Spots and swaths of color, vivid annuals, paired with native plants and perennials, patches of flowers and greenery grace our small city. Sometimes the caretakers of these kaleidoscopic beds are visible — glove-clad, their faces shaded by straw brims. Members of the Washington Garden Club plant, tend and feed bringing nature front and center for all of us to enjoy.
This month, some of the members took a break from garden chores to review books for a special Novel Ideas feature. Dig into one or several reads, it’s a bountiful offering.
‘Cutting Back: My Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto’
By Leslie Buck
Reviewed by Donna Forsse
Gardening is hard work, especially when you travel to another country to improve a skill that you have successfully performed for 25 years. Cutting back, or pruning, is a boring aspect of gardening enhanced by learning aesthetic pruning skills. In “Cutting Back,” Leslie Buck takes you on her journey to Kyoto, Japan, to learn from the masters of the art.
In Japanese culture, it’s traditional for women to be dominated by men. There also is an aspect of hierarchy among employees. A person who is hired before you is considered your boss, even if that person is a 16-year-old. This presents quite a challenge for an American business owner used to working as her own boss.
In this interesting book, Buck provides a unique perspective on a mix of gardening insight, cultural observations and personal development. Although she provides excellent descriptions of the gardens, a few photos would have enhanced the read.
By Anthony Horowitz
Reviewed by Shirley Coulter
“Magpie Murders,” by Anthony Horowitz, is a mystery within a mystery. It begins with the editor of a publishing company reading a manuscript that will change her life forever.
The book within the book features investigator Atticus Pünd and is written by Alan Conway. The novel is set in the quaint village of Saxby-on-Avon in the English countryside.
There is a murder or two, with an interesting cast of characters, twists and turns. The book returns to the editor of the publishing company, with another mystery and some missing pages.
For those who love a cozy English mystery, this book is a must-read. I could not put it down. “Magpie Murders” will keep you up, reading late into the night.
‘Castle of Water’
By Dane Huckelbridge
Reviewed by Sylvia Czeschin
I knew before I finished the first chapter that I was going to like “Castle of Water,” by Dane Huckelbridge. His writing is descriptive and intense; it pulls you in and even when you put the book down, it haunts you. Before long, you want time for a few more pages.
Though I really enjoyed the story, at times some of the acts of survival seemed too fabricated, but desperation is often the father of invention, and the characters eventually find a way to cope. In time they discover a better way, using lessons they learned earlier in their lives.
As we grow, we unknowingly learn invaluable ways of working things out because we have experiences with helping our parents, grandparents, etc. We are stronger and wiser than we ever imagined — just like the man and woman whose plane crashes, forcing them to face their fears in ways they never imagined.
If you’ve ever wondered if you could survive on a small desert island, “The Castle of Water” will fascinate you, as it did me.
By Hala Alyan
Reviewed by Carol Crane
It’s rare that we have an opportunity to read a fictional account of the Middle East from an Arab point of view. “Salt Houses,” by Hala Alyan, introduces the Yacoub family, Palestinians caught up in the events of the area beginning with the Six-Day War in 1967, when Palestine was lost to the Arabs.
The Yacoub family is well off, and able to move when their homes are threatened. They are largely untouched by the political/military unrest until one of the men disappears, never to be seen again. Their main indication that wars are raging is seeing the news on television or hearing distant bombs.
The endless wars in the Middle East over the next four decades, and their effects on the lives of the four generations of the Yacoub family, play a relatively minor role in the story. Rather, its members are drawn in careful detail, developing with the passage of years; this is emphasized by the structure of the book: chapters are divided into sections, each describing the family’s life from the point of view of one individual.
“Salt Houses” is fascinating, and to us in the West, a rare look inside the “Palestinian question.” The novel helps puts faces on people we often see vilified in the press, and gives insight into the question of why Jews and Arabs continue to lob explosives at one another.
‘The Signal Flame’
By Andrew Krivák
Reviewed by Jean Weekley
Set in the mountains of Pennsylvania, “The Signal Flame,” by Andrew Krivák, tells the story of three generations of a family as they deal with loss and grief. Andrew Krivak writes so beautifully and authentically that one is quickly drawn into the lives of Bo Knoar and his family.
The novel begins with the funeral of Joseph Vinich, the grandfather, who came to America from Slovakia in 1919. A few months before his death, Sam, his grandson, was reported missing in action in Vietnam.
Sam’s brother Bo, the protagonist, and his mother, Hanah, anxiously wait for news of Sam.
As the characters struggle through grief and loss and work toward forgiveness, Krivák’s excellent writing skills develop into an engrossing story.
‘The Book of Polly’
By Kathy Hepinstall
Reviewed by Dr. Wanda J. Rogers
I loved “The Book of Polly;” the author, Kathy Hepinstall, tells a good story and has developed fascinating characters.
Just like 10-year-old Willow and her 68-year-old mother Polly, I am a “Southern grits girl.” A grits girl is the opposite of a “Southern belle,” a charm school graduate and a privileged debutante formally introduced into society.
The picture of Polly on the cover looks as delicate as a magnolia blossom, which belies the fact that she is a grits girl. Beneath that lovely countenance is the tenacity of a snapping turtle, the wiles of a fox chasing down breakfast, and the courage of a mama hen protecting her chicks from said fox.
This rip-roaring tale of love and angst is told from Willow’s perspective. She has a much older sister and brother — both have moved away from the family home. Though her siblings are mainly on the fringes of the action, with their histories and current kettles of fish a-boilin,’ their inclusion lends more insight into the elusive Polly.
Willow’s father died before she was born and the girl has always been obsessed with fear that her mother also would die. That idea is not too far-fetched, since Polly is a heavy smoker, loves her margaritas, and is no stranger to risk and confrontation.
Willow feels that something is going on with her mom. Sure enough, her mother is very sick and is as determined to hide her illness from her family as Willow is to discover it.
Willow is aided and abetted in her sleuthing by an eclectic ensemble of “stand-by-you-at-the-Alamo” type friends. She digs up secrets from her mother’s traumatic past that Polly was bent on keeping buried. The pathway to discovery is winding and murky and sometimes treacherous as it leads to backwater Louisiana where Polly’s story actually began.
Willow and Polly are imbued with the insight and unstudied wry humor of southern grits girls who use their lumps and bumps to learn to handle life’s complications with an air of mystique and, well, grit.
“The Book of Polly” is a story about abiding love amidst some of the greatest challenges of life. The narrative is delightfully sprinkled with idioms and folkloric tales that made my heart nostalgic for my multi-generational roots in the south.
‘Penguin the Magpie’
By Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive
Reviewed by by Paulette Monzyk
How does one cope when tragedy strikes? In “Penguin the Magpie,” the Bloom family of Australia is vacationing in Thailand — Cameron, wife Sam, and sons Rueben, Noah and Oliver — when an accident leaves Sam, an energetic outdoor-loving person, a paraplegic.
Months later, following surgeries and rehabilitation, she is able to return home, but there is no return to normal. Facing her limited abilities as a wife and mother, depression sets in. The family is at a loss for how to help Sam cope, and fear and heartbreak result. In the midst of this dismal struggle for normalcy, hope glimmers with the arrival of a baby magpie.
Having fallen from its nest, the weak magpie chick is found battered with an injured wing. Not wanting to experience more sadness, the family feels obligated to help this chick survive. Thus begins the laborious process of nursing a baby bird.
Beginning with naming it “Penguin,” the bird quickly becomes a member of the family, a “sister” for the three boys, and a welcome diversion for Sam and Cameron.
In tender, poignant, and amusing photographs, Cameron captures the loving bonds that entwine the family to the bird. As the family helps the bird to mend, Penguin assumes a caring, protective attitude in helping the family mend their wounds, too. Gradually laughter is able to return to their lives because of Penguin.
Cameron Bloom’s photos of Penguin interacting with the Bloom family add appeal of this tragic, yet heartwarming true story, and Bradley Trevor Greive reveals the family’s emotions as he narrates using Bloom’s photos.
At the end of the book, we hear Sam’s words as she expresses her feelings about all that has happened, adjusting to life as a paraplegic, and the struggle to find meaning for her new life. She holds hope that medical advancements will help find cures for spinal cord injuries.
Ten percent of sales from “Penguin the Magpie” will go to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, with funds being matched by the publisher, Atria Books.
‘The Mighty Franks’
By Michael Frank
Reviewed by Holly Self
Michael Frank's memoir, “The Mighty Franks,” is the story of his family and growing up in Hollywood, Calif. For the author, this work is a labor of love.
Frank's detailed dialogue brings the reader directly into the room with all the action and family members. His storyline starts during his early childhood, where he begins to build relationships with his siblings and extended family.
As he matures, his relationships deepen and crevices form. He is unable to communicate his feelings and opinions to his family members. His adolescence and young adult life continue to be difficult as he deals with an overbearing aunt, a passive uncle and enabling parents.
Frank brings readers along on this emotional ride, the family seen at their best and worst times, making this memoir akin to a psychological thriller. It is difficult to favor a family member as life-events twist and turn and each demonstrates personality flaws.
If you enjoy reading about unique, strong, slightly quirky, and overbearing personalities, then this is your book.
Michael Frank has been in the publishing business for most of his life in one capacity or another. He started with short stories while living in Italy and eventually worked his way up to novels. His previous books are “Double-Double,” “The Windsor Rising” and “There Are Places I Remember,” published last year.