Category Archives: Books

The High Divide – Book Review

highdivide“The rough country between the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. The divide between those two watersheds. I scouted it this spring. It’s full of rugged ground, like you say – coulees, buttes, and badlands, with a little dry-grass prairie thrown in. The High Divide, they call it.” – from The High Divide -

Ulysses Pope is carrying dark secrets and deep regret, and he is looking for redemption when he walks away from his wife, Gretta, and his two young sons and heads into the rugged badlands of Montana in 1886. But Gretta has no idea where Ulysses has gone or why, and she is struggling to survive with little money and no resources in a small town on Minnesota’s western prairie. When her two sons, Eli and Danny, also disappear, she knows she can no longer sit and wonder…she must find her husband no matter where he has gone or who he is with, and she must bring her sons home.

Award-winning author Lin Enger has penned a truly American novel set in the West during the later part of the nineteenth century. His descriptions of the endless plains and lonely landscapes that stretched across Montana are gorgeous and heartbreaking. Enger explores the themes of regret and redemption against the historical background of the Indian Wars, decimation of the bison and the turmoil of the pioneer expansion into Indian lands.

This is the first novel by this author which I have read and I was moved by the Enger’s honest and poignant prose.

The characters are lovingly developed by Enger who uses alternating points of view to give the reader greater depth and understanding of each one. Ulysses is a complex character, and it is he who drives the narrative as he travels the road to redemption and forgiveness. Gretta ‘s character grows from a woman who has left her home in Denmark and depends on her husband for survival, to someone who must find the  inner strength to take action in order to improve her situation. Danny and Eli come of age as the novel progresses, forced to face their parent’s demons and reconcile these against their own needs as young boys.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel about a family divided who must overcome the odds to find their way back to each other. Richly penned with a deep insight into the characters, The High Divide will appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction, literary fiction, and novels set in the West.

Highly recommended.

4hStars

FTC Disclosure: I received this book through the Library Thing Early Review program.


The Farm – Book Review

Farm“Promise that you’ll listen to everything I say with an open mind. All I ask for is an open mind. Promise me you’ll do that, that’s why I’ve come to you. Promise me!” - from The Farm, page 19 -

Daniel is struggling with his own inner demons when he gets a phone call from his father in Sweden. Apparently his mother is not well – specifically, she has been imagining things and has sunk into a paranoid fantasy world. But before Daniel can fully comprehend his father’s words, he gets another phone call – this time from his mother who insists that everything he has just learned is a lie. Who should he believe? Is his mother’s convoluted story of conspiracy the truth? Or is it just the jumbled rambling of an insane woman?

The Farm is Tom Rob Smith’s newest novel set alternately in Sweden and London. The first 2/3rds of the book set up Daniel’s mother’s story of murder and conspiracy in the countryside of Sweden. Much of the narrative is in the voice of Daniel’s mother as she unpacks a satchel of evidence and outlines the events that have unfolded in her life over a period of several months. The last 1/3rd of the book is about Daniel’s quest to uncover the truth and is written in Daniel’s point of view.

Daniel also has secrets – namely that he is a “closeted” gay man. This theme is superficially explored in the novel, and I found it a bit detracting from the real story of what actually happened on a farm in Sweden. This fact about Daniel is supposed to give us insight into his character, but it is really the only thing about him that gives the character any depth.

There is a little twist at the end which explains everything, but I actually saw this one coming and its impact for me was blunted.

I found myself wanting to get to the “truth” but felt oddly unsatisfied once that truth is revealed. In crafting a plot driven story at the expense of real character development, I believe Smith has created a novel that packs little emotional punch.

Overall, I was disappointed in this novel, even though I was excited to read it. Some reviewers have suggested first time readers of Smith’s should begin with his Child 44 trilogy which received rave reviews and won Smith several literary awards. I have Child 44 in my stacks, and my disappointment with The Farm has not curbed my desire to eventually read Smith’s trilogy.

3stars

 


Orphan Train – Book Review

Orphan TrainVivian has never really talked about her experience on the train with anyone. It was shameful, she says. Too much to explain, too hard to believe. All those children sent on trains to the Midwest – collected off the streets of New York like refuse, garbage on a barge, to be sent far away as possible, out of sight. – from Orphan Train, page 169 -

At the beginning of the 19th century, children living in New York City (many from immigrant families) were removed from their families and relocated to settlements in the West. The idea of “orphan trains” was meant to provide children with families to care for them – but it also served a need for the families who took these children into their homes. Many children worked for their keep – in the fields, on farms, in shops – a form of indentured servitude. The orphan train movement ended in 1929 after placing upwards of 200,000 children in  48 states. There is a terrific article which discusses the orphan trains and their historical impact here.

Christina Baker Kline’s newest novel, Orphan Train, explores the lives of two women against the backdrop of the orphan train movement. Vivian Daly, an Irish immigrant, loses her family in a fire and ends up riding the orphan train into the Midwest and an uncertain future. Now she is in her nineties and looking back on a life that, although less than perfect, has shaped her into the woman she has become. Molly Ayer, a seventeen year old Native American foster child is struggling to find herself and her place in the world. These two characters come together in the novel and a friendship is forged.

Kline wrote her novel with two distinct points of view and moves back and forth from the late 1920s to present day. The concept of “portaging” is a key theme of the book: What would you take, what would you leave behind? Both women have physical objects they carry with them, but more importantly they must decide what experiences they will carry with them, and what will they let go of?

Other themes of the novel include family connections, abandonment, isolation, and the impact of cultural backgrounds on integrating into community.

Vivian is the more developed of the characters in the book – and it was her story that most compelled me to keep reading. Molly felt like a more “supportive” character to the overall narrative.

I read this book for a book club discussion and some readers felt the plot was a bit predictable. Although there were no “aha” moments, I found the narrative engaging and its predictability did not detract from my enjoyment of the novel.  I also found the history of the orphan trains compelling. Kline’s prose is poignant and well researched. She captures the plight of America’s immigrant children in the early part of the 20th century well, revealing the poverty and loss they experienced in her heart-breaking tale.

Readers who enjoy historical fiction will find much to like in Orphan Train.

Recommended.

4Stars

NarrativeWikipedia: A narrative is any account of connected events, presented to a reader or listener in a sequence of written or spoken words, or in a sequence of pictures.


2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas – Book Review and Giveaway

2AM Not today, Philadelphia. Bring your sorry shit back tomorrow. – from 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas -

Madeleine Altimari is only nine years old, but don’t let that fool you…this is one brave, independent-minded kid who doesn’t let reality get in the way of her dreams. Madeleine has been practicing singing all her life. She just needs the chance to prove her voice to others.

Sarina Greene is the kind of teacher most fifth grade  kids wish they had, and she’s back in Philadelphia after a divorce wondering what it will be like to meet up with her old high school crush again. Insecure and disappointed by what life has so far dished her way, Sarina wonders if everything could change if she just took a chance.

Lorca is dealing with an estranged girlfriend and a teenage son (who only wants to play guitar) when suddenly he is faced with the possibility of losing his business unless he can come up with $30,000.

All three of these characters come together on the Eve of Christmas Eve at The Cat’s Pajama’s, an aging jazz club whose history seeps out into the smokey atmosphere and captivates its audience. Coincidence and maybe a little magic unite to open up a world of possibility and joy for this novel’s protagonists.

Marie-Helene Bertino has written a charming story about bad luck, human kindness, and the dazzling lure of possibility. Witty and surprising, the novel celebrates the little things in life which can lead us to inner change and happiness. Madeleine is the star of the novel, a kid who has lost her mother and is forced to care for her grieving father, but never gives up her dream of singing. She’s tough, has a mouth like a sailor and has a way of always coming out on top no matter what life throws her way.

Mixing literary fiction with a bit of magical realism, Bertino has crafted a fine first novel that will captivate readers.

Highly recommended.

5stars

About the Author:

MH BertinoMarie-Helene Bertino is the author of the story collection Safe as Houses, which won the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Prize and The Pushcart Prize, and was long-listed for The Story Prize and The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. An Emerging Writer Fellow at New York’s Center for Fiction, she has spent six years as an editor and writing instructor at One Story.

tlclogoFTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review as part of a TLC Book Tour.

Book Giveaway:

I am happy to be able to offer a copy of this book to a lucky winner living either in the US or Canada. The winner will receive a new book from the Publisher (Crown) after the conclusion of the tour (the end of this month).

  • To enter to win please complete the survey at the bottom of this post.
  • Comments left on this post do not enter you in the contest – you must complete the survey
  • Contest will run from August 17th through August 26th, 2014 at 5:00 pm PST.
  • I will draw one winner randomly from all entries and announce their name here on my blog on the 27th of August. I will also contact the winner via email.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

8Wikipedia: Year 8 was a leap year starting on Sunday of the Julian calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Camillus and Quinctilianus. The denomination 8 for this year has been used since the early medieval period, when the Anno Domini calendar era became the prevalent method in Europe for naming years.


Fourth of July Creek – Book Review

FourthofJulyCreekThe cop flicked his cigarette to the dirt-and-gravel road in front of the house, and touched back his hat over his hairline as the social worker drove up in a dusty Toyota Corolla. Through the dirt window, he spotted some blond hair falling, and he hiked in his gut, hoping that the woman in there would be something to have a look at. Which is to say he did not expect what got out: a guy in his late twenties, maybe thirty, pulling on a denim coat against the cold morning air blowing down the mountain, ducking back into the car for a moment, reemerging with paperwork. - from Fourth of July Creek, page 1 -

Pete Snow is a social worker in the Montana wilderness of Tenmile, a small town in the middle of nowhere outside of Missoula. He is divorced, fighting with his ex-wife and his surly teenage daughter, and trying to steer clear of his troubled brother who has recently beat up a parole officer and taken off to parts unknown. When a bedraggled boy is picked up in town, Pete decides to hike up into the wilderness to return the boy to his family. He has no idea that the boy’s father, a radical man named Benjamin Pearl, might just not want to be found.

Fourth of July  Creek is about the unraveling of family and community as Benjamin Pearl becomes more paranoid and unpredictable and Pete’s personal life slides out of control with the disappearance of his daughter and an FBI investigation.

Smith Henderson’s first novel (he has published numerous short works and won the 2011 Pushcart Prize) is a bit of a doorstopper at over 450 pages, and there were times I thought it could have stood a little editing. Despite this, Henderson’s prose is gritty and mesmerizing as the story unspools into chaos. Pete is not terribly likable, and yet I found myself hoping he would sort out his problems and find a happy ending, not only for himself, but for the damaged people he is trying to help.

Henderson reveals the struggles of rural Americans including poverty, illegal drug use, homelessness, and broken families. Benjamin Pearl becomes symbolic of a modern America where fear of government intrusion and paranoia about losing freedom spirals into a madness that would be funny if it were not so terrifying.

Fourth of July Creek is a dark commentary on the problems facing our country. Pete Snows struggle to save the families of Tenmile, while losing the fight to save his own family, becomes a compelling story about one man’s quest to find meaning in a disconnected world.

Readers who enjoy novels set in the rural Pacific Northwest which are literary in style, will want to give this one a try. Smith Henderson is an author to watch.

Recommended.

4Stars


All Our Names – Audiobook Review

AllOurNamesI had lost too much of the heart and all the faith needed to stay afloat in a job where every human encounter felt like an anvil strung around my neck just when I thought I was nearing the shore. - from All Our Names -

Isaac is a young black man living in Uganda in the 1970s during the cruel reign of Idi Amin. He is a man with dreams of revolution and freedom, a man whose charisma draws others to him.

Helen is a white social worker living in the Mid-West and is assigned to help Isaac acclimate to a new life in the United States – a challenge given the underpinnings of racism and intolerance still rife within her community.

Neither Isaac nor Helen are prepared when their relationship moves from formality into intimacy. Passionate, secretive and ultimately life-changing, the connection between Helen and Isaac fuels the narrative of a man struggling to come to grips with his identity in the aftermath of terror.

All Our Names is a compelling story that is haunting in its truths, but also in its secrets. Who is Isaac? What has brought him thousands of miles from his home in Africa to the relative safety of the United States?

As the novel moves back and forth from Helen’s point of view to Isaac’s, and from the past to the present, it becomes clear that a man’s name does not reveal who he is, nor what his future holds. Helen struggles to understand her feelings for this man of secrets, and she begins to challenge the unspoken taboo against mixed-race couples.

The fact that we chose to sit there and linger when every part of me wanted to run was proof of the sacrifices we were willing to make. When we left the restaurant and were back in the car, he said to me, “Now you know. This is how they break you, slowly, in pieces.” - From All Our Names -

All Our Names is about the history of a conflicted nation during a time of great unrest, but it is also about the importance of family and our connections with others. Dinaw Mengestu takes the reader into the slums of Kampala and into the hearts of men who refuse to accept tyranny, even when it means they may lose everything. And in lyrical prose he shows how those hearts can be healed through the power of love.

I listened to this novel which was narrated by Saskia Maarleveld (as Helen) and Korey Jackson (as Isaac). Although it began slowly for me, the narration pulled me into the story and left me breathless at the end.

Highly recommended.

4hStars

FTC Disclosure: I received this book through the Library Thing Early Review Program.


The Painted Veil – Book Review

Painted VeilHis lips moved. He did not look at her. His eyes stared unseeing at the whitewashed wall. She leaned over him so that she might hear. But he spoke quite clearly. “The dog it was that died.” - from The Painted Veil -

Kitty Garstin, a spoiled young debutante living in 1920′s England, makes the choice to marry Walter Fane so that she is not left without a husband. Walter is smitten with Kitty, in fact, loves her fiercely. But Walter’s work as a bacteriologist and his quiet demeanor leave Kitty indifferent. The couple move to Hong Kong where within weeks, Kitty meets the much older and charming Charlie Townsend. The fact that both Kitty and Charlie are married, does not dampen their attraction to each other…and very quickly they begin a passionate affair. When Walter discovers the affair, he confronts Kitty and threatens to divorce her (something which would leave Kitty disgraced) unless she agrees to travel with him to the cholera-ridden town of Mei-tan-fu.

British author W. Somerset Maugham published this novel in 1925, but it was first serialized in Cosmopolitan beginning in November 1924. The novel was adapted for the screen in 1937, 1954 and 2006.

Maugham attempted to demonstrate personal growth in the character of Kitty – from a frivolous and shallow young woman to someone with an awakened conscience and a more open heart. I’m not quite sure that was accomplished. Kitty is not a terribly likeable character and I turned the final page wondering how much she had truly changed. Although life in Mei-tan-fu forces her to grow up, she remained a character who was rather self-centered.

I read this book for a book club, and the group was split as to whether or not Kitty ends up being a changed person. You will have to read the book yourself to decide!

Maugham captures the flavor of Hong Kong in the mid-1920s. As with many classic works, the women in the book are not presented in a very positive way. Kitty is flighty and looks to men to solve all her problems and Dorothy Townsend seems to be just fine with her husband cavorting with younger women as long as he never leaves her. The only female character in the book who I felt portrayed inner strength, was the Mother Superior at the convent.

The Painted Veil gives readers a look at the prejudices of the time – Kitty sees the Chinese children as “hardly human” and is shocked when she learns that one of the gentleman in the settlement lives with a Manchu woman.

Somerset Maugham achieved great popular success, ultimately penning numerous plays and novels, along with several short stories. He is perhaps best known for his novel Of Human Bondage (first published in 1915).

Despite my criticisms of the characters in The Painted Veil, I did appreciate this novel as a piece of classic literature. It is a short work (less than 250 pages) which I read in just a few days. Readers who enjoy classic books will want to give this one a try.

3hstars


Byrd – Book Review

ByrdDear Byrd, This is how I told your father. We climbed up on his roof. We could see the ocean, wrinkles of light in the distance. I was wearing a billowy cotton skirt. I wanted to look soft, unthreatening, unselfconsciously pretty. I wanted your father to love me. My legs were pale, not used to sun in winter. I had painted my toenails lavender. I wanted him to be a little sorry he hadn’t love me all along. – from Byrd -

Addie Lockwood meets Roland Rhodes when they are young and impressionable. Growing up in a small Southern town in the 1970s, they connect briefly and then go their separate ways, only to re-connect in Venice Beach, California years later. Roland is a wannabe musician and Addy is a bookstore clerk. When Addy becomes pregnant, it is clear that Roland does not love her nor want to be a father. So when a botched abortion results in Addy giving birth to a son, she decides to surrender him for adoption without telling Roland.

Written in spare prose that packs an emotional punch, Byrd is about regret and motherhood and finding happiness in the small spaces. Kim Church has written poetry and short stories before publishing this debut novel, and her beautiful prose is a testament to finding just the right words to reel the reader into a story.

Addie writes letters to her child, who she named Byrd because she wanted a “name no one else would ever call you.” Her letters fill in the gaps in her life, and reveal a deep love for a son whom she has never known. Addie is a woman searching for meaning and love, grasping at small moments where she thinks happiness may be found. Roland is unreachable, a puzzle, an emotional void for Addie. But the reader learns more about him as Church peels back the layers of a sensitive and emotionally vulnerable man.

Byrd is one of those books that resonate when the reader turns the final page. There is an ache of loneliness, the sting of regret…and finally a burst of hope that makes the journey through Addie’s life well worth it. Church’s insight into the human psyche, her understanding of the struggle to make sense of past mistakes and difficult choices, is deeply provocative.

Readers who love spare, literary fiction which is riveting in its exploration of the human heart, will want to pick up a copy of this amazing novel.

Highly recommended.

5stars

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog.

 


The Invention of Wings – Book Review

Invention of WingsThose skinny ones stuck out from my back like nubs. She patted them and said, “This all what left of your wings. They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get ‘em back.” – from The Invention of Wings, page 1 -

Sarah Grimke and her sister,  Angelina, grew up in a privileged family in South Carolina during the 1800′s. They were two of the first female abolition activists, who later became feminist speakers and advocates. Despite their courage and impact on social advancement, they are not well known in our historical record.

Sue Monk Kidd has brought these two sisters to life in the pages of her remarkable novel, The Invention of Wings. The book focuses on Sarah, the older of the two sisters, and opens in 1803 when Sarah receives the gift of a slave girl for her eleventh birthday. Hetty “Handful” is ten years old, the daughter of an outspoken slave named Charlotte who works as the seamstress for the family. Narrated in the alternating voices of both Handful and Sarah, the story unfolds over nearly four decades.

Thematically, the novel explores the idea of freedom (or the lack thereof) both from the perspective of slavery and that of women’s rights. For Sarah, her dreams of doing something exceptional are squashed because she is a woman. For Handful, her life is limited by the fact that she is viewed as less than a person, someone who lives only to serve the needs of her “owners.” Both woman find a voice in Kidd’s novel, giving the reader a glimpse back in history to a time when women and blacks had no rights.

For me, Handful’s story was the more powerful. Her relationship with her mother, Charlotte, is well developed and tugs at the heartstrings. I especially appreciated the narrative thread about quilts and quilting. The rich history of quilting has been said to play an important role in the cause of abolition. In their book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard explore the idea of a slave code which contained secret messages that helped direct slaves to freedom. The book has become controversial and many people have debunked its theory, but others are convinced of its truth (the book was based on oral testimony). Kidd uses this history in her book – Charlotte and Handful hide items by sewing them between the fabric of their quilts – and also explores the history of “story quilts” – a form of quilting whereby the quilter tells a story.

The Invention of Wings is a rich novel that reminds us of the often painful road to freedom for blacks and women. There are many historical characters included in the book, as well as fictional (Handful is a fictional character but is symbolic of the countless number of slaves who sought freedom in the 1800s). Kidd develops her characters well and her decision to use alternating points of view is a good one which gives the reader an in depth understanding of both Sarah and Handful.

Bittersweet, emotional, and eloquently crafted, The Invention of Wings will appeal to readers who enjoy historical fiction, especially that which is based in the South during the early part of the nineteenth century.

Recommended.

4Stars