Review of “The Midnight Watch: A Novel of the Titanic and Californian” by David Dyer

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The Midnight Watch provides us with a beautifully written, compelling, and moving account of the failure of the Californian, a fellow White Star Line ship, to respond to the distress signals of the Titanic in those fateful early morning hours of April 15, 1912. Eight individual white rockets indicating distress were fired from the deck of Titanic. Second Officer Herbert Stone, of the Californian, reported this to Captain Stanley Lord and Lord chose to stay in bed, doing absolutely nothing about it! To make matters worse, he lied about and continued to deny any responsibility for his lack of action for his entire life.

David Dyer has certainly done the research here in terms of the gathering of historical information. But this book is so much more than that. He gives us the hardworking, hard-drinking, tenacious Boston reporter Steadman. Steadman is determined to expose the truth, give voice to the victims, and uncover why the Californian, the only real hope at minimizing or even preventing loss of life, failed to give aid for hours while only a few miles away. Steadman is a complex, well-developed character. Though not perfect, he gave me someone to root for, someone willing to risk his job and his skin in the name of justice. (If only Herbert Stone had been that strong…) The author does a fabulous job in bringing the crew members of Californian to life and weaving the historical facts in seamlessly with portions of the story that are partially or completely fictionalized. The Story of the Sage family, mother, father, and nine children, all of whom perished in the Titanic, brought me to tears and reminded me of those heart-wrenching scenes of the 1997 film Titanic.

I hadn’t been aware of this failure of epic proportions and I’m amazed at how little attention history has given to this aspect of the history of the Titanic tragedy. I was both saddened and infuriated with the characters and events responsible in this book. I highly recommend this book to anyone that loves great historical fiction but it is a must-read for those of us who, like the author, have been Titanic obsessed since, like, forever.

4.5/5 stars

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review of “Dodgers” by Bill Beverly

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Dodgers is not what I would call a mystery/thriller or even a crime novel in the strictest sense. It’s definitely more of a coming-of-age story. East is a young L.A. gang member who has recently failed to protect a house he was in charge of from a police raid. His Uncle, the leader, sends him to Wisconsin along with 3 other gang members, including his younger half brother, to execute a judge who is to be a key witness. He gives them new identities, a nondescript van, some money, and a number to call for further instructions (ask for Abraham Lincoln) and sends them on their way.

Along the journey they take some incredibly stupid risks which I found to be a little unlikely. Those risks lead to a series of events which divide the group and force East to make choices about the kind of person he wants to be and what lengths he is willing to go to become that person.

The characters were, for the most part, quite complex. I was somewhat surprised at their ages. So young… Especially in East’s case. I think he was very young to have the relative maturity he was shown to have. And his brother at only 13… It’s a terrible reality how very, very young many people are who become involved in drugs and gangs.

My main criticism of this book is that the first 75% moved very slowly for me. There were times when I found myself bored and contemplated giving up. I’m glad I didn’t as I really loved the last 25% of the book and its ending.

3/5 stars

Thanks to Crown Publishing via NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review of “Jane Steele” by Lyndsay Faye

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Jane Steele  is a well-written, fun, and quirky read. I haven’t read Jane Eyre and wondered if it would make a difference in my ability to follow the book. It didn’t. Each chapter begins with a passage from Jane Eyre but this book is its own story and you won’t be impeded in any way if you haven’t read it. (Though I wonder at how I, calling myself a reader, could have made it this many years without having read one of the great classics.)

Jane’s story begins in childhood at Highgate House where she and her mother are effectively shunned by her Aunt Patience, forced to live in a guest cottage on the property. Before her untimely death, her mother tells Jane that Highgate House will be hers by inheritance some day but she leaves out several important details. Jane is promptly sent off to boarding school after her mother’s death where a series of events unfold and, let’s just say, the story really gains momentum.

Unfortunately, during the second half of the book, some of the momentum was lost for me. Not all. But some. The second half simply lacked the pace and sense of adventure that had me loving the first half of the book. Jane returns to Highgate house as a governess hired by the new master of Highgate House, the beguiling Charles Thornfield. I did enjoy this part of the story, as there are many twists, turns, and revelations but feel it could have been told with a few less words. Overall, though, I would say I enjoyed the story very much and would read this author again.

3.5 /5 stars

Thanks to Penguin Group Putnam via NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review of “Behave” by Andromeda Romano-Lax

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Behave by Andromeda Romano-Lax is the story of Rosalie Rayner Watson and her marriage to psychologist John B. Watson, who came to be known as the Father of Behaviorism.

This happens to be another of those books that’s tough for me to review as there is a great disparity in what I feel about the author’s abilities as a writer and story teller and my overall impression of the book. I think the author did a fabulous job in articulating  Rosalie’s story despite the fact that aren’t a lot of historical documents, etc. available to fully shape Rosalie’s character. It was an easy, fast read and I enjoyed the author’s writing style. However, I found both Rosalie and John to be unlikeable; their story mundane.

Rosalie is a young Vassar grad when she meets John. She lands a job as his research assistant at Johns Hopkins where they perform somewhat cruel experiments, on infants to prove John’s incomprehensible theories on behavior, conditioning, and child-rearing. John is married but, as expected, they begin an a affair (not his first by any means) which ultimately results in John and his first wife divorcing. Also not surprising, Rosalie, through the years, becomes disillusioned. Why would she think he’d be faithful to her? Should she be surprised that he would be less than discreet with his paramours? What mother would want to have to hide her affection toward her children? Simply put, John is a bit of ass. But then again, perhaps she shouldn’t have been so naive. But it’s more than just naivete that I found objectionable about Rosalie. She was rather a cold-hearted and unfeeling in her approach to her test subjects and I was glad that I wasn’t forced to read too many detailed accounts of the morally reprehensible experiments she helped perform on babies. The few I did have to read about were quite enough, thank you very much.

As for John Watson’s contribution to the world, all I can say is I can’t even imagine anyone believing in this man and his theories and I’m glad we’re no longer referring to his parenting guides.

Though I didn’t love this book, I would give any future books by Ms. Romano-Lax another chance depending on the subject.

3/5 stars

Thanks to Soho Press via NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review of “Fates and Furies” by Lauren Groff

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Oh, how I wanted to like this book. Sadly, I finished it only because 1) it was for a book club, 2) several people I really respect gave this book glowing reviews, and 3) by the time I figured out that it was not going to get better for me, I was too far in.

The plot itself had some potential perhaps. But the amount of incomplete sentences drove me to distraction. I get it, it’s a writing style, but I found it to be overdone. Everything about this book just seemed to be trying too hard; too many superfluous big words, every sentence trying to be a line of poetry. And the amount of boring, unnecessary references to Greek mythology. I. Can’t. Even.

I know I sound like a real    imgres   but I just can’t help it!

My rating 1.5 stars

 

Review of “The Summer Before the War” by Helen Simonson

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Helen Simonson has proven she’s no one-trick pony. The author of the NYT bestselling debut, Major Pettigrew’s Last Standhas left no doubt that she is here to stay.

The Summer Before the War transports us to the beautiful seaside town of Rye, East Sussex. My mind’s eye has conjured a bit of a Pleasantville feel to this innocent pre-war town where everything is just as it should be at the beginning of the book. Beatrice Nash is the new Latin teacher at the local school. She can thank Agatha Grange, who is a member of the school’s Board of Governors, for her having been offered the position as many in the town are aghast at the prospect of a woman teaching Latin. Agatha has really stuck her neck out with her fellow Board members in getting Beatrice this teaching appointment and she takes her under her wing in her determination to see Beatrice become a success. She did, however, count upon Beatrice being a little more spinsterly than the attractive, intelligent woman who showed up at her door. (She plainly states that though she is progressive, she would not have considered hiring an attractive teacher.)

Agatha and her husband are very close to their nephews Daniel and Hugh. The boys grew up summering with Aunt Agatha and Uncle John, who, having no children of their own, provide much parental love and guidance to the young men. Daniel is a talented aspiring poet. Hugh has just finished his training to become a surgeon with a renowned mentor.

Life changes dramatically, of course, once the war begins. It all starts with the arrival of the Belgian refugees; the beautiful Celeste and her father. Celeste is staying with Beatrice while her father, the professor, stays nearby with the famous poet, Mr. Tillingham. Soon many of our characters are drawn to serve in the war efforts.They serve in all capacities ranging from the men on the front lines to the ladies who are doing their part on the homefront.

The characters in this book are all remarkably well-developed and complex. This goes for minor (I’m thinking of the surly ambulance drivers) characters as well which is something I think of as difficult to pull off when we only get to know a character on a page or two.

What really makes this book special however, is the way it made me feel. There were smiles and tears and I think it’s been a while since a book has moved me in that way. I’m finding that the more I read, the more difficult it can be to access those emotions. The author does a beautiful job reminding us of the very real and terrible consequences of war while tempering all of the tragedy and sadness with the light that good people with good intentions can bring to a difficult situation.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Thanks to Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review of “Sisi: Empress on Her Own” by Allison Pataki

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I really loved The Traitor’s Wife  by Allison Pataki and was super-excited at the opportunity to read and review Sisi: Empress on Her Own. Unfortunately, it fell a little flat for me. I’m not sure if, in part at least, it’s because I didn’t read The Accidental Empress. I found the comparison to Princess Diana to be quite a stretch since Sisi seemed to face consistent criticism for her lack of attention to her royal duties and detachment from her subjects. There was really nothing about her I found endearing or relatable.  In fact, I found her to be really seemed rather selfish. And though I’m sure that “troubled” would be the preferred light in which to paint her, I really just didn’t get that. For example, when her daughter Gisela wrote imploring her to come home and address the cruel measures being used to discipline and strengthen the constitution of her young son Rudolph, she did do so, but she never followed through in any way to try to alleviate the emotional damage that had already been inflicted; in fact she turned an absolutely blind eye to his own cruel actions. Throughout the book, it seemed that she really just wanted to skate by, getting away with accepting the bare minimum of responsibilities. Though the result of a long marriage having gone loveless, she actually had many freedoms for a woman of that time and I would have liked to see her use them for endeavors that were not always self-serving. I suppose I just wanted her to be a stronger woman in general. One who would face her problems rather than run from them.

I did enjoy learning about Sisi’s cousin, Ludwig II of Bavaria, who  proved to be an interesting story and character unto himself. Probably gay, an eccentric patron of the arts, a wild spender of his empire’s fortunes, and possible clinically insane, he made for an actually likable, if not conventional man of his times. Throw in a suspicious and untimely death and there’s another novel in the making, I think.

Though I can’t give this book an overwhelmingly positive review, I would certainly look forward to reading Allsion Pataki’s next book. She’s a great writer who clearly does her homework. I think part of the problem for me, with this book, is that I didn’t find Sisi to be a great heroine. And while that not the author’s fault, it’s hard to separate from my overall feelings about the book.

My rating: 3 stars

Many thanks to Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review of “Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe” by Dawn Tripp

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Wow. Dawn Tripp can write!

“Here I am again. Held down, held back, in a power struggle with some arrogant man, his ego and incompetence that has nothing to do with my art. It’s like they’re all together in some maddening conspiracy to make me good enough, but not good enough to topple them.”

Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe  is a beautifully written account of Georgia O’Keefe’s life. As a work of historical fiction, it’s all it should be. The settings, from Lake George to Taos are vividly rendered. The research is obviously there. The real beauty, though, is the way the characters become known to us. I think it must be very difficult to make a reader feel so intimately connected to the characters; especially if the characters are historical figures with bios that can be read all over the internet.

Georgia’s life with Stieglitz went from pillar to post. He was her nurturing mentor and earliest fan. She was the stability and loving home he needed. Though, at times, I was frustrated, saddened, and even enraged at his man/boy antics, it was very clear that they shared a very deep connection. She gave up so much to be with him. Or did she? What would her life, both personal and professional, have been like without him? Though we like to think the times are so very different now, women continue with many of these struggles in an effort to balance everything we need and want in our lives. We probably always will. While I loved Georgia for her strength, creativity, and perseverance,  I was most impressed with Georgia’s maturity and wisdom:

“… despite the fact that he can still make me so angry, in the end he is just a man whose sunlight is behind him.”

I love discovering an author, previously unknown to me, whose next book I’m already looking forward to.

My rating: 4.75 stars

Thank you to Random House Publishing, via NetGalley, for providing me with a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review of “Tears in the Grass” by Lynda Archer

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Tears in the Grass is the story of Elinor, a 90 year old Cree woman, and her quest to find the child that was taken from her as a newborn while she was living in a residential school. The child, a girl named Bright Eyes, was born after Elinor was raped by a man at the school. The year is now 1968 and more than 70 years have past. Elinor has never forgotten her beautiful daughter. She never told her late husband, or any other family member about this child, keeping the feelings of guilt and sorrow to herself. She knows her time is growing short and enlists the help of her daughter, Louise, and grandaughter, Alice.

Both Louise and Alice also have a secret. There is more focus on Louise’s though I’m not sure it really added much to the story. While I get the “everyone’s got a secret” theme, it felt a little gratuitous; a convenient commonality to connect Elinor and Louise after a difficult past relationship.

While I enjoyed many aspects of Elinor’s character, including her tenacity, wisdom and connection to nature, this book was a bit flat for me overall. I finished the book without really feeling connection or attachment to any of the characters. It wasn’t terrible; I just couldn’t get excited about anything.

My rating: 2.75 stars

Thanks to Dundurn Press via NetGalley for providing me with a free e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

 

Review of “The Two-Family House” by Lynda Cohen Loigman

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I must admit that The Two-Family House  surprised me in the end. It started off quite slowly. Initially, I found the writing to be clinical and I thought I knew just where it was going when I was 9% through. This all changed dramatically at about the 60% mark.

Rose and Helen are sisters-in-law living in the same Brooklyn brownstone. They have always been very close; more like sisters than in-laws. During a blizzard, while their husbands are out of town on a family business matter, they both go into labor. Travel to the hospital is impossible. Cab companies aren’t even answering the phone. Helen can’t persuade the ambulance to come for them. Luckily, there is a midwife who is only a few blocks away after having attended another delivery. She comes to their rescue and they each delivery a healthy baby; Helen’s 5th and Roses 4th.

As time passes, the close friendship between Rose and Helen shifts to a relationship full of jealousy and resentment. Rose has become somewhat unstable. Helen does everything she can to mend the relationship to no avail. Ultimately, I found it a little sad that this was so. After all, the decision that led to the breakdown of their relationship was made by both of them. At the same time, I thought this was one of the most realistic aspects of the book as it demonstrated how two people can react so differently to the same set of circumstances. At times I thought it was Rose’s character that made her behave in a way I didn’t care for. At other times, I thought it was some sort of response to guilt, depression, or other type of mental illness. Perhaps it was all of those. The bottom line is that we never really know exactly why people are the way there.

There were other themes running through this book as well. As we watch Rose’s husband, Mort, evolve through the years, we are reminded of the importance of our interactions with family and friends and keeping perspective on what’s really important in life.

While there are too many characters to comment on individually, Rose’s daughter Judith certainly deserves a mention. In her, Lynda Cohen Loigman gives us a girl, who turns into a woman, of substance. If I had to be one of the character’s in this book or choose one to be my best friend, I’d want it to be her.

Overall, I think this is a very solid first novel.

My rating: 3.75 stars

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley for providing me with a free e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.