Thursday, October 10, 2019

Review: Ninth House

Ninth House Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars bumped to 5 because if you can make me like a story this dark, you deserve 5 stars

The Ninth House is bestselling author Leigh Bardugo's first adult novel and is it dark in tone. There are terrible crimes, including a pretty gruesome one, at the heart of this story. But Galaxy Stern is worth your patience. It took me a bit to warm to her since, in the beginning, she seemed a little like a grifter. Over the course of the book, the reader grows to sympathize with her and to root for her. Galaxy, or Alex as she prefers to be called, is a young woman with a deeply troubled and traumatic past, and the unique skill of being able to see ghosts. That gift is both a mystery and something of a curse. It's also made Alex into a highly desirable asset.

It is a bit ironic that the setting for the novel is Bardugo's alma mater, Yale University, and the town of New Haven, Connecticut. Bardugo loved attending Yale but her urban fantasy version of Yale is a place filled with corruption, intrigue, social class stratification, and frat boy sexual abuses. It's also a place brimming with magic, in which the famous societies or houses of Yale (you know, like Skull and Bones of GHW Bush and GW Bush fame) all represent different magical gifts or teachings. Some, like say Manuscript (Jodie Foster) or Book and Snake (Bob Woodward), are downright scary. Not that Skull and Bones is a benign place, mind you. In this heady mix Alex, against all odds, is given a free ride to Yale, in order to join the titular Ninth House, Lethe. Representing a sort of magical oversight organization, they are the shepherds keeping the other eight houses in line. Alex initially thinks she is completely out of her league and not just academically. In fact, the houses at Yale have simply no idea what they're dealing with in Alex Stern.

Bardugo once again has me hooked with this new series, which she envisioned before she wrote her Grishaverse series! Alex is a character of depth and complexity, and while the secondary characters pale a bit in comparison, I'm assuming they will be developed over the course of the next novels. Darlington, in particular, is a character I'd love to see more of. There's a clear direction for a second novel and I'm looking forward to seeing where Bardugo takes the story next, though I'm pretty sure it's going to be hellish.*

The audiobook is beautifully narrated by Lauren Fortgang, who has narrated Bardugo's Grishaverse books. The audiobook has an interview with Bardugo at the end and she lets it slip as to which society she was in during her time at Yale.

Content Warnings: rape, murder

*The title of the sequel is (according to Leigh Bardugo) stashed somewhere in the last chapter of Ninth House. Come back and tell me what you think it will be. (view spoiler below)

I received a paper Advanced Review Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Spoilers can be seen by highlighting with your cursor: [ My money is on Wheelwalker. ]

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Review: Blackberry & Wild Rose

Blackberry & Wild Rose Blackberry & Wild Rose by Sonia Velton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A novel of historical fiction centering on the Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields, England, Blackberry and Wild Rose gives us the story of two very different women. Sarah Kemp was sent to London to find a better life by her mother and promptly tricked, druggedm and trafficked by the madam of a brothel. It's years later that Esther Thorel, the wife of a wealthy master weaver, enters Sarah's life and "rescues" her by giving her a job as her lady's maid. Esther is a frustrated artist who wants to design beautiful silks (like the blackberry and wild rose print of the title) but her husband belittles her efforts and wants her to stay out of his weaving business. Yet Esther's hopes of designing begin to blossom when a talented protege of her husband, Bisby Lambert, helps her set her ideas into silk. Sarah quickly becomes bored with her low salary and dismal work tidying up after her mistress and emptying her chamber pot and pushes back against what she perceives as the hypocrisy of the Thorel household. With Sarah and Esther on a seeming collision course of ideology, Velton takes the story of these two determined women in surprising directions.

This is a compelling story about the historical rights of women and the character of Esther is loosely inspired by Anna Maria Garthwaite, an eighteenth-century silk designer whose artistry resembled that of paintings. The audiobook, narrated by Esther Wane and Shiromi Arserio, is a beautiful production.

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

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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Review: The Dutch House

The Dutch House The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Orange Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author Ann Patchett's latest book is a sheer delight.

Have you have ever formed an attachment to a house? Do you reminisce about the house you grew up in? "The Dutch House" captures how much of our memory of family is bound up in our memories of "home." In a story told by Danny Conroy, son of Irish Catholic businessman Cyril Conroy, we learn all about the Conroy home, called the Dutch House, in honor of the family that built it and lived there, the vanHouebeeks. (Pronounced Van Who-bake, btw.) Purchased by Cyril Conroy in the 1950's for his wife Elna, and his two children Maeve and Danny, the Dutch House, on VanHoebeek Street in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania became almost mythical in Danny and Maeve's childhood. Unfortunately, their mother hated the Dutch House, and further, hated her life as the wife of a real estate baron. She left to do charity work in India when Danny was four and Maeve going on twelve. After a brief fling with their nanny, Cyril remarries, to an odd half-Dutch woman named Andrea who is like gum stuck to his shoe in terms of her sticking power. She comes with two daughters, Norma and Bright, to whom Danny and Maeve develop a degree of attachment. None of the children appears very attached to Andrea, however. The story of the family's ups and downs in the years after the new Mrs. Conroy enters the picture form the core of the novel, as does the incredible love and devotion Danny and Maeve have for each other. This is such a wonderful story of siblings. Although there is sadness in the story, there is such warmth and humor. I was left wanting to meet the Conroys- from Maeve and Danny, to May and Kevin, and even Norma and Bright. Elna was a character that also fascinated me. Frankly, I could talk about her for hours.

This is an excellent selection for book club readers. There are plenty of thought-provoking questions to ask about the characters in this novel and it will be a joy to read.

I listened to the audiobook version of the novel courtesy of (The audiobook company where purchases can support your local indie bookshop) Actor Tom Hanks does a fabulous job of bringing the characters in the story to life. If you're an audiobook lover, this one is a worthy investment.

I received a paper review copy from HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review and a complimentary copy of the audiobook from HarperAudio via in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: The Giver of Stars

The Giver of Stars The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A novel about the Kentuckian packhorse librarians of Eleanor Roosevelt's WPA library project, The Giver of Stars tells the story of women whose lives were changed by their opportunity to work during the Depression era. Earning twenty-eight dollars a month, librarians delivered books into the remote hollers of Kentucky, enriching the lives of residents, some of whom could barely read when the project began. Central character Alice Wright is a bored British woman who leaves her life in Surrey after meeting handsome Bennett Van Cleve. She thinks she is moving to a life in glamorous America but in fact ends up feeling alienated in Baileyville, a small Kentucky mining town, living in her father-in-law's home with her husband and what feels like the claustrophobic presence of her deceased mother-in-law to whom she is constantly held in comparison. Unable to make her own home, since her father-in-law wants everything preserved as his wife left it, Alice Van Cleve begins to look outward and seizes the opportunity to join the ranks of a newly formed packhorse library with the likes of iconoclast Margery O'Hare. It's a life-changing move and not just for Alice, but for Margery, who becomes more open to friendship and trust, but to others in the library service like Izzy Brady, Beth Pinker, and Sophia Kenworth, a black librarian from Louisville who has returned home to care for her brother William, who was injured in a mining accident. The owner of the mine, none other than Alice's evil father-in-law Gideon Van Cleve, tries all manner of unscrupulousness to control those in Baileyville, but some, like Fred Guisler, who donated space for the library, and Sven Gustavsson, a mine security officer who is in love with Margery, cut their own path in the community.

The Giver of Stars marks something of a departure for British author Jojo Moyes and comparisons to the May 2019 book The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek by author Kim Michele Richardson have been as fast and furious as they were inevitable. The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek, a years-long well-researched labor of love by Richardson, an American author, went into first drafts in 2016, but is not even the first novel on the Kentucky book women to be published in 2019. (The first was Where Green Meets Blue by Corinne Beenfield, which I've not yet read.) The broad similarities between Richardson's and Moyes' books - both feature black librarians, both feature an attack on a packhorse librarian, and both feature poignant deaths of story-loving terminally ill library patrons (in Richardson's novel a malnourished child and in Moyes' novel a miner dying of black lung)- have posed a lot of questions. I'm not sure as a reviewer that I can comment beyond saying there are still differences in the story, though it stings that Moyes, the better-known writer, already has her novel optioned for film, while Richardson worries her beautiful book will be forgotten. Readers should read both books. While my ratings might reveal a personal preference, both are very good books with different strengths. It is true, however, that there are notable similarities in the stories and that Richardson's novel was available in DRCs long before Moyes. Readers looking for more info on comparisons that have been questioned between these two books can read this article: "Me Before You" Author Jojo Moyes Has Been Accused Of Publishing A Novel With "Alarming Similarities" To Another Author's Book

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

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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Review: Cilka's Journey

Cilka's Journey Cilka's Journey by Heather Morris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Even more so than with its predecessor The Tattooist of Auschwitz, I have struggled with how to review Heather Morris' novelization of the life of Cecilia "Cilka" Klein Kovac. Unlike the story of Lale/Lali Sokolov,* with whom Morris spent an ample amount of time, Cilka died in 2004, long before Morris undertook Lali's story. Morris never knew her, and there is precious little information about her. Cilka Klein arrived at Auschwitz in 1942, survived to be liberated, and was then tried as a Nazi collaborator for "sleeping with the enemy" and sentenced to fifteen years hard labor in Vorkuta, a Soviet gulag. While Lali Sokolov called her the bravest person he ever knew (she saved him, according to his account), others have called her a murderer in Shoah Foundation testimony:

"The Shoah Foundation testimony of a contemporary from Bardejov alludes to a darker side to her role as block leader. He said that while she had smuggled him some much-needed food, she was also “an absolute murderer. There is probably more blood on her hands than anybody else”."*

This novel in part presents a redux of the questions I had about collaboration and the right to survive. Lali and Gita Sokolov believed that Cilka was forced into a sexual relationship with several SS officers. It's important to note that Peter Juscak, a Slovakian writer who had talked to Cilka Klein Kovac after her husband's death and before her own, said that Cilka firmly denied that she ever slept with any of the SS.* She entered Auschwitz at age sixteen and it's not entirely clear what she could have done to avoid the situation if the SS officers wanted to rape her. It is impossible to know if her denials to Juscak were due to the shame of rape, the shame of appearing to consent, her suppressing the memories to protect herself from her painful history, or whether, in fact, the claims that she slept with SS officers were entirely false and the Sokolovs were wrong. (To which I add, would it ever truly be possible to have a consensual relationship under such conditions, no matter how old she was?) If we believe the Sokolovs' and Morris' version of events, Cilka was definitely a sexual abuse victim who chose to survive as best she could. She could have fought back and died. But like many sixteen-year-olds, she understandably wanted to live and apparently tried to adapt to her situation not just once but a second time at Vorkuta. Put in charge of the dreaded Auschwitz Block 25, where female prisoners were held prior to being gassed, she apparently did her job, just like Lali did his. (I will say it is noticeable that there is no specific reference in the Shoah Foundation testimonies to Cilka having killed anyone or having been directly responsible for the deaths of anyone, despite the statement of the one man from Bardejov.) For these things, she got more food (which even according to the Shoah Foundation testimony she may have shared), warmer clothing, and an indoor job in the administrative building. Even with these "niceties," she was in a death camp and her life could have ended at any moment at the whim of any officer in a mood to do so. I do not feel I am in any position to judge her or her actions and choices. I wasn't there and have never come even close to having to survive what she survived either in Auschwitz or Vorkuta. Almost any version of these events that Morris could offer would be a searing story of survival no matter what the protagonist did to do so. What I do have questions about is Morris using Cilka Klein's story when apparently she was an extremely private person who explicitly told another writer that she did not want her story told.* She is no longer here to say whether her name can be used in this novel and she left no heirs to consent for her, either. I understand Morris' intent to satisfy reader curiosity and her coming from the position of Lali's saying that Cilka was very brave. But still, I question the ethical choices made here.

Morris gives us a largely fictionalized account of Cilka's life at Auschwitz and Vorkuta because no one really knows the full set of facts about what she endured in either setting. She could be canonizing her or vilifying her and we would not have facts to say so. We, as readers, and the author, have no clear picture of what true justice for Cilka would look like. Was she a Nazi collaborator or merely a survivor who was further abused by a Soviet criminal system looking for scapegoats? Morris works off of research accounts of life in the camps and gulag, along with the information she learned from Lali and Gita's first-hand experience of knowing Cilka. While the book is fairly well-written, I am still turning over in my mind whether it was the right thing to call this novel Cilka's story. Honestly, I'm pretty much siding on the idea of creating a character of a different name and saying in an afterward that the story was "partly inspired" by the real-life story of Cilka Klein. So that's my take. Read this book and then read the facts that are known and think about what this woman endured no matter what the facts were. But remember- this isn't just a novel of historical fiction for the many who survived the Shoah and for those who seek to safeguard their legacy. At its best, let Morris' novel be the spur to get you to learn more about the real people behind the characters in her novel.

*A reader seeking information about both the issues with Lale/Lali and Gita Sokolov's and Cilka Klein's stories can read this well-researched article:

It is also important to understand that an accurate accounting of the events of the Shoah is incredibly important to both the remaining survivors and to those who seek to preserve their legacy. There is great fear that fictionalizing these stories feeds into Holocaust denial. An accuracy assessment of "The Tattooist of Auschwitz" by Wanda Witek-Malicka, the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center, can be found here:

I received a Digital Review Copy and paper review copy of this novel from St. Martin's Press in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Troubled Water: What's Wrong with What We Drink

Troubled Water: What's Wrong with What We Drink Troubled Water: What's Wrong with What We Drink by Seth M. Siegel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The USGS (United States Geological Service) has an interesting Water Science School document called "The Water in You: Water in the Human Body." In it we learn that all told, the human body is composed of about 60% water. Some organs and tissues have higher water content than others, for instance, our lungs are about 83% water, kidneys about 79%, brain and heart about 73% and even our bones are about 31% water. One should consider where that water comes from and what is in that water that makes up us. Do you want your lungs, kidneys, brain, etc to become saturated with any contaminants? A quick look at Flint, Michigan and you can see that, no, you do not want unsafe drinking water in your body. But how safe is America's water? Reader, you should be asking this question in your town, your state, and of your legislators. And you should go armed with facts.

Troubled Water, my non-fiction read for September, provides a deeply unsettling look at drinking water in America. Siegel explains in rich detail the gross inadequacies of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose abbreviated list of about ninety "regulated contaminants" is dwarfed by more than 120,000 compounds, pharmaceuticals, and plastics that could influence water quality and safety. No one is looking for those contaminants. No one regulates them. And we are not just talking about tap water from a public source or a private well whose watershed may be contaminated by decades of manufacturing runoffs. Bottled water is just as poorly regulated. In fact, in many instances, it is totally unregulated. So if you were drinking bottled water thinking it was safer, you might want to think again. From perfluorinated contaminants to estrogens to microplastics, the drinking water in this country is something that should concern every citizen. It affects humans, our pets, our crops, and the plant and animal protein we consume. In short, the poorly regulated and analyzed so-called potable water problem affects everything around us.

This book is extremely accessible and any layperson can and should read it. The important thrust of this book, pushing the EPA to do more to protect Americans by regulating drinking water more consistently, efficiently, and with the public interest in mind, is something that should be on every citizen's mind. And further, setting local and state standards for better filtration of drinking water, so that unregulated contaminants don't find their way into our food supply and kitchen water. Because clearly, relying on the slow-moving EPA is a foolhardy thing.

An excellent book.

I received a copy of this book from St. Martin's Press in exchange for an honest review.

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