Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Touch of Stardust (Book Review)

Title: A Touch of Stardust
Author: Kate Alcott
Publication: Doubleday hardcover, 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 1930s Hollywood
Plot:  When Julie Crawford arrives in Hollywood, fresh from Smith, she is just in time to witness the “burning of Atlanta” scene staged by David O. Selznick on the Gone with the Wind set – and she is hooked on show business albeit intimidated by the great man.  In a refreshing twist, Julie is not a wannabe actress but an aspiring screenwriter.  And on her first day, she also encounters legendary actress Carole Lombard – like Julie, from Fort Wayne, Indian – who is romantically involved with Clark Gable.  Julie also meets Andy Weinstein, Selznick’s right hand man.  Lombard gives Julie a job as her assistant, which gives Julie a front row seat at the glamorous life of Hollywood stardom.  And as Julie finds her place in the movie world, her friendship with Andy becomes something more.

Audience:  Historical fiction readers, readers who love old movies, GWTW fanatics
What I liked: Alcott does a fabulous job of bringing the reader into the magical world of Gone with the Wind.  Even casual fans know about the search for the perfect actress to play Scarlet but it’s even better when you feel you’re yards away when lovely Vivien Leigh visits the movie set and wills Selznick to choose her so she can be close to Laurence Olivier.  Telling the making of the movie story from the perspective of a bright young woman, new in town, is a clever technique.  We identify sufficiently with Julie to want her to succeed but it’s the glimpses of Lombard and Gable’s romance and of Vivien Leigh and the behind the scenes filming of GWTW that make this book impossible to put down. 

I especially liked how Alcott made Lombard so appealing in this book.  I wonder if she really was helpful to younger women trying to make their mark in Hollywood.  My admittedly limited knowledge of her indicated only that she was bawdy and died young.

I’ve had my eye on this author for a while but hadn’t got around to reading her earlier books.  She credits her husband, descended from Hollywood’s Mankiewicz family, with telling her stories about this era, and she even sets one scene at the home of writer Herman Mankiewicz. 

Readers who want to know more about the making of Gone with the Wind should take a look at The Making of Gone with the Wind by Steve Wilson.

What I disliked: Julie’s and Andy’s romance is not as interesting as Lombard and Gable’s.  It reminded me of something Susanna Kearsley mentioned at a recent reading, which is that when she writes a back and forth novel, she intends for the contemporary couple to be more of a foil for the historical.  Here, while I liked Julie’s character and enjoyed learning about her travails trying to make a living as a screenwriter and persuading her conservative parents not to drag her back to Indiana, I was much more interested what her life revealed about the movie.  Alcott acknowledges this, providing an epilogue describing what happened to the actors and stating that Julie is meant to be the Everywoman “who strikes out with a small arsenal of choices” and uses them to achieve her goals.  I did wonder if a nice girl from Smith would have been so quick to get physically involved even if Andy is strikingly handsome and kind. 

Andy’s depiction of the anti-Semitism in Hollywood seemed authentic and accurate, although it distracted from the movie, which I was more interested in reading about.

Source: I read pre-pub reviews and put this on reserve from the library, and it duly appeared several months later. Highly recommended. 4 1/2 stars.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Fox From His Lair (book review)

Publication: William Morrow, 1966, hardcover
Genre: Fiction, set in England 
Plot: Annabelle Baird has drifted into an engagement with Philip Ancell, and when she travels to Portugal to be inspected by his employers, their differences become all too evident.  He is annoyed that she brought her nephews, and she is disappointed he does not understand that family comes first with her.  In contrast to the uptight hospitality of his critical employers, Annabelle is subsequently welcomed at the Oporto home of the Prendergasts (an expansive family I would like to visit myself).   At the airport, she runs into someone else from her small English town: Angus Pemberton, the irrepressible grandson of her employer. He has been working in Brazil for years but spent his childhood tormenting Annabelle and her sisters.  He is instantly more appealing and easier to get along with than Philip, but Annabelle has never trusted him and doesn’t plan to begin now.   Adding complication to her situation is a mysterious man on his deathbed who puts Annabelle in charge of a precocious child, Luis, going to England.  Once home, Annabelle has to figure out how to resolve her suddenly complicated romantic and family situation.

What I liked: Cadell wrote more than 50 books.  Her specialty was light, amusing romantic fiction full of quirky characters and a practical heroine who usually manages to enjoy them in an uncritical way.  She has a Facebook fanclub and apparently her daughter has written a biography.  Like Jane Aiken Hodge, Cadell must have fallen in love with Portugal as she set several books there and describes it in a very appealing way.  Her books are charming and occasionally laugh out loud or at least smile to oneself funny:

“…[W]e’re going to stay with the Prendergasts.”
“Prendergasts . . . Yes, I remember.  Two girls who stayed with you once.”
“You ought to remember,” she said coldly.  “You cut the ropes of our tent, sank our canoe, put moles into our sleeping bags, played a hose onto our hammocks, and let the bull out while we were picnicking.  Looking back, I’ve often wondered if you weren’t suffering from a case of arrested development.
“Could be,” he admitted readily.  His eyes swept over her.  “You haven’t changed.”
As so often in the past, she was left to draw her own conclusions as to what he intended to convey; now, as then, she had a strong suspicious that he had conveyed anything but a compliment.

What I disliked: The machinations behind the Luis subplot were confusing and not up to Cadell’s usual skill in resolving loose threads.  I would have been annoyed if I were Annabelle to have been so left out of the loop. 
Source:   My mother introduced me to Cadell, and as a teen, I read every one of her books in my library.   I liked that her heroines were independent and mostly had jobs.  I didn’t remember this one well but found this on the shelf in Brookline and decided it needed circulation.  I recommend checking your local library to see if any of her books are still available –  look for The Lark Shall Sing, one of my favorites (the heroine reminds me of myself).

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Heroes' Welcome (book review)

Title: The Heroes’ Welcome
Author: Louisa Young

Publication: Harper Perennial trade paperback, March 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction, set in 1919 England
Plot:  Second in a trilogy, The Heroes’ Welcome follows the stories of two couples whose relationships suffered during WWI and are now challenged by post-war adjustment.  In My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, Nadine Waveney became friendly with poor but relatively honest Riley Purefoy through a painter who teaches Nadine and employs Riley when they are both children.  As Nadine reaches adolescence, her mother decides her friendship with not-our-class Riley should not be encouraged but it is too late, they fall in love.  However, other factors result in Riley joining the army without a word to Nadine or his family and being sent to the trenches.   In France, his superior officer is well bred Peter Locke who married a suitably lovely young woman named Julia.  Riley survives the war long enough to be made an officer (American readers may not understand that it was practically unheard of for an unlisted man to be so elevated but the incredible loss of life in the trenches required a fresh supply of officers) and develops a sort of friendship with Peter before he is severely wounded.  His face is destroyed and he is sent to a hospital on the outskirts of London where the father of plastic surgery, Major/Doctor Harold Gillies, does his best to restore Riley’s health.  Riley’s nurse is Peter’s cousin Rose, for whom war work has provided meaning and self respect previously absent in her life.   Riley breaks off his relationship with Nadine to spare her being tied to a man without a face but, loyal and determined, she eventually tracks him down and convinces him she loves and does not pity him.  
Frognal House was the original building of the Queen's Hospital (later Queen Mary's Hospital), Sidcup where Riley was treated and Rose was a nurse
Where Riley has horrendous physical injuries, Peter returns intact but suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder before such psychological damage is recognized.  His well-intentioned but not very wife suffers most from his deterioration.  The five characters become inextricably connected not simply through the men’s service together in France but when Nadine, visiting the hospital at Sidcup, becomes friendly with Rose and Julia, who live nearby. 

In The Heroes’ Welcome, Nadine and Riley marry, to the distress of her affluent family and his poor one.  This bothers Nadine more than Riley, who has a fairly cold personality.  After some angst, their relationship develops well.  Peter and Julia have a much more difficult time.  Julia is recovering from a bizarre episode in the previous book where she undertook a treatment to preserve her beauty which involved washing her face with acid.  Her husband is indifferent, her three year old son is unnerved by her mood swings, and cousin Rose (the most interesting character) is pursuing an opportunity to become a doctor (although this is underdeveloped).  Rose is the only person who seems to recognize that Peter needs help and is potentially violent, but he is cruel and dismissive to her and basically rapes his wife when he can bring himself to touch her.   Riley has difficulty settling back into post-war life, primarily because his face prevents him from obtaining a job, but he makes some friends and starts a publishing company, aimed at providing helpful information to former soldiers trying to enter civilian life.  As Nadine and Riley’s lives approach normal, Peter becomes more and more psychotic and his relationship with Julia seems doomed to failure.  You must read the book yourself to learn what happens to these five tortured characters.

Audience: Fans of historical and/or Edwardian fiction, those interested in World War I. 

What I liked:  I have avidly read books set during World War I since childhood and had these two on my Goodreads list.  Young does a good job at showing how war changes people and that merely staying alive is not enough -  how difficult it can be for survivors to resume everyday life and the extent to which their families suffer with them.  There is also a great contrast between someone like Peter with invisible wounds, whose family background and finance afford him the luxury of becoming a recluse and drunkard while disfigured Riley is unwilling to be supported by his in-laws and is determined to find honest employment.  Riley seems to be ahead of his time in expecting the government to take a modicum of responsibility for its veterans, not that I disagree.

Fans of Downton Abbey may enjoy this series but I recommend beginning with the first book, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You.  If you are interested in shell-shocked soldiers, you might instead read the beautifully written Regeneration by Pat Barker.  For a look at another unequal (but more joyful) romance between an aristocratic young woman and a working class man, I recommend Kissing Kin by Elswyth Thane. If you simply miss Downton Abbey, try a book from my DA recommended list.

What I disliked: I had mixed feelings about these books.  Of course, I understand that Peter’s guilt at leading men to their deaths has prevented him from resuming a normal post-war life but his vicious behavior to his wife and neglect of his three year old son makes him a very unsympathetic character, and I did not enjoy reading about him.  It is also hard to sympathize with his wife, due to her treatment of their vulnerable son.   I was beginning to dislike Riley as well, but enjoyed the descriptions of his publishing venture.  Nadine and Rose were the most congenial characters, and Rose’s medical studies would have interested me because of my fascination with women's war work.  One hopes this will be covered in the third book.

Source: I received The Heroes’ Welcome from the TLC Book Tours and invite you to visit the tour to read other reviews:

Tuesday, March 10th: Tina Says …
Wednesday, March 11th: Giraffe Days
Thursday, March 12th: Open Book Society
Monday, March 16th: Peppermint PhD
Tuesday, March 17th: Read Her Like an Open Book
Wednesday, March 18th: A Book Geek
Thursday, March 19th: Helen’s Book Blog
Tuesday, March 24th: Ageless Pages Reviews
Wednesday, March 25th: Mom in Love With Fiction
Monday, March 30th: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Camelot Kids (book review)

Title: The Camelot Kids
Author: Ben Zackheim, @zackheim - Illustrations/design by Nathan Fox, Ian Greenlee

Genre: Juvenile Fantasy
Plot:  What would you do if an odd girl in a hooded cloak said, "You know you're a descendant of King Arthur's knight, Lancelot, right?" You'd probably do the same thing 14-year-old orphan Simon Sharp does: back away nice and slow. The difference is Simon's Camelot-obsessed parents recently died under mysterious circumstances.

But he learns the truth about their fate and his heritage after he's kidnapped by a drunk troll, rescued by a 7-foot elderly man named Merlin, and thrown into training with 149 other heirs of the Knights of the Round Table. Can Simon survive a prophecy that predicts the world will be saved through its destruction? Can he do it while clues keep popping up that his parents are alive?

The Camelot Kids is about one boy's struggle to solve a mystery and make it to tomorrow in a world both real and fantastic.

Why I Chose It:  Orphans.  You know I love stories about plucky orphans.  Here is a look at the book trailer so you can learn more about Simon Sharp.  

Audience: I am a prime example of an adult who never stopped enjoying juvenile fiction but when I read that the book begins with the hero being asked if he knows he's descended from King Arthur, I knew my sixth grade nephew Christopher was the perfect audience for this book and invited him to assist with the review. Christopher and his brother have loved knights and books about knights since they first began forming sentences about swordy guys as toddlers.  
Christopher's Take:   The Camelot Kids is a novel by Ben Zackheim about a 12-year-old boy named Simon Sharp. It is the first in a series. Simon’s parents died in a plane crash 2 years ago, and this lengthy story follows his journey from the streets of New York to the castle of New Camelot. Simon is sent to his eccentric Grandfather Victor, but meets a girl named Maille who tells him he is descended from Sir Lancelot. After being captured by a drunk troll and rescued by a fearsome 7 foot tall wizard, Simon is brought to New Camelot, the one place he really belongs. À la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson mashed together, Simon taps into his powers, then enrolls in an academy for aspiring knights. 

Christopher said the characters are interesting and well developed, and he felt they would continue to develop in the course of the series. He found the plot convincing and humorous, although felt at times the humor was a bit clunky. The ending was a cliffhanger for future books in the series and left him wanting to read more. While Christopher liked the King Arthur theme, he said that was not the key to enjoying the book. What he liked best were the characters. He also felt it was more targeted to middle graders than a YA audience; in fact, he said he would share it with his 4th grade brother.

Author: Zackheim is also the author of the Shirley Link girl detective mystery series.  After reading The Camelot Kids, I had already guessed he is an avid gamer but his enthusiasm for his readers is very charming.  I hope some of his young fans visit the Writer Tips on his website.

Source: I received The Camelot Kids from the TLC Book Tours in return for an honest review and invite you to visit other stops on the tour to read other perspectives on this entertaining book.

Monday, February 16th: Sweet Southern Home
Wednesday, February 18th: Walking in Faith
Monday, February 23rd: Jancee Reads
Wednesday, February 25th: Books Reviews by Lanise Brown
Thursday, February 26th: Just One More Chapter
Friday, February 27th: A Chick Who Reads
Tuesday, March 3rd: Mom in Love With Fiction
Wednesday, March 11th: Once Upon a YA book
Thursday, February 12th: Ms. Bookish
Wednesday, March 18th: Nighttime ReadingCenter 

If you would like to subscribe to reviews from Staircase Wit, go to Follow by Email.  Thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Night is the Hunter (Book Review)

Title: Night is the Hunter (third is a series featuring Harlan Donnally)
Author: Steven Gore
Publication Information: William Morrow trade paperback, 2015
Genre: Suspense
Plot: When San Francisco Police Detective Harlan Donnally got caught in a rival gang confrontation and took a bullet, the injury forced him into retirement and he now runs a small cafe in Northern California. But when Judge Ray McMullin asks him to look into a 20 year-old case in which the defendant is facing the death penalty, Donnally soon realizes the case is related to the incident in which he got shot.  While he explores the recollections of those involved and learns that the underlying investigation was flawed, he also becomes consumed with a family issue: whether his father, a well known movie producer, has Alzheimer’s.  As Donnally gets closer to the truth, he becomes afraid that Judge McMullin may similarly be suffering from ominous memory lapses, and wonders whether his current quest for the truth is legitimate and worth pursuing. 

Audience: Fans of suspense, legal thrillers. 

What I liked: This was a fast paced and unusual story with a vast array of characters from judges, police, lawyers, gang members, and long-suffering family members. It explored a little-considered concept: whether judges and lawyers are haunted by the death-row cases they preside over/litigate and what options, if any, are available if they have misgivings about the course of justice. These issues are relevant to everyone affected by the justice system although (unsurprisingly) those who favor the death penalty will likely be unswayed by the varying elements of murder and to what degree a defendant’s actions were deliberate.

Author Steven Gore is a private investigator and his knowledge of the process adds dimension to the story, although Donnally gets a lot more cooperation than I would have expected for someone with no authority to conduct an investigation.  You can visit Gore on Facebook or on his website.

What I disliked: I am a big fan of suspense and even before I was a lawyer, I enjoyed legal thrillers, but I had a hard time keeping the characters and gang members straight.  Donnally himself wasn’t the most engaging of characters. I didn’t care for the sub-plot involving Donnally’s father which seemed very heavy handed. However, maybe it would have made sense or seemed more convincing if I had read the first two books in the series, so I will now go back and try Act of Deceit.

Source: I received Night is the Hunter from the TLC Book Tours and invite you to visit other stops on the tour to read other reviews of this entertaining book.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Winter Woes

Why one should not make a TBR pile on the floor with one's new Robert Goddard books, ordered specially from England:
because when the pipe breaks due to frigid temperatures, those are the first casualties!   I am hoping they will still be readable once they dry out...   Happily, this one is bouncing back after a day on the radiator.  The old laptop from law school that was stored in that bench was not so lucky but can still be recycled.
The room is recovering but I am still traumatized.   I had that "what do you save first when the house is on fire" moment and grabbed the lower shelf of Elswyth Thanes, figuring that long before the time the water rose to the Lovelace or Weber shelves the plumber would arrive (which turned out to be the case).

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Swimmer (Book Review)

Title: The Swimmer
Author: Joakim Zander,
Publication Information: Harper Collins, 2015 (originally published in 2013 in Sweden)
Genre: Suspense
Setting:  Sweden, Syria, Brussels, United States 
Plot: Klara Walldéen, raised in a remote part of Sweden by loving grandparents, studied law at the university in Uppsala, where she fell in love with Mammoud Shammosh, a student with a dark past unknown to her.   He ends their romance when Klara is offered the chance to study at the London School of Economics, and when the story begins Klara is working as a legislative aide in Brussels for the EU Parliament.  When Mammoud comes to Brussels as a successful Ph.D. student to give a lecture, an old acquaintance reveals long-held secret that puts Mammoud in immediate danger.  Once he contacts Klara for help, she is also in risk of her life.   The only person who can help Klara is the American father she never knew.  He gave up all claim to her as a baby but has never stopped checking on her safety from afar.  When the past catches up to the present and he realizes she is in danger, he leaves his long-cherished anonymity to race across the word to her side but will he be in time to save her?

Audience: Fans of suspense; Swedish crime fiction

What I liked: I have not read any Swedish fiction since my childhood devotion to Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren and The Mysterious Schoolmaster books by Karin Anckarsvärd (both of which I recommend), and may be one of the few who never got around to reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  I think that was one of the reasons I was interested in reading this book.   After a very slow start and initial difficulty in keeping the characters’ back stories straight, I found the plot unusual and compelling, although I still had some questions after it ended and thought there were a few too many coincidences.  

Klara is an interesting heroine, raised to hunt and fish (not that such skills better equip someone to flee from masked killers but I suppose it makes one more intrepid) but able to excel in the classroom and appreciative of vintage fashion and obscure music.   I especially liked her loyal friend from law school, Gabriella, about to make partner at a Swedish law firm who has a lot to lose by getting involved in an international scandal, yet doesn’t hesitate to come to Klara’s aid.  Although Klara gets drawn into the intrigue by accident, it is her involvement that makes the book compelling.  The reader might not care about the other figures in this drama.
Source: I received The Swimmer from the TLC Book Tours in return for an honest review, and invite you to visit other stops on the tour to read what others thought of this entertaining book.

Here's the tour schedule:

Tuesday, February 10th: Bibiotica
Wednesday, February 11th: Man of La Book
Friday, February 13th: Dreams, Etc.
Monday, February 16th: My Bookish Ways
Wednesday, February 18th: Jorie Loves a Story
Thursday, February 19th: Annabel & Alice
Friday, February 20th: Kritters Ramblings
Monday, February 23rd: Stephany Writes
Tuesday, February 24th: A Dream Within a Dream
Wednesday, February 25th: Hezzi-D’s Books and Cooks
Thursday, February 26th: Ace and Hoser Blook
Monday, March 2nd: The Discerning Reader
Tuesday, March 3rd: Novel Escapes
Thursday, March 5th: From the TBR Pile
Friday, March 6th: Mockingbird Hill Cottage
Wednesday, March 11th: Many Hats