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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Book Review: THE HOMECOMING OF SAMUEL LAKE, by Jenny Wingfield

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake: A Novel

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake: A Novel by Jenny Wingfield

Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Random House (July 12, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0385344082
ISBN-13: 978-0385344081

This review courtesy of

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are books that scream their business at you. Others that throttle you until you give them the attention they so desperately seek, as if to say, "Look at me! Look at me! Pick me up and read me!"

Jenny Wingfield's debut is not one of those books.

Instead, it quietly finds its place in your heart, some tiny little cubbyhole where it can rest. It is one of those books that ever so gently makes itself known to you, and then hangs unobtrusively around, and so becomes a part of your existence. It's tricky that way.

And that's what's so sexy about it: it seduces.

Don't get me wrong. The first line fairly rips your breath away: "John Moses couldn't have chosen a worse day, or a worse way to die, if he'd planned it for a lifetime." But, see, that's the beauty of even that: the book isn't really about John Moses. It isn't even about the eponymous minister, Sam Lake. Not really. It's mostly about defrocked Sam's daughter, Swan (yes, her name is Swan Lake). Not to mention a whole slew of other characters.

See what I mean? Tricky.

The story follows a similarly indirect route to its conclusion. A family reunion turns tragic when the patriarch shoots himself, which lends itself to son-in-law Sam's return to the Moses home, along with his wife and children. Minister Sam, a good man who can't help but butt heads with his superiors, has had his congregation taken from him. The goodness in his heart extends to the thoughts and actions of his family, including Swan, who has her own weaknesses. An abusive neighbor plays a part, as does a police officer who, like his name, is always early. Early harbors a secret about Swan's uncle, Toy. Let's just say it involves a murder. The story, almost epic in scope, at times feels a bit like Gabriel García Márquez' ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, though certainly on a much smaller scale. Perhaps it's because the cast of characters flow in and out of the story, and the stoylines themselves weave from the background to the fore in intricate ways. Some readers might find this disturbing, but to me it felt genuine.

Wingfield's writing, though not perfect, is overall superb. My favorite line comes in chapter 7, when she describes the stoic Toy from the viewpoint of his unfaithful wife Bernice: "Poor Toy. He couldn't see straight. But when a person loves you so much that he asks for nothing in return, it's only to be expected that that's about what he gets. It's like a Law of Nature." The description gives us as much insight on Bernice as it does Toy.

I did find getting attached to any one character difficult, as many characters had a tendency to appear on stage, snatch the spotlight for a brief moment, then disappear until a later scene change. Because of this, the story felt a bit episodic, which is why I'm giving it 4 instead of 5 stars.

There are also a few minor considerations, which I attribute to this being a first novel. For example, Wingfield gives some of her characters whimsical names: Blade, Toy, Early, Swan. I thought it was a bit self-indulgent, though it didn't detract from the reading, once I got used to them. My only other complaint about the writing itself is her overuse of repetitive words and phrases, as if she lacked the confidence to make her point the first time. It might not have mattered as much if the story were told from a single point of view, rather than the limited alternating 3rd person. Details such as these have a tendency to blend characters' voices together. I mostly noticed this in the first third of the book; whether that means I got used to it later or it was less prevalent afterwards, I can only guess. Otherwise, the writing is both as elegant and utilitarian as necessary, no more, no less.

I do also have to comment on the editing, which I thought could have been tightened up a bit. My biggest complaint is the overuse and misplacement of commas in some places (including the very first sentence!), though this tended to be found only in isolated clusters. Even so, it gave the reading a stilted feel in those sections. Also, I found several instances in which elipses and em-dashes were used in place of one another. I fault the copy-editor for this, which is why I didn't ding the book itself.

The story does contain a few disturbing themes: animal abuse, child and spouse abuse, suicide and murder, alcohol abuse, infidelity. So, though the main character is Swan, this is not a children's book. It doesn't sell itself as such, but I thought I'd make that point. However, like Leif Enger's PEACE LIKE A RIVER, whose main character is a child, I think this has strong crossover potential into the young adult market.

In summary, an excellent debut with very good, though not perfect, writing. The story tends to wend a bit, but it all feels honest and, ultimately, full of hope.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review: HOTEL ANGELINE: A NOVEL IN 36 VOICES, by various authors

Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voices, by various authors

Published by Open Road Media, 2011
General fiction


This review courtesy of

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

The idea behind Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voices, brainchild of Garth Stein and Jennie Shortridge of Seattle7Writers, is as fascinating as the book promises to be: a cadre of 36 well-known writers gathering in Seattle in October of 2010 to write a complete novel in six days. Before a live audience. Each writer completing one chapter in two hours.

How cool is that?

As an experiment in literary creation, the book accomplishes three very ambitious goals: first, the rendering of a (mostly) cohesive story and, second, proving that the act of creative writing doesn’t always have to be a solitary process carried out in private. The 60,000-word genre-spanning novel is remarkable for its uniqueness and for its display of (raw) talent. The final goal was to raise funds for literary organizations and, indeed, ten thousand dollars was collected to promote literacy.

The story follows fourteen year old Alexis, who inherits the thankless job of running a residential hotel in Seattle when her mother falls ill. It’s an interesting premise and one ripe with potential. One can imagine the storyline veering unexpectedly into any number of tracts. Unfortunately, it does, sometimes a bit jarringly. I’m not sure if the over-the-top feeling is a result of some unconscious need by the authors to infuse everything they think about the story and its characters into their one chapter (something normally spread out over the course of the entire book, or at least with greater restraint), but it felt a bit excessive at times. It was almost like watching the character(s) reinvent and reintroduce themselves over and over again, with the result feeling somewhat…schizophrenic.

Having said that, in many places the writing absolutely sings, and it’s in these moments that the beauty of the book—and the skill of the individual writers—shine forth. There were other times, however, when the writing tended to flag or felt self-congratulatory. Not surprising, given the number of voices involved. And so it is remarkable that despite these caveats the story is as cohesive as it is.

This is, however, not to say that the story doesn’t work and that it and the characters don’t engage the reader. They do a fairly decent job of it, though certainly not with the seamlessness one is accustomed to with a single-author book. Some transitions were more disruptive than others, especially those where the entire format changed. Knowing the book’s history does prepare one to expect this. In fact, the transitions become a part of the character of the book, propelling the reader onto the next chapter in expectation of finding something new. Special props go to the organizers and the writers for bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion.

I think it behooves the authors to continue talking up the book’s conception and creation, both as a literary experiment and a literary device, especially for readers interested in more than reading-for-pleasure, readers who are more attuned to style and voice and language. Readers who simply want to completely immerse themselves in a good story will probably find Hotel Angeline a bit like a subway ride, with far too many stops and starts.

This review is also posted on the Amazon product page here.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Review: URBAN ANIMALS, by Isabel Hill

Urban Animals, by Isabel Hill

Published by Starbright Books 2009

For all ages

ISBN 978-1-59572-209-6

This review courtesy of

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

A photo picturebook, Urban Animals is a visually attractive collection of animal motifs used in urban architecture. The author/photographer does a fine job of inviting the reader into a world most adults (and probably children, too) pass obliviously through, reminding us all of the simple wonders that remain hidden in plain sight.

Each "creature" is introduced in a pair of photographs, a longer shot and a close-up, with simple, playful and informative rhyme that can be easily read by most younger readers. Often, the term for the architectural structure that the animal adorns is also provided. Rounding out the book is a glossary of architectural terms included in the text and a list of the buildings photographed along with their addresses in and around New York City.

The book accomplishes much, and so it succeeds on several levels. Educators will find it a wonderful introduction to architectual terms. For rural students, it's a nice way to point out contrasts, while for city kids a great reminder of the "wildlife" around them. The simple rhyming text shows how poetry can be used in conjunction with more "prosaic" themes.

This is not, however, a story book, so those seeking a tale won't find one here.

A couple observations:

The rhyming meter doesn't always work, but this is a minor consideration and doesn't detract from the book's other qualities.

I also found the glossary could have been made a little user-friendly, as I initially mistook the number associated with each term to represent the number of the page on which they appear. They don't. Again, a minor issue, but one that some children might also find confusing.

In summary, Urban Animals is sure to delight children while piquing their curiosity and educating them, all at the same time.

This review is also posted on the Amazon product page here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Book Review: RETURN TO CHEROKEE, by Harvey Mendez

Return to CherokeeReturn to Cherokee by Harvey Mendez

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have to say I was intrigued by the book's description and was delightedd to get a copy, but I found it difficult to keep reading. While Mendez does a fair job at setting things up and getting them moving, I found the characters flat and stereotypic. A lot of the description was meant to elicit a very specific response. The book may yet find its audience, particularly for those who don't mind a quick read, but I found it too easy to put down and too hard to pick back up again.

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Monday, May 9, 2011

Revived and Redesigned

After a few months away, I've decided to revive the ol' blog and am celebrating by giving it a fresh new look. I'll be posting more reviews of books, both published and pre-launch. I also plan to provide more content on writing and publishing (traditional and self, as well as digital and ebook trends), so check back often for updates.