Monday, September 1, 2014

New Book Group and July & August Recap

Well hello September! You sure crept up on me.

In fact, so did August. I never did do a recap for July.

But before I get into my recap, I want to let you all know that R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, CT has a new mystery/thriller book group starting up this month that I'll be facillitating.

Our first meeting is Wednesday, September 17th at 7pm and we'll discuss Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger.

If you live in the area I hope you'll join us!

Have you read anything by William Kent Krueger? Ordinary Grace will be my first by him. I've heard nothing but good things about his novels from other readers and bloggers like Jennifer over at the Relentless Reader who reviewed Ordinary Grace last summer.

Now, on to the recap. Links go to my reviews. I have plans to review unlinked books, but we'll see how that goes. Pre- and post- vacation threw me out of my routine and I'm hoping to be back in the saddle with my projects this week.

Here's what I read in July and August

Fiction:

  • The Quick by Lauren Owen -- Touted as the literary vampire novel of the year. Decent plot, got off to a good start, but I thought the story fizzled out towards the end.
  • The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara -- So glad to have finally read this one. Caught me a bit of a Civil War bug with this one.
  • The Bone Seeker by M.J. McGrath -- Solid mystery novel, a good read. Review copy.
  • This is the Water by Yannick Murphy --  Interesting thriller both in form and content. Review copy.
  • Steel Magnolias by Roberty Harling -- If you liked the movie, read the play. It left me jonesing to see a stage production.
  • Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little -- Did the starlet who spent 10 years in the slammer for murdering her mother really kill her mother? I didn't really care, but I enjoyed reading this one. Fresh narrative voice. Review copy.
  • Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie -- Released date 9/23/14. Historical fiction about the men behind the printing of the Gutenberg Bible(s). Look for review on 9/11. Review copy.

Nonfiction:

  • Born on the 4th of July by Ron Kovic -- I was curious about this book ever since I saw the movie in 1989. So glad to have finally read it. It's a brilliant time capsule of the Vietnam era and a combat veteran's experience of dealing with and healing his war wounds.
  • Women Heroes of World War I by Kathyrn J. Atwood -- YA history. Excellent reading for teens and adults. If you want to read something about women and WWI, this is a solid jumping off point. Review copy.
  • Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathyrn J. Prince -- I always thought the Titanic was the worst maritime disaster and never heard of about this tragedy where over 9,000 civilians died when the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a Russian sub in the Baltic toward the end of WWII. Fascinating subject matter, but the editing could have been stronger.

Currently Reading:

  • The Long Way Home by Louise Penny -- If you're not yet reading Louise Penny stop denying yourself! Get thee to the library and check out Still Life, the first Chief Inspector Gamache mystery.
  • The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin -- I'm not crazy about the title. "Thinking Straight" brings to mind the scared straight programs of the 90s or conversion therapy, but I enjoying reading about the science of thinking and strategies for self improvement.
  • Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do by Wallace J. Nichols -- Listening to the audio version. I already know how important being around water is for me, so Nichols is preaching to the choir in my case. After all, my wife and I spent over two years working three jobs each to make our move to the Connecticut shoreline happen, and we live down the road from a lake. Water makes us happy, that's for sure. Granted, it hasn't made me a better blogger as I've spent more time in the water than blogging this summer, but maybe in the long run it'll help make me a better writer. :)  Did you know water sports are being used to help people with addictions and PTSD? Lots of good stuff in this book.
So, what have you been reading? Are there any stand out novels or nonfiction studies you'd like to recommend?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ida Tarbell & Willa Cather


From Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker by Kathleen Brady:

"There was a new writer on staff [at McClure's Magazine], a former teacher in her late twenties, who had lived in Virginia and Nebraska and acquired the worst accents of both. Only McClure and Roseboro liked her. The rest thought Willa Cather a disgruntled "yes-man," according to Curtis Brady, one of several Brady brothers on the business staff. Cather wanted to meet Ida Tarbell, the woman writer who had made a name for herself but Tarbell had no time. Ida "didn't cotton to her, nor discount her either," according to Roseboro. In later years, Tarbell expressed great admiration for Death Comes for the Archbishop and defended Cather's way of guarding her privacy to protect her working hours" (134).

Click here to see a picture of Cather with Ida Tarbell taken years later in 1924 when Cather was 51 and Tarbell 67.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Women Heroes of World War I by Kathryn J. Atwood


This highly readable and informative book is categorized as young adult nonfiction/history and it's good reading for older adults, too.

It's the kind of book I wish had been around when I was a girl growing up on movies like The Sands of Iwo Jima, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and The Great Escape. I was fascinated by war and wanted to see women portrayed in the thick of things. Unfortunately, back then (and, sadly, still now) women's contributions to the war effort were lucky to get more than a sentence: women worked in factories, nursed the wounded, and knitted socks for the soldiers.

 As a girl who sought adventure it was frustrating and embarrassing not to see examples of women who had done heroic things in history books. Even as a young Marine and then college/graduate student it was a challenge to find books and primary sources about women who contributed to the war effort beyond working in factories or nursing the wounded (often times the images presented were of clean, orderly factories and hospitals far away from danger). If a history book mentioned that women were allowed to join the military during WWI, they got a sentence and maybe a group picture with a caption that stated women joined to "free a man to fight."

As an adult I understand the importance of factory work for the war effort as well as for the advancement of women's rights. I've read about the gruesome duty and long hours nurses worked. And if the woman who joined the military in WWI mainly did paperwork they are not to be dismissed because, as anyone whose been in the military knows, accurate and timely paperwork is sometimes just as important as water and food.

But I'd wager that no one, not even women in 1914, wants to join the military to do paperwork. Women, like men, have always wanted to do something to help when the chips are down (for altruistic reasons and/or to escape their lives) and this book shows that they did, whether officially in the military or with some other organization or by taking matters into their own hands. 

Women Heroes of World War I definitely helps round out the picture of what women are capable of doing during wartime and what 16 brave women did during World War I.

The book is divided into four sections:

Part I: Resisters and Spies
  • Edith Cavell
  • Louise Thuliez
  • Emilienne Moreau
  • Gabrielle Petit
  • Marthe Cnockaert
  • Louise de Bettignies

Part II: Medical Personnel
  • Elsie Inglis
  • Olive King
  • Helena Gleichen
  • Shirley Millard

Part III: Soldiers
  • Maria Bochkareva
  • Flora Sandes
  • Marina Yurlova
  • Ecaterina Teodoroiu

Part IV: Journalists
  • Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • Madeleine Zabriskie Doty

There are photographs scattered throughout the book, quotes, and mini articles in text boxes that give a bit of background on things such as poisoned gas, weapons & wounds, Greece's neutrality and side-switching, Marie Curie & Radiography, Rosa Luxemburg, the influenza pandemic of 1918, the Russian Revolution, and more.

There's an introduction to each Part which provides context and each chapter focusing on one women begins with her picture, a quote, and ends with a "Learn More" text box that includes books and occasionally websites about the subject. There's a seven page bibliography would have made me weep tears of joy as a teenager. Entries with an asterisk point out books suitable for younger readers. A three page glossary explains some general concepts (e.g. artillery, shrapnel), historical events (e.g. Franco-Prussian War, Triple Entente), and people (e.g. Kaiser Wilhelm, Tsar Nicholas II). There is no filler or fluff in this book.

This picture alone made me want to know more about Flora. Not a typical pose of a woman having her photo taken during this time period.
Taken as a whole, the features of the book provide context and background about the war and women's lives leading up to, during, and after WWI. It covers the Western, Eastern, and Italian fronts, and conditions for civilians within Germany.  

Women Heroes of World War I would be an excellent addition to both school and public libraries and appropriate for both readers new to WWI and those who've already read much about the subject, whether YA or plain old adult readers.

This book is part of the Women of Action Series from Chicago Review Press. Atwood has two previous titles in the series, Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, Pearl Witherington Cornioley and Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Women Heroes of World War I
Kathryn J. Atwood
Chicago Review Press, June 2014
Source: review copy I requested
Rating: 5/5 stars
FTC disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. Since I usually only finish books I enjoy or am stimulated by for whatever reason and usually only blog about books I've finished, most of my reviews are about books I've enjoyed and therefore tend to be on the positive side. Life is too short to read books one doesn't enjoy or learn something from. And life is certainly too short to waste time blogging about such books.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

This is the Water by Yannick Murphy

Smart writing without being self-reflexively clever and excellent tension building.
This book piqued my interest because it revolves around a girls swim team. One of my nieces is a swimmer and I am fascinated by the amount of work my sister put into her daughter's high school team. Although my sister never struggled with another parent to stuff her daughter's body into a race suit (they had official team suits), there were 5am practices to get to, appropriate foods to fret over, timing duty, and all-day meets.

This is the Water is one of the most creative and suspenseful mystery/thrillers that I've read. For starters there's the writing style and structure. It's written in the second person perspective and hangs on a structure of paragraphs that often begin with "This is." This is the water. This is the facility. This is Chris. "This is you, Annie, mother of two swim team girls, Sofia and Alex, wife of Thomas" and "This is the killer, our killer, at the meet watching Kim."

At first this structure annoyed me. It seemed like it slowed things down, was too staccato. During my first two reading sessions I had doubts about finishing the book and then, suddenly, it was lodged in my brain. I couldn't stop thinking about the book when I wasn't reading it and when I was reading it the style & structure carried me swiftly along like the hooks of a long poem or song.

Here's a sample from early on:
"This is your brother with the gun in his mouth. This is your brother forming a cauliflower head on the carpet with his blood. This is his wife, hearing the shot downstairs in his office set up with sound mixers and stereos and computers. This is your brother's teenage son, hearing the shot too, colliding with his mother as both of them try to run down the stairs together, barely fitting that way, abreast in the stairwell as they run. This is the mother using all of her force to hold her teenage son back from opening up the door. This the teenage son calling out for his father and banging on the closed door. This is the father answering with just the sound of his blood as it pours out of him" (70-71).
It was this scene that made me realize I was tightly gripping the book. It made me both teary eyed and excited to read more.

Short chapters also help moved things along so beware if you're reading before bed, you might stay up too late. Publisher's Weekly says the novel is, “Obscenely suspenseful. . . . In Murphy’s hands, the structure becomes almost hypnotic–and when the story hits full speed in the final quarter, the suspense becomes almost excruciating.” So true. Go figure, an honest book blurb.

Yannick Murphy
The setting is rural New England and the characters are primarily middle aged parents in less than satisfying marriages if not outright unhappy unions. Annie, in the beginning, is in an obsessive state over her brother's suicide. A serial killer in Denver is caught and that triggers the chain of events in This is the Water.

These two things, suicide and murder, are what eventually lead to the climax which highlights one of the themes of the novel, which is choosing life. Not just being alive, but living. Not just wondering and worrying about things, but taking action. Murphy subtly weaves life/death imagery throughout the story. Nothing is extraneous.

As a New England newbie, I appreciate Murphy's descriptions of New England, particularly how you
can see right into people's houses at night. New Englanders, at least those of the small town variety, aren't big on curtains or other window treatments. Don't people feel vulnerable? Is this some kind of Puritan hold-over, that people want other people to see that they are not doing anything against God behind closed doors? But I digress.

In this novel it's not what people are doing behind closed doors that creeps you out, it's that people can and can't see from the outside in or inside out.

There were also some humorous bits and timely commentary. In one scene after listing all the healthy things the swim parents feed their children, Annie says,
"We do not talk of the bag of peanut M&M's we buy to get us through the long day of working at a swim meet. We will not talk of the Diet Coke we drink, perfectly timed to be drunk after our coffee and before the lunch hour, but never in front of the children, least they see how we drink soda, and we never let them drink it themselves unless it's soda water flavored with natural juice high in some kind of element or vitamin they wouldn't normally get in their daily diet and packaged in a can whose design wipes out any image of an industrial facility spewing smoke, spinning the dials of the electric meter, and hiring immigrants at low wages. Instead the can design screams healthy, whole, natural, good for you, flowers, fruit orchards, and sunshine. As if the cans themselves were just plucked from trees" (133-134).
And how about this for timely, what with all the recent to read or not to read YA talk:
"You should be thinking about your girls instead. Sofia's been reading too many YA books that are poorly written. You want to go through your own books and find one that's a classic, one you know she'd like, but lately you haven't had the time or the energy, the wherewithal to get up from your chair to do it" (172). 
That's Annie thinking and she's been reading Anna Karenina. You can't help wondering how the ending of that novel will be reflected in this one.

There are some brilliant sentences, too: "You feel warmth coming off Paul as if he were pavement on a hot day." Not only is this a nice sentence, it speaks volumes about what is lacking in Annie's life, the warmth of human connection.

There was a scene or two where I doubted something would really shake down that way, but it was a weak thought immediately replaced with wondering what was possibly going to do next.

I highly recommend this novel if you're into mystery/thrillers or interested in experimental writing. It's one of my favorite reads of the year.



This is the Water
Yannick Murphy
Harper Perennial: July 29, 2014
Source: review copy via TLC Book Tours
For more stops on the blog tour click here

FTC disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. Since I usually only finish books I enjoy or am stimulated by for whatever reason and usually only blog about books I've finished, most of my reviews are about books I've enjoyed and therefore tend to be on the positive side. Life is too short to read books one doesn't enjoy or learn something from. And life is certainly too short to waste time blogging about such books.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Killer Angels Read-along Wrap-up Post: July 3, 1863

The Killer Angels Read-along

Even though I knew how things were going to turn out for the battling armies, Shaara does a brilliant job of creating tension in this final section.

The primary tension is the portrayal of what General Longstreet, General Lee's second in command, went through in trying to change Lee's mind without insulting his commander and then the anguish of following Lee's suicidal order to attack. Heart wrenching. Longstreet understood that old tactics wouldn't be successful with new weapons. And I just wanted to shake General Lee. What was he thinking? Why couldn't he see what Longstreet understood? But that is the benefit of sitting on one's butt reading history--usually you know how everything turns out and the price of decisions being made.

As the Marine Corps Reading List blurb says of this book, "The author's ability to convey the thoughts of men in war as well as their confusion--the so-called "fog of battle"--is outstanding."

James Longstreet" by E. & H. T. Anthony (publisher) - SMU Digital Collection
One thing that I didn't anticipate before reading this novel was my desire to learn more about the lives and careers of the men who are highlighted in this story. Longstreet, with his dedication, understanding, and tears, is the guy who captured my imagination in this last section.

I'm so glad to have finally read this classic and was pleasantly surprised by its readability and passion.

Before I read any more about the Civil War, I want to watch the movie Gettysburg, which was based on this novel, and then go visit Gettysburg National Park in Pennsylvania, which is only about five hours away from where I live.

So, fellow readers, have any of you read The Killer Angels or visited Gettysburg? Your thoughts and comments are always appreciated!
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