Tag Archives: book reviews

Kettle Bottom

Written by Diane Gilliam Fisher

Published by Perugia Press, Florence, MA

Review by Carole Mertz

5 quills

 

In her chapbook of fifty weighty poems, most of which are prose poems, Diane Gilliam Fisher gives us the bleak history of coal miners’ lives and travails during the period of the West Virginian miners’ wars of 1920-21.

Most commendable in this collection is the ring of authenticity in the poet’s voice and the way she has captured the slang and often grammatically ill-constructed sentences of the coal-mining poor, voices which carry a poetry of their own. None of the lines are rhymed, and Fisher employs few poetical devices, but her eloquent tone is present throughout.

In “Ironing,” we read:

I does it. All the rest, too, I ain’t white— 

 scrub the clothes when they dirty, 

 feed the children when they hungry, comb 

 the cinders out of they heads when the train 

 blast by, spewing like a devil out of the hind end 

of Hell…

A miner speaks in “The Rocks Down Here”: First hour of every shift down in the mine, / shakes and cold sweats worse’n the grippe / that near took me last spring. / Past that, I begin to feel easy-like, / moving through the dark.

In poem after poem, Fisher, who, perhaps ironically, holds an advanced degree in Romance Languages and Literature, captures precisely the sparse language and poetry of the miners, their wives, and children. A young girl speaks in the poem, “Pearlie Asks Her Mama What Poontang Means .” 

Mama says to don’t tell Daddy, for he

would have to go after them men that spoke

to me that way, and God only knows 

what would happen then…

them men has put murder in my heart.

Looking back, we can appreciate the astounding contributions these struggling, overworked, undervalued and blackened miners handed to our country. They carved out of the earth the energy source the U.S. needed to continue its industrial sprouting and feed its steamships and steam-operated rail lines; they delivered this energy, almost mutely, out of the sweat of their coal-darkened bodies, with little reward for themselves.

A sixth grader reports in the poem “What History Means to Me:”

“…before we was West Virginia and was only the Endless / Mountains of Virginia. [Aunt Mandy] has put it to me like this. First / the railroads come and lots of  fancy pants forriners trying / to buy up ever little creek and holler and home place they set / their thieving eyes on. Then the timber men come, took the / oak and yellow poplar, wrecked the rivers and left. Collieries / come and stayed, but the coal and the money went. What it / means to us is a lot of dead husbands and caved-in bellies…” 

Each poem in this collection moved me. But the composite created an impression not soon forgotten. In “1920, Winco Coal Camp,” we witness a three-fold loss.

My third-eldest brother, Robert Warren, went in 

the mine at sixteen. We’d buried Daddy three days before,

right next to Alma, for even though Daddy had sold 

mineral rights to Stone Mountain Coal, he would not

sign till they wrote in the paper how we’d always 

have use of the burying ground. The Company 

told Mama it was a kettle bottom took Daddy. They say

that a lot—kettle bottom, they figure, ain’t nobody’s fault. 

They give Robert Warren Daddy’s tools, and his number,

  1. Put him to work in the same room. Roof 

sounded hollow, Robert Warren said, but he couldn’t see 

where no kettle bottom had fell through. He had twelve

days in the hole when his section caved. Company says

couldn’t nobody have lived, says they can’t go in 

for the bodies without risking more men…

Fisher organizes her poems carefully. They lead us to the miners’ breaking point. In reaction to  the “gun thugs,” as the miners called the agents sent to enforce company policy and spy out any union activity, violence erupted and became the Matewan Massacre of May, 1920. Men on both sides of the struggle were killed.

The miners eventually contributed to unionized power, after the severe test of the Battle of Blair Mountain. In that confrontation, the men ultimately chose not to fight against uniformed government soldiers with whom, side-by-side and wearing the same uniform, they’d so recently fought in the First World War. (The United Mine Workers of America, begun in 1890 in Columbus, Ohio, did not achieve collective bargaining rights for its workers, however, until 1933, nor health benefits until 1946.)

In “One Voice,” the poet draws on a pastor’s sermon, to strong effect:

Did not John the Baptist

say unto the people, Let him who hath two coats 

impart unto him that hath none? Any operators

stop you on your way to church this morning

and impart? Any of you leave a child

at home, on account of it wasn’t their turn

with the coat?

“Raven Light,” one of the most powerful poems in the collection, also uses a Biblical excerpt. A miner reflects, “When I was a boy, I liked the story of Jonah. / He done right, I thought. If God / meant to send him to a evil place, / why shouldn’t he get on a boat / and head the other way? I bet Nineveh / was run by folks like Stone Mountain Coal…”

A schoolgirl tries not to defy in “A Book Report, by Pearlie Webb”:

“First off, I do not understand what a book report is for . It   

 seems to me books is to read , and it is the author’s job to 

 write . Second off, I do not believe being extra smart, as you 

 said I am and that is why I have to write this book report, 

 should mean a person has got to do extra work. But I was   

 not raised in a barn, my mama has taught me do not sass, 

so I will write my book report as I am told.”

A lively oral history of the life of miners exists and is carried through time by the spoken word and song. Fisher’s sad, but beautiful, poems deserve to be read aloud and thereby contribute to that precious oral tradition. As a history, Kettle Bottom is commendable; as a book of poetry, it deserves to be treasured in its own right.

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Carole Mertz has reviews and essays in Arc Poetry Magazine, Ascent Aspirations, Copperfield Review, The Conium Review, Capper’s, Mom Egg Review, Tiny Lights Journal, Working Writer, and World Literature Today. Her poems appeared in Every Day Poems, Page & Spine, Rockford Review, WestWard Quarterly, and in various anthologies. Her poem won the June 2015 Wilda Morris Poetry Challenge. Carole trusts the power of the pen to influence, in large ways or small, the direction our country takes today. She writes in Parma, Ohio.

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The Old Boys: The Decline and Rise of the Public School

Written by David Turner

Published by Yale Press

Review by Charlie Britten

2quills

 

Every British schoolboy or schoolgirl is desperate to go to boarding school at some time in their life, tantalised by Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers series (girls), Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings series (boys) and more recently by Harry Potter (both sexes). The Old Boys, published in March 2015 and written by David Turner, former education correspondent for the Financial Times, is not about ‘jolly japes’, but a very serious, thorough and well-researched account of the British public school system from the very first such establishment – Winchester College, founded in 1394 – to the present day.

Winchester, like many public schools that followed it, started out with charitable intentions, as a free educational facility for boys from poor families, subsidised by commoners who did pay fees. Of course, the commoners rapidly overtook the non-fee payers in numbers and in status, with the result that, within a hundred years, public schools had become the place where arrivistes with money but without noble status or connections could purchase the latter, alongside a classical education. The Old Boys chronicles riots by boys, bullying and poor accommodation. Many of the problems which beset schools today were present from the beginning: huge class sizes, with teachers frequently asked to supervise two classes at once; the standard of teaching on offer being so poor that parents hire extra tutors; well-connected parents making a nuisance of themselves to teachers until their darlings were awarded better grades.

Although Turner’s work includes a lot of fascinating information, backed up by excellent primary sources, his treatment of the topic is disorganised and off-putting. The book starts in an uninviting way, with some long captions to illustrations, which don’t have much meaning as the illustrations are not displayed with them. Chapters are very long and, although the book attempts to tell the story of British public schools in chronological order, rather than by topic, the result is meandering. For instance, the reader is amidst a discussion of the impact of sport on the curriculum when suddenly we move on to homosexuality. Turner does not discuss girls’ public schools in any great detail, but that is not the brief he set himself.

Although The Old Boys has been promoted for the ‘general interest’ genre, it is, in truth, one for academic historians.

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Charlie Britten is a contributing reviewer for The Copperfield Review.

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The Cunning Man: A Hippo Yeoman Anthology

Written by John Yeoman

Published by Amazon

Review by Charlie Britten

3quills

 

Published in December 2014, The Cunning Man is a collection of historical crime stories featuring the impoverished Elizabethan apothecary, Hippo Yeoman, whose sideline is solving mysteries. The crimes he is required to solve include the theft of a bowl from a locked room which it is ‘impossible’ to enter, the plight of a milliner faced with ruin because she can’t read Latin, vandalism of books and a dead man found in a privy built for the personal use of Good Queen Bess in anticipation of a Royal Visit which never happens. The writer moves Hippo around sixteenth century London with the sort of assurance that is based upon sound research, and occasionally brings some real people into his plots, including William Camden, headmaster of Westminster School and author, and well-known courtiers.

It is curious that the main character has the same surname as the pen-name of the author, John Yeoman. (I gather from his website that this is not his real name.) I didn’t warm to the protagonist Hippo Yeoman. He isn’t smug or a know-it-all (as detectives can be) or have other obvious vices, except a tendency to whinge, especially about his poverty. The problem is more that his character is not clearly defined, with the result that I didn’t get to know him.

Hippo also appears in two novels, Dream of Darkness and Fear of Evil (both published in January 2015) and in another short story, “The Hog Lane Murders” (published in February 2015). As well as being there for the reading, these works, which John Yeoman calls ‘fictionals’, include footnotes hyperlinked to what he calls ‘clever tips’ – for writers – about how they were written. Each story has about twenty such footnotes, all of which are easily accessed using my classic Kindle, although obviously this sort of interactivity would be no use on a printed version. The ‘tips’ provided by John Yeoman, who runs the writing website ‘Writers Village’, are pitched at a beginners/improvers level and often appear to reflect his personal opinion, as in, for instance, ‘Humour is a dangerous thing. Too many one liners and the author leaps out of the story, grinning at us…’ Although many of the footnotes are insightful, his approach to writing is mechanistic, with lots of named tools such as ‘The Indispensable Incident’ and ‘a character signature’, which could lead those following his tips to write technically correct literature bogged down in technicalities. Nevertheless it’s a clever idea and good use of multimedia.

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 Charlie Britten is a contributing reviewer for The Copperfield Review.

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The Amber Keeper

Written by Freda Lightfoot

Published by Amazon Publishing (Lake Union Imprint)

Review by Charlie Britten

 3quills

Millie’s life changed forever in 1911, when she became governess to Countess Olga Belinsky’s children.   One of the most evil characters ever to appear between book covers, a woman who refused to breastfeed her howling, newborn baby, Countess Belinsky defines this novel.   Sexually voracious, manipulative, spiteful, greedy and self-serving, I believe that Freda Lightfoot created her as an allegory for everything that was wrong in Imperial Russia.   Her husband, Count Vasily, on the other hand, was a sweet, public-spirited man, in the mould of Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

This is a novel with two settings and two casts of characters, one featuring Millie in St Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, and the other Millie’s granddaughter, Abigail, in the English Lake District in 1963.   The Russian thread was as harsh and unrelenting as the steppe, with the workers’ anger bubbling beneath the veneer of tinkling sleigh-bells and fur-lined hats.   By contrast, Abigail’s was about her making peace with her family, after having eloped with a French chef – family saga stuff, much gentler.   However, despite a tinny transistor playing Please, Please Me in chapter one, this reader didn’t pick up a 1960s feel.

Freda Lightfoot has written over forty family sagas and historical novels, featuring northern England during the first half of the twentieth century.   This was the first one set outside her own country, but it was thoroughly researched, including details like St Petersburg tram drivers refusing to permit the poorer people to board their vehicles because they assumed they were drunk all the time.   Although the Tsar and Tsarina became real when the Belinskys referred to them as Nicky and Alix, Freda’s accounts of the course of the Revolution were too long and factual, often leaving her characters as onlookers.

The Amber Keeper title is enigmatic.   Is it to remind the reader of the Amber Room in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, or of Abigail designing and selling jewellery?  But, as the novel progresses, the amber connection is revealed, closing the gap between Millie’s story and Abigail’s.   Countess Belinsky’s nastiness pervades to the very end.

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Charlie Britten has contributed to  Every Day FictionMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket. She has also written a couple of book reviews for Copperfield Review. She writes because she loves doing it.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War. Charlie lives in southern England with her husband and cat. In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education. Charlie’s blog, ‘Write On’, is at  http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/.

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The Paying Guests

Written by Sarah Waters

Published by Riverhead

Review by Michelle Pretorius

4quills

 

 

In the tradition of her earlier historical works, such as Tipping the Velvet and The Night Watch, Sarah Waters’s latest novel, The Paying Guests, scrutinizes the British class system and the treatment and restrictions placed on women, especially lesbians. Waters gives the reader a claustrophobic view of daily life in 1922 London, a city whose population is still reeling from the devastating effects of World War I. We experience this world through the eyes of Frances Wray, a twenty-six-year-old “upper-class” spinster. Frances and her mother are left almost penniless after the death of her father, who had made a number of ill-advised investments, and are forced to take in lodgers, referred to as paying guests, in order to make ends meet.

A section of the house is converted into an apartment and a working-class couple, Leonard and Lillian Barber, move into the Wray home. Frances and her mother are painfully aware of the Barbers’ presence, noting every creak and social taboo, seeing it as an invasion they must endure in order to survive. Waters humorously conveys the discomfort of both classes in their confined environment while highlighting the superficial deference that the status of the upper class confers. The characters are grounded in the period by vivid details and nuanced speech patterns, with which Waters expertly illuminates their different experiences in British society.

A friendship develops between Frances and Lillian. The two women spend time together during the day while Leonard, a clerk, is at work and Mrs. Wray volunteers at church. Lillian and Leonard’s marriage is not a happy one, and the cracks soon become visible to Frances. She is also aware of her growing physical attraction to Lillian. It is only after Frances reveals her past love affair with a woman that Lillian reciprocates these feelings. Waters is known for her frank portrayal of lesbian sex, but, far from being gratuitous, the explicit scenes in The Paying Guests aid in the depiction of two people who are in love and who face overwhelming odds because of their gender and sexual orientation.

Lillian discovers she is pregnant just as the two lovers decide to break away from their constrictive circumstances to start a life together. The pregnancy sets a chain of events in motion, culminating in a trial that puts the two women’s continued relationship in doubt. Through the descriptions of the criminal investigation and court proceedings, Waters holds a mirror up to current sensationalism while delivering an engrossing glimpse into the machinations of the criminal justice system in Britain at the time.

Waters mercilessly tightens the screws on her two main characters at every turn, placing the implications of their love in this time period under a magnifying glass. The Paying Guests is an engrossing read that makes us conscious of how far the equal rights movement has come and of the freedoms we too often take for granted.

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Michelle Pretorius was born and raised in South Africa and has lived in London, New York and the Midwest. She holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago and is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Ohio University.

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The Tudor Vendetta

02_the_tudor_vendetta-1Written by C.W. Gortner

Published by St. Martin’s Griffin

Review by Meredith Allard

4quills

 

I have only recently come to a fascination with an historical subject that have held many history buffs spellbound for years—Tudor England. Blame it on Hilary Mantel and her brilliant Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, or blame it on the television show The Tudors which I began watching one slow Saturday afternoon. Whatever you blame, the truth is I am now quite interested in the sly doings and undoings of King Henry VIII and his offspring. I even made a special trip to the Tower of London on my last trip to London to see one of the locales for myself.

The Tudor Vendetta is the first book I’ve read from C.W. Gortner’s The Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles though it is actually the third book in the series. The fact that I hadn’t read the first two books in the series wasn’t a hindrance and I was able to follow the story very easily. In fact, I think I might go back and read the first two books. If you want to start at book one in the series then you should, but if you want to start with The Tudor Vendetta as I did, you’ll find that Gortner provides enough backstory so that you’re able to follow along.

Gortner has a knack for historical detail as well as character development. Brendon is certainly a devoted spy for Elizabeth I as he searches for the missing Lady Parry. He is extremely loyal as intrigue strikes the young queen’s court and a certain secret surfaces. While the history is an important part of the story, readers will not be surprised to discover that some poetic license was taken in the telling of this tale.

At times thoughtful, at times a fast-paced page turner, The Tudor Vendetta is a wonderful story for anyone who loves a good Tudor-based historical novel. Actually, I don’t think an interest in the Tudor period is necessary. There is enough action, historical detail, and interesting characters to keep anyone who loves fiction guessing what happens next.

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 Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

 

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The Poisoned Pilgrim

Written by Oliver Poetzsch

496 Pages

Published by Mariner Books

Review by Carole Mertz

4quills

 

The Poisoned Pilgrim is the fourth volume in Poetzsch’s Hangman’s Daughter Series. The book depicts for citizens of the twenty-first century the duties of a seventeenth century hangman, a kind of counterpart to the chief-of-police in a contemporary town. (A seventeenth century hangman is feared, but not entirely respected, and deemed a member of a lower class of society.)

Poetzsch’s hangman is, nevertheless, a man of character and imagination, while his daughter Magdalena is determined, impetuous, and curious, characteristics which lead her into serious difficulties. She and her husband Simon, the Schongau “bathhouse surgeon,” have left their home to undertake a pilgrimage. They travel by foot from Schongau in southern Bavaria toward Lake Ammer. After crossing the lake in a small boat, they arrive in the mountainous forest beneath the Andechs Monastery during a violent thunderstorm. They wish to give thanks in the Monastery for the safety and well-being of their two young children, left at home with The Hangman.

When a robbery occurs, most of the pilgrims are unaware of the stir this causes among the monks and the abbot. An unexplained murder also occurs in the Prologue, but readers must wait many pages for its explanation.

I loved the unraveling of this rather complicated tale. I loved the glimpses it offered of life in an earlier century, within the Bavarian territory where I had once resided. (I’m a classical musician. Events similar to those recorded in this novel, I mused, may have occurred at a time when Bach, or his mentor Buxtehude, were instructing organ students in German towns not far distant from Andechs.)

A brief history of Baroque music composed in an era contemporaneous to the actions of this novel, describes the following, “To this tradition (i.e. of composing chorale preludes and fugues) must be added the instinctive German love of order, manifested still today in so many aspects of German life.” The substance of The Poisoned Pilgrim reflects that love of order.

It is Jacob Kuisl, the protagonist, who ultimately solves the murders which occur, and who ardently strives to protect his offspring. It is noteworthy that Poetzsch is himself a descendant of the Kuisl family.

Another area of interest drew me to this particular novel, i.e., the author’s references to Salzburg University. I learned the University formally opened as a Benedictine institution in 1622. The contemporary Salzburg University had not reopened as a theological center until two years past the year when I was a music student in that town.

The author’s descriptions of the territory rang true for me as did the sometimes crude manner of speaking in some of the dialogue exchanges, similar perhaps to the down-to-earth speech employed by Luther in his “Table Talk.” For example, the Schongau Hangman hurls this speech at his three-year-old grandson: “Damn it! Keep your dirty paws away from my sacred crucibles before I send you back to bed without breakfast.” We wonder how we can accept this hangman as one of the heroes in this tale, but later we witness his great love for this child.

Since the Andechs Monastery still exists, and since this location is the area of Poetzsch’s upbringing, we may well trust his descriptions of the environs. Furthermore, as evidence of his diligent research, Poetzsch modeled his chronicle on Willibald Mathaeser’s Andechser Chronik. Mathaeser was a cellarer at the Monastery for years and steeped himself in the history of the Monastery.

Visitors still make pilgrimages to the Monastery. However their desire for the double bock beer brewed in the Andechs Tavern since 1455 and still served today in the Monastery gardens, may overpower their desire to pray in the chapel.

Though I jumped in media res (by starting with the fourth volume of the series), I now plan to read the entire series. The current volume is translated by Lee Chadeayne, editor in chief of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) Newsletter.

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Carole Mertz has published reviews in The Conium ReviewThe Long Ridge Writers WebsiteThe Christian Communicator, and at Page and Spine. Her chapter on writing tips was selected for inclusion in the forthcoming Writing after Retirement, Carol Smallwood and Christine Redman-Waldeyer, Editors, (Scarecrow Press). Recently Mertz won recognition in the 4th Worldwide Intergenerational Storytelling Contest.

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Written by Susan Cain

Published by Broadway Books

Review by Meredith Allard

5quills

After I read Quiet, I wanted to shout ‘I’m an introvert!’ from the tallest building, but then the buildings around here aren’t very tall and I’m an introvert so I wouldn’t have shouted very loudly anyway. The shout would have been a whimper, and then I would have been upset with myself for not yelling louder. After a sigh, I gave up on the idea and went back into my house where I could be alone, which is where I wanted to be in the first place.

I had heard the terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ many times over the years, and I understood that along those lines I fell on the introvert side of the spectrum. Like most writers, I’d rather be home behind my computer screen writing stories, blog posts, or reviews like these than doing almost anything else. In regards to degrees of introversion, I am in extremis. I’m not dying from introversion, mind you, but I’m so far there that if you pushed me I’d drop away never to be seen or heard from again.

In Quiet, Susan Cain pleads the case for introverts like myself by using examples and research, and she shows how introverts have made many contributions to society in areas like technology and entertainment. She points out what is obvious but should be stated in a book about introverts: we live in a society where extroversion is idealized and rewarded whereas introversion is discouraged and not rewarded. Cain points to the current trend toward group or cooperative work, and then she says something I’ve been longing to hear for 20 years: group work is inherently difficult for introverts. I know this is true from frequent workshops where the directions are “Turn to your neighbor and say…” or “Form a group of four and create a…” I’m not an unfriendly person, truly. But, as Cain points out, introverts cannot think on demand. Group leaders who are trying to teach are doing an injustice to introverts by insisting that their lessons consist of talking it out. Like other introverts, I don’t learn by talking, especially to strangers. I learn by figuring it out for myself. I realized in grad school as we sat around the table discussing great works of literature that I didn’t know how to insert myself into the conversation, and the thought that I should interject somehow left me more stressed than I already was.

Each page of Quiet was an “A ha!” moment for me. One of the biggest lessons I learned is that the societal push toward extroversion isn’t always a good thing. It turns out that 1/3 of people are introverts, people like me who would rather read or write than go to parties or speak out about anything anywhere. When Cain talks about how introverts need time to recharge because being in the world can drain their energy, my heart swelled—in a good way. Here Cain describes what I have always known about myself but never had the words to articulate. For my entire life I thought I was just weird. I’m not saying I’m not weird, I’m just saying I’m weird for other reasons. Why I chose the careers I did, why I live my life as I do—it all makes sense to me in a way it didn’t before I read Quiet. I had spent most of my life feeling bad about myself, feeling like I should force myself to be more social, but this book helped me realize that if I get my jollies staying home and working around the house, that’s okay. I still need to function in the world, but I can take the time I need to recharge.

Introverts will always have to deal with the negatives—being considered anti-social, being told to smile more, listening to the comments after you stay in your office because you need to recharge instead of going out for a noisy lunch with coworkers. Reading Quiet gave me the ability to say, “I don’t have to be like them. I can be myself.” What better gift can a book give?

If you’re an introvert, or you’re in a close relationship with one, you will want to read Quiet for its perceptive insights about being an introvert in an extroverted society.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Bellman and Black

Written by Diane Setterfield

Published by Simon and Schuster

ARC courtesy of NetGalley

Review by Meredith Allard

4quills

 

I should begin by saying that I haven’t read author Diane Setterfield’s New York Times bestselling novel The Thirteenth Tale so I had no expectations about reading Bellman & Black based on the success of her previous novel. Bellman & Black is a book about death, the whole death, and nothing but death, so help you God. It starts with the death of a rook, which a young William Bellman kills to show off in front of his friends. Let’s just say rooks hold grudges.

Many others die in the story too. William’s family dies. Those around William die. William grows into an intense man who works, works, works, and has time or care for little else. After his wife’s death, with his only remaining child close to death, William cuts a deal with a mysterious “man” he calls Black. Afterwards, William feels compelled to create an emporium for mourning—a Wal-Mart for Funeral Necessities, you might call it. Known as Bellman and Black, the mourning emporium becomes successful (since we’re all going to die after all). William thinks he has cut a deal to preserve his daughter’s life. In the end, William learns that it wasn’t a deal for his daughter’s life after all.

I love Diane Setterfield’s exquisite writing style. She has a fluidity and dexterity with the language that I feel is missing from many present day authors. She is both straightforward and poetic, and it’s from the sheer power of her writing alone that I give the book four stars. The character of William Bellman, on which the success or failure of this novel depends, begins in an interesting way but grows stagnant somewhere along the line. He watches people die and throws himself into his work, work, work with minimal emotion, which leaves minimal emotion for the reader to connect to. I kept waiting for something to happen in the story that didn’t depend on someone’s death, but when death is the theme of the novel such waiting is useless. The “ghost” in this story is Black, who isn’t a man after all. Like I said, rooks hold grudges. In the world Setterfield creates in Bellman & Black, I wonder how murderers of people would be haunted throughout their lives if this is how William is haunted after his childhood mistake? I’m not advocating killing birds by any stretch. I love God’s creatures great and small. I’m simply saying that in the scheme of things, I wonder how much of a crime the young William Bellman committed.

And yet, I finished the book, which must say something for the power of Setterman’s prose. I kept reading, pulled steadily through by Setterman, hoping for a change in William Bellman, hoping he would finally learn to connect with his daughter, hoping he would finally have the courage to live, though none of those things came to pass.  I realized I had to take the story as it was instead of what I wanted it to be, and as it was I loved Setterman’s writing.

If you’re looking for a story with a distinct plot and characters you feel emotion for and connect to, Bellman & Black may not be the story for you. If you want to read a beautifully written, lyrical, haunting novel and you’re interested in simply going along for the ride wherever the story takes you, then you may enjoy Bellman & Black. I am taken enough with Setterman’s prose that I will go back and read her previous novel, The Thirteenth Tale.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

 

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The Book Thief

Written by Markus Zusak

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

Review by Meredith Allard

5 quills

 

I don’t know how I missed reading Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief in the years since its publication. I had heard of it, but you know how it is. Too many books, too little time. Then a couple of weeks ago I saw a preview for the movie version starring one of my favorite actors, Geoffrey Rush, so I picked up a copy. I’m glad I did.

The Book Thief is a hard story to absorb, as a story set in Nazi Germany should be. It should be hard to absorb the cruelty human beings are capable of. Young Liesel Meminger moves into the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her new foster parents, and despite the harsh reality of the Hubermann’s poverty and the problems they face living in Hitler’s Germany, Liesel learns what it means to love and be loved. When her foster parents hide a young Jewish man in their basement—at great personal risk to themselves—Liesel forms an unbreakable bond with the young man. She finds some solace stealing books from everywhere from a graveside to the Mayor’s wife, and she learns the positive, and negative, power of words.

There’s so much I loved about this book. I loved that Liesel wasn’t a perfect character, and she didn’t always think perfect thoughts or take perfect actions. Beyond her struggles, she learns to love her foster mother Rosa Hubermann, whose hard exterior protects a heart of gold. She adores Hans Hubermann, her foster father, whose extraordinary acts of kindness make him a favorite of everyone he encounters, with the interesting exception of his own son. I loved the connection Liesel made with Max, the young Jewish man her foster parents hide in the basement, and I loved Liesel’s courage, putting herself at risk to show her solidarity with her Jewish friend. I kept putting myself in Liesel’s shoes, wondering how I would have reacted in each situation (though since I have a Jewish mother I would have been hiding in the basement alongside Max, that is, if I was fortunate enough to find some selfless people like the Hubermanns).

At one point I had to skim ahead to find out what became of my favorite character, and I never do that since I like to watch the story unfold the way it’s written. For whatever reason, the suspense was too much and I had to know what happened. My nosiness didn’t stop my enjoyment of the book; in fact, the narrator of The Book Thief (“Death”) often gives hints of what’s to come without spoiling the effect of the story.

I understand why Markus Zusak has won so many literary awards. His writing in The Book Thief is both funny and poignant, and his use of metaphorical language is perfect at painting pictures with words. I have already bought two more of his novels, and I’m looking forward to reading his new books as they’re released. And now that I’ve read the The Book Thief, I can see the movie.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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