Friday, March 9, 2012

May the Road Rise Up to Meet You by Peter Troy (review & giveaway)

The blurb:
Four unique voices; two parallel love stories; one sweeping novel rich in the history of nineteenth-century America.  This beautiful debut about survival, love, faith, and family primarily set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, skillfully braids together the stories of four unforgettable characters whose experiences speak to the diversity of our heritage.
Ethan McOwen is an Irish immigrant whose endurance is tested in Brooklyn and the Five Points at the height of urban destittution, he is among the first to join the famed Irish Brigade and become a celebrated war photographer. Marcella, a society girl,, defies her father to become a passionate abolitionist.  Mary and Micah are slaves in varying circumstances, who form an instant connection and embark on a tumultuous path to freedom.  The two eventually plot a clandestine escape on a cold Christmas Eve, but things will not go as planned. . .

War eventually brings these characters together, changing the course of their individual lives. Interspersed with letters, journals, and dreams, written in richly textured historical detail, including vivid and poignantly rendered scenes on the battlefield, May the Road Rise Up to Meet You is a captivating and quintessential American saga.

I loved this book - the characters were each so different and so compelling. I admit that it took me a while to get used to the sounds of the Southern and Irish voices but once I got over the first few pages and could focus on what Troy's characters were saying, I carried the book with me everywhere.

On the one hand, you might expect the book to be depressingly heavy since the lead characters go through so much - from the Great Famine in Ireland to slavery in the American South to the American Civil War and an escape to freedom.  But while Peter Troy gives us a full sense of what it must have been like - undoubtedly drawing on his background as a history teacher - he also delivers characters with such heart, hope, and integrity that we come to care about them. 

The book opens with the funeral of Ainslinn, the young sister and closest friend of twelve-year-old Ethan McOwen in Ireland during the Great Famine (The "Hunger").  The Hunger killed one million people and forced one million more to migrate to other lands to survive.  Ethan and his family are on the verge of starvation and have decided to leave their home for New York.  Ethan, his mother and his Aunt Em can only bring what they can carry during their 50 mile walk to the harbor.  They have some raw potatoes, Aunt Em carries some of her wedding china and Ethan carries the six precious books he shared with his sister Ainslinn.  There's this heartbreaking scene that sort of reminded me of The Gift of the Maji when Aunt Em can't carry her china and Ethan leaves behind some of his books to carry the plates for his Aunt Em.  It had me crying as I read on the subway. 

Ethan watches his Aunt unwrap the six ceramic plates her husband had bought her as a wedding present.  They're handpainted with different designs, and she looks each of them over before picking out her favorite.

Well, dis one'll have to be enough to remember better days, she says, and wraps it back with her extra dress. 
Don't, Em, Ethan's Mam protests.  Moichael gave 'em to ya.
I have to, Nora, I can't carry 'em anymore....
Since at least Ainslinn's funeral, Ethan's felt like he's let everyone down.  Da told him he was the man of the house when he left, and even if he was just kidding about that, seein' how he was just a lad of ten when his Da said it, Ethan still feels like he's failed to take care of all of them the way he should've, the way his Da would've, or even Seanny.  And to see Aunt Em leave this treasure behind, after all she's already left back home, is about all he can take of that shame without doing something drastic. So he ducks behind a tree, unwraps his satchel, and makes the difficult decision in just a few seconds.  Shakespeare, Homer, Milton and Chaucer make the cut, while Shelley and Swift are left behind. Out of sight form his Mam and Aunt Em, he places the two books side by side and leans them against a tree, hoping they'll be adopted by passersby for something more than kindling or to wipe their arses. Then he walks over to the discarded plates and begins to wrap them carefully in his satchel.
Ethan, what're ya doin? Aunt Em asks.
I can carry dem, he says with confidence.
Now don't be stahrtin'--
I can carry dem, he interrupts like he never would, somehow stumbling upon a man's sense of resolution, what with how neither his Aunt, nor his Mam, say anything more about it.
There's only enough money for Ethan's passage in steerage on the "cattle car" to America.   His mother and aunt stay in Ireland and work until the family can raise money for their trip.  On each leg of Ethan's journey, he somehow makes friends and it is by tenacity and luck that he survives.  The friends that Ethan makes, his openness, his deep interest in the world around him stayed with me long after I'd finished the book.

We begin Micah's story when he's sixteen.  We learn that Micah's family is well regarded by their master, so much so that his father is able to strike a bargain on the day of Micah's birth.   Micah's father asks permission to plant and grow indigo in a small unused portion of the plantation.  He works during his free time and the harvest goes towards paying for Micah's freedom.  They have agreed that 1,000 lbs of indigo will buy Micah's freedom. This endeavor is a testament to Micah's father's hard work and their master's good faith, but it also depends upon the condition being complied with before any change of circumstance - and Fate is not kind to Micah or his family or his master.  We learn the cruel fate of a slave, and the ways that Micah tries to cope and builds his life, drawing on the pride in work, integrity, and skills that he learned from his father.

Micah and Ethan are only two of the four main characters. Mary and Marcella are just as complex as they struggle to establish their identities and independence.  All characters come together in a deftly crafted plot. If you enjoy historical fiction or are just looking for an engrossing read, do not miss May the Road Rise Up to Meet You.
ISBN-10: 0385534485 - Hardcover $25.95
Publisher: Doubleday (February 28, 2012), 400 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher. 

About the Author:
Peter Troy
is a former journalist and high school history teacher. He lives in New York state and is at work on his second novel.

Doubleday is sponsoring this giveaway of 1 copy of May the Road Rise Up to Meet You: A Novel. To enter, please recommend a book that you loved lately and tell us a little bit about it.

1. Please include your email address, so that I can contact you if you win. No email address, no entry.
2. You must be a follower to join the contest.
3.  One winner per household.
The contest is limited to US only. No P.O. boxes. The contest ends at noon on April 16, 2012. 

Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

The blurb:
On the night Janie waits for her sister, Hannah, to be born, her grandmother tells her a story: Since the Japanese occupation of Korea, their family has lost a daughter in every generation, so Janie is charged with keeping Hannah safe. As time passes, Janie hears more stories, while facts remain unspoken. Her father tells tales about numbers, and in his stories everything works out. In her mother's stories, deer explode in fields, frogs bury their loved ones in the ocean, and girls jump from cliffs and fall like flowers into the sea. Within all these stories are warnings.

Years later, when Hannah inexplicably cuts all ties and disappears, Janie embarks on a mission to find her sister and finally uncover the truth beneath her family's silence. To do so, she must confront their history, the reason for her parents' sudden move to America twenty years earlier, and ultimately her conflicted feelings toward her sister and her own role in the betrayal behind their estrangement.

Weaving Korean folklore within a modern narrative of immigration and identity, Forgotten Country is a fierce exploration of the inevitability of loss, the conflict between obligation and freedom, and a family struggling to find its way out of silence and back to one another.

An engrossing read, Forgotten Country addresses a wide range of complex topics while remaining a family drama first and foremost.   Catherine Chung weaves in these larger historical events.   It seems that each of the three generations undergo major upheaval and loss whether from Japanese invaders, political factions within Korea, an authoritarian regime or from the North Korea-South Korea conflict.  Chung weaves the history of the country in with the history of their family so we slowly learn how these events wreak havoc on the lives of ordinary South Korean families.

It was so easy to imagine the complex relationship between Janie and her younger sister Hannah but what captivated me was Janie's relationship with her father.  Janie's decision to specialize in mathematics was in large part a nod to her own father's love of math and his achievements in the field. I particularly loved the scenes with Janie and her father.   I started out marking the pages that I wanted to revisit and halfway through the book I realized that I'd marked nearly every 7th page.

In Forgotten Country, Catherine Chung gives us an engrossing and fresh story of a Korean American family through three generations.  From the experience of migrating to the US and making a home in a new country,  the parents' complex relationship with the two daughters, the family's struggle with Hannah's "disappearance" and conflict between the sisters,  Chung delivers seamless, complex, moving and honest family narrative.
ISBN-10: 1594488088 - Hardcover $26.95
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (March 1, 2012), 304 pages.  
Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Program and the publisher.

About the Author:
Catherine Chung was born in Evanston, Illinois, and grew up in New York, New Jersey, and Michigan. She studied mathematics at the University of Chicago and received her MFA from Cornell University. Chung is one of Granta's New Voices. She lives in Brooklyn. To learn more about Catherine Chung, please visit

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Second Time We Met by Leila Cobo

The blurb:
Adored and nurtured by his adoptive parents in California, Asher Stone has moved effortlessly though a nearly perfect life.  He is on the verge of a professional soccer career - when a car accident throws his future into doubt.  Suddenly, Asher begins to wonder about his past and about the girl who gave him up for adoption in Colombia two decades ago.  Also so begins his search for a woman named Rita Ortiz.

From the teeming streets of Bogota to a tiny orphanage tucked into a hillside, Asher untangles the mystery of Rita's identity, her abrupt disappearance from her home, and the winding journey that followed.  But as Asher comes closer to finding Rita, his own parents are faced with fears and doubts.  And Rita must soon make her own momentous choice: stay hidden in her hard-earned new life or meet the secret son who will bring painful memories - and the promise of a new beginning. . . .


The Second Time We Met  combines the stories of Rita and her son Asher Sebastian Stone.  The book opens with Rita living a protected middle class life in 1989 in a small hillside town in Colombia.  Rita's father is a disciplinarian and has grown distant towards Rita ever since she started to blossom into a beauty. He's afraid of the attention that she is starting to attract. He responds to the changes in his daughter by drawing away, becoming cold, and ignoring her.  Their small town is occupied by guerrillas, young rebels with guns.  Rita attracts the attention of their leader.  Months later, when Rita discovers she is pregnant, she is sent away from her family.

Rita leaves with little more than the clothes she's wearing.  There is little support system but she manages to give up her child, hoping that he'll have a better chances with another family.  Then Rita finds work as a maid, works hard, and somehow finds a way to turn her life around. We learn the cost of leaving her family and losing her son later in the book.

Rita's son, Asher Stone, grows up in an upper middle class Jewish family in Southern California.  We get to know his parents well. His mother is a successful television producer and his father is a tax lawyer.  Asher's athleticism and love of sports is novel for them and makes him even more of a wonder to them. I didn't know much about adoption and reading about it from the point of view of Asher's father made it real to me:
So many places seen and so many beautiful, useless things, he thought, all at the service of two people who had the luxury to be hedonistic and indulge in pleasure for the sake of pleasure.  Inside this house he'd never needed anything beyond her company; even at her most annoying, she steadied him, compensated for his little quirks, was happy to voice everything, be their mutual front while he kept to the background, the happy concave to her convex.  

A baby? He never felt like a baby was missing from their lives. Although that was quite different from not wanting one.  He went back to the first question: Why do you want to adopt? 

He didn't That was the truth. But he would, for her.

"I want to adopt to support my wife and to make a difference in a child's life," he wrote, in his typically succinct prose....

Joseph Stone stood in the corner of the examination room, making every effort to look nonchalant as Dr. Stein carefully examined the pins drilled into Asher's skull for any sign of infection.

He still hadn't gotten used to this immobilized Asher, probably never would, he figured with a twinge of guilt, because he was so insanely proud of everything his son had accomplished and because he was everything Joseph wasn't: athletic, popular, gregarious.

Joseph had so often wondered if he'd seen all those qualities in the brown little baby that had been thrust into his arms so long ago.  He couldn't have, and yet what were the chances of finding his alter ego, in the best sense of the word?  He knew Linda still yearned to make an intellectual out of Asher, but there was no bigger thrill for Joseph than watching his son play soccer -- soccer!  Who'd have ever heard of a Jewish soccer player? But there was Asher, unstoppable, relentless, focused, and Joseph's heart would fill and overflow with a warm burst of pride, like a tree, suddenly expelling all its leaves, that left him weak with sheer joy.
While The Second Time We Met tells much more than the story of Rita and her son Asher.  We learn about Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, the culture, the restrictions, and what life was like during these turbulent years.  We get to know Asher and his real family, his adoptive parents, his teammates, and the woman that he loves.   Leila Cobo makes all these different characters real and complex, then puts them in impossible situations and as they navigate these difficult waters, their stories draw us in, break our hearts, and stay with us.  I found The Second Time We Met a wonderful, engrossing read.

ISBN-10: 0446519383 - Paperback $13.99
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing; Original edition (February 29, 2012), 384 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

About the Author:

Considered one of the leading Latin music journalists in the world, Cobo is also Billboard's executive director of Latin content and host of "Estudio Billboard," the critically acclaimed interview show that airs weekly on the V-Me network.   Also a former concert pianist, Leila Cobo is a
native of Cali, Colombia, the setting of her debut novel, "Tell Me Something True."  Leila decided early on to blend her two loves--music and writing--into one, and has forged a career as a leading music journalist who considers that being a musician is essential in accurately covering other musicians.

She concertized extensively as a classical pianist before dedicating herself full-time to writing and journalism.

She lives in Key Biscayne, Fl. with her husband and children.