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Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel

Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel (Harper Collins; 320 pages; $25.99).

Description:

sea creaturesWhen Georgia returns to her hometown of Miami, her toddler son and husband in tow, she is hoping for a fresh start. They have left Illinois trailing scandal and disappointment in their wake: Graham’s sleep disorder has cost him his tenure at Northwestern; Georgia’s college advising business has gone belly up; and three-year old Frankie is no longer speaking. Miami feels emptier without Georgia’s mother, who died five years earlier, but her father and stepmother offer a warm welcome-as well as a slip for the dilapidated houseboat Georgia and Graham have chosen to call home. And a position studying extreme weather patterns at a prestigious marine research facility offers Graham a professional second chance.

When Georgia takes a job as an errand runner for an artist who lives alone in the middle of Biscayne Bay, she’s surprised to find her life changes dramatically. Time spent with the intense hermit at his isolated home might help Frankie gain the courage to speak, it seems. And it might help Georgia reconcile the woman she was with the woman she has become.

But when Graham leaves to work on a ship in Hurricane Alley and the truth behind Frankie’s mutism is uncovered, the family’s challenges return, more complicated than before. Late that summer, as a hurricane bears down on South Florida, Georgia must face the fact that her choices have put her only child in grave danger.

My Thoughts

Graham, Georgia, and their son Frankie moved to South Florida to escape their many troubles in Susanna Daniel’s new novel Sea Creatures, but their problems had a way of tagging along.  Georgia, Daniel’s main character and sole narrator, was a protagonist I not only liked but with whom I sympathized and empathized.  I put myself in her place and understood the great weight she carried on her thin shoulders.  I absolutely hated Graham, Georgia’s husband, who suffered from parasomnia, a condition in which he experienced erratic sleep patterns.  He sometimes sleepwalked.  “Sleep was the yardstick by which all other fears were measured, and everything else dwarfed.  It’s the stuff of horror films, sleep terror, but the sleep goblins of film are imaginary.  Graham’s problems were real, and all the more alarming for their unpredictability.”

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Despite having parasomnia, Graham scoffed at his son Frankie’s selective mutism.  This, I must confess, was the ultimate of his transgressions for me.  Graham seemed to want Frankie to be “normal,” when Graham himself had medical problems.

Daniel expertly underscored how parenthood can change a marriage.  Georgia just could not understand her husband’s mindset, “Sometimes I thought that in becoming a parent, I’d morphed into an entirely different person, while he’d remained exactly the same person he’d always been.”  As Daniel’s tale progressed, husband and wife only withdrew farther and farther away from each other.

Georgia and Frankie, though, grew even closer.  Frankie stole my heart time and again in this novel.  “Just as he’d started to speak words, he’d stopped…[The doctors] quizzed me about my marriage and about Graham and his parasomnia, which led me to understand that children in difficult homes sometimes go mute….”  Frankie finally found his voice thanks to Charlie the hermit.

I loved the transformation in which Charlie’s character underwent.  Like Frankie, he discovered a part of himself that had been closed off for years.  Sea Creatures came to dazzling and vivid life whenever Georgia and Frankie visited Charlie in Stiltsville.  Those passages just hummed with energy.

683af41910938771f187ff55921f44d6I could not help but hope that Georgia and Charlie would develop a lasting romance.  Of course, I also hoped she would give Graham the boot.   Everything comes to a shuddering climax as Hurricane Andrew approaches South Florida, lending a threatening, uncertain atmosphere to the story: “The course of a life will shift—really shift—many times over the years.  But rarely will there be a shift that you can feel gathering in the distance like a storm, rarely will you notice the pressure drop before the skies open.”  Indeed, the hurricane heralded a new chapter for Daniel’s characters.  For them, everything changed.  Just as residents of South Florida cleaned up after the storm, the people in Daniel’s novel must pick up the pieces of their tattered and torn lives.

Thus, Daniel adeptly weaved together various conflicts throughout her narrative, cleverly moving from man against man to man against himself to man against nature.  The plot of Sea Creatures expertly revolved around these struggles.

All in all, Daniel’s second book was an absorbing, lyrical journey.  Sea Creatures left me spellbound, sleepless, speechless, and completely oblivious to the rest of the world.

He said, “Some people go to sea, and they drown.”

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Filed under beach books, book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, fiction, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Summer Reading, women's fiction, women's lit

Blog Tour: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley

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The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley (Ecco Books; 432 pages; $15.99).

 

Rhonda Riley

Rhonda Riley

“My husband was not one of us,” Evelyn Hope reluctantly reveals.  “He remains, after decades, a mystery to me.  Inexplicable.  Yet, in many ways, and on most days, he was an ordinary man.”  So begins Rhonda Riley’s unusual, unique, and nuanced debut, The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope.  Riley immediately arouses the curiosity of readers and also hooks them.  For a few hours, nothing else matters.

Or that is how it was for me, at least.  I still cannot get Adam and Evelyn Hope out of my head, and that is a testament to Riley’s epic love story.  Riley fuses historical fiction with elements of mystery and the supernatural in The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope to create a story that crosses genres and beguiles until the very last page.

The tale is actually one big flashback.  After years and years of keeping the truth close to her chest, an elderly Evelyn finally opens up about her husband.  She can no longer keep silent after seeing a photo of her youngest daughter, Sarah, whose formerly Caucasian features have metamorphosed into Asian characteristics.  Evelyn knows the photo has not been altered; Sarah is Adam’s daughter, after all.

This is Adam’s story (the novel was originally titled Adam Hope: A Geography), but it is also Evelyn’s, for she is “the one left to do the telling.”  In her sage and sure voice, Evelyn attempts to explain the unexplained.

At 17, Evelyn is sent to work on her deceased aunt and uncle’s farm in North Carolina, where the soil consists of deep and hard red clay.  In the days just after World War II, Evelyn labors from sun-up to sundown but senses a change coming, though she has no idea how profound the change will be or in what guise the transformation will take.

One rainy day, Evelyn comes upon a puddle, which she thinks is full of nothing but water and mud.  She is beyond surprised to discover the body of a man there, a man who is very much alive, though strange and slightly misshapen.  Mud and scars cover the man’s body.  He must be a solider, she thinks, but far from the battlefield.  After she takes the man inside and cares for him, miraculously, he heals.  The kicker is that he also changes form.  To Evelyn’s disbelief, the man grows to strongly resemble her; the two could be twins, in fact.

Evelyn does not question.  To her, “Addie” is a gift.  “To have her come up literally from the land I loved seemed natural, a fit to my heart’s logic.  The land’s response to my love.  So when fate gave me Addie, I let her be given.”

We know Addie is special, and she continues to astound us, especially when Evelyn decides she is ready for marriage and children.  Addie changes form once again to become “Adam Hope.”  Riley creates a character, unlike all others, who literally takes on the image of others.  When Riley delves into the unknown, she takes us with her.

Riley also imagines a very tangible sense of fear.  Instinctively, Evelyn knows there are those who would not understand Adam adam-hope1.jpgin the way she does.  No one can know who or what Adam is or where he truly comes from.  The situation has the potential to become volatile, and both Evelyn and Adam know this.  Yet Adam counters:  “Do you know who you are, Evelyn?  Who all of you are?  Where do you come from?  You don’t know any more than I do.”

Clearly, Adam is from the land and of the land: he can be molded like clay.  Riley uses this unconventional character to give us a geography of a body and of love, land, and family.  Adam and Evelyn begin an idyllic life together; everything seems perfect and no one challenges who or what Adam is.  He communes with horses, people, and nature in a way that is reminiscent of how Edgar Sawtelle communicates with dogs.

Adam Hope pulls you in like a magnet and entices you to stay a while.  Before long, you are entranced by his beautiful music, his way with all creatures, and, above all, by Riley’s captivating and clear language.

Uncertainty, fear, and calamity soon mar the landscape of the couple’s happy home and force them to flee.  I could not help but draw comparisons to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden.  Yet, Adam and Evelyn get lucky and find a new kind of Eden and a new home, at least until tragedy strikes their family again.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope explores the notion of the self versus the other; the familiar versus the strange; intimacy versus distance; and the known versus the unknown.  Riley takes us to places we have never been before in her animated and charismatic debut perfect for fans of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and The Time Traveler’s Wife.

This novel was sold at auction, with several publishers placing bids to nab Riley’s story.  It’s easy to understand why.  The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is a beautifully and ingeniously told tale.  Adam Hope is an understated yet formidable character, a man who is otherworldly but never alien, astonishing and ethereal but never inconceivable. Riley gently reminds us that unconditional love and acceptance matter more than difference. enchanted

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Rhonda’s Tour Stops

Monday, April 22nd: Bookmagnet’s Blog

Tuesday, April 23rd: Kritters Ramblings

Wednesday, April 24th: A Chick Who Reads

Thursday, April 25th: Sara’s Organized Chaos

Monday, April 29th: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Monday, May 6th: A Night’s Dream of Books

Tuesday, May 7th: Giraffe Days

Thursday, May 9th: Book Snob

Thursday, May 9th: Tiffany’s Bookshelf

Tuesday, May 14th: Bibliophiliac

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I am giving away a brand new copy of The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope.  Giveaway ends Friday, April 26, at 5 pm ET.  I will use random.org to choose a winner.  Good luck!   

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Filed under blog tour, book giveaway, book review, books, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, mystery, Southern fiction, Southern writers, supernatural, TLC Book Tours

Interview with Sherri L. Smith, Author of Orleans

Sherri L. Smith

Sherri L. Smith

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Sherri, for letting me ask you these questions.  Orleans blew me away!

 

Sherri L. Smith: Thanks, Jaime!  Coming from an avid reader, that means a lot!

 

JB: You have worked in film, animation, comic books, and construction.  What made you want to write novels?

 

SLS: Long before I did any of the above, I was a writer.  I’ve been an avid reader my whole life and started writing poetry and short stories in elementary school.  As a kid, I was always awed by novels—it was incredible to me that the author could hold an entire universe in his or her head.  Ever since then, I wanted to learn how to do it, too.

 

JB: You previously wrote FlygirlHot, Sour, Salty, SweetSparrow; and Lucy the Giant.  Orleans is so different from your other novels.  What made you want to explore dystopian and speculative fiction?

 

SLS: Again, blame my childhood.  I was a big fan of fantasy and science fiction growing up—give me Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Terry Brooks, Michael Moorcock or Frank Herbert, etc. and I was happy.  In fact, it was rather a shock to discover my first novel (Lucy the Giant) was contemporary.  I had to give myself a good hard look in the mirror and ask what the heck I thought I was doing.  But I loved the story and it worked.  From then on I decided I would just write what I loved, regardless of genre, and that’s what I’ve done.

 

JB: How did you come up with the idea behind Orleans?

 

SLS: I got the idea for Orleans from my family’s experience with Katrina.  At the time, the idea was born out of two things: an article I read about street gangs protecting their neighborhoods when the cops had all fled, and race issues that seemed to be part of the whole Katrina catastrophe.   It made me wonder: what if race wasn’t an issue?  What differences would separate people then?  What if it wasn’t something you could see?  I decided blood was an interesting answer.  And then, one day on the drive home, Fen popped into my head and started talking to me.  The street gangs became blood tribes, and it wasn’t long before Orleans was born.

 

JB: What kind of research did you do for Orleans?

 

SLS: I bought maps of the city, talked to doctors and scientists, read a lot of environmental studies and articles about hurricanes.  I researched blood types and the history of New Orleans, religious groups, and field medicine.  I watched movies about post-disaster worlds, read books, and studied knife fights in movies and books.  It really ran the gamut!

 

 

JB: One of the astounding things about Orleans is how you build a singular world, unlike anything anybody’s written before, and you do it all in one novel where Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and Ally Condie need three books to fully achieve that effect.  How did you invent this wildly imaginative world?

 

SLS: That’s a huge compliment, so thank you from the bottom of my writerly heart.  I imagine that Collins, Roth and Condie knew the width and breadth of their worlds before they finished the first book, though.  The great thing about world building is, once it’s built, you can keep going back!

 

As for how I approached it, brick by brick is the short answer.  The long answer is—have you ever read Dune by Frank Herbert?  There are appendices at the end of the novel that detail the ecology of the planet.  I remember reading that as a kid and thinking, “Wow, he really made the world!”  It seemed insane, but it worked.  I had a teacher once tell me you had to create the entire room, even if you only wrote about one corner of it.  I think that’s true for all writing, but especially for speculative fiction.  With that in mind, when I started writing I actually made a notebook with tabs for religion, weather, food, tribes, disease, etc.  It was my own Dune appendix.  However, unlike Frank Herbert, I got bored with cataloging and decided to get on with the writing.  So, I didn’t refer to the notebook as much as I thought I would, but any time I lost track of things, it was my touchstone and a good place to daydream new ideas.

 

The ideas themselves came from—extrapolation.  I thought of New Orleans as I knew it and imagined what would change.  There are incredible time lapse maps of the flooding in the city during Katrina, and forecast maps for the Gulf shoreline in years to come.  Those all went into the kitty.  I sat down with a couple of doctors, and grilled my biology teacher friend and her scientist sister for details when creating Delta Fever and the DF Virus.  I saw a hut on stilts outside of Seattle, and the Church of the Rising Son was born.

 

JB: In Orleans, “tribe is life.”  Classifying someone by race no longer exists in Orleans.  It’s now all about blood type, all because of a horrible disease.  How did you come up with Delta Fever?

 

SLS: I knew I wanted a disease that would force separation by blood type.  I called a doctor friend of mine and she introduced me to a pediatric oncologist, Dr. Noah Federman, who walked me through the possibilities.  I basically told him what I needed the Fever to do, and he told me what diseases existed that were similar and how they would manifest.  I then talked to a friend who teaches biology and her sister, who is a research scientist.  They taught me how to destroy viruses and how I might try to create a cure.  Any science that works is owed to the three of them.  The rest is my crazy imagination.

 

JB: Do you have a favorite character in Orleans?  If so, please share.

 

SLS: Fen.  Hands down.  I just think she’s so cool.

 

JB: Perfect lead-in for this question: your main female character is named Fen de la Guerre.  “Guerre” is similar to “guerilla” fighter.  What made you choose this name?  And what came first—the character or her name?

 

SLS: The character came first.  Her voice popped into my head.  The name followed shortly thereafter.  I wanted something that conjured the swamps and bayous in the Delta.  A fen is a type of wetland.  It also reminded me of Fern, the little girl in Charlotte’s Web, which was my favorite book growing up.   “De la Guerre” is French for “of war.”  Orleans is constantly at war, so that made sense.  Lastly, “Fen” also sounds like the French “fin” or “end.”  I liked the idea that she would be a game changer for Orleans.

 

 

JB: It was so refreshing how you do not have the two protagonists falling in love, like so many other YA novels do.  What stopped you from doing that in Orleans?

 

SLS: To quote Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, “No time for love, Dr. Jones!”  Orleans is an incredibly dangerous place and Fen is working on a timeline.  The idea of stopping in the middle of it to make googly eyes at someone was out of the question, especially for someone as no nonsense as Fen.  Thanks to Delta Fever, romance is also a liability in Orleans.  There is no room for a Romeo and Juliet situation—you fall in love with the wrong tribe, one of you dies.  You get pregnant, your blood volume goes up and your value as a blood slave does, too.  Not to mention it slows you down in a fight.  Fen actually loves quite fiercely in this novel.  It’s just not about romance.

 

 

JB: One scene in Orleans, for me, is one I’ll always think of when I see the book or hear about it.  It’s the scene where Fen and Daniel are in what remains of the Garden District and see a curious ritual from a window of a house in which they are resting.  It happens on November 1, All Saints’ Day and also the traditional end of hurricane season.  Can you tell us about this scene?  And what inspired it?

 

SLS: Ah.  This is the scene of the All Saint’s Krewe.  Mardi Gras, which takes place in the early part of the year, is famous for its parades led by organizations called “krewes.”  The first krewes were young men in 19th century New Orleans who rode around on horses while wearing masks and holding torches, or flambeaux, in the air.  I know this sounds disturbingly like a lynch mob, but it was meant to be a celebration.  Or, more likely, it was a group of wild partiers, the 19th century equivalent of a frat party, and they hid their faces so their families wouldn’t know about their hooliganism.  At any rate, the tradition stuck and transformed into the Mardi Gras mask and the krewe parade.

 

I liked the idea that this tradition would continue to evolve in Orleans, or rather devolve to its original state.  The opening image of the novel is a man playing a saxophone on the levee as a storm threatens the city.  That image came from news footage I saw at the time.  I decided the krewes would carry on that laissez faire attitude that New Orleans is so famous for by celebrating the end of hurricane season.  The parade is as an act of defiance against nature, where people of all tribes come together anonymously.

 

In the scene, Fen wakes Daniel to see the krewe ride in a hurricane-shaped spiral reciting the names of the storms that destroyed New Orleans, and then shouting—Nous sommes ici!  We are here!  We are still here!

More about that scene from my book review:

The participants “wheel around in a circle at the widest point of the road and thrust they torches toward the center of the ring, moving to a trot as the ring shift shape and turn into a spiral ‘stead of a sphere.”  They “be like a hurricane, swirling and swirling, the smallest rider in the center at the eye.”  Then, the chanting begins, over and over, louder and louder: “Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo.  Olga, Laura, Paloma…Jesus, Jesus, Hay-SEUS!”

As the riders go off in every direction, they move faster and faster.  As they disperse, one rider plays an old tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  The ceremony’s observers continue to celebrate November 1, because they still live in Orleans, and the ritual is to honor and remember what Orleans used to be.  This is just one of the many ways in which Smith makes Orleans intriguing and new.  No matter how many young adult books you have read, Orleans is nothing like them.

In Orleans, Smith creates a world like no other—bold, harrowing, and impossible to forget.   This young adult story is a nail-biter that will keep you up well past your bedtime, but the pay-off is well worth the loss of sleep.

 

JB: Did you ever think of turning Orleans into a trilogy?

 

SLS: Yes, certainly.  Once you’ve built the world, why not go back?  Although I think there’s a lot more to see in this universe than just the city of Orleans…

 

JB: Interesting!  Why do you think YA dystopian/apocalyptic fiction is so popular?

 

SLS: I think it has something to do with war.  We’ve been at war for over a decade and that takes its toll on a society.  From terrorist acts to man-made and natural disasters, it’s got people wondering how they will survive.  Speculative fiction has always been good at mulling over those questions and answers.  It can be a comfort to read a book and say, “Ah, there is life after this disaster.  This is how you do it.”

 

JB: In your book, the United States as we know it today no longer exists.  Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas have been quarantined and are no longer part of the Union.  The great city of New Orleans is surrounded by a wall.  Do you think a catastrophe of this magnitude could happen in our country?

 

SLS: In fact, the Wall runs from Florida to Texas, amputating a vital part of the country.  It seems crazy but, truly, in the first week after Katrina, it didn’t sound so farfetched.  There was talk of abandoning the city, moving inland.  In fact, I remember reading a report.  I think it was in the New Orleans Times-Picayune back in the late 1980s or early 1990s that postulated the need to abandon the city in the face of a major hurricane.  The report proposed building a wall around the French Quarter to protect it for posterity.  Apparently, the rest of the city was considered a reasonable loss.  I remember reading that in my grandparent’s kitchen and thinking, “But… that’s us!”

 

JB: I know that Hurricane Katrina affected your mother and you.  How did that experience provide the impetus to write Orleans?

 

SLS: My mom grew up in New Orleans and weathered the storm there.  It was a couple of days before we realized she was trapped down there and things were falling apart fast.  I hadn’t thought of it until recently, but, in a lot of ways, Fen’s journey to get Baby Girl out of Orleans mirrors my attempts to get my mom out of New Orleans.  It’s important to me to keep New Orleans in people’s thoughts through my writing.  We tend to think “the storm is over, everything is fine.”  But, as anyone who has ever had to rebuild after a disaster knows, it’s far from over and the effects last for years.  Orleans is about that aftermath.

 

 

JB: With each hurricane or even strong tropical storm that hits the New Orleans area, flooding seems worse.  With the marshes disappearing, how likely do you think it is that the city could be underwater in 40, 50, or 100 years?

 

SLS: I don’t even want to speculate about that.  Anything can happen, as Katrina proved.  As much as the fading wetlands were an issue with storm surge, it was manmade channels and levees that led to the bulk of the damage in the city.  Not to diminish the threat, but they’ve been talking about Venice, Italy, sinking for decades and it’s still standing.  A little low in the water, maybe, but it’s there.  Hopefully the storms we’ve had recently will be a wake-up call and steps will be taken to protect our land.

 

JB: As a writer, who has influenced you the most?

 

SLS: Too many people to mention.  I’ll say my mother because she always encouraged me to keep with it.  She never doubted I could publish if I tried.

 

JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?

 

SLS: I think I already mentioned Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.  I love Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little, too, a though that last one was a bit weird because his parents were human and it kind of threw me. I’m a fan of Susan Cooper.  I love her Dark Is Rising series.  I’ve already mentioned Dune.  I’ve come to appreciate Ernest Hemingway.  I admire Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ability to make her stories sound like truth.  David Eddings, Laurie R. King, Lloyd Alexander, Kage Baker, Olivia Butler—I’m looking at my bookcase, but it’s only one of 11 in the house!

 

JB: You really are an avid reader!  What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

 

SLS: I like to read.  Is that obvious?  I also like travel, bake, eat, sleep, watch movies.  I like to dance and make stuff with my hands.  I watch a lot of cooking shows and make up songs that I sing to my cat, because she’s the only one who tolerates it on a regular basis.

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Orleans?

 

SLS: That’s a good question.  I hope they recognize how precious the world we live in really is, and do what they can to protect it.  Whether that means putting together a “go bag” disaster kit, volunteering in an area that needs help, or taking steps to protect the environment, I’m happy.  Heck, if it means everyone goes to New Orleans and supports the city with their visit, that would be grand too.  Even if they just think about it and talk about the book with other people, it would mean I reached them somehow.  And that’s all any writer can ever hope.

 

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

 

SLS: I am currently working on my first fantasy!  It’s an historical fantasy based on the Nutcracker.  I’m also genre-dabbling in mystery and noir.  I want to try everything, so that’s what I’m going to do!

 

JB: Thanks, Sherri, for a wonderful interview!  Good luck with the book.

 

SLS: Thank you, Jaime.  It was a lot of fun.

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Book Review: Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris

Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris (Tyndale House Books; 400 pages; $13.99).

 

“Wars and plagues” can get people thinking it’s the end of the world.  Such a bleak outlook only worsens when American boys die on foreign soil, when families lose their homes to foreclosure, and when a dangerous flu ravages communities.  No, we’re not talking about wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.  Neither are we discussing America’s most recent economic crisis.  And no, this is not H1N1.  The place is Dead Lakes, Florida; the year is 1918.  World War I rages in Europe, and the Spanish flu rapidly spreads.  Ella Wallace, though, has more important things to worry about than wars and plagues in Michael Morris’ timely novel Man in the Blue Moon.

Ella, Morris’ protagonist, is a woman ahead of her time.  Ella’s future held great promise as a teen, when she dreamed of studying art in France.  That dream died when Harlan Wallace and his handle-bar mustache walked into Ella’s life.

Her aunt tried to warn Ella, “[Harlan’s] a gambler at best.  A con artist at worst.”  Ella paid her no attention, which was too bad because her aunt was right about Ella’s future husband: he was a gambler and a con artist.  After they married and their union produced three sons, another label was added to Harlan’s repertoire: alcoholic.

For Harlan, alcohol and gambling did not mix well.  Harlan placed a bet on a racehorse and lost Ella’s land, the inheritance her father passed down to her.  Before he died of typhoid fever, her father begged Ella never to sell her birthright.

One by one, Ella had been forced to sell her father’s possessions to pay off her husband’s debts.  “His gold watch, the diamond-studdied tie clip, and the curls of hair that her father had maintained until death belonged to President Lincoln” had all been sold.  The land was the only thing Ella had left and was very important to her.  You could even say the land was special.

“The tract of land that sat on the Florida panhandle was thick with pines and cypress.  An artesian spring fed a pool of water that local Indians claimed could remedy gout and arthritis.  The acreage had been in her family for two generations.”

Artist rendition of Ella’s land in Man in the Blue Moon

Harlan did not care.  He lost the property anyway to the story’s principal antagonist, banker Clive Gillespie, a vile, dishonest man.  To Clive’s chagrin, Harlan later won the land back in a drunken card game.  Things got worse when Harlan traded his alcohol addiction for opium.  One day, he just disappeared, leaving Ella to manage their country store alone.

This is not the life that Ella imagined.  She can’t help but think people talk about her reversal of fortune: “What has become of Ella Wallace?  What would her aunt think about her now?” she imagines them wondering.  For Ella, it is difficult raising three boys as a single mother while working and managing the store.  Ella and her family live a hardscrabble life.  One thing they have an abundance of is love.

When it comes to the world outside, though, sometimes Ella feels as if it’s her against the world.  Widows, she figures, are treated better than women whose husbands just up and disappeared.  The gossip-mongering citizens of Dead Lakes look down on her.  Ella, despite all the gossip and hateful looks, is proud and determined.

Ella needs that determined spirit once her mortgage comes due.  She reads in the newspapers about all the homes that the bank is foreclosing on.  Hers could be next, to Clive’s glee.

Clive has an agenda, and Ella stands in his way.  He has a reason for wanting Ella’s property, and he will fight and connive to get what he wants.

Ella is desperate to pay the note on the land’s mortgage.  But she can’t do it alone.  Then, as if in answer to a prayer, Harlan’s alleged cousin, Lanier Stillis, shows up in Dead Lakes.  He’s a rather shadowy and mysterious man, a picaresque hero, who proves his worth to Ella in a very unexpected way.  When a crisis hits close to home, Harlan again stands by Ella.  He seems to be a good and decent man.  But is he telling Ella the truth about his past?  Is Lanier Ella’s second chance at love?

Morris writes with a voice that is authentically Southern because he is Southern (he is a fifth-generation native of Perry, Florida).  Southern culture and Southern characters come naturally to him.  Because he is a Florida native, old Florida comes alive in his story.  Morris charms readers the same way the springs mesmerize those who come to take a dip in their magical waters.

Man in the Blue Moon is rich with historical details.  Morris carefully weaves key issues, people, and events into his story.  The strongest of these is his depiction of the 1918 Spanish Flu.  He uses a chant “I had a little bird/Its name was Enza/I opened up the window, and in-flu-enza.”  Variations of this rhyme were very popular during this time.  Morris also illustrates the anger of families whose sons returned home from battle only to die from the flu.  As the illness wreaks havoc in Dead Lakes, Morris shows how the flu devastated families, communities, and towns.

In addition to the flu epidemic, Morris also shows two very different ways of life in old Florida.  Ella and her family drive a horse and buggy; others own a car.  Cotton export is slowly giving way to fishing and tourism.  Morris even gives a nod to the oyster industry in nearby Apalachicola, the oyster capital of the world today.  As one way of life wanes, another dawns.  This is very apparent in Man in the Blue Moon.

With talk of a distant war, foreclosures, and a fatal flu, Morris gives readers a timely tale.  His story takes place almost a century ago, yet it is so relatable to us today.

If you love historical fiction, then Man in the Blue Moon is required reading for you.  Morris’ writing is always genuine and satisfying.  His story is a tale of one family’s struggle and of a town that will either come together or be torn apart.  There is much to admire within these pages, in particular the character of Ella.  I daresay she would fit in well in 2012; maybe she would have a blog and be part of She Reads.

Morris enthralls and captivates readers with Man in the Blue Moon, the She Reads November Book Club selection.  To discuss the story, connect with other readers, and even meet the author, go to She Reads.  Don’t forget to enter the extraordinary giveaways there, one of which is guaranteed to make your eyes sparkle.

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Book Review: The Woman at the Light by Joanna Brady

The Woman at the Light by Joanna Brady (St. Martin’s Griffin; 352 pages; $14.99)

 

            Lighthouses have always fascinated me.  Each has its own unique beauty and history, and all were designed to steer mariners from cliffs, shoals, reefs, and shorelines in fog and at night.  Nowadays, lighthouses do not have keepers, as they once did, because the lights are automated.  But that was not always the case.  Tending lights was a difficult job.  Anyone who has ever climbed the steps of a lighthouse knows this.  Just imagine climbing those steps four or five times a day!

My fascination with lighthouses compelled me to read Joanna Brady’s novel The Woman at the Light.  I had very mixed feelings about this book.  It is not well written, but I was prepared to overlook this fact.  The main character vacillated between action and inaction, yet she was the novel’s most interesting and central figure.  At times, the writing was awkward and I did find an anachronism.  Yet, Brady delivers an early history of Key West, Florida, that I found absorbing and captivating.  Furthermore, she peoples the story with real women who were in charge of keeping the lights.  Brady wrote The Woman at the Light because of them.

Emily Lowry is Brady’s main character.  The story is actually a flashback as the elderly Emily looks back on her life.  Although she discusses her early life in New Orleans, she concentrates on the 1830s and 1840s after she married Martin. Martin lives in Key West, and he takes Emily there to live.  Eventually, he becomes a lighthouse keeper at a fictional light on Wreckers’ Cay.  Their life, though far from idyllic, fulfills Emily, and she busies herself with raising three children and aiding her husband in his duties.  One day, though, Martin does not come home.  He is lost at sea.

Denial sets in for Emily.  She will not let herself accept that her husband is dead, especially when a body never washes up on shore.  Emily is faced with not only raising three children alone but with also tending the light alone.  This is no easy task.

Then, an escaped slave turns up on the island.  Emily initially worries for her children’s and for her own well-being.  However, Andrew soon wins her over by helping out with the light.  Emily is grateful.  Soon, Emily and Andrew engage in a romantic relationship.

Interestingly, Andrew introduces Emily to cannabis.  Such a thing is plausible.  Although the cannabis plant is not native to Africa, Arabs introduced the weed to Africans and its use spread quickly.  African slaves brought their knowledge of the drug to the Americas.  In fact, in sixteenth century Brazil, Angolan slaves were allowed to plant cannabis between rows of sugarcane and smoke it between harvests.

Brady uses the cannabis to break down barriers between Emily and Andrew.  At first, she only yields to him under the influence of the weed.  The drug lowers her inhibitions.  I could not help but wonder if the two would have ever gotten together without the cannabis.  Emily’s family owns slaves.  Emily herself makes a note of how light-skinned Andrew is, leading me to wonder what would have transpired if he had been darker.  Theirs was a relationship I needed more convincing to believe.

After Andrew’s arrival, Emily’s reputation as a lighthouse keeper explodes.  She is lauded with praise.  But Emily is not really tending to the light; Andrew does all the work.

In 1835, a hurricane hits Key West and the fictional Wreckers’ Cay.  Brady’s hurricane actually did happen and it changes everything for Emily and Andrew.  A new, unwelcome chapter in Emily’s life unfolds.  Later, she marries a wealthy Cuban, who is himself a slave owner.  Seňor Salas is older but enjoys making love to his young, beautiful wife.  Brady uses an anachronism here.  Emily uses the word “sex.”  But it was not until 1929 that “sex” was first used to describe sexual intercourse in the writings of D.H. Lawrence.  I can forgive many things, but an author and editor should get their facts straight.

Emily is truly a woman of great interest in the story.  Her fortunes rise and fall.  She is at times a creature of inaction.  Instead of doing what needs to be done herself she depends too often on others who only lie to her and steer her in the wrong direction.  Other times, though, Emily is cold and calculating.  For example, she only marries the wealthy Cuban man for his money, and her decision was wise.  Brady creates many layers for Emily’s character, yet I found her unlikable.  She is a woman who defies convention, and I feel she will appeal to many readers based on that fact alone.  Emily does not have anything in common with her contemporaries.  She is unlike many women, including her sister Dorothy, who was another character I disliked.

When Brady is on, she is on fire.  She is at her strongest when she portrays real events and real people.  “Wrecking,” a common practice of taking valuables from a shipwreck which foundered close to the shore, features prominently in the story.  This was actually an important economic activity in the Florida Keys, with hundreds of men involved at any given time.  She also shows how frightened people were of Indians.  Fear of Indian attacks on lighthouses was very real.  In Key Biscayne at the Cape Florida Light, keeper William Cooley lost his wife and children during a Seminole Indian raid in 1836.  The incident happened after the outbreak of the Second Seminole War.  Cooley left the lighthouse.  His replacement, John Thompson, and his assistant were attacked by Seminoles on July 23, 1836.  The Indians set fire to the base of the lighthouse.  The fire spread, and the Seminoles also set fire to the keeper’s dwelling.  They left in Thompson’s sloop because they thought an explosion killed Thompson, but he survived (Guide to Florida Lighthouses, p. 49-51).  Brady plays on this fear in her story when she has a group of Indians raiding Wreckers’ Cay.  The actions of one of the Indians, however, really irked me, but Brady explained it in the end.

Brady also accurately depicts a devastating hurricane that struck Key West and surrounding areas in 1846.  The storm took out the Sand Key Reef Light and killed keeper Joshua Appleby, his daughter, and grandson. Keeper Barbara Mabrity and her children took refuge in the Key West lighthouse. She survived, but her children and others who took refuge there, perished.

For me, the real female lighthouse keepers that Brady portrays made this book worth reading.  Their work was grueling.  They were also mothers who had to raise their children while still tending to the light.  They got little pay for the work they did and had to put up with ridicule and sexism.  Brady was as captivated by their stories as was I.  In fact, Barbara Mabrity, Rebecca Flaherty, and “Mary Carol and Mary Bethel, who came later, courageously tended lighthouses for many years in the Florida Keys and inspired” Brady to write her novel.

If you are interested in reading about these women, I recommend Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford.  If you ever have the opportunity to visit and even climb a lighthouse, I urge you to do so.  It is an experience you will not soon forget.  Only then will you truly understand the triumphs and tragedies of female keepers.  Although I did not like Emily, the world of lighthouses and their keepers encouraged me to read this book.

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