WATCHING GLASS SHATTER by James J. Cudney: A Review

Watching a family with the surname of Glass shatter sounds like a pretty bad reading experience, but the author’s depiction shows how although shattering herself due to secrets revealed after her husband’s death, Olivia Glass holds together her family of five sons.

Synopsis: Father of the Glass family, Benjamin Glass dies unexpectedly, and Olivia, his widow and five grown sons each react to his death in their own way. Because of a secret confession “from the grave”( in two letters left to be opened after his death), Olivia decides to visit each son as she tries to make sense of the secret Ben has kept from her.  Because it involves one of the sons, although she does not know which one, she tries to discover the secret on her own. She discovers, instead, that like their father, each son has kept his own secret from her and the rest of the family.  Unraveling and revealing every family secret kept me turning the pages, guessing (often wrongly) at the secrets and surprised many times by the twists and turns.

Cudney’s characterization is excellent.  I , for one, was interested in each individual as the character’s thoughts, secrets, and actions unreeled. The major characters, Olivia and her “boys” are people I came to care about. A secondary character I grew fond of was Diana, Olivia’s sister who not only was the family “listener,” but also had figured out more than one son’s secret and didn’t blab. Significant others who were secondary characters were also believable, very likable, and integral to the story.

The writing is outstanding. Irony abounds, and the word choices and phrasing are captivating from the first page:– “…his discrete office hibernating in the corner of Brandywine’s downtown historic district…”– to the last:– “…Sewn into the last few pages of the album were parchment scrolls that displayed in beautiful calligraphy the Glass Family tree–”

I give this book a five out of five and would definitely recommend it as a “darned good read.”

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THE RESURRECTION OF JOAN ASHBY: A Review

This 2017 debut novel by Cherise Wolas is “a stunning debut–because there is nothing debut about it.” (A.M. Holmes, NY Times bestselling author).  I agree with this statement one hundred percent. This is one of the smoothest, most professionally-written, insightful novels I have ever read.  Every character is beautifully developed, every plot twist and turn is unexpected, and even shattering in one instance. The story explores, and maybe exploits, the thoughts and inner life of a writer in its main character, Joan Ashby.

The plot Wolas develops stems from “sacrifice” that is demanded with the onset of motherhood and the profound effect it can have on a gifted writer. Although originally unapologetic about her ambition, when the time comes Joan, our protagonist, makes the selfless choice, not once but twice with entirely different and even difficult outcomes. Excerpts from Ashby’s “dark and singular stories ” as one of her critics describes them are interspersed throughout the novel, and I must confess that I would love to read more than one of those imaginary short stories in its entirety.

Her struggles to set her two precocious sons on the road to success and happiness demand time and attention she must steal from her writing. Towards the end, with the plot developments that occur, Joan comes to question every decision she has made in her life, and as she travels to India to examine her accomplishments and failures, to evaluate her life and her life’s work, and there she makes the only decisions she CAN make to satisfy the intelligent reader.  The article from a fictional literary magazine, which serves as an epilogue adds to the reader’s sense of closure and satisfaction with “the way things work out at the end.”

I highly recommend this book and rank it “right up there” with A Gentleman in Moscow as the best book I’ve read this year.

 

WIZARD AND GLASS by Stephen King: A Review

At the risk of repeating myself, allow me to give a little background on King’s “Dark Tower” series.  When the first book of the seven volume series, The Gunslinger, was published, it was an extraordinarily hot Texas summer.  My Better Half and I checked out the unabridged CD of King’s novel, our first foray into audio books.  As the over one hundred degree afternoons droned on, we listened to Roland’s (protagonist’s) story while letting the fan blow across us on the bed.  The reader’s voice did NOT drone on and on, and we were caught up in the exciting, action-packed narrative, filled with King’s exquisite imagination.

The same reader read through Book III of the series, then died.  King said (in a newspaper account) he would never let anyone else read that particular series, so readers were committed to reading in print themselves the rest of the saga. Wizard and Glass was Book IV, and when I first attempted to read it, it seemed dull by comparison to the insane trip on Blaine the Train in Book III that I skipped Book VI and went on to Book V, The Wolves of Calla,which became, perhaps my favorite book in the whole series.  Since it was a detour from the quest/journey the ka-tet was on, there was no disconnect in the plot. I read The Song of Susanna, Book VI  next, another side-trip into Roland’s past, which revealed a darker side of both the gunslinger Susan and especially of Roland, the original gunslinger. It was perhaps the weakest book of the series, in my opinion, and certainly the goriest, grossest of all the books. Before reading Book VII, the end of the story, I realized there were gaps that I needed to fill in, so I returned to Book IV, which was all I lacked before reading the conclusion.

Book VI, Wizard and Glass, is a fascinating look into young (14 years old) Roland’s past and his first assignment as a gunslinger, as well as his first love, Susan Delgado. Perhaps one of the strongest features of this novel is the character of Rhea of the Coos, and unforgettable witch/wizard woman who will haunt your dreams and give you night terrors.  King outdoes himself with this characters and her “mutie” familiars, so grotesque that they turn your stomach. What she does to Roland and to Susan is revenge and perverseness, pure and simple.  Again this book is action-packed, a beautiful story of young love and worthy adversaries to the trio of young gunslingers (Roland and his two best friends) are the Great Coffin Hunters, all working for the Crimson King, who will appear in future books. Perhaps this is one of my favorite things about King’s series (I also found this in The Stand, another of King’s masterpieces.) is how characters from other books turn up in more recent ones to continue to do their evil or to have evil acted upon them; for example, the priest, Callahan, from Salem’s Lot, is a major player in Wolves of the Calla (Book V).

The strange, hypnotic globe in Book IV, the pink light emitting “8 Ball” of this book, is one of the thirteen globes that are encountered all through the series and has a definite effect/influence on the plot, the character development and the growth or devastation of the protagonists and antagonists in Book IV.

Wizard and Globe is long, but when I came to the end and faced the other three volumes with the quartet (quintet if you count Oy) of gunslingers, I was energized and could hardly wait to continue the journey to save the Rose and defeat the power  of the Dark Tower and the Crimson King. I do recommend reading the series in order, but King, starring with Book IV, does give a chapter or so refreshing the reader’s memory on what came before.  If you do not want to commit to seven volumes (several being over 700 or more pages), Book IV, Wizard and Globe is a good place to jump in.  Even the terrorizing suicidal journey on Blaine the Train is repeated and even prolonged and fleshed out a bit. This novel is a stand alone masterpiece and a vital part of Stephen King’s Lifework, “The Dark Tower Series.”

Reviewing LILAC GIRLS by Martha Hall Kelly (published 2016)

This debut novel is based on real events and real people.  It is set during WWII beginning with the invasion of Poland through the fall and liberation of France. It is not just another Holocaust story, but tells a broader tale. The author’s purpose seems to be to keep this period of women’s history alive as it explores several themes.

Kelly weaves together the lives of three extraordinary women and includes a “doomed wartime romance,” an ambitious career woman striving to make a way into a male dominated field, and the feelings and emotions of two closely attached  biological sisters. The writing is deeply moving and has beautiful, vivid descriptions.  The novel begins  with  and revolves around Caroline, based on a real socialite and employee of the French Consulate in New York City, who is not just “doing her part for the war effort,” but is dedicated to making a difference in people’s lives. The title comes from the lilacs planted at her Bethlehem, Connecticut, home, which today is a museum.  Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager who is sent to the notorious Ravensbruck Labor Camp along with her doctor sister  because she has been caught smuggling messages to the resistance is the second Lilac girl. A brilliant German doctor, Herta Oberhauser, makes up the third of the trio as she works with the Nazis, operating on the “Rabbits,” of which Kasia and her sister are a part.

One critic describes this fiction-based-on-fact novel as the story of “…unsung women and their quest for love, freedom, and second chances.” I loved the novel for its twists and turns in the plot, its excellently drawn characters, and the way it kept my interest through the final pages. I highly recommend this as a “darned good read.”

 

NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles: A Review

Paulette Jiles is a San Antonio poet, novelist, and memorist.  In this 2016 publication, she describes in poetic, vibrant wording the realities and hard times of the western frontier.

She tells the story of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, aka “Captain” and “Captain Kidd,” a “reader of the news” of the world. Captain Kidd travels from frontier town to frontier town  in a wagon bought from a snake oil salesman, which has the faded letters, “Curative Waters” on its side. Captain brings news of the world to each town, reading from newspapers from New York, London, and other hub cities.  He censors and edits his performance readings depending on the politics and conditions found in each town. My Oral Interpretation professor would certainly have given him an A+, for he keeps his rough, uneducated audiences spellbound by the sound of his voice.Early in this page-turner, he takes on the task of returning a ten year old white girl, held captive by the Kiowa since she was a tiny child to her relatives in a small Texas town.  He accepts this assignment on moral grounds as well as for the few pieces of gold coin that he is given. However, Johanna, the child, wants nothing more than to remain a Kiowa, having no memories of her life as a white child. Eventually, early childhood memories and language begin to surface, and she comes to call Captain “Kantah,” Kiowa for grandfather.  Their relationship is the focus and theme of the book.

A sub-theme is dimes, silver dimes. This is the price of admission for Captain’s readings.  They eventually save Captain and Johanna’s lives when they have to use them for ammunition. A memorable encounter in the middle of the novel is when Kiowa braves appear, and Johanna is faced with the strongest decision of her life.  Will she choose to go back to the Kiowa with the warriors? Captain faces his own decision as well: What would be best for Johanna?

The epilogue is most satisfactory. Loose ends are tied up and the reader feels good with outcomes, the decisions made, and what happens to characters he/she has come to love.

This is definitely a 5 out of 5 points book, which has action, excellent characterization, and an appeal that will keep you up late reading.

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY: by Charlie Jane Anders, A REVIEW

This unusual/weird novel is set in the near future and goes forward from there. Patricia Delfine and Laurence (“without a ‘w’ “) Armstead, the two protagonists meet in junior high.  They both are misfits among their peers–he, because he is working on an AI computer assembled in his bedroom closet and has invented a time machine that can move one two seconds in time; and she,  because she can talk to birds and other animals and is branded as a witch by her classmates. These two unusual, unlikely “friends” unite against strange antagonists and typical middle school harassment.

This book is science fiction which explores the themes of magic vs technology, the fate of planet Earth, and the complexities of friendship. As the cover asks, “Will they find love? Will they save the world? or, Will they destroy it?” The book is further described as “…wacky, sexy, scary, weird, and wonderful…” I found the novel to be all of the forementioned. As I read the book (and it didn’t help that I was reading it during the craziness of Hurricane Harvey) I wondered if both kids or their guidance counselor, or I, the reader, was crazy.  Many times I expected the author to end with an explosion of the planet and then the seventh graders’ denouement of, “And, then I woke up from my dream.” The author had in mind a much more complex yet satisfying ending. I would rate it five stars out of five stars and pay my compliments to the author.

THE BEAT ON RUBY’S STREET: A story for teens, pre-teens and everyone, A Review

Jenna Zark’s (author of A Body of Water) 2013 publication taught me more about the Beat Generation, Beatniks of the 1950s, and especially about “Beat Poetry” than I learned in an undergraduate class on Modern Poetry, which explored the subject. It is a fine book told from the point of Ruby, an eleven-going-on-twelve year old girl who lives in The Village in New York. She seems to be a “typical”pre-teen who has a “typical” cat, Solange.  Her mother, Nell, aka “Little Nell” is an artist, and her father, Gerard, aka “Gary-Daddy-O” is often on the road, playing bass. As Ruby tells us about The Beat Generation, “When it first  started, it was about people who were” beat up and fed up by the”System”, aka “The Man.”  Ruby had been making up poems by age four and writing them down by age seven. Her idol is Jack Kerouac, whom she describes is “…not a poet but writes like one.”

Ruby has a fourteen year old brother,Ray, who plays sax and often substitutes with his dad’s band, earning the adults’ respect and admiration for his playing skills. When Ruby gets in trouble on the “street,” she is sent to the police station, and Mrs. Levitt, a social worker steps in, setting in motion an investigation into her unmarried parents and her “home environment.” What follows in the story leads to Ruby becoming involved in a hunger strike at a children’s home in Brooklyn, where she is aided and abetted by her new friend, Manuela.

As she approaches her twelfth birthday day, she could never have imagined the changes in her life, attitude, and maturity or how things could change so quickly.  Through it all, she has her poetry (quite good, and interspersed throughout the novel) to sustain her and comes to the conclusion that “Poetry isn’t really good for anything except it makes you feel better.” Although the book explores the angst of “typical teen” misunderstanding and feelings that friends (and parents) don’t understand, Ruby, street-smart and talented,   is NOT a typical teen in a time and era definitely not “typical” either.

The author supplies questions for discussions suitable for book clubs, junior high English and history classes and anyone interested in the literary contributions to American literature from the “Beat Poets/Generation.”