Tough old (*young!*) girl

True Grit by Charles Portis
So I hear there’s a movie by this name…

…which makes sense. This is a rip-roaring good story.
And one of the things that makes it even better is the young female narrator who’s almost too tough to be true. But since she’s telling the story from the later years of her life, as a tough old gal, it becomes completely credible that this crusty old woman would have been one tough cookie as a girl.
It’s the 1870s, and Mattie Ross, age 14, is out to avenge the death of her father, who was shot in cold blood by their hired man. The law ain’t doing nothing about it, so Mattie decides to take care of business.
One of my favorite parts is this: Mattie visits the sheriff and asks who is the best U.S. marshal. (She’s going to hire herself a marshal by offering a reward for the capture of the killer.) The sheriff ponders it aloud, describing the attributes of several marshals, including: “The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork.” He goes on to describe a fellow named Quinn and concludes that Quinn is the best there is. To which Mattie replies, “Where can I find this Rooster?” (pp. 25-26)
So it comes to pass that Mattie, Rooster, and another fellow named LaBoeuf ride off after the killer and his band of miscreants. While this is a great adventure story, it’s the language—the sharp dialogue—that caught my attention.
While Mattie is looking for a man with true grit, of course she’s the one who’s really got what it takes. But those two fellas—Rooster and LaBoeuf—were not half bad in the end.
This book stands out because of Mattie’s voice. That’s it, pure and simple.

Historical fiction I could like

The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir
For assigned reading I was absolutely dreading, this book was darn good. Yes, you guessed it: I’m reading for a genre study. Also for the historical fiction challenge. And I’m surviving. And, with this book, almost thriving.
It occurred to me that one of the things I dislike about historical fiction is largely absent in this book, namely: the horrible physical suffering of those who lived without modern conveniences. When you’re living as a princess, you don’t do without too much.
Though, you gotta admit, getting thrown into the Tower by your half-sister’s really gotta rather sting, so life wasn’t all that sweet.
This book is about the early years of Elizabeth I—the years before she was queen. I’ve forgotten much of any little I ever learned about that time period (though I fondly recall a children’s book written from the perspective of a mouse in Elizabeth’s court), so I’d forgotten by what path she ascended the throne. I’d forgotten that her half-sister had to die before Elizabeth would become queen. (Dang! Talk about sibling rivalry.)
This novel makes Elizabeth wonderfully human but also shows her to be extraordinary. That gal had some real political acumen. The book also clearly shows Elizabeth’s decision to remain her own person by refusing to marry—since in that era, even a queen would have to bow (in private, at least) somewhat to a husband. She said, Nuts to that! and I think we’d have to say it worked out for her.
The plot here carries a reader right along—there’s intrigue just oozing from the thing. And when you’re horribly clueless like I, it heightens the effect of the drama. For a book I didn’t want to read, I sure had a hard time putting this one down.

Seems like everybody’s talking about…

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
There’s been lots and lots of raving about this book, which made me really rather want to avoid it. (You have entered the domain of the Surly Reader. Beware.)
But once I started listening to it, I understood the reason for all the fuss—it’s one heck of a gripping storyline.
The story goes back and forth between the present—when an American-in-Paris journalist named Julia begins researching the July 1942 round-up of Jews by the French police—and the past, 1942, when a young girl named Sarah is sent to a camp along with her parents. Sarah’s little brother, however, hid in a secret cabinet in their apartment, and Sarah locked the cabinet so he would be safe from the police, thinking she would return later that evening to free him. Instead, her parents were sent to Auschwitz, and Sarah was held in a brutal camp for days before making her escape.
It turns out that Julia’s in-laws lived in the apartment previously owned by Sarah’s family, so the two storylines come together.
There’s all kinds of other drama in this book—a marriage in crisis, an unexpected pregnancy, and family secrets all over the place.
The storyline is strong; the writing is so-so. The second time I heard words along the lines of, “The only thing that mattered was…” I rolled my eyes. Really? So it’s good that the plot is able to carry the day.
The audio version (10 hours in length) is well-done; reader Polly Stone has a voice that is well-suited to the story. For me as a reader, the audiobook was a good choice.
So here’s the key (I swear: no pun intended) question posed by this book: Is it better to leave the past in the past?

Historical Fiction: One down…

The President’s Lady: A Novel about Rachel and Andrew Jackson by Irving Stone
Guys, I’m participating in a study of historical fiction. It just may do me in. (Why do I find historical fiction so difficult? WHY?)
Whining session now concluded…. I survived my first book of the bunch!
(image credit: Library of Congress)I chose something by Irving Stone because he’s one of those authors I’ve always thought I should have read. And I can see why he made a name for himself. First, he chose provocative subjects.
In this instance, the marriage of Rachel and Andrew Jackson, which was a big old scandal because not only was she a divorcee in a day when divorce just did not happen, but her scoundrel of a first husband failed to complete the divorce, so she was actually married to Andrew Jackson before her first marriage officially ended. And that ain’t good.
The whole mess of it haunted them throughout their entire marriage. It would have even haunted them in the White House, except that Rachel died of a heart attack shortly after Jackson’s election to the presidency and before his inauguration.
Despite their hardships, the Jacksons seem to have had a loving marriage, and theirs is a great love story. But it kind of sucks how the story ends, you know?
Anyway, back to Irving Stone. I found the writing to be workmanlike; it got the point across, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. I think Stone’s strength instead is in the depth of his research. He includes a list of sources at the end of the book, and it’s quite a list. I trust his version of the story to be based on facts.
And really, what more can you ask?

Historical Fiction Challenge

Historical Tapestry is hosting the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2011, and I am going to participate.

From their blog, here’s the scoop:

After 3 years organizing the Historical Fiction Challenge, the girls of The Royal Reviews gracefully passed over this exciting event to our team at Historical Tapestry. We will do our best to continue doing a great job and create a wonderful place to share and discuss our favourite (and less favourite) historical fiction books for the next year.
Each month, a new post dedicated to the HF Challenge will be created. To participate, you only have to follow the rules:

  • everyone can participate, even those who don’t have a blog (you can add your book title and thoughts in the comment section if you wish)

  • add the link(s) of your review(s) including your name and book title to the Mister Linky we’ll be adding to our monthly post (please, do not add your blog link, but the correct address that will guide us directly to your review)

  • any kind of historical fiction is accepted (HF fantasy, HF young adult,…)
  • you can overlap this challenge with others kind of challenges
  • During these following 12 months you can choose one of the different reading levels:
  1. Severe Bookaholism: 20 books
  2. Undoubtedly Obsessed: 15 books
  3. Struggling the Addiction: 10 books
  4. Daring & Curious: 5 books
  5. Out of My Comfort Zone: 2 books

The challenge will run from 1 January 2011 to 31 December 2011.

I’m going to participate at the 10-book level. It will be good for me. It will!
Books Read
1. The President’s Lady: A Novel about Rachel and Andrew Jackson by Irving Stone
2. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
3. Keeping the House by Ellen Baker
4. The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir
5. The Sun’s Bride by Gillian Bradshaw

6. The Great Circle by Peter Prince
7. Women of Magdalene by Rosemary Poole-Carter
8. Christy by Catherine Marshall
9. The Alienist by Caleb Carr
10. Heart of a Lion by Gilbert Morris
11. A Place Called Trinity by Delia Parr

Sleep-depriving novel

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane
Holy Toledo. What a book.
I read this puppy in two days flat, which included one quite late night because I Could Not Stop reading.
Despite my general antipathy for historical fiction.
This one really pulls a person in.
First, it’s about a tragedy, so I’m a sucker for that.
But it’s also told in such a way that we know there’s more to the story, and it is revealed ever so gradually. So there’s a quiet suspense that builds. Not a big, dramatic, in-your-face suspenseful thing, but the dreadful feeling that the truth has been hidden, the truth is complicated, and the truth is not very nice.
This novel is based on an actual event that took place in London during the Blitz. During an air raid (during which no bombs were dropped), 173 people died in a crush in a stairwell at the Bethnal Green tube shelter.
The novel follows a small cast of characters whose lives intersect on the 30th anniversary of the tragedy: the man who ran the inquiry and wrote the report about the event, a woman who survived the crush as a child but who retains emotional scars, and a young documentary filmmaker with a personal connection to the event.
The story goes back and forth from the 1970s to the 1940s, and it’s breathtaking.
I absolutely cannot wait for more people to read this book so we can talk.
(Watch out if you see me coming your way; I may try to thrust this book into your hand, and there’ll be no escaping me.)

The ladies love their quilting…

Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas

Back before there were book clubs, the ladies had quilting groups. Heck, the ladies still have quilting groups.
In this book, set in Great Depression era Colorado—up in the mountains—the quilting groups were the big thing. This is a sisterhood book.
I like sisterhood books. I truly do.
This one starts out with 80-something Hennie noticing a sad-looking young woman outside her gate, looking at her “Prayers for Sale” sign (a remnant from happy days early in Hennie’s marriage). Hennie takes young Nit under her wing, telling her stories of their small mining town, and sharing the stories from Hennie’s younger years, which bear a resemblance to Nit’s early married years.
Hennie and Nit are both relocated from Appalachia, and their wording is full of reminders of their origins. (To the question, “How’s yourself?” Hennie replies, “I am deteriorating at a normal rate.” [p. 99] As my people are apt to say, that tickled me.)
And as in many of Dallas’s books, at least one of the characters is carrying a big secret that is revealed at the end.
This book almost could be a little sweet, but the promise of the revelation of a lifelong secret—and some of the earthiness of the town—save it.
Instead, there’s a strong tang of bittersweet. Hennie’s well-meaning daughter intends to move her to Iowa (perish the thought!) plus Hennie isn’t getting any younger, so there is a sense of loss as she experiences “the last time I’ll ever…” moments. As Nit is coming to the end of her days, Nit’s life is just getting going; the juxtaposition really works.
(I made that quilt up there while attending a week-long quilt class with a friend. She pieced the excellent block with the pink in it and helped me pick the border fabric. She is someone great.)

Time Travel Romance

Dreams of Stardust by Lynn Kurland
Amanda is a woman of modern sensibilities, born into the 13th century, which really had to suck for her. Luckily, Jake (of the year 2005) careens into her world when his car goes flying into a time warp that sucks him back into the Middle Ages, providing her with a man she actually could stomach marrying.
Despite Amanda’s family (read: her father) being adamant that she’s got to be getting married within months, this book shows us a family of the Middle Ages that makes that time period seem downright homey. They’re pretty delightful as a family, and it’s really no wonder that Jake decides to hang out there for the rest of his (un)natural life.
I’ve known for a long time that Lynn Kurland is one of the big names in time travel romance; I don’t know why I waited so long to read one of her books. In this one, she’s created a warm and wonderful family environment, a couple that we know belongs together in spite of the 8 centuries that divide them, and a story line that clips right along.
I began to get clues that this book was one of a series, and truly, it is one of a big honking series that includes oodles of books that all interconnect in ways displayed on a chart at the end of the book. (I had a Madeleine L’Engle flashback—remember that kick-a** chart in her books, that showed how the Murry family books and the Austin family books connected? I totally blissed out as a kid, seeing that. Anyway, the Murry books—also time travel. So we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming… See how I did that?)
The only reason that I won’t be reading more books in this series by Kurland is that life is short and my list of books-I-want-to-read is very long.

Loving… and Hating… Frank

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
I selected this book for our book club, then assiduously avoided reading it.
Not sure what that was about.
Especially since, once I started the book, I tore through it in 3 days, so the author did something right. (Also, the book club was only 6 days away.)
This is that novel about Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the woman who left her husband and children to be Wright’s lover. (Note: Guess what? He left his spouse and children, too!) Scandalous, right?
Here, yes, but no, but really: yes.
The book, told from Mamah’s point of view (but thankfully, not first person—the book started out in her voice, and I was really not liking it one bit; the third person viewpoint was a very welcome shift), tries to explain how things happened between them. And OK, she was in a loveless marriage, and that sucks. I just really don’t get how she left her children.
Here’s the other thing: I really dislike Frank Lloyd Wright as a human. He was a womanizer, and he didn’t pay his workers. I really detest those things (though I somehow keep reading about JFK, and somehow he gets away with that womanizing crap).
And Mamah, even though we’re (I think) supposed to “understand” her from this book, was all messed up, too.
(Guess who’s in a judgmental mood this evening?)
So this one of those book club gatherings where we got all excited and kept interrupting each other. Meaning: this is one heck of a book club choice.

Historical Romance Bonanza!

The Masque of the Black Tulip by Lauren Willig
So this is a cool thing. I’ve been sort of reading (actually listening to) some historical fiction novels.
Sort of.
Because… the books in this series (which begins with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation) actually start in the present, but then launch back into the past via the coming-alive of the research done by Eloise, the main-character-in-the-present-day. (She’s having a conflict/flirtation with a guy named Colin, who’s a British chap descended from one of the spies she is researching. Lots of Romantic Tension.)
The story-in-the-past is thoroughly entertaining and is the main focus of the book. It’s all about British spies during that nasty war England had with France back during the Jane Austen days—and about the romance those spies each had with a strong-willed woman (each also a spy, kind of).
It’s light stuff, even though there are some moments where things get all action-packed. These puppies are heavier on the romance than on the espionage, and I think it’s good.
I think I liked this second book even better than the first in the series, which is always a wee thrill.
In the first book, I was certain I had the plot all figured out early on, but I Did Not. (Love that!) This, the second book, also has a who’s-the-secret-spy question, but it felt a bit more homey because it was set in England rather than France. I liked that.
So I’ve been getting in the car and hitting “Play” straightaway and then not driving too awful fast, because I didn’t want to have to leave the story behind. Not too shabby an endorsement, eh?
And I’ve got the third book (The Deception of the Emerald Ring [dear heaven, I love that title—it reminds me of my Nancy Drew days!]) all queued up and ready to go…