Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Gilded Years (Book Review)

Title: The Gilded Years
Author: Karin Tanabe
Publication: Washington Square Press, trade paperback, 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: Growing up in Roxbury, Massachusetts, Anita Hemmings yearned for higher education and fell in love with the idea of attending Vassar College after she heard an alumna describe her experience. The only problem – Vassar has never accepted a woman of color. However, Anita is a gifted student and so light skinned she can pass for white and does. Now a senior in the class of 1897, Anita is beautiful, accomplished, and has rich friends, but she is living a lie. When a new friendship tempts her away from her studies, Anita enjoys her first taste of society but can never completely relax for fear that her secret will be revealed, jeopardizing everything she has worked for...

Audience: Fans of historical fiction, Seven Sisters alumnae, those interested in higher education for women or African American history

My Impressions: This was a fascinating and enjoyable book I didn't want to put down.  I learned about Anita Hemming's story when a fellow member of Roslindale Library’s Race and Inclusion Committee suggested The Gilded Years for our summer reading program (thanks, Talia!), and I liked it so much that I volunteered to lead the discussion. We had 12 people for our July discussion, all of whom had enjoyed it although, interestingly, we differed on our reaction to Anita’s deception. Most seemed to feel that that obtaining the high quality education she would not otherwise have been able to access justified attending Vassar under false pretenses. While I did not disagree, I was a little surprised Anita didn’t feel more guilt at hiding her heritage, particularly as she loved her family and appreciated the sacrifices her parents had made to send her to boarding school at Northfield Seminary (now, amusingly, Northfield Mt. Hermon, an Ivy League basketball feeder).
Anita Hemmings

One of my favorite aspects of the book was reading about William Lewis, who was a football star at Harvard while at Harvard Law School, the first Negro all-American, and a prominent Massachusetts lawyer. The son of former slaves, he attended Amherst College and played football there, and was elected captain by his classmates. I had come across him recently while editing a Harvard Football publication, and was amazed I had not previously known his story.

Although author Tanabe clearly spent significant time researching 1890s Vassar, some of her depictions felt very jarring to me. For example, I did not think young ladies of this era would have spent so much time discussing money – either they would have taken it for granted or like Anita have avoided mentioning it altogether (I wondered how she was able to dress as well as her more affluent classmates or at least avoid their noticing she had fewer or inferior clothes). Having read Carney’s House Party many, many times, I know that Vassar in 1911 required chaperones for interaction with young men, so it is hard to believe that 14 years earlier would have been different – and a well brought up young man of this era would never have pursued a young lady to her dormitory room! Also, didn’t these young Ivy Leaguers have anything better to do than drive to Poughkeepsie all the time? Naturally, I think the Harvard men should say home and hang out with Radcliffe women!

It was also interesting to read this because my niece is leaving tomorrow for her freshman year at Vassar! I am sure she will have a great experience, and not wind up with friends like Lottie.  I gave her a copy of Carney's House Party but I am not sure she has read it yet.  For those interested in the experience of the real-life Carney, Marion Willard, who attended Vassar from Mankato, Minnesota, I recommend Amy Dolnick's delightful Future in a Handbasket, which is based on Marion's letters home.

Source: My copy is from the Boston Public Library – where the real life Anita once worked as a librarian/cataloguer. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Apples Every Day (Book Review)

Title: Apples Every Day
Author: Grace Richardson
Publication: Harper & Row, 1965
Genre: Children’s Fiction, School Story
This was the cover on my sister's copy
Plot: This year there are several new students at Kenner, a modern, coed boarding school in Quebec – dismal Sheila whose recently remarried mother wants to be alone with her new husband; assured and conventional Jerry, determined not to fall behind academically just because attending class is optional; and Phil, who is miserable and runs away. The school is run by a quirky couple without adequate funds; apples are cheap so turn up at nearly every meal. Much of the story is told from Sheila’s point of view, and she gains in confidence and popularity when she gets an unexpected part in her roommate’s play. The characters are entertaining and the way the teenagers vote on school rules (or lack thereof) reminded me a little of The Naughtiest Girl in the School. These kids have infinitely more freedom and use it to create their own structure, becoming (for the most part) mature and empowered.

Audience: Children 9-12, adult fans of school stories

Jerry did not approve of coed hockey
My Impressions: My mother gave this book to my sister Clare for Christmas when she was about 10. We always enjoyed boarding school stories and this is an unusual one, apparently based on the original alternative school, Summerhill, in England (query – isn’t the school in The Silver Chair also based on Summerhill, or is Lewis just condemning coeducation?), although set in Canada.  Many parts of the book were funny, especially Jerry's pained response to the school and his expertise, due to being the son of two psychiatrists, on numerous topics. Sheila's evolution into a reasonably competent teen is satisfying.

However, the reason this book came to mind after so many years is that Clare recently asked me to identify a book she once read about a young woman who gets a part in the musical, Kiss Me Kate. I was stumped, and consulted RT Reviews and Goodreads, without success. I also consulted my Betsy-Tacy peeps who were sure the book was Apples Every Day. In fact, Sheila does get the part of Kate but in The Taming of the Shrew, so it was nice to reread this unusual school story but the quest continues. Please let me know if you have any ideas!
Summerhill still operates in England
Source: I was sure our original copy is in my attic somewhere but a preliminary search was unsuccessful, so I requested it from ILL. The very helpful Boston Public Library obtained a copy from Bridgewater State.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Before the Dawn (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: Before the Dawn
Author: Cynthia Eden
Publication: Harlequin paperback, 2017
Genre: Romantic Suspense

Plot: The Killer Instinct series from New York Times bestselling author Cynthia Eden continues as an FBI profiler tracks a case that resurrects ghosts from his past. 

Ex-SEAL Tucker Frost knows that the world is full of evil. He saw it in the face of his own brother, Jason Frost, a cold, methodical, sadistic killer. A killer Tucker put down with his own hands in order to save Jason’s final victim—Dawn Alexander, the only girl who got away from the infamous “Iceman.”

It’s Tucker’s up close and personal experience with evil that’s made him perfect for Samantha Dark’s experimental profiling division in the FBI. Samantha wants agents who have personal ties with killers, who have unique insights into the minds of monsters. And when women start turning up murdered with the same MO used by the Iceman, Tucker is sent back to Louisiana to investigate.

The last person he expects to see is his ex-lover, Dawn. Seven years have passed since the night that Tucker faced down his brother…and since he last saw Dawn. But the dark need still burns just as hot between Tucker and Dawn. As they grapple with a desire that never died, they must also face the shared shadow from their pasts. Both Tucker and Dawn have the same question—has Jason Frost come back from the dead to hunt again? And this time, will he succeed in killing the victim who got away?

Audience: Fans of romantic suspense and of authors such as Linda Howard and Kay Hooper.

Social Media and Giveaway: You can follow Cynthia Eden on Facebook or Twitter.  You can also enter a raffle to win a gift card. a Rafflecopter giveaway

My Impressions: This was a fast paced and entertaining read, set in New Orleans, one of my favorite places. Although it was the second in the series, it worked as a standalone, but I enjoyed it enough to go back for the Eden’s earlier books. It sounds a little odd to say I like serial killer novels (I skip the gruesome parts, which makes books on CD in this genre a bit problematic) when what I actually like are the teams who solve the crimes. I also appreciate characters who have suffered and survived like Dawn, who faced a serial killer and rebuilt her life afterwards. She and Tucker are fairly predictable but the supporting cast provide the real dimension to this story. I look forward to reading more about Samantha Dark (although her name is a cliché a good editor should have discouraged!).

Source: I was provided a pre-publication copy of this book by the publisher for review purposes.  Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me.  You can visit other stops on the tour by clicking below:
Tuesday, July 25th: Books a la Mode – excerpt
Wednesday, July 26th: Mama Reads -excerpt and review
Thursday, July 27th: Buried Under Romance
Thursday, July 27th: Deborah Blanchard
Monday, July 31st: A Fortress of Books
Wednesday, August 2nd: Snowdrop Dreams – excerpt
Thursday, August 3rd: Moonlight Rendezvous
Friday, August 4th: Reading Lark After Dark
Wednesday, August 9thBlogging with A
Thursday, August 10thBook Nerd
Friday, August 11thReadaholic Zone – excerpt
Monday, August 14thThe Sassy Bookster
Tuesday, August 15thFrom the TBR Pile
Wednesday, August 16thBecky on Books
Friday, August 18thStranded in Chaos
Monday, August 21stBooks and Spoons – excerpt
Monday, August 21stJathan & Heather
Tuesday, August 29thRomancing the Readers

Monday, July 31, 2017

Call to Engage: Team Poseidon (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: Call to Engage: A Team Poseidon Novel
Author: Tawny Weber
Publication: Harlequin paperback, 2017
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Giveaway: Thanks to the publisher, I have a copy to give away!
Plot: The Poseidon team consists of hard-bodied, fiercely competitive Navy SEALs. But when a sensitive mission goes disastrously wrong, three of the team’s finest will have to trust their hearts and instincts to uncover the truth… 

Lieutenant Elijah Prescott should be spending his precious leave somewhere with sun, surf and scantily clad women. Instead, he’s heading home with two goals in mind. Figure out exactly how his last assignment went to hell and almost killed him—and reconnect with the woman who might offer salvation.  Ava Monroe has streamlined her life, eliminating every source of pain—including a marriage touched by tragedy. One glimpse of her ex and those good intentions turn to bad-girl desires. Her strategy: get over Elijah by getting under him again, sating herself until she can finally let go. But as betrayal within the rank of the SEALs turns deadly, there’s no denying that her heart and her life are on the line. Elijah is the only man who can protect both…

Audience: Fans of Suzanne Brockman and Cherry Adair

My Impressions: I am a big fan of Suzanne Brockman’s Troubleshooters series and have not been impressed by most wannabes, but enjoyed this book - it was an entertaining, fast paced read that will make you want to read the rest of the series.   The Poseidon team is investigating a traitor in its midst and this is the second book in the series. Much of Call to Engage is about a couple who have gone through the tragic loss of their child, which destroyed their marriage; they been apart for four years, rebuilding their lives. While the reader is initially sympathetic to Ava, that wears off it becomes clear that the breakdown of the marriage was her fault and that she was responsible for most of the difficulties along the way (including telling her dedicated military husband he is wasting his time for a pittance and an ego boost - lovely).  There is character development but her actions are not fully explained: one minute she is disgusted her ex has reappeared, next she is sleeping with him just to get him out of her system (does this ever work? she is not as well read as we are!), next she agrees to date him for “sexy fun” (p. 252), then suddenly she is participating in a Seal mission with the boys (p. 284), and is willing to abandon the job that helped her rebuild her life.

The story is also about Ava's husband Elijah and his Poseidon team.  While Call to Engage is the second in a trilogy, it was easy to jump right into the story. The unit commander, Nic Savino, is the most intriguing character and will star in the third book, coming in November. 

Caveats: I wish Weber’s editor would alert her to this grammatical rule so she stops saying, “...between he and Ava” (page 200). Also, if Ava had agreed to leave with the child she is ostensibly minding (p. 344), wouldn’t Mason Powers still be alive? Surely Nic is responsible for this casualty?  Matchmaking in the middle of a secret, critical mission?   Even if the desired outcome is achieved...
Source: I was provided a pre-publication copy of this book by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes, and I have another to share. To enter the giveaway, please leave a comment telling me what interests you about this book. Do you have a military hero?  (US and Canada only!)

Please join Tawny Weber as she tours the blogsphere!

Tawny Weber’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Monday, July 10th: Bewitched Bookworms
Wednesday, July 12th: Reading Lark After Dark
Monday, July 17th: Books a la Mode – excerpt
Thursday, July 20th: Readaholic Zone – excerpt
Monday, July 24th: A Fortress of Books
Wednesday, July 26th: Snowdrop Dreams – excerpt 

Thursday, August 3rdJathan & Heather 

Friday, August 4thBecky on Books 

Monday, August 7thBook Nerd 

Wednesday, August 9thThe Romance Dish 

Monday, August 14thMoonlight Rendezvous 

Wednesday, August 16thWhat I’m Reading 

Friday, August 18thBooks and Spoons – excerpt

Monday, July 24, 2017

Amberwell, Summerhills, Still Glides the Stream (Book Review)

Title: Amberwell (1955), Summerhills (1956), Still Glides the Stream (1959) (Ayrton Family)
Author: D.E. Stevenson
Publication: Fans of Stevenson are bringing these charming books back into print so you may be able to find them inexpensively
Genre: Fiction
Plot: Amberwell and Summerhills are about the Ayrton family, five children growing up on an affluent estate in Scotland before WWII, doted on by the devoted servants but ignored by their parents. Initially, this doesn’t matter as the siblings are close and love their home, but the sisters suffer from their parents’ expectation that an inadequate governess can provide all the education and social interaction they need. The two brothers are fortunate because they are sent to boarding school and groomed for careers, although the younger son is bullied into taking up medicine when he wants to join the Navy. The sisters have a harder time escaping their parents’ cold, controlling authority, and do so with varying success.  Connie, the eldest sister is a bit like Susan in the Narnia books.

 In Summerhills, Roger Ayrton returns to Amberwell where his sister Nell has been managing the household. Roger has survived combat in WWII but experienced personal tragedy; Amberwell provides the soothing comfort he needs to recover from his experiences, regain his sense of humor, and ability to care about people. He undertakes a project of turning a nearby estate, too expensive for its current owners to maintain, into a boarding school for the sons of the local middle and upper class. The new school becomes a project that Roger and all his acquaintances enter into enthusiastically and it brings the people in his life together in a postive way.
Still Glides the Stream is not about the Ayrtons (although they make a cameo to please Stevenson’s readers) but is the story of Will Hastie, another ex-military man who has returned to the Scotland Borders after the war to start a new chapter in his life. However, his closest friend Rae Elliott Murray has died, and both Will and Rae’s family miss him terribly. Rae’s sister Patty shares one of Rae’s last letters with Will which sends him off to France to capture Rae’s last days. His discovery there changes the lives of all those left behind by Rae and adds much needed humor to what starts off as a melancholy story.

Audience: Fans of light romantic fiction set in England; readers who enjoy authors such as Eva Ibbotson, Elizabeth Cadell, and – more recently - Katie Fforde and Christina Jones.

My Impressions: Amberwell, the Ayrtons’ estate is like its own character in the first two books. In addition to her ability to capture major and minor characters, Stevenson had an amazing ability to describe physical places memorably. My mother introduced me to Stevenson when I was about 18, I think, and I read every book at my local libraries, so assume I read these three years ago; each seemed familiar. However, I had not previously read them in chronological order, which I enjoyed, although each includes Stevenson’s signature humor as well as sorrowful moments. The Ayrton parents are obsessed with their estate and their place in local society, but ignore their children even more than is typical in upper class English stories. The only thing William Ayrton had in common with his children was his love of Amberwell, and for all his flaws, he maintained the estate in an era when others were losing theirs, which meant that for four of the five children, Amberwill became a valued home and refuge in a time of need.  There is a charm to this story in knowing nearly everything will turn out well eventually.
Source: I own copies of Amberwell and Still Glides the Stream, and checked out Summerhills from the library (it is partly I enjoy rereading but I also believe if I check them out regularly, the libraries won't discard the copies left).

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Kill Fee (Book Review)

Title: Kill Fee (Stevens/Windermere #3)
Author: Owen Laukkanen
Publication: Penguin Audio, 2014 (hardcover published by Putnam)
Genre: Suspense/Series
Plot: In the third outing for FBI agent Carla Windermere and Minnesota state detective Kirk Stevens, the two sometime-partners witness an assassination outside a St. Paul hotel while getting coffee, and are plunged into an investigation of a mysterious killer. Carla chases the slender young man who emerges from the hotel but, uncharacteristically, she is creeped out by his frighteningly dead eyes, and lets him escape. Although Kirk knows he should stick to solving cold cases for the state, he is drawn into another FBI case where his talent is needed, and joins Windermere in a complicated pursuit that takes them to Miami, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, and Charlotte.

Audience: Fans of Harlan Coben, Joseph Finder, and John Verney should be reading this series, but I do recommend beginning with the first book, The Professionals.

My Impressions: I love this series, and am surprised it isn’t better known. Carla Windermere is a brilliant, as well as beautiful, African-American FBI agent. Stevens is a (frequently mentioned) paunchy middle-aged white guy. They worked together so well on their first case they developed a deep appreciation for each other as professional colleagues, and some romantic feelings, but Stevens loves his lawyer wife Nancy and does not want to jeopardize his marriage. Windermere is constantly surprised by the attraction she feels towards Stevens (see pauncy-ness) but she is lonely, far from a happier assignment in the South, several years post-breakup from her last boyfriend, has no FBI colleagues who are kindred spirits - on the other hand, does not want to disrupt Stevens’ marriage. One could argue that in the middle of a hunt for a serial killer, who would have time for all these longing looks and frowns and self-reflection, but Canadian author Laukkanen makes the angst very convincing. Still, Windermere and Stevens have the best kind of working partnership – they inspire each other and their combined efforts yield great results, so perhaps the author should allow Windermere a nice boyfriend so she and Stevens can concentrate on finding bad guys.
I enjoy the descriptions of the investigation, much of it realistically tedious but leavened by the clever deductions of the main characters and by a new FBI agent introduced in this book who I hope continues to play a part. In the last book, Criminal Enterprise, I was enraged by the sexism Windermere experienced from her FBI colleagues, and there was a hint in this one that the most blatant offender was still thriving. Boo!

Source: I listened to the audio version of Kill Fee which I checked out from my library.  I read the first book in 2013, and although I liked it very much I got distracted and did not get the sequel until May.  Now I am glad I waited as there are three more books - Laukkanen is quite prolific: every publisher's dream.  Having read that he spends part of his time in Prince Edward Island, I can imagine him writing in a little cottage like the one I visited three years ago.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir (Book Review)

Title: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir
Author: Jennifer Ryan
Publication: Crown hardcover, 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: When all the men in the town of Chilbury leave to fight in World War II, the vicar tries to cancel the village choir. But when the ladies muster a little gumption, they realize they can have a choir by themselves, perform well on their own, and enjoy themselves! Chilbury is full of intrigue and drama, providing a female perspective of war in letters and diary entries. The story follows several members of the choir: timid but beloved Mrs. Tilling; sisters Venetia and Kitty, both looking for love, daughters of an unpleasant retired Brigadier; Hattie Lovell, a newlywed expecting her first child; and Edwina Paltry, the villainous midwife. When the Brigadier asks Miss Paltry to make sure his wife delivers a boy, so his estate will not pass out of the family, he sets in motion a plot that will impact two families. Unfortunately, he is one of the few men left in Chilbury. Others include the seemingly gruff military officer with a soft heart, billeted with Mrs. Tilling; a mysterious artist, whose heart Venetia is determined to capture; as well as several young men who reappear on leave or when wounded.

The English cover reminds me of K.M. Peyton
Audience: Fans of historical fiction, especially books set during WWII and covering activity on the home front. While it is not as charming as D.E. Stevenson’s novels, I think those fans would enjoy it.
My Impressions: This was a fun read, albeit somewhat predictable. I liked the descriptions of daily life in the village and how the characters dealt with shortages and the challenges of the war. I enjoyed seeing Mrs. Tilling gain in self confidence, and smiled at the contrast between boy crazy Venetia, beautiful enough to attract any man she wants, and her younger sister Kitty who suffers from unrequited love – and occasionally the spitefulness of Lady Edith Crawley.

Quibble: Although the author is ostensibly from London, the book read more as if an American had written it. There were many “likes” when I thought the author should have used “as” and this irritated me. I also suspected that, in this more modest era, the characters would not have used the word “pregnant” so casually, especially 13 year old Kitty.
Source: This book came from my old library in Watertown, MA. Another WWII book appeared on my library reserve list soon afterwards, The Women in the Castle, which I am also enjoying, although it is a much darker story.