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book review: The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole

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The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole by Jason Derr. Temple Foundry Mediaworks, 2014. (The ebook pdf version used for this review, 50 pages).

An email popped up on my screen in the middle of June offering me a copy of Jason Derr's latest work of fiction, The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole, for review. Words used to describe the novella were "a magic realist exploration of nostalgia and reality" and "an epiphany in a single setting." I was sold! I clicked the link and ordered the ebook. I read it in one sitting yesterday afternoon and, I must admit, struggled a bit to enter Derr's magic world.

Derr's characters are richly painted, especially the matriarch Martha Toole. Her abrasive, direct manner makes one squirm with recognition (haven't we all had a fussy, old relative whom we have tried to avoid?), yet the obvious loyalty to her family is never in doubt. Each detail with which the author describes the southern family's strained interpersonal dynamics is vibrant with undercurrents of past struggles and scars. I found the father, Nathaniel, especially endearing with his endless tinkering and fixing in an effort to fend off intimacy or confrontation.

The critical moment when the artist son, John David, encounters the younger Martha in a surreal scene on the old family homestead, shifts the story from being about family relationships to one which focuses on Martha's transformation from a young, vibrant woman into a cantankerous, elderly matriarch. In theory, this device should have carried the reader into another world, a place between real and unreal where the past and present collide. In practice, I found the scene a bit clunky, and the integration of a younger Martha into the rest of the story, sharing the same time and space as the old Martha, underdeveloped. To me, the tale seemed to hover briefly in a magic place and then it thudded soundly back to earth. The subsequent interactions between younger Martha and the other characters lacked any ethereal energy, and the ready acceptance of a "ghost figure" into the family read like a missed opportunity, in my opinion. It could have led to so many dynamic interactions and interesting plot developments.

Another problem I had with the book was the lack of proper editing. On one page alone (p. 13) I found four errors (missing period, missing possessive apostrophe, inappropriately placed commas, and an awkward sentence in which the subject and the verb did not agree). There was one jerky transition which actually caused me to scroll back and forth a few times wondering if I had missed a paragraph (p. 23). I will admit that these mistakes distracted me from the story to some extent, and I believe the work would benefit greatly from a thorough going-over by a skilled editor.

All in all, this is a story with some good bones but it still needs work.

This book is provided to me courtesy of the publisher and SpeakEasy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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