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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Messenger of Truth- Mad for Maisie

Messenger of Truth  by Jacqueline Winspear
Published by Henry Holt and Co.
Kindle edition $9.99

For bookclubgirl's Mad for Maisie Read-A-Long, I read the fourth book in Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series, Messenger of Truth,  which is a bit of a departure from the first three books. Many of the characters that we've come to know- Maisie's dad, her mentor Dr. Maurice Blanche, her friend Priscilla, her boyfriend Dr. Dene- are reduced to cameo roles in this story. Only Billy Beale, Maisie's assistant, has much of a storyline, and his is sad indeed.

Maisie seems dissatisfied with her life. She has a new home, but no real friends, and her relationship with Dr. Dene is taking second place to her career. When Georgina, a war journalist, hires her to find out whether her artist brother Nick died in an accident at an art gallery or was murdered, Maisie becomes enmeshed in a new world of artists.

Georgina introduces Maisie to her artist parents, Nick's artist friends, a gallery owner and an American art collector. Maisie is very organized and literal minded, as established by Winspear's frequent references to Maisie's index cards, colored pencils, and the case map that Maisie creates with "facts, thoughts, feelings, hunches and questions". (The case map seems like a forerunner of the murder board we see on today's cop shows, like TNT's The Closer.) This art world is a departure for her.

The war again plays a part in the book,  as Nick and his friends worked in propaganda, creating posters for the war effort. Nick also fought in the war alongside his sister Nolly's husband, who died in the war. On the night Nick died, he was ready to unveil his masterpiece, a work about the war that some people would rather he never painted. Through's Nick's art, he becomes a messenger of truth.

I like how Winspear sprinkles in clues to some of the mysteries, and although I have to say that while I have figured out some of them, (such as the circumstances of Nolly's husband's death) which makes me feel smart when I am right,  I am always surprised by the big reveal of the murderer at the end; it is never who I thought it was.

Winspear also more directly addresses the disparity of the wealthy and the poor in this novel. Billy and his family struggle, and even take in another family who needs help, but they are grateful that Billy has a job when so many others do not. Maisie found
"she was becoming resentful of the very people who provided her bread and butter and the roof over her head... When she considered the money that passed hands, the seeming inequity of a society where people would spend thousands on a painting, while a child would die for want of a few pounds of medical attention, she was left with a sour taste in her mouth."
 By the end of the novel, Maisie's restlessness and melancholy have morphed into a resolve to change her life. I have the feeling that in the next book, we are going to see a revitalized Maisie in her personal life.

Rating 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Published by Ballantine Books
Hardcover, $25

Who would have thought that of two people in a marriage, with one of them being Ernest Hemingway, it would be his wife Hadley who is the more interesting character? Paula McLain does a marvelous job bringing this real-life woman to life in her novel, The Paris Wife. She totally captures how the very masculine, younger Hemingway enchanted the shy, almost-spinster (age 28!) woman and persuaded her to marry him.

This novel succeeds on so many different levels. It is the story of a marriage: the good times, the difficult times, and the eventual dissolution. Anyone who is or has been married can identify with the many facets and challenges of marriage, as seen through Hadley's eyes. She knew that life with an artist such as Ernest would not be easy, and this passage describing her loneliness while Ernest was off on a story exemplifies that.

"Ernest was gone for three weeks, and by the end of that time I was sleeping so badly in our bed I'd often move in the middle of the night to an upright wingback chair and try to rest there, huddled in blankets. I couldn't enjoy much of anything except walking to the Ile St. Louis to the park I'd come to love and rely on. ...I also liked to look around at the houses surrounding the park and wonder about the people who filled them, what kinds of marriages they had and how they loved or hurt each other on any given day, and if they were happy, and whether they thought happiness was a sustainable thing."

That passage pretty much sums up Hadley's thoughts during the novel- is happiness sustainable? We know it wasn't with Hemingway who married four times and killed himself.

McLain totally immerses us not only in their marriage, but in the life that the so-called Lost Generation led in the Paris of 1920s. We see the evolving relationship between Ernest and Gertrude Stein, as well as his and Hadley's relationships with Ezra Pound and his wife, and even the fascinating F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald make a memorable appearance. The reader really feels dropped into the Paris cafes, and the scenes set in Barcelona during the bullfights are so well done, you can almost see the bulls charging down the streets.

This is a wonderful book for fans of Hemingway to read, but you don't have to be a fan of his to enjoy it.  I really felt empathy for Hadley, as she moved from young bride to mother to eventually being pushed aside by her husband for another woman. Anyone who wants to read a good novel about married life would do well to choose this one.

Rating 4 of 5 stars

Friday, February 18, 2011

Deborah Harkness at Barnes & Noble

Deborah Harkness speaking at Barnes & Noble

You would have to live under a rock not to have heard of the Harry Potter and Twilight books. Although written for teens and tweens, those books also found a big adult audience. That fact was not lost on history professor Deborah Harkness, who, while stuck in Puerto Vallarta on vacation during torrential rain, went to a bookstore and noticed all of the vampire and witch books lining the shelves.

This led her to write  A Discovery of Witches a novel about witches, vampires, and daemons interacting with humans. She spoke at Barnes & Noble 86th St. in NYC on February 16th to an enthusiastic crowd.

She said she is frequently asked why she wrote a novel, since she is a history professor. She said that is was not a decision to write, it was an accident. While looking at the those books in the bookstore, she began to wonder why vampires, witches and daemons exist, and where do they work? They can't all be private investigators.

She asked us to imagine that they exist in our world, and she laughingly said that many people have come to her saying that they believe their bosses may be witches or vampires. She described the four groups in her novel.
1. Humans- who have the unique power to ignore what's going on around them.
2. Vampires- whom she says are not immortal. They are physically strong, lead lonely lives and she believes they work mostly as scientists or investment bankers. (The audience laughed at that.)
3. Witches- are guardians of tradition. They have supernatural powers, and are keen observers of human nature. They gravitate toward such professions as anthropologists, sociologists and librarians.
4. Daemons- are guiding spirits in Greek mythology, geniuses in Roman mythology. The Christian tradition dropped the "a", and they became associated with devils and evil. Daemons are creative, and walk a true line between madness and genius.  They are usually "rock stars or serial killers". (More laughter from the audience.)

In the novel, Diana Bishop is a witch who tries to live a 'normal' life as a history professor studying at Oxford University in England. While researching in the Bodleian Library (where Harkness herself studied so much she claimed that "if a speck of dust moved, I would know it"), Diana comes across a missing manuscript with magical powers. When the underground world of witches, daemons and vampires hear about her discovery, they surface to get this magical book.

Diana falls in love with Matthew Hopkins, a vampire with an extensive wine collection. Apparently, vampires have super taste buds, so they collect and taste wine. Harness herself writes a wine blog, Good Wine Under $20, so she adds her love and knowledge of wine to the story. She read a scene from the book, one where Diana and Matthew have their first dinner date.

Harness says "hopefully, I've written a fairy tale for adults", and describes the moral of the story as "the importance of accepting who you are uniquely meant to be in this world." Her talk was very interesting, and I liked that she had a prepared presentation in addition to a short reading, yet she appeared to speak off the cuff. Her experience as a professor came through here.

I have not read any Harry Potter or Twilight or seen any of the movies, so I am surprised that I am looking forward to reading this book. I have heard nothing but positive things about it, and it debuted at #2 on the NY Times Bestseller List. My review will be up soon.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Pardonable Lies- Mad for Maisie #3

Pardonable Lies- A Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear
Published by Picador
Trade paperback- $14
The third Maisie Dobbs novel, Pardonable Lies, is a bigger book, and delves more deeply into Maisie's past and her personal life. When a man asks Psychologist/Private Investigator Maisie Dobbs to help him fulfill a deathbed promise to his wife to find out if their son, who was declared killed during World War I was really dead, Maisie takes the case.

Coincidentally, Maisie's friend Priscilla has come for a visit and asks Maisie to find out the circumstances behind her brother Peter's wartime death in France. Maisie and Priscilla both served in France during the war, and Maisie was wounded in an incident that caused her boyfriend to become brain damaged. He now lives in a permanent vegetative state in a hospital.

All this shakes Maisie, and she reluctantly takes the cases, and heads back to France to face her demons. The scene where Maisie is in the cemetery where so many men lost their lives during the war is emotionally powerful, and reveals a new level of depth to Maisie. All the horrors of war come rushing back, and Maisie is overcome with emotion.

I think many people who have faced trauma will understand Maisie's experience. Maisie has been presented as a character so in control of her emotions, this incident makes her more vulnerable.

Wisnpear ratchets up the tension in this novel as it appears that someone is trying to kill Maisie. Who and why this is happening is a puzzle, as there is more than one suspect.

The title, Pardonable Lies, refers to a few things. Maisie and her mentor Dr. Maurice Blanche have a falling out when Maisie discovers that he hid from her some aspects of his intelligence work during the war. This rift is important, and I wonder if it will permanently affect their relationship.

Maisie is very scrupulous, and her integrity is paramount to her. When she discovers two secrets related to Priscilla's brother and her client's son, she has to decide which is more important- protecting someone or telling the truth. Her internal struggle makes for a powerful story.

I'm enjoying getting to better know Maisie through these novels. In this one, we see Maisie struggle more with her emotions, having to face her past. I liked her friendship with Priscilla, unique because Maisie doesn't seem to have many friends her own age.

I also like getting historical context. Following World War I, when ships were no longer needed for battle, many of them were converted for pleasure travel. Although the world financial depression hurt the economy, travel to the Riviera, Africa and the Mediterranean became cheaper and easier. This opened up the world to many people who hadn't traveled much before.

Pardonable Lies gives us a deeper look at Maisie's life and I found it the strongest of the series so far. This series would be great for high school girls, Maisie is a terrific role model.

Rating 4.5 of 5

Monday, February 7, 2011

Between A Rock & A Hot Place

Between A Rock And A Hard Place- Why Fifty Is Not the New Thirty by Tracey Jackson
Published by Harper Collins- ISBN 978-0-06-166927-9
Hardcover, $25.99

I normally don't read 'self-help' books, but since I can see the age of 50 peeking around the corner, Tracey Jackson's Between a Rock and a Hot Place- Why Fifty is Not the New Thirty beckoned to me.

Jackson takes us on her own personal journey to the age of fifty. She takes on menopause and hormone replacement therapy, marriage, sex, online dating, work and cosmetic surgery.

She starts with her grandmother's generation, women who lived through the depression, and therefore turning fifty was not traumatic to them. Those women did not try to avoid getting older; they were grateful for it.

Jackson's mother was one of the first women in her age group to jump on the cosmetic surgery bandwagon. She watched her mother try every cream, new procedure, and even travel to Eastern Europe for treatments not yet available in the United States.  (Who knew Eastern Europe was the Fountain of Youth?) It's interesting that she and her mother are now estranged.

Menopause is a big topic in the book, and Jackson describes her symptoms in graphic detail; it's like a horror movie for middle-aged women. She takes on the hormone replacement controversy head-on, and I liked that she told her own story, she didn't preach to us as to the ultimate answer for all women. It's up to us all to research, talk to our doctors and make our own decisions.

Speaking of doctors, she comments that
"When I was thirty, I had four doctors in my address book: a gynecologist, a dentist, a GP and a vet. At fifty, I have thirty-four." 
Even though she admits to being a bit of a hypochondriac, she still has a point. Think about how many specialists we have to see now that we're older :gynecologist, radiologist, cardiologist, endocrinologist, dermatologist, gastoenterologist- you get the idea. 

There is some humor in the book, and the scene she describes where she and her husband decide to spice up their love life by purchasing some adult toys is too funny. She has to get her reading glasses to see the tiny print on the instructions, and then a part of it rolls under the bed where the dog refuses to give it up. It's like an x-rated I Love Lucy episode.

Jackson also takes on some topics not usually mentioned in books about aging. She is a screenwriter, and she talks about the difficulties of a woman trying to find work after the age of fifty. Sexism/ageism is alive and well in her work arena, and I'm sure many women in other fields know her pain. Her frustration is painful to read, but her determination to find a way to work at something she loves is inspiring.

She also takes on the invisibility of women to men after a certain age. Once women are no longer young, men no longer look at them. Her honesty about this topic really speaks to women.

Jackson writes honestly about her life, and her thoughts on aging really gave me food for thought. Her writing style is concise, as one would expect from a screenwriter, so the book read quickly. Any woman heading towards menopause will do well to buy this book.

Rating 4 of 5 stars

Thanks to Mark at Harper Collins for providing a review copy of this book.

Big Game Read-a-thon Wrap-up

My goal for Jenn's Bookshelves Big Game Read-a-thon was to read all/part of three books- Jacqueline Winspear's third Maisie Dobbs book, Pardonable Lies, Lisa Scottoline's essay collection My Nest Isn't Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space and Helen Castor's non-fiction She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth.

I finished two books, the Maisie Dobbs and Lisa Scottoline's, and alas, did not get to start She-Wolves.  The third Maisie Dobbs book was my favorite in the series so far, as the author got to really explore the trauma Maisie faced as a war time nurse. The scene with Maisie in the French cemetery was so powerful. I also liked the cases Maisie had to solve, and placing Maisie in immediate jeopardy gave the story a sense of urgency. Maisie's relationship with her mentor took an interesting turn as well. Winspear really pulled all of the pieces of the story together in a very satisfying manner.

Lisa Scottoline is probably better known for her thriller novels featuring women, but she also writes a column called Chick-Wit for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and this book is a collection of her columns. The essays are brief, and some are written by her daughter Francesca, who has graduated college and is starting out in New York City.

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of Lisa's essays on living alone with her five dogs and two cats in her home with Francesca's excitement at starting out and living in New York. Lisa is funny, and her column on her 'killer appliances' was hilarious, as she described her appliances (dishwasher, stove, refrigerator) all dying in the space of a few days. I think most of us can relate.

Francesca's essay about her mother's worrying about her going on a blind date and repeatedly calling and texting her daughter during the date is funny because every mother has gone through that moment of panicking when you can't reach your child. It was good to see it from the child's perspective.

Lisa also writes about her mother, who seems like a real pistol of a lady. Scottoline has previous essay collections, and after reading this, I want to read them to better know her family, especially Mom.

I didn't get my Aztec nachos though. My husband wanted a real dinner, so we ordered in from Ciao Bello Napoli, a new restaurant for us, and my Chicken Hero with mozzarella, romaine and sundried tomatoes was delicious.

Hope you all enjoyed your Super Bowl day- the game was a good one, with lots of action and it really came down to the last few minutes. (I hate blow-outs.) Congrats to all the Packers fans!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Big Game Read-a-thon Mini Challenge #1

For the first Big Game Read-a-thon mini challenge sponsored by Jenn's Bookshelves, we are challenged to choose which of the books we will read will win the day.

Of the three I'm reading- Pardonable Lies, the third in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, She-Wolves, a non-fiction look at the women who ruled England before Elizabeth by Helen Castor, and Lisa Scottoline's essay collection  My Nest Isn't Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space- it is the Maisie Dobbs novel who has gotten off to the strongest start.

Dobbs scored first, but do statistics show that the team that scores first usually wins the game? Or is it possible that Scottoline's short essay game format is a better strategy? Hmm, I'll have to have my crack team of statisticians work on that and get back to you.

Jenn's BookShelves The Big Game's On Readathon

It's Super Bowl Sunday, and now that it's just my husband and me, we don't have Super Bowl parties like we did when our sons lived with us. Our younger son is a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, so I'm sure he and his brother will have a party at school.

Since I don't have to spend the day cooking in the kitchen, and I'm still getting over the flu, I'll be participating in Jenn's Bookshelves The Big Game Readathon.  (You can join in by clicking on the link.)

I'm in the middle of Jacqueline Winspear's third book in the Maisie Dobbs series Pardonable Lies, which I'm reading for bookclubgirl's I'm Mad for Maisie Readalong. I have many of the Maisie books, and this is a good reason to read them all.  Maisie is a private investigator/psychologist working in 1930 London, and her journey from maid to wartime nurse on the frontlines in France to investigator is a fascinating one.

Continuing with the British theme, I may start She-Wolves: the Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor, an ARC I received a few weeks. This one is non-fiction, and maybe I will follow it up by viewing season two of The Tudors. I know, I'm far behind on that one.

Lastly, when the game comes on, I'll probably start Lisa Scottoline's book of humorous essays, My Nest Isn't Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space.  She wrote it with her daughter Francesca, and since I'll be missing my boys today, I could use a good laugh. Since they're essays, it will be easy to dip in and out during the game and not miss anything.

As far as snacks, we'll probably order out. I'm thinking Aztec nachos from Cilantro. Blacks beans, cheese, sour cream, jalapenos, maybe chicken. Yumm.

Enjoy your day and the game and GO STEELERS.

Friday, February 4, 2011

A great Valentine's gift to yourself- The Weird Sisters

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
Published by Amy Einhorn Books
Hardcover $24.95

There is nothing more delightful than reading a new author and falling in love with her novel. Amy Einhorn Books, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group, has a fabulous track record of introducing me to such new authors as including Kathryn Stockett (The Help), Mark Mustian (The Gendarme), Sarah Blake (The Postmistress) and Kelly O'Connor McNees (The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott).

The newest release from Amy Einhorn Book from Eleanor Brown, The Weird Sisters, and she emerges as one of the brightest new voices in literature. The tag line of the novel is "See, we love each other. We just don't happen to like each other very much." That line alone on the cover just grabs the reader right away.

Rosalind (called Rose) is the eldest daughter, a math professor who has finally found love after many years alone. Her fiance is living in England temporarily for a teaching position, so Rose is living at home in their small town in Ohio, taking care of her mother who has just been diagnosed with cancer.

Rose is the dutiful daughter, the one who had always kept the entire family in line. Bianca, (called Bean) the glamorous middle daughter, was living in New York City and slunk home after her employer caught her stealing money from them. The youngest free spirit daughter, Cordelia (called Cordy), also turns up home with a secret after years of living from hand to mouth, traveling the country following itinerant bands.

Their father is a Shakespeare professor, thus the girls names. He is pretty much the absent minded professor, and I loved the fact that his character functions as almost a Greek chorus, tossing in Shakespearean quotes to comment on the plot. You didn't need to know Shakespeare to appreciate this book, and most of the quotes will be familiar to anyone who read it in high school (ie- all of us).

Early on in the story, Bean's boss says to her after he catches her stealing,
"You may have lost your way more than a little bit, but I believe you can find your way back. That's the trick. Finding your way back." 
And that is the theme of this amazing book- the Weird Sisters finding their way back. (The Weird Sisters were the name of the witches in MacBeth). The sisters spend the summer figuring out how they got where they are, and how to get where they should be.

Rose has to decide if she can leave the only home she has known to be with the man she loves. Will her family survive without her holding them together? Bean left the excitement and loneliness of the big city; can she admit her shame and start over? Cordy has always been the baby of the family; can she take responsibility for her own life?

Brown's does a terrific job with her characters. She describes the mother as
"capricious, likely to be struck by a whim to prepare a four-course meal on an ordinary Wednesday, and then struck by equally strong whims to wander off in the middle of that preparation and take a soothing bath, or pick up the book that she had been reading earlier and involve herself in that world for a while until the pasta water boils away and the smoke alarm (hopefully) brings her back to reality."
The sisters are the best drawn characters, but even the minor ones- the coffee shop owner, the professor Bean has an affair with, Rose's fiance, the pastor- all are well developed. Sometimes in novels like this, the male characters are stock, but not here. Care is taken with each of them.

The writing is gorgeous. What makes the voice unique here is that it is written as if one of the sisters is the narrator, but she is an omniscient sister. I don't recall reading another book with this specific point of view, (I've seen it called a plural narrator) and it works so well here.
"In love too, Cordy has always been compliant. While Rose searched and Bean made herself available, Cordy had rarely bothered to seek anything out."
Voracious readers will relate to the fact that everyone in this family reads constantly. There are books all over the house, in every room, dropped wherever the reader last read a page. No matter where they are, each of the sisters will pull a book out of her respective purse to steal a few precious moments of reading. These are my people.

The complex sisterly bonds are explored with great depth here.
"Sisters are supposed to be tight and connected, sharing family history and lore, laughing over misadventures. But we are not that way. We never have been, really, because even our partnering was more for spite than love. Who are these sisters who act like this, who treat each other as their best friends. We have never met them."
The better I like a book, the more sticky notes I have in the book, and my copy of The Weird Sisters  looks like Don King's head- stuff sticking out all over. I love this book!

Anyone with sisters will relate to this stunning novel, but even if you don't have a sister, or you wish you did, you will still enjoy the beautifully crafted story, with lush words and characters whom you wish you knew in real life. Give yourself a Valentine's present this year and buy The Weird Sisters.

Rating 5 of 5 stars