Archive for the ‘St. Martin’s Press’ Tag

Unlearned Lessons from the Past   Leave a comment

Although I’ve only read a few of Kristen Hannah novels, it’s clear she does her homework. This is true whether the novel’s setting is France during World War II, Leningrad or the Pacific Northwest; her writing evokes a strong sense of time and place.  The Four Winds, set in the 1930s Dust Bowl era, is no exception. Hannah’s work also features strong, independent women; here Elsa Wolcott follows the pattern.

At 25 Elsa is considered past her prime as a marriage candidate. When she meets Rafe Martinelli, seven years her junior, her life changes.  With no intention of a marrying Elsa, Rafe has no choice when she becomes pregnant.

By the 1930s, Elsa has settled in on the Martinelli farm, which in Northern Texas  does not escape the devastation of the drought and dust storms that wreaked havoc across the Great Plains. Rafe abandons Elsa, their two children and his parents. Eventually, Elsa makes the trek to California, where word has it life is better.

Hannah’s vivid descriptions of the poverty, prejudice and injustices faced by the flood of migrants could easily, and unfortunately, be applied today. Elsa and her children aren’t immune to the incivilities, but the family’s relationships grow stronger in its struggle to find a better life.

The weakest element of the narrative is the insertion of efforts by union organizer Jack Valen. He comes across as the hero the family, and all farm workers, need. Yet, in some ways this negates Elsa’s intelligence and inner strength.

The Four Winds

Four Bookmarks

St. Martin’s Press, 2021

454 pages

A Tale of Two Sisters   Leave a comment

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The heroics/horrors of war, tests of familial love and loyalty to one’s country merge in Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale.

In Oregon 1995 an unnamed elderly woman prepares to move from her home at the insistence of her adult son. This sets in motion her recollection of life in France during World War II. At its heart, the novel is about the relationship between sisters Vianne and Isabelle, ten years her junior. Following the death of their mother, their father leaves them with a stranger. Despite their shared grief and sense of abandonment, the two have nothing else in common.

The war years show how, as adults, the sisters remain at odds. Vianne struggles to keep her daughter safe and maintain the family home after her husband goes to fight. Meanwhile, Isabelle wants a role in her helping her country overcome German authority.

The sisters’ personality differences are repeatedly described, yet the strained relationship doesn’t always ring true. Vianne acknowledges that she failed in her responsibility as the older sibling to help Isabelle; she attributes this failure to dealing with her own sorrow at the time. Isabelle has an air of entitlement – at least when it comes to emotions; this sense of privilege doesn’t follow her as she works with the French Resistance.

The novel progresses with the war; occasional interruptions remind the reader of the elderly woman. This becomes a guess-who exercise: who is it and how did she end up in Oregon. Only one of the questions is answered.

The Nightingale
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
St. Martin’s Press, 2015
438 pages

Crime and Fiction 101   3 comments


Although somewhat entertaining, The Writing Class by Jincy Willett is a light
mystery with writing advice. Willett should have heeded some of her own tips,
particularly when it comes to character development. Oh wait, she didn’t really
address that. Still, plenty of other writing elements addressed go unheeded.

The class, comprised of 13 students, is actually a nine-week workshop. It’s taught
by one-hit writer Amy Gallup repeatedly described as “a loner who hated to be
alone.” That’s not necessarily the kind of thing that needs emphasis. Willett could
show this more, rather than tell it so frequently. Amy’s tired and cynical attitude
doesn’t mesh with her sense of humor and appreciation of good writing when it
surfaces. She’s quick to categorize her students when a new workshop gets under
way. However, she soon realizes she’s made some judgment errors, particularly
when someone in the group begins to send anonymous threats, which ultimately
lead to murder. Nonetheless, the group grows close and despite, or because of,
the murders everyone becomes friends and suspects.

Part of the problem lies in the suspension of disbelief which simply doesn’t happen.
The first threats should have triggered someone, if not Amy, to contact authorities.
Although, there is some acknowledgement this should be done, it doesn’t occur until
too late. Perhaps the best parts of Willett’s novel appear in the different voices creat-
through her students’ writings. They are far better representations than the one-
dimensional descriptions of the characters. If this was intentional, Willett was
successful.

The Writing Class
Three Bookmarks
St. Martin’s Press, 2008
326 pages