Book Reviews

Reviews

I’m Just Happy to Be Here by Janelle Hanchett

One of the strongest voices in my parenting journey has been that of Janelle Hanchett, the hilarious and profane author of the Renegade Mothering blog. The appeal of the blog is its fierce rejection of the beatific cult of motherhood and its earthy exploration of the realities of parenting. While that alone is enough to attract many readers, one of the more compelling aspects of Renegade Mothering is her past as a self-destructive alcoholic and addict, which gives Ms. Hanchett a humility that has created some of her best writing and created a devoted community of tens of thousands of readers. I’m Just Happy to Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering is the background story of her life, beginning with the discovery that she was pregnant at 21 with a young man that she had only met a few months prior. Without harboring any doubts, she and her boyfriend keep the baby, who attends their wedding a year later. So begins her family, at an age that is unbelievably young by modern standards. But – and here is the plot twist –  Ms. Hanchett is in the beginning stages of a fight with addiction that will take her down some very dark roads that endanger the well-being of her first two children and the future of her marriage. There is always a voyeuristic pleasure in witnessing a life that you wouldn’t lead, and here Ms. Hanchett certainly delivers. Her descriptions of the next few years, as her addictions grew worse and her lifestyle degraded into squalor, are the sort of thing that you really want to read from a distance. Yet Ms. Hanchett’s signature humor keeps the narrative from turning into a self-flagellation, as does her honest introspection about her motivations. Her story is a rare narrative – the voice of the drug-addled mother – and it challenges our cultural assumptions about such women by telling the story in a middle-class context. Ms. Hanchett is helped by privilege – her white skin, a family that can hand over thousands of dollars for expensive rehab centers and take in her children, a completed college degree, an employer that was willing to to give her long periods of absence to address her addictions. And yet, while it could have easily turned into a Gilbertesque story of unaware self-finding, Ms. Hanchett doesn’t allow for it. She forces us to understand the women that she could easily have been, if she had been born into different circumstances. It is her confrontation and understanding of her failures despite her privilege that lead her to a place of pure humility and grace. Readers of Renegade Mothering might be surprised to find that Ms. Hanchett’s voice is altered in her memoir, dropping the quick jokes that pepper her blog posts. And yet, this more serious tone suits the story, as an older Ms. Hachett narrates the realities of addiction for an audience that may not understand addictive behavior.  For those of us with addiction in our families, her story will ring uncomfortably true, both in her stories of chasing the next high and in the recovery process. By the time Ms. Hanchett finds a lasting sobriety, we are battered with the brutality of the destructiveness of substance abuse and the failures of the health system to provide appropriate treatment, even to those who have the resources to navigate it. Fans of Renegade Mothering will enjoy the novel for its deep-dive into the story that Ms. Hanchett has often referenced in her more personal posts.  But those unfamiliar with the blog will also find a page-turning and addictive story about the potential of a young woman who lost her way for a time, only to emerge into the world of competitive mothering with enough self-knowledge to understand that it was time to build a community of her own.   Title: I'm Just Happy to Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering Author: Janelle Hanchett Genre: Memoir Publisher: Hachette Books Release Date: May 1, 2018 Format: Hardcover Pages: 320 From the creator of the blog “Renegade Mothering,” Janelle Hanchett’s forthright, darkly funny, and ultimately empowering memoir chronicling her tumultuous journey from young motherhood to abysmal addiction and a recovery she never imagined possible. Pregnant at 21 by a man she’d known three months, Janelle Hanchett embraced motherhood with the determined optimism of the recklessly self-confident. After giving birth, she found herself bored, directionless, and seeking relief in wine, which she justified as sophisticated and going well with chicken. But over time, her questionable drinking habit spiraled into full-blown dependence, until life became bedtime stories and splitting hangovers, cubicles and multi-day drug binges–and eventually, an inconceivable separation from her children. For ten years, Hanchett grappled with the unyielding progression of addiction, bouncing from rehab to therapy to the occasional hippie cleansing ritual on her quest for sobriety, before finding it in a way she never expected. Hers is a story we rarely hear–of the addict mother not redeemed by her children; who longs for normalcy but cannot maintain it; and who, having traveled to seemingly irreversible depths, makes it back, only to discover she is still an outsider. Like her irreverent, laugh-out-loud funny, and unflinchingly honest blog, Hanchett’s memoir calls out the rhetoric surrounding “the sanctity of motherhood” as tired and empty, boldly recounting instead how she grew to accept an imperfect self within an imperfect life–and think, “Well, I’ll be damned, I’m just happy to be here.”

Genre: contemporary, memoir, women's fiction
Subjects: A.A., addiction, alcoholism, diety, god, marriage, motherhood, parenting, recovery, religion

The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

It is a fetid place that refuses to take a back seat to her characters, even though it is the seven families of the neighborhood that quickly draw you in and keep you turning the pages.  Ms. Ferrante demonstrates a deep understanding of how places shape people, which is displayed in her opening scene, which takes place between Elena Greco, the series’ narrator, and the son of her closest friend, Lila Cerulla.

Genre: bildungsroman, contemporary, fiction, literary fiction, postmodernism
Subjects: 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, communism, family, fascism, female friendship, friendship, italy, naples, poverty, rome

Moral Disorder and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood

Even Atwood’s earliest novels are full of her wit, wry humor and bitingly funny characterization, so it is unsurprising to discover these same qualities throughout all of the stories, which tell the story of a woman named Nell in short episodes. The stories are framed by aging; in the first story, Nell is in late middle age and meditating on the nature of a long-term marriage. In the next, she is a young girl, who has yet to meet Tig, the married man that she makes her life with. By the last stories, Nell is long past her adventures and taking care of her elderly parents.

Genre: contemporary, literary fiction, short story collection
Subjects: canada, female friendship, nature, regionalism, rural, toronto, wilderness

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

Book cover: The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

Marian McAlpin is a sensible career girl, not “the other kind” that only dreams of catching a man and marrying him. So when she meets Peter, a handsome up-and-coming lawyer at a party, he quickly asks her out. Several months into their relationship, he loses his last unmarried friend to those scheming wifely types and, in a panic, asks Marian to marry him.

Genre: fiction, literary fiction, postmodernism

Among Us by Jo Walton

Still reeling from the death of her twin sister and learning to live with a crippling injury, Mori finds herself dropped on her father’s doorstep by the foster care system, even though she had never met him before. When his sisters insist on sending her away to an upper-class boarding school, Mori finds herself removed once again from all that is familiar, including the fairy companions that she grew up with.

Genre: fantasy

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

A boy, a nameless boy, lives in a large and rambling old house in rural England. His father’s business is failing and, to keep money coming in, the family begins letting out rooms. One of these lodgers is an aggressive opal miner from South Africa, who runs over the boy’s cat on his way to the house. The next night, he steals the family’s car and drives it to the end of the road and kills himself. When the car is discovered, with the body in it, the boy is sent to the neighboring Hempstock farmhouse while his father calls the police.

Genre: adventure, fantasy, fiction, magic realism

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Prepare yourself, readers, for a book that is as much about place as people.  The 2013 novel, The Burgess Boys, written by Elizabeth Strout, is as much about the internal culture clash of being from two places as it is about the Burgess siblings, who are brought together when Susan Burgess’s teenaged son commits a hate crime in their home town of Shirley Falls, Maine.

Genre: fiction, literary fiction

The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place did not disappoint, by which I mean that it took over my life in the week that it took me to read it. If you’re not familiar with French’s style, her Dublin Murder Squad series is a collection of first-person character-driven classic detective novels told through the eyes of various Dublin Murder detectives that are inevitably assigned to the case of a lifetime. I do not read a lot of crime fiction because of its tendency to be more focused on the details of the mystery than the characters of the story, but French combines the detective genre with thoughtful character development and the sort of poetic prose that reminds me of Margaret Atwood. And did I mention how Irish her novels are? French was raised all over the world, but she lives in Dublin, which is obvious in the faithful and delightful representation of Irish speech and culture. Having an Irish spouse makes reading her dialogue a delight, because it’s so faithful that it almost feels like a private joke.

Genre: contemporary, crime, fiction, mystery

In Another Life by Julie Christine Johnson

Can love span death? This is the big question that Julie Christine Johnson asks us in her debut novel In Another Life. Johnson sets her novel in the Languedoc region of southern France and almost immediately throws the reader back 800 years to one of the darker periods of Christian history, when the Catholic Church led a successful crusade against the native Cathar sect of southern France.

Genre: contemporary, fiction, historical fiction, women's fiction

Her Name Is Rose by Christine Breen

Iris Bowen has just been sacked. It’s not her fault, as the author of a weekly gardening column in a regional newspaper, that the publishing industry has been in decline and budgets are being slashed everywhere.  Her work is good.  A lifelong gardener and natural writer, she has been performing well, despite having lost her husband to cancer only two years prior.  But the world is changing.  Perhaps, her editor suggests, she could guest write a blog for free for a while?  If it becomes popular…well, what writer doesn’t know the thrill of writing for exposure? Quiet and undemanding, Iris tries to focus on her job options, but her bigger problem that day is her mammogram.  In her forties, it is time for Iris to go for her screening, which has taken on a particular terror after the quick death of her husband. The old linoleum was so polished that with every move, as she crossed and uncrossed her legs, it squeaked.  The chill in the air made her shiver.  She clutched her breasts.  Nobody had touched them since Luke.  She held her breath and counted.  exhaled long.  Breathed again.  One, two, three– When the results from the mammogram reveal that there’s an distortion in her left breast that will require further testing to rule out cancer, Iris’s world is turned upside down.  She fears for herself, but she’s more frightened because she is the adoptive mother of a 19 year old daughter named Rose and she is terrified of leaving her orphaned at such a young age. Rose, a musical protégé, is in London studying to be a classical violinist at the Royal Academy.  Like Iris, she is still wrapped in her grief for Luke, and filled with questions about her future.  When her final master class goes badly wrong, she makes a grand gesture that throws her entire future into question and amps up the tension of the novel. Back in Ireland and facing her own mortality, Iris recalls the promise that Luke extracted from her before he died — that she would track down Rose’s birth mother, who had been a young American graduate student at Trinity College.  Iris goes to the Adoption Board in Dublin and discovers only a decades-old address in Boston.  Ignoring her follow-up appointment and telling no one where she is going, Iris impulsively books a plane ticket and sets herself to follow the footsteps of her daughter’s birth mother.  She has planned her trip so impulsively that she even forgets to pack a nightgown. Looking at herself in the mirror now as she was ready to go downstairs, she felt acutely like an imposter.  (What does one wear when meeting the woman who birthed your child?)  She sat down on the edge of the bed and took off the sandals and put on the heels.  She wanted to look smart meeting Hilary Barrett.  She wanted to look like she’d measured up to the mother Hilary had probably hoped for when she gave her baby over to the adoption agency all those years ago.  She tried to think about what she was wearing tjat day, but she couldn’t remember. In Boston, a deeply emotional Iris finds herself at an eccentric B&B, run by a good-hearted but lonely widow who talks entirely too much for Iris’s taste.  The other residents also forcefully intrude on Iris’s solitude, forcing her to unburden her fears onto strangers as she figures out how to face them. She meets Hector Sherr, a celebrated jazz pianist who is instantly drawn to the red-headed Irish widow, and who refuses to let her go on her journey alone.  When Iris feels her own attraction to him, she must face the fact that Luke is dead, but she is still very alive.  In Ireland, Rose faces a parallel journey to her mother, as she is courted a the custom violin that is proclaiming to have fallen in love with her at first sight. As Iris looks for Hilary, the members of Hilary’s world also find their ways into the narrative, and the novel’s theme of unlikely connections between strangers emerges.  They are being drawn together by Rose, who is ironically unaware of her own importance to the story.  The novel takes place only over the span of a few short weeks, but as the lives of the characters turn, the setting of time and place begins to feel magical. Her Name is Rose is foremost a novel about love and loneliness, where sadness often serves to unite strangers and make unlikely friendships.  Although there’s nothing surprising in the denouement, all of the characters are so sympathetic that it remains a compelling and heart-warming read to the end.  Iris’s identity as a gardener and Rose’s role as a musician also fill the book with beauty.  When their talents merge in the final emotional scene of the novel, it just feels right and true. Publisher: St. Martin’s Press Publish Date: April 14, 2015 Hardcover: 304 pages ISBN: 1250054214 Language: English Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: chick lit, fiction, women's fiction

The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper

As a feminist, I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like if the governments of the world were female dominated. Would we still live in a world dominated by men with guns? Would we work more collaboratively and more empathetically? Or would we make the same mistakes as the men who have given us this world? Would we create new monsters?

One of the best parts of speculative fiction for me is its ability to ask these questions and then play them out in the course of a book. Sherri Tepper’s had a long career of novels that take a hard look at gender and environment; The Gate to Women’s Country is certainly one of them. Tepper’s setup was so interesting that I stayed up late night after night to see how the experiment would turn out.

Genre: fantasy, speculative fiction

The Japanese Lover by Isabelle Allende

Isabel Allende’s latest novel, The Japanese Lover, brings us into the luxurious and artistic world of Alma Mendel, the matriarch of the wealthy San Francisco Belasco family. Facing the end of her life, Alma leaves behind the mansion where she has spent most of her life in favor of the Lark House, a surreal retirement home where yoga classes and political demonstrations interrupt conversations about voluntary euthanasia and the enthusiastic smoking of medical marijuana by its ageing residents.

Genre: contemporary

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

Throughout the adventure, Tinti also plays with the idea of morality — her good thief is a twelve-year-old orphan that is brought into a world of petty criminals, where he finds himself repeatedly tested. As Ren observes the bizarre workings of the adult world around him, he must decide where his own moral compass lies. Is it wrong to steal, if stealing feeds you? It is wrong to lie, if lying can save your life?

Genre: adventure, fiction, historical fiction

What I Did Wrong by John Weir

I feel a bit strange writing a review of John Weir’s What I Did Wrong, as he writes extensively about being a professor at Queens College, which is where I met him when I sat in his class for the first time.

Genre: lgbt, literary fiction

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Written in 1940, Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is a 500+ page diary of the four days leading up to an assault on Segovia in the Spanish Civil War.  The hero of the novel is Robert Jordan, an American professor whose Communist sympathies have led him to volunteer to fight for the Republic, a revolutionary government that is fighting the fascists for control of Spain.  Written in a close third perspective, the novel follows Robert Jordan — who is alternately known as Ingles and Roberto  — as he meets up with a band of guerilla fighters hiding in the mountains ahead of the fascist lines, and lays the groundwork for a major Republican assault.  His job is relatively simple — he is a trained dynamiter that must ensure that a strategic bridge is blown up as the attack begins. But the simple task is not easy.  When Robert Jordan meets up with the guerillas, he discovers that their leader Pablo has been ousted in favor of his mujer Pilar.  Pablo becomes a metaphorical stick of dynamite in the group, as he drinks and insults his companions, and Robert Jordan wonders whether or not it would be better to kill him before the attack begins.  His mind is further distracted from the task at hand when he meets Maria, a young woman who has survived a gang rape by the fascists that executed her parents.  Drawn instantly to her, he falls in love and enters a whirlwind relationship with her that is intensified by the dangers of the upcoming battle.  Knowing well that his chances of survival are slim, he engages Maria as his common-law wife within hours of meeting her. In the mountains in the days before the attack, the relationships between the characters are intensified, as there is little to distract them from each other or the coming danger.  As Robert Jordan balances the needs of his mission with his own introspection and his feelings for Maria, we are treated to Hemingway’s understanding of the complexity of the emotional state of soldiers at war.  Robert Jordan fights through his fear, while also revelling in the camaraderie of strangers thrown together for a common and dangerous purpose. I have been all my life in these hills since I have been here. Anselmo is my oldest friend.  I know him better than I know Charles, than I know Chub, than I know Guy, than I know Mike, and I know them well. Agustín, with his vile mouth, is my brother, and I never had a brother. Maria is my true love and my wife. I never had a true love. I never had a wife. She is also my sister, and I never had a sister, and my daughter, and I never will have a daughter. I hate to leave a thing that is so good. He finished tying his rope-soled shoes. Hemingway also delves briefly at points in the novel into the mind of Anselmo, Robert’s Jordan’s guide and the viejo of the group in order to give us a sense of Robert Jordan from the outside perspective. Anselmo fights with his moral understanding that killing is wrong, even though he knows that it is necessary to protect himself and the lives of his companions.  Through the parallel views of Robert Jordan and Anselmo, we get a deeper portrait of the psychology that allows an ordinary person to destroy human life. All that I am sorry for is the killing. But surely there will be an opportunity to atone for that because for a sin of that sort that so many bear, certainly some just relief will be devised. I would like to talk with the Inglés about it but, being young, it is possible that he might not understand. He mentioned the killing before. Or was it I that mentioned it? He must have killed much, but he shows no signs of liking it. In those who like it there is always a rottenness. Although the novel could easily be a relentless barrage of the human cost of political upheaval, there is an enjoyable bravado that Hemingway employs in his characters that really gets the reader on their side.  Robert Jordan knows that his task is nearly impossible to survive, but he still wonders if he has a future back home in Montana, while Pilar revels in the base sexuality of the  love affair between Robert Jordan and Maria.  Agustin can’t utter a sentence without profanity (though, charmingly, these words are represented as ‘unprintable’ and ‘obscentiy’, which leads to charming phrases such as ‘I obscenity in the milk of your mother’). Even Maria, whose backstory paints a truly damaged woman, shows the world her courage through her willingness to love Robert Jordan. Pablo is the closest thing to a villain that the novel has, but his true crime is only cowardice, as he allows his fear to drive him into inaction and then, later, sabotage. He was seeing the expanding wedges of threes, silver and thundering in the sky that were coming over the far shoulder of the mountain where the first sun was striking.  He watched them come shining and beautiful in the sun. He saw the twin circles of light where the sun shone on the propellers as they came. One of the most memorable chapters of the novel is when Pilar tells Robert Jordan about the Republican victory in her home town, so that he will understand what Pablo was before he lost his nerve.  The chapter stands out in the brutality of the Republicans, who punish the Fascists and Fascist sympathizers.  Forced to walk a gauntlet, the losers march to their deaths, while the Republican winners are equally horrified and enthusiastic about meting out revenge.  Hemingway’s moral is clear — even the idealistic Republics use the same behavior as the Fascists, making it clear that idealism doesn’t protect anyone from their own culpability in the violence of war. Pablo is very intelligent but very brutal. He had this of the village well planned and well ordered. Listen. After the assault was successful, and the last four guards had surrendered, and he had shot them against the wall, and we had drunk coffee at the café that always opened earliest in the morning by the corner from which the early bus left, he proceeded to the organization of the plaza. Carts were piled exactly as for a capea except that the side toward the river was not enclosed. That was left open. Although war is shown as a terrible thing, Hemingway also shows us  moments of beauty in it, both in the emotional human connections and the aesthetic appreciation of war machinery.  The battles seem quaint to the modern reader, as the guerillas learn to use their maquinas — the automatic machine guns — and escape from battle on horses.    When the sleek planes of the Fascists fly overhead, the guerillas are almost certain that they are dead. As with all war stories, the stakes are as high as is possible; through every moment of the novel, each character knows that they risk their own death.  For many of the characters, it is even worse — they risk surviving and remembering the killing that they did in the name of idealism. His eyes, watching the planes coming, were very proud. He saw the red wing markings now and he watched their steady, stately roaring advance. This was how it could be. These were our planes. They had come, crated on ships, from the Black Sea through the Straits of Marmora, through the Dardanelles, through the Mediterranean and to here, unloaded lovingly at Alicante, assembled ably, tested and found perfect and now flown in lovely hammering precision, the V’s tight and pure as they came now high and silver in the morning sun to blast those ridges across there and blow them roaring high so that we can go through. Mostly, Hemingway leaves us with the solid understanding that there is no escaping the war when it takes place in your country — a lesson that is all too real when we compare the death tolls of Americans and Iraqis.  At some points of the novel, the similarities are eerie between the two conflicts, which gives For Whom the Bell Tolls a particular modern relevance.  Yet, at no point do the characters of For Whom the Bell Tolls question their idealism; for whatever reason they are drawn into the war, they are committed to seeing the fighting through, no matter the human cost.  Does that echo the voices of our soldiers today?  I am not so sure. The title is based on a John Donne poem, which I will leave you with: No man is anIland,intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. Publisher: Scribner Publish Date: October 21, 1940 Paperback: 480 pages ISBN: 0684803356 Language: English Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: classics, fiction

Sisters of Heart and Snow by Margaret Dilloway

In Sisters of Heart and Snow, Margaret Dilloway returns to the central theme of her award-winning novel An American Housewife; the biracial and first generation Japanese-American experience. Sisters Rachel and Drew Snow are the daughters of a merciless American businessman and his Japanese catalogue bride Hikari, who are thrown together as adults to take care of their declining mother after nearly two decades of estrangement.

Genre: chick lit, contemporary, fiction

A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

When I finished reading Paula McLean’s The Paris Wife, a fictional recounting of Hemingway’s relationship with his first wife Hadley, I entered into a small obsession with Hemingway’s life and fiction. He has been much discussed, not only as a writer, but also as an adventurer — a larger than life icon of manly man living.

Genre: memoir, nonfiction

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver sets up her perspective by narrating her story through the eyes of a white American missionary family, who go to the Congo less than a year before the revolution and American-controlled counterrevolution that made Mobutu Sese Seko a dictator for three decades. The bulk of the story is told by the four Price daughters, who range in age from six to sixteen. There is Rachel, who mourns the loss of her comfortable suburban American lifestyle and resents nearly everything about her new life. The twins, Leah and Ada, are sharply intelligent and insightful about the world around them, but tied up in their own drama about the family dynamics. The baby of the family, Ruth May, charms us as she makes friends as the open-hearted way that only young children do.

Genre: fiction, historical fiction

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Perhaps it is the cold that I have been harboring all week, but there was something just delicious about curling up with the freakishly successful Dracula while I was ill. It might surprise a modern audience to learn that Dracula was written by a pulp novelist and theater manager who specialized in churning out penny dreadfuls. Likewise, it might be surprising to learn that it far from the first vampire novel, but its success and the sophistication of the storytelling has made it the pinnacle of the genre. Even the literary noteworthy Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote to Bram Stoker to express his admiration for the blood-curling nature of the story, while its more general popularity has made Count Dracula a household name — and a synonym for vampire — for over a century.

Genre: adventure, classics, gothic, horror

Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

This was not the first time that I’ve entered the quiet world of Johannes Vermeer at the hands of Tracy Chevalier, but it has been a few years since the last time I read this beautifully paced novel. The subject of the novel is self-evident; Chevalier makes a guess at the events that inspired one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, which is of the same title as the novel. In Chevalier’s version of the painting’s origin, the subject is seventeen-year-old Griet, who has been forced by the loss of her father’s career to work as a maid in the Vermeer household in order to support her parents.

Genre: fiction, historical fiction

Faithful Place by Tana French

Tana French’s Faithful Place, the third novel in her Dublin Murder Squad series, draws us to the poor Dublin neighborhood of the Liberties and sends us back in time to the 1980s, the height of Ireland’s poor economy and emigration problem. Readers of The Likeness will remember Cassie’s Undercover boss Frank Mackey, who is the star of this novel. In December, 1985, Frank was a 19 year old, poised to run away to London with his girlfriend Rosie Daly. Headed for the morning ferry, he was at the beginning of a new life — escaping his violent, alcoholic father, dysfunctional family and poor economic prospects…only Rosie never showed. Twenty years later, Frank is an established and respected Undercover detective. When he receives a phone call from his younger sister Jackie giving him the news that a new construction project has unearthed Rosie Daly’s suitcase, his understanding of his last night in Faithful Place is thrown into turmoil, and he begins to wonder if Rosie meant to meet him after all. Carefully protecting his new identity from his family, Frank returns home to finally answer the questions that have been chasing him since the night his dreams of his life with Rosie were shattered. As with French’s other mysteries, Faithful Place is deeply character driven. The story is not truly about the mystery of Rosie Daly’s disappearance — instead, as in her first novel In the Woods, French asks us what the consequences of going home again are. The family dynamics are classic alcoholic family dynamics — the older siblings react to their father’s violence by taking on the responsibilities of protecting their younger siblings from their parents. Frank’s siblings are as scarred as he is, though they wear it differently. When Frank returns, in his official duties as a Garda cop, he finds that his family and his neighbors are equally suspicious of his motives. When he quickly finds Rosie’s body, old wounds are reopened, and they all point back to him. One of the beautiful components of French’s writing is how accurately she combines psychological insight with the troubled history of Ireland. She demonstrates the difference between Frank and his childhood best by subtle dialect — Frank’s language is posh, educated and practiced. We can hear the advantages that he had — his extra years of education, his years married to a barrister, the daughter that he now lives to protect — in the way that he speaks. Meanwhile his siblings, who never made it far from Faithful Place, speak in a street slang that reminds us that Frank lives in a different world. His tenacity in answering the question of what happened to Rosie also sets him apart — while he’s willing to explode the past in his rage, his family, old friends and neighbors want to keep it buried. For lovers of language, the sheer Irishness of French’s prose will also be a delight. Cooper the pathologist, a narky little bollix with a God complex, got there first. He pulled up in his big black Merc, stared severely over the heads of the crowd till the waters parted to let him through, and stalked into the house, fitting on his gloves and leaving the murmurs to boil up louder behind him. A couple of hoodies drifted up around his car, but the bogmonster shouted something unintelligible at them and they sloped away again, without changing expression. The Place felt too full and too focused, buzzing hard, like a riot was just waiting for its moment to kick off. Faithful Place is a good read and an interesting story for anyone looking to understand the complexities of a country whose failing economy forced generations of young people into desperate choices. In 1989, Ireland lost over 70,000 people (2% of its population) to emigration — one of those young people being my husband. French takes on that history without flinching, bravely digging into the social problems that widespread poverty creates. Frank tells us that in 1985, every job had at least twenty applicants – and that his chances went down to nothing once he listed his address. As always, with French, this attention to time and setting gives us so much more than a typical murder mystery, but readers looking for a whodunnit with a big reveal are likely to be disappointed. This just isn’t that kind of story. The beautiful writing and thoughtful narrative of Faithful Place has me already shopping for her next novel in the series, Broken Harbour. My reviews of French’s earlier Dublin Murder Squad books,In the Woods and The Likeness can be found here and here.

Genre: mystery

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

The story is familiar, at least to anyone who paid a bit of attention in grade school history. Henry VIII sits on the throne of England and decides that it is time to cast off Katherine of Aragon, his wife of twenty years, for the English courtier Anne Boleyn. This is a monstrous, momentous decision that will lead many people to their graves as the country divides over its religious allegiance to the Pope in Rome. This is not modern America; Henry is not far removed from being a despot and, despite his Parliament, the people he decides need to go have a tendency to lose their heads. What we learn again and again in Wolf Hall is the dangerous nature of power — Henry burns bright, but getting too close to him is a dangerous game.

Genre: historical fiction

The Round House by Louise Erdich

“My father had a voice that could thunder out; it was said he had developed this. It was not a thing he’d had in his youth, but he’d had to use it in the courtroom. His voice did thunder out and fill the Emergency entrance… Now that his anger was the thing filling the air, crackling clean, I was better. Whatever had happened would be fixed. Because of his fury. Which was a rare thing and got results. He held my mother’s hand as they wheeled her into the emergency ward. The doors closed behind them.” When Geraldine Coutts arrives home, bloodied, trembling and smelling of gasoline, her twelve-year-old son Joe slips into the back seat of the family car to gently hold her bleeding head. When his father Bazil tries to drop him off at his aunt’s house to protect him from seeing his mother in the hospital, Joe challenges his father and a look passes between them that Joe describes as being “odd, as if between two grown men, and I had not been ready.” This moment begins the major theme of the novel, in which Joe is forced through the trauma imposed on his family to take on adult responsibilities beyond his years. Erdrich portrays this tug between adulthood and childhood as Joe looks through court cases with his father and hunts for clues with his friends at the round house, the Obijwe ceremonial building where his mother was attacked. Through years of land acquisitions, the round house now lies at the edge of the reservation, creating an essential question of geography, as the boundary between reservation and state land determines the legal jurisdiction of Geraldine’s case. Although Geraldine’s attacker is quickly identified, she cannot state precisely where the attack occurred, which puts it into a legal grey area that allows her attacker to walk free without a trial. “My father was punishing hot dog thieves and examining washers—not even washing machines—just washers worth 15 cents apiece.” The Round House, which won the 2012 National Book Award for fiction, was clearly written to draw attention to the terrible technicality in the American legal system that permits violent crimes committed by non-Natives on Native American reservations to go untried. Erdrich artfully draws the reader in and makes us walk alongside Joe and Bazil, infuriating us with the racial inequality of the American legal system and forcing us to witness the damage that rape does to a victim’s family long after the actual attack. Before the rape, Joe has had an idyllic childhood that has left him with an absolute faith in the power of his parents. Geraldine’s attack betrays Joe’s childhood belief in a world in which evil is always punished, as he soon discovers that even his father’s authority as a tribal judge cannot provide Geraldine protection from her rapist. Joe quickly learns the difference between law and justice– and how treaties signed before his great-grandfather’s birth will allow his mother’s rapist to walk free, while punishing Bazil with the inability protect his wife through the system that he has served all of his life. When Joe looks at his father’s legal judgments for clues to her attacker, he learns that Bazil’s courtroom is filled with trivial cases, rather than the crime drama trials he had always imagined. Although Joe often bikes past the tribal graveyard and recalls stories of lives destroyed by racism and violence, it is this discovery of the “toothless sovereignty” of the tribal courts that brings home to Joe how racial legal inequality affects him directly. When Geraldine’s attacker begins to taunt the family by frequenting their family businesses and shopping at their local grocery store, twelve-year-old Joe begins to ask what he must do to save his family. The Round House is a brave departure from Erdrich’s signature style of the multi-narrator community story. She steps easily into the skin of a twelve year old boy, bringing us to a world of first crushes, stolen beer, Star Trek, friendship and bicycles. Joe’s pack of friends search for clues to Geraldine’s attack between swimming breaks, shifts at Joe’s first job, camping trips, pow-wows and spying escapades. We laugh as we witness Joe experiencing his first crush on his beautiful and, more importantly, busty Aunt Sonja and our heart breaks with him as he goes through the painful lessons of a maturing young man. When Joe and his friends confront and learn the history the new priest and former Marine Father Travis, they are awed by him in the way that only young men would be. Joe tells us that, “not only did he own a copy of Alien, not only did he have an amazing and terrible wound, but he had called us humiliating names without actually resorting to the usual swear words.” Throughout the novel, we watch as Joe is tries to understand an adult world that he does not yet belong to by looking up at the adults around him. As with every Erdrich novel,The Round House draws us onto the reservation, walking us through Joe’s complex world of relatives, friends, extended family and community. Joe’s life is rich with the history and legends of Ojibwe culture, and we follow him as he explores the lines between myth and reality in order to understand what has happened to his family. Although some of the characters and scenes do not tie neatly into the narrative of the story, they add a much needed humor and human interest to the novel that cuts into the despair stemming from Geraldine’s attack. Joe travels everywhere with a pack of his three best friends, who spend their summer looking for free meals from their collective aunts, uncles, grandmothers and cousins. Joe’s uncle Whitey serves up “rez steak sandwiches,” while his friend Zack’s Grandma Ignatia gives them meat, frybread and stories about her youthful sexual escapades. Joe’s aunt Clementine leaves him with casseroles and the responsibility of keeping an eye on his great-grandfather Mooshum, who tells tribal stories about turtles, spirit guides and wiindigoos. The past is never far from the reservation and Erdrich uses Joe’s relationships with his tribe to introduce us to a world where the often tragic past is always a subtle part of present events. Joe narrates the story of his thirteenth summer from the distance of adulthood and occasionally his older self interjects into the story, providing a context that adds beauty. When he writes about emotional connection to his father, he tells us that he still wears his father’s clothing after following his father into the law. We understand the depth of Joe’s relationship to his parents, because he tells us that, “I needed him so much. I couldn’t really go into it very far, this need, nor could my mother and I talk about it. But her wearing his robe was a sign to me of how she had to have the comfort of his presence in a basic way that I now understood”. Above all,>The Round House is a novel about the strength of family love. Although the story begins with the worst of human nature, witnessing the Coutts band together to heal shows us the best of humanity. From tragedy and injustice, Erdrich creates a novel about courage and the love that a boy feels for his parents.  

Genre: contemporary, fiction, literary fiction, native american fiction

The Paris Wife by Paula McLean

One of the inevitable things about reading books about historical figures is that you already know the ending before you begin. Anyone just a little familiar with Ernest Hemingway knows about his famous wife problems; his inability to stay committed to the woman he was already married to. So when we meet Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, we already can see the writing on the wall of their marriage. We see it before she meets him, we see it the first time they dance together and we know that there is heartbreak to come. It’s a foreboding knowledge, which steeps its way into the events of the novel and makes us want to protect the characters from their futures.

Genre: historical fiction

The Likeness by Tana French

The Likeness picks up and fills in the final chapter of French’s first Dublin Murder Squad novel In The Woods, filling in details that Rob reports in a single paragraph about what happens in the next two years of Cassie Maddox’s life. The novel opens when Sam, still working in Murder, is called to the scene of the stabbed body of a woman who has been mysteriously posing as Cassie’s undercover persona Lexie Madison. This is a doppelgänger novel with a twist; the doubles cannot possibly have been in the same place at the same time, because one is the corpse and one is the cop.

Genre: crime, mystery, psychological thriller

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

I have reached a sad point in my life, which is to say that I have finally caught up with George R. R. Martin’s writing in The Song of Ice and Fire series. I was disappointed with the previous novel in the series, A Feast for Crows, because it only told the story of half of the characters in the series and finished by leaving several of the important characters in limbo. A Dance of Dragons had the same format, but it was the second half of the story that A Feast for Crows began, so it was vastly more satisfying.

Genre: fantasy

Jar City by Arnaldur Indriðason

An elderly man has been murdered in his apartment with, of all things, an ashtray. When Detective Erlendur arrives on the scene with his partner Sigurdur Olí, they search the victim’s apartment but do not find much in the way of clues other than the photograph of a four-year-old girl that died thirty years ago. This begins the mystery. Who is the girl? What is her tie to the deceased? Is someone taking revenge for her death, thirty years later?

Genre: crime, mystery

In the Woods by Tana French

I am not usually much one for cop dramas, but In the Woods got me. Set in the fictional Murder Squad in Dublin, the story begins with the murder of Katie Devlin, a promising young ballet star, a twelve year old with nothing but hope and success in front of her. One night she disappears and two days later, her body turns up in an archeological dig, on an ancient Celtic altar. That is the backdrop. French takes you through the case as a plot movement, as a way of moving the story forward, but it isn’t the true narrative.

Genre: crime, fiction, mystery, psychological thriller

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline

As a spinner and a knitter and, now, a weaver (more on that later), I know something about the labor involved in making a piece of clothing. It’s significant, in the way getting a college degree is significant. Ignoring the fact that I start after the sheep has been fed and sheared, or the plant grown and harvested, the fiber has to be washed, cleaned and combed. This takes days to do. Then it has to be spun into singles, which then have to be plied with other singles to make yarn. My handspun yarn is always a two ply because of the sheer amount of labor, but commercial yarns vary between two ply and eight ply. Then, the yarn has to be turned into fabric. Knit fabric, by hand, is very labor intensive. A single plain sock can take twelve hours of knitting time, depending on the gauge of the fabric and the speed of the knitter. Woven fabric is a little faster, but then has to be cut and sewn and fashioned into a garment. There can be a lot of variation of labor there there, depending on the quality and complexity of the garment.

And yet, we can go into a mall and buy a cheap t-shirt for less than $15.

Genre: nonfiction

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