Book Review: Revival

Five StarsI am in awe. I want to give this book more than five stars, but I don’t want to have to recalibrate my other reviews. Five stars mean I love it, and I loved Revival.

Revival is the first of Stephen King’s book I have read. After having seen several movies based on his books, I had concluded I wouldn’t enjoy his books. Horror stories just aren’t my thing. Thankfully, I recently read his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, in which he introduces readers to his thought process when deciding what to write about as well as tips to those who wish to become better writers. From it, I learned that King observes the everyday and ordinary around him and then figures out how to create a riveting story around them. I knew I wanted to read them, not rely on a Hollywood rendition of his stories. And now I know I want to write like him, too.

Everything about Revival delighted me. It’s the story of Jamie Morton, an ordinary six-year-old boy living in a small town in Maine, and Charles Jacobs, a young adult, a newcomer in town who arrives with his wife and young son to take up the vacant Methodist minister position at the church just down the road from Jamie’s home. Rev. Jacobs  introduces the boy to wonder, a metaphorical breathing life into him. Though tragedy strikes Jacobs, causing him to leave town after only three years, the connection between the two remains, bringing them together 30 years later and then again in another 20 years.

Initially King surrounds the story and characters with innocence and wonder, characteristics of an idealized happy childhood. But it is no fairy tale; it is simply a well-written story with just enough hooks and teasers to keep the reader turning the pages to figure out what sadness awaits Jamie as well as what in the world the title of the book means.

I had expected to read a horror story; eventually it appeared. But everything leading up to it kept me smiling in recognition of what the passage of time does to tease, punch, and kick us as childhood blends into youth and then into adulthood, middle age, and finally into that age King describes as “how the fuck did I get old so soon?” King includes just enough stories of love–first love, later lust, even a case of abusive love–to keep the larger story moving forward.

Revival is a story about relationships and what makes–or breaks–them, and why they are important to us. It is a story of love, dependence, independence, and redemption as well as including just enough mystery to keep the reader turning the pages to see what else is in store. King uses the analogy of cooking a frog by placing it in a pot of cold water and then gently applying the heat so the frog doesn’t notice the water getting warmer to explain Jamie’s transformation through the story. King does the same for his readers with the horror story in Revival. By the time the horror appeared, I felt satisfied, not shocked or frightened. I didn’t notice the water getting hotter at all.

Book Review: The Ivory Caribou

theivorycaribouFive Stars

Recently widowed Anne O’Malley undertakes genealogical research into her father-in-law’s past as a way to remain connected to her deceased husband, but she discovers instead an extended Inuit family eager for her to join them for a future that connects her with the past at the same time as it beckons her forward into a new life.

Caroline McCullagh has woven elements of mystery, romance, and cross-cultural adventure into this, the first in a series of novels with Anne O’Malley at their center. Anne is not a typical romance protagonist. She is sixty and was married for nearly forty years to Robby, her much older husband. Together, she and Robby prepared for Anne’s financial independence during what they anticipated would be Anne’s life on her own. In spite of the planning, two years after Robby’s death, Anne continued to cling to Robby’s memory instead of moving forward.

The book is well written and the story so compelling I couldn’t put it down. And it wasn’t just the story that kept me turning the pages. The cross-cultural details Anne learns when she encounters her extended Inuit family even gave me insights into my own Scandinavian background. For example, as I grew up in a Minnesota area largely populated by northern Europeans, my parents insisted that expressing emotion–whether positive or negative–was undesirable. I could describe that behavior to others, but I couldn’t explain it. In McCullagh’s novel, I learned this prohibition of expressing emotions is also a characteristic of the Inuit culture, a necessity because of the long periods of time all family members were confined to small spaces where even minor loss of control could spiral the family members to unacceptable actions. That explanation fits the circumstances of my Norwegian ancestors as well.

I know Anne’s story continues, and I can’t wait to read more.

  • Print Length: 283 pages
  • Publisher: iCrew Digital Productions (May 25, 2016)
  • Publication Date: May 25, 2016
  • Genre: Literature & Fiction, United States, Native American; Romance, Multicultural & Interracial

Book Review: The Emigrants

Four stars
theemigrantsEight adults, each for their own reasons, reach the point they feel abandoning their homes in Sweden in favor of enduring a treacherous sea voyage to New York is the only way to find a dignified life for themselves and their eight children. The sixteen featured emigrants joined more than sixty other courageous souls on a journey they knew almost nothing about for a new life in a land they had only heard of. They knew no one who had made the journey before. Many among them lost their faith, and some even their lives, before the small ship arrived in New York harbor.

Moberg’s The Emigrants brings the bleak conditions of mid-nineteenth century Scandinavia to life, uncovering the near starvation facing families whose ancestral homes had been divided into plots so small they no longer could support the same, or in many cases an even larger, number of people. While not mentioned in Moberg’s work, mortality rates in Sweden began declining in the latter half of the seventeenth century which contributed to the challenges. Intolerance of divergent forms of worship, societal shaming of non-conforming individuals, and unhappy marriages also contributed to the motivation of those earliest pioneers seeking a better life in North America. The first half of the novel painted a richly detailed landscape of the conditions, especially of the hunger the children faced and the pain those conditions brought to the adults who could not overcome the conditions that brought on the hunger.

The last half of the novel, describing the sea voyage and the disease and unhealthy conditions the travelers had to endure, was equally well detailed but felt a bit longer than I thought necessary, the reason I rated the book four stars, not five.

Having already read O.E. Rolvaag’s Norwegian trilogy beginning with Giants in the Earth, I was eager to compare The Emigrants to it. Moberg’s work is like a prequel to Rolvaag’s work, and since Sweden and Norway were ruled by the same monarch during the timespan of both author’s tales, I felt the circumstances that prompted both Norwegian and Swedish emigration were likely very similar. For anyone who wants to know more about the emigration/immigration of ancestors from Scandinavia, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly.

  • Print Length: 404 pages
  • Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press; Revised ed. edition (July 24, 2009)
  • Publication Date: July 24, 2009
  • Genre: Literature & Fiction, Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

Book Review: Wild Ginger

Three starswildgingerAnchee Min’s Wild Ginger relates a love story in the midst of turmoil told from the point of view of a teenage girl, Maple, who suffers at the hands of a bully, Hot Pepper, because Maple’s father was in a forced labor camp at the beginning of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. She meets the title character, Wild Ginger, when the latter joins her school class. Because Wild Ginger has “foreign” eyes and her father is half-French, she becomes another target for Hot Pepper, but Wild Ginger fights back and the bond between the two outcasts is forged.

Maple’s father is missing from her life because of his political crimes; Wild Ginger’s father is dead. Maple has siblings. Wild Ginger is an only child. Their mothers are left with responsibility to hold their two families together. Together they fight the injustice, but when Wild Ginger’s mother hangs herself, she loses hope.

In spite of the hopelessness of her situation, fortunes change when she is declared a heroine for discovering a group of unscrupulous men as they tried to divide up profits from thefts from a factory. As a result, she meets Mao after the newspaper headlines proclaimed that she acted based on following the teachings of the Chairman.

The story involves love of all types: best-friends-forever love between teenage girls, love of country, love of family, and first love. It also touches on the negative reactions to love: embarrassment, jealousy, envy, anger, betrayal, revenge. The book’s nearly storybook ending is satisfying on one level, but felt just a bit too tidy for a book aimed at an adult audience.

And that touches on what the biggest problem was for me. Because of the age of the central characters, initially I considered the book aimed at a young adult audience. The themes of bullying, friendship, and loyalty all seemed appropriate for YA readers. But as the love story that pitted Wild Ginger and Maple against one another for the love of Evergreen, the details were too graphic for a YA audience. Yet the story line, though complicated and touching on real political and psychological issues, offered too simple a path to satisfy most adults.

I have read other books by Anchee Min, more successful books based on historical characters, fleshed out using fiction techniques. Wild Ginger, when compared with Empress Orchid, disappointed me.

  • Print Length: 242 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (January 1, 2004)
  • Publication Date: January 1, 2004
  • Genre: Historical Fiction, Political Fiction

Book Review: The Genie Who Had Wishes of HIs Own

thegeniewhohadwishesofhisownMargaret Harmon’s 22 21st-century fables provide lessons about Five Starsgreed, hubris, jealousy, pride, procrastination, living through others, idealism, creativity, wasted opportunities, optimism vs pessimism, and the question of just what is success. Some are reminiscent of traditional fairy tales, especially three involving magic lamps and turbaned genies, “The Ingénue and the Genie,” “Freeing the Genie,” and “The Second-best Juggler in the World.” But none have the predictable ending our childhood tales have taught us to expect.

If the fables had morals–and Harmon insists even Aesop’s fables did not originally include morals until the Victorians, who feared children wouldn’t otherwise learn from them, added them–the likely moral of the first would be “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough,” of the second, “Appreciate every opportunity, especially those that benefit others,” and of the third, “Opportunities aren’t guarantees.” Well, those last three words are Harmon’s, from “The Second-best Juggler in the World.” So I’m certain she would agree with me.

While each fable tells an entire story, there are themes that run through many of them. Seizing the opportunity is a theme that applies not only to the three genie tales but also to others. “Two Young Farmers,” “The Snake in the Terrarium,” and my favorite, “The Track Team,” also deal with recognizing an opportunity or creating an opportunity or of missing out on an opportunity. In “The Track Team” Harmon contrasts three team members who agree there is a problem: their team keeps losing. And they agree something must be done. But each chooses a different solution, leaving the reader to decide which of the three is more likely to succeed. “Two Young Farmers” poses a similar situation, though the outcome is unambiguous: one farmer believes perfection must be found first while the other begins with what he is handed and creates his own opportunity.

One of the longest fables, “The Philanthropist,” presents the scariest of images to me. The title implies the central character is a success, having acquired so much wealth he can afford to give it away. But the moral of this fable involves the means more than the ends.

It may be several years yet before I can tell these fables to my pre-school aged grandchildren. I hope Margaret keeps writing fables to add to these by then.

  • Print Length: 226 pages
  • Publisher: Plowshare Media; 1 edition (July 31, 2013)
  • Publication Date: July 31, 2013
  • Genre: Literary Humor, Short Stories, Fairy Tales

Book Review: Deadly Little Secrets

Five StarsdeadlylittlesecretsIn Loren Zahn’s second Theo Hunter mystery, Deadly Little Secrets, her protagonist, sometimes freelance journalist Theodosia Hunter, agrees to help out an old flame, now a Catholic chaplain, Tony Machado. Father John Fairbanks, a priest, teacher, and coach years ago at St. Augustine’s, a private Catholic high school when Tony attended, was found murdered, with the word “rapist” written on the wall of the confessional. Convinced the word was an attempt to falsely smear Father John’s reputation, Tony asked Theo to contact a few of his classmates to get testimonials to Father John’s good character to include in his personal profile with the church.

Knowing Theo’s investigative instincts might take over, Tony warns that she stick to getting the testimonials, not try to solve Father John’s murder. She tries to follow Tony’s instructions, but people keep getting killed. Theo recognizes the connections that mean she must dig deeper in order not to become a victim herself.

Deadly Little Secrets is a well-written thriller with just enough tension and plot twists to keep the reader turning pages. Zahn introduces us to believable characters with flaws, imperfections, and aspirations that allow us to laugh along with them and care about them. I look forward to getting to know them better in other Theo Hunter novels.

Genre: Mystery, Women Sleuths
Print Length: 426 pages
Publication Date: September 22, 2015
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC

Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns

Five StarsathousandsplendidsunsDuring years of occupation by the Soviet Union and inter-tribal warfare in Afghanistan, two Afghan women of different generations and regions and very different socioeconomic situations find marriage to the same older man the immediate solution to stay alive when each loses her parents. But marriage brings its own problems, including brutal beatings by the husband for minor or even just perceived infractions of his rules. When their plan to leave him is discovered, both fear for their lives and realize they must take even more extreme action for the sake of their children.

Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns explores what it means to be a family. By placing the action in the context of thirty years of changing governments, political systems, and international sponsors, the novel also explores what it takes to develop a stable nation where rival tribal leaders undertake serial switches in allegiances in order to gain power.

Hosseini tells the story well, engendering sympathy for both Mariam, the love-child of a wealthy businessman in Heart and his made, as well as for Laila, the youngest child of an educated man in Kabul and his wife. It was well-paced for the most part, though the final section moved more slowly than I expected.

Genre: Literary fiction
Print Length: 379 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (November 25, 2008)
Publication Date: November 25, 2008
Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC