Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Good Bird

Jana Laird arrives in Hamara Nagar, India to claim her inheritance- a property known as the Jolly Grant House. The local bagpiper is only the first of the neighbors to offer assistance as they work to make the house inhabitable. Just as Jana, her ayah Mary, and her parrot are feeling comfortable in their new locale, they receive word the government may be building a dam that will flood the town. To prevent obliteration, the residents must prove their town's merit. Along with the newspaper editor, the antiques dealer, and tailor, Jana believes their future might just rest on fortune telling. 

Set in 1960, the novel Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes looks back through characters who lived with the corruption of local bureaucrats, the colonization and leave-taking of the British, and the Golden Age of Indian cinema.  From elevenses at the Why Not? Tea Shop to the gossip at Royal Tailors to palm reads in the parlor, Betsy Woodman has created a novel rich in scene and character.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Childish Fancy

As a young reader, I was drawn to any book written by Noel Streatfeild. Although the plots stuck to a similar pattern - orphan is taken in by poor relations, orphan must dance/act/skate to earn her way in the world, orphan finds great success - the predictability was comforting.  

The Flight of Gemma Hardy appeals to those of us fascinated by the orphan tale, but with unpredictable plot twists that the stories of our childhoods lacked. In Margot Livesey's book, Gemma becomes an orphan after her Scottish mother dies from a freak accident and her Icelandic father dies at sea. She goes to live with her uncle's family in Scotland. 

Not wanting to live with her cruel aunt after her uncle's death, Gemma finds a place at a boarding school. Since she is on scholarship, she must work to pay for her keep. Undeterred by the weary tasks of peeling potatoes and scrubbing floors, she keeps up with her studies. Before she can take the college entrance exams, however, the school closes, and she must find work as an au pair. 

Traveling to the Orkney Islands, Gemma cares for another young orphan who has been taken in by a bachelor uncle.  After the relationship with her employer ends poorly, she leaves with little money and no prospects. 

Gemma, taking on an alias, ends up finding work in a town not far from where she began. After a young man sets his unwanted sights on her, she sets off again. This time, she goes to Iceland in the hopes of discovering any remaining relatives she might have. 

Livesey has crafted an old-fashioned tale filled with dramatic landscapes, wicked matrons, and a headstrong heroine. Looking for another book in the same vein might lead you to Jane Eyre. But I'm going to look for my well-worn copy of Ballet Shoes.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Then Comes Marriage

Evvie and Ben are in their forties. Evvie works in a frame shop and attends protests for animal rights. Ben works as a medical equipment salesman and likes wearing a suit and tie. When Ben announces one day that he's leaving her, Evvie is bereft. Told from alternating points of view, we see Evvie slowly unravel as she plots more and more elaborate schemes to get Ben to come back.

The author, Jane McCafferty, realistically captures the guilty elation of the one leaving and the obsessive self-doubt of the one being left. We admire Evvie's determination, but sympathize with Ben's frustration. We worry over her trust in strangers. We fume at his enchantment with a new lover. And cheer when he realizes she too is less than perfect. 

Where is the line between being persistent and perverse? First You Try Everything charmingly offers a satisfying answer. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario

I was reminded of this film recently while reading a book called Enrique's Journey. However nerve- wracking it is to watch the little boy in the movie make his way across the border, it is even more devastating to read the true stories of children trying to find their mothers in Sonia Nazario's book.  

Enrique's mother left to find work in the US when he was five. Now that he is a teenager, Enrique decides to travel from Honduras to North Carolina to find her. With no money, he travels through Mexico by riding on the tops of freight trains. Not only must he dodge immigration authorities, he also must evade thieves, gangs, and local police. Going days without food or sleep, he must be constantly alert to the dangers of the tracks- tree branches, derailment, and tunnels. If not, he risks broken bones, severed limbs, or death.  

Nazario, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, retraces the trip that Enrique and scores of other children attempt in their efforts to reach the US. In heartbreaking detail, she describes the mothers' dilemma in leaving their children, the harrowing train rides of those who set out to find family, and the generosity of the citizens and churches who shelter and feed the children along the way. These are stories you won't easily forget.