Home Sweet Anywhere, by Lynne Martin

homesweetanywhereHome Sweet Anywhere is a memoir about a couple, Lynne and Tim, who get together later in life after a brief romance years earlier. When Tim has been through a divorce and Lynne’s husband has died, they fall in love all over again — but discover that the last thing they both want is to settle down to a quiet retirement. Though they both have adult children and grandchildren they love, they’re not ready to stay close to home — they both love travel. So rather than buying a retirement home, they sell everything they can, put the rest into storage, and hit the road, spending weeks or months at a time renting apartments in whatever country takes their fancy.

Obviously Lynne and Tim’s plan only works for retirees who have two things that not all elderly people are blessed with — a healthy retirement savings fund, and good health. Assuming those two things, this is a wish-fulfillment fantasy for a lot of us would-be gypsies who look forward to travelling more in our golden years. While I wouldn’t enjoy their solution of having no permanent home to stash my stuff and come back to — I hope to always have our house in the centre of St. John’s as a home base — it’s not hard to indulge in my own fantasies while I read about Lynne and Tim’s Dublin apartment or their Portuguese beach house.

I’ve seen this book criticized because of Lynne Martin’s everyday, somewhat bloggy prose (the book deal grew out of an article which in turn grew out of the blog she kept while on the road). It is fair to point out that as travel writers go, Lynne Martin is no Bill Bryson and no Elizabeth Gilbert either — but she doesn’t have any pretentions to that kind of literary travel writing. She’s a fairly ordinary (though well-off) traveller telling a pretty straightforward story — how she and her husband made this unconventional retirement plan work for them, what they saw, what they liked and didn’t like, with a few tips on what others might want to do it they are interested in the same kind of adventure. The fact that the book has succeeded as well as it has is not a testament to any brilliant narrative skills on Martin’s part — she makes it clear she lays no claim to those — but rather to the fact that her story touches a chord with so many of us who would like to do at least some version of what she and Tim have done with their retirement years.

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Cupids, NaGeira, and Easton, by Paul Butler

butlerbooksThese are three separate books, not a series or anything (in fact, they can’t really take place in the same fictional universe, since the events of Sheila Na’Geira’s life as narrated in Easton seem to contradict what happens in NaGeira, so they are clearly distinct stories). But I read them all in fairly quick succession over the last couple of weeks, which is why I’m reviewing them together. They are all set in the early 1600s, focusing on historical and/or legendary characters who have cast long shadows over Newfoundland’s early history — the colonizer John Guy, the pirate Peter Easton, and the Irish “princess” Sheila Na’Geira. Butler’s writing is vivid, fluent, and filled with wonderful period detail, bringing these historical names and legends to life in a series of revealing snapshots.

I say “snapshot” because each of these is a short book, dealing with only a narrow slice in a very broad life. NaGeira has the broadest scope, telling the story of the legendary Sheila’s early life from the perspective of the elderly Sheila, but even then, it’s only a glimpse into the life of a woman who, if she really lived, must have had a hugely varied and fascinating life that spanned decades in both the Old World and the New. Cupidis less about John Guy’s founding of the Cuper’s Cove colony and more about a single harrowing incident in which he tries to raise funds back in England to continue the venture — and even in that incident, it’s a young man named Bartholemew and his accomplice Helen who steal the story right out from under John Guy. Peter Easton is a significant and chilling presence in the novel Easton, but the main character is his prisoner George Dawson, a naval officer at first charmed and then horrified by what he learns about the smooth, urbane pirate captain.

The overall effect of reading these three short novels close together (which I chose to do because I am thinking about writing a story set in this time period, in which some of these historical figures will appear as minor characters) is of walking along a street at night, looking into the lit windows of houses. These bright windows frame a brief glimpse of the lives people live inside these rooms — a glimpse that’s all the more tantalizing because we know so much more lies beyond. Butler is a master of creating these vivid, fascinating windows into the lives of people we have known for so long only as names. I thoroughly enjoyed all three books.

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The Bone Clocks

boneclocksThe Bone Clocks is similar to Cloud Atlas, the only other David Mitchell book I’ve read (this is the other David Mitchell, the serious novelist, not the comedian whose books I have also read and enjoyed!) in that it’s a huge, sprawling, complicated book with a complex structure, multiple narrators, and things you won’t understand till later in the book. In the case of The Bone Clocks the unifying element that ties the different stories together is the life of Holly Sykes, who we first meet as a 15-year-old runaway in 1980s Britain. Holly is a great, cheeky, first-person narrator, and it’s a bit jarring in the second section of the book to switch to the completely different (and much less engaging) voice of a wealthy, amoral, possibly sociopathic university student several years later. But his story intersects with Holly’s, and so do the stories of all the characters we meet throughout the book’s span of more than sixty years.

Also intersecting with the lives of Holly Sykes, Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, and Crispin Hershey, is a whole other layer — call it magic realism, paranormal, or full-blown fantasy — that weaves through the highly realistic narrative. Holly’s been hearing “voices” since she was a little girl, but doesn’t realize that she is standing at the crossroads of an invisible battle between two groups of beyond-human people — the Atemporals, who are born over and over into different human bodies with the same consciousness, and the Anchorites, who also use human bodies for their immortal lives, but in a different and more predatory way (I think. This part was confusing).

Personally, although I certainly don’t mind a healthy dose of fantasy, I found that the realistic elements of this book worked far better than the fantasy elements. The glimpses of paranormal activity were a fascinating motif that kept weaving in and out and made me curious, but ultimately, I didn’t find that part of the story paid off well enough to be worth the mystery. What I loved were the perspectives and voices of the main characters, and the richly realized detail of each section as it took us through different strata of (mostly British) life in different eras. Whether it was Holly’s punk-rock teenage rebellion in the 80s, Ed’s harrowing experiences as a war correspondent in the early-2000s Middle East, or Crispin’s acerbic observations of life among the literati, the stories (with the possible exception of Hugo’s) were always enjoyable and insightful. As for the final section of the book, set in a dystopian not-too-distant-and-all-too-plausible future, it was heartrending precisely because it was so believable. Holly Sykes is only a few years younger than I am, and it was hard to read that last section and avoid the fear that my old age might be lived out in a world not unlike the one she inhabits, as an eighty-year-old woman struggling to bring up two orphans in a lawless, post-climate-change-disaster corner of Ireland.

Without the fantasy elements that have woven through the story, the book would be robbed of any of the “sweet” elements in what’s ultimately a bittersweet resolution. Even so, the aspects of The Bone Clocks that will linger with me will not be the shadowy battles between immortals but the very mortal lives of the characters Mitchell so expertly depicts.

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The Bassoon King, by Rainn Wilson

bassoonkingI may as well just stop posing the disclaimer “I don’t normally read celebrity bios, but ….” I’ve read a lot of really great ones over the past few years — all by comedians, and all really funny and insightful. From Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to David Mitchell and Rob Brydon, there are actor/writers out there who are really raising the bar for what we think of as “celebrity bios.” These people are either great writers or have the sense to hire great ghostwriters (but given that so many comedians write their own material I’d assume the former in most cases). Now we can add to that list Rainn Wilson, famous for playing Dwight Schrute in the American version of The Office

Wilson’s engaging memoir covers his childhood in a very unconventional family, his awkward bassoon-playing teenage years, his early struggles as an actor, and his return to the Ba’hai faith of his childhood — all before we get into behind-the-scenes tales from the set of The Office. I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir.

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Closer Home, by Kerry Anne King

CloserHomeYou already know a little about this book because I interviewed the author a couple of weeks ago. Having now read the book, I am so happy to report that I really loved it. I read most of it on the plane on the way to Florida over Easter vacation, and when my e-reader battery suddenly died mid-sentence in the penultimate chapter of the book, I was devastated — I had to make sure the characters were going to be all right!

Closer Home is the story of a woman living a quiet, simple life, who is plunged into the spotlight when her famous sister dies suddenly. Lise has to cope not only with Callie’s fame and money but also with Callie’s angry teenaged daughter and the aftermath of her own confused relationship with Callie. There’s a road trip, a romance, a quest, and a journey into the past to uncover the truth. Closer Home is heart-warming without ever becoming sentimental, and I truly cared about the characters.

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Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell

carryonI wish I could explain what Carry On is. It’s a young-adult fantasy novel and also a spoof on the young-adult fantasy novel. It’s a spin-off of Rowell’s novel Fangirl that doesn’t include any of the original characters and takes place in a totally different world. It’s a piece of fan fiction that is related to the Harry Potter series the same way the Fifty Shades of Gray books are related to the Twilight series, except that Carry On is really well-written.

In Fangirl, Cath is a fan-fiction writer. She’s writing a fanfic based on a series of books that bear a strong resemblance to the Harry Potter books, except that there are vampires too. And Cath’s wildly popular fanfic bears a strong resemblance to Harry-Draco slashfic, in that she’s taken the two (presumably straight) male leads of the original series, and written a romance between them. Carry On is that story, sort of — Rainbow Rowell has written the last book of a non-existent fantasy series that owes a heavy debt to a real fantasy series, and this shouldn’t work at all, but somehow it does.

Simon Snow is an orphan with mysterious powers who attends a special school for kids with magical abilities, located somewhere in England. Sound familiar? It is and it isn’t Harry Potter — it’s Rowell celebrating all the things she loves about the series and also putting her own spin on the things she’d like to see done differently. At the heart of the story is Simon’s love/hate relationship with his roommate Baz, as well as, of course, an epic conflict that could destroy not only the magickal but also the Normal world. It’s smart, it’s funny, and I found it a real page-turner. 

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Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big MagicIf you read this blog you probably already know I’m a pretty big Elizabeth Gilbert fan. What I’m not usually a fan of are inspirational books about creativity — I mean, they have their place, and some people find them great, but when I read books like The Artist’s Way, they mostly seem to be addressing problems I don’t have. Like, yes, I believe in my own creativity and I definitely give myself permission to pursue it, so I don’t really need 300 pages telling me that it’s OK to do that. I’m there, baby.

Yet strangely, I did really enjoy Big Magic, even though it addresses many of these same things. Maybe it’s just because I like Gilbert’s writing and always find her entertaining. I find she’s refreshingly honest about her own writing, about how weird it was to write (after years of toiling away in writerly obscurity with magazine pieces and books that weren’t bestsellers) a memoir that almost accidentally because a huge hit — and then to go on being creative after that. Now, admittedly, that’s another problem I haven’t had — how to follow up on my giant successful bestseller — although I’d like to believe I could carry it off with grace and charm if required. (Give me a chance to prove myself, Universe!!!) 

Sometimes Gilbert gets a little “woo-woo” for me — like in her insistence on discussing creativity as if it’s a spiritual force with its own personality and goals, kind of a like a secular artist’s version of the Holy Spirit. But her down-to-earth good sense, her willingness to puncture lots of self-important artists’ stereotypes about “genius,” and her self-deprecating wit, make it a fun read anyway. Even though I have zero problem giving myself permission to be creative, it’s still encouraging to have someone cheering you along from the sidelines when you tackle a big project or try a new direction. As I’m thinking of trying both those things soon, this was an encouraging read.

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