Monday, September 30, 2013

Book Review: Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen
Published by: Gallery Books
Published on: October 1, 2013
Page Count: 336
Genre: Historical fiction, mystery
My Reading Format: ARC provided by Netgalley
Available Formats: Hardcover, Kindle and Audible editions

My Review:

I have to confess I haven't read much Poe. I have the general feel of how his writing is and know some of his biographical highlights. I'd heard that he married his much younger cousin, so it intrigued me when I came across this historical fiction book about a love triangle (or square really) involving Edgar Allan Poe.

The narrator is Poe's "other" woman, the narrator Frances Osgood, herself a writer, and the whole book is written from her perspective. Instead of getting the wife's side of the story, we hear of Poe's dark moods and flighty, sickly wife from Frances' perspective, which really made the book interesting.

Frances has been abandoned by her husband Samuel and is struggling to make a living as a writer to support their two daughters. The three have moved in with friends the Bartletts at their New York City home. Poe's reputation, of course, has preceded him, and Frances is intrigued by him even before they meet. What begins as friendly conversations between two writers turns into an attraction that Frances and Poe seem to have no control over. Frances' path keeps crossing with Poe's and they are soon trying hard to hide the undeniable chemistry between them. In the same circle of friends, many of whom are writers and artists, the two keep attending the same parties. Before long Poe is leaving his wife and mother-in-law at home regularly to meet Frances at friends' gatherings.

John and Eliza Bartlett support Frances in her writing but disapprove of her relationship with Poe. This is all complicated by the fact that Poe is married to a cousin ten years his junior who is frail and sickly, but desires a friendship with Frances, and John Bartlett and Poe have a professional relationship. As Frances and Poe fall more deeply in love with each other, Poe's wife Virginia is growing increasingly ill but still demands Frances' friendship, even when she appears to have caught on to her husband's relationship. 
There is an abrupt resolution to the storyline, something that was a big jarring to me as a reader. While I realize this sort of thing happens in mysteries, the story got resolved much quicker and neater than I anticipated. There were, however, a couple things that I didn't see coming, and I enjoyed the surprise.   

Besides the creepy feeling (in a good way!) some of the characters gave me, my other favorite part of this book was the narrator's point of view. I haven't read too many books where the narrator is the "other" woman. I loved seeing her side of things as she grew increasingly powerless to resist Poe's charms and tried to maintain a friendship with Poe's wife Virginia. It was such a strange balance to strike that I couldn't put the book down. 

Four out of five stars

If you liked Mrs. Poe, you’ll like Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, and Z by Therese Anne Fowler (but all of these are from the wife's perspective).

Monday, September 23, 2013

Recent Read: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I finally read something I knew I'd been needing to read for a long time: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. As a writer and editor, I've always known I need to read and reread a few of the classics: On Writing Well, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and a new favorite: Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students by Mignon Fogarty. Now as someone teaching writing to middle and high school students, this seems even more important. Though I'm not sure if I could get away from having my classes read this (too many references to "shitty first drafts?"), the information in this book is helping me think about writing and revising in a different way. Plus, for such a short book with so much instructional value, Lamott's writing is hysterically funny. More than once while I was reading it, my family must have been wondering about the cause of my amusement. Here are the things that struck me the most that I'll try to implement with my students:

  • telling the truth in your own voice
  • focusing your writing (at least at first) on your childhood
  • seeing your book as a long series of short writing assignments
  • bad first drafts translate to good second drafts and great third drafts (three is my magic number for writing too)
  • don't listen to the voices in your head when you sit down to write; just listen to your voice
  • "perfectionism will ruin your writing" (p. 28 of my 1994 paperback version)
  • the great equalizer of writing topics: school lunches
  • being comfortable with not knowing how the piece you're writing will finish up when you're just starting to write it
  • take the time to get to know your characters, and then your plot will fall into place
  • read your dialogue out loud to determine if it's realistic
  • the importance of being observant
 ...and about a jillion other great pieces of advice. If you're a writer you need to read this book. Period.

And speaking of school lunches, I visited a school recently during lunchtime and got all nostalgic about what I got to eat (yes, that's a corndog back behind the salad).

Perhaps I should write about it.

It's Monday! What are you reading?


This event is hosted by Sheila from Book Journey. Go check out her blog.

Here's what I've got on tap for this September 23rd week:

For the classes I'm teaching: The Scarlet Letter, On Writing Well, and Discovering Our Past: A History of the United States, plus selections from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

For upcoming review: Elizabeth Gilbert's latest, The Signature of All Things.

For fun (and on audiobook): Then Came You by Jennifer Weiner

What are you reading?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Book Review: The Storycatcher by Ann Hite

The Storycatcher by Ann Hite
Published by: Gallery Books
Published on: September 10, 2013
Page Count: 352
Genre: Southern fiction
My Reading Format: ARC provided by NetGalley
Available Formats: Paperback, Kindle, Audible and audiobook CD editions

My Review:

Ann Hite has woven the voices of several female narrators together in a spooky, don't-turn-your-back-for-one-second tale about the past, the people in it and how it can all come back to haunt. The stories of several women, alive and dead, are steeped in mystery. Pastor Dobbins' wife and daughter, Lydia and Faith, respectively, live on Black Mountain, North Carolina, with their servant Amanda and her children Will and Shelly. The women and their teenaged children steer clear of Pastor Dobbins whenever they can - his temper is fierce and he's hiding something. Nearby is Miss Maude, an older woman who is teaching Faith and Shelly how to garden. When the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth five years before shows up, Pastor Dobbins starts acting even more squirrelly and the women in his household and employ are on edge, particularly after Will makes a hasty departure without saying goodbye. Will ends up in coastal Georgia serendipitously finding family member Ada Lee who has some stories of her own. The ghost has a story to tell too, and she can do it most easily by inhabiting Faith's body to communicate, warning the women about what might be coming their way. Shelly and Faith, who have for years tried to stay out of each other's way, find their stories intertwining in a way they never thought possible. The tensions between Pastor Dobbins and the women continue to build and something has to give, and does.

I enjoyed Hite's ability to create so many distinct voices - it must have been difficult to keep it all straight in her head while writing. There were times though that I had difficulty remembering which voices were living women and which were the spirits. I'd find myself having to flip back and forth more times than I would have liked to keep it straight. For this reason alone, I'd recommend a physical copy of this book rather than the Kindle or audio versions. Still, I very much enjoyed seeing how all of the characters' stories played out and how difficult situations resolved themselves by the end of the novel. There were times where as the reader, I knew more than the characters, so I could tell what they were probably about to walk into. This didn't spoil it for me though. It was fun to see if my predictions were correct and how characters handled sticky situations or the delivery of bad news. The characters are memorable and resilient. I'd like to reread it one more time to soak them all in.

Three and a half out of five stars

If you liked this book, you’ll like Flannery O'Connor (for the voices she gives her characters), The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd and Nightwoods by Charles Frazier (western North Carolina mountain setting and more good characters).

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Book Review: Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
Published by: Ballantine Books
Published on: September 10, 2013
Page Count: 352
Genre: Fiction
My Reading Format: ARC provided by NetGalley for my Kindle
Available Formats: Hardcover, Audible, audiobook CD and Kindle editions

My Review:

Finally we have the anticipated second novel of Jamie Ford, author of 2009's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Ford also sets his second novel in Seattle and his characters are Asian Americans marginalized from other Seattle citizens before and during the Great Depression. The narrators are William, a 12 year-old boy living in an orphanage even though his mother is alive somewhere, and his mother, Lui Song (stage name: Willow Frost), an up-and-coming actress and singer who narrates her story prior to and leading up to her son's early childhood. The reader alternates between the two narrators and their two stories as they are woven into one.

William is an outsider at Sacred Heart, the orphanage run by nuns where he is the only Chinese American child. His best friend Charlotte doesn't fit in with the crowd either. William remembers the fateful day when he as a six year-old was taken away from the apartment he shared with his mother and she was carried out as she hovered between life and death. William was unsure if she was alive until he and the other boys from Sacred Heart saw her on the movie screen in the city. From that point forward he was determined to find his mother and Charlotte volunteers to help. The two make plans and run away from the orphanage together before being returned there.

Willow's life is more complicated than it looks on screen as as she narrates her story, we find out why. After the death of her mother she is raised by a stepfather and stepmother and must leave school as a teenager to begin working. While working for the owner of a music shop, she discovers her talent for singing and acting, which brings in many customers and makes herself and the owner a decent living, except for the fact that her stepfather confiscates her income. Willow plays on the superstitions and weaknesses of her stepparents to escape their control and watchful eyes, but then must live on her own and make her own way while always looking over her shoulder to make sure he stepfather isn't behind her.

What Ford has written here is a terribly sad story, but one that I simply couldn't put down. I kept reading with the hope that one day William and Willow's stories would become one story again. I loved Charlotte's spirit and loyalty to William and she quickly became my favorite character.

Four out of five stars 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Book Review: The Cleaner of Chartres: A Novel by Salley Vickers

Published by: Viking Adult
Published on: June 27, 2013
Page Count: 304
Genre: Fiction
My Reading Format: ARC provided by NetGalley for my Kindle
Available Formats: Hardcover and Kindle editions

My Review:

Each morning Agnes cleans the cathedral in Chartres, a small town in France. She is quiet and dependable, and does her job well. Soon she's doing odd jobs for other people in town. Everyone appreciates her diligence but no one can seem to get close enough to hear to learn about her past or how she came to live in Chartres. Twenty years prior Agnes had been dropped off as an infant in a basket on the steps of the cathedral, and the story of how she came to be left there was always a mystery both to Agnes herself and those around her. Some of the people in Chartres can't help but speculate and gossip about Agnes, and some of what is said about her is untrue and hurtful. Though she does has a past that she's still working to come to terms with, a few of the townspeople give her the benefit of the doubt and trust her no matter what rumors are circulating about her. Quietly, Agnes is trying to figure out who she is as a person and fill in the missing gaps of her own story. A few of the folks in town are patient with Agnes, treating her with care, and I really enjoyed reading about those relationships. 

By the time I finish most books, I want to really feel invested in the main character and feel like I know them personally. I didn't quite have that feeling with this book and its main character Agnes. After struggling a bit with this (and also struggling to sort out the chronology of the story, a bit of a challenge), though I learned much more about her as the book continued, Agnes was still very much a mystery. I had many unanswered questions about her. Though I wasn't as well acquainted with Agnes as I would have liked, her employers and peers in her little town felt the same way. Agnes is simply a woman that no one will every completely know. That's just her nature. By the end of the book, I was OK with that even though I didn't have all the answers.
Three out of five stars

Monday, September 2, 2013

Recent Read: I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

In my excitement about the movie version of The Book Thief to be released this fall I borrowed one of Markus Zusak's other books (on audio) to listen to in the car: I am the Messenger. I have to confess that before the first of seven CDs had ended I seriously considered not listening to the rest of it and returning it to the library. But I'm glad I didn't do that.

Ed Kennedy is a 19 year-old cab driver in Australia. His family life is a little crazy, but he has a solid group of friends and the four of them enjoy playing cards together. After Ed happens to be inside a bank during a robbery, playing cards with nearby addresses written on them begin showing up in his mail. Though he doesn't know who is sending them, he knows he's charged with visiting each address and helping the people there in some way. The first address he visits is what nearly made me turn in the audiobook early, but beyond that, I really started to like Ed quite a lot, and I admired his desire to do good things to help people at any cost.

About halfway through the book Ed begins helping a family having financial trouble and a lonely man who is trying to keep an old movie theater in business, and it all really started to tug at my heartstrings. Once Ed has finished all of his tasks of helping strangers, he was then faced with the task of helping himself and his friends and family, which all nearly did a number on me. By the end of the book I was sad to see Ed go and wished I could continue the journey with him.

Though this book is nothing at all like The Book Thief and I disagree with its categorization of being a young adult novel (the language and some of the situations in the book, to me, don't lend themselves to younger readers), I heartily endorse it. Bonus: if you get the audiobook version, the actor who reads is just perfect. To me, he really is Ed Kennedy.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Recent Read: A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/1889 by Frederic Morton

At a friend's recommendation I borrowed  A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/1889 from the library to read after returning from vacation. It's not one I likely would have been very interested in were it not for the fact that I've just visited Vienna and seen some of the places mentioned in the book. While the author does a great job of showing what all was going on in Vienna during a short period of time and it was fascinating to note all the interesting and historically significant people all in this city all at the same time, the writing is a little dry in places and difficult to muddle through. There were places I just needed to skim to get through, which doesn't happen very often. I was very glad though to get some extra historical context to go along with what I heard and saw on the visit.

The hunting lodge, Mayerling.

One day we took a bus tour of the nearby Vienna Woods, a rural area with protected land, some small towns and farms, kind of like the national parks we have in the States. We stopped briefly outside Mayerling, a small town with what today is an abbey but during the time frame in the book was the hunting lodge for Austria's Crown Prince Rudolf. The lodge was the location of Rudolf's suicide and his 17 year-old mistress' murder while Rudolf's wife was away. It was a scandalous, mysterious event.

I wanted to read the book to learn more about their relationship and the murder-suicide. Of the 30 chapters in the book, however, Morton really only dedicated about two chapters completely to Rudolf and Mary Vetsera's relationship and infatuation with each other, so that wasn't quite what I expected. The book did provide me with a few nuggets of good information and in parts was a good complement to the recent vacation.