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.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, by Alison Weir. Ballantine Books, 2018

Jane Seymour is a Tudor queen about which less has been written; she was a quiet girl, who spent her early years wanting to become a nun. Her home life was rather horrific: her brother’s wife became her father’s mistress. Ultimately she is sent to court to be Lady in Waiting to Henry’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon. She loves Catherine, and dislikes Henry’s adulteries. When he banishes Catherine and declares their marriage null, she is reassigned to Anne Boleyn, whom she despises. When Anne in turn falls from favor, she is flattered but alarmed when the king’s attentions turn to her.

Jane was supposed to be Henry’s favorite queen; she gave him a living son and died before he could get bored with her. He is buried next to her. She was involved with Henry for only 3 years- which was longer, actually, than I’d thought. She left behind no letters and was not involved in politics or religious arguing, so her character can only be surmised from what little others wrote about her. Weir has given us a pious, private girl who was pushed into the king’s path by her family. Sadly, this girl failed to take fire as a character. She comes across as one of those people you don’t pay much attention to in real life.

The first part of the book is very, very heavily entwined with the stories of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, because Jane lived through that and knew them, and she was not a history maker until after they were dead. There is a lot of physical details in the book, which bring the time alive, but not, unfortunately, Jane. Three stars.

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

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The King’s Witch, by Tracy Borman. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018

In 1603, Queen Elizabeth the First died, with Frances Gorges by her side, easing her death with her herbal knowledge. Frances was then allowed to ‘escape’ from court for a year, spending her time at the family estate, tending the garden and making up remedies. Then her highly placed uncle forces her to return to court, to be the Lady of the Bedchamber to Princess Elizabeth, daughter of the new King James. This is a tense position to be in; James is a witch hunter and the women with the arts of healing and herbs are pretty much considered to all be witches. James is also very anti-Catholic, and pretty much only listens to his young, male favorites. Frances has no desire to play the court games of currying favor; she takes her job of being companion and maid to the princess seriously and the only courtier she trusts is Thomas Wintour, who may not be what she thinks he is... .it’s a time of unrest in general and her own position and life are put in danger when she heals Queen Anne of a fever, bringing her to the attention of Robert Cecil, the Lord of the Privy Seal. She accidentally becomes involved with the Gunpowder Plot, a plot to unseat James that most of us Yanks only know about as a yearly event in the UK to blow off fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day.

The book is well written; I felt a great deal of sympathy for Frances. The court was a dangerous place, and the author skillfully creates the claustrophobic air that would have existed. I loved the attention to detail. This book is the first of a projected trilogy, so there is no conclusion to Frances’s story, but a chapter in her life is definitely over. I have no idea what happened to the real Frances, so an air of suspense still exists. Four stars. 

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

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Harry’s Trees, by Jon Cohen. Mira, 2018

Harry has always loved trees and found them a comforting presence, so he went to work with the Forest Service. Then he found himself stuck behind a desk for years, putting information into a computer and never seeing the outdoors. When his beloved wife dies in a horrible accident, it upends his entire world. He leaves his home and job, and finds himself in the Endless Mountains in Pennsylvania. This is where he runs into Amanda and Oriana.

Amanda is a young widow, a nurse scrambling to make ends meet and deal with her daughter’s grief and insistence that her father will return from the dead. In the Endless Mountains forest, her father had built her an amazing tree house, weather tight and good sized, the kind of tree house that we all dreamed about as kids. Amanda decides to allow Harry to stay in the tree house for a while, as he sorts himself out, and helps Oriana sort herself out. They end up on an amazing adventure with a mysterious fairy tale book, an invincible librarian, sacks of gold, and multiple enemies to defeat.

It’s a brilliant story, a fairy tale on a modern scale, where the trees are as important as the people, where a little girl with a red coat is the bravest, and where the Wolf talks to the dog. The writing made me feel like the world was illuminated with golden light despite the people who were greedy. I was so sad when the book ended; not because it ends sadly but because I had to walk away from that world. Five stars. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

I got this book free from the Amazon Vine Program in return for an unbiased review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Never Anyone But You, by Rupert Thomson. Other Press, 2018

In the years right before World War One, two teenaged girls meet. Suzanne Malherbe and Lucie Schwob fall in love, which of course they must hide. Then in an odd twist of fate, one’s mother marries the other’s father, making them step-sisters. Now they are free to live together, to put their arms around each other. If this was in a work of fiction I would think it was too much; but this is not fiction, these were real people. After they leave school, they move to Paris where, as part of the Surrealist movement, they fit in, one an artist the other a writer, both adopting male names (Marcel Moore and the gender-fluid Claude Cahun). Their best known works are photographs they collaborated on.

As anti-Semitism penetrates Paris, they move to the Channel Island of Jersey. Now middle aged, no one pays them much attention. When the Nazis occupy the island, they set about their greatest Surrealistic project: subverting the Nazis. As “old women” (barely in their 50s!) they were pretty invisible to the soldiers. They would type up subversive leaflets and sneak them into pockets and cigarette packs. This went on for quite a while before the Nazis figured out it was them. They spent a good amount of time imprisoned by the Nazis, held in solitary, refusing to cooperate. Amazingly, they both survived the war. The Nazis never did believe that the two women were working alone; they felt there *had* to be a network of Resistance fighters behind them!

Thomson tells the story from Marcel’s point of view; she outlived Claude and was the more well-grounded of the pair- Claude seems to have inherited some of her mother’s mental illnesses. The prose is clear and simple, but I felt that Marcel was a somewhat distant narrator. The part of the women’s lives where they are living in Paris, mingling with all the famous people, seemed almost brushed over, as if it were an unimportant interlude, a list of famous names. Things only come to life once they begin their undercover work. Marcel’s focus was always on her beloved Claude, and so other people, no matter how famous, get short shrift. Four stars. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

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

Neither of these things influenced my review.