Thursday, March 26, 2015

An Almost Real Look At "Almost Famous Women"

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There is a subtle art to masterfully writing a collection of short stories.  You have to pack background stories, character development, dialogue, a story arc, and some type of ending all in 20,000 words or less.  Some people succeed at it; others do not.  Make that arduous task even more daunting by throwing in some little known historical figures and you have Almost Famous Women.  The 2015 release by American author, Megan Mayhew Bergman, is a collection of thirteen fictional stories about real women who only skirted on the edges of fame.  These women loved, mourned, won, lost, lived, and died; however, almost all strove for recognition that would never fully materialize. Whereas most historical figures in fiction are poorly written or catastrophically caricatured, the women in these stories are masterfully written.  The reader will glimpse the fictitious lives of women from various points of view; from a nurse, a lover, a maid, a neighbor, a person who has contact with the woman, but does not really know her.  Bergman does not make any pretenses about actually knowing what these women thought or felt; instead, she crafts her stories through the public perception of these women, making them even more enigmatic than they already all.

There is a definite edginess to Almost Famous Women.  Bergman does not shy away from the rumors/facts of selfishness, anger, sexual deviance, promiscuity, rebellion, history, and idiosyncrasies of the women.  Bergman has done her research; each story will have the reader reaching for the internet to research these women and the ancillary characters in their lives.  There is a certain refreshing quality about Bergman's writing style; she is stark without being offensive and sensitive without being sappy.  She has the ability to weave a tale that is overabundant with information, emotions, and suspense by utilizing only minimal words.  Bergman's greatest gift, perhaps, is her use of dialogue to propel the stories forward.  The dialogue is a standard amount for a short story; however, the crafting of the dialogue reveals so much in so little.  The settings also help to formulate stories in which immense pain, joy, and self-reflection happen; the settings could almost be consider another character.  So much is revealed in these settings, whether it be an island, a town, or a cluttered, long-ignored room of a dying prima donna.  There is pain, love, life, and death in these stories, so much so that the reader will almost forget that they are reading fictional accounts.
Author Megan Mayhew Bergman

Read it!  You will discover the failed genius of Dolly Wilde, the secrecy of Allegra Byron, the flamboyancy of Joe Carstairs, Butterfly McQueen's rebellion, and who exactly was Tiny Davis.   These were real women.  They were ahead of their times, tortured by their blossoming genius, held down by society's rules.  What Almost Famous Women does is capture the essence of being a woman who does not fit society's mold.  These stories are not preachy or driving home a feminist message.  However, they are feminist in the way that these women are driven to prove themselves in a world that does not understand them, thus they become more and more outrageous until they fail completely.  These are the forgotten women, the women that were either driven out of society for their behaviors or cast aside because they were not what society wanted to see.  Bergman does a breathtakingly beautiful job at reviving these women.  She gives them emotions, feelings, power, and redemption from their mistakes. She forgives them for their sins and makes them people again; during their lives, maybe the expectations were too high.  Maybe, through Bergman, some of these women can receive the acceptance they had craved so badly.  

Thursday, March 5, 2015

What Remained Was A "Dead Wake"...

Ever heard of the Lusitania? How about it's overarching historical significance?  Or just the fact that 1,198 lives were lost during the sinking? Eventually overshadowed by the infamous sinking of the Titanic and by World War I which was just starting to pick up steam during the same time period, the sinking of the British ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania, was a catalyst event in the war.  Nonetheless, due to exaggerated propaganda accounts of the event, the USA's eventual entrance into the war,and the stronger disaster legacy of the Titanic, the true story Lusitania has faded into history, earning just a paragraph or two in most historical account of World War I.  However, the Lusitania tragedy means so much more to history: it was the turning point in the United States' attitude towards the conflict and introduced a new type of subterfuge warfare to the spotlight: the submarine, perfected by the Germans and called the U-boat.  2015 marks 100 years since the sinking: 2015 also marks the debut of Dead Wake, the newest book from American author, Erik Larson.

For those who do know about the Lusitania, you know that it sank on 7 May 1915, after being struck by a German U-boat's torpedo.  The victims, which consisted of an unusual amount of children and infants for a voyage, were a variety of nationalities.  This included Americans.  At the time, the US was still neutral in World War I.  However, the sinking of the Lusitania and the loss of American lives put the US on a path that would lead to their joining the war in 1917.  The political scenes in Germany, Britain, and the US were tense, angry, and bound to erupt.  Which they did.  This is the part of the tragedy that most history books focus on.  However, in Dead Wake, Larson explores the event from the beginning.  He traces the history of the Lusitania, while exploring the parallel history of the world and the boiling tensions that would erupt into a full scale world war.  Reading Dead Wake, one will find stories of cowardice and heroism; there are descriptions of historical fact, along with eyewitness and news accounts.  Like all of Larson's other books, by the time a reader is finished, they are thoroughly well versed and highly engrossed in the subject matter.

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Larson's acclaim as an author comes from his master storytelling talent: he has perfected the ability to make nonfiction (usually a genre viewed as academic and boring) come alive and become almost fiction-like in it's telling. Author of the highly successfully and critically acclaimed The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003) and In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin (2011), Larson has done it again.  He has taken another obscure historical event (the obscure and peculiar are his specialties)and turned it into a gripping thriller, one that weaves in fact, scandal, violence, love, heroics, and politics, only to create an account so spectacular the reader will want more.  Larson is a perfectionist in the best and worst senses of the word.  Readers can be assured that he has fact checked and researched each and every solitary detail throughout each book.  He has the uncanny ability to research things down to the exact detail; however, instead of becoming tedious as in most nonfiction, the details only enhance the story, lending it beautiful descriptions and settings that a reader can get lost in. The perfection can be bad though because most nonfiction books are now ruined for you.  Larson has changed the nonfiction game; his books can be understood and enjoyed by people who do not know much about the subject or about history or nonfiction at all.

Erik Larson also is a skillful historian; he is able to put into words the complex and often overwhelming political happenings of the particular time period in question.  This almost on-the-spot recounting is wonderful and educational. Yet, it can be terrible as it leaves the reader constantly reaching for Google to further investigate into situations that Larson writes about! The political intrigue of the book is possibly the most fascinating part.  The constant back and forth between different nations is suspenseful. Larson deftly illustrates how the strain from the seemingly endless war and the rapidly changing methods of warfare caused all governments to be divided.  On one hand, there are those who are skeptical of the new methods of warfare, namely the submarine.  They do not believe that subs can do any large-scale damage.  On the other are those are painfully aware of what the introduction of submarines will do to modern warfare.  This back and forth heightens the tension and suspense- all while the telling of the voyage itself is interspersed throughout the book-  that leads to the event itself.

I know what you are thinking: you do not like nonfiction and history was and always will be boring. This is most definitely NOT the case in Erik Larson's books.  He has the exceptional ability to make history relevant and exciting, to make even the most mundane details seem important and interesting. This is history at it's best.  It's history stripped down of all the monotony and dull repetition that plagues history classes.  This is history how it really was: uncertain, intriguing, devastating, and hopeful.  Dead Wake and, honestly, any of Larson's other books, are more than worth the read.

Dead Wake is available for library check-out 
and personal purchase 10 March 2015.

Special thanks to Crown Publishing Group and Erik Larson for my ARC!  

Monday, March 2, 2015

Desert Noir

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There is something haunting about the American Southwest.  It has a landscape that is unrivaled in the world; vast rugged deserts, with mountains, sparse vegetation, and incredible skylines that are famous worldwide.  The landscape is only added to by the people that inhabit the area; the various Native American tribes that live there have been romanticized by history, thus giving their ancestral homelands an aura of mysticism and endurance that does not exactly apply to modern times.  It is this setting in which author CB McKenzie set his first novel, Bad Country.  

Winner of the Tony Hillerman Award for best fiction set in the American Southwest, Bad Country combines several different types of mystery and suspense, weaving two different problems into each other.  Using elements of noir, action, western, and classic mystery genres, McKenzie manages to have two different mysteries going at once.  The mysteries themselves are also unique in style.  One is a run-of-the-mill serial killer, which seems racially fueled; however, the issue becomes much larger than what it appears and much more sinister and desperate.  The other is a brutal murder, which seems to stem from a mix of family secrets, angst, and revenge.  In both issues, McKenzie explores the racial tensions of the American Southwest today; tensions often boil over from disputes between Caucasians, Mexicans, and Native Americans, leading to murder, gangs, and cities divided along racial lines.  All racial groups are captured perfectly and distinctly; these are not caricatures of racial groups, but based off McKenzie's relationships and interactions with different people from his time spent there.  McKenzie also uses racial tension to explore the income gap in the American Southwest, a problem that has plagued the area for decades.  The poverty in the area seems to contribute to both crimes, but contributes to both so differently that it hardly seems like the same issue. McKenzie, despite being in a long line of authors writing about the American Southwest, manages to weave all the social issues into the story without seeming preachy or biased.  There is no guilt complex associated with the setting of the novel; McKenzie does not point fingers in any direction for the plight of the area.  Instead, he expounds that the problems surrounding the American Southwest is EVERYONE's fault. Both crimes are intricately tied to a wide range of characters, varying in sex, race, and age.  This alone makes the book a must-read.

McKenzie adds to the racial mix by having a racially ambiguous protagonist, Rodeo Garnet, who is the other reason to read the novel.  Rodeo is a beautiful mix of the mythos of the American Southwest and of  the actual version of today's tech savvy Native American; he uses the internet to research, but at the same time, has the ability to survive in the rugged landscape.  He is painfully self-aware, yet manages to use that to his advantage.  He essentially is the best type of renegade detective, working outside the system and within his own networks to solve seemingly impossible crimes. His past sparingly haunts him, yet when the full-force of memory hits him, Rodeo uses the emotions to aid to his investigations.

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Rated as one of the top mystery novels of 2014, Bad Country takes a departure from the usual mystery formats concerning Native American characters; McKenzie's mystery does not involve Native American culture, artifacts, or tribal disputes.  Instead, McKenzie focused his novel purely on the human element of crime and did not let the setting of the novel dictate the nature of the mystery or the story in general. There is no message of Native American victimization, no preaching on the attempted survival of the culture, all messages that usually pervade Native American fiction.  However, McKenzie does not shy away from the poverty, despair, and tension of the area.  He embraces it and has it play a large part in both crimes.  The social issues make the novel more dramatic, more complex, and more heartbreaking.  Bad Country will leave you pondering, anxious, and more than satisfied.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Long Live the Queen of Mystery!

Quick! Name a book genre!

Did you guess mystery?  If so, then you picked the second most popular genre of fiction books (it just cannot beat that steamy ol' romance genre).  Mysteries range from espionage mysteries to fantasy mysteries to themed mysteries to horror mysteries; the sub genres go on and on. However, in the end, there is no mystery like the classic mystery, with a plucky, eccentric sleuth coming upon a problem (almost always murder) and then proceeding to solve said problem with cunning and little outside help.  This is the tried and true method for writing a mystery and it has endured since the debut of the mystery genre.

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However, no one has quite mastered the art of turning the simplistic formula into a complicated and articulate story like Dame Agatha Christie.  Born in 1890, the English author began her lengthy career during the "Golden Age of Detective Fiction" (1920's and 1930's).  However, where many, many others quit, lost steam, or faded into obscurity, Christie continued to be a roaring force of mystery fiction, producing some her best works later in life.  Her personal life read as a mystery/romance novel as well, from her vastly publicized disappearance in 1926 (the stress of her husband's affair and demand for divorce left her distraught, thus prompting her flight), her eventual marriage to archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan (she loved him because "the older I grow, the more he appreciates me,"), to the international whirlwind success of her writing career.  Christie was not only confident in her success, she also served as a figurehead for female authors breaking into the mystery genre, a book form which has been previously dominated by men.  Christie wrote books that appealed to both men and women, both in England and abroad. Her books have been published in at least 103 languages. 

Christie came onto the literary scene in 1920 with The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  The novel also marked the debut of Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective with the egg-shaped head, who brought Christie international literary fame and remains today what she is best known for.  Poirot starred in thirty-nine of Christie's novels.  The novels were marked with a flair of international jet-setting and class; the mysteries revolved around the rich and the famous, those desperate to keep their crimes and secrets to themselves.  However, as Poirot reminds the reader again and again, "Papa Poirot" sees everything. Everything about Poirot is lovable yet antagonizing; he is able to deduce solutions from his keen sense of awareness and his brilliance at being able to tailor a situation to work in his favor.  Despite the fact that the ingenious but often haughty detective vastly annoyed Christie towards the end of her career, her last published book during her lifetime was Poirot's final Curtain in 1975; early on she had recognized the fame of Poirot, thus had written his ending book early on, while she was still physically able.  By the time the novel debuted, Poirot had become so internationally popular, his literary death received an obituary from The New York Times, the only fictional character ever to receive such.

Christie did the same for her other literary sleuth, Miss Marple, an English spinster whose quiet observations of her English village give her great insight into the human psyche.  Sleeping Murder was published in 1976, the year of Christie's death.  However, Christie did not live to see her favorite sleuth's literary journey end.  Marple was the star of twelve novels, starting with The Murder at the Vicarage (1930); yet, to some readers, Marple's legacy as the amateur sleuth is overlooked most mystery readers. The tone of the Marple novels are different that the Poirot ones; these are more simple, quaint, and tend to less complex plots, yet retaining their signature Christie twists and turns.  There is a much greater cosmopolitan sense in the Poirot novels, yet the Marple novels exude a distinctly English feel, luring the reader into the eccentricities and dangers of countryside English life.  Miss Marple is the perfect English gentlewoman; however, she is cunning, sly, and uses anecdotes and her deep understanding of the human condition makes her a different sleuth than most.  She is not worldly or fancy.  Yet, in her simplicity lies a genius that makes her more interesting to read about than Poirot.

So, yes, I am telling you to read mysteries from the 1920's to 1970's (Christie kept busy).  Why? Several reasons.  There are no modern frills with these novels; the lack of modern communication and technology makes the mysteries very exciting and twisting. Without technology dating the novels, the stories are able to be timeless, with the crimes and solutions based entirely on human emotions, passions, and folly.  It is solely up to the smarts and observations of the sleuth to deduce the solution, therefore bringing forth the quintessential strength of Christie's talent.  The context in which Christie was writing is also worth the attention.  The life of England past is filled with servants, mansions, manners, class distinctions, and speech that is indicative of times past.  The reader is transported to a world and lifestyle that reigned not even a hundred years ago, yet is so different from modern times it nearly seems fabricated.  The historical aspect of the novels is also interesting.  The publications span from the end of World War 1 to past World War 2, offering glimpses into how people lived and thought during Christie's time periods.  Clearly, real life and culture are infused in fiction, so it is only natural to connect with history through Christie's characters and settings.  Lastly, and most importantly, Christie's novels are intriguing.  They remain relevant in today's world.  The whodunit is almost always a surprise (READ THE BOOKS!), yet Christie manages to engage the reader in the cat and mouse game that is and will always be the classic mystery.  She is a writer for the ages and her books, although short, will thrill to the very end.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Enchanting World of Sarah Addison Allen

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Books that randomly appear.  An apple tree that promises to show you the most important moment in your life.  Promises that cannot be broken.  Women whose emotions can leave tangible traces on objects. A lone peach tree that guards an untimely end. Alligators with secrets. Families whose magical tendencies are the talk of the town.  Seven books, seven different sets of magic, hopes, dreams, and perseverance to overcome obstacles grace the novels written by American author, Sarah Addison Allen.  With five stand-alone books (The Sugar Queen (2008), The Girl Who Chased the Moon (2010), The Peach Keeper (2011), and Lost Lake (2014)), and a budding series stemming from her debut novel (Garden Spells (2007) and First Frost (Jan. 2015)), Allen has managed to infuse magic and mysticism in her novels about everyday people and the lives they lead.  However, these are not fantasy novels.  They are novels about life, love, loss, and the eccentricities in people that make humanity diverse and wonderful.  Allen's work is delightful simply because the reader can be enchanted by the magic and beauty of life and its nuances.

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Her debut novel, Garden Spells, remains her most popular novel.  The novel centers around the Waverly family, a quirky, tiny family unit that has survived heartache, stigmatization, passion, and depression.  Infused with the subtle magical abilities that all of Allen's characters have, the Waverlys have struggled to find their place in the community and even in their own family.  Allen captivates the reader with her characters: Claire Waverly is a caterer who has a renowned 'magic' touch when it comes to food; Sydney Waverly is a lost soul, struggling to find beauty in life and herself.  The story swirls around the two sisters, accompanied by relatives, friends, and enemies who are also trying to find themselves.  Seven years later, Allen picks their story back up in First Frost (due out January 20, 2015).  Once again, the reader will find that the Waverly sisters are once again struggling to find their place in the world, as well as finding out where exactly their 'powers' fit into the mix.  Allen introduces new characters, both to the Waverly family fold and to their community.  The new novel centers mostly around Bay, Sydney's daughter, who was a small child in the first book.  Bay is struggling to come to terms with her gift and with her family's quirky reputation in the community. First Frost has a very different tone than Garden Spells, with the desperately lost feeling of many of the characters having been settled in Garden Spells.  There are several forces that have disrupted the quiet lives of the Waverlys, throwing their settled, happy lives back into confusion and self-doubt.  It is a quintessential coming-of-age novel; however, Allen takes it a step further and delves into the coming of age into middle age.  Both Claire and Sydney are hitting middle age blahs while Bay is coming into turbulent teenage hood.  Allen delicately parallels the self searches these women undergo as they try to adapt to their new life phases.  While not as powerful as Garden Spells (one of the most refreshing novels I have ever read), First Frost is a fun read, and makes you review your own views on age and adapting to change.

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My personal favorite is The Sugar Queen.  Allen's second novel, a stand alone, The Sugar Queen revolves around Josie Cirini, a sweets loving, painfully shy woman, whose domineering mother (not to mention her own insecurities) keep her from living life to the fullest.  To me, this novel is Allen at her best.  The ancillary characters keep the story moving forward, and Allen gives us glimpses (both brief and extended) into their lives, making them an integral part of the novel.  It is set during the winter time at a mountain resort town; the chilly background provides a stark contrast to the fiery emotions that drive the characters towards a satisfying conclusion.  The Sugar Queen is truly a novel about forgiveness, whether it is the characters forgiving others or mainly, themselves.  Allen illustrates how punishing oneself for misdeeds past and present can do nothing but prolong the misery in our lives.  The magic in this novel is subtle but alluring.  Each character has a trait that impacts their lives and how they interact with the world.

All of Allen's works have the same underlying character themes.  Her main characters, first and foremost, are women.  Allen beautifully depicts women who have or are trying to make their way in the world, despite their pasts, their reputations, and whatever else has plagued them.  All of her female characters are acutely aware of themselves, almost to a fault.  However, they do not shy away from their eccentricities or personalities; they embrace them and find lives, careers, friends, and partners that best accentuate who they are as women.  Allen does not write about women who shy away from life or who accept their fate.  Her novels ultimately are about strong women and the magic that comes from accepting yourself.

These are not huge books, yet Allen manages to pack in a novel that will leave you wondering about the characters.  Allen has a simple writing style.  She uses a clipped, yet flowery prose for her writing.  The descriptions are precise, yet thorough.  Nevertheless, she manages to convey powerful lessons in her novels.  The quick paced storytelling, the inter-generational stories that Allen manages to weave together, and the dynamic characters is what makes Allen one of my favorite authors.  There is romance, but nothing ridiculous or bawdy; just plain love, with characters radiating their happiness and contentment.  There is mystery to a certain degree; mysteries that unravel as the characters find out more about themselves and their loved ones.  From Garden Spells to the highly anticipated First Frost, Allen has created non-stop beauty and happiness in her novels.  Her memorable characters is what places her above most "chick lit" dramas; they are easy to relate to and, by the end, you are immersed in their lives.  It is the simple things in life and in yourself that Allen makes magical.  It is the characters' interactions with themselves, their self-awareness to a fault and their peaceful, but determined self-acceptance, that make Allen's works worth reading.

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Thanks to St. Martin's Press for my ARC!