The Promise by Anne Weisgarber

promiseAll novels begin with trouble. Catherine is on the verge of poverty after she has an affair with a married man.

Disgraced, Catherine Wainwright decides to make a fresh start in Galveston. Though she never planned on marriage, a man she scarcely remembers from high school has offered to marry her.

From Dayton, Ohio, Catherine journeys to the unknown where the food, religion, climate and ways of life are foreign to her.

Oscar Williams, the man who offered marriage, had adapted to Galveston. Catherine believes that she can, too, even if it means becoming a step-mother to a five-year-old and living under the watchful eye of a resentful servant, Nan.

Catherine and Oscar learn to love each other, even if they have different ways. Catherine is a college graduate and was a celebrated pianist. She has refined ways whereas Oscar is a dairy farmer. His home is on stilts and there’s no electricity.

Catherine learns to appreciate Oscar’s goodness; even if, tragically, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 will change everything.

This is a well-researched historical novel filled with delightful people who are honest and hard-working, especially Nan and Oscar.

Catherine, of course, has a past, but she learns the true meaning of love and family when she meets Oscar and his little son.

This could have been a beautiful story about making a fresh start and beginning anew, but the tragedy of the storm muddies this beautiful message.

 

 

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The Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

 

Years after a horrific crime, Tessie, the only survivor in the “Black-eyed Susan” murders steps forward. She is beginning to doubt that the right person has been convicted for the heinous crime.

Tessie was nearly killed and blinded by a “monster.” After the  horrific attack, Tessie suffers memory loss and psychological blindess–a conversion disorder.

Heaberlin unveils the chilling story in back and forth chapters that contrasts events near the time of the crime with its aftershock seventeen years later.

If Tessie does not change her testimony, an innocent man could face the death penalty. Tessie, however, is reluctant to delve into her past. After all, she has her own daughter to protect from the media’s harsh glare.

Adding to the tension is the fact that Tessie thinks she is going insane.

Immediately after the crime she begins to hear the voices of the other Susans in her head. The grown-up Tessie thinks her monster has been planting batches of blacked-eyed susans to traumatize her.

The twist at the end packs a wallop. Heaberlin’s latest is for fans of Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins and Brunonia Barry.

Evergreen

Evergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen

Evergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen
In one of the best novels of 2014, Rebecca Rasmussen describes both the joy and the loneliness of the Minnesota wilderness.
Eveline, joins her German husband, Emil, in a hardscrabble existence in Evergreen. Unbeknownst to her, Emil doesn’t own the cabin they relocate to. When his father becomes sick, Emil goes to Germany, leaving Eveline and Hux on their own.
When a land surveyor comes through the Evergreen area, he cruelly takes advantage of her. She later makes a fateful choice that will effect her young son, Hux, and her husband who is still abroad.

The story also focuses upon Hux’s sister Naamah, and their relationship.

Hux locates his half-sister in a logging camp, years after she has left Hopewell, an orphanage, that has left her emotionally and physically scarred.

Hux, who is a taxidermist and barely scraping by, tries to help Naamah heal; he tries to return a small piece of the childhood that was stolen from her.

This is a heart-breaking story with many warm and humorous moments.

Readers who like Evergreen may also like Orphan Train by Christina Kline, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, and Bloodroot by Amy Greene.

Eight Girls Taking Pictures

Eight Girls Taking Pictures by Whitney Otto.

In Eight Girls Taking Pictures, Whitney Otto experiments with a new kind of fiction–a fictional portrait of real-life personalities. Though she changes their names and some details about their lives, what develops is a collage of fiction and non-fiction that tells the truth of the lives of eight innovative photographers.

In eight somewhat interconnected stories, Otto tell the stories of Imogen Cunningham, Madame Yevonde, Tina Modotti, Lee Miller, Grete Stern, Ruth Orkin, Judy Dater, and Sally Mann.

Though these women lived in different time periods and cultures, one constant emerges. Despite feminism that emerges in the 1970s, all of the women feel conflicted about their role as artist which conflicts greatly with other areas in their life. For most of these women, their roles as artist conflicts with motherhood, but for some, their work interferes with politics or other deeply held beliefs.

In the first story, Cymbeline faces the perplexing problem of wanting both a career (as a photographer) and a family. She first become enamored of her professor, Julius, while he and she photograph the “Procession of Princes,” in Dresden.

Her time in Berlin both opens and closes doors for her. Cymbeline is a fictional version of Imogen Cunningham, a trailblazing photographer, who was once an apprentice at Edward Curtis’ famous portrait studio in Seattle.

Other fictional portraits are those of Madame Yevonde whom Otto renames Madame Amadora. Madame Amadora feels conflicted between her life’s work, photography, and motherhood.

Clara Argento, a fictional character based on the life of Tina Modotti, also feels conflicted. While she has no children, she feels torn between her role as artist and revolutionary.

Charlotte Blum, a fictional version of Grete Stern, sums up best the conflicts these female artists feel:

“She didn’t hate being a wife any more than she hated being a mother. What she hated was the way that wife, mother, and photographer created an unsolvable equation. What she hated was trying to solve the mathematics of her various roles.”

Torn between her family in Argentina and her loves for Ines and photography, Clare laments that, “a woman always has to choose.”

According to Clare, women, cannot have career and family and love; they must choose one role at the expense of another–a theme that repeats itself throughout Eight Girls Taking Pictures.

Miri Max (Ruth Orkin), for instance, laments that she cannot be in,

“two places at once, two people at the same time. If she could split herself one Miri would be happy spending all day with her toddling children…Her other self would be making movies with David. Or possible taking pictures on her own…”

Eight Girls Taking Pictures does not shy away from the issues that have been tackled often–issues of women’s rights, marriage, and work. Otto, however, delves further by looking at the way motherhood conflicts with a woman’s role as artist. She distinguishes work from fulfilling work that involves creativity and a sense of achievement.

In the last chapter, Jenny can work as a photographer by taking wedding or debutante photographs but she wants something more. Though she is criticized for it, she takes intimate photographs of her children. The photographs are not merely family snapshots as they show the viewer both childhood and motherhood in the abstract.

Characters and their real life counterparts:

Cymbeline Kelley–Imogen Cunningham
Madame Amadora–Madame Yevonde
Clara Argento–Tina Modotti
Lenny Van Pelt–Lee Miller
Charlotte Blum–Grete Stern
Miri Marx–Ruth Orkin
Jessie Berlin–(partly-based on Judy Dater)
Jenny Lux–Sally Mann

A “Select bibliography” at the end of the novel is an unexpected  gift to readers eager to learn more about the women portrayed in this work of historical fiction.

For more information about Whitney Otto, http://www.whitneyotto.com

Christmas Singing

Christmas Singing by Cindy Woodsmall

Childhood friends and sweethearts, Maddie and Gideon expect to marry and have a lifetime together. One day, however, Gideon unexpectedly breaks things off with Maddie, leaving her bereft. Will Maddie find happiness with her new boyfriend, Sol, who is solitary and likes to hunt by himself?
Though most readers know how this novel will end, The Christmas Singing, is still charming. Maddie is a bit to clumsy for my taste and Gideon is a little too perfect (even with his alleged wandering ways) yet it’s easy to see them together.
Maddie keeps herself busy in another Amish town after Gideon jilts her. Her bakery, Maddie Cakes, does well until an accidental fire causes it to burn to the ground. This bit of ill luck brings Maddie back to Apple Ridge where she has a series of chance meetings with her ex-beau, Gideon. He is the carpenter who is building her cousin’s house.
Gideon tries to explain why he broke up with her but Maddie refuses to let him into her heart again. She’s engaged to Sol because he’s a good man who will never break her heart. Convenience, safety and companionship are no reason to marry. Her heart is safe with Sol only because it is never really engaged. As her cousin astutely argues, “You can’t break what you cannot touch.”
Maddie’s heart melts when she know the real reason why Gideon broke up with her. None of the horrible things she thought about Gideon were true. He has lied to her in order to protect her. Nonetheless, Maddie is furious that he was not more straightforward. She has already made a promise to Sol.
Will Maddie returns to Ohio to attend the Christmas Singing and reunite with Sol? Or will she reunite with her past love, Gideon?
Even though most readers can guess what will happen, this novel, like a good comic play, is enjoyable to the last line.

Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

The fact that Ree says, “Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered,” tells a lot about her character. Hungry, her two brothers has just said they would ask a relative for meat. Kin are supposed to help each other.

Ree knows otherwise. She’s had a hard life and is used to bitter disappointments. Yet she also exploits the fact that she’s kin to many of the Ozark crank dealers.

Since her mother is disabled, Ree knows it’s “all on her.” She goes on an perilous pursuit to find the man that owes her family something–her own father.

Woodrell invented the term country noir. Though it initially seems gritty and dark, this novel draws you into Ree’s world. Though its not a pretty world, it’s a taut, compelling narrative.