Friday, November 21, 2014

BOOK BLOGGER HOP- November 21-27th

Book Blogger Hop

It's been a long time since I've taken part in the book blogger hop. Fridays are really busy for me, and then it's hard to jump in if I've missed the start. But I decided to do it this week. The hop is hosted by Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. Wander on over to find out how to participate, to find the other blogs that are hopping during the week, and to link up your own blog.

The question for the week, submitted by Elizabeth at Silver's Reviews is:

Do you have any advice for new bloggers?

Here's my answer:
Explore a lot of other blogs. Make comments when you think of it. (Everyone loves comments.) Take part in memes that strike you. Book blogging is most fun when you feel like you're part of a book loving community, so get out there and join that community.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: A Study in Scarlet/ The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

For my classic mystery/suspense novel for the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge, I wanted to read something from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There are so many different collections out there, it’s hard to know where to start, but I had a little help from my son, who is a huge fan of the TV series Sherlock. I haven’t seen the series, but started watching the show with him from the beginning on Netflix, and read a collection of stories to correlate roughly with some of the shows.

So, the book I’m reviewing contains A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles. I also read A Scandal in Bohemia from a separate collection. A Study in Scarlet is a good place to start, since, as the first story in the canon, it introduces Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. It’s quite different from what I expected. I thought it would be a much more straightforward detective novel- a murder, the detective following a trail of clues, and the eventual solving of the mystery. Sherlock would display his incredible insightfulness. But it isn’t much like that at all. There is the introduction of the characters. A murder occurs. Then the reader is cast back in time, onto another continent, to be introduced to the young murder victims and the murderer. A great deal of time is spent on their backstories. By the time we return to Sherlock and Watson, it’s pretty clear who the killer is. The mystery is how does Sherlock figure this all out. And that’s wrapped up with a bit of explanation.

The Hound of the Baskervilles similarly took me by surprise. It is Watson who dominates the story and does most of the detective work. Sherlock again comes in at the end. He adds a few pieces of important information, but his detective work seems fairly minimal compared to Watson’s labor intensive and more exciting activities.

The stories are interesting and quite fun to read, but as murder mysteries go, I was rather underwhelmed. They are more interesting for the people and as period pieces. I hate to admit it, but I enjoyed the TV series more.

The afterword of the book discussed Sherlock Holmes as a breakout character–how he is a literary creation that has "broken out" of the books. Everyone knows who Sherlock Holmes is, whether they have read the books or not. People know what it means to be "a Sherlock Holmes." I think that’s still true. Especially now with the popularity of the TV show. But then, I wonder. How true is it?

I was at a book fair two weekends ago, and talked briefly with a young teenage boy. My guess is that he was in the 12-14-year-old range. Trying to place the timeframe of a historical novel, I referred to "Richard the Lionheart. . .the Crusades"–which drew a blank stare. I said: "Robin Hood." And he shook his head. I was dumbfounded. How is it that Robin Hood has fallen out of general cultural literacy? Is it the lack of Bugs Bunny on Saturday mornings? Does it matter? Was I sad for no reason? I wonder if in another 10 years, kids who hear a reference to Sherlock Holmes will not get it.

Two more books and I’ll be done with my Classics Challenge, but less than 2 months to go. I’m not sure I’ll make it. Where did the year go?

Monday, November 17, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Great Meadow by Elizabeth Madox Roberts

I might not get to all the classics I hoped to read for the 2014 Back-to-the-Classics Challenge, but I’ve just completed the last of the books in the required category, so that’s a partial victory. And since it’s a historical novel that’s been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple years, I’m going to triple dip and use it for all three challenges.

The Great Meadow by Elizabeth Madox Roberts is a classic by an author who is new to me. (And a Kentucky author.)

It is old-fashioned pioneer literature, following the trail of Diony Hall (Jarvis). Diony begins as a 15-year-old hardworking daughter of a "plantation" owner, Thomas Hall, in Albemarle County, Virginia, in 1774. The description of the family farm sounds rather small by the standards of what I think of for a plantation, but Diony and her family are comfortable and settled–though life is not one of ease. Diony is the oldest daughter. She’s pretty and intelligent and seems to be her father’s pet.

The book is a bit of a slow-starter, but it is rich in the details of daily life and immerses us in the dreaminess of Diony’s thoughts. She’s a restless sort. Diony and her neighbors are hearing a great deal of talk about Kentucky, a paradise beyond the hills, which sets her to thinking about life’s possibilities. And as Diony grows into young womanhood, she becomes aware of a neighbor, a young man, Berk Jarvis, who has the same restless spirit. He sets off to get a better look at Kentucky. When he decides he’s going to move on, he asks her to come along.

They marry and set off, along with other Jarvises, including Berk’s mother Elvira, for Fort Harrod. They travel with a small party of other pioneers along Boone’s Road. The journey is narrated through Diony’s eyes in a descriptive detail that is interesting and realistic. She focuses on things that are important to her and skims over other incidents, so that moments of high drama are lacking, but the realism make it more compelling.

The story becomes more dramatic, more exciting, as they settle into life in the fort. There is a more or less constant threat of Indian attack–a threat that is eventually realized.

Diony has to cope with a great deal as a pioneer woman. This writing is in an older style. There’s very little dialogue, and a lot of internal monologue. The romance is quite understated. In fact, the necessities of life require Diony and Berk to be apart much of the time. And yet, there is something extraordinarily solid about their love that makes the great love of many more modern romances seem shallow.

As a transplant to Kentucky, I’ve picked up a little of the state’s history here and there, I’ve been to visit Fort Harrod, but my knowledge is pretty limited. This novel does a wonderful job of bringing to life that early settlement phase of Kentucky’s history.

If you’re looking for a classic that’s a little bit different, I highly recommend The Great Meadow.

Friday, November 14, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Our historical fiction/history book group has been on a bit of a hiatus. We’ve been having trouble finding a time when we all could meet. But we’re finally getting together this weekend to discuss Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.

This book is set both in current day Maine and in the late 1800's-early 1900's in the Midwest, telling the story of two orphans in the foster care systems of their times.

Molly is a 17-year-old modern day troubled teenager who is about to be kicked out of yet another foster care home. This one she had settled into fairly well, but made the mistake of trying to steal a library book. Her one last chance is to perform community service, cleaning out the attic of an elderly woman, Vivian Daly.

Vivian, as it turns out, is a survivor of a different type of foster care experiment–the orphan trains. Orphans were scooped up from the dense, crime-ridden Eastern cities, put onto trains, and transported to the Midwest where they were offered up for adoption to farmers or townspeople. While babies or toddlers might find loving homes, the older children and teens were often times treated as free labor. Vivian, a red-headed nine-year-old, faced hardship, rejection, abuse, and uncertainty.

As Molly and Vivian’s stories unfold together, a friendship develops, beneficial to them both.

This is a lovely story. It brings to light a fascinating part of the nation’s history that hasn’t received a lot of attention, and highlights some of the ongoing difficulties with foster care. While there aren’t a lot of surprises in the narrative, it’s an interesting read. The book, originally issued as a paperback, has been re-released in hardcover–so it’s doing very well–and for good reason. I expect we’ll have a wonderful discussion at book group!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Hollow World by Michael J. Sullivan

I am a tremendous fan of Michael J. Sullivan’s writing. I devoured the Riyria Revelations trilogy and then read the first prequel, The Crown Tower, because I just couldn’t get enough of his fantasy world. The final book available so far is sitting on my shelf. I haven’t read it yet because, once I do, there won’t be any more, so I’ve been holding off. Which brings me to Hollow World.

Sullivan has written a science fiction thriller (I guess that is the right genre) and although this is even more out of my normal sphere, I decided to give it a whirl.

Ellis Rogers is our hero, a mild mannered engineer with nothing to live for (a failed marriage, childless since the death of his son, and one friend with whom he shares a history but has little in common–the guy is a doofus and a slob) who discovers he has a terminal illness. This news elates him because he is now free to experiment with the time machine he has built in his garage.

The time machine will only go forward, which is fine with Ellis who wants to see what will happen to the world. He sets it for 200 years in the future, and off he goes. Unfortunately, his calculations are off by a decimal point. The world he lands in is nothing like what he left.

Sullivan displays his usual skill at world building. The global climatic catastrophe has occurred, so the human race has moved underground, or into Hollow World. The political system has changed. And so has the human race.

It can be debated (and is debated) whether this new world is a utopia or a dystopia, but before Ellis can sort out how he feels about where he must live out the rest of his days, he has a murder and a conspiracy to solve. These things are unheard of in the far distant future, so his new friends need someone with experience to help, and a twenty-first century engineer is the closest thing they’ve got.

This is a thought-provoking novel and an interesting read with straightforward characterizations and a fast-moving plot. Still, it didn’t really absorb me the way The Riyria Revelations did. It could be that time travel and science fiction are just not my thing, no matter who is the author. I will say I’m glad I read the fantasy first. If I’d started with this, I don’t think I would have been so impressed that I would have raced out and bought the fantasy trilogy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

I took a break from my challenges and Netgalley commitments, even from historical fiction, to read something a little different–another book recommended by my library’s new fiction newsletter.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey is a little bit contemporary family drama, a little bit detective story, and altogether a wonderful read.

If you are intrigued by stories with unreliable narrators, you can’t get much more unreliable than this protagonist. Maud is suffering from dementia, which progresses along with the plot. It is poignant and painful to realize that she is slowly losing the ability to recognize her devoted daughter Helen, and she is aware that she’s losing even this. Time is running out for Maud. She has a mystery to solve. Her dearest friend is missing.

Maud is fixated on the fact that her friend Elizabeth is missing, and no one else seems concerned. She goes through her days trying to marshal her remaining faculties to look for Elizabeth, but more often than not, she ends up lost and confused. Has she done this before?

As she stumbles through her disjointed days, she stirs up old memories, and these, although fragmented, are more vivid and intact than her recent ones. When she retreats fifty or more years into the past, she recalls the aftermath of the disappearance of her older sister, Sukie. Maud and Sukie had been close despite the age difference. But Sukie married and moved out. There was a boarder, Doug, who lived with Maud’s family who seemed a bit obsessed with Sukie. And there was Sukie’s husband, Frank. Everyone thought the world of Frank. But Maud had seen another side of him. And he drank.

One day Sukie disappeared. She was never found.

And now, Maud is certain that Elizabeth is missing.

It’s a unique idea to use a woman whose memory is so faulty as a detective to solve a case more than a half-century old. The story is fascinating, the characters compelling. Healey does a particularly wonderful job of bringing the daughter, Helen, to life. We see her only through Maud’s eyes, and yet she is a fully developed character–compassionate, loving, exasperated, and patient.

Most mysteries are not heart-warming, but this book is. It isn’t a happy book, but it is a satisfying one.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Sharp Hook of Love by Sherry Jones

The Sharp Hook of Love by Sherry Jones is an extraordinary book. It has all the right elements in place to be a must read. It’s medieval historical fiction, set in my favorite time period (twelfth century), in Paris. And it tells the story of Abelard and Heloise. So I knew I wanted to read it. But I was thrilled by how quickly I fell in love with the book–and it never disappointed.

If you look at top ten lists of all time great love stories (which are always tragic), some couples will pop up repeatedly: Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Lancelot and Guinevere... Some of the couples are fictional, some are real. But one couple who should make every list is Heloise and Peter (Pierre) Abelard. Not only were they real people, but their affair is documented and their love letters survive. And the tale has everything.

No spoilers here, but some background: Abelard was one of the greatest twelfth century minds–a philosopher and teacher. Heloise was another brilliant person of the era, but a particular oddity since she was a woman. Brought up by an uncle, she was permitted to learn and had achieved a reputation for her intelligence. That attracted the interest of Abelard. As a woman, she could not attend the Parisian schools. In order to further her education, her uncle hired Abelard to be her private tutor.

Abelard was not only gifted, but arrogant, handsome, dashing, charming, etc. He was a man of influence with a great many friends and enemies. Heloise was a strong-willed young woman and a beautiful one. They fell in love and became lovers.

Then (as now) a teacher is not supposed to seduce a student. In addition, Abelard was supposed to be abstinent. And it goes without saying that Heloise was supposed to be chaste. So, by breaking all the rules, they were setting themselves up for a fall.

Sherry Jones tells the story from Heloise’s point of view, using fragments from the surviving letters to introduce the chapters and set the tone. She is able to capture the brilliance of these two extraordinary people and the electricity of the meeting of their minds. It’s possible to believe that the passion springs from that excitement, even though passion soon takes over and the meeting of their bodies consumes more of their time than the lessons Heloise is supposed to be having.

The author paints these larger-than-life characters with an exquisite attention to detail. They are very real and flawed, and though the reader may wince at some of their choices, it’s also easy to see how the choices were made. It would not be easy to live in those times, much less to live, love, and leave behind such a legacy as Abelard and Heloise did with their writings and their story. With The Sharp Hook of Love, Sherry Jones has given us a beautifully written, passionate, fresh look at that legacy.

Disclaimer: I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

This is my 19th book read for the historical fiction challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.