Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Forbidden Garden by Ellen Herrick

I was looking over my post from 2015 on Ellen Herrick's first novel The Sparrow Sisters,  and saw that I ended my review with a wish that Sorrel's story was told in a future book.

My wish was granted.  I'll start out by saying you should read The Sparrow Sisters first before you read The Forbidden Garden.  Having Sorrel's background, and understanding where she comes from and the talents of the Sparrow sisters will give this novel more clarity.  Granted, you could read this without reading the first novel, but then I imagine you'd spend a lot of time wondering about Nettie and Patience, and just what the heck happened in The Sparrow Sisters. Save yourself some frustration!

So.  Sorrel Sparrow is asked to travel to England by Sir Graham Kirkwood to re-create a Shakespeare garden on his family's estate, Kirkwood Hall.  This garden has been lying dormant for hundreds of years, thanks to a curse placed on it by Graham's ancestor (and complete nasty creep!) Thomas Kirkwood. Sure enough, anyone who attempted to bring the garden back to life mysteriously became ill and died.  Sir Graham's wife had been determined to succeed, and became very ill.  Sir Graham has decided once and for all to break the curse, and Sorrel, known for her mysterious gifted ways with plants and gardens, was recommended to him.  

Sorrel is unaware of the curse when she arrives, but is soon given the story of the garden, as she is quickly drawn into the Kirkwood family.  They really are a wonderful group of people; warm, friendly, down to earth, and people who love and protect their legacy.  One part of their legacy are the legendary family tapestries, kept locked up in a room where they are left in quiet.  Why?  Because these tapestries tell a disturbing story of a chase, but the seventh tapestry is missing, and without that tapestry, the story remains inconclusive.  The tapestries are so disturbing that no one is allowed to view them.  But, as you find out, they are a big part of the reason why the Shakespeare garden is cursed.  

Will Sorrel's magic way with nature overcome the dark history of the garden?  Can she break the curse?  I have to say I was sucked into this story pretty quickly.  The Kirkwood family is so well drawn out that I was ready to sit down in their cozy kitchen and visit with them.  Sorrel's magical ability--which she doesn't see as magic at all, just the way she is--causes people to both admire, be astonished, and be doubtful of it all.  What is magic, and what is Godly?  Can something be both?  Sorrel's budding romance with Andrew, who is going through his own crisis of faith, leads you into some interesting thoughts on faith, having a calling, and how those can be based in reality.  

Gardens, luscious flowers, delicious foods, a cast of characters that are pretty fantastic, and an interesting family history--complete with a villain. It's a combo that I couldn't resist!

Rating:  4/6 for a lovely sequel to The Sparrow Sisters.  I hope there is more to come, as I love the world Ellen Herrick has built and want more!  For fans of Alice Hoffman, Sarah Addison Allen, M.J. Rose,  and Brunonia Barry.  

Available in paperback, e-book, audio, and hardcover. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

DNF's, Summer Reading Update, and a Couple Quick Fly-By Reviews

Oh July. The gateway to August, back to school, and that short skip into the holidays.  Yes. I said it.  👻💀

Another summer galloping by and my book stacks remain teetering with no inroads made.  Yes, I've been reading.  Library books and ARCs and not actually anything I own!  Funny how that happens.  

I thought I'd combine a whole bunch of book business into one post.  It's helping me clear my head and create some space for new reads. One glaring omission in my reading pattern lately: science fiction/fantasy.  I'm missing it terribly, so I hope to dip into a few titles in a few weeks to relax and reconnect to a genre I really do enjoy.

Onto business!  First, a couple of DNF's:

A novel about a young woman who sees the deceased, and an unsolved murder that puts her in danger?  Sign me up!  But I checked it out of the library, started reading it, and lost interest.  Subject matter is just a bit too dark for me right now.  Maybe I'll return to it again in the future. My duh moment was realizing the front cover shows a young woman...for some reason I kept seeing a tropical flower.  Call me clueless.  Not a good sign of my attention span for this book.  

This book.  Dang it.  I was so excited to read this, especially after visiting Italy last October.  I got about 100 pages in, and the overarching sense of doom finally got to me.  A slave known for his culinary skills becomes the secret weapon of Apicius, a wealthy Roman man determined to become the Emperor's favorite noble.  But lord, the schemes, murders, plotting, and complete disregard for life got a bit old!  I loved the culinary aspect (I can say I wouldn't have eaten most of what they put together--meat and fruit: argh!!) but the political machinations and cruelty just wore on me.  I'll try again in the future, because I'm fascinated by the idea of this novel.  

Now, onto a few quick reviews:

I've had this hardcover on my bookshelf at home for a year.  I've wanted to read it, but just didn't squeeze it in until I saw it was available as an audio book through my library.  Took me two weeks to listen to this incredible memoir of Mary Hamilton, a woman who lived from 1866-1936 and had an extraordinarily tough, tragic, and what many might see as a poor life.  But listening to Mary's memoir, I was awed by her grit, her determination to make a home wherever she was, and her efforts to raise her children as good, descent, and kind people.  She was a force to be reckoned with, and withstood more tragedy than any one person should ever be expected to live through.  I highly recommend this book--either the paperback, or the audio.  No pictures in the book, however.  Her memoirs were first printed in the 1930's.  Rating: 5/6 because pioneer women rock!!

On a completely different track, this book is unusual in its narrator.  You never know his name, but you get to know him very well.  He's an unborn baby (about 3 weeks shy of his due date) who hears, in utero, his mother and her lover plot to murder his father for his inheritance.  Yes, a baby.  One smart, scarily brilliant baby with a taste for wine (his mother drinks a lot of white wine) and podcasts. 

It sounds amusing, and on the surface it is, until you read this short tale and are disturbed by his helplessness in stopping what will happen to his father, and his pondering on living life in jail with his mother.  There are many philosophical moments, and Ian McEwan is a high-caliber writer. However, the little twists make this a very interesting read. It makes you wonder just what babies do hear, feel, and think inside the womb.  A friend recommended this novel, and I'm glad I plugged away at it.  It's not long at all in terms of pages, but can be a bit gloomy in the subject matter.  This made it a book to read in chunks, rather than in a rush.  Rating:  4/6 for a uniquely narrated thriller.  What harm do we do to the most innocent?  Available in hardcover and e-book. 

So, I've been busy. This summer most of my books haven't hit that sweet spot of satisfaction I was hoping for, but I haven't lost hope. I've got many more to go before September hits.  I've over halfway to my reading goal for 2017 and it helps keep me on track.  

What books are you reading this summer?  Anything out of the ordinary for you?

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

1952 New York City must have been a pretty cool place.  Certainly it was a lure to those who wanted to make it on their own, or make it big.  It was a place for young women to escape their hometowns and experience freedom, within the confines of 1950's ideals, of course.  

The Dollhouse was certainly a refreshing break from my usual historical fiction.  Yes, this is a dual-history novel; it takes place in 1952 and 2016.  I usually don't read much about mid-twentieth century history; it's just not a time that appeals to me.  But I was intrigued by the idea of a women's hotel in 1952, and I'm glad I read this novel. I had no idea where the story would take me, and it definitely surprised me.

Darby McLaughlin is a young woman from Ohio, sent to New York City by her mother to live at the Barbizon Hotel, a place where young women stayed while attending modeling school, secretarial school, or other suitable educational avenues for a young woman in 1952. Of course, it was understood that this was just a way to meet a man and get married.  Darcy, a shy young lady very conscious of her mother's disappointment in her, comes to NYC to attend the Katie Gibbs school for secretaries.  She hopes to return to Ohio after a year of school, find a secretary job, and quietly live her life.  Unfortunately for Darcy, her small room is on the same floor as the modeling school beauties, who make her feel less than welcome.  Esme, a young maid and elevator operator at the Barbizon, befriends Darcy, and this is where Darcy's life changes.

The other part of the story begins in 2016 with Rose Lewin, a woman who lives with her boyfriend in the Barbizon building, which is now expensive apartments.  A few women who lived at the Barbizon in the 1950's continue to live there in small rent-controlled apartments.  The mysterious woman who lives directly underneath Rose's apartment wears hats and veils that shield her face, and doesn't talk to anyone when she takes her dog outside every day.  Rose's life is in flux; her boyfriend decides to return to his wife, and kicks Rose out of his apartment.  Struggling to take care of her ailing father; with no place to live, and a job as a journalist at a questionable online news site, Rose is looking for something that will kick start her career again and give her some choices. 

Enter that mysterious woman.  It's Darcy; she's lived at the Barbizon since 1952, and a mystery surrounds her that Rose wants to solve.  Darcy was involved in the unfortunate death of a maid at the hotel, and Rose wants to write a story about it.  Only problem is that Darcy has left the city, and Rose has to wait her out.  Meanwhile, Rose interviews the other elderly women, and begins to get the real story of the Barbizon Hotel during its heyday.  It was not, as people thought, a place full of genteel, well behaved young women.  People are people, after all, no matter what the time period.  

Rose identifies with Darcy, and becomes entangled in her tale as she waits for Darcy to return to her apartment.  Rose's ethics are questionable; her unhappiness spurs her into doing things that she normally wouldn't do. Rose's ethical choices connect her to Darcy's story; otherwise the novel wouldn't work. As the story flips between 1952 and 2016, we see Darcy and Esme's friendship deepen, Darcy meeting the sweet young cook Sam, and Darcy frequenting the Flatted Fifth, a jazz club with some seedy undertones. The feeling that you're on a journey that isn't going to end well keeps growing. 

The story is compelling, and I couldn't stop reading it.  There are some twists that were unexpected; but I figured out that was because I was also lulled into the assumption that young ladies in the early 1950's were always well-behaved and proper.  My bad!  

Rose was a bit confusing to me.  On one hand, she seemed very mature and put together.  But being dumped by her boyfriend really seemed to reveal a heck of a lot of insecurities and unhappiness that must have been festering for a long time.  There wasn't any sense of female empowerment with her until the very end.  Darcy was definitely a complex character; New York City brought out her real personality, only to see it dampen after the dramatic events of 1952.  She was a mix of wanting to do the right thing and fulfill other people's expectations, and wanting to be herself and doing what made her happy.   

I think this would make a good book club selection.  There is certainly enough to discuss, just in the characters of Rose and Darcy.  The Barbizon is an actual building in NYC, now known at the Barbizon 63.  It's on the National Register of Historical Places and was home to many famous women over the years.  

Rating:  4/6 for an entertaining dual-time period novel about 1950's NYC and the struggle of women to break free of expected societal roles.  The life of Darcy was certainly one that kept me reading late into the night.  A good book group choice--so many things to talk about, and a great historical background as well.  I'll read more from Fiona Davis!

Available in hardcover, paperback, audio, and e-book.

A big thank you to Penguin/Random House for a preview of this novel. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War by Pamela D. Toler, PhD

My unceasing interest in women living through the Civil War continues with The Heroines of Mercy Street. This history book focuses mostly on the experiences of a few women living and working as nurses in the North during the American Civil War of 1861-1865.  Many people may be familiar with the PBS series  Mercy Street.  It created such interest in the characters that this book was written to look a bit closer at the women who worked under miserable circumstances and conditions to treat the wounded from both the Yankee and Confederate sides. 

Dorothea Dix was a feisty middle-aged spinster who inherited her grandparent's wealth, and that made possible her endeavors to bring reform to sanitariums, jails, poorhouses, and the treatment of mentally ill prisoners.  She was a woman on a mission, and when the Civil War began with the firing on Fort Sumter in April, 1861 she was ready to help gather supplies that would be needed to care for the wounded soldiers that were sure to come.  She faced an uphill battle in her quest to hire women for nursing positions.  There were no nursing schools in the United States in 1861; the only women who were loosely called nurses were those who were working off jail sentences.  They were drunks, uneducated, and usually women of ill-repute.  

Dorothea's strict requirements kept a lot of otherwise perfectly capable women out of the nursing positions she needed to fill.  She only wanted women who were plain faced, in their 30's and older, and of a very good reputation.  She did get plenty of women traveling to Washington, D.C. to work in hastily constructed hospitals, but her strict rules and the overwhelming opposition to women taking care of soldiers by doctors, surgeons, and pretty much every male in the U. S. Army created a lot of issues.  

Some women, you'll be glad to know, ignored Dorothea's rules and struck out on their own, often times just showing up at hospitals (which were usually hotels, factories, churches, and homes) hoping to help.  For many, the severity of soldiers' injuries was too much.  Some had very genteel ideas of what it meant to take care of soldiers.  Dysentery, typhoid fever, and so many other diseases ran rampant through the troops.  The medical world in the U.S. at the time of the Civil War was far behind Europe; there was still no belief in sterilization, clean water and instruments for the wounded, nor clean linens or bandages.  Infections and gangrene were everywhere.  Nurses oftentimes slept on the floor or in chairs, ate hard bread and really bad coffee, and worked 12 hour days with no breaks.  And the majority weren't trained in much of anything.  It's appalling to realize just how many soldiers died from sheer ignorance of basic cleanliness, or soldiers suffering from gastrointestinal diseases that kept them from eating the usual horrible foods offered in the hospitals. Women in the hospitals pushed to create special diets for soldiers who were unable to eat the heavy meals cooked for fighting soldiers.  There are just certain things you don't give someone who has dysentery and expect them to recover!

Dorothea isn't the only woman featured in this fascinating book.  Anne Reading, Mary Phinney von Olnhausen, Louisa May Alcott, Clara Barton, and so many others were at the forefront of new radical changes in medicine and the dawning of a fundamental change in medical care in the U.S.  It's hard to imagine nurses were seen as little better than prostitutes in 1860, but it's true.  One of the good things to come out of this terrible war was the realization of the importance of nurses in the care of and as advocates for patients.  

Clara Barton, addressing an audience in 1888 said "...that as a result of the Civil War women had advanced at least fifty years beyond the position they would have held had the country remained at peace" (p. 221). 

I learned so much about Civil War medicine, the perception of women's capabilities and "delicateness" during mid-19th century America, and the sheer strength and determination of so many women to contribute to the healing of so many damaged men during such a brutal war. It's a fascinating read, and anyone who is interested in women's history, the Civil War, politics, or even medical history will find this a good addition to their history bookshelf. I'd recommend this to anyone who is interested in pursing nursing as a career.

Rating:  4/6 for a part of Civil War history that has been long overlooked.  Such a rich history, and well worth the read!  

Available in paperback and e-book.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl

My plans to read like hell over my long 4th of July weekend were completely dashed by last minute opportunities to spend time having fun outside in the sun and an unexpected (but happy!) home project. But this was  a good thing, as it gave me time to think about this novel after I finished it. It's one that you need to read and digest slowly. 

I'll begin by saying I read this book with very little knowledge regarding the world of comic books and comic book conventions, so there were probably many things that I missed just through lack of knowledge.  But, I worked in a bookstore for many, many years, and have friends who are comic book fans, so I completely get the fandom that surrounds series, superheroes, authors and illustrators.  
There is a large cast of characters, with Valerie Torrey and her nine year old son, Alex, in the center of the plot. Valerie was once Bethany Frazer, the female lead on a wildly popular sci-fi tv show, Anomaly.  Valerie and the male lead, Andrew (who plays Ian Campbell) meet, marry, and have Alex during the course of the series.  But their marriage falls apart, and Valerie flees to New York with Alex, and six years later they are returning to Los Angeles so that Alex can live with Andrew.  Valerie is dreading this, but doesn't have a choice, since she basically fled in the night and has made no attempt to contact Andrew or let him see his son.  And Andrew hasn't made any attempt, until lately.  Something momentous had happened that tore them apart, and ended Anomaly prematurely.  

Stopping at comic conventions from Cleveland, to Chicago, to finally L.A. gives Valerie time to spend with her son, and a reconnection to her fame as the iconic Bethany Frazer.  It's been a long time since she had identified with Bethany, and she's not ready to revisit the past. 

There are a host of other characters, each with a sizeable storyline of their own.  Gail is the only female comic writer; she's tough, frustrated with her career, and dreams of striking out on her own without being bound by the ties of a large publishing company.  Brett is part of a duo that is working the conventions to bring attention to their independently produced comic series Lady Stardust.  He's also at a crossroads, and wondering how to be happy and make it in the comic book industry.  

Valerie and Alex have a road trip story; full of questionable hotels, late night storytelling, and many moments of wanting to be back home.  All the characters cross paths over and over again as we get to know their stories, their motivations, and how each uses storytelling to work through their problems.  They are all at major crossroads; who will leap forward, and who will let the past limit them?

I have to say it was a bit slow going at first; but about halfway through I realized I was invested in each story and wanted to see where they lead.  There's a point in the novel where one character talks about how stories are so much bigger in the beginning, because they can go anywhere, but eventually they are winnowed down because there needs to be an ending.  That's kind of how this novel plays out.  Alex is a smart kid, but he's trying to write his own story; Gail and Brett both change the endings of their stories; and Valerie finds it in herself to make a big decision and make peace with her tragic past.  The plot is neatly tied up, except for Alex's.  Maybe I missed something, but the way I read the last few pages, author Bob Proehl leaves it up to you to finish the story how you would want it.  Instead of feeling frustrated, it's a great way to demonstrate the power of storytelling, the power in all of us to write our own story, and the knowledge that our stories never end.

A big thank you to Viking/Penguin for the chance to read and review this book.  It's not something I would have ever picked up myself, but I'm glad I rewrote my reading story this summer and dipped my toe into the world of comic book fandom.  I would recommend this novel for a sci-fi or even a comic book group.  There are a lot of things to discuss, and many characters who represent real world giants in the comic book industry.  There are plenty of plot points, characters, and real world references to keep a group of fans busy for hours. 

Rating:  4/6 for a novel that has a bit of everything:  road trip adventure, mother-son dynamic, comments on the comic book industry with all of the good and bad, and characters that read like everyday people just trying to write their lives.  

Available in paperback and e-book.