Thursday, July 14, 2016

10 Books for the Hamilton-Obsessed

It’s the Ten Duel Book Commandments - what to read if you’re obsessed with Hamilton!
Believe me, I understand your fixation. You love Hamilton whether you’ve actually seen it or just listened repeatedly to the cast recording. You’ve never been to NYC but you’ve seen every Ham4Ham on YouTube. You follow Lin-Manuel on Twitter and practically watched him cut his hair. I was very lucky that my younger sister bought tickets and took most of the family to see Hamilton in November 2015, and that we have had each other to share our Lin obsession in the months since – quoting and capping our favorite lines, listening to the music in the house or in the car, speculating on what we would say to him or how we can get our copy of the book signed (I carried it to NYC on my last trip, planning to go hang out at the stage door, but my sister informed me knowledgeably that Lin’s wrist was hurt). We all clearly need something new to read, to distract us from the fact that Lin, Leslie and Philippa have left the cast. . .

Some prefer nonfiction:
1. Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick. This is a new hardcover by the highly regarded Philbrick, which I hope to read on vacation later this month and feel safe in recommending. His focus is on loyalty and personal integrity in the context of the Revolution, describing the fascinating but ill-fated relationship of Washington and Benedict Arnold. Due to Lois Duncan (see Peggy below), whom I read at a young age, not to mention the Childhood Biography of Nathan Hale (I regret that I have but one life to give for my country), I blamed Arnold for Hale’s death and saw him as someone who got tired of waiting for his brilliance to be recognized (I guess most of us can relate to that) and in a self-serving way decided to betray his country (not like most of us). It is up to General Washington to recover from Arnold’s defection and to rise above the egos surrounding him to create enough unity among his worn-out staff to hold on for victory.

Of course, there is also Ron Chernow’s book on Hamilton which inspired our Lin in the first place, as well as the Hamiltome (which you can read about here) but you already know those. Also, while I have enjoyed some of Chernow’s book and despite my History and Literature roots, I am more of a historical fiction fan these days so I picked some favorites you will actually finish the same year you start them:

Dear Theodosia, what to say to you?
2. My Theodosia by Anya Seton. Don't you want to know more about Aaron's daughter? I recently reviewed this historical novel about Aaron Burr’s beautiful and intelligent daughter.  Theodosia was unusually well educated for her time and was one of the few people Burr loved - but that didn't protect her from his ambition!

Have your seconds meet face to face!

3. Dawn’s Early Light by Elswyth Thane. As many know, Thane is one of my all time favorite authors and this is the first in her famous Williamsburg series, bestsellers in their day. Young Julian Day arrives in Williamsburg from England in 1774 amid the hubbub of pre-Revolutionary War Virginia. Will the friends he makes there overcome his Tory inclinations? Can a shy schoolteacher make his place among the bold Patriots (no, not those Patriots!) of the New World? What happens when he falls in love with the woman promised to his new best friend?
4. Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow. Celia is an orphan (hey, Alexander isn’t the only orphan trying to rise up) in Charleston, SC, patriotic enough to spy for the Revolution while working as a seamstress (thus I knew before Hamilton that someone discreetly taking measurements and making clothes could overhear useful information!) I also enjoyed this book for its warm depiction of Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, a lesser known Revolutionary hero, who mentors Celia and her devastating beau.

5. Judas Flowering by Jane Aiken Hodge. Hodge is another favorite author, sister of the renowned Joan who wrote the Wolves of Willoughby Chase. This book by big sister Jane begins in 1774 as Mercy Phillips, recentlyly arrived in the colonies, witnesses her father being killed by a mob that wants his printing press. She is rescued by Hart Purchis, the young master of an old Southern family and plantation. Hart acquires some dangerously patriotic notions while completing his studies at Harvard, and returns to war-torn Savannah where his family is split in its loyalty and only Mercy shares his dreams.

Leave a note for your next of kin!

6. A Catch of Consequence by Diana Norman. First in a trilogy, with an opening scene set just blocks from my office, the heroine is a feisty tavern owner (understand this is different from being a tavern wench) who “catches” a member of the English nobility drowning in Boston Harbor and reluctantly brings him home to nurse him back to health. Makepeace is a patriot and disapproves of the British-imposed taxes but the Sons of Liberty don’t care that she’s on their side when they learn she helped the enemy, so Sir Philip saves her life in turn by helping her escape from Boston.

Confess your sins, ready for the moment of adrenaline when you finally face your opponent!

7. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M. T. Anderson. A fascinating and disturbing story about Octavian, a young black slave, born in the U.S. and brought up in Boston by a group of sanctimonious philosophers, who see him and his mother simply as chattel, valuable only as fodder for experiments. It is well researched and beautifully written, winning the National Book Award for Young People in 2006. I think it reads as an adult book, however, and my book group read and enjoyed in 2009.

Your Last Chance to Negotiate!
8. The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope. This is a jewel of a YA historical fantasy from an author wrote only two books (both outstanding). When orphaned teenaged Peggy goes to live with her cantankerous uncle in upstate New York, her loneliness results in encounters with characters from the Revolutionary War. The contrast between the 20th century and the British-occupied countryside is entertaining and British officer Peaceable Sherwood is as charming a character as you will find in a story that combines history, romance, and humor.

“A gentleman can hardly continue to sit,' he explained, in his serenest and most level voice, 'when he asks a very remarkable young lady to do him the honor of marrying him. And - 'he somehow contrived to grin at me wickedly, 'I usually get what I want, Miss Grahame,' he added, and pitched over in a tangled heap on the floor.”

9. Peggy by Lois Duncan. Duncan, who died last month, was better known for her juvenile suspense, but I read this novel about Peggy Shippen, Benedict Arnold’s beautiful wife when I was growing up and just loved its flawed characters. There is also a Betty Cavanna about the Shippen sisters, told from the perspective of a quiet Quaker friend.

10. Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. For the younger Hamilton fans, here is a Newbery Medal winner and much beloved favorite which my fifth grade godson recently enjoyed. Johnny is the gifted apprentice of Ephraim Lapham, a silversmith in Revolutionary-era Boston where he mingles with Paul Revere and John Hancock. While it was written with a youthful audience in mind, this story is compelling and is especially suitable for parents to enjoy with their children. Johnny is a typical teenage boy with flaws and occasional arrogance but as he becomes acquainted with the local patriots he begins to believe in the cause of liberty and does some rising up himself.

What are your favorites?

(photo of Lin-Manuel Miranda is copyright to Rolling Stone Magazine)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Silent City: a Claire Codella Mystery (Book Review)

Title: Silent City: a Claire Codella Mystery
Author: Carrie Smith
Publication: Crooked Lane, Hardcover, 2015
Genre: Mystery/suspense
Plot: Claire Codella, a NYC detective, is returning to her job after successfully battling cancer with months of chemo. On her first day back, she is assigned the murder of an elementary school principal, who was admired by everyone but his own staff. Self-conscious about her changed appearance and wondering if she is really ready for the stresses of the job, Claire is also aware that her supervisor resents the attention she received on an earlier case and will do her no favors if she can’t solve this crime quickly. Partnered with an appealing gay detective, Eduardo Munoz, who is also persona non grata with the bullies at the police precinct, Claire is plunged into the surprisingly cutthroat atmosphere of the Manhattan public school system as she investigates two murders, and navigates her way among teachers, parents, and coworkers.

Audience: Fans of suspense and of female detectives who don’t take garbage from anyone; I was actually reminded more of TV shows like Blue Bloods and NYPD Blue than of current mysteries but maybe that is because the sense of place was so strong.

My Impressions: This is a fast paced debut, full of interesting characters and their interrelationships, with a vivid and gritty New York setting. I like Claire, who has been through a tough time with her cancer treatment – and the one person she thought she could really rely on, her best friend and former partner, Brian Haggerty – never made it inside the hospital to visit her. Claire has learned to rely only on herself, so she has to learn all over again how to trust and when to ask for help or she will not survive a dangerous investigation:

She preferred the truth to gentle fantasy landings. During investigations she always gave the truth – as sensitively as possible, of course – to the families of the violently murdered.

Claire’s candor, her post-treatment symptoms, and her determination to handle a high profile case so well that even her unpleasant boss couldn’t complain make her a very sympathetic heroine.

I wondered if other cancer survivors would be interested in this book and identify with Claire or if they would prefer more escapism in their suspense fiction, so mentioned it to a coworker who fits that category and had just told me she wasn’t reading any more cozies! Well, this is not a cozy – there is plenty of bloodshed and the kind of language you would expect from police, so I am lending her my copy.

I liked the relationship developing between Claire and Munoz (he is taunted so unmercifully by the homophobic detectives in the Manhattan North homicide unit that I wanted to offer my legal services pro bono) and appreciated the desperate shame of her friend Haggerty who knows he let her down when she needed support. Maybe I guessed who the killer was halfway through the book but it was really about more than just finding a killer.   
Author Carrie Smith

Source: I put this on my list after reading a very favorable review in Publishers Weekly, and checked it out from the Brookline Library. According to Smith’s website, a second book is coming in December.  Recommended!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

All Summer Long (Book Review)

Title: All Summer Long
Author: Dorothea Benton Frank
Publication: William Morrow hardcover, May 2016
Genre: Fiction
 
Plot: When glitzy New York interior designer Olivia Ritchie got married, she promised her professor husband they would one day retire to his home town of Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. Now Nick, some 15 years older than Olivia, has retired and it is time for her to move, despite her poorly masked horror at leaving NYC. This drastic lifestyle change comes at a not inconvenient time for Olivia, whose business is going through a bad patch. She hopes that selling her New York condo and living modestly down south will help her and Nick recoup their fortunes. Olivia also has an extremely rich and needy client, Maritza Vasile; she spends most of the book zipping glamorously around the world with Maritza and her billionaire husband, and their marital issues cause Olivia to realize that money does not buy happiness.

Audience: Fans of commercial women’s fiction will enjoy this book. I was reminded of Elizabeth Adler and Eileen Goudge, although I had been expecting something more like Elin Hilderbrand and Nancy Thayer, who also write about families and relationships but in a less glitzy way than this book. Here is an interview with the author.

What I liked: All Summer Long was a fun, entertaining read, perfect for a big comfortable chair and a relaxing day. I grew fond of Olivia and her secrets and financial worries, and her affection for her sloppy husband. Although it was in her best interests to keep Maritza happy and eager to spend money, Olivia turns out to be genuinely fond of her rich, spoiled client, and gave both Maritza and her husband good, practical advice. The large cast of characters (including many bitchy women) added humor and dimension to the story which did not have much actual plot other than ‘money can’t buy me love,” but my favorite was Olivia’s hard working assistant Roni and I was glad she seemed to be getting a happy ending. And I do yearn for a trip to Charleston which I last visited in the seventh grade!

What I disliked: While I enjoyed this book, it was not at all what I expected and I got tired of all the designer name dropping. I thought it would be about Olivia’s and Nick’s slow but ultimately happy acclimation to Sullivan’s Island but they spent most of the book jet-setting with the Vasiles. Most of that wound up being diverting but I would have liked more about the famed Lowcountry of South Carolina and got very tired of their saying how much they loved each other all the time. Do people really do that? I wished they would make some local friends and I also disliked the dream Olivia has in Chapter 16 (I suspect this dream was to punish readers like me who were predicting such an outcome). 
Source: Thanks to TLC Book Tours and William Morrow for giving me a copy of this book in return for an honest review. You can visit other stops on Frank’s tour to see how they enjoyed the book or click below.

Tuesday, May 31st: A Tattered Copy
Wednesday, June 1st: A Chick Who Reads
Thursday, June 2nd: bookchickdi
Friday, June 3rd: Stranded in Chaos
Monday, June 6th: Seaside Book Nook
Tuesday, June 7th: Books and Bindings
Wednesday, June 8th: Tina Says…
Monday, June 13th: 5 Minutes For Books
Tuesday, June 14th: From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, June 15th: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Monday, June 20th: Kritters Ramblings
Wednesday, June 22nd: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom
Thursday, June 23rd: A Soccer Mom’s Book Blog
Friday, June 24th: Queen of All She Reads

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Room Where It Happens

I wanna be in the room where it happens
The room where it happens
The room where it happens . . .

That hardly makes me unique but the other day I actually got to be in the room where it happens! I had left some documents at Boston City Hall for the mayor’s signature, and when I went back to pick them up his secretary noticed my curious glances down towards his office. She kindly offered me a quick tour (knowing he was in China for a few days, I could accept without worrying he would appear and find me gawking) and when she told me the mayor uses former Mayor Curley’s desk I was enthralled. “Sit down; I’ll take your picture,” she offered.
For those who don’t know, James Michael Curley (1874-1958) was a legendary four-time mayor of Boston (and one term governor of Massachusetts) whose popularity reflected the increased influence of the Irish community. Accused of campaign bribery, among other things, he was indicted twice but was still reelected to a fourth term. During his fourth term, he actually went to jail. John Hynes (grandfather of goalie John Hynes who took Shakespeare with me in college, now a big developer) served loyally as acting mayor, until Curley returned from jail in Connecticut, greeted by enthusiastic crowds and a brass band. Not the kind of person I would like in real life but intriguing to any historian!

James Michael Curley
Without any of the usual courtesies one would expect from the courtly Curley, the old mayor once back in his office brusquely pushed Hynes aside. Curley seemed to believe that it was important for him to quickly re-assert primacy over city government, and that the best way to accomplish this goal was to diminish the man who had ably served as caretaker during his five months in Danbury Prison. Later in the day, convening an impromptu press conference, Curley remarked that he had accomplished more in that one day than Hynes had done in five months. It was a disastrous miscalculation. Curley was a master of the political arts, but he made a fatal mistake. He had given the mild-mannered Hynes an invaluable political asset: passion. Hynes would not soon or easily forget the insult – his son would recall that he had never seen his father as angry as he was that day – and 1949 offered him the chance to exact revenge on the aging and increasingly out-of-touch Curley.
There was no fifth term for Curley. An outraged Hynes ran against Curley and won in a very close race, portraying Curley as out of touch and corrupt. As James Aloisi says in CommonWealth, also cited above, this election was a conscious choice by Boston voters to put aside nostalgia and elect someone who would move the city forward.

(Apparently it's not uncommon to get a tour of the mayor's office - his secretary wasn't breaking any rules.  But it still made me feel extremely special!)

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Deception Island (Book Review)

Title: Deception Island
Author: Brynn Kelly
Publication: Harlequin, June 2016, Hardcover
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Plot: Rafe Angelito thought he was done with the demons from his past—until his son is kidnapped. Blackmailed into abducting an American heiress, the legionnaire soon finds himself trapped in paradise with a fiery, daring beauty who’s nothing he expects…and everything he desires. But when he uncovers her own dark secret, Rafe realizes he’s made a critical mistake—one that could cost him everything.

Playing body double for a spoiled socialite was supposed to be Holly Ryan’s ticket to freedom. But when she’s snatched off her yacht by a tall, dark and dangerous stranger, the not-quite-reformed con artist will make a desperate play to turn her captor from enemy to ally, by any means necessary. Yet as scorching days melt into sultry nights, Holly is drawn to the mysterious capitaine, with his unexpected sense of honor and his searing touch.

When they’re double-crossed, they’ll have to risk trusting each other in ways they never imagined…because in this deadly game of deception, it’s their lives—and hearts—on the line.

Audience: If you like Cherry Adair and Cindy Gerard, you will enjoy this book.

My thoughts: This was a fun, fast-paced read with a fairly likeable heroine who deserves a happy ending. The deserted island was too dangerous to be romantic but the setting makes the book a good beach book and the hero has the requisite dark past. Although the actual plot and characters are not very convincing, the action sweeps the reader along without much time to quibble. Perhaps giving the mercenary a conscience and an appealing child was meant to endow him with depth but he simply did not come across as realistic in any way, including his transition from trained killer who has “no firsthand experience” of love to someone who wants to settle down with “the people I love” and run a business – all in the span of about five days. Or maybe it’s just my bad luck that I only know men lacking the firsthand experience of love who never evolve like Rafe . . . at least, comfortingly, I have been spared the paid assassins!

As someone who likes impersonation stories, I was a little disappointed that that part of the story line was over before it began. I became more curious about the real Laura Hyland than about Holly’s eventual fate. Maybe Brynn Kelly will write Laura’s book next!
Source: I received this book from TLC Book Tours in return for an honest review. You can read what other bloggers thought about Deception Island by clicking here.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Death at Breakfast (book review)

Title: Death at Breakfast
Author: Beth Gutcheon
Publication: William Morrow Hardcover, May 2016
Genre: Fiction
Plot: When Maggie and Hope, two old friends, travel to small town Maine to attend a week of cooking classes at a historic inn, they expect to hang out with other foodies and figure out if they would make good travel companions for more distant trips. However, in the midst of mastering pumpkin polenta, they get entangled in the mysterious murder of an unpleasant Greek-American magnate, and decide their combined common sense and connections can be used to help Hope’s son, Buster, the oddball deputy sheriff, find out what really happened before breakfast at the Oquossoc Mountain Inn.

Audience: fans of witty contemporary fiction; readers who like Elinor Lipman and Laura Zigman

What I liked: What made this book were the quirky friends: Maggie, a retired private school headmistress, and Hope, an affluent divorcee whose children attended the school. They are surprisingly insightful, with complementary strengths, and while the actual mystery was not very hard to figure out, the way they attacked the situation and mingled with hotel guests, staff, and townies was entertaining and got the job done.

As a fan of classic mysteries that take place in an isolated manor house or at a house party, I appreciated the modern setting of a residential, upscale cooking class where the characters are stranded when a murder takes place. A nice touch was that the Inn had poor Internet access, driving all the guests crazy when first they are curious about the obnoxious new guests and then when they want to tell all their friends about the drama taking place at the Inn.

What I disliked: I had a hard time keeping all the characters straight but after a while I figured out which ones were going to matter and all became clear in the last few chapters. I never understood why Hope’s son was so wary of his mother, however. Was it merely self protective because he doesn’t feel he has lived up to her expectations? It was Maggie more than Hope who had been judgmental about him in the past.
Source: This was a fun and different read which I recommend (the food descriptions were an added bonus but I don't read reading while hungry). I have enjoyed books by Gutcheon, a fellow Radcliffe alumna, in the past and had been looking forward to this since I heard about it (and that was before I realized her current editor is my talented friend Jennifer Brehl).

I received a copy of this book from TLC Book Tours in return for an honest review, and suggest that you visit the tour to check out other reviews:

May 10th: A Chick Who Reads
May 11th: Dwell in Possibility
May 12th:  Five Minutes for Books
May 13th: Back Porchervations
May 16th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
May 18th: Booksie's Blog
May 19th: Booked on a Feeling
May 23rd: Books and Bindings
May 24th: From the TBR Pile
May 23rd: Buried Under Books
May 27th: Kritters Ramblings
May 30th: Ms.Bookish.com

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Secrets of Flight (book review)

Title: The Secrets of Flight
Author: Maggie Leffler
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, 2016
Genre: Fiction/Historical Fiction
Plot: Mary Browning, an elderly widow who presides over a writers’ group of would-be memoirists, is estranged from her family due to secrets in her past. When a teenage girl who reminds Mary of her long-deceased sister joins the group, Mary hires her as a typist and is finally able to share her own story – that of a Jewish girl named Miriam who escaped her Pittsburgh home during World War II by enrolling in flying lessons and winding up in Sweetwater, Texas as one of Jackie Cochran’s Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). At 15, Elyse is an aspiring writer with secrets of her own, including a crush on a cute but unreliable high school boy* and parents going through a painful separation; however, her surprising friendship with Mary enriches both their lives by empowering each of them to confront their secrets and cope with difficult situations.

Audience: Enthusiasts of WWII fiction, books about female aviators, fans of books like The Orphan Train

What I liked: Historical fiction set during WWII is one of my favorite genres and I am especially interested in books about women doing war work.  This is an enjoyable and moving read.  The book shifts back and forth from the present day to Mary/Miriam’s youth before WWII, told from Mary's and Elyse's alternating points of view. Leffler does a good job capturing the three primary settings of this story: the small Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh where Miriam and Sarah live with their mother and stepfather near his shop; the training facility for the women flyers in Sweetwater, Texas; and the present day setting that alternates between Elyse’s family and high school and Mary’s life among the senior citizens. Because Jackie Cochran realizes there is no synagogue nearby for Jewish flyers, she arranges for Miriam to travel to Abilene for services, where Miriam will meet a handsome future medical student but, ironically, her relationship with this “nice Jewish boy” will result in estrangement from her family. This gesture by Cochran seems a little out of character but adds a nice element to the story.
What I disliked: I would have liked to read much more about flying and less about Elyse’s family. The relationship between Mary and Elyse was a bit too predictable (on several levels) and while Mary’s back story was convincing she did not come across as a particularly warm character and there was a lot of time unaccounted for between her marriage and her return to Pittsburgh. One nice touch (see spoiler below) . . .

Author: This is the third novel by Maggie Leffler, a family physician in Pittsburgh, and demonstrates her enthusiasm for historical fiction, including careful research on a variety of topics. I also liked the mentions of Ballet Shoes, All of a Kind Family, and The Secret Garden which show good appreciation of classic kidlit.
Source: I received a copy of this book from TLC Book Tours in return for an honest review, and suggest that you visit other stops on the tour to enjoy other reviews.  Here are a few:


Wednesday, May 4th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Thursday, May 5th: bookchickdi
Friday, May 6th: Doing Dewey
Tuesday, May 10th: Back Porchervations
Wednesday, May 11th: A Bookish Affair
Thursday, May 12th: Savvy Verse & Wit

* Note that whether in fiction or real life, it is always a mistake to dump your friend for a cute (or otherwise) boy. You will be punished and rightfully so.

Spoiler from above: It was a nice touch to have Mary pay for Elyse to visit her grandmother before her death, but if only she had accompanied Elyse Mary would have been reunited with her niece. The other characters did not seem to find this as sad as I did!