Jill and Emma

The Gendarme by Mark T. Mustian

The Gendarme
By Mark T. Mustian
Completed September 14, 2010

The Gendarme is the debut novel by Mark T. Mustian and features a little-known aspect of World War I history - the genocide of Armenian people living in Turkey. For me, when a writer casts a spotlight on an aspect of history worth knowing about, I give him my fullest accolades. I walked away from The Gendarme with new knowledge and appreciation for what the Armenians endured in the early 1900's.

The story is narrated by 92-year-old Emmet, who is suffering from a brain tumor that results in vivid dreams from his youth. Interestingly, he dreams in chronological order, so each time he sleeps, Emmett remembers another nugget from his past. He realizes he was a "gendarme" - a Turkish guard who escorted Armenian refugees out of Turkey into Syria. The conditions of the march were horrible with many Armenians dying along the way. He becomes entranced by an Armenian girl, and as they spend more time together, they begin a friendship and eventually fall in love.

The flashback/dream stories were well told and vivid with detail. Emmet was not perfect, and Mustian made no attempt to make him into a hero. The modern aspects of Emmet's life, though, felt very contrived and unbelievable to me. The story may have been better as a reflection of Emmet's past without the complications of his modern life. The ending especially was unrealistic and left me dissatisfied. Sometimes, it's better to not end a story with a pretty bow on it.

With that said, I would recommend The Gendarme for its historical research and storyline. Mustain wrote well and kept my interest. I will be curious to read what others think about his debut book. ( )
Jill and Emma

Away by Amy Bloom

By Amy Bloom
Completed August 12, 2010

The back cover of Away by Amy Bloom called the book’s main character, Lillian, an “unexpected heroine.” I raised an eyebrow about that description – aren’t most literary heroines unexpected? – and looked for the great acts of heroism throughout the book. I didn’t find any. What I did find was a heck of a plucky character who tried to defy the odds – all in the name of love.

Lillian was a Russian immigrant, escaping her motherland after Christians murdered her family and other Jewish neighbors. Believing her toddler, Sophie, had died in the massacre, Lillian came to the United States. She squeaked a decent life for herself as the lover of a man and his son. Then, Lillian learned that Sophie was alive. She shed her life of comfort and began an embattled journey to Alaska, en route to Siberia, to find her daughter.

Lillian would do just about anything to complete this journey. She slept in train broom closets, performed oral sex, helped a prostitute and spent time in a female work camp. From trains to boats to walking, Lillian never swayed from her goal: to reunite with Sophie. It was this resolve that got her through some tough situations.

It was these tough situations, though, that weighed the novel down. I’ll be the first to say that women can endure a lot, but the obstacles were frequent and treacherous. They made for good stories but hard-to-believe road stops.

Where Amy Bloom shines is with short stories, and you can tell with Away. She has an uncanny ability to take readers down short side streets, introducing them to colorful characters, and leaving them with the feeling of closure before moving on with the story. It works for short stories but harder to pull off in a novel. Overall, I would say Bloom was successful in putting her story together, though some readers might find this style clunky.

Away was a good story with some flaws. I would recommend it to readers who are interested in the plight of immigrant women in the early 20th century. However, a word of caution: this book has many graphic sex scenes, and if you repulsed or not interested in reading them, then stay far away from Away. ( )
Jill and Emma

A Death in the Family by James Agee

A Death in the Family
By James Agee
Completed August 8, 2010

James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Death in the Family, captured the initial moments of grief with beautiful clarity. The shock, anger and sadness that inflicted each character was so realistically drawn, it was near flawless. Won posthumously in 1957, the edition of A Death in the Family that I read contained only minor changes to Agee’s writing, plus two sections that were not placed formally into the story by the author. To think that Agee wrote this masterpiece without the benefit of an editor shows you the caliber of his writing. Like his character development, this story was close to perfect.

Jay Follett was a husband and father with a slightly mysterious past, who was called to his father’s bedside in the middle of the night. On his trip home, his car experienced mechanical failure, resulting in Jay’s instantaneous death. He left behind his wife, Mary and his two children, Rufus and Catherine.

The mysterious aspects of Jay’s life enthralled me. You get the impression that he was an alcoholic – perhaps on the wagon at the time of his death – who pulled himself out of nothing into a productive life. As Mary’s family learned of Jay’s death, you discovered they were not supportive of Mary and Jay’s marriage initially, but as time evolved, they grew to love him. Without a doubt, he held a tight bond with his son, Rufus. For most of the book, you witnessed the emotional roller coaster that the family experiences as they deal with Jay’s death. From wanting to know the details of the accident to trying to sleep and eat, death and daily living were juxtaposed for the readers to consider: How would you deal with the sudden death of a loved one?

The book ends on the day of the funeral, leaving you curious about how the family would cope so early in their grief. How would Mary survive without her husband’s financial support? How would the children learn to live without their father? Agee leaves many questions unanswered, but made one thing clear: grief is a force to be reckoned with. It ebbs and flows throughout a person’s lifetime; always there – sometimes in the distance, sometimes very close. A Death in the Family was a wonderful tribute to this raw human emotion. (  )

Jill and Emma

The News Where You Are by Catherine O'Flynn

The News Where You Are
By Catherine O'Flynn
Completed August 1, 2010

Frank, the main character of Catherine O’Flynn’s latest book, The News Where You Are, is a 40-something newscaster who is facing numerous crises. For example, the buildings created by his father, a renowned post-war architect, were being demolished because they didn’t adequately meet the needs of the residents (though Frank’s father meticulously designed each one with “the future” in mind). As Frank mourns the loss of his father’s architecture, he also mourns the lost relationship between them.

Frank is also dealing with the death of his friend and mentor, Phil – a popular national newscaster who had a Dick Clarkian way of non-aging. Phil was killed in a hit-and-run accident one evening, and his sudden death left a big void in Frank’s life.

While mourning the loss of his friend, Frank became interested (borderline obsessed) with news stories about people who died alone. For Frank, this is the worst way to go, and he begins to investigate one death in particular – that of Michael Church. Frank soon discovers that Michael was Phil’s childhood friend, and he begins to piece together an incredible story of friendship and secrets.

The News Where You Are is a small book but packed with many complex themes – the young and the old; the popular and the lonely; the past and the future. Each character, from Frank and his cranky mother to Frank’s spirited daughter and his practical wife, are developed with the precision of an artist. As Frank uncovers the past life of Phil and Michael, he explores his own childhood and begins to rectify the relationship with his parents. Ultimately, it’s his daughter Mo who offers Frank the best counseling, reminding him that it’s not the past or future that’s important – but the present with the people you love. In essence, the news is – quite simply – exactly where you are. ( )

Jill and Emma

Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead

Far Bright Star
By Robert Olmstead
Completed July 31, 2010

The 1916 search for Pancho Villa marked an important transition in American military tactic. The days of cavalrymen and their noble steeds were coming to an end, soon to be replaced by machine guns and gas-powered vehicles. At the cusp of this transition were Napoleon Childs, an aging cavalryman, and his brother, Xenophone, in charge of taking care of the Army’s horses. The men sensed that change was afoot, but like many military men, they had more immediate concerns – the battles in front of them. And this is the center of the short but powerful tale, Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead.

Napoleon led a group of misfits into the desert one day – partly to search for the elusive Pancho Villa but also to find cattle for their camp – when they came under attack by a renegade group of Mexican soldiers. Napoleon was uneasy about this mission from the first moment, and the inescapable situation he and his men fell under only confirmed what Napoleon dreaded. One by one, Napoleon lost his men and horses. He was preparing for his death in a canyon in the Mexican desert.

However, it wasn’t Napoleon’s turn to die, but his survival made him wish he did. After watching the senseless murder of the men who served under him, he was tortured by his captors, and perhaps worse, forced to watch the slow death of his last man. Once Napoleon was rescued by his brother, he underwent a physical and emotional reaction that we would now call post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Olmstead is a master of the verse, his writing reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy or Howard Bahr. His sparse but lyrical writing style juxtaposes against the atrocities about which he is writing. Make no mistake: while the language is pretty, the scenes are not. However, Olmstead honors his characters, most especially the horses, and transports his readers to the hot desert with just a few sentences. I doubt Far Bright Star could be enjoyed but rather consumed. If sparse writing or military fiction suits your tastes, then this is the book for you. ( )
Jill and Emma

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle
By Monique Roffey
Did Not Finish

Sometimes, I can get hung up on a part of a story – to the point where it plagues my entire reading experience. This is what happened while reading The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey.

The book is divided into chronological sections, starting with 2006 and then going back to 1956, 1963 and 1970. So, when Roffey introduces us to the main characters, George and Sabine, we are meeting their 75-year-old versions (with most of their lives’ experiences behind them). For the first 189 pages, it was difficult to like George and Sabine. George was a lifelong philanderer – selfish and egotistical. Sabine drank and smoked excessively, and liked to pick fights with George and their daughter. As I muddled through these pages, reminding myself that the book will reveal more about these characters, something happens. Sabine beats her family dog. The scene was only a few paragraphs long but affected me tremendously. So tremendously that as I moved to the earlier years of the characters’ lives, I could not forget what Sabine did.

120 pages from the end, I couldn’t bear reading about Sabine anymore. I was done with her. I placed my bookmark in front of the next chapter, put the book aside and thought about what to do next. Ultimately, I decided to walk away from The White Woman on the Green Bicycle.

Despite my abandonment of this book, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Roffey’s writing talent and her fascinating exploration into Trinidad’s history. Indeed, many aspects of The White Woman on the Green Bicycle were appealing. Perhaps I can come back to it once I let go of my distaste for Sabine. Until then, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle will sit on my shelf; my bookmark marking the spot where I said no more.

Jill and Emma

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer

The Septembers of Shiraz
By Dalia Sofer
Completed July 18, 2010

Dalia Sofer’s debut novel, The Septembers of Shiraz, shows how detrimental the Iranian Revolution was for many of Iran’s citizens. Isaac Amin was a rare gem dealer who was arrested by the Revolutionary Guards in September 1981. Isaac was Jewish and had prospered well under the Shah, which made him suspicious in the eyes of the new regime. He was transported to prison where he was questioned, tortured and accused of being a Zionist spy.

The story shifts from Isaac’s point of view to that of his wife, Farnaz; his young daughter, Shirin; and his son, Parviz, a college student living in New York. The alternating viewpoints showed how each family member dealt with the sudden disappearance of Isaac. With emotions ranging from fear to courage, the Amin family tried to manage their day-to-day lives without the presence of their patriarch.

I found The Septembers of Shiraz to be a captivating read. The Iranian Revolution is an unfamiliar topic for me, and the rigid conditions of this time make me wonder how anyone escaped arrest and execution. I rooted for each member of the Amin family as they struggled with Isaac’s imprisonment. Sofer’s writing style was lyrical yet approachable, drawing her readers into the story. If you are a fan of historical fiction, I would recommend this amazing story. I look forward to more books by this talented young author. ( )

Jill and Emma

Small Wars by Sadie Jones

Small Wars
By Sadie Jones
Completed July 14, 2010

In Small Wars, the second novel by Sadie Jones, explores the impact of “small wars” on countries, citizens, servicemen and their loved ones. When you read a novel by Jones, you expect an intensive read. Small Wars is exactly that – a novel that keeps you thinking about its characters long after finishing the book.

Hal Treherne is a young major in the British Army. He comes from a family whose men held distinguished careers in the army, fighting in great English wars throughout history. Hal has no war to fight, until he is stationed in Cyprus, a nation whose interest to England becomes exceedingly higher as the conflict in the Suez Canal erupts in nearby Egypt. Cyprus had a small war of its own, trying to break free of British rule. The country’s desire for independence resulted in terrorist activity, and Hal finally gets the war he’s been trained for. However, it’s not the war of his father or grandfather. There are no trenches, fronts or battlefields. Instead, it’s house-to-house searches, land mines and torture. Hal learns that he’s not emotionally equipped for this type of warfare and begins to question his service in the army.

Meanwhile, Hal’s wife Clara arrives in Cyprus with their twin daughters, and tries to create a life in this tumultuous country. At the beginning of the book, you sense a deep love between the couple. However, as conditions sour in Cyprus and Hal becomes traumatized by its events, you watch as this marriage crumbles. They fail to talk to each other, and Hal takes out the atrocities of the war on his wife. He eventually arranges for Clara’s departure to a “safer” part of Cyprus, but in a country involved in a small war, there are no safe havens. Eventually, Clara and Hal face an enormous tragedy that will make or break their marriage.

I was unaware of this portion of British history, and I found that Jones’ research about Cyprus during the 1950’s to be enlightening. I couldn’t help but draw parallels from the small war in Cyprus to those being fought in countries throughout the world today. The places have changed, but the lessons have not. I applaud Jones for tackling this sensitive subject and for doing so in such a provocative way. I would recommend Small Wars to those readers who enjoy reading intense fiction or books focused on military history. It’s a book that will leave its fingerprint on me for a long time. ( )

Jill and Emma

The Accidental by Ali Smith

The Accidental
By Ali Smith
Completed July 10, 2010

Truth be told, I don’t know how to fairly review The Accidental by Ali Smith. It’s a story that follows the dysfunctional lives of the Smart family and the emergence of Amber, a young woman who crashes the Smart’s summer home one evening. Amber’s presence helps members of the family deal with their individual grief, though the reader never quite learned why Amber was there.

The four Smart family members take turns narrating a chapter. My favorite chapters were told by Astrid, a young girl who likes to videotape everything. With a director’s eye and a stream of consciousness that James Joyce would appreciate, Astrid’s perspective matched her age: big ideas, rambling thoughts and a curiosity about life. Also interesting was her brother’s narrative: Magnus was depressed about the suicide of a fellow classmate and felt at blame for the girl’s death. Smith’s strength is not character development – you never get a full picture of each character – but the snippets she showed of the kids were insightful and captivating.

Smith’s writing style takes a while to get used to. You’re dropped into the middle of each character’s thoughts, and you might need several chapters (as I did) to get into the writing style. Admittedly, it’s not my favorite way of storytelling, and I felt it put up barriers around the characters and their stories. Additionally, the ending was disappointing, and after trudging through this book, I was hoping for something a little more gratifying.

It’s hard to recommend The Accidental because it was a “meh” book for me. I encourage future readers to look at other reviews before deciding on this book. I think it’s a book you either like or don’t; I hate to say that I am in the latter group. ( )