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Thursday, July 30, 2015
The Sparrow Sisters I admit,
now that I am retired, much lazier than I used to be. Mea culpa, but when it comes to idling away a day or two, I am the master!
However, with novel number three in the pipeline and other chores to do, I also feel, more than most, guilty. When you’re
young(er), you think you have all the time in the world to squander away. When you’re older and retired, not so much.
Yet, I am only human and it is only human nature to occasionally want to veg. Especially on yet again another hotter than
normal summer day. And, frankly, FrankieBernard, Sebastian Cat, and I really needed a break from the weather.
This past Tuesday, indulgently hibernating inside with the A/C cranked up, I treated myself to what I had hoped would be an
“easy” contemporary woman’s read. But The Sparrow Sisters: A Novel (September 1, 2015) by Ellen Herrick is anything but that. Instead, it is a modern-day hauntingly mystical tale of not only
sisterly and romantic love, but an insightful look into the darker side of small-town dynamics gone amok when irrational fear
and misunderstanding take hold.
Set in the lush, verdant fictional Cape Cod town of Granite Point in the near
past, this enchantingly luxuriant novel delves into the healing alchemy of balms, salves, powders, and potions derived from
the plants grown by the eponymous single Sparrow Sisters – Sorrel, Nettie, and Patience – in their nursery first
started in the 1600s by their ancestor. Eliza Howard was the wife of one of the town’s founders and, according to local
history and a weather-warn gazebo plaque, falsely accused of being a witch. Patience, evidently, has inherited Eliza’s
inexplicable talents and abilities to heal.
Enter Henry Carlyle who, a new doctor with a puzzling mystique all
his own, settles in Granite Point and immediately, and not so inexplicably, falls in love with the slim, fiery redheaded Patience.
Even as his practice and reputation grows, most of the townsfolk still turn to Patience for her homemade remedies until tragedy
unexpectedly wells up from the darker side of her magic. And then…true to human nature, the town turns away from her.
And then…the town begins to die…
It seems unlikely that, lost in the depths of perdition, both
Patience and her once beloved community will survive...and Herrick, at one point, has painted herself and her stunning story
into an impossbily inescapable corner. Yet, somehow, she rallies to the challenge as the women of Granite Point and a tenaciously
aspiring reporter band together and, with the aide of Patience’s loyal and loving sisters and Henry’s
persistence, cause a seemingly surprise miracle to occur.
The characters in Herrick’s literary debut are
deeply crafted, delightfully quirky, and nearly life-like. I actually wanted to move to Granite Point just to be among them
and offer whatever help I could in their time of crisis. As I read, I consoled Patience, chided Henry, cheered Sorrel and
Nettie on, yelled at an ambitious, yet inept Hutchins, ohhed
and ahhed during many of the surprise plot twists, and
cried at the wanton desecration and destruction of…well, it would spoil the story for you if I told you.
Despite a few very minor disjointed seques and a bit of a contrived but clever twist necessary to bring this novel to its
more than satisfying dénouement, The Sparrow Sisters is the perfect, plush, cooling antidote for a long, hot summer afternoon. I am hoping the continuation of their, and Granite
Point's story, is in the works.
Phoenixville Rising In
the midst of doing extensive research for my third novel – number two is in the works, but not quite ready for prime
time – I ran across an exquisitely written novel set in Phoenixville during the time it was languishing as a former
Pennsylvania steel town just before its resurgence – from ashes, as it were – to becoming a healthy, vibrate community.
Where, incidentally, I just happen to live.
Now, reading a finely crafted piece of historical literature set
in a time and place one knows, but has only read about, is one thing. But to read one that is set in the almost too familiar
surroundings of one’s own home town is another. And that is exactly what local author Robb Cadigan has done in his first
novel, Phoenixville Rising (2013), a coming-of-age fictional tale that perfectly captures Phoenixville’s essence, flavor, and sense of history.
A metaphor, for that matter, for any small American town in the throes of rebirth.
Sketch Walker and his best
friend Boo are two clicks away from juvenile delinquency in 1980 when, with its foundry closed, the small borough set in the
northern hills of Chester County, PA was rapidly deteriorating into a somber, sobering depression. Residents struggled to
find and keep work; the borough council struggled to find ways to raise spirits and funds; and children sought ways to stay
focused, optimistic about the future, and…amused.
Asthmatic Boo’s highest ambition was to be full-fledged
member of Deacon’s “Furnace Boys” – the rough gang who used the upper floor office of the decrepit
abandoned steel mill as their headquarters. He and would do anything to attain what he thought was a boy’s highest status
in life. Sketch – so nicknamed because of his amazing drawing talent – often assisted Boo in his procurement raids.
But as he adulthood stirs within him, he begins to feel differently from his best friend. While considering it his responsibility
to protect and defend Boo, he begins to think that perhaps it would be best if he left his hometown and its dead-end existence.
His struggles with these dichromatic feelings are the foundational pith of Phoenixville Rising. Told in the first person, it relates the events of that fateful autumn that lead up to and culminate in personal
and communal tragedy.
In a concurrent plotline set in the 1860s era, young Rebecca Wilton, daughter of the foundry
owner, falls hopelessly in love with a young factory worker who, after giving her an onyx – black diamond – necklace
bravely marches off to war. As he binds Sketch’s, Boo’s, and Rebecca’s stories together with the precious
jewelry, Cadigan expertly – and compassionately – explores the inner minds and souls of his three main protagonists
as they come to grips with misfortune, calamity, and heartbreak.
I was really taken by this narrative, especially
with the descriptions of local places, real-life streets, and some characters obviously based upon real-time locals. I found
myself during my four-day read, gasping at how familiar everything was, trying to second-guess the author. What is fact? Based
upon fact? Pure speculation? Fiction? Cadigan, it seems, is a master at combining fact with fiction in that perfect way a
good novel should blend realities with figments of the author's imagination.
In and of a town that some real-life
residents still complain is uneventfully dull (NOT!), Phoenixville Rising is a profoundly powerful story of both a town’s resurrection and a man’s redemption. It is an exciting,
must read for any local resident even remotely interested in their heritage. A must read for anyone, anywhere looking for
a discerning literary diversion.
Adeline It’s almost
the middle of the summer and the past few days have been fetidly hot and humid, the heat languishing heavily in the air. Too
hot to do anything else, I’ve been hibernating in the cool confines of my living room doing what I (like to) do best:
reading and writing. The book I chose for my hermitage during, so far, the hottest days of the year was Adeline:
A Novel of Virginia Woolf (April 2015) by Norah Vincent.
It is not, as I anticipated, an airy fare
but probably one of the most difficult yet intriguingly interesting novels I’ve read in quite a while. In fact, it is
a complicated and intricate rendering of the thoughts and feelings that Adeline Virginia Stephen Woolf had throughout her
life that led up to and precipitated her self-drowning in the Ouse River (Brighton, England) on March 28, 1941. At the very
least, this is quite a heady topic to tackle non-fictionally – as many before this author have attempted. But to write
a fictional treatise that also encompasses the many complex psychological and emotional facets of Virginia’s marriage
to Leonard Woolf – as well as that of her often nefarious relationships with others – intertwined with the thoughts
and feelings behind her many often controversial novels – is a huge undertaking that could easily have fallen short
of its mark. Yet in Vincent’s capable, compassionate, and talented hands, this novel is a remarkable success.
Christened “Adeline” after a maternal aunt that had died, the name – associated with grief and gloom
– was dropped by the family in favor of “Virginia”. Though forgotten by others, the name remained with the
author, blossoming into her thirteen-year-old alter-ego as she struggled throughout her life with mental (bipolar) illness
whose episodes were often marked by Virginia talking out loud to “herself”, that is, to Adeline. Vincent infuses
her novelwith these “imaginary” conversations, encapsulating the effects of Woolf’s younger self
upon her writing, her marriage, and her inevitable suicide.
Told through Virginia Woolf’s perspective,
Adeline submerges its reader into the world of the Bloomsbury (literary) group that included such notables as T(om).
S. Eliot, James, Joyce, Lytton Strachey, Vita Sackville, and Dora Carrington. Woolf reveals her inner most thoughts and feelings
about her contemporaries as well as the unique, yet often flawed philosophies behind her own writing. Woolf, once a strong
voice in life, now, through Vincent becomes a strong, powerful voice in death with all the sordid and sublime thoughts and
feelings of a brilliant, yet tortured writer.
But, as I said, it is by far not an easy read and definitely not
for the causal pursuer of “woman’s fiction”. As a matter of fact, it is, in itself, Vincent’s own
literary genre: bio-fic(tion) or bio-lit, blending biography, literary criticism, and fiction while attempting to paint a
portrait of the lives and work of writers she admires. This literary fictional scholarship is at its finest – a must
for any (young or old) serious student of literature – and, I hardily advise, worthy of incorporation into all well-rounded
high school and college English Literature courses.
A heady, stylistic, and often lyrical read worthy of Woolf
herself, Vincent, in an interview, stated that while she was intrigued with her subject, she was initially intimidated to
write about the famous yet ill-fated author. She overcame her fear through meditation. “I simply wrote down what I received,”
she states, “…the words I heard, the things I felt…this book happened to me. I simply watched it spread
and take shape, like a stain on a tablecloth.”
Vincent’s stunning work, however, is much more than
a spreading stain. Sure to leave its indelible mark on the table of great, nearly profound literature, it is a valuable addition
to anyone’s library.
Girl Waits with Gun I thought
I’d end the weekend with a tidbit of history,
a review of a good book, and…a cocktail. Please read on. The three are tightly connected. An almost obscured character in history, Constance Kopp was, at the very least, one of the original modern-day feminists.
At most, she was a strikingly tall, ample woman who did not – would not – refrain from speaking her mind nor,
as a “pistol packing mama”, from – at all costs – protecting her two younger sisters from the increasingly
dangerous threats of one Henry Kaufman, noted clothe dyer. Because of her undaunted courage and selfless tenaciousness, she
was appointed in 1916 as one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the United States by Bergen County, N.J. Sherriff, Robert
Heath. Constance was, as Kaufman testified in his own defense at his trail, “…not a regular lady.”
The fascinating real-life story of Constance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp is the basis of Girl Waits with Gun (September 2015) by Amy Stewart, an outstandingly well-written novel that, with just a few creative flourishes, fictionalizes
the gripping, almost hair-raising events that led up to Constance’s appointment. The sisters were so intriguing in real
life, it would seem they really did not need creative embellishments. Yet, in Stewart’s capable hands, her adept fictional
trimming augmented and enhanced their distinct individualities into three-dimensional personas. Narrated by Constance in the
first person, her strong voice literary bounces off the pages, almost as if Stewart herself did not write the novel based
upon her own assiduous research, but was merely the channeling instrument through which the formidable Constance spoke, once
"discovered", demanded to be heard and immortalized in the pages of this five-star historical literary offering.
Unlike other great writers of historical fiction, Steward did not keep to the tried and true, more popular mainstream
characters of the past. Instead, while painstakingly researching a gin smuggler name Henry Kaufman for her non-fiction work,
The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Great Drinks, she “stumbled” upon a 1914 newspaper article about how the buggy Constance and her sisters were riding in was
smashed into by an automobile driven by one, um, Henry Kaufman. (It is not known if the former and latter Kaufmans were one
and the same.) Intrigued to learn about the subsequent events that escalated and culminated into a sting operation by Sheriff
Heath and the Kopp sisters, Stewart stepped out of the formulaic literary box and set her sights on telling Kopp sisters’
story. Entitling it, of course, with the intriguing headline that first captured her attention.
Girl Waits with Gun is yet another favorite novel that once I started it, I just couldn’t put it down. Like Stewart, I fell in love with
each one of the Kopp sisters, reveling in their differences, enjoying their repartee, cheering them on out loud as they boldly
braved, thwarted, and eventually stifled and squelched Kaufman’s postal threats and physical attacks. And while Stewart
touches upon matters that have quite serious social and moralistic consequences, she does so with refreshing candor, aplomb,
a droll sense of humor, and the genial self-confidence that is the hallmark of an experienced and knowledgeable author who
knows precisely how to intrigue, enlighten, and entertain her readers.
Yet another of my best picks for this
year’s literary pursuits, Girl Waits with Guneven has its own signature cocktail invented by the author to sip while being read. Stewart’s New Jersey
Automobile is based upon the Automobile, a potent potable popular in the 1910s that combines equal parts scotch, gin, and
sweet vermouth. She, thankfully, toned down the recipe, substituting cider for scotch and sparkling wine for
vermouth. Yet, even served over ice, the 2015 version still packs, like her novel, a mighty heady and delicious wallop.
A great novel, its tasty drink, and the story of, well, a heroine! I couldn’t have asked for anything better
on a warm summer Sunday evening. Join me in this rare indulgence, folks! Belly up to the reading bar and enjoy yourselves!
Crooked Heart Best known here in the States for her two
children’s books, Horton’s Miraculous Mechanisms (2011) and Horton’s Incredible Illusions
(2012), Lissa Evans is an well-established British author whose expansive and unique talents include a dry, comedic noir writing
style that keeps her readers not only chuckling at her droll wit, but reading well into the early morning hours, wanting more.
At least it did me.
Yesterday was a busy day, setting up my Pre-Read/Used Book Sale (see yesterday’s entry
below) and tending to my companion pets, among other tasks. So when cocktail hour finally rolled around, I had planned on
reading a chapter or two of Evans’ Crooked Heart before a light dinner and an early bedtime. Needless to say, these plans did not work out. When faced with either a great
read and an early bedtime…well, we all know what I chose. I finished this delightfully quirky, slightly black-humored
novel at 2:00 this morning.
Her first adult novel soon to be published here in the United States, Crooked Heart(July 28, 2015) was first released in England in 2014, successfully nipping on the heels of her first two hits:
Odd One Out and Their Finest Hour and a Half. You can read the salient details of her prize-winning writing
career as well as an online interview at www.lissaevans.com. Right now, let me tell you about her Crooked Heart and its two oddly mismatched, yet totally irresistible main
Set in London and its suburb of St. Albans during World War II, Evans’ well-crafted
plot line blends Nick Bostock – a different sort of ten-year-old with an undetermined limp, jug ears, and a command
of the English language well beyond his young years – with Vera Sedge – an irascible con artist, who is ineptly
doomed to suffer daily disasters of her own making. When his elderly godmother succumbs to senile dementia, he is evacuated
out of London with other children to the country side. Nick becomes Vera’ ward and soon collaborates with her to bilk
money out of “innocent” citizens, pretending to collect donations for various wartime “causes”. Nick’s
moralistic ethics soon clashes with Vera’s hardened heart and when Vera’s son, Donald, looses him during the Blitz,
Vera is faced with a heart-wrenching dilemma.
What transpires is a sit-up-and-take-notice series of events that
is hard to put down, even at 1:00 AM! Evans picks up the pace as the plot thickens and crashes headlong into a surprise, satisfying
denouement. Like all good writers, she had the ending in mind first and built the rest of Crooked Heart around it; a master stroke of creative literary architecture.
With true-to-life, richly drawn,
yet humorously crafted characters, this five-star spring offering from Harper Collins is not to be missed, dear fellow readers.
It was, for me, yet again another essentially vital summer read. I hope it will be the same for you.
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.