The Magician’s Assistant – Ann Patchett

16055I was given Bel Canto (another Patchett book) from my daughter and enjoyed it so I thought I’d try this one too.

Stats: Published in 1997, 357 pages.

Blurb: Sabine– twenty years a magician’s assistant to her handsome, charming husband– is suddenly a widow. In the wake of his death, she finds he has left a final trick; a false identity and a family allegedly lost in a tragic accident but now revealed as very much alive and well. Named as heirs in his will, they enter Sabine’s life and set her on an adventure of unraveling his secrets, from sunny Los Angeles to the windswept plains of Nebraska, that will work its own sort of magic on her.

What I liked: The story was entertaining. I really enjoyed the magic. It shows Patchett’s skill to make writing about magic entertaining. Her characters are all very real and their actions, emotions, and interactions all believable. The winter in Nebraska sounded more like my home state of Wisconsin but since I’ve never been in Nebraska in winter, I can’t really say how accurate it was. What makes a writer think – ‘I’ll write a story about love and loss and make the main character a magician’s assistant’? Interesting.

What I didn’t like: The ending was a bit disappointing. Not sure what I was expecting but it made me feel… disappointed. That is the best word for it. There was a touch of hope, which saved it but still just… disappointing. It’s interesting how an ending can color your feeling of a book.

Rating: 3.5/5

 

A Measured Thread – Author Interview

I am happy to share some good news for Wisconsin author Mary Behan.

In this strange time she has managed to publish her first solo novel: A Measured Thread. Yeah!!
(Full disclosure: Mary was a client of mine. I helped her publish he book.)

Let’s hear from Mary:

Where did you grow up and how has this influenced your writing?

I’m born-and-bred Irish, emigrating to the USA at the age of twenty-five. The nuns who taught me over the course of twelve years put a great emphasis on writing and reading. In junior school it was all about handwriting. I remember ruled copybooks and the importance of keeping within the blue (lower case) and red (upper case) lines. We had dictation too, where the nun read aloud and we wrote in our copybooks with a pen dipped in ink. At high school we studied a canon of literature that included Nathaniel Hawthorne (Tanglewood Tales), Kenneth Graheme (the Wind in the Willows) and several Shakespearean plays, as well as poetry. Each week we had to write compositions — three-page stories — in English, French and Gaelic. My mother read to my sister and me from as early as I can remember, and encouraged us to read — something we both have continued throughout our lives. Literature is bred in the bone in Ireland, I think. We like words: speaking them, writing them, singing them, and the country has produced more than its share of Nobel laureates in literature.

What is A Measured Thread about?

My editor, Christine Keleny, asked me this question so many times throughout the four years I was writing A Measured Thread, and I think I gave her a new answer every time. On one level it’s about on old lady approaching the end of her life, who it trying to come to terms with a fateful decision she made fifty years earlier when she first emigrated to the USA from Ireland. Themes of guilt, abandonment and forgiveness weave their way through the story. But on another level the story is a homage to a sense of place, to finding a true ‘home’ — the ultimate treasure for an emigrant. I had to create a villain, Bill Breunig, in order to highlight Maggie’s dedication to the stewardship of her land. She knows that in the bigger scheme of things she is just passing through, but she wants to pass her land ethic on.

Where did you first get the idea for the story?

About eight years ago, I was in Ireland in our family home. Sorting through old papers, I came across a box of letters that my father kept — letters that I wrote home from when I first emigrated. The packages were as I describe in A Measured Thread, typed blue aerogrammes redolent of age. I brought them back to Wisconsin… and stared at them for weeks and weeks. Eventually I got up my courage to sort through the packages, and began to read. At first, I thought about the young woman who wrote those weekly letters home, the young Mary Behan. But then I began to think about my parents. What went on in their minds as they read the weekly missive? It gave me a completely different insight. The conflict between these two mindsets was the spark that prompted me to begin writing.

What was your goal in writing this novel?

One of the things I wanted was to give a woman’s voice to emigration. Many of the writers on the Irish diaspora are men (e.g., Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín) and even though their protagonists may be female, those writers haven’t grown up with all of the baggage that comes from a society dominated by men. Ireland’s matriarchal Druidic history is reflected nowadays in the archetypical Irish ‘mammy’, but whereas she wields her influence skillfully, she still doesn’t really have power. I wanted Maggie to be a person who not only broke through glass ceilings, but lived a successful life on her terms. And I wanted her to share her memories with Isobel in order to empower the young woman.

What is your next project?

I felt at a loss when I finished writing A Measured Thread. There was elation of course, but I had been working steadily on the novel for four years, so it was strange to realize that I had finally arrived at my destination. I didn’t have the energy (or desire) to begin another novel right away, so I decided to try my hand at writing short stories — one per month for a year. I found a wonderful group of beta readers who were willing to read the stories and give me honest feedback. Now, six months into the project I’m enjoying it very much. My hope is that at the end I’ll revise and assemble enough of the stories to publish them in a volume. Deep down, though, I’m hoping that one of them will cry out to become a full-length story — my next novel.

There is another project close to my heart: to write another book with my sister. Valerie and I wrote Abbey Girls, a memoir about our childhood in Ireland, especially our time together at boarding school.

We want to write a book about traveling with our father, Mick Behan. It’s from him that we inherited our love of travel, and over the years we each (both together and separately) have had amazing and hilarious adventures with him. As with Abbey Girls, the format will be epistolary, for we have written innumerable letters to each other since Val emigrated to Canada in 1969. We have diaries and photographs… it’s going to be so much fun!

Interesting in picking up Mary’s book?
Go to:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/1734494301

ISBNPaperback – 9781734494303;   Ebook – ISBN 9781734494310

Or go to her website: mvbehan.com

Here she is on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53244963-a-measured-thread

More about Mary:

Mary is a retired professor of neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She devotes her time to writing fiction, memoir and short stories. Her first book, Abbey girls, is a memoir she wrote with her sister, Valerie Behan, about their childhood in Ireland. She lives with her husband in the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin in a historic log cabin overlooking a tallgrass prairie.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionSometimes my work allows me to listen to books while I work. I was happy to see this one available from my library online service. I had heard the title and was interested in the topic.

Stats: It was published in 2014, which surprised me. I didn’t know I was so slow on the draw, but it explains why it was available to me from the library. Narrated by the author. It is 11 hours in length.

Blurb: Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.

What I liked: Mr. Stevenson is an impressive man and this book does a good job telling his story. It’s not surprising that they picked this up to make a movie about it (which I would also recommend). It’s quite a story. A definite eye opener of the continued injustices in our judicial system.

What I didn’t like: Not sure I can think of anything.

Rating: 5/5

A Better Man by Louise Penny

44034500I always enjoy a stroll through the small but dangerous town of Three Pines 🙂

Stats: Published in 2019, print is 437 pages, audio is 11 discs, narrator, Robert Bathurst (as always)

Blurb: It’s Gamache’s first day back as head of the homicide department, a job he temporarily shares with his previous second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Flood waters are rising across the province. In the middle of the turmoil a father approaches Gamache, pleading for help in finding his daughter.

As crisis piles upon crisis, Gamache tries to hold off the encroaching chaos, and realizes the search for Vivienne Godin should be abandoned. But with a daughter of his own, he finds himself developing a profound, and perhaps unwise, empathy for her distraught father.

Increasingly hounded by the question, how would you feel…, he resumes the search.

As the rivers rise, and the social media onslaught against Gamache becomes crueler, a body is discovered. And in the tumult, mistakes are made.

What I liked: There are enough questions about “Who done it” that you really don’t know until Penny tells you (or at least I didn’t). I don’t know what number this is in the Gamache series and I’ve only read a few of this series, but it still feels fresh. Penny is so good at making the characters and their lives seem very real. The backstories of the supporting characters play into the mystery so well. Bathurst does a wonderful job, as usual. I love his interpretation of the duck.

What I didn’t like: (Spoiler Alert) To keep the real “killer” hidden, Penny kind of lies to the reader. The person really responsible tries to pin it on someone else. Is that lying or is that what a person might actually do. For this character, it seems unlikely, but it makes the story work.

Rating: 4.5/5

The Giver of Stars – Jojo Moyes

The Giver of StarsI have read this author before so I thought this would be a safe pick.

Stats: The audio book (which I “read”) is 11 discs, 14 hours, narrated by Julia Whelan. The print book is 400 pages, published in October of 2019.

Blurb: Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.

The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.

What happens to them–and to the men they love–becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives.

What I liked: I enjoyed the story in part because it was obvious it was based on some facts. It initially appears to be about Alice – the immigrant from England, but it really seems more about Margery – the feisty local that does and says what she likes. The library and the bond that forms with the women that run it is heartening and the things they encounter seem very real, as do the characters. I can see how, if they enjoyed reading, how they would like sharing that with people that would normally not be exposed to books. Plus, it’s understandable for the time period for the women to appreciate the independence this job gave them, a job men would generally have little interest in so suited them perfectly. Julia Whalen does a wonderful job with the narration, making each character unique.

What I didn’t like: It seems to takes Alice an extra long time to figure out what she decides to do once she (spoiler alert) leaves her husband. It also takes too long for the trial to happen. (I won’t tell you who is on trial.) I’m not sure why Moyes draws this out for so long. Generally, the book moves along in a saunter, like the women on their horses. It’s not the “epic” the publisher would have you believe, but it’s enjoyable.

Rating: 3.5/5

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

43107933. sy475 I haven’t read anything by this author but it looked good, so I picked it up.

Stats: Published in June of 2019, 352 print pages, 10 audio discs, 11.5 hours. Audio narrated by Jason Issacs. Book 5 in the Jackson Brodie series.

Blurb: Jackson Brodie, ex-military police, ex-Cambridge Constabulary, currently working as a private investigator, makes a highly anticipated return, nine years after the last Brodie, Started Early, Took My Dog.

Jackson Brodie has relocated to a quiet seaside village, in the occasional company of his recalcitrant teenage son and an aging Labrador, both at the discretion of his ex-partner Julia. It’s picturesque, but there’s something darker lurking behind the scenes.

Jackson’s current job, gathering proof of an unfaithful husband for his suspicious wife, is fairly standard-issue, but a chance encounter with a desperate man on a crumbling cliff leads him into a sinister network—and back across the path of his old friend Reggie.

What I liked: An awful lot (hows that for vague). If you like happy endings (and British humor), you’ll like this book. It’s not that the book is light and fluffy stuff – it is far from that, but all the bad guys get their just due and frequently at the hands of people that need to see justice done. The characters are all very real (drag queens, teen angst, parent angst, pasts that catch up to you… I don’t want to give anything away so I’ll stop there), the story line is also all very real (the underbelly of human kind), other than the lovely ending for all the good characters and the not so lovely ending for all the bad ones. But it feels so cathartic that you can overlook the unlikelihood of this happening in real life. Jason Isaacs does a wonderful job narrating. Each character is very distinct; I could see them all in my mind’s eye.

What I didn’t like: The only down side was it took until disc 4 for the story to really start. I was listening and the characters in the story before disc 4 are all interesting, but they don’t all start to come together until then, and then it’s off to the races. I don’t think it would have made a difference if I’d have read other Jackson Brodie books first. This one stands on it’s own just fine.

Rating: 4/5 (I’ve hit the jackpot recently, two really good book in a row!! (see my The Casual Vacancy review). Maybe I just like British humor, growing up on Monty Python. They seem particularly good at highlighting the silly things we humans do.

The Casual Vacancy By J.K. Rowling

13497818I hadn’t read anything else by Rowling other than the Harry Potter series, so when I saw this audio book on the library shelf, I thought I’d give it a go.

Stats: Published in 2012 (boy, am I behind the times), print is 503 pages. Don’t remember how many discs but it’s 17′ 51″ long. Narrator is Tom Hollander

Blurb: When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.

Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils … Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

What I liked: Most everything about this book I liked. I could tell right away is was written by Rowling – her Harry Potter style of deep omniscient point of view is unmistakable and I think even better in this book than in the Potter series. I recently read Where the Crawfish Sings and I think the author Delia Owens was trying for this point of view (though not deep, like this book) but wasn’t able to pull it off. (I’ll go more into that in a specific review of that book in another post). And what a topic – the death of a small-town politican (or whatever his “seat” was on the parish council – not church parish but district/parish. This is set in England). How does one make a story about a banal subject like that? Well, by creating wonderful, real characters with wonderfully messy lives. I wanted to get to know many of these characters upon first introduction, they were done so well. I think I have to buy this book just to study how she does this.

And the narration of Tom Hollander is superb! Definitely listen to the audio on this one. He’s so entertaining and makes the characters that much more richer.

What I didn’t like: It was a bit ago that I read it so maybe there was something, but it wasn’t enough that I remember what it was.

Rating: I guess I’m on the fringe on this one with Goodreads averg at 3.3/5 and Amazon at 3/5. Were people expecting something fanciful because of her Potter series? I’m not sure. But it’s superb writing (and narration) so I giving it a 5/5