Monday, March 2, 2015

Review: The Snow Globe by Judith Kinghorn

Snow globes are pretty and peaceful. They capture an idealized miniature scene of perfection within their glass orbs. But they aren't reality, no matter how much the world looks like them, especially when snow is drifting down outside the windows.  Reality, unlike the inside of a snow globe, has imperfections, secrets, and disappointments. Judith Kinghorn's newest novel, The Snow Globe, shows just how unlike the quiet, encapsulated scene, life can be.

It is Christmas 1926, that exciting time between the World Wars, and Daisy Forbes is looking forward to celebrating with her family, especially the father she reveres. She is on the verge of adulthood and only hopes that she can find a man as worthy as her father when she comes to marry. But when she overhears a conversation about her father Howard's not so secret indiscretions, her faith in his integrity shatters. Not only does she have to process her father's fallibility, but she is horrified to find that her mother, Mabel, has invited her father's mistress and his mistress' son Valentine, in the guise of Margot Vincent's longstanding friendship with the family, to join the family at Eden Hall this Christmas time. As Daisy grapples with this newfound knowledge of her father, she is also faced with three very different men in her life: the steady and rather stodgy Ben, who works with her father; the dashing and fast Valentine, for whom she should feel only disdain given his mother's role in her father's life; and Stephen, the family chauffeur who is the companion of her childhood and still her best friend. Daisy, like the time in which she is growing up, is being bombarded with change. Her family and her life both move in ways she never could have predicted before Christmas.

Kinghorn has used many of her characters to reflect the way in which the world was speeding through change in the interlude between the wars. Women, like Daisy's older sister Iris, had secured far more freedoms than the generation before them. Social classes were more fluid and there was far more opportunity to better oneself for a person willing to work. But there were still those who hewed to the old traditions as well. Daisy is torn between the two options, trying both on for size as she comes of age and she is an endearing character even as she makes mistakes. In fact, it is her recognition and acceptance of imperfections in others that show how she's changed and matured over the span of the novel. This has a sweeping, elegant feel to it. It is realistically romantic, tapping into the concepts of both love and loyalty in a well researched and authentic historical setting.

Thanks to Kayleigh at Berkley/NAL for sending me a copy of this book to review.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein
The Girls of Mischief Bay by Susan Mallery
Dog Crazy by Meg Donohue

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore
The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

Reviews posted this week:

I Regret Everything by Seth Greenland
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Lady Mercy Danforthe Flirts With Scandal by Jayne Fresina

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

The Snow Globe by Judith Kinghorn
Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach
The Girls of Mischief Bay by Susan Mallery
Dog Crazy by Meg Donohue

Monday Mailbox

Just one but an interesting looking one for sure. This past week's mailbox arrival:

The Godforsaken Daughter by Christina McKenna came from Lake Union and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

This Irish set novel features a woman reeling from the loss of her father who finds, among her late grandmother's things, that helps her to find confidence and to connect with other people. I do love Irish settings and stories of oddballs coming into their own like this one appears to have.

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: Lady Mercy Danforthe Flirts with Scandal by Jayne Fresina

There are any number of busybody matchmakers in novels. The most famous is probably Jane Austen's Emma, a meddling girl with good intentions but very fallible instincts. Jayne Fresina's Mercy Danforthe has perhaps equally decent intentions and certainly fallible instincts but this Regency-set historical fiction is no where near as satisfying a read.

Five years prior to the start of the book, Lady Mercy Danforthe eloped with Rafe Hartley, the illegitimate son of a nobleman. The two youngsters were discovered before their marriage could be consummated and the marriage was quickly and quietly annulled. Since then Rafe has harbored an intense hatred of Mercy. When Molly, Mercy's best friend and lady's maid leaves Rafe at the altar and Mercy must be the one to break the news to him, he goes off the rails, leading Mercy to declare that she'll find him another wife. In the course of this plan, she must spend more time in his presence than she has done in the preceding five years and their long tamped down attraction to each other flares into life again, hot and intense.

Mercy as a character is meddling and bossy. She is a control freak and little does Rafe know it but she's been controlling him for years, disguising herself as a wealthy, elderly benefactor in order to direct his life. She can see the ways in which he is living his own life wrongly but cannot for the life of her see the bad choices she's made in hers, not least of which is getting engaged to a dull and colorless older man. She is imperious and childish. Rafe, on the other hand, is stubborn and proud with a temper that flares like a match. He is dominant and willfully contentious. He has a great hatred, one rather unearned, for the aristocracy despite the fact that his aristocratic father tries very hard to make up for the shortcomings in his son's life. Mercy and Rafe spend much of their time fighting each other and their renewed attraction. They use verbal barbs to drive each other batty. Insults and shouting are the currency of their conflict with each other. And while it could be argued that Rafe's anger is dangerously close to love, it comes across as a violent lust which Mercy, despite being generally cool and high-handed, reciprocates.

There is nothing gentle or pleasant, or even very convincing, about their love story. As characters, they are immature, spoiled, and unpleasant. They do deserve each other. The idea of class conflict being a primary reason for their original separation had potential but when there turned out to be very little to back up the deep simmering resentment on Rafe's part, it simply cheapened the concept. As I read romances for escape, sadly this one was not one I enjoyed all that much.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Lizzie Borden, Grace Marks, Agnes Magnusdottir. Three women, three horrendous murders that capture the public's imagination. Lizzie Borden is probably best known here in the US. Grace Marks's crime was fictionalized in Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace. And now Hannah Kent has introduced us to Agnes Magnusdottir, convicted of killing her employer and another man, and in 1830, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Using the historical information about Agnes to fashion this fictional recounting of Agnes' last months, Kent has crafted a cold and bleak tour de force in her novel, Burial Rites.

Already convicted of murder when the novel opens, Agnes Magnusdottir is sent to live and work for the district officer and his family while awaiting her execution. District Officer Jon has no choice but to take the woman into his remote home despite wife Margret and daughters Steina and Lauga's horror. Agnes proves to be a silent woman, quietly doing the tasks she's asked to do, knowing that she is unwelcome and fervently unwanted in the Jonsson home.  Just as they have no choice but to take her in, she has no choice but to be there, laboring on their farm and in their home in exchange for food and shelter in these last months of her life.  As a convicted murderer waiting to be executed, Agnes is given a personal priest, the young man Toti. His stated mission is to get her to repent her evil deed but instead he gives her the gift of silence and a listening ear when she is ready to speak of her life and the crime. In her quiet and emotionless recounting, she presents her own story, what led up to the murders, and how she ended up the subject of this harsh and unforgiving ruling.

That this is based on a true story means the ending is never in doubt but Kent has done a beautiful job with the surrounding tale. Agnes, as imagined here, is quiet and hardworking with an understated dignity to her that makes her revelations to Toti the priest that much more believable. She has lived a grim life and faces a terrible death with stoicism and quietude. The Jonsson family's reaction to having to house this terrifying woman is well wrought and the evolution of their feelings about Agnes is slow and infinitesimal and full of truth. Toti's own insecurities and judgments as Agnes' confessor make him altogether sympathetic. The landscape of the stark and lonely Icelandic winter sets the tone for the novel as a whole. The Jonsson farm is remote and lonely and the winter is long, very long when facing a death sentence. The pacing is even and the timing of small revelations is very well executed.

This dark and chilly feeling novel was truly beautifully written. It is a testament to the power of story telling not only as Agnes unburdens herself to Toti but as the stories and rumors about Natan, one of the dead men, come to light and in the narrative the District Commissioner himself creates in prosecuting the crime. The book is fairly unrelentingly grim (which matches the other books I've read set in Iceland) but lovers of literary fiction should still consider tackling the brooding and deeply haunting tale.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Review: The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein

Artists have always chased the light and a certain quality they see in it. Some choose to go to the South of France, some prefer the golden fields of middle America, and some surely prefer the 24 hour glow of a far north summer. We spend as much of the summer as we can in northern Michigan and there certainly is something special about days that seem to stretch on into infinity. I can only imagine it in a place where the sun never sets in the summer. Rebecca Dinerstein's debut novel, The Sunlit Night, takes place in this perpetual light of a Norwegian summer.

Frances has just graduated from college and broken up with her boyfriend when she decides to take an internship she'd previously declined, working as an apprentice with an artist on The Yellow Room Project on a Norwegian island inside the Arctic Circle. Nils paints only with yellow and he's trying to have his installation added to a national map so that others will come and look at his yellow room. Frances will live in the artist's colony and paint with him for the summer, escaping the unhappy drama of her parents' impending divorce and their disapproval of her sister's upcoming marriage to a non-Jew. She will not have to witness the separation of belongings as her parents prepare to move out of their tiny apartment nor will she have to continue to witness her father's unhappiness with his chosen career as a medical illustrator.

Yasha Gregoriov is finishing up high school. He has lived with his father above their bakery in New York for 10 years, ever since they came to the US, leaving Yasha's mother behind in Russia. His father, who has a dangerous heart condition, has never once stopped missing his wife and he is determined to go back, find her, and convince her to join them in the US. But Yasha finds out what his father does not know, that his mother is already in New York City, living with her lover, and intending to divorce his father. When his father dies suddenly on the trip back to Russia, the only thing that Yasha can concentrate on doing is to fulfill his father's final wish, to be buried in peace at the top of the world. It is this honoring of his father's last request that takes him to Lofoten.

Frances and Yasha come into each others' orbit in this land of perpetual sun. Each of them is dealing with grief, Frances for her idea of family and Yasha for his father, the center of his whole world for the past ten years. They find each other in the closing stages of one part of life and the very beginning of another, recognizing need and love and potential in the other. The secondary characters are fleeting but important and the whole of the novel exudes a surreal feel. The prose is unadorned and dreamlike, detailing the spare isolation and suffused landscape of the Arctic night. The character development of Frances and Yasha is a little thin and the odd quirks of some of the secondary characters don't make it easier to relate to them or to the color-bleached main characters for that matter. The writing is poetic and full of precise observations and Dinerstein has really captured the warm, golden barrenness of this small island at the edge of the world. This is a readable novel of family dysfunction, overcoming grief, and finding and valuing love that will surely appeal to readers of literary fiction.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

I don't usually reread books and I probably wouldn't have reread this one except for the fact that it came to me in my Postal Mailbox Book Club. I remembered the general shape of the novel but not the particulars this many years out from my first reading so I thought it necessary to do a complete reread to be able to discuss it intelligently rather than just vaguely. I have searched for my review from so many years ago, hoping to compare my first reading with this one but it is apparently lost in the mists of the internet. What I do remember of that first reading, is that the book was fine and that I was odd man out in not being wowed by it. This second reading crystalized that feeling for me. It is still just fine.

It is the early 1960s in Roofing, Minnesota. Reuben Land lives there with his father Jeremiah, older brother Davy, and younger sister Swede.  Their mother has long since abandoned them.  Reuben is an asthmatic who owes his very life to his father's ability to work miracles; it is only through Jeremiah's command and laying on of hands that Reuben started to breathe many long minutes after his birth. When the story opens, Reuben is eleven and his father, a janitor at the school, has stepped in in the girls' locker room to protect Davy's girlfriend from an assault by two hoodlums in town. The boys fight back, first by vandalizing the Land's home, and then by  Swede from and then returning her to her own home. The escalation of hostilities, in which Jeremiah Land refuses to participate, reaches a head when the boys break into the Land's home one night and Davy shoots and kills them in cold blood. When Davy is put on trial for murder, he breaks out of jail and escapes. Reuben, Swede, and their father try to track him down before the Feds do, trailing him into the surreal landscape of the Badlands.

Reuben is presented as idolizing his older brother and his father both so he doesn't know whether he should root for Davy's complete disappearance or for Jeremiah, who appears to be being led by God, to find Davy. He is trying to figure his way in the world amid all of his conflicting feelings and the knowledge that even his highly moral father is wrestling with what is right. Younger sister Swede is barely nine and she has the convictions of a young child in terms of right and wrong. But even she starts to have her notions of black and white challenged, as reflected in the epic Western poem she writes throughout the action of the story. Her poem is a problem though, too precocious by far for a child her age, even one who is incredibly smart and well read and her understanding of events is too quick for a child with as few life experiences as she has had. Davy as a character is harder to know. Not only is he missing from a large chunk of the narrative but even when he is present, he is inscrutable to the reader.  Whether he is intentionally drawn this way is the question.

The novel is narrated by Reuben from the vantage point of adulthood but it still manages to capture most of the scene through the eyes of a child giving the narrative a slightly jarring back and forth feeling. Although the action is in mainly trying to find Davy, the story is also a Gospel of Jeremiah, the recounting of his miracles and his Job-like trials at the hands of God. There is a definite heaven and hell dichotomy and a strong core of religious belief here despite the fact that Enger never preaches to the reader, tapping into a deep vein of faith and morality. The writing about place is beautiful, evocative, and powerful and there is a controlled stillness to the narrative. In plot terms, there is a big conundrum in trying to find Davy. While Jeremiah is certainly being led by a Higher Being to his son, there is no indication that Davy is being led to find his family in the same way or through the same catalyst so his sudden ability to turn up feels too convenient. The general pace of the narrative is slow; sometimes this hinders the story and at other times it highlights it so on balance it works out okay. The ending of the story comes full circle to the beginning and as such is too frustratingly predictable and an obvious set-up. Over all though, this is a decent coming of age tale, one of sacrifice and heroism, right and wrong, good and evil, and mixed with a folksy Americana version of morality.

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