Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Whipping Club

The Whipping Club by Deborah Henry
review copy provided by T.S. Poetry Press via TLC Book Tours 
Description from Goodreads:
 Inspired by her heritage and research of the Irish Industrial School system, Henry’s auspicious debut chronicles a couple’s attempt to save their son from horrific institutions.

Marian McKeever and Ben Ellis are not typical young lovers in 1957 Dublin, Ireland; she’s Catholic and teaches at Zion School, and he’s Jewish and a budding journalist. The two plan to wed, but their families object to an interfaith marriage. And when Marian becomes pregnant, she doesn’t tell Ben. Coerced by Father Brennan (a Catholic priest who is also her uncle), Marian goes to Castleboro Mother Baby Home, an institution ruled by Sister Paulinas and Sister Agnes where “sins are purged” via abuse; i.e., pregnant girls are forced to mow the lawn by pulling grass on their hands and knees. Marian is told that her son, Adrian, will be adopted by an American family. The riveting storyline provides many surprises as it fast-forwards to 1967 where Marian and Ben are married and have a 10-year-old daughter. Marian’s painful secret emerges when she learns that her son was dumped in an abusive orphanage not far from her middle-class home and Sister Agnes is his legal guardian. Thus begins a labyrinthine journey through red tape as the couple fight to regain their firstborn child. Ultimately, 12-year-old Adrian is placed in the Surtane Industrial School for Boys, which is rife with brutality and sexual abuse at the hands of “Christian Brother Ryder.” Though unchecked church power abounds, this is not a religious stereotype or an indictment of faith. Hateful characters like Brother Ryder are balanced with compassionate ones, such as a timid nurse from the Mother Baby Home. Father Brennan deepens into a three-dimensional character who struggles to do what is right. Henry weaves multi layered themes of prejudice, corruption and redemption with an authentic voice and swift, seamless dialogue. Her prose is engaging, and light poetic touches add immediacy. For example, when Marian returned to Mother Baby Home after 11 years, she “opened the car door and stepped onto the gravel, wanting to quiet its crunch, like skeletons underneath her shoes.” Echoing the painful lessons of the Jewish Holocaust, Henry’s tale reveals what happens when good people remain silent.

A powerful saga of love and survival

My Take:

The Whipping Club is such an interesting and intriguing title for a book.  Although the reason for the title doesn't become clear until later in the book, the title alone does make the reader pause and maybe even dread what is to come in the story. It certainly doesn't sound pleasant. I do love a book where the title alone makes me curious and cautious.

There are so many things I loved about The Whipping Club but also so very many things happen in the book that made me angry, and as a mother myself, outraged, offended and generally just sad. The main characters are wonderful. I particularly like Marian with her modern attitude, her strength, her temper, her tendency to blurt out exactly what she thinks and then has to deal with the consequences.

I loved that Ben and Marian stayed together through so much turmoil and acted as a balance to each other. Ben is much more calm and diplomatic and tries to keep Marian on an even keel. But later in the novel they seem to switch roles just when Marian has used up all her fire and is starting to lose faith, Ben takes up the torch exactly when needed to keep up the fight to protect their son, Adrian.

Adrian just tore my heart out. He is so hurt and damaged by the institutional setting he has grown up in. I loved how his sister Johanna, who has just found out about this older brother, becomes a staunch supporter of Adrian and loves him no matter what.

Despite problems caused by Adrian's emotional issues resulting from horrible mistreatment, misunderstandings with neighbors, childhood antics, and even deliberate attempts to undermine the effort to bring Adrian home, this family stays firm in their love and loyalty to each other.

The various institutions that Marian and Adrian were subjected to are absolutely horrendous and the people who worked there just made me so very angry. As the story unfolds, so too, do the examples of how the abuse is a cycle that has repeated itself over generations. Some of the adults running the institutions are themselves victims of the same type of abuse. While it doesn't excuse their behavior, it does highlight some important issues that should be examined and addressed.

While some of the topics in The Whipping Club are far from pleasant, the Ellis family stands out as a beacon of hope and love and strength.  Even though the ending leaves it very much in doubt whether the family will be together and happy, I have hope. And, to be honest, I think the ending is perfect for this book.

There is one thing about The Whipping Club that just really stood out for me as a reader - I just loved the way that Deborah Henry gives us so many "intimate, inner thoughts of the characters"*. I felt like I really knew them and understood where they were coming from.

There are so many more things I would like to discuss, but I think that rather than give everything away, it would be better to simply say that I highly recommend this book. You will not regret reading it. It will make an impact on you.

When I finished the last page my reaction was just: Wow!

*quote from author via twitter conversation

About Deborah Henry

Deborah Henry attended American College in Paris and graduated cum laude from Boston University with a minor in French language and literature. She received her MFA at Fairfield University. She is an active member of The Academy of American Poets, a Board member of Cavankerry Press and a patron of the Irish Arts Center in New York.
Curious about the duality of her own Jewish/Irish heritage, Henry was inspired to examine the territory of interfaith marriage and in so doing was led to the subject of the Irish Industrial School system. She has traveled to Ireland where she has done extensive research and interviews, including those with Mary Raftery (States of Fear documentary filmmaker and co-author of Suffer the Little Children) and Mike Milotte (award-winning journalist), as well as first-hand reports from the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries, Mother Baby Homes, Orphanages and the Industrial Schools.
Her first short story was published by The Copperfield Review, was a historical fiction finalist for Solander Magazine of The Historical Novel Society and was longlisted in the 2009/10 Fish Short Story Prize.
The Whipping Club is her first novel. She lives in Fairfield, Connecticut with her husband and their three children. She is currently at work on her next book.

 Deborah Henry's Website

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Cupboard Full of Coats

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards
review copy provided by Amistad for TLC Book Tours
Description from Goodreads:

Shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize

A "Kirkus" Best Book of the Year

Plagued by guilt, paralyzed by shame, Jinx has spent the years since her mother's death alone, estranged from her husband, withdrawn from her son, and entrenched in a childhood home filled with fierce and violent memories. When Lemon, an old family friend, appears unbidden at the door, he seduces Jinx with a heady mix of powerful storytelling and tender care. What follows is a tense and passionate weekend, as the two join forces to unravel the tragedy that binds them. Jinx has long carried the burden of the past; now, she must relive her mother's last days, confront her grief head-on, and speak the truth as only she knows it.

Expertly woven and perfectly paced, "A Cupboard Full of Coats" is both a heartbreaking family drama and a riveting mystery, with a cast of characters who linger in the mind and the heart long after the last page has been turned.

My Take:
I am so torn over this book. The writing is absolutely beautiful and the entire book is so wonderfully well written. I knew from the very first sentence - which makes up the entire first paragraph of the book - that I was going to love the writing:
It was early spring when Lemon arrived, while the crocuses in the front garden were flowering and before the daffodil buds had opened, the Friday evening of a long, slow February, and I had expected when I opened the front door to find an energy salesperson standing there, or a charity worker selling badges, or any one of a thousand random insignificant people whose existence meant nothing to me or to my world.

 The story unfolds so very gradually and the reader is able to put the pieces together as the characters of Jinx and Lemon are slowly revealed through this weekend they spend together. Both Jinx and Lemon feel that they are to blame for the death of - the murder of - Jinx's mother. Both have their story - the events as they each saw them. Both have wounds that have been buried but never forgotten, wounds that  have festered and prevented them from moving on. All of this is so slowly and painstakingly revealed through their discussions and storytelling. 

The events that are described are painful, sad, upsetting even, but so beautifully told. It was impossible to stop reading even though so much that happened made me angry and sad. Jinx feels betrayed and hurt and as a consequence of this short period of time in her past, she is unable to feel close to or relate to her own son. The tragedy of her mother's murder has haunted her throughout her life and threatens to derail her life completely. Although she doesn't know it yet, this weekend will be a turning point for the rest of her life.

One of the interesting aspects of the book is how much emphasis and importance was placed on food - the preparing, cooking, serving and eating of a meal. I don't know if it is a passion of the author's or if it is important within the culture Jinx grew up in, but the descriptions were amazing. One example:
I thought I had been creative about food in the past, ensuring a balance of texture and colour and nutrients, attractive to the eye, contrasting on the palate, on inspection, perfect in every respect. But everything he had cooked since his arrival had been divine. I could not recall any dish I had ever prepared that had in impact like this, that was such a dizzying, seductive, overwhelming experience that the more I ate, the more I wanted.

Even though the story is heart-breaking and disturbing on some levels, it does end with a surprising level of hope for Jinx's future. I'm not crazy about the nature of Lemon and Jinx's relationship from her youth, but this weekend they spend together as adults obviously enables her to work through the major emotional issues she has been harboring over the years. 

I really loved this book despite some of the disturbing and harmful things that happen within the story. This book really stayed with me.  I would find myself thinking about certain aspects of it at the oddest times. A Cupboard Full of Coats may be Yvvette Edwards' first novel, but I fully expect to read more of her writing in the future. She has such a way with the written word! You must read it for yourself.




 About Yvette Edwards

Yvvette Edwards has lived in London all her life. She currently resides in the East End and is married with three children. A Cupboard Full of Coats, her first novel, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Midwife of Hope River

The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman
review copy provided by William Morrow/Harper Collins
Description from Goodreads:
 A remarkable new voice in American fiction, creates an uplifting novel that celebrates the miracle of life.

A William Morrow Paperback Original
A debut novel featuring Patience Murphy, an Appalachian midwife in the 1930s struggling against disease, poverty, and prejudices-and her own haunting past-to bring new light, and life, into an otherwise cruel world

As a midwife working in the hardscrabble conditions of Appalachia during the Depression, Patience Murphy's only solace is her gift: the chance to escort mothers through the challenges of childbirth. Just beginning, she takes on the jobs no one else wants: those most in need-and least likely to pay. Patience is willing to do what it takes to fulfill her mentor's wishes, but starting a midwife practice means gaining trust, and Patience's secrets are too fragile to let anyone in.

A stirring piece of Americana, The Midwife of Hope River beats with authenticity as Patience faces seemingly insurmountable conditions: disease, poverty, and prejudices threaten at every turn. From the dangerous mines of West Virginia to the terrifying attentions of the Klu Klux Klan, Patience must strive to bring new light, and life, into an otherwise cruel world.

My Take:

The Midwife of Hope River begins on Black Tuesday, the day the stock market crashed, but Patience, the midwife for the area, has more pressing concerns on her mind. She is delivering a baby on her own. She has recently lost her mentor and friend, Mrs. Kelly, who she worked with as assistant midwife. The book begins with this difficult birth and sets the pattern for the rest of the book: Patience is called to help with a birth and afterwards she records the details in her journal. 

The reader gradually learns about Patience and her life before moving to her little house at the base of Hope Mountain. The story switches between the current storyline in Depression Era West Virginia and the events in the past that lead Patience to this small community. Patience has lived an exciting and sometimes surprising life.

There is so much about this book that I just loved. I loved the history and political climate of the era  the most. The story includes so many of the societal issues of the time: union organizing, mining dangers, race issues, women's health, socialists and anarchists, the KKK, even the origination of the eight hour work day. I loved the breadth of experiences that Patience had and how she learns and grows and changes her opinions about people and communities.

I loved how Patience seems to be a unifying element between the segregated communities of the community and still manages to cause and get into so much trouble as a result.

I also loved that even though Patience was always anxious to learn more about midwifery from the more experienced women, she wasn't afraid to follow her own instincts and do whatever made the new mother comfortable. She is pretty sassy and very smart and not afraid to speak her mind even in such a tumultuous time. 

The Midwife of Hope River is an entertaining, suspenseful, and educational book that I would highly recommend.You don't need to be a midwife or a home birth advocate to enjoy the book. The history alone would make it worthwhile, but the story is wonderful and I really like Patience and wouldn't mind reading more about her life.

A Man of Honor Blog Tour and Review

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