Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Wednesday Reviews

From Sarah Bruce Kelly, author of award-winning Vivaldi’s Muse comes another historical novel, this based in post-Great War Pittsburgh and focusing on the early teen era of jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. Written for roughly the same age group as its protagonist, Jazz Girl is told from Mary Lou’s perspective, no mean feat considering the writer essentially must enter the mind of her subject, speaking for and thus representing a real person, as opposed to imparting biographical details. Arranged in chapters, titles indicative of their focus, the novel’s prologue, “The Sign of the Caul,” introduces us to a piece of family lore Mary Lou must have heard hundreds of times before she repeats it for us: Born with a caul, a piece of amniotic membrane covering the newborn infant’s head, she is thus gifted with a second sight that turns out to be, as she herself recognizes, more burden than prize.
Her mother, not naturally inclined to parent or hardened by years of drinking, or perhaps both, repeatedly rejects Mary Lou through her childhood. She is taunted mercilessly by neighborhood children who follow their parents’ lead in ostracizing Mary in particular because of her black skin darker than most of her other family members’. Plagued by a stutter, her music saves her from misery, even if it is imprisoned inside her, owing to her “night squalling of an old alley cat” voice and lack of piano. “So most times the music stayed inside my head, leaping and dancing around like the spirits who used to play with me in the Georgia woods around our old house.”
Mary Lou’s fortunes, as so often happens in life, rise and fall. She has her Grandpa to share company and interests with, and he is sympathetic to her sensitive, artistic nature. To the extent that he can, he makes up for her lack of a father figure, despite the family divide linked to her mother’s alcoholism. A stepfather and piano later come into her life and the girl who at age three had played tunes following her mother’s example—indicative of her mother’s own talent lost or squandered—wastes no time in becoming a neighborhood sensation. “The little piano girl” begins to earn money for her music, enduring humiliation and deception on many occasions from those jealous or contemptuous of her. She loses a soul mate in her cousin Max, who moves away, her Grandpa dies and her stepfather threatens to sell the piano he gifted her. Her kind and beautiful teacher leads her to a standing gig playing for the other teacher ladies. Overjoyed that she finally has made her mother proud following an invitation to play at the teachers’ special tea party, she is distraught when her mother fails to show up, engaged as she is at home with the gin jug.
How Mary Lou not only gets through life but also manages herself, endures and thrives is not just a testament of the human spirit, an indicator of the resilience that brings some of us past misery and on to greatness. It also speaks to the idea that the individual indeed can rise above collective negativity, whether it be cultural or imposed, from strangers or one’s own family. This may be one of the caul’s gifts to her, as well as her strength in making choices: what to do, where to go, even how to respond and whether to become angry or upset. She has a special ability to understand people’s motives even if they themselves do not, and because she is naturally inclined to build bridges rather than tear them down, she is capable of compassion even in the face of utter meanness. A series of these choices leads her to play alongside Fats Waller and other jazz superstars, before she moves on to her own successful career, where she can build love and bring people together.
For a relatively short book, and a fairly easy read from my adult perspective, Kelly has packed a powerhouse into these 195 pages. Staid as it may be to enthuse over economy of words, it is a talent the author imparts with a grace like magic—I came away from and looked back upon the book in awe: How could she have said so much when saying so little? Moreover, the authenticity of Kelly’s dialogue captures perfectly the voice of someone whose life circumstances make her vulnerable, talent raises her to heights few other children even know the existence of, and early maturity helps navigate her through pathways both perilous and extraordinary.
The quality and style of her verbiage reflect authentically the time as well as speakers, who display awareness of this as well. “’You slay me, Nannie,’ [Mamie] said, acting all uppity with her teenage slang.” Mary Lou occasionally refers to acts or behavior this or that person won’t abide, a phrase often still heard used in contemporary black English. Kelly also utilizes styles typically identified with this speech, unencumbered by the weightiness that wears readers down in other books seeking to replicate, say, Southern or Cockney accents. But more than just Kelly’s authentic use of language, Mary Lou herself keeps it real, to turn a modern phrase. She even seems to reach out to us, the readers, telling an inclusive story that acknowledges our presence and part of it all: “Can you believe [what Hugh said]?”
Through the novel runs a train motif, sometimes used to reflect on the rail that brought Mary Lou’s family from Georgia to Pittsburgh, a new life, a fresh start. She reasons that trains bring people together, hence her long admiration of them, and linking her music to the rhythmic railway sounds, she reckons she can do the same with what she produces. The connectedness she yearns for herself and to pass to others links also to a re-creation, in turn opening like a bloom to more of the novel’s other pleasures for the senses. When her Nanny calls her “contrary” and refers to a poem she once knew that featured a garden, Mary Lou reflects on why she likes it: “Because it is about growing a garden. And that’s what my music is to me. All the time I spend at the piano is like planting seeds I hope will grow into beautiful flowers.”
Like the creation of new life, this book establishes in a number of ways connections with readers, from the cover art and information presented to the narrative itself and further references at the end—and in my experience these connections are no small matter. The easy-to-find cover credit for Maria Termini’s Piano Jazz Plant to go with the vision of a keyboard juxtaposed on the vibrant, filled-with-life colors of a plant, a synesthesiac sensation that causes Mary Lou’s fingers to itch as she lets loose with that strong left hand. The Author’s Note addressing some unanswered questions, and link to hear Mary Lou’s music and see some pictures. All invitations to stay connected to Mary Lou Williams past the time when the cover closes. Sarah Bruce Kelly has made us heirs to a brilliant legacy.
 Jazz Girl by Sarah Bruce Kelly
2010, Bel Canto Press
ISBN 978-0-615-35376-0
by Lisl Zlitni
Review Team Member
Line by Line, by Barbara Hacha, is a historical fiction piece that explores the life of a young woman during the Great Depression in the United States. The story’s plot examines the desperation, independence, and opinions of many Americans of the 1930s. These themes are a constant in history and I found the story interesting and eye opening to many events that aren’t covered in a standard history class about the Great Depression.

Maddy is the strong female protagonist in Line by Line. Through her voice and experiences, the reader learns much about the life of hoboes jumping the train rails, the Prohibition, the Bonus Army protest movement, the growing independent and strong woman of the 1930s, and the shear desperation and will of the people that endured the Depression. Whereas Maddy is the main character, her story could not be told without the many colorful and endearing characters that Ms. Hacha creates in her story. These characters provide growth to Maddy’s development as a character as well as providing insight to the life and times of the Great Depression. For instance, Francine and Phillipe lend to the story of Maddy’s continuing development as an artist and her determination to stand up for her beliefs. Rita, Maddy’s best friend, lends to the story’s plot of the Bonus Army protest movement in the 1930s as well as the difficulties posed by riding the train lines. Henry, the WWI veteran and hobo, serves as an ongoing mentor and protector for Maddy throughout the story. Despite his infrequent appearances in the book, his impact on the main character is evident.

With regard to style, Line by Line, is historical fiction piece that flowed well and was quite a page turner. The descriptions are detailed but the dialogue is the strength of the story. The diction was contemporary and easy to read. The majority of the characters were well developed. In fact, I found the only lacking piece to be a more strongly developed relationship between Rita and Maddy.

The book’s cover design of a person walking along the train rails provides the reader with what is to come in the book. When it comes to the layout, I thought the book should have had a reference section for Ms. Hacha’s research on the Bonus Army movement, life on the rails, and the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.

I greatly enjoyed Line by Line and learned a great deal about portions of the Depression. I would look for more works by Ms. Hacha in the future.
by Jennifer Schusterman
Review Team Member
I’ve always been intrigued with Marie Antoinette. she was such a complex women, I wanted to shake her at one moment, then hug her the next. She bore a tremendous amount on her shoulders and yet at the same time made very bad decisions. Out of all the books I’ve read about her, I would say that I have really enjoyed Juliet Grey’s two novels, Becoming Marie Antoinette and Day’s of Splendor, Day’s of Sorrow the most. Keep in mind this is Historical Fiction but I believe Grey stayed true to the events in this story.

Marie and Louis have ascended to the French throne and they have yet to consummate their marriage. Meanwhile, Marie began to fall out of favour with the French people (such as the royals) as the gossip and propaganda about her outrageous and extravagant spending was well known.She was spending more than her allowance had allowed and was in considerable debt. But that did not stop her as she continued to spend money on jewels, gowns and running up gambling debts among her peers. Even after her mother and brother’s warning and advice she could not see what she was doing was wrong and couldn’t see that it would cause serious trouble for her and her husband.

Marie was also under considerable stress to produce an heir for France and Louis suffered from a physical deformity it seems and finally after almost seven years of without consummating their marriage, he underwent a procedure, and they were finally able too. Soon after they had their first child, a daughter. Louis and Marie loved their children and I felt such sadness knowing what was to come. Louis troubled me at the end of this book. It’s like he couldn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of their situation and I think he felt that the French people would not turn on their King.

I enjoyed the pace of the story and Juliet Grey’s style of writing appeals to me.The book is written in beautiful detail and one can tell that Grey did an extensive research for her novel. There are so many aspects to this story and I was enthralled with every part, but I would like the reader to find out more for themselves by reading this novel. I highly recommend that you do.

Layered Pages

Wow! The Covenant Within by R.A.R. Clouston is a brilliantly written novel that divulges into the mind as well as into the imagination of the reader. The Covenant Within is centered around Jack Sinclair, an American CEO, who is thrown into mystery and adventure when he is suddenly called back to the Orkney Islands off of northern Scotland after his brother Thomas’s untimely death. He soon discovers that surrounding his brother’s death trouble and mystery lies. Before traveling back to the Orkney Islands Jack is plagued by tormented dreams of people he doesn’t know and places that he has never seen. He must travel deep within these dreams to unlock the secrets of his family’s past, present, and future.

R.A.R Clouston creates and novel that has the reader thinking about what could be. The dreams that Jack Sinclair has are called genetic memory and they are vast ancestral inheritances passed through the DNA, the reader will live Jack Sinclair’s life as well as memories of his ancestors. The story is created to keep you guessing about what has happen to Thomas as well as the dark secret of the Sinclair family that dates all the way back to the hill of Calvary. Although the story was a little slow at the beginning, I was glad that I kept reading because the adventure that I encountered in The Covenant Within was one that I won’t soon forget. Clouston creates a land of mystery and suspense on the Orkney Islands that will leave the reader wanting more. The characters will take the readers on a roller coaster of emotion and suspense that they won’t want to end. Overall, a fantastic read!

I am giving this book four stars!
Rachel Massaro
ReviewTeam Member

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