BOOK REVIEW: The Observations by Jane Harris

The Observations by Jane HarrisThe Observations
By Jane Harris
Completed September 11, 2011

The Observations is the story of young Bessy Buckley- a 15-year-old Irish prostitute-turned-maid who stumbles in to a Scottish manor called Castle Haivers. Escaping her past, she convinces the mistress of the house, Arabella Reid, to take her on as a maid, despite shady skills or references.  Bessy’s tenure begins very strangely as Arabella has unusual requests: Requiring Bessy to stand and sit with her eyes closed for long periods of time; requesting a cup of cocoa in the middle of the night, only to make Bessy drink it; and ordering Bessy to collect her thoughts in a journal that she must read to Arabella every evening.

Strange things are afoot at Castle Haivers, and with each turn of the page, the events get more unusual.  Soon, Bessy realizes she’s one of a long string of maids in Arabella’s past – and that one maid in particular, Nora, who was killed in a train accident, has left an indelible mark on the household. Bessy, out of curiousity and loyalty to Arabella, begins to piece together the mystery of Nora, and as she does, unravels tragedies that can’t be undone.

Bessy is a lively narrator with a sharp tongue and street smarts. She could be crass but harmlessly so. Despite her unsophisticated rhetoric, Bessy is a fabulous storyteller and observer of events at Castle Haivers. As she reveals the atrocities of her past, my heart went out to the poor girl, and Bessy became a character I kept rooting for, despite her many blunders.

The Observations could be downright creepy then light-hearted and humorous. Jane Harris is a magnificent writer, and she grabs the Gothic tradition with fierceness. I couldn’t get enough of Bessy’s narrative, and I often was rapt by the story. I highly recommend The Observations to fans of Gothic fiction – if you liked Fingersmith or The House at Riverton, you will love this book too. (  )


BOOK REVIEW: Down from Cascom Mountain by Ann Joslin Williams

Down from Cascom Mountain by Ann Joslin WilliamsDown from Cascom Mountain
By Ann Joslin Williams
Completed August 18, 2011

The New Hampshire mountains come alive in Ann Joslin Williams’s debut book, Down from Cascom Mountain. While the setting was beautiful, the lives of the characters were less tranquil. Down from Cascom Mountain explores many themes, including marriage and grief, through a character-driven story.

Mary Walker and her husband Michael return to her childhood home on Cascom Mountain. Mary is thrilled to return home – to be enveloped in the memories of her youth. Sadly, the reunion with her past is marred when her husband loses his balance during a hike, killing him instantly. Grief-stricken, Mary’s home transforms into her respite – a place where she can grieve for the loss of Michael.

Meanwhile, at the nearby lodge, Callie is a young search-and-rescue worker who has her first sexual foray with her group leader. It’s a disastrous relationship – only evident by midnight trollops – and one that has an unwanted outcome for Callie. We also meet Tobin, another teenager who lives near Mary, whose life has been plagued by his mentally ill mother. Tobin has many nervous ticks and OCD – surely a projection of his repressed maternal issues – and he begins a protective vigil over Mary as she mourns.

I loved Williams’s depiction of the New Hampshire mountains and way of life. She did a fantastic job making Cascom Mountain into its own character – beautiful and dangerous. I was less enraptured by some of the characters, namely Mary, who I didn’t find too sympathetic, despite the tragic loss of her husband. Down from Cascom Mountain is a good book, and I think as Williams becomes more experienced, we will see her career grow and prosper. ( )

BOOK REVIEW: The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumb

The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumbThe Ballad of Tom Dooley
By Sharyn McCrumb
Completed August 12, 2011

The Ballad of Tom Dooley, the latest installment in Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad Novels, was inspired by the Appalachian folk tune about a young man who killed a woman and was set to die for his crimes. McCrumb did an amazing amount of research in Wilkes County, North Carolina, to uncover what could have happened to Tom Dooley (who was really “Tom Dula”). The end result was a fast-paced, climatic story that presents a plausible explanation to the case.

The story was told by two observers: Pauline Foster, a poor, country woman who had a raging case of syphilis and sociopathic tendencies; and Zebulon Vance, the former governor of North Carolina who was assigned to defend Tom Dula and Ann Melton pro bono. Through Pauline’s narratives, we learned about Tom Dula and his lover, Ann – a narcissistic belle who got men to do whatever she wanted. Pauline was Ann’s cousin, and was jealous of Ann’s beauty and sense of entitlement. Pauline wanted to knock Ann down a peg or two. When Tom began to sleep with another cousin, Laura Foster, Pauline saw her opportunity. She invented stories about Tom and Laura’s affair, planting seeds of jealousy in Ann’s quick-tempered head.

In between Pauline’s scheming, we have the narrative of Zebulon Vance, an out-of-office Confederate politician who needed to work as a lawyer to earn money. Zebulon was a mountain man too, though much more refined than his defendants. Through his eyes, we saw Tom as a down-on-your-luck, star-crossed lover boy who would do anything for Ann. I liked Zebulon’s narrative, but at times he repeated himself. I wasn’t sure if that was intentional or an error in editing,  but it added some charm to his side of the story.

Through The Ballad of Tom Dooley, McCrumb painted a picture of a restless, post-Civil War youth. Young people were scarred from the war – both men who fought in battles and women who struggled to survive on the home front. Times were hard – and when you weren’t plowing a field or making biscuits, you reached for easy entertainment: homemade whiskey and gratuitous sex. As this story showed, sometimes your vices could lead to your death.

Fans of Southern fiction are sure to like Sharyn McCrumb’s easy writing style and eye for history. I know I did, and I look forward to checking out more of her books from the Ballad Series. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt

The Summer Without Men by Siri HustvedtThe Summer Without Men
By Siri Hustvedt
Completed June 8, 2011

Mia Frederickson is the narrator and main character in Siri Hustvedt’s latest novel, The Summer Without Men. Through her eyes, the reader is treated to a wonderful (although sometimes rambling) story about a woman trying to make sense of the gender differences that still plague us.

Mia has escaped to her hometown after her husband, Boris, announced he wanted a “pause” in their marriage. Boris’ idea of a pause, by the way, is leaving his wife for a French co-worker. Understandably, Mia is upset, and after a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital, Mia comes home to her mother and her own kind of “pause.”

Now Mia could have gone crazy – running around with a man half her age or lavishing herself with a new wardrobe. Instead, Mia agrees to teach a poetry workshop to seven 12-year-old girls, visit her mother’s friends at a retirement home and help a young neighbor with her small children. Through these cirumstances, Mia encounters aging, bullying, marital strife, lifelong secrets and depression, which provides Mia a backdrop to examine her own life.

The Summer Without Men is not pitch perfect. You have to endure Mia’s tangents – a thorough philosophical and poetic look at the differences between the sexes. Personally, I found most of Mia’s side stories interesting, though some did bog the story down. What I did like, though, is Mia’s direct candor with her audience, asking her Reader to bear with her as she examined what was on her mind. You could hardly dislike that.

Each of the women in the novel offered their own story – my favorite being Abigail who had a secret, double life. By day, Abigail, who was more than 100 years old during the novel, was a retired art teacher. Then, we learn about the other side of Abigail: a repressed lesbian who stroked her artistic ways by creating elaborate and hidden embroidery that would have shocked people from her generation. Abigail was a lot of fun – and a reminder that age is only a number.

I wish I had the benefit of reading The Summer Without Men with others to discuss the many themes and characters that appeared in this slim novel. It’s certainly a good selection for a book club. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes to explore gender issues in fiction – and read about a woman’s attempt to understand it all. (  )

The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block

The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill BlockThe Storm at the Door
By Stefan Merrill Block
Completed May 21, 2011

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and for author Stefan Merrill Block, he once again gets inspiration for his latest book from his family. The Storm at the Door is a fictionalized account of his grandparents, Frederick and Catherine. While the story does not mirror their lives, Frederick’s real-life mental illness and subsequent institutionalization are the catalyst for Block’s harrowing story.

Frederick is a depressed alcoholic whose “going over the edge” moment was when he flashed motorists on a country road. Under advisement by her friends, Catherine convinces Frederick to undergo treatment at the Mayflower Home for the Mentally Ill. Thinking he would be released within days, neither Catherine nor Frederick expected his stay to be as long as it was, and for the outcome to be what it became.

I admire Catherine’s tenacity and loyalty to her husband, especially during a time when mental illness was so taboo. She raised her daughters, monitored her husband’s treatment (from afar) and did a great job keeping it together. She was strong and patient – qualities that were needed for her circumstances.

The eye-opening aspect of this novel was Mayflower itself. Block holds nothing back in his depiction of life at this mental hospital. Massive drugging and electroshock therapies were as normal as blueberry pie, and it was painful to see Frederick slip deeper and deeper into his disease. You have to wonder how he would fare if he could just get away from the place.

The Storm at the Door is not for the meek at heart, but it is for readers who are moved by stories that focus on family relationships and marital binds. While I enjoyed Block’s second novel, I still favor his first,  The Story of Forgetting. Needless to say, he is a young writer who will continue to blossom in his career. I look forward to what his future holds. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

REVIEW: Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca HuntMr. Chartwell
By Rebecca Hunt
Completed April 28, 2011

We all have our demons, and for Winston Churchill, his was depression. It plagued Churchill his entire life – so much so that he named it “Black Dog.” Churchill’s battle with his Black Dog has been documented and written about, but not like how Rebecca Hunt does in her extraordinary book, Mr. Chartwell.

Esther Hammerhans is a widowed librarian with a room to rent. When a knock comes to her door from her would-be boarder, imagine Esther’s surprise when she finds it’s a large black dog who calls himself Mr. Chartwell. Mr. Chartwell is all dog – furry, smelly, hungry – but also quite human with eloquent speech and a convincing manner. He somehow persuades the reluctant Esther to take him in as a boarder.

For Mr. Chartwell, or Black Pat as he becomes, staying at Esther’s has two advantages. First, it puts him near Winston Churchill, who is about to retire from Parliament. It also puts him near Esther, who is grieving over the loss of her husband. Black Pat can only be seen by people he’s after – people who are depressed, grieving and maybe a little lonely. Winston and Esther are perfect for him.

Hunt’s characterization is marvelous. Personifying depression as a big, clumsy, humorous and opportunistic dog was nothing short of remarkable. While Winston may have named it, Hunt gives Black Pat his character. Through Black Pat’s actions, you can see how depression isolates people, offering them a sense of security in a world of otherwise happy people. Hunt’s depictions of Winston Churchill and the meek Esther also add greatly to this novel. You root for them both, hoping they can kick the proverbial dog to the curb.

Thankfully, I’ve never suffered from depression, so I can’t say if Hunt’s depiction of this disease is correct or not. I can say, though, that Hunt delivers an inventive and compelling story that gives readers a view of this disease – perhaps one no one has considered. Despite the darkness of depression, after finishing Mr. Chartwell, I was left with a sense of hope that people can overcome this condition – and move on to brighter points in their lives. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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