2.20.2017

The Orphan's Tale

The Orphan's TaleThe Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pam Jenoff, former diplomat for the US State Department and noted writer of historical fiction that focuses on WWII, learned about The Unknown Children and European circuses that helped to rescue Jews when she visited Yad Vashem. The two women protagonists in this novel, Astrid and Noa, meet each other and become allies - almost sisters - because of these two specific aspects of the Shoah.

Pretty blonde Noa, driven from her Dutch home by her enraged and shamed family for becoming pregnant by a German soldier, is forced to give up her baby boy by a German home for unwed mothers. The only work she can find is cleaning a tiny train station, through which cars pass daily, carrying Jews. One day, she dares to investigate faint sounds from a stopped train. She opens the door and reels from the stench surrounding piles of babies, some living, most dead. No one is guarding this train; these prisoners are unlikely to escape. On an impulse, she takes one of the babies from the car and runs - and runs - almost dying in the bleak cold of a German forest.

Astrid, a Jewish circus trapeze artist, had left the circus to marry a German soldier. He divorces her, one day, on orders from above: the Reich has ordered all Aryan soldiers to divorce their Jewish wives. She finds her way back to where a rival Jewish circus is rehearsing for its spring season; her own family's circus has been destroyed, its members probably shipped to camps or killed on the spot. The owner, Herr Neuhoff, remembering her from childhood and knowing that she is a star aerialist, hires and protects her to the extent of his power - mostly bribes of money and cognac to the soldiers whose inspections terrify them all.

Noa and the baby, Theo,are taken in by the circus and allowed to stay - if she can become a trapeze performer. Astrid is tasked to train her. The reader meets other circus members, including a Jewish clockmaker and a bitter, disillusioned clown - once Russian royalty - whose act becomes too political for safety.

The novel is told from two viewpoints - Astrid's and Noa's. Each woman is given extraordinary powers of description and observation, giving the reader a gritty, ultra-realistic experience of the life these itinerants have lived, and continue to live as they make do with rations, deprivation, and virtual enslavement in a country becoming more brutal as its power begins to wane.

This is an engrossing, nightmare-producing, rich book. I read it in a day, a long day, punctuated by dark thoughts and tears. Rating it has been difficult. The writing is pungent and specific. But it fails, to me, in the sameness of the voices of the two young women, whose lives have been so different but whose vocabulary and phrasing are so alike, and in plotting, especially in the last third of the book. Nonetheless, the book is important, and gives the reader a glimpse into lesser-known aspects of the Shoah.

I received this book as an ARC. 



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10.20.2016

Field Guide to the end of the World

 Field Guide to the End of the World: PoemsField Guide to the End of the World: Poems by Jeannine Hall Gailey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the world of Jeannine Hall Gailey's field guide, the end came with neither a bang nor a whimper. Instead, it seems to have come as the sun flickered and flamed - a wayward sun, with "chilled sunshine leaving its dying rays on your face as we waved good-bye, good luck, barefoot on the wrecked beach." Our guide tells us to "keep a steady eye on the whirling dervish of the sun" as she alternates between chronicles of the last survivors in a ruined world, and her lifelong struggle with her own genome, gone horribly wrong, turning her into a mutation ("We don't spout doll's heads from our wrists," she says), with her life collapsing like colonies of bees.

Don't consider me
another mutant gone wrong, my betrayals in the distant backstory, my tears
now flow a green ooze as I try to heal the land, cesium in the sunflowers
goat genes welded into innocent corn.

Near Fukushima, "former beauticians with Geiger counters test the dangers of homegrown carrots." That disaster, at least, could be studied and quantified, but could someone - or something - have seen the apocalyptic tipping point and changed history? "I never saw the Ferris wheel start its fatal roll," she mourns, and she "left out the open petri dishes of polio and plague next to the pasta." Was the tipping point so small, so homely?

Interspersed amongst poems of frantic, last-minute grabs at normalcy ("is now the time for cake?") are postcards from the road. At "Appalachian Chalet," she is "next to a granite-strewn stream that gurgles amid sunbeams as if the whole world never went wrong." Martha Stewart collects drones, burbles about the romance of hurricane lamps, and says that "razor wire goes beautifully with your holly thicket." From an Anthropologie catalog, she finds "strappy leather sandals perfect for sand-charred paths... a woven bamboo suitcase as the future dissipates." From HGTV, she sees "a lone shoe on a staircase, the last vestige of someone's question: Take or leave? What, in the end, is essential baggage?"

Our guide is observant, bitterly funny, and dying. She muses about Dorothy in Oz (will she become "an eco-warrior in ruby heels" or create "a new phone app: Angry Flying Monkeys"?) and skewers the soothsayers and dream interpreters who would, inevitably, crop up and see Signs. "Beware foxes flying out your window; fractals indicate creativity...If the angel is spinning, it's time to pay attention." In this world, the "rough beast" (prophesied by Yeats in "Byzantium" as the center does not hold) does not slouch. This time, it is "the limping birth of the rough end of a dark age," one she has lived longer than most.

Once, she "looked away just as the plane plummeted." One thinks of Breughel's Icarus, in Auden's poem, as the ploughman never looks up to see "something amazing, a boy falling from the sky." "About suffering, they were never wrong, the Old Masters," observes Auden. Neither is our guide, who, seeing a baptism, says "you'll never be quite free no matter how you pray. You'll never claw the scales from your eyes."

Or will we? Perhaps there will be survivors, people to "pass the crayons back and forth, telling each other once more the story of creation, stories of genomes, while the kind rabbits scramble over hills out of the sun."

These are wonderful, chewy, imaginative poems that will haunt you and make you observe. Thank you, Serena Agusto-Cox of Poetic Book Tours, for including me in this round. Follow the link for more reviews.



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10.17.2016

The Widow's House

The Widow's HouseThe Widow's House by Carol Goodman


Very atmospheric, with undertones that range from Rebecca and Rosemary's Baby to The Haunting of Hill House and Harvest Home. Not that this novel is derivative at all -- it's a truly engrossing and labyrinthine story of writers reconnecting with a former mentor in an octagonal house in upstate New York. They interact in the heart of apple country, with local folklore that may or may not be true, but certainly influences everyone's reality. As wonderful as Carol Goodman's previous Gothic-tinged novels.

Thanks to Edelweiss for the ARC.


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10.04.2016

Summerlong

SummerlongSummerlong by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A reader can always count on Peter S. Beagle to create a clear and gentle setting, one that the reader wishes she could escape to. In this case, it's an island off the coast of Seattle, with clear waters for kayaking, a long-established diner, and a long-established, older couple, settled into comfortable patterns. Abe writes scholarly books and works on perfecting his harmonica skills. Del is a flight attendant whose senses and sensibilities seem to provide clarity. Into this setting drops an enigma - an ethereally lovely young woman named Lioness - and the patterns slowly unravel as everyone falls in love with her. Even Nature seems to fall in love with her, as flowers grow wild and breezes stay balmy.

But what is she? Where did she come from? How does she do - what she does - who is she running from?

Beagle's descriptions are golden, as always, and a certain wistfulness pervades, as always. The reader might not be happy with the outcome of this novel, but myths don't always end well, do they?

Highly recommended.

I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for a review.





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7.03.2016

The secret language of stones

The Secret Language of Stones: A Novel (The Daughters of La Lune, #2)The Secret Language of Stones: A Novel by M.J. Rose
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another lush, exciting, total-immersion novel from the pen of M.J. Rose, second in a series (but completely self-contained). In this novel, Opaline (daugher of Sandrine, the witch from The Witch of Painted Sorrows) is a Parisian jeweller during WWI. Her mentor is a grieving Russian royalist who hopes that the Romanovs will return to power, and whose friends and family do what they can in exile to thwart the Bolshevik spies. Opaline makes artistic pieces and creates wristwatches for soldiers, but her specialty is making amulets of crystals and hair from dead soldiers that allow her to hear the voices of the dead, and to pass on their last thoughts or wishes to grieving mothers.

There are so many descriptions of the jewels, the enamelwork (especially Faberge eggs), and fabrics, so many scents, so many scenes of Parisians trying to live their lives despite the bombings and the spies (German and Russian) who use ancient tunnels - so many! It's impossible not to be caught up in the narrative and to hope that peace and beauty will prevail, despite devastation, loss, and dishonor running rampant. Do take a look at the author's Pinterest page to get a sense of the times and places.

I am looking forward to the next book in this series.

Thank you, NetGalley, for giving me an ARC of this book in exchange for a review.



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6.26.2016

The Couple Who Fell To Earth

The Couple Who Fell to EarthThe Couple Who Fell to Earth by Michelle Bitting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once, when I was a teenager, I was called out by an English teacher for having the arrogance to bring Finnegan's Wake into into the classroom. "You can't understand that book until you've LIVED!" she said. Well, truth is, to this day, I haven't read it all, but now, as then, I dip in for the joy of finding a phrase that sings or vibrates or tingles.

I found myself dipping into this book the same way. Although I read these poems through, more than once, and I could write much about their narratives, I find myself enjoying the singing, tingling phrases so much that they almost distract me. The poems that touch on the experience of writing, especially, zing out of the page. On viewing an ancient statue of a lion attacking a horse, Bitting writes "There's a poem in here somewhere / And I'll kill what I have to to get it." Musing on a favored pen, she says "This pitch plastic wand / scratches the page / tapered streamlined / to say / what I want to tell it ... You're doing it again / pretending a pen / could crack those squawking sounds / like magic candy strings / wings and claws / scratching wet ink..." She writes in a cafe ("to confront my double Americano and the empty plate of a black notebook... we are still recipes short of sating hoards of unfed souls"), and at home, in the early morning ("the rest still hard at dreaming / in rooms light years away").

We also see the poet as she remembers tearing open presents on Christmas morning( "the havoc of never enough"), investigating a mining shaft ("click/ of my empty lunch pail / its skull licked clean", and investigating a park with her son.

And then, there are those images that leap out of the poems, images that do not need context to grab your attention, like this --
"...bright coin / tumbled back on blue pools that rippled open / like chakras on an amusement park ride..."
or this
"The way Aunt Mary's sweaters smelled of death and peppermint..."
or this
"...Even the terrorist's shoes fit feet just like your own..."

However you read this book, whether for story or sparks of imagery, it will stay with you and move you. Highly recommended.

Thank you, Serena Agusto-Cox, for including me in the Poetic Book Tour for this book. I received an ARC in exchange for a review.



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5.30.2016

The summer before the war

The Summer Before the WarThe Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How controversial is a Latin teacher named Beatrice? In 1914, in the small English town of Rye, a woman teaching Latin is shocking. Shocking! Beatrice Nash, who was her scholarly father's assistant, travel agent, and budget manager until his death, has two choices: remain at her stingy and disapproving aunt's house, or work. She chooses work.

Rye, although its more titled and tony citizens are conservative and easily shocked, has undercurrents of sophistication and modernity that Beatrice taps into immediately. She meets a serious surgical student, Hugh, and his flamboyant, poetic cousin, Daniel, both watched over and protected by their aunt Agatha. Her students include Snout, a Romany boy whose innate talent for Latin is suspect in his own community and the outside. Circumstances also bring her into the circle of notable residents, including a freethinking woman photographer, a novelist whose entry into social circles is blocked because of a divorce in her past, and a portly, portentous novelist who clearly is styled on Henry James.

The peaceful summer is the prequel to England's entry into the War. Many local men are called to fight in the bloody trenches, hospitals, or officer corps. How the townspeople adjust depends not only on their wealth, title, and status, but also the emotional toll of expectations and loss.

What will the dreamy Daniel do when his partner-in-poetry, Craigmore, is forced to enlist when his father hears Daniel's scandalous poem about his son? What of Snout, who realizes that his Romany heritage will mean that he will never have the opportunity to use his scholarship? And how will the haughty townspeople react to the hoardes of Belgian refugees they are forced to take in?

The gentry set up super-patriotic organizations, including a chapter of the St. George Recruitment Brigade, in which fetchingly-dressed young women pressure young men to enlist, handing those who resist a white feather, symbol of cowardice. They also plan a parade and exhibition, including Daniel's model trench, tastefully decorated and supplied with shelves for books of poetry. Marrows are judged, young people pick hops and dance, students translate the Aenid before they march off to war. So it goes.

The texture of life in Rye changes with some room for growth and tolerance, and with tragedies mixed in with the small but vital victories, both personal and political. As in Simonson's first book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, the reader gets to know this texture, and comes to care about - and root for - the townspeople and the town.

Highly recommended. One star subtracted because the ending seemed disappointingly hasty.

I received this book as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.



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2.20.2016

Journey to Munich

Journey to Munich (Maisie Dobbs, #12)Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Maisie Dobbs is one of the most complex characters I've followed in any fictional series, regardless of genre. In this book, the reader follows her as she accepts a request to go to Munich to rescue a British industrialist who has been imprisoned in Dachau for two years. She is still trying to process the tragedies that befell her in the last book, she has no permanent home in London, she has no profession, and she has suffered so many losses that even the lessons she learned from her beloved mentor, Maurice, do not seem to center her. Never the less, she accepts the challenge.

Once in Munich, she learns that Hitler is about to launch his incursion into Austria, Jewish and Christian children have to hide if they wish to play together, and citizens can be tortured if they fail to reply to soldiers' salutes to the Fuhrer. She also begins to apply the meditation and visualization techniques that strengthen her resolve and her soul. She will need all the strength she can muster to find the industrialist, fulfill a promise to a grieving mother, and pull her life back together once this trial is over.

I admire Maisie Dobbs for her courage, honesty, and willingness to be open to reality, regardless of where it leads her. I admire Jacqueline Winspear more, of course, for having the breadth of imagination and skill to bring this character to life.

I received an ARC of this book from Eidelweiss. This is an honest review.
 



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2.12.2016

Devonshire Scream

Devonshire Scream (A Tea Shop Mystery #17)Devonshire Scream by Laura Childs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another delicious, fragrant tea shop mystery? Yes, of course! This time, Theo is catering a glittering jewelry show in her friend's store when a gang of ruthless thieves break through the windows and glass cases. Not only do the jewels get nabbed, but her friend's young niece is killed by a deadly shard. Over the next few days, Theo's sleuthing reveals many suspects, from wealthy yacht-owners to literary outliers. Will she be able to help nab the guilty without endangering herself or her friends?

She also gets to serve up some truly splendid-sounding theme teas. Don't try to read this book unless you have a steady supply of hot, aromatic tea and nibbles handy.

I took off one star because of a bit of haphazard characterization that really doesn't impact the story, but proved a little distracting.

Thank you, NetGalley, for the ARC. This is a fair review.



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1.25.2016

Knitlandia

Knitlandia: A Knitter Sees the WorldKnitlandia: A Knitter Sees the World by Clara Parkes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Clara Parkes, whose first subject as a professional writer was travel, takes us on a tour of knitting and fiber festivals. Some of her adventures as a yarn evangelist are set in venues that thousands of knitters have shared -- Rhinebeck, Taos, Scotland, Portland, Maryland. Some tell background stories of festivals and events we dream of attending - Squam, TNNA, Vogue Knitting Live, Madrona. We are there at Sock Summit for the first knitting flash mob, we are in Denver to film "Knitting Daily" (as she is encased in makeup that makes her feel "like Ronald MacDonald in drag," and we go along on a tour of sheep-intensive Iceland. Always, there is pho, her comfort food, and yarn, in all of its incarnations and manifestations.

My favorite moments are in Paris, where she breaks a promise (no yarn! just family!) and visits a petting zoo of a shop" that offers yarn and tea. Years before, she tells us, she fell in love with fountain pens in Paris. How can anyone not be delighted with this book?

Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy in exchange for a fair review.



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1.13.2016

Be sure and visit me at my main blog, Tea Leaves, where I write about life, liberty, and knitting - and the occasional book...

1.09.2016

No Cats Allowed

No Cats Allowed (Cat in the Stacks, #7)No Cats Allowed by Miranda James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Librarian Charlie Harris and his insanely huge large Maine Coon cat, Diesel (so named for the quality of his purring) are trying to be civil to the interim library director, but he's such a conniving, foul creature that even the ever-affectionate feline can't abide him. The feeling is mutual, as Charlie learns when the mean man bans his cat from the library, fires people without warning or reason, and acts as if he is out to change the workplace into a gulag.

If only those were the only problems facing the pair! The cat-hating ogre creep is killed in a uniquely library manner, to no one's real surprise or dismay, but the clues are pointing to Charlie's friend Melba instead of - well, instead of to whom?

I've loved each of the "Cat in the Stacks" mysteries for their humor, cheerful depiction of small-town habitues, and - of course - the wonderful, vocal Diesel. Librarians will love the spot-on depictions of behind-the-stacks goings-on. Recommended to anyone who loves well-written mystery series.

I was given an ARC of this book for review by NetGalley.



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12.28.2015

Knitting Pearls

Knitting Pearls: Writers Writing About KnittingKnitting Pearls: Writers Writing About Knitting by Ann Hood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Knitters, in my experience, are readers as well. We don't just read about knitting, although many famous knitters are also writers who write about knitting. Perhaps I generalize, but I believe that a collection of essays about knitting is designed to appeal mainly to knitters, since the editor will expect us to identify and empathize with them.

With a few exceptions, this collection will satisfy. Those exceptions are essays in which knitting is so tangential to the essay that one wonders why they were included, or in which the author calls knitters and knitting "...a chew-gum-and-walk-at-the-same-time crowd and an occupation ideal for a zombie. What does he know?

Some examples of excellence:
-- Anne Bartlett, whose growth as a knitter and novelist includes designing an intarsia version of a Scott Joplin rag while editing a book about former cannibals. (Former!)
-- Jared Flood, whose father gives him an old, iconic sweater knitted by his mother, "a veritable Swiss Army knife" of crafting.
-- Clara Parkes, who sees her UFOs* and calls them "beautiful limerence of our first few rows rows together... my personal museum of optimism." (*for the muggles, UFOs are unfinished objects.)
-- Diana Gabaldon, who says "everything you experience forms you as a writer. Why should knitting be an exception?"

Those who do not knit have insights, too - Jane Hamilton, for example, who lives on a sheep form, but chooses not to knit the beautiful, soft yarn milled from her flock. She lived for one summer with the last authentic creator of Harris Tweed, Miss Campbell. There, in the Outer Hebrides, she scraped lichen for dyes while the old woman spun and wove, selling fabric from her kitchen. Hamilton even knitted a scarf, but only because she was cut off from her family except for aerogrammes, deprived of radio and television, and forbidden by Miss Campbell to read. The scarf turned out so "...alarming that probably in this day and age TSA would shut the place down" when she discarded the thing at the airport. A novel is a miracle, she writes, and she has chosen "the miracle of language, the texture and song of speech... so absent on the heath" for her own life's work, her own material.

The book disappoints in two important ways. The first: it is arranged alphabetically by author, not by theme, and thus seems haphazard. The second: what were they thinking? Including six knitting patterns without even line drawings to tempt the reader to try them?

Recommended, in small doses, for knitters and for fans of the included authors.

I received this book from Goodreads, and this is a fair review.



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12.24.2015

Loving Eleanor

Loving EleanorLoving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is excellent on so many levels! As fiction, it enchants, as reporter Lorena Hickock meets, loves, and mentors Eleanor Roosevelt, whose aversion to being a public persona is transformed - to the benefit of the United States, but not always those who love her. How much time and energy can one woman have?

Based on extensive research, including the enormous trove of letters between these two fascinating women, Loving Eleanor is a glimpse into the life of a pioneering woman journalist, and the times she reported on - including the most dire poverty of the Depression. Without Hick's advice, Eleanor would not have written the columns ("My Day") that endeared her to the masses. Without Hick's reporting (and company on trips to mining camps), Eleanor's understanding of how people were suffering would have been secondhand.

Some of the details in this book, such as the lives of people so poor they could only offer a bowl of tumbleweed soup to visitors, are so graphic that your heart will ache. Others, such as the gradual realization by Hick that the post-political idyll she wanted for herself and Eleanor will never happen, are heartbreaking in a very personal way.

I'm grateful to Albert for including endnotes and an extensive bibliography -- I want to learn more about both of these women, and their times.

Recommended. Thank you, NetGalley, for giving me an ARC to read and review.



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12.20.2015

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Be sure and visit me at my main blog, Tea Leaves, where I write about life, liberty, and knitting - and the occasional book...