Showing Posts From: Book Review

19 Jul, 2017

The Essex Serpent – My Total Book Tour Fail

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading The Essex Serpent – My Total Book Tour Fail The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Published by Custom House on June 6th 2017
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 422
Format: Paperback
Source: Book Tour, From author/publisher
Goodreads
Setting: England

Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890's, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.
They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners' agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.


I am a supremely organized book blogger.  When I do book tours as soon as I find out the date I am scheduled to post, I put a draft post on my WordPress calendar.  That way I don’t get messed up.  I’ve known for months that my review of The Essex Serpent was due on July 19.  When I went to write this up I looked at the list of other bloggers participating and wanted to see what they thought of the book.  I was surprised to find no posts for the people posting before me.  I looked at my email.  Still didn’t see the issue.  Then I saw it.  JUNE 19.  Oh.

 

So here is my way-belated book tour review of The Essex Serpent.

 


I first heard of this book through the enthusiastic promotion of the British release last year by Simon Savidge.  When the book became available in the U.S. I decided to read it to see why he was so enthusiastic.  We obviously read very different types of books because he considers this to be a very plot driven novel and I think of it as more of a character driven one.

Cora is not a typical Victorian widow.  It is implied that her husband was abusive and she certainly is not grieving him.  She decides to go with her companion Martha and her young son Francis to Essex because she wants to follow in the footsteps of female amateur naturalists.  Hearing rumors of a monster in the estuary thrills her to no end. Her friends urge her to contact the local vicar.  She has no interest in that.  She doesn’t want to be stuck in company with a stuffy vicar.  The vicar and his wife don’t have any interest in her either.  They assume she is an elderly lady with a wastrel son but they invite her to dinner to be nice.

This book covers a lot of issues in England at this time.  Martha is a socialist who is campaigning for safe housing for the poor in London.  At this time to get into good housing you had to prove that you were of good morals.  This offends her because the landlords could go out drinking and being irresponsible but the tenets would be evicted if they acted like that.  She convinces a young doctor with family money to spare to join in her the cause.

Francis would now be recognized as autistic but in this book he is just seen as a bit odd.  He’s mostly left to his own devices because Cora doesn’t know how to interact with him.

Cora has an admirer in Luke Garret, the doctor who treated her husband.  He wants to do more and more daring operations and is fighting the medical establishment.

The Ransomes, the family of the vicar, get involved with Cora and her entourage.  Will Ransome is the vicar who is interested in science.  He knows that rumors of a serpent killing people and livestock are just superstition but he can’t get his parishioners to listen to reason.  This talk is tearing his small village apart and then Cora appears and runs roughshod over the town. It is hard to tell what is more damaging – the rumors or the visitor.

The writing is lyrical and mystical.  It evokes foggy mornings and salt water breezes.  Of course because this is historical fiction and not urban fantasy, there is no magical creature in the river.  Seeing how the author resolves all these plot lines and logically explains the serpent is part of the drama.

This is a relatively slow read.  It takes time for the writing to sink in.  The plot jumps around often so it can be a bit tricky to keep track of who is where at what time. You don’t always know why you should be interested in characters until they start to tie into the larger narrative.

This book is good for people looking to lose themselves in the writing of a slow paced glimpse of life in rural Victorian England with a hint of mystery mixed in.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in Europe
18 Jul, 2017

When The Future Comes Too Soon

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading When The Future Comes Too Soon When the Future Comes Too Soon by Selina Siak Chin Yoke
Series: Malayan #2
on July 18, 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Format: eARC
Source: From author/publisher
Goodreads
Also in this series: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

In Japanese-occupied Malaya, lives are shattered and a woman discovers her inner strength in a world ravaged by war.
Following the death of their matriarch, the lives of Chye Hoon’s family turned upside down. Now that the British have fled and the Japanese have conquered, their once-benign world changes overnight.
Amid the turmoil, Chye Hoon’s daughter-in-law, Mei Foong, must fend for her family as her husband, Weng Yu, becomes increasingly embittered. Challenged in ways she never could have imagined and forced into hiding, Mei Foong finds a deep reservoir of resilience she did not know she had and soon draws the attentions of another man.
Is Mei Foong’s resolve enough to save herself, her marriage, and her family? Only when peace returns to Malaya will she learn the full price she must pay for survival.

 


I loved the first book in this series – The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds.  That was the story of a woman in Malaya who witnesses  the change of her area when the British colonize.  Her oldest son is educated in England and she has huge hopes for him that he fails to live up to.  He marries a Chinese girl to please his mother.  This book picks up immediately after the death of the protagonist of the first book.  Her Chinese daughter-in-law tells the story of how they survived the Japanese occupation of World War II.

I was a bit reluctant to pick this book up because of the time period.  I know that Japanese occupations in Asia were brutal.  This book does talk about one massacre but overall it keeps a much narrower focus.  It looks at how this one family survived the war.  They know people in the resistance but that isn’t talked about much.

One of the conflicts was knowing how to react to the Japanese.  They were invaders and they could be cruel but they also allowed Asian people into high ranking jobs that the British establishment would have never allowed.  Our narrator Mei Foong’s husband, Weng Yu is given a job that he has always wanted by the Japanese.  She has learned that her husband is a coward.  He would head to bomb shelters first before helping her or their children.  She has lost a lot of respect for him.  He is in turns indifferent and cruel to her.  Mei Foong learns to grow her own food and sells her mother’s jewelry in order for her family to be able to eat.  The family basically keeps their heads down and does what they have to do to survive unnoticed.

“If anyone had called me a collaborator to my face, I would have recoiled.  As far as I was concerned, we were only giving the Japs our unwilling cooperation.”

 

This is a shorter book than the first one.  It only covers the years of the war.  It mostly the story of the disintegration of a marriage and a woman’s finding strength in herself that she didn’t know she had set against a backdrop of war instead of a novel about the war.  It isn’t necessary to read the first book before picking this one up but it adds to your background knowledge of the area and the characters.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes historical fiction.  Mei Foong is a great character.  She grows from a shy, pampered, upper class bride into a woman who knows her worth and is able to take care of herself.

About Selina Siak Chin Yoke

Of Malaysian-Chinese heritage, Selina Siak Chin Yoke (石清玉) grew up listening to family stories and ancient legends. She always knew that one day, she would write. After an eclectic life as a physicist, banker and trader in London, the heavens intervened. In 2009 Chin Yoke was diagnosed with cancer. While recovering, she decided not to delay her dream of writing any longer.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in Asia
  • POC authors
14 Jul, 2017

Series Review – The Agency by Y.S. Lee

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading Series Review – The Agency by Y.S. Lee A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee
Series: The Agency #1
Published by Candlewick on March 9th 2010
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 335
Format: eBook
Source: Library
Goodreads
Setting: England

Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there?


Mary Quinn is given a last minute reprieve from the gallows and is sent to a school for girls.  She is savvy enough to know that this is very strange.  She doesn’t know what is behind it until years later when she finishes her education and is offered a place in a detective agency run by the headmistresses of the school.

Mary has secrets of her own.  She is an orphan and knows that her father was Chinese.  In 1850s London Chinese people are not admitted to polite society.  She explains away her dark coloring by saying that she is Black Irish.  That settles things for most English people but Chinese people she meets recognize the truth about her.

The Agency places its agents undercover as maids or ladies’ companions because women are considered not smart enough to be spies.  They can infiltrate places that men would never be able to get.

On Mary’s first assignment she runs into James Easton in a closet while snooping.  He is snooping about the family she is assigned to also but for different reasons.  They are forced to work together.  Mary and James have great chemistry in this series.  It is a slow romance that has many reasonable obstacles.


Series Review – The Agency by Y.S. Lee The Body At The Tower by Y.S. Lee
Series: The Agency #2
Published by Candlewick on October 26th 2010
Pages: 342
Goodreads
Setting: England

Now nearly a full-fledged member of the Agency, the all-female detective unit operating out of Miss Scrimshaw's Academy for Girls, Mary Quinn is back for another action-packed adventure. Disguised as a poor apprentice builder and a boy, she must brave the grimy underbelly of Victorian London - as well as childhood fear, hunger, and constant want - to unmask the identity of a murderer. Assigned to monitor a building site on the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament, Mary earns the confidence of the work crew, inching ever nearer her suspect. But if an irresistible desire to help the city's needy doesn't distract her and jeopardize her cover, unexpectedly meeting up with an old friend - or flame - just might.

The Agency has always placed female operatives but one of the founders wants to expand.  She agrees to let Mary go undercover as a boy in order to get a large contract.  They are hired to figure out part of the reason why a man was murdered at the construction site of the Houses of Parliament.  Mary knows nothing about construction but is trying to fit in with her new crew when an engineer comes to do a review of the building practices.  It is a physically and emotionally battered and beaten down James Easton.

I think that this may be my favorite book of the series.  I don’t usually say that about second books.  They are usually a let down.  In this one the author has already established the characters so well that you care about them and their adventures.  You get a better idea of the dangerous world of the extremely poor in London.  For me this book was more about life in the city and the class and gender and racial barriers that both characters are bending than the mystery.


Series Review – The Agency by Y.S. Lee The Traitor in the Tunnel by Y.S. Lee
Series: The Agency #3
Published by Candlewick on February 28th 2012
Goodreads

Get steeped in suspense, romance, and high Victorian intrigue as Mary goes undercover at Buckingham Palace - and learns a startling secret at the Tower of London.

Mary is on assignment undercover in Buckingham Palace to investigate some thefts.  This gives the author the chance to examine the lives of maids in Victorian times.  They worked all the time.  They were not supposed to be seen by members of the royal family so they had to freeze or hide if any of the nobility came into a room.  They are also vulnerable to any male member of the nobility who take a fancy to them.

While investigating the thefts, Mary stumbles on a scandal involving the Prince of Wales.  One of his highborn friends was killed in an opium den by a Chinese man who has the same name as her supposedly dead father.  She decides to investigate this and has to face the truth of her Chinese heritage that she has managed to avoid for most of her life.

Right when she is starting to make progress, she is recalled because the Agency finds out that the engineering firm owned by James Easton will be doing some top secret work under the palace.  They don’t want her to get involved with him again because he has complicated her other cases.  Should she stay or should she go?


Series Review – The Agency by Y.S. Lee Rivals in the City (The Agency, #4) by Y.S. Lee
Published by Walker on June 5th 2014
Pages: 352
Goodreads

The series comes full circle as the one of the criminals from book one is dying in prison. Mary is hired to watch for the one that escaped making a last minute visit. She knows they will have a score to settle with her and James.

This was a great last book.  It ties up a lot of loose ends by going back to the villains of book one and seeing how everyone has changed in the intervening years.  It is hard to talk about this book much without spoilers for the series.

I binged this series over the course of a week.  I absolutely loved it.  On top of complex mysteries there were discussions of the intersections of race and class and gender at the time.  Add a very fun and banter-filled romance on top of that and this is a great series even if mysteries aren’t usually your favorite.

About Y.S. Lee

Y S Lee was born in Singapore, raised in Vancouver and Toronto, and lived for a spell in England. As she completed her PhD in Victorian literature and culture, she began to research a story about a girl detective in 1850s London. The result was her debut novel, The Agency: A Spy in the House. This won the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s inaugural John Spray Mystery Award in 2011.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Backlist Books
  • Books Set in Europe
  • POC authors
13 Jul, 2017

Al Franken: Giant of the Senate

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading Al Franken:  Giant of the Senate Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken
Published by Hachette Audio on May 30th 2017
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Format: Audiobook
Source: Library
Goodreads

Length: 12:05

This is a book about an unlikely campaign that had an even more improbable ending: the closest outcome in history and an unprecedented eight-month recount saga, which is pretty funny in retrospect. It's a book about what happens when the nation's foremost progressive satirist gets a chance to serve in the United States Senate and, defying the low expectations of the pundit class, actually turns out to be good at it.It's a book about our deeply polarized, frequently depressing, occasionally inspiring political culture, written from inside the belly of the beast.


This book answers the question that so many people had – How did this man:

turn into this man?

Al Franken was best known as a writer for Saturday Night Live when he announced his candidacy for Senate in his home state of Minnesota.  His candidacy was treated as a joke but he was very serious.  He had written several books on political topics and had been hosting a three hour daily political radio show that taught him a lot about issues.  He had campaigned for Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone prior to Wellstone’s death in a plane crash.  When the Republican senator who took over Wellstone’s senate seat said that he was a 99% improvement over Democrat Wellstone, Franken decided that someone had to defeat that guy.  He just didn’t realize yet that it was going to be him.

This memoir was very well done.  It talked just a bit about his childhood and then moved quickly into his life as a satirical writer.  This is important because as he says he spent 35 years learning to be funny professionally and the next decade learning not to be.  He calls the Republican plan for dealing with him “The Dehumorizer”.  Just assume that everything he ever wrote was absolute truth and not a joke – up to and including shooting elderly people over a river in a rocket.  Turn that into “Franken hates the elderly” and you get the idea.  It wasn’t like he hadn’t given them huge amounts of easy material to work with.  He did write a story for Playboy called “Pornorama” after all.

Once he got into the Senate by winning the closest election in Senate history, he started working to prove that he was there work and not be a clown.  What do Senators do every day?  He discusses in detail how bills are made into laws; what compromises to do you have to make to get things done?  He talks about working with people you totally disagree with in order to get laws passed.  He tells what it is like to grill people you like personally but don’t want to get a cabinet position (Jeff Sessions).  And there is a whole chapter on why everyone hates Ted Cruz.  He also discusses what needs to be done now in the age of Trump.

Franken lets out a little of the vitriol that he needs to keep inside during his day job.  There is more humor than he is allowed to show at work.  Apparently he is only allowed by his staff to speak freely in car between events.  I’d love to hear what actually happens in the car. 

Franken reads the audiobook himself so you can feel the ideas that he is passionate about and feel his anguish at having funny lines in his head that he isn’t allowed to say. 

I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to know what it is really like to be a Senator.  Now I’m watching the news and seeing the people who he spoke about in the book in a new light.

Rating Report
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Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Audiobooks
  • Books Set in North America
07 Jul, 2017

Sweet Spot – Getting Serious about Ice Cream

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading Sweet Spot – Getting Serious about Ice Cream Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Across America by Amy Ettinger
Published by Dutton Books on July 11th 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 320
Format: Audiobook
Source: Playster
Goodreads

Length: 8:27
Narrator: Kathleen Mcinerney

A journalist channels her ice-cream obsession, scouring the United States for the best artisanal brands and delving into the surprising history of ice cream and frozen treats in America.


Amy Ettinger is obsessed with ice cream.  She says that she routinely eats ice cream 1 – 2 times a day.  She’s the perfect person to go on an exploration of the state of ice cream in the United States.

In her journey she rides along on an ice cream truck route in New York.  I had no idea that being an ice cream truck driver was such a dangerous job.  The woman she was riding with freely admits to getting into fist fights with other drivers that she sees driving in the same neighborhoods as she does.

She visits frozen custard makers in Wisconsin to find out why true frozen custard is regional speciality.  She investigates the rise of new soda shops and discusses the sometimes poisonous history of soda shops.  She finds out what is behind the newest experiments with ice cream flavors – celery or foie gras or mealworms anyone?  She also tries a revival of Dolley Madison’s recipe for oyster ice cream.

She wonders how frozen yogurt stores fit into the ice cream world and investigates the largest chains.  She goes to Penn State’s ice cream course to find out how to make ice cream.  (I will say that Penn State makes some amazing ice cream.  It made all my trips there bearable back when I could eat it.)

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She seems shocked to find out that because of federal regulations most ice cream shops don’t make their own base for the ice cream.  They just add the flavors.  She gets very judgy about it.  Likewise she is horrified that ice cream sandwich makers outsource making the sandwiches.  I found it hard to believe that anyone was actually this naive about how foods are made in the U.S.

If you like books that give you a culinary tour, this is a good book for you.

I just have a few complaints.

  • She points out that people in the midwest are fat and wonders if we have different standards of beauty than in California.  It is a totally passive-aggressive insult to an entire region.
  • I cringed anytime she referred to sandwiches as “sammies”.  Can that please not be a thing anymore?
  • She is absolutely dismissive of the idea of non-dairy ice cream.  As a non-dairy eater, I assure her that just like dairy ice cream, some are horrible and some are amazing.  I offer Ben and Jerry’s PB & Cookies as proof of awesomeness.

Kathleen Mcinerney does a wonderfully upbeat and perky narration that fits the subject matter perfectly.

 

About Amy Ettinger

Amy Ettinger is an essayist, journalist, and editor. She has written for the New York Times, New York magazine, The Washington Post, Salon, and the Huffington Post. She lives in Santa Cruz, California, with her husband and daughter.

Rating Report
Story
Narration
Overall:

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Audiobooks
  • Books Set in North America
05 Jul, 2017

Strange Contagion

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading Strange Contagion Strange Contagion: The Suicide Cluster That Took Palo Alto's Children and What It Tells Us About Ourselves by Lee Daniel Kravetz
Published by Harper Wave on June 27th 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 240
Format: ARC
Source: Book Tour
Goodreads

Picking up where The Tipping Point leaves off, respected journalist Lee Daniel Kravetz’s Strange Contagion is a provocative look at both the science and lived experience of social contagion.

In 2009, tragedy struck the town of Palo Alto: A student from the local high school had died by suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming train. Grief-stricken, the community mourned what they thought was an isolated loss. Until, a few weeks later, it happened again. And again. And again. In six months, the high school lost five students to suicide at those train tracks.

A recent transplant to the community and a new father himself, Lee Daniel Kravetz’s experience as a science journalist kicked in: what was causing this tragedy? More important, how was it possible that a suicide cluster could develop in a community of concerned, aware, hyper-vigilant adults?

The answer? Social contagion. We all know that ideas, emotions, and actions are communicable—from mirroring someone’s posture to mimicking their speech patterns, we are all driven by unconscious motivations triggered by our
environment. But when just the right physiological, psychological, and social factors come together, we get what Kravetz calls a "strange contagion:" a perfect storm of highly common social viruses that, combined, form a highly volatile condition.

Strange Contagion is simultaneously a moving account of one community’s tragedy and a rigorous investigation of social phenomenon, as Kravetz draws on research and insights from experts worldwide to unlock the mystery of how ideas spread, why they take hold, and offer thoughts on our responsibility to one another as citizens of a globally and perpetually connected world.


The most interesting part of this book to me was the social science of how people interact with each other in a work environment.  It seemed like scientific proof of the old adage “One bad apple ruins the barrel.”  It is important to get rid of people who are going to bring team morale down.  I’ve seen that a lot in different jobs.

The book doesn’t come to a conclusion about the suicide clusters in Palo Alto. He looks at this as an outsider.  He talks to a teacher and a principal but doesn’t talk much to the kids.  Whatever is going on in that school would be invisible to outsiders and may not have anything to do with too much homework or high societal pressure to achieve.

I did like the part of the book that discussed why Palo Alto schools have such high achievement rates.  The kids appear to be intrinsically motivated to succeed.  It would be great if this was not abnormal.  I’ve never understood why people aren’t intrinsically motivated.  It is in their best interest.  Being able to export a culture that creates motivated students would be amazing.

 

Purchase Links

HarperCollins
| Amazon | Barnes & Noble

About Lee Daniel Kravetz

Lee Daniel Kravetz has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and is a graduate of the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Journalism. He has written for Psychology Today, the Huffington Post, and the New York Times, among other publications. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and children.

Find out more about Lee at his website, and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in North America

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