Sunday, January 29, 2012

The River King by Alice Hoffman

The River KingThe River King by Alice Hoffman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The River King is a beautiful novel that fits in the magic realism genre, defined in Wikipedia as “ aesthetic style or genre of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world.”

The story is about a wealthy boarding school in Massachusetts and the relationship of its students and faculty with the people of the town. There are elements of arrogance, jealousy, and corruption that pervade the plot, but all of the book is wrapped in a romantic vision of life. There is Carlin Leander who befriends August Pierce but chooses the self centered Harry McKenna for her lover due to his looks and reputation. There is Betsy Chase, the teacher who is engaged to another teacher and is leading what she believes to be a perfect life until Abel Grey, a town police officer comes along. And there are many other relationships that are explored, some current, some as part of the school's history.

Hoffman's writing style suits the magic elements because of its wonderful metaphors and romantic aspect that is always present. Here's a quote from the beginning of the novel, as Hoffman is introducing the students of the Haddan School to the reader:

Each September, when the new students arrived, Annie Howe's roses had an odd effect on certain girls, the sensitive ones who had never been away from home before and were easily influenced. When such girls walked past the brittle canes in the gardens behind St. Anne's, they felt something cold at the base of their spines, a bad case of pins and needles, as though someone were issuing a warning: Be careful who you choose to love and who loves you in return.

Later she brings in more of the magical aspects when Carlin finds gifts left to her by Gus, the soul mate she has lost to the river.

Carlin reached into her pocket and brought forth a small fish, which she placed upon the table. Helen leaned forward for a better look. It was one of those silver minnows found in the Haddan River, small and shimmering and gasping for breath. Helen Davis might have dropped the little fish in a tumbler of water had Midnight not pounced on it and eaten it whole.

In spite of herself, Carlin Laughed. “Did you see that? He ate it.”

“You bad, bad boy,” Helen scolded. “You rascal.”

“I told you Gus left me things,” Carlin said to Abe. “But you didn't believe me.”

Hoffman's writing is wonderful. Her use of language is lovely and her plot weaves many independent stories, all about love and survival, into one, like the rose garden that is entwined throughout the story. I loved the way she balanced one character, Carlin Leander, who pushes the love she feels away from her with another character, Betsy Chase, who cannot resist the love she feels. The ending didn't resolve as well as I had hoped it would, but that was the only flaw I could find. I will be reading more Alice Hoffman books.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Secrets She Left Behind by Diane Chamberlain

Secrets She Left BehindSecrets She Left Behind by Diane Chamberlain

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Diane Chamberlain knows how to create suspense with plot elements she reveals to her readers, but keeps hidden from her characters. She did that successfully in Secrets She Left Behind with an important letter that isn't read when it should be and with a woman who develops relationships with two of the main characters without revealing her friendship with Maggie to Keith or her affair with Keith to Maggie. Both of those suspenseful twists keep her readers interested. The latter of the two is especially intriguing because it is an indirect way to reveal that the woman, Jen, is up to something harmful.

I was paging through Goodreads looking for an interesting book that was available through the NC digital library when I came across Secrets She Left Behind. It isn't the type of book I normally read and it is a sequel to another Diane Chamberlain book that I haven't read. So there were a couple of strikes against it up front. Still, it should be able to stand on its own. I enjoyed the aspect I mentioned previously. I was also pulled into the story by the fact that one part of the plot, arson committed by a young woman trying to impress a man, reminded me of a true event that occurred in 2002 in Greensboro, NC when Janet Danahey burned down an apartment building near the UNCG campus, killing four people.

I feel the writing in the book could have been tighter and the plot involved too many major subjects to treat any of them seriously. The novel covers alcoholism, birth defects, infidelity, arson, missing persons, burn victims, revenge, and more. Another review called this novel “too much of a soap opera.” I think that's a fair criticism. But that said, there are many people who enjoy the soaps. This book would appeal to them.

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Absolution by Miriam Herin

AbsolutionAbsolution by Miriam Herin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolution is the best baby boomer book I've read in a long time. Miriam Herin has captured the internal turmoil our generation went through during the Vietnam war era and still live with all these years later.

The novel opens with the killing of Richard Delaney by Anh Dung “Billy” Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant, in what appears to be a botched robbery of a drug store. There is no question about Billy's identity. The case is turned over to Adam Borstein, an assistant district attorney. The prosecution seems straight forward until Ev Quincy, a high profile defense attorney, is brought in.

Maggie Delaney, Richard's wife, learns there are some facts about the killing that don't seem right, especially given what she knew about her husband. She starts her own investigation into Richard's experience in Vietnam. A great deal of the story takes place in flashbacks to the war and protests against the war. There is an especially moving and graphic description of a short time Maggie spent in prison after participating in one of the protests. Maggie and Richard had an unusual marriage because their political beliefs, especially concerning the war, were extreme opposites. Richard was a lieutenant in the special forces while Maggie was active in the anti-war movement.

Herin's picture of the sexual revolution is an accurate telling of what was considered personal empowerment at the time. In one scene Maggie walks into her apartment to find a man who, against her wishes, has been crashing at her place. The man and a woman she's never met before are in her living room. They are naked and have obviously just had sex. The smell of pot is throughout her home. Yet there was also a beautiful scene of Maggie's own first experience.

I was in college from 1968 through 1972, which was the height of the war protests. I opposed the war and still feel that was the right decision. But I based that decision on a limited amount of knowledge. I didn't even know who the Montagnards were until years later. This book was thoroughly researched and presents a complete picture of what was happening at that time. It also presents a good perspective on war in general. It's available in Kindle format for $.99.

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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

Arcadia FallsArcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Arcadia Falls is a novel about the relationships of women to each other and to art. It starts out following Meg Rosenthal, a recently widowed woman who has been awarded a teaching position at The Arcadia School, a private high school for the arts in rural New York. Meg is driving to the village of Arcadia with her teenage daughter, Sally. The plan is for Sally to attend the school where Meg will be teaching.

Meg is driving an eleven-year-old Jaguar that sums up her situation in life. The car belonged to Jude, her deceased husband. The Jaguar brand represents the opulence of their former lifestyle, but the car is now “past due for its service appointment” and has a set of bald tires. Jude had gambled their money trying to start a hedge fund, leaving Meg and Sally with little to get by on. Their car and their lifestyles have suffered.

Meg is teaching a folklore class with a concentration on The Changeling Girl, an illustrated fairy tale written by Lily Eberhardt, who, along with Vera Beecher, Lily's mentor and lover, founded the school. The story of The Changeling Girl parallels the events happening to Meg and Sally. Along with Lily's book there are letters and a journal that are critical to the novel, allowing the story to move back and forth between what happened years earlier, when the school was first founded, and what is happening in the present.

There are only three important men in this book: Jude, Meg's husband, who died before the story started, Virgil Nash, Lily's male lover, who brings an aspect of sexual attraction and deceit to the book, and Callum Reade, the local sheriff, who is a kind and stable force in Meg's life. Those characters are treated well, but the book is about women.

Goodman treats the lesbian relationship between Vera and Lily with respect and also handles the importance of art in a woman's life very well. The theme of mother/daughter relationships runs throughout the book through Meg and Sally as well as a child of Lily's that is given up for adoption.

Arcadia Falls is insightful and fun. I plan to read more by Carol Goodman.

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