Friday, March 05, 2021

Intriguing Dual-Timeline Novel Brings Little-Known American Maritime Disaster to Life

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Later nicknamed "The Southern Titanic," the luxury steamship Pulaski left Charleston, South Carolina, bound for Baltimore on June 14, 1838.  Her passengers were wealthy, well-heeled, and wholly unaware of the tragedy they were about to be a part of.  When a boiler explosion on board destroyed the ship that night, the vessel sunk in just 45 minutes, leaving about 128 people dead.  The others were stranded on the water, forced to endure hunger, thirst, exposure, terror, and illness before being rescued.  Only 59 people survived.  In January 2018, 180 years after Pulaski sank, divers found the wreckage of the doomed ship.

Surviving Savannah by Patti Callahan (available March 9) brings the event to life in a dual-timeline novel that explores the sinking and its aftermath in an intriguing blend of fact and fiction.  The story features Everly Winthrop, a modern-day history professor who is asked to help curate an exhibit of Pulaski artifacts for a Savannah museum.  Still reeling from the death of her best friend a year ago, she finds purpose in studying the famous ship and her elite passengers.  She's especially intrigued by the story of a large family of passengers—some members died in the tragedy, some survived, and others' fates remain unknown.  Everly wants to change that.  As she investigates in the present, the reader taken back to 1838 where they're introduced to Lilly Forsyth, an abused aristocratic wife who's forced to make impossible decisions when Pulaski sinks, giving her an unexpected chance at freedom.  What does Lilly choose?  And how does her life change because of it?  What happens to her after the Pulaski sinks?

I had never heard of the Pulaski, so I learned a lot about the ship and its tragic end from Surviving Savannah.  The dual-timeline format is one I always enjoy.  As per usual, I found myself more invested in the past story than in the present one, although both had enough meat to keep me interested.  Even though the historical characters didn't get enough development, I still found them to be a likable, sympathetic lot.  Same goes for the present cast, although I didn't love Everly, who's just too victim-y for me.  I'm all for a sympathy-inducing lead, but I get impatient with too much wallowing—a character has to be at least a little bit selfless for me to really care about them.  Plot-wise, Surviving Savannah moves along at a steady pace, which kept me turning pages.  As for its storytelling, Callahan's prose gets heavy-handed at times (Everly's dialogue, for instance, often feels too formal and flowery). Still, I enjoyed this novel for its colorful historical backdrop, its engrossing story, its intriguing characters, and its capable (if at times overblown) writing. If you like dual-timeline novels about little-known historical events, definitely check this one out. 

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of novels about Titanic and other maritime disasters)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  


for language (no F-bombs), blood/gore, violence, and mild sexual content (including references to sexual abuse)

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Surviving Savannah from the generous folks at Penguin Random House via those at NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Mormon Mentions: Sonja Yoerg

If you're not sure what a Mormon is, let alone a Mormon Mention, allow me to explain:  My name is Susan and I'm a Mormon (you've seen the commercials, right?).  As a member of  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon or LDS Church), I'm naturally concerned with how my religion is portrayed in the media.  Because this blog is about books, every time I see a reference to Mormonism in a book written by someone who is not a member of my church, I highlight it here.  Then, I offer my opinion—my insider's view—of what the author is saying.  It's my chance to correct misconceptions, expound on principles of the Gospel, and even to laugh at my (sometimes) crazy Mormon culture.

(Note:  In 2018, Russell M. Nelson—president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintsmade an impassioned plea to members of the Church and to the media to always use the full and correct name of the Church instead of referring to it by its various nicknames.  This led to the renaming of many Church entities, including its famous choir, which is now The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.  Although I have been trying to think up a clever new name for this feature that is more in line with President Nelson's request, for the moment it remains "Mormon Mentions.")

--

The Family Ship by Sonja Yoerg revolves around a large family.  The following exchange takes place between one of the siblings and his friends while they're sneakily drinking beer around a fire pit:

"How many you got again?"

"Four brothers and three sisters.  Plus one more on the way."

Beetle let out a low whistle.  "You're not Mormons or anything, are you?"

Boone punched his arm.  "Ever hear of a beer-drinking Mormon, you half-wit?"

*Please note that quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof of The Family Ship, quote at about 31%.

If you know anything about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it's probably that family is valued very highly.  Because of this, members of the Church often have large families with lots of children.  Although it's not as common today, in past decades it wasn't unusual for Mormon parents to have half a dozen to a dozen children (or more).  I only have five siblings, so I guess my family might be considered small by Mormon standards!  

Another thing that is widely known about members of the Church is that we abide by a health code called The Word of Wisdom (see Doctrine and Covenants Section 89 and this explanation).  This dictates that we not drink alcohol or "hot drinks" (coffee and tea) and avoid tobacco use and other substances that are harmful to the body.  So, while a Mormon certainly could drink a beer (we have our agency, after all), most members of the Church do their best to abide by the Word of Wisdom and refrain.

The family in The Family Ship, by the way, are not members of the Church.  

Like Many Voyages, The Family Ship Takes A Long Time to Get Anywhere

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"The ship, Verity realized, was their true church because they went there to show respect for order, for diligence, for their higher, more disciplined selves.  Sure, it was made-up, but what difference did that make?" (quote from an uncorrected e-ARC of The Family Ship, 11%)

When Arthur and Maeve Vergennes bought their home on an isolated inlet of the Chesapeake Bay, an old oyster boat came with the property.  They christened the grounded vessel Nepenthe.  Over the years, Arthur has used it to teach his nine children some of the discipline he gained while serving with the Navy in Korea.  Not only has it served as an elaborate playground for the kids, but through their many imaginary voyages they have formed themselves into a tight crew that values duty, dedication, and their father's family-first approach to life. 

Unlike her 14-year-old sister, who's grown embarrassed by the childish doings on Nepenthe, 18-year-old Verity still spends a lot of her time entertaining her younger siblings by planning and executing daring escapades.  Lately, though, she's feeling the weight of her responsibility.  Unbeknownst to her parents, she's applied to an out-of-state school.  She knows her father—who values family over everything else and intends for her to live at home while attending a local community college—will see it as a betrayal.  Especially since Verity's older brother, Jude, has already abandoned them.  Between Arthur's unwillingness to let her go and her mother's newest pregnancy, which is becoming increasingly worrisome, Verity feels trapped between duty to her family and her desire for a life of her own.  When tragedy strikes, she starts to realize just how alone she and her siblings really are.  Can they keep the family together when everything around them is falling apart?  Can the teamwork that unites them on Nepenthe save them as things go hopelessly awry?  If family love is supposed to cradle you in its protective arms, why does Verity feel like she's being suffocated by the very people who are supposed to love her most?

There's a lot to love about The Family Ship, the newest novel by Sonja Yoerg.  The idea of an old ship as both playground and school is a fun one.  The warm, large-family chaos described in the book rings true, especially for someone who's part of a big brood, like me.  I definitely relate to Verity's plight.  While Arthur's a complicated character, his dedication to his family makes him admirable, if not always understandable.  His wife is unrealistically angelic (I mean, c'mon, no stay-at-home mom adores all of her children every second of every day) but still likable.  While the kids all kind of blend together at times (which is true-to-life in a large clan), they have distinct personalities which make them feel like a believable bunch.  Their story involves some tough subject matter, but overall it's a hopeful tale, something I always appreciate in a family saga.  

My biggest problem with The Family Ship is that it drags on and on and on without really going anywhere.  I kept checking how far I'd read and being shocked when my Kindle said only "30%" or "47%."  Although the action picks up toward the end of the book, the story definitely drags and gets dull.  So, even though I enjoyed being enveloped in the Vergennes' lively household, I still wanted their tale to be more dynamic and exciting.  It's compelling, don't get me wrong.  It just takes Yoerg a loooonnnggg time to tell it.  In the end, then, I liked The Family Ship, but its wordiness and lack of plot made reading it more of a slog than it should have been.  Bummer.  I really wanted to love this one.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a little bit of The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah and If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch)

Grade:

If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a few F-bombs, plus occasional milder expletives), violence, and disturbing subject matter (including a brief attempted rape scene)

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of The Family Ship from the generous folks at Lake Union Publishing via those at NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Fact or Fiction, I Love a Good Family History Story!


Today's Top Ten Tuesday topic is all about our dream jobs—or at least those that look fun, exciting, and interesting in fiction.  The prompt, Top Ten Characters Whose Job I Wish I Had, has left me scratching my head, though.  I guess it's just too early in the morning for my brain to match up characters from books I enjoyed or books I want to read with jobs I wish I had.  Probably I'm being too literal.  Although I have a college degree in English, my oldest child was born prematurely (at 29 weeks gestation) not long after graduation.  I have been a stay-at-home mom ever since.  While it's hardly the most glamorous career choice in the world, I've found a lot of satisfaction and fulfillment in being able to focus on motherhood full-time.  I do feel less needed now that my oldest two are on their own and my youngest two are in school all day, but I still don't feel any great longing to enter the workforce.  The other day, my husband was joking about me getting a full-time job so he could retire (he's 44).  Our 16-year-old son, who's usually pretty "whatever" about things, looked appalled at the idea and said, "What?  No!  I need you at home, Mom."  So, there you go.  I've been working my dream job for over 22 years now and, all in all, it's been pretty great.  Still, wiping runny noses and changing dirty diapers isn't the stuff of which great fiction is made, so...

If I could choose another dream job, it would for sure be that of a professional reader.  Since book blogging is pretty darn close, I have to say that I'm actually already "working" two of my dream "jobs."  Wow!  

That brings us to family history, which has long been an interest of mine.  A couple years ago, I made the decision to become accredited as a professional genealogist.  While you don't technically need any kind of certification to work in the field, especially as a self-employed researcher, I thought it would be a fun, challenging way to up my genealogy game. And it has been.  I completed two big research projects in two different specialty areas (the Great Lakes and the Southwest regions of the U.S.) and now all I have to do is test in both.  This was supposed to have happened a year ago, but thanks to COVID, it's been postponed.  In the meantime, I've continued researching my own ancestors in an ongoing effort to know and understand those who came before me and to keep my family history sleuthing skills sharp.  One way I do this is by attending RootsTech—the world's largest family history conference—which is held annually in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Because of the pandemic, this year's event was held entirely online and was, for the first time ever, completely free.  Even though the conference has ended, the classes and presentations that were given are still available online, meaning you can watch them right now.  If you've ever wanted to learn more about how to research your own family history straight from industry professionals, this is your chance to do it from the comfort of your own home and without spending a dime.  Click on over to RootsTech.org for more details.

 


If you have any desire at all to know about your roots, I highly recommend checking out FamilySearch.  It's a free, easy-to-use genealogy website where you can build a family tree, connect it to others that are already in its enormous database (chances are excellent that your great-grandparents and beyond are in there, meaning you won't have to do extensive research to find them), and use historical records (millions of which are available to search on the site for free) to learn more about their lives.  Although my illustrious ancestors were more pauper than prince, I have found it extremely rewarding to get to know them and connect to my heritage.  

I know it seems I've meandered far away from books, but I promise this is going somewhere!  Obviously, I love learning about family history—from reading stories about my ancestors to studying old documents to Nancy Drew-ing my way through puzzling mysteries, I'm here for it all.  Not surprisingly, I also enjoy reading books about genealogy.  I've found a few that star genealogists and a lot more that feature characters who are looking into their own pasts in order to solve a mystery, understand an enigmatic family member, connect with a lost culture, or find themselves in their own pasts.  My list today is gong to be a mixture of books I've read and those I want to read about genealogy and family history.  

However you want to twist the TTT topic, you definitely want to join in the fun.  All the details are over at That Artsy Reader Girl.  Check it out.

Top Ten Books About Genealogy and Family History:  

Five I've Read—


1.  The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissmann—I read this middle grade novel earlier this year and loved it.  It's about a mixed-race girl who was adopted as a baby by a white Jewish couple.  As she prepares for her upcoming bat mitzvah, she begins studying the life of her adoptive great-grandmother, who fled her European homeland during World War II.  This propels the girl on a journey to discover who she really is and where she truly belongs.  It's an excellent, moving book about identity and family.


2.  Murder Once Removed by S.C. Perkins—This cozy mystery series features a professional genealogist who solves family history mysteries as a job.  In this first installment, she's been hired by a Texas billionaire to find the murderer of his great-great granddaddy.  Although I didn't absolutely love this book, it's still a fun read.  There are a couple more books in the series now—I need to catch up.


3.  Inheritance by Dani Shapiro—In this memoir, Shapiro recounts what happened when a DNA test she took returned unexpected results.  The journey she then undertook to find and understand her true identity is an intriguing one that asks important questions about family, identity, culture, and the ethics of sperm donation.  It's fascinating.


4.  It's All Relative by A.J. Jacobs—I heard Jacobs speak at RootsTech in 2015 after he published this book about his quest to find his roots.  It's a hilarious, entertaining read that any genealogy addict will enjoy. 


5.  The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton—I'm a huge fan of Morton's multi-layered family sagas for lots of reasons.  This one concerns a young girl who is taken in by a tender-hearted old man when she arrives alone in Australia without anyone to retrieve her.  She's raised by the man and his wife, without knowing she's not their biological child.  When she finds out, she sets out on a journey to find out who she really is.

Five I Want to Read—


1.  The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn—Stephanie over at She's Probably at the Library recommended this book about the author's search for his family's Holocaust story.  The way she described his painstaking research process made me especially interested in reading this heavy tome that Stephanie says is heartbreaking but fascinating.  


2.  Under the Light of the Italian Moon by Jennifer Anton (available March 8, 2021)—Based on the author's own family history, this novel tells the story of one woman's resilience during World War II in Italy.


3.  Send For Me by Lauren Fox—This dual-timeline novel concerns a woman who finds her grandmother's letters from World War II Germany, which propels her on a journey into her family's tragic past.  Have I mentioned that I've got a thing for family history?


4.  Paging the Dead by Brynn Bonner—The first installment in a family history mystery series, this one has the professional genealogist main character investigating a murder in order to clear her own name.  Sounds fun!


5.  The Lost Family by Libby Copeland—This book, which examines DNA results and family history research, has gotten some good buzz.  I'm definitely interested in reading it.

There you go, ten books about family history/genealogy that I've read and want to read.  Which books of this type have you enjoyed?  I'd truly love to know.  Leave me a comment on this post and I will gladly return the favor on your blog.

Happy TTT!

Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge Monthly Review Link-Up (February and March)

 


Since I completely spaced posting a monthly link-up for February reviews for the Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, this is going to serve for both February and March.  Please include the name of the book you're reviewing along with your name, and the name of your blog.  I can't to see what you've been reading!

If you haven't officially signed up for the challenge, it's not too late.  Just go to this post and add your name to the Mr. Linky widget there.  



Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: I'm Not Laughing, You're Laughing


Everyone can use a good laugh sometimes and the last year or so has definitely been some time.  Where have you turned for humor lately?  Movies?  Television?  Internet memes?  YouTube?  The comics?  The place I have not been turning to, apparently, is books because I had a tough time coming up with titles to fit today's Top Ten Tuesday topic:  Top Ten Books That Made Me Laugh Out Loud.  If you spend any time at all here at BBB, you've probably realized by now that I'm not a big reader of light, frothy, funny books.  I tend to prefer darker, moodier reads.  Which isn't to say I don't appreciate a comical character or a humorous line or a scene that makes me snort-laugh.  I definitely do.  When I searched my memory (which is, admittedly, deficient in its old age), though, not a whole lot came up.  Apparently, I need more humor in my life, so lay it on me—what are some funny reads I need to check out?

If you want to join in the TTT fun (and you definitely do), click on over to That Artsy Reader Girl for all the deets.

Top Ten Books That Made Me Laugh Out Loud  


1.  The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion—This is the only book I can think of offhand that really fits the prompt.  Here's what I said in my review:  "This is one of those books that's embarrassing to read in public.  Not because of risqué cover art or a suggestive title, but because I couldn't stop laughing—out loud—at the antics of its main character.  This hilarious rom-com is so delightful that I could hardly restrain myself from smiling, chuckling, and sharing the best bits with the room at large."


2.  Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery—The titular character is an irrepressible redhead with a vivid imagination and a fiery temper, both of which lead her into hysterical scrapes. 


3.  Little Women by Louisa May Alcott—This is one of my favorite books, so I use it over and over for TTT prompts.  It has some hilarious scenes, especially those involving Jo March.  Meg's disaster with the jelly, though, is probably the one that makes me laugh the most.


4.  Little Men by Louisa May Alcott—As much as I love Little Women, I've never read its sequel for some reason.  I'm currently listening to it on audio and it also has some funny scenes, not too surprising since it's about the boys' boarding school Jo runs with her husband.


5.  The Tempe Brennan series by Kathy Reichs—This is a series of murder mysteries featuring a forensic anthropologist.  The books can be gruesome and disturbing, but Tempe's witty banter—both her internal dialogue and her verbal jousts with other characters—keep humor in the novels.


6.  The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz—It's been a long time since I read this series opener, but in my review I called it "engrossing fluff that ma[de] me laugh out loud," so I guess it's a funny book!


7.  The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson—What I remember most about this holiday novel is my taciturn third-grade teacher reading it out loud and laughing so hard she cried.  All of us terrified little kids were shocked!  It really is a hilarious book that was made into an equally hilarious tv movie.


8.  Anything by Ally Carter—Carter's books are engaging and fun.  I especially like her Gallagher Girls series.


9.  The Veronica Speedwell series by Deanna Raybourn—I love me a funny heroine and Veronica Speedwell, who is a lepidopterist, feminist, and amateur detective in Victorian England, is just that.

10.  Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey—Although I'm the resident McConaughey fan, I actually haven't read this memoir yet.  My husband did, however, and laughed uproariously through the whole thing.  He keeps urging me to read the book since it's an easy, entertaining read.  I'll get to it one of these days!    

Phew!  I made it to ten.  What do you think of my picks?  What are your favorite funny books?  Which should I pick up?  I'd truly love to know.  Leave me a comment on this post and I will gladly return the favor on your blog.

Happy TTT!

Monday, February 22, 2021

Glittering White City Backdrop Makes Historical Mystery Especially Colorful and Compelling

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Note:  Although this review will not contain spoilers for Shadows of the White City, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, Veiled in Smoke.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.

It's been over twenty years since 43-year-old Sylvie Townsend had her heart smashed to bits by a lying suitor.  She's never quite recovered, but she has found fulfillment in mothering her adopted daughter, Rose Dabrowski.  At 17, Rose is a headstrong young lady who yearns for independence and freedom.  Although Sylvie is trying to loosen the apron strings, she fears her impulsive daughter is headed for nothing but trouble.  When Rose launches a desperate search for her birth family, Sylvie tries not to take it as an affront.  Knowing she needs to be supportive, she attempts to push her anxiety and fears away and give her beloved daughter the space she so obviously needs. 

With the colorful, chaotic 1893 World's Fair in full swing right on their doorstep, Sylvie has warned Rose repeatedly to be very careful when out and about in Chicago.  Her worst fears are realized when her daughter vanishes without a trace.  Has the young woman been abducted?  Or has she run away from home to escape her mother's suffocating watch?  Sylvie cannot rest until she knows Rose is safe.  Enlisting the help of her sister, Meg, and a multi-lingual musician named Kristof Bartok, she combs the extensive World's Fair venue in frantic hope of finding her missing child.  While the search brings her and Kristof loser together, Sylvie feels herself drifting further and further from Rose.  Can she find her daughter before it's too late?  With Chicago growing more crowded and dangerous by the day, Sylvie fears she'll never see Rose again ...

Shadows of the White City, the second book in Jocelyn Green's Windy City Saga trilogy, takes place 22 years after the first book, Veiled in Smoke.  Although Meg and other characters from the initial installment are present in the second, it's really Sylvie's story.  While she and her cohorts aren't super original story people, they are sympathetic and likable.  I definitely identified with Sylvie, especially in her plight as an adoptive mother.  Her devotion to and desperate yearning for connection with her daughter felt all too real to me.  The World's Fair makes for an exciting backdrop to the story.  Green describes it vividly, dropping all kinds of fascinating tidbits about the event throughout the novel.  As far as plot goes, the tale remains compelling to the end, even though it's significantly longer than it needs to be.  The mystery of Rose's whereabouts is not very mysterious or surprising, but it still keeps the story interesting.  Like Veiled in Smoke, Shadows of the White City is a Christian novel, so it's clean, uplifting, and faith-promoting.  Although the book is overly long with a predictable storyline, I still enjoyed this engaging read.  I'm looking forward to the final installment in the trilogy, which features Meg's grown-up daughter and the way the 1915 Eastland Disaster in the Chicago River impacts her life.  Sounds intriguing!


Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence, scenes of peril, and non-graphic references to prostitution, white slavery, opium abuse, etc.

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Shadows of the White City from the generous folks at Bethany House in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Newest Chiller is Sager at His Creepy-Crawly Best

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"'You want the truth?  I'll give it to you.  Things have happened in that house.  Tragic things...And all those things, well, they...linger'" (130).

When Maggie Holt was five years old, her parents bought their dream home.  Built in 1875, Baneberry House was spacious, grand, and surprisingly cheap.  Maggie's parents laughed off its sinister reputation and moved in, determined to turn the place into the warm family retreat they both desired.  Less than a month later, the family fled Baneberry House in the dead of night, wailing about ghosts and threatening messages from the beyond.  They never returned to the old pile, but Ewan Holt—Maggie's father—wrote a lurid tell-all about the family's terrifying experiences there.  Like The Amityville Horror, it became a hugely popular bestseller, America's favorite ghost story.

Although Maggie's childhood was financed by the proceeds of Ewan's book, she has always detested living in the spotlight of its success.  Especially since she knows the truth—her father made the whole thing up.  

When Ewan dies, 30-year-old Maggie is shocked to learn she has inherited Baneberry House, a property she thought was sold long ago.  With the keys in hand, she now has the chance to prove to the world—and to herself—that Ewan Holt was a liar, that his famous book is nothing but an imaginative hoax.  It's not long after Maggie moves into Baneberry House, intending to spend the summer fixing up the place before she puts it on the market, that strange things start happening inside its walls.  If Ewan was lying through his teeth, then what exactly is Maggie experiencing now, 25 years later?  Is it possible that she has been wrong about her father?  What if everything he wrote was the God's honest truth?  What then?  Baneberry House haunted Maggie when she was young—what if it's not done with her?  

Like Ewan Holt, Riley Sager knows how to spin a deliciously terrifying yarn.  Home Before Dark, his newest, is him at his creepy, spooky, scary best.  The novel unfolds in alternating chapters told from Ewan's perspective (sections from his book) and Maggie's, 25 years later.  It's an effective format, one which heightens tension and suspense throughout the book.  Atmospheric and unnerving, the haunted house setting creates the kind of shivery vibe that has readers jumping at every sound and cowering under the covers.  The fact that the book's already eerie cover glows in the dark is just icing on the creepy-cake.  The best part about Home Before Dark, though, is that the story keeps you constantly off balance, wondering what is real and what is not.  While I guessed some of its plot twists, others surprised me, making the book a fun, mess-with-your-head kind of read.  I'm pretty wimpy, but I still enjoy a ghostly, hair-raising read now and then and this one definitely fits that bill.  If you're up for an unsettling spine-chiller, I definitely recommend Home Before Dark.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of The Weight of Lies by Emily Carpenter as well as books by Simone St. JamesCarol Goodman, and Jennifer McMahon)    

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a dozen or so F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Family Saga Set Against Great Chicago Fire Backdrop Compelling and Uplifting

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Sisters Meg and Sylvie Townsend have a lot on their plates.  Not only do they run their family's bookshop in downtown Chicago, but they also have to keep a close eye on their widowed father, Stephen.  His experiences as a POW during the Civil War still haunt his mind and soul, making him paranoid, confused, and prone to wandering—sometimes carrying a loaded weapon.  Stephen is always warning his daughters of danger on the horizon.  This time, he's right.  As a raging fire engulfs the city, the family must scramble to save their bookshop and themselves.  Although the women get separated from their father in the chaos, their business is destroyed, and Meg suffers debilitating burns on her artist's hands, all three survive the deadly fire.  As the dazed family tries to figure out where to go from here, they receive another shock—Stephen has been accused of murder.  Witnesses say he shot Hiram Sloane, one of his oldest friends, on the night of the fire.  Since Stephen is obviously not in his right mind, he's forced into an insane asylum, despite his daughters' vehement protests.  No matter how sick their father is, he would never murder someone in cold blood.  Would he?

Meg knows her gentle father won't survive another incarceration, especially in a place as soulless as the asylum.  The only way to get him released is to prove him innocent, which Meg vows to do.  Enlisting the help of Nate Pierce, a sympathetic newspaper reporter, she and Sylvie set about investigating the murder of Hiram Sloane.  While doing that, they also have to figure out how to live with no money and little hope of rebuilding their bookshop.  With everything in ashes around them, how will they survive?  Can they free their father before what little is left of his sanity is gone completely?  As their beloved city is being rebuilt around them, can Meg and Sylvie find the strength, the courage, and the hope to go on?

I love me a sweeping family saga, so I was naturally drawn to Jocelyn Green's historical trilogy set in 19th Century Chicago.  The first installment, Veiled in Smoke, introduces the atmospheric setting as well as the likable Townsend family.  Vivid historical detail, especially concerning the Great Fire of 1871, brings the city to life while viewing it all through the eyes of our admirable, root-worthy heroes makes the event and its aftermath feel intimate and personal.  Although there is a murder mystery at the heart of this novel, it's more family saga than thriller so the story moves along at the pace of the former rather than the latter.  The tale does get overly long and the mystery really isn't very mysterious, but I still found Veiled in Smoke compelling enough to keep me reading.  Because this is a Christian novel, it's clean, uplifting, and faith-promoting.  Although it gets preachy in places, the religious themes are not super heavy-handed, which is something I appreciate when reading in this genre.  All these things considered, I found Veiled in Smoke to be an engaging, edifying novel that I liked but didn't absolutely love.  Even still, I've already read the second book and am looking forward to the third.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of I Survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 by Lauren Tarshis and The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence and scenes of peril

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: The Baby in My Mardi Gras King Cake


If you don't live in New Orleans, Louisiana, you might not realize that today is Mardi Gras.  The holiday has been celebrated annually in the city since the 1800's.  While the colorful parades and parties that typify the event have been cancelled this year due to the pandemic, the spirit of Mardi Gras lives on.  You can read all about it here.  Today's Top Ten Tuesday topic pays homage to the holiday by featuring book covers in Mardi Gras colors:  purple (represents justice), green (for faith), and gold (for power).  Since I've never experienced Mardi Gras for myself, nor do I really care to (a wild party for me is cuddling up with not one good book, but two), I'm going to go a little rogue with my TTT list today. 

On a Sunday back in 2008, my husband and I boarded a plane bound for New Orleans.  The beautiful baby girl we were about to adopt had just been born in the area and we were looking forward to getting her on Monday.  We had planned to spend Sunday playing tourists in NOLA, but then we got the surprise news that we could get our baby a day early.  From then on, the only sight-seeing we did in Louisiana was in a hospital and a hotel room. 
 
Adopting our sweet little girl was an incredible, life-changing experience.  I don't think it's a coincidence that it's a Mardi Gras tradition to bake a small baby toy into a king cake.  Whoever gets the slice with the trinket inside gets good luck and prosperity for the year.  We found our baby in Louisiana; since she has been nothing but a treasured blessing in our lives, we definitely feel like we were given the lucky slice!  

In honor of my daughter, I changed today's TTT list from Top Ten Purple, Yellow, and/or Green Book Covers (in honor of Mardi Gras) to Top Ten Books About Adoption.  I'm going to split my list into five that I've read and five that I want to read.

Before we get to that, though, I want to encourage you to join in the TTT fun.  It really is a good time and a great way to support this wonderful book blogging community that we all love so much.  Just hop on over to That Artsy Reader Girl for details.


Top Ten Books About Adoption   

Five I've Read:


1.  Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery—This book, which is one of my all-time favorites, features the mistaken adoption of a young orphaned girl by an aging brother and sister.  Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert intended to adopt a boy so they would have someone to help on their farm.  Although fiery Anne is not exactly what they had in mind, they soon find themselves thoroughly charmed by their irrepressible new daughter.


2.  How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr—This beautiful YA novel is probably the best book I've ever read about adoption.  It hit me in all the feels, let me tell you!  The story revolves around two teenage girls—one whose grieving mother decides out of the blue to adopt a baby and one who has agreed to place her unborn baby with the family.  As the birth grows nearer and nearer, the three women (each of whom has her own agenda) must figure out how to understand each other, trust each other, and, ultimately, decide what's best for one tiny human when all of their hopes, dreams, and goals are on the line.  It's a lovely read.


3.  The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman—I read this middle-grade novel earlier this year and loved it.  It's about Imani, a 12-year-old bi-racial girl who was adopted by a white Jewish couple when she was a baby.  As her bat mitzvah approaches, Imani begins researching the story of her adopted great-grandmother's WWII escape from Luxembourg while also secretly trying to find her birth parents.  It's a sweet, engaging tale about one girl's heartfelt search for her "real" identity.


4.  A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley—This memoir tells the fascinating story of the author's adoption from India by a white couple from Australia.  Although his adoptive home was full of love and acceptance, Saroo felt an intense, burning need to find his birth family in India.  The fact that he was able to locate them with so little information to go on is nothing short of miraculous.  This is an incredible book, which was made into a touching film called Lion.


5.  Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda—Another beautiful novel, this one tells the parallel stories of two mothers.  One is a California pediatrician who is devastated when she finds out she is infertile.  The other is a poor woman in India who knows she can't afford to keep her newborn daughter.  When the American decides to adopt a baby from an Indian orphanage, their stories converge.    

Five I Haven't:


1.  All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung—Chung's Korean parents placed her for adoption when she was a baby.  Adopted by a white couple and raised in a sheltered Oregon town, Chung experienced the pain of racism and feeling out-of-place in her mismatched family.  Her memoir, which talks about her experiences with transracial adoption, sounds like an intriguing and illuminating read.


2.  The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson—I'm not sure how much adoption actually features in this novel, but it still sounds like a good read.  It's about a Black engineer who returns to the dying Indiana factory town where she grew up.  As she digs into her past (including adolescence, when she was forced to give up her baby), she discovers some shocking truths.


3.  The Lost Daughters of China by Karin Evans—This non-fiction book sounds absolutely heartbreaking, but also totally fascinating.  It's about the history of China's one-child policy, which led to numerous adoptions of female Chinese babies.


4.  Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage by Kay Bratt—This memoir is about a foreign woman's experience as a volunteer in a Chinese orphanage.


5.  Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata—Adopted Jaden thinks he's an "epic fail."  No wonder his parents are traveling to Kazakhstan to adopt another baby!  When they all arrive at the orphanage, they discover "their" baby has already been adopted.  As the family attempts to choose another on the spot, Jaden makes a sweet new friend and comes to some realizations about himself and his family.  

There you go, five books about adoption that I loved and five I plan to read.  Has your life been touched by adoption?  Is it a subject you enjoy reading about?  Which books have you loved on the subject?  If you did the Mardi Gras prompt, which book covers did you choose?  I'd truly love to know.  Leave me a comment on this post and I will gladly return the favor on your blog.

Happy TTT!

Blog Widget by LinkWithin