Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Chilling Childhood

Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira

When a blizzard of epic proportions hits the northeast of America in January 1879, creating both havoc and devastation for the city of Albany, New York, one part of the damage is the disappearance of the young sisters Emma and Claire O’Donnell. After finding the bodies of these girls’ parents, Dr. Mary Stipp (the famous Civil War surgeon, previously known as Dr. Mary Sutter), refuses to believe these girls are dead, and keeps up the search. Not long after all hope was lost, the two girls show up in the wake of a flood, and the story of what happened to them while they were missing threatens the whole city.

This is one of the books I took on to read and review for the website Book Browse, and to be honest, it was my second choice, but now I’m glad that my request for the other book fell through. This is the first of Oliveira’s books I’ve read, but the novel “My Name is Mary Sutter” has shown up on my radar for a long while. Apparently, this book is somewhat of a sequel to that one, which was published in 2010. I say 'somewhat' because from what I can tell, while many of the characters from the previous novel were brought forward for this one, I truly feel that this book stands alone, which is certainly to its credit. Of course, now my interest is piqued to read the previous book, since I truly appreciated the character of Mary Stipp (nee, Sutter), and would love to read a book that focuses primarily on her.

That alone could be considered a very high recommendation, and for the most part, it is. That said, I should mention that there were two things that didn’t sit totally right with me with this novel. To begin with, I felt the start of this book dragged just a little bit. This could be because I really wanted to hear something about these two girls, and Oliveira held off giving anything away about them for some time. I’m unsure how Oliveira could have fixed this, unless she advanced one of the chapters with the girls just a little bit closer to the start of the story. Another thing that didn’t work too well for me was the very end of this novel. To be clear, Oliveira didn’t ruin the book with a sloppy ending, but I felt that some of the things in the last chapters were unnecessary, with information that felt overly convenient in tying up any loose ends. As I’ve often said, sometimes allowing the readers to imagine what happens after the last page can make an extremely powerful ending, and I think Oliveira missed out on that here.

However, once Oliveira introduces the girls and their story, that’s when the novel really takes off. Oliveira increasingly picks up the pace and brings us a story using all the mystery/thriller mechanics available, to make us fully enraptured. Together with the drama of the blizzard and the flood, Oliveira introduces us to a large cast of characters, with various involvements with the girls and/or Mary, all of whom hand us just enough clues and send us down just the right amounts of rabbit holes to keep us turning the pages, without getting frustrated. Oliveira also gives us several climaxes, with just the right amounts of down-shifting in between, to make this story even more gripping. Now, I’m pretty good at figuring out “who done it” so when I doubt my own conclusions several times, I know the author has done a superb job in twisting their tale for me.

Oliveira’s style here is also highly appropriate for the era, using language that suggests certain levels of propriety, without any stodginess. With this, Oliveira draws this city using hints and descriptions of well-known locations to complement the characters and the story, while avoiding being overly poetic or lyrical. In addition, Oliveira seems to give each character a very unique voice, and although I sometimes mixed Claire up for Emma (although the former doesn’t say much throughout the book), I felt that Oliveira portrayed each character – both major and minor – with sensitivity and poise, and allowing the readers to emotionally connect with them all.

In short, I honestly enjoyed this novel, and found it to be exceptionally well written, with congenial characters (and detestable antagonists), and an exhilarating (if sometimes less than pleasant) story line and plot. (By the way, if Oliveira ever reads this, I’m hoping that if she decides to write a third novel, I’d like to suggest it focus on one minor character in this book – that being the particularly intriguing, and highly lovable, prostitute; I’d love to see a whole novel about her life after the incidents in this story.) Therefore, I am warmly recommending this book and think it deserves a solid four out of five stars.

Viking Press (Penguin Group) will release "Winter Sisters" by Robin Oliveira on February 27, 2018. This book is available (pre-order) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss in exchange for a fair review.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

My 300th Post - Review of a Modern Classic

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller published this best-selling novel in 1961, and it is the only book I’ve ever read more than once. It is also one of the first books that come to mind when someone asks me to name my favorite book of all time (along with Ondaatje’s novels “The English Patient” and “The Cat’s Table”). This begs the question as to why I’ve never reviewed it, and my only answer is that I simply never got around to writing a review. But that’s not completely true. There’s something about reviewing a book that you love so much that you’re afraid you’ll ruin it for others with your review. There’s also the problem of having something new to say about a book that is so iconic, its title is now literally a dictionary entry.
What I mean by this is that even those who have never read this book know what is meant when someone calls something is a “catch-22” situation. Of course, I could talk about how this book was almost called “Catch-18” but the publication of Leon Uris’s novel “Mila 18” made them change the title before publication. I could discuss how it compares and contrasts with the book M*A*S*H, which became a wonderful film (unlike the film version of this book) and an amazing TV series (they didn't dare), but I can't because I never read that book (but I have the DVD of the film, and one day I hope to buy the full set of the TV show on DVD as well). But I think I would prefer to write a real review of this novel, and not an essay, trivia article or a list of FAQs. But first:

So, what is it about this book that has enthralled me? To begin with, I’d have to say that the writing is probably the first reason. Heller’s prose here is irreverently sassy and filled with absurdities together with an underlying anguish for the suffering of these people who are living in the eye of a storm as soldiers. It is important to note that despite the many humorous sections, Heller doesn’t gloss over any of the tragedies, nor make light of any of the misery. Still, Heller’s book is really a comedy at heart, albeit a very acerbic one.

Combine this with what seems like a deep affection for every character, is what helps Heller portray both the nonsense and the pathos with equal aplomb. Furthermore, although we get angry with certain characters for things they do and say, Heller also shows us their vulnerable sides as well (for the most part). That means, of course, that those characters we love – the protagonist Yossarian in particular – also receive a balanced presentation, and we love them even more for their flaws together with their strengths. Furthermore, although Heller fills this book with literally dozens of characters – both minor and of slightly more import – each one gets just enough focus and detail that I’ve never felt confused regarding who each of them were, or what they were doing.

These two important elements only enhance Heller’s wildly spectacular plot, that weaves its way through the many unusual characters and their equally curious antics. What’s more, the number of stories and goings on surrounding the essential plot of Yossarian not wanting to fly any more missions are as various and numerous as the number of stories. Yet again, this is because Heller writes with such control that we’re never bewildered by any of them.

In short, I’ve always found every aspect of this book to be masterfully written, and that Heller constructed the whole work to absolute perfection. This novel is a joy to read from start to finish, including the scenes that are upsetting and even gruesome at times. There is nothing that could make me give this less than a full five stars out of five, and recommend it highly and wholeheartedly (and I think I need to re-read it yet again)!

“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller is still available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo audio books, eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Mystifying Masquerade

The Phantom’s Apprentice by Heather Webb

In Heather Webb’s latest novel, she re-envisions the famous story of The Phantom of the Opera, best known as the powerful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. In this book, Webb puts Christine DaaĆ© more firmly at the center of the story, with a newly invented back story that reaches into Christine’s childhood to answer questions that the original French novelist Gaston Leroux left unanswered. The story, of course, is about a troubled man who falls in love with a young soprano and the lengths he will go to make her into the Paris Opera's brightest star.

First, I should quickly mention that while I loved this book, it isn’t absolutely perfect. There were a few instances where I felt that the words or language that Webb used didn’t fit the period of the novel precisely (meaning, the 1860s). These instances, however, were so very few and far between, that they didn’t distract from the book for more than an instant, and they weren’t severe enough for me to reduce my rating of this book. Despite this tiny niggle, I believe Webb succeeded in instilling a very somber, yet elegant tone to the atmosphere here with her prose. In fact, I feel Webb’s style of prose was so effective that there were times when I could almost hear some of Lloyd Webber’s haunting melodies going through my mind while I read (and maybe Webb did too).

What I really loved about this book was the things that Webb introduced here that hadn’t appeared in other versions (that I know of). To begin with, despite what seems like an initially frail character, Webb develops Christine carefully throughout the novel, into someone who slowly discovers that she has an inner strength that borders on being fierce. In fact, this is probably the most powerful part of Webb’s novel. To do this, Webb brings us back to Christine’s childhood, and her early life. This allowed Webb to invent Christine’s early friendship with Raoul, the Viscount of Chagny, and expound on that relationship (something I never understood from the musical). This, combined with the surprise ending, gives us a character that we not only love, but also admire for her ability to become something more than what the society of the time expected of her. One could almost say that this is a historical fiction, coming-of-age story.

This meant that Webb also needed to develop Erik, the phantom himself, in this novel, for without a convincing antagonist, there is no heroic side to the protagonist. I truly appreciated how Webb infused Erik with more than just being an evil, deformed creature. Webb’s phantom is terribly charming both despite and because of his cruel streak, but he’s also a very troubled person. Webb gives him far more motivation for his actions than those familiar with the previous sources ever revealed, and with that cames a level of empathy that allows us to believe that Christine could care for him, through her fear, while at the same time hating him, despite understanding why he is so hateful.

Together with this, Webb also expands on all the rest of the original cast of characters. Each of these minor figures have an important role to play in the story, and Webb weaves their stories into Erik and Christine’s. Webb also seems to have included a new character, a man by the name of Delacroix, whose involvement in Christine’s life is motivated on the one hand, by his long-time devotion to Christine’s guardian Mme. Valerius, and on the other hand, his apparent academic studies to disprove that conjurors can really contact the dead and the spirit world. The addition of Delacroix adds extra twists to the story, while also injecting the elements of magicians, magic and their illusions. These connect well with how Erik succeeds in presenting himself to the Paris Opera as a ghost.

In short, all of this made for a lusciously well-crafted story that echoes with intrigue and mystery, harmonizes with music, and sparkles with magic. Webb’s character development works expertly with her plot twists, to give us a novel that is simply enthralling and enchanting. For all this, I am enthusiastically recommending this book with a full five stars (although to be honest, if I rated books on a scale of ten stars, this would get nine and a half, because of those tiny slips in language that I mentioned at the beginning of this review).

(PS: Via the Gutenberg Project, you can download a free copy of the English translation of Gaston Leroux’s novel “The Phantom of the Opera” here.)

Sonnet Press will release “The Phantom’s Apprentice” by Heather Webb on February 8, 2018. This book is/will be available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo eBooks, Kobo Audio Books, eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for providing me with an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Carnegie’s Maid Blog Tour & Giveaway

Carnegie’s Maid Blog Tour & Giveaway

From the author of The Other Einstein, the mesmerizing tale of what kind of woman could have inspired an American dynasty.

Clara Kelley is not who they think she is. She’s not the experienced Irish maid who was hired to work in one of Pittsburgh’s grandest households. She’s a poor farmer’s daughter with nowhere to go and nothing in her pockets. But the other woman with the same name has vanished, and pretending to be her just might get Clara some money to send back home.

If she can keep up the ruse, that is. Serving as a lady’s maid in the household of Andrew Carnegie requires skills she doesn’t have, answering to an icy mistress who rules her sons and her domain with an iron fist. What Clara does have is a resolve as strong as the steel Pittsburgh is becoming famous for, coupled with an uncanny understanding of business, and Andrew begins to rely on her. But Clara can’t let her guard down, not even when Andrew becomes something more than an employer. Revealing her past might ruin her future—and her family’s.

With captivating insight and heart, Carnegie’s Maid tells the story of one brilliant woman who may have spurred Andrew Carnegie’s transformation from ruthless industrialist into the world’s first true philanthropist.

Don't forget to read my review of this novel here! 


About the Author:
Marie Benedict is a lawyer with more than ten years’ experience as a litigator at two of the country’s premier law firms and for Fortune 500 companies. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Boston College, with a focus in history and art history, and a cum laude graduate of the Boston University School of Law. She is also the author of The Other Einstein. She lives in Pittsburgh with her family.

(Don't worry, if you can't enter the contest, or you don't win a copy of this book you can always buy it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery) or from an IndieBound store near you.

No purchase necessary to enter or win. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. VOID WHERE PROHIBITED BY LAW.

Open to legal residents of USA who are 18 years or older. Giveaway begins January 15 and ends January 31. Enter the Giveaway during the Promotion Period online by submitting the entry form. The entry form can be found through the above form. Winner will be selected by Random.org and be notified by email. Winner has 48 hours to respond before a new winner is selected. 3 winner(s) will receive 1 finished copy of Carnegie’s Maid (approximate retail value or "ARV": $25.99US). By providing your information in this form, you are providing your information to Sourcebooks. Sourcebooks does not share or sell information and will use any information only for the purpose of this giveaway. Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads are in no way associated with this giveaway.

Praise for Carnegie’s Maid


"[an] excellent historical novel." -Publishers Weekly


"Feels like Downton Abbey in the United States...Benedict demonstrates the relevance of history to the present day in this impeccably researched novel of the early immigrant experience. Deeply human, and brimming with complex, vulnerable characters, Carnegie’s Maid shows the power of ambition tempered by altruism, and the true realization of the American Dream." -Erika Robuck, national bestselling author of Hemingway's Girl


"In Carnegie’s Maid, Marie Benedict skillfully introduces us to Clara, a young woman who immigrates to American in the 1860s and unexpectedly becomes the maid to Andrew Carnegie's mother. Clara becomes close to Andrew Carnegie and helps to make him America's first philanthropist. Downton Abbey fans should flock to this charming tale of fateful turns and unexpected romance, and the often unsung role of women in history." -Pam Jenoff, New York Times bestselling author of The Orphan's Tale


"With its well-drawn characters, good pacing, and excellent sense of time and place, this volume should charm lovers of historicals, romance, and the Civil War period. Neither saccharine nor overly dramatized, it's a very satisfying read."     -Library Journal


"...engaging. The chaste romance will draw readers of inspirational fiction, while the novel is constructed to appeal to those seeking a tale with an upstairs-downstairs dynamic and all-but-invisible female characters who are either the impetus for or the actual originators of great men's great ideas. For Fans of Liz Trenow, Erika Robuck, and Nancy Horan." -Booklist


"Marie Benedict has penned a sensational novel that turns the conventional Cinderella story into an all-American triumph. Young Clara Kelley steps off the boat from Ireland into Andrew Carnegie's affluent world, where invention can transform men and women into whatever they dare to dream." -Sarah McCoy, New York Times and international bestselling author of The Mapmaker's Children and The Baker's Daughter

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Owning Your Team Colors

Green: A Novel by Sam Graham-Felsen

Everyone knows that middle school is the worst. Not only are these kids thrown into a new environment with new teachers and a bunch of new kids, they’re also dealing with the onset of puberty and all those hormones. Into this traumatic situation, Graham-Felsen places his protagonist, David Greenfeld. It is 1992 and David is starting sixth grade at the Martin Luther King Jr. School in Boston. The problem is, not only is David mostly on his own, but he’s also one of the few white kids there, and to make things worse, he’s also half Jewish. Somehow, David becomes friends with Marlon Wellings, a kid who lives in the “projects” and has the same ambitions to get out of King and into “Latin,” the comprehensive school that has more graduates getting into Harvard than any other.

It was interesting to note that the blurb on the publisher’s website for this book says this book is, “Infectiously funny about the highs and lows of adolescence, ...” Then further down the page I found that Publishers Weekly called this book “subtly humorous.” Okay, so, to start with, funny and humorous are probably the last adjectives I would ever use to describe this book. In fact, not only did I find this book to be extremely serious, this is probably one of the most difficult books to read I’ve ever experienced. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its quirks or lighthearted passages, but there are some very grim messages that Graham-Felsen is highlighting here, which should not be ignored or taken lightly.

To explain the part about why I found this a difficult book to read, I have two reasons for this. The first is the easy one, and that was the language that Graham-Felsen used here. What made it difficult for me was how much slang and jargon that Graham-Felsen included in the text. In fact, I found it to be so extreme in places, and in many instances found myself at a loss to understand what the author was trying to convey. This had a very jarring effect on the first half of the novel, making it feel like I was watching a home movie, filmed by someone with intermittent Parkinson’s. Just when I thought I was getting into the flow of the text, another slew of slang words would come up to shake that up. I initially found this unnerving, but as the book progressed, it just made me feel old. Ultimately, I did my best to ignore them, and succeeded in that some of the time, but I felt that in general Graham-Felsen over did it with the slang.

The other difficult thing about this book was the essential message I believe Graham-Felsen was trying to convey here. Aside from the usual problems of being a sixth-grader, one thing that Graham-Felson notes here is what his protagonist calls “the force.” This isn’t a Star Wars reference, per se, but rather that underlying feeling that David gets regarding being white in a mostly non-white environment. Graham-Felsen notes that his protagonist felt this “force” growing ever since the Rodney King/South Central riots that followed the acquittal of the police in the death of Rodney King. What this “force” is, then, is the incursion of racial fear, anger and hatred within both the white and the non-white populations, coupled with increased violence. It is as if Graham-Felsen is trying to point to the Rodney King ruling as the turning point that led to the very divisive atmosphere that the US is living through right now. It doesn’t matter if this theory is right or wrong, because watching David try to work through being at the center of this “force” – both internally and externally – is why this is rightfully called a coming-of-age story.

The question is, does David succeed? Of course, you’ll have to read the book to find out, and even then, you’ll probably need to decide for yourself, since Graham-Felsen doesn’t hand you the answers on a silver platter, and that’s a good thing. All of this is to say that while this isn’t an easy book to read, and while I didn’t find it at all humorous, that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. In fact, one of the cleverest things about this book is how Graham-Felsen uses the rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Charlotte Hornets, and their team colors as a metaphor for racial identity and tensions. This is one reason why I found this a very powerfully effective story, which is highly relevant, particularly for today’s younger audiences, but also for adults. I’m certainly going to recommend it, but the language and style here is the main reason I can’t give it higher than four out of five stars.

Penguin Random House released "Green" by Sam Graham-Felsen on January 2, 2018. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo - eBooks and  audio books, eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Cinderella or Pygmalion?

Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict

Clara Kelly was not who everyone thought she was, and this accident of mistaken identity lands her the position of lady’s maid in one of the wealthiest homes in all Pittsburgh, that of the Carnegie family. If Clara is to help her family back in Ireland, then keeping up appearances is what she’ll have to do, even when Mrs. Carnegie’s eldest son Andrew starts to treat her not like a household employee, but as an equal and maybe something more.

At first glance, this looks like a classic Cinderella story, but on closer inspection, we see many divergences. Cinderella wanted to free herself from her terrible family, and Clara hopes to some day reunite with hers. Cinderella let her emotions carry her away, but Clara does everything she can to keep hers in check. More importantly, Cinderella had very few ambitions of her own and it seems she left her fate to others, while Clara knows she can rely only upon herself to survive, and possibly one day thrive in this new world. Finally, Cinderella was transformed from a poor peasant into a princess by a man, but Clara is forced to transform herself to improve her life and the lives of her family. With all these differences, perhaps this is the opposite of a Cinderella story, except for the fact that both come from nothing and end up with something better.

On second thought, maybe this is more like a Pygmalion story than Cinderella one. If we go back to the Greek mythology of Pygmalion, we know this is the story of a sculptor who falls in love with one of his statues, who the gods bring to life so the two can marry. Of course, it is the sculptor whose name is Pygmalion, and not the statue, but that’s beside the point. The parallel here in Benedict’s story is that Clara begins to come out of her shell when she begins studying the Carnegie businesses and Andrew begins to help her with her investigations, and later consult with her on these topics. However, unlike in Ovid’s tale, but closer to George Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name, we understand from the prologue of Benedict’s book that Andrew and Clara do not end up as a couple. Where Benedict combines the two is in how both Clara and Andrew end up transformed in one way or another through their association with each other.

Of course, it is less important to decide if this is a Cinderella story, a Pygmalion story, both or neither, than it is to see how carefully Benedict draws out this story. When it comes to this, I have to say that Benedict did a perfectly lovely job. We love Clara because she is strong, principled, while at the same time, willing to do almost anything to save her family. We admire Andrew because he’s that self-made, self-taught man who started with nothing and struggled to become one of the wealthiest people in the world. Even so, neither of them are perfect; Clara knows she’s living a lie, and Andrew’s affluence seems to have made him forget where he came from. Benedict melds these two characters – her fictional Clara and what she’s garnered about the real-life Carnegie – into a tale that is both charming and heartwarming, while at the same time, poignant. More importantly, Benedict lets you have empathy for Andrew, despite his faults, so that the emotional connection between him and Clara makes perfect sense.

I also found that although the story takes place in the mid-1800s, Benedict carefully highlights many things that are very relevant to today’s world, some of which borders on political commentary – in particular, class struggles, inequitable wealth distribution, and how money and power sometimes blind the affluent to the socioeconomic troubles around them which their greed often causes. Although this might sound like Benedict takes up a preaching soap-box, in fact, the style of the prose here is anything but that. Benedict uses language here in a very measured way, to build up an atmosphere of wariness that slides between guarded hope and discernible anxiety, without ever getting either maudlin or miserable.

Overall, I found this a very absorbing and enjoyable read. Benedict is a very talented writer with a gentle style, who has given us a book that isn’t overly heavy or romantic, has a very good balance of historical fact and creative fiction, with carefully developed, sympathetic characters and a well-rounded, believable story. The only thing that kept this from being perfect for me was at the very end. However, since I don’t give away any spoilers, I’ll leave it to say that I can warmly recommend this book and happily give it four and a half stars out of five. (Now I want to read Benedict’s first novel, “The Other Einstein” even more than I did before.)

Sourcebooks Landmark will release "Carnegie’s Maid" by Marie Benedict on January 16, 2018. This book is available (for pre-order) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

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