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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The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

I listened to the first book in this planned trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale, on audio book last year.  So I figured I would continue with book two, The Girl in the Tower, in that same format.

And like the first, I really enjoyed it. In fact, I may have enjoyed the second book more.  It is a fascinating blend of history, magic and drama with religion, politics and family dynamics thrown in. Arden balances the old world’s magic and the new world’s religion well, and treats each seriously or at least with a sense of history. The characters have depth and personality even those that are not a central focus.

Also like the first, there is a feminist thread running throughout in the sense that the limited options of woman are quite obvious. Marriage and family or the convent basically. But what makes it powerful is the personality of Vasya. Imagining her in either role illustrates the lack of freedom without becoming preachy or lecturing.

Vasaya’s relationship with Morozko and her attempts to understand her place in the world, and where he might fit into it, is a thread within the story.  But again the family dynamics, politics and cultural/religious environment all make up a fascinating non-magical element and were the parts I found most fascinating and entertaining.

Arden successfully allows you to imagine the world of medieval Russia and the complex society that Vasya finds herself caught up in.  The layer of secrets that make up her life really builds the tension and the resulting emotions are quite powerful.  Twists and turns and surprises abound as you rush to the conclusion.

I highly recommend this series. If you have a long car ride or trip ahead, even better.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

OK, enough navel gazing about blogging, how about some book reviews?

Regular readers will be aware of my interest in folklore, fairy tales and fiction dealing with faith and/or religion.  The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden touches on all of these elements which piqued my interest when it was released.  I had it on the To Be Read list for some time. I didn’t buy it, however, as I was unsure it would suit my tastes despite the subjects above.  Last year I was able to listen to the audiobook via Overdrive.  I recently listened to the sequel, The Girl in the Tower, and figured I should post a review.

I found it to be a fascinating and enchanting listen; a truly epic tale of life in the north where magic and religion still live side by side. I don’t know enough about the Russian fairy tales and legends to know how closely this tracks with them, but I found it engrossing and suspenseful; full of history, family life, religious conflict and fantastical folklore.

Vasilisa is a great character and her unique personality and gifts really drive the novel.  Arden does a great job describing the unique setting and building her characters.  She builds the tension and even as she paints this wonderful and complex picture of the world of Russian wilderness.

It has a fairly strong feminist streak, the main protagonist’s goal is both to protect her family and escape the role society expects of her. It also has an element that seems anti-religion. But no matter your opinion on these topics or others, it is wonderful written and highly entertaining.

Kathleen Gati does a great job with the narration.  She really helped to bring the characters alive and is just right with the tone, pace, etc.  It is an audiobook it is easy to lose yourself in. And those are the best kind.

I usually avoid historical fiction but this one is in a time period I am not very familiar with and the folklore/magical elements give it a different feel. Recommended for sure.


To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

I greatly enjoyed Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child:

It was an evocative and deeply human story with a fairy tale woven in. And like so many fairy tales and folklore – not the Disney versions – this one was touched with sorrow and tragedy. But also infused with love and hope and beauty as they really exist.

Gorgeous prose, a wonderfully developed setting that become a character of its own, and a great cast of characters make this a novel with depth and emotion – a heft belied by the fairy tale at it heart.

So I was excited to read her second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, a beautiful and engaging epistolary novel.

It reads like the documentation of real history rather than fiction. It moves from the interior thoughts and emotions of its characters to the historic events that surround them, and the interaction of people across social, cultural and language boundaries, all while sucking you into this gripping story of a fantastical expedition and its impact on both the future and the lives of a young marriage threatened by the separation it causes.

Ivey deftly develops the characters both as they react to events and as they reflect on their unique past; family, events, defining moments. You dive deep into the private lives of the characters but also subtly pull back to see the long term impact of the events that drive the story and how they ripple through lives generations later.

And mixed throughout is the possibility of the supernatural.  She does not assume that the folklore and mythology of the native cultures is superstition from the past.  And the characters encounter events and circumstances which cause them to question what they think and know.  Ivey deftly allows this mystery to exist without choosing sides.

Truly a creative masterpiece.


The House of Paper by Carlos María Domínguez

I am a sucker for short books with interesting illustrations so when I stumbled upon The House of Paper, illustrated by Peter Sis, at a local library sale I couldn’t resist picking it up for a dollar.  But it ended up shelved with a number of other short works and never read.

Recently I was in a bit of a reading funk, however, and pulled it down and decided to read it.

dominguez_final.inddBluma Lennon, distinguished professor of Latin American literature at Cambridge, is hit by a car while crossing the street, immersed in a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Several months after her untimely demise, a package arrives for her from Argentina-a copy of a Conrad novel, encrusted in cement and inscribed with a mysterious dedication. Bluma’s successor in the department (and a former lover) travels to Buenos Aires to track down the sender, one Carlos Brauer, who turns out to have disappeared.

The last thing known is that he moved to a remote stretch of the Uruguayan coastline and built himself a house out of his enormous and valuable library. How he got there, and why, is the subject of this seductive novel-part mystery, part social comedy, and part examination of all the many forms of bibliomania.

It turned out to an odd novella about the obsession that reading and book collecting can become.

While it was a quick, quirky and largely enjoyable read, it was also odd and ephemeral. Perhaps if you were more plugged into classical and international literature, or more obsessed with formal book collecting, the references and name dropping would mean more or deepen the story.

I know little to anything about Jorge Luis Borges or South American literature. And am not really knowledgeable about magical realism, particularly the South American variety. So references, homage, jokes and or attempts at capturing a particular style or voice were lost on me.

It was an interesting story to some degree but it felt like it never quite went anywhere.  The tension and mystery never really led to something or connected for me. The story just kind of ended.

Those more in tune with the above topics might find something more but it felt flat to me.  Here are two somewhat contrasting opinions:

Publisher’s Weekly:

It is amiable and sincere in its desire to add its voice to the master’s by revisiting some of his settings (including Buenos Aires) and subjects (Quixote, collecting, love, time and death). But it falls short of Borges’s own takes and is thus hard to read as more than a love letter. With 11 two-color illustrations by Peter Sís, the book is fun and sad in the right spots, but one never gets a fiendish enough sense of Domínguez’s own obsessions or his desire to plot them.

Interestingly enough, School Library Journal found it a good assignment for teen readers:

Its very brevity allows bright and biblioholic teen readers the opportunity to see a literary joke through–which is not to say a slight or insubstantial bit of literary twaddle–from setup to close. Dominguez references a variety of authors with whom college-prep students will be familiar and shows off a sprightly interpretation of South American magical realism. This would make an excellent suggestion for formal summer reading.

Perhaps I am too far past my “college-prep” years because I missed most of the references …

The Angel of Losses by Stephanie Feldman

Sometimes writing book reviews for an obscure but longstanding book blog pays off.  Like when people send you free books in the mail. Or when people send you free books in the mail exactly when you are seeking out new fiction to read. Or when people send you free books in the mail when you are seeking out new fiction to read AND said book has that wonderful mix of mythology, literature and religion that you tend to enjoy.

What is all this about you ask? The Angel of Losses
by Stephanie Feldman:

Angel of LossesThe Tiger’s Wife meets A History of Love in this inventive, lushly imagined debut novel that explores the intersections of family secrets, Jewish myths, the legacy of war and history, and the bonds between sisters

When Eli Burke dies, he leaves behind a mysterious notebook full of stories about a magical figure named The White Rebbe, a miracle worker in league with the enigmatic Angel of Losses, protector of things gone astray, and guardian of the lost letter of the alphabet, which completes the secret name of God.

When his granddaughter, Marjorie, discovers Eli’s notebook, everything she thought she knew about her grandfather–and her family–comes undone. To find the truth about Eli’s origins and unlock the secrets he kept, she embarks on an odyssey that takes her deep into the past, from 18th century Europe to Nazi-occupied Lithuania, and back to the present, to New York City and her estranged sister Holly, whom she must save from the consequences of Eli’s past.

This one hit the sweet spot so I moved it to the top of the TBR pile and dived in.  It turned out to be an interesting mix of family dynamics and mystical Jewish legends.

The author weaved the two together surprisingly well; surprisingly because this is not an easy thing to pull off. There was enough mystery and suspense to keep reading but towards the end the mysticism was a little thick and it felt like the story was running out of energy.

At first I was afraid the family dynamic would get old quickly. But Feldman ratchets up the tension as the book progresses and the sister’s relationship never undermines the story.  And the other relationships shift and change adding to the tension.

Behind all of these characters is an exploration of how we perceive and classify people in our lives (family, friends, lovers, etc.), how that can change (with events, conversations, new beliefs), and how our changing understanding or perceptions impact those relationships.

We often assign motivations, loyalties, and beliefs; allow the past to color the present; wish for relationships kept safe from time and the messiness of life.

There is also a mystery at the heart of the book; one rooted in the present and the other in both the recent and the distant past yet connected.  This connection between the family dynamics and the mystery is the strength of the book; its engine. I thought the shifts between present, recent past, and mysterious distant past were well done. History, religion, culture, and family weaved together and still impacting lives today.

But the Jewish mysticism get a little heavy as the book moves to its conclusion and clogged things up a little (at least for me).  This combined with an abrupt conclusion weakened the book’s impact.

I’m a little torn about The Angel of Losses. I enjoyed it and read it rather quickly but at the end I wasn’t sure what I was left with. I guess I wanted a more fulfilling resolution. I understand that fashioning a conclusion to a book like this is also not an easy thing but the book just sort of ends. It felt a little flat. And endings so often color our impressions, right?

But all in all an impressive debut novel.

As is so often the case Kirkus has a nice summation:

By turns gothic, heart-rending and impenetrable, Feldman’s story sometimes seems too wrapped up in its theology but eventually reaches a cosmic climax in which Marjorie embraces her destiny while re-establishing her connection to Holly.

If you like a blend of relationships and magical realism through the lens of Jewish mysticism you will enjoy this creative novel.  It will be interesting to see where Feldman goes from here.

A Couple More Links:

The World to Come by Dara Horn

I picked up The World to Come by Dara Horn when it was on sale for $1.99 for the Kindle. It seems like the kind of book I would like. Here is how Amazon’s review describes it:

The World to ComeFollowing in the footsteps of her breakout debut In the Image, Dara Horn’s second novel, The World to Come, is an intoxicating combination of mystery, spirituality, redemption, piety, and passion. Using a real-life art heist as her starting point, Horn traces the life and times of several characters, including Russian-born artist Marc Chagall, the New Jersey-based Ziskind family, and the “already-weres” and “not-yets” who roam an eternal world that exists outside the boundaries of life on earth.

History, faith, mystery, and the other-worldly? Yes, that is something I need to check out.

I found it to be both fascinating and frustrating. I really enjoyed the multilayered stories that make up the majority of the book. Horn creates some great characters, weaves in history, art, literature, philosophy and religion for a complex and mystical brew. But then at the end she adds on this awkward and completely off-putting, for me, section detailing what happens before babies are born. Like some other reviewers, this really kind ruined it for me. There are some powerful stories and some great writing but the attempt to bring it all together failed to a degree that undermines much of what preceded.

The publisher’s blurb gives a little more details on the rather convoluted plot:

A million-dollar Chagall is stolen from a museum during a singles’ cocktail hour. The unlikely thief, former child prodigy Benjamin Ziskind, is convinced that the painting once hung in his parents’ living room. This work of art opens a door through which we discover his family’s startling history—from an orphanage in Soviet Russia where Chagall taught to suburban New Jersey and the jungles of Vietnam.

Horn does an excellent job of weaving a great many threads together and keeping it moving somehow. What sustains it are the powerful stories of the families she highlights. She captures the struggle for life and the never-ending quest to make sense of it across time and cultures through a Jewish lens. As Horn sketches these vignettes and tells these stories they begin to build up a weight that is felt by Ben in our time and at they same time they explore ideas, concepts and experiences beyond any one family but apply to humanity at large.  I loved the way Horn explored family dynamics and the big questions of life through different characters and yet tied them back to the story of the Ziskind’s

But this is where things begin to unravel toward the end.

I mentioned that the ending frustrated me.  Kirkus seemed to share this view:

Despite the vast oscillations in time and place, the story is remarkably coherent, and it is only in the last 50 pages that Horn runs out of gas. The romance that buds between Ben and Erica is trite and seems tacked on to the otherwise finely crafted tale. And the author’s reliance on symbolism and doubles, which is subtly effective throughout, becomes unwieldy. After an appealing journey into the past, Horn should have left her readers in the present-rather, her final chapter is a confusing and corny look into “the world to come.”An engrossing adventure, in spite of its flaws.

Ron Charles at the Washington Post had a different reaction:

The final section of the book takes one last daring risk, showing us the paradise before this one, where “the beds and hammocks . . . are made out of music, chained melodies and woven symphonies and firm fanfare mattresses and ropy-netted ballads and strong percussive massages.” It’s fanciful and mystical and arguably inadequate to staunch the grief or blot out the horrors that Horn portrays so powerfully throughout this novel. But it’s all tremendously earnest and fraught with moral weight, and somehow, miraculously, it stays aloft in the mind like a dream you can’t decide was sweet or frightening. 

I can see where Charles is coming from. You have to give Horn credit for her boldness and willingness to swim against the current:

The haunting melody of her work arises from Judaism’s spiritual chords rather than its cultural ones, which are far more prevalent in modern fiction. Horn writes about theology and moral imperatives and the afterlife — as though she didn’t realize that such things just aren’t done in sophisticated literary prose. But that daring is endearing, especially when it flows from deeply sympathetic characters, an encyclopedic grasp of 20th-century history and a spiritual sense that sees through the conventional barriers between this life and the one to come — or the one before.

But I have to side with Kirkus on the ending. It just didn’t work for me and more than that it seemed to undermine much of what had preceded it.  You had these wonderful, poignant stories and then what felt like a very silly ending attempting some grand metaphysical exposition but failing. So not only do you not get any real resolution or closure with the characters you care about you end the book with a bad taste in your mouth.

One’s approach to the second half of the novel, particular the ending, seem to determine the level of enjoyment. The Goodreads review are made up mostly of five star praise and two star frustrations. Those who got caught up in the novel seemed to be able to take in the ending and accept it for what it was. Like Ron Charles.  Others, like myself, loved aspects of the novel but were put off in some significant way by the second half or ending.

For my part, definitely worth the two bucks, and I want to check out Horn’s first novel, but ultimately a little disappointing.

Troll Valley by Lars Walker

It is hard to put your finger on what kind of book Troll Valley really is … A historical novel with a dash of the fantastic. A fascinating look into another culture transplanted to America and changing in ways large and small from generation to generation. A love story where the pure force of love overcomes psychological, physical and even supernatural forces. An allegory about the clash of modernity and faith …

I am still not sure – as is so often the case with these type of questions, the answer is really all of the above. But this e-book only work by novelist Lars Walker is a captivating read and one that pulls you into its characters and settings – making you feel like you are reading about a real place and real people; that you are reading history in a sense not literature or not just literature.

More thoughts below …

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