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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Historical Fiction Review – In the Land of the Long White Cloud

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017

In the Land of the Long White Cloud by Sarah Lark

Review by Mirah Welday (mwelday)

Ok, full disclosure.  This book is long.  If you’re not interested in sweeping sagas, this might not be the book for you.  However, if you like books that take you on adventures, characters who make you want to cheer or throttle them (depending on the chapter), twisted love stories, and high drama, keep reading.  And it’s the first book in a series so those of you who like to series, that’s another bonus!

Helen Davenport is a governess in England when she sees an advertisement for young women to travel to New Zealand and, hopefully, marry one of the many eligible bachelors. Helen decides this could be the opportunity she has been searching for to get away from her dim prospects of an advantageous marriage in London.  She gets passage to New Zealand through the church when she agrees to chaperone young girls being sent to New Zealand to work as housekeepers or nannies.

Gwyneira Silkham reluctantly agrees to marry the son of a wealthy New Zealand sheep/land baron when her father makes an unscrupulous bet and wagers his daughter’s hand in a game of cards.

Helen and Gwyneira meet on the ship while sailing to New Zealand and an unlikely friendship grows.  Both are optimistic about their future lives in New Zealand but what will be their realities? They will each face hardships of much different natures but both will be challenged and both will find strength they didn’t know they had.  And what will happen to the young girls Helen is chaperoning?

In the Land of the Long White Cloud had a lot of drama that kept me interested but there were some lulls in the action that made it a little hard to get through. I cannot comment on the realistic portrayal of New Zealand during the 1800s.  I imagine if I was more familiar with the landscape and culture of the country, I would find some discrepancies.  Some of the characters use some language that I’m not sure was prominent at the time.  But I am willing to overlook some of that and chalk it up to artistic license on the author’s part. Overall, I would give it a solid 3.5 stars out of 5…good for the entertainment but I have a feeling it is lacking on authenticity for the time.

 

 

Autobiography Review – Upstairs at the White House

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies
by J. B. West

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

With all of the Presidential politics of the past couple of years I really started to wonder what life in the White House is really like.  And, if I’m honest, my recent binge of The West Wing played a role in this curiosity, as well.

J.B. West worked at the White House for over 25 years, as Assistant to the Chief Usher and later as Chief Usher. He worked closely with each First Lady as she grew familiar with the home and acclimated to life in the White House.  West worked in the White House with the Roosevelts, Trumans, Eisenhowers, Kennedys, Johnsons, and Nixons.  It was a fantastic position from which to experience the ups and downs of presidential living and the ups and downs of the country.

Some memorable takeaways were West’s descriptions of the never ending visitors of Mrs. Roosevelt’s who would stay for weeks at a time in the White House. The cancelling of the formal season at the White House following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the White House going through food rationing during World War II like the rest of the country. The frugality of the Trumans and the true relationship that created their strong marriage. The vast reconstruction of the White House during the Truman years.  The control Mamie Eisenhower had over every aspect of life in the White House and her generosity at birthdays and the holidays for all of the staff she had contact with on a daily basis.  The lengths that Jackie Kennedy took to protect her children from the press and public eye while in the White House and the darkness that fell over the White House after the assassination of President Kennedy.

I found West’s book interesting and it seemed like an honest account. I was so fascinated by the ‘behind the scenes’ look at the life in the White House and how it transformed over the years. The photographs he shared were also great and put an image to some of the descriptions he provided.  I think this would be an interesting read for any presidential or first lady history buff. Solid 4 stars.

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – Mr. Moto is So Sorry

Monday, July 31st, 2017

Mr. Moto is So Sorry by John P. Marquand

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

A reader can tell this spy story was originally published in serial installments in the Saturday Evening Post in 1938. Chapters end with cliffhangers. Three long-winded chapters in the middle give the distinct impression Marquand was getting paid by the word. He gives the magazine audience what it expects. Dangerous encounters on a train. A romantic interest with a modern plucky American woman. Exotic and wily Chinese, Japanese, Mongols, Russians, and, heaven forfend, Australians. A maguffin that spy services want.

But despite temporary and uncharacteristic verbosity in the middle, Marquand is true to himself by including themes that he liked to use. The protagonist is a young American man who finds himself through his adventures, just like the young men in Your Turn, Mr Moto and Think Fast, Mr. Moto. Also, though willing to give his all for the Emperor and expand Japan’s influence, Mr. Moto is kind of a good-guy, working to restrain factions in the Japanese army that want to overrun China.

Marquand was an Army Intelligence operative during WWI and traveled in China and Japan during the Thirties so his writing on these topics have authority. Recommended to readers of vintage mysteries.

 

 

Mystery Monday – The Longer the Thread

Monday, July 24th, 2017

 

The Longer the Thread by Emma Lathen

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

The 13th mystery starring series hero John Putnam Thatcher was published in 1971 by two business women who wrote under a pen name. Thatcher, a middle-aged financier on Wall Street, must visit his bank’s Puerto Rico branch, which is concerned about problems at an investment, a large garment maker. The backdrop of Puerto Rico provides social and political conflict between those who want Puerto Rico to be independent versus those who want the special status with the US to continue as usual.

The garment maker’s factory has seen sabotage of finished goods and machines. A foreman – an obnoxious bad actor who was enjoying the trouble (we all know such people at work) – is shot to death. The main suspects are the gringo managers of the plant, which sparks talks of strikes. The factory owner calls in a union organizer, a tough woman negotiator, a character for which the book is worth reading for the authoresses’ first-wave feminist views (that anybody can achieve success from logical thinking and having a clear-cut goals). Thatcher investigates the murder and sabotage, but arrives at the conclusion mainly by reasoning. There is local color and plausible action in Lathen stories, like fires, riots, and intense confrontations, but ultimately reason takes center stage.

I highly recommend this one to Lathen fans and novices.

 

 

Fiction Review – Calling Me Home

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler

Review by Mirah Welday (mwelday)

Dorrie and Isabelle have what many call an unconventional relationship.  Isabelle: eighty-nine years old, white, set in her ways, and facing the realities of secrets she has kept all of her life.  Dorrie: single mom in her thirties, black, business owner, and dealing with issues of trust and acceptance.  Somehow, these two forge a relationship akin to granddaughter/grandmother when Isabelle begins seeing Dorrie regularly for haircuts.

When Isabelle approaches Dorrie with the request for her to drive Isabelle from Texas to Ohio the following day in order to go to a funeral, Dorrie accepts even though she is not clear on the details.  The resulting road trip brings Dorrie and Isabelle even closer.  Isabelle shares memories with Dorrie that explain her guarded life and deepen the connection between the two women.

Calling Me Home is the quest of one woman to find closure and acceptance to events that happened to her many years before, events that she has never fully been able to move beyond.  Both women are warm characters with connections that deepen their love and appreciation for one another.  And one is able to learn how to navigate today’s world and relationships by learning from what happened to another many years before.

Love comes from all kinds of places, some of which are totally unexpected.  Kibler reminds us in Calling Me Home to be open to love from others even when our differences seem so insurmountable. I give this novel a heartfelt 5 stars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – Where There’s a Will

Monday, July 17th, 2017

Where There’s a Will by Rex Stout

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Internal evidence – references to the World’s Fair in New York City and the parlous state of Europe – suggests that this mystery was written in 1939. Slightly abridged, it was published in the May, 1940 issue of The American Magazine (1906 – 1956). It was the eighth story starring eccentric private eye Nero Wolfe and his wise-cracking bodyguard, secretary, bookkeeper and legman Archie Goodwin.

Since The American Magazine concentrated on female readership, Stout featured in the story three strong successful women. The mystery opens in Nero Wolfe’s office where the celeb Hawthorne sisters – April the stage actress, May the college president, and June the State Department spouse hostess – want advice on breaking the bizarre will of their multi-millionaire brother Noel . Clearly they are upset at being bequeathed, respectively, an apple, a pear, and a peach. But cops burst in with the unhappy news that the forensic evidence says their brother was murdered, not killed in a gun-related accident as originally thought.

In contrast to the earlier novels, this outing is shorter because less exposition makes for a more briskly-paced story. Depending on the reader’s tolerance for description or the extras we want to see in a Wolfe novel, this tightness may or may not be a good thing.

I missed the absent or slighted extras. Archie does not have his usual love interest Lily Rowan around. Wolfe has to leave the brownstone but Stout doesn’t exploit the fish out of water situation except for a mildly comic scene when the gourmet Wolfe is served a lackluster lunch. Wolfe does little detecting and deducing nor is evidence clearly provided. The femme fatale does not have much banter in her, especially not with Archie. Homicide Detective Cramer is overbearing in an unfunny way.

Finally, the amazing Hawthorne sisters – the beautiful one, the smart one, and the practical one – must be based on actual celeb sisters of that bygone era. But it drives me crazy that I can’t identify the original versions since I regard myself as a Thirties buff.

Still and all, I recommend this one to Nero Wolfe fans. Newbies may want to start with The Rubber Band or the great Some Buried Caesar.

 

 

 

Nonfiction Review – Beyond Belief

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017


Beyond Belief
by Jenna Miscavige Hill (with Lisa Pulitzer)

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

Several months ago I read Leah Remini’s autobiography Troublemaker (check out my review on the blog) and she exposed many of the questionable practices of Scientology.  I was intrigued by Remini’s book and wanted to learn more about Scientology and the experiences of others who had also managed to escape the Church.  I found Beyond Belief by Jenna Miscavige Hill, the niece of the Chairman of the Board of Scientology David Miscavige.

Jenna was raised in the Church when her parents joined when she was just a small child.  Some of her stories of her childhood in California and her jobs for the Church sounded like nothing more than child labor. During much of her childhood, while Jenna and her father were in California, her mother was in Florida.  The separation of children from their parents (and the rule that members of the Sea Organization can’t have children) seems to be part of an elaborate isolation and brainwashing scheme on the part of the Church.

As Jenna describes her various duties in the Church, her auditing sessions, her limited friendships, and monitored interactions with her family, she voices what seems to be doubt but she stays in the Church, even when given an initial chance to leave.  What she experiences seems to be nothing more than systematic brainwashing and separating of individuals from any support system outside the Church.  There were obvious mixed messages from the Church through their words and actions and even directly from her uncle and aunt, David and Shelly Miscavige. When Jenna questions the Church over some practices or requirements, she is met with hostility, degrading accusations and punishments. Her final frustration that pushes her to leave the Church was a long time coming based on her life story.

In Beyond Belief, Jenna goes into great detail regarding her experiences and she comes across as genuine and honest. While the delivery is a bit simplistic and the writing style is not very sophisticated, I think a reader who is wanting to learn more about the practices of the Church will find this book engrossing and, honestly, quite disturbing.  Beyond Belief gets a solid 4 out of 5 stars from me.