Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Secrets She Carried: A Novel by Barbara Davis

The Secrets She Carried.  Barbara Davis.  Penguin Group (USA). October 2013. 384 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 978045141877.

Leslie Nichols ran away to New York City years ago but now she’s returned to Peak Plantation in North Carolina to discover that she’s been left half of the plantation by her grandmother, Maggie.  She’s not pleased when she discovers a stranger, Jay Davenport, was left the other half.  When they first meet, their conversation flounders into the drastic opposite of warm and fuzzy; it gets even worse when Leslie realizes Jay resents her long absence and resents her arriving to quash the plans he had for beginning a winery on the property. It was Jay who Maggie had confided in for years, even her hope that Leslie would return to where she belonged on the plantation.  Jay is suspicious about why Leslie left but really doesn’t have a clue to the real reasons that haunt her to this day.

Several surprises surface during this story of these two stubborn, ornery creatures getting to know each other better and even more.  It turns out Jay has his own share of secrets that made him quit using his very popular talent and left him riddled with profound pain.  When Leslie begins to realize this, she begins to cool down and make room for both of them to let go of the past and move forward. But the road will be difficult and fraught with brash and soft words.

Leslie begins to clean out her grandmother’s home and is struck by some jewels she found and some paintings of her grandfather that have an uncanny resemblance in the main figure that is powerful beyond the obvious sexiness of the works.  There’s also a story to be told about Henry Gavin’s wife and Henry’s lover, a lady’s maid named Adele Laveau.  It goes far beyond the alcoholic and drug addict that Susanne Gavin has become, far beyond the multiple pregnancies she’s lost, and far beyond her inability to make Henry truly love her.  One doesn’t quite know whether to hate or to pity her, probably a huge mixture of both.  But there’s a mystery surrounding the death of Adele and the silence of Susanne, Maggie, Henry and even the folks in town.
To add to the drama, Leslie’s father, Jimmy, shows up, having finished his prison sentence. But as unwelcome as he is, Jimmy needs Leslie to forgive him and offer him a chance. 

No one is beyond forgiveness; it surfaces in so many different ways.  As it is so tritely but truthfully said so often, one can run but can’t hide from the past.  This is the story of a journey of healing with intrigue, humor, mystery, secrets, romance and hope.  While it starts out fairly slowly, it quickly picks up and the reader won’t be able to stop reading.  Be prepared for some late nights reading, with some take-out dinners and less sleep than customary.  Barbara Davis has written a poignant, enigmatic, and loving novel that will delight all who relish a great story. Well-crafted and exciting work of contemporary fiction!

Highly recommended!

More Things in Heaven and Earth: A Novel of Watervalley by Jeff High

More Things in Heaven and Earth: A Novel of Watervalley.  Jeff High. Penguin Group (USA). October 2013. 464 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780451419262.

Deep in debt from medical school tuition, Luke Bradford agrees to pay it off in service as a primary physician for three years in a rural Tennessee town.  Luke would prefer to be a research specialist, but that is not to be.  The beginning of that service is far from noteworthy; indeed it is hilarious as he manages to bumble his way into town and practically burn his own lovely new home down.  He worries that the town residents will think him a bumbling fool, especially as he manages to inadvertently joke about a teacher to a woman he finds attractive, little realizing he has started off his wooing with an extremely funny but definitely insulting faux pas!

Little by little he manages to impress the town with his medical expertise.  He even manages to befriend a recluse who was once very active politically and socially but who knows secrets that Luke doesn’t have a clue explain his wealthy but antisocial present status.  In between running the clinic, he has some amusing encounters with his housekeeper, a woman “of color” who seems highly educated and a definite match for witty remarks.

Then comes a devastating health crisis in the town with its flu-like symptoms that fall fast and hard on men, women, and children.  After far too long trying to figure out its source, Luke discovers the secret hidden out of fear and greed; passing that test provides Luke with a new perspective.  It reveals much of his own childhood background that has left him feeling like an outsider.  For it’s not the town’s residents who have shut out Luke but he who has always kept a thick line of reserve as he yearns for the day he can leave to get on with “what really matters to him.” Meanwhile, he is having the opposite effect on everyone who have the highest respect for him and are also beginning to care deeply about him, especially when they see him agonizing over his inability to find the source of this sudden and drastic illness.

The surprise discovery and moments after that self-revelation are lovely to read.  Luke is now on the road to truly becoming a community authority and beloved member!
More Things in Heaven and Earth… is an engaging and quaint story that has just enough crisis and tension to keep a very simple but endearing story moving and moving!  Highly recommended!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Spirit Keeper by K. B. Laugheed

The Spirit Keeper.  K. B. Laugheed. Plume. September 2013. 353 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780142180334.

Syawa, a holy man or seer, has a vision that mandates he seek and save “the Creature of Fire and Ice,” a gift he will bring to his native Indian people that will bring immortality.  Katie O’Toole is that gift!  Syawa and his good friend and bodyguard, Hector, travel across the United States to accomplish this sacred mission.  Katie at the time is living in poverty and abusive misery in Pennsylvania and doesn’t realize at all that her salvation is at hand when a murderous band of Indians on March 2, 1747 attack her home.  They murder her father and almost everyone in her family except her mother, sister, and Katie.  She stands up to one of them with a gun but is captured by Syawa. No, she’s not kept for sexual purposes; she really doesn’t understand the immense value she holds for him but it does remain so for the entire duration he knows.  Hector, on the other hand, believes she is trouble for them and yet refrains from saying anything further out of his obvious adoration of the seer in Syawa.

As they travel, they perform the story of their journey as they arrive in other Indian villages.  They even meet certain colonists who try to save Katie from Syawa and Hector and are quite surprised that she chooses to remain with them.  This then is the story of that perilous journey.  At one point they are captured by renegades who suggest great danger but whom they manage to escape, a scene in which Katie shows her daring mettle and during which she amazes Syawa and Hector who believe this is mystical ability rather than sheer bravado.

A tragic occurrence occurs and Hector is left alone with Katie.  He comes to believe she now has the ability of a seer and yet there are moments when both are close to something indescribable which will take time to emerge to full acknowledgment.  Multiple adventures, threats, challenges, etc. from both humans and animals, constantly pose danger to the couple.  What they will or not become leave the reader tense with anticipation, questions, doubts and finally joy.
Katie, Syawa and Hector are dynamic characters who defy stereotypical characterization and never fail to thrill their readers. The Spirit Keeper is a lovely, engaging reader with just enough tension and intrigue to fascinate any lover of contemporary or historical fiction. Simple and profound truths exist within its pages and hold it notches above other Native American fiction.  Nicely done, K. B. Laugheed!

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China.  Jung Chang. Random House, LLC. October 2013. 480 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780307271600.

Cixi appears in this story as a low-grade concubine who has been chosen by the Emperor to satisfy his pleasures, be they sexual or artistic.  A woman who has no say in political discourse, Cixi demonstrates an unusual intelligence and eventually influence in those family and ministerial members of the imperial family.  Thus, it is no surprise that Cixi sees China going downhill when Western powers begin to flex their military muscles in threats if they are not given more trade rights in previously forbidden Chinese cities.  While these “foreign devils” are posing war, Cixi is wise enough to discover China’s shrinking economy and knows that growth for China lies in modernizing in order to improve her financial status.

Westerners perhaps, in this present time of revolutions and coups, fail to appreciate how dramatic it was for Cixi to have a son by Emperor Xianfang and take over as co-Regent with the Emperor’s wife, Empress Zhen, after the Emperor’s death.  Xianfang had made numerous decrees leading to the Opium War that infuriated foreign traders.  Most unusual was the bond between Empress Zhen and Cixi, who shared precise opinions about foreign and domestic matters; the Empress, on the other hand, was more than willing to take a backseat and let Cixi rule the country.  Her rule continues with carefully calculated plans that wind their way around the opposition ministers of the Court.  Eventually foreigners get more trading rights, places to explore in China, and implementation of industrial inventions, such as the telegraph, electricity and the railroad that benefit all countries involved, including China herself.  The largest fights over these many years is over the trade of opium, a drug that was destroying China; permission for foreign missionaries to minister in interior China, the burning of the Summer Palace by angry foreigners, the increasing incursion of Japan and other nations, and many other debacles that Cixi manages with aplomb and great diplomatic skill.

Cixi toward the end of her life recognizes that her son’s rule, like his father’s, was a total disaster and fears what will occur when she has gone.  She has retired twice but still “managed” or “ruled” China for most of her life; the opposite poles of thinking in the Court almost mandate a Parliamentarian style government for the future in which checks and balances will allow no extremist thinking to destroy the progress.  To her credit this was implemented after her death. 

Every page of this biography, which is also truly a history of China between 1835 and 1912, is fascinating, accurate because of obvious precise research, and exciting.  Many ministers are characterized as well, with their strengths and weaknesses exposed for analysis as they make beneficial and deleterious decisions that Cixi must expand or annul.  It’s a perilous but thrilling journey the reader shares with Cixi and Jung Chang has again written a brilliant story about the violence, weak personal characters, tragedies, joys of China in its drive to become a well-respected, modern nation.  Superb in all ways and a great read!