Monday, April 28, 2014

So Great a Love (Book Review)

Title:  So Great a Love
Author: Gladys Malvern
Publication Information: Macrae Smith Co., 1962, Beebliome Books 2013 (ebook)
Genre: YA Historical Fiction
Setting:  17th Century England
Plot:  It is 1641 and lovely Lady Henrietta Wade, known as Hal, is lady in waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I of England (the cover actually comes from a portrait of the Queen).  Hal was named for the Queen, who is her godmother.  French and a devoted Catholic, the Queen is resented by many of her husband’s subjects, particularly by the Roundheads/Puritans who blame her for her religion as well as for the King’s determination to retain the unlimited power of an absolute monarch. 

When the book begins, Hal’s mother, Lady Langdon, who lives in the country due to ill health, has asked the Queen to send Hal home.  Hal’s father escorts her from London and shares his concern that the unrest in the country may lead to civil war.  Hal is concerned by the rumors but she basically thinks of Puritans as spoilsports who consider it sinful for a woman to look pretty.  She is also disappointed with her father for betrothing her to the Duke of Thewes, who is old and fat.  Lord Langdon does not understand his daughter and dismisses her concerns about the disparity of age, saying merely that she is fortunate to have secured the interest of the Duke and will outrank nearly everyone at Court.

Once at Langdon Hall in Shottery, not far from Stratford-upon-Avon, Hal is glad to see both her mother and Nancy Cheam, the housekeeper who was once her nurse.  Hal grew up with Mrs. Cheam’s grandson, Jerry Vane, two years her senior.   Lord Langdon paid for Jerry, a bright young man, to be educated at Cambridge, where he has become close to John Milton.  When Jerry returns to Langdon Hall, he is a handsome and intelligent young man whose political views are anathema to the Wades – in fact, they are appalled at his disloyalty in supporting the Roundhead cause: “How dared Jerry become a Puritan,” thinks Hal, her eyes flashing angrily.  Hal sometimes appears spoilt and willful, but she and Jerry grow close as civil war approaches, despite the fact that they find themselves on opposite sides:

“If there’s war – and there surely will be – I suppose you’ll join the Roundheads?”
“And would you expect me to join the Cavaliers?”
“It’s quite indifferent to me which side you’re on.  But you Roundheads are to blame for this trouble.”
“Are we now? It would seem to me that the blame should rest on the King.”  He refused to be put on the defensive.  His pleasant voice remained calm.  “It seems to me that liberty’s a thing worth fighting for, and you’ll have to agree that the King has forced us to it.  If he’d compromise a bit – just a little.”
She glared at him. “Oh, why don’t you go to America with the other Puritans? I wish every one of you would get out of England.  Then maybe we’d have peace!”

The rapprochment doesn't happen overnight!  It takes war and personal tragedy for Hal to mature, and escape from the odious marriage arranged by her father, leaving her free to ... well, you’ll have to read the book!

What I liked:  The English Civil War is one of my favorite periods, and like fiction set during the U.S. Civil War, it provides drama and conflict between families as different loyalties are tested.  Malvern does a good job describing the different principles of Charles I and his unruly Parliament, and a teen audience would understand the positions of the characters.  Jerry doesn’t have as much personality as some of Malvern’s other heroes but maybe I just prefer Cavaliers! A modern audience might not understand that Hal is expected to sacrifice for Charles I just as her brother is expected to fight for him.  
 Malvern does show how this war affected a young woman of noble birth as Hal tries to balance her loyalty to her monarchs and her own personal happiness. 

It is a bit odd reading an interactive children’s book as an adult.  I loved the pictures of Charles 1 imbedded in the text and I like the concept of being able to touch a word (in bold) to get its meaning.  However, when I was first reading Malvern (6th or 7th grade, I think) I certainly knew words like astride and threadbare and scullery but maybe I wouldn’t have been familiar with furlough and inveigled.  My favorite references were illustrations of locations in the book such as Pendennis Castle in Plymouth.  Once I grew used to the format, I enjoyed it.

Audience:  Pre-teens and teens, fans of historical fiction and of authors such as Ann Rinaldi, Karen Cushman, and Michelle Cooper.  Although I read every Malvern in my school and public libraries, I had never come across this one so was delighted to find it back in print and enjoyed it.
Gladys Malvern
Gladys Malvern: Known for her quality historical fiction, Malvern (1897-1962) also vividly depicted the historical and contemporary theater in her books (one of my favorites is Gloria BalletDancer, which is the first in a trilogy set in mid-20th century New York about an aspiring dancer).  Gladys and her younger sister Corinne appeared on stage in vaudeville productions from a young age, and Gladys graduated to actual theater roles as a teen (just like one of her heroines).  Later the sisters and their mother moved to Los Angeles, where Corinne must have either studied art or developed natural talent as she obtained work as a fashion artist and Gladys became a copywriter.    The sisters stayed close and collaborated on several books.  Eventually, they moved to New York, and Gladys wrote more than 40 books, including Behold Your Queen, which I highly recommend - one of several novels with a biblical theme.  I used to tell people that everything I knew about Judaism as a child came from All of a Kind Family or Gladys Malvern!

Source:  I won this book through a Twitter contest from Beebliome Books, which graciously offered me my choice of a book from their list.  There were several books that caught my interest, including several rare Malvern titles and by other classic authors such as Hilda Lewis and John and Patricia Beatty.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Idea of Him (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: The Idea of Him
Author: Holly Peterson
Publication Information: William Morrow, Trade Paperback, April 2014
Genre: Fiction verging on Chick Lit
Setting: 21st century NYC
Plot: Chick lit used to refer to a genre of fiction involving sprightly single women experiencing the travails of love and a usually not too demanding career, surrounded by friends and family (in that order).  The genre expanded (perhaps as that first group of Bridget Jones readers aged, or perhaps because the industry needed some fresh plots) to include busy working women, with bland or troubled marriages, facing some kind of challenge, sometimes with the spouse.  Points/extra credit if the book is set in a vibrant city like New York or London, though I am partial to the quaint village backdrop which is a favorite of British authors such as Katie Fforde.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Winter Siege (Book Review)

Publication Information: Electric Reads, 2013, trade paperback
Genre: Historical Fiction     
Setting:  17th Century England 
 Plot:  “...but pray tell me, are you for the King or for Parliament?”

1643. The armies of King Charles I and Parliament clash in the streets and fields of England, threatening to tear the country apart, as winter closes in around the parliamentary stronghold of Nantwich. The royalists have pillaged the town before, and now, they are returning. But even with weeks to prepare before the Civil War is once more at its gates, that doesn’t mean the people of Nantwich are safe.

While the garrison of soldiers commanded by Colonel George Booth stand guard, the town’s residents wait, eyeing the outside world with unease, unaware that they face a deadly threat from within. Townspeople are being murdered – the red sashes of the royalists left on the bodies marking them as traitors to the parliamentary cause.  When the first dead man is found, his skull caved in with a rock, fingers start being pointed, and old hatreds rise to the surface. It falls to Constable Daniel Cheswis to contain the bloodshed, deputizing his friend, Alexander Clowes, to help him in his investigations, carried out with the eyes of both armies on his back. And they are not the only ones watching him.

He is surrounded by enemies, and between preparing for the imminent battle, watching over his family, being reunited with his long-lost sweetheart, and trying, somehow, to stay in business, he barely has time to solve a murder.  With few clues and the constant distraction of war, can Cheswis protect the people of Nantwich? And which among them need protecting? Whether they are old friends or troubled family, in these treacherous times, everyone’s a traitor, in war, law, or love.

When the Winter Siege is through, who will be among the bodies?

Audience: Fans of historical mysteries by authors like Sharon Kay Penman  (like me, an alumna of Rutgers Law School) and Ariana Franklin.
Charles I
What I liked: I enjoyed the author’s recreation of the town of Nantwich, familiar to anyone who has read as much as I about the English Civil War, but Bradbridge vividly depicts the everyday aspect of town in a way I had not encountered before.  I particularly liked the descriptions of Cheswis’ cheese business and his friendships with other merchants and townspeople.   I also appreciated the way the Royalists and the Roundheads interact throughout book – some authors ignore the fact that there were periods of time without any battle when people from different sides had to get along.  American readers more familiar with our own War Between the States will get a good understanding of the issues in the English Civil War.

What I disliked:  Cheswis is a pleasant character and the story moved along well, but I wished the mystery had been compelling.  I had a hard time keeping track of the characters at first and finally made a list.  I would have recommended that the author hire a professional copyeditor so as to avoid a grammatical error like that on page 24 (“it was made clear to Sawyer and I”) and the frequent use of “alright” which I dislike.  However, the author’s passion for history shines through and keeps the reader interested.
Source: I received this book from the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours and urge you to stop by the tour to learn more about the author and see what others have to say about it.   

Virtual Book Tour Schedule

Monday, April 7-Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past

Tuesday, April 8-Review at Must Read Faster

Friday, April 11-Review at A Bibliotaph’s Reviews

Monday, April 14-Review at Princess of Eboli

Wednesday, April 16-Review at Caroline Wilson Writes
-Interview at Layered Pages

Thursday, April 17-Interview at MK McClintock Blog
-Review & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick

Friday, April 18Review at bookramblings
Review at Svetlana’s Reads and Views

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Common Ground (A Pictorial Review)

When David C. Scheper, former Harvard center turned attorney, was in Boston recently, he told me Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas, was one of his favorite books, and asked me to describe how the Boston neighborhoods depicted in that book geographically relate to the parts of Boston with which he is more familiar.  Common Ground, a Turbulent Decade in theLives of Three American Families, won the Pulitzer in 1986 for its memorable depiction of three Boston families from very different backgrounds experiencing Boston school desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s.   My father, having worked with legendary judge W. Arthur Garrity in the U.S. Attorney’s Office (who later issued the decision that mandated school busing), was one of the first people Tony Lukas interviewed for the book, and I am very familiar with it.
I started by drawing the Boston neighborhoods on a napkin, starting in Allston with Harvard’s football stadium and basketball’s Lavietes Pavilion, where we had just attended a game.   I added Brighton, where I lived as a child, then added my current neighborhood, near the southwest city limits.   I sketched in the three neighborhoods which Lukas focused on in his narrative, and the next day I found myself giving an actual Common Ground tour.  Having lent my copy to a law firm colleague who never returned it, I borrowed one from my parents, which has lovely map endpapers. 
West Newton Street in Boston's South End
We started in the South End, where the first family profiled, the Divers, resided in a neighborhood that was then just beginning its gentrification and is now extremely trendy and expensive.  Colin Diver was an Amherst College and HLS educated assistant to then Mayor Kevin White.   He later became the president of Reed College.  Like many well educated Bostonians, he and his wife were torn about whether to send their children to city schools or to move to the suburbs.   We found 118 West Newton Street where the Divers had bought a townhouse for $27,000 in 1970 (I assume it would be worth several million dollars now).
View up to the Monument
Next we drove to Charlestown, the oldest neighborhood in Boston and one of the prettiest.   Although it has nothing to do with the book, I had always wanted to climb to the top of the Bunker Hill Monument, so we made a brief detour (what is known in the legal world as a frolic).  The Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775) received its name because it took place nearby, and Dr. Joseph Warren, a noted doctor and Patriot (who attended Roxbury Latin like my father and brother) was killed in combat when the British stormed Breed's Hill where the battle took place.  Dr. Warren is honored on the ground floor of the Monument.   The British won but suffered great loss of men and the Colonists gained confidence for the future.

Dr. Joseph Warren, Harvard Class of 1759
David and Constance

The infamous Charlestown High School faces Monument Square.  The housing project where the second family lived, the white Irish-Catholic McGoffs, is a few blocks away.   It does not appear to have changed much in the intervening years, although Charlestown itself is a neighborhood that has moved in two directions with a poor section and affluent young professionals.   The original high school, dedicated in 1848, had been replaced by a neo-classical building in 1907 which was attractive on the outside, and in recent years was converted to expensive condos (a 1427 square foot corner unit is currently on the market for $849K).
Old Charlestown High School
The third family, the African-American Twymons, lived in Dorchester.  By the time we reached their former street, it was raining which added to the lurking depression of the neighborhood.  A few teens were playing basketball but the other people hanging around outside did not look welcoming.  We weren’t sure which house was correct and decided against lingering but David gamely posed, having previously phoned his wife in California to warn her he was heading to a dangerous part of town.  “Then I’m glad you called to say goodbye,” replied the imperturbable Barbara.
Near the McGoffs' Building in the Charlestown projects
I remember my mother explaining to me as a child that the bigots in South Boston who threw rocks at school buses didn’t even realize that the schools in their neighborhood weren’t any good either and that they should be fighting for better standards, not targeting innocent children.   She also believes that if Richard, Cardinal Cushing (best known outside Boston as the priest who officiated at President Kennedy's wedding and his funeral), a member of the NAACP, had not died in 1970, he would have ridden the school buses with the African-American children bused to Southie and no one would have dared throw a rock.  His successor, Cardinal Medeiros, did his best, condemning the violence and bigotry but he was not liked by the Irish Catholics of Boston, who ignored him.
This Dorchester building on the Twymons' block looks better in the photo than in real life
The book examined how desegregation divided the city of Boston, and how these three families shared a common goal of wanting a good education for their children, and how frustrated all of them were by the court ordered busing and the disruptive fallout.  Lukas interviewed many families before finding three that were willing to share, not just their stories but their sociological perspectives: one white and upper middle class, one white working class, and one African-American working class.   The McGoff and Twymon daughters wound up being classmates at Charlestown High School, both from large families headed by a very assertive mother.    In fact, Alice McGoff was a vocal leader of the anti-busing movement.   The hardest parts of the book for me were reading the descriptions of the Twymon family’s struggles as the matriarch, Rachel Twymon, lost control over of her children and her heartbreak resulting from their destructive behavior.  Her passionate belief in education couldn’t help preserve her family or improve their lives.  For those reading the book, Lukas created a panoramic glimpse of the history of Boston and the way urban education fails many of those enrolled, including those who most need it. 
There were quite a few menacing guys loitering and the police were not taking notice - in fact, were nowhere to be seen.  We did not linger.
It was a great excursion, and is now part of my literary tour lexicon.  Happy Birthday, David!