I have had a good run on reading lately. Three Four really good ones in a row. My books; let me tell you them.
Ironically, since I don't particularly care for historical fiction, two of these beauties were set in 14th century England — priests, The Plague, and everything.
A few weeks ago I read somewhere on the web — probably Neil Gaiman's blog, but, really, it could have been anywhere — that if a non-science-fiction-reading person wants to read a science fiction book to see what all the fuss is about, s/he should read Connie Willis's Doomsday Book. Being a person of obedient temperament (hah!) I followed that advice and requested it from the library. Turned out to be good advice; I enjoyed the book a lot. It is set in mid-21st century, from whence an Oxford student is sent back to 1320 via the University's time machine thingy. An epidemic breaks out in the present, paralleling the plague in the past. Willis is a well-known and prizewinning sci fi author — I had read To Say Nothing of the Dog a number of years ago and enjoyed it, too. Both of these books employ time travel from the mid-21st century to the past, the latter to both 1940 and 1888. Both books are also well-written, engrossing, with endearing characters, and are bouncing good reads.
Next up was Ken Follett's sequel to Pillars of the Earth, World Without End. Follett loves to write gargantuan epics (redundant much, Kat™?) and this is no exception. He doesn't necessarily write great literature, but his books — and I have read half a dozen or so over the past 40 years — are always engrossing and highly readable. This was no exception. It is slightly over 1,000 pages long, and I was a bit intimidated by that length, mainly because I have nine other books from the library to read, plus one and a half books for next month's book club, and did I really want to spend all that time on just one book? But I did, and it was good, and I recommend it.
After reading those two books I feel that I am fairly well-informed about the bubonic plague, at least from the view of 14th century folks. Which is not nearly the same as current knowledge, but there it is.
Last night I grabbed The Beach Street Knitting Society and Yarn Club by Gil McNeil for my bedtime reading. This was at 11pm or so. An hour and a couple hundred pages later I glanced at the clock and recoiled in horror — it was 3am and clearly I was not going to be able to finish the book before sleep. Damn, it was so good, and I didn't want to put it down! (But I did.) I awoke at 9:30 this morning, picked up the book, and finished the last 150 pages.
Most knitting novels teeter on the edge of trash, imho, with way too much of "…she fingered the soft yarn and dreamed of wearing a beautiful shawl in a meadow of daisies yada yada yada" and not enough of plot development, decent writing, character development, and, for want of a better word, realism. Not so this one. The heroine is a recently widowed mother of two boys, aged ~5 and ~6; anyone who has every birthed a boy can identify with the constant challenges they present. Realism: check. She takes over a smalltown yarn shop that her grandmother has run for decades and modernizes it (with Gran's full approval — we should all have such a grandmother). Realism: good enough. There is no claim that she suddenly makes the shop so profitable that she can vacation in the south of France, just that she appears to be able to make ends meet comfortably. She makes new friends, has a satifying one-night fling, knits (natch), and generally copes with life. One could quibble with the fact that this one woman is friends with a network news anchor (female) AND a major movie star (female) AND a world-renowned photographer (male), but one wouldn't want to pick nits about such an enjoyable and otherwise well-written book. Her mother and inlaws and the local PTA president are proper a$$holes but she deals with them all splendidly and satisfyingly.
Several things endeared this book to my heart. First and foremost, the author has completely mastered the art of the sentence that goes on for nearly half a page and reflects a delightful sort of stream of consciousness narrative and whose rhythm is perfectly balanced with sentences of a more conventional length. I found myself thinking in those elongated and looping sentences after finishing the book; much fun. Second, the dialog between the heroine and her friend Ellen and with, really, every other adult in the book, is so charming and witty and warm that dammit! I want her for my friend so I can be charming and witty and warm, too. Third, she meets the challenges presented by those two active little boys so realistically — often patient, sometimes exasperated, occasionally on the verge of an Atomic Mommie Meltdown — that those scenes could be part of a parenting textbook.
Oh, as I was writing this post I remembered the last audiobook I listened to — The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson. Bryson* is gently hilarious as he recounts growing up in Des Moines, IA in the 1950s. I found myself LOLing in the car when listening. Read it or listen to it, you will enjoy it.
* I am pretty sure I am distantly related to Bill Bryson (by adoption). My adopted mother's maiden name was Bryson and her family was from Iowa. That's enough for me — clearly, Bill and I are related. Once, before the advent of the internet, I wrote him a fan letter about one of his books — A Walk in the Woods, iirc — and mentioned our possibly being related (with the disclaimer that I wanted to make no demands on him, just to be able to brag about our distant cousinship in casual conversation). He actually wrote back, thanking me and saying he had forwarded my letter to his brother, who was the family member interested in such things.