Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Poison Bed, by Elizabeth Fremantle. Pegasus Books, 2019

In 1615, Frances Howard and her husband Robert Carr, are imprisoned separately in the Tower of London, accused of poisoning Sir Thomas Overbury. In alternating chapters, they tell the reader what led up to this.

Frances and Robert fall in love, which, given that Frances is married and Robert is King James I favorite and lover, is not a smart or safe thing. But Robert feels James will forgive him anything, while Frances figures on getting her marriage annulled on grounds that it was never consummated- even though she’s been married several years. But her husband is willing to go along with it, just to be rid of her. One person who stands in the way of the annulment is Overbury- he, too, is in love with Robert, and things he’s making a mistake.

Was the killer Frances or Robert? Or was it someone else? Or, even, just a death from illness, as was so common back then?

While some aspects of this story were fascinating, I had a hard time being knocked out by the book. This is because I had a hard time liking anyone in the story! Robert is shown as not being overly bright. Frances was manipulative and self-centered- although the way the book was written, I felt she was manipulated in term, by someone better at it than she was. So, despite the wonderful descriptions in the text, and the marvelous cover, I can only give it three and a half stars.

Call Your Daughter Home, by Deb Spera. Park Row Books, 2019

Set in South Carolina in 1924, this novel weaves together narrations from three disparate women. Annie Coles is the rich, white, woman. She’s not as rich as she used to be, though; the Cole family money was in cotton and the boll weevil has left that business in tatters. But they are getting into tobacco, and Annie has a business of her own: The Sewing Circle, where the cotton sacks for packing crops are sewn, which is cheaper than buying premade sacks. And now Annie and her younger son, Lonnie, are branching out: they are starting to manufacture clothing to be sold in stores around the area.

Gertrude is poor white trash, married to an abusive drunk who is starving his family when he’s not beating on them. One day she can’t take it anymore, and flees the shack in the swamp with her children. She’s lucky: in this economically depressed area, she manages to get a job. But it’ll take more than that to give her security.

Oretta is the Magical Negro. She’s worked for the Coles family all her life; she is the first generation of freed people of color. The Coles had owned her family before the Civil War. She keeps the Coles’s house and family in good shape. She can see and talk with the dead.

The three women, who normally wouldn’t have associated with each other, find their lives bound together in strange ways. There is a big secret in the Coles family, one which keeps Annie’s two daughters, Sarah and Mollie, from speaking to her. One of the Coles sons committed suicide at a young age. Gertrude’s secret would be totally damning if found out.

It’s a wretched time and place to be living in. Disease, alligators, poverty, misogyny, racism, and classism, all are present. All three women are well acquainted with grief. The author did well creating her main characters; you can’t not feel their pain. The story bogs down in places- the middle section seems to take forever- but it’s still a can’t-put-it-down story. While it’s pretty easy to figure out the biggest secret early, how it’s dealt with in the end caught me by surprise. Survival and motherhood are the backbone of the novel. Four and a half stars.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt Och Dag. Atria Press, 2017

In Sweden in 1793, some children find a body floating in a particularly gross part of the river. They call on Mickel Cardell, a watchman moonlighting (and drinking) as a bouncer, and he fishes the body out. It’s not odd that there is a body in the river, but this one is missing both arms and legs, has had his tongue cut out, his eyes removed, and has had hot pokers shoved into his ears. This is grim, even by the standards of the day.

Cardell, an alcoholic war vet who lost his friend and his arm but gained PTSD, finds himself drawn back into an investigation into who the body was, and how he came to be so cruelly treated. He is pulled into the case by Cecil Winge, a brilliant investigator who as the reputation of never prosecuting a person without total evidence that he did the crime. He is frail- dying of tuberculosis- but wants to find the truth about this horrible crime. Cardell can go places and ask questions that Winge cannot. He’s also an asset in the worse parts of town, his wooden arm giving him an advantage in a fight. Neither of them can imagine how this crime could be committed.

The strands of the lives of two other people fill out the story. Young Kristofer Blix, a veteran who apprenticed to a military doctor, wishes to become a doctor but must wait for the next classes to start. Teen aged Anna Stina is an orphaned fruit seller who is arrested for prostitution- only because she refused the attentions of a boy. She is sent to a workhouse that is pretty much hell on earth. Her treatment at the hands of her jailor, with starvation and sexual assault, is horrific. She must find a way out before she ends up dead as others have.

The story is relentlessly grim; more Dickensian than Dickens ever wrote. Every detail of the sordid lives is revealed. While all four of the main characters are sympathetic, not much around them is. All four are caught by their horrible circumstances. I really liked the relationship between Cardell and Winge; Winge’s fate in the end saddened me because I had started hoping this would be a series! Don’t read this if you don’t have a strong stomach. It’s horror after horror, but the protagonists are all smart and resilient. Five stars.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Haunted Mind: A Psychoanalyst Looks at the Supernatural, by Nandor Fodor. Garrett Publications, 1959

This is an unusual book: it’s a book about psychic goings-on, written by a psychoanalyst who approaches it all as a scientist and an open-minded skeptic. Many of the people and events he writes about fall into the fakery bin, but he finds a few that meet his standards for ‘authentic’. He visits mediums (a lot) and investigates hauntings and poltergeists.

His view on poltergeists is something to think about. He notes that almost all poltergeist events take place about someone, usually a teenaged girl, who is under stress. Some talk therapy causes the knocking and dish throwing to stop. He has no explanation for how their subconscious minds throw dishes and bang on the walls, but just leaves there. He does that with many of his investigations; he lays out what he saw and just kind of leaves it for the reader to make of it what they will.

It was an interesting book. He was unique in his views that hauntings were products of the subconscious mind; this caused many spiritualists to shun him. Being a psychiatrist he was positioned to unravel the mental snarls that existed around most hauntings, but never states if he thinks the mental status caused the haunting or if the haunting brought about the mental state. Four stars for his dispassionate writing.

Karna’s Wheel, by Michael Tobert. Top Hat Books, 2017

Stephen Smith’s mother has died. He has inherited the few things she owned- which include some boxes of her father’s memoirs. His flatmate, Seamus, talks him into reading them and then using them as the basis of a screenplay. Turns out Stephen Smith (using the same name for two characters caused a fair bit of confusion for me), having tired of working in the jute mills in Dundee, packed it in, moved to Calcutta in 1923…. To work in the jute factories there. The journals cover a lot of years, and they reveal the nasty racism that was rife in the white owned factories- and pretty much everything else the whites ran in India.

A couple of side plots in the current time run alongside this reading of the past: One is Stephen’s fraught relationship with Julia; the other is the investigation of Stephen’s mother by Detective McCorquodale. The detective thinks Stephen’s mother was selling drugs, and wants to go through every single thing she owned, including tearing out things in her flat. Stephen learns a lot about his family- and himself- through the novel.

The story was interesting, but it moved very slowly. I got confused several times, switching between times and characters. There was a lot of detail in the Calcutta sections, and those were the parts I liked best, although they were horribly grim. I got bored at times, and even desperately wanted the story to come to an end a few times. There are good things in the book, but somehow they just didn’t come together for me. Three stars.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Gaslight Gothic: Strange Tales of Sherlock Holmes, edited by J.R. Campbell and Charles Prepolec. EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, 2018

This is a compilation of newly written Sherlock tales, which, as the title indicates, hae a gothic slant. And not just gothic, but supernatural gothic. In the various stories we have Elder Gods, Edger Allen Poe, Mr. Hyde, African little people, and lots more. As in any anthology there are good tales and ones not so good; the one with the African is one of the not so good, and I can’t say I liked “A Matter of Light”. But on average the tales are interesting and even creepy. I’ll give it four stars.

The Golden Tresses of the Dead: A Flavia de Luce Novel, by Alan Bradley. Delacorte Press, 2019

Flavia de Luce is the 12 year old heroine of a series of mysteries; this is the tenth installment. At this point, she is an orphan, with one sister marrying and one sister ensconced in the library. Her father figure is Dogger, her late father’s aide (and, I think, gardener), her partner in a private detective firm. He provides advice and, when needed, an adult presence when snooping is undertaken.

At Ophelia’s wedding, things go awry right off- when she cuts the cake, she finds an embalmed human finger. Flavia spirits this off before the guests see it, and the party goes on. Despite Ophelia’s leaving, the house is not empty; two missionary women are staying with them, and they seem, well, odd. Then a couple of dead people turn up, and Flavia and Dogger’s investigation turns up even odder things. On top of that, they get their first paying case.

The story is fun, and I enjoyed it, even though things didn’t always seem to get properly tied up. I occasionally lost track of who was who, what with multiple plot lines running. With the young age of the protagonist, I assume it’s written for tweens, but the plot(s) are interesting enough to engage an adult. I enjoyed that a girl of 12 was that mature, and her proficiency in chemistry. Four stars.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng

Supreme Court judge Teoh Yun Ling was the sole survivor of a Japanese prisoner of war camp; everyone else, including her sister, was abused and raped and then killed, bodies put in a mass grave. After becoming a lawyer and then judge, she prosecuted the Japanese soldiers that could still be found in Kuala Lumpur. Now she is retiring, because of a creeping case of dementia and aphasia. Her story covers the time before the war, when she and her sister visited Japan and saw the gardens her sister fell in love with, but mostly settles after the war, when Yun Ling decides to have a Japanese garden created in memory of her sister. At the urging of Magnus Pratorius, a South African expat tea farmer, she meets Nakamura Aritomo, who was once Emperor Hirohito’s head gardener until he exiled himself. He refuses to take the commission, but says he will take Yun Ling on as an apprentice and she can learn through doing how to create a garden herself. Surprisingly, given her hatred for the Japanese, she accepts. She is to help develop Yugiri, the garden of the evening mists, the still point within a country roiling with guerilla violence.

While there are some violent events, such as the guerilla rebellion that leaves many of the colonists dead, most of the story about small things. The learning of how to borrow scenery in a garden, the art of setting stone, learning archery. It is about Yun Ling and Aritomo’s developing relationship. Yun Ling’s narration is oddly flat; is this because of the aphasia? Does she have PTSD? The dialog is often stilted. The story moves very slowly; it’s very heavy on descriptions. It jumps around in time. Aritomo, the most important person in the story other than Yun Ling, never comes to life. It’s weird; the book was annoying in ways but also oddly compelling and very, very beautiful. I often thought “Will this story ever end?” but still could not even think about putting it down. Four stars.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Kinship of Secrets, by Eugenia Kim. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018

In 1948, a Korean family is split up. Najin and Calvin Cho want to go to the USA with their two daughters, but money is short and there is the issue of convincing the government that they intend to return. Leaving one daughter will solve both those problems, so they take baby Miran with them and leave Inja with Najin’s family. New born Inja doesn’t miss or remember them; to her, her uncle and aunt are parents. Her grandparents also share the house with them, so she has no lack of family.

When the Korean War breaks out, it makes the possibility of getting Inja out dimmer. Inja and her family find themselves running south from the North Korean troops, and spend time in a refugee camp with nothing to their names. It takes years for them to rebuild their lives again. Meanwhile, Najin sends packages to them every week with money, clothing, and other goods. She doesn’t know that Aunt and Uncle have to sell most of the goods to get enough money for food and necessities. The Chos work endless hours to afford a home in the suburbs as well, and Miran grows up as an American girl, albeit one who knows she is different.

It’s not until Inja is in high school that the Chos find a way to get her out. By then, Inja doesn’t want to go; she has friends, is doing very well in school, and she loves her Uncle and Aunt. She has no desire to see these people she doesn’t know; she speaks little English and her sister speaks no Korean. Miran is shaken by Inja’s arrival; suddenly she has to share everything including her room. Can two sisters so different find their way to love each other?

I loved this book. I felt great sympathy to all of them; they were all doing the best they could in bad situations. I held my breath to see how the sisters would do together; would they get along? Would they come to understand how the other had grown up? Would Inja grow to love her blood parents? The characters are easy to care about. The prose is wonderful. Five stars.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Age of Light, by Whitney Scharer. Little, Brown and Company, 2018

In 1929, American Lee Miller moved to Paris to become a photographer. She was not stranger to cameras; she had a career as a model of Vogue, and her father used her as a model from toddlerhood on. But she doesn’t want to be a model anymore; she wants to be a creator of art, rather than someone to be gazed upon. These are the days of the Dada and Surrealist movements, of Picasso and Cocteau. She hasn’t been there long before she meets the much older Man Ray and they soon develop a relationship that is sexual, emotional, creative, and business. He teaches her the art and tricks of photography, while she takes care of the business of his studio. He nurtures her talent, but is very possessive, even, at one point, claiming a technique she developed as his own. She is possessive in some ways, too; she was obsessed with Kiki de Montparnasse, Ray’s ex who had posed nude many times.

Miller is not all about Ray, though. She was a war photographer during WW 2, going into dangerous areas; this is the part of her life she is most renowned for. She later became a 5 star chef and a food writer for Vogue- and also an alcoholic. This is an engrossing story of a woman trying to make it in the world on her own considerable talents, rather than as the wife or mistress of a man. Along with the standards of the time that dismissed women as trivial, she had to fight to overcome having had a pretty creepy father and a childhood rape. I loved the eccentric characters that she knew during the 30s, and the descriptions of the parties and dinners. Miller and Ray are extremely interesting characters, but frequently unlikable ones. The writing is lovely. Four stars.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide, by Marc Hetherington & Jonathan Weiler. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018

Hetherington & Weiler put forth the theory that there are two types of people: fixed, and fluid. The fixed have a world view of danger: people and nature are out to get them. Fluid folks, on the other hand, find the world a delightful place to explore, filled with good people. Fixed people drive giant four wheel drive pickups or Hummers, keep big dogs, and prefer plain coffee from Dunkin Donuts over fancy Starbucks concoctions. Fluid folks drive small cars that are less damaging to the environments, like cats, and love trying new cuisines. Oh, and fixed people tend to live rural, while fluids congregate in the city. Most people are NOT pure forms of either, but land somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Now, there is nothing wrong with being on either end of the spectrum, but… in America, these tendencies are being used by the major parties to divide people and gain support. This is what’s behind the growing chasm between Democrats and Republicans. The Republican Party stresses the dangers in the world, and that they are the only candidates that can protect the people of the USA; Democrats try to say they are supporting programs like the ACA that will benefit all classes. Now, this is a broad brush to paint the political/sociological scene with, but it seems, in most cases to be true.

And it’s getting worse- the two sides don’t get together very often. If the fixeds and the fluids worked together, partied together, went to school together, they would learn that the other side isn’t really the bunch of idiots they think they are. Hard to do when the Powers That Be try to demonize the other side.

Are they right about this? Yes, I think- partly. The chasm between sides is getting worse every day. And it’s obvious that the divide is being used by said Powers That Be. Is it quite as simple as that? Well, no, I don’t think so. There are a lot of other things affecting the world. But this book is a great start to understanding the problems. The one problem I see is that the authors are clearly biased towards one side; it happens to be the side I mostly fall into, but it’s going to make it harder for the side they are against to take the book seriously. Four stars.

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Other Side of Elsewhere, by Brett McKay. RedAdeptPublishing, 2018

Twelve year old Ret is enjoying summer, other than the fact that his father works two jobs and is never home, while his mother works only one job but is exhausted from taking care of everything at home. He and his friends Gary & Jax are doing jumps and stunts with their bicycles on Dead Man’s Hill, when an older boy suggests they spend the night in the Crooked House. This is an abandoned old house that everyone says is haunted. So what to 12 year old boys do when given a dare that could be dangerous? They accept it, of course. Imagine their horror when real paranormal events happen!

This could best be described as a supernatural coming-of-age story. Ret goes through a lot as the summer goes on- more paranormal events; fear of the local mortician’s new employee, who Ret ends up working with; a family shakeup; people start disappearing. Then climax is extremely tense and well done. It’s a great middle school book, and I enjoyed it a great deal as an adult. Four stars.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield. Simon & Schuster, 2018

At some point in the 1800s, on the long night of the winter solstice, people gathered at the Swann and hoisted pints and told stories. Then the door bursts open, and in comes a large man with his face horribly mangled, carrying a small child. He falls on the floor in a dead faint, and at first the people think they are both dead. But the man breathes, and so Rita Sunday, the village healer, sews him up and puts him to bed. The child is dead; she is removed to an outbuilding. Rita feels compelled to try and figure out how she died, only to find that the girl is also alive.

Of course this event sets people talking.  Three sets of people think the girl is their missing relative. The girl gives no clues; she doesn’t talk, and seems content to go with any of them. How the village people work out who gets her, and the machinations that some characters go through trying to use her to solve their problems, makes for a wonderful multi-thread story. There are hints of magical realism or fantasy; there is a mythical ferryman on the river, and the Thames almost seems to be a character. It’s a slow but well-knit tale. The characters are very well done; my heart broke for some of them. Five stars.

Monday, December 10, 2018

In the Night Wood, by Dale Bailey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018

This story is almost over the top gothic. It begins with a husband and wife, Charles and Erin Hayden, inheriting a fortune and a huge manor house in England, one surrounded with primeval forest. They are a miserable pair; he had an affair with a co-worker, their daughter died as a direct result of this, his academic career is stalled, and the wife has retreated into a haze of alcohol and prescription drugs. They hope this move will help them move on, but the house belonged to Caedmon Hollow, who wrote a Victorian dark fairy tale that Charles has been obsessed with since childhood. Erin is the last survivor of the family

They find the place unsettling; they see images of their dead daughter everywhere. The forest is moving closer to the house. Charles, looking into the past to write a biography of Caedmon Hollow, meets Silva, the head of the village’s historical society. She’s an intelligent and attractive woman, and her daughter is almost a carbon copy of Charles’ and Erin’s dead daughter. You can see where this might head. The whole situation is a great set up for supernatural horror.

Sadly, I ended up not caring for the book very much. Charles is an unlikable main character, even though he’s supposed to be seeking redemption. Erin is a mere shadow of a person. The other characters start with great potential, but end up just props for Charles. The ‘feel’ of the story is wonderfully full of dread, as the unknown closes in. I loved the use of Celtic mythology. Charles and Erin’s grief is portrayed beautifully, if that word can be used for grief. But the end came rushing too suddenly; it was tied up as if the author had a deadline to meet. I give it four stars for gothic suspense; can’t give it five because of the main characters.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay. Harper Perennial, 2014

Roxane Gay, New York Times opinion writer and university professor, writes about feminism, fat acceptance, homophobia, racism, sexual violence, kink, pop culture, and a lot more in this collection of essays. She doesn’t come across as a know it all like some essayists do; she consistently admits to her own failings and prejudices. She’s funny and insightful at times; heartbreaking at others. Her own brutal gang rape at age twelve is fodder for her writing, as is 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight. The book is a mixed bag.

I have seen a lot of reviewers criticizing this book. One, for the writing not adhering to regular essay format but rather being more like blog posts. Yes, this is true. But I don’t feel that detracts from the content, and they are easy to read and digest. There is a trend among people today to glance at a more formal looking piece and think ‘tl;dr’. The other complaint I’ve seen is that a lot of them are on pop culture. I don’t see why this is a problem. Pop culture is what people are reading/watching. It’s what’s influencing people. Pop culture needs to be written and thought about. She doesn’t solve the feminist problem- she considers herself a bad feminist because she likes pink and she’s not a man-hating, angry woman. Well, I’m a bad feminist, too, despite being right out of the 1970s feminist wave. I, too, like pink, and I love makeup (I am angry, though, a lot of the time).

I loved this book. Is not only funny and thoughtful, she puts herself out there. I came across this book by happenstance, but I’m going to look for her other work now.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers. Bantam, 1946

During WW 2, 12 year old Frankie Addams lives in a small Southern town, and she is bored. Really bored. Her mother died giving birth to her, and her father is extremely distant. The other girls her age bully and ostracize her. Her only company is her six year old cousin John Henry, and the housekeeper Berenice Sadie Brown, a woman of color.  She wishes people could shift between male and female at will; Berenice wishes everyone was the same color. Over a few days in August, Frankie experiences some harsh things that could change how she lives her life.

When the family gets word that Frankie’s older brother will be coming home to be married, and will then have a short honeymoon before returning to his military unit, Frankie fixates on that event as the one thing that will save her. Both her brother and his fiancé have first names that start with J, so Frankie adopts the name Jasmine. She starts packing, in the belief that after the wedding, they will take her with them on their honeymoon and they will all live together. Although she tells this to everyone, only Berenice bothers to tell her that won’t happen. Told to go buy a dress for the wedding, she chooses one that is totally inappropriate for her age. That leads to some adventures on its own. Then comes the wedding… 

Although I sympathized with Frankie’s loneliness and frustration, I couldn’t stand how she made the wedding all about herself. I also disliked how she treated Berenice. Is she a bad child? No, she’s just ignored and left to grow up basically on her own. She’s on the verge of becoming a young woman, and no one is giving her clues on how to behave. A very well done coming of age story, but kind of hard to read, watching Frankie.

Friday, December 7, 2018

A Medieval Book of Seasons, by Marie Collins & Virginia Davis. HarperCollins, 1992

This is a lovely book – over size but fairly thin. The authors take us through the seasons as described from writings and shown in art from the medieval period. It starts, appropriately enough, with spring, and works its way through the year. Every page has illustrations, all from the era (no modern drawings of what someone *thought* folks did back then).

Life was very different back then; except for the upper class, pretty much everyone engaged in manual labor, all year round. People worked when sunlight was available, and then probably dropped into sleep as soon as they hit the … well, what passed for beds. Spring was pretty much a celebration of having survived winter (a celebration with lots of hard work, but, still, it was a happy time).

The illustrations are beautiful; most come from Books of Hours and illuminated manuscripts. This is not a scholarly book, but one aimed to interest people in the period. The authors touch on a multitude of areas: food, agriculture, health ideas and treatments, leisure, and more. The illustrations also show what type of clothing was worn by the various classes.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner: An Invitation and Guide to Life’s Most Important Conversation, by Michael Hebb.

Author Hebb is asking a simple thing of us: to talk about death. Specifically, our own deaths. For the vast majority of us, that’s not actually a simple thing. It’s natural for humans to shy away from talking about- even thinking about- our own deaths. And yet it’s the one sure thing about our lives. And yet we ignore it, like the proverbial elephant in the room, until it is suddenly too late to make our plans, to tell people what we want for final arrangements, to decide whether to go with hospice or to fight until the end, to tell people we love them or we’re sorry.

Hebb goes around hosting dinner parties where death is the subject. He uses such prompts as “What would you want people to say about you at your funeral?”, “What do you want your legacy to be?” and “Do you have a will and advance directive in place?”

If you don’t think about these things, and deal with them while you are well, you may very well lose control over them. Do you want to be kept alive at all costs, even if it means being hooked up to machines, unable to communicate or move? How do you want your assets to be divided? If you don’t deal with that, the courts will.

This book will help guide you through talking about these things. You will have to really think about how you think about death, and what you want. I am a hospice volunteer, and I highly recommend it. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. This did not influence my views. 

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Way of All Flesh, by Ambrose Parry. Canongate, 2018

In 1847, Will Raven has just been accepted as an assistant under the supervision of Dr. James Simpson. Simpson was a real person, an obstetrician who pioneered the use of anesthesia for childbirth. This granted him a room in the Dr.’s house to live in, which was a good thing as Raven already owes money to a gang of violent thugs who want their money NOW. Right before he moves, Raven finds his friend, Evie, a prostitute, dead- and it wasn’t an easy death. Evidence says she died in agony. Raven wants to find out how and why she died thus. Also living in Simpson’s house is the maid Sarah Fisher, who, when housework doesn’t prevent it, works for the doctor doing paperwork and concocting treatments. She dreams of becoming an apothecary, but her gender prevents this. Raven finds himself working in the clinic Simpson runs out of his house, going on house calls with the doctor, and trying to find time to find out why young women are dying like Evie did. Sarah finds herself caught up in this, also.

This is an incredibly detailed novel. The authors (Parry is the pseudonym for a husband and wife writing team) present Victorian Edinburgh, both Old Town and New Town, in all its filthy, class stratified, glory. There is a great deal of medical detail- amputations without anesthesia, complicated childbirths, how homeopathy was killing people. It was a time without many real cures for anything, and medical research could be as sloppy as the doctors sitting around sniffing chloroform to see what it did. It was a frightening time to need medical care! While I appreciated the details, some may find certain scenes too gory, like the childbirth where the child was positioned wrong to come out.

I found myself sunk deeply into the story and the time and place (while I love Victorian London, it was nice to have a change of venue), but the story wandered. The medical history, while fascinating, over powered the crime story- at times I forgot all about the murders. There are a lot of side tracks. If you want a tight murder mystery, this isn’t going to be for you. Personally, I was happy to follow along all the plot lines and side tracks. Four and a half stars. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for a fair review. This did not affect my review.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Not Our Kind, by Kitty Zeldis. HarperCollins, 2018

In the time after WW 2, Eleanor Moskowitz, young Vassar grad, is on her way to interview for a teaching position, when her cab collides with another one, this one bearing Patricia Bellamy. The jolt leaves Eleanor with blood on her face, and Patricia feels compelled to invite Eleanor to her home to freshen up. Having by now missed her appointment, Eleanor goes with Patricia. Patricia lives in an expensive, upper class apartment building. Patricia happens to need a tutor for her 13 year old daughter Margaux, recently recovering from polio, which has left Margaux with a limp and a large attitude. Match made in heaven? Well, it might be- except the Bellamys are WASP and Eleanor is Jewish. But Eleanor and Margaux have made an instant connection, so Patricia decides it’s worth the risk- if Eleanor shortens her name to ‘Moss’. It would never do for anyone in the building- especially Wynn Bellamy, Patricia’s husband- to know they had allowed a Jew in, even as an employee. 

Eleanor finds herself walking a tight rope as tensions rise in the Bellamy summer house, with Eleanor as a live-in, Wynn there most of the time, and then Tom, Patricia’s brother, moves in. While Margaux is doing much better, both physically and emotionally, Eleanor isn’t sure she can stay any longer. And Eleanor’s mother, a successful milliner, doesn’t understand why Eleanor doesn’t want to join her in business. And Eleanor might soon find herself having to do that, when suspicions about her arise.

I enjoyed the book- it’s a bit of a tense read- but I wish the characters had been fleshed out more. The *do* thinks, but we don’t get a feeling of why they do them. Scenes change quickly without seeming to evolve or slide into each other. It does a great job of pointing out class differences and women’s roles. I’d give it four stars- good, but not great. And while it doesn’t affect the story- I really wished more time had been spent on Eleanor’s mother and her millinery. Total vintage clothing junkie here!

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine Program in return for an unbiased review. This did not affect my opinion. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

Paradise Rot, by Jenny Hval. Verson, 2018

Norwegian college girl Jo arrives in Australia to spend a year studying. Looking for a place to live, she comes across Carral’s ad for shared space in a “converted” brewery. I have quotes around ‘converted’ because it’s not really made fit for human dwelling. There are few walls put in. The bathroom is on the ground floor, and it has no ceiling- awkward when you consider that the place is two or three stories tall. Everything is just a jumble of coming apart steel. It smells of its former life, as well as of urine. Urine is a theme in this story; it comes up with discomforting frequency. But Jo settles in. Carral brings home a huge number of apples, which they can’t eat fast enough, and so start to rot all over the brewery. Slowly, a relationship develops between Jo and Carral. Mushrooms appear on the bathroom wall. The apples mark the fall of this smelly Garden of Eden.

This story has the feel of a horror novel without ever quite going there. I kept expecting the mushrooms to start growing on Jo or something. I found it extremely creepy, especially how Carral descends into a sort of human rot. I wasn’t sure if some of the descriptions were actually happening, or hallucinations brought on by how gross the brewery was. It’s totally surreal, rather like Lovecraft brought into the modern age. Three stars.

I got this book from the Amazon Vine Program in return for an honest review. This did not effect my opinions. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Sight, by Jessie Greengrass. Hogarth, 2017

Told in three sections, the nameless narrator explores being a daughter taking care of her dying mother, a granddaughter with her psychoanalyst grandmother, and a mother. Tied to these meditations are the stories of Roentgen’s discovery of the X-ray, Sigmund and Anna Freud’s work in psychoanalysis, and the beginnings of modern surgery and the study of babies in the uterus. This is not a plot driven novel, nor is it strong on character- we learn little about the narrator. It’s a kind of meditation on seeing ourselves- body and mind and how we change depending on our roles.

It was a slow read for only 200 pages. It seems like a book I’m supposed to like, but actually don’t. I suspect it’s too intellectual for me. I found it interesting but I was not drawn into it. Three stars.

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine Program in return for an unbiased review. This did not alter my opinion.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

From the Corner of His Eye, by Dean Koontz. Bantam Books, 2000

When I think of Dean Koontz, I tend to think of his horror writing. This book, while having horrifying things happen in it, is more a combination of science fiction and philosophical tract. It’s plain good versus evil, where the bad is very, very bad and the good is very, very good. The villain, Junior Cain, is a psychopath with an exaggerated view of himself- he thinks he’s cultured, very smart, and a chick magnet. Also, he’s a serial killer and rapist.  The good people – all the other characters- are kind, giving, and selfless. We’ve got a girl who is raising the boy, Bart, who’s father died the day he was born. She, Agnes, is known as the Pie Lady because she bakes pies and delivers them to the less fortunate. Celestina is raising her dead sister’s girl, Angel- who is the child of the rapist/killer. Thomas Vanadium is a homicide detective who is stalking Cain, because the death of Cain’s wife seems suspicious. Vanadium also likes to do tricks with coins, making them appear and disappear.

At three years of age, Bart develops a cancer that requires him to have his eyes removed (this cancer really exists, and children *do* have to have their eyes removed to keep it from spreading). A few years later, though, his mother realizes that he can see. His explanation? That there are other dimensions, and a lot of them, he still has eyes. So he checks from one of those dimensions to see what path is clear. Also, he can stay dry by walking between raindrops. It all has to do with quantum physics. Cain is searching for Bart, because he happened to be listening to a sermon on tape while he was raping Celestina’s sister. For whatever reason, he’s decided that Bart is his child from the rape, and that if he kills Bart his miseries will end… yeah, I was confused. It’s a long book (730 pages), and I felt that in places it was just *too* long. It takes a very long time for all the characters to come together, and then, with just a nudge of a quantum physics trick, the story ends. I was left feeling rather let down. I can only give it four stars because of these problems.

Friday, November 23, 2018

God is in the Crowd: Twenty-first Century Judaism, by Tal Keinan. Spiegel & Grau, 2018

This is a hard book to categorize. The first part is autobiography; Keinan was raised in the US and went to school here, but then moved to Israel and joined the Air Force. He was the only non-Israeli fighter pilot there. After his time with the military, he became a financial man as well as chairing a nonprofit that lends to projects including ones by Israeli Palestinians. The next section explores what he feels is a crisis in Judaism. Many US and European Jews are marrying outside the faith, and not raising their children as religious Jews. If that continues, he sees the end of Judaism as it’s known- and been known- for centuries. Judaism survived the Diaspora, pogroms, and the Holocaust only to face extinction by marrying out. His proposed cure for this is program that would fund (via voluntary donations by members) long term camps for Jewish youth, wherein they would spend one year in America and one in Israel, learning the culture of whichever one they didn’t grow up in; it would also pay for the college education of the children. He also proposes that the president of Israel (largely a ceremonial position at this point) be given power over all Jewish religious affairs- a sort of Pope for Judaism- and that the president be elected by *all* Jews the world over, not just Israelis. Right now, Israel has religious issue being adjudicated by ultra-Orthodox Jews, while American Jewry is composed mainly of Reform and Conservative Jews. He feels that the wisdom of the crowd- having all branches of Judaism involved- will save, even though it may change it, Judaism. He doesn’t seem to take sides in a right/left battle; he’s fairly even handed. It is an interesting look into what’s happening to Judaism. Three and a half stars. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine Program in return for an unbiased review. This did not affect my opinions. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, edited by David Kipen. Modern Library, 2018

This book has an unusual layout: there is an entry for every day of the year, but the *year* the entry is from varies from 1542 through 2018. The entries are chosen from letters and diaries. Each one is a statement about life in Los Angeles at the time. Some are from Catholic brethren who are bringing religion to the west. Some are from politicians. Some are from famous writers drawn to LA to write scripts for Hollywood. The samples may be from Gold Rush days, the Golden Age of Hollywood, the Depression, or recent days.

I have seen quite a few complaints about the format, but I really liked it. I might be bored with a time in history or with a specific writer’s work, but given a piece only a few pages long, I will read it, and learn something. I also found it very interesting to see opinions not meant for public consumption, but for only the writer’s closest friends or relatives. What I thought would have made the book better was pictures. The last 150 years –the era from which the majority of entries are from- have been documented by photography, and that would have brought things to life more. Four stars for a quick, fun read. 

I received this book from Net Galley in return for an honest review. This did not change my opinions of the book. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The General’s Cook, by Ramin Ganeshram. Arcade Publishing, 2018

Hercules Harkless was a real person; he was the chef for George Washington for many years. As a slave, he had privileges that most slaves didn’t;: he received a decent wage; as long as his work was done he could leave the premises and go to the tavern or the theater; and he wore beautiful clothing. But he was still a slave. He was prohibited from learning to read and write. Even though he spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, which had a law that said any slave that resided in the state for six months was free, this freedom was kept from him by the simple method of rotating him between the Philadelphia house and Mount Vernon every few months. There always existed the threat of being sold or whipped. His daughters were kept at Mount Vernon, keeping him away from them for months at a time.

Harkless ran the kitchen for Washington, although he was under the authority of white servants. He apparently was trained in France, and learned their methods of cooking. He also kept a spotless kitchen, and knew such things as washing the cutting board between working with meat and vegetables (I have no idea if these bits are backed up by history or not).

The story takes place between 1793 and 1797; in 1797, on Washington’s birthday, after preparing things and telling the other slaves what to do, he vanished, never to be found. I like to think that he gained his freedom. The story hints that a free black man set up a tavern that sold exceptional food in New York might have been him. Along with Harkless’s own story line, there are subplots. One is of his oldest son Richmond, who worked under him in the kitchen but did not show an aptitude for the job. Another line is Nate, a young slave who *does* show a talent for cooking, and his relationship with Margaret, a teenaged indentured servant (a temporary slavehood for poor white people). Threaded all through the story is the tension that all slaves lived under, of not being in charge of their lives.

I enjoyed the story although at times it seemed to wander a bit. The author’s ability to describe things, whether sites in Philadelphia, Harkless’s fancy clothing, or- especially- the food he cooks is just exquisite. I was hungry the whole time I was reading because of the food descriptions! The writing in general, though, was a bit rough in places. A number of the supporting cast are not given enough depth. The most important thing, though, is the struggle between being a man who is free to go to the theater with white people and buy nice clothes, while at the same time always being under the whim of his owners, and this is painted vividly. Five stars. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. This did not alter my opinions. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker. Random House, 2019

In a small California college town, a student comes back from a party, falls into bed, and doesn’t get up in the morning. This doesn’t alarm her roommate much; they are college kids, after all, and the girl is a party girl. But when Mei, the roommate, comes back in the afternoon to find the girl still out of it, she worries. When she can’t wake the girl, Mei asks for help. In days, more students from the same dormitory fall into comas. Then, despite quarantine, more people start falling ill. Soon the whole town is quarantined, with all roads blocked.

The story follows multiple people: Mei and another student she teams up with; a young couple with a new baby; two little girls with a survivalist father who has gone into a coma; an older couple; and a doctor shut in the town, who only wants to get out and home to her daughter. The majority of the people fall to the illness. They show heightened brain activity, an unprecedented amount of REM. But the story is only partially about the victims; for the most part, it’s about the people who don’t. While on the face of it it’s a science fiction story, it’s really a psychological drama in a SF setting.

Not a great deal happens during the novel, other than the illness and quarantine, but the writing is wonderful. The characters are good. It draws you along. But.. it never really clicked for me. I don’t know what didn’t click for me or why, but I just found it a bit boring at times. Four stars

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review. 

This did not alter my opinions.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

I’m Afraid of Men, by Vivek Shraya. Penguin, 2018

This is Shraya’s statement of what her experiences of dealing with men have been like. As a trans woman, she has, as the song says, ‘looked at life from both sides now’. As a boy, she was encouraged to be more male. She did body building, lowered her voice, and mimicked the walk of masculine men. She gave up color in her wardrobe, sticking to dark neutrals. Later in life she gave up trying to be what she was not, and started expressing her femininity. Now, instead of being harassed for not being masculine enough, she gets harassed for not being feminine enough. The world- and men in particular- just cannot deal with people like her. The majority of men (and women) want women and men to be firmly at the poles of the male/female spectrum, and so find themselves uncomfortable- and sometimes violent- in the presence of a trans or gender fluid person. This is an essential book for the 21st century, as we learn to view the world as non-binary.

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House, by Norman Eisen. Crown Publishing, 2018

The Last Palace isn’t a palace in the meaning that a ruler lived there. It was originally a private residence, built by Otto Petschek (who made his fortune in coal) after World War 1. He never finished the building; he was picky to the point of obsession. Once, after it was supposedly finished, he had most of it torn down and restarted. He spared no expense, and brought luxury items from around the world. It’s an amazing place. During WW 2, the Petschek family had to flee. The house was then used by the Nazis- when author Eisen, an ambassador from the US to Czechoslovakia, came to live in the house, he was astonished to find little swastikas on the underside of the chairs and table. They were inventory marks and numbers. Thankfully for the palace, general Toussaint, who lived in the house during the war, was dedicated to preserving the house (and trying to save the country from Soviet occupation; that part failed). Shirley Temple Black was ambassador to the Czech Republic during the Velvet Revolution-the story of her time living in the palace is given in the book. The house was looted by both Nazis and Russian occupiers; fortunately, Petschek’s loyal butler guarded many treasures in the house. He stayed, regardless of who the occupier was, to protect the palace. When Eisen became ambassador, he –after much persuasion- brought his mother over to visit. She and her family had managed to escape the Nazis when they started putting Jews on railroad cars to the death camps.

It’ not just the story of the house, obviously. It’s the story of 20th century Czechoslovakian history. This was something I knew nothing about, and this book provided the information in short and easy to read form. The book is very well researched; the notes and bibliography occupy over a hundred pages. At times it got very dry and a little *too* detailed for me, but for the most part, it’s a pretty interesting story. The history of the palace is sort of the history of the Czech Republic in short form. Four stars.

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine Program in return for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion. 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs, by Bill Cunningham. Penguin Press, 2018

Born during the Depression to an Irish-American family with conservative values, Bill Cunningham’s penchant for fancy clothes and beautiful décor was discouraged- discouraged to the point of receiving a brutal beating when his mother caught four year old Bill wearing his sister’s organdy party dress. His interest- passion- couldn’t be kept down, however, and he devoted his entire life to fashion in one way or another. He worked in boutiques as a teen, became a sought-after hat designer in the 50s (who was put out of business by the fact that, come the 60s, no one was wearing hats anymore), crashed every high-profile party, became an on-the-scene fashion photographer- working for the New York Times at one point, and basically celebrated the beautiful. More than fashion, he was interested in style- the clothes and the hats and the jewels had to be worn with originality and elan.

The manuscript for ‘Fashion Climbing’ was found, neatly typewritten and put away, after his death. The memoir covers the years before he became a photographer. Even though he had his share of starving times he was always cheerful and greeted the world as a place of delight. He wasn’t all sweetness and light, though; parts of the last chapter ‘On Taste’ where he makes it clear that most women don’t have style, and that to carry of wearing high fashion one needs not just great posture and manners but ‘generations of good breeding’; after all, one ‘can’t slipcover a pig and expect it not to grunt’. Oddly, this opinion is in the same paragraph where he tells us that one of the day’s most elegant women was a prostitute not long before!

It’s a short book and a fast read, interesting to someone who loves fashion history. A number of black and white pictures (more would have been great!), of Cunningham and various fashionable women- these are not fashion show shots. Four stars.

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. This did not influence my opinions. 

The Witch of Willow Hall, by Hester Fox. Harlequin Books, 2018

Old school gothic novel here. In the early part of the 19th century, the Montrose family finds themselves driven out of Boston by scandal. Moving to the small town/rural area where Mr. Montrose has a business interest, they settle in at the estate of Willow Hall. It’s not long before they find themselves beset by strange happenings. Lydia, the plain middle daughter, sees and hears ghosts. Emeline, the youngest, is obsessed with mermaids in the pond on the property. Catherine, the beautiful eldest, is obsessed only with finding a husband, preferably rich. Add to this cast of characters two eligible bachelors, and we have a bit- but not too much, thankfully- of gothic romance.

Lydia is a good main character. Unlike all too many gothic heroines, she isn’t weak and fainty. She doesn’t hate the love interest at first, then realize she loves him (nor is it love at first sight). She’s sensible. Her main interest is taking care of Emeline. She has no idea that she has supernatural powers.

The plot is decent. There are actually two main plot lines: Lydia’s, which includes Emeline and one of the two eligible males; and Catherine’s quest for a husband. She is one of those Center of the Universe people, and it turns out she has reason to act that way during the story. It’s a fast read (one evening) and kind of fun. I would have enjoyed it more if the supernatural element had been more prominent, and less time spent on Catherine. More witch, less b****. Four stars. 

I received my copy of this book free from Net Galley in return for an honest review. This did not influence my opinions. 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Latecomers, by Helen Klein Ross. Little, Brown and Company, 2018

‘The Latecomers’ is a big family saga that encompasses both the rich Hollingworths and their poor servant Bridey – although *that* fact isn’t widely known. While the book starts with 9/11, the story itself starts much earlier, when Bridey and her fiancé board a ship in Ireland to start a new life in America. Sadly, the fiancé dies on board ship, leaving a broke and pregnant Bridey to find her own way. Bridey spends her life working for the family that adopts her son; in large part, she mothers him more than his rich adoptive mother does.

The story is rich in details through the years. The household adoption of electrical appliances. Halley’s Comet. How housework was done. Out of wedlock childbirth in 1908. Marriage customs. Prohibition. The Great Depression. The Hollingsworth family goes through many changes in the time between 1908 and 2018, but the link between Bridey and her son Vincent is the main thread.

I found the book really interesting to read; the author really did her homework on the eras and the areas that the book takes place in. The cast of characters was interesting; some of them I really liked, while others I wasn’t so fond of. I think the story might have benefitted if the main arc, of the secret of Bridey’s son, had been cut shorter. I had almost lost interest in that arc by the time it was revealed. It’s a grand story, though, so four stars. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. This did not in any way effect my review. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

A Conversation with a Cat, by Stephen Spotte. Open Books, 2018

One evening, when a former alley cat named Jinx’s human is laying on the sofa, fresh from the hospital for gall bladder surgery, Jinx starts talking to the human. Sure, the human is not only on prescription meds but has done some self medicating with pot and alcohol, but it’s a pretty intense experience. Jinx tells the human about his former life as a pampered pet of Cleopatra. The heart of the story is the history of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony.

Sadly, even though it’s a story narrated by a cat, there is not much cat in the tale. It’s a fairly dry relating of the facts of the struggle between Egypt and Rome. Jinx doesn’t have much to do, and doesn’t develop a personality. Jinx’s human is a captive audience. The author has his facts down pat, but doesn’t make them come to life. Only three stars, even though a cat is the main POV. 

I received this book from the Library Thing Early Reviewers program in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinion. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger. Grove Press, 2018

After sliding on snow and sailing off the road into Lake Superior, Virgil Wander finds many of his memories, some fine motor control, and a lot of words are missing. Wander lives in a small town, though, so there are lots of folks willing to help him, especially as he seems to have had a personality transplant along with his amnesia.

Greenstone, Minnesota is a town that’s hit the skids. The mining is long gone. The ships no longer put into their port. There is very little money coming in, and a lot of people have left for good. So Wander’s home and business, the Empress movie theater, where he shows old movies, is doing poorly to say the least. Enter Rune, a Norwegian senior citizen who makes kites in unlikely forms: a man, a dog, a cast iron stove… Rune (who is possibly Odin- or Santa) is there to try and find a son he never knew he had until a short time ago. Sadly, the son is long gone- presumed dead- but he himself left a son, now a teenager, who Rune hopes to get to know. Wander invites Rune to stay in a spare room- Wander can’t quite be left alone for a bit or he’s apt to leave the tea kettle on until the place burns down or something. Meanwhile, we meet the quirky population of Greenstone as Wander tries to orient himself in a place he doesn’t quite remember and Rune seeks his son through the memories of others. And then there are the animals: a tame raven, a pet raccoon who is reverting to feral- possibly because of rabies- and a huge sturgeon who lures a man to his death. Oh, and the frogs that rain down during one storm, but they aren’t really personalities so much as a plague. It’s part Lake Woebegon, part Red Green, and possibly a bit of Discworld.

There is not much in the way of plot. It’s about finding oneself, it’s about being kind to others, it’s a novel of place as well as character. The writing is beautiful, and makes you cheer for the characters. It’s not fast paced but it does keep you pulled in. It’s warm in feeling but certainly not a ‘cozy’ story. It’s full of symbols and myth. Four and a half stars. 

I received this book free in return for an honest review from the Amazon Vine program. This did not influence my opinion.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Beautiful Music, by Michael Zadoorian. Akashic Books, 2018

In 1969, Danny Yzemski spends most of his free time in the former coal storage bin in the basement, building model cars. He is already into music, as is his father, although their tastes run very differently. Danny likes rock, while his father likes “beautiful music”- modern songs covered by an orchestra. To better hear his Muzak, he buys a stereo unit for the basement den. Through the years, he teaches Danny to drive in his huge car, and they haunt the record stores together. Then his father suddenly dies, and life changes for him. His mother is alcoholic and mentally ill, and her sudden widowhood seems to precipitate a psychotic break. She drinks, smokes, and watches TV. That’s it. Everything else is Danny’s problem. He gets a job, drives without a license, learns about hard rock and deep cuts, and actually gets a friend.

It’s a coming of age tale, from ages 10 to 16, told in first person, sometimes in letters to his dead father. Music is what gets him through a really tough adolescence. It brings him out of his loner shell, and gives him something to sooth his emotions. It says things he thinks, but better. Surprisingly, there is no girlfriend; most coming of age books have a girl/boy who really, really understands the subject like no one else. Danny stands on his own, with some help from his friend. It’s very well written; it brought back a lot of memories of my teen years and the music from it and how it felt to have a song say exactly how you feel. Five stars, for making a Dickensian adolescence seem perfectly believable. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review. This in no way influenced my opinion

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Total Cat Mojo: The Ultimate Guide to Life With Your Cat, by Jackson Galaxy and Mikel Delgado, PhD. TarcherPerigee, 2017

I love Galaxy’s show “My Cat from Hell”, and have been really impressed with his results (although I do wonder if there are failures that just don’t make it to the screen) so I was delighted to find this book at the library. It covers all the things he stresses on TV like introducing a new cat to an existing cat household, making sure cats have safe places and high up places where they can scan the savannah- er, living room-, making sure a problem cat doesn’t actually have a health problem, etc. You could probably learn it all by watching the TV but it’s so much handier to have it at your fingertips anytime. It’s also kind of a fun read. We’ve used some of his ideas of Catification and the cats seem to enjoy it. Four stars as some of the information is repeated in different chapters.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Sisters of the Winter Wood, by Rena Rossner. Redhook Books, 2018

Another modern telling of old fairy tales and more; here’s Christina Rosseti’s Goblin Market, Leda and the Swan, Russian folklore, and I suspect more. The author gives us duel POVs: Liba, almost 18, tells her tale in prose, is dark haired and considers herself fat; and Laya, 15, so blond she’s almost white haired, very slim and beautiful, and writes her parts in poetry. When word comes that their father’s father is on his deathbed, their parents must leave at once, walking through the wintry landscape. Liba and Laya stay to tend to the animals. They live in the woods, where the people of the village do not dare go.

In Dubossary, the town they live near, their father was accepted right off by the Jews of the shtetl, but their mother never has been because she refuses to cover her hair –they claim they reject her because her kitchen is not kosher (it is) but they buy her baked goods; would they really do that if they thought her kitchen wasn’t kosher? Or perhaps I missed something and she was selling just to the goyim. Conversely, their parents don’t think a boy like Dovid, who is sweet, intelligent, and hardworking isn’t good enough for Liba because his father is the butcher! Ah, the barriers people build up between themselves.

Liba and Laya’s parents have secrets, but they don’t have time to explain everything before they go. The girls are on their own. They know how to take care of the animals and do the baking and cooking, but they are teenagers with no one to advise them on how to deal with things like the clan of newcomers to the market. These newcomers are good looking, and have luscious ripe fruits for sale- even though it’s winter. They have a hypnotic effect on Laya and other village girls. To add to their personal problems (like fear of turning into a bear), people in the village are being killed. Is it a bear? It’s been a long time since there’s been one around. Or is it the Jews? Are they using the blood of the victims to make Passover matzoh? Will there be a move to remove the Jews of the village-a pogrom similar to others in Russia? Who are the strange men looking for Liba and Laya’s father?

There is a lot of running about and searching for Laya, who tends to go missing. Things get off to kind of a slow start, but pick up by the middle. There is a lot of not knowing who to trust, and Liba has a problem with asking for help. There is a lot of Yiddish, Ukrainian, and Hebrew words used. Most of them are obvious as to what they mean; for others, there is a glossary in the back. I enjoyed their use; the book is told in the first persons, so it makes sense they would think/write using those words. It added depth to the novel for me. There is rather more romance in the novel than I expected, but in Liba’s case it doesn’t over power her story. Laya is a different matter.. but there are good reasons for that. I very much enjoyed the book and hated to put it down. It’s coming of age and romance and magic. I see it’s aimed at the adult market, but it did seem more like a Young Adult story. Five stars.

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. This did not influence my review. 

Saturday, October 13, 2018

House of Gold, by Natasha Solomons. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018

The House of Gold is the Goldbaum dynasty, who own and run an international banking company. Probably the richest family is the world at the time of the novel (pre- and through WW 1), they keep it in the family by marrying cousins. Thus Greta Goldbaum of the Viennese branch of the family is arranged to marry Albert Goldbaum of the London branch. Never mind that they have never met and have nothing in common but their name. Goldbaum men are bankers; Goldbaum women marry Goldbaum men and have Goldbaum babies. Greta is not a quiet, do as she’s told girl and she balks at the thought of marrying someone she doesn’t know, that, furthermore, sounds boring as can be- an entomologist as a passionate hobby!. And, she’ll miss her brother, with whom she’s spent many a night outdoors, gazing up at the sky.

The marriage takes place as planned, of course. Albert turns out to be not a monster, but no more eager for the marriage than Greta is. Albert’s mother, though, takes to Greta. She is an avid gardener, and has huge greenhouses as well as outdoor plantings. She gives an undeveloped portion of the estate to Greta for her own garden, and Greta, despite never having shown an interest in learning before, reads gardening book after gardening book, taking it all very seriously but also joyously. She has found her forte. And it leads to a bit of a link to Albert- with any garden come insects. But this isn’t just a frivolity for Greta. When she finds herself with a home for unwed mothers on her hands, she starts teaching them vegetable and fruit gardening, so that they shall have a way of earning money once they are back on their own. I really enjoyed this aspect of the book, showing Greta’s growth.

When World War 1 breaks out, life changes. The younger Goldbaum men uniform up and go to war. The women roll bandages. The manor house is turned into a hospital. The Goldbaum men, formerly insulated from most of the bad things in the world, suddenly find themselves in horrendous circumstances, and not all survive.

I found Greta frustrating at first, but as her character grew and matured, I enjoyed her a great deal. The relationship of Greta and Albert was also a joy to read. The descriptions of the house and gardens were beautiful and detailed, which makes the harsh conditions and events of the war harder to read. And, of course, all the thread of anti-Semitism runs through it all. There are a lot of different threads woven into this tale, and several POVs, including an orphan who is not related to the family but was dependent on it for a while. Not all the threads get tied off at the end of the novel, which seemed abrupt and forced. Hopefully this means there will be a sequel. Four and a half stars.

 I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. This did not influence my review.