With Christmas just a few days away, I’m trying to share as many of the reviews I have pending before the end of the year as I can, to make sure you have enough to read over the holidays. Also, I have to warn you I’m planning on having some reshuffling, maintenance and hopefully improvements (and a bit of a move) in the blog over the next few days. I hope I won’t disappear completely, but one never knows… If I do it’s most likely a technical problem rather than anything else… (she said, holding on tight).
After all that, time to share reviews. Today I’m revisiting two writers whose work I really enjoyed the first time around, so I repeated. Here they are.
First, S. R. Mallery with Unexpected Gifts:
First, the description:
A TRUE AMERICAN FAMILY SAGA: Can we learn from our ancestors? Do our relatives’ behaviors help shape our own?
In “Unexpected Gifts” that is precisely what happens to Sonia, a confused college student, heading for addictions and forever choosing the wrong man. Searching for answers, she begins to read her family’s diaries and journals from America’s past: the Vietnam War, Woodstock, and Timothy Leary era; Tupperware parties, McCarthyism, and Black Power; the Great Depression, dance marathons, and Eleanor Roosevelt; the immigrant experience and the Suffragists. Back and forth the book journeys, linking yesteryear with modern life until finally, by understanding her ancestors’ hardships and faults, she gains enough clarity to make some right choices.
Here, my review:
Unexpected Gifts by Sarah Mallery. The power of stories and the value of remembering the past.
Having read Mallery’s book of stories Sewing Can Be Dangerous and Other Small Threads I was looking forward to reading her novel. And although not unexpected, it definitely was a gift. The story of Sonia, a young woman studying psychology, in a complicated relationship with the lead singer of a band, and plagued by rituals and other symptoms of OCD, her story frames the novel and provides a conduit for telling many other stories. Through her we get to know her parents, and when her mother suggests she might find direction and some useful ideas by checking the attic and the family boxes that have accumulated there, each box goes on to reveal something about her family members and helps her discover more about herself.
The book is beautifully written, with vivid descriptions of places and people, that in a few sentences transport the reader to the recent (and less recent) past) and to locations and situations that spread from the new to the old world and from America to Bulgaria, via Vietnam. The structure of the novel is clever and works well in progressively unveiling Sonia’s heritage. Every time she reaches a conclusion about one of her ancestors, the next bit of information or evidence contained in the box corresponding to that person makes her reconsider and reach a better understanding (if not always a kinder opinion) about their lives. The box within a box or the Russian wooden dolls that must be opened up or peeled back to discover what hides inside (that are also mentioned in the novel) work well as a metaphor or visual representation for the structure of the novel.
The stories will affect or touch people differently, but they are all interesting and revisit crucial historical events and periods, adding a personal perspective. We have Vietnam War veterans, the hippy movement, European emigrants arriving in Ellis Island, American Suffragettes, Racial Conflict and Race Riots, the McCarthy era Communist witch hunt, Dance Marathons and the Depression Era, and romances that seem to be fated to end up badly. By exploring the past, Sonia seeks a way of understanding her behaviour and of breaking up patterns that result in sadness and unhappiness. I don’t want to reveal too much, but can add I enjoyed the ending that brought closure and a nice conclusion to the novel.
I recommend Unexpected Gifts to anybody who enjoys a good novel, with a solid historical background and strong characters, especially to people who prefer variety and many different stories. As the book is structured I think it will also appeal to readers of short stories and of anthologies of different styles of writing, as it provides multiple voices and many narrations in one single volume. Another great achievement for the author.
Here the link to her author page (and don’t forget to follow her):
And G. Elizabeth Kretchmer’s Women on the Brink.
Women on the Brink is a stunning collection of loosely linked stories in which women aged thirteen to ninety must face the unwelcome realities of their lives. Sometimes gritty, sometimes humorous, and always compassionate, G. Elizabeth Kretchmer’s prose takes the reader on a compelling ride alongside these ordinary women as they wrestle with family relationships, self-esteem, socioeconomic status, maternal obligations, and need for independence.
In “Skydancer,” a young mother resents her newborn baby. In “Float Away,” an at-risk teen is desperate to find a new home. A minister’s wife struggles with secrets in “Liar’s Game.” A despondent housewife longs for purpose in “Alligator Poetry.” The protagonist in “Tasting Freedom” wrestles with decisions about her aging mother’s care. And in “From Here to Cafayate,” a woman refuses to give up on the perpetually flawed relationship she has shared with her sister for nearly ninety years.
Each story is enhanced by one of fourteen original poems contributed by talented poets specifically for this collection and its themes. Although the stories stand alone, they are further strengthened by the relationships among the various characters throughout the collection. Readers of Ms. Kretchmer’s first novel, The Damnable Legacy, will also delight to find that some of the characters from that novel have reappeared here.
The women in this collection may or may not be the type you’d invite over for lunch. Some of them are tough. Some aren’t all that likeable. Some might not see the world the way you do. But they’re compelling in their own right as they reflect women in today’s world—women who have come along a difficult path—and as they courageously take control of their lives.
Women on the Brink by G. Elizabeth Kretchmer. The World if Full of Possibilities if you Dare.
I was offered a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I read and reviewed Kretchmer’s novel ‘The Damnable Legacy of a Minister’s Wife’ this summer and was fascinated not only by the story (the Alaskan setting also helped) but also by the complex characterisation and the psychological insights. When I was offered a copy of ‘Women on the Brink’ I didn’t hesitate.
The book combines short stories by Kretchmer with poems that are interpretations of themes, feelings or sensations related to the stories that follow. The title perfectly reflects the nature of those stories. The women in them are at different stages of their lives, from teenagers trying to find themselves, to elderly women escaping a retirement home, but they all find themselves at a point when they question their lives as they are and what they are going to do next.
I enjoyed the different settings and characters, the writing style, easy to read and varied, adapting well to the different stories —some more introspective, some more comedic— and also the open-endedness of them. In ‘Bridge Out’ the main character, who after retirement decides to become a trucker, mentions ‘Thelma and Louise’ and like that movie, the stories show women going their own way, and these are many different ways. Perhaps piloting their own plane, going away to help in a disaster zone, confronting their past… And we never see them crash. Because one of the messages of this collection is that the world is full of possibilities if you only dare.
For those who have read the author’s previous novel there are some familiar characters, and there are also characters mentioned in several stories and who appear in more than one, hinting at the interconnectedness between all of our lives.
Although I wouldn’t say my circumstances are exactly those of any of the women in the stories, I identified with the feelings and the emotions described, I cheered (worriedly) for the ‘Girls Against Perfection’, and I thoroughly enjoyed the transformation of Margee in ‘Coco Palms’, from obedient wife to avenging warrior.
I would quite happily have read more about any of the characters in the stories, and confess I could see quite a few of them turned into much longer works (I loved the light touch in ‘Accelerant’ and Maureen, the perhaps not-as-confused-as-she-seems grandmother, is a fabulous character). Despite their length, the author creates fully-fledged characters and situations in each one of the stories, condensing descriptions and sharpening her prose, with not a word spare.
The poems complement beautifully the book and provide an effective and lyrical link between them.
I recommend it to all readers, those who enjoy short fiction and poetry, and also those who don’t read short stories, because we should challenge ourselves and they might be pleasantly surprised.
The link to the Author’s page (and don’t forget to follow!)
Thanks to S.R. Mallery and to G. Elizabeth Kretchmer for their novels, thanks to all of you for reading, and you know what to do, like, share, comment and CLICK!