Friday, November 17, 2017

Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller

Reviewed by Kristin

For every person who grew up loving the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Sarah Miller has drawn together the threads of fiction and the actual historical records of the Ingalls family as they journeyed from Wisconsin to Kansas, thus creating a beautiful new work from mother Caroline’s point of view.

Caroline loved being settled in Pepin, Wisconsin amidst family and friends but she knew that her adventure loving husband, Charles, always looked westward.  Indeed, as Charles announced that he had an offer to buy their Wisconsin homestead and was making plans to stake a claim in Kansas, Caroline began obediently sewing a canvas wagon cover, packing their most precious belongings into a trunk, and preparing for the long journey.

The author’s language is beautiful—whether describing the rolling prairies, her daughters’ blue eyes, or Charles’ unruly hair, Caroline seems to have an eye for the loveliness of the world.  Even on a day when the travelers finally stop long enough for Caroline to wash clothes, she delights in the reflection of the water and in the feeling of accomplishment as her scrubbing releases dirt from the fabrics.  Caroline is doing necessary and even difficult work, but she understands her place in the world.  To illustrate, an excerpt:

     “She laid the drying clothes out like paper dolls on the grass.  Caroline stood back, thoughtfully taking in their colors and shapes: Charles in brown and green, herself and Mary in shades of blue, and Laura’s little sprigged calico in just the bold shade of red Caroline longed to wear.  Together all of them gently bent the grass, so that Caroline saw the soft imprint of her family on the land.” 

Just as modern readers have to look back at the Little House books through the lens of historical times, I had to maintain that same mindset as I read this book.  Caroline is extremely scared of the Indians, to the point of seeing them as sub-human.  While modern readers may find those racist attitudes repugnant, the sentiments are historically accurate-- this was all the people of that time had been taught.

Little bits are picked up from Laura’s fiction and retold from Caroline’s point of view.  Crossing the creek with mustangs Pet, Patty and bulldog Jack is just as much of a frightful adventure as recounted by young Laura.  The delight of Mr. Edwards bringing Christmas gifts from Santa is felt perhaps even more by Caroline, than by Mary and Laura.  The arrival of baby Carrie is described in much more detail by the laboring mother, but also includes the moment when Mary and Laura return with Charles after a day visiting the vacant Indian camp to see that a new sister has increased their family.

Altogether, I found this book delightful.  A frontier story which millions have known, but told from another perspective makes this a mature version of one piece of Wilder’s Little House series.  I appreciated the author’s note that discusses some of the discrepancies in the original Little House series, and how she chose to maintain some of those stories which are contradicted by historical record, and to change others to more accurately reflect the Ingalls’ family adventures.  I recommend this novel which so deftly combines historical background and the imagined inner life of a frontier woman.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Nevermore: John Rabe, Night Ocean, Long Black Veil, Sugar, Glass Castle

 Reported by Ambrea

This week, Nevermore shared a The Good Man of Nanking:  The Diaries of John Rabe.  John Rabe was a native German, a supporter of the Nazi party, and an unexpected hero in China.  In November 1937, prior to the alliance of Germany and Japan in 1940, Japanese troops overran Nanking and began one of the cruelest campaigns of genocide imaginable.  Japanese soldiers slaughtered Chinese citizens, slowly eating away at the country and acquiring vast swathes of territory for their native country.  John Rabe, who became known as the Oskar Schindler of China, put himself at great personal risk to save the lives of more than 200,000 Chinese men, women, and children.  Our reader said John Rabe’s diary was intense and incredibly heart-wrenching; however, she highly recommended it to her fellow Nevermore members, calling it a very interesting and engaging book that offers insight into the complex political and social landscape of China prior to World War II.

Next, Nevermore checked out The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge, an unusual piece of fiction that tells the strange intertwining stories of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Barlow, William S. Burroughs, L.C. Spinks—and Charlie and Marina Willett.  Marina has a big problem:  Her husband, Charlie, has become obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft and the relationship he cultivated with Robert Barlow, a young gay fan, in 1934.  When a new scandal strikes Charlie, he suddenly disappears—and Marina is left holding the pieces, trying to find out what happened and why.  Our reader said it seemed to focus on “crazy and quasi-crazy people,” which made it difficult to read.  She admitted she couldn’t finish it.  The story didn’t hold her interest and it didn’t spark a connection.  She managed to make it to page 44.

Nevermore also returned to a current favorite:  Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan.  In her latest novel, Boylan introduces a story of suspense, betrayal, and survival.  It’s 1980, a year full of promise and hope, until six college students sneak into the dilapidated ruins of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary—and someone doesn’t make it out alive.  Fast forward to the future, Judith Carrigan has made a career and built a family for herself.  When her friend, Jon Casey, is arrested for murder, Judith must decide if she’s willing to risk the life she’s created and unleash the secrets of the past.  Our reader said he found Boylan’s book “very interesting.”  Filled with intricate characters and deadly secrets, Long Black Veil handles sensitive subjects very well and creates an enjoyable, atmospheric story.

Nevermore picked up The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes, a sweeping book about the health risks and dangers of sugar.  According to the cover, “diabetes is more prevalent today than ever; obesity is at epidemic proportions; nearly ten percent of children are thought to have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.  And sugar is at the root of these…”  Our reader said she started reading Taubes book, but she eventually decided she’d had enough and she gave up.  She said she “left greasy streaks on [her Kindle] screen,” because reading about sugar had made her ravenously hungry.

Last, Nevermore looked at Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle.  In her memoir, Jeannette tells of her and her siblings’ remarkable story of survival and resilience in a family that was unique but terrifyingly dysfunctional.  Jeannette’s father was an intelligent, charismatic man with a drinking problem; her mother was an artist and a “free spirit” who chafed at the idea of taking responsibility for a family.  Jeannette and her siblings learned to take care of themselves, even during the most trying—most terrifying—of their lives.  Our reader complemented The Glass Castle for its incredible writing, calling it a joy to read.  “Not joyful,” she noted, “but [incredibly] well written.”  It details the struggles and desperate times the children faced; however, it does so with care and thoughtfulness, highlighting the bonds Jeanette forged with her brother and sisters.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Thread the Halls by Lea Wait

Reviewed by Jeanne

It’s the first Christmas in years that Angie Curtis has spent in Maine, having returned from Arizona. She’s missed snow, decorating, baking cookies, and spending time with those she loves—including Patrick West, the man she’s been seeing recently—and she is looking forward to doing all those things she loved as a child.   Unfortunately, her plans for a quiet Christmas get upended when Patrick’s movie star mother Skye calls to say she’s coming to stay Aurora, her estate, and is bringing  guests from the set of her current film.  She wants “a real Maine Christmas,” complete with decorations, traditional food, a sleigh ride, needlepointed gifts for her guests, the works.  With little time to prepare, Angie and most of her friends are drafted into helping with preparations.  Angie isn’t sure what Hollywood types will make of tiny Haven Harbor, but at least one visitor doesn’t have much time to form an opinion: one of the celebrities ends up dead within hours of arriving.

This is the sixth in the Mainely Needlepoint Mystery series, and I’ve enjoyed every one of them.  Angie is an interesting character.  Raised by her grandmother after her mother’s disappearance, Angie has had to make her own way in the world.  Most recently she had worked as an assistant to a private detective, which means she knows a bit about detecting and has her own Glock, but she’s not one of those interfering characters who decides she can solve the crime better than the police.  Her involvement is often involuntary, but she doesn’t back down when there’s a problem.  There’s an interesting assortment of supporting characters, including Gran, now a newlywed, who is a strong and steadying presence.  Sarah, an Australian who runs an antique and gift shop, always has a pertinent quotation from Emily Dickinson, while high school teacher Dave has his own poison garden.  Patrick seems to be a kind and thoughtful young man. None of them are stereotypes, and relationships aren’t taken for granted.

All this is set against the Maine landscape, which Wait clearly loves.  There are vivid descriptions of the area, along with detours into history and economics; in other hands this could be boring, but I find it fascinating. In this particular entry, I could almost smell the pine boughs and hear the crunch of boots in the snow. The seasonal setting make it a good choice for anyone wanting to get into a holiday frame of mind.  I just wish I could have tasted some of Bev’s pork pie (recipe is included.)  I’ve read other books set in Maine, but this is the first one that actually made me want to go visit someday.  

Followers of Kevin Tipple’s blogspot will know that I consider this series to be a good one for the treadmill.  Since I am not fond of exercise in general and the treadmill in particular, I have to have a book that will hold my attention and keep me entertained until I reach the magic number of steps.  In fact, I have occasionally exceeded that number to read “just one more chapter.”

Solutions to the crimes tend to come right at the end, and to come swiftly.  That’s not a criticism, just an observation.  

Those who favor fast paced thrillers or intricately clued mysteries may not find this to be their cup of tea, but readers who appreciate setting and strong characterization should enjoy this series.  I certainly do.

The series doesn’t need to be read in order,  but I generally prefer to do it that way just because I like to see how characters develop. These are the previous books in the series:

Full Disclosure:  I won an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this book in a contest sponsored by the author.  I was under no obligation to provide a review, favorable or otherwise. 

"Is it Christmas yet?" ~ Elmer and friend

Friday, November 10, 2017

In the Woods by Tana French

Reviewed by Christy H.

            Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox had an instant bond when Cassie joined the Dublin Murder Squad.  Now partners and best friends, they work exceedingly well together – interrogating suspects, questioning witnesses, or just divvying up small, everyday tasks. They know what roles to play, when needed, to get the best results. But when a twelve year old girl’s body is found in Knocknaree woods their partnership and friendship is sorely tested.
            The Knocknaree woods hold a special place in Rob Ryan’s heart – not all of it good. When he was twelve years old himself, he and two friends knew those woods inside and out. They ran and played there, hid there, witnessed horrible acts of violence there. Then all three seemingly vanished into thin air. Rob Ryan was the only one found hours later, clinging to a tree, shoes blood soaked, and unable to remember a thing. He was Adam Ryan then. Over twenty years later he still doesn’t remember much, and his friends have never returned.
            Soon after he went to boarding school, started going by his middle name, and eventually became a policeman and ultimately a detective. When the new Knocknaree case falls into his lap, he admits who he is to Cassie. He wants to keep working the case so he and Cassie do everything they can to keep his past secret.
            Though I enjoy true crime, police procedural novels are not generally what I pick up to read. I bought this one years and years ago though and figured it was more than past time to give it a go. I really enjoyed it. I liked French’s writing, and I loved Cassie. She’s good at her job and thick skinned – which she would have to be as the only woman on the squad. She’s never deterred from speaking her mind when she knows it’s important, and she doesn’t mind a bit of teasing as long as she can tease right back. I even liked the relationship between her and  Rob,  even though Rob himself grated my nerves more and more as the book went on. He was at times frustratingly na├»ve or needlessly cruel. I admit I did at one point consider dropping the book because his point of view was so irritating but I stuck it out because the mystery was intriguing, and Cassie was the real star. I’m glad I finished it. The conclusion was satisfying, creepy, and intense. And I’m interested in the second in the series The Likeness as well. I’m not a series person but Cassie is the main character in that one, and I just can’t say no to that.