Thursday, November 14, 2013

Whistling Past the Graveyard

Whistling Past the Graveyard
Susan Crandall
Review Rating B
Publisher Gallery Books
Historical Women's Fiction

Starla Jane Claudelle is only 9 years old (really, 9 and a HALF) who lives with her overbearing Grandmother, Mamie, while her father works at an offshore rig in 1963. Her life in Mississippi isn't terribly rough, but she feels treated more like a Cinderella than a grand-daughter. She tries to stay out of trouble, but sometimes her fiery temper exceeds her ability to reign in her mouth and actions. Not surprisingly, everything comes together in a perfect storm that sends her running from home, on the brink of death, and eventually searching Nashville for the mother she's not seen since she was 3. 

My review
I loved this story. I immediately identified with Starla. Her persona makes an indelible mark on your heart and mind. She's a do-er, a tomboy, and she tries to be a really good friend. It's the day before the big 4th of July celebration. Starla is intent on remembering to be extra careful with her mouthiness and behavior because “If I got in trouble now, I'd have to wait a whole nother year for fireworks.” Trouble finds her alright, and she's grounded for punching Jimmy Sellers right in the face. What's worse is Mrs. Sellers catches her in the park, knowing Starla's supposed to be on restriction. If Mrs. Sellers tells her Mamie, she'll be going to reform school for sure! Starla sets off on the run to avoid her fate and to reunite with her mother. She's picked up on the road by Eula, a black woman with her own secrets, and they begin a journey that will leave a man dead before they are through.

Starla is aiming for Nashville to find her momma (who's a big music star, she's certain) with no map, no money, and very little hope. She clings to those few memories of comfort and love when their family was all together. She is certain her momma can set everything straight and find a way to keep Eula out of trouble with the law, keep Starla out of reform school if they can just get to her. Each day gives Starla a fresh perspective on hard work, hard knocks, and disappointment. It just strengthens her resolve to remain loyal and protective of Eula, baby James, her momma, and her daddy.

It is written with a childlike, southern point of view. I really wanted to read this aloud because the syntax is very good, but that would have slowed the story down too much. This book is a page-turning train-wreck sort of tale. You can see what's coming, you're powerless to stop it, but you have to keep reading anyway. I had a hard time putting it down because you just have to know what's next.

This is a compelling tale of the realities of racial prejudices in the deep south in 1963, and the expectations placed on children then and now. The stories woven together are so poignant, so saturated, that you can't help but ache for the characters and their plight. I recommend this read because it is an excellent reminder that all people should be treated with respect. The story also evoked memories of my childhood in pale sepia tones that seem to accompany older memories. Eventually the trouble plays out and the story comes to a close. Everything gets settled and tidied up, but there is no fairytale ending. Even so, I think you'll be satisfied when you turn that last page. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Storycatcher - by Ann Hite

The Storycatcher
by Ann Hite


Shelly Parker is a 16-year-old, naïve, black servant to a white household in the North Carolina mountains during the Depression. She seriously despises the young white lady she is required to serve. She is also jealous of her, because this white child is in love with Shelly's older brother. Will leaves abruptly, without a note for her or her mother, but Shelly suspects something more serious is the cause. After Will leaves, Shelly is visited by the ghost of a young black girl, born in the 1870s. Shelly tries to ignore the ghost, but she is drawn into her story. Before the story's end, Shelly will experience the very real situations the ghost of Armetta Lolly needs to have aired before she can be at rest. It has been a long story in the making. Shelly must catch the story before everything comes unraveled and the price for the truth costs her life.

My Review
I had a hard time with the alternating first person writing style. The book has a family tree including many of the speaking characters, but not every person speaking is in that tree. It's a bit hard to follow, but it's worth pushing on through. This story is set in the mountains of North Carolina and alternates with the salt-water marshes of Georgia. There is an undercurrent of unease, and the very first line of the story pulls the reader in like an undertow. A white man from New York City is bringing his black girlfriend to visit Georgia during the Great Depression. How could you not hold your breath for the coming storm? 

As you read on, you encounter women with very different opinions and actions, both white and black. It's filled with tension, and it isn't long before there's a murder with blame placed on the racial scapegoat. These women react differently to such events, and while they are polarized by the racial norm, they also find common ground. The story twists and turns as everyone tries to maintain their footing, even the shades, ghosts, and memories fade in and out of the telling.

Shelly, a 16-year-old black girl, must help other ghosts tell their story. They are bound to the people, places, and events until the telling brings them peace. Once satisfied, they can move on to their well-deserved rest. Shelly must find strength to stand up to the white preacher, Pastor Dobbins, and discover his horrible past that sent him to Black Mountain. I found myself cheering her on, and was surprised by the person who provided the support she needed. 

I loved the colorful descriptions, the amazing history, and the final justification this story wove. Even now, days after reading, I find myself drawn back to the story. While it takes a little effort to read, this story completely makes sense, and the telling with multiple first person insight is brilliant. Don't pass this story over. Even if you are less impressed than I was, you'll be amazed at the rich history of the time and the veiled struggles of the day.

Moderate sexual tension and situations, PG13. Sexual discussion is appropriate for the time for behind-the-scenes descriptions among women. Does not rise to the level of erotica.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Banquet of Lies by Michelle Diener

Banquet of Lies
Banquet of Lies
by Michelle Diener

Widely-traveled Giselle Barrington has accompanied her father on many of his business ventures abroad where he also doubles as a spy for the Crown. She hopes to write a book one day about the stories she has learned from the places they have visited, including the recipes she has collected. Fate, however, has other plans. Quite suddenly, her father is murdered while she hides just feet from him in the dark garden at a gala event. She becomes the subject of an intense and hostile hunt fleeing from Switzerland back to her homeland in England. She knows she cannot return to their home while protecting her father's last secret, but to whom can she turn for safe shelter and a place to puzzle out the identity of her father's killer? Set in 1812, the world is in the throes of war, women are seen only in domestic duties within a clear caste system of propriety and conduct, and only the spies are free to roam. Allegiances are questioned and subterfuge complicates every seemingly normal action. Can she save her own skin and return with honor to the life her father intended?

My review 

I had a hard time setting this book down. I literally read each night until my eyes burned. Diener has a great writing style, and this little gem is an easy to follow mystery full of vibrant visual images. She shows masterful skill at just sketching the details of the shadow man allowing your mind to fill in every dark and deceitful detail. Heroine Gigi (Giselle) is often caught in compromising situations that have her questioning her own decisions at every turn. The story is perfectly balanced with all types of tension at just the right moments. Diener's characters are full of life and suitably complicated, filling the story with life without wasting a word.

I wanted to fall in love with Lord Aldrich, but he had just enough bad boy in him that made me, and Gigi, hesitate. He's also a battle-tested soldier in Her Majesty's service. He returned home when his brother passed on to take up the reigns of his family's manor and concomitant social responsibilities. Although the Crown is at war with France, he dreams of having a French chef, and he gets one thinking it a good stroke of luck. He begins to hear questions of loyalty from his club cronies, and the head of his own house staff. He gets suitably concerned and begins to pay close attention to the woman hired as his chef.

Gigi needs a place to hide, but also needs to be close enough to her family home to keep a wary eye out for the man who murdered her father. She has always had a flair for cooking ever since her French mother began teaching her traditional cuisine as a child. What better way to hide in plain sight? She is careful to speak a broken mix of English and French, and exudes the perfect temper and kitchen attitude to complete the persona. Her every move is watched by the butler, the Lord, and the shadow man who is after that missing document. Close calls and accusations leave her exposed as a spy, but there seems no one who can come to her aide. Sadly, her decision to hide as a French chef doesn't seem as wise as she first thought.

If you love intrigue, a glimpse of the back-scenes of high and low society in London in the early 19th century, you'll enjoy this book. Clever clandestine tricks, handsome and powerful men, some sordid household relationships, and the wonderful backdrop of London, it's Indiana Jones meets Downton Abbey and it WORKS!