Tag Archives: Coming of Age

Disappearances by Howard Frank Mosher

How to describe Disappearances by Howard Frank Mosher! Tall Tale? Coming of Age? Historical Fiction? Magical Realism? Or just a young man’s fantastical reminisces of participating in an historic event with his father and uncle one fateful weekend in the promised spring with one last snow fall – “the snow that brings the snow”.

No one dies in the Bon Homme (Goodman) family, they simply disappear. William, also known as Quebec Bill, leaves his family and travels the country and when he returns they are just gone. He searches for years to no avail until he finds himself a wife and starts his own family not far from where his nomadic family once lived, next door to his Aunt Cordelia, the only blood relative left in sight.

Despite being desperately poor, William, an optimist, sees the good in everything, giving everybody the benefit of the doubt with a rollicking sense of humor and a search for fun. Armed with his fiddle, he mesmerizes everyone in the Vermont town, enjoying their company. William collects misfits, both animals and people, generously inviting them into his home. He truly loves his wife, rescuing her from a Montreal Convent where she eventually returns.

Circumstances during the depression have left him penniless, necessitating a whisky run to earn enough cash in Prohibition America to feed his wife’s prized cows. Bringing along his son – Wild Bill, his brother in law – Uncle Henry, and Rat – one of the misfits with a talent for farming, their hijinks up along the coast between Vermont and Canada are the stuff of legends including the antagonist, Carcajou (Indian for wolverine), who keeps showing up at inopportune times, despite their concerted attempts to kill him dead.

Each new escapade beats out the last, as they wreck havoc along the way from the destruction of Uncle Henry’s cherished car to the sinking of a railroad locomotive to the crashing of a small plane, with numerous exploits in between. The wild behaviors continue throughout the novel leaving the reader confused and unable to predict what could possibly happen next.

Don’t look for sanity, just hang on to your hat and enjoy the ride. Perhaps this tale is simply an exaggeration found in the mind of a young boy who idolized his dad or maybe it’s a matter of symbolism where the evil Carcajou is the conscience which William seems to lack. There’s even a rumbling that the plot reflects the trauma which comes at the end of childhood.

Bits and pieces of various shenanigans are exposed consisting of past and future events including some marked similarities between Great Grandfather Rene and Henry, Wild Bill’s son. Henry has the touch of absurd, talking to the “shadow” of Aunt Cordelia, trying to raise a Saber Tooth Tiger, and eventually defecting to Canada when his number gets called for the draft to Viet Nam. In this way he, too, disappears from Wild Bill’s life, just as the rest of the family moves on, both literally and figuratively. Remember, don’t think too deeply, just enjoy.

A beautifully written regional novel which helps the reader visualize the New England countryside, this is just one of many books by this author about the residents of Kingdom County, a place of wonders or, as Aunt Cordelia might say, where one discovers the extraordinary from the ordinary. Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Advertisements

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kreuger

Unlike many novels which highlight dysfunctional relationships, Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger introduces us to the Drums, a loving family leading what, on the surface, appears to be an idyllic life.

It was the summer of 1961 in a small town in Minnesota when a series of deaths shake up the lives of the village, especially the pastor, Nathan Drum, his wife Ruth, and their three children Ariel, Frank, and Jake.

At thirteen, Frank is not quite old enough to be included in the loop so he uses every opportunity he can to tag along when events are happening. Eleven year old Jake takes advantage of his big brothers wheedling and comes along for the ride.Since the grown ups aren’t forthcoming, Frank finds a way to secretly listen in to adult conversations and snoop around to fill in the blanks. However, sometimes eaves dropping can be a heavy burden. Secrets have a way of complicating life, resulting in feelings of guilt and reticence. Yet the information the boys hold close are the very facts which are needed to answer the mystery which will redefine their lives. The problem is deciding which secrets to tell and which ones must be kept quiet.

Jake, afflicted with a stutter, has what some people would call “the sight” because, since he is reluctant to speak, he listens and has an innate understanding of people and events. Although he is more of a sidekick, in a way one might consider Jake the hero of this novel.

It is the captivating Ariel, ready for college at Juilliard, who is the spark of the family with her musical talent and light hearted loving relationships with family and friends.

The setting is one of the major players in the story -from the railroad tracks to the river to the location of the church across from the parsonage – each locale becoming an important focal point in advancing the plot.

One of the many positives of this novel is the development of the numerous characters, both primary and secondary. Knowing that Kreuger’s favorite novel is To Kill a Mockingbird, you can see the influence of an Atticus Finch on the Methodist Pastor.

One can also see touches of Hemingway where what is not said is just as important as what is said. The author finds no need to explain every fact, for example, the reader is left to ponder what tragic event happened to Nathan during WWII which made him switch careers from lawyer to pastor.

Although I felt the book had a slow start, it quickly picked up speed and easily engages the reader throughout the first half of the story. While the second half is just as exciting, it is difficult to read due to the tragedy which befalls the Drum family. Even though the events are hinted at in the first chapter of the book, it is still heart wrenching to read of such loss. Kudos to the author for presenting an accurate reaction to such events through the individual thoughts and behaviors of the various townsfolk. Anyone who has experienced a similar heartache will relate to (and possibly relive) these feelings.

Closure to this saga is abruptly presented at the very end of the book, not giving the reader much time to process the information, although the epilogue ties up some of the loose ends quick nicely.

Told by an adult Frank looking back on that fateful summer, Ordinary Grace is a well written, engaging story. Four stars. This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows

It was on Memorial Day 1938 when Willa realized that everyone seemed to be keeping secrets from her, which lead to her honing in on just one goal in life – to surreptitiously ferret out the unspoken mystery. What the twelve year old fails to realize is that sometimes there are some very good reasons to keep the truth hidden from view. Looking back she is only able to lament her aptitude at acquiring such potent sleuthing skills, but by then it is too late to unremember her discoveries.

The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows captures the essence of small town life during the depression era where everybody has nothing better to do than keep their nose in everybody else’s business. There are no secrets between “friends” – or are there?

The story unfolds through the eyes of matriarch Josephine (Jottie) and other members of the Romeyn Family as they struggle through the summer heat in Macedonia, West Virginia. A parallel story intersects their lives when Layla Beck, an upper crust daughter of a US Senator who (after a major disagreement with her father) ends up boarding at the Romeyn house while writing the history of Macedonia’s Sesquicentennial for a WPA project.

As Layla sets out to learn the true story behind historical Macedonia (versus the boring “official” accounts of the founding members), she discovers a talent for something other than being the center of attention at social events. The back story about her former life as a debutante is revealed via a flurry of letters back and forth between family and friends.

Lottie reveals her innermost thoughts through flashbacks to her childhood. Barrows slowly reveals details about the devastating loss which has colored Lottie’s life resulting in her “old maid” status. Rumors abound about her past, but In order to avoid a potential scandal which might hurt the children, especially with Willa asking questions, she strives for respectability. Lottie spends her time helping her beloved brother Felix take care of his two daughters, Willa and Bird, whenever he is out of town on the frequent business trips necessary to acquire some cash to help them through the hard times.

There is so much to this story it is impossible to summarize the details. Expect quite a bit of rambling towards the beginning as the author introduces a myriad of characters. It takes a while to keep them all straight (an annotated list of townsfolk would have been helpful, although there is a Romeyn family tree for reference), but once the events start to snowball, the reading pace picks up.

One of the highlights of the story is the various eccentric personalities found in Macedonia. Barrows makes us a part of the community through their thoughts and actions, especially those of main characters Lottie and Willa. Willa, in a way, reminds me of Scout from Montgomery’s To Kill a Mockingbird, somehow getting caught up in all the action. Lottie’s childhood stories are both entertaining and informative in helping the reader get a handle on her personality. Whether you love or hate the smooth talking, womanizer Felix depends on whose eyes you view him with – as a brother, a father, a friend, or a curious neighbor.

While the ending isn’t totally unexpected, it was at times a bit confusing, yet despite these flaws, The Truth According to Us is still a beautifully written book.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Random House for providing this ARC in exchange for a honest review.

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

I was aware of the author Lisa Genova from the success of her book, Still Alice, so when given the opportunity, I was pleased that Netgalley and Simon & Schuster provided me an ARC of her novel, Inside The O’Briens, in exchange for an honest review.

Prior to the opening chapter, Genova introduces us to the symptoms of Huntington’s Disease (HD). Here is one of those horrendous illnesses which slowly robs the “victim” of control over various neurological functions worsening over time until they reach their inevitable death. Not only is there no cure, but there is little known about medical treatments to halt or lessen the symptoms. To make matters worse, since this is a genetic disease, the children of an infected parent have a fifty percent chance of also contracting HD. Symptoms don’t usually occur until the age of 35-45 with a life expectancy of an additional ten to twenty years. However, there are instances of early onset of this disease, robbing the individual of several decades of symptomless living.

A heart-wrenching topic which I normally would avoid (since ignorance is bliss), I was unwillingly drawn inside the life of the O’Brien family. Joseph and Rose began their relationship at the young age of eighteen, forced to marry when Rose became pregnant with eldest son JJ. Remaining in the same neighborhood where they spent their own youth, not far from historic Boston, the loving couple raise four children steeped in the Irish Catholic traditions of their ancestors. The opening chapter features a thirty-five year old Joe, a member of the Boston Police Department, having a melt down, expressing rage when he can’t find his keys and will be late for work. Fast forward ten years and Joe’s weird behaviors prompt his wife to take him to a neurologist for a check up. Joe insists his troubles stem from an old knee injury and dismisses the possibility of anything serious. When a diagnosis of the rare Huntington’s Disease is confirmed, the life of the O’Briens is irreconcilably changed. Not only does the family have to watch the symptoms slowly creep and take control of their father/husband, they also have to deal with the fact that all four offspring could have inherited this genetic marker. The story is told from the viewpoints of Joe, Rose, and youngest daughter Katie, revealing how siblings JJ, Patrick, Meghan, and Katie and their parents deal with the progression of the disease and their individual future prognosis.

Genova has a unique gift of sensitively dealing with the strength of character and human foibles required of individuals and families dealing with the crisis of life changing diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Autism, or Huntington’s Disease. What is so compelling about Inside the O’Briens is that Genova brings us into the world of this family, making us care about their daily struggles. It’s a family not unlike many others filled with an underlying love of a life filled with badly cooked meals, mismatched dishes, old furniture, and the jealousy, squabbling,and closeness shared between siblings. While this might sound boring, it creates an entertaining “fly on the wall” peek at Sunday dinners and other family events. We feel the disappointments and triumphs of the characters as they deal with their day to day trials and tribulations. Even while we root for success, the reality of the inevitable ending is never a secret. Yet the focus is on life, and not death, despite the expected insecurities of all involved.

While I whole heartedly give this book four stars with a strong recommendation, my one complaint is a bit of repetition within the plot and the introspections of the main characters. The ending is also abrupt, resulting in an “oh no, you didn’t”, leaving us wanting more. Yet the results of Genova’s research is evident, easily leading to her heartfelt plea for donations towards research in this field, which with only 35,000 cases (versus 3 million individuals with breast cancer) does not receive the attention it deserves.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Diary of Anna the Girl Witch: Foundling Witch by Max Candee, illustrated by Raquel Barros

Of all the genres, the one which is the most difficult to master is the creation of a satisfying children’s book. Unfortunately, Max Candee, the Swedish author, has not quite found that sweet spot of success with his book, The Diary of Anna the Girl Witch: Foundling Witch. It’s not that his story is lacking since I enjoyed the engaging tale of the orphan Anna discovered as ammbabe amongst the Bears in Siberia by a kindly fur trapper. Upon reaching the age of six, her Uncle Mischa brings her to an orphanage in Switzerland and the story opens at the private boarding school which Anna attends due to a generous trust fund (gotta love those Swiss Bank accounts) that will provide her with the financial security necessary to support her on any quest which crosses her path. Add in some evil doers and the fact Anna has special powers, and you potentially have the start of something great.

The issue then is the delivery. Candee decided to create a book which is part diary, part first person narrative using simple text which doesn’t fit the age of the characters. Anna is an intelligent thirteen, not eight or even ten. In addition, children have become quite sophisticated in their reading material, note another book about witchcraft – Rowling’s Harry Potter series – which is a lot darker and more sophisticated than this story. Or examine the higher level of text in the malicious Series of Unfortunate Events. So the question is: “Who is the audience?” Not YA or even middle school, but perhaps those in the elementary grades (yet not too young). Despite the numerous kid friendly illustrations by Spanish artist Raquel Barros, which are a huge positive for this publication, this is definitely not a picture book.

Yet I’m sure this new series would please the average child especially if it were presented in a different format. Do away with the diary and narration, taking the exact same story, and change it into a graphic novel. Viola! Perfecto! The possibilities are endless. Barros is more than capable of extending her delightful drawings into a pictorial description of Anna’s adventures. The author has the imagination and talents to redraft this saga into something quite exceptional. Graphic novels are also a popular emerging genre, especially those written specifically for children, having already been embraced by middle and high school students. The Anna the Girl Witch series could be one of those ground breaking books which would delight a much broader audience.

Problem solved. So when Anna receives the bizarre gifts from her unknown mother on her thirteenth birthday and slowly discovers she is a witch with an affinity for the moon, we will visually experience her awe and power as she fights the lurking evil which threatens her friends at the school she attends. A female teen protagonist who saves the day is just the sort of role model young girls need to read about as a means of their own empowerment.

So there it is. Right story, great illustrations, wrong format.

A thank you to Netgalley and Helvetic House for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. Two and a half stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is a novella full of short, diary-style vignettes detailing a year in the life of a 13-year-old Hispanic girl who has just moved to Mango Street, a Latino neighborhood in Chicago; perfect for those middle school student who can relate to the shared emotions and experiences. Esperanza Cordero dreams of a decent home in a nice neighborhood, but appreciates the fact that their new house is not like the decrepit apartment they just left. Most of her time is spent on the streets interacting with the neighboring girls. Her brothers ignore all females outside the confines of their home, but her pesky younger sister, Nenny, tags along uninvited. At this tender age between adult and childhood, Esperanza experiments at being “grown up”, trying to walk with high heeled shoes to the jeers of the neighborhood men (the shoes are then quietly boxed up and eventually discarded). Life for women in this community is anything but fair. Some women never get to leave the confines of their home once they are married due to jealous husbands. Daughters are closely watched by their fathers and beaten for wayward behaviors. Esperanza’s mother encourages her to follow her dreams and move on from her current life. She doesn’t want her to end up like the grandmother who was kidnapped by her husband and forced to watch life pass her by, spending each day looking out the window of a second story apartment.

A short book, the reader sees life reflected through the eyes of Esperanza as she attempts to define her place in the community, searching for a means of expression in an adult society which often restricts the role of women. It is no accident that the name Esperanza means hope, since survival in a world where girls are mistreated and/or molested as a matter of course requires a strong will and drive to achieve something better.

Adults will find Cisneros’ semi-autobiographical book a compelling coming of age story with a sense of the poetic mixed into the stark realism. Reissued for the 25th anniversary in 2009, it is one of the few Hispanic books from that time period which has become renowned. While there is no real plot and the normal conventions of written grammar are ignored, the emotions are still relevant for modern readers to absorb.

Four stars. This review also appears on Goodreads.

Seven Dead Pirates by Linda Bailey

An unusual coming of age story where eleven year old Lewis Dearborn is forced to develop an inner strength in order to deal with seven very lively and very dead ghostly pirates. These seven mates are the legacy from his great grandfather who grew too old to assist them with their mission of retaking the ship on display at the local maritime museum and sailing to Libertalia, a utopia for pirates. Once great grandpa dies, the family inherits the old ramshackle Shornoway, and Lewis takes over the tower room overlooking the sea which houses the seven trespassing ghosts. Now it’s up to Lewis to find a way to deal with this motley bunch. Yet Lewis has troubles of his own. His shyness makes him the target of the class bully. He is also embarrassed by his parents and scared to speak up in class. By remaining mute, he becomes a further magnet for ridicule by his classmates. When new girl, Anna, shows up in class, Lewis expects her to receive the same treatment, but surprisingly, she is accepted despite her odd behaviors. Unlike the others, Anna reaches out to Lewis who finally has someone with whom he can share his secrets, bizarre as they may be. With the help of the pirates as well as his new found friendship, Lewis discovers an inner courage and a sense of adventure hidden behind his fear of life.

Seven Dead Pirates by Linda Bailey stretches the realms of reality, especially in the book’s conclusion, but since this is a ghost tale, all scientific principles are suspended. The reader roots for Lewis and laughs at the misadventures of his pirate friends. The old historic house from the mid 1800’s along the East Coast is a perfect setting for a “spirited” tale. Middle schoolers will love this adventure, perfect for those hard to please tween boys. 4 stars.

And a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.