Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Great Halifax Explosion by John U. Bacon

One of my side interests is reading about disasters.  It's always fascinated me that such horrible destruction happened in fairly modern history, yet remains largely unknown in today's world. Oftentimes people are completely oblivious about something that was in all the newspapers and largely known by everyone at the time, and seemed utterly unforgettable. 

The Sultana, a river boat carrying Civil War soldiers back home after the war, exploded on the Mississippi River with 1,800 killed.  The Eastland, a passenger ship that capsized next to a dock in the Chicago River in 1915, killing 848 people.  The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 in Boston, where 21 people were killed by yes--a flood of maple syrup racing down the streets.  There are so many, sadly, and I think the only one I have yet to read about is the Lusitania.  

I had heard about the Halifax explosion, but this was the first book I read about it, and it was fascinating.  It reminded me of Erik Larson's book Isaac's Storm about the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, which wiped out the whole city, with thousands dead and nothing left standing.  John Bacon uses the same storytelling style of Erik Larson to create a history book that brings Halifax alive, and sets the stage for the explosion on December 6, 1917.  World War I was raging, and Halifax was an important harbor where ships loaded with supplies for soldiers came and went.  It was a hopping town, with a large population and many new industries.  The Mont-Blanc, a freighter pressed into service, had arrived from New York loaded with six million pounds of explosives, destined for Europe.  It was a risky undertaking, but the supplies were needed so badly by the forces fighting in Europe, it was deemed worth the risk.  The captain and crew were very aware they were sitting on a potential bomb, and any sudden movement would cause the ship to blow; not to mention the potential for u-boats to torpedo the ship once it was out to sea.  

On the morning of December 6, 1917, the Mont-Blanc was waiting to leave Halifax.  Another ship, The Imo, was also waiting impatiently to leave Halifax harbor.  Through miscommunication, grandstanding, and important people not knowing just what the Mont-Blanc carried, the inevitable happened: the two ships collided.  The Mont-Blanc crew, realizing the ship was going to blow, got off and rowed away, neglecting to warn the people of Halifax what was probably going to happen.  The Mont-Blanc drifted into a dock, where it burned, and drew curious citizens to see the flames and smoke. Yes, I know. I was horrified.  School kids, dock workers, Moms and Dads all drifted down to the dock to see what was going on.  People could see the burning ship for miles around, on the hills leading down to the harbor.  

And then, in an instant, the ship exploded, sending a mushroom cloud upwards, and obliterating the Mont-Blanc, the dock, and hundreds of people. They were vaporized. This was the largest man-made explosion until World War 2. The shockwave blew out windows for miles around, flattened buildings and homes, and created a tsunami in the harbor.  An estimated 2,000 people were killed, 9,000 injured, and 25,000 left homeless. Fires, flood, and a blizzard the next day (which dropped 16 inches of snow on Halifax) created even more barriers for help to arrive, and provide shelter for the injured and homeless.  

But what is most interesting about this book is the resilience of the people, and how so many came together so quickly to provide medical assistance, shelter, food, clothing, and anything else that was needed.  People didn't mess around.  They took action, freely gave money and supplies without thought of compensation, and opened their homes to so many who had lost everything.  It was amazing to read.  The word "hero" is so overused today that for me it's lost a lot of meaning and impact.  These everyday folks all were heroes, and expected nothing in return.  There was no social media; reporters came to town, and got out the stories; telephones were cut off or barely worked; yet the story got out, and the response was to send help, not profit off of it.  

Anyone who is a fan of World War I history, or just plain history would love this book.  There are some photos in the book, and I'm sure there are even more online.  If you visit Halifax, there is the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, along with the mass grave at Fairview Lawn Cemetery, where unidentified victims were buried. 

Rating:  5/6 for a thorough look at the causes of the Great Halifax Explosion; the resilience and hard work of the citizens who worked tirelessly to recover, and the survivors who remained forever affected by that horrible December day.  

Available in hardcover, and ebook. 

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin

This novel took me a long time to read.  I was a bit disappointed in it, and reading reviews online has me in the minority.  

Of course I knew who Mary Pickford was going into this novel, and I was excited to read about early Hollywood.  It had to have been such an exciting place--when Los Angeles was still a small outpost, and silent films were all the rage. Bungalows, tiled fountains, and orange groves, along with the warm weather, made it a paradise and a place to start new.  Frances Marion, whom I knew nothing about, was just an amazing woman. This is the type of historical novel that will have you pausing to do internet research, look at photos, and read up.  Did you know Frances Marion was the first woman screenwriter to win an Oscar?  And that she won two in the 1930's?  With movie star good looks, she could have easily become famous onscreen; but her talents and heart were all about creating stories.  She successfully wrote for silent films, and easily transitioned over to "talkies" without any trouble.  She was a powerhouse in early Hollywood.  

But I'm getting too far ahead of myself. This novel is about the real life friendship and working relationship between Mary Pickford, darling of silent films and a genuine movie star of the early 1900's, and Frances Marion, a "scenarist" (a screenwriter before there was the term for screenwriter) who arrived in Los Angeles in 1914, 25 years old and going through her second divorce. They met, and quickly became friends, in a world where men called all the shots, and treated women like infants.  Mary's onscreen persona as the little girl with blond curls kept her trapped in the same role. Frances wrote roles for Mary that would help her capture a sense of childhood, since Mary had been working in movies since the age of five to support her family.  While the movies made Mary an international star and put money in the bank, they also kept her from growing into more mature roles.  She was an adult always playing a young girl.  

I know--it sounds like a really good novel.  For the most part, I enjoyed it, but I felt that it dragged a lot.  World War I is a big part of it, and the machinations of men with money and power.  Everything Frances got, she fought for.  She was a tough cookie who didn't take much from anyone.  Mary was not as tough, and she had to fight her own insecurities to make strides towards independence in her career.  Her relationship with Douglas Fairbanks Sr is a big part of the novel as well; they were the first Hollywood power couple--all the way back in 1920.  Charlie Chaplin also moves in and out of the story, as a friend of Frances, Mary, and Douglas.  

The novel moves between Frances and Mary, and the years 1914 to 1969.  It is a tale of women making strides in Hollywood, but also all the garbage they had to put up with--which sounds remarkably like a lot of what is happening today.  Then, as now, women had to decide between having a career and a family, fight for better pay, put up with sexual harassment, and cope with the pressure of society's expectations to be respectable women.  

I did enjoy reading about Frances and Mary. I really liked the inside look at the beginnings of Hollywood and movie making, and how amazing it all was at the time.  But I did feel the book was too long, and there were parts where I lost interest because it felt plodding. And Mary, geez. A perfect example of a person who is consumed by fame, and left with nothing. 

Available in hardcover, audio and ebook. 

Rating:  3/6 for a novel that sets the scene of early Hollywood and film making very well, and delves into the complexities of friendship between women.  I loved reading about Frances Marion and Mary Pickford, two powerhouses in Hollywood who helped create the film industry.  A refreshing historical novel set in Los Angeles as World War I begins and the world is on the brink of change. I felt the novel was too long, but enjoyed it because of Frances Marion.  She was fascinating.  

Sunday, February 11, 2018

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

This novel has been on my can't wait to read list for months.  I happily tucked into reading as soon as I bought the book, and now, after finishing it, I am not sure if I loved it, or if I just liked it a lot.  

Anticipating a read can exciting, but I think sometimes it can be dangerous--expectations may not be met.  And that is no fault of the author, but rather my fault.  In any case, I did enjoy this book very much, even going in with  high expectations, and not knowing a whole lot about it other than a basic plot outline. 

Tom Hazard is a man over 400 years old.  He looks like a forty year old man, but he carries a very large secret.  He's not immortal, but a man who ages incredibly slowly.  He will, eventually, grow old, lose some of his immunity to illnesses that kill normal people, and die, but not for centuries.  Time is what Tom has, and time is what is also driving him slowly mad. 

For centuries, Tom wandered the world on his own, after a tragic childhood where his mother was punished for Tom's seemingly eternal youth.  Growing normally until thirteen, he slowed way down, looking fourteen, but actually being eighteen.  People began to notice, and gossip turned to suspicion, which created a horrible accusation of witchcraft.  Fleeing his home, Tom ends up in London, where he meets the absolute love of his very long life, Rose. But as Tom finds out, loving someone with a normal life span, and dealing with the obvious issues of very slowly aging and staying in one place, have a price to pay. It is easier, Tom believes, to never love anyone. His grief over Rose is never ending. 

The novel follows Tom as he lands in London in present day, taking a job as a history teacher.  He is part of the Albatross Society, run by Hendrich, a man who is even older than Tom.  He keeps people like Tom safe, by requiring they change lives every eight years, and gives them money and new identities.  He's convinced Tom that his survival is dependent on the society to keep him safe from those who would study Tom and hurt him. The number one rule Tom must live by is to never fall in love with a human being. 

Tom walks the streets of London, remembering his time with Rose, his experience working with Shakespeare, his happiness.  Memories that give him horrible headaches, as they can be too much for Tom to bear.  The only thing keeping him going is the hope that one day he may find his daughter, Marion.  She too has the gift of long life, and the last time Tom saw her, she was a young child in 17th century England.  Hendrich has promised Tom he is searching for Marion, but decades have gone by, with no luck locating Marion.  

I found Tom's memories of his past, and his back story fascinating.  Matt Haig did a wonderful job sending me back into Tom's experiences through the centuries.  I did understand Tom's melancholy, but it got a little frustrating sometimes.  He was a man trapped by his fear.  Fear of love, fear of Hendrich's power; fear of never finding his daughter.  Fear of time.  How do we think of time?  Tom can only think of time in a negative way; it's not until the very end that he finds it in himself to be free.  And that is the biggest message of Tom's tale.  

We're all given a limited amount of time to live, love, and experience life. We're so busy being busy, we pay no attention to the here and now; the moments of happiness and those moments where everything slows down, and we feel like they last forever.  Those are the best moments, and recognizing them, and living in them, is what stops time.  

I did like this book very much.  Tom was a bit of a drag, and I wanted to shake him sometimes, hoping he would stop being so damn afraid. I loved the stories of Tom's life before, and the people and places that made him who he was in modern day London. I feel that there should be another follow up novel, with Marion's story.  I hope there is; I want to know more about her!

Rating:  4/6 for an entertaining novel full of fantastic history; a novel about the power of love, grief, living life without fear, and enjoying every precious moment of time. 

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Sourdough is a strange little novel that could be looked at from a few different angles.  One angle is just an enjoyable, slightly odd tale about Lois, who moves to San Francisco to write code for a robotics company, and discovers a love of baking bread.  

Or, it could be about a young woman, Lois, who moves to San Francisco to write code for a robotics company, and discovers that life without creativity is pretty dull; creativity is what fuels our souls. Sourdough is her creative muse. 

Or, it could be a funky mix of magical realism with a twist of technology that can make your head spin, all the while wishing you had a freshly baked loaf of sourdough bread on hand, and wondering if gee, maybe you should try making bread this weekend?

Honestly, it was all three angles for me.  This sourdough starter, the stuff that changes Lois' life, is magical.  Gifted to her by a man who operates a small take-out restaurant specializing in  spicy soup and sourdough bread spicy sandwiches, it is the thing that saves Lois from a dull life working day and night for a tech company.  The pay is great, but it can cost you your soul.  Lois can't even eat regular food; she, along with her coworkers, instead drink liquid nutritious sludgie packets of food that keep them going without causing stomach problems.  Honestly, any job that requires you become so less human that you don't even chew food (or enjoy it), is not the job for anyone. 

Lois begins baking bread in her apartment, and soon the sourdough produces changes in her life that wake her up to possibilities outside of coding as a career.  Meanwhile, the sourdough sings to music, bubbles, shoots off colored sparks in the dark, and seems to have a personality all its own.  I told you this was an odd story!

I won't tell you anymore about Lois' journey with her sourdough starter.  You'll have to take the plunge and read this novel to find out more.  I actually think it would make a pretty interesting book club discussion.  Big themes about greed, appreciating nature, the machinations of the food industry, and the slow and steady cost of progress.  Appreciating the simple things in life, and finding the complexity in those simple things.  Yes, even sourdough bread can be complex.  

Go ahead.  Check this one out.  I certainly enjoyed it, and it wasn't anything that I expected. Sometimes those are the best book surprises.  

Rating:  4/6 for a truly odd-ball novel about sourdough bread and a few other things. I may very well order sourdough bread instead of wheat the next chance I get.   

Available in hardcover, audio, and ebook. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

February Reads: So Much Good Stuff, It's Hard to Choose

February always trips me up.  I think I've got plenty of time, and before I know it, March is knocking at the door.  Who'd think a few missing days at the end of the month would create such havoc in my reading world?

I started 2018 off with a roar, spending plenty of weekends and nights unapologetically reading.  It was wonderful.  I'm going to try to do the same in February, but life has a way of taking my plans and turning them upside down.  

February may be a short month, but that doesn't stop me from trying to read as many books as I can before the end of the month. I'm currently reading two books that I won't list here, but they'll probably show up as reviews in the next week.  Here's what I've got planned to read in February:

I've read about the Halifax explosion before, but this new book looks to be fascinating!

A historical novel about Mary Pickford and her friendship with Francis Marion in early Hollywood.  

Ahhhh!!  This book!  I can't wait to read it!!  

A publisher review book from the author of My Name is Mary Sutter.  Cannot wait to dive in!

I had such a hard time deciding which books to show on this post.  I've got another 5 or 6 demanding to be read this month.  Clearly impossible (unless I take a nice, two week vacation) but nevertheless, they egg me on to at least try.  We'll see.  

On the book group front, I finally got together with a group I affectionately call the book nerds.  There are six of us, and we meet every month and talk about what we're reading.  We've been meeting for probably 6 years, and recently took a hiatus and finally regrouped last night.  We always have such a good time.  I had to write down a few more titles that appealed to me, and even took a book home.  We've made plans to meet again in early March, and we'll have even more books to talk about.  What I love about our group is that there's no pressure on what to read, but rather an exchange of books that we've each read over the previous month, and what we did or did not like about them.  Usually the rest of us end up reading the same books, and it's fun to discuss what we each thought of the books.  Such a great way to hear about a lot of books from friends who have different tastes.  

We have a member who loves to read mysteries and young adult, another who is the most well read person I know--she reads fiction that usually involves other countries, current issues, and important moments in 20th century history.  Another reads multi-cultural books that she also shares with her high school English students; another just buys ebooks on his Nook that are daily specials and reads them. He enjoys family dramas. Our final member reads a lot of young adult novels (and listens to them on audio with her son), mysteries, and non-fiction centered around the Catholic faith.  All of us are open to reading different genres, authors, and ideas.  And we all know I read just a bunch of stuff; whatever appeals to me.  

Happy February everyone, and let me know what you're reading.  I always love to hear from you!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Still Me by Jojo Moyes

Well, since After You had me bawling at the end, I had to wait months before I found out just what adventures awaited Louisa Clark in New York City.  Yes, this is the third book with Louisa Clark, who became a very well known character when Me Before You became that novel you had to read, even knowing it would completely wreck you. Well, the follow up, After You, wrecked me, too.  I felt hopeful reading Louisa's adventures in New York City, and expected they would end happily. 

I'm not going to tell you if that is what happens, because that would just spoil the whole book for you.  What I will tell you is that Louisa is still on her journey to discovering just who she is, and just what makes her happy.  She's decided to accept a job, working as the assistant to a very rich woman-Agnes Gopnik- leaving Ambulance Sam, who helped her grieving heart heal.  A very new relationship, it will need to stand the test of long distance.  Anyone who's had a long distance relationship knows just how damn hard, if not impossible, they can be.  As Louisa is thrown into her job and a world of wealthy New Yorkers, she struggles to adjust to a new life and still hang onto Sam, who is a bit bewildered without Louisa.  And then there's Josh, an American who looks heart-stoppingly like Will.  And he's got an obvious interest in Louisa.  

Still Me is a fitting conclusion to Louisa's journey of heartache, love, and just plain growing up.  There's no age where we're suddenly grown up.  For Louisa, well, it appears that she still has a lot of decisions to make, and some of them will break her heart. Again. 

Jojo Moyes portrays New York City is all its vibrant, messy, busy energy. The tension in the Gopnik apartment was palpable, and while that was a large part of the plot, I preferred the last half of the novel, where Louisa's life is really shaken, and she gets to know the elderly neighbor, Mrs. De Witt, much better.  Their relationship was a gem, and one of the best parts of the novel.  

So while I won't give much of the plot away, I will say this:  Louisa comes full circle, and it's been a journey.  At times you want to shake her; other times, you  get just what she's thinking.  Will she get her happy ending?  Where will she end up? Read Still Me and find out.  At a time where women are standing up, pushing themselves forward, and demanding to live life on their terms, this novel seems very timely.  Louisa is learning to do just that, even if it means she may have to say goodbye to her chance at everlasting love. 

Ah, I always love reading Jojo Moyes' novels.  Overall, I was happy to have a conclusion to Louisa Clark's journey.  If you've read Me Before You, and After You, well, geez, of course you have to read Still Me! Please, read the other two first. It will give you a full understanding of Louisa, and how far she's come. 

A big thank you to Pamela Dorman Books/Viking for a review copy.  I don't think I could have waited any longer for this!  

Available January 30th in the U.S. in hardcover, large print paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Rating:  4/6 for a satisfying conclusion to Louisa Clark and her journey of grief, love, and starting over.  And dang it, this one made me cry, too.  

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Hug Chickenpenny: the Panegyric of an Anomalous Child by S. Craig Zahler

Well, this novel made me ugly cry.  I'm not going to lie.  Sob, actually.  I was asked to review this novel, which was recently snagged by the Jim Henson Company to create what I imagine will be a visually incredible, moving film.  It was not at all something I would have picked up and read otherwise, but oh, I am so glad I did; Hug Chickenpenny is a character I won't soon forget. 

First of all, "panegyric" means a public text in praise of someone.  You could say an ode, a tribute, or a story. "Anomalous" is defined as something that is out of the ordinary, not normal; something unexpected.  Hug Chickenpenny is one unusual little boy.  His mother dies at birth--which happens in a strange, abandoned house late one night. Hug is sent to an orphanage, and is physically odd, and frightening to the other children.  Two different eyes-one red, one brown, that do not blink together; slits for a nose, a flipper for one arm, and a badly bent leg.  A head that is large and bumpy, with white hair.  He shrieks so loudly that it pierces the ears.  No one cares for him except for Georgie, a caring man at the orphanage. Along comes a doctor, who adopts him and adds him to his collection of odd, anomalous creatures.  Poor Hug.  He's only seven, and even though he's treated badly by most everyone who meets him, he radiates kindness and innocence.  He always tries to be helpful and see the good in everyone.  He doesn't understand that he is different.  He dreams of building a rocket ship and flying out to space, to return to a home he only knows from his dreams.  

Hug's luck shifts eventually, and he finds a home and family that love him and don't see his physical differences, but accept him as he is, and he blossoms.  Until tragedy happens, and Hug is once again spun out into a cruel world.  Yet he still retains his big heart, and his belief that everyone can be good even if all they've shown him is cruelty.  I seriously did sob at the end of this novel.  I can say this is one memorable story that will stick with me for a very long time.  Read Hug's story, and I bet your heart will grow just a bit bigger. 

Here's some information about S. Craig Zahler, the author of this wonderful tale:

About the Author:
S. Craig Zahler is an award-winning screenwriter, director, novelist, cinematographer, and musician. He wrote, directed, and co-composed the score for the breakout 2015 film Bone Tomahawk, starring Kurt Russell, which was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards. Zahler most recently wrote and directed Brawl in Cell Block 99, starring Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, and Don Johnson, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and went on to critical acclaim from screenings at Toronto, Fantastic Fest, and many more festivals before being released in October 2017; and Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn star in Zahler’s gritty cop thriller Dragged Across Concrete, currently in post-production. 

Zahler is also the author of several novels, including A Congregation of Jackals, nominated for both the Peacemaker and the Spur Awards; Mean Business on North Ganson Street; and Wraiths of the Broken Land, which 20th Century Fox recently announced will be a major motion picture with Ridley Scott directing. In addition to writing and directing, Zahler has founded and played in several bands, including Binary Reptile, a synthesizer project that provided the music for the audio drama movie, The Narrow Caves. He lives in New York City.

And some reviews from the press:

Advance Praise:
"S. Craig Zahler is certain to become one of the great imaginers of our time."
―Clive Barker

“Complex, well-drawn characterizations, compelling imagery and a well-ordered story arc complete a trifecta of literary accomplishment here that is achieved by few elsewhere. Five-plus stars to Hug Chickenpenny.”
Publishers Daily Reviews

"An exceptional, original, and inherently fascinating read from beginning to end."
Midwest Book Review

“At its heart, this is a book about looking beyond the exterior and being patient with those who fail to do so, and the way in which the author lays that path before his audience is captivating and unforgettable.”
U.S. Review of Books

"Hug Chickenpenny is much more than literature. It's an experience."

"I was intrigued (and still am) by the cover art on this new book. Detailed and beautiful, the
cover is a good segue into what to expect from the story. (In case you’re wondering, the little boy looking off into the distance is Mr. Hug Chickenpenny. What is he looking at, I wonder?) Learn about Hug’s life by venturing into this aptly written wonder of fiction. You won’t regret it. "
―Michael Rodriguez, Harvard Book Store Staff Pick

Like Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and David Lynch’s Elephant Man, the appeal of Zahler’s hero is his extreme duality: a monstrous form encapsulating a sweet, innocent soul…a daring, evocative work that defies categorization.”
Dallas Observer

Hug Chickenpenny is reminiscent of A Series of Unfortunate Events, not in plot, but in tone. It takes place in its own time, and blends archaic terms with modern conveniences. It’s definitely not steampunk, but I imagined that it took place in the 1970s with Dickensian flavors scattered about — best of all it’s written well. Hug Chickenpenny is different from anything I’ve read — it’s certainly different from Zahler’s other work — and as someone who sees a lot of the same tropes consistently, Hug Chickenpenny is refreshing.”
Diabolique Magazine

Well.  All I can say is grab a copy of this book, and read it.  You will love it.  Certainly appropriate for teens and tweens.  

Rating:  6/6!  Yes, a 6/6 for a novel about kindness always winning out over ugliness, hope, love, and looking beyond the physical.  Being different is what makes us all special.  

Available in paperback.

A big thank you to Wunderkind PR for providing a review copy of this novel.  It has a permanent place on my bookshelf.