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Archive for the ‘Characters’ Category

JacketI wrote about the Western Into the Savage Country, which explores the idea of a man going West to prove himself worthy of his father and of a woman he wanted. Today’s book, Crossing Purgatory, explores a different reason for a man to go West: to escape a ruined life back East. It’s also set later in the 19th century, during a time when immigrants, would-be traders, and farmers seeking tracts of their own land set out into dangerous territory with little idea what to expect.

Thompson Grey is a successful farmer in the dark and deep soil of Indiana, but without the capital to expand his holdings. Returning from a trip to raise funds, he discovers that a tragedy has taken his entire family. Grey blames himself, and goes into exile. Along the trail and at the place he breaks his journey, he constantly drives himself with physical labor to blot out his terrible memories.

Almost by accident he attaches himself to a small party, each member of which has suffered tragedy or thwarted hope. Grey holds himself apart, but still becomes an accidental pillar of a group of homesteaders. Through his encounters we come to see the arbitrary nature of death, and the consequences of failure in the early West.

Although the Purgatory is a real river and a significant setting of the story, the river itself is only a stand-in for the searing examination of one man’s conscience and the torments he inflicts upon himself out of guilt. As we accompany Grey on his desperate journey of expiation, we come to hope that his self-loathing will give way to some form of acceptance and peace. But Gary Schanbacher’s storytelling and characters make that journey a difficult  and ultimately rewarding one for us.

Check the WRL catalog for Crossing Purgatory

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JacketAh, jeez – as with so much else we know, it ain’t so. If Horace Greeley ever said, “Go West, young man,” it was in the context of quoting someone else who said, “Go West, young man,” and that may even have been an attempt to create a Greeley-sounding quote. Whatever the case, for some it was advice many young men had already taken on their own. Among them were the trappers and traders who pushed into the Rocky Mountains to forge relationships or fight with the Native Americans over the lucrative fur business.

In 1820, William Wyeth is determined that he is going to make his fortune in the West and prove to his father that he is a man of worth. He signs on with a trapping company in the frontier town of Saint Louis and heads out under the guidance of an experienced captain. Thus begins his adventure, and it is a wild one.

Wyeth is also coming up against the consequences of the fur trade. The companies he works for are pushing the boundaries of American influence against the settled Spanish and the British and French trappers who have long considered the West theirs for exploitation. With each tense encounter, the possible causes of war increase, and some of Wyeth’s companions would not necessarily mind the consequences. And the success of the trade means that more trappers and traders want to get in on it, so resources are disappearing even as conflicts are building.

Burke takes the tropes of the American Western and turns them into a literary jewel. His beautiful depictions of the landscape, exciting details of hunting, trapping, racing, and close observations of both the white men and the natives he encounters become opportunities for Wyeth’s self-examination on the meaning of manhood. There’s also a satisfying love story, a complex antagonist who helps Wyeth determine his own course, and men who open Wyeth’s eyes to the complexity of the native cultures.  Into the Savage Country offers an old-fashioned Western feel and a wonderful coming of age story.

Check the WRL catalog for Into the Savage Country

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WinnieAnyone coming from Winnipeg is well aware that the most famous of all bears, Winnie-the-Pooh, was named after that Canadian city. Many people know that the real Christopher Robin visited the real Winnie Bear at London Zoo, but London is thousands of miles away from Winnipeg, so the connection back to Canada is not well-known, even to fans of the Bear of Little Brain. Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh sets out to change this grave lack!

For the youngest of readers as well as for the staunchest of fans the book does a wonderful job of capturing the amazing details of Winnie Bear’s life. It all started during World War I when a Canadian solider, Harry Colebourn, impulsively bought an orphaned bear cub when his troop train stopped briefly in Ontario. Despite the astonishment and doubts of his officers he promised to look after their new, small, brown mascot, named Winnipeg after their regiment’s home city. Harry was a veterinarian and his job was looking after the army’s horses and to his surprise Winnie fitted in well with the normally skittish horses. Harry’s regiment took Winnie along with them on their troop ship to England, but thought France would be too dangerous for the small bear, so Winnie lived out his days at London Zoo, as a bear so friendly that children were allowed to ride on his back.

Warmly illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss, this short book is a must-read for Winnie-the-Pooh fans of all ages. It is great for the whole family to share as older readers will enjoy the author’s note and pore over the historic photographs of the real bear and his real people. Very young Winnie-the-Pooh fans will be fascinated by the connection between their bear who is a toy and a real wild animal.

Check the WRL catalog for Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh.

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inside the obriensThe O’Briens are an ordinary Boston family. Catholics of Irish descent, they have Sunday supper together every week, and the four early-twenties children still live in their parents’ house. The father, Joe, is a life-long, dedicated Boston cop while mother Rosie raised the children and now works part-time. Into this steady but satisfying existence is thrown deadly, hereditary, debilitating, degenerative Huntington’s Disease.

Lisa Genova’s many fans will be thrilled to learn that she is back with another dramatic and wrenching tale of a family battling a disease. Like Genova’s first book, Still Alice, with its portrait of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, the disease portrayed here is entirely inherited. Children have a fifty percent chance of inheriting the genes from a gene-positive parent, but gene-positive people will always develop the disease. It is a cruel disease that some people don’t know they have until they get symptoms in their forties.

Huntington’s Disease drives the plot of Inside the O’Briens, but the deeper story is the love, strength and resilience of the O’Brien family. Keep the tissues handy for scenes when Joe is painfully aware of his own disintegration, such as when he stops being able to hug his wife because his chorea (involuntary movements) mean that he might hurt her.

Inside the O’Briens is a must-read for fans of Lisa Genova’s earlier books such as Left Neglected, as well as other compelling, but wrenching, family stories such as The Light Between Oceans.

Check the WRL catalog for Inside the O’Briens.

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AirthThis is a mystery which will appeal to fans of Charles Todd’s detective Ian Rutledge. Like Rutledge, the main character, John Madden, is a Scotland Yard detective struggling with shell shock in the aftermath of World War I. He is called to a small village in Surrey where an entire family has been murdered.

As he works with local police, he is bothered by the meticulous planning that appears to have gone into the massacre and starts to suspect that this is not the killer’s first murder. With help from the local police constable, the comely female village doctor, and an Austrian psychologist, Madden slowly develops a portrait of the suspect: a former soldier and psychopath who is escalating at an alarming rate. He has his next victim picked out, and Madden’s challenge is to find out who and where before it’s too late.

Although comparisons to Rutledge will probably draw Charles Todd’s readers to this title, there are major differences. Madden’s demons are a little more straightforward than Rutledge’s, and the overall atmosphere is more optimistic. Airth allows healing and happiness to dangle within his protagonist’s reach, whereas Rutledge’s fans often wonder when his creator is going to give him a break already.

The psychological aspects will also appeal to fans of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series.

Check the WRL catalog for River of Darkness

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surprisingly-lurid-thane-coverIf you’ve already read the Williamsburg series, you can have a good laugh at this cover, which has a very noir, “Philip Marlowe in Colonial Williamsburg” feel that is completely unlike the actual novels. (Let me take a moment to picture Humphrey Bogart in a tricorn hat… OK, moving on.)

Elswyth Thane’s old-fashioned family saga begins in our own home town of Williamsburg in 1771. Julian Day, a schoolmaster newly arrived from England, is a staunch defender of King George, but befriends St. John Sprague despite his views on colonial independence. As revolution approaches, Day’s loyalties conflict with his friendships, including one with Tabitha “Tibby” Mawes, a young girl he helps to raise from poverty to gentility. That’s right: they are enemies “even in love!”

May-December romances are a recurring theme of this series, so it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Tibby and Julian become the matriarch and patriarch of a family which the novels follow for generations. Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles, Ken Follett’s Century trilogy, and Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years” trilogy seem to be leading a return of great, multigenerational sagas, those books with family trees on the endpapers to help you remember the cast of characters. Elswyth Thane was there first, and her seven-volume series follows the entangled Day, Sprague, Murray, and Campion families on both sides of the Atlantic, from the American Revolution to the early days of WWII. (At the time Thane was writing, this was recent history.)

Genteel, involving stories, these novels are gentle reads: there is love and war, but not sex or violence. Their age (or mine) shows in places; the Civil War-era episodes have a Margaret Mitchell-like nostalgia for Southern plantation life that is not concerned with the system of slavery on which it was based. My favorite, Ever After, takes place during the Spanish American War and covers every highlight of romance and melodrama that one might wish: War! Journalism! Malaria! A locket hiding a portrait of a forbidden love! When I picked it up after a decades-long gap, I expected to find it less readable, but hours later I was still sitting in the same armchair, caught up all over again in doomed romance and tearful deathbed goodbyes.

Check the WRL catalog for Dawn’s Early Light.

The series continues with Yankee Stranger, Ever After, The Light Heart, Kissing Kin , This Was Tomorrow, and Homing.

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hausfrauPoet Jill Alexander Essbaum transits into the fiction genre with the precision of Swiss clocks and indeed Swiss trains — ushering in a new Madame Bovary, an Anna Karenina for the 21st century. Her name is Anna Benz, and she lives in Zürich with the Swiss banker she met in America.
“It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time.”
Anna doesn’t know how to drive her family’s car. She barely knows a soul beyond her mother-in-law, three children, and a few acquaintances; she maintains no contact with American relatives. Anna barely speaks German, endures life with no fire of spirit, and performs her duties as spouse and parent through unvaried routine, weekly circuiting her usual shopping points. Following initial bewilderment nine years ago, she has mastery over the intricacies of Zürich’s rail network. The author shows us Anna’s clumsiness occasionally, making her so real. She dresses impeccably, even fashionably— her clothes seem to me like an attempt at self-preservation–yet usually has no place to go, no plans, no one to see.
Anna was a good wife, mostly.
Anna has slipped into infidelity, incapable of suppressing the least suggestion by each man in a series of extramarital trysts. She fails to sever these liaisons against her better wisdom. Erotic reverie is a drug that distracts and pacifies her. The narration gradually reveals Anna’s mind, what she’s read, heard or wonders, her moods, her perception of others’ moods. Essbaum invites us into Anna’s hollow soul where we are initially uncomfortable yet intrigued, appalled yet sorrowed, anxious yet horrified at her inability to accept, embrace, or even experience a life many might feel grateful to live. Clearly, Anna withholds details from her Jungian analyst Doktor Messerli; yet, the reader glimpses truth in Anna’s actions, in a diary entry:
The utter sameness just drags on….I am beholden to my own peculiar irony: to survive I self-destruct….
Anna’s insightful internal voice show her to be intelligent, discerning, never oblivious yet she finds no will to extricate herself. Then, Anna remarkably makes a genuine female friend. Mary represents for Anna an unexpected opportunity to confide in someone trustworthy, to explore possibilities, but does she avail of it?
The accurate phrasing of painful emotions will have many readers relating easily to Anna’s psyche despite the fact that they’ll wish to shake Anna into shaping up and reviving herself from the mess she’s made. I absolutely loved its style of presentation, and its use of Swiss words intrigued me and enhanced the setting. Once you read the end, you realize how exquisitely tuned the poet author has made it and immediately return to the first page and begin it again, with Anna. I look forward to more good things to come from Jill Alexander Essbaum.
Check the WRL catalog for Hausfrau

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