The Awakening by Amanda Stevens: Book Review.

I discovered author Amanda Stevens when editor J.T. Ellison asked a group of thirteen authors to contribute a southern gothic short story, based on a photograph of a dilapidated house, to the book, Dead Ends. Amanda Steven’s story leaped off the pages for one significant reason: her writing is reminiscent of what I know as British phrasing, that fluid, conversational manner in which Daphne Du Maurier, for example, lulled her readers in her world-class novel, Rebecca. I don’t come across this captivating style of writing often. There’s an intelligent beauty to it, and Amanda Stevens wields it seemingly effortlessly. I looked further into author Amanda Stevens, discovered fifteen novels, and randomly chose The Awakening. I am glad I did.
Set in historic Charleston, South Carolina, The Awakening opens in Woodbine Cemetery, a hidden and forgotten burial ground, of which narrator, Amelia Gray, is commissioned to restore. Already the reader is poised to look over their shoulder. That the narrator speaks in a tone matter of fact prepares them for something unusual, though they immediately accept the premise as a matter of course. It is the fall, the wind rustles tree limbs overhead, the air is chilling, and Amelia Gray is an intuitive who sees the dead.
The Awakening is a mystery wrapped in a ghost story. Amelia discovers an unnamed baby’s grave in Woodbine Cemetery, sees the ghost of a child, and the story takes off in a dynamic suspenseful, surprising, and au courant. Because Amelia Gray is rebounding from her unresolved, broken love affair with dark and handsome John Devlin, a compelling romance tugs at its middle, and elements of the heroine’s journey string us along. This story has everything to keep the reader turning its pages: an eerie setting, a compelling backstory, an intriguing love interest, and, most important to me, a narrator that lets the reader know what she is thinking as events heighten to a hair-raising collide, and hidden elements come to light.
I recommend this expertly paced and crafted book because, to me, it defies genre. It is everything riveting, written in language so uncommonly beautiful I looked forward each night to returning to its burning pages.

 

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The Time Between by Karen White

This lovely novel has everything: lyrical prose, passionate descriptions, a windswept Edisto, South Carolina setting, a crotchety, Hungarian matriarchal figure named Helena with a mysterious past, whose prosperous, white-collar nephew hires narrator Elenor Murray to tend to her demands, in a seaside house filled with priceless portraits of unknown origins. And music? The Time Between is filled with classical music, running through the story thematically from the hands of Elenor, who, racked with guilt over her involvement in her sister’s life-altering accident and her father’s death, has foresworn her love of the piano. And yet, the reader learns, Helena’s past in war-torn Hungary incrementally unfolds as the two women learn to trust each other. In Hungary, we learn, Helena’s life was centered upon music, as Helena was one of three sisters regionally famous as a trio before the war tossed their life asunder. It is the piano that draws Elenor and Helena slowly together, and Helena’s nephew, Finn, who ultimately links the two women by loving both. I loved everything about this steady-paced, intriguing story. It is replete with love, history, the complications of family, redemption and growth. I received this novel as a surprise for joining the infamous book club, the Pulpwood Queens, by its book-loving headmistress, Kathy Murphy. Reading this novel has made a Karen White fan of me!

Girl on the Leeside by Kathleen Anne Kenney.

Because I once lived in a small town in Connemara, at the gateway of the Irish-speaking area called the Gaeltacht, I look for those novels that depict the region as it is, for once one has spent significant time there, its ways and means register in the soul with perpetual resonance, leaving one forever nostalgic for what can only be described as the west of Ireland’s consciousness. It isn’t easy to capture, for all its subtle nuances, yet author Kathleen Anne Kenney has done just that in writing Girl on the Leeside in the manner the region deserves, which is to say this beautiful story is gifted to the reader with a sensitive, light touch.

Girl on the Leeside is deep in character study. Most of what happens concerns the human predicament, no matter where it is set. More than a coming of age story centered on twenty seven year old Siobhan Doyle, it is a story of the path to emotional maturity, out of a circumstantial comfort zone, (which, in this case, is perfectly plausible, due to its isolated and insular Irish setting) into all that it takes to overcome one’s self-imposed limitations to brave the risk of furthering one’s life.

In utter fearlessness, Kathleen Anne Kenney invites the reader to suspend disbelief in giving us an otherworldly character that speaks to the inner fairy in those who dare to dream. Small and ethereal Siobhan is orphaned at the age of two by her unconventional mother, and father of unknown origin. She is taken in and raised by her mother’s brother, Keenan Doyle, the publican of his family’s generational, rural establishment called the Leeside, near the shores of a lough tucked away in remote Connemara. Introverted, with little outside influence, she is keenly possessed by her culture’s ancient poetry and folklore. She is a natural born artist, gifted with an intuitive grasp on words and story, a passion shared by her Uncle Keenan, yet so pronounced in her that she walks the line between fantasy and reality. It isn’t easy to redirect one’s invested frame of reference in the world, if it isn’t completely necessary, yet necessity arrives at the Leeside, when American professor of ancient Irish poetry and folklore, Tim Ferris, comes to compare literary notes with Siobhan and Keenan. It is this catalyst that sets the wheels in motion of a heartfelt, insightful story that involves the willingness to grow. All throughout, author Kathleen Anne Kenney explores the myriad fears that get in the way, and shows us the way to triumph.

Girl on the Leeside is a deceptively soft read. It is so laden with beautiful imagery, so seamlessly woven with radiant poetry that it lulls you into its poignancy and holds you captive, all the way to its satisfying end.

Review: The Bookshop at Water’s End

Every line in The Bookshop at Water’s End is soulfully written in seamlessly crafted chapters. Beginning in the emergency room of a Charleston, South Carolina hospital, this enchanting story never loses its page-turning sense of urgency, and yet it is delivered softly, as a deeply insightful, thought provoking character study on two women, whose lives are significantly entwined. Author Patti Callahan Henry knows her way around the nuances of women, and writes with uncommon fearlessness, as she tells the story of Bonny and Lainey, in their mid-forties now, who formed a life-long friendship at the age of thirteen while on family vacation in the small South Carolina coastal town of Watersend. Then and there, the wheels were set in motion of a dynamic that resonated forward with such resounding effect that even they were not aware of its repercussions. But there is no running from cause and effect, and when Bonny and Lainey have cause to return to Watersend,  the threads of this story reverberate in love and longing, mystery and self-discovery, all woven together in one plausible tapestry.

Bonny Blankenship’s life and identity is centered upon her medical profession, whose seeds were planted at thirteen by uttering a fateful wish in one magical, belief-driven moment alongside Lainey, as the two swam in the river at Watersend. That her wish came true sets the foundation for Bonnie’s side of the story, just as Lainey’s simultaneous wish materializes, in what is ultimately an outgrowth from her anguished childhood. Lainey is an acclaimed artist, whose medium involves creating visual stories by piecing them together, an act, the reader suspects, that has much to do with piecing together the unresolved mystery around the disappearance of her mother. It is this singular, cataclysmic event that shapes the future for Lainey and her older brother, Owen, whom Bonnie secretly loves. It is the fear of friendship’s betrayal and Owen’s mercurial nature that keeps Bonny’s love for Owen in arrested development. It is the longing of the heart and the reasoning of the mind that burdens her with the push and pull of love’s unrealized potential, even as her life path finds her married to another and raising a daughter named Piper.

The character, Piper Blankenship, seems to me the conscience of this story. She is nineteen, maladjusted, and written with such accurate sensitivity that I repeatedly pictured her at the heart of a great YA story. Her perspective gifts the reader with a view from the edge, and her pivotal placement in the story shows us unflinchingly who each of the adult characters are, as they try to find their footing amidst shifting tides.

The Bookshop at Water’s End is a story that never stops searching, and that many of its events are tied to Watersend’s local bookshop is brilliantly symbolic. The bookshop is an anchor in full possession of the past’s facts, and its proprietress, Mimi, plays her cards close to the vest as she faithfully waits for the players in this story to discover the clues that will allow the looming puzzle affecting them all to fall into proper place.

Three cheers for author Patti Callahan Henry. She has given us a heart-wrenching, mesmerizing story of characters beautifully flawed and made them beautifully human.

 

Note: I won the ARC of this book in a Goodreads giveaway! The Bookshop at Water’s End will be released on July 11, 2017.

The Stolen Child by Lisa Carey

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Because I once lived on the western coast of Ireland, and because author Lisa Cary moved to the island of Inisbofin, off Ireland’s west coast to research her first book, I’ve been following her career for many years. I’ve loved each of her four Irish themed novels, and eagerly awaited the February 7th release of her latest, The Stolen Child. It is a story much like Ireland herself: deceptive in its riddled nuances, more than the sum of its parts. The soul of the story creeps up on you. It takes patience and willingness to allow the magic to take hold, and when it does, it is not by possession. The Stolen Child spins the kind of magic that lulls at the core of your being; affects your consciousness, waits for you to piece it together until you understand. There is little overt in this languid novel, which, again, is much like Ireland. It is a desperate story through and through, yet in the hands of author Lisa Carey, it resonates with mythical beauty, gives you a sense of timelessness, and holds you fast by its earthy, brass tacks.
In pitch-perfect language, Carey wields dialogue specific to the west coast of Ireland’s desolate environs. It is an understated language, upside down to outsiders, but once your ear attunes, you are affronted by the superfluousness of other tongues. All primary characters in The Stolen Child are women. They live cut-off from the mainland of Ireland’s west coast, twelve miles out, upon rocky, wind-swept, St. Brigid’s Island, during the one year time frame of May, 1959 to May, 1960. It is a timeframe fraught with the looming inevitability of the islanders’ evacuation from their homeland, with its generational customs and ties, to the stark reality of life on the mainland, with its glaring and soulless “mod-cons.” Most of the characters are conflicted about leaving the island, save for the sinister Emer, who has her own selfish agenda, centered upon her only child Niall. Her sister, Rose, is the sunny, earth-mother, unflappable sort, who only sees the buried good in Emer, whereas everyone one else on the island shuns her, for her malefic, dark ways, which they intuit as dark art. Emer has one foot on the island and the other in the recesses of the fairies’ manipulative underworld. It is the American “blow-in,” Brigid, the woman with a complicated past, who has her own ties to the island from her banished mother, that cracks the carapace of Emer’s guarded and angry countenance. Together, the pair explore an illicit relationship, but when it snaps back, Emer retaliates with a force that effects the entire island and twists her worst fears into fate.
The Stolen Child is magnificently crafted, for it is a sweeping story set on a cloistered island, which has nothing to recommend it save for its quays, its view, and its eponymous holy-well. This is a novel rife with character study that is quintessentially Irish, yet applicable far afield. In themes of motherhood, hope, desperation, and hopelessness, the characters take what little they have and wrestle it into making do. It is the power of steel intention that drives this story, and the reader receives it from all conceivable angles. I recommend The Stolen Child to all who love Ireland, to all who love an exceptional, creative story, and to all who love language used at its finest. All praise to the author Lisa Carey. I eagerly await the next book.

 

Claire Fullerton is the author of Dancing to an Irish Reel, and A Portal in Time. Her next book, Mourning Dove, will be released by Firefly Southern Fiction in 2018.

One Good Mama Bone by Bren McClain

One Good Mama Bone

Once you attune yourself to the voice of this emotionally evocative story, it’ll submerge you in language like water running in a creek bed. Author Bren McClain takes the reader to a down on its luck farm, in the esoteric pocket of rural 1950’s Anderson, South Carolina, and delivers lines, such as “Get the by God out of my clean yard” and “He’d probably be drunk as a coot and trying to have relations with his common law.” It is McClain’s uncompromising use of language that gives us the consciousness of each character in this purpose driven story, who are all linked to each other by the common pursuit of raising a steer to enter into the 1952 Fat Cattle Show and Sale, with dreams of winning the monetary prize awarded to its Grand Champion. Every character has its own agenda, and the best and worst of human nature is depicted as we follow the motivation of each principal character to the destination of one fateful day. One Good Mama Bone opens with a birth’s gripping drama and never turns the reader loose throughout its breath-catching, suspenseful build. It gives us a protagonist in single mother Sarah Creamer, who doggedly fights the constraints of poverty and wrestles with her own beaten down identity, all in the name of selfless love for her young son, Emerson Bridge. Sarah’s quest tugs at the heartstrings with the lure of her incremental maternal awakening, as reflected in her relationship with a mother cow named Mama Red. That this story contains a nemesis in the contentious, self-serving cattleman Luther Dobbins, who throws up one heart-stopping obstacle after another on the road to Sarah and Emerson Bridges’ goal keeps the pages turning to the very end. I loved this book for the mood that descended every time I returned to its pages. It’s a rare book that hands you a life you can slip into, and an even rarer writer that’ll give you a million reasons to do it.     

Review: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Rebecca

 

I’ve always been an admirer of the first person narrative. When handled deftly, it magnifies the complex variables that comprise us all. Rebecca is a psychological treatise with a confessional tone spawned from the narrator’s perception, and this is the story. That the narrator is young, inexperienced, and overwhelmed to the point of skittishness sets the dark tone of every paragraph in this cleverly paced mystery. Her vantage point is solidly built on assumption, suspicion and crippling self doubt. The plot is a simple one: the young narrator begins as a paid, personal companion to a domineering wealthy woman, who is on holiday in Monte Carlo, when fate places her in the dining room of a luxuriant hotel next to the table of the troubled widower, Max de Winter, who hails from the Cornish Coast. An awkward and unlikely alliance develops between the narrator and the worldly Max de Winter, which leads to a hasty marriage, in which the reader learns along with the narrator of de Winters’ disturbing past. Set in the house and rambling coastal grounds of de Winters’ stately Manderley, the narrator enters a dynamic firmly in play, whose tone was cast and exists still from the hand of Rebecca: the first Mrs. de Winter. Rebecca’s shadow looms imperiously, and brings to the fore the narrator’s insecurities. Having no background story on her predecessor, the inchoate narrator is tossed by the winds of assumption, half-truths and incomplete perceptions made all the more dark by the presence of Rebecca’s loyal personal maid, Mrs. Danvers, whose presence lends a disquieting air, due to her supercilious knack for comparison. Rebecca is an off-kilter mystery that unfolds along the road of the search for truth regarding what, exactly, happened to Rebecca. That the narrator stays in suspense until the sinister end lures the reader through a story elegantly told in language so poetic, it is its own experience.