June's Literary Blog
 

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Saturday, April 28, 2018

2:33 pm edt          Comments

Last Seen Alive

In many instances, the end(ing) may justify the means. Not so with the awesomely conceived Last Seen Alive by Claire Douglas, the ending of which does not do justice to the most thrilling, captivating, suspense-filled page-turner I’ve read all year. Okay, in the past few years. To be blunt, the last page is a total injustice to the stunning 326 ones before it.

Granted, I read an advanced, uncorrected review copy. Granted, the plot line is so tight and full of twists and turns that – giving the experienced author the benefit of the doubt – she has written herself, as well as her characters, in a corner and had decided to take the easy way out. But, unless the last paragraph is a prelude to a sequel, there are no excuses.

Libby Hall, the main character, finally, after one of hardship and mysterious circumstances, is living the life she has always wanted. She is happily married; loves her job teaching in a local school; adores Ziggy, her and Jamie’s, her husband, shaggy Golden Retriever; and is joyfully pregnant. Until a fire breaks out in the school and, while rescuing a number of students, she falls, breaks her arm and, tragically, suffers a miscarriage.

She and Jamie reluctantly agree it’s time for a break from life’s stress and angst. And the opportunity unexpectedly presents itself in the form of a house-swap. Spending Easter week in Cornwall, in a luxurious beach home of a wealthy couple who wish to rent the Hall’s small two-bedroom basement flat in Bath. To be, ostensively, near the hospital where their daughter requires a delicate heart operation. The young couple jump at the chance… and jump headlong into the most bizarre and riveting set of circumstances that could ever grace the pages of an almost perfect emotionally-charged psychological thriller.

The author of two previous gripping page-turners [Local Girl Missing and The Sisters], Douglas is an ace at creating literary suspense. A genre that is difficult, at best, for even the most masterful of writers. Gillian Flynn [Gone Girl] and Ruth Ware [The Girl in Cabin 10] instantly come to mind. But with such great talent comes the greater responsibility of not only providing one’s readers with a uniquely imaginative and resourceful narrative, but of offering a lucid, tight-knit, and reasonably satisfying denouement and ending. Which, unfortunately, Douglas’ ending does not.

Needless to say, I was hooked with this novel right from the start on Thursday evening to when I finished it late Friday afternoon. Each page, each chapter revealed, like peeling a pungent onion, layer upon swirling layer of crisp, taut ever twisting well-placed tells and reveals. Written in the first person as well as the present tense [a relatively recent industry “standard”] the main protagonist’s story brilliantly unfolds...

The reader is hooked and then suddenly blindsided. Hooked again. And then whammed with yet another surprising plot twist. As I mentioned, I just couldn’t put the novel down. Not wanting it to end, yet impatient for the final resolution(s) which never came. Well, actually, it did. But it was a bit lame. Unless Douglas intends to follow up with Last Seen Alive, Part II [which, unfortunately, seems quite unlikely]. To be honest, I like closure in my novels; both in the ones I read as well as in those that I write. Not an open-ended “Huh?” finish that leaves me to write it not only for myself, but for the author.

Other than that, this novel is a stunner. And, despite my own disappointment, I heartily encourage you to look for it. It’s bound to be a best seller and, with any luck, great fodder for a captivating movie.

It’s rare that I read and then review a book well before its release. But… Last Seen Alive, first published in the United Kingdom last year, won’t be published in America until June 26th of this year. And, in my humble opinion, plenty of time for the author and the good editor(s) at HarperCollins to rewrite the finale. So that it is an ending that more adequately justifies the means.

Enjoy the read!

2:22 pm edt          Comments

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Home for Unwanted Girls

The French word Elodie [El-oh-dee] means “foreign riches”. It is also a quite hardy type of lily; a suitable name for one of the main protagonists in Joanna Goodman’s fourth novel, The Home for Unwanted Girls. For, you see, Elodie was taken from, Maggie, her 16-year-old mother at birth, and raised in the cruelest of conditions in a Quebec orphanage rebranded in the 1950s by the government as a “home for the mentally ill”. What young Elodie goes through – Nay, suffers – as her mother spends a lifetime frantically searching for her, proves her profound will to survive. Her own hardy mettle. Just like her apt name.

The child of a mixed marriage between an Englishman and a French woman, Maggie wants nothing more than to work in her father’s garden shop. She dreams of one day owning and running it herself as she counts and packages seeds in the attic. As she grows older, she is enamored of Gabriel, a French lad, whom her father decides is “not suitable” for his daughter. To avoid further contact, he ships her to her uncle’s house, where she is brutally raped. As the resultant baby is ripped from Maggie’s arms just minutes after birth she has only a moment to name her daughter “Elodie” before she is taken away. Sold by her father on the then thriving baby black market. Thus sparkling a life-long dissonance between herself and her once beloved parent.

Elodie, at age seven, too young to understand or know any other home, thrives in the orphanage until it is declared a mental asylum. She is transferred to another institution where she meets the unthwarted and unwarranted wrath of only monetary-minded nuns. Injustice and cruelty prevail until she meets another sister who kindly takes her under her wing… Awaiting the time when Elodie is grown; old enough to be cast out into the unknown outside world on her own.

Based upon real events and seething with exceptionally detailed and exhaustive research, Goodman’s complex political narrative, with several surprising plot twists and intertwining sub-plots, is a can’t-put-it-down page-turner that is guaranteed to keep readers awake at night. Waiting to see what happens next in Maggie’s multi-faceted life as she continues to seek Elodie’s whereabouts. Wanting to scream at the heartless nuns who run the orphanage turned asylum; who consider the young girl and her contemporaries nothing more than sub-humans. The children tolerated only because of government money given them each month for each incarcerated “patient” that fills their coffers.

Yes, folks. Just like our own current political times, the ancient adage has been, is, and will always be perennially true: Money is the root of all evil. And, perhaps, a basic strong theme of this revealing fictional recounting of the devastating damages that unbridled “love of the all-mighty dollar” can wreak. The subsequent evils spawn in Goodman’s literary telling branches out to encompass the very heart as well as edges of the lives of Maggie and Elodie.

Told in the third-person, alternating chapters and sections between Maggie and Elodie, The Home for Unwanted Girls is not only a ripping exposé of Canadian government greed and lack of political as well as personal compassion, but a study in misogynistic mentalities; revealing startling insensitivities toward female rights and respect. There is rape, incest, and the turning of deaf eyes and blind eyes. And, yet, Maggie and Elodie somehow survive. The branches begin to wither and die. True compassion and familial love eventually, finally win out.

To tell you anything more would border on spoiling this superbly written and well thought out novel for you. Except to say that the author is, indeed, a master craftswoman. One whose literary works should and must grace the library shelves of discerning bibliophiles.

Enjoy the read!

4:07 pm edt          Comments

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Flicker of Old Dreams

Have you ever felt like an outsider in your own home town? Alone. Apart. Disconnected. Even though you were born and raised there…  you are never really a part of the mainstream of its daily life. Simply because in many ways, you are different. Not like the others… A stranger in a familiar land… Longing to be somewhere else, doing something… different.

This is exactly how Mary Crampton, the main character in The Flicker of Old Dreams by Susan Henderson, feels, living with her father, the local mortician, in the small, desolate western town of Petroleum. Somewhere other there in the back boonies of Montana.

The forgotten town of Petroleum has hummed quietly along for years. Its 180 or so residents eke out a living from the mill that threshes wheat and corn grown on the surrounding farmland. The train comes daily to haul the grain away. Like clockwork. Like the steady beating of a heart… Drumming on and drumming on… Until there is a fatal accident in which young Eddie Golden falls into the mill tower and is smothered. The heart stops. The mill is forced to close. And like her father’s clients in the basement, the town dies.

Growing up amid broken rhythms and patterns of life in a dead, forgotten town, Mary is caught up in the futility of living. Not only does she feel desolate, she feels dead inside. Feeling alive only when working in the mortuary. Her closest companions, friends, the corpses of her once living neighbors.

I know this sounds a bit gruesome. It is. The novel, while superbly simply written – as stark and naked as the landscape in which it is set – contains disturbing graphics that will keep the faint of heart awake at night. But if you can stomach and look beyond them, there is a rich, rewarding story steeped in tragedy and laced with hope.

When Robert, Eddie’s younger brother comes home to take care of his ailing mother, Mary discovers in herself an unfamiliar feeling of energy and renewal. She begins to develop confidence; asserting herself to her father, backing away from his controlling influences on her life. Slowly unraveling the bounds that tie her to him until, with the bounds slowly breaking… Mary starts to set herself free…

This is not the type of novel that I would voluntarily pick out for myself. But since it came in a packet of books from my favorite publicist at HarperCollins, I felt compelled to read it. And while I cringed at the stark descriptions of what Mary’s job entailed, I was drawn into its pages, captivated by the writing. This is Henderson’s second novel and it is evident that she has honed her craft to a science. Her sparse, succinct style is similar to that of Ernest Hemingway or even Lisa Scottoline, whose modern-day mysteries I have come to immensely enjoy. And yes, the author does not disappoint, lacing her narrative with compelling moving passages that are rift with insightful erudite overtones that are the hallmarks of good, enlightening literature.

Enjoy the read!

2:26 pm edt          Comments

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Lilac Girls

It’s been a while. After three Nor’easter’s, two minor snow storms, a nasty sinus infection, struggling with writing yet another novel, and a recently devasting death in the family later… I still hadn’t whittled down my “Books-to-Be-Read-this-Month” stack. It wasn’t until this past holiday weekend when I finally said, “To hell with it all!” and picked out a novel at random, tuned out this world, and entered the saner literary one…

A world that, both unfortunately and unfortunately, turned out to be not so much sane, but more disturbingly bizarre with its stark realities than, and reflective of, the actual one I had left.

To paraphrase the character Sophia in The Golden Girls: Picture this. Nazi Germany. 1939.

In Lilac Girlsa compelling first novel by Martha Hall Kelly, Kasia, a teenager from Lublin, Poland, is rounded up, along with Helina, her mother, and Zuzanna, her sister, by German soldiers. Within minutes, they are imprisoned in the bowels of Lublin Castle. Three days later, the women find themselves being shipped by train to Furstenberg where they are incarcerated in Ravensbrück, the largest concentration camp for women in Germany. Kasia and her sister become part of a group known as “Rabbits”. One, because they are experimental lupin (French for rabbits) in a heinous plan devised by Hitler’s henchmen– Herring, Himmler, and Goebbels to find a “cure” for war injuries – and two, because after undergoing grotesquely cruel, inhuman operations, they could do nothing more than hop and hobble around the camp.

A little-known figure in history, Caroline Ferriday, a former Broadway actress and member of the elite New York City society, works as an attaché in the French embassy. As the author relates in the first person, Ferriday’s multi-faceted story is fascinating; steeped in the guts and glory of the war era coupled with the difficulties and uncertainties of finding -- and keeping – true love and friendship. Richly written and crafted in true documentary fictional style, Ferriday’s narration unfolds throughout the course of the war until her life entwines with that of Kasia and Zuzanna. And, eventually, comes to grips with Herta Oberheuser, the only woman physician actually allowed on Ravensbrück’s medical staff. And, truth be told, one of the most cruelly insensitive historic fictional characters I have met in a long time.

The author, as related in her endnotes, spent more then three years immersed in ferreting out and writing about details of Ferriday’s life and, now, because of this historical novel, her enduring legacy. Character descriptions, both imagined and real based upon letters, diaries, and archival records, as well as personal journeys to Poland, Paris, and German – not to mention Ferriday’s now historical home (“The Hay”) in Bethlehem, Connecticut – are more than true-to-life. They are real in the narration because Kelly has brought them back to life with considerable skill and consummate empathy. Which made reading about them not only enjoyable, but elucidating, enlightening, and, more importantly, in the face-paced, exciting – and quite satisfactory – denouement, uplifting.  

Perhaps Lilac Girls was the wrong novel choice to read when lone and forlorn (still am, a bit, I guess) from coping through the trials and tribulations of March. But Kelly, who has found her exceptionally gifted literally talent and voice, offers a powerful anecdote by relating, through fiction, not only the boundless bravery and fortitude of the Rabbits, but the kindness of Caroline Ferriday who through her hard work, generosity, and gentle compassion, helped them recover from what could have been devastatingly lasting effects of their own trials and tribulations.

Which proves just about anything in real-life, however disturbingly horrific – albeit couched in fiction – can be overcome. And that, as April finally bounds into Spring, is giving me and, hopefully, you, renewed hope.

Enjoy the read!

4:06 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:


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
Forty-Thirty 
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

Bethlehem

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,
and 
the Gateway Pharmacy in Phoenixvile, PA
.

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