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guest review: The 53rd Parallel by Carl Nordgren, from Pops

Pops is back with a review of a book from a series that, I confess, I’d largely forgotten about. Thanks for the reminder!

Once again I must thank you belatedly for a book recommendation.

You gave me Worlds Between from your advanced reader stash some years ago. Ah, the circuitous route we take to the books we actually read, out of the millions out there. When I had researched the series (why not start at the beginning?) I found there was just the one, earlier; so I waited. But oops, it’s not in the library. I finally got around to requesting an ILL copy, which arrived a couple weeks ago from a suburban Denver library.

As much as your review describes the benefits found in that first book, The 53rd Parallel is far better in all respects. It is longer (300 pages) but still dense with character and story, like the first. With it, his first novel, Nordgren applied a more leisurely pace that much more fully develops the wide cast of characters (some dropped in the second). Even Hemingway is introduced, as an icon, an aspiration, the ultimate guest for the fish camp if they could make a go of it. (John Wayne is their first, failed attempt at celebrity marketing, in book one.)

Also more fully developed are the ‘parallels’ between Irish and Ojibway history and culture (which share the 53rd parallel of latitude). Shared history: mainly in continued persecution by the English; culture: mainly in their appreciation of dreams and the ambiguous power of myths. The latter, with the challenge of honoring equally both ‘reality’ and myth, is capably and gracefully done. I was absolutely enraptured by book one, constantly amazed at the power of simple telling of a magical story. Sadly, I was a bit disappointed by the rush to conclusion in book two. (I say ‘conclusion’ – but he claims to be working on book three, still yet to be announced.)

The brief first chapter introduces the Ojibway icon This Man, in the 1700s; his ghost is an important presence throughout, but is neglected in the second book. Early narrative is set amidst 1930’s Ireland, with poverty and social dysfunction born of English oppression, generations-old. Brian’s dark past is a torture to read; he is a frustrated hothead and severe child abuser, and is never as fully redeemed for me as the author’s attempt suggests. We observe as each of his three children cope and mature (or not), each in their own way. Maureen is a hugely powerful character (meant both literally and figuratively); for me she, not Brian, carries the narrative thread connecting all pieces. [Spoiler follows; highlight white text to read] I was betrayed and stunned when she is killed in book two; how could Nordgren do that to her?!! The dark world of the IRA, with its own conflicted and tortured history, is introduced early on and lends appropriate complexity, useful context for events in book two.

We also come to know three generations of Ojibway people and history, and understand how significant it is when Brian is adopted as son of Joe Loon, immediately blessing the fish camp with seven generations of family (all of whom are ‘present’). One of Brian’s Ojibway nephews is abused at Indian School, and later sacrifices his life to ensure the camp’s success. Simon, another nephew, is tasked by Joe Loon to learn the white man’s ways to provide intelligence for the tribe; seeing ‘our’ world through his eyes is poignant. I was so impressed with Nordgren’s thoughtful treatment of the Ojibway people and story, reflecting the author’s own immersive experience in their culture. Those passages alone made these books a worthwhile indulgence; Maureen’s story added to the bounty.

So good cross-cultural work–although I always wonder, how well can we judge, if we’re not from the culture being featured?

I am glad for this reminder. Thanks for bringing it back full-circle. I’ll expect you back again for book three, if and when!

West by Carys Davies

A mule breeder heads west to search out a mythic beast while his daughter struggles quietly at home in this tale of fantasy, hope and risk.

In the newspaper, Cy Bellman reads of bones pulled from the Kentucky mud–enormous, ancient bones, belonging to some mythic creature taller than the tallest trees. Grieving his lost wife, he is now transported: he all but stops eating and sleeping, too disturbed to give his full attention to his work as a breeder of mules, or to his 10-year-old daughter, Bess. He can’t help but go in search of the beasts that have so captured his imagination, and leaves Bess and their small farm in rural Pennsylvania in the care of his hard-edged sister, Julie, with the occasional help of an odd neighbor, Elmer. With some weapons, trinkets for trade and a new stovepipe hat, Bellman travels west, toward the wild frontier.

West is Carys Davies’s first novel (though she’s published two short story collections, The Redemption of Galen Pike and Some New Ambush), and it is an epic tale of early 19th-century adventure in a small package. With fewer than 200 pages, its scale is nonetheless mighty, conjuring both history and fable. Davies’s simple, conversational prose stays out of the way of her gripping plot.

Julie and the town’s citizens think Bellman a fool at best. Bess, however, adores her father, and is heartbroken to be left alone with no books or pleasures, only a motley bunch of mules; her dead mother’s gold ring is hidden away by her unloving aunt. In her father’s absence, she makes up charms for his good luck: “if she made it from the pump to the house without slopping a drop of water over the lip of the bucket, it meant he was in good health.” She takes long walks with her favorite mule, until Elmer’s awkward attentions to the deserted household become too alarming, and she shuts herself up inside.

Meanwhile, Bellman wanders the wild countryside, farther and farther south and west, first alone and then with an unlucky Shawnee boy named Old Woman from a Distance for his guide. Bellman’s dreams of the enormous creatures grow vivid, and then less so, as his distance and time away from home increase. He promised Bess he would be gone two years at the most, but as her 12th birthday approaches, his grip on both his promise and his quest look doubtful.

West is a novel about family commitments, small-town agitations and the irresistible, fanatic pull of the unknown. Bellman is either enchanted or suffering a good old-fashioned midlife crisis. Davies writes of small fates: hopeful young Bess, bitter Julie, the enigma of slovenly Elmer, and Old Woman from a Distance, with a troubled past of his own.

This quick, compelling read will please lovers of historical fiction, legendary quests and stories of humble familial devotion. It may prove as hard for Bellman to find happiness at home as to find the monstrous “animal incognitum” he seeks. Readers, however, are the richer for his efforts.


This review originally ran in the April 3, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 incognita.

The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: A Novel of Robert Louis Stevenson by Brian Doyle

With enthusiasm and verve, in the style his fans love, Brian Doyle re-creates a novel Robert Louis Stevenson intended to write.

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In a novel with layers of authors, Brian Doyle (The Mighty Currawongs; Martin Marten) honors the art of storytelling. The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World is firmly based in fact: Robert Louis Stevenson boarded for some months at the home of Mrs. Carson in San Francisco while waiting to marry his love, Fanny. He conceived of a novel based on the tales of his landlady’s husband, but never wrote it. Doyle imagines what stories Mr. Carson might have told, and the style in which Stevenson might have written them. Doyle calls upon other published accounts of Carson’s and Stevenson’s acquaintances, including Mark Twain and scientist Alfred Russel Wallace.

In Doyle’s imagination, Stevenson sits by the fire with Mr. Carson as the latter recounts his voyages around the world as a seaman and his experience as a Union solider in the Civil War. This talented storyteller takes Stevenson (and Doyle’s reader) through the jungles of Borneo, over the rocky hills of Irish islands, from coast to coast of Canada in winter, to Australia’s Sydney Harbor and to the battlefield at Gettysburg. Mrs. Carson turns out to be as fine a narrator as her husband, and both have a knack for ending on a cliffhanger just as dinner is ready. As he recounts the Carsons’ feats, Stevenson also explores the sights, smells and steep hills of 1880 San Francisco, and touches on his romance with Fanny Osbourne, herself a worthy, headstrong character.

Doyle’s characteristic prose style is effusive, wry, highly descriptive and always passionate about his subjects. Throughout this story of stories runs a thread of commentary on the value and nuances of the storytelling art. Stevenson constantly refers to his ambition and makes notes for future works: “Hyde would be a lovely name for a character,” he muses, and imagines a novel in which a “sudden shocking kidnapping would set the prose to sprinting.” In several passages, Doyle-as-Stevenson extols the power of storytelling, the universal need for tales of adventure, the urgency of getting them out–he even worries what the “disconsolate reviewers” might say. Readers hungry for more stories-upon-stories will delight in Doyle’s “Afterword” and “Thanks & Notes,” which are filled with recommendations for further reading (what he calls “homework”).

Stevenson’s rollicking zest for adventure blends happily and seamlessly with Doyle’s unrestrained love of words and life. Adventures offers daring exploits, romance and emotional highs and lows, but perhaps most of all, a celebration of stories. Doyle’s signature style expresses this joyousness perfectly.


This review originally ran in the March 2, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 stories, of course.

Human Acts by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith

South Koreans struggle to comprehend a 1980 uprising and the violence that follows.

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Human Acts is the second novel by Han Kang (The Vegetarian) to be translated into English. An introduction by translator Deborah Smith provides valuable context for this meandering book, which uses a dreamy atmosphere to explore the violence of a 1980 student uprising in South Korea.

Kang approaches the horrifying events of the Gwangju uprising obliquely. She doesn’t shy away from the shocking details–indeed, the novel opens with a young boy taking a brief respite from his work cleaning and caring for an overflow of unidentified dead bodies in a converted government office. But instead of spotlighting this violence, Kang focuses on the lives of individuals, beginning with Dong-ho, the boy caring for the dead, and then rotating through the views of those around him. First-, second- and third-person perspectives reinforce the feeling of circling the center of this event. After Dong-ho, the reader meets his best friend, shot dead in the streets; the two young women he works with; and his grieving mother. In a state of massive unrest, violence and terror, these characters appear dazed. Others look back over the decades that follow, including an editor wearily battling censorship and former prisoners struggling with old trauma. This range of voices, their sense of shock and unreality, along with the title, explore the possibilities of humanity: human acts can be variously brave, selfish, gentle and cruel.

Human Acts is a remarkable novel, at once lyrical, dreamlike and horrific. Smith’s succinct introduction is an excellent aid in understanding both Kang’s message and her artistry.


This review originally ran in the February 3, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 bodies.

Maximum Shelf: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on January 10, 2017.


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Jennifer Ryan’s first novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, takes on a wide range of the human experience through the lives and voices of the women of the village of Chilbury, in the south of England, at the beginning of World War II.

The immersion in small-town life opens with Mrs. Tilling’s journal entry of Tuesday, 26th March, 1940. Mrs. Tilling is a timid, good-hearted, churchgoing lady, a widow whose only son is about to be sent to France to fight. The occasion of this journal entry is the funeral for young Commander Edmund Winthrop. This funeral is to be the last appearance of the village choir, as, according to the Vicar, “all our male voices have gone to war.”

In addition to Mrs. Tilling, the reader is introduced to a cast of characters in turn, each of whom speak in the form of letters and diary entries. Miss Edwina Paltry is the town’s sly midwife, who in letters to her sister reveals herself to be secretly pursuing a fortune by any means: “I’ve been offered the most unscrupulous deal you’ll ever believe!” Kitty Winthrop is the 13-year-old sister to the lost Commander. Between her violently abusive father and distracted, pregnant mother, Kitty is left to her own devices to worry about boys, war and her hoped-for career as a professional singer, all of which she records in her diary. Her older sister Venetia, at 18, is a wildly boy-crazy beauty, and in letters to her friend Angela in London, recounts her difficulties in seducing the handsome new artist in town, Mr. Slater.

In these personal documents we learn that a new music teacher has arrived from London. “Her name is Miss Primrose Trent, but she told us to call her Prim, which is funny as she’s not prim at all but frightfully unkempt.” The lovably misnamed Prim doesn’t see why a choir needs male voices, and promptly calls practices again. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir meets some resistance, some grumblings about tradition, but as the war proceeds, the women learn to lean on one another. Eventually the choir becomes a central institution in the town, providing material as well as moral support, and a theatre for personal growth.

After Mrs. Tilling’s son leaves to fight, she takes in a boarder, Colonel Mallard, who is working from a nearby base. Living with a stranger is a great challenge for her, but one of several she rises to as war comes to England. Venetia wins Mr. Slater, but experiences a life-changing accident. Kitty takes a position of leadership in the choir and suffers a massive disappointment. Miss Paltry’s plans go awry, and the town sees several new births, but also tragedy. The Germans bomb the English shore. The novel concludes in September, but these are an eventful few months.

Occasional other voices join in to complete the picture, including the rare diary entry from Silvie, a 10-year-old Czech Jewish refugee billeted with the chaotic Winthrop household, and a few letters from Colonel Mallard to his sister. But it is the perspectives of Mrs. Tilling, Venetia, Kitty and Edwina Paltry that define the novel’s path. Encompassed in these experiences is all of life: love, hope, despair, loss, petty disagreements and great sacrifices. The Chilbury ladies learn to expand their horizons and their abilities, build new relationships and stand up for themselves.

The various first-person voices vary subtly, but distinctly. Mrs. Tilling has a deep commitment to propriety and loyalty; Miss Paltry is unafraid to crow over her rivals; Venetia’s boy troubles are apt to take over her world. Kitty’s 13-year-old diary is perfectly wrought: she peppers it with lists (“why everyone’s getting married in a hurry”; “things I know for sure”), and persistently subscribes to patent fantasies, but also soberly reports the news of her larger world. On her list titled “what will happen if we get taken over by the Nazis,” this obstinate teen notes, “they’ll imprison or shoot anyone who doesn’t do what they say.”

The epistolary form works nicely to establish intimacy, giving the reader a behind-the-scenes perspective and a feeling of being deeply engaged with Chilbury. The overlapping points of view offer the opportunity to make up one’s own mind who to believe, and to piece together a fuller picture of events when the characters try to keep secrets. Poignancy is abundant, with Silvie fully aware of her precarious status, and Mrs. Tilling desperately worrying over the life of her son. There are moments of humor, too: life cannot help but go on, even as the Germans fly overhead.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir offers a world of emotions, experiences and characters in a tiny village, over a few months in 1940. Anxious Mrs. Tilling, devious Miss Paltry and the ever-evolving sisters Venetia and Kitty represent a wealth of possible reactions to an event bigger than themselves. In their variously sweet, mischievous, aggrieved and hopeful letters and journals, these ladies bring home the impact of world war. And in a village deprived of its men, they show that women can pull together and do anything that needs doing. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is an inspirational, sometimes sad, tale, and Jennifer Ryan puts it together with style.


Rating: 6 envelopes.

Come back next week for my interview with Jennifer Ryan.

The Evening Road by Laird Hunt

Two women from different sides of the tracks explore rural Indiana on a single night that is both allegory and starkly real.
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The Evening Road by Laird Hunt (Neverhome) meanders the backcountry roads of rural Indiana on a hot and troubled night, exploring human ugliness and the lives of two remarkable women.

Ottie Lee Henshaw is a red-haired beauty, eternally exasperated with her ill-kempt husband, Dale, and pursued by her randy boss, Bud. She finds it easier to let Bud do “a fair amount of arm action and heavy breathing and pawing of my hair” than to fight him off. With a sharp tongue, a good appetite and a mind of her own, Ottie Lee does all right, even if she doesn’t look very respectable to the town gossips. On this summer afternoon in 1920, Bud comes in excited by the prospect of driving to the neighboring town of Marvel to attend the “show”: a promised lynching. Ottie Lee sets off with Bud, Dale and others; with a shifting cast of companions, she’ll spend the rest of a long, sweltering night trying to get to Marvel.

Ottie Lee’s adventures take up the first half of this novel before her counterpart, Calla Destry, appears. Calla is a light-skinned woman from the black side of town who faces her hard, violent world with stark defiance: she is inclined to head straight into Marvel to break the lynching’s intended victims out of jail, while her family and community runs the other way, lest they become victims themselves. It soon becomes clear that Calla’s real aim is to find the man who has promised her a new beginning. But her wanderings parallel Ottie Lee’s, and the two soon become more closely involved than either realizes.

The halves of this story are told in the first-person perspectives of these two women, and both are strong vernacular voices that bring flavor and color to their narratives. Hunt turns a phrase nimbly: a dirty parlor “looked like it had been soaked in water then spread in mayonnaise and left to turn,” and a courting man notes, “You think that’s the wind in the maples, but it’s not the wind. It’s the universe twitching.” This folksy layer of romance and redolence characterizes Ottie Lee and Calla as much as anything else does; their memorable voices and the close, heady setting of these backwoods make The Evening Road darkly compelling. A dreaminess comes and goes as Calla hallucinates in the heat and a friend of Ottie Lee’s talks to angels. The crime at the center of their story is a reality, of course, but remains a pivot point rather than the focus: the point is not the destination, but rather the winding roads that these women take to get there, their decisions and the secrets they keep along the way.

The Evening Road is a sad and raucous story, ugly and beautiful at once, evocatively starring two very different women.


This review originally ran in the December 23, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 jars.

book beginnings on Friday: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Participants share the first line or two of the book we are currently reading and comment on any first impressions inspired by that first line.

Today I’m beginning a new book for a Maximum Shelf, so you’ll eventually see a long-form review here as well as an author interview. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, a work of historical fiction, begins with an entry from Mrs. Tilling’s journal, Tuesday, 26th March, 1940:
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First funeral of the war, and our little village choir simply couldn’t sing in tune. “Holy, holy, holy” limped out as if we were a crump of warbling sparrows. But it wasn’t because of the war, or the young scoundrel Edmund Winthrop torpedoed in his submarine, or even the Vicar’s abysmal conducting. No, it was because this was the final performance of the Chilbury Choir. Our swan song.

And I believe this sets up the whole story nicely, as I understand it from descriptions. Don’t you love the “crump of warbling sparrows”? It’s got music, itself, as well as a certain feeling of bumbling, which I think is very much the point. “The young scoundrel Edmund Winthrop torpedoed in his submarine” is a little awkward: did Edmund torpedo a young scoundrel, or is he the young scoundrel, torpedoed? After some studying, it’s the latter, but it did make me stumble. I wonder if the English setting and English heritage of the author (who now lives in the U.S.) would read that line a little more clearly. Stick around for more notes on this one in the months to come!

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

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