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Unpublished letters written by Rose and Laura, as well as Rose's unpublished diaries, reveal that Rose was an uncredited ghostwriter/editor in the first eight books in the Little House series.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.]