A River So Long by Vallie Lynn Watson

Watson tells the story of Veronica’s life after her marriage, during the year she comes unraveled, in brief vignettes—scenes scattered like buckshot or blood splatter. Although the nature of Veronica’s job is never clear, she travels frequently to conferences and meetings. Nearly all the scenes take place during one of these excursions. Either she travels all the time or these are the only times she considers herself alive. Her husband is only a shadowy, alcoholic figure stranded in Veronica’s past. Instead of focusing on her home life, Veronica moves from man to man (and the occasional woman is alluded to): a work colleague, several old friends, one of whom she has never been physically close to but with whom she seems to be either in love or obsessed—both of them are familiar with the tragedy of her parents’ lives and deaths, an old boyfriend and his adopted sister who is also the object of Veronica’s strange obsession and with both of whom she shared a defining sexual encounter. The staccato beat of the scenes is mesmerizing, dropping the reader from one pivotal moment in Veronica’s life to the next as her life spirals slowly out of control. Watson’s writing is precise and expert. Scenes of Veronica’s nameless longing as she watches barges drift down the river from a hotel window unspool as meaningfully as her discussions with her various partners and friends whom she visits in a circular, dizzying pattern of need. A River So Long is a lyrical, seductive read to be savored, and one that, more than likely, will reveal even more depth of character and an even greater cleverness of scene patterning upon rereading.

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The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel

Gavin is a newspaper reporter who loses his job. Gavin is not perfect, but he does mean well. He becomes obsessed with a photo that may or may not depict his daughter—she looks a lot like Gavin’s own sister and she is supposedly the daughter of his long-lost high school girlfriend. So ten years after leaving for college, Gavin returns to his hometown in steamy, humid, perpetual summer Florida. Along the way, the reader also becomes privy to the past lives and choices of Gavin’s gaggle of high school friends, namely those belonging to the Lola Quartet, their musical group. The Lola Quartet boasts some lively characters whose subsequent choices shaped their lives and the lives of those around them in ways they could never have predicted. Jack heads out to music school but fears he’ll never have “have the music” the way truly talented musicians do. Daniel helps a friend in a desperate situation that turns into a ten-year nightmare for everyone involved. Sasha’s life fizzles due to an addiction (or a sickness—the novel neatly debates whether her particular addiction is something she can control or if it is a sickness that will always try to control her). Sasha’s little sister, though not part of the quartet, instigates the novel’s most complicated mystery and helps unwittingly unravel the lives of nearly everyone around her. Mandel’s writing is lyrical and mesmerizing and can be compared most easily to that of Kate Atkinson in her ingenious use of character-switching and time-swapping throughout the narrative. The Lola Quartet is part thriller, part mystery, and all literary fiction of the highest order.

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The Gilly Salt Sisters by Tiffany Baker

In Baker’s sophmore outing (after The Little Giant of Aberdeen County), she builds a story around a small New England coastal town and three incredible women whose lives are rooted in the earth. Jo and Claire are the Gilly sisters, born to a life working the salt marsh, tied to the evanescent, magical properties of the salt itself and its ability to foretell the future and save or ruin lives. Both of their lives are marked by tragedy as they grow older, one a physical tragedy and the other a hidden, emotional tragedy. Their lives are altered, too, by the town’s favorite son, Whit Turner, who seems to love them both in turn, but keeps much to himself as well. Into this complicated world of salt and secrets comes Dee, a motherless teenager with a tendency to follow where she is beckoned by handsome, charismatic men. The narrative is reminiscent of Alice Hoffman in its tendency to harken to the fantastic in the everyday. Baker has written a lovely, lively, engaging novel about strong women and their choices and how their ultimate loyalties lie with the land and each other. The ending, however, in which a character makes an unfortunate mistake and several others suffer the consequences (nicely foreshadowed earlier in the book), then is rewarded with everything she ever wanted, provides a complicated, if unsettling denouement to a harshly beautiful novel.

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Sabrina’s Window by Al Riske

Joshua breaks Sabrina’s window at the novel’s opening. As recompense, Sabrina asks him to do odd jobs around her house. A friendship of sorts develops between them, a complicated interplay of sexual tension and mother-son-like interactions as 17-year old Joshua looks to thirty-something Sabrina for advice on women and dating and simultaneously, almost reluctantly, fantasizes about her. Sabrina is exactly the kind of self-possessed, mature, sexy woman a young man craves (for a variety of reasons) as he navigates the treacherous vagaries of teenage girls. Conversely, Joshua is just the sort of blank slate an older woman must interact with cautiously. As each of them explores a succession of partners, their inexplicable friendship carries them through. Sabrina is torn between a kind and generous man and her free-wheeling, cheating ex—deluding herself that her pursuit of passion could ultimately lead to happiness. Joshua’s dilemma lies between his first serious girlfriend who wants to see other people and the tomboyish fellow reporter who makes her interest in him very clear. Although Sabrina provides only limited but useful dating advice and Joshua seems to pay off his window-breaking debt with constant chores, the two lean on each other despite rumors and friends scandalized by their relationship. Riske writes of a New Mexico that feels both familiar and foreign—the flavors and the landscape provide a rich and exotic backdrop to the story. His nuanced, subtle novel has much to share about relationships and art and the power and strength of friendships throughout our lives.

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Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim

Mattie is a slave living on a plantation before emancipation. When Lisbeth is born to the mistress of the house, Mattie’s own son is still a newborn, so she is sent inside the house to be wet nurse to baby Lisbeth. A beautiful and loving relationship between Mattie and Lisbeth blossoms and continues throughout their lives, complicated by the nature of their positions within the household and Mattie’s love for her own husband and children. As Lisbeth grows she is taught how the world works for people of her status, but as she matures she begins to see the flaws in her world and the violent inequalities between her life and the life of Mattie. Both Mattie and Lisbeth face tremendous heartbreaks and decisions that change the shape of their worlds on their road to a lovely but bittersweet final chapter. Ibrahim writes with great tenderness about the delicate, emotional nature of the love a woman bears for a child she nurses and raises but did not birth, and the all-consuming love and need a child (and even a grown woman) holds for the woman who raised her even if that woman did not birth her. Yellow Crocus boasts an incredibly realistic birth scene—this should not be surprising, as the author is a doula (a woman who assists a laboring woman in childbirth). Ibrahim has infused an historical novel with genuine feeling while tackling complicated relationships in such a difficult time with courage and heart.

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The Last Song by Eva Wiseman

Isabel, a young woman living in Spain in 1492 at the dawn of the Inquisition, must face her true origins and embrace a new destiny for herself and her family. The secret of Isabel’s Jewish past is revealed very early in the book and she accepts it and learns to love it with only minimal reluctance. Although betrothed to a sneering noble, she finds herself drawn to the son of a silversmith who, more than her parents, helps unlock the secrets of Judaism for her. Isabel is a bold and brave heroine and an excellent role model for the young adult audience. Wiseman’s period details and writing are both excellent. A disturbing plot point revealing a key figure in the Inquisition to be of Jewish descent smacks of the pernicious anti-Semitic propaganda that Hitler was also of Jewish descent–a dangerously ironic falsehood that poses the ultimate Jew-hating question “who could do such terrible things except another Jew?” Aside from this unsettling plot device, the book tackles serious issues like a daughter’s obedience and a family’s obligation to survive in a terrible time while going light on the death and torture. The Last Song is a lovely novel whose characters face an impossible situation with candor and grace.

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The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

Lynnie is a mentally disabled girl with the misfortune of having been born at a time when people like her were routinely sent to live in institutions. Homan (or Buddy) is a deaf black man who, when caught by the police after a crime, is considered “feeble-minded” due to his inability to communicate and is also sent to the same institution. Since no one knows his name, he is called 42. Lynnie and Homan fall in love and, as the novel opens, a pregnant Lynnie and Homan escape and seek refuge in the home of a retired teacher. They are tracked down and separated that same night, but Lynnie’s daughter is kept secret and raised by the old woman who took them in. The ways their separate lives unfold afterwards provides the basis of the novel. The nearly forty year journey back to each other is backgrounded by massive changes in the way the disabled are treated and the eventual closure of the institution. Simon writes with expert knowledge of people like Lynnie and Homan (her sister was never put in an institution and was the subject of SImon’s first book “Riding the Bus with My Sister”). She gives her characters strong, memorable voices and complicated inner lives. The novel never dips toward sentimentalism, but rather remains a character-driven, thoughtful story of sometimes brutal, sometimes hopeful places, difficult choices, and enduring love.

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