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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Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Buried Giant by Kazuo_Ishiguro

The Buried GiantThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the Swedish Academy awarded Kazuo Ishiguro the Nobel Prize in Literature, they described his novels as having “great emotional force.” This is the third novel of his I've read and I agree with that statement in The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, but there is a distance in all the relationships in The Buried Giant, which suppresses the emotions of the characters. One reason for this is due to the theme of lost memories. How can someone feel anything for what they can't remember? A second reason is the setting of England years after King Arthur's reign. There is an an odd mixture of formality and violence which seems to tie back to Camelot. This also dampens emotions.

The Buried Giant does have what I love the most in Ishiguro's writing, underlying themes that are approached in subtle ways. This novel isn't about Axl and Beatrice taking a journey to see their son or about Sir Gawain's loyalty to his mission. It's about aging, lost memories, and approaches to problems that lead to mixed results.

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

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Monday, December 4, 2017

The Last Great American Magic by L.C. Fiore

The Last Great American MagicThe Last Great American Magic by L.C. Fiore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Last Great American Magic is a retelling of the story of Tecumseh, “a Native American Shawnee warrior and chief, who became the primary leader of a large, multi-tribal confederacy in the early years of the nineteenth century” (per Wikipedia). In L.C. Fiore's novel there are elements of mysticism interwoven with history in a way that captures the spiritual side to the Shawnee culture. Tecumseh's brother, Rattle, was renamed Prophet after he died and returned to life, which indicates how important mysticism is to the plot.

This novel won third place in the 2017 CIPA Evvy awards in historical fiction. (My book, Hopatcong Vision Quest won a merit award in the same competition, which is why I decided to read the other winners.) All have been excellent books. The Last Great American Magic captured my imagination and kept me turning the pages. It was filled with action and taught me a great deal about the Shawnee people at a time when the Europeans were pushing them off their land. There is violence and hatred, but this is also a story of love. Tecumseh falls hard for a young white woman captured by the Shawnee, even after she returns to her people, and even after she marries William Henry Harrison.

I highly recommend this novel for readers who enjoy stories of Native Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Without the Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit by D.M. Denton

Without the Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle SpiritWithout the Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit by D.M. Denton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

DM Denton's historical novel, Without the Veil Between / Anne Brontë: A fine and Subtle Spirit, is the story of the Brontë family from the point of view of Charlotte and Emily's younger sister. The title comes from a line in one of Anne's poems, In Memory of a Happy Day in February. The last stanza of the poem is quoted in the afterword of Denton's novel.

As was the case with many nineteenth century families, the Brontës suffered loss. Anne was born in 1820. Her mother died in 1821 and two of her sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died in 1825. This left the father, Patrick Brontë, an Anglican priest, to raise the three sisters and one son alone. Denton's emphasis on the thoughts and desires of the youngest Brontë sister brings color and life to the pages of her novel. She expresses Anne's concerns in lavish prose that matches the 19th century Brontë style. Without the Veil Between isn't simply a biography, it is a journey back into the day to day lives of one of history's most famous literary families.

Anne's brother, Branwell, was a primary focus of her thoughts due to his troubled lifestyle. He often returned home after his habits left him no alternative.

“Branwell also had the refuge of home for career disasters, but nowhere but drink and opium for those of the heart.”

Early in the novel, Anne desired a relationship with William Weightman, an assistant to her father and a good friend of Branwell's. Her feelings for the young curate were a mixture of her own interest and respect for the effect William had on her troubled brother.

“Branwell had even confided to her that 'Willie' was the best friend he'd ever had – with a wink that caused Anne to wonder if William had admitted something, too. She knew she shouldn't think so. Nevertheless, before she closed her eyes on that day she would be tempted to hold and look at one of her most treasured possessions: a Valentine...”

Of course, the role writing played in Anne and her sisters lives is the most interesting of their concerns.

“Writing and talking about their writing inspired them, and defined them, at least to each other.”

It was, as it is for most writers, a means of escape and a way of dealing with life's frustrations.

“Anne found writing a most natural and constant way to seek relief. Her reason became another’s, a naively optimistic, determined, almost invisible young woman named Agnes, who composed musings out of sorrows or anxieties to acknowledge in a resilient way all those powerful feelings that could never be wholly crushed and for which solace from any living creature shouldn’t be sought or expected. Anne hoped Agnes' story would mark her own passage from a woman of mere occupation to one of true vocation.”

The works of Charlotte and Emily, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, are the two Brontë novels most well known today, but Anne's novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are still taught in schools around the world. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was successful enough during Anne's life to earn a second edition.

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

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Salt to the Sea by Ruta_Sepetys

Salt to the SeaSalt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The title and cover of Salt to the Sea focus on the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, so I guess talking about it doesn't count as a spoiler. It was, according to Wikipedia, “the deadliest maritime disaster in history.” I was surprised that such a major tragedy has gotten so little recognition in accounts of World War II. 9,400 people died, many of them children. I suppose the reason this disaster is not recalled as often as other catastrophes is due to the fact that these people were mostly German citizens and countries that lose wars don't get to write history.

The other historic event that plays a major role in the plot of Salt to the Sea is the looting of art by the Nazis. The book focuses on The Amber Room, a major collection of priceless art in, again according to Wikipedia, a “chamber decorated in amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors.” One of the book's major characters, Florian Beck, was working for Germany as an art expert. After discovering that he had been misled about the purpose of his work, he ran, taking with him a priceless swan, which was Hitler's favorite.

Despite the fascinating historic events Ruta Sepetys included in her novel, its greatest strength is the relationships of the characters. Florian encounters, Emilia Stożeka, a young Polish girl who is trying to escape the advancing Russians by making her way west. Emilia follows Florian and they soon encounter a group of refugees also trying to escape the Russians. Florian is on the run, so he's trying his best not to make friendships that might tie him down, but he finds it impossible not to like and respect most of the people he's traveling with. His relationships with Emilia and with Joana Vilkaitė are the most interesting, but the "shoe poet" is also a great character.

Salt to the Sea is from the perspective of innocent civilians caught in a defeated country. Since the plot is about desperate people running for their lives, there's plenty of tension and action. This makes for an exciting read. Another of my favorites about this time period is Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian.

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

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