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Thursday, May 26, 2016
8:23 pm edt
The Alaskan Laundry
I spend most mornings listening to WHYY,
our local PBS station. At nine o’clock, the BBC News Hour encapsulates all of the worldly news. At ten, during
the two-hour Radio Times, Martie Moss-Cohen interviews mostly boring political commentators and local “authorities”
on a range of obscure topics. Most often, I am spurred to shut off the radio and pursue more important, much more interesting
However, a few weeks ago, Martie interviewed Brendan Jones, a native Philadelphian who spent ten years
writing his debut novel, The Alaskan Laundry. Always attuned to the literary pursuits of fellow local authors, I thoughtfully sipped my tea and munched on a toasted
blueberry bagel with cream cheese as this fine author waxed eloquently about Tara Marconi, his feisty protagonist, and her
coming-of-age, almost Odysseus-like journey through the pangs of growing up as she assiduously lived and worked in the Alaskan
fishing industry. When he read the first part of Chapter 2 in his authoritative, yet caringly silky voice, I was hooked. This
novel, I thought, as I later emailed a favorite publicist at Marina Books requesting a copy, is a must read and review.
Set in 1999, two life altering events, including being ousted from her childhood home by her stern father, compel
young Tara to flee from south Philadelphia to Port Anna, Alaska, where she seeks healing and redemption. With a dare-me attitude,
a talent for boxing, and absolutely no knowledge of how fish are plucked from the sea, processed, and packaged, she begins
to learn how to fend for herself in what is, was almost totally a man’s world. When she literally falls in love with
an old World War II tugboat, she sets her sights on earning enough money to finally buy it. And with that decision made, her
Jones originally began writing this seminal novel with a host of characters struggling for
survival in the great Alaskan wilderness. Most of them were male. Tara, when the manuscript was bought by Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt, was almost an afterthought. But at the suggestion of a wise HMH editor, she became the main protagonist, surrounded
by a host of equally true-to-life characters – ironically mostly male – that guide her through the honing and
shaping of her life. Especially gnarly Newt, who takes her under his wing and, along with Kara, a Shepherd-Husky cross, and
the older, father-figure, Betteryear, guides her through one of the most amazing and exciting literary journeys that I’ve
read in a long time.
Jones titles his book after the analogy that many transplants to Alaskan seek cleansing
from a past life. Dialogue and life experiences of a few of the characters reflect the continuous cycles of washing and rinsing.
As if all who come to the 49th State with sins and soul stains, like Tara are in dire need of cleansing. The harsh,
yet beautiful landscape and the struggle for survival in it are the great washing machine of life. An apt metaphor that would
be otherwise mundanely, um, drained away in other then Jones’ capable hands.
However, while this is a
wonderfully great read about a young woman’s coming of age, it is, in fact – let’s face it folks –
written by a man who, while waxing poetically with a fluid literary writing style, can be heavy-handed. There is obviously
too much testosterone in Tara’s blood, spilling out from the pages of this novel, often polluting passages that could
have more moving if written with a softer, more feminine touch. After all, this is about a young, sensitive ingénue
from south Philly. Despite her rough-and-rumble, don’t-touch-me-or-I’ll-hit-you demeanor, she could have been
portrayed as a tad more gentle. Not, as Hale, one misogynist crabber says, and as she often comes across as, “a male
with balls cut off”. It’s as if the author, drawing many of the scenes, events, and characters from his own life,
tried to impart his own feminine side into Tara’s persona. A conceit that, in this instance, nearly fails to work.
In addition, Jones is also a bit too zealously graphic in his depictions of how fish are processed. This nearly
turned me off to the read and I almost closed the book a third of the way through, nearly missing what would later become
a real tear-jerking, soul-searching, satisfying denouement. Suffice it to say, being a closet quasi-PETA supporter, I will
never eat salmon nor King Crab again.
That being said, Jones does have a lyrically poetic writing style. His
metaphors, analogies, and allegories are spot on, transporting Tara through her many heroic Greek tragedies as she valiantly
finds her own, unique way “home”. He finally shows his sensitive side in the last 100 pages of a very moving conclusion,
which, I unabashedly admit, I sobbed through, feeling both a deep sense of loss and the thrill of achievement. I must tell
you, it takes a brave, honest, and talented author with a great story such as this one to bring me, a self-proclaimed hard-hearted
literary critic, such as I am, to tears. And that says more than just a lot about this mesmerizingly gripping novel.
The ending, by the way, definitely calls for a sequel. C’mon, Brendan, will the Pacific Chief
ever float again?
In the meantime, The Alaskan Laundry is yet another “must” for your summer reading list. As well as being a fine, 5-start addition
to your library. To be read again. And again. And again.
Wash. Scrub. Rinse. Repeat.
Note: If you enjoy reading this Blog and my comments on how books affect and sometimes alter our lives, it would be
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Wednesday, May 11, 2016
2:43 pm edt
Under a Dark Summer Sky
I normally try hard to keep track of the books
publishers request to be reviewed on this blog. But lately, I confess, I’ve been a bit distracted with other literary
pursuits and haven’t been all that assiduous. To wit, and to my chagrin, I discovered the other day a novel that had,
quite literally, fallen through the cracks of my time. My sincere apologies to the talented author and the publisher. But
I figure, since it is such a good read, this review is better late than never.
Based upon the true events of
a massive hurricane that struck the Florida Keys in 1935, Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye is a tri-fold historical novel: a romance; a face-paced, thrilling mystery; and a frank, forceful
commentary on the dismissive treatment of returning African-American World War I veterans.
Released last June
by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc., this is a fascinating fictional rendition of southern life, ethics,
and morés during the height of the Great Depression. The author deftly weaves together the tumultuous stories of true-to-life
characters – all deeply affected, and changed, as the massive storm approaches on the afternoon of a Fourth of July
celebration on the beach.
Missy has patiently waited eighteen years for Henry to return to Heron Key from the
war, cleaning the Kincaid house and caring for Nathan, Nelson’s and Hilda’s new-born. He finally returns –
desperate and destitute – a member of a government work crew assigned to rebuild a bridge. Once reconnected, the two
of them try, once again, to rekindle their love…
Hilda, a former beauty queen whose protective father’s
hopes and dreams for her were dashed when Nelson swept her off her feet, has not been able to drop the weight she gained when
carrying Nathan. Her husband is repulsed by her looks, seeking comfort elsewhere. Fat as she is, she is determined to attend
the festivities. Perhaps to win him back…
Dwayne, the local Deputy, harbors anger for the unknown father
of his wife’s black baby. But he suddenly finds himself with a mystery to solve. And, in the process, old tensions and
grievances flare up…
Trent Watts, with bald head and many tattoos, is frustrated by the inept and life-threatening
decisions a absentee government official makes for his rag-tag crew…
And then there is the storm, gathering
strength and almost omnipotent power, surging closer and closer to the small southern torn, threatening to destroy them all.
The residents, having endured many storms before, think they are prepared for its onslaught. But they are wrong. Dead wrong.
Lafaye, a native Floridian now living in the UK, is an accomplished writer. In this, her debut novel, she couples
her own experiences growing up in the deep South with a genuine concern for her characters and their plights. Straddling the
fine line between fact and fiction, she writes with quick, efficient, descriptive, original – often metaphoric –
phrases, that lend a poignant sense of urgency to her face-paced tale which will keep you up until the wee hours.
If you’re looking for a refreshing, yet haunting “It was a dark and stormy night…” to add to your
summer reading list, Under a Dark Summer Sky is certainly the one novel to round out and satisfy your search.
Tuesday, May 3, 2016
3:01 pm edt
The Versions of Us
What if? We all ask this question at various
nexus points in our lives. What if I do this? Instead of that? What will happen? What won’t? Sometimes our decisions
are huge; life-altering. Sometimes they are trivial, soon forgotten. Large or small, all our choices have consequences.
When Eva Edelstein and Jim Taylor first meet in The Versions of Us, Laura Barnett’s debut novel, it is seemingly just a coincidence. In October 1958, they are both students at Cambridge.
A rusty nail punctures her bicycle tire. Walking by, he offers to help; then offers to buy her a drink. She could say, “No,”
and continue on to class. She could accept and spend the rest of the afternoon, perhaps her life, with him. “What if?”
she asks herself. “What if?”
Reading this finely crafted, exquisitely worded novel, first published
in the United Kingdom in 2015 – and just released in the USA today – is like watching a bevy of white swans swimming
in the smooth waters of a crystal clear lake. The movement is effortless, fluid; barely rippling the surface. Yet the lake
is wide and deep, like life itself; harboring challenges, great secrets; offering loving insights, often bittersweet commentaries
about who we are and how the choices we make define us.
This talented author takes a uniquely refreshing approach
to the choices her main protagonists make. She writes three futures for them; three different versions of their lives. In
one in which Eva and Jim come together, marry, have children. In the second,they go their separate ways. In the third, they
each marry someone else, then by chance meet again and decide they were meant to be together. Each version, a choice. A what
if? Within each, multiple layers of meaning, different sets of decisions. Each with consequences, good and bad. Pleasure,
delight. Sadness, ruing. Sometimes betrayal, misunderstandings. Triumphs. The daily detritus of life. All in the name of love.
At first, I found The Versions of Us a confusing read, not quite able to distinguish between the three
different paths of Eva’s and Jim’s lives that sequentially alternate in three parts. I started what turned out
to be an amazingly beautiful novel, um, three times, before creating a cheat sheet to help differentiate between them. Requiring
my full attention in two sittings, it took a bit of work, but was well worth the effort. I quickly learned the pattern of
their three lives in which, while indeed different, Eva and Jim are the constants; basically they stay the same as they weave
in and out of each other’s lives. In many respects, they are fictionalized versions of us all.
has talents far beyond those of a “mere” debut author. Her vast experience working as a journalist and theatre
critic in London serves her well as she brings a wealth of knowledge to her first literary endeavor. Her writing is compassionate,
rich with subtle metaphors and compact, intertwining themes that delight, illuminate, and entertain. The Versions of Us
is, by far, a cut above many debut novels of this reading season; a fine example of contemporary literature at its best.
Monday, March 28, 2016
2:07 pm edt
The Forty Watt Flowers
In its overnight
journey from Philadelphia to Atlanta, the Silver Crescent pauses on a long siding just outside Athens, GA to allow two freight
trains to rumble pass by on the main line. I think it quaint that a southern community named itself after a major city in
Greece and while a passenger many times on the train myself, I wondered what life would be like in what seemed to be, at least
from my roomette’s window, a sleepy, dusky town.
Little did I know Athens was – and still is –
not only the home of the University of Georgia, but a hubbub of rock n’ roll, blues, jazz, and all alternative music
in-between. It is the birthplace of such famed groups as R.E.M and the B-52’s. But not much has been written about the
electrifying culture and broiling atmosphere until two years ago when C. M. Subasic, a talented Canadian playwright, wrote
the definitive novel about starting a band and making it big on the music scene. The Forty Watt Flowers is a refreshingly frank exposé of Athen’s musical sub-culture, delving into the complexities of what it
takes for a band to make it big.
A transplant from the north, young Trisha is relatively new in the community.
Struggling with deep hurt, guilt, and misunderstanding, she searches for importance in her life beset by family and boyfriend
issues. In her quest to create “something meaningful,” she decides to start an altrock band, bringing together
four other young women; each one a unique individual with her own set of divergent issues, quirks, talents, and problems:
a black Canadian bass player; a hard-nosed Latino drummer; a spoiled, selfish “southern belle”; and a shy, withdrawn,
wealthy recluse who breaks out of her shell to become their lead singer. Together they form the Forty Watt Flowers in the
hopes of lighting up the music world with their talents.
The band becomes a mini-cosmos of creativity mixed
with complex relationships that threaten to tear it apart.-Trisha is their leader who, mired in her own insecurities, is the
most mature of its members. As the well-constructed plot progresses from the band’s first rehearsal in a beer-soaked
seedy garage to their dreamed-of gig at the prestigious 40 Watt Club, she becomes their leader, mentor, band-promoter, and
This is a well-tuned debut novel from a very talented, seasoned writer. A noted editor and publishing
consultant in her own right, Subasic couples her easy-read writing style with a vast knowledge of music, empathetically probing
in-depth the finer points of inter-personal relationships. Writing with a light touch and often a jaundiced tongue-in-cheek,
she uniquely twists common phrases into fresh, new usages. Her style, not quite hip-hop jivey, is pert and to the point. Through
her characters, she often waxes eloquent philosophies, and slams home poignant observations like a musician playing finely-tuned
instruments. There are only two flaws in this otherwise exceptional story: some of the lyrics are hard-to-grasp and somewhat
arcane, and some of the songs lack basic structure.
However, taken as a whole, The Forty Watt Flowers is, in totality, a literary song unto itself and well worth reading.
Thursday, February 25, 2016
4:56 pm est
Aaron Elkins and his wife,
Charlotte, and I first became acquaintances and occasional correspondents about three years ago when I received an advanced
copy of A Cruise to Die For, the second in their Alix London mystery series. Previously not normally a devotee of suspense – I really
have to be in the mood to read one – I instantly became a fan. Not so much of the genre, but of the writers…and
their writing; collectively and separately. For, you see, besides his literary collaboration with Charlotte, Aaron is the
three-time award-winning author of the eighteen-volume Gideon Oliver Mystery Series whose most amazing, true-too-life eponymous
title character is his literary alter-ego.
Like the fictitious Gideon, Aaron in real life is a professor and
practitioner of forensic anthropology**. He brings his vast expertise and actual experiences to his literary endeavors, constantly
imparting his knowledge of not only anthropology but other more esoteric subjects through enlightening and scintillating descriptions
and dialogue that moves the gripping plot along at a reasonably fast pace to what is nearly always a tantalizing surprise
ending. The all-too engrossing Switcheroo (A Gideon Oliver Mystery), the latest of Elkins’ talented-washed repertoire of engrossing forensic mystery adventures, is no exception.
And what an adventure this novel is – not so much a swash-buckler, but, true to form, an riveting intellectual mind-bend,
one of the more delightful hallmarks of a Elkins literary jaunt.
In June of 1940, when Nazi Germany was about
to occupy the Channel Island of Jersey (part of the United Kingdom just off the coast of France), Howard Carlisle, the scion
of a wealthy family, “trades” Roddy, his frail two-year-old son, for two-year-old George Skinner, whose family
is about to evacuate to England. The trade is made, legal and binding. The children are subsequently reunited with their real
birth parents when the Skinners return after World War II. Pretty straightforward…until twenty or so years later, Roddy
disappears and George’s body is found shot near his home, apparently murdered. Enter Gideon Oliver fifty years later
who, at the behest of Howard’s great grandson, is asked to examine Roddy’s bone fragments that have been unearthed
from the island’s tar pits to determine the cause of death…
What Oliver discovers by studying the
bones and what is revealed to him by the set of circumstances surrounding them could easily be a fairly benign conceit. But
in Elkins’ capable hands and creative imagination, tinged with his refreshing tongue-in-cheek delight in telling a good
tale, this plot line premise takes on a mind of its own. Riddled with unique unexpected twists and turns, deftly hinted at
with subtle clues well-placed in character comments and observations, this is the stuff which separates a great mystery –
à la Erle Stanley Gardner and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – from second-rate schlock suspense. Elkins, as always,
is at his (and the) best here, raising the forensic mystery genre to the highest pinnacle of elegant entertainment and erudition.
(Actually, Aaron was the founder of this specific literary niche in the 1980s with the publication of Fellowship of Fear, the first in his Gideon Oliver series!)
Reminiscent of the BBC/PBS TV mini-series Island at War and
the delightful The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Switcheroo is definitely this spring season’s must-read page-turner.
Make no bones about it.
J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is
an author, poet, and librettist. Her currenty published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations,
volumes of poetry, stories
for children (of all ages) and
a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members
of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A
Collection of More Spiritual Poems
We Three Kings
Beauty and the Beast
Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding
Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She
is currently working on her first novel.
June's books be purchased at amazon.com or through Barnes and Noble.
For more information about her musicals, which are also available on amazon.com,