Thursday, July 28, 2016

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

In her 2016 Newberry Honor Award-winning book, Echo, Pam Munoz Ryan weaves together four different story threads, and sprinkles them with a bit of magic.  In the book’s unnamed preface, the reader is introduced to young Otto Messenger (a German boy who’s tale takes place 50 years before World War II) who, after the purchase of a mysterious fairytale book about three cursed prinesses, loses his way in the woods.  His way home is found, and his life saved by the magic of three young women, identical in name and circumstance to those in the fairytale book he purchased from a gypsy (who also pressed upon him a harmonica). The girls themselves have become trapped in the forest, and estranged from their family, by a vengeful witch. They tell Otto that they will lead him from the dark forest, if he will take with him the magical harmonica which they each take a turn at playing, and promise that one day, he will pass it along to one who’s life is in peril.  He stumbles through the forest, almost losing heart until he plays the harmonica and feels the courage and solace of the three sisters run through him with each note until he is found by near the end of the path by his frantic family.

The novel next picks up its next thread with young Friedrich Schmidt, in a small town just outside the Black Forest. Friedrich is a talented musician, who fantasizes about conducting his own orchestra and often pretends to do so with hand-waving and great gusto, much to the chagrin of his older sister Elizabeth.  Friedrich, bullied for such eccentricity, is pulled from school and taught by his father and co-workers at the local harmonica factory where he goes to work. One day, on his lunchbreak, he discovers a very special harmonica in an area believed by the other workers to be haunted. Despite his talent and obvious intelligence, the large port wine stain covering half of his face marks him as “undesirable” in what is becoming an increasingly hitler-ized community, where differences are not only frowned upon, but also dangerous. Friedrich’s eccentricities and birthmark, which is viewed as a deformity, in addition to his father’s status as a “jew lover” place them all in jeopardy, and he is forced make some brave decisions.
The novel’s next section, set in Pennsylvania in the summer of 1935, focuses on eleven year-old Mike and his younger brother Frankie. Both were orphaned by a series of unfortunate events that took first their father, then their mother, and finally their aging grandmother.  Their grandmother was a devoted music lover and piano teacher, and insisted, on her death bed, that Mike and Frankie be placed in a boys’ home that had a piano, and that they never be separated.  The director of the home, Ms. Pennyweather, takes a dislike for the boys and this is exacerbated by their antics (brought on when potential families seem inclined to split up the pair), and plans to ship young Frankie off to the state home and put Mike out to hire at local farms.  A rescue materializes in the form of two attorneys sent on behalf of a mysterious benefactor to test various orphans for musical ability.  Attorney Howard agrees to take both of the boys when Frankie seems on the verge of melt-down after their successful audition at the orphanage’s rickety upright.  Mike soon discovers that their benefactor, a former concert pianist herself, is not at all pleased to learn that, instead of a talented young girl, she is now the mother of two young boys.  His suspicion that all is not as it seems is further roused when he learns that the adoption didn’t stem from the most altruistic of motives in the first place.  The more he learns, the more desperate he becomes to make sure Frankie is alright, even if it means taking himself out of the picture. Practicing with the almost magical-sounding harmonica purchased for him by Mr. Howard, Mike is determined to find placement for himself with Hoxie’s Harmonica Wizards, but even that may just not be enough to save them both.
 The novel’s fourth section, taking place just after Pearl Harbor, with Ivy Lopez, the young the daughter of two migrant parents in California’s Fresno County.  Thanks to a northeastern charity drive, Ivy receives a harmonica, and soon displays an uncanny talent.  She is so advanced that she, along with her class, is set to perform live on the radio.  Unfortunately, before she is able to make her broadcast debut, her father receives a job offer, an opportunity he can’t refuse. The family quickly packs up and heads for the Yamamoto farm, a place where, if things work out, her father has been promised a supervisory position on the farm with a home and land of his own.  All of this hinges on the Lopez family’s ability to manage the farm successfully. The Yamamotos’, Japanese-Americans, have been interned, and their property and home lies empty. Kenny, their son, a marine interpreter, is set to arrive and evaluate their success in caring for the property in his family’s absence.  Standing between the Lopez family and their dream, is a vandal who seems bent on undoing all of their improvements, and an angry neighbor who remains convinced that the Yamamotos are Japanese spies and saboteurs. Ivy, possessing a secret that could make all the difference
 With such a wide and reaching narrative arc, the author deftly negotiates the different voices in her story to impart a theme of hope and redemption during a time of great upheaval. While the war is, to some extent, a presence in each tale, as is the harmonica, the true meat of the story is the hopefulness, bravery, and idealism of each of the characters.  This is a heart-warming piece of historical fiction sure to please both parents and children alike.

Jennifer Wilson

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Excellent Lombards

It's about the time of year when I start thinking of all the good things that come with autumn. One of my favorite fall things is a sweet, crunchy apple. The Excellent Lombards, Jane Hamilton's newest novel, takes us to an apple orchard in Wisconsin run by, you guessed it, the Lombard family. It's an extended family that owns the orchard, and our particular view of this pastoral setting comes from Mary Frances "Frankie" Lombard, whose father and uncle are sharing the responsibility of running the orchard. Like any farm, it requires a lot of  hard work. And Frankie dives right into it. She loves her life on the orchard to such a great extent that she cannot imagine leaving it. She dreams that she and her brother William will in fact never leave; they will stay there together and run it forever. This does not take into account her uncle, her cousin, or the hotshot farmhand her uncle hires. Suddenly Frankie's future fears threatened. This is a beautifully written book of a girl growing up and figuring things out. Reading it, you may remember what it felt like to gradually see the nuances of life that you missed as a child. Some of those realizations are bittersweet. But that apple you'll want to munch while reading, well that one will be perfect.

posted by Kelly Currie

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

After his wife dies suddenly in an unexplained accident, a man and his two young sons are faced with a grief that threatens to consume them. Soon after, the Crow of myth comes to stay with them, promising to stay with them until he is no longer needed. Crow is just like he is in the fables: a trickster and a villain, but he is also a solace to the family struck-through with sorrow.

The publisher’s description calls Grief is the Thing with Feathers “part novella, part polyphonic fable, part essay on grief,” and I have to agree. Porter has taken a straight-forward narrative – a father and his sons work to regain themselves after suffering a tragic loss – and infuses it with the realistic unreality of fable and writes it to reflect the disjointed way we remember our lives during times we are faced with overwhelming grief. He infuses a bit of madness here, a spot of humor there, and an underlying feeling of being lost but maybe (hopefully) not forever. The wordplay and flow reminded me of beat poetry, but the content and story feel very 21st Century.
I love both short stories and novellas. When done well, they take a story and strip away all of the extra, anything that is unessential, leaving only the truth behind. Porter has done just that.  Don’t let the small size fool you (it’s only 128 pages), this book is not light reading.

-Portia Kapraun

Monday, July 11, 2016

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh is a twisty-turny tension-filled debut novel. It opens with DI Ray Stevens and his new partner Kate Evans interviewing a mother whose 5 year old son has slipped from her grasp on the way home from school and is killed by a hit and run driver.  Of course the police are determined to find who would be so despicable as to leave a child dying in the street.
Unable to face the devastating accident, Jenna Gray runs away and hides out in the small coastal village of Penfach where the police and press can't find her. She slowly settles in the village, making friends with the owner of the caravan park and with the owner of the tiny cottage she rents.  Previously she was a sculptor, here she begins to take photographs of the beach and sells them as postcards.  She finds a half dead puppy and forms a romantic friendship with the local veterinarian.  She is beginning to put her past behind her and feel hopeful about the future.  Then it all comes crashing down around her when the police find her and arrest her.
This is Part One of the book.  Part Two begins with Jenna meeting her husband and fills in the backstory to the time of the arrest and after.  There are so many twists, that revealing any more of Part Two would give away too many of the surprises. 

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom


This book made me think about my own spirituality  and what faith means to me. The question Albom asks is: "what if faith wasn't what divided us, but what brought us together?"  In a world where so many wars are started in the name of religion and holier-than-thous attitudes prevail amongst so many different groups, it seems like all of our problems would be solved if only we could just say, "Hey, I have faith, you have faith, however we get there doesn't matter.  What matters is that we both BELIEVE."  Doing good for others is sometimes the greatest way to experience pure joy.  If we all gave a little more of ourselves, than maybe that peace would prevail.

HAVE A LITTLE FAITH is really a good read.  Beyond the story and the characters, the message is deep.  It's a book that will stay with you for quite awhile.