This Tender Land

William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land channels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Odyssey in an endearing coming of age saga with Dickensian characters who are just as memorable as the heroes from David Copperfield or Oliver Twist.  Although the author adds an epilogue explaining how the four main characters finished their lives in old age, I was sorry to see them grow up, and will probably always remember them as the four young “Vagabonds” who escaped the clutches of evil and followed the river on a life-changing adventure during the Depression.

Ten year old Odie, short for Odysseus, a natural storyteller who also plays the harmonica, is the narrator.  He bands together with three other orphaned escapees from the Lincoln Indian Training School: Albert, his older brother; Mose, a mute Indian boy who had his tongue cut out; and Emmy, the beautiful curly headed six year old with a talent for changing the future, as they paddle in a canoe from Minnesota’s Gilead River to St. Louis on the Mississippi in search of a home.  They meet an array of well meaning characters, including a band of traveling faith healers, a few ornery swindlers and displaced families,  but the villain they are  constantly trying to escape is the headmistress of the school, a cruel and abusive personification of her nickname, the Black Witch.

Krueger follows these heroic children as they travel through Hoovervilles and shantytowns, farmlands and flooded river flats.They meet hobos and scammers, are imprisoned by a farmer, and befriended by Sister Eve of the Sword of Gideon Healing Crusade and Mother Beal, who shares what little food she has.

Like Odysseus, Odie finally makes it to Ithaca, but Kreuger offers a few surprises and a better ending than Homer’s tale.  Our hero finds hope and renewed faith in a compelling story of family and friendship.   I was sorry to come to the end of the book, and the characters, especially Odie, will stay with me for a while.

If you are looking for a book to discuss in a book club, William Kent Kruger’s This Tender Land offers a wealth of characters and plot lines in an easy to follow narrative.

Jeffrey Archer is Back

Some run for elected office in their seventies; others write books.  Jeffrey Archer, 79, will be in his eighties when his new book – Nothing Ventured – continues the story of Detective William Warwick in a new family saga.  Archer has not lost his touch; his new story takes the reader on a wild ride with fast turns and switchbacks as the characters pursue crimes in art and antiquities.

Fans of Archer’s Clifton Chronicles will recognize Detective William Warwick as the fictional character created by author Harry Clifton, in his popular and lucrative detective series.   Archer now centers his new family saga on Warwick in a clever spinoff.

In this first in a series, Warwick foregoes following the family tradition of studying law to earn a degree in art history, followed by a career as a constable and novice detective.  His police work is enhanced by his good looks and his intelligence, as he gets opportunities to prove himself in the field.  Like all Archer’s characters, Warwick is easy to like and to follow, and the story pits him against a civilized and brilliant villain to keep the plot rolling.

Archer usually ends with a cliff hanger leading into the next book in the series, and he delivers enough of a tease at the end of this story to tempt the reader into the next book featuring a battle of wills between Warwick and criminal mastermind Miles Faulkner.  Keep writing, Lord Archer, we can’t wait for the next installment.

Chances Are…

Do you have a friend you haven’t seen in years, yet when you finally get together, you fall into a comfortable conversation as though you had seen each other just yesterday?  Good friends are like that.

In Richard Russo’s Chances Are... three college friends reunite on Martha’s Vineyard after years apart, and find they connect as they had years earlier, with an easy camaraderie but haunted by the ghost of the woman they all loved.  The old Johnny Mathis song in the book title creates the theme for Richard Russo’s latest story of relationships as Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey struggle through a long weekend of memories and surprising revelations.

I always imagine Paul Newman as one of Russo’s character, reprising his role in the movie adaptation of Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool.” None of the three main characters in Chances Are seem to have Newman’s charisma but together they present a dazzling composite.  Lincoln is a successful realtor in Las Vegas, who has inherited the house on Martha’s Vineyard from his mother, and is now considering selling it. Teddy is owner of a small publishing house in upstate New York, who suffers from debilitating episodes.  Mickey, who went to Canada for a few years to avoid the Vietnam War draft, is a musician living on the island.

As their pasts are revealed, fathers figure prominently in their influence, all strangely different for each man, from Lincoln’s strict Calvinist father who tolerated no one, to Teddy’s pseudo intellectual father who had no time for anyone, to Mickey’s father of a large family who expected his youngest child and only son to follow his lead.  But the key character and major influence on the three college boys who bonded over working as hashers in a sorority house on campus was one of those sorority sisters – Jacy.  A seemingly free spirit, Jacy was the mascot to their group – their fourth Musketeer.

The mystery of Jacy’s disappearance years ago provides the suspense as the story evolves around the discovery of what really happened.  Russo delivers a surprising solution in his big reveal at the end of the novel, but the satisfaction of reading how each man developed and maintained a sense of community overwhelms the finale.

Russo, with acerbic wit and irreverence balances stories of his characters coming of age after college with their inevitable struggles as they are entering old age years later when they meet again. Their bond seems to have been the girl but Russo confirms they still have a strong connection beyond their youthful adoration of Jacy. They were there for each other as young men and Russo refreshes their connection years later.  Can their friendship last after all the secrets are revealed? Chances are their chances are awfully good…

The Lager Queen of Minnesota

If you are not hungry for pie and thirsty for beer as you read J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota, you are a better person than I am.  After reading about Edith’s award winning pies, I had to take a break to buy and eat some pie.  The craving for ale, lager. or stout was easy to overcome since the only beer I really like is Guinness and only if I am drinking it in Ireland – something about the water, I think, makes it taste so good there I could have it for breakfast.  Luckily, I don’t get to Ireland often.

Expecting a cozy tale of lovable elderly ladies around the quilting circle, I was pleasantly surprised by Stradal’s complicated family saga and learned more about the making of beer than I can ever use – unless I too get the opportunity to make a chocolate beer in my old age.

Two sisters, Edith, the pie maker, and Helen, the chemist and brewmeister, part ways when their father dies and leaves the farm to Helen.  Without sharing the profits, Helen sells the farm and uses the money to start a brewery.  Throughout the story, Helen is the selfish, smart, money-hungry sister pitted against sweet, calm, pie-making Edith.   Forsaking her ideal of the perfect beer, Helen and her husband make Blotz, a cheap beer appealing to the masses and make a fortune.  Helen, however, does not share her good fortune with her sister.

Left penniless after her husband’s death, Edith works baking pies in a nursing home and as a janitor at a fast food restaurant, raising her teenage granddaughter, Diane, after the fatal crash of Edith’s daughter.  Edith is the good sister, unrewarded with money for all her hard work, but, of course, loved by all.

Despite the stereotypes, the main characters are convincing, but as the tale evolves into desparate times for Edith, a newfound career in brewing for Diane with Edith and her senior friends working at the brewery, and the  evolution of craft beer destroying Helen’s empire, the ending is almost predictable.

I read The Lager Queen of Minnesota in a day, enjoying the possibility of ladies over sixty having a new career in an unlikely business.  Looking for more information on craft beer, I found Williams Sonoma sells a Craft Beer Kit – seems anyone can try making beer.

Off the Library Shelf

Although I tried linking to another writer’s “Library Lust” list, I was not successful, but here are a few books from my library I read in a sitting, so I could get back to the library for more books waiting for me:  The books all seem to come at once sometimes.  Have you ready any of them?

Never Have I Ever by Joshlyn Jackson

A complicated murder mystery drama, reminding me of Finn’s The Woman in the Window, with unreliable characters and a twisting plot.  A page turner full of betrayal, romance, and deception.  Amy Whey has started a new life but is soon battling to keep her past a secret when the devilish Angelica Roux shows up at book club. The two match wits as the drama continues into a surprising ending.

 

The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess

When Eve leaves her job with a publishing company to become an assistant to a prominent and prolific New Yorker writer, summering in Cape Cod, secrets, sex, and the New England literary vibe emerge to create a quickly readable and entertaining story.  Aside from her coming of age journey and her romps in bed, Eve meets a number of literary stars.  She also references a number of books; I had to stop to jot a few down I plan to find: George Eliot’s Middlemarch (with the suggestion to read beyond the first 150 pages to be hooked), Zaleika Dobson by Max Beerbaum, and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

 

The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis

After a slow start, Davis transitions the story of two young women who met on a USO tour during World War II into a dramatic exploration of the McCarthy hearings targeting stage actors, directors, and producers in the nineteen fifties in the United States.  The Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan is the fulcrum of the story, where the women lodge with an assortment of artistic hopefuls.

The story follows Maxine Mead, the beautiful diva, and Hazel Ripley, the talented writer, as their lives change from their wartime friendship into a competitive challenge of spies and deceit.  In the end, both get their due, but along the way Davis offers a look into how McCarthyism overpowered democracy and ruined lives.

 

Reading Now:  The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I may take a little longer to read this story of the artist Harriet Burden.  Hustvedt had me believing it was based on a true person in her clever “Editor’s Introduction,” and I stopped to find reviews about this 2014 work of fiction, doubting  the library’s FIC designation.

Using journals and interviews, the author presents the life of Burden, a talented artist ignored in her time, who decides to conduct an experiment she calls “Maskings” in which she presents her own art behind the names of three prominent male artists, masking her female identity.  Of course, the three shows are successful, but when Burden reveals herself to be the artist, critics doubt her.  The novel promises to not only be ambitious in its revelation of prejudice against women in art, but also a clever exploration of a complicated character, who seems real to me.  I plan to savor it.

 

Books Waiting for Me at the Library:

  • Chances Are by Richard Russo
  • The Darwin Affair by Timothy Mason
  • The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
  • Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe
  • The Reckless Oath We Made by Bryn Greenwood
  • This Tender Land by William Kent
  • Why You Like It by Nolan Gasser