Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith

Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith is a virtual vacation to one of my favorite places in the world. Years ago my parents rented an Umbrian villa to celebrate their 40th anniversary with their children and grandchildren, and reading this sumptuous novel recalls the savory meals, the ancient villages, and the gorgeous northern Italian countryside, albeit with a murky past. 

Hugh Fisher is mourning the double loss of his wife and then his Italian mother when he returns to Valetto to claim his inheritance. The only hitch is Elisa Tomassi, an award winning chef from Milan, is squatting in the cottage where young Hugh had spent happy summers with his enigmatic mother. His grandfather joined the resistance and disappeared during World War II, leaving ambiguities about his crumbling estate. To resolve their competing claims on the small cottage, Hugh and Elisa must convince their elderly relatives to share their traumatic secrets, all while consuming copious amounts of hand rolled pasta, foraged fungus, grated cheese, and of course, vino rosso.

I brought Return to Valetto to an island cottage near my home in Maine, and it was exactly the right type of vacation reading: an engrossing story with moral ambiguities in a lovely setting with a touch of romance. Although the author is a man, the strongest characters are women who steer the narrative. The history professor protagonist is just along for a ride, literally letting everyone else drive him around and feed him like a child, until the atrocities of the past prod him out of his lethargy. Loyal Hugh is a sympathetic character, but his lack of engagement and agency is tiring to the other characters and to the reader. That was my only criticism of this otherwise well crafted tale about how much the past can overshadow the present.

The best character of all was the crumbling village itself. The vivid description of a stairway left dangling into a ravine after an earthquake destroyed half the town was so convincing that I was surprised to discover that Valetto didn't exist beyond the pages of this novel. The author is Australian American and not Italian, but Dominic Smith seems to have done his research well. Return to Valetto tasted like the wild truffles of Umbria at a fraction of the cost. 

Reviewer's Disclosure: The publisher sent me a galley in exchange for an honest review. I enjoyed it so much I bought a copy from Book Culture to send to my dad for Father's Day since I inherited my love of Italy and fine dining from him. Return to Valetto was published in the USA yesterday.

Happy Father's Day!

my parents in Italy

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Changes in the Weather by Leela Marie Hidier

Changes in the Weather is a young adult novella about climate change told in four distinct voices. In "Wind" a hurricane forces Isla's family into a nomadic motel existence. Prolonged drought in "Earth" sucks the life blood from the farm of Ava's grandmother. While in "Water" too much rainfall threatens Xenia's riverside town.  The aftermath of "Fire" leaves Natasha to nurture her younger siblings while their mother undergoes surgery. In each story a teenage girl finds herself in a new role as climate disaster upends her life. Although the book is a work of fiction, it rings all too true to life right now.

Debut author Leela Marie Hidier, a teenage girl herself, did a phenomenal job in distinguishing the voices of her protagonists and making them and their environment believable through well observed sensory details, secret thoughts, and solid climate research. Each of the girls has a unique personality and family situation which shape their differing responses. Coddled Isla uprooted from her nurturing neighborhood becomes rebellious. Privileged Ava tries to escape into a romantic oasis. Alienated Xenia seeks solace in music. Steady Natasha records every detail like a reporter. Their struggles to adapt to the rapidly changing world make for compelling stories, both personal and universal, which all interconnect in the satisfying concluding segment. 

The writing was strong and clean, packing an emotional punch from the first chapter. Here's Isla on abandoning her only home in a hurricane: "I wonder what else I would have taken if I'd had more time. Maybe I would have taken more time."

Author photo by Winky Lewis
The publisher and sponsor of this marvelous debut is The Telling Room, a non-profit organization which supports emerging young writers in Maine with a diversity of experiences. Leela was born in London to an American mother and a French father. I first connected with her family through reviewing another debut novel, Born Confused, by her mother, Tanuja Desai Hidier. I was delighted when the Hidiers relocated near me in Maine five years ago. Leela asked me to beta read her penultimate draft, and she's done a remarkable job in writing and revising such a polished, meaningful book during her junior year in high school. With a gorgeous cover designed by Leela's cousin Meenal Patel, this 153 page novella would make a fabulous gift for any aspiring writer or climate activist. All proceeds from books sales support The Telling Room.  

Wishing you happy and healthy holidays with lots of time to read good books! I'm currently reading and enjoying The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (literary fiction) and Hija de la Fortuna by Isabel Allende (novela histórica en español.) Follow the link below for more book suggestions from other reviewers. What are your recommendations?

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Small Things Like These is a perfectly crafted novela with a social justice message that every writer should read. In only 118 pages, Irish author Claire Keegan develops her characters, immerses the reader in a multi-sensory setting, and builds a moral dilemma with the depth of a much longer classic. 

The story takes place over Christmas of 1985, but the cozy Irish village setting is timeless and the characters Dickensian. Coal merchant Bill Furlong strives to be a good husband and father, having lost his mother at a young age without learning the identity of his father. Although a child born out of wedlock to a domestic servant is an unlikely hero in a Catholic town, Bill's ability to empathize with others makes him extraordinary and well appreciated. His charitable instincts also create conflicts at home given limited resources for five daughters. 

The drama steps up a notch when Bill witnesses an atrocity, a not so secret crime thinly shrouded in lies and complicity, that shakes the foundations of his faith. His moral quandary ignites the pleasantly languid story with burning energy, making you wonder not only what Bill will do but also what would you do yourself in a similar situation. The resolution is as messy as real life but deeply satisfying. This is character driven literary fiction at its best.

As soon as I finished, I wanted to reread from the beginning. I was so caught up in the story that I forgot to analyze the quiet, masterful writing. Not a single word was out of place. My husband enjoyed the authentically voiced audiobook so much that he bought the hardcover from our local bookstore to add to our personal library. We plan to listen to another of her books together. With its gorgeous woodblock print cover, Small Things Like These would certainly make an excellent Christmas gift. 

Thanks, Maria Padian, for recommending this marvelous book to us!

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Dead Burying the Dead Under a Quaking Aspen by David Canmer

I'm delighted to review a debut poetry collection released in April by David Cranmer, who was an early member of our Book Review Club. David is perhaps better known as the editor/publisher of Beat to a Pulp webzine, but he is also an accomplished poet with a most original voice. 

Dead Burying the Dead Under a Quaking Aspen is both eclectic and true to the complex backstory of the poet. David is an Army veteran and a risk management advisor who has worked in Haiti. His opening poem "The Inconsiderate" is a disturbing account of murder in Port-au-Prince. The focus shifts from the corpse to his mother to show the added cruelty of lost compassion:

"The weeping woman is mother of the deceased

But they do not flinch - it is lost on them

How they are treating her son's remains

Like the trophy hunters of some big game."

The subsequent poems are by contrast far more quotidien but no less skilled in their execution. My favorite was the amusing "No Line for a Common Thread" about a typical commute by train, which strikes a universal cord, all the more resonant for the contrast of wartime life before it:

"Temporary exchanges

Signifying little to nill

Just daily superfluous asides

Make up a shared human experience"

Darker are the poems of drinking to escape. One notes how alcohol can be like a vine strangling a tree. There are memorials to murder victims and a sad ode to losing one's mother to Alzheimer's Disease. Lighter are the poems celebrating the poet's love for his wife and their young daughter. 

Dead Burying the Dead Under a Quaking Aspen reveals the troubled soul of a veteran, trying to integrate back into civilian life. Despite the horrors of the past, he tries his best to be a good husband, father, and son. The book is dedicated to his daughter, but in this short collection is a poem for everyone. Nice cover too! It's available on Amazon in print or ebook/Kindle Unlimited.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Neruda on the Park by Cleyvis Natera

After reviewing novels for 15 years and plotting my own, it's not often that a book surprises me, but Cleyvis Natera's Neruda on the Park is an astounding debut. The set-up reminded me of You've Got Mail: a naive young woman falls for the charming developer who threatens to destroy her world. However, as the beautiful cover art reveals, Neruda on the Park is more of a mother-daughter story than a romance, unless Nothar Park, their Dominican neighborhood in NYC, is the main love interest. What the story becomes is true to the multidimensional characters in our uncertain times but not what you'd expect from genre scaffolding.

Natera's novel has such a wonderful sense of place of both Manhattan (where I grew up) and the Dominican Republic (where I've visited). The generosity and rivalry of neighbors in a close knit community was well observed. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of food: "Pastel making started out as it always did - hours peeling skin, grinding the flesh of plátanos, yautias, and yuccas until the grainy yellow paste was smooth enough to be mistaken for cooked cornmeal." There's so much local flavor: from the decorative (not pandemic) masks celebrating Dominican Independence Day to the sidewalk barbecues with extra food to share, but crime, sexism, racism, and ICE lurk around the corner.

Cleyvis Natera photo by Beowulf Shehan
The book opens with commercial glitz: successful women wear designer suits with mortgageable shoes and dine in trendy restaurants. The power players, both black and white, live in private brownstones, where jewelry and books are displayed behind glass like trophies of social status. Double Ivy League educated herself, Luz Guerrero wants to grasp everything that is withheld from her. Her name in Spanish means light warrior, and she earns it, fighting for justice.

To please her doting parents and her mentor-boss, Luz works long hours as a corporate lawyer, pouring her savings into her parent's retirement home back in DR and buying designer clothes for herself on credit. After her career hits an unexpected setback, Luz meets a handsome billionaire in a hot yoga class (don't quit reading). Although white and privileged, Hudson apologizes for his mistakes, speaks better Spanish than hers, recites Pablo Neruda's poetry by heart, and welcomes Luz into his luxurious world without reservations. Hudson wants the best for her. So why does her mother hate him?

Halfway through the book, the seemingly predictable plot warps like a Dali clock, resetting our perception of reality. What I enjoyed the most was watching the characters develop and twist the storyline in unexpected directions, but I won't say any more to avoid spoilers. Except go pre-order this May 17th book from your local indie bookstore before it sells out. Publishing rights to Neruda on the Park sold at auction for all the right reasons. Will there be a movie?

My reviews of two more excellent novels by Dominican Americans:

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

¡Felicidades por tu maravilloso debut, Cleyvis! Me encantó tu novela y espero que escribas más.

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@Barrie Summy