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Review
3.5 Stars
How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe - Charles Yu

With only TAMMY - a slightly tearful computer with self-esteem issues - a software boss called Phil - Microsoft Middle Manager 3.0 - and an imaginary dog called Ed for company, fixing time machines is a lonely business and Charles Yu is stuck in a rut. He's spent the better part of a decade navel-gazing, spying on 39 different versions of himself in alternate universes (and discovered that 35 of them are total jerks). And he's kind of fallen in love with TAMMY, which is bad because she doesn't have a module for that. With all that's on his mind, perhaps it's no surprise that when he meets his future self, he shoots him in the stomach. And that's a beginner's mistake for a time machine repairman. Now he's stuck in a time loop, going in circles forever. All he has, wrapped in brown paper, is the book his future self was trying to press into his hands. It's called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. And he's the author. And somewhere inside it is the information that could save him.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Author Charles Yu writes himself in as the protagonist of his novel here, presenting himself as a fictional Yu working as a time traveling technician on Minor Universe 31, his job primarily being to repair heavily used time traveling machines.

 

In this universe, (fictional) Yu's father invented time travel, but has been missing for quite some time. Yu's mother is locked into a one hour time loop -- that is, she can only live one precise hour of her entire life over and over again -- where she basically just makes dinner repeatedly. Ugh, can you imagine the horror of that?!

 

Chronological living is kind of a lie. That's why I don't do it anymore. Existence doesn't have more meaning in one direction than it does in any other. Completing the days of your life in strict calendar order can feel forced. Arbitrary. Especially after you've seen what I've seen. Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward. 

 

Yu decides he wants to try to find his father. With the help of a book written by his future self and TAMMY, an operating system with incredibly low self esteem, he sets out on a space journey of mind-bending proportions through the space-time continuum. He uses time travel to move through memories and alternate scenarios looking for clues to his father's current whereabouts. The journey takes quite a complicated turn when Yu accidentally shoots his future self and has to dive into the closest time loop to try to escape the situation from escalating any further. But ooooh the mess this makes of things! 

 

It can sometimes get confusing keeping it all straight: In the early parts of the story, when fictional Charles is in and around his hometown, he lives and works out of his vehicle, the TM-31, but here's where it gets really wild. Minor Universe 31 is a world made of all the things we know of from science FICTION, but fictional Charles can travel in and out of areas throughout the universe that work in REAL time, such as Earth. When it comes to the US, in fictional Charles' world, ages ago Los Angeles and New York merged so now the States as a whole are basically considered one gigantic city! In this world, US citizens now live across the land in boroughs with names like Capital City, Lost City, Verse City, and New Tokyo ("old" Tokyo broke off from its original position, floated away until it attached to the landmass of the States). 

 

Established science fiction readers will likely have a fun time geeking out to all the Star Wars references and the plot reminiscent of a Douglas Adams novel. Even some similarities to Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series can be found here. But if you're entirely new to the genre, this book could prove to be a befuddling place to start your sci-fi journey. 

 

I was never totally sure why everyone wanted to be Han Solo. Maybe it was because he wasn't born into it, like Luke, with the birthright and the natural talent for The Force and the premade story. Solo had to make his own story. He was a freelance protagonist, a relatively ordinary guy who got to the major leagues by being quick with a gun and a joke. He was, basically, a hero because he was funny. Whatever the reason, first place was always Solo, always, always, always, and second place was usually Chewbacca, because if you weren't the one saving the galaxy, you might as well be eight feet tall and covered with hair. 

 

Portions of the story moved beyond clever into slightly irritating ramblings, especially the metaphysical points that continued for pages and pages before we are able to get back to the story. Module Y -- this novel is broken up into "modules" rather than "parts" -- felt like it went on FOREVER. 

 

The humor was undeniably enjoyable, but when it came to TAMMY's (the operating system) depression, I had hoped for a little more humor worked in there... she did have minor jokes here and there but a lot of her end of the story brought the whole madcap-ish tone of the novel down a bit for me. For this point, I refer back to the master, Douglas Adams, on how to incorporate heavy themes in a more light-hearted way. As a whole, the story is a fun, sometimes head-scratching, "wait, what did I just read?" ride. While I think I preferred the first half of the story over the second, I did really like the epilogue entitled "Appendix A".

 

 

 

 

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EXTRAS

 

* How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe is Charles Yu's debut novel and was partly inspired by Yu's reading of The Fabric Of Reality by David Deutsch

 

* Charles Yu has been awarded the National Book Foundation's 5 under 35 Award and the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award for his short story collections. 

 

* In the acknowledgements of this book, Yu gives a nod to his wife, saying, "Thank you for being the best version of yourself, even when I'm my worst." ♥

Review
4 Stars
Christmas at Carnton by Tamera Alexander
Christmas at Carnton - Tamera Alexander
Amid war and the fading dream of the Confederacy, a wounded soldier and a destitute widow discover the true meaning of Christmas - and of sacrificial love. Recently widowed, Aletta Prescott struggles to hold life together for herself and her six-year old son. With the bank threatening to evict, she discovers an advertisement for the Women's Relief Society auction and applies for a position - only to discover it's been filled. Then a chance meeting with a wounded soldier offers another opportunity - and friendship. But can Aletta trust this man? Captain Jake Winston, a revered Confederate sharpshooter, suffered a head wound at the Battle of Chickamauga. When doctors deliver their diagnosis, Jake fears losing not only his greatest skill but his very identity. As he heals, Jake is ordered to assist with a local Women's Relief Society auction. He respectfully objects. Kowtowing to a bunch of "crinolines" isn't his idea of soldiering. But orders are orders, and he soon discovers this group of ladies - one, in particular - is far more than he bargained for. Set against the backdrop and history of the Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, Christmas at Carnton is a story of hope renewed and faith restored at Christmas.
Amazon.com
 
 
 
It's the winter of 1863 in Franklin, Tennessee. Twenty-five year old Aletta Prescott has recently been informed that she's now widowed (her husband having been away fighting in the Civil War). In true "when it rains, it pours" fashion, life deals her a few more blows to boot: she's laid off from her job at a textile mill, she's facing eviction, and she's seven months pregnant as well as now being a single mother to her six year old son. Not one to cry too long about hardships or lean on excuses, Aletta immediately sets herself to finding solutions, mostly in terms of finding employment again as soon as possible. Persistently putting feelers out pays off for her when she hears word of a job opportunity at Carnton Estate.
 
Upon first arriving at the estate, Aletta is crushed to find the position she's after has already been filled, but her personality wins over the household and before long, luck provides her with the setup she was looking for... even if it proves to be only temporary, it gives her a stepping stone to future security for her and her children. 
 
One source of this luck for Aletta comes in the form of Captain Jack Winston, a wounded Confederate officer. Jack sustains a serious head wound in battle that damages his eyesight. A medical examination determines that Jack's eyes may fully recover, but it can't be guaranteed. So it's a waiting game. Jack's commanding officer sends him to Carnton Estate to help with the Women's Relief Society auction. It'll not only give Jack something to do as he recuperates, but the auction is also raising funds for much needed supplies for the guys still on the battlefields. Though Jack understands this, he's still not happy about the assignment, having to, as he sees it, "kowtow to a bunch of crinolines". But just one interaction with kind-hearted Aletta, and his perspective certainly flips in a hurry!
 
Christmas at Carnton offers a sweet, heartwarming holiday story, for sure.. but there are also deeper themes here that many readers will appreciate. Just from a historical perspective, author Tamera Alexander gives readers a realistic feel for wartime struggles in this era -- horrors of slavery, the scarcity of groceries, job layoffs, struggles with bills, families broken apart from grief and struggle, the depths one might stoop to... simply out of sheer desperation to survive. This is particularly admirable when you remember that this is simply the starter novella for what is expected to be a series of full length novels (at least 3) which will first start rolling out Fall 2018. To pack sufficient historical detail in novella length AND still include an engrossing storyline to boot -- that gets a nod of respect from me! Alexander even writes in a mention of chow-chow, a dish I find not too many people outside of the South or certain East Coast areas tend to recognize. 
 
Outside of the historical aspect, readers who are mothers themselves will likely feel at least a bit of a bond with Aletta's struggles, especially if you are a single mother. Aletta has an impressive strong will that propels her to fight to give her children the best living situation she can possibly provide, even through periods where she's not sure what her options will be from one day to the next. Still, she makes it work and in true mother fashion, she often swallows her fears and stops herself from vocally airing her doubts in front of her children, instead pushing herself to find a smile every day even if it doesn't always start as a sincere one. 
 
All of this together quietly gives the reader a kind reminder that in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, one must remember to be grateful for the blessings -- no matter how small -- that are to be found in each day if we only take the time to look for and acknowledge them with a smiling heart. 
 
Life was hard everywhere she looked. Which made her more determined to be grateful for what she did have, even if gratitude wasn't her natural response at present. 
 
If you are interested in possibly using this as an option for your book club, this novella includes a supplemental section made up of reading discussion questions and holiday recipes pertaining to the story... including DIY chow-chow and holiday simmering spices! 
 
 
FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 
 
__________
 
EXTRAS
 
* Carnton Estate, where this story is set, is actually a real place. It is located in Franklin Tennessee, roughly about 20 miles outside of Nashville. 
Review
3 Stars
Mambo In Chinatown by Jean Kwok
Mambo in Chinatown: A Novel - Jean Kwok

Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher. But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel briefly touches upon the themes of sexual assault and rape culture.

 

  

Cha Lan "Charlie" Wong, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, has never been outside the city limits of Chinatown in New York City. Now 22, she's spent years keeping mostly to herself, working as a dishwasher in the same restaurant where her father is employed as a skilled noodle maker.

 

Life has been a constant struggle for Charlie. She did poorly in school and even now in adulthood is described as homely, uncoordinated, no domestic skills to speak of, not tech savvy in the least... in short, nobody expects much of her. Knowing this, Charlie is stunned when her younger sister Lian Hua ("Lisa") urges her to apply for a receptionist position that just opened up at a local ballroom dance studio. 

 

Charlie is awkward during the interview process but one of the co-owners sees something in her and decides to give her a chance. The reader is then given a front row seat to Charlie bumbling through this receptionist position. Still, she becomes fascinated with the world of dance -- the studio instructors, the different students and their backstories -- it undeniably leaves her feeling very much out of her element, yet she persists in making this job work so that she can keep her grasp on this new and beautiful world she's been brought into. 

 

When one instructor is suddenly unable to teach a beginner's class, Charlie is shocked to hear she's been recommended to pose as the teacher. Just for that one class... but still! As it turns out, the students in this class interpret her uncertainty in her abilities as Charlie actually being very down-to-earth and relatable. Suddenly, Charlie is approached with requests to teach more classes! Though she accepts, she quietly starts taking dance lessons between classes so she can move from imposter to legit instructor. This move turns out to be empowering and life-changing. For one, in the past whenever tomboyish Charlie would make attempts to get all girly and pretty, someone in the family would immediately shoot down her efforts, so she would quickly go back to her old routine. NOW, after getting a little rhythm and soul in her bones, she finds the boldness to snap back and inform people that such "primping" as some might call it, makes her feel good... and it's her right. So, there. 

 

Through Charlie's journey, author Jean Kwok explores not only the hard truth about the world of dance -- the discomfort that comes along with training your body to move a certain way; the surprisingly high cost of the proper shoes; ruined, blistered feet; certification exams, etc. -- but also family hardships. We see Charlie tackle emotions surrounding the process of emotionally letting go of familial or societal expectations (her family finds a multitude of ways to try to guilt her into staying the same rather than encouraging emotional growth or pursuing soul-fulfilling dreams), finding courage to forge her own path, discovering and embracing who she truly is. Kwok also weaves in themes not uncommon to many immigrant experience novels: she, through her characters, asks "How does one blend old and new? How do we move with the tide of modernism while still properly honoring one's heritage... can it be done?".  *Note: Though Charlie is American-born, much of the immigrant story is told through the experiences of her immediate & extended family, as well as Charlie's own observations of what comes along with being the child of immigrants. 

 

 

When a family member falls seriously ill with a mysterious illness that doctors can't seem to successfully diagnose, Charlie feels helpless as she watches her loved one fall victim to bouts of bed-wetting, nightmares, dizziness, and migraines. She wants to continue pursuing modern methods of medicine, even while fearing the expense. Conversely, her father prefers going to an old world style herbalist in Chinatown, simply known as The Vision. Charlie doesn't want to go against her father and leave him feeling disrespected, however due the seriousness of the symptoms of this illness, she (with a dash of guilt) admits that she's nervous to leave this matter to Eastern medicine. 

 

While maybe not every reader will relate to the immigrant experience aspect of this novel, the familial themes will likely ring relevant to most that pick up this book. Who hasn't had to face the struggle of making our family proud versus following our own heart's passion? While the story wasn't always particularly gripping, there was something to Charlie's world that I felt comfortably, breezily invested in. Recommended for those always on the hunt for underdog / ugly duckling type stories. 

Review
3.5 Stars
Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok
Girl in Translation - Jean Kwok

When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life-like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family's future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition-Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles. Through Kimberly's story, author Jean Kwok, who also emigrated from Hong Kong as a young girl, brings to the page the lives of countless immigrants who are caught between the pressure to succeed in America, their duty to their family, and their own personal desires, exposing a world that we rarely hear about. Written in an indelible voice that dramatizes the tensions of an immigrant girl growing up between two cultures, surrounded by a language and world only half understood, Girl in Translation is an unforgettable and classic American immigrant novel—a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Ah-Kim "Kimberly" Chang emigrated from China with her mother when she was eleven years old. A successful music teacher in Hong Kong, Kimberly's mother struggled to raise her daughter on a single income after her losing her husband to a stroke. She gets an offer from her older sister to come to America where she's assured there will be plenty of opportunity for her.  Kim and her "Ma" arrive in the United States unable to speak English and with virtually no money to start out on. Upon first meeting up with her sister Paula and brother-in-law Bob, "Ma" and daughter Kim are amazed at the sensation of carpet and hot water available on command. Much to their disappointment though, the nice apartment Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob claimed to have  available for them turns out to be a major dump of a place, a rundown apartment full of bugs, in a Brooklyn ghetto. But with pretty much no other options to consider, Ma agrees to move in, taking a job in a Chinatown sweatshop, bringing in just enough money to barely survive. 

 

Kimberly also obtains a position at the sweatshop while also enrolling in NYC public school. Those early days of school are not easy for her thanks to immature, mean teachers, one in particular who seems to take pleasure in making fun of her accent, lack of English skills and general ignorance of American culture. Not surprisingly, as Kim gets older, she starts to develop a bit of a rebel side, often playing hooky from school just so she can have some peace of mind, even if only for a little bit.

 

But after a pivotal conversation with her mother one day, Kim realizes she wants more out of life than where her future currently seems to be headed. She re-dedicates herself to work and school after understanding that THAT is her ticket to better circumstances for her and her mother. Kim also navigates emotions surrounding first love / crush and the conflicted feelings that come with the sense of being split between two cultures. 

 

Elements of the plot were problematic... as in some details or ideas brought forth didn't feel entirely fleshed out. A few too many moments where the reader is just left with scenes full of question marks or hurried conclusions. What IS really appealing about this story is how immersive Kwok makes the environment, squalid though it may be. That's what kept me reading -- the sense that I was placed in the character's miserable circumstances with them. Weird as that sounds, I, as the reader, appreciated that.

 

Girl In Translation is definitely one to recommend to those who are getting just a little too much entitlement into their whining, those that ask "Are things really THAT bad anymore?" Author Jean Kwok notes that while this is a work of fiction, elements of it are semi-autobiographical, being that she herself emigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn as a child and worked in a sweatshop just like Kim and her mother. Give this to kids whining about allowance and have them read the part where Kim calculates the cost of things she needs or wants by how many skirts she'll have to make at work, knowing she's only paid about 1.5 cents per skirt! 

Review
4 Stars
The Space Between Words by Michele Phoenix
The Space Between Words - Michele Phoenix

When Jessica regains consciousness in a French hospital on the day after the Paris attacks, all she can think of is fleeing the site of the horror she survived. But Patrick, the steadfast friend who hasn’t left her side, urges her to reconsider her decision. Worn down by his insistence, she reluctantly agrees to follow through with the trip they’d planned before the tragedy. During a stop at a country flea market, Jessica finds a faded document concealed in an antique. As new friends help her to translate the archaic French, they uncover the story of Adeline Baillard, a young woman who lived centuries before—her faith condemned, her life endangered, her community decimated by the Huguenot persecution. 

Determined to learn the Baillard family’s fate, Jessica retraces their flight from France to England, spurred on by a need she doesn’t understand. Could this stranger who lived three hundred years before hold the key to Jessica’s survival?

Amazon.com

 

 

American tourist Jessica is recovering in a Paris hospital in November of 2015, the day after the Paris attacks.

 

"Did a lot of people die?" I asked. I had to know.

 

The nurse nodded, and I saw tears in her eyes too. "Many," she said. Then she took a deep breath and added, "But many survived." She patted my hand where it still gripped her wrist. "I know you are americaine, but you are French now too."

 

 

Trying to heal from the injuries she sustained as an attendee of the death metal concert, Jessica is encouraged by friend Patrick to return to their apartment in town to continue her recovery. As time passes and she begins to show signs of physical strength returning, she feels compelled to return to the States, but Patrick thinks it would be good for her, mentally, to go on with their trip as planned. He stays insistent through her many refusals until he eventually wears her down and she agrees to his idea. 

 

There was a muddiness to mature adult friendships -- the expectation that they would lead to something more. That they should. And after that night, with our relationship more clearly defined, we'd moved forward more freely, autonomous and intertwined, an unusual duo bound by similar passions and complementary interests. Patrick and I knew what connected us was rare. It didn't matter anymore how others wanted to define it. 

 

One stop on their journey takes them to a little out of the way antiques shop where Jessica comes across what turns out to be an old sewing box, a box she later discovers dates back to the 17th century. Inside a hidden compartment, Jessica finds the journal of one Adeline Baillard, whose writings explain her fight to escape the Huguenot Persecution. Their crime: being Protestant in a Catholic nation.

 

There are only a few scant entries to Adeline's journal, giving the impression that she was hurriedly writing an account of her experiences in secret during the time of the persecution. A driving need to know how Adeline's story ended gives Jessica something to focus on other than her PTSD induced nightmares / hallucinations. The process of going on a hunt for the truth also gradually brings Adeline around to a modicum of healing in regards to her own traumatic experiences & memories. 

 

I'll just get this upfront right now -- this will likely be a tough read for PTSD sufferers. Chapter 17 is especially intense. Being a sufferer myself, I can tell you a number of passages in this book had my nerves on edge or me suddenly in a puddle of tears reading of Jessica's (fictional) account of the attacks. Also, imagining the fear someone in Adeline's position had to live with on a daily basis... this novel was one whopping emotional drain! But in a good way! 

 

"I want to believe that there's a force for good in this world and that the force won't let the bad have the final word. It doesn't explain or undo the darkness, but... I think somehow it covers it with light." 

 

~~ Grant

 

Note for sensitive readers: Within the excerpts of Adeline's journal, there are some brief scenes of brutality depicted, as Adeline writes of the torture endured by those who refused to convert to Catholicism. There are also some gruesome scenes illustrated during Jessica's descriptions of the shootings that occurred at the concert venue. 

 

Some of my favorite bits: 1) OMG, I ADORED Nelly, the tour guide at Canterbury Cathedral! Her wit and grandmotherly sweetness!  Also neat that in her author notes at the end, Michelle Phoenix reveals that the details of the adventure to the church that Jessica and Grant go on is based on a trip Phoenix herself took to the same church. 2) I found myself moved by little Connor and his visions of "shiny ninjas" (you'll understand this once you read the book).

 

The one knock I would give this story is the "common misconception" conversation about Grant and Mona. Just found it annoying that all these little things going on between them gave the impression that they were a couple and then they casually explain they're brother and sister, but people often get it confused. Well, dang. Introduce yourself as siblings at the start and we won't have a bunch of confused readers later! But Iater on I kinda saw why Phoenix might have written it this way... we need the brother available for confused feelings / possible romantic tension between him and Jessica! But still, annoying. 

 

I'd definitely recommend this one over Phoenix's Of Stillness And Storm. I found the plot here much more complex, entertaining and emotionally moving. I'm strongly anticipating her future works! 

 

Enduring with courage, resisting with wisdom, persisting in faith... 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

Review
3 Stars
Of Stillness And Storm by Michele Phoenix
Of Stillness and Storm - Michèle Phoenix

It took Lauren and her husband ten years to achieve their dream—reaching primitive tribes in remote regions of Nepal. But while Sam treks into the Himalayas for weeks at a time, finding passion and purpose in his work among the needy, Lauren and Ryan stay behind, their daily reality more taxing than inspiring. For them, what started as a calling begins to feel like the family’s undoing.  At the peak of her isolation and disillusion, a friend from Lauren’s past enters her life again. But as her communication with Aidan intensifies, so does the tension of coping with the present while reengaging with the past. It’s thirteen-year-old Ryan who most keenly bears the brunt of her distraction. Intimate and bold, Of Stillness and Storm weaves profound dilemmas into a tale of troubled love and honorable intentions gone awry.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Lauren and her husband, Sam, are living in Nepal with their thirteen year old son, Ryan, for the purpose of doing missionary work. This project is a labor of love for Sam, who has a sort of frenetic excitement for each day's work, while Lauren and Ryan, though supportive, struggle with their daily grind. 

 

As Sam is away in the villages of Nepal for days at a time, Lauren is left isolated with only her mostly silent, moody teenage son and her own inner thoughts for company. It is through these inner thoughts that the reader gets to know the story of Lauren & Sam and how the idea of the Nepal project came to be. We also get insight into the tiny fractures within this once solid marriage and why Lauren starts to question where her very life purpose truly lies. 

 

"A heart unrisked is a heart unshared and yours is too good to waste."

 

All those years ago, Sam & Lauren met as college kids experiencing a semester abroad in Austria. She was drawn to his intelligence and flattered by his honest interest in who she was at her core. Fast forward to the current moment and Lauren is living a life she flatly describes as "sufficient", which is pretty much aka BLAND. She finds herself bored, lonely and maybe just a bit bitter over the sense that she is doing a lot of the grunt work in this relationship while Sam reaps the rewards of her devotion to him. Even the burden of finding the means to fund Sam's dreams tends to fall on Lauren to answer. But all that is about to be challenged. 

 

It only takes one instance, one moment of weakness. Lauren receives an online private message (through FB, I believe, or something similar) from Aidan, an old friend of Lauren's from 20 years ago. The private messages continue and the friendship is gradually rekindled. As you can imagine, this can be tricky territory to manuever for a bored, lonely housewife desperate for attention. 

 

From there, this novel essentially becomes a character study of people and what drives them, their desires, what's worth sacrificing / what's truly important, etc. When it comes to Sam, he seems like a decent, considerate guy with a strong moral code but BORING. The semantics-filled conversations bantered between him and Lauren nearly did my head in at times! There's just not much warmth to the guy, too serious and analytical to be very enticing to readers... to the point where you can almost understand the appeal in the dangerous territory that is Aidan.

 

Lauren's not the obvious winner either, though. She struck me as having very little backbone, but the kind of person that has to work to just barely contain their whistling teapot of emotions brewing inside. She holds things in until it eats away at her and then when there is a release it's in the form of anger, taken out on others. That said though, one of the aspects of the novel I was most touched by was Lauren's struggle to stay connected to her son and her frustration at not knowing how to stop the disconnect growing between them. 

 

The setting for this novel is what first peaked my curiosity, as I don't often see fictional stories set in Nepal, a place I'd like to see for myself one day. While I do enjoy Phoenix's work with building the atmosphere, the plot itself didn't do much for me. As I mentioned, the conversations between Sam & Lauren were often a chore to push through and I didn't find either of them especially compelling. I did feel for Lauren when it came to her and her son and the emotional distance but that was about the only plot point that my interest stayed fully committed to to the very end. 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

Review
5 Stars
Circus Galacticus by Deva Fagan
Circus Galacticus - Deva Fagan

Trix can deal with being an orphan charity case at a snotty boarding school. She can hold her own when everyone else tells her not to dream big dreams. She can even fight back against the mysterious stranger in a silver mask who tries to steal the meteorite her parents trusted her to protect. But her life is about to change forever. The Circus Galacticus has come to town, bringing acts to amaze, delight, and terrify. And now the dazzling but enigmatic young Ringmaster has offered Trix the chance to be a part of it. Soon Trix discovers an entire universe full of deadly enemies and potential friends, not to mention space leeches, ancient alien artifacts, and exploding chocolate desserts. And she just might unravel the secrets of her own past if she can survive long enough.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Taiwanese-American teen Beatrix "Trix" Ling is an orphan who is sent to Bleeker Academy, a boarding school, as a charity case. Trix is struggling to find her place not only at Bleeker but just in the world at large. Conflicts with school bullies (as in, her trying to defend herself) lead her into a heap of disciplinary action scenarios with the school admin. 

 

When the Circus Galacticus comes to town and the ringmaster (conveniently known just as Ringmaster) offers her the chance to join the crew, it seems like a nice little escape from her social hell. That is, until she comes to find out that she's just signed onto an intergalactic circus. That's right, this roadshow hits up the whole galaxy and then some! 

 

"Please, let me go. I won't cause any trouble."

 

"I find that hard to believe," says the Ringmaster, casting aside his lighthearted humor with such absolute saddness it catches the breath in my chest. "You've been causing trouble all your life, haven't you? Asking questions that weren't in the textbooks. Saying things other people were afraid to say. There was always something off about you, something different, something that made other people stare and whisper and maybe even laugh.. Isn't that right?" His eyes pull on mine, demanding an answer.

 

Trix comes to find that her new gig surprisingly holds answers to the mysteries of her own origin story. What's the deal with the meteorite her parents left her, this hunk of rock that came with enigmatic instructions to guard it with her life?

 

I was six years old the first time I really saw the stars. They hung sharp as broken glass in the desert sky. I jumped, trying to reach them -- they looked so close. I begged my dad to hoist me up on his shoulders, but even he wasn't tall enough. God, I can still feel that ache. I'd never wanted anything that bad. 

 

Dad smiled and tried to make me laugh away my tears. But Mom understood. She held me so tight I can almost feel her arms, even now, nine years later. I think she was crying too. You'll reach them someday, Beatrix, she said. I promise. Then she spun me around until my head swam with stars. That's all I have left of my folks now. 

 

The stars... and the rock. 

 

 

 

Trix also gets caught up in intergalactic politics --  the battle between the MANDATE and the TINKERS, the Mandate being those in power who determines rules and regulations for the whole universe. They want to keep status quo through strict order and conformity. Meanwhile, Tinkers are those on the outskirts, the social outcasts who advocate for diversity, culture full of color and variety of all kinds, artistic expression, all that is beautiful and wild in life. Nyl, one of the main characters from Team Mandate, likes to argue his stance that there are dire consequences that come with allowing people to have differences within society: wars, religious persecution, crime, etc. 

 

The battle between these two groups began generations ago. In what is now a post-war era, though the intensity of the battle has lessened some, the descendants from both sides of the original war still quietly fume. The reign of the Mandate has been replaced with the Core Governance. Different name, same desire for conformity. But Core Governance maintains that they don't support either faction (Mandate or Tinkers), their main goal is just to establish and maintain laws for the betterment of society in general. Very PC of them! 

 

A note for teachers or homeschooling parents: the whole plot conflict regarding the divisive beliefs of the Mandate vs. the Tinkers serves as nice social commentary for today's world problems. The way author Deva Fagan handles these hot button ideas is admirable, not overly in the reader's face or preachy, just simply entertaining examples to get discussions going among middle-grade readers. Something else for educators to note, there are a few instances of very mild cursing within this story. 

"Another fabulous word: BRUNCH. Not quite one thing or the other, but sometimes it's exactly what you need..."

 

I watch in alarm and fascination as he piles a mountain of avocado and beans onto a chip, all while balancing the book atop his baton, defying both gravity and common sense. Maybe that's his superpower. That and the ability to wear a bazillion sequins without looking like an ass.

 

Attentive readers may also notice the subtle ways Fagan recreates Trix's Earth problems throughout various points of her space travels. Just one example: the school bully Della and the prickly Headmistress Primwell vs the ship bully Sirra and the prickly ship instructor Miss 3. This gives readers some food for thought -- not only can you not escape your problems by running away, but also, think on the importance of learning to adapt to life's obstacles. You have to work on your own personal growth, not wait for others to change.

 

This is a perfect read for lovers of middle grade fiction, Star Trek adventures, Dr. Who humor, and Firefly, as there are elements of all of that in here! In fact, Nola, the mechanic on the Big Top ship very much reminded me of Kaylee, the mechanic from Firefly.

Review
4.5 Stars
Phoebe's Light (Nantucket Legacy #1) by Suzanne Woods Fisher
Phoebe's Light (Nantucket Legacy) - Suzanne Woods Fisher

Phoebe Starbuck has always adjusted her sails and rudder to the whims of her father. Now, for the first time, she's doing what she wants to do: marrying Captain Phineas Foulger and sailing far away from Nantucket. As she leaves on her grand adventure, her father gives her two gifts, both of which Phoebe sees little need for. The first is an old sheepskin journal from Great Mary, her highly revered great-grandmother. The other is a "minder" on the whaling ship in the form of cooper Matthew Macy, a man whom she loathes. Soon Phoebe discovers that life at sea is no easier than life on land. Lonely, seasick, and disillusioned, she turns the pages of Great Mary's journal and finds herself drawn into the life of this noble woman. To Phoebe's shock, her great-grandmother has left a secret behind that carries repercussions for everyone aboard the ship, especially her husband the captain and her shadow the cooper. This story within a story catapults Phoebe into seeing her life in an entirely new way--just in time. 

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Phoebe Starbuck has only just turned eighteen years old and already feels as if she's spent a lifetime caring for her widower father, Barnabus, on the island of Nantucket, MA. No matter how many major financial setbacks he succumbs to, 'ol Barnabus remains ever optimistic about the future. Sadly, optimism alone doesn't pay the bills, so Phoebe has to continually figure out ways to make the meager Starbuck money stretch. Due to too many of Barnabus's failed business ventures, the Starbucks are nearly bankrupt. Resources being limited from the start, the family is now at the point where some miracle boon in fortune must appear or Phoebe and her father will be deemed "Town Poor" and likely homeless shortly thereafter. 

 

Seeing the whaling ship Fortuna come into port, Phoebe (feeling emboldened by her newly minted "adult" status) puts herself together in the most appealing way she can, being a respectable & modest Quaker woman, and approaches the ship's captain, Phineas Foulger, at the docks. Though much older (in his mid 40s), by author Suzanne Fisher's description of him, the reader gets the impression that Phineas's physical appeal has held up well over the years. The last time he last spoke with Phoebe, she was just a mere girl, but now she wants him to see her as potential wife material. Within mere weeks, using only a comely blend of charm, beauty and innocence, Phoebe wins the interest of Capt. Foulger and soon has the MRS title she so strongly sought. As a wedding gift, Barnabus gives Phoebe the journal of her great-grandmother, Mary, telling her that there's said to be great life wisdom in its pages. But why is Captain Foulger SO insistent on knowing the journal's contents?

 

Though he was initially against the idea, Phoebe convinces her new husband to allow her to accompany him on his next voyage. Also joining the journey is 21 year old Matthew Mitchell, Nantucket's town cooper (barrel maker) and former suitor of Phoebe. Matthew gets a two-fold request to board the Fortuna, one from Barnabas to keep an eye on Phoebe as he does not trust Capt. Foulger -- and Barnabas can see that despite the history between them, Matthew still cares very deeply for Phoebe --- and one from the captain himself to serve as the ship's cooper. But as the reader soon discovers, nothing aboard this ship is as it might first appear. 

 

Expecting the adventure of a lifetime, the new Mrs. Foulger instead finds herself smacked with weeks of sweating out mal de mer (chronic sea sickness). She cannot hold down food, she struggles to be attentive to her new husband, most days she can barely stand for more than a few moments. Before long, the captain seems more annoyed than enamored with his young missus... not just distant, but almost surly. He grows outright neglectful of her, leaving her care primarily to Matthew and the cabin boy, Silo. Suffice it to say, she quickly regrets her earlier insistence on coming along on this voyage! The crew of the Fortuna meanwhile battles epic squalls, ship fires, and constant crew fights, blaming it all on the bad luck superstition of having a woman on board. 

 

Phoebe's Light is the first in what looks to be at least a trilogy from Suzanne Woods Fisher, who is primarily known for her nonfiction and fiction Amish-themed books. Between our main character's story and that of her great-grandmother Mary, the novel spans both the 17th and 18th centuries. Props to whomever came up with the idea to print Mary's journal entries in slightly faded ink... brings in a nice realistic touch for the reader, since the fadedness of the journal is something Phoebe mentions repeatedly struggling with as she makes her way through the pages. 

 

My stance on Phoebe weeble-wobbled throughout the story's progress. In the beginning she seemed sweet and good-hearted, but it can be frustrating reading a character so stubbornly set on getting her way that you just have to watch her set herself up for failure... maybe it's tough because we don't like to see ourselves quite so much, eh? But there were other sides to Phoebe's strong will that were quite admirable. Oooh, I got goosebumps and cheered when she stills the captain in his tracks with her quiet, edged "I asked you a question." Go, girl! 

 

Also might just be me on this one, but I got a giggle out of Fisher's approach to the topic of sex (or almost sex) in this Christian fiction work. Every time the old captain tried to corner Phoebe for her "marital duties", someone conveniently shows up with a "Captain, you're needed at the helm." There's even one point where Phoebe herself prays for a distraction, gets it moments later when yet again her husband is called away, and the next line reads, "She had never known the Lord to work with such haste." Oh man, loved it! 

 

Though not absolutely perfect in execution, Fisher crafts one highly immersive tale of historical fiction! I found myself craving just a bit more action and moments of tension between the various protagonists and antagonists, but even so was quite satisfied with the rich detail in character personality traits and living environments. Whether Phoebe was on land or at sea, every bit of her world was virtually tactile to me as the reader, a credit to Fisher's finely honed writing skills. Also a nice feature: if you are a reader new to historical fiction, Fisher includes a handy pages-long 18th century terminology glossary at the front of the book you can refer to for those dated terms. 

 

I close this book having really become attached to this family and I eagerly anticipate the next installment to see what happens with the next generation! 

 

FTC Disclaimer: Revell Books (Baker Publishing Group) kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.

Review
3 Stars
The Girl Who Would Speak For The Dead by Paul Elwork
The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead - Paul Elwork

Emily Stewart is the girl who claims to stand between the living and the dead. During the quiet summer of 1925, she and her brother, Michael, are thirteen-year-old twins-privileged, precocious, wandering aimlessly around their family's estate. One day, Emily discovers that she can secretly crack her ankle in such a way that a sound appears to burst through the stillness of midair. Emily and Michael gather the neighborhood children to fool them with these "spirit knockings."  Soon, however, this game of contacting the dead creeps into a world of adults still reeling from World War I. When the twins find themselves dabbling in the uncertain territory of human grief and family secrets, everything spins wildly out of control.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Loosely inspired by the true story of the Fox sisters (whose actions kickstarted the 19th century Spiritualism Movement), author Paul Elwork mixes things up a bit by telling a similar story but from a brother / sister perspective. At the novel's start, in the year 1925, Emily and Michael are thirteen year old twins living on the family's East Coast estate of Ravenwood. After losing their father in World War 1, the children are often left to find their own ways to keep themselves occupied throughout a day. 

 

"Your father," her mother said, "was always interested in the things beneath things."

 

Emily nodded at this. "Isn't everyone?"

 

"Not as much as you might think."

 

Michael is described as a bookish loner who "before his 10th birthday had discovered that he could not tolerate most people well," while sister Emily is creative, curious, and inventive. Emily becomes captivated by the family story of Great Aunt Regina, who died in the late 1800s (only 16 years old) when she had a fall near the estate's riverbank. She's now said to haunt Ravenwood. Around this time of Emily's budding interest in the paranormal, she also discovers a trick where she can make her ankle crack on command. This becomes the basis for Emily and Michael's "spirit knocking" gatherings, initially held just the neighborhood kids but quickly catches on with the local adults as well. 

 

Michael becomes the team's hype man, crafting ghost stories inspired by all his reading. When they get into doing readings for the towsfolk, the twins claim to use the ghost of Great Aunt Regina as their spirit guide. Once adults mourning loved ones lost to WW1 start seeking out the twins for solace, what starts as a game soon turns to something quite a bit more serious. 

 

Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who became quite a prominent follower of Spiritualism, gets a brief mention in this book. In regards to the paranormal theme, there is nothing particularly spooky or scary here, which is largely why my reading experience was ultimately somewhat disappointing. While there is a definite poetic flair to Elwork's writing style, the overall tone just had steady note of sadness throughout the whole plot. 

Review
4 Stars
Found Things by Marilyn Hilton
Found Things - Marilyn Hilton

One morning, River Rose Byrne wakes up talking like nobody else, and she doesn’t know why. Maybe it’s because her beloved older brother, Theron, has abruptly vanished. Maybe it’s because that bully Daniel Bunch won’t leave her alone. Or maybe it has everything to do with the eerily familiar house that her mind explores when she’s asleep, and the mysterious woman who lives there. River has to puzzle through these mysteries on her own until she makes a strange new friend named Meadow Lark. But when she brings Meadow Lark home and her mother reacts in a way that takes River by surprise, River is more lost than before. Now all that’s left for her to do is make wish after wish—and keep her eyes open for a miracle.

Amazon.com

 

 

For quite awhile now, River Rose Byrne has been wondering about and searching for her missing brother, Theron. In the meantime, she befriends mysterious, somewhat odd Meadow Lark Frankenfield, "her name was one of the only pretty things about her." Author Marilyn Hilton's description of Meadow Lark includes "a popped out eye" and "a strange way of walking".

 

"People make fun of my eye," she say, "but I can see better than some of them." 

 

As the story progresses, there are quiet character traits of River that the reader comes to see as a result (side effect?) of the trauma of Theron's disappearance, one being her taking up the habit of intentionally filling her speech with poor grammar. To help heal River's spirit, Meadow Lark teaches her the trick of writing down wishes and sending them down the river near the town library. Sidenote: I loved the imagery of a library set up next to a river!

 

One of the fun elements that keeps this story moving is the sense of mystery Hilton writes around the character of Meadow Lark, all the questions around her origin story. Is there some true magic to her? Why does River's mother respond so powerfully to her? 

 

One of River wishes is for the school bully to disappear. When said bully ends up in the hospital, River is surprised... maybe gives a glance in Meadow Lark's direction, but then reminds herself that she doesn't believe in things like magic / angels / miracles, so it's just a wild coincidence! Right? 

 

As River's emotions regarding her missing brother continue to escalate, overflowing to the point of affecting other aspects of her life, Meadow Lark is there to teach her the importance of maintaining hope & faith -- even just a grain of it -- in life. 

 

There was such a wonderful sense of childhood magic and whimsy infused into this book! There's a dreamlike quality that runs through the whole thing, but also quite a bit of depth when it comes to incorporated themes. Quite a feat for a debut novel! If you are a fanatic for beautiful language and all things lyrical, I highly encourage you to seek out Found Things and give it go! 

Review
3 Stars
The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth
The Space Merchants - Frederik Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth

In a vastly overpopulated near-future world, businesses have taken the place of governments and now hold all political power. States exist merely to ensure the survival of huge transnational corporations. Advertising has become hugely aggressive and boasts some of the world's most powerful executives. Through advertising, the public is constantly deluded into thinking that all the products on the market improve the quality of life. However, the most basic elements are incredibly scarce, including water and fuel. The planet Venus has just been visited and judged fit for human settlement, despite its inhospitable surface and climate; colonists would have to endure a harsh climate for many generations until the planet could be terraformed. Mitch Courtenay is a star-class copywriter in the Fowler Schocken advertising agency and has been assigned the ad campaign that would attract colonists to Venus, but a lot more is happening than he knows about. Mitch is soon thrown into a world of danger, mystery, and intrigue, where the people in his life are never quite what they seem, and his loyalties and core beliefs will be put to the test.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Business and consumerism have replaced government and politics. The population has exploded. Problematically, food sources have vastly diminished. Panicked scientists are pushing Earthlings to maybe start considering the idea of colonizing Venus. Mitch Courtenay works as a copywriter for an advertising firm, his latest project tasking him with making Venus colonization an appealing prospect to citizens via slick adverts. 

 

Once the idea becomes an actual project being executed by the government, space ships are designed by Walmart Kitchen Appliance Division through Defense Dept. contracts. Mitch is chosen as a leader for the mission. Before long, Mitch begins receiving death threats, but from whom? Searching for the answers, Mitch is thrown into an unexpected journey of mystery and danger, often finding himself left with only mounting questions rather than answers. 

 

Having originally been published in 1953, this sci-fi classic has had plenty of time to gather quite the following. A quick search and you'll find pages of glowing reviews. Seeing that, combined with a plot that sounded fantastic and apropo to today's times, I went in with mighty high expectations! 

 

While certainly enjoyable, not to mention eerie with the still-relatable social commentary, I closed this book feeling it had been a middling adventure for my mind, but one that was largely forgettable. The world building didn't strike me as all that well detailed, some plot details insufficiently explained, leaving it difficult for me to fully immerse myself in this dystopian world. Also surprised to see that in this " Revised 21st Century Edition" (as the cover proclaims) the term "midget" was left in the text. 

 

As for comedy or action, not much was to be found in the early portions of the book. Things pick up around Chapter 7, with a mistaken identity element thrown into the storyline. There are some twists and turns near the end but this was one of those ones where it all felt a bit rushed to give everything a tidy closing. 

Review
2 Stars
The Facts Speak For Themselves by Brock Cole
The Facts Speak for Themselves - Brock Cole

This is the story of how thirteen year old Linda came to be involved in the murder of one man and the suicide of another. The police and her social worker think they know the answer, but they've got it wrong. Here Linda tells her own story. She sees her world and what has happened to her with compelling clarity. Her voice is direct, cool, and ruthlessly honest. She'll persuade you that she is neither victim nor fool  -- that the facts speak for themselves. 

~ from inside dust jacket (hardcover edition)

 

 

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This story involves themes of sexual abuse, pedophilia and suicide. 

 

 

Thirteen year old Linda is brought in on suspicion involvement with the deaths of two men, (one a murder, one a suicide). The story is told from Linda's perspective -- via conversations with police detectives and social workers -- but her version of events and the tone it is presented in set her up as a possibly unreliable narrator. 

 

If you're a fan of the tv program The First 48, this story has a somewhat similar feel to that. In a nutshell, Linda witnesses a scuffle between Jack Green, a co-worker of Linda's mother, and Frank Perry. Just hours later, both are dead. At first, Linda gives the impression that she is merely an innocent witness to the events, but how does she explain arriving at the police station with blood all over her clothes and under her fingernails?

 

Linda's personality proves to be a blend of complexity, oddness and a certain degree of unlikeablity. Even though she throws out some weird thoughts here and there, it's hard not to feel for Linda. She grows up in a home where her mother has a rotating door of boyfriends and baby-daddies (Linda's father having died when she was a baby), the house full of kids her mother largely neglects. Linda takes up the care of her younger brothers but later struggles with depression after suffering sexual abuse at the hands of her mom's boyfriend of the moment. 

 

A small ray of hope gets infused into this bleak story when, by some strange stroke of luck, Linda's mother actually gets involved with a decent guy! A bit older than the mother's usual picks, but he proves to be a solid father-figure type in Linda's life, at least compared to what she's previously had to pick from! From this man, Linda gets lessons in money, specifically stocks & investments -- knowledge that will prove most useful in her future. But is her time with him as innocent as it first seems?

 

The setup of this novel, as far as the short chapters and conversation style make for a quick read. That, and the whole thing is under 200 pages. Brock Cole's writing style is engaging enough to keep one reading... I was just hoping for MORE. The plot description had potential but something about it as a whole fell a bit flat for me. There also wasn't enough meat to the writing to create much of a take-away factor for me in the end, as far as a moral message, thought-provoking social commentary, etc. NOTE: if you are a sensitive reader, this story deals with dark themes and some of the language does get rather sexually graphic. Also maybe worth noting for some readers: Cole chose not to use quotations marks. That's right, quotation marks: NONE. Something to be aware of if that is a personal peeve for you as a reader. 

Review
4.5 Stars
Snow-Storm In August by Jefferson Morley
Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 - Jefferson Morley

On the night of August 4th, Arthur Bowen, an eighteen-year-old slave, stumbled into the bedroom where his owner, Anna Thornton, slept. He had an ax in the crook of his arm. An alarm was raised, and he ran away. Word of the incident spread rapidly, and within days, Washington's first race riot exploded, as whites fearing a slave rebellion attacked the property of the free blacks. Residents dubbed the event the “Snow-Storm," in reference to the central role of Beverly Snow, a flamboyant former slave turned successful restaurateur, who became the target of the mob's rage. In the wake of the riot came two sensational criminal trials that gripped the city. Prosecuting both cases was none other than Francis Scott Key, a politically ambitious attorney famous for writing the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” who few now remember served as the city's district attorney for eight years. Key defended slavery until the twilight's last gleaming, and pandered to racial fears by seeking capital punishment for Arthur Bowen. But in a surprise twist his prosecution was thwarted by Arthur's ostensible victim, Anna Thornton, a respected socialite who sought the help of President Andrew Jackson. Ranging beyond the familiar confines of the White House and the Capitol, Snow-Storm in August delivers readers into an unknown chapter of American history with a textured and absorbing account of the racial secrets and contradictions that coursed beneath the freewheeling capital of a rising world power.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

The synopsis gives you the gist of the "snow-storm" portion of this book, the largely forgotten 1835 race riot in Washington D.C., primarily between white lawmakers / defenders and former slaves, a key (if unintended) player being the bi-racial (male) chef & restaurateur Beverly Snow. Snow not only suffers attacks on his business but also has his home vandalized and the safety of his family threatened. 

 

That story alone would be powerful enough but Morley's work here -- an expansion on his 2005 Washington Post article -- offers readers so much more. We also get an education in the early development stages of our nation's capital, then known simply as Washington City. Morley also gets into the topic of colonization and which of D.C.'s bigwigs were on what side. You might be surprised to learn how it pans out! 

 

Some of my takeaways from this book:

 

RE: DEVELOPMENT OF WASHINGTON D.C.:

 

* Where to set up shop for the nation's capital? Hmmm. Well, the U.S. had racked up a mountain of debt after the War of Independence. Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton wanted to set up the capital in Pennsylvania but Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson countered, saying he had a debt plan but Southern members of Congress would never go for it unless Congress' Northerners agreed to set up the capital in a more southern region. Pennsylvania was also largely anti-slavery, had a strong Quaker (recognized abolitionists) population. Jefferson recommended putting the capital along Virginia-Maryland territory, where there were good banking options and slavery was still legal. Hamilton appeared to have no objection. 

 

* The design for D.C. was modeled after Paris -- the canals, boulevards, stately buildings -- so much so that George Washington even hired French engineer Pierre L'Enfant to oversee the project. Prior to this Parisian design, author Charles Dickens had had a visit to the city and likened it to a wild, western frontier town. Morley adds, " 'The whole affair,' said another visitor, ' looked as if some giant had scattered a box of his child's toys at random on the ground.'

 

* D.C.'s Capitol Bldg was designed by William Thornton, a slaveholder who pushed for colonization. In one story in this book, Thornton came to the aid of the battered wife of a French diplomat, proclaiming, "I know the laws of humanity and I mean to uphold them." Thornton was also rumored to be the father of Arthur Bowen, son of Maria, house servant to Anna Thornton (William's wife).

 

Personally, I was left with mixed feelings on Thornton. Morley describes him as having "a thirst for liberty but a weak will", creative dreamer type, high ideals, distracted easily but highly personable... but he also seemed to lack much of a backbone, often going with majority rule.

 

 

 

COLONIZATION

 

* The Commonwealth of Virginia had an 1806 law on the books that basically said that freed slaves must leave the state within a year or they could be apprehended and sold back into slavery, only being allowed to stay within the Commonwealth area past that first year IF they could get a signed endorsement from a white citizen, petitioning the state legislature to allow the freed person in question to stay. 

 

* By the 1830s, colonization had become quite the divisive topic around Washington. Colonization was the suggested idea that freed slaves could be sent back to Africa to set up a new colony of freed people. There were supporters for this idea in both white and black communities. White racists saw it as a way to get rid of those they deemed second-class citizens, while some black communities saw it as an ideal opportunity to distance themselves from said racists and slaveholders who seemed determined to make free life miserable for them. But colonization was sort of an all or nothing proposition... the intent was that if some went, everyone had to go... and some, as in the case with Beverly Snow, had a perfectly good life in DC that they didn't want to give up. There was quite a large group of supporters for the idea though, including some of Snow's white friends! 

 

RE: BEVERLY SNOW

 

* By the 1830s, Washington D.C. had developed a solid horse racing community. Even President Andrew Jackson was said to make a big show of placing bets (though it seems his luck wasn't so good lol). Beverly Snow first developed clientele in the city as a street vendor outside racing arenas. After developing some success on that front, he went on to open an oyster house, becoming the first restaurateur to offer fine dining experiences in D.C. Pity that a cholera outbreak in 1832 ended up wiping out nearly 500 citizens, putting a bit of a dent in his business! But he hangs in there, and once the first restaurant does well, he moves on to open a second, even more upscale establishment. 

 

* Snow was pretty innovative for his time when it came to the restaurant business! He became well known for his turtle soup, which he would offer only periodically, advertising that the soup was "restorative"... see? promo-ing health benefits, whether they're proven or not! By the way, consider yourself warned here, vegans/ vegetarians: Morley includes a play-by-play of how this turtle soup was prepared. 

 

AND THEN THERE'S THE WHOLE FRANCIS SCOTT KEY BIT

 

* Famously penned the poem that would later turn into the U.S. national anthem... many years after it was set to the music of a drinking song we stole from our British cousins ;-) The popularity of that poem turned out to be a much needed reputation restorer for Key after an embarrassing display of turn-tail-and-run during the War of 1812. Key had the poem published in papers, later got the idea to set it to music. Also, weirdly, barely mentioned any of this to his wife but thoroughly discussed with his brother-in-law, Roger Taney. Taney was a racist lawyer famous for the Dred Scott case as well as his backing of a South Carolina law allowing black seamen to be arrested once they stepped off their in-port ships.

 

* Supporter of colonization and, it seems, not quite so anti-slavery as you might have been taught in school. Key had a public persona for being an ally for black citizens, periodically defending them in court (at least at the beginning of his legal career), but his actions in his off-time suggested opposite leanings. 

 

* Key, who served as D.C. district attorney for 8 years, was called in as prosecuting attorney for both the Snow case and that of Arthur Bowen, (see Thornton sect. above). Bowen was said to have been found in the bedroom of Anna Thornton one night, holding an ax over her head as she slept. Arthur's mother was also in the room (asleep) at the time, once awakened was able to usher Arthur out of the room, tried to get him out of the house but police had already been summoned. Key sought capital punishment for Bowen. 

        > Anna Thornton tried to fight for Arthur's freedom. For his protection, she tried to get him resold before his trial date but everyone she appealed to declined to help her. Anna went directly to Key, even requested a meeting with President Jackson himself, after writing him an 18 page letter (which she got in a carriage, rode to WH and hand delivered herself!) pleading Arthur's case, this letter including a petition sheet full of signatures from others also begging for the man's freedom. Bombarded with all this, Jackson eventually instructed Key to go along with the request. 

       >Two days after Arthur's arrest, abolitionist Reuben Crandall was arrested for being suspected of distributing anti-slavery periodicals / pamphlets (Good laugh over the bit that discusses Key's own words being turned on him during this trial!). A white mob developed shortly after and since they couldn't get to Crandall, they went after Beverly Snow (after a rumor got around that Snow was liberally tossing around "coarse or derogatory remarks" regarding white women of Washington. Snow's professional successes combined with his perceived cockiness had already made him the enemy of many white men in town. 

       > Snow escaped harm to himself but the mob did trash his home & establishment, though they were instructed not to break any of the furniture, as Snow had it on loan from a white man.  

 

 

Though it does take a bit of time (approx. 120 pages) to get into the bulk of the race riot topic, the "snow-storm" as it's termed, the history here is fascinating. BTW, also mentioned in this book: the bungled / thwarted assassination attempt on Andrew Jackson.

 

It doesn't leave you with the most glowing image of some of our country's most notable names in history, but it is history that is vitally important to be aware of just the same. Morley also includes an inset of pages featuring photographs, paintings, and news articles of the period showcasing some of the key players in this unsavory bit of history. 

 

 

Review
2 Stars
Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai'i (memoir) by Susanna Moore
Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai'i - Susanna Moore

Susanna Moore is best known for her critically acclaimed novels—complex and compelling works like In the Cut and My Old Sweetheart. Now, Moore’s Light Years is a shimmering look at the early life of this cherished novelist. Taking the form of a Commonplace Book, it mixes reminiscences with passages from famous works of literature that were formative in her younger years. Born in Hawai’i at a time when the islands were separated from the U.S. mainland by five days’ ship travel, Moore was raised in a secluded paradise of water, light, and color. As a child she spent endless days holed up with a bundle of books while the sound of the ocean and the calls of her brothers and sister drifted toward her through the palm grove. All around her, Moore saw flashes of the ocean described in those pages: a force of kaleidoscopic beauty and romantic possibility, but with an undercurrent of unfathomable darkness. In Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai’i, she weaves reminiscences of her childhood with some of her favorite pieces of literature—excerpts from Robinson Crusoe, Moby-Dick, Treasure Island, Kon-Tiki, To the Lighthouse, and many others.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Susanna Moore grew up in the 1950s and 60s on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Many locals considered her and her family "haole", a white & privileged family living in a fine home staffed with servants. Moore writes of attending cotillion classes at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Her mother struggled with mental illness and sadly passed away when Moore was only 12 years old.

 

That's about the gist of what I learned from this super short (less than 200 pages) "memoir" of hers. I've heard of Susanna Moore as a writer but have not picked up any of her novels yet. I stumbled upon this at a discount sale one day and was intrigued mainly because my grandmother lived in Hawaii for a time (also where she met my grandfather) and her stories of island life always captured my attention as a child (have yet to see it for myself though). I was hoping for something similar from this book.

 

So that's where we run into the confusion with the excerpts. Moore writes, "I began to keep a journal about the sea by copying passages from the books I was reading..." but that's about the only explanation the reader gets for what follows: the large majority of this book just being long excerpts of OTHER people's work. I didn't have an issue with that by itself so much, but more with the fact that the excerpts have little to no preface. Other than many of them having the "sea" theme, there's not much explained as to WHAT about these fragments of books was so compelling to her. What about these passages specifically spoke to her? I would have been interested in those stories but no such luck. I ended up flipping past these pages as much of it was stuff I've already read over the course of my life.

 

That these excerpts make up the bulk of the book is what annoyed me so, rather than Moore sharing more of her OWN stories. If I pick up this book, I don't want an anthology of others, I want to hear about HER experiences, as the title promises. There is a little bit of that here, just not enough. Though there is a portion that I found interesting where she discusses the issue of racism running throughout the islands that has spanned for generations.

 

"It was a hierarchical, snobbish, and quietly racist society... there was a fairly unconscious racism all around us..." but then it turns weird because in some ways her words starts to sound as if she's trying to make it seem okay because you know, it's just how it was...

 

Yeah, in short... not all that impressed with this. Felt a bit like a lazy, thrown-together excuse for a book.

Review
3 Stars
The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion

Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill with what seemed at first flu, then pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later–the night before New Year's Eve–the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John Gregory Dunne suffered a massive and fatal coronary. In a second, this close, symbiotic partnership of forty years was over. Four weeks later, their daughter pulled through. Two months after that, arriving at LAX, she collapsed and underwent six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center to relieve a massive hematoma. This powerful book is Didion's attempt to make sense of the "weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness . . . about marriage and children and memory . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself."

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

In the year 2003, Joan Didion and husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, receive word that their daughter, Quintana, has been rushed to the ICU (on Christmas Day, no less). Quitana had been battling a severe case of pneumonia when her condition had suddenly turned septic. Just a few days later, December 30th, Dunne and Didion are settling into their dinner meal when Dunne suffers a massive, fatal coronary right at the dinner table. 

 

By October 2004, Joan Didion decides to start journaling some of her thoughts since experiencing all this pain and loss, this journal being the seed that would eventually become this book, The Year Of Magical Thinking. Here, Didion thinks on moments over the course of her forty year marriage to Dunne. Moments where she now, in retrospect, believes there were warning signs of the grief that was to come. As far back as 1987, she recalls, Dunne had expressed fears of premature death. By 2003, what would end up being the year of his death, Dunne had developed a long history of heart trouble, even having a pacemaker installed. Numerous times that year he had said he felt sure he was dying, but Didion admits she dismissed these moments as him just having momentary bouts of depression. 

 

Like most people trying to cope with the sudden loss of a loved one, Didion struggles to navigate through feelings of guilt, that sense that you could have done something more to save them. She even toys with the idea that she can still reverse the outcome of the events. But hey, don't judge. It's wild what grief can do to an otherwise seemingly sane mind. 

 

Didion also shares her feelings on being a mother having to witness her child suffering in illness and feeling helpless to fix it. While Didion's passages regarding her husband read strangely distanced in tone to me, it was these moments where she talks on Quintana that touched me much more. How awful that must have been for her to witness her daughter pull through brutal pneumonia and septic shock only to improve a bit before suffering a hematoma, pretty much putting the poor girl's health struggle back at square one! 

 

This book didn't land quite as perfectly for me as it did for a lot of other readers. That could be, in part at least, to the fact that I often don't do well with books -- either fiction or non -- that are written in a stream of consciousness style. As I mentioned earlier with some of the passages that speak on Didion's husband, the writing, at times, had a distanced feel to me. I acknowledge that grief can often bring on a certain sense of numbness and detachment from the world, but from time to time, this just read a little too arm's length to me, alternately reminding me of either a police report snapshot of events or perhaps a college paper being written on the theme of melancholy. 

 

But that's not to say I got nothing from this book. There were definitely passages that resonated with me, maybe moreso in that I read this the same year I lost my mother. That said, I am a little confused as to where the "magical thinking" comes in? Well written, no doubt, but it struck me as just a general sort of grief memoir rather than the life-changing work so many have touted it to be. 

 

 

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EXTRAS:

 

* Author Joan Didion has worked as a writer for both VOGUE and LIFE magazines

 

* There are a few spoilers for other books to be aware of in this book: namely her husband's novels DUTCH SHEA, JR. and NOTHING LOST, but also the play ALCESTIS and the film ROBIN & MARIAN starring Audrey Hepburn and Sean Connery.

Review
2 Stars
Where The Truth Lies by Jessica Warman
Where the Truth Lies - Jessica Warman

On the surface, Emily Meckler leads the perfect life. She has three best friends, two loving parents, and the ideal setup at the Connecticut prep school where her father is the headmaster. Then the enigmatic Del Sugar enters her life, and Emily is immediately swept away-but her passionate relationship with Del is just the first of many things that aren't quite what they seem in Emily's life. As the lies she's been told start to unravel, Emily must set out to discover the truth, a journey that will lead her to question everything she thought she knew.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

To the casual observer, Emily Meckler looks like she has pretty much everything going for her: good friends, loving parents, private school education.... but at night, Emily is having horrible nightmares involving out of control fires and walls of water. She can't figure out what these night terrors are stemming from and her parents are at a loss for a solution, other than sending her to the school therapist. Then a shift happens in Emily's life, brought about by the arrival of new student Del Sugar (yes, cringe now -- I know I did -- that's the name the author decided to plaster onto our main male love interest). Emily is warned by multiple people (including her father / academy headmaster) that Del is bad-boy-bad-news but of course the two find a way to get to know each other and Del convinces Emily he truly understands her inner turmoil (oh, and that they're totally meant to be).  No surprise, in no time flat Del has Emily's once stable life in quite the pickle. Strangely though, her involvement with him does set her on the path to finding the root cause of her nightmares. The answers she finds disrupt all she thought she knew to be true and solid, in terms of her very existence. 

 

My initial interest in this book mainly came from the main character struggling with sleep issues. As I have a sleep disorder myself, I was intrigued. But (my luck!) it seems that this plot element was really only used as a gimmick to hook readers in, as virtually no time or description is put into the nightmares themselves, other than a generic "ooh fire, oohhh so much water"... AAAND she's awake... and we're left to just accept that her very soul is shaken. Emily also seems to have very little issue with side effects of sleep deprivation. Sure she's a little sleepy here and there but that seems to be the extent of it. 

 

No surprise, the primary focus is put on Emily's interest in Del... who is very possessive and manipulative with her but in fiction that makes him SOOO hot, right?! For a "bad boy" character, Del struck me as being a lot of talk more than anything. You get 100 pages into this book that's barely over 300 and very little has actually gone down. He is, however, a stereotypical jerk that I'd venture to say a fair majority of women have had experience with at least once in their life. 

 

Scene after scene of Del straight up lying to Emily and trying to control all these aspects of her life, and Emily acknowledges here and there that she sort of recognizes it, but she adores him anyway... even though she notes he pretty consistently smells of sweat, beer, cigarettes and kerosene. Her words, verbatim: "The smell on him almost makes me want to gag." NOICE. LOL. The scene with the contacts -- Emily actually allowing Del to stick his fingers in her eyes and shift around her contacts just to say "I see parts of you you can't see..." NOOOO SIR. True love means you keep your dang fingers outta my eye sockets unless I have an eyeball literally dangling from my face (god forbid... just sayin'). 

 

To balance bad boy Del, readers are given over-the-top sweet, stand-up borderline boring guy Ethan to also vie for Emily's romantic attention. I'll admit, at the start of the story I was thinking with Ethan "Okay, this seems like a good guy for our girl" but his lack of virtually any edge had me changing my mind. Also, Emily's bland personality grated on me too much for me to care who got her in the end. 

 

It seemed like SO much focus / detail was put on the most mundane aspects of the story. This was one of those ones where I was just waaaiiting for the plot to kick in already. In the end, literally NOTHING in this book was a surprise. No redeeming plot twists! 

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