Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Bracelet: A Novel by Roberta Gately

The Bracelet: A Novel. Roberta Gately. Published by Gallery Books. November 2012. 336 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9781451669121.

Abby Monroe has lost her job as a nurse after Hurricane Katrina wiped out the hospital in New Orleans where she worked.  Soon thereafter her boyfriend Eric dumped her and moved from Boston to Oregon, saying he needed to do this alone.  Now she's initially in Geneva, where she inadvertently witnesses a devastating crime which haunts her dreams for a very long time.  Now, she just wants to get away which she does by being accepted for a UN job in Pakistan.  The nightmare and sorrow of the past now becomes the escape route to reshaping her life but certainly not as expected at all!

Abby receives a warm welcome from another UN worker, Najeela, and a cold, hard look from the UN housekeeper, Hana.  Reeling from the sites of abandoned children and abused women at a nearby refugee cam, Abby meets an American Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist, Nick who initially strikes her as an arrogant waste of a guy but who later will be the link that helps her keep her sanity. Now Abby is enduring culture shock of the highest magnitude!

In the days ahead Abby learns of the sexual traffic and opium businesses that just might be linked to someone she is coming to know well.  Story after story is recounted by women who were sold as young girls in order to insure financial solvency for the girls' family, with devastating, abusive scars that will probably never heal permanently.   

The remainder of the story concerns the capture of those deeply involved in maintaining and promoting the illegal sexual and drug traffic not only in Pakistan and nearby Afghanistan but across the Middle East and Europe as well.  Some characters are part of the secret sent to put a stop to this travesty of justice and the story ultimately reaches a violent conclusion involving some thought to be innocent and others who seemed unimportant who are pivotal to solving these crimes.

The Bracelet: A Novel is a hard, tough story to take but a necessary one.  This is truly "real" fiction and well told.  It should be a story that fosters greater dialogue about how to cope with these pathological, evil deeds and their perpetrators.  Finely told, Ms. Gately

The Second Rule of Ten by Gay Hendricks and Tinker Lindsay

The Second Rule of Ten: A Tenzing Norbu Mystery. Gay Hendricks and Tinker Lindsay. Published by Hay House, Inc. January 2013.  352 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9781401941024.

Tenzing Norbu, a/k/a Ten, is at it again, struggling to hold onto the Buddhist practices he learned as a child and constantly frustrated by his life as an unlicensed private investigator.  Ten's father was a Buddhist monk living in India at the same monastery as the Dalai Llama, but Ten's mother died after a long battle with a very worldly life.  Ten's father seemed constantly displeased and angry with Ten after Ten's mother abandoned them.  Ten has spent his entire life trying to move past that rejection and the internal messages it left that keep recycling in his relationships and career.  Meditation helps keep him sane but not much beyond that although Ten believes there is so much more that could free him and change the rut he is so very aware is constantly lurking within.

Then a Hollywood mogul hires Ten to find his daughter, a task that is easy to accomplish, but a week later Marv Rudolph is found dead.  Since Ten's no long a member of the police force, he's technically not supposed to get involved he does.  But watching his stressed out buddy fail to come to any substantial solutions as to the murderer, Ten secretly begins to investigate, all the time trying to keep the second rule of resisting the patterns of past betrayals.  That seems to work double-time as Marv Rudolph betrayed almost everyone with whom he came in contact and they in turn betrayed and then killed the film producer.

Ironically, Ten gets pulled into a second mystery involving a search for the sister, Sadie, sister of Julius Rosen; Sadie disappeared during the Holocause.  It turns out that there's something about gang-related activity going on here which it takes some hair-raising spins and turns for Ten to figure out.  In the meantime, he almost loses his best friend, a cop, but gains a wonderful woman, Heather as a girlfriend.

There's plenty of action albeit some repetition of Ten's stressed out feelings and attempts to clear out the mental garbage, but through it all Ten finally decides to come to terms with his father in a series of shocking scenes involving two good monk friends in India.  It leaves enough unsaid that is obviously a hook to prepare the reader for what will probably be a third Tenzing Norbu mystery.  Besides being a great crime thriller novel, The Second Rule of Ten has something to say to those who spend a huge amount of time reacting from past patterns rather than acting in the present moment.  Nice job, Gay Hendricks and Tinker Lindsay!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

The Last Runaway. Tracy Chevalier. Penguin Group (USA). January 2013. 320 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780525952992.

Honor Bright is an English Quaker who has emigrated from England with her sister, Grace, who hopes to marry a former resident of her hometown. Grace, however, dies on the voyage to America and Honor arrives full of grief and confusion.  Honor also had a boyfriend in England who dropped her for another young woman, a fact that devastated Honor so much she felt she had to leave the place where she would always be labeled as the gal who was “jilted” by her one and only great love.  So the goal is for Honor to live with Grace’s fiancé and his recently widowed sister-in-law, all of whom Honor doesn’t know and whose reception she wonders about frequently. 

Honor is so physically spent from sea-sickness on the horrific trip (in her mind anyway) that she stays for a few days in the town with a milliner, Belle Mills before continuing a few more hours to her destination, Faithwell.  Belle is a gritty, no-nonsense kind of gal who insists Honor do some sewing of pieces for hats as she is a very talented sewer and quilter.  Belle, however, is sensitive enough to perceive Honor’s fragile status in a land that brooks no weakness because it is so fragile itself in its pre-Civil War confused state in 1850.  Slaves are running north and it is irony of irony that Bell is helping to shelter the runaway slaves traveling the famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, Underground Railroad.  Honor finally realizes it as well which poses another problem since Quakers never, ever lie!  What to do when Belle’s brother, Donovan, a slave catcher and abrasively teasing young man, questions her about what she’s recently seen?

And how is she to respond to the attention of Jack Haymaker, who volunteers to marry her after her brief respite in the Quaker town of Faithwell fails miserably?  The conflict which is quite ever-present intensifies when Honor bucks the Quaker mentality of disapproving slavery but refusing to take any part in the runaway slaves’ precarious position on every step of their formidable journey.  Realistic decisions and a true examination of the faith where she has always found comfort leads to some surprising, very satisfying results!

This is quite a different topic from Tracy Chevalier’s normal forays into European history in her fiction, but it is finely written and in many ways surpasses her previous historical novels.  She “gets it right” for every point of view on the issue of slavery that was gradually tearing apart a nation, as well as her portrayal of a single Quaker woman who evolves from a tragic, weak woman to a principled protagonist unafraid to act out her beliefs and more the admirable because of that growth.

The Last Runaway is superb, poignant historical fiction.  Tracy Chevalier has again shown her mastery of character development and a plot that grows intriguing with every turned page, a future best-seller for sure!

Tracy Chevalier - Q and A by Author of The Last Runaway

Q&A with

Your previous novels were all set in Europe.  What made you decide to choose America, and more specifically, Ohio, as the setting of The Last Runaway?

I moved to England right after I graduated from college, and have spent 28 years getting used to living in Europe. During all that time I’ve felt a bit of an outsider, even though I now have a British passport and an English husband and son, and have lived in England longer than anywhere else. That outsider status helped me when it came to writing: when you’re standing on the sideline rather than playing in the game, you perhaps have more perspective. Now it seems I’ve been away from America long enough to feel less attached, and more objective, so I am ready to write about it.

I chose Ohio specifically because it was the state where the Underground Railroad was the most active. It was also a crossroads state, with lots of movement from south to north and from east to west. Ohio served as a gateway for easterners heading west. It’s still an interesting state, with a curious identity different from the rest of the country. A mix of east and Midwest, it is often presented as the boring place everyone wants to leave, yet it has the power to elect a President. In fact, seven Presidents have come from Ohio, as well as Neil Armstrong, Orville Wright, Steven Spielberg, Toni Morrison, Gloria Steinem. I think it’s a fascinating state.

Of course it helps that I went to Oberlin College, so I know the setting a little. Since its founding Oberlin has been a radical place, admitting African Americans and women among its first students, flying the flag for progressive thought. It was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. In fact, there is one of Toni Morrison’s Benches by the Road in Oberlin, marking it as a place of historical significance for African Americans. I happened to be at Oberlin when she unveiled the bench in April 2009, and that was what first gave me the idea to write The Last Runaway.

Why did you choose to feature a young Quaker woman as your protagonist?

A couple days after I saw Toni Morrison unveil the Bench, I went to a Quaker meeting, where people sit together in silence. I went to a Quaker camp as a kid, and I still go to Meeting sometimes. There I kept thinking about the Bench by the Road, about the incredible journeys African Americans had to make to escape slavery and find freedom, and how Quakers helped them along the way.  It made me wonder if I could make my main character a Quaker, and what it would be like to write a heroine who is very quiet and who always tells the truth (Quakers are not meant to lie).

Many readers might be unfamiliar with the role Quakers played in the Underground Railroad.  Did women like Honor Bright really exist? 

Honor herself is made up, but lots of Quakers worked on the Underground Railroad. The “President” of the Underground Railroad was a Quaker called Levi Coffin, who lived in Cincinnati and then Indiana.

Indeed, the abolitionist movement was largely begun by Quakers. Slavery went against their belief in the equality of all people, and in the 1820s they began organized protests that grew into abolitionism.

What do you think are the most common misconceptions about the Quaker religion/Quaker society?

People often mistake Quakers for the Amish. Both are Protestant sects, but the Amish are much different from Quakers, eschewing modern technology (electricity, cars, etc.) and keeping separate from society. When you think of a man with a beard and flat hat and a woman with a white cap, riding in a horse-drawn buggy: that’s Amish.

Quakers were and are much more worldly: they used to dress plainly but not radically (the Amish, on the other hand, prohibit buttons, using pins instead), they used new inventions, they often lived and worked among non-Quakers. Quakers were known to run honest businesses, and some English Quaker families (Cadbury, Sainsbury) became very wealthy, which is also not how most people would characterize them.

I expect people also think of Quakers as not being much fun, as they didn’t drink, dance, play games. (That has since changed!) It’s true they were rather more sober than other communities, but they had their moments.

 What did you find most surprising during your research for this novel?

I spent a bit of time in Ohio, of course, and one of my favorite moments was visiting an Amish farm. As I mentioned above, the Amish and Quakers are very different, but I needed to look around a farm that was still run in a 19th-century way, and an Amish farm was perfect for that. A farmer woman named Maddie took me around all the farm buildings and to see the animals, and patiently answered my 21st-century city-girl questions. Bare feet, a huge family, bare rooms, hundreds of chickens, jars and jars of vegetables, mud, animal stench, the biggest damn barn full of hay, a massive corn crib: I was in heaven in terms of research. I couldn’t take photos, so I just stared.

The most surprising and upsetting part of my research was discovering that, as principled as they were, Quakers were as fallible as others. Early Quakers kept slaves: who knows how they justified that with their beliefs. Moreover, though there were some black Quakers, for a time they were expected to sit on the “Negro pew,” separate from white Quakers. I was stunned by the unquestioned prejudice. On the other hand, it made for a much more textured novel, since the book is really about principles compromised by reality. Quakers may have wanted everyone to be treated equally, but they did not want their daughters sitting next to black men, and didn’t consider this a contradiction. Curious. That sort of thing has made The Last Runaway more complicated, and more subtle, I hope.

Why does quilting play such an important role in the story?

I always look for things that characters can do in my books. People made stuff much more than we do now, and those activities can be quite revealing of character. Quilting is one of those skills that most women possessed, and it seemed the perfect activity to focus on, as English and American women both did it and yet came up with such different styles. English patchwork is sober and precise, American appliqué more garish and quicker to make. Then there are the African American-style quilts arising out of hardship and a make-do, improvised attitude that have found their apogee in the Gee’s Bend quilts now so celebrated. They couldn’t be more different from English patchwork, and it was a handy way of pointing up differences in the characters in The Last Runaway.

I worked hard to avoid making quilts into a metaphor – life as a patchwork, blah blah blah. Instead I tried to focus on the making itself, the planning and stitching, the social side of it, and the practical warmth. Also quilts as commerce: how many a bride needed, what they are worth in terms of time. I loved all that stuff, it’s gritty rather than sentimental.

Of course in order to write about quilts, I had to learn to make them myself. I do that with every book: fossil hunting for Remarkable Creatures, button-making for Burning Bright, painting for Girl with a Pearl Earring. It makes it easier to write about when you do it yourself.

What do you hope readers take away from The Last Runaway?

Though I try to avoid being prescriptive in my books, with this one I hope readers will have a better sense of how hard it is to live a principled life in the face of practical realities. We all like to think we will do the right thing when faced with injustice, but it can be hard to take a stand. Someone usually pays for it.

Also, people are not really “goodies” or “baddies.” Villains usually have a balanced side to them, and good people can be irritating and hypocritical. It’s not all black and white.

Any plans to return to America for the setting of your next novel?

I loved writing about America, but I am not yet sure where my next book will be set. I’m not entirely sure it will all be set in the past, either. All I know is that it will feature trees. I’m toying with the idea of following trees that were transported back and forth between the USA and Europe, but it’s still early days.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Song Remains the Same by Allison Winn Scotch

The Song Remains the Same. Allison Winn Scotch. Penguin Group (USA). April 2013. 320 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780399157581.

The beginning of this book has a rather startling suggestion – Nell is one of two survivors of devastating airplane crash with multiple fatalities.  When she finally comes out of a coma, she sees two people around her bed and hasn’t a clue as to who they are or why they are there.  The minor shocker has do with the fact she has amnesia, not remembering a single iota of her past life.  The first few pages are obviously about how she reacts to family and friends who all are out to help her by telling her all about the past.  But before that really gets into full swing, Nell somehow intuits that she has a phenomenal chance here, not one most other people get in a lifetime, the chance to completely shape her own future?

So what truly moves Nell?  Although she was said to be a superb art dealer who has a fine eye for paintings and other artistic works that are hot sellers, what she does remain are pop, folk, and rock songs from the 60’s through the 80’s and each title is the name of a chapter which cannily parallels the memories of real life Nell is recalling.  It’s truly reflective of all the ups and downs of life, along with the thoughtful and emotional reactions and responses arising with each slice of life, a Candid Camera that misses nothing.

The remainder of the story continues in both veins as memories very, very slowly begin coming back to Nell.  No, her loving husband wasn’t always so nice, her sister wasn’t always so close and caring – at least without her own motives, and Her father was a very talented artist who loved the ideal in life and supposedly could never cope with the harshness of reality, or could he but not in the way Nell would find acceptable; all she remembers eventually is that she worshipped the ground he walked on. Nell’s mother, however, has a bevy of secrets explaining Nell’s father’s disappearance.  That latter mystery coupled with the shocker toward the end of the story is totally unpredictable and rife with tension that is almost explosive.

The Song Remains the Same is a finely written work of contemporary fiction, with a slowly evolving plot with twists and turns in all the right places.  It’s a story that is very emotional in nature but feistily engaging at the same time.  Our destiny does indeed lie in the shape we create and sometimes that means undoing some faulty hardwiring built in from the past!  Superb, Allison Winn Scotch!

The Forever Year by Lou Aronica

The Forever Year. Lou Aronica. Fiction Std. January 2013. 366 pp. pbk. Also available as e-book. ISBN #: 9781936558360.

Jessie, the youngest sibling in his family, now in his 30s and still feeling ignored or tolerated as the “baby” of the family, shocks the family.  His Mom has passed away and his Dad, Mickey, is elderly and starting to be forgetful. The turning point happens when he leaves a pot on a turned-on stove and proceeds to sit in the living room and fall asleep.  The fire makes all of his adult children realize he is now in danger if left to live by himself.  So they have a family meeting where the toss-up is between their father living in an assisted living home or nursing home, though he’s physically fit for his age. So what a surprise when Jessie volunteers to have his Dad live with him. 

Jessie at first realizes how quickly his idea was rather “romantic” in nature, a chance to finally be seen and heard as he is and not just an extra who never really connected to his father, a chance at closeness.  But as future pages show, the glamor of the idea is quickly paling and the tension is rife with repeated misunderstandings or assumptions about each other that are far from reality.  But that’s about to change when it’s Jessie’s turn to get shocked by getting to know the man he never understood was capable of being a “lover” outside of his role of father.  This is even more interesting given Jessie’s present belief about there being a “true” love that lasts forever – no don’t assume you know how this will turn out because you can’t do the usual prediction for this story!

The reader will read about Mickey’s great love before Jessie’s mother came into the picture. It is said that everyone gets only “one” true love, and Mickey’s lesson to Jessie has to do is risking it all to make that happen, no matter what the eventual outcome. 

The Forever Year is biting and sweet story at the same time.  It’s sweet romantic fiction with a tad of the Nicholas Sparks but without the soppy quality of the latter; and thus the entire tale seems more realistic and endearing!  Nicely done, Lou Aronica!