Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Cove by Ron Rash

The CoveThe Cove by Ron Rash
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Cove is the second Ron Rash novel I've read and, like One Foot in Eden, it is excellent.

What makes Rash one of the best writers I've ever read is his careful use of language. Here's a paragraph from the first chapter:

She pressed the wicker basket against her belly and made her way down the trail. The air grew dank and dark and even darker as she passed through a stand of hemlocks. Toad stools and witch hazel sprouted on the trail edge, farther down, nightshade and then baneberry whose poisonous fruit looked like a doll's eyes. Two days' rain had made the woods poxy with mushrooms. The gray ones with the slimy feel of slugs were harmless, Laurel knew, but the larger pale mushrooms could kill you, as could the brown-hooded kind that clumped on rotting wood. Chestnut wood, because that was what filled the understory more and more with each passing season. As Laurel approached her parents' graves, she thought of what she'd asked Slidell to do, what he said he'd do, though adding that at his age such a vow was like snow promising to outlast spring.

A writing class could be based on this paragraph alone. The rhythm is perfect. The setting is thoroughly described with careful use of detail he's either researched or lived. The characters of Laurel and Slidell are introduced with both physical details and glimpses of how they think. The paragraph ends with a wonderful simile and the choice of the word “poxy” to describe how the mushrooms fit in the scene changes a simple description to a metaphor with dozens of implications.

Ron Rash's book is about loneliness, hate, and insecurity.  Laurel has large, purple birthmarks on her shoulders and back, which the early twentieth century residents of Mars Hill, NC believe mark her as a witch, causing them to avoid her as much as possible. While shopping for fabric she speaks out when she knows she shouldn't, showing us her resentment, but also letting us know she doesn't want to be bitter. Chauncey Feith, a military recruiter based in Mars Hill is always trying to prove himself by demeaning others. World War 1 is going on in Europe, but Chauncey's role in it is an easy one. He tries to prove he's as good a soldier as anyone else, but we can feel his self doubt.

The plot is the one area where I thought The Cove fell a bit short, especially when compared to  One Foot in Eden. There are critical elements I had trouble believing. Laurel and her brother, Hank, take in a mute man who helps with work on their farm. They are too accepting of his story given Hank's war experience. Also the ending was too neat and depended on a coincidental event.

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Witch's Hand by Wendy Joseph

The Witch's HandThe Witch's Hand by Wendy Joseph
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Witch's Hand takes place in southern France during the thirteenth century. The book mixes sorcery with a realistic portrayal of the period in a manner that reminded me of the best aspects of A Game of Thrones. The novel has a strong plot about a young peasant girl, Liana, who has been picked by Malaxia, a powerful witch, to be her heiress. Liana meets Jattaret, a disillusioned warrior who has returned from the crusades to restart a privileged life with an arranged marriage. Jattaret's full name is Michel Antoine Jettaret, Vicomte de Solignac. His family is wealthy and powerful while Liana is the daughter of a game watcher for the Bishop. But Jattaret still has the ideals that pushed him to join the crusades. Those ideals, along with his admiration of Liana's innocence, lead him in a fight to save her from Malaxia's power.

In some ways The Witch's Hand is a “good vs. evil” story, but it isn't told in black and white. The flaws of the church are shown and the bigotry of the local farmers who fight against witchcraft are also shown. Here is what Jattaret says about that subject:

All this witchcraft is a way, I am afraid, of people saying they don't like what you think, what you believe, what you look like, what you do,”

The attention to detail in Wendy Joseph's writing pulled me into her story. Here is a sample from when Jattaret goes to a local village to purchase a horse for Liana:

He stepped closer, stroked the mare's head – eyes alert, deep and bright, no sign of cloudiness in them – and waved his hand behind each eye to check her rear and peripheral vision. She blinked. Good. To test her hearing he snapped his fingers by each ear, and she flicked them but was not head shy. Good. He pulled her mouth open and rolled her lips back for a look at her teeth, and judged her to be about seven; little wear on the back teeth yet.

The same attention to detail gives a beautiful authenticity to the period and the setting:

The trail descended into thick woods at the bottom of the ridge and they rode through them, not following any path that Liana could see. At Sext they halted briefly for a midday meal of sorts – bread, wine, and dried sausage that chewed like wood bark. As they continued the trees thinned out, broken more and more by meadows in soft bloom, and Liana's thoughts of Malaxia vanished. When the sunrays were slanting low from the west, and Jettaret judged they were well out of the way of any searchers from Peranville or chance wanderers, they stopped by a spring to make camp.

My wife and I spent two weeks in France last year, my first trip to Europe, so I have a particular interest in novels set in that country. This novel is an excellent read for anyone with an interest in European history, with the added pleasure of mysticism for excitement.

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

Where Late the Sweet Birds SangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a book to read for its ideas rather than its characters. It is the story of a world that is suffering from radiation and other forms of pollution. The ability to reproduce has been damaged. Human and other animal species are disappearing. Plant life has also been affected, so there's less food and the remaining people are fighting for what's left. A family of scientists is working on a solution to this problem. They plan to use cloning to create livestock and people who, hopefully, will be fertile.

The novel starts out with two cousins, David and Celia, who are in love. Wilhelm uses their love to point out differences between naturally born humans and the first generation of clones.

Three Celias came into view, swinging easily with the weight of the baskets, a stair-step succession of Celias. He shouldn't do that, he reminded himself harshly. They weren't Celias, none of them had that name. They were Mary and Ann and something else. He couldn't remember for a moment the third one's name, and he knew it didn't matter. They were each and every one Celia. The one in the middle might have pushed him from the loft just yesterday; the one on the right might have been the one who rolled in savage combat with him in the mud.

These new clones have a unique sense of empathy. They are extremely close to their “sisters,” but don't reach out well to others. Sex is something the clones are obligated to have and something they enjoy, especially in large groups, but it is never a drive that pushes them into one on one, romantic relationships. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang was first published in 1977 and I wonder if this aspect might have been a reaction to the Sex, drugs, and rock and roll philosophy of the sixties and early seventies.

There are a number of problems inherent in the idea behind this plot. First of all, there are life forms that are not affected by the pollution. Trees seem to grow fine and so does grass. But beyond this and other technicalities are the problems of a plot about people who have trouble caring for each other. Wilhelm works her way through this by having some characters who still can care.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang would make a good book club selection because the ideas have the potential to stimulate a great discussion. I found the reviews on Goodreads to be fascinating while the novel itself never captured me completely.

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Saturday, September 7, 2013

New York by Edward Rutherfurd

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I grew up in northern New Jersey, so the history of New York is fascinating to me. Edward Rutherfurd tells the story of people living in the city, starting in the 17th century when the settlement was called New Amsterdam and was governed by Peter Styverson and ending in the 21st century when Rudy Giuliani was mayor. The novel focuses on the Master family, but also looks at other families whose lives were intertwined with the Masters. I thought Rutherfurd did an excellent job of mixing history with fiction.

When I lived in the New York area, I went to the city often. I loved the museums, the theater scene from the small groups in store front theaters to the Broadway shows, and I went to countless concerts in Central Park and at the Fillmore East. I spent hours in the libraries, especially the main branch on Fifth Ave and the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. But despite loving the city I didn't know much about its history. I had no idea about the early connection to the slave trade, Spanish Harlem was just a song to me, and I knew next to nothing about the financial district, especially during the years leading up to the depression. New York covered those aspects of the city in a way that held my attention. I loved the book for that.

I saw in some of the other reviews complaints that Rutherfurd did not spend time with the African American families living in the twentieth century. He did cover their experience, especially during the pre civil war years, but those families were only mentioned briefly during modern times. I don't agree with that criticism. Rutherfurd chose to write a story about the Master family and if he left their story for too long the plot would have lost its continuity. He covered the Italians and the Irish during the years when those nationalities were the bulk of the immigrants. The African Americans were in the city from early on, just as the English were. Another novel about their experience in New York would be equally fascinating, but this novel was primarily about the English experience. Perhaps he could have spent more time with the Puerto Ricans families, given their importance to modern New York, but he did touch on that experience and I learned a good deal. He discussed the Lenape Native Americans, but as with many of the other groups that section was from the point of view of the European (Dutch) settlers.

My chief complaint comes down to a single word. Here's the line from late in the book:

He'd been fortunate to get a low number in the lottery and avoided the draft.

The word I object to is low. Rutherfurd was talking about the 1970s here and anyone who lived through that period knows that a low number meant you were going to war, not the other way around. The problem with this mistake is it stops the reader who knows its wrong and casts doubt on the accuracy of the rest of the book. But I'm still giving this book a five star rating. Overall, I loved it.