Saturday, April 19, 2014

No Book but the World, by Leah Hager Cohen. Riverhead Books 2014






Siblings Ava and Fred had a father, Neel, who believed in Rousseau’s saying “Let there be no book but the world”; he did not believe in conventional schooling but felt that children should be encouraged but not taught, allowing them to explore and learn on their own. He did not like books; learning from books was secondary rather than primary learning. Thus they were allowed to run free in the woods on the property of his former school, where they lived, with no instruction. When a new family moved into one of the former school buildings, Ava and the daughter, Kitty, became instant friends, and, when Kitty started to school, Ava insisted on enrolling as well. Given Neel’s insistence on children doing what they wanted, he was trapped into allowing her to do so. Fred followed, but didn’t last long before his behavior returned him to roaming the woods on his own. He showed signs of being on the autism spectrum and possibly developmentally delayed, but Neel refused to take him to a doctor to see what the problem was and if he could be helped. He was not non-verbal, but usually only Ava could understand him.

When as an adult Ava learns that Fred is being held on suspicion of murdering a boy, she attempts not just to find out what happened, but wonders about what obligations his family had to him. Were his parents wrong in how they brought him up? Should June, his mother, insisted on treatment instead of going along with her husband? With their parents dead, was Ava obligated to take care of him? Would Fred have led a better life had he been diagnosed and treated? What obligations does the family have to society?

The story is told in sections: Ava, her husband Dennis (who is also Kitty’s brother and has known Ava and Fred since they were kids), Kitty, Fred, and Ava again. They all have different takes on their childhoods and on Fred’s life. No one sees themselves as other see them. The book asks a lot of questions about responsibility and family ties. It’s engrossing and sensitive. 


The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This book came to me free through the Amazon Vine program. Neither of these things affected my review. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The New Countess, by Faye Weldon. St. Martin’s Press, 2013




This is the final volume in Weldon’s trilogy set in the Edwardian era and featuring the wealthy Dilberne family. In this go round, the King invites himself – along with hiss wife, Queen Alexandra AND his mistress, Alice Keppel- to a shooting weekend at the Dilberne’s country house, which creates a panic in Lady Isobel. The country house is run down; the King – and his mistress- will be expecting flush toilets, electric lights and heaters, and up to the minute d├ęcor. This causes a hemorrhage of cash and a strain on the marriage. Meanwhile, their son Arthur is having problems with his American heiress wife, Minnie- he’s more interested in automobiles than in sex. Arthur’s socialistic sister has returned from Australia a well to do widow, and is living with a bohemian brother and sister duo and preparing to publish a book on the sex habits of the Australian aborigines, which horrifies her family. It’s all high-strung soap opera in a historical setting.

Although supposed to be along the lines of ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, showing the lives of both the high class and the servants, only the first volume really featured the downstairs. They do appear momentarily in this volume, but are not fully formed characters.

I didn’t care for this volume as much as I did the first two in the trilogy. I liked Lady Isobel in the first two books; not so much this go-round, nor did I care much for Robert this time. The characters seemed harsh, mean spirited, and self centered. There is a rather bizarre little coda at the end, like a speculation in the first person while the rest of the book is told in the third person. And, sadly, the title gives away the event that I suspect was supposed to be a shock.


The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way affected my review. 


Saturday, April 12, 2014

This House is Haunted, by John Boyne. Other Press, 2013




Set in 1867, this Dickensian novel actually starts with an appearance by Dickens himself. He gives a public reading of a ghost story, setting the mood for what follows. Eliza Crane, 21 years old, tells the story, adding an intimate touch. When her father dies, she seeks to get away from the home they’ve shared and takes a governess job in Norfolk, sight unseen, at Gaudlin Hall. After a couple of mishaps at the train station, Eliza is mystified to find herself met at the hall only by the children, Isabella and Eustace Westerley. At first it seems there are no adults in the house at all; inquiries made in town are stonewalled. Where are the parents? Why is there no staff? Almost immediately strange things start happening to Eliza; curtains move when there is no breeze, invisible hands grab and push violently.

The book is written in the style of the 1800s; it’s very much a Victorian gothic novel, right down to the language. As the story unfolds, some things have very mundane explanations but others clearly don’t. There’s a Hitchcockian twist at the end that will leave the reader with a feeling of dread. It’s not the greatest ghost story I’ve ever read, but it’s a solid one that sticks to supernatural fright rather than defaulting to slashing and gore like so many these days.  


The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way affected my review. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

An Unofficial Rose, by Iris Murdoch. Viking Press, 1962




‘An Unofficial Rose’ is a family story- a very dysfunctional family. The matriarch has just died, and the day of her funeral starts the book. With Fanny dead, Hugh Peronett is now free to rekindle an old relationship with Emma. His son, Randall, wants to be free of his wife, Ann, so that he can pursue Emma’s companion, Lindsey. Hugh’s grandson by his absent daughter, Penn, is visiting for the summer, and he pursues Randall and Ann’s daughter, Miranda-and he is in turn pursued by another character.  Meanwhile, members of another family also pursue various members of the Peronett family. Everyone wants someone else and there is not one simple relationship in the whole thing. This is a very flawed cast of characters; only Ann and Penn seem to be unafflicted with the urge to manipulate people that the others seem to have so strongly.  

The book, written in 1962, is of course a product of its time. Ann is encouraged by the priest to stay married to Randall, even though he has deserted her for another woman, because marriage is forever and she can help Randall-even if he never comes back- by forgiving him and praying for him. A straight woman and a gay man stay together in an open marriage of convenience. It’s all right to have Randall, when asked by Lindsey what he would do if she changed her mind about having sex with him that night, say “I shall probably beat you and certainly rape you” and she accepts that rather than run screaming into the night.

In the end, the identity of the prime manipulator is a surprise. While there are some clues throughout the book,  it’s still not what you expect; it must have been a bit shocking in 1962. 



The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way affected by review.

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way affected my review. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue, by David Sax. Public Affairs, 2014






In ‘Tastemakers’, Sax examines food trends from all angles. He visits farmer’s markets, the research facility of Dole, and a man who is bringing back the older breeds of rice (while I knew there were a lot of strains of rice that we never see here in the US, I had no idea there were so very many!); talks with celebrity chefs, people who have made chia seeds a health food rather than a Christmas joke present, and people who own food trucks. He tells us that the current cupcake megatrend was started by a very short scene in ‘Sex in the City’- 20 seconds where a character eats a cupcake. Some food trends are created on purpose, as Dole is attempting; some are accidental like the cupcake one. The bacon trend started as a way for pork producers to use up something and for chain restaurants to have something cheap that they could charge a premium for when they put it on a burger, and morphed into a huge movement that affected all strata of food producers from home cooks to cheap chains to celebrity chefs. (Sax questions whether it’s a good idea to infuse bacon into everything; I have to say that, yes, yes it is.)

I’m a bit of a foodie, so I found the book fascinating. This is no cookbook; this is a sociological and historical book written in a brisk style.


I received this book from Library Thing: Early Reviewers program in return for an honest review. The above is an affiliate link; if you click through it and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. Neither of these things affected my review. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Right of the Subjects, by Jude Starling. Damask Rose Press, 2014





In ‘The Right of the Subjects’, historical novelist Starling sets her tale in the women’s suffrage movement in England. The early 1900s was a politically volatile time in Great Britain; it was not only women who could not vote but many men of the poorer classes couldn’t, either. It was also the time of the rise of labor unions fighting for decent wages and working conditions. It’s out of the working class of northern England that Evanna Bailie- Evie- comes; she goes to a suffragist protest as a lark with her sister Amie and the movement becomes a major part of her life. The sixteen year old woman meets Annie Kenney and other avid members of the suffrage movement and she sees a possible way out of her tedious, back breaking life as a weaver in a cotton mill. And she’s right; joining the movement has her traveling, having time to develop her artistic talent, and exploring sex. It also means going to prison regularly for protesting, going on hunger strikes and being violently force fed, and even rejecting water for so long that kidney problems arose in those that did so.

While I know a little bit about the British Woman’s Suffrage movement- mainly about upper class women such as Mrs. Pankhurst- I was completely ignorant about the role working class women played. I should have known that there would have to be a lot of less well off women to create the mobs that were willing to be arrested, beaten, sexually assaulted, and have their health and lives risked in prison!

Evie is an interesting and, as the story goes on, a sympathetic, protagonist; she undergoes a lot of growth in the story and has the good luck to find out who she truly wants to be. There is a strong cast of varied characters both historical and fictional; the movement brought different classes of women together as allies for the first time, and same sex relationships became quietly accepted. Told from Evie’s point of view, the story engages and satisfies.

Starling researches her books thoroughly, and with this book she includes ‘extras’, rather like a DVD; essays about things she found out about the suffrage movement. While certainly not necessary to understand the story, they add depth and make the reader appreciate the movement and the women who created it more.




The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way influenced my review.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those without Conscience, by Kent Kiehl, PhD




This book wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. The name is misleading; I picture a “whatever whisperer” as being someone who understands the mind of the subject in depth and who can easily and painlessly convince the subject to do what the whisperer wants. While Kiehl did groundbreaking work on what happens in a psychopath’s brain, he didn’t find any way to change their brains or their behaviors. What he found, by using cutting edge fMRIs, was that psychopathology is hardwired in the brain; there is a deficit of activity in certain areas of their brains when faced with situations that evoke emotional responses in most people. By going into prisons with his work he was able to find a wealth of psychopaths (as indicated by their histories and scores on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist) to put in the MRI machines. The correlation between areas of deficit and their behavior traits was irrefutable. What he didn’t find was any way to help them change; the only part of the book that deals with this possibility is near the back, where he talks about a treatment program in Wisconsin, the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center. This program takes juvenile offenders and treats their good behaviors- no matter how rare they are at first- and positively reinforces them. Acting in socially acceptable ways brings rewards, and teaches them to try these ways first. The treatment lowered repeat offenses by 34 percent compared with untreated juvenile criminals. Sadly, this program suffered budget cutbacks and cannot treat as many teens as it was doing. This seems counterproductive when the program is actually a money saver over imprisoning people repeatedly, not to mention the damage to victims of psychopaths.

The book is interesting but not riveting. I was hoping for more science and less anecdote.