Thursday, February 22, 2018

784 (2018 #7). Sakura's Cherry Blossoms

by Robert Paul Weston,
illustrated by Misa Saburi

This is a lovely story about moving to a new country and missing people and places left behind, but eventually adapting.  Sakura (whose name means cherry blossom in Japanese) is lonely and misses her grandmother back in Japan when her father's job takes his family to the United States, but eventually she makes a friend.  While the illustrations, rendered in Photoshop, are okay, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the entire book was written as a series of tanka poems, a Japanese format similar to haiku (with the first three lines set up the same) but with two additional lines of seven syllables each, for a total of five lines and 31 syllables.   This will be a good addition to my university library's children's literature collection used by future teachers, as I can easily see this book being used in both language arts (writing) and social studies lessons.

© Amanda Pape - 2018

[This hardbound copy was obtained through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an independent review.  It will be added to my university library's collection.]

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

783 (2018 #6). Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures

by Emma Straub

I've had this book sitting on my shelves TBR for a while, and it seemed like a good one to read after The Girls in the Picture.  It starts at a later time, past the silent movie era, in 1929, when Elsa Emerson is nine years old and growing up in Door County, Wisconsin, where her father operates a summer playhouse on the family's land.  She loves acting and decides to head out to Los Angeles to become a movie star, eventually being christened Laura Lamont by the producer who ultimately marries her.  Laura does become a star, but she also struggles with the traditional roles of women at the time (particularly motherhood) as well as with her family of origin.  Straub covers the 50 years from 1929 to 1980 in just over 300 pages. 

Emma Straub modeled the early life of Elsa / Laura on real-life actress Jennifer Jones. Other characters in the book seemed to be based on other real Hollywood figures. For example, Irving Greene is based on Irving Thalberg, and his partner Louis Gardner on Louis B. Mayer.  Ginger appears to be modeled on Lucille Ball. 

While it's not deep, I actually liked this book, because Laura / Elsa feels like a real person and *not* a star.

© Amanda Pape - 2018

[This advance reader edition was sent to me by the Book Report Network.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Saturday, February 10, 2018

782 (2018 #5). The Girls in the Picture

by Melanie Benjamin

This historical fiction work is based on the real-life friendship between silent movies star Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion.  I'd heard of Pickford (and her actor husband Douglas Fairbanks), but Marion was new to me.

The book starts in 1969, near the end of both women's lives, but then flashes back to 1914 and moves forward from there. The development of the motion picture industry is a theme in the book, and that was quite interesting.  Unfortunately, the two otherwise-strong women, true to their era, let the men they love control their lives, and that was disappointing.  The first part of the book is by far the best, before Fairbanks and Fred Thomson (Marion's love) came into the book, although at least Thomson was a nice guy.

Chapters alternate from Frances telling her story in first person, to third-person accounts about Mary.  That might have been part of the problem for me with this book - I think the third person viewpoint weakens Mary's story.  Mary comes across as very immature and insecure, a lot like the little girls she played in so many movies.  Frances is more interesting but is insecure in different ways, and gives in to Mary too often, in my opinion.

It's obvious author Melanie Benjamin has done her research, and she has a great web page on the historical background of the book.  (I did find a reference to an electric coffee percolator on page 97 of the advance reader edition, in a chapter set in winter 1915, that I hope was corrected in the final edition.  While stove-top percolators existed, the electric one was not invented until 1952.)  Like all good historical fiction, it has inspired me to learn more about the people and some of the places in the book.  While I didn't like this as much as her Alice I Have Been or The Aviator's Wife, it's still well worth reading.

© Amanda Pape - 2018

[This advance reader edition was received from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program and will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Friday, February 09, 2018

781 (2018 #4). Return to Paradise

by James Michener,
read by Larry McKeever

Someone requested that my university library purchase access to this e-audiobook, as well as another by Michener (Texas, which I read in the past and which is even longer than this 21+-hour book).  Reviews of the narrator were mixed, and having a number of three-hour drives planned within a short period, I decided to listen to this one.

It can be considered a sequel to Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific (which I have not read).  The book alternates nonfiction essays on various South Pacific islands or countries with short stories set on that particular island (with the exception of nonfiction chapters at the beginning on "The Mighty Ocean" (introduction) and at the end on "Rabaul" (not sure why this merited a separate chapter from the rest of New Guinea, but no separate story) and "What I Learned" (conclusion).  Places covered include "The Atoll" (perhaps generic for many small islands in the area), Polynesia, Fiji, Guadalcanal, Espiritu Santo, New Zealand, Australia, and New Guinea.

It's important to read both "The Mighty Ocean" and "What I Learned" to put the book in context.  The nonfiction is a good (but rather detailed) travelogue when it comes to physical descriptions and history, but is very dated, particularly when discussing culture and social customs (the book was published in 1951). 

The fictional short stories are full of two-dimensional late-1940s stereotypes, particularly when it comes to the natives of the islands.  Despite the stereotypes, my favorite stories were "Mr. Morgan" (set on the atoll), "Povenaa's Daughter" (set in Polynesia), and "Until They Sail" (set in New Zealand).  The first two had humorous parts, and the latter, while more serious, was better-developed than any other story in the book (although a character's abrupt change of mind at the end is not explained).  The first and last were made into movies.

I really disliked the last two stories, "The Jungle" (set in Australia,), and "The Fossickers" (set in New Guinea).  "The Jungle" in particular was an ugly story with an unsatisfying end.

As for the narrator, actor Larry McKeever, I found him to be - okay.  I think he read the book a little too slowly, and at times that (along with the content) made me sleepy.  I'm glad I did not recommend that we purchase his nearly-65-hour narration of Texas.

© Amanda Pape - 2018

[The e-audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were both borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

780 (2018 #3). Enchantress of Numbers

by Jennifer Chiaverini

This is a biographical novel about Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron and the woman many consider to be the first computer programmer.  Ada died at age 36, so much of the book focuses on her childhood.  That part of the story is set up by a prologue in third person, told from the viewpoint of Ada's mother, which helps explain why she (the mother) was such a control freak.  Ada never met her father, as her parents separated shortly after she was born, and he left the country not long after that, dying when she was only eight.  Ada's mother feared the "madness" of her father would manifest in her daughter, and thus forbade anything that smacked of poetry or other creativity.  She did encourage the study of math and science, however.

The rest of the book is first-person Ada, and is rather unbelievable when Ada recalls her early childhood in minute (and impossible) detail.  There are a few anachronisms as well, with references to Ada swimming in 1828 (page 118), when it was very uncommon for women in England, especially the upperclass, to swim, and to her use of an air mattress (page 128) in 1830, when it was not invented until 1889.

I think this book would have been much better if its 433 pages had run at least a hundred less.  Jennifer Chiaverini does not devote much attention to Ada's mathematical pursuits, and her chronicling of Ada's illnesses and studies and frustrations with her mother's restrictions gets rather tiresome. 

© Amanda Pape - 2018

[This print book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Thursday, January 25, 2018

779 (2018 #2). Barkskins

by Annie Proulx,
read by Robert Petkoff

This is an epic (713 pages in print) novel tracing two families involved in different ways in the timber industry in North America (primarily - also a bit in New Zealand as well).  It starts in 1763 with two French immigrants to Canada, RenĂ© Sel and Charles Duquet.  Both are indentured servants, but Duquet runs away and becomes a successful fur trader - and eventually a timber baron, changing his surname to Duke.  Sel marries a Native American woman, and their descendants work in the forest, but rarely own much.

The book then follows down each line about six generations, to 2013.  Along the way, the two families intersect.  Some characters are more memorable than others.  In particular, I liked RenĂ©'s great-great grandson Jinot Sel and his (mis-)adventures in New Zealand, as well as Lavinia Duke Breitsprecher, who is about as ruthless in business as her great-great-grandfather Charles.

The stories move all over the world too, from Nova Scotia and Maine to France, London, Amsterdam, New Zealand, China, and the Amazon, as well as to various American cities (Boston, Detroit, Chicago) as the Duke company enterprises move westward.  Lots of period details make the settings come alive.  It's obvious author Annie Proulx has done her research.

The book also has ecological themes, on the impacts of deforestation as well as the decimation of native populations.  The ecological message gets a little heavy-handed at the ending of the book, which is also rather abrupt and unsatisfyinng (at least to me).

Actor Robert Petkoff is an outstanding reader on the audiobook, creating appropriate accents and voices for each character that help to distinguish them.

A three-page PDF can be downloaded from the e-audiobook edition (in OverDrive) and viewed with Adobe Digital Editions.  Besides the cover image, it contains the family trees (which are hard to follow) that also found in the print edition.

© Amanda Pape - 2018

[The e-audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library and local public library respectively.]

Monday, January 15, 2018

778 (2018 #1). Anne Boleyn, A King's Obsession

by Alison Weir

This is the second in noted Tudor historian Alison Weir's fictional series, "Six Tudor Queens," about the wives of Henry VIII.  At 541 pages, this one is a little shorter than the first in the series, but would still have benefitted from some trimming.  The long seven years when Henry was waiting for his first marriage to be annulled are quite tedious.

Much more interesting were the first and last parts of the book.  I knew Anne Boleyn had spent time in the French court, but was not aware that she had also spent time in the Netherlands under the regency of Margaret of Austria, who was a capable ruler.  Weir implies that these two experiences led to Anne's progressive attitudes, and she also supposes that Anne did not love Henry beyond his capability of putting her in a powerful position.

Once Anne and Henry do marry, the book gets interesting again.  Weir sets up various situations that could explain Anne's innocence of the charges later brought against her.  Her depiction of Anne's death is rather gruesome.  All her suppositions are explained in an eight-page author's note, but there are no references in this work of fiction.  Oh, and the family tree at the beginning of the hardbound edition I borrowed is very messed up in layout.

Weir sums up her purpose with this book in the author's note as follows:

In writing this novel from Anne's point of view, I have tried to reconcile conflicting views of her, and to portray her as a flawed but very human heroine, a woman of great ambition, idealism, and courage who found herself in an increasingly frightening situation.

I think Weir succeeded.  I will be reading the rest of the books in this series.

© Amanda Pape - 2018

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]