Monday, December 23, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Waterline by Ross Raisin

Once again, I’ve done my traditional depressing holiday read. I’m not sure why I do this to myself, but I seem to choose a contemporary literary downer each year right around Christmas. The books are always very good, but they don’t leave me filled with cheer.

A year or so ago, I participated in a literary blog hop giveaway. I didn’t win anything, but the hop did add several books to my TBR pile. One of these was Waterline by Ross Raisin. The blurb sounded gritty and poignant and the reviewer was so enthusiastic that I felt compelled to buy the book to be sure I wouldn’t forget about it. And this weekend, I finally pulled it off my shelf.

Waterline follows the descent of Mick Little, a one-time shipbuilder in the Glasgow yards. We meet him on the day of his wife’s funeral. She died from mesothelioma, a cancer resulting from the exposure to asbestos that she received secondhand during the years he came home from the yard coated with it. His guilt is enormous. How did he escape the disease? Why should she be the one to die from it?

Mick has two grown sons. He is more or less estranged from one. He gets along with the other, Robbie, but Robbie has moved to Australia. Robbie and his wife have come for the funeral, but shortly afterward, they leave for their own home.

Mick is just as glad to have everyone out of his house. It’s uncomfortable with them there. But as soon as they leave, he falls apart.

Waterline is a wrenching story of a man who loses everything when the bottom drops out of his world. His wife is dead and he is unable to go on living. Many years ago, he lost the job that defined him. Work for him now is scraping by to pay the bills as a hired driver, but he had been doing that to support his wife and family. Now, work has no purpose.

Mick withdraws into his grief. He drinks. He barely leaves his house. He runs out of money. Eventually, he runs away to London–not so much to try to start fresh, although he does try–but because he wants to escape from the possibility of anyone he knows seeing what he has become. He manages to find a job in London for a brief time, but it doesn’t last. He falls deeper and deeper into alcoholism and homelessness.

The book sucked me in. I found Mick’s helplessness in the face of his grief and loneliness very realistic and easy to understand. I felt the unfairness of his situation as opportunity to work, a potential lifeline for him, was pulled away, leaving him with nothing but hours to brood and drink. The book is a brutal account of the daily existence of a man who is barely getting by, day-by-day, by drinking himself into a fog of forgetfulness- or unthinkingness. It’s an interesting glimpse into the life of a homeless alcoholic, how someone can survive on the streets and what might have happened to someone to bring them to such a state.

Raisin is an extraordinary writer, taking us deep into Mick’s thoughts and Mick’s world. It’s an awful place to be but it’s a marvelous book. It’s also a good reminder, particularly at this time of year, to be grateful for my blessings and not to take for granted the time I have with my loved ones.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


It's time to wrap up the 2013 Historical Fiction Challenge. Thank you to Historical Tapestry for Hosting this challenge.

Historical Fiction is my favorite genre. Most of the books I read fall into this category in one way or another, so this was the easiest challenge for me to complete. I ended up with 36 books read and reviewed. Here is my list with links to reviews:

1. The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick
2. Trapeze by Simon Mawer
3. The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
4. The Sign of the Weeping Virgin by Alana White
5. Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
6. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
7. Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
8. Z. A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
9. The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak
10. Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys
11. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
12. The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
13. A Little Folly by Jude Morgan
14. The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow
15. Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck
16. The Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee
17. House of Earth by Woodie Guthrie
18. Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach
19. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
20. The Golden Dice by Elisabeth Storrs
21. The Ides of April by Lindsey Davis
22. Passion by Jude Morgan
23. Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth
24. The Lady and the Poet by Maeve Haran
25. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
26. The Anatomist's Wife by Anna Lee Huber
27. Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole
28. Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
29. Mortal Arts by Anna Lee Huber
30. Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini
31. Venetia by Georgette Heyer
32. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by Dorothy M. Johnson
33. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
34. A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams
35. The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
36. Longbourn by Jo Baker

There were so many winners in here that I can't pick a favorite, but I will call attention to #4. The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, #5. Gillespie and I, #20. The Golden Dice, #22. Passion and #23. Bitter Greens as being particularly memorable.

I'll be participating again next year. I might not get around to getting my sign up post up until after the holidays. Things are about to get very busy around here!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

WAITING ON WEDNESDAY: I am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith

"Waiting on Wednesday" is a weekly blogging event hosted by Breaking the Spine that highlights eagerly anticipated new releases.

I've been waiting a while for this debut historical novel by Phyllis T. Smith. It's due out in April 2014.

Here's the goodreads blurb:

Her life would be marked by scandal and suspicion, worship and adoration...
At the tender age of fourteen, Livia Drusilla overhears her father and fellow aristocrats plotting the assassination of Julius Caesar. Proving herself an astute confidante, she becomes her father's chief political asset and reluctantly enters into an advantageous marriage to a prominent military officer. Her mother tells her it is possible for a woman to influence public affairs,  reminding Livia that  while she possesses a keen sense for the machinations of the Roman senate, she must also remain patient and practical. But patience and practicality disappear from Livia's mind when she meets Caesar's heir, Octavianus. At only eighteen, he displays both power and modesty. A young wife by that point, Livia finds herself drawn to the golden-haired boy. In time, his fortunes will rise as Livia's family faces terrible danger. But her sharp intellect and her heart will lead Livia to make an unbelievable choice: one that will give her greater sway over Rome than she could have ever foreseen.

Livia is a fascinating historical character and I can't wait to read her story!

And I'm excited to see what other books everyone is waiting for.

Monday, December 16, 2013


It's been another wonderful year for challenges. The Back to the Classics Challenge is one of the most challenging and most rewarding for me. The categories are great guides for steering me towards a variety of truly great literature. Some of these books have been sitting on my shelf for years. Others are books that I've always wanted to read, but never had the proper "deadline" pushing me to read this next rather than something more pressing on my list.

Sarah also adds the incentive of a drawing for a prize for those who complete the challenge. I've read all the required category books and three optional books, so that's 2 entries, I think.

The books I read with links to reviews are:

The Required Categories:
  1. A 19th Century Classic : Middlemarch by George Elliot
  2. A 20th Century Classic : The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  3. A Pre-18th or 18th Century Classic : The Odyssey by Homer
  4. A Classic that relates to the African-American Experience :  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
  5. A Classic Adventure : The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff 
  6. A Classic that prominently features an Animal : The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Optional Categories:
A. Re-read a Classic :  Vanity Fair by William Thackeray --didn't get to this one
B. A Russian Classic : Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky -- didn't get to this one
D. A Classic Children's/Young Adult title: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
E. Classic Short Stories : The Collected Stories of Nikolai Gogol
After hosting this wonderful challenge for years, Sarah is ready to pass the baton. There is possible interest from Karen at Books and Chocolate but I think she wants to be sure that there is enough interest in the blogging community before she commits to hosting. So if you'd like to participate in 2014, let Karen know you're interested!
A big THANK YOU to Sarah for all the work that has gone into making this such a successful challenge for these past few years.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

BACK TO THE CLASSICS REVIEW: The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles

I’m sorry to say that I won’t be able to complete two of the optional categories in the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge this year, but I have just turned the last page on my final book from the required categories. For the pre-18th century classic, I chose The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles.

I’ve read various versions/re-imaginings of The Odyssey before. It’s one of those stories I never really grow tired of hearing, along with The Iliad. The Iliad is more heart-wrenching and is my favorite of the two. But Odysseus’ adventures are inspiring. His need to just get home is so understandable. And Penelope’s faithfulness, cleverness, and despair-turned-to-joy are lovely to read about when so many of the women in the old Greek stories are portrayed so unpleasantly.

Still, it was time for me to read Homer’s version rather than condensed or novelized forms. The Odyssey is a beautifully rich and rambling journey through the narrative of Odysseus’ multi-year effort to return to Ithaca from Troy. It details the trials he was put through because of the anger of the gods, including, ultimately, the loss of his crew. Meanwhile, a horde of young men have descended upon his home to woo his beautiful wife. They are eating him out of house and home and devaluing the inheritance of his son, Telemachus. His wife, Penelope, has put the suitors off by means of a clever ruse for a few years, but her time has run out.

Meanwhile, Telemachus has grown to manhood. Unfortunately, he has not the strength or support to run the suitors off. It’s gotten to the point where he would just as soon have his mother choose one of the suitors so that the others would leave and let him keep what is left of his inheritance. But, what if his father is still alive?

At the urging of Athena, Telemachus sets off to visit Odysseus’ old comrades-in-arms to see if they might have any word of what has happened to him. This keeps him busy for the last few months of his father’s wandering. He is hastily summoned home by the goddess just as his father does return. Then, he and his father take their revenge on the suitors.

In the course of Telemachus’ voyage and Odysseus’ last few stops and return home, there is quite a bit of recounting just what all has been going on with everyone since the fall of Troy. There is even some reminiscing about the bad old days in Troy. Odysseus talks about how he had to go down to the Underworld where he met up with some of the dead warriors. They, too, talked about happenings since Troy. It’s a very full story. An interesting story. If you love these old Greek myths and legends, it seems everyone gets a mention in one way or another.

When Odysseus is home at last, and places himself in the way of the suitors, they heap abuse upon him. The story now moves quickly. Homer makes his villains behave so foully toward Odysseus that the reader (or listener) is ready for the retribution planned by the gods and executed by Odysseus and Telemachus. It’s swift, brutal, and gory.

Novelized or condensed versions of this book that I’ve read straighten out the chronology and remove a lot of the repetitiveness. They are easier to read and, for this modern reader, more emotionally engaging. Homer meanders. There is a little too much repetition of events and of set phrases: young dawn’s rosy red fingers or Penelope wailing about the cursed city of Troy that she calls desTroy. Although it’s lovely the first and second time, after awhile I started to feel like "I’ve read this already." Or "Odysseus, you’ve told this story already. Twice. Let’s move on." And yet even so, the book is captivating. Even with knowing how it is all going to end.

It’s a wonderful book to have read once. I know I’ll continue to seek out re-tellings of the tale, but I doubt I will re-read this one. However, I will eventually read Homer’s Iliad.

The Back to the Classics Challenge was hosted by Sarah Reads too Much.


Monday, December 9, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Longbourn by Jo Baker

I read Jane Austen many years ago and was/am an ardent fan. Still, for some reason, I haven’t felt any desire to choose among the myriad Austen-related historical novels that have been coming out in the last few years. I’m not so enamored of the characters that I need to see their stories carried on. Or re-evaluated. Maybe it’s because I read Austen’s work so long ago. Or maybe it’s because I want to remember the characters as they were, not interpreted by another author.

But then I saw the blurb for Longbourn by Jo Baker. This is Pride and Prejudice as seen from the point of view of the Bennets’ servants. My first thought was: The Bennets had servants? Apparently, they did. They just didn’t receive any notice. They were beneath notice. So what do the servants think of the goings-on at Longbourn?

With the popularity of Downton Abbey, the soap opera mixture of upstairs and downstairs has proven to be compelling entertainment. Add to this the allure of Pride and Prejudice and the book was impossible to resist. But I had mixed feelings about it.

It’s a slow starter. In Longbourn, the servants seem to take as little interest in the goings-on upstairs as the Bennets take in them. Unless it is going to directly affect their lives, the characters in Longbourn don’t bother with Austen’s characters. They are too busy working. The plot of the book has to be fitted chronologically, more or less, to the plot of Pride and Prejudice because the relationship to the classic is the selling point of the novel. So the familiar major events are remarked upon. Jane goes to Netherfield and catches a cold. Mr. Collins comes for a visit and ends up proposing to Elizabeth. The Bingleys leave Netherfield abruptly. Etc. But this info, interesting as it may be to the reader, means very little to Sarah, the housemaid-protagonist of this novel, who is very much wrapped up in her own problems. Sarah’s concerns and, to some extent, those of the other servants, are the stuff of this book, not the love lives of the Bennet girls. And, frankly, it took a while before I was able to find Sarah’s problems all that compelling. It was an interesting concept, but not all that interesting a read.

Sarah is an orphan who was raised up by the housekeeper/cook at Longbourn, Mrs. Hill. Sarah is a young woman now, and has come to resent the grueling drudgery of her life and the hopelessness of her situation. Although grateful to Mrs. Hill for rescuing her from the orphanage, Sarah works hard from dawn until past nightfall and sees no hope for a better future. The difference between her life and that of the ladies she serves could not be more starkly presented.

One day, a new man, James, arrives on the scene who is hired on as footman. Although Sarah briefly entertains a fantasy of a romance, the footman ignores her. In turn, she scorns him, convincing herself that he is hiding some terrible secret. She turns her attention instead to the footman of the newly arrived Bingleys. The handsome messenger is flirtatious and charming and he brightens her days.

There is in-depth description of the workaday life of maidservants of the time period. While I admired the realism, unfortunately, reading about so much drudgery was a bit monotonous. I got tired of Sarah’s chilblains.

Eventually, the storyline does take off as Sarah tries to take more control of her life. It turns out James is hiding a secret. It isn’t just Sarah’s imagination. Sarah and James are good people who inevitably become drawn to one another but obstacles are put in their path.

The roundabout love story works. It is not a "Romance" with dances and ball gowns and high society manners and intrigues. It’s gritty and difficult with no magic solutions. No one races around to rescue the broken dreams of the poor. Not even Mr. Darcy. In the end, the most striking feature of the book is how disinterested Sarah is in the Bennet girls’ stories and how disinterested they are in her. It’s an unflinching look at the lives of domestic servants in late 1700's England and an interesting love story in its own right. But it doesn’t borrow much from Pride and Prejudice except the names of characters and a loose structure based on a plot outline for action that is happening pretty much off stage.

This is the 36th book I've read for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Monday, December 2, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler

I did it! I successfully completed the TBR pile challenge (hosted by Roof Beam Reader)–with a month to spare. I’ve been so addicted to library books lately that I’ve been neglecting my challenges and then I realized how little time I had left and started to panic. So I read The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney last week and was then so close to finishing that I pulled Anne Tyler’s A Patchwork Planet from my shelf and polished it off.

Way in the past, I read a few of Tyler’s books and always enjoyed them, but I fell out of the habit of reading her. I bought A Patchwork Planet at one of our library’s used book sales because I knew, from experience, I would like it. But I felt no particular urgency about reading it. It was one of my alternates for the challenge. When I decided to read it, I devoured it in a day.

The hero of the story is Barnaby Gaitlin. Barnaby had a very troubled adolescence that he is just now starting to shake off as he turns thirty. His family is close but dysfunctional and his role within it is "black sheep," which doesn’t do much for his self-esteem. He has an ex-wife and a nine-year-old daughter who live in Philadelphia. (Barnaby lives in Baltimore.) He sees his daughter only on the last Saturday of the month, an uncomfortable arrangement. His life is primarily defined by his job, one of irregular manual labor. He works for Rent-a-Back, hired by the hour by the elderly or disabled for various odd jobs. Barnaby is particularly good at this because he is patient and kind-hearted; he forms affectionate bonds with the clients.

Despite the fact that Barnaby is good at what he does and performs a valuable service for many people, he is underappreciated by his family. Ironically, his family are "The Gaitlins" of the Gaitlin Foundation. His father and brother sit on the board of a foundation for the indigent set up by a wealthy great-grandfather. They are credited with being "do-gooders" when in fact it is Barnaby who is doing good. Barnaby is criticized for his lifestyle and lack of money, the implication being that he is lazy and unambitious. In fact, he is very hard-working and conscientious. He simply values different things.

Barnaby’s life begins to change when he meets a woman who is practical, steady, slightly older than he is, and much more socially adept. She helps him to begin to mend some of his fences. He takes steps toward an adult relationship. He feels his life is moving forward at last.

But is it?

Tyler’s novels always are wonderful for their character explorations. Barnaby is typically quirky, as are the characters he deals with on a regular basis. Tyler explores issues of aging and dependence in a touching way that manages to be both sad and funny. The detailed vignettes of Barnaby’s daily life make him seem very real (as do his family and friends) even though (or perhaps because) they are all a little odd. And it is also very real that Barnaby’s problems are not wrapped up into a neat little package and solved at the end of the book. It has an abrupt and not entirely satisfying ending but a realistic one. The book is classic Anne Tyler and it reminds me why I find her books so readable. It’s all about the characters.

Friday, November 29, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney was a 2006 Costa Book of the Year and received a fair amount of critical acclaim. I bought the paperback, and it’s possible it has been on my bookshelf six or seven years. Once again, the TBR pile challenge (hosted by Roof Beam Reader) is helping me to slowly clear the backlog of books I once enthusiastically purchased but never got around to reading.

The Tenderness of Wolves is literary historical fiction billed as a mystery. Set in the frigid Northern Territory in 1867, it begins with the murder (a scalping) of a French trapper. The body is discovered by Mrs. Ross (the sole first person narrator). She reports the murder to the town’s most prominent citizen, Mr. Knox. He reports it to the "Company," the fur trading company that has more or less of a monopoly on the dealings in that vast area. The Company sends out a team of investigators to catch the murderer. To Mrs. Ross’s dismay, her seventeen-year-old son disappeared the same morning, making him a suspect.

Another suspect presents himself by appearing in the victim’s house, where Mrs. Ross catches him. William Parker, a friend of the murdered man who is also a trapper and who is half-Native American, is immediately arrested for the crime. But not everyone believes he is guilty. Upon his release, he sets off in search of the real murderer, serving as Mrs. Ross’s guide. She is in pursuit of her son.

There are numerous subplots wrapped around this basic plot–the search for the trapper’s killer and the question of why he was killed in the first place. Much of the book is told from the third person viewpoints of other characters, alternating with Mrs. Ross’s first person viewpoint, which takes a little getting used to at first, but which serves the book well.

Still, despite the fact that the main plot involves a search for a murderer, it doesn’t read like a basic who-dunnit. There are not really clues to follow–not about the murder. There are questions about the various people and their motivations for behaving as they do. There is a mysterious piece of bone with markings on it that brings a separate plot question into the mix that has little to do with the main story. There is also a subplot of two sisters who had gone missing into the woods many years ago. These mini-mysteries intersect with the story of Mrs. Ross and Parker’s search for the murderer, but mainly tell stories in themselves.

The novel is heavy on atmosphere. The bitter cold and emptiness of the Northern Territories is emphasized, giving a sense of the loneliness. There is a good deal of examination of the psychology of the numerous characters, making for a read that is insightful, but with a storyline that dragged at times. Not all the subplots were equally interesting, but each contributed something to the whole.

This novel was also long-listed for the Orange Prize. The writing is beautiful and it’s one of those sad, haunting novels that, although not exactly enjoyable, is altogether worthwhile.

In addition to the TBR pile challenge, this is my 35th book read for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


I've been on a library binge lately, mainly because I have no room left on my bookshelves. But it's been so long since I've splurged on new books for myself that I couldn't help it. I bought two historical novels.

This is an editor's choice in the latest Historical Novels Review. The link is to the review. While you're there, you can check out the HNS website. If you're a historical fiction fan, there's no better resource!

My second new acquisition is Longbourn by Jo Baker. I haven't been drawn to Jane Austen spin-offs even though I love Austen. Maybe it's because I read her books so long ago I feel I should re-read the originals before going off on tangents. But this one had a unique sounding premise and I fell for it. So, we'll see what I think when I read it! (Link is to goodreads page)

This is my first time taking part in Stacking the Shelves hosted by Team Tynga's Reviews. Look at all the wonderful books people are reading!

Friday, November 22, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam

A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam came recommended in my library’s new fiction newsletter. Although it had a ring of "contemporary relationship novel" to it–not my usual cup of tea– the relationships were unique enough to catch my interest and I requested the book.

The premise, as I understood from the blurb, was that a chimpanzee, raised by humans, must inevitably be sent to a primate research facility where he would not be able to fit in among his own kind because he had been raised as a human. It would be a story of love, loss, and loneliness, but the twist to make it interesting would be its unusual protagonist. I approached the read with some trepidation because I expected it to be emotionally brutal. However, I didn’t find it draining; instead, it was emotionally rather flat. Other readers have certainly not had that reaction to the book, but I just never did connect with any of the characters, human or chimpanzee.

Walt and Judy are an affectionate Vermont couple who discover that they cannot have a baby. Judy is devastated. Walt wants only to see Judy happy, so he manages to acquire a baby chimpanzee for her through means that are shady although not exactly illegal. They raise the chimp as a son, not a pet, naming him Looee. They understand that he is not human, but they expect others to treat him as a part of their family. As Looee grows older and larger, even they have to come to grips with his alarming strength and disruptiveness, so they build a concrete addition to their own house so that Looee can have a place of his own. They spend time with him, but increasingly need time for themselves.

Interspersed with this family drama, there are alternating chapters taking us to a primate research facility in Florida. The facility has started as a center for research on primate behavior and psychology. The director worked with language and had taught two of the chimps to recognize symbols for words and even to form sentences to communicate. The book takes us into the heads of the chimps, particularly Mr. Ghoul, one of the chimps involved in the original set of experiments. The author puts words (some made up) into Mr. Ghoul’s head –what he thinks the chimps would be thinking. It’s more or less convincing–convincing to me, but I’m a human. What do I know about what a chimp would actually be thinking?

Over time, the facility grows. Its focus expands. There are more chimps with Mr. Ghoul and the director stops trying to get them to communicate with people and now simply studies how they interact with each other. In other areas of the facility, medical testing is going on.

Eventually, Looee outgrows his Vermont family. He has become dangerous. The only solution is to send him to a place that knows how to house chimps in a way that is safe for humans. Looee is sent to Florida.

It’s a long hard road for Looee. It’s not a pleasant situation for any of the chimps. (Understatement. A section of the book is given over to moralizing about the inhumanity of medical research on animals.) It’s not particularly pleasant for any of the humans in the book either. While I found the whole thing a curious and interesting exploration of the various "what-ifs?" I’m not sure, at the end of it all, what the author’s "beautiful truth" was supposed to be. That we are not so very different from chimps? It isn’t exactly a revelation.

Monday, November 18, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Our next book group book is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It’s been on my I-should-really-read-this list for a long time, but it wasn’t something I particularly wanted to read. I’m glad our book group chose it, because I enjoyed it much more than I expected.

Junior is an Indian growing up on a reservation in Spokane, Washington, where poverty, alcoholism, and violence are the norm. He is further disadvantaged by having been born with hydrocephalus and a seizure disorder, so he refers to his brain as damaged. However, there is no evidence of that. He’s the smartest kid in his school and a good (coordinated) basketball player. Still, he tells us that he stutters and lisps and wears lopsided glasses. Being skinny and awkward in appearance, he’s a natural target.

Despite the many disadvantages of his situation, Junior cannot be kept down. He wants to be a cartoonist (examples included), and he allows himself to dream. When a teacher tells him that there is no hope on the reservation so he has to leave before he is trapped like everyone else, Junior decides to transfer to an all-white school in a neighboring town.

Junior’s adolescent male observations on life, love, alcohol abuse, education, basketball, friendship, and true tragedy make this a touching and painful story, but also a hopeful and, at times, a funny one. Junior has a way of bringing out the good in people–sometimes it takes a while, but if there is good, it’ll work its way out. Unfortunately, while there may be an optimistic end in sight for Junior, the overall picture of the reservation life and the people he must leave behind remains bleak. And because it shows us that picture, too, this is an important book.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams

I should have read A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams over the summer because it would have been a great beach read. (Or vacation read since I’m not a beach-goer.) But this historical love story set primarily in a vacation community (Seaview) on the beachfront of Rhode Island in the 1930s is enjoyable enough to read any time.

The protagonist is Lily Dane, a smart young woman from an elite family who has spent her life summering in Seaview. For most of her life, she had been best friends with Budgie Byrne–outgoing, wild, indulged, beautiful Budgie who makes Lily feel staid and bland in comparison. In 1931, while in college, on a date at a Dartmouth football game, Budgie introduces Lily to Nick Greenwald, a friend of her boyfriend. Lily has been forewarned about Nick–he’s Jewish. This doesn’t matter to Lily, though it will to her parents. For Nick and Lily, it’s love at first sight.

The novel flashes back and forth in alternating chapters between 1931 and 1938. A mystery of sorts is unfolding. Because while Nick and Lily’s college romance is rapidly progressing in 1931, leading to a forbidden engagement, seven years later it is Budgie and Nick who appear in Seaview as Mr. and Mrs. Greenwald, newlyweds. Lily is living with her all-but-absent mother and a six-and-a-half-year-old sister, Kiki.

The old-line Seaview community does its best to ostracize Nick and Budgie. Nick rarely bothers to make the commute from New York, but Budgie is determined to repair the damage to her friendship with Lily. Even after all this time, Lily is unable to break away from Budgie. Moreover, she is infuriated by the bigotry of those who would shun Nick. And so they slip into the cracks of her world.

This is a fun read. The clues to the various mysteries of the relationships are not too deeply hidden, so you can guess what the revelations are going to be. Nevertheless, the story barrels along to an exciting and satisfying conclusion.

This is my 34th book read for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Monday, November 11, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent has been receiving wonderful reviews and the plot summary made it irresistible, if a little daunting. As added encouragement, during a quick, curious perusal of the 2013 Best Historical Fiction Good Choice Awards on goodreads, I noticed it was one of the picks. I’ve only read a couple of the nominees: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan and Z. A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. And I have A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams next on my list since it, like Burial Rites, is a library book that can’t be renewed. I won’t vote because I can’t even choose a favorite from among the books I have read and don’t think it would be fair to exclude the ones I haven’t. But I’m pleased to have this list of recommended historical fiction!

Burial Rites is a gorgeous but dark story of the last person to be publicly beheaded in Iceland–an execution that took place in the early 1800s. The historical details are meticulously researched, but the woman’s thoughts, words, and, of course, the motivation for her crimes are fictionalized. It is beautifully done. The setting is cold and merciless. The grinding poverty and barrenness of the life of Agnes Magnusdottir (or Agnes Jonsdottir–the unfortunate woman is not even granted the dignity of a solid identity) makes for a relentlessly cruel story. We know she is condemned to die. She knows she is condemned to die. After all, she is a convicted murderess.

Agnes, along with two fellow servants, has been found guilty of murdering her master and his guest and then burning down his farm to hide the crime. She is sentenced to be executed, but while awaiting confirmation of the sentence, she is sent to an isolated farm in northern Iceland, essentially to be warehoused.

Margret and Jon are the unfortunate couple chosen to be her warders. They don’t want the burden or responsibility, especially since they have two daughters. It isn’t safe to house a murderess, nor do they want their daughters exposed to her influence. But when Agnes arrives–withdrawn, frightened, angry– she is not what they expected. She’s a hard worker. She’s knowledgeable. She’s kind. Agnes is not inclined to talk about what has happened, nor would the family ask. However, a local priest, Toti, has been chosen to be her spiritual advisor, and he coaxes words from her. Eventually, they–and the reader–learn the truth of Agnes’s life and of the two men’s deaths.

Does it matter that she has a chance to speak? Does it matter that the truth is told? With all the rumors that have defined her life, will it make a difference to her that someone hears her side? It’s a brutally harsh book and it could be argued both ways. Agnes never stood a chance. But this is a beautiful story about compassion. Maybe Agnes’s story makes a difference in the lives of her warders. Maybe books like this make readers think a little more deeply. I’ll certainly be looking for Hannah Kent’s next book.

This book is a historical fiction challenge book. The challenge is hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Friday, November 8, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Breakable by Aimee L. Salter

Bullying is certainly not new. However, awareness of the problem has been raised in recent years, particularly as the pervasiveness of social media has made cyber-bullying an increasing threat with the power to devastate young lives. So it is no surprise that YA contemporary fiction is reflecting today’s world with novels centered on teen protagonists who must deal with bullies.

Breakable, a new release by Aimee L. Salter, is a compelling story about seventeen-year-old Stacy, who has been bullied for years by a clique of fellow students who used to be her friends. The daily torment escalates when Stacy’s one remaining friend, a boy named Mark, begins to date one of the worst of the bullies, a nasty scheming girl named Karyn. Karyn is able to hide her true personality from Mark, who is blinded by her pretty face and popularity.

Stacy has been quite desperately in love with Mark for a long while. It’s difficult enough that he just sees her as a friend, but when he starts going out with Karyn, it’s more than Stacy can take. Karyn and the rest of the crew are all too aware of Stacy’s feelings and use this as additional ammunition against her.

There is one more person in Stacy’s corner. For years, Stacy has been communicating with her future self, "Older Me," whom she can see in mirrors. Stacy relies on "Older Me" to guide her through the impending crisis, but as the bullying spirals out of control, even her future self seems to fail her.

Breakable is a fast-paced read with memorable characters. Salter is able to get inside Stacy’s head to show both the emotional frailty and the resilience of a teenager who has been victimized for years but who retains the capacity for a strong and generous love. It’s a heart-wrenching tale of a girl in crisis and a powerful book about the long-lasting effects of bullying.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The Great Western Stories of Dorothy M. Johnson

My memory is getting so awful. It’s really true that multitasking on the internet is disastrous for the brain. Somewhere, on some site, some time in the not too distant past, I read a blurb about Dorothy M. Johnson. She died in 1984, so it wasn’t an obituary, but for some reason the article was bringing up Johnson’s writing and the significance of her being a woman who wrote westerns. People told her that women couldn’t, but she persevered, and she wrote some of the best known and most respected western fiction of her day. Perhaps of all time.

I had never heard of Dorothy M. Johnson, but I had heard of some of her works: A Man Called Horse and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I didn’t know why those titles were familiar–movies probably, because I hadn’t read the stories. (And in fact, looking up the movies, I did see a least a scene or two of A Man Called Horse when I was very young. Some of it was vivid enough to stick in my mind.) But I decided I needed to do the reading.

I think the book may have been lost somewhere in the library because it took a long time to find its way to me even though I was the only one on the request list. It arrived at the same time as a particularly large library haul. I put it near the top of the pile because it’s short and then I read it in a few hours. It was a few hours very well spent.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The Great Western Stories of Dorothy M. Johnson is a collection of four short stories including the title story, A Man Called Horse, The Hanging Tree, and Lost Sister.

I’m ready to join the choir singing Dorothy Johnson’s praises. The stories are quite perfect examples of the genre with spare prose and straightforward plots that nevertheless manage to kick a little. She recreates the Old West and populates her tales with characters that seem very real, or that seem to be the kind of characters I imagine populated the Old West. I won’t describe the plots of each, but there are gunfights, sheriffs, and prospectors for gold, a man caught by Indians who stays for awhile, and the return of a woman taken captive by Indians when she was just a girl. What happens in these stories is not always what you might expect, but it makes you pause and think.

These are historical, so I'm adding them to my list for the historical fiction challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry. (I'm curious to see just how much historical fiction I read in a year.)

Monday, November 4, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Venetia by Georgette Heyer

Lately, when I’m looking for something diverting and fun to read, I’ve been turning to Georgette Heyer. Her books are predictable, sure, but her characters are so nicely drawn and the witty banter is always entertaining. I decided I deserved a treat, so I plucked Venetia from my pile of library books and dove in.

Venetia is a beautiful, charming, and frank-minded young woman of good family who has reached the unfortunate of age of twenty-five still unmarried. She lives a secluded life in the country since her father was a selfish recluse who refused to tolerate company after the death of his much-loved wife. (Venetia was young when her mother died and barely remembers her.) Venetia has an older brother, Conway, who escaped first to the university and then to the army. She also has a younger brother, seventeen-year-old Aubrey. Aubrey is extremely intelligent and scholarly but has "a weak hip" and a pronounced limp. The upshot of all this is that upon the death of her father, Venetia was left running the family estate and caring for her brother until such time as Conway saw fit to return to his responsibilities. In three years, Conway has not seen fit to return.

This leaves Venetia in an awkward situation with regards to her future. Her father had never allowed her to venture out into company and he received almost no visitors. He did not let her go to her aunt’s home in London for her coming-out season. So, Venetia remained at her manor (Undershaw) to be courted now by the only two eligible men in the town: a rather ridiculous boy several years her junior who fancies himself a romantic hero and a pompous, self-righteous friend of the family named Edward Yardley, who considers her his property already.

Venetia’s only other alternative is to wait for Conway’s return and then set up housekeeping for herself somewhere with Aubrey. This is actually what Venetia, who is shockingly independent, prefers, though no one can believe it.

And then, one day, while out picking blackberries on her ever-absent neighbor’s property (The Priory), she stumbles across the neighbor who–embarrassingly--isn’t absent. Lord Damerel is a rake with a terrible reputation. At their first meeting, he demonstrates what a true scoundrel he is by grabbing her and kissing her. (He thinks she’s one of his tenants–as if that is an excuse. But apparently it is.) Venetia is scandalized, but she’s a lot more open-minded than her neighbors and what she has seen intrigues her rather than putting her off. Damerel is more than intrigued by Venetia and resolves to prolong his stay in the country.

A few days later, Aubrey suffers a riding accident and Damerel happens to rescue him. This provides the opening for Venetia to visit the man who is shunned by everyone of her acquaintance. In a short while, she and Damerel and Aubrey are fast friends.

The reader can see where this will eventually lead. Damerel will be reformed by the innocent Venetia without losing any of his rakish appeal. Venetia will grow wiser in the ways of the world without losing any of her innocent charm. And this is Heyer, so while illicit liaisons are alluded to in the broader world, the romance between the hero and heroine does not move to the bedroom. Despite knowing in advance how everything will end, the pleasure of reading the book is seeing how it gets where it is going. Venetia has a delightful cast of characters. I enjoyed whiling away the hours following the twists and turns of the relationship between the not-so-jaded-as-he-imagined-himself-to-be Lord Damerel and the not-so-green-as-everyone-thinks-she-is Venetia.

I'll add this to my historical fiction challenge list. The challenge is hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Friday, November 1, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout writes some painfully insightful contemporary fiction. I loved Olive Kitteridge, despite its rather bleak and lonely portrayal of its New England cast of characters. Abide With Me also impressed me. (But I confess after looking back at my review that I’m having trouble remembering details of the plot.) So I put my name on the library waiting list for The Burgess Boys as soon as it came out. The topic is not one that would normally have called out to me. It falls into the category of "contemporary dysfunctional family," but I wanted to read whatever Strout wrote next.

In the prologue, a writer and her mother gossip about a troubled family from their hometown in Shirley Falls, Maine. Somewhat estranged themselves, recounting the troubles of this other family is one thing that brings them together. The writer eventually decides to tell the story of this family, the Burgesses, although she is a little concerned about what people will think of her for writing a book about people she knows. It’s an odd jumping off point for the story and seems a little unnecessary. In fact, the superfluousness of the prologue made me think that there really must be some sort of literary significance to it. Maybe the point is that we are all a little voyeuristic about other people’s lives and tend to use stories of other peoples’ troubles to diminish our own problems the way the narrator and her mother do. Or perhaps the point is the more obvious one that the narrator’s mother makes: nobody ever knows anyone. But Strout works very hard to get us to know the Burgesses.

The story itself is an interwoven tale of painful sibling dynamics, marital woes, and social dysfunction, peppered through with tiny (very tiny) rays of hope.

The title is a bit of a misnomer. There are three Burgesses, two boys and one girl. Jim Burgess, the eldest, is the leader, the rock of the family. He possesses a certain charisma that wins people over, but the reader, who gets to see through him, is not so easily won. He has grown up to be a wildly successful defense lawyer. The twins, Bob and Susan, are a few years younger. Bob has tried all his life to emulate Jim. He’s a lawyer as well, but he works for the legal aid society. He has not achieved Jim’s financial success or, for that matter, any of Jim’s admirable stability. Bob is practically an alcoholic. Yet Bob is, we are made to understand, actually a nice guy for all his ineffectiveness. Both men have escaped Maine and now live in New York City. Jim is married to a wealthy Connecticut woman named Helen. They are recent empty-nesters. Bob, childless, is divorced from Pam, but remains on friendly terms with her. The female sibling, Susan, has stayed in Shirley Falls where she works as an optometrist. Her husband abandoned her and their awkward son, Zachary, now a teenager. Susan is embittered, lonely, and "no longer pretty" as everyone is quick to point out.

None of the siblings is particularly happy. A tragedy in their past may be the reason or it could be that all Strout’s characters are basically discontent. But the Burgesses do have a whopper of a history to account for their underlying maladjustment. While young, they suffered the loss of their father in a horrifying accident. The three children were playing in their car at the top of the hill. The four-year-old Bob messed with the gears and the car rolled down the hill and killed him. And while no one blamed him, and no one ever speaks of the accident, poor Bob carries that burden around with him. And the siblings did and do blame him.

The story begins when Zachary (Susan’s teenage son) tosses a pig’s head into a mosque in Shirley Falls during prayers during Ramadan.

He has no real reason for doing this beyond a vague hope for some attention from his absent father. Zach is a very lonely, depressed boy. However, Shirley Falls is experiencing some racial tension and a clash of cultures. Although the Maine town prides itself on being warm, welcoming, and liberal, an influx of Somali refugees has tested them and found them wanting. Many of the inhabitants are more strongly prejudiced than they want to admit.

Zach’s stupid act is interpreted as a hate crime. Susan summons her lawyer brothers home to Maine for support. A hornet’s nest is stirred up as old patterns of sibling interaction are revived and intensified.

Strout is at her best with character sketching and making people seem very real, very large warts and all. Although it is difficult to like any of the siblings or their spouses, it is possible to understand and sympathize with them. The plotting of the book is somewhat predictable and is not the strong point, although the story did hold my interest throughout. The book deals with some ambitious themes and may be trying to do too much. But the pictures Strout draws of the bonds between the siblings that ultimately, despite their dysfunction, are strong enough to carry them through the bitterest trials, make this a satisfying family drama.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

WAITING ON WEDNESDAY: Breakable by Aimee L. Salter

"Waiting on Wednesday" is a weekly blogging event hosted by Breaking the Spine, that highlights eagerly anticipated new releases.

Here's the book I'm looking forward to reading--to be released next week!


The goodreads blurb is:

When seventeen-year-old Stacy looks in the mirror she can see and talk to her future self. “Older Me” has been Stacy's secret support through the ongoing battle with their neurotic mother, relentless bullying at school, and dealing with her hopeless love for her best friend, Mark.

Then Stacy discovers Older Me is a liar.

Still reeling from that betrayal, Stacy is targeted again by her most persistent tormentor. Only this time, he's used her own artwork to humiliate her - and threaten her last chance with Mark.

She’s reached breaking point.



Sunday, October 27, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

DISCLAIMER: I received this book for free from the goodreads first reads program.

I really wanted to read this book! Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln are fascinating individuals and even more interesting is their complex relationship. Countless shelves can be filled with what has been written on Lincoln during the White House/Civil War years. And yet there always seems to be more to explore.

In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, Jennifer Chiaverini uses the viewpoint of Mrs. Lincoln’s modiste, her friend and confidante, Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley, to present a different, more personal, side of the Lincolns during the White House years.

Mrs. Keckley was born into slavery but was able to buy her freedom thanks to her skill as a seamstress. She moved to Washington, D.C. where she began making dresses for the elite of society, including Mrs. Jefferson Davis. She was uniquely placed to hear the women’s thoughts on the impending arrival of the president-elect, Mr. Abraham Lincoln, as well as all the talk of the increasing likelihood of southern states’ secession from the union.

After Lincoln’s inauguration, when many of Mrs. Keckley’s patrons left for destinations further south, she was able to secure a chance to make a dress for Mrs. Lincoln. Before long, she was Mrs. Lincoln’s primary modiste and a valued part of the Lincoln household. From that vantage point, she had an intimate knowledge of the Lincolns’ interactions with each other, of Mary Lincoln’s troubles (her extravagant expenditures, her social gaffes, her difficulties with her husband’s cabinet members, and her hot temper), and of some of President Lincoln’s political quandaries. However, her discretion and loyalty during those years was absolute.

Chiaverini does a very good job of presenting well-researched material. It’s a sympathetic portrait of Mary Lincoln but by no means a flattering one. As for the president, through Mrs. Keckley’s admiring eyes, he is always given the benefit of the doubt even when she doesn’t understand why is isn’t moving faster or farther to help her people.

In addition to the president and first lady, we are presented with the life story of Mrs. Keckley, a talented, level-headed, gracious woman who ends up quietly devoting a good portion of her life to the Lincolns. For a time, it is greatly to her benefit but after Lincoln’s assassination, she continues to stand by Mrs. Lincoln though she has nothing further to gain and, in fact, has quite a bit to lose.

This is a quiet, contemplative type of book. In some ways, it reads like a very interesting biography more than a novel. There is a lot of introspection, letter writing, overhearing of gossip, and sharing of news. The big historical events happen off-stage. So while it’s difficult to feel immersed in the story in an emotional way, it’s a wonderful imagining of the life of Mrs. Keckley and her view of the Lincolns.

I’m adding this on to my list of books for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Nikolai Gogol. The Collected Stories

I’m getting nervous about my last two challenges. Time is growing short. Some of the back-to-the-classics challenge books are optional, but I still have to read my required pre-18th century or 18th century choice-The Odyssey. Unfortunately, my son has to read it for school, so he has first dibs on the book. Why didn’t I read that one first?

In the meantime, I decided to read my choice for classic short stories: Nikolai Gogol- The Collected Stories. I bought this collection about four years ago (after reading The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri which mentioned Gogol’s The Overcoat prominently). But it’s been collecting dust. I’m not much one for short stories.

Gogol is a Ukranian-born Russian writer who lived in the early 1800s. I’m no student of Russian literature, so all I’ve learned about him is taken from the book’s introduction. His earlier stories are influenced by Ukranian folklore and the later stories are more sophisticated but absurd. He had a great deal of influence over other Russian writers. None of this intro prepared me to love this book as much as I did.

What are these stories? Possibly the best known are The Nose; The Overcoat; and maybe The Madman’s Diary, which were included in this collection. His earlier books were Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, Vols I and II, and included in this collection from those books were St. John’s Eve and Christmas Eve. There were a total of thirteen stories in the collection, a mixture of earlier and later stories. And they were all captivating. There were similarities in them, but there was a difference in tone between the earlier stories and the later ones. Actually, I enjoyed the earlier ones more.

The "folklore-ish" tales were conversational in style. And even though the narrator wandered around in tangents, he was a fantastic storyteller, always drawing me in with the wild details. There were witches and devils galore, so maybe it was a kind of magical realism, but it was like nothing I’ve read before. Not so much scary as matter-of-fact, as though how do you live with these things if these things are real, and they scare you, but you go on with your life because they are part of life.

The middle portion of the book had stories that were vignettes of Russian countryfolk’s lives, humorously and sadly portrayed. One story that I thought was brilliantly done started with a chatty narrator complaining about his memory being like a sieve. He heard a wonderful story from a great storyteller, so he insisted the man write the story down. Awhile later, he noticed that his wife had used some of the pages to wrap cakes. So- if you want to know the ending of the story, you have to find the storyteller. The narrator gives great detail on where to locate the storyteller and how to recognize him. Then he launches into the story. It’s a detailed and increasingly interesting little family drama. I KNOW that the ending of the story is going to be lopped off. Nevertheless, I continue reading. I get sucked in to the dilemma. I want to know how the conflict is going to be resolved. And when the tale ends abruptly, leaving me hanging, I have no one to blame but myself. Who would DO that to a reader?

The Overcoat is the last story in the collection. It’s a sad story about a downtrodden clerk, content-even happy- in his job, but poor. It comes to pass that he needs a new coat. He scrimps and saves and plots with a tailor friend to have a new coat made. The thrill of the new coat becomes the focus of his life and when it is finally finished, it opens a whole new world of possibilities for him. Except that the first evening he wears it, the coat is stolen. When he attempts to seek help from the authorities, he is ignored and ridiculed. He sickens and dies. His ghost takes a sort of muted revenge. The bare bones outline doesn’t do the story justice. Gogol’s writing is able to wring every last bit of feeling from it.

I’d love to read the stories again in an annotated version to help extract more of the meaning from them, because I was reading quickly just to enjoy the stories and the beauty of the words on the page. But I’m sure there are layers upon layers in there. One of these days, when I’m not running in so many different directions, I’m going to pull Gogol back down from my shelf.

You can check out all the classics being read by many different bloggers at the back-to-the-classics challenge hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much.

Monday, October 14, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Mortal Arts by Anna Lee Huber

Anna Lee Huber’s historical mystery romance series "A Lady Darby Mystery" is quite addictive. I recently read The Anatomist’s Wife and decided to just move right on to book two, Mortal Arts, while the characters and plot were still fresh in my memory. I’m glad that I did. Book two was as enjoyable a read as book one.

The protagonist, Kiera (Lady Darby), is on her way to Edinburgh with her pregnant sister and brother-in-law when their journey is interrupted. They detour to the manor of an old friend, Michael Dalmay, who is engaged to marry Kiera’s younger cousin. However, the wedding plans are in disarray. Michael’s older brother, Will, who happens to be Lord Dalmay, has returned to the family home after having been missing for ten years. Kiera thought he was dead, but in fact, he had been in an insane asylum.

Will Dalmay, many years older than Kiera, fought in the Napoleonic War and returned home with PTSD. Of course, it was not recognized or diagnosed as such in those days. His own father grew alarmed by his symptoms and had him locked away, secretly. It was not until after the death of the father that Michael was able to have his brother released.

Unfortunately, Will’s condition only worsened in the years of his confinement. There are rumors that he has become violent. And now a local girl has gone missing.

Fortuitously, Nicholas Gage is also a friend of Michael Dalmay’s, and he has been summoned to the manor as well, or so he says. Once again, Kiera and Gage join forces to solve a mystery. And once again, their own interpersonal struggles help and hinder the progress of the investigation. Kiera needs to be able to trust Gage, but he’s not completely honest with her. She needs to be able to trust Will, but Will doesn’t even completely trust himself.

The plot twists keep the book moving right along, but the development of the relationship is what makes the book most compelling. I’ll be looking for book three.

This is another book added to my historical fiction challenge, hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Friday, October 11, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Private Life by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is an incredible writer. I remember being awed by A Thousand Acres, even though it’s been a good twenty years since I’ve read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Being the historical fiction fan that I am, I loved the epic tragedy Greenlanders even more. (I was, I have to admit, a little disappointed by Moo.) But it’s been awhile since I’ve read Smiley’s work. When Private Life came out a couple of years ago, I thought the premise sounded interesting. It’s historical, set in the late 1800's through WWII. It’s literary. Character driven. I bought the book. Still, it never leaped off the shelf for me to read. Something else always appealed to me more. To inspire me, I chose it as one of my TBR pile challenge books.

It’s a beautifully written book. However, Jane Smiley does not do cheery.

Margaret Mayfield is the downtrodden heroine of this novel. The daughter of a somewhat overbearing Southern physician, Margaret suffers the death of her brothers during her childhood followed by the suicide of her father. Afterward, her mother seems to gain strength–a strength of purpose to see her daughters safely married off. Margaret’s livelier and lovelier sisters achieve the goal but Margaret lacks social skills.

At the nearly unmarriageable age of twenty-seven, Margaret has a stroke of good luck. She is reintroduced to a local hero of sorts, Captain Andrew Jackson Early, a renowned astronomer and naval officer. After a slow and somewhat halting courtship, Captain Early proposes. They are married and move to California where he is stationed.

There were hints before the marriage that Captain Early was not all he was represented to be, but Margaret wanted to believe in him. She wanted to be married to him. Or perhaps it was that she was expected to be married to someone and he seemed to be such a good catch.

The novel details the disaster of their marriage. Margaret has no choice but to be a supportive wife. But he is an impossible man to support. Obsessed with his scientific endeavors, he is arrogant and bullying. And while Margaret, for a time, has to believe that he has been misunderstood and mistreated by his peers, she is forced to recognize at last that he is a charlatan. And still, she has to support him even as he becomes unhinged and his actions have devastating consequences .

The book is beautifully detailed. The characters are painted in an achingly realistic way. Margaret is so horribly trapped in her time and place that it’s difficult to see a way out for her. Sadly, it isn’t clear if any of the other characters are any happier than she is.

Private Life is a quietly intense book about bitter disappointment, a life of regret.

And I have two more books to go in my TBR pile challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Marie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emling

I thought it was time for a little nonfiction. Marie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emling is, obviously, a book about the famous scientist and her two daughters, Irene and Eve.

When I was young, I read a lot of those inspirational biographies for girls: Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Jane Addams and, of course, Marie Curie. But the biographies were pretty superficial. Madame Curie’s story was meant to demonstrate that women could be scientists. I think I came away with a picture of the woman discovering radium pretty much by herself, with Pierre as sort of a glassware washer, who got a lot of the credit because he was a man. Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize, then tragically died of radiation poisoning. I admired her in an abstract way–but I didn’t want to BE Marie Curie.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this book caught me by surprise. Marie Curie had daughters? I realized that I actually knew nothing beyond what I’d read when I was eight or ten years old. Time to remedy that.

Emling’s book follows the later years of Curie’s life, after the death of her husband, after her affair with Paul Langevin, a married scientist who had once been one of Pierre Curie’s students. (This was not in the book I read as a child!!) Marie is desperate for funds to continue her research. She’s desperate for more radium. She is on the verge of being shunned by the scientific community because of her affair. And, she is trying to mother her two daughters. Irene is a budding young scientist. Eve, years younger, is musically inclined. Into their lives comes an American journalist named Missy Meloney. Meloney is able to convince the reclusive Curie to embark on an American tour to promote her research and raise money from the women of the United States. They raise enough money to purchase a gram of radium, enough to invigorate Marie’s research lab.

Irene and Eve accompany Marie on the American tour. It is a turning point for them, bringing them closer and giving them a focus and inspiration for the next phase of their lives.

This fairly short, well-researched book is an interesting account of the lives of these three women. Marie pressed on with her work long after winning her Nobel prizes, teaching and inspiring generations of scientists, particularly women. Irene went on to marry another researcher and to earn a Nobel of her own. Eve became a journalist and humanitarian. They were incredible women. This informative book is well worth the read.

Monday, October 7, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

In Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein stays with a subject she knows well. Following the success of her amazing YA historical, Code Name Verity, Wein gives us Rose Justice’s story. Like the protagonists of her previous novel, Rose is a young female transport pilot in WWII, but this time, Rose is an American, providing a different perspective. The book is told somewhat retrospectively; Rose is writing down what happened to her. This detracts a little from the tension because we know she’s going to survive, but still, the horror of what she is going to have to go through unfolds in a way that never permits the pace to flag.

Rose begins the novel as a naive but strong-willed seventeen-year-old pilot who loves to fly. She’s adventurous and good-natured. The other pilots (including Maddie from Code Name Verity) like her. But she’s coming in at the end of the war. The Germans are in retreat. And Rose doesn’t have a full appreciation of just how bad things have been for the people who have been suffering for so many years. When she hears radio reports of German atrocities committed in concentration camps, her understanding of the camps is murky at best, and she doesn’t quite believe the reports could be true.

As the Germans retreat, Rose is able to fly closer to the front. The border is fluid. On one particular mission, Rose manages to get off track. She is intercepted by German fighters who force her to fly with them into Germany where she is captured. Rose is taken to Ravensbruck. She finds out firsthand that not only were the rumors true, but the camps are worse, much worse, than anything coming out in the reports. Rose’s innocence is stripped away, and she is left raw, desperate to survive.

The bulk of the book deals with Rose’s struggle to cope with what she is confronted with in the concentration camp and how she made it through. She records her friendships and conflicts with the women in her group, which includes some of the "rabbits," women who survived Nazi experimentation.

Like Code Name Verity, the novel is an homage to the women who played such an important part in WWII, resisting the Nazis in different capacities. This book remembers, in particular, women who were the focus of Nazi "medical" experimentation. The details of those experiments make for horrific reading. In an interesting twist, Wein also introduces us to a German woman, who, in the interest of her own survival, took part for a time in the experiments as a technician.

Wein made Rose a poet as well as a pilot. I found Rose’s poems a bit distracting and confess I ended up skipping most of them, which is bad of me, since Rose’s poetry is a big part of what kept her sane in the camp. It could be that I was so caught up in the story I wanted it to keep moving, and felt the poems slowed it down.

Rose Under Fire does not have the Wow!! factor of Code Name Verity. It’s a much more conventional historical novel–and a fairly typical-of-the-genre book about the holocaust, the difference being an American female pilot for a protagonist. But Wein is a talented writer with a gift for characterization, and the book is emotionally gripping. So while it is different in some ways from Code Name Verity, it’s similar in that it is an excellent WWII YA historical!

I'm adding this to the count for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Monday, September 23, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

I’ve been eager to get my hands on Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole. It’s an epistolary novel and I love that format. It’s set in Scotland, in Edinburgh and on the remote Island of Skye, and I guess also in Illinois, although the setting of the male protagonist didn’t make as much of an impression on me. Most of the story takes place during WWI, but it begins during WWII, and then unfolds with flashbacks.

I’m making it sound more confusing than it is.

Elspeth Dunn is a poet in her mid-twenties living on Skye who receives a fan letter from a twenty-one year old college man, David Graham, living in Illinois. They strike up a flirtatious correspondence that results in their falling in love, despite the fact that Elspeth is married. When WWI begins, Elspeth’s husband goes off to join the fighting. Soon after, David volunteers as an ambulance driver. Elspeth and David meet for the first time and consummate their emotional affair. Elspeth now has a husband and a lover to worry about at the front.

In addition to the letters between Elspeth and David, there are also letters set during WWII between Elspeth and her daughter, Margaret, and between Margaret and her beau, Paul. Elspeth is concerned that the relationship between Margaret and Paul is progressing too quickly. Then a bomb drops, rattling Elspeth’s home and exposing Elspeth’s hidden letters. Margaret finds one of them, but before she can get any explanation, her mother disappears. Margaret, who remembers nothing about her father and knows nothing about her mother’s past, recognizes that the letters must hold the key.

The stories unfold simultaneously, with chapters shifting back and forth in time. Both Elspeth and David’s relationship and Margaret’s search for answers about the past are engaging narratives, and I didn’t want to put the book down. It’s nicely descriptive of the tension of wartime romance.

Still, when all was said and done, I felt sorry for Elspeth’s husband. And I couldn’t help but wonder why it was somehow OK for Elspeth to have an emotional affair because she used snail mail. If she and Davey had been interacting through Facebook or gmail, it would seem much more tawdry than their poignant, witty, captivating letters. So, as much as I liked the book, it nagged at me that I was rooting for this relationship. I had a mental image of Ann Landers interjecting a letter at the beginning of Elspeth’s story, suggesting that she cease writing to her American stranger and rather focus on rekindling the romance with her husband. Ann would suggest that they get some counseling. The reaction is anachronistic, of course. But if, by today’s moral standards, one should frown on online cheating on one’s spouse, why is it acceptable to consider snail-mail cheating on one’s spouse in 1912 the start of a beautiful love story? And yet, the love story did tug at the heart strings.

If you enjoy epistolary novels and wartime romances, Letters from Skye fits the bill. There is love, friendship, family drama and moral dilemma enough to keep you turning the pages. And then there are questions to think about after the last page is turned. It might make a good book club book.

I’m just going to keep going with the Historical Fiction Challenge, hosted by Historical Tapestry. And I have now finished the Library Book Challenge, hosted by Gina at Book Dragon’s Lair! This was a great challenge for me. It really helped me to use the resources of my wonderful local library more.