Saturday, July 27, 2013

Review of Wisdom by Heather Neff

Neff, H. (2002). Wisdom. New York, NY: Ballantine Books

In Heather Neff's novel, Wisdom is not just a character trait, it is a location that holds the key to a woman's legacy, identity, and future. Maia Ransom is a nurse from Michigan who goes to the Caribbean island of St. Croix in search of the land that her grandfather always told her about.  Wisdom is the name of the estate that her ancestors lived and worked on as enslaved African people.

Despite the laid-back temperament of the island, Maia is driven by a very personal sense of urgency.  She is dying from the same ovarian cancer that claimed her mother, but has kept her illness a secret from most of the people in her life.  She has given herself three weeks to come to St. Croix and find her family history.  However, she finds her precious time slipping away from her as she runs into one roadblock after another.  Modern maps of the island seem to have literally wiped Wisdom 'off the map' and the islanders are strangely unhelpful when she seeks their assistance in locating the land.  Her only real friend is Damian, the manager of Chez Alexander, one of the finest restaurants on the island.  He too is shunned by most of the Crucians, in his case because he is gay.  They form a close bond in their shared isolation as Damian shields her from the unwanted advances of some of the Crucian men, and Maia provides acceptance and a listening ear.  The brick wall that Maia has run into on her quest to find Wisdom begins to crumble when she meets Noah Langston, a distinguished attorney and one of the few black men on the island who has made it into the upper class. Despite his upper-class education and money however, he is treated with disdain with the white monied Crucians, including the family that owns Wisdom, because he has been successful in several legal challenges that have restored land taken by slave owners to the native islanders.  He wants to do the same for Maia and as they work together, they develop a romance that Maia is reluctant to pursue, given her medical prognosis.  As Maia and Noah get closer and closer to the truth, she becomes more endangered as Severin Johanssen, the only remaining son of Wisdom's owner, and other islanders conspire to keep Maia from her inheritance.

Heather Neff is an English professor and has also worked as a translator and a language coach for film productions.  She studied French at the Sorbonne and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich and is the author of four other books.

In the spirit of Octavia Butler, author of the acclaimed classic The Kindred, Heather Neff beautifully weaves elements of the supernatural into her storyline as Maia channels the spirit of one of her ancestors in the search for her people's stolen land.  The external obstacles that she faces in her quest are paralleled by the internal obstacles that she must overcome, namely, finding the will to live and trusting herself to open her heart to love.  Neff presents a cast of colorful, fully developed characters that pull readers into the story and her research and time spent living on St. Croix are evident in her painstaking attention to detail and accuracy in describing the island's history, people, language, and culture.  Maia's journey in St. Croix ultimately saves her life and serves as a metaphor for the search for history and roots that is often an all too difficult one for the descendants of enslaved humans.  As they reclaim their history and heritage, the lives of their culture and future generations are redeemed.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Review of Escaping Barcelona by Henry Martin

Martin, H. (2012).  Mad Days of Me:  Escaping Barcelona.

Alone in a foreign country.  Unable to speak the language but enjoying solitary freedom and adventure nonetheless.  Then, brutally attacked and assaulted, robbed of most of your belongings, including your money and your passport.  This is the scenario that faces Rudy in Escaping Barcelona, the first volume in the Mad Days of Me trilogy by independent author Henry Martin.  What begins as an adventurous trip and a path to a fresh start, quickly descends into a nightmare spiraling out of control that Rudy is unable to escape.

Rudy is a young European man frustrated with the dead-end that he has reached in life.  Due to the economy, he is underemployed and forced to move back home with his family.  He feels like he will never measure up to his police officer brother and yearns for a fresh start.  On an impulse, he buys a train ticket to Vienna where a friend named Michael lives.  After unsuccessfully attempting to convince his girlfriend to join him, he travels alone to Vienna, where he discovers that Michael is away.  Undeterred, he begins his adventure across the continent, stopping in various cities.  Another impulse leads him to stop in Barcelona.  Things start out well at first. He finds cheap, clean lodging at a youth hostel and goes out to a cafe to sit and enjoy the evening and take in his surroundings.  Suddenly, he hears two men speaking Arabic come up behind him and feels a knife at his throat.  They drag him away to some bushes, where he is sexually assaulted and robbed.  When he wakes up, his passport, his money, and most of his belongings are gone.  In physical as well as emotional pain, he makes his way to a police station where he files an assault complaint.  He is too ashamed to tell the officers that he was raped.  He is given temporary papers that will last for thirty days.  He then goes to the consulate where he learns that they can't do anything for him because he doesn't have the money to purchase a replacement passport and he is too ashamed to contact his family to have them send the money.  Thus begins his journey into homelessness.  As Rudy struggles desperately to find a way out of the situation, he reaches the depths of despair and misery, facing hunger, hopelessness, and repeated brushes with violence.  Along the way he meets several colorful individuals and he learns a lot about himself.

Henry Martin is a novelist and poet who lives with his family in the Northeast United States.  In addition to the Mad Days of Me trilogy (Finding Evissa and Eluding Reality are the other books in the series), he has also written a short story anthology and a collection of poems.  Learn more about him by checking out the Author Interview page on this blog.

While independent and self-publishing is becoming increasingly popular, in some circles, there is still a certain stigma that insinuates that authors self-publish because their work isn't good enough to find a traditional publisher.  Escaping Barcelona proves that a lack of a traditional publisher does not automatically mean a lack of talent.  This novel was professionally edited and full of great writing.  I found myself reading late into the night, being pulled into Rudy's world and rooting for him as he tried to find a way out of his miserable situation.  I would definitely recommend this book for very mature audiences due to the themes of sexual assault, drug abuse, and the violence that Rudy encounters as he navigates living on the streets.  However, while some novels are over the top with the use of graphic details, Martin uses these themes quite succinctly to paint a gritty but very realistic portrait of both the traps that can befall unsuspecting tourists in foreign countries, as well as the day-to-day life of the homeless.

As Rudy finds himself trapped into life on the streets, he hits rock bottom.  Along the way, he comes to many poignant realizations about life.  He begins to appreciate the simple things that he once took for granted-a shower, clean clothes, a hot meal, a bed to sleep in.  He meditates on how we as humans look down on the less fortunate among us and now that he finds himself in those ranks, he understands how much the blank stares, the careless ignorance, and rude dismissal directed towards the homeless can hurt.  However, Escaping Barcelona  not only paints a vivid picture of the worst of the human experience, but it also shows the best of the human spirit.  Every time Rudy is about to give up, he finds the strength and inner resolve to keep pushing.  No matter how many times he is knocked back down, he gets back up.  He is also helped by friends, many of whom are in just as bad a situation as he, but together they share what little they have and snatch small bits of light out of the darkness.  Escaping Barcelona is not just about escaping a city, it is about escaping despair and hopelessness and finding the strength to survive and even thrive no matter what life throws at you.