Book Review: Sumerland

Five StarssumerlandIn Sumerland, M. Lee Buompensiero tells a fascinating tale that makes the case that family secrets are best uncovered and allowed to breathe. When secrets are stifled, the results are often worse for those the secret-keepers imagine they are protecting than would be the truth. This is the case for Kate Post, Sumerland‘s protagonist. The tension Buompensiero creates kept me turning pages and wishing for more when I reached the end.

After her parents die suddenly, Kate learns she has inherited a grand house from her mother, a house neither she nor her father knew anything about. The need to make decisions about the house, including whether to keep or sell it, keeps her in San Diego, away from her San Francisco home, longer than she expected. So long, in fact, that she begins to notice ghostly visions in the house that both repel and intrigue her, especially after she discovers a scribbled inscription in the sidewalk, under a bush, with initials, a date, and the misspelled name, Sumerland. Long enough also to meet Jack, whose presence further complicates her decisions.

Kate’s curiosity about both what led to her mother’s acquisition of the house that had for most of the previous 30 years had been a rehabilitation hospital for veterans and the ghostly images that interrupt her sleep lead her to discover family secrets that bring her together with family members she didn’t know she had at the same time as answering questions from her childhood that she never dared ask.

• Genre: Ghosts, Teen and Young Adult, Teens
• Print Length: 270 pages
• Publisher: Grey Castle Publishing
• Publication Date: July 27, 3016

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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: A Paris Apartment

aparisapartmentA mystery inside a mystery. April Vogt, Four starsContinental furniture specialist with Sotheby’s, gets the opportunity of a lifetime when the Paris office requests her assistance to assess the contents of a Paris apartment that had been closed for 70 years. Full of incredible furniture finds, as well as an unknown painting by Giovanni Boldini, the contents promise an exceptional auction. Then April finds journal entries of the woman who walked away from the apartment 70 years ago, Marthe de Florian, a 19th-century courtesan whose life intersected with many of the turn of the 19th-to-20th century Parisian personalities and her estimates of the potential auction proceeds skyrockets. But she can’t convince those in charge to follow her suggestions.

In addition, April is uncertain of the state of her marriage and is attracted to the lawyer for the apartment’s beneficiary who plays a key role in getting access to all the journal entries as well as to the woman who wants to sell the contents.

Gable’s story is full of all the key plot twists and turns authors are instructed to include, on two levels: April’s life as it plays out in the novel as well as Marthe de Florian’s in the journal entries. Maddeningly for April, the journal pages provide an incomplete picture of Marthe, leaving her convinced she needs to learn more in order to persuade her bosses to set up a special auction of all the pieces instead of breaking up the collection to add individual pieces to several general auctions. Or does she simply want to satisfy her own curiosity?

Gable’s story is intriguing, all the more so because its premise is real. The real life Marthe de Florian walked away from her Paris apartment at the beginning of World War II where the furniture and the Boldini portrait remained out of sight for 70 years. Love letters to Marthe were also found in the apartment. Gable invents a few characters, a relationship or two, but remained true to the bones of history.

While I enjoyed the characters, some of the relationship contortions that Gable has April put herself through diminished the entertainment, the reason I assigned only four stars.

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: Imperfect Birds

One starIt’s summer in Marin County. Seventeen-year-old Rosie is getting ready for her senior year, making horrible choices which lead to lies and manipulation. But her mother and step-father have their own problems. Both recovering alcoholics–or worse–Elizabeth doesn’t want to see Rosie’s drug use and promiscuity, and James sees it but doesn’t want to upset his relationship with Elizabeth.

The only likable characters in this book were the bit players–Elizabeth’s friends, Rae and Lank, and Rae’s pastoral boss, Anthony.

I tried very hard to like this book because it was loaned to me by a friend who supports my own writing attempts. But if I have to write stories like this one to succeed, I’ll fail.

I wanted to slap the three main characters to wake them up, to make them stop repeating the same lies, the same acceptance of the lies, the same manipulation of friends, the same being manipulated by friends. Maybe it is because my own teenage years and my parents’ reactions to my form of rebellion were so very different from Rosie’s and her parents’. I could not sympathize or empathize with any of the characters.

“Powerful and painfully honest. . .Lamott’s observations are pitch-perfect.” So says The New York Times, according to the book’s cover. Lamott’s prose is excellent. I could visualize Elizabeth’s exhaustion at trying to save Rosie and James’s frustration with Elizabeth’s lack of willingness to see, hear, and recognize the truth of what was right in front of her. But this was a book with a bloated middle. Even more frustrating is that there really wasn’t an ending, just a transition to what may turn out to be another book. It was my hope for a resolution to the gnawing repetition that kept me turning pages.

I haven’t read anything else by Lamott. After reading this one, I’ll not likely seek out another.

In the end, I was left. . . .

Book Review: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

An unforgettable and unpredictable debut novel of guilt, punishment, and the stories we tell ourselves to survive.

Five StarstheexecutionofnoapsingletonThose words are part of the marketing package for the novel. I couldn’t have said it better myself. But I didn’t realize it would be unforgettable until I finished it. And its unpredictability explains why it took me a long time to get past the first chapter. But every time I logged on to Goodreads, I would be reminded it was still there, waiting for me to finish. I am very glad I picked it up again.

This is a mystery about a murder on many levels. Did Noa really murder Sarah? Why didn’t she say anything in her own defense during her trial? Why did Sarah’s mother change her opinion of the death penalty? Did the fact that her father was absent, and therefore unknown to Noa during childhood, play a role in the events? What does the P in her name stand for? Some of these questions remain at the end of the book, but enough are answered for the reader to be satisfied. For the story to stick and poke at memories and childhood secrets.

The most important questions all begin with Why. Why did Noa say nothing in her own defense? Why is she so determined not to satisfy Sarah’s mother’s curiosity about the event? Why does Noa lie? Why did she drop out of Penn? Those questions remain largely unanswered, only hinted at. And that is the strength of the book. Because we don’t get those answers from Noa, we end up asking similar ones about our own lives. Those questions raise thoughts of own own guilt, our own family relationships as well as our relationships with others. Those questions bring up thoughts of what we might have done differently. For those reasons, this book will stay with me for at least as long as the 450-some days it took me to finish reading it.