Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce
Random House: 3/3/2015
Hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780812996678

From the bestselling author of comes an exquisite love story about Queenie Hennessy, the remarkable friend who inspired Harold’s cross-country journey.
A runaway international bestseller, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry followed its unassuming hero on an incredible journey as he traveled the length of England on foot—a journey spurred by a simple letter from his old friend Queenie Hennessy, writing from a hospice to say goodbye. Harold believed that as long as he kept walking, Queenie would live. What he didn’t know was that his decision to walk had caused her both alarm and fear. How could she wait? What would she say? Forced to confront the past, Queenie realizes she must write again.
In this poignant parallel story to Harold’s saga, acclaimed author Rachel Joyce brings Queenie Hennessy’s voice into sharp focus. Setting pen to paper, Queenie makes a journey of her own, a journey that is even bigger than Harold’s; one word after another, she promises to confess long-buried truths—about her modest childhood, her studies at Oxford, the heartbreak that brought her to Kingsbridge and to loving Harold, her friendship with his son, the solace she has found in a garden by the sea. And, finally, the devastating secret she has kept from Harold for all these years.
A wise, tender, layered novel that gathers tremendous emotional force, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy underscores the resilience of the human spirit, beautifully illuminating the small yet pivotal moments that can change a person’s life.

My Thoughts:

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce is a very highly recommended novel  in which a woman in hospice is examining her life. This is very much a companion novel to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Queenie's reflections will likely be appreciated more by those who have read about Harold's journey first. Queenie Hennessy, the woman who was the destination of Harold Fry's 600 mile pilgrimage, has entered St. Bernadine's Hospice in northeast England. She is near the end. Cancer has destroyed her throat and jaw. When Harold sets out on his journey, writing and telling Queenie to wait for him to arrive, it gives her and the other residents something to anticipate before their deaths. This is Queenie's story.

Sister Mary Inconnue suggests that Queenie write a final letter to Harold, one in which she reveals all her thoughts and secrets to Harold. Confession is good for the soul, she is told, so she sets out to write her story. She can confess her love for him, tell him the things she held back from him and never discussed or confessed. She can tell him about where she ended up after she left, about her beach house and the garden by the sea. As Queenie writes the things she needs to say to Harold, we learn more about her, past and present. The past is filled with regrets and some pleasures. The present is with an assortment of odd, endearing companions at the hospice. They all know why they are there, which makes their time together now more poignant. Queenie knows the end is very near.

As I now expect from Rachel Joyce, the writing is exceptional. The story is wonderfully wrought and irresistible, the presentation and pacing is impeccable.  Queenie's story alone is compelling, but underneath the surface, there is a literary depth to the narrative that takes it above and beyond a simple recalling of events in a life. There is a twist at the end which surprised me and provided a perfect conclusion.

While I loved this novel, it is very much based on loving The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. The only drawback to The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is that it very much depends upon you knowing Harold Fry's story first, which will give Queenie's story a context and background. But, if you enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry as much as I did, you will want to read The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.

And don't skip Joyce's novel  Perfect. Rachel Joyce is now moving to the upper echelon of the list of authors I will automatically buy anything they write.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Random House for review purposes.

Friday, February 27, 2015


Daughter by Jane Shemilt
HarperCollins: 3/3/2015
eBook Review Copy, 352 pages

ISBN-13: 9780062320476

Jenny is a successful family doctor, the mother of three great teenagers, married to a celebrated neurosurgeon.
But when her youngest child, fifteen-year-old Naomi, doesn't come home after her school play, Jenny's seemingly ideal life begins to crumble. The authorities launch a nationwide search with no success. Naomi has vanished, and her family is broken.
As the months pass, the worst-case scenarios—kidnapping, murder—seem less plausible. The trail has gone cold. Yet, for a desperate Jenny, the search has barely begun. More than a year after her daughter's disappearance, she's still digging for answers—and what she finds disturbs her. Everyone she's trusted, everyone she thought she knew, has been keeping secrets, especially Naomi. Piecing together the traces her daughter left behind, Jenny discovers a very different Naomi from the girl she thought she'd raised.
Jenny knows she'll never be able to find Naomi unless she uncovers the whole truth about her daughter—a twisting, painful journey into the past that will lead to an almost unthinkable revelation. . . .

My Thoughts:

Daughter by Jane Shemilt is a recommended debut novel about the breakdown of a family.
"It’s easier than you think to lose sight of what matters," says Jenny, a GP in Bristol, England. Jenny and her husband Ted, a neurosurgeon, are the parents of three teenagers: 17-year-old twins, Ed and Theo, and 15-year-old Naomi. When Naomi fails to come home on the second night of performance for her school play, the police are called in to try and unravel what has happened to Jenny. As the investigation plods along, Jenny realizes that she didn't know Naomi, or her boys, as well as she thought she did.

The novel switches back and forth in time, going from Naomi's disappearance to a year later when Jenny is living alone in her family's vacation cottage in Dorset. We know, then, that Naomi is still missing a year later and we know that other events have taken place to disintegrate the fragile family bonds that Jenny thought were so strong. Apparently for years Jenny has been turning a blind eye to clues that were all around her regarding her whole family, not only Naomi. Shemilt also touches on mistakes doctors can make as well as mistakes parents can make.

While this certainly is not a bad debut novel, there were a few problems for me. The first half of the novel moves very slowly. I kept with it hoping to find out what happened, but some of that was a sense of duty from accepting a review copy. Jenny is a well-developed character, but the rest of the family remains largely a mystery. Sure, we don't always know other people as well as we think we do, but Jenny is taking the blame being thrown at her for not seeing this or doing that, while Ted is basically being given a pass for all these things he should have noticed too. Her son Ed is a spoiled brat who needs to be told to stop blaming others for his decisions. Naomi is really a mystery. Jenny thinks she was one way when she obviously wasn't. Finally, the ending of  Daughter may irritate some readers because there is no closure, just more unanswered questions and unresolved issues.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins for review purposes

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Crops Look Good

The Crops Look Good by Sara DeLuca
Minnesota Historical Society Press: 3/1/2015
eBook Review copy, 240 pages

ISBN-13: 9780873519755240
When Margaret Williamson left her family’s rural Wisconsin farm to work in Minneapolis in 1923, her mother, Olava, wrote regularly with updates about daily activities: laundry, bread baking, plowing, planting, and harvesting the crops. Sometimes she enclosed a note from seven- year- old Helen, who reported on school and shenanigans and how she longed to see Margaret again.
So begins decades of stories about a family at once singular— with personal joys and challenges— and broadly representative of the countless small farms that dotted the midwestern landscape in the early twentieth century. As Margaret’s niece Sara DeLuca weaves together family tales gleaned from letters and conversations, we learn of births and deaths, of innovations like the automobile, radio, and telephone that drew rural communities together, and of national and international events that brought home stone- hard truths. Depression- era farmers struggled to keep their land and feed their livestock; many failed. During wartime, this family made do just like everyone else.
The tale that emerges is one of fierce devotion to family and work, of a changing landscape as smaller farms became part of conglomerates, and of the comforting daily rhythms of life shared with those who know us best.
Poet and writer Sara DeLuca grew up on a dairy and sheep farm near the Williamson “homeplace” in Polk County, Wisconsin. She is the author of the memoir Dancing the Cows Home and the poetry collection Shearing Time.
My Thoughts:

The Crops Look Good: News from a Midwestern Family Farm by Sara DeLuca is a very highly recommended biography of a family, told mainly through their correspondence, who lived on a dairy farm in Polk County, Wisconsin from 1923-1955. Although I understand that this biographical narrative will be appealing to a limited audience, those who chose to read it are going to be entranced and delighted with this chronicle of a past way of life. Polk County, Wisconsin is "dairy farming country, settled primarily by Scandinavian and German immigrants..... The soil that once nurtured hardwood forests is rich and loamy. But the climate is extreme and unforgiving, ranging from one hundred degrees in midsummer to minus thirty in the deep of winter."

DeLuca was given the family letters she uses to tell the story of her families past over twenty years ago, but she waited until she felt ready to undertake the writing.  She writes, "They were a burdensome gift. I had been given an assignment I could not fulfill. The farming culture described in these letters has passed into history. I wanted to bear witness to that time. But any book I might create from these writings would require skillful narration, and I did not feel up to the task." Once she felt ready to write this intimate biography, she decided to present the letters chronologically and added notes on historical details from each time period. She manages to capture a past way of life in a rich, rewarding way, with details that bear witness to the work ethic of the times.

An example of a letter from a young girl, Helen sent to her older sister Margaret describes life of the farm on July 24, 1925:
"Dear Margaret,
We are not getting any more strawberries now but we have been picking rasberrys for quite a while. Some of the rasberrys in the middle of the bushes are so ripe they are pretty near purple and they are so nice and big. Mama has canned 25 quarts of rasberrys and she has canned 12 quarts of peas. I milked 3 cows last night and washed all the supper and lunch dishes. They finished haying yesterday afternoon and soon they are going to cut the last field of peas. Mama is washing clothes today and I have to find my new stockings so she can wash them.
Good-bye for now and love from sister Helen"

Contents include:
Directly as a Stone, 1923–24
Bread and Butter, 1925–29
What One Has to Do, 1930–35
A School in Patience, 1936–39
A Thousand Thoughts, 1940–42
When Sorrows Come, 1943–44
The Beautiful Country, 1945–46
Back Where I Belong, 1947–49
Love Made Visible, 1950–55
Source Notes

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press for review purposes.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Some Other Town

Some Other Town by Elizabeth Collison
HarperCollins: 2/24/2015
eBook Review Copy, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062348821

"But here is the strangest part. Now in the mornings when I wake from the dream, for an instant it's as if there are two of me. The one that will rise and go off to work and come home again to Mrs. Eberline. And the one that awakes from the dream of the van and feels something inside of her rising. Quickening, yearning, keening."
Margaret Lydia Benning, twenty-eight and adrift, still lives in the same Midwest town where she went to college. By day, she works at the Project, a nonprofit publisher of children's readers housed in a former sanatorium. There she shares the fourth floor with a squadron of eccentric editors and a resident ghost from the screamers' wing. At night, Margaret returns alone to her small house on Mott Street, with only her strange neighbor, Mrs. Eberline, for company.
Emotionally sleepwalking through the days is no way to lead a life. But then Margaret meets Ben Adams, a visiting professor at the university. Through her deepening relationship with Ben she glimpses a future she had never before imagined, and for the first time she has hope . . . until Ben inexplicably vanishes. In the wake of his disappearance, Margaret sets out to find him. Her journey, a revelatory exploration of the separate worlds that exist inside us and around us, will force her to question everything she believes to be true.
Told through intertwined perspectives, by turns incandescent and haunting, Some Other Town is an unforgettable tale, with a heartbreaking twist, of one woman's awakening to her own possibility.

My Thoughts:

Some Other Town by Elizabeth Collison is a highly recommended, surrealistic novel about a woman who has fallen in love.

Margaret Benning, 28, has bought a stone house on Mott Street and settled into the same town where she attended college. She lives next door to Mrs. Eberline, a woman who is likely insane and certainly has the potential to cause some serious trouble. Margaret works for the Project, a grant funded business devoted to writing  beginning readers for children. The Project is located on the grounds of what was a sanatorium for TB patients. It is still referred to as the Sanatorium even though it now is the home for a wide variety of endeavors and programs.

Three months ago Margaret broke up with Ben Adams, a visiting art professor that she met at a gallery opening. Ben, 16 years her senior, could have been the love of her life, but she hasn't heard from him in 3 months. Mrs. Eberline is demanding that she go find him, insisting that Ben is in danger, but Margaret seems hesitant, perhaps because Ben was married or perhaps it was from their last encounter.

The writing in Some Other Town has a dream-like, ethereal quality. I began to question what was real, and wondered what parts should I take note of and what characters should I care about. I briefly speculated that all the characters were ghosts. While Collison's writing quality is quite good, it seems that something was not quite hitting the mark for me in the presentation. It could be the dream-like detachment she has given to Margaret and Ben in the novel permeated how I felt about it. We hear both of their voices, but mainly it is Margaret's voice you will be paying attention to.

Margaret seems strangely detached from everything, which, although it is explained by the ending, did make it hard to care about her through the whole novel. I couldn't understand why Margaret wasn't calling the police on Mrs. Eberline. There is no way someone would ever tolerate that behavior from a neighbor. The encounters between her co-workers at The Project provided some much needed comic relief, but even then Margaret wasn't engaged with them - even though the reader is seemingly expected to care about their antics.

In some respects, the ending gave me more respect for the book than I initially had. The problem is that some readers are not going to stick with the book to get to that ending. Yes, it is technically very well written, almost poetic at times, but it is also an unconventional presentation that requires readers to take note of everything and care about the characters in spite of the enigmatic qualities of the novel. 3.5

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins for review purposes.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Finding Jake

Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon
HarperCollins: 2/24/2015
eBook Review Copy, 272 pages

ISBN-13: 9780062339485

A heart-wrenching yet ultimately uplifting story of psychological suspense in which a parent is forced to confront what he does—and does not—know about his teenage son.
While his successful wife goes off to her law office each day, Simon Connelly has stayed home to raise their children. Though Simon has loved taking care of Jake and Laney, it has cost him a part of himself, and has made him an anomaly in his pretty, suburban neighborhood—the only stay-at-home dad among a tight circle of mothers...
Then, on a warm November day, he receives a text: There has been a shooting at the high school.
Racing to the rendezvous point, Simon is forced to wait with scores of other anxious fathers and tearful mothers, overwhelmed by the disturbing questions running through his head. How many victims were there? Why did this happen? One by one, parents are reunited with their children. Their numbers dwindle, until Simon is alone. Laney has gone home with her mom. Jake is the only child missing.
As his worst nightmare unfolds, Simon begins to obsess over the past, searching for answers, for hope, for the memory of the boy he raised, for the mistakes he must have made, for the reason everything came to this. Where is Jake? What happened in those final moments? Is it possible he doesn't really know his son? Or he knows him better than he thought? Jake could not have done this—or could he?
But there is only one way to understand what has happened . . . he must find Jake.
A story of faith and conviction, strength and courage, love and doubt that is harrowing and heartbreaking, surprisingly healing and redemptive, Finding Jake asks us to consider how well we know ourselves . . . and those we love.
My Thoughts:

Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon is a very highly recommended, compelling novel about a family tragedy.

Suburban Delaware father, Simon Connelly, has been a stay-at-home dad for their children, Jake, 17, and Laney, 14, while his wife, Rachel, goes off to work at her corporate law office.  When Simon receives the message: "Shots have been fired at the high school. Calmly report to St. Michael’s across Route 5." Like almost any other parent in this situation, Simon knows: "It is not until I see other cars, driving as recklessly as my own, that I begin to understand. There has been a shooting at my kids’ school. My kids, Laney and Jake, are at the school. My kids are in danger. I am not afraid. I am not worried. I am protective, animalistic in my instincts. I will do anything to keep my children out of danger. I will die to protect them. This is not bravado. It is simple fact." He takes off for the high school and joins the other frantic parents waiting to hear of their children are safe.

When Rachel joins him and together they see that Laney is safe, Simon begins to understand that Jake is missing - and even though they can't find him, the police think he was helping the known shooter, Doug. Other parents begin to shy away from them and the accusations and recriminations quickly follow as news crews move in to cover the story. Simon reflects, "My thoughts trip and stumble. I am packing to leave my house, which is in the process of being searched because the police think my son shot thirteen kids today."

Simon, who has always felt insecure and wondered what role his decision to be a stay-at-home dad along with his own social awkwardness may have affected his children, reflects on Jake's life and the choices he made when Jake was younger. Chapters alternated between the present day and the past. We follow the current heart-breaking events along with the reflections on the past.

It becomes clear that both Simon and Rachel have had difficulties and struggles maintaining their marriage during this time they have held nontraditional parental/societal roles. But as we watch Jake grow up and how Simon handled parenting it also seems clear that no matter how much he questions himself and wonders if Jake could really be involved, that Simon is a good parent.

Reardon does a great job building suspense. I appreciated the format, with alternating chapters between the present and the past. Any parent wonders and reflects about how decisions they have made when their children were young may have influenced how they when grown. A tragic event would make this self-introspection even more acute. The format also serves to heighten the suspense.

Although comparisons are made between Finding Jake and We Need To Talk About Kevin, I found that the comparisons can only be made in the broad sense of the basic subject matter. Both novels are about a parent reflecting on their roles in their child's development, but not in the content of that introspection. To say much more would be a spoiler, but while vaguely similar, they are also very different novels.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
HarperCollins for review purposes.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Doomsday Equation

The Doomsday Equation by Matt Richtel
HarperCollins: 2/24/2015
eBook Review Copy, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062201188

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist comes a pulse-pounding technological thriller—as ingenious as the works of Michael Crichton and as irresistible as a summer blockbuster—in which one man has three days to prevent the outbreak of World War III and the world's annihilation
What if you knew the world was going to end?
What if no one believed you?
Jeremy Stillwater is a genius with computers but not so much with people. Maddeningly self-righteous, he's alienated his girlfriend and infuriated his Silicon Valley financiers and the government agents who saw military promise in his innovation: a program that seemed to be able to predict war.
Even Jeremy has begun to doubt the algorithm's capabilities. Then one day his computer has a message for him. War is coming. Three days and counting until massive nuclear conflict.
Is it real? A malicious joke? A bug?
Isolated yet relentless, Jeremy soon uncovers an ancient conspiracy of unspeakable danger. And it will take every bit of Jeremy's stubborn ingenuity to survive another minute, let alone save the world.
My Thoughts:  

The Doomsday Equation by Matt Richtel is a highly recommended techno thriller.

Jeremy Stillwater may be caustic, annoying, and have difficulties connecting with other people, but he is a programming genius who has developed a algorithm that harnesses big data to predict large-scale human conflict. The only problem is that government/military officials and others have told him it doesn't work, leaving him plummeting from unbelievable success to abject failure. But did they tell him the truth. Now "his computer is predicting there is going to be a massive global conflict, engulfing the world in death and destruction—and that the calamity is imminent." The world is going to end in 3 days. April’s projected deaths are 75 million.

Jeremy, who is always connected in some way, is on the move with his tablet. He "needs to get someplace settled and run a test. He needs to check the List. The List is a set of 327 statistical inputs that, Jeremy believes, together describe the state of the world. Oil prices and population density and weather systems and all the rest." Jeremy is unsure is someone got in to his computer program and is trying to run a hoax on him or if his program is compiling the data points correctly.

His program collects data in three major areas. "One is Tantalum. The second is Conflict Rhetoric. The third is the Random Event Meter, known as REM." He notices that "there has been a sharp uptick, 14 percent, in the last few days, of the collective language of conflict, material enough for the computer to care. There’s been an even sharper rise in the Random Event Meter. It’s up 430 percent. Jeremy shakes his head, mostly annoyed, vaguely curious. The meter measures whether there has been some event or series of events that, in historic terms, would seem far outside the standard deviation. And the event can be anything." "He turns to the third variable, tantalum. That’s up 4017 percent. The precious metal is integral to the making of cell phones."

While Jeremy is trying to make sense of the data and run new tests, he notices that he may be being watched. As Jeremy tries to run diagnostic tests and look at the information his program is collecting, he is also on the run, always moving while it seems he is being followed. Despite his caustic nature, he does have people he cares about. Can he save them if this threat is real? And why are people setting lions free from zoos?

Jeremy is an unlikeable protagonist, but you will believe that he is also brilliant and that something is going to happen. Since Jeremy doesn't have the answers, just the predicted outcome of events going on in the world, the tension ratchets up in the count down against the predicted time when the world is supposed to end versus Jeremy's attempts to make sense of the data and avoid whoever is following him. We also don't know if Jeremy is just paranoid or if he really is being followed.

Richtel does an excellent job keeping this high tech thriller up to date. Jeremy relies on all the devices many of us carry and use throughout the day. We are almost always connected and Jeremy reflects that new sensibility. There were plenty of twists in the plot and the ending took me totally by surprise. Well done!

With The Doomsday Equation there should be broad cross-over appeal for those who like science fiction or thrillers. 

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins for review purposes.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Across the Deep Blue Sea

Across the Deep Blue Sea: The Saga of Early Norwegian Immigrants 
by Odd S. Lovoll 
Minnesota Historical Society Press: February 15, 2015
eBook Review Copy, 224 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0873519618

Across the Deep Blue Sea investigates a chapter in Norwegian immigration history that has never been fully told before. Odd S. Lovoll relates how Quebec, Montreal, and other port cities in Canada became the gateway for Norwegian emigrants to North America, replacing New York as the main destination from 1850 until the late 1860s. During those years, 94 percent of Norwegian emigrants landed in Canada.
After the introduction of free trade, Norwegian sailing ships engaged in the lucrative timber trade between Canada and the British Isles. Ships carried timber one way across the Atlantic and emigrants on the way west. For the vast majority landing in Canadian port cities, Canada became a corridor to their final destinations in the Upper Midwest, primarily Wisconsin and Minnesota. Lovoll explains the establishment and failure of Norwegian colonies in Quebec Province and pays due attention to the tragic fate of the Gaspé settlement.
A personal story of the emigrant experience passed down as family lore is retold here, supported by extensive research. The journey south and settlement in the Upper Midwest completes a highly human narrative of the travails, endurance, failures, and successes of people who sought a better life in a new land.

My Thoughts:

Across the Deep Blue Sea: The Saga of Early Norwegian Immigrants by Odd S. Lovoll is a very highly recommended scholarly work.

"The idea to seek a better future in America might have been planted by an individual, an innovator, based on news from America. The innovators in general belonged to the Norwegian farming class."

Anyone who enjoys well presented research on Norwegian immigrants or is of Norwegian ancestry, should welcome this academic look at immigration in the mid 1800's, specifically the passage through Canada in the 1850s-1860. Lovoll gives an overview of Norwegian settlements in Illinois and Wisconsin before 1850  because these communities  "became important magnets for Norwegian immigrants in the following decades." Many early immigrants came based on religious considerations and a desire to seek refuge from religious intolerance. "They sought a place where they could freely and without restrictions worship God."  They were either "The Sloopers" who were Quakers (named after the type of boat they used) or Haugeans, followers of the great lay Lutheran preacher and revivalist Hans Nielsen Hauge.

Clearly Canada encouraged the immigrants to use the route through Canada, offering rebates and an easier time getting on with their journey in comparison to NYC. I hadn't realized that Canada had a quarantine station too, Grosse Île, located in the St. Lawrence River some twenty-nine miles from Quebec City, where a doctor would come onboard the ship an examine the passengers.

A "walk down to the customs house on the new docks in Christiania [Oslo], one would most likely catch sight of well-dressed bonde families, men, women, and children, waiting to be put onboard a ship. They have arrived with their luggage, a diverse collection of boxes and chests. One reads: Paul Larsen, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, North America; Ole Andersen, Chicago, Illinois, North America; Peder Gulbrandsen, Madison, Wisconsin, North America; Olivia Eriksdatter Nordreie, Iowa, Minnesota, and a great number of other names and addresses."

Although I clearly realize that Across the Deep Blue Sea: The Saga of Early Norwegian Immigrants is not going to have wide spread appeal, I have to admit I found it very interesting and enjoyed it a great deal.

Odd S. Lovoll, professor emeritus of history at St. Olaf College and recipient of the Fritt Ords Honnør for his work on Norwegian immigration, is the author of numerous books, including Norwegians on the Prairie and Norwegian Newspapers in America.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press for review purposes.