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Book Review: Rivers by Michael Farris Smith

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

     rivers   “He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and the sunshine glistened across the drenched land,” Mississippi native Michael Farris Smith writes in Rivers, his riveting new novel of speculative fiction.  In Rivers, Smith imagines a chilling future for the Gulf South, where relentless, Katrina-like storms roll in one after the other.

Although Hurricane Katrina did not hurt the author directly, seeing his state “suffer in that way” deeply affected Smith, he explained during a reading at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.  He originally thought that he wanted to write a Katrina or a post-Katrina novel.  After starting and stopping several times, Smith was unhappy with the direction in which he was heading.  The writing “felt really contrived” to him, and the “last thing” he wanted to do was “cheapen” the tragedy for those who experienced Katrina’s wrath.

Smith could not get the idea of storms out of his mind, however.  “To hell with Katrina,” he decided.  The wheels in Smith’s head slowly began to turn.  “What if after Katrina there came another one like a month later and after that there came another one just a couple weeks later?  And then what if for five or six years we essentially had a Katrina-like storm that never ended in the Gulf?  What would the world look like?”  Smith’s setting suddenly clicked, but he knew he could infuse even more conflict into his place, intensifying the mood and the story.

When Rivers begins, 613 days have passed “since the declaration of the Line, a geographical boundary drawn ninety miles north of the coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border across the Mississippi coast to Alabama.”  Things only got worse “after several years of catastrophic hurricanes and a climate shift,” suggesting “there was an infinite trail of storms to come.”  The “consistency and ferocity of the storms” have not diminished but have instead accelerated.  This is the environment in which Smith plunges his characters and us—dark, elegiac, primeval, and utterly compelling.

With the stage for his conflict set, the author needed a main character.  Smith kept seeing “an image of a guy waking up in the middle of the night on family land outside of Gulfport after he’s been trying to live down there through all this, and he goes outside…gets on his horse, [and] splashes around to see what’s going on.”

That man is Cohen, a pragmatic Southern stalwart who stays in his home despite ruthless weather, anarchy, and violence.  The federal government got out of Dodge long ago, but not Cohen.  He insists on staying not because of stubbornness but because he possesses mile-wide streaks of idealism and sentimentality.  These traits, along with his memories, keep him from living a life north of the line.

Two recollections especially mark Cohen.  The first is the tragedy that befalls Cohen and his wife, Elisa, as they attempt to evacuate the coast during a maelstrom.  Smith writes, “On the asphalt of Highway 49, underneath an eighteen-wheeler, surrounded by screams of those who were running for it as they had all seen them coming, the handful of tornadoes breaking free from the still black clouds, like snakes slithering down from the sky, moving toward the hundreds, thousands of gridlocked cars that were only trying to do what they had been told to do.”  As the tornadoes close in on the couple and explode “through the bodies and the cars and the trucks, metal and flesh” fly in all directions.  Cohen, powerless at that moment, can only watch as his wife and unborn daughter die, a scene that makes for emotional reading.  The other memory from which Cohen cannot escape and returns to time and again throughout the narrative is his reminiscence of a vacation he and Elisa once took to Venice, Italy.  One cannot help but compare Venice, the floating city, to New Orleans, itself a precarious metropolis that features into the story.  These vignettes offer greater insight into Cohen’s mindset.

If Cohen leaves the coast, he fears he will desert Elisa, his birthplace, and even a part of himself.  With a horse named Habana and a dog as his only companions, Cohen trudges across a dark and stormy landscape and struggles to hold onto a past that is getting harder and harder to cling to as the last vestiges of the old world crumble around him.  Practicality and romanticism are at war inside Cohen, which Smith ably demonstrates in the story.  Cohen knows his home is forever altered; he knows that to stay is a lost cause; he knows there is nothing left for him.  But he cannot do it—he cannot leave.  Smith envisaged Cohen, an extremely intricate and layered personality, so complex, intriguing, and damaged, and rendered him perfectly.

The author peoples Rivers with equally strong minor characters—Mariposa, a haunted young woman from New Orleans; Charlie, an old friend of Cohen’s family who is the go-to guy on the coast; Aggie, a man who lures women and men to his compound for his own nefarious purposes; and Evan and Brisco, brothers who have only each other.

When something unforeseen and unwelcome happens to Cohen, he is right in the thick of things and must decide, once and for all, if michael farris smithhe will be a man of action or inaction.  Cohen may be an unlikely hero, but we all are really.  Heroism is thrust upon him, just as it is forced upon so many ordinary people in extraordinary times.  Smith takes Cohen on multiple odysseys in Rivers, fully developing his main character and binding him to us.  I believe Cohen will appeal to readers because he is an Everyman type of figure, relatable, likeable, and sympathetic.  He is the sort of guy you would see at the local football game on Friday nights, barbequing on weekends with a beer in one hand, and driving his old Chevy around town.

If you enjoyed Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and Cormac McCarthy’s works, you will surely appreciate Smith’s clarity, vision, and voice.  Rivers, as Smith tells me, “is about redemption” and “survival both emotionally and physically,” universal themes we can all understand.  Perhaps that is why Rivers struck such a chord with me.  The gloomy, sinister future of which the author writes is not implausible but wholly possible and therefore terrifying.

If Rivers is made into a movie (Please God), I’d love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen, Billy Bob Thornton as Charlie, and America Ferriera as Mariposa.

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The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

Book Review: The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking; 384 pages; $27.95).

           girl This book is not just about a painting; it’s not just about a wife left behind during wartime; it’s not just about a young widow whose husband died unexpectedly; it’s not just about a random girl a guy meets in a bar; it’s not just about a bitter woman whose German husband was an officer occupying a foreign country; and it’s not just about a beloved sister whose family never spoke of her again.  The title of Jojo Moyes’ incredibly affecting and thought-provoking third novel The Girl You Left Behind (her second was the 2012 breakout word-of-mouth bestseller Me Before You) has multiple meanings throughout her absorbing narrative.   One thing, though, is certain: her powerful female characters will linger long after you close the book.

Employing a dual narrative format, Moyes moves from World War I-era occupied France to 2006 London.  In 1916, Sophie struggles to feed her family; she watches as her family and her village collapse.  Her husband fights for France, while Sophie skirmishes just as he does but on another battlefield, one immensely more complicated.  After German forces take control of her family’s hotel, Sophie and her husband’s painting, The Girl You Left Behind, draw the eye of the Kommandant.  When the enemy takes her spouse prisoner, Sophie will use every means at her disposal to free him.  In 2006, Liv labors to stay in the home her late husband, an architect, built.  Bills pile up, and work is difficult to find.  She cherishes a piece of artwork her husband gave to her as a wedding present during their honeymoon to Barcelona.  Entitled The Girl You Left Behind, the painting symbolizes their happy life together.  When Liv learns the painting was perhaps a spoil of war, she is determined to fight to keep her most prized possession.

Both Sophie and Liv are strong women who threaten to leap off Moyes’ pages, and thank goodness for that.  I loved these ladies; moyesthrough her narrators, Moyes explores such universal themes as conflict, faithfulness, survival, loss, restitution, property rights, and love.   I identified with both women equally, even though Moyes writes them very differently, varying perspective and tense as she tells their stories.

Equally impressive and bold are Moyes’ minor female characters: Mo, lovingly quirky, gives Liv a dose of tough love; Louanne Baker, brash and ballsy American reporter covering the American liberation of Nazi concentration camps, who comes alive in her journals; and Liliane, perhaps the bravest in the whole book, who risks her life for her village and for her country.

If you enjoy reading novels set during wartime (like Sarah’s Key) or stories in which artwork features prominently in the story (such as Pictures of an Exhibition or The Art Forger), I highly recommend The Girl You Left Behind.  Moyes’ tale will resonate with anyone who has ever fought for the person or thing she loves most in the world.  I never thought Moyes would ever be able to top Me Before You, but, amazingly, she does!  Some advice—don’t let this be the book you left behind.

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes is the She Reads October Book Club Selection.  To read more reviews of the book, enter exciting giveaways, connect with other readers, and discuss the story, please visit She Reads.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden

wedding gift

The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden (St. Martin’s Press; 320 pages; $25.95).

When prestigious plantation owner Cornelius Allen gives his daughter Clarissa’s hand in marriage, she takes with her a gift: Sarah—her slave and her half-sister.  Raised by an educated mother, Clarissa is not a proper southern belle she appears to be with ambitions of loving who she chooses and Sarah equally hides behind the façade of being a docile house slave as she plots to escape. Both women bring these tumultuous secrets and desires with them to their new home, igniting events that spiral into a tale beyond what you ever imagined possible and it will leave you enraptured until the very end.

Told through alternating viewpoints of Sarah and Theodora Allen, Cornelius’ wife, Marlen Suyapa Bodden’s The Wedding Gift is an intimate portrait that will leave readers breathless.

“According to anti-slavery activists, there are over 27 million slaves worldwide.  In fact, there are more slaves today than at any other time in history, including during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, when about 11 million Africans were kidnapped and taken to the New World.  Drawing inspiration from her work as a human rights lawyer as well as the desire to give a voice to her ancestors kidnapped from Africa from the 16th to the 19th centuries, Marlen Suyapa Bodden wrote a powerful tale of bondage and ultimate freedom in The Wedding Gift based on a true court case in Alabama in the 1800′s.”

Because this novel explores American slavery and resistance, I was very much looking forward to reading it.  I had high hopes for The Wedding Gift in fact.  However, Bodden’s story ultimately disappoints.  The author could have done so much with this novel, but her narrative falls short.

None of the characters in The Wedding Gift are well-developed; they all practically beg to be fleshed out more (and they should have been).    Their voices are too indistinct from one another.  The dialog feels artificial, clumsy, and sometimes even unnatural, and there is just too much of it at times–usually a mistake no experienced author would make.  This, to me, is evidence of Bodden’s background.  She is a lawyer by profession, and this is her first novel.  Yet, take a look at Tara Conklin’s debut novel The House Girl published earlier this year featuring similar themes of slavery and resistance.  Conklin was a lawyer, but her story was not only highly readable but the novel was also well-written.  Bodden’s narrative is unconvincing, and her ending, for me at least, seems contrived and even shocking.

If you are interested in African American slaves and their resistance, I highly recommend Jonathan Odell’s The Healing, Lalita Tademy’s Cane River, and Conklin’s The House Girl.  Bodden’s heart is in the right place, but her execution is off.

I strongly urge you to read this novel for yourself. Perhaps you will see the story in a different light.

 

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The Rathbones by Janice Clark

Book Review: The Rathbones by Janice Clark (Doubleday; 384 pages; $26.95)

As summer slowly fades into fall, we sometimes yearn for something more in a novel, a story that invades our hearts and our souls, a rathbones1.jpgtale that leaves us astounded. I always find myself turning to the sea this time of year.  September is also the month in which I first read favorites like Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund and Galore by Michael Crummey, books with premises devoted wholly to the briny depths.  Longing for cooler weather after a long, hot Southern summer may play a huge role in this inclination of mine, but I think it has more to do with the storyteller.

In her riveting and magical debut The Rathbones, Janice Clark stunningly intertwines Greek myth, Gothic elements, Moby Dick, coming of age, and maritime adventure to tell the epic saga of a once proud Connecticut whaling dynasty.  The Rathbones is populated by unforgettable and powerful characters, none of whom dazzle more than Mercy, who, at fifteen years of age, sets off on a quest to find her missing father.  Verity, Mercy’s mother, has spent seven years waiting for her husband, Benadam Gale, lost at sea.  Clark draws parallels to Homer’s Odyssey in which Penelope faithfully awaited the return of her husband Odysseus; however, Mercy knows her mother’s true amorous, treacherous nature.  This unwelcome knowledge spurs Mercy to seek out her father, if she can find him.  Mercy’s quest soon evolves into a voyage of discovery and identity.

Accompanied by her strange and frail uncle Mordecai, Mercy uncovers a dark and murky family history.  Moses, the patriarch of the Rathbones, enjoyed the gift of second sight.  As Clark writes, Moses “knew the beat of the sea, its quick pulse along the shore and the slow swing of the tides.”  If he hunted in the woods or “walked too far away” from the water, “his breath went short and his limbs stiffened, and the sea pulled him back.”  Moses was one with the water and with the whales he could sense swimming beneath the surface.  He lacked only one thing, but it was crucial: a crew.

Moses developed a rather novel way to procure men: he would sire them.  Like Greek gods who captured mortal women, the Rathbone men stole females of child-bearing age to produce sons to man the whale boats.  Instead of “normal” names such as Benjamin, George, or Robert, Moses bestowed upon his sons appellations denoting their future duties like Harpooner, Bow-Oar, and First-Oar.  Moses’s peculiar methods worked, and the family thrived; Moses “reigned for three decades, the undisputed monarch of his maritime realm.”  His senses served Moses well, as he “knew before anyone else when the whales were coming, long before spouts showed on the horizon.”  Clark writes the Rathbone men “lived on land as they did at sea, their native skills honed by ceaseless practice, working as one organism.”  No other whaling family came close.

But it did not last.  Later generations lost the link they shared with both the sea and the whale.  The Rathbones became like stilt birds who lost their ability to fly once their basic needs were met on land.  In chronicling the ups and downs of this mesmerizing family, Clark highlights the rise and fall of the nineteenth-century whaling era.

janice clarkIn The Rathbones, Clark may channel Edgar Allen Poe, Homer, and Herman Melville, but she puts her own unique and indelible spin on this truly remarkable novel.  Clark offsets the Rathbone men and their whales with the Rathbone women, who are equally as formidable—women like the “Golden Wives,” sisters who were sold by their father, and Limpet, who Mercy and Mordecai find living in a cave.  And then there is Verity, deeply flawed, seemingly mad, and keeper of secrets—easily one of Clark’s most complex characters.

The Rathbones is like one of those sea sirens of yore.  Once you begin reading this enchanting story, you’re a goner.  You won’t be able to resist the pull of Clark’s enticingly rich characters or her magnificent setting.  With a novel like this, who’d even want to resist?  Go ahead and jump in.

 

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Think Twice Before Opening Boxes

Book Review: Let the Dark Flower Blossom by Norah Labiner (Coffee House Press, 2013)

Reviewed for Gently Read Literature, Fall 2013 Issue

 

let the dark flower blossomIn Greek mythology, Pandora, the first woman, was given many gifts from the gods. Athena gave her clothing; Aphrodite endowed her with beauty; Hermes bestowed upon her the gift of speech. Zeus was not so benevolent. Seeking revenge after Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus presented a beautiful box (some say jar) to Pandora with one caveat. He instructed her not to open the box for any reason. Compelled by curiosity, Pandora could not resist, and, one by one, she unwittingly unleashed evils all over the world. The story of Pandora illustrates that we have a universal desire to seek and know the truth, no matter the cost. Sometimes, though, on our quest for fact, we discover ugly, unwelcome truths and malevolent, horrible acts.

Twins Sheldon and Eloise Schell have a box of their own in Norah Labiner’s dark, cerebral, and labyrinthine novel Let the Dark Flower Blossom. What secrets are the mysterious pair keeping? What evils lurk inside the box? And what monsters can be found in each of us who call ourselves readers?

Metafiction, or writing about writing, features prominently in Let the Dark Flower Blossom. When the story opens, celebrated novelist Roman Stone, former college friend of the twins, has died. He was murdered in an attempted robbery. When Eloise first met Stone in college, she remarked, “Roman Stone was born to be murdered.” Although Labiner shows Stone’s character only in flashbacks, he figures prominently in the story. Roman ironically “wrote of fate and then fell to it.” Later in the book, Labiner reveals that Stone “was murdered. And he deserved it.” Considering his rocky past with the twins, one cannot help but wonder if they played a role in his death.

Very early on in the novel, the author deftly illustrates Sheldon’s jealousy of Stone, who wrote the bestselling book Babylon Must Fall on Sheldon’s typewriter. Roman “was big and brash and relevant as hell. Even his death was relevant. America’s literary zeitgeist cut down in the heartland? What did it mean? Was it a metaphor? Or a symbol? It was more than an ending; it alluded to godlessness and dark times ahead.” Labiner hints his death might also unravel her characters or at least make their lives messier.

Varied perspectives allow the reader to get into each of Labiner’s bold and unforgettable characters. In addition to the twins serving as narrators, Labiner also chronicles her tale from the points of view of a young woman named Beatrice who lives on an atmospheric island in the middle of Lake Superior and another young woman named Susu who wants us to know there are rules to telling a story. Because of Labiner’s multiple voices, flash fiction is a worthy and effective narrative form in Let the Dark Flower Blossom.   Sometimes the author gives us only one sentence from a character and then changes the point of view to another narrator; in other instances, one raconteur may tell the story for several pages.

Using different storytellers enables Labiner to show the unreliability of memory. For example, the author alludes to a horrible secret the twins are keeping about their childhood—a mystery that involves a fire, a locked box, and death. While Sheldon remembers an incident one way, Eloise recalls something very different. To get to the truth, we must sift through clues and symbolism. If humans have a natural curiosity, like Pandora, then humans also have a biological inclination to lie. Let the Dark Flower Blossom overflows with unreliable narrators, some of whom are downright liars. Employing various plot twists and red herrings throughout her story, Labiner makes an already intriguing and beguiling tale much more so. As the author reveals to me through email, “Novels deceive and seduce; this is an inherently and unabashedly dishonest form. Every novel is lying to you. Every novel wants to get you into bed. Every novel will pull the chair out from under you.”

The narrative occasionally meanders with strange though beautiful streams of consciousness, but this is done purposefully, to throw the reader a curveball, to keep her off-track. Labiner’s work of fiction never bores. Instead, Let the Dark Flower Blossom accomplishes something very few novels do these days—the tale forces the reader to think not only about the book itself but also about writing, reading, and even the nature of being human. “A story is a labyrinth, and all paths lead to the monster,” Labiner writes. “Who is the monster? Is it the storyteller? A good storyteller must be a monster. The best stories tell of the worst of human nature. The worst, our broken laws. Our nightmares realized. To write of such things, an author must commit the act himself; if only on the page.” “What of the readers?” she asks. “In the real world, we read our newspapers. We butter our bread. We read of murder and we are sickened. But in fiction, in the story: we want the dead girl. So—who is the monster?”

Let the Dark Flower Blossom is wholly original and brilliantly imaginative. Labiner says she wanted to “to write a story about the things I love: gardens gone to ruin, dogs and cats, about chocolate and oranges and mythological punishments for unspeakable crimes. It’s an ode to Poe, Hawthorne, Hitchcock, and Hollywood….” In her words, Let the Dark Flower Blossom is “an unrequited love story about an unrepentant writer and an unreliable reader.” She tells me she is currently “working on a novel about Lizzie Borden and little dogs and trains and hatchets and the history of the corset. It’s called I Murdered Philip Roth: A Love Story.” If it’s as powerful a story as this, count me in.

Equal parts satire, tragedy, and comedy, Let the Dark Flower Blossom may be fiction, but Labiner offers us insight into universal themes and emotions—such as jealousy, memory, sibling bonds, celebrity, violence, and morality— in her novel. The author has created a living narrative, one that almost seems to grow, change, and breathe right before our eyes. It is almost as if Labiner’s story has a mind of its own. You’ll never read a book the same way again. And you may think twice before you open any more boxes, especially those that are meant to stay closed.

To see other reviews and essays in Gently Read Literature‘s Fall Issue, please visit this website.

 

 

 

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Storied Places

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins (Riverhead Trade; 304 pages; $16).

This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila (Hogarth; 240 pages; $16).

The best stories are those suffused with colorful, detailed settings—tales in which place is not only vital but a central component of the narrative.  When a writer gets it right, the setting becomes a character itself.  And that’s when the magic begins.

Two story collections emphasize the significance of place and herald the arrival of two powerful and confident women writers.  In her collection of stories, Battleborn, Top 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honoree Claire Vaye Watkins swallows the folklore of the American West, chews it up, and then spits it back out as she brilliantly reimagines the region.  Conversely, Kristiana Kahakauwila, Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University and a native Hawaiian, captures the essence of Hawaii, its people, and its cultural traditions in her debut story collection This Is Paradise.

battlebornBattleborn consists of ten bold and gritty tales.  Watkins takes us from Gold Rush to ghost town to desert to brothel and weaves such passion and intensity into each story that she leaves us breathless.  Her keen insight and gorgeous, lyrical realism bring to mind literary greats like Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx.  More than any other writer of the American West, Watkins leaves an indelible mark.

Watkins does not shy away from the personal in her collection.  The author confronts the mythology of her own family history, a legacy that includes notorious killer and cult leader Charles Manson, in what is perhaps her best piece entitled “Ghosts, Cowboys.”  Her father, Paul Watkins, was one of Manson’s followers whose main responsibilities included wrangling new girls for Manson.  In exposing her life and the stigma of her father’s past, Watkins bares herself before us, allowing us to witness both the rawness of her past and her faith in readers. It takes guts for an author to write herself into the narrative.  Her candidness makes this collection rare and beautiful.

From the American West we venture to Hawaii, the setting of the six stories in Kahakauwila’s haunting and compelling collection This Is Paradise.   Kahakauwila reveals the conflicting world that is Hawaii—old vs. new, tradition vs. modernity, and “native” Hawaiian vs. tourist.  Hawaii, or at least Kahakauwila’s Hawaii, is a place of opposition, and the author does a splendid job of getting to the heart of both the state and its people.  This Is Paradise is as majestic as Hawaii’s last queen, Lili’uokalani.

In the titular tale, “This Is Paradise,” Kahakauwila uses the first person plural (“we”) to tell the story of a young, carefree American this is paradisetourist who gets a taste of Hawaii’s dark side from the perspective of the women of Waikiki.  Their distinctive voices inject emotion into the story, easily making it one of the strongest in the collection.  Here, Kahakauwila’s dazzling writing is reminiscent of Julie Otsuka’s formidable novella The Buddha in the Attic.  Kahakauwila then explores the almost double life of a woman seeking revenge in the cockfighting ring in “Wanle.”  In “The Old Paniolo Way,” Kahakauwila illumines a son coping with the imminent death of his father and struggling with his own identity.  Deeply flawed characters and achingly real situations give This Is Paradise a universal appeal.

In their short story collections, Claire Vaye Watkins and Kristiana Kahakauwila prove that as much as we shape our world, that place, in turn, influences us.  Watkins was born in Death Valley and raised in the desert of Nevada; Kahakauwila was born in Hawaii and raised in Southern California.  Whether the focus is on the American West or modern Hawaii, these tales have extraordinary power and meaning because of the place in which they are set.

 

 

 

 

 

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Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Book Review: Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

(Alfred A. Knopf; 256 pages; $25.95).

claireIn Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat, author of The Dew Breaker, brings the rich culture of Haiti to life on the page.  Despite the title, the story is less about the main character, Claire Limyè Lanmè (“Claire of the Sea Light”) Faustin, than the people who inhabit the Haitian village of Ville Rose.  Danticat expertly charts how tragedy is an everyday occurrence in the community as mothers die in childbirth, daughters in car accidents, fathers from gunshot wounds, and friends are lost to the sea.  Nozias, Claire’s father, worries over the fate of his daughter if an accident should befall him.  His anxiety has merit, as he and his neighbors live precariously: disaster is part of their everyday lexicon.   Nozias knows this more than most as his wife died while giving birth to Claire.  Danticat does an excellent job of placing the reader in his mindset, urging us to sympathize with a father desperate to make the right choices for his daughter.  When Claire turns ten, Nozias decides to give her to a local woman, who lost her own daughter in a horrific accident, to raise.  Claire gets wind of the plan and flees.  Danticat’s storyline suffers as she explores the lives of villagers and loses her overall focus.  Although the plot periodically meanders, the author’s language is magical and striking.  A “wall of water” rose “from the depths of the ocean, a giant blue-green tongue, trying, it seemed, to lick a pink sky.”  Sometimes when Claire was “lying on her back in the sea, her toes pointed, her hands facing down, her ears half submerged, while she was listening to both the world above and beneath the water, she yearned for the warm salty water to be her mother’s body, the waves her mother’s heartbeat, the sunlight the tunnel that guided her out the day her mother died.” Ultimately, Claire of the Sea Light is a breathtaking but sometimes uneven character-driven novel.

  

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Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

(St. Martin’s Press; 368 pages; $25.99)

lookaway         The Johnstons of North Carolina really do put the “fun” in dysfunctional.  Your family will look tame and even normal by comparison.  Scandal seems to follow members of the Johnston family, proud descendants of Confederate Civil War General Joseph E. Johnston. Tradition, pride, and appearance matter a great deal to them, yet one thing is certain:  the Johnstons will not be sending out Christmas letters along with their Christmas cards anytime soon.  You know the ones I mean, and you probably have relatives who’ve sent you these, too, bragging about what their kids have accomplished this year.

Although Lookaway, Lookaway is not written in the same unique style in which Maria Semple wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette, this singularly Southern story will appeal to Semple’s fans.  While Semple caricatured Seattle culture, Barnhardt satirizes the South.

Barnhardt offers up wit and cleverness, a combination guaranteed to elicit a loud guffaw or two.  Case in point:  “You’ll do something, I would hope, with your future Carolina degree,” Jerene Jarvis Johnston tells her daughter, Jerilyn, when she leaves for college.  “Enjoy your independence.  Work for a few years before you see which of the young men at Carolina seems destined for something besides his parents’ basement.  Or, given the atmosphere at Carolina, rehab.”  Wickedly hilarious, this piercing story will soon be all everyone is talking about.   Lookaway, Lookaway is the perfect social satire—Southern style.

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The Cairo Codex by Linda Lambert

Book Review: The Cairo Codex by Linda Lambert (West Hills Press; 324 pages; $15.95).

cairo codexWhen an earthquake nearly buries anthropologist Justine Jenner in an ancient crypt, she finds what appears to be an ancient codex which, if real, could radically threaten the world’s great religions.

The Cairo Codex is a riveting novel of two women, two millennia apart, set in the exotic cultures of ancient and present-day Egypt. Dr. Justine Jenner has come to Cairo to forge her own path from the legacies of her parents, an Egyptian beauty and an American archaeologist. After an earthquake nearly buries her alive in an underground crypt, she discovers an ancient codex, written by a woman whose secrets threaten the foundations of both Christian and Muslim beliefs. As political instability rocks the region and the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to steal the Egyptian Revolution, Justine is thrust into a world where even those she trusts may betray her in order to control the codex’s revelations.

In The Cairo Codex, Linda Lambert, former state department envoy to Egypt and author of several books on leadership, plunges the reader into pre-revolutionary Egypt and allows us to witness a nation on the brink of a social uprising.  This is a subject Lambert knows well, and her expertise makes The Cairo Codex utterly gripping.  She could have easily set her tale in Iraq or Israel, but the effect would not be as great.  Writers are frequently told to write what they know best.  Lambert does just that, and it works beautifully.

Lambert combines history, mystery, and archaeology with romance, politics, and religion.  Almost a decade ago, novels like these were abundant.  Biblical thrillers were once all the rage most likely due to the success of Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code.  Within the past few years, however, they have largely disappeared from shelves.  Why, I have no clue.  Perhaps the public grew tired of them, and their popularity waned.  For me, at least, Lambert’s story was welcome.  I always enjoyed reading these historical mysteries.

It always helps to have a strong protagonist, especially if it’s an independent and clever woman.  Lambert’s main character, Justinelinda lambert Jenner, can be both tough and tender.  She has her flaws just like we all do, leading us to cheer her on her successes and lament her failures.

Lambert also introduces a minor character of great interest, Omar Mostafa, as Director of the Supreme Ministry of Egyptian Antiquities.  Mostafa will surely remind readers of Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs under former President Hosni Mubarak.

The codex that Justine discovers could shake the foundations of all the world’s religions.  I know what you’re thinking–so many thrillers that have anything to do with Christianity make similar claims and fall short.  Not The Cairo Codex. Interesting and exciting, Lambert’s novel delivers.

The Cairo Codex is the first novel in The Justine Trilogy, and I eagerly await the sequel.  

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Book Review: The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

perfume collectorThe Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro (Harper; 464 pages; $24.99).

It was with quite a bit of reluctance that I picked up The Perfume Collector.  I read the description and sighed deeply.  Yet another dual narrative?

If it had been closer to Halloween, I would have dressed up like the Statue of Liberty, torch and all, shouting my own version of the Emma Lazarus poem:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your dull dual narrators yearning to break free…”

I wanted something different.  I wanted to read a story in which the narrator was the setting of the story.  I wanted a coming-of-age tale in which the protagonist was unreliable.  I wanted suspense.  I wanted thrills and chills.  I wanted the first person plural.  I wanted flash fiction, meta fiction, flashback, flash forward.  Anything, anything other than a dual narrative.  It just seems as if we are inundated with those these days.

However, there was one aspect of The Perfume Collector that I found unable to resist: perfume.  Ever since I was quite young, I have collected perfume bottles and scents.  I will admit that it was the perfume aspect of the novel that persuaded me to read the book.   And when I did, the experience was so intoxicating and unforgettable.

An inheritance from a mysterious stranger . . .
An abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank of Paris . . .
And three exquisite perfumes that hold a memory . . . and a secret

London, 1955: Grace Monroe is a fortunate young woman. Despite her sheltered upbringing in Oxford, her recent marriage has thrust her into the heart of London’s most refined and ambitious social circles. However, playing the role of the sophisticated socialite her husband would like her to be doesn’t come easily to her—and perhaps never will.

Then one evening a letter arrives from France that will change everything. Grace has received an inheritance. There’s only one problem: she has never heard of her benefactor, the mysterious Eva d’Orsey.

So begins a journey that takes Grace to Paris in search of Eva. There, in a long-abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank, she discovers the seductive world of perfumers and their muses, and a surprising, complex love story. Told by invoking the three distinctive perfumes she inspired, Eva d’Orsey’s story weaves through the decades, from 1920s New York to Monte Carlo, Paris, and London.

But these three perfumes hold secrets. And as Eva’s past and Grace’s future intersect, Grace realizes she must choose between the life she thinks she should live and the person she is truly meant to be.

Illuminating the lives and challenging times of two fascinating women,The Perfume Collector weaves a haunting, imaginative, and beautifully written tale filled with passion and possibility, heartbreak and hope.

Tessaro, the author of Elegance, creates two strong yet very distinctive women who transported me to places I had never been, to an era in which I was not a part.    She has an innate ability to immerse her readers completely in the time period in which she writes. And aren’t those the best novels?

It wasn’t long before my heart skipped a beat and my senses heightened.  My whole body became alert.  Was the dual narrative what I needed?  Even when I had turned my back on this technique? 

I sped through the story, utterly riveted to Tessaro’s pages, heady with feeling, intoxicated by the author’s prose, setting, characterization, and plot.

The Perfume Collector restored my faith in the dual narrative, and I have the author to thank for that.  Kathleen-Tessaro-236x300

So I pose these questions to you:

Which technique and style do you prefer?

What do you think there is just too much of?

What would you like to see more of?

To read more reviews of this book, connect with other readers,  enter giveaways, and participate in discussion–visit She Reads.

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