Book Review: Can You Keep a Secret?

Can You Keep a Secret?
by Sophie Kinsella

Well, can you? OK, here’s my confession: I read chick lit. Sure, it’s considered “fluffy” by some, unthinking, shallow, blah blah blah. I’ve heard it all and—wait, rewind! No, no, I’m not going to say I don’t read in this genre. The reality is that it’s not a secret!

Here’s what many people don’t really know about me (this is not a secret, either): finishing a great book is an accomplishment. I don’t carry on for days about it, or often bring it up, but once I close the back cover, there’s a positive sensation of completion as I think back about the world I’ve just inhabited for a while. I feel like I’ve achieved an understanding, perhaps a valuable observation that takes weight off my mind, rather than adds to everything else I have to carry in there.

As I finished Sophie Kinsella’s Can You Keep a Secret? I was still smiling, thinking about how funny we humans can be, and Kinsella’s skill at tapping into that. There’s the klutzy heroine with her ditzy moments, hunky male, challenging (read: mean) colleagues and sticky situations. But we also see Emma Corrigan’s humanity shine through as her embarrassment peaks, her explanations stumble and she goes home utterly humiliated. Also visible are her intelligence and justified resentment, the determined dignity she insists upon when others’ actions—intended or not—threaten to strip it from her. Within all that, we also see ourselves.

The novel opens to Emma’s daydreaming about her secrets during a Glasgow business meeting she’s flown from London to attend—attendance she’d achieved through a mixture of persuasion and dumb luck—and its grand and devastating conclusion as she inadvertently sprays a Panther Cola spinoff drink all over the client representative her marketing firm has just lost. On the way home her devastation is paired with abject terror as the plane encounters some clear-air turbulence, resulting in minor injuries to some passengers. Already not a fan of flying, she begins to spill all her secrets to an American sitting nearby, who later turns out to be the elusive CEO of the company she works for, Panther Corporation. As her two worlds begin to collide hilarity ensues, as does some serious reckoning.

About midway through the novel I realized Emma was telling her story in present tense, which I don’t have any hard and fast rule against, as do some; my surprise came from the length of time it took to recognize. About a month or two ago I read a work of historical fiction whose clunky present tense contributed to slowdown of an otherwise well-woven tale. Here, however, I found myself practically speeding through the pages as I could barely wait to find out what would happen next.

Kinsella’s main characters are well developed—with the exception of the handsome stranger and one of Emma’s flatmates, both for very distinctive reasons—and there’s a poignancy within that adds rather than takes away from the plot because the author’s management style knows not only when to restrain an angle or move it into another direction. She also captures nuance with some exclamation point usage that indicates Emma’s own self-awareness, and enough introspection that keeps her persona authentic.

Anyone who has ever experienced any of this author’s other novels will recognize a formula, but what is discussed above is only part of what makes it work—and Kinsella engages that magic repeatedly. She knows how to create charming characters whose actions are believable and relatable, never recycling phrases or mishaps, and brings us back to her themes with subtly and brilliantly woven scenarios.

Though the book is fourteen years old, the angles of aiming for honesty and genuine communication, along with a repeat evaluation of how often any of us fall into a mob-mentality of mean-spirited piling on remain timely— perhaps more so than ever. The author also presents them without lecturing and really gets it right with hilarious blow ups and serious letdowns alike. Her characters are likeable (well, except that horrible Jemima!) and it’s a fun, relaxing and rewarding yarn, and not just as a break in between serious reading. Kinsella scores again with Can You Keep a Secret? and when it comes to great tales, this is one readers should most definitely not keep close to the vest.

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Also recently read and recommend by Sophie Kinsella: My Not So Perfect Life

 

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Book Review: Cometh the Hour

Cometh the Hour (Tales of the Iclingas, Book I)
by Annie Whitehead

Cometh the Hour is the proud recipient of an indieBRAG Medallion, Chill with a Book Readers’ Award, Discovering Diamonds Award and was selected as a Discovering Diamonds Book of the Month 

As is the case with many others, it has arisen in my reading universe that certain writers command my attention, and their names on any book guarantee I will read it. This is the case with multiple award-winning author Annie Whitehead who, with her previous work including novels To Be a Queen and Alvar the Kingmaker, has established herself as a solid voice for Anglo-Saxon England.

As the first entry in a new series, Tales of the Iclingas, this third novel by necessity includes a somewhat extensive cast of characters with wide array of perspectives and motives. The author includes a dramatic personae and does an amazing job describing who from which of four kingdoms battles whom and for what, opening with a brutal attack and abduction that spreads the sway of tribal loyalties, setting off generations of internecine warfare and quest for freedom as defined by their respective leaders.

Having twice now read Cometh the Hour, it is next to impossible not to put to writing some musings on the historical and fictional characters Whitehead brings to life while transporting us to seventh-century Mercia and surrounding lands. Here we bear witness to the tangled lives and loyalties of the four kingdoms—Bernicia, Deira, Mercia and East Anglia—its rulers related in blood and marriage, as we follow them through the years of history leading to links within our own time, one in particular a very tangible tie creating sheer excitement upon recognition. The author doesn’t only tell us a fantastic tale we want to hear, but also includes us as part of it.

It perhaps would be more accurate to state that the characters describe all this via their own observations, passions positive and negative, and dialogue so masterfully composed one might believe these are historically documented utterances. While the novel is actually written in third person, its omnipotent narrator transcends mere recitation to unite reader and character in such a way that each almost has a stake in how the other fares, which in a sense, really is so, for Whitehead’s prose fully lives up to the standard she has crafted it to be. Poetic, it draws readers in as they witness characters making their own observations; we are with them as events unfold and hearts thunder at the tension that builds, compelling continued reading and signaling the care we have for what happens to the people in this world, in the immediate as well as long-term future.

At various moments we see Carinna take in scenes including Ænna the rejected younger child, assessments of wealth or reactions to perilous change, oftentimes wondering, as we move through this powerfully written account, what else any parts of them may additionally signal.

Following an instance in which young Ænna, attempting to emulate the warriors by striking a blow to Edwin’s leg with his wooden sword –

Edwin was clearly angry and although he stayed his sword, he lifted up his leg and gave Ænna the full force of his boot, felling the child who lay in the dust and snivelled.

 Carinna spoke quietly. “He was only trying to be like you.”

 “No wonder the youngling is so inept. His sot of a father will never teach him anything and I doubt he’ll ever make much of a man with all these strapping kinsmen around him. Best show him how to weave, since he’ll be more use in the sheds with the women.”

 [Carinna decided s]he would broach the matter later when he had calmed down and in the meantime she was sure that Ænna would forget all about it and would be back playing with the others again tomorrow as if it had never happened.”

 Not long after, Carinna witnesses the wrath of Queen Bertana as it develops:

“[Her] features had constricted into something more fearsome than an ordinary frown and her expression brought to Carinna’s mind the moment when liquid in a cauldron began to seethe with activity before erupting into a boil.”

 Character verbiage is as complex and intricate as that of any involved with the ins and outs of various factions’ plotting, yet the author’s management skills—as always—are so adept that we follow along easily; Whitehead has no need of dense language for the sake of elevation alone.

Subtly woven within the narrative and dialogue are absolute gems readers often detect that characters don’t, and the spark of recognition is great reward indeed. Whether by physical attribute or behavioral trait, for example, we on occasion are one step ahead of certain figures because we were previously acquainted with someone they just met, observed or heard bits and pieces about. Whitehead knows well how to use this and other techniques to generate tension and the aforementioned reluctance to put a book down as she tenders possibilities and creates the perfect riddle of circumstance. This in turn facilitates an electrifying suspense whereby we have at hand clues that inform as well as tease us, as we re-trace our reading pathways and link together previous knowledge with the question of what the future may or may not bring and events continue to usher in a thrilling sense of anticipation.

Like any others, these people also laugh and wonder and exhibit their own personal habits, and the author weaves this within and without narrated passages and dialogue alike, revealing a self-awareness the extent to which we are not always privy, but which awakens within us an understanding of how we are so like them, and that our habit of utilizing humor to blanket serious subjects is yet one in a long line of collective coping instincts.

While discussing an upcoming marriage with Penda, Derwena’s quip about relations—“I wondered if you and he are now kin? Your sister’s husband’s sister is his wife”—mirrors readers’ perceptions of how the family’s history contributes to their ties to friend and foe alike, from where the pathways begin and to where they lead. Penda later addresses this in part in his acerbic response to Derwena’s wearied statement, “I wonder where it will all end,” a return that has its roots in his family’s knotty relationships.

Cometh the Hour and two other novels by Annie Whitehead – highly recommended all. Click titles earlier in this entry for my review of each. Click image to learn more about the author and her works

In making our way through and to at least some of those answers, Whitehead stays true to her history, creating, for example, strong women without falling into the trap of engaging them in anachronistic behavior, as if they could only be “ahead of their time,” that strength, savvy and great intelligence could only come from later eras, and not their own. While a number of historical blanks have been filled in, the novel’s women characters are woven in as tightly as the men, their roles and actions so perfectly aligned with historical realities and fragmentary evidence that, again, one would be forgiven for initially believing that how the book reads is exactly how these figures’ lives played out—although it should be noted that, as Whitehead states in her notes, “There is documentary evidence for almost everything that happens in Cometh the Hour.”

Another skillful way the author has with words is within her presentation of the characters. As mentioned, there are quite a lot—given events in the series’ first, it seems likely there won’t be quite so many in subsequent installments—and Whitehead manages them so skillfully that from one appearance to the next, any given storyline to another, the transitions are nearly seamless. Part of this results from some characters appearing in multiple strands, which benefits the underlying episodes, lending them continuity rather than overcomplicating it all. Moreover, she maintains Penda’s position as the primary character while moving amongst people and perceptions, giving each a chance, so to speak, to present their case to readers. This method does require a more deft hand, to avoid the risk of an over convoluted tale, and Whitehead possesses this gift in spades. Her absolute brilliance in presentation and form keeps it even and simultaneously stunning: we tend to sympathize with Penda, but the remaining kings are not reduced to otherness, and we see clearly how events inform each other with a mixture of fate and free choice. The author wraps all this within a history we don’t realize we are being given, of the lands and their people and how geography plays a role in decisions and results.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Whitehead has released yet another novel of quality, imagination and readability, entwined with a gripping glimpse into our deep past, having patched it together from fragmentary pieces of history. And yet we marvel, perhaps because the events portrayed are so achingly long ago, its players seemingly so lost to us that to be gifted such an extended view to their lives seems as if an impossibility has been achieved. It will then please us to know the author is already hard at work on the sequel.

Cometh the Hour isn’t only for admirers of historical fiction, for within it also is told a tale or two of love—of several different sorts—the fortunes of societies and the motivations of man to demand the rights of work, family and freedom. Thought provoking in its humanity, this is a teller’s tale within which, we can hope, we see ourselves.

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A copy of Cometh the Hour was provided to the
blogger in order to facilitate an honest review. 

 

Book Review: The Captain’s Nephew

The Captain’s Nephew by Philip K. Allan

I was very keen to read Book I, The Captain’s Nephew, in Philip K. Allan’s The Alexander Clay Series. Since early childhood I’ve loved stories on or of the sea, though I’d gone adrift in recent years, and Allan wastes no time from the first page in getting me hooked all over again. His prologue, introducing an unnamed character, serves to mystify visually as well as present a sneak peek to wrap readers up in a narrative not to be cast off. His verbiage from the start maximizes utility while still presenting as fluid and gorgeous, with such realism that we can virtually see the scene as it occurs.

A blast of grapeshot flashed the surface with a fan of white. As the froth of bubbles disappeared, the individual balls fell like slow hailstones all around him.

 The churned surface of the sea was above his head, the ceiling of a lofty room that he stretched for but could not reach. The whole mass [of his uniform] dragged him down, down into the heavy, jade-green water. His movements became leaden as exhaustion slowed him. He was becoming caught like a fly in hardening amber.

As nations move toward a new era, late eighteenth-century naval battles still dominate the world in which Lieutenant Alexander Clay lives and works. Eager to prove himself on his own merit, rather than via the established form of patronage, he is frustrated to find his achievements consistently credited to the nephew of his commanding officer, Captain Percy Follett. As subtle misattribution transforms into deliberate, unmistakable blockage, however, Lieutenant Clay begins to recognize that nepotism may be the least of his problems.

A Sloop of War, second in The Alexander Clay Series, is available now. Click image for more details on both books.

As Clay’s difficulties multiply, he also experiences some pleasant moments in a riveting and smooth chronicle that reminds readers why Britain’s navy made their nation the superpower of the era. A mixture of bold and cunning, daring and courageous, they examine situations and options, take their roles aboard ship seriously and do their duty with aplomb and austerity, occasionally opening to each other about their lives on land. To this end Allan provides bits of backstory for other characters beside the most prominent, a tactic I found to increase the engagement between account and audience, affecting identification of these people as individuals rather than merely a cast of characters whose names blur into each other as the tale progresses. Not all are followed up on, which is appropriate, though the lot of one in particular, whose characterization develops to a slightly more middling level, is left incomplete, which signals another rarity: a draw for the novel’s sequel that does not exasperate readers for its unfinished business. Allan has indeed charted his course wisely in this manner.

I also simply delighted in the naval terminology the author incorporates into his narrative—even wishing for more. Though the protocol for form of address by proxy to the ship’s captain varies slightly from how I understood it to follow, it was nevertheless a thrill to read such shipboard etiquette observed. This would include referring to junior officers as “Mr. So and So” or permissions to board or disembark and so on. It brings readers that much closer to the culture of the nautical without drowning them in jargon.

Indeed, even landlubbers will find something to adore in The Captain’s Nephew—a seafaring adventure that does a fantastic job portraying society of the time, clearly maps out paths to the battles engaged and scenes set off the coast of western Europe and the Caribbean as well as the adventures that carry them from one to the next. Dangerous conditions, mysterious circumstances, ruthless pirates, overcoming obstacles to romance—and all while navigating the personal and professional politics within which Clay must operate, told by a storyteller well-versed in his craft, it is a tale to re-visit time and again as we eagerly await the next.

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For more about author Philip K. Allan and his work, follow him at Twitter, Facebook or his website and blog. You’ll be glad you did!

Book III: On the Lee Shore

Clay returns home from the Caribbean to recover from his wounds, but is soon called on by the Admiralty to take command of a troubled ship. The Titan has mutinied under its previous sadistic captain. Stationed amongst the reefs and rocks of the Brittany coast to watch over the French naval base at Brest, he finds the dangers of this notorious lee shore and its French defenders are the least of his worries. Corrupt officers, determined mutineers and rebellious Irishman all combine to insure that the main threat that he must face comes from within the wooden walls of his ship.

Available May 2018

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A copy of The Captain’s Nephew was provided to the
blogger in order to facilitate an honest review. 

 

Blog Tour Book Review: The Immigrant

The Immigrant: One from My Four Legged Stool
by Alfred Woollacott III

About the book:

A historical saga that covers a winter of 1650-1651 journey of John Law, a young Scotsman captured by the English Lord Cromwell’s forces in seventeenth-century Scotland during the Battle of Dunbar. He survives a death march to Durham, England and is eventually sent to Massachusetts Bay Colony as an indentured servant, arriving aboard the ship Unity that was carrying around 150 prisoners of war from different Scottish clans. Now an outcast, and in the sanctuary of the new colony, John starts over as an immigrant in a Puritan theocracy. He is first indentured to the Saugus Iron Works and then to Concord as a public shepherd in West Concord (now Acton). The young man faces obstacles often beyond his control, and his only ally is his faith. After his indenture is served he struggles a near lifetime to obtain title to his promised land. From start to finish The Immigrant is an intoxicating journey that follows the travails of John, his faith in God, his good wife and growing family.

Paperback: 416 pages
Publication Date: January 1, 2015

My Review and Examination:

“We all have unique four legged stools, each leg an outshoot from our grandparents who contributed to our being.”

So begins author Alfred Woollacott III’s introductory remarks to The Immigrant, historical fiction detailing the life of John Law, an unwilling Scottish immigrant—from the stool leg representing the author’s maternal grandmother—whose time co-incides with such historical figures as Mary Rowlandson of the famous captivity narrative and Metacom of King Philip’s War, though his own life is “too insignificant for the historian’s lens.”

Woollacott’s musings on how we are shaped includes consideration of our forebears, the histories they endured and repetitions that occur through time, pulsing along with biological bonds and ancestral recall, a sort of collective memory inhabiting each of us that we receive and pass down, along with our own additions. This is illustrated in The Immigrant’s opening scenes, wherein Reuben Law’s inner essence carries readers from the American Revolution’s opening salvos at Lexington and Concord (1775) back in time to the Battle of Dunbar (1650), part of the third in a series of English civil wars. Doon Hill is where we meet up with Reuben’s—and the author’s—ancestor, John Law, who is captured, sold into indentured servitude and sent off to the colonies.

From the beginning Law harbors negative attitudes toward the English, as they demonstrate much the same, though he aims high for his future while simultaneously mourning the loss of his mother—who probably thinks he has been killed in battle—and any way to communicate with her.

Central to the larger story, however, is a parcel of land he acquires and names “New Scotland,” and which through time he fights for as key within a gift he is building for his future, that being the time ahead within his own life as well as long after. A sense of place runs through the novel, not only as pertains to New Scotland, but also within Law’s focus forward and the land’s role as conduit in his relationships with those yet to come. On one occasion he stands atop a hill on a peninsula near Charlestown and contemplates a foreboding.

“[The hill] sent chills though John’s back muscles to the nape of his neck. The hill wasn’t a windswept brae, it was nothing like Doon Hill, yet, for some reason, it was. He stepped toward it and saw the future. He sensed soldiers storming the hill, and fear-filled men atop the hill, hiding behind breastworks. John was afraid, and an incomprehensible eeriness captivated him. Perhaps his soul knew a descendant, Reuben Law, years later would be behind the breastworks, atop of what would then be known as Bunker Hill.”

It is a bit of a twist for the sense of history when past figures contemplate those not yet born—not merely for what these figures hope to gift descendants, but also what they might experience and the kinship of emotion that reverberates through time. Periodically Woollacott’s narrative reminds readers of the running memory known to the soul, though not necessarily the individual, solidifying a contemplation of the links between generations infused with an essence that survives death.

On its face, however, The Immigrant is John Law’s story, told mainly through his point of view, though jaunts into others’ perspectives occur as well. We travel through his days and years as he works for independence, marries, has children and the family rise and fall together. Though the book could do with a more vigorous edit, Woollacott quite finely guides us through individual days or longer periods, deftly gifting us experience of the time, with finer details of what it was like to live in an era many of us cover only briefly in our lessons as we pass through a series of disputes, battles and wars between colonists and Natives. Historical figures make appearances, as do those whose lives we know nothing of but for authors such as Woollacott, whose painstaking research maps out for us a greater structure and narrative to better understand what it is we may be remembering in our biological bonds.

The archetypal captivity narrative, Mary Rowlandson’s Sovereignty and Goodness of God details her nearly three-month captivity during King Philip’s War and is often considered to be the first American “bestseller.” John Law may have been familiar with the book, published as it was during his lifetime (1682).

One thing I liked the very best about Woollacott’s style is his ability to tell a simple story that can easily be read as such, while also containing these and other layers and threads of historical reality, contemplation and an almost paranormal tincture that can be explored as little or much as readers wish. He also has a way with foreshadowing that sends little prickles down one’s neck, a response that indicates how much we really are invested not only in the past, but also our past.

Centuries from now, most of us, having occupied the same rungs of society’s ladder John Law did in his own time, will be remembered on various levels, the challenge being the question of which. Woollacott references a quote from British poet and historian Thomas B. Macaulay:

“People who take no pride in the noble achievements of remote ancestors will never achieve anything worthy to be remembered with pride by remote descendants.”

A fascinating glimpse into the history of one family, a colony, region and seventeenth-century society, The Immigrant details the differences through time between its Scottish and English settlers with emphasis on how they see their lives, themselves and each other, not how we do, bringing voice to those who too often do not have one.

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About the Author:

Alfred Woollacott III retired after a career spanning 34 years, choosing to reside full time at his summer residence on Martha’s Vineyard. Being “45 minutes from America” and with a 50—60 hour per week void to fill, he began dabbling into his family history. His dabbling grew into an obsession, and he published several genealogical summaries of his ancestors. But certain ones absorbed him such that he could not leave them. So he researched their lives and times further while evolving his writing skills from “just the facts ma’am” to a fascinating narrative style. Thus with imagination anchored in fact and tempered with plausibility, a remote ancestor can achieve a robust life as envisioned by a writer with a few drops of his ancestor’s blood in his veins.

When not writing, Al serves on several boards and keeps physically active with golf, tennis, and hockey. He and his wife of 44 years, Jill, have four children and ten grandchildren.

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To learn more about Woollacott and his work, please visit his website, and see him also at AmazonFacebook and Twitter.

Tour Schedule: Blog Stops

April 16th

Book Review – Locks, Hooks and Book

April 17th

Book Review– before the second sleep

Book Excerpt – A Bookaholic Swede

April 18th

Guest Post – A Literary Vacation

 Special Spotlight at Layered Pages

The author provided a copy of The Immigrant 
in order to facilitate an honest review

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It has been a pleasure to co-ordinate with Novel Expressions Blog Tours

and I look forward to more great reading and recommendations!

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This blog entry has been updated to reflect a
correction within the list of blog stop dates. 

Blog Tour Book Review: Daughters of the Night Sky

Daughters of the Night Sky by Aimie K. Runyan

About the book:

A novel—inspired by the most celebrated regiment in the Red Army—about a woman’s sacrifice, courage, and love in a time of war.

Russia, 1941. Katya Ivanova is a young pilot in a far-flung military academy in the Ural Mountains. From childhood, she’s dreamed of taking to the skies to escape her bleak mountain life. With the Nazis on the march across Europe, she is called on to use her wings to serve her country in its darkest hour. Not even the entreaties of her new husband—a sensitive artist who fears for her safety—can dissuade her from doing her part as a proud daughter of Russia.

Marina Raskova, first woman navigator in the Soviet Air Force and female instructor at the Zhukovskii Air Academy, later founder of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, via Wikimedia Commons

After years of arduous training, Katya is assigned to the 588th Night Bomber Regiment—one of the only Soviet air units comprised entirely of women. The Germans quickly learn to fear nocturnal raids by the daring fliers they call “Night Witches.” But the brutal campaign will exact a bitter toll on Katya and her sisters-in-arms. When the smoke of war clears, nothing will ever be the same—and one of Russia’s most decorated military heroines will face the most agonizing choice of all.

Paperback, 316 pages
Published January 1, 2018 by Lake Union Publishing

My Review:

Upon being asked to read and review Aimie K. Runyan’s Daughters of the Night Sky, I headed over to check out the blurb, catching sight of her cover on the way. Having spent a number of school years reading anything I possibly could—historical or fiction—on World War II, it was easy to deduce the novel was set in this era. Excited about this, I was further pleasantly surprised to learn the book not only takes place in Russia, but also amongst an all-female pilot regiment. I’d read quite a lot about Russian women, including during the war, though rarely (if ever?) military women, and certainly not pilots. So it was I proceeded, intrigued, not in spite of, but owing to my inexperience with the main character Katya’s professional background.

What amazes me most about Runyan’s tale perhaps comes after, in her author’s note admission that she is neither a pilot nor expert on Russia, and her understanding and interest of the war is of a casual nature. Knowing that my own knowledge – far from expert, but still fairly wide – took years of reading, study and absorption to achieve, I completed the book thoroughly impressed by the amount of research she had to have done for the framework alone.

More surely must have come out of the author’s study from a sociological angle, specifically how the people who lived at the time, especially given this era follows the horrific purges of the 1930s, relate to one another. Some behavioral patterns would resonate nearly universally while others are more unique to their own communist society: riddled with mistrust, it was nevertheless ostensibly based on economic goals rather than the more militaristic ones of the Nazis, who taught race hatred while Stalin et al. outwardly preached progressivism.

Yevdokia Davidovna Bershanskaia, leader of the 588th, in which Katya utilizes one of the regiment’s famous and eerily silent Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes. Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

Runyan subtly but impeccably portrays these interactions between Russians from all walks of life, from Katya’s relationships with her misogynistic grade-school teacher and military commander to female colleagues learning their trade whilst simultaneously acclimating to the cultures, perceptions and unknown political ideologies of the rest of their female company. Her dialogue carries a heavy burden, given its necessary role of probing into the psyches of various characters as well as portraying its findings to readers. The author combines this with a deeper probing of Soviet society, the secrets characters choose to reveal to one another embedded within portraits of prose rather than mere descriptions, providing for readers a further reflection of the weight of words.

If this all sounds rather intense, it was. Yet Runyan manages her narrative with a deft hand, producing a highly readable tale with lots of the lighter moments that tend to punctuate life, even during war time. As Katya’s romance develops we are treated to wonderful descriptions of her suitor’s art, her own violin recitals and the depth of their value to her. This is very much in keeping with Russian tradition of performance, visual and other arts, and not all that unusual given post-war recollections of Western front soldiers writing poetry in foxholes or storing future novels’ first chapters in their uniform pockets.

As we learn more about the “Night Witches” and their bombing of German targets, Runyan continues to maintain her balance with realistic portrayal of Russian anger at the savaging of their nation and observations of Germans as sentient beings with hardships of their own. The deprivations Katya and others experience—whether in flight school or after, in the field and as wounded—is authentic and unpretentious, and we learn a great deal about ordinary systems as we emerge into precarious situations that test the mettle and sheer capabilities, loves and loyalties, and love of country of every person we encounter.

Though Daughters of the Night Sky might more accurately be categorized as historical romance, it is not difficult to see why it isn’t, for this would rob characters and the historical pilots of their accomplishments, even if their loyalties don’t align with ours. The history of Russian women during the Soviet period is fascinating, and readers commencing or continuing with Katya’s story, which brings so much more to bear than a romance, even if it is of a lifelong sort, are gifted an up-close account as it really may have occurred within the ranks of women trying to effect change as they fight a society at war with those beliefs and an enemy determined to destroy both.

Difficult to set down, Daughters of the Night Sky is a keeper, a treasure, a story that will inspire many to educate and challenge their own abilities, look back at others whose lives informed theirs, and revisit the people and histories that shaped who we are today.

About the Author:

Aimie K. Runyan writes to celebrate history’s unsung heroines. She is the author of two previous historical novels: Promised to the Crown and Duty to the Crown, and hard at work on novel #4. She is active as an educator and a speaker in the writing community and beyond. She lives in Colorado with her wonderful husband and two (usually) adorable children. To learn more about Aimie and her work, please visit her website, and see her also at Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Tour Schedule: Blog Stops

March 12th  

Book Review – 2 Kids and Tired Books

Book Review – MY NOVELSQUE LIFE

March 13th

Guest Post – Let Them Read Books

Book Review – Locks, Hooks and Books

March 14th

Book Spotlight – The Writing Desk

Book Review – The Maiden’s Court

March 15th

Book Excerpt –  A Bookaholic Swede

March 16th

Interview –  Just One More Chapter

Book Excerpt – A Literary Vacation

Book Review – before the second sleep

The author provided a copy of Daughters of the Night Sky in order to facilitate an honest review

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It has been a pleasure to co-ordinate with Novel Expressions Blog Tours

and I look forward to more great reading and recommendations!

Book Review: Forty Years in a Day

Forty Years in a Day
by Mona Rodriguez and Dianne Vigorito

History is a fascinating mirror and perhaps none within more so than the people who lived through it. Adding to the layers of intrigue are oral traditions passed down within families that lend new angles of perception and understanding to previous events, not least of them being the awareness that these are one’s own people.

I’ve been fortunate recently to have made the acquaintance of several books written about authors’ relatives and ancestors, amongst them Forty Years in a Day, a family story told to one woman by her immigrant father on his 90th birthday. Having journeyed to Ellis Island, scene of so many immigrant beginnings on our shores, the pair pass through the interior of a building that “exploded with thousands of personal stories of hardship and hope.” Clare sees her father’s face in those lining the walls, these images reflecting the “disquietude of an era.”

She understands already that the comfortable life she lives now is in debt to those who came before, including her father, Vincenzo. His childhood journey from an Italian village to New York’s Hell’s Kitchen was marked with a near-death experience and instances of degradation his mother, Victoria, tried to pass off as ordinary in the hope he would forget. Whether Vincenzo recalls those earliest instances or retrieves them from his mother’s diary is not articulated, but authors Rodriguez and Vigorito lay out an understanding for Clare to absorb that is much larger than any of it, suggesting that even had Vincenzo remembered, he is beyond it. As father and daughter sit outside the island’s museum, silently taking in the crisp autumn afternoon, Clare remarks on the beauty of the day.

“My father simply replied, ‘Clare, every day you’re alive is a beautiful day.’

Throughout his life, the phrase ‘it’s a beautiful day’ had become his mantra. I had always thought of it as cordial chitchat used to fill the uncomfortable gaps of silence in conversations, but only now did I comprehend the depth of his penetrating words.”

As they sit on the bench, Vincenzo Montenaro tells his daughter Clare the story of his life and his family, more precisely that of his mother, forced to leave an abusive husband and board a ship alone with several small children. The language is straightforward and accessible, but never simple, and the authors clearly work well together, possessing a talent for relating details that elapse over a long and arduous period of time, without overburdening the reader. We get a clear sense of how awful is the journey and its inherent pains, terrors, humiliations, discomforts, even cruelties.

“Hell’s Kitchen and Sebastapol,” by Jacob Riis, c. 1890, shortly before our story begins, via Wikimedia Commons

This, in fact, is the style of the entire novel—many years encapsulated in much the same way the elder Montenaro would have done when taking only a single afternoon to describe forty years of his life. It is part of the authors’ craft that one never really knows for sure whether each individual segment is shortened by necessity or because suggestion is more powerful than a full-on witnessed account. Indeed, certain details are too wrenching to lay openly on the table, so to speak, and in fact would not do them justice. Some things, as is oft repeated, are best left to the imagination.

Vincenzo takes Clare—and us—through his mother’s story, her journey with the children to America and the years in which her life is essentially on hold because she mistakenly believes the husband she fled lives on. As time moves forward, Victoria, and her family as well as society, experiences growth and the awkward, inspirational and even ordinary moments informing and directing decisions pertaining to children, careers, dating, friendships, recreational activities, marriage, crises, illness and death, war, struggle, failures and triumph, and looking toward the future while remembering dreams of the past.

Somehow the myth pertaining to this era’s more “innocent” time has managed to stay afloat in our own society,  though Rodriguez and Vigorito attempt no such fluff. Life at this time was difficult, even nightmarish for some, though there were opportunities as well. New York City in the first half of the twentieth century was no playground: Irish mafia wars rivaled disease and poverty and though many emerged intact, very few escaped at least some contact with all three.

But, like life in any era, there existed also the magnificence of the ordinary, perhaps what Vincenzo, even in childhood, reveled in the most as he passionately embraced his appreciation for life:

Victoria knew the smell of the fresh baked bread and sauce simmering on the stove were ones the children looked forward to six days to Sunday. The minute she and [sister-in-law] Genevieve left the kitchen to ready themselves for church, Vincenzo would rip a loaf of the warm bread into pieces, dunk them into the sauce, and dole them out to his cousins and siblings. By the time Victoria returned, washcloth in hand, one of the loaves would have inconspicuously disappeared. Smiling to herself, she would casually wipe away the residue of red that rimmed their lips, pretending she was unaware of their weekly ritual.

Mission House, Hell’s Kitchen, c. 1915 Bain News Service, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps one of the novel’s greatest strengths is the manner in which it balances understanding of one realism within history: from the beginning human beings have always loved to be told stories, and it is no accident that our own histories resonate so deeply within us. The series of stories told throughout the book, as Vincenzo and his siblings—and the enlarging cast of characters—journey though teen years and young adulthood, as they enter into middle age, these stories satisfy a need to know about life for others and at other times, told by two with the eye and instinct of keen storytellers who know exactly when to divulge, when to pause and hold onto secrets and twists. They also embody the mirror image of those who love to be told a tale by fully displaying the seeming human satisfaction in telling one. Effortlessly weaving through time and connections within the characters’ own era, neighborhood and circles, they also touch our own.

So much happens in this novel, really a memoir of sorts–beginning in first person and shifting away as Vincenzo picks up–but readers are moved forward, perhaps a reflection of Vincenzo’s own perspective and the manner in which he habitually looks forward, rarely dwelling on past events. Here, too, the authors, who are in fact cousins telling their own family’s story, bring us to witness exactly how much the patriarch values the future and those who will occupy it. Like Clare who learns so much that afternoon, readers will be “exhausted and inspired from the journey[,]” and wouldn’t have it any other way.

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This review previously appeared at Before the Second Sleep’s former location.

A copy of Forty Years in a Day was provided in order to facilitate an honest review.

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R.I.P., Dianne Vigorito. Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us. 

Book Review: Daring to Drive

Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening
by Manal al-Sharif

Perhaps no other prohibition or decree forced upon women has been as discussed, analyzed, examined or reviled by the entire world as the ban on female driving in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Ostensibly, the regulation exists to protect women, or at least this is what they are frequently told. However, navigating the demands of daily life can be challenging to say the least, when denied the freedom of mobility and, when considering other strictures enforced in women’s lives or extant in Saudi society—dearth of public transport, proscription on being in the company of unrelated males, lack of willing/able family drivers or funding for an official one—seemingly impossible.

Such was the circumstance for Manal al-Sharif, who previously had worked her way out of the slums of Mecca to become a computer scientist for Saudi Aramco, dodging and climbing over, around, under and through each of the many obstacles appearing before her as she made her way through a degree program and, later, job offer that entailed her shift to a city in the Eastern Province (EP) where she didn’t even know anyone. In Daring to Drive she lays out the elements of plotting strategies, mapping out her daily routines in meticulous manner most of us could never imagine, just to make her way through movement of the day.

Saudi women summoned in defiance of the ban are charged with “driving while female,” possibly experiencing further isolation in that Saudia is the only country where such a ban exists. Consider al-Sharif’s surprise when she learns the restriction is not even based in any actual law—upon conducting her own research she finds nothing in either statutes or Koran to support it. It is rooted only in tradition.

Al-Sharif opens her memoir with a rundown of the latter portion of her encounter with police at her house the night she is ticketed for driving while female. From there she takes us to her childhood home amongst assorted relatives and neighborhood personalities with a chronic tendency toward being mean to each other. I lost count of the beatings she received from her family members, though recall with painful clarity the one following an injury her sister suffers that involved horseplay, a broom and the roof of her mouth. Al-Sharif tells this and other stories with a matter-of-factness that stings a little, not because child abuse or even lower-level corporal punishment doesn’t exist in our own country, and not just for its frequency in hers. I thought I isolated at one point that it was because the voice she presented is so accepting of it, unquestioning, even as the adult Manal telling the story. I found it disturbing, while at the same time privileged to be invited so deeply into the family psyche and all its attendant baggage and vulnerabilities. One must maintain a balance, sitting up straight and listening respectfully without falling too far into whoa, sh**.

As her years move forward we do see the child Manal’s thinking process grow from a talent for sneaking what we would call average childhood pleasures into her existence to outrageous acts borne of religious fervor to determination to claim the education her mother had plotted her entire life to steer her toward. Her experience and innate savvy enables her to navigate her way through the challenges of accepting a position in the EP on the other side of the country, which entails her arriving on her first day of work knowing she had no idea where she would sleep that night.

Soon after this I began to realize another voice had emerged, moreover that al-Sharif’s reflection of her own growing maturity and widening of her field of vision—in the landscape of her persona—is evident in her own meta-awareness. Her always-fluid prose ripples with it and at last I realized that her style itself is one of evolution, not merely the story within it. The connection it embodies is so powerful, even amongst experiences many in her audience don’t share, not only owing to common humanity and empathic structure, but also a bond that leaps to life within us as she celebrates even small victories. Particularly for Westerners currently witnessing the throes of a feminism that marginalizes dissenting women and hypocritically ignores abuse of women in other countries, it conveys a true victory, an actual achievement of honest liberalism that only the most imprisoned might reject.

Al-Sharif also surprised me in another manner. As I read, I sometimes lamented what I thought was the barrage of negativity coming from events depicted in her story. I tend to be wary of books that either whitewash oppressive societies or portray them as if there is not a redeeming characteristic to be found. I didn’t have a stake in whether Saudia lived up to the stereotypes attached to it or not—though my Middle Eastern reading tends mostly to focus on Iran, I thought this might be a great opportunity to branch out a bit, and was concerned with disappointment via monotony or agenda. Here she tells us bitter truths that act to veil much of what we later discover to be the seedlings of her subsequent strength. Actually, this characteristic exhibits itself early on; we just don’t recognize it, and at times it doesn’t recognize itself as it transitions through a society severely affected by radicalization and women contributing to their own oppression. Amidst all these we also see the joy of her drawing; a sister, who like sisters anywhere, sneaks off to see a boy; a beloved Barbie doll; her parents’ efforts to shield their children from discrimination; trips to Egypt and—that universal uniter—fabulous feasts.

It is to al-Sharif’s credit as a writer when I say my realization of further technique within her prose approached me silently, like the new day dawning, within which a watcher might be scrupulously keeping track, though unable to determine when or where the first ray hits. Such is her theme of awakening, reflected in the memoir’s title, the tale of her growing awareness itself, and the manner in which her words open up, blooming with the nourishment of the light, after which readers realize the seeds of activism sprung up, and those who leap to her support as her role flowers to life.

Women find their own agency when, like men, they are free to do and to fail. Yes, of course, some failures entail tragedies not easily brushed aside, but most of the time they consist of lessons learned, small steps in a process of flowering the spirit that cannot occur without balance in a life of growth that takes us up to the sun, but also importantly, particularly in a harsh desert land, oftentimes with the rain. This, too, brings its own nourishment in those failures, and it is fitting that al-Sharif’s own mother, who successfully fought so hard for her children to escape poverty and achieve a full education, spoke of rain and small steps: “The rain begins with a single drop.”

The agency is there; one must sometimes first find the balance of nourishment to achieve it.

Daring to Drive is a fairly fast read, though not to be confused with rapidly-consumed books of lesser integrity. Within these pages al-Sharif packs much more than her own tale; it is almost as if she tells the story of mankind coming into itself as we awaken to a new world of possibility and fresh opportunity to go faster than we had been—literally and figuratively—knowing some of the obstacles others before had faced. As readers turn the pages, the world outside their peripheral vision falls away, dinners burn, the evening tiptoes quietly by, the metro stops closest to work are forgotten. Though al-Sharif refers to herself as an “accidental activist,” if this is the kind of work she produces, it would be to our benefit if she keeps at it on purpose.

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At this writing it has been announced that Saudi women will,

by royal order, be entitled to drive by June 24, 2018.

Blog Tour Book Review: Two Journeys Home

 Two Journeys Home: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe
(Book II in The Derrynane Saga)
by Kevin O’Connell

About the Book:

It’s 1767. As the eagerly anticipated sequel to Beyond Derrynane begins, Eileen O’Connell avails herself of a fortuitous opportunity to travel back to Ireland. In Two Journeys Home, the O’Connells encounter old faces and new—and their lives change forever.

Her vivacious personality matched only by her arresting physical presence, Eileen returns to Derrynane this time not as a teenaged widow but as one of the most recognised figures at the Habsburg court. Before returning to Vienna she experiences a whirlwind romance, leading to a tumult of betrayal and conflict with the O’Connell clan.

Abigail lives not in the shadow of her sister but instead becomes the principal lady-in-waiting to Empress Maria Theresa.

Hugh O’Connell leaves behind waning adolescence and a fleeting attraction to the youngest archduchess when he begins a military career in the Irish Brigade under Louis XV. But more royal entanglement awaits him in France…

Author Kevin O’Connell again deftly weaves threads of historical fact and fancy to create a colourful tapestry affording unique insights into the courts of eighteenth-century Catholic Europe and Protestant Ascendancy–ruled Ireland. Watch as the saga continues to unfold amongst the O’Connells, their friends and enemies, at home and abroad.

Editorial Reviews:

O’Connell is a fantastic storyteller. His prose is so rich and beautiful it is a joy to read. The story is compelling and the characters memorable – all the more so because they are based on real people. . . I am Irish but I did not know about this piece of Irish history. It is fascinating but historical fiction at the same time . . . Highly recommended for historical fiction lovers!

(c) Beth Nolan, Beth’s Book Nook

I enjoyed the first part of the Saga awhile back . . . (and) couldn’t wait to continue the story of Eileen and her family . . . this author really does have a way with words. The world and the characters are so vivid . . . Overall, I was hooked from page one. I honestly think that (Two Journeys Home) was better than (Beyond Derrynane) – which is rare. The characters and world-building was done in such a beautiful manner . . . I can’t wait for the next one . . .

(c) Carole Rae, Carole’s Sunday Review, Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell

Two Journeys Home: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe . . . is a gripping story that will transport the reader back in time, a story with a strong setting and compelling characters . . . a sensational romance, betrayal, family drama and intrigue . . . The plot is so complex that I find it hard to offer a summary in a few lines, but it is intriguing and it holds many surprises . . .  great writing. Kevin O’Connell’s prose is crisp and highly descriptive. I was delighted (by) . . . how he builds the setting, offering . . . powerful images of places, exploring cultural traits and unveiling the political climate of the time . . . The conflict is (as well-developed as the characters) and it is a powerful ingredient that moves the plot forward . . . an absorbing and intelligently-crafted historical novel . . . .

(c) Divine Zapa for Readers’ Favourite

My Review:

Starting a series with a sequel can be tricky business, though many authors routinely employ the technique of briefly filling in, whether via a quickie paragraph to bring readers up to speed, or a few details scattered here and there. In most instances this works out and all is well. Kevin O’Connell in Two Journeys Home takes it all a bit further by embedding details within the lead character’s reflections, as well as third-person narrative, and it does more than merely work. Because the information is so well paced, the author is able to choose carefully where he places it, and the natural feel within the acquisition of details of Eileen O’Connell’s life in The Derrynane Saga’s first installment, Beyond Derrynane, makes her story so much more readable and enticing.

Two Journeys Home tells Eileen’s story in between the two titular voyages, once upon arriving home to Ireland following several years spent at the Austrian court of Empress Maria Theresa, the second after her return there following a marriage attempt forbidden by her family in the interest of protecting the illegal import business that created their wealth. Readers follow her relationship with her young charge Antoine, the empress’s last daughter, future fill in for a role in perpetuating alliances via marriage. The author explores Eileen’s memories and rapport with the girl, so close that she privately addresses her Irish caretaker as Mama.

O’Connell’s prose really is quite vivid and sensory, with lavish and lovely descriptions painting images not only of breathtaking scenery, but also, if it could be said, of interaction between characters and how they experience various moments within their journeys through life. Their inner landscape is given due attention and it is not rare to feel almost a sense of delight in response to some passages, owing to a sensation of being able to both practically hear the individual’s lines as well as relate to the perspective from which they utter them. Too, we are introduced to other connections, including some of Eileen’s relations in the Irish regiments of the Austrian and French armies, who contribute to the story as a richly related family drama in addition to fantastic and revealing historical fiction. One difficulty I did have with O’Connell’s prose is his overuse of rather long and somewhat arduous insertions requiring frequent re-reads that take away from the passages’ fluidity. Fortunately, after about the novel’s first third, these ease up and we can once more immerse ourselves in a fascinating journey through rarely-glimpsed perspective, that of an Irish experience in Catholic Europe as well as a senior servant within the Hapsburg dominion.

Though the greatest part of outright conflict appears in the book’s first half, and the second doesn’t necessarily address the “mélange of political, relational and religious upheaval” Eileen faces, as referenced in the book’s own blurb, there is real allure with the cast of characters, how they relate to one another and the contexts within which they are placed. Moreover, a tension does indeed build as Antoine’s marriage looms and a growing sense of unease develops as readers begin to detect a familiarity with this tale and how Eileen, despite her final assessment of her own, “smaller” life back in Ireland as preferable to Antoine’s luxurious future role, has no way to know how it all will play out. It is as if we are impotent in the face of future danger and maligning forces; we witness it through the veil of time and the players we see cannot hear our warnings as each goes off to their futures and final destinations and we can only watch.

Two Journeys Home concludes before going into the greater part of that future, with Eileen’s connections to her past still very intact, and a sequel approached without previous knowledge of the story becomes one we are drawn to follow to the saga’s very end.

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A copy of Two Journeys Home was provided to the reviewer in order to facilitate an honest review

See below for links to more great reviews, guest blogs and spotlights on Two Journeys Home

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About the Author:

Kevin O’Connell is a native of New York City and the descendant of a young officer of what had—from 1690 to 1792—been the Irish Brigade of the French Army, believed to have arrived in French Canada following the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette in October of 1793. He holds both Irish and American citizenship.

An international business attorney, Mr. O’Connell is an alumnus of Providence College and Georgetown University Law Center.

A lifelong personal and scholarly interest in the history of eighteenth-century Ireland, as well as that of his extended family, led O’Connell to create his first book, Beyond Derrynane, which will, together with Two Journeys Home and the two books to follow, comprise The Derrynane Saga.

The father of five children and grandfather of ten, he and his wife, Laurette, live with their golden retriever, Katie, near Annapolis, Maryland.

Find the author at his website, Facebook or Amazon profile pages, and buy the book here!

Tour Schedule: Blog Stops (February 19th – 23rd)

February 19th

Spotlight  Layered Pages

February 20th

Guest Post –The Writing Desk

Guest Post – Blood Mother Blog

February 21th

Book Review – A Bookaholic Swede

Book Excerpt – Kate Braithwaite

Guest Post – A Literary Vacation

February 22nd

Interview & Review – Flashlight Commentary

Book Excerpt – Just One More Chapter

Book Review –Impressions In Ink

February 23rd

Book Review – Lock, Hooks and Books

Book Review – before the second sleep

March 5th –Tour Recap

Novel Expressions Blog Tours Website

Book Review: Knight Assassin

Knight Assassin: The Second Book of Talon
by James Boschert

Upon initially encountering James Boschert’s titular character in the first installment of his Talon series, we find a likeable Frankish boy abducted from his Levantine home to Persia, where he remains for five years as his captors assimilate him to their ways. The nature of memories and experience, mixture of perspectives and existence amongst unremitting danger is yet one portion of Talon’s story as he learns in the most honest way he can to cope with all he endures.

Assassins of Alamut leaves off with Talon being separated from the woman he loves as she is forced back into peril, and Knight Assassin picks up shortly after this as we witness Talon, en route to his ancestral homeland, still raw with the emotion of losing her and trying to stay on even terms with the Templars who took him into custody. At his father’s newly-inherited (via his wife) fortress in France he finds a family happy to see him, though bewildered about who he may have grown into and wary of threats against the family and their newly-acquired legacy.

This reviewer fairly flew through Knight Assassin. Having already bonded with Talon helped, naturally, but it is also true that Boschert’s plotlines are innovative and intriguing, and his ability to draw readers into scenes is magnificent. With authentic characters we journey through scenarios depicted in genuine fashion, such as Talon’s entire approach to his previous captors: they are enemies of his people, but he truthfully speaks of what he saw in their culture to admire.

For those attached to the Middle Ages, every page feeds the hunger as well as whets the appetite for more. There are feasts and feuds, love interests and family loyalties, clerical abuses of law and authority —elements one might expect, with much more added to Boschert’s creations. The author makes it more personal without an over focus to endanger the tale’s relatability. His dialogue gives us clearer portraits of those who populate his stories, and there is a satisfaction to the manner in which Talon lays down his plans and then carries out each mission. He holds enough back to keep us in suspense, divulging just the right amount to skip the minutiae while pumping up anticipation from the details we are privy to. We find ourselves Talon’s champion, even in moments of fearful doubt, breathing immense sighs of relief when he is in the clear.

That, however, doesn’t always happen, and Boschert knows exactly when to go in which direction. He also knows just who to add, and where they need to go, in Knight Assassin’s case, a group of Welsh archers, or a girl from a Catharic background, one not widely known or understood today. It stirs the sense of hunger, providing tantalizing details for further exploration of this saga that proves itself the very reason why humans crave stories. Fluid and addictive, meandering like a river through various locales, we wonder where the author might next take us in the series’ number three—and it can be assured we shall be journeying there.

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For reviews of two more James Boschert reading treasures, click the titles below:

Force 12 in German Bight

When the Jungle is Silent

The author provided a copy of Knight Assassin in order to facilitate an honest review. 

Keep your eyes peeled for my cover crush of this fantastic novel

 

 

Book Review: Future Confronted

Future Confronted by Louise Rule

An indieBRAG Medallion recipient

It has on many occasions through time been spoken of: the unnaturalness of outliving one’s own child. Unfortunately, many people have had to endure this terrible order of events and each has their own way to grieve. It takes great fortitude to re-count events, for in so doing, one re-lives them and their affiliate pains, not only in the telling but also the reverberating ache that strikes the heart long after the listener has gone away.

In summoning the courage to tell her story—her son’s story—Louise Rule has gifted upon us a piece of herself, of her strength and love for people and life that teaches us without lecturing, enables us in our quest to see the world and its inhabitants as the precious creatures they are.

Rule’s son Rob was just 20 when he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and less than two months later he was no more. Just like that, one might think, right before the swoosh of horror that passes through the consciousness coming to grips with the understanding that most people take much more time than that to absorb the very reality of such an illness. Just like that.

That sort of swiftness is related to the flash of time Rule writes of in her poem, “Just a Moment,” that serves to introduce Rob’s memoir. She references that first awakening of each day before full consciousness, wherewithal, has set in—preceding the full knowledge, for her, of the reality that is.

This Moment lulls me into trusting

Everything is fine. The Moment

Passes, reality remains

I remember…

It is fitting that Rule opens the book with two memories: one of herself as a child staring up through an apple tree to the sky above, leading closer to the present as it transitions to an ash tree and a downpour, as if the heavens themselves are weeping at the loss to the world, whose tree we are under. Symbolic of healing, a state Rule pursues though cautioning on the difference between this and the impossibility of “getting over it,” the tree has now embraced Rob’s remains, his ashes, holding him in a way his mother no longer can.

Like life, even a life punctuated with occasional negative events, this memoir has its bright moments, most often shared with loved ones. Rule recounts these, too, proceeding by first talking about life after Rob’s death—fitting, given the sometimes-overwhelming task of continuing to live not just after her child has died, but also following a harrowing ten-week period in which speed and unplanned become key notions of existence, when even the compensation of adrenalin threatens shutdown and yet somehow keep going is the order of the day, and then, suddenly, without warning—stop. The adjustment is harrowing and can be debilitating.

Reflected in the title, this circumstance can lead to the breakdown of an entire family, and Rule relates how her clan could not simply go gently, as they say, nor move on: circumstances necessitated a confrontation with what was coming and a reconciliation with what was. She artfully manages the roles of each section in the book by steering them in their duties: a nonlinear storyline—the only way, really, it could have been done—told to an imaginary companion whose presence develops into a full personality, one who understands the singular import of allowing the bereaved to do all the talking. In so doing, she anchors Rule as the author finds her way to a voice uniquely hers, yet fitting for all.

Rule is also clearly suited to the English degree she achieved—having commenced before her son’s illness and finished up after his death. Lyrical and flowing, while simultaneously conversational, her prose maps out these and other events free of emotion for its own sake, but with a writing quality and management skills that at times can lead us to envision the scenes in ways that reflect the moments. In one passage, for example, when the family first learn the seriousness of Rob’s diagnosis, it is as if we are viewing the passage through a prism and sensing the confusion via the distortion.

Nobody spoke; a heavy silence. We were all studying the registrar’s face, eventually; he looked at each of us in turn, then began talking again. I must admit to the fact that I can’t remember what he said after that. His mouth was moving, yes. I could hear a mumbling, yes, but I couldn’t seem to understand him. I tried…I did, I tried, but it had all become surreal, like watching T.V. with the sound down; it was happening to somebody else, not us…not us. Everything was running in slow motion. I became aware that everyone was standing up and moving toward the door…The door clicked, I turned around and stared at the door. We stood rooted, a tragic tableau in the corridor.

Within the pages of Future Confronted Rule takes us through the journey Rob and his family face as they make their way through a labyrinth, navigating in a learn-as-you-go fashion of how to do death when, in reality, despite modern advances in technology and a world of endless interpersonal seminars on taking life by the horns, most of us are still learning how to live.

Rule understands this, and makes no attempt to pass off anything formulaic—or even anything except what she knows and claims only for herself. She shares with us events from Rob’s (and her others sons’) childhood, linking, always linking her transitions and leading us to something we know we have to hear, not because it is hers, but because of her courage and generosity, that becomes ours.

The Russians say that no one ever truly dies as long as there is someone to remember them, and the author brings this to bear on the words of Cicero as she quotes:

The life of the dead is placed

In the memory of the living

Breathtaking and perhaps even frightening in the enormous responsibility this carries, Rule utilizes her skill and draws on her faith to achieve this memory keeper duty. In so doing, she allows us to see Rob a little bit more deeply, allowing us to share her task.

This review previously appeared at Before the Second Sleep’s former location