Sunday, January 27, 2008

Every Last Cuckoo

If you’re looking for a fast paced, tightly plotted reading experience, perhaps you should pass on Every Last Cuckoo by Kate Maloy. If, however, you delight in meeting characters that draw you in to a very special time and place, then by all means join the cuckoos in the warblers’ nest.

From Publishers Weekly
When 75-year-old Sarah Lucas's husband, Charles, succumbs to an injury at the peak of a particularly brutal Vermont winter, her worst later-life fears of physical mishap are realized. In grief, Sarah's memories take her back to the Great Depression, when her parents generously opened their home to countless friends and relatives, and to her own regretted missteps as a parent. The chance to recreate the one experience and rectify the other arrives uninvited when a variety of lost souls--Sarah's own teenage granddaughter; an Israeli pacifist; a devastated young mother and child--seek shelter and solace in Sarah's too-empty home. The motley assortment of characters, many of whom have been touched by violence, deliver passionate apostrophes on peace and justice, and together Sarah and her boarders discover unseen beauty in the landscape, uncover hidden talents and develop a nurturing, healing community. Maloy's wordplay and startling nature imagery enchant….

A feverish Sarah grasping at memories…
Hot and cold, she set herself adrift, hoping to sleep again and fool whatever virus or toxin had invaded her. Soon she entered a suspended awareness in which she was conscious yet assailed by images her conscious mind did not produce. Where had she seen that piece of road, that sweet rise and bend that now unspoiled behind her eyes? The ocean, or perhaps a lake, lay to the right of it, a fringe of trees and a tucked cottage to the left. Up ahead, around a curve, a causeway crossed the wide water, but from where to where? Sarah tried to remember, but it was like snatching at milkweed fluff in the air. The very attempt sent it out of reach. This kind of thing happened more with age. Sarah was seventy-five. She had lived many thousands of days, so it was not surprising that scenes from an hour here or a moment there should surface at random. Her memories were beads jumbled loose in a box, unstrung. Everything—people, events, conversations—came and went so fast that only a fraction of the beads were ever stored at all. Few were whole, many cracked; most rolled away beneath pressing, present moments and were gone forever.

A description of friend Molly…
Molly was thought to be nearing ninety, a benevolent crone schooled in forestry, herbs, an gardens, a lifelong environmentalist, stooped and white-haired, with pink scalp showing at the crown of her large head. Her halo of white fluff inevitably brought to mind dandelion seeds, delicately spoked before the breezes carried them off. Molly had been big once, before the decades had shrunk her. Her broad knuckly hands were scarred and gnarled with use, but elsewhere her skin was heavy old silk, fine-lined and softly folded, bearing no spots or stains. She must have prized her rose white skin, the way she always covered it with long gauzy garments and broad hats in hot weather. It was her only outward beauty.

Thoughts on a gathering…
Everyone came, family and friends from Vermont and all over the country. Then they left. Sarah pictured the house swelling up with a deep intake of air, drawing tiny, weeping people in with its breath and then blowing them out mournfully to zigzag in the stinging cold. The inhalation held her aloft; the exhalation gave her some brief peace in its wake.

On grief…
Grief slipped away, only to attack from behind. It changed shape endlessly. It lacerated her, numbed her, stalked her, startled her, caught her by the throat. It deceived her eye with glimpses of Charles, her ear with the sound of his voice. She would turn and turn, expecting him, and find him gone. Again. Each time Sarah escaped her sorrow, forgetful amid other things, she lost him anew the instant she remembered he was gone.

Sarah, reflecting on aging…
Sarah took in the evidence of age not knowing whether to laugh or cry. How many girls and women she had been—she carried a multitude inside who shared only memory and character traits. I am a memory, she suddenly thought. And half the time I can’t tell what’s real from what I’ve made up. She slid her nightdress on and felt as if some other Sarah’s head emerged through the satin edging the neckline. As she buttoned the yoke, pushed up the loose sleeves, and brushed her teeth and hair, she had the odd feeling that some brand-new piece of her singular, shifting, multitudinous self had bumped lightly into place, moving the others making more sense of the whole—the irreducible, authentic Sarah, who weathered perpetual change and yet persisted. More would happen to her. She wasn’t finished yet.

A slice of daylight…
Tess helped her set the table. The late-day sun slanted in, lighting up the linens and place settings. Points of light caught on glasses, flatware, and ceramic glazes; the whole table glittered. Outside, fall color had burst wide open. Each year it was sudden, surprising, and new.

Sarah Lucas is a character who will live with me for some time. How often, of late, have I looked in the mirror and wondered just who that person staring back at me could be? How often, of late, have memories crowded in, demanding their space in my present? How often, of late, have I feared aging and inevitable separations? Sarah brings all of these fears and questions full circle, redefines her sense of self, and convinces that in the aftermath of inconsolable loss, life does go on…not the same, maybe not perfectly, but in some ways better.

The cover of Every Last Cuckoo beckoned, and I stepped inside the Vermont world of Sarah and Charles Lucas and emerged richer for having known them.

4.5/5 (General Fiction Scale)
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
277 pages

Dedication: For my mother, Elizabeth Hardy Maloy, and her mother, Bessie Watson Hardy, my first storytellers. For my aunt, Ann Foster Hardy, my inspiration for Sarah.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Past Secrets

Sometimes you just want to curl up with a book that doesn’t ask more of you than to turn the pages and to go along for the ride. Past Secrets by Cathy Kelly is one such book—the perfect reading companion for a few days out of the office while fighting a chest cold.

From Publishers Weekly:
Kelly's ninth novel, a cross-generational contemporary romance set in Ireland, is packed with high drama and the emotion to match. At 60, Christie Devlin and her peaceful home and garden are the heart of Dublin's picturesque Summer Street. But when a surprising nook of art teacher Christie's past is unearthed, the 30 fulfilling years Christie has spent with her husband, James, and their family threaten to unravel. Her neighbors, meanwhile, have their own crises to attend to: single mom Faye Reid is horrified when her daughter, Amber, drops out of college to travel with her musician boyfriend, prompting Faye to follow her to try to prevent her from making the same mistake Faye made in her youth. Wounded by an awkward adolescence and a cheating boyfriend, 30-year-old Maggie Maguire wishes she could stop letting her past hold her back from self-acceptance as she returns home to care for her ailing mother. If Kelly's sins are too many peripheral characters, an uneasy transition into Amber's teenage voice and meandering passages that could have been edited out, then they are easily forgiven. Kelly's evocation of mother-daughter relationships shines, and her handle on romance storytelling combined with her characters' feel-good, empowering evolutions make this a satisfying novel.

When James and Christie find their home…
And indeed, the house was beautifully proportioned even though it was sadly down at the heels, like a genteel lady who’d fallen on hard times but still polished the doorstep every morning even when she could barely afford milk for her tea.

Describing Claire’s miniature dachshunds, Tilly and Rocket…who had clearly been imperial majesties in a previous life.

Creating the image of Summer Street in readers’ minds…
From where they stood, the Devlin family could see the Summer Street Café with its aqua-and-white-striped awning and paintwork. On the pavement outside stood white bistro chairs and three small tables covered with flowered sea blue tablecloths that looked as if they’d been transported from a Sorrento balcony.

On the same side of the street as the café, there were terraced houses; then a couple of slender detached houses squeezed in; eight small railway cottages, their classic fascia boards traced with delicate carvings; then a series of redbricks including theirs; five 1930s bungalows and, finally, a handful of one-story-over-basements. The other side of Summer Street was lines with more terraced houses and cottages, along with a tiny part: two neatly kept acres with a colonnaded bandstand, an old railway pavilion and a miniscule fountain much loved by the pigeons that couldn’t bear to poop anywhere else.

The maple trees that lined the street were flanked by colorful border plants, while even the doors to the dizzying variety of houses were painted strong bright shades: cerulean blues, poinsettia scarlets, honeyed ambers.

Maggie Maguire and her mother Una visit a local councilwoman’s office…
The waiting room and the office reminded Maggie of an old shop where someone had ripped out the shelf units, painted the walls a sickly yellow and stuffed political pamphlets and posters everywhere, claiming better futures, better Irelands, better everything. “Pity they don’t have better chairs,” muttered Una as she shifted to get comfortable on the plastic chair.

Maggie, a librarian, remembering a favorite story her father told her…
Maggie loved the silence of the library. Ever since she’d been a child, and her father had explained why libraries were special places where you had to whisper, she’d loved the fact that the only sounds to be heard were muted whispers and the gentle rustling of pages.
“It’s quiet because all the books are sitting on the shelves, snoozing quietly as they wait to be picked,” Dad had said, “because being picked by you is the start of an amazing adventure for them.”

A couple of years ago, I read and enjoyed Just Between Us by Cathy Kelly. Since then, I have tried Always and Forever and Best of Friends, both of which sit languishing on the “Haven’t Finished Yet” pile. I had started Past Secrets about a week ago; and while I was enjoying the descriptive interior and garden passages, the book hadn’t grabbed me and was in peril of joining its two counterparts in the HFY pile. However, when one has taken to one’s favorite chair and surrounded oneself with fleecy blanket, Puffs Plus, Hall’s Lemon Honey throat lozenges, and a never ending supply of Vitamin water, one’s reading enjoyment level can alter to suit the occasion. The story of the women of Summer Street, their past and present secrets, and their coming full circle to acceptance and resolution fit the bill perfectly as a truly comforting read.

3/5 (General Fiction Scale)
Downtown Press 2006
484 pages

Dedication: None

Epigraph: None

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Ride a Painted Pony

The Barnes & Noble romance readers group I belong to (which has been meeting for over ten years) meets the first Monday of the month. So, by default, my first book of the New Year is a romance. The January 2008 selection was Ride a Painted Pony by Kathleen Eagle.

Kathleen Eagle is an author who has been on my "must read one of her books" list for some time; and I, liking a little angst with my romance, was looking forward to Ride a Painted Pony as described on the book cover:

Nick Red Shield swerved his pickup and empty horse trailer to avoid her, but neither he nor the mysterious Lauren Davis could avoid the collision of their lives. Though Nick's loner instincts kick into high gear, Lauren's vulnerability tugs at him in ways he'd thought long since shut down. More comfortable with horses than people, he's drawn to the secretive runaway. But even in the safe haven of his South Dakota ranch, among the magnificent painted horses of Western legend, the danger shadowing Lauren's life will compel her to new acts of desperation to save her young son and force Nick to confront demons bent on destroying them both.

Despite its promise, Ride a Painted Pony was a disappointment. Serious problems were handled at a very superficial level, leaving the characters shallow and their conflicts lacking substance. I realize that true-to-genre romance novels will not deal with social issues in any way that would be considered disturbing for readers, and that was a major problem for this book. Lauren has been driven from her home by an abusive partner who keeps her from her young son; Nick is dealing with demons constantly reminding him of a tragic accident. Both hero and heroine kept falling into the plot holes necessitated by the genre commandment: Thou shalt not disturb.

A bit of a disappointing start to this year of reading.

Rating: 2.5/5 (Romance Scale)
Mira 2006
388 pages

Dedication: For the Prairie Writers Guild--Pam, Sandy, Mary, Judy and Kathy. Vive PWG! And to honor the memory of Little Ted

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A New Year

We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives...not looking for flaws, but for potential. ~Ellen Goodman