Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behavior: A NovelBarbara Kingsolver’s latest novel Flight Behavior opens as Dellarobia Turnbow, unhappily married at the age of 17 after a pregnancy scare, is on her way to meet up with a telephone repairman with the express purpose of cheating on her husband. Before she reaches her destination, she is confronted with the arresting sight of trees aflame with monarch butterflies. Spooked by the vision, which she considers a sign, she returns to her mother-in-law’s house to pick up her children and go back home.

Others in her small town view the strange butterflies as a sign of God’s providence. The butterflies’ appearance sparks a national news story. Monarch butterflies are, of course, native to Mexico and unheard of in the small town of Feathertown, Tennessee. What could be driving them to Appalachia? Scientists visiting the town set up a lab in the Turnbows’ barn, pulling Dellarobia further into their work. The scientists discover that the monarchs’ appearance is the result of global warming, but the populace of Feathertown doesn’t believe it. Over the course of the novel, Dellarobia’s life in Feathertown is reflected in the butterflies’ existence. Dellarobia wonders, “Why did the one rare, spectacular thing in her life have to be a sickness of nature?”

Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors. She has a way with words that is frankly gorgeous. I marvel at her writing. However, I had trouble getting into this book. I didn’t find myself too interested in Dellarobia. I think Barbara Kingsolver has a gift for character development, and I could clearly see Dellarobia as a real person. I didn’t relate to her in the same way I have other characters she has created. The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite books, and The Bean Trees is another I enjoyed quite a lot. I also appreciate Kingsolver’s purposeful use of symbolism and metaphor to convey much larger ideas (brilliantly executed in The Poisonwood Bible). This book starts kind of slowly, but the beautiful writing and description should keep readers going in spite of the slow start.

Rating: ★★★★½

Learn more about Barbara Kingsolver at her website and connect with her on Facebook.

TLC Tour HostBarbara’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, November 6th: A Reader of Fictions

Wednesday, November 7th: Dolce Bellezza

Thursday, November 8th: The Blog of Lit Wits

Monday, November 12th: Caribousmom

Tuesday, November 13th: Bookish Habits

Wednesday, November 14th: 50 Books Project

Thursday, November 15th: Unabridged Chick

Monday, November 26th: Book Snob

Tuesday, November 27th: What She Read … – joint review

Wednesday, November 28th: Becca’s Byline

Thursday, November 29th: A Patchwork of Books

Wednesday, December 5th: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Thursday, December 6th: The 3 R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness

Tuesday, December 11th: Man of La Book

Wednesday, December 12th: Tina’s Books Reviews

Thursday, December 13th: Seaside Book Corner

Monday, December 17th: 50 Books Project

Friday, December 21st: Much Madness is Divinest Sense

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The Cutting Season, Attica Locke

The Cutting SeasonAttica Locke’s novel The Cutting Season is the story of Caren Gray, who manages the plantation Belle Vie on the shores of the Mississippi River, south of Baton Rouge, for its current owners, the Clancey family. Caren’s family and Clanceys have been entwined since the Civil War, when Caren’s ancestor Jason worked on the grounds of the plantation, cutting sugar cane, as the Clanceys’ ancestor William Tynan acted as overseer of the property. When the plantation’s owners left the plantation, it was seized by the federal government. William Tynan acquired the plantation in 1872. Jason went missing, and his ultimate fate remains a mystery. At the opening of the novel, Caren and the rest of the Belle Vie staff are preparing for another busy day at the plantation when Caren discovers the body of a young woman on the plantation grounds, near the old slave cabins. The woman turns out to be Inés Avalo, an undocumented field worker for Groveland Corporation, a large agriculture corporation that owns the fields of sugar cane that border the plantation. Caren finds herself inextricably involved in the resulting investigation, and the ghosts of the plantation’s past come back to haunt the present.

This novel is an interesting exploration of several issues: the legacy of slavery and injustice, the consequences of the growth of big agriculture, the tension between preserving history versus the economical needs of society. Caren Gray is a likable heroine, and the story moves at a good pace. The descriptions are vivid, and the atmosphere pure Southern gothic (in the best way). While the mystery alone was good, and I really wanted to keep turning pages to find out what would happen and whodunnit, I admit my favorite part of the novel was the historical aspect. I really wished that Caren had been more curious about her family history and the history of the plantation. She didn’t seem interested until looking into the past might help her understand present events. I don’t think I could have lived in a place like Belle Vie, particularly knowing my family had also lived there for generations, without being more curious. I’m not sure I found all of Caren’s connections plausible—her daughter’s father works in the Obama administration—but it did make an interesting statement about the arc of race relations in our country since the Civil War. Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the state of Louisiana also makes a small but important impression on the events in the novel.

I was interested to discover that Locke was inspired to create Belle Vie after attending an interracial wedding at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. The idea of such a marriage in that location provoked an emotional conflict in the author, who told NPR, “I felt this tear inside—there’s no way to not feel the beauty of it because it is so stunning. But it also kind of made my stomach turn, because of what it represented.”

Rating: ★★★★☆

Full disclosure: The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Because of the general mystery and gothic elements, I’m counting this book toward the R.I.P. Challenge (even though it wasn’t on my original list of challenge books) and as the modern fiction selection for the Mixing it Up Challenge. I said I would make soap inspired by each book I read for the R.I.P. Challenge, so look for my Vanilla Sugar soap (including pics) inspired by the sugar cane fields around Belle Vie some time this weekend. It won’t be ready for at least four weeks after it’s made. Biography below courtesy of TLC Book Tours.

About Attica Locke

Black Water Rising, Attica Locke’s first novel, was shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize in the UK in 2010. It was nominated for an Edgar Award, an NAACP Image Award, as well as a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a Strand Magazine Critics Award. Black Water Rising was also a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award.

Attica Locke has spent many years working as a screenwriter, penning movie and television scripts for Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, HBO, and Dreamworks.  She was a fellow at the Sundance Institute’s Feature Filmmakers Lab and is a graduate of Northwestern University.

A native of Houston, Texas, Attica now lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and daughter. She is a member of the board of directors for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. Most recently, she wrote the introduction for the UK publication of Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying. Her second book, The Cutting Season, was published by HarperCollins / and Dennis Lehane in September 2012.

Website | Facebook | Twitter

Attica’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, September 18th: A Bookworm’s World

Wednesday, September 19th: Books and Movies

Thursday, September 20th: A Patchwork of Books

Monday, September 24th: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Tuesday, September 25th: Helen’s Book Blog

Wednesday, September 26th: Kahakai Kitchen

Thursday, September 27th: Dwell in Possibility

Tuesday, October 2nd: Drey’s Library

Wednesday, October 10th: The Blog of Lit Wits

Thursday, October 11th: Book Him Danno!

Friday, October 12th: The House of Crime and Mystery

Thursday, October 25th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense

TBD: Stephanie’s Written Word

TBD: In the Next Room

TBD: Psychotic State

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The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin

The Orchardist: A NovelYou belong to the earth, and the earth is hard.

I read Amanda Coplin‘s The Orchardist as part of its TLC Book Tour.

Set at the turn of the twentieth century in Washington State, when the west was still a bit untamed, forbidding, and isolated from the rest of the country, The Orchardist is a novel about human connections and the interwoven nature of humanity. The orchardist of the title is William Talmadge, who lost his sister when she mysteriously disappeared and whose disappearance still haunts him. Alone in his orchards, Talmadge is a solitary man with few companions until one day two bedraggled and pregnant teenage girls show up in his orchard. Talmadge leaves food for the girls and tries to care for them. They are mistrustful of him and keep their distance. Talmadge discovers someone is looking for the girls, and after he makes a visit to the man’s house and discovers what might have prompted the girls to flee, he resolves to protect them in whatever way he can, but he quickly discovers through yet a new tragedy, that it is not in his power to protect, and he has to reconcile his feelings about this fresh new tragedy with the tragedies of his past.

I have an interesting connection to this book in that my own ancestors were apple orchardists for several generations in the twentieth century. In fact, my father is the first generation of his family not to be an orchardist. My own family lived in the Yakima Valley, which is south of the area of Washington where Coplin’s novel is set. Coplin is a Washington native, and I found the setting she described familiar. I have never actually visited Washington State myself, but I have heard it described by my father and step-grandmother. My step-grandmother frequently mentioned canning ‘cots (apricots) in her letters, and my father described the ladders in apple orchards that workers climbed. Coplin’s descriptions are lush—they place the reader in the scene and reminded me a little bit of Louise Erdrich’s novel The Plague of Doves in the connection of the characters to the land and the interwoven community connected through tragedy. Coplin doesn’t use quotation marks when characters speak, which strikes me as an interesting technique in that it takes the characters out of the story a little bit. I didn’t notice the technique books that read more like journals or memoirs, but in fiction, I have to admit I’m not much of a fan; lack of quotation marks is one reason I don’t enjoy reading Cormac McCarthy’s books. However, I should say that I didn’t actually find the technique irritating in Coplin’s book, and I usually do. The Orchardist is an intriguing read and reminded me in parts of Ethan Frome, but I think that is because Talmadge reminded me of Ethan Frome. The two books are not that similar in plot or structure otherwise. Book clubs might find this selection an interesting novel to discuss.

TLC Book Tour for The Orchardist:

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The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey

Margot Livesey’s novel The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Like Jane, Gemma is taken in by her uncle and his family after the deaths of her parents, and once her uncle also passes away, she is abused and neglected by her aunt, who ships her off to a boarding school as a “working girl,” where she pays for her tuition and board through menial labor for the school and is treated like a second-class citizen. When the school closes, Gemma must shift for herself, so she answers an ad for an au pair position in the Orkneys. She moves into Blackbird Hall and quickly subdues her wild charge, Nell. Hugh Sinclair, Nell’s uncle and guardian, returns to Blackbird Hall and soon finds himself entranced by Gemma.

While the story closely follows the plot of Jane Eyre, Livesey has added details that make the story Gemma’s own. Gemma, born in Scotland to a Scottish mother and Icelandic father, wonders about her Icelandic family and yearns to travel to Iceland to see if she can uncover her past. The story is set mostly in Scotland in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Gemma has opportunities that Jane couldn’t have imagined; for instance, Gemma is able to sit for exams and go to college.

The danger in writing updated versions of classic novels is that they will seem too derivative to be their own story, but I didn’t find this to be the case with The Flight of Gemma Hardy. Because I had read Jane Eyre, I could guess the general directions in which various plot points would turn, but Livesey threw in enough unique details and changes that I felt the novel was much more of an homage to Jane Eyre than an imitation. Another challenge Livesey successfully navigates is making the story of Jane’s sad childhood and subsequent removal to Thornfield Hall believable in the twentieth century. Not only does Livesey answer this challenge, but in my opinion, she tempers a bit of the horrific improbability present in Jane Eyre. I know, I know—Charlotte experienced some of the horrible events she describes in Jane Eyre at the Clergy Daughters’ School. Tragedy ran rampant through the Brontë family, and I don’t mean to make light of it. However, it reminds me that sometimes true stories sound over the top when rendered in fiction. Young Jane’s early experiences, the goodness of Helen Burns, the evil of Aunt Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst—all these rang slightly too awful to believe when I read them, which isn’t to say I didn’t love Jane Eyre. Gemma’s experiences, while uniquely horrible in their way, read as more realistic, and Helen’s counterpart Miriam is a more believable and less “Mary Sue” type of character (and yes, I know that Charlotte based Helen on her sister Maria, and that Charlotte claims Maria really was that good).

I liked Gemma. She is smart and spunky, particularly as a child. The supporting cast are all enjoyable, too, particularly Gemma’s charges Nell and Robin. I loved the Rivers sisters’ counterparts Hannah and Pauline. St. John Rivers’s counterpart Archie was more likable than St. John himself. The relocation to Scotland and Iceland made for an intriguing setting that rendered events in the story more believable, I think, than they might have been had Livesey set her novel in England. I do think fans of Jane Eyre will enjoy this book, but I think it stands on its own as a fine novel without its connection to its literary ancestor.

Rating: ★★★★½

You can find Margot Livesey online at her website, her Facebook page, and her Twitter account.

I read this novel for the TLC Book Tour. You can visit the other stops below on the dates listed to read other reviews of this novel.

*Also reading Jane Eyre

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Saturday Reads: January 21, 2012

Young Woman Reading by Hermann Jean Joseph RichirSaturday Reads is a weekly feature sharing bookish links from news, blogs, and Twitter that made up my Saturday reading.

I spent a lot of time at my two favorite newspapers’ book sections on my iPhone this morning. The Guardian has a great article by Margaret Atwood reflecting on The Handmaid’s Tale some 26 years after it was published. A commenter quoted Rick Santorum, underscoring just why Atwood’s book is as important as ever. Here’s my review of The Handmaid’s Tale from my archives, if you’re interested.

The New York Times has a great review of The Flight of Gemma Hardy, which I will soon be reading for TLC Book Tours (very excited!).

New Books

The publishers also sent me a pretty copy of Jane Eyre, which Margot Livesy’s book is based on. I can’t wait to reread that one. It’s got deckle-edged pages and the paper cover is textured. I am very much in favor of this new trend in making classics look cool with bold, creative covers. As much as I love old paintings, I think they’re becoming a little played as book covers (she said, knowing she used one on the cover of her own book—in my defense, I don’t have the budget to pay a graphic artist to design one). I think winter is a good time to read gothic classics.

The New York Times also has good reviews of new nonfiction, including Ian Donaldson’s new biography Ben Jonson: A Life, John Matteson’s new biography The Lives of Margaret Fuller, and Richard W. Bailey‘s new book Speaking American.

I also really liked this feature on Edith Wharton as New York will celebrate her 150th birthday on Tuesday. Nice link to Downton Abbey and discussion of Wharton’s own novel The Buccaneers.

Of course, Charles Dickens also celebrates a big (200th) birthday this year, and The New York Times has a fun feature on Dickens. Favorite quote? “The fact is that Charles Dickens was as Dickensian as the most outrageous of his characters, and he was happy to think so, too.”

I’m think anyone interested in New York might find the new book New York Diaries: 1609-2000 intriguing. It sounds like the book has a variety of entries, from the “famous, the infamous, and the unknown in New York.” The Times reviewed this one, too, of course.

Flavorwire had some interesting posts, too. I particularly enjoyed “The Fascinating Inspirations Behind Beloved Children’s Books” and “10 Cult Literary Traditions for Truly Die-Hard Fans.”

Finally, I enjoyed this reflection on A Wrinkle in Time at Forever Young AdultA Wrinkle in Time will be 50 this year. Can you believe it?

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