Monday, November 28, 2011

A Watershed Year by Susan Schoenberger

Lucy has been drifting through life and somehow she finds herself thirty-eight without a definite plan.  She is a professor in religion, her specialty the lives of the saints, but she doesn't yet have tenure.  She has not married or had children although she always saw herself as part of a big, happy family like the one she grew up in.  She loves her friend Harlan, but has never told him.

Then everything changes.  Harlan gets sick and dies.  In the midst of her grief, Lucy starts getting emails from Harlan; he had arranged for them to be delivered monthly after his death.  In them he tells Lucy he had loved her too and encourages her to move ahead with her life and go after the things she loves.

Lucy decides to adopt and she quickly discovers a four-year old Russian boy who needs her.  She concentrates on doing all the myriad tasks that an overseas adoption entails, avoiding work and family commitments to focus on this one task.  She is successful and Mat comes home with her.  It is a major adjustment to acclimate him to his new home, and just as she is beginning to believe it will all work out, Mat's father shows up and wants him back.  Will this be another inconclusive chapter in Lucy's life?

A Watershed Year is a thought-provoking novel that makes the reader think about what they really want from their life, and whether there is any reason not to go for broke to get it.  Lucy is an appealing character and evokes sympathy as well as an internal urging for her to be successful in her quest to carve out an independent, happy life for herself.  This book is recommended for all readers.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Small Death In The Great Glen by A.D. Scott

A young boy has been found murdered in a small town in the Scottish Highlands.  At first it appeared to be a drowning accident, but further investigation showed that the boy had been sexually assaulted before dying.  The murder shakes the town to its core, and brings out the secretiveness and mistrust of outsiders that characterizes small towns and its inhabitants.

But there are those who are determined to discover the truth and bring the perpetrators to justice.  Chief among these is the new editor of the local newspaper, McAllister.  Newly established at the paper, he is fighting to change it from a small local weekly to a newspaper worthy of the name.  But he has scarce resources.  There is Don McLeod, old-timer who knows everyone and all their secrets and who is determined to maintain the paper as it has always been.  Rob is the cub reporter, full of vigor but untrained.  Joanne Ross, is the part-time typist who is interested in moving into reporting and sees the newspaper as an escape from her abusive husband.

The case quickly seems to be over when a Polish immigrant is discovered and arrested.  Many in the town sigh in relief that all has been righted, but the story is not done.  Long-held secrets, going back years, will be brought to light before the full story is over.

A.D. Scott has created a stunning debut mystery series.  The reader is instantly transported to Scotland, but this is not the Scotland of bonny lasses and dashing Highlanders ready for a rousing reel.  This is the Scotland of long dreary winters, where tradition is held as iron-clad custom and woe befall those who dare to try to change things from the way they have always been.  The truth emerges slowly but surely and the reader turns the last page yearning for a way to return to this area to learn more.  This book is recommended for mystery lovers who also enjoy a strong sense of place.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Cloyne Court by Dodie Katague

In October 1976, Dodie Katague is a freshman at Berkeley University in California.  This is the age of the hippie, free love, drugs, sex and rock 'n roll.  The problem is, Dodie is missing it all by living at home and commuting to school each day.  On his birthday, he manages to talk his parents into allowing him to live on-campus.  But where to live?  It's too late in the semester to get into a dorm and he didn't pledge a fraternity.  Then he hears about Cloyne Court, a student co-op building.

Cloyne Court is a rundown building that is inhabited and managed totally by students.  The rent is cheap, with students doing various jobs to pay part of their rent.  It is also co-ed.  Co-ed as in male and female roommates--roomies if the relationship is platonic; bunkies if it is a romantic relationship.  Showers are communal and nude sunbathing is a common occurrence.  To a man who has led a sheltered life up to now, this is a whole new world, and one that he will have to figure out how to fit into.

Cloyne Court is an interesting memoir by Dodie Katague of his years at Berkeley and his residence at the co-op.  He learns to get along with people of all persuasions, and also has his first serious love.  Katague discovers sex and all the joys and complications it can bring.  Baby boomers especially will love reading this memoir and reminiscing about their own college days.  Younger generations will read it and get an eye-opening new insight into their parents and that stodgy old guy in the next cubicle.  This book is recommended for memoir readers and those interested in the culture of the 1970's and early 80's.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Guinevere, The Legend In Autumn by Persia Woolley

In this third book of her trilogy about Arthur, Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table, Persia Woolley ends the telling of her story.  It is above all the story of the triangle that King Arthur, his Champion Lancelot and his Queen, Guinevere, are tangled in.  Both men love Guinevere, but they also love each other as brothers and would do nothing to hurt each other.  Guinevere, in her turn, loves them both.  Arthur is her wedded husband, who honors her, takes her counsel and has her rule at his side.  He cannot, however, express his love easily in words, as his emotions have been trained to be hidden from others.  Lancelot is her true love, but one she is forbidden to have, for fear of hurting Arthur and tearing apart the kingdom.

But even more than the love story, this is a story steeped in historical fact that gives the reader insight into the times.  The reader learns of daily life with its proscribed tasks for each member of the royal household, the petty intrigues of court, the quest for adventures that periodically takes the Knights away.  The rise of Christianity and its gradual erosion of the pagan religions is explored.  The strength of family is evident, but betrayal for position is also common.

The central theme is the trial of Guinevere for treason and adultery, her condemnation to death, and her rescue by Lancelot, aided by Arthur.  Above all, each individual in this triangle is called by a love of country and the people, and will sacrifice whatever is needed to insure that the country survives as a strong entity.  This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction.  While it is the last in the trilogy, readers probably know enough of the story to enjoy this one as a stand-alone, but many will choose to then go back and read the first two to see how Woolley interprets the beginning of this magnificent saga.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Woman In The Fifth by Douglas Kennedy

Harry Ricks has hit rock bottom.  Two months ago, he was a popular professor teaching film criticism with a daughter he delighted in.  His marriage had grown remote, but all in all, he felt blessed.  Then tragedy.  He gets swept up in the adoration of a female student and sleeps with her.  The resulting scandal costs him his job, his marriage and his relationship with his daughter.  To add salt to the wound, he discovers his wife has had a long-standing affair with his boss, and they have made sure the scandal is as juicy and protracted as possible.

Wounded, Ricks flees to Paris.  He isn't sure what he will do, but at least he will be in the city he loves.  But, going to Paris as a well-to-do tourist and coming to Paris to live as an impoverished man is a far different proposition.  He finds himself in the roughest area of town, surrounded by people at best indifferent to his needs and at worst, actively hostile.  He finds a miserable job that is outside the official structure and settles into a mundane existence.

Then, everything changes.  Someone tells him about a salon where educated people gather to talk and mingle; best of all, admittance is just the cost of an evening's meal.  Ricks goes to the salon one Sunday evening and there he meets Margit Kadar.  She is a beautiful woman who seems as attracted to Harry as he is to her.  Older than him by a decade or more, she has an air of mystery and sophistication he can't resist.  Soon Margit and Harry have started an affair.  He goes to see her twice a week for three hours; those are the conditions she has laid down.

Just when Harry starts to believe that he might crawl out of his isolation and depression, things start to get even worse.  One by one, those who make his life miserable start to have horrific things happen to them.  Harry is amazed and soon he starts to get scared.  Can he discover who is behind everything happening to him before it manages to subsume him and take him under?

Douglas Kennedy has written a novel that is compelling, suspenseful and exciting.  Readers who start it won't want to do much else until they finish the story and discover Harry's fate.  Kennedy has a talent for making the unbelievable seem plausible and the reader is pulled into Harry's world.  This book is recommended for readers who enjoy suspenseful reads.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Camp Nine by Vivienne Schiffer

Camp Nine is a coming of age novel set in World War II.  The story is seen through the eyes of thirteen year old Chess Morton.  Chess is the granddaughter of the local wealthy landowner, Walter Morton, who owns most of the land there in the Delta of Arkansas and influences everything.  Far from being raised as a wealthy Southern lady, though, Chess lives in genteel poverty with her mother, Carolina Morton, known as Carrie.  Carrie was raised as the only daughter of Italian immigrants, and considered just this side of unacceptable when Walter's son, Walt, fell in love with and married her.  Walt, Chess' dad, died early, and Walter and Carrie settled into a pitched battle that would last their lives about their differing world views and their views on how to raise Chess.

It is the mid 1940's and something strange has happened in the Delta.  Walter has sold a huge parcel of land to the government and the government has quickly constructed a city there, a city of worn boards and communal kitchens and dining halls.  Who will live in this place?  The answer arrives with the first trainload of Japanese families.  These are the Japanese-American families who lived in California and were rounded up and interned during the war.

Sentiment in the town was quickly divided.  Most of the residents, already living in a defined social structure between black and white inhabitants, are against the new residents of the Delta.  Of course, these residents are not roaming the town; they are restricted to the land within the barbed wire fences guarded by American soldiers.  Carrie, however, is thrilled to see and meet the families there.  It reminds her of her time in California, when she attended college there and planned a life as an artist.  She quickly volunteers her time as an art teacher and soon has established herself as part of the camp life.  Chess accompanies her, and the two become close to many families, especially the Matsui family.

This book is recommended for historical fiction readers.  It outlines the life led by the Japanese who were interned during World War I.  It also covers the history of the Klan, the social structure of the South, the heroism of the Japanese-American soldiers who fought for their country even as their country treated their families as traitors and suspicious inhabitants.  The is Schiffer's first novel, and readers will be ready to read her next one after finishing Camp Nine; ready for more of her deft touch recreating past events.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Lavinia is born into poverty overseas.  Her parents decide to immigrate to America as indentured servants along with Lavinia and her brother.  On the trip over, the parents become ill and both die.  When the ship reaches America, the captain sells the brother's contract, but Lavinia is only seven and won't fetch much.  The captain decides to keep her contract himself and takes her to his plantation.

There Lavinia, who is white, is sent to the kitchen house to live among the slaves and learn their trades.  This is fairly scandalous, but the Captain's family is not usual.  Belle, who runs the kitchen house is the Captain's daughter from a liaison with a slave woman.  The Captain's wife spends her days drugged up on laudanum, a form of morphine.  She has been driven mad by the loss of her babies, a common occurrence in this time period.

Lavinia learns to love the slaves she grows up among.  They are the only family she knows and she calls the mother and father of the house slaves Mama and Papa the same as her playmates do.  When Lavinia is twelve, the mistress' sister comes on a family visit when the Captain dies.  She is shocked at Lavinia's situation and when the family decides to take the mistress back with them to Williamsburg, they also take Lavinia.  There she grows into a woman, beautiful and determined to return somehow to the plantation and the only family she has ever known.

Grissom has written a story of slavery from an interesting angle, that of an indentured white servant who grows up with a slave family.  It allows her to show the plight of the slaves from a different viewpoint, along with the strong sense of family they hold, and the mechanisms they create in order to survive and thrive.  This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction.