Monday, November 29, 2010

185 (2010 #50). On Agate Hill

by Lee Smith,
read by Danielle Ferland, Kate Forbes, Katie Firth, Linda Stephens, Ed Sala, and Tom Stechschulte

This book was the November selection for my local book club.  It's historical fiction, set in the South, covering a post-Civil War period running from May 1872 to July 1927.  The book centers on Molly Petree, an orphan who is thirteen years old when the book begins.  Much of the story is told from Molly's viewpoint, in the form of her diary and letters she writes to a childhood friend, Mary White.  Other narrators of Molly's story include a favorite teacher, Agnes Rutherford; Agnes' sister, the mean schoolmistress Mariah Snow; B.J. Jarvis, Molly's husband's cousin; and Simon Black, Molly's benefactor.  Most of these also speak through letters and journal entries, but B.J.'s tale is told in court testimony.

Tying these narrators together is a 2006 ditzy student named Tuscany Miller, who has supposedly found these documents at Agate Hill plantation, which her (weird) family has purchased to turn into a bed-and-breakfast.  Tuscany is hoping that turning in all the stuff she finds will satisfy her "documentary studies program" thesis requirements.  As if.  This stupid storyline is thankfully brief and completely unnecessary.

Molly's story is interesting for the glimpses it gives into life in the South in the mid-1870s on a struggling plantation in North Carolina and at an all-girls school in Virginia, as well as in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in the years following, and ultimately back to the ruined plantation in the early 1900s. Smith's acknowledgments at the end of the book list an impressive bibliography and other readings.

Unfortunately, I did not find Molly or most of the people around her to be particularly likable characters (the exception being Agnes).  There was too much unnecessary detail about her childhood (and not enough about the events of that time that really mattered), and I found the premise of a thirteen-year-old recording such detail in a diary to be unrealistic.  I had a hard time getting through this first third of the book.

The book gets a little better after that, although Mariah's actions are puzzling, and Molly makes a number of poor choices and is beset with tragedy.  If I'd had to read the book in print, I'm not sure I would have been able to finish it.  The audiobook made it much easier, with six voices:  Danielle Ferland (Tuscany Miller), Kate Forbes (Molly Petree), Katie Firth (Agnes Rutherford), Linda Stephens (Mariah Snow), Ed Sala (BJ Jarvis), and Tom Stechschulte (Simon Black).  Forbes, Firth, and Stephens are particularly good, with the first two having just the right amount of Southern accent, and Stephens effectively conveying the instability of Mariah.  Ferland is perfect at the ditzy Tuscany.

Each of the 15 discs begins and ends with folk music by Alice Gerrard, whose song "Agate Hill" inspired Lee Smith to write the novel. Smith wrote the words to the ballad "Molly and the Traveling Man," which Gerrard set to music.  While I liked the instrumentals, I did not particularly care for Gerrard's singing voice.

All in all, I'm glad I read this book, but I'm not sure I'd want to read any more of Lee Smith's works.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook and a print copy of the book were borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]

Saturday, November 27, 2010

184 (2010 #49). The Red Queen

by Philippa Gregory,
read by Bianca Amato and Graeme Malcolm

This is the second book in the Cousins War series, and is about Margaret Beaufort, from spring 1453, when Margaret is ten, to August 1485, when her son Henry VII won the Battle of  Bosworth Field to become King of England.  Margaret is the heiress of the House of Lancaster, whose emblem was the red rose; thus the title.  The book is about Margaret's efforts to put her son on the throne and become Queen Mother at least.

Gregory paints a picture of a zealously pious woman who is not above sin when it is to her or her son's advantage--and who manages to justify whatever she does as "God's will."  The book opens with an amusing scene of Margaret dreaming she is Joan of Arc, and there are many references to that saint throughout the book.  She also looks forward to signing her name as "Margaret R.," Margaret Regina, regina being the Latin word for queen.

Margaret often refers (usually with disdain) to commoner Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV of the House of York (the white roses).  It's interesting to compare Margaret's perception of Elizabeth with the presentation of the latter in The White Queen, and vice versa - see how Margaret is presented in this book as compared to Elizabeth's perception of her in the other book.

Most of the story is told in first-person by Margaret, voiced by South African actress and audiobook veteran Bianca Amato, who gives Margaret the right air of haughtiness.  Scottish actor Graeme Malcolm reads the third-person accounts of battle scenes.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook and hardbound copy were borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Friday, November 26, 2010

183 (2010 #48). Sarah's Key

by Tatiana de Rosnay

I decided to read this book because it made the Top Ten Discussion Books list of Reading Group Guides, and it was the only book on the list I hadn't read.  I think it's over-hyped.

The title character is Sarah Starzynski, who is ten years old in 1942.  Her Jewish family is living in Paris, and they are arrested along with many others in the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup.  This sorry piece of little-known French history is researched by Julia Jarmond Tézac in 2002, for the 60th anniversary of the Roundup.  Julia is an American living in Paris, writing for an English language magazine there, and married to a Frenchman.  Her magazine assigns her to write about the Roundup.  In the process, she learns about a connection between Sarah and her French family.

The first half of the book alternates between 1942 and the horrors of Sarah's story, and Julia in 2002 learning about the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup and its aftermath .  This part of the book is riveting.  But then, halfway through the book, Sarah mostly disappears, and the story becomes almost all Julia.  The parts where she is researching what happened to Sarah are fine, but the rest of Julia's life is a soap opera, and it detracts from Sarah's story.  The ending is a little trite.

I would still recommend the book, because once again, I've learned through historical fiction more about an incident in history that I knew little (in this case, nothing) about.  However, I wish the author had continued to intertwine Sarah's and Julia's stories, showing rather than telling us what happened to Sarah after 1942, and left out the "chick lit" parts of Julia's life.  The paperback copy of the book I read had an excellent section with historical perspective and other recommended reading.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

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

Monday, November 01, 2010

182 (2010 #47). To Account for Murder

by William C. Whitbeck

This bound galley was sent to me by the publisher, Permanent Press. The author is, as of this writing, a judge on the Michigan State Court of Appeals, who, according to Ron Dzwonkowski of the January 10, 2010, Detroit Free Press, "asked that publication of his novel be delayed until mid-November because he's up for re-election this year and didn't want it to be a factor in his campaign.  He said there will be just minimal promotion of the book, standard for a new, unknown author in tight economic times."

The book is based on a true story, that of Michigan State Senator Warren Hooper, who was shot in January 1945 shortly before he was going to implicate others with a grand jury.  While two members of the infamous Purple Gang were convicted of conspiring to kill Hooper, no one was ever convicted for pulling the trigger.

Whitbeck has fictionalized this story and come up with a murderer.  The main character is Charlie Cahill, a lawyer who lost an arm in World War II, telling the story to his child Frankie in 1996, looking back 50+ years to late 1945 and early 1946, highlighting the corruption of the criminals, lawyers, judges, and elected officials alike.  I'm not much for true crime or murder mysteries, but this book held my interest.  The only problem I had was keeping track of all the characters, many of who had last names beginning with the letter S.  One of those is Hubbell Street, the murder prosecutor, modeled on the real-life Michigan corruption special prosecutor and later-governor Kim Sigler

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This advanced reader edition was sent to me by the publisher and will be passed on to someone else.]