WINTER 2014

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Counting by 7s
Holly Goldberg Sloan
2013 (Ages 10 and up)

I LOVE WILLOW CHANCE!   (This is how I envision my niece starting a review of this book from the Penguin Young Readers Group.) Willow is a very bright young lady, who observes the world with adult aplomb.

Orphaned as a baby, she is adopted by a lovely couple.  Their family will exist for a brief but meaningful time.  Willow knows she is loved.  So as she navigates the world once her parents are gone, she stays very anchored in herself.  This will help her appreciate the cast of characters, who center her life, as she heads down a new path.

Set in Bakersfield, CA, everyone is an immigrant in the town in some way. They are all trying to fit into American life and find community.  They include a cab driver, a nail salon owner and a student counselor that sums up everything that is wrong with school administrations.  This vivid cast of characters make the story so enjoyable--even when there are a few weaknesses in the overall story.  You will laugh out loud at Willow's dead on interpretation of how and why people behave.

Get this book for the oddball in your life, but read it yourself first.  You'll be glad you've met Willow Chance.

Holly Goldberg Sloan, sold her first screenplay at 24 but then survived as advertising copy writer until her film career gained momentum.  She wrote the screenplay for "Angels in the Outfield" and "Made in America."  Her first book is I'll Be There and is also for younger readers.

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Burial Rites
Hannah Kent
2013

Post contributed by Tory Bilski who writes the Icelandica blog. Please visit Icelandica.net.

I first heard the story of Agnes Magnusdóttir on my last trip to Iceland in June. Our host, Helga, arranged a concert for us in the church where two flutists played a dozen songs. Some of the songs were recognizably American, like "Home on the Range" and Paul Simon’s "El Condor Paso," but the others were Icelandic, both modern and folk. The last song was introduced to us as a piece of local history. Just south of Helga’s farm is Vatnsdalur, where in the year 1830 a servant woman, Agnes, was executed for being an accomplice to the murder of two men, Natan Ketilsson (her landlord/lover) and Petur Jonsson (a disreputable sort). The song told her story, and it has now been told again in Burial Rites, a first novel by the young Australian writer Hannah Kent.

The story of Agnes is well-known with Icelanders who, given their saga DNA, pass on stories from generation to generation. There are many non-fiction books, all in Icelandic, about the trial and execution. In 1995 an Icelandic-made movie, "Agnes," stirred up controversy about the almost 200-year-old crime, because there were some old timers alive who knew the story through their grandparents, or who were descendants of the victims, accused, or accusers. So while the crime took place in 1830, it was and is still talked about, thought about, and lodged in the national psyche.

Agnes’s guilt was questionable and uncorroborated. The harsh sentence was meted out by the District Commissioner of the area who wanted to make an example of Agnes. He portrayed her as a she-devil, witch, spider, a desperate spinster—turning it into a morality play to keep people in line. To drive home the point, all the farmers in the surrounding area were made to watch the execution. Her head was stuck on a stake, as was the head of Fridrik, the other person accused, and their bodies were buried without Christian ceremony. It must have been horrific, and a collective remorse must have risen afterward, because it was the last time anyone was executed in Iceland for any crime.

Entering into this territory—national, historical, legal, collective memory—is Hannah Kent, who as an exchange student in Iceland in 2003 heard the story of Agnes and couldn’t get it out of her head. Kent poured over all the primary sources of the era, the birth and church records, spoke to Icelanders who were familiar with local lore and imaginatively conjured up the inner drama. She calls it interpretive history. I call it channeling the spirit world.

Kent received an advance of more than $1 million (a jaw-dropping amount for literary fiction), with the book being translated into twenty languages. Hollywood has optioned the movie rights and it’s rumored that Jennifer Lawrence (Yes!) will play Agnes. It is odd to think that this local Icelandic story, nearly two centuries old about “a landless work maid raised on a porridge of moss and poverty,” and known only to the inhabitants of the island or visitors to the Hunavatn district, has gone global. I can’t help wondering what the real Agnes would have thought about this.

The telling of this tale goes back and forth in time and narrative style, from the farmhouse inhabitants who reluctantly house her (there are no prisons to lock her in), to Agnes in the first person, to Tóti, the young, novice priest confessor she tells her story to. (Quick, call Eddie Redmayne’s agent for this part.) The young reverend is a highly sensitive man who initially tries but fails to keep his professional demeanor and distance. On his way to his first meeting with her, “Unexpectedly, a small thrill flickered through his body. She was only a workmaid, but she was a murderess.” Well, he doesn’t get out much. He lives with his Pabbi, a grim, old school minister, on a desolate farm farther north. Week after week Tóti treks through Iceland’s northern territory in harsh weather to see Agnes. Yes, it’s under the guise of providing spiritual counseling, but we know he is positively smitten by her. At a crucial point, Tóti becomes ill, leaving him bed ridden, dreaming of her, delirious and feverish. This left me wondering: are we supposed to think his illness was self-induced, a neurasthenic in love? Or did Kent find source material of a flu epidemic in the county’s annals?

Since the end of an historical novel is known, the hook has to be in the revelation of the characters. Kent does an excellent job of slowly unveiling the story. She paces it so well that I found myself turning the pages carefully (because it is vivid, lyrical writing and I didn’t want to skim over a single sentence), but also quickly (I had to know what happened and why). Through Agnes’s two listeners, the priest and the farmer’s wife, we learn of the events that led to the day of murder. So what really happened?

Natan happened. He hovers over the book as lover, landlord, ghost, and as victim, madman, cad. He is not much to look at, but he is like no other man Agnes has ever met. He is a progressive guy, an establishment fighter, well-educated, an atheist, an herbalist healer. He takes interest in her intellect, soul, and body. He invites her to live with him. He breaks “the very yolk of my soul,” thinks Agnes, and “he would give me springtime.” This long-awaited-for love comes at age 33 for Agnes, so okay, it deserves high prose. For the first time, she realizes there is something more than the drudgery of poverty and work. Natan’s love gives her “an end to the stifling ordinariness of existence.” And woo-wee, the sex is great, even if it does always take place in the cowshed.

In the end, we have no idea why or if Agnes killed Natan directly or indirectly. But through Kent’s retelling of the known and the unknown, the real and imagined, we get to know the approximate woman. And she deserves to be known and heard simply because she was once full of life, wholly in love, and crushed by ill fortune. By the close of the book, I was railing: “Free Agnes!” or at least give her the commuted sentence that they gave Sigga.

This is what historical fiction does for the reader: it takes us out of our own time and brings us intimately into the past— and thus we see ourselves on a continuum with all humanity. Yes, it was her life lived in that particular time in that specific place on earth, but we can find common ground and modern parallels no matter how different and distant that other life was. A good historical novel also leaves us with these self-reflective questions: What are our life events? What is our time on earth about? Who do we love?

About the Author
Hannah Kent was born in Adelaide in 1985. As a teenager she traveled to Iceland on a Rotary Exchange, where she first heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir.

Hannah is the co-founder and publishing director of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings, and is completing her PhD at Flinders University. In 2011 she won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award.

Burial Rites is her first novel. It has been translated into twenty languages.

Tory Bilski writes the Icelandica blog. She lives in Connecticut, but travels to Iceland on a regular basis with a group of irregular women. She writes about her adventures and misadventures at Icelandica.net.

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The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope
Rhonda Riley
2013

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is unsettling--at least it was to me.  The premise is a bit fantastic on the surface, but then gives way to a traditional story of love, raising a family and the pressures that test relationship bonds.

At the beginning of the story, Evelyn Roe is living on her own at the family farm once run by her grandmother.  Evelyn is in her late teens. The time period is just after World War II.   She encounters the title character during a torrential rain storm -- literally stuck in the mud.  The stranger recovers at an unnatural pace and then becomes a mirror image of her.  Later, the figure morphs in the Adam Hope, who becomes Evelyn's husband.

Know that I am purposely giving a limited sense of events, so you can make your own judgement.  There is so much in the story that is a metaphor for life, set on this frame of the unknown.  So much of life is a leap of faith, and Rhonda Riley tells a grounded story that is lyrically written. Evelyn knows that her husband is different; the community senses his difference as well.  But they push ahead and have four daughters that integrate both parental traits.

This would make a terrific book club selection due to its unusual premise, familiar relationships and the questions posed by all.  After all isn't that why we read good fiction?

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is Rhonda Riley's first novel. She is a graduate of the creative writing program at The University of Florida and lives in Gainesville, FL.

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Jeeves and the Wedding Bells
An Homage to P.G. Wodehouse
Sebastian Faulks
2013

As an antidote to the gloomy weather outside, treat yourself to Sebastian Faulks addition to the Jeeves chronicles.  Faulks gamely takes on where famed author P.G. Wodehouse left off without a misstep.

For those of you, who are not familiar with the series, the stories follow the escapades of Bertie Wooster, a trust fund young man and his butler Jeeves.  With all the idle time afforded by the fund, Wooster manages to get himself into tangled, social scrapes, and Jeeves sorts him out.  The language is quick and will having you laughing aloud.

Faulks, a noted English novelist, has Wooster trade places with Jeeves -- acting as a butler to Jeeves.  To say he is lost is a bit of an understatement.  One bungled evening end is described thus, "The Woosters are generally acknowledged to be made of stern stuff.  We did our bit in the Crusades and, I'm told, were spotted galloping into the French at Agincourt under a steady downpour of arrows.  We don't duck a challenge (however) Just as in the normal day there is a sense of noblesse oblige, so in my position of humble footman I could see now way to be of further service. I therefore exercised the historic right of the worker to down tools and call it a day."

Give yourself an easy, enjoyable reading assignment this January and read this delightful next chapter of the masterful Jeeves and well-meaning Bertie. Faulks hasn't missed a beat.

 

Recommended Read.

Sebastian Faulks is the author of historical novels Birdsong and Charlotte Gray. He has tackled an encore of the Jeeves and Wooster stories as an appreciation for all the pleasure the novels have given him. 

Same Shelf: 

Life with Jeeves (see one of our earliest reviews)
P.G. Wodehouse

Very Good Jeeves
P.G. Wodehouse

Bridget Jones' Diary
by Helen Fielding