Monday, November 16, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I won’t succeed this year in finishing the Back-to-the-Classics challenge and I’m very annoyed with myself. I had such good intentions starting out. But I had to get at least halfway through, so I decided to read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, as my twentieth-century classic. I’ve heard that this is one of those books that true bibliophiles should read. And my kids studied it in school, making it even more imperative that I read it.

I knew a few things going in. 1) 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper (books) will burn. In this futurist/dystopic story, the protagonist, Montag, is a book burner until he sees the light. And 2) the story doesn’t end well.

I dived in.

The future world created by Bradbury is ruled by noise and distraction, constant movement and large, wall-sized T.V.’s that dull people’s brains with constant sound bites. There are wars going on endlessly, but no one pays them any mind. In order to ensure that the masses are "happy," books have been banned. The thinking and emotional range inspired by books are the real targets.

Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books and the houses of those who harbor the contraband. He takes a perverse pleasure in his job, but he’s discontent. His wife, wholly absorbed by the emptiness of the world she lives in, is also miserable but too numbed to realize it. One day, Montag meets a teenage girl who refuses to participate in the mass numbing. It starts him thinking. Then, while burning a house along with its occupant, Montag steals one of the books he is supposed to destroy. This may not be the first time he has done this. But this time, it’s transformative. He starts reading.

While this awakens Montag, it sets in motion a series of tragedies for those around him. Or maybe he releases them from the tragedy of their lives. But he can no longer go on as he did.

Fahrenheit 451 is a fast read and there are parts that are vividly exciting. There is no subtlety to the message, but subtlety is not really needed. It’s one of those dystopias that leads a reader to draw parallels with what is happening today–and cringe.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

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

Susanna Kearsley has been on my must-read list for a while now. Unfortunately, my must-read list is so long that I’ve been slow getting around to her. Thanks to Netgalley, I had an excuse to bump one of her novels to the front of the list: A Desperate Fortune, released earlier this year.

The book provides two stories in one. First, there is the contemporary romance. Sara Thomas is a computer programmer with Asperger’s, who has not had much success with her love life. Or her life, for that matter. She doesn’t work well in teams and so is currently between jobs. Her cousin Jacqui is the opposite. An editor who works with famous authors, Jacqui is a people person. Jacqui has always considered herself Sara’s protector. (She was the one who helped guide Sara to her diagnosis.) Now, Jacqui is helping Sara find a job. One of her writers needs help decoding an old diary that was written in a cipher. Sara has to go to Paris to do it because the woman who owns the diary won’t release it to be studied.

With some trepidation, Sara takes on the job and settles in with the woman who owns the diary, her housekeeper, and the next door neighbor, Luc. Luc is gorgeous and extremely supportive. Sara discovers the key to the cipher and decodes the diary. Along the way, she falls for Luc.

The meat of the story is what is contained in the diary. Mary Dundas is the daughter of Jacobites, but she has been raised in the safety of her aunt and uncle’s house, away from court intrigues. Her older brother, who she has not seen in many years, sends for her out of the blue. Thrilled to feel she was finally remembered by the family that abandoned her, she soon finds out that her brother is not really inviting her into his home. Rather, he has volunteered her for a secret mission–to help a mysterious man, a Jacobite, hide from English foes.

Mary is to go to Paris and pose as this man’s sister. This is more difficult than it seems. A dangerous-looking stranger is living across the street, watching them. And no one discusses what is really going on. When someone betrays the whereabouts of the Jacobite, Mary is forced to flee along with him. They are accompanied by her chaperone and by a fierce, cold, bodyguard--Hugh MacPherson, who is an accomplished killer.

The small group is in constant danger as they make their way to southern France and then to Rome, seeking protection from the exiled would-be king.

Mary shows herself to be a strong, clever, loyal woman, up to all the challenges thrown at them, including the possibility of falling in love.

The sweeping scope of the novel meant it was a bit slow to get going as all the pieces were set in place. However, once I got caught up in it, I couldn’t put it down.

Im general, I steer away from dual narrative novels where one of the storylines is contemporary, using either a diary or other framing device or time travel in order to direct the reader into the historical part of the book. I tend to like my historical fiction straight up and the contemporary parts fall flat. In this book also, I was a bit impatient with Sara’s story, which hinged so much on her Asperger’s that it almost seemed like a lesson on the syndrome. However, Mary’s story made it all worthwhile. It’s an exciting adventure and beautiful romance.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston is a spellbinding YA fantasy. I love retellings of old classical stories, so this new adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) caught my attention. It’s beautifully done.

The heroine is unnamed. In fact, most of the characters are unnamed except for the king, Lo-Melkhiin. Others are referred to by their relationships to the protagonist or to the king. Names of other important characters have to do with the tasks they perform. It lends an air of other-worldliness to the fantasy. That, and the other first person voice in the story is that of the demon possessing Lo-Melkhiin.

It is the demon who has turned the king into a powerful man, able to rule in a way that keeps the men safe and enriches them. But their prosperity has a price. The king is entitled to a bride, and he has had more than three hundred of them, all of whom died within days to weeks of their marriage. The demon destroys them, sucking power from their fear and from what he has done to the king.

The men in his domain have grown used to the need to sacrifice their daughters. The rule is that he can only choose one wife from each of the villages and can not return for another until he has taken one from every village in the land. The women are not so resigned.

When he comes to the village of the heroine, everyone expects that he will take her sister, a girl of striking beauty. But the protagonist tricks him into taking her instead. This sacrifice is the beginning of her power, because the sister left behind builds an altar to her. As time wears on, the story of her bravery builds, and all the women in the land are sending her power with their prayers.

She needs this strength to resist the demon. Day after day, she lives to see another and her power grows. But so does his.

Although expecting the story to conform to some degree with its model, and that the protagonist will win, preserving her life, there is enough divergence to keep the story compelling. The demon is brutal, remorseless, and strong. If there is a good man left inside Lo-Melkhiin’s body, he is cowed enough by all that has happened that the heroine can expect no help from him.

Magic permeates the story. It’s woven in well enough that the use of it does not come across as a deus ex machina to resolve the crisis. The language is lovely and helps bring the reader into this strange, magical world. A retelling that is original enough to be more than a retelling—fantasy readers should enjoy this charming tale.

Monday, November 2, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Desert Queen by Janet Wallach

I’ve just (finally) finished Desert Queen. The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia by Janet Wallach. The title pretty much says it all, and is good preparation for the biography. This is our history/historical fiction book group’s next book, and it should generate some lively discussion.

Gertrude Bell was an amazing person. Brilliant, well-traveled, fluent in multiple languages, and extraordinarily self-confident, she blazed trails where few Europeans and no Victorian-era women had ever been. Fascinated by the Middle East, she began her career as an archaeologist, visiting, mapping and writing about several important ancient sites. She ventured out among the Arabs, meeting and befriending them. Her physical stamina and mental capabilities were truly astounding.

At the outbreak of WWI, Great Britain needed information about the Middle East. She had already broken so much ground that, despite being female, she was drawn into Britain’s Intelligence Service and served, throughout the war, as a collector of vital information. She advised the men in charge, whether they wanted her opinions or not. After the war, she continued on in a semi-official to official capacity and was instrumental in drawing the boundaries for nascent nations. She pretty much hand-chose Iraq’s first king.

This is all important history and helps the reader to understand why things are such a mess today. It was hardly a stable area even before the English and French meddled in their affairs, but such a messy bit of meddling--necessary, of course, in order to ensure access to Middle Eastern Oil--was unlikely to have a nice, clean outcome.

Wallach packs a lot into this book. At times, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees as the big picture is obscured by somewhat repetitive detail. It’s almost a day-by-day account of the "notables" Bell took coffee with and dazzled with her intelligence. Numerous excerpts from her letters home are interspersed. She dotes on her father and seems desperate to impress him with her success in establishing herself as a "Person." Wallace also plays up, in sometimes jarringly melodramatic prose, the details of Bell’s unhappy love life.

In the end, despite Bell’s impressiveness and the importance of the history, it was a slow read. Hailed as the definitive biography of Gertrude Bell, this book is worth the effort for those who want a full account. If you just want to familiarize yourself with this important historical figure, the afterword summarizes the highlights in about 4 ½ pages.

And I’ve now concluded the nonfiction challenge!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Those Who Stayed Behind. Rural Society in Nineteenth-Century New England by Hal S. Barron

In keeping with my attempt to read diverse nonfiction for the 2015 challenge, I picked a work of nineteenth century social history from rural Vermont, a book first published in 1984: Those Who Stayed Behind. Rural Society in Nineteenth-Century New England by Hal S. Barron.

This is a study of how social, political, and economic forces effected changes on a small Vermont agricultural community, Chelsea. It reflects similar changes throughout rural New England. As Barron states in his preface:

The majority of people in nineteenth-century America lived in rural communities, but most of the social history of nineteenth century American is not about them. This book is. Instead of following the long-standing emphasis on the frontier, however, I have written about those who stayed behind in settled rural areas.

I admit, when I think of farmers in that time period, I tend to think of pioneers, westward expansion, the bold and adventurous people who struck out to settle new lands. I have a Little House on the Prairie view. I’m guilty of forgetting about those who stayed behind.

Barron challenges the more conventional view that everything interesting was going on along the frontier, and that older rural communities suffered nothing but decline as the population decreased, the farmland grew exhausted, and economic opportunity dried up. Instead, he paints a picture of stabilization and homogenization. The people bemoaning the downfall of rural New England communities were not the people living there, but outsiders looking in. Rather than looking to "get rich quick" or even not so quick, the settled rural population was looking for contentment. And the people who stayed were the people who had, for the most part, found it.

This is a short book at 135 pages plus notes. It’s academic and a bit dry, but nevertheless easy to read. He makes a good argument. Although I went into the book hoping for more day-to-day details of rural life, I ended up very pleased with this bigger picture synthesis. If you’re curious about life in old New England towns, this is an interesting read.

Friday, October 23, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Death Comes to Kurland Hall by Catherine Lloyd

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

I have been overly eager for the release of the third book in Catherine Lloyd’s Kurland St.Mary Mystery series. I loved books one and two: Death Comes to the Village and Death Comes to London. Book three, Death Comes to Kurland Hall is due out in November. If you like cozy historical mysteries, I recommend you dash out and get the first two books.

The detecting couple in these novels comprises 1) a "managing" female, Miss Lucy Harrington, daughter of Kurland’s rector who has raised her siblings since the death of their mother. She’s also had her hands full with her self-centered father. And 2) the lord of their little village, Major Kurland, a war hero who was badly injured fighting Napoleon. He’s still rather grumpy about the whole thing and hates being physically limited by a bad leg and a somewhat crippling fear of horses. They’ve solved two murder mysteries in the past and grown very fond of one another in the process. But each is wary of letting the other know just how fond.

As this novel begins, a wedding is in the works. Lucy’s dearest friend is marrying a close friend of Major Kurland, and the wedding is to take place in their village. Relatives and friends are invited to stay at Kurland Hall and at the rectory. Included in the mix is Kurland’s ex-betrothed, Miss Chingford, and her sister and mother. The mother, Mrs. Chingford, is a malicious gossip and busybody, who immediately sets everyone’s teeth on edge. Also present is Mrs. Fairfax, the widowed stepmother of Thomas Fairfax, Kurland’s exceedingly efficient new land agent.

Immediately following the wedding, the irritating Mrs. Chingford is found dead at the bottom of a staircase. Is it another murder or an unfortunate accident?

Much as Kurland and Lucy would like to dismiss it as accidental, (especially as no one seems too broken up over her death), there are too many inconsistencies to let it go. And so, they are off again in detective mode.

The plotting of the mystery is solid, with clues ferreted out and false leads to keep the tension high. It isn’t too hard to guess who the villain will be, but having the detectives discover all the connections takes time, and it’s charming to go along for the ride. The romance proceeds in fits and starts. In this third installment, the fighting and misunderstandings between the two was getting a bit wearisome. It was much more entertaining in the first two books. Now it seemed dragged out for the sake of dragging it out–particularly on Lucy’s part. She seemed to willfully fail to understand Kurland’s feelings and was almost petulant in baiting him. But since their slowly developing relationship is so integral to the storyline, it does make sense that they have to carry on as they did earlier, at least through the bulk of the book. And they do make progress!

The series remains compelling. Lucy’s no-nonsense approach to solving cases and her tenacity make her an appealing protagonist. I will certainly be reading the next in the series to see how their partnership plays out.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Twain's End by Lynn Cullen

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

After thoroughly enjoying Lynn Cullen’s previous book, Mrs. Poe, I was eager to get my hands on her latest novel, Twain’s End. This rather intense book is the story of the doomed relationship between Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain and his long-time secretary, personal servant, and, well, lapdog, Isabel Lyons.

Miss Lyons is a well bred, highly educated daughter of a society woman and a university professor. Her prospects should have been bright, but her father died bankrupt, leaving Isabel and her mother destitute, sewing pincushions and selling them to friends to get by. Fortunately (or not) Isabel is hired as a nanny and, through connections, meets Samuel Clemens. Later, she is dismissed from that job and hired as a personal secretary to Livy Clemens, the invalid wife of the famous author. It isn’t Livy who needs a secretary, but rather the entire family needs someone to take care of them. The competent, intelligent Isabel takes on the task, mainly because she, like everyone else in the U.S., is an ardent admirer of the humorist.

For seven years, Isabel devotes herself, heart and soul, to the welfare of the Clemens family, though in fact, she is devoted only to Samuel. She pities and resents the wife she never sees and puts up with the daughters, Clara and Jean. The daughters are intermittently ignored or verbally abused by their self-absorbed father. Isabel attempts to befriend them, partially out of true concern but also because she has to maintain her place in the household. The attraction between Isabel and Samuel is strong, and she convinces herself that she holds a special place in his heart, ignoring evidence that he has felt similar extramarital attractions in the past. He’s a master manipulator, playing on her pity by occasionally letting down his guard and showing her how vulnerable he is, and how much he despises the need to continue to play the role of Mark Twain, America’s Sweetheart.

The novel very realistically portrays the narcissistic artist and a woman caught in his web. Isabel is pretty and intelligent, but has few resources outside her ability to please her employer, who feeds on constant female admiration. He can be as cruel and foul-tempered with her as his personality dictates, and Isabel forgives him because she understands him as no one else can.

This is a fascinating portrayal of "Mark Twain" and an all-too-credible journey through the late stage of Twain’s life and career, supported by the devoted secretary he very publicly repudiates before his death. To me, the main characters are not likeable, but for some reason that made the story even more powerful.