Thursday, March 15, 2018

A Penny's Worth by Cynthia Austin

A Penny's WorthA Penny's Worth by Cynthia Austin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The main character in A Penny's Worth reminded me of the line “Hell is other people” from Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit. Sara is a weak woman, who struggles to assert herself throughout the story, but is defined instead, by what others think of her. Here's a quote from the point of view of the favorite mistress of Sara's husband:

Carmela rolled her eyes dramatically and fell against the sofa. “Here we go again with Sara's pathetic attempt to gain respect. Next thing you know, she'll be threatening all of us with the wrath of her big brother. Give it up already, Sara. Your style is stale.”

The trouble is, Carmela is right. Sara has trouble sticking with her goals, whether they are struggles for romance or for self preservation.

Before he died, Sara's father ran a successful strip club in Las Vegas, which is where she works now. She tries to act like the club's boss, but no one pays attention. Instead the club is run by her brother Luke and her husband Ezra. Sara believes they are both increasing the club's profit margin through criminal activities and she knows they are both partying regularly with the club's dancers, which seems to be common practice in their workplace.

Sara wavers between supporting her husband despite his wayward ways and wanting to leave him. These conflicting goals come out in strange ways, including bigoted language. Her husband is, in her thoughts, “a non-conforming Jew,” although he does know the religion well enough to understand terms such as “Shema Yisrael.” Sara fell in love with Ezra and married him. Yet she demonstrates a dislike of Jews in general through her language, by using terms like “The Jewish nymph” and “some Jewish floozy.” Also, despite wanting to leave her husband, Sara responds to the way Carmela flaunts her relationship with Ezra by proving she's all the woman Ezra needs sexually. She thinks of this type of inconsistent behavior as a reaction to “the roller coaster of emotions she was riding,” but it felt more like a personality flaw.

I liked the way Cynthia Austin used pop culture in her writing with references to things like “the Dos Equis man” and Margaret Keane's paintings. Those choices drew me into her novel. There were also some tense moments in the story that kept me turning the pages.

This book has adult themes and sexually graphic scenes.

Steve Lindahl – author of Under a Warped Cross, Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul

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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Sister Witch: The Life of Moll Dyer by David W. Thompson

Sister Witch: The Life of Moll Dyer (Legends of the Family Dyer #1)Sister Witch: The Life of Moll Dyer by David W.  Thompson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Moll Dyer was, according to Wikipedia, “...a legendary 17th-century resident of Leonardtown, Maryland, who was said to have been accused of witchcraft and chased out of her home by the local townsfolk on a winter night... Stories say her spirit haunts the land, looking for the men who forced her from her home.”

David Thompson's book, Sister Witch: the Life of Moll Dyer, is written from the point of view of Moll, with a couple of chapters from her son, Zachary's, perspective. It begins in Kinsale in County Cork, Ireland, but moves for the majority of the story to Newtown, Maryland. (I assume this is the same place Wikipedia refers to as Leonardtown.) Moll is a typical young woman who makes the mistake of trusting the wrong person and is soon forced to flee her home. She joins her Uncle Sean, who has his own set of problems, on a boat headed to America. Here's an excerpt:

Her name was the Mary Regina, and she carried four masts with square rigging. With multiple decks below, she carried 120 tons of cargo. Uncle seemed impressed describing her, but Father said she was just a foreign galleon, and little more than a low riding carrack built for speed.

The scenes in America provide an excellent picture of life in the colonies, not only for the new arrivals, but also the Native Americans of the Conoy, Chaptico, and Susquehannock tribes. There's also a supernatural side to the story with spells and demons. I won't get into this aspect of the book for fear of giving too much away. Suffice it to say this makes the novel a fun read.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

The Rules of MagicThe Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Rules of Magic is magic realism, but the book takes an unusual approach. The plot follows the lives of the Owens siblings: Fanny, Jet, and Vincent, who are part of a family with a history of witchcraft. They were born with unusual abilities and raised to understand how to create potions and work spells.

These skills come with a price: curses that affect their lives. They also have to deal with prejudice and misunderstanding, even from their own relatives. These problems are what make the novel special. On one level, it's a story of magic. On another level, it's a story of unique people coping with the things that make them different.

Although the main focus of the novel is on the three siblings and their love lives, the plot covers many years and wanders a bit, especially during the second half. It takes place in the mid twentieth century, so the Vietnam war and the draft are touched on. The war affected the lives of everyone during that time, but it came up late in the book and seemed a bit out of place. Still, the characters were full and interesting. I was left thinking about them after I was done with the book.

I love Alice Hoffman's writing, but I prefer her novels with a hint of magic rather than this one, where magic is central to the story. For that reason, it didn't come up to others I've read such as The Dovekeepers or The River King, but it is still a good choice for readers who are fans of her writing.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Life Without Living by S.C. Alban

A Life Without Living (The Strega Series, #1)A Life Without Living by S.C. Alban
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Life Without Living is a paranormal romance written from the points of view of the two main characters: Kate and Gio. The novel is a page turner, especially toward the end. Its story creates a wonderful life filled with curses and sorcery, but also brings a message relevant to life and love away from its pages.

Gio (short for Giovanni) is an Italian who has come to a small town in America in search of the woman with “...the one soul whose existence would allow [his soul] to continue instead of remaining in [an] eternal pattern...” of emptiness. Gio has been cursed with an eternal life void of any warmth and meaning. He understands this curse and the power of the man who placed it. He knows he lives in a world of witches and magic.

Kate, however, is unaware of the magic in the world around her. She's been married for nine years, to a handsome, successful man and has a good job, working for a publishing firm. She believes she is living a life worthy of envy. However, there are signs things are not the way they should be in an ideal marriage. Her husband is controlling and has a short fuse. He hasn't crossed the line to abusive, but he's close.

This mixture of two plot lines in search of each other, is what makes this book remarkable. It's a fun book, creating a world that is wonderful to think about. But it is also the story of a woman in a bad relationship who doesn't understand her own actions or lack thereof. It's about blaming yourself and your own perceived weakness for a situation that is complex and confusing. Here's an excerpt that offers a taste of this aspect of the novel:

But slowly, something was changing inside me. Something, and I didn't have a clue as to what, had began to tug on a loose thread. Gradually, cautiously, so that I didn't even know it was happening, something began to pull the strands apart. The cloth had begun to unravel.

A Life Without Living is well worth reading and the other bit of good news is that it is the first book in a series.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher

The Shell SeekersThe Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you open The Shell Seekers to a random page, you are most likely going to find very detailed, often beautiful, prose. Here's an example:

Olivia knew that she would never tire of the painting, even if she lived with it for most of her life. Its impact hit you like a gust of cold, salty air, The windy sky, racing with clouds; the sea, scudding with white-caps, breaking waves hissing up onto the shore. The subtle pinks and greys of the sand; shallow pools left by the ebbing tide and shimmering with translucent reflected sunlight. And the figures of the three children, grouped to the side of the picture; two girls with straw hats and dresses bundled up, and a boy. All brown-limbed, barefoot, and intent on the contents of a small scarlet bucket.

I loved the idea of writing about the daughter of a famous artist and her bohemian upbringing. So many books concentrate of people in positions of fame and power, but their families have stories to tell as well. I also loved having so much of the plot center around a painting which works as a metaphor for many of the family issues.

Yet, the novel didn't catch me. I was easily distracted, even at the most critical parts. Part of this was due to the descriptions, which were lovely, but too numerous. I found myself skimming descriptions of landscapes as the novel went on, especially the lists of flowers. But more than that it was the characters and a feeling that the author was intruding with her own opinions. When I was done with the book, I was left with the feeling Rosamunde Pilcher had great respect for stoicism.

The scenes of Penelope as a girl and a young woman were interesting, especially when the American troops were camped in Porthkerris. Yet Penelope's interactions with the important people in her life never seemed to have much emotion, even when she claimed to be in love. This was also true of Olivia, especially at the end of the novel, which might explain why Penelope's relation with her middle child worked.

I would recommend The Shell Seekers to readers who enjoy careful descriptions, historical settings, and a unique picture of rural England.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul

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Monday, December 25, 2017

Incendiary by Chris Cleave

IncendiaryIncendiary by Chris Cleave
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Incendiary is the second book I've read by Chris Cleave. I didn't feel it came up to Little Bee, but it is still a very good read. I listened to the audio version which was narrated perfectly by Tracy-Ann Oberman.

This is the story of a working class woman living in London, who suffers a horrible tragedy, then tries to cope. The novel is written in the form of a long letter to Osama bin Laden. Normally, a novel written in the form of letters is called epistolary, but this book deviates from the letter form by including so much description and dialogue that I wouldn't use that term.

The narrator is a brash and imperfect woman, but described in a way that brings the reader into her world enough to create sympathy for her. Here's what she says about herself early on:

I was what The Sun would call a “dirty love cheat.” My husband and my boy never found out, oh thank you, God. I can say it now they're both dead. I don't care who reads it. It can't hurt them anymore. I loved my boy. And I loved my husband...Sex is not a beautiful and perfect thing for me, Osama. It is a condition caused by nerves.

Sex helps her deal with life's problems prior to the tragedy, but afterwards, it isn't enough.

I had a problem with the novel's ending and I also felt there were some conflicts in the way the narrator perceived reality that weren't sufficiently explained by her state of mind. Still, this is a good book. It captured me and I felt it painted a full picture of a young mother who at first was trying to build a life that was a shelter, a place of love. Here's how she described a part of that place.

Our boy had his own room it was cracking we were proud of it. My husband built his bed in the shape of Bob the Builder's dump truck and I sewed the curtains and we did the painting together. In the night my boy's room smelled of boy. Boy is a good smell it is a cross between angels and tigers.

Her own imperfections along with the horrors of life in the 21st century pushed tragedy into her world. This novel is about what happens after that.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul

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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Silver Baron's Wife by Donna Baier Stein

The Silver Baron's WifeThe Silver Baron's Wife by Donna Baier Stein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Silver Baron's Wife is the last of the CIPA EVVY award winners I have chosen to read. Like the others, it is excellent. The Silver Baron's Wife won second place in the 2017 CIPA Evvy awards in historical fiction. (As I mentioned in the other reviews, my book, Hopatcong Vision Quest, won a merit award in the same competition, which is why I decided to read the other winners.)

This is the story of Baby Doe Tabor (Elizabeth McCourt Tabor) who lived from 1854 to 1935. She was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, then moved to Colorado after her first marriage. Her father-in-law gave her and her husband, Harvey Doe, a quarter share of a Colorado mine named the Fourth of July. When she first saw the mine, Lizzy fell in love with mining - “Dropping down into the Fourth of July had, like tasting the communion wafer on my tongue, opened me to a new understanding. If I'd felt betrayed after my confirmation, when Jesus let the fire take everything my family and I owned, a new confidence came over me after my descent into the mine. I was more than ready to believe there were treasures we couldn't see that were ready to be shared.”

Baby Doe was not a popular woman in the area where she lived, because she made some life decisions that were not acceptable at that time. However, Donna Baier Stein decided to write this novel from Baby Doe's point of view and the woman comes off as a strong and sympathetic character. I don't want to include any spoilers in here, yet I do have to say this is a rags to riches story, but doesn't stop there. Stein has created a wonderful character in Baby Doe, someone I will think about for a long time. She also created a wonderful picture of life in a mid-west mining town during the late nineteenth century.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul

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