Sunday, September 17, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: exoplanets by Michael Summers and James Trefil

Time for some nonfiction. My son, in college, wants to eventually study exoplanets, so when I saw this book in the library, I thought: why not?

Exoplanets are planets outside our solar system. Apparently, in the last few years, astronomers and physicists have been discovering new planets at a blistering pace. It isn’t surprising that there are scads of these planets or that their diversity is staggering. What I found more surprising was that the first one was discovered in 1992–which is really just yesterday. I feel like I’ve known all my life that out there in the vast infinity of space there are gazillions of planets. (We watched Star Trek, after all.) But what we all knew wasn’t proven with what was "seen" (in the weird mathematical way that physicists see things) until the first exoplanetary system was discovered in 1992.

exoplanets by Michael Summers and James Trefil is a readable, fairly simple overview of the exploding field of exoplanet research. It explains how recent advances have made study of deep space more feasible, leading to the necessary abandonment of previous "chauvinisms" or at least acceptance of new paradigms. Again, for someone whose view of planetary science was shaped by science fiction, none of these new discoveries seem so revolutionary. But maybe the realization that Diamond Worlds, Ice Worlds, Rogue Planets, and even, possibly, non-carbon-based life forms, are not fiction is what make this such a fascinating field of study.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Beneath the Apple Leaves by Harmony Verna

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

I really enjoyed Harmony Verna’s first historical novel, Daughter of Australia, so I was pleased to have a chance to read her latest, Beneath the Apple Leaves.

The setting is now the farmlands of Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh, and the time-frame is WWI. Verna does a wonderful job of placing the characters (and the reader) into the scene.

The female protagonist is Lili Morton, an orphaned farm girl living with her older sister and brother-in-law. Her life has been a nightmare, with an abusive father (now dead), a brother-in-law who is just as bad if not worse, and a sister who is kind but addled from the trauma of trying to protect Lili. Nevertheless, Lili is generous, sweet, hard-working, and, by necessity, remarkably competent.

The male protagonist is Andrew Houghton, son of a coal miner who has promised his father (now dead in a mining accident) that he will do something else with his life–not throw it away in the mines. Sent to live with an aunt in Pittsburgh, Andrew first finds a job working for the railway with his uncle. But a horrible accident puts an end to that.

Andrew’s uncle is a good man, but life has beaten him down. Originally from Germany, with a last name of Kiser, this uncle (as well as the aunt and cousins) discover that the prejudices of their fellow Americans make it impossible to continue living in the city. They move to a rundown farm in the country, where life just keeps getting harder.

The one bright spot is that Andrew meets Lili. He adjusts to his new life with a calm, clear-eyed viewpoint and a steadiness that helps support his family when everything else falls apart around them. He and Lili make a perfect pair, although first they have to overcome misunderstandings and insecurities that keep them apart.

Like Daughter of Australia, Beneath the Apple Leaves is a sweeping novel that depicts good but troubled people struggling through adversity to ultimately find love and contentment. Historical fiction fans can dive in and enjoy.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Our history/historical fiction book club is meeting soon and chose The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, an amazing book that I read in one sitting, wrenching me out of my reading slump.

The book is fiction, but written as an intertwining collection of short stories with a "memoir-like" feel to it, even though it jumps from one point of view to another. The primary narrator is a Vietnam veteran named Tim O’Brien, who has a squishy relationship to the author because it is fiction, not really memoir or autobiography. This gives the whole narrative a real but unreal tone, which meshes with the narrator’s ruminations on the telling of war stories and how-impossible- it-is-to-get-at-the-truth-but-it’s-all-true. It has an immediate feel, even when a character is looking back, and an honest feeling whether or not it’s true.

Each chapter is a story in itself, anecdotes about a company of soldiers in Vietnam. Reminiscent in a way of All Quiet on the Western Front, these are very young men who don’t really have a "big picture" view of the war, who are focused on personal survival and the survival of their buddies. It shows the awfulness of war: its tedium, terror, discomfort, dehumanization, guilt, and ongoing trauma, as well as the closeness of the interpersonal bonds and the giddiness that comes with surviving.

The writing is beautifully stark and evocative. The characters, though presented in snapshots, end up fully realized.

Even for those who don’t think they would be interested in Vietnam War fiction (I didn’t think I would be), this book is a should-read.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret of the India Orchard by Nancy Campbell Allen

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

Finally! I’ve read a book. This has been a bizarre summer and I’m getting no reading done.

However, The Secret of the India Orchard by Nancy Campbell Allen is being released this month, and it sounded like a good candidate for bringing me out of my reading slump.

I’ve read a few books in the Proper Romance line published by Shadow Mountain. They are clean romances that are consistently a cut above. The Secret of India Orchard is no exception.

Sophia Elliot, sister of the Earl of Stansworth, has caught the eye and the heart of her brother’s best friend, Anthony Blake, the Earl of Wilshire. He has determined to court her formally. Unfortunately, on the same day that he plans to ask her brother’s permission, he is contacted by his old employer, Lord Braxton, head of spies in the War Department. Although Anthony felt himself happily out of the business when he inherited his title, Braxton has another job for him. A top secret document, naming all the important spies as well as their habits, families, and acquaintances, has been stolen from Braxton’s office. Anthony is the only one he trusts to hunt down the document before it is sold to the French or some other enemy.

Anthony does not like Braxton and wants to refuse. However, that would put all his former colleagues at risk, as well as his friends. Sophia is named in the document. To keep her safe, he must take the job.

The onerous duty requires that he leave immediately, dumping Sophia in a letter which stresses the brotherly friendship he feels for her, to return to the continent and resume his previous undercover activities, which include acting like a devil-may-care playboy.

Sophia is heartbroken.

Two years later, the document is still not recovered. Anthony has traced it to India. Sophia has also decided to go to India for an adventure to take her mind off her continuing heartbreak. There is an alternative marriage mart there for Englishwomen who haven’t had success in London. (Sophia would have had great success but for her continued devotion to Anthony, despite her best attempts to forget him.) Sophia wants to move on. On the other hand, she knows Anthony will be there. . .

Naturally, they are thrown together and the feelings they had for one another blaze back to the fore. To the book’s credit, the love story does not bog down in mutual misunderstandings and petty recriminations. They care for and respect one another too much for that.

In addition to a thoughtful, mature, sweet Romance, there is a page-turning mystery for the two to solve. Who stole the documents and why? There is abundant danger, a little bit of clashing of cultures, and despicable villains–something for everyone! For those who enjoy historical mystery/Romance, this one comes highly recommended.

Monday, July 17, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Tyrant's Throne by Sebastien de Castell

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

The Greatcoats are back. Fans (of which I am one!) of Sebastien de Castell’s fantasy adventure series have been awaiting the release of the fourth and final book, Tyrant’s Throne. Naturally books 1, 2, and 3 should be read first. Then you’ll be pleased that Falcio val Mond, the "First Cantor," and his brothers-in-arms, Kest and Brasti are still together and still determined to save the kingdom of Tristia from. . .well, from everything.

After the last book, Saint’s Blood, it was difficult to see what else de Castell could find to throw at the heroes. They had already battled evil aristocrats, brutal magical foes, and even gods. Despite deep bonds of friendship and loyalty to their dead king’s ideals, and, most importantly, the entertaining banter among the three leads, the series had become increasingly dark and violent. When this novel opened with a threatened public rape, I almost gave up on it without reading further. But I read on past and the story improved, thankfully.

Tristia is still being governed, loosely, by Valiana the Protector of the Realm, Falcio’s adopted daughter. And they are still awaiting the coronation of the heir to the throne, young Aline. But the nobility, each in their own little domains, are unwilling to see a female rule over them.

In the midst of the political maneuvering, Falcio gets to hankering for the clarity of the good old days when his role was to simply pick up his sword and fight for his beliefs. There is too much ambiguity in politics. He finds himself in too many situations where he is tempted to betray the king’s rule of law in order to do what he thinks is best for his loved ones and the kingdom–at least in the short term. Fortunately, his trusted comrades are there to keep him from abandoning the faith.

Tristia is, as always, faced with numerous threats from within, but the more immediate concern is a new threat from without. The barbarians from over the mountains, fierce warriors who intermittently terrorize the border dukedoms of Tristia but who haven’t been considered much of a threat because of technological and strategic inferiority, have found a new warlord. He provides them with weapons and teaches their armies to fight with discipline. They are coming over the mountains and the divided dukedoms of Tristia are in no way prepared for the fight.

Falcio is no soldier. He doesn’t lead armies, he fights alone or in his small band of Greatcoats. This new battle is one that he’s not sure he wants to undertake. Worse, he has to band together with the worst of his old enemies to fight the new ones. Is such a compromise worth it? Is Tristia worth it?

In some ways this book goes back to the basics: nothing magical or supernatural and the story is better for it. The straightforward adventure is a fitting end to a thrilling series.

Monday, June 26, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence by Alyssa Palombo

The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence by Alyssa Palombo is a sweet and heartbreaking story of the love between Botticelli and his muse, Simonetta Cattaneo, the model for Botticelli’s masterpiece: The Birth of Venus.

Simonetta is the daughter of a minor nobleman in Genoa who captures the eye of a handsome, wealthy, politically-connected Florence noble named Marco Vespucci. By showing appreciation for her love of Dante’s poetry as well as her extraordinary beauty, (mostly the latter, though Simonetta fixates on the former), he woos and wins her. He promises she’ll be the toast of the court of the powerful Lorenzo de Medici, who is a great patron of the arts. Although she’s a little intimidated by all the wealth and power, and by the sometimes heretical-sounding conversations, Simonetta is eager to immerse herself in the intellectual and artistic company that surrounds Lorenzo.

Marco is right. The court (at least the men) fall at Simonetta’s feet. At Lorenzo’s home, Simonetta first notices Botticelli’s art and then she is introduced to the man. At once, he makes known his desire to paint her. Simonetta is thrilled, though at first it seems wishful thinking on both their parts rather than an actual possibility. Marco doesn’t take to Boticelli, a social inferior.

The marriage between Marco and Simonetta is a happy one at first. He is devoted and she wants to be in love. However, their interests diverge. Marco is a political "climber." Having a wife who is known as the most beautiful woman in Florence, perhaps all of Italy, and who is intelligent and charming as well, helps to make Marco a favorite with the Medicis. But he doesn’t share her love of art, poetry, or literature. He’s a busy man. So when Simonetta is finally allowed to sit for a portrait by Botticelli, and they fill long days with conversations about topics dear to Simonetta’s heart, it’s clear that the marriage is in trouble. Marco’s subsequent behavior makes things worse.

This novel lushly describes the beauty of Renaissance Florence by making Simonetta its emblem. Her matter-of-fact acceptance of her physical attributes and the way she accepts that advantages flow her way because of her appearance yet never seems particularly vain, and her frustration with being seen always as an object make her a sympathetic and admirable protagonist. She retains a sweet naivete even as she challenges expectations and breaks rules.

But even perfect beauty and a generous spirit provide no guarantees against heartbreak. This poignant love story is a wonderful addition to the genre showing artists and the significant others who give them inspiration.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron

Over the years, I’ve seen a bunch of reviews for The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is uniformly praised as one of the best novels about books—a literary historical fiction adventure. I finally sat down to read it.

The protagonist is Daniel Sempere, the son of a rare book seller in Barcelona in the mid-twentieth century. When Daniel is just a boy, his father takes him to "The Cemetery of Forgotten Books," a secret place, in an attempt to help ease his heartbreak over the fading memory of his deceased mother. Daniel wanders through miles of bookshelves to find just the right book to adopt and settles on The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. He falls in love with the book and determines to read everything by Carax. However, he discovers that not only is Carax virtually unknown, but that to the rare bibliophiles who have heard of him, the books are secondary in importance to the mystery surrounding him.

Julian Carax was an obscure man whose works were published in limited runs by tiny presses. The books never achieved any success. Carax died in mysterious circumstances. Someone went around acquiring and destroying every copy of his work. Now it seems that Daniel has the only existing copy. The book and Daniel become targets.

Daniel devotes his young life to learning about Carax and trying to unravel the explanation for the destruction of the books. Along the way, Daniel grows up, grows apart from his devoted father, falls in love a couple of times and works in the bookshop alongside his father. He also is threatened by a mysterious figure who smells of burned paper and who tries to get the book away from him.

The plot becomes increasingly complex as Daniel meets more and more characters related in one way or another to Carax. As he comes closer to understanding, he also notices more and more disturbing parallels between himself and the author. As he inserts himself into Carax’s story, the danger increases for Daniel and for those close to him.

I have mixed feelings about the book. It has a lengthy set up and the first half reads slowly. The set up is necessary, but the book was very easy to put down and I kept considering switching to something else. Still, I was determined to finish. After about 200 pages, enough of the plot was coming together to keep me reading. Some of the secondary characters were compelling, though I never really warmed to Daniel. The prose was quite beautiful with wonderful imagery, but the unfolding of the story was sometimes clunky.

The novel does wind its way to an exciting and satisfying conclusion. Loose ends are tied up and things that seemed coincidental were shown to actually have been carefully plotted. It’s a book I’m glad to have read, but am also somewhat disappointed to find it didn’t quite live up to expectations—which may be a fault of the expectations rather than of the book.