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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Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

Carmen gets married in the country in the 1970s. After the wedding, her brother Nick, her sister Alice, the groom’s sister Maude, Nick’s girlfriend Olivia, and a singer named Tom all leave together. Olivia is driving even though she and Nick are high, Alice and Maude are in a sexual daze, and Tom is thinking only of himself when they hit a little girl running across the road in the middle of nowhere. The little girl dies, but her memory is carried by each of them, and Carmen, through the next several decades of their lives. The novel is told through three perspectives, the siblings: Carmen, Alice, and Nick. Each one faces guilt and grief over the girl’s death in different ways: Carmen through activism and parenting, Alice through her art as she climbs toward fame and her consuming, blind passion for Maude whose own grief surfaces in strange ways through her relationships, and Nick through his devotion to Olivia, but even more through his devotion to the numbness of being high. Alice’s story is the most compelling as she wades through mixed feelings for Maude and a hopeless, lovely communion with what she thinks is the spirit of the dead girl as she paints the lost girl over the years in situations and ages she will never reach. As with all families, the three siblings grow closer through tragedy and need and slip apart as their lives become altered by their choices—but never far apart. The novel explores the myriad ways in which those united by tragedy find ways to cope with grief and guilt and loss and hope. Anshaw’s prose is smooth and assured, calling to mind Jennifer Haigh and Alice Hoffman. Carry the One is a moving portrait of how a moment of tragedy can transform altered lives into loss or meaning.

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Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

If the main character of Grave Mercy, Ismae, were only a few years older, this book could have been marketed as adult historical fantasy. As it is, Ismae is a teenager in 15th century Brittany, but in her time, as France threatens to overtake Brittany, Ismae and the young duchess (who is only twelve years old) are already considered adults. Ismae’s mother tried to abort her, so Ismae bears the mark of Mortain, one of Brittany’s old gods, the god of death. A convent devoted to Mortain takes Ismae in and trains her in their complicated sect. Part spy, part assassin, part nun, Ismae emerges from the convent on a mission requiring her to pose as Gavriel Duval’s mistress. The web of treachery, betrayal, and lies covers all the characters and Ismae eventually sorts the threads out and discovers how to follow her god-given instincts, all the while helping to save her kingdom from behind the scenes. The novel is excellently written, never bogged down in the complex history it reinvents. The plot is adventure, romance, and life story all in one—in short, a tale well told. So often young adult books purport to show young women how to be self-reliant by giving them stories about violence or meekness while ignoring the subtleties of mercy and strength of character. Not so here. With Grave Mercy, LaFevers has written a protagonist who is courageous and smart, passionate but careful. LaFevers boils down a sophisticated historical and political time, adds a dash of fantasy, and concocts a delicious and heady brew of superb storytelling and captivating characters.

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Arcadia by Lauren Groff

In Lauren Groff’s magnificent novel, Arcadia is a hippie commune. We follow the story through Bit (“little bit of a hippie”), first child born as the small community settles on its homeland soil, before they rebuild the old mansion in which all will live together, while every family still lives in buses. Bit is a sensitive, quiet, observant child. The story is broken into four segments, four slices of Bit’s life. First he is five, newly aware of the world, freshly injured yet concerned for his mother, Hannah, who sinks annually in a winter depression, aware also of the strength of heart and purpose of his father, Abe. Next, Bit is fourteen, now aware of his own body, conscious of the people around him, the overcrowding of Arcadia, the loose social structure beset by wild recklessness and social turmoil. Then we see Bit as an adult, now living in the city, as close an approximation of the hive of commune life as he can find, raising his own daughter. Last we are with Bit and his teenage daughter as he struggles to cope with his aging parents back in the place where he grew up. In a nice symmetry of sections Bit’s daughter is five and fourteen in the final segments just as Bit was five and fourteen in the first segments. In this, Lauren Groff’s second novel after Monsters of Templeton, the burgeoning talent dazzles with literary mastery. She is adept at capturing the intimate, the sacred moments of life and awakening, Bit’s compassionate view of his parents, and his sense of self as a member of the community, his realization that the power of books is not just the text but the people behind each tale—their lives reflected in their stories. My only familiarity with communes are the stories told by Ina May Gaskin about life on the Farm in her book Spiritual Midwifery, and Arcadia has the same tone and feel—the reliance on hard work, the toil and selflessness, the joy of sharing and building lives together, the pitfalls of growing too large. Groff’s novel Arcadia is suffused with bright, piercing descriptions and emotions that can turn on the knife’s edge of a word. Her nuanced and subtle writing demonstrates that for Bit and the readers, family and community are not just places but the people we keep in our hearts.

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The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich is a lovely tale of an inventive and resourceful Jewish midwife named Hannah. The novel opens with a Christian count requesting Hannah’s assistance at the difficult labor of his wife. The generous count and his kind wife, Hannah herself and her fallen sister all balance delicately along the social spectrum where religion is concerned. Throughout the story, the author teaches about the subtle and not so subtle politics of religion in Venice in 1575. The message of the time is clear—Jews and Christians should not mingle. Relations between the religions are strained and at times deadly. The threat of violence overshadows everything. The novel is therefore much more compelling because each character breaks that social rule and in doing so becomes a different person. While Hannah lives with the consequences of assisting the count’s wife, her husband, Isaac, attempts to survive as a slave while hoping a ransom will be paid to the pirates who captured him. Both Hannah and Isaac are caught in desperate situations: each face despair and death while trying to figure out how to reach each other, both are treated inhumanely because of the religion, and both must use their wits to escape and make a new destiny for themselves. Rich’s writing is easy and fluid, her characters compelling and real, while her period details place the characters and the reader in a turbulent and violent time filled with surprising compassion and hope.

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Girl Reading by Katie Ward

The seven stories contained within Girl Reading by Katie Ward all feature artworks of women or girls reading. The art itself ranges from a 14th century triptych to a photograph to a pencil sketch to a futuristic sensory experience: the culmination of all that came before. While the first four stories are graceful, poetic, and, in many ways, startling and moving, the last three are also lovely and reflect aspects of the earlier stories in meaningful ways. As each of the first four stories unfolded I found myself believing each to be my favorite in the collection. So naturally, the second, third, and fourth are each my favorite for a different reason. The second features a 17th century deaf girl who is servant to a painter who takes his inspiration from her in an unexpected way. The human aspects of the characters–the deaf servant, the household’s eldest son, the bitter second son–all are thoughtfully written. The third story surrounds an 18th century artist visiting the home of a recently bereaved and consequently somewhat crazed and depressed friend. The nature of the bereavement unspools slowly while the cause is left mysterious. The power of the character’s grief is written with compassion and understanding. The fourth story reminds me of the best 19th century ghost stories and also of Edith Wharton’s excellent short story “Roman Holiday.” The twins at the center of the tale are very different creatures who share a unique ability. Each story nicely describes the time period about which it is written. Like a delightful sampler plate of delicacies, each has its own taste and flavor and sentiment. Exploring the original works of art online is a pleasure (where they exist!), but the novel can be savored even without the accompanying pictures. Katie Ward’s delightful and beautifully written novel is worth reading and sharing.

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The Last Nude by Ellis Avery

In 1927 Paris, Rafaela becomes model, muse, and lover to Tamara de Lempicka.

Rafaela Fano is only looking for money to buy a dress for work when the glamorous Tamara de Lempicka hires her to model. The painting, La Belle Rafaela, causes a sensation as the two become lovers. A new Paris opens for Rafaela, a world of lesbians and bisexuals, of artists and the wealthy, of secrets and betrayals and spies. Rafaela’s turbulent, emotional affair with Tamara changes both of their lives. Avery’s previous novel, The Teahouse Fire, was set in 19th century Japan. It was an intimate story of a changing world told through one woman’s eyes. The Last Nude is just as magnificent, and also epic yet personal. Both are glittering, smoldering novels of a woman and a world poised for change. Rafaela’s earnest, hopeful naivete and fresh beauty neatly foils Tamara’s brash, brusque worldliness, her uncaring and staged glamor. Avery writes, as usual, with a light, lush brilliance. Although slim, the novel rockets from chapter to chapter as the reader passes each emotional plot point. Visit http://www.tamara-de-lempicka.org for the startling, bright, remarkable works of the real Tamara de Lempicka. Many of the pieces are described in the novel with delicate, precise descriptions of technique as Rafaela poses for Tamara.

The Last Nude is a luminous, gorgeous novel of art and passion set in late 1920’s Paris.

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