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Literature & Fiction Review – Peace Like A River

July 29th, 2015

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

 

Review by Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

Have you ever had this experience?  Someone tells you about a book or a movie, and they praise it so highly, and tell you it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen or read…that they inspire you to read or watch it too…. and it turns out to be a huge disappointment?   And it’s not so much that it’s a bad movie or book…it’s just that the person built up your expectations to such an incredible height that a letdown was probably inevitable.

I’m always mindful of this whenever I recommend books to people.  I try not to make the book sound like the best thing ever written.  I try to point out what I enjoyed about the book, and what I didn’t enjoy (if anything) and why I would encourage someone to read it.  I don’t want to build up anyone’s expectations too high.

I’m relaying all this to you because I loved the book I’m recommending this week so much, I feel as though I should have a disclaimer!  I’m afraid I’m going to rave, and gush over this author’s abilities and end up disappointing some readers who may not agree with me.  But I can’t help it.  This novel is amazing.

The title is “Peace Like a River,” and the author’s name is Leif Enger.  It’s his first novel and an absolute gem.  Enger writes beautifully…his prose is clear, understated, flowing.  His characters are fully developed and endearing.

Peace Like a River” takes place in Minnesota in the early 1960′s.  The narrator is Reuben Land, an 11-year-old boy with severe asthma.  Rube lives with his father, Jeremiah, a deeply spiritual man who truly seems to communicate with God; his older brother Davy, 16 and ready to be a man on his own, and his younger sister Swede, a budding writer at 9 years of age, who has a fondness for epic poems about the romantic Old West, and has read every Zane Grey novel in existence.

Mr. Land is the school custodian, and he has a run-in with two of the local “bad boys.”  He feels the incident has been settled, but it escalates.  The boys snatch Swede and then return her a few hours later, scared but unharmed.  Davy isn’t content to leave justice in God’s hands, and when the two boys follow his lure and break into the Land’s home late one night, baseball bats in hand, Davy is ready.  He guns down both boys and turns himself in to the sheriff.

On the morning of his sentencing, Davy breaks out of jail and disappears, a fugitive on the run.  And when Rube’s father inherits a motor home shortly after, it seems as though the family is being urged to try and find Davy.  And so begins their journey: all three of them eager to find Davy, but no one really talking about what they will do if and when they do find him.  Rube, Swede and their father, Jeremiah, are all counting on a miracle, for miracles are something they are familiar with:  As Rube says:

“Let me say something about that word: Miracle.  For too long it’s been used to characterize things or events that, though pleasant, are entirely normal.  Peeping chicks at Easter time, spring generally, a clear sunrise after an overcast week–a miracle, people say…I’m sorry, but nope.  Such things are worth our notice every day of the week, but to call them miracles evaporates the strength of the word.  Real miracles bother people…They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in.  Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave–now there’s a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time.  My sister, Swede, said something that rang in me like a bell:  No miracle happens without a witness.  The fact is, the miracles that sometimes flowed from my father’s fingertips had few witnesses but me. Is there a single person on whom I can press belief?  No sir.  All I can do is say, Here’s how it went.  Here’s what I saw.  Make of it what you will.”      Reuben Land bears witness for us all in Leif Enger’s beautiful novel, Peace like a river.

 

 

Literature & Fiction Review – The Broken Half

July 28th, 2015

The Broken Half by Sahar Abdulaziz

 

Review by Charlie M. (bookaddicted)

 

I will start by admitting that this book is outside my normal genre but a friend suggested I read it because of how solid the writing was and that they felt it was a story that needed to meet as wide an audience as possible. Ms. Abdulaziz writes with such strength and feeling that I read this book in just about one sitting. Her narrative is descriptive and, yes, sometimes painful to read. But, given the subject matter presenting it in any other way would have diminished the importance of what she is telling – a story of domestic abuse and one woman’s struggle to escape it. Set within the confines of a small Muslim community where from the outside everything is seen as normal and the way life should be, the novel slams you into the hidden world of domestic abuse…not only by telling Zahra’s story but giving sharp insight into the ways that this is usually not something that begins in one house, one marriage but if investigated usually a trail of abuse in some way, shape or form is found within a family. I found the information presented about this community and their religious beliefs to be just as fascinating as the narrative was powerful. Yet, as indicated in her foreword we should not take this as a representation of the Muslim community as a whole, as we should not with any religious or ethnic group. Without presenting any spoilers I will say that there is a shocking event that I did not expect. I thought X was going to happen and BOOM a twist is thrown at you. It should also be noted that per information in the book the author does not come by her information by sitting in front of a computer Googling domestic violence statistics and causes. Ms. Abdulaziz has worked as a domestic abuse and sexual assault counselor. She writes by gleaning information she has witnessed first hand. I would encourage men to read this book. It is not a “women’s novel”. It is an important window into something many people, women, men, victims and abusers would rather stay swept under the carpet or whispered about behind closed doors.

 

Mystery Monday Review – Murder at Shots Hall

July 27th, 2015

Murder at Shots Hall by Maureen Sarsfield

 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This golden age mystery is set in a rural village in England just after WWII. A fiend is poisoning the retainers of an old family. Evidence points to a 30-ish female artist, the last member of the family. Wagging tongues allege that the artist is knocking off retainers because they know too much about her wanton personal life. The local swine of a policeman wants to hang her and mopes because the Yard has been called in. The Yard inspector is smart and handsome and winning. Of course.

The murders hinge on the unvarying routines of the village people. The culprit must be a local; otherwise, how could anyone know how the victims took their tea and poison them in such a stealthy way? The murders unglue the locals, who have all they can put up with dealing with the pervasive fog the author endlessly refers to. Wind and rain, mud and wet contribute to the stifling gloom of the setting.

But the characters are not melancholy. Both the artist and her aunt are strong independent women. The police officers, but for the swine, are all well-drawn and convincing. The local doctor is an intense young crab. The locals are down-to-earth. The pacing and humor are appealing. This is a joker sergeant’s report:

Report from Sgt. Congreve.  All except the following, in and around Shotshall, had alibis for the night of December 1st between the hours of 19:45 and 21:00:  Capt. Belairs, who said he was in his house reading.  Miss Chattock, of Shots Hall, who said she was in her house doing nothing.  Mrs. Ashely who said what she was doing but it is not proven.  Mrs. Vale who said she was asleep in front of her fire which had gone out.  Harry Fewsey the butcher who was cutting up meat in his shop and said anyone ought to have been able to hear him doing it only no one did.  Winnie Marsh who said she had one round the corner, which one she would not say, to meet a boyfriend she won’t say either as it is not her regular one Bill Ellison, and she said not to tell about it as Bill Ellison would be mad. 

It’s a bit longer than I like a mystery due to usual romance angle and the main suspect sitting on information due to her mistaken assumptions about how the world works. There’s also an Allinghamesque tendency to go on about the heroine’s lovely looks. On the other hand, she deploys less frequently used verbs aptly.

Overall this is an excellent mystery that I recommend without reservation.

 

 

 

Literature & Fiction Review – The Winter People

July 23rd, 2015

The Winter People by John Ehle

Review by Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

Part of working in a library is helping people find books, and making reading recommendations. But happily, people let me know what they’re reading…what they’ve really enjoyed.  I love these two-way recommendations, and I think it’s only fair that I pass along to everyone else some of the recommendations that I have been receiving.

Not too long ago, someone returned the book “The Winter People” by John Ehle and told me it was really, REALLY good.  And after reading it, I have to say that I agree.

 Collie Wright and her baby boy live alone in a 150-year-old log cabin in the mountains of North Carolina.  She’s an unwed mother at the beginning of the Depression, and since she refuses to name young Jonathan’s father, she is the object of much talk and speculation within this mountain community, and even within her own family.  Collie is rocking Jonathan one evening when a man and a young girl come down off the mountain and to her cabin door.  Collie offers them a warm meal and a place to sleep for the night, not realizing how her life is about to change.

Wayland Jackson is a clock maker, traveling from Pennsylvania to Tennessee with his young daughter Paula.  His truck breaks down, and he seeks shelter at the first sign of life he sees.  Wayland also wonders about Collie, about her past, about her son…and before long, the decision is made.  Wayland and Paula will settle here, he’ll work repairing clocks and is also set to build a clock tower by the little church.  And too, he is determined to court Collie, an idea that seems pleasing to everyone except little Jonathan’s father.

John Ehle is well-known for his depiction of his native North Carolina through his many novels.  The Winter People was written in the early 80’s, and won the Lillian Smith Award which each year honors the best fiction about the South.  He writes of mountain life before too much outside influence arrives to change people and their habits.  He paints wonderful pictures of a past era and of an interesting community.  When Collie hears someone outside her cabin, she ponders:  “At first she had thought it was Jonathan’s father come home, and her blood had run cold, her breath had almost suffocated her with fear; however, he would have come pounding his way into the house.  If it had been Campbell hunters on their way home, as often happened, they would have stopped to explain; Campbells were not secretive people, were always willing to declare their actions, except for Skeet Campbell who was sneaky, but he was not altogether sane, either, seemed to her.  It wouldn’t be McGregors sneaking about at night; they sneaked about of a day, as a rule, and talked and drank at night.  No, it was doubtless her brother Gudger himself.  Whatever star that brother had been born under, it was a guardian angel’s; he saw himself as the protector of the family.”

John Ehle’s “The Winter People” is a story of love and devotion to family, and of the sacrifices that we make in the name of both.  I’m so glad I was introduced to this author.  I finished this novel almost in one sitting, and turned the last page with sadness, not wanting the story to end.

 

 

Fiction Review – The Thorn Birds

July 22nd, 2015

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

 

Review by Mirah Welday (mwelday)

Earlier this year, the world said its final good-bye to acclaimed Australian author Colleen McCullough.  McCullough’s The Thorn Birds is one of my favorite novels and I’ve read it several times over the past 20 years.  The first time I read The Thorn Birds was in 1994 for a high school book report.  Yes, I said high school book report.  I saw the mini series when it was released on VHS (some of you may remember those) and I fell in love with Drogheda (the sheep station), the Cleary family, and Australia; I had to read the book.  I aced that book report.  I recently read the multi-generational saga once again, in honor of Colleen McCullough’s life and extraordinary writing career.  Words like ‘magnificent’, ‘sweeping’, and ‘epic’ are thrown about for books quite often but those words truly fit The Thorn Birds.

Each time I read the novel I become absorbed in the characters and their tangled lives.  The Cleary family’s  secrets, turmoils and triumphs hold me in their grasp from page one.  McCullough masterfully blended together the lives of characters who think they are unlike anyone else; in reality, they are continuing a cycle of miscommunication, self-sacrifice, and indifference.  For example, Meggie thinks she has nothing in common with her mother Fee but they make similar choices  throughout their lives and experience similar consequences.  Family secrets are at the heart of all of the pain and heartbreak throughout the novel; this is seen most vividly through Frank, Meggie’s oldest brother.

When I first read The Thorn Birds I was determined that one day I would visit Australia. McCullough brings Australia and the Outback to life, portraying it as a complex character that is at times generous and at other times condemning. The complexities of the land shape the personalities of the people living on it and their positions within the family.  Living off the land for some characters seems to almost be a beloved struggle; the characters get their sense of self-worth by being a part of Drogheda.

The Thorn Birds is a complex, beautiful novel that delivers a different reading experience each time I dive into its pages. It is a timeless classic full of passion and strength. I still haven’t gotten a chance to visit Australia but when I do get there I will look on it fondly as a friend I’ve known for years.  Thank you, Colleen McCullough, for your wonderful masterpiece and for giving me a chance to experience Australia through your words.

 

 

Mystery Monday – The Paton Street Case

July 20th, 2015

The Paton Street Case by John Bingham

 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


John Bingham’s fourth novel, The Paton Street Case (1955), was also published as Inspector Morgan’s Dilemma.

 

With his hard-hearted Anglo-Saxon partner Shaw, the Welsh inspector uses his Celtic intuitions as he investigates the murder of a gambler who lived a shabby double-dealing life. Sometimes Morgan’s gut feelings are spot-on but sometimes they lead him astray.

 

One suspect is Otto Steiner, who escaped the Nazis after a beating. The fallout of the attack, however, lingers. He’s scarred psychologically and in crisis acts unpredictably.

 

After questioning another person of interest, adultery is revealed, which leads to the aggrieved spouse taking irrational actions.

 

James Sandoe, a critic for NY Herald Tribune Book Review,  described this novel  as “an uncommonly compelling narrative artfully wrought and compassionately conceived.”

 

 

Memoir Review – A Girl Named Zippy

July 15th, 2015

A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland Indiana by Haven Kimmel

Review by Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

I have recently developed a real passion for memoirs.  Not biographies: a person’s entire life story told by someone else…and not autobiographies, someone’s life story told by themselves, usually after they feel they have lived long enough and done enough important things to write it all down for posterity,  but memoirs: a small, significant slice of a person’s life, as reported by the one who lived it.  A memoir can revolve around an incident, the choice of a career, a relationship, or even a cherished pet (think “Marley and Me”).

Haven Kimmel, a young new author, wrote her memoir “A Girl Named Zippy : growing up small in Mooreland, Indiana” because she wanted to capture small town America during the mid-60’s.  It’s a love letter of sorts to Mooreland, Indiana, and to the people who lived there in 1965, and who helped to shape Haven’s childhood.  But don’t for a moment think that this is a serious, somber look back at a time long gone.  Not in the least.  The most charming part of Haven’s memoir is her humor.  She obviously appreciates the irony in life, and sees humor everywhere.

Haven, unlike her older brother Daniel and older sister Melinda, acquired a nickname from her father; he called her Zippy after a cute, energetic chimpanzee he once saw roller skating on television.  Haven shares with us her baby book, where her mother wrote the typical entries all mothers record: how many teeth, first steps, favorite toy, and of course first words.  But Haven’s baby book entries for “first words” remained empty at her first birthday…at her second birthday….until this entry by her mother, just before Haven’s third birthday:

“This weekend we went camping.  After dinner little Zippy was running in circles around the campfire, drinking from her bottle, and Bob decided she’d had it long enough.  He walked over to her and said, “Sweetheart, you’re a big girl now, and it’s time for you to give up that bottle.  I want you to just give it to me, and we’re going to throw it in the fire. Okay?”  The baby looked at us, back at her dad, and then pulled the bottle out of her mouth with an audible pop, and said, clear as daylight, “I’ll make a deal with you.”  Her first words!  Bob didn’t hesitate.  “What’s the deal?”  She said, “If you let me keep it, I’ll hide it when company comes and I won’t tell nobody.”  Now that we know she can talk, all I can say is: Dear God. Please give that child some hair.”

Zippy remembers her third grade teacher as the meanest woman in the history of Mooreland Elementary School, but she loved the druggist Doc Holliday, because you always knew where you stood with him, which was too close and making too much noise.  She recalls giving some hippies a haircut in return for a dog; she remembers the day “it became completely impossible for me to live without a pet chicken” and of course, she discusses all her adventures with her best friend Julie Newman, who lived on a farm where Zippy learned some very shocking things about life.

“A Girl Named Zippy” will make you laugh out loud and bring a lump to your throat.  The final chapter leaves you wanting more…which is available, since Haven Kimmel wrote another memoir, “She got up off the couch and other heroic acts from Mooreland, Indiana.