Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Widow of Pale Harbor

Title:  The Widow of Pale Harbor
Author:  Hester Fox
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2019. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1525834266 / 978-1525834264

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "This was the fourth dead raven to appear on Sophronia Carver's front path in as many weeks, and there was no explaining it away as coincidence this time."

Favorite Quote:  "A bird in a cage was no safer than a bird in a bush if someone chose to reach their hand in and pluck it out. At least the bird in the bush had the chance to fly away."

The Widow of Pale Harbor is Hester Fox's sophomore novel. Her debut was The Witch of Willow Hall. Both books have a similar structure and feel. The main character is a woman. Both are set in small towns and around atmospheric, old houses. Both have elements of witchcraft and past scandals and a very Gothic feel. Both have an element of romance.

This book adds a recurring reference to the works of Edgar Allen Poe, which adds interest. In fact, it prompts an interest in rereading some of his amazing works. Interesting, this October marks the 170th anniversary of the death of Edgar Allen Poe, perhaps explaining the time and the references in this book. The setting for this book is in Maine in 1846; it is concurrent with the final years of Edgar Allen Poe so his work is the "current" work of the day.

The Witch of Willow Hall ultimately was about a young woman finding her voice and owning her strengths and abilities. I enjoyed that story. The Widow of Pale Harbor unfortunately veers too much in the direction of a romance, which is not my preferred genre of reading.

Let's set the stage. Sophronia (Sophie) is a wealthy young widow living a secluded life in Pale Harbor. She is deemed a witch and responsible for the death of her husband. She is the scapegoat for all that goes wrong in the town. Gabriel Stone is the new transcendentalist minister in town except for the fact that he is not really a minister. He is here trying to fulfill the dream of his dead wife. Strange happenings - dead animals, warnings, threats, and more - abound in this town. The mystery is who is truly responsible.

Ultimately, this book ends up being more Gabriel's story and more romance than anything else. Unfortunately, Gabriel's character does not ring true. He is set up as a man devastated by his wife's death making his purpose in life to fulfill her dream. He meets Sophie, and there is instant attraction and an instant love story. The "instant" belies the depth of his feelings for his wife. The book also reveals in a sentence or two the back story of Gabriel and his wife. The events so succinctly written also belie the idea of Gabriel's grief at her death and the idea that he will dedicate his life to making her dream a reality.

The mystery of the book also has a very prosaic, very worldly ending. The supernatural and Gothic elements are lost in those very human, very criminal actions.

What made The Witch of Willow Hall work was the strong female main character and her growth and progression through the book. Sophie, the widow in this book, demonstrates no such change. She is depicted more as a victim, which makes for less engaging reading.

Although I was not the reader for this particular book except for the Edgar Allen Poe references, I do look forward to seeing what Hester Fox writes next. I enjoy the atmospheric setup and hope that the next book comes back to telling the story of a strong woman rather than that of a romance.


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Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Lost Letters of William Woolf

Title:  The Lost Letters of William Woolf
Author:  Helen Cullen
Publication Information:  Gradon House. 2019. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1525892088 / 978-1525892080

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Love letters have  only one hope for survival."

Favorite Quote:  "You were my best friend. Whenever anyone hurt me, you made me better. Whenever I was scared, it was into your arms I ran. Whenever I was lost, you found me. So what do you do when the person you count on most in the world is the person that's hurting you? Where do you go? To whom do you turn?"

There is a song called Escape or The Pina Colada Song by Rupert Holmes. That is the soundtrack of this book for me. If you know the song, you know how that story ends. The question is ... how does the story of William Woolf end? The book itself poses the question.

"It wasn't just their physical selves that had changed, though, that part was easily understood; what confused him was trying to identify when their feelings had altered. Was it a million little incremental changes over a long period of time? Or something obvious he had missed. If their essential selves were still the same, couldn't they find each other again? Or had they traveled too far down separate roads to reconnect in a different but happier place?"

That question arises in so many relationships somewhere along the way. The story lies in what each person in the relationship does with that question. What decisions are made? What compromises? What mistakes? At some point, what is done that is irrevocable.

The fact that this is the main point of the book is not clear from the beginning. William Woolf works at the Dead Letters Depot, a final repository of letters that for some reason or another have been undeliverable. William's journey of self-reflection begins with letters addressed to "My Great Love." I expect the book to be more about the letters and the potential and the mystery of letters that never arrive. To me, the letter has the potential to change lives. In this day and age, letter writing is unfortunately a dying art. I know, however, that I have certain letters in my life that are a part of my history and that I will hold on to forever.

I am a little disappointed that this is not the direction the book takes. As it evolves into a book about relationships, the letters and the Dead Letter Depot becomes just the background environment. The story the book tells still has relevance and emotion for many people. It is just not the story I expected to read.

Intermingled with the story of the marriage is William and Clare's history and their individual disappointments with the direction life has taken. William's goals for developing his work at the Depot into more seems thwarted at every turn. Clare has given up her passion to purse a career that supports financial security. Loneliness exists in this togetherness, and loneliness leads to dreams and other decisions that do not belong in a marriage. At the same time, their history demonstrates what brought them together.

There is also no real surprise or twist to the story of that relationship. It is a quiet exploration of what it means to love in the context of a long-term marriage. In that, the book makes a sad statement. "... the older I get, I realize that love is not enough on its own. It's the day-to-day reality of living with someone that really counts? What's love got to do with it?" To me, it depends on the definition of love and commitment. Love should have everything to do with it just as I wish the Dead Letter Depot had more to do with this story.


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Monday, September 9, 2019

A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl

Title:  A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl
Author:  Jean Thompson
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1501194364 / 978-1501194368

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It was the end of lilac season, that brief, heady time."

Favorite Quote:  "Most marriages had their share of bad spells, or of just bumping along. Laura knew that now. Knew that most people stayed married in spite of the unhappy parts. They hung on and waited for things to get better, or they walled themselves off from each other, or built their enmity for each other into a solid and enduring structure."

Grandmother. Mother. Daughter. Evelyn. Laura. Grace. All are women. All are girls. These women are three generations of a family in a small Midwestern town. This is a book not about a story but about women and the choices they make and the reverberations of those choices through the generations.

The choices most influential in their lives have to do with the men in their lives. All three in one way or another cater to the men in their lives.

Evelyn once dreams of getting a PhD. An affair in college leads to an unplanned pregnancy. Fear leads to a hasty marriage of convenience. She fulfills the duties of her marriage but builds a lifetime of resentments for the dreams she walked away from.

As a child, Laura finds her mother distant perhaps because Evelyn dreams of another life. Laura goes completely the direction. She is not looking for a career. Home and a family are her calling. Unfortunately, the man she marries turns out to be a drunk. Early on in their marriage, Laura finds herself increasingly isolated because of her husband's offensive behavior. To make matters worse, their son Michael, unfortunately is also in and out of rehab.

Grace is still young, at about 20 years old. She has watched her mother and learns the lessons from her mother's behaviors. Will she make the same choices as her mother and her grandmother? Will she change the paradigm to live a different life?

Evelyn and Laura make the choices they do, and then live in the unhappiness of the consequences and the unhappiness of the path not taken. Grace's story is still beginning so perhaps there is hope. However, for the most part, that sense of sadness permeates the book.

Be prepared. This book is a slow moving contemplation of these ideas and not really about a plot line. That meandering pace and the overwhelming sadness make this book a challenge. The bigger challenge to the book though is the characters. The men in the book range from needy to cruel with none aware of or caring of the women in their lives. In other words, the men are one-dimenstional, serving only to accentuate the women's unhappiness. None of the three women stand out or make a lasting impression.

Much has been written about the choices you make when caught in an unhappy situation. Either change the situation or change yourself. The "situations" in this book cover a wide range - unexpected pregnancy, addiction, war, infidelity, illness, death and even more. The book is mostly about the impact of these factors on these women and their increasing resentment and unhappiness. It is considerably less about these women standing up and determining the course of their lives in these circumstances. I spend part of the time feeling sad for them and part of the time wanting to jolt them into action and make a different choice.

So, sadness and annoyance in equal measure seem to be sum total of this book for me.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Between Earth and Sky

Title:  Between Earth and Sky
Author:  Amanda Skenandore
Publication Information:  Kensington. 2018. 336 pages. 
ISBN:  1496713664 / 978-1496713667

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Her past arrived that morning on page ten, tucked between a cross-hatched cartoon of striking trolley workers and an advertisement for derby hats."

Favorite Quote:  "You see life as a straight line. But for us, life is a circle. After something or someone enters our circle, they travel with us foever, influencing us even if they are not physically present. To us, there is no such thing as a goodbye."

Tasunka Ota "Plenty Horses" was a man from the Lakota tribe. In the 1880s, as a child, he was separated from his family and sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. The school, founded in 1879, was a boarding school for the single purpose of assimilating Native American children into the "civilized" world of the white. No consideration was given for honoring the culture or traditions of the Native Americans. Children were removed from their families and dropped into the schools, and they were expected to be happy at the opportunity.

Plenty Horses was a resident of the Carlisle School for a number of years. He then left and was expected to make his own way in the white world. Years later, in the days following the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1891, Plenty Horses shot and killed Army Lieutenant Edward W. Casey. The history, the why and what happened after is the basis of this fictional account.

Note that the ending is not historically accurate, but the fictional story portrays the sad history in a powerful way. This is history we need to remember and ensure that it can never ever be repeated.

"Nine years I attended Stover School for Indians and was educated in the ways of the white man. But all the education in the workd could not change the color of my skin. I was not a white man and would never be treated as a white man. So I returned to my people. But even there I was an outcast for I no longer remembered the ways of the Indian. For years I lived a lonely life. A shadow life."

These are the words of Asku Muskrat, the main character in this book formulated from Tasunka Ota. The book, however, is more than his story. It centers around Alma Mitchell. She was the daughter of the man who founded and ran the assimilation school which Harry (his given white name) was forced to attend.

Alma's perspective in the book bring power to the message. As a child, she found friendship and acceptance amongst children even as she was taught that she did not belong with them, that she was separate, apart better. Throughout her childhood, she struggled between the taught idea that this school was trying to do its best for these children and the inequities and questions she witnessed. As an adult, guilt and sorrow follows her as she is confronted with the reality of a murder accusation.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This quote has been attributed to different people. The idea comes to mind today in this book as it does today. In the misguided attempt to assimilate Native Americans, homes and families were destroyed. Children were uprooted from their traditions and thrust into a world that would not accept them no matter what the assimilation lessons. Evil was perpetrated purposefully but also a tragedy was allowed to happen and enabled by those with seemingly good intentions. That is the sad, sad reality of this story and perhaps also of today. A powerful message.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, August 5, 2019

We Were Mothers

Title:  We Were Mothers
Author:  Katie Sise
Publication Information:  Little A. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1503903621 / 978-1503903623

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Swooning over a man who wasn't her husband made Cora feel terribly guilty, but how could anyone not swoon over Jeremy?"

Favorite Quote:  "... having a child is a tremendous act of optimism bordering on magical thinking. It was the biggest chance you could ever take."

We Were Mothers would probably better be titled ... We were wives. We were significant others. The book is much more about the relationships these women are in than their roles as mothers. The "drama" is about the children, but the story is really the marital, ex-marital, and extra-marital relationships. All these variations are present in this book, and then some.

The book is written in alternating chapters through four different points of view - Cora, Sarah, Jade, and Laurel. Cora is at the heart of the story. She is married to Sam and mother to twins. Sarah is Cora's mother. Her husband, Cora's father, left her for another woman, and her younger daughter Maggie died at age 22. These two facts have forever altered Sarah's life and have repercussions throughout this group. Jade was Maggie's best friend; she is married to Jeremy, whose main characteristic seems to be his physical appearance. Laurel is Cora's neighbor and is married to a surgeon named Dash (yes, Dash). Yes, they have children or are planning of having children. The plot of the book is about some of these offspring, but the story is about these marriages.

Confused yet? A little bit. It takes work to follow the alternating points of view and to keep track of who's who. The book, however, is a very quick read. Although marketed for its "suspense," the book is more like a soap opera. All the women are victims although some do eventually find their voice. All the men are ... well, to put in one word ... dirt. None of them seem to have any redeeming qualities. The marital relationships in the book range from sad to truly disturbing (reader, beware!). That imbalance of virtuous mothers and terrible husbands is a little too simplistic and too one-sided for me. It keeps the book from achieving greater depth, or, for me, a sense of reality.

The plot of the book is that Cora finds a journal belonging to Laurel's daughter in her house. Of course, she reads it. Perhaps, it is left there with that intent. Perhaps not. Of course, she learns a shocking secret. Then, Laurel's daughter disappears. Of course, one secret leads to a whole host of other secrets surrounding these women. Hence, while the question of what happened to Laurel is not all that mysterious at the end, it is also not truly central to the book. The marriages, relationships, and the secrets of the past are.

The story takes place over the course of the weekend, but the secrets cover a lifetime. The book is a very quick read, but it begins slow as a lot of time is spent on describing the setup & relationships of the lives of these women. Unfortunately, the setup does not successfully establish these women as characters I empathize with. They are in sad situations but unfortunately not particularly likable characters. That is perhaps because the secrets of this book are situational, and that is where the book stays. The characters do not seem to round out into individuals beyond the secret that defines their relationships. At the end, I am left with what appears to be a soap opera of a relatively affluent set of people in a quiet suburban community.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Daughter of Moloka'i

Title:  Daughter of Moloka'i
Author:  Alan Brennert
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2019. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1250137667 / 978-1250137661

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "A wave of Kona storm clouds rolled across the jagged peaks of the Wai'anae Range, arriving in Honolulu with a cannonade of thunder and the kind of wind and rain Hawaiians called lani-pa'ina, 'crackling heavens.'"

Favorite Quote:  "How can this be happening? This is America. Covenants of trust had been broken, faith in law betrayed."

Daughter of Moloka'i is a follow on to Alan Brennert 2010 bestseller titled Moloka'i, but it is not essential to have read that one first. This book does stand on its own and goes in a direction mostly independent of the original book.

Moloka'i was the story of a young Hawaiian girl, Rachel Kalama, in the 1890s. She is diagnosed with leprosy, now called Hansen's disease. As a result, she is wrenched from her family and sent to a quarantined colony of the island of Moloka'i. Rachel does indeed give birth to a baby girl; the baby is removed from the parent's care and removed from the island. The hope is that the baby will remain healthy, no matter the emotional devastation of the parents.

Ruth is the daughter, brought to an orphanage. After a few years, she is adopted by a family of Japanese heritage. After another few years, the family moves to California. Then comes years of settling in, growing up, and making California and the United States home. Then comes World War II and the distrust of Asians. It brings the reality of being judged "less than" because of physical appearance and cultural traditions. Then comes Pearl Harbor and the label of enemy. All of a sudden, home is deemed not yours, and the family is sent to the government established and government run internment camps. What follows is the years of strife, struggle, and life as essentially a prisoner for no reason other than your ethnic background.

As in his other books, Alan Brennert brings to life a time and place with his vivid imagery and his characters that pull you into the story. The story remains a very personal one centered on Ruth and her family. At the same time, the book makes broader statements that remain true today:
  • "If you ask me ... someday this country is going to regret what it's doing today."
  • "Now FDR says, quote, 'Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race and ancestry. A good American is one who is loyal to this country and to our creed of liberty and democracy.'"
  • "If America is not willing to honor its principles ... how can I?"
  • "The war is over, and we can move on with our lives. We're owed that much. To live a quiet, ordinary life again."
This conversation has relevance in this historical context, but also in light of the comparisons of strife due to race, religion, identity, and culture today. This is a history that must never be lessened or forgotten. The fact that this book adds to the conversation and provides that reminder make it a relevant book for today.

The book remains grounded in Ruth's story for it continues beyond the war and winds its way back to Rachel and to Ruth's birth. That is a particularly poignant moment in the book, and also the point at which I think the book should have ended. The book continues on in Ruth's life, but it begins to feel like it is creating an ending for each character, which to me is unnecessary. Aside from this facet, Daugther of Moloka'i is another memorable book from Alan Brennert, and I look forward to seeing what he writes next.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls

Title:  The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls
Author:  Anissa Gray
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2019. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1984802437 / 978-1984802439

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "You do a lot of thinking in jail."

Favorite Quote:  "Handing them off ... and disappearing ... because you think you've lost yourself along with everything else .. that's almost easy. Showing up, when it's everything you can do to crawl and claw your way through this life? That's hard. That much I've done. I'm doing it right now."

Girls and women hunger for many things. There is the universal need for physical nourishment, and then, there is the hunger for love, protection, caring, belonging and other needs often left unsaid.

The understanding that this is the theme of the book comes slowly. The book is slow to start and slow to unfold especially as it seems to begin in the middle of the story. It starts as a woman goes to jail. The crime is unclear. The motivation for the crime is unclear. What is clear is that parents are going to jail and leaving behind daughters.

My initial thought is that the past is going to be unraveled. How did this family at the junction of the Saint Joseph and Portage Rivers in New River Junction, Michigan, get to this point? Hence, initially, I am confused. In fact, the facts of the crime, the motivation behind it, and its impact are never really delved into. That is something I would still like to know, but it does not really matter. At some point, the fact that I want to know becomes a testament to the fact that I am pulled into the story and the characters have become real.

Althea, Lilian, and Viola are the older generation. Kim and Baby Vi are Althea's teenage daughters. Althea and her husband Proctor are arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sent to jail for a crime no one could imagine them committing. Althea, Lilian, and Viola's stories go back to the their childhood and their own dysfunctional childhood. Those childhood experiences also create the women they are today and their reactions to the current situations. Reader beware, some of the images of that childhood are disturbing. The story becomes about taking the experiences that form you and then creating yourself - the person you choose to be:
  • "Sometimes life can pull a lot out of you, Althea. Just squeeze you dry. And if you don't have a way to get back whatever's good and precious to you, it's like losing your soul."
  • "Some things that happen to you, or the way somebody treat you, sometimes it ain't got nothing to do with you ... That's something it's important to learn. Before you get too old and can't let loose the burden of them things."
  • "Sometimes it's good to view the past from the distance of another time."
Kim and Baby Vi's story is one of the love-hate relationship that can often exist between teenage girls and their mothers. "Daughters carry the hopes & promises of their mothers." Their story is also one of loss - loss of their parents, loss of a community that turns away because of the parent's crimes, and loss of childhood taken away by an adult world. Ultimately, for Kim, the story is also one of guilt.

The best thing about this debut novel is that the characters become real. They develop into complete individuals. In some ways, the cover of the book replicates that. Initially, I look at it and see an abstract image. Then, gradually I see the the curves and edges of the images. Then, it seems that all of a sudden, faces emerge. This book is an impressive debut, and I look forward to seeing what Anissa Gray writes next.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.