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review 2018-04-11 05:24
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
TransAtlantic - Colum McCann

Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators—Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown—set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War. Dublin, 1845 and ’46. On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause—despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to an American slave. New York, 1998. Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland’s notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion. These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on. From the loughs of Ireland to the flatlands of Missouri and the windswept coast of Newfoundland, their journeys mirror the progress and shape of history. They each learn that even the most unassuming moments of grace have a way of rippling through time, space, and memory.





This novel open in 2012 but before the final page ends up spanning two continents and three centuries. Though considered a complete novel, TransAtlantic ends up having more the feel of interconnected short stories, the first being of two former WW1 pilots, Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, in Newfoundland in 1919, who are attempting the first nonstop transatlantic flight after modifying an old bomber plane.


Days of welding, soldering, sanding, stitching. The bomb bays were replaced by extra petrol tanks. That's what pleased Brown the most. They were using the bomber in a brand-new way: taking the war out of the plane, stripping the whole thing of its penchant for carnage. 



Their destination: Ireland. The project is riddled with setbacks. Just the attempt to fly from London -- when they're SO close to the finish line! --  to Clifden, Ireland causes the plane to basically crumble apart at times, nearly killing them more than once! 


From there, the story stays in Ireland but jumps back to the year 1845. Former slave / abolitionist Frederick Douglass is visiting Dublin while on a European tour to promote his memoirs (and thereby his abolitionist message). It is during this time that author Colum McCann paints a picture of what the era of the potato famine might have looked like to someone who had likewise known extreme hardships such as Douglass. 


Douglass writes to wife Anna about his impressions of Ireland and its people, initially noting that he finds himself quite at ease, as the people are incredibly friendly and respectful, not an n-word hurled at him once. That, the reader will find, is short-lived. Douglass starts doing joint speaking engagements with "The Great Liberator" Daniel O'Connell. People start calling Douglass "the black O'Connell". As the tour continues, Douglass starts to notice his own publisher (international, that is), Webb, treats him more and more like a specimen or a roadshow attraction. Webb becomes noticeably more stingy with covering Douglass' travel expenses. That slur usage Douglass thought was absent in Ireland ends up rearing its head in Cork as Douglass is simply walking down a street one day. It is during this time that author McCann also works in the storyline of Douglass making plans on how to officially negotiate his freedom while in England. 


Douglass (at least McCann's portrayal of him) does describe a moment of PTSD while being fitted for a suit while overseas, a moment in the experience throwing him back to his days as a slave. 


The reader is also given a more modern story, comparatively, involving Irish-American senator George Mitchell, based in NYC, who heads to Belfast in 1998 to try to help promote peace talks in Northern Ireland. (Colum McCann himself, per his author blurb, was born in Dublin but now lives in NYC). When it came to this portion of the book, the bits about the senator being so in love with his wife were very sweet but overall I found myself a bit bored by his storyline.


Have I mentioned how much this book jumps back and forth between all these different eras? Yeah, if you like your fiction strictly chronological, TransAtlantic might prove to be a challenge for you. Comfortable in that 1990s setting? Too bad! McCann will slingshot you over to Civil War era and back again. A heads up regarding that, if you are a sensitive reader: much of this book is pretty tame (low violence factor), but the Civil War portions do contain some crude, graphic descriptions that may possibly turn your stomach. 


Part of what kept me reading was trying to figure out how all these characters were connected ... I assumed there must be at least some link, even a thin one... it wasn't always immediately evident what those connections were. But in the case of Douglass's story, there was a character there that comes back around years later and links stuff up for the reader in Part 2. This character's story, with her connection to Douglass... in a way it saddened me, but there was something there that leaves a feeling of optimism for the future. 


In general, the plots going on within the various storylines were mildly interesting, but nothing really deeply hooked me as a reader. Also, the jumping around seemed to lack finesse, instead giving me a bit of a headache trying to keep up and make sense of all the details being tossed about. 






* In his acknowledgements section, Colum McCann gives a shout-out to Irish actor Gabriel Byrne as part of the "TransAtlantic Crew"... makes me wonder if a movie adaptation was ever in the works? I can't find evidence of this anywhere online... later on he also gives nods to fellow writers Michael Ondaatje (of The English Patient fame) and Wendell Berry.

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review 2018-04-05 19:03
Dubliners by James Joyce
Dubliners - James Joyce,Del Doughty

Although James Joyce began these stories of Dublin life in 1904, when he was 22, and had completed them by the end of 1907, they remained unpublished until 1914 — victims of Edwardian squeamishness. Their vivid, tightly focused observations of the life of Dublin's poorer classes, their unconventional themes, coarse language, and mention of actual people and places made publishers of the day reluctant to undertake sponsorship.
Today, however, the stories are admired for their intense and masterly dissection of "dear dirty Dublin," and for the economy and grace with which Joyce invested this youthful fiction. From "The Sisters," the first story, illuminating a young boy's initial encounter with death, through the final piece, "The Dead," considered a masterpiece of the form, these tales represent, as Joyce himself explained, a chapter in the moral history of Ireland that would give the Irish "one good look at themselves." But in the end the stories are not just about the Irish; they represent moments of revelation common to all people.





As a woman of Irish heritage who majored in classic Briitsh Lit in college and now works in the book world, I'm just gonna come clean with this... this is my first foray in the works of James Joyce. I know! I know! You can pull up your jaw now, I can explain. He's just one of those writers that has always been on my "meaning to get to" list. And the horror stories of people that have tried Ulysses -- I at least have a copy of that one somewhere on my shelves -- can scare a girl off. So I thought I would start small with this little short story collection. 


I read the blurb on the back of the paperback copy I have that mentioned how Joyce started writing these 15 somewhat interconnected stories back in 1904 at the age of 22, and how he had them finished by 1907 but had to wait til 1914 to get them onto bookshelves thanks to the sensitive Victorian readership of the era. Joyce's publisher was concerned that the themes of the stories might be a bit too gritty for the prim general public. Also, as I understand it, Joyce makes some thinly veiled references to actual people of the time that I'm guessing would not have been received as a form of flattery so much... Well, naturally that made me curious as to what was in store for my modern reader eyes! 


As you might've guessed by now, for many of today's readers, this collection will read pretty tame. Yes, it does focus on the lower class citizens of Dublin, yes there are descriptions of squalor that sometimes include coarse language. But all in all, you've likely heard worse these days. A number of the stories focus on children or teens; the very first story being one of a boy processing news of the death of a beloved mentor, others describe two boys playing hooky from school who have an encounter with a creepy guy on a street, and one of a girl attempting to escape an abusive father. There are also stories with more adult themes, spotlighting the topics of promiscuous women, flat-out prostitution, women just generally worn down (physically and emotionally) by their husbands. There's also a story here and there that are less the underbelly of Dublin and more just a Upstairs / Downstairs style story (you know, the privileged & wealthy vs their estate staff). The very last story, "The Dead", was one of this style and ended up being my personal favorite. 


Oh, the husbands. Yes, many of them here are portrayed as alcoholics --- another shock, I know! LOL Also, we're talking about the Irish here, so it's somewhat inevitable that at least a little religion gets worked into the stories here and there. 


My impression of Joyce, in this instance anyway, is that while his stories approach risque themes, his writing style beats around the bush so much it was hard for me to feel much shock or offense. In fact, some of the stories featured quite sweet scenes of family bonding between parents and children or lively, jovial times between friends. It's not all grim and grit! But it did end up being largely blah for me. There, I said it. At the risk of offending my Irish ancestors, I'm putting it out there --- I found Joyce's writing here kind of dull! Meet y'all at the square in five for my stoning, hehe. 

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review 2018-03-29 18:37
Steal Away Home by Billy Coffey
Steal Away Home - Billy Coffey

Owen Cross grew up with two loves: one a game, the other a girl. One of his loves ruined him. Now he’s counting on the other to save him.Owen Cross’s father is a hard man, proud in his brokenness, who wants nothing more than for Owen to succeed where he failed. With his innate talents and his father’s firm hand guiding him, Owen goes to college with dreams of the major leagues—and an emptiness full of a girl named Micky Dullahan. Owen loved Micky from the first time they met on the hill between their two worlds: his middle-class home and her troubled Shantytown. Years later he leaves her for the dugouts and the autographs, but their days together follow him. When he finally returns home, he discovers that even peace comes at a cost. And that the hardest things to say are to the ones we love the most. From bestselling author Billy Coffey comes a haunting story of small-town love, blinding ambition, and the risk of giving it all for one last chance.





Owen Cross is a young boy from a lower middle-class family who just happens to have superior natural talent when it comes to the game of baseball. His father is a hard-working but embittered man nursing a broken spirit after a career ending injury brought his own professional sports dreams to a screeching halt. Now the father puts all the hopes on the son to bring pride and fame back to the family name. From an early age, Owen shows laser focus when it comes to his MLB dreams. That is, until the fateful day he comes face to face with Shantytown girl Michaela "Micky" Dullahan. From that day forward, professional baseball and Micky will play a constant tug-o-war on Owen's heart and mind. 


"Your love's all wrapped up in a thing that can't love you back,

and you'll only come to harm because of it." 

~ Micky


The time period of Steal Away Home alternates between grown Owen as a Minor League player in the early 2000s and his childhood spanning the 1980s and 90s. In the retrospective chapters, or "innings" as Coffey playful titles them here, we follow Owen from the first meetings with Micky, through junior high and high school up to the day he leaves his hometown of Camden, Virginia to attend college in Ohio. 


Owen always has to keep his relationship with Micky as secret. Though they go to the same school, they avoid any acknowledgement of each other beyond furtive glances. It's explained that because Micky is from Shantytown, socially she's basically considered the town's unclean, untouchable, too-poor-to-be-anything-but-pitied/reviled-from-a-distance population. Hard to make sense of this though, when you consider that Owen's economic situation wasn't really ALL that much better: his school clothes primarily come off the JC Penney clearance racks, his mom makes minimum wage at the town library and his dad works as the janitor at Owen's school. Owen flatly points out that his baseball skills are literally the only thing that keeps him from being socially ostracized himself. Still, he's all about keeping his seat at the cool kids' table. 


"People's just lost... It's like we don't even understand

what living is no more." 

~ Micky


It took me about half the book to realize it, but at that point it dawned on me that I did not like Owen. The guy was pretty selfish when you get down to it. It seems like Owen never hesitated too much to throw Micky under the proverbial bus whenever his social standing was even slightly at risk. Yet Micky continued to profess love for this kid! When Micky finds a dream she wants to pursue for herself and the good of her fellow Shantytown residents, he harps on her to drop it and do what HE wants if she TRULY loves him. Nope, this reader was not having it. Micky was clearly the better soul in my book. 



With the novel starting in the millennial era and periodically looking backwards, there is a mystery / possible crime story hinted at, clues to which are only given to the reader in the tiniest portions until at least the halfway point where the action on that front picks up a bit. Once Owen leaves Camden for college, we see that some characters from earlier in the story have gone missing in his time away, and certain clues hint that possible criminal activity may be linked to these characters.  Be patient though, because Coffey's holding some cards up his author sleeve and he's not going to let you make sense of it all til the closing moments! 


Of all of Billy Coffey's novels that I've read to date, this has not been one of my favorites. Many of the elements felt pretty underdeveloped, at least with the home drama storylines. It certainly can't be said he skimped on the baseball game sections, those portions actually dragged a bit for me. Just a lot of Owen in the dugout with his thoughts for pages on end, least until it was his turn at the plate... but it felt like he spent a lot of time on the bench for a catcher! LOL Speaking of the game though, Coffey notes at the beginning of the book that the game described here (the opening game, I think he's referring to) is actually inspired by an actual game that went down between the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees in the summer of 2001. 



The romantic relationship between Owen and Micky did, at times, have a charm to it that I enjoyed. Theirs was a young relationship that was full of sweet, naive, intense promises that most of us can probably relate to on some level, remembering back to our first loves. But something there fell short for me, didn't quite hit maximum heartstring tug. 


One thing I will give this book though -- even if the plot had some missed opportunities (IMO), there were some undeniably great lines of prose I would tip my hat to, if i wore one while I read. If you're familiar with Coffey's previous books and wonder about his trademark light fantasy / magical realism touch he tends to weave into his stories, it is still present here but it's much more faint than in his previous novels. 


There is always tomorrow, until there is not. 



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. 







*Musician Eddie Heinzelman composed a song entitled "Dandelion", inspired by Coffey's Steal Away Home! You can check out the song HERE.

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review 2018-03-26 13:33
Christmas at Carnton by Tamera Alexander
Christmas at Carnton - Tamera Alexander
Amid war and the fading dream of the Confederacy, a wounded soldier and a destitute widow discover the true meaning of Christmas - and of sacrificial love. Recently widowed, Aletta Prescott struggles to hold life together for herself and her six-year old son. With the bank threatening to evict, she discovers an advertisement for the Women's Relief Society auction and applies for a position - only to discover it's been filled. Then a chance meeting with a wounded soldier offers another opportunity - and friendship. But can Aletta trust this man? Captain Jake Winston, a revered Confederate sharpshooter, suffered a head wound at the Battle of Chickamauga. When doctors deliver their diagnosis, Jake fears losing not only his greatest skill but his very identity. As he heals, Jake is ordered to assist with a local Women's Relief Society auction. He respectfully objects. Kowtowing to a bunch of "crinolines" isn't his idea of soldiering. But orders are orders, and he soon discovers this group of ladies - one, in particular - is far more than he bargained for. Set against the backdrop and history of the Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, Christmas at Carnton is a story of hope renewed and faith restored at Christmas.
It's the winter of 1863 in Franklin, Tennessee. Twenty-five year old Aletta Prescott has recently been informed that she's now widowed (her husband having been away fighting in the Civil War). In true "when it rains, it pours" fashion, life deals her a few more blows to boot: she's laid off from her job at a textile mill, she's facing eviction, and she's seven months pregnant as well as now being a single mother to her six year old son. Not one to cry too long about hardships or lean on excuses, Aletta immediately sets herself to finding solutions, mostly in terms of finding employment again as soon as possible. Persistently putting feelers out pays off for her when she hears word of a job opportunity at Carnton Estate.
Upon first arriving at the estate, Aletta is crushed to find the position she's after has already been filled, but her personality wins over the household and before long, luck provides her with the setup she was looking for... even if it proves to be only temporary, it gives her a stepping stone to future security for her and her children. 
One source of this luck for Aletta comes in the form of Captain Jack Winston, a wounded Confederate officer. Jack sustains a serious head wound in battle that damages his eyesight. A medical examination determines that Jack's eyes may fully recover, but it can't be guaranteed. So it's a waiting game. Jack's commanding officer sends him to Carnton Estate to help with the Women's Relief Society auction. It'll not only give Jack something to do as he recuperates, but the auction is also raising funds for much needed supplies for the guys still on the battlefields. Though Jack understands this, he's still not happy about the assignment, having to, as he sees it, "kowtow to a bunch of crinolines". But just one interaction with kind-hearted Aletta, and his perspective certainly flips in a hurry!
Christmas at Carnton offers a sweet, heartwarming holiday story, for sure.. but there are also deeper themes here that many readers will appreciate. Just from a historical perspective, author Tamera Alexander gives readers a realistic feel for wartime struggles in this era -- horrors of slavery, the scarcity of groceries, job layoffs, struggles with bills, families broken apart from grief and struggle, the depths one might stoop to... simply out of sheer desperation to survive. This is particularly admirable when you remember that this is simply the starter novella for what is expected to be a series of full length novels (at least 3) which will first start rolling out Fall 2018. To pack sufficient historical detail in novella length AND still include an engrossing storyline to boot -- that gets a nod of respect from me! Alexander even writes in a mention of chow-chow, a dish I find not too many people outside of the South or certain East Coast areas tend to recognize. 
Outside of the historical aspect, readers who are mothers themselves will likely feel at least a bit of a bond with Aletta's struggles, especially if you are a single mother. Aletta has an impressive strong will that propels her to fight to give her children the best living situation she can possibly provide, even through periods where she's not sure what her options will be from one day to the next. Still, she makes it work and in true mother fashion, she often swallows her fears and stops herself from vocally airing her doubts in front of her children, instead pushing herself to find a smile every day even if it doesn't always start as a sincere one. 
All of this together quietly gives the reader a kind reminder that in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, one must remember to be grateful for the blessings -- no matter how small -- that are to be found in each day if we only take the time to look for and acknowledge them with a smiling heart. 
Life was hard everywhere she looked. Which made her more determined to be grateful for what she did have, even if gratitude wasn't her natural response at present. 
If you are interested in possibly using this as an option for your book club, this novella includes a supplemental section made up of reading discussion questions and holiday recipes pertaining to the story... including DIY chow-chow and holiday simmering spices! 
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. 
* Carnton Estate, where this story is set, is actually a real place. It is located in Franklin Tennessee, roughly about 20 miles outside of Nashville. 
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review 2018-03-06 14:58
The Space Between Words by Michele Phoenix
The Space Between Words - Michele Phoenix

When Jessica regains consciousness in a French hospital on the day after the Paris attacks, all she can think of is fleeing the site of the horror she survived. But Patrick, the steadfast friend who hasn’t left her side, urges her to reconsider her decision. Worn down by his insistence, she reluctantly agrees to follow through with the trip they’d planned before the tragedy. During a stop at a country flea market, Jessica finds a faded document concealed in an antique. As new friends help her to translate the archaic French, they uncover the story of Adeline Baillard, a young woman who lived centuries before—her faith condemned, her life endangered, her community decimated by the Huguenot persecution. 

Determined to learn the Baillard family’s fate, Jessica retraces their flight from France to England, spurred on by a need she doesn’t understand. Could this stranger who lived three hundred years before hold the key to Jessica’s survival?




American tourist Jessica is recovering in a Paris hospital in November of 2015, the day after the Paris attacks.


"Did a lot of people die?" I asked. I had to know.


The nurse nodded, and I saw tears in her eyes too. "Many," she said. Then she took a deep breath and added, "But many survived." She patted my hand where it still gripped her wrist. "I know you are americaine, but you are French now too."



Trying to heal from the injuries she sustained as an attendee of the death metal concert, Jessica is encouraged by friend Patrick to return to their apartment in town to continue her recovery. As time passes and she begins to show signs of physical strength returning, she feels compelled to return to the States, but Patrick thinks it would be good for her, mentally, to go on with their trip as planned. He stays insistent through her many refusals until he eventually wears her down and she agrees to his idea. 


There was a muddiness to mature adult friendships -- the expectation that they would lead to something more. That they should. And after that night, with our relationship more clearly defined, we'd moved forward more freely, autonomous and intertwined, an unusual duo bound by similar passions and complementary interests. Patrick and I knew what connected us was rare. It didn't matter anymore how others wanted to define it. 


One stop on their journey takes them to a little out of the way antiques shop where Jessica comes across what turns out to be an old sewing box, a box she later discovers dates back to the 17th century. Inside a hidden compartment, Jessica finds the journal of one Adeline Baillard, whose writings explain her fight to escape the Huguenot Persecution. Their crime: being Protestant in a Catholic nation.


There are only a few scant entries to Adeline's journal, giving the impression that she was hurriedly writing an account of her experiences in secret during the time of the persecution. A driving need to know how Adeline's story ended gives Jessica something to focus on other than her PTSD induced nightmares / hallucinations. The process of going on a hunt for the truth also gradually brings Adeline around to a modicum of healing in regards to her own traumatic experiences & memories. 


I'll just get this upfront right now -- this will likely be a tough read for PTSD sufferers. Chapter 17 is especially intense. Being a sufferer myself, I can tell you a number of passages in this book had my nerves on edge or me suddenly in a puddle of tears reading of Jessica's (fictional) account of the attacks. Also, imagining the fear someone in Adeline's position had to live with on a daily basis... this novel was one whopping emotional drain! But in a good way! 


"I want to believe that there's a force for good in this world and that the force won't let the bad have the final word. It doesn't explain or undo the darkness, but... I think somehow it covers it with light." 


~~ Grant


Note for sensitive readers: Within the excerpts of Adeline's journal, there are some brief scenes of brutality depicted, as Adeline writes of the torture endured by those who refused to convert to Catholicism. There are also some gruesome scenes illustrated during Jessica's descriptions of the shootings that occurred at the concert venue. 


Some of my favorite bits: 1) OMG, I ADORED Nelly, the tour guide at Canterbury Cathedral! Her wit and grandmotherly sweetness!  Also neat that in her author notes at the end, Michelle Phoenix reveals that the details of the adventure to the church that Jessica and Grant go on is based on a trip Phoenix herself took to the same church. 2) I found myself moved by little Connor and his visions of "shiny ninjas" (you'll understand this once you read the book).


The one knock I would give this story is the "common misconception" conversation about Grant and Mona. Just found it annoying that all these little things going on between them gave the impression that they were a couple and then they casually explain they're brother and sister, but people often get it confused. Well, dang. Introduce yourself as siblings at the start and we won't have a bunch of confused readers later! But Iater on I kinda saw why Phoenix might have written it this way... we need the brother available for confused feelings / possible romantic tension between him and Jessica! But still, annoying. 


I'd definitely recommend this one over Phoenix's Of Stillness And Storm. I found the plot here much more complex, entertaining and emotionally moving. I'm strongly anticipating her future works! 


Enduring with courage, resisting with wisdom, persisting in faith... 


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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