Saturday, April 22, 2017

737 (2017 #35). The Marriage of Opposites

by Alice Hoffman,
read by Gloria Reuben, Tina Benko, and Santino Fontana

This is a fictionalized account of the life of the mother of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.  It's a little bit of a fictionalized biography of the early life of the artist as well.

Author Alice Hoffman stays true to the basic facts about the artist's family.  His mother, Rachel Manzana Pomié, was born to Jewish parents of French, Spanish, and Portuguese heritage, on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas (then part of the Danish West Indies, now the U.S. Virgin Island) in 1795.  She married a widower with three children 21 years her senior, Isaac Petit, and had four children with him before his death in 1824.

Isaac's nephew, Frederic Pizzarro, seven years younger than Rachel, came to the island as his uncle's executor, and the two fell in love.  The close-knit Jewish community on the island frowned upon a marriage between a nephew and aunt by marriage, and it was not for many years (and four sons) later that their private marriage ceremony was finally recognized.

One of those sons was Jacob Abraham Camille Pizzarro (he changed the spelling later), born in 1830.  He was sent to boarding school in Paris at age 11, where he began to explore his artistic talents.  He returned to St. Thomas at 17 to work in his father's business, but continued to work on his art, and went to Venezuela at age 21 and then on to Paris at age 25, in 1855.  His parents followed shortly after, and Rachel never went back to St. Thomas, even after Frederic's death in 1865, which is about when the book ends.

Hoffman fleshed out her characters quite a bit beyond that, making Rachel in particular an intriguing woman. It's interesting to see how she tries to control her son Camille, just the way her mother tried to control her, with similar results.  Hoffman also invented the characters on St. Thomas who are the Pizzarro's employees and friends there.  There's an interesting subplot involving a family servant, Jestine, who is like a sister to Rachel.  These secondary characters are interesting and add a lot to the story.

Hoffman also researched (as noted from the titles in her bibliography) the history of St. Thomas' buildings and Jewish community, as well as birds and folktales of the West Indies.  The folktales are a major part of the story, and Hoffman's descriptions of the island of St. Thomas and the town of Charlotte Amalie make me want to visit them.

The audiobook readers make this book even better.  Actress Tina Benko narrates the chapters told in Rachel's first person viewpoint.  She has a rich, deep, throaty voice, just what I might imagine the real Rachel to have.  Actor Santino Fontana reads the chapters told in Camille's first person voice (there aren't as many).  Actress Gloria Reuben is wonderful as the narrator of all the other chapters, putting lots of emotion into her voice and adding to the magical realism of the story. Perhaps it is because, as she states, her parents are also from the Caribbean and of mixed heritage.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

736 (2017 #34). Lion, King, and Coin

by Jeong-hee Nam,
illustrated by Lucia Sforza,
edited by Joy Cowley

This is another book in publisher Eerdmans' Trade Winds series, "an educational series featuring stories set in key periods in the history of economy and culture."  Like the other book I've read in this series, the fictional story about the invention of the first coins around 600 BCE feels forced (again, perhaps a weakness of being translated from Jeong-hee Nam's original Korean).  Much better are the four pages of information about the development of coinage at the end.  In this case, the reading and interest levels for the informational part of the book are a good match to the reading and interest level of the fictional story.  Artist Lucia Sforza uses a muted pastel palette for the detailed illustrations, which seem appropriate for the setting in the ancient country of Lydia (in present-day Turkey).  However, I'm not sure this book has enough appeal to add this paperback to my university library's collection for future teachers.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be donated to a library.]

Sunday, April 16, 2017

735 (2017 #33). Ma Speaks Up

by Marianne Leone

This memoir by actress Marianne Leone is a collection of anecdotes about her mother, an Italian immigrant.  Some of the chapters have been previously published in other formats.

 Leone is particularly good with creative metaphors to capture the typical angst of teenage and young adult daughters' relationships with their mothers.  The anecdotal style can be a bit hard to follow, with jumps back and forth in time from one chapter to the next.  But the book is heartfelt, and will make the reader laugh and cry.  It did me, as I recognized some of my own at-times turbulent relationship with my own mother (still alive but now suffering from the early stages of dementia).

An insert of black-and-white photographs helps bring the characters even more to life beyond the vivid prose.  And I just love the cover, which is apparently a colorized version of a "black-and-white picture of Ma, shy but sexy, posing on a beach for my father away at war in her two-piece bathing suit, her hair a riot of black curls, arching her back just enough to thrust her breasts upward, a carnal offering to the gods of lust" (page 81).

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This hardbound book was sent to me by the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for a review.  It will be donated to a library.]

Sunday, April 09, 2017

734 (2017 #32). Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise

by Oscar Hijuelos,
read by James Langton, Polly Lee, Henry Leyva, and Robert Petkoff

The real, nearly-lifelong friendship between American author Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and British explorer Henry Morton Stanley is the basis for this historical fiction novel by Oscar Hijuelos.

The two met on a Mississippi riverboat in the autumn of 1860 when Twain was about 25 and Stanley 19.  Their friendship lasted until Stanley's death in 1904.  Framing this period, at both the beginning and end of the book, is Twain's last visit to England in 1907 (to receive an honorary doctorate) where he has tea with Stanley's widow, the artist Dorothy Tennant (as he truly did).  There's also some coverage of both men's earlier lives (particularly Stanley's), and of the brief period between 1907 and Twain's death in April 1910.

Hijuelos died suddenly in 2013, before this book was published - the manuscript was found in his study after his death.  According to an afterword by his widow, author Lori Marie Carlson, Hijuelos spent more than twelve years researching and writing the book.  Amazingly, the numerous letters between the main characters, as well as diary entries and speeches they make - are ALL fiction. They sound so real, I thought some had to be from the historical record.  There's even a reference near the end of the book to a supposed footnote (with page number) in a real chapter in Stanley's real autobiography (edited by his widow) - but that footnote does not exist.

Hijuelos does a good job contrasting Twain and Stanley, highlighting what they had in common and where they differed.  As Twain is better known, Hijuelos wisely concentrated on Stanley (probably best known for supposedly saying "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" which turns out to be a later invention).  I was amazed to learn that such an intrepid explorer suffered from recurring malaria and other gastric disorders, but if you are looking for detail on his actual expeditions, you won't find it in this book.

In his introductory author's note, Hijuelos speaks of the "paradise" in the title:

For Twain it came down to his memories of his fairly happy, carefree youth, the sweet energies of which he put into his most famous book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn....Twain's "paradise" also entailed his love for a family that, as the years went by, simply vanished - two of his three daughters died, then his wife [as well as his infant son and three siblings in their youth]....What paradise remained for him came down to what he had captured so beautifully in his books and in his lingering friendships.
For Stanley, whose life began so badly - his childhood in Wales spent in a workhouse as a ward of the British state; his dangerous but successful enterprises on behalf of King Leopold in Africa eventually, perhaps unfairly, linked to the atrocities committed in that region "for rubber and ivory tusks" - this "paradise" came belatedly, in his later years [his late marriage to Tennant, their adoption of a son, and his acquisition of his country estate].

In the book, the two men also have frequent discussions about faith and religion (Stanley was mostly a believer, Twain mostly was not) and the notion of an afterlife.

Hijuelos also says that "as a writer best known for certain subjects, I also intend the book to give a glance at nineteenth-century Cuba, mainly through the journeys the men made in their lifetimes to that island.  Stanley went there in the early 1860s, during the American Civil War,...Twain journeyed there in 1902, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War."  The novel has both men making the 1860s trip together, and the descriptions of Cuba in that era are particularly good.

Apparently this book has received some criticism because it's not like Hijuelos' other books.  Not having read any of those, I am more open-minded.  I do think the book would have benefited from a little more editing, as the book dragged in a few places, but Hijuelos did not have the opportunity to do that.

What kept me going were the excellent narrators.  Henry Leyva voices Twain, and in my mind is perfect in that role, sounding the way I would imagine Samuel Clemens might have sounded in real life.  Britisher actors James Langton and Polly Lee are wonderful as Stanley and Tennant respectively, and Robert Petkoff does the overall narration and other major characters admirably.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Friday, March 31, 2017

733 (2017 #31). A Soldier's Sketchbook

by John Wilson,
based on the diary and sketches of R. H. Rabjohn

Historian John Wilson hit the jackpot when he was approached by a third grade teacher after a Remembrance Day presentation on World War I at a Canadian school in 2013.  She showed him a wartime diary self-published by her grandfather's uncle that was filled with detailed sketches.  Russell Hughes Rabjohn (1898-1977) served in the war from February 1916, shortly after he turned 18, until finally getting home in March 1919 after the war's end.

Wilson worked with the Rabjohn family and the Canadian War Museum (which holds his original sketchbooks and diaries) to produce A Soldier's Sketchbook:  The Illustrated First World War Diary of R. H. Rabjohn.   This 112-page book includes selected entries and drawings from Rabjohn's diaries and sketchbooks, carefully edited, with additional material to set them in context.  He's also added maps on the end papers, a timeline of the war, an index, and suggestions for further reading.

This book is filled with excellent examples of primary sources for learning about World War I.  It's appropriate for fifth grade (when many United States schools first cover history) on up, and can be enjoyed by adults just as much as (if not more so than) children.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

732 (2017 #30). The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

The local book club I used to belong to (until their meetings moved to daytime, when I work) read this as their last selection, I suppose because it won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016.  I thought it was historical fiction, but I'd have to classify it as a historical fantasy - and, not being a fan of fantasy, I was somewhat disappointed.

The book starts well, with the introduction of the main character, Cora, her grandmother Ajarry who was captured in Africa, and her mother Mabel, who managed to escape their Georgia plantation.  The horrors of slavery are described realistically.  Cora is a strong woman, though, and she attracts the attention of Caesar, another slave who wants to escape.  It seems he thinks Cora might be a good luck charm, since her mother managed to get away.

But here's where the fantasy comes in.  The Underground Railroad in this book is an actual, subterranean, train with tracks.  From this point on, author Colson Whitehead seems to compress many years of African-American history into the novel.  In an interview with NPR, he said,

...once I made the choice to make a literal underground railroad, you know, it freed me up to play with time a bit more. And so, in general, you know, the technology, culture and speech is from the year 1850. That was my sort of mental cutoff for technology and slang. But it allowed me to bring in things that didn't happen in 1850 - skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And it's all presented sort of matter-of-factly...

In a PBS interview, Whitehead says,

...each state she goes through is a different sort of state of American possibility.  South Carolina is a benevolent paternalistic state, where slaves are given programs for racial uplifting. North Carolina is a white supremacist each stop is a sort of island in the “Gulliver’s Travels”-type sense.

I wish I'd read these interviews and some reviews before starting the novel.  While many parts were clearly unrealistic for the time period, other parts were confusing as to whether they were complete fantasy, or based on reality.  For example, the scenes in Indiana made me wonder if perhaps there was some sort of refuge for escaped slaves there.  This book is crying for a reader's guide within its pages.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

731 (2017 #29). The Boston Girl

by Anita Diamant,
read by Linda Lavin

The Boston Girl provides a picture of life in and around that city, concentrating on the years 1915 to 1931.  Addie Baum is the first-person narrator.  Born in 1900 in the United States to Jewish immigrant parents, she has two older sisters.  She tells her story to her granddaughter in 1985, looking back over the years.  Life in the immigrant tenements, the effects of World War I, and the changes it brought about in the 1920s, especially for women, are all part of the story.

Author Anita Diamant says she was inspired to write the novel by a building she passed by frequently - the real Rockport Lodge, an 1857 farmhouse on the coast that in 1906 became a vacation site for women of modest income.  Addie begins going there in 1915, and attends regularly over the years, meeting a group of girls of all backgrounds - daughters of Italian and Irish immigrants - that become lifelong friends.

I found it fascinating that the librarians and archivists at Harvard University quickly processed the Rockport Lodge papers that had been donated to them so that Diamant could use them in their research.  It's also interesting that the Lodge building, with its sign, still exists today, although it has been a private home since 2007.

The Saturday Evening Girls club in the story is also real.  The two Ediths in the story who started it, Chevalier and Green, appear to be adapted from the real life Edith Guerrier and Edith Brown.  Guerrier was a librarian who went on to a distinguished career.

Actress Linda Lavin certainly sounds like she could be an 85-year-old Bostonian telling her life story, as she narrates this book.  The accent did begin to grate on me after a while, though.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

730 (2017 #28). The General's Women

by Susan Wittig Albert

The latest historical fiction novel by Susan Wittig AlbertThe General's Women focuses on the triangle of World War II General Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower while overseas, his wife Mamie back home in the States, and Ike's British volunteer driver and aide, Kay Summersby.

The story is told from all three characters' viewpoints.  Mamie comes off the worst of the three, sounding like a rather vapid, jealous belle.  But then, she was a low-key Army wife and First Lady.

Albert's portrayal of Ike and Kay and their romance is far more interesting, and it's obvious she has done a lot of research.  In a "biographical epilogue," she switches to third-person nonfiction, documenting Kay's postwar life, complete with endnotes.  There's also an author's note, highlighting the differences between the novel, the "official" record, and Summersby's two memoirs.  This note also has endnotes, and there is a further reading section.  How the romance was hidden, after the fact, is almost more interesting than reading about the romance itself.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I purchased this book from the author.]

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

729 (2017 #27). The Summer Before the War

by Helen Simonson,
read by Fiona Hardingham

Like Helen Simonson's first book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, her second one also make me laugh and cry and think.  The Summer Before the War starts in the summer of 1914, when 23-year-old, orphaned Beatrice Nash is hired by the school board of the small town of Rye in England to be the Latin teacher.  In the first part of the book, the reader gets to know the independent Beatrice and her champions, Agatha Kent, her London government employee husband John, and their nephews, medical student Hugh Grange and poet Daniel Bookham.

There's also all sorts of interesting characters in the town of Rye, many of them typically snobby towards the impoverished Beatrice.  There is an extremely funny scene when one of them attempts to boot Beatrice out of her job and install her nephew, a Mr. Poot, into it instead.

The title is a bit of a misnomer, as World War I starts about 23% into the book.  The first impact on the town of Rye is the arrival of a number of Belgian refugees - Beatrice takes a beautiful young girl named Celeste into her small apartment, so she can be near her widowed father, taken in by an American writer living across the street.

Later, though, British soldiers are drawn into the war, and both Hugh and Daniel enlist (Hugh as a surgeon) - along with Beatrice's promising Romani (Gypsy) Latin student nicknamed Snout.  Simonson does an outstanding job showing the impact of the war on these participants as well as their friends and loved ones back home in Rye.  She also subtly takes on issues such as women's roles and rights in that era, as well as class distinctions and prejudices.  Simonson lists numerous research sources in her acknowledgements at the end of the book.

Fiona Hardingham is a fabulous narrator for the audiobook, creating convincing voices and accents for different characters.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This e-audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Sunday, February 26, 2017

728 (2017 #26). A Wilder Rose

by Susan Wittig Albert

Susan Wittig Albert mostly writes mysteries, and this was her first foray into historical fiction.  A Wilder Rose is based on the true story of Rose Wilder Lane and her much more famous mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House series.

Unpublished letters written by Rose and Laura, as well as Rose's unpublished diaries, reveal that Rose was an uncredited ghostwriter/editor in the first eight books in the Little House series.  Albert used this source information (as well as William Holtz's biography of Rose, The Ghost in the Little House) to craft her novel.

This book focuses on the years 1928-1939.  Rose (born 1886), a successful journalist and freelance writer, returns in 1928 from Albania to her parents' home and farm in Missouri when they (Laura was then 61, her husband and Rose's father Almanzo was 71) are ill.  Flush with funds, Rose spends extravagantly to build them a new house on their Rocky Ridge farm, with all the modern conveniences.  Then the stock market crashes in 1929, Rose's investments (and those of her parents, made with Rose's advice) are wiped out, the freelance market dries up, and Rose is stuck at Rocky Ridge, feeling guilty and obligated toward her parents.

Rose encourages her mother to write down her stories of her pioneer girlhood, but the resulting first manuscript needed a LOT of work.  Rose did this, but did not claim any co-authorship.  Her goal was to create an income stream for her parents through book royalties, relieving the financial burden on herself.  The book, Little House in the Big Woods, was so successful that publishers wanted more - and Rose was further stuck, longing to escape Rocky Ridge but unable to work much on her own writing while editing her mother's.

But this book isn't just the story of this uncomfortable collaboration. Rose Wilder Lane is a fascinating person in her own right, and Albert covers most of her interesting life by including an epilogue.  The book also has a four-plus page bibliography, and Albert has a reader's companion with more details about the book's writing on a resources page on the book's website (along with a bibliography-in-progress of Rose's works, and a link to a Pinterest board).

I read the original 2013 self-published version of the book (the cover pictured at the beginning of this post).  In February 2015, the book was republished under an Amazon imprint, and Albert said in August 2014 that the book would get "a do-over....minor touchups and a few major revisions, using my own notes and some suggestions from Lake Union's editor, who gave the book a careful going-over."

I'd like to see this revised version, pictured above.  My problem with the original book was the inclusion of a little too much repetitive and extraneous details and tedious anecdotes that slowed the story down.  I'm curious to see if those were edited out in the reprint.

I do know that the third-person sections of the book, set in Rose's home in Danbury, Connecticut, in April 1939, remain in the revised version.  I found these sections somewhat distracting, as they pulled me out of the more-compelling first-person narrative in Rose's voice.  According to a Q&A, Albert used the (real) Norma Lee Browning as "an 'interlocutor' to get Rose to tell her story and an audience to hear her and react" and "a way to show some of Rose’s controlling behavior."  Given this explanation, the diversions from the first-person story line makes sense.

Albert originally wrote the book as creative or narrative nonfiction, according to an interview, but her agent found no one willing to publish it in that genre, either because they felt it would have a niche audience, or because they felt it didn't adhere to "the legend of Missouri housewife Wilder as the primary author of the books."  That's when Albert decided to recast the book as fiction and self-publish.  Given her previous success as an author and familiarity with publishing, she knew how to do this successfully.  I'm looking forward to more historical fiction by this author.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Saturday, February 25, 2017

727 (2017 #25). Loving Eleanor

by Susan Wittig Albert,
read by Karen White

Author Susan Wittig Albert was coming to my local library for a Texas Writes program, and when I found she writes some historical fiction, I decided to read/listen-to this one.

As the subtitle indicates, Loving Eleanor is about "the intimate friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok."  Hickok was one of the first Associated Press female reporters, and met Roosevelt when assigned to interview her in 1928.  They quickly became *very* good friends.

At the Texas Writes event on February 25, Albert said this book grew out of reading a very bad biography of Hickok.  "The story needed to be corrected, for history's sake," Albert said.  She went to the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library and read the original letters exchanged by the two.  Hickok donated them shortly after Eleanor Roosevelt's death in 1962, with the stipulation that they be sealed for ten years after Hickok's death (which was in 1968).

Beyond the relationship with Eleanor, I found Lorena Hickok to be an interesting person in her own right.  Besides a number of firsts as a female reporter, she worked in Franklin Roosevelt's administration for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration as its Chief Investigator, conducting fact-finding trips to learn about the poverty, homelessness, malnutrition, and lack of education resulting from the Great Depression.  She worked in public relations for the 1939 New York World's Fair, then as an executive secretary for the Democratic National Committee, and later wrote or co-authored ten books.

I started out listening to this as an audiobook, but had to switch to the print version to finish it on time for the library program.  Karen White has a voice that I could imagine being that of Lorena Hickam, that's right for the era.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

726 (2017 #24). New Boy

by Tracy Chevalier

New Boy is Othello retold - the fifth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series where bestselling authors are commissioned to retell stories from Shakespeare. Tracy Chevalier did this one - fortunately, I have read some of her other works.

Chevalier sets this tragedy in a Washington, DC, school in May 1974, and the main characters are sixth-graders.  According to an interview on YouTube (and her website),

I was 11 in 1974...I grew up in Washington, DC, and lived in an integrated neighborhood and went to a school that was about 80% black, and so I had the unusual experience of being a white minority. And I wanted to write about that, although I have flipped it ... the book opens with a black boy walking onto an all-white playground, and it's about what happens to him over the course of the day.

Chevalier of course simplified the story, removing most of the subplots, but the characters are still recognizable:

  • Othello - "O" or Osei , the son of a Ghanan diplomat, whose name means "noble" in his language.  He is the "new boy" of the title - this is his fourth school in at least three different cities in six years.
  • Desdemona - Dee, short for Daniela, the most popular girl in the sixth grade, although her mother is very strict and she goes home for lunch every day.  She is assigned by their teacher to take care of O on his first day.
  • Iago - Ian, the clever sixth grade bully (and the villain of the play).
  • Emilia - Mimi, Dee's best friend, now "going with" Ian although she wants out of it.
  • Cassio - Casper, the most popular boy in the sixth grade.
  • Roderigo - Rod, Ian's sidekick, who has a crush on Dee.
  • Bianca - Blanca, Dee's and Mimi's friend who is "going with" Casper.
  • Brabantio - Mr. Brabant, the teacher for O, Dee, Casper, and Blanca, a Vietnam veteran.
  • Lodovico - Miss Lode, the teacher for Ian, Mimi, and Rod.
  • Montano - Miss Montano, the school nurse.
  • Duke of Venice - Mrs. Duke, the school principal.

The handkerchief, the symbol of perceived betrayal in the original play, becomes a pencil case.

The book is divided into five sections - before school, morning recess, lunchtime, afternoon recess, and after school - corresponding with the five acts of Shakespeare's play.  Each section begins with a jump rope chant.  Chevalier said she especially enjoyed being able reference ... the games we played, the slang we used, the candy we ate, how school worked, how I felt in school, and all that stuff came rushing back.  It was it was a great experience and very different from what I normally ... write, historical novels that are set ... centuries ago and have nothing to do with me.

Nevertheless, Chevalier's experience with writing historical fiction has her including all sorts of period details from 1974 (songs, TV shows, etc.) that made me appreciate the setting even more.

I also loved the way she worked in the class preparing to perform A Midsummer Night's Dream (page 112).  When Dee tells O she is playing Hermia, Ian overhears.

"Doesn't she fall in love with one boy after another?" Ian interjected.  "She's fickle like that.  Lucky boys."
"Only because of what you do.  It's just magic," Dee explained, as O's face darkened.  "It's a comedy, so it turns out alright in the end."
"Who do you play?" O demanded of Ian.
"He plays Puck," Dee said.  "The head fairy who makes all the mischief happen."

So true!  This is a tragedy of jealousy.  Updating the story to the 1970s also highlights the prejudices that are still relevant today.  I was in sixth grade just a few years before 1974 - and all the ever-changing friendships, crushes, and jealousies of that age ring true.

The book's ending is vague, but I think that is deliberate.  Something bad happens (the play IS a tragedy, with three of the four main characters dead by the end, and the fourth is arrested), but it's not quite clear what.

Highly recommended.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this advance reader edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Saturday, February 18, 2017

725 (2017 #23). The Endless Forest

by Sara Donati,
read by Kate Reading

This is the sixth and final book in Sara Donati's Wilderness series, historical fiction set in upstate New York spanning the period from late 1792 to mid 1824 - the latter year being when this book takes place. The setting moves back to the location of the first book, the mythical town of Paradise, in the Adirondacks near Lake George and Saratoga, both of which I have visited.

The romance focus in this book is on Elizabeth & Nathaniel Bonner's son Daniel, who lost the use of his left arm in the War of 1812, and Martha Kirby, recently returned from living in Manhattan a number of years.  I decided to classify this book as a historical romance rather than historical fiction - because sex is a big part of this book, and the historical setting is not as relevant to the plot.

What does drive the plot is the return of the notorious troublemaker, Jemima Southern Kuick Wilde Focht, Martha's mother, and the stepmother of Martha's former best friend, orchard owner Callie Wilde.  The fear that Jemima might lay claim to Martha's inheritance from her father Liam Kirby, or to Callie's orchard, drives Daniel and Martha to go to nearby Johnstown to quickly marry, followed by Callie and Daniel's cousin Ethan Middleton.  The marriage of the latter two is for friendship and protection, as Callie fears she will pass on her mother's mental decline to any children.

Jemima left Paradise eleven years before pregnant by Callie's father, and claims that the little boy she brings with her, named Nicholas Wilde for his father, is both Martha's and Callie's half-brother.  Callie, desperate for the family she's lost and knows she will not have otherwise, accepts him as such, but Martha and the rest of Paradise adults are more cautious - especially since Jemima goes away and leaves Nicholas behind along with a couple black servants, who play a part in the story.

I never quite understood how Jemima could possibly claim the orchard for her son.  In Fire Along the Sky, the fourth book in the series, Jemima sells the orchard unbeknownst to Callie's father (which leads to his death), and leaves town with the money.  Callie later buys the orchard back, so it seems to me that she should be the owner outright, and not have to fear any claims from her half-brother or former stepmother.

Otherwise, the book brings us up-to-date on the lives of other members of the extended Bonner family and their friends.  Both oldest son Luke Bonner's wife Jennet, and Daniel's twin Lily are pregnant - Lily with her first after many miscarriages.  Gabe Bonner marries his childhood playmate Annie, a Mohawk, in secret at the beginning of the book.  And ten-year-old Curiosity "Birdie" Bonner, the youngest child, tells much of the story from her viewpoint.

Jemima comes back again at the end of the book, and that plot line gets resolved.  Donati ends the book (and series) with an epilogue in the form of newspaper articles and advertisements - including obituaries - that span the next twenty years.  Some deaths are to be expected, given the ages of the characters, some are surprises.  In a comment to a reviewer upset with this epilogue, Donati said,

I certainly wasn't bored with the series, but I did know that Bantam [the publisher] wouldn't give me a contract for another book in the series. That made the novel especially difficult to write, both technically and emotionally. I felt obligated to bring everyone to a fairly stable place. 

I was fine with the epilogue.  Many of the characters that survive past 1843 - and their descendants - show up in the first book in Donati's next series, set  in New York City forty years later, in 1883, The Gilded Hour.

Kate Reading's narration of the audiobook was superb as usual.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Friday, February 17, 2017

723-724 (2017 #21-22). Two "Lowriders" Graphic Novels

by Cathy Camper, 
illustrated by Raul the Third

I'm not really into graphic novels, but Lowriders in Space was on the 2016-2017 Texas Bluebonnet Award reading list (it did not win the award, though), and the illustrator (Raul The Third, aka Raúl Gonzalez III, who grew up in El Paso) recently won the 2017 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award for the sequel, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth.  This award is "presented annually to a Latino/Latina ... illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth."  The illustrations are all done in red, blue, green, and black ballpoint pen ink on light brown paper and are incredibly detailed.

I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that author Cathy Camper is a K-12 outreach librarian with the Multnomah County Library system in the Portland, Oregon area.  In an interview, she said, “When I came up with the idea for Lowriders, I had three goals: To publish a book that would connect with English-Spanish speakers...To create a book that would appeal to boys since boys’ literacy rate was dropping...To connect with kids who loved comics and graphic novels.”

The books feature a female impala mechanic named Lupe Impala, a mosquito named Elirio Malaria who paints and details cars with his proboscis (beak), and El Chavo "Flappy" Flapjack, an octopus who cleans and buffs the cars.  The character names are clever - Chevy Impalas are popular models for lowriders, malaria is a disease spread by mosquitoes, and there really is a flapjack octopus.

In the first book (Space), these three work at the Cantinflas used car dealership, but long to have a garage of their own.  They use all their extra time and money to build a lowrider to enter into a competition - but some of the parts come from an old airplane factory, and their test ride takes them into outer space.  The second book (Earth) takes them deep inside the earth on a hunt for their missing cat, where they encounter Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the underworld.

These two books reminded me a lot of Joanna Cole's old Magic School Bus series, specifically, the Lost in the Solar System and Inside the Earth books.  Both series manage to work in a little science along with the fantasy story.  The Lowriders books have a glossary at the end with definitions of Spanish and science terms, as well as explanatory notes about lowriders (Space) and Aztec and other cultural references (Earth).  Both books also translate Spanish terms within the stories with asterisked footnotes.

While aimed at middle-grade kids, even adults who aren't into graphic novels or knowledgeable about Latino or lowrider culture will appreciate some of the humor in the books, such as some of the cultural references like that to Cantinflas, and art that sometimes looks like Krazy Kat or Mad Magazine).  In Space, the protagonists get rid of a black hole with w(h)ite-out; and in Earth, Flappy describes igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks as "big dumb ignoramous rocks," "sedentary napping at the beach," and "metaphoric rocks-these are the building blocks of poets everywhere!"

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Monday, February 13, 2017

721-722 (2017 #19-20). Two More Picture Books

Leather Shoe Charlie is a historical fiction picture book set in England during its 19th century Industrial Revolution. It is part of publisher Eerdmans' Trade Winds series, "an educational series featuring stories set in key periods in the history of economy and culture."  The fictional story is so-so (perhaps a weakness of being translated from Gyeong-hwa Kim's original Korean).  Much better are the four pages of information about the Industrial Revolution at the end - although the reading and interest levels for this information is not a good match to the reading and interest level of the fictional story.  The mixed-media illustrations by twins Anna and Elena Balbusso fit the atmosphere of the story.  Nevertheless, I'm unlikely to add this paperback to my university library's collection for future teachers.

Clean Sweep!  Frank Zamboni's Ice Machine, is another book in Monica Kulling's "Great Ideas" picture book biography series highlighting inventors.  This book should appeal to sports fans - hockey, speed skating, figure skating - and anyone interested in how this ice-smoothing machine came to be.  Renné Benoit's simple illustrations are done in watercolor and colored pencil.  Kulling is a poet, which may explain the poem that opens the book (and otherwise really doesn't fit).  However, this book definitely gets added to my university library's children's literature collection, used by future teachers.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received these books through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  They will be donated to libraries.]

Sunday, February 12, 2017

720 (2017 #18). Writing Hard Stories

by Melanie Brooks

I requested this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program because I have a "hard story" of my own that I might want to write some day, and I was looking for inspiration, as author Melanie Brooks was.  She has a difficult story to tell about the death of her father from AIDS, and kept getting stuck in her writing.  She decided to interview 18 memoirists who had written similar difficult stories.

Of the 18 she chose, I had only heard of one - Edwidge Danticat (and I did not really care for the one novel of hers I had read).  I have to say, though, that after reading Brooks' interviews, I found at least one memoir I'm interested in reading.

Unfortunately, the interviews become rather repetitious after a while.  I also got tired of Brooks' references back to her own writing struggles.  I think this book might be most useful as a reference for a class about writing memoirs.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be donated to my university library.]

Saturday, February 04, 2017

719 (2017 #17). Lilac Girls

by Martha Hall Kelly

Reading this book was difficult.  The topic is a good one, not often covered in historical fiction, though hard in itself to read about.  But it is the author's first novel, and it shows.  It reminds me a lot of Ruta Sepetys' Between Shades of Gray, which I read and reviewed about four-and-a-half years ago.

The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of three women, over a twenty year period, from 1939 to 1959.  When the book opens, Caroline Ferriday is a wealthy socialite who lives in New York City and works at the French Consulate.  Herta Oberheuser is a young German doctor who longs to perform surgery and escape a miserable home life.  Kasia Kuzmerick is a teenager in Lublin, Poland, with an older sister named Zuzanna, also a doctor.

As World War II begins and progresses, the lives of these women begin to intersect.  Kasia becomes active in the Polish resistance, and she, her sister, her mother Halina are arrested by the Nazis and ultimately sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women.  Meanwhile, Herta has become a doctor there, initially giving lethal injections, but ultimately performing medical experiments on the legs of prisoners - including Kasia and her sister.  These women became known as the "Ravensbrück Rabbits," because their damaged legs forced them to hop around the camp, and because they had been treated like laboratory rabbits.

Caroline's story finally connects to these two after the war.  She is instrumental in bringing the Ravensbrück victims to the United States for treatment, and helping to track down Herta.  But in Part 1 of the book (the first 26 chapters, more than half of the book), she is pining away after a married French actor named Paul, who (because of his Jewish wife), also winds up in a French concentration camp.   This ridiculous romance, coupled with frivolous talk of fashion and fundraising functions and such, made me dislike Caroline and want to skim through these chapters.

Herta was also completely unlikable, despite the author's weak attempt to come up with a (rather disgusting) backstory for her, trying, I suppose, to explain why Herta became so focused on advancing her career that she could conveniently overlook the humanity of the patients.

Kasia was not much better.  She whines and complains through much of the book, although her youth is a plausible excuse at the beginning, in contrast to her older sister.  Kasia seems to have an unnatural attachment to the memory of her not-so-sainted mother, who disappears at Ravensbruck.  It was hard to have much sympathy for this passive-aggressive character, despite the terrible ordeal she went through - other survivors of the same procedures did not behave so badly.

So I got to the end of the book, thinking - meh.  And then I read the author's note.  I thought all the main characters were invented.  I was surprised to learn that Caroline and Herta were real people (as were their parents), while Kasia and Zuzanna were loosely based on two of the real Ravensbrück Rabbits.  Members of the cruel staff of Ravensbrück, guards and doctors, and many of the prisoners,were also real.

Paul, however, was not.  I think it's a travesty that debut author Martha Hall Kelly felt the need to create a (lousy) romance for a woman whose character didn't need it.  Kelly said in the author's note (on page 482) that it was to give Caroline "more of a personal connection to France and to dramatize the events happening there," but I felt it was completely unnecessary and distracting.

The book cover was also distracting and misleading.  Kelly was inspired to write the book by a magazine article about the lilacs in the gardens at Caroline's Connecticut home, and her favorite flowers also inspired the title.  From reading the book's blurbs, one might think the three women on the cover are the three main characters - Caroline, Kasia, and Herta - but I think it's supposed to be Caroline with Kasia and Zuzanna when the latter two stayed with her at her Connecticut home.

I made it through the book only because the subject of the Ravensbrück Rabbits was so interesting, as was Caroline Ferraday.  The book was successful in making me want to learn more about them, as Kelly obviously did a lot of research.  However, the plot structure and characterizations were so poor that I have to wonder if Kelly might have been better off telling the story as narrative nonfiction instead.  I think this debut author got some bad advice from her editors along the way.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Sunday, January 29, 2017

718 (2017 #16). Lady Cop Makes Trouble

by Amy Stewart

This book is a sequel to Girl Waits With Gun, and it's helpful (but not absolutely necessary) to have read that book first, if only to know more of the backstory of the three Kopp sisters, Constance, Norma, and Fleurette.

It's the summer of 1915, and Constance, the heroine in both books, is working as a deputy to Sheriff Robert Heath in Bergen County, New Jersey.  That is, she's doing so unofficially, since the laws in that place and time required that deputy sheriffs be eligible to vote - and women weren't allowed to vote in 1915.  Officially, she is matron for the female jail, but she's called upon to investigate (and sometimes make arrests), primarily in crimes involving women (as criminals or victims).

Constance is also fluent in French and German, and so the sheriff brings her along to the hospital one day to translate for a prisoner undergoing treatment there.  There's a storm, accidents outside the hospital pull the sheriff away, the power goes out - and the prisoner escapes.  To save her job (and that of the sheriff, who, under state law in those days, could be imprisoned himself for letting a prisoner escape), Constance must find the escapee, Doctor Reverend Baron Herman Albert von Matthesius (a real criminal).

That part of the story drags out a bit, but this was still a fast, fun read.  Once again, author Amy Stewart has based her novel on real incidents she found from newspaper and other research in the life of the real Constance Kopp.  Most of the other characters are based on real people as well.

There are going to be at least three more books in the series - I'm looking forward to them.

from page 304 of Lady Cop Makes Trouble

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Saturday, January 28, 2017

715-717 (2017 #13-15). Three More Picture Books That Caught My Eye

When I was at the public library a few days ago, looking for recent winners of American Library Association Youth Media awards, I spotted a few books on display that looked interesting, that I was pretty sure we didn't have in the children's literature collection I manage at the university.  So I checked them out:

Musicians of the Sun is similar to many of Caldecott Medalist and honoree Gerald McDermott's other traditional literature books.  Like The Princess and the Warrior by Duncan Tonatiuh, this book also retells Axtec folklore.  The Lord of the Night (the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca), sends the Wind god (Ehecatl) to bring the prisoners of the Sun god (Tonatiuh, interestingly enough) - four musicians named Red, Yellow, Blue, and Green, to the "gray and joyless," dark and silent earth.  In his author's note, McDermott said "the story became for me a metaphor for the author's journey," and that the illustrations are "in acrylic fabric paint, opaque ink, and oil pastel on paper handmade in Mexico."

Matisse's Garden, written by Samantha Friedman and illustrated by Cristina Amodeo, was published by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City in 2014 to accompany an exhibition of the "cut-out" works from the last decade of the life of Henri Matisse.  The artist found it difficult to paint or sculpt after surgery for abdominal cancer (although this is not discussed in the book), and took up his scissors to make cut-paper collages, often on an immense scale.  Author Friedman was an assistant curator at MoMA and co-organizer of the exhibition, while Amodeo is an Italian designer.  I particularly liked the way the way the latter built in references to Matisse's other work (such as Dance) in her cut-paper illustrations.  The book features eight reproductions of Matisse's cut-paper works, some on fold-out pages to better fit the scale of some of these large works.  More details about Matisse's life and these works are in an endnote.

Ada Twist, Scientist, is the third book in a series written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts, that promote STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) careers.  Told in rhyme, Ada Twist is a little girl who starts out quiet and observing, but once she turns three, the questions - mostly "Why?" - flow.  The fact that Ada is a female of color (and has puzzled but supportive parents) is even better for encouraging all young children to question and hypothesize and persevere.  The illustrations use watercolors, pen, ink, and pencil, sometimes on - appropriately - graph paper of different types.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Friday, January 27, 2017

714 (2017 #12). The Japanese Lover

by Isabel Allende,
read by Joanna Gleason

I've read a lot by Isabel Allende, and while this does not measure up to her earlier works, I still liked The Japanese Lover.  A major criticism from some fans is that Allende tells the story, rather than showing the story through action.  Yet, given that the book covers 74 years, from 1939 to 2013, and jumps back and forth from the 2010-2013 period to earlier years, that may be understandable.  Besides, the idea of the book is that one main character is telling her life story to others.

The two main characters in the book are  Alma Mendel Belasco, who is 78 when the book begins in 2010, and Irina Bazili, who is 23.  Irina, a Moldovan refugee, has just started to work at (the mythical) Lark House, a retirement community in San Francisco with a continuum of care levels, and Alma has just moved into independent living there.  Alma hires Irina to be her secretary, and both of them get involved in a book that Seth, Alma's grandson, is writing - and Alma begins to share her memories.  Eventually she gets around to her Japanese lover - Ichimei "Ichi" Fukuda, the son of the Belasco family gardener.  Alma's and Ichi's families also become part of the story.

Through her characters, Allende weaves in all sorts of history - Japanese-American internment camps, war, the Holocaust, and the attempts of Jewish people (like Alma's Mendel parents and brother) to avoid it (Alma was sent from Poland to live with her Belasco relatives, including her cousin Nathaniel, who becomes her best friend and husband).  She also brings up topics like racial prejudice, aging issues, death with dignity, and a few others that were surprises to me as the story went on.

I actually liked this book. Besides the historical fiction in it, I'm mesmerized by the idea of a love that lasts over 70 years. Actress Joanna Gleason's reading is perfect; she has a beautiful soft voice that seems to fit all the characters.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Thursday, January 26, 2017

712-713 (2017 #10 & #11). Two Award-Winning Picture Books

When the American Library Association announced its annual Youth Media Award recipients on January 23, 2017, I pulled the one honoree I'd already ordered earlier in the year (because it was a picture book on the 2017-2018 Texas Bluebonnet Award reading list) from the to-be-cataloged shelf at my university library.  I also went to my local public library and checked out the two picture books they had that were honorees.  I wrote about one book yesterday; here's my review of the other two.

The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award is given annually to the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the "most distinguished American book for beginning readers."  Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run! An Alphabet Caper, written and illustrated by Mike Twohy, was named as a 2017 Geisel Honor Book.

This clever alphabet book uses a single word on each page or spread to tell a simple story of a dog, a mouse, and a ball.  Mike Twohy is a longtime cartoonist whose work has been published in The New Yorker magazine and other mainstream publications.  He used India ink and felt-tip pens to create the illustrations in this book.

The Pura Belpré Illustrator Award is given to "a Latino/Latina ... illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth." Duncan Tonatiuh, a previous medalist (2012) and honoree (2011 and 2014-2016), had two works named as Honor Books for Illustration in 2017, one of which is on the 2017-2018 Texas Bluebonnet Award reading list.

The Princess and the Warrior is a retelling of the legend of Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl, two volcanoes near Mexico City.  

The illustrations (hand-draw then collaged digitally) were inspired by Mexican Pre-Columbian art, primarily the Mixtec writing code of the 12th century.  A characteristic of this style, according to the author's note at the end of the book, is that "people and animals are always drawn in profile.  Their entire bodies are usually shown, and their ears often look like the number 3."  Tonatiuh even uses speech scrolls in his illustration (similar to speech bubbles), such as in the illustration below.

Tonatiuh based the enemy warrior in the book on the real Mixtec warrior Jaguar Claw, and uses a number of Nahuatl (Aztec) words in the book, some of which have become part of Mexican Spanish.  A glossary of these follows the author's note, and is followed by a bibliography.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

711 (2017 #9). They All Saw A Cat

by Brendan Wenzel

When the American Library Association announced its annual Youth Media Award recipients on January 23, 2017, I pulled the one honoree I'd already ordered earlier in the year (because it was a picture book on the 2017-2018 Texas Bluebonnet Award reading list) from the to-be-cataloged shelf at my university library.  I also went to my local public library and checked out the two picture books they had that were honorees.  I was going to write about all three together, but one book deserves a post all its own.

The Randolph Caldecott Medal "honors the illustrator of the year's most distinguished American picture book for children."  Receiving an Honor Book designation this year was They All Saw a Cat, written and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel.

This is an incredibly clever book that explores the concepts of observation, perspective, and point of view.  The text is simple and patterned and repetitive (all good features for a book for young children):

The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws...
and the child saw A CAT,
and the dog saw A CAT,
and the fox saw A CAT,
Yes they all saw the cat.

Except, of course, as the illustrations make obvious, each one of these sees the cat differently.  The same pattern is repeated more times with different sets of creatures, such as a fish,

 a bee,

a snake,

a skunk,

and a bat.

The illustrations for some of the latter animals will inspire questions - for example, why does the skunk see the cat as black and white?  Why does the bee see the cat as a bunch of colored dots?  The book doesn't have any explanatory notes at the end, so might encourage parents/teachers and children/students to do a little science research.

And then, some of the animals "see" the cat based on their relationships with it - such as the mouse, a cat's prey - prompting some thought about perception and empathy.  One of my friends pointed out that a colorblind child would have a different perception of the bee's image, for example.

Brendan Wenzel used a lot of different media (colored and "regular" pencils, oil pastels, watercolor, charcoal, acrylic paint, Magic Markers, and an iBook) and techniques to create his illustrations, which could also spark more discussion.

The publisher's website has a trailer, teacher's guide, and activity kit for the book.  They All Saw a Cat definitely deserved Caldecott honors.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

710 (2017 #8). After You

by JoJo Moyes

This is the sequel to JoJo Moyes' highly successful Me Before You, which I listened to about three years ago.  As the title implies, this is what happens to Louisa Clark after Will Traynor dies in the first book.  While this book could technically stand alone on its own, I would definitely recommend reading Me Before You first.

Despite being left some money by Will, and being encouraged by him to travel, Louisa's living out of boxes in a flat in London, and working at an airport bar.  An accident sets in motion a transition, but it takes a LONG time, and is complicated by Sam, the attractive paramedic who treats Louisa, as well as an unexpected visitor from Will's past - the daughter he never knew he had, sixteen-year-old Lily.

Lily behaves like a spoiled brat, and I found myself growing irritated with Louisa for putting up with her.  But as Louisa (and I) learned more about Lily, she starts to grow on her (and me).

Characters from the first book reappear in this one, including Louisa's quirky family, to provide some comic relief.

And - it looks like there will be a sequel.  Moyes leaves Louisa's future a bit up in the air at the end of this book, with some unfinished business.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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