Thursday, March 26, 2015

Fleischerhaus - Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is back with another ghost story, but this one is a little different than her book Stone's Ghost.

Julia Martin, recovering from a marriage gone sour, travels to Bavaria to stay with Maggie, an old college friend. While she and Maggie are bicycling in the countryside one day, they chance upon a site that was once the location of a German concentration camp. Maggie feels a sense of disorientation there -- and the feeling gets even more pronounced when the two women tour the site. To top it off, Julia knows the locations of buildings in the camp that historians are only guessing at. It's almost as if she has been there before.

A concerned Maggie takes Julia to the local clinic, where Julia meets Dr. Theo Seiler. Theo speculates that Julia might indeed have lived -- and died -- at Fleischerhaus in a previous life, and together they embark on a search for answers.

Bowersock's usual smooth style is in evidence here. Julia and Theo are wonderful characters, and their blossoming romance is charmingly portrayed. The author does as deft a job with the horrific scenes where Julia recalls what happened to her earlier self at Fleischerhaus, as well as the inevitable end game in which Julia puts more than just her own ghost to rest.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Conjure Woman's Cat - Malcolm R. Campbell

Conjure Woman's Cat takes on a host of tough topics -- race, class, and sexual abuse -- and tells about them from the point of view of a magical cat.

Lena is the name of the cat in question. She belongs to Eulalie, a conjure woman (in a different neighborhood, she might have been called a hedge witch) who lives in a tiny town in rural Florida. In this era, poor black women still care for the children of wealthy white racists and the Ku Klux Klan stands ready to assist if any black person gets above their station. When a young black girl named Mattie disappears, Lena steps between the worlds to find out what happened to her. And when Lena discovers that Mattie was raped and murdered by some local white boys, she and her conjure woman wreak their own version of justice on the perpetrators.

Of course, when any book is narrated by an animal, readers have to suspend their disbelief from the get-go. I didn't find that difficult with this book. I was quickly drawn in by Lena's unique voice, and by the mysterious goings-on around her and Eulalie. I loved the way Campbell made magic part of the fabric of the place. And I was glad to see those boys get the comeuppance they deserved.

Readers of magic realism will appreciate Conjure Woman's Cat. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Year of the Ladybird - Graham Joyce

I'm including two covers for this book because Goodreads informs me that the US version has a different title. I get why that is, kind of: here in the US, we call little red bugs with black spots ladybugs, not ladybirds, and Random House probably didn't want the word "bug" on the cover of a book aimed at adults. Apparently I got hold of the UK edition, so that's what I'm reviewing. Anyway.

My short list of favorite authors includes three men (and several women): Stephen R. Donaldson, Kent Haruf, and Graham Joyce. Both Haruf and Joyce died in 2014 (so heads up, Steve -- you're not allowed to die, okay?).

The Year of the Ladybird was one of Joyce's last novels. Like many of his books, it takes place in his signature, off-kilter reality, in which the reader is never really sure whether the main character is crazy, or hallucinating, or living in a sort of alternate magic-realist universe.

The book is set in the hot summer of 1976. College student David lands a job at a family resort in Skegness, a rundown vacation spot on the coast of England. On the surface, it appears he might have taken the job to escape his family, as his stepfather was all set to give him a summer job. But Skegness is also where David's biological father disappeared -- an event David barely remembers.

Of course, there's a reason why he doesn't remember, and it has to do with the man and boy he sees at odd moments on the beach. The subtitle of the UK edition is, "A Ghost Story," but that's misleading. Because while this pair might be the ghosts in question, they're not the only haunting things in the book. There are also the ladybug plague that descends on the town, and the scary love triangle David finds himself drawn into.

If you're looking for a traditional ghost story, The Year of the Ladybird isn't it. But if you're looking for a coming-of-age novel with overtones of magic realism, this book will fit the bill. Recommended. And I wish Joyce were still around to give us more stories like it.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Johnny Don't March - Timothy Hurley

Johnny Don't March is an absorbing look at a returning soldier's descent into hell.

In his final firefight in Afghanistan, Army Specialist Nelson O'Brien loses both his best friend and a little piece of his mind. He regains consciousness far from his unit, and finds himself pinned down by a man who he presumes to be an Afghani fighter. Somehow, Nelson manages to walk away from the situation -- and his C.O. insists on pinning a medal on him which he doesn't believe he deserves. But it's when he returns home that his real battle starts, for Nelson has come back from Afghanistan with PTSD. And thus begins a race against time: will he get into treatment before he loses it completely and hurts someone he loves?

I totally bought into the story. I very much liked Nelson and his girlfriend, Prue, and I was pulling for a happy ending for them. And I loved Maleitha, Nelson's self-appointed guardian angel, whose cameo appearance comes at a most opportune time.

Hurley is a retired physician, and it shows in his facility with medical terminology -- but he never overwhelms the reader with technical terms. In fact, the book is well-written and well-edited. And the author does a great job at escalating tension, until you begin to wonder whether there's any way the story can end except tragically.

My only complaint about Johnny Don't March is that Hurley has done a better job of creating a character with PTSD than I did. But that's my problem, not yours. Highly recommended.