Tuesday, February 27, 2018

March Reads and the Sad Tale of My Check-Outs from the Library

I have to confess I didn't have a library card until about 6 years ago.  Never in my life did I have a library card, and I didn't go to public libraries.  Most of that reason lies in where I grew up, out in the country in Iowa.  We lived just over the county line, and that meant I couldn't have a library card for the city where my parents worked (plus it was 15 miles away).  My parents had a lot of kids, so random trips into town didn't happen very often. We were also about 20 miles away from the next biggest town, in the county where I lived.  We never went there, so that wasn't an option. I never asked to go to the library, and my parents never offered to take me.  None of my siblings seemed interested, either. 

I did live for library day at my elementary school, and when I went to high school, we had a decent library, but I don't remember checking too much out.  Mostly we sat there and giggled until the librarian told us to be quiet. So while I somehow developed a love for books that pretty much has eclipsed any other potential hobby or interest, I just didn't do libraries.  I spent most of my adult life working at a bookstore, and heck, I bought all my books. So the fact that I'm a librarian is not because of ever going to a library as a kid. I think it naturally developed from not only my love of reading and talking about books, but my retail years where I helped people find what they needed, and felt pretty good when I did and they returned for more recommendations.  I know the power books have to change lives, because they changed my life.  

All this long story is just to tell you that I'm a bit overzealous in my library checkouts.  I like to think I've got plenty of time to read them all--after all, I have them for three weeks. But no.  I've got Sing, Unburied, Sing sitting on my coffee table, and it's due in two days.  I've read approximately 45 pages, and darn it all, someone else is waiting for it.  Now I've got to return it and put myself back on the list. While I was shelving new fiction yesterday, I stumbled across a book and ohmygodIhavetocheckthisouttoday.  I've done that approximately 4 times in the past two weeks.  I'm in a bit of a pickle! I'm sure we all have this problem with library books, right?  I don't know how people function reading just one book at a time.  What discipline!

March is rapidly approaching, and while it's 70 in Iowa today, we'll be back down in the 30's in a few days. The usual weather pattern here.  But it reminds me that Spring is getting closer, and I'll have to spend time outside taking care of my yard.  That means less time to read. I'm in the minority when I say that Winter flew by.  

Here's what I've got planned for March.  I've got a few other titles that I'll be reading, and they'll show up in my reviews.  But in the meantime...

Time travel by a well known British historian.  I'm itching to read this!

Publisher review of a book I've been wanting to read for awhile. Now out in paperback.  Alternate realities and time machines.  

A memoir about a couple that goes bankrupt and starts over in a cabin in the backwoods of North Carolina.

An intriguing tale set in 1910 America.  Not sure what to expect. 

Here's to March, warmer weather, birds singing in the morning, and driving home from work with the sun still up.  

Monday, February 26, 2018

Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira

It feels like I haven't read a solid historical novel for a long time.  I'm pretty sure it's only been a few months, but as I was reading Winter Sisters I said out loud to myself "I am so happy reading this novel!".  I have no shame in admitting I talk to myself, especially when reading.  

I read My Name is Mary Sutter years ago, and loved it. Civil War novels always have a huge pull for me, and Mary Sutter is such a compelling character it's hard not to love her.  When I saw this was a sequel of sorts to Mary Sutter, I just had to read it.  

It's 1879, Albany, New York.  Mary, now Dr. Mary Stipp, lives and works with her husband Dr. William Stipp, along with her mother Amelia and niece Elizabeth.  They have a successful clinic run out of their spacious home, and have a good life in Albany.  The Civil War has not left them, however, and they are forever changed by what they witnessed as doctors treating soldiers.  But life is pretty good, and they are happy.  Close family friends the O'Donnell's have two lovely little girls, Emma and Claire. 

A bizarre, horrific blizzard descends upon the city, catching everyone unawares, and through terrible circumstances, Bonnie and David O'Donnell are killed during the blizzard.  The two girls, stuck at school, survive the blizzard with their schoolmates, but are left behind on the school steps once the blizzard ends and everyone goes home.  They disappear into thin air.  

The Stipps, frantic about the O'Donnell family, discover the sad news about Bonnie and David, and are very concerned when the girls don't turn up anywhere. Mary and family go to the police, and take it upon themselves to search everywhere they can think of to find the girls.  The police aren't very helpful, claiming the girls are probably dead.  Six long weeks go by, with no sign of the girls.  The melting snow and ice in the Hudson River causes a massive flood in Albany, and in a night of chaos, the girls are found and brought to the Stipps.  Where were they, and what happened to them?

What happened to Emma and Claire sets off a huge newspaper war in Albany; a magnifying glass is put to Mary's practice and her decision to give healthcare to prostitutes; and Elizabeth's new romance with the son of a prominent lumber baron is put into jeopardy.  Traumatized by their ordeal, both girls are in danger of never recovering, especially when some folks don't believe their tale.  

While it is a fact that women didn't have very many rights or privileges in 1879, it still got me pretty steamed to read about some of the nasty rumors and treatment of Mary, Emma, and Claire.  Albany-a city that looks shiny and bright, but has an underbelly that runs on corruption, bribes, and prostitution. Men have all the power, money, and, sadly the law on their side.  

I so enjoyed this book.  Robin Oliveira is a solid writer, and her attention to historical detail makes the book so interesting, but never bogged down.  Of course the medical aspect was a big draw for me, and I definitely had a hard time putting the book down in the last half.  As a matter of fact, I stayed up way past my bedtime last night to finish the last few pages, I was so anxious to find out what happened.  

A huge thank you to Viking/Penguin for a review copy.  

This novel will be on sale Tuesday, February 27th in the U.S. in hardcover, ebook, and audio. You do not have to read My Name is Mary Sutter to read this novel.  

Rating:  5/6 for a novel that addresses female sexuality, abuse, the power of men, money, and the strength of family at a time when women didn't have many options.  Mary is a great example of a brilliant, respectful woman who still is treated with distrust and ridicule even after proving herself over and over.  A powerful statement on the ability of rumor and false news to damage lives. 

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.