Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Answer Creek by Ashley Sweeney

Answer Creek might well have been called Ada Persisted as it portrays the perseverance of a 19-year-old woman traveling cross country in 1846. Ada Weeks was orphaned at eleven and taken in by undertaker Augustus Vik and his wife Inger in Noblesville, Indiana. When Augustus decided to head west, Ada went along joining the Donner party (yes that Donner party) in Independence, Missouri. Ada is a fictional character, but Sweeney, the author of the engaging historical chronicle Eliza Waite, accurately captures the actual sojourners who made up the infamous Donner group. This is not novel about the salacious aspects of that crew, instead, it shows the hardships the entire caravan faced when half of the travelers followed what they thought was a shorter southern route that took them through the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the winter. The joy of this novel is that it shows how Ada handled the privations and loneliness of such a trek while allowing herself to experience love.

Early in the trip, Augustus and Inger and their wagon and belongings were lost in an attempt to cross a teaming river rather than wait for the ferry. Ada had already crossed with her two mules, her clothing, and a small sack of belongings so she was alone with almost nothing.
“First, and without warning, she lost her parents, the ma and pa who tried their best to raiser her. Then, in a flash of mud and panic, she lost the Viks, the mamma and papa who took her in after the fire. She is, as Scripture says, well acquainted with grief.
Now she’s tagging along with a family of Irish Catholics like a poor postulant, although she’s not Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopalian, like many in the westering party (and she’s certainly not a Morman ­­– Captain Boggs would have seen to that). What she is, is ambiguous. She’s got a rocky relationship with God, and for good reason.
Ada shades her eyes as the sun fades below the wide, western horizon. It’s the close of another long, scorching day and she’s tuckered. She rambles into camp, stakes the mules, and pauses before going to help with supper. By now, the sky is awash with copper and salmon and gold. She inhales, holds her breath and exhales. That there can be such beauty and such sorrow in one life is perplexing.”

In the story, Ada is taken in by the Breen family, actual members of the Donner Party. The fictitious Ada cares for the Breen’s many children and assists in endless chores. Ada is smart, resourceful, and imaginative so seeing the trip through her eyes makes history burst into Technicolor. Ada notices everything and loves seeing the changing landscape. Sweeney describes her life simply:
“Ada turns her head toward the east like a wild sunflower seeking warmth. The sun has edged over the hills with long, slanted rays. It promises to be another hot day here at the end of the earth and the beginning of the earth, with a sky wide enough to hold all the constellations at once. It’s arguably the most perfect spot Ada has ever seen. And tomorrow they will pull up stakes and move on out of here, west, west, always and ever west.”

“After supper, she marks the sun’s descent until all that’s left is a golden glow above the horizon. Like clockwork, the lustrous gold quickly dissolves, sliding into apricot, into rose pink, into violet, and then, after five minutes of deep amethyst, settling into a dusky, dull grey. Twilight lasts deep into the evening. At last, all’s that left of this day are the blue-black shadows of rounded, distant bluffs under cold, flickering stars.”  

Ada and her companions end up spending 124 days in a remote, mountain cabin without heat in the middle of winter. In her cabin, they eat blankets and shoe leather and Ada always persists and her grit and intellect even under the direst of circumstances offer insight and wisdom:
“Dyin’s gonna get us all in the end, one way or t’other, she thinks. But dyin’s not the hardest part. Livin’s a  lot harder than dyin’ any day.”  Answer Creek and Ada’s persistence is just what readers need as they stay at home and lament the lack of Clorox wipes, yeast, and flour. While the novel briefly portrays the cannibalism of other members of the party, it conveys those actions without sensationalism so the emphasis on the courage of Ada and other characters takes center stage.

Summing it Up: Read Answer Creek for an accurate and evocative portrayal of life on a wagon train heading west through the mountains in 1846. Appreciate it for its well-researched chronicle of the Donner Party. Celebrate Sweeney’s recreation of the landscape, the privations, and the persistence of a bright woman on her own. Historical fiction loving book clubs will want to select Answer Creek for a spirited discussion.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: May 19, 2020
What Others are Saying:
“…when readers get a glimpse of her past, her intelligence, and her courage, they will weep for her. Her story is not the Donner story; instead, Ada is every pioneer woman who accomplished more than she ever thought possible and survived.” Booklist
“Sweeney immerses the reader in the time and place, giving a brilliant picture of daily trail life, particularly from a woman’s perspective….Stronger still is Ada’s character development. Always scrappy and resourceful, Ada develops grit and determination on the trail that serves her well….Sweeney deftly gives readers a feel for the horrible choices some members of the Donner Party had to make and is careful to preserve the humanity that is too often removed from histories…” Historical Novels Review
The author is a master of vivid descriptions, dragging readers along every wretched mile of the trail, sharing every dashed hope and every dramatic confrontation, with Ada as their guide. Ada is a marvelous creation, twice orphaned and both hopeful and fearful about a new life in California, the promised land. And savor Sweeney’s prose: “Hope was what used to fill our cup, Ada thinks. Now we are down to dregs.” A vivid westward migration tale with an arresting mixture of history and fiction. ” Kirkus Reviews

Monday, May 4, 2020

Mother's Day in the Time of Quarantine

It may not be the merriest month of May, but there are still great books to be read and mothers to be celebrated.  Let’s get to it and look at books in a variety of genres that you will want to purchase for your mother, aunt, grandmother, helpful neighbor, or even for yourself for Mother’s Day.  In alphabetical order by the title they are:

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg offers a wry glimpse of a family with big secrets and is not a book to give to a “Hallmark card” grandmother. This 2019 winner may not be about a perfect mother but it’s some story. Father Victor is on his deathbed in a New Orleans hospital and daughter Alex, a lawyer in Chicago, hopes to get her mother to tell who Victor really is. She knows he’s a bad man who physically and mentally abused them while making money nefariously. “If I know why they are the way they are, then maybe I can learn why I am the way I am,” she says. Her mother Barbra, a woman obsessed with her own beauty, loves her father and ignores the rest of the family. It’s dysfunction junction with heat and lush writing. I agree with Kirkus that Attenberg is “the poet laureate of difficult families.” I want a sequel. G/S, BC

Answer Creek by Ashley Sweeney won’t be out until May 19, but you can preorder it and let your historical fiction-loving mother know that it’s on its way. Answer Creek follows the Donner party across the desert and mountains in 1846. Strong on research and the real story, it focuses on Ada, a fictional heroine who survives despite the lack of food, water, and boots. Imagine spending 124 days in a remote cabin in the winter without heat and subsisting on shoe leather. Ada persists and her grit and intellect offer insight and wisdom. Sweeney’s landscape portraits equal that in her stellar debut Eliza Waite. I’ll publish a complete review on the publication date. GPR/SN, BC

The Child by Fiona Barton is the second of Barton’s stellar thrillers told from the point of view of a detective, a reporter, and a person of interest in the crime. If your mother hasn’t read her first thriller, The Widow, and she loves twisty, psychological suspense, you might want to give her both The Child and The Widow. The Child is a compelling story about the discovery of the skeleton of a baby at a building site and of a grieving mother who wants to know what happened to her child. It might not be a typical Mother’s Day read, but once you’re hooked on Barton, you’ll want to read all three of her novels featuring newspaper reporter Kate Waters. GPR, BC

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano shares the story of twelve-year-old Edward, the only survivor of a cross-country flight that killed 183 including his parents and older brother. Moving between the hours of the flight before, during, and after the crash and Edward’s recovery and life in the years after the crash, the novel compassionately illustrates how we become whole and care for one another. It might have seemed like an unlikely read for a pandemic, but it offers both hope and escape. Edward is one great character. GPR/SF, BC

Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston is nonfiction for the fiction lover. It shows how living on a remote, 120-acre homestead in the Colorado Rockies healed Houston. Written as an almanac of her life, it’s filled with observation and introspection. This is a woman who loves the earth and shows the reader how that love became possible. Her parents were such drunks that she’d been in sixteen totaled cars before her sixteenth birthday. Her father had abused her and she needed to find a way to restore her soul. She found it in nature and beautifully shares her discovery. Her words are keeping me somewhat sane as I shelter in place. She’s an exquisite chronicler of our world. G/SF/SN, BC

Hello, Summer by Mary Kay Andrews comes out tomorrow and it’s what the beach-read-with-a-mysterious-twist reader will want. Andrews, the Queen of the Beach Read, delivers a fast-paced novel about Conley who left her Florida beach-town home where her family published a small newspaper for the lights of Atlanta and journalistic success. Ten years later when her new position in New York falls through, Conley heads home to visit her grandmother and falls into investigating the death of a congressman under shady circumstances. She clashes with her sister who’s trying to keep the family paper afloat by appeasing the community so she can sell ads. Quirky characters, a touch of romance, and attempted murder will keep Mom flipping the pages. D

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende begins in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War where Victor, an army doctor saves lives as his own brother dies leaving his unknowing pregnant widow Roser escaping into the Pyrenees. When Victor finds Roser, they enter a marriage of convenience so they can escape on a ship chartered by poet Pablo Neruda that’s taking refugees to Chile. The two build a life with their “son” and the novel expertly shares their story along with the changes in the coming decades in Chile under Pinochet. Beautiful characters share love, hope, history, and exile. GPR/PP, BC

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha is much more than simply a great psychological, suspense-filled thriller, it also affords a look at our divided, unequal society. Based on the real life killing of fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins in 1992 by a Korean woman who was convicted of manslaughter but never sentenced to serve a day in prison, Cha takes the anger, fear, grief, and guilt of the families involved and transforms them into a masterpiece of a novel about human nature. Shawn, the cousin of the murdered girl, is a 40-year-old black man who served time and now lives a life of hard work and devotion to family. Grace Park, the daughter of the woman who killed his cousin as he watched 24 years previously, is a pharmacist in her parents’ store who didn’t know about her mother’s crime. Seeing things through both their eyes is brilliant, unsettling, and informative. G/GPR/SF, BC

Image credit:  https://www.redbubble.com/i/poster/the-one-where-we-were-quarantined-mothers-day-2020-gifts-by-AmzaShirt/46780580.LVTDI  Available as a print or teeshirt.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

Redhead by the Side of the Road is Anne Tyler's twenty-third novel and it’s quintessentially Tyler with a quirky protagonist, a wry slice-of-life view of a chaotic family, an abundance of quotidian details, redemption, and the joy of the unexpected. Micah Mortimer is a self-described tech hermit who fixes people’s computer woes. He lives a carefully constructed life.
“He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone. At seven fifteen every morning you see him set out on his run. Along about ten or ten thirty he slaps the magnetic TECH HERMIT sign onto the roof of his Kia. The times he leaves on his calls will vary, but not a day seems to go by without several clients requiring his services. Afternoons he can be spotted working around the apartment building; he moonlights as the super. He’ll be sweeping the walk or shaking out the mat or conferring with the plumber. Monday nights, before trash day, he hauls the garbage bins to the alley; Wednesday nights, the recycling bins. At ten p.m. or so the three squinty windows behind the foundation plantings go dark. (His apartment is in the basement. It is probably not very cheery.)”
Micah is in his early forties and he mops his floors on Mondays and has specific tasks for each of the other days of the week. His routines leave little room for surprise yet, as always in Tyler’s novels, the unexpected finds and upends him when Cass, his “woman-friend,” is threatened with eviction and his response to her dilemma threatens their relationship and when the college-age son of an old girlfriend appears at his door thinking Micah is his father. He isn’t, but Micah misses clues that might have helped him better address their situation.
Some readers have questioned whether Micah with his devotion to detail might have autism spectrum disorder or another disorder — to me he does not; instead he’s Everyman, my husband and many men I know. These men may not hide behind overly cautious rituals, but a plethora of them still miss seeing who the redheads in life actually are and are struck dumb when cues they don’t see derail relationships. Micah gets along well with his clients and the other residents of his building. He appreciates kindness and practices it himself. His actions show his connection to others, yet it's not always a connection that he nurtures with intentionality. Tyler presents Micah as a detached and distracted man of the twenty-first century. Everyone of Tyler’s novels could be titled Ordinary People, but this one also hints at Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus as Micah often fits in the category of a modern man missing the clues right in front of him.
Anne Tyler’s characters show you who they are without unnecessary embellishment so she delivers in 178 pages what it takes most writers over 300 pages to express. In those 178 pages that I gobbled down in one afternoon and evening, Tyler created a world I’ve pondered much longer than it took me to devour her words. I hope I won’t walk down metaphorical streets or travel familiar routes again without considering what I’ve been missing about the redheads by the side of the road that cloud my vision. 
Today, as every day in the last 45 in which I’ve sheltered in place, I’ve wished this strange pandemic quarantine would end, but on this day I particularly want it to end so I can glance across a table at a friend and talk about Micah and life. 

Summing it Up: Redhead by the Side of the Road is vintage Anne Tyler. It, like Saint Maybe, another of my favorites, introduces a male character who subtly captures the reader with an unanticipated combination of oddball compassion and decency. In an uncertain world, Anne Tyler’s twenty-third novel offers grace, simply grace. In Redhead by the Side of the Road, Tyler shows her readers that even in darkness, light can shine. Read this wonder of a book for yourself then select it for your book club as you'll want to discuss it.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club
Publication date: April 7, 2020

What Others are Saying:

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Hid From Our Eyes by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Hid from Our Eyes: A Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne Mystery by Julia Spencer-Fleming is out today. This is a short review to let those of you who adore this series (and I'm one of you) that this the ninth in the series is available today to ease your quarantine blues. My review is short because I don't want to include spoilers.

If you haven’t read any in this series, start with In the Bleak Midwinter and you’ll soon race to read all nine. Clare is an Episcopal priest in a small town in the Adirondacks. Russ is the Chief of Police and their town is considering turning over policing to the State Police when a murder that mimics two unsolved possible homicides -- one in 1972 and one in 1952 -- threatens to reduce confidence in the local squad. Issues including PTSD, treatment of women, and sobriety make this book more than a clever romp. Clare has personal concerns that I can't share as they'd ruin the series for those who haven't yet read the earlier books. The problems of her job and her life are overwhelming though. The local minor characters in this series never disappoint the reader. These books are simply perfect for our times. I found the ending a touch too tidy, but I loved revisiting Clare and Russ and look forward to seeing what happens next.

Summing It Up: The Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mysteries offer a clever premise, interestingly flawed characters, a fascinating small town, and plots that always deliver. Begin with In the Bleak Midwinter unless you've read the others. If you have, you won't need encouragement to begin Hid From Our Eyes immediately.

Rating: 4 stars    

Category: Chinese Carryout, Fiction, Grandma's Pot Roast, Soul Food

Publication date: April 7, 2020

What Others are Saying (Don't read these if you haven't read any books in the series.):
 "Series fans have had a long wait to dive back into Spencer-Fleming's cleverly constructed mysteries, and this ninth entry (following Through the Evil Days, 2013), which delivers a haunting exposure of the town’s dark side, won’t disappoint." —Booklist

Publishers Weekly: https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-312-60685-5