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Sometimes prose saves a plot

A tale of friendship unfolds in New Zealand and finds salvation in words over imagination
by: , 'Astrid & Veronika' by Linda Olsson. Published by Penguin Books.

When the Book Sense Picks were released in March, third on the list was a slim paperback by an unknown author.

Born and raised in Sweden, Linda Olsson now lives in Auckland, New Zealand. But 'Astrid and Veronika' takes place in her homeland, over the course of a single year.

Veronika Bergman is a 30-something writer fleeing New Zealand after an unnamed tragedy. She rents a home on the outskirts of a Swedish village with the hopes of simultaneously finishing a novel and recovering.

Across the lane lives Astrid Mattson, a much older woman referred to by one shopkeeper as 'the village witch.'

A loner, Astrid is at first content just to watch the quiet comings and goings of her new neighbor. This solitary activity leads her to suspect something is wrong after Veronika doesn't leave her house for several days.

The older woman investigates and, upon finding the young writer very ill with the flu, nurses her back to health.

The two women quickly begin spending most of their time together. They bond over a mutual love of walks, fresh produce and classical music. As expected, their friendship grows as each one reveals the disaster that changed the course of their lives.

Each woman feels she had no control over her personal misfortune, but for very different reasons.

Friendship novels often fall into the realm of the saccharine and the predictable. 'Astrid and Veronika' suffers from both in the sense that the relationship between the two women strengthens more rapidly than is believable.

And any reader who does not see the final outcome from a mile away needs to go back to English Lit 101.

What does separate this debut from the rest of the crowd is Olsson's deft writing. Her descriptions are beautiful, capable of both painting the scene and creating a mood.

As Veronika reminisces about her time in New Zealand she recalls, 'To me the small houses seemed out of place, as if they had been conceived with an entirely different, safe, ordinary environment in mind. This seemed a place to admire more than love. … It inspired a spiritual reaction, an acute awareness of human insignificance.'

If one can suspend belief, which is easy to do with such a gracefully written book, it becomes easy to lose yourself in the bond of friendship that Astrid and Veronika share and the tales they tell each other.

By the end of the story, there is a poignant sense of both loss and rebirth that makes up for a predictable finish.

In the past two months booksellers from around the country as well as locally have raved about 'Astrid and Veronika.' It's easy to understand why.

Also reading this week

Readers who enjoyed 'Empress Orchid' will be happy to hear that author Anchee Min has continued the story with 'The Last Empress.' Her new book completes the tale of the woman who ruled over the last decades of the Ch'ing Dynasty while facing personal loss and tragedy. Min reads 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 25, at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing (3415 S.W. Cedar Hills Blvd., 503-228-4651).

'Booklist' gave a starred review to Corvallis author Ashna Graves' debut, 'Death Pans Out.' Set in Eastern Oregon, the story revolves around Neva Leopold, who retreats to her uncle's abandoned mining cabin to heal after a series of losses.

The murder of a young miner and questions about her uncle's disappearance launch Neva into an investigation. Graves reads 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 26, at Twenty-third Avenue Books (1015 N.W. 23rd Ave., 503-224-5097).

While many Portlanders know Willy Vlautin as a member of the band Richmond Fontaine, he also is an author. His first book, 'The Motel Life,' follows two brothers who flee town after a freak hit-and-run accident. Vlautin reads 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 29, at Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651).

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Linda Olsson

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 25

Where: Annie Bloom's Books, 7834 S.W. Capitol Highway, 503-246-0053