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Check It Out

Courier Articles by Sandy Schultheis
Sunday, November 5, 2000

Books Recommended By Friends

Finding a good book is easy for some of us, we read reviews, or best-seller lists or simply browse the new book shelves at our library. Lately I have relied on my friends to tell me what they have enjoyed, and today's books all came to me with glowing recommendations. They are available through your public library whose staff is always happy to help you find the right book.

Music and Silence by Rose Tremain (Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 2000).

In this historical novel set in the court of Denmark's King Christian IV in 1629, an intricately structured assemblage of fascinating characters, both fictional and historically imagined, tell their stories through journals, letters and narratives. The King is trying to find a way to save his bankrupt treasury while soothing himself with the music of Peter Claire, an English luteinst who has recently fled a romantic entanglement in Ireland. The King's consort has a lady-in waiting whom she jealously guards from Peter Claire's affections. The lady-in-waiting has a young brother who is being abused by a cruel stepmother who is also seducing his older brothers. The King's elderly mother has a hoard of gold, which could save the country from bankruptcy, but she hides it carefully. On and on the baroque plot meanders in a way which will drive some readers to distraction and keep others spellbound.

The Doctor by Patricia Duncker (Ecco Press, 2000).

A novel based on the life of James Miranda Barry who lived and practiced medicine as a man but was in fact a woman. She was born in England at the end of the 18th century and raised in an unconventional household. When Barry was eleven her mother, her mother's lover (a Venezuelan general) and an eccentric nobleman (who may be her real father), decide that she shall be raised as a boy, given a medical education at Edinburgh and eventually a commission in the army. Despite her diminutive stature (small hands were an advantage for a surgeon) and because she was a crack shot with a pistol and was able to defend herself against slurs and rumors, she apparently carried off the deception until the end of her life. A richly told tale of colonial history, adultery, family secrets and gender identity. The author's notes indicated that a biography of Barry is being written which may shed more light on the life of this mysterious woman.

A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot (Plume, 1994).

Sometimes it takes a long time to hear about a good book. A friend had this one checked out but she didn't have time to read it and gave it to me because several people had spoken highly of it. The heroine is a determined young woman whose childhood sweetheart has been lost in the trenches of France during World War I. When she receives a summons to visit a dying veteran who was with him on his last day she begins a process of unraveling the mystery of her lover's fate. This is a mystery, a romance and a harrowing indictment of war. It will be on my mind the next time someone asks for something very good to read.

A Good House by Bonnie Burnard (Henry Holt, 2000).

Bill and Sylvia Chambers live in a small Ontario town where they marry in 1936 and, after Bill returns from the war, raise their three children. Tragedy strikes early when Sylvia dies and Bill marries Margaret, the bookkeeper at the hardware store where he works. Rather than becoming the cruel stepmother, Margaret becomes the sensible and strong person who holds the family together and helps them survive tragedy. The children grow up and move into adulthood and we see them living their lives, marrying and having children of their own. A family chronicle set in the mid- twentieth century best describes this first novel by a talented writer, but that makes it sound lackluster after the romantic historicals I've just reviewed. The charm of this book lies in its subtlety and the flawless pace of the narrative. In 1999 it was the winner of Canada's Giller Prize.

Sandy Schultheis is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.