Glendy Vanderah’s Where the Forest Meets the Stars

Looking for more of a “beach read”, I guess, and, while this debut novel is not exactly that, it served its purpose pretty well.  A “just take me away” sort of read even though the basic, stripped down plot manages to sound both goofy and foreboding.  A tiny little girl is on the lam after having witnessed the murder of her drug-addicted mother.  Eight-year-old Ursa has a genius IQ level and claims to be from the Pinwheel Galaxy, here on Earth to earn a Ph.D. in humans by witnessing five miracles.  Under all that, she is so very frightened and attaches herself to an actual Ph.D. candidate, Joanna, who’s living in a woodsy cabin studying the nesting habits of indigo buntings.  If this sounds……, well, yeah.  However, Ursa is charming and quirky, and, by George, you wonder if she’s not going to make that alien gambit fly.  It’s her story, and she’s sticking to it.  There’s a little romance (young farmer next door), the mystery behind Ursa and what will become of her, a gun battle, and a “happily ever after”.  I wish I could tell you how well done this is, but characters are a mite flat, the story is a little much, and you’ll wonder why some elements are even there.  However, unblinking reality was the last thing I needed or wanted, so I hid out with Ursa, and, eventually, this old world looked better for both of us.

If this fits your bill, you can pick up this title at Amazon.com or, if you prefer, support and shop your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Lake Union Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Women of Copper Country

The very first word that occurred to me when I began reading Ms. Russell’s book was “solid”, and then, I swear, there was a sense of relief.  This book is solid, and this is not faint praise.  I knew I could count on it, lean into it, walk around in its rooms and settings and not trip or fall through a weak spot.  Hosanna!

Set in the copper mining country of upper Michigan, the story is a harsh one, based on events arising out of the labor movement of the early Twentieth Century, and in particular the Michigan copper mines strike of 1913 and the Italian Hall disaster.  Characters are, for the most part, actual persons or composites.  There is Anna Klobuchar Clements, the tall woman, wife of a miner, America’s Joan of Arc, who inspired and led a wildcat strike of nearly a year’s duration, protesting low pay, long hours, and dangerous conditions for the miners.  With Anna as its primary figure, the book focuses on the women in the movement, the women behind the miners, their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.  These women lived with horror and loss on a near weekly basis – crippling, maiming, work-ending injury and death in the mines.  Not if, but when.

Strong material for sure, and with her deft and artistic hand, Ms. Russell knows just what to make of it. Good material and diligent research, skillful plotting and narrative, fully realized characterizations, sure sense of time and place.  It’s all there.  For, you see, Ms. Russell is not only an artist, she knows her craft, and it is craftsmanship that makes this the good book that it is; good and, yes, solid.  A book you are grateful for, that you can count on.  Lean into it.  It will hold.

You’ll have to wait until August 6 for The Women of Copper Country to hit bookstores.  But why wait when you can pre-order this gem? Click here to support your local indie bookstore or here to pre-order from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Atria Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Hans Fallada’s Nightmare in Berlin

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Written and set in Germany just after the end of WWII and the fall of the Nazi regime, this novel is not a pleasant read.  An ambitious country and a proud people drank the Kool-Aid for twelve years, and now lie in ruin.  The German people are almost universally held in contempt; any Berlin building with windows intact is a miracle; conquering armies (Russia, in this instance) are feared.  Conflicts arise between those who supported Hitler and those who did not, and even some of the latter are beginning to view his regime as a time of plenty and, perhaps, to wish for its return.  Understandably in distress, characters show their baser sides, and most are quite dislikeable.

Though this novel is widely considered autobiographical, Hans Fallada (pen name of author Rudolf Ditzen) denied this.  However, his central actor, Dr. Doll, is a German author of note, and most of his story here does seem to parallel that of Fallada, who has been compared to Mann and Hesse.   As Germany struggles with the aftermath of all-out war, Dr. Doll struggles with financial ruin, addiction, frequent hospitalizations, a difficult, much younger wife (also an addict) and the contempt of his neighbors, and, even though Dr. Doll has hopeful moments, you somehow know that he is not convinced.

Yes, this resurrected novel is dark, dark and challenging, but it is important for its contemporaneous look at Germany after the war, for its probing insight into human honesty and deceit, and for the artistry of the work.  Fallada/Ditzen wrote only one more work, Alone in Berlin, before he died in 1947, but Dr. Doll and a fallen Berlin will return to you time after time.

Click here to order Nightmare in Berlin from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Scribe US via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher and Edelweiss+ for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

John Burnham Schwartz’s The Red Daughter

I doubt the name Svetlana Alliluyeva means anything to most of us today, but Joseph Stalin’s daughter was a political hot potato when she defected from Mother Russia during the Cold War.  Whether you know of her, and regardless of your knowledge of the Cold War and Russian history, you will tear through this novelization of Svetlana’s life.  Mr. Schwartz writes of her confusing and privileged young life and provides the background to her defection, but the story is primarily that of her life after arriving in the U.S., and it is totally engrossing.

Intelligent, guarded and seemingly hard, Svetlana hides her vulnerability and her past, to the extent that she can or is allowed to; but her life as her father’s child and as an adult under the rigid control of Soviet society leaves her unprepared for Western life and choices.  She is haunted by the two nearly adult children she left behind; the U.S.S.R. tantalizes her with them, and U.S. authorities fear her children will be used to lure or harm her.  There is a brief remarriage, and a baby boy born late in Svetlana’s life.  She adores this child, hides his grandfather’s identity from him until he is a young teenager, and there are traumatic consequences.  You will swear that what you have before you is non-fiction reading as fiction, but, no.  The strength of this work is the story – fiction reading as blisteringly masterful fiction.

Available to everyone on April 30, or pre-order at Amazon.com: The Red Daughter: A Novel

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group / Random House via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

T. Marie Vandelly’s Theme Music

A first novel, a good one, and the title gives nothing away.  I like that.  It’s not a shivery, goose-bumpy title at all, is it, but this is one spectacularly shivery thriller.  Now, you know, I’ve read my share of mysteries and thrillers, and let me tell you that you won’t find fictional murders more horrifying than these.  Not extravagant, opulent murders a la The Da Vinci Code, but murders in a perfectly ordinary kitchen – at breakfast.  One survivor, and this is her story to tell, a story so clever, original and complicated, it’ll have you jumping to conclusions and haring off in all directions.  If puzzling over the evil that men can do appeals, give this one a try.  Thanks, Ms. Vandelly.

Definitely worth pre-ordering wherever you buy books online, as this one doesn’t come out until July 23. A link to Amazon.com is available here: Theme Music: A Novel

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by PENGUIN GROUP Dutton / Dutton via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Lu Yao’s Life

What an opportunity we readers have here.  Chinese author Lu Yao had only two published works and died at the age of forty-two, but Life, this superb novella published in 1982 and still a bestseller in China, is now in English translation.  It’s the early Eighties, rural China begins a slow forever change, begins to turn away from the community and culture of eons; and we meet Gao Jialin, the educated son of peasants.  A sympathetic character, he’s lost his prestigious teaching job, lost face, and is in despair.  Lu Yao shares only a brief span of this young man’s life with the wrenching decisions he must make between the known past and the unknown future, a story that portends China’s path from rural to urban.

So very Chinese, yes, but absolutely stunning in its universality.  Human beings, past, present, and forever, have acted and will act as this young man does and as those around him do.  What is loss of face, but pride, hubris?  Do we choose generosity of spirit or cunning ambition?  Betrayal or trust?  What are we but “I want”?  Lu Yao’s quiet work could have played out on a stage in ancient Greece.  And one of the simplest, most beautiful opening paragraphs I’ve ever read begins “On the tenth day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar, the evening sky was…”

Available now at Amazon.com or shop your local indie bookstore

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by AmazonCrossing via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Erica Ferencik’s Into the Jungle

I read this.  Yes, the whole thing, and apparently, the Bolivian experiences of a friend of the author provided the idea behind this novel.  Good to know, that, ‘cause otherwise I’d have launched into a discussion of its utter implausibility.  The prologue nearly stopped me right there and then, that python dream, but I thought maybe that was unfair and soldiered on.  At nineteen, Lily, a lying, thieving survivor of the U.S. foster care system, is stranded in Bolivia, where she meets and falls in love with Omar, a motorcycle mechanic from the jungle.  He is moderately hot.  Soon he is summoned back to his remote village, Lily goes with him, and, after a harrowing plane ride, they arrive.  Here, among showers of tarantulas, Omar transforms, but it’s all good, and how! – from cute mechanic to wise, noble, studly, mighty hunter and savior of his people.  Lily, after some minor cultural adjustment and soon pregnant, attains depths of character and resourcefulness you wouldn’t believe.  Literally.  Shall we say over the top?  Let’s.

There’s a creepy telepathic shaman, a completely gratuitous family of lepers, a slimy poacher whose face is ripped off by a timely eagle, a lovely little pig that gets eaten, and a murderous neighboring tribe who can melt into the jungle and “melt out” of it as well.  Man, it’s hot.  Can we borrow a cup of curare?   But I read this, the whole thing, and there’s the rub.  While “utter implausibility” flashed on and off like a neon sign, I often found myself riding the literary skids of this jungle extravaganza with my hair plastered back, having a big ol’ time.  Readers, casting suggestions for Omar?

The ride begins on May 21 at a bookstore near you.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Gallery, Threshold, Pocket Books / Gallery/Scout Press via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.