Saturday, January 31, 2015

'A Sudden Light'

For the past few weeks, I've set aside my Book Hog alter ego and taken up the annual guise of  'Queen-of-the-Flea-Killers'.  We've had a very mild Winter here in the Pacific Northwest, and when there's no snow, there's a ton of fleas. Although my Evil Plan Bureau is a strictly indoor clowder, fleas have been finding their way into our apartment; I think they latch onto our shoes and get a free ride into Catbloodland.  A dear friend suggested that I pour some salt onto our welcome mat and the inner threshold of our front door, and it's been working. Boraxo has been brushed into the carpet, and the cats (with the exception of Sonny; his claws draw blood just by looking at them) have been given a few baths.

So, there's that.  Work has also been taking up a lot of my time; curating a book section in a non-profit thrift shop is hard work.  And then there's our thrift shop's Ebay site.  *sigh*  I'm still astounded by the generosity of people.  That will never fade.

A week or so ago, while sorting books, I came across a library book.  It wasn't a 'discarded' book.  It was still in circulation, so, being the good little library patron that I am, I returned it to my local branch.  The librarian was very grateful, and I was happy to have performed a small civic duty.  So I treated myself.  I wandered through the shelves of new releases and came across a book I've been wanting to read.  

And it was good.  But not as good as the author's previous novel, 'The Art of Racing in the Rain'.  Every time I recommend that book to anyone, I always tell them to be sure to read the final chapter.  It's amazing.

Garth Stein, a writer living in Seattle, produced that wonderful novel a few years ago.  It impacted me in many ways; not only because I love animals, but because his writing truly inspires me to work on my own stories.  So, when I learned that he had published a new book, 'A Sudden Light', I had to grab it and read it.

I took my time.  I absorbed it.  I rejoiced in Stein's mastery of words and sentences, the way they led me into an adventure that was like no other.  I enjoyed his obvious adoration of our Pacific Northwest; the majesty of nature, the almost-pristine air, the history of it all.  

He's produced a fictional history that is too close to reality. His research is well displayed.

But it is his characters that impressed me the most.  So fully-drawn, so well exposed; their flaws, their secrets, their love and hate, their hidden agendas.

It's labeled a 'ghost story', but it's much more than that.  It's about family and the ties that bind us.  It's about respect for nature.  It's about never forgetting the promises that we make to each other.

In the Summer of 1990, fourteen-year-old Trevor Riddell and his father travel to Seattle's Puget Sound to help his father's sister, Serena, dispatch their ailing father to a nursing home, and sell the family mansion, and it's land, to developers.

But Trevor is a curious young man.  He explores the house's secret stairways and hidden rooms, and discovers a spirit lingering in Riddell House, a spirit at odds with the family's plan.  Only Trevor's willingness to face the dark past of his forefathers will reveal the key to his family's future.  As Trevor reads hidden letters and journals written decades ago, he learns more and more about his great-great grandfather's 'timber baron' past, and the promise he made to his beloved eldest son.

Trevor's parents are separated, and his mother, who has returned to her childhood home in England, doesn't believe her son when he tells her about his discoveries.  And his aunt, Serena, will not let up in her mission to sell the land. I felt great compassion for the plight of each character, despite the fact that some of them had ulterior motives (Stein has a talent for promoting empathy for even those characters who don't seem to deserve it).

This is a story that must be savored.  You'll be pulled into the darkness of the old house, yet find yourself breathing easier when the action moves outdoors.  The 'tree climbing' scenes will leave you almost breathless.

Most of all, you'll discover a brave young man who pays attention to everything around him and boldly challenges his family's dark history.  

Garth Stein's 'A Sudden Light' is available at your local library and favorite independent bookstore.  ISBN 978-1-4391-8703-6

Sunday, January 4, 2015

'Black Dog Summer'

A fairly large stack of advance reading copies was sitting next to my coffee table.  The pile grew smaller as I plowed through each and every book.  When I got near the bottom, I found a story that I really wish I had placed on top. Because it deserved to be on top.  It deserved my attention.

And it really received it.  A few days ago, I posted on my Facebook page the fact that I had been reading it in the bathtub, and *gasp!* dropped it in the water (I had a hard day at work, so I was really tired).  Not a few pages got wet.  Oh, no.  The whole book was soaked.  Because this story was so intriguing, I actually spent an enormous amount of time blow-drying each page.  Now, that's devotion.

Three books have really stayed in my mind over the years; 'The Lovely Bones', 'Little Bee', and 'The Mercy of Thin Air'.  I can now add another one:  'Black Dog Summer'.

Of course, a ghost in involved.  And, of course, she died in a most tragic way (when is death not tragic?).  

'Black Dog Summer', written by the talented Miranda Sherry, immediately demanded my attention in the best way possible:  Incredible writing.  

A farmstead massacre in the South African bush sets the stage for a story of stunning clarity.  Thirty-eight-year-old Sally, one of the victims, narrates this story from her spot in the afterlife as she observes Gigi, the daughter she left behind.  She also watches her sister, Adele, and Liam, her brother-in-law and unrequited love.  Included in her observation is her niece Bryony and nephew, Tyler.  As hard as she tries to make contact with her family, the only one who can see her is the neighbor, Lesedi, a reluctant witchdoctor who hides her mystical connection with the dead from her neighbors in their upscale, gated community.

Gigi has fallen into her grief, refusing to speak and interact with her new family.  Bryony is resentful of Gigi's intrusion.  Adele, who had pushed Sally out of her life, now regrets her actions, and tries to communicate with her niece.  And all the while, Sally is floating through their universe, worrying all the while and desperate to tell them of the darkness looming overhead.  

I can't do justice to this story via my review.  It's startling, and some chapters almost left me breathless as I learned more about the aftereffects of the massacre.  

Sherry has a powerful voice, and her stark, simple writing and the devotion to character development places this story on my list of cherished books.  It is one I'll go back to, again and again.  

Author Miranda Sherry
It's heartbreaking and mysterious.  Full of regrets, full of chances not taken.  Full of something that I can relate to:  The love of a mother for her daughter.  It hit me in the gut.

This poignant story makes me wonder if we all do survive our deaths.  Is the one who left me floating overhead, subtly telling me to read each and every book that is offered and to pay attention to the lessons they give us?

Nope.  All I hear is, "Stop reading them in the bath tub!"

'Black Dog Summer', by Miranda Sherry, will be published by Atria Books (a division of Simon & Schuster) on February 10, 2015.  You will be able to find it at your local library and favorite independent bookstore.  Book Hog thanks the publisher for this incredible story!