Sunday, May 1, 2016

My Theodosia (Book Review)

Title: My Theodosia
Author: Anya Seton
Publication: Houghton Mifflin, Hardcover, 1941; Mariner, paperback, 2014
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: This is a fictional and fascinating account of the life of Theodosia Burr, the beautiful and well educated daughter of Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson, and their close relationship. Named for the mother who died when she was 11, Theodosia, at a very young age, married Joseph Alston, who was from a prominent South Carolina plantation family and later became Governor of that state. As a married woman, she faced many challenges, not least of which must have been adjustment to a very different way of life than her upbringing in New York City. She suffered through her father’s fateful duel with Alexander Hamilton (1804), lost her only child to illness (1812) and was involved in Burr’s bizarre attempt to annex Mexico, then ruled by Spain. When news of Burr’s plotting reached President Jefferson, he was disgraced and stood trial for treason, with Theodosia loyally at his side (1807).

Audience: Fans of historical fiction and American history; enthusiasts of Hamilton, the musical.  Everyone is reading Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton; why not read up on Theodosia Burr?

What I liked: I read this book so long ago I had forgotten most of the details but what always stuck in my mind was that despite his flaws, Burr loved his daughter, provided her with a classical education, very unusual for that era, and she also served as a graceful young hostess for him. After seeing Hamilton in November, I became curious about Theodosia. Fans of the musical know that Aaron Burr sings a song to his daughter, Dear Theodosia, and at the fateful duel exclaims, “This man will not make an orphan of my daughter.” (Hey, Aaron, shouldn’t you have thought of this before you issued the challenge??)
artist: John Vanderlyn
Seton’s portrayal of Burr is not dissimilar to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s: Burr is fiercely ambitious and somewhat paranoid. Burr is depicted as so determined to build support for his presidential candidacy that he bullies his beloved daughter Theodosia into marrying someone she barely knows and does not really like so he can acquire the support of powerful landowning families in the South. Throughout her marriage, she and her father remain close, much to the annoyance of her husband (and maybe to the reader - one almost wants her to see Aaron for what he is, yet her husband is so unsatisfactory, she needs to believe in a loving father). Theodosia’s life seems extremely sad, both in this novel and in other accounts, as she takes her father’s disgrace to heart and eventually dies under mysterious circumstances.

Despite the melancholy that pervades Theodosia’s adult life, I enjoyed the book and believe those curious about Burr and his daughter will find it extremely readable. It includes fascinating details about old New York. Seton also includes a possible romance between Theodosia and Meriwether Lewis, best known as the leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which explored the Louisiana Purchase. It appears they were acquainted but there is little evidence of a romantic relationship. I did not learn from the Childhood of Famous Americans biographies I once favored that Meriwether’s life also ended tragically young.

Anya Seton knew was it was like to have a famous father. She was the daughter of Ernest Thompson Seton, a well known writer and naturalist, who was instrumental in founding the Boy Scouts in America. According to her, she spent a lot of time in the Southwest as a child on a family ranch, and her name was suggested by a Sioux chief who was visiting the family shortly after her birth. He called her Anutika, which means “cloud-gray eyes,” so although she was named Ann, her family called her Anya.
Anya Seton
I became a fan of Seton after devouring a copy of Katherine at the library. I love this book about John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford but it seemed quite racy to junior high me so I hid it (inexpertly) under my pillow where, naturally, my mother came across it and, to my surprise, she told me it was a favorite of hers and that it had been serialized in the Ladies Home Journal in the 50s. My Theodosia was Seton’s first novel; subsequent books include Dragonwyck and Foxfire, which were made into successful movies, and Green Darkness, a big bestseller, set in the 1970s with reincarnation flashbacks to the 16th century. Her books are well researched, with an unerring sense of place. My Theodosia includes many quotations and references to actual letters.

What I disliked: Descriptions of the slaves owned by the Alston family and the harsh treatment they receive are hard to read but appear realistic. Seton does not believe in the myth of the happy slave and Theodosia is portrayed as uncomfortable with the slavery of the Deep South, but that is not the focus of the book.

Source: I checked out this book from the Newton Free Library; likely the very copy I read as a teen.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Pattern of Lies (Book Review)

Title: A Pattern of Lies: a Bess Crawford Mystery
Author: Charles Todd
Publication: William Morrow, hardcover 2015, paperback 2016
Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction
Plot: Bess Crawford, a capable nurse stationed in World War I France, becomes embroiled in a mystery relating to former patient recuperating in Kent. A tragic explosion at the Ashton Gunpowder Mill is now being blamed on Philip Ashton. While visiting the family, Bess learns of the threats made to the Ashton family and tries to assist them in understanding why they are being maliciously targeted. Back in France, Bess deftly deals with the trauma of the last months of the Great War while also trying to locate a key witness to the explosion, protect herself from a killer, and put a stop to the lies threatening her friends.

Audience: Fans of historical fiction and of the Maisie Dobbs (no doubt this series was inspired by its success); fans of Downton Abbey (for my other Downton-esqe recommendations, click here).

What I liked: Beautifully written and painstakingly researched, this series portrays both the harsh reality of life at the front and of the worries experienced back in the English countryside. Bess was invaluable in solving the mystery through her ability to ask questions others are unable to pose.  She is improbably mobile for a nurse stationed in France, in an era when women of her class surely did not travel alone, but I like that the author plots her travel carefully, using the exigencies of war (here, escorting wounded soldiers to England).  I also enjoy her relationship with her father, a distinguished officer, whose devotion to the army (and duty!) Bess has inherited.

I had missed a couple books in the middle of this series but it didn’t matter – these books stand on their own and one reads for the characters rather than the actual mystery. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about World War I and came across this WWI quiz as I was reading (I did well except with the chronology of WWI battles).   I am a big fan of this author(s) and enjoyed meeting them years ago at my favorite mystery bookstore, Black Orchid (now closed, sadly).
What I disliked: Bess is so perfect that she is slightly lacking in personality.  There is no hint as to her romantic feelings: does she care for Simon Brandon, her father’s former batman, now an indispensable family friend? I can’t remember and, in any case, I am sure will all be revealed in good time.

Source: I received a copy of this book from TLC Book Tours in return for an honest review. Recommended! You can visit other stops on the tour to see what other bloggers thought about the seventh Bess Crawford installment:
Tuesday, April 12th: FictionZeal
Wednesday, April 13th: A Book Geek
Thursday, April 14th:
Monday, April 18th: Jayne's Books
Wednesday, April 20th: Reading is My Super Power
Wednesday, April 20th: Mel's Shelves
Thursday, April 21st: Tina Says…
Monday, April 25th: Mama Vicky Says
Wednesday, April 27th: Sharon's Garden of Book Reviews

Charles Todd is also the author of the Inspector Ian Rutledge mystery series, set just after WWI.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Into the Dim (book review)

Title: Into the Dim
Author: Janet B. Taylor
Publication: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hardcover, 2016
Genre: YA Time travel

Plot: Hope Walton is still devastated from losing her mother when her stepfather ships her to Scotland to visit an unknown aunt while he vacations with his new girlfriend. Christopher Manor is an imposing 5-6 story mansion, full of secrets, and before Hope even meets her Aunt Lucinda, she has is befriended by the housekeeper’s granddaughter Phoebe (good), meets a handsome young stranger in the Scottish countryside (good) who is taking pictures of her (bad), and found a portal in her aunt’s basement that takes her back in time to Eleanor of Aquitaine’s London (dangerous). Soon Hope begins to learn the truth about her mother’s family and finds out her mother isn’t dead but is trapped in the 12th century. Hope, her new friend Phoebe, and Phoebe’s critical brother Collum need to rescue Sarah Walton but they only have 72 hours before their time travel window will expire...
Audience: Fans of time travel and YA fiction

What I liked: Feisty orphans or quasi-orphans, mysterious mansions, quests back in time, a handsome hero who might be the villain – yes, this is a fun, fast-paced, and entertaining book just waiting for a sequel. I think what caught my eye initially was a Diana Gabaldon quote but the book itself was hard to put down. Hope is an intriguing heroine: at times brave (or foolhardy), at times clueless, and very human, despite the unnerving situation in which she finds herself and the adventures that follow. Hope’s mother never encouraged her to spend time with peers but survival in the 12th century requires loyal friends and, to her surprise, Hope becomes a good friend. She is no Claire Randall but she doesn’t have to be. The book is full of twists and turns, and readers like me who loved A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver will enjoy the part Eleanor of Aquitaine plays in this story. There is just enough romance to be appealing without overshadowing Hope’s emergence from her mother’s shadow and coming of age as scion of a strong family, but it’s the 12th century setting that Taylor does best.
I like this cover better than the one HMH chose
What I disliked: The book has a very rushed feel despite its 425 pages and there is a lot of information that Hope and the reader don’t know and have to wait to find out, which makes the plot hard to follow at times. At other points, the plot developments were fairly predictable although the significance of Hope’s health issues was never fully explained. Just a device so she would be homeschooled and friendless, and have no options except to visit her aunt? Hope also has a tendency to go from 0 to 70 mph – it wasn’t completely convincing that she could morph so quickly from the shell-shocked girl who mourned her mother for seven months and could barely get on a plane to reckless 12th century adventuress. However, what would a fantasy be without some suspension of disbelief?
Source: I got this from the Boston Public Library.  4/5 stars.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Book Scavenger (Book Review)

Title: Book Scavenger
Author: Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
Publication: Henry Holt & Co., hardcover, 2015
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction
Plot: Emily’s father idolizes Jack Kerouac and On the Road and both parents are determined to live in each of the 50 states although Emily longs to stay in the same school long enough to make close friends. One consolation has been the fun she has with Book Scavenger, a game in which participants hide books and place clues online to lead others to the hiding places throughout the country. When Emily’s family arrives in San Francisco, her landlady’s grandson James becomes a companion in this game and they find themselves in the middle of a puzzle much more dangerous than anticipated.

Audience: Fourth or fifth graders. 

What I liked: This is a fun read full of delightful book descriptions and quirky characters, and the author is clearly a kindred spirit (as demonstrated by mention of some of her favorite books). Readers will relate to Emily’s longing for a friend and sympathize with her as she realizes that being a friend requires sensitivity to the other person’s needs and interests. The mystery is entertaining, and Edgar Allan Poe is the perfect choice to be the centerpiece of an elaborate game by the Book Scavenger creator.

Bertman was clearly inspired by a classic, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin - although for some reason that I can’t remember I preferred her other book, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I mean Noel) - but both are great reads, and I applaud Bertman for adding to this genre. She doesn’t reach Raskin’s heights but Book Scavenger is well worth reading and I hope to see more about Emily, James, and her brother Matthew.
What I disliked: I got tired of James' named cowlick but that is a minor complaint.

Source: The copy I read is from the library but I bought one for my nephew’s birthday and coincidentally his mother bought him another (great minds think alike - we also bought the same book for her daughter's birthday)! I am eager to hear what others thought about this book.

Note that this book was edited by Christy Ottaviano.  She is a fellow Radcliffe Publishing Course alumna and I remember being pleased when she got her own imprint at Holt.  She is very talented and I should read all the books she edits, were there world enough and time. . .

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Life is Not an Accident (Book Review)

Title: Life is Not an Accident
Author: Jay Williams
Publication: Harper Collins, 2016 Hardcover
Genre: Memoir
Description: Jason Williams, the outgoing Duke guard, who helped lead my beloved Blue Devils to a national championship, left Duke after his junior year (earning a Sociology degree in three years by amassing credits in summer school). He was drafted by the Chicago Bulls and had a frustrating rookie season where his mistakes were magnified and his successes were mostly ignored. Just as frustrating, the team was in a rebuilding phase and in the first few weeks of the season the Bulls lost more games than he’d lost at Duke in three years. However, he continued to work hard and was convinced his second year as a pro would be a breakthrough season. Sadly, in June 2003, he was in a terrible motorcycle accident that nearly killed him. In this heartbreaking and all too candid memoir, Jay reflects on the arrogance of a healthy college basketball star, the desperation and self-reproach he experienced after the accident, and the 10+ years he has spent recovering physically and emotionally from the fateful day he picked up the keys to a motorcycle for which he never bothered to obtain a license.

Audience: Duke alumni, college basketball enthusiasts, sports fans.  I am a Duke alumna but college hoop fans who are not Dukies or did not follow his accident will be interested in his story and be glad that he has made a successful post-NBA career as an ESPN commentator.

What I liked: This is a painful read but fascinating portrayal of a smart young man and how he recovered from tragedy. By being so candid about his inner self – his behavior in college, his excesses during his one year as an NBA player, and his various addictions and poor decisions during prolonged rehab - Jason risks alienating the reader whose approval he seeks. However, his story is so beautifully written that it would take a much harder heart than mine not to be moved by what he has gone through. I wondered if he used a ghost writer but, if so, it was not mentioned. 

Admittedly, I liked the parts about Jason’s adolescence and recruitment and time at Duke better than the painful aftermath of an accident that all but destroyed him but I found the book very readable and recommend it. I was at one of the first college games he played – a tournament at Madison Square Garden – and have always had a special feeling for him, and admired not only how he played but also what seemed to be a very happy personality. I enjoy his thoughtful commentary now that he is a basketball analyst; I would prefer to see him working with Dick Vitale but that is ESPN's fault.

What I disliked: My ARC does not include an author’s note so I am curious about what made Jason (renamed Jay after he left Duke due to two other Jason Williams but, as he reveals in this book, without much input by him) decide to write this book. He (or HarperCollins) calls it a memoir of reinvention. Does he finally feel he’s at peace with what happened to him? I think he is smart enough to realize he will always have regrets (which will hit him when he least expects it) about the poor decision making that damaged his basketball career and nearly cost him his life. What is sadder is his depiction of the venom and personal attacks people use to try to make him worse about the fateful motorcycle ride. Human beings can be vile.

I can tell Jason believes he is still on a quest of self identity and it is unfortunate that his “warts and all” approach reveals some regrettable things about the parents who love him so much. I wish he had left them their privacy and dignity. He also goes on at some length about how leaving college to attempt to play in the NBA is a good move, ignoring the fact that most young players would not have had his good options if their NBA careers did not work out so should obtain a degree while they are fortunate enough to be able to do so for free.

Source: I received an advance reading copy of this book from HarperCollins in return for an honest review. Recommended.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Queen of the Tearling (Book Review)

Title: The Queen of the Tearling
Author: Erika Johansen
Publication: HarperCollins, 2014
Genre: YA Fantasy, Book 1 of 3
Plot: Kelsea, the crown princess of the Tearling, has been brought up in seclusion in the woods, far away from the realm’s capitol, tended by a devoted but strict couple preparing her for the day she turns 19, at which time she will ascend to the throne. There are just a few small obstacles: her uncle became regent after Kelsea’s mother died and would rather kill his niece than give up his power; the Tearling kingdom has a bitter enemy threatening to invade; and Kelsea has few resources other than the remnants of her mother’s guards, a talisman she cannot control, and her own untested instincts which include a hot temper. Kelsea’s defense of the kingdom is a classic battle of good vs. evil with a cast of interesting characters, such as the loyal Queen’s Guards, a mysterious underworld mastermind, an abused wife from the rival country of Mortmesne, a wily former bookmaker who becomes the kingdom’s financial guru, and an evil rival Queen.

Audience: Fans of YA fantasy; authors such as Elizabeth Marie Pope, Kristin Cashore, Tamora Pierce

What I liked: Just when you think you’ve read enough YA fantasy, and you’re tired of the same old plot – young woman (who thinks she’s plain) slowly becomes aware that she is the only one who can save the kingdom, but must learn to use her power as well as figure out her complicated romantic situation. Here, however, the author combines the elements of adventure, romance, magic, and suspense in a way that made me feel it was completely new, despite the familiar plot devices. One of the most intriguing characters is Fetch, a masked man who lurks in the underworld, a cross between Robin Hood and political leader. He challenges Kelsea to put aside her fears and live up to her potential, to claim her throne and be the Queen the Tearlings need. She develops a serious crush, but he seems too old to be a romantic possibility yet says he is not her father, the other logical possibility.

What I disliked: Overall, I loved this book; was a little disappointed in the sequel, and eagerly await book 3 in the spring. Although the book is set in the future, it has an appealing medieval feel. It is a pity that all the religious characters are depicted as evil or weak but I am hoping Father Tyler will survive to become a hero.
Movie: Supposedly, Emma Watson is interested in producing the movie and playing Kelsea but such deals often fall through.  I think she would be perfect for the part.

Source: I got this book from the library for my sister last summer but didn’t have time to read it myself. Thanks to her enthusiasm, I saved my copy for a long plane trip where it was the perfect entertainment.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Fairy Tale Girl (Book Review)

Title: The Fairy Tale Girl
Author: Susan Branch
Publication: Illustrated Hardcover, Spring Street Publishing, November 2015
Genre: Memoir/Coming of Age (first of two books)
Plot: This is a charming and beautifully illustrated memoir from the very talented Susan Branch, following her from childhood through her first serious relationship and unhappy first marriage.  She captures the warmth of her family and friends, as well as her discovery of her artistic talent and her growth as an artist and writer.  She asks if your life reflects who you really are and reveals how she came to recognize she had lost part of her true self while married to someone who cared only about his own accomplishments.

The book begins and ends with her flight (in several senses of the word) from California to Boston to begin a new phase of her life. It was the same year I graduated from college – we should have met up and worked on a plan together as I did not have a fully developed plan for my future either!

Audience: Branch’s fans are wide ranging and include Anglophiles like me and artistic/craftsy types who are inspired by her creativity and belief that anyone can develop her own artistic skills. This book is also a coming of age story and will appeal to those who remember the classic Seventeenth Summer.

What I liked:  My Betsy-Tacy friend Cindy Price recommended Susan's work to me slightly more than two years ago (I don’t think Susan has read Betsy-Tacy yet but she certainly loves books so perhaps it is just a matter of time). I followed a trip she made to England with a group, which sounded like so much fun and resulted in its own book.  I also bought her 2014 calendar which contained delightful illustrations as well as recipes, favorite quotes, and anecdotes, and cheered up my dreary office.  This memoir, which is based on her diaries, is the first installment of several autobiographical books, not written in chronological order.  It is chatty and fun, even when discussing serious topics, and celebrates female friendship.  In fact, reading it felt like having a long talk with a dear friend one hadn’t seen recently (or, in this case, had never met!).  My favorite part was when her friend Diana gives her a gift certificate to a crafts store.  This leads to the purchase of paints and experimenting with different types of art, all of which are delightful.  It really makes the book to be taken along with Susan on the Alpine Path as she asks herself, “Where do I start?” and tries different things, with replicas of these projects captured in the book.  She is talented in a way that is not intimidating and invites others to exercise their own creativity.  

I also enjoyed Susan’s purchase of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking to add an upscale element to her culinary skills. I was reminded of using this cookbook when I was in school to make Napoleons for a French class party.   I seem to recall it took my mother and me the best part of several days!  The results were impressive and very tasty, although not as perfect as Julia’s version. 

The book itself is designed to appeal to readers who love Susan’s illustrations. It includes watercolors, recipes, photographs and other mementos.  An expedition to see the Beatles made this reader feel she was right there!   The book also features a ribbon bookmark (when I worked in publishing, I was able to insist on this feature once or twice – it is costly but a certain type of reader like me just loves them).

I am not far from Martha’s Vineyard where Susan lives and works - I wish we could watch an episode of Downton Abbey together as we are both huge fans (although she likes Daisy, who I find very annoying).

What I disliked: Susan repeatedly says she grew up in a pre-feminism era where she was conditioned to submerge herself in her spouse. This may be true but it was painful to read about their relationship and the treatment she endured; on the other hand, haven’t we all occasionally been that way about people everyone else knew were wrong for us?  Still, the tone was very melancholy.   I look forward to reading about how she moves on in her forthcoming book, Martha’s Vineyard, Isle of Dreams, which appears to begin where this one ends.

Social Media: Susan’s blog is just like her books: you will feel you are chatting with a friend.   You can also follow her on Twitter or read one of her earlier books.
Click here to see if one of Susan’s book events will be in your neighborhood.  I have a conflict on April 30th (Swan Lake!) but will catch her another time.

Source: I received this book from Susan’s publicist Jocelyn Kelley in return for an honest review.

Images copyright to Susan Branch