Thursday, November 30, 2023

Review: The Secret Book of Flora Lea by Patti Callahan Henry

There's something so enchanting about imagined worlds inhabited in childhood. The Hundred Acre Wood. Calvin and Hobbes. Narnia. Anne Shirley's fanciful stories about the landscape around her. These invented places are a comforting and happy place to be and a safe refuge when the world is too much. Patti Callahan Henry obviously understands the importance and charm of these worlds in her latest novel, The Secret Book of Flora Lea.

1939. Operation Pied Piper. Hazel is 14 and her little sister Flora is 5. Their father has been killed in the war so despite their grieving mother's despair at letting her children leave, she sends them away from London, away from the bombs, to rural England. Hazel and Flora end up being taken in by Bridie Aberdeen, a warm and loving woman who has a son Harry, who is the same age as Hazel. Much of their time in the countryside is idyllic aside from the backdrop of war and missing their mother. When the sisters need to escape even this cozy life with the Aberdeens, Hazel tells Flora their own special, made-up, private fairy tale set in the magical land of Whisperwood to help them cope with the uncertainty in their world.

1960. Years after the war, Hazel is working for Hogan's Rare Book Shoppe in Bloomsbury. It's her last day on the job before moving over to Sotheby's when she finds a manuscript written by American author Peggy Andrews titled Whisperwood and the River of Stars. It is the story she always told little Flora, who went missing, presumed drowned, while they were billeted in the country. But neither she nor Flora ever told anyone else the story so she can't understand how this American author could possibly know it. Impulsively Hazel takes the valuable manuscript when she leaves Hogan's, and sets out on a quest to finally answer what happened to her little sister.

This story is an delightful look at imagination and the power of stories through the lens of the very real Operation Pied Piper and the specter of the "lost children" (those who were evacuated but never returned home) from that time. Hazel is a sympathetic character, trying to live her life but really still stuck back in 1939, feeling guilt and grief over Flora's disappearance. The manuscript is so similar to the story she used to tell her sister that it makes hope bloom in her, pushing her to uncover what happened back then. The book spills over with the enchantment of stories and shines with enduring love for family. Readers will themselves want to be invited into Bridie's welcoming country home and work in the back room of the rare book shop. Hazel seems to be a sweet, intelligent, fairly modern young woman and the reader winces when people around her encourage her to let go of her quest, cheering her at every turn as she continues on regardless. The end was the weakest part of the story as it was telegraphed with flares and predictable, but there were a few welcome twists and turns to get there, which helped make it less frustrating in the end. Obviously this is a WWII book but it's really more about the homefront than it is about the war. The mystery pacing starts off slowly and picks up speed as things start to come together for Hazel and the alternating time line helps to build anticipation. This is a endearing read, especially for those who spent a lot of time in books or other imagined worlds when they were young.

This book is one of the 2023 Women's National Book Association's Great Group Reads.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was 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. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The Frozen River by
Ariel Lawhon.
The book is being released by Doubleday on December 5, 2023.

The book's jacket copy says: From the New York Times bestselling author of I Was Anastasia and Code Name Hélène comes a gripping historical mystery inspired by the life and diary of Martha Ballard, a renowned 18th-century midwife who defied the legal system and wrote herself into American history.

Maine, 1789: When the Kennebec River freezes, entombing a man in the ice, Martha Ballard is summoned to examine the body and determine cause of death. As a midwife and healer, she is privy to much of what goes on behind closed doors in Hallowell. Her diary is a record of every birth and death, crime and debacle that unfolds in the close-knit community. Months earlier, Martha documented the details of an alleged rape committed by two of the town’s most respected gentlemen—one of whom has now been found dead in the ice. But when a local physician undermines her conclusion, declaring the death to be an accident, Martha is forced to investigate the shocking murder on her own.

Over the course of one winter, as the trial nears, and whispers and prejudices mount, Martha doggedly pursues the truth. Her diary soon lands at the center of the scandal, implicating those she loves, and compelling Martha to decide where her own loyalties lie.

Clever, layered, and subversive, Ariel Lawhon’s newest offering introduces an unsung heroine who refused to accept anything less than justice at a time when women were considered best seen and not heard. The Frozen River is a thrilling, tense, and tender story about a remarkable woman who left an unparalleled legacy yet remains nearly forgotten to this day.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was 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. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Orbital by
Samantha Harvey.
The book is being released by Atlantic Monthly Press on December 5, 2023.

The book's jacket copy says: A slender novel of epic power, Orbital deftly snapshots one day in the lives of six women and men hurtling through space—not towards the moon or the vast unknown, but around our planet. Selected for one of the last space station missions of its kind before the program is dismantled, these astronauts and cosmonauts—from America, Russia, Italy, Britain, and Japan—have left their lives behind to travel at a speed of over seventeen thousand miles an hour as the earth reels below. We glimpse moments of their earthly lives through brief communications with family, their photos and talismans; we watch them whip up dehydrated meals, float in gravity-free sleep, and exercise in regimented routines to prevent atrophying muscles; we witness them form bonds that will stand between them and utter solitude. Most of all, we are with them as they behold and record their silent blue planet. Their experiences of sixteen sunrises and sunsets and the bright, blinking constellations of the galaxy are at once breathtakingly awesome and surprisingly intimate. So are the marks of civilization far below, encrusted on the planet on which we live.

Profound, contemplative and gorgeous, Orbital is an eloquent meditation on space and a moving elegy to our humanity, environment, and planet.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Review: The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

It took me more than a year to get through this book. It has my maiden name inside the front cover so I know for sure how long it has been languishing on my tbr pile. I think I've admitted before that I used to be a real literature snob, only reading "worthy" novels, an attitude I developed on my own but had strongly reinforced in graduate school. I have since become less of a jerk (and I didn't stay in academia). But I still had this book on my shelves and thought I should finally read it. Well, my mother told me not to say anything if I couldn't say anything nice but I've never been a completely compliant child so I'm ignoring that advice. And let me tell you, the nicest thing I can say about reading this book is that it was a mind-numbing chore.

Bare bones, the plot in a nutshell : poor but beautiful young woman falls in love with poor journalist. They cannot marry because they are poor. Rich American heiress who has previously met the journalist and fallen for him comes to London and meets the young woman. They become friends. Heiress is convinced she's dying. Poor woman is also convinced and decides the journalist should marry the heiress so he'll inherit the money when the heiress dies and then they can afford to marry each other. Things don't entirely go as planned. I mean, it doesn't sound terrible, does it? But in James' hands, it is. He took almost 500 pages to get through this small and unremarkable plot. The man wrote in circles, repeating things over and over ad nauseum. Nothing about the book is head on, everything is obtuse and drawn out. His characters never speak plainly either and there are pieces that are completely baffling. In fact, the plan for the future stays completely unstated until the last quarter (eighth?) of the novel. Our journalist is rather dim until he asks his sweetheart, Kate, to come to his rooms or he won't fall in with her plan. Merton has been unobjectionable until this point and suddenly he's taking advantage of his one true love. Kate is not a greedy Machiavelli until near the end. She is observant but it's still a mystery of sorts how she knows that our heiress is dying given that even the fancy doctor won't say it, only exhorting Milly to "live" and suggesting to Milly's companion that if she just falls in love and marries, she'll come out right in the end. If I had to read a character calling Milly a "magnificent" dove one more time, I was going to heave the book at the wall. The only thing that seemed to make her magnificent was that she had a lot of money and was in danger of being relieved of it. Honestly, by the end, I was hate-reading this byzantine insomnia cure. And by byzantine, I'm definitely referring to the writing and not the plot. Unless you are the snobbiest of literary classic readers, I recommend giving this one a wide berth for sure.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was 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. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The Wildest Sun by
Asha Lemmie.
The book is being released by Dutton on December 5, 2023.

The book's jacket copy says: Following her New York Times bestselling debut Fifty Words for Rain, Asha Lemmie's next sweeping and evocative novel introduces a determined young woman's search for the larger-than-life literary figure she believes to be her father.

When tragedy forces Delphine Auber, an aspiring writer on the cusp of adulthood, from her home in postwar Paris, she seizes the opportunity to embark on the journey she's long dreamed of: finding the father she has never known. But her quest--spanning from Paris to New York's Harlem, to Havana and Key West--is complicated by the fact that she believes him to be famed luminary Ernest Hemingway, a man just as elusive as he is iconic. She desperately yearns for his approval, as both a daughter and a writer, convinced that he holds the key to who she's truly meant to be. But what will happen if she is wrong, or if her real story falls outside of the legend of her parentage that she's revered all her life?

The Wildest Sun is a dazzling, unexpected, and transportive story about coming into adulthood--from escaping our pasts, to the stories we tell ourselves, to the ambition that drives us--as we seek to find out who we are.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was 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. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Lord by
Celeste Connally.
The book is being released by Minotaur Books on November 14, 2023.

The book's jacket copy says: Bridgerton meets Agatha Christie in Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Lord, a dazzling first entry in a captivating new Regency-era mystery series with a feminist spin from Celeste Connally.

London, 1815. Lady Petra Forsyth, daughter of the Earl of Holbrook, has made a shocking proclamation. After losing her beloved fiancé in an accident three years earlier, she announces in front of London's loosest lips that she will never marry. A woman of independent means--and rather independent ways--Petra sees no reason to cede her wealth and freedom to any man now that the love of her life is gone. Instead, she plans to continue enjoying the best of society without any expectations.

But when ballroom gossip suggests that a longtime friend has died of a fit due to her "melancholia" while in the care of a questionable physician, Petra vows to use her status to dig deeper--uncovering a private asylum where men pay to have their wives and daughters locked away, or worse. Just as Petra has reason to believe her friend is alive, a shocking murder proves more danger is afoot than she thought. And the more determined Lady Petra becomes in uncovering the truth, the more her own headstrong actions and desire for independence are used against her, putting her own freedom--and possibly her life--in jeopardy.

Popular Posts