Review 1474: The Wolf Border

Rachel Caine is an emotionally detached woman who manages a wolf reintroduction program on a reservation in Nez Perce, Idaho. She prefers to keep her sexual liaisons brief and hasn’t returned to her home country of England for years. She takes the opportunity to visit her mother, Binny, when she meets with the Earl of Annandale about a project he has taken on to move wolves into a contained area on his huge estate and nearby national forest lands in Cumbria, near where she grew up. She isn’t interested in the job, but her brother Lawrence has told her that Binny won’t be around long.

After a meeting with the Earl, whom she doesn’t trust, she has a difficult visit with Binny and then returns home. Her personal circumstances change after Binny’s death, though, so she finds herself accepting the Earl’s job.

This is a thoughtful and vital novel that examines the nature of Rachel’s relationships with her family. Events allow her to open the door to people in her life. The novel is complex, not because of the plot but because of the tangle of human thoughts and feelings it examines.

The writing is clear and vivid. I read this book for my James Tait Black project—another winner!

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Review 1473: A Long Way from Home

A Long Way from Home is almost like two different novels, starting out as a light-hearted romp and finishing with the Australian treatment of its indigenous inhabitants. It is set in 1954 Australia, all over it.

Irene Bobs and her husband Titch are tiny people with a great will to succeed, but they are hampered by the activities of Dangerous Dan Bobs, Titch’s father, who seems to be working against them. When Titch, who is the best car salesman in Southeastern Australia, wants to open his own Ford dealership, Dan prevents it using his influence with his cronies at Ford. Having opened a junk yard, Dan continually drops off expensive objects at Titch’s and then charges him for them.

Irene always vigorously supports Titch against Dan, so when Dan scuppers the Ford dealership, she has already arranged something with GMC. Then, the two get the idea to compete with one of their cars in the Redex Reliability Trial, a grueling test of a car’s endurance on horrendous roads all around Australia. Irene and Titch will be drivers, and their neighbor, Willie Bachhuber, will navigate. Of course, Dan decides to compete against them.

Willie is a recently fired schoolteacher. He is also a competitor on a quiz show and a fugitive, who left his wife after she had a black baby and is wanted for child support. His quiz show work, after a long run, ends when his infatuation with his competitor interferes with his thought processes. He is a great reader of maps, however.

The novel starts out bright and energetic, with vibrant and quirky first-person narration by Irene alternated with that of Willie. It takes a darker turn, though, after an accident with Dan. Soon, Willie is separated from his companions in far Western Australia.

I was really taken with this book, especially at its zippy and vivacious start. I liked the characters, and I thought the ending covers important history about aboriginal abuse. However, these comments don’t convey how the novel zips along in its own quirky way.

I read this book for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1472: Daisy Jones & The Six

Daisy Jones & The Six, about the rise and demise of a 70’s rock band, is written like the script for a documentary. I got the impression at first that it was trying to accomplish something like Jennifer Egan’s amazing A Visit from the Goon Squad.

In the beginning of the novel, we see the separate starts of Daisy Jones and of the band that became The Six. Daisy, a neglected 14-year-old, begins as a rock and roll groupie, while the band works its way up through the usual dances and bars. When they are each beginning to get a little attention, a record executive thinks it would be a great idea if they record a song together. They are a hit. The only problem is that Daisy and the band’s lead singer, Billy Dunne, don’t seem to like each other.

This novel does a pretty good job of depicting the drug- and sex-fueled 70’s rock scene, but I felt it was about 100 pages too long. It also signals where it is going a little too early. The format has its problems. It makes the reader separate from the book even while amusingly showing how different people’s versions of the same event can be.

Taylor Jenkins Reid seems to have ambitions to write more than chick lit, but this novel is essentially chick lit.

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Review 1471: Homegoing

Writers seem to be experimenting with the form of the novel these days, not always successfully. Yaa Gyasi uses the form of linked short stories to good effect, however.

In paired stories, the novel follows two half sisters and their descendants through 300 years of history. In 18th century Gold Coast, Effia is being courted by the son of a king, but her mother, Baaba, tells her to hide the fact that she has reached womanhood. Her suitor eventually marries someone else, and Effia is married to a white man, James Collins, the governor of Cape Coast Castle. The Castle is where slaves are kept before being shipped to the colonies.

Esi is the daughter of Big Man and Maame, a former slave to Effia’s family. In her attempts to befriend Abronoma, her family’s slave, she sends a message to Abronoma’s family to tell them where she is. Thus, she herself becomes a slave when her slave’s family attacks and captures her village.

The novel checks in with each of eight characters of the girls’ descendants, sometimes telling the entire stories of characters’ lives, other times dealing with significant moments. Both families are affected by this great evil in their lives, slavery and its aftereffects. This structure allows Gyasi to explore some of the key events in the histories of Ghana and the United States.

At first, I thought I might get frustrated with the format, because I often want more from short stories. But because the stories are about two families, some of the characters are present in more than one, and you can at least find out what happened to them. Many of the stories are grim, but the novel ends hopefully. Gyasi’s voice is a fresh one, and I found this novel captivating.

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Review 1470: Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens

In Queens of the Conquest, Alison Weir does what she does best—constructs a well-researched biography of a notable Medieval woman—in this case, four of them. Queens of the Conquest is the first of four volumes called England’s Medieval Queens, which will detail as much as is known of the lives of these queens. This volume begins with Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, and ends approximately 100 years later with the death of Empress Maud, the mother of Henry II.

Weir’s premise in this volume is that the early Medieval queens of England were not removed from the governance of the kingdom. She has thoroughly proved this premise with documentation of their charters to award lands, their stints at being regent, and their attendance at cabinet meetings. Of the three women, only Adeliza of Louvain, King Henry’s second wife, seems to have taken a more traditional role.

Although the stories of the first two queen’s lives are largely dependent upon reading endless charters and religious devotions, which could get a little tiresome, Weir has faithfully documented what is known of the women’s lives. She does this in an eminently readable style while still backing the facts up with source material and footnotes. These materials include appendixes with the text of extant letters.

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Review 1469: The Long Call

The Long Call is the first book in Ann Cleeves’s new mystery series set in North Devon. It features Matthew Venn, a detective who differs from Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez in that he is gay, married, and immaculately dressed, also unsure of himself.

The body of a man is discovered out on Crow Point near Matthew’s house. He has been stabbed, and he has no identification, so it takes a while for Matthew’s team to figure out who he is.

He turns out to be Simon Walden, a recently homeless man with alcohol abuse issues who volunteered at the Woodyard, a warehouse that was converted to a center offering studios for local artists, classes to the community, and a day center for mentally disabled adults. Matthew’s husband is the director of that center, so he wonders if he should take himself off the job.

link to NetgalleyIn investigating Simon, the police find more connections to the Woodyard. One of his roommates was Gaby, an artist who teaches there and disliked him. Also, a Downs Syndrome woman named Lucy who uses the center reports that he was her friend, he rode the bus with her out to Lovacott every day in the past few weeks. The police can’t figure out what he was doing there. Soon, the connections become even stronger when a Downs Syndrome woman named Chrissie goes missing from the Woodyard. Something tells Matthew that the events are related.

As usual, Cleeves presents us with a difficult mystery. I found Matthew somewhat unknowable with less of a persona than her other detectives, Vera and Jimmy, but that may be because I discovered both of those series through the television programs. I am more than willing to read another Matthew Venn book.

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