Historical Fiction: The Clever Mill Horse, by Jodi Lew-Smith

The Clever Mill Horse (CMH, #1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1700′s, most Americans relied upon linen for their everyday textile needs; cotton had to be imported and was costly enough to be considered a luxury fabric. By 1830, however, the invention of an efficient cotton gin and the emergence of Southern cotton plantations led to a reversal in that state of affairs. But what if an efficient flax gin had been invented first?

Jodi Lew-Smith has written a historical coming-of-age tale built around that question, set in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Ella Kenyon is an unusual young woman, one who feels more at home in the woods than the town. Her beloved grandfather, a blacksmith by trade, has helped her develop an unusual talent for engineering, and together they design a machine that can extract linen fibers from the plant. When her grandfather dies suddenly, Ella is determined to perfect and patent their flax gin. The Clever Mill Horse is the tale of her struggle to achieve that goal. On her long journey to Washington City, she must face countless obstacles, among them forest fires, horse thieves, accidents and illness, and unscrupulous lawyers. Before her journey ends, Ella will discover the truth about who she really is and why.

Ms. Lew-Smith fills her story with vibrant characters, vivid descriptions, and realistic dialog, She is skilled at evoking a sense of time and place. Does Ella achieve her mission? Yes and no. Now that so many things in her young life have changed, in what direction will she head?

This book, the first in a promised series, is suitable for adults and young adults alike.

Thriller: Dark Digital Sky, by Carac Allison

Dark Digital Sky (Dark Pantheon Series Book 1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author of Dark Digital Sky contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in reading and reviewing his soon-to-be released novel. Techno-thrillers are way out of my preferred genres, but I agreed to give this one a go, and I’m glad I did. The 21st century version of the brilliant but deeply flawed investigator has arrived in the persona of Chalk (Chaucer). He’s bipolar but doesn’t take his meds properly, mixing in a touch of alcoholism and much emotional baggage, which he has no idea – none whatsoever – how to handle. But he’s an accomplished hacker, and was recruited and trained by the FBI, although that career tanked quite early. But his new PI gig pays better, and he always delivers.

As the novel opens, Chalk has been hired by the Hollywood Hyena, on obscenely wealthy megalomaniac. The Hyena is dying and now wants to meet the offspring he sired via the sperm bank. Chalk locates and stalks three of them, all male, using up to the minute technological tools. Not one of sons is what you might call smart or pro-social, and each has been recruited by a sadistic terrorist. The reader enters this world along with Chalk, who certainly knows how to find his way around in there. Along the way, he encounters Bacchus, who seems to be a vicious serial killer who kidnaps young women. Among Bacchus’ personal foibles is the cannibalism which he inflicts upon unknowing others. This is a complex plot that moves along briskly, and you never know what might happen next. I know there is an vast audience of readers who would enjoy this book; I found the story line very intriguing, and Chalk is certainly an interesting kind of guy (Chalk would love Lisbeth Salandar), but it’s spattered with the sorts of violence that I don’t like to have floating around in my mind.

A promising start to what promises to become a popular series.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: For Adam’s Sake, by Allegra di Bonaventura

Adam Jackson, for whom this book was titled, was a black slave who spent his life working in 17th-early 18th century New London, CT. But Adam’s own story does not begin until the book’s second half. The title’s second part, A Family Saga, is a more apt description of what this book is all about, though the word saga suggests much more drama than can be found here. Allegra Di Bonaventura, a scholar with a legal background, wrote a doctoral dissertation based upon the 47 year long Diary of Joshua Hempstead, an almanac-like account of his daily life in 17th/18th century Connecticut. For more than 30 of those years,Hempstead was Adam’s owner.

As a scholarly study, For Adam’s Sake is outstanding. The research is impeccable, much of it painstakingly extracted and interpreted from New London County Court records. There is a wealth of detail about the families whose activities shaped town development during its first century, with detailed information about the Rogerenes, a religious sect that engendered sharp conflict in the region, the Winthrops, of the ruling class, the Jackson family, part free and part slave, and of course, the Hempsteads. It is the chronicle of the way these factions interacted that forms the focus of most of the narrative. When Adam steps onto the scene midway through, most of the evidence concerning his own experiences is conjectural, based largely upon some 50 or so terse diary entries. Throughout the book, the narrative voice is dispassionate, as befits a study of this sort. Readers in search of a “saga” will not find it here; although there are some rather dry sections, there are also many interesting stories to be found within its pages.

Nonfiction Review: Stones and Bones of New England, by Lisa Rogak

The subtitle of this book is “A Guide to Unusual, Historic, and Otherwise Notable Cemeteries”, but I’ve found it to be a series of one to two page vignettes about 95 cemeteries in the six New England states. The author has selected what she found to be the most interesting tombstone in each graveyard, adding one or two more if she found them remarkable. A photo accompanies each of the locations.

The back cover describes Stones and Bones as a guide that provides all the tools that you need to explore on your own. If you like to drop into old cemeteries and putter around a bit, I suppose that’s true. For those with a deeper interest in funeral and burial practices, gravestonimagee iconography, and epitaphs, there is little here to hold that interest. Included is some limited but useful information on almshouse burials, some brief description of the headstones of a few famous individuals, and dashes of humor. The photos, though black and white, are sharp and clear. It also identifies the oldest legible gravestone in CT (1644, Windsor.) My favorite chapter was the final one, entitled Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard, where retired ice cream flavors are commemorated with hokey epitaphs and images of winged ice cream cones apparently ready to fly to ice cream heaven. Who knew?!

Recommended for the most casual of cemetery visitors.

Modern Lit: Our Picnics in the Sun, by Morag Joss

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Our Picnics in the Sun is a quiet, deeply introspective book, one which, for the first half, creates the impression that it is little more than a slice of life tale. The focus is the life that Howard and Deborah Morgan have tried, quite unsuccessfully, to build for themselves by living in tune with nature in a tumbledown cottage on Exmoor, aptly called Stoneyridge.  Their son Adam, now grown, rejected his parents’ philosophies, and decamped as soon as possible for a job that could provide him with all that was missing from his childhood. A picture of this family’s strained relationship is related alternately by husband, wife, and son. Howard emerges as a virtual dictator with iron clad ideals, and Deborah as his often unwilling minion. They are as poor now as when they so hopefully set off on their life together so many years ago.

Then, while practicing yoga in the pig shed, Howard suffers a stroke. He survives, and Deborah is left to care for him alone. While this gives her somewhat more autonomy, the couple is more poverty stricken than ever, and she can’t possible manage the house, chickens and sheep along with her patient, who can speak only with halting difficulty. From this point forward, the novel turn from prosaic to masterful. The depiction of Deborah’s struggles as caretaker is brilliant, restrained yet so vivid that the reader can feel what she’s feeling. When Adam fails to return home for a long awaited birthday celebration, her anguish is palpable. This may be one of the most effective evocation of loneliness ever written. Rescue comes in the form of a visitor,  a young man by the name of Theo, whose neediness is immediately evident to Deborah and provides an outlet for her frustrated maternal urges.

As the second half unfolds, there is a growing sense of isolation and a vague sort of menace. The moors, upon which the eponymous picnics took place, are a splendid metaphor for the reality of the Morgans’ existence. Suspense builds, although there are no overt threats of any kind. But Deborah, encouraged by Theo, begins to question all the choices she has made. The memories that she recounts are striking, especially the one she most painfully regrets. Perhaps the novel’s conclusion shouldn’t be so startling, but I never saw it coming.

Its darker overtones notwithstanding, Our Picnics in the Sun is  lovely and memorable, lyrical in many places and dramatic. It will linger in my mind for a long time.

Ghost Story: Five Mile House, by Karen Novak

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I am Eleanor, and I, like this house, am haunted.” So opens Five Mile House. Former detective Leslie Stone is also a haunted woman, plagued by her memories of countless child abduction/murder cases and of  the perp she shot down in cold blood.  She also sees the ghost of the little girl that he killed. Hospitalized for months for a complete emotional breakdown, she finally returns home to a family which, at best, treats her with wariness. Her husband Greg has accepted a restoration job in the remote little town of Wellington, thinking that a brand new start will do them all  a world of good. But Wellington is a very strange place, and from the first few days, Leslie knows something’s amiss; she may not be police anymore, but her skills and instincts are as sharp as ever. In a matter of days, she discovers that a century ago, Eleanor Bly murdered her all of her children at the mansion, before leaping out the tower window. Gwen, the local woman married to Greg’s assistant, befriends Leslie, and tries to recruit her into her Wiccan lifestyle. The town’s only business is a concrete recycling plant, which is run by a coven that has kicked Gwen out. Worst of all, Leslie views a portrait of Eleanor and is horrified to realize that she looks exactly  like her. Is that why the Wellington’s hired her husband?

Five Mile House chronicles the inner turmoil of two women who have been broken by some pretty devastating circumstances. Parts of the narrative are delivered in Eleanor’s own voice, while Leslie’s is related in the third person. It is fascinating to watch how their two individual stories come to parallel each other, although that actualization doesn’t dawn  until midway through the book. Eleanor at one point comments that Leslie isn’t aware of her presence because she is distracted by her own ghosts and demons. But she hopes that Leslie will vanquish and lay to rest the evil that resides in the very timbers of Five Mile House. The final chapters are loaded with frenzied suspense as the fates of these two women resolve themselves. Not all hauntings are supernatural.

This is a fine debut novel that prompts me to pick up Ms. Novak’s subsequent books.

Books Within Books: The Nobodies Album, by Carolyn Parkhurst

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Years ago, Olivia Frost’s  daughter and husband died in an accident, and she struggled to bring up her son Milo alone. Now she’s a successful novelist, and Milo’s a world famous rock star. While on her way to deliver her latest manuscript to her New York agent, she’s stunned to see a Times Square headline proclaiming the news that Milo has been charged with murdering his girlfriend  at their home in San Francisco. Any mother would drop everything and fly to her child’s side, but in Olivia’s case, they’ve been estranged for the past four years. She goes anyway, hoping to find some way to help.

Olivia’s about-to-be-published novel is a unique, somewhat radical enterprise. Prompted by criticism that her books always have bleak outcomes, she decided to present the final chapter from each of her seven previous works, along with a newly composed revision that changes the ending and the  meaning of each novel.  The irony is that, having completed this new book, her son’s crisis forces Olivia to review her own past, and find ways to effect changes that will heal the breach with Milo and divert the course of her own life. Many of the chapters about mother and son are followed by one of the revised chapters, which relate metaphorically to Olivia’s current experience. For her, reality and fiction are intimately connected. There is also the mystery surrounding Milo’s guilt or innocence. Early evidence suggests that he is. Fortuitously, Ms. Parkhurst desists from turning her protagonist into a modern Miss Marple.

As with all good novels, The Nobodies Album  presents imperfect but compelling characters who struggle with the sorts of psychological upheavals and emotions that mark every life. What if parent and child are a bad fit? Is it possible to rectify mistakes?When the last page has been turned, the reader is left with much to ponder.