A Dream of Steam by James W. Barry

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Based on a true story about a sawmill’s fate from 1889, this reimagined historical fiction version includes romance, ships and desperados.

Comprised of four books, the novel builds steadily to a fever pitch at the end. The first book introduces a wide cast of characters.  Brothers William and Thomas McGrath own and operate a lumber business. Ambitious, headstrong William is in charge of the mill and happy-go-lucky, sea-faring Thomas moves the products on the ship Genevieve.  In 1891, they request a loan to modernize their business from a bank in Detroit run by Edgar Standish and son-in-law, John Fitzpatrick.  Fitzpatrick plays poker with thug union organizers and other violent types. Klara is a mail-order bride on her way to meet her future husband in Michigan when her ship capsizes and Thomas’ crew saves her.  Cedric Inch is an underhanded fellow lumberman. In the second book, the loan acquired, work begins on a new mill, although not without hiccups due to weather, recession, William’s romantic woes and a run-in with union thugs.  Fitzpatrick finds himself in debt to his card partners. Klara’s plans her escape from the husband who turns out not to be who he says he is. The threads begin to come together in book three as Fitzpatrick desperately uses the McGrath loan, among others, to try to get out of debt.  Klara, escaped, is again saved by the Genevieve crew, whom she meets in Sault Ste Marie.  In the final book, Fitzpatrick and Inch team up against the McGraths.  Klara endears herself to William with an innovative, if not conniving, retaliation plan.  The careful character development pays off when the rock-solid hero team, forward-looking William tempered by traditionalist Thomas, as well as can-do Klara and the humorous Genevieve crew, defeat villainous corporate interests in the form of Fitzpatrick and gang.  With lyrical phrasing, fitting of the time period, plus mechanical details and lots of physical exertion, the pacing balances description and action.  A helpful glossary of logging and nautical terms supplements the text.

History comes alive in the hands of this debut author, a sailor who restores ships for use in movies and museums.       

      Author website

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Heroes in My Head by Judy Rebick

In this memoir this prominent Canadian feminist and founder of rabble.ca, coming to terms with childhood abuse makes her a better activist.

Key events trigger buried memories from Rebick’s early childhood.  Brooklyn natives, the family moves to Canada in 1955, when she is 10.  She attends McGill University, which her father says “ruined her” (53).  She lives up the 60s culture, writing for the school newspaper, losing her virginity, smoking cigarettes and dope, and joining the anti-war movement.  After a post-college relationship turns violent, some of which she forgets, she moves back to Toronto, then New York, then travels to Europe and the Middle East.  She comes home early due to a serious illness, vowing that if recovers, she’ll give herself to changing the world (105). She becomes a Trotskyite, working a union plane factory job until health problems prevent her from continuing.  By the mid-80s, she does as much unpaid activist work as paid writing work. Her unrelenting pace and fearless confrontation of many challenges finally catch up with her. With a therapist, she begins to understand memories from which she’s disassociated, that pop back into her mind.  After “the garden shears attack” (4) incident, in which she protects the abortion clinic founder, Dr Morgenthaler, from a protester, and her encounter with a blind patient at the clinic who is abused because of her abortion, images emerge of herself at five, with her father…. “Alters” also emerge, eleven distinct personalities in all.  This inner work coincides with her increasing responsibility on behalf of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). The two go hand in hand. “Being able to see multiple perspectives on my own life allowed me to better understand my opponents,” she says (140). Uncovering abuse and the alters who help her survive it, she recognizes the source of both her pain and passion.  The book concludes in gratitude for all involved in her healing process, as well as a glossary and an index.

Candid and rich in history, Rebick offers timely insight into the personal become political.

Sons of the Old Country by Waldemar Ager

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Norwegian emigrants become fast friends in Wisconsin, working, celebrating, fighting and mourning together.

Around 1860, Frederik leaves Norway in a huff over his father, the Consul’s, plan to remarry after Frederik’s mother dies.  The Consul hires Hans, trustworthy and strong as an ox, to follow the wayward Frederik to America. On the boat up the Mississippi into the upper Midwest, Frederik meets Ole Brekken, military-trained and straight as an arrow, mousy but luckily married, Andreas, his beautiful, generous wife, Karine, and ambitious son, Karinius.  When they arrive in Wisconsin, Frederik, Hans, Ole and Andreas meet Evan, who misses his family back in Norway, brothers Big and Little Ole, wild-coiffed Isak Isaksen Isakrud (Isak Rud for short), and the silent giant, Greger Gregerson. The men work together in the sawmill and lumber camps. They help build a new Norwegian Lutheran church in their fledgling town.  They defend each other in bar brawls and help each other woo the girls working in the boarding house where most of them live. They help save the town from a flood. In 1862, they enlist in the Union Army during the civil war. Some die, some return to their Wisconsin town and others return to Norway. Tender moments are flanked by valiant deeds, understated by innocent humor.  The first English phrase the young Karinius learns is, “I’ll be damned!” which he uses both inappropriately and appropriately, much to the amusement of the older fellows. Frederik stands out as a central character, with the fullest development from angry youth to grateful son and married man. Author Waldemar Ager was a newspaper man in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a town resembling the unnamed lumber town in the novel.  In journalist fashion, the story speaks for itself in a wave of rollicking vignettes that build into a rich, vivid and comic fictional account of the first big wave of immigrants to the Deep North. This and Ager’s other novels embody his fundamental ideal of a particularly Norwegian-American identity and subculture.

The Sons of the Old Country distinguish themselves as fathers, brothers and citizens of their adopted home country, through their labor, love and service.

Up In the Air by Jonathan Solomon

What do a circus school, a middle-aged transplant to Adelaide from Sydney, and a lawyer have to do with $5 million missing dollars?

Pink graffiti vandalizes the warehouse out of which Charlie runs his Inner Strength Circus School.  After the fifth tag (one tag per chapter), the messages become personal. In a search for possible perpetrators, Charlie recalls his string of angry ex boyfriends who each resent his commitment to the school over them.  Meanwhile, the school, just barely in the black, gets the chance to take part in De Bonheur Circus Company’s traveling show. In an another thread of vignettes, introvert Eckhart has relocated to Adelaide from Sydney where he was worn down by work and lovelife woes.  He buys a rundown house it takes all his savings and energy to restore. He invites his enterprising, hearing impaired real estate agent, Megan, to join a trapeze class with him at Inner Strength. In a third set of alternating storylines, Margot, a Sydney lawyer, might lose both her job and her firm’s biggest client, Surface Under, if she can’t locate $5 million dollars they’re owed.  When the money is lost, so is Margot’s job. She licks her wounds in Adelaide with her sister. These separate plots begin to coalesce as De Bonheur gets closer to Adelaide from Sydney. In each town, the troupe features local talent, as well as their own. Blanche, the ringmaster, adds a fourth layer to the mounting suspense. Author Jonathan Solomon has produced two plays in addition to this book, and another novel.  His theatrical bent comes across most clearly in the dramatic chapters-as-scenes format.

Up In the Air is a mystery that unravels methodically, through evenly paced episodes and good natured characters making everyday mistakes as well as life-altering discoveries about themselves.  A quick, bubbling read.  Find the book on Goodreads

Stoney Lonesome Road by Eau Claire native, Rick Pendergast

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A retired detective and a PhD candidate in English fall in love solving a murder mystery.

A lifetime citizen of Brunswick, Wisconsin, understated Jack Delaney retires from its police force after thirty five years.  He’s quietly proud to have “served and protected.” With one exception, he’s closed every one of his cases: Sonny Howland’s murder case remains unsolved.  Jack and his trusty dog, Harry, fill their empty days doing odd jobs for the widow whose property Jack rents and making rounds in Jack’s old blue pickup truck. With lots of time to reflect on his long career, memories supply much of the narrative.  Jack relives the old days with his on-and-off girlfriend from grade school, Cindy Robertson, and enjoys her brother, Father Dan Robertson’s fake Irish brogue. Jack remembers the origins of the feud between the Howlands and Graves families. Will Graves is primary suspect in Sonny Howland’s murder due to generations-old animosity between the Catholic Graves and KKK Howlands.  When Anna, English grad student and the Graves’ granddaughter, comes to live in her grandparents’ farmhouse just before they die, she and Jack fall in love over a shared interest in the intriguing story of Mattie Graves, Will’s wife and Jack’s beloved high school English teacher, who secretly likes to smoke as she grades papers. A Robert Frost devotee, she writes her own poems in the margins of her journals.  Clues left in Mattie’s letters and diaries lead Anna and Jack on a dangerous goose chase into buried secrets still smoldering beneath the surface. Sonny Howland’s son, Doyle, a crippled veteran and local criminal, endangers everyone in his path seeking revenge for his father’s death, but not if Jack can stop him first.

Like a good poem that “begins in delight and ends in wisdom,” Stoney Lonesome Road starts out innocently, but behind the small town charm lie crimes of passion that resolve in an ultimate truth.  A robust combination of love story and murder mystery, historic anecdotes ground this novel in a real Midwest setting.

Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb

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A rising cardiologist’s most challenging case is her own heart.

Diane’s mother is so jealous, she can’t show Diane any affection.  After a near death experience when she’s six, an insightful doctor inspires her to study medicine.  At fifteen, precocious, mature and more beautiful than her mother, Diane opts to live with her grandparents. When they die, she lives with her best friend’s family.  At university, in the late 1990s, she befriends a professor whose ambition Diane feeds and supports, only for her efforts to backfire. As Diane navigates these pivotal relationships with her mother, best friend, and professor, the plot moves along rhythmically, like a beating heart.  The chapters are short and discreet, with tidy endings. The writing is crystalline, condensing whole years of reflection into a few sentences. “In that moment Diane stopped being a child…. She transformed into a disenchanted creature who was obsessed with not foundering in the abyss that this situation [her mother’s jealousy] had created inside her.”  She becomes like her namesake, the goddess Diana, virgin mother associated with hunting. “Strike your heart, that is where genius lies” is Diane’s favorite quote, among others infusing the text like bursts of oxygen. She is both the huntress and the hunted; she is the heart itself, the heroine at the center of this short but fiery novel, beating with more than one climactic palpitation.  She rises above each of the hurts inflicted by her mother and friends with a stalwart and unconventional love the novel celebrates in its streamlined style.

Reminiscent of Madame Bovary as well as the Ferrante trilogy, this latest novel by the edgy, innovative and prolific literary star, Amelie Nothomb, not only strikes the heart but remains embedded for a long time after reading.      Find the book on Amazon

A Squatter in London by Irene Pylypec

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A Squatter in London by Irene Pylypec is a captivating account of a young woman’s experience as a traveller – not a tourist.

Shortly after college, Irene saves enough to fulfill a long time dream of vacationing in London.  A planned three week trip becomes almost a year, after she falls in love with London and finds work.  Finally, entangled in a squatter’s household, her boyfriend back in Ireland, she’s ready to go back to Canada.

Irene’s personable tone brings London to life.  Not only are popular and little-known landmarks described, running commentary about the people she meets, how things make her feel (Oh, London, how I love  you!) and her thought processes make the reader feel on the scene. For example, she compares the struggles of the Irish immigrants with whom she shares a squat to her Ukrainian immigrant dad.  She discusses the political climate that leads to the necessity of squatting. The action isn’t in the past; the exclamations and visceral details, including reconstructed conversations, happen now, as if we’re right alongside her.  

Irene’s resourcefulness as a single traveller comes through in her unflagging writing.  She manages to find her way through a few dicey encounters as a hitchhiker, a few missed trains, and bouts of homesickness and the blues just as her writing keeps trucking ahead, too.  She’s not interested in consuming the pleasantries the United Kingdom has to offer, but to take it all in, good and bad alike. There’s never a dull moment in the action; it’s always on to the next adventure!  She’s as upbeat in her verbs as she is in her determination to cross off all the to-do items on her itinerary. Pictures and further reading supplement the text at the end.

A Squatter in London is more than a journal or a travelogue.  It’s a personal, factual narrative of a once-in-a-lifetime experience in a new place that inspires readers to travel!