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Nonfiction Review – I Wish I’d Been There

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2018

I Wish I’d Been There by Byron Hollinshead

Review by Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

“What is the scene or incident in American history that you would like to have witnessed—and why?” This is the thought provoking question that Byron Hollinshead posed to twenty of our finest American historians, with an invitation to answer in essay form. Those essays were then gathered together and put into a fascinating book called “I Wish I’d Been There: Twenty Historians Bring to Life Dramatic Events That Changed America.”

This is such a fun book! First, I had to think about my own choice. If I could only pick one incident, which one would it be? That’s a hard one, but I think I’d have to say I would have loved to sit in on the first Thanksgiving. Or maybe be at Roanoke Colony, right before everyone just disappeared. Then again, it would be so neat to sit in a crowded, darkened theater and watch Harry Houdini perform.

I don’t know if the participating historians had as much difficulty as I did when choosing their one, single event to witness—but I do have to say they choose some great ones.

Mary Beth Norton, a professor of American History at Cornell University, chose the Salem Witch Trials. Of course! What really happened in Salem in 1692? Were the four young girls truly being tormented by witches…or just bored? To watch an entire community descend into panicked paranoia would be compelling. On the other hand, these accusations could have been made in order to seize lands and property, to benefit a few greedy men. Mary Beth Norton tells us what she knows, what she believes, and why she would love to have witnessed it all.

Thomas Fleming, historian and author of fine historical fiction, wanted to be with John Brown at Harpers Ferry. Being a novelist, his essay is a rich imagining of what it would be like if he had been…say, a journalist in 1859, assigned to follow Brown and report on the happenings. He drops the reader into that long-ago time, and brings us along on the raid that changed our country forever.

There are so many choices! We have essays on the day Abraham Lincoln was shot; the day Chief Joseph surrendered; the day Lewis and Clark first see the Rocky Mountains; the day Jenny Lind debuts in America, courtesy of P.T. Barnum. Each historian chose a fascinating snippet of American history, and the enthusiasm and longing for that snippet comes through in each chapter. Not every choice was from our distant past, either; there are essays about sitting in on the meeting between JFK and his brother Robert when they discussed America’s role in Vietnam; one historian wanted to march on Washington with Martin Luther King; one wished he could have been in the White House on March 13, 1965 when Lyndon Johnson confronted George Wallace. Read: at one point, Johnson says “Now look, George. don’t think about 1968, think about 1988. You and me, we’ll be dead and gone then, George. Now you’ve got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama, a lot of ignorant people. You can do a lot for them, George. Your president will help you. What do you want left after you die? Do you want a great big marble monument that reads George Wallace—he built? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board that read George Wallace—he hated?” That meeting would have been something to see.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Each participating historian offers a well-written, well-reasoned explanation of the slice of history he or she wishes to have witnessed. And to be honest, I wish I could have been at each one of these events too. It certainly makes one think: which historic event do you wish you could have witnessed?

 

 

Fiction Review – Someday, Someday, Maybe

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

 

Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham

Review by Mirah Welday (mwelday)

So, I suppose I should start this review with a disclaimer.  I love Lauren Graham.  I loved her in The Gilmore Girls and Parenthood.  When I found out Lauren had written a novel (yes, we’re on a first name basis), I had to add it to my list of books to read.  Granted, it took me a few years to get to it (I mean, in my defense, I’ve moved twice and had four surgeries since it was released so I’ve had some things going on).  But, this summer, it was the perfect go-to for pool reading.

Here’s the breakdown of Someday, Someday, Maybe: Franny Banks has placed herself on a timeline to become a successful actress.  She has given herself three years to really be able to make a living as an actress, no more waitressing and odd jobs to make ends meet.  Someday, Someday, Maybe picks up with only six months to go on Franny’s timeline.  We follow Franny on her ups and downs during these final months of auditions, call backs, agent interviews, acting class, waitressing gigs, boyfriend drama, and a family wedding.

I won’t give away the ending, you’ll have to read the novel yourself to determine if Franny finds her success as an actress.  With excerpts from a handwritten daily planner dispersed amongst the chapters, Graham has a funny, fast-paced novel that was quirky but enjoyable.  The sections of daily planner really took me back to my college days when my life was chronicled by the notes in my daily planner.  I’m not sure that was even an intention of Lauren’s, but I rather loved it!

I also really enjoyed the reader’s guide at the end of the paperback edition I read that included a conversation with Lauren and her Parenthood co-star Mae Whitman, whom I also love. But the thing I loved most about this novel was the character of Dan.  Dan is one of Franny’s roommates and the scenes with him are some of the best in the novel.  His personality is endearing and his changing relationship with Franny was, for me, what pushed the novel along. The questions about their relationship kept me interested almost as much as wanting to know if Franny would get that big break for her acting career!

If you want a novel that is both lighthearted and heartwarming this summer, give Someday, Someday, Maybe a chance.

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – Death and Taxes

Monday, August 20th, 2018

Death and Taxes by Thomas B. Dewey

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This Detective “Mac” mystery was published in 1967. Mac’s first and last names were never revealed in these PI novels, which went on from the early 1950s to about 1970. Mac never aged either, staying in early middle age for the entire run.

Mac is assigned to deliver a million dollars in cash to the daughter of his client, a notorious gangster Marco Paul, upon the thug’s death. However, Marco Paul is gunned down in an old-style gangland hit before he has a chance to tell Mac when he stashed the stacks and stacks of hot cash. Gangsters being awful gossips, plug-uglies sniff the existence of the million and assume that Marco told Mac of the location of the cache. This makes Mac’s life difficult, as he becomes the subject of strongarm tactics to get him to tell. This is a hard-boiled mystery for 1967 so the strongarm scenes aren’t disgusting. So Mac needs to catch the killer and find the cash fast.

There are two attractive female characters in the mix, but Mac, as always, is chaste. Mac, in fact, is rather a worrier, who wears his emotions and concerns on this sleeve. After reading lots of Dashiell Hammett lately, I feel that Mac rather pales beside the rugged but human Op. Mac is based in Chicago, but besides street names there is little local color. Finally, Mac doesn’t wrestle with The Ambiguities like Phil Marlow or Lew Archer. Nor does Mac seem to have any kind of life outside of detecting (his lives in an apartment attached to his office).

I still recommend these hard-boiled mysteries, with a tight stories, a minimum of violence, and no foul language, for readers to this old-school genre.

 

 

 

Nonfiction Review – The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

 

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story
by Douglas Preston

Review by Gail P. (TinkerPirate)

Picture yourself looking through a bookshelf and randomly picking up a book titled “The Lost City of the Monkey God”.  The premise is a group of scientists are searching for a lost city in a deep South American jungle.  You figure you are in for a finger-nail biting, thrill ride.  Then, you learn that many of the scientists develop symptoms of a mysterious disease that takes trips to far-away countries and months to diagnosis.  Oh, yes, you know you have a book that will keep you up at night.  Lastly, you see that the author is Douglas Preston.  Now, you know you have a great read in your hands and you clear your calendar for non-stop reading.  Then, comes the unexpected curve…it’s all TRUE!  “The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story” is Preston Douglas’ eyewitness account of a 2012 expedition in search of this lost city. 

The book set in an area of eastern Honduras called La Mosquitia that consists of tropical rain forests, marshs, and savannahs.  It contains the largest wilderness in Central America and is considered largely unpopulated.  While there are some areas inhabited by people, the vast majority of La Mosquitia is home only to animals that can amuse you, annoy you, or kill you.   In addition to being considered a World Heritage site, it is reportedly the location of a legendary city of immense wealth.  That city is called La Ciudad Blanca (the White City) or Lost City of the Monkey God.  

The search for the Lost City of the Monkey God is not for the faint of heart.  Since the time of the conquistadors, men have been trying to find this lost city.  Many have boasted of finding it, but none have provided evidence of its existence.  Preston provides descriptions of a number of these previous attempts.  His narrative of those expeditions are not only entertaining, but informative.  Along the way you will discover interesting pieced of history about Honduras and the role the United States has played in creating its present state of unrest.  I was surprised to learn the origin of the term “banana republic”.

I went into the book expecting a good read about an expedition into the unknown and some history into indigenous culture. What I got was much, much more.  While the first 60 pages or so were slow, Preston does an incredible job of presenting dry subjects such as Central American politics, archeologic processes, epidemiology, etc. in a way that makes the book a real page-turner.  He brought me into the adventure as an eye-witness to one of the greatest discoveries in the 21st century.

Key things I walked away with: 

  1. Great civilizations fail for the same reasons. 
  2. Humans have an amazing capacity to protect natural and historical wonders, but, unfortunately, more of us just want to exploit whose wonders. 
  3. In a battle between nature and humans, nature wins. 
  4. One of the greatest dangers to us has been around since dinosaurs walked the earth and little is being done to control it. 
  5. Never under estimate the power of a dream. 

 

 

Young Adult Fiction Review – Paper Towns

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

Paper Towns by John Green

Review by Mirah Welday (mwelday)

Paper Towns won the 2009 Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Mystery, was number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and was written by the same author who gave us The Fault in Our Stars.  I had very high expectations.

Meet Quentin and Margo, neighbors who were close as children, but who have grown apart as teenagers.  They have had very little to do with one another until Margo climbs into Quentin’s window one night during their senior year of high school.  Margo takes Quentin on a reckless ‘adventure’. Margo dishes out some teenage justice to those who have wronged her and Quentin lets go of some of his ‘good boy’ personality for a few hours.  And then Margo is gone.  Did she run away or did something more malevolent happen to her?  Thus, begins a quest to find Margo.

There were a couple of things I really liked about this book.  One, Quentin’s friendship with Ben and Radar and two, the dialogue between the characters. Ben and Radar reminded me of those fabulous friendships where you can say almost anything to one another and still be loved.  They provided the brutal honesty and constant ribbing perfect for any situation or for any emotion.  Ben and Radar provided the levity that was much-needed in the more complex, difficult to understand mentality of Margo.  And Green did not disappoint with the dialogue between the characters.  Witty and quick-paced, it read like a natural conversation and had me smiling or laughing out loud at times.

While there were things I liked about the book, I did feel it was a bit of a letdown in the end.  In my opinion, the character of Margo and her perceived complexities came off as artificial and forced. I thought the other characters were much stronger, so having the character I considered the weakest at the center of the story made it a bit harder to truly appreciate the novel as a whole.

Overall, I think the premise was a good one but the lack of character in Margo impacted the result in the end, so I give this one 3.5 out of 5 stars. I would recommend The Fault in Our Stars more heartily than Paper Towns.  You can also read my review of The Fault in Our Stars on the PaperBackSwap.com blog.

 

 

 

Fiction Review – Beautiful Day

Wednesday, July 25th, 2018

Beautiful Day by Elin Hilderbrand

Review by Mirah Welday (mwelday)

I have read numerous books by Elin Hilderbrand and what I enjoy most is that she can transport me to Nantucket with her vivid descriptions.  Beautiful Day is no exception to this, but I don’t think the other areas of the novel delivered quite as I hoped.

The novel begins with a wedding invitation.  Jenna Carmichael and Stuart Graham are getting married in Nantucket.  Almost every detail of the wedding has come from The Notebook, a guide written by her mother Beth before her death to help Jenna with the planning of her wedding.  Margot, Jenna’s sister, is dealing her own problems and dreading the entire wedding weekend. She has been at her sister’s side and followed almost every direction in The Notebook.  Beth has given direction on flowers, colors, location, music, food…everything.  The pressure to have the wedding Beth envisioned is a pressure that has weighed heavily on Jenna, Margot, and their father Doug.  Friends and family descend on Nantucket, but The Notebook doesn’t include guidance on what to do when there are doubts and cold feet, thus the perfect summer wedding may now be called off.

In true Hilderbrand style, Nantucket and the Carmichael island home (even the tree in the backyard) are characters in this novel.  As Hilderbrand does best, her locations become characters themselves and the reader can almost feel the salty breezes.

I think my main issue with this book was The Notebook itself.  I understand that Hilderbrand wanted it to be an outpouring of love from mother to daughter, but to me it came off as overbearing and manipulative. The entries in The Notebook irritated me and, even with all the praise for Beth from other characters, came across as a power play with the impression that Jenna would be a disappointment to her mother if Jenna didn’t follow every word. This seemed to overshadow the entire novel since excerpts from The Notebook are dispersed throughout the novel.

I think Hilderbrand’s position as queen of the beach read is probably safe, but I hope her next book that I read leaves a better impression on me.  And I will read another of her novels, that is of no doubt. Hilderbrand offers a type of escapism that typically is very satisfying for me.  Even though Beautiful Day didn’t leave me with a beautiful feeling, I still recommend Hilderbrand’s novels.  If you’re interested, check out my review of Hilderbrand’s Winter Street previously posted in the PaperBackSwap.com Blog.

 

 

 

Fiction Review – Prester John

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018

Prester John by John Buchan

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

The beautiful cover of the Oxford World Classics edition of Prester John (1910) hints that Buchan’s descriptions of landscape are pleasant in this novel.

I could scarcely believe my eyes as I ran towards [a gleaming lake], and doubts of a mirage haunted me. But it was no mirage, but a real lake, perhaps three miles in circumference, with bracken-fringed banks, a shore of white pebbles, and clear deep blue water. I drank my fill, and then stripped and swam in the blessed coolness. After that I ate some luncheon, and sunned myself on a flat rock. ‘I have discovered the source of the Labongo,’ I said to myself. ‘I will write to the Royal Geographical Society, and they will give me a medal.’

Ah, the daydreams of a 19-year-old.

Another plus is that the teen hero freely admits to being at the end of his tether on numerous occasions and he feels the physical effects of his ordeals, both of which are rarely admitted in adventure novels of any time. Although not quite as thrilling as Greenmantle, this is an admirable story, packed with chases and escapes. Aside from the total of absence of female characters, modern readers may be put off by the ethnocentrism and imperialism, enlightened or not. What balances the typical opinions of a man of his nation, class, and time, I think, is Buchan’s relevant idea that civilization is fragile, “a pane of glass,” and that savages come in all guises.