Beyond Absolution

Cora Harrison

Beyond Absolution: A mystery set in 1920s Ireland (A Reverend Mother Mystery) by [Harrison, Cora]

I loved Harrison’s My Lady Judge series so much, set in 16th-century Ireland, that I was willing to give this new series a try, and I’m glad I did. She picked another time of turmoil for Ireland: Cork in the 1920s. The main character is another strong woman, Reverend Mother Aquinas, head of the convent school. She spends much of her time worrying about how to stretch the money to cover the needs of her pupils.

A beloved, gentle priest is killed in the confessional at a time when Reverend Mother  happens to be in the church, and her former pupil Inspector Patrick Cashman investigates the murder. The priest had been much troubled by the sight of a ceramic Japanese hawk in a local antiques shop, and the Reverend Mother thinks she remembers something about this hawk. It takes a gentle reminder of her past from her wealthy cousin, married to a judge, to jog her memory.

Cork in the 1920s is a fascinating setting for this new series, as the battle between the Republicans and the English begins to warm up, and the local citizens are forced to take sides in the conflict. Aside from the puzzle of the murder, Mother Aquinas’ former students on both sides are drawn into this well written mystery.

 

 

 

 

Pachinko

Jin Min Lee

I’ve never played pachinko or seen a machine outside of travelogs of Japan, but it looks like fun. All those little steels balls bouncing down among the pegs to land at the bottom. It probably isn’t so much fun for the little balls being knocked around and bouncing off the pegs. I wonder if that is how life felt for the main characters of this novel. The woman Sunja is jerked from her home in Korea and lands in Japan, the wife of a Christian minister, carrying a child that is not his. Unable to speak Japanese, she works hard to make a home for her husband and her child. The story of her efforts and the lives of her two children are the main thread that runs through the book.

It is the brilliant writing and detached attitude that prevents this book from descending into soap opera. We are with Sunja every step of the way and rooting for her to succeed. Through loss and war, good times and bed, she perseveres until she finds her own level of peace.

The Mirror Thief

Martin Seay

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I picked up this book because it’s set in one of my favorite cities, Venice Italy, in the 16th century. It’s also set in Venice, California, in the 1950s and in Las Vegas, at the Venetian Hotel in 2003. In spite of my expectations, I liked the Las Vegas sections the best. Curtis is a fascinating character. He blunders about looking for Stanley, without knowing quite why, as various other characters seem to know more than he does. Stanley,  in 1958, roams Venice Beach, looking for the author of a book called The Mirror Thief. Crivano in Venice in 1592, plots to kidnap a mirror maker and take him to Turkey.

Their stories weave in and out of each other, but never quite touch, until you are wrapped in mystery. This is a compulsively good book, one you are nearly unable to put down. The desire to find out what happens next and how these three stories are related keep you reading.

I confess that plot isn’t very important to me if the characters are memorable, and these are very memorable. All are three-dimensionable, and I forgot that originally I wanted to know how they are related. Mr Seay is an excellent writer and loved getting to know his people.

All Creatures Great and Small

James Herriot

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I remember reading this book several years ago, and when it turned up on one of my subscription lists for low-cost books, I decided to give it a reread. I’m glad I did. The innocent charm is still there, without any hint of sentimentality. Herriot remembers his coming to Darrowby as a newly graduated veterinary surgeon with the ink drying on his certificate with humor and good will. His many adventures with large animals in the field and small animals in the office is endearing.

Would that all my books aged this well.

Everybody Behaves Badly

Lesley M.M. Blume

 

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First the good news: the book is well-researched and well written. If you have no knowledge of Hemingway and want to get a feel for how he worked and lived in Paris in the years leading up to the publication of his book The Sun Also Rises, this is a good book for you.

Then the bad news: I don’t understand the reason the author spent so much time and energy writing a book about a man she obviously despises. It is painful to read.

92 years ago, Hemingway thinly disguised real people and put their hijinks into a book. They are all dead, as is the world he wrote about. Why dig up all the dirt and rehash all Hemingway’s betrayals, small and large, and put them all together in a portrait that there is no need to read? By this time, we all know he was a drunk and a womanizer. That doesn’t take away from the fact that he wrote some of the most deathless prose that changed literature forever.

His work stands on its own. If we start judging writers on their personal lives, who can stand?

The Nutmeg Tree

Margery Sharp

The Nutmeg Tree: A Novel by [Sharp, Margery]

Relax, take off your shoes, put your feet up, and get a drink. Prepare to be entertained by a light romantic comedy by a mistress of the form.

You can count on Margery Sharp for a confection of light romance with sweet witty overtones, and this book delivers. A madcap heroine, Julia Packett, receives an invitation to her daughter’s wedding in France. Julia’s husband died shortly after their wedding, leaving her with a baby on her hands. Doing the sensible thing, she gave guardianship of the baby to the grandparents and continues her unconventional lifestyle, living on air, and moving from place to place and job to job.

Now she’d rather like to go to France to see her daughter married and live off her in-laws for a spell. You see, money is a little tight, and Julia barely scrapes together enough to carry her to France. Something will come up, she is sure, that will enable her to return to England when the time comes.

Julia reminds me of Holly Golightly in her ability to live on air and attract men who want to take care of her. Of course, with a grown daughter, she is getting a bit long in the tooth for this lifestyle. Maybe it’s time to settle down.

By the end of the book, she has found the right man for her, settled her daughter’s engagement problems, and never has to worry about money again. Delightful.

 

Horse Heaven

Jane Smiley

I’ve been wanting to read Jane Smiley but was put off by the high prices her publishers demand for her books. When a copy of this book was on sale for $2.99, I gave it a shot. I am so glad I did. This farrago of characters kept me amused for months. As I neared the end, I read in smaller and smaller bites to make the book last longer.

For a reader like me, more interested in characters than plot, this book was made in heaven. It takes place over two years, and all the people and horses (and one dog) involved in racing get their time in the sun as the book goes on. We learn about the owners, trainers, grooms, psychics, horse masseuse, bettors, and most importantly, the horses. Their personalities, fears and ambitions make up the novel.

One complaint lodged against the book is that there isn’t a plot. There wasn’t a plot to the Seinfeld show, either, but it made for excellent television. This book makes for excellent reading.

One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment

Mei Fong

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When China decided to do some social engineering, the result was most unexpected. It was so successful, that now that China wants to reverse the one-child policy, people are resisting. Raising one child is much cheaper than two or more and make fewer demands on their parents. People are quite content with their one child. Now that China is facing an aging population and a diminishing labor force, it is trying to encourage multiple children. It is, however, easier to stop than to restart a population boom.

In an intriguing parallel story, Ms. Fong details her own attempts to conceive a child. Visiting fertility clinics in the US and China, she tries in-vitro fertilization more than once before succeeding.

I found the two stories equally gripping, and the book was well organized and well-written. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for China and what further experiments in social engineering it will attempt.

 

 

The Fellowship of the Ring

J.R.R. Tolkien

The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings by [Tolkien, J.R.R.]

This is one of my favorite books, the other two being The Two Towers and Return of the King. I know I have read it at least 10 times since the first time in college some 50 years ago. Strangely I have never cared for The Hobbit.

It never loses it freshness, and there is always something new to notice. This time it is Aragorn’s grief at leaving Arwyn at the start of the adventure. They are preparing to leave the House of Elrond, and they are gathered on the steps, waiting for Gandalf:

Aragorn sat with his head bowed to his knees; only Elrond knew fully what this hour meant to him.

He and Gandalf are the only ones who know the challenge facing them and the odds against their survival. He may have seen Arwyn for this last time in this world. And yet he finds the strength and courage to go on. Somehow over the years and many readings, I had missed this little insight into Aragorn’s sacrifice.

This time through, I’m not skipping anything. I’m in no hurry to finish the books. Instead I savor every description that I used to skim through, anxious to get to the next action bit. Who knows what other gems I have overlooked?

 

 

Death in a Strange Country

Donna Leon

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I love Donna Leon and love Det. Brunetti. He is so human, and the glimpses we get of his family life serve to make him a well-rounded character. These glimpses grow as the series continues. If I were rich, I’d buy all the books at the $9.99 price the publishers charge. As it is, I have to wait for a copy to show up for $1.99 and snap it up. As a result I’ve read the books wildly out of order, but that has done nothing to lessen my enjoyment. Reading the earlier books serves to make clear how much the character has grown over time. What has not lessened is my love of  Venice and the views of it I have through these books. They just get better and better with time.