Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Undiscovered Country

By Lin Enger

Hamlet was one of Shakepeare's most popular plays, and over the years, it is become a story that is re-told by countless writers. Lin Enger is the most recent author to attempt this re-telling of a son avenging his father's death.

Jesse Matson is hunting with his father one day when he hears a gunshot in the direction of his father's hunting stand. He runs through the woods and finds his father's body, a portion of his head missing from a gunshot wound. The death is deemed a suicide but Jesse has reason to doubt it. His father's ghost visits him and tells Jesse it was Jesse's uncle Clay, his father's jealous brother. Jesse starts formulating how he can trick his uncle into admitting guilt, but then he begins to plot his uncle's murder, to avenge his own father's death.

Everyone around Jesse tries to tell him that he needs to let it go, that he is insane, that he has no proof. Jesse stands firm in his belief of his uncle's guilt.

Lin Enger is a very good author, his story of deception and disloyalty is a timeless tale. He has written a book that makes the reader intrigued by the duplicity of the characters. However, he does employ some techniques of a modernist writer, in that he uses no quotation marks in the entire three-hundred pages. To someone who enjoys a more "conservative" approach to writing, the absence of quotation marks is distracting and at times confusing. I found myself having to re-read quite a few passages to understand who was actually saying what. Certainly, Lin Enger's nod to authors such as Henry James and James Joyce is respectable. Modernist literature is just not my "cup of tea." Had the book simply used quotes, I would have given a glowing review.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Mistress of the Sun

By Sandra Gulland

A novel with a little bit of everything, "Mistress of the Sun" is one to add to any "favorites" list. It conveys the romance of being at French court in the seventeenth century. Author Sandra Gulland has added every element to hold the reader's attention: romance, intrigue, sorcery, religion, all set against the backdrop of Paris and the outerlying areas. There are cold, crumbling castles as well as cozy, well-furnished castles and villas.

The story's spotlight opens on Louise, known as Petite to her friends and family. Louise is a six-year old girl who is "horse-possessed," as her father says. After sneaking off to town one day, so that she could see a traveling show with horses, she sees a beautiful white stallion, strong and bedeviled, according to his previous handlers. Petite feels an instant connection to the horse and convinces her father to purchase it for her.

After getting the horse home, no one is able to train the him, so Petite dares to try a magic spell she reads about in a book from her father's library. Upon completion of the spell, the horse is instantly tame and submissive with Petite. Petite is afraid that her spell has opened a door for the devil and she often hears sounds that frighten her at night. The family deteriorates one day when Petite's father is found dead in the horse barn and the white horse has vanished. Petite is sent to a convent.

She spends a few years there, studying and worshiping, until one day her mother comes and takes her away from the convent. Petite is sad to leave the solace of the church but remains devout. Her mother marries a man who has ties to the court. Through a series of events, Petite is made a waiting maid to a princess.

Eventually, Petite is noticed by King Louis XIV, who was only a young man at the time. He begins to show her favor and they fall into a torrid affair, even though he is married. She feels guilt daily over the relationship they develop, but her love for him is strengthened nonetheless. He, in turn, seems to be a most attentive, ardent lover. It is obvious that he truly would give her anything to make her happy, as long as it was within the confines of that which was good and proper for a King and what was expected of him. He creates a way for them to escape the prying eyes of court and asks her to accompany he and some of his men on a long hunt, away from the city. The only catch is she is to dress like a man, even though the men in their party are privy to the fact it is she, the mistress of the King. Upon arriving at the hunt chateau, the reader is gladdened by being witness to the King's indulgences for Petite.

The hunt chateau was like a fairy tale house: slate roof, wrought-iron balconies, marble courtyard and a little dry moat. Made of red bricks and white stone, it reminded Petite of the chateau at Blois, but in miniature, and all of a piece.

"Welcome, Your Majesty!" A stout, red-faced man with a drooping mustache cried out greetings, waving his hat about in a confusion of etiquette. "We were told that the road was washed out." He held the reins of Louis's horse as the King dismounted. "We feared you might not get across."

"Nothing stops this rider," Louis said, indicating Petite.

"Get this young man's horse," the stout man called out to a boy sprinting across the cobblestones.

"I think he's a girl," the boy said, studying Petite as she dismounted.

"I think so too," Louis said with a laugh. "Messieurs, please pay your respects to Mademoiselle de la Valliere," he announced, swiping off Petite's hat and wig, allowing her golden curls to fall to her shoulders. "Mistress of this chateau."

Life continues upon their return to court. There are parties and secret get-aways, but Petite soon learns that no one can ever be trusted. The story is rich with back-biting, complications and trickery. Friends and families are torn apart.

Ultimately, Petite realizes that to save others, sometimes you must first save yourself.

"Mistress of the Sun" plays with every emotion available to the reader. The chicanery and amour move the story along swiftly, making it impossible to put the book down once you have started it. This novel is a little weightier and will require more than one's average weekend to read, but it holds your attention. Sandra Gulland is an extraordinary writer and master storyteller, definitely one of the very, very best.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Christmas Sweater

By Glenn Beck
with Kevin Balfe and Jason Wright

New York Times Bestselling Author Glenn Beck tries his hand at writing a novel about a Christmas epiphany for a twelve-year old named Eddie. While the book is loosely based on some of the events in Glenn Beck's own life, "The Christmas Sweater" is a story about growing emotionally and spiritually. It is a parable of holding tightly to faith while being challenged to release it.

The book starts with Eddie pleading with God for a red Huffy bike for Christmas, even though he knows money has been tight since his father died a few years earlier. He has been doing his chores and trying to be more compliant with his mother. When Christmas morning rolls around though, there is no bike in sight. Eddie has a pre-teen tantrum and as the day wears on, he gets more and more upset. He thinks about all his friends and assumes they have all gotten better presents than the roll of pennies and the ugly hand-knit sweater he received.

When his mom tells him they are going to spend the night at his grandparents' instead of driving the hour and a half it would take to get home, he demands they go home anyway. He refuses to have any fun. His mom finally relents and they make their way home. That is when Eddie's life changes forever.

Glenn Beck writes in a very easy-to-read style. The reader is instantly engaged by the simple flow of words. The story starts out,

The wipers cut semicircles through the snow on the windshield. It's good snow, I thought as I slid forward and rested my chin on the vinyl of the front seat.

"Sit back, honey," my mother, Mary, gently commanded. She was thirty-nine years old, but her tired eyes and the streaks of gray infiltrating her otherwise coal black hair made most people think she was much older. If your age was determined by what you'd been through in life, they would have been right.

"But Mom, I can't see the snow when I sit back."

"Okay. But just until we stop for gas."

I scooted up farther and rested my worn Keds on the hump that ran through the middle of our old Pinto station wagon. I was skinny and tall for my age, which made my knees curl up toward my chest. Mom said I was safer in the backseat, but deep down I knew that it wasn't really about safety, it was about the radio. I was constantly playing with it, changing the dial from her boring Perry Como station to something that played real music.

"The Christmas Sweater" is a book about a revelation that ends with a twist. It is a short read but the sentiment is uplifting. The true miracle is coming to the realization that life is what you make of it. Hopefully, this book is only the first in Glenn Beck's foray into writing novels.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Recovering Charles

By Jason F. Wright

Everyone has one or two events in their lives that they will always remember where they were when it happened. In our most recent lifetimes, everyone remembers September 11 and Katrina. Our grandparents may have remembered the Depression and Pearl Harbor. Maybe our own parents remember the Kennedy assassination. For the protagonist Luke, of "Recovering Charles," his outstanding memory will always be of Hurricane Katrina.

Luke's mother committed suicide when he was younger; she had gotten depressed when her own mother died in a tragic car accident. After Luke's mother was gone, his father, Charles, was devastated by the loss of his soulmate. He began drinking heavily; every time Luke thought Charles was going to clean up his act, Charles would return to his old ways. To make matters worse, he would call Luke and ask for money. Being between a rock and a hard spot, Luke would enevitably give in and wire money to whatever city his nomadic father was inhabiting.

Charles ended up in New Orleans about six months before Hurricane Katrina wreaked her havoc on so many. Though Luke loved his father, he had made a life for himself in New York. Seperated by distance and time, Luke is at a loss when a phone call from New Orleans comes in one day. The caller identifies himself as a friend of Charles' and asks Luke to travel to Louisiana to search for his father, who has been missing since the levees broke. Still angry with his father, Luke drags his feet but eventually ends up in New Orleans.

The story unfolds as he sees the effects of the hurricane. People are forlorn, yet have an underlying resolve to make things right again. The city is in ruin and the desolation is everywhere. Yet the people are survivors and Luke has much to learn from them. They are living a psalm of second chances.

Though "Recovering Charles" is not a book solely about Huricane Katrina, it calls all the images of the aftermath to mind. The writing is that vivid. Jason F. Wright seems to be writing as one who was there, who smelled the smells, who saw the the bodies, who saw the sorrow and fatigue in everyones' eyes. When Luke, Bela (a friend of Charles'), and a policeman named Frank go to the Morial Convention Center in search of Luke's father, the reader can see and smell the sights that lay within.

He pushed the door open and held it for me. The smell didn't wait for me to step in. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bela cover her nose and mouth and walk away.

"You weren't exaggerating," I said, gagging.

He said something I couldn't understand. His mouth was hidden under both his mask and his uniform collar.

Frank led me through the lobby. We passed hazmat workers beginning the daunting process of undoing Katrina's human consequences. A water fountain had been pulled off the wall. The metal gates covering a concession stand lay on the floor. Empty Styrofoam cups and plastic lids were tossed everywhere. Cabinet doors hung from their hinges.

Frank opened a service door, revealing a pitch-black hallway. He pulled a flashlight from the side of his belt. "Come on," he managed. "I'll show you the food service area."

The hallway smelled even worse than the airy lobby had. Small mounds of feces and stained newspapers or magazines appeared every so often. What appeared to be dried urine was everywhere. With little warning I doubled over, pulled my mask down, and threw up in a trash can. I was thankful I couldn't see what was in it.

"Frank," I called ahead to him, wiping my mouth on my shirtsleeve. "I can't. I can't go this way. Come---" I threw up again, this time on the floor.

Hats off to Jason F. Wright for continuously writing better novels each time. It will be a treat to read his next book. His capability of writing a story with so much heart and soul with a moral tied in is astounding. His style is very real and easy to read, but the words all carry great meaning. Being reminded that seizing second chances is a thoroughly peaceful experience. Read "Recovering Charles" and let Luke's catharsis become your own.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Lady Elizabeth

By Alison Weir

Queen Elizabeth I held the throne of England for forty-five years, after a tumultuous span of time while her sister, Mary, was Queen. "The Lady Elizabeth" follows the life of Elizabeth from the time she is a toddler to her accession. While most of the story is historically factual, Alison Weir has taken creative license and presented the novel with a few embellishments, both to fill in the blanks and to eliminate any repetition of events. In doing so, Ms. Weir has written a truly engaging story involving court intrigue and royal scandal.

King Henry VIII is father to Mary, Elizabeth and Edward VI. Upon the King's death, Edward, as the only male heir, is made King of England. He is only nine years old but quickly decrees his Catholic subjects to becomes Protestants. When King Edward dies at age sixteen, Mary is next in line as heir to the throne. Her rule begins with all the people loving her; however, she loses popularity when she commands England to once again adhere to the Catholic faith. Even her sister Elizabeth has happily become a Protestant, so when Elizabeth refuses to convert to Catholicism, Mary is angered. She starts believing that Elizabeth is plotting to have her overthrown.

The story of Mary and Elizabeth takes sibling rivalry to a whole new level. Alison Weir has done an amazing job of invoking sympathy and allegiance from the reader for Elizabeth. Many movies have been made of this woman and her dramatic life, but none have made the Queen's story so personal. None have made subtle supplications to adore Queen Elizabeth I like "The Lady Elizabeth" does from the first chapter. The reader immediately undertstands that she is to reach a place of great import in her lifetime, as well as sees Elizabeth as her father's daughter.

Looking out the window, Elizabeth saw the ramshackle dwellings of the poorer people clustered around Westminster Abbey, the solid timber houses of prosperous merchants, the churches with their ringing bells, and the townsfolk bustling here and there. She drew away, wrinkling her nose, from the city stink of sewage, rotting food, and unwashed bodies, or the sight of a beggar in rags, his stump scabrous with sores, but peeped out again, emboldened by the broad grin of a rosy-cheeked goodwife, who boldly offered her an apple from her basket, Suddenly there was a thud, as a well-aimed egg splattered against the painted side of the litter, and an indignant Lady Bryan shook her fist at the impudent apprentice who cheekily bit his thumb before disappearing into an alley.

All along the wayside, clusters of people were gathering to stare in awe at Elizabeth's fine carriage with its royal crest, and wave to its small occupant. It gave her a good feeling to be accounted so important, and looking at the plain, homespun garments of the common folk, she felt a certain satisfaction that she did not have to live as they did in their humble cottages, but was housed in a great palace and clothed in rich fabrics.

It is simple to see Alison Weir as the New York Times bestselling author she is, upon reading "The Lady Elizabeth." Hopefully, she will indeed complete the sequel to this book, called "The Phoenix and the Bear," a love story between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley (a minor character in this book).

"The Lady Elizabeth" will sweep the reader to another time and place, one that seems romantic on the surface, but in truth is filled with the tragedy and difficulty of the time. It is a journey that is worth its weight in gold.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


By Francine Prose

There are two things that everyone experiences: birth and death. Everything in-between varies from person to person, and each event impacts us differently. In "Goldengrove," Francine Prose (what a great name for a writer!) leads the reader on a journey of grieving. From the shock to the denial to the guilt, each character in this novel experiences the death of a loved one in a varying manner. Each one of them deals with it in their own way, and each of them finds themselves in similar places when they achieve acceptance.

Margaret is a seventeen-year old beauty, living on a lake with her parents and thirteen-year old sister, Nico. While Margaret and Nico are lounging in a boat one day, in the beginning of their summer break, Margaret waves goodbye, dives off the side of the boat and disappears. Nico does not see her reach the shore but assumes she has; in fact, Margaret had a heart problem that coalesced with her dive, making the bottom of the lake her temporary grave.

Divers find her body the same day, and at first the family is in such shock, they believe they will see her walk through the door or hear her voice on the other end of a phonecall. Margaret's boyfriend, Aaron, whom the parents did not approve of, has a difficult time processing his grief, as well. He makes contact with Nico and the two of them begin secretly spending time together. They both tell themselves it is just to aid in the healing process, when in actuality, Aaron is using Nico to replace Margaret. He perversely asks Nico to wear Margaret's clothes and Margaret's scent, watch Margaret's favorite films. Since she is trying to find her own way in life as a girl with a dead sister, she lacks the ability to see what he is doing to her.

"Goldengrove" is a sad book, in that anyone can relate to the sorrow inflicted by the death of a loved one. However, it is also a book of healing. The reader will feel comfort seeing others process grief in such a real and honest manner. Francine Prose writes with such sincerity and dignity. She employs the use of extremely vivid imagery. The reader can smell the toxicity of a teenage boy's room with:

The shades were drawn, and a stew of putrid odors had been simmering in the dark: wet dog, pet food, mildewed carpet, cat spray, spilled beer, plus the various illegal substances that Aaron and his siblings had sneaked out here to try. Layered on top of the smell were all of Aaron's mom's industrial-strength attempts to kill it.

Of course, Francine Prose also sprinkles some wit and humor into the story, like tiny nuggets of gold that make the reader feel as though all the characters will turn out okay. One moment, like a flicker, that offers this hope is when Aaron and Nico are sitting on his bedraggled, old couch preparing to watch a movie. He offers a bowl of chips and a can of Coke, and Nico notes in her mind:

Greasy crumbs sprinkled everywhere as I helped myself from the bowl.

I said, "I'm making a mess."

"Don't worry about it," said Aaron. "The reason the couch has lasted so long is because we feed it."

Each moment in this novel is like a tiny morsel of goodness and flavor. When you read "Goldengrove," do not let the lugubrious beginning scare you away. The story you find inside will be one of hope and endurance.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Wednesday Letters

By Jason F. Wright

A book about devotion, "The Wednesday Letters" is an excellent read that is easy to consume in a weekend.

Jack and Laurel, an elderly married couple dealing with cancer while running a quaint bed-and-breakfast in Virginia, die in each others' arms one night. Their commitment to one another is clear even in their last moments together; it seems to be a relationship any couple would envy. The first few paragraphs of the story are indicative of the comfort level the Coopers have worked to achieve with one another:

Shortly after 11:00 P.M., Laurel slid under the maroon comforter and into bed next to her husband, Jack. She wrapped her strong arms around him from behind and worried at how easily she could feel his ribs. She remembered the many years when he's weighed considerably more than she had.

Assuming Jack was already asleep, she she began her nightly routine. Laurel breathed in deeply, expanding and filling every corner of her lungs. With her full lips closed tightly, she let the air slowly escape through her nose. It calmed her.

She closed her eyes; she prayed for each of her children--- Matthew, Malcolm, Samantha--- and for her only granddaughter, Angela, and for her only sibling, Allyson. Then she pleaded with God for more time and cursed herself for not being stronger. She ended her silent prayer with her first and last tears of the day.

"Hi." Jack's voice startled her.

"Hey you, I thought you were asleep." Laurel dabbed her eyes on her navy blue cotton pillowcase.

Upon their death, their three children come to the B&B. Matthew, the oldest, arrives without his wife, signifying he may be having marital problems. Samantha, Jack and Laurel's only daughter, is a single mother after her husband cheated on her. Malcolm returns from a two-year stay in Brazil; now he is forced to face the problems he was trying to run from.

As all relationships do, so did Jack and Laurel's require a little work throughout some very trying times. This is all made clear in the letters their three grown children discover upon the death of their beloved mother and father. Not only do the letters raise questions, they also teach how to love and forgive those who mean the most to you.

The end of the novel is touching and brings a tear to the reader's eye, as well as a lump to the throat. Jason K. Wright is a writer who possesses the ability to comprehend and appreciate an array of emotions that spans generations and gender roles. The book serves as a reminder to never take your loved ones for granted; it is an apprisal to hug your child or spouse daily.

"The Wednesday Letters" is a recommended read; let Jason F. Wright tell you a story.