Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review: If Not For This by Pete Fromm

After I graduated from college, I went on a week long white water rafting trip. It was absolutely amazing and had I not already had a life plan in place, I might just have tried to become a river rat. The trip was exhilarating and gorgeous and I could see the appeal of the life of river runners, even if it was hard to be that grubby all the time. As we approached each set of rapids, the guide in the raft told us about the make-up of that particular rapid and how we planned to run it. But there was always a caveat to the plan. Rapids are not static. They change over the seasons. They change depending on the volume of water raging through them. And they can even change beyond recognition after just a single storm. In many ways, and in this in particular, rapids reflect our lives.  We never know when a rapid is going to spin us around or present differently than we expect or just be wild with water running high.  Pete Fromm has captured life as a series of rapids to run beautifully in his novel, If Not For This.

Maddy and Dalt meet at a party for boatmen on the Snake River. Their connection is instant and they embark on an enviable all-consuming love story, dubbing themselves "the lucky ones." But life rarely goes as planned and after they start up their own river running company, Maddy discovers that the bone deep weariness she's been experiencing is not mono as she'd perhaps thought, but instead MS and that she's pregnant as well. And so Maddy and Dalt have to change course and fight for some sense of normalcy as they plunge into the out of control rush of rapids they didn't hear coming.

As they grapple with the inexorable march of Maddy's illness, they must change how they thought they'd live their lives together. They are clearly soul mates and while their connection can sometimes be a bit much, it gives a solid foundation to the hard decisions they have to make. Do they choose to have children, knowing the ravages ahead? How do you deal with the frustration of losing independence by slow degrees, either the afflicted person or the person who loves them? How do you persevere in a life that is so different than the one on which you planned? The novel allows time to pass in the blank space between chapters so that each chapter shows a new stage in their lives rather than the slow, daily decline of the disease. While this takes away the drudgery of the everyday, it highlights Maddy and Dalt's tender and passionate embrace of life in the face of certain decline, showing their struggles at every stage, the black comedy they use to cope with this life sentence, and the full speed ahead courage and love that gets them through the lowest ebb. The descriptions of the physical world, the rivers and the wilderness are simply gorgeous and these early descriptions contrast heartbreakingly with the later grim reality of a body trapped and living with this thief of a disease. Fromm has written a stunning book not just about living with MS but also about love and nature and who we are deep down to our very souls.  It will touch your heart and tear you up in equal measure.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

The Look of Love by Sarah Jio. The book is being released by Plume on November 25, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: Born during a Christmas blizzard, Jane Williams receives a rare gift: the ability to literally see true love. Jane has emerged from an ailing childhood a lonely, hopeless romantic when, on her twenty-ninth birthday, she receives a card from the midwife who delivered her. Jane must identify the six types of love before the full moon following her thirtieth birthday, or face grave consequences. When Jane falls for a science writer who doesn’t believe in love, she fears that her fate is sealed. Inspired by the classic song, The Look of Love will utterly enchant Sarah Jio’s rapidly growing fanbase.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Review: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Claire Prentice

It's really hard when reading a book about an earlier time period, not to impose our modern feelings on any aspect that we find distasteful or inhuman. But while we cannot change our own feelings, we must try to read the book without too much judgment. That is indeed very difficult to do when reading Claire Prentice's impeccably researched non-fiction tale, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island, about a tribe of Filipino people brought to the US and exhibited like zoo animals at Coney Island and across the country, a group of people who were treated appallingly badly, were lied to, were stolen from, were dismissed as ignorant savages, and to top it all off, were then failed egregiously in the American judicial system.

In 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair, a tribe from the Philippines called the Igorrotes were a wildly popular part of the exhibitions. In light of this, a former army officer who had spent time in the Philippines doctoring to the tribe and who had been a part of the group that brought the Bontoc Igorrotes to this country for the World's Fair, decided that he wanted to bring another group to the US to exhibit them around the country in a commercial venture. The US government agreed to his initial plan, giving him the right and responsibility for the well-being of the people.

Truman Hunt was initially benevolent and caring and the tribe members felt as if he was their friend. He personally chose the 51 members of the tribe who would be allowed to accompany him to the US, promising them monthly pay and the proceeds from any souvenir sales they made in return for a year in the US.  People flocked to him to be considered. Once he had assembled the group, they made their way to the coast and embarked for a long and ultimately horrific experience in the US. When they arrived, Hunt made a token effort to display the group in an educational manner as he had promised the US government he would but quickly backed out of that agreement and headed to Coney Island to Luna Park where the Igorrotes became the biggest, most profitable exhibit of the season. Billed as head-hunting, dog-eating savages, the Igorrotes settled into the boring mundanity of a life purporting to be faithful to their life at home but in actual fact without any real purpose. Right from the start, their usual way of life was sensationalized and exaggerated in order to draw people in and increase ticket sales. The Igorrotes wore very little clothing in comparison to the Americans gawking at them. They sported tattoos inked after taking an enemy's head, and they celebrated major events with a dog feast. In America, they existed mainly to be looked at and to eat dog at every opportunity, something that tribe members would tell the interpreter was disrespectful of their actual culture but which would not be remedied.

Hunt quickly changed from a considerate guardian of the people to an avaricious huckster, seeding the newspapers with false stories about the tribe, creating things out of whole cloth, and treating the Igorrotes as ignorant side show exhibits rather than as human beings. If that wasn't enough, Hunt became even more greedy and brutal, forcibly stealing the money that the Igorrotes had hidden from him as their trust for him deteriorated and compelling them to live in appalling conditions. Personally Hunt was in trouble as well, being charged with bigamy, a charge he evaded, and then tracked by the government, which had finally woken up to Hunt's abuse and misuse of the Igorrotes, a potentially charged political situation.

The treatment these people endured at Hunt's hands is atrocious. That the media aided and abetted Hunt by printing his assertions and tall tales without bothering to check into even one of them is reprehensible and the height of yellow journalism. That the judicial system valued fraternal connections over the truth is completely and indefensibly shameful. Prentice's careful and extensive research brings this forgotten chapter of our history to vivid and disturbing life. She tells the story as if it was fictional, allowing herself to discuss what the people involved were thinking or feeling at each stage and while this is often supported by quotes from the individuals in question, sometimes she goes just over the line in trying to develop a person's character. She has easily shown Hunt as the con man he was and the devious ways he found to exploit the Igorrotes for his own profit. The Igorrotes, though, remain much more mysterious as individuals, perhaps because so few of them spoke English and so there's little reliable record of their feelings on their experiences beyond the court records in the end. Prentice does offer as much information as she could uncover to tell readers what happened to many of the major players in the story and that is much appreciated. The tale as a whole speaks to our fascination, a fascination that unfortunately continues to this day, with "otherness" and to the way that we are nowhere near as civilized, caring, and compassionate as might be hoped.

For more information about Claire Prentice and the book, take a look at her web page or at the book's page on GoodReads. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I did a much better job on the reviews this week. Still a large mountain to climb, but... This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Banks of Certain Rivers by Jon Harrison
The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Claire Prentice
To Marry a Scottish Laird by Lynsay Sands

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Ruby by Cynthia Bond
The Way North edited by Ron Riekki
Z by Therese Anne Fowler

Reviews posted this week:

Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky
The Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg
Flirting With French by William Alexander
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Palmerino by Melissa Pritchard
Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown
Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

If Not For This by Pete Fromm
The Lady From Tel Aviv by Raba'i al-Madhoun
Angels Make Their Hope Here by Breena Clarke
Ishmael's Oranges by Claire Hajaj
Neverhome by Laird Hunt
Burial Rights by Hannah Kent
Euphoria by Lily King
The Blessings by Elise Juska
The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki
Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Mr. Tall by Tony Earley
Gemini by Carol Cassella
The Bride Insists by Jane Ashford
A Farm Dies Once a Year by Arlo Crawford
A Fork in the Road edited by James Oseland
Marching to Zion by Mary Glickman
Reluctantly Royal by Nichole Chase
The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine
The Wednesday Daughters by Meg Waite Clayton
Highland Scandal by Julia London
Since You've Been Gone by Anouska Knight
Starting Over by Sue Moorcroft
Falling For Max by Shannon Stacey
Christmas Brides by Suzanne Enoch, Alexandra Hawkins, Elizabeth Essex, and Valerie Bowman
'Til the Well Runs Dry by Lauren Francis-Sharma
The Banks of Certain Rivers by Jon Harrison
The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Claire Prentice
To Marry a Scottish Laird by Lynsay Sands

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrival:

Fog Island Mountains by Michelle Bailat-Jones came from Tantor and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

About a man with terminal cancer who disappears in advance of a gathering typhoon and his wife, who has been unwilling to face the situation, and must now come home and look loss in the face, this sounds haunting and beautiful.

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review: Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

There's just something about pirates, you know? Not the pirates from today, but the ones from the 18th and 19th centuries. In reality they were probably just as bloodthirsty, ruthless, and terrible in their time as today's pirates are in ours but looking back at them there's something inescapably appealing and even romantic about them. Take the outlaw life, put it on a ship, and float it in an ocean (or the Great Lakes, I'm not picky) and I will have a hard time keeping my hands off the book. Add in a talented chef and a commanding, intimidating female pirate captain and you have a kooky premise that just begs to be read. This was indeed the case with Eli Brown's swashbuckling, highly entertaining, and surprisingly concerned with social justice adventure novel, Cinnamon and Gunpowder.

Owen Wedgwood is a talented chef for Lord Ramsey, one of the major shareholders in the successful Pendleton Trading Company. Wedgwood is kidnapped when a dinner party to which Ramsey had been invited and to which he took Wedgwood in the capacity of chef de cuisine, is interrupted by the appearance of Mad Hannah Mabbot, a feared and fearsome pirate captain. Mabbot dispatches Ramsey to the devil and after tasting the meal, decides to make off with the cook for her own benefit. Wedgwood is horrified by his fate as a prisoner on the pirate ship as it heads off into the deep blue sea; he thinks of his late wife and his late employer, and tries to come up with a plan to escape these murderous rogues. When he is summoned to Mad Hannah's presence, he finds out the terms of his survival. Just as Westley in The Princess Bride is told that the Dread Pirate Roberts will "most likely kill you in the morning," our pudgy, prudish, and rather bumbling chef is told that he must create a unique and exquisite meal, concocted almost entirely from the meager stores aboard ship, for the captain once a week or he will suffer her wrath and face a long swim home, either whole or in pieces depending on the depth of her disappointment. Aside from having no choice whatsoever, Owen has his professional pride at stake and he agrees to the devil's bargain.

Wedge, as he comes to be called, tells of his incarceration on the ship, his attempts to coax something edible from the hard tack and weevil-ridden flour stores, his culinary creativity, and his dawning realization that there is more to the flame haired captain and her zeal in hunting down and destroying the Pendleton ships than he ever imagined in the splotched and hidden journal in which he confides most nights. As time passes, his first impressions of the crew and her captain are softened and humanized and he finds his own feelings about the raids on the Pendleton ships doing a volte face once he understands the reasons better. There is a fair bit of rollicking fun to be had in the adventures of the Flying Rose and her crew. There's also murder and plotting, high seas treachery, a saboteur, eccentric crew members, chasing after an elusive pirate called the Brass Fox, a jail break, trying to elude the notice of Laroche and his diabolically clever inventions, and over the top entertaining romps through the oceans of the world. In short, this is a perfect pirate tale.

But it is the something more than a pirate tale here that really elevates the novel. Brown touches on the history of the British tea trade and the effects that the forced introduction of opium has on the Chinese. There are the politics of social justice and the importance of family loyalty included as well. The characters are wonderfully fleshed out and quirky. With a passionate, determined, and charismatic female captain and a perpetually disapproving, tight-laced, often incompetent male chef, Brown has inverted the expected roles for men and women with the former in the role of nurturer and the latter in the role of adventurer. The slow revelation of Mabbot's motivations, her true character, and her deep-seated integrity don't mitigate her unforgiving vigilante justice or compensate for the gritty and terrible bloodbaths but they do add a dimension not often seen with respect to pirates or ascribed to women, especially those in 1819. Brown describes the meals that Wedge creates for the lady pirate as both exotic and in lushly sexual terms. And even though there is a slow developing romance involved, the larger part of the novel is over the top and humorous even as it touches on politics and morality. These are pirates (and a chef) like you've never seen before and the novel is a fun and fabulous read.

Sunday Salon: Books you still recommend years later

So I was reading my friend C.'s blog the other day when I came across her post about the books she listed in that meme asking people about the most influential books in your life. She noted that almost all of hers were books she read before she turned 21. She wondered if most people's "Most Influential" books were from those years because everyone is still trying to figure out who he or she is or will become. In looking at most people's lists (mine included), it does seem to hold that the books that have most influenced us are those we read in young adulthood or even childhood. But surely we don't stop growing and developing as human beings then so why shouldn't there be books from later years that also deserve mention. So she decided to try and create a list of books that she'd read after she turned 22. I thought that would be a worthy thing to attempt too so here are the top fifteen books I've read in adulthood (plus the bonus of a few that just made me smile), those I still mention when someone asks me for a great read (in no particular order):

1. Silk by Alessandro Baricco
2. Safe From the Sea by Peter Geye
3. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
4. The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett
5. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
6. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
7. Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
8. Montana, 1948 by Larry Watson
9. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
10. Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols
11. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
12. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
13. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker
14. Silk and Saffron by Kamila Shamsie
15. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

And those that made me smile just to read them:

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

It makes me feel better to know that I do still come across books that leave an indelible print on my reading self. They may come fewer and farther between the older I get, but they are still out there. What books would you put on a list of your own like this?

I didn't do much reading this week. I worked on getting some of the long-standing, out-standing reviews I had to complete instead. But I did indeed manage a few books. I watched as man tried to defend his reputation to his community and to his son. I felt shame over the history of exhibiting human beings that we have swept under the rug of history. And I zipped along as a young woman found love with a kilted Scotsman (Outlander withdrawal anyone?). I still have bookmarks making their way through stories invoking the Upper Peninsula of Michigan because that is where my heart lies, a fictionalized version of Zelda Fitzgerald's life, and the tale of an abused young woman whose childhood friend shows her kindness not understood by their shared town. Where did your reading adventures take you this past week?

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