When I was Yours by Lizzie Page (historical fiction)

Writing: 3 Plot: 3 Characters: 2.5

I loved the beginning of this book — tight prose, humorous, great writing, and the promise of a story that spanned two world wars (as told in alternating chapter time periods). In 1914, Vivi Mudie-Coates is the young, beautiful, and conventional British woman who wants nothing more than to marry Edmund, the handsome, upper crust friend of her cousin Richard. In 1939, she is indeed married to Edmund, but is anything but happy. When the children begin to be evacuated from London, the childless couple are given Pearl, somewhat against Edmund’s wishes.

The parallel stories wander through all the standard places — nursing on the continent during the Great War, the bombing of Britain in WWII, the evacuation of London children, driving ambulances, friends and relatives killed… There is a theme of casual anti-semitism threaded throughout that becomes more personal to Vivi as the story evolves. This book has all the elements of a great story but it just didn’t work for me. The plot was dragged out, so what started as a tight beginning just went on and on without any of the depth that would make the time spent feel worthwhile. Instead, it veered into pure melodrama with increased bombing deaths, close calls, suicides, and missed opportunities for true love. Even worse (for me), I found the main character to be shallow and kind of stupid. She did not behave in a way that I found at all believable. I never warmed to her, and even towards the end — when she finally started to do the right thing — she did it in a petulant, selfish manner that I found quite off-putting.

This is possibly the first book I’ve reviewed that kept me going to the end because I wanted to know what happened, but that I really disliked. I hate to be so negative — I tend to only review books that I like because I don’t bother finishing the others but …

Thank you to Bookouture and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 16th, 2019.

Clover Blue by Eldonna Edwards (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 5

When 10-year old Clover Blue witnesses his first live birth in his Northern California commune, he begins to wonder which of the sister-mothers he actually came from. But there is an odd hush around that subject, in this otherwise open, loving, and caring community.

Ranging from 1974 through 1978, the book follows Blue’s quest to understand who he really is. Blue is a wonderful character and the detailed depiction of communal life and those who chose it are inspiring. The author manages to paint a full picture of real people who have consciously formed a family in a spiritual environment and yet who have also made mistakes with serious impact. I love the balanced way she has shown what might happen in such circumstances — with an objective tone which simultaneously portrays the beauty of the people, their relationships, and their way of life as well as the struggles, frailty, and hypocrisies.

I loved reading this book — particularly for the characters and the fact that it embodied all the best things I remember from that era (Blue is four years younger than I was during the time period). The commune members have their own backstories and their relationships within the commune parallel the evolution of the commune itself. The story unfolds beautifully with ongoing reflection. The commune is clothing optional and the kids are home schooled — with each of the “Elders” imparting their own wisdom. The local library serves as a fantastic resource. The essay Blue is assigned to write about people watching TV is priceless (he has to go to the local clinic to observe this as there is no television at the commune). One of the Elders sums up all of the great religions with: “Great prophets like Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha pretty much said the same thing… Be kind. Respect life. Pay attention. And focus on the here and now, not the promise of something better in the afterlife.” So simple.

The start is a little slow — I initially found the writing a little clunky and almost stopped reading — but fairly soon I was completely caught up in the characters and their surroundings and forgot I was reading at all (my measure of a good book!).

Highly recommended!

Thank you to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 28th, 2019.

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Historical Fiction)

The best thing about this novel is the way it brings the UK Women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900s to life. Historical fiction at its best. Having grown up in the 60s in a family that wouldn’t dream of not encouraging their daughters, I sometimes forget how difficult it was for women to gain something as simple as the vote (as an aside, check out https://www.infoplease.com/us/gender-sexuality/womens-suffrage to see the order in which women got the vote across the globe).

Mattie Simpkin is the larger-than-life, brash heroine who has spent most of her life fighting for Women’s Equality. She was a leader of the Militant Suffragette Movement, and a fair portion of the book covers those experiences along with “where are they now” reunions of those women in the current time (1928, on the cusp of the Act that gave women electoral equality with men). Now Mattie has turned her attention to the young girls who don’t seem to appreciate their newly won rights or understand that the fight for equality isn’t anywhere near complete. She founds a Girls Club with the stated aim of training young girls for lives as “20th Century Women.”

The writing is exquisite — equal skill applied to descriptions of the environment, individuals and their opinions and motivations, and some spectacularly articulate and insightful arguments for women’s equality.  I loved the depth painted in each character — a panoply of realistic people of the time. Although the story is not a comedy, several lines had me laughing out loud (see samples below).

There was an additional plot line overlaid on the broader story that I frankly didn’t care for as much. This focused more on Mattie’s personal development with respect to her feelings towards friends and family and her inability to see clearly into a particular character because of her own history.  However, the bulk of the book is both enjoyable and informative so I am happy to recommend it.

Some great lines:
“People always stared. If one didn’t creep around, if one said what one thought, if one shouted for joy or roared with anger, if one tried to get things done, then seemingly there was no choice but to be noticeable”

“Moodiness had always baffled her — the way that it placed the onus on the other person to gauge which breeze of circumstance was the cause of this particular weathercock twirl. If one were cross about something, then one should simply say so; conversation should not be a guessing game”

“Whereas listening to Mr and Mrs Wimbourne on the topic of their grandchildren is akin to being chlorformed. And servants — do you have any idea of how much the average middle-class woman has to say on the subject of servants? Mrs Wimbourne, Mrs Holyroyd, Mrs Lumb — all ululating on the difficulty of keeping a housemaid.”

“A banshee chorus swelled monstrously and then died away and, for a moment, only the barking of every dog in Hampstead was audible.”

“Churchill had been giving a speech about the miners, his staccato delivery a gift to the astute heckler:”

“It seemed that people like him, people with easy lives, were always assuming things about her: she was stupid because she was a char; she was interesting because she was pretty; she’d be loyal because she was grateful. Nobody except Miss Lee asked her what she really thought.”

“There was a pause, presumably for Mr Wilkes to ensure that any remaining trace of anticipation had been sluiced from the room.”

“If she were a horse, one would advise blinkers”

“Mattie felt as if she were trying to sharpen an India rubber pencil”

“As a method of teaching it lacked variety, but it pummelled my intellect and meant that I dreamed no more during lessons.”

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 16th, 2019.

All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski (Historical / Foreign Fiction)

<New word (to me) stichomancy: divination by opening a book at random >

As explained in the prologue, Kemposwki’s mission in life was to ensure that the detailed history of this time and place did not get lost. He compiled an immense archive of the diaries, photos, letters, and other memorabilia from East Prussia during WWII and its aftermath and used it to inform the characters and plot in the novel.

The book centers on an aristocratic family that has retreated to their country villa to wait out the war. The time is January, 1945 (remember that the war in Europe ended in May 1945); the place a small town in East Prussia. Eberhard von Globig is an officer in the German military — stationed in Italy he is assigned to manage supply (he is currently “busily confiscating wine and olive oil from the Italians” for use by German troops; in the past he has been responsible for requisitioning topsoil from the Ukraine for use in Bavaria!). His wife, Katharina, is a seemingly vacuous beauty from Berlin, an unwilling and incapable mistress of the estate. 12-year old Peter, Auntie, the family spinster, and workers Vladimir the Pole and the Ukrainian girls, Vera and Sonia, complete the household.

The Russians are heading their way and there is a constant stream of visitors heading from East to West. The visitors bring news and their own stories, which they often feel compelled to keep repeating as if otherwise they would be lost completely. While multiple people urge the family to leave soon, there seems to be a lassitude with regards to any real action — or perhaps they don’t feel they have agency in this regard. Everything is carefully controlled by the authorities — nothing is allowed without a permit.

The story is meticulously, yet concisely, detailed. There are no long streams of names and dates and actions, but instead the intimate particulars of lives disrupted by war and imminent invasion. Each character has their own perspective — some pepper their commentary with “Heil Hitlers” and mean it, others warn the family to hide any evidence of Naziism before the Russians arrive; some are appalled at seeing books by Jewish writers displayed, others whisper about the strange prisoners in striped shirts at the local brickworks. There is constant refrain — “Where did these things come from? Where would they end up? Who knows what may happen?”

Things don’t end well — it is inconceivable that they would — but the slow unwinding of events, the minutiae of survival, the confusion of authority, and the unremitting examination of life and attitudes in a failing Germany is incomparable. I found it darkly interesting that while everyone is afraid of the Russians coming (and with good reason), most of the bad things that happen are a result of the Germans and their system — there appear to be just as many authorities ensuring obedience and punishing “bad behavior” as there are those out fighting the enemy.

It is told in an unemotional style — while a character might be thinking “I am terrified,” the reader is not exposed to any of the literary tricks that would evoke a sympathetic emotion within them. I’m grateful for that — those are not emotions I want to feel, even briefly.

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Special Credit for beautiful math concepts: 5/5

A thoughtful and unusual memoir-style novel describing the personal journey of a female mathematician as she simultaneously navigates a male dominated field and slowly uncovers the truth of her family history. Katherine is a young, bi-racial Asian American growing up in New Umbria, Michigan in the early 1950s where her prodigious mathematical talent housed in a female body is not encouraged by early academic institutions (like 3rd grade!)

The novel merges her love affair with mathematics with the difficulties of pursuing an academic career in a male-dominated field and her personal quest for the roots of her family whose tangled branches reach into both Nazi Germany and the Japanese invasion of China. Told from the perspective of our first-person narrator speaking from the end of her career, the book is a combination of articulate description and mature reflection that adds great insight to every step without detracting from the innocence of the experience.

My favorite parts of the book are the descriptions of math from her perspective. They are beautifully written accounts of both the concepts themselves and the personal process of discovery, determination, and excitement that Katherine feels. I’ve included some of my favorite lines below. The author manages to take complex mathematical subjects and both reduces them to simple concepts and makes them beautiful, even to a non-mathematician. This is spectacularly done (IMHO).

Little biographical vignettes of female mathematicians throughout history are sprinkled liberally through the text. These include Hypatia (~350 – 415), Emily Noether (1882 – 1935), Maria Meyer (she of “San Diego Housewife Wins Nobel Prize” fame), Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850 – 1891), and Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831) in a kind of “sister companion” to Bell’s Men of Mathematics. I loved the way the author discussed both the historical and present (late 60s) barriers to entry women faced without ranting or complaining —simply noting the contributions and the kinds of determination the women had to have.

The themes of guilt, culpability, and oppression are explored throughout the book. What is the culpability of the German mathematicians in Goettingen (formerly the “Mecca of Mathematics”) who thrived during the war years by keeping their heads down as their more distinguished colleagues were conscripted, deported to camps, or escaped the country? What guilt should adhere to a man who allowed misattributed credit for an achievement to stand because those who knew better were gone? What fault attaches to the oblivious man who genuinely wants to “support” a young, female, protege by a means which ends up completely undermining her main claim to esteem? With no heavy-handed agenda or obvious answers, these thoughtful questions percolate throughout the book.

I loved the mathematics and personal process portions of this book. Katherine is an older, professionally successful mathematician as she recounts her experiences making it full of reflection and insight. While she professes no regrets, she freely admits that she could have handled things differently — rather than put all the blame on the barriers and mistakes of others, she understands that she bears responsibility for the outcome as well. I personally didn’t enjoy the parts of the book devoted to her family discovery — they were more in a Joy Luck Club style that recounted the stories as the narrator might hear of them from others but without the reflection and insightful commentary that the narrator was able to apply to her own experiences. While I think these stories and the slow unraveling of the mystery of her origins will appeal to many, for me they were secondary to her personal quest for a meaningful life.

Some great lines:
The very first line of the book: “There is nothing as intriguing as a locked door. Which is why in 1900 when David Hilbert presented the first of his twenty-three unsolved mathematics problems in his address to the Second International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, he changed the course of scientific inquiry, and thereby the course of the world.”

“As we all know, the closest distance between two points is a straight line, but sometimes the closest distance between two ideas is a long and winding path.”

A key insight that Katherine tells her students: “It isn’t always the dazzling talent who ends up doing the great work. Sometimes people grow into their work, sometimes people burn out, and you never know who will stumble on the right problem at the right time.”

“How it was possible to fall into the space that someone left behind, and be crushed inside, like air falling back into itself with in a clap of thunder.”

“I found the promise of transcendent purity, a deeper order that never failed, I would believe in that, and let go of everything that couldn’t be counted on. Like my mother. Like family. Like home. By the time fall came around and it was time to go to university, in my mind, I was already gone.”

“They were lovely, I thought, in what they suggested — a visual representation of an idea, an ordering of a thought.”

“Analysis is considered the study of limits, but before it was called that, it was called the study of the infinite. I felt for the first time that I was looking at mathematics as it was meant to be done: here was a book that wasn’t meant just to instruct, but to open a door.”

“What I found most exhilarating was figuring out how to make the mathematical tools that explained the logic underpinning natural phenomena.”

Thank you to Ecco and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 18th, 2019.

The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

Captivating novel about the lifespan of an antique (circa 1905) upright Blüthner piano and the two women whose lives are inextricably bound to it across place, time, and culture. Katya grows up in Leningrad. She inherits the piano at a young age from the blind pianist in the building with the note: “Even a blind man could see the music beating in your heart.” She devotes her life to music and the Blüthner until she is ripped from everything that she loves by her husband’s unilateral decision to leave Russia for a better life in the U.S. (~1980). Life is not easy for Soviet Jews in that time period (well, any time period in Russia, really).

Clara is a mechanic. Born to academic parents in Santa Monica, she loses everything in a fire when she is twelve. Only the Blüthner piano that her father gave her a week before he died is saved, having been in the shop for repairs at the time. She is insistently self-reliant, having learned long ago the heartbreaking loss when someone you depended on disappears abruptly. She grows up with an Aunt and Uncle in Bakersfield, and while she never develops any musical skills, the Blüthner is her prized possession. When a professional photographer offers to rent her piano for a series of desert shots in Death Valley, she is reluctant, but persuaded by the large sum on offer. She impulsively follows the piano on its journey and ends up discovering more than she ever imagined about her own history and approach to living.

Told through alternating narratives, the story is intricate and riveting. I loved the descriptions of music and the myriad ways it affected different people. Katya’s favorite piece, and one which threads through both narratives, is Scriabin’s Prelude #14 in E flat minor. Clara’s father’s attempt at characterization: “It’s poetry and color and imagination. In any of the languages I know, I can’t find the right words for it.” The depictions of Death Valley and the piano-centered photographic essay process make for both an inspiring travelogue and a photography primer for the uninformed (that would be me) — worth the price of admission all on its own.

As one narrative proceeds from bittersweet to utterly heartbreaking, the other narrative flows towards understanding, growth, and release. A full and satisfying read full of characters with depth for whom we cannot help but have great empathy.

City of Flickering Light by Juliette Fay (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Historical setting: 5/5

A great story! It grabs you from the first page and won’t allow itself to be put down. It’s a fascinating piece of historical fiction taking place in Hollywood during the Silent Era (1890s – 1920s). The history comes to life through the experiences of our three main characters: Irene Van Beck, Millie Martin, and Henry Weiss. In the opening scene, the three jump off a moving train to escape their current employer — the Burlesque company Chandler’s Follies — and its enforcement goons. They make their way to Hollywood for a chance at a better life.

This is my favorite kind of historical fiction — the author embeds as many of the personages, events, and mechanics of the era into the story as possible: vaudeville, burlesque, and films; jobs within the studios (scenarists, costumes, editing, etc); prohibition and speakeasies; taxi dancing and prostitution; (legal) use of heroin; housing issues (No Jews or actors!); unintended pregnancies; a budding studio Publicity department and the power of the Press to destroy; fancy Hollywood parties; and most interesting — the feel of the small Hollywood enclave within which social mores are relaxed, and many kinds of “forbidden” love are possible (though only with great discretion — hence the budding Publicity department).

In summary — a terrific story with a real feel for what life was like, embedding historical facts and figures without fictionalizing real people (I hate that!). The characters are very likable, with fully fleshed out, historically accurate, backstories (but not the rich interior life that I like). Excellent pacing, decent writing, the story “sticks” with you for a long time…

As an aside, the author lists many sources in the afterward, including a reference to a 13 part documentary called Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film. All the episodes (listed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hollywood_(1980_TV_series)#Episode_list) are available on YouTube. Start at Episode 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mo3Z8IkLnU.

Thank you to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 16th, 2019.