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

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

What I Carry by Jennifer Longo

It's a rare pleasure to find a book that tackles gritty issues and still manages to be an enjoyable read. Jennifer Longo excels at creating complex protagonists who are their own worst antagonists. Longo's last book, Up to this Point, was one of my favorite young adult novels of 2016, but What I Carry is even better. Her latest young adult novel is dedicated to her daughter, who was born into foster care and had "never read a book about a life she recognized." The author listened to her and to foster families to create a fictional story that is educational but never didactic.

Muir was born addicted to the drugs her mother was using and then shuffled through a series of foster homes. At nearly eighteen, Muir is finally on the brink of aging out of foster care but with freedom comes financial insecurity and the loss of her support network. For her final placement, this ultra urban girl has been extirpated from her beloved Seattle and replanted on a remote island. With only a retired foster mother and no foster siblings for company, Muir is terrified by silence and empty space. She's used to living out of a suitcase in temporary quarters and refuses to unpack her few belongings. At school she strives to get by without being noticed as usual, but that's not possible in such a small town.

It was a joy to watch Muir connect with nature and make emotional attachments but equally painful to see how she struggles to accept anything given to her, be it a fresh baked scone or genuine love. My only criticism was the mean girls at school felt like cardboard cutouts, standing in sharp contrast to the other well developed characters, young and old. I have never felt more invested in a character, wanting Muir to succeed. If I had to summarize this quiet book in one word it would be hope.

My coastal town in Maine got 18 inches of snow in the blizzard. Great skiing before the rain!

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman


To celebrate Hanukkah, my family lights the menorah for eight nights; my husband makes the most delicious latkes (potato pancakes), and I have always given our children books. When shopping for books by diverse authors this holiday season, remember to include Jewish writers. Their stories aren't just for Hanukkah. We can all learn so much about the world by reading about other cultures and key moments in history. 

One of my favorite Jewish writers is Alice Hoffman, the  author of more than thirty books, many of them national bestsellers. In her 2019 novel, The World That We Knew, a twelve-year-old girl flees Nazi Germany to France with the help of a golem, a magical creature whose existence is as much a blessing as a curse. Despite this touch of magical realism, the mostly realistic narrative doesn't stray far from the facts of history.

What I found most interesting was the exploration of mysticism and female agency within the Jewish faith. I loved how Hoffman adapted patriarchal practices to give her observant female characters more freedom and power. There are also strong male characters, both Catholic and Jewish, but women and girls drive the narrative. The female golem made me rethink what it means to be human and a mother. The magical elements enhanced the story without detracting from the heroism of the French Resistance nor the horrors of the Holocaust. The writing was sublime.

Although The World That We Knew was written for adults, most of the characters are teenagers and the narrative is fast-paced and hopeful so it would crossover well to younger readers. My one and only criticism is the title is way too vague. This unforgettable book deserved a title easier to remember so write it down now. Thanks, Cathy at Main Point Books, for the book recommendation! 

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@Barrie Summy