Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

Virgil Wander is a phenomenal book. I adored Enger’s Peace Like a River and thus approached Virgil Wander with some trepidation. Could it be as good as Peace or even as good as his fine second novel So Brave Young and Handsome?  The answer, my friends, is that it’s much like a third child. It’s as different an animal as heredity and environment (and the same writer’s pen) will allow, yet that child is every bit as cherished as were its siblings. Virgil Wander is an entirely different novel than Peace was yet both tell a captivating story and feature engaging characters that linger with the reader long after the last page is turned.
Virgil Wander begins on the day of Virgil’s release from the hospital after suffering a “mild traumatic brain injury” upon rupturing a safety barrier on Highway 61 along Lake Superior during the season’s first snow and making a “long, lovely, some might say cinematic arc into the charming lake.” 

The only way to fully appreciate the joy of this novel, is to read some of Virgil’s musings as well as those of even the minor characters so ponder a few words from the first pages when Virgil’s neurologist predicts many possibilities for Virgil’s recovery and “Most welcome was his prediction that language would gradually return. Not that I couldn’t speak, but I had to stick to basics. My storehouse of English had been pillaged. At first, I thought common nouns were hardest hit, coffee and doorway and so on, but it soon became clear the missing were mostly adjectives. “Don’t worry, everything will come back,” said Dr. Koskinen. “Most things probably will. A good many of them might return. There will be at least a provisional rebound. How does this make you feel?” I wanted to say relieved or encouraged or at least hopeful but none of those were available.” . . . He was correct about the language, though. Within weeks certain prodigal words started filtering home. They came one at a time or in shy small groups. I remember when sea-kindly showed up, a sentimental favorite, followed by desiccated and massive. Brusque appeared all by itself, which seemed apt; merry and boisterous arrived together.”
Virgil lives in an apartment above the Empress Theater which he owns and operates on an occasional basis. He’s also the town clerk, a part-time job that helps pay the bills. Virgil is primarily a wanderer as his name implies and he leads his readers and his neighbors on a ride as ordinary as running a film reel and as wild as riding the back of a sturgeon. 

On the day of Virgil’s release from the hospital, Rune, a Norwegian stranger, enters the “bad luck town of Greenstone, Minnesota” where he meets Virgil at the waterfront. Rune arrives in Greenstone in search of the son he’s only recently learned he’d fathered. Said son had been a minor league pitcher who’d once pitched a perfect game, attracted interest from the majors despite his Mark Fidrych-like inconsistencies, married, had a son, and then vanished in his flimsy plane over Lake Superior. Eccentric Rune makes and flies kites. They’re kites that most adjectives, even the ones Virgil's recovered, can’t begin to describe. Rune’s kites allow him to get to know the townspeople and his grandson as they fly them together beyond reality. Through Rune’s eyes, the reader sees the town and its residents uniquely. 

With a touch of Enger’s signature magical realism and plot details that conjure the mysterious, Virgil Wander is much more than a quirky character-driven ode to the Northland. It’s also a siren song of the need to find a place where you matter and to push the envelope when that place starts to disintegrate. The seductive appeal of the minor characters never distracts from the story thus allowing the reader to fall under mythical Greenstone’s spell. 

Summing it Up: Read Virgil Wander to enter the magical realm of a quirky, middle-aged man who’s rebirth after an accident offers the reader a view into a northern landscape where ordinary people act in mysterious ways.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Sushi, Book Club
Publication date: October 1, 2018
What Others are Saying:
“The focus of [Enger’s] bright and breathing third novel feels mostly like life itself, in all its smallness and bigness, and what it means to live a good one.”Booklist (starred review)

Virgil Wander is a fast-paced, humorous and mystical novel about hope, friendship, love and the relationship between a two and its people.”BookPage (top pick)

“Surprises and delights throughout; definitely worth waiting for.”Library Journal (starred review)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Harbor Springs Festival of the Book is this week!

The third annual Harbor Springs Festival of the Book extravaganza begins this Friday at 11 a.m. Over fifty brilliant and talented authors will be reading, speaking, appearing on panels, signing autographs, and even cooking Friday, Saturday, and Sunday! Once again we feature a debut novelist whose book is longlisted for the National Book Award. This year it's Brandon Hobson whose Where the Dead Sit Talking evokes an eerie quality that allows the reader to enter the world of Sequoyah, a 15-year-old Cherokee boy whose mother is in prison. Several children's and young adult authors including Newbury Award Honor recipient Gary Schmidt will speak.  Mystery writers, poets, novelists, cookbook authors, and award-winning nonfiction authors will be speaking and reading.

I have the privilege of introducing the sixteen authors who will read from their works at the Soup & Stories events on Friday and Saturday from 11 to 1. I've read all sixteen of their books and attendees are in for a treat. Hobson will be reading from Where the Dead Sit Talking on Friday as will Rene Denfeld, author of one of the most atmospheric and authentic novels I've read recently.  Her The Child Finder is a novel that everyone who reads it exclaims "Wow" after finishing. We'll also introduce the Good Hart Artist Residency's first writer in residence Bryna Cofrin-Shaw who'll read at 11:30 on Friday 

The Saturday Soup & Stories features young adult and children's authors, nonfiction authors and two fine novelists. Porter Fox, author of  Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America's Forgotten Border, will kick off the readings at 11. The events begin at 9 a.m. on Saturday with multiple programs and venues throughout the day.

Find the full schedule and synopses of each program here: https://www.hsfotb.org/2018-schedule/. If you're anywhere near northern Michigan, this is where you'll want to be this weekend.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Hard Cider by Barbara Stark-Nemon

Hard Cider visits that time in many women’s lives when the empty nest prompts a reassessment of life. After fertility treatments, adoption, and intense involvement with rearing her children, Abbie Rose is ready to explore new options. Her emotional attachment to the land near her northern Michigan vacation home calls her to the possibility of pursuing a new venture. Many years previously on a teacher exchange program in London, Abbie fell in love with hard cider and visited cider makers in England. Now, she’s falling for the idea of creating her own cider from hard cider apples growing near her retreat on Michigan’s Leelanau peninsula.

Facing concerns and some opposition from her husband back in Ann Arbor and from her children including son Seth who says, “Okay, I get it,” Seth said. “You’re into apple cider. But last time I checked, you didn’t know how to work with a spreadsheet. Now you’re talking about starting a business.” As Abbie addresses family concerns and her own thoughts, she meets a mysterious new resident who makes everything she’s ever known a quandary.

It would do this novel a disservice to describe the secrets revealed as Stark-Nemon carefully discloses them allowing each character to absorb only what’s required. The secrets shown and the doubts encountered offer a universal portrait of marriage today. This is a novel for women searching for meaning after their children are grown.

It’s a novel of love with exquisite word pictures of the beauty of northern Michigan in all seasons. “Winter hit hard and fast in the second week of December – not unusual for northern Michigan, but still catching off guard those of us clinging to the pleasure of the mild weather that had lasted through Thanksgiving. The snow had begun four days earlier – a mass of roiling clouds that blew in off the lake, accompanied by plummeting temperatures. The first icy onslaught had whipped around in the wind, stinging unprotected cheeks and eyes like needles. Then the front had settled over the peninsula and dropped a foot of snow in twenty-four hours. After another day and several more inches of fluffy white stuff, the storm had passed, and this morning had dawned clear, sunny, and frigid.

The lake no longer pounded out rhythms to the falling snow, and the softened fields, laced tree branches, and muffled sounds combined to create a winter wonderland that never failed to thrill me. No snowbird behavior for me; I loved northern Michigan in the winter precisely for its harsh beauty and isolation. Short days and long nights brought me inward, forcing a welcome shift to indoor work with my hands, reading, planning, and dreaming.”

Creative women will appreciate how Abbie Rose knits as she spends contemplative time sorting out her problems. Knitting brings her into contact with other characters she might not ordinarily meet in the isolated area and it serves as a metaphor for the way lives can be knit together through careful attention and hard work.

Summing it Up: Reading this novel is like sitting down for a cup of tea and conversation with women who share their lives and support one another. Read Hard Cider to escape into the life of a woman who thinks and plans before acting on the challenges coming at her.

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: GPR, BC
Publication date: September 18, 2018
What Others are Saying:

Story Circle Book Reviews - "This is a book about how families shift and change, always, and how we learn to accept those earthquakes."

Monday, September 17, 2018

Across the Great Lake by Lee Zaharias

Across the Great Lake introduces Fern, a five-year-old girl on a winter voyage across Lake Michigan on a railroad car ferry in 1936. While her mother lies at home in bed after the death of her second child during childbirth, Fern’s father, the ship’s captain, takes her on the ship despite the risks of such a journey. Fern’s voice is one this reader will long remember. There are only a handful of books that feature such an authentic child’s voice. Zacharias captures the fear, joy, wonder, honesty, and imagination that inhabit childhood. Fern is precocious yet she’s in no way precious, cloying, or cute. She’s quite simply herself and that alone makes this a delightful novel. Still, that isn’t half of what this gem offers. It’s packed with the fascinating history of northern Michigan ferries, shipwrecks, icebreakers, and all things nautical. It also offers the best of literary novels with foreshadowing and pacing that roar toward the anticipated, yet haunting conclusion.

Chapters narrated by Fern as a widow in her eighties bring the reader back to the present and keep Fern’s childhood voice fresh. The adult Fern demonstrates the universality of looking back upon our lives while pondering our deficiencies. Zacharias has a masterful way of making the reader feel that she is Fern looking backward in time.

Fern’s description of the car deck and her reason for wanting to visit it shows her use of word pictures. (Note: Manitou is the stuffed bear she named for the Manitou islands and the name of her father's ship.) “What I wanted to see was the caboose. Sometimes when you watched a freight train go by, the man in the caboose would come out on the little platform in back and wave, and I thought I would like to stand on that platform and wave too. I could wave good-bye to all of the people in Frankfort who were going about their business just like always on a cold winter day, trying to dig out their cars or shoveling their steps or walking to the butcher or grocer or maybe just visiting. Billy Johnson might be making a snowman in the yard that was just the other side of the big wooded lot between our houses. Or maybe he was coming through the woods with his sled so he could ride down our long, steep driveway, and he might wonder where I was and why I didn’t come out to play, and he wouldn’t know that I was on a boat, that I was on a boat and a train both at the same time, and that I was going to sail all the way across the lake just as soon as we got out of the frozen harbor, and even Manitou, whom I had left in the observation room, got to go, and Billy didn’t.”

Fern’s five-year-old fascination with the time zone change in the middle of Green Bay makes her believe that it was “five o’clock and four o’clock at the same time because if the line ran right down the middle of the ship, it would be suppertime only on one side of the table.” When the bosun spoiled her fun by telling her that time didn’t change on a ship, she realized that “made sense because my father would wear his pocket watch out if he had to reset it every time the Manitou crossed the lake.”

Alv, a fourteen-year-old boy on his first journey, is another beautifully imagined character. He’s “different” and thus bullied by the crew, yet he’s kind and caring with Fern. He lives across the bay in Elberta which isn’t quite as nice as Frankfort where Fern lives. Later Fern realizes that perhaps their worlds weren’t that dissimilar having “the many colors of sand and sky and that transcendent stretch of sweetwater sea that lay between us and the edge of our world, most of all the rhythm of the waves coming home day after day, night after night, all that would have been there for him just as it was for me. For all I know he too might have remembered his childhood as happy.”

When the crew encounters severe weather and other difficulties, Zacharias makes the journey as exciting as that shown in the best of sea-faring adventure novels. This book is the real deal. The author is also an acclaimed photographer and her eye for detail shows in the word pictures she conjures.

Summing it Up: Across the Great Lake introduces Fern, a genuine character that readers will long remember. Fern’s voice will capture those longing for a literate, historical novel packed with action that offers enchanting characters and a poignant ending.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: GPR/PP/SN, BC

Publication date: September 18, 2018

Author Website: http://leezacharias.com/

What Others are Saying:

“One of the most intensely written and beautifully conceived novels to come my way in many a season. I will be thinking about these characters for a long, long time. Seldom have I read a story with so much life on every page. Zacharias is a master.”  Steve Yarbrough, author of The Unmade World

”Lee Zacharias is one of those profoundly rare writers, a natural. Her voice is one you can trust, and her characters are real, moving, and come from the experience of someone who knows what trouble human beings get themselves into.” Craig Nova, author of The Good Son

An astonishing novel of high intelligence and moral rigor. Lee Zacharias is a master. . . Like Harper Lee and Marilynne Robinson, Zacharias reminds us of the lasting power of childhood.” Elaine Neil Orr, author of Swimming Between Worlds

Monday, April 30, 2018

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

Paula McLain captured the world’s attention with The Paris Wife, her novel about Ernest Hemingway and his first wife Hadley. She mined gold in her exceptional portrait of Beryl Markham in Circling the Sun. She’s returned to Hemingway and this time portrays his third wife, journalist and author Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn met Hemingway in Key West then covered the Spanish Civil War alongside him in Spain in 1937 where they fell in love. They moved to Cuba where they restored a villa and created a writing life together. During this time Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls and became as famous as his novels. While in Cuba, Martha worked on her own novel while yearning to return to her journalistic roots. Living in Hemingway’s shadow wasn’t an existence she could always reconcile with ease. 
“I have these other sides of me, too, and I’m not always sure how they fit together or even if they can. I want to be passionate about things and feed my mind and travel the world. I’d rather be darkly and dangerously happy, like living on a knife’s edge, than lose my way and forget my nature.” 

Love and Ruin is a sensitive, yet exhilarating view of the couple’s life together. It shows how much they loved each other and wanted to make a complete life together. It also highlights how their passion for their writing and his depression and drinking led to periods of ruin that threatened and eventually led to the end of their marriage. 

While the novel focuses on Gellhorn and Hemingway’s life together, it’s most compelling when it illuminates Gellhorn’s remarkable achievements. The work she did highlighting the effects of the Great Depression on ordinary Americans, which led to her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt when she was just twenty-five, helps the reader understand that Gellhorn was already a successful journalist and writer before she met Hemingway.

Reading about Martha Gellhorn disguising herself as a stretcher-bearer and going ashore during the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach, where she was reported to be the only woman among the 150,000 men on that beach, offered a fascinating view of what women journalists faced in the 1940s. The glimpses of Gellhorn's career as a war correspondent and her interest in and compassion for the stories of the people she met were the most fascinating aspects of the novel. McLain captures Hemingway’s drinking, depression, brilliance, and pettiness so well that I sometimes found myself wanting to escape him for Gellhorn’s more exciting activities. Still, I appreciated McLain’s ability to tell both their stories and to reflect the truth of their lives and their relationship.

Summing it Up: Read Love and Ruin to learn the remarkable story of journalist and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Enter the lives of Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway as they fall passionately in love and watch them as they learn to live and love together. Gellhorn led a remarkable life and this novel illustrates it well.

After you read the novel, visit McLain's website to view photographs of Gellhorn and Hemingway's time together.

A personal note: I was particularly intrigued by Gellhorn’s work as a journalist and war correspondent for Collier's magazine in the 1930s and 40s. At the time, my great uncle was President and Publisher of Collier’s. In the spring of 1939 my mother, then seventeen, accompanied her aunt and uncle on a two-month trip to London and Paris to keep her aunt company while her uncle presided over almost daily meetings between the Duke of Windsor and author Sax Rohmer, who was interviewing the former king to write his story for Collier's. The following year as Martha Gellhorn wrote for Collier's, my mother started her freshman year at Sarah Lawrence College and frequently visited her aunt and uncle at their nearby home in Bronxville, N.Y. In my imagination, my mother might have met Gellhorn when she came through the city. My mother’s stories of her European trip and of her year at Sarah Lawrence, often visited me as I read Love and Ruin.

Rating: 4 stars   

Category: Fiction, Pigeon Pie, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: May 1, 2018

Author Website: http://paulamclain.com

What Others are Saying:


“Wonderfully evocative. . . . [Paula] McLain’s fans will not be disappointed; this is historical fiction at its best, and today’s female readers will be encouraged by Martha, who refuses to be silenced or limited in a time that was harshly repressive for women.”Library Journal (starred review)

Friday, April 27, 2018

You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly

Charlotte’s dad is in the hospital and her “best friend” is ignoring her. Ben’s parents are getting a divorce and he’s being bullied at school. Only a writer with Erin Entrada Kelly’s insights and talent could make middle school anguish feel real, humorous, poignant, and engaging. Kelly’s Hello Universe just won the Newbery Award. It’s outstanding and I loved it, but You Go First tops it. This is a book that will capture thinking preteens, especially those who don’t see their own lives as perfect. It’s also a book that teachers and parents will value because it will help them help the kids they love.

Charlotte and Ben met via an online Scrabble game. She’s twelve, lives near Philadelphia and is lonely especially now that she’s afraid that her dad might die and there’s no one to talk to about it. Ben’s eleven and he lives in a small town in Louisiana. He's lonely and is being physically bullied at school. Just as he’s entering a new school where his interest in presidential history and Harry Potter isn’t appreciated, learning of his parents pending divorce leaves him confused and isolated.  Both Ben and Charlotte are brilliant outsiders trying to survive middle school. They’re also kids who care deeply about words and the way they love learning and using words is both clever and endearing.

Readers quickly become a part of Ben and Charlotte’s burgeoning friendship. With alternating chapters expressing each of their points of view, the reader quickly gets to know and care about them. You Go First celebrates friendship and the new ways kids form friendships online before they even consider actually talking to each other. The book also shows the importance of family, especially for outsider kids.

It’s been awhile since I read a children’s book that kept me up past my bedtime. (I love my sleep.) You Go First is so fast paced that when I finished a short chapter, I’d think – just one more and soon I’d read THE WHOLE THING. Kudos to Harper Collins for offering this excerpt with the first 33 pages of the book. Once you or your favorite nine to twelve-year-old read it, you’ll be hooked and may find yourself begged to download the book immediately.

Summing it Up: You Go First is a delightful charmer filled with humor and compassion. It’s a perfect book for every kid who doesn’t exactly fit in – and that’s probably most of them. Buy this book for caring kids and teachers and parents who love them. Teachers who used Wonder in their classrooms will want to share this one.

A personal note: I had the privilege of introducing Erin Entrada Kelly for her reading at the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book last year. Erin told me that her mother lives in a convent in the Philippines and even though Erin isn’t particularly religious, her mother’s influence colors her work in a variety of ways.  I think readers will see that in You Go First through her compassion for her characters and in the way they treat each other.

Rating: 5 stars   
Ages 9 to 12
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Peanut Butter and Jelly, Book Club
Publication date: April 10, 2018
Colby Sharp’s video review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6quAMxgywwY
What Others are Saying:
“Kelly knows her audience well and uses Ben and Charlotte’s alternating points of view to capture moments of tween anguish with searing honesty. ...Heartfelt and hopeful, this novel will encourage young readers to offer their hand in friendship to kids who, just like them, might be struggling.” — School Library Journal (starred review)
“Readers will undoubtedly see themselves in these pages. ...A well-crafted, entertaining call for middle schoolers to find their voices and remain accountable in shaping their own social spheres.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A delicate look at friendship, bullying and coming of age. ...You Go First is a brilliant follow-up to Entrada Kelly’s Newbery winner Hello, Universe, and challenges readers to rethink the rules of friendship.” — Shelf Awareness (starred review)
“The link between the two main characters becomes a subtle bond that enables each one to make it through an emotionally challenging week and come out stronger. Readers drawn by the intriguing jacket art will enjoy the novel’s perceptive dual narrative.” — Booklist
“With character-revealing prose, Kelly holds readers’ attention as the narrative moves back and forth between her two fully realized protagonists and their intricately drawn home and school settings.” — The Horn Book
“Kelly writes with sympathetic gravity of young people who feel lost in a world where they thought they knew the way. ...Readers will be glad to see that both [Charlotte and Ben] will manage to remain themselves and be okay.” — Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

Sunday, April 22, 2018

World Book Day

If you’d like to broaden your horizons and read more books by international authors, the next two days are the perfect time to pursue your goal. One of my favorite of all the web-based newsletters and organizations is Words Without Borders https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/ It was there that I learned about a free promotion honoring World Book Day which is tomorrow (April 23).
In honor of World Book Day, Amazon Crossings is offering nine free international books to download on a Kindle or via a Kindle app to your tablet or other device. You may download as many of the free titles as you wish as long as you do so by Tuesday night, April 24. https://www.amazon.com/article/read-the-world?ref_=apubna_pr_wb_10006_nd_1_1_1804
While I’m an advocate of shopping at independent book stores, I also believe that stretching your reading choices and getting something free from Amazon isn’t a terrible idea. Reading some of the titles might even make you stop at a real brick and mortar store to look for more.