Book Review: Chasm Creek

Chasm CreekIn her recently released novel, Patricia Grady Cox captures the old Southwest with skill and aplomb. The realism of Chasm Creek brings the reader into the lives of Morgan Braddock, Civil War hero but now a wanted killer, Morgan’s partner, Reuben Santiago, a Navaho raised in a Spanish Roman Catholic family, and Esther Corbin, a mother of four children.

Esther’s husband has been gone for months; he’s apparently abandoned his family and their meager farm. She jumps at the chance to rent out the farm to two men, Morgan and Reuben, who want to set up a business selling horses to the Army. Esther and her children move to the nearby dusty mining town of Chasm Creek, to stay with her brother, the town marshal.

Although Morgan longs to be with his wife and children, he can’t go back. Esther doesn’t miss her abusive husband, but he’s left her in a bad position, still married but without an income. Even though it’s morally forbidden, Esther and Morgan can’t deny the deep longings they feel toward one another.

Chasm Creek, a story of love, loss and fate entwined, brings to life a keen sense of place. Patricia Grady Cox’s descriptions are so vivid and richly detailed, I often wanted to linger, to savor the moment. On the other hand, the book is a captivating, fast-paced read. Cox is highly skilled in bringing the Southwest, its landscape, authentic characters and language, to life..

For more information about the author, visit www.PatriciaGradyCox.com

Book Review: Before You Know Kindness

Before You Know KindnessBefore You Know Kindness (Vintage Books) by bestselling author Chris Bohjalian is a gripping, captivating in-depth novel with layers of intriguing drama, insights and family dynamics.

The Prologue captures the essence of the story: What happens when a bullet from a hunting rifle shatters Spencer McCullough’s shoulder. EMT’s do what they can, and he’s bundled off to the hospital. What lies ahead, how this tragic accident affects the whole family, follows.

The story then goes back in time to Nan Seton’s New Hampshire summer home and her two guests, granddaughters Charlotte, twelve, and her cousin, Willow, ten. Soon the girls’ families arrive and they all fall into organized activities, working in the vegetable garden and taking in various activities offered by the country club. The family jokingly calls the annual visit “boot camp,” as Nan keeps everyone on a tight, event-filled schedule.

Spencer, Charlotte’s father and Nan’s son-in-law, is a well-known animal activist. Although tolerated by the family, Spencer is generally considered overbearing in his defense of animal rights. He’s not only an outspoken vegetarian, he’s a vegan, which introduces even more challenges when feeding a crowd of people over a period of days, or even when selecting a restaurant that all would enjoy. Spencer is well-known in his field and is the spokesman for a high-intensity animal rights group.

Through a series of unfortunate events, Spencer is accidentally shot by his daughter Charlotte. The subsequent shock, horror, guilt, anger, and raw, relentless pain follow and deeply affect every member of the family. Spencer’s life is profoundly altered. He’s in constant pain, his right arm is not only useless, it gets in the way. Formerly right-handed, taking care of his personal needs is overwhelmingly difficult and in some instances, impossible.

The girls, Charlotte and Willow, share a secret directly related to the accident, a secret that festers and finally comes to a boil.

Chris Bohjalian writes from the skin of men, women and children with complexity, skill and gentle humor. The story deals with social issues that loom in our society. With keen observations, Bohjalian delves into intimate family dynamics until you feel a part of the family. Before You Know Kindness is a multi-leveled novel that kept me spellbound from the beginning to the end. It’s a masterpiece.

The Treasure of the Steamboat Arabia

Dishes and other goods at "old store."

Dishes and other goods at “old store.”

While attending a Women Writing the West conference, our group visited the amazing Arabia Steamboat Museum, a historic Kansas City, MO attraction.

In 1856, the 171-foot-long, side-wheeler steamboat Arabia sank to the bottom of the Missouri River when her hull was pierced by a submerged tree, taking with it 200 tons of brand new store merchandise. The snag ripped open the hull which quickly filled with water. By the next morning, only the smokestacks and pilot house remained visible. Within the next few days, all remaining traces of the boat disappeared from sight. Numerous attempts to salvage the boat and her contents were attempted but, it appeared, all was lost. Although there were no human casualties, a mule that was tied to sawmill equipment went down with the ship.

Over time, the Missouri River changed course, leaving the Arabia buried deep in the mud of a farmer’s field. In 1987, Bob Hawley and his sons Greg and David set out to find the boat. Using old maps and a proton magnetometer to determine the location, they finally discovered the Arabia half a mile from the current river, under 45 feet of silt and topsoil.

The owners of the farm gave permission for excavation with the provision that the project be completed before spring planting. In November 1988, the Hawleys, along with family friends Jerry Mackery and David Luttrell, began the recovery task while the water table was at its lowest point. Heavy equipment was brought in including a 100-ton crane and 20 irrigation pumps to keep the site from flooding, Within days, goods were recovered, all in remarkably good shape. A wooden crate filled with elegant china was so well preserved even its yellow straw packing material was still intact. Pickles sealed in a wooden barrel were still edible. (Can’t you just hear that conversation: “You try it.” “No, you try it.”)

In February 1989, work ceased at the site and the pumps were turned off. The hole filled with water overnight.

Although the site of the sinking is near present-day Kansas City, Kansas, the cargo and remnants of the ship are now housed in The Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. The museum houses one of the most remarkable collections of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world. Each piece has been carefully cleaned, categorized and attractively displayed. The collection is still a work in progress as preservationists continue to clean remaining artifacts.

The Arabia Steamboat Museum is a fascinating collection of goods including European dishware, jewelry, guns, tools, clothing and food products,. The attractive displays are works of art with items exhibited on furniture replicas, effectively creating a time-capsule of frontier life in the 1800′s.

The Arabia Steamboat Museum is a perfect destination if you’re in the Kansas City, MO area. For more information, visit http://1856.com/

Book Review: Flight to Destiny

flight to destinySarah Byrn Rickman has again demonstrated her knowledge and expertise in young women aviators who flew military aircraft in support of World War II. In Flight to Destiny, Rickman has fictionalized the story of the patriotic talented pilots, closely following the original WAFS (Woman Airforce Ferry Pilots), later renamed WASP (Woman Airforce Service Pilots).

On December 7, 1941, Anne Gwynn and her student pilot are on their way back to John Rogers Airport, next to Pearl Harbor Naval Base, when they spot hundreds of Japanese aircraft attacking Pearl Harbor. Landing her small Cub among flying bullets, Anne is aware that the Naval Base for the U.S. Pacific Fleet has suffered mortal damage. What she hasn’t yet realized is that her destiny has changed forever.

Flight to Destiny closely follows the actual careers of several women aviators, among the 1,102 women who served their country by ferrying airplanes from the factories to modification centers and to Newark, New Jersey, freeing male pilots for flying in battle.

The fictionalized story is well told with believable characters and situations. Two characters, Nancy Love, head of WAFS, and Jacqueline Cochran, head of WASP are real-life characters in the fictional story.

History buffs interested in military aviation history will find this book a wealth of information. The author, herself a pilot, has described in some detail the various aspects of flying numerous types of aircraft under sometimes dicey situations.

Sarah Byrn Rickman has been researching the WASP for 23 years, interviewing many retired WASP and researching the aircraft they ferried. Flight to Destiny is her fifth book on the subject, joining three works of non-fiction and another novel.

I loved this book and was again impressed with Rickman’s rich knowledge of early women aviators and the important role they fulfilled in World War II.

For more information about the author, visit www.sarahbyrnrickman.com/

 

Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth TaleDiane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale (Atria Books) is a breathtaking, suspenseful novel written in delightful English prose.

Vida Winter, a reclusive, immensely popular writer, has kept her audience guessing as to what her thirteenth tale might be. Would it be as delightful and enchanting as the twelve she’s already written? The writer is as famous for her secrets as for her stories. Winter disdains the truth. “My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself. What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story?”

The famous writer commissions a little-known Cambridge biographer, Margaret Lea, with the offer to tell her life’s story. Lea journeys by train to Vida Winter’s big, old estate in Yorkshire where the biographer will live while gathering information from the elderly, dying author. They make a pact that Winter will tell only the truth and her biographer will not ask to skip around the story, that the story will be told in its proper order with a beginning, middle, and end, with no questions asked.

And what a story it is, reaching back to Winter’s family beginnings to an odd, wealthy household in the village of Angelfield near Banbury, England. Although the book encompasses many characters, it’s surprisingly easy to keep them sorted, thanks to rich characterization given to the many players.

Vida Winter’s story is compelling, but so is the biographer’s. Her role in the telling of the story is not without its own mysterious elements.

Setterfield spins a satisfying, richly descriptive tale to remember. I loved the British way of expression, the turn of phrase, the windswept-lay-of-the-land descriptions. It’s a multi-layered modern version of a Victorian novel, told with twists and surprising turns. I highly recommend The Thirteenth Tale.

 

Book Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdI read Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, in the early 1970′s. Coming from the Northwest, it was an eye-opener for me to learn about segregation in the South, written by a Southerner. Later, I saw the movie. By this time I was much more aware and had strong opinions of the injustices dealt African Americans, particularly in the South. But the Northwest had its equality issues as well.

This month, our Stanwood, WA book club selection was To Kill a Mockingbird and I was delighted to again read this classic with my even more enlightened awareness. It is a remarkable novel, full of humor and insights into life in Alabama during the late 1930′s. Lee spins a wonderful coming-of-age story of a young girl’s observations of her very limited surroundings. Scout, and her brother Jem, live with their father, Atticus, an attorney in Maycomb, Alabama. Scout’s mother died when she was two, so their black maid, Calpurnia, manages to keep house, cook and take care of the children.

Their world changes when Atticus is appointed to defend a black man who is unjustly accused of raping a white woman. Opinions expressed about the case are, in today’s social climate, shocking. In those days, people were lavishly polite and proper, but many were totally blinded toward the injustices shown African Americans.

Coincidentally, while I was in the midst of reading To Kill a Mockingbird, a news item broke announcing that Harper Lee has another book, one that had first been shown her publisher, Harper & Row. The original novel, Go Set a Watchman, was about a grown woman named Scout who returned to her small Alabama hometown between 1955 and 1957 to visit her family. Lee’s editor suggested that she rewrite the book from the perspective of Scout as a young girl. That book, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 1960 and was considered to be Harper Lee’s only published book. The just-recently discovered novel, Go Set a Watchman, is expected to be published in 2015 by HarperCollins.

I highly recommend To Kill a Mockingbird. I await with eager anticipation to read Harper Lee’s original work, Go Set a Watchman.

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible

the-poisonwood-bibleI’ve been hearing about The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver since 1998, but have just now finished reading it. It is extraordinary. Having lived in Africa for two years, the novel was probably more meaningful to me, but this book will appeal to anyone interested in a world view of humanity.

Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist minister, his wife and four daughters trek to a mission in the Belgian Congo in 1959. Nathan, a self-righteous bully is set on changing the village people of Kilanga to his view of Christianity.

The story is told in the voices of Nathan’s wife and their four daughters. Although Kingsolver titles each chapter with the name of the speaker, she wouldn’t have needed to. The author’s characterization is so good that within a few words you know exactly who is speaking. Orleanna, Nathan’s wife, tries to be obedient to her husband, but after years of struggle, is tired. The challenges of living in the Congo are seemingly insurmountable. She simply cannot adequately feed a family on what the local people eat. Rachel, almost 16, has a dry sense of humor and is immensely unhappy with her surroundings She longs to be a typical American teen. Leah, 14, walks in her father’s footsteps, hoping to find favor with him. She is eager to do things the “local way” and to make friends. Leah’s twin sister Adah, born handicapped with the left side of her body underdeveloped, is an observer and a deep thinker. She has a jaded view of her father’s occupation. The twins are considered “gifted” and learn languages and complicated concepts quickly. Ruth May, at 5 is the baby of the family and strives to keep up with her sisters. She organizes her little village friends into some semblance of order as she teaches them “Mother May I.”

While Nathan Price unsuccessfully tries to convert the villagers, rumblings of new leadership in the Congo are stirring. Patrice Lumumba is suddenly the Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo, a newly independent country, and the Belgians are pulling out. The mission society in America will no longer support the Price family and they are told to leave. But Nathan’s work is not finished and he will not comply.

While political upheaval keeps the Congo in disarray, the Price family is facing its own challenges. When tragedy strikes, the family is profoundly affected. The novel then follows the various directions the family takes over a course of three decades.

The Poisonwood Bible offers an in-depth view of the many injustices affecting Africa. Outside political influences have claimed the wealth and energy from many African countries, but particularly the Congo with its treasure in gems.

I highly recommend this novel. Author Kingsolver deals with the realties of domestic tragedy and the everyday business of surviving in a country lacking basic needs. The book also offers insights to Africa’s bloody struggle for basic human rights, rights that have been ripped from them by outside powers.

Book Review: Sacred Hearts

Sacred HeaartsI was riveted to this book. Having read Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus, I hoped this last novel of the trilogy would be as good. I wasn’t disappointed. Sacred Hearts is a powerful account of convent life in the northern Itallian city of Ferrara.

In the late sixteenth century, the price of wedding doweries was so exorbitant that most noble families could afford to marry off only one daughter. The remaining women were dispatched to convents, with doweries to be sure, but much less than for a wedding. Many of these women went against their will. Some adjusted to the rigors of convent life, others chafed at the idea of spending their lives cloistered in a strict environment, following rigid rules, often at the whims and dictates of the outside world.

When sixteen-year-old Serefina is forced into the Santa Caterina convent, ripped from her family and the man she loves, she is beset by rage. She’s a talented young woman, bright and gifted with a thrilling singing voice, but she is determined to never surrender to what she believes to be a place of horrors.

Sister Zuana, the convent’s dispensary mistress and the daughter of a doctor, is sent to sedate the ranting young newcomer. Remembering her early years at Santa Caterina, the older nun becomes a mentor. What follows–the intricate relationship of trust and betrayal–is the story of Sacred Hearts. The Abbess, Madonna Chiara, who commands the convent’s total and unquestioning obedience, plays an important role in the intrigue and complications of life in a shuttered world.

Durant describes convent life in such realistic detail that the reader can feel the chilly dampness of the stone walls and floors, the bone-weariness of 2:00 a.m .prayers, the discipline of imposed fasting, silence, and humiliation. But one also feels the pure acceptance of Christ, the joys of serving, and of being able to exercise one’s talents to benefit sisters of the convent to the glory of God.

Sacred Hearts is an absorbing, meticulously researched novel of historical fiction. Durant gives life to the Renaissance period, particularly of its brutal affect on women.
I highly recommend this book and plan to read the second of the trilogy, In the Company of the Courtesan.

Book Review: Death of a Texas Ranger

Death of a Texas Ranger

 

Life was precarious on the Texas frontier in the late 1880′s. The Civil War had left chaos with political and cultural clashes. To help keep order and to protect early settlers, the Texas Rangers was formed as a state militia.

In 1873, Sergeant John Green was shot and killed by a Ranger under his command, Cesario Menchaca. Death of a Texas Ranger: A True Story of Murder and Vengeance on the Texas Frontier by Cynthia Leal Massey delves into this incident with meticulous research and an enjoyable style.

Justice is constantly thwarted as Sergeant Green’s killer is protected by Mexico’s refusal to extradite Cesario Menchaca.

In the meantime, Texas was drawing the attention of those interested in the natural sciences in the nineteenth century, an era referred to as the Age of Darwin. Gabriel Wilson Marnoch became a frontier naturalist who discovered new reptile and amphibian species. In addition to snake bags and specimen jars, Marnoch also carried a secret involving Sergeant John Green’s death.

Years later, John Green’s son, Will Green, now Chief of Detectives for the San Antonio Police Department, while seeking justice for his father’s death discovers missing records and contradictory accounts of the crime.

Author Massey, a Texan, does a remarkable job capturing the essence of post-Civil War Texas and of fitting together the many pieces of the mystery surrounding the death of Texas Ranger Sergeant John Green.

To learn more about this award-winning author, visit http://www.cynthialealmassey.com/

Night Circus Brought Back Memories

Night Circus

When I was seven our family lived in the little town of Holt, Michigan. Across the street from our house were several acres of flat land. One hot summer day I noticed a lot of activity happening on that empty land. Colorful tents were being raised, a Ferris Wheel and other rides were being erected. A circus! I was beside myself with excitement. I simply had to go. Our family attended the circus the next evening. It was everything I could have imagined. I couldn’t get enough of it. The next evening I begged my father to go, just once more. My mother and older sister had no desire to see it again, so my father and I went, just the two of us.

This time, we looked at things differently, trying to see how they did it. We watched the contortionist, twice. We marveled at the acrobats and concluded it was real, but that it would take a lifetime of practice. I don’t remember an illusionist, but maybe she was so good we didn’t realize what was happening. I was in awe of the exotic circus animals. We rode the only “ride” that appealed to us, the Ferris Wheel. From the top we could see for miles. We watched the knife thrower, sure that there must be a trick to his uncanny aim. From a red-striped paper bag we shared a bag of caramelized popcorn. I’ll never forget that evening with my father. Over the years we often talked about that magical night at the circus.

Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern brought back those memories in exploding color. The story takes place in the late 1800s and early 1900s when life was supposedly simpler. But the Le Cirque des Reves is far from simple. It was created for the purpose of providing a backdrop for a fierce competition between Celia and Marco, two young people who don’t even know each other. But when they meet, it isn’t how their instructors had planned.

Erin Morgenstern has painted a vivid picture of unbelievable imagination. An illusion of depth is created before your eyes when you find yourself in the center tent. But more than that, you’re in the minds of those who create the spell.

Night Circus is magical. Morgenstern is an extraordinary, enchanting storyteller.