Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Book Review: The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters (YA historical)

Sixteen-year-old, Hanalee Denney, is angry when she learns that Joe is out of prison and back in her hometown of Elston, Oregon.  Eighteen-year-old Joe, a preacher’s son, was convicted of killing Hanalee’s father while driving drunk a year and a half prior.  When Hanalee consents to meet with Joe, he has surprising news for her.  He claims that her father’s only injury from the accident had been a broken leg, and he had not been in any danger until he was under the care of the town doctor, who is also Hanalee’s new stepfather.  

Hanalee begins investigating the local rumor that her father is a ghost wandering the roads he traveled on the night of his death and she also begins to investigate her new stepfather to see if he might be a murderer and a member of the local Klan.  Hanalee soon learns the Klan definitely had something to do with the events of her father’s last night.  As the daughter of a white mother and black father, Hanalee is no stranger to racism.  While she mostly felt accepted in her small town, there were always the little old ladies in church who would ask her mother if she had ever considered bleaching Hanalee’s skin.  However, the Klan’s deeply rooted hatred and fear of the unknown is new to her, and she learns that she may be their next victim.

I’ve been excited to read The Steep and Thorny Way ever since I heard about this YA retelling of Hamlet.  I read and enjoyed Cat Winter’s previous book, The Cure for Dreaming (review here), but I loved this one.  It definitely went in a different direction than I thought it would, but that was a good thing.  I don’t always like when a ghost is part of an otherwise earthly story, but it worked here, and the ghost of Hank Denney was one of my favorite characters.  

Winter’s research is very detailed and very frightening.  The 1920’s Oregon she portrays is a volatile place with bootleggers, Klansmen, homophobia, and the threat of eugenics.  Given that our own time is so volatile with frequent mass shootings, open racism in the population and in Presidential candidates, this book was certainly published at an appropriate time.  I loved the characters, a likable band of misfits; the lonely wild setting; and the ending.  

Now to read Winter’s debut novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

June Book Review Club: The Tea Rose Trilogy by Jennifer Donnelly (historical fiction)

I have been binge reading Jennifer Donnelly lately. It started when I picked up her YA historical mystery, These Shallow Graves, which I loved. I then read Revolution, another YA of hers. Then I read the Tea Rose trilogy (adult historical fiction), which I loved even more than These Shallow Graves. Then I finished off with A Northern Light, another YA historical.

The Tea Rose trilogy is exactly what I want in big, gorgeous historical novels.  The first in the series is The Tea Rose, which is set in 1888 London. Fiona Finnegan is a teenage factory worker with dreams of opening her own shop with her childhood sweetheart. Around her, London is in turmoil with dock workers and factory workers on strike and Jack the Ripper murdering his way through Whitechapel, but Fiona is only interested in her future as a businesswoman. When Fiona’s father, a new union leader for dock workers, is killed in what appears to be a work accident, it is the first in a series of tragedies for the Finnegan family. When she has lost almost everyone she loves, Fiona tries to get compensation money for her father’s death from his boss, Mr. Burton, but she learns that Burton had arranged for her father’s death and she has flee London to keep from being murdered herself. She goes to New York City to live with her uncle, where she becomes a powerful tea merchant. Over a decade later, Fiona returns to London to take her revenge.

The next books in the trilogy are The Winter Rose and The Wild Rose. To keep this spoiler free, I will say books 2 and 3 focus on other members of the same family over the next few decades. The Winter Rose, which is set in the early 20th century and moves from England to Kenya to America, was my favorite of the trilogy.  The main character was a young female doctor in an age where women were just going into medicine, and I really enjoyed her story.  The third, The Wild Rose, is a World War I novel, and it is a bit like Downton Abbey . . . with war spies. In the middle of book, when circumstances are bleak, it feels a bit like one of those Downton episodes where Julian Fellowes ruins all the characters’ lives for the sheer fun of it.  Mercifully, things wrap up a bit more peacefully (but not too tidily) toward the end.

There is a focus on social justice throughout the novels.  The Tea Rose deals with corrupt factory owners and the formation of laborers' unions.  The Winter Rose is, in part, about a woman who works to bring safe, affordable healthcare to working class London, while other doctors only provide substandard and unfairly priced medical care to these patients.  The Wild Rose shows what happens to the families barely getting by when the males have to go to war. To a certain degree, the novels seem to be about ambition.  Both the protagonists and antagonists have an unusual level of ambition, but what they do with it (help the poor or crush the poor) tends to be their defining characteristic.

The things I like about this series are the strong female characters, memorable settings and time periods, intricate plots, and wicked villains.  Each novel has a love story, which is essential to each plot, but it doesn't overwhelm the whole story.  It's perfect escapism, but it's intelligent escapism.

Are there any writers you would recommend that I binge read next?

As always, please head to Barrie's blog to read more June book reviews,

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

April Book Review Club: The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

In the fifties, up-and-coming writer Truman Capote became friends with the highly photographed socialites of New York, the women he would think of as his “swans.” The Swans of Fifth Avenue focuses on his relationship with one swan in particular, Babe Paley, and I can only describe it as a  platonic yet somewhat dark love story.

Babe and Truman are opposites. Babe has been raised to be always perfect and beautiful and to think of the comfort of other people first. Truman is unapologetically weird and thinks only of himself. He thrives upon causing drama and feels no guilt about the pain he inflicts on other people. Babe’s mother was overbearing; Truman’s mother was neglectful and cruel. In spite of their differences, they become best of friends, sharing confidences. For Babe, Truman is the only person she allows to get beyond her stylish surface.

This is definitely a character-driven book versus a plot-driven one. Benjamin’s portrayals of Babe Paley and Truman Capote are complex. Babe is definitely the more likable character, but I must confess that I know nothing about the real Barbara Cushing Mortimer Paley, so I didn’t have ideas about her as I started reading this book. Truman Capote is portrayed more sympathetically in the beginning, but he grows colder and more calculating after he gains fame through In Cold Blood. Eventually his desperate need of attention causes him to betray Babe and the swans. (Not a spoiler, as that is how the book begins.) Capote was somewhat of a sociopath, so I think Benjamin was fair to him in her portrayal.

My strangest response to this book was to be grateful that I am a chubby woman with a five-minute daily makeup routine. Reading about the swans lunching at fancy restaurants every day but not eating anything and Babe Paley never letting her husband see her before she put on her makeup was curiously liberating. I may never wear Christian Dior in my life, but I can eat a cookie. Eating a cookie will not bring fat-shaming from the paparazzi or a divorce. I can do a full-hour kickboxing class because my lunch consisted of real food and because I’m okay with people seeing me without makeup. Normal is good.

I enjoyed this, and I do recommend it. It is glamorous and gossipy, which makes it a fun read perfect for spring break, but well-developed characters make it more memorable than your average beach read.

For more April book reviews, please click on the icon below:

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

March Book Review Club: My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

In "My Life on the Road," Gloria Steinem talks about how travel shaped her life and her viewpoints, turning a writer into an activist.  It's not the story of a lone adventurer.  It's a story of relationships.  She begins by talking about her family and her uniquely nomadic childhood.  She moves on the to women who taught her about political change when she was a twenty-something in India.  From there she talks of the friendships she formed with feminist and other social justice activists.  The book is not just about feminism (though it certainly is about feminism), it's a celebration of family, friendship, and sisterhood.

The book is divided up into seven chapters:  1. My Father's Footsteps (family and early life); 2. Talking Circles (social justice and becoming an activist); 3.  Why I Don't Drive (public transportation and air travel, meeting new people in life, and learning unexpected points of view); 4. One Big Campus (exactly what it sounds like); 5. When the Political is Personal (being shaped by political activism); 6. Surrealism in Everyday Life (also, what it sounds like); 7. What Once Was Can be Again (focuses on pre-patriarchal culture, especially Native American culture). Each chapter has a photo, which adds a more personal glimpse into Ms. Steinem's travels and friendships. 

I really enjoyed this book. I did find it to be inspiring, and it did teach me a great deal about the women's movement.  But mostly, I enjoyed how personal and honest it was.  I felt like I had just traveled the country with her, and she was now my friend.  Just my friend Gloria.  Who just happens to be famous and who has fought battles so I and other women of my generation can have a stronger voice in society. She talks about her fear of public speaking, even though it now seems unbelievable that Gloria Steinem could have ever been afraid of a crowd.  She talks about how she didn't always know how to stand up for herself.  In one scene, she talks about being a young writer in a cab with Gay Talese and Saul Bellow.  Talese interrupts Steinem while she is talking to Bellow to lean across her and say to Bellow, "You know how every year there's a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer?  Well, Gloria is this year's girl," as if she wasn't sitting directly between the two men.  Steinem just ignored the rude comment.  Like many other women, she had been raised to always be nice, and would later learn there are times when being nice isn't the most important thing.

I do highly recommend this book, especially to people interested in feminism and social justice and to people who just enjoy a travel memoir.  For more March book reviews, please stop by Barrie's blog.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

December Book Review Club: Nightfall by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski (YA)

Twins Marin and Kana have grown up on the island of Bliss (as in “ignorance is . . .”) where daylight lasts 14 years and night also lasts 14 years. During the years of night, the villagers travel to the desert lands (where each day is 3 days and night is also 3 days) as their home cannot sustain human life during the darkness. Night is about to fall, and the twins learn that there are elaborate rituals that need to be followed before vacating the island. Houses must be cleaned until they are without stain or scent. Plates are to be left out on dining room tables, as if awaiting guests. Strange and terrifying artifacts, in storage for the last 14 years, are brought out and displayed in the houses. None of the adults have satisfying answers as to why these things must be done and what will happen if the rituals are not performed. As the boats are preparing to leave Bliss, the twins realize their close friend, Line, is missing. The twins go searching for their friend, but do not return in time to make the boats, leaving the 3 teenagers to discover what lives on the island at night.

Nightfall is being marketed as dystopian horror, and fans of dystopian YA fiction will probably enjoy it. Like Hunger Games, Nightfall is a survival story. Like Divergent, it is set in a very isolated society where little is known of the world. To consider Nightfall as horror is misleading though. It’s eerie, but hardly horror. Fantasy is more accurate. Nightfall’s world is an Earth-like place where the rules of astronomy are seriously weird, given the inconsistent day lengths. Like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, this world feels young, unexplored, and mythical. We meet the people (and other inhabitants) of Bliss; the furriers who sail the ships and seem a bit like Vikings; and the people of the desert lands who seem a bit earthy and mysterious, but the rest of the world and its inhabitants are unknown.

The biggest strength of Nightfall is that the world the authors created is very compelling and atmospheric. During daylight, Bliss is very wholesome, kind of like Tolkien’s Shire with a hint of darkness. In darkness, Bliss is primal and surreal and somehow weirdly familiar, as if it were some nightmare I’d had in childhood and only half remembered. Long after I forget the plot of this novel and the characters, I am going to remember this world and what it felt like. The characters were likable and all behaved like normal teenagers, with secrets and jealousies, but they aren’t what I’ll remember.

From the reviews I’ve read online, the complaints people seem to have with this book is that it isn’t horror, which is what it was marketed as, and also that it is young for YA. I wasn’t really expecting (or desiring) horror, so that was not a problem for me that it was more eerie and atmospheric than outright horrifying. As for it being young for YA, the characters are only 14. The teen romance is very innocent and not central to the story, and the violence is not excessive. Is it too young? I didn’t think so. It doesn’t have the political complexity of The Hunger Games, but that’s okay. This is meant to be a book about primal fear and about the unknown, and in that respect it is quite successful. In fact, it would make an excellent Tim Burton film (if it was exaggerated). I do think I’d be a little more inclined to buy this for the 11-year-old (I read a library copy) than the 13-year-old, but I’m not sure if that is due to the girls’ ages or their reading preferences, as the 11-year-old is a bit more fond of the eerie.

I do recommend this book. I think it could appeal to fans of dystopian fiction, fantasy, gothics (because of the nightmarish quality), and suspense. It probably would not appeal to fans of realistic fiction or to people who don’t read much YA.

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Monday, November 9, 2015

My Pets and the Paparazzi, Part 1 of 2

When I realized that I could no longer remember what Tim Gunn looked like as a small kitten (less than a year ago), I decided I need to do a better job of photographing my pets. In becoming Tim and Columbo’s personal paparazzi. I realized my pets have stories that need to be told.

Here is the latest news from our home:

Dog Protects Family From Homicidal Plant

When a majesty palm entered the family home, Columbo knew that protective measures needed to be taken.

“I’ve heard all about this plant,” the Saint Bernard puppy said. “It’s an invasive species, not native to this area. First it grows up to and across the ceiling, and then its branches sweep down in the dark to strangle you in your sleep.”

The source of the puppy’s information is the chocolate lab next door. “Sadie is very knowledgeable about this sort of thing; she’s traveled all over the world. I think she’s been to Kalamazoo.” (At the time of this writing, the dog believed Kalamazoo, MI to be located somewhere in Southeast Asia.)

The dog has taken fearless measures to protect his family, even endangering his own life to gnaw on the enemy plant. “Don’t worry; I’ve got this,” Columbo assured us.

One Sunday afternoon, Columbo won his war on vegetation. “Let it be known, good will always triumph over evil.”

Tim Gunn is Concerned

Tim Gunn the Cat is becoming increasingly concerned about germs. “I watched this commercial for toilet bowl cleaner, and it was an eye-opening experience. Did you know there are billions of bacteria in the average American bathroom?”

The Siamese mix reportedly does not spend much time in the bathroom, but that does not lessen his concern. “Because sometimes I think about going in there, and now, I can’t. What if Columbo carries one of my toys into a bathroom and I can’t retrieve it due to E.coli?”

His concern does not end with the house’s three bathrooms. Most recently, he was found examining his food bowl in disgust. “I don’t believe the humans have been disinfecting this properly.”

Tim Gunn urges all felines and humans to become activists for his cause. “82,000 cats die every year due to common household germs. Why is no one addressing this silent crisis?”

The One and Only Leaf

Columbo the Saint Bernard was loving his first autumn. On his daily walks, hearing the leaves crunch beneath his heavy paws brought the puppy great joy. And when he’d spy a leaf gliding down, he would leap to catch it in his mouth.

“Red leaves, yellow, orange,” he said. “I loved them all. Please don’t think I was using them. I just really love and respect leaves.”

Then he saw it, the only leaf for him. “It was a beautiful red leaf, vivid in hue, fully intact, just floating down from its parent tree, as if it couldn’t leave home until I was there to catch it.”

Whether the leaf had been waiting for him, Columbo would never discover. He tried to pull his owner in the direction of The Leaf, but she refused to be pulled, and he was just too far away to catch it. He watched it blow out of his reach; he whimpered.

“It was my leafmate,” said the Saint Bernard said. “I know it felt the same way; we had a connection.”

Although the five-month-old finds himself surrounded by thousands of leaves, he has lost his enthusiasm for playing the field. “These leaves are all wrong. Too yellow. Too crinkled. And that one over there is that kind your mother warns you about; it’ll just end up stuck to the roof of your mouth.”

When asked if he would ever have another leaf, he responded, “A real dog only loves once.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

October Book Review Club: The Fine Art of F**king Up by Cate Dicharry

Nina Lanning was once an idealistic graduate art student, eager to live a romantic and revolutionary life while starving for her art. Several years later she’s the administrative coordinator for the art school she attended; she’s lost her artistic passion; her marriage is failing; and her boss has stopped doing her job in order to read romance novels at her desk. Still, even a bored administrator needs a good villain in her life, and Nina has found hers in Bert Dunbar, eccentric and tenured faculty member. Dunbar, who is fond of sabotage and performance art, is banned from campus by restraining order (due to sexual misconduct) when not teaching classes, but enjoys irritating the staff by breaking in and cooking bacon on a hot plate and disappearing before the staff can follow the smell of pork.

When a severe flood threatens the Midwestern town and college campus, everything falls apart for Nina. Her husband confesses his eagerness to have a child (an eagerness that she does not share) and attempts to prove how paternal he can be by taking in an international student who speaks minimal English. The campus police attempt to evacuate the fine arts building, which will be underwater in a matter of hours; the faculty refuse to budge until they can move all artwork out; and the Nina/Dunbar rivalry escalates. Losing the battle with campus police, Nina and her friends break into the art college to save its Jackson Pollock painting from the floodwaters, making some unlikely alliances along the way.

To be honest, I picked this book up at Barnes and Noble for its title. (I am not entirely sure what that says about me.) When I sat down in the cafe to read the first chapter, I was completely hooked, as it had a comic quirkiness that I really enjoyed.  The first scene involves Nina smelling bacon and hunting down Dunbar.  As she roams the school, you learn how she has identified, mapped, and rated all electrical outlets in the school in the effort to catch her nemesis and finally get him fired.  As the novel went on, it remained funny and I was always eager to learn what crazy thing would happen next.  The characters are all ridiculous, as this is satire, but they are all likable.  I was definitely left grateful that I work in a non-artsy university department, free of Bert Dunbars. 

This is Dicharry's debut novel, and it is a very promising one.  I would definitely recommend this.  While it does fall under the category of literary, I think it would also appeal to people who don't typically pick up literary fiction.

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