Saturday, March 28, 2015

466 (2015 #23). The Tsarina's Daughter

by Carolly Erickson,
read by Susan Jameson

This book is borderline fantasy, because it takes a real person and generates an alternate reality for her.

Grand Duchess Tatiana Romanov was shot along with her siblings and her parents, Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, in July 1918, when she was 21 years old.  There were rumors for years that one of the tsar's four daughters (usually Anastasia) had survived, which were finally put to rest on April 30, 2008 with DNA testing.  This book was published five months later.

Author Carolly Erickson has Tatiana, or "Tania," surviving and living in Canada under the name Daria, looking back on her life at the age of 92 in 1989.  She escaped, and it's pretty clear early on that a young servant with revolutionary tendencies named Daria has taken her place and was murdered instead of her, but exactly how that comes about is not revealed until the end.

If you are looking for believable historical fiction, this is not the book for you.  Erickson has Tatiana behaving in ways that were unrealistic for a girl of her time period and station in life.  TWO lovers before the age of 18?  Frequent trips away from the palace to help at a clinic?

I'm not sure why the book is called "The Tsarina's Daughter."  Why not "The Tsar's Daughter"?  Supposedly Tatiana was her mother's favorite, but Erickson often has Tatiana thinking disparagingly of her mother and her weaknesses in the book.  Tatiana was also supposedly very close to her older sister Olga, but that is not the impression one gets when reading this book.

However, many details of the book are based in truth.  For example, the girls did sleep on camp beds as children, and the older two were nurses in World War II.  Tatiana did apparently fall in love with one of the men she was nursing.  I did feel, after listening to this book, that I had learned a little more about the lives of the Romanovs, and am interested in reading more about them.

British actress Susan Jameson is the reader.  Her voice comes across as a bit too old for most of the characters.  I suppose her British accent is appropriate, as Tatiana was the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England, but I cringed every time Jameson pronounced Olga's name as "Olger."


© Amanda Pape - 2015

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

Sunday, March 22, 2015

465 (2015 #22). Caleb's Crossing

by Geraldine Brooks,
read by Jennifer Ehle

The Caleb in the title of this book was a real person - Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University, in 1665.  He was a member of the Wampanoag tribe on what is now Martha's Vineyard island off Massachusetts.

The narrator of the story, though, is the completely fictional Bethia Mayfield (although her grandfather, father, and brother are based on the real Thomas Mayhew and his son and grandson). Bethia is the daughter of a minister working to convert the Wampanoag, and Caleb becomes his star pupil.  Unbeknownst to him, though, Bethia and Caleb met many years earlier, and taught each other their languages.

For me, Bethia was a fascinating character, embodying the restrictions of women of that era.  For example, although she was smarter than her brother, she could not be taught beyond the bare minimum (how to read), and picks up most of her knowledge (of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, history) by eavesdropping.  Her life was incredibly hard, especially when her grandfather (after her father's death) indentures her as a servant at the "prep school" her brother is sent to in his attempt to enter Harvard, in exchange for his tuition.

After listening to a few discs, I could not take actress Jennifer Ehle, the reader of the audiobook, any longer. She e-nun-ci-a-ted ev-er-y sing-le syl-la-ble, and it was starting to drive me crazy!  I think perhaps she was trying to "be" Bethia, and perhaps felt the character would have spoken that way in the late 1660s, but I found it annoying after a while.  Bethia's use of now-archaic words ("salvages" for "savages," for example) and phrasing appropriate for both the time period and Puritan characters was enough, the extra enunciation was too much and unnecessary.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[The audiobook and a hardbound copy were borrowed from and returned to my university library and my local public library respectively.]

Friday, March 20, 2015

464 (2015 #21). The Promise

by Ann Weisgarber

Catherine is a single concert pianist and instructor in Dayton, Ohio, in 1899, in disgrace because she's in love with her ill cousin's husband. Oscar is a widower dairy farmer with a young son in Galveston who used to go to school with Catherine and admired her playing. When he proposes marriage via letters, she sees it as her escape from scandal, and accepts.

Oscar's housekeeper Nan is leery of Catherine. She promised Bernadette, Oscar's first wife, that she would take care of his son Andre. She had thought Oscar might marry her.

Catherine and Oscar marry in late August 1900, just a day after she arrives in Galveston by train. Readers like me who know their history know of the devastating hurricane that hit just weeks later. That storm is a major part of the story. Before that, though, author Ann Weisgarber paints a vivid picture of life in Galveston at the turn of that century.

Her inspiration for this story was an old, storm-damaged house at the sparsely populated rural west end of Galveston Island. She owns a beach house on the island and lives in a Houston suburb.  She knows what it is like to prepare for, experience, and deal with the aftermath of a hurricane.

The hardbound U.S. version of this book that I borrowed via interlibrary loan did not have a dust jacket.  According to an event posting and a Facebook message with Ann Weisgarber, the dust jacket says the cover image (minus the woman) is "courtesy of DeGolyer Library, SMU [Southern Methodist University], Collection of Texas Postcards, Ag2000.1341."

The image is the left half of a 1910s-era postcard of the Texas Heroes Monument in Galveston, with the monument cropped out and the electrical lines airbrushed out (and the woman and her shadow added).  I determined that this view is looking south on Rosenberg (today's 25th) Street from around Sealy Avenue, looking towards Broadway (also known as Avenue J).

The building pictured on the far left was the George Sealy mansion, originally built for the Galveston merchant, banker and philanthropist and his wife Magnolia. The home was designed by New York architect Stanford White. The construction from 1887 to 1889 was supervised by Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton, who also designed Catholic churches throughout the state and a number of other buildings in Galveston and Houston (including Annunciation Catholic Church and Incarnate Word Academy).  It was given to the University of Texas Medical Branch by the Sealy family in 1979 and is today’s Open Gates Conference Center.

I thought the Sealy house was particularly relevant to the novel, as it served as a refuge for about 400 Galvestonians during the 1900 hurricane.  In addition, George Sealy died in December 1901 "while traveling by train to a meeting in New York to discuss interest rates on Galveston bonds to help finance the city's recovery from the Galveston hurricane of 1900," according to The Handbook of Texas.

The other building in the center of the picture is apparently gone, but the trolley/train tracks still exist.

I read this book because the author is on the program for the upcoming Texas Library Association conference in April 2015, discussing how she worked with librarians and archivists at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston (interestingly, just a couple blocks from the site of the cover photograph) to research her story.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This book was borrowed from and returned through interlibrary loan.]

Saturday, February 28, 2015

463 (2015 #20). El Deafo

by CeCe Bell

This partial autobiography/memoir in graphic novel format won a much-deserved John Newbery Award Honor Book designation, given "to the author[s] of the most distinguished contribution[s] to American literature for children."

CeCe Bell suffered a severe hearing loss as a result of meningitis at age four.  While she could wear a less conspicuous hearing aid at home, she needed to use a "phonic ear" at school, a rather bulky personal sound amplification system, to best hear the teacher.

Bell, who also did the illustrations (colored by David Lasky), gives her characters rabbit ears and faces, and they remind me of the anthropomorphic characters in Marc Brown's Arthur series -  which, interestingly, came out about the time this book begins, in the late 1970s, when Bell is age four.  The book ends when Bell is in the fifth grade.

The rabbit ears, of course, highlight the issue of hearing.  Empty speech bubbles (when Bell can't hear) and random collections of letters (when she can hear but not understand) emphasize some of the issues she had.  The Phonic Ear and her hearing aid solve some of these, but not when they are broken or have dead batteries.  CeCe learns to lip read at in a kindergarten class with other hearing-impaired children.  The summer following, though, her family moves to a smaller town, and CeCe is in a regular classroom for first grade on.

CeCe struggles to find a best friend who will accept her as she is and not make a big deal of her deafness.  She has her first crush.  She imagines a superhero alter-ego she christens "El Deafo" to help her through the tough times.  All in all, though, this memoir is positive, because CeCe remains upbeat.

An author's note at the end of the book explains that deafness has many causes and degrees - and that deaf people choose different ways to deal with it, ranging from trying to fit in, as CeCe does, with hearing aids and lip reading, to embracing the Deaf community or culture, in which sign language (which CeCe resists learning as a youngster) is the preferred means of  communication.  I loved her conclusion:

I found that with a little creativity, and a lot of dedication, any difference can be turned into something amazing.  Our differences are our superpowers.
Despite the picture-book like illustrations, at 233 pages, this book is probably most appropriate for third through sixth graders.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

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

Friday, February 27, 2015

462 (2015 #19). Big Little Lies

by Liane Moriarty

After reading Liane Moriarty's The Husband's Secret a few months ago, I was eager to read her new book.  Last night I couldn't put it down, and stayed up late to finish it.

The beginning was a little confusing.  An elderly woman describes the commotion at the adjacent elementary school's fundraising event, and this is followed by a number of (rather amusing) comments from seemingly random people about what started the commotion - including one from a police officer, clarifying that "this is a murder investigation."

Instant hook.

The book then goes back six months in time, moving forward to the fundraising event (the trivia night).  The chapters then move between the viewpoints of three main characters (as in The Husband's Secret).

Madeline Mackenzie has just turned forty.  She is married with two young children with her second husband, and a daughter (Abigail) by her first.  Her ex, and his new wife, have a kindergartener in the same class at the elementary school as Madeline's youngest child.  Madeline and her ex don't get along very well.  He walked out on her 14 years ago when Abigail was a baby, not supporting her in any way, but now Abigail wants to live with her dad.  I could definitely relate to this character.

Jane Chapman is a 24-year-old single mom of another kindergartner who meets Madeline at kindergarten orientation.  Celeste White is the wealthy, beautiful friend of Madeline who has twin boys in the kindergarten class.  Both Jane and Celeste have secrets.

When the three women pick up their children from the orientation later, the daughter of a full-time-career-woman mom accuses Jane's son of bullying her, and battle lines are immediately drawn.

Most chapters end or begin with more gossip from people that we learn are minor characters in the story, as well as the police officer, but there aren't a whole lot of clues there as to who died and how.  I was able to guess fairly early who the victim was (and why), but was completely surprised at the end by who was accused.

Once I got about halfway through the book (at the "one week before the trivia night" point), it was a real page-turner.  But it wasn't just because of the suspense, it was also because I really cared about the three main characters, especially feisty Madeline and her issues with her oldest daughter.  It was also heartwarming (and a little heartbreaking in one case) to see Jane and Celeste evolve.

The book tackles some serious issues (bullying, date rape, domestic violence), but it's also quite funny, with its tongue-in-cheek portraits of helicopter parents and exposition of school parent politics.

I highly recommend this book, and think it would be great for a book club discussion.  I'll definitely read more of Moriarty's books.


© Amanda Pape - 2015

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

461 (2015 #18). Queen Isabella

by Alison Weir,
read by Lisette Lecat

I had previously read five of Alison Weir's books about the British monarchy, four of which are fiction, so when I saw this was available in audiobook format, I had to select it for my library's collection.

Subtitled "Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England,"  the book is about Isabella of France (1295-1358), the wife of England's (probably bisexual) King Edward II.  Frustrated (along with much of England) with the king's promotion of his "favorites," she and Roger Mortimer (who became her lover) overthrew Edward II.  They put her son Edward III on the throne, with Isabella ruling as regent on his behalf.  Unfortunately she and Mortimer became unpopular, partly because of Isabella's greed. When her son Edward came of age, he executed Mortimer, but Isabella lived out the rest of her natural life in peace.  I found much to admire in this queen.

However, Weir is a bit of an apologist for Isabella in this book.  While I knew little about this queen before reading the book, and would agree she has gotten a bad rap in history, Weir seems to go to great effort to rehabilitate her "She-Wolf of France" reputation.  Much of that reputation is based on theories that she and Mortimer had her husband murdered, but Weir presents theories that he did not even die naturally, but lived out his life as a hermit.  There's not a lot of primary source material from that era, other than Isabella's account books - which do provide an excellent record of her movements and travel, as well as interesting detail about life in those days.

Unlike a lot of other nonfiction audiobooks I've tried, I found it pretty easy to follow this one.  I think that's due to the narrator, Lisette Lecat, a native of South Africa, who lived in Spain, France, and England, where she worked as an actress, voiceover artist, journalist and translator.  She now lives in the USA, narrates audiobooks, and writes plays.  Lecat read the book slowly enough that I found I did not have to stop and repeat sections as often as I usually do with nonfiction audiobooks.

Nevertheless, I'd recommend a print copy of the book in addition to or instead of the audiobook, to have access to the many illustrations (most color plates), genealogical tables, extensive end notes and bibliography, and the index.


© Amanda Pape - 2015

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

Monday, February 23, 2015

459-460 (2015 #16-17). Two More Award-Winning Picture Books

A Boy and a Jaguar is an autobiographical picture book about and by wildlife conservationist Alan Rabinowitz.  In it, he tells how his stuttering as a child led to his passion to protect jaguars and other animals.  This book won the 2015 American Library Association Schneider Family Book Award in the children's category "for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences."  Catia Chien's acrylic and charcoal pencil illustrations help the reader feel the enormity of the isolation Rabinowitz sometimes felt as a child, as well as the possibilities of the huge forests and jungles he finds so rewarding as an adult.  Rabinowitz's book will be inspiring for any children who stutter (and their friends, families, and classmates).

The Day the Crayons Quit was recently announced as the 2015 winner of the Texas Bluebonnet Award, a children's choice award by students in grades 3-6 in my state.   This hilarious fantasy by debut book author Drew Daywalt (who has lots of experience in film writing and directing) has the crayons in the box on strike and writing letters to their owner about their various complaints.  Oliver Jeffers' whimsical illustrations incorporate crayons (of course!) as well as mixed media.  This book would be a great mentor text for a lesson on letter-writing.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[These books were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]