Archive for June, 2007

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

It’s been a week since I finished this book. Having finished the last page last week, I put down The Savage Garden with a great feeling of satisfaction. I’m sure most readers will too, especially those who liked The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I took up The Savage Garden having read the reviews and hoping to feel again the somewhat unhealthy thrill of an over-charged and fevered, but totally absorbing mystery rooted in a past of culture and privilege. Both books feature a mysterious garden, both feature an ancient and decayed family, and both feature a young scholar and stranger who goes to a remote locale to carry out a task to ensure the posterity of an elderly grand dame. In the case of The Savage Garden the locale is Tuscany in the present day. Publisher’s Weekly of 3/5/07 summed up the plot very neatly:
“Two murders committed 400 years apart form the core of British author Mills’s outstanding second novel (afterAmagansett , which won a CWA Dagger Award). In 1958, Cambridge undergraduate Adam Strickland, who’s studying a curious Tuscan Renaissance garden for his art history thesis, is equally intrigued by both the garden of the Villa Docci estate and its elderly owner, Signora Francesca Docci. Built by the villa’s first owner, Federico Docci, in 1577, the garden was intended as a memorial to his wife, Flora, who died when she was only 25. In the course of his research, Adam begins to sense that events, both past and present, are not as clear-cut as they appear. In particular, he discovers that there are several versions of the death of Signora Docci’s oldest son, Emilio, who was shot by the villa’s German occupiers at the end of WWII. Adam is hailed by all when he comes up with a novel theory explaining Flora’s death in 1548, but when he begins to speculate on Emilio’s demise, he finds himself in serious danger.”
I enjoyed the descriptions of the Tuscan countryside, which I thought was very convincingly brought to life. The garden also is described in such detail that one really begins to feel the atmosphere of the place which so effects the main character. As in The Thirteenth Tale, there are a lot of unresolved issues from the past, people with long memories and secret and puzzling motivations. The book is not billed as a gothic tale, but in my opinion it really is. It is also somewhat of a coming of age story: the undergraduate, Adam is a sexually athletic but crass 22-year-old who grows up during his stay in Tuscany. The mistaken assumptions Adam makes about other characters sometimes seem unbelievable, and not all of his gaffes are necessary to the plot. For me this was the only false note in the book.

A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Monday, June 18th, 2007

The Abingdon Lite at Night book group read A Spot of Bother for their June meeting. With our Spot of Bother we had a spot of English Tea – PG Tips, England’s most popular everyday tea.
If you read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, you may or may not like his latest novel. Criticism in the US and the UK has been mixed, although generally positive. His previous novel was so different that it was obviously a hard act to follow. The Curious Incident is the story of a teen-age autistic boy who decides to solve the mystery of the murdered dog he finds in his garden. Haddon’s Spot of Bother is the story of George Hall and his disfunctional family. George is a retired father of two grown children, Katie, who has a young son Jacob, and Jamie, who is gay. Katie and Jamie are both having relationship issues. George’s wife, Jean, is having an affair. Meanwhile, George, who is an inoffensive individual, discovers he has a skin disorder that he believes to be cancer. As he begins to go quietly insane, his family and their problems whirl around him.
Comments from the group ranged from funny to depressing, difficult to follow to very interesting. They thought the book was well written. It provoked discussion about how families deal with depression in loved ones, and the difficulties of relationships among the young and single, as well as the mature and married.
This is what Publisher’s Weekly had to say about A Spot of Bother.
Recent retiree George Hall, convinced that his eczema is cancer, goes into a tailspin in Haddon’s (Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) laugh-out-loud slice of British domestic life. George, 61, is clearly channeling a host of other worries into the discoloration on his hip (the “spot of bother”): daughter Katie, who has a toddler, Jacob, from her disastrous first-marriage to the horrid Graham, is about to marry the equally unlikable Ray; inattentive wife Jean is having an affair—with George’s former co-worker, David Symmonds; and son Jamie doesn’t think George is OK with Jamie’s being queer. Haddon gets into their heads wonderfully, from Jean’s waffling about her affair to Katie’s being overwhelmed (by Jacob, and by her impending marriage) and Jamie’s takes on men (and boyfriend Tony in particular, who wants to come to the wedding). Mild-mannered George, meanwhile, despairing over his health, slinks into a depression; his major coping strategies involve hiding behind furniture on all fours and lowing like a cow. It’s an odd, slight plot—something like the movie Father of the Bride crossed with Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (as skin rash)—but it zips along, and Haddon subtly pulls it all together with sparkling asides and a genuine sympathy for his poor Halls. No bother at all, this comic follow-up to Haddon’s blockbuster (and nicely selling book of poems) is great fun. (Sept.)

Step Ball Change by Jeanne Ray

Monday, June 11th, 2007

This week I decided to write about a book I have been reading for a discussion group I belong to. This month the group will discuss the genre known as “Hen Lit.”

“Hen Lit,” though not a very flattering or politically correct designation, refers to the popular fiction genre that focuses on one woman or a group of female friends and the vicissitudes of their lives as they turn sixty or so. The tone is generally warm, gentle and optimistic, but above all humorous. The emphasis is on friendship and family.

I picked out the following title and can recommend it heartily as a pleasant and easy quick read, perhaps even a beach read:

Step Ball Change by Jeanne Ray

This warm and humorous book is sure to appeal to readers who like stories of a strong, older female main character who shares with us the joys and sorrows of her family relationships. Sixty-plus Caroline lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, just as she has done for years with her public-defender husband Tom. Caroline has succesfully raised four children, while at the same time owning and running a prosperous dance studio. Caroline is a mentor and mother figure to all, including the little girls in her studio. At the same time she maintains her humanity: we warm to her disorganization at home, her guilty wish to have quality time alone with her husband, her attempts to understand her children, the fact that though she suffers from arthritis she remains young and vulnerable at heart. Chaos breaks loose at Caroline’s home when her sister announces she is getting divorced and turns up at her doorstep, her daughter announces her engagement yet can’t seem to decide whom she loves, and the foundations of the house are discovered to be in imminent danger of collapse. It is obvious from the beginning that with love and patience all dilemmas will happily be resolved – it is such a pleasure finding out just how!

Some points you might like to consider when reading or discussing Step Ball Change:
The unusual title refers to a dance step. I understood it as a metaphor for all the changes going on in Caroline’s life and how quick-footed she has to be to cope with them. I also understood the decay in the foundations of Caroline’s house to be a metaphor for what was happening within the family, as well as a useful device with which to bring strangers into the family mix. Do you agree with me, and do you think these literary devices work or not?
Reviewers of hen lit usually maintain that in general the characters are more superficially drawn than in more serious traditional fiction. Do you agree in this case? The publisher of this book said that we feel we have known these characters all our lives. What do you say?
Examples of the genre:
The Hot Flash Club by Nancy Thayer
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love by Joan Medlicott
The Elegant Gathering of White Snows by Kris Radish
Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind by Ann B. Ross
Angry Housewives Eating Bon-bons by Lorna Landvik
Good Grief by Lolly Winstan
Not-So-Perfect Man by Valerie Frankel
Harlequin began publishing in this genre under the name Harlequin Next

The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

If you read and enjoyed Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog by John Grogan and are looking for something in a similar vein, then the Good Good Pig may be the book for you. The Abingdon Lite at Night book group read this in May and everyone enjoyed it very much. Unlike Marley and Me that was about a family and their dog, as the title suggests, this book is about a pig. The pig in question is Christopher Hogwood, the runt of runts, who is not expected to live when Sy and her husband, Howard, adopt him. This delightful story follows the life of this wonderful pig who has a far reaching effect not just on his immediate family, but on their whole town. It is a loving and endearing memoir. The book group thought it was not quite so intimate a book as Marley and Me, but was very readable, touching and full of friends and community.
We were all totally awestruck by the author, whose own life has been one of great adventure. She has traveled to many places, including Africa, Southeast Asia, and the heart of the Amazon. She has won many awards for her animal research and literature, and her children’s books, that include, Search for the Golden Moon Bear, Journey of the Pink Dolphins: An Amazon Quest, and The Man-Eating Tigers of Sundarbans are excellent non-fiction with great photography.

Read the following reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and from John Grogan, author of Marley and Me.

“Montgomery’s books on exotic wildlife (Journey of the Pink Dolphins, etc.) take her to the far corners of the world, but the story of her closest relationships with the animal kingdom plays out in her own New England backyard. When she adopts a sickly runt from a litter of pigs, naming him Christopher Hogwood after the symphony conductor, raising him for slaughter isn’t an option: Montgomery’s a vegetarian and her husband is Jewish. Refitting their barn to accommodate a (mostly) secure sty, they keep Christopher as a pet. As he swells to 750 pounds, he becomes a local celebrity, getting loose frequently enough that the local police officer knows to carry spare apples to lure him back home. The pig also bonds with Montgomery’s neighbors, especially two children who come over to help feed him and rub his tummy. Montgomery’s love for Christopher (and later for Tess, an adopted border collie) dominates the memoir’s emotional space, but she’s also demonstrably grateful for the friendships the pig sparks within her community. The humor with which she recounts Christopher’s meticulous eating habits and love of digging up turf is sure to charm readers.”—Publisher’s Weekly

Advance Praise for THE GOOD GOOD PIG:
“This is a book not so much about a barnyard animal as about relationships, in all their messy, joyous and heartbreaking complexity. In loving yet unsentimental prose, Sy Montgomery captures the richness animals bring to the human experience. Sometimes it takes a too-smart-for-his-own-good pig to open our eyes to what most matters in life. The Good Good Pig is a good, good book, beautifully rendered and filled with wondrous surprises. I will never forget Christopher Hogwood.”—John Grogan, author of Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog.

To read more about the life and work of Sy Montgomery and her husband, go to