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Book Review: The River Witch by Kimberly Brock

The River Witch by Kimberly Brock (Bell Bridge Books; 239 pages; $14.95).

                Kimberly Brock knows books; in fact, she loves them.  Brock, a native Southerner and former actor and special needs educator, is the blog network coordinator at She Reads.   She also reviews fiction and interviews authors on her website.  Her intense love of storytelling is readily apparent.

It should come as no surprise to learn that Brock wrote her first novel when she was in fourth grade.  As evidenced in her debut The River Witch, writing comes as naturally and as easily to Brock as reading and breathing.

In The River Witch, Brock focuses her narrative lens on Roslyn Byrne, a former ballerina now broken in body and shattered in soul.  A car accident left Roslyn unable to dance again; a miscarriage left Roslyn hollow and in a kind of in-between world.  She seeks solace on isolated Manny’s Island, Georgia, to escape the world and to finally bestow a name on her deceased baby.

Roslyn is a very sympathetic character, yet this reader never feels sorry for her.  She is a strong woman who comes from a long line of strong women.  Roslyn requires the use of a cane to help her walk.  The cane provides physical aid to Roslyn, but it is also symbolizes her wounded psyche.

There are many, many issues Roslyn grapples with in the cabin she rents on the island.  With the character of Roslyn, Brock has created a three-dimensional figure we not only relate to but also root for. Brock’s first-person perspective of Roslyn allows us to see her flaws, her disappointments, and her regrets; Brock also lets us see Roslyn’s triumphs.  Her indomitable will is palpable and resonates throughout the story.

Roslyn is not the only broken creature on Manny’s Island.   Ten-year-old Damascus Trezevant is a lonely and dejected little girl who aches for her deceased mother and her largely absent father.  She is drawn to Roslyn, just as Roslyn is captivated by Damascus.  In contrast to Roslyn’s narrative, Brock writes Damascus’ perspective in the third person.  I like the difference.  The distinction illustrates Brock’s range as a storyteller.

The beauty of The River Witch is in the complicated and beautiful ballet between Roslyn and Damascus.  Damascus alternately displays both affection and spite toward Roslyn.  Both principal characters have pent-up emotions that they must exhibit or everyone will suffer the consequences.  Both of Brock’s protagonists ache for an emotional connection and a sense they belong.

One character who I would have liked to see more of is Urey, Damascus’ father.  Mysterious, taciturn, introspective, sexy, and almost savage, Urey needs more of a presence in Brock’s story.  Roslyn’s chemistry with him is powerful.

Since Brock is from Georgia, The River Witch is written in a distinctly Southern voice.  I cannot imagine this novel being set anywhere else.  In the story, sense of place is a formidable force.  Manny’s Island is a locale that allows Brock to imbue supernatural elements into her story.  The magic of the island and the magic of Brock’s characters will transform the land and its people forever.

Manny’s Island can sometimes be a wild and dangerous place.  Snakes and alligators are abundant.  The current of the Little Damascus River can carry novice swimmers into the Atlantic.  Flooding is common.  Yet the island is also a place for miracles, where a woman is healed, where a child is mended, and where the wrongs of the past are reconciled.

Brock is already at work on her second novel.  If it’s anything like The River Witch, it will be a must-read.

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Book Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Knopf; 336 pages; $24.95).

           

The End Of The World As We Know It does not necessarily mean The End.  In The Stand, Stephen King unleashed a flu epidemic, “Captain Tripps,” onto mankind, killing billions.  Some possessed a natural immunity to the disease.  These survivors were central in the fight between good and evil.  In the end, Las Vegas and the “Darkman” were obliterated, but life went on.

Cormac McCarthy also wrote about The End Of Time.  In his bleak and powerful novel The Road, an unnamed father and son journeyed through a post-apocalyptic and utterly unrecognizable landscape.  McCarthy used nuclear war instead of a disease but his characters also struggled, this time against angry survivors who were hell-bent on making a new world as they saw fit.

Yet, in both these ravaged and savage landscapes, pockets of humanity still existed; hope lived on.  As it does in Peter Heller’s transcendent and beautifully lyric debut The Dog Stars.

Nine years before The Dog Stars begins a flu epidemic wiped out most of the world’s population.  Think something like this is just fiction?  Look up the 1918 Spanish flu, and I guarantee you will get chills.  In Heller’s story, a superbug mutated and combined with bird flu.  The first cases of the Africanized bird flue appeared in London; in all likelihood, though, the virus originated at a national weapons lab.  Not long after, the flu had spread everywhere.  Chaos erupted.  If flu were not enough, another catastrophe got added to the mix.  A blood disease similar to HIV wreaked havoc on those who survived the flu.

You can imagine the kind of world left behind.  It’s a kill-or-be-killed existence, something Heller’s protagonist, Hig, knows all too well. As Heller writes, “Old rules are done Hig.  Went the way of the woodpecker.  Gone with the glaciers and the government.  New world now.  New world new rules.  Never ever negotiate.”

Hig is an “old man at forty” who lost his wife and their unborn child to the flu.  Hig’s narrative is unconventional as Heller uses flashbacks and sometimes strange streams of consciousness to tell us his story.  After the flu struck, encephalitis felled Hig.  “Two straight weeks of fever, three days 104 to 105,” Hig explains, “I know it cooked my brains.”  There is no pattern to Hig’s thoughts.  They are often jumbled and mish-mashed, often without segue from one thought to the next.  He begins many of his sentences with “and” or “so” and most of his thoughts are fragments.  What Hig has lived through and what he has lost speak to us from the page.  Heller uses a very powerful device, and Hig just would not be Hig without it.

After living through The End, we would try to make a home in a place of familiarity and safety.  That is exactly what Hig does.  He makes his home at a small, abandoned airport, where he sleeps under the stars with his faithful old dog, Jasper.  He shares the airport with Bangley, his neighbor and “good ole boy,” who often saves Hig’s “bacon.” Bangley needs Hig because Hig pilots an eighty-year-old 1956 (do the math and the year is about 2036) Cessna that he nicknames “the Beast.”  Hig and Jasper patrol the airport’s perimeter, which means Hig can see who or what is coming before the who or what gets there.  Most of the time.

In the novel’s most violent episode, nine people stalk Hig as he returns from a hunt.  Bangley warns him from his spot on a tower and coaches Hig on what to do.  Remember this is a kill-or-be-killed world.  A firefight ensues.  One of the stalkers is a young boy, who Hig kills.  Killing may come easy for Bangley, but it is hard for Hig. He is losing hope, especially as he sees the blood disease slowly kill the Mennonite families who live close to the airport and who he furnishes some supplies.

Hig knows he has to leave the airport and Bangley to restore his faith.  A few years ago, he heard a voice over the radio while flying.  It was a woman’s voice who referenced the Grand Junction airport.  Hig is determined to go there and to find out what is out there, if anything.  Heller shows that sometimes one must take a leap of faith.  Sometimes one has to venture out into the unknown.

Because Hig flies a plane, readers are given a birds’ eye view of what is below.  Climate change has made our world almost unrecognizable and alien.  Few fish exist.  Droughts are common.  Animals such as bears, cows, and elk are rare.  Birds are almost extinct.  “The tiger left, the elephant, the apes, the baboon, the cheetah.  The tinmouse, the frigate bird, the pelican (gray), the whale (gray), the collared dove.  Sad but.  Didn’t cry until the last trout swam upriver looking for maybe cooler water.”

No wonder Hig thinks of dinosaurs: “I thought of a painting I had seen at the natural history museum in Denver.  A bunch of mixed dinosaurs, I remember triceratops, fleeing across a sparse plain pursued by fire, and volcanoes erupting in the background.  I wonder if they could run as fast as a mama grizzly or a deer.”

Holding on to memories can go far in keeping a person alive.  Hig is testament to this belief.  Yet, he must let go of the past in order to embrace his future.  In a world devastated by violence, flu, and climate change, sometimes a person has to take certain liberties, especially if he no longer remembers the names of constellations.  Sometimes, like Hig, we must make it up as we go along.  In a time when there are no rules, Hig has to decide what his rules are; only then can he restore his lost hope.  The Dog Stars reminds us that even when mankind has been wiped out, humanity never truly dies.

Heller contrasts violent brutality, charred cities, and empty houses with pastoral scenes of nature.  There is such beauty in this story, even when everything is dead or dying.  Heller seems to relay an underlying message for readers: Take care of the Earth before his fictional story becomes an actual reality.  Cold milk, fresh apples, a touch, a faithful dog, naming the stars, going fishing, a bird call–the fragile stuff of everyday life.

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Book Review: Brand New Human Being by Emily Jeanne Miller

Brand New Human Being by Emily Jeanne Miller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 272 pages; $25).

“My name is Logan Pyle.  My father is dead, my wife is indifferent, and my son is strange.  I’m thirty-six years old.  My life is nothing like I thought it would be.”  Thus begins Emily Jeanne Miller’s fast-paced and deeply heartfelt debut Brand New Human Being.

Miller has worn many hats in her life.  At Princeton University, from which she graduated, she studied comparative religions.  She holds an MS in environmental studies from the University of Montana and an MFA in fiction from the University of Florida in Gainesville.  Formerly a journalist, Miller covered a wide range of environmental topics, such as Indian casinos, nuclear bomb testing, rock climbing, and grizzly bears.  We should be lucky she turned to fiction writing, as her first novel overflows with humor, tenderness, and humanity.

Initially, however, I did not like Logan.  I thought Logan’s biggest problem by far was Logan.  That is partially true, but he managed to win me over.  All the credit goes to Miller.

Logan’s father, Gus, died four months ago.  The son deeply mourns the loss of his father, perhaps more so because it was marked by a lot of distance.  By distance, I do not mean miles.  I refer to the distance of the heart.

Logan’s mother died when he was a child and Gus was a single-parent.  When Logan was in his late teens, Gus remarried a woman only five years older than his son.  Logan still has issues with Bennie, his father’s young widow.

When Miller’s story begins, Logan is husband to Julie, a lawyer, and stay-at-home dad to four-year-old son Owen.  Former grad student, Logan’s status is ABD (all but dissertation).  Home life is far from ideal.

An important case involving workers at a vermiculite mine preoccupies Julie.  When she is with Logan and Owen, her mind seems elsewhere; and it is.  Husband and wife once loved each other fiercely, but her time is short.  Both Logan and Owen miss her.

Owen cries out for attention.  He seems to know instinctively that things are not right in his household.  He just senses something is off.  As a consequence, Owen is “regressing,” sucking his thumb, and wanting to be a baby.  Logan is often short with him and with his wife.

Then, there is the outdoor-equipment store called The Gold Mine that Gus left Logan.  His friend, Bill, helps him run the business.  An unidentified buyer made an enormous offer on the store and the land it occupies.  Bill wants to take it and pushes Logan to accept.

If all those things are too much for one man to deal with, it only gets worse.  Julie’s boss wants to dig up Gus, who once worked in the mines himself.  His body may help their case.  Logan just cannot agree to exhume his father’s body, at least not right now.

For Logan, the final straw comes when he catches Julie kissing another man at a birthday party.  Something in him snaps.  He packs up Owen and his most prized possession, a 1920s Louisville Slugger, and gets into his truck and leaves Julie and his troubles behind.

Or so he thinks.  Bad luck follows Logan, and misadventures seem to follow.  After he gets revenge on the man he saw Julie with, he ends up at his father’s old cabin and finds something unexpected and welcome there, something or someone that could really jeopardize his marriage to Julie.  It is here that Logan discovers his choices–past, present, and future–matter.

By the end of the book, Logan is a different man.  Since his father died, Logan has been fixated on his own mortality and grief-stricken.  Like a lot of men, Logan does not know how to cope with his grief.  But that is no longer an issue for him.  “Somebody did die,” Logan says.  “I guess I just took a while to understand that it wasn’t me.”  When Owen was born, Logan marveled at his son, a “brand new human being.”  Now Logan is a “brand new human being” himself and everyone around him is better for it.

Miller’s story explores marriage, family, death, love, betrayal, and forgiveness.  What stands out most to me, though, is the bond between father and son.  Logan may be sharp with Owen at times and he may want him to act like a big kid, yet it is clear that Logan loves his son and would do anything in the world for him.  Written with humor and poignancy, Brand New Human Being shows us no one is perfect.  No one is without faults.  The secret to life is learning how to accept the deficiencies in others and, most importantly, the ones in ourselves.

Truth be told, if Miller had not chosen to write this novel in Logan’s first person perspective, I do not think he would have ever won me over.  I am thankful she decided to tell the story like she did.  Logan is not perfect, but none of us are.  This novel will compel you to do your best to be a better human being.  Who knows?  You just may be a “brand new human being” too.

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Book Review: The World Without You by Joshua Henkin

The World Without You by Joshua Henkin (Pantheon; 336 pages; $25.95).

 

            Marilyn and David Frankel, loving parents to four adult children, are living their worst nightmare in Joshua Henkin’s new novel The World Without You.  Their son, Leo, a journalist, was captured in Iraq, accused of being a U.S. agent, paraded before cameras, and executed on July 4, 2004.  It was almost too much for his family to bear.

President George W. Bush only made matters worse when he called Leo an ally in the war against terror.  Marilyn wants to “spit on Bush.”  “The nerve of that man,” she says, “to claim my son as his ally.”  Leo “hated that war” and was never “political.”  Leo’s parents still struggle one year later as the whole family reunites for his memorial service.

Leo’s death threatens to tear his family apart.  Marilyn and David’s forty-two-year marriage is on the verge of collapse.  They no longer talk like they once did.  Marilyn channels all of her grief and rage into anti-war op-ed pieces she writes for newspapers.  They tell their remaining children (Clarissa, Lily, and Noelle) they plan to separate.  Marilyn tries to explain their reasons for splitting up: “We lost our son.”  Leo’s death, Marilyn says, “ruined” them.  The more Marilyn vocalizes her grief, the more silent David becomes.  He stages a “mute protest” and furiously prepares their vacation home for its eventual sale after their divorce.

The Frankel sisters are having a difficult time themselves.  Eldest daughter Clarissa desperately wants a baby, but conception is proving difficult.  Throughout the story, Clarissa remembers holding Leo when he was an infant.  She thought of herself as “Leo’s second mother.”  “In a lot of ways,” Clarissa reveals, “I thought of myself as his first mother.”  Not until his death did she truly want a child; now, it may be too late.

Lily, the second sister, has been with her boyfriend for over a decade.  They are happily unmarried and childless, although everyone has a hard time accepting this fact.  Her father asks Lily about it and she tells him that if she and Malcolm “were to have children, we probably would be married, just because it would be easier on them if we did.”  For Lily, if it happens, it happens.

Noelle is Leo’s third and least likeable sister.  Noelle, former wild child, became an Orthodox Jew and moved to Israel with her husband, Amram.  They have four sons.  Amram recently lost his job.  The constraints of their religion threaten their marriage.  Noelle seems uncertain who she is anymore and who she wants to become.  Amram disappears after an argument, and his absence weighs heavily on Noelle and her sons.  One of the boys forgets his toilet training.  It all becomes too much for her: “It’s Amram’s fault, yet it’s her fault, too; she might as well not be able to keep her own bladder in check.  Sleeping with whatever boy came her way.  What good is her newfound modesty when she can’t control things any more than she ever could?”  Noelle cannot “control her husband and she can’t control her children, and what good is she if she can’t do that?”

Thisbe, Leo’s widow and the mother of his son, also attends the memorial service.  She is a graduate student in California.  During her visit, Thisbe struggles with two secrets of her own.  She tries to navigate the choppy waters of a family she married into but no longer feels a part.  Thisbe felt like being in the presence of the Frankels was like “being swallowed by a many-tentacled beast and made into a tentacle” herself.  When she and Leo married, Thisbe thought his sisters became hers.  When Leo died, Thisbe felt like she experienced a two-fold loss: her husband and her newly-acquired sisters.

The Frankels truly are a bereft, heartbroken family.  The passage of time has not healed their wounds.  There is a gulf between family members, and this chasm is ever-widening.

Henkin’s narrative underscores how loss makes people do strange things.  Each person experiences grief in his or her own individual way.  A grief manual for dummies does not exist.  Henkin ably illustrates how Leo’s death affects his parents, his sisters, his wife, and others around him.  The themes Henkin focuses on in his story are universal ones, such as love, loss, war, redemption, and forgiveness.  Henkin ably tells the story from many different perspectives, allowing the reader to understand one person’s grief process is distinct from another’s.  There is strong anti-war sentiment to this family’s heartwrenching tale.

Marilyn, especially, is vitriolic against Bush and blames him for her son’s death.  Through Marilyn, Henkin shows the depth of a mother’s love for her son, the bonds mother and child share, and how her whole world has crumbled.  For her, life without Leo is bleak.

The gloom in this novel is as thick as New England fog or cloud cover: “It’s like we’re going through this cloud cover, and then there’s more cloud cover and more cloud cover and it never stops.”  Despite the dark climate of Henkin’s story, there is always hope.  That hope comes in the guise of Leo’s 94-year-old grandmother.

The World Without You is a tension-filled, character-driven account of the downward spiral of an American family.  Just when things seem darkest, though, sometimes a ray of sunlight shines through the storm clouds.  Henkin’s story will engage you.  His characters will linger long after you finish the novel.  What’s more, his story will force you to put yourself and your family in the Frankel’s place.  How would you react to such tragedy?  How would you cope?  I daresay everyone would unravel.  Everyone would come apart at the seams.  That makes the Frankels and Henkin’s story very real.

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Spotlight on The World Without You

Today is the publication day for Joshua Henkin’s latest novel The World Without You.

 I read, make that devoured, this book Saturday night and loved every minute of it.  So will you!

Henkin’s themes are universal: love, loss, forgiveness, and redemption, along with a strong anti-war sentiment.  At its heart, the story is about a family coping with grief.  Each family member handles the death of Leo in his or her own, individual way.  There is no manual for dummies on how to deal with something like this.

The World Without You is my pick of the week.  I urge you to pick this one up and read it.  I am certain you will grow to feel part of the Frankel family, just like I did.

I will be reviewing the novel tomorrow so stay tuned for my review!

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