The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church (Algonquin Books, 2016)
The cover of this book shows a periodic table of the elements, with birds instead of elements. I wouldn’t call this a great novel, but it was interesting and thought-provoking. Plus you can learn a lot about birds by reading it, since each chapter is prefaced by a set of facts about a particular bird species. The main character is a woman who wants to be an ornithologist, but sadly never achieves this ambition due to the sexist culture of mid-twentieth century America. Meridian does earn a bachelor’s degree and gets accepted to Cornell for graduate school, which has a top ornithology program. But then, she falls in love, gets married, and follows her husband to Los Alamos. She doesn’t even have children, yet she gives up on further education and a career. I thought she was going to publish her many years of bird observation journals, but she doesn’t even do that.
The Forever Girl by Alexander McCall Smith (Recorded Books 2014)
While Alexander McCall Smith’s books are always more about love and philosophy than action, things actually happen in this novel that make you want to keep reading (or listening in my case) to find out what happens next. This book is particularly interesting because large parts of it take place in the Cayman Islands, an exotic Caribbean tax haven for the rich. Unlike the 44 Scotland Place series, which switches between several stories with different primary characters, this book follows a girl called Clover from childhood through early adulthood. She does move to Edinburgh for high school and college, but visits her home in the Caymans often and spends time in Singapore and Australia at the end of the book. Her mother has a key role in the story, as does Clover’s friend and love interest, James. Although this is a love story between heterosexuals, gay characters are starting to show up in sympathetic roles in McCall Smith’s novels. Astute readers will notice that the men are always described in detail (usually as beautiful or gorgeous) while the women are never described at all. I will not reveal whether Clover gets her boy in the end, since that would spoil it for you.
Written in my own heart’s blood by Diana Gabaldon (Delacorte Press, 2014)
If you’re a fan of Diana Gabaldon’s books, you probably already have this one on hold at the library. It’s hard to pin down her genre – let’s call it science fiction crossed with historical romance, and a strong dose of intelligent humor? I got my library’s copy two weeks ago, fortuitously in time to take on an airplane trip. It kept me occupied from Philadelphia to Minneapolis and back (including a long layover in Chicago), and I was not disappointed. This sequel to An Echo in the Bone reunites Roger and Briana (eventually) as well as Claire and Jamie (early on) and wraps up many story lines in a satisfying way, but leaves some options for future installments. I especially liked the clever titles for many of the chapters. I’ll definitely be asking for a copy of my own for Christmas. If you haven’t read any of Diana Gabaldon’s novels before, you absolutely should, but don’t start with this one. You need to start with the first book of this long series, Outlander, which will soon be adapted as a t.v. series on the Starz network. It’s going to be the next Games of Thrones.
Past Perfect by Susan Isaacs (Scribner, 2007).
I chose this book because I remembered enjoying another novel by Susan Isaacs called “Shining Through.” While Past Perfect isn’t terrible, it is not as good as Shining Through. The plot is similar in some ways – apparently Isaacs likes to write about spying, international politics, Germany, and young love. I think this novel is less interesting to me because it takes place in the present day, not the 1940s. The “past” of the title is 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. That was an interesting time, but since she is viewing it from the present day, we don’t really learn much about it. I do sympathize with her primary plot problem, which is trying to find out why she was let go from the CIA 15 years previously with no explanation. That would really bother me too, especially if it made it nearly impossible to find subsequent employment as happened to Katie. In the end she does find out what happened.
Filed under Mystery, Romance
Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker (Blue Rider Press, 2013).
I only knew Nicholson Baker as the author of non-fiction works like Double Fold, but it turns out he is a novelist, and a pretty good one. This most recent novel, Traveling Sprinkler, is actually a sequel to The Anthologist, which I will have to hunt down and read. The main character, a poet (whose works are being put in anthologies for students to read) is faintly reminiscent of Robert Frost. He lives in rural New Hampshire and attends Quaker meeting to try to cope with the present day and all its dysfunctional news. An intelligent, artistic middle-aged man, he hopes to write the love song which will persuade his ex-girlfriend to take him back. As a poet and former professional musician he is actually fairly well qualified for the task – all he needs is a crash course in modern electronic recording techniques.
The signature of all things by Elizabeth Gilbert (Penguin Audio, 2013)
After investing 22 hours listening to this novel on CD, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Let’s start with the facts: it’s the story of a fictional woman botanist whose career spans most of the 19th century. She was born into a wealthy Philadelphia family but ended her days as Curator of Mosses in her mother’s family’s botanical garden back in Holland. While her career was unusual for a women of that time, she probably accomplished as much research and publication as she would have in the 21st century. Her brief marriage gave her an opportunity to sail around the world and see places that only men of that time typically saw. She never met Darwin, but she did meet his associate Wallace. Overall this novel paints a very complete picture of what life would have been like for a woman naturalist in the 19th century.
A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy (Anchor, 2014)
This was Maeve Binchy’s last novel, as she died soon after completing it. It won’t disappoint you if you’re a fan; it’s a touching, comforting novel in Binchy’s signature style. The main character returns to Ireland after a failed marriage and opens a bed-and-breakfast in her former hometown, which turns out better than predicted. Each chapter introduces a new character who somehow finds his or her way to this remote Irish town during the winter and feels better for it.
Filed under Fiction, Romance