The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (October 2013)

signatureElizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, deserves every bit of that fame.  Her writing is exquisite.  This novel of the 19th century will sweep you away with the esthetic of it’s period language.  And that esthetic is not in the least bit stodgy; it’s rather humorous.  For a large book that covers two generations and travels the world (London, Philadelphia, Tahiti, Peru), it was quick and engulfing reading.  The story centers on Alma, a woman who does not fit her century’s mold for females:  She is not only brilliant, but she lives the full life of the intellect, pursuing a life-long study of mosses and evolutionary theory.  MOSSES?  you say.  Yes, mosses, that lowly plant that perhaps you dislike if it invades the shady places of your pristine lawn, or perhaps you discount because it has never grabbed your attention.  I’m actually quite fond of the stuff, having grown up close to the PNW rainforests.  And I once tried to grow it in my sidewalk garden, only to watch the fragile plant whither to wiry brownness in the unrelenting New York sun.  But I guffawed at first at the notion of spending one’s life dedicated to understanding moss.  Nonetheless, I was entranced by Alma’s enthusiasm and complete absorption in the subject.  And heartbroken at the price she paid for being brainy, tall, and not terribly attractive.  The consequences of Alma’s choices, coupled with those things out of her control — those aspects of her time and culture that determined her fate — combine to form a deeply drawn character whose life was, in the end, very full in spite of gnawing absences.  Like the fragile mosses she studied, Alma struggled to thrive.  But when she found the right ecosystem, she flourished.  One of the best books of the year, I think.  Advance Readers Copy supplied through BEA.

The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman (March 2013) and The Evolution of God by Robert Wright (June 2009)

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If you are easily shocked by unorthodox portrayals of Jesus and all that is precious in the surrounding religious tradition, do not read this book. If you are offended by the suggestion that the historical Jesus is not the Jesus of tradition, do not read this book. If blasphemy is a word that even momentarily enters your general vocabulary, do not read this book. If you are now curious, and can soldier on through descriptions of creative Roman torture and heinous means of delivering slow death, and tend to be delighted when your assumptions are slaughtered . . . do, please, read this book. And to make the experience of revelation even more interesting, read The Liars’ Gospel in conjunction with The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, or a book of its ilk (scholarly research into the historicity of religious belief). I have by day been listening to Wright’s audio book, and by night reading Alderman’s novel. Though Alderman’s work is fiction, it is based on dogged research, and much of how she portrayed Jesus is similar to how Wright described the historical man. I got the same feeling for who Jesus may have been, from both authors. And I must add here that the audio version of The Evolution of God is well worth the time spent on 15 discs. Wright starts with prehistoric religious belief and works his way through the historic origins of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, their connections and conflicts, and concludes with a vision for how the Abrahamic faiths can foster tolerance and peace in place of what we have now in world affairs. His presentation of the historical record is frequently surprising and always engrossing. Pairing his book with The Liars’ Gospel was perfect serendipity (I didn’t actually plan it out). Alderman’s novel is written from four distinct perspectives, starting with Mary (mother of Jesus), then Judas, followed by Caiaphas (High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem), and concluding with Barrabas. I have used the Anglicized names here, but the book uses their Hebrew names, in keeping with a story that fully immerses the reader in the Jewish world to which Jesus (Yehoshuah) was born, and in which he functioned, under the thumb of Roman rule. This novel is actually more about the politics of Roman Jerusalem than about Jesus, especially in its second half. Nonetheless, if you are well acquainted with the Gospels, you come out of this reading experience thinking about familiar stories is quite a different light: you will question motives, incentives, and the political alignments of players and authors. Although Alderman’s novel was not a fast read — it is not dense, but it IS brutal, and that took some time to breathe and regroup — I highly recommend it, especially as an entre to a nonfiction work such as Wright’s.

Longing for Home by Sarah M. Eden (August 2013)

longingThis book is labeled “A Proper Romance” on the cover.  I think that’s because there is no sex, and only one exceptionally chaste kissing scene.  The “Proper” bit almost made me put the book down.  I’m glad I didn’t.  I read this book quickly and enjoyed it, in spite of the treacly  and repetitious spots, and moments when the main character doth protest too much.  This is a sweet romance that takes place in a small Wyoming frontier town.  But it illuminates an historical reality that was anything but sweet:  the intense, sometimes fatal discrimination faced by Irish immigrants.  I knew the Irish were treated poorly.  But I did not realize the extent of the discrimination, the blatant, in-your-face unfairness of it.  And I knew something about the famine from which they escaped.  But I did not have a feel for the impossible choices families faced.  So I recommend this novel for it’s enjoyable, chaste romance; and for the history that will grab your attention and keep it, giving you that emotional connection to an aspect of the country’s expansion that fiction often does best.  Advance Reader’s Copy supplied by BEA.

Age of Desire by Jennie Fields (Aug 2012)

Many of us have become Downton Abbey groupies.  We are living deprived, lonely existences until the next season begins and we can rejoin the characters and time period to which we have grown attached.  In the meantime, we seek out substitutes to tide us over.  Age of Desire is one such worthy experience.  It takes place a wee bit earlier, around 1908.  And it involves an American ex-patriot — Edith Wharton — in Paris and London, rather than entrenched British nobility.  But the relationship between Wharton and her onetime governess and then friend and secretary, Anna, reminds me of the ways in which boundaries are both reinforced and occasionally transcended despite class divisions in Downton Abbey.  Those divisions, involving as they do Americans in Age of Desire, are significantly less pronounced than among the British.  Yet they clearly color everything.  Henry James and Morton Fullerton feature prominently in this novel.  But the main focus is on Wharton — her writing, her marriage, her affair, and her relationship with Anna that permeated it all.  A recommended read.  Advance readers copy provided by the publisher and Netgalley.

Little Century by Anna Keesey (June 2012)

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It’s been several days since I finished Little Century, but the images are still fresh.  I have a vision of Oregon at the turn of the 19th century, the smell of the land — sage and juniper and pine — on the high desert around Bend.  Yes, I was actually close by last month, in the mountains between the Willamette and Deschutes Rivers.  It’s Keesey’s vivid writing, though, that brings the land alive; and my recent visit, as well as growing up in the West, allows me to simply confirm: Little Century is the closest to the real thing you will get, without actually going there.  And the story itself — a girl coming of age and falling in love while being pulled in opposing directions by the range war rivalry between sheep herders and cattle men — is fascinating.  I remember reading a review of this book, and thinking, “should I?  Should I not buy it?”  I had decided against it, in part because this is her debut and I was unsure a “western” would get checked out by our patrons.  But after reading it, I bought it for the library.  It’s a can’t miss.  And I wouldn’t call it a “western” — Little Century crosses genre boundaries.  It’s literary, but so easy and delicious to read; it’s historical fiction; it’s a romance; it’s a mystery; and it should truly appeal to both men and women.  Highly recommended!

 

The Second Empress by Michelle Moran (Aug 2012)

ImageSo, do you have any idea how much of a jerk Napoleon was?  I mean, we’ve all heard the little-man-big-ego jokes.  But his real life, the one where hundreds of thousands were killed, without remorse, for his ambitions . . . it’s not a very funny joke.  I found this out reading The Second Empress, which, like all of Michelle Moran’s books, is entertaining.  This book is about Napoleon’s second wife, the Hapsburg princess Marie-Louise, whom he married after setting aside Josephine.  Her story is told here, fictionally.  Moran claims to have done quite a bit of serious research, saying the vast majority of the novel is based closely on real stuff, including letters that are quoted throughout.  Unfortunately, her sources don’t appear to have been very good ones.  Reviews written by people knowlegable about the period are fairly critical of the ways Moran veers from the historical record.  Again, this is historical FICTION, and it is entertaining.  I rather gobbled it up.  But it seems one should be very cautious about absorbing the historical detail — other than the most general fact that, yes, Napoleon was quite the jerk.  The book rotates in chapters through the voices of Marie-Louise herself, Pauline (Napoleon’s sister), and Paul Moreau (Pauline’s “black chamberlain”).  These voices give a fascinating, widely varying view onto Napoleon and his reign.  I  recommend this book (especially to readers who love Philippa Gregory and Allison Weir) — and when you’re done, pick up Moran’s Nefertiti and Cleopatra’s Daughter.  But then, look into some of the reviews to see how the novels differ from the actual history.  Moran’s website explains some of the liberties she has taken . . . but not enough.  Advance readers copy provided by the publisher on NetGalley.com. 

Home by Morning by Alexis Harrington (Dec 2011)

ImageThis low-key (as in, not hot) romance takes place in Oregon during the influenza epidemic.  I thought it was an above-average romance read:  the writing flows and is free of genre cliche; the plotting and historical detail are interesting; the main characters are likable, and the main female character is additionally a strong and educated person (a medical doctor).  The roadblock that kept the two romantic interests separated for much of the story, was not entirely believable . . . until we finally learn the reason for the roadblock.  Then it makes more sense, though not convincingly.  Harrington’s sequel, Home by Nightfall, came out in July 2012 — Home by Morning (not available in RCLS) was enjoyable, and I’ll be purchasing the sequel for the library. Advance readers copy provided by BEA.

The Counterfeit Bride by Nancy J. Parra (June 2011)

The trope of this romance — being stuck with a strange man and having to make the best of it, e.g. fall in love — is fun. Who doesn’t like fantasizing about getting stranded alone on a tropical island with the most gorgeous man alive? The setting isn’t a tropical island, it’s a small mining town out West in the late 1800s (for all of us that kind of have a thing for cowboys).  The getting stuck together part, while believable in its premise, strains credulity in its execution. There were a few other problems: the main character at times behaved like a pouty schoolgirl instead of savvy businesswoman; and a couple times I had to turn back a page and reread because it was as though the storyline suddenly galloped away and I was like, Whoa Nelly, did a couple of pages just not get printed? And the ending . . . I don’t buy it. But let’s let all of that go. We don’t read these romances for the perfect plotting and writing. We read them to escape. It succeeded on that level. It’s fewer than 200 pages, and I flew through it.  Oh, and for those who like their romance reads on the less sultry side, this fits the bill.

City of Women by David R. Gillham (Aug 2012)

Image This is a fabulous read.  This is not typical “women’s fiction”, nor is it what I feared I’d find in “WWII fiction”: a story filled with war strategy.  What it is is a beautifully written drama that gives the reader a tangible feel for what aspects of living on the home front in Berlin, emptied of most men, may have been like.  The characters and their moral quandaries are complex, and will appeal to readers not only of historical fiction but of mysteries.  The focus is on women: the dynamics of their relations with one another.  But there are several important male characters, and a romance.  So, really, this is the sort of book that should have broad readership.  Highly recommended.  Advance readers copy provided by Penguin.

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