06 September 2010

July and August Book Report

I did more reading than anything else - i.e., knitting - during July and August.  I think the combination of hot weather and sad feelings about losing two of my sweetheart kitties made me feel more inclined to read.  That way, I could get involved in the story and not think about what else was going on.  Knitting is good therapy, but I guess when push really comes to shove - at least this time - reading was my salvation!  These books kept me busy during the past couple of months:

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier.  When I saw this book at the library, I thought it was worth a try. I have enjoyed Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Falling Angels, and the premise of this intrigued me.

There are two main characters, first, Elizabeth Philpot, one of three spinster sisters who leave their London life after the death of their father and the marriage (and also inheritance of the family home) of their brother. They find a cottage in Lyme Regis, which is near the sea. The other main character is Mary Anning, a working-class girl who collects "curies" to sell as a supplement to the family income. Mary's "curies" are Elizabeth's fossils, and they form a friendship based on their love of the search. When Mary discovers an unusual fossil, which is first thought to be an early version of a crocodile, their lives start changing quickly and drastically.

It turns out that what Mary has found is an ichthyosaurus, one of the earliest types of sea life. Almost immediately, her story spreads, and scientists descend on Lyme Regis to see what she has found, and to have her show them where she found it, and also to look for more incredible evidence of early life. As the book continues, we see Mary and her family gaining enough business sense to make some decent money on these expeditions and their results, but of course lacking the power and status to control the fate of the fossils or the dissemination of information about them. Mary and Elizabeth become estranged after Elizabeth tries to warn her that the intentions of one of the scientists are less than honorable.

This story moves along quite quickly, and some chapters are narrated by Mary, others by Elizabeth. As I am currently working in a natural history museum, I found the information about the early history of such places to be fascinating. It was also interesting to read about all of the work Mary Anning did throughout her life that contributed to the knowledge of fossils without proper accreditation for so long, based on her gender.

I am embarrassed to admit that only when reading the Postscript, did I learn that Mary and Elizabeth, as well as many other characters and events, were real! In my case at least, it made the whole book seem that much more interesting.

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys reading about women's lives in the 19th century. I'm really glad that I saw it on the shelf in the library.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell.  This is truly one of the most amazing books I have ever read. I remember when it was published, reading a review and thinking, "Hm, it takes place in the future. Never mind." But then recently a blog friend wrote about it, and then my husband said he thought it was really good, and that I would like it. So I decided to give it a try.

Now I have to say from the get-go that I have a soft spot in my heart overall for the Jesuits. I attended a Jesuit college, and an entire world was opened up for me, where Roman Catholicism was not just a cut-and-dried thing, where we were encouraged to think about what we believed, and question it. So the fact that there are Jesuits in the book made me favorably inclined.

Having said that, I have to say that I am not a big fan of science fiction/futuristic stuff. In general, it either bores me or annoys me.

OK, I have my disclaimers out of the way. At a basic level, this story is about a mission to another planet and its results. The main character is a Puerto Rican Jesuit priest, but even though things revolve around him, the other characters are just as well-drawn and integral to the story. The story goes back and forth between two different times in the future, and I found it incredibly readable.

I finished this book approximately three weeks ago, and I am still thinking of it. For me at least, it challenged my beliefs - personal, religious, social - and made me think about why I believed what I do. It has made me think about the way we judge others, and how you really cannot know what makes people act or react the way they do in any given situation. It was in parts incredibly sad, wryly funny, and at the end, it left me with a sense of hope.

I have heard there is a "sequel," and would like to read it sometime. But right now, I'm still thinking about this book and exactly what I think. About everything.

It is not preachy, nor do things get tied up in a nice bow at the end. But it is really powerful.

Brilliant, by Marne Davis Kellogg.  What fun this book is! My niece Amanda kept telling me that I had to read these books, and I finally found the first of the series at the library.

This book introduces Kick Keswick, born in Oklahoma, currently living a good life in London, working for one of the most respected auction houses. When the story begins, the house has just been bought by an American firm that owns several different kinds of businesses, and the auction house is one of the jewels of their collection.

Kick Keswick finds the new boss to be really uncouth, and makes it her job to try and bring him into the kind of behavior that will not cause current or future clients to head for Christie's or Sotheby's. At the same time, she finds herself infatuated with him, and we learn not too far into the book that he is "in love" with her as well.

As the story unfolds, we learn that the new boss has several suspicious associates, and is planning some unsavory things for the auction house. Reading Kick's thoughts and plans about him related to this are pretty funny. At one point in the story, there is a bombing at the auction house, and Kick makes the acquaitance of detective Thomas Curtis. She immediately likes him, but at the time is too infatuated with Owen Brace (the new boss) to go out of her way to pursue any real relationship, in spite of Curtis' attempts to arrange for a date.

Kick Keswick is really an appealing heroine. She is a gourmet cook, she has a very intriguing back story, and oh, did I mention that she is also a jewel thief, known popularly as The Shamrock Burglar? This adds a whole other aspect to the story.

I don't want to give anything away, but I can tell you that the ending has a wonderful twist to it, and that I was completely (and pleasantly) surprised. I can't wait to read the next installment!

Thanks for the recommendation, Amanda - you were right!

Nocturnes : Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, by Kazuo Ishiguro.  The only other book I have read by Kazuo Ishiguro is "Remains of the Day," which I really enjoyed. I chose this title as the "Music" title for my What's in a Name 3? challenge.

As the title suggests, each one of the stories in this book deal with music and musicians. They are written in the first person, and though they have similarities, I did not have the impression that it was supposed to be the same narrator.

Overall, I found this book underwhelming. Maybe it was because none of the characters in any of the stories seemed that interesting to me, but as I finished each one, I'd think to myself, "eh."

And I wanted to like the book, as well as the stories. They had interesting settings, and somewhat complex themes. But they left me not really caring if I ever read more by this author.

**A Masculine Ending, by Joan Smith.  I have never heard of this book, and have never heard of this author. But I saw the book offered on a forum as a freebie, and thought it sounded interesting, so I asked to receive it. It was published in 1989, and I thought there might be things terribly dated about the story, but now that I have finished it, there is only one thing I realized wasn't really there, which I'll talk about at the end of this review.

Loretta Lawson, a professor of Women's Studies at London University, is in Paris for a conference, and has planned to stay at a flat owned by an acquaintance who will be out of town. The first night she arrives (very late at night), she is somewhat surprised to see that another person is sleeping in the other bedroom, as she was not aware that anyone else would be there. She oversleeps the next morning, and rushes out of the apartment and does not return again until later that evening. The other guest is gone, but there are bloody bed sheets on the floor of the extra room!

The story deals with Loretta's personal dilemma of whether or not to call the police, and then later, her attempts to find out who the victim was and who murdered the person. As it turns out, the victim was a prominent literary critic who taught at Oxford, and had a lot of enemies. Loretta gets to know several people that she thinks may have been involved, and tries to figure out who is her prime suspect.

This was an enjoyable read, and a good story. Loretta's friends are described in a manner that makes them seem like fairly average people, and the academic side of things is both amusing and not very surprising. Only after finishing the book did I realize that none of the characters had a cell phone! Therefore, the story tended to be more leisurely, though not slow and dull. It was nice to read about someone who absolutely had to wait to call someone or hear from someone when she had the opportunity to be near a phone.

I may look to see if there are any other Loretta Lawson mysteries by this author, as this one was nicely done. I'd like to see if I enjoyed another one as much, or if it was just the novelty of a new "detective" or setting.

Priceless, by Marne Davis Kellogg.  The next book in the Kick Keswick series, this one finds Kick living her dream life, now retired as the famous Shamrock Burglar, a jewel thief. She is living in her farmhouse in Provence, married to Thomas Curtis, formerly a detective in Scotland Yard, and retired as well from that position and as the art thief known as the Good Samaritan.

They have settled into life in their little house, where they enjoy good food, a relaxed happy existence, and friendships with many of their neighbors.

One day though, Kick discovers a note from Thomas, saying that he is gone, does not have any idea when he might return, and that she should not try to find him. It's like a kick in the gut to Kick, who is puzzled, heartbroken, and angry that she let him into her heart and her life.

Shortly afterwards, she hears a news story about a precious gem stolen from a museum in Paris - by the Shamrock Burglar! She is convinced that Thomas is working on that case, and has two concerns: a) that he will think she has returned to her former life, and b) that the person claiming to be the Shamrock Burglar is doing a sloppy job, thereby besmirching her name!

So she collects her dog, her luggage, and her fake identities, and heads to Paris. Her visit to Paris then leads her to Porofino, where preparations are underway for a huge fund-raiser that will be attended by the wealthiest of the wealthy. Kick manages to work her way into the high society group, so that she can find out who the impersonator is. At the same time, she also sees Thomas being interviewed on the news reports, as he is now on that case, and seems quite chummy with the young female reporter.

Once again, I had a great time hanging out with Kick Keswick, and joining her on her adventures. Kellogg does an amazing job of describing places, people, jewels, and food. Kick is an interesting enough character that you want things to work out her way. But she is not perfect, and therefore the stories are not slick in their execution.

If you want something fun to read, I recommend this book. Especially if you do not have the opportunity to just pick up and go to some expensive glamorous destination - reading this makes you feel like Kick has come to visit and is telling you about her trip!

Marie Blythe, by Howard Frank Mosher.  This is not a book I was even aware existed. I was at the library, browsing around, and saw it. The cover intrigued me, as well as the blurb on the back cover, so I gave it a try. I'm glad I did!

This is the story of one woman's life and experiences during the late 1800s through the 1920s. Marie Blythe comes with her parents from French Quebec to Vermont as a child, when her father moves them so that he can find work as a logger. They move to a town called Hell's Gate, founded by Abraham Benedict, a man who arrived there when it was mostly just land and nothing else. He has since built it into a thriving community. Though he is somewhat of a benevolent despot, most of the people in town live very nice lives.

When, through a series of events, Marie ends up as an orphan, arrangements are made for her to move the the "Big House," where the Benedicts live, to help in the kitchen and with the housekeeping. She has an odd position eventually, as one who is not quite completely servant, not quite completely family. I won't give away any spoilers, but even at this point in the book, Marie's life has already been pretty interesting - including a stint before she moves in with the Benedicts being part of a clan of traveling gypsies!

At a certain point, she leaves and is forced to be on her own. She travels outside of Vermont for a while, but through another series of events, ends up right back in Hell's Gate. She then decides that she wants to stay there, and starts building a life for herself. At the point that she returns, Abraham Benedict has died, and his irresponsible son has taken over. Marie and "Abie" have their share of history and conflicts, but for a while it seems that life will go along just fine.

When, towards the end of the book, the people in the town learn that Abie has incurred huge debts, things start to go downhill quickly. Once again, I don't want to go into detail, because this is a complex story, but also I don't want to spill the beans for anyone who might want to read this.

By the end of the book, Marie has once again reinvented herself, and is leading a somewhat different life. However, this time, it's under her terms, and she is making plans for her future.

This is a well-written book, and though somewhat sweeping in scope, provides a good look into the lives of people at this time period, and the tensions often felt between the Vermonters and the Quebecois. It's not the best book I have ever read, but it kept my interest even though I was not necessarily invested in any one character.

Brendan, by Morgan Llywelyn.  remember reading a review of this book a while ago, and then immediately forgot that it ever existed. But a couple of weeks ago, on one of those every-book-is-one-you-want-to-read visits to the library, I saw it on the shelf, and decided to see what I thought about it.

In a nutshell: very good! It's written somewhat like Brendan's diary, towards the end of his life, where he is trying to put his reminiscences in order. The story of early Christian Ireland, where Christianity and paganism lived together, and not always happily, was one of the best parts of this book. I liked the way Llywelyn juxtaposed the religious aspects of Brendan's life with his normal, every day, human feelings and failings. I found it fascinating to read about successful attempts to bring Christianity to the people while letting them keep their pagan traditions. And I was amused at Brendan's/Llewelyn's comments about the Irish people as a group overall.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in historical biographies, but also to those who think that Christianity - and the Catholic Church in particular - have always been the way they are today. Much like "The Sparrow," this book made me think about the hows and whys of my personal beliefs.

**31 Bond Street, by Ellen Horan.  A couple of months ago, my husband brought me an Advance Reader's Edition of this book, and it has been in the pile of books I wanted to read since then. I picked it up about a week ago, and finished it in about 4 evenings!

This is a fictionalized account of an infamous murder that took place in New York City, at 31 Bond Street, in 1857. Dr. Harvey Burdell, a prominent dentist, was found murdered - his throat cut - in his home. The doors were locked, the windows as well, so there weren't signs of a break-in. The only other people in the house were the servants (who heard nothing) and Mrs. Emma Cunningham, and her two daughters. Emma Cunningham had moved into Dr. Burdell's house to take over the running of the household, and depending on whose story you believe, they had either planned to marry, or were married at the time.

This was a time in NYC when political corruption was rampant at every level of government. The Coroner and the District Attorney decide that Emma Cunningham is the murderer, and thus the plot is set into motion.

I found this book and the story it told to be both interesting and fascinating. I love reading stories about New York in the nineteenth century, and the fact that this was based on something that actually happened, with the actual characters involved in the story, also fed my interest in history, particualarly social history. We hear Emma's side of things, and share the frustrations of her lawyer, Henry Clinton, who works tirelessly to prove her innocence. And as it turns out, Dr. Harvey Burdell was not the person he appeared to be, and once that is introduced to the story, the list of suspects other than Emma Cunningham grows considerably.

According to the back cover blurb, this is the first novel written by the author. In my opinion, she did an excellent job.

So that's it.  There are two books here that have red asterisks next to the titles, and those are ones that I'm happy to pass along to interested parties.  Leave me a comment by the end of the day on Friday, September 10, and let me know if you are interested in one or the other (or both).   As usual, if more than one person is interested in a a title, I'll draw names from a hat or use some other imaginative way to choose who will get to read it next. 

I hope all of you had a good Labor Day weekend.  We had company, which was enjoyable, but it was also nice to have the rest of the actual third day of the weekend to ourselves once they headed home!


Brigitte said...

I love Tracy Chevalier. I've read most of her books, and I wasn't aware of this one. Looks like I'll have to check this one out. Thanks for the recommendation!

Marie said...

I may have to try the Kick Keswick books. They sound like my kind of story. You always have good reviews.

SissySees said...

I'm glad you found The Sparrow moving. I did too. The sequel is just as good, but very different... I didn't find it as challenging to my belief systems.

Anonymous said...

Briton read, and enjoyed, "Nocturnes." Ishiguro is a favorite author in this house.

Guinifer said...

The sequal to the Sparrow is amazing! It does not tie everything up in a neat bow, but you get to visit with the characters that you may have come to love (as I did).

Melwyk said...

You read many great books! I have had "The Sparrow" on my tbr for ages now -- I think you've convinced me that I should give it a try this year.

And if you enjoyed Chevalier's book and want more fiction about Mary, try Canadian author Joan Thomas' newest, Curiosity.

Carrie#K said...

You read some good books! It does help to take you out of real life, I find. I've read more fiction lately than in eons.

Remarkable Creatures and 31 Bond St sound interesting, I like fictionalized reality, it's so accessible.

I had to immediately put The Sparrow on hold at my library though. The Jesuits are fascinating, they have such an intriguing mindset. Mark Kurlansky in his Basque history book delves into Ignatius Loyola a bit.

craftivore said...

That's a pretty staggering list of books. I finally finished slogging through Wolf Hall, though there are some wonderful things about it. Time to take a break and catch up on my New Yorkers. Read The Sparrow eons again, never understand why it didn't sell bigger, but clearly it has longevity.

Kathleen Dames said...

I picked the Chevalier book up at the book store the other day. Now, I may have to go back and get it (or see if the library has it). And The Sparrow sounds interesting - my dad went to Notre Dame (and I went to parochial school), so Jesuits hold a special place for me. Hmm.