The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett
Arthur Prescott teaches English literature at the University of Barchester so that he can live in his grandfather’s home town, where he spent many happy weeks as a boy. He loves to read in the cathedral’s rare book library, and attends Evensong and Compline services in the cathedral, where his friend Gwyn is the dean. He meets weekly with his friends David and Oscar to discuss book collecting, and is content with his life (except for faculty meetings) until young Bethany Davis arrives from America to digitize the cathedral’s books and unsettle his world. She demonstrates the usefulness of online research to Arthur, who avoids computers, befriends Oscar and David, and helps Arthur finish his overdue guide to the cathedral. Arthur is looking for information on St. Ewolda, who founded the monastery, and is stunned to find that Bethany shares his secret interest, searching for the Holy Grail. The contemporary story alternates with short accounts of the guardians of the lost book of St. Ewolda from 560 AD to World War II, and the dangerous times they lived in. Arthur, Bethany, David, and Oscar race against time to steal a rare book, explore the cathedral’s crypt, and crack a medieval cipher before the cathedral’s board must vote on an offer to buy the rare book collection. Barchester is the fictional town described in Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope’s books, and is a charming setting for this clever academic mystery that has a little romance.
On April 18 at 10 a.m., the Tuesday Morning Book Group will discuss Airs Above the Ground, by Mary Stewart. Published in 1965, this This is a 50th anniversary program. Young English veterinarian Vanessa March travels to Austria and gets mixed up in a mystery involving a traveling circus and Lipizzaner stallions. Here is my earlier review.
The Tuesday Evening Book Group will meet at 7 p.m. on April 25 to discuss The Translation of Love, by Lynne Katsukake, a first novel set in Tokyo in 1947. Fumi Tanaka asks her classmate Aya Shimamura, who spent the war at an internment camp in Canada, for help in finding her sister. My review is here.
The Crime Readers will meet at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 20 to discuss The Tiger in the Smoke, by Margery Allingham. This British mystery, featuring amateur sleuth Albert Campion, is set in London and was published in 1952. Crime Readers are co-sponsored by the Indian Prairie Public Library. Optional dinner is at 6 p.m.
Copies of these books are available at the Adult & Teen Services Reference Desk.
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
Willie Lincoln, age 11, has died of typhoid fever. His distraught father, President Lincoln, visits the Georgetown cemetery the night after his burial in February, 1862. The Civil War isn’t going well, and Lincoln’s in despair. His vigil that night helps him organize his thoughts and plans on how to proceed with the war. This is not a traditional historical novel, as most of the book is narrated by a chorus of the graveyard’s ghosts who do not accept the fact that they’re dead, and have not yet gone on to face judgment, a transitional state Buddhists call the bardo. The ghosts are eccentric, disturbing, sad, confused, and sometimes very vulgar and crude. They are from different times and walks of life, and talk and argue with each other. They reflect back on their imperfectly remembered lives, and are moved by Willie, as young ghosts should not linger long. They try hard to connect the president with his son’s ghost. The scenes in the cemetery alternate with short chapters of quotes, both real and fictional, of people’s reactions to Willie’s illness, death, and the unsettled state of the country. The overall tone is melancholy, and it’s a very vivid, moving read. It took me a while to adjust to the book’s unusual style. This is a first novel by a noted short story writer. This book will have the most appeal for fans of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War era, and readers looking for a unique, challenging and definitely worthwhile reading experience.
A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline
In a life full of disappointments, Christina Olson both enjoys the coastal Maine farmhouse she shares with her parents, one of her brothers, and her cats, and longs to be free of the house and her life. In her 40s, she meets young painter Andrew Wyeth, who is engaged to her young friend Betsy, and they open up her world. Wyeth loves painting the old farmhouse and its surroundings, and sees Christina as no one else does. An illness as a young girl leaves Christina with shaky balance and weak legs, but she keeps house for her family after leaving school early, although she could have trained to be a teacher. At 20, Christina has a romance with a handsome summer visitor, but it too ends in disappointment. A few friends, sisters-in-law, clambakes, picnics, berry picking and other joys of summer enliven her life, along with the poems of Emily Dickinson, but the winters in a drafty house without electricity or a furnace get harder. This is a beautifully written book, and the author’s skill and extensive research make the Olsons and Wyeths come to life, along with the famous painting Christina’s World. This is a very moving and melancholy book, and difficult to read at times as Christina’s health suffers and her world narrows. In the end, Wyeth’s friendship and art help her see herself in a new way. This book is sure to be popular with readers of The Orphan Train.
The Not-Quite States of America, by Doug Mack
This is an entertaining and informative tour of our far-flung territories and commonwealths, some nearly forgotten. Travel writer Doug Mack visits St. Thomas & St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico. While these islands are all part of the United States, their residents don’t have the same rights as residents of the fifty states, and these vary from territory to territory. Tourism and the U.S. military are major employers. From native islanders, Danes, and Japanese, Mack learns about each area’s history and listens to the debates about their futures, all while enjoying good company and some excellent food. An enjoyable and thought-provoking tour of some overlooked parts of America.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan
This is not the cozy tale of home front life in an English village that I expected, but instead a grittier, more memorable story of life in southeast England in 1940. Told in letters and diaries, we experience the points of view of several women and one girl in Chilbury. 13-year-old Kitty Winthrop befriends a young Czech evacuee and uncovers disturbing secrets, while her 18-year-old sister Venetia falls hard for a visiting artist. Widowed Mrs. Tilling, who has sent her only son off to war, resents giving his room to Colonel Mallard. Also featured is a conniving midwife who values money over morals. Newcomer Miss Prim starts a ladies only choir, over the objections of traditionalist Mrs. B, and the women gradually learn the power of music to entertain, comfort, and inspire. I would have liked to learn more about Miss Prim and about the backstories of other characters, but found this to be an absorbing, enjoyable pageturner. Readers learn how far a father will go to have an heir, what happens to the survivors when a house is bombed, and how the women of Chilbury struggle to adapt to their new roles during a time of constant change. Readalikes include The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and though it’s set decades earlier, The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson. A first novel by an editor of non-fiction books, the author was inspired by her grandmother’s stories of life in WWII, and by the many memoirs of life in WWII England that she read, especially those of evacuees.
I’m in the middle of so many books that I haven’t reviewed any for a while. Spring is usually peak time for new books to be published, but there are several winter gems here, along with some older titles. Enjoy!
What I’m Reading Now:
Clement, Blaize & John. The Cat Sitter and the Canary.
A cozy mystery set on Siesta Key, on Florida’s gulf coast.
Hambly, Barbara. Patriot Hearts: A Novel of the Founding Mothers.
Kline, Cristina Baker. A Piece of the World.
I was familiar with some of American artist Andrew Wyeth’s work, but not Christina’s World, which is the inspiration for this historical novel set in Maine. Kline is the author of The Orphan Train.
Mack, Doug. The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA. From the U.S. Virgin Islands to American Samoa, the author explores our territories. Fans of Ken Jennings’ Maphead or Bill Bryson’s humorous travelogues may enjoy.
Norton, Andre. Lord of Thunder, sequel to The Beast Master. A classic science fiction writer I’m reading for another 50th anniversary post. A Navajo who can communicate with animals is caught up in adventure and intrigue on another planet.
Ryan, Jennifer. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.
Historical novel set in WWII England, on the home front. Narrated by several characters, including a young teenager, a mother who’s just sent her only son off to war, a conniving midwife, a seductive young woman, a choir director, and others.
Stewart, Mary. The Ivy Tree.
Another book I’m reading for a 50th anniversary post; currently getting neglected because of all these other excellent books.
Flanders, Judith. A Cast of Vultures. The third mystery novel featuring a book editor as amateur sleuth.
Gaiman, Neil. Norse Mythology. The award-winning dark fantasy author has fun retelling Norse myths.
Saunders, George. Lincoln in the Bardo. A grief-stricken Abraham Lincoln visits his son’s grave; ghosts are present.