Monday, July 15, 2013

Book review: John Wilkes Booth: Beyond the Grave by W. C. Jameson

Published on: July 16, 2013
Page Count: 208
Genre: historical nonfiction
My Reading Format: ARC for Kindle provided by NetGalley
Available Formats: Hardcover

My Review:

Suppose that John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln's assassin, wasn't shot either by himself or by a federal investigator when caught in a barn on a Virginia farm 11 days after the president was shot. Suppose someone was in place to act as Booth and the real Booth escaped, living and traveling both internationally and in the United States until his death decades later. Did conspirators fool federal investigators, or was the whole thing a set-up and cover-up? These are the questions explored in Jameson's John Wilkes Booth: Beyond the Grave. Jameson, a descendant of Booth himself, took family lore and his own research and turned it into a good case for why the man thought to be Booth wasn't him after all. The book moves through three main parts exploring Booth's background and the planning he and others underwent to first kidnap, then assassinate the president; the generally accepted history book version of the events before, during and after the assassination and the inconsistencies in the official version; and what Jameson believes actually and most likely happened.

The background information is appreciated, and it was also helpful that the book includes the version of what we've all learned before delving into that version's many holes. While very interesting and certainly makes the reader consider all that may have been at work to assassinate Lincoln and help the assassin escape, it will be hard for the average reader (or even the above average reader) to keep it all straight. Many of those involved in the scheme had several aliases, which are used interchangeably throughout the book. Even without all the extra names to remember, there were many people involved. While neither of these things are the author's fault, a glossary at the beginning or end of the book listing each person, their aliases and their part in the assassination plot or investigation would have been tremendously helpful.

Though Jameson's writing style involves short sentences that stick strictly with the facts and only as much description as absolutely necessary (this isn't my favorite kind of writing to read), he's put together an interesting case that certainly will make you wonder. If you like conspiracy theories, Lincoln lore or Civil War-era history, you'll probably like this book.

Two and a half out of five stars

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Modern-Day Juliet

I recently finished reading Anne Fortier's Juliet, a caper through Italy's Siena, the supposed setting for the original version of Romeo and Juliet, made famous by William Shakespeare but a story that predates him. This historical fiction novel is one I picked up off the Notable Paperbacks table on a trip to Raleigh's Quail Ridge Books. Whatever I pick up from this table never disappoints. One of the reviews cited on the back cover says the book "reads like a Da Vinci Code for the smart modern woman." So of course I had to have it.

Much like another fictional book I've recently about a previous work, The Sherlockian, Juliet alternates back and forth between the heroine, the modern-day Juliet, an American woman in her mid-20s who returns to her native Italy to sort out a family secret and possible inheritance from her mother, and the original Juliet, the daughter in a powerful, feuding family in the 1340s. The two Juliets are connected by family lineage and the modern-day one has a mystery to solve with the help of her twin sister Janice. The two of them have to decide who to trust of the new Italian relatives and acquaintances, a task that proves difficult.

I loved the spunky modern Juliet and how she approaches her mystery. I liked the characters she came in contact and the descriptions of how society in this small Italian town gets things done. Of course I liked it because of the Shakespeare references and this timeless romantic story. But the biggest reason why I picked up this book and enjoyed it so much is because I've been to Siena.

About 10 years ago my grandmother and I visited the northern half of Italy with a tour group and Siena was one of the places where we spent a day. We learned about Il Palio, an ancient horserace that has happened twice each year since the Middle Ages and then saw the Piazza del Campo where the finish line of the race is in the center of town. There is one horse and jockey in the race for each neighborhood in the city, and the winner gets major bragging rights until the next race: first priority seating in restaurants around Siena and all kinds of other preferrential treatment.

Here are a few of my (scanned in) photos of my visit to Siena. Whether or not you've been to this beautiful, ancient Italian town, I highly recommend reading Fortier's Juliet.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Book Review: Finding Colin Firth by Mia March

Published by: Gallery Books
Published on: July 9, 2013
Page Count: 336
Genre: Fiction
My Reading Format: Advanced reading edition for Kindle via NetGalley
Available Formats: Paperback and Kindle ebook

My Review:

Three women, each searching for something specific, spend some of their summer in a small tourist town in Maine. There's Veronica Russo, the 38-year-old diner waitress and talented pie maker who has returned to her hometown to face her past and make peace with the fact that she gave a daughter up for adoption 22 years before. Bea Crane is that daughter, and has just learned in a letter written by her mother before she died that Bea was adopted. She sets out on a journey to find answers and her birth mother. Gemma, a New Yorker, is in a failing marriage and without a job when she realizes she's pregnant. To process everything, Gemma visits Boothbay Harbor, Maine, to sort out what she'll do and when she'll tell her husband that they're expecting. While there, Gemma gets an assignment from the local paper to profile Hope Home, a place where teenage mothers have resided during their pregnancies for decades. It's Gemma's story that causes her to meet Veronica and Bea separately to interview them, and Gemma's story that helps the mother-daughter pair come together. During all of this, the town is abuzz with the anticipation of Colin Firth's arrival any day to Boothbay Harbor to film a movie. The townspeople (and the women in particular) have their eyes peeled for the star.

Though these women have heavy internal struggles, the theme and tone of the book are definitely optimistic. There are Veronica's pies with names like "Spirit Pie," "Confidence Pie," "Happiness Pie" and "Hope Pie," each flavor guaranteed to bring about what its name says. There is Bea's belief that though she's on a break from school and work, she'll return to both and become a teacher. While Gemma isn't sure her marriage will work out, she knows she'll remain true to herself no matter what happens. And everyone in town is full of anticipation for Colin Firth as his movie crew moves into town and starts filming.

I'll be honest that I picked this book review solely because of its title (who doesn't love Colin Firth?), and I loved that the novel is filled with references to his movies, personal life, and, ahem, the Mr. Darcy lake scene in BBC's Pride and Prejudice miniseries (unfamiliar or just need to see it again?). But the book really held my interest, and not because I kept waiting for Colin Firth to make his appearance. The characters are memorable and readers will just simply want everything to work out perfectly for all three of the women.

Speaking of the Mr. Darcy lake scene, it's just been named the most memorable moment in British television (read the article).
Four out of five stars
If you liked this book, you’ll like Where the Heart Is (book and movie), Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones's Diary, Midnight in Austenland, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, Waitress (movie) and any movie starring Colin Firth, of course.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Book Review: A Different Sun by Elaine Neil Orr

Published by: Berkley Books
Published on: April 2, 2013
Page Count: 388
Genre: Fiction
My Reading Format: Paperback
Available Formats: Paperback and Amazon Kindle e-book

My Review:

Emma Davis knows she is called for something special. It's something different from the life her sister Catherine is sure to lead, and different from what her father expects of her. As a young girl growing up on a Middle Georgia plantation, her closest confidant, a slave named Uncle Eli, encourages her to follow her heart. Emma knows to do her life's work she must leave her comfortable life, and she's able to do that when she meets and marries a handsome missionary on leave from his work in Nigeria. Emma and Henry Bowman's married life begins with a journey across the ocean to a Yoruba village.

During her young married life, Emma is constantly out of her comfort zone but leans on her faith to navigate a new culture, household, language and customs. Emma learns the differences between the antebellum South of her girlhood and her womanhood in Africa. Perhaps her biggest challenge is learning to let her husband operate as the head of their household, even when she believes she knows other, better ways to live their missionary life. Through challenges, heartbreak, love and success, Emma learns much about herself as an individual and a wife, and how she can manage to be both.

With beautiful imagery, Orr paints a vivid, complicated picture of Africa and its people, with Africa being a mysterious character in the novel. Orr skillfully creates mounting tension between Emma and Henry, and Emma and Jacob, an native and Henry's missionary helper. And, the author conveys the deep pain and emotional struggle with Emma that she must bear alone. Emma's journey is both an interior and an exterior one, and both are defined by her life as a missionary in a place where she will always be an outsider. Emma's faith, though it waivers at times, sees her through it all.

This is a novel that will give readers reason to consider what freedom is and what one's religion means, timeless ideas that will always resonate with us. 

**Note: Elaine Neil Orr was one of my professors at NC State University when I was working toward my masters degree. Her workshop course in creative nonfiction and thesis direction were of great importance for writing my thesis and the writing coaching and editing work I've done since. I'm grateful to her and honored to review her first work of fiction.

Four out of five stars

If you like A Different Sun, you'll probably like State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and O Pioneers! and My Antonia, both by Willa Cather.

Monday, July 1, 2013

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 July 4 week:

Blog, Inc.: Blogging for Passion, Profit, and to Create Community by Joy Deangdeelert Cho
Finding Colin Firth by Mia March for review next week
Mrs. Lincoln: A Life by Catherine Clinton

Pawley's Island by Dorothea Benton Frank

Working on:
Edits on chapters of a Southern historical fiction novel
A feature article for Georgia Connector magazine
A grant draft for a nonprofit organization
Wrapping up syllabi for this fall's Advanced Composition and American Literature
Editing an article for an academic journal

And more blogging!