The Sacrament – Olaf Olafsson

sacramentA quiet, intriguing story set in Reykjavik, The Sacrament is more about the catharsis of its protagonist than the investigation of sexual abuse allegations.

The story follows Sister Johanna as she returns to Iceland to probe allegations reported in an anonymous letter of sexual abuse at the Catholic school. Sister Johanna is chosen to go to Reykjavik because she speaks Icelandic. We follow her from her time when she was just Pauline, a young college student in Paris, to her mysterious, inconclusive investigation in Iceland.

The non-linear sequence of events of Sister Johanna’s life gave me some difficulty, but this style afforded an interesting insight into her psyche. Her sexuality caused her to have an existential crisis, for which she joined the sisterhood, running away from it instead of confronting it, and also suffering the bullying of a superior. The story is compelling with both halves of the story: the sexual abuse investigation contrasted with Sister Johanna’s ambiguous motives. Redemption is the theme here, but redemption at what cost?

The writing is beautiful and concise, and often the bleakness of inner turmoil or the beauty of self-discovery is reflected in the descriptions of the landscape. A deep story with an interesting twist. Many thanks to Netgalley for the advance copy in exchange for my review.

Cape May – Chip Cheek

Cape May Beach in New Jersey1950s: Henry and Effie are newlyweds honeymooning during the off-season in Cape May, New Jersey, in Effie’s uncle’s beach house. They don’t really know each other very well, they’re sexually inexperienced, and are having some difficulty with the awkwardness of being around each other all day. Bored and restless, they decide to leave early and go home.

BUT! They see lights on at a nearby house . . . neighbors! They get excited, thinking maybe meeting some new people will liven things up. They have no idea just how much.

Their new neighbors, Clara and Max, are not completely unfamiliar to Effie. Clara was a friend of the family while she was growing up during the summers at Cape May, and Clara often teased the younger Effie to the point of bullying. Effie is reluctant to spend any time with her, but they can’t escape Clara’s constant invitations to parties, and soon they’re captivated by Clara’s carefree bohemian lifestyle with her lover, Max.

Clara throws wild parties that quickly get out of hand, replete with gin and casual sex. She brings in cosmopolitan friends from New York, and the bumpkin Georgia newlyweds are swept away with the hedonism. This decadence, however fun at first, quickly devolves into dangerous flirtations and destruction.

The drunken sex parties got somewhat repetitive, and the story takes a while to get going, but nevertheless, it maintained my interest. Just about every character is loathsome, but even though these people are self-centered and repugnant, I couldn’t help but keep reading to see what they would do. The focus on Henry’s experience offered some specific insights, but the lack of attention to other characters, specifically Effie, were detrimental to rounding out the story’s perspective. There is a strange leap forward in time in a rushed epilogue, but at least it serves to answer the curiosity of “So, what happened to them?”

It’s a fun book with a psychological bent of what superficially milquetoast people are capable of when shown a wilder side of life.

Many thanks to Celadon Books, Netgalley, and BookishFirst for the advance copy in exchange for my review.

Petra’s Ghost – C. S. O’ Cinneide

petraThrilling, eerie story that kept my eyes on the pages!

The premise grabbed me right away. Daniel is walking the Camino de Santiago, an ancient, well-traveled 500-mile trail through northern Spain, with his wife’s ashes in his backpack. He’s harboring not only grief at his wife’s passing, but also guilt and remorse over the manner of her death. Along the Camino he meets Ginny, another pilgrim on the Camino with her own reasons for walking. And they’re being followed by a ghost.

To write any more about the story would be a disservice to future readers. There are so many surprises that there are twists within the twists. Petra’s Ghost is a tightly-woven tale with succinct character descriptions and steady pacing. There are no lulls, no extraneous tangents, no distractions from the tension. O’Cinneide also depicts an enticing portrayal of the Camino, one that had me looking up images online and reading her blog entries from her own experience.

If a macabre story with a chilling atmosphere piques your interest, grab this book as soon as you can.

Many thanks to Dundurn Press, Netgalley, and C. S. O’Cinneide for the advance copy. It was a joy to read!

The River – Peter Heller

theriverThis book is often described as being “unputdownable” and “riveting” and is supposed to “make your heart race,” but I didn’t find that to be the case. Many reviewers did have that experience, so I hate to dissuade anyone from reading it.

An intriguing premise: two college buddies canoe a river in northern Canada and are faced with an unexpected, ferocious wildfire, burdened with an injured passenger, and there is possibly a killer stalking them. They have to battle nature and maniacal river folk and try not to starve to death, burn up, or drown, and make it to the village, a few days’ paddling away. Sounds exciting, right?

So, let’s break the mild, inchoate tension and talk about fly fishing for a few paragraphs. And maybe throw in pages of description of the river current, the birds, and irrelevant flashbacks of tragic childhoods. A list of gear, with brand names and specifications, is also helpful in tamping down any possible interest the reader may have developed. This book often reads like an REI catalog. There is some rudimentary buildup when the two men’s relationship begins to disintegrate over how they interpret the possible dangers. Jack gets a little paranoid, Wynn is too naive, but this fizzles out. And once things actually happen, the excitement is smothered with an epilogue.

Though the author obviously knows what he’s talking about vis-a-vis wilderness/river survival (at least, I assume he does, knowing very little of such things myself), it’s repetitive. There are lengthy, lush descriptions of the environment, of paddling techniques, of fly fishing, of berry picking. They camp, fish, take inventory of their supplies ad nauseam, tend to the injured. The story would be thrilling, but the tense moments are interrupted with long periods of the mundane.

Many thanks to Penguin First to Read for the advance copy in exchange for my review.

Sounds Like Titanic – Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

titanicIn the early 2000s, Jessica Hindman was a college student struggling to pay for tuition at Columbia. Her parents, back in Appalachia, had never even heard of Columbia and didn’t understand her passion to attend despite the ridiculous cost. Then, she gets the opportunity of her dreams: she’s hired as a professional violinist as part of the ensemble for The Composer playing for audiences across the country. The music is new-age cheese and not too demanding, and despite her self-professed mediocre skills (I believe she must have more talent than she admits), she perseveres. Of course she can ─ the mics are never turned on. Through countless PBS specials and performances, the Composer plays a pre-recorded professional CD through speakers instead of allowing the live musicians to be heard. The audience has no idea.

Although a cursory Internet search will give names to the thinly-veiled characters, she refers to her boss only as The Composer. He’s presented ambivalently. He sincerely cares about his fans and is sympathetic to their problems, but he’s also a bit manic and possibly skirts the border of fraud with the fake performances.

I loved this memoir. It’s chock full of relatable experiences to anyone who’s ever suffered from self-doubt, misplaced ambition, or imposter syndrome. Jessica’s story is as genuine as it is unusual, and her succinct telling in the second person drew me in. Jessica reassures you that it’s okay to not be okay.

This is the story of a college girl adrift. Jessica captures the struggle between dreams and harsh reality, and the suffering endured by all aspiring 20-somethings of the dichotomy of bursting enthusiasm and zero experience.

The audiobook was well done, read by Elizabeth Wiley, whose drawl was a bit syrupy at times. I kept picturing Julia Sugarbaker from “Designing Women” instead of a young college student. Her narration, however, was engaging, and she voiced the numerous characters with skill.

Many thanks to LibraryThing, HighBridge audio, and W. W. Norton and Company for this audiobook in exchange for my review.

 

Days by Moonlight – Andre Alexis

daysbymoonlightA most unusual book!

Two men, one younger and grieving, one older and passionate, are taking a road trip through small Canadian towns in search of information about the elusive poet, John Skennen.

But this sojourn is really through the Underworld, a tangential re-telling of the Orpheus/Eurydice myth . . . perhaps.

Along the way the men visit a town re-creating “Pioneer Days” with callous consequences, a town populated by the descendants of escaped slaves where everyone communicates in sign language, and a town where the religiously devout explore a magical field to talk to god. And there’s also a visit to the Canadian Sex Museum, with uncomfortable results for Alfie. The story gets stranger but more insightful as the men go on their journey. Throughout the trip the two men learn about how they feel about love, poetry, and their life’s purpose.

I liked it, and it gave me food for thought. I was sometimes bewildered but often charmed by the experiences of Alfie and Dr. Bruno. I don’t believe this is a book for a wide audience, but will hit the mark for readers that like a dose of philosophy and introspection with their reading.

Days by Moonlight explores racial inequalities, grief and mourning, and the agony of unrequited love with folktales, mythology, and magical realism. It’s a blend of harsh reality and stunning imagination and there are many surprises and observations that keep you turning the pages.

Many thanks to LibraryThing and Coach House Books for the advance copy.

 

The Binding – Bridget Collins

thebindingIn an alternative reality, there’s a way to get rid of bad memories . . . A binder can take anything you wish to forget out of your mind and bind it in a book, where it’s kept forever.

What a cool concept! I was ready to dive right in! And I was fully immersed ─ until the story ended up not being about binding at all. The idea of binding plays a role in the background, but the main plot is actually a romance.

This book is arranged into three parts:  Emmett Farmer’s apprenticeship to a binder, his backstory with his sister, Alta, and their mutual friend Lucian Darney, and finally the denouement with Lucian’s complicated involvement in the lives of both Alta and Emmett. Parts of the story drag on with little development, and the achronological presentation is somewhat perplexing at times.

At first I was a little miffed and felt misled, but everything comes together and the binding is relevant eventually. Even though I went in expecting a different story, The Binding was still quite entertaining and original, and I enjoyed it.

Many thanks to Goodreads and to William Morrow for the advance copy.