Wednesday, January 28, 2015

451 (2015 #8). The Weird Sisters

by Eleanor Brown,
ready by Kirsten Potter

Rose, Bean, and Cordy are the "weird sisters" of the title - which is a play on the characters from Shakespeare's Macbeth.  In the Bard's time, the word "weird" (or "wyrd") had a different connotation than it does today, implying the effects of fate rather than being strange.

Shakespeare is all over this novel.  The three Andreas sisters are daughters of a professor of Shakespeare at a small Ohio college.  They are named for Shakespearean heroines:  Rosalind (Rose) from As You Like It, Bianca (Bean) from The Taming of the Shrew, and Cordelia (Cordy) from King Lear.  They are now ages 36, 33, and 30 respectively.  They all wind up back at the family home at about the same time that summer, partly because their mother has breast cancer.

But there are other reasons too.  Cordy has been wandering the country like a nomad since dropping out of college, but now finds herself pregnant.  Bean zipped to New York City after earning her degree, but has been fired from her job for embezzlement, done to support her expensive tastes in clothes.  Rose has a Ph.D. and teaches math at another Ohio college, and is engaged to marry a professor in another field, Jonathan.  However, he's gone to Oxford, England, and wants Rose to join him, but she feels responsible for taking care of her mom.

The girls are readers (the whole book is a great celebration of reading), and their father in particular communicates with them via quotes from Shakespeare.  Indeed, the book is full of his quotes, which I loved (although you don't have to be familiar with Shakespeare's works to understand the book).  I wasn't too crazy about some other aspects of the book, though.

As another reviewer pointed out, Bean gets off unrealistically easy with her embezzlement (her employer just wants to be repaid and does not press charges).  I also found it rather unrealistic (and insulting, being a librarian myself) for Bean to take over the town's library (operated by just one person?) AND implement a computerized library system with little experience and no formal training.  (Is it clear that Bean was my least favorite character?  I didn't find her particularly likeable - she sleeps with the husband of a favorite professor through much of the book.)

Cordy and Rose are stereotypes of the youngest child and oldest child in birth order, respectively.  I liked Rose the best, possibly because (being the oldest) I could totally relate to her feelings of responsibility and obligation (and indispensability) towards her younger siblings and aging/ill parents.  I was glad to see her change a bit as the story progressed.

I could also empathize with the tag line on the audiobook cover:  "See, we love each other.  We just don't happen to like each other very much."  Just how my two younger sisters (who are nothing like Bean and Cordy) and I feel about each other!

The story is told mostly in first person plural - lots of "we" and "our mother" (or father or parents) even when the thoughts, words, and actions of only one sister are being described.  In a Q&A on her website, debut author Eleanor Brown says "I chose it because this is a story about family, and one of the ideas I wanted to raise is that we carry our families of origin with us always. They helped form the way in which we see the world, for better or worse, and no matter how we may feel about them now, they are part of us. Even though Rose and Bean and Cordy are not close, they cannot separate themselves from their common history."

Actress Kirsten Potter's smooth narration added a lot to my enjoyment of this easy read.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my local public copy.  I got a hardbound copy of the book in a book exchange, which I plan to keep and re-read.]

Monday, January 26, 2015

450 (2015 #7). Fortune's Rocks

by Anita Shreve 

After reading Anita Shreve's Sea Glass a few months back, I was interested in reading another of her books set in a certain old New Hampshire beach house (modeled after a real one).  While the house is in New Hampshire, the setting for this book is an area called Fortune's Rocks, in an unspecified New England state.  There really is a Fortune's Rocks Beach, which is near the town of Biddeford, Maine.  Interestingly, the main character in this book is named Olympia Biddeford.  This book is more historical romance than historical fiction, though.

Olympia is 15 when the book begins in 1899.  Her wealthy family has a summer home at Fortune's Rocks.  John Haskell is a 40-year-old married doctor visiting the nearby mill town of Ely Falls for the summer, volunteering his services providing medical care for the mill workers.  Olympia and John meet when he visits Olympia's father, and begin a passionate affair.

Not surprisingly, Olympia gets pregnant, has the child in her parents' home in Boston, and her father spirits the baby away while Olympia is under the effects of painkillers from the childbirth.  Her father then sends her away to school in western Massachusetts.  In the next three years, she doesn't forget about John or her baby boy, though.

She ultimately finds her way back to Fortune's Rocks, living in her family's summer home which they have abandoned.  She finds out where her child is from an old friend there.  Ultimately she goes to court to get her son back.  In her acknowledgments, Shreve says, "The court opinions cited in italics in this work of fiction are, in fact, true ones, and portions of the final judgment are taken from the court transcript of the Pennsylvania case of d'Hauteville v. Sears, Sears, and d'Hauteville, although the circumstances of that 1840 custody trial were quite different.

The trial is quite interesting and goes somewhat as one would expect a historical romance to go.  There's a bit of a surprise, though, and even more of one in the final chapter, which occurs eight years after the trial.

Olympia is a compelling character, not typical of her time, given that she feels no shame for her affair, only remorse that John's wife and children were hurt by it.

I read this as an e-book, the cover of which is pictured above and is rather nondescript.  The cover of the hardbound edition, pictured at left, features detail of 12-year-old Ruby (likely meant to represent Olympia) from the 1902 painting  by John Singer Sargent of Essie, Ruby and Ferdinand, Children of Asher Wertheimer.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[The e-book, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to public libraries.]

Friday, January 23, 2015

449 (2015 #6). Nefertiti

by Michelle Moran

I've read a couple of Michelle Moran's other historical fiction novels, both written after Nefertiti, which was her debut novel.  I did not like it as well as Cleopatra's Daughter or Madame Tussaud.

Partly it's because so many of the characters are SO unlikable in this book.  Nefertiti is a selfish b***h.  Her husband, the young Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (who changed his name to Akhenaten), is paranoid and asinine.  On the other hand, Nefertiti's younger half-sister, Mutnodjmet (unrealistically called "Mutny" in the book), the narrator, is almost too good to be true.

I got tired of Nefertiti's constant competition with Kiya, the other main wife of the Pharaoh (and apparently the mother of King Tut).  At 480 pages, the book really dragged in places, with little happening.

I know next to nothing about ancient Egypt, so I can't quibble on whether or not the story was historically accurate.  There are many interpretations of Nefertiti's story, given that it comes mostly from excavated images.  As with Cleopatra's Daughter, so little is known about Nefertiti and her family that it is easy to build a novel around those few facts.  This IS historical fiction, not history.

Michelle Moran's website provides a lot of background information for the novel, including a family tree (albeit not interactive as the website indicates), which is fortunate as the one in the e-book is impossible to read.  A Q&A page answers some questions about the inspiration and research for the book, and what the author changed or conjectured.

Being a debut novel, this book is poorly written compared to Moran's later books.  However, this novel did succeed as historical fiction in that it made me want to learn more about Nefertiti.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[I borrowed and returned this e-book from a public library.]

Thursday, January 22, 2015

448 (2015 #5). Under the Wide and Starry Sky

by Nancy Horan

After returning from our cruise, I was sick most of the following week, so I had an opportunity to read this book, on the list for my book club this year.

Since Nancy Horan tackled Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress Mamah Cheney in her Loving Frank in 2007, there have been a number of other books about the women behind famous men - The Paris Wife (Hemingway), The Aviator's Wife (Lindbergh), and Mrs. Poe are ones I've read.  Now Horan has come out with another.  This one is about Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny Van De Grift Osbourne.

The reader meets Fanny first, in 1875 in Europe.  She's 35 and has gone there with her three children to escape her philandering husband. An acceptable way to do so in that era was to go abroad to study art (according to page 25, she's at the same school as Louisa May Alcott's younger sister May, the inspiration for Amy in Little Women). She meets Stevenson, ten years her junior, in France in September 1876, where Fanny has gone after her youngest son dies of tuberculosis.  He's smitten with her, but she is originally more interested in his older cousin.  Stevenson, despite a childhood and youth of illness, has been on various walking tours that provide inspiration for his writing.  Eventually the two fall in love and have a clandestine affair.

The title of the book is the first line from Stevenson's poem Requiem, which became the epitaph on his gravestone in Samoa.  He wrote it while feeling ill and near death on a train across America in August 1879, on his way to San Francisco to find Fanny (page 159), who had gone home a year earlier for one last attempt to reconcile with her husband.  She finally divorces him at the end of that year, and Stevenson and Osbourne marry in May 1880.

Their life after that is one of frequent travel in an attempt to find a climate favorable to Stevenson's health, with Fanny nursing him and inspiring his writing. Despite his poor health, he writes A Child's Garden of Verses, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Ultimately they discover sea air is best, and despite Fanny's seasickness, they spend months cruising, and finally move to Samoa, leading a somewhat eccentric life (for that era) there.  Stevenson died there from a cerebral hemorrhage in December 1894, at the age of only 44.

I didn't know much about Stevenson before reading this book, and nothing about Fanny.  Horan was inspired to write about them after visiting the Monterey Bay area in California and learning Stevenson had lived there in 1879, pursuing an American woman.  Intrigued, she found plenty of primary source material - letters, journals, diaries - with which to work.

Finally, while the cover for the paperback and e-book (pictured above) is pretty, I like the art on the hardbound copy better:

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[I borrowed and returned this e-book from a public library.]

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

447 (2015 #4). Love with a Perfect Cowboy

by Lori Wilde

I've been reading a lot of Lori Wilde's romance novels lately, particularly the series set in the mythical Twilight, Texas, which is based on my town of Granbury.

At a local event honoring Lori last month, I received a free copy of this book.  It's part of a different series, set in another make-believe town, Cupid, Texas, which is based on Fort Davis, the seat of the real Jeff Davis County, in the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas.  Marfa, which is mentioned in the story, is thirty miles away (page 206); Alpine, Marathon, and the McDonald Observatory are nearby.

As one might guess from the cover art, this book has a lot more sex than the Twilight series (only one book of eleven in that series - the novella - has a sexy man on the cover, and he's wearing a tux).  Melody Spencer and Luke Nielsen are from feuding families, who were in love as teens.  Torn apart, he stays in their hometown, running the family ranch and becoming Cupid's mayor, while she moves to New York City to follow her dreams.  When the story opens, she's fired from her advertising job for being too honest, and finds her boyfriend has dumped her from both his life and his apartment.

Enter Luke, in town to offer her a job attempting to boost tourism in Cupid, which is suffering from a drought (shades of Granbury!).  He takes her back to his hotel as she has no place else to sleep, but of course they have hot sex.  They continue to have lots of hot sex as the story continues back in Cupid, and Melody tries various events (including a hilarious bachelor auction) in an attempt to bring in visitors.

Romance tropes in the story include forbidden love, cowboy, fling, return to hometown, and maybe reunion and politics.  This is the last book in the Cupid, Texas, series, but it stands alone just fine.

I thought it amusing that the cover art does not match the text - at least, if the man on the cover is supposed to be hero Luke.  Some examples:

  • page 66:  "The top button on his shirt had come unbuttoned, revealing a tuft of soft brown chest hair."
  • page 208:  "The sun was up enough now for her to make out the sprinkling of hairs on his chest."
  • page 277:  "He was so damn beautiful.  Hard, lean, a fine spray of dark hair between his nipples."

No matter - I prefer guys with some hair on their chests.  I read this at the end of my cruise vacation, and it was perfect for that.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[I received a free copy of this book - it will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

446 (2015 #3). Sacred Hearts

by Sarah Dunant

I read Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus over seven years ago and really liked it, so when I saw this title in the library of the cruise ship I was on two weeks ago, I had to read it.  I'm so glad I did.

This is Dunant's third book set in Italian Renaissance (I still need to read In the Company of the Courtesan, as well as the fourth book, Blood and Beauty, about the Borgias).  This book takes place in 1570 at the Santa Caterina convent, a fictional community based on a real Benedictine convent outside Ferrara, Sant'Antonio in Polesine.  Another convent in Ferrara referred to in the book, Corpus Domini, really exists, and some of the characters in the book, such as Duke Alfonso D'Este, were real people.

A fifteen-year-old girl named Isabetta is brought unwillingly to the convent.  In those days, the value of a dowry had become outrageously high, and many families could only afford to marry off one daughter.  Any others were often sent to the convent instead.  In the case of Isabetta (who is given the novice name Serafina), she has fallen in love with an unsuitable man, her music teacher.  Serafina is convinced he will come to rescue her, and initially she refuses to cooperate with the nuns.  She's supposed to have a beautiful singing voice, which would be an asset to the convent choir, but at first she will not use it, changing her mind only when it becomes to her advantage to do so.

Suora (Sister) Zuana, born Faustina, was trained by her widowed father in medicine.  When he dies unexpectedly, leaving her an insufficient dowry, and with no prospects (she's too smart and too plain) for marriage, she must also join the convent, but she grows to understand that she has more freedom there, as she is put in charge of the dispensary.  Madonna Chiara, the abbess (in that position primarily due to the wealth of her family), assigns Serafina to work with Zuana.  This doesn't make Suora Umiliana, the strict novice mistress, very happy.  Umiliana believes the convent has become too worldly (servants clean their cells, and some nuns have fine furnishings and even dogs), and would prefer that members be more pious, even to the point of more self-mortification, fasting, and having religious visions.

The story alternates between Zuana's and Serafina's viewpoints.  I don't want to give too much away, other than to point out that I tore through the last couple hundred pages of the book as the plot became more exciting.

In her research for the book, Dunant spent a week living in a Benedictine convent near Milan. In an interview, she commented on "the power of ritual and rhythm and routine" in the convent.  My aunt has been a nun for over 65 years, and this gave me some insight into her experiences.  I thought it was also interesting that life in this 1570 convent, in terms of its contacts with the outside world, was somewhat comparable to my aunt's experiences in the 1950s and 1960s.  My mother married in the church adjacent to my aunt's convent in 1954 so that my aunt could attend the ceremony; in those days my aunt could not leave the site.  I remember visiting my aunt at the convent in the early 1960s, but by the middle of that decade (after Vatican II), she could visit us.  The opposite is starting to happen at the end of this novel - restrictions on contacts with outsiders, even family - as a result of responses of the Council of Trent to Protestant accusations and criticisms.  Dunant talks about these more in her author's note (pages 409-410).

I also learned that the women's musical group Musica Secreta (instrumentalists and vocalists, including the Celestial Sirens) put together a recording, Sacred Hearts + Secret Music, of polyphony and chant from the era, including contemporaneous works by a composer referred to in the book (on page 280), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as "the greatest composer of liturgical music of all time."  Here is a clip from a live performance including a dramatic reading from a key scene in the novel:

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This book was borrowed from and returned to the cruise ship library.]

Monday, January 19, 2015

445 (2015 #2). Bonk

by Mary Roach

We recently went on a Caribbean cruise, to escape (some of) the cold of January.  I saw this book in the ship's library, and just had to check it out.  Subtitled "The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex," this is a worthy follower to Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

Mary Roach spent two years writing this book.  The author and her husband even participated in some of the scientific studies described in the book - such as having sex in an MRI tube.  On page 15, when she talks about the stigma of researching (and writing about) sex, she gives a nod to librarians for dealing with her embarrassing interlibrary loan  requests.

It's full of amusing footnotes - which are really side note stories, sometimes not even really related to the main part of the chapter.  Funny (mostly stock) photos begin each chapter - such as the man in a white lab coat, peeping through window blinds for chapter 1, which is on the pioneers of the study of human sexual response, such as Robert Latou Dickinson (who I'd never heard of before).  Another appropriate photo is the "O" shape of a sparkler photographed being swung in a circle - for the chapter (11) on orgasms.

The book also has a 13-page bibliography, divided by chapter.  It was published in 2008 - it would be interesting to read of any advances or new studies in some of the topics discussed.

Here are a few interesting quotes from the book.  On page 248, she discusses the Female Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory operated by Cindy Meston at the University of Texas in Austin, in the Sarah M. and Charles E. Seay Building.  "So enthusiastic is the university about its new structure that at one point during construction, they set up a Seay Building Web cam, allowing interested parties to log on twenty-four hours a day and watch, literally, the paint dry."  All I can say is that given what goes on in that lab now, I hope the web cameras are long gone!

And some interesting facts I learned - for example, on page 90, in a section about sex pheromones, I learned that vaginal odors are affected by onions, garlic, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, chili, curry, kale, sauerkraut, and pineapple.  And on page 292-3, "In addition to the smell of cologne, the women were turned off by the scent of cherry and of  'charcoal barbeque meat.'  At the top of the women's turn-on list was, mysteriously, a mixture of cucumber and Good 'n' Plenty candy."  There's no accounting for taste, but I can't imagine being attracted to a guy who smelled like that.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This book was borrowed from and returned to the cruise ship library.]

Thursday, January 15, 2015

444 (2015 #1). Sister Queens

by Julia Fox

This was a surprisingly easy-to-read dual biography about two daughters of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain:  Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of England's Henry VIII, and Juana "la loca," the queen of Castile, in the period from Isabella's and Ferdinand's takeover of Granada and the Alhambra in 1492, to Juana's death in 1555 (and a bit beyond, to the death of Katherine's daughter Mary, Queen of England, in 1558).

The book is well researched.  End notes and the bibliography take up the last 14% of the book (27 pages in print), which also includes photographs of relevant portraits, locations, and maps, as well as genealogical charts.  The print book would probably be better for the photographs and charts, as they are too small on an e-reader.

The book provides a balanced portrait of these two queens, Katherine usually portrayed as saintly, while Juana was typically described as crazy.  Both share the misfortune of being female in very male-dominated society and era.  The reader also learns a little about their fascinating mother, about whom I'm now eager to read more.

I felt I knew Katherine pretty well, from the many books I've read on Tudor England, both fiction and nonfiction, that include her as a major or minor character.  Juana was a new subject for me, and it was heartbreaking to read how her husband, father, and son in succession took advantage of her, locking her away with rumors that she had gone mad.

The book reads more like a novel than a dry history, with plenty of detail about ceremonies and clothing, and not much political analysis - which was fine with me.  A good introduction to Juana and another view of the well-known first wife of the infamous Henry VIII.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

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