Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Tea Rose - Jennifer Donnelly



A tale about a strong woman - Fiona Finnegan. She belongs to a tight-knit Irish family that eeks a living in the businesses that hug the Thames River, East London of the 1880's. Jack the Ripper is terrorizing the people of Whitechapel, the dock workers are trying to unionize, schools for the youngsters of the working class are few and far between, the women of the Finnegan family work long hours doing laundry for middle class families or working in a sweatshop warehouse at packing and labelling the tea that comes onto the wharves of the Thames. There is much business going on, but the poor don't seem to be able to drag themselves out of poverty. 

The one big dream Fiona has is to save money with her life-long love, Joe Bristow, so that they can marry and start a shop of their own. They long to be their own bosses and live a secure life tending a shop business. When Joe has the opportuity to move across London to Covent Garden and work at a green grocer's wholesale business, the couple agree that its for the best. But life changes and Joe and Fiona are broken apart by one stupid mistake that Joe makes and lives to regret. Fiona's family falls apart when her father is killed in a sudden accident at the docks. Things get far worse as time passes and Fiona begins to fade until one horrific coincidence rattles her so deeply that her sense of righteous indignation brings her back to fighting form.

Fiona gathers her remaining family and sets off to better herself. With a promise to exact revenge on those who ruined her family and her inital dreams, Fiona carves a new path for herself. The story takes a turn and becomes a tale of two countries ... the gritty world of the docks in London and the rough and tumble world of New York's immigrant neighborhoods. Fiona does make her way, but it's not without constant challenge and her own 'demons in the closet' that haunt her and threaten ruin. 

No spoilers here ... this is a novel packed with characters and situations that keep you reading. At times, it's utterly predictable, but the characters are plentiful and colorful. The action is fast-paced and the villians are just so hateful that one reads on just to make sure they get their reward. Fiona Finnegan is an extremely likeable character. Seeing her shed her poor Cockney identity and escape the horrors of Whitechapel and the grinding poverty of the labor class in Britain was enough to keep me reading.

I do love a good romantic tale and this one satisfies. Jennifer Donnelly doesn't shy away from dropping the names of the famous, placing her characters smack dab in the middle of big historical eras, and weaving her story tightly around famous events. I recently read her novel called Revolution and liked that one as well. The Tea Rose was a nice return to a newly discovered author. I'll be looking for her other books as well.



Monday, January 19, 2015

The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton



A tale of a marriage of convenience in 17th century Amsterdam that goes horribly wrong. A tale that tells of the way in which a young woman comes to terms with the domestic disaster that her husband's lifestyle and his family's secrets create.

The main character is a likeable young woman, Petronella, who is married off  by her widowed mother to a hugely successful merchant in Amsterdam. Nella has no real dowry, only an old and established family name that will not take her far when her father dies and leaves the family in sad financial straits. Being a good wife to her new husband is foremost in her mind, as she travels from rural Holland to the bustling neighborhood in the Golden Loop of Amsterdam. There, she is ensconced in a house on one of the main canals and left to her own devices. The house is governed by her husband's cold and autocratic sister, Marin. When Johannes Brandt, her new husband, abandons her for his work, his favorite dogs, and his constant  business socializing, Nella is left to wonder when her marriage will be consummated, when she can expect to take the reins of the household, when she will know love, when she will become a mother, when she might just begin to take some control over her life.

Increasingly unhappy and confused by Johannes' strange behavior, Nella decides to approach him, to make sexual overtures, to fulfill her Christian duty as a wife, but she is rebuffed. To make up for his neglect Johannes delivers a gift of a large cabinet 'dollhouse' that is an exact replica of the Amsterdam house in which Nella and Johannes live. It is empty until Nella writes a note to a miniaturist, asking for the first small items to feather this nest.

As Nella comes to know the members of her household and as the miniaturist begins sending small packets for Nella's cabinet, Nella becomes sure that the miniaturist is guiding her gently on her voyage into Amsterdam society and into the secrets of her strange and unsettling new life. Things are not what they seem. The entanglements of Marin and Johannes lead to tragedy and Nella is left to pick up the pieces and use every ounce of survival skill to navigate the strict social circles that she has been forced to join in Amsterdam's competitive merchant class.

This was such an interesting book, but it was very dark and almost Gothic in its atmosphere. Poor Nella lives in a house of closed curtains, rooms with chill fires, whispered conversations behind closed doors, late night assignations, shadows at hall corners and the sense of always being watched and judged. The oppression is palpable, but the sense of relief is liberating when in the end, nella does take charge of her destiny.

Jessie Burton must have lived in Amsterdam for a good while, as she captures the bustle of the city perfectly. The landmarks around which she places her characters are beautifully described and the 'air of the city' is made real in her written description. I love it when that happens, as I'm reading good historical fiction. And this is good historical fiction ...

I highly recommend this book ... it's a page turner that will keep you up late!



Monday, January 12, 2015

Dark Places - Gillian Flynn



Last year, Gillian Flynn's mystery, Gone Girl was a runaway bestseller. It was almost immediately released in a film adaptation that was equally well-received.  I came to the novel well after all the hoopla was flying around the media world. I don't know how I'd managed not to have the novel's twists and turns ruined for me, but I was lucky. When I picked up the book, I was approaching it without any experience of Flynn's tight writing style or previous works. It was such a fine read! Intricate and finely calibrated to expose little clues and bits of each character's personality at a time, it made me read carefully and wonder about the slightest little action or bit of dialogue. To say that the twists and turns of the story surprised me would be an understatement. I was flabberghasted by the ending and thought about the book for days after finishing it. And then, I began to wonder just how the movie version could ever come close to the level of workmanship that was put into the expository nature that Flynn used to tell her story. For that reason, I  still have not seen the movie. I just don't want the story to be ruined for me.

Instead, I have picked up Ms. Flynn's previous novel called Dark Places. Once again, I have been drawn into a mystery that has me guessing. This time, the story revolves around a horrid murder spree that occurs in a small farming community in Kansas during the 1980's.

The Day family is a farming family that is in crisis. Patty Day and her children are trying desperately to keep the family farm from foreclosure. Patty's divorced husband has ruined the farm through overspending on machinery, bad management decisions, and drinking. He's split when the going got rough and saddled Patty with four kids, debt, and overwork. It's all Patty can do to keep the chores done, straggle along making late payments on debts by 'robbing Peter to pay Paul', and keep her children fed, clothed, and on time for school Times are rough. To boot, her eldest child, fifteen year old, Ben, is struggling to come into his own as a teenager and as the lone male left in the family. Living with a house full of women is tough and Ben is feeling rebellious and increasingly bitter about the level of poverty that the family is experiencing. to say that his relationship with his mother is strained is an understatement.

On a cold night in January, Patty and her daughters, Debby and Michelle are brutally murdered. The weapons are an axe from the barn, a hunting knife, and the family's shotgun. The youngest daughter, Libby wakes to hear screaming and scuffling, the sounds of a struggle, thumping, shots, and shouting. She retreats to the bedroom window, falls out of it and scrabbles into the brush by one of the farm's streams. By morning, when all is silent, she makes her way back to the house to find a scene that will damage her forever. Ben has gone missing, but everyone else is horribly dead.

Jump to the present, Libby Day has grown up living on 'the kindness of strangers'. She's broke though. The funds that were donated at the time of the notorious investigation and trial that buzzed around her brother Ben have been depleted. Libby, a hardened and severely damaged young woman, has to figure a way to survive. So ... she returns to that horrible experience to milk it one more time. In doing so, she must confront the investigation, the trial and her part in convicting her brother to life without parole. Did she really understand what was happening on that January night or was she coerced to testimony by the prosecution and the social services workers who counselled ?

This is a tight story that flits back and forth between the hours leading up to the murder as experienced by Ben and Patty and the present day experiences of Libby as she forces herself to return to that day and evening of the murders. It's another page-turner, deep with great character development and intricate plot twists. Played out against the farming crisis of the 80's, society's fear of teenage rebelliousness and the heavy metal rock influences that spawned the fear of Satanic cult activity, the prejudices of farmers against their peers who were struggling to survive financially, and 80's child abuse scares that were prevalent in media, this is a novel that exposes those dark places.

No spoilers here ... but if you can stand the darkness of the tale, this is one good mystery !



Eleanor & Park - Rainbow Rowell


Consider me having joined the legions of fans that have read this book and fallen hard for the two characters that collide in the tumultuous chaos of the school bus and are brought together by the creed that one is a 'bully, a lackey, or one of the nameless rabble'. Band together for survival!

Eleanor is new to the neighborhood. She's just been allowed to return to her family , after being kicked out by her stepfather. Her mother and brothers and sister are cowed by the verbal and physical abuse that her step father metes out. Her family is in crisis and they don't even seem able to help themselves. Eleanor's walking on eggs. To boot, she's the red-headed carrot top with more pounds on her than is stylish for the high school mean girl set. Her wild sense of style comes from a combination of defense mechanism thinking, thrift store chic, and teenage rebellion. She's a great target for all the crap that bullies can hand out.

Park is a 'put your head down and survive' kinda guy. He's the one Korean kid in a sea of heartland white bread highschoolers. He survives the chaos of high school by choosing a small group of friends, keeping a low profile, submersing himself in the punk and alternative music of the 80's and staying close to home. His home, in a hard scrabble neighborhood outside Omaha, is 'an oasis', as his family is intact and relatively happy. His parents love and respect each other. His grandparents live right next door. The family is involved with each other and watches out for each other. Life's not all roses for Park, though. His relationship with his ex-military man Dad is tough. His Dad's expectations of Park sometimes make him feel inferior and he struggles with his own teenage rebellious feelings when his Dad puts down his music, his sense of style, his sensitivity, and his apparent inability to learn to drive using a stick shift.

School could be a refuge for Eleanor, but when she steps on the school bus on the first day back with her family, she's greeted by a teen clic culture that has the potential to push her over the edge. And it's then, that Park, looking sideways, slides his backpack out of the way and mutters for her to 'just sit down'. From then on, the voyage to and from school becomes the petri dish for a growing relationship that is so endearing and addicting to read ...

Rainbow Rowell write in short bullets that alternate back and forth between Eleanor's and Park's point of view. Their feelings unfold in bits and starts until they finally befriend each other over the comic books and music that Park shares with Eleanor. Opening up to each other, each cautiously peels back the protective layers that have insulated them from the rough world of teenage culture. It's a tale of love, sacrifice, survival, and hope.

Yes, the language is a raunchy at times (like it is in real life, sometimes). Yes, there are tough issues (like there are in life for far too many young people). Yes, sex is a huge part of the undercurrent of the story (like it is in the minds and hearts of 99.9 % of the teenage world). And yes, Rainbow Rowell deals with all these elements of teenage life really well.

It's no wonder to me that this book has garnered its share of awards - the 2013 Boston Globe Horn Book Award, the 2014 Michael L. Printz Honor Award for YA Fiction, as well spots on the lists of best books of 2013 and 2014 that  the NYT, Publisher's Weekly, NPR, and Kirkus Reviews compile.

Whatever she's doing, she's doing it right. The book's movie rights have been purchased and she will be writing the screenplay for the film adaption, plus she's released her newest novel called Landline, plus she's signed on to produce two graphic novels in the next couple years.

Busy lady !!



Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Poetry Jam - Enough


Resolution

Enough is enough, you say
The effigy of seasonal indulgence
Gets dragged outside
No ceremony now
The match is lit and up it goes
Enough is enough, you say
I sweep the remains and think
We don’t need this bag of fudge
I have two sweaters
He has three cans of nuts
Let’s pass some where they need to go
We have enough

Your cheeks are cold and red
The deed’s been done
The pile of booty is made
No ceremony here
We look at all the excess and say
Yes to passing around the wealth
So sweaters socks fudge nuts scarves
Find their way to need and want
I touch your cheeks kiss you soundly
Kiss you again again again
Four times and more
That may be enough


Enough - This is the word that I will hold close this year. I resolve to have enough and no more. If more comes, I resolve to share it so others may have enough. Simple and simplifying ... 

shared at Poetry Jam

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Bucolic Plague - Josh Kilmer-Purcell



This couple of urbanites escape the rat race of New York City when they buy an historic home in Schoharie County, New York. That's when the real rat race begins ...

Josh and Brent head upstate to pick apples every fall, but in the fall of 2006 they happened upon a remote village that seemed dropped from another century. Sharon Springs, a little enclave in Schoharie County, rolled past their car windows in all its fall splendor. Its main drag was chock-a- block with old homes and commercial buildings that time had forgotten - turn of the century hotels, stores, rooming houses, bath houses, private homes that recalled the heyday of the town as a summertime retreat for those seeking the healing powers of the town's sulphur springs that belched both gases and water. The days of the sulphur spa passed and the town fell into a sort of Rip Van Winkle lethargy that spooked the Beekman boys, as they rolled into town. Yet, they stayed overnight at the local hotel, ate well, slept great, had good conversation with the local folks, and in the morning they grudgingly packed their duds and their apples and headed back to Manhattan. Josh Kilmer-Purcell moans about having to return to the workaday existence of the city even as the couple begins the drive back to the city. And then, an historic marker slides up on the right and the car brakes for a quick read, and the view of a beautiful old Federal colonial mansion is beyond the sign, and lo and freakin' behold, there's a realty sign. The place is for sale. The boys turn to stare at each other.

In a New York minute, their fates are sealed and the Beekman boys are moving willy-nilly toward a brush with mortgage bankers  AND nature that will change their lives! You can practically hear them humming the theme to Green Acres even as they're headed back to the city to begin the process of buying a country place and making a lifestyle change that will be the best thing they've ever done!

From then on, it's all dead flies, rotten eggs, baby goats, close encounters with farm machinery, making fast friends with the locals, brainstorming how to finance this grand scheme of escaping the big city, et cetera. It's great fun and really pretty funny, as Josh K-P has a wicked sense of humor and a writing style that is sarcastic, self-deprecating, and slightly barbed. I wondered what Martha Stewart thought of his accounts of their meeting and his comments on her lifestyle empire.

It's always nice to hear of a success story and the Beekman boys have been wildly successful in making the move upstate, building a marketing plan for their gentleman's farm, building their brand and cashing in on the commercial potential of their goat herd. To boot, Josh got his wish of retiring to the country and writing a memoir!

Smart! Very smart, Josh!



Monday, January 5, 2015

The Star of Kazan - Eva Ibbotson



I started reading The Star of Kazan while on a car trip to Vermont. By the time I'd finished the first chapter, I was so taken with Eva Ibbotson's writing style that I turned the radio off and re-read the first chapter aloud to my husband. We both agreed that this is a book that makes a great family read-aloud or audio book listen. Ibbotson has a bright sense of humor that comes across in her writing voice. She develops her characters by giving them concise, but telling dialogue and through wonderful description of the character's physical features and mannerisms. Of course, it helps, too, that she has a tip-top story to tell!

In the first chapter, Ellie and Sigrid, two Austrian domestic servants, take to the mountains on their day off to get fresh air and a brief escape from the whirl of Vienna. While off on their hike, Ellie's feet tire, so she stops into a wayside chapel to say a prayer for her deceased mother (and rest her feet from the new shoes she's wearing). Ellie nods off in the silence of the church and when she awakes she hears a tiny chirp or is it a mew? No! It's a baby - a foundling that has been left with a note pleading for the child to be taken to the nun's orphanage in Vienna.

Ellie and Sigrid can't possibly leave this little mite of a baby girl, so they take her back to Vienna with them, but alas! the nunnery is smack dab in the middle of an outbreak of typhus and all the residents are quarantined! So ... the child goes 'home' to their place of employment and the moment the little girl opens her eyes and looks at the three professors who employ the two women, the fate of the baby is sealed. She is named Annika and from that day on, she grows more dear to all the adults of the household and the residents of the little square on which the house is situated.

Ibbotson weaves a tale of family, childhood friendships, and neighborly relationships that is heart-warming. Annika grows into a bright, responsible, kind child, but she always wishes she could know her true mother even though Ellie adopts her and acts the part splendidly. And then one day, a tall elegant woman comes to the house on the square and introduces herself. Annika's mother has found her ... and THAT'S when things get really interesting!

Ibbotson's characters all have their own small stories that all come together to make a story that will have kids reading far past bedtime or begging for one more chapter. Her story was extremely well-received when it was published in 2004. It was short-listed for a Carnegie Medal and won the Nestle Children's Book Prize - Silver Award. It has since had two audio versions released and read by Patricia Connelly and Ruth Jones.  So, read it aloud to your favorite children or give them one of the audio versions. It's a funny, fun, magically wonderful story!

Note: In researching for this post, I found that Eva Ibbotson has since passed away - such a shame, as she told a good story! Rest in peace, dear lady!