Monday, December 30, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson is a touching novel that combines two fascinating historical elements: the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Service and the Kentucky Blue people.

During the Great Depression, the WPA funded the hiring of impoverished women to bring books to rural communities. The packhorse librarians served a vital function, connecting isolated people with reading material and with human contact. These courageous, dedicated women (and rarely men) covered hundreds of miles on horses, mules, or donkeys to serve their patrons. They also transported letters, read to the blind, ill, and illiterate, and brought comfort to the poor and starving people of mountain communities.

The Kentucky Blue people were members of a pedigree carrying a mutation causing methemoglobinemia. Affected family members have blue-tinged skin.

Cussy Mary Carter, nicknamed Bluet, the fictional protagonist of this novel, is one of the Blue people. She believes she is the last of their kind. She is also a packhorse librarian.

Cussy Mary lives alone with her father, a coal miner. Her mother is dead and her father has black-lung disease. He wants to see her married, to have a man to take care of her. She wants to be left alone. She believes no man worthwhile would marry a “Blue.” For a time, it seems she’s right. More importantly, she loves her job. Her patrons depend on her. If she marries, she’d have to resign.

The novel does a beautiful job getting inside Cussy Mary’s head, showing how difficult it is to be “other.” The townspeople (many of them, not all) consider her “colored,” subject to all the laws affecting the few African Americans in town. Yet because her color is so different, so unnatural, people fear her even more. She is “hunted” by the local preacher who believes she’s a devil. She’s scorned and tormented by some of her fellow librarians. She’s excluded from the social life of Troublesome Creek.

Her love of books and dedication to the library is her salvation. It allows her to connect with people who value her. They see her, not her skin color. Cussy’s care of the people on her route, her compassion for their troubles and desire to help, make her a true heroine. One of her patrons, a new arrival to Troublesome Creek, is a sensitive, hardworking, well-read man who falls for her, adding a subdued but lovely romance to the story.

The extreme poverty, the rigors of life in the Kentucky hills, and the harsh exploitation by the coal companies provides the framework for the story. The author brings the setting and people alive. This book is wonderful.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Death Comes to the Nursery by Catherine Lloyd

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

The mystery-solving couple, Lady Kurland (Lucy) and her husband, Robert, have a new murder to solve in Death Comes to the Nursery, the latest novel in the series Kurland St. Mary Mysteries by Catherine Lloyd. (This series is really best read starting at book one. Although this novel could stand alone as a mystery, the significance of the relationships among the characters would be unclear without the backstory.)

Lucy and Robert had finally been blessed with a child in the last book. Now Lucy is pregnant again. More help is needed in the nursery. Lucy interviews a young woman named Polly for the position, and, although put off by Polly’s extraordinary beauty, agrees to give her a trial. Unfortunately, men at Kurland Hall and in the village fall all over themselves and even come to blows while trying to ingratiate themselves with the new nursemaid. Lucy and Robert are both annoyed by the trouble Polly inadvertently (or purposefully?) stirs up. Worse trouble awaits. The woman goes missing and is found dead.

Once again, the couple become sleuths. A coarse, belligerent newcomer, hired at the local tavern, is the prime suspect. But two employees at Kurland Hall, men who had fallen under Polly’s spell, are also under suspicion. When Lucy and Robert learn that Polly was not who she claimed to be, they set off for London to uncover her past.

The cozy mystery series continues to entertain. It wasn’t difficult to guess the culprit, but it was interesting to see how he was eventually unmasked. This is an addictive series!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Cilka's Journey by Heather Morris

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

Cilka’s Journey is a new historical novel by Heather Morris, author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz. It tells the story of one of the characters from The Tattooist: Cecelia Klein, known as Cilka. At the age of sixteen, Cilka was sent to Auschwitz with her mother and sister. Young and pretty, she was singled out by men in charge at the camps and repeatedly raped. If that wasn’t traumatic enough, she was then put in charge of the female prisoners who were sent to the gas chambers.

Cilka survived the experience riddled with guilt and shame.

After the concentration camp was liberated by Russian soldiers, Cilka was accused of collaboration--sleeping with the enemy--and sent to Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia.

Once again, Cilka was sexually abused. She was chosen by one of the soldiers to be his exclusive “mistress,” and was housed in a hut full of women who were visited regularly by guards who assaulted them.

Cilka was a survivor. She developed bonds with other women in her hut. She found her way into the camp hospital where she was trained as a nurse, working in the medical ward, then in the obstetric ward, and finally accompanying ambulances to accident sites. This was a privileged position. She worked in relative warmth and had access to better food which she shared with the women in her hut. Yet she lived in constant fear that her friends would discover why she had been sentenced to the Gulag–that she had been in charge of the “death block” at Auschwitz–and that her friends would shun her.

Cilka’s suffering and struggle to survive makes for difficult reading. (Perhaps not the best choice for Christmas season.) Yet, like all books in the WWII/Holocaust genre, it’s important. What makes this story unique is its focus on the war’s aftermath--the prison camps in Siberia. A caveat is that the prose is a bit plodding at times and the dialogues are sometimes stilted. Nevertheless, like The Tattooist, Cilka’s Journey is based on a real person. It’s a compelling story that should be heard.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Forever my Duke by Olivia Drake

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

Forever My Duke by Olivia Drake is book two in the Unlikely Duchesses series. The heroine, a feisty, twenty-six-year-old American named Natalie Fanshawe, is certainly an unlikely duchess. When her best friends, a missionary couple, were killed by British soldiers during a skirmish, leaving behind their six-year-old son, Leo, Natalie promised to bring the boy back to England to his grandfather. The grandfather had disowned his daughter for falling in love with an impoverished gentleman and running away to America. While on her way to deliver the boy, Natalie is trapped by a snowstorm at a small English inn. There, while chasing the mischievous Leo, she meets the hero of the book, Hadrian Ames, Duke of Clayton.

Hadrian is on his way to propose to Lady Ellen, daughter of his deceased father’s old friend and younger sister of the woman Hadrian was supposed to marry many years earlier. But Hadrian’s intended had eloped with another man, which had not disappointed Hadrian all that much. The younger sister is prettier and well-bred and docile, and he believes she will do for a wife as well as any other. It’s time for him to settle down and sire an heir, so he may as well carry out his father’s plan of uniting the two families.

Of course, after meeting cute, Hadrian and Natalie are thrown together to begin an off-kilter courtship. Hadrian falls for Natalie, but recognizes that they are from two different worlds. How can he wed a commoner? An American?

Natalie is as reluctant to wed an English lord as he is to marry “beneath” him. She is happy with the life she has in America and wants very much to return to it. She wants no part of English aristocracy.

And then there is the issue of Leo’s snooty, unpleasant grandfather. How can she leave the child with him? And what will Hadrian do about Lady Ellen, who is expecting a proposal?

The Romance is sweet. The characters are charming. The difficulties they face are real. But in true Romance fashion, love conquers all. To be released later this month, Forever My Duke is recommended for fans of Historical Romance.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Having been so impressed with Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser several months ago, I bought one of his earlier books, The Eyre Affair, which is book one in the A Thursday Next Novel series.

Set in England in an alternative 1985, this young adult novel follows Thursday Next, a thirty-something-year-old special operative in the Literary Detective Division. Generally, her job involves chasing down counterfeiters and plagarists, fighting copyright infringement, etc. Nothing as exciting as her father’s job. He’s in the Chronoguard, watching out for timeslips and rents in the spacetime continuum, things like that.

In this world, England and Russia have been fighting over the Crimea for a hundred years. Thursday (and her brother and her brother’s best friend who was the love of Thursday’s life) were in the military at one point. The battle that they were in was botched, her brother died, and, afterward, Thursday’s relationship died too. Long story.

The plot of this book includes an evil mastermind with strange superpowers, a seemingly all-powerful corporation that pretty much owns England, and an absent-minded but brilliant inventor (who happens to be Thursday’s uncle), as well as a slew of special operatives in Thursday’s division and other more dangerous and secretive divisions. Their lives intersect when one of the uncle’s inventions allows the evil mastermind to kidnap characters from works of fiction. If he can steal the original manuscript and manipulate (or kill) the character, changes ripple through every copy ever made through time. Naturally, as a literary detective, Thursday must prevent him from doing this dastardly thing.

As in Early Riser, the setting  is crazy and takes a while to sort out. There are quirky characters galore and a galloping plot. The protagonist has a snarky, funny voice. However, I didn’t enjoy this novel anywhere near as much as Early Riser. Maybe the style didn’t seem as original this time around. Or maybe the humor seemed too forced and the plot a bit too sloppy. It was a quick, fun read, but I don’t think I’ll be chasing down the next book in the series.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Follow the River by James Alexander Thom

Our historical fiction book group is meeting this weekend to discuss Follow the River by James Alexander Thom. This fictional captivity narrative, based on the true story of pioneer Mary Ingles, is an interesting adventure. However, first published in 1981, the story shows its age.

In 1755, at the time of the French and Indian War, the heavily pregnant Mary Ingles lived with her husband William and two young sons in Draper’s Meadows, a small community in western Virginia, the first white settlement west of the Allegheny divide. One morning, while William Ingles and Mary’s brother were working in the fields, the settlement was raided by a party of Shawnee. Several members of the community were killed. Mary, her sons, her sister-in-law Bettie Draper, and one man were taken captive.

The first part of the novel charts the journey upriver, though Ohio, near to present day Indiana. Mary impresses the Shawnee (particularly the chieftain) with her quiet dignity and bravery. She passes some kind of test when she gives birth to a daughter three days into the ride without making a sound, and then continues the journey without complaint.

They arrive finally in the Shawnee village where they meet with other white captives. There is a gauntlet to run. The captives are either killed or parceled out as slaves. Mary is offered the opportunity to become the woman of the chieftain but refuses. He sells her to French traders, but takes her two sons from her.

Broken-hearted, Mary decides to escape. While on a salt-gathering trip, she makes a run for it, leaving her infant daughter with a native woman. She is joined by a tough old Dutch woman. Together, they begin the return trip, on foot, with no provisions, late in the fall.

The second part of the book chronicles their harrowing adventures as Mary leads the way back to Draper’s Meadows by following the river. The women are dependent on one another, but very different in temperament. As they slowly starve, the older woman loses her mind and becomes as much of a threat to Mary as starvation and exposure.

It is a truly amazing survival story. The rich detail of the return journey makes the incredible believable.

While this old-fashioned historical adventure is the type of book I usually  enjoy, I found the second part of the book more engaging than the first. The story of the massacre and Mary’s interactions with her captors utilized every trope of captivity narratives and stereotypes abound. Although the novel is based on oral tradition from the Ingles’ family, the generic quality of the first part of the book made it less interesting.