Saturday, August 24, 2013

BOOK BLOGGER HOP: August 23rd-29th


I'm a tad bit late to this week's blog hop, now  hosted by Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer, but I didn't want to miss this week's question (submitted by kero.)

The question is:
Book blogging is more than just reading. Who helped you set up or run your blog? Or did you do it all yourself?

My answer is:  I am technology fearful. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. This is the path I go down every time I attempt something new on the computer. So the mere thought of setting up a blog put me in a bad mood--even though I wanted to be able to blog. Not only am I technologically. . not exactly incompetent but mentally lazy when it comes to it, but also, I don't have a good artistic eye. So, I was envisioning something ugly that would never work right.

Who helped me avoid that disaster? Maddee at  XUNI.COM, my extremely helpful website designer. She set it up through blogger and reassured me that the rest would be easy.

I maintain it myself. Most of the time that just means posting. Every once in awhile, I have to do something like figure out how to put up one of those percentage bars to track my challenges. Or I have tried doing FORMS for giveaways, but that was way too tricky to repeat. I'd rather make my own spreadsheet later. The thought of figuring out rafflecopter gives me the willies. And whenever google changes something on blogger, which happens too frequently for my comfort, I fume for a week and consider quitting, but eventually settle down and figure it out, after going through the anger, hate and suffering stages.  Sometimes, I even feel a burst of pride. Look at what I did!!! (My kids roll their eyes.)

But the most important things about running a blog I've learned from other bloggers. I've learned about blog hops. I've learned the necessity of prominently mentioning any time a book comes to me free from an author or publisher (rare for me but it does happen from time to time.) I've learned about "challenges." (and read-a-thons, although I haven't taken part in one of those yet, one day I will.) So even though I run my blog "all by myself," I don't think I would keep doing it if I didn't feel like I was part of a larger community of book bloggers, a community of readers who still love books enough to shout about them to anyone who will listen.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

The challenge I’m most worried about completing is the TBR pile challenge. I suppose I’m keeping pretty well on track to finish the twelve books I chose to read this year, but I have a couple hefty ones coming up, and the last few months of the year always fly by so quickly. (And I’m behind on the Classics Challenge too, although technically, I only have two books left of the required categories.)

Anyway, I did manage to finish another book from my TBR list, Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. This is an odd choice for me. I read Lehane’s Shutter Island several years ago to review it for The Historical Novels Review. I thought it was captivating and creepy, and really well done. Somewhere around that same time, my husband and I saw the movie Mystic River. It’s one of those really great psychological thrillers that’s just painful to watch.

So, why read the book? I already know the ending. Doesn’t that spoil it for books of this genre?

The movie was very fast paced and had a lot going on. I’m sure I missed details then and have forgotten a lot more in the meantime. So I wanted to read the book to be sure I understood all the twists and turns. And I think Lehane is very good at what he does.

The basic set-up is that three boys, about 11 years old, were playing outside one afternoon. One boy, Sean Devine, was from a more stable, although not affluent, environment. Jimmy Marcus was his friend, mainly because their fathers worked together. Jimmy was a little criminal in the making. And then there was Dave Boyle, a hanger-on, who had attached himself to Jimmy with a kind of hero worship. Their play turned into rough housing. A car came down the street. A man got out who berated them. He showed them a badge. He ordered Dave into the car, where another man sat behind the wheel. He said he would take him home to his mother and tell her what he had been up to. Jimmy and Sean watched the car drive away.

Of course, the men in the car were not police. Dave was abducted by child molesters. He managed to escape four days later, but none of the boys would ever be the same.

The book fast-forwards twenty-five years. Sean is a homicide detective, separated from his wife. Jimmy is an ex-con, widower, remarried, with three daughters. The eldest is nineteen, and she is the reason he has left the life of crime, although he still associates with his old gang. Dave is married to a devoted woman and has a sweet son. But he’s never quite comfortable around people from the neighborhood who know about his past. And he’s haunted by what happened to him.

One night, Sean’s daughter, Katie, is preparing to elope with a boy from the neighborhood. She goes out drinking and dancing with two of her friends. She never makes it home. She’s found slaughtered in a local park the following day.

That same night, Dave had gone out to the local bars to kill time while his wife had a girls’ night. He did see Katie at one or two of the bars. He didn’t come home until around 3 am, and then he was covered in blood. He told his wife a story about a mugger that she knew didn’t make sense.

Sean is the detective assigned to the case.

The plot goes on from there as Sean and his partner try to unravel clues that lead them down unlikely paths to dead ends. At the same time, Jimmy is dealing with his own rage and grief, and taking matters into his own hands.

The book is as painful as the movie. The pace is quick, but it’s more detailed and easier to follow. (I remember being a bit confused about what was going on with Sean’s wife in the movie.) Yet overall, the movie was somehow grittier and more emotionally gripping. Maybe it was because the acting was so great. Or maybe it was because I didn’t know the ending when I saw the movie.

If you’re a fan of psychological thrillers (I’m not usually, but this movie had such good reviews we went to see it) this one is really well done.

I’ve completed 8/12 books for the TBR pile challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader.

Monday, August 19, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

At some point last year there was a lot of buzz in the blogosphere about Kate Forsyth’s novel Bitter Greens. Every review raved about this brilliant historical novel, which is, among other things, a retelling of the fairy tale Rapunzel.

For some reason, maybe because of the fairy-tale retelling bit, I was under the impression that it was a YA historical. (It definitely is not.) At any rate, I very much wanted to read the book, but I couldn’t get hold of a copy. U.S. bookstores didn’t carry it. Amazon had used copies but not many. Even The Book Depository failed me. It was "currently unavailable" for months and months.

Finally, with Forsyth’s new book, The Wild Girl, coming out (but also not available in the US?) and still frustrated that I had yet to read Bitter Greens, I decided to buy a used copy from Amazon.

I’m always thrilled when a book lives up to expectations. This one delivered even more. I was anticipating a retelling of the classic story of Rapunzel, but Bitter Greens is a multi-layered story within a story. It begins by introducing the reader to Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, a French writer contemporary of King Louis XIV. She led a somewhat scandalous life, including the writing of some novels which were not as anonymous as she believed. This led to her banishment by the king to a convent where she continued to write, penning her version of Rapunzel. (This much is true.)

Charlotte-Rose’s "memoir" is fascinating reading. It alone would carry a novel. But while in the convent, Charlotte-Rose hears the stories of Rapunzel and of the witch. Both are presented as factual, so the reader hears the fairy tale as history and the book morphs into a marvelous sort of medieval fantasy. Men’s wickedness, women’s relative lack of power, sex and witchcraft are all twisted together until an innocent girl ends up locked in a tower. The parallels with Charlotte-Rose’s incarceration in the nunnery are clear, along with other similarities between her life and Rapunzel/Margherita’s.

The three women’s stories are equally compelling and Forsyth’s pacing of them is perfect. Even though I hated to leave off one thread, I was anxious to see what was going on with the others. And so it was nearly impossible to stop reading because I had to keep up with all three tales. The writing is beautiful and so vivid that the boundaries between the fairy tale and the historical fiction blurred. Normally I prefer historical fiction to be realistic and historical fantasy to stay on its own side of the line, but this book was simply magical.

If you can find a copy of Bitter Greens, I highly recommend it. This is my 23rd book for the historical fiction challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Colony by Anne Rivers Siddons

I had a wonderful book recommendation from a friend. She was re-reading her favorite summertime novel, a book she has re-read for several years. She said it’s a comfort to her to bring it out each summer and revisit the story.

I couldn’t pass up a book that someone else loves that much. So I borrowed Colony by Anne Rivers Siddons from the library. (I can also add this book to my 2013 library challenge, hosted by Book Dragon's Lair.)

This absorbing family drama was just what I needed to break my reading slump.

Maude Gascoignes is a nineteen-year-old Charleston girl, brought up on a fading rice plantation by a benignly neglectful father. (Her mother died giving birth to her.) She’s a tomboy, a loner, and a nature lover who can’t imagine ever leaving the south until her older brother returns home from college with a wealthy Boston friend named Peter Chambliss.

I don’t generally buy into stories of love at first sight, but Siddons makes this one convincing. Maude and Peter are soon married and the book tells the story of their marriage–Maude’s life–by having Maude narrate the course of her summers at the Retreat, a summer home on Penobscot Bay in Maine.

Siddons does an incredible job describing the beauty of both settings by showing Maude’s appreciation of them. It’s the soothing beauty of the place that helps Maude to adapt at first, since the people are less than welcoming,

Maude is an outsider to the Colony in Maine. Wealthy New Englanders have been summering there for generations. Her mother-in-law, a cold, unyielding woman, makes it quite plain that she does not approve of Peter’s choice and is tolerating Maude for his sake only. But, over time, Maude learns the rules of Colony behavior and adapts to them, and although she never abandons her own convictions, some of her mother-in-laws beliefs are grafted on to hers.

Maude is aided by a neighbor, Amy Potter, who is shouldering burdens of her own. Maude also learns to rely on "natives," Micah and Tina Willis. Although the social divide between the wealthy summer people and year-rounders who work for them is almost insurmountable, Maude is able to breach the gulf and find true friendship with people whose values more closely reflect her own.

Times change and the Retreat changes. Maude’s family grows and her marriage goes through ups and downs. There are mini and major crises. Even a war.

The plot is really that of a woman’s life. Maude’s own theme for the plot of her life is "what she did for love." It’s a book full of love, full of mistakes and few options, but ultimately, it’s a satisfying read because Maude lives a full and ultimately satisfying life.

We don’t really get to see much of what these characters do for the rest of the year, although we are told what their jobs are. We only see them during their summer retreat. It seems to be when the most significant parts of their lives occur. Is that why this book makes such a lovely summer read?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Anne of Denmark by Ethel Carleton Williams

Time to break out of my blogging slump. We’ve been busy in my house with summer break drawing to a close and my reading has become a bit erratic. I started and stopped one perfectly fine historical novel about the miseries in Ireland. Nice writing and interesting characters, but I just wasn’t in the mood for all that misery. I may go back to it some day because I don’t usually abandon novels without a better reason than that.

Since fiction wasn’t grabbing me, I tried something else: a book I could read in small chunks interspersed with all my distractions. I needed something that didn’t require any emotional involvement on my part. A biography! But whose?

I’ve read Wolf Hall and I’ve read books about Queen Elizabeth, and I knew that, historically, King James came next, but it occurred to me that I had no idea who James’ queen was. In fact, I knew little at all about King James’ reign, other than that he had been King of Scotland also. So I  wanted to read about his wife.

Surprisingly, there isn’t a lot out there. Anne of Denmark by Ethel Carleton Williams is the one biography I was able to locate, published in 1970, which is older than I like to think. (There is also a cultural biography of Anne, but that is supposed to focus on her interest in masques, which isn’t quite what I wanted.)

Anne was a princess of Denmark who was chosen at age fifteen to be the wife of King James VI of Scotland. She was a dutiful wife, though not a devoted one. The book discusses the marital problems of the couple, placing most of the blame on the king. Anne was a devoted mother. She was generous and extravagant. Her life in Scotland was not particularly happy, but when James ascended to the throne of England, whole new worlds opened up for Anne.

A picture of the book cover is not available, but this is the portrait of Anne that is on the book. (It's a public domain picture

This is very straightforward biography. Williams delves into the primary sources including letters of the king and queen. I did end up with a sense of the woman and the times, but only a sense of it. The scope of the book was quite narrow. Compared to the exhaustive biography, Catherine the Great. Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie, Anne of Denmark seems to skim the surface. It’s only 205 pages long, as opposed to Massie’s 670+ pages, so you can see the difference in amount of content. Granted, Anne was not the ruler; her role was different. But I would have liked to get a more complete picture of the political issues of the day. Was Anne really focused only on her children’s marriages, her husband’s "favorites," her masques, and her personal finances?

Maybe I need to read a biography of King James to get a better view of the history. But for now, it’s back to fiction. If anyone knows of another biography of Anne of Denmark, I’d love to hear about it.