small jar of clotted cream we bought in Heathrow, coronation chicken, and trifle.

Coronation Summer is a novel about a young woman recalling the weeks of celebration in London in 1838 around Queen Victoria’s coronation. It’s a very funny novel of manners, somewhat reminiscent of Jane Austen but a little bit less subtle. I found it very entertaining and fun to read at the end of long days spent exploring London. We visited Kensington Palace and saw the wonderful exhibit about Victoria, so that added to my enjoyment.

When we got back from England, I finished reading a book I started in the week before we left, The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy, by Lisa Dodson. I had the pleasure of hearing Ms. Dodson speak at Rivier College in the spring. Her research on the ways average people all over the country are consciously acting to oppose economic injustice in large and small ways, often at great personal risk, is inspiring.

In The Moral Underground, Dodson reports on eight years of research into three crossroads of socioeconomic classes in America: workplaces, schools, and health care. She specifically examines the ways middle class people are reacting to the desperate struggles of poor Americans they come into contact with in those settings. Her focus is on the working poor — people who are following the “rules” our culture has set for success that are supposed to bring about the American dream.

Just this morning I heard Mitt Romney on the radio summarizing these rules: get an education (i.e. don’t drop out of public school; college has only recently been encouraged as part of this dream), get a job and work hard, and you will have a good life because America is about opportunity. The problem, as Dodson explains with example after example, is that in today’s economy, that equation is out of balance. Millions of Americans are working and following the path they were told would lead to a good life but are not able to provide a stable living for themselves and their families.

Dodson uses school, healthcare and workplaces to illuminate the issues around this problem because most Americans of all economic levels ineract in these places. She discovered the response to poor people’s chaotic or difficult lives fell into two broad categories. First, there are teachers, health care providers, and bosses (and I think politicians and policy makers, too) who think poor people are lazy, stupid, or of poor character and therefore to blame for their situations; some of these people take their disapproval to authorities and report what they see as neglect or irresponsibilty at the cost of people losing their jobs or being referred to social services. Others simply withhold the benefit of the doubt.

The second group, who form a moral underground, have decided that working and still not being able to adequately feed, clothe, shelter, and care for your family is wrong, and that they are not going to stand back and watch it happen. This group feels no one wants to be poor, no one wants their kids to struggle in school or be sick, no one wants to not be able to provide the trappings of middle class life — camps, proms, college preparation, extra curricular activities — for their families; no one wants to fall behind in their bills or miss work or have to choose between showing up for a teacher conference or losing their job for an unexcused absence.

Of course in between are all kinds of people who empathize with one of the above views and don’t do anything either way. But this book focuses on the people who feel compelled to act. I already knew that Dodson empathizes and identifies with the second group, and to be honest, so do I. I don’t know what the macro answer is — the people Dodson talks with about their actions in the moral underground are solving individual problems, not reforming the entire economy. She does touch on some broad policy shifts that would begin to transform our economic culture, but I don’t hold out much hope that there will be a dramatic shift.

I don’t think that caring for one’s children (or other people’s) will ever be highly valued in our economy, that workplace laws will prioritize people (which is not diametrically opposed to prioritizing profit — Dodson profiles some workplaces which are thriving BECAUSE a boss has decided to treat people well, to care about their home lives, to never make their employees choose work over family needs), that healthcare will become universally affordable, that schools where poor kids go will all be as good as those where the wealthy learn, or that public transportation will become cheap and ubiquitous everywhere the working poor live. But this book gives me enormous hope that all around us, in ways we don’t see, people are quietly (because they are breaking rules and risking their own jobs) making other people’s lives easier.

Dodson explains how teachers and administrators fudge paperwork to make it possible for kids to get meals or medicines, to qualify them for after-school care or even to stay in a school district if their family loses their home or has to move. She illustrates ways doctors and nurses treat whole families when only a child qualifies for health insurance, or get people into studies and trials because it’s the only way they’ll get treatment. And ways bosses create off the books schedules that let people pick up kids from school or make appointments rather than have absences. Or funnel unsold stock to struggling employees. Or find creative financing for continued training and education for employees who can’t afford it themselves.

Dodson compares this underground to the abolitionists who helped free, educate, or protect slaves and the people who quietly worked to end child labor. At the end of the book Dodson relates her conversations with college students about how they want to live, and reports that for most of them, knowing about economic injustice changes their views and potentially, their lives. The Moral Underground would be a really good community or college-wide read. I’m sure it would incite heated conversations, since the few people I’ve discussed it with it had visceral and immediate reactions, even without reading it for themselves.

For my Mindful Reader column this month, I read four books — there are a large number of New England authors with summer releases — including three I probably would not have picked up had it not been for this gig. I continue to be amazed by the abundance of writers in New Hampshire or nearby.

New Hampshire author Jeremy Robinson has written a page turner, SecondWorld. I’d forgotten how fun thrillers are, especially in the hands of an imaginative storyteller like Robinson. In Secondworld’s prologue, a strange German science experiment in 1945 liquefies a group of prisoners. A high ranking Nazi tells the researchers that although the war is lost, they should offer their services to America and wait. “We will rise from the ashes,” he declares.

Flash to 2012: in Miami, Tel Aviv, and Tokyo, an otherworldly attack robs cities of their oxygen and signals the rise of SecondWorld. Vacationing Navy criminal investigator Lincoln Miller manages to escape the Miami devastation, so the President calls on his expertise.

Miller has seven days before the entire world will fall. Robinson incorporates history (Operation Paperclip, Nazi Antarctic exploration), science (cryonics, physics) and a very entertaining supporting cast to aid Miller. Robinson must have done a lot of research, because the few things I Googled (occupational hazard; reference librarians like to check facts) checked out and I am not sure I could explain the science behind the oxygen depletion or the strange Nazi weapon, but it’s in the book. You’ll want to block off a couple of evenings to find out what happens as a small band of good guys fight to save the world, battling wits with Nazi conspirators and gutting out impossible situations.

Grit and wits are integral to the second book I read for the column this month, The Day the World Discovered the Sun, by Massachusetts author Mark Anderson. The subtitle says it all: “An extraordinary story of the 18th century scientific adventure and race to track the transit of Venus.” In this rare occurrence, the planet passes between sun and earth, appearing as a dark spot crossing the sun. Anderson’s book was timed to coincide with the June 5, 2012 Venus transit.

Calculations based on observations of the 1769 event would unlock the universe’s dimensions, making longitudinal measurements, essential to navigation at the time, more accurate. In his book, Anderson explores the personalities and politics behind the transit observation expeditions, melding history and science in a fascinating story of the first large-scale international scientific effort.

Like experts at the time, Anderson focuses on three of the over 150 observers of the 1769 transit. He details French astronomer Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche’s journey to San Jose del Cabo in today’s Baja California, Mexico; Hungarian priest-astronomer Maximilian Hell’s trip to a Norwegian island (then part of Denmark)where he also discovered that the language of Lapland’s Sami people is related to Hungarian; and English Naval Capt. James Cook’s voyage with Royal Society astronomer Charles Green to Tahiti (and by secret order of the British government, to explore a rumored southern continent after observing Venus).

Anderson makes each expedition come alive; the challenges and detours, hopes and hubris. These small groups of explorers and scientists went places even modern travelers find hard to reach, from the arctic circle to the tropics, in search of perfect viewing. They knew success would be elusive. Some had failed to observe a similar event in 1761, foiled by weather or in at least one case, disappearing forever. Political and economic conditions impacted the expeditions as well and Anderson adroitly fills in these details along with the science behind the missions.

Anderson also illuminates the post-transit struggle to measure the universe. Newspapers published around 600 calculations based on the 1769 transit. French astronomer Jerome Lalande was widely viewed as the authority on transit data, but was affronted that Hell hadn’t sent his results immediately, so downplayed their accuracy. English mathematician/astronomer Thomas Hornsby came extremely close to calculating the correct distance from the earth to the sun and relative distance of the planets. French Astronomer Royal Cesar-Francois Cassini de Thury predicted the next really useful Venus transit would be in 2012. Whether you like science or political intrigue, space or human nature, or simply want to marvel at what these men accomplished, Anderson delivers.

For a celebration of contemporary human ingenuity as manifested in loggers, farmers, librarians, town-meeting leaders, and other inhabitants of the North Country, read Nessa Flax’s collection Voices In the Hills: Collected Ramblings from a Rural Life. Flax has written “Rambling Reflections,” a weekly column for the Bradford, Vermont, Journal Opinion, since 1995. Her book collects 126 of those columns.

Flax, a transplant living in Ryegate Corner, Vermont, near the New Hampshire border, writes lovingly of the pleasures and lessons of country life. You’ll recognize her neighbors, who embody the self-reliance, quiet warmth, wisdom and good humor of northern New England. Flax writes of ordinary things, with a conversational style that gives readers the feeling they’re sitting down with a friend.

This is a book to dip into; you could pick it up and choose an essay about the season or something happening in your life – missing a loved one, gardening challenges, trouble co-existing with wildlife – and find a sympathetic and delightful rendering of just that situation as Flax sees it. A minor quibble: some of the columns overlap.

Lives overlap in Massachusetts author Nichole Bernier’s debut The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. Imagine your best friend dies in a plane crash and leaves you her journals dating back to adolescence, “because she’s fair and sensible and would know what should be done with them.” When this taut, moving novel opens, this is Kate Spenser’s situation.

Headed to a beach cottage for the summer with her family, Kate stops at Elizabeth’s home for the journals. Elizabeth’s widower is unnerved by the bequest and he’s read just enough to suspect his wife was unfaithful. Kate spends seven weeks learning she only knew one facet of her friend. Her discoveries make her examine her own life, the secrets everyone keeps, and the roles we play.

Plumbing friendship and marriage and the balance between parenting and work, this book stayed with me long after I finished, and left me with the same feeling as a good cry. Elizabeth has unfulfilled personal and professional goals, a tragic childhood loss, and a genetic curse to deal with, and Kate is haunted by fear in the post 9/11 world. In Bernier’s hands, it isn’t too much. A book club could discuss this novel for hours.

After England, Teen the Younger and I traveled by train to Washington DC, to care for her young cousins who live in Alexandria while their parents got away to celebrate their tenth anniversary. Riding the train for hours is quite pleasant, especially compared with driving. I enjoyed the scenery but also enjoyed reading. On the way down I read most of The Day the World Discovered the Sun and on the way back, I read The Expats by Chris Pavone.

As I mentioned earlier it’s a great pleasure for me to read a book in just about a sitting. Maybe it conjures childhood memories of summer days spent reading a good book for hours. And this book is terrific for such a day, because it’s very entertaining and I wanted to find out what happened. It’s a spy thriller, but different than action-film sorts of thrillers (like SecondWorld). Instead, Pavone has written a LeCarre style book with labyrinthine plot, whip-smart heroine (and hero, as her husband may be in your view, as he is in mine), array of potential villains, and international setting. It’s a fun, interesting debut.

Teen the Younger brought along magazines (I tried Tatler on the plane ride home and loved it) and The Hobbit. She is enjoying it. She’s currently writing an essay about Lord of the Flies which we finished before our trips and we have planned to read Fahrenheit 451 as our next family read.

The Computer Scientist experimented with downloading books onto his phone for the trip — out-of-copyright classics like Dracula. He is enjoying Bram Stoker’s gothic icon. All three of us are huge fans of the BBC series Sherlock and before we left he read some of the stories in The Complete Sherlock Holmes.

Teen the Elder is in the Seattle area these days, hanging out with his uncle, learning to drive stick-shift in a Mini Cooper, volunteering as the roadie for ukelele band The Castaways, possibly usability testing video games, and playing soccer with the Crossfire PDL. He too read magazines on the road (Top Gear, The Economist). If he’s reading books he has’t said but he will be: St. Michael’s College freshmen are all reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.

Next up? I have a library e-book about Queen Elizabeth on my iPad, and I’m reading Christpher Moore’s Sacre Bleu. I have four books for my July Mindful Reader column and a huge pile of “to-reads.” Here’s hoping I do get to spend an afternoon a week reading this summer.

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