Monday, August 25, 2014

Land of Dreams, by Kate Kerrigan. Pan Macmillan, 2013





It’s 1942 and twice-widowed Ellie Hogan’s teenaged son Leo has run away from boarding school. It doesn’t take much sleuthing to find out that he’s taken the train across country from New York to Los Angeles: to Hollywood. He’s determined that he will be a star. Ellie immediately jumps on a train and follows him, to discover him living with another young man, Freddie, who is trying to become the world’s first actor’s agent, and Freddie’s girlfriend, Crystal, who fancies herself a starlet. They are holed up at the Chateau Marmont, with little money and no jobs. Ellie allows herself to be convinced that Leo has a real chance at getting a part in an upcoming film, so she takes a room for herself and Leo and figures it’ll only be a few days before this nonsense is out of the way and they can head home. To her surprise, Leo gets a part and is put into acting classes at the studio. Stuck in California for the time being, Ellie rents a house and sends for her younger son, Tom, and her aging friend and housekeeper, Bridie, and settles in for a few months while the film is being shot. She ends up taking in Freddie and Crystal, mothering them just like she does her sons, even though this means they have taken over the room she’d designated as her artist’s studio. For Ellie, being a mother is the most important thing in her life- she admits that she married her second husband in large part so she could be a mother to his son Leo. She is willing to put her own life- both professional and personal- on hold for her sons, feeling that she doesn’t have enough time or love to go around. Whether this means quashing a relationship that seems to have a lot of potential or giving up her painting, she’s fine with it.

Ellie acts like a very entitled woman. She barges in everywhere and expects everyone to listen to her, whether it be a studio executive or the military head of a relocation camp where a Japanese friend of hers is interned. She comes by this trait not from being born into money; she worked her way up from nothing during the Depression. She just feels she has to do her best to try and help her friends and family- even when she doesn’t have all the information and they desperately do not want her to intervene.

The book jacket makes the story sound exciting: it mentions glamour and glitz and having to protect her family from the threat of the war. In reality, Ellie encounters the glitz only occasionally, and the war is little threat to her family, although her own actions make things difficult for both her Polish born boyfriend and her Japanese friend. The story really doesn’t have much action in it. Told by Ellie in the year 1950, a lot of it is backstory (this book is the third in a trilogy) and her emotions and thoughts. I found I could not get really interested in the book; I couldn’t make a connection with Ellie or any of the other characters. They were flat and not fleshed out. Bridie as the Irish housekeeper was very nearly a stereotype. I found myself impatient with the book, wanting to get it read and have it over with so I could go on to something more interesting There is also a (small) problem with some anachronistic language – ‘networking’ and ‘lifestyle’ weren’t used in 1950 that I know of- but that may have been fixed in the final edit. 



I received this book free in exchange for an honest review. 

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gutenberg’s Apprentice, by Alix Christie. HarperCollins, 2014







Author Alix Christie is both writer and letterpress printer, so she seems perfect for the task of writing about the invention of the moveable type press. All most of us know about that subject is that Johann Gutenberg invented it; what most of us don’t know is that the press didn’t spring fully formed from Gutenberg’s mind but was the work of several people.

The apprentice of the title is Peter Schoeffer, the adopted son of Johann Fust, who was Gutenberg’s money supplying partner. At the start of the novel, Fust has recalled Schoeffer from Paris, where he has been working as a professional scribe and enjoying the fleshly delights of the city. Fust tells Schoeffer that he is work for Gutenberg, which does not go over well with either Schoeffer or Gutenberg. Schoeffer feels the press is barbaric compared to hand writing, while Gutenberg thinks Schoeffer will be useless. Soon they realize that they are both wrong; Schoeffer begins to see the beauty and utility of type while also proving himself useful as a font designer and a carver of the metal masters from which the type is cast. He also turns out to be a natural foreman, organizing the men who melt the alloys, work the press, handle the paper and vellum sheets so they don’t smudge, and set the type. But it’s not a peaceful job; Fust and Gutenberg clash frequently over money. Gutenberg is a flamboyant narcissist who trusts no one and makes covert deals behind Fust’s back; he’s a total drama queen. The book covers the two years that it takes to get the first run of Bibles printed.

The book was interesting; I won’t say it was can’t-put-it-down but it held my interest. But it lacked a certain depth; it’s about the event and the technology and less about the people. While the characters aren’t flat, they don’t really make you feel for them, either. We get the story from Schoeffer’s point of view, but even he I didn’t care deeply about. In a book of 400 pages one should feel they know the protagonist down to their toes; this just doesn’t happen here. The love interest takes few pages and seems like an after thought, something thrown in to add tension to the story. I liked the book but didn’t love it. 



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Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Virgin Blue, by Tracy Chevalier. Plume, 1997




After loving ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and ‘Remarkable Creatures’, Chevalier’s ‘The Virgin Blue’ was a great disappointment. The premise itself was good: twin story lines, one in today and one in the late 1500s, each told from a young woman’s point of view. One, Ella, is recently moved to France, arriving with her husband who has moved for a job; the other, Isabelle, is a French farm girl married into the local ‘rich’ family; both are midwives. Isabelle is an ancestress of Ella’s. Ella fills her time with looking into her genealogy, finding a few leads but also finding a handsome French librarian. What unfolds is a tale of superstition, magic and betrayal.

The plot had promise-it’s partly a mystery story, but the characters lacked depth. Isabelle is the only character I felt was fleshed out and even she was pretty thinly done. I couldn’t manage to like Ella, the main protagonist. She is shallow and amoral. The book reads almost like a first draft, a sketch in words when it really needed to be painted in color. An odd event- Ella’s hair turns red overnight- is never explained; I know it’s supposed to show us that Ella is tied to Isabelle but it’s like the story steps from realism to magical realism when it’s half over, with no other magical events other than some dreams. This was Chevalier’s first novel and it shows, sadly.


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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Wise Child, by Monica Furlong. Random House, 1987






“Wise Child” is the first in a young adult trilogy set in ancient Scotland. The Wise Child of the title does not bear that nickname out of respect at first; it’s a sarcastic term for a child who thinks they know more than others. She’s spoiled and lazy. In the care of her grandmother because her father is at sea and her mother has run away to greener pastures, she finds herself out of a home when the old woman dies. When the nine year old is ‘auctioned’, she finds herself taken in by Juniper, an outsider who does healing and follows the old, pre-Christian religion. Wise Child is terrified; rumor has it that Juniper is in league with Satan, and that horrible things will happen to anyone go is taken to her house. Thankfully, like much of the wisdom children share with each other, these things are untrue. Wise Child has to do a lot of work at Juniper’s house and doesn’t like that, but it’s a far cry from being a human sacrifice. With Juniper, she starts learning things- to read and write and work with herbs- and finds it enjoyable- most of the time. Her life is peaceful, until her mother- who has powers herself and uses them for personal gain - decides she wants her daughter to come live with her, and then village priest decides it’s time to get rid of the local witch.

It’s a very good story, written for ages 10 and up, and interesting enough for adults. It captures what life was like in that era; the enormous amount of work it took to stay alive, the superstitions, the power that Christian priests had even back then when the church young, and in a setting that far away from Rome. The description of Wise Child’s education and introduction to the old religion is fascinating. I had a couple of problems with the book; there are a few anachronisms (there were no fuchsias in the old world in that time and place) and the fact that while the other characters seemed realistic (Wise Child vacillates between happy and fretful at having to work so hard, which any 8 year old would), Juniper seems too good to be true. Not one, no matter what Wise Child or the villagers do, does she ever get mad, frightened or even mildly irritated. Was her training to be a doran so thorough that she attained a complete state of Zen composure? I know that the old religion is being portrayed as being all positivity and love, but Juniper could have stood to have a little bit of negative emotion to make her more human. And, this is not a problem but an observation: while the cover is beautiful in most ways with the herbs and the Celtic designs, the big eyes and facial expressions reminded me of those paintings by Keane in the 1960s, the ones with children with the big, dead, eyes that always creeped me out. But that’s just me. 



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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier. Dutton, 2010




The title, “Remarkable Creatures” refers both to the two women whom this tale is about and to the fossils that they collect, which many call monsters. Elizabeth  Philpot, a spinster of middle income, moves to Lyme Regis with her two single sisters to have a place more affordable than London. The reason Lyme Regis is selected is because of the beach cliffs which regularly disgorge the fossils that Elizabeth studies and collects. Upon moving there, she makes the acquaintance of Mary Anning, child of the working class, who hunts fossils to sell to the tourists. Mary has the eye for finding them, as did her father who taught her. At this point, she knows very little about the creatures she hunts. Paleontology is a fairly new science this point in history; it’s still considered a part of geology. And Mary is poor and illiterate.

The woman and the girl find commonality in hunting the fossils. Elizabeth teaches Mary to read so that Mary can learn more from books. Most of the fossils found are ammonites and the like, but occasionally a dinosaur is unearthed- to the villagers, a monster, a crocodile. Through the years Mary finds several of these and her name becomes known in the geology world. She is not only a good hunter but has the knack of cleaning and preserving the specimens so they will last once exposed. But her abilities remove her from the marriage market of the small town. Marriage is to pass both Elizabeth and Mary by, but they form a friendship that will last many years and endure despite bad times and estrangements. This is the backbone of the story: the friendship between two women that does not constrain either of them but allows them to grow. These women are extraordinary for their time; during their lives, women were not even allowed onto the premises of the Geological Society much less allowed to be a member.

The novel avoids dates and seems to telescope time; years collapse into mere paragraphs. It sometimes moves in dreamlike fashion from one event to another. The two women’s voices alternate chapters in the first person, and I found the book compulsively readable. The women are both real, historic people, as are the men who impact their lives-Professor Buckland, Rev Conybear, James Birch, and Monsieur Cuvier, all fossil collectors. The people, the conditions endured while fossil hunting, and the era are brought vividly to life by Chevalier.


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Monday, July 28, 2014

The Third Son, by Julie Wu. Algonquin Books, 2013





 Saburo is born the third son in a large Taiwanese family and has the misfortune of being the child least favored. His brothers are spoiled while Saburo is beaten regularly; they are given the prize foods while Saburo suffers from malnutrition; he is not allowed to sit in with their lessons; even his sisters are valued more than he is- unusual in a culture where boys are prized. The only family member who treats him humanely is cousin Toru, a doctor.

But Saburo isn’t stupid like his family claims. Although he doesn’t do well in elementary school, he learns from what few books he can get his hands on. Eventually he passes an exam that allows him into a prestigious college and teaches himself English, in hopes of getting a visa to study in the US. During this time, the Japanese have been defeated and the Chinese Nationalists have taken control of Taiwan and they prove to be as bad as the Japanese. Life is a chess game of pleasing the right people. One thing that sustains Saburo through all this is a girl he met when he was eight: Yoshiko. They meet during an air raid and become friends, but soon to be torn apart. Later as teenagers they meet again and friendship turns to love. But huge obstacles stand between them and happiness. What they want isn’t the same thing their families want- especially Saburo’s mercenary father and brother. Financial obligations, family jealousy, Nationalist spies, and more all must be overcome. Saburo’s life is one endless stream of difficulties to overcome, like a Dickensian tale set in Asia.

I enjoyed the book; it’s a great tale of getting what one wants through persistence, boldness, and hard work. Some of what Saburo does to succeed is brilliant; he ends up working on the US space program, which was interesting to read about. But I have to say that after awhile the constant stream of bad things got a bit tiring by the end of the book; the tale goes somewhat flat. But one must remember that this is Wu’s first novel. It is suspenseful, wondering when one of the bad things will be too big to overcome; wondering if he is writing his tale from a Nationalist prison. I give it four stars, and will look out for Wu’s next book. 



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I was given this book free by Library Thing Early Reviewers program in return for a fair review. 

Neither of these things affected my review.  


Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Hatmaker’s Heart, by Carla Stewart. Faith Words, 2014




 
Twenty-one year old Nell Marchwold is the hat maker of the title. At the start of the novel, she’s been working in a millinery shop for two years, and is starting to do her own designs. When one rich client comes in and her daughters insist on two of Nell’s hats, suddenly there is a rush of business in the shop, all clamoring for Nell’s hats. Nell’s dream is to make hats that bring out a woman’s beauty and working for in this shop seems like the best way to manage that. But when the shop owner, Oscar Fields, begins to get possessive of Nell, things get weird. When a business trip to England- Nell’s home country- brings her into contact with her childhood crush, Quentin, Fields is disparaging and changes plans so that Nell is kept from spending any time with Quentin. Is Fields priming her to be a new designer or to be something else?

Nell is almost too good to be true. She’s hard working, supports herself, has a brilliant sense of design and the ability to bring the design to fruition, cares about her family and friends selflessly, and apparently is as pure as the driven snow, with no interest in the drinking and dancing of the 1920s. But she stutters, which Fields mocks her for, and she’s told it will hold her back as a designer. She didn’t always stutter; as a young girl she spoke freely. Her quest to uncover what changed her provides a subplot, a little mystery that brings Nell’s family into the story.

The story is reasonably engaging and I liked Nell; she developed a backbone during the novel and we got to watch her grow. I loved the descriptions of the dresses and hats of the period; I’m a vintage clothing lover and this is why I asked for the book. But the book didn’t seem to have a lot of depth; most of the characters were rather superficial. I felt no connection with them. Nell is all goodness and Fields is all badness, which isn’t how it usually works in real life. It’s enjoyable fluff. 


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