Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

by Casee Marie on August 29, 2014 · 1 comment

in Fiction, Reviews

Across the landscape of his career, author Chris Bohjalian has written novels about a murderer’s plight against a privileged family in World War II Italy, about a young social worker driven into Jazz Age Long Island by a homeless man’s photographs, of an American woman’s love for an Armenian man in early-twentieth century Syria, and more. In his contemporary classic, Midwives, he tells the unforgettable story of midwife Sibyl Danforth and a home birth gone tragically wrong. Narrated by Sibyl’s fourteen year-old daughter Connie, Midwives is a chilling and evocative account of what one woman will endure for the sake of protecting her name and standing by her choices. When Sibyl Danforth experienced challenges in the delivery of a client’s child, she would have called the hospital and sent for an emergency rescue squad. But in a small Vermont town in the throes of a winter storm, help is an impossible distance away and Sibyl finds herself the only hope of a helpless, unborn child. After the mother has expired, Sibyl takes matters into her own hands and performs an emergency cesarean section to save the child. But what if, as the prosecutors of her court case are determined to prove, the mother had still be alive when Sibyl cut the baby from her?

With the sort of harsh but deeply emotive freedom that makes his work so singularly compelling, Bohjalian unravels the story of Sibyl’s journey to clear herself of being labeled a murderer. Is she suffering vulgar mistreatment at the hands of others, or did she truly make an atrocious mistake? There’s something quiet and vulnerable about Sibyl as a character, which makes her no less vivid, but where the novel really excels in its character depiction is in narrator Connie. In Connie we see a strong, determined young woman represented with the same clarity and depth as many of Bohjalian’s other memorable characters, whereas Sibyl sometimes seems to be hiding behind a smokescreen (a necessity, I think, if we readers are to form our own judgments of Sibyl’s story).

Much like The Double Bind, Midwives plays very steadily on Bohjalian’s knack for psychological mischief; through a fairly quiet and unhurried story he seems to know how to guide his reader into a false sense of security before sweeping revelations come in to knock us off our feet. Also as with The Double Bind, I’m left to wonder exactly how he manages to know what to put in and what to leave out. For me, Midwives worked really well from beginning to end; it had me riveted, yet never able to guess exactly how the ending would play out – and then thrown for a few final loops just when I thought I couldn’t be caught by surprise.

Additionally, the level of research that Bohjalian undertook to make Midwives such an engrossing novel is quite fascinating. Not only does he explore the details of midwifery in 1980s America with astonishing acuity, but the novel’s two acts documenting the subsequent manslaughter trial include some aggressively researched and impressive court room drama. This is an interesting novel in its many assets and its many areas of strength: once again the narrative carries off of the pages to envelope the reader in the setting, and young Connie – thirty at the time of her narrative, but fourteen in her memories – is as vividly imagined as the midwife at the center of the plot. Bohjlaian has proven himself as a masterful storyteller and as particularly adept at creating multi-faceted, deeply intellectual drama, but Midwives delves also into an element of the profoundly human, glimpsing the vulnerabilities of human nature and exploring the emotional ways in which we deal with those imperfections. At times challenging, often raw in its uninhibited exploration of truth, Midwives relays much heart and determination even amid the most devastating of tragedies.

Midwives was my August pick for the TBR Pile Challenge, and my fourth overall Chris Bohjalian novel. (I’ve also reviewed The Sandcastle Girls, The Double Bind, and The Light in the Ruins.) I’ve enjoyed each of his stories so much, and it consistently impresses me how well he writes stories with so much diversity to them; I can’t think of many other authors who write about such vastly different times, places, topics, and people – and make them all seem realistic to boot!

Title: Midwives
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Genre: literary fiction, mystery
Publisher: Vintage (paperback)
Release date: November 8, 1998 (April 1997, original)
Source: personal collection
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The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Harnett

by Casee Marie on July 10, 2014

in Fiction, Reviews

Set against the devastating coal mine fires of 1960s Pennsylvania, Natalie S. Harnett’s The Hollow Ground tells the story of eleven year-old Brigid Howley and her family, a long generation of coal miners, as they wrestle with secrets of the past and fight against nature to salvage the lives they’ve always known. It’s an astonishingly vivid portrait of desperation and the lingering threads of hope when even the ground beneath one’s feet can’t be trusted. Through Brigid’s clever and openly honest narrative we follow the Howleys from their home as they rejoin her father’s parents – known simply and effectively as Gram and Gramp – in the town where her father was raised; a town in which gritty secrets and ominous shadows tie together with a curse placed upon the Howley family’s Molly Maguire ancestor a century before. With precision and power, Brigid gently weaves the story of her struggle to keep her family together as passions rise, grudges give way to liberated feuds, and devastating secrets are revealed.

Harnett writes with eloquence and grit, devotedly tending to the nuances of the story in a way that makes for a remarkably strong debut. Voice becomes a very central focus of the novel’s delivery, whether it’s the narrative voice of the young and preternaturally wise Brigid, who in her pre-teen years thrills at reading the Brontës and Betty Smith, or the distinctively illustrated voices of any number of the novel’s supporting characters: her fierce-tempered and unstable Ma, well-meaning but enigmatic Daddy, and especially her cantankerous and gruffly compassionate Gram. With each character’s unique voice Harnett creates a new layer of intrigue and emotional complexity in her bold story. In a way the characters lend a special sort of detail to the novel’s deeply atmospheric quality, wrapping the reader further in the many folds of uncertainty and devastation that the people of these coal mines experienced.

The coal mine fire itself becomes its own entity in The Hollow Ground as the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning threatens the air and the fire burning in the mines below combines with the earth’s elements, creating deadly sinkholes that can swallow homes and lives in a moment. Based on the true fires of Centralia, Pennsylvania which began burning over fifty years ago and still burn today, the story touches on a tragic piece of recent US history as it explores the impact these fires had on entire towns and the people who inhabited them, people whose determination thrives as they attempt to fight a fire burning below their feet: an unseen and quite deadly adversary. Against this harrowing backdrop, the dramas of Brigid’s family members play out in poignant detail. Much as Brigid struggles with the faults of the grown-ups in her family, the reader too is torn between compassion and frustration, feeling very much what Brigid feels and being drawn even closer to her in that way.

Brigid is a terrific rendering of a young literary heroine in the vein of Harper Lee’s iconic Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve noticed that young heroines seem to have begun rising through literary fiction over the last few years, and Harnett’s innocent, genuine Brigid is a great addition to that representation. Her moxie is admirable and her emotional stability is at times particularly jarring in the wake of her parents’ poor choices, a fact that boldly illustrates her wisdom and even her superiority over the elders she so painstakingly tries to appease. Ultimately The Hollow Ground is an unflinching portrait of familial struggle and a timeless examination of the treacherous elements that can both strengthen and relentlessly violate a family’s connection. At once contemplative and energetic, Harnett’s debut is a provocative and eerie novel of suspense, intricacy, and profound feeling.

Title: The Hollow Ground

Author: Natalie S. Harnett

Genre: literary fiction, mystery

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books

Release date: May 13, 2014

Source: Get Red PR (C/O)

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Molly Greene’s spunky amateur private eye Gen Delacourt is back in her third outing, and this time a new mystery takes her into the complicated world of art. In Paint Me Gone, Gen’s latest client enlists her to find a long lost sister – a sister thought to have committed suicide two decades earlier. Tied to the murder of a stranger, Sophie Keene’s sister Shannon left the world she knew with only a tragic final note in her wake, but when an unsigned painting lands in Sophie’s lap that bears a mysterious resemblance to her lost sister her hope – dormant for twenty years – is rekindled. Armed with only the painting as an uncooperative clue, Gen finds herself on the case with her trusted friend and neighbor, flamboyant and delightful Oliver Weston, as her unofficial partner-in-crime-solving. Also on her resource list is San Francisco detective Mackenzie “Mack” Hackett, the charming cop with whom Gen shares a complicated romantic spark. As she works her way through the nitty-gritty of the art world, Gen will sidestep dangerous dealers and broken-hearted exes, uncovering a web of secrets, lies, and surprises that could cost her more than she bargained for.

With her third novel, Molly Greene continues to layer on the charm and ramp up the mystery. At times Paint Me Gone is impossible to put down, so enmeshed is the reader not only in a wonderfully inscrutable mystery but also in a colorful world made bright with memorable characters. All of Greene’s creations – from the new characters to the returning – become instantly familiar, drawing the reader even more deeply into the story. Greene has a decided knack for creating snappy dialogue, rendering heartwarming characters, and tying it all together with a well-imagined, smartly paced mystery; her talents have continued to grow throughout the Gen Delacourt mysteries, and Paint Me Gone might be her best story yet.

As a heroine Gen is in many ways a reader’s dream-come-true: she’s plucky, resourceful, and vivacious, with the smarts to back up her instincts and a well-developed sense of adventure (not to mention a sense of humor). She’s a delight to see brought back to life with every story, and she takes on a decidedly fuller role in Paint Me Gone as the novel’s primary focus. Although the many wonderful female characters who played central parts in Greene’s past stories – Mark of the Loon‘s Madison and Rapunzel‘s Cambria – are not to be forgotten, it’s great to see Gen holding her own at the center of this third adventure. Her complicated relationship with Mack offers some sweet insight into Gen’s more vulnerable side, allowing Greene to illustrate all the facets that make her such a great character and allowing us as readers to appreciate her even more. Meanwhile, the playful and heartwarming friendship between Gen and Oliver lights up every scene they share; their easy camaraderie has a way of enfolding the reader into their circle, making us feel like we’re truly along for the adventure. The adventure in question is perhaps the most intricate mystery Greene has crafted so far. Through her research she brings to life the nuances of the art world in just enough detail to engage her readers on a deep level without making us feel as though we’re in over our heads with information. Finding that balance isn’t always easy, but Greene hits all the right notes with Paint Me Gone; with its charming cast and engaging mystery, it keeps the reader guessing and having fun through every page.

Title: Paint Me Gone (Gen Delacourt Mystery #3)

Author: Molly Greene

Genre: mystery

Publisher: Molly Greene

Release date: April 25, 2014

Source: Molly Greene (c/o)

Buy the book: Kindle

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The Tenth Circle, the latest book in Jon Land’s Blaine McCracken series, is the definition of a page-turner in the suspense genre. We first meet McCracken in Iran, where Israel has enlisted him to pull off an impossible one-man mission in the face of a devastating nuclear threat. This intense episode becomes just a prelude to the high-octane action that Land delivers in the novel’s central story. Once back in the United States, McCracken is met with a close personal tragedy that ties into a string of violent acts of domestic terrorism across the country. His search for answers leads him to one man, the Reverend Jeremiah Rule, whose rampage of extremism has escalated with the acquisition of the White Death, a weapon that could cripple the United States dramatically. Along with his comrades – including the preternaturally lethal Native American, Johnny Wareagle, and the hilariously rendered pot-smoking Captain Seven – McCracken works to uncover the truth behind the White Death, a history that will lead him to answer two of history’s greatest mysteries: the disappearance of British settlers in the 16th century Roanoke colony, and the vanishing of a 19th century ship’s entire crew, the Mary Celeste.

The mystery at the core of The Tenth Circle is wonderfully crafted, and the narrative is superbly achieved. It’s easy to imagine the challenge of writing a suspenseful action thriller that weaves in so much detail – both historic and modern – but Land seems to balance it all with ease. The nonstop energy of the novel’s pacing and the intricacy of the story’s detail combine to create a book that seems capable of pleasing the reader on every level. A component of The Tenth Circle that I especially enjoyed was the uniqueness of Land’s characters, from McCracken at the story’s focus to the variety of supporting characters that bring the depth of the novel to life. A particular favorite and great example is Zarrin, a Palestinian pianist-cum-assassin whose legendary ease of lethal action has been matched by her battle with Parkinson’s. Amid the barrage of explosive action, Zarrin’s personal journey manages to play out in poignant interludes that create a wonderfully engaging story within the story.

While religious extremism isn’t a device that I prefer in a novel’s antagonist, Land’s portrayal of the Reverend Rule was very well done as the illustration of a man driven to instability by past crimes and the desperate search for redemption. The complexity of the character grows with every revelation of his past and present mistakes, each more disturbing than the next. Countering the very emotional villainy in Rule is the remarkable science behind the “White Death”, a true weapon of mass destruction created by the earth itself. I was fascinated by the way Land presented the deadly chemical to the reader in such an intricately detailed yet genuinely believable way. Its ties to the great historical mysteries in the story were equally impressive, revealing the depth and intensity of research that went into the novel.

Blaine McCracken himself is an admirably diverse character with a lot of heart, and patience for little more than getting to the root of the problem – with haste. His interactions with others, friends and adversaries alike, jump off the page with as much style as the richly crafted action sequences. With sharp pacing, a superbly detailed narrative, and plenty of unexpected surprises, The Tenth Circle manages to break the mold of the political thriller while still delivering all of the hallmarks that adventure-seeking readers have come to love.

Title: The Tenth Circle (Blaine McCracken #11)
Author: Jon Land
Genre: mystery, thriller
Publisher: Open Road Media
Available Formats: paperback, e-book
Release date: December 17, 2013
Provided by: Jon Land (c/o)
Buy the book: Amazon Kindle | Barnes & Noble

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