Blood and Silver by Vali Benson

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Tombstone, Arizona, setting for Blood and Silver, doesn’t sound like a great place for a fresh start.  But life in San Francisco, where Lucille and her “ladies” come from, couldn’t have gotten much worse, especially for one of the ladies, Lisette, and her daughter Carissa.  Lisette, an ex-Southern Belle, ends up with Lucille after losing everything, except Carissa, in the Civil War.  Carissa is determined to get her mother and herself into better conditions in friendly Tombstone.

Blood and Silver’s backbone is its powerful female characters.  Most formidable is China Mary, based on one of Tombstone’s actual first Chinese inhabitants in the late 1800s.  China Mary helps Carissa to heal Lisette and brokers employment for the enterprising young Carissa.  Lucille is more ruthless of a businesswoman than China Mary.  Carissa and her new friend Mai-Lin model a devotion to their female elders and to the noble ethics their role models instill.

Like a movie, dialogue and interaction propel the action in this short novel.  Characters develop through their differing accents, choice of words and level of impassioned tone.  Scenes are set with colorful descriptions of period dress and silver mining practices.  The Wild West grabs attention in its wily personalities, harshness and renegade ethos.  The writing is appropriate for middle grade readers.

Blood and Silver is a moral as well as an entertaining tale for younger audiences.  Through Carissa’s quest for an improved life in a frontier town, history teaches about the timeless benefits of good friends, hard work and family ties.  

Pont Neuf by Max Byrd

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Pont Neuf, Max Byrd’s latest historical fiction set during World War II, resides on a bridge between two worlds.  Contextually, Pont Neuf, the bridge in Paris, is a meeting point for two soldiers and a woman they love, after the Battle of the Bulge.  Figuratively, the bridge stands for a point between living and dead, involved and distant, war and peace, innocence and maturity.

The novel inhabits these transoms with a literary command worthy of its writerly characters.  Annie March, the fictional main character, sends articles and pictures from the front to Vogue magazine.  Her mentor is the factual third wife of Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, a New York Times contributor of her own fame.  Martha introduces Annie to The Twins, Harvard roommates who attract like opposite poles of a magnet.  Shaw, aka the Killer, is as fierce a fighter as he is a loyal friend – and Jefferson devotee.  Adams studies math and maps.  His forte is cracking code.  One of these will win Annie’s heart while Martha loses her love for Hemingway.

“When you looked through glasses’ lenses, [Annie] thought, the world came clearer…. You only thought about the abstract technical challenge of taking a good picture” (15).  Without losing the technical clarity of distance, the novel moves the action through graphic, up-close scenes on battlefields, in war torn cities, makeshift hospitals, spontaneous parties and dive bars.  The pacing is frantic and unpredictable, as varied as from Shaw’s impulsive thirst for justice to Adam’s calculating mind.  As the story travels through these chaotic paths, Annie develops a moral compass and becomes a better journalist.  

The appearance of famous figures such as Eisenhower, Cronkite, William Walton and Patton gives the text a luminous quality.  The present of the book is tethered to the past through frequent references to ancient history and literature.  Although the atrocities of war and the trends of the era affect Annie’s moral compass, timeless wisdom also guides her.  With Shaw’s ferocity, Adam’s precision, and Annie’s charm, Pont Neuf navigates a slice of time, a chasm between worlds, with a breadth of wit, pathos and humor.         

Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin

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A novel in which the narrator claims to have been “adopted” by a book provides its own assessment criteria.  Does Fresh Water for Flowers adopt us, claim us, make a home for us between its pages?  Absolutely.

Violette, the heroine and narrator, is an orphan who marries the first man she adores, Philippe Toussaint.   Philippe and Violette have a daughter, Leonine.  Later in life, Violette becomes a cemetery caretaker.  She meets Julien Seul as he leaves his mother’s ashes on the grave of her lover.  Curious about this beautiful cemetery caretaker, Julien plays detective in Violette’s life.  Does he help Violette go of a lifetime of hurts, or is he just another cause for pain?

As Julien discovers, there’s more to Violette than the drab uniform she wears.  He sees something red peeking out beneath her beige coat…  Violette considers her little house in the cemetery a confessional.  Her job is to be discreet, a listener, and yet, as her mentor, the previous cemetery caretaker says, “if we had to do only what was part of our job, life would be sad.” (31).  As Violette takes stories of her cemetery “neighbors” up into her own, attending to the dead and the ones they leave behind turns out to be a lifegiving process.  Perrin’s treatment of scenes – a testament to her photography and screenwriting abilities – is a lifegiving luxury to the senses.  Clothing, flowers, food, and cozy rooms are brought to life in vivid detail, in Violette’s observant eye.  The plot moves along like animated floral arrangements.  

This first translated novel of French author/photographer/screenwriter, Perrin, is an epic and a cinematographic landmark, poised on the fine point between life and death.  This novel turns both death and life on their heads.  Violette, her mentor, Sasha, and friend, Julien, find ways to generate a garden from death’s compost.  But there are other characters who are just as good at making life a living hell.  The novel is full of extremes and comic interludes in between.  There are love affairs, happy marriages and relationships gone sour.  There are love letters and diary entries, eulogies, court records and official statements, in short, a seed catalogue of literary gems between two covers.  This novel envelopes us and makes us cry as well as smile.  It’s the best kind of mirror, that reflects back to us the beauty and breadth of being human.  

Sins in Blue by Brian Kaufman

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While songwriters make music out of story, Brian Kaufman’s latest novel, Sins in Blue, makes a story out of music.

Young promoter, Kennedy Barnes, has cassettes of little known blues artist Willie Johnson’s songs to prove that Willie invented rock n’ rock long before everyone thinks it started.  Now, to secure better futures for both of them, Kennedy has to convince Willie, and a record label, to include Willie on the line up at a blues festival.  Not only do Kennedy and Willie have work to do on this musical adventure, they have demons from their pasts to face.

Pairing extremes, like Kennedy and Willie, makes for a tension-filled plot.  Kennedy, an 18 yr old from Pittsburgh, leaves home against his family’s wishes in order to find his musical hero, Willie.  Willie is retirement age but still works at a hotel despite aches and pains.  His music career has not afforded him any savings.  Their differences cause conflicts, from which much learning and solidarity also arise.  

The story toggles between North and South, past and present.  Willie grows up in Mississippi in the 1920s and 30s, ending up in Colorado, where he meets Kennedy in 1969.  Situated at the epicenter of vast cultural shifts between then and now, here and there, the story has an epic quality.  

Fact and fiction blend amicably – and surprisingly.  Juke joints, restaurants and bars named are based on real places.  Willie’s struggles as a newcomer to the North in the 1930s rings true to historical accounts.  But real-life blues legend, “Blind” Willie Johnson, is nothing like fictional Willie Johnson….

Lyrics from Willie’s song, Sins in Blue, permeate the text with a pathos that spills out beyond the short novel’s last page.  The book’s edgy themes and rhythms still vibrate through today’s society.  Its characters model an enduring and beautiful friendship for this era. 

The Handmaid’s Tale, Col. Heg and His Boys, Anything Is Possible

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I’ve recently read these three books for fun, and not as a book review assignment.  The Handmaid’s Tale I chose because everyone seems to be reading it now.  The tv series made it popular.  Only after the statue of Col. Heg came down in Madison, did I learn who he was.  Luckily, I could learn more from a book by Waldemar Ager, in the Ager Association library.  (I’m on the board of the Ager Nordic Cultural Association).  My mom sent me Strout’s 2017 novel.

The Handmaid’s Tale reminded me of 1984.  Set in a dystopian future, a society based on strict gender roles tries to undo what they saw as sexual and other problems of the past.  The narrative is written from the perspective of one handmaid, a woman whose job is to procreate with an eligible man to whom she is assigned, not her husband.  While trying to stay as alive and as well as possible under these severe circumstances, her previous existence keeps asserting itself.  She can’t help but think about her husband and daughter from her former life, before the civil war. Their memories pain her, while also keeping her sane.  She does not buy into the current regime and becomes subversive, in her own way.  Her perspective is akin to that of Julia’s in 1984, a threat to a male dominated world made powerful by personal relationships that cannot be undone by politics.

While one narrator’s voice pervades A Handmaid’s Tale, several perspectives fill Anything Is Possible with a universal consciousness.  The novel follows members of a small Midwestern town through their recent trials and triumphs.  Although a slew of dramas – divorces, affairs, abuse, poverty, comings-out, fires – create an entertaining plot, the real artistic beauty of the book is in Strout’s command of the human psyche.  She dignifies our expansiveness with her words, leaving no room for pity.  Characters’ empathy for one another inspires.

I don’t know why Col. Heg was chosen as a target for removal from geographic and sculptural history.  From what I learned of him, he was chosen for the task of leading a Norwegian regiment in the Civil War due to his popularity in the community and his courage in the face of daunting tasks.  No stranger to daunting tasks, he came to Wisconsin from Norway as a boy and worked his way up as a business man.  Like many immigrant soldiers under him, hard physical labor was part of the daily routine.  Attending to basic needs such as safety, housing and food came naturally to these hearty lads.  The book features letters, Ager’s commentary, and personal memories he collected, as well as essays by contemporary academics.  A list of the soldiers’ fates at the end of the book brings home their heroic sacrifice on behalf of all Americans, whom, as newcomers, they felt privileged to serve.

In the midst of world turmoil, the rigorous work of careful writers, such as Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Strout and Waldemar Ager, encourage me to keep up the eternally good fight toward greater understanding and gratitude.

 

The Second Home by Christina Clancy

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Christina Clancy’s debut novel explores the concept of home through a kaleidoscope of three perspectives.  Ann, the eldest and most responsible of the Gordon siblings, is nicknamed, “Ann with a Plan.”  Conflict swirls around an insidious and conniving antagonist, Anthony Shaw, a rich Cape Cod summer resident who employs Ann one fateful summer.  Teachers in Milwaukee, the Gordons adopt Michael as a teen, after both his parents die.  The family’s summer house in Cape Cod expands Michael’s tragic world to one of independence and possibility.  Poppy, the youngest Gordon, is a free spirit.  In Cape Cod she discovers surfing, drugs, and a taste for travel.  When the Gordon parents suddenly die, these three confront the fate of the Milwaukee and Cape Cod houses, and with them, the fate of their family.  

Ann, Michael and Poppy each take turns as charming and gritty stars of each chapter.  As no one character is dominant, a fourth voice emerges: the connections and disconnections between characters.  Estrangement and belonging become restless bedfellows the characters are able to navigate due to this resilient fourth voice.  Ann’s fraught relationship with Anthony, Michael’s protective nature and Poppy’s escapism balance out in an always evolving creation: Home.

The democratic writing style betrays the Midwestern flavor of the novel.  In the tradition of the Midwest’s stoic Northern European inhabitants, feelings are aired yet not romanticized.  Dialogue is straight forward, not analytical.  Descriptions of natural beauty are functional, not ancillary, contributing to the plot’s movement toward stability and resolution.  Through sturdy prose and thoughtful characters, home comes across like a hearty meal with just enough realism to fill the belly as well as mystery to leave a tantalizing hunger for more.

The Second Home is a stalwart, trustworthy book, a feel-good read, perfect for summer satisfaction in the midst of global chaos.  

They Lived They Were at Brighton Beach by Ivan Brave

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After Ilya, an Electronic Dance Music DJ in NYC, gets dumped, he attempts to win back his girlfriend with a special summer performance for the release of his first EP.  But a new woman and other unforeseen forces have their own plans for Ilya.  

“Beauty begs to be repeated,” Ilya’s roommate quotes.  Using music as a metaphor, the novel lays bare an improvisational process to cull beauty to be repeated from life’s dregs.  Conceived as the offspring of an old couple who never has kids, the book is a story within a story.  The couple is present in the novel, dialoguing through footnotes.  Their story, and more ancient tales inform Ilya’s story.  Contemporary circumstances tied to classic references create a universal appeal.

Ilya, part mom and part dad, strives for his own identity from layers of sources he mixes into his own sound.  The immediacy of his feelings shapes the text into a series of vibrant and conscientious vignettes.  Reading is a soul-full glimpse into the inner workings of an artist’s heart.   

The book resides in points of change.  Ilya finds renewed motivation after losing his girlfriend, who is on the verge of fame.  Julia, Ilya’s new lover, is on the verge of divorce.  The club where he DJs is on the verge of closure.  Legends and myths alluded to throughout the story feature protagonists proving themselves when the world assumes they have nothing more to give.  Looping within a circle of neither now and not yet, here and there, both dream and real, high and sober, ethereal and earthy, the book’s groove is liminal, while also moving ever forward, toward creation and freshness.  The twists and turns of Ilya’s on-the-edge existence make for an on-the-edge-of-the-seat read.  The pacing is fluid, flowing between genres, time periods and perspectives seamlessly.

Cyrillic words and Russian culture add an exotic flavor.

Ivan Brave’s second novel is a collective space where music, a diverse cast, and timeless ideas dance together on that line that connects dots into a beautiful, moving, one-of-a-kind composition.   My review of Ivan Brave’s previous novel    

Rising Above Shepherdsville by Ann Aschoenbohm

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Some things are best left unsaid until the time is right to speak.  

Dulcie hasn’t spoken since her mother died the day she was gone for a spelling bee.  Her father figure, Ray, brings Dulcie to live at her Aunt Bernie’s place, out in Shepherdsville, Ohio.  There, Dulcie meets Rev. Love, a runaway named Faith, youth Bible study participants, Evangeline, the new choir director, and, best of all, a family of swans, mute just like her.

The story addresses timeless subjects in the specific context of middle America, 1977.  An energy crisis, race inequalities, harsh moralism, and poverty mark the time period.  Dulcie’s personal trauma brings the era’s troubles home.  The pastoral setting creates a respite in which to tackle woes.  

The swans act as a powerful link between the natural environment and abstract ideas.  To Dulcie, the regal swans provide a comforting protectiveness of the soul as she struggles with remorse and other adult concepts.  Calling to mind an otherworldly presence, they remind Dulcie of her mother, who gives her strength to face foes in the town.  The swans imbue the narrative with dignity.  

Each chapter is titled by a spelling word.  Episode by episode, the words introduce big ticket ideas through experience.  Treated one at a time, the individual words point to the delicateness of silence, giving time and space for grief to run its course.  Dulcie’s first person narration, addressed to her mother, couches words like forgiveness, metamorphosis, dogma, pilgrimage, and others, in intimacy.  Dulcie breaks her silence without breaking her bond with her private memories.

A tender coming of age story set in rural Ohio connects with contemporary audiences through natural beauty and brave characters.  

The Bridge of Little Jeremy by Indrajit Garai

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Little Jeremy, of Indrajit Garai’s latest novel, The Bridge of Little Jeremy, may have a weak heart, but it is full of love for his family.  When he is twelve, he and his mother learn they might lose their home due to taxes they owe and can’t pay.  Regardless of his heart troubles, Jeremy has a plan to save their house with his painting and restoration skills.

The initial chapter takes place on a quiet April night and introduces all the central characters in a close knit world.  Jeremy, who can’t sleep, thinks of his overworked mother, their German shepherd, Leon, Mathilde, a musician neighbor who cares for Jeremy when his mom works, Jeremy’s friends, Paolo, a painter, and Robert, a zookeeper.  He worries about a pervert spying on them from across the courtyard.  Alone a lot, Jeremy is introspective.  He talks to himself and his dog.  His many questions show his infectious curiosity as well as guide the action.  Jeremy’s inquisitive determination is put to the test by all the forces against him.  The plot becomes steadily more urgent, as eviction threatens and Jeremy’s heart remains frail.  

Paris keeps Jeremy company.  Impressionistic descriptions of the cityscape – seasonal festivals, quaint neighborhoods, underground canals, and Notre Dame – balance out weighty subjects of tax codes and social justice via social media.  Artistic bits of wisdom offered by wise-beyond-his-years Jeremy, and by older friends he meets on his jaunts around town, also counter quotidian concerns.  Animals feature prominently, betraying both a ferocity and a playfulness at the heart of the story.  Communing with art and nature, Jeremy becomes a talisman for all that’s precious and deserves to be protected amidst life’s struggles.  

The Bridge of Little Jeremy is a beautiful and sincere blend of imagination and reality, combining otherworldly charm with work-a-day grit. 

Into the Suffering City by Bill LeFurgy

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Baltimore’s misfit-heros lead a tour of turn of the 20th century Baltimore, in Bill LeFurgy’s first historical crime novel, Into The Suffering City.

In 1909, a beloved show girl named Lizzie is found dead in her boarding house.  Sarah Kennecott, a medical doctor working for a private detective agency, investigates.  The mayoral candidate, accused of Lizzie’s murder, hires Jack Harder, whose specialty is “fixing problems” (12), to clear his name.  Sarah and Jack join forces to get to the bottom of Lizzie’s murder mystery.

Although they seem like opposites, Sarah and Jack are similar as outsiders.  Outspoken, distant, and singularly focused on justice, Sarah shows signs of autism.  Jack’s military experience causes him debilitating flashbacks, as well as shaking, now associated with PTSD.  Jack says, “I get my hands dirty to earn my dough. So you’re a do-gooder idealist with your head in the clouds.  Let’s consider the possibility that our interests overlap” (68). Jack’s gut instinct coupled with Sarah’s brains show the strength of people pushed to the margins of society.  Society’s treatment of the pair contrasts their acceptance of each other.  

Getting along in the world is presented as a dramatic and valiant struggle, against a backdrop of familiar political shenanigans.  The three Baltimore mayoral candidates in the book are: the businessman accused of killing Lizzie, a wealthy social activist, and a proponent of white supremacy based on Biblical teachings.  While politics between these three is ugly, Baltimore itself shines in living color. Jack’s walks all over town expose jaunty jive talk, jazz music and entertainingly seedy characters. The heat ramps up as the last several chapters get shorter.  Bursts of action culminate the novel with violence met with bravery and wit.

With Sarah’s scientific inquiry and Jack’s outlaw charm, Into the Suffering City celebrates the accomplishments of a dynamic duo in the context of Baltimore’s grit and its glamour.