Thursday, August 29, 2013

Moon Over Edisto by Beth Webb Hart

Despite the fact that I sometimes get irritated when authors take liberties with my beloved lowcountry, I like reading books set in and around Charleston. When this AR copy of Moon Over Edisto fell into my hands, I was prepared to be disgruntled by inaccuracies, and by the problems that often plague AR books: typos, weird printing sequences, etc. However, I was pleasantly surprised on both counts.

The story, told from 5 varying points of view, centers on old family hurts and betrayals which surface as trouble and tragedy again haunts a family. Julia, an artist in New York City, comes home for a brief visit to Charleston, and to the old family home on Edisto, when her widowed stepmother falls ill. Julia's half siblings, young children from this second marriage, need caring for while their mother recuperates from surgery to combat lung cancer. The kicker is that the stepmother is Julia's age, and was her best friend in college. Julia and her own sister, both hurt and bitter after the break-up of their parents, have had nothing to do with her father's new family, seeing them only once at their father's funeral.

The story grows from there, with the careful examination of feelings and circumstance by Julia, her sister, her young half-sister, Julia's mother, and an old friend still in the area. The star of the tale remains the beautiful South Carolina lowcountry, with its beautiful wetlands, and the bounty of the sea and land. It was a nice book to read as summer moves to fall, here on the Carolina coast.  This is the first novel I have read by Beth Webb HArt, and I will look for more.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

50 years from King's Dream

50 years ago, I wasn't there. But I was close. At age 6, my options were limited. It was really only one thing that stopped me from being on the Mall in Washington DC. One thing. One formidable thing: my father.

I grew up in the suburbs of DC. Our neighborhood was squarely in what then was middle class. Moms for the most part were stay-at-home. Dads went off to the office every morning with a kiss; kids went off to school with a packed lunch (and also a kiss), plus, in my case, the admonishment to be a good girl. Most of the neighborhood voted for Kennedy, and were staunch Democrats. Divorce was basically a nonentity; the only single household in the neighborhood was headed by a widow. Most families were of Jewish heritage. All were Caucasian.

My parents were a little different from their neighbors. They'd been born to Jewish families, but each, for reasons of their own, had renounced their faith. When they married, they searched, together, for some place to hang their beliefs. They settled on The Ethical Society. When kids came along, we were raised in Ethical Humanism. There was acknowledgement of our Jewish heritage, in that we lit a menorah, and ate latkes and rugalach, but we never attended synagog unless we went with friends. Instead, we went to Sunday school at the Washington DC Ethical Society. We learned that all people were created equal, and had only some minor confusion when one of us smuggled a bible to our Sunday School class, and created a dilemma for the Ethical parents parents, who had been busy teaching us about anything but our Judeo-Christian heritage, which they had rejected. (But that's another story.)

When the Civil Rights movement began, the adults at the Ethical Society were right on board. While we kids were learning about Buddhism and Taoism, our parents were following the speeches of Dr Martin Luther King. Some from the Society went to join the movement deep in the south -- the equivalent of of Ethical Mission service. We followed. We believed. We sang "We Shall Overcome" and meant it.

But that sultry August before I entered second grade, we knew something special was happening close to us. We knew Dr Martin Luther King, the man with the amazing voice of the cause of equality, would be in our town.

I don't remember all that much of the build-up to the actual March for Civil Rights. I was not yet seven, and my parents had guarded me from some of the horrors that had occurred in our country. But I do remember hunkering down  on the steps, eavesdropping on my parents as they discussed the upcoming event. My mother desperately wanted to go down to the Mall, along with several other adults from Ethical (as my parents referred to their Sunday gathering spot.) But such was life at the time, that she wouldn't go against her husband's wishes. My father, while he believed in the cause, was a realist. He was convinced that there was a real possibility of violence at the March, from the "meat-heads". He refused to let his wife go, and was adamant that his children not attend.

I remember my mother weeping quietly. Happily, my father's worries proved unfounded. The march remained peaceful. But I still remember how my mother's eyes shone as we all sat around our RCA radio, and shared moment when Dr Martin Luther King spoke of his dream.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Folly Beach: A Lowcountry Tale by Dorothea Benton Frank

Dorothea Benton Frank is kind of hit and miss with me. I'll like one book, get frustrated with the next couple, promise myself never to pick up another one, weaken, and she then hits one out of the park. To be fair, most of my frustrations come when there are inaccuracies about my beloved lowcountry. I know novels are fiction, but there are some things with which I just can't tolerate liberties being taken. So, when a friend gave me a copy of Folly Beach I almost didn't read it, because the last DBF book I'd read had been one I'd enjoyed. By all rights, then, this one should have made me shriek and throw it across the room (in a very lady-like manner, mind you.)

This story is told in entwining two parts. That drives some folks crazy, but I like parallel stories. And I particularly liked the thread that was presented as the script of a one-woman play about Dorothy Heyward, wife of Debose Heyward (and author, playwrite in her own right). The other segment was pure Frank: a widow coming home to the lowcountry to heal and grow. That the second tale involved not one, but three cameos by people I know, gave me a bit of a chuckle. I was less tolerant about some errors in location, distance, etc, but hey, I got Gershwin, and Porgy and Bess. (I do have to say that I'd always been told the house Gershwin stayed in was washed away in a hurricane sometime before I first hit Folly in the 1970's, not with Hugo in 1989. And the legend I know is that the bells of St Michael's inspired the first notes of "Summertime". But still, there's a lot of history and legend told in this book that I've heard, too.) I'm always a little surprised at the Yiddish that occasionally slips into these books. I can see people furiously googling "ungapatched" (which is not how I would have spelled it, but recognize it as the same as "ungepatchke" which I learned meant too much of anything, in an un-pleasing over-the-top way.) I'm still wondering about"fachalata" and if it's a play on farkakt aka fakakta. (Look it up.)

I think that the information I learned about Dorothy and Dubois Heyward is what carried the book for me, and what bumped it to a 4 star in my enjoyment. That, and the mention of my dear friend Harriet MacDougal Rigney in the acknowledgements.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Treacherous Paridise by Henning Mankell

My main familiarity with Mankell is as the man who brought eloquence to the basic thriller,through the telling of his stories, with beautifully his flawed, human characters. For that reason, I picked this book off the shelf. For the mystery and glimpse into a different world that the jacket blurb promised, I decided to read it.

Set in Portuguese Africa (Mozambique) in the early 1900's, Mankell's novel is based on one true fact he had learned: a Swedish woman was once the owner of one of the largest brothels in Maputo. She was also one of the largest tax-payers. Then, just as suddenly as she appeared in the records, she disappeared. Mankell has taken that fact and woven a life for a woman born in Sweden, last seen in Mozambique, around it.

To me, it was extra-poignant to read this story, with so much racial tension inherent in it, as the fiftieth anniversary of Civil Rights March on Washington approaches. I was a child, living in the DC area at the time, and I remember the impact vividly, even though I didn't get to the event, itself. Looking back, I am amazed how far we have come, and how much farther we have to go. The book was excellent punctuation to my own internal dialogue.

Don't look for Wallander in this book. You won't find him. But you will find an interesting tale that is written in more than black and white.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Black Widow Club: Nine Tales of Obsession and Murder by Hilary Davidson

I liked reading these short stories of Hilary Davidson. I like her novels, so it was interesting to see where she came from (so to speak) as these stories were written primarily before her first novel was published. Some are award-winners in various venues; all are worth the read. The format of the book is ebook.

What sets these stories apart for me is the delicious sense of humor that comes out in the plots, dilemmas, and results for the characters. This woman has a marvelous wicked streak in her. I'm not letting her anywhere near my weed killer!

Also fun was to see some of the things I know this author loves pop up in some of the stories: travel, old movies, and some of the stars of the golden age of Hollywood.

I'm not normally a fan of short stories, but these each caught my interest. And if I guessed where some might be headed, the journey that the author guided me along to the outcome was enjoyable, and sometimes took a left hand turn, when I expected a right.

Many thanks to Tor for sending me a copy to read.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

I love this book. For real. It's a brilliantly told story of friendship, dedication, bravery, and love. It took me from the England in the grips of WWII, past the second star to the right, and straight on till morning. I wish I could write more, but I'm slightly shattered. Keep a window open for me, please.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Ten Things I've Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler

What a lovely (in every sense of the word) novel. Parallel stories of Alice, youngest daughter, odd (wo)man out, wanderer, and Daniel, living rough, but who loved once, deeply and dearly. Each are lost souls, following the trajectory that fate presents, looking for signs and direction which way to go next. It is a song of love to London, as well, secret spots, and out of the way joys.

Alice has come home because her father is dying. Daniel is living on the streets because when his heart broke, so did his world. Yet this is a story of great hope. It may be tiny and fragile, as an origami flower made from the silver wrapper from a stick of gum, or as big as Hamstead Heath, but it is hope.

The title of the book is presented as a list. As a hardcore list-keeper, that drew my eye to the book on the shelf. The alternating viewpoints of the two main characters are separated by lists kept by the next one to speak. The rawness and authenticity of these lists gave such insight into the characters, a wonderful vehicle for showing the reader inside Alice or Daniel's minds rather than telling us.

I will look for more by this author.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Helsinki Blood by James Thompson

It seems like I've been waiting for this book for a long time. After Helsinki White, I was left numb. The darkness in White chilled my soul. But I wanted more.

Helsinki Blood is the fourth book in the Inspector Vaara series. In the previous book, Kari's world has been frozen apart. His brain is broken, emotionless and damaged, after surgery to remove a brain tumor. This obviously had a huge impact on his life, work, marriage, and role as a new papa. But how it all played out was shattering. I was curious to see how the author picked up the pieces.

It may have been the break between the books, but the tone in this one was very different to me. The ice in Vaara's brain was thawing, and humanity returning. Though since his world (and face and knee) had been blown to hell and back, normality is a long way away. Yet from the start, it's evident that he is healing, as his love for his wife and daughter (and Katt), and concern for their safety become the paramount drive in his life.

The usual cast of characters are assembled, and schemes to curtail the bad guys, save the girl (for there is, indeed, a girl in peril) and keep Kari's family safe and intact unfurl. The only reason I still have all my fingernails is that I read it in less than a day.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

I just have to outright say it. Any book that introduces teens to Rainer Maria Rilke (who happens to be one of my favorite poets), is okay by me, so no matter what, I like this book. My eldest grandgirl (who told me about the book, and is the reason I picked it up to read) took our copy of Rilke off the shelf and read it her first evening here, mostly, I suspect, because it was the poetry Sam read to Grace in the book. That's pretty darn cool.

The story itself is a romance. Wolf meets girl, wolf loses girl, boy gets girl, girl loses wolf -- or something along those lines. Grace has a thing for the wolves in the Minnesota woods behind her home, especially for the golden eyed one who saved her life when she was a child and was attacked by other wolves in the pack. So, when the golden-eyed wolf turns out to be a shape-shifter, who loves her back, you get the romantic set-up. There's some community drama thrown in, as well as pack dominance, and some incredibly irresponsible parents, who should have Child Protection set on them. But all in all, despite plot flaws, I liked the book.

I know there are two other books in the series, which I pretty much (according to grandgirl) guessed the plot, so I may not read them, as I've got a huge TBR pile. But, if I stumble upon either one via BookCrossing or my local library, I'll give it a whirl.

All You Could Ask For, by Mike Greenberg

Picked this book up from a book exchange shelf where I left a BookCrossing book. It's a relatively new publication, and the cover blurb sounded interesting. I absolutely loved the first half, stories of three strong women, who actually may not have known their strength, but come into their own. Loved how the author would finish a section on one, and segue, using the same phrases, into the story of another. These were funny, smart, strong, vibrant characters. Even more fascinating is that it was written by a man, but really felt "right".

The second half of the book dealt with the circumstances that bring the three women together. That was harder for me to read (in fact, I did skim read some of it, because I'm a wuss.) It was indeed an interesting exercise, and I applaud Mr Greenberg, as a man, tackling a tought subject, in the writing of the book, the profits from which go to a foundation the author and his wife created for research to combat breast cancer.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

Young William Eng, is a Chinese-American boy, who has lived in an orphanage since he was seven. He remembers his beautiful mother, who had become sad and worn out by misfortune, being carried out of the apartment, after he found her near lifeless in their bathtub. His memories of her are strong and he is convinced that, despite what the nuns at Seattle's Sacred Heart Orphanage say, she is still alive. Then one day, the day assigned by the nuns as the birthday of all the boys at the orphanage, he sees the face of an actress in the movies, hears her sing, and is convinced she is his long-lost Songs of Willow Frost is the story of his search for his mother.

I do have to admit I've got mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, it takes place in an interesting time/place, plus has some plot elements that are intriguing. It's also clear that this is a subject very close to the author's heart. It's a story plot line that I really wanted to like. Unfortunately, I never fully engaged in the characters. I like to be able to see a story in 3D in my mind, to have an author shape and craft the characters, settings, and plot so that I feel it, that I can smell the spices in the air, or the stink in the alleys; feel the harshness of a scratchy wool, or the sleek smoothness of silk. For me, I remained in the 2 dimensional world of the pages of the book, rather than the world of the story itself. It may be that I'm a bit distracted right ow -- I had surgery right around when I started the book, and that and pain medication may have impacted my perceptions. I have read another work by this author (rather, listened to it on Radio Reader) and liked it a great deal. So the fault may be in my stars, not the author's words.

I've rounded this up to three stars, because I think any book that makes me look something up has served an extra purpose beyond reading pleasure.

Thank you to Librarything early reader program and the publisher for sending me this AR copy of the book.