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review 2017-11-04 14:06
Ascension of Larks by Rachel Linden
Ascension of Larks - Rachel Linden

When globetrotting photographer Magdalena Henry loses the only man she’s ever loved, she risks her stellar career to care for his widow and young children on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest. Free-spirited and fiercely independent, Maggie adores her life of travel and adventure. But she has a secret. She can’t let go of her first and only love, renowned architect Marco Firelli, now married to her best friend Lena.

When Marco drowns in a kayaking accident, Maggie rushes to the Firelli family’s summer home on San Juan Island. Once there she discovers that Marco was hiding something that could destroy his family. As fragile, perfectionistic Lena slowly falls apart, Maggie tries to provide stability for Marco and Lena’s three young children. When Maggie is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to compete in the world’s most prestigious photography competition, she thinks she’s found the answer to their problems. Then Lena makes a choice with unexpected and devastating consequences, forcing Maggie to grapple with an agonizing decision. Does she sacrifice the golden opportunity of her career or abandon the Firellis just when they need her the most? Gradually the island begins to work its magic. A century-old ritual to beckon loved ones home offers hope in the midst of sorrow. And a guilt-ridden yet compelling stranger hiding on the island may offer Maggie a second chance at love, but only if she can relinquish the past and move forward to find joy in unexpected places.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

For years, globetrotting photographer Magdalena "Maggie" Henry has been in love with her first love, architect Marco Firelli, whom she met in college. Problem is, Marco is married to Maggie's best friend (and college roommate) Lena. Or at least he was, that is...Maggie just got news that Marco has been killed in a kayaking accident. Now Maggie must rush to Lena's side to offer emotional support to the fragile widow as well as help with the Firelli children. 

 

While helping Lena through this difficult time, Maggie can't help but revisit old emotions she thought she had overcome. Memories of early days with Marco come swirling back, the possessiveness she felt over him, having known him first before introducing Lena to him. Lena had tearily confessed that she was struggling to make friends at school. Thinking she was doing a good friend a favor, Maggie introduces Lena to Marco, having no idea that the two would hit it off quite so well, quietly slipping under her radar and falling in love. Though she loves (in different ways) both of them, she can't help but feel a combination of jealousy and annoyance at the turn of events. 

 

So as you can guess, it was largely an unrequited love for Maggie. Marco expresses interest, even a love of sorts, but confesses being drawn to Lena because he and Maggie are too alike in their intense, all-consuming artistic temperaments while Lena was more level-headed and easy-going in nature, more suitable for building a life & family with him. Taking into account Maggie's behavior up to the moment of this confession of Marco's --- her desperately reading into every passing glance from the guy, speaking of them as "kindred spirits", "twin souls" etc --, she likely found this revealing speech quite romantic. To me, however, it came off more as "let her down easy" spin.

 

But rather than go the crazy "he's MINE!" route, Maggie bows out of the running with a fair amount of grace, serving as main witness at Lena & Marco's wedding and then promptly starting up her work as globetrotting picture-taker extraordinaire.  Over the years, the trio is able to put the college drama behind them and become the close-knit crew they were before. Maggie even becomes "Aunt Maggie" to the Firelli children as they grow up. Now, in the wake of tragedy, Maggie doesn't hesitate to be at Lena's side. But only too late does she realize the timing could not be worse. 

 

While staying with Lena and the kids, Maggie's agent calls to notify her that she has been offered an opportunity to submit some of her work to one of the most prestigious photography competitions in the world. But how is she to find the time to prepare a presentation for submission in the mix of everything else going on? Will she have to decide between helping a friend and need and jumping at the chance of a lifetime (professionally), or will the fates allow her to have a solution to both?

 

There is also the mystery of this Daniel guy who spends most of the book hanging out creeper-style in Lena's bushes, observing the family from afar, always hesitating to reveal himself. What is his connection to Marco's death and what does he feel so guilty about? 

 

One of my favorite aspects of Ascension of Larks was the exceptional environment building author Rachel Linden offers. Whether on location with Maggie in Nicaragua, moving through her memories to past international travels, or at the Firelli summer home in the Pacific Northwest (where the bulk of the novel is set), the reader is fantastically immersed in the textures of all the various landscapes. Just as an example, check out this little snippet where Maggie recalls a distinct memory of her Puerto Rican mother:

 

The kitchen was always warm, redolent with the smell of cilantro and oregano, and in the background, playing on the crackly cassette player on the fridge, was the music of her mother's youth -- folk singers like Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary, songs of peace and protest from the sixties. Ana had especially favored Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt because of their Hispanic heritage. She would let Maggie rifle through the shoe box of cassettes and choose one tape after another. In those moments, in the tiny kitchen with a pot bubbling on the stove and the calls for peace and love ringing out with the strains of guitar and tambourine, it felt as though nothing could touch them, as though if they could stay there in the kitchen forever, nothing bad would ever happen.

 

That being said, the plot itself had its share of tiring moments for me. I enjoyed the secondary characters such as Daniel and the charming motorcycle riding Pastor Griffin (the way Linden writes his character reminded me a bit of John Corbin's portrayal of the DJ Chris on the 90s tv show Northern Exposure). But storyline-wise, it veered on the soapy, most noticeably when it came to Lena's accident. When Lena acts all weird at breakfast that day, I immediately guessed (correctly) where Linden was headed with the plot. And that is where a good chunk of my investment in the plot checked out! 

 

Still, this novel offers up another, unexpected but important side story that serves almost as a moral lesson to readers with children -- the importance of having your final wishes regarding dependents, godparents, etc all clearly outlined on paper! What Linden illustrates here, the power of the state to come in and completely tear up a home because they don't agree with the living arrangements (regardless of how happy and well-taken care of the children seem) is seriously terrifying! I don't even have kids and I was disturbed at the thought! So, people, get your final wishes on paper! 

 

The children's lives were suddenly being decided by people who understood the letter of the law but knew nothing about them, not who they were and certainly not what was truly in their best interest. They didn't know Gabby would fall asleep only if Bun Bun's head was tucked under her chin, or that you had to keep sweet snacks hidden behind the bins of beans and flour in the cupboard so Luca couldn't sneak them. And Jonah... she winced when she thought of Jonah, those dark, somber eyes and the downward slope of his young shoulders. He was a little boy carrying a misplaced guilt so heavy it was slowly crushing him. 

 

While maybe the plot fell short for me here, as I mentioned earlier I did quite enjoy Linden's writing style in general and would be interested to check out more of her work in the future. 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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text 2017-11-04 06:59
Some Small Magic by Billy Coffey
Some Small Magic - Billy Coffey

All Abel wants is a little bit of magic in his life. Enough money so his mom doesn’t cry at night. Healing for his broken body. And maybe a few answers about his past. When Abel discovers letters to him from the father he believed dead, he wonders if magic has come to the hills of Mattingly, Virginia, after all. But not everything is as it seems. With a lot of questions and a little bit of hope, Abel decides to run away to find the truth. But danger follows him from the moment he jumps his first boxcar, forcing Abel to rely on his simpleminded friend Willie—a man wanted for murder who knows more about truth than most—and a beautiful young woman they met on the train. From Appalachia to the Tennessee wilds and through the Carolina mountains, the name of a single small town beckons: Fairhope. That is where Abel believes his magic lays. But will it be the sort that will bring a broken boy healing? And is it the magic that will one day lead him home?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Our protagonist, young Abel (I believe he's possibly in his teens at the story's opening?) was born with a medical condition that causes his bones to remain very brittle and his spine crooked. This also leads him to have disfigured limbs that make movement difficult. Abel hates that his health problems cause his mother so much stress and financial strain. Both he and his mother try to live good, honest lives, Lisa (the mother) putting in long hours a local diner in their little town of Mattingly, Virginia, often working double shifts to just to barely make ends meet. Abel suffers through bullying at school but tries to make the best of it until one day he just reaches the end of his fuse and fights back in a rather unique way. Though it's well known who the main school bully is, Abel still seems to get the short end of the stick when the bulk of the disciplinary action falls on him.

 

"What if things could be better?" he asks.

"They can't, Abel."

"But what if they could? Would you be happy?"

"I'm happy now."

"Maybe you ain't. Maybe you been sad for so long, you think that's what being happy is."

Lisa cannot answer this. 

"Don't worry, Momma."

"About what?"

"About nothing."

 He gets up from the table and leans in close for what Lisa believes will be a kiss. Instead, he snatches a nickel from behind her ear and places it on the table. 

"What's this for?"

"For what I owe. I know it's not all of it, but I'll take care of the rest too."

 He walks inside, letting the screen door shut behind him. Lisa can only sit and drink her beer. She fingers the nickel and wonders how long Abel had been carrying that around, wonders what just happened, and whether it was Abel who just got punished, or her. 

 

 

One night, while he remains home alone while Lisa works through another late shift, Abel comes across a box of letters addressed to him that he's never seen before. He doesn't recognize the North Carolina address but when he opens one letter he finds the writer signs off as "Dad". Lisa had always told Abel that his father passed away when Abel was just a baby, but these letters seem rather recent. 

 

Make sure you laugh and love and stop to watch the sun fall. Keep your eyes on the things that matter and don't, and learn to know the difference. 

~an excerpt from one of the letters

 

Abel decides on a plan to jump the first train boxcar out of town, taking along his best friend, Willie Farmer. Willie, known to most of Mattingly as "Dumb Willie" (for being mentally challenged) is in his early 20s but has the mental development of a small child... and the physical strength of a superhero. Due to an unplanned scuffle with a local meanie, Willie is now possibly wanted for murder, so it's important Abel keep his friend by his side. Meanwhile, Abel is also hoping that the trip will lead him to meeting his father face to face and give him the answers to a better, more comfortable life for him and his mom. 

 

Once on the train, Abel & Willie meet an enigmatic young girl who doesn't readily give up her name, so Abel, inspired by his love of The Wizard of Oz, names her Dorothy. Dorothy has something mysterious & special about her, and her utterances here and there -- such as "It was a mistake, bringing them here." -- clue the reader in on the idea that her presence isn't entirely by chance. *If you've read Billy Coffey's work before, you likely remember that he likes to play with light themes of supernatural and even touches of magical realism, so you can likely make a good guess of where the story heads from this point.

 

Abel stares down at his cast, which has been left dented but whole. He stares and will not look away, because even now he can feel the girl's eyes upon him, those pretty blue ones set inside that pretty face. He feels that look as one that speaks not of friendship, but of options weighed and regrets counted. 

 

The perspective of the story shifts ever so slightly between our three key players -- Abel, Willie and "Dorothy". Coffey does an especially nice job of subtly bringing in Willie's voice. Without changing the rhythm of the writing in a jarring fashion, Coffey changes his writing just a touch -- making it more simple in style or writing words in a more phonetic way -- to quietly let readers know they've shifted from the thoughts of Abel to Willie (and back again, later). Coffey's way of laying all this out brought to mind John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. 

 

Willie is one of the most endearing characters here, drawing readers in with his boundless love and faith in good people, even when Abel lets you in on his friend's story. Willie's mental slowness? His parents claim it was caused by him falling off a wagon as a child, but Abel suspects the source is more along the lines of Willie's father beating and abusing him for years, Willie's parents treating him more like a burden / source of free labor than a beloved son. Abel's suspicions seem confirmed one day when Abel goes to Willie's house to find him chained up with just a small jug of water at his side, parents nowhere to be found. It breaks your heart and at the same time makes you think of Willie as the kind of soul too good for this world.

 

"Then you got ones like Dumb Willie. They're the special ones, Abel, and you know why? Because they ain't meant for this life at all. They're so tuned to the next world that it leaks into this one here, turning it all to a wonder they can't bear up against. You tell me Dumb Willie's pa is the one broke Dumb Willie's mind. I don't know about that. I think maybe it's more Dumb Willie's always been so full of heaven that he ain't got much use for earth. That's how it is for those few blessed enough that their souls point to other lands, but cursed such that they got to live in this one. Folk call them dumb. Call them crazy. But they ain't neither. All they are's closer to heaven than anybody else." ~Dorothy

 

This turned out to be my favorite of Coffey's books to date. The novel warmly touches upon the theme of family and friendship, the lengths we go to to creating (or at least contributing to) a fulfilling life for the ones we love. Some Small Magic also ends up being a nice illustration of just how far a little hope, a dash of that "faith of a mustard seed", can take a person in life. Key characters are living out hollow, painful, sad existences, punishing themselves for things largely beyond their control. Depressing as that sounds, Coffey turns it around, showing that no matter how far gone one's situation seems, there's always time to learn how to let go and live for joy again.

 

For the first time in a long while and perhaps even forever, laughter filled this small patch of forgotten wood in the midst of a bustling mountain town. The noise is full and whole and worthy of wonder. It is magic, this laughter, and one not so small as to slip through Abel's knowing. The feel of it lodges into the cracked places of his insides where not even his brittle bones dwell, telling him things will be all right now. Wherever that dark road leads, Dorothy and Dumb Willie will travel with him. And Abel's daddy will be at its end, and healing, and the world will be made right. Yes, that is how Abel knows it will be.. because most every road is a dark one. Especially the ones that hold a light at their end. 

 

For those interested in using this as a possible book club pick, a page of discussion questions are included at the back of the book.

 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

 

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review 2017-10-19 09:53
Challenger Deep by Neil Shusterman
Challenger Deep - Neal Shusterman

A captivating novel about mental illness that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman.

Caden Bosch is on a ship that's headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.
Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.
Caden Bosch is designated the ship's artist in residence to document the journey with images.
Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.
Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.
Caden Bosch is torn.

Challenger Deep is a deeply powerful and personal novel from one of today's most admired writers for teens. Laurie Halse Anderson, award-winning author of Speak, calls Challenger Deep "a brilliant journey across the dark sea of the mind; frightening, sensitive, and powerful. Simply extraordinary."

Amazon.com

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel does periodically bring up the topic of suicide. 

 

The outside world sees Caden Bosch as a regular high school student. In his own mind however, Caden sees himself as artist in residence aboard a submarine assigned to explore Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Marianas Trench, the deepest section of ocean in the world. What most would consider his real life, that of a HS student, to him is more like a secondary dreamworld. Pay attention and you will see subtle, parallel characters and situations between life aboard the ship and Caden's time in school.

 

Forget solar energy -- if you could harness denial, it would power the world for generations.

 

There are others, fellow crew members on the ship, around Caden's age. Most of these teens come from broken or troubled homes. As for the ship's captain -- who has apparently has a preference for speaking like a pirate -- well, there is something dark and mysterious about him. 

 

Regardless of what world he was in, for me there was one constant about Caden: those elements within his personal story which insisted on keeping my heart just a little bit broken for him all the way through the story. When people try to reach out to him, Caden tends to verbally push them away but deep inside he mourns not having a good enough understanding of what's wrong well enough to let others help. He struggles with his parents' questionable behavior, to say the least. In one instance, they get drunk and pressure him to bungee jump. There was a part of the story, about at the halfway point of the book, where Caden's parents make a decision they think will help him and his inner struggles but for me, it felt that a little more explanation was needed, as far as where the dual realities come into play. 

 

Everything feels right in the world... and the sad thing is that I know it's a dream. I know it must soon end, and when it does I will be thrust awake into a place where either I'm broken, or the world is broken.

 

Over time, Caden develops near-crippling anxiety, but tries out for his HS track team in an attempt to stay connected with schoolmates. There are some laughs when it comes to Caden's therapy sessions... well, if you've been in therapy yourself, that is. It's relatable humor: "I tell him that everything sucks, and he apologizes for it, but does nothing to make things less suckful."

 

I also loved Shusterman's use of analogies. One of my favorites was a car one, and its likeness to therapy: "useless check engine light... but only, the people qualified to check under the hood can't get the damn thing open."

 

Caden does struggle with suicidal thoughts at times, but he says the existence of his little sister is a "fail safe" from actually going through with anything. Even so, he still ponders the subject near the end of the novel, so heads up if you are sensitive to that sort of theme / material. I'm happy to report that while much of the plot is heavy in tone, Shusterman does close things on positive, empowering thoughts. He also provides two pages of resources after the novel to help any reader struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, all of the above, etc. 

 

The artwork you'll find in this book was all done by Shusterman's son, Brendan, who suffers from chronic depression himself. Brendan's own story of struggle, along with his artwork, inspired the adventures and trials Caden of Challenger Deep experiences. 

 

 

 

My initial interest in picking this book up was spurred by rave reviews from so many friends and fellow reviewers saying "This is the most accurate depiction of mental illness I have ever read." I've lived with mental illness my entire life. My mother battled depression, my father agorophobia and bipolar disorder. Both my brother and I were diagnosed with chronic depression, anxiety and PTSD in our adulthoods. So I figured I was going into this on pretty firm ground. While on one hand I could see what Shusterman was trying to convey, the novel didn't always represent my own experiences. But at times it hit it spot on. Then, other times I was admittedly kinda bored outta my gourd. But that's the thing about mental illness, there's no one clear-cut way to have it. Everyone's battle is different. So I took that into consideration when weighing my end thoughts on my reading experience. 

 

While I would not put my vote in with the "best ever" crowd, I do vote that it has its merits when it comes to the subject of mental illness. 

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review 2017-10-17 12:04
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Gilead #1)
Gilead - Marilynne Robinson

Twenty-four years after her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America's heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson's beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows "even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order" (Slate). In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human condition and the often unbearable beauty of an ordinary life.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

In the town of Gilead, Iowa, 76 year old Congregationalist minister John Ames senses he is nearing death and is trying to prepare his family for his imminent passing. Author Marilynne Robinson lays out the entire novel in the form of one long letter Ames is writing to his nearly 7 year old son (obviously a son he fathered late in life). This letter is largely full of Ames' musings on his long life, seasoned with long stories,  meaningful anecdotes, lessons learned, etc..."As I write I am aware that my memory has made much of very little."

 

 

 

 

He also tries to impart final lessons to his son on the value in being financially humble yet rich in familial bonds, and the hardships & merits that come from living a life of service.

 

 

"I can't believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we have lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life. For example, at this very moment I feel a kind of loving grief for you as you read this, because I do not know you, and because you have grown up fatherless, you poor child, lying on your belly now in the sun with Soapy asleep on the small of your back. You are drawing those terrible pictures that you will bring me to admire, and which I will admire because I have not the heart to say one word that you might remember against me....I'll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful."

 

I was moved at Ames' protective thoughts regarding one Jack Boughton, a man Ames fears may pose a threat to his family after Ames' death. Minster or no, you gotta respect that father gene kicking in:

 

"How should I deal with these fears I have, that Jack Boughton will do you and your mother harm, just because he can, just for the sly, unanswerable meanness of it? You have already asked after him twice this morning. Harm to you is not harm to me in the strict sense, and that is a great part of the problem. He could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology for forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I'm afraid theology would fail me."

 

It may come as no surprise to some but I'll go ahead and let the general reader know that this one turns pretty heavily religious. Our main character is a minister so it naturally comes with the territory, but even with that in mind it still felt like overkill at times. Long, looong bits on preaching, a lot of actual Scripture woven into the novel's text.  Also, Ames swings his thoughts back to the topic of his grandfather SO MUCH, to the point of distraction for me.

 

 

With the narrator coming from a long line of preachers, there's a healthy amount of biblical overtones & parallels. Some of the sermons were totally lost on me, but I did enjoy the theme of creating a life of love and strong family bonds. Ames' description of his relationship with his second wife (the mother of the son he is writing to) has its memorably heartwarming bits. Together a relatively brief time, only 10 years married by the start of the novel (he 67, she in her mid-30s at their wedding) , Ames shares with his son that he takes comfort in leaving the world knowing he was able to provide his wife the stable life she craved, though he hints that she "settled". The way the proposal went down was pretty cute, the deadpan way she just says "You should marry me", his equally straight-faced "You're right, I think I shall", her "Well then, I'll see you tomorrow." and Ames admitting to his son that it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened in his life LOL

 

If you're the kind of reader who heavily relies on plot, you'll likely be disappointed with this one. In that respect, this novel is pretty dull. Its strength mainly lies in the thought-provoking subjects Ames presents in his letter. For that, it may make for a good book club pick. Mostly my take away was the warmth and love Ames tries to imprint upon his son and wife through his final words. 

 

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review 2017-10-16 10:56
The Whispering of the Willows by Tonya Jewel Blessing
The Whispering of the Willows - Tonya Jewel Blessing

A work of historical fiction, The Whispering of the Willows is set in the late 1920s in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. Eighth grader Emerald is about to learn some hard lessons when a deeply disturbed man is thrust into her life by her abusive father and enabling mother. Author Tonya Jewel Blessing tells a story about a young woman's struggles and redemption. The blossoming young woman is accompanied by her friends and her foes on the journey towards hope and healing. Love weaves through gut-wrenching circumstances and dismal poverty. There, Emerald Ashby grows strong despite grievous wrongs committed against her. 

~from back cover

 

 

 

Emerald "Emie" Ashby is a young girl from a dirt poor family, just starting her teen years, coming of age in the small Appalachian town of Big Creek, West Virginia during the 1920s. With her 8th grade year of schooling coming to a close, Emie's father decides "she ain't a boy that can carry his weight", so he decides to arrange to have her married off to a local boy... a decision he makes without so much as a word to Emie herself. 

 

It's the choice of the groom that gets everyone's hackles up. Young Charlie, still working through his teens himself, has already gotten himself a reputation for being short-tempered, mean-spirited, possibly even abusive towards women. Just like his father. Emie's mother, Alma, though used to acquiescing to her husband's wishes, fears that if this marriage goes through, her daughter will be unfairly condemned to a life of endless work and abuse from both husband and father-in-law, leaving her with little more than an utterly broken spirit. When Emie's father, Ahab, continues to insist that the match is a good one, Emie's older brother, Ernest, begins to have suspicions of ulterior motives. Sure enough, some digging on Ernest's part turns up the truth: Emie's marriage to this boy is so important to Ahab because of its ties to a business deal he needs to see succeed. Unfortunately, Ernest's involvement in the family drama leads him to find young Emie one night, propped against the support rail of a bridge, still alive but with her body battered & broken following a sexual assault. 

 

From there the story becomes one of Emie's physical and emotional healing, working through the emotions that come with having one's childhood unexpectedly truncated, and the need to make sure such horror doesn't befall her younger sisters. Emie gets a fresh start under the protective wing of "Auntie Ada", not a biological aunt but one Emie calls a "love aunt", a longtime friend of Alma. It's in Ada's home that Emie experiences the kind of environment every young person should be privy to: one of love, kindness, tolerance and compassion for all.

 

 

"Even in darkness, there was always a measure of light."

 

This is illustrated firsthand when Ada hears of a black man, ironically named Justice, who is falsely accused and arrested for Emie's assault. Everyone in town knows who's likely responsible, but because of the person's position in town, it's hushed up and a fall guy is produced. Well, Ada won't stand for it. Once Justice's release is arranged, she not only takes in him but his entire family to keep them safe from those who'd wish him harm. Not only does Ada offer the family food, shelter and friendship, but she also works her magic to arrange for educational opportunities for Justice's young children. 

 

"Around my table, we are all equal like the good Lord intended." ~ Ada

 

It's through the nurturing environment of Ada's homestead that Emie learns the true meaning of respect, love, and healthy family bonds. Through witnessing Ada tackling social injustices head on, Emie is provided a firm example of what it means to stand by one's word and protect the innocent. 

 

"God listens to all prayers, darlin', even the ones too painful to be sayin' out loud." ~Ada to Emie

 

I couldn't quite put my finger on what was creating the sensation, but there was something to the writing here that made this novel feel much more dense and complex than one might expect for being less than 400 pages. The plot somehow manages to simultaneously be complex yet easily imaginable, scary as that sounds. The characterization of Emie's father alone made much of the text hard to stomach, imagining a father that would repeatedly put his daughter in the path of danger with little more than a shoulder shrug and a hope for solid monetary gain for his decisions. And then there's Alma. The yin and yang of dysfunctional relationships -- if there's an abusive husband, there naturally has to be the doormat wife to say "he has his reasons for being difficult." In this case, Alma reasons away her husband's abuse by saying he wasn't the same man she married when he came back from World War 1, but the horrors he saw make him lash out....it's not really him doing it... etc. Just picturing this couple -- the father easily condoning the sexual assault of a minor so he can make a few extra bucks here and there, and his wife dismissing herself out of responsibility with a curt "mind your father" ... it made for a maddening reading experience! But it's a testament to author Tonya Jewel Blessing's writing that she can make a reader feel SO strongly towards her characters! 

 

One way Blessing lightens the heaviness of some of the darker bits of the plot is by incorporating nods to Appalachian folklore as well as a sweet love story for Emie that quietly, gently unfolds under the whispering of willow trees by the river, teaching her to trust again and believe that a good man won't mind waiting for a great gal (and that these men do exist, if one only has faith!) The folklore that heads every chapter was entertaining, a number of them being not too far off from what many of us would deem "old wives' tales". Some of them are oddly specific, such as to keep evil away, find the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit.. or flower that bloom out of season are evil. I got a kick out of some of the things that create bad luck, according to these Appalachian beliefs: bathing on your wedding day, watching a person leave until they are out of sight, dreaming of muddy water... just to name a few. 

 

While the subject matter can be tough to stomach at times, Blessing's writing here has a true down-home way about it. Her way of describing the emotions and environments of these characters has a certain flow, a kind of lyricism to it that offers the reader a true sense of mountain life of the 1920s. There were times during the first half of the novel where portions of the writing came off a little too direct for this girl's liking, leaving little room for mystery or opportunities for the reader to have some fun with guessing / inference. However, the suspenseful plot twists (particularly the major tragedy explored in the final chapters) Blessing stashes away on the back end of the story more than made up for this! It's also admirable that Blessing uses a couple of her characters to address the struggle & hardships of interracial relationships within a largely racist community. It's sad to say that though this novel is set in the 1920s, what the reader sees this couple go through won't seem too unfathomable in today's world.

 

* FYI: or those interested in this book as a possible book club pick, a list of discussion questions is included at the back of the book. 

 

FTC Disclaimer: Bookcrash.com & Capture Books kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

 

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EXTRAS:

 

* This novel is inspired by the stories of author Tonya Blessing's own mother, who grew up in the real Big Creek, WV -- an area used for the setting of the film October Sky. 

 

* Author Tonya Jewel Blessing and her husband are co-directors of Strong Cross Ministries, a non-profit dedicating to offering assistance to churches in impoverished communities around the world carry out humanitarian projects meant to better provide for struggling communities. ALL proceeds of this novel will be funded back into Strong Cross Ministries of South Africa. 

 

 

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