Monday, December 22, 2008

The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson

The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, A Daughter, and the People Who Raised Them – A Memoir by Amy Dickinson

A wonderful, honest and heartwarming memoir of author and advice columnist Amy Dickinson (the replacement for Ann Landers after her death), and her family of women. The tale flows with a very comfortable voice, albeit a story of survival not only for Amy but for her entire family who, one way or another become single mothers over generations, the “Mighty Queens of Freeville”. The family is about as close knit as anyone could imagine, whether at one of their weekly breakfasts, the barbecues after church on Sundays, or all in one house for whatever occasion.

Her sense of loss and aloneness in London when her husband leaves her, her decision to return home to the very small town of Freeville, on the edge of Appalachia in upper New York State, her fears bringing up her daughter Emily alone, and much later her attempts at returning to dating, all make for an entertaining read. Working in Chicago, she and Emily move there but find they make constant trips back “home” to visit, and Amy buys a small house in Freeville, coincidentally one that had been in the family years before, so that they would have a place of their own to stay every time they came. Eventually, a time comes when she decides to give up the rental apartment in Chicago and move back to Freeville.

Amy is a great storyteller, funny and sad at times, but always true to herself. The growth and relationship between Amy and Emily are a joy to witness. I think her motto as an advice columnist tells a great deal about her character – “I make the mistakes so you don’t have to.” I loved this book and recommend it for an enjoyable, fascinating read.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingston

Odds bodkins! I’ve fallen into A Midsummer Night's Dream! Lesley Livingston’s debut “Wondrous Strange” is exactly that, a book of wonder and enchantment; a world of faeries, fauns, sirens, changelings, and the Hounds of Hell. The author is obviously familiar with Shakespeare’s works, and certainly has done a lot of research into legends, mythology and faerie lore. This wonderful story is captivating, the characters both surprising and interesting. It is listed as Young Adult, but I as a grandmother thoroughly enjoyed it for myself, in fact I only put the book down to go to sleep. A fast and gripping read.

The story is pure fairytale, authentic and creative. A 17-year old actress, Kelley Winslow, suddenly finds herself playing a major role in A Midsummer Night's Dream, that of Titania, when the original actress breaks her ankle. Her first rehearsal does not go well, and she is ordered to go home and learn her lines. Kelley has always been drawn to Central Park and finds it a quiet place to study; little does she know that it is also a gate to the Otherworld. A changeling, one of the guards of the Gate, happens to be in the park as she is rehearsing her lines and he at first mistakes her words as from the real Titania. The meeting between the two young people triggers a string of very strange happenings.

I do not want to put any spoilers in this review, the book must be read to feel it and enjoy it. The plot is fascinatingly played out, but the adventure needs to be experienced, for adventure it is. It has history, passion, danger, a world of opposites, fantasy, and young love. I loved this book and highly recommend it. A very strong debut, I will certainly be interested in reading more of Lesley Livingston’s books. 5 stars

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Darren Shan's Trials of Death & The Vampire Prince (Books 5 & 6 of Cirque du Freak series)

Darren Shan's book came as a complete surprise to me. I have not read a vampire book since a condensed version of Darcula in the 1950s, although I did enjoy Buffy... and Charmed when they were on TV. Consequently, I did not know what to expect.

This version of Shan's writing included "Trials of Death" and "The Vampire Prince", books 5 and 6 of the Cirque du Freak series. "Trials of Death" in particular, reminded me somewhat of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire". These books are aimed at older children/young adults and as such I found them very entertaining, vastly different from my previous impressions of vampire stories. Putting these two books together was a good move as they can be read as one story. There are, as far as I know, 12 books in the series. I think Shan (who writes the stories with himself as the main character and in the first person) has a wonderful understanding of what young people like in a story. There is a lot of action, interaction, communication, and relationships. Putting the book down was very difficult, I kept coming back for more. I certainly recommend the series to young people who enjoy fantasy books.

The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman

Mystery, History, and Love Story during the Ottoman Empire

Haunting & refreshingly different, the story begins when a small scrap of old manuscript, dating to 1599, is accidentally discovered among the texts of Elizabeth’s studies. Elizabeth feels she must learn the fate of Celia, the betrothed daughter of the ship’s captain after his ship has floundered & Celia has been captured & brought to the Sultan’s harem. So begins our student’s research, delving into the realm of the Sultans and Harems of the old Ottoman empire in her search for what became of Celia, whose life was obviously the focus of the original manuscript.

This book is an easy and fascinating read, hard to put down. The chapters are well-defined so that switching over the 400 years from the happenings of the past to current times is as smooth as one could wish for. Rather than distracting, this shift makes the story more powerful and flowing.

The book is well-written, great continuity in both centuries and very informative as well. Katie Hickman’s research is very well done and there are many real people represented in the book as well as the fictional characters. This is no over-the-top sensationalized piece of fiction. I will not give away the main thrust of the story, but definitely recommend the book as a well-painted portrait of a different life. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will be watching for future books from this author.

The Laughter of Dead Kings by Elizabeth Peters

Enjoyable romp of a mystery

Another enjoyable romp in the life of Vicky Bliss, assistant curator of Munich’s National Museum, art historian, antiquities expert and amateur sleuth. Elizabeth Peters has a long history of writing wonderfully strong, humorous and intelligent female characters, and in all her series her characters endear themselves to her faithful readers. The Vicky Bliss series takes place in current times rather than the Victorian era of Amelia Peabody and the early Egyptian tomb discoveries in the pyramids, her longest running series. The Laughter of Dead Kings is the sixth book in the series.

That said, this book is a joy to read, mostly conversational as plans are hatched and theories discussed. It is humorous, mysterious, and just good lighthearted reading. The perfect foil to a siege of heavy reading. The characters are so intensely drawn, funny and intelligent, including John, a once notorious thief of antiquities turned antiquities dealer and Vicky’s lover (Is he honest? Maybe, maybe not!). Their escapades, though dangerous, are thoroughly entertaining. Vicky’s boss, known mostly as Schmidt, who fancies himself as a Sherlock Holmes, always manages to find them wherever a “case” is happening and in this book his appearance is very fortuitous and surprising. The character of Schmidt is charming, funny, generous; he pictures himself as Vicky’s protector. I am reminded of an old (black & white) film actor, S.Z. (Cuddles) Sakall.

This time out a body has gone missing; not an ordinary body but one that has been dead for thousands of years, and the race is on. Not only must they find the body in extremely limited time, but they must prove that John is innocent of masterminding the theft. The question is, how could it be done and where would such a thing be hidden? Theories abound and are eliminated, delicate political and archaeological balance is threatened. The suspect list is large and complicated. I recommend this book to anyone who likes to enjoy the action and humour, a light but interesting read. I always learn something new in Elizabeth Peters’ books and this book did not disappoint.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Out Backward by Ross Raisin

A strange and unusual book, written in the broad Yorkshire dialect, easy enough to pick up as you go along. The author has certainly done his research. A young boy is accused of something he didn’t actually do and is kicked out of school. He must work at the home farm and forget about education. When we come into his story he is about 19 years old. Downtrodden and a town misfit, he lives an eventful life within his own mind. The story is sometimes humorous, often deceptive, and somewhat depressing. He has separated himself from everyone in the village and when not working on the sheep farm, is wandering his beloved moors with his favorite dog..

One day a “townie” family moves in next door, with a 15 year old daughter who doesn’t appear to have any qualms about being with or being seen with Sam, in fact she encourages that they be seen together. The book is written mostly from the imagination of the boy. He “talks” mostly in his mind to objects animate and inanimate and his mind contrives stories and make-believe conversations. The concept is interesting, a little hard to grasp at times but usually becomes clear as time goes on. The reader gets a feeling for the boy, and it seems he is often accused of things he has not necessarily done. A row between the girl next door and her mother leads to a mad dash across the moors for both Sam and Josephine where Sam feels entirely at home. Though the town believes him to be backward, he is knowledgeable on a number of planes and I feel that his life could easily have been very different which is disconcerting and depressing to realize. Reading this book I felt a sense of person and place which took on a life of its own. Interesting, sometimes brooding, occasionally humorous, often deceptive, and definitely not boring though a little slow to read, an unusual subject for a debut novel. I would not recommend this book to someone who likes their books cut and dried, but I would recommend it to anyone who likes to delve into the whys and wherefores of life and the mind of the unusual.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

Andrew Davidson, a new Canadian author, has debuted with a powerful and absorbing book. A story of love that transcends time and boundaries over 700 years, the book is filled with history, none of it dry. Medical practices from medieval to current times, beliefs of the centuries, everyday life experiences, and brought it all into an almost magical present. The characters are unique but built gradually so the reader can gather the fullness of them. It is written with the voice of one of the two main characters, a rather unsavory film maker and actor at the outset with only his own ambition and looks in his mind. A man detached from normal life, love, and destiny. One thing he does do though, is read deeply and thoroughly.

On drugs and drunk, he has a horrendous car accident which is about to change his life completely. He awakens in a hospital where he finds he is so badly burned that it is a wonder he could wake up at all. His “friends” come and go as quickly as possible. As time passes, a young woman comes in to visit him and one of the first things he notices is that she shows no look of horror at what she sees of his injuries. Instead, she makes the comment (in this version) “You’ve been burned. Again.” Rather than the sadness and disgust one might expect to feel during the burn treatments, they are relatively easy to read, well researched, and necessary to the plot. Marianne is a patient in the hospital and it is believed she has psychological disorders... or does she? Attempts to bar her from visiting him in the burn unit are to no avail. He shortly afterward requests every psychology book he can get, particularly relating to schizophrenia, from the psychiatrist who befriends him.

Throughout “The Gargoyle”, Marianne visits him, later arranging for him to share her home and accept her for his care and recovery. She relates several stories of her life over the previous seven centuries and about how she came to meet him again and again. There is so much to be learned on many levels from this book and I found it engrossing. Oh yes, there are gargoyles, or more correctly grotesques, but not in the way you might expect. I do not want to put any spoilers in this review, so let it be said that whether fanciful or real, the ending will leave you with questions both answered and unanswered. I have never read a book quite like this but the one thing that is consistent is pure selfless love. Suspend your belief for a while and enjoy this surprising and fascinating debut! My congratulations to Andrew Davidson, this is one extraordinary book.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Sister by Poppy Adams

A debut book. This book is unique, very different from others I've read. I did enjoy it, and it did take me by surprise at the end of the book. To quote the first two lines of the book "It's ten to two in the afternoon and I've been waiting for my little sister, Vivi, since one-thirty. She's finally coming home, at sixty-six years old, after an absence of nearly fifty years." The story ostensibly takes place over 6 days, but is so full of flashbacks that it actually covers over 50 years.

Poppy Adams has put together a story told in the mind and perhaps faulty recollections of Virgina (Ginny), the older of two sisters. Ginny recalls the family as being happy and comfortable, but to her younger sister Vivien (Vivi) it appears the opposite. Ginny & Vivi are quite close until Vivi is serious hurt in a bad fall, which eventually is a catalyst for Vivi to move to London from the village where the family mansion was located. The book is a goldmine for anyone who has the least interest in lepidopterology (the study of moths & butterflies). Clive, the girls' father, is a renowned lepidologist and spends almost all his time involved in this, and trains Ginny to follow in his footsteps. It would appear the only constants in Ginny’s life, real or imagined, are time and moths. The whole story resembles a moth from cocoon to metamorphosis. Her attachment to time appears to me to be more symbolic.

There is something different about Ginny. She seems separated from life, or from living life. She has the ability to escape within herself to avoid learning about life or living in it. Her sister Vivi is the opposite. Ginny appears to be withdrawn, but it is much more than that. For a child witnessing it so young in her father’s lab, perhaps the innate cruelty of studying and experimenting with moths is one of the reasons Ginny does not really develop emotionally. But do we ever really know her? Does she know herself? Throughout most of the book I felt like I understood her “oddities”. The whole family seems to coddle Ginny, especially her mother Maude, who is her refuge. But eventually Maude is no longer able to handle the distancing of her husband and as Ginny gets more involved with her father’s work, she becomes more distant too. Maude is left virtually alone in the huge house as the others spend their time locked away in the lab or out hunting moths. This is a bad turning point for Maude and for Ginny. At this point the feel of the book also changes and the reader begins to realize that they quite possibly don't understand any of the characters. As Maude sinks deeper & deeper into her own nightmare world of depression and alcoholism, the whole family begins to fall apart. I began to think I didn't really know if anyone was as they seemed. Maude's questionable death only adds impetus to the disintegration of all their lives.

At the end of the book I am left with wondering just who was responsible for Maude's death. Everything turns around and I can only speculate. I think the important thing to remember in tying up the loose ends, is that the story is told from Ginny's mind. I think the symbolism is the only way to try to get at the truth. One of the few constants throughout the book is time, a brilliant, Hitchcock-type of background. I almost heard the ticking in the background! I couldn’t garner the answers from Ginny's mind, it functions in a radically different way. I am not even persuaded now in thinking back that she was involved with the research following Clive's demise at all. Even arthritic as she was, her mind tells her that she is a famous lepidopterist, so I can't see her letting the condition of the lab deteriorate to such a degree. She doesn't even seem to have known of its condition yet she was planning on showing her research to the entomologists. This would only make sense if she believed they would never be coming. I felt I was so deep into the mind of Ginny that I began to find it difficult to separate what is true and what is fantasy. Was she as brilliant as we have been led to believe? I don't know. At one point I thought she may have had the savant syndrome with autism, but her brilliance may have been in her own mind. And therein lies the paradox. Perhaps the author intended to leave questions unanswered but hinted at, to keep us trying to put our own slant on what has been happening all along.

The use of one clock in her room at the end of the book is again symbolic, she is in an orderly world and does not have to be connected to anyone, even Helen, who is there but not a threat A well-written book, but not at all easy to describe.

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

My rating 4 stars, simply because I can't up it by 1/2.
I feel that the book was somewhat predictable, but well researched, and entertaining. A rare handling of the subject. My congratulations to Kate Morton for a uniquely handled novel that covers a lot more ground than would appear at a quick glance (not that anyone should consider a quick glance!)

This book is a gently-told narrative that brings the reader into the Edwardian period and takes us right through into the 1920s, with all its changes in society and mores. Living through the eyes of Grace, our narrator at the age of 98, the story comes alive. It is 1999 and her memories are awakened by Ursula, whose project is to tell the story of the House at Riverton to be featured in a film, reflecting on the historical significance of the family and household. Grace agrees to be interviewed about her recollections of life with the prestigious Ashbury family, against the wishes of her caretaker/companion Sylvia.

At the urging of her mother, Grace is hired on as a housemaid in this home to Lords and Ladies prior to WWI. The staff is fairly close-knit and she is treated well. There are three children related to the family visiting when she arrives and she forms a bond of sorts with them, in particular with Hannah, a rather independent young lady.

Grace tells the tale of the many unexpected but ceaseless changes (some very surprising) through her long life through the eyes of remembrance. But there is always a feeling of something not quite right as the story unfolds with an ongoing background of secrets untold and misunderstood. Our storyteller is one of the very few remaining witnesses to this history alive. She tells her story between brief interviews with Ursula, producer of the film, with whom she bonds and whose visits she begins to look forward to as time goes on. Between these interludes her story is told in word pictures of her mind, her memories become alive and she takes us with her. The two daughters of the original family are inextricably entwined with the life of Grace throughout. There is no difficulty in knowing when she is in the present and when she is in the past.

Everything is here, romance, missed opportunities, casualties of war (physically and psychologically) at a time when very little is known to help these victims, old-wealth class, rebellion against the place of women, and more, but there is something more human than we find in the usual Edwardian/Victorian era historical books, and always the hidden secrets are lurking about. It is a well-rounded book and an enjoyable read.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Stormy Weather by Paulette Jiles

Jiles has written an amazing book, passionate and descriptive. I have always heard of the "Dirty '30s", "Great Depression" and "Dustbowl" but through the lyrical prose and the voices of the characters of this book I now feel I have experienced it. Not just the hardships, but the survival instincts that come to the fore in times of disaster, as well as the humour and optimism that is the backbone of survival. This is one of the best books I have ever read. The descriptions of life and of environment are spellbinding. The characters are believable and well-defined. The story is set in 1930s Texas, for the most part telling the story of the hardy people who chased the oil from discovery to discovery, and particularly of Jeanine, the main character who grew from child to adult throughout the book. It is through her eyes we become witnesses. The endless search for work in the oil fields meant immediate shanty towns were set up whenever a new well was about to come in. The desperate and yet hopeful people continuously packing up and moving on when the flow slows down. Complete with a background of gambling, horse-racing rumbling alongside like an underground river, the book does not lose momentum through all this. Unfortunately, the very end for me tended to lose steam, possibly the author wanted to show the calm after the storm. At any rate, though complete, I felt it lacked the passion of the rest of the book. Nevertheless, I still highly recommend this book. You will not want to put it down.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Invisible Armies by Jon Evans

This is the first Jon Evans novel I have read. What an adventure in reading! This book is positively vibrating with intensity and action. If you want a book that you will not want to put down, this is the book for you. The action is constant with occasional breaks where you can catch your breath before again boarding that rollercoaster ride through the pages. I found that with all the switchbacks and turnabouts I was holding my breath. This book spun me around and topsy-turvy with every change in direction. At first I found the narrative bits a bit unsettling, somewhat like watching a TV program with voice-over narration for the blind, but I soon overcame that feeling with the dialogue and action.

The story begins with a somewhat typical girl, Danielle, doing a favour for a friend. She is soon literally fighting for her life and for humanity. Nobody is who they seem, nobody wants to trust anyone else. This book will amaze you in how far the world has actually come in technology, but don’t concern yourself with whether you will understand technobabble; it will usually be explained. I guess you could say technology is one of the heroes. Jon Evans has built a brilliant story which includes the best and worst in people, greed, awareness, and the survival instinct in all of us. It takes us to different countries and in dark places and communities which seem worlds away. I highly recommend this book, it is outstanding in its genre. If it weren’t for the few calm spots in the book, I would have had to read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. In fact, I finished it at 3:00 in the morning. You will not be unaffected.

Surviving the Odds by Jack Capell

Surviving the Odds:From D-Day to VE-Day With the 4th Division in Europe by Jack Capell
ISBN: 9781930053496
Author: Capell, Jack

Being a Canadian, most WWII books I have read have been Canadian also. That said, this book is extremely well-written, is told truthfully and remarkably straight-forward. This is the story of the undecorated heroes as told by one person who was there. These are the true heroes who fought in the front without questioning their duty and with no intention of giving up what they were fighting for. The book takes us from Capell’s early history and his journey into front line combat. Due to a mixup in his citizenship (he was born in Canada but lived almost his entire life in the U.S.) he was placed in the lowest ranks. What is interesting in the early part of the book is the number of mistakes made while still in training in the U.S. and England. This is unconscionable. This followed by the infamous error incurred during the landings on the beaches of Normandy, including the one that caused his division to be dropped in deep water in the wrong part of the beach, complete with the vehicle he was driving and managed through ingenuity to recover from the bottom. This is one of many instances throughout the book where soldiers' inventiveness saved their lives and others.

As has notably happened in both Canada and the United States, perhaps everywhere, after 40 to 50 years, many servicemen felt they were able to go back to that time in their recollections and hence we are able to benefit from the reliving of not only the hardships, horrors, chaos and deprivations suffered at these times, but also see the amazing strengths, faith, and indeed the humor which kept them going. So it goes in this book. It is strongly researched, but the memories come through as honest remembrances of actual acts, good or bad, no holds barred. That the author survived to tell his story is nothing short of a miracle, especially as a wireman, laying wire through enemy lines. In light of the “friendly fire” visited on his division so many times it’s remarkable that anyone survived the front lines. This story demonstrates humanity among inhumanity. The story is conversational in tone and very easy to read considering it’s content. I highly recommend this book for it’s integrity, it’s ability to bring the experiences to a new level of understanding, and it’s unfaltering faith. I firmly believe this book needed to be written, for what is the use of reading literature by the observers? This is literature by a full-time player.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Review for "A Promise of Hope"

I thought I would start this discussion with a book I thought was important and very well-written. The full title is A Promise of Hope: The Astonishing True Story of a Woman Afflicted With Bipolar Disorder and the Miraculous Treatment That Cured Her" and here is my short version of my review:
This book brings the reader inside the mind of a Bi-Polar Disorder patient in her own words. All the chaos, highs, lows, delusions, anger, and deep depression are felt in a way that could not ever be accurately described by anyone who has not lived the story. Autumn Stringam has lived the story. It is told with no holds barred in the still voice that is often seen in trauma victims describing what has happened to them. This is a real life, Autumn lived this life and tells the truth as it is, plain and simple, with suspense as to what will happen with the discovery, and the final outcome. Read it, you will be glad you did.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Welcome to R&B: Read & Blog

Welcome everyone with an interest in reading and discussing books. I do most of my reading at night, hence my nickname. My particular interest is Mysteries of almost all genres, but also read a great variety of books. My husband & I are retired, 67 years old and moved to Northern British Columbia from the Lower Mainland, where at this time we still have anywhere from 2-3 ft. of snow on the property as of March 9/08. Please try to keep related discussions somewhat together, so everyone knows what it is in answer to (if indeed it is in answer to), or just start a new topic. You can discuss whole books, parts of books, characters in books, authors, readers, as long as it somehow relates to books or reading (e-books and children's books are quite acceptable). I want this to be an enjoyable adventure. If you have found some good related sites, by all means please post them.
I do have a site I've used many times to learn about authors and series, particularly mystery & fantasy: Books-n-Bytes
I receive ARCs (Advanced Reading Copy) sometimes and review them. I will post the reviews on this blog as well. You are free to comment on the reviews as well as the books and don't forget to post any reviews you write.