Thursday, August 25, 2016

Shadow Days (Cedar Hollow #4) - Melinda Clayton

Shadow Days was a tough, but ultimately cathartic, read for me.

The main character is Emily Holt, a widow living in Florida whose sons are away at college. On the anniversary of her husband's death, Emily gives into an impulse to flee. She gets in her car and drives away, wandering aimlessly, until her car breaks down on a winding mountain road. The sheriff's deputy who picks her up takes her to the nearest town -- which happens to be Cedar Hollow. There, Emily begins to find her way out of her complicated emotions, and she also finds a way to tell her sons the truth about their father's illness.

Clayton has created a realistic portrait of a woman with a loved one who's suffering from mental illness. Emily's husband, Greg, was manic-depressive, and she spent the vast majority of her marriage covering for him in one way or another: finding him work, dealing with his behavior and his medical needs, and raising their children pretty much by herself. To compound matters, she strove to shield the boys from all knowledge of Greg's illness.

Without going into detail, I'll just say that I identified with Emily in a lot of ways. I was in tears more than once. And I was heartened that Emily's story might eventually have a happy ending.

Shadow Days is available both on its own, and as part of Clayton's Cedar Hollow omnibus. All four novels are highly recommended, but I think this one might be my favorite.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Tradition of Household Spirits - Claude Lecouteaux

The Tradition of Household Spirits is a fascinating look at spirits of place in the medieval world.

Lecouteaux's biography says he is a former professor of medieval literature and civilization at the Sorbonne, and he has written a number of books on subjects in his field. In this book, he seeks first to explain how and why people in the medieval period believed their homes to be sacred space, and how they delineated the boundaries of that space. He then goes on to talk about the spirits and/or deities these people were honoring. It's clear to him that ancestors took on almost godlike status in succeeding generations; families believed those who first built on the land would stick around to bless them, if only their descendants treated them well.

The author concentrates on European practices and beliefs -- both Eastern and Western -- with a little bit of Asian lore thrown in here and there. He seems to think it significant that so many of these practices are similar, but I was less entranced. After all, most of the peoples he talks about can be traced back to a shared Indo-European homeland. We see that root in language as well as in pagan pantheons; with that much of a shared cultural root, it should be no surprise that people considered walls and hedges to be protective boundaries, and windows and doors to be liminal spaces that needed special protection.

Still, I learned a fair amount from this book. One thing he talks about is the belief that a cricket on the hearth will bring good luck. I always thought the saying referred to a literal cricket, for which I suppose I can thank Charles Dickens (and Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin). But Lecouteaux writes, "Isn't a good housewife sometimes referred to as the 'cricket of the hearth'?" I had never heard that before. Maybe it's a French proverb.

Lecouteaux ends his book with a lament that we no longer honor household spirits today: "Like so many other creatures that once embellished life and brought hope, house spirits have vanished and with them the souls of our houses have fled, never to return." Au contraire, professor: Some of us do still attempt to honor spirits of the places where we live, if not the spirits of our hearths.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Concealed (Virus #1) - R.J. Crayton

Concealed is the first volume in a dystopian YA series about a virus that has turned the world upside down.

Elaan Woodson is a lucky girl. The Helnoan virus has infected most of the population. Almost everyone who contracts the disease dies from it, although some recover -- and a handful, like Elaan, appear to have a natural immunity. In addition to her immunity, she is also the daughter of a scientist who's working on a cure for the virus, and because of that, she, her brother Lijah, and her father are living in the underground bunker where her father's lab is located. Lijah is a survivor -- as is Josh Wells, the only other teenager in the compound. Elaan and Josh are obviously headed for romance, but Lijah keeps warning her away from him. Lijah says Josh has a secret that will hurt Elaan, but then Lijah has a big secret of his own. And the most important secret is the one Josh's father is keeping from all of them -- one that might cost Elaan her life.

Crayton spends a lot of time in this book developing her main characters and the setting. We learn a lot about Elaan's daily life, and about how the underground facility operates, including the behind-the-scenes machinations like management hierarchies and gossip. The plot, however, takes a while to get going. I found myself wishing somebody would just break down and tell Elaan something already, so the story could move along. Things do finally accelerate, but the action doesn't pick up until near the end of the book.

Crayton is a fine writer, and her topic is certainly timely. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this series. Recommended for those who enjoy YA science fiction.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Tell a Thousand Lies - Rasana Atreya

For this month's Indies Unlimited Reading Challenge, I'm reading a book from another culture than my own. I've chosen a book that I have been meaning to get around to reading for several years: Tell a Thousand Lies by Rasana Atreya.

The book is set in rural India, where a grandmother has taken on the task of raising three sisters: Malli, the eldest; and fraternal twins Lata and Pullamma. In this traditional village, the most a girl can hope for is a good marriage, and these girls have no dowry. But it's worse for Pullamma, as her skin is darker than the other girls', and she grows up hearing -- and internalizing the message -- that her future is hopeless. But then, a local strongman sees a political angle. He pays the village soothsayer to claim that Pullamma is a goddess reborn, and suddenly the girl is the center of a lot of unwanted attention. Eventually, she escapes -- but the corrupt politician still has his hooks in Pullamma and her family, and her life will be ruined many times over before she has an opportunity to triumph.

Atreya champions the rights of Indian women in this book. Pullamma's twin sister Lata wants nothing more than to get an education and become a doctor -- which her traditional grandmother considers to be madness. And too, the whole book is quite a send-up of the idea that women should only aspire to make a good match, and then be obedient wives -- nothing more than that.

My only quibble is that the plot gets quite melodramatic -- very much like a soap opera, with one horrible thing after another happening to Pullamma, her husband, and Lata. I've only seen one or two Bollywood movies, but the plot here is very much like one of those.

If you like Bollywood flicks, I'd highly recommend Tell a Thousand Lies.