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.