Tag Archives: book review

THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR: ANOTHER HAUNTING STORY SET IN THE BRITISH PAST

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The Summer Before the War
Author: Helen Simonson
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Historical Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 473 pages
Source: Library Copy

Author Helen Simonson is back in a big way. Her second novel is even more witty and charming than her first, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. But it is much more than witty and charming. It takes readers to a serious place to enjoy and contemplate the laughter, loss, hardships and love that life hurls at mortals as we pick out way through its minefields.

It’s Edwardian summer and England stands on the precipice of societal change. Beatrice Nash, young woman of promise in every way, arrives to be a Latin teacher at the local school in a small town in Suffolk. It’s a lovely summer in this idyllic coastal town and Aunt Agatha takes the young woman under her wing. Agatha is a feisty leader in the community, an eccentric woman with two handsome nephews and a husband who works in the foreign office.

Seldom do such stories from history focus on the weeks prior to the full onslaught of war. Even less often do we read the stories of refugees and minorities caught up in local situations. Here again, (as in several recent novels) we view not only colorful characters, but the stringent class demarcations of British social life. Of further interest are the strong women in this story, finding their way through the rules and customs expected of women at the time of the First World War.

The writing is a delight to read. Detail, dialogue, description provide a wonderful scaffolding for a suspenseful story. The decided contrast between the pastoral village and the horrors of war add strength to this portrait of place, time, and people. Why are humans surprised at the carnage war brings? They seem to expect exciting adventure and then….. It is a lesson not learned and the World War I era provides one of the clearest of the lessons.

Book Clubs take note. This is a page-turner and a glorious read. Certainly it is well worthy of your consideration. As novels go, it has it all: plot, characters, setting, romance, poetic prose, happy and sad fighting for space on the Folkestone docks. Enjoy.

THE TURNER HOUSE HOLDS GHOSTS AND LOTS OF LOVE

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The Turner House
Author: Angela Flournoy
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2015)
Genre: Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 338 pages
Source: Personal copy

This story of the Turner Family with its thirteen siblings and their semi-abandoned house on Yarrow Street in Detroit, where the family had lived for fifty years, catches the reader like a well-baited fishing line and doesn’t let go even after the last page is finished. Each character is carefully detailed, never boring. The incidents, and changes flow and jerk like the river of real-life.

Family and the family home are universal themes to the story. Set in Detroit with its fading neighborhoods, the story highlights the difficulties of life in the city and something of the particulars of life as part of a large African-American family. And yet, the observations are often universal to family life and an ailing matriarch no matter the ethnicity or culture.

This young author is exceedingly talented. The book earned the status of National Book Award Finalist. She examines the environment and the inner and outer lives of the thirteen siblings as well as the effect of being part of a very large family. Insightful and entertaining dialogue is a strength of her writing, and there are many others. It’s a dynamic book. Never did the author’s research seem like documentary. Each sentence served the story. She writes with humor and charm.

Family is often a powerful theme and this story is no exception. Myths and stories, truth and lies cause friction yet tie family members closely together. This is a generous and humane portrait of a family of characters who seem so real you want to meet them and know just how they are faring a few years down their life road. They are fun and unforgettable.

The Prize: A Novel by Jill Bialosky

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WATCH THE MANUVERINGS IN THE ART WORLD

The Prize: A Novel
Author: Jill Bialosky
Publisher: Counterpoint (2015)
Genre: literary fiction
Hardcover Edition: 348 pages
Source: Library copy

This novel grabbed me from the opening paragraphs and I seldom put it down until I had finished it. Is it the author’s voice creating the connection? Is it her portrayal of the art world: galleries, artists, those who sell art? Was it the characters she created?

At the center of her story is a man who perceives he is trying to hold on to his moral center in the face of money, power, ambition and living. Edward Darby, father, son and husband is a partner in an art gallery and he represents an artist who has made a major impact on the world art scene. The story is concerned with betrayal but also with the sustaining power of love.

Not all critics have been kind to this book. Some have read the characters as not well-drawn and the themes as less than high-minded. Goodreads gave it a 3.5 rating and focused on its theme of betrayal. Kirkus Reviews put it on the Best Books of 2015 list. Clearly, it is a novel that provokes different reactions.

The author Jill Bialosky is the author of 4 collections of poetry, two previous novels and a recent memoir that became a best seller and a critical favorite. She knows how to pull a reader with her prose. This look at life in the art world certainly holds interest for readers who know little of that environment. Edward, the protagonist of this tale demonstrates his temptations and his faults. But this reader always turned the page wondering what he would do next, always hoping for the best for him and those he loved.

See www.jillbialosky.com for more information. She is a writer worth exploring. Not only does she write in different genres, she is also an editor. Her website, filled with interviews and information offers some very interesting reading.

I don’t wonder if I will read her again; but which of her publications will I chose? It may well be her voice as a writer that I do not want to resist. It takes hold of me and I hold on to it for the read.

LUCY BARTON: QUIET AND UNFORGETTABLE

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My Name Is Lucy Barton: A Novel
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House 2016
Genre: literary novel
Hardcover edition: 191 pages
Source: Personal copy

Elizabeth Strout, in seemingly simple straightforward prose, illuminates the deep feelings people experience as they live their lives. Her stories are not complicated or fancy. In this one Lucy Barton is forced to spend a long period in the hospital, mostly away from her husband and children. Her mother lives half a country away in another state but comes to the hospital to visit even though they have not seen each other for many years; and her mother stays by Lucy’s bedside. She and her mother talk of home-town gossip and Lucy remembers her childhood, much of it unpleasant, deprived and worse. But Ms. Strout doesn’t dwell on this, events are conveyed in short explosive bursts.

Ms. Strout writes scenes between characters and short tales of people known by her characters, ordinary people with ordinary failings. We readers are forced to see our unlovely characteristics. Reading about Lucy makes me sorry for my cruelty to others, those I like very much, those I truly love and those I care less about. I am reminded how cruelty escapes us when we least expect it, moving like a dripping faucet and sometimes like the quick cough from a long unused water pipe.

Lucy Barton is a writer and she goes to a workshop conducted by a more well-known writer named Sarah Payne. Ms. Payne says her job as a fiction writer is to report on the human condition, tell us who we are and what we think and what we do. This is what Strout does so well. The characters in Ms. Strout’s novels make me sad or at least this reader feels like Strout writes the icy sadness we often allow to crust over the surface of our lives. She does this with beautiful prose, simple and spare.

As I read the book, I find myself wondering what is story? What is the best way to tell a story. What is the value of a story within a story? I do not discover the answers to any of these questions, but it seems Ms. Strout is a master of storytelling, especially stories that seem simple, and perhaps are not.

Lucy Barton is a character I will remember and I will be filled with sadness and empathy for her for a long time, I think. Yet she is a successful author who overcomes difficulties and finds love and happiness in spite of the challenges in her life. She is, after all, an inspiration. Character and author have that in common.

FIND HUMOR, PASSION, STRONG THEMES

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Go Set A Watchman
Author: Harper Lee
Publisher: Harper Collins 2015
Genre: Novel
Hardcover Edition: 278 pages
Source: Library copy

This book has come into print amidst much publicity and the memories of the many readers who hold Harper Lee’s Pulitzer winner To Kill A Mockingbird in high esteem. Many readers thought we knew the story behind this book. Some wondered at what the publishers were about; well, making money of course and that is the business. Some readers couldn’t wait to get their hands on anything written by Harper Lee. Some of us were much more skeptical and even certain Go Set would not be a personal reading choice.

Instead, this naysayer found pleasure in sinking into Harper Lee’s familiar prose about a familiar place. The description of Maycomb, Alabama, the place and the people brings to life another time and place with nostalgia and magic. When a grown-up Jean Louise ––Scout––returns home from New York for a visit, she sees her childhood love, her beloved father Atticus, and all her family and the community with a different eye than previously. As is often true, losing memories and assumptions brings her pain.

The novel has something important to say about race relations. Race continues to be a very big issue in our country as it has been for many years. The landscape may change, but the issue remains. Seeing the situation in 1950’s rural Alabama informs us about the issue as we may see it today. These characters share some of their wisdom. Which is not to say that readers will not identify with Jean Louise’s passion and viewpoint. She’s a strong character. She plunges into living with a heartfelt conscience.

More experienced critics have dissected the book. Google Go Set A Watchman reviews if you wish a learned look at the book.

I found it an enjoyable read. Yes, the familiar characters and Lee’s strong writing of place were major reasons. Most readers remember when they began to see “home” differently from how they had seen it previously, and thus identify with Jean Louise, her memories, and her painful discoveries. The book moves along pleasantly, especially if a reader enjoys childhood fun and long family discussions on the important issues of life.

So, this reader is eating a double helping of crow with all the trimmings. I’m glad I read this book. I enjoyed the read. Especially, if you are a Harper Lee fan, don’t miss it.

AUTHOR RACHEL SIMON BRAVELY SHARES HER FAMILY’S HEARTBREAKING AND HEARTWARMING STORY

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Riding the Bus With My Sister: a True Life Journey
Author: Rachel Simon
Publisher: Penguin 2003
Genre: Memoir
Paperback Edition: 293 pages
Source: Library copy

This memoir does not oversimplify the complexity of any life, and certainly not the life of a person with cognitive challenge/mental retardation. The reader gains insight into the life of Beth, a woman with a mild mental disability. She eventually lives independently. She spends her days riding the buses in her mid-sized Pennsylvania city. Readers learn about her family and her complicated relationship with a sister close in age, the author. The book traces growth and change over time.

It cuts away the sentimentality that so often accompanies stories of people with mental disability. This author provides specificity and detail for the people involved in Beth’s life. This includes many from the larger community. One of this story’s revelations was the extent of support Beth received from those in her community. She was valued for herself and not for her behaviors.

Beth has strong abilities. She is a problem-solver. She irritates when she repeatedly gets in the face of those around her. She often demonstrates her stubbornness. Like most of us, she has many facets to her personality and capabilities.

In spite of trauma and hardship, this is a heartwarming story. My faith in humankind is bolstered. My admiration for this writer who willingly exposes her own shortcomings to communicate the strength of love for her sister grew stronger as my reading progressed. There are strong emotions exposed in the telling of this story and strong emotions aroused in the reader. I learned much, though I have lived much of my life with a son with mental disability.

This memoir will be discussed at an upcoming book club meeting. Without its status as a book club pick, I would not have read this book, thinking I had read as much as I cared to about disability and pathology. I’m glad I didn’t miss out on this reading experience. There is little sugarcoating in this story. It holds tenderness, anger and heartbreak along with a tight brave love. Thank you to this family, those around Beth and this author for sharing their story.

HEARTBREAK CAN BE A CHOICE

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Me Before You
Author: Jojo Moyes
Genre: Romance Novel
Publisher: Penguin Books
Paperback Edition 369 pages
Source: personal copy

Sometimes, a good read takes the reader inside an experience one never wanted to know and the reader is both uplifted and heartbroken. For this reader, Me Before You is that kind of book. I might not have picked it up were it not a book club pick, but once I began, I could not put the story down. I’m likely to read the sequel, After You.

The main characters, Lou and Will, are endearing creations, people who are interesting and have so much to offer, each other and the reader. Both surprising and funny, the tale takes an unknowable situation and transforms it into a caring and romantic story. I turned the pages faster and faster. I laughed and I cried. And along the way I thought about life, what it offers, what it expects. Life is something like a parent, keeping the path just challenging enough that growth is inevitable.

Extreme physical disability has always seemed a subject most difficult to face at even the most superficial level. In spite of that, the book is a joyful read. It is amazing what people can do when faced with uphill challenges and impossible decisions.

Hats off to Jojo Moyes who doesn’t need my applause. She’s written many best sellers. She’s a household name. Not only is this good writing, it is creative in the best way, by which I mean her story often surprises and is never simplistic. The subject and the characters are treated with respect.

If you do not know this author, now is the time to become acquainted.

GOLDEN AGE: LIFE IN THESE UNITED STATES OVER THE LAST 100 YEARS

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Golden Age
Author: Jane Smiley
Publisher: Alfred Knopf (2015)
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Family saga
Hardcover Edition: 443 pages
Source: Personal Copy

After three riveting novels, Jane Smiley’s trilogy, the 100-year story of an American farm family comes to a powerful conclusion. Golden Age is the final volume and in it readers follow the Langdon clan from 1987 to 2019. In this novel the structure of each new year encapsulated in a chapter continues.

Writing of the first two novels, Some Luck and Early Warning, I referred to fully drawn characters, graceful prose, and scenes the reader mines for meaning. The final novel is more plot driven and the suspense regarding the fate of the characters builds with each turn of the page.

Smiley’s story telling is clear and economical. It addresses the issues of the time. Through Richie Langdon one of Frank Langdon’s twin sons, she satirizes American politics. He becomes for a time a congressman. Also on stage in this last novel are wars, and their effect on those who survive. At the center of it all are the changes in farming in the Midwest.

This author absolutely nails the details of farm life, the farm scene, and the cruel machinations of the farm business. Jane Smiley knows the subjects she writes about, whether medieval literature, horses, politics or geography: Washington D.C. the Midwest and California to name three locals where much action is set. She seems to understand terror and happiness. So this tale is no mere recitation of facts, but rather characters who take the reader inside issues and enable the reader to experience their never-simple emotions.

She works her magic on a huge canvas, yet each scene, each family unit, each relationship comes clearly into focus. In this final book, the unexpected is more shocking, grabbing and twisting the reader’s emotions. While we were reading everyday life as it evolves through the Golden Age, we discover much has changed, irrevocably.

My three adjectives: brilliant, fascinating, magic. Certainly one of the best books I’ve read this year.

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE COLD

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Fourth of July Creek
Author: Smith Henderson
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2014
Genre: Fiction
Paperback Edition: 467 pages
Source: Personal copy

This debut novel has received much critical acclaim. “Not-to-be-missed”, “best book I’ve read this year,” “impressive”. Superlatives and praise from every corner have continued since the hardcover publication. It seemed to this reader that I was drowning in the calls to read this book. When I saw it out in paperback at McLean and Eakin, I decided I’d better dive in. I found the water very cold.

Yes, there are important themes: freedom, morality, poverty, the care of orphaned children, children of dysfunction. We see rural America in a somewhat painful light. The writing is face-paced, energetic, beautiful. Often I read books about the west because I want to travel to places like Montana that hold a certain mysterious geological beauty. The Bitterroots, Missoula, Route #2 are all of that. The writing here is enthralling, but I would not call it satisfying in the conventional sense.

In a recent interview, Gloria Steinem uttered a sentence that stopped me in my reading tracks. She was discussing the last piece of writing she had read that made her furious, an article about American soldiers in Afghanistan. This is the line that grabbed my attention: “By allowing massive child abuse, we are creating the next generation of vengeance.”

Reading that sentence, the social worker Pete, lead character in this story, grows in heroic stature for this reader, in spite of the fact that much of his behavior seems anything but. And yet one thing this book is very much about is how none of us can know the grief and loss that others face, nor can we fully understand the ways anyone might deal with such. Pete is heroic because he tries so valiantly to stop child abuse, because he deals with the fact of how pervasive it is in our society even in the beauty of western forests, mountains, creeks, and human quiet.

The rock-hard beauty of the prose kept me going through this book. This commentary is more personal than I would like. But it is a personal read.

As a life-long educator, I thought I knew something about the inhuman ways we treat children right here in America. No need to go to Afghanistan, Syria or anywhere else in the world. But the children and the events of this story astonished me. One wonders how things can go so wrong in a world of people striving for right. The writer Elizabeth Strout advised writers to take your story to the wall. Smith Henderson did just that.

Take a deep breath and dive into this book. The water might not be as cold for you as it felt to me. Bottom line: I’m glad I didn’t miss this read.

LIFE WITH KING DAVID IN SECOND IRON AGE ISRAEL

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The Secret Chord: A Novel
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Publisher: Viking, 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 300 pages
Source: Personal Copy

King David is perhaps the person from deepest in history to have the story of his entire life known from biblical writings. Nathan, friend and counsel to David throughout his life narrates this story. Through his eyes, the reader feels, the blood, the dust, the terror and the joy of the David and those surrounding him.

In this novel Brooks brings to vivid reality what it was like to live in Second Iron Age Israel. She creates a surprisingly imaginative story yet so real you hear the music, witness the violence, and feel the hatred individuals spew forth living in this life-or-death society. Events are filled with passion and daring, but never for a moment do they seem unreal.

David’s music is a central backdrop to the story and just one example of how fully imagined he is as a main character. Celebrations and indeed all aspects of life include music. People process, singing, dancing, and playing instruments: cymbals, systrums (a percussion instrument that is shaken), flutes, lyres, drums. David composes music and words: “Give praise, proclaim his Name, Proclaim his marvels to the nations, Sing to him, sing praise to him…” David plays the harp with great skill, and indeed he makes a crude harp when he is quite young. In celebration of the ark he whirls and dances among the olive trees.

The details of how people lived at that time are clearly, even cleverly, portrayed and again, this makes the story very real. This reader especially identified with the women in the story. David’s wives and daughter are central to the plotlines of his life. The portrayal of third-wife Avigail as his great friend and confidant is quite touching. Nathan is entirely believable as a seer and a courtier. The skilled pacing of David’s story by this experienced author keeps the pages turning despite multiple characters and a life crammed with action and adventure.

David has fascinated readers for centuries, whether the young boy who fells a giant with his skill, the vicious killer, or the wise ruler. Brooks shows us how he was all this and more. Both his physicality and his emotional life are on display in her story. This reader enjoyed my time immersed in this ancient history, which yet seemed so modern. Perhaps human nature doesn’t much change through the ages. I truly hated to see the book come to a close. I did not want to leave the people or the place. I’m hoping for a mini-series!