Archive for August, 2015

A Marvelous Church of Marvels

Church of Marvels: A Novel, by Leslie Parry, (Ecco), 320 pages, release date 5 May, 2015

My enthusiasm for Church of Marvels is pretty much unbridled. Set in turn-of-the-century Coney Island and Manhattan, it offers an eclectic cast of characters. There are twin sisters, Isabelle and Odille, whose mother, Friendship Church, runs the entertainment palace of the title. Isabelle is a contortionist and sword swallower. Odille, partially crippled, is the woman on the wheel at whom knives are thrown. There’s Alphie, who worked as a child prostitute before setting up her own business as a “Rembrandt”: making up wealthy men who have been slumming by the docks before they return home. She awakes one day to find herself trapped in a madhouse due to the machinations of her mother-in-law. Finally, there’s Dog Boy, an orphan who makes his living mucking out privies by night and who occasionally earns a bit more as a fighter in barroom bouts.

When Dog Boy discovers a still-living baby in one of the privies he cleans, the stories of these four characters gradually pull closer and closer together, building unexpected relationships. Following these characters as they fight to make a way for themselves in the world is engrossing reading. The novel is made even more engaging by a broad cast of secondary characters, all of them interesting in their own rights.

I said I have “pretty much” unbridled enthusiasm for this novel. My one area of ambivalence is the violence that some of these characters face. It’s appropriate to the time and narrative, but still painful to read. Nonetheless, Parry offers each of them a dignity that violence cannot diminish.

August 27 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

An Unacknowledged Resemblance

The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman, (Simon & Schuster), 384 pages, release date 4 August, 2015

Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites provides an engaging blend of historically inspired fiction and magical realism. The history: the life stories of Rachel Pomié Petit Pizzarro and of her son, Jacobo Camille Pizzarro, better know as the artist Camille Pissarro. The magic: life on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, where both Rachel and Camille are born.

Rachel is a member of St. Thomas’s small Jewish community—a community that values conformity as a result of the historical oppression it has faced. Community members must not  engage in behaviors that would draw the attention of those outside the community. Rachel chafes at these expectations and dreams of leaving St. Thomas for France, longing for a life of urban glamor and personal freedom.

Educated by her father, Rachel knows how to run the family business, though laws at the time prevent her from doing so. She accepts the marriage her father arranges for her in order to bolster the family business, which means becoming a stepmother to three children closer to her own age than her husband is.

After her first husband’s death, one of her husband’s nephews from France is sent to run the family business, even though Rachel can do so quite capably herself. Rachel and this cousin, Frédéric, fall in love, scandalizing their community as the relationship is considered incestuous, regardless of the fact that the two are only related by marriage, not blood. Refusing to conform, Rachel and Frédéric battle for years to win the community’s permission to wed, ultimately finding success, if not respect.

The irony of this story is that Camille is every bit the rebel his mother was—and she pushes him to conform to community expectations, despite her own refusal to do so. Camille is unsuccessfully placed in varying positions in the family business, but what he really wants to do is paint. After several years studying art in Paris, Camille finds conformity even more impossible.

All this summarizes the central story of Marriage of Opposites, but the book’s real strength is not plot so much as voice. The novel includes two perspectives communicated in third person: those of Frédéric and of Lydia, daughter of one of Rachel’s friends. More importantly, there are also two first person voices: Rachel’s and Camille’s. Readers have a privilege neither Rachel nor Camille has—the opportunity to see how deeply similar these two spirits in conflict really are.

This novel is interesting for its glimpse into a particular moment in history, but it is compelling because of the way Hoffman fleshes out her two central characters.

August 25 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Reintroduction to Favorite Characters

Rock with Wings: A Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito Novel, by Anne Hillerman, (Harper), 336 pages, release date 5 May, 2015

I loved Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series, featuring a pair of tribal police working on the Navajo reservation. The mysteries were top-notch, but even more than that, I enjoyed being introduced to a new (for me) culture through Hillerman’s books. Hillerman had a knack for helping his readers think along with his characters, sliding them into a world view that might be very removed from their own.

When Hillerman died, I regretted that I wouldn’t have more adventures with Leaphorn and Chee ahead of me. Then in 2013 his daughter Anne Hillerman came out with Spider Woman’s Daughter, featuring Leaphorn and Chee. I confess I didn’t read that book, much as I would have enjoyed more time with the two tribal police officers—I was uncomfortable with someone else taking on these characters, worried that her characterizations would fall short of what I’d come to expect or that they wouldn’t ring true.

Now Anne Hillerman’s second novel in the series, Rock with Wings, is out. I decided to take a chance on her characterizations, and I’m glad I did. Anne Hillerman’s understanding of these different characters and the forces that motivate them is dead-on. Leaphorn (even with a head injury that’s left him aphasic) is terse and brilliant, noting details and understanding their significance long before anyone else. Chee still straddles the traditional and the modern. And Chee’s now-wife, Bernadette Manuelito, is fierce and quick to act.

The first two thirds of the novel were deeply satisfying, with clues parceled out one at a time, a satisfying range of interactions among characters, and the introduction of some interesting outsiders working on a zombie film being shot in the area.

The mysteries are a bit diffuse, but each provides characters with plenty of motivation. Manuelito can’t understand why the FBI refuses to take action against a man who attempted to bribe her to avoid a vehicle search (although he had nothing but two boxes of dirt in the trunk of his car)—and later investigates the immolation of this same car at a site where skinwalkers have been sighted. Chee is on loan to another police department and dealing both with new coworkers and “Hollywood types,” as well as a newly discovered grave site that may or may not be a promotional stunt for the film. Leaphorn is just beginning to use a laptop computer, which allows him to move beyond simple yes/no responses when communicating with others. He’s working online to try to pin down some of the more ambiguous clues Chee’s encountered.

My primary complaint is that the latter part of the novel changes pace and style. The denouement comes not through detective work, but through two  suspects suddenly deciding to tell their own stories in detail—even though doing so is more apt to hurt than help them. This wraps things up quickly, but I would have preferred that Hillerman had taken the time to let her characters uncover this information in a more satisfying way.

All said, Rock with Wings will prove a satisfactory read for fans of Tony Hillerman’s work. Anne Hillerman, if not quite matching his skills as a writer, is certainly doing his characters justice.

August 19 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

The Ghosts of World War I

The Uninvited: A Novel, by Cat Winters, (William Morrow Paperbacks), 368 pages, release date 11 August, 2015

The women in Ivy Rowan’s family have an unusual gift: they can see “the univited.” Before a death, other friends or family members who’ve died appear to them. Ivy explains: “I likely don’t need to mention that these Uninvited Guests were not welcome sights. My mother saw them, too, and she agreed that such visits always signaled loss. Their presence suggested that the wall dividing the living and the dead had opened a crack.”

Ivy lives at a time when death is ever-present. America has entered World War I, Ivy’s older brother has already died in the conflict, and now the influenza pandemic is sweeping through their town. Other kinds of deaths and violence are occurring as well: German-Americans are being attacked, sometimes lynched; German-sounding street names are changed to more palatable English versions; playing Beethoven is seen as sympathizing with the enemy; neighbors spy on and are eager to report one another.

Ivy is connected to one of these violent deaths. In a fit of drunken rage, her father and younger brother have killed one of a pair of German-American brothers who own the local furniture shop. Ivy is left devastated, wanting to atone for this death, but not knowing how to do so. She leaves the family farm, moves into town, takes a room in the house of a war widow, then goes to the furniture store, offering to help the surviving brother, Daniel, scrub away the blood stains.

Her offer of help is unwelcome, but Ivy and Daniel come to rely on one another in their shared, if very different, pain. They listen to the jazz music playing in the Masonic Hall across the street as they lie in one another’s arms.

In the evenings, Ivy drives a Red Cross ambulance on the “wrong side” of town. Blacks and immigrants are unwelcome in the overwhelmed local hospital. Instead, Ivy and her companions deliver them to a local community hall or private homes, where they receive the minimal care available.

It’s not surprising that in this environment Ivy frequently sees the Uninvited. And each time she sees them, she wonders what new death they presage.

The Univited is a fascinating read with its combination of real-world history and the supernatural. It will keep you reading long past bedtime, and the ending will both surprise and hearten you.

August 18 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Essential Reading for Baseball Fans and Dreamers

The Essential W. P. Kinsella, by W. P. Kinsella, (Tachyon Publications), 432 pages, release date 17 March, 2015.

The Essential W. P. Kinsella has been out for several months now, so this review is coming a bit late, but I wanted to draw attention to this marvelous compendium. If you have joint passions for baseball and reading, you most likely know of Kinsella’s work. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, think Field of Dreams. That heartwarming combination of baseball, mysticism, and literary journey was based on Kinsella’s novel of the same title.

I’d read all of Kinsella’s novels, but somehow hadn’t realized that he was also a prolific writer of short stories. The genre is perfect for his kind of writing: startling, original, entertaining, combining real world elements (baseball, Indian life in Iowa and Canada) with fantasy. I don’t know where he gets his ideas—but they translate into wonderful stories that can easily bear multiple readings.

In “Searching for January,” a 1980s U.S. baseball fan vacationing in Central America is startled to meet Roberto Clemete who’s just appeared from out of the ocean fog on a rubber life raft. In “How I Got My Nickname,” we learn how W. P. Kinsella (yes, he frequently appears in his own stories) ensures that Bobby Thompson has a chance to hit “the shot heard round the world.” These are the kinds of tales Kinsella excells at, and—with his fecund imagination—that never feel stale, regardless of how many of his other works you’ve read.

If you’re looking for a substantial volume of summer reading that you can pick up at will—and that celebrates the delight that is summer baseball—you’ll want to spend a good bit of time with W. P. Kinsella.

August 17 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Mrs. Hudson: Housekeeper and Sleuth

Mrs. Hudson and the Spirits’ Curse: A Holmes and Hudson Mystery, by Martin Davies, (Canelo), 235 pages, release date 13 July, 2015

Well, I found another novel riffing on the Sherlock Holmes theme, and, of course, I couldn’t resist asking for a review copy. This has been a good year for Holmes with a number of new Holmes books out: there’s a new Russell/Holmes from Laurie King; the start of a new Holmes/Watson series from Vasudev Murthy and Poisoned Pen Press; The Fifth Heart, pairing Holmes and Henry James; Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was paired with Oscar Wilde in a new Paranormal Casebooks volume; and Zach Dundas has written a book exploring the history of and variations on the Holmes stories. If we stretch back into late 2014, we also had Anthony Horowitz’ Moriarty and a collection of Holmes stories edited by Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. King. And another major collection of Holmes related stories is due out in late October.

That’s a lot of Holmes, but as this publishing boomlet suggests, there’s always room for one more Sherlock. In Mrs. Hudson and the Spirits’ Curse, Martin Davies brings us a Holmes and Watson very much in the Conan Doyle style and pairs them with their housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, (who turns out to have quite a keen mind), and Flotsam—Flottie for short—a young orphan fleeing attempts to force her into prostitution.

The chief pleasure here is that while Holmes remains the intelligent man we’ve known him as, Davies plays on Holmes’ biases, using the Mrs. Hudson character to offer alternate interpretations for many clues Holmes uncovers. This Mrs. Hudson has a long history of solving crimes and an unusually broad group of acquaintances from all social strata to whom she turns for information and assistance.

At first, Holmes condescends to Mrs. Hudson, but it doesn’t take him long to realize he’s met a mind as sharp as (if also rather different from ) his own. Flottie gets her due as well. The least-respected character here is Watson. He’s companionable, but easily befuddled and uncertain at times in his actions.

The case focused on in Mrs. Hudson is a supposed curse placed on a trio of Englishmen returning to their native country after an unsuccessful attempt to build a fortune in Sumatra. It quickly becomes uncertain whether the men are more threatened by the curse or by one another.

If you’re looking to satisfy a craving for Holmesian reading, Mrs. Hudson will serve you well. The language is reminiscent of Conan Doyle’s, the story is carefully built—and it’s a true pleasure to see a pair of intelligent, self-reliant women alongside Holmes and Watson.

August 13 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Ice Age Play with a Baby Bison

Toby and the Ice Giants, by Joe Lillington, (Flying Eye Books), 32 pages, release date 11 August, 2015

Toby and the Ice Giants is a picture book designed to grow along with young readers. The basic story is simple: Toby the bison is a youngster out to explore his world. He meets all sorts of Ice Age creatures. The wooly rhinoceros tries to pick a fight. Smilodon, who we sometimes call a sabre-toothed tiger, wants to eat him for dinner. He even passes the campsite of a group of two-legged creatures who live and dress in bison and mammoth skins and who are accompanied by dogs!

The story of Toby’s adventures and his return home will delight the read-to-me crowd, especially any giant beast enthusiasts among them. Then, when a young reader is ready to do some reading on her own, she can explore the side panels that appear on about half of the book’s pages and that offer all sorts of information about these creatures: size, weight, diet, habitat. The book also tackles the disappearance of these great creatures, tying it to changes in climate and plant life and to the hunting patterns of those two-legged creatures Toby encountered.

If you want a book that welcomes rereading—and reading in different sorts of ways—you and your younger friends will enjoy Toby and the Ice Giants.

August 11 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Garden of Delights

The Little Gardener, by Emily Hughes, (Nobrow, Ltd.), 40 pages, release date 11 August, 2015

Emily Hughes’ The Little Gardener is one of the latest books from Nobrow, Ltd., a publisher specializing in high-quality picture books. I’ve enjoyed every Nobrow book I’ve seen, but The Little Gardener stands out for the quality of its illustrations. The pages are bathed in the colors of the seasons: bright green and pink for spring, gold for summer, the oranges and deep greens of harvest, and the rich browns of soil throughout.

There are actually two little gardeners in this book: a very, very small boy, who lives in a straw hut under a clump of dandelions, and his earthworm companion. Together they labor in the garden, which is full size. The boy balances atop the earthworm’s head to water flowers. He uses a saw to take down weeds that tower over him like trees. At night, both the boy and the worm find themselves wishing for help: their garden is beautiful, but overwhelming.

That help comes in the form of a pair of human children who lovingly tend the garden. As each duo works unaware of the other, the garden thrives, producing food and beauty for all.

The text in this book is limited, making it a good read-aloud book for preschoolers or first-read book for early grade-schoolers. The text may be quick to read, but the illustrations will invite extended perusal—there is so much for little eyes (and big ones) to see on each page. If you need a book for bedtime reading or that a child can leaf through during quiet time, The Little Gardener will serve you well.

August 10 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Mystery of Identity

The Burying Ground: A Thaddeus Lewis Mystery, by Janet Kellough, (Dundurn), 304 pages, release date 4 August, 2015

Janet Kellough’s The Burying Ground is an interesting read, not just for the mystery at its center, but also for the historical questions it raises. The setting of this mystery is the Strangers’ Burying Ground in Toronto. Graves are being dug up, but the bodies are left behind, so this can’t be the work of “resurrection men.” The promotional copy focuses on this mystery and the two men who join to try to solve it—the Rev. Thaddeus Lewis and his former student, Morgan Spicer, who is now the caretaker for this cemetery of the poor, the unknown, and the criminal.

I enjoyed this mystery, but for me the character at the heart of the book was Luke Lewis, Thaddeus’ son, who has just completed medical school and entered into a partnership with an aging village doctor. Luke is a gay man with one long-term relationship behind him (his partner died of tuberculosis), who is doing his best both to hide and to ignore this part of his identity. Not surprisingly, among Luke’s concerns is the way his father might respond to Luke’s orientation.

Although The Burying Ground is set in 1851, I’m using modern terminology here—gay, partner—because I don’t know what the terminology of the time was. There was the pejorative term, Molly, which appears in the book, but beyond that, who knows? This brings us to the heart of the issue that captured me: what does it mean to identify as a particular sort of person, if there isn’t even a word to name such people? Would the responses of those who uncover Luke’s secret be typical for his time? Or do they represent Kellough’s more modern sensibilities? These are fascinating questions that the character Luke brings to life for readers.

Read The Burying Ground for its mystery, but also use it a prompting to think about identity and history.

August 07 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

As Memory Disappears

The Theft of Memory: Losing My Father, One Day at a Time, by Jonathan Kozol, (Crown), 320 Pages, release date 2 June, 2015

Jonathan Kozol is a solid writer, author of a number of books on education and inequality in the U.S. In The Theft of Memory he takes on a different, more personal topic: his father’s struggles with Alzheimer’s disease. Not surprisingly, the father is as notable as his son. Harry Kozol trained at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and became a well-known specialist in brain disorders.

The Theft of Memory makes for poignant reading. We see flashes of Harry Kozol’s brilliance, but we also see his own awareness of the disease that is steadily reducing his memories, his sense of self. Jonathan Kozol’s narrative ability keeps readers engaged with Harry Kozol’s progress, even when the father becomes difficult, offensive, or simply seems to fade away as a personality.

I found that this was a book I had to read in installments because of its topic. Even for readers who haven’t witnessed someone else’s Alzheimer’s disease, the possibility that one may become that compromised person, trying to create meaning and security in a world with fewer and fewer memories, is difficult. We read the story of Harry Kozol, but we don’t know whether we are reading a version of our own story as well.

August 06 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

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