Crossing Purgatory – Gary Schanbacher

 

519+0s8QlTL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

This is an amazing book, one that, after you read the last sentence, you close it slowly and hug it to your chest. It’s a steady, quiet story with strong ties to the landscape. It’s often categorized as a Western, but it’s so much more than that.

 

 

Set in the 1850s on the border of the frontier, Thompson Grey is walking west from Indiana to start a new life. He is burdened with grief from a recent tragedy for which he blames himself. It’s unclear if he’s leaving his home because he has no where else to go and nothing to stay for, or if he’s trying to outrun his memories. Along the way he encounters a wagon train  also traveling west to find new land. The leader is Captain Upperdine, who’s  interested in establishing commerce and trade in new towns popping up in the west.

Crossing Purgatory captures the harshness of the land, the cruel unpredictability of farming, the near-starvation in the fierce winters. The characters are stoic and taciturn, and the prose is sparse. There is a storm of grasshoppers, unrelenting danger of natives and thieves, and drought. The characters are trying to scrape by, and at the same time trying to overcome their pasts while planning for the future. Eking out a living on the Purgatoire River is test of faith and character.

Crossing Purgatory reads like a melancholy Steinbeck or a more coherent Faulkner. If you like introspective novels with strong character development and superbly-crafted writing, I recommend it highly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance – Ruth Emmie Lang

beastsWeylyn Grey has powers he doesn’t understand and can’t control. He can make hurricanes start up instantly, but has some difficulty stopping them; he can communicate with animals; he can make flowers and trees sprout up instantly and convince bees to overproduce honey. But what he can’t do is understand how to control these powers, often a result of his emotional state, and can’t ensure that his spontaneous climate outbursts don’t hurt the ones he loves.

Weylyn grew up as a lone boy in a wolf pack after his parents died in a freak blizzard. He’s blamed himself for their deaths, and this early trauma has guided his future relationships. Many people come in to Weylyn’s life not quite understanding the mysterious, inexplicable events that seem to occur when he’s around. The light-heartedness and charm of this book reminded me of The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs, which my daughter and I read together for a school project, but Beasts offers a little more substance for an adult reader.

Beasts is a story of innocence and love; it’s charming and full of magical imagery. I enjoyed reading it, but it never got my heart racing. It’s more of a gentle stroll of a story. One of the many positive aspects of this book is that it would be enjoyable for all ages of readers. It’s complicated and deep enough for an adult audience, but also full of enough wonder and magic for younger readers (middle school and above).

Many thanks to Ruth Emmie Lang for the advance reader copy!

We Are All Shipwrecks – Kelly Carlisle

 

4/5 stars – recommended memoir

Kelly was always told when she was growing up that where she comes from is what makes her who she is.

shipwrecks2

Raised by her grandfather, “Sir Richard,” and his much younger wife, Kelly believed for most of her childhood that her mother had been killed in a car accident. One day, just before a retired police investigator meets her family at a nice restaurant for brunch, she learns that was never true.

Kelly’s life is rife with half-truths and mysteries, many of them never completely understood until she was well into adulthood. Some relatives that were once prominent in her life no longer have anything to do with her, while others from her early childhood, not even related to her, keep their relationship for years. Her upbringing was unconventional, although she didn’t realize the degree of its unorthodoxy until she was much older.

Kelly grew up with her grandparents, living on a small houseboat in California. The boat dock was full of other run-down, barely-seaworthy craft inhabited by drug addicts and petty criminals. Numerous cats ran around the boat, Kelly had to know how to work pumps and mechanical equipment, and there was a constant fear of electrical fires. Despite her unease, she still had to get up for school every morning, often wondering if someone would show up to bring her home. She attended a private French school, was introduced to haute cuisine and literature by her grandfather, and yet they often barely had enough money to make repairs to the boat. She was embarrassed wearing her school uniform, worried that it made her look snobby around the almost-homeless people who lived around her.

What touched me about Kelly’s memoir is, although we had completely disparate childhoods, her interpretation of her surroundings as a child was very much like mine. She was often afraid of things that were beyond her control: people she loved getting sick, or those people leaving her. She was burdened with feelings of guilt when someone she loved, mainly her grandfather, behaved in ways that made her feel embarrassed or ashamed.

To add to the confusion and mayhem of growing up on the boat, Kelly’s grandparents’ main source of income came from running a porn store. Her childhood introductions to sex involved images of violence and domination, and her grandfather’s cavalier attitude to discussing inappropriate subjects only added to her bewilderment. The porn store had to be kept a secret from her peers, and she certainly could never bring friends home. The people in her life were unpredictable and often temperamental. Nothing, not even her house, was stable.

Despite the insecure and seedy environment in which she grew up, Kelly comes to realize that the denizens of the docks took on some of the responsibility of raising her, giving her the advice and love that she needed in their own way. And always lingering in the background was her mom, Kelly wondering about her likes and dislikes, her personality, if she loved her baby. This book was fascinating and tragic, funny and also wretched. Kelly’s story is unusual and insightful, a highly recommended memoir.

My thanks to Sourcebooks and Netgalley for this advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

The Best Kind of People – Zoe Whittall

bestkindofpeopleGeorge Woodbury is the greatest guy. In affluent, co-op food-store-supporting, Starbucks-gulping, small-town Connecticut, he’s voted Teacher of the Year, every year, at the elite prep school. He’s even a local hero, having once taken down a school shooter and saving students’ lives. Everyone loves George, and his self-sacrificing nurse wife Joan, and his grown son living in the big city, and his sweet daughter who attends the school.

Until four students of George come forward and claim he sexually assaulted them.

The most insightful aspect of this book is what it isn’t about. It isn’t about these four girls who claim to have been assaulted. It isn’t about the assault. It isn’t about whether George is guilty or innocent. It isn’t even about George.

This book is the tale of George’s wife, the shattering of her perfect marriage, the dissolution of the future she envisioned cushioned with trust fund money and easy retirement. It’s the story of George’s son, a once-closeted gay man who has to return to the hometown full of homophobes who bullied him into psychosis. This is the story of Sadie, George’s daughter, who once considered him her hero, and now wonders if she was deluded. Now the only certainties in her life are her passion for marijuana and a much older man.

The ramifications of these allegations don’t simply vanish after the trial. George’s guilt or innocence isn’t the issue at all. This book explores the lesser-known effects of the other victims of assault: the family members who are blind-sided with doubts about what they once held as truths.

Some reviewers complained that the ending left nothing resolved, but I disagree. The ending is true to life. Life goes on, people live through this, and have to live with this, for the rest of their lives. If George is guilty or if George is innocent, the ramifications of this ordeal remain. The doubts never go away.

I appreciated this exploration on the consequences of sexual assault allegations that extend beyond the accused and their victims. The writing is fast-paced enough to keep the readers’ interest. Occasionally, the clichés surfaced (wealthy prep school, small snobby town, organic food markets), and some editing might have reduced the repetitiveness of some of the anger and anxiety, but overall it was a good story, and worth recommending.

Many thanks to Random House Publishing, Netgalley, and the author for this advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

The Man-Booker Long List and What They Missed

For some reason, the Man Booker is still my favorite literary prize, and every year I await the release of their longlist selection with anticipation and glee. Some years they get it right, some years not quite, and they always overlook something spectacular. But fear not! I am here to shine the light on the darkness in my own special irreverent way. It’s my blog, and I can say what I want, so here you go.

Here are the books the committee thought were the bee’s knees in 2016:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate)
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury Circus)
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet)

I am chagrined that I’ve only read three of these, but Autumn, Swing Time, and The Underground Railroad (despite the nauseating over-hype) are also on my radar to read.. Some of these books I’ve never heard of, but plan to investigate.

Of the three I’ve read, only two really belong on this list:  Lincoln in the Bardo and History of Wolves. Not so much, Exit West. Why not, you ask? I think literary critics and prize committees focus too heavily on books of the non-British/American immigrant experience. Not to discount such literature, as many novels with topics in this area are eye-opening and important, but I think they’re often heavily weighted and are given a few too many bonus points. The topic is politically relevant, but in literature it’s also trendy, which I find off-putting. The market is saturated. Exit West is not without merit, but I’m not sure it belongs with these others on the list.

Exit West just doesn’t cut the Booker mustard. It’s fine. The writing is good, the premise is intriguing. Two lovers from an unnamed country at the outbreak of civil war flee their nation for idyllic lands and also maneuver through the ups and downs of their relationship as a couple. The description of the development of the civil war is genius, how it creeps so slowly that the city’s inhabitants almost don’t recognize its gravity until it’s too late to leave.

But  . . .

At a sparsely-formatted 231 pages, the book is so short as to inhibit character development. Even worse, there’s a glaring deus ex machina that is just outrageous. Every part of the book is viciously realistic, then all of a sudden there’s a left turn into sci-fi that only cheapens the brutal reality of the original story. How did this get an editor’s ok?

If you haven’t read the book, I’ll clue you in. It’s not a spoiler — I think it’s even mentioned on the jacket copy. The characters can just leave an undesirable place through special doors that transport them across the world. Seriously. Contemporary, politically-aware plot that jumps the shark.

Had there been other elements of magical realism in the novel, I wouldn’t have protested so much. But the doors are it. There is no explanation of this sudden supernatural location-hopping. I’m flummoxed. Going along, fascinated and terrified with the escalating war, concerned for the characters, and then wham! They just go through a magical door and instantly escape to Greece. Now the story is no longer real, no longer actually possible, and nothing matters to me anymore.

Definitely check out Lincoln in the Bardo and History of Wolves, as both novels have a lot brain food to offer.

I would be remiss if I didn’t complain vehemently that the committee completely shit the bed by not recognizing the brilliance of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I have no idea what they were thinking. Maybe they were suffocated with the influx of immigrant-experience literature. Maybe they fell through a magic door to Antarctica before they were done reading it. I don’t know. I see through you, prize committee. Look beyond the expected choices.

Sinful Folk – Ned Hayes

sinfulfolkimage

Set in medieval England, Sinful Folk follows Mear, a nun named Miriam disguised as a mute, old man. In Mear’s small village, five boys burned to death in a house fire, including Mear’s son, Christian. The fire was not an accident. The door was roped shut and the murderer has not been discovered. Mear and some village men decide to make the long trek to London to demand justice for their deaths, hauling the boys’ dead bodies in a cart behind them. Mear is going on the journey to discover her son’s killer, whom she believes may be one of her companions.

The historical detail and quality story-telling in this book was a surprise. I would categorize it as a historical thriller, though it’s not a swashbuckling, sword-fighting type of story. Sinful Folk is agonizingly suspenseful. It’s a slow burn, full of unreliable stories and questionable characters. It never lagged, never meandered, and I was riveted.

Along this journey we learn Mear’s backstory, why she is disguised, how she came to have a son, and why she can’t reveal her identity to any of her companions, even though she trusts many them with her life. The lives of these men are harsh. The winter is brutal and meat is scarce. It’s painfully cold, and the men are filthy and tortured with agonizing hunger. Every character is selfish, starving, and angry in their grief. The writing was above par, and the pacing was intense. I looked forward to reading this story every time I cracked the spine, and towards the end I eschewed chores, phones, and schedules to get to the end.

I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads because I enjoyed the entire book, not just the ending, or the middle, as is so often the case. I was full of anticipation to read it as it reached its close. The author’s attention to detail only enhanced the mystery of Mear’s story.

Sinful Folk is a hidden gem. I don’t give out 5 stars on Goodreads readily, and this book deserves the praise.

The Last Days of Night – Graham Moore

51LtIEPKA7L__SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

The Last Days of Night is the story of the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. Which of them actually invented the lightbulb, and who has the legal control to provide electric light to the nation? Is A/C power even safe? This is the argument between alternating current versus direct current, and though it might sound scientific and dry, this fight involves scheming, betrayal, and attempted murder. The story is told from the vantage point of Paul Cravath, Westinghouse’s greenhorn wunderkind lawyer, who’s still wet behind the ears but thrilled to take on the challenge of bringing down Thomas Edison, one of the most powerful men in the country.

While the story is interesting, it reads like a legal thriller. Bottom line, the book is entertaining and, in this particular case, informative, but in actuality most of it is just a series of events. You know the procedure: everything will be revealed in bite-sized pieces and it’s all going to turn out all right in the end. I enjoyed the unexpected twists, the events were exciting, and the research behind the story, especially what Moore manipulated for plot reasons, was very well done. It’s a good story, and one that I wasn’t familiar with. The Last Days of Night is an original legal procedural,  and there’s engaging fiction woven with true events and real people. I was on Wikipedia more than once chasing down my own research questions.

The Last Days of Night is well done; it’s just not my usual type of historical fiction. If you’re at all interested in the history of this story, or would just like to dig into a fun, fast-paced legal thriller, then this is for you. It doesn’t disappoint, and each chapter leaves you wanting to turn to the next page.

Many thanks to the author, Random House, and NetGalley for the copy in exchange for my honest review.