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Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Alaskan Laundry
I spend most mornings listening to WHYY, our local PBS station. At nine o’clock, the BBC News Hour encapsulates all of the worldly news. At ten, during the two-hour Radio Times, Martie Moss-Cohen interviews mostly boring political commentators and local “authorities” on a range of obscure topics. Most often, I am spurred to shut off the radio and pursue more important, much more interesting things.

However, a few weeks ago, Martie interviewed Brendan Jones, a native Philadelphian who spent ten years writing his debut novel, The Alaskan Laundry. Always attuned to the literary pursuits of fellow local authors, I thoughtfully sipped my tea and munched on a toasted blueberry bagel with cream cheese as this fine author waxed eloquently about Tara Marconi, his feisty protagonist, and her coming-of-age, almost Odysseus-like journey through the pangs of growing up as she assiduously lived and worked in the Alaskan fishing industry. When he read the first part of Chapter 2 in his authoritative, yet caringly silky voice, I was hooked. This novel, I thought, as I later emailed a favorite publicist at Marina Books requesting a copy, is a must read and review.

Set in 1999, two life altering events, including being ousted from her childhood home by her stern father, compel young Tara to flee from south Philadelphia to Port Anna, Alaska, where she seeks healing and redemption. With a dare-me attitude, a talent for boxing, and absolutely no knowledge of how fish are plucked from the sea, processed, and packaged, she begins to learn how to fend for herself in what is, was almost totally a man’s world. When she literally falls in love with an old World War II tugboat, she sets her sights on earning enough money to finally buy it. And with that decision made, her adventures begin.

Jones originally began writing this seminal novel with a host of characters struggling for survival in the great Alaskan wilderness. Most of them were male. Tara, when the manuscript was bought by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, was almost an afterthought. But at the suggestion of a wise HMH editor, she became the main protagonist, surrounded by a host of equally true-to-life characters – ironically mostly male – that guide her through the honing and shaping of her life. Especially gnarly Newt, who takes her under his wing and, along with Kara, a Shepherd-Husky cross, and the older, father-figure, Betteryear, guides her through one of the most amazing and exciting literary journeys that I’ve read in a long time.

Jones titles his book after the analogy that many transplants to Alaskan seek cleansing from a past life. Dialogue and life experiences of a few of the characters reflect the continuous cycles of washing and rinsing. As if all who come to the 49th State with sins and soul stains, like Tara are in dire need of cleansing. The harsh, yet beautiful landscape and the struggle for survival in it are the great washing machine of life. An apt metaphor that would be otherwise mundanely, um, drained away in other then Jones’ capable hands.

However, while this is a wonderfully great read about a young woman’s coming of age, it is, in fact – let’s face it folks – written by a man who, while waxing poetically with a fluid literary writing style, can be heavy-handed. There is obviously too much testosterone in Tara’s blood, spilling out from the pages of this novel, often polluting passages that could have more moving if written with a softer, more feminine touch. After all, this is about a young, sensitive ingénue from south Philly. Despite her rough-and-rumble, don’t-touch-me-or-I’ll-hit-you demeanor, she could have been portrayed as a tad more gentle. Not, as Hale, one misogynist crabber says, and as she often comes across as, “a male with balls cut off”. It’s as if the author, drawing many of the scenes, events, and characters from his own life, tried to impart his own feminine side into Tara’s persona. A conceit that, in this instance, nearly fails to work.

In addition, Jones is also a bit too zealously graphic in his depictions of how fish are processed. This nearly turned me off to the read and I almost closed the book a third of the way through, nearly missing what would later become a real tear-jerking, soul-searching, satisfying denouement. Suffice it to say, being a closet quasi-PETA supporter, I will never eat salmon nor King Crab again.

That being said, Jones does have a lyrically poetic writing style. His metaphors, analogies, and allegories are spot on, transporting Tara through her many heroic Greek tragedies as she valiantly finds her own, unique way “home”. He finally shows his sensitive side in the last 100 pages of a very moving conclusion, which, I unabashedly admit, I sobbed through, feeling both a deep sense of loss and the thrill of achievement. I must tell you, it takes a brave, honest, and talented author with a great story such as this one to bring me, a self-proclaimed hard-hearted literary critic, such as I am, to tears. And that says more than just a lot about this mesmerizingly gripping novel.

The ending, by the way, definitely calls for a sequel. C’mon, Brendan, will the Pacific Chief ever float again?

In the meantime, 
The Alaskan Laundry is yet another “must” for your summer reading list. As well as being a fine, 5-start addition to your library. To be read again. And again. And again.

Wash. Scrub. Rinse. Repeat.

Note: If you enjoy reading this Blog and my comments on how books affect and sometimes alter our lives, it would be greatly appreciated if you could please support my efforts. I’d like to continue providing you with the best of what today’s literary world has to offer, but I can do so only if you click the text and/or the image links to navigate to amazon.com to purchase the books I recommend. Every one of your clicks and resulting transactions generates a few shekels that help me keep “June’s Literary Blog” up and running. Thank you!

8:23 pm edt          Comments

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Under a Dark Summer Sky
I normally try hard to keep track of the books publishers request to be reviewed on this blog. But lately, I confess, I’ve been a bit distracted with other literary pursuits and haven’t been all that assiduous. To wit, and to my chagrin, I discovered the other day a novel that had, quite literally, fallen through the cracks of my time. My sincere apologies to the talented author and the publisher. But I figure, since it is such a good read, this review is better late than never.

Based upon the true events of a massive hurricane that struck the Florida Keys in 1935, Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye is a tri-fold historical novel: a romance; a face-paced, thrilling mystery; and a frank, forceful commentary on the dismissive treatment of returning African-American World War I veterans.

Released last June by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc., this is a fascinating fictional rendition of southern life, ethics, and morés during the height of the Great Depression. The author deftly weaves together the tumultuous stories of true-to-life characters – all deeply affected, and changed, as the massive storm approaches on the afternoon of a Fourth of July celebration on the beach.

Missy has patiently waited eighteen years for Henry to return to Heron Key from the war, cleaning the Kincaid house and caring for Nathan, Nelson’s and Hilda’s new-born. He finally returns – desperate and destitute – a member of a government work crew assigned to rebuild a bridge. Once reconnected, the two of them try, once again, to rekindle their love…

Hilda, a former beauty queen whose protective father’s hopes and dreams for her were dashed when Nelson swept her off her feet, has not been able to drop the weight she gained when carrying Nathan. Her husband is repulsed by her looks, seeking comfort elsewhere. Fat as she is, she is determined to attend the festivities. Perhaps to win him back…

Dwayne, the local Deputy, harbors anger for the unknown father of his wife’s black baby. But he suddenly finds himself with a mystery to solve. And, in the process, old tensions and grievances flare up…

Trent Watts, with bald head and many tattoos, is frustrated by the inept and life-threatening decisions a absentee government official makes for his rag-tag crew…

And then there is the storm, gathering strength and almost omnipotent power, surging closer and closer to the small southern torn, threatening to destroy them all. The residents, having endured many storms before, think they are prepared for its onslaught. But they are wrong. Dead wrong.

Lafaye, a native Floridian now living in the UK, is an accomplished writer. In this, her debut novel, she couples her own experiences growing up in the deep South with a genuine concern for her characters and their plights. Straddling the fine line between fact and fiction, she writes with quick, efficient, descriptive, original – often metaphoric – phrases, that lend a poignant sense of urgency to her face-paced tale which will keep you up until the wee hours.

If you’re looking for a refreshing, yet haunting “It was a dark and stormy night…” to add to your summer reading list, Under a Dark Summer Sky is certainly the one novel to round out and satisfy your search.

2:43 pm edt          Comments

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Versions of Us
What if? We all ask this question at various nexus points in our lives. What if I do this? Instead of that? What will happen? What won’t? Sometimes our decisions are huge; life-altering. Sometimes they are trivial, soon forgotten. Large or small, all our choices have consequences.

When Eva Edelstein and Jim Taylor first meet in The Versions of Us, Laura Barnett’s debut novel, it is seemingly just a coincidence. In October 1958, they are both students at Cambridge. A rusty nail punctures her bicycle tire. Walking by, he offers to help; then offers to buy her a drink. She could say, “No,” and continue on to class. She could accept and spend the rest of the afternoon, perhaps her life, with him. “What if?” she asks herself. “What if?”

Reading this finely crafted, exquisitely worded novel, first published in the United Kingdom in 2015 – and just released in the USA today – is like watching a bevy of white swans swimming in the smooth waters of a crystal clear lake. The movement is effortless, fluid; barely rippling the surface. Yet the lake is wide and deep, like life itself; harboring challenges, great secrets; offering loving insights, often bittersweet commentaries about who we are and how the choices we make define us.

This talented author takes a uniquely refreshing approach to the choices her main protagonists make. She writes three futures for them; three different versions of their lives. In one in which Eva and Jim come together, marry, have children. In the second,they go their separate ways. In the third, they each marry someone else, then by chance meet again and decide they were meant to be together. Each version, a choice. A what if? Within each, multiple layers of meaning, different sets of decisions. Each with consequences, good and bad. Pleasure, delight. Sadness, ruing. Sometimes betrayal, misunderstandings. Triumphs. The daily detritus of life. All in the name of love.

At first, I found The Versions of Us a confusing read, not quite able to distinguish between the three different paths of Eva’s and Jim’s lives that sequentially alternate in three parts. I started what turned out to be an amazingly beautiful novel, um, three times, before creating a cheat sheet to help differentiate between them. Requiring my full attention in two sittings, it took a bit of work, but was well worth the effort. I quickly learned the pattern of their three lives in which, while indeed different, Eva and Jim are the constants; basically they stay the same as they weave in and out of each other’s lives. In many respects, they are fictionalized versions of us all.

Barnett has talents far beyond those of a “mere” debut author. Her vast experience working as a journalist and theatre critic in London serves her well as she brings a wealth of knowledge to her first literary endeavor. Her writing is compassionate, rich with subtle metaphors and compact, intertwining themes that delight, illuminate, and entertain. The Versions of Us is, by far, a cut above many debut novels of this reading season; a fine example of contemporary literature at its best.

3:01 pm edt          Comments

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June J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is an author, poet, and librettist. Her currently published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations, two volumes of poetry, stories for children (of all ages) and a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Miss Elmira's Secret Treasure: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
Colonial Theatre: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Roarin' 20s 
Phoenix Hose, Hook & Ladder: A Novel of Phoenixville during World War I
Columbia Hotel: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
the Schuylkill Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville during World War II
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members

Adventures of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Spinach Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A Collection of More Spiritual Poems

We Three Kings

Beauty and the Beast


Noah's Rainbow

Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding Hood



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 sixth novel.

June's novels can be purchased at amazon.com, through Barnes and Noble,
at the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area,
the Gateway Pharmacy in Phoenixvile, PA

For more information about her musicals, which are also available on amazon.com,