Wednesday, November 15, 2017

768 (2017 #66). Love Anthony

by Lisa Genova

Love Anthony is an interesting book.  The title implies it's about a boy named Anthony who had autism and died at age eight.  His mother, Olivia, comes to Nantucket to start over when Anthony's death also ends her marriage.  Meanwhile, another woman living on the island, Beth, has to start over too, when she learns her husband is cheating on her with a local woman.  Beth goes back to her first love, writing, inspired by a little boy with autism she observed on a Nantucket beach some years before.

You can probably figure who that little boy was.  While I liked many things about this book, the premise that Beth could write so accurately about a child with autism without knowing anything about it was both unbelievable (I'm not much for the concept of channeling), and puzzling, as it lessened the importance of Beth returning to an earlier passion (was she writing or channeling?).

I didn't like this one as much as Lisa Genova's Still Alice or Inside the O'Briens.  It works much better to have the afflicted person tell his/her own story about one's illness, but that's not really possible with autism.  Still, it's obvious this neuroscientist author knows her stuff.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Saturday, October 28, 2017

767 (2017 #65). The Rose of Sebastopol

by Katherine McMahon,
read by Josephine Bailey

This book sounded interesting from its description - historical fiction set in 1854 during the Crimean War.  Due to a family crisis, my listening to this audiobook was interrupted, and the library loan for it expired.  However, I found the characters so unlikeable and their predicaments so unrealistic that there was no motivation to borrow the book again to finish it.  A too-speedy reading by the narrator didn't help - it was hard to keep track of the shifts in time.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

765-766 (2017 #63 and #64). Two Children's Picture Books

Where Oliver Fits, written and illustrated by Cale Atkinson, is a wonderful picture book about "fitting in."  Oliver is a jigsaw puzzle piece who adjusts his shape and color in an effort to fit into various jigsaw puzzles - all unsuccessful, of course.  He ultimately changes himself so much that he becomes unrecognizable.  He fits in, but is unhappy.  The ending is a happy one, and the message is great.  It's also a good lead-in to a discussion about disabilities.  The fun and colorful illustrations, made in Photoshop, will attract age-appropriate children.  Definitely a great book for kids, parents, and classroom use.

Cinderella and the Furry Slippers is another "fractured folktale" retelling of a classic fairy tale by the pair of Davide Cali and illustrator Raphaëlle Barbanègre, who teamed up on Snow White and the 77 Dwarfs.  Once again, Swiss-born Italian Davide Cali has written a slightly feminist take on the traditional tale with a twist at the end.  French-Canadian artist Raphaëlle Barbanègre's colorful, whimsical, digitally-rendered illustrations add a lot to the story - especially the facial expressions!  I could definitely see using this book in a second grade classroom in my state, where students are supposed to "compare different versions of the same story in traditional and contemporary folktales with respect to their characters, settings, and plot."

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received these hardbound editions from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  They will be added to the curriculum collection at my university library.]

Sunday, October 08, 2017

764 (2017 #62). Inside the O'Briens

by Lisa Genova,
read by Skipp Sudduth

When I saw this audiobook version of a novel by Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice, I knew I had to hear it.  That book put a face on early-onset Alzheimer's.  This one tackles Huntington's disease (or HD), another early-onset genetic illness.

Joe O'Brien is a 44-year-old Boston police officer with a wife and four adult children, when he starts having some unusual symptoms and behaviors. Actually some of these started seven years earlier, but were attributed to stress.  Eventually he sees a neurologist, and receives a devastating diagnosis:  HD, which has no cure.  Worse, his kids each have a 50/50 chance of having inherited the disease.

The second part of the book focuses on Joe's youngest daughter, 21-year-old Katie, and her struggle to decide whether or not she wants to be tested for the gene that causes the disease.  Impacts of Joe's illness on the whole family, including her siblings, highlight her internal struggle, as she also strives to find direction in her life as a yoga instructor.

The third part of the book goes back to focusing on the whole family, including what happens to Joe, and leads to Katie's ultimate decision.

Actor Skipp Sudduth was the perfect narrator for this book.  He has one of those deep, gravelly voices that I'd expect a blue-collar guy like Joe to have.

Lisa Genova has a doctorate in neuroscience from Harvard, and obviously knows her stuff.  She also researched the work and lives of police officers, going on ride-alongs and into jail, and underwent the training to become a yoga instructor.  I would love to see her write a novel with a protaganist suffering from frontotemporal dementia or primary progressive aphasia next.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Friday, October 06, 2017

763 (2017 #61). The Other Alcott

by Elise Hooper

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women was one of my favorite novels growing up, particularly because Alcott used herself and her three sisters as inspiration for Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March.  The "real" Amy was Alcott's youngest sister, Abigail May Alcott Nierriker, known as May, who really was an artist, and really went to Europe to study.

Elise Hooper has taken the facts about May and created a novel with them.  Particularly interesting for me were little details about life in Victoria-era Boston and Concord, Massachusetts, as well as in London, Rome, and Paris.  May knew artists like Mary Cassatt, and they too are part of the story.  It's obvious that Hooper did a lot of research for this book.

There is, of course, tension between the talented sisters - Louisa is the family breadwinner, and Hooper paints her as somewhat bossy and domineering, but May is certainly not perfect either.  That's what makes this historical fiction and not simply a biography, however.  Definitely worth a read.

© 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.]

Thursday, September 28, 2017

762 (2017 #60). The Heretic Queen

by Michelle Moran,
read by Cassandra Campbell

This book is about Nefertari, the chief wife and beloved of the great Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II.  The title is misleading as Nefertari was not a heretic; rather, she is portrayed in the book as related to Nefertiti, who was called the heretic queen because of efforts by her and her husband, the pharaoh Akhenaten, to establish a new religion. 

The whole heretic business was confusing, but it creates a great base for a story of court intrigue, as Nefertari maneuvers to become Ramesses' chief wife with the help of his aunt, Woserit, the high priestess of Hathor, and the vizier Paser (who was real).  Her competition is Iset, Ramesses' other wife (also real), the protegee of Woserit's evil sister Henuttawy (the high priestess of Isis) and the evil high priest of Amun, Rohotep.  A strength of the novel is the author's attention to details that make the reader feel what life was like in ancient Egypt.

Michelle Moran's website provides a lot of background information for the novel, including a family tree (albeit not interactive as the website indicates).  A Q&A page answers some questions about the inspiration and research for the book, and what the author changed or conjectured.  The wonderful Cassandra Campbell read the audiobook, with a soft but firm voice for Nefertari, the narrator.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This electronic audiobook was borrowed from and returned to a public library.]

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

760-761 (2017 #58-59). Two Books on Senior Care

Back at the end of July, I found out my 88-year-old mother had been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD), specifically the nonfluent / agrammatic variant of the primary progressive aphasia (PPA) subtype.  Since then I've been doing a lot of reading to try to help me figure out what to do next.

The 36-Hour Day, by Nancy L. Mace and Peter V. Rabins, was updated to a fifth edition in 2011.  It does address FTD, but is primarily about Alzheimer's and dementias in general.  The first eight chapters define dementia and discuss getting medical help, characteristic behavioral symptoms of the disease (two chapters), problems in independent living and daily care, and medical problems and symptoms that appear as changes in mood.  The next six chapters focus more on the caregiver and the family.  The last five chapters address financial and legal issues, nursing homes and other living arrangements (but not really the settings that have come to be known as "memory care"), preventing or delaying cognitive decline, and more detail on brain disorders and causes of and research in dementia.  Although it is now somewhat outdated, I was glad to receive a mass-market paperback copy of this book for reference.

Stages of Senior Care, by Paul and Lori Hogan, was published in 2010.  It provides brief descriptions of the different options for caring for aging relatives and friends, ranging from aging in place, family care, senior centers and day care, non-medical and medical in-home care, and retirement and independent living communities, to more intense or later-stage care such as assisted living, skilled nursing centers, and hospice.  The book also addresses funerals, bereavement, financing care, and complications and difficult issues (such as parent-child antagonisms and sibling disagreement).  The book ends with suggestions for caring for the caregiver as well as planning your own future.  It's a good overview with some helpful sidebars with tips and questions to ask.  The authors are the founders of a prominent in-home care company, but they are upfront about this, and pretty fair presenting other options.  Considering the book's publication date, any quotes on pricing or government policies need to be updated or double-checked for relevance.  Nevertheless, I found this book to be helpful.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[Both books were originally borrowed from and returned to my local public library.  I later received The 36-Hour Day as a gift.}

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

759 (2017 #57). The Last Tudor

by Philippa Gregory,
read by Bianca Amato

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

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

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

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

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

Besides the brief author's note that the audiobook has, the print book does include a short bibliography (two pages) at the end, and family trees as of 1550 for the Stuarts/Tudors, Seymours, and Dudleys at the beginning of the book.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

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

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

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

© Amanda Pape - 2017

Thursday, August 31, 2017

756 (2017 #54). Salt to the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

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

by Kimberly Williams-Paisley

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

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

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

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

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Sunday, August 20, 2017

754 (2017 #52). Enemy Women

by Paulette Jiles

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

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

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

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

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

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Saturday, August 19, 2017

753 (2017 #51). American Eclipse

by David Baron,
read by Jonathan Yen

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

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

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

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

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

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Monday, July 31, 2017

752 (2017 #50). The Loyal Son

by Daniel Mark Epstein

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

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

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

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

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

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

751 (2017 #49). Hold Still

by Sally Mann

I'd never heard of the somewhat-controversial photographer Sally Mann before reading this memoir, but I wish I had.  Besides her remarkable photographs, this woman can write - her command of the English language and vocabulary is impressive!  I can see why it was a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction in 2015.

Not a straight chronological narrative, the book is divided into four parts.  The first,  "Family Ties: The Importance of Place," talks about her early years, her marriage and a little about her husband's (odd) family, the importance of her family's farm, and the controversial photos she took of her young children for her book, Immediate Family - in which the children*, living on a river in Virginia and without air-conditioning, are often naked.

This is followed by parts on her mother, her family's black nanny/maid, and her father.  The sections on her parents delve into her (unusual) family history, which I of course found fascinating.  The part on "Gee-Gee," the maid, delves into (as it's subtitled) "The Matter of Race."  It's very thought-provoking.

There's also quite a bit about death and dying.  Her in-laws were a murder-suicide, and her doctor-father was obsessed with death, killing himself with an overdose of a barbiturate when suffering from brain cancer.  Mann too is obsessed, and one of the most interesting chapters deals with her visit to an anthropological "body farm" to photograph decomposing corpses.

Sadly, after the book's publication, Mann's oldest son, Emmett, committed suicide in June 2016 as a result of schizophrenia, at age 36.  In the book, Mann talks about a terrifying accident where Emmett was hit by a car.  He seemed OK then, but it may have caused a brain injury compounded by two later accidents.

Mann doesn't talk that much about her photographic techniques, but as someone who's worked with film and even large-format cameras, I can appreciate the tedious wet-collodian process and the use of glass negatives.  I'm not sure younger readers who've only worked with digital cameras can truly understand all that is involved in these techniques.

Mann has some other interesting things to say about photography.  In the prologue on page xiii, she describes the "treachery of photography" as "the malignant twin to imperfect memory."  She goes on to say that

...once photographed, whatever you had "really seen" would never be seen by the eye of memory again.  It would forever be cut from the continuum of being,...Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superinmpositions, but I think that is a fallacy:  photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories.  As I held my childhood pictures in my hands, in the tenderness of my "remembering," I also knew that with each photograph I was forgetting.

How true.

The audiobook, read by Mann, is quite enjoyable - she is a good narrator.  She frequently refers to the many photographs and other illustrations in the book as being "on the PDF."  There is a PDF file with the illustrations, but as I borrowed the electronic audiobook from a library, I could only view this PDF through Adobe Digital Editions.  Unfortunately, with the poor quality of the reproductions (many of them were pixallated when enlarged enough for me to really see them), combined with the fact that I listen to audiobooks while commuting and thus can't immediately refer to said PDF - I cannot recommend the audiobook.  Maybe the PDF is of better quality if you actually purchase the audiobook and are able to download it to your computer., but it's pretty poor in the Adobe Digital Editions used when downloading an e-audiobook through Overdrive (the PDF will automatically disappear from Adobe Digital Editions when my loan period expires).

I borrowed both the e-book and a print copy of the book for comparison purposes.  The images are just as bad, if not worse, on the e-book - way too small.  They are a little bigger in the print book (though still not as big as I would like), but this is the format I would recommend.  The images also appear at precisely the time she discusses them in her narrative.

© Amanda Pape - 2017


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

750 (2017 #48). Victoria

by Daisy Goodwin,
read by Anna Wilson-Jones

I'd seen some bits of the PBS Masterpiece adaptation of Daisy Goodwin's novel about Great Britain's second-longest-reigning monarch as a young queen, so I was excited about listening to this audiobook.

Victoria is subtitled "A Novel of a Young Queen," and that it is.  It covers her life only from the age of 18, when she ascended to the throne, in 1837, to her engagement to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in October 1839.

In that time period, the politically inexperienced Queen Victoria came to rely quite a bit on her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne.  The book highlights rumors that Victoria wanted to marry the widower, 40 years her senior, but I doubt that was true - I think she probably saw him more as a father figure, given that her own father died when she was a baby.  It does make for an interesting story, though.

While the Masterpiece series continues Victoria's relationship with Prince Albert after their marriage, the book stops with their engagement.  I have to say that the book didn't really sell me on an instant romance between the two - but that's why it's historical fiction, not a biography.  Still a great read.

British actress Anna Wilson-Jones reads the book with great gusto.   She also played the part of Emma Portman, one of Victoria's ladies-in-waiting and a friend of Melbourne, in the miniseries.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

749 (2017 #47). Plume

by Isabelle Simler

This simple book is about feathers - and a cat named Plume who likes to collect them.  The first 18 double-page spreads features one bird (and one word, the name of the bird), along with samples of its plumage - and some portion of the black cat.  The last two double-page spreads introduce and feature the cat.

The digital illustrations by French author Isabelle Simler are exquisite.  On the front and back endpapers, there are guides to 42 more bird feathers, along with a few stray cat hairs (or cat "feathers” if you will).  I could see this book being used in a lesson about birds or feathers.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

748 (2017 #46). Fates and Traitors

by Jennifer Chiaverini

Although its subtitle is "A Novel of John Wilkes Booth," Fates and Traitors - like nearly all of Jennifer Chiaverini's books - is really about women.  In this case, four women whose lives were intricately tied to that of Lincoln's assassin:  his mother, Mary Ann Holmes Booth; his sister, Asia Booth Clarke; his supposed fiancee, Lucy Hale; and a co-conspirator, Mary Surratt.

The book opens with a prologue from Booth's viewpoint about his capture, in which he is shot and as he is slowly dying, he thinks of these four women.  Then his life's story is told through theirs in the next four chapters:  his early years (1838-1851) with his mother, who has an fascinating background; the years 1851-1864 from his older sister Asia's point of view (she later became a poet and writer); then 1864-1865 as seen by both fiancee Lucy (daughter and later wife of senators) and Mary Surratt (the first woman hung by the federal government for her part in the plot to kill Lincoln).

This is followed by a chapter in John's voice again, set in 1865, just after Lee's surrender at Appomattox.  The final chapters tell what happened to all four women in the rest of 1865, and end with Lucy in 1890.  I knew very little of any of these women, and found their stories to be the intriguing ones.  Telling the story this way, though, also adds to the mystique of Booth - because one can see how his words and actions sounded and appeared to others, yet still not be able to get fully inside his mind to fully understand his motivation to kill Lincoln.

The title comes from Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene III, the last line:

If thou read this, O Caesar, thou mayst live.
If not, the Fates with traitors do contrive.

A longer passage including this line is the epithet of the book, rather fitting for Booth, who apparently stated his favorite Shakespearean role was that of Brutus, Caesar's lead assassin.

Chiaverini provides a map at the beginning of the book marking relevant locations in Washington, D. C., and lists her sources in three pages of acknowledgements at the end of the book.  I liked this novel better than Chiaverini's other novels featuring Civil War era personages.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Friday, June 30, 2017

747 (2017 #45). Stormy Weather

by Paulette Jiles,
read by Colleen Delany

After reading Paulette Jiles' News of the World earlier this year, I was eager to read all her historical fiction.  Like News, Stormy Weather is also set in Texas.  This one takes place from 1927 to 1939, and mostly in places within an hour to an hour-and-a-half's drive from my home, places like Mineral Wells and Ranger and Cisco and Rising Star, Palo Pinto and Comanche Counties, and on the Brazos and Leon Rivers.  Not surprisingly, I loved this book.

Jeanine Stoddard is nine when the book begins, accompanying her drinking, gambling, womanizing father on an errand.  He's an oilfield worker, and the family - Jeanine's mother and older and younger sisters - move from one town to another, following the Texas oil boom. A man named Ross Everett helps Jeanine get her father home.  Later, her father dies in the height of the Depression, and the women have nowhere to go than back to Elizabeth's family home, vacant since her parents died some years previously.

Jeanine's mother and sisters seem to blame their situation on Jeanine, for "always covering up for him."  So Jeanine sets out to make the falling-down farm operable again.  She fixes the roof, clears cedar from the land, revitalizes the peach orchard - and finds time to remake old clothes of good cloth into something new for her mother and sisters.  Slowly but surely, despite the dust storms and drought, the old house becomes a home.

When Jeanine's little sister breaks her leg and needs an operation, Jeanine sells the one thing she has left from her dad - a fast horse named Smoky Joe - to Ross Everett, now a widower.  Instead of giving her a higher cash offer on the horse, he offers her a stake in Joe's future winnings - and Jeanine accepts.  Gambling seems to run on both sides of her family - her mother, meanwhile, has been buying up shares in a wildcatter's oil well.

The action moves slowly in this book, but I didn't mind.  I loved Jiles' evocative prose.  Here's an early (page 20) description of an oil well coming in:

It was in June of 1931 that the Lou Della Crim came in outside of Longview, near the Louisiana border.  The Lou Della roared up in a gusher that took the drilling pipe out with it and threw the twenty-foot, two-hundred-pound joints of pipe into the air like jackstraws.  The blowout of oil hurled a three-cone roller drill bit the size of an alligator a flull two hundred yards....They had hit the biggest oil pool in the history of the world and it was sweet, high-gravity oil so was the color of honey.  The wildcatter who drilled the discovery well reached the oil-bearing strata with an ancient cable-tool rig and a decrepit derrick and secondhand equipment. 

The date is wrong on that one - that gusher actually happened in December of the previous year.  Other reviewers have found numerous errors in historical details.

For me, the bigger problem is that the geography is a bit off at times.  On page 65, the family is en route from Wharton to the Tolliver homestead in the Mineral Wells area.  They go through Glen Rose - but then through Dallas, which is very much out of the way.  The same thing happens near the end of the book - on page 318, Jeanine and Ross are traveling from Lubbock back to Mineral Wells - and they inexplicably go through Amarillo, far out of the way to the north.  There's also a town Jiles calls Tarrant that doesn't exist - it's not too far from the Tolliver place, and near the Leon River and the Texas and Pacific Railway - and I can't quite place what real town it might be.

I also like this description of another oil well (from pages 298-299):

They heard the deep and sinister roar coming from the borehole as if something down there was calling out to them in a rage at being awakened from a million-year sleep....He saw casing pipe rising up out of the borehole as if it were self-propelled, joints of pipe that weighed more than two hundred pounds apiece, flying up one after another, in a spray of white salt water that was as thick and hard as a sycamore trunk.  And then more pipe was blown out by a great fountain of sand, enclosed in a foaming mist of gas that expanded like a geyser, sideways, snaking low and wild over the ground.
Then the massive drill bit rose up out of the hole, twenty feet long and weighing two tons, spewing straight up through the derrick and taking out the crown block along with it.  Spars and shattered planks flew upward in ballistic fragments....Then the oil came in, under great pressure, a standing column of jet that erupted with a deafening roar.  The entire derrick blew away, leaving only the footings and twisted masses of metal. ...overhead the tornado of pure oil wavered and shrieked and lunged snakelike into the night sky....the noise of the blowout sounded like some beast roaring and looking for prey.

Actress Colleen Delany, the audiobook narrator, read this passage in such a manner that I could feel the excitement of the event.  She did a fine job as well supplying appropriate Texas accents for 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 library respectively.]

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

746 (2017 #44). Sisi: Empress on Her Own

by Allison Pataki,
read by  Elizabeth Knowelden

This historical fiction novel is the sequel to The Accidental Empress, and covers the second half of the rather tragic life of  Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as "Sisi," the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph.

The book begins in the summer of 1868 in Hungary, about a year after the previous book ends with the establishment of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

Photograph of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837–1898),
the day of her coronation as Queen of Hungary, 8 June 1867.
Emil Rabending [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sisi is finally on her own, with the idyllic life she has always wanted.  She is in the country she loves, with occasional visits from the dashing Count Andrassy.  She is raising her newborn daughter Valerie without interference, away from the protocol of court life in Vienna and her overbearing mother-in-law and aunt, Archduchess Sophie.  Unfortunately, it doesn't last.

Sisi was the Princess Diana of her time - extremely beautiful and very misunderstood.  I would recommend that The Accidental Empress be read before this book.  Although Sisi can stand on its own, the first book in the series provides context for Sisi's character and behavior in the second book.  Reading the books in order makes Sisi somewhat sympathetic - although she does often behave in ways that appear shallow and self-centered.

Compared to the audiobook of The Accidental Empress, this one was disappointing.  Actress Elizabeth Knowelden was not as good a narrator as Madeleine Maby.  Knowelden's soft British voice was pleasant enough, but her reading was very, VERY slow.  The audiobook also does not include the author's notes on history and sources at the end of the book.  I had to refer to the e-book (page 425) for this great quote from author Allison Pataki summarizing the book:  "this was a fairy tale meets a Shakespearean tragedy meets a family soap opera meets an international saga."

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This e-audiobook, and an e-book for reference, were borrowed from and returned to public libraries.]

Sunday, May 28, 2017

745 (2017 #43). The Women in the Castle

by Jessica Shattuck,
read by Cassandra Campbell

This was a powerful story about three German women in post-WWII Germany.  Marianne, Benita, and Ania (pronounced Anya) are widows of resisters executed after the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in July, 1944.  The story begins six years before this, when the aristocrat Marianne pledges to her husband and to Benita's husband, her childhood friend to take care of the widows and orphans should the plot fail.  True to her promise, she locates Benita's son Martin in a Nazi orphanage and Benita in a Russian brothel, and brings them to her husband's family's castle, (the fictional) Berg Lingenfels.  Although much of it is a shambles, with no running water or power, it's a shelter, and it's surrounded by land to grow food and trees for firewood.  Soon Marianne, her three children, Benita, and Martin are joined by Ania and her two boys.  After the initial extremely difficult postwar years, life gets somewhat better in the 1950s, when things happen that tear the three women apart.  The story ultimately ends in 1991.

Author Jessica Shattuck also gives us the backstories of these women, so readers have three different representative types, all with flaws:  a true resister, a clueless and somewhat selfish young person, and another who sees the growing horror too late.  Shattuck modeled the latter character on her own German grandmother, who, with her husband, joined the Nazi Party for idealistic reasons.  Shattuck did much research, and I learned a lot about what happened in postwar occupied Germany.

Cassandra Campbell was an excellent audiobook reader.  She used German accents when the characters were speaking, and her normal soft voice for narration.  Its gentleness drew attention to the moral dilemmas of the story, as well as the beautiful descriptions.

Definitely recommend this one.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Saturday, May 20, 2017

744 (2017 #42). Goodnight from London

by Jennifer Robson

I really enjoyed this World War II fiction by Jennifer Robson.  Ruby Sutton is an American orphan working for a weekly publication in New York City, who is given the opportunity to go to London as a shared correspondent with another weekly there.

The reader is with Ruby on her trip across the Atlantic in a cargo ship in late June 1940, through the Blitz, and even into France and Paris for its liberation in August 1944, all the way to the end of the war.  As the cover photo implies, there's a little bit of romance for Ruby too, with the enigmatic British officer Bennett.

The blurb on the back of the book stated that it was "inspired in part by the wartime experiences of the author's own grandmother," but my advance reader edition was missing the acknowledgements/afterword that might have had that information.  I was quite curious about it, so I searched for an answer.

Robson clarified in an interview and in a Facebook post:

"My late grandmother, Nikki Moir, was a newspaperwoman, and it was her experiences as a young woman in a male-dominated newsroom that acted as the starting point for Goodnight From London. My heroine, Ruby Sutton, is entirely a product of my imagination – she isn’t at all similar to my grandmother – but I wouldn’t have found Ruby without the inspiration of my gran and her career." " was in learning about the obstacles and challenges Nikki faced in her work as a journalist from the 1930s onward that I was inspired to create Ruby.  It really was as simple as asking myself, 'what would it have been like for a young woman journalist in the Second World War?' Ruby is my answer, but Nikki was my inspiration."

The book is well-researched and has believable characters.  Robson has written other fiction set during and after World War I - I'll be sure to read those too.

© 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.]

Friday, May 19, 2017

743 (2017 #41). The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

by Lisa See

A bit different from some of Lisa See's other fiction set in China, in that this one takes place in the years 1988 to 2015.  Li-yan, a member of the Akha ethnic minority in the mountainous Yunnan Province in China, is ten years old when the story starts.  The reader learns a lot about Akha customs and beliefs, as well as about tea, especially pu'er, a valuable type of fermented tea.

At 17, Li-yan has a daughter out of wedlock, taboo in her culture, and abandons the baby at an orphanage.  When she later marries the father, they try to reclaim the baby, who of course has been adopted by an American couple, who name her Haley.  Haley's story becomes a theme in the book.  At times, I found parts of Haley's story jarring when it interrupts that of Li-yan, who also sees big changes in her life.  Furthermore, the book's ending feels abrupt and rather predictable.

All in all, I didn't like this book as much as I've liked others by Lisa See, perhaps only because the first two parts of the book (through 1995) read like historical fiction, due to the rural settings.  Part three quickly jumps ahead to 2004 and more modern times in China and elsewhere.  Nevertheless, I'm still glad I read this book.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

742 (2017 #40). The Accidental Empress

by Allison Pataki,
read by Madeleine Maby

This historical fiction is about Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as "Sisi," someone I knew little about before reading this book.  It covers the first half of her life, to her coronation in Hungary, with the sequel Sisi: Empress on Her Own (which I plan to read) covering the second half.

Sisi is a very interesting character.  Her older sister Helene was intended to be the bride of their first cousin, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, but when both girls traveled to Austria with their mother, Franz fell in love with Sisi. Hence the title of the book.

Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, 1864, portrait by
Franz Xaver Winterhalter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Author Allison Pataki presents Sisi as initially being just as much in love, but becoming overwhelmed by her domineering and controlling mother-in-law and aunt, Archduchess Sophie, as well as by court protocol.  Of course, the story is told from Sisi's point of view, but the reader can see that, despite the environment, some of Sisi's choices are not good ones.

Actress Madeleine Maby does a fine job narrating the book - her voice is perfect for Sisi, and she does very well with all the other characters as well.  I very much appreciated the lengthy Q&A with the author at the end of the book (read by the narrator), which clarified what was fiction and what was true.  Pataki's acknowledgments list the books she used in her research.  Little details, such as descriptions of the castles and palaces and surrounding countryside, as well as examples of Sisi's poetry and a mention of the waltz commissioned in her honor, add to the atmosphere.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[The e-audiobook, and an e-book for reference, were borrowed from and returned to public libraries.]

Saturday, May 06, 2017

741 (2017 #39). Mistress of Rome

by Kate Quinn

I really enjoyed Kate Quinn's soon-to-be-released The Alice Network, so I decided to try one of her other books.  My local library had this one, Mistress of Rome, the first of (so far) four in her Empress of Rome Saga.

Nearly the entire story takes place during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, from 81 to 96 A.D.  Thea, the main character, is a 14-year-old Judean slave at the beginning to another 14-year-old, the vain and selfish Lepida Pollia.  The both fall for the gladiator Arius, a slave from Briton, but Lepida just wants to bed him - Thea actually falls in love.  When Lepida learns of their affair, she sells Thea to a brothel far away. Eventually, Thea catches the eye of the emperor and becomes his mistress, thinking Arius dead.  But of course he's not...

I found this story rather exciting (although a little sickening, with all the gladiatorial bouts).  Thea is a complex character, as is Arius and some of the minor characters, while Lepida is just plain hateful.

Quinn works in a lot of real historical figures into her novel, although given the era and the lack of unbiased information from primary sources of the period, she can take a lot of liberties with the characters - so who knows, for example,  if Domitian was as cruel as she paints him to be.  She does mention five histories she used as references.

No matter.  I was entertained, and I plan to read the rest of the books in the series.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Sunday, April 30, 2017

739 & 740 (2017 #37-38). Two Books about Edinburgh, Scotland

My niece is attending the University of Edinburgh, and brought me these two books when she was home for Christmas.  Michael Fry's Edinburgh: A History of the City, felt somewhat disorganized, going back and forth in time.  Its 388 pages are in eight chapters, seven of which are headed by quotes about the city from famous Scots. It has 18 pages of footnotes and a 13-page index.

Picturing Scotland: Edinburgh has over 120 full-color photographs, with captions or sometimes a paragraph of description, of sites in this beautiful and historic city and surrounding areas.  I felt like I'd been mailed over a hundred postcards.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

Saturday, April 29, 2017

738 (2017 #36). The Alice Network

by Kate Quinn

This was a fascinating story, based on the real-life "Alice Network" of mostly-female spies centered in Lille, France, on the border with Belgium, during World War I.

This book has two story lines, one set during World War I and the other in 1947.  Eve Gardiner is the character that ties them together.  She begins 1915 as a 22-year-old file clerk England, recruited to spy in France during the war because she can also speak French and German - with a stammer in all languages that makes people overlook her and assume she is stupid.

The 1947 Eve is a broken woman with gnarled hands, contacted by pregnant 19-year-old American Charlotte "Charlie" St. Clair, who runs away from her French mother (while en route to Switzerland for an abortion).  Charlie is trying to find her French cousin Rose, last seen working in 1943 in a restaurant in Limoges, France, called Le Lethe, owned by a Monsieur Rene.

That hits close to home for Eve - whose cover while working as a spy involved working in a restaurant in Lille, also called Le Lethe, and also owned by a Monsieur Rene - the evil Rene Bordelon, a Frenchman collaborating with the Germans.

The tale goes back and forth in time and between narrators.  Along the way, the reader the real-life head of the Alice Network, Louise de Bettignies, aka Alice Dubois, aka "Lili" (among many code names) in this book.

Kate Quinn does a masterful job weaving this (and other) real-life character(s), places, and incidents into the story.  I had a hard time putting this exciting book down, but the short alternating chapters make it easy to take a break if needed.  I will definitely be reading more by this author.

© 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, 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 paperback 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.]