Teaser Tuesdays: Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.


What an intriguingly written, disquieting, riveting tale this is. I’ve only just begun it, but I’m fascinated. The story itself is rather magnetic; and on top of that, I find the writing curious and remarkable. For an example, check out this paragraph of characterization:

Given what Parley Burns did and what happened to him in the end, Connie never tired of mulling over what kind of person he was deep down. He wasn’t handsome, she told me, but he was distinguished and very attractive to lonely women. Something fashionable, almost feminine in his manner unsettled and excited them – a sensitivity channeled into the dry-bed of bachelorhood. Yet he was far from dry. He was an intricately wired man. The smell of eggs turned his stomach.

The smell of eggs!

And no, we don’t yet know what he did. Are you drawn by this, as well?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

An eccentrically fun family vacation, with far more style and spunk than your average beach read.


The Vacationers by Emma Straub (Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures) is peopled by charming, funny, expertly portrayed characters who feel very real and yet slightly fantastical.

The Post family is headed from Manhattan to Mallorca for a two-week vacation, ostensibly to celebrate: Franny and Jim are approaching their 35th anniversary, and their daughter, Sylvia, has just graduated from high school. Joining them will be their son, Bobby, with his girlfriend, Carmen, and Franny’s BFF Charles and his husband, Lawrence. However, Jim has recently left his decades-long career at Gallant magazine amidst shame and scandal, and his transgressions at work have followed him home. Sylvia’s big goal of the summer is to lose her virginity before starting college in the fall. Charles and Lawrence’s is to adopt a baby–a plan they haven’t yet shared with the Posts. Bobby and Carmen are on uneven ground; they have a secret to break to his parents, and it doesn’t help that the Posts have never liked Carmen. More secrets and scandals, new and old, will come to light under the Spanish sun.

Straub’s greatest strengths are her endearingly quirky protagonists and a plot with more twists than a European mountain road, but her secondary characters are also cleverly wrought. The Posts’ absent hostess, Gemma, is Charles’s second-best friend; Franny tries not to let that annoy her. Sylvia’s local Spanish tutor, Joan (“pronounced Joe-ahhhn”), is a delectable temptation for both Sylvia and Franny, but it’s a retired tennis pro who really turns Franny’s head. Luckily, a motorcycle-riding pediatrician becomes Jim’s ally in trying to re-win his wife’s heart. Despite the considerable dysfunction of this family, this tale about them has a surprisingly happy ending.

This review originally ran in the May 30, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 9 olives.

did not finish: Tantric Coconuts by Gregory D. Kincaid

tantricOh dear. I had such high hopes for this one. And with such a great title!

Ted Day is a workaholic small-town Kansas lawyer who gets carsick. Wild Bill Raines, Ted’s grandfather, demanded that Ted finally take a vacation – and then died suddenly, leaving Ted his old beat-up RV. Against his better judgment, Ted resigns himself to a road trip with his elderly terrier, Argo.

Angel Two Sparrow is a spiritual consultant whose father fears she has inherited the “loco gene” of the women in their Lakota family. She has just inherited No Barks, a half-wolf dog, and a converted Bookmobile (converted into what, it is unclear) from her father’s Aunt Lilly – not upon that lady’s death but upon her imprisonment, having shot and killed her ex-husband because a bear told her to in her dreams. Angel’s ambition is to be a traveling spiritual consultant, so No Barks will accompany her in the Bookmobile.

The two bump into each other, hard, and literally, at a campground in New Mexico. They exchange a few witty and vaguely flirtatious lines and then get into the meat of it: Ted agrees to be Angel’s student (her first, though he doesn’t know this), and he and Argo join her and No Barks in the Bookmobile for a two-week course of study. At which point this intriguing and charmingly odd (if slightly over-cute and dialog-challenged) story takes a turn for the worse. I was dismayed to find myself reminded of Sophie’s World all over again: Ted and Angel turn out to be mere vehicles for the expression of simplified spiritual philosophies, and the dialog becomes downright atrocious. (“I’m glad you mentioned this, and I want you to know I’ve taken your observation very seriously,” intones Angel on page 85, as if she had just completed a series of classes in management-speak. I made it five more pages before quitting on page 90.) Author Kincaid also includes the occasional footnote recommending further reading, including one pointing his reader to the Wikipedia page on neuroplasticity.

I was taken by Ted and Angel’s contrasts and the possibility for a rather silly romance, which may indeed be where they are heading, but terrible dialog and a transparent use of these characters to teach Philosophy 101 will not allow me to follow them there. Best of luck to them, and the dogs too.

The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt

My father also reviewed this book here.

An astronomer’s professional and personal journey, both eased and challenged by her scientific mind.

falling sky

Pippa Goldschmidt’s The Falling Sky revolves around Jeanette, a young astronomer deeply dedicated to her work but uninspired by the competitive bureaucracy of postdoctoral research. The stars and galaxies make sense to her in a way that people do not; she is a talented and intelligent scientist whose rational lens often fails her in navigating the world of human relationships. In a Chilean observatory, she makes a discovery that could turn the scientific world on its head; what she will do with this new and disruptive evidence will similarly upend her personal life. Amid the commotion, a new love affair with an old friend and the disorder of her professional ambitions combine to reawaken a childhood trauma, a tragedy from which her family has never recovered.

The Falling Sky incorporates hard science (Goldschmidt is an astronomer as well as an accomplished writer) with the story of a young woman struggling to find and establish her own place in the world. Artists, romantics, philosophers, mystics, feminists, photographers and scientists will all identify with aspects of Jeanette’s journey. Those familiar with the Edinburgh setting will be pleased by its evocation. But perhaps the most remarkable and unusual element of Goldschmidt’s striking debut novel is Jeanette’s perspective: the reader sees her world as she does, with an emphasis on objectivity, data points, the relativity of time and space, and the search for connections between distant galaxies. As Jeanette sighs, “the lack of information is appalling,” but her story comes around to a satisfying conclusion nonetheless.

This review originally ran in the May 20, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 connections.

Teaser Tuesdays: Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

last night

This lovely novel set in Chicago’s jazz scene in the 1960′s stars a heartbreaking ten-year-old girl, backed up by her mother, a self-absorbed but sympathetic aspiring singer. Their relationship is rendered perfectly.

Mother’s feelings are the curb I walk, trying to keep my balance, and I get tired of it, being careful, and mad at her at the same time. But then she takes my hand and smiles at me.

And on the next page,

When she notices me, all the times she doesn’t notice me get erased.

We learn a great deal there, don’t we? The rest of the book is written with equal skill, and the mother is far more complex than these lines might indicate. Do check it out.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Untold by Courtney Collins

An astonishingly fresh and surprising novel of adventure, heartbreak, grit and love, set in the Australian bush.

In the bush of 1920s New South Wales in Australia, readers observe a young woman digging by a river and then running for the hills. Her story unfolds slowly, in fractured time and brief views, in The Untold, a dreamy debut novel by Courtney Collins based on the life of legendary Australian wild woman Jessie Hickman.

Jessie’s past is varied and often tragic. She left home at 12 to join the circus, then moved on to an illustrious and mostly successful career rustling horses. At age 21, she was convicted for stealing two chickens. Upon her release from prison, she fell in with a rancher who put her back to work stealing horses and cattle, then forced her into a profoundly miserable and violent marriage. Her latest traumas have now sent her, and her beloved horse, Houdini, crashing uphill. They are headed for the top of the highest mountain she can see, through driving rain and flowing blood, in the scene that opens the novel.

Jessie will encounter gangs of men and boys, some friendly, some not: there is a bounty on her head and the residents of the town and the bush have turned out for the hunt. Among those pursuing her are a former lover–an Aboriginal tracker–and a police sergeant, purportedly working together but each unclear which side he’s really on; their quarry exerts a strange magnetic pull and counter-pull. As the reader is increasingly drawn into the story, The Untold rushes precipitously toward a heady convergence among Jessie, Houdini, the gangs and the two men with more personal business to conduct.

Collins has composed a truly startling and singular saga, set in a wild and brushy backdrop of mountains and elemental forces, peopled with hard-edged creatures of all sorts who each have a savage mood and a desperate will to live. Death is a consistent theme in Jessie’s life, beginning as early as we can know, but she has a surprising ally. In fact, while Collins keeps her reader guessing throughout, the biggest surprise of all is the narrator’s role in Jessie’s story.

The Untold is lyrical and untamed, with a firm emphasis on survival and redemption and a full array of improbably charming characters, none with an unstoried past but few as feral as Jessie herself. The reader will be as exhilarated as the protagonist by her struggles, and quite possibly come up gasping for air.

This review originally ran in the May 8, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 9 handfuls of mud.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (audio): finished

haroldDon’t forget to also see my earlier reviews of the first third and second third of this book.

Naturally, Harold Fry continued to be excellent. I love this book. The sad bit where we left him off in my last review, where he was dogged by misguided followers (yes, I believe I mean that literally, too), was sad; but it came to an end. Harold of course ends up on his own again, which is mostly his natural state in this story. But he won’t finish that way. I don’t want to report any more plot points. This book ends on a hopeful note, and everyone – not only the few characters you might think early on, but everyone – ends up growing and learning.

Rachel Joyce’s strengths definitely include her wry writing voice, which is really very funny. Harold is often self-conscious, but Joyce never is. Her characters are very real and well put together; even the most minor of walk-ons is defined precisely in just a few words. There are larger truths as well. For example, I was struck by the statement of relativity here:

How could he say all this? It amounted to a lifetime. He could try to find the words, but they would never hold the same meaning for her that they did for him. My house, he would say, and the image that would spring to her head would be of her own! There was no saying it.

None of us shall ever know exactly what the others have been through! Oh the humanity!

Incidentally, I was right in my big guess about the big secret. Work that one out for yourselves.

I fell in love with Harold, and with Maureen, and with Rex (Rachel Joyce, is there another book with Rex in it? please please??), and with all the smaller players. I felt so close to these people, these real people living quiet lives – or even lives of quiet desperation, you might say. I am very impressed with this story of ordinary people doing small, private things, that also managed to be a very large story about The Human Situation (that’s an Honors College course I took as a freshman, FYI). The wisdom that is communicated in humble packages is extraordinary. Harold is a star, and Rachel Joyce is my new hero. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Highly recommended; and the audio read by Jim Broadbent is absolutely grand as well. One of the best of the year to date, without a doubt.

Rating: 10 yards of blue duct tape.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (audio): second bit

haroldYou’ll recall that I did already review the first third or so of this audiobook, because I just couldn’t hold in my enthusiasm. Well, my good impression continues through the next third of the book, along with my need to share as I go.

I will give away less from here on out. Harold’s journey continues, and while his physical, geographical journey is the obvious plot line, there is a parallel arc of personal growth. At the beginning, he is almost unable to be in the same room with strangers; by the end he easily greets them everywhere he goes, and has learned to share his story and take on what is often the burden of other people’s stories. This is essentially a very human tale, incorporating all the strange, wonderful, and wonderfully, strangely normal lives of the people Harold meets along the way.

He met a tax inspector who was a druid and had not worn a pair of shoes in ten years.

There is also a sense of growing tension regarding one of the secrets I referred to in my earlier post; the un-referred-to past looms larger as we go on, and I have a guess I’m fairly confident about, but I will wait and see.

Harold gains followers as he continues walking, until there is a large group of “pilgrims” accompanying him on his journey. I was reminded a little bit of Forrest Gump, when he’s running, and finds a crowd running behind him. Unlike Forrest, Harold has a purpose, and his followers know it; and also unlike Forrest, these followers become a real burden. By this time, he has learned to take care of himself quite well; now he has newcomers to take care of too, and this takes up a lot of time and effort. Also, they’re not as fast as he is at the actual walking; but he tries to be patient, remembering how long it took him to build up stamina and get into a rhythm. I was, of course, infuriated at their selfishness in holding Harold back from something so important to him; but I can see how Harold could have done nothing less than help them along.

As I enter the final third (give or take) of this book, I am only sorry that it has to end.

book beginnings on Friday: The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

falling sky

You will recall that my father also reviewed this book, here. What fun that I get a shot at it now, too. I have two beginnings to share with you; the first is part of the novel but comes before the first chapter; a preview or dream, perhaps.

Nothing is as certain as death.

And from the more concrete world of “Now”:

Jeanette may as well be invisible. She’s standing on the stage in the auditorium in front of about two hundred other astronomers, presenting the results of her PhD work at the annual British conference. But she can tell no one’s listening.

More pedestrian; but it quickly becomes an involving story, nevertheless. Stay tuned.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (audio): first bit

haroldI can’t help but share with you my early reflections on this delightful tale – before I know everything. It will be interesting to see how my perspective or feelings change later on. Here, I’m about 1/3 of the way through.

What an oddly charming, quirky story. Harold Fry has retired from his 45-year career working quietly for a brewery (although he is a teetotaler) and now stays home with his wife Maureen. She cleans – constantly – and criticizes him, and he mows the lawn. He does not speak with their only son, David. One morning he gets a letter from an old friend, a former coworker named Queenie. She is writing from a hospice to say goodbye: she has cancer. Harold jots a quick note to say “sorry about that, old girl” or similar, and although he feels its insufficiency, sets off right then to post it from the box at the end of the road.

But when Harold gets to the end of the road, he can’t quite mail his letter, because it is of course a sadly inappropriate thing to do for Queenie; so he keeps walking. He tells himself he’ll mail it from the next postbox; and he does this at a great number of boxes, before he stops in at a garage for a snack. The girl there shows him how to heat up a hamburger in a microwave, which amazes him (“it even had gherkins!” he will later report to Maureen) and tells him the inspirational story of her aunt who had cancer: the girl willed her to get better, because if you believe (she tells Harold) you can do anything.

It is not too long after this conversation that Harold decides he will walk to visit Queenie at the hospice facility, and commands her to live until he gets there. It’s not clear how far this walk will be – someone he encounters guesses it might be 500 miles, but at any rate it’s very far, and he’s wearing his yacht shoes and as Maureen is quick to point out, he’s never walked further than to the car. He is, in fact, endeavoring to walk the length of England.

I hope you see what an endearingly strange story this is. Harold himself is poignantly, almost painfully shy and insecure; he’s not accustomed to being around people, and as he and Maureen each note separately in the opening pages, “it was not like Harold to make a snap decision.” There’s a lot we still don’t know. I suspect that there was an event in Harold and Maureen’s marriage where things soured suddenly, decisively; if I’m right, that information is clearly being withheld. Their son David won’t visit, and he and Harold don’t speak; if there is a reason other than general teenage impatience with his parents (and he is no longer a teen, so…) then likewise we haven’t learned it yet. And I can see plainly that Harold’s history with Queenie has a story to it – and presumably their parting of ways, and their failure to keep in touch? Oh – and I wonder if Harold has always been a non-drinker, or if there is some traumatic history that has led to his sobriety. There is a line in which Maureen worries about him being in a pub… I just wonder. These are the informational nuggets I am being teased with at present. Harold’s childhood is just beginning to unfold, so I think I can see Joyce’s strategy of allowing these things to be dragged out of her story sooo…. slooowly… and I like it.

Narrator Jim Broadbent has an excellent ear for Harold’s voice (sort of ponderous) and the pacing required for this humor to play properly; I approve heartily.

Stay tuned!


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