BOOK REVIEW: Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy

Liars and Saints by Maile MeloyLiars and Saints
By Maile Meloy
Completed July 3, 2012

In her debut novel, Liars and Saints, Maile Meloy explores family relationships, deceit, truth and religion through the Santerre family. Spanning over four generations, each chapter is told from a member of the Santerre family – some get more of a voice than others, but each person is enveloped in the conflicts that rock the family.

The story opens with Yvette and Teddy Santerre during World War II. We learn that the couple are deeply in love, but their young marriage isn’t without struggles, compounded by Teddy’s deployment to the Pacific theater. Teddy is insecure and jealous of his beautiful wife, and Yvette wrestles with her roles as wife and mother. The couple have two daughters, Margot and Clarissa, and the story moves quickly to when the girls become teenagers, and a particular night that would change the family forever.

At the surface, the issues facing the Santerre family are the stuff of daytime soap operas, but Meloy writes so eloquently, you hardly notice. The family members individually grapple with truth versus deceit. Is it better to spill the beans or keep things discreet? Sometimes, the choices the family made were ones they want to hide (even from each other), while others need to be aired out. True to life, you don’t know if it is a good idea to disclose a secret until after it’s done. Hindsight is always 20/20.

Liars and Saints is a solid debut, and I am not surprised to find it on the Orange Prize short list (2005). It’s not without flaws, but its pace and story development are spot on. I look forward to more stories by Maile Meloy. (  )

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BOOK REVIEW: The Odditorium by Melissa Pritchard

The Odditorium by Melissa PritchardThe Odditorium: Stories
By Melissa Pritchard
Completed February 17, 2012

When I was younger, I didn’t like short story collections. I felt teased by only a small portion of a larger story and frustrated when my search for a connecting thread turned up fruitless. Thankfully now, I have case aside my hesitancy and am enjoying short story collections, including my latest read, The Odditorium by Melissa Pritchard.

The Odditorium touches on multiple genres: Westerns, historical fiction, murder mysteries, religious fiction and more. To shape each story, Pritchard plucks out obscure people, places and events from history and the modern world. While I enjoyed all of the stories, here are a few of my favorites:

1. “Watanya Ciclia” is the story about the friendship between Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull watches Annie at a show, and eventually agrees to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, despite the boos and jeers, to spend time with Annie.  The story is a touching tribute to two friends and sympathic view of the plight of Sitting Bull.

2. “Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital” is the longest story in the collection – and one many other readers didn’t like. This story resonated with me, however. Captain Brown is an American naval surgeon who must convert a Victorian-era British military hospital into a feat of modern medicine –  all before the Allied’s planned attack on D-Day. Brown was fallible and honest, and despite his career successes, was guilty about decisions he made in his life. This would have made a wonderful novel.

3. “Patricide” takes place at the hotel that houses a courtyard played in by Edgar Allan Poe. Two sisters meet there to discuss their dying father. The oldest sister, Avis, who was to inherit her father’s riches, was considered a disappointment by her father, and he cut Avis out of his will.  When Signe, the other sister, sees the pain Avis is in from an arthritic knee, Signe wonders if she could kill her father now so she can rush the money to her ailing sister. Throughout the story, we learn about Signe’s life, including a recent scandal from her job as a teacher. Mixed into the story are wonderful lines from Poe’s poetry.

All in all, I was immersed in great storytelling and fantastic writing. I highly recommend The Odditorium to readers who enjoyed high-quality short stories and lovers of literary fiction. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: The Sisters by Nancy Jensen

The Sisters by Nancy JensenThe Sisters
By Nancy Jensen
Completed December 27, 2011

The Sisters is the debut novel by Nancy Jensen, and it explores the relationships of four generations of sisters during the 20th century. Each sister has her own story – often one of disfunction and abuse – which, when combined with the other tales, resulted in a novel of great sadness.

The stories begin with Mabel and Bertie, sisters who live in a small town in Kentucky. Mabel is the oldest and prettiest, but she’s sexually abused by her stepfather. Bertie is young and naive – but has a glimmer of hope in her future: a romantic relationship with a local boy, Wallace.  Then, a certain turn of events occurs – a misunderstanding of sorts – and the sisters are forever separated, doomed to live lives of bitterness and lost hope.

The remaining stories are of Mabel and Bertie’s daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters. Like a snowball effect, each story gets progressively more grim. The women endure abuse and promiscuity. They seem, in a word, hopeless. To say The Sisters was a bleak novel would be an understatement.

The shining star of The Sisters is the writer. Nancy Jensen is very talented, creating real-to-life characters and horrid circumstances that often turned my stomach. Yes, I wish there were more silver linings in this book, but even I realize that some women’s lives are not pictures of happiness. It’s tragic to see it generation after generation.

Unfortunately for me, I read The Sisters during Christmastime, so I was never in the correct mindset for such a depressing, but well-written book. If you decide to read this book, be prepared for a grim ride. I hope Jensen picks lighter fare for her next book. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! by Karen RussellSwamplandia!
By Karen Russell
Completed July 2, 2011

Journey to Swamplandia and meet the Bigtree family – a clan of alligator wrestlers and theme park owners whose existence depends on gullible tourists desiring to see the unbelievable. The Bigtrees’ lives turn upside down, however, when Hilola Bigtree dies from ovarian cancer. Hilola was the main attraction – a petite woman who could tape shut an alligator’s mouth in 30 seconds and swan dive into a pit of alligators unscathed. While Hilola’s death takes a toll on the park, it most profoundly affects her surviving family – her husband Chief and children Kiwi, Osceola and Ava.

With the park losing tourists and their home missing Hilola, the remaining Bigtree family begins a fast deterioration. Kiwi runs off the mainland to find work at a competing theme park to help pay off Swamplandia’s debts, while Chief  takes one of his long business trips. Osceola, enjoying newfound freedom, becomes fascinated with spiritualism and believes she can date ghosts – to the point where she runs off one night to elope with a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving.

That leaves 13-year-old Ava alone – until The Bird Man arrives. Allegedly hired to help locals clear off birds from their islands, Ava befriends The Bird Man, and together they begin a several-day journey to a place called The Underworld to find Osceola and bring her home.

The majority of the  book is told from Ava’s perpsective, and true to her age, she sees things in a naive way. As the story progresses, her naivete turns to scorching reality. The reader sees what’s coming, but young Ava does not.  The last 100 pages of Swamplandia! will have you turning the pages in dread, hoping your worst fears for this young heroine do not come true.

It would be easy to dismiss this book as too fantastic with ghost lovers and swamp living, but Karen Russell does a tremendous job making it all seem very real. Her ability to describe the people and places of Swamplandia suck you into a vortex that you don’t want to leave until the last page is read. At the heart of it all, Swamplandia! is a coming of age tale that focuses on the love of family.  With its gothic feel and Florida setting, I enjoyed this story and can’t wait to read more by this talented young writer. (  )

Side note:

Swamplandia! is set in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands – an area in southwest Florida that is largely uninhabited and teeming with Florida nature. While you may not want to visit Ten Thousand Islands in person (bugs and alligators abound!), you can take a virtual visit online. Enjoy!

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