Sunday, November 29, 2015

Book Review: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

This hasn't been the most thrilling year for reading nor reviewing books. Few novels this year stand out for me: Paula Hawkins' Girl on the Train is one, and Anton diScalfani's The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls will definitely be another.

I didn't know what I was getting into with this novel. I thought it was a coming-of-age novel, maybe even a light read. I didn't expect this dark, mesmerizing novel of loss, rejection, and perseverance.

Set in the 1930s, the story centers on 15-year-old Thea Atwell, who has done something bad. We don't know what she's done, only that it involved her twin brother and their cousin, who was like another brother to them. As the book opens, Thea is being deposited at Yonahlossee Riding Camp, which is really just a name for a boarding school for rich girls—or, in Thea's case, a home for girls who have been bad. Her parents can't stand to be around her anymore, and sending her off to school seems like the only option.

Thea has never been around anyone besides her family: her parents, brother, aunt, uncle, and cousin. She's never had a girlfriend, never attended a fancy dinner, didn't know the codes between girls or that they even existed. She's thrown from a comfortable home in which she was the beloved only daughter into a world she didn't know existed.

And she loves it. She loves being part of this sisterhood and, most of all, loves that she gets to spend hours and hours each day riding her horse. She also loves that she is the best rider in the school. But Thea has an insatiable need to be loved and to prove that she is a person of value— she needs to reclaim her position as one who is prized. Why did her world fall apart back in Florida? Why did her parents toss her aside like trash?

Flashbacks lead up to the story of  the Big Event that sent The and her family into a downward spiral. As Thea pieces together what she did wrong, she continues on a similar path at the boarding school. Thea is a complex protagonist, bent on self-preservation but mired in self-destructive behavior. She's selfish with flashes of compassion, unstable yet admiring of stability. She's a 15-year-old girl who doesn't know how to contain her passions and enjoys the power she has over men.

While Thea is a strangely likable character is spite of her self-absorption. The novel is graphic and violent at times, but it's incredibly compelling. I stayed up way past my bedtime a couple of nights reading it. If you're in the mood for something complex and a little dark, this is a great choice.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Book Review: The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

Heidi Durrow's The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is a survivor's story. Rachel is the 11-year-old girl who fell, except she didn't fall accidentally: her mother, chased by her own demons and bad decisions, takes flight with all the kids from the top of a roof. Rachel lives.

The daughter of a white Danish woman and a black GI, Rachel now has to learn who she is. Is she black or is she white? Is she poor Rachel or lucky Rachel? And why did her mother do it?

After recovering from her severe injuries, Rachel goes to live with her black grandmother in Oregon. This is a whole new world to her, and her sense of "otherness" is almost more than she can bear. She struggles to find her place in this new world and also to attempt to grasp why her mother could possibly have thought that killing herself and her children was the only solution. The story of Rachel's mother is told through the points-of-view of the grandmother, the neighbor boy who saw the family's fall from the roof, and her mother's employer, who packed up her possessions and read her journals.

The story of Rachel's mother is really never fully explained, but I was okay with that, mostly. I didn't feel like her story was fleshed out enough to come even close to "justifying" her crime, but I suppose that's another story. Likewise, why Rachel's father never comes back for her isn't really clear at all, and I was mostly okay with that. Mostly.

That said, Durrow's writing is wonderful, and Rachel's story is intriguing enough on its own. Perhaps the novel would have lost some of its lovely, sparse narrative had the stories of the parents been deeper. I definitely recommend this one!

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.