Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reading Roundup: Historical Southern Fiction

Robert Hicks’ The Widow of the South hits close to home, geographically speaking. Set in 1864 near the end of the Civil War, this novel takes one small part of that four year conflict and tells a detailed story of one town, one family, and how they were affected by the most bitter conflict in US history.

The Battle of Franklin was one of the most disastrous conflicts for the Confederacy, resulting in thousands of casualties from just one day of fighting. Carnton Plantation (a real place near Nashville that happens to be a beautiful modern-day wedding venue!) was right in the middle of the battle and taken over by troops as a field hospital to tend to the injured and dying. In Hicks’ story, Carrie McGavock (also a real person) is forced to face the horrors of the war as they literally arrive on her doorstep. As she works with the soldiers and sees the effects of the war firsthand, she finds the strength and passion to stand up for the individual lives that war so caustically simplifies as mere numbers.

This book was partly fascinating just because its setting is one that’s very familiar. And contrary to what you may believe, local Civil War battles are not something we learned in school—so I knew very little about the historic events around which this novel takes place! It’s also fascinating that much of this story, though fiction, is based on real people and places. Hicks clearly thoroughly researched the time and place and created a very detailed account of the affects of this war. That being said, this is a long book, and I thought it dragged in several places. When I say Hicks was detailed, I mean it. I finished with a better opinion of this book than I had during reading it, which is a rare sentiment, but I was left inspired to further investigate the real story on my own. Also, my mom and sister both loved this.

I last read Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns back in my 10th grade English class, and I remembered nothing more other than my mom also reading it and liking it. It was this memory that inspired me to pick it up again and read it as a grown-up.

Cold Sassy, Georgia, is the type of small town where everybody knows everything about everybody else just about as soon as it happens. It’s summer 1906 and the talk of the town is how Will Blakeslee’s grandfather has up and married the young Miss Simpson less than a month after his beloved wife has been buried. Our fourteen-year-old narrator Will finds himself in the middle of the scandal, observing the reactions of the town and his family, and trying to see the subjective side of what’s happening around him.

For one, the time period of this story is really fun. It’s the turn of the century when modern luxuries are a conversation piece. Electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, automobiles—there’s an excitement in the air about what’s coming next. As a narrator, Will is fascinating to read, because he’s old enough to understand that there’s always more than one way to read a story. He’s trying to view the world from an adult, unbiased perspective, and he gains an understanding that everyone has their own reasons for their actions. That’s a valuable lesson to learn. I’m glad I read Cold Sassy Tree again; it’s an enjoyable, humorous story with a lot of heart. Though, I can’t imagine it appealing to too many 10th graders—not provocative enough!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fiction | The Quietest Most Eventful Summer

Gail Godwin’s Flora is a quiet book. There’s no climactic plot line, no gut-wrenching relationships, nor any other real dramatic element. However, this is a book filled with tension simmering to the brim, told eloquently by our precocious 10-year-old narrator, Helen.

Helen is going through one of the rougher patches of her short life—her grandmother and main caregiver Nonie has just passed away and her dad is spending the summer in Oak Ridge doing important war work as WWII draws to a close. While he’s gone, he’s left Helen in the charge of her long-deceased mother’s cousin, Flora. And the personality differences between these two could not be greater.

Describing Helen simply as “precocious” is not nearly descriptive enough. She’s incredibly smart but also intuitive and confident and possesses a haughty attitude more typical of a smart-aleck 16-year-old than of someone her age. She’s mirrored Nonie’s perspectives and attitudes and experiences the world with a more mature level of cynicism, as if she already knows how it all works; she’s realistic and reads people for (what she believes) they are rather than how they appear. Flora, on the other hand, is bubbly and outgoing, but her personality is usually just a mask for her lack of self-confidence. She’s constantly questioning her own thoughts and actions and desperately needs someone to guide her through young adulthood. Channeling a Nonie-level of knowledge and life experience, Helen immediately considers herself superior to the anxious and inexperienced Flora.

With our two conflicting protagonists isolated in Helen’s crumbling old house, Flora explores these clashes of personality between two characters who are each at a poignant moment in their adolescent development and who each desperately need the guidance that Nonie once provided.

I describe this as a “quiet” book, because in this long and uneventful summer is where the meat of the story lies; as the reader, we are constantly assessing and re-assessing the interactions between Helen and Flora with consideration to each’s perspective. Helen is remarkably astute for her age, but we as the reader are able to see that the world according to Helen is still skewed with an immature misunderstanding. These are brilliantly crafted characters that allow a lot to be read between the lines. It doesn’t feel particularly complex as you read, but the story has depth; these characters—their differences, their misunderstandings, their flaws—will stick with you.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reading Roundup: Sweeping Sagas

Because it’s probably hard to keep track of my reading tastes from 4 years of random blog posts, I’m just gonna state as a fact that I love sweeping historical fiction sagas. Love ’em. I will devour them. And because such novels are often chunksters, not only are the stories enjoyable, they feel extra rewarding when you finally get through them! I’ve read a couple lately that I’d recommend to any other fan of such types of books.

The first is another Rosamunde Pilcher pick, Winter Solstice. As I’ve posted before, she has become one of my favorite authors I would’ve never picked up, because, if you remember, she was cursed with a publicity department that made all her book covers look like romance novels. And not that there’s anything wrong with that genre, it just scares off some folks and is also deceptive…these aren’t romance novels!

The main character of Winter Solstice is the middle-aged Elfrida Phipps who’s just moved to the quaint village of Hampshire and befriended a local family—Oscar, a retired musician, his wife Gloria, and their preteen daughter Francesca. Then we have Carrie, a young woman returning to England after the end of a relationship in Austria; and Sam, a young man returning to England after a failed marriage in New York to revive a local textile mill. Each having suffered their own tragedies, these people converge at Corrydale, a cozy old Scottish estate, where they each aim to escape and find solace.

Of course their lives intermingle as relationships form between Pilcher’s characters that each have their own very different past. Creating these relationships is what Pilcher is good at. Everyone has a story, and everyone is likable; the tragedies and pitfalls are always situational, never the fault of cruelness or selfishness in others. Her stories highlight the positive attributes of people with an always optimistic tone. The endings will always be happy, so I guess in that sense, she does follow the rules of Romance. All Pilcher’s novels I’ve read have a cozy setting, and this one particularly so—perfect for cold winter days bundled under a blanket!

The other family saga I recommend is Leila Meacham’s Roses. Set in small-town Texas where cotton, timber, and textiles are in the town’s very foundation, Roses tells the story of the three industries’ founding families and the choices that led them where they are today.

The story opens with the last day of Mary Toliver’s life, when the reader finds out a last-minute change to her will is going to bequeath her cotton empire to timber tycoon Percy Warwick instead of her niece, the always-intended successor. What follows is a decades-long history that explains Mary’s decision, revealing the relationships, secrets, and tragedies that have defined the Tolivers, Warwicks, and Dumonts.

Like Winter Solstice, Roses is a chunkster, but it also reads very fast. The narrative jumps between past and present keep attention without confusing and slowly reveal new pieces to the puzzle. Mary Toliver is a really headstrong, independent, and passionate character that you want to fully understand, and you keep reading with the hope the story will help you do so. Ultimately, the story is about making choices about what’s most important in your life and living with those consequences. I thought the ending wrapped up a little quickly, but it didn’t detract from the reading experience before that; I wasn’t ready to see the conclusion of these characters!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Fiction | Secrets & Lies in a Thrilling Sophomore Novel

Several months ago, I was sent Justin Kramon’s newest book, The Preservationist, after reading and loving his debut novel, Finny. If you’ve read Finny, let me just say…this follow-up is not similar in style and theme! Kramon has gone dark with his sophomore novel. The Preservationist is all thriller, where you don’t know who’s good, who’s bad, who you can trust, and who’s hiding something.

The perspective of this one varies from chapter to chapter, a characteristic I really enjoy in novels. There are three main characters—Sam, Julia, and Marcus—and as the story is told, their lives intersect and relationships are formed. 
The voice we hear most often is that of Sam—a quiet guy working as a cook in the dining hall of the local college. He’s approaching his 40th birthday, but he’s young-looking and enjoys his work atmosphere surrounded by energetic youth. Kramon seems to write him as one with a bit of arrested development; it’s surprising to find out how old he is, because he’s constantly questioning his life and past relationships as would someone typically much younger. 
If we hear Sam’s voice most often, it’s Julia that is most often the focus. She’s a freshman at the college and immediately grabs Sam’s attention; she’s the one that could make up for all those failed relationships of his past. He’s smitten with her, and she shows interest too, but Julia is a bit scarred from a tragedy in her own past that she’s having trouble coming to terms with.
Then we have Marcus, another guy smitten with Julia. They share several classes and a love of music, but Marcus also his own secrets, so as you can see, we’re never really sure who to trust. Especially when violence breaks out on campus with girls disappearing.
I didn’t dislike The Preservationist, but it is definitely not what I was expecting!! “Thriller” might actually be the wrong descriptor for it; my heart was pounding like I was watching a horror movie… and I do not like horror movies, because they are scary and it gets they stay in my head and then I can’t sleep and become mistrustful of people! 
So in regards to this, Kramon did an excellent job of scaring the crap out of me. [Do not read late at night nor when you are home alone!] Until the climactic ending, I really never knew who to trust and who to fear. So props to you sir, for your excellent creepy writing, but now I’m going to go watch cartoons and the Disney Channel.