Review: The Smallest Thing

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Lisa Manterfield. Steel Rose Press, $16, 288p. ISBN 9780998696928

“Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, it gave her material for stories.” Thus says author Lisa Manterfield, who presents her second curious novel, The Smallest Thing. Set in the Derbyshire Dales village of Eyam, The Smallest Thing is inspired by the historical plague that overtook Eyam in the 1600s and led to quarantine of the village. In The Smallest Thing, Manterfield’s protagonist, Emmott Syddall, finds herself in a similar quarantine which keeps her from fulfilling her desire to move to London, and ultimately leads her to grow while questioning what she really wants to do with her life.

Manterfield has described herself as loving “fish-out-of-water stories of ordinary people in extraordinary situations, especially if those situations delve into the unexplained.” At closer to eighteen than seventeen years old, self-centered Emmott is quite decided on leaving her small-town life in Eyam and strained relationship with her father. Wanting to be with her boyfriend, Ro, and having found a job and apartment in London, Emmott plans to move within a matter of days from the novel’s opening. A sudden outbreak of an unknown illness traps Emmott in the middle of a mysterious sickness, complete with a village-wide quarantine, HAZMAT suits, and situation briefs. Though she searches for a way outside the town’s boundaries, Emmott is unable to find an escape past the quarantine, and when Ro abandons their plans to move, Emmott is left with crushed dreams and nothing to do but ride out the outbreak.

In The Smallest Thing, Manterfield explores not only the historical effects of quarantine, but also the personal effects of being held in close proximity with the same people for long periods of time. As a teenager, Emmott has not yet learned to think of how her actions affect the people around her. When she is forced by the quarantine to zero in on her relationships with her father, best friend, neighbors, and even Ro, Emmott learns things about the people closest to her that she didn’t know before. She also gets a rude awakening of what it is to be alone – the very state of being that she was running toward by planning to move to London.

“I can’t count the number of times I’ve wished I could be alone. I couldn’t wait to get away from the village and out from under the watch of my parents, to be free to be myself and do my own thing, without other people and their opinions getting in the way. I wished so hard for that, and now I’ve got it. Now I am completely alone.”

– Chapter 28, Page 236

Well-written with a delicious dose of descriptive setting and metaphor, The Smallest Thing is a lesson in growing to recognize more than just a personal struggle when disaster strikes the people closest to you.

 

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Review: Wild

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Cheryl Strayed. Vintage Books, $16, 315 p. ISBN 9780307476074

If ever a motivator was needed to step outside of the “everyday grind,” or inspire a need for rejuvenation and embark on a new adventure, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, meets every requirement.

Life sometimes brings moments of feeling lost, disorientated, or adrift in a static sea, after an unfortunate or emotional event. An experience like this is normally not voluntary, and is generally difficult to emerge from. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is the true story of how a 26-year-old woman found healing and reawakening after conquering an 1,100-mile hike on her own.

It was not until after Strayed divorced her husband, lost her mother to lung cancer, and experienced an addiction to heroin that she decided to attempt to hike a 1,100-mile portion of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), beginning in the Mojave Desert and ending at the Bridge of the Gods in Washington. Important to note is the fact that after her divorce, Strayed, whose given name is Cheryl Nyland, legally changed her name to Cheryl Strayed in order to signify the times in her life that she’d really lost her way.

Strayed noticed a PCT guidebook at outdoor recreation outlet REI, and later found herself returning to the store to purchase the guidebook. Having never been backpacking before, she was driven to make the hike, not entirely sure how, or even why. Strayed soon after quits her job as a waitress, sells the majority of her possessions, and purchases an amateur’s set of supplies for what would become a three-month journey.

Within her memoir, Strayed tells two stories alongside each other: one of her journey along the PCT, and the other of her personal background, or what brought her to the trail. Both of Strayed’s stories show a struggle, and in the end, conquest over one actually brings Strayed to victory over both.

Strayed makes sure to communicate to the reader how much of a burden her backpack was on several, quite comical, occasions. Strayed dubs her backpack “Monster”, which she notes was 70 pounds at its heaviest, and 50 pounds at its lightest.  Either stuffed into or strapped onto Monster are fleece pants, a thermal shirt, a hooded anorak, two pair of wool socks, two pair of underwear, gloves, a sun hat, a fleece hat, rain pants, food for fourteen days, a sleeping bag, a camping chair, a headlamp, bungee cords, a water purifier, a stove, a canister of gas, a lighter, two cooking pots, utensils, a pair of sandals, a towel, a thermometer, a tarp, a mug, a snakebite kit, a Swiss Army knife, binoculars, a compass, a book telling how to use the compass, a first-aid kit, toiletries, a menstrual sponge, a lantern, water bottles, iodine pills, a saw, two pens, three books: The Pacific Crest Trail, Vol.1: California; As I Lay Dying; and Dream of a Common Language, and a sketchbook. Needless to say, Monster is our literal representation of Strayed’s struggle while on the PCT.

Perhaps more personal about Strayed’s struggle on the PCT is Strayed’s struggle to come to terms with her mother’s sudden death. Strayed writes that her mother passes away seven weeks to the day after being diagnosed with cancer, and how Strayed had carried a particular anger since losing her mother so soon. Being motherless causes Strayed to “instantly grow up and forgive her [mother’s] every motherly fault,” instead of gradually growing apart from her mother while concurrently realizing that her mother had raised Strayed to the best of her ability. Before her death, Strayed’s mother repeats to Strayed, “I’m with you always,” like she would when Strayed was a young girl.

Strayed captures perfectly the symbiotic relationship between carrying Monster on her back and anger in her heart in this quote: “I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it,” (pg. 92). Ultimately, it is Strayed’s realization while closing in on her journey’s goal in Washington that her mother’s death didn’t have to be a burden of grief, but could be a burden of love, that releases her from her strayed struggle within.

Review: With Malice

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Eileen Cook. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18, 320p. ISBN 9780544805095.

In her latest thriller, With Malice, author Eileen Cook places two girls in Italy and brings only one of them back – with broken bones and memory loss.

Cook opens her novel presenting Ivy League-bound Jill Charron waking up in a hospital, having just been emergency airlifted from Italy and not knowing that she was ever in Europe. After being told about the car accident that left her with a broken leg and aphasia, Jill struggles to put together the pieces of her missing memories. Jill tries to use a hospital phone to call her best friend, Simone, convinced that Simone will be able to fill in the gaps of her memories, but Jill is rudely thwarted by Simone’s parents. Jill later learns that although she and Simone had gone on the school-sponsored trip to Italy together, excited to immerse themselves in all the art and history that Italy has to offer, Simone didn’t return from Italy – and Jill is the leading suspect in Simon’s apparent murder.

Already wrestling with her lack of memory, Jill is burdened with pressure from her family’s lawyer, who is trying to control what the media publishes; from the Italian police, who want to extradite Jill to face charges of manslaughter; and even from her parents, who have doubts of Jill’s innocence. All the while, Jill strives to remember any piece of her time in Italy, her supposed “lover”, and what could’ve caused such an argument to lead Jill to possibly murder Simone.

Cook expertly keeps the reader from deciding between Jill’s innocence or guilt by venturing out of the normal form of writing a novel. Cook builds the story partially through published snippets of blog posts, Facebook posts and comments, text message threads, and interview transcriptions. Cook alternates her chapters from publishing witness accounts and social opinion of the Jill’s innocence or guilt, to progressing Jill’s story as she spending her weeks in therapy and residential care, anticipating the day when she’ll have to go to court. As soon as one piece of evidence is revealed that seemingly proves Jill’s guilt, another eyewitness account is presented that convinces of Jill’s innocence. This method of writing draws the reader into the story, and largely contributes to the thrill of reading on to find the truth.

Cook develops Jill’s character around internal struggles, self-discovery, personal growth, and the questioning of faithfulness, all of which a teenager battles during transition between high school and the “real world.” One common coming-of-age reality that Jill comes to face is the reality that she’s going to have to move forward with college and the rest of her life without her best friend, Simone, whom she’s known since fourth grade. Cook challenges this concept with Jill’s roommate in the recovery home, who teaches Jill to be open to trusting people regardless of how long or how well she knows them.

With Malice is a suspenseful read that explores the values of honesty, loyalty, and friendship, as well as the argument that a person’s real character is only discovered by persevering through difficult times.

Review: Before The Fall

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Noah Hawley. Grand Central Publishing, $26, 400p. ISBN 9781478987581
Into a world that has grown focused on the appearance of self and the embellishment of truth, Noah Hawley installs a cast of characters representative of both connivance and compassion. Our society today knows to accept news reports at arm’s length, unless the sources are verified and the facts are proven to be correct. Hawley’s latest thriller, Before the Fall, epitomizes this conflict between reported fact and fiction, drawing the reader in closer and closer until the truth is finally revealed in quite literally the very last pages of the novel.

Thirty miles off of the coast of New York, a private plane falls out of the sky taking the lives of nine very wealthy passengers with it. The only survivors are a struggling painter, and the four-year-old son of a news magnate.

Scott Burroughs, middle-aged and not quite the successful artist, manages to find the boy floating amidst the waves and wreckage. Having somewhat of a history in swimming, Scott is able to get himself and the boy safely, heroically, to the shore. Scott is soon thereafter greeted not with a hero’s welcome, but instead with accusations of conspiracy to assassinate the boy’s parents and the others that were on the plane.

Investigators are taught to ask the hard questions, and unfortunately,  this sometimes sheds a darker light onto mysteries surrounded by unfortunate circumstances. Why was Scott on a plane with ten other people worth millions of dollars? What was Scott’s true relationship with the boy’s mother, who seemingly “invited” Scott to make the flight with them? And how is it that Scott is the only survivor, save the little boy whose well-being Scott seems to be unusually concerned with? Instead of recognizing Scott for the selfless feat that he accomplished in swimming thirty miles to shore with a young boy on his back, the media tears apart supposed innocent coincidences in an effort to prove Scott guilty: all in the name of having someone on whom to pin the murder of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hawley proves to be a master of weaving together pieces of a puzzle that he’s already solved, in a way that teases the reader so that putting down the book before the reader is satisfied is simply out of the question. By the end of the book, every single detail presented by Hawley falls into place and complements the whole in a way that leaves nothing unresolved. Before the Fall is an investigation that the reader is invited to participate in, carefully waging the forces of truth and fiction against each other in a skillful battle for liberation.

Review: Global Mom: A Memoir

Melissa Dalton-Bradford. Familius Publishing, $18, 320p. ISBN 9781938301346

As a young mother of two small children, Melissa Dalton-Bradford was a professional musical theater actress preparing to step onto a Broadway stage when she received a phone call from Randall, her husband: he’d been offered the job, and it would take his family to Norway.

The idea wasn’t too unimaginable – after all, Bradford had lived abroad before, and she and Randall did want to raise their children in other countries – and what a perfect opportunity for their family! But the offer had come sooner than Bradford thought it would, and over the next twenty years, Bradford and her family would call eight different countries “home”.

Global Mom: Eight Countries, Sixteen Addresses, Five Languages, One Family is a wonderfully lively memoir of a woman who experiences first-hand the struggles and rewards of motherhood across the globe.

Dalton-Bradford dives right into her memoir with life in Norway. Her voice as an author begins as a voice that I would expect of a landmark writer, made an example of for her use of literary analogy. Reflective of Dalton-Bradford’s cheerful writing is her and her children’s lives through the young years. Dalton-Bradford tells of bundling her small children, Parker and Claire, in layer after layer of “vintertøy”, or winter clothing, before they run outside to play with the Norwegian children from whom they will gradually pick up the tongue of the nation. It is during these years in Norway that the Bradfords purchase the single possession that will act as the landmark of Dalton-Bradford’s many homes: a ten-foot long, three-foot wide, four-inch thick Norwegian dinner table, purchased as a memorial to five years that the Bradfords lived in Oslo. Throughout her memoir, Dalton-Bradford tells of sitting at the table for journal entries, projects, gatherings, homework assignments, and holiday dinners. When the Bradfords move to France, the table is lifted by a pulley through a second-story window into their new French home whose entrance is too narrow to accept the large piece of furniture.

Upon arrival in France, Parker and Claire experience struggles in schools in Versailles, thanks to their Norwegian foundations. This doesn’t stop Parker from growing to identify Paris as his true home, however. A move back to the States meets Dalton-Bradford’s children gritting their teeth at having to memorize an “Allegiance chant.” Claire hears all the other girls on the elementary school playground giggling with each other about somebody named, “Lizzy McGuire”, and goes home to tell her mother that they must get American television.

Subsequent years take the Bradfords again to Paris before yet another move to Munich. It is not until the few weeks between Paris and Munich that I believe Dalton-Bradford finds her true, personal voice as a writer. Dalton-Bradford experiences crisis, loss, and discouragement. I have not experienced motherhood – but the last few chapters of Dalton-Bradford’s memoir pull strings within me that I’m sure would’ve been tugged much harder if I had children of my own.

As an adventurer with desires to travel, absorbing Global Mom has moved me to realize that nothing really holds a person back from achieving their goals and living their dreams. Things happen along the way – life happens, it always does – but to have the strength, faith, and courage of a wife and mother who continually moved her family physically, while keeping them rooted emotionally, is something that I would every day envy for my own venturesome existence.