Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dicken’s London, by Judith Flanders. Thomas Dunn Books, 2012

 This 520 page book is huge in scope, although the last 100 pages are notes, index, and bibliography. It covers the London roads, theaters and entertainments, eating habits and places, the huge number of street sellers (and how specialized they were!), the waterways, rail (above and underground), the fire brigades, the nearly complete lack of sanitation, and more. The London of Dickens’ day was a horrible place (I knew it was bad, so that was no surprise; the surprise was the degree of badness) if you were poor. And it is mostly through the lens of poverty or near poverty that we look through to see this old London; Dickens’ stories were full of the poor. We see the prisons, the slums, the places where the poor ate, the horrible living conditions. This is not ‘Victorian London’ in general (Dickens’ life & writing started well before Victoria ascended the throne). These are the places that we now think of as ‘Dickensian’- oddly enough; when he was alive, a Dickensian story was one with humor in it. It wasn’t until the horrible conditions were alleviated that ‘Dickensian’ came to mean what it does today.

This is a very well researched volume with almost 20 pages of bibliography- the majority of it primary sources- that brings old London to vivid, unpleasant life. While Flanders writes clearly and fluidly, the amount of detail can make this book slow reading. It’s interesting enough to read it cover to cover (I did) but it’s indexed so well and goes into such depth that it would make a great research book for someone writing fiction about the era. It would also be a good companion volume for someone reading Dickens and wants more detail. While, as I said, it was a slow read, it was fascinating. I just won’t be able to think about a Dickens Fair with the same amount of cheerfulness as before! 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. Amazon provided this book to me in return for an unbiased review. Neither of these things affected my review. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

American Blonde, by Jennifer Niven. Plume, 2014

Velva Jean Hart has just returned from overseas duty as a pilot and a spy at the end of World War 2 when a representative of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer shows up at the door of her family’s Appalachian home. Offered a screen test, she figures she’s got nothing to lose. When her train reaches Los Angeles, to her surprise, she is met by Hollywood star Barbara Fanning AKA Eloise Mudge- who happens to be a fellow pilot from the WASP who trained with Hart. Hired immediately after her brief screen test, Hart has her name changed, her hair color changed, her whole persona changed. Hart has never backed down from a challenge and she finds herself costarring in the biggest movie being made, one which seems poised to be bigger than Gone With the Wind. She’s happy with this new life, but when Mudgie dies at a house party on the beach and the death is not investigated as the studio brushes it under the rug, Hart has to go into action to investigate on her own, even though it means risking her own life.

It’s an exciting book that paints a vivid picture of the movie industry of the time. I loved the descriptions of Los Angeles before it got built up and gigantic. I didn’t realize this book was the fourth in a series until I got it. It stands very well on its own, but it reading it would have been a richer experience if I’d read the earlier books. Velva Jean is a brave, smart and loyal woman with enough depth of character to hold a reader’s interest. She’s got her eyes on the prize of becoming a country singer, so she’s sure to be back in more books. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This book was given to me for free in return for a fair review. Neither of these things affected my review in any way. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, by Allie Brosh. Touchstone, 2013

I first discovered Allie Brosh when someone sent me a link to her Improved Pain Chart (which I feel needs to be in every doctor’s office and emergency room) and spent the rest of that evening going through all the back entries of her blog. She has a lot of the same issues I do, and having them taken on with such humor (in both writing and drawings) had me both nodding in agreement and howling at the same time.

This book -same name as her blog- is a compendium of mostly new, but some old, work. It includes her two part essay on depression, which hit her right after she signed the book deal. Depression isn’t funny, but the essays are- and they are really quite good at explaining what depression is like. It’s not all about mental quirks, of course. There are episodes about her dogs (who have to be the stupidest and strangest dogs in the universe), and her run in with a cake, a robot parrot that says ‘Poop’ repeatedly, and lots of other things. If you need a laugh, go and read this book. 

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, June 14, 2014

GI Brides: The wartime girls who crossed the Atlantic for love, by Duncan Barrett & Nuala Calvi. William Morrow 2014

When America entered WW 2, many soldiers were sent to England as a staging ground for attacks on the continent. With many British men already fighting in Europe (or wounded or dead), the influx of relatively well paid young GIs found a country full of young women willing to date them. With the threat of battle immanent, both men and women grabbed at happiness and married without knowing each other well at all. When the war ended and the GIs were sent home, their young brides went with them- on separate ships, of course, and with a lot of indignities. What they found when the arrived on US shores wasn’t what they’d expected.

Calvi’s grandmother was one of these GI brides, and she learned Margaret’s story not long before her grandmother’s death. This led to looking into the lives of other war brides. Four of them; Rae, Margaret, Sylvia and Gwendolyn (Lyn) have their stories shared with us here.

One found herself married to an alcoholic who spent every penny he made (and then some) on alcohol, finally becoming abusive. Another married a compulsive gambler with PTSD. One’s family didn’t take to her at first at all and seemed to deliberately make her life miserable, and she contracted polio on top of that. Another’s husband was womanizer. They all had culture shock and found that even the English language wasn’t the same in the US as it was in England. The image of America that many had was of relative wealth, and it wasn’t always so. Not all the GI brides had horrible marriages; even after rocky starts, some remained happily married for a lifetime. But they all had to be incredibly strong to survive what they did. Some of them were only teenagers when they married and left their homes.

I loved this book. Social history is fascinating to me, and I’m glad these stories are being told before that generation dies off. Each chapter is about a different one of the four, going in rounds. I confess that I sometimes had a little trouble with that format; I’d forget what the one I was reading had done in her last couple of chapters. I managed, though; it’s not hard to flip back and take a look. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This book was given to me by the Amazon Vine program in return for a fair review. Neither of these things influenced my review.

Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry, by Leanne Shapton. Sarah Crichton Books, 2009

The title is very nearly as long as the book; at 129 pages the volume barely makes it to book length. It’s constructed uniquely: it’s an auction catalog for the possessions of a couple, Lenore and Harold. She’s in her 20s, he’s in his 30s. They are hipsters who dress in vintage clothing and use precious vintage accessories. He’s a photographer, she’s a food columnist. We find that he considers his work art and very important and serious, while he considers her writing silly and unimportant. Through the book we see the couple get together, live together for a while, and fall apart. The author does this through not just their objects but through notes; him to her, her to him, her to her sister. Very short, spare notes, but still, they manage to convey the story. You wouldn’t think you could connect to a character with that few words, but I did find myself feeling a little sorry for Lenore.

It’s kind of a fun book to go through. This length is probably all that the format could sustain; it’s not a format for nuance and depth. I enjoyed it, but I’m glad I didn’t buy it but read the library copy. 

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. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Book Beginning: GI Brides

Gilion over at Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Fridays, where book bloggers post the first sentence of the book they are currently reading, along with their thoughts on that sentence and what it inspires.


 "As the 8.10 to Charing Cross pulled out of Woolwich, Sylvia Bradley could barely contain her excitement. At fifteen and a half, she had only just left school, and was thrilled to be joining the crowds of glamorous women who took the train 'Up West' every morning to work in the capital's grand hotels and shops.'

GI Brides: The wartime girls who crossed the Atlantic for Love, by Duncan Barrett & Nuala Calvi

In WW 2, thousands of American soldiers were stationed in England as a staging point for battles on the Continent. Many of them met, fell in love with and married British women. This is the true story of four of the women who married those men they barely knew and left behind their homes and families in England.

I love books like these; social history is one of my great interests. I don't care for battles and the like but the things that don't normally make it into the history books fascinate me.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Wisdom of the Myths: How Greek Mythology Can Change your Life, by Luc Ferry. Harper Perennial, 2014

Author Luc Ferry is an award winning scholar and former French minister of national education. He knows his mythology, and goes back to the oldest sources he can find for his reading; in many cases, sources more than 2000 years old. He’s very thorough, and roots out the basic meaning of the oldest Greek myths: the creation, King Midas, the Odyssey, Oedipus and others. A lot of it all boils down to the opposing forces of chaos and order; order (as personified by Zeus et al) must continually beat chaos (as personified by the pre-Olympian gods, Gaia (earth) and Chronos who is time itself). Everyone and everything has a place in the universe, and those who try to go against this natural place have hubris, and will end up punished by the universe. No one can defeat death. Accept this, and get on with living the best life you can- in other words, be an expression of order.

Even people who have never read the Greek myths know something about them; references to them abound in our vernacular (Oedipus complex, Midas touch, Pandora’s box, Achilles heel etc) so it pays to know where these references come from. The book is interesting; the author treats the myths, as philosophy, with respect rather than as childish tales. He shows how many of these myths connect with each other, and tells us why the things that happen to people happen. Sadly, making the connections means some repetition, but it’s not huge problem.

Did reading this book allow me to change my life? No. I’m not even sure how understanding the myths can change my life; perhaps that means I still don’t understand them. 

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. 

Waiting on Wednesday

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly feature of the Breaking the Spine blog.  It's a great way to share information about forthcoming books with other readers.

This week's anticipated book: 

Publisher: Plume
Publication Date: July 29, 2014

From Goodreads: A fearless and spirited pilot conquers Hollywood. Now can she survive movie stardom?

In 1945 Velva Jean Hart is a bona fide war heroine. After a newsreel film of her triumphant return to America, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer promises to make her a star. They give her a new life story and a brand-new name. As Kit Rogers, she navigates the movie sets, recording sessions, parties, staged romances, and occasional backstabbing that accompany her newfound fame. She also navigates real-life romance, finding herself caught between a charismatic young writer and a sexy and enigmatic musician from her past. But when one of her best friends dies mysteriously and the most powerful studio in the world launches a cover-up, Velva Jean goes in search of the truth risking her own life, as well as her heart, in the process.

Set during Hollywood s Golden Age and peopled with a cast of unforgettable characters, "American Blonde" will mesmerize readers of "The Chaperone "as well as fans of the Velva Jean series."

Actually, this is no longer anticipated as it just came in the mail 20 minutes ago. 

What book are you waiting to get your hands on?   


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Normans: From Raiders to Kings, by Lars Brownworth. Crux Publishing, 2014

The Normans were a group that I knew nothing about beyond the fact that they are why part of France is called ‘Normandy’ and that William the Conqueror was one, so I was happy to get this book. It’s a very fast read; Brownworth doesn’t dwell on the details of battles (although the dates and statistics are there) but concentrates on the personalities- and the Normans provided some compelling personalities.

I’d always thought of the Normans as being French, but they were Vikings. At different times various Normans settled in and ruled parts of Great Britain, France, Italy and Sicily, and even parts of north
Africa. Most of the Normans who went out and conquered areas did so because there was a shortage of land in their birth families. Some of them founded monasteries, built churches and libraries, and even created organized and codified rule rather than basing government decisions on whims and who was the favorite at the time. Obviously, they weren’t all simply northern barbarians. They were greedy, ambitious and took a lot of chances that other rulers didn’t and in some cases it paid off. Paid off not just for them, but, in the end, for
Europe. It was under their influence that western Europe started emerging from the dark ages.

The book was a very fast, engaging read. There are maps and a who’s who in the front of the book so that one doesn’t get lost- although with the habit rulers have to naming their heirs after themselves, I still found myself confused at times. Covering over 200 years and most of Europe, it’s interesting to see how and why areas changed hands so frequently. The book isn’t of great depth, but it gives all the highlights.

The above is an affiliate link; if you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This book was given to me by the Library Thing Early Reviewers program in return for a fair review; neither of these things affected my review. 

The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero. Doubleday, 2014

This book plays rather loosely with the definition of ‘novel’; composed of letters, journal entries, recording transcripts and receipts, it’s rather like ‘House of Leaves’, or, to go even further back and leave the horror genre, ‘Up the Down Staircase’. One might think that this would hamper engaging with the characters, and while it does that to a degree, by the end I found myself attached to the two main characters. A., a twenty-three year old European (English?) man has inherited- out of the blue from a relative he’d never heard of- Axton House, a manor, and its contents, in Virginia. He has come to take possession of this windfall; along with him is Niamh, a teenage girl with piercings, purple hair that is half shaved off, and who is mute. The relationship between them is not explained until the end, but they are not lovers.
The distant cousin, Ambrose Wells, has committed suicide on his 50th birthday, which happened to be the 30th anniversary of his father’s suicide. Both threw themselves out of a window, leaving a mess for the butler (now missing) to find. Wells’ lawyer, Glew (and what stick-to-itiveness he turns out to have!) Is there a curse? Are there ghosts? And what about this secret society that there are rumors of?

There are a lot of things going on, both human and paranormal. A. and Niamh seem to no sooner figure out one thing when another one comes up. There are a number of red herrings, and we don’t know until the end which ones those are. The climax was not at all what I expected. I enjoyed this book a LOT- I read it in late spring, but it would be even better read in winter, with a fire going and snow deadening sounds. I hope that Cantero writes more horror, and soon! Also, I love the cover art. I don’t know who did it, but it would make a great poster. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. Also, this book was given to me by the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. Neither of these things influenced my review. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown & Co, 2014

‘Frog Music’ takes place in two times: a month in one time line and a handful of days in the other. Donoghue alternates between the past month and the present few days as Blanche Beunon, exotic dancer in San Francisco in 1876, tries to survive and get justice for her best friend of a month, Jenny Bonnet. A cross dressing young woman who carried a gun and rode a stolen high wheel bike, Jenny seems a less likely target for murder than Blanche herself. Blanche frantically scrambles to stay safe from her former pimp and his sidekick, fighting to get her child back (whom she cared not a bit for until reminded of him by Jenny), and get the truth about why Jenny was killed.

Formerly, Blanche lived in relative comfort, supplementing her income as a dancer/stripper with semi-high class prostitution; supporting her idle, sociopathic but beloved Arthur and his friend Ernest in style; and even buying the building they live in. At that point, the only mistake she figured she’d made was having a baby, P’tit, who, lest he interfere with Blanche’s ability to work, is put out by Arthur to a ‘baby farm’, horrific places where most of the infants died. Once Blanche finds out the circumstances of P’tit’s care, he suddenly becomes the most important thing in the world to her. At this point, Jenny has-literally- run into Blanche, and, despite this unpromising meeting, they become friends. But Jenny speaks her mind, which makes her a dangerous friend for Blanche.

Set against a heat wave that won’t let up, race hatred against the Chinese, and a smallpox epidemic, the pace never lets up. Blanche goes through a lot of changes and faces hard things. The killer turned out to be a total surprise to me, as did the reason Jenny was killed and not Blanche. This is one of the tensest books I’ve ever read, yet it is filled with the little details of what life was like in that time and place. I was surprised to find that the author based the book on a real event; don’t read the afterword before you read the story or it will be ruined for you! Not as good as Donoghue’s ‘Slammerkin’ but then, not many books are as good as ‘Slammerkin’. 

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. 


The Quick, by Lauren Owen. Random House 2014


In 1892 London, James Norbury has disappeared, much to his sister Charlotte’s concern. Heir to a small amount of money that allows him to live without working, he had taken rooms with Christopher Paige, an equally unemployed young man. When James vanishes, Charlotte rushes to London to see what has happened. It’s obvious that the young men did not leave on their intended trip. Where are they? And why, when Charlotte does find James, does he look different, act different, and tell her to stay away from him for her own good? Charlotte soon finds herself entangled with vampire hunters, a men’s club that is very particular about its members, an American whose vacation abroad has taken a bad turn, a group of very unusual children, and the deadly human who kills in service to the gentlemen’s club.

This book is written in the style of the 19th century, and as such is slower of pace than most modern works; if I had just picked this book up with no information about it I could have almost believed that it was written back then. Don’t expect it to start off with a bang; the first section almost doesn’t need to be there and the second goes on for longer than necessary. Not to say those sections aren’t enjoyable; just, slow. The book is written from multiple points of view, including notebooks written by characters. This gave me a bit of trouble; there is not enough difference in styles and I sometimes found myself having to look back to remember who is writing at the time. And oddly, despite the length of time we spend with the characters, I didn’t feel they were well fleshed out and didn’t experience any real care for them, for good or bad. Do these things make the book bad? Not really. I enjoyed it; I love the descriptions of both high and low life in London of the time. Sometimes I enjoy taking the longer, slower route. I think anyone who enjoyed Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ or Kostova’s ‘The Historian’ will enjoy this book. 

The above is an affiliate link; if you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This book was given to me by the Amazon Prime program in exchange for an unbiased review; neither of these things affected my review. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Moon Sisters, by Therese Walsh. Crown 2014


When Beth Moon dies- possibly by suicide- her family falls apart. Her husband stops going to work takes to drinking from dawn to dusk. Olivia, the younger daughter, stares at the sun until she does permanent damage to her retinas, leaving her legally blind. Jazz, the older daughter, pushes on, getting a job so she can keep the family together. The book is divided into sections named for the stages of loss; the sisters take turns telling the story.

Jazz and Olivia were brought up so differently that it’s like they were raised in different homes. Jazz was sent to school and always told to take care of her sister. Olivia has synesthesia, seeing tastes and hearing colors, was taken out of school at a young age and homeschooled. Of course Jazz holds some resentment for Olivia because of this, but she also feels compelled to carry out the script of making sure Olivia doesn’t get herself into trouble. Those aren’t the only differences in how they were raised, though; after the birth of Jazz Beth fell into a nasty case of postpartum depression, which she didn’t do with Olivia. Jazz is caretaker of her mother as well as of Olivia; Olivia is more of a playmate for Beth.

Beth spent her life working on a fairy tale that she never finished. She dreamt that someday she’d make a trip to the Cranberry Glades in West Virginia, see the fairy lights, and that would enable her to finish the book. So it seems logical to Olivia that some of her ashes should be taken there- and she’ll do it with or without Jazz to be her eyes. When their vehicle breaks down on the road, Olivia figures that she’ll just hop a freight train and get there on her own. This is where she meets Hobbs, a young man covered in tattoos who she immediately takes to, and Red, an old man who she most certainly doesn’t take to.

This is a book of secrets; everyone has a lot of them, and they feel they must keep these secrets to protect those they love. The secrets come out painfully; no one trusts anyone else. Some of the secrets they are keeping belong to other people.
This is a coming of age book; I’m honestly not sure what audience it’s aimed at but it could just as easily be enjoyed by young adults as by adults. The twists that the book takes are things I never expected and things never stop moving hectically along. I started out thinking the book was okay; by the middle I was growling at anyone who tried to interrupt my reading. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This book was given to me by the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review. Neither of these things affected my review. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Clever Girl, by Tessa Hadley. Harper Collins, 2013

 The clever girl of the title is Stella, born in 1956 and raised by her single mother. Her upbringing makes her fiercely independent, so when her mother remarries Stella is not thrilled; within hours of moving into a brand new tract house with him, she already knows she does not like living with him. Her luck with lovers is bad; one disappears the day after he makes her pregnant; another dies while she is pregnant with her second child. It seems that in all her relationships, no child is raised by its biological father.

Told from Stella’s point of view as a 50 year old woman, she writes with awareness of her mistakes and misconceptions in the past. The chapters each tell of a different time in her life and we watch her as she figures out life. She is a clever girl; extremely bright and a lover of books- at least most of the time. Despite her high marks, when she becomes pregnant the first time she leaves school and home to do things her own way. After her frustration as a child of being under the power of her father and mother, she makes sure that she is never dependant on anyone again. She always pays her way. She also chooses her own family- friendship and closeness trumps blood in her book.

A number of reviewers have stated that they did not like Stella; I didn’t dislike her at all but she felt rather remote to me. Even during her times of great loss I didn’t feel her pain; she is a character so independent that she doesn’t even need for the reader to care for her. But I liked the book. I couldn’t love the book because of the strange disconnect from Stella (the other characters are even more distant), but I thought it was very well done.

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.