I’ll Take You There: A Novel
“William Faulkner wrote that ‘the past is never dead.’ F. Scott Fitzgerald concluded The Great Gatsby with these words: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’” Wally Lamb, in his latest novel I’ll Take You There, reintroduces the character of Felix Funicello, last seen as a child in Wishin’ and Hopin’. Felix, now sixty, is a professor of film who runs a Monday night film group at a local theatre and former vaudeville venue. One night he is joined by the ghost of Lois Weber, one of the first female directors from the silent film era, and Billie Dove, a silent film star. Lois is there to guide him through films of his life so that he can learn something about the struggles the women in his life, past and present, have had to face. These meetings help him to reexamine the relationships he has with his daughter, ex-wife, and sisters, among others, and to face a long buried dark family secret.
Lamb once more gives us wonderfully nuanced characters who pull you into the story. Although this may not count among one of his best novels, it is a lovely, quiet read and a true pleasure.
The Last Brazil of Benjamin East
The year is 1980. Seventy-two-year-old Benjamin East returns to America from Brazil after an almost 40 year hiatus. Quite a big dreamer, coupled with his idealistic mindset of the America of yesteryear, Benjamin hopes to become famous by publishing his memoir. En route to New York, Benjamin helps a complete stranger, Amy McCaffrey, escape from her abusive husband. She, too, carries a hope of utilizing her art scholarship. The only problem is that it was issued to her more than seven years ago. After their quests lead to rejection, the odd couple heads out on a month-long bus trip to California. Once again, they hope for their dreams to be fulfilled. But this time, Benjamin and Amy have no idea that they are about to embark on a soul-searching journey.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Jonathan Freedman relays a story inspired by his experiences as a foreign correspondent in Brazil. Although the first draft of The Last Brazil of Benjamin East literally sits in a box for more than thirty years, Freedman finds that he is still fascinated by the “larger-than-life” fictional character, Benjamin East, that he created as a young writer. But, to properly develop Benjamin’s character, Freedman incorporates a variety of helpful literary tools starting off with Amy, Benjamin’s sidekick. Clearly Amy is young enough to be Benjamin’s daughter, and their backgrounds initially appear to be unrelated. The truth is that they have more in common then they realize: they have difficulty facing their marred pasts.
Freedman surrounds his two protagonists with a handful of negative characters. From examples such as the immigration officer and Louie (Benjamin’s brother) to Rosemary (the waitress at Harvey’s) and Joshua (the fledging writer), this foiled cast consistently force Benjamin and Amy to introspection. Benjamin and Amy’s characters are exceptional because they are always running away from their problems, and their reactions are unpredictable. And this unpredictability gives Freedman wide opportunities to create endless un-hackneyed scenes and keeps his plot fresh and always moving. In addition, Freedman alternates scenes throughout his third-person narrative that includes Benjamin’s flashbacks to both happy, as well as unresolved, moments during his time in Brazil.
While all these literary elements are pertinent to the design of this story, what makes Freedman’s recent novel so appealing is that it is purely a human-interest story. Certainly, readers will be able to relate to Benjamin and Amy in one form or other whether from personal experience or familiarity with a family member or acquaintance. Tender-hearted and provocative from beginning to end, The Last Brazil of Benjamin East is an engaging read and destined to be an award winner.
The Sense of Touch
I have always enjoyed short stories. While my first love is the novel, there is something about a short story that enchants me. Somehow, a short story must tell a narrative, contained within the space of a few thousand words, and it must leave the reader satisfied without providing too neat an ending. A novel has an easier job, because it has a longer space with which to work, but a short story is more constrained, and thus the author must work some sort of magic in order to bring his stories properly to life. The stories contained within this anthology do come to life, and it is exactly the same life that comes from the places in which they are set.
The tales of this collection are set in the upper Midwest, and in them I found the same bleak beauty as I found when I first visited that part of the country. Whether its a husband and wife reuniting after an estrangement, a young woman visiting a snowbound neighbor, or a young man reflecting on the life of his friend, these stories are filled with what I can only describe as an eerie melancholy that somehow teems with life. Each story amazed me, and at times I found myself breathless with the writing and the way the characters seemed so real and yet so specifically connected to the pages I found them in. My one complaint is that, when each story ended, I found myself wishing there could have been a bit more, but I know that to add more would be to ruin the spell cast on the reader by the words. Each tale was told exactly the way it needed to be.
I would highly recommend this book for anyone who appreciates the art of telling short stories, or even anyone who has not yet fully discovered that art. This book will certainly convert you.
The Book of Colors
Nineteen-year-old Yslea moves from Jimmy’s row house to Rose’s soon after discovering her pregnancy. Although they are neighbors, Yslea would rather care for the old dying woman than be around a guy who has a porn website business that involves video taping another row house neighbor, Layla. Unfortunately, Layla’s little daughter, Ambrosia, is in the same room as the salacious activities. Surprisingly, Ambrosia seems to be at peace in her own worldspending her time quietly rocking while looking at her cardboard book of colors. Rose seems to be at peace, too, knowing that death is around the bend. Surrounded by all these strange situations, Yslea learns a thing or two about herself, the world, and God, especially when miracles take place.
Raymond Barfield’s debut novel focuses on life choices amid impoverished settings. Barfield’s first person narrative features a young woman who is surrounded by an interesting collection of characters. While they each have their views on life, death, and spiritual mattersparticularly God and the Catholic Church, Barfield’s zeroes in on Yslea’s persistent thought processes. Unique to Barfield’s plot is his writing style, which has a bit of lilting poetic feel to his text. Emphasizing Yslea’s rambling qualities, Barfield style is laced with a flurry of similes and elongated sentences that are periodically punctuated with a string of coordinating conjunctions.
Barfield surrounds Yslea with a combined foiled and static cast. While pushing Yslea to see herself for who she is and what she can achieve, they are also making their own life choices. Indeed, Yslea has had her fair share of hardships. Yet her positive outlook is inspiring as she views small and seemingly nonessential things in life with immense interest. Great examples are her raccoon bone collection, the stained-glass window she makes out of broken beer bottles for Rose, the attention she gives to her favorite bookRobinson Crusoe, and how she deals with “the troll under the bridge.”
Building slowly but progressively and replete with unexpected everything, The Book of Colors is nothing less than purely original and brilliantly written.
The Mirror Thief
The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay is a sensational masterpiece. Martin Seay is truly a master of creating plots that will absorb readers into a thrilling adventure unlike any other. This thriller contains three varying stories that will intertwine and become one massive story that blew me away. A novel that defies all other works of fiction and leaves readers satisfied from beginning to end. The Mirror Thief is like a black hole that sucks everything and in this case everyone into its depth. A fast-paced highly entertaining tale that had me hooked, awed, and breathless. Readers who want an adventure as thrilling as the most frightening thrill rides in the world….will fall deeply for this splendid masterpiece.
It’s hard to believe that The Mirror Thief is Martin Seay’s debut novel. What a way to splash into the world of fictional writing. I have never read a tale quite like this one. Inside this story, I got to travel to three different locations, meet many intriguing characters and learned about a mirror technology that is the center of it all. Secrets, danger, and three different times periods make this an outstanding read. The craftsmen that created the mirror would be punished by death if they left the island…and there was one who had nothing to lose. A mirror that can be used for information purposes is a rare and highly wanted object used by many. What will come to the thief is something that readers must find out own their own.
Overall, I highly recommend this enchanting tale to readers worldwide. I look forward to reading more by this talented writer in the future.
Simmer and Smoke: A Southern Tale of Grit and Spice
Growing up in a rural environment, Shelby Preston has had to struggle for everything. But her love for cooking does not stop her from dreaming of someday becoming a great chef. Shelby also carries the hope that she’ll be able to provide a better life for her and Miss Ann, her young daughter. On the contrary, Mallory Lakes, who has had everything handed to her on a silver platter, has a successful career as a food blogger for a popular newspaper. But behind her affluent persona, Mallory struggles with unresolved conflicts from her past. While neither women have crossed over into nor fully understand each other’s world, Shelby and Mallory will meet at crossroads that will change their lives forever.
First time author and food blogger, Peggy Lampman knows the exact ingredients needed to create an appealing story. Written in split narrative format, Lampman’s debut novel features the lives of two women faced with challenges during changing yet turbulent times in Georgia. Alternating between Shelby and Mallory’s narratives, Lampman’s 2011 plot persistently balances opposites. Where there is hopelessness, there is always a ray of hope in some form or fashion. A prime example is how Lampman incorporates the warmth of food. A shared trait between the principal characters, Lampman closes most chapters with a commentary on various recipes that reflect Georgian cuisine.
Another opposite Lampman laces heavily throughout her storyline is dreaming for a better life amid adversity. While it is obviously understandable why Shelby seeks to improve her situation compared to her dead-end rural surroundings, it is difficult to imagine that a person of wealth would need to dream of improvement. Period. But in creating Mallory, what Lampman does is strip away all the posh and zero in on her humanness. That said, Mallory has dreams, too. Included in the lineup of split narratives, though, is Miss Ann, who while only mentioned a few times, plays a minor yet pivoting role. A determined second-grader, Miss Ann has her own set of dreams in the works.
Yet in the midst of all these characters, Lampman utilizes the above-mentioned theme in connection with the plight of Mexican immigrants, who constantly fear deportation while working demeaning jobs for extremely little pay. To add insult to injury, Lampman also meticulously underscores the flip sidethe harsh realities of bigotry prevalent in Georgian society and the legal system toward Mexicans. Undoubtedly, pondering this latter lifestyle leaves both cast members and readers to pause as they realize that their adversities pale in comparison.
Although Lampman’s story closes on a positive note that includes a slew of wonderful recipes, she sends a powerful reminder that bigotry is not dead and that the immigration system still has major problems. With a portion of the book’s revenue going directly to the Southern Poverty Law Centeran American nonprofit legal advocacy organization specializing in civil rights and public interest litigationSimmer and Smoke is an eye opening and thought-provoking must read.