Wednesday, June 28, 2017

MOLOKA'I by Alan Brennert

It’s the late 1800s, and leprosy is indeed a curse, with a devasting effect on many Hawaiians.   When a 5-year-old girl named Rachel contracts the disease, she is first isolated in a Honolulu hospital but later dispatched to a leper colony on the island of Moloka’i.  Although her uncle is also there, she is forced to reside in a convent with a number of other afflicted girls.  This is a heartbreaking story of a beautiful girl who is separated from her family at a young age.  Her father, a seaman, comes to visit occasionally, but Rachel longs for her mother and siblings.  Not only is she denied a normal childhood, but the leper colony falls way behind the Western world in terms of creature comforts, like running water and electricity.  Overall, the book is very sad, with very few bright moments, but it is not weepy.  Rachel’s spirit is indomitable for the most part, but tragedy seems to be lurking around every corner.  The author does a great job of giving the reader a real sense of the community and how it serves as both home and prison for its residents.  Exile to Moloka’i is basically a life sentence, and residents who do obtain a “parole” after having tested negative for leprosy for a prescribed length of time sometimes choose not to leave.  Families have abandoned them as pariahs, so that cured individuals have nowhere else to go.  The only other disease I can think of that has caused this type of quarantine is tuberculosis, and TB at that time didn’t have nearly the stigma that leprosy did.  Rachel earns our admiration and our compassion as she treads a path that most of us cannot imagine.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

BIG LITTLE LIES by Liane Moriarty

The subject matter runs the gamut from bullying to domestic violence, but the writing style is breezy and gossipy so that I never found the storyline to be maudlin.  Instead, I just wanted to know what happened on the school trivia night.  The author drops hints that someone dies, and we have to keep reading to find out who and why.  Madeline, Celeste, and Jane all have small children in the same beach community school.  Madeline is vain and shallow but still likeable, and Celeste is strikingly beautiful.  Together they take newcomer Jane, a single mom in her early 20s, under their wing.  When Jane’s son Ziggy is accused of hitting and biting another child, the moms all take sides, with Madeline and Celeste solidly in Jane and Ziggy’s court.  As the book progresses, we learn the circumstances of Ziggy’s birth and whether he’s really a closet bully or not.  In fact, no loose ends remain at the end of the novel, but I was still a little disappointed to have to say goodbye to these three women.  We readers are privy to all of their secrets, even if they don’t always share them with each other.  The big shocker comes during trivia night, and I did not see it coming.  The bottom line is that outsiders don’t really know what goes on inside of a marriage, and the married partners themselves may be oblivious to the impact their behavior is having on the children.  The author handles these weighty issues deftly and gives us a charming take on the ties that bind women together.  Certain aspects of the book seem very true to life, and some do not, but the whole package is a rollicking good read.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


I am amazed that this book was written by a woman.  At least half of it takes place on the battlefield in France during WWI, and it is so realistic that I definitely felt as though she had first-hand experience in the trenches.  The main character is Angus, a Nova Scotian whose father is adamantly against the war.  However, Angus’s good friend Ebbin, who also happens to be Angus’s wife’s brother, is at the front and may be missing.  Angus expects to join the war effort as a cartographer so that he can find out what has happened to Ebbin, but, due to an overabundance of cartographers, he finds himself in the infantry and eventually becomes an officer.  Back home, the story revolves around Angus’s young son, Simon Peter, who idolizes a teacher from Germany who comes under suspicion of the locals.  This book is exceedingly dreary and just did not hold my attention very well.  I kept waiting for something positive to happen, but whenever it did, my joy was short-lived.  The chapters that take place in Nova Scotia are largely devoted to descriptions of boats, and I am not much of a maritime person.  Apparently the author does have first-hand sailing experience, and the Nova Scotia sections ring true in that regard, but we landlubbers don’t get much respite from the horrors of war while reading about boat dimensions.  Also, maybe I just wasn’t a very astute reader, but I felt that the author introduced characters without any explanation of who they were or what their relationship was to the main characters.  I do like to figure out some things for myself, but in this case I often wondered if I had missed something.  All in all, I am obviously not the intended audience for this book.