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I was delighted to take a break from my research work — not that I don’t love it, but you know what they say about all work and no play — to read a book with a great title. You know I can’t bypass a book with a title that jumps out at me.

Elephant Milk, by Diane Sherry Case, is more than just a great title. The main character and narrator, Sean, is a seventeen-year-old whose spirit evoked memories of my own late teenage years. Like many seventeen-year-olds, Sean falls in love fast and hard, and doesn’t want to let go no matter where that love takes her. And it certainly does take her places. She follows her first lover, Frank, south of the border after an unfortunate and embarrassing brush with showbiz, and in her pursuit, joins a small traveling circus as a means of going from town to town to search for him. Her passion for him springs partially out of a desire to escape an unstable family life, led by a mother who seems to have things other than her daughter’s best interests on her mind. That same passion causes her to throw herself into whatever she finds herself doing, whether it is being held up by the strong man, facing lions, balancing on top of an elephant, or having knives thrown at her body.

Her journey launches her into rather unconventional coming-of-age transformation. On her way, she meets many characters, each one alluringly presented through Sean’s seventeen-year-old eyes, which, despite the things she has been through, are still naive. Things begin to unravel for her at the circus once she is officially, and somewhat publicly, made the “other woman” of the strong man. Although his wife understands her predicament, she is none too happy about the situation. And to top it off, a crazed male elephant escapes from the circus and runs amok in the Mexican jungle. It is only after Sean faces a machine gun in the hands of her lover’s girlfriend that she comes into her own and finds “something bigger and more ancient than romance.” The final scene is triumphant, bittersweet, and powerful.

Readers will find complex relationships masked by a fairly simple plot line, and, dare I say, symbolism, within these pages. The quick pace and honest storytelling style keeps you on your toes and anxious about the next turn down Sean’s path. There is a piece of everyone’s teenage idealism in this character, and it’s exciting to discover what can happen when you “follow your heart,” as Sean vows to do, and live without regret.

Bottom line: Fantastic and fresh. Definitely worth a read.

Long time, no book?  Not quite. In truth I’ve read a few books these past weeks and I’m just behind in reviewing them because I’ve been busy moving across several states! I’m back in South Carolina now, although I seem to have brought the northern weather with me. Brrr!!

Today’s review has to do with weather phenomena, too. The book is The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, written by Michele Young-Stone. I picked it up out of the new books section at the local library based solely on its title. How could you walk by this one? I just had to give it a chance. One thing that I found especially, er, striking about this book (do-do tchhh) was the fact that the writer herself was struck by lightning once. Well, they do say to write what you know!

The story revolves around two central characters, Buckley and Becca, and their respective stories. Many writers attempt the format of taking two separate characters with completely separate lives and having their paths intertwine eventually seemingly by the sheer will of the universe. I’ve read several books where this device falls a little flat, but Young-Stone does it quite skillfully, with the characters’ lives brushing against each other without their knowledge of it, splitting apart, and coming together again. The chapters jump around in time and place, with events in their lives occurring in a respectively linear path, but the plot as a whole is not chronological. Buckley is a bit older than Becca, and so his story begins quite a bit earlier in time.

Buckley and Becca are both something of underdogs, and I found myself rooting for both of them. Both of their lives are drastically altered by lightning strikes, whether the bolt hit them or someone close to them. Buckley loses someone in a tragic freak lightning strike (although really, pretty much all lightning strike accidents would be classified as “freak accidents,” right?) and it is an event that he is never able to quite overcome. This leads him to write “The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors,” in an effort to boost awareness of the dangers of lightning and prevent any more tragedies from occurring. Becca herself is struck when she is very young, although no one believes her. She witnesses a fatal lightning strike and then years later is struck again. The two characters’ lives take them all over the eastern United States, from Galveston to the Outer Banks to New York City, and it doesn’t seem likely that they will ever meet even though a kind of six-degrees thing begins to develop. Finally, they do meet, but it is not monumental: it’s not a sappy, overblown Hollywood “the star-crossed lovers finally meet” type of encounter. It’s not a love story at all, which I appreciated– I think too many books become love stories when they have the potential to make a different statement. Anyway, they meet and then part, and then they do not meet again for quite some time.

The book flows at a good pace, giving plenty of time for each character’s story to develop. The reader really gets to know all of the characters that are introduced, as Young-Stone dives into the back story of each and every one. Her knowledge of people and their motives, reactions, and emotions is expert. She is also good at springing unexpected twists on the reader, as I was surprised at a couple of points. Not so surprise that I found the story unrealistic, just enough surprise that it created interest. These turns in events reflect the random-yet-not-random patterns of lightning strikes, in my opinion, like how people from their pasts “coincidentally” bump into each other in some way or another.

Bottom line: Well worth the read.

Yesterday I finished the first book I’ve read since I’ve been back stateside, East of the Sun. This was quite a long book, and I enjoyed it for the most part. I love books about the late 1920s and early 1930s, especially in far-off places like Shanghai, Hong Kong, or, as in the case of this novel, India. Actually, I like novels set in India in pretty much any era. There’s something about fiction set in India that has always hooked me, maybe because its culture and people are so different from that of my own or any place I’ve ever been. I also enjoy books about East Asia and western Europe, both of which I’ve spent time in (in the case of East Asia, quite a bit of time!), but India is still somewhat elusive to me. Anyway, overall I enjoyed this book, but I have some qualms about it. First of all, I had trouble deciding what the overal conflict in the plot is- it’s there, but it’s like Gregson ignores it for a while despite it being fairly obvious. The story felt like it rambled on at points, becoming more of a soap opera than anything. I also didn’t like– and you can stop reading here if you hate even vague spoilers– the message at the end of the book that love conquers all and a good man will set your life straight. It felt too cliched to me even though in the last 200 pages I could see that was right where it was headed.

That being said, I thought that the descriptions of India were very well written, and I enjoyed the change in perspective among three women, although it wasn’t evenly spread out. I really enjoyed the main characters as well, and I thought the balance between their three different personalities was well done. I also like how Gregson had them view one another: what one character construed as one emotion or conversational tactic was interpreted in a completely different way by another character based on her own personality and desires, which felt very true to life. I also appreciated the size of the cast of characters: it wasn’t too large to handle, as books of this length sometimes present. I’m sure that’s not an issue for all readers, but I like to be able to really get my head around each and every character mentioned. Gregson also writes vividly about the respective memories of two characters in particular (with emphasis on one of them) and she did a fantastic job, again, of filtering the experiences through the personalities of those characters. I know it sounds pretty vague, but I don’t want to spoil everything here 🙂

All in all, this was a nice read and a great escape. I wouldn’t classify it as a classic or “Great Literature” with a capital G and L, but it’s fun nonetheless especially if you like books that transport you to another time and place. Perfect escapist reading. I would definitely read another of Gregson’s books. I’m not familiar with her at all, and I wonder if she has written others?  That will be something to look into.