Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott
Published by Harper ISBN 978-0-06-209289-2
Hardcover, $27.99, 544 pages
Karen Abbott shows us a unique perspective of the American Civil War through the fascinating stories of four women. Two of them supported the cause of the Confederacy and two of them worked to keep the Union together.

Emma Edmonds ran away from her family, cut off her hair, and enlisted as a Union soldier. She became Frank and ended up working first as a medic, carrying injured soldiers off the battlefield and assisting the doctors in their care. It was brutal and bloody.

Her next job was as a postmaster, but she eventually came to the attention of the Secret Service, run by Allen Pinkerton. He had Emma, whom he believed to be a man, pose as an Irish peddler and as a black slave and infiltrate the Confederate lines to get information. She was a woman posing as a man posing as a woman- crazy!

Pinkerton also became involved with Rose, a Washington DC widow who used her feminine charms to seduce prominent Union politicians to get information to send to the Confederacy. Pinkerton worked hard to get evidence against her and eventually arrested her for espionage.

I was shocked that not only did Rose use her eight-year-old daughter to pass information to her spies, but when Rose was arrested, her daughter was held in jail with her. The conditions were horrible, and to subject a young child to that was unfair.

Elizabeth Van Lewis was from a prominent Richmond, Virginia family. She supported the Union, not a popular thing to do in Richmond. She used her superior intellect to organize a spy network through her work assisting Union prisoners held in a Richmond compound. 

She was able to recruit many spies, hide prisoners and send them back North, and get information to Union generals about Confederate troop movements. Jennifer Chiaverini wrote a historical fiction about Van Lew last year, titled Spymistress, that told Van Lew's story more in depth.

Belle Boyd was a young, headstrong teen when she shot and killed a Union soldier who was in her family's home. She loved the spotlight, and after escaping punishment for her crime, she became further emboldened and began to spy for the Confederacy.

She thought nothing of riding behind enemy lines to get the information to pass onto General Stonewall Jackson, who she had romantic feelings for.

I found it interesting that Rose and Belle both traveled to Great Britain in their quest to get England to aide the Confederacy. It was also fascinating to note that Pope Pius IX was the only world leader to recognize the Confederacy.

These women were brave and clever, using every feminine wile and intellect they had to advance the cause they held dear to them. Whether sewing secret messages in Jefferson Davis' wife's dresses or creating fake documents to fool the opposition, these women were remarkable and Abbott tells their stories with breathtaking interest.

Like many soldiers, the end of the war was difficult for them. The excitement was over, and it was difficult to return to their old lives. It was sad to find out how their lives ended.

Abbott brings these exciting women to life on the page, and I found their stories thrilling. Although this is a big book, I read it quickly, waiting to see what these brave women would do next. This is a book any history buff, but especially women, will enjoy.

Rating 4 of 5

Thanks to TLC for putting me on Karen Abbott's tour. The rest of Karen's stops are here.

Karen’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, September 2nd: bookchickdi
Wednesday, September 3rd: Lit and Life
Thursday, September 4th: Bibliophilia, Please
Friday, September 5th: Based on a True Story
Monday, September 8th: Dwell in Possibility
Tuesday, September 9th: Bibliosue
Wednesday, September 10th: Back Porchervations
Thursday, September 11th: WildmooBooks
Friday, September 12th: Broken Teepee
Monday, September 15th: Reading Reality
Tuesday, September 16th: Ace and Hoser Blook
Wednesday, September 17th: Jen’s Book Thoughts
Monday, September 22nd: Consuming Culture
Tuesday, September 23rd: Books on the Table
Wednesday, September 24th: Lavish Bookshelf
Thursday, September 25th: Literary Lindsey
Tuesday, September 30th: Book Hooked Blog
Thursday, October 2nd: The Feminist Texican [Reads]

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Summer of Agatha Christie #3- After The Funeral

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie
Published by William Morrow ISBN 979-0-06-235731-1
Trade paperback, $12.99, 286 pages

For those of you following along, you know that bookclubgirl is hosting a Summer of Agatha Christie, culminating with the publication of a new Hercule Poirot mystery by Sophie Hannah, The Monogram Murders, publishing in October.

We are on book number three, After the Funeral, which I enjoyed thoroughly. On September 2nd, bookclubgirl will post some discussion questions, so feel free to join in the fun.

After the Funeral begins with Mr. Entwhistle, a lawyer attending a funeral for one of his oldest clients and friends, Richard Abernethie. Mr. Abernethie ran a successful family business and with the death of only son occurring years earlier, the heirs to the family money include Richard's hypochondriac brother Timothy, his sister Cora, whom no one has seen in twenty years after she married a man considered 'unsuitable', nieces Susan, a businesswoman, Rosamund, an actress, and nephew George, in finance.

At the home after the funeral, Cora carelessly tosses off a comment about Richard being murdered. Most of the family chalked it up to Cora just stirring up the pot, as she is wont to do. But the next day, Cora is brutally murdered in her home, and now Mr. Entwhistle is concerned that perhaps Richard was murdered.

He goes to Hercule Poirot to investigate and find out if Richard was murdered and who killed Cora. I found it amusing when Poirot turns to Mr. Goby, a man "famous for the acquiring of information." Goby calls government snooping "God's gift to investigators." Given what we know about the NSA, one could infer that government's spying on their citizens is a time- honored practice.

The family members all have money issues: Timothy hasn't worked due to his "illnesses", and his house and car are falling apart. Susan wishes to buy a pharmacy for her husband. Rosamund wants to use the money to support her and her husband's dreams of staging a play. George apparently has a gambling problem and has been using clients' funds to cover his losses.

They all have motives for wanting the money, and Poirot discovers that many of them had opportunity as well. It's great fun following the clues and trying to put the puzzle pieces together to discover the murderer. (I confess that I was wrong.)

It's interesting that Poirot does not dominate the story. He comes into the story late and stays in the background for the most part. In today's mystery/thriller series books, the protagonist (a cop, investigator, medical examiner) tends to dominate the stories of the books, with the crime relegated to equal or lesser plotlines.

I also found it interesting the lengths that people will go to when money is involved. Like government spying, greed appears to be something that has been with humans for a long time, and probably will be for a long time to come.

Now that I have read three Agatha Christie novels, two of them featuring M. Poirot, I'm curious to read Sophie Hannah's take on the iconic character in The Monogram Murders.

rating 5 of 5
My review of And Then Were None is here.
My review of Dead Man's Folly is here.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Weekend Cooking: A Visit Back Home

This post is part of Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking.  If you have anything related to food, cookbook reviews, novel or non-fiction book reviews, recipes, movie reviews, etc., head over to Beth Fish Reads and add your post. Or, if you want to read food related posts, head over to read what some interesting people have to say about food. 

 Every year we go back home to the Finger Lakes region and rent a house on Owasco Lake. We spend the week with family and friends and share good food and fun.
The view  of the house from the lake
Our first stop is always Wegmans grocery store, which is one thing I miss about living in Manhattan. We stock up on our favorites, including salt potatoes which are difficult to find in NYC,
and always grab a big package of hamburgers and Hoffman hot dogs (white and red) for the grill. We really miss being able to grill outside every night in the summer!

I always try to combine favorite foods with a new recipe to try out on everyone. This year, I made Mary Alice's Hoagie Dip, which is always a crowd favorite. (Actually, I made two batches this year and they both disappeared.) We also had SoCal Fajita Dip and my son's girlfriend put together a beautiful Antipasti Platter.
Antipasti platter

Cook's Illustrated's Baked Ziti was a popular entree, and we had enough for two days worth, plus some leftovers. I paired that with Balsamic Roasted Potato Salad, and some friends brought a delicious homemade pizza and a huge pan of roasted vegetables that we fought over the next day.

For dessert, we had Pretzel Jello Dessert, Peanut Butter Crack Brownies, and a friend made delicious chocolate chips cookies with her secret ingredient (a package of vanilla pudding).

The biggest hit of the week though was a new recipe- Chicken Spiedies served on a roll. I found this recipe on Pinterest from Mel's Kitchen Cafe , and everyone went crazy over it. People were clamoring for it so much, I had to make it again two days later.

I've made spiedies with the bottled marinade several times, but making it with your own marinade made a huge difference. Several people who had them asked for the recipe and made it themselves already.

I marinated the chicken, but left the boneless chicken breasts whole to grill, instead of threading cubes of them them on skewers. (The purists will not like this, but it worked well for our crowd.)  When they came off the grill, I sliced them and put it in a bowl. People grabbed a roll, piled on the sliced chicken and topped it with the homemade sauce.

As usual, I put together a Pinterest Board with all the week's recipes for everyone who asked for them and I am sharing the board here.

We had a wonderful time and look forward to returning again next year. if you have any summer recipes you like to share with me, send them along in the comments section. I'm always looking for new ones to add to the collection.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dancing on Rocks by Rose Senehi

Dancing on Rocks by Rose Senehi
Published by K.I.M. Publishing ISBN 978-0-615-89505-5
Trade paperback, $15.95, 259 pages

Genre: Women's fiction
Plot: When Georgie Haydock returns to her home of Chimney Rock, North Carolina to help care for her mother who took a bad fall, she is bombarded with memories of home. When she was just six-years-old, her baby sister vanished from their home in the middle of the night. Her mother never recovered and insists that her daughter is out there somewhere.
Her mother has run up credit card debt buying up tracts of land hoping to sell them for a huge profit. The debt has endangered the family general store that has been their livelihood for years. And Georgie's first boyfriend, the rugged and handsome naturalist Ron Elliot she ran out on on years ago with no explanation, wants to rekindle their relationship.

My review: One of the reasons I enjoy reading is that a good story can take me places I've never been and make me feel like I am there. Senehi does just that with her seventh novel. The setting of the actual mountain town of Chimney Rock is a very real character in this story, and I fell in love with the tourist town and its quaint stores and townspeople who know everything about everybody. Anyone from a small town can relate to the wonderful scene where the older women prepare to make sandwiches for the emergency response team who are searching on the mountain for a missing person.

Fans of Nora Roberts' novels should pick up Dancing on Rocks, as Senehi mines similar territory and had gotten better with each successive book. There is a sweet romance between Georgie and Ron, and  terrific family stories with Ron and his daughter and Georgie and her mother and sister and sister's sons. Every good novel has a secret and this one has a doozy- what really happened the night Georgie's sister disappeared?

The characters fascinated me, and I especially liked matriarch Dinah, even though her grief over her missing daughter caused her to treat her other daughters in an unthinking manner. She felt so real to me. Each of the characters are well drawn, they all have shade of gray instead of being stock good-or-bad characters.

Senehi discusses the extensive research she did for this novel in the acknowledgments section, which I found so interesting and greatly added to this captivating book. Anyone who likes nature and flora and fauna will get an added dimension of enjoyment to this novel, as Ron's work is also a big part of the story.

Reading Dancing on Rocks will have you heading for Trip Advisor to plan a visit to see this beautiful area of the country for yourself. And if you do, be sure to stop in to the cute little shops for some souvenirs.

rating 5 of 5

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Published by Knopf, ISBN 978-0307962904
Hardcover, $25.95, 272 pages

Genre: Literary Fiction
Plot: Joan is a young professional ballerina who meets Aslan, a famous Russian ballet legend and helps him to escape to the United States. After their torrid affair ends, she goes back home, marries her high school boyfriend and they have a son together. Years later, the boy becomes a dancer himself and wishes to meet the famous dancer his mother once knew.

My Review: In Maggie Shipstead's first novel, Seating Arrangements, she managed to brilliantly capture the voice of a middle-aged man contemplating an affair during the weekend of his daughter's wedding. I was so impressed with Shipstead's beautifully crafted sentences, it was like she spent hours making each one perfect.

In Astonish Me, Shipstead once again drops us into a world we don't know. We feel what it's like to be a part of a ballet company, the competition, the discipline and way one must give oneself completely over to become a dancer worthy of being part of a ballet company. Like athletes, at some point everyone must come to the realization that they are no longer good enough to go to the next level.

The novel moves back and forth in time, and we see Joan as a young dancer and then as a wife, mother and teacher. Joan's husband has loved her forever, but sometimes he feels she doesn't love him or their life as much. He says to Joan:
"Most of the time now you're here with me- really here, invested; it's not like it was at first- and I think, she's letting me know her, really know her the way people do when they're married. And at other times you're so distant it's like someone's swapped you out for a forgery. You seem like you're going through the motions."
One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Elaine, Joan's friend from the dance company. She is a better dancer than Joan, and has a long-time relationship with the dancer who founded their company. Shipstead could have another entire novel from Elaine's point-of-view.

Astonish Me is another brava performance from Shipstead. Joan is a fascinating protagonist, so complicated and although she is so closed up, Shipstead lets us see inside to who she really is. Fans of ballet will definitely like this insider's look.

rating 5 of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Short & Sweet Review- The Vacationers by Emma Straub

The Vacationers by Emma Straub
Published by Riverhead Books ISBN 978-1-59463-157-3
Hardcover, $26.95, 304 pages
Genre: Fiction
The Plot: The Post family heads off for a two week vacation to beautiful Mallorca, but things are not all rosy. Jim lost his job at a magazine because he had an affair with a young woman at work. Franny, his wife of 35 years, is furious at him, but at least she has her best friend, Charles, (who with his husband Lawrence are trying to adopt a baby) along to cheer her up and take her side.
Daughter Sylvia is headed off to college and hopes to lose her virginity on this trip. Son Bobby is also there, along with his older girlfriend Carmen. His real estate business in Florida has taken a hit during the bad economy and he needs to borrow money from his parents.

The Sweet & Short Review: I loved Straub's last novel, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures , about a film star from the 1950's. She drew me into Laura's world, and I felt like I was watching a TMC movie as I was reading it.
I was hoping to be as drawn into this novel, but it didn't happen for me. I loved the setting of Mallorca, and am really interested in taking a trip there. The problem for me was that I didn't really feel invested in the characters' lives. The character I most wanted to know about was Lawrence, and he was really more of an a tangential character.
I did like the sibling relationship between Sylvia and Bobby, who have ten years age difference between them, and the scene where they went to a disco was very well done and revealing.
Straub also had some wonderful observations, like:
"Other people's families were as mysterious as an alien species, full of secret codes and shared histories."
And Franny speaking about her friendship with Charles said:
"Friendships were tricky things, especially friendships as old as theirs... Love was a given, uncomplicated by sex or vows, but honesty was always waiting there, ready to capsize the steady boat."
And thinking about her children:
"She'd always thought that siblings were pretty much the same people in differently shaped bodies, just shaken up slightly, so that the molecules arranged themselves, but now she wasn't sure."
I think splitting the focus of the story amongst the different characters, instead of focusing on just one like in Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, may be why it didn't appeal as much to me. I didn't feel like I got a complete picture of anyone. But I am in the minority here; The Vacationers made many Best of Summer lists, including a list of rave reviews found here on Parnassus Books.

rating 3.5 of 5

Monday, August 18, 2014

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian

August 11, 2014 6:00 am  •  

Author Chris Bohjalian writes novels about serious subjects. “Midwife,” chosen as an Oprah’s book selection, was about a midwife accused of killing a mother during childbirth. “The Double Bind” told the story of a young woman attacked while riding her bike, and “The Sandcastle Girls” brought us into the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century as seen through the eyes of a female American aide worker.
Bohjalian is particularly adept at writing strong female characters, usually facing some crisis. His latest book, “Close Your Eyes Hold Hands,” continues in that tradition, and is considered by many to be his finest book yet.
Teenager Emily Shepherd lives with her parents in a somewhat remote area of Vermont. Her father is an engineer at a nuclear power plant, and her mother is the public relations officer for the plant.
Emily is smart, but according to her teachers, she doesn’t apply herself. She loves the poet Emily Dickinson, and feels a kinship with the author who shares her first name.
Her relationship with her parents is somewhat strained. Emily’s parents drink and fight a lot. Emily thinks her mother is unhappy living in Vermont, and that causes much of the strain.
One day, while Emily is at school, the emergency sirens go off. The teachers seem more concerned than usual, and the students are put on buses and moved out of town.
There was an explosion at the power plant, and 17 people died. Emily can’t get a hold of her parents and fears them dead. News stations are reporting that Emily’s father is being blamed for the explosion, accused of being drunk on the job.
Emily panics and runs away. In the confusion of the situation, she is able to leave relatively unnoticed. Her plan to go home is thwarted, as traffic is snarled with everyone trying to get out of the area to safety.
The story is told by Emily, and although she promises to tell the story chronologically, she jumps around. It appears that we are reading Emily’s writings in a journal, much like the ones that Emily Dickinson kept.
Emily ends up in Burlington shelter, and tells people she is from upstate New York and her name is Abby Bliss. She heard people saying such horrible things about her parents, she feared if people knew who she was, she would be treated badly, as she found out in a 7-11 when she told a cop her name and people nearly rioted.
After she leaves the shelter, she lives in an apartment with other runaways and an Iraq war vet, who gives the kids drugs and sends them out to prostitute themselves at a truck stop when they need money for more drugs.
Emily makes friends with one girl, who teaches her how to cut herself. She doesn’t want to do it, but the compulsion is too much for her. When her friend leaves because her parents have found her, Emily leaves, too.
She makes an igloo of frozen ice and garbage bags to live in, and meets Cameron, a 9-year-old runaway. Emily takes Cameron under her wing, and vows to protect him. He is an orphan, like her, and ran away from his last foster home because he was beaten.
Taking care of Cameron gives Emily a purpose. She feeds him, takes him to the library to read, gets him a flu shot at the drugstore and buys him a skateboard, the only thing he wants.
The life of a homeless teen caring for a young boy is incredibly difficult, and Bohjalian doesn’t shy away from the ugliness. The thing that struck me most was the sheer exhaustion of just getting through the day. It’s awful enough for an adult, but for two children, it’s just unfathomable.
The title “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” comes from words spoken by a teacher or police officer to the children at Newtown school where 21 children were murdered in 2012. Emily thinks of those words when she decides to go to the Exclusion Zone, the new name for the area around her home.
“Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” is a heartbreaking novel, beautifully written by Mr. Bohjalian. He creates an unforgettable character in Emily Shepherd — perhaps his best yet. He said that his own teenage daughter helped him find Emily’s voice, and he brings her to vivid life on the pages. Weeks after finishing this book, I find myself still thinking and worrying about Emily and Cameron.

My review of Chris Bohjalian's The Light In The Ruins is here.