Three books: Incantation, Shanghai Love, Quiet Dell

I received a message from Goodreads toward the end of December congratulating me for having read all of three books in 2013. I don’t track of the number of books I read in a year, but it’s more like fifty than three.

While I’ve managed to keep up with Facebook, where I check in almost daily with a small group of people, most of whom I’ve known at various stages of my life, I hadn’t realized how inattentive I’ve been to other social networks. So I decided to post periodic mini book reviews on my blog, Goodreads and Amazon this year. Maybe I’ll post links to them on Twitter and Pinterest, too. Maybe. So here goes:

Incantation

UnknownAlways an Alice Hoffman fan, I most recently read Incantation, a short book written for the young adult audience. Set in Spain during the Inquisiiton, the central character is Estrella, a teenager who learns over the course of the story that hers is a Jewish family that is Catholic on the surface only. Her world is torn apart as she, her family and their community are exposed and persecuted. She swiftly finds out who her friends are and aren’t. I am intrigued by stories in which extraordinary circumstances reveal previously unknown aspects of people, how people deal with relationships and lives torn apart—who succumbs to baser human behavior and who rises to heroic dimensions. This is a gripping story. My only complaint is that it ends abruptly, so it’s not quite satisfying. I think it really should have been longer. Four stars.

Shanghai Love

Unknown-1Another work of historical fiction I recommend is Shaghai Love, a novel by Layne Wong. It pulled me in a couple months ago, and I couldn’t wait to get back to reading it when I was interrupted. Wong’s writing style is eloquent. And the story of two characters whose paths cross in Shanghai in the World War II era evolves gracefully. Peilin, a Chinese woman forced to marry her betrothed even though he died months before their wedding, is sent by her new family to Shanghai, where she makes use of herbal knowledge passed on to her by her granfather. There, she meets a Jewish refugee doctor who fled Nazi Germany. The characters are skillfully drawn, and details of the Chinese culture are beautifully rendered as the lives of these two characters become entwined. There are plenty of twists and turns to hold a reader’s attention, too. I read that the book contains a few inaccuracies in terms of the WWII timeline. Since I’m vague on only the most well-know dates in history, I didn’t notice these errors. If I were a history buff, they might have disturbed me. Given that this is not a self-published book, however, I think the publisher should have caught any inaccuracies during the editing process. It seems fact checking is part of what a publisher should do for an author. Five stars.

Quiet Dell

cover_quiet-dellSince I seem to be in historical fiction mode, I’ll share thoughts on one more book, Quiet Dell by Jayne Ann Phillips. This novel is based on a 1930s true crime that took place in Chicago and West Virginia. Since I was born in Chicago and raised in the area, I am drawn to stories having to do with that great metropolis. I found the first part of the book compelling. Phillips depicts Asta Eichler, who becomes widowed, and her children in a way the made me care for them as the story of their victimization by Harry Powers unfolded. Unfortunately, once Powers, who seduces lonely Asta with love letters, succeeds in luring Asta and then her children to West Virginia, the story shifts its focus to Emily Thornhill, a female reporter for the Chicago Tribune assigned to cover the story of the family’s demise. Thornill is intrepid in her search for the truth, but she falls instantly in love with the Eichler family’s banker; the scene in his office where this occurs is cringe-worthy. She also befriends, reforms and then adopts a wayward street urchin who had robbed her, a storyline that seems too pat. And I found myself skipping through interludes written in the voice of Anabelle, one of the murdered Eichler children. The novel might have worked better had it been centered on Thornhill from the beginning. As it is, the different parts just don’t fit together well. I still recommend it though. I think it would be a great book for a critique group to pick apart for insights about what works and what doesn’t, and what might have made it a more cohesive, powerful book. Three stars.

 

Copyright  ©  2014 by Laura McHale Holland

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Why not write quick book reviews?

Brief book reviews have merit

Do you post book reviews online at Amazon, Goodreads and other such sites? I do so only sporadically. I’d like to get in the habit of writing quick reviews after finishing books I’ve enjoyed. (I shy away from doing negative reviews, and if you’d like to comment about that, it could lead to a spirited discussion.)

To make this task more doable, I’ve begun making my reviews short. Very short. I’m not a professional reviewer. I just want to contribute a little something to the discussions about books I like. I figure this means I don’t have to follow any particular format or satisfy any preconceived notions of what a book review should be.

In case you’ve been holding off on penning reviews, I’m going to paste in a couple I’ve done lately to demonstrate how brief they can be.

Slip by Tanya Savko

8264803I highly recommend this novel because I learned so much about autism from reading it. The book provides an eye-opening view of what it’s like to parent an autistic child while also coping with all the other things a parent might have to deal with—an unraveling marriage, divorce, betrayal, issues with extended family, a low paying job that’s not anywhere close to your dream job, financial woes. Tanya Savko has created believable characters who learn from their struggles, and she manages to impart wisdom while also shaping an engaging narrative that comes to a satisfying close.

Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

15802866If I could give this book more than five stars, I would. It is beautifully satisfying on many levels. The writing is lyrical, the plot is original and absorbing, the characters are captivating and believable, the book illuminates social issues without doing anything close to preaching, and combined, these elements form a magical work that surpassed my expectations, which were high because I’ve read other books by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and enjoyed them. The young heroine Korobi embarks on a journey that transforms her, as well as those she loves in deep and moving ways.

So, why not write some quick reviews of your own? And if you choose to review my books, well, I would be most grateful.

Next week, I’ll post another Belinda Blue Brown episode.

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A memorable character beautifully rendered

Huachuca Woman is thoroughly researched and beautifully written, with some scenes breathtaking in their elegant use of language and their strong emotional impact. The main chacter, Jo, recounts her life’s adventures to two of her grandchildren who have come to visit the ranch on which Jo has spent most of her life. The story moves back and forth from 1952, when Jo is an old woman, to various episodes from her sometimes heartbreaking and often exciting life lived in the shadow of the Huachua Mountains of the American Southwest. Jo is compelling. The historical detail is rich, and for the most part, woven in seamlessly. And the author has succeeded in making a slice of American history come vibrantly to life through Jo’s eyes.

As I read, however, I felt the story dragged at times, as parts of some scenes seemed to be written to impart historical details that served to provide informmation, but kept the story from moving forward. I also noticed an anachronism or two, for example, a young adult in 1952 said “way cool.” It was common for people to say “cool” in the 1950s, but “way cool” really didn’t come into use until much later in the 20th century. I think this terrific book could have used just one more edit to tighten up a few scenes and details.

This is a book written with great care and skill, though, so I wouldn’t want my quibbles to stop anyone from picking it up and giving it a read. It’s well worth the time.

 

If you’ve read this book, I’d love for you to share your thoughts in the comments. If you have thoughts on this review, I’d love for you to share those, too.

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A glowing review

I wrote a review yesterday of Rasana Atreya’s novel, and now here’s a review I just received from Michelle and Denise, who run the Families of the Mentally Ill blog. They posted it on their website (http://familiesofthementallyill.com/2012/07/03/book-review-reversible-skirt/), on Amazon and on Smashwords:

Reversible Skirt, by Laura McHale Holland, is a heart-breaking memoir about one young mother’s suicide as seen through the eyes of her youngest child, Laura. A toddler at the time of the tragedy, Laura is initially bewildered by the changes swirling around her family, including the appearance of a new stepmother, who is simply passed off as the same person to the children.

The author has done a masterful job of capturing the thought process of a young child as she struggles to make sense of the changes in her world. The tragic events of the girls’ lives aren’t over, unfortunately. The abuse they experience as they grow and confront of the truth of their mother’s death and their father’s choices can be painful to read. Yet it’s worth persevering, because the book ends with Laura and her sisters finding strength and peace in adulthood.

Reversible Skirt describes a time in our not-too-distant past where mental illness and suicide were swept under the rug. While we have made some gains as a society, the situation will feel familiar to those of us who have lived through mental illness in our own families. What was most intriguing about the book was how the author and her sisters forgave their abusive stepmother after everything she did to them as children. Their ability to survive and recover from their challenging childhoods is uplifting. The capacity they show for forgiveness is truly inspiration.

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A stunning review of Reversible Skirt

I stumbled upon this review of my memoir, Reversible Skirt, on Goodreads. It’s by a member named Ana:

“Reversible Skirt is probably the most honest and gripping memoir I’ve read. McHale Holland is on my top 10 of writers writing today. She’s managed to tell a tragic story fraught with emotion without the poor poor pitiful me some writers might have fallen prey to.”

Bliss.

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I’m on a blog tour

I’m not ready to post this week’s story yet, but in the meantime, I thought I’d post the links to the blog tour I’m doing right now. It began Mon., Dec. 5 and will end Fri. Dec. 16.

Here’s where I’ve been so far:

As The Pages Turn: http://asthepagesturn.wordpress.com/2011/12/05/spotlight-on-reversible-skirt-by-laura-mchale-holland/

Divine Caroline:  http://www.divinecaroline.com/49804/120622-interview-author-laura-mchale-holland

Inky Blots:  http://www.inkyblots.com/pick-up-your-pen-by-guest-author-laura-mchale-holland/

Live to Read:  http://livetoread-krystal.blogspot.com/

Here’s where I expect to be the rest of this week and next week:

Thursday, December 8th
Guest Post at Book Spark: http://www.book-spark.blogspot.com/

Friday, December 9th
Book Trailer at If Books Could Talk:  http://bookvideos.wordpress.com/

Monday, December 12th
Interview at The Examiner:  http://www.examiner.com/publishing-in-virginia-beach/interview-with-laura-mchale-holland-author-of-reversible-skirt

Tuesday, December 13th
Interview at Literarily Speaking  http://literarilyspeaking.net/

Wednesday, December 14th
Radio Interview at Pump Up Your Book  http://www.pumpupyourbook.com/

Thursday, December 15th
Review and Giveaway at Radiant Light http://www.frommipov.blogspot.com/

Friday, December 16th
Interview at Paperback Writer http://rebecca2007.wordpress.com/

There’s going to be some kind of interaction at the Pump Up Your Book Facebook page for all the authors who decided to do this holiday season tour special on the 16th. I’ll provide more details on that next week.

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Review of Eva Kende’s ‘Snapshots’

I connected with Eva Kende, author of “Snapshots…Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain,” on Facebook and was intrigued enough by what she had to say about her life and work to buy her ebook. I was a bit apprehensive because I’ve bought books by a few other authors I’ve met online and have been disappointed to the point where I couldn’t even finish the books, let alone review them. Luckily, this is not the case with Eva’s eye-opener of a book.

The author’s conversational style, eye for detail and ability to capture the unique quirks, good and bad, of the folks who mattered most to her during her tumultuous childhood drew me right into her story.  She was born in Budapest, Hungary, in the midst of World War II and lived there until the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, at which time she and her mother escaped and ultimately settled in Canada.

This is not a literary memoir or a traditional autobiography. It is a series of recollections honestly recounted. The book begins with Eva’s memories of her grandmother, an eccentric and highly successful necktie-maker and shopkeeper, and continues through the many adjustments required of Eva and her extended family as they lived amid the city’s ruins and survived the upheavals brought by foreign occupation and communist rule, including losing their livelihoods, their homes and many people they loved.

When I’ve thought of what life must have been like for people behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, I’ve tended to picture bleak scenes in black and white, glum people suffering in the cold, hungry people in bread lines. This book brings home how incomplete that picture is. Eva’s narrative shows how ordinary people adapted with ingenuity and pluck, and lived with dignity and hope. Dealing with so much loss, people still loved, laughed, worked, played—and there was much for a spirited child like Eva to learn among friends of all ages she made during her adventures in and around Budapest.

There was great hardship, certainly, but the human spirit soars in Eva’s book. I think it’s worth every penny of the pittance it costs to download. I imagine people who read this book will not only gain a new perspective on life in Eastern Europe after World War II, but they will also feel a good deal of admiration for the author when they turn the last page.

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The Raising by Laura Kasischke

The Raising is the first Laura Kasischke book I’ve read, and I’m giving it four stars because, while I was disappointed with the way the plot resolved (or rather didn’t resolve), I think she is a writer of great talent. She can expertly set a scene, grab a reader’s attention, evoke strong emotions, in essence, use language in a compellingly beautiful way to build a story.

I usually have no taste for books that alternate two or more characters’ points of view, chapter by chapter. This book does that. And I think it speaks to Kasischke’s skill that her use of this technique didn’t annoy me. The novel also moves back and forth in time, and that worked fine for me, too.

I love the Midwestern college campus world Kasischke created in this book. I was completely drawn into it and wanted to find out what really happened to Nicole, a freshman who may or may not have been pure and virginal and who may or may not have died in an auto accident. I love that the main characters were a mix of generations, some students, some professors. I liked getting a look into all of their lives and motivations and was horrified at what happened to most of them.

In the end, though, perhaps because I came to care so much for the main characters—Craig, Nicole’s boyfriend; Perry, her childhood friend who was also Craig’s roommate; Mira, a professor who studied diverse cultures’ beliefs and rituals involving death; and Shelly, and academic who had enjoyed a career running the chamber music society on campus—I was very disappointed with the way all of the various elements resolved.

I think Kasischke is a writer to watch. I haven’t read her first novel, In a Perfect World, but I intend to, along with anything else she’s written and will write. I think there is greatness in her.
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Gripped by Touch of Magenta

Linda Loveland Reid’s first novel, Touch of Magenta, is an ambitious work that tells two interweaving stories. Pegeen’s, which is set in motion in 1895 by a forbidden inter-racial love, and Corri’s, whose mother’s death in 1971 tilts the course of an unsettled life.

I found Pegeen’s journey spellbinding and well rendered, while Corri’s machinations annoyed me. And at 38, Corri seemed more like the baby boomers, who were just coming of age in that era, than peers in her own generation. But Pegeen’s fortitude in the face of multiple losses, and the way Reid was able to deftly set the stage in Gold Rush-era California and other locales, more than compensated for what I perceive to be incongruities in Corri’s character. Plus, where would we be if all fictional characters were sympathetic—can you imagine a good-natured Scarlet O’Hara?

I was moved by this book and cared about what was happening as the stories unfolded and converged. I’d classify Touch of Magenta as a satisfying read. If you decide to purchase the book, though, be sure to get the second edition, which improves upon the first.

Reid, who is also a theater director and figurative painter, is someone to watch. She’s not imitating anyone else; she trusts her instincts and experiments with language to paint scenes with words and create dialogue that is crisp and genuine. I look forward to reading her next book.

Note: I know Linda Loveland Reid slightly. We both belong to Redwood Writers, a branch of the California Writer’s Club. But the branch has about 140 members, and Linda and I have probably spoken all of three times, so I did not feel obligated to plug her book.

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