Coal House

by W.S. Barton

I’ve been a reader all my life and at 51 find myself mostly reading contemporary women’s fiction about mid-life set in the United States.  It’s comfortable, sometimes enlightening and, certainly, plentiful.

And then I discovered Coal House by W.S. Barton.  Set in post World War II Wales, the book doesn’t pigeon-hole itself into a time period.  If you didn’t pay attention to details, it would be hard to say if this was late 19th century or mid 20th.  To me, it was the language of the book which transports the reader into the past.  blog

As an adult I’m reading fiction set in my time period, but as a teen my favorite books in the world were Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  A chapter or two into Coal House and I felt like I was visiting an old friend.  The prose captured my attention and drew me into the tale, keeping me up late quite a few nights – apropos for a ghost story.

The premise of the novel centers around a married couple undergoing typical marital strife who, while on holiday trying to get past said strife, get caught up in the possibility of new beginnings and purchase an unbelievably well priced house at an auction.  Here’s a little wisdom learned from my five decades – if something seems like too good a deal, it probably is and will end with you having to battle demons, ghosts and murderous intent.

Much time is spent learning about the house, grounds and community which surround Coal House.  I am just floored by Barton’s use of language to captivate the reader.  I could pull any quote to share because I adored the feeling crafted by the words.  So that you may understand Barton’s prose, here is one short paragraph:

A quite marvellous feature of the library was the huge coal fire and although I had seen it earlier it was only on truly embracing the cold that I observed the true functionality.  It was a centrepiece worthy of it’s eponymity.  It would have looked wonderfully majestic when used for purpose and with the proximity to the mines, at some point, coal would have been in plentiful supply. I considered the lunacy which must have possessed whoever decided to remove all the trees, precious fuel, and I couldn’t fathom it.  It couldn’t be helped.  I realized the the outhouse must have been used to store coal.

Barton managed to write a comfortable, flowery, good old fashioned ghost tale but one which kept me guessing as to the plot.  Each chapter built upon the last and I kept changing my guess as to what was to come.  When the book came to a close, I took several days to begin this review.  It was a journey and I need time to process what I’d experienced.  I would highly recommend Coal House and hope to see more of Barton’s writing in future.

 

 

Who is Santa?

by Stephen Bigalow

Full disclosure – Christmas is my holiday.  I’m the annoying person who decorates waaaayyy before Thanksgiving.  We started putting up our six, yes SIX, Christmas trees on November 1st and I accept my role as weirdo.  When I received a copy of Who Is Santa? I was overjoyed to find a new addition to our family library.  blog2

I have been a private school teacher, worked in Montessori schools, volunteered in children’s church, taught Sunday School and homeschooled my own boys so I have read a lot of books to children over the years.  Not all of them are worth reading twice, yet we all know if a kid likes a story, parents read and re-read and read it again.

Bigalow has penned a lovely book which parents will be happy to read often.  The dialogue is charming, illustrations are beautiful and it is creatively written.  What I really appreciated is that each chapter is manageable – bedtime routine will not go on and on, but you can enjoy this over the nights leading up to the holiday.  blog1

This is also a book which covers many age groups – to be read to for younger tots and older kids can read it themselves and be interested in exactly how the legend that is Santa came to be known.  It isn’t a fluffy book, and would be appreciated by those who enjoy long tales with lots of background.

 

The Siege

By James Hanna

Part of the excitement of discovering new authors is appreciating the fact that each of us lives such disparate lives.  If I had to write my author bio on the back cover of my probably-never-will-be written book, it would be very boring.  52 year old woman, married to one man for almost 3 decades, homeschooled 2 sons, retired to West Virginia mountains = snooze fest.  New indie author James Hanna has led a life which looks anything but boring: wandered Australia for 7 years, employed in the world of criminal justice, counselor in the Indiana Department of Corrections and probation officer in the San Francisco domestic abuse and stalking unit.  Wow.  My trips to Safeway would not lead to a novel worth reading.  To me, understanding how Hanna lived his pre-author life is notable because he has penned a psychological thriller set in an Indiana correctional facility involving riotous prisoners holding guards hostage.  Clearly Hanna followed the age old advice to write what you know.  blog

Hanna creates a varied cast of characters including a charismatic pedophile, power hungry guards, rival gangs drawn together by shared ideology, employee unions exercising totalitarian control, and the central character, dorm counselor Tom Hemmings chosen by the prisoners to conduct negotiations during the siege. Hanna does an excellent job of providing the viewpoints of many in the story, never dwelling too long on one character.  Use of flashbacks move the story forward and keep the reader guessing as to the true motives of the individuals.

The book is well written, with dialogue far above what I would have anticipated from a novel set in a prison.  Hanna is a storyteller who demonstrates above average skill at painting a picture with words.  For example:

The light in the kitchen was still burning,  illuminating the crowded bookcase that supported the television set.  He stooped, searching compulsively for something to read, but was uninspired by the contents of the shelves: detective digests, more Harlequin romances, and two narrow hardbacks whose titles – The Land Fish and Father Flanagan, Friend to Youth – convinced him to leave them unopened.

“The Siege” is a complicated, character driven tale of a world most of us will never experience.  Hanna does such a stellar job of detailing this hostage situation, I actually googled to find out if this was based on a true story.  While I could not relate to many of these personalities on a personal level, for the several days I lived inside that prison setting in my head, and appreciated how human nature battles itself and institutional politics, Hanna successfully sold the story.

 

US State Map Challenge – set in Indiana

 

Do you Solemnly Swear?

by Lin Wilder

It’s always interesting to read sequels featuring characters you loved in previous novels.  Lin Wilder successfully follows up her first novel “The Fragrance Shed by a Violet” with this legal thriller “Do you Solemnly Swear.”  blog

Having recently completed book one, the returning cast was very familiar to me and I enjoyed the immediate jump in time detailing their growth and changes.  “Solemnly Swear” features: Dr. Lindsey McCall, newly VERY rich, who has graduated from prison inmate to medical director to the prison system; intrepid reporter Kate Townsend who has attained the highest praise of a writer and is now exploring developing her personal life and Lindsey’s new husband Rich Jansen who once again makes a career change from prison administrator back to attorney-at-law.

Wilder also smartly introduces new, intriguing characters in the form of private investigators, lawyers and, most compelling, a returning US soldier and current Texas State Trooper who becomes the catalyst for the plot.  Gabe McAllister battles the trauma of war and through a series of unfortunate events becomes involved with a dicey single mom.  His decision to leave this unstable woman prompts a charge of rape against McAllister; the victim being the 6-year old daughter of the ex-girlfriend.

The subject matter is uncomfortable, but Wilder is careful to not make the novel so graphic as to be unreadable.  As much as the author spent time in her “Fragrance” book educating the reader on the inner workings of drug development, this novel provides a great deal of information about the legal system and the incidences of false charges regarding sexual crimes.  Having no knowledge of these things, I found this background interesting. Wilder is proving herself quite deft at writing novels which serve both to entertain as well as educate.

Sometimes it is necessary to read all the books in a series in order to understand the long term developing plot, “Lord of the Rings” comes to mind.  Wilder’s books could stand alone, but if you’re like me and very orderly and systematic when it comes to character development, please do start with book one.  And, bonus! Book three is in the works so if you care to binge over a winter’s snowy evening……

I enjoyed the “Fragrance” novel (see my earlier review here: https://eyesandearsbooks.wordpress.com/2016/10/11/the-fragrance-shed-by-a-violet/ ) and I think this sequel is even better.  I imagine at this rate, the third book in the series is likely to be the best yet.

For the US State Challenge – Texas – fast becoming my biggest source of fiction.

 

 

In the Garden Room

by Tanya Eby

Some book reviews are easy to write and I bang them out quickly.  I read the book, the plot was (good or bad), the characters (were, were not) fully developed, I (do or do not) recommend the book…..

And then there are the rare books like “In the Garden Room” by Tanya Eby which punch you in the gut and leave you stunned.  These are the books which you don’t stop thinking about after the cover is closed for the final time.  The one which makes you feel so many feels, that processing and being able to adequately express an opinion is nearly impossible.  blog

I confess to being an Eby superfan, but as a narrator.  When she is associated with an Audible book, I don’t hesitate to add it to my library.  I was unaware she was also an author and was both excited and a little jealous to find this out.  How can one person have such a variety of talent?  I started Garden Room much the same way as I do most books nowadays, with absolutely no clue the subject matter.  This has proven to be a wonderful way in which to find treasure I might otherwise have not chosen had I known ahead of time what the story explored.  That said, if you are reading a review prior to reading the book, I assume you are actually looking for guidance or opinion on it.  This one is tough.  It’s not a book about rainbows and unicorns, and the subject matter could be a trigger for some women.

The story centers around two women in the early 1900s.  We meet mother, Cora, and daughter, Lillian when the women lived a boring, but safe life.  Having married a fisherman with dreams of creating a good life, but reeking of the stench of fish, almost 30 year old Lillian sees her future only as doom and gloom.  She was unhappy, never content and easily swayed by the charms of a vagabond who ends up being a talent scout for a Chicago brothel.

And the ladies lives go downhill from there…..Lillian creates a fantasy life in her head and sneaks away with her young daughter while her husband is away working.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess what is coming.  In the early 20th century, a 30 year old woman was OLD, but her very innocent young daughter was a great commodity.  As I said, this subject matter might be difficult, but Eby presents it so smartly, that as a reader I was drawn into the story despite the un-comfortableness of it all.

I listened to this book via Audible and must give kudos to the narrator, Christa Lewis.  She had me believing in the spoiled Cora, the defeated Cora, the regretful Cora as well as the unfortunate personality changes of naive Lillian to warrior Lillian.  There is one scene in the book detailing the inauguration of this child into the dreadful world of brothel life which literally caused me tears.  Lewis WAS that young girl.  Between the words Eby penned, and the voice Lewis spoke, that was one of the hardest paragraphs I ever heard on an Audible book.  It was not gratuitous. and was completely essential to the character development, but it was hard to hear.

This was also one of those audio books where you found yourself wishing you had pen and paper to jot down some of the lines because they were so impactful.  This one especially summed up the idea behind life as a woman:

So much of a woman’s happiness depends on what type of a cage she was kept in.

I’m glad I listened to this book and would not hesitate to try another Eby novel or listen to more of Lewis’ narration.

 

For the US State reading challenge – this one is set in Illinois.

 

The Fragrance Shed by a Violet

by Lin Wilder

If you follow my personal blog, https://newoldgirl.wordpress.com/ you are aware that I am NOT A FAN of the medical profession and feel great disdain for Big Pharma.  This attitude change occurred in the last 4 years and one additional side effect of the trauma of my iatrogenic illness was losing an entire genre of books.  I used to read every single medical thriller I could find, and laugh at the memory of my one overnight hospital stay where the book I was reading was by Robin Cook.  As a sort of exposure therapy, I decided to delve back into medical fiction and see if I could separate my own trauma from a fiction book.  I am so glad I discovered new indie author, Lin Wilder.  She was the perfect author to pull me back into my old stomping grounds.  blog

“The Fragrance Shed by a Violet” is not your typical medical thriller.  I would probably not even add “thriller” to the descriptor except that most books set in the medical industry do involve mayhem – murder, espionage, the evils of the industry, etc.  Wilder has written a book which involves the medical profession, but truly I felt this book was character driven.  Yes, Dr. Lindsey McCall is a brilliant researcher employed by a large Texas medical center, but there are so many pieces to this story, it felt more like contemporary fiction involving relationships rather than subterfuge.  This, I think, was key for me truly enjoying the work.  Wilder presents us strong, driven, intelligent female characters like McCall and investigative reporter Kate Townsend.  As the foil to those strong women, we also spend time with Lindsey’s sister, Paula a nurse with a troubled past who proves prominent in the direction Lindsey’s life takes.

As the sister of two alcoholic brothers who passed very early because of their disease, I felt a real connection to the siblings in this book.  As a reader, finding connections to characters brings the story to life and Wilder wrote a good story.  Wilder pulled me in not only with her writing but with the use of prophetic quotes at the start of each chapter, and the presence of spirituality in the story.  This did not read like smack-you-in-the-face Christian fiction, but as in many real lives, faith plays a role for some of her characters.  Reading this book was comfortable and enjoyable.

I did read the author bio prior to starting the book and I appreciated throughout my reading the fact that Wilder spent decades employed in the medical field.  Somehow, to me, knowing she had real life experience behind her gave a sense of legitimacy to her writing, especially during the parts where research and drug development was explored.  It was also quite clear that Lin Wilder is one smart cookie.  The novel is very well written, the characters are fleshed out and the story felt complete.  This was a great first medical book for me to start with and I highly recommend “The Fragrance Shed by a Violet.”

 

 

For the US Map Reading Challenge, this one is set in Texas.  Yes, I’ve read another Texas book this year, but it’s a big state so I’m recording this one as well.

The Bleeding Door

by Todd Cook

As a new resident to Appalachia, I was excited to read “The Bleeding Door” as it is set in the woods of Kentucky in the 19th century.  Todd Cook clearly spent a lot of time studying the culture and integrating it into the story.  In fact the author bio explains his passion for, and investigation of, the well known Hatfield-McCoy feud, and acquaintanceship with sources who live in the area in which he sets this historical fiction.  “The Bleeding Door” is a retelling of this feud with characters who are fleshed out and made real to the reader. blog

It took a while to become immersed in the story.  The first part of the book develops slowly and jumps among time and characters.  I am glad I stuck with it, though, because the author builds upon that early material in order to tell a good, old-fashioned tale.  By the time the story ended, I had favorite characters and connected to them and their ultimate fate.

“The Bleeding Door” is a novel which uses the setting as a main character.  The geography of Kentucky, the mystery of the dark woods, the isolation of those who reside there are all critical to exactly what happens in the hills.  The Civil War was very impactful for those states whose residents could go either way.  Face it, a Massachusetts neighborhood was more likely to be all pro-Union while the residents of Kentucky had decisions to make.  This resulted in in-fighting and danger for families and vengeance was a popular problem solver.

I hesitate to make this criticism because I never know if what I experience is as a result of the writing, or remnants of my brain injury with which I still deal.  Keep that in mind as this may not affect other readers in the same way.  Cook worked hard at incorporating the language of the hills from the 1800s.  While much of the story is written in our modern English, character dialogue is written in its original Appalachian speak.  For example:

“Whar are you fixin’ to take us?” demanded Melvin. “We hait done nothing’!” The captors did not answer.

Melvin grew more frantic.  “I hain’t never throwed off on Vance and Phillip! Them two never throwed off on me!”

“I sware t’warn’t me,” interjected Robert. “I was out fightin in Virginny when they was shot, I sware hit!”

From context I could understand the plot, but I did find myself having to read (and sometimes re-read) much more methodically.

“The Bleeding Door” is a nice tale and I will look for the next book Todd Cook pens.

 

 

US State Reading Challenge – Kentucky