Pop Lit

Echoes of war and laughter

By Diane White
August 17, 2008
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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Dial, 288 pp., $22

Holding My Breath
By Sidura Ludwig
Shaye Arehart, 272 pp., $23

The Grift
By Debra Ginsberg
Shaye Areheart, 337 pp., $23.95

The Night Villa
By Carol Goodman
Ballantine, 413 pp., paperback, $14

The first of these four engaging novels pays lively homage to the pleasures of reading, while the others touch entertainingly on a Canadian coming-of-age, psychic skills, and archeological secrets.

"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, is a poignant, funny novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. Readers wary of books with cute titles should put away their doubts. This one is a treat. In 1946, London is recovering from World War II. Writer Juliet Ashton's collection of humorous columns for the Spectator about the nation at war is selling well. She's searching for a new subject for a book and finds it in a letter from a stranger, Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, who found her name and address inside the front cover of a used copy of Charles Lamb's essays. He asks her for the name and address of a bookshop in London because there are no bookstores on Guernsey after the German occupation. Julia writes to Dawsey and before long finds herself corresponding with his friends, too, fellow members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a wonderful cast of characters.

Juliet learns that the society was born in a desperate lie, an excuse when German soldiers stopped a handful of islanders out after curfew, returning to their homes after a furtive feast of hoarded roast pig, an offense that could have sent them to a prison camp. Having announced the society's existence to the authorities, they had to keep up the pretense and began meeting weekly to talk about books. The letters that make up this novel shed light on the suffering of the Channel Islanders during the German occupation, but there is also a rich vein of humor. After Julia moves to Guernsey to work on her book, she finds it impossible to leave the island and her new friends, a feeling readers may share when they finish this delightful novel.

Sidura Ludwig's first novel, "Holding My Breath," is a lovely coming-of-age story told in a voice that is tender, sad, and funny. In understated prose, Ludwig convincingly portrays a time and a place. Narrator Beth Levy is growing up in Winnipeg in the 1950s and '60s, the youngest member of a Jewish family that holds its secrets close.

An only child, she lives with her father and her strong-willed mother above the family pharmacy. Beth is close to her two maternal aunts, teenage Sarah, who is beautiful, sexy, and rebellious, and Carrie, an unmarried seamstress, who is depressed for reasons that eventually emerge. Carrie tells Beth stories about her beloved brother Phil, a pilot who died in North Africa in World War II. Carrie allows Beth to read Phil's journals and Beth becomes obsessed, as he was, with astronomy. As Beth matures she is torn between her mother's expectation that she will remain in Winnipeg and her ambition to become a scientist. The deceptive simplicity of Ludwig's style illuminates her novel's emotional depth.

The central character in Debra Ginsberg's compelling second novel, "The Grift," is a storefront psychic who doesn't believe in psychic powers. Marina Marks has unusually well-honed powers of observation and intuition, the legacy of childhood abuse by her drug-addict mother, which have enabled her to earn a living as an "intuitive counselor." But Marina isn't doing well in Florida. A competitor is threatening her with violence. Desperate to escape, Marina tells an elderly client she must hand over a large sum of money if she wants to protect her son from an evil woman. Marina's business improves when she moves to the San Diego area. But after a new relationship ends in violence, she begins seeing ghosts and having disturbing visions of the future. Her new powers frighten her. When someone is murdered in her office she observes the crime in detail, from miles away. The murder brings the plot to a head, but "The Grift" isn't so much a mystery as a story about a woman forced to take a hard look at herself and find the courage to change.

Carol Goodman's literate nail-biters allow readers to indulge the notion that they are reading something more edifying than a thriller. Her latest, "The Night Villa," sends her narrator, University of Texas classics professor Sophie Chase, searching for a cache of ancient scrolls buried for centuries in a subterranean labyrinth. After Sophie barely survives a cult-related campus shooting, she accepts an invitation to join an archeological expedition at a villa in Herculaneum that was buried in volcanic ash by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Sophie's interest in the scrolls centers on the interesting history of a slave girl named Iusta, who may have been an early Christian. Others are searching for the scrolls for reasons related to the sinister cult behind the campus shooting. Goodman lays on lots of myth, folklore, cultural history, ancient religious rituals, and archeological details along with red herrings, suspicious characters, and surprising plot turns in this nicely executed page-turner.

Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.

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