Wednesday, April 20, 2011

22 BRITANNIA ROAD by Amanda Hodgkinson

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for certain types of books:  family dramas with a mystery or two, books filled with magical realism, and (lately) WWII dramas.  Perhaps this is because there have been quite a few excellent WWII-era novels in the past few years such as THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY, THE POSTMISTRESS and BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY.  Amanda Hodgkinson offers us a new novel in this particular genre with 22 BRITANNIA ROAD and proves that there are many stories left to be told.

22 BRITANNIA ROAD focuses on how relationships can be damaged through war and enforced separation and how individuals struggle to find redemption after making desperate choices. The story opens with the arrival of Polish refugee Silvana and her 7-yr-old son Aurek in England. She is to be reunited with her husband Janusz after six years apart. The reunited family struggles to rebuild their lives together in their new home at 22 Britannia Road while wrestling with the secrets they carry from the war.  These secrets threaten to destroy any chance that Silvana and Janusz have of becoming a family once again.  I can't reveal much more without ruining the book and its ending.

I think one of the most compelling parts of the book is Silvana's story and her relationship with her son. Perhaps because I am the mother of a son as well, I couldn't help but think what I would do to care for and to protect my son in a similar wartime situation. The things that Silvana and Aurek went through seem impossible to survive.  The cognitive dissonance they must experience when trying to acclimate to their lives in Britian seems almost insurmountable.   Janusz's backstory is not as compelling but I loved his struggles to connect with his estranged wife and son. All of these individuals want desperately to put the past behind them but don't know how.

BOTTOM LINE:  Highly recommended. A beautiful story that will leave you questioning right and wrong and whether we can ever move forward from the past.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

CALEB'S CROSSING by Geraldine Brooks

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

I have always felt that Geraldine Brooks is a truly gifted writer but I always have mixed feelings about her books.  I really liked YEAR OF WONDERS.  I hated MARCH.  I loved loved loved PEOPLE OF THE BOOK.  So, I approached CALEB'S CROSSING with a little trepidation.

Brooks has a real gift in making history come alive in her fiction.  In CALEB'S CROSSING, Brooks fictionalizes the life of first Native American to graduate from Harvard. There is very little in the historical record on Caleb but Brooks manages to flesh out a compelling tale told from the perspective of a young woman named Bethia Mayfield who befriends Caleb and becomes like a sister to him.  Using Bethia's point of view was genius as it allowed Brooks to delve into the roles of women in the late 1600's.  We see not only Caleb's story but that of a young woman who desires nothing more than to be educated in her own right. Bethia observes as her minister father attempts to convert the Wampanoag while he is ignorant of his daughter's friendship with Caleb and fluency in the native tongue.  Caleb becomes a pet project of Bethia's father as the minister tutors him in preparation for entry into Harvard.  A year later, Bethia finds herself in Cambridge as an indentured servant where she witnesses the pressures Caleb feels in trying to straddle the gap between his two worlds.

CALEB'S CROSSING is a wonderful book. The juxtaposition between Bethia's experiences and Caleb's makes for a truly compelling story.  I'm not sure the story would have been as effective without Bethia's voice. I was completely absorbed by the tale. I think Brooks did an excellent job of demonstrating the pressures put on individuals who were attempting to bridge cultural and societal gaps.

BOTTOM LINE:  Recommended.  A wonderful and moving tale of two people trying to find their place in the world and the toll these actions took on them.

Friday, April 08, 2011

TURN OF MIND by Alice LaPlante

I received an advance copy of this book.

Ten years ago, I was intrigued by a movie called "Memento" about a man with only short-term memory who was trying to reconstruct what happened to his murdered wife.  As he discovered "facts," he would tattoo them on his body so he would always have the truth at hand. As the movie progresses, you see how truly objective truth can be and how crippling memory loss really is.  Alice LaPlante covers similar territory in TURN OF MIND. 

Retired orthopedic (and hand specialist) surgeon Dr. Jennifer White is slowly slipping away as a result of dementia.  Her day to day life is chronicled in a notebook that her caretaker helps to maintain.  As the book opens, we discover that Jennifer's best friend and neighbor, Amanda, has been murdered and Jennifer is the prime suspect due to the fact that Amanda's hand had been mutilated after her death.  Unfortunately, Jennifer not only has no memory of what happened that fateful day, she doesn't even remember that Amanda is dead most of the time.   The book follows the disintegration of Amanda's mind while revealing the facts that seem to stick in her mind even as she loses everything else.  These moments of lucidity give the reader insight into the people around Amanda and a hint as to what really happened to Amanda. 

Part murder mystery and part psychological study of the effects of memory loss on a family, this is a truly compelling book.  I was completely drawn in by the story and couldn't put the book down. Having witness my own grandfather's deterioration due to Alzheimer's, I know how profound the effects of dementia can be not only on the individual but also on the loved ones and caretakers of the victims of this horrible disease.  I think LaPlante does an excellent job covering this ground while adding the interesting wrinkle of the murder investigation.  The reader gathers crumbs of information from Amanda's diminishing moments of lucidity and tries to piece together the truth of what happened.  It is a really original work that provides a twist on the traditional murder mystery.

BOTTOM LINE: Highly recommended. Really well done. This will have appeal for both mystery readers and family drama fans. A really excellent portrayal of dementia as well.