Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Looking for Jane by Heather Marshall

Looking for JaneLooking for Jane by Heather Marshall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel had a promising start: I was caught up in the stories of three women across fifty years and their struggles with unexpected, unwanted, or desired pregnancies. Marshall did a good job examining various perspectives a hot-button issue and diving into some pretty horrifying history of homes for unwed mothers, but honestly the novel was about 50% longer than it needed to be. It just went on and on and on, weighed down with completely unnecessary descriptions (I do not care about the clutter in so-and-so’s apartment or what a character ate for breakfast) that added nothing to the story’s movement. The plot line was predictable and then the "shocker" was quite a far-fetched scenario.

Also, I listened to this as an audiobook and did not enjoy the reader, so this may have greatly influenced my review of the novel. Toward the last quarter, I almost packed it in just because of the cringy reader and her emotional inflections. Perhaps it would be better if I’d read a print copy.

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Monday, January 15, 2024

North Woods by Daniel Mason

North WoodsNorth Woods by Daniel Mason
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I closed this book with a great sigh of satisfaction and gratefulness, and also a good dose of melancholy. Reading Mason's North Woods and Richard Powers' The Overstory within a few months of each other, plus living by the Smokies and witnessing the ravaging effects of the hemlock woolly adelgid—well, one can't help but feel a great sense of loss while being awestruck by the natural world.

This is an epic tale that covers centuries of lives in one house in the woods of Massachusetts. From lovers escaping a Puritan colony to twin sister spinsters to a naturalist searching for the scene of a painting, Mason draws these lives in exquisite detail, immersing the reader in each character's story. The characters are all connected in some small way and of course in a big way: through the woods, land, living creatures, the house. Home. And a few ghosts here and there. Sure, some stories were more compelling than others; a few I didn't even enjoy much. But the variety of lives, the quirkiness of the chapters, and the gorgeousness of Mason's writing kept me enchanted.

Woven throughout: an apple orchard. I am fully aware that I, part of a family of apple growers/breeders, might love this book so much because of the apple orchard. Toward the end of the book is a quote that I swear comes directly from my father:
He had come to the land back when it was mostly woods, purchased a lot to raise an apple orchard, cultivated a variety he called the Wonder, probably never heard of it, most exquisite thing the world had even tasted. Made Braeburns taste like sheep dung in comparison, and don't get him started on the Red Delicious —My Red Arse would be a better name.

My father is legendary for approaching shoppers in supermarkets who are ogling the Red Delicious and pointing them toward more palatable varieties.

I listened to the first half of North Woods and read the second half. While I thoroughly enjoyed the audio version, I plan to go back and read the first half. There are gorgeous illustrations and important chapter divisions that were lost while listening. This is a dense book—one that requires concentration and time, but it is well worth it.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Serena by Ron Rash


SerenaSerena by Ron Rash
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a haunting book of destruction, violence, and power. Sounds horrible, I know; but I think anyone who lives in/loves East Tennessee or Western NC and loves the Smokies will find this riveting. Fans of a gorgeous rendition of Macbeth will, too. And, well, if you just love a well-crafted story, here you go.

The story centers on George and Serena Pemberton, lord and lady of a lumber empire in the late 1920s. Their only goal is to get rich by cutting down trees (so painful to read!), and no one can stand in their way. They are violently opposed to this harebrained idea of turning the mountains into a national park (who wants to look at trees and waterfalls, they ask?), and they are nearly completely united in being coldblooded and heartless. But the one obstacle they don’t agree upon is George’s illegitimate son, Jacob. The novel is told mostly through the lens of the Pembertons, but Jacob and his mother, Rachel, get several chapters. I often despise books that have utterly contemptible protagonists, but in this case, Rash made me love to hate Serena (AKA Lady Macbeth).

Woven throughout the book are cameos of Horace Kephart, who fought to create the GSMNP; a Greek chorus of timber men; an oracle; and the creation of our beloved Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This isn’t a book that brings any sort of joy, except for the joy of an exquisitely written story. And also… knowing that the Pembertons lost, as I look at the Smokies from my front window right now.

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