Book Review: We That are Left by Clare Clark

Book Review

We That are Left by Clare Clark

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015

If you are a huge fan of all those 17th and 18th century novels that were written by woman about the woman’s condition at their time, and you’ve been wishing desperately for something new to read, then Clark has answered your dreams.

This novel is so very much like those written a hundred years ago that it’s uncanny. Clark has a flare for replicating a prosaic voice that is mannered and very much like those narrators unseen yet so sweeping in their scope in novels of yore. (Yes, I just said, “novels of yore,” and yes, I really meant exactly that.)

So hang on, because this one will take you to the modern (ish) wartime, yet keep you imbedded in the same sort of class dramas. The synopsis for the book says it all in that regard, so I won’t replicate it here. Let’s just say that this is well worth the time, and yes, it’s also worth paying attention throughout the first 70 pages or so to grasp each of the characters that are quickly introduced.

You’ll swoop quickly through the relevant points of their childhood. It could have been better done by starting with adults and integrating those younger years components when they became relevant but it seems like a lot of publishers are pushing authors to write from the youthful perspective these days, so I’ll let that slide by without anything negative on the scoring.

Otherwise, a great read you’ll want to catch! Grab it now and you’ll plunge into  the delightful antiquated flavor with a new, updated story.

4 stars!

For another contemporary story that has the nuances of times past, try Reparation: A Novel of Love, Devotion and Danger, in which a Lakota Sioux man must honor his traditions while trying to save his sister and his lover from a sinister and charismatic church leader.

The publisher provided a copy so that I could write this review.

Book Review: Along the Inifinite Sea by Beatriz Williams

Book review for

Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams

Author of A Hundred Summers and The Secret Life of Violet Grant

Putnam 2015

I have never been a fan of the books or movies that follow the life of an object: the pants that get traded from one person to another or the mysterious box that curses every person who ends up being suckered into buying the darned thing. The connection between characters is too weak, the conceit too visible for my tastes.

This work, however, takes that premise and adds a twist. When a classic convertible is sold by a woman who has dedicated quite some time and effort to restoring the vehicle, the buyer turns out to be a woman who used the car to flee from the Third Reich and all its attenuating despair.

At heart, this work is a romance that weaves together two stores. One of a modern woman who became involved with a politician (another powerful figure, albeit in modern times) and one who became involved with a Nazi (who held a much more sinister type of power, and one that we all hope will continue to exist only in the past).

When the two women meet to transfer ownership of the car, they embark on a road trip that takes them down the roads of their own personal histories. One is far in the past and one more recent.

These parallel journeys should work better than they do. Part of the problem is that the work is written with a style that mirrors much of the contemporary romance genre, and isn’t terribly interested in depth. Details, yes…and that is where this particular story really shines.

The stories of each woman are well worth the time involved in engaging with the narrative. The ending is not a tight wrapup of all that came before, which asks a bit more of readers, and allows them to overlay their own desires for each character onto the story.

So overall, this is an engaging read that has much to offer in part because it doesn’t fit into the typical romance or women’s fiction plot that is so overdone. Quite an original concept!

4 stars!

For a different type of road journey that reveals much about the life of an individual left bereft by events outside their control, try The Family Made of Dust, winner of two national awards.

 

Book Review: Glory Over Everything: Beyond The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

April 2016 by Simon & Schuster

After reading The Kitchen House, millions of readers were wanting to hear more about the mixed-race escaped slave who had been raised white until his father sold him off.

Now they have another gripping story from Grissom. In this one, James Pyke has built a life for himself as a white man. Working as a jeweler, he has carved out a place among the aristocracy of Philadelphia.

He has also taken in the son of the man who helped him when he first arrived in the city. The other man is also an escaped slave, and both men constantly fear that the slave hunters will track them down, reveal their secrets, and return them to the South.

When the boy Pan is kidnapped by slave traders and taken south to be sold, James is the only person who can hope to find him and eventually return his freedom. What follows is two tales interwoven, and each tale offers its own rewards. When the two stories again merge, readers are swept along to a thundering climax that only Grissom could provide.

The only flaw with this work is found in the opening segment. The work is paced quite slowly here as readers are introduced to everything James has to lose. However, by the opening of the third chapter, readers are well entrenched in two lives. Readers who continue on will be richly rewarded with a novel that is compelling and strongly paced to the end.

5 stars!

Readers who are interested in other stories of lives stolen away and snatched back after great effort should consider The Family Made of Dust, which deals with the aftermath of Australia’s twentieth-century genocidal policies against Aboriginal tribes. Readers who are interested in other groups that have built America and continue to make it strong will be interested in the contemporary story of a Native American man who must save his sister and his lover from a peyote cult in Reparation. 

Book Giveaway: Saving Phoebe Murrow

Today is a special post because the publisher of Saving Phoebe Murrow has provided a paperback copy for a giveaway! Scroll down to previous posts for the author guest post, review, and an excerpt you won’t find on the book sellers’ sites.

To enter this review, simply leave a comment on this blog before Wednesday, Sep 21. The winner will be selected at random. Be sure to provide your Twitter handle or an email so that you can be contacted if you win!

To stay updated on all giveaways, book reviews and publishing tips, follow me on Twitter or sign up for this blog!

While you’re waiting to hear if you’ve won, check out an award-winning novel about a family destroyed and reborn in The Family Made of Dust: A Novel of Loss and Rebirth in the Australian Outback

Guest Post by Author Herta Feely

Today we hear directly from Herta Feely, author of Saving Phoebe Murrow. 

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It’s September. Crickets and cicadas screech in full chorus as I sit on a small third-story balcony overlooking a forest of oak trees, trying to imagine what readers might like to know about the writing of Saving Phoebe Murrow.

1) Are you wondering how I chose Phoebe’s name or Isabel’s?

2) Because Phoebe was bullied, do you wonder if, perhaps, I was ever bullied, or if I was a bully?

3) Do you want to know why the story is set in DC in 2008?

4) Do you ask: What are you working on next?

So, question one. The characters’ names. I’ve always liked the name Phoebe. It contains a kind of vulnerability and softness that I wanted for the eponymous 13-year-old character. As for Isabel, her character actually began with the name Susan in a short story, which then became part of this novel. In that story, which you’ll recognize in Saving Phoebe Murrow, a woman is getting a manicure and while there experiences anxieties about her teen daughter, from whom she feels estranged yet is dying to understand.  After changing Susan to Isabel, I also changed the last name from Winslow to Winthrop, which helps reflect Isabel’s rigid upbringing (as in the Puritanical Winthrops of Massachusetts), hence her rigid father, John Winthrop.

#2: Yes, in fact, I was bullied as a young girl when fresh “off the boat” from Germany and new to the U.S. It was quite painful and stayed with me for many years. I only remembered this after writing the novel when someone asked me about bullying. I imagine that experience allowed me to tap into emotional truths for 13-year-old Phoebe in the novel. (I don’t recall being a bully. Bossy, yes. Bully, no!)

#3: The story is set in DC , where I’ve lived since 1982. Though this novel reflects certain peculiarities of DC culture, perhaps even exaggerates them for dramatic effect, the essential aspects of the story could take place anywhere. I chose 2008 because teens still heavily used Facebook then and it was an interesting election year, which allowed me to bring certain aspects of the city to the fore.

#4: I’m working on All Fall Down, a novel about Charlotte Cooper, a woman about to reach the pinnacle of her career, until everything falls out from under her. It’s also a love story between a London-raised Nigerian sculptor and Charlotte, the human rights activist.

 

To hear more from Feely, check out her website. Be sure to come back tomorrow for the giveaway!

For another novel that features a strong female protagonist in a unique setting, try Beloved: A Senual Noir Thriller

Free Reading: Excerpt from Saving Phoebe Murrow

As promised, here is a free excerpt from Saving Phoebe Murrow by Herta Feely. This is from pages 56 through 58 when Phoebe’s mother is getting a manicure.

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Isabel’s thoughts traveled between Phoebe, the TV, and Thuy, whose soft, quiet features belied the strength in her hands. She rubbed Isabel’s forearms, then her palms and each finger. Isabel closed her eyes and tried to relax. She needed to spend more time getting to know Phoebe’s friends and their parents, even if one of them was Sandy. She’d start by being friendlier at the party that evening, and released a long exhalation of air.

“You have long week?” Thuy asked in a low voice. Isabel nodded. Much too long, she thought, when suddenly a local news anchor’s head appeared on the TV screen. He wore an earnest, worried expression.

The words “Breaking News” popped up behind him. For some reason subtitles now failed to crawl across the screen. Isabel’s brow wrinkled. What was he saying? Anything could have happened. Anything from those exploding sewer lids in Georgetown, to a drive-by shooting (she thought of the DC sniper of a few years ago), to another act of Al Qaeda terrorism. Why on earth didn’t they turn up the volume?

The image on the screen flipped to a low-income neighborhood. At the bottom it said, “Adams Morgan.” She caught sight of several police cars outside a crumbling apartment building. What the hell’s going on, she wondered. But the announcer’s face returned, mouthing the words, “…breaking news story. Back in a minute.”

The news made her restless. As Thuy deftly lacquered the nails of her left hand, Isabel wished the manicure were finished. She wanted to be home in her clean house (thank you, Milly) and have a glass of Chardonnay. She again tried to relax, inhaled the familiar scent of polish, but another thought niggled its way into her brain. What if Phoebe’d gone to Adams Morgan after all?

Until recently, Isabel had taken for granted that Phoebe was reliable, alongside being wonderful, smart, and kind. And very pretty, even if she had inherited Ron’s short, slightly stubby fingers. Nor had she ever worried about what other adults thought of her, not even after she learned about Phoebe’s cutting.

She considered this as Thuy brushed sunrise onto her long nails, which accentuated her shapely slender fingers, fingers someone had once referred to as perfect.

Actually, she’d always thought that Phoebe was perfect, or nearly so, until a little over a year ago, when she’d begun accumulating used clothing. Disgusting smelly men’s pants and shirts, women’s dresses, and even old petticoats and tattered jeans. God only knew where she found them. Surely she hadn’t been going to shops in Adams Morgan all along?

One day – when was it? – Phoebe had told her she wanted to design clothes. A skill she’d learned from Ron’s mother. With her chubby, nail-bitten fingers, Phoebe began tearing these hideous clothes apart, then sewed the dark swatches of fabric into skirts and assembling them into misshapen jackets.

At first, Isabel had objected. She wanted to steer Phoebe toward a sensible profession. But all at once, determined and headstrong, Phoebe had insisted fashion was her future. Isabel believed it to be a cutthroat, low-paying industry, and hoped it would be a phase Phoebe was bound to outgrow.

On the TV, the commercial concluded and the same neighborhood featured earlier reappeared. Isabel leaned toward the screen. A crowd of people had gathered behind Cynthia Chan, the reporter at the scene, microphone in hand. Police cars stood in the background. The reporter was saying something, her mouth moving exaggeratedly. Isabel could only guess at the content. Her eyes drifted to the cluster of people surrounding the woman, mostly Latinos, though whites were among them, and a few African Americans.

A girl standing further back near a policeman caught Isabel’s eye. A fair-haired white girl, wearing a jean jacket that looked like one of Phoebe’s creations!

Isabel’s distance from the TV made it impossible to discern the girl’s features. She tugged her hand away from Thuy and jumped out of her chair, awkwardly threading her way toward the TV in her paper flip-flops. She called out for the volume to be turned up. As she drew near, the camera angle shifted and the policeman and the girl disappeared.

Isabel gazed emptily at the screen. The anchorman’s mouth shaped the words, “Thank you, Cynthia.”

Isabel turned around to find people staring at her. She felt the need to say something, but the words caught in her throat. “I just thought the girl looked—” She stopped; her eyes scanned the clientele. They looked like jurors, hanging on her every syllable, their own thoughts in limbo. Normally she took this in stride, but now their stares unnerved her. Finally, she met their gaze, and groping for a word, added, “Familiar. She looked familiar.”

Interested? Get the book on Amazon here. Check back tomorrow for a guest post, and don’t forget the giveaway on Saturday!

Or, for a gripping journey through a young man’s attempt to rescue his sister and his girlfriend from a Native American-style peyote cult, click on Reparation: A Novel of Love, Devotion and Danger

Book Review: Saving Phoebe Murrow by Herta Freely

Saving Phoebe Murrow by Herta Freely

Upper Hand Press LLC, September 2016

spm-high-res-coverA book can be read many ways. Some people want only entertainment while others enjoy exploring a social issue or delving into a particular message while reading. Nearly everyone is looking for some level of quality in the writing, at a minimum prose that keeps their attention either by moving briskly or by building the details of a fictional world that consumes readers with a unique time and place.

When reading a book for a review (and as a reader), I look at two distinct areas. First comes the storytelling skills: character development, scenic development, and pacing. Second is the context: the takeaway, whether it’s a message or simply an emotion, that readers hold after they finish the last page.

Because these two elements can end up on opposite sides of the ranking scale, occasionally the reviews I write are mixed. That is clearly the case with Saving Phoebe Murrow. 

Since storytelling is so important to most readers, I’ll address these elements first. And be warned that it’s going to sound harsh.

The first few chapters are promising and lead readers directly into the lives of the major players: the career-minded mother, and the gentle and intelligent daughter who is already dealing with psychological issues.

Eventually readers recognize the flaws of the other players, mainly a husband who has already strayed from his vows and the mother of Phoebe’s friend who is clearly not emotionally balanced. And even in the way this review talks about the characters presents one of the primary issues, the flat, two-dimensional antagonist.

The antagonist is the friend’s mother. She is preoccupied by sex primarily because she uses sex to manipulate others. Quite frankly, that’s about all you need to know about this character, and in too true a way, that’s all readers are shown about her. She is never developed beyond that.

Readers learn quite a number of backstory elements about her but they all funnel into why she is the way she is. But without any depth to the backstory, the information doesn’t give her character any broadness of emotions. Readers feel no empathy for her. And there’s really nothing worse than a villain who is only a villain and not a human being with different aspects.

Providing a two-dimensional antagonist means that the primary characters don’t have anything real to work against. And that means that their own development remains thin. Although mother and daughter interact in many scenes, their relationship doesn’t really have the emotional charge that it should. The moment when the mother confirms her fears that Phoebe has begun cutting herself again should be a tragic moment but doesn’t move readers much.

The problem isn’t that readers never see the characters in action but that the writing itself is more functional than prosaic. No novel “needs” to be written with flowery literary skill but it should be more than a map from point A to point Z. The narrative and the dialog both are middling, but since the emotions are anything but average, the style doesn’t meet the needs of the story or the context.

This explains the number of other reviews that talk about the sagging middle where attention wandered away from the story. None of the characters are developed to the point where they really grab readers, and that’s a real shame. The book’s context, the backdrop of our real world where cyberbullies torment their victims, needs to be addressed.

And that’s where Saving Phoebe Murrow turns the corner. The message embedded in this work is so important, and there are so few works out there that take a realistic approach in a fictional context, that this story is really very valuable.

Fortunately, that value is actually enhanced by the prose style. This work isn’t categorized as YA, yet it would be very appropriate for young adult readers. Parents can therefore be secure in offering this work to their teens and, after reading it themselves, parents can then engage in a thoughtful and important conversation about cyberbullying.

So, to the ranking. Storytelling elements fall at 2. The context and the way it’s handled comes in at 3.5 with an additional point due to the importance of the message for our modern world, so the final score is 4.5. Averaging those two yields an overall rank of 3.25.

Readers interested in applying parenting skills or learning coping skills for life’s most common issues that are based on traditional tribal wisdom should check out Seven Sisters: Spiritual Messages from Aboriginal Australia.

Check back here tomorrow for an excerpt from the book. On Friday, this blog will feature a guest post from the author, and on Saturday a copy of the book will be given away.

I received a copy of the book in order to write this review.