No One Else Can Have You (CBR6 #14)

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I picked this one up based on the recommendation of Caitlin’s review of it for the Cannonballread. No One Else Can Have You is centered around 16 year old Kippy Bushman, and told to us by her in first person narration. It is also a YA read and Ms. Hale’s first novel.

Kippy’s best friend has just died. More specifically, she was murdered. It is the first murder that anyone in Friendship, WI (population 688) can remember. The town is in shut down mode until the suspected killer is apprehended. The problem for Kippy is that she doesn’t believe that the person accused of the crime is actually the culprit. In fact, between her best friend Ruth’s diary and some rudimentary detective work Kippy is able to clear the suspect (Ruth’s cheating boyfriend) and start looking into new suspects. Unlike the local police who are too excited to have the crime tied up with a nice bow on the town’s local miscreant. What follows is the story of Kippy finding out who her friends are, and who aren’t and what really happened to the best friend she lost too soon.

There are plenty of things that worked for me in No One Else Can Have You. Kippy’s widower father Dom is a treasure of a character. Complex and interesting with the kind of heart anyone could wish for their own parent. There’s also a very realistic examination of just how tough we can all be on our best friends, particularly when we are teenage girls. It is also fantastic at mining the depths of not completely understanding attraction, and who likes whom more. And that fabulous cover art. Bravo to whomever designed it; I want to wear that sweater.

But, there are many things which didn’t work for me as well. And I really felt that they detracted significantly from my enjoyment of the book. First, Ms. Hale covers a lot of the ground several times. Kippy’s antagonists antagonize in the same way. Over and over again. Kippy uses the same petulant tone consistently. It also takes nearly a hundred pages (of 380) for the story to get going, and in the last 80 it makes a serious change in tone.

Give it a read if you like YA first person protagonists and murder mysteries. If any of these things annoy you, stay away.

An Abundance of Katherines (CBR6 #13)

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I finished this book last weekend, and keep meaning to write the review but I think the fact that it escaped me for nearly 5 days says a lot about my reading experience. But let’s start at the beginning.

Back for the CBR4 I read The Fault in Our Stars and like most of the other Cannonballers, I loved it. So, I decided to see what else this John Green fellow had written. Being me I needed to start back at the beginning so last year I read Looking for Alaska and while it was quite enjoyable, it was no TFiOS. But that’s to be expected from an author’s first novel. That’s why I started at the beginning of Green’s oeuvre, to give myself proper expectations by reading the author’s works in order; I would hopefully be able to trace his writing trajectory.

So, when I went into this year’s John Green read, An Abundance of Katherines I was expecting another quite to very good book. And, honestly, it was just okay. I gave it a three star rating over on Goodreads, but really its closer to a 2.5, and it only gets the extra 0.5 because of Hassan. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

An Abundance of Katherines is the story of Colin Singleton and the 19* girls named Katherine he has dated in his short 18 years. But it isn’t. It’s the story of his breakup with K19 and the emotional aftereffects of said breakup. But it isn’t that either. It’s the story of Colin coming to terms with being a child prodigy who isn’t going to be a genius. But it’s not entirely that either.  It’s the story of the road trip that he and his best (and only) friend Hassan take to help get Colin over the break-up/prodigy problem and Hassan’s untethered lifestyle in the post high school pre-college place he finds himself.  And it’s a little this, but the road trip doesn’t last very long. What we find the story to be about is Colin getting over himself and perhaps finally falling for a girl not named Katherine.

I had some issues with the story, mostly in how Green decided to lay out the storytelling. The present we are spending with Colin is interspersed with his remembrances of the Katherines and his obsession with figuring out a mathematical equation that will allow him to predict the outcome of any romantic relationship. It cuts in and out and is generally unsatisfactory because instead of easily flowing from present experience into past recollection it instead is a rough cut nearly every time.  Colin is also a tough character to root for and his incessant anagramming and various other prodigy ticks got in the way of connecting to the character. But perhaps my biggest gripe is that we don’t ‘meet’ the legion of Katherines until near the very end and it’s such a stretch to get 19* in that I feel the book would’ve been better if there had been only 9 or 10 Katherines. That’s still abundance, I promise.

Okay, let’s talk about what I liked. Hassan. And Lindsey. And the Oldsters in Gutshot. What Green always has going for him is that he can craft great characters. Colin is a well-rounded character even if he’s not a great protagonist, but the supporting cast in An Abundance of Katherines is what kept me moving through the book and not ignoring it for other titles. Hassan’s busting of Colin, as only a true friend would do, were some of my favorite parts. Those and the footnotes.

Yes, I said footnotes. Since we are dealing with a protagonist who is a prodigy there are things he knows that the common reader won’t. So we get footnotes to explain the conversations happening in other languages and the math. And the history factoids, etc. And those I LOVED. I’ve seen some reviews saying they couldn’t be bothered with the math bits, and to me that’s just lazy. The footnotes explain the math the way a non-math person would need them explained and it gave insight into how it fit into the book. You don’t need to be able to solve the equation that Colin eventually writes, but the Appendix explains how it was written and how it works and it was just plain interesting.

To recap – I’d say read this first in your John Green reading and not quickly after reading his other books.

 

*the 19 Katherines thing really annoyed me because there were only 18. He dated one twice. AND Colin was counting girls who he’d had relationships with which lasted mere hours. Now, I understand that middle school and high school kids tend to do this kind of thing, but it felt like such a stretch to get to the magical K-19 which I swear Green was basing off the story of the Russian submarine that it felt unnecessary and distracting. Really Colin of the no friends and bad rapport with your peers, you’ve had 19 girlfriends by age 18? Really? It just didn’t line up with who the character is in the rest of the book. End rant.   

Tiny Beautiful Things (CBR6 #12)

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I am at a time of crossroads in my life and I went out looking for a book that would speak directly to me in this time of unsettledness. I remembered reading some of Sugar’s posts on The Rumpus after I read Wild so I thought why not read Tiny Beautiful Things? I’m glad I decided to, because Sugar’s voice was what I needed, what I still need. I cried more than once reading her responses to the letters she received.

The stories that arrive to Sugar, first on The Rumpus and now in Tiny Beautiful Things come from people who are often is positions very similar to mine – they are in a state of flux, they have a relationship in a bad place, they are lonely, they are overwhelmed, they are angry, they are sad. Through her thoughtful and inspired answers Sugar pulls from the deep well of empathy in her to provide both answers, but also the questions that we need to be asking ourselves as we move through the journey that is building our lives. Cheryl Strayed, the no longer anonymous Sugar, credits this place in side of her from which the empathy pours as being her best legacy of the woman her mother raised her to be. And we learn a great deal about Cheryl’s parents, her upbringing, her marriage and her life as we progress through the book, since Sugar tends to explain why her experiences are impacting her answer to any given query in a certain way.

I’ve seen other reviewers see this as a detriment, but I don’t. There’s a certain level of honesty, of understanding, that Sugar is able to deliver in her missives that would be missing if she didn’t lay herself bare in the writing. Tiny Beautiful Things reads much more like a book your best, most wise friend wrote to you to take you through the hard times. And don’t we all need that?

I don’t know that I’d suggest this book to everyone, even though I’m rating it quite high. First, not everyone is a Cheryl Strayed fan, so if you didn’t particularly enjoy Wild  then this one is likely not for you. Second, you as a reader probably need to be in a certain place in your life to fully immerse into this book. Otherwise it might feel like too much, all the sadness, and loneliness that covers these 350 pages might weigh too heavily on you. I suggest looking up some of Sugar’s columns and giving them a twirl before committing to the book. But if you too are in a place of needing a sister-friend, then this one might be for you. 

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Seven for a Secret (CBR6 #11)

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One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a girl,

Four for a boy,

Five for silver,

Six for gold,

Seven for a secret,

Never to be told.

 

This may be one of my favorite books of the year so far, which makes sense as it is the sequel to one of my three favorite books from last year, The Gods of Gotham. Seven for a Secret finds Timothy Wilde six months removed from the events of the first book set up as an unofficial detective for the newly formed New York Police Department, known more familiarly as the Copper Stars.

Each book is based around a central mystery, and the one in Seven for a Secret revolves around the Fugitive Slave laws and the Blackbirders who enforce the law by capturing fugitive slaves as well as free blacks who were essentially kidnapped as part of this cultural milieu. We meet three light skinned blacks living in New York, Lucy and Jonas Adams and her sister Delia Wright. Lucy returns home to find Jonas and Delia kidnapped, and the book jumps off from that point as Lucy goes to Timothy Wilde to find her family.

I won’t go any further into the description of the plot, as to attempt to untangle it would likely only serve as confusing. Like its predecessor Seven for a Secret  is full of the things I like. Well thought out and executed plot points, well drawn characters, and historical relevance. Lyndsay Faye continues to elucidate the 1840s through quotes of primary sources at the beginning of each chaper (including Twelve Years a Slave  by Solomon Northrup) in order to highlight what New York, and to a greater extent the United States were like, over 150 years ago.

What keeps me from bumping this one up from 4.5 stars to 5 is that the strong character of Tim seems to evaporate in the third quarter of the book. Timothy Wilde is a character who is observant and quick, but much of the action in that section of the book relies on Tim getting things wrong, and not noticing things he should. It helped keep me in the dark as a reader, which is I gather what Ms. Faye was after, but after The Gods of Gotham and the opening chapters of this work where I was so excited to have this character back in my head, it felt like a letdown.

With that said, read these books. Read them in order though, because characters and story lines carry from one to the other.  

Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (CBR6 #10)

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From Goodreads:

An almost forgotten classic though a founding text of Victorian middle-class identity, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management is a volume of insight and common sense. Written by what one might now describe as a Victorian Martha Stewart, the book offers advice on fashion, child-care, animal husbandry, poisons, and the management of servants. To the modern reader expecting stuffy verbosity or heavy moralizing, Beeton’s book is a revelation: it explores the foods of Europe and beyond, suggesting new food stuffs and techniques, mixing domestic advice with discussions of science, religion, class, industrialism and gender roles. Alternately frugal and fashionable, anxious and self confident, the book highlights the concerns of the growing Victorian middle-class at a key moment in its history. This abridged edition serves as a cookery book, while documenting a significant aspect of Victorian social and cultural history.

Where to start with Mrs. Beeton, where to start. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management is the same sort of book as Mrs. Seely’s Cook Book which I reviewed previously for the CBR. It’s a book which in seeking to indoctrinate the new middle class with the methods of a high-born life also serves as a window for those of us looking back. Unfortunately for me, I enjoyed Mrs. Seely’s Cook Book quite a bit more.

Originally published in 1861, this book predates my era of research (1880-1920) but it shows the basis for the expected social order of the High Victorian Era. It is an easy read, once you settle into it, although it is very, very long. Each section is short though, and provides an easy way to work your way through. I was able to read the portions which were of interest to me in a few days. (Again, I skipped entirely over the recipe sections).  But what I felt was lacking was a sense of joie d’vivre that Mrs. Seely’s book encapsulated where Mrs. Beeton’s feels like a chore list.

So, if you’re wondering about the time period and how a house was or should have been, then give it a read, otherwise I say no. 

Jane’s Fame (CBR6 #9)

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I fell in love with Jane Austen sometime around 1996. I think the first time I read one of her books was when it was assigned to me my sophomore year of high school, and I’m pretty sure it was Pride and Prejudice but it may have been Sense and Sensibility. I’m just not sure anymore. In the intervening years I have consumed all six of her major novels, getting the final one read last year, and have partaken in many, but certainly not all, of the various movies and miniseries that have been produced in the same time period. And this is how I came to my own personal love of Austen. In Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World Claire Harmon explains through a detailed study how the works of Jane Austen, relatively little noticed at the time of their publication, have become such powerhouses in the world market and how legions of readers have fallen in love with them across two centuries.

The first two chapters focus in on Austen during her lifetime, and what we are able to know of her from her professional writings and her personal ones which were published after her death. It was fun to revisit some of the personal history I had picked up along the way, and some things which were new. The time period I knew the least about her growing fame and that was unfamiliar to me was that surrounding the two world wars and specifically her pervasiveness in the trenches of WWI. These are highlighted in the third and fourth chapters which highlight the impact of Austen’s great grand nieces and nephews in the later part of the 1800s and how their decisions lead to a new round of popularity for Austen which carried into the war period. The final chapters focus on the modern popularity of all things Austen.

The majority of Harmon’s work is focusing on why Austen’s work has not only remained but grown more popular over time. She tracks the critical appraisal of Austen’s work and explores what was being said about the works. One of the earliest critiques of Austen’s work is its narrowness that it only speaks of “three or four families in a country village.” Harmon argues that this is actually what makes it accessible the world over. The plots of money and marriage are as relatable to someone living in Asia in 2014 and they were to Austen’s original British audience in 1814. Harman goes on to say that “the most empathetic readers of Austen may well be in modern-day Africa, where the Church of England is at its most traditional, and where family structures still resemble those familiar to the author” (199).

The flexibility of the text in the hands of its readers lends itself to continued attention and conversation. By a certain point in the twentieth century Austen’s work was being used by all sides of any given argument, used to support the patriarchy as well as supporting feminism. Oh, and Marxism. And Feminist Marxism. For example the critical understandings of Mansfield Park moved from the topics of transgressing boundaries and metaphors for improvement (the aborted production of Lover’s Vows and the trip to Sotherton respectively) and into colonial studies and exploitation of slaves in more recent works and studies.

Spin off publications, another popular Austen experience (Death at Pemberly, anyone?) start as early as 1913 with Sybil G. Brinton’s Old Friends and New Fancies which has major characters from each of the six novels by Austen interacting with one another. It’s another avenue of Austen popularity. But most of the popularity comes directly from the unique writing habits of Austen. Austen worked on her novels for nearly two decades, refining them over many drafts, and then publishing those means that she appears to have worked to keep them without defining timeliness. While she is writing during years of war and social upheaval, they are generally out of view. And descriptions are vague enough to have the reader put in their own idea of what a house “suitable to the fortune of the proprietor” is as Pemberly is described.

The most modern round of popularity started in the mid-1990s. The surge was associated with the famous BBC Pride and Prejudice mini-series and that wet shirt. There were five Austen productions in 18 months between 1995-1996, including my favorite, Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson. The problem with movie adaptations, that Harmon points out dates back to the 1930s, is that they are the least likely to have a strict interpretation. For example, another favorite of mine, for various reasons, 1999’s Mansfield Park abandons Austen’s characterization of its heroine Fanny Price and replaces it with a version of the historical Austen, a spirited would-be writer.

I know I’ve summarized the book at seeming length, but there is so much that I haven’t touched upon. If this review is of interest to you, then so will the book. 

Mrs. Seely’s Cook Book (CBR6 #8)

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Another in the list of historical reference materials and this one has the added benefit of being a reference in its own time period!

The height of domestic service coincides with the Gilded Age, 1880-1920, roughly. In that time a housewife who got into the business of Intelligence Offices (that’s employment agencies for domestic staff) wrote what would become the standard in what to expect and what was appropriate for domestic staff positions of all stripes. While Mrs. Seely’s Cook Book is a cookbook with recipes of the time (which is the classic gallery of regrettable food) it is also a manual of household management at the turn of the last century.

Published originally in 1902, (the copy I read is a reprint from 1984 with an introductory essay entitled Housekeeping in the Gilded Age by Shirley Abbott which itself is full or fun information about the time period), Mrs.Lida Seely explores the expected relationship between staff and employer, the job responsibilities of all staff in a household – running the gamut from cooks, to butlers, to scullery maids, to coachmen and the running of meal service both for family and a dinner party. She also lays out the Don’ts for both employer and staff with such practical advice as “Don’t blame servants for every fault or mistake and then leave good service unthanked” to go with “Don’t spend your time comparing the ways of one mistress to those of another – each one has a right to her own rules in her own house”.

At this point in the book, approximately 70 pages in, Mrs. Seely gets into the recipes and the required tools of the cooking trade which make up the lion’s share of the book.

What is perhaps the best aspect for me of this book, and perhaps to anyone with an interest in the running of the large estates exemplified by the Downton Abbey series, is that this book was written to place employers and employees on the same page about the realistic expectations of the work. And in so doing, provides the interested parties of today a portal to see what was actually happening, or could be expected to be happening, in a home with a staff – whether it is staffs of 1 or 2 or over a dozen live in servants at the height of the Gilded Age.  The other bit of knowledge that I wished I had as I was learning to shop and cook for myself are the chapters on selecting meats and vegetable as well as the standard proportions of cooking and general advice. While many of the recipes as I noted above would no longer appeal to the modern palate (mousse of fish anyone?) the cooking basics are still of use to the modern cook.