Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Review: A Madness of Sunshine

A Madness of Sunshine A Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

This is the first novel I've read by Nalini Singh, who has a prolific career as a writer of paranormal romance, which I usually don't read. This is a standalone thriller set in modern New Zealand, her home country, on the rugged West Coast of the South Island. The small town of Golden Cove is an insular community where everyone knows everyone, and it simmers with hidden grievances, jealousies, and a problem with domestic violence. (The latter is a genuine problem in New Zealand, especially among Maori women who are twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence in comparison to women of other cultural groups.) The novel's protagonist, Anahera, is returning to Golden Cove after living in London with her now-deceased husband for almost a decade. Upon her husband's death, she discovered he had been having an affair. After dealing with the sobbing and utterly gutted mistress in the kindest way possible (she even let her attend the funeral), Ana has decided to move home to NZ. She moves back into her mother's cottage, and throughout the novel, we find out that her mother, Haeata, died after a long history of domestic violence with Ana's father, Jason. Ana can't deal with her father, who still resides in the Golden Cove community. Will, the local police officer, is an outsider to the community, stationed in Golden Cove, something of a backwater, as punishment and demotion for his having lost control with a suspect in Christchurch. Anahera's personal history isn't the only relevant criminal activity in the area, though. About a decade before, three separate cases of female hikers disappearing were brushed off by the former local police as hikers who weren't cautious enough with the rough conditions. After Ana returns to Golden Cove, a young and stunning local woman, only 19, also goes missing, and Will, who has better training, investigates the disappearance of Miriama as a potential crime. The fate of the young woman, and those three hikers from years before, forms the crux of the novel.

Some aspects of this novel had me unable to put it down. Still, others seemed so formulaic (particularly the writing style and Will's labeling of people as psychopaths, sometimes with the thinnest of evidence they were) that it grated on me, even as I wanted to see the characters solve the mystery of the hikers and of what really happened to Miriama. I'd definitely give another of Singh's books a shot after reading this one.

I received a digital review copy of this book, along with a paper review copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Sunday, December 1, 2019

Little Women (Chapters 11 - 23) by Louisa May Alcott

Welcome to my Book Fairy readathon of Louisa May Alcott's best-known novel, "Little Women." I am participating in the Book Fairy International plan of reading this book in full before the December 25th release of actress and director Greta Gerwig's adaptation of the novel for film. You're welcome to join in with thoughts and comments.

Before we get into the next portion of the book, I thought it might be interesting to look at the lives of the Alcott sisters who inspired Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. For this week's installment, I look at Anna Bronson Alcott Pratt, the inspiration for Meg.                                                                                                                                   

Little Women's Meg

Louisa May Alcott's older sister Anna Bronson Alcott was born in 1831, about a year and a half before Louisa May. Though primarily home educated, she also attended her father's Temple School in Boston. She opened her own school, with 20 students, in 1850 but then departed for a teaching position in Syracuse, NY in 1853. In 1858, the year the Alcott family moved to Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, Anna met John Bridge Pratt (the inspiration for Little Women's John Brooke, while playing opposite him in the Concord Dramatic Union that she and Louisa formed. Anna was a great lover of the performing arts and longed to be an actress. From an early age, Anna and Louisa created romantic and comedic plays. In 1858, the year the Alcott family moved to Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, Anna met John Bridge Pratt (the inspiration for Little Women's John Brooke, while playing opposite him in the Concord Dramatic Union that she and Louisa formed. They were married at Orchard House in 1860 and had two sons, Frederick Alcott Pratt and John Sewell Pratt (later John Alcott), who both became publishers. Sadly, John Pratt, Anna's husband, died suddenly in 1870, after only ten years of marriage. Anna moved into the Thoreau-Alcott home (owned by first by Henry David Thoreau, then purchased for the widowed Anna Alcott Pratt by her sister Louisa). Louisa and their father also eventually lived in the home with Anna, and it was in this home, rather than Orchard House, that Louisa May Alcott wrote Jo's Boys, the sequel to Little Women and Little Men. Sadly, though, the oldest sibling, Anna, outlived all her sisters. She remained in the Thoreau-Alcott house until her death in 1893. She was buried with the Alcott family in Sleepy Hollow Cemetary (not the Sleepy Hollow of Washington Irving fame) along with some of the great American writers of the era, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Little Women, Chapters 11 - 23

In these chapters, we see the March sisters becoming even more defined as to character and see Marmee March's clever way of teaching her girls life lessons. In Chapter 11, Marmee allows the girls to take a complete vacation, with no work at the house or outside at all. The "experiment" is a disaster, especially for Beth's dear little bird Pip, who goes neglected with the cessation of the usual routines and responsibilities and dies from thirst and starvation. Everything in the household becomes a snarl, and the girls learn that even vacation time needs to have some structure. As a child, I recall the death of Pip had a profound effect on me. (Even as an adult, all my fears of neglecting the care of small mammals or birds can be linked back to Pip's sad fate.)

Meanwhile, Jo March has been working on her challenges, which would be her hot temper and her impetuousness. She's making gains, and her mother lets her know she sees these improvements and encourages her. Beth, whose relationship with Laurie's grandfather has grown after she overcame her fear of him and started playing on his grand piano, is now routinely entertaining him. Laurie invites all the March sisters over to the Laurence home when he has guests, the Vaughns. Meg is made acutely aware of their social and economic class differences when she and Kate Vaughn discuss schooling and governesses. It is during this visit that Laurie's tutor Mr. Brooke's interest and admiration for Meg surfaces.

Jo March's desire to become a published writer takes a step forward with the publication of her story "The Rival Painters." Her sisters and mother are very proud of her accomplishments. Jo receives a great deal of support from Laurie for her writing, and this has deepened their friendship. That friendship becomes increasingly crucial for Amy as well, in the coming weeks.

Not long after these happy times, Marmee receives a telegram from Washington, calling her to Mr. March's bedside, for he is gravely ill. Calling on help from Aunt March and Mr. Laurence, Marmee readies herself for her trip to Washington. Since Jo knows Marmee is very short on funds she makes a great sacrifice- selling her beautiful hair to provide her mother with additional funds to keep her father comfortable. Mr. Laurence sends John Brooke, Laurie's tutor, to Washington, to help Mrs. March. Once Marmee is gone, Beth takes up her mother's charitable work of visiting poor families. However, Beth's constitution is not that of her mother, a woman who has safely given birth to four children and nursed countless others. Beth watches the very ill Hummel baby for Mrs. Hummel, the poor German mother we met in the Christmas Breakfast episode, while the mother goes for a doctor she can ill afford. The Hummel baby dies in Beth's arms, but worse still, dies from scarlet fever. (Scarlet fever is a severe form of strep throat in which the bacteria causing the infection to produce a toxin that causes a distinctive rash and severe inflammation and potentially lasting organ damage. It is still a disease seen in present times.) After her many days of visiting the Hummels, it is no surprise that Beth becomes acutely ill. The March housekeeper Hannah, left in charge of the March sisters, is left with the terrible choice of calling Mrs. March back from her husband's bedside or helping conceal Beth's illness in hopes she recovers quickly. Since Amy has never had scarlet fever, she is sent away to stay with Aunt March. Amy is very upset about this and only agrees to go because Laurie offers to come to visit her every day, to take her out for excursions, and keep her abreast of the situation with Beth's health. Laurie is incredibly good with Amy and makes her time with Aunt March, who has a soft spot for him, more endurable. For a time, this delicate balancing act works, but as Beth's condition steadily worsens, much to the horror of Hannah, Meg, and Jo, difficult decisions are made. Ultimately, Mr. Laurence notifies Mrs. March of the severity of Beth's illness even before Hannah, and the girls do, and Marmee returns home, leaving her husband in the care of the able Mr. Brooke. Beth manages to survive scarlet fever, but her health has been greatly compromised by the illness, as we shall see in the coming years. Not long afterward, Mr. March returns home. 

One of the consequences of Mr. Brooke's going with Mrs. March to care for Mr. March is that he becomes more ensconced in the March family. He's been carrying a torch for Meg March since he first met her (Laurie reveals to Jo that Brooke has a missing glove of Meg's and carries it with him everywhere in a coat pocket) and Mrs. March begins to grow quite fond of the young man. Mr. March also thinks highly of him. Jo is very upset by all this because the growing likelihood of a match between John Brooke and her beloved Meg means a lasting change to the little group of March sisters is imminent, and it's not a change Jo wants to contemplate. Laurie senses something is wrong and in a prank, writes to Meg in John Brooke's name, creating a very embarrassing situation when Meg writes back to John. This is the first truly serious fight that Jo and Laurie have, not least because initially Jo is blamed when, in fact, it's just that Laurie surmises enough of what is going on to play an ungentlemanly prank on Meg. His grandfather, who doesn't know the details, is furious with him, and we begin to learn more about Laurie's character and some of the bitter legacy of his dead father's legacy with Laurie's grandfather. It's an interesting, if brief, look at the Laurence family dynamics and Mr. Laurence trying to break a cycle of events where fathers (or father figures) and sons break irretrievably apart.

Beth's illness has a profound effect on Amy March and proves a turning point in her maturation and ability to think of others before herself. Marmee notes that Amy has become less vain, more patient, and kinder. The March family draws closer once they are reunited, though the atmosphere surrounding the growing affection between Meg and John frustrates both Meg and Jo, for differing reasons. Meg recognizes that she is too young to marry and seems ready to declare this to Brooke. However, her Aunt March's interference, her insults about John Brooke (Cook, Book, Rook!), and her threats to cut Meg out of her inheritance have the opposite effect, confirming her regard for John and sealing her commitment to become engaged to him. The events of this chapter close out the first part of the book we now call Little Women. Our next installment in this readathon will open with the second part, Good Wives.

The Thoreau-Alcott House, Concord, MA
Register of National Historic Places
(photograph by John Phelan, Wikimedia Commons)

© Marzie's Reads 2017-2019, All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Little Women (Chapters 1 - 10) by Louisa May Alcott

Welcome to my Book Fairy readathon of Louisa May Alcott's best-known novel, "Little Women." I am participating in the Book Fairy International plan of reading this book in full before the December 25th release of actress and director Greta Gerwig's adaptation of the novel for film. You're welcome to join in with thoughts and comments.

Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania on November 29, 1932. She was the second daughter in a family of four girls. Her parents, Abigail May and Amos Bronson Alcott were transcendentalists, following in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who were family friends. (Emerson once loaned the Alcotts the funds to purchase a home in Concord, Massachusetts, though it was not Orchard House, the home most famously associated with Louisa May Alcott. The home was later acquired by family friend Nathaniel Hawthorne.) Transcendentalism had a broad influence on the Alcott family and upon Louisa May's writing. Jo March's love of nature, desire for justice, and resolve to improve herself exemplifies her transcendentalist thinking. You can see more about the role of transcendentalism in her life on PBS. Although her early works of fiction were not successful, when her publisher asked her to write a novel about girls, Alcott's chosen model for the March sisters and their family was her own family. It was the authenticity of this family story (continued in Little Men and Jo's Boys) that yielded her most celebrated work. Her older sister Anna was her model for the excellent Meg. Her sister Abigail May was the model for her youngest sister, the sometimes difficult and spoiled Amy. And Elizabeth or "Lizzie," who died at twenty-two, was her Beth March. The novel Little Women, while dated in some respects, retains much of its freshness due to its depiction of sisterly love and often painful sisterly anger. The relationship between the March girls, each so different from the other, each so bound in the love for each other, feels real because the basis for the characters was real.

Many readers do not know that Little Women, as we read it today, was actually originally published as two separate novels. The first volume was titled Little Women, while the second was titled Good Wives. If you want to read the full version of the book we today call Little Women, you should be sure you're getting both because many publishers and even some audiobook producers only give you book one. Your book should have at least five hundred pages, and your audiobook would be at least fifteen hours long.

Little Women, Chapters 1 -10

It's been decades since I read Little Women, and the first thing that strikes me when I read today is the religiosity of the March family. (I have wondered if those of non-Christian faiths might find the overtly religious nature of some portions of the novel might be somewhat off-putting.) The novel opens with the March girls lamenting the Christmas holiday and the fact that they won't be receiving presents. We are introduced to Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March and their mother, Margaret March, or as they call her, Marmee. Each of the sisters possesses a unique manner and character. Meg, the oldest, is polished and responsible. Jo, the writer of the family, is hot-tempered and something of a tomboy. (It is ironic, as Karen Quimby has pointed out, that Jo, who is disappointed to be a girl, has one of the most celebrated girlhoods in American fiction.) Beth is shy, quiet, and very good-hearted. Amy, the youngest, has artistic skills, and, in that way that youngest children are often portrayed, is a spoiled and selfish child. As we are introduced to the girls, we see how their characters differ yet they all love their mother dearly and recognize her charitable nature. Marmee thinks of others before she thinks of herself. Her daughters, especially Meg and Beth, aspire to emulate this quality. So on Christmas morning, it is no surprise that when Marmee asks the girls to give up their beautiful Christmas breakfast for a poor family, where the mother is ill and the children are cold and starving in a poorly insulated home, the girls agree without much obvious disappointment. It is this sacrifice that brings them to the attention of their kind neighbor, the wealthy Mr. Laurence, and thus brings his grandson Laurie into the lives of the March family.

The early chapters of the book capture the diversions (play-acting, games, writing, drawing, singing, and playing the piano) that are the core of the March sisters' family life. Theodore Laurence, aka Laurie, or Teddy as Jo sometimes calls him, is about Jo's same age, and has been leading a lonely and sheltered life. The March sisters change his life with their good-natured family. His closest friend among the sisters is undoubtedly Jo, with whom he shares an ebullient nature, a streak of mischief, and a rather hot-tempered disposition. Speaking of temper, in these early chapters we also see the occasional fierce anger and jealousy between siblings, for example Amy, in a fit of anger, burns Jo's only copy of a novel she's been working on for over a year. Yet, when days later Amy falls through melting ice and almost drowns, Jo is beside herself for the role she played in the accident by ignoring her younger sister's safety.  Amy also finds herself in trouble at school for flouting the rules, and her sisters rally to her support for what is viewed as inappropriate and excessive punishment. All in all, these chapters give us a warm introduction into the world of the March sisters.

Let's see where the March family goes from here in the next ten chapters. And, in the coming weeks, I plan to post photos from Louisa May Alcott's family home, Orchard House, which is now a museum in Concord, Massachusetts. I want to visit when we have snow, to get my own photos like this one below, and get the feel of Orchard House at the opening of Little Women.

Orchard House in Winter by John Phelan 


© Marzie's Reads 2017-2019, All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Review: The Last True Poets of the Sea

The Last True Poets of the Sea The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm so behind in my reviewing and can't believe I didn't get this review for the gorgeous book out on time. Apologies to Julia Drake, but it's not too late, and this book should be on everyone's radar for gifting to your favorite teen for the holidays. It's delightful, poignant, and more than a little wise.

Violet is a rebellious teen whose brother Sam is battling severe mental health issues. A straight-A student, Sam is battling an eating disorder and depression serious enough that he recently tried to take his own life. Violet loves her brother but hasn't been there for him. She's watched him spin further and further out of control but hasn't told her parents and doesn't know what she should do to help Sam. To hide her guilt, she's been behaving counterproductively, drinking, drugging, and experimenting with her sexual feelings. After he attempts suicide and Violet's reaction is to make out with a much older man in front of the vending machines, her frustrated parents send her to stay with her Uncle Toby in Lyric, Maine. Toby lives in the home her mom grew up in, Violet's grandmother's house. Her grandmother Fidelia survived a terrible shipwreck a century ago, and both Violet and Sam have always been fascinated with that aspect of their family's history. Violet's reaction to being sent away is radical. She shaves her head, borrows her dad's clothes, and pretty much tries to change everything about herself. Only... of course, she can't change who she is.

Once living in Lyric, working at a small-time local aquarium where she meets the yummy Orion and his equally delicious friend Liv, Violet slowly starts to deal with all the complications in her life, family, and within herself. In addition to worrying about Sam, she's worried she's a horrible person unworthy of being loved because of how she's reacted to her family problems. She is also kind of confused by her attraction to both Orion and Liv and what to do about it. There are so many kinds of love. But sometimes understanding what kind you feel is a challenge.

Beautifully navigating the struggles of insightful teens, Drake has created a great book with a memorable character who eschews labels.

The audiobook, narrated by Tavia Gilbert, was good, though I wish she could have sung the songs that Violet sings, particularly the Jo Stafford/Patsy Cline classic, "You Belong to Me." Simply reading the lyrics just felt odd. (Readers can take a listen here.)

I received a Digital Review Copy and a paper review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Friday, November 15, 2019

Review: A Constellation of Roses

A Constellation of Roses A Constellation of Roses by Miranda Asebedo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Constellation of Roses is author Miranda Asebedo's second YA novel and one of the most affecting novels I've read in recent months. Equal parts coming of age story and redemption story, it gives us a young woman, Trix McCabe, who is struggling in every possible way. Living hand to mouth while her addict mother prostitutes herself, Trix has grown up living in hotel rooms and using her mysterious gift of stealing things without being caught to help them survive. Eventually, Trix is removed from her mother's care by social services, and she bounces around in foster homes while her mother completes drug rehab. Once she is reunified with her mother, they have one good year, living above a Chinese restaurant where her mother works and where Trix is treated like family, and then, after a simple kitchen mishap, it all turns south again. Soon Trix is back in care, running away, and finally getting caught and given a plea deal choice of going to juvenile detention (that would be jail) or going to live with the newly discovered family of her father, a father she never knew. She will have to finish high school there and work part-time in the family's tea shop and bakery. Trix, being pragmatic, takes the plea. Her social worker, Ms. Troy, takes her to meet her Aunt Mia, her great aunt, Auntie (easily the most humorous character in the novel), and her cousin, Ember. And so her journey to joining the McCabe women begins.

Trix quickly finds out that all McCabe women have a gift, a sort of quiet magic. (This is deftly done magical realism.) She quickly realizes what hers is- the ability to steal or do things unseen. But the McCabe family's real gift is loving-kindness, and it changes Trix's life in ways nothing in her seventeen-year struggle has. Allowing her to have space, and find her place with their support, Trix's life seems to be on a new path until the past rears up and makes her question how much a person can or should change from the habits of their familiar past. Her poignant feelings of not belonging, of doubt, her continual fears of rejection and feelings of alienation plague her. How will she conquer her deepest fears? You know the McCabe women will be there for her.

This book is beautifully written, made me cry near the end (happy tears, really!) and Trix's story and struggles feel so authentic. After years of working in the child welfare system, I can say that the passages in which Trix's PTSD, and her feelings of desperation that make her want to run, feel visceral and real. How I wish I could have offered Never-Lonely Lemon pie to some of the teens I knew.

The audiobook is beautifully narrated by Katherine Littrell.

Content Warnings: child abuse, addiction, suicide. Please note that this is a book with positive outcomes about recovering one's life.

"May your darkest chapters be short, and your story long." ~ Miranda Asebedo

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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