M. L. Stedmans’ debut work of fiction, The Light Between Oceans is another exhibit in the case against
reading cover blurbs. This book had a note using the term “heartwarming,” which
is not appropriate for this book, in my opinion. Light Between Oceans is a
fine effort that deals with love, war-ravaged psyches, and the jealousy of the
maternal instinct. It’s also a well-unified piece, using the bright spot of the
little girl to encapsulate the shining light of opportunity and love between
two opposed mothers. But I would hardly consider this novel’s events or
Ms. Stedman’s book contains the story of a lighthouse keeper
and his wife, a young couple who have suffered through several miscarried
pregnancies. One day a miracle falls to them: a baby washes up on their remote
island in a rowboat, the man in the boat with her (apparently her father) dead
from cardiac arrest. The plot has interesting points, and is made quite
believable by the author. But flaws creep in … I had a difficult time with how
willing the young mother (Isabel) was to assume the duties of and give the love
of a mother. My suspension of disbelief was further strained by Isabel’s
apparent willingness later in the book to let people think the absolute worst
of her incarcerated husband.
Nevertheless, this book’s descriptions of beautiful and
captivating little Lucy-Grace are perfect – never off by even the tiniest bit. She
embodies the shining hope and ideal object of love for two different women, and
thus stands out as the light between two oceans. However, this book made me
tense, as I kept expecting a certain outcome, but was disappointed in that
expectation. And the very end didn’t quite seem necessary, and had a definite
formulaic feel, which the rest of the book certainly did not.
A family saga, set in a unique place – off the southeastern
coast of Australia – that deals difficult family, legal, and psychological issues,
this is a flawed but interesting debut. This author shows promise, but I
recommend waiting for subsequent efforts.
The events of The
Forgotten Waltz lead us down the trail toward Evie, the just-prepubescent daughter
of philandering Seán,
and she’s a quirky, uneven character to carry all that energy. And up until the
last sections of the book, she doesn’t play a particularly prominent part in
the story – she’s important, there’s just not a lot of text devoted to her. Forgotten Waltz is a surprising book,
considered in the context of Ms. Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering. It has none of the deep psychological strife, and
abjures the artful burgeoning clarity of that masterpiece. But it is
nevertheless a compelling read.
In The Forgotten Waltz
we follow the thoughts and sometimes the emotions of Gina Moynihan, a Dubliner
in her early 30s, who although married, pursues an affair with married Seán. Her inward dialogue
rings too true: she kind of knows what she’s doing is reprehensible and costly,
knows why she’s now caused alienation and sorrow in two families, but – she and
Seán will try to
make a go of it, at least for now. And slowly, the importance of Evie, Seán’s 14 year-old
daughter, starts to grow. By the end of the book I thought of her as about to
exercise the judgment of the world – will she survive and thrive while aligning
herself with Gina, or will she turn her back and thereby take her Dad – and
Gina’s happiness – away?
I’m convinced of this importance for the character by the open-ended
way Ms. Enright leaves the issue – there is really no way to ascertain Evie’s
state of mind from her statements. It gives us the opportunity not only to
understand the critical nature of the issue for Gina, but also to speculate as
to the outcome. But a fortiori it
gives Gina’s and Seán’s
misadventures the slight possibility of durability, of the certifying mark of
longevity, and we don’t know if we want that for Gina. As a character, she
engenders no sympathy, and this is perhaps Evie’s function. It could be that the
youngster’s final judgment dooms Gina, and this is a highly persuasive, perhaps
the most logical, reading.
I looked for parallels with the grand and magisterial The Gathering, and I did find them. We
get the same crystal clear and true-to-life inward dialogue in the main
character. Although the morality of the two characters from the two books is at
least very divergent (if not diametrically opposed), we understand the series
of machinations and rationalizations that Gina goes through, and this is a
great accomplishment, make no mistake. Ms. Enright set out to portray a
realistic progress of an adulterer, which by playing it perfectly straight, she
achieves extremely well. By then placing her fate in the hands of a shaky and retrogressive
teen, she leaves the end of the story open, and the reader is free to form her
This is a very balanced and honest conjuring. We enter the
head of our anti-hero and see its none-too-pretty workings clearly, and this is
the great success of Forgotten Waltz.
In Swift River
author R. C. Binstock uses the tender, inchoate voice of a young girl to speak
for the doomed Swift River Valley in Depression-era Massachusetts. The valley
is doomed because the thirsty residents of Boston need water, and the valley – families
and farms and factories of long standing – will be inundated when Boston gets
its reservoir. The eloquent and plaintive diary entries of Polly form the
perfect canvas for witnessing the mounting weight of loss; they are stunning,
unforgettable, and captivating. This character and her brave suffering are
truly precious inventions, not to be missed.
Swift River shares with Mr. Binstock’s other work a fearless
willingness to cite and decry the greedy or rapacious aspects of human nature.
As in his well-received Tree
of Heaven, Mr. Binstock never fears to plumb the depths or heroics of human
In this book, Polly McPhee of the Swift River Valley in Massachusetts
starts a diary as she approaches her 12th birthday. A seeming world
away in Boston, the state Legislature passes a law that will destroy her farm,
her family, and her way of life. Hers and three other towns will be permanently
inundated under a new reservoir so that Boston can have water. Polly’s brief
but heartrending diary entries propel the story, along with snippets from other
sources. If it isn’t always obvious what or who these other sources are,
finding out or already knowing the answer is one of the many sources of delight
here. One very powerful device drives a certain narrative energy as well: the
author sets up a contrast between Polly’s elegiac diary entries and the ponderous,
self-satisfied bureaucratese of how Polly and her family will be ground under
the state’s heel.
Polly’s diary entries, which form the book’s main framework,
give us a glimpse into a young girl’s mind and heart as her world’s ripped
asunder. Loss does form the backdrop for her narrative, but we do see the
lively, developing teen and young woman, who blesses the world with her good
heart in spite of all the odds stacked against her. In her entries, Mr.
Binstock manages unerringly to capture the hope and wonder and fear and daring
of this marvelous fictional invention – this Polly.
The lead character carries the narrative forward, obviously,
but she does so in a way that’s equal parts endearing and awe-inspiring. She’s
forced into adulthood far too quickly, but at the same time sees the beautiful
rural landscape of her home valley, the awkward, mostly unwelcome advances of
boys, the blessed community of school, the solace of study, the necessity of
chores – all of these she faces with a proud and resourceful innocence that
place her in the first rank of characters.
I have spent a lot of energy on Swift River’s protagonist, and with good reason. It is with Polly’s
development that this novel reaches its highest achievement. By no means let this
book pass you by. Unreservedly I add it to my pantheon of masterpieces. Take it
The ambitions of a jealous, maniacal entrepreneur join
tender romance and political trench warfare to give Fractured Legacy its powerful emotional punch. Labeled a thriller
and set in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, Legacy
doesn’t boast the heart-pumping suspenseful denouement of many thrillers, but
instead concludes in equal parts romance and realism. Its thrills derive from
the drama of underfunded and less-powerful forces taking on the high and
mighty. Its touching and hopeful nature flows from an unexpected chance at love
between two very unlikely people. These characteristics take nothing away from
this book’s thrilling nature; in fact, they definitely enhance it.
In one thread, Jeff and Sara Winter’s marriage appears
doomed: since injuring his hip, Jeff isn’t able to help run their outdoor
adventure business, and sharp, decisive Sara has lost patience. She meets
powerful businessman Grant Tomson, with whom she begins to hatch a plan for a
new venture, and doesn’t worry about its possible effect on Jeff. However, this
all occurs after the apparently accidental death of Grant’s twin Will, and the
halting, unproductive police investigation that follows. The most intriguing
character here, and the one with the most intimate and sympathetic story is
Bebe Sorensen, curator of a museum in town, who helps the police investigation,
and discovers a world of romantic possibility in the process. Some citizens
suspect Grant of subterfuge and much worse, and resolve to halt his development
ambitions for an idyllic wilderness lake, and his reaction to this threat is a
main driver in the story.
I try never to speculate on other work that an author may
undertake, or what he or she intends, but Fractured
Legacy has the definite feel of something to be followed up with a sequel. The
first-blush realization of the nature of the businessman/developer has not
resulted in anything but dark suspicion.
No building has proceeded in the
wilderness, no land-grab has occurred, and romantic realization for one couple
and possible rapprochement for another are still to come. If there is a follow-up volume, I definitely
want it, because I definitely want a chance to see these characters through.
This book has outstanding pace, exceptionally realistic
political infighting, and a highly appealing budding romance. Of all things in
a thriller, I expected only the pacing; I did not bargain for the other
pleasures. Indeed, this book has a great deal to offer the discerning reader,
and I for one am not ashamed or embarrassed to hope for a sequel. Rewarding,
crisply done, top flight. Highly recommended.
Creatures Attack! won this year’s John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the
University of Iowa, and it’s damn easy to see why. The writing is a splendid
and arresting combination of irreverence, counterculture rebellion, and gallows
humor. It portrays a Catholic upbringing – complete with nuns – in the heart of
Texas, which as I always suspected, is another country altogether.It also deals with juvenile delinquency,
unwanted pregnancy, drug addiction, mental illness, and suicide. In case you
were thinking its humor makes it light reading.
These short pieces are linked very closely together, moreso
than usual in a short fiction collection, although they can certainly be read
independently. The experience would be very different in that case, although
not as deep or affecting. I have to honor and thank the Simmons award committee
for singling out this multifarious work, because it clearly, clearly deserves the recognition.
Besides all the adjectives above, in main it’s a moving, disturbing, topical
The narrative threads follow Laura, an inexperienced high
school English teacher in her early 20s, and her student Janice, whom Laura
calls “a feral raccoon devoid of impulse control,” in honor of her excessive eye
shadow. The two are not enemies, however, or even adversaries, for very long. They unfortunately share too many toxic and alienating influences in their
lives: distant and/or suicidal mothers, deep and dangerous problems with men,
drug use – in Laura’s case, coerced, in Janice’s, not so much. These two vivid creations
come packaged up in a raucous, rebellious, frightening, hysterically funny set
And the stories are worth every bit of their award. Consider the fanciful: a giant squid that hugs
you until your unwanted pregnancy goes away, a wood nymph who could save the
environment, a wax figure battle at a museum that pits George Washington
against Moses. Or the plain bizarre: Laura is confined to a psychiatric
treatment program in which she must try to earn negotiable “Wellness Points™”
which purport to measure her progress, but are really punitive and
counterproductive. Consider the all-too-real: young women trying to navigate
through a universe that might be indifferent if it weren’t so treacherous.
Through all the wisecracks and comic effects, Mystical Creatures has a serious, compassionate soul, and I am
quite impressed. Do take it up, you won’t regret it for a minute.