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Book Review: The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden

I don’t know what I expected when I started The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, but what I got wasn’t it.

Author Jonas Jonasson’s writing style keeps the reader at a distance from the characters, using minimal dialogue or even names. I was strangely drawn in, nonetheless.

The whole thing was much like Forrest Gump in its absurd situations, that only worked for Forrest, I think, because he was mentally handicapped and of pure heart. He had no idea what he went through was phenomenal.

Here, we have an exceptionally intelligent woman who is able to pull off the most astounding things because she can hide her intellect behind the face of a black woman who grew up cleaning latrines. This enabled her to be invisible. No one in the time frame story could fathom a person like the young South African, Nombeko.

While many of the events in the story challenge common sense, it works because Nombeko is so understated. Nothing much rattles her; she uses logic as she maneuvers among crazy people and emotional basket cases. Her calm manner and dry sense of humor enabled me to swallow it all.

I thoroughly enjoyed the great detail of actual world events starting in the 1960s to the present. Jonasson is either brilliant, a great researcher, or both.

While this book is certainly unusual—quirky really—I enjoyed it.
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Book Review: Kidnapped

I’ve discovered I love nineteenth century adventure stories.

For the “Back to the Classics Challenge” sponsored by the blog Sarah Reads Too Much, I read The Three Musketeers (see review) in January and now Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

When published in 1886, Kidnappedwas already historical fiction based in part on a real life struggle between England’s King George (Could he get along with anyone?) and the Scottish Highlanders. It centers on a 1752 event known as the Appin Murder where the king’s agent, Colin Roy Campbell, was murdered by a sniper. Alan Breck Stewart, a key character in Kidnapped, was accused and convicted of this murder in absentia. The event was also featured in Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy.

In Stevenson’s novel, seventeen-year-old David Balfour (fictional) is kidnapped and on his way to the American plantations as a slave (many are unaware of colonial America’s white slavery) when the ship picks up a stranded Alan Stewart. The two become allies against a sinister captain and crew when their own ship hits a reef and sinks. The remainder of the book is a fictionalized version of the intrigue surrounding the Appin Murder and its aftermath.

Like The Three Musketeers, the book is crammed with compelling characters and fast-paced action that kept me glued to the pages. I read it on a weekend car trip and finished it within hours of arriving home. The dialogue was often written in a Scottish Highland dialect that I found fun to read and included many local and likely archaic words from that area. The definition of some could not be discerned from the content, but I only looked up a handful to understand the plotline.

I enjoyed reading Treasure Island several years ago especially since we live near Savannah, Georgia, where some of that story is based. But I must say Kidnapped was even better. It is a great book and a fun read.  
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Book Review: The Great Gatsby

My niece assured me I could read all of The Great Gatsby on my flight from Philadelphia to Columbia, SC. The plane pulled up to the terminal with four pages left to read.

Scene from the 2013 remake

I had seen the 1974 movie starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, but as is often the case, I found the book so much deeper and more profound. First, the lifestyle of the uber-wealthy in the Twenties was set in the first forty-seven pages before we even confronted the mysterious character of Jay Gatsby.
It was clear that despite the massive, beautiful homes, servants, and leisure time, the lives of the rich on Long Island were vacuous and, to me, boring. That explains the draw of neighbor, Gatsby’s, spectacular parties. We learn later through the narrator, Nick Carraway, that the galas were merely a way for Jay Gatsby to find his way back into the life of his first love, Daisy Buchanan (Nick’s cousin).
I won’t give away the story, but suffice it to say, the simple devotion of Jay Gatsby slams into a world where the lifestyle and prestige that money brings has a powerful grip of its own.
One of my fascinations with the book comes from the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this novel in 1925, in the midst of the “Roaring Twenties.” To me, the lives of the characters exuded emptiness, and it is amazing that Fitzgerald exposed this before the Crash of 1929, while he, his wife, and the rest of America were enmeshed in this lifestyle.
On a side note, I was struck by the racism of the day and how we can see remnants of it even now. Tom Buchanan, the husband of Gatsby’s beloved Daisy, says in conversation, “The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.” He adds, “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”
There are disparaging remarks about Jews as well, which are striking when you think the Holocaust is years in the future. It reminded me that eugenics (the “science” that expounds the superiority of some races over others) was embraced during this time, and was not really discredited until after Hitler’s atrocities.
All in all, I found the book thought-provoking, with much to say to us now in our materialistic culture.
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Book Review: The Unfinished Garden

Through The Unfinished Garden, Barbara Claypole White brings an uncommon depth and elegance to a beautiful love story. The protagonist, Tilly, struggles to move past the death of her husband by throwing her energies into her son, Isaac, and her North Carolina gardening business.

When a wealthy and somewhat dashing James Nealy offers an exorbitant fee to landscape his new home, Tilly flatly refuses. But the quirky software developer shows a remarkable persistence, even following her to her childhood home in England when Tilly’s mother becomes ill. There, Tilly reconnects with Sebastian, her first love, who has also returned home.

Both men are attractive and vulnerable. James Nealy is a sweet man who confesses to Tilly his OCD which he hopes gardening can alleviate. Sebastian is struggling to find himself after a nasty divorce, still determined to be a great father to his young children.

When reading this book, I was engrossed by Tilly’s love interests because they were real, flawed human beings striving to overcome their weaknesses. Unlike many other novels in this genre, I was not sure whom Tilly should or would choose. I was sympathetic to both. To me, that’s how real life is. Nothing is ever so cut and dried.

Also, I found both settings—humid, somewhat dangerous North Carolina and the crisp gardens of the English countryside—to be characters of their own. Barbara Claypole White’s descriptions drew me in and have made me hungry for more.

I love this book. It is a tender story that has stayed with me, and has me praying for a sequel. 

Me with author, Barbara Claypole White, at the 2012 South
Carolina Writers Workshop Conference, Myrtle Beach, SC