Bellman & Black – Diane Setterfield

bellmanWe were all pretty excited when Marianne chose Bellman & Black as this month’s book club selection. We all loved Diane Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale when we read it a few years back. Sadly, this novel lacked that book’s  – well, everything.

As I pointed out when we met last night: “Did you notice that all the praise on the back of the book was for The Thirteenth Tale.”  And true enough – there isn’t a single endorsement for this novel on its cover or inside its pages. Okay, maybe that doesn’t mean much in the whole scheme of things and I know I’m making it sound as though Bellman & Black is horrible and I guess I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but it isn’t very good, either.

William Bellman is just a kid playing somewhere in the English countryside  when he decides to show off in front of his friends and uses a catapult to shoot a rook (similar to a crow) out of a tree.

It took a long time for the stone to fly along its preordained trajectory. Or so it seemed. Time enough for William to hope that the bird, flapping into life, would rise upwards from the branch. The stone would fall harmlessly to earth and the rook’s granite laughter would taunt them from the sky.

Instead, William hits and kills the bird and thus leaves innocence and childhood behind him and begins  the downward slope towards death. And yes, it’s really this heavy-handed.

Will’s life is marked with great successes and tremendous tragedies. We watch him turn his uncle’s mill into a financial success. We watch him fall in love and have a family. And we watch things start to fall apart. But the thing is – and it is a thing that we talked about last night – none of it mattered all that much because Will was a character we knew or cared little about. He was driven, surely and haunted, certainly, but not by the rooks which made strange appearances (sort of like encyclopedia entries) throughout the book.

When William suffers a tragic personal loss, he makes a deal with a mysterious stranger, Mr. Black, and he suddenly finds himself building a one-stop funeral emporium. We’re talking Victorian England here, when people mourned for years and spent money (apparently) on all manner of funereal accoutrements. So, just as we watched him build Bellman Mill, we learn all the nooks and crannies of Bellman & Black, but none of it is interesting enough to sustain a 300 plus page narrative. And trust me, the stuff about the rooks doesn’t help.

At the end of the day, Setterfield’s book is a less schmaltzy take on, say, a book like Tuesday’s With Morrie. We’re meant to understand that life must have checks and balances, and that when we care too much about things that don’t matter (wealth, success) we miss out on those things that truly do.

Bellman & Black wasn’t hard to read, but I won’t be recommending it to anyone else.

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

part time indianI can’t remember the last time I rooted for a character the way I rooted for Arnold ‘Junior’ Spirit, the fourteen-year-old narrator of Sherman Alexie’s YA novel, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian.

Junior is a member of the Spokane Tribe and lives with his parents, grandmother and older sister on the Rez. Without a drop of self-pity, Junior tells the reader that his “head was so big that little Indian skulls orbited around it” and that “the bullies would pick me up, spin me in circles, put their finger down on my skull, and say, ‘I want to go there.'”

Skinny, born with ten extra teeth, and prone to seizures, Junior is also determined, smart and really funny. He says, “With my big feet and pencil body, I looked like a capital L walking down the road.” He both stutters and lisps and so everyone calls him a retard. “Do you know what happens to retards on the rez?” he asks the reader. “We get beat up. Yep, I belong to the Black-Eye-of-the-Month-Club.”

As if Junior’s physical problems weren’t bad enough, Junior and his family are also very poor. They’re so poor, Junior often goes hungry. But, as he explains, “It’s not like my mother and father were born into wealth. It’s not like they gambled away their family fortunes. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.”

His father is an alcoholic who often disappears on benders. His mother is slighty flakey, but also super smart. Junior is perfectly aware of the limitations that come from being an Indian on the rez.

…we reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams. We don’t get those chances. Or choices. We’re just poor. That’s all we are.

Strangely, none of this seems like whining coming from Junior’s mouth. It is what it is and he’s found ways to cope. For one thing, his best friend,  Rowdy, is the toughest kid on the reservation. For another thing, his parents are kind and loving and supportive. While it seems like there are too many obstacles in Junior’s way, the reader soon learns not to underestimate him.

An incident at school prompts a visit from one of his teachers and suddenly Junior has left the rez and is traveling 23 miles into a town to attend a white school where he has the chance to make something of himself. (But not without a lot of soul-searching about what it means to have to leave the rez behind and enter the white world.) But make something of himself, he does. I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and not getting a little va-klempt at Junior’s journey.

The back cover of my edition of The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian  says that the novel is inspired by Sherman Alexie’s own experiences growing up. The book has won numerous awards including the National Book Award. It’s most deserving of the praise.

This is a laugh-out-loud, tear-in-your-eye, 100% uplifting novel about the challenges of growing up and making your own way in the world. Everyone should read it.

Crazy Beautiful – Lauren Baratz-Logsted

crazyMy arm rises toward my face and the pincer touch of cold steel rubs against my jaw.

I chose hooks because they were cheaper.

I chose hooks because I wouldn’t outgrow them so quickly.

I chose hooks so that everyone would know I was different, so I would scare even myself.

That’s Lucius Wolfe. He’s 15 and the new kid at school. He and his younger sister, Misty, and his parents had to move because Lucius got in the middle of a bomb making experiment gone wrong and blew himself – and most of his house – up. Now he’s got hooks for hands. Why was Lucius making a bomb, one might ask? Ask away – you’re not going to get any real insight from Lucius other than a vague “I was practicing to do harm, somewhere, sometime, maybe.”

I hear the dog alarm go off in the same instant I become aware of the first morning light in my room. I like rising early, like sleeping with the blinds open, because I’m scared of the dark.

In the dark, almost anything can happen.

That’s Aurora Belle. She’s 15 and also the new kid at the school. She and her father moved because Aurora’s mom had recently died of cancer and her dad thought it was time to change the scenery. Aurora is beautiful and smart and perfect…and immediately popular at school.

On the bus on the first morning  (and what are the chances, eh?) Aurora and Lucius’s eyes meet and wowza. But it’s even more than that for Lucius; he decides to become Aurora’s Gallowglass. It means ‘foreign soldier’ but to Lucius it is “the greatest personal protection service you can think of all rolled into one person.”

Aurora doesn’t really strike me as the person who actually needs protecting. She’s absorbed almost immediately into the school’s who’s who and soon thereafter wins the lead in Grease (which, unbelievably, Lucius has never even heard of).

Still, there is Jessup Tristan (and by now the names are starting to be as irritating as the characters), school douche-bag, and a couple of superficial girls and Nick Greek, the security guard who frisks Lucius after he sets off the alarm going through the school’s metal detector. It’s an embarrassing moment for Nick, but then it’s all made well when the 15 year old boy and the 22 year old security guard become fast friends and Lucius actually helps Nick reconsider his career path. I kid you not.

If Lucius didn’t have hooks for hands and a slightly suspect psyche, Crazy Beautiful would be nothing more than an adequately written YA novel.  Take away those hooks and Lucius’s raison d’etre and you’ve got…nothing. Seriously. At a mere 193 pages there’s no time to really develop the characters or their relationships.

Boy sees girl on the bus and falls instantly in love.

Girl sees boy on the bus and “there was an instant connection.”

We’re on page 28.

And what are the chances, when the plot twist comes – separating these two ‘damaged kids’ – that Aurora knows exactly what Gallowglass is?

As it turns out, pretty damn good.

Give this one a miss.



I Am Scout – Charles J. Shields

It’s pretty much a rite of passage that every teenager reads To Kill a Mockingbird at some point during their high school career. Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s only book won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck.  I love the book , but even I can see how today’s teens might struggle with it.

tkamIn case you’ve been living under a rock, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of Jean Louise (Scout) and Jem Finch and their father, Atticus, a small-town lawyer. Narrated by Scout, the story takes place in Maycomb, Alabama in 1935. Although the action of the story takes place when Scout and her brother are children, the story is narrated from an adult’s vantage point which is how Scout is able to make some very worldly observations about society, childhood, prejudice and evil – all of which are themes in the book.

It’s an English teacher’s dream book, but it’s not without its problems – especially when you teach a generation of students who mostly read about sparkly vampires and cuddly werewolves. Still, I think it’s worthwhile.

I started reading I Am Scout, Charles J. Shield’s student-friendly autobiography of Harper Lee  ( adapted by Shields from his book, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee) just before my students and I began our discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Even though I have probably read To Kill a Mockingbird a half dozen times or more, I’d never read anything about Lee’s life and I was interested.

If you ever wondered why Lee never published another book (and, really, who hasn’t wondered that?) this is the book for you. Shields traces Lee’s childhood, the youngest of four children growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. Almost from the beginning, it’s impossible not to see Scout when you read that Nelle (Ellen spelled backwards) Harper Lee:

had a reputation as a fearsome stomach-puncher, foot-stomper, and hair-puller, who “could talk mean like a boy.” Three boys had tried challenging her once. They came at her, one at a time, bravely galloping toward a dragon. Eithin minutes, each had landed face down, spitting gravel and crying “Uncle!”

Almost everything about Scout’s make-believe life is drawn from Lee’s childhood. Lee did call her father by his first name and he was a lawyer. Her childhood friend, Truman Capote, was the inspiration for the character of Dill. Lee’s mother was virtually absent from her life owing to issues with mental health. Several other characters in To Kill a Mockingbird were inspired by people in Lee’s life including Mrs. Dubose, a cranky morphine addict and Boo Radley, who is based on Alfred Boleware Jr., a Monroeville native who was rumoured to be  “a captive in his own home, tied to a bed frame by his father.”

Shields also tells how Lee helped Truman Capote research (and some say write) In Cold Blood, easily considered one of the quintessential pieces of true-crime writing of the last century. The relationship between Lee and Capote lasted thoughout their lives, but was not without its trials; Capote was, perhaps, jealous of Lee’s success –  even though he was certainly no slouch.

I am scoutSo, why didn’t Harper Lee ever write another novel?  According to Shields:

She reportedly had every intention of writing many novels, but never could have imagined the success To Kill a Mockingbird would enjoy. She became overwhelmed. Every waking hour seemed devoted to the promotion and publicity surrounding the book. Time passed, she said, and she retreated from the spotlight. She claimed to be inherently shy and was never comfortable with too much attention. Fame had never meant anything to her, and she was not prepared for what To Kill a Mockingbird achieved.

I felt after reading Shields’ biography that the reason Lee never wrote another novel was because this was the only story she had to tell. But that’s okay – if you only have one, it may as well be the one that wins the Pulitzer.