Saturday, July 18, 2015

Book Review: Secrets of Eden

Chris Bohjalian has got to be one of today’s best American authors. When I think about each of his novels that I’ve read, I’m astounded at the depth and breadth of his subjects, from midwifery to post WW2 to the Great Gatsby to domestic violence, the focus of Secrets of Eden.

Secrets of Eden tells the story of the murder of Alice Hayward by her abusive husband and his subsequent suicide. Well, apparent suicide.  It’s told in four sections by four narrators: the pastor, the state's attorney, an author who writes about angels, and the Hayward’s 15-year-old daughter. The questions each of them asks: what really happened here? 

It is obvious that George killed Alice. But who killed George? The angle of the gun wasn't quite right for a suicide and, although everyone agrees that George was a scumbag, the state's attorney has an obligation to find his killer. The four narrators, who have four distinct voices, provide different perspectives on the life of George and Alice while investigating and analyzing their own lives.

I thought Bohjalian treated all his characters with unusual respect without any of the usual stereotypes. The Baptist preacher was not a fire-and-brimstone psycho; the attorney was not cold-hearted; the teenage girl wasn't cold and rebellious; and the author angel, while kooky, had her own serious issues that balanced that out.

It's a good psychological thriller, although certainly sad and disturbing, that's beautifully written.

Other Bohjalian novels I've reviewed:
The Double Bind
The Buffalo Soldier
Skeletons at the Feast

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Book Review: Under the Same Blue Sky

Pamela Schoenewaldt features an era that few novelists explore in Under the Same Blue Sky — World War 1. I’ve read dozens of World War 2 era novels, but I can’t think of a single novel of the Great War I’ve read other than a children’s book or two.

The novel begins in Pittsburgh in 1914, before America enters the European conflict. Hazel Renner is a young woman on the brink of adulthood. She’s ready to venture into the world, although she isn’t sure what that looks like yet. She’s had a comfortable, loving childhood in a German-American neighborhood.

As the war in Europe escalates, animosity toward German-Americans also rises. Hazel and her parents fall under suspicion and hatred. Neighbors turn against them as the war wages. Hazel’s father becomes obsessed and depressed over the war casualties, and Hazel’s life changes drastically as she uncovers a family secret.

Hazel leaves home to become a teacher in a small town. This whole part of the novel was strange to me. While she is in this town, Hazel discovers she has healing powers. When she touches people and touches her blue house simultaneously, she is able to miraculously heal people. This was an odd addition to the novel, and I can’t say I understand why it was necessary. For me personally, the novel would have been stronger without this foray into healing of the sick. I think the author was working toward a theme of healing in many forms, but this never jelled in my mind.

Hazel loses her healing power quickly, however, and moves to the next phase of her journey: back to the castle where she was born. This is a castle built by a reclusive German baron, who came to America to escape his tyrannical father. Here Hazel puts the pieces of her early years together and falls in love with the gardener.

But all can’t be happily-ever-after: the War rages in Europe, killing millions. And influenza rages everywhere, killing even more than the war. Those that are left behind are shell-shocked, struggling to make sense of what has happened and to forge a new life in the midst of so much loss. Hazel loses many loved ones, but ultimately she finds happiness and learns to navigate in a world ravaged by war and disease.

A lot happens within these 300+ pages. I was especially intrigued in the first half of the novel, as all my mother’s grandparents emigrated from Germany to America in the late 1800s. With very German names, they surely must have faced persecution during World War 1. My mother’s Uncle Grover fought in the war and came back disabled by poison gas. My grandfather, Uncle Grover’s youngest brother, was saved from the ravages of war only because he contracted influenza and nearly died. It occurred to me as I read this novel that those are the only two family stories I know of this time. I’ll have to see if my mother had any others passed down to her, as her solidly German family must have suffered many of the same horrors as do Hazel’s family in the novel.

This is a great read, especially if you enjoy delving into a bit of history that doesn't get much attention.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Book Review: Love Anthony

Lisa Genova never disappoints. I adored Still Alice and Left Neglected, both stories that explore neurological disorders, and Love Anthony was nearly as good. I say “nearly” because it didn’t hold the same medical fascination nor seem quite as emotionally wrenching as the first two novels did for me, although it does involve the death of a child. But it was still excellent. I plowed through it in one day at the beach. I gave it to my friend Caroline to read as soon as I finished. After a day she handed me the book, wiping away tears, and said, "I don't think it's very nice for a friend to make a friend cry at the beach!" While she was crying, her sister called and asked why she was crying, then asked to borrow the book as well. Why do we like to cry so much?

The story focuses on two women: Olivia, whose autistic son has just died, and Beth, whose life unexpectedly unravels. They have little in common on the surface. The past eight years of Olivia’s life were wrapped up in the frustration and sadness of having a son with severe autism. Beth, on the other hand, seems to be one of those women that Olivia so despises: mothers with “normal” children.

But their paths cross, and they end up unintentionally healing together, although in separate ways. I can’t really reveal more of the hows and whys without giving away the plot, but Genova treats autism with respect and a beautiful understanding. I think the chapters that are devoted to Olivia and the pain of her motherhood are especially powerful.

Genova is a brilliant writer, and I’m always impressed at the way she shares her medical knowledge without ever seeming didactic or as if she’s just throwing information in for the sake if it. I can’t wait for her next novel!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Book Review: The Tenth Gift

The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson is our most recent book club pick. We haven't met to discuss it yet, but so far I've heard a few "I liked it!" comments from fellow members. It took me a long time to get into the book—probably close to 100 pages. But I was traveling and reading only a few pages at night, exhausted mentally and physically. Once I found that I had only two days left to read before it was due at the library, I committed myself to sticking with it and found that I became totally absorbed in the story.

The novel flips between two stories that eventually become intertwined. Julia Lovat is a 30-year-old woman who is dumped by her married boyfriend. As a parting gift, he gives her what he thinks is a book of embroidery patterns, written in 1625. The book turns out to actually be a diary of an English woman, Cat, who was kidnapped by Muslim pirates and sold as a slave in Morocco. The Cat entries leading up to her kidnapping were slow moving and confusing to me, but once she is kidnapped, the pace picked up and the direction became clear.

Julia becomes obsessed with Cat's story and travels to Morocco to trace Cat's path and see if the diary really is authentic. In the course of her investigation, she finds that these events really did happen, and a nice discussion of the history of Muslim raiders in the 17th century is included in the novel. I loved the historical perspective. There is, of course, a healthy dose of romance for both Julia and Cat as the novel progresses.

I'm a big fan of historical novels, especially ones that highlight a particular set of events of which I held little or no previous knowledge. I know almost nothing about Morocco and never thought about Christian Europeans being sold as slaves to Muslims. Julia's part of the story was less enthralling but necessary to tell the story. In all, this is an interesting novel for those who enjoy historical fiction/romance.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book Review: Healing Stones

This novel by Nancy Rue and Stephen Arterburn was this month's book club choice. Billed as the first in a series that feature the psychologist Sullivan Crisp, Healing Stones deals with how a family reacts and recovers after adultery.

Demitria Costanas, a professor at a Christian college, is caught in an affair with a colleague. She is fired from her job, her husband and kids reject her, the guy disappears, and basically her whole life falls apart. She moves out on her own and begins to make a little progress, only to have something else happen that sets her back. Eventually she seeks the counsel of Sullivan Crisp, who has a unique "game show" method of counseling.

So… I'm not a big fan of what's billed as Christian fiction. With a few exceptions (Francine Rivers, Jamie Langston Turner), it's often not particularly well written, sentimental, and dogmatic. This novel was not at all dogmatic, but it all just seemed so contrived. There wasn't anything particularly terrible about it. Many of the women in my book club absolutely loved it. I think if you like Christian fiction in general, this is probably a great series.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Book Review: The Devil and Miss Prym

“You're a man who has suffered and wants revenge,' she said. 'Your heart is dead, your soul is in darkness. The devil by your side is smiling because you are playing the game he invented.” 

A stranger arrives in the isolated village of Viscos, and Paulo Coelho's parable of good and evil begins. The stranger has a bag full of gold bars and a question he demands be answered: are humans good or evil?

The Devil and Miss Prym is called a "novel of temptation," and that temptation is in ancient one. The stranger offers this impoverished, dying village enough gold to change their lives and save their village—but they have to murder one of their own to get the gold.

Will they sacrifice one of their own, or will they spit in the face of the manipulator? The stranger wants Miss Prym to find out. She is the only young person left in the village, and she is confident that they are good people who will refuse to murder a fellow villager. The stranger is skeptical. He's seen the worst in mankind, and he is convinced that all men are inherently greedy and evil.

“So you see, Good and Evil have the same face; it all depends on when they cross the path of each individual human being.”

Coelho's approach to this classic battle of good and evil is lovely. I wanted to underline sentences on every page. He captures profound truths in simple dialogue, and I wanted to make big canvases for my walls out of some of his phrases. The details of the story itself were excellent. It's the kind of novel I can close my eyes and still picture certain scenes. To be fair, the story didn't always capture me—it took me a good half of the book to really delve into it and become interested in the characters and their dilemma. But once I really immersed myself in it, I loved it.

This is a novel a friend and I are considering for a book club at our church. The book took me awhile to really get into, and sometimes I didn't understand everything that was going on because of my initial lack of attention; but I but I think it will be excellent fodder for lots of good discussion.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Book Review: The Night Strangers

Phew! It's been a long time since I've read a book as eerie as Chris Bohjalian's The Night Strangers. The night I began reading it, I had actual nightmares—the creepy, ghosty kind of nightmares. I know: this isn't a rousing endorsement of the book. But this book is creepy!

The story opens with a terrible plane crash. The pilot, Chip Linton, faces paralyzing guilt after his plane crashes, killing 39 passengers. He and his wife and twin daughters move to a small New England town with hopes of restoring some peace in their lives. But, well, there's an old house with a basement. And ghosts. And twins. And a coven of witches. And did I mention New England, where all creepy stories take place? Yep.

I was terrified, but I couldn't stop reading. OK, this isn't terror on the level of 'Salem's Lot or The Shining, but for me it was reminiscent of that love/hate relationship I once had with Stephen King's horror novels. (I saw "once had" because I've generally stayed away from horror novels in the past 25 years.) I loved to get scared, and yet I hated to get scared.

This novel went in places I wasn't expecting at all—murders, poisoning, seances, and all kinds of crazy stuff. But Chris Bohjalian is an incredible storyteller, and I kept reading in spite of my queasiness. Am I glad I read this book? I'm not sure. It was much different than anything I've read in a long, long time. The Thirteenth Tale would be perhaps the only story I've read in a while with scary ghosts and twins. (Why are twins often in horror stories?)

So, my recommendation: it's eerie and dark, incredibly well written, and mesmerizing. I mean, just look at that book cover. You decide.