Fiction

Mercer Street by John A. Heldt

by Casee Marie on March 17, 2016

in Fiction, Reviews

“Then she remembered that love was blind. It was Helen Keller, hooded, in a dark room. It was a condition that rendered people incapable of seeing more than they wanted to see.”
John A. Heldt, Mercer Street

The second book in John Heldt’s American Journey series finds three generations of twenty-first century women on an adventure to pre-WWII New Jersey in a search for closure, clarity, and childhood innocence. Novelist Susan Peterson is still trying to find calm amid the chaos following her husband’s unexpected death, grappling with the reality of his infidelity while trying to hold the world together for her daughter, Amanda. When Susan’s mother, Elizabeth, accompanies the Peterson women on a California adventure, none of them expect that Elizabeth’s curiosity over time-travel lecturer Professor Geoffrey Bell will grant them all the chance of a lifetime. With nothing to lose, the trio embark from 2016 California to 1939 California, and from there across the country to Princeton, New Jersey and a rented house on Mercer Street where Elizabeth comes face-to-face with her immigrant parents and their infant daughter Lizzie. With the world’s best hindsight to her advantage, an elderly Elizabeth relishes the chance to spend more time with her parents and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a meaningful connection with her younger self. Meanwhile, Susan finds love and fulfillment in working with a handsome naval admiral as Amanda finds herself crossed in love – and maybe danger – with a dashing German whose family is keeping a secret.

Wonderfully capturing the calm before the storm of World War II, Mercer Street is another beautiful novel from author John Heldt, whose remarkable talent allows him to transform time-travel from a plot device into the foundation of a substantial and unforgettable story. With terrific pacing and comfortable narratives, Heldt takes his novels outside the bounds of genre fiction and into uncharted territory as he combines romance, suspense, and observations on human nature. Mercer Street is not unlike previous novels from Heldt in its ability to carry profound insight in even its more lighthearted passages, making for an experience that will please both escapist fiction lovers and more contemplative readers alike. The era and the characters in Mercer Street suit this scheme well. Through Amanda’s love interest, Kurt, Heldt explores the vulnerability of a young German as he clings to his powerful sense of morality in the shadow of Nazi Germany’s uprising; through Elizabeth, the grace of an elderly woman’s reconnection to her younger self as she literally relives moments of her life too old to be remembered; and through Susan, a woman’s search for her own strength as one love life takes shape even as another is still to be mourned. While each character and their personal experiences manage to take root for the reader, perhaps the most arresting is that of Elizabeth as she seems to get to the very heart of the human experience. It’s hard not to be affected by the imagery Heldt creates through Elizabeth’s first meeting her younger self, and then the fostering of an undeniable connection that grows so strongly between one’s present and past selves.

One of the other great strengths of Mercer Street, as with so many of Heldt’s novels, is the intrepid research that goes into the groundwork of its story. The energy of the time, when so much was unforeseeable, is captured in detail while unexpected figures from history take their turns gracing the pages in a series of cameos that will delight enthusiasts of the era. For his first novel set on the east coast Heldt has chosen a place as unforgettable as the time, with Princeton coming to life in both the simplest narrative illustrations and in Elizabeth’s poetic recollections of the world she once knew. It all comes together as the story whirls through its many manageable layers, at once comfortable to read and quite steeped in meaning, as it works up to its unexpected ending. With all the charisma, humor, and wisdom of the author’s previous novels – and with perhaps an even richer cinematic quality – Mercer Street is another winning and unmissable read from a truly well-skilled writer.

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The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

by Casee Marie on January 5, 2016 · 2 comments

in Fiction, Reviews


“Me? I was never good at hatred. I felt it. I knew it. But it did not live inside me the way it lived inside them. Maybe things would have turned out better if it had. If I had been better at hatred.”
Chris Bohjalian, The Guest Room

Throughout his career, Chris Bohjalian has taken readers on literary thrill rides through time and space, offering spellbinding glances into the emotional complexities of both past and present, all with an intrepid honesty that catapults his fiction into a realm of literary truth. The one thing he never does: shy away from the hard stuff. In his examination of human nature, and the flawed cultures that are born over and over again as a result, Bohjalian goes into great and challenging depths to pay homage to the unthinkable truths that, as they say, are so much stranger than the fiction built upon them. This was especially true of his 2012 novel, The Sandcastle Girls, with its unforgettable romance set against the backdrop of the unconscionable Armenian genocide. His newest work, The Guest Room, is in keeping with such tradition.

With the palpable tension that comes naturally to Bohjalian, combined with his willingness to “go there”, he shares a story of shattered dreams and shattered realities when the seedy world of sex trafficking breaches the boundaries of New York’s upper-middle class. The result is a novel that engrosses readers in a fast-paced story of suspense even as it chills their blood with its observations on the lives of women forced into sex slavery, and the culture that allows it – maybe even promotes it.

“He saw the world was starting to lighten outside the eastern window, a thin, quavering band of bleached sky. He realized he was dreading the sunrise. It would illuminate just how much his world had changed since yesterday – and how damaged was the little bark that carried his soul, how far it was from shore, and how menacing were the waves in between.”
Chris Bohjalian, The Guest Room

The Guest Room is the story of Richard Chapman, an investment banker with a solid marriage, a happy family, and few troubles – until his brother’s bachelor party, hosted by best man Richard in his own home, becomes first a lascivious scene of debauchery, and then the scene of a murder. Simultaneously, it’s the story of young Alexandra, whose childhood in Armenia – a childhood spent with Barbie dolls and dreams of being a ballerina – vanishes into a world of heartbreak and unspeakable violation. Alexandra and Richard’s lives each seem to have entirely separate points of orbit, until she and another girl are taken by their captors to work the bachelor party in well-to-do Bronxville of which he is the host. As Richard’s life reels from the catastrophic impact of the party, he must face a once-pristine marriage now impaled with the shame of his actions. And while he works to salvage his relationship with his wife and daughter, Richard must also wrestle with the realization of Alexandra’s plight and, ultimately, his culpability in her fate. Alexandra, whose story is told in first-person interludes between chapters, is on the run with Sonja, her fellow captive, in a desperate attempt to both evade the police they fear will arrest them and escape the Russian gangsters they’re certain will kill them.

“I wondered if I would have been brave enough to help the police guy if he had come to me. I couldn’t decide. But I did know this: Crystal may have been into him, but she was taking a chance for all of us. She was thinking of Sonja and me and all the girls they were bringing to America. I knew that in my heart. If she had gotten free, we all would have gotten free. I thought about that as I smoked, and I went from very, very scared to very, very sad.”
Chris Bohjalian, The Guest Room

By telling the story from parallel perspectives that follow both Richard and Alexandra (with additional focus on Richard’s wife, Kristin, and – most jarring – their nine year-old daughter, Melissa), Bohjalian is able to reach the core of his characters’ experiences. This is a style he has used with great skill in several of his past novels, shaping the stories around it in entirely different ways, and it continues to serve him well here. The reader is, as a result, pulled into myriad emotional directions as the vast difference between Richard and Alexandra’s lives – and their ultimate collision – plays out before them. Much of the material here is challenging, from the descriptions of Alexandra’s circumstances to the ribald way Richard’s brother and his friends handle the reality that the presumed strippers at his bachelor party were not, in fact, strippers at all. But the challenges are Bohjalian’s strength; they represent his creative fearlessness at work as he allows his readers in these moments to bear witness to the harrows of the sex trade and to question how civilized their broader society actually is.

Told with warmth and extraordinary insight, The Guest Room reinforces Bohjalian’s reputation as a courageous storyteller, a terrific handler of genres, and a master of literary suspense.

Released as a companion to The Guest Room, Bohjalian has also written a compelling short story, Nothing Very Bad Could Happen to You There, which features Alexandra in a time just before the events of the novel. The short story reads very well as a prequel to The Guest Room, but could also be read afterward. Or, perhaps, considering especially that despite the nature of the story it has an air somewhat lighter and sweeter to that of the novel’s atmosphere, readers will enjoy the short story both before and after the novel, as a chance to once again share in Alexandra’s experience as a certain famous Manhattan jewelry store works its inexplicable magic on her imagination. Nothing Very Bad Could Happen to You There is available to read for free in PDF format from Doubleday.

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For more on Chris Bohjalian, see also his wonderful novels The Sandcastle Girls, The Double Bind, The Light in the Ruins, and Midwives.

Snow Deer and Cocoa Cheer by Joanne DeMaio

by Casee Marie on December 21, 2015

in Fiction, Reviews

      To Wes, the moment becomes almost magical as she looks up at her tree again. The only sound – if it’s a sound at all – is the hush of the December night.
Joanne DeMaio, Snow Deer and Cocoa Cheer

Returning her readers to the idyllic New England world of her novels, Joanne DeMaio whips up a charming love story that captures all the magic of the holidays and reminds us of the small joys of the season. The fictional village of Addison, with all its friendly neighbors and quaint charm, is the ideal setting for a heart-warming Christmas romance, and the perfect recipe includes two endearing protagonists – mailman Wesley and greeting card designer Jane – thrown together with a precocious puppy, a festive scavenger hunt, and a dose of the magic that only the holidays can deliver.

In Snow Deer and Cocoa Cheer, Wes is picking up the pieces after his fiance leaves him jilted just before their wedding, while Jane is nursing a broken wrist and an equally broken creative spirit. Determined to create a stunning new collection of holiday cards – or risk losing her job – Jane is on the hunt for holiday cheer, finding inspiration in her mother’s beautiful winter paintings. When her path crosses with Wesley’s, she finds herself on a mission to lift his holiday spirits as well as her own. Communicating through notes in her mailbox, Jane and Wes slowly begin to take solace in each other’s company, and when Jane’s mother gives her a list of tasks to help imbue her with some Christmas cheer, Jane decides to take Wes along for the ride. Between Jane’s hunt for holiday spirit and the mischievous antics of his accidental new co-pilot, an orphaned puppy named Comet, Wesley’s plans for a solo, brooding Christmas are well on their way to being kicked out from under the mistletoe.

      He shifts in his chair to face her. “And if you need anything from me, well…” There it is, that smile of hers. Though it’s not on her lips, as though she’s keeping a personal secret between them; it’s all in her eyes. He also notices the brushed-gold ball earrings, and a hint of blush on her cheeks, until he realizes he’s noticing too much. So he reaches in front of her and picks up the red marker. “Well, you know what to do.” After a brief hesitation, he carefully finishes his cast drawing, adding a prominent flipped-up red flag to his mailbox sketch. “Just flag me. Okay?”
Joanne DeMaio, Snow Deer and Cocoa Cheer

Aptly capturing Jane’s journey to create the perfect Christmas greeting card series, the novel’s narrative is warm, cheerful, and ringing with sentiment at every turn. Familiar faces return to the pages as Addison comes to life, including Snowflakes and Coffee Cakes’s Vera, Greg (Wesley’s brother), and even, working tirelessly in the background, Vera’s weatherman father Leo Sterling. New characters and old become entwined equally within the cozy familiarity that seems to encompass all of DeMaio’s past books, and which is in no short supply here.

      Walking across the red covered bridge in her shearling-lined suede boots, it feels like she could very well be in the nineteenth century when a horse and buggy might clip-cop through the planked overpass.
      Once she turns onto Olde Addison’s Main Street, her mind is in full card-designing mode, picturing flickering white candles in the paned windows along the way, and maybe a small skating rink on the town green, the ice skaters leaning forward and swooshing across the ice, with a dusting of snow sprinkled everywhere.
Joanne DeMaio, Snow Deer and Cocoa Cheer

Over the course of her past five novels, DeMaio has explored the deep emotional caverns of many relationships as they are put to the ultimate test, but here she gives her readers a sweet novel that’s light on drama, devoting itself entirely to the simply joys that the holiday season and small-town life can bring, and the special way love looks all the more magical under the gleam of twinkling Christmas lights.

As enchanting as a season’s first snowfall and with all the warmth of an open fire, Snow Deer and Cocoa Cheer is a worthy gift from a writer who loves to give her readers stories to fall in love with.

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One of the clerical undertakings that Sidney least enjoyed was the abstinence of Lent. The rejection of alcohol between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday had always been a tradition amongst the clergy of Cambridge but Sidney noticed that it neither improved their spirituality nor their patience. In fact, it made some of them positively murderous.
James Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

First published in 2012, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is the first collection in an ongoing series of mysteries starring the compassionate and engaging Canon Sidney Chambers. Inspired by author James Runcie’s father, Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, the series captures all the charm of religious life in the English country – with a side of mystery as only the British can conjure. As the first page of the book reads, “Canon Sidney Chambers had never intended to become a detective.” A quiet but spirited Anglican priest, Sidney enjoys tending to the flock of his congregation in the quaint hamlet of Grantchester in Cambridgeshire. He knows his congregants by name, sees them every day and hears about their troubles in his capacity as a spiritual figure. And yet, when the wife of one of his parishioners comes to him with the suspicion that her husband was murdered, Sidney soon takes on – reluctantly – an entirely new and rather dangerous job: uncovering the truth and finding a murderer, a wolf hiding within his own flock of sheep.

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death includes six interconnected mysteries which read delightfully on their own or altogether as a series of short, thoroughly entertaining tales. The reader is swept up through Runcie’s smart prose into the social and cultural history of Sidney’s world as the Sherlockian clergyman unravels treacherous plots and uncovers murderous deeds. The first and titular story introduces readers to the cast of characters, many of whom return throughout the stories: Inspector George Keating, Sidney’s best friend and confidant; Miss Amanda Kendall, an enchanting friend from Sidney’s youth; fussy but lovable housekeeper Mrs. Maguire; and a mischievous Labrador puppy named Dickens. While murder is the subject of The Shadow of Death, the stories go on to cover various classic crimes: stolen jewels in A Question of Trust, a suspicious death in First, Do No Harm, a murder at a hot jazz club in A Matter of Time, a hunt for a stolen – and priceless – painting in The Last Holbein, and a murder disguised on the stage in the finale story, Honourable Men.

One of the advantages of being a clergyman, Sidney decided, was that you could disappear. Between services, no one quite knew where you were, who you might be visiting, or what you might be doing: and so, on most Mondays, his designated day off, he would bicycle a few miles out of town, ride out through the village lanes of Trumpington and Shelford, and then take the Roman Road for Wandlebury Ring and the Iron-Age form of the Gog Magog Hills. In such a flat Cambridgeshire landscape Sidney liked the gently sloping elevation of the hills, the prehistoric route ways around him, the sense that he was part of a longer, more distant history, of barrows, vortexes and leylines.
James Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

Throughout, Sidney’s fortitude and faith are put to the test as he comes to terms with the wickedness of human nature. And yet, Runcie’s utmost goal for Sidney’s adventures is clear: to take readers on a journey of moral introspection to a simpler time, where they might observe the wit and wildness of society in a classically entertaining light.

One of the most pleasant facets of the narrative in these stories, I found, was the examination of Sidney’s moral and spiritual inner-guidance system. Always forthright and never holier-than-thou, Sidney is instantly likable in his determination to see the good in all people, and especially in his enduring sense of hope for humanity – all things that we tend to overlook as worthy enough to be governing traits in characters anymore.

Sidney felt he had to prove himself not only to his parishioners, but also to his rivals. He had to earn his position as Vicar of Grantchester after the fact. This was not always easy, and so he took it upon himself to throw himself into as many situations as possible, doing whatever he could to bring a Christian perspective to everyday events.
James Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

At a time in our culture when we’re followed incessantly by the droning of over-exposure, when our connectivity to social media and the noise of the Internet is the new normal, book lovers often escape to literature as a means of getting away. With his mysteries feeling at once cozily familiar and excitingly brand-new, Runcie offers readers a unique opportunity not only to escape into a quiet book, but to be swept away to a place that epitomizes “unplugged” where, despite the presumed simplicity, adventure certainly awaits. And on that adventure, no better guide is there than the morally stout, down-to-earth Sidney Chambers with his kind heart and easy charm.

While he loved the concentrated serenity of choral music, and the work of Byrd, Tallis, and Purcell in particular, there were times when he wanted something earthier. And so, on his rare evenings at home, he liked nothing better than to listen to the latest hot sounds from America coming from the wireless. It was the opposite of stillness, prayer and penitence, he thought; full of life, mood and swing, whether it was ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’ by the Ralph Sharon Sextet or the ‘Boogie Woogie Stomp’ of Albert Ammons. Jazz was unpredictable. It could take risks, change mood, announce a theme, develop, change and recapitulate. It was all times in one time, Sidney thought, reworking themes from the past, existing in the present, while creating expectations about any future direction it might take. It was a metaphor of life itself, both transient and profound, pursuing its course with intensity and freedom. Everyone, Sidney was sure, felt the vibe differently, although he was careful not to use a word such as ‘vibe’ when he dined at his College high table.
James Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

It should be noted, Runcie plans to release one book of Sidney Chambers mysteries every year in May, as he has done for the last several years. For anyone who enjoys curling up on the couch with an entertaining and light-hearted mystery, I can’t recommend this series enough. (Runcie also advises – and I second this – that “The nicest way to get a copy is to go into an Independent bookshop and have a lovely time.”)

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Related Links:
James RuncieThe Grantchester MysteriesJames Runcie on TwitterThe Grantchester Mysteries on FacebookGrantchester on PBS

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The Light of Hidden Flowers by Jennifer Handford

November 11, 2015

“What brings you to our neck of the woods?” Our neck of the woods. Like she and Joe alone owned New Jersey. “Just visiting,” I said lightly, smiling, but for all I knew I had the squiggly-lined mouth of nervous Charlie Brown. Lucy – ha! Lucy – would pull the football from me at any […]

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Strong Light of Day by Jon Land

October 16, 2015

“I think the Cold War suddenly got red hot to the touch.” Strong Light of Day by Jon Land In her newest adventure, fifth-generation Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong takes on Russian terrorists with a mission born of history and a new kind of weapon that could completely change the future of the United States. When […]

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Celebrating 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Emma with Penguin Classics (Giveaway)

October 1, 2015

“Jane Austen did not write for academic readers. […] Rather, Austen wrote to interest those who, like her, enjoyed well-observed, stylishly written novels of everyday life.” – Juliette Wells, from the introduction of Emma If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.  So says humble Mr. Knightley to the […]

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Summer on the Cold War Planet by Paula Closson Buck

September 16, 2015

Cold War Berlin is the backdrop of Paula Closson Buck’s debut novel, one that adds to the author’s career as a writer of short stories and poetry. In Summer on the Cold War PlanetBuck draws from her experiences of the other literary forms as a means of approaching the novel format with a certain sense […]

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