Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult (Random House, October 2016)
From the very first page, I knew that I was in the hands of a master storyteller, one who would effortlessly guide me into the lives of her characters, with all their unexpected twists and turns, without a single jolt or bump in the road that was not intentional and expertly handled. Very early in the book, I kept thinking what it must have been like to read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee for the very first time, without knowing how it was going to turn out. I am a little leery of applying superlatives to a work which has not yet withstood the test of time, but I would be surprised if Small Great Things does not have the same impact and enduring popularity. Picoult has taken one of the defining issues of our age and woven it into a story with universal appeal.
The book begins simply with a day in the life of woman who has attained a high degree of skill and no small amount of professional recognition. Ruth is a labor and delivery nurse with over twenty years of experience, who enjoys the respect of her colleagues and the gratitude and trust of her patients. She is rightly proud of her educational achievements, being the daughter of a housekeeper who has spent her entire life in sacrifice and hard work so that her children might know a better life. All goes smoothly, with mothers giving birth and babies being evaluated, until Ruth and the reader are taken by surprise when two young parents of a newborn react to her performance of her duties with antagonism. Soon Ruth is forbidden to care for the baby and finds herself in the untenable position of obeying those instructions from her supervisor or standing by when the baby stops breathing. Ruth’s dilemma soon becomes a moot point when, despite her heroic intervention and that of the hospital pediatrician and her fellow nurses, the baby dies.
Now comes the conflict that will furnish the emotional and political driving force of this book: Ruth is black and the parents of the unfortunate baby are not only white, they are racist skinheads of the most violent sort. Unable to cope with the loss of their baby, they bring charges that quickly result in Ruth being charged with murder.
The second viewpoint character is the husband of this couple, and I cannot begin to tell you how much I did not want to be inside his head. From beginning to end, I found his behavior inexcusable and reprehensible, but I must acknowledge that such people exist. It seems that every few days I read a story in the news of some outrage perpetrated by people like him. They may not call themselves white supremacists or skinheads, but they promulgate the same vile philosophy. As I was reading this book, I saw a clip on social media of a young white woman screaming racist epithets at a black person. In Picoult’s book such people have not disappeared simply because they are not in the news. They have changed tactics, using the internet and coded language to disguise their agenda. Their hatred extends also to gays, immigrants, Jews, and many others, but in this story it is directed with full force against black people.
With sensitivity, insight, and consummate skill, Picoult examines the question of whether a white person — in this case Kennedy, the public defender who represents Ruth — can ever understand what it is like to be black in America. The author herself acknowledges the limitations of any story that is told by an outsider. Perhaps the most moving parts of the book center around the struggles of Ruth and Kennedy — to understand and to be understood. Kennedy’s initial priority, based on her legal expertise, is Ruth’s acquittal, and her strategy calls for ignoring the racial aspects of the charges to focus purely on the medical and legal. But is it possible to ignore the elephant in the middle of the living room — the reality that race can and does color every aspect our society? Given that truth, what must we — black and white and every color in between — do to overcome it?
Sisters of the Fire by Kim Wilkins
Fantasy literature seems to have entered an age of multi-volume series that either demand the reader be familiar with all the previous books or else inundate the reader with backstory. It requires skill and subtlety to create a sequel that works just as well as a stand-alone book. Kim Wilkins is such an author and Sisters of the Fire is such a book.
Australian Kim Wilkins is one of the best writers of fantasy today. I adored her The Autumn Castle for its rich, complex characters and a setting that was familiar enough so I was never confused and startlingly innovative enough to hold my interest at every turn. So it was no accident that even without reading Daughters of the Storm, I found Sisters of the Fire every bit as entrancing, dramatic, and rewarding.
Almost immediately I found myself immersed in a world reminiscent of Arthurian England. An island is divided into small kingdoms, some of them so marginal but it is not worth the trouble to conquer them. Of course, there are stronger kingdoms, and one of these is ruled by an aging monarch whose grown daughters have made their own ways through the world. Ash has followed her dream to become a magician by apprenticing herself to a strange, ultimately villainous man. Lovely Rose has fled an unhappy marriage at the cost of exile from her young daughter and her beloved. Ambitious Ivy, married to a man she does not love for the sake of a political alliance, plays a dangerous game that threatens the safety of not only her kingdom, but her father’s as well. Willow’s hatred of the old religion leads her to a perilous alliance with the head of the Viking-like northern raiders. And my favorite: Bluebell who despite the whimsy of her name is a fierce warrior and intrepid leader, more than capable of taking over for her aging father.
This story moves from moments of tenderness to passion to intrigue to breathtaking action. Never did I feel at a loss because I had not read the first book. Nevertheless, I was delighted to learn that that this will not be the end of the sisters’ adventures. I look forward with great anticipation to seeing where Wilkins will take the story, and while I am waiting I will go in search of the first volume
Murder with Majesty, by Amy Myers (Auguste Didier), Endeavor Press.This charming, quirky historical mystery was my introduction to the work of British author Amy Myers. First released in 1999, one of ten adventures of intrepid chef and not-so-intrepid detective, Auguste Didier, it’s now available as an ebook from Endeavor Press. The year is 1905, and already rumblings of war have reached even the placid English countryside. Didier, a distant relation-by-marriage to Edward VII, has been summoned to an ancient manor house to cook for a wedding. Only the groom posing as the lord of the manor in order to impress his American heiress bride no longer owns the estate and the man who does bears an uncanny resemblance to Didier’s sworn enemy, a ruthless Russian spy. What could have been a sedate whodunit confined to a single household quickly spins into a much broader tale that eventually leads to the Paris catacombs (I’ve been there – they’re just like that!) and back to England. Action and character are handled with a delightful wit and wonderful use of language that left me wanting to run out and find all the other volumes.
The Tale of the Dancing Slaughter Horse by Victoria Shade (Oct 2016)
Description: When Victoria meets Moonshine, an ex-racehorse saved from the slaughterhouse and abuse, she despairs at having to ride such a difficult horse. The pair compete in dressage, a sport that tests the unity of horse and rider as they engage in what can only be called dancing. They compete against horses bred solely for the sport, always struggling to overcome the bias against horses like Moony. As she grows and comes of age, Victoria teaches Moonshine to trust, and Moony teaches Victoria the importance of heart and perseverance. Together, they master many trials and compete in the Junior Nationals in this inspiring and compelling true story of how a girl and her horse changed each other’s lives forever.
This is a lovely book, not only for horse fanciers (and anyone who has ever been one) but as a simply told, heart-felt memoir of an extraordinary young woman and the healing power of horses. Like many other teenaged girls, I fell in love with horses, and although my own mare was nowhere near the stature of Victoria Shade’s Moonshine, her tale of how dressage helped her to grow, and learn patience, diligence, and honesty, had me nodding in agreement every step of the way. The simplicity and directness of her prose transforms what could have been a melodrama into an inspiring, utterly truthful story. Well done!
The Dream Protocol:Descent, by Adara Quick (Apr 2016)
Adara Quick’s The Dream Protocol: Descent offers intriguing twists on the usual dystopic YA novel, with its economy based on the creation, sale, and control of dreams. I particularly liked the use of dreams as work incentives, and nightmares as punishment, plus the addictive nature of dreams to the point that people cannot sleep normally. However, the work is marred by heavy-handed exposition, telling repeatedly instead of showing, the lack of world-building beyond the dream economy, and simplistic characters. I do not believe this novel would have been publishable by any major house, as it certainly has not been professionally edited. I hope that with more attention to craft, the writer will become better able to justice to her ideas.
Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson, Blue Rider Press (Feb. 2017)
Premise: the Twin Towers mysteriously appear on the Badlands of South Dakota, from them comes a stream of music, and everyone hears a different song. Isn’t that a cool idea? I thought so when I requested a review copy of Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson. I imagined something of the order of a Tim Powers novel, with flights of wacky imagination resolving into a story that moves me, with characters I care about. Alas, it turned out that I was exactly the wrong reader for this book. Reviews, even “not my cup of tea” style, can help readers pick books they will love, so I offer the following:
At first, the story drew me in but midway through I grew frustrated. The music, as it were the uniting theme of all the various characters and adventures, turned out to be exactly the kind I have almost no knowledge of (I have heard of a few of the songs and recording artists but could not recognize them) or interest in (not even a passing nod to Chopin!), and the text was laced with long stream-of-consciousness diatribes that became ever more tedious. I found the characters unbelievable and pretentious. I kept hoping to find some saving point of sense, but it never appeared.
If you like Jonathan Lethem’s work (he praised this one highly), this might be the book for you. I imagine that if you love rock music, jazz, and blues, you will find special delights here. But if you, like me, prefer sympathetic characters and satisfying plot, logic, and emotional arcs, then you might want to pass on this one.