Tuesday, July 31, 2012

THE STARBOARD SEA by Amber Dermont (fic)

"The Starboard Sea" is a wonderful first novel for Amber Dermont.  It is the story of privilege, sorrow, pain, joy, love and a spot on first person narrative about life at a New England seaside prep school.  Above all it is a book about the healing found in the  joy of sailing.  For a female author to get into the head of an eighteen year old boy is surely difficult, yet Dermont does so with ease, his voice and pain so real. The year is 1988; her main character is a fully believable New York teen, Jason Prosper.  Jason has changed schools, and as he enters his senior year, he is deeply scarred by the suicide of his best friend and sailing partner, for which he feels he is responsible. 
Jason's new school is Bellingham Academy, school know for its sailing skill.  A few pages into the description of the school and I was convinced the setting of the fictional school was based on Tabor Academy which borders Sippican Harbor in Marion, Massachusetts.  I was even more convinced with the mention of New Bedford; the description of the harbor in Marion is one I know so well, having sailing out of there for 25 years.  Dermont knows her sailing terms and how to handle a boat. To have description so real, including a memorable hurricane, adds to the believability of the book. 
Jason finds solace and begins to find himself through a relationship with Aiden, a troubled girl who responds to Jason's kindness and attention.
Bellingham is filled with damaged teens from dysfunctional wealthy families. The least believable characters are the completely detached faculty, who develop no relationship with their angst-filled wards. 
"The Starboard Sea" is a beautifully written narrative of troubled teens, some who are destined to heal, despite the adults at the periphery of their lives, and others to go through a life devoid of meaning.  One can almost see the handwriting on the wall.  I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

ABIDE WITH ME by Elizabeth Strout (fic)

It is the decade of the 1950s, and we are introduced to the inhabitants of the very old Yankee town of Annett, Maine through the eyes of their young minister, Tyler Caskey.  Elizabeth Strout has written about a small New England town before in her Orange Prize novel "Amy and Isabelle."  This time she tells a beautifully lyrical and sad story of a congregation unable to find the warmth to help their minister through the most difficult loss of his young wife. 
Tyler is left with two young daughters; one, five year old Katherine is bereft at the loss of her mother and has no one to turn to, as her father is consumed by his own grief.  Katherine's isolation is one of the saddest things in the book.  As the book begins with the death of Lauren, the reader is gradually given the details of how Tyler and Lauren met and fell in love, she from a wealthy Boston family, he from a poor and plain living Maine family.  Their backgrounds couldn't be more different: Lauren was vivacious and free, Tyler was serious and introverted.  Yet their marriage was a good one.  Tyler's journey with grief and his eventual finding his center again occupies the main story of the novel.  The various members of his congregation enter in and out revealing their own tragedies, one of the most important being Connie Hatch, Caskey's housekeeper.  This is a story of sober, plain people unable to reveal their feelings and communicate with each other.  It is told in a careful and understanding voice.  This is a good book for a book club discussion.

THE SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER by Kate Summerscale (non-fic)

If you enjoy Victorian mysteries, you are sure to enjoy this true accounting of a murder in the small Wiltshire town of Road Hill.  Kate Summerscale has meticulously delved into what caused a sensation and public outcry in all of England in 1860.  She uses original sources and accounts of the characters involved in the horrific and brutal murder of a three year old boy, Saville Kent. 

The Kents were an upper middle class family living in the manufacturing town of Road.  Their home was rather grand, and they were not particularly liked by the townsfolk, many of whom worked at the mill in which Samuel Kent was a sales representative.  One night in the summer of 1860, young Saville was taken from his nursery crib and brutally murdered, and his body was dumped in the servants' privy. As was often the case in these days, the local authorities, further muddied the mystery, by not taking care to investigate carefully.  Eventually Jonathan Whicher was called in from Scotland Yard.  London "Bobbies" not many years before, had come into existence; and it was only in the mid-1850s that detectives were added to the force.  Whicher was the best of the best.  His fame in solving difficult cases was an inspiration for Dickens in "The Mystery of Edmund Drood," as well as Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone."  Some even said he was the forerunner of the fictional Sherlock Holmes.

How Whicher solved this case, and his eventual fall from grace, form the basis of the book.  Just as the press today forms public opinion, in the summer of 1860 and through some years following, most people in England had an opinion of who the murder was.

Kate Summerscale does an excellent job of creating the mood and background of the villagers and the Kent family, which had its own dark secrets; these eventually come out as events unfold. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel (fic)

"Bring Up the Bodies" is a sequel to "Wolf Hall" Mantel's 2009 Mann Booker Prize winner.   It is possible to read it as an individual book, but it is much more interesting to read "Wolf Hall" first if one hasn't done so.  So, if you are familiar with the first book, you know this is about Thomas Cromwell, a nefarious villain in the reign of Henry VIII.  Cromwell has oft been presented as a sort of Iago figure encouraging and enabling Henry's excesses, but Mantel is having none of that.  Instead she has masterfully created a believable character and given the reader a study of the effects of power on the morality of a rising political star.
 Both stories are told from Cromwell's point of view.  He is a more likable character in the first book.  By the second book, he is deeply involved in the political intrigues of Henry's court.  Cromwell's nemesis in the first book is Thomas More, in this book, it is Anne Boleyn.  The title refers to the four men who were accused of having relations with Anne and subsequently, along with her, executed.  It is likely they were framed to allow the king to make a match with Jane Seymour. 
While stories about the Tudors are popular in the romance and bodice-ripper genre, Mantel's Tudor world is all about the powers behind the throne and the politics of an era that was just coming out of the medieval age.  I highly recommend both of these books which, although fiction, will give the reader an intelligent grasp of court politics in a dangerous age.

GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn (fic)

"Gone Girl" came out with great acclaim as the summer book.  As such it is thoroughly enjoyable thriller, just the kind of page turner one wants to take along on vacation.  Flynn has the knack of writing a story with many plot twists and red herrings to keep the reader on his or her toes. 
Nick and Amy Dunne are a healthily beautiful couple, both capable of turning heads.  They were leading a successful life in New York City, he a competent magazine writer, she also involved in writing a column.  Their story is told in alternating voices, and before long the reader realizes that neither is to be trusted, and he/ she must unravel the mystery of who is telling the truth. Neither of these characters is endearing, and it is a credit to the author that the reader keeps hoping that one of them will come clean as the story progresses. 
Both Nick and Amy lost their New York jobs and in the hope of making a positive change moved to a home on the Mississippi River in North Carthage, Missouri  (a town that has seen better days)  where Nick grew up.  It turns out that Amy has a decent trust fund, and Nick and his twin sister decide to open up a bar in town. 
Amy mysteriously disappears one day, and the pace picks up as the story continues to be told in both voices.  There are a number of surprises for the reader before the book ends.  The ending itself wasn't completely satisfying to me, but you must make up your own mind about that.