Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mini shout: One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

 Who had any idea so many memorable events happened in 1927?  I certainly learned a lot, and enjoyed the history lesson.  Bryson as usual dispenses tidbits of history along with philosophy, sociology, politics, geology, anthropology, and just plain fun.  There's baseball (Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs that summer), there's aviation (Charles Lindbergh and a host of others were setting all kinds of airbourne records),there's the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti (along with the entire story of electrocution. Prohibition was foundering, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover were both exhibiting their lack of charisma, and the movies were shifting from silent to talkies.
Fascinating in both print and audio.

Author: Bill Bryson
Publisher:Doubleday (2013), Edition: 0, Hardcover, 528 pages
Genre: History
Subject: Important trends and events happening in 1927
Source: public library download
Why did I read this book now? It was available, I love Bill Bryson, and the subject matter intrigued me.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Review: Orphan Train by Christine Baker Kline

Christine Baker Kline tells a moving story of two women separated in age by decades, but joined by experiences of betrayal and abandonment.
  The publisher tells us:
Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse...
As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.
Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life – answers that will ultimately free them both.
Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.
Baker Kline does a masterful job of weaving the stories of Mollie and Vivian, although the book is much more about the older woman than the younger, perhaps because Vivian has already lived her life and her experiences can be seen as lessons for Mollie.  While the younger woman has certainly been shuffled from house to house, the more enlightened views of today's social services afford her more opportunities for success.

The stories of the orphan train children, told in stark detail, are appalling.   Our book group discussed this last week, and to a member, no-one could believe that these children were sent and/or left in the squalor, the degradation and the abusive situations some of them faced. None of us, whether we had children or not, could ever envision treating children in such a cruel and cavalier manner as was told about some of these neglected youngsters in the 1920s.  We cheered for the people who helped right the wrongs, we unanimously denounced the villains.  We questioned decisions made, both by Vivian and by Mollie, but we all agreed that the story was well told, kept us turning pages, and ultimately left us feeling that the resolution, while a bit contrived, was a satisfactory one.  I don't want to do spoilers, but I will say it is a story that weaves injustices of the past with success both past and present.  It highlights glaring lapses that still exist in the foster system today while celebrating improvements and accomplishments.

Although the subject matter can be difficult, the author's use of two perspectives to reflect feelings and emotions gives the reader a chance to evaluate the subject matter clearly and close the book with a feeling of satisfaction.
ORPHAN TRAIN was on the long list of nominees for the Maine Readers Choice Award.  Many thanks to the publisher, Willliam Morrow Paperbacks for making a copy available for review.

Title: Orphan Train
Author: Christina Baker Kline
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (2013), Edition: Original, Paperback, 304 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Subject: treatment of orphans and foster children
Setting: Maine, Minnesota
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? To evaluate it as a possible contender for the Maine Readers Choice Award.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Blog Tour and a Giveaway: The Promise by Ann Weisgarber

A heartbreaking story set against the backdrop of the devastating Hurricane that hit Galveston Island in 1900.  The publisher's blurb tells us:
1900. Young pianist Catherine Wainwright flees the fashionable town of Dayton, Ohio in the wake of a terrible scandal. Heartbroken and facing destitution, she finds herself striking up correspondence with a childhood admirer, the recently widowed Oscar Williams. In desperation she agrees to marry him, but when Catherine travels to Oscar's farm on Galveston Island, Texas-a thousand miles from home-she finds she is little prepared for the life that awaits her. The island is remote, the weather sweltering, and Oscar's little boy Andre is grieving hard for his lost mother. And though Oscar tries to please his new wife, the secrets of the past sit uncomfortably between them. Meanwhile for Nan Ogden, Oscar's housekeeper, Catherine's sudden arrival has come as a great shock. For not only did she promise Oscar's first wife that she would be the one to take care of little Andre, but she has feelings for Oscar which she is struggling to suppress. And when the worst storm in a generation descends, the women will find themselves tested as never before.
My Impressions:

Two women contribute to the Galveston household of Oscar Williams, a recent widower: his second wife Catherine, an accomplished pianist from his hometown of Dayton Ohio, and Nan Ogden, his housekeeper who promised his first wife that she would look after Oscar and his son Andre.  Catherine arrives burdened with a secret from her past, determined to make a new life and never reveal her shame to Oscar.  Nan, suffering from unrequited love, must balance her own feelings toward Oscar with her loyalty towards her dead friend. The story moves along at a breathtaking pace, while at the same time leaving the characters immersed in slow, clock-stopping chunks of terror.  Weisgarden's descriptions of the barren landscape, the skies, the heavy air, the bugs, the hard work of maintaining a subsistence existence totally lacking in any trivial or unnecessary items or events, drain not only the characters but the reader.  The reader is swept into the story and compelled to join in the anguish of decisions being made, memories relived, and hopes being planted only to be dashed.

The sheer joy of an untuned piano, a community dance, an inside pump for water paints the picture of how bleak life was during this time frame, how desperate people were for any chance for beauty, for love, for hope.  As the storm rages across the island, each woman reviews her life, her hopes and dreams while facing life and death issues. The ending is one that speaks to the premise.  It's a stunner, sad but hopeful and deserves not to be spoiled by pre-telling.  Weisgarden has given us not only a historical portrait of a catastrophic event, but a beautiful narrative of two women, a man, and a child that will resonate with even the most hard-hearted.

It more than lives up to its title.
When I first agreed to serve as a review host for the blog tour, I wasn't sure I was
going to have time to do an in-depth interview with Ann, so she graciously furnished me a personal note to include for all my readers. It certainly helped me connect with her and made me even more positive about this terrific story.  Here's what she sent:
I’m so pleased to part of your blog and this comes to you with my thanks for reading The Promise.  While writing this note, my atlas is on my desk and it’s open to Maine.  This makes me feel connected to you.  It also reminds me of the time my husband and I visited Ogunquit for our fifth wedding anniversary.  Rob was a student in Boston, I was a social worker in an East Boston nursing home, and we counted every penny.  The bus trip to Ogunquit was a wild splurge but it was early June and the Bed & Breakfast rate was low.  Many restaurants were closed and there were few tourists.  This didn’t matter to us.  We were in Maine, a place we’d never been before. 
    On Saturday afternoon, Rob and I took a walk along the cliff that overlooked the water.  The wind was brisk with a distinct chill and the beach was deserted.  Yet, strawberry plants grew along the path and the berries were beginning to ripen.  It was a moment I’ll never forget:  the cold wind paired with delicate red-tinged berries determined to thrive.
    Like that long ago trip to Maine, reading a good book takes me to new places.  I open it and find the wind, the plot.  But beneath the plot, I sometimes find small discoveries that enrich my life and linger in my thoughts for years to come. 
    I hope you and other readers find these kinds of unexpected moments in The Promise.     

Ann, I certainly do feel a connection since we spent part of our honeymoon at Ogunquit Maine before continuing up the coast.   Living here full time now I really appreciate those cool see breezes that often put me in the mood to settle down and read.  Coastal cities always fascinate me and the setting for The Promise is especially personal.  We have dear friends whose once upon a time beach house in Galveston where we vacationed many years ago is no longer....a more recent hurricane claimed it.  So this one was very special for me to read.  I hope all my readers will hurry out and get a copy.  It's definitely going to be one of the best of the year.

And now for the final treat: The publicist has given me one copy to offer to my readers.  The giveaway is open only to US and Canadian readers.  Leave a comment to enter, and be sure to leave your email address so I can notify you when you win.  You can earn an extra entry by visiting Ann's webpage and leaving a second comment about something interesting you learned there.  The giveaway ends on May 16th at 11:30 PM EDT.  I'll draw the winner on the 17th.

Title: The Promise
Author: Ann Weisgarden
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing (2014), Hardcover, 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Subject: Galveston Hurricane of 1900
Setting: Dayton Ohio and Galveston Island Texas
Source: E-galley review copy from the publisher

Follow The Promise Blog Tour in the following days for more reviews and maybe another chance to win a copy. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Re - reading - an oft neglected joy!

I've recently become a devotèe of re-reading books.  As many of you know, one of my favorite genres is the mystery series, and there is no one better at writing in this format than Louise Penny.  Her Chief Inspector Gamache series is probably my all-time favorite.  Currently, to promote the tenth book of the series, her publisher, St. Martin's Minotaur is sponsoring an on-line "re-read" discussion of books 1-9.  I needed no further excuse to plunge in to refresh my memory to get ready for this new one coming out in August.

The discussion started yesterday with a welcome by one of my favorite bloggers, Lesa Holstine of Lesa's Book Critiques.
Her kickoff and the ensuing conversation is here at Still Life Part 1. I decided this time to "ear-read" it by listening to Ralph Cosham's splendid narration. I love to listen to audio books while I jog in the pool to soothe my arthritic joints.  I became so engrossed by reminders of details I'd forgotten about this first book, that I spent twice as long in the pool as I normally do.

I came home and spent the rest of that day, and most of the weekend finishing this luscious introduction to the Village of Three Pines, and one of the most engaging, endearing, and unforgettable casts of characters I've ever come across.  The on-line discussion is so much fun, and I can't wait to read the rest of the series again.

I used to say that I didn't have time to read a book I'd already read because that took away from my time to read a new one.  But as I read more, I realize that one read is not enough for a really good book.  There is so much to plumb from these that it will take at least two reads to be sure I haven't missed something.  Because everything Louise Penny writes is worth paying close attention. 

If you've not yet experienced  the fun and the utter beauty of Three Pines and its inhabitants, the utter terror of evil unleashed, and the relief of mysteries solved, you owe yourself a chance.  These are not typical mysteries.  Yes, there are bad guys, yes there are villains and murders, and clues and red herrings, but these are really stories about life and love and passion and longing and despair and hope.  Try them.  And join us in the discussion.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

This one was a huge surprise for me.  It was on the short list of ten for the Maine Reader's Choice Award, and it's still one of the five I'm considering voting for when we have to choose the three finalists later this month.

The publisher tells us:

It’s summertime in a blue-collar dockside neighborhood. (Red Hook Brooklyn New York).  June and Val, two fifteen-year-olds, take a raft out onto the bay at night to see what they can see.
And then they disappear. Only Val will survive, washed ashore; semi-conscious in the weeds.
This shocking event will echo through the lives of a diverse cast of Red Hook residents. Fadi, the Lebanese bodega owner, hopes that his shop will be the place to share neighborhood news and troll for information about June’s disappearance. Cree, just beginning to pull it together after his father’s murder, unwittingly makes himself the chief suspect, but an enigmatic and elusive guardian is determined to keep him safe.
Val contends with the shadow of her missing friend and a truth she buries deep inside. Her teacher Jonathan, a Julliard School dropout and barfly, wrestles with dashed dreams and a past riddled with tragic sins.
 My impression:  Reminiscent of West Side Story, the class struggle portrayed by The characters in this book is drawn with such precision that the reader is able to understand and empathize with each one of them in spite of their often less than savory backgrounds and behavior.  We might not want to live their lives or move into their hood, but they are portrayed with a realism that sings. The mystery is so well entwined in the lives of these characters that it takes a while to determine exactly what the mystery is.  Is June missing?  Did she drown?  Was she murdered?  What really happened, and who knows?  Who cares? And why?  It's a true underdog story, set in a vibrant, currant setting that will appeal to lovers of mysteries, young adults and adults alike, and readers who want a beautifully crafted work of fiction.  It works especially well in audio.  It's one I'll listen to and read again, and fully expect to see this one on the movie screen someday.

Title: Visitation Street
Author: Ivy Pochoda
Publisher: Dennis Lehane Books/Ecco (2013), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 320 pages
audio narrated by Roy Porter
Genre: Mystery, literary fiction
Subject: Missing teenager, social class prejudice
Setting: Red Hook Brooklyn New York
Source: Print: Review copy from publisher; Audio - purchased from Audible.
Why did I read this book now?  It was on the Maine Reader's Choice Short List for 2013 books.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Pigs Can't Swim by Helen Peppe

Helen Peppe cracked me up! Growing up as the youngest of nine children, she manages to tell us the story of the family's non-exciting, everyday life in a manner that enthralls the reader, without ever naming a player except herself and her later-to-be husband.

Her descriptions of life in this rural section of Maine include delightful stories of sibling rivalries, overburdened parents, the poverty of the area,  and the everyday sexual antics of her sisters.  Interspersed with the human stories she relates her interactions with a variety of animals who lived on the farm.  The fact that many of these animals often found their way to the family dinner table was a constant source of pain to young Helen, who tried valiantly to live a vegetarian life.

The Cast of characters is enough to make me want to pick this up and read it again:
Mom  known only as Honey
Dad called the "Old Goat"
The sisters:
 "The sad tittering sister"
 "The hair twirling pretty sister"
"The sister who holds grudges longer than God"
"The sister of poor choices"

The Brothers:
"The blustery and favored brother"
"The tough yet admirable brother"

There are a couple others, but these just tickled me.  Helen learns her sexual mores from her sisters (all of whom seemed to have become pregnant before age 16), the farm animals, and her mother's rather impressive  lack of information sharing.

The vignettes she shares about growing up in the midst of unorganized chaos could have been a depressing exposè of poverty and poor parenting.  Instead, she gives us a glance of a happy child who makes choices that bring her to adulthood with an intact psyche and a love of nature and animals that carries through life's travails.  A happy, hope-filled book.  

Title: Pigs Can't Swim
Author: Helen Peppe
Publisher: Da Capo Press (2014), Hardcover, 272 pages
Genre: Memoir
Subject: growing up in rural Maine
Setting: farm in Maine
Source: ARC from the publisher via Net Galley
Why did I read this book now? I was offered a copy to review.