Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday for August 16th!!

Upon first reading this week's topic, I didn't think I could come up with a list of ten books I have read all set within the same locale, but then it occurred to me...
Of course I could--AFRICA!
I love to read about Africa and novels set in Africa...
always will, I guess!
Top Ten Books Set in Africa
This weekly meme is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

Perhaps I was able to make this connection because I just 
read West With the NightBeryl Markham's autobiography. 
I am in the midst of composing the review to post, and there is 
so much that I want to quote directly from the text!
I agree with Hemingway:
Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West with the Night? 
...She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed 
of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, 
picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together
and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge
very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings 
around all of us who consider ourselves to be writers ... it really is a bloody wonderful book."
It was, in fact, this praise that brought the book back into the limelight and 
reissued this 1946 release in 1983 when Markham was 80 years old.

I read Markham's autobiography as a direct result 
of having read Paula McLain's 
Circling the Sun, a historical fiction 
novel depicting Markham's 
childhood and early adulthood, 
including, of course, all her 
"first female" achievements!
This woman was a go-getter, to say the least!
I venture to say there was nothing much she wouldn't try...
and after all, if you never try, you never achieve.

I am glad to have read Nadine Gordimer's My Son's Story
I felt it was rather depressing, though authentic and 
I definitely appreciated Gordimer's writing skill. 
I guess I'd not read much of anything before that dealt
with the children of activist parents and their sense of
abandonment and neglect. I felt so badly for both Will and Baby.
Then to realize his mother was also leading a duplicitous life!
In fact I immediately started researching and have decided I 
really want to read her novel The Conservationist.

One of the first books I ever read that was set in Africa was 
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith! 
I absolutely love this series and feel as if I am Africa, as I read each installation. Book #17, Precious and Grace, is due to be released October 11, 2016. I need to catch up before that time and then post a review on this blog, though I have mentioned McCall Smith and this series, as well as others of his (e.g. Corduroy Mansions and Isabel Dalhousie), 
I have yet to post a review here. 

Heart-wrenching, yet I feel this is 
a very necessary story 
that should make each of us think about 
every single gallon of gas we consume...
Little Bee by Chris Cleave. 
From my Goodreads review: 
This story depicts the ultimate in loving sacrifice. 
And not just once... 
I cannot purchase gas without thinking of this one...
and regretting that I cannot do more.

by Ishmael Beah 
These children! 
Such abuse and terror they suffer, 
and through no fault of their own 
other than being alive! 
All these people displaced from 
their homes and villages, 
living in the wild and trying 
to obtain food just to survive, 
never knowing when they may be attacked yet again! 

King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild 
My Goodreads review posted January 25, 2013:

Read this about 2 years ago for book club and 
I can't remember when I have absolutely loathed and 
despised a historical figure as much as I 
now do King Leopold II. 
I realize it was a very different age with attitudes and 
beliefs that were very different, at least among the 
majority of people, but I can't stand it. 
The exploitation of others for purely monetary gain, 
power, and prestige sickens me. 
I equate this with the present-day corporations that 
exploit workers outside the U.S. because they can 
get by with paying a small pittance for labor and 
thereby greatly increase their 'profit margins.' 
Another huge advantage for companies 
in this global production enslavement--no need 
to provide safe work environments, decent living wages, 
and FORGET any benefits or protections on the job! 
Why we allow this, I will never understand, except that I guess 
the white guys who make up the 1% really DO control the world! 
It is beyond reprehensible, in my opinion! Anyway, I apologize for my rant! 
This book gives an excellent history of the invasion of Africa and literal and figurative 
enslavement of the people living there and is well worth the read 
to gain this knowledge, though it literally makes me nauseous to even think of 
this historical genocide. The stats will blow you away...

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver 
The Cross-Cultural Book Club I founded at Borders read this at the same time as 
King Leopold's Ghost to get a more comprehensive picture of the invasion of Africa 
by greedy self-serving white men. 
My Goodreads review:
This was one remarkably illuminating fictional work!
 This work depicts how well-meaning yet ignorant self-centered 
narrow-minded "conservative" people 
(typical "white folk," in my opinion) can destroy so much 
while intending to "convert" others (especially "savages") 
to their belief system. This "preacher"/white "American" 
was extremely disrespectful of the people whose country and 
village he had "invaded" and disrupted! Not only that, 
but he drags his family out to a very primitive 
(in comparison to the U.S.) society with absolutely 
no preparation or research to determine what they might need most to survive, let alone thrive. This was an extremely powerful and intense read; enlightening, to say the least! Lesson: meaning well is not enough! Be smart! Research! The fact that you have white skin does not make you smarter than anyone else, 
and especially doesn't mean you know what is best for anyone else!
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
My Goodreads review:
For me, this book was quite reminiscent of the 
writing style of African authors I have read, 
so no surprise to learn the author was 
born and raised in Ethiopia. 
This book was quite intense and dramatic, 
yet in an understated way at times. 
The characters were authentically true to 
themselves throughout the book which created 
a very stable foundation for the story. 
My only hesitation with this lengthy saga was 
the Sister's mysterious/unknown impregnation. 
I found the medical details fascinating, as well as the characters, and I thrive on characterization!

What is your favorite setting for a book?

Happy reading!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Desperate Fortune: Past and Past!

(Title links to synopsis.)
This book was a Borders Book Club read and 
will also count for the following challenges:
20 Books of Summer and Historical Fiction.
The only other book written by Kearsley that I have 
read is The Firebird which I found to be excellent, 
and it makes me want to read The Winter Sea
her first book in the Slains series!
Honestly, I've added nearly every single one of her releases to by TBR listing!
(I actually own a couple more of hers, but have yet to read them.)

I have a special place in my heart for books that manage to alternate
between two different settings/times/storylines, successfully 
interweaving them seamlessly in the end. 
This book certainly does that...and so much more!
Borders Book Club members really enjoyed it,
with the exception of one who still finds 
it difficult to follow alternating storylines. 
But I'm sure she'll get the hang of it over time. :)

Sara copes with Asperger's--her senses are, well..."very sensitive" and she can easily become "jangled and jarred," though her cousin, Jacqi is ever faithful and watchful, helping her to successfully negotiate society whenever possible. Sara is, and always has been, a 'numbers person.' Though numbers may serve a different purpose for her than for many others, as they provide a calming influence when her nerves are riled, helping her prevent major meltdowns when provoked. Jacqi and Sara are at a family wedding when Jacqi hands a piece of paper to her with the following numbers and text written on it: (8)
As it turns out, this is a cipher from a handwritten diary that a famous historian is determined to have decoded, as he is convinced it will provide him with needed material for a book he is writing about the Jacobite exiles who existed some 300 years in the past. Since Sara is currently out of work, she agrees to meet the author to see if the job of transcribing this diary is something she would want to do, and he would want her to do for him. There is one minor glitch--the job itself would have to be completed in Paris, France--they're currently located in England. Sara translates this message within 17 minutes:
Letter intercepted. France unsafe. (10)
This message alone is enough to pique Sara's interest in the diary and what information it may contain. It appears Sara would be very well-qualified to complete this type of code-breaking work, given her interest in numbers, her skills, and her perfectionist tendencies.

Mary Dundas had authored this diary and when we meet her in mid-January of 1732:
It seemed on that morning...that the new year intended to go on exactly the same as the last, bringing all the excitement, surprise, and adventure she'd come to expect in her twenty-one years: namely, none. (26)
This made me chuckle and smile. In discussing citizenship, Mary declares herself "nationless" as her mother was French, but her father was "an exile at the French court of a foreign king who had himself no country and no crown." This was King James VIII of England who had been denied the throne, first settling in France and eventually Rome, under the protection of the Pope. Though she remembers little of her life during those first six years with her parents, she clearly remembers the day her father left, 
"Now, Mary," he had told her, "be a good lass for your uncle and your aunt, and mind your manners you've been taught, and use the sense that you've been given, and I promise you, 
you'll have a better life here than I ever could have given you."
At least that's what she thought he'd said. The years, perhaps, had rearranged his words and phrased them into a more sentimental speech within her memory, 
the same memory that insisted she'd replied to him, "I want to stay with you." 
And that his thumb had brushed a tear from her hot cheek, and he had said, 
"We do not always get the things we want." 
She did remember, clearly, that she'd cried for him and called him back, 
and that he had not turned. (32)
This passage made me tear up. How awful for a 6-year-old child, and she had siblings from whom she had been separated, too! Though suddenly, her younger brother (by 4 years), Gaspard, reappears, wanting to bring her to his home. I personally thought this felt a bit too sudden and spontaneous...but you hope you can trust your own brother, right?!? Though Mary was also a bit hesitant, asking her aunt if she was to have a choice, and the woman replied to her, "My dear, you always have a choice." Those prove to be prophetic words over time...

Sara is a very hard worker, 'driven' is the word I believe might best describe her work ethic. Mary is similarly a very hard worker, though their 'work' is of very different substance for each of them. Mary's is to serve as a member of a company of spies while Sara's is to unravel the various codings used to record Mary's experiences. While Mary's world expands to include situations she could never have imagined so does Sara's... Both women must be brave in their own way as they face challenges, Mary as an actor and Sara as a code/cipher breaker, but also as they each learn to trust and eventually love another. The one similarity between the two women in this respect was not to assume, but rather to allow themselves to get to know each person as an individual, regardless of their initial impression.

Kearsley better explains some aspects of Asperger's through Sara:
I'd always been puzzled when books about people with Asperger's claimed that 
we didn't have empathy...My problem wasn't that I didn't understand their feelings, 
only that I didn't have a clue how to respond to them. 
I never knew the proper thing to do or say. I wasn't good at comforting.  (207)
Sara has a huge lesson in 'synchronicity,' as I term it. She allows herself to 'comfort' Noah and in turn learns several different things, not the least of which is a key to breaking the newest cipher she has encountered in the diary...allowing her to continue working and translating. Having felt distinctly uncomfortable in the presence of children in the past, this is a breakthrough for her. This mirrors Mary's acceptance of MacPherson and the sense of 'protection' she begins to feel when in his presence, something to which I could personally relate. When I first met my husband...let's call him "Mr. G," and we started spending time together, I experienced that same feeling of being 'protected' while with him. I later confessed that to him and learned there were underlying reasons that probably contributed to my feeling that way in his presence, but it also informed me of a much deeper, more 'spiritual,' if you will, connection between the two of us. So I hoped this connection would prove to be just as happy for Mary in the end, as it has for me! 

I had to laugh as in one of the confrontations between Mary and MacPherson as they are about midway in their travels, Mary states that Frisque, her cocker spaniel, needs "to do his necessary business," so therefore she must leave the room. 
Whether MacPherson believed her or not he gave no indication, 
but answered her with a brief nod, that although not completely polite, was not rude. 
As with most of his gestures, as Mary had found, it fell stubbornly somewhere between. (316)
Ah, yes, that stoicism one might expect of a 'protector' of clandestine mission teams! And as they all learn, MacPherson is one smart man in many ways, particularly with regard to outwitting the 'other side,' as it were. And even if his plans go awry, he is still capable of saving them all. Mary begins to see a small chink appear periodically in MacPherson's armor, as in the discussion with Thomson's associate regarding slaves, when she states, "Slavery is a kind of death." He waxes on about how "well treated" are some of the slaves, etc., denouncing her "sentiment" as "wrong," when MacPherson intercedes, "She has a right to think as she decides." Mary sees for an instant "a pain so deep and dark" as she had never seen before in his he defended her right to voice her opinion. At one point, Mary asks "Hugh" (MacPherson's 'Christian name') if he would have killed her if she had tried to mail the letter she'd written to end her participation in this mission, and he replies, "The letter's burnt, and I've not killed ye. Let the past be past." Hah! At least he's willing to forgive, it seems. And then Luc is, Sara discovers, all too familiar with Asperger's and the meltdowns it can cause, since his own brother has dealt with it his whole life. Luc knows exactly how to comfort ('protect'?) those who must cope with the symptoms. 

Sara serves as a matchmaker of sorts, insisting that Jacqi bring the author to Chatou where she is staying. She hopes to reunite Claudine and Alistair, as she now realizes Claudine truly loves the man. She also realizes her own love as Mary's final entry mirrors her own thoughts and feelings:
In truth there is but one man in the whole of Rome whose honor I am certain of, 
whose friendship I have now come to rely upon, and if it were my choice to make, 
I would lay all my heart before him and refuse to leave his side. 
My father said we do not always get the things we want, and he was right; 
for though my aunt once reassured me I would always have a choice, 
if there is one before me now I do confess I cannot see it, so instead I must-- (449) 
And it is at this point that Sara realizes she does have a choice, and she follows through on her own decision. 

Upon learning of Hugh MacPherson's life experiences, Mary can only comment, as she watches him approach...
"...surely every broken thing can be rebuilt." (481)
As she states to Hugh, when he questions her regarding her determination "to go home,"
Mary gave a little shrug and looked deliberately away.
"Home, as you once told me, is not always where you left it." (487)
Ah, so true. Home is where you make it for yourself. Just as friends are "family you choose," one of my favorite sayings! And so, life continues, and couples try to make a go of living it together. 

In Kearsley's notes regarding the characters, she reminds me of Ariel Lawhon's thoughts about Ritzi and her treatment of this character as a villain or not, in 
The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress and the relief she felt when contacted by the real-life child of this historical character, as expressed in this follow-up posting to my review. I can appreciate the predicament for authors as they construct a fictional account of historical events. As Kearsley states,
It's one of my personal quirks that I can't make a person a villain unless I'm convinced, 
from the records available, that's what he was. 
However long dead these people might be, they were--and remain--people first, 
and as such they deserve to be written about with respect. (506)
I would think this a fair way to handle it. And we all know that people can be very complex, although they may appear to be villainous, the reality is that they most likely have a much gentler side, at the very least on occasion. 

Just as Hugh requests Mary to create a "different" ending, we learn that is exactly what Kearsley did for Marie Anne Thérèse Dundas, baptized on July 25, 1710, and died September 4, 1710. 
She wasn't given a chance at life. So I gave her one.
Writers can't truly change history, but we can decide...where a story should end.
Not being fond of the ending of Mary's tale, I wrote a different one.
I wrote a better one. (513)

As I reviewed portions of this book where I had left markers, 
I had to stop myself from continuing to reread it!
That, is the mark of a book I truly love reading.
I was shocked to realize how long this book was, 
because I was so totally enthralled while reading it 
that I didn't remember it being very long.

I highly recommend this one--very enjoyable with complex 
yet well-defined characters and many plot twists!

Has any book lately fulfilled your favorite characteristics?

Happy reading

Saturday, August 13, 2016

A bit darker than my usual read...but AMAZING!

Title is always linked to a synopsis of the book.
Book trailer can be seen here.

Per my usual, I selected this book without knowing much of anything about it!
(I love to surprise myself, after reading just a brief blurb!)
This book was amazing, and since it was published by Disney Hyperion, 
and the above-linked book trailer is equally amazing, 
I'm bettin' this is in movie production soon. 
And here is an article from the Citizen-Times which I believe to be a newspaper 
based in Asheville, North Carolina. 
This gives some brief history of Mr. Beatty and how this project evolved. 
Upon reading this article, Beatty is one of those people for whom I hope 
the greatest of success abounds! What a wonderfully poignant story!
But...back to this awesome book!
You might recall this book was a Goodreads Choice Award nominee for both 
Debut Goodreads Author and Best Middle Grade and Children's Book in 2015!
I added it to my TBR listing just as soon as I saw it.
Then while in the children's section of the library one day, 
I saw it on display...and just grabbed it! 
And I am so glad I did!
(If you don't know me very well you might ask what I, a 60-year-old woman. was doing 
in the "Children's Section" of the library. Although I no longer have children in my house, 
I do have 11 grandchildren, and they are my current 'excuse' for still reading and 
immensely enjoying 'children's literature! Here are some I have reviewed on this blog.)
This counted for the following challenges: 20 Books of Summer (2016)

It is immediately apparent that Serafina is no typical young girl! She lives with her father, hidden in the basement of the Biltmore Estate. How, you might ask, is that accomplished? Mmm...very carefully? Yes, that would be the answer. However inexplicable or impossible this may initially appear, it is at once made believable by the historical knowledge that Serafina's "Pa" helped to construct the estate and indulged himself with a free, though perhaps less than desirable to most people, place to live, hidden away behind the boiler in the protection of the workshop. Since her father was still employed by George and Edith Vanderbilt to maintain the generator and other aspects of the mansion, this was possible. 

As a person who shares her house with 4 kitties, I was immediately struck by the similarities between feline and child:
She had spent most of the day napping in her favorite out-of-the-way places (1)
Her first thought as she looked around her and listened out into the reaching darkness 
was that it felt like a good night for hunting. (2)
Careful not to wake [her father], she slinked off her mattress, padded across 
the workshop's gritty stone floor, and snuck out into the winding passageway.
She loved to prowl through the endless corridors and shadowed storage rooms. 
She knew the touch and feel, the glint and gloom, of every nook and cranny. 
This was her domain at night, and hers alone.
She hear a faint slithering just ahead. The night was beginning quickly.
She stopped. She listened.
Two doors down, the scrabbling of tiny feet on bare floor. (3)
When she was ten years old, she finally asked, "Do I have a job like everyone else, Pa?" He replied of course, "an extremely important position,...I reckon you're Biltmore Estate's're the Chief Rat Catcher." Serafina had left dead rats she had captured during the night beside her father's cot when younger. This reminded me so much of the first (and only, thankfully!) time my 18-year-old Smokie had done this. 

She was about four months old when she left a dead mouse on top of my pillow one night! I understood this as an offering to demonstrate her prowess, but... Needless to say, I was just grateful to have looked down and noticed it before I unsuspectingly jumped into bed. I realized the importance of this 'ritual,' so I very gently picked Smokie up, holding her in one arm, while with my other hand, I grabbed a Kleenex, picked up the mouse by its tail, and explained to Smokie as we walked down the stairs and out of the house, that although I could appreciate her skill and willingness to 'hunt,' this was not an appropriate place to leave such 'offerings.' I was living in the country, with no more than 0-2 houses per square mile, so I had to always keep traps set, 'cause there were mice who inevitably made it inside every once in awhile. Though she did manage to hunt others and 'play' with them until they died, she never brought them to my bed ever again, leaving them where they lay. (I knew she understood!) :) And, of course, those were mice, a totally different animal than a rat! Rats grow to be very LARGE in comparison and can cause tons more damage. And rats...well, they're detestable! Though I do know two people who keep rats as pets...that is least for them, though not for me! ;)

As she releases her latest two conquests into the forest, for the first time she could remember she was intensely drawn to enter the forest and explore "beneath leaf and twig, and dells, the streams and wonders."
"Never go into the forest," he had told her many times. "There are dark forces there that no one understands, things that ain't natural and can do ya wicked harm." (8)
Serafina is 12 years old now and beginning to question some things about her life:
"...keep yourself scarce...Don't let anyone get a good look at you...
don't tell anyone your name or who you are."
...she didn't know exactly why she and her Pa lived the way they did. 
She didn't know why her father hid her away from the world, why he was ashamed of her, 
but she knew one thing for sure: that she loved him with all her heart, 
and the last thing she ever wanted to do was to cause him trouble. (11)

Once Serafina witnesses what she assumes to be evil black magic at work in the bowels of the Biltmore basement, a dank and dreary portion where she has never before ventured, she is now the 'hunted' and coaches herself through hiding and remaining as still and quiet as possible, telling herself, "Just stay still, little mouse," although she 
"wanted to break cover and flee so bad,...she knew that the dead mice were the dumb mice 
that panicked and ran. She told herself over and over again, 
"Don't be a dumb mouse. Don't be a dumb mouse." (25)
Though her plight was seriously dangerous, I did have to chuckle at her 'self-coaching' to remain silent and still, thereby avoiding detection. It is the next day that she decides to go upstairs to tell someone what she witnessed the night before, since her father doesn't believe her story. It is then that she meets 'young Master,' Braeden, the orphaned nephew whom George and Edith have 'taken in' to their home and treat as their own child. Braeden has a 'way with animals' that goes beyond the realm of typical 'human-animal interaction' and he seems to be able to connect with Serafina in much the same way. This one meeting and its aftermath unleashes a series of events, conversations, and situations that eventually make Serafina aware of her own origin, lead her to suspect one member of the Vanderbilt guest party of being an evildoer, and meet her own mother, 'face-to-face,' as it were! 

As Serafina learns more about "the man in the Black Cloak," she realizes that 
...just about everyone had a special talent or skill, something they were naturally
drawn to or good at, and then they worked years to master it. 
Nobody knew how to do everything. It wasn't possible... 
It made her think that maybe God intended for them all to fit together, 
like a puzzle made whole. (129) 
Though I do not personally believe in God, I do believe this is the overall meaning of life for everything on this planet Earth--we are to work together to make a "whole" planet/environment. I love this bit of philosophy Beatty has embedded! Little does she realize just how much she has already 'pieced together' of this mystery and its underlying solution. It is the inscription on the winged Angel monument in the green glade next to the haunted cemetary that initially puzzles her:
Serafina does not hesitate to choose the most dangerous battle of all--'uncloaking' the Man in the Black Cloak, serving as bait to lure him to his undoing...

Braeden gives her the very first wrapped gift she has ever received in her 12 years, and unwittingly supplies her with an appropriate 'costume' to use in her most dangerous mission. Though Serafina knows she is a 'creature of the night,' she decides that through her own actions she will prove herself to be of either 'darkness' or 'light,' though she's heard many people speak of 'creatures of the dark' as purely 'evil.' 
She knew now that there were darker forces in the world than she had ever imagined, 
and brighter ones, too. She didn't know exactly where she fit into it all, 
or what role she would play, but she knew now that she was part of it, part of the world, 
not just watching it. And she knew that her fate wasn't set by how or where she was born, 
but the decisions she made and the battles she fought. 
It didn't matter if she had eight toes or ten, amber eyes or blue. 
What mattered was what she set out to do. (292)

It seems this idea of determining your own fate has been a theme 
throughout several of my recent reads: 
We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley and 
A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley, to name two.

I do admit that I felt this was a bit scary for children.
But each of us has a different threshold for such things...
I had the same feeling as I had when I first read 
that it was darker than books I usually read 
or am comfortable reading. 
But, just as with the Harry Potter book, 
I did find this one to be quite enjoyable and 
I am anxious to read Serafina and the Twisted Staff
the second installment in the now-christened Serafina series. 
It was released July 12, 2016. 

Have you read either 
of these yet?

I can highly recommend
the first in the series!

I cannot imagine each future installment won't be just as intriguing!

Happy reading
           -- Lynn