Review of “Before the Fall” by Noah Hawley

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Though I probably shouldn’t have started reading Before the Fall during a super-turbulent flight, I will say that it’s certainly a page-turner.

We know how the story ends (begins). The plane crashes. Nine people are dead. There are two survivors; Scott Burroughs, an artist who was offered a free ride to the city from a woman he’s met on the Vineyard, and her four year old son. Beyond that, we are left with nothing but questions. Many, many questions… What is Scott’s relationship with Maggie, the plane’s owner, and why is he really on the plane? Is Scott really the hero he seems to be? Or is there an explanation for his being one of only two survivors? Was it mechanical failure? Or was the pending indictment of one of the passengers (he was a finance guy, of course) a factor? Was there a lover’s quarrel in the cockpit? Did the bodyguard go rogue?

It must be difficult to develop characters for a book when said characters are almost all dead beyond the first few pages but I think Noah Hawley does a fair job here. There are some interesting dynamics in the bond that has formed between Scott and JJ, the little boy he rescued, and Eleanor, the boy’s aunt and legal guardian. These relationships help to give the book more depth and interest than is sometimes found in a more typical whodunnit.

I loved the way this book kept me guessing until the very end. The crashed could have been caused by any number of things and I vacillated back and forth unendingly in my own theories. I do admit to being a little disappointed, however, when the truth was revealed. I felt that there was a lack of creativity in the way it all wrapped up which surprised me as it was in sharp contrast with the rest of the book. Overall, though, I would say it’s a great read and I would definitely read this author’s next book.

4.25/5 stars

Thanks to Grand Central Publishing, via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review of “Glory Over Everything: Beyond the Kitchen House” by Kathleen Grissom

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“I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free. There was such a glory over everything. The sun came up like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”

-Harriet Tubman

I absolutely loved The Kitchen House and was thrilled when I heard Kathleen Grissom was writing a sequel. Though Glory Over Everything: Beyond the Kitchen House is a stand-alone novel, I highly recommend reading The Kitchen House if you haven’t already.

James Burton (formerly Jamie Pyke) is passing as a wealthy white Philadelphia silversmith who has denied his true identity for many years after fleeing Tall Oaks, the Virginia planation where he was raised. He has fallen in love with Caroline, a white woman from a wealthy family. She becomes pregnant and he intends to tell her his secret, fearing that it will become obvious to all when the child is born. But before he gets the opportunity, his beloved servant, Pan, is captured and brought to the South to be sold into slavery. James embarks on a dangerous journey to save Pan, the son a friend to whom he owed his very life.

I really liked this book but I’m not sure I loved quite as much as The Kitchen House. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. I loved Pan’s character and wanted to jump into the story to protect him myself. In fact, all of the characters were crafted with the same depth and complexity as those I grew to love in The Kitchen House. Perhaps I simply had a difficult time reconciling certain aspects of James’s character. For example, while I could understand his reasons for wanting to maintain his identity as a white man, I took offense at his disdain toward slaves. That’s all I’ll say about that. There are other examples but I don’t want to include any spoilers. On the other hand, there are characters I absolutely adored. For example, the young but formidable Adelaide Spencer. She is the teen daughter of the man who owns the property adjacent to where Pan is being held. She’s a young woman of conviction; someone I would like to believe I would have been like had I lived in those times.

Kathleen Grissom has told us another beautiful story. Even when the story is full of unimaginable pain and hardship, she has a unique way of weaving in enough snippets of the good in humanity, and the awesome strength of good people working together, to prevent us from losing all hope.

4.25/5 stars

Thanks to Simon & Schuster via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

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 “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.