Sunday, August 21, 2016

Nine Times November 11, 1918

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War

It isn't often that a group of authors come together to make a collection of short stories. From what I can see, most collections with various authors are ones that a publisher collected, often from a slew of single-author collections. In this case, the publishers seem to have enlisted nine of their most talented historical fiction writers with a challenge - write a short story that includes both of these two elements: love and November 11, 1918.

The first element is, of course, a vast subject. The second, however - the end of WW1 - is far more specific. The combination of the two gives us something just right - focused stories that have the depth of different viewpoints.

I already was familiar with the works of two of the contributing authors. One is Jessica Brockmole, whose debut novel "Letters from Skye" was one of my top five books of 2013. The other is Heather Webb, who was sweet enough to send me a copy of this book for this review. I thoroughly enjoyed Webb's first novel "Becoming Josephine," but her second novel, "Rodin's Lover," was even better and made it into my top five books of 2015. It was therefore no surprise that I loved both of their contributions to this collection.

Brockmole's story "Something worth Landing for," is about a man who meets an abandoned pregnant girl in France, and decides to marry her only hours before shipping off to finish his training as a fighter pilot. This story is told mostly through the letters she sends him, and the ones he wants to send back (she tells him not to write her), together with messages he sends to his mother to get the documents needed to finalize the marriage. The beauty, humor and originality of this story only prove that Brockmole is the epistolary queen of historical fiction, and I do hope she publishes another book soon!

Webb's story, "Hour of the Bells," is about Beatrix, a German woman whose true allegiance is to her chosen country - France. First, her husband dies in the war. Then she receives a letter telling her about her only son's loss in one of the battles against the Germans. Overwhelmed with grief, she decides she must take revenge. Webb's artistry here is inspiring, as she switches between giving us the history of this family, and the present action. The title of the story also reflects this, which encompasses both the fateful theme date, as well as the profession of Beatrix's husband - who was a clock maker.

At the same time, as enjoying familiar writers, I also expected to discover new authors, and this collection didn't disappoint. In fact, I have to say that there wasn't even one story that I didn't like. Each of them had a unique spin on the subject, with interesting plots, sympathetic characters, and the quality of the writing was top notch, bar none. That said, I must admit that I did have favorites among the seven stories by writers I hadn't heard of until now.

Probably the most unusual of these was "The Photograph" by Kate Kerrigan. In this story, we see a side of this war that most people probably know the least about - the British in Ireland. Even as war raged on the western front against Germany, with British and Irish soldiers fighting side-by-side there, the declaration of the new Republic meant insurrections against the British in Ireland. This story is about a British soldier stationed near Dublin and the woman he falls in love with, who is technically his enemy. Although November 11 didn't end the fighting in Ireland, it does come into play in this story, and very cleverly at that. This type of creativity was what made me pick out this story as one of the standouts of the book.

The other story that I found particularly exceptional, was "The Record Set Right," by Lauren Willig. What surprised me with this story was how it starts in 1980. Willig begins with Camilla in Kenya and then going to England. The back-story takes place in England in 1915 as well as after the war has ended, and Camilla's relationship with two brothers - Nicolas and Edward. This is a story of people separated by both the war, and a misunderstanding, where the pivotal date of the theme sits carefully in the background. In fact, Willig almost ignores November 11 in her story, which I found to be unique among the other stories that used this date more centrally. Instead, she places her characters at the forefront, with them both beautifully rendered, and carefully flawed.

Again, this isn't to say that the other stories here are in any way inferior, but to write about them all would make this review too long, and these were my favorites. I'll certainly be on the lookout for other works by Willig and Kerrigan, as well as keep all of the other authors in mind for future reads. This is also going on my permanent bookshelves, since I'm certain I'll be reading these stories again and again (probably for the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1). In short, this is a marvelous collection of short stories, and I highly recommend it, with a full five out of five stars!

"Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War" is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank author Heather Webb for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Fantastical Fable

Little Nothing by Marisa Silver

In one of the more beautifully written books I've ever read, Silver brings us a story that blends fantasy with reality into a hybrid fable of the weird and the wonderful, of loss and of love and so much more.

I don't usually read fantasy books, but something about this novel piqued my interest, and I am terribly glad it did. This is the story of Pavla, a dwarf born in an unnamed Slavic country (my guess, the area of the former Czechoslovakia, which only becomes truly obvious near the end of the book), who lives a life filled with transformations. First, her community sees Pavla as a curse, someone to fear, who might bring bad luck. Then, just when she finally gains acceptance her parents try to "cure" her small stature. The last "treatment" succeeds in making her taller, but the additional disastrous results, causes her to flee with the "doctor" and his assistant, Danilo to join a carnival. What comes after this is a carefully engineered story of failures and triumphs, which wind around each other until they all come together with clock-like precision.

Probably the most striking thing about this novel is Silver's writing style. It feels that she chooses her words carefully, so that their cadences create an atmosphere that hovers between waking and dreaming. That she achieves this with such fluidity and simplicity, while giving this a feeling reminiscent of the well-known fables passed down from generation to generation is what is truly impressive. The word "glistens" comes to mind to describe it.

Much like many fables, many parts of this story are truly unpleasant. These include the practically torturous way that Pavla's parents try to cure her from her dwarfism, and a rape scene that ends in a gory death. However, despite these nasty sections, I didn't find this book to be heavy whatsoever. In fact, Silver uses these more repellent passages in order to alter her characters (yes, both physically and emotionally), and then takes us from there to more hopeful situations - even though sometimes the conditions initially feel practically desperate - on the surface. Silver also balances these darker parts of her story with gently flowing prose, tenderly smattered with poetic imagery.

Of course, what would a good fable be if it didn't include some magical or fantastical elements? Silver gives us plenty of these, along with enough doses of reality to help us from disbelieving her overall concept. Add to this a plot that has an abundance of twists and turns that grab our attention and hold onto it from start to finish, but amazingly, never confuses us. Finally, she builds her characters with such love and affection that we cannot help but hope for a happily ever after ending. I will not reveal if Silver delivers this, but I will say that the conclusion of this novel was both unique and surprising.

I'm sure you can tell by now that this novel essentially bowled me over. The writing, the characters, the plot, the language, the atmosphere and even the fantasy just came together in a harmonious symphony that was a joy to read. Obviously, I have to give this a full five out of five stars, and highly recommend it - even to non-fantasy readers.

"Little Nothing" by Marisa Silver published by Blue Rider Press (Penguin Group), release date September 13, 2016 will be available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Maine Women Stories

Goodnight, Beautiful Women by Anna Noyes

This is a collection of short stories all surrounding women living near the coast of New England. Debut author Noyes brings us such varied stories as a woman watching her husband go crazy before disappearing, the life-long guilt of one girl's childhood lie, disastrous affairs and a troubled mother trying to escape her loving boyfriend with her daughter.

On the publisher's website, it says, "With novelistic breadth and a quicksilver emotional intelligence, Noyes explores the ruptures and vicissitudes of growing up and growing old, and shines a light on our most uncomfortable impulses while masterfully charting the depths of our murky desires." I can certainly agree with much of this statement, particularly about Noyes showing us uncomfortable impulses and murky desires. The publisher also called it, "Dark and brilliant, rhythmic and lucid…" and I must agree with the dark, rhythmic and lucid parts, and while I found this book to be very interesting, I'm not sure if I would call it brilliant.

This isn't to say that the book isn't good, because there are many excellent things about this book. To begin with, I can easily see what the publishers saw in Noyes. She knows how to develop her characters and make them come alive. She's adept at putting them into unusual situations and building a story line, which is cohesive, without being predictable. All this Noyes does with a highly unusual style, which isn't easy to describe. At turns, Noyes' prose is lyrical, prosaic, minimal, complex, light and dark. This is quite a testament to her versatility, which is a welcome addition when presenting a collection of short stories. If in employing this, Noyes' intention was to wrap each tale in slightly different feelings, she succeeded, to at least some extent.

My problem with this book, however, is where Noyes didn't succeed. Despite the obvious writing talent Noyes displays here, I felt that the overall atmosphere was altogether too heavy. I think the tone Noyes was trying to achieve here was distinctively gray, but instead it came out feeling morose, more often than not. Perhaps the underlying theme that ran through all of the stories let Noyes down, the combination of love and loss. This theme isn't anything new, unless you can put a unique spin on it. Noyes attempts to do this by placing all of the stories in the area of New England, but that just doesn't seem to be enough to bring these stories out of the ordinary. However, Noyes did have one instance where she proves she has the ability to capture something unusual. This is in the opening story, "Hibernation," where a woman living by a quarry, recalls witnessing her husband throwing their things into the murky water of the pits before he disappeared. Had Noyes been able to equal the quality of that story in the rest of her pieces, this could have gotten a full five stars from me.

In addition, I found that some of the stories confused me by using disjointed, although lyrical, passages that didn't always connect to the action or the characters. While I enjoyed the use and play of language, as well as the visuals they afforded, I wasn't sure if these were altogether necessary. (These reminded me of the adage to writers to "kill your babies," meaning, even if you've written something you really love, unless it works with the story, you'll have to cut it.)

You can see from this that I'm somewhat of two minds with this book. On the one hand, I have no doubt that Noyes has a true writing talent, and is a name we should be watching out for in the future. On the other hand, I'm not sure if this was the best way for her to display it. I don't know if she should lighten up a bit, or look for something that will take her lovely prose to the next level. For this, I think I'll give this book a rating of three out of five stars, but still recommend it since I'm certain many readers will appreciate her fine use of language.

"Goodnight, Beautiful Women" by Anna Noyes, published by Grove Press, released June 2016 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Teaser Tuesday for July 26, 2016

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of A Daily Rhythm. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read (or the next book on your reading list)
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My Teaser:
 "I think prayers, determination, and crossed arms beneath a moon, well, all three just triple my chances. Don't you? I'd tell you what I wished for, but then it wouldn't come true. Let's just say it involves airplanes not plummeting through the clouds.

" What do you desire above everything else?"
--  From the short story Something Worth Landing For by Jessica Brockmole, in the collection Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War.

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT with either the link to your own Teaser Tuesdays post, or share your ‘teasers’ in a comment on Jenn's latest post, here (if you don’t have a blog). Thanks!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Devotion en masse

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church

Meridian is very smart, and she wants to become an ornithologist, something very unusual for a girl growing up in post-WWI in America. With the support of her mother, and knowing she has the blessing of her late father she begins that journey. However, when she meets the brilliant lecturer Alden Whetstone and realizes she found her intellectual equal. After finishing her bachelor's degree, he convinces her to put off her graduate studies to follow him to his new top-secret job in Los Alamos, working to end the Second World War, through physics. With her life on hold, Meridian looks for meaning in her new surroundings.

On the surface, Meridian is the type of woman whose abilities, combined with an inner strength, are exactly what society at the time shunned. Her defiance of those norms wasn't very unusual, even for that time. However, even back then, people expected even educated women and their jobs to take a backseat to their husbands' careers. In this regard, when Meridian follows suit, we are not at all surprised. However, this was the first thing that disappointed me about this novel, even if being exceptional has somehow become the cliché in books of this sort.

Church tries to remedy this with Meridian's affair with a younger man later in life. With this part of her life, we get to know the passionate side of Meridian, and along with it, the coming-of-age realization of the depth of her regret for what she could have become. While this is heartening, here too we see a weakness in Meridian that we would certainly have preferred not to see. Of course, Church does this because otherwise, I don't think she thought that the ending of this book would have worked. Here too, I have to disagree to some extent, although not completely. The question is which is more of a cliché? A woman who knows she's repressing herself (or is a victim of repression), and stays in that situation anyway; or a woman who doesn't realize her potential until it is staring her in the face. In short, my feminist sensibilities tell me that Church didn't give me the kind of protagonist that I was looking for.

On the other hand, I also think that Church gave me exactly the type of character that was truly possible to imagine. Knowing this, you really can't help liking Meridian, mostly because Church's honest and open style makes her into a very sympathetic character. We do see where Meridian's rebellious side comes through, and we feel sorry for her when she can't take it just a little further. In my experience, when I see a character doing something I would have advised against, I usually get annoyed with the character (or the author). Not so here, where Church makes us see both sides of what Meridian is going through, and this makes us feel the same regrets that obviously Meridian is feeling. This isn't to say that Meridian is a pitiful character, since she does have enough small mutinies (and one very large one) to help us still admire her.

You can see my dilemma, can't you? While it seemed like Church sometimes allowed Meridian to take what seemed like the easy path, or at least the one most expected of women from her era, we also see that many of her decisions were fraught with difficult consequences. This dichotomy makes this book frustrating and rewarding at the same time.
Not to mention the whole bird metaphor of their freedom that's closely observed, which despite the many references seemed a tenuous connection at best. Perhaps this is exactly what Church was going for, particularly if you think about this book's title.

Because of all this, I've been debating what star rating I should give this novel. I certainly want to recommend it, especially because I found Church's style to be inviting and compelling. However, in all honesty, because of my mixed feelings about Meridian, I'm unable to give it more than three and a half stars.

"The Atomic Weigh of Love" by Elizabeth Church, published by Algonquin Books, released May 3, 2016, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Travels for the Mind or for the Body?

On Trying to Keep Still by Jenny Diski

I was saddened to hear that Jenny Diski was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and even more saddened when she passed away. Interestingly enough, the first thought that went through my head was "why haven't I read more of her works?" I knew that I loved her writing, and frankly, I felt ashamed that I'd only read two of her books. While Diski wrote many works of fiction, I've only read her non-fiction "travel" books. (I put the word 'travel' in quotation marks because these are more memoirs through the places she visits, than books about the travel itself.)

The first book of hers I read was "Skating to Antarctica." The title of this book makes it obvious where she went, but what you find inside as the book unfolds is nothing expected. Although I read this sometime in the mid-90s, there are passages that I can recall the essence of, to this very day. That's what I call effective writing. Several years later, I read her "Stranger on a Train" book about traveling by train across the US combined with her smoking habits. Here too, Diski instilled the places she visited with touching personal observances of her own personality.

This book too, was something of a form of self-analysis. Diski explains how she prefers to not have to go places and be with people; that being on her own and doing what most people would call wasting time, is something that brings her joy and peace. Having to get up, get out of bed, dress to go places and be with people often fills her with dread. Knowing that most people do not consider this "normal" behavior is the negative motivation for Diski to face the world. Of course, knowing she's committed to writing about some of her travels is the positive motivation for her. What's more, Diski really likes the idea of these adventures and seeing new places. She just doesn't want to go there and be there, physically!

Even so, as Diski suffers through having to be around other people (which apparently is far more tolerable than she seems to admit), while looking for a quiet place to be on her own and vegetate, she delights us with her observances together with some quite funny self-denigration. For example, she describes going for her first walk in New Zealand (to keep the farmer from worrying about her reclusiveness), and being accompanied by their over-enthusiastic, but inept sheep dog, which is hysterical. I also adored her descriptions of her extreme lack of direction, and the problems she gets into because of that, even in her own home country. However, she imbues her visit to Lapland with such a sense of awe and wonder, we think that maybe this aversion to being around humanity might be wearing thin.

Still, this quest for solitude and desire for inertia is the theme that runs underneath all of these tales. At one point, she even thinks it is a shame that travel writers have to leave their homes in order experience new places to write about them. However, there's a little treat in this book for those who read it, in the guise of a short story she wrote, in which she comes up with a clever solution to this conundrum. All of this makes me realize what a huge loss the literary world has suffered with her passing. Then again, I remember that this book, like the others I've read, is truly delightful in every way, and we are so very lucky that she left us with such a beautiful legacy. This is why I am strongly recommending it, with a full five out of five stars.

"On Trying to Keep Still" by Jenny Diski is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris or Better World Books.