Wednesday, February 20, 2013

book review: Summerset Abbey by T.J. Brown

The backstory: Summerset Abbey is the first in a new young adult Edwardian trilogy.

The basics: When their father dies, Rowena and Victoria Buxton are forced to leave their home and go live with their aunt and uncle. It's a house the girls know well, as they've visited each year. In order to bring Prudence, the daughter of their now deceased governess, whom they think of as a sister, the girls have no choice but to have Prudence come as their lady's maid.

My thoughts: Summerset Abbey ties in so well with the Downton Abbey craze (how long until season four makes its way to the U.S.?) It's story isn't as complex, but it is wonderfully entertaining. I like to think of the Edwardian era as a kind of coming of age for England (and much of the world.) To see these young women entering adulthood at such a time of changing priorities is quite fascinating. By going from a more liberal worldview of their father, who treated Prudence as a daughter and encourage all three girls to rally for women's vote, to the more traditional and conservative world of their uncle is a challenge for all three girls.

While all three girls share narration, I was most drawn to Prudence's story (I imagine Rowena and Victoria will each take a turn with more of a starring role in the trilogy's remaining tow books.) All three girls are caught between two worlds, but Prudence doesn't have a true role in either the upstairs or downstairs life. Further complicating the matter is her quest to learn more about her mother and thus herself.

Favorite passage: "Most people don't want to be alone with their thoughts," he finally said. "Maybe they have boring thoughts."

The verdict: Summerset Abbey is an entertaining glimpse into Edwardian England and a delightful tale of friendship in a changing time. Brown strikes just the right note of tying up some storylines while leaving others open for the next two installments of this trilogy. What keeps this book from feeling too much of a Downton clone are the characters. Summerset Abbey doesn't necessarily break the mold, but well-developed characters set against a fascinating cultural and historical backdrop make this novel delightfully engaging and entertaining. I'm eagerly awaiting the second book in the series, which is due in March.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 322 pages
Publication date: January 15, 2013
Source: publisher via Edelweiss

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Summerset Abbey from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

 As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

book review: The Midwife's Tale by Sam Thomas

The basics: Set in 1644 York, when the city is under siege, The Midwife's Tale focuses on midwife Bridget Hodgson. When Bridget's friend Esther Cooper is accused of murdering her husband (an act of treason at the time), Bridget sets out to solve the mystery of who really killed Mr. Cooper.

My thoughts: I'm oddly fascinated by the history of medicine. I suppose I'm fascinated by medicine today as well, particularly the tension between tradition and change. I tend to favor all natural, homeopathic methods, but I also recognize the limitations of those methods. I want to believe the earth offers us the tools to heal all of the ailments it creates, but ultimately I think modern inventions and natural traditions are both worthy. All of this excursis is to say: midwifery in the 1600's is bizarre, awesome and utterly fascinating. I was immediately struck by how midwifes must treat unmarried pregnant women:
"If she doesn't name the father, the city will have to support the child for years to come," I explained as gently as I could. "The law forbids me to help her so long as she refuses." 
Much of this novel's success hinges on Lady Bridget. Thomas has created a strong, independent female character who is not an anachronism to her time. She has been widowed twice and lost both of her children to death. She is wealthy, yet she works as a midwife and believes in her work. She's feisty, yet traditional. She shows signs of bending class divisions, but ultimately she upholds them. She acknowledges some examples of sexism, but she's unaware of many others. Lady Bridget is our window into both the politically tumultuous time and the murder mystery. She carries both off, and perhaps most surprisingly, I completely bought her as a sleuth. As a midwife, Bridget has unique access to so many in York. For a crime like this one, sexism prevented justice, thus Bridget is the logical option to pick up the pieces after the investigators jumped to what they saw as the only logical conclusion.

Favorite passage: "Bacca was right: Papists have their priests for confession--we Protestants are not so fortunate. We must confess to each other, or live and die with the burden of our sins."

The verdict: The Midwife's Tale is both a fascinating work of a historical fiction and a compelling mystery. The political warfare of York in 1644 provides the perfect backdrop for the events in this novel. Lady Bridget is a dynamic character, and I look forward to her next adventures (a sequel is in the works.)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: January 8, 2013
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Midwife's Tale from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Want more? Check out Sam Thomas's website. It includes information on the history of midwifery and the real-life Bridget Hodgson, including her bizarrely fascinating will.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, February 18, 2013

book review: Romancing Olive by Holly Bush

The basics: When Olive receives a letter saying her only brother James and his wife are dead, she sets off from Philadelphia to Spencer, Ohio to gather their two children, Mary and John. She intends to take them back to Philadelphia with her, but there is much about life in Spencer and the life her brother led to surprise Olive.

My thoughts: Historical romance is not typically a genre I'm drawn to, but this novel featured so many things I am drawn to that I couldn't resist. Olive is a spinster and a librarian. She's a relatively privileged city woman, yet she must voyage to the Midwest in the 1890's, a fascinating time in U.S. history. Yet as the title suggests, the emphasis of this novel is more on the romance than the history. The story is the relationship between Olive and Jacob, the younger widower who took in Mary and John. While it's rooted in small-town Midwestern life at that time, the story is not firmly rooted in Southern Ohio in the 1890's.

Bush shifts the narration so the reader knows what both Olive and Jacob are thinking. This technique also reminds the reader that although it's clear the two are headed to romance, for them individually, there is still a long emotional journey to get there. As I read, I enjoyed these two characters and their budding romance.

The verdict: Romancing Olive is a predictable, yet engaging and enjoyable, historical romance. What it lacks in surprises it makes up for in its charm. This slim novel is an entertaining, one-sitting read, and fans of historical romance will enjoy it.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 205 pages
Publication date: November 1, 2011
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Romancing Olive from Amazon for your Kindle (it's only $2.99!)

Want more? Check out the entire tour schedule, visit Holly Bush's website, like her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, find her on Google+, and follow her on Pinterest.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, February 11, 2013

book review: All That I Am by Anna Funder

The backstory: All That I Am won the 2012 Miles Franklin Award, which is Australia's most prestigious book prize.  

The basics: When Hitler takes control of Germany in 1933, not everyone is happy. Two couples, Dora and her playwright husband Ernst Toller, and Ruth and her journalist husband Hans, choose to do all they can to warn their country and the world of the impending war. Funder moves back and forth between Ruth's life in Australia in 2002, Toller writing his autobiography in New York, and the events themselves.

My thoughts: I've become somewhat wary of World War II fiction lately, as I've read so much of it. It's become harder for such fiction to impress me, but Anna Funder managed to do so with her debut novel All That I Am. The four characters at the center of this novel are easy to root for: they're on the right side of history. While I adore novels that make me reflect on how easy it is to be on the wrong side of history under my modern gaze, it's refreshing and inspiring to read about four people who had the confidence and boldness to fight back. All four characters are based on real people, which added a layer of intrigue for me.

What struck me most as I read, however, was not these intriguing, well-developed characters; it was Funder's writing. From the first pages I read, I commented to Mr. Nomadreader, "I'm really going to like this book." I gladly went on Funder's ride through history and time. I didn't stop to question why she chose to tell the story with three different timelines or why she tells the story through Ruth and Toller's eyes. I simply enjoyed her writing and trusted her to tell this haunting story in way as simple and as complicated as the events themselves.

Favorite passage:  "The problem with life is that you can only live it blindly, in one direction. Memory has its own ideas; it snatches elements of story from whenever, tries to put them together. It comes back at you from all angles, with all that you later knew, and it gives you the news."

The verdict: This complicated story of diverging characters and timelines could easily become muddied, but Funder's tight and lyrical writing holds everything in place beautifully.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 400 pages
Publication date: February 7, 2012 (it's in paperback now)
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy All That I Am from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Want more? Check out the entire tour, visit Anna Funder's website, and like her on Facebook.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, February 4, 2013

book review: Indiscretion by Charles Dubow

The backstory: Indiscretion was one of the featured titles at the Harper Collins Book Buzz event at ALA last June. I read it on the plane home from California and was even smart enough to write this review last June while it was fresh.

The basics: Indiscretion is the story of Maddy and Harry Winslow. Harry is a National Book Award-winning author, while Maddy is beautiful, smart and kind. They're a couple revered by all who know them, and the two love to entertain at their home in the Hamptons and at their New York City brownstone. Yet as the title indicates, the marriage may not be quite as strong as it appears.

My thoughts: Indiscretion is an intelligent vacation read. There are elements of an upper-class soap opera, but there are also elements of high-brow literature. The combination works well and keeps the novel from becoming either too serious or too frivolous. This novel also sits somewhere between thriller and domestic fiction. Adding intrigue to the story, the narrator of this novel is Walter, Maddy's childhood friend. With this choice, Dubow creates a sense of mystery. Why is Walter, a secondary character, telling the story? And how does he know the private details of their lives? Dubow's answers to these questions were incredibly satisfying and elevate this novel above its salaciousness. As much as I enjoyed it and celebrate its release, part of me wishes it were coming out in May, as I loved experiencing this novel as a vacation read, so I recommend you take it on an airplane too.

The verdict: Indiscretion is a fun escapist read. It's a window into the life of New York affluence, an admired marriage, and the career of a National Book Award-winning author. Intrigue, salaciousness, scandal, love, and suspense abound in the lives of this couple and their circle of friends.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: February 5, 2013 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Indiscretion from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sunday Salon: February goals

Happy Sunday! I've finally emerged from the haze of January and (almost) feel back to normal. Teaching a three-credit course in three weeks was satisfying, invigorating and exhausting. I loved it, but I'm also glad it's over. I'm already enjoying having more time to read and blog again (there will be reviews posted this week!)

I only managed to read six books in January, so I'm hoping February will give me time to catch up and get back on track with my reading priorities this year. I'm pleased to have finished one novel already this month and plan to finish a collection of short stories today. The early months of 2013 are featuring a huge number of new releases I'm looking forward to digging into. If everything goes perfectly (ha!), I hope to read these fifteen (!) books this month:

  • Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa (I hope to finish it this afternoon)
  • The Midwife's Tale by Samuel Thomas
  • The Autobiography of Us by Aria Beth Sloss
  • All That I Am by Anna Funder
  • The Dinner by Herman Koch
  • Wise Men by Stuart Nadler
  • Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
  • Romancing Olive by Holly Bush
  • Ghostman by Roger Hobbs
  • The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne
  • See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid
  • Benediction by Kent Haruf
  • Schroder by Amity Gage
  • Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker
  • The Beggar's Opera by Peggy Blair
I also hope to get caught up on reviews from 2012 and January, plus keep up with reviewing all of these books. While my reading plans never seem to go quite as I expect, my biggest hope is to return to my usual pace of reading about three books a week. 

Now tell me: What are your plans for February?