Montana in A Minor by Elaine Russell

Source: Elaine Russell, the author
Paperback, 170 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

Montana in A Minor by Elaine Russell is a young adult novel about Emily Lopez, a virtuoso cellist player and nearly 17, whose confidence has been shaken by a poor showing at a Julliard audition.  Emily loses herself in her music normally, but since that fateful audition, she’s having a hard time focusing, especially when her summer plans fall through with her father, who is a famous conductor on a whirlwind European tour.  Rather than spend time with her father learning the Camille Saint-Saëns composed his Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33, Emily is packed off to Montana with her mother, brother Adrian, and step-father, as they spend time with her step-father’s dad who is having some health issues.

“My progress on the opening passage is practically nonexistent.  Mrs. Stanislavsky always tells me it’s a matter of perseverance, breaking the score into small segments and tackling each section without thinking about the rest.  Only this concerto is so difficult, I might have to become a contortionist or grow a couple of extra hands to actually play it.”  (page 9-10)

Out in the country her OCD symptoms do not abate, despite the calmer setting.  The pressure from her father is still with her, she has to be the best to make the cut at the competition in order to gain early acceptance into Julliard.  But she’s spent her spring semester in school earning credits for teaching disadvantage kids how to play music, and she’s waffling about whether Julliard and world tours are her future.  While on the ranch, she loosens up little by little, playing poker with Jake, her step-father’s dad, in the evening and riding with ranch hand, Breck in the afternoons.

Her time on the ranch is full of beautiful passages and frenzied moments, just like the concerto, but until she can learn to break free of her anxieties, she won’t be able to master the score and grab her own future by the reins. Montana in A Minor by Elaine Russell melds music, emotion, and psychological elements in an engaging coming of age story.

About the Author:

Elaine Russell graduated with a BA in History at University of California, Davis, and an MA in Economics at California State University Sacramento. She worked as a Resource Economist/Environmental Consultant for 22 years before beginning to write fiction for adults and children. She became inspired and actively involved with the Hmong immigrant community after meeting Hmong children in her son’s school in Sacramento and reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Since then she has been to Laos many times to research her book and as a member of the nongovernment organization Legacies of War.

The Siren of Paris by David LeRoy

In The Siren of Paris by David LeRoy, Marc is tempted by the siren call of Paris to return to the place of his birth, a place he does not remember but has the enticements of all he desires: love and art. Set in the time before Paris is invaded by Germans during WWII, LeRoy does well in depicting by turns the fear and the indifference Parisians and expats felt when Germany began to advance across Europe.  Once France begins to realize that negotiations with Germany will amount to nothing and Germany begins to take more territory, the fears become overwhelming for many, and there is an anxiousness that pervades the novel’s pages, especially as Marc’s friends panic about returning to the United States and England.

With that said, there are quite a few missed opportunities in the beginning of this novel when Marc is on a diplomatic mission with Mr. Wells (at the behest of William Bullitt, US ambassador to France) and they meet with not only Mussolini, but also Ribbentrop, who goes on a diatribe for 2 hours, and you don’t get any of the conversations!  Instead, LeRoy spends several pages on news reel footage in the local theater afterward when Marc returns and is on a date with Marie.  Missed opportunities like these set off alarm bells that more research could have been done to learn what might have been said by these high-ranking officials conquering Europe.  It also begs the question of whether this story was as well thought out as it could have been, especially given that the transitions between moments in time and locations are often left out and the reader feels adrift until they get their bearings again as to where they are, what day, and whom they encounter.

LeRoy does have a firm grasp of how to make the plot move along and how to make the reader feel the fear of the Parisians and the expats who are fleeing the city as the German’s approach.  From the overflowing train platforms to the rush out of their apartments with their clothes on their backs, the plot moves along quickly and ramps up the tension.  As Marc seeks to leave at the last minute, his friends Dora, Nigel, and David are not forgotten by the narration as their paths homeward are highlighted as well.  However, in many ways, LeRoy has sketched the character of Dora (a subordinate character) better than he has the main protagonist, Marc.

The Siren of Paris by David LeRoy had the potential to be a great novel, but with the poor plot transitions and missed opportunities for historical information and additional characterization, it becomes a chore to read.  The additional framing in the novel at the beginning and end in which Marc is reviewing his life in flashes and the colors of his soul are changing read a bit overly dramatic and take away from the rest of the story.  With so many styles and techniques running amok in this novel, it is hard for readers to feel fully engaged in the story or connected to Marc.  Unfortunately, this reader didn’t even make it halfway through the novel before deciding she’d had enough.  However, if readers are willing to overlook these issues and focus on the fast-paced plot, it could be an enjoyable read for those that like WWII novels.

About the Author:

In writing his first novel, The Siren of Paris, David LeRoy drew upon his longtime interest in philosophy, the visual arts, myth, storytelling, psychology, and Ocean Liner travel. During a visit to France to study art in the fall of 2012, LeRoy became intrigued by the French Resistance, particularly when his research revealed the role of Americans in the Resistance, as well as the limited means of escape from Europe as the war escalated. LeRoy holds a bachelor of arts in philosophy and religion.

This is my 66th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

Across the Mekong River by Elaine Russell

Across the Mekong River by Elaine Russell is part PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and part immigration story set just after the end of the Vietnam War.  Nou Lee and her family were forced to flee Laos following the Vietnam War after her father fought with the special forces alongside the Americans.  His life and that of his family were threatened by the succeeding communist government, forcing them to take flight in the middle of the night across the Mekong River.

Across the river that takes some of the lives in an explosion of gunfire and rapids, the family finds itself in a refugee camp in Thailand.  To be Hmong family means duty and hard work for the good of the entire family from grandparents to cousins and aunts and younger siblings, and above all respect for culture and ancestors.  The hard life this family has seen from their days in Laos and in Thailand where they struggle to feed their children makes the dream of freedom in America even more alluring.

“On another, taller mountain deep in the woods, we built small shelters, tying bamboo poles together against trees and covering them with thatch.  I think we were there six months, maybe longer.  We could only plant a small vegetable patch and search for food in the forest.  But somehow our husbands found us and brought whatever supplies they could carry.”  (Page 22)

“A barbed wire fence surrounded Nong Khai Camp.  Three Thai soldiers stood sentry at the gate, brandishing their rifles.  As we drove into the compound, I did not know if I should feel afraid.  Officials would explain that the guards were for our protection so no one from outside could take advantage of us.  Through the barbed wire, I watched the Thai farmer we had just passed driving his water buffalo into his field.  He never looked our way, as if we did not exist.”  (Page 36)

Her parents struggled to keep the rest of the family safe and together as they remained in camp in Thailand, and when the promise of America came, many were reluctant to go for it meant change and adjustment.  In 1982, the Lee family moves, taking with it their hopes for a new future and freedom, but hanging over this new adventure are the ghosts of the past, which threaten to pull them back into the abyss and keep them from finding their place.  Nou, a young girl in a strange land and with no knowledge of English, is thrust into an unknown school and unfamiliar culture that since the Vietnam War has bred prejudice against those from Asia.

Her adjustment into the new world is anything but seamless and she’s forced to bury her resentments of her mother and family deep as she navigates peer pressures and bullying, even from her own Hmong family members.  As the family moves to better opportunities, her previous experiences have colored her perception of Americans and adopts a new name and a new life.  Although her thrift store clothes and restrictive customs tell her true story, she is leading not only a double life, but a triple life when Dang Moua enters the picture and her mother begins to talk of marriage and children.

Elaine Russell has a gift for bringing out the nuances of the Laotian culture, particularly that of the Hmong people, in the multiple family points of view she uses.  In addition to the cultural norms, she easily weaves in the ravages of war and its effect not only on the fighting soldiers, but the families they leave behind who face torturers face-to-face.  Across the Mekong River, the Lee family finds freedom, but it comes with a price.  Struggling to maintain their cultural identity in a melting pot of America, the Lee family not only struggles with the secrets of their shared past, but the secrets they now keep from one another as they vacillate between being truthful and relying on age-old customs that elders are to be respected and never questioned.  Russell has created a tale that leaves a deep impression on the emotions of the reader and raises questions about what it means to be American as an immigrant.

About the Author:

Elaine Russell graduated with a BA in History at University of California, Davis, and an MA in Economics at California State University Sacramento. She worked as a Resource Economist/Environmental Consultant for 22 years before beginning to write fiction for adults and children. She became inspired and actively involved with the Hmong immigrant community after meeting Hmong children in her son’s school in Sacramento and reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Since then she has been to Laos many times to research her book and as a member of the nongovernment organization Legacies of War.

This is my 63rd book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

The Voice I Just Heard by Susan Dormady Eisenberg

Look at this book’s cover, as the woman walks out on the stage and sees the waterfalls before her, this is a perfect metaphor for the stage fright that grips Nora Costello when she sings, especially when her dismissive parents are in the audience. Imagine what singing is like for an artist, it is the air they breathe and the thrum of their soul, but imagine how it would be to recapture your flagging confidence in the presence of parents who disapprove of the theater as a career, particularly after one of your staunchest supporters, your brother Liam, dies in the Vietnam War dashing your father’s hopes of another brilliant doctor in the family.  The Voice I Just Heard by Susan Dormady Eisenberg is an operatic debut of epic proportions, with a story that takes readers behind the scenes of theater and opera through an emotional journey of losing a brother at one of the most controversial times in U.S. history — the Vietnam War.

“As Liam and I stood elbow to elbow at the fence, he said, ‘I should’ve memorized the whole poem, but I only recall the first four lines and the last four.’  His expression turned solemn.  ‘Here’s how it ends.  “Oh may my falls be bright as thine, may heaven’s forgiving rainbow shine, upon the mist that circles me, as soft as now it hangs o’er thee.”‘

‘That’s sweet,’ I said.  ‘But what does it mean?’

‘I asked Sister Perpetua.  She said we have the power of the falls in each of us.  When we screw up, heaven sends us a rainbow to tell us we’re forgiven.’  He shrugged.  ‘It’s weird.  I’ve come here three times and never seen a rainbow, so I wonder if Moore made it up.'”  (page 152)

Eisenberg, who has written profiles of singers, actors, and more, deftly weaves in the story of Liam and Nora’s childhood and the pressures they faced to be perfect for their upper crust parents — even if that meant tamping down their desires for a new direction and passion — with the present day family dynamics of losing a son to war.  Nora is set adrift without the anchoring relationship of her brother, who in a way was her buffer between her passions and dreams and her parents’ disapproval.  Her father is stoic in his response to his child’s death, and her mother withdraws from everything.  Eisenberg’s prose brings to life the grief of these characters as the mother goes to mass daily, the father buries himself in work, and Nora seeks solace in the theater where she runs public relations for the summer showing of Annie Get Your Gun in Cohoes, N.Y., alongside her gay boss Graham Chase.  A former mill town, Cohoes is a hot bed of hidden beauty in more ways than one, and it’s the perfect setting for two battered singers to meet — Nora Costello and Barton Wheeler, where they can come to terms with the right path for their artistry and their souls.

Eisenberg’s characters are deeply emotional, high strung, and respond before thinking, which gets them into a number of situations that can be misinterpreted and blown out of proportion, and in this way, her dramatic story resembles the missteps in Pride & Prejudice.  Nora must learn to see the courage within herself, repair her relationships with her parents and childhood friend Liz, and determine what path is best for her without the influence of others.  Bart, on the other hand, is balancing his true career with the need to support his two daughters from a previous marriage, while still holding onto the family business.  When they come together sparks fly.

The Voice I Just Heard by Susan Dormady Eisenberg is about finding the confidence in oneself to reach out passionately for the life you want to lead and to never let go of it, not matter what the detractors say.  Sage advice for any artist — whether singer or poet.  Nora is spunky, head strong, and passionate, while Bart is more restrained (probably due to his age and life experiences), but he’s equally adrift as he’s lost confidence in his abilities and the right path for himself.  From the stage in Cohoes to Washington, D.C., Nora and Bart grow into themselves and their voices — voices that are their own and remind them of where they belong.  When overture sounds and the cast steps on the stage, the voices in this novel will sweep the reader away into a operatic crescendo like no other.

There is some strong sexual language in this book, so beware.

About the Author:

Susan Dormady Eisenberg is a writer based in Maryland. She has published articles in Opera News and Classical Singer (such as a November 2011 cover profile of baritone Robert Orth), as well as The Hartford Courant and The Albany Times Union. On February 3, 2012, she released her first novel, The Voice I Just Heard, as an indie ebook.

As a freelancer Susan has written promotional publications for clients throughout Greater D.C. Prior to launching her business, she did publicity for Goodspeed Opera House and Syracuse Stage, and marketing for the Joffrey Ballet/New York.

Please also check out my interview with her for the D.C. Literature Examiner.

This is my 61st book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.