A Classic Writer in Modern Times: “Go Set a Watchman”, by Harper Lee - Book Review

I’m a little behind on this review, as Go Set a Watchman was published in July, and I read it several weeks ago. My hesitation in writing the review for Harper Lee’s novel is primarily the controversy that surrounds it - our beloved Atticus Finch as a racist, and the questionable circumstances as to how this piece of literature came to publication. Another reason for the delay is that, well, I’m not sure how I really feel about it. Perhaps finally putting “pen to paper” will help me whittle that out.

I’ll begin with the storm around the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Lee has been fortunate enough to have her loving sister as her protector during illness, but her sister passed away recently. Lee has famously displayed chagrin about the state of American literature, "I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing … is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this — the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea.” In essence, Lee was no longer going to participate in the literature scene, thus publishing only one book, her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. If you’re interested in a rather scathing commentary, take a look at Joe Nocera’s opinion in the New York Times who is palpably angry about it, and makes a convincing argument that we should be too.

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An Orcas Island Thriller in “The Find”, by Rainer Rey - Book Review

The outer edge of the Pacific Northwest is as slow paced and calm as you can get, but author Rainer Rey adds a whole lot of excitement to its peaceful existence. He successfully combines government covert operations, an Indian shaman, psychic powers, terrorism and adventure into his novel, The Find. Frankly, in reading the book description, I had my doubts. But Rey came through with each page.

There are several converging stories, of which the most significant are high-powered business woman Lorna Novack and ex-FBI agent Kellen Rand. Lorna is fed up with the pressure of her work, but dives into it head first to prove herself in a  man’s world. She gets a call regarding her long lost step-sister who has been seriously injured and whose daughter has gone missing. Lorna travels to Orcas Island from Chicago to be by her side and find out what has happened to her niece. Kellen is through with big cities and after an ugly dismissal from the FBI, has started a new life and launched a salmon hatchery. One evening, he and his friend Paddy venture via boat to witness a shaman connect with nature; or rather, seemingly control nature. It’s an undeniable spectacle, that is described in enough detail, we can quite clearly imagine the scene.

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The Darkest Minds, by Alexandra Bracken - Book Review

Many young adult novels these days are heavy on plot and light on character development. This is not the case in The Darkest Minds, the first in a series by Alexandra Bracken. This series takes place in a futuristic Virginia where, out of nowhere, kids between the ages of eight and fourteen begin to die suddenly from a mysterious illness. The kids who miraculously survive this illness are not loved, but feared. This is because their survival identifies them as having dangerous mental abilities ranging from photographic memories, to telekinesis, to being able to read and control the minds of others.

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Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith - Book Review

Glaciers is a careful and quiet book. Alexis M. Smith uses straightforward prose in an authentic voice to bring her lead character, Isabel to life in her debut novel. Isabel is a 28-year old native of Alaska, living in Portland. She works with damaged books in the library, and we get to know her as she reminisces about childhood, the appeal of objects with past lives and an intriguing man. The reader picks up with Isabel during a single day of her life.

We learn throughout Glaciers that everything has an intimate story - either real or imaged. Isabel has collected old portraits of people and places, vintage dresses and used dishes. She thoughtfully conceives the journey and lives of these objects, pondering their significance, and weaving tales around them. Isabel describes recurring dreams, visiting far off locales, and has an understanding of literature, as simple as love notes on old postcards purchased in thrift shops, and the powerful pull of escape to those imagined places and times.

With delicacy in one of the chapters, Smith places us with Isabel and the object of her affection at work, having coffee together in the morning, yet knowing little about each other and the awkward energy between them. She then guides us to their brief, but close and personal encounter. We see again how important these stories are for Isabel.

While unassuming, Glaciers has just the right amount of complexity. It’s subtle with layers that build Isabel into a young woman of depth. A finalist for two literary awards when it was first published in 2013, it’s a very short book, read in a day. I’m looking forward to Smith’s next work.

Published: 2013
Publisher: Tin House

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars

"The Nightingale" By Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale is a beautifully written account of WWII France - a broken family, German occupation and survival.  This is my first time reading Kristin Hannah’s work, and I was more than pleased.  From the beginning, it was difficult to put this book down.

The epic opens with this wonderful line - “In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are”.  Sisters Vianne and Isabelle have lived very different lives - one with love and comfort, the other alone and impetuous.  Each gets caught up in their own stories of survival when the Germans march in to occupy France. The book follows these sisters and their different paths in a tale that describes the women’s war, heartbreaking loss and the will to live.

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"Before We Met" By Lucie Whitehouse

This Lucie Whitehouse novel, “Before We Met” takes the reader to London and New York, through a mystery of a husband’s unknown past.  Protagonist Hannah is blissfully in love with Mark, but a missed flight home to London propels Hannah to look into the reasons behind it.  One clue uncovers another - each one more confusing than the last, until she is forced to piece together the truth.

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"City of Thieves" by David Benioff

What a surprising delight “City of Thieves” was to read. Not that I expected David Benioff’s novel to be bad, but I did not expect to enjoy it in so many ways.  This 258-page book is set in 1942 war-torn Leningrad, where the residents fear the German siege, their own forces and each other.  It’s a dangerous place for a 17-year-old boy who reluctantly finds himself with a new best friend on an impossible mission for a Soviet colonel.  

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