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:

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!

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.