Her Own Vietnam by Lynn Kanter

A woman’s story of wartime PTSD gathers complex characters to shed light on a little-discussed point of view.

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Her Own Vietnam, by Lynn Kanter, is the story of Della Brown, who served as an army nurse in Vietnam but only begins to address her trauma decades later, when an old friend who shared that experience contacts her out of the blue. Kanter portrays Della’s painful chronicle with sensitivity and surrounds her with a family that is imperfect but, for the most part, making an effort. The resulting novel is insightful in telling of the little-known struggles of women “in that green and poisoned country.”

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on February 27, 2015 by ForeWord Reviews.

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My rating: 8 flowers.

Travels in Vermeer by Michael White

A poet’s quiet, beautifully composed, powerful story of self-healing by viewing the paintings of Vermeer will be a balm to troubled minds as well as satisfying to lovers of art and memoir.

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Poet Michael White’s unusual and riveting memoir, Travels in Vermeer, opens in the midst of a nasty divorce and custody battle. White lost his first wife to cancer, but counts this second marital tragedy as a “total loss,” of faith as well as of his partner. Reeling, he flies to Amsterdam (“all I’d wanted was an ocean behind me”), and heads to the Rijksmuseum to see Rembrandts. But what he sees instead is The Milkmaid, a tiny painting by Johannes Vermeer. The maid evokes a “tingling at the back of [his] scalp,” and this knee-buckling discovery inspires a plan, hatched on the museum grounds, to devote his breaks from teaching university-level creative writing to traveling the world viewing all the Vermeers he can. For the next 14 months, he chases the life-changing insights and soothing, healing effect provided by the Dutch master’s small-scale, intuitive paintings, in which he sees expressions of love.

White studies biographies and art criticism about Vermeer, while visiting museums in The Hague, Washington, D.C., New York City and London. The reader shares in this lucid examination of Vermeer’s remarkable lighting techniques, occasional trompe l’oeil and the solitary women who feature in his work (alongside a few group scenes and landscapes). White sheds light as well on his difficult childhood, including a scene when his mother dumps him unannounced at his father’s apartment, following their divorce: unlike White’s own daughter, he was an apparently unwanted son. While Vermeer occupies the bulk of this brief, eloquent book, a few scenes from White’s battle with alcoholism and his tentative success with Alcoholics Anonymous round out a self-portrait sketched with great feeling in few words. Only a poet could communicate so economically, in language deserving of contemplatively paced reading.

White’s descriptions competently guide even the most unfamiliar or untrained reader through an appreciation of the mechanics and mysticism of Vermeer’s art. Readers will regret the lack of reproductions of the paintings under consideration; but as he observes upon meeting Girl with a Pearl Earring, “reproductions are useless.”

Travels in Vermeer is a thoroughly user-friendly piece of art education, but it is even better as a thoughtful, spare memoir of pain and recovery, unusually formatted and exquisitely moving. For a companion piece, consider White’s previously published book of poetry inspired by the same journey, entitled Vermeer in Hell.


This review originally ran in the February 27, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 daubs.

Luigi’s Freedom Ride by Alan Murray

A novel of love and bicycles, both funny and poignant, beginning in Mussolini’s Italy and traveling around the world.

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Alan Murray (The Wealth of Choices; Showdown at Gucci Gulch) tries his hand at fiction with Luigi’s Freedom Ride, and achieves a rare blend of humor, solemnity and grace in this sweeping tale. Luigi Ferraro was born in 1921, in a small Tuscan village where he learned metalworking and a love of bicycles from his Uncle Cesare. Under Mussolini, Luigi is conscripted into the Italian army with his two best friends and trains in the cycling corps; he escapes and joins a group of partisans resisting fascism, and experiences both love and loss. The heartbroken young man then sets out on an international tour via bicycle and train, visiting Jerusalem and Sri Lanka and circumnavigating Australia, that “furthest place” he’d been seeking. Finally, Luigi dismounts in Sydney, where unexpected good fortune awaits him. With friends, family, love and pain spread around the globe, will he ever make it back to Tuscany?

Murray’s quirky tone is absolutely charming, managing to express both the brutality and ugliness of war as well as the sweetly naive foibles of a young man learning about the wider world. Luigi is deeply endearing: he is well-intentioned but inexperienced, confounded by the English dialects of the Scots, Australians and Americans he meets, loyal and quick to love. Employing the bicycle as a symbol of freedom, fun, adventure and forward movement, Luigi’s Freedom Ride is a novel about hope, self-determination and fresh starts, both heartfelt and surprisingly optimistic.


This review originally ran in the February 24, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 clicks.

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist by Daniel Taylor

Weighty subjects and introspection never bog down Taylor’s quirky characters as they rush toward a surprising finish.

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Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, by Daniel Taylor, is a slim, funny, thoughtful novel about mental illness, academia, self-knowledge, and philosophy, with a murder mystery thrown in.

Jon Mote, a failed husband and failed graduate student, lives with his sister on a houseboat in St. Paul, Minnesota. When the widow of a murdered professor calls, asking him to look into the death of his former dissertation director, Mote is reluctant—his usual part-time research work involves, for example, the history of popcorn or insurance rates—but he needs the money. Alongside his incessantly sunny but unwell sister, Judy, Mote will have to revisit his own past, as well as that of the highly accomplished Doctor Pratt, who turns out to have a surprising number of enemies. The voices in Mote’s head grow more insistent as the case stresses his fragile grip on reality. Despite her own handicaps, Judy may have to hold things together.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on February 27, 2015 by ForeWord Reviews.

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My rating: 7 zippers.

Teaser Tuesdays: Call Me Home by Megan Kruse

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

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What a beautiful book. I had the added feeling of synchronicity, that it handles a move from Texas to my very region of Washington state. But even without sharing those personal details with this family, I think this is a moving story. And then these lines.

There was a bar for every loneliness, he suspected. A bar for every sad story, and one for every joy. All of those things, contained in the shifting glass, the water rings and fingerprints across old wood, the smell of sweat.

I’m a sucker for writing about bars, as place and atmosphere. Stick around.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson

A quirky, memorable debut novel about things we miss, large and small.

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Janina Matthewson’s first novel, Of Things Gone Astray, is startlingly beautiful, both ridiculous and poignant. A handful of people in London wake up one morning to find that they have lost things that matter very much to them. Delia can no longer find her way around the neighborhood she has always lived in; Mrs. Featherby’s house suddenly has no front wall; Marcus’s piano is missing its keys; Robert’s place of work is not where it belongs, though no one else seems to be missing it (a whole building!), and his colleagues’ numbers have vanished from his phone. These bizarre, surreal absences make no sense, but must be accepted as fact because they are blatant, physical. Meanwhile, a little boy named Jake finds himself attracted to lost things: he collects the contents of the Lost and Found room at school, labels and organizes objects that will likely never see their owners again.

On its face, this is a fantasy, an otherworld fortunately accessible only through prose. But Matthewson’s sensitive prose helps us to consider what matters, and the means by which we hang on to those things. Through no overt metaphor, this mystical, whimsical, dreamy world of the lost and the retrieved suggests a fresh and heartfelt new way of thinking, as Jake, in his concern for lost things, may lose track of something far more important and intangible.

Of Things Gone Astray is a stunning, heartbreaking, thought-provoking song of love and memory and family and life, with something to offer any reader, bereft or not.


This review originally ran in the February 13, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 cakes.

Suitcase City by Sterling Watson

A reformed drug dealer gets pulled back into the game in this tense, bloody thriller with a strong sense of place and a soft heart.

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Suitcase City by Sterling Watson (Weep No More My Brother) opens with an extended flashback to protagonist Jimmy Teach’s time in small-town Florida. At the time, Teach has just finished a brief career in professional football and is back in the game of smuggling drugs, or in his words, operating as a “maritime consultant.” When a business deal with Guatemalans goes sour, Teach competently cleans up the mess, and moves on.

The bulk of Teach’s story then takes place nearly 20 years later, in late 1990s Tampa, Fla., where a rundown neighborhood called Suitcase City gives the novel its name. Teach is reformed, more or less: he’s vice-president of sales at a pharmaceutical company and has rebuilt a relationship with his teenaged daughter after his wife’s (her mother’s) death. But a little incident inside a bar one Friday afternoon–a tiny mistake, a single piece of rotten luck–and suddenly Teach finds himself worried about losing his house, his job, the relationship he’s built with his daughter, and maybe his own life.

Suitcase City is nearly halfway over before the reader finds out who Teach’s enemies are and what the present beef is about, but this lengthy plot development is never boring or slow–quite the opposite. Every moment is riveting, making this a difficult book to look up from at all; the reader is every bit as concerned as Teach over the maddening mystery of who or what in his past is pursuing him, and why. To get answers and solutions, Teach has to look into his past as well as consider his future. Along the way, he gets his hands dirty with blood, gore, prostitutes and drug dealers more sophisticated than anyone involved in his “maritime consulting” two decades ago.

Watson’s magic is in pacing and taut prose, in the details that make his Florida setting so compelling–boats and bilge, lobsters and golf–and in a father’s love for his daughter. Diverse characters enliven Teach’s world, including his charming daughter, a pushy reporter and a colorful pair of police detectives who represent a range of competence and demeanor. In the end, Teach is flawed but likable, and Suitcase City is an absorbing thriller, a vivid adventure in a bright, humid, perilous underworld.


This review originally ran in the February 13, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 tee times.
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