Marie’s Reading: “The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna” by Juliet Grames

5127Qabx6wL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Stella Fortuna is either the luckiest or unluckiest person in the world–she’s survived seven (or eight, depending how you count) near-death experiences.  Now nearly a century old, her last near-death experience in 1988 left her partially lobotomized and hating her younger sister, Tina.  Our narrator sets out to hear about the family history and try to uncover why this rift happened.

The tone is very chatty, very much the feeling of sitting at a kitchen table and hearing gossipy and dramatic family stories.  Our narrator is never identified by name, but she’s one of Stella’s granddaughters, and the whole book leaves you feeling that you’re being let in on family secrets, some of them very dark and sad.

The characters, Stella especially, are great.  Because of the family story aspect, there’s something almost mythical about them.  There’s a bit of distance, and all of their attributes, good and bad, are larger than life.  Grames sets this tone in her family tree included at the beginning of the book, with her little notes on who each character is (and thank goodness for that family tree!  It’s essential for keeping everyone straight).

Grames richly describes her settings, from Calabria’s mountain villages to immigrant neighborhoods in Connecticut.  There’s great texture to her storytelling, a wonderful sense of place.

This novel is also about the immigrant experience, an incredibly timely topic.  Speaking to us in the present, the narrator mentions how now there are immigrants desperate to get into Italy, instead of out of it.  The times and places change, but not the reasons for immigrating or the need for basic humanity and compassion.

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a compelling read with slightly larger than life characters, a fun tone and humor even in the darker parts, and a novel to really immerse yourself in.

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

snow childMabel and Jack are in their fifties, living on a homestead in Alaska in 1920.  Mabel is grieving a stillborn child, and she and her husband hope to make a new life for themselves.

One night, during an unaccustomed bout of fun, the couple build a child out of snow.  The next day, a mysterious little girl shows up on their homestead.  Mabel is convinced that the girl is the snow child come to life, to be a daughter for her.

The rest of The Snow Child follows Mabel and Jack throughout the years on their homestead, as their “snow child” Faina grows up.  They eventually learn the truth about her, but there still remains something otherworldly about the girl, even as she turns into a young woman.  Jack and Mabel also befriend the Bensons, another local homesteading family with three sons.  This is a very character-centered story, and very focused on the relationships between them.  Love is explored in all sorts of forms–romantic, parental, friendship, for the land and for home.  It’s very tender book.

Based on a Russian folktale (and this is made explicit in the novel), there’s a very strong element of the fairytale in the story.  The atmosphere is incredible, right from the get-go.  The Alaskan wilderness is vast and unforgiving, but not without its beauty.

The Snow Child  is a beautiful book, in its settings, characters, and exploration of grief, growth, and love.  If you liked The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro or Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, definitely give this one a look!

–Marie

 

Marie’s Reading: “The Sisters Brothers” by Patrick deWitt

sisters brothersEli and Charlie Sisters are known throughout the Oregon Territory as deadly killers.  They’re on a job for a man known as the Commodore.  The brothers are to hunt down and kill a gold prospector in California.  The story follows their mission, and the side adventures they have along the way.

The novel is narrated by Eli, who does not share his brother’s love of drinking and killing.  Eli does, however, really love his brother.  As the story goes on and he starts to grow a conscience about this particular mission, Eli begins to think that this life might not be for him anymore.  But how can he make a break and not lose his brother?

One of my favorite aspects of how deWitt tells this Western is in his characterization of the brothers, Eli in particular.  It’s when Eli’s character and story arc really clicks that the novel drew me in the most.  These two are hired guns, but there’s enough backstory to tell you  that Eli and Charlie came from pretty troubled circumstances.   There’s also a curious spareness, almost a flatness, to Eli’s narration–as the story went on, I began to read it as an unwillingness on his part to do too much self-examination.  You get the sense he doesn’t like what he’s become, doesn’t like his temper or his circumstances, but he doesn’t see a suitable way out.

Though it’s violent (sometimes intensely so), it’s also darkly funny, and the tone is never terribly intense.  There’s a wonderful sense of place, too–the West Coast in the early 1850’s comes through as an area full of danger, freedom, and promise.  The story is very fast-paced and compelling, and, as I said, Eli is a fascinating and complex narrator.

If you like Westerns with great characters, some moral quandaries, a nice setting, and plenty of shoot-outs, give this one a try!

–Marie

TBR Challenge Update #10

I took October off for reading scary stuff for Horror Month and re-reading The Shining and IT and The War of the Worlds.  But I did manage to pick a few off the TBR list here and there!

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland.  I really liked The Owl Killers, so I wanted to come back to this one–I remember beginning it almost ten years ago and then never getting beyond the first chapter.  This is a loose retelling of The Canterbury Tales, set against the backdrop of the Black Plague in 1348.  I really enjoyed it!  The characters, each with a secret, are very distinct and well-drawn, and the atmosphere is great.

The Thing About December by Donal Ryan.  I went through a contemporary Irish fiction phase a few years ago, and added this one to my list.  I enjoyed it very much!  Johnsey, lives in rural Ireland, and he inherits the family farm after his parents’ deaths.  He’s a man who doesn’t quite fit in, and this makes for a melancholy read–it’s lyrical, though, with passages of beautiful writing and imagery.

Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart.  Why the shift to third-person narration in this third book?  One of the things I enjoyed best about the first two was being inside Constance’s head.  I really missed that in this novel.  I also missed the mystery element. But the story itself was fun, and ripped from the mid-1910’s headlines, with young women getting hauled into court on charges of “waywardness.”  As ever, funny and fun, with a nice pace and great characters.

I’ve managed to cross a few more off my list by beginning them and realizing that I’m no longer interested.  I’m in a bit of a fiction slump, but I’ve got some good nonfiction going: In the Great Green Room, a biography of Margaret Wise Brown, and Friends Divided, a new book about the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

–Marie

 

Halloween Read: “This House is Haunted” by John Boyne

house is haunted

A lovely, old-style ghost story, with echoes of Dickens and James.  Perfect if you’re in the mood for a Halloween read with a classic feel.  It’s old-fashioned and creepy, relying on a sense of foreboding to up the scares.

Following the death of her father, Eliza Caine takes a governess position at Gaudlin Hall in Norfolk.  Right away, the strangeness begins–there are no adults anywhere at the Hall, and the children have run through several governesses.  Something is clearly very wrong.  The more Eliza learns about the history of the house and its family, the more dangerous the situation becomes.  Eliza must figure out how to stop whatever force is in the Hall before she and the children become victims.

This story is very rooted in its time and place (London and Norfolk in 1867), so you might enjoy it as an historical novel as well.  The atmosphere is rich, and it’s poignant and melancholy on top of being creepy–as the best ghost stories are.

Halloween Read: “The Monstrumologist” by Rick Yancey

The-Monstrumologist

Presented as a real document found and edited by Yancey, this is a gory and gruesome tale of monsters with a classic feel.

Will Henry is an assistant to a monstrumologist in 1880’s New England.  A group of anthropophagi is discovered in the cemetery near Will’s town of New Jerusalem.  So Dr. Warthrop leads the investigation into how the monsters came to be there, and how to best exterminate them.  Anthropophagi are headless creatures, with faces in their stomachs and brutal strength.  They eat people.

The New England setting adds a layer of cold, dark atmosphere.  The scenes in the churchyard are especially effective, as is the climax deep below the ground.  Will Henry’s complicated relationship with Dr. Warthrop adds a nice dimension to the tale.

Also: when I said gruesome, I meant it.  It’ll make you squirm it’s so gross.  The writing is vivid and the carnage is gory.  The graveyard.  The basement.  The flies.  The worms.  It’s intense, but so beautifully done, and none of it seems out of place.  It just adds to the Gothic horror.

“Enmity is not a natural phenomenon, Will Henry. Is the antelope the lion’s enemy? Does the moose or elk swear undying animosity for the wolf? We are but one thing to the Anthropophagi: meat. We are prey, not enemies.”

Nothing like a good monster story to remind you that human beings are part of a food chain, too.

If you like The Monstrumologist, there are more in the series!  Find out more here.

 

September Staff Picks

Wear-1

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth.  This apocalyptic novel is set nearly a thousand years ago.  It’s 1066 and the Normans have invaded England, and a Norman king sits on the throne.  A man named Buccmaster of Holland, an Anglo-Saxon, sees not only his village and family destroyed, but his entire way of life–his language, his gods, and his kings.  And he’s willing to fight for them.  Kingsnorth wrote this in what he calls a “shadow-tongue,” evocative of Old English.  It’s a compelling piece of historical fiction, based on the actual uprisings (and reprisals) that occurred after the Norman Conquest.
–Marie

Mrs. Roberto by Van Reid
This is the fourth book in Reid’s The Moosepath League series (the first is Cordelia Underwood, so begin with that one). The series transports the reader to a simpler and innocent time during the 1890s in Maine, telling the adventures of a trio of naive, bumbling gentleman who set up their own gentleman’s club (the Moosepath League) and make Tobias Walton their leader ( a person they have just met).
In this installment, the three comrades set out on a quest to save a woman who they think is in danger due to one of the gentlemen finding her card in his coat pocket.  They run across the rooftops, sleep out in the open with hobos and assist in putting out a fire while they attempt to find the elusive Mrs. Roberto.  Meanwhile, their leader and his valet are on a farm attempting to cure a melancholy pig.
–Mary

There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love by psychologist Kelsey Crowe and illustrator Emily McDowell
This little book is for everyone paralyzed by the prospect of saying something to someone suffering a serious loss—and that’s most of us, isn’t it?
–Diane

On Living by Kelly Egan
Hospice chaplain Kelly Egan’s On Living recounts visits with the dying and their loved ones, sharing tender encounters and even her mistakes.
–Diane

Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life is by Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter
Zitter, who practices both pulmonary/critical care and palliative care at UC San Francisco’s hospital. Her double-barreled approach to patient care equips Zitter to both do everything possible to save terminally ill patients and do everything possible to help terminally ill patients reject overly medicalized treatments for their illness. This is a tough book, but anyone who loved Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal will want to have a look at Extreme Measures.
–Diane

Glass Houses by Louise Penny
Louise Penny’s fans will find themselves once again in that charming Quebecois village of Three Pines, where this time Inspector Armand Gamache and his team must confront an evil that threatens the entire province. Penny’s still got it!
–Diane

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
Tells of two Catholic sisters from Ireland who settle in Boston in the 1940s and of the secret that drives them apart.  This is traditional storytelling done well.
–Diane