Comet’s Tale by Steven Wolf – Book Review

When Steven D. Wolf  is forcibly removed from his successful law practice, his partners cite secretiveness and erratic behavior as reasons they can’t trust his work performance. Wolf  has not trusted them with news of his deteriorating spinal condition and associated symptoms. After losing his job Wolf, sans wife and daughters, relocates to Arizona after being advised that the dry, warm climate will be better for his health. Once there, he isolates himself from his new neighbors and tries to manage his condition on his own. While crossing a supermarket parking lot, Wolf meets a greyhound advocate and fundraiser. Eventually, and reluctantly, he adopts Comet, a retired cinnamon colored greyhound. He doubts his ability to keep and care for her and he knows that his wife will not approve of this, the family’s third dog. However, as time passes, the two become inseparable.

Comet’s Tale was almost equal parts frustrating and enjoyable. Ostensibly this is Comet’s show – the heartwarming story of how a mistreated greyhound, having been brutally raced and abruptly abandoned, overcomes her own neglect and the limitations of her breed to transform the life of a disabled man. Comet is smart, and willing, to be trained as Wolf’s aid dog. Wolf trains Comet himself because no other animal trainer thinks it can be accomplished with a greyhound. The title of the book makes it clear that this is Comet’s story, but the lack of meaningful detail about Wolf  made it difficult to get at true sense of the impact Comet had. He allows that he is guarded, a do it yourself guy who keeps his feelings private. I couldn’t help thinking that these tendencies presented in the vague way he relayed information about his condition, the detrimental effect it had on his relationship with his wife and teenaged daughters, and his day-to-day functioning. Essentially, I had problems with the book’s structure. I was distracted by the lack of information throughout. Details I discovered at the end would have kept me engaged in the beginning, but as it stands I got the feeling that Wolf was trying to protect his life and its details. This seemed incongruous to writing a book, albeit one about your dog. It’s one thing to say that strangers loved Comet, that she could open doors and pull Wolf’s wheelchair, but without the context I later received, it was difficult to fully appreciate Comet’s unusual devotion.

In the last chapters of Comet’s Tale, Wolf finally elaborates on the problems with his spine, explaining the severity and the accompanying pain and depression. Knowing this in the beginning would have helped me to understand as I was reading. At the time it comes, it’s almost as a footnote to the story. The strongest parts of the book are when Wolf, ever the greyhound enthusiast, discusses the history of greyhounds and their evolution from the free-spirited companions and hunting dogs of kings to skittish racing dogs with problematic personality traits- ingrained habits as a result of their training. Greyhounds are not socialized to interact with children, dogs or other animals since they are always caged when not training or racing. Wolf is passionate about their history and it was a pleasure to learn more about this regal, yet long suffering breed. Animal lovers will love learning about Comet’s second chance at life, her sweet-natured antics, and stunning loyalty, but I needed a firmer commitment on the part of the author in sharing his story to make this an enlightening and compelling read.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth   Book Review

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Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth – Book Review

Jenn Ashworth’s Cold Light examines the uneasy friendships between teenaged girls living in Northern England – Chloe, Emma and Lola. Lola narrates the story from the present day, some ten years after Chloe and Chloe’s older boyfriend, Carl, are supposed to have drowned themselves in a tragic suicide pact on Valentine’s Day. Lola and Emma have been the arbiters of Chloe’s memory, with their frequent recollections of their friendship and Chloe’s relationship with Carl, to the media. Lola runs away at sixteen, transforming herself in Laura, leaving the life she used to lead behind. Only lately, and by chance, is she back in touch with Emma, with whom she has maintained a strange and fragile friendship over the last year. During groundbreaking on a Wendy house dedicated to Chloe, a body is found, and without its being identified, Lola knows that it’s the body of Daniel Wilson – a man with Down’s Syndrome who went missing the winter Chloe died. But what does Lola know about Wilson’s death and its connection to Chloe and Carl’s tragic deaths years earlier?

Cold Light places female friendships, peer pressure and bullying as its focus, and it is occasionally compelling but all too often it meanders along, over weighted with detail. The dynamics between the girls and the ways that they push each other are frightening. Chloe can be a charmer, but is equally good at bullying and manipulation. Laura is no less of a threat with her slavish devotion to Chloe. It motivates all her actions. She is determined to be number one in Chloe’s life, and that often limits her perspective and impairs her judgment. It also makes her telling of events somewhat unreliable. Emma is a new friend of Chloe’s, and she and Lola strike a tenuous balance as they constantly jockey to keep their footing with Chloe.

Ashworth successfully elucidates the girls’ lives – especially Lola’s. They are fraught with the tensions and allure of dangerous older men, the peril of a flasher – whose crimes are escalating- on the loose, and their own semi-abusive treatment of one another. Lola’s life is further complicated by the delusions of her elderly father, hostile relationship with her mother, and a harsh mixture of guilt and defiance concerning her own actions the year Chloe died. With the mystery of the newly uncovered body in the woods, all the pieces are carefully placed for a tense read as the true nature of Chloe’s death is revealed. However the pacing is off, and the meandering plot of the novel exceeds plausibility, and proves too problematic to overcome. The transitions between past and present are frequently abrupt and confusing when overlapping each other. As interesting as the girls’ stories could have been, the sprawling narrative and numerous plot lines diffused interest in the fates of all involved.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Out Of Twenty: Enid Shomer, Author of Twelve Rooms of the Nile, Answers Four Questions

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Out Of Twenty: Enid Shomer, Author of Twelve Rooms of the Nile, Answers Four Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Enid Shomer’s  Twelve Rooms of the Nile beautifully imagines what would have happened had Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale had met the summer that each traveled through Egypt up the Nile River.  Here is what Enid had to say about reading, writing, and “not violating the facts of history.”

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I always wanted to be a writer, wrote as a child, and began my writing career as a poet.  After college, I traveled, married and had two children.  Various part-time jobs later, I went to graduate school. This was before the proliferation of writing programs, before the inclusion of creative writing in the academy. The closest thing to writing available to me was a program in American Studies.  At least it gave me the opportunity to read and study great American authors from the 16th to the 20th century!

After graduate school, I taught as a lecturer and wrote poems.  I was working in isolation, but was perking along when a horrid setback occurred. A literary magazine accepted a bunch of poems, planning to feature me as an emerging poet along with the well-known John Ciardi.  Ecstatic, I told my family, friends, and colleagues.  I received the proofs, corrected, and returned them. Three weeks later, a letter arrived informing me that the co-editor who’d been traveling in Europe had returned, and didn’t like my work. The two co-editors argued, but couldn’t reach a consensus, so they had called in an arbiter, who sided against the work.  Instead of ten poems, they published none.

I am sorry to report that I quit writing for years, metaphorically curling into the fetal position and taking up a variety of freelance writing jobs and compensatory hobbies instead.  I tell this story here because I have met many people, including other successful writers, who have had similar experiences.  Given the number of MFA programs and greater professionalism of the field,  this would probably not happen so overtly today, but new writers of any age who lack peer support are highly susceptible to this sort of cavalier cruelty.

When I was 38, I began writing again.  By  happenstance I joined a writer’s group and it made all the difference for me to have the support and knowledge of other writers.  Over the next ten or twelve years I won three state of Florida and two NEA grants in poetry as well as half a dozen major book and magazine prizes. I was getting a lot of reinforcement!

After two or three books of poetry, I became interested in exploring character.  I began work on a book-length poem biography of an American woman aviator and also started writing my first book of short stories, Imaginary Men, which won the Iowa Fiction Prize and the LSU/Southern Review Prize, both given for the best first fiction collection by an American.  By the time the poem biography (Stars at Noon:  Poems from the Life of Jacqueline Cochran, 2001) was published, I had concluded that poetry is mostly about language and is, therefore, not the best vehicle for portraying character, especially as it evolves over time.  Prose, which is mostly about time, is much better suited to it.  I wrote a second book of stories (Tourist Season) that was published by Random House in 2007. It won the Gold Medal in Fiction from the Governor of Florida and was selected for Barnes & Nobles’s “Discover Great New Writers” series. I sold my first novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, at the same time based on one chapter, not realizing how much research it would require and how long it would take to write it.  (Actually, I ended up selling it twice, but that is a story for another time.)

I was determined to write a literary novel with real historical characters that would not violate the facts— of their lives, their times and of their personalities as I understood them after extensive research. This novel’s protagonists are Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert. I wanted to re-create them, not simply “use” them to add gravitas for my book. In my poem-biography, too, I had the same ethical concerns, not wishing to stand on my aviator’s shoulders, or present a revisionist view, but rather to give her a voice again. Though imagining Abraham Lincoln as a vampire doesn’t bother me because it is so fantastical, I don’t like it when authors introduce fictitious events like rape or incest to explain the behavior of a real  historical person.  Someone once said that it is important to protect the past from the enormous condescension of the present.  This, too, speaks to my task as a writer.

 I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

My writing process is pretty straightforward:  I try to write every day.  I love to live in the world of whatever I’m creating.  I read widely and with as little prejudice as I can manage for a long time every evening.  I frequently turn to poetry for inspiration and to up the octane of my prose. I keep quotations and photographs tacked to the walls of my office, taking comfort from the wisdom and perseverance of those who have gone before me, who have repeatedly squared off with a blank canvas or computer monitor.   Here is my latest addition:   the painter George Bellows said that Art “is the marshaling of all one’s faculties, including those we are unconscious of possessing.”  I also stand by Goethe’s pronouncement that “we have art in order not to die of the truth.” And I love E.L. Doctorow’s comparison of writing to driving in the dark with headlights on but not being able to see more than a few feet ahead.   Finally, I always remind myself (and my students, when I teach) of my own hard-won dictum: one doesn’t have to fully understand one’s work in order to write it.  This is key for me, since I’m not the sort of writer who can outline a book and then simply flesh it out.  My subject is always a mystery I am in the process of probing.

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

Everything I write changes me.  Also, I never know why, exactly, my subject matter calls out  to me, though sometimes the reasons become clearer when I am done. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile is a case in point. A while back, I read an essay by William Styron about his cruise down the Nile which included outrageous quotes from Gustave Flaubert’s Nile journal.  I read Flaubert’s journal as well as his Nile letters, and was hooked. Flaubert was both a great sensitive and the bad boy of 19th century French literature.  He loved language and prostitutes with equal dedication and vigor.

I’d written about half of my first chapter when I learned that another unhappy genius, Florence Nightingale, toured the Nile at the same moment and kept a journal. I became convinced that this was no coincidence, that she and Flaubert shared a profound connection despite their striking differences. Why were they both in a state of despair and why was Egypt the “cure” for that despair?

However, for me choosing the subject for a novel is not a rational calculation.  Instead, it feels as if the subject has chosen me.  I know that deep psychological resonances must account for the connection between myself and my material, but often I don’t know what they are. What was it that drew me to Nightingale and Flaubert with such force that I was willing to read hundreds of books and articles, travel to obscure spots, and spend six years writing and rewriting?  I can’t answer that, and I honestly believe that if I could, I wouldn’t have needed to write the book.

Only recently I recognized one of the triggers (which seems so obvious now!) between myself and this novel:  like my characters, I traveled for a year in the Middle East.  I was 21, and hoped the trip would clarify my life.  Other parallels will occur to me as time passes, but they are merely curiosities after the fact.  Knowing them wouldn’t have helped me write the book. When something grabs me, it’s a bit like falling in love. I can’t say why I’m in love; I just know that I am.

What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book that you ultimatley decided not to include?

I learned many surprising things about the Victorian period and my characters. For example, in the late Victorian Age, nearly one in four persons in Britain was a servant.  There were juicy bits, too. Richard Monckton Milnes, the first biographer of Keats and the man Nightingale refused to marry shortly before she decamped to Egypt, amassed the largest collection of pornography in England.  (It is now housed in the British Library).  He was also part of a group of prominent Victorian men who wrote pornography together as a hobby.  They composed it round-robin style, and published under pseudonyms, always attributing their books to pseudonymous publishers in exotic locales—Constantinople, Cairo or Aleppo in Syria. Nightingale would not, I venture, have approved.  I think she was right to refuse to marry Milnes. She would have been much better off with someone like Flaubert.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Mrs. Robinsons Disgrace: The Private Diary of A Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale   Trailer/Interviews

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Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer – Book Review

Enid Shomer’s Twelve Rooms of the Nile examines the private lives and thoughts of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert as they travel up the Nile River through Egypt in1850. The novel begins before either of them are famous for the great works of their lives (innovating nursing and Madame Bovary, respectively), and they are sorting through the turmoil of their experiences in order to find the selves with which they are most comfortable, and determining the best way to make their mark on the world. In Shomer’s richly detailed imaginings the two meet (even though they didn’t in real life), and though outwardly they are nothing alike, they discover common emotional ground, and  form a dynamic, addictive relationship which takes them by surprise. It remains to be seen whether their personalities and ambitions will allow for a relationship that can be sustained in the future.

Shomer has written and erudite and engaging work of historical fiction which serves to immerse readers in the psychological workings of two dynamic figures in history. Flaubert is haunted by the death of his sister in childbirth, troubled by the abrupt loss of an intimate friendship, and more stifled by an overbearing mother. While traveling  he ruminates upon situations which have brought him to his current state,  his failure to engage a larger audience with his writing, the contentious nature of his relationship with his travel companion, his sexual obsessions and conflicted views about relationships with women. Nightingale’s mind is no less uneasy as concerned as she is with the delicate state of her relationship with a family intent on rejecting her stunning ambition, curiosity, blunt manner of speaking and unladylike lack of restraint. Nightingale suffers deeply from depression, and often finds it crippling in combination with crafting a life that doesn’t include marriage – at the cost of heartbreak, the loss of a close personal friend, and evading the plans of her parents.

Shomer provides fascinating insight in the Nightingale and Flaubert, and is no less dazzling in her descriptions of the culture, food, clothing and traditions of the different people and guides the parties encounter on their sojourn on the Nile. Each of her sentences is imbued with intellectualism, history, philosophy, snappy repartee and fascinating historical tidbits. Shomer’s thorough research is stunning, and sometimes daunting even as she creates a plausible connection between Nightingale and Flaubert. My only complaint with this beautifully written and compelling debut  is the intensity of the narrative, which felt overwhelmingly packed at times. Recommended.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Red Rain by R.L. Stine   Book Review

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Red Rain by R.L. Stine – Book Review

Lea Sutter is a travel writer researching the rituals of the living and the dead on a small island off the coast of South Carolina. While Lea is exploring, a hurricane blows through town, devastating everyone’s lives. In the aftermath Lea finds a pair of orphaned twelve-year-old boys –  twins. In spite of the fact that everyone she knows cautions her against a hasty adoption, especially without knowing the boys’ background, Lea brings them home to Long Island to live with her, her husband, and two teenaged children. The family doesn’t have long to settle into their new lives and routines before a series of gruesome murders begin occurring. Lea’s husband Mark is the prime suspect, but are the twins as sweet and innocent as they appear?

Red Rain is R.L. Stine’s foray into writing for adults after spending many, many years scaring the bejeezus out of pre-teens, and some teenagers. With the exception of a few sexual situations and a bit of   extra attention to the lives of the adults, I’m not convinced that he has successfully made the move from YA fiction. To start, the plot is never finely developed, and at times is not even plausible. Lea leaves the state with two children who are not her own without finding out anything about them, and no one stops her. She just adds to new members to her family. Her husband Mark, the child psychologist, doesn’t approve, but he doesn’t protest very strongly either. The children inexplicably have British phrasing and accents even though they grew up on a South Carolinian island in the United States, and no one thinks anything about that either – besides thinking they are cute. Wouldn’t that make anyone more curious about their history? They also don’t seem to miss their parents very much, and are only intent on “ruling the school”. Lea’s children adjust extremely well to having new brothers. Nothing is much of a big deal for anyone.

Though Red Rain requires major suspension of disbelief, it was easy to read and piqued my curiosity enough that I read it until the end. I was trying to figure out what the deal was with the hell twins, and there was a twist there that I didn’t anticipate. I was grossed out a few times, but I wasn’t ever scared. With the exception of a few passages here and there I would recommend this for Stine’s regular audience, but it’s back to the drawing board for a compelling adult horror novel.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Peaches for Father Frances by Joanne Harris   Book Review

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Peaches for Father Frances by Joanne Harris – Book Review

Vianne Rocher is living in Paris with her daughters Anouk and Rosette, when the past reaches her in the form of a letter from a very dear, but very dead friend, asking her to check in on Lansquenet, the village where they once lived. In particular, Vianne is asked to determine whether Father Frances Reynaud, a former adversary, needs help for which he may be too proud to ask. Feeling restless, and trapped by the stifling heat of Paris in August, Vianne packs up her children for a short holiday in her former town. Though she arrives with no plans to stay, Vianne finds it increasingly difficult to detach herself from a much changed Lansquenet. Most disturbingly everyone seems enthralled by the “woman in black”, a shrouded figure of mysterious origins.

Peaches for Father Frances is Joann Harris’ third installment in a series of books following the irrepressible, and magical, free spirit Vianne Rocher. The first of these novels was Chocolat, which was made into a movie of the same name starring Julie Delpy and Johnny Depp. The title and cover of this latest novel suggests a whimsical and fanciful tale, and those elements are included in the beautiful depictions of the charming village, its quirky neighbors, and its mouthwatering descriptions of simply prepared meals, and chocolate – Vianne’s specialty.

This charming tableau draws the reader in, but Peaches for Father Frances is also a carefully constructed, thought-provoking novel exploring faith, the personal meaning and ways of worship, and the evolution of  fellowship and religion in a community struggling to endure tensions between Muslims and Christians. Lansquenet seems to become smaller as the formerly tiny Muslim population increases and seems to threaten the town’s citizens and traditions. Harris’s commitment to exploring the faith and perspectives of both sides through her fully vibrant characters and surprising plots make this a delightfully absorbing read. Vianne sets about working her magic with her neighborly chats and chocolate treats but it remains to be seen whether it is too little and much too late.

Peaches For Father Frances is the latest in the exploits of Vianne Rocher, but readers interested in the dynamics of faith in a small town will have no trouble reading this work as a standalone. Additionally, it piques enough interest in these characters that  other novels in the collection will be of interest as well.  Highly recommended.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Les Miserables   Movie Trailer

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