Monday, October 26, 2015

The Lake House by Kate Morton

The Lake House is the latest entry in Morton’s multigenerational fairy tale-like mystery/sagas. Her House at Riverton debut, The Forgotten Garden, The Secret Keeper, and The Distant Hours kept me awake long past bedtime and enthralled me with their evocative British settings. The Lake House is set primarily in Cornwall in a locale that Morton conjures hauntingly well. The Lost Gardens of Heligan near the Cornish coast which went to ruin after World War I and were restored in the 1990s were the inspiration for the gardens in The Lake House. Having been there, I can attest that she perfectly captured the aura and beauty of those gardens.

As the wealthy Edevane family celebrates their annual Midsummer ball at their isolated Cornwall estate in 1933, adored baby Theo is kidnapped from his crib. Theo is never found. Fast forward to 2003 when Det. Sgt. Sadie Sparrow, recently suspended for her rogue actions in a child abandonment case, escapes to her grandfather’s Cornwall cottage. Out jogging, Sadie discovers the remains of the Edevane mansion that she learns the family had abandoned after Theo’s disappearance. With nothing else to do, she begins investigating the unsolved case which leads her to Theo’s older sister Alice, who was sixteen at the time of the kidnapping.
“Alice was never happier, never quite as much herself, as she was here, sitting on the edge of the stream, toes dangling in the slow current; lying in bed before the dawn, listening to the busy family of swifts who’d built their nest above her window; winding her way around the lake, notebook always tucked beneath her arm.”

Elderly Alice, now one of Britain’s most acclaimed mystery writers lives in quiet seclusion in London and surprisingly meets Sadie and provides access to the estate. Why Alice wouldn’t return herself, is another mystery Sadie is determined to solve.

Sadie also discovers that Theo and Alice’s mother, Eleanor, the child who inspired the Alice in Wonderland-like character in a beloved children’s book, almost lost the family estate to creditors. Her newly-wed husband Anthony, however, inherited enough cash when a relative died in the Titanic sinking, so the estate was saved. The family’s happily-ever-after days ended when Anthony’s service in World War I left him shell-shocked and their adored baby was kidnapped giving credence to their sudden abandonment of the home. A raft of narrators move the tale from 1911 to 1933 and 2003 and back, yet Morton’s skills at plotting keep the reader engaged.

As the plot lines expand to include Sadie’s current abandonment case, the mysterious gardener Ben’s activities, family relationships, and other threads -- the multiple narrators keep the reader guessing and may ultimately frustrate fans of Morton’s previous tales. All these machinations lead to the book’s surprising conclusion complete with a twist that readers will either adore or condemn as contrived.

Summing it Up: Intriguing characters, a Downton Abbey-like setting, and clever twists will capture Morton fans from the novel’s beginning. Numerous plot lines interfere with the flow and the ending seems built on too many coincidences, but Morton still knows how to deliver a good, if perhaps just-a-tad-too-long story. I hope that Morton’s lush descriptions of The Lake House gardens inspire readers to visit the real Heligan Gardens and the spectacular Cornish region.

If your mother, aunt, or grandmother adores Morton, The Lake House is a safe bet for holiday giving. Morton’s publishers probably planned the late October release with shoppers in mind.

Rating: 3.5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Mysteries and Thrillers, Overcooked, Pigeon Pie, Book Club
Publication date: October 20, 2015

Author Website:

What Others are Saying:

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Lum by Libby Ware

I recently listened as a few women lamented about some recent historical fiction titles they believed contained contrived plots and indistinguishable characters. That is certainly not the case with Lum. This debut novel set in the isolated mountains of Virginia during the Great Depression has an intricate plot and an absolutely original main character. Called “Lum” because her brothers couldn’t pronounce Columbia, the title character is shuttled among her relatives. When the novel opens, Lum and her carpetbag are dumped at a cousin’s where she’s relegated to live outside on a porch in a miniscule room with a narrow bed and a wisteria vine that’s broken through a windowpane. Lum cooks, cleans, takes care of babies and the elderly, and is treated like an unwanted servant. In her valise, she carries postcards and newspaper clippings of “freaks,” carnival folks including bearded ladies, a dog-faced girl, and Siamese Twins.

When Lum was eight she was diagnosed with an intersex condition and told she’d never marry. As a child, boys pulled up her clothing and reported that she had a “wiener, small like a baby,” that she was like a boy. Lum found consolation in the cards she bought from Smiley, an African-American junk and moonshine dealer, who’d first shown her a card of a snake woman when she was in high school. That card told her that “she wasn’t the only one who wasn’t normal. Born funny.” Only Smiley knew that she still collected the cards. Between her cards, her love of the babies she’s attended, and her outstanding skills as a cook, Lum gets by.

Lum’s life begins to change when she gets a job caring for a cantankerous banker who’s ill. Their mutual love of reading leads to friendship and Lum finds an ally who appreciates her cooking and her intellect. 

At the same time, the federal highway commission starts scouting for land including Lum’s family farm where they plan to build the Blue Ridge Parkway. Lum’s brothers and others in the community don’t want to sell. Confrontations turn violent. At the same time, the new highway brings visitors to town and Lum may finally have a way to support herself without reliance on her family.

Summing it Up: Lum is a captivating novel about outsiders, race, a little-known part of our history, and the power of self-acceptance and resilience. Libby Ware writes with a charismatic Southern voice that will appeal to readers of Ron Rash, Lee Smith, and Wiley Cash. I read Lum from start to finish in one day and relished its fresh characters and take on history.  Grab the paperback original or download the novel on your e-reader, select it for your book club, and get ready for a rip-roaring discussion.

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Grits, Pigeon Pie, Book Club
Publication date: October 20, 2015
What Others are Saying:
Lum is an engaging portrait of a village in the Virginia Blue Ridge during the Great Depression. Lum’s courageous journey to selfhood is profound and moving, and a metaphor for the process of self-acceptance necessary for anyone who doesn’t fit into traditional social norms.”
—Lisa Alther, author of Kinfolks

“Libby Ware has written with a rich new southern voice and captured the dying art of storytelling in her debut novel.”
—Ann Hite, author of the award-winning Ghost on Black Mountain

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks’ skill at showing the convergence of history and religion through the lives of engrossing characters has endeared readers to her People of the Book, Year of Wonders, Caleb’s Crossing, and her Pulitzer Prize winner, March. Those readers will find a different style in The Secret Chord, a novel chronicling the life of King David. Brooks captures the tone and voice of the Hebrew Bible that documents David’s life and contains his songs (psalms). Thus, The Secret Chord is more like a prose poem or a lament that David or scribes of the times might have penned than it is similar to her previous work. That coupled with her choice of transliterated Hebrew names instead of the more familiar Biblical ones, makes the book disorienting and thus less accessible than her previous works. I found that my knowledge of the stories of David’s life told throughout the Hebrew Bible made it harder to read The Secret Chord than if I’d entered the tale knowing nothing more than the story of David and Goliath. Names like Schlomo (Solomon), Shmuel (Samuel), and Yishai (Jesse) who lived near the Yarden River (River Jordan) or in Beit Lethem (Bethlehem) left me confused as the map of the Holy Lands in my head interfered with my reading. Having to stop reading to determine who the Plishtim (Philistines) were before I could continue, made the novel move more slowly than I anticipated.

The prophet Natan (Nathan) narrates the book and as a fully developed and complex character he shows readers the ancient world where he lives. His insightful thoughts illustrate David's strengths and his weaknesses. Depictions of David’s singing and playing of the harp are also vibrant as in the calling of his play: “a soothing ointment on an open wound, or the binding that sets a broken bone back into its proper place.”

The Secret Chord is vividly awash in bloody battles, conniving brothers, manipulative wives, and raping and pillaging “heroes.” Brooks doesn’t hold back in her battle descriptions.
“at this skirmish we excelled ourselves in our brutality. Half crazed with grief and exhaustion, those whose wives and children had been taken fell on their enemies with a red frenzy. No quarter was given. Corpses were hacked apart, severed heads kicked from man to man till the faces were mashed like ground meat. . . David walked through the piles of defaced corpses, kicking aside body parts, his boots red to the calf, until he came to where the women and children were penned, roped together like beasts and lashed to pickets. He went to Avigail first, and slit the rope that bound her. Then he fell to his knees, his arms around her thighs, weeping. He was sticky with blood and brain matter but she did not regard it.”

Some readers may be surprised at Brooks’ depiction of David and Yonatan (Jonathan) as lovers. Mikal (Michel), Yonatan’s sister and one of David’s wives, notes
“It was as if one soul had been sheared in half, breathed into two separate bodies and then cast adrift in the world, each half longing to find its other. That was how they came together, or so it seemed to me, young girl that I was. I think they became lovers the night after the battle of Wadi Elah. Even though their lives had been different in every respect, they could finish each other’s sentences, they knew each other’s thoughts. I had never seen my brother so light and so alive as he was after David came to us. And that fed my love, also."

Summing it Up: Credit Brooks with the ability to conjure such a work, however, don’t expect it to be accessible or enjoyable. I expect that many who’ve read the narrative of David’s life and his psalms in the Bible will, like me, find little new knowledge and will also find the lush recalling of bloody battles and attacks less than inviting. The reviews are mixed so I’ve included links to several particularly for readers who may enjoy this book more than I did.

Rating: 2 stars 
Category: Fiction, Pigeon Pie
Publication date: October 6, 2015
What Others are Saying:

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

In this testament, written as a letter to his teen-aged son, Ta-Nehisi Coates attempts to explain what the false construct of race determines, what being considered black entails, and what it means to live a country where slavery and segregation have created mass inequities. Certain learned scholars have taken issue with some of Coates’ theories while others have called him a genius. Most agree that his words demand attention and that he’s an incredibly nuanced and exceptional writer. His genius is now literally acknowledged as he was recently awarded a 2015 MacArthur “Genius” grant. Regardless of how we see him, his sentence construction, insight, and tenor make the uncomfortable subject of race impossible to ignore.

In the early pages of the book, he notes, “I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.” He then addresses his son,

“I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this is the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot for browsing in a department store. . . And you know now if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. . . Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”

Some readers may wonder if Coates illuminates the problem too much; I assure you he does not, because his passion for the subject and his deep love for his son seize your attention and your heart. When Coates continues, his evocative words force the reader to look deeper.  

“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor – it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible -- that is precisely why they are so precious.  And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.”

The Atlantic where Coates is a national correspondent published an adaptation/excerpt from the book that I almost guarantee will make you buy the book. It has also devoted space in numerous issues to thoughts on this book. After you finish reading Between the World and Me, you may want to read these thoughts as I suspect that you, like I, will have had many conflicting thoughts as you wound your way through the book and seeing that others, too, were conflicted, will help you process this book that absolutely demands a second and probably at least a third reading. Also remember, as you read, that this book grew out of love:

“I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.  Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful – the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements.”

Summing it Up: I agree with Toni Morrison’s take on this book: “This is required reading.” Read it, then share it with others so you can talk about what we can do to hold ourselves to an exceptional moral standard. Coates doesn’t offer answers to how we solve this dilemma and that may frustrate readers. I’m grateful that he addresses our problems first and I hope that in forthcoming writing he’ll suggest solutions.

Note: Between the World and Me is on the long list for the National Book Award and is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Five Stars, Gourmet, Nonfiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: July 8, 2015
What Others are Saying:
The Atlantic: (This includes links to numerous other comments and reviews.)