Friday, July 31, 2015

A Pledge of Better Times: A Novel by Margaret Porter

A Pledge of Better Times: A Novel.  Margaret Porter. Gallica Press. April 2015. 414 pp.  ISBN#: 9780990742043.

Power and its consequent manipulations, betrayals, immoralities, favors, and dysfunction are characteristic of 17th Century England under the reign of King Charles II, King James, King William III and his Queen Mary, and King George III.  But Lady Diana de Vere is an anomaly in the middle of the turmoil that ensues from royal chaos and those who vie for favored status. Diana and her husband Charles share a common background; their fathers sired many children out of marriage and the status of “bastard” has innumerable consequences that are hard indeed to survive. Financial worries are ever-present as well.  But Diana and Charles are made of feisty stuff and their love endures no matter what ever-changing circumstances surround them.

To begin with Charles knows he must become a soldier in order to make enough money to hold any higher status and connection to the royal family.  Fortunately for him, the arrangement he makes with Diana’s father will become reality, a fact Diana will not discover for years.  Diana lives through the trauma of King Charles II’s demise and wonders how the absolute tyranny of King James will end.  Political parties connected with Parliament abound and as those parties change so do those in royal favor.  Some become so powerful that their demands supersede those of the kings and queens they serve – amazing!

War with France is on and off throughout most of this novel and Charles conducts himself so favorably that he attracts the attention and favor of King William III and his Queen, Mary, becomes very fond of the companionship of Diana.  That bond will be broken but justice will eventually be served as Lady Diana remains a woman of practical skills and impeccably moral character.

Joys and tragedies fill the years of Charles and Diana’s marriage and these scenes are delightfully depicted in a vivacious style by this obviously skilled author, Margaret Porter. She quite clearly knows how to balance plot and character development and present 17th Century English royalty and service in a dynamic and enchanting manner.

Fine, fine historical fiction that this reviewer highly recommends!

The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling

The Ten Thousand Things.  John Spurling. The Overlook Press. April 2014. 400 pp.  ISBN#: 9780715649565.

What are the Ten Thousand Things that the artist, government official, and philosopher Wang Meng says are “Mind” at the conclusion of this remarkable story which takes place in 14th Century China?  They are everything sublime and temporal, every experience one could possibly experience combined with the exquisite expression of nature through art.  Stories abound in this rich text of Wang’s life events and stories others have told him that have really occurred or are tales of Chinese history, mythology, and art.  Characters are presented with their highly or poorly developed skills of dealing with the political troubles besetting China at the time and the mix is entrancing.

China of this time is experiencing the attack of rebels on Kublai Khan’s Mongolian rule, the beginning of the movement that will eventually usher in the Ming Dynasty.  Wang is so disgusted by what he experiences as a low-level bureaucrat that he escapes to the solitude of the mountains to draw and paint.  There he loses the jade ring he inherited from a notable and talented relative; the loss seems to affect his ability to paint and he wonders about the power behind objects and their connection to nature.  Is the artist one with all he experiences and expresses?

One tale describes an artist who appears to be almost a madman who throws paint upon paper placed on the floor and dances upon it until what he wants to create appears.  After reflection, while watching, Wang sees the genius of the technique and realizes how limited his skills and paintings are.  Mind creates through multiple and even unimaginable avenues!

The concept of student and master is explored through multiple stories, revealing the possibilities of openness or closure depending on one’s perception.  The same might be seen in the political spectrum; things are not always what may be perceived by participants or observers.

On and on it goes, but what is most remarkable about this collection of tales is the beauty of discovery in each scene, in each painting, in each conversation, in each conflict, and so on.  The characters are complex and simple, revealing the overlay of perception and motivation, again not always so clear and sometimes as clear as an epiphany of revelation.

The Ten Thousand Things is a literary masterpiece that reveals classical philosophy and art of 14th Century China; it is bound to be best seller and a classic novel that will remain a timeless work beloved of its many readers. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Circling the Sun: A Novel by Paula McLain.

Circling the Sun: A Novel.  Paula McLain. Random House Publishing Group.  July 2015. 384 pp.  ISBN#: 9780345534187.

Put away your notions of how a woman should behave in the 1920s.  Instead picture a woman whose initial love was for the wilds of Africa, in particular Nairobi where her father raised horses. Imagine her life after her mother deserted them with a brother and returned to Africa, not to return for years upon years upon years.  Where does one fill that aching hole, especially when her father acted like he’d never been married and even chose another woman as a common-law wife and not a nice one at that?  Beryl Markham turns to the animals on their farm, especially the horses her father is raising to race, and the natives who place such immense pride in acting kindly, friendly and in becoming men and women of the tribe.  Their focus is on community spirit and strength, not on personal happiness.  Perhaps this is a subtle key to everything that follows.

Efforts to school Beryl are futile.  She’s a child of the land, her education in watching the foals born, in learning she cannot wander alone when she is fiercely attacked by a lion but survives to tell the story, and in becoming a skilled rider whose sensitivity and skill allow her to merge with the spirit of the horse she is racing. Later she will marry but not for love.  Thus begin the rumors and gossip about her flirtations with other married men, including even Prince David of England. 

Then comes what most well-read people know was the scandal of all time, Beryl’s rivalry with Karen Blixen over their love for Denys Finch Hatton.  This is the story many movie lovers know was fleshed out in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa.  Beryl’s evolving love for Denys begins with a very comfortable friendship, epitomized by their sharing of Walt Whitman’s poetry about the “wildness” of animals that is more important than the vicissitudes of men and woman.  That wildness is the essence of their relationship, a spirit that even Karen Blixen admits is the spark of a great love.  While others are busy scandal-mongering, Beryl just lives her life with her passion for horse racing and eventually for flying airplanes. 

Ironically, the reader can feel the peace and beauty of Africa when reading Beryl’s observations about the African countryside or when she’s reaching out to her favorite horses but at the same time tense up at the convoluted relationships that are always up and down and very rarely stable for more than a few evenings.  This is Paula McLain’s remarkable skill, to describe with almost supernatural connection and to sense what lies in the depths of men and women who are always searching for that something or someone but too restless and yearning to settle down with any one person.  Is it linked to the abandonment she suffered as a child?  The reader must decide, but remarkably Karen Blixen is the same in spite of a very stable childhood and background.  Finally, one absorbs the value of struggle for what one is passionate about and this is lovely, lovely, lovely wherever it appears on multiple pages. 

Circling the Sun: A Novel is beautifully crafted writing that far exceeds the writing in her previous novel, A Paris Wife.  This is very special historical fiction at its best and perceptive readers who want more than just stereotypical stories are in for a fine treat/read! Highly recommended!

Brush Back: A V. I. Warshawski Novel #17 by Sarah Paretsky.

Brush Back: A V. I. Warshawski Novel #17.  Sarah Paretsky. Penguin Group (USA). July 2015. 480 pp.  ISBN#: 9780399160578.

V. I. Warshawski is surprised when an old boyfriend, Frank Guzzo, approaches, literally begs, her for help with his mother, Stella.  Stella recently finished serving twenty-five years in jail for murdering her daughter, Frank’s sister, Annie.  Stella is a very tough lady who feeds, indeed seems to live, off her hate of V.I Warshawski and her family.  It’s hard to see what made her as she is, but one thing for sure is her hate is venomous and she is capable of killing.  The trouble Frank is asking help for now is that Stella is claiming she is totally innocent of killing Annie.  At first Warshawski thinks that now Stella has returned from prison, she is trying to reinvent herself in the eyes of South Chicago.  She reluctantly promises Frank she’ll give him a consultation gift of one hour of investigation and makes him sign a retainer that states he’s got to pay for anything beyond that.  Little does she realize just how much more time will be involved in this investigation that is much larger than just Stella’s guilt or innocence.

Warshawski’s late cousin, Boom-Boom, used to be a huge hockey star but was killed and now Stella is saying he was responsible for Annie’s death. Warshawski, a private investigator sets about to prove this was wrong and finds herself enmeshed in a world where politics and sports run hand in hand.  To say more would be to spoil a minute, step-by-step into the dregs of political corruption where the job will be done no matter how much money is required or violence must be carried out.  In the process our private investigator will place her own life at risk.

The end of this story is surprising not only for a solution as to who committed several crimes a/k/a murders but in how Stella reacts to the end of this story. 

Sarah Paretsky is masterful in crafting a tight tale where the grim setting of scenes parallels the grim reality of past and present criminals and their nefarious deeds.  Readers who love a page-turning, riveting mystery and thriller will be very, very pleased with this latest installment of P.I. Warshawski’s sleuthing life!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Losing Me by Sue Margolis

Losing Me.  Sue Margolis. Penguin Group (USA). July 2015. 384 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451471840.

Barbara Stirling is almost sixty years old and is now being ousted from her job as a special education teacher due to budget cuts. It’s a huge loss to the school as she is very good at what she does and really cares about these kids who come from homes rife with poverty, abuse, violence, starvation and just plain neglect.  Some parents don’t care and others are quite realistically doing the best they can which means their children suffer from a number of physical and emotional problems that affect any, if not all, learning. Barbara clearly cares and goes above and beyond the call of duty to help wherever and however she can. Harder still, she takes her job home and worries about her “kids,” but she gets very little feedback from her husband, another story in itself.

Barbara is also worried who went to college but has been unable to get a job.  Her daughter is an ecology fanatic who is about to begin using cloth toilet rags in place of toilet roll, quite a gross idea although it is certainly admirable in purpose. Add to that she has a friend who admits she’s got a lousy sex life with her husband but uses sex gigolos to satisfy her avid desires. Money is tight at home and hubby Frank is only caught up in his film job which doesn’t pay so well.  The real issue is his semi-concerned feedback to Barbara about her job and needs. Not even when she begins to suffer panic attacks does he really respond in the way she needs. Mom is the queen of criticism, hardly an asset in Barbara’s decomposing world.

Before her job concludes, Barbara becomes involved in the life of Troy, one of her students who is clearly being abused but who won’t answer questions. This then is the story of her intervention and how Troy’s world gives her purpose and direction, and it also enables her to learn to speak up and call things as she sees them.  Transformation comes about with determination and challenging those who prefer to complain but not much beyond that.

There are several issues of importance in this novel which Margolis treats with both seriousness  and levity, where appropriate.   The characters are so very real in far too many families, and the author handles each issue honestly and clearly, including the apathy of co-existence which is symptomatic of so much emotional distress in the world.

Very nicely crafted, Sue Margolis and recommended for all readers! Hope lies eternal!

A Lady of Good Family: A Novel by Jeanne Mackin

A Lady of Good Family: A Novel.  Jeanne Mackin. Penguin Group (USA). June 2015. 368 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451465832.

In The Gilded Age of the 1920s in New England, a woman was fated to marry, raise children, socialize and talk of mundane matters and travel to Europe to tour, rest and socialize some more. This then is the story of the passionate and famous gardener and landscape designer, Beatrix Farrand, who conforms at a minimum level but truly follows the dictates of her heart and soul.

The story is narrated by Daisy Winters, a close friend of Beatrix, and the story opens with Beatrix’s relationships with her Aunt, Edith Wharton, the author Henry James and Minnie, Beatrix’s mother who is currently in the process of divorcing her husband, also a huge break from acceptable tradition of staying married no matter what troubles prevail. Indeed most of the couples in this novel are either always irritated or unhappy about their spouses. What really comes across in the narrative is the lazy boredom of all these rich couples.

While touring in the Borghese Gardens in Italy, Beatrix meets Italian Amerigo Massimo and her word dramatically changes. It is truly “love at first sight.” While his views about women are more conservative than her perspective, it doesn’t stop the magic and they soon become the talk of society. However, nothing stops her from pursuing her study of gardens and art throughout Europe.  It is just as well as the reader receives a shock later on in the story regarding priorities in love.

As an aside, it’s fascinating how Wharton and James are portrayed herein.  Edith appears less stiff than how she writes and James seems to be the arbiter of decisions that accords with his writings; it’s all about what society accepts or rejects. Beatrix and Minnie are refreshing rebels herein, indeed!

This reviewer absolutely loved the vivid, energizing descriptions of gardens Beatrix visits and the way she slowly articulates how a garden is meant to refresh, rest and inspire viewers.  At the same time, the dialogue is plodding among the rich but miserable other characters. A bit of social satire herein?

A Lady of Good Family… is a fascinating, rich story of love, gardens, society and the woman who would break tradition enough to become one of America’s foremost landscape gardeners, presenting her visions throughout America and even at the White House. Recommended reading for sure!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Somebody I Used to Know by David Bell

Somebody I Used to Know.  David Bell. Penguin Group (USA). July 2015. 432 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451474209.

Nick Hansen has a satisfying job as a housing authority caseworker. He’s happiest when the system is just and angry when it fails.  Then one day when he’s in a supermarket to pick up some items for home cooking, he sees a young woman who looks just like his dead girlfriend, that is the one who died twenty years ago!  Stunned, he waits but then confronts the girl and asks her if she’s related to someone he knows.  She drops everything she was holding and runs away as fast as she can.  From that moment until the very last page the reader is gripped with a phenomenal story that slowly evolves with revelations coming from several women initially involved in the unbelievably complex story.

What would you do if your child committed a crime that would mean a future composed of a jail sentence and a reputable job that would never happen?  And what would you do if someone was responsible for the death of your child?  How long would your anger and desire for revenge continue?  Would you pass on that rage until your family had the same determination for vigilante justice?  These questions arise and force the reader to consider his or her own answers.  Yet the reality is so much worse than what one can imagine and what Nick has been thinking and feeling for years is so far from the truth that he will be increasingly blindsided with the truth!

Somebody I Used to Know is fine criminal fiction that is all too credible to any reader who watches or listens to the news on a daily basis.  It’s a novel about the terrible consequences made with quickly made choices and decisions that change the lives of those intimately involved but also those who knew snippets of each part of the story.  Wonderful novel, David Bell – stunning story that will keep reader’s up at night until the end of the story. Highly recommended!