The Heebie-Jeebie Girl by Susan Petrone

Cover of THe Heebie-Jeebie GirlYoungstown, Ohio, 1977. Between the closing of the city’s largest steel mill and the worst blizzard in more than 40 years, the table is set for remarkable change. Unemployed steel worker Bobby Wayland is trying hard to help his family and still pay for his wedding, but the only solution he can think of involves breaking the law. On the other side of town, a little girl named Hope is keeping a big secret, one she won’t even share with her Great Uncle Joe―she can make things move without touching them. Watching over both of them is the city herself, and she has something to say and something to do about all of this.

The Heebie-Jeebie Girl is the story of an era ending and the uncertainty that awakens. It’s the story of what happens when the unconscionable meets the improbable. It’s the story of dreams deferred, dreams devoured, and dreams dawning. It is likely to be the most distinctive novel you read this year, but it will startle you with its familiarity. Author Susan Petrone has created an unforgettable tale of family, redemption, and magic.

I was originally attracted to The Heebie-Jeebie Girl by Susan Petrone because of the time period, 1970’s of my youth, and the location, Youngstown-a place very different than my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy from NetGalley and started reading it almost immediately.

I waited to post a review until closer to publication, which happens to be today (for the ebook at least).

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Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell

Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell continues the chronicles of Uhtred of Bebbanburg in the Saxon Tales.

Here is a brief summary of the book from the publisher:

It is a time of political turmoil once more as the fading King Edward begins to lose control over his successors and their supporters. There are two potential heirs—possibly more—and doubt over whether the once separate states of Wessex and Mercia will hold together. Despite attempts at pulling him into the political fray, Uhtred of Bebbanburg cares solely about his beloved Northumbria and its continuing independence from southern control.

But an oath is a strong, almost sacred commitment and such a promise had been exchanged between Uhtred and Aethelstan, his onetime companion in arms and now a potential king. Uhtred was tempted to ignore the demands of the oath and stay in his northern fastness, leaving the quarrelling Anglo-Saxons to sort out their own issues.  But an attack on him by a leading supporter of one of the candidates and an unexpected appeal for help from another, drives Uhtred with a small band of warriors south, into the battle for kingship—and England’s fate.

As with my other reviews of the books in this series, Sword of Kings does not disappoint. Everything from the plot to the character development is great–only difference with this book being that it has a twist for Uhtred. Cornwell shows Uhtred going through a little more adversity than normal – he is humbled. This humbling makes the story that much better.

Not only does Cornwell humble Uhtred, but he also continues to keep Uhtred human (rather than some superhuman that many authors tend to do for their protagonist). Cornwell often has Uhtred doubting his decisions–whether to rescue Queen Eadigfu or to honor his oath to Aethelstan to kill Aethelhelm and his nephew Aelfweard. It is refreshing to have the protagonist be unsure of him or herself.

The battle scenes are as epic as ever, which are visceral with a “down-in-the-trenches” description of men fighting with swords, axes, spears, and shields.

As I read each successive book, I have an increasing sadness knowing that Uhtred is getting older, thus his tale will end at some point in the nearer future.

The Horseman’s Song by Ben Pastor

The Horseman’s Song by Ben Pastor is another installment in the mystery series of Wehrmacht Officer Martin von Bora–this book is a prequel to the following five books in the series. This latest is set in Spain, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Bora investigates the murder of poet Garcia Lorca.

I have not read any of the other books in the series, but easily became familiar with Bora due to the excellent writing. I am fairly impressed with not only the writing, but the story line and character development as well.

Pastor begins the book with Bora finding Lorca’s body and developing the plot from there. She vividly describes the scene and gets the reader engaged immediately.

Not only is the story line well thought out, but the character development is just as strong. Pastor portrays Bora in a mainly positive light, but she also shows his weaknesses–including where he needs to gain more wisdom. I also appreciate her equal attention to Boras’ opponent–fellow “investigator” Philip “Felipe” Walton, an American volunteer fighting for the communists/anarchists/socialists.

Although Walton is cast in a bit of a more negative light, the reader can relate to him. His hardscrabble life in the United States embitters Walton and leads him from various battlefields, including Western Europe during World War I, to Spain. Pastor expertly weaves Walton’s disappointments in life into his current relationships.

Despite Bora’s many doubts, he doggedly pursues the killer of Lorca and eventually succeeds–despite the many obstacles placed in his way by his own side and the communists.

The book is a good story set during a turbulent time in Spain.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

I picked up Train Dreams by Denis Johnson at the local Friends of the Library sale, looking for short readable books. Lately, I have been struggling to enjoy longer tomes for some reason. Needing some bedtime reading I started it this week.

It turned out to be evocative and haunting portrait of the Rocky Mountain west in the early 20th century. An example of why novellas can be such a joy to read when done right. In the course of a very well done review in the Sunday Book Review, Anthony Doerr offers a nice plot summation:

The story concerns the life of Robert Grainier, a fictional orphan shipped by train in 1893 into the woods of the Idaho panhandle. He grows up, works on logging gangs, falls in love, and loses his wife and baby daughter to a particularly pernicious wildfire. What Johnson builds from the ashes of Grainier’s life is a tender, lonesome and riveting story, an American epic writ small, in which Grainier drives a horse cart, flies in a biplane, takes part in occasionally hilarious exchanges and goes maybe 42 percent crazy.

It’s a love story, a hermit’s story and a refashioning of age-old wolf-based folklore like “Little Red Cap.” It’s also a small masterpiece. You look up from the thing dazed, slightly changed.

Later in the review, I think Doerr is right when he credits “persuasive” atmosphere with playing a big part in the power of this novella. It reads like a memoir/travelogue, a true piece of history, despite its fiction and even magical realism aspects.

Doerr also hits on another aspect that is so effective:

The novella also accumulates power because Johnson is as skilled as ever at balancing menace against ecstasy, civilization against wilderness. His prose tiptoes a tightrope between peace and calamity, and beneath all of the novella’s best moments, Johnson runs twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence.

It is at once unsettling and yet calming or perhaps perfectly balanced between the two. Which is what life in that time and place, and perhaps all times and places, was like.

Train Dreams was just what I needed this week, a short read that captures your imagination and allows you to enter another world for a while. I’ll give Publishers Weekly the last word:

An ode to the vanished West that captures the splendor of the Rockies as much as the small human mysteries that pass through them, this svelte stand-alone has the virtue of being a gem in itself, and, for the uninitiated, a perfect introduction to Johnson. 

The Chocolate Maker’s Wife by Karen Brooks

The Chocolate Maker’s Wife by Karen Brooks is a well-written and researched novel based in Seventeenth Century London.

Brooks brings to life the time period. Her descriptions of London are real and vivid and helps the reader to easily visualize the scenes. She also captures the life of a mid-level noble family – the extravagance and pressures of keeping up appearances.

The character development – both primary and secondary – is superb. Brooks makes it easy to revile the antagonists and like the protagonists. Rosamund Blithman is a smart, beautiful and resourceful woman trying to adapt to the world of the wealthy and business.

The book’s greatest strength is its plot. Brooks is an expert story teller and keeps the reader guessing throughout the book. Just when the reader thinks they have the story line figured out, she throws a wrench in the idea with a plot twist.

The book is an excellent portrayal of life in London during the reign of Charles II.

Mad Boy by Nick Arvin

I’m a fan of Nick Arvin.  I have enjoyed his work including Articles of War and The Reconstructionist and have been lucky enough to have him do some Q&A’s for the site (see here and here).  So I was excited to learn he had a new novel coming out this month and was able to get a review copy from NetGalley.

Mad Boy, which was released on Tuesday, is a wild, at times hilarious, at times touching, romp set during the War of 1812. The central character, Henry Phipps, is great.  Despite possibly being “mad” he has a fierce determination but also a sense of duty and loyalty that carries him through some very difficult circumstances.  But he is also obviously a boy; unlike some fiction where the child acts and thinks in ways that are not particularly childlike. The are also many intriguing secondary characters that Henry interacts with along his journey; his mother (dead and alive), his addiction prone father whose luck is always just about to turn, his honor bound brother, an avaricious and traitorous Redcoat, and the wealthy and brutal man who may be his real father.

In the setting and dialog Arvin transport you to a different world. Redcoats and Bluecoats face off, slaves seek their freedom, looters and pirates hope to take advantage of the chaos of war, while many people are trying to survive. Henry just wants to honor his mother’s wishes but doing so, with her voice still in his head, is far from easy.

I found Mad Boy to be a very different book than Arvin’s previous work, but a creative and entertaining one for sure.


The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker is the first book in a trilogy about Norway’s unification. A promising beginning to an interesting story.

The book starts with a twist that is very surprising. Hartsuyker keeps you reeling from that point on with many other plot twists.

The character development is great. You come to respect both of the main heroines – Ragnvald and his sister Svanhild. Both have a streak of stubbornness in them, but they also have a fairly strong moral compass that keeps them grounded. Although their initial goals line up with each other, they quickly go in diverging paths. Despite these different paths, you have a sense that they will both end up determining the fate of a united Norway.

The action is raw – describing the cutting off of heads and the cutting into of flesh. Although it is raw, it is not overdone – meaning Hartsuyker does not get into the too gory details. She realistically describes Norwegian warfare or all European warfare during that time period.

Although there is a little mysticism at times, it does not seem out-of-place. In particular, there is a scene on an “undead” person who turns out to be still alive, but near death.

I look forward to the next installment in the trilogy.


Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell’s Fools and Mortals is an interesting book that is a bit away from Cornwell’s style. I say a bit because he is known for war drama and Fools and Mortals deals nothing with war. But, it is heavy in drama with a dash of action.

The writing is excellent, as usual with Cornwell, with regard to character and plot development. The reader has the usual feelings for Cornwell’s heroines – likability with a dash of unsavoriness. In this case, it is Richard Shakespeare – brother to William. Richard is an actor in William’s company, but he is poor and resorts to thievery at times. He works hard to get bigger parts despite his brothers disdain for him.

The reader also has the usual feelings for the villains – disdain and hatred for their actions. There are many villains in this book – from Sir Godfrey, the churchman who preyed on young boys for their acting talents and their vulnerability, to Mister Price, a Puritan bent on ridding England of Catholics. The various villains do their best to thwart Richard.

The plot moves along fairly quickly until the end. It leads to climax where the villains are confronted and handled with a few twists along the way. One note on the plot, with a plot including Shakespeare, you have to expect a heavy influence of his plays. In Fools and Mortals, you will not be disappointed. However, I think Cornwell leans a little too much of the book’s text on dialogue from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The inclusion of the dialogue seemed to take up more of the book than deserved.

Although not one of his best, still a good read from Bernard Cornwell.