Wednesday, September 19, 2012

book review: The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

The backstory: Attica Locke's first novel, Black Water Rising, a literary historical mystery, came in at #3 on my top 10 of 2010 (my review.) The Cutting Season is her second novel.

The basics: The Cutting Season is the story of Belle Vie, an old sugar plantation in Ascension Parish, Louisiana. Caren currently runs Bell Vie, which has been turned into a historical site. Tours regularly come through to witness the history of how the land was once farmed by slaves. It's also a popular location for weddings and special events. Caren's ancestors once worked as slaves on Belle Vie, and her mother worked there as a cook. With deep, complicated family ties to the land, Caren returned home to Belle Vie with her nine-year-old daughter Morgan. When the body of a young woman is discovered on the grounds of the plantation, Caren finds herself trying to solve the crime and discover if there's a connection to the mystery of why her great-great-great-grandfather disappeared from this land so many years ago.

My thoughts: If pressed to pick a genre for this novel, I would begrudgingly call it a literary mystery. Somehow this moniker sells it short to me, however, as Locke uses a mystery to explore themes of race, class, history and progress. Caren is a fascinating character who slowly shares the details of her life, and the lives of her ancestors, with the reader. I appreciated how Locke used Caren to demonstrate the complicatedness of her relationship with Southern history.

I devoured this novel in twenty-four hours, and even though Locke sprinkled only minor clues throughout the novel, I did correctly guess the resolution to both the historic and contemporary storylines quite early. While normally figuring out the ending dampens my enjoyment of a mystery, in this case it did not. Finding out who killed the young woman on Belle Vie is never really the focus of the story. Caren gets caught up in the investigation, but the more urgent and fascinating storyline is of the plantation itself. Locke traces its history from before the Civil War, through emancipation, to Caren's childhood and, finally, to present day. Glimpsing into race relations over all of these years was illuminating enough, but what sets Locke apart from her peers is her ability to also weave in detail about business, politics, love, and parenting. Her books feel like complete worlds, and thus provide the reader with a multi-dimensional tale.

The verdict: The Cutting Season falls a little short of the impossibly high standards Locke set with Black Water Rising, but it will enchant fans of fiction with social justice themes. The mystery's resolution didn't surprise me, but Locke's writing, characterization and exploration of historical and contemporary race relations on a Louisiana sugar plantation are powerful enough to transcend the mystery's slight weakness. Locke once again proves she can write about the past and present powerfully.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: September 18, 2012
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Cutting Season from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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Monday, September 17, 2012

book review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The backstory: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the first novel by Rachel Joyce, was on the 2012 Booker Prize longlist.

The basics: When Harold Fry, a retired man who lives in southern England, receives a letter from an old co-worker and friend, Queenie, saying goodbye because she is quite ill, he sets out to post his reply letter. Instead of stopping at the mailbox, however, Harold keeps walking so he can say goodbye in person. Along the way, he remembers, thinks and meets a quirk cast of characters.

My thoughts: From the first pages of this novel, there is a familiarity to its characters. Harold and his wife, Maureen, seem ordinary and the reader's first glimpse into their lives features the mundanesness of life. Rachel Joyce's observational prose, however, elevates the story. This early passage illustrates the novel itself: "He knew he was going to reach Berwick, and that all he had to do was to place one foot in front of the other. The simplicity of it was joyful. If he kept going forward, he would of course arrive." There is a simplicity to this novel, but there is also a joy to it. While the story itself is straightforward, Harold's interior journey is not.

In spite of its charms, The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry fell flat for me at times. The cast of characters Harold meets along the way became dull. Harold himself is the only constant in this novel, and I never fully warmed to him. His interior monologue featured what felt like a faux innocence about his journey and his life. Many will adore and celebrate Harold, but my inner cynic rolled its eyes at times when this tale became too sweet. What saves this novel from these potential pitfalls is Joyce's writing. As my cynicism became more pronounced, a passage full of wisdom about travel and life would bring me back.

Favorite passage:  "Harold thought of all the things in life he’d let go. The small smiles. The offers of a beer. The people he had passed over and over again, in the brewery car park, or on the street, without lifting his head. The neighbours whose forwarding addresses he had never kept. Worse; the son who didn’t speak to him and the wife he had betrayed. He remembered his father in the nursing home, and his mother’s suitcase by the door. And now here was a woman who twenty years ago had proved herself a friend. Was this how it went? That just at the moment when he wanted to do something, it was too late? That all the pieces of a life must eventually be surrendered, as if in truth they amounted to nothing? The knowledge of his helplessness pressed down on him so heavily he felt weak. It wasn’t enough to send a letter. There must be a way to make a difference."

The verdict: While I never fully connected with Harold himself, I did enjoy his journey. At times I felt dismissive of this novel as 'charming' or 'quaint', and while it is both of those things, Joyce's writing elevates this novel. She is a writer to watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 338 pages
Publication date: July 24, 2012
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

book review: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

The backstory: Swimming Home is on the 2012 Booker Prize shortlist.

The basics: This novella explores the life of Kitty, a beautiful, deeply troubled young botanist with a passion for poetry. Set in a summer cottage on the French Riviera in July 1994, Kitty enchants Joe, a famous poet, who is vacationing with his wife, teenage daughter, and a couple of friends.

My thoughts: From the first line of this novel, "When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no loner knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation," I was enchanted by both Levy's prose and these haunted, curious characters. Levy's crisp, precise prose paints vivid pictures of both the characters and setting. This novella is slight only in pages, but it packs an incredible literary and emotional punch.

This novella was a page turner. Levy wowed me with the tightness and beauty of her prose in every single sentence. Rarely do I want to re-read a novel, but the combination of language and story in this novel is a rare delicacy.

The verdict: There's a startling intimacy to this novel and its characters. As a reader, I was unsettled as a voyeur witnessing the tragedies unfold in the lives of these tender, haunted characters, but I also loved every word, punctuation mark and sentence. Levy has written a masterpiece, and it's utterly deserving of this year's Booker Prize.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 157 pages
Publication date: October 11, 2011
Source: interlibrary loan

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Swimming Home from the Book Depository or Amazon (no Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, September 10, 2012

book review: The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli

The backstory: After adoring Tatjana Soli's debut novel, The Lotus Eaters (my review), I was eager to read her next novel.

The basics: Claire and her husband Forster have lived on Forster's family citrus farm in Southern California since they were married. They now have three children. When their farm is attacked, the family is torn apart.

My thoughts: Tatjana Soli does not shy away from the sadness of the human condition. Her writing is beautiful, but it's the way her characters come alive on the pages that most impresses me. I admit the description of this novel likely would not have convinced me to read this novel, but after loving The Lotus Eaters, I would gladly read anything else Soli writes, and Soli immediately pulled me into The Forgetting Tree. I read it compulsively as if it were a thriller rather than a grief-filled family saga.

Claire is the heart and soul of this novel, and I appreciated each moment I spent with her. I remain fascinated by her priorities, emotions, and experiences. I treasured the time I spent sharing Claire's journey with her. This novel wasn't what I expected, but not knowing what to expect only heightened my enjoyment.

Favorite passage: "Terror was intimate, entwined in the moment, not translatable."

The verdict: Soli's writing shines in The Forgetting Tree, and Claire is a strong, nuanced, memorable woman. This novel, although shadowed by grief, is surprisingly hopeful.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 416 pages
Publication date: September 4, 2012
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours and NetGalley

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Forgetting Tree from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sunday Salon: Hello again

Hello! It's been quiet around here for longer than I wish. Perhaps next year I'll remember this lesson and announce a small break before classes start and my work-life balance (temporarily) loses any sense of balance. Also, remind me not to take the first two weeks of August as vacation. I've missed my small corner of the blogosphere and am excited to get back to normal around here. I have, as usual, a bit of a review backlog. There are six books left to review and five films to review. I'll be sharing those with you in the next few weeks. Additionally, here are some bookish things I'm really looking forward to in the coming weeks (and months):

  • The Booker Prize shortlist will be announced Tuesday. I haven't made nearly as much progress reading the longlist as I'd like (I've only managed three and a half of the twelve), but I still hope to at least finish the shortlist before the winner is announced on October 16. So far, I'm rooting for Swimming Home, which I'll be reviewing on Wednesday.
  • The National Book Award nominees will be announced October 10. I always love reading the five fiction nominees and being in the conversation of what was left out, what shouldn't be included, and what it all means about the state of American fiction.
  • The fall Dewey's Readathon will be October 13. It starts at 7 a.m. Iowa time and goes for 24 hours. The readathon is always so much fun, and I'm already making piles of books to read. I like to surround myself with books shorter than 300 pages and have a mix of historical, mystery, contemporary, diverse settings, and nonfiction. As the date gets closer, I'll share my piles and plans. As I have neither the desire nor the ability to actually read for 24 hours, this year I'm thinking of attempting two 12-hour days. The second day won't be as fun without the other readers, but I think it would still be delightful.
I'm off to spend my day reading The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli, which I'll be reviewing here tomorrow. Happy Sunday!

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!