Mink River by Brian Doyle

Mink RiverNeawanaka is a small town on the Oregon coast that is past its glory days of lumber and fishing.  The inhabitants here tend to make do with what they have.  The town’s Department of Public Works consists of Worried Man and Cedar, two old friends who ponder existence over salmonberries and a daily split beer.  The two not only keep the infrastructure running, but also tend to the mental and physical well-being of the town’s denizens, be they human or otherwise.

As the book unfolds, we meet Owen Cooney, a master tinkerer with a shop that defies order, No Horses, his wood sculptor wife, and their twelve-year-old bicycling son Daniel.  Others in the town are Grace O’Donnell, a young woman of rage and passion, Michael, a likeable family man cop with a fixation on Puccini, and Moses, Owen’s pet crow who talks and has more sense than most people.

Through tragedy, death, and journeys, the lives of all are transformed.  Daniel, generally associated with his bicycle, is largely without it through most of the book, and you’ll find out why soon enough.  No Horses, a sure but unprofitable talent with wood grains and a chisel, suffers through a harsh bout of depression as she fails to connect with her medium.  Grace and her brother Declan suffer the indignities of their fiery father and then have to confront their futures after his untimely passing.

The journeys of the book are physical (Worried Man and Cedar trek up to Mount Hood, No Horses and her mother hike to the town river’s origin) and psychological, as all characters wrestle with physical limitations, age, and worry.

I began Mink River with misgivings.  The style is that of stream of consciousness and it rambles.  There’s a decided lack of punctuation – it’s there, but cut back to bare necessities.

It does takes a little while to get one’s bearings, but Mink River is ultimately a delightful romp of a book.  Suspend disbelief a while and enjoy the poetic prose, the little town chock full of tall tales, Native American and Irish myths, and the good-hearted characters (with a few baddies thrown in for good measure, but they don’t last too long).  The whole setup of the town reminded me of Cicely in the show Northern Exposure.

I became aware of the author a few years ago when reading another of his books – The Adventures of John Carson in Several Corners of the World, another recommended read.  Brian Doyle was a highly regarded writer in the Oregon scene who passed away in 2017.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Sylvie and her mother accompany her father on an unusual vacation with a collegeghost wall professor and a small group of his students, with whom they relive the lives of Iron Age inhabitants in a rural area of northern England.  This means lots of foraging, cooking food over a fire, and wearing a rough tunic.

Sylvie’s father is a devotee of the study of past cultures and has a broad knowledge of living in the wild, which he has passed on to his daughter.  Her dad is also brutish – he’s physically and emotionally abusive to Sylvie and her mom.  As she is used to his moods, Sylvie humors him for the most part, because she doesn’t know anything better.  But, as she gets to know the other students, and one in particular expresses concern, Sylvie envisions another paths to her future that don’t involve a bullying parent.

Sylvie’s dad has a strong interest in the bog people – folks who died hundreds of years ago whose preserved bodies were found in the peat bogs scattered in northern Europe.  His fascination borders on the obsessive, especially after the group builds a ghost wall – a talisman of a battlement complete with skulls.  Sylvie is oddly drawn to the chant and ritual that accompany the construction, so much that she allows her father to coerce her into another ritual the following evening, one that proves to be much more sinister.

Ghost Wall is a short novel, juxtaposing 1990s Britain with the reenactment of a two thousand-year old Briton culture.  The book takes on gender issues, the natural world, regional differences within England itself, and the worldly versus the immediate.  Ghost Wall is a fast read, although it will help to have some knowledge and interest of things British.  My biggest issue with reading it is the lack of quotations during conversations.  I got used to it, and it does contribute to the dreamlike quality of the book, but this might be problematic to some.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


The Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom by A. E. Hotchner

Aaron has known the art of doing without from an early age.  It’s Great Depression eraamazing St. Louis, and his father is barely making it as a watch salesman.  Most of their income goes toward Aaron’s mother’s stay in a tuberculosis sanitarium; Aaron and his father are constantly on the move from one shabby room to another.

A stroke of bad luck lands his father in jail after he is caught at the scene of a shooting in a jewelry store, and Aaron is homeless after the police lock up their room.

On the move and desperate to keep his father’s Ford away from creditors, Aaron is fired up to find out the truth and get his dad out of the clink.  At first, it seems like he is completely alone in the world, and then…help happens, sometimes haphazardly.

Friends, whether established or new, appear.  Vernon, the super of the hotel where Aaron and his father were living, gives Aaron an occasional meal, fighting lessons for dealing with school bullies, and help from his cousin to hide the Ford.  Augie Beckmeier, newsboy extraordinaire, takes Aaron under his wing and tails potential suspects.  A mother and daughter, residents in a Hooverville that Aaron adopts as home, give him food and moral support; Ella, the daughter, even helps Aaron pull off a fake interview with a saleslady of the jewelry store, a glamorous type who knows more than a shop clerk should.

Through break-ins, sheer gall, and occasional brushes with heavies, Aaron gets ever closer to proving his father’s innocence.

Yes, there is a courtroom denouement, and it comes with plenty of drama, and a fine defense by a prominent lawyer who takes an interest in Aaron’s father’s case.

The Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom is an old-fashioned romp of a tale, kind of pulpy in tone, which plays well for catching the feel of the 1930s.   Aaron is likeable, a spirited kid who weathers the hard knocks with style.  The plot is a little contrived and things tend to get tied up too nicely toward the end, but the book is still fun, a nice diversion for those who prefer a light-hearted read.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Happy People Read and Drink Coffee by Agnes Martin-Lugand

happy peopleHappy People Read and Drink Coffee rips your heart open from the start. 

When Diane loses both her child, Clara, and her husband, Colin, within the first five pages of the book, I was distraught.  Reading how this woman spirals into a depressive cavern of her own mind, leading her to smoke, drink, and sleep away her pain, was terribly unbearable.  It was bad enough that Diane felt the need to physically move from Paris and her bookstore, “Happy People”, to Mulranny, Ireland to escape her pain.  On top of that, she meets Edward, who is a complete jerk to her for no reason other than the fact that she is his new French neighbor.  This books takes you through the ups and downs of being somewhere new with the reality of a woman who has lost everything she held dear.

If the goal of Agnes Martin-Lugard is to stab your wounds over and over by reading about the pains that this woman suffers, then job accomplished; give her the award.  Yes, expect tears, but not just soul-crushing, breath-stealing ones, but joyous relief for the fragments of happiness that poor Diane does have the luck to experience.  And yes, expect yourself to be racing to the next bookstore or library you can find to get the sequel, Don’t Worry: Life is Easy

(Amanda Sanson, Central Library)

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a story that digs into the depths of your heart and embeds itself with littleFikry hooks in it.  It reads from a third person narrative about a bookshop owner, A. J. Fikry.  His shop is called Island Books in a small town called Alice.  A. J.’s story opens by exposing his cynical mind after the death of his wife, Nic.  He is drinking himself to an early grave when a priceless book in his collection is stolen from him.  Then, to top it all off, he finds an abandoned toddler in his bookstore.  For a man who doesn’t believe in fate, he steps outside of the character the reader determines in the beginning, and takes on the surprising role of a father to this child.  He wants to make sure that this child, Maya, grows up surrounded by books and defeats the odds of any stereotype of a child growing up in the system.  Along his tale, you see his notes marking the beginning of each chapter of his life, addressed to Maya.  With the mystery of the stolen book, the heartwarming tale of Maya growing up, and some interesting reading suggestions that Zevin throws in there, this is not a book that disappoints.

I have to admit, it is very difficult for me to describe this book.  It is a book that shattered my heart and made me happy to be crying.  It is a book that stings you in such a bittersweet fashion and leaves you relieved, yet torn to bits, at the end.  I can honestly say it is not a light read, but definitely a must read.

(Amanda Sanson, Central Library)

Scribe : A Novel by Alyson Hagy

scribeScribe takes place in a rural area in the aftermath of an apparent war.  What is left of the community teeters on anarchy and runs on barter and thievery; the ruling entity is one Billy Kingery, a blowhard store owner who maintains control through his henchmen and the trading of favors, always to his advantage.

The unnamed heroine has the gift of writing letters for others; apparently, literacy has fallen by the wayside in the community or never existed.  She is held to a certain regard for her abilities, but it is her deceased sister who has been elevated to near sainthood, her good deeds and healing ways remembered during a fever epidemic that killed many.

Into this blighted milieu comes Hendricks, a man with a peculiar request for a letter.  At first, there is not much to him that evokes attraction or respect.  It’s suspected that he has been in prison.  His demeanor strikes our protagonist as one of a hardened life.

Hendricks both in turn intrigues and repulses the scribe.  After council with the elders of the Uninvited, a somewhat agreeable clutch of migrants who live on her land, she is of the mood to break their agreement.  However, tragic circumstances drive her to make a hard journey to deliver Hendricks’ letter at a remote crossroads.

By requesting Kingery’s protection during her journey, she falls victim to his manipulations, which make her trip a nightmare.  But unforseen guides help the scribe through a surreal mountain landscape to her final confrontation.

Clocking in at under a 160 pages, Scribe is a dreamy folkloric tale that suggests more than plots out a storyline.  The setting implies a society shocked into disarray by war and sickness, where neighbors squabble and retaliate over scarce resources and superstitions run deep.  As such, the book is disorienting but well worth the read.

While Billy Kingery is the obvious villain, both the scribe and Hendricks eventually lay bare their transgressions and betrayals, showing each as flawed and wanting as human beings.

The author is from the mountains of Virginia, and Scribe has a strong, but not strictly defined, Appalachian feel to it.  The time period is not definite, but seems post-Civil War by the descriptions of livelihood.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

bookshopIf you’ve ever watched the film Love Actually and enjoyed the multiple romantic story lines, then you will love How to Find Love in a Bookshop.  In this book, we learn the foundations of a little bookshop called Nightingale Books.  Julius Nightingale opened the shop in honor of a dream that he and his wife conceived, along with a little girl named Emilia.  Although Emilia grew up not knowing her mother, she inherited many skills and talents, as well as a love of books that both of her parents harbored.

As an adult, Emilia, due to unfortunate circumstances, returns to the little town of Peasebrook to take over the bookshop and help it thrive.  Although she struggles with the finances, she does her best to help whoever walks through to door to find something that will, in a small or big way, change their lives.  This is true with Thomasina, a talented chef, Jackson, a wearied man longing for his family, the kleptomaniac Bea, and Sarah, a heartbroken woman with secrets.  The bookshop acts as a haven to those who need to find comfort between the stacks with the scent of paper and coffee. 

The author takes the readers through some twists and turns, making us believe in the stereotypes, only to be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.  It is a book that contains real life events, not fairy tales or fantasy.  Love comes in many forms, and it is shown through the lives of the characters. 

I recommend getting a cup of tea and a blanket in a comfy place once you crack open this heartwarming read.

(Amanda Sanson, Central Library)