Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Chalice: A Novel by Nancy Bilyeau

The Chalice: A Novel. Nancy Bilyeau. Touchstone. March 2013. 485 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9781476708652.

Joanna Stafford, former novice, has escaped the Tower of London while so many others have gone on to torture, beheading, and burning at the stake, all at the hands of King Henry VIII.  The year is 1538 and Joanna is trying to adjust to the life of a common woman, a difficult task given her noble background, all of which readers may have encountered in the prequel to this novel, The Crown: A Novel.   Having heard two prophecies about her role in the supposed downfall of the King, she wants no more knowledge as death has stalked everyone who is connected to her.  

As the King is destroying more monasteries and carrying out the Reformation through Thomas Cromwell, Joanna now learns that others are conniving to have European leaders attack England in order to restore the Catholic faith Henry has so thoroughly worked at stamping out.  Meanwhile, two men love Joanna and the course of these potential romances is a lovely and frightening one indeed.  For Joanna is not trusted and spies watch her every move, while others are using everything in their power to get her to agree to hear the third and final prophecy.  This is the story of temptation in so many ways, with Joanna experiencing physical desire at the same time she knows horror of what the future could bring.

For now Joanna is developing her talent as a seamstress, designing tapestries that awe all who see them.  Suddenly, her quiet life is shattered and after many fruitless arguments, she agrees to finish the task that seems to be divinely inspired.  She will travel to Belgium, be held prisoner when she once again refuses to cooperate with the powers that totally oppose the King, and then meet a famous seer who has just been accused of being a converso by the notorious Inquisition.  Finally, a revelation will clarify what she has struggled with for years upon years and she will embrace her task with faith.  Will she succeed?  How will England fare with so much division rife throughout the country and other nations?

Nancy Bilyeau is a very talented writer who has spun a brilliant work of historical fiction, as well as a tense plot replete with complex, dynamic characters.  Obviously well-researched, The Chalice immediately draws the reader into the story, urging support and opposition at all the right places, crafting complexity to several riddles within the account, and inserting just enough levity and love to balance out the "humanity" of all the characters.  For motivations and outcomes do not always exist as pure and simple as one would want but follow the complexity of the times in which this story takes place.

The Chalice: A Novel is finely crafted historical fiction.  It, as well as its prequel, deserves the status of "classic historical fiction." Congratulations, Nancy Bilyeau on an amazing, enjoyable and noteworthy series!

Mrs. Lieutenant: A Sharon Gold Novel by Phyllis Zimbler Miller

Mrs. Lieutenant: A Sharon Gold Novel.  Phyllis Zimbler Miller. Create Space. April 2008. 494 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9781419686290.

The early 1970s is a difficult time in American history. The Vietnam War is in full swing, surrounded by patriotic men who sign up to fight this war to save America from the spread of Communism and the protesters who face armed violence but refuse to back down against a war they believe is totally unjust .  In the middle of this pitched battle are the wives of four officers undergoing special training in Fort Knox, Kentucky.  They represent four types of women throughout America, a Jew, an African-American, a Southern Baptist and a Puerto Rican.  They have received a booklet by the name of Mrs. Lieutenant, a book whose contents they are to read and obey without question, rules that determine the success or failure of their husband’s officer training program.

It sounds a simple enough plot yet there is so much complexity representative of this actual historical period of bloodshed and strife.  Yes, there is the obvious prejudice that depicts the anguish of being a Jew or black person in a white, “Southern” mentality Army; but always threading the conscious conformity lie the fears and questions of those who knew that orders to Vietnam meant death or at the least permanent mental anguish from what is seen, heard and done during that time.  For instance, what of the custom of “fragging” which means the killing of an officer by discontent men who lack respect for their leader?  Those who are older might think they know everything about these years and scarring memories, but this novel will open the eyes of many.

What about the tension that mounts to snapping point and winds up in the near-death of a man and the actual death of the one who has flipped?  What about a woman who has lost one husband and is now faced with the death of another to this man-eating war that promises disaster no matter how well one is trained?  These and so many more questions are addressed in this monumentally simple yet profound account of historical fiction that is replete with too much painful and yet proud reality?  Quite a job well-done, right down to the raw emotions, memories, and imagined scenarios for the present and future replete on every page for Vietnam era participants! Read it and reflect on its theme about tomorrow’s possibilities!

The House At the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag

The House At the End of Hope Street. Menna Van Praag. Pamela Dorman Books. April 2013. 304 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780670784639.

 Imagine when life seems its bleakest, when one feels all is lost and senses no worthwhile future.  There is a house awaiting such a moment for many women over many years of the last century and this is the story of four women in particular with mention of many others who can communicate the essence of what they found in this house during their brief stay here.  Peggy Abbott is the head of this house, holding a commission she accepted long ago and for which she has sacrificed the love of her life. Now enters Alba Ashley whose career as a history scholar has been demolished through the treachery of another. She is walking with nowhere to go when she is drawn to this mysterious “home” in the truest sense of the word!

So begins the story of Alba’s slow but special journey to healing along with other women, Carmen and Greer.  Carmen holds a secret buried outside the house that is ripping her apart and Greer is devastated from the betrayal of a former fiancĂ©.  The home where they may only stay for 99 days is magical; it gives each what is needed for the healing process, initially materials things each woman loves and then brief messages and conversations with the ghosts of former residents.  These include Daphne du Maurier, Dorothy Parker, Stella (who is connected with one of the residents in a shocking way) and many more – all speaking from their picture frames throughout every section of wall in the house.  Yes, even the walls, floors, pipes and more speak and move according to the emotions being felt deeply as time passes.  While there is much pain in the healing process, this is a house of hope, of joy and it is delightful to share this progress with all.

Alba will discover the secret about her family and through that connect to her true calling; and in that search she will finally know love.  Carmen and Greer will assist as well as be helped by Alba, and their beautiful gifts will emerge in a wondrous way.  A reunion will occur, a confession will be made, and most precious of all, these women will learn to stop denying their true identity, stop making excuses, stop rejecting the hope that lies so close and takes one momentous leap to access.

Yes, this is a contrived fantasy but a beautiful one that is such a joy to read.  The writing is exquisite, full of sensual detail and gripping changes of plot in just the right places.  The reader is privy to the deepest thoughts of these women which stir the readers’ hearts in personal ways; in a sense this may be the reader’s home as well.
Delightful Ms. Van Praag – exquisite, beautiful, sensitive and thrilling fiction!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Next Stop: An Autistic Son Grows Up by Glen Finland

Next Stop: An Autistic Son Grows Up. Glen Finland. Penguin Group (USA). March 2013. 304 pp. hbk. ISBN#: 9780425261033.

David Finland and his mother, Glen, spend a whole summer traveling the Washington D.C. trains.  Whereas it was a constant surprise for David when he was a child, now the goal is for him to learn how to navigate traveling on his own.  In fact, that is the goal of this entire account.  While it is easy to parent an autistic child forever, assuming responsibility in all aspects, it’s not healthy or beneficial to David.  The unspoken question remains if he can maintain independence without always checking in with Mom and Dad, a serious question with no easy answers.

The first thing one realizes on reading is that every disabled child, particularly autistic children/adults, is unique.  There’s no cookie cutter pattern to follow but David Finland is able to show what works and what doesn’t.  His biggest problem is that he gets so distracted and focused on one thing that everything else is off his radar or thinking. 
Glen describes the frantic search initially for what caused David’s problems and is not shy about discussing people’s kind but more often cruel or thoughtless comments about David’s autism, including mainstream children in school who can be the most heartless and the most lacking in understanding and compassion.  But the story of Glen and her husband’s journey with David is the most inspiring part of this story.  No, they don’t learn it in classes, although they get some clues here and there from other programs. They learn by trial and error, by not condemning and always encouraging, while realistically setting limits, not an easy task at all.

David is off the radar as far as others’ emotional needs but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his own way of showing care and love. The possibilities of jobs come and go but the Finland family forge on, knowing there’s a spot just for David.  He loves working with animals which is a distinct possibility for the future. A brief time in Florida turns out to fizzle out, along with a threat from another guy taking advantage of David’s trusting nature. At one point, he vocalizes his “right” to have a job, his own place and how that can’t be denied him.

The story goes on and one, getting better and better. This is such a very real story which anyone in contact with autistic children should read, even if one only briefly meets someone like David.  It’ about hope no matter how it’s tested and an unconditional love that brooks no permanent obstacles for an adult son who has the “right” to live like everyone else.  This portrait is well-written as well without stereotypical sermonizing or whining, even when it hurts so much! Kudos to you Glen Finland for sharing your journey – we are the better for it and are rooting for David’s future. 

While We Were Watching Downton Abbey by Wendy Wax

While We Were Watching Downton Abbey.  Wendy Wax. Penguin Group (USA). April 2013. 384 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 97804525263310.

A motley group live in the Alexander Building, watched over by the gentleman Edward, who sees to the needs of the building and arranges for a weekly showing of Downton Abbey, the British serial show that millions around the world have been avidly following and immensely enjoying.  This is where Samantha, Claire, Brooke and other minor characters live and where they bond through their Sunday evening gatherings!

Samantha and her siblings were poor when she met her rich husband.  She can’t cook and always orders in and she can’t control her sister and brother who are money-hungry parasites and a mother-in-law who bullies her and the rest of the family.  Jonathan maintains silence throughout all this, including the grand schemes of Samantha’s brother that have made Jonathan lose thousands of dollars.  One begins to sense a constant sense of intense fear looming beneath Samantha’s exterior, an unwillingness to risk speaking truth to her husband, brother or sister.  Beginning new friendships with Brooke and Claire begins to change it all, very slowly but oh so surely!

Claire is a writer who has written Highland romances that readers love.  But she has a massive case of writer’s block, even though she doesn’t acknowledge she has it and doesn’t seem willing to explore why this dry spell has developed.  She has this new life and doesn’t quite seem able to settle into it easily.  Then she begins to attend the Sunday gatherings around the TV series and eventually wakes up to a whole new world!
Brook is divorced from the man she worked to put through medical school.  Now he’s threatening her with being thrown out of the Alexander and at the same time he and his new girlfriend are going to buy a new place in the same building.  He’s a Dad when it’s convenient and not financially supportive of her children; she needs money and some new confidence on the interior.  Edward sees everything and finds a niche for Brook that is life-saving in many, many different ways!

Downton Abbey is about the ups and downs of the aristocracy and the “downstairs” help or servants of the household.  It’s about love, hate, loss of life and the birth of new life both literally and figuratively!  While there are no parallels to this story, it’s gritty and tender qualities seem to imbue these characters with the strength they need to shed old destructive patterns of life and explore new choices that could turn either way but are far, far more worthy of the their efforts than they knew in their past banal existences.

While We Were Watching Downton Abbey is a grand, well-paced contemporary read definitely deserving to be on the best seller list!!! Great writing!

Marriage Matters: A Novel by Cynthia Ellingsen

Marriage Matters: A Novel. Cynthia Ellingsen. Penguin Group (USA). April 2013. 496 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780425258002.

June, Kristine and Chloe are three generations of a feisty family who know what they want, at least up to this point.  Each of their lives is about to be overturned, forcing new decisions that are more carefully arrived at and threatening to totally divide them or unite them more deeply than ever before!  What a journey!

June is a great gardener, that is until her neighbor Charley puts up a glaring gazebo that starts a huge fight between the two neighbors. Add to that all June’s female friends think Charlie is “hot.”  How will their growing animosity develop or at least how could a neighborly compromise emerge?  Where will it go?

Kristine and Kevin have been married a long time and now Kristine is wondering if the best of their life together has passed forever.  Kevin travels constantly and is exhausted and depleted when home. After winning a trip with one of her employees, she realizes that her marriage is on the rocks.  Will Kristine call it quits and what should she do or not do?  This part of the story undergoes several surprising twists and turns that make the reader flip those pages furiously to see what happens next.

Chloe is just too busy to think about romance.  She’s working on an art therapy degree and is just about to blow it when a run-in with a very rude professor turns into something else.  Is this really it? Or not?  Is she destined to remain single or is the love of her life closer than she can see?

Various stages of romance and lack of same swing back and forth in the always fascinating pages of this funny, frustrating and tender story.  Cynthia Ellingsen knows what lurks within the hearts and minds of every woman and the men who all too often don’t have a clue.  Marriage Matters: A Novel leaves the reader questioning, reading, laughing and loving it all – nicely done, Cynthia Ellingsen!