Saturday, August 29, 2015

THE MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE by Sonja Yoerg (✮✮✮✮)

Publication date: 1 September, 2015
My thanks to Penguin-Signet for a review galley

Initially, I was very leery of this novel, which centers around a woman with emotional issues embarking upon a major hike, hoping that the journey will give her the physical space from her life and the headspace to contemplate where her life has gone awry. If you have followed my reviews, you know that I absolutely hated Cheryl Strayed’s similar nonfiction memoir, Wild (link to my review HERE). Because of my experience with that book, I thought more than twice about picking this one up.

I am so glad that I wasn’t swayed and agreed to review a galley of this one for Penguin-Signet. While the bones of the story are similar to Strayed’s, that is where the similarities end. Since a good portion of the people who read Ms. Yoerg’s novel will likely have read Ms. Strayed’s memoir, I will use it as a comparison so you can decide if this one is for you based on how I felt about the memoir.

First off, Cheryl Strayed was a complete novice hiker who had absolutely no business heading out alone on a through hike. Her ineptitude caused her to put others in danger, and that is just irresponsible ignorance. Since she felt no connection to nature, the trail as a stunning setting was absent in her book. By contrast, Ms. Yoerg’s main character, Liz, knew what she was getting into and there is a good deal of hiking info and parlance to which even the most casual hiker will be able to relate. As a foil, her boyfriend, Dante, a novice hiker, tags along for the ride, allowing the reader to watch him develop along the trail and see Liz’s strengths shine. Liz clearly loves the natural world (for the most part) and the trail itself is as alive as any of the characters.

By giving Liz one aversion to a natural element, Ms. Yoerg is able to create a woman-versus-nature tension that she successfully plays off from the other major source of tension in the novel, that of a mysterious and ominous pair of brothers who are dogging Liz and Dante’s journey. Wild completely lacked any kind of worthwhile tension, and it significantly weakened the story line. As the novel progresses, so does the level of suspense, pulling the reader through the tightly edited conclusion of their trek.

Both Liz and Cheryl have emotional issues that they are trying to work through. I could never connect to Cheryl as a reader because I disliked her so intensely. Many of her problems were brought on herself through her own choices and she never seemed to learn from them. I found her whiney and immoral. Liz’s issues were no less opposed to my own moral standards, yet I felt sympathy for both her and Dante given that two very different sides of the issue were expressed with equal sensitivity.

This novel is a satisfying blend of hiking tale, emotional journey, and thriller. The only reason that I did not give it five stars is because I felt that the author came right out and told the reader at the very beginning of the novel what Liz’s issues were. This robbed the novel of a lot of emotional tension, an element that I think would have woven nicely with the tension lent to the story by the trail itself, Liz’s one fear of the outdoors, and the sinister brothers.

I do not at all think that you need to be a hiker to enjoy this novel. The world of the trail is well detailed and gives the reader everything they need to know to follow the plot and feel engaged. If you like thrillers with a straightforward story arc, literary fiction, and travel writing, you will likely find this an enjoyable read.

REBEL QUEEN by Michelle Moran (✮✮✮✮)

The hunt for the Moran book that tops Madame Tussaud is still on, but I definitely enjoyed this one way more than her last effort, Second Empress.

Those who follow my reviews know that as far as I am concerned you can write your historical fiction as far out on the historical accuracy plain as you please.  Just give a solid author’s note at the end letting we the readers know where you deviated from fact.  This novel, which occurs in the court of Queen Lakshmi during India’s British colonial era of the mid-nineteenth century, does not cover a person or time period that I am at all familiar with, so as I read, I was reading purely for entertainment.  However, as is my usual MO, after reading I did some research and found that the bones of this novel are far more based in fact than those of Second Empress, which I panned for a number of reasons, among them the inaccuracies that were presented as fact.

This is a novel full of powerful women, women strong in spirit, body and determination.  However, similar to The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, a novel marketed as being about Catherine the Great, Rebel Queen is somewhat falsely advertised.  Like Stachniak, Moran chooses to center her novel around a member of the more famous character’s retinue, and the queen becomes very much a background character.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it is through the background of Sita, a girl driven to become a member of Lakshmi’s famed all female guard, that the reader truly gains an appreciation of what attaining the position could mean.  My irritation is that I am tired of reading, and reading, and reading, waiting for the genuine historical figure, about whom the story is purported to be written, to step up into the spotlight.  Since very few people have ever heard of Lakshmi, I felt the artifice on the part of the marketing department was unnecessary.  The story of her guard is equally compelling, and I felt the book could have been marketed on Sita’s merits, notwithstanding those of Lakshmi.

Once you accept the fact that Lakshmi is not going to take over as the central character and you begin to embrace Sita as your leading lady, the novel becomes a wonderfully engaging story.  It has been awhile since I read a story that sucked me in from the outset and had me flipping pages to see where the plot was leading.  Although you know from the beginning that Sita will win a rare and coveted spot in Lakshmi’s guard, Moran keeps the journey from village girl to court pebbled with enough deviations to keep the reader interested. Her characterizations are colorful and diverse, and she gives the reader a satisfying sense of place.

The only thing that kept this from being a four and a half, or maybe even a five, star read was the fact that the marketing had me seeking a plot arc that did not exist and left me feeling a bit frustrated.  Go into this one knowing who the central heroine is, and you should have a great reading experience.