Tuesday, September 19, 2017

759 (2017 #57). The Last Tudor

by Philippa Gregory,
read by Bianca Amato

This book is about Lady Jane Grey, queen of England for nine days between Edward VI and Mary I, and her lesser-known two younger sisters, Catherine and Mary.  Each girl tells her story in successive parts.

Philippa Gregory combined her Tudor Court Novels and Cousins' War series, as well as this and her previous book, into what she now calls "The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels."  There are 15 of them.  In an interview when this book was published in August 2017, Gregory said "This is, I think, going to be my last book on the Tudors," and that she wants to move on to write about "fictional characters in a realistic historical setting."

This book reads like the author is tired of the subject.  It does not help that not much happens in the book, because the three Grey girls spent much of their lives imprisoned, either in the Tower of London or under house arrest.  They seem to spend most of their time speculating about whether their cousins (Mary I and the always-suspicious Elizabeth I) will execute or free them, and about other goings-on at the time, such as Elizabeth's affair with Robert Dudley and the saga of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The trouble is - Gregory has told all these stories before.  It was interesting to learn more about Catherine and (especially) Mary Grey, about whom I knew very little, but their stories could have been told in far fewer pages.  I found the audiobook was making me sleepy while I was commuting - NOT a good sign.

Even the veteran audiobook narrator, South African actress Bianca Amato, seems tired of the series.  I did not note any real difference in the portrayal of the three sisters - they all sounded the same to me.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[The e-audiobook was borrowed from and returned to a public library.]

Friday, September 15, 2017

757-758 (2017 #55-56). Two Quick Reviews

Dog Night at the Story Zoo, written by Dan Bar-El and illustrated by Vicki Nerino, was sent to be by mistake - I was supposed to get another book to review.  This is a graphic novel or comic book style collection of four short stories, all of which take place at a sort of stand-up comedy night after hours at a zoo.   The stories, each of which features a domesticated dog, can stand alone.  It will be a good addition to the graphic novel collection at my university library.
I'm not quite sure why I chose to listen to Mr. Fox, written by Helen Oyeyemi and read by Britisher Carole Boyd.  It was available as an electronic audiobook in my university library's collection, and I think I thought it was an audiobook that had been suggested by BookPage.

I just couldn't get into this book, despite listening to over half of it.  I guess I don't have the background to "get" all the retold fables and folktales interwoven in it.   It didn't help that Boyd often dropped her voice to a whisper that was nearly impossible to hear over the road noise of my commute.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

Thursday, August 31, 2017

756 (2017 #54). Salt to the Sea

by Ruta Sepetys
read by Jorjeana Marie, Will Damron, Cassandra Morris, and Michael Crouch

Salt to the Sea is historical fiction based on some little-known real-life events and places - Operation Hannibal, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, and the fate of the original Amber Room.  The story takes place in January 1945, near the end of World War II, when the German navy launched Operation Hannibal to evacuate citizens and military wounded across the Baltic Sea ahead of the approaching Russian army.  The Wilhelm Gustloff was a former cruise ship used in this evacuation.  The Amber Room in the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, was looted by the Nazis, hidden, and never found again (it was later reconstructed in the palace).  All play a part in the narrative.

The story is told by four first-person narrators:
- Joana, a Lithuanian woman around age 21 who has medical training,
- Emilia, a Polish 15-year-old,
- Florian, a 19-20-year-old Prussian trained in art restoration, and
- Alfred, a young German sailor.

Joana is traveling with a group of refugees that include a blind girl, a shoemaker, and a little orphan boy.  Emilia is originally traveling alone, but is saved from an attack by a Russian soldier by Florian.  The two of them meet up with Joana's group and eventually wind up in the port city of Gotenhafen (now known as Gdynia), where Alfred is helping to prepare the Gustloff for the evacuees.

I don't want to give the whole story away - part of the intrigue of the book is that few people know about Operation Hannibal or the Gustloff, despite the immense disaster.  The Amber Room is somewhat peripheral to the story - it provides the motivation for Florian's actions - but it is especially interesting given that amber is the national gem of Lithuania, where author Ruta Sepetys' father is from.

I think in this case, an audiobook with four voices, one for each of the story's narrators, was especially effective.  Voiceover artists Jorjeana Marie and Will Damron are very believable as Joana and Florian respectively.  At first I didn't like Cassandra Morris' little-girl voice for Emilia, but as you learn more about the character, it becomes fitting.  Michael Crouch sounds exactly the way I would expect an unquestioning, sociopathic Nazi character like Alfred to sound.

This book was much, MUCH better than Between Shades of Gray, Sepetys' debut novel.  I'm not surprised the audiobook won the 2017 Audie Award in the Young Adult category.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

755 (2017 #53). Where the Light Gets In

by Kimberly Williams-Paisley

I borrowed this e-book because, just before a week-long vacation trip, I found out my 88-year-old mother had been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD), specifically the nonfluent / agrammatic variant of the primary progressive aphasia (PPA) subtype.

Kimberly Williams-Paisley - the actress who played the bride in Father of the Bride and who is married to country music star Brad Paisley - wrote this book about her mother Linda Williams (formerly a fundraiser for actor Michael J. Fox's Foundation for Parkinson's Research - hence the forward).  Linda was diagnosed with PPA (although hers was caused by Alzheimer's, not FTD) at the young age of 62.  She died eleven years later, this past November 2016.

I'm still having a hard time dealing with and writing about my mother's diagnosis, so I am linking to a review by meandmybooks on LibraryThing that says a lot of what I want to say.  Like that reviewer, the book title and cover photo made me hope for tips "for connecting with a loved one whose brain is deteriorating and whose communication skills/interest" are disappearing, but that did not happen.  The author did, however, provide some insights on learning to accept what cannot be changed, as well as some helpful resources both in the book and on her website.

Williams-Paisley spends too much time, in my opinion, talking about herself and the effects of her mother's disease on her, and of course, as a celebrity, she also has access to services many of us could never afford.  Nevertheless, this was a valuable book for me to read at this time.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This e-book was borrowed from and returned to a public library.]

Sunday, August 20, 2017

754 (2017 #52). Enemy Women

by Paulette Jiles

This historical fiction by Paulette Jiles is set in the Missouri Ozarks near the end of the Civil War.  As a border state, Missouri was overrun with lawlessness, with groups on both sides of the war raiding, murdering, and plundering.  The heroine, 18-year-old Adair Colley, is the oldest of three daughters of a local justice.  A band of Union soldiers beats him and arrests him as a Confederate sympathizer, and sets their house on fire.  Adair and her sisters set off to find their father, but she is denounced by a horse-thieving family they meet on the road as a spy and sent to a prison in St. Louis for "enemy women."  The lawyer-soldier assigned to defend her, William Neumann, falls in love with her and, when he receives orders to go to Mobile, Alabama, aids in her escape, vowing to find her again later.

At this point, the book alternates between the tales of Adair and William.  His experiences in battle seem pretty realistic; her adventures trying to make her way back home are unbelievable at times, particularly for a young woman apparently suffering from tuberculosis.

This was Jiles' first novel, after publishing poetry and a memoir.  That memoir, Cousins, likely inspired this book, as Jiles, born in the Missouri Ozarks, was searching for distant cousins to learn more about her father.  Family stories helped form the plot.  In an interview, she said,

We have no records — journals, letters or anything else — that survived the Civil War in my family on the Jiles side. All I have are their names from the census of 1860 and local records showing my great great grandfather Marquis Giles (at that time, his last name was spelled with a "G") who was a school teacher and a justice of the peace.  I did use the family's first names — Marquis, Savannah, Little Mary, John Lee [the latter three are Adair's siblings]. But Adair's name came from my husband's family.

What I really liked about this book was its depiction of aspects of the Civil War I knew little about.  Jiles opens each chapter with quotations from letters, journals, newspapers, and official reports from the period, relevant to the action in that chapter.  Jiles spent seven years researching for this book, and it shows.  I learned a lot.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I borrowed and returned this e-book from my university library.]

Saturday, August 19, 2017

753 (2017 #51). American Eclipse

by David Baron,
read by Jonathan Yen

So timely to listen to this book just before the "Great Eclipse" of 2017!  It's about a total solar eclipse on July 29, 1878, visible in Wyoming and Colorado (among some other states - I would have been able to see it from my backyard in Texas!).  It focuses on three notable scientists who were there to view it:  Thomas Edison, Maria Mitchell, and James Craig Watson (the latter completely new to me).  Other astronomers of the day, such as Cleveland AbbeSimon Newcomb, Samuel Langley, and Henry Draper, are also featured.

Author David Baron recounts activities and preparations for the observation of the event, and details the minutes of the eclipse as well.  He also follows up with what happened to his principals - and their inventions and theories - afterward.  Edison invented something called a tasimeter to measure the heat produced by the sun, and Watson was searching for a planet between Mercury and the sun called Vulcan.  I wondered why I had never heard of either of these before - the book provides the explanations.  I found the whole book to be fascinating.

Baron, who used to be a science correspondent for NPR, writes beautifully.  Here is a quote from near the end of the book:

A total eclipse is a primal, transcendent experience. The shutting off of the sun does not bring utter darkness; it is more like falling through a trapdoor into a dimly lit, unrecognizable reality. The sky is not the sky of the earth—neither the star-filled dome of night nor the immersive blue of daylight, but an ashen ceiling of slate. A few bright stars and planets shine familiarly, like memories from a distant childhood, but the most prominent object is thoroughly foreign. You may know, intellectually, that it is both the sun and moon, yet it looks like neither. It is an ebony pupil surrounded by a pearly iris. It is the eye of the cosmos. [page 183]

Jonathan Yen reads the audiobook - and while he's not great, he's ok.  He has a voice very similar to that of 1970s-80s radio personality Casey Kasem (rather sing-song-y), and that's not quite the right tone for this book.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this audiobook from the publisher via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be donated to either my university or my local public library.]

Monday, July 31, 2017

752 (2017 #50). The Loyal Son

by Daniel Mark Epstein

This dual biography has a very interesting primary subject:  William Franklin, the son of the famous Benjamin Franklin.  I had no idea Ben Franklin's only son remained loyal to the English throne during the Revolutionary War, nor that William Franklin (born out of wedlock in England to an unnamed mother) was also a colonial governor of New Jersey.  Nor that William Franklin had an illegitimate son named Temple, who had an illegitimate daughter.

I was also surprised to learn just how much time Ben Franklin spent (in relative comfort) in London (before the war) and Paris (during the war), and just how much (unnecessary) violence occurred in America during the Revolutionary period.  I was rather appalled by the family dynamics, with Ben spending most of her life away from his wife Deborah.

Despite this, it took me nearly a month to finish this book.  I suppose it was because there was a little too much detail.  It felt as though author Daniel Mark Epstein wanted to be sure to use all his sources, which included a number of unpublished letters, papers, and a dissertation about William.

Unfortunately, Epstein's citation format is poor, with no use of superscripts for the endnotes, but instead short quotes from the text with no page numbers for reference.  VERY frustrating to use, even though there are 24 pages of them.

I have to wonder about Epstein's motivations - in his acknowledgements, he said this book was the one "among several projects I proposed in 2011" that his agent preferred and that he "approached with reservations."

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this hardbound book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be added to my university library's collection.]