Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All ThingsThe Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Signature of All Things follows the Whittaker family through two generations. The first portion is about Henry Whittaker and the second is his daughter, Alma's story. I found Henry to be interesting and Alma fascinating. They both want what they don't have. Henry, who was born to a working class family, wants riches and respect. Alma, who was born to wealth, wants love, companionship, and sex. Although both stories are complicated and have many different elements, I found that Henry's story reads more like an adventure, while Alma's reads more like a character study.

As a child, Alma is isolated. She was born in 1800, in Philadelphia, where her family has more land and riches than any other family. The other children in her area treat her with deference, so Alma has little to do with them. But she has a brilliant mind and finds solace in study. Alma doesn't have anyone she can call a friend until Retta, a young girl from another wealthy family, becomes her neighbor. The relationship between Alma, Retta, and Alma's adopted sister, Prudence is critical to how the plot unfolds. One of my favorite aspects of this book is how Alma's opinion of the other two girls changes over time. There are a few surprises and, since this portion of the book is written mostly from Alma's point of view, readers don't discover these until Alma does.

There are times when the discussions of botany may get a bit tedious for some readers. (I noticed this was a common complaint in other reviews.) But I listened to the audio version and found Juliet Stevenson's narration moved well enough to keep my attention throughout the long novel. This is an excellent choice for readers who enjoy historical fiction.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

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Saturday, October 24, 2015

My Father Moves Through Time Like a Dirigible by Gregg Cusick

The stories in Gregg Cusick's My Father Moves Through Time Like a Dirigible often reveal themes that aren't evident until the reader is well into the text. The title story is one of those, starting with an elderly man trying to convince a school principal to produce a play based on the 1925 wreck of the Shenandoah, an American blimp. Slowly, through conversations with the principal, the man's background is revealed and reasons for his interest in that tragedy become evident. Dozen Wheelbarrows is another work that uses a slow reveal to let the reader understand its theme. Cusick writes each story from the point of view of a limited number of characters and generally keeps to the present tense. He handles these techniques beautifully, providing an intense picture of his characters' thoughts, which wander and circle, but always wind back to where they need to be.

In Welding Girl, one of my favorites in the collection, a young woman uses the experience of learning a new skill to deal with her insecurities and with a family tragedy. The details of the welding process serve as a metaphor for her life in ways that are unique and fascinating. This story, like all the others, works on multiple levels that come together powerfully. Another story, Ghosts of Doubt, has a teacher, the main character, leading his class in a study of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim. During the process he internally relates the pivotal event of his own life to the experience of Conrad's title character, losing himself in the power of that comparison while his students watch and worry.

Every story in this collection builds at a perfect pace and creates the intense, emotional impact that makes reading fiction so wonderful.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Dead on the Trail by Susan Williamson

Dead on the TrailDead on the Trail by Susan Williamson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dead on the Trail is a fun whodunit that becomes a great read due to the fascinating details of its setting.

The novel takes place on a horse farm run by Molly Lewis and her husband John. Molly is exercising her horse, Kip, on a trail partially owned by the couple from whom they rent the farm and partially by their neighbor. Molly's dog, Bingo, is following her when he senses something off to the side of the trail. It turns out to be a dead body. Once the victim is identified, he turns out to be someone who was almost universally disliked, which means there are plenty of people with motives. The police show up, but they are fairly useless, so it falls on Molly to investigate. All the characters are interesting whether they are friends of Molly, suspects, or police.

For the first part of the book Molly's husband is out of town, judging a horse show. Molly needs to take care of their farm while she looks into the murder. She's spending time cleaning stalls, feeding and exercising horses, dealing with sick horses, giving riding lessons, working on ways to increase the farm's income, and playing nursemaid to her landlord's troubled daughter, Sarah. All these tasks increase the pressure on Molly and the tension in the plot. Here's a sample of the detail:

First up was Betsy in a walk, trot canter class for riders 14-17. The practice show started with the more advanced riders in hopes that the horses would be tired and slow by the time the little riders came along. The classes were judged on the rider, not the horse, but a good horse always made the rider look better. Betsy was showing Honey for the first time. Honey, a former show mare, would be up for the class, the challenge would be to make her walk. Molly gave her a leg up and they went to the make-up ring early. The mare looked around, but settled quickly to work.

Most people who know something about the horse industry know it from the side of the customers. These are people who love animals, love competition, and love being outdoors. It's a pricey hobby, but one that can provide an escape from day to day stress. Dead on the Trail shows the horse industry from the side of the farm managers. These are people who have to learn how to market their lessons, their horses for sale, and their boarding facilities. They have to work hard, physically. They have to be willing to give up a horse they care about if someone offers the right price. And they have to understand horse health enough to call the vet when necessary, but not to waste money on calls that aren't needed. This is a 24/7 occupation, but these people wouldn't be in the industry if they didn't love the animals. They make sacrifices for that love.

Dead on the Trail is a perfect book for readers who like mysteries and horses.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

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