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Monday, May 26, 2014

The Care and Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

The Care and Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear
Published by Harper ISBN978-0-06-222050-9
Hardcover, $26.99, 336 pages

Jacqueline Winspear is best known for her series of Maisie Dobbs novels, about a female private investigator in London during WWI. I love all of the books, and I look forward to catching up every year with Maisie and the gang.

This year, Winspear has written a stand alone book, also set in WWI England. The Care and Management of Lies introduces us to Thea and Kezia, two young women who met at Camden School for girls and became best friends.

They both became teachers, and Kezia fell in love with Thea's younger brother Tom and married him. Kezia left teaching to become a farmer's wife, which was a big change from her life as a pastor's daughter.

Kezia didn't know anything about being a farmer's wife, but she impressed Tom with her hard work and diligence in learning her farm duties and how to cook for the farm workers and her husband. She studied Tom's mother's recipe books, and gradually gained enough confidence to experiment with herbs and new sauces.

Thea lived in London where she taught at a private school. She became politically active in the suffragette movement, and when it looked like England was going to get involved in the war in Europe, Thea became involved in the peace movement.

She handed out fliers and attended rallies. But pacifism was not a popular approach in a country that was becoming more patriotic about supporting the war cause. When Kezia visited Thea, she began to fear her sister-in-law's new strident views. Thea saw her friend as becoming too complacent.

Soon it became clear that Tom would have to volunteer to join the army, and so he left Kezia and few of his workers to run the farm. Tom ran afoul of a sergeant whose strategy was to pick on one soldier and make everyone in the unit turn against the soldier as a way to build troop loyalty. Tom became that soldier, and things became very difficult for him.

His saving grace were the letters Kezia wrote him, describing in great detail the meals that she made for Tom. She made it seem as if Tom were right there, and soon the entire unit begged Tom to read the letters aloud.

Kezia didn't tell Tom all that was happening at the farm; she didn't want Tom to worry. And Tom's letters to Kezia didn't mention the horrifying conditions in France- the rats (which are described in terribly vivid and awful detail), the bad food, the fighting and losing so many men.

If you enjoy reading about food, this book is for you. Reading about Kezia's cooking is a fascinating look at the evolution of a cook at that time; the foods they ate, and the inventive recipes that Kezia created are so vivid, you can almost taste them.

I wasn't sure that I would like this book without Maisie, and while it took me awhile to become involved, I fell in love with these characters. Kezia is such a strong woman, I admired her ability to grow and take on new responsibilities. Tom is an honorable man, and when he gets into a jam, the scene where it is resolved is as tense as any great thriller novel. I was biting my nails.

Thea grew as well, taking what could have been a bad situation and owning it, making the lives of those around her better. All of these characters face great upheaval in their lives, and they deal with that with grit and grace, I wonder if modern day characters would fare as well.

Fans of the Maisie Dobbs series will enjoy these new characters in a familiar setting, and it's depiction of strong women is inspirational. Winspear has done it again.

rating 4 of 5
Jacqueline Winspear's website is here.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Jacqueline Winspear's tour. The rest of her stops are here.

Jacqueline’s Tour Stops

Monday, May 19th: Helen’s Book Blog
Tuesday, May 20th: Kritters Ramblings
Thursday, May 22nd: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Monday, May 26th: bookchickdi
Tuesday, May 27th: 5 Minutes For Books
Wednesday, May 28th: A Bookworm’s World
Thursday, May 29th: Historical Tapestry
Monday, June 2nd: A Bookish Way of Life
Tuesday, June 3rd: Olduvai Reads
Wednesday, June 4th: Kahakai Kitchen
Thursday, June 5th: My Bookshelf
Friday, June 6th: Bibliophilia, Please
Monday, June 9th: The Written World
Tuesday, June 10th: From L.A. to LA
Wednesday, June 11th: Lesa’s Book Critiques
Thursday, June 12th: A Patchwork of Books
Friday, June 13th: A Chick Who Reads

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Stars in the Alley

On May 20th, Shubert Alley in Times Square was the place to be as stars from thirty Broadway shows performed songs from their shows in a free concert as a warmup for the 2014 Tony Awards, which will take place on June 8th.

Norm Lewis, the first African-American man to play the phantom in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway hosted the show, and he was coerced by his costar Sierra Boggess into giving the appreciative crowd a taste of the iconic "Music of the Night" song before joking that if we wanted to hear the entire song, we'd have to come see the show.

Norm Lewis, the host

The show opened with Andy Karl, the star of Rocky, singing "Fight From the Heart." I haven't seen this show, and his performance made me put it on my must-see list. Karl is nominated for Best Actor in a Musical.
Andy Karl from Rocky
Another new show I haven't seen, Bullets Over Broadway, based on the Woody Allen movie, was represented by Brooks Ashmanskas and Helene York doing a humorous dance routine while singing "Let's Misbehave." The crowd got a kick out them. 
Bullets Over Broadway
Tony nominated Adriane Lenox from After Midnight had the crowd eating out of her hand as she performed "Don't Advertise Your Man." I saw her perform this in the show, and it is a audience-pleaser. 
Adriane Lenox
From the multi-nominated A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder, Tony nominated for Best Actor in a Musical Bryce Pinkham sang "Foolish to Think."
Bryce Pinkham
Joshua Henry is nominated as Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical for his role in the revival of Violet, and he amazed the crowd with his rendition of "Let It Sing." He is fantastic in the show.
Joshua Henry
Another Best Revival of a Musical is Les Miserables, and Nikki M. James, a Tony winner for The Book Of Mormon, sang "On My Own".
Nikki M. James
Lena Hall is nominated for Best Featured Performance by an Actress in a Musical for her role in the revival of Hedwig and The Angry Inch. She tore the roof off of the place with "Tear Me Down."
Lena Hall
Kelli O'Hara is Tony nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Francesca in the now closed The Bridges of Madison County. I still don't understand that- it has the best score I have heard in years (Norm Lewis agrees) and the performances are all wonderful. I wish it had had more time to grow, it is one of my favorites. O'Hara sang "To Build A Home" and the crowd loved it. Sigh.

Some of the other performances that were fan favorites include Teshi Thomas, who belted "The Circle of Life" from The Lion King.
Teshi Thomas
The guys from Newsies have a big fan base of young ladies as they sang "Seize The Day."
And Judy McClane crushed it with "The Winner Takes It All" from Mamma Mia.
Mamma Mia
The show that I send everyone to see, Once, brought their entire cast to sing "When Your Mind's Made Up."
Stars in the Alley was two hours of the best performers giving their all; it really put us all in the mood for the Tony Awards and it was free. That is why I love New York.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Tony 2014 Nominees- Mothers and Sons

The Tonys will be awarded for the best in Broadway on June 8th, and I have been lucky enough to see several nominated shows and performers. In the coming days and weeks, I will review some of the contenders.

Terrence McNally's newest play, Mothers and Sons, stars the amazing Tyne Daly, whom I have seen in Master Class (Tony nominated) and the concert performance of Ragtime last year. She is a force to reckoned with no matter what role she plays, and she is nominated as Best Actress in a Play for her performance as Kathryn Gerard. The play is also nominated for Best Play.

Kathryn is visiting the apartment of Cal Porter, the man her son loved and lived with at the time of his death twenty years prior at the age of 29. She shows up unannounced, which surprises Cal, played wonderfully by Frederick Weller. His husband, the fifteen years younger Will, (Bobby Steggart) is annoyed. Their six-year-old son, Bud is delighted by the strange woman in their apartment.

We discover that Kathryn's husband died, and she is leaving her home in Dallas (which she hates) to travel to Europe. Kathryn was estranged from her son, an actor, and didn't come to visit even when he was dying from AIDS. This is something Cal can't forgive her for, and their confrontation over this is powerful and emotional.

Kathryn is all alone now, and she rages against whomever gave her son AIDS. She wants revenge, and can't understand how Cal has moved on and replaced her son with another lover, and made himself a new, happy life. She cannot replace her son, he is gone and she will never have another.

Daly is so spectacular in the role. We should despise Kathryn for leaving her son to die, for the mean things she says to Cal. But Daly makes you feel this woman's pain, her loneliness. She knows who she is, someone with no friends, no family, no one to care whether she lives or dies. We don't like Kathryn, and cringe at the things she says, but we still feel her mother's pain.

She mourns that her entire life her identity was as Andre's mother, that no one took the time to know her as Kathryn the woman. When she recounts a late night phone call she made to Andre when she nearly had a one night stand, the audience gasped at her inappropriateness.

Bud asks if Kathryn can be his grandmother since he doesn't have one. This softens her a bit and even though I sat in the rear mezzanine of the theater, you could see the almost minute changes in Daly's face as every emotion Kathryn is feeling crosses her face. It is a tour-de-force performance.

Watching this heartbreaking, powerful, emotional play reminded me of Larry Kramer's play, The Normal Heart.  The subject matter is similar, and the emotions it created in the audience were identical. It brought tears to my eyes, and you could hear several audience members sniffling throughout.

Daly is always a contender, and even in a tough field this year, she could definitely win. A win for Mothers and Sons looks good as well.

If you are coming to NYC, I highly recommend Mothers and Sons. There are discount tickets available, but I would pay full price for this one. And if you have HBO, watch The Normal Heart on Sunday, May 25th; it is an experience not to be forgotten.

The website for Mothers and Sons is here.

The Spy Mistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

The Spy Mistress by Jennifer Chiaverini
Published by Plume Books ISBN 978-0-14-218088-4
Trade paperback, $16, 354 pages

Last year I read Jennifer Chiaverini's historical novel Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker and found it quite enjoyable. I like to read novels based on historical people, and getting a different perspective on Mary Todd Lincoln was fascinating.

Chiaverini's new novel The Spy Mistress is inspired by the true story of civil war espionage. Lizzie Van Lew was from a prominent Richmond Virginia family. She lived with her widowed mother Eliza and her brother John, a hardware store owner, his wife Mary and two young daughters. They were staunch patriots and disdained the institution of slavery.

When Virginia seceeded from the Union, the Van Lews were stunned. Many of their neighbors supported the Confederacy, and the Van Lews were forced to keep their Unionist views to themselves to avoid being arrested.

Richmond became the capitol of the Confederacy, and when Jefferson Davis was chosen as it's president, he moved his family (whom we met in Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker) to the city. Richmond also became home to prisons housing Union soldiers captured in battle.

Lizzie decided to help the Union cause. Under the guise of providing charity in the form of food and books, Lizzie asked for permission to visit the Northern prisoners. She came under suspicion from her neighbors and the Confederate leadership for this, but it was allowed.

During her visits, she met with Union soldiers who gave her information, including the names of all the men imprisoned, to smuggle out to the North. One of the Union prisoners created a clever code, by punching letters on the pages of a book, that Lizzie quickly figured out. That impressed me a great deal.

Soon Lizzie had recruited other Union supporters, including freed blacks, to become part of the spy ring sending messages to the Union generals on the battlefield. They even placed a spy inside the Davis home who discovered troop movements and strategies that Lizzie was able to send North.

This is an intriguing look at the Civil War from another perspective, that of the Southern Union patriot. There is tension in the novel as Lizzie waited for the Union troops to retake Richmond, which takes years before succeeding. Lizzie's neighbors, as well as her sister-in-law who strongly supported the Confederacy, became more suspicious of her, and she worried that her mother may suffer for it.

Her mother Eliza is a terrific character; she supported Lizzie's efforts, but better understood the importance of appearing to be a true Confederate. Lizzie says Eliza "was the very ideal of a Southern lady- kind, gracious, polite, well spoken, pious and charitable." She was also intelligent and tough when she needed to be.

Lizzie used her feminine wiles to her advantage, winning over Confederate prison officials, like Mary Todd Lincoln's brother, with her charm and bribes of food and drink. She was underestimated by the Confederate military leaders who didn't count on Lizzie's intelligence or gumption to get what she wanted.

After reading The Spy Mistress, I want to learn more about Elizabeth Van Lew and her real adventures. This is a terrific book to give to a young woman in high school who wants to learn more about the role women Southern played in the Civil War. It's an unknown story that deserves a wider audience, and Chiaverini tells it in a way that keeps the reader turing the pages.

rating 4 of 5

My review of Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is here.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Jennifer's Chiaverini's tour. The rest of the stops are here.

Jennifer Chiaverini’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Monday, April 28th: Tales of a Book Addict
Thursday, May 1st: Literally Jen
Friday, May 2nd: Kritter’s Ramblings
Monday, May 5th: Fiction State of Mind
Tuesday, May 6th: Reading Reality
Wednesday, May 7th: From the TBR Pile
Thursday, May 8th: West Metro Mommy
Friday, May 9th: Mom in Love with Fiction
Tuesday, May 13th: Passages to the Past
Wednesday, May 14th: Broken Teepee
Thursday, May 15th: Words for Worms
Friday, May 16th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Monday, May 19th: Daily Mayo
Tuesday, May 20th: Bookchickdi
Wednesday, May 21st: Peppermint Ph.D.
Thursday, May 22nd: Must Read Faster
Friday, May 23rd: Fiction Addict
Tuesday, May 27th: The Most Happy Reader
Tuesday, May 28th:  Books a la Mode – author guest post
Thursday, May 29th: Lit and Life

Monday, May 19, 2014

Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro

Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro
Published by St. Martin's Press ISBN 978-1-250-0402-6
Hardcover, $24.99, 322 pages

When I began reading Julia Fierro's debut novel Cutting Teeth, I thought it was going to be a novel about a bunch of whiny, overprotective, rich, Brooklyn parents and their spoiled (yet gifted or challenged) children. I didn't see how I could relate.

Then as I read the book, I saw how Fierro brought these characters I probably would not befriend to vivid life in her novel. It begins with something I wish more multi-character novels would have - a chart explaining the who the characters are and how they relate to each other. This is so helpful when you begin a book, and if a book is as well-written as this is, you find you don't need it to keep track of the characters, you are invested enough in them to know who is who.

They came together as a playgroup for their four-year-olds. Nicole, who has OCD and is afraid that the world is coming to an end this Labor Day weekend, has invited the four other couples and their children to her parents' Long Island Sound vacation cottage. Nicole's husband is rapidly tiring of Nicole's OCD behavior and her fears, her constant monitoring parenting of message boards, and has trouble relating to their son Wyatt and his behavior issues.

Leigh comes from a wealthy family who has lost much of their fortune in the economic downturn. Her husband works for her family's business, so their livelihood is in jeopardy, which causes Leigh to do something that could cost her everything she holds dear. Her son Chase may be somewhere on the autism spectrum, and she has pinned all her mothering hopes on her baby daughter, who was conceived in vitro.

Rip is the stay-at-home daddy in the group. He is an earth father, making his family organic homemade foods and loves caring for his son Hank, who is shy and wants to dress like a princess. He wants another baby but his wife refuses to consider it. She has a difficult time relating to Hank and Rip.

Rip is attracted to Tiffany, who runs a music class for children and whose daughter Harper, the only girl in the group, is a Queen Bee. Harper orders the boys around and expects them to do as she tells them. Tiffany likes to stir up trouble in the group, and when we get her backstory we see why.

Susanne and Allie have twin boys, Levi and Dash, and Susanne is now hugely pregnant with another baby. Allie is an artist, a photographer, and Susanne has started a home business renting strollers and car seats to parents. Their relationship is strained at the moment.

Maybe the most interesting person in the novel is Tenzin, a Tibetan political refugee who fled her home country leaving behind her loving husband and three children. Tenzin is nannying for Leigh, and Tiffany is trying to bully Leigh into sharing Tenzin with her. Tenzin loves and understands the children and seeing these people through her eyes in a brief chapter is interesting. I wish we had more chapters narrated by her.

There are tensions, sexual and otherwise, among the parents and between various couples, and anyone who has vacationed with a big group may recognize these scenes being played out. The weekend culminates in one big uncomfortable scene where the underlying problems bubble to the surface and explode.

Cutting Teeth is a character study of contemporary parenting in an urban setting. The competitiveness of getting your child into the right preschool, maintaining a expensive lifestyle, trying to sustain a marital relationship in the midst of all this, making friends, and the helicopter parenting that has led to children being labeled and over scheduled is all examined in this terrific novel that fans of Tom Perrotta's Little Children will enjoy.

rating 4 of 5

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Julia Fierro's tour. The rest of her stops are here.

Julia Fierro’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Monday, May 12th:  Books a la Mode – guest post
Monday, May 12th:  Ageless Pages
Tuesday, May 13th:  The Well Read Redhead
Wednesday, May 14th:  Books in the ‘Burbs
Friday, May 16th:  BookNAround
Monday, May 19th:  Bookchickdi
Tuesday, May 20th:  Book Chatter
Thursday, May 22nd:  Must Read Faster
Friday, May 23rd:  Peeking Between the Pages
Tuesdya, May 27th:  Bibliophiliac
Wednesday, May 28th:  My Bookshelf
Wednesday, May 28th:  Snowdrop Dreams of Books
Thursday, May 29th:  Anita Loves Books
Monday, June 2nd:  Literally Jen
Tuesday, June 3rd:  Books in the City
Thursday, June 5th:  Bibliotica
Thursday, June 5th:  Kritter’s Ramblings
Monday, June 9th:  A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
Wednesday, June 11th:  River City Reading
Thursday, June 12th:  Sidewalk Shoes
Friday, June 13th:  Luxury Reading