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The Visionist

The Visionist
Rachel Urquhart

When May Kimball finally left her abusive drunken husband, taking her children Polly and Ben with her, Polly took a lamp back into the house for one last look at the father she hated. Teenage Polly dropped the lamp, burning the house to the ground and killing her father.
May took her children to the safety of the nearby Shaker religious community, and left them there. Polly was taken under the wing of another young girl, Charity, who had been raised as a Shaker her whole life. Charity was a devout believer who had been ostracized for a skin condition.
In the safety of the Shaker community, Polly began to speak of the rhings she imagined in her dissociative state when her father raped her. The Shakers took these words as divine revelation and began to see her as a “visionist.”
Meanwhile, fire inspector Simon Pryor was looking into the fire on the Kimball farm. His plan was initially to help his corrupt employer buy the property cheaply. As Simon Pryor dives more deeply into the issues of inheritance on the farm, he begins to question his own motives.
All the while, Polly is moving towards her moment of truth. Is she really a Visionist? Has Charity’s faith been misplaced? What will happen when the whole truth is finally laid out?

The Visionist alternates narrators between Charity, Polly and Simon Pryor. To be honest, at first I skimmed Simon’s chapters because I wanted to read more about the growing friendship between the girls. But as his story unfolded, he developed into a very interesting character.

The Visionist excels in two areas. The first is the characters. Not only are Polly, Charity and Simon well-written, but there is a whole cast of supporting characters that are well developed with just a few lines.
The second is the portrayal of the Shakers. It is clear that Urquhart did extensive research into this historical sect. It would be easy to portray them with skepticism, but she treats them with warmth and respect. The details of Shaker life make this book come alive.
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The Visionist is an outstanding first novel. I hope the author writes another one just as good, because I would like to read it.

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The Kept

The Kept
James Scott.

The Kept is a novel about family, about the things we do for the people we love, and the lengths to which we will go to protect them. Its also a story about revenge, and about how one action can not balance the scale of another.
Elspeth came home to her remote family cabin from a stay in the city, working as a midwife, to find her husband and four children had been murdered. Her last son, 12 year old Caleb, was nearly mad with hunger and grief. Mistaking her for the men who killed his family, he shot her.
When Elspeth recovered just a little, the two of them struck off on a long cold trek to the nearest city, looking for answers.

Scott draws his characters with fine lines, revealing their inner lives in action and gesture. He uncovers information slowly, so that when the facts are finally stated, you are surprised but feel like you also knew it all along.
Sadly,  Scott creates these characters and then ruins them. Most of this book, people are starving, freezing and bleeding- or all three at once. The Kept is about family, and about revenge- and it doesn’t end well.

James Scott has produced an excellent first novel. I didnt precisely like it, because it was so bleak, but I still admire his talent. I am eager for him to write another book soon…maybe one with some hope.

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Cut To The Bone

Cut To The Bone
A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass

The year is 1992, and Dr Bill Brockton is a professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee. He frequently assists the police in solving murder cases. He has just hit upon the idea of using a vacant patch of ground and corpses to study the details of how the human body decomposes.
However, the cases he’s working with the police are inceasingly starting to remind him of cases that he’s solved in the past. Is someone killing to send him a message? Is his family in danger? Dr. Brockton must use all the knowledge at his disposal to solve this string of grisly murders before it is too late.

Cut To The Bone is a prequel to the other novels in the Body Farm series, based on the real-life Body Farm at UT. Although the timeline was fudged a bit, it was fascinating to take a peek back at the beginnings of forensic science, when things that are standard practice now were experimental and exciting- like an artist’s reconstruction based on a skull, or using blowfly larvae (aka maggots) to determine time of death. The Body Farm novels always do a good job balancing the action of a mystery with the technical forensic details- and keeping it in approachable terms.

Cut To The Bone goes beyond the questions of who did it, and how, to explore the why. This novel refers to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, and the serpent in paradise, to address the issue of evil in the world. I don’t read many forensic novels where a character consults their pastor (I don’t remember it anywhere in this series either) but I appreciated the depth added by a spiritual and moral perspective.
I also enjoyed the portrayal of Dr Brockton’s relationship with his son and wife. It is sadly rare to read a novel featuring a loving marriage between two people who, even after decades together, share respect, care, and yes, sexual attraction.
Any Body Farm novel is a good read for fans of forensic mysteries. But I think the authors have outdone themselves with Cut To The Bone. The characters, relationships and moral depth make this much more than your average forensic mystery.

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Other good forensic mystery authors: Kathy Reichs, Jeffery Deaver.

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The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd

During the Civil War era, sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimpke were widely known not only as abolitionists but also as feminists. When she was a young girl, Sarah had been gifted a young slave named Hetty for her birthday, and Sarah taught her to read.
From the bare bones of these historical facts, Kidd has brought to life an outstanding novel, remarkable for its human characterization and insight.

In Kidd’s novel, Sarah is a restless girl with big dreams of becoming a lawyer and freeing her slave, Hetty. Her teen years sharpen her awareness of the inequalities faced by women and people of color (both slave and free.)
Hetty’s alternate chapters provide an unflinching look at the harsh realities of life for a female slave. Her mother, Charlotte, is a gifted seamstress who passes on her family’s African oral traditions through the art of her quilts.
Although it is illegal, Sarah is determined to give Hetty a tiny freedom in being literate. Neither of them can forsee the long-ranging consequences of this descision.

As an adult, Sarah is free to travel, and encounters the Quakers, who have radical ideas about freedom for slaves and women. She soon discovers that some of these ideas are more theory than practice.
Hetty, meanwhile, gets drawn into plans for a slave revolt. These plans, too, might never become a reality.

When she was only 12, Sarah was made the godmother to her sister Angelina. Their relationship is at once close and volatile. As a young woman trying to find her own way, Sarah is ill-equipped to help her sister in her own rebellion against societal expectations. But when both sisters are adults, they grow into an unexpected partnership. The differences that drove them apart as girls make them an effective pair in the fight for equal rights for all people.

Hetty’s mother taught her to always make quilts with black triangles,  representing blackbird wings. Like Sarah and Angelina, Hetty never gives up hope that someday she, too, can fly free.

The Invention of Wings is an outatanding book. Kidd has done an excellent job with both historic detail and character development that make the story come alive.
Having already read most of Kidd’s previous works, I recognize many common themes from her: anti-slavery and racial equality, as well as equal rights for women- especially in the church- being the most obvious. The importance of contemplative prayer, art, and symbolism of nature are others.
In the context of Sue Monk Kidd’s other books, The Invention of Wings is clearly a natural progression as well as a pinnacle of her writing

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You might like: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter Franklin.

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Best Fiction 2013

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Here’s my Top 10 novels for 2013, plus 3 honorable mentions. I’ve tried to stick to things that were published in 2013. They are listed more or less in the order I read them- I couldnt possibly rank them!

Top 10 Novels of 2013
Me Before You http://wp.me/p3HHzJ-a
Calling Me Home http://wp.me/p3HHzJ-6
Life After Life http://wp.me/p3HHzJ-1k
And The Mountains Echoed (no review)
The Storyteller http://wp.me/p3HHzJ-d
Requiem http://wp.me/p3HHzJ-z
The Impossible Life of Greta Wells http://wp.me/p3HHzJ-g
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves http://wp.me/p3HHzJ-1e
The Last First Day http://wp.me/p3HHzJ-25
Bellman and Black http://wp.me/p3HHzJ-21

Honorable Mentions
These are some of the books I anticipated and enjoyed the most this yeat. They might not quite rank as the best literature but they are outstanding in their genres.
Emperor of Thorns http://wp.me/p3HHzJ-Q
Police http://wp.me/s3HHzJ-police
White Fire http://wp.me/p3HHzJ-2y

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The Lowland

The Lowland
Jhumpa Lahiri

Summarizing the plot of any Lahiri book takes only a few words. But the plots are deceptively simple-  her characters and storytelling are exceptional! She has a way of describing everyday moments- attending a class, getting the mail, cooking rice- so they appear vividly in the reader’s mind and linger there long after the last page is turned.

Lowland is the story of two brothers from India. Subhash travels to America for college and, while he returns home for visits, never  moves back. Udayan, however, gets involved in controversial politics in his homeland. These choices made early in their lives determine the brothers’ fates.
There are other parts to the plot- marriage, children- but in the end this is a story about the two brothers: the things that they shared, and the things that drove them apart.
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You might like: Bitter Sweets, Farooki. Kite Runner, Hosseni

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Apologies

Sorry everyone for my recent absence. It work in retail and the holidays had me running around with hardly time to read much less review.
But I’m back and I’ll try to scrape together a Best of 2013 list before too long