Monday, October 5, 2015

The Splendor of Ordinary Days: A Novel of Watervalley by Jeff High

The Splendor of Ordinary Days: A Novel of Watervalley.  Jeff High. Penguin Group (USA). October 2015. 432 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451474100.

Luke Bradford, in this third Watervalley novel, has become more attached to the rustic beauty and pleasant, interesting people of Watervalley, Tennessee.  Part of it is the satisfaction he experiences with his medical practice and the stronger part is definitely his budding romance with Christine Chambers.  However, there’s always something brewing in the town that starts out small and grows with distressing power and the latest quandary is what keeps Luke from giving his whole heart to the town and the decision to permanently stay.

The latest conflict involves a phone call one night that there’s a fire close to the Mennonite community nearby.  Once the first responders arrive, they stop as they realize they will not be needed, for the Mennonite have their own fire brigade and reject any outside involvement.  The only man who has plenty of experience with the Mennonites is Luther Whitmore but what that is seems completely unknown to the townspeople.  When Luther, editor of the town newspaper, pens an irate editorial in the paper, though posed as a news story, the residents fail to see a connection and instead start conversations that put veterans to the forefront.  The town is proud of all the men who died in past wars over the last hundred years and so everyone accepts Luther’s irate words as gospel truth.
The secrets around this problem will gradually be revealed, as well as an effort to honor military veterans in the town with a memorial.  Luke, however, has an uncanny ability to warm up conversations and several characters in the book wind up eventually sharing their military and secular secrets, in this novel yielding forgiveness, repentance and healing that can only benefit Watervalley.

Luke and Christine will battle their own personal challenge, the first to test their deep love and personalities.

The Splendor of Ordinary Days… is a wonderful read with muted conflicts but high energy when it comes to being protective and caring toward each resident of the valley.  The descriptions of animals and setting, as well, are gently presented and make the reader feel he or she is also a resident, fully satisfied and loving one’s surroundings and neighbors.  Nicely crafted, Jeff High, again!  Recommended to all and the earlier novels in this series as well!

Another Woman's Daughter: A Novel by Fiona Sussman

Another Woman’s Daughter: A Novel.  Fiona Sussman. Berkley/New American Library. October 2015. 304 pp.  ISBN#: 9780425281048.

Celia Mphephu wants the best for her daughter, Miriam.  Celia works as a maid for Michael and Rita Steiner in 1960s Johannesburg.  This white couple thinks the world of Miriam, teaching her to read and paying for her to go to school, even though that schooling is far from normal for Miriam, who much preferred the Afrikaans school.  Eventually Miriam makes an Indian friend and that makes all the difference in the world.  Celia is shocked galore when the Steiners offer to adopt Miriam and take her with them back to England, offering her opportunities that would otherwise be impossible.  Later on we will find that lies and more lies have been told and the truth kept secret, but for now in a vividly brutal scene Celia realizes she cannot do otherwise but sacrifice her daughter for a while.

Miriam discovers in England a dual world, one in which she becomes well-educated but also one in which she is the victim of prejudice that is more subtle but no less traumatic.  Over time Rita Steiner becomes obsessed with her work world in the field of medicine and the gentleness of Michael is Miriam’s only saving grace.  Even then Miriam will be shocked several times before the end of the novel over the Steiner relationship and what they have kept from her.  Miriam will also fall in love with an astonishingly gentle, understanding man whose love is tested when Miriam insists after many years of returning to Africa to search for her own identity.

These are the years of the harshest apartheid treatment in Africa, and the narrator does not spare the reader the reality of the brutal treatment of black Africans.  However, this is also the time period when rebellion takes root, when protests over the Soweto tragedy and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela erupt. 

To say more would deny the reader the full impact of this poignant story. While it does not go into depth about both sides of the fire storm beginning to grow in Africa, it speaks for those white and black residents in Africa and abroad who were sensitive to, allied with, or fiercely opposed to the apartheid realities.  For that reason as well as a story carefully crafted, this reader highly recommends this potent, truthful historical novel!

Chance Harbor by Holly Robinson

Chance Harbor.  Holly Robinson. Penguin Group (USA). October 215. 448 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451471505.

Catherine and Zoe, two sisters who look like each other but couldn’t be more different, are now separated. Zoe, the rebel in the family who did drugs, dropped out of school and more, ran away, leaving her daughter Willow with Catherine and Russell.  The latter seemed like the proverbially successful, married couple but are now separate as well, Russell having sired a father by his high school student Noel.  Catherine is having a hard time coping with it all, especially in light of the fact that her father has recently passed away and her mother, Eve, has decided to sell the family summer home, Chance Harbor, on Prince Edward Island.  Sounds like a course in Family Dysfunction 101.  The difference herein is how does each character deal with the gradual revelations that initially stun all of them and what kind of new relationships develop as the family life evolves?

Numerous descriptions of beautiful Chance Harbor will engage every reader, a place where it’s safe to relax and let nature heal, if possible, what needs to be let go and what needs to be grabbed and dealt with.  It’s the perfect combination of seashore and rugged living!  Near to Catherine’s home are wooded and mountainous areas where hiking and fresh air also serve to relax and fully engage with the present moment! The environment clearly parallels the family’s turbulent transformation that is patiently and poignantly described.

As the story evolves, strong feelings are verbalized and secrets are revealed, especially with the undoing of Catherine and Russell’s marriage, the reappearance of Zoe who is now clean, repentant and willing to try to undo the damage she left behind years ago.  New romances will emerge, one’s that respect the past and serve to accept a different kind of future.  Willow is a young woman who has her own moments of wisdom and mistakes, and she is able to demonstrate how one opens up to see something other than stereotypical patterns which enables Catherine and even her grandmother Eve to realize the past need not be repeated.

Chance Harbor is a lovely novel with some very complex interactions that seem rather edgy but which are transformed at just the right moment to scenes that keep the reader fully engaged.  The reader finds that he or she wants to know how the relationships of mother-daughter, father-daughter, sisters, and lovers will grow or terminate.  Very carefully crafted story about love that endures the worst that life can throw, stays solid where it should and leaves behind the dross! Highly recommended contemporary fiction!

Friday, October 2, 2015

A Perilous Alliance: A Tudor Mystery featuring Ursula Blanchard by Fiona Buckley

A Perilous Alliance: A Tudor Mystery featuring Ursula Blanchard.  Fiona Buckley. Severn House Publishers.  October 2015. 240 pp.  ISBN#: 9781780290768.

Ursula Blanchard has been told that her third husband has died and she is quite content as an independent widow traveling between her two homes with her servants and friends in 1576.  Elizabeth is Queen and actually Ursula is her half-sister, not in line for the throne but able to serve the Queen in many helpful ways.  Now she’s very irritated as she has a bevy of Court visitors, who are telling her that the Queen and Lord Cecil agree that she must marry a French Count, Gilbert Renard, in order to unite the kingdom against Spain and other countries surrounding France.  That will guarantee France’s protection should these other countries dare to individually or collectively attack England.  Ursula is extremely reluctant to marry Count Renard or anyone else for that matter!

After visiting the Queen, Ursula surrenders and agrees to marry after a scene where Elizabeth talks to Ursula in the most persuasive, albeit rather condescendingly in part, manner and convinces her that this is an act of pivotal importance to the security of England.  After the Count arrives, Ursula realizes the manner of man she is to wed after learning of the brutal treatment of his horse on a regular basis. 

Then several days follow in which a bunch of servants on both sides are suspected of listening at closed doors, a violation of privacy Ursula considers deplorable.  Shockingly, the Count disappears overnight with a friend of Ursula, and the chase is on after a traitorous message is found.  The remainder of the story will reveal what is really behind the Count’s visit to England and Ursula proves her indefatigable determination to truly save England from harm.

A Perilous Alliance… is a superb Tudor mystery with well-placed conflict and some secondary problems that only add to the precisely placed tension.  Ursula is a fair woman who cannot abide disobedience or treachery.  That, rather than faithfulness to the Queen, is what propels her every difficult step of the way until she completes her mission. Highly recommended read for readers of historical mysteries, as well as lovers of thrillers and adventure fiction.

The Determined heart: The Tale of Mary Shelly and Her Frankenstein by Antoinette May

The Determined Heart: The Tale of Mary Shelly and Her Frankenstein.  Antoinette May. Lake Union Publishing. September 2015. 410 pp.  ISBN#: 9781503945180.

Mary Shelly was the daughter of two renowned parents, William Godwin, political philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist writer.  Mary Shelly’s father remarried after her mother’s death, a money-grabbing, bitter stepmother who denigrates Mary’s intelligence and visions of the best in life and learning.  Mary’s sister, Fanny, is a timid creature who accommodates their step-mother’s demands but Mary prefers to read and write.  The financial condition of the Godwin family is verging on disastrous and it is Mary’s stepmother who comes up with the idea of their opening a bookshop.  Both her father and stepmother urge Mary and other writers to create fiction oriented toward children.  At first it appears that their income will be moderate but sufficient to support their family.  But needs arise and William taps everyone he knows for loans that eventually disappear.  It’s at this time that Mary’s life undergoes an intense transformation.

Mary falls in love with Bysshe Shelly, a married man whose possessive wife, Hannah, does everything possible to besmirch Mary’s name and family after Bysshe declares his undying love for Mary.  Disaster will follow many years later after their rash, dedicated life begins.  Another family member, Claire, will latch onto the couple and create many crises.

Antoinette May interweaves Mary’s growing interest in the power of electricity to invigorate life with the scenery and castles of Geneva and other places.  The weather is frightening frequently and Mary’s interest in Gothic elements grows and grows until she finally creates the famous novel, Frankenstein.  Elements of her own and Bysshe’s personal life becomes the conflict elements of the scientist and the frightening creature he creates.  While many readers have heard about this background information, this novel vividly and imaginatively recreates the probable scenario that led to this stunning novel still read by students and adult readers today.
In one sense, the reader will sympathize with Mary who suffers much in order to remain with her greatest love.  Other characters who offer support and friendship during these years are well-known and not so well-known; they enable Mary to endure Bysshe’s changeable and idealistic nature.  Their beliefs are counter-culture to British and European ideas about nature and philosophy, earning the couple derision and scorn while hypocritically praising their literary creations.  A not-so-praiseworthy depicting of the famed poet, Lord Byron, adds an intriguing, unexpected twist to the plot and its other characters, as well as his influence on both Bysshe and Mary.

All in all, The Determined Heart… is a superb, literary novel about creativity, social and political mores, science, Gothic literature, passionate love that scorns mandated behavior and so much more – all with phenomenally disastrous and delightful consequences!  So very well-crafted, Antoinette May!   A classic work of literature or historical fiction in itself!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Language of the Bear - Tomahawk and Saber - Volume One by Evan Ronan and Nathaniel Green

Language of the Bear – Tomahawk and Saber – Volume One.  Evan Ronan and Nathaniel Green. Calhoun Publishing. July 2015. 260 pp.  ISBN#: 9780996495800.

An English soldier, Lieutenant Hugh Pike, and a Native American Susquehannock warrior, Wolf Tongue (named as Isaac for a Christian name although he is clearly not a Christian), are thrown together on a mission.  They are both disconcerted by the ultimate act they must commit – the assassination of a violent, capable killer who is trying to recruit fighters to defeat the English.  Sounds simple, but it’s anything but easy!
To begin with both men have asked for a prize for the risk and completion of their task, a beloved lady – Damaris and Fox’s Smile respectively – each will wed after completing their job.  But their task is an almost impossible one in which they will encounter and perhaps survive every possible danger in the Pennsylvania mountains and country.  Their goal in this first of what will be a series is to find and deal with a man named Azariah or Storm-of-Villages. 

What is fascinating, as this novel progresses are three aspects.  One is the description of the beautiful land Pike and Wolf Tongue traverse, sometimes easily and sometimes with great challenges like climbing cliffs and fording fiercely moving rivers.  One can almost smell the turning colors of leaves and pine of the forests.  Both men are rugged enough to clear paths and camp comfortably even in the fiercest of cold weather.

The second intriguing portion is that Azariah actually has many supporters who believe in his mission to be rid of the English and restore the land to its native status.  His charisma and cruelty bring his supporters to unbridled obedience and fear and it is believed that he is unconquerable.

Friends are really foes and vice versa in this plot that grows complicated because of our main characters never knowing who can be trusted and the crafty movements of their enemy.

The third engaging aspect is the relationship that develops between Pike and Wolf Tongue which includes what they truly believe.  That difference both divides and eventually unites them.  As they journey back and forth between their home territory and that of Azariah, they develop a friendship that will endure physical wounds, struggle in the territory that is untamed and their wavering, private reflections between courage and doubt.

All in all, Language of the Bear is a terrific read whose fans will be looking forward to the next novel in this story of pre-Revolutionary colonials and Native American residents. Nicely crafted, Ronan and Green!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Minute Zero: A Novel by Todd Moss

Minute Zero: A Novel.  Todd Moss. Penguin Group (USA). September 2015. 368 pp.  ISBN#: 9780399168680.

Judd Ryker has given up the life of an academic and become a State Department troubleshooter.  He’s come up with a theory of action called Minute Zero, which is a plan to take action quickly in the moments of a country’s chaotic crisis.  It’s a plan which gives control to American policy and mandates immediate action.  While that theory and its subsequent program worked well previously (see The Golden Hour by the same author), times have changed.  America’s State Department is now reacting to a diminishing economy and is looking to make budget cuts.  Judd is told he has forty-eight hours to prove his theory and program again or his program will be cut. His wife and other colleagues are supportive, even insistent that he take on this new challenge which involves elections in Zimbabwe in forty-eight hours, even less by the time he gets there!

Winston Tinotenda has ruled Zimbabwe through six elections.  Now he is running against a woman lawyer, Gugu Mutonga, but it’s far from a fair election.  Indeed Tinotenda has child and adult soldiers who literally walk into the election booth to ensure that the people vote for him.  Violence against the opposition is the norm but ironically there is no proof by which he can be incriminated by foreign governments or the United Nations.  Money is funneled to both candidates from powerful groups inside and outside Zimbabwe.  Judd’s wife is not the agricultural water researcher and mother she claims to be, and the gradual revelation of her more important role is stunning!

Judd’s job is to monitor and report on fair elections but he is rather simplistic in thinking it’s so easy.  He really doesn’t even seem sure his own theories about Minute Zero will work here so entrenched is the corruption and military muscle running the government and elections in Zimbabwe.  Add to the mix a mysterious massacre occurring years ago and a diplomat who believes it has something to do with a secret mine. 

One has a hard time knowing who is honest and who is deceptive.  Little by little Judd brings together a team who will relentlessly expose all hidden agendas and put broken pieces of the puzzle together, but not before much violence, threats and false promises are made to the people of Zimbabwe, America and even England.

Minute Zero… is a nail-biting, tension ridden novel that will delight all who love the political and international thriller genres.  The plot is finely constructed and contains many elements of reality as well. What a movie this would make! Nicely crafted, Todd Moss!