Review: The Homecoming of Samuel Lake

This review marks the third (yes, third) 5-star rave of The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by a Literary Hoarder.  If that doesn’t make you drop what you’re doing to find a copy of your own, then I’m not sure what will.

Be warned: if you start reading Jenny Wingfield’s enveloping novel, you won’t be able to stop.  Clear your calendar.  Reading this gripping tale is all you will want to do until you turn the last emotionally charged, satisfying page.

My fellow Hoarders have previously explained in detail what this tale encompasses.  A close-knit, multi-generation Arkansas family comes to exist under one roof.  Samuel Lake, a Preacher, his wife Willadee, and their three precocious children move in with Willadee’s mother, Calla Moses.  Calla, who has recently (and tragically) lost her husband John, welcomes the company. Reading about this wonderful family is enough to keep the pages turning well into the night.  It’s their “neighbor,” however, who will make you chew your nails to the quick.

Ras Ballenger is one blink short of the devil.  Evil seeps from his pores.  Anger is his mood.  Abuse is his calling.  These traits would be difficult enough to swallow, if this man did not have a family.  His young wife is often his victim. His youngest son manages to evade his rage by mimicking Ras’ every move (in sheer admiration).  Unfortunately, it’s the sweet and innocent 8-year old son Blade who most often bears the brunt of Ras Ballenger’s abuse.  Blade will tug at your heartstrings.  He’ll make you peek ahead to future paragraphs to see if he’s going to be ok.

He’ll also prove that there’s always hope, when he discovers that it is actually possible to live without being terrorized.  It’s here that the daughter of Sam and Willadee, Swan Lake, becomes Blade’s savior.

There are parts of this novel that are difficult.  You’ll want to holler “watch out!” at critical moments.  You’ll want to hold the hurt, and will want to save the helpless.  Luckily, you’ll have Swan on your side.  She’s eleven years old, and you will be eternally grateful that she has no patience for injustice.

What Swan intended to do was rescue Blade Ballenger.  It had been three days now, and she was through fooling around.

Swan Lake is a character who you will not soon forget.  She’s proof positive that bravery comes in all shapes and sizes.  She’s also testament that one person can make a difference.  Wingfield writes her carefully, sharing great detail regarding Swan’s capacity to love, her compassion for people, and her strong faith.  In short, Swan Lake is remarkable.  

I need to note that there are many heroes in this book.  Calla Moses, Toy Moses, Samuel Lake… each person had much to contribute to the story.  Truly, I think the book’s overwhelming charm is in how so many of the characters become champions in their own right, as they each found their calling.  Jenny Wingfield absolutely shines as she opens these characters up for observation, and gives the reader the opportunity to watch them mature, develop, and discover new levels of strength.  Overall, when Blade is encircled by the protective arms of his incredible neighbors, you’ll want to cheer.

The way the characters of this novel care for one another is proof that there are miracles.  Sometimes, the biggest miracle of all is kindness.  Sometimes, if you pay attention, miracles unfold in your presence.  Wingfield offers it all.

Swan heard everything.  She heard when her father started calling on God, and she heard it when God answered.

Will you be listening?

5 heartfelt stars for The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield.  Can’t wait for her next book!

Audiobook Review: Ordinary Heroes

First of all, I just want to tell you how much I thoroughly, thoroughly loved listening to this story. I spent my time listening to this story. I did not rush and wonder when it was going to come to an end, or flip to see how many CDs were left in the case. I did not really want it to come to an end.

Ordinary Heroes is not your typical legal eagle Scott Turow you may be used to reading, but nonetheless, or maybe actually for that very reason, I absolutely enjoyed every single moment of this story. It has intrigue, secrets, love, war, humour, sadness and heartbreak. At the heart of it, I feel it is a tender nod to Turow’s father, his ordinary hero who also served during WWII.

It is actually two collective stories married by a father and son. We first hear the voice of Stewart Dubinsky following his father’s funeral. Stewart is assigned the task of going through his father’s clothes and picking the ones he wishes to keep, when he comes across letters and papers buried deep in the closet. With great shock, Stewart discovers his father was engaged to another woman before the start of WWII and that he was also court martialed and sentenced to time in jail. Secretly stealing away from the family home with this information, he sets out to discover the truth about his father, the circumstances surrounding his court martial, and in the process discovers the true identity of his mother and why he remained so tight lipped about his war experiences. He discovers that it may have nothing to do with the preferred and often told history, to protect his mother’s feelings, as she was rescued from a concentration camp.

We then switch to the past, and WWII where we hear the voice of David Dubin (he has Americanized his name, his son later reclaiming the original version). David is working for JAG and longing for the possibility of seeing combat up front. He is then issued strict order to arrest a Robert Martin. Martin is said to have disobeyed his superior officers, may be a Russian spy, is harboring a woman, Gita Lutz, who assists him. Martin all the while claims his orders come not from the US and General Teedle, but from the London O.S.S. office. Martin is also a very charismatic, handsome and suave character. Gita is his mysterious, oh so beautiful and loyal sidekick.

Dubin finds (the first time) Martin and is cast under his spell, but also utterly confused as Martin says his orders are from the O.S.S. in Britain. Dubin finds himself falling for Martin’s female cooperative, and also becomes embroiled in battling the Germans with bombs and gunfire (oh the excitement of being in combat for real!), jumping out of planes….all the while with Martin confusing the hell out of Dubin saying he does not take his orders from the US, he takes them only from the O.S.S. Basically, he’s constantly sent on a wild goose chase with the wool being pulled over his eyes at every turn. Whom does he believe? General Teedle who is threatening to hand his ass to him on a plate if he does not bring back Martin? Or Martin who convincingly stresses his alliance and loyalty to the O.S.S? Off again David is set on hot pursuit to find Martin, including being parachuted out of a plane, only to find that Martin has presumably gotten himself killed. Or is he? As once again David is sent back in to the heart of combat to track Martin down.

Dubin’s court martial is due to letting Martin go in the end and absolutely refusing to provide any explanation. Therefore he has disobeyed orders and set a suspected spy free. Through the course of his reading, David’s son Stewart remains in touch with the lawyer assigned to his father’s case and gradually they piece together the truth using David’s memoir-of-sorts and from what the old lawyer can shed light upon.

This fabulous tale is wonderfully read to you by Edward Herrmann, and he simply adds so much to the story. Turow writes with exceptional poignancy and coupled with Herrmann’s reading brought me to tears a number of times. An example would be David’s moment after heavy combat and where he tells his fellow troops to pretend dead and wait for the Germans to leave the area. David then writes that no one has told him about the smells of combat, the blood, human waste and finally…death. The other is David’s breakdown upon seeing the hundreds of bodies piled in the camp he is sent to again find Martin, and upon seeing the condition of dwellings and the emaciation and lice-covered dead all around. Herrmann’s ability to read the character’s personalities and infuse many exchanges with humour and sadness is just divine.

A 4.5 star read for me! It was excellent! Again, another gem of an audiobook. I think it helped that much more to make this story as great as it was for me.

Review: The Bells

This one has been on the “to read” for such a long time! I was glad to be in a situation where a digital book was not appropriate so that I could finally get to it! It did not disappoint. It truly was a novel to “engage the senses and tickle the mind.”

I grew up as the son of a man who could not possibly have been my father. Though there was never any doubt that my seed had come from another man, Moses Froben, Lo Svizzero, called me “son.” And I called him “father.” On the rare occasions when someone dared to ask for clarification, he simply laughed as though the questioner were obtuse. “Of course he’s not my son!” he would say. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Nicolai Froben’s father, Moses, has recently died and has left behind a memoir. It tells how a nameless, bastard child of a deaf-mute mother and a wicked priest became one of the most beloved Opera singers of the 1700s.

Moses is one of those characters that you cheer for from the very beginning! He is vulnerable and naive and manages to stumble into all of the right kind of misfits and all of the wrong kinds of villains. His humble life begins in the belfry of a church tower high in the Swiss Alps. He lives silently with his mother who is in charge of ringing the bells– considered to be the Loudest Bells on Earth. The towns people assume that he is also deaf– how could his ears NOT be damaged living with bells so loud?  The truth is the bells have enhanced his hearing and Moses actually hears EVERYTHING– even things that he should not. And when the pervy priest, Karl Victor, realizes that he has heard more than he thought he did he tries to dispose of him by tossing him into a raging river.

As luck would have it he is rescued by a pair of travelling monks, Nicolai and Remus, who bring him back to their monastery to live with them. The staunch Abbott immediately denies Moses entry until the singing begins. It is in the Abbey of St. Gall that Moses discovers that he is blessed with the most angelic of all voices. He becomes a choir boy and a town favourite, the church has never been fuller! The local millionaire hires him to sing for his dying wife– his voice is the only thing that eases her pain. He is frequently summoned to Haus Duft and it is here he meets Amelia, his real life Eurydice!

Things do not go easy for Moses growing up in the Abbey. The other choir boys dislike him because of the attention he receives and his choir master, Ulrich, cannot listen enough, often waking him in the middle of the night to practice. This goes on for years and as Moses grows up puberty threatens to change things. A plot is hatched to turn him into a “true angel” and preserve that voice forever. Ulrich secretly has him castrated and when Nicolai finds out he goes crazy! He burns the teacher alive and is banished from the Abbey. Moses and Remus are ready to take him and leave but how can the Abbott let his prize singer go? What if someone finds out that a castration took place in HIS own church? It would cause a scandal! He “convinces” Moses to stay by threatening to imprison Nicolai if he leaves and convinces him that the outside world is no place for a eunuch. Remus leaves with Nicolai and Moses is left at the abbey to sing in isolation. He still has Amelia to comfort him but eventually she is forced to leave as well– her evil aunt has her married off to some wealthy man in Vieanna who she does not love. Moses swears that they will all be reunited one day. Will it ever happen? Can a musico find true love? How does he have a son? Read The Bells and find out!

The descriptions of sound in this book were just extraordinary and so detailed– you could hear the music, the echos off the walls of Haus Duft, the empty silence of the Abbey, the rushing water of the rivers and the culminating mourning scene from the Opera Orpheus. 3.5 stars for me– almost a 4 but I thought it ended a bit too abruptly.

(There are a lot of references and parallels to the story of Orpheus in this one– so I had the David Sylvian song Orpheus in my head the entire time reading– what a treat! Have a listen here because it is WONDERFULLY haunting.)

Review: The Preacher

I wanted to love The Preacher.  Likened to the talent of esteemed Stieg Larsson, Camilla Läckberg was purported to weave a similar tale of brainy sleuth work and suspense.  Intrigued by “if you love Larsson, you have to read Läckberg!” mantras, I reached for this with excitement and resolve that yet another Swedish crime writer would whisk me away with unforgettable characters and an intricate mystery.

I liked it.  It was good.  Would I read her again?  Yes, of course.

Did I love it?  Unfortunately, no.

Do I find Läckberg’s comparisons to Larsson fitting?

I’m afraid not.

At the heart of The Preacher is a whodunit.  The novel opens with a child’s gruesome discovery of a young woman’s body on a quiet hillside in Fjällbacka, Sweden.  Upon closer examination by local police, the site also harbors the much older remains of two more young female victims.  Turns out these remains are over 20 years old, and are from two unsolved murders in 1979.  It also turns out that the wounds on all three female bodies are identical.  (Not to mention hopelessly violent.)   Who could have performed such atrocities?  More importantly, with such a time-lapse between the crimes, how are these victims connected?

Enter Swedish detective Patrik Hedström, and his band of officers (some of them misfits).  The Preacher marks book two of Läckberg’s Hedström series (I confess that I have yet to read the first).  Patrik Hedström is put in charge of the investigation, and all is moving forward, when another girl suddenly disappears from a local camp ground.  Her parents are understandably beside themselves.  The report notes that she had been hitchhiking.  The police know what this means.  Cue the clock.

Now enter the family of The Preacher; a group of characters so bizarre that it will take a few chapters to properly track names, grudges, kissing cousins, wrap sheets  and religious zealots.  They all herald from the original Preacher; a self-made man long deceased who spoke God’s word and healed the sick with the help of his two sons.  The original Preacher’s grandson is the family’s newest religious pride: Jacob Hult.  A tower of strength and fervor, Jacob loves his wife, adores his children, and even takes in his wayward sister, Linda. Swirling around Jacob is his overbearing father, his quiet mother, and his Aunt Solveig, whose two troublesome sons now manage to attract police attention with every move.

Hedström and his team are convinced that the Preacher’s clan know more than they admit about the crimes.  But which member of the Crazy Family has the blood of three girls on their hands, and the key to finding the one who has just vanished?  Will the police get the information they need from this family before it’s too late?

Unfortunately, I found the culprit of this book readily obvious.  In fairness, perhaps it was supposed to be easy to determine.  This particular character seethed with potential for evil and destruction, and the only thing that appeared to be missing from his/her person was a blinking sign that said “I did it.”

On the flip-side, I found Patrik Hedström’s character pleasant, humble, and calm.  I liked how much he loved his pregnant wife.  I liked how he handled office arguments.  I liked that he tried to be a step or two ahead of the investigation at all times.

My problem, however, is that I couldn’t help but compare this hero with Lisbeth Salander, and that was unfair.  I fell for all of the claims that this series was second only to the Dragon books, and I should have left those marketing blurbs unread, because they tainted my expectations.  Hedström is a solid character, and I won’t ever take that away from Läckberg.  But Lisbeth Salander got under my skin years ago, and I find that she’s still there today.  I don’t think I will find Hedström quite as memorable.

The Preacher is a good mystery, and it’s sufficiently complicated.  The story is woven cleverly, and it does not misuse violence, as too many of today’s thrillers tend to do.  Here, Läckberg took the high road, and only seemed to include cringe-worthy scenes to propel the plot, and point a sure finger at the perpetrator.   Make no mistake that the villain in this story is a troublesome character, and that the book itself picks up speed as it moves forward.

It’s just not in the same rank as the Dragon series, so it’s best to start reading Läckberg simply because she shares a decent mystery.

3 stars.