September 1, 2018

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield is The Best Book I've read in Ages!

Once Upon a RiverOnce Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First off, I won an ARC of this book in a Goodreads Giveaway. Thanks so much! It made my day when I received it, as I love The Thirteenth Tale and enjoyed Bellman and Black though I found it disappointing at the end. I believe Ms. Setterfield is one of the great modern storytellers, a female counterpart to Neil Gaiman perhaps. So I thought myself one of the world's luckiest people to receive this ARC.
As soon as I began reading I felt even luckier. The story of Once Upon a River has all of the pull of a strong current; you cannot escape it, but you do not want to. You want to drift with it and let it take you to all of the places it needs to go. From the miraculous events on the darkest night of the year to the farmer of aristocratic and African descent (my favourite character, and such a breath of fresh air in the usually all-white English literary world) talking to his pigs and mourning the loss of his favourite, to a young couple bereaved into desperation, to a poor woman who lives more simply than she must because a malign presence will take anything good away...there are such well-drawn scenes and characters that you are almost certain that Daunt's photographs are real and are probably sitting in a dusty museum basement somewhere awaiting discovery.
I think my favourite part of all is the use of folk/fairy tales to explain and tell the story and echo the emotions of the characters. The myth of Quietly is especially powerful, and as a parent it is one I can understand completely.
It also must be understood that the Thames is its own character, and its presence hangs ever over the story like a miasma. Reading this, I felt the dampness of the river, smelled the mud of it, and was often reminded of my own river, the river that flooded my house several times as a child because we lived too near, the Choctawhatchee. I think that anyone who has ever lived near a river will probably enjoy this book even more than those who have not, but this book is for everyone.
I will put one warning though, and that is that this book could be very difficult reading for people who have lost a child. There are some heartbreaking scenes that were difficult for me to read as a mother, because my mind put my own child's image into the story no matter what i did. I think this is a book that will make you go check on your child as they sleep just a little bit more often, or hug them harder, and of course that is a good thing.
I didn't want Once Upon a River to end, but when it did, it ended perfectly. I know I will read it again and more than likely will loan my copy to my mother to let her read it. If I had a book club, this would be the book I would choose for us to read. I guess I'm just saying that it swept me away and its pull is on me still.
To both the publisher and Goodreads, thank you again for giving my this fascinating world wrapped in paper pages!

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January 22, 2017

The Whiskey Sea by Anne Howard Creel --Historical Fiction Wrapped in Formulaic Bows

The Whiskey SeaThe Whiskey Sea by Ann Howard Creel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think that it was the rum-running aspect of the story that saved this book from being a completely formulaic book, but even with those fun 20s touches, the author was unable to prevent a bit of a shipwreck.

Summary complete with SPOILERS


Outcast girl is raised by kind fatherly man who is no relation. However, when she graduates he suddenly sells the boat she thought would become hers to a man called Hicks. It turns out this is to get the money to send her to secretarial school and because he has kind of promised her to Hicks as a wife. But she is strong and spunky and says no way, Jose! She dashes off to learn how to fix boat engines from the very man who bought her boat, and who of course is devotedly in love with her despite apparently never having spoken to her before. Then for years she works as a mechanic until she finds that she could be making even bigger money by keeping the engine cool for a rum-runner. Surprise, surprise, the mysterious beautiful young man she once glimpsed from a distance and cannot get out of her mind becomes a crew member too, for kicks. Even bigger surprise, she falls for him, goes all girly for him, goes to speakeasies with him, sleeps with him, etc while noticing that he never says he loves her and gets angry at talk about the future. And of course poor old Hicks is still hanging around like a big sad puppy, somehow comforting her. The whole thing is pretty predictable. Her father figure dies, her sister leaves and gets married, beautiful boy shows over and over just what a jerk he can be and exactly what he wants her for, and then the boat explodes and Mr. Beautiful bails on them all. Our heroine goes back to engine repairs after travelling to NYC to say one weird last goodbye to the guy who cared nothing for her, and of course, suddenly realizes it was Hicks who was perfect for her all along. So everyone is happy (except probably the guy who was so injured in that boat explosion) and that's the end.

I would have liked the book better if the heroine (whose name I've already forgotten) had not been so silly. I liked that she was not afraid to get her hands dirty, was in love with the sea, and didn't fear carving out her own path, but she just continually makes stupid choices and ignores the worry of the small handful of people who actually love her. However, stupid choices are part of life for everyone so I am trying to overlook that.
I guess I also would have liked the book better if it hadn't been so easy to figure out, pretty much from the first time she spots the guy whose beauty seems to be his only good trait, exactly what the rest of the book will be. And it is. There are no surprises. How disappointing :(
I have to say, though, that the author has skill for making you see the setting clearly in your mind's eye. And the suspense on the rum-running trips was palpable. I think the choice of subject matter was a good one, as there aren't so many books written about the people who risked all to provide those who could afford it with illegal booze (at a huge profit).

If you love the Roaring 20s I think this is worth reading so long as you don't expect too much.

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August 28, 2016

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory : A Review of Sorts

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the CrematorySmoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A thoughtful, fascinating, and even sometimes funny look at what goes on behind the scenes of death. Read how working with the dead helped a young woman learn to live with purpose and face her own mortality without fear, and how practicing the modern arts of embalming and cremation opened her eyes to the way Americans have come to grasp a false, Hollywood-ized version of death which requires everything from makeup to eye plates to maintain.
The author argues for a return to a more family-oriented approach, in which family members care for their loved one before and after death, and the family members prepare the body themselves, mourning and then having the burial or cremation soon after. As I am a believer in this method myself (though all of my family members have been embalmed), I of course found the arguments compelling. After reading this, I definitely know I do not want anyone else I love to be embalmed, ever. I personally love the idea of being buried in one of the mushroom bags mentioned in the book and elsewhere on the internet.
This book is not for everyone. If someone you care about has died recently, you might want to wait a while before reading. Otherwise, I really think it would be good for all Americans over, say, age 16 to read this book. Everyone will probably find one chapter difficult to get through. As a mother, the chapter about dead babies was hard.
I was surprised, though, at how much gorier the author could have been if she'd wanted. While there are definitely some gruesome descriptions, most of them could have been much worse if she had not held back. I am pretty squeamish where movies and tv are concerned but can usually watch surgeries just fine. Even so, I've only been around carefully prepared dead bodies. I did not expect to be able to finish reading a book on such a subject, though I have recently considered becoming a mortician. As to that... after reading about one process in particular, I have decided that I am not mortician material! But anyway, I was able to handle the book. So if you're a little worried about it, go ahead and give it a try. You can always stop reading if you need to. Just consider having someone around to talk to if you need it.
In many ways, this is a book to share. Read it and then share it with someone you care about and most of all, talk about the things you read in it. It has already contributed to some interesting conversations with my husband.

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August 14, 2016

Crippen Gets the Novel Treatment in John Boyne's Page Turner

CrippenCrippen by John Boyne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why do I find murderers so fascinating? I don't even want to kill a deer to eat unless it's an emergency, and I'd rather not then. Anyway, Crippen is such an interesting figure because he seems the last sort of person to do the deed he was convicted of. In fact, there are those who believe him innocent and suspect Ethel LeNeve or even an unknown third party. To which faction does the author belong? I won't spoil that for you, but I did like that he kept his solution under wraps until near the end of the book.
The book begins towards the end of the saga, in Antwerp aboard the Montrose which is bound for Canada. First there is a long scene in which an unpleasant woman demonstrates her claims for the title of Upper Class Twit of the Year, and the reader begins to wonder when the actual story will start. Finally a man and boy calling themselves John and Edmund Robinson appear as fellow passengers to the dreadful woman, and the stage begins to be set. I say "begins," because this is one complicated play.
At first it feels too disjointed as we leave the ship to watch a social climber complain to her husband and dream of becoming a Lady. I grew rather annoyed but kept reading until the connection to the Crippen story was finally made clear--this former dance-hall girl was the woman who first notified police that Cora Crippen had been murdered. Watch as she hounds the police and even pinches a constable's bottom!
And then suddenly, the next chapter has the marriage of yet more people we have not yet heard of. Oh, it's Crippen's parents! So every third chapter or so we're going to go way back in time until finally we catch back up to the present of the other chapters. Great.
Besides really not caring for that chopped-up format (oh dear, what a phrase to use in this particular review! Sorry!) I found some modern sentiments and phrases that were thrown in to be rather jarring. It seemed that a few facts had been played with, but I am not a Crippen expert so I may be wrong on that. I thought some of the characters were very well done and found myself wanting to know more about them. The three main players seemed pretty accurate from what I have read, though I have not come across anything suggesting a true sadistic streak in Hawley Crippen before. It definitely added a creepy touch to the story though. Cora was, if anything, not as terrible here as I expected her to be, but still the sort of person one could easily imagine wanting to kill if one had to deal with her very often. Ethel is much more subtle and really remains rather mysterious, which I liked.
A NOTE FOR THE SQUEAMISH: This murder case is one of most famous because the method of disposal of the corpse was to cut it into pieces and hide them under the basement floor tiles, except for the head which was never found. If you've survived reading that, you'll probably be alright. The book does not go into a whole lot more detail than that.
So did I like the book? Yes, overall I did. I even plan to see if there are any others by the same author at the library. I just hope that his others do not follow a similar patchwork format!

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April 7, 2016

The Great Book of Amber--a Review with No Spoilers

The Great Book of Amber (The Chronicles of Amber, #1-10)The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow, it has taken me a long time to read the whole thing but that's because I've stopped and started, reading a few books at the time over the years. I enjoyed the books very much overall. The messages of family and friendship were surprising given the way everything started out, but I liked that aspect a lot. Amber and Shadow were very interesting and I love the strange places one can end up by walking through shadow. And once the Courts of Chaos get into the mix, anything can happen and often does. Sometimes I felt like the author lost his grip on his creation and it ran away from him, but sometimes those were the best parts. I love the way that situations you thought were explained in the early books turn out to be much more complicated later on. The only thing that I didn't really like was the treatment of women. As is too often the case in fantasy novels, the women are there to seduce, be seduced, be killed, be motherly, or be treacherous. They have little dialogue in most of the books and many are silhouettes at best. There is a lot of lust at first sight and only one real depiction of love. On the flip side you get a lot of interesting male characters, my favourite of course being Corwin (I always love tricksters). Even some inanimate objects seem to have personalities. I really liked the sudden, unexpected touches of humour and wit, some of which had me laughing so loudly that my family asked what was going on. I found the last book disappointing as it promised to tie up a lot of loose endings but instead left most of them dangling. Perhaps there was originally going to be another book? I don't know. Anyway, if you like fantasy at all, you really should give this series a shot, especially if you have a sense of humour.

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