Friday, October 31, 2014

Fabulous Non-Fiction

In the Kingdom of Ice
Hampton Sides 2014
Subtitle : The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette
I opened Kingdom of Ice and could not believe seeing the Bradford painting I had raved about viewing at MMAM this summer: Icebergs in the Arctic, 1882. It was a remarkable faceplate, but the original was so much more sublime. This book concerns a US naval voyage undertaken in 1879 by Cpt George DeLong to get to the North Pole. People were obsessed with finding the North Pole, the last unmapped unknown of the globe, with the seemingly insurmountable fortress of ice rimming the arctic seas.  He had had previous arctic experience, having rescued members of the Polaris in 1873, off Greenland. He caught arctic fever (pagophile, ice loving) and prepared meticulously and  arduously for this expedition. His wife was an avid supporter and considered joining the voyage.   The first third of the book explores the people, politics,  and the scientific times (1874-1879), intriguing characters/vignettes from the generous funder, James Gordon Bennett jr, eccentric wealthy owner of the NY Herald who was looking for another sensational story to sell newspapers, after his previous success with dispatching Stanley to find Dr Livingston in Africa, to German mapmaker Petermann, and  the arc lamp inventions of Thomas Edison.
The expedition started from San Francisco July 8, 1879  north for a voyage through the Bering straits, to an expected open, warm polar sea.  This was a late start, further delayed searching for another missing explorer.  Boats are seldom renamed: Jeannette was previously, perhaps more appropriately,  the HMS Pandora. They were soon trapped in the ice and spent two years being moved at will (see maps!). Eventually, the hull was breached and quickly sank, leaving the crew of 33 men in 3 open boats, 1000 miles north of Siberia. Theirs was a march across frozen seas and wasteland against terrible odds, with staggering commradarie. The last third of the book details the horrific journey of the remaining two crews, separated in storm and then deposited distantly on the unforgiving Lena delta. Melville was fortunate to find natives, and have an enforced rest til the ice further froze, making travel easier.  But, on learning that DeLong might be alive, his rescue efforts were immensely satisfying, haunting and fascinating.  It will take some time to warm the bone deep chill of the hellish Arctic.
There are very good photos and drawings, although I wished for more to illustrate this incredible voyage. This was well researched and very educational about the era and ideas, providing nuanced profiles of major players, while propelling the story energetically along.  The letters and journal entries of Emma DeLong and their daughter Sylvia contributed greatly to the poignant story. There are also so many other stories contained in this book, notably, John Muir who was haunted by the St Lawrence Island deaths of 1000 natives through starvation and whisky (The extinction of the walrus the previous decade by the whaling industry, noting that the American presence was a disaster and the entire wilderness ecosystem was vulnerable.) Muir's book The Cruise of the Corwin, about his search of the Jeannnete is considered a classic of Arctic literature.
The epilogue is particularly striking. Emma DeLong recognizing her role as the public face of the Jeannette expedition, and that she would be the 'Explorer's Wife' for the rest of her life. She went to live with her parents in NYC (father was Captain James Wotton). One of her letters to her husband was discovered in a remote Greenland hut, unopened,  years later by explorer Robert Peary during one is his polar attempts (finally 1909). She wrote a book Explorer's Wife (1938).
Rear Admiral George Melville (engineer on the expedition) provided great support through the difficult years ahead and wrote a popular book In the Lena, defending De Long. He was involved in additional exploration and rescue (notably the Greely expedition 1884). The George Melville Award is the navy's highest honor for nautical engineering.

If you have read Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott, read on.
If you liked Jennifer Niven's books on the 1913 Polar Voyage of the Karluk, read on.
Don't forget Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea or Caroline Alexander's The Endurance.
This would be a perfect Christmas gift for your nonfiction reader.
4.5 stars

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Not to be missed non fiction

Alexander McCall Smith
What WH Auden can do for you
2013 by Princeton University Press 137 p.
Part of Writers on Writers (I previously reviewed the Dirda On Conan Doyle. Now I must look up CK Williams On Whitman.)

This book is a a personal enthusiasm or appreciation for the English poet. This contains 12 short essays/chapters, not a critique of the poet, but more a way to link poetry to everyday life. AMS is no literary slouch and a prolific writer of popular mysteries. Any talk or lecture is worth driving 100 miles out of your way. I have even contemplated plane tickets home to Edinburgh to hear him.  I love that his "worms" aren't catchy songs hummed repeatedly but lines of poetry that appear in his everyday life. More often than not Auden. This is also an introduction to Auden, which will make you recognize how much of his work is actually already in your everyday life. "The Funeral Blues" recited in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the poem "September 1, 1939" which was faxed around the world after 9/11, quotes in any number of mysteries (see Poetic Justice by Amanda Cross and of course all the Sunday Philosophy Club books by AMS).

This book has a conversational writing style and feels like an intimate chat, not a lecture. I felt that this book was equally about AMS as we learn many of his thoughts and private details. It gives you a chance to explore Auden's poetry;  while it has only a few of his better known stanzas, lines of his poems may trigger your own memories or send you in search of his poetry.   I expect more people will be reading poetry and Auden simply because AMS has written this book.

"There may be no book on the mothers of poets, or artists in general, but it might one day be written and would be, I think, an enlightening read."
AMS writes about the moment that Auden died and his emptiness of loss was exactly my feelings this summer with the death of Jean Redpath. "One has lost a friend one never really had a chance to have." Years aren't enough.

I loved learning that there is an Edinburgh fellowship set up by AMS  in the name of Isabel Dalhousie, who often quotes Auden as she is a devotee of his work. Not surprisingly Edward Mendelsohn was the first speaker.
Recommend reading 
Selected works / collected poems of WA  Auden (Ed. Edward Mendelsohn)
Early Auden (1981), Later Auden (1999) by Edward Mendelsohn, friend and current literary executor of Auden's works.

Posted 2014 Celtreads, Friends of Rochester Public Library blog and facebook, goodreads, amazon

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Eventually, Love, Actually

Trapped at the Altar by Jane Feather
3.5 stars
Read as a NetGalley arc, as background for other period historical romances.

Jane Feather (née Robotham) is a best selling British American author of historical romance with over 45 novels, translated into many languages. Trapped at the Altar is the start of a new series (her books are often grouped in trilogies). Many of her protagonists are interesting intelligent females, with strong, dominant but caring males. Here we have Ariadne Daunt, granddaughter and heiress to a  Catholic fortune and Ivor Chalfont, heir to a Protestant fortune. They shared a childhood in which she was a willful spoiled girl, living in a secluded valley away from the political intrigues of Royal court. With her grandfathers death, her independent life is wrenched away and she is forced to marry Ivor. He has always loved her and is hoping she will move past her youthful infatuation (a poet). Prepare to be charmed. Although you have to put up with a great deal of spoiled child who remains self entered until nearly the last page.

If you are a Feather fan, you will enjoy this book, as her characters are complex, and historical details (late 1600 England of Charles II) include court intrigue and religious drama. There is little humour and some sensual romance, with gritty everyday life. Infused with misunderstandings, realistic struggles of the time period (which also conflicts with Ari's silliness). I had a harder than usual time liking the heroine which decreased my enjoyment of the book and hope it is not just feeling my age (ancient compared with the immediacy of youth, anger, mistrust, love, life and death).

The ending is rushed, but redeems much of the story.
The cover draws you in, but it was hard to get past the protagonist's selfishness.
Perhaps it is more realistic than most romance readers want too.
Also I couldn't tell the characters of the next book.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Nora Bonesteel's Christmas Past
Sharyn McCrumb
A Ballad Novella (160pgs) published Sept 2014

It feels like Christmas whenever McCrumb writes about Miz Bonesteel. I look forward to her books and any mention of her in the other McCrumb Ballad mysteries which are rich with folklore and tradition. Part of it is the welcoming Scottish roots in Appalachia (hello the house, the comforts of so many Scottish customs and phrases). Some of it is the deep affection and respect I feel for Nora Bonesteel (and yes even after so many years, I would never be so forward as to address her as Nora). This time her story was tinged with more than a little melancholy as Miz Bonesteel is getting older and I worry about what will become of her, and if the Sight will be lost with her passing. She is a tough intriguing character and represents so much history and tradition, especially in this book where the second homeowners are transforming the landscape.
There are two parallel stories, each with favourite characters on this Christmas Eve. Sheriff Spencer Atwood and deputy Joe LeDoone are heading to the holler to bring in a man who dented the Mercedes of a senator. The senator won't be getting their vote. even after the tables are turned and they have become angels. You will be charmed.
And then Miz Bonesteel visits the old Honeycutt house where a spirit is disrupting Christmas. An artificial Florida tree seems even more hideous and incongruent in the restored house. And Nora Bonesteel wanders into the past and understands. You will need a box of tissues.
This is a wonderful holiday book and a lovely addition to her ballad stories. A perfect gift for McCrumb fans. Please don't label this a Christian novel or southern writer,  either.  I wouldn't have read it. It is instead a gentle story, with depth of time and place about the meaning of Christmas and traditional historical values.  And there are timeless messages for any season regarding those chestnut trees: what will be missing from our children's environment and traditions?  I hate starting Christmas early, but I couldn't wait any longer to read and wasn't disappointed (except for its length). But then I never want her books to end.

If you missed her full length historical novel King's Mountain, don't hesitate to get this. It is also a Ballad novel, but occurs during the Revolutionary War.
And in writing this review I discovered that Nora Bonesteel is based on a real person!

I swear that part of the country is only in the map two days a week.
Miz Bonesteel was known to have the greenest thumb in the community. People said she could grow roses in the middle of the interstate....
She is as independent as a hog on ice.
He gave the benefit of the doubt to no one.
No good deed goes unpunished. (This seems more ominous than usual)
The wind feels like a chainsaw. (and it's only 38??!)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fall back to a good western!

Painted Horses
Malcolm Brooks
This is a debut historical novel of an extraordinary, talented writer. I am sorry it has taken me so long to write this review, although I have mentioned this book to everyone I know this past month! I had an early ARC copy, but found it difficult to read, and yet I loved the evocative feeling of place and emotion, the lyrical prose. It wasn't until I got a hard copy edition that I understood my problem: while it is not stream of consciousness, it is a distinctive grammatical style that I can't characterize. Once I had my defined pages, the story leapt off the page at a breathtaking pace.
There's a great sense of place and time/era. This is the 1950's American West, in all it's grandeur, it's last gasp of wilderness and cowboys, before urbanization and habitat /ecological destruction.
An easterner, a young archeologist Catherine Lemay,  who has trained in London, working with the Smithsonian, is sent to Montana in 1956 to catalogue/document a canyon slated in a few weeks for the construction of a hydroelectric dam. She is out of her depth but gathers a sense of the west, the loss of ancient sacred native sites, and tries to find evidence that will prevent the dam being built. She is being manipulated and becomes angry, frustrated, and digs in. She has found her life's cause.
She meets John, a veteran of the US Army Calvary WWII struggling with the horrors of war while rescuing mustangs. He also is an amazing artist who captures their elusive, untamed spirit. I seriously want one of his paintings.
This is a complex tale, sprawling saga in fine American tradition, that makes you weep for what has been lost. This is a powerful love story a la Hemingway, of the people, but more of the land.  It is well researched, rich in detail (and accurate botany and geology!), poignant, memorable historical detail, with a penetrating message currently relevant.

If you like westerns, the west, the old west, horses, Americana, read on.
If you like the novels of John D. McDonald, Cormac McCarthy, Jim Harrison or Annie Proulx, read on.
If you live in the west, don't hesitate to read this.
4 stars
Digital ARC from NetGalley

Fall Into a Good Book!

David Liss. Day of Atonement 2014
I look forward to reading the books of David Liss - I learn a great deal about an historical period and savor the rich detail and tapestry of his plots. Often I met old friends, and greatly enjoyed finding Benjamin Weaver as the formative mentor to Sebastian Foxx.  For ten years Sebastian learns his trade of thief taker/bounty hunter, while the desire for justice and retribution hone his skills. He abruptly departs London for Lisbon in 1755 seeking revenge for the deaths of his parents and the profound loss of his love/youth/ innocence. He understands the game and the stakes and is a dangerous match for the Inquisition. Although that makes it sound quite melodramatic, and indeed this would work on the big screen, with fast action, danger, natural disasters, love, betrayal and redemption. The great earthquake which leveled Lisbon (and killed 90,000 people) provides a convenient escape, but adds another historical element.

I was exhausted when I finished breathtaking read. I lived through atrocities, bore the weight of judgment, and travelled both in time and culture.  Many passages were underlined highlighting gems of wonderful writing and human moments.
It has humor which lighten some of the despair and betrayal and make it all too real, a story you are experiencing not just reading.

I closed the book with a sigh and a sense of well done. Well written, well researched, well developed characters. A most enjoyable read, as expected given his other similar novels, usually classified as historical mystery or historical thrillers (he does have one contemporary thriller Ethical Assassin). Don't miss any of them; start with  A Conspiracy of Paper, which won the 2001 Edgar for best first novel. I might even try his comic books.

4.5 stars
Digital ARC from NetGalley (thank you!)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Hot Historical Romance!

Fall into a good book!
A friend of a friend is a friend.
A friend of a friend who likes books is a good friend.
A friend of a friend who shares books is a great friend.
And a friend of a friend who is also a regency writer, is a friend-in-waiting!?

Recently, I discovered a new award winning author Jess Russell - and I am delighted to comment on her debut Regency romance novel The Dressmaker's Duke.
Jess Russell has created a fascinating historical romance novel full of London high society, fashion, courtesans, village life, with complex characters. There are also interesting embedded stories which provide depth  that include passion for painting, fashion and dressmaking (the author is also an accomplished seamstress!), the use of all our senses so accurately described which contribute to the story.
This is not your standard debut novel. It is a well written and crafted combination of historical detail and rollicking romance. It showcases everyday life, primarily of the English aristocracy but has also some steamy intimate details characteristic of the new regency historical novel (now I understand there are even more regency categories: traditional, regency historical, sensual, paranormal (including Victorian steam punk) and Christian regency romance). This is well researched; you will find many familiar people and locations (Jackson's, Mr Crup's, Mrs Radcliffe's novels, Mrs Siddons).
Mr Rhys Alistair James Merrick, 6th Duke of Royden aka The Monk
Mrs Olivia Weston (née Olivia Jayne Ballard, father Earl of Stokesly, Mr Angus Allen Hartner)
Her companion Egg (Mrs Eglantine Wiggens who has a flirtation with Merrick's Uncle Betram)
Daria Battersby, courtesan
Lord Oscar Biden, scoundrel

The story takes place over the year of 1810. It is rather intricate, somewhat convoluted, with the usual melodrama and secrets. They each have past traumas that are slowly revealed, adding both dimension and substance to their relationship, while preventing straightforward courtship.  I haven't recovered fully from the visual of the main character being described as an onion  with many layers. But perhaps that was also due to all of the senses so well described in this novel: the gutter smells and intoxicating fragrances, stunning scenery, gorgeous dresses and feel of the materials, champagne bubbles and sensual trysts, with incessant rain, cobblestone street traffic and droning matron voices.
The mistress was slightly caricatured. Imagine being a hag at 35?
There are no spoilers here, remember this IS a regency romance, with which I automatically have predictable expectations. But it has fun dialogue, interesting back stories, familiar territory with accurate descriptions, and a most satisfactory ending.

It is a pleasant distraction for an autumn afternoon. I have no recollection of the flight from Florida to Vermont as I was engrossed in this tale, marking hysterical comments and notes to share.
4 stars - open the champagne and celebrate this new author.
Received as an e- ARC  from the author.
Publisher Wild Rose Press
Author Jess Russell lives in New York (and not only loves power tools, but knows how to use them. I have found a kindred spirit who appreciated the gift of a chainsaw!). Her passions include dressmaking and batik.

The Dressmaker's Duke came in first in the Fool for Love contest, Golden Apple Awards' Secret Craving contest, the Indiana Golden Opportunity contest, and finaled in the Great Beginnings, Emerald City opener, and Lone Star contests.
Read on:
If you like Mary Jo Putney, Mary Balogh, Jo Beverly, Marion Chesney, Georgette Heyer, Lisa Kleypas, Stephanie Laurens, Julia Quinn, Amanda Quick, Christina Dodd or Madeline Hunter.

Favourite quotes 
"This particular shop was not for the faint of heart. Mr Crup specialised in the macabre."
"Rhys raised an eyebrow, one of his surest weapons, and gave the man his most ducal look."
"But the four full suits of armor, Sir Mutton, Sir Haggis, Sir Dunce-a-lot and last but not least, Sir Portly- she had named them all in the last hour- gave up no secrets."
"Rhys waited and then raised an eyebrow ever so slightly. Wilcove (his secretary) used to reading volumes in the mere quiver of Rhys's nostril, rushed on."
"Please don't resurrect that atrocity (a costume dress). Good lord, we need a patron not an arrest."
"The ton had called her ruined. Ruined. What an odd word to associate with a human being, as if she were broken and no longer useful, something to be thrown away."