Rose Under Fire (CBR7 #40)

Last year I read and enjoyed Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity for Cannonball Read 6 and the Go Fug Yourself Book club on Goodreads. There was much about Wein’s work with that novel that worked very well and the level of craftsmanship in the character and world building as well as the intricacies of the plot put Rose Under Fire, her second book set in the same world, immediately on my to read list for this year. I wish I could say that Rose lived up to Verity.

Rose Under Fire is the story of American Rose Justice, a pilot, just graduated from high school, working for the British ATA ferrying servicemen and supplies around the England. Rose landed her job with the ATA through her uncle’s connections within the RAF and eventually those connections lead her to flying some VIPs to Paris following D-Day. It’s following these events that the story really gets going as we follow a captured Rose into the infamous women’s concentration camp Ravensbruck.

Wein tells us a story that needs to be told and handles it with care. The various characters we meet at Ravensbruck are obsessed with telling the world what has happened to them, as they should be. In putting together this book Wein researched the topic heavily, and as with Verity puts her bibliography in the back of the book so the reader can explore more of the actual history she weaves into her fictionalized account. Wein is telling the world, and using YA literature to spread the message of what we are capable of doing to each other and what we are capable of surviving together. She is ruminating once again on the power of friendship, specifically of female friendship, and the families we make for ourselves. This is all exactly the kind of research and work that would usually earn a four star rating from me.

Unfortunately, there was much missing from this powerful work. In Verity the characters of Maddie and Julie are drawn beautifully and realistically. There is very little about these characters, or the supporting ones around them, that rings false or stinks of deus ex machina, even though the story can veer that way. Unfortunately for Rose there are plenty of things that do. Rose’s last name is Justice for goodness sakes and she is charged with seeking justice for those who perished from her group in the camp! Rose Under Fire is also missing the delightfully intricate plotting that featured so heavily in Wein’s previous work. There is also not nearly enough Maddie, or Maddie as we knew her in Verity. And, in something it shares with Verity, Rose Under Fire starts weakly. Wein is obviously attempting to get us caught up with the events post-Verity, and establish Rose as a character before her time at Ravensbruck, but I found myself mentally twiddling my thumbs waiting for the meaning to show up. With these detractions in place, I’ve bumped my rating down to a 3.5.

Overall consensus? Read it, but with the appropriate expectations.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. Fuck Cancer.

Mort (CBR7 #39)

I’m continuing on with my march through the Discworld novels, and after having realized that I had perhaps gone too far down one path without veering off to some others in my review of Maskerade I decided to go back to the beginning and pick another tack to start down. Luckily for me my friend Alison had already lent me Mort, the fourth book in the series, and the first of the Death centric books. I was excited, I really liked when Death made his appearance in the Witches books and thought surely a book chock full of Death’s witticisms would be right up my proverbial alley. Unfortunately for me, this one was funny than hysterical, and more cutesy than clever. Not really what I’ve come to expect from Pratchett’s work.

The story is built around Death taking on an apprentice, Mortimer. Mort for short. Not that anyone actually calls him by his name. With a bit of spare time on his hands, once Mort is up to speed, Death’s own search for what it means to be human begins. Those portions in the final two thirds of the book  was very amusing and at times poignant, but it never felt like it had time to develop as the book raced to the end of its 240 pages.

What Pratchett does well he does very well. He absolutely understands how to bring teenage awkwardness across the page. I thought the book really hit its stride when dealing with Mort’s unrequited love of Keli and Ysabell’s growing fondness of Mort in the middle third. The build-up was slow and at times painful (as any teenage love should be) but the pay offs were mostly worth it. Ysabell’s sudden switch from being annoyed by Mort’s very presence to her fawning over Mort was done with little indication or reasoning, other than her seeing him in his element and honestly it left me feeling a little cheated.

But seriously, how bad could a book be that contains Death uttering the following line?


This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Suffragette Scandal (CBR7 #38)

As has become my tradition in reviewing Courtney Milan’s Brother Sinister books I was on the lookout for the trope that Ms. Milan had turned on its head. In The Duchess War the male protagonist shows the insecurities which would typically be portrayed by the female protagonist. In The Heiress Effect the ‘damsels in distress’ save themselves. And in The Countess Conspiracy the gentleman at the center of the story works to move forward the career aspirations of his lady love. All of these are reversals of the expected tropes of the world of Romance. Milan is at it again with The Suffragette Scandal and her target is the rescue fantasy and the bad boy making good.

The story should be rather straight forward, and it would be in the hands of almost any other Romance writer. Edward Clark arrives back in England with the goal of revenge. In order to achieve his revenge, he needs to prevent James Delacey from framing an innocent man and destroying the life and work of Frederica Marshall. In other hands the action would have been at Edwards’s command and Free would have been along for the ride. That is most certainly NOT what happens in The Suffragette Scandal.

Free Marshall, youngest sister of Oliver Marshall featured in The Heiress Effect, has used her inheritance from her aunt to pay for her Cambridge education and set up her newspaper, The Women’s Free Press. Free is perhaps the strongest, smartest female protagonist I’ve come across in a long time, and she is always two steps ahead of everyone, including Edward. When he attempts to blackmail her into compliance with his plan (his go to move after 7 years on the continent) she goes around him and blackmails him in return to have exactly the outcome she’s looking for. But this is only the first incident in a book chock full of them. As the stakes increase in the plot against Free Edward attempts to rescue her again and again, only to find that she’s perfectly able to rescue herself.

The other related trope is the bad boy going good for the love of a good woman. It is probably one of the oldest tropes in romance. Normally the heroine is looking for that. Not Free. She loves Edward for the scoundrel he is, and has no desire to see that changed. Free is much more interested in knowing and loving him as he is. She is so confident in the success of her plan that she doesn’t fight him when he returns to France and instead begins to write him letters. Because Edward is besotted, he cannot help but write back and the legendary puppy cannons are born.

There are other charming things about this book. Because Milan is working on a delightful feminist bent Free’s newspaper is not about male bashing, but about empowering women. It isn’t often that you get this overt feminism in romance novels, and certainly not ones set in 1877 England. It is a delight.  The other benefit of the timing of this book, ten years after the events of The Countess Conspiracy is that we are able to visit most of the characters we’ve come to adore in the previous books – Oliver and Free’s parents from The Governess Affair, Minnie and Robert from The Duchess War another ten years into the future, which is something that I always enjoy.

There are so many other wonderful things about this book. I suggest wholeheartedly that you visit emmalita’s review for her musings on punctuation and how the characters use it to flirt. Or scootsa1000’s review of the series as a whole. Or you can have a read of Mrs. Julien’s lovely and insightful review. Or, you can take a look at Malin’s in-depth six star review that convinced me to start reading this series in the first place.

What I’m saying is, read these books.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Men We Reaped (CBR7 #37)

My life growing up was, in many ways, very different from the people who populate my adult life. I find myself looking around often and saying “but why don’t you understand _____________?” I grew up in a very diverse area and my experiences and knowledge reflect that diversity. But it’s fair to say that my expanded viewpoint is only expanded to a certain extent because I still view life from a place of white, middle class privilege. But the high school that I attended started losing graduates to untimely death almost immediately following graduation and has proceeded at a steady pace of 1-2 alumni each year for the past 14. It should not be surprising that they are almost all African American men.

You might find yourself asking what this has to do with my choice to read Jesmyn Ward’s memoir.  In Men We Reaped Ward tells the story of her family and community and the ravages of what society does to its underclass and how the pull of home, no matter how dangerous to one’s overall wellbeing, can be too strong to overcome. When I came across Julia in Austin’s review for CBR6 I added this book to my to read list because I knew instinctively that this was a truth I needed to bear witness to. Men We Reaped is an important, but not easy read.

The book is based around the five young men Jesmyn Ward lost to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty. In her own explanation of how this book came into being Ward explains that she was asking one question: Why? Through an accounting of growing up in southern Mississippi and providing quick glimpses of the personal stories of her brother and her friends who all died Ward pieces together the greater social causes of the epidemic she has lived. To her eyes these young men died because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships.

This is not a perfect book. In many ways Ward’s grief is perhaps too much on the surface, clouding the points she is attempting to make. While I appreciated the idea of the dual timelines she uses, bringing us both forward and backward to her brother’s death it also muddied the narrative in some ways as well. This book is still worthy of being read.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Guns of August (CBR7 #36)

Following my reading of Above the Dreamless Dead I decided that I wanted to read more about World War I. I studied the war relatively well in my undergraduate career, but my focus had always been about the long and short term causes and effects, the more social history view. I knew very little about the battles of the war outside the concept of trench warfare, generally speaking. A good place to start seemed Barbara Tuchman’s 1963 Pulitzer prize winning The Guns of August which focused specifically on the causes of the war, and its first 40 or so days of fighting before the trench warfare that lasted the next four years began.

I had been impressed with Barbara Tuchman’s writing when I read The Proud Tower a few years ago. In this work Tuchman wrote this incredibly detailed account of the first month of WWI – and the detail is staggering, so much so that at times it could be somewhat overwhelming. Tuchman highlights the politics, personalities, military strategy, and philosophical motivations, of all parties involved. In some ways reading the work is like taking a college course on the topic. That much information is covered, and in that level of detail.

Generally I enjoyed the book, and I feel as though I have a better grasp of the beginnings of the war and the initial war effort and find myself remembering things I already knew (Plan 17 and the Schlieffen Plan, for example). However, in some regards the age of the work shows. In some ways there is a lot of national stereotyping, which we are still guilty of 50 years later. There is also an interesting effect of listening to someone come to terms with the long term effects of the war while still being in the cold war era which carried the stamp of the previous conflicts so evidently.

I’m only ranking this book three stars, and that’s more about the audio version I listened to. While I enjoyed the narrator, I cannot suggest that most people listen to this work. If you have meant to read it then I suggest you absolutely do, but maybe take the hardcopy version and take your time. Listening to this one did not have quite the same effect as listening to one of my college professors’ lecture, and that was definitely a letdown for me and the reason I chose to go audiobook format.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Real Jane Austen (CBR7 #35)

Last year I reviewed Jane’s Fame and was quite pleased with it. That book chronicled the evolution of the popularity of Austen’s books over the course of the past two hundred years. Over on the Cannonball Read our very own Time Lord, Bonnie suggested to me this book: The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things after that review. I put it on the list for CBR7 and here we are.

The Real Jane Austen tackles the mystery of the well-known author.  Following Austen’s death her family published the ‘official’ biographies which were tinged with a certain view of the author. In many ways they were very conservative and demur in their account of her life and abilities. In this work author Paula Byrne works to take the existent writings, both published and personal of Austen as well as objects known to have been in possession or use by her, and place the author into a more accurate picture culturally and historically – in that way providing a ‘real’ look at a slightly mysterious figure.

For the most part I felt that Byrne does a great job of giving us the author in context. By chronicling the various objects and how they are reflected in her writings a clearer picture of both the time period and the person doing the writing. The idea that Austen was writing about ‘three or four families in a country village’ is upended as Byrne works to show how Austen was exposed to the greater world both by her own travels, but by those of her large and extended family.

This is an interesting, but not perfect book. Each of the 18 chapters could easily have been shortened by five pages. The author writes from the perspective of a historian, which is good and practical in a work which means to be research based, but can often read dryly. This alone prevents me from moving up my ranking from 3 stars to 4. However, if you are interested in the history of the era or a more in depth look at Jane Austen, this would be a good choice.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Texts from Jane Eyre (CBR7 #34)

I apologize now, but this will not be a long review. If I could get away with saying: “I laughed, a lot, read it now” I would. Because this book really is a very funny, very witty, highly sarcastic look at all of your favorite writings and writers from an absurd angle. And a joy to read. But, that is not enough to qualify as a review so off I go to attempt to explain more.

I bought this book on a lark. I read Narfna’s review, after having read Malin’s and instinctively knew that this was a comfort book for me in the making. I have had a rough week, and the fallout of that week is going to be felt for a while moving forward (nothing truly traumatic, don’t worry) so I knew I needed a fun read. The book is exactly as advertised: text from Jane Eyre and other conversations from literary characters. It runs the gamut from classic Greek heroes to the Babysitter’s Club. There is quite literally something for everyone in these pages.

I’ll admit that the format might take some getting used to, as the entire book appears in the dialogue bubbles we’re familiar with from our phones. But once you’re comfortable with the idea, and the voices of these various characters come alive to you, you’ll be laughing very hard at some of the best literary comedy I’ve seen in quite some time.

Others have mentioned not understanding all the allusions, and I am with them. The depth and breadth of the works that Ortberg chooses will certainly put some of the references outside even the most well-read reader’s purview, so make sure you have google ready to look up some background. I did, and it was definitely worth it.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards (CBR7 #33)

Book Launch: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

Our lives are all made up of a series of episodes. Of adventures, of happenstance, of chance. What if you tried to capture it all, but a slanted version that you could leave behind in the written form? This book captures that goal and the madness of its attempt.

It’s almost a little hard to believe that this is Kristopher Jansma’s first novel, but it becomes quickly apparent that he has been a writer for some time. There is a level of craftsmanship in the writing and structure of the novel that allude to the time spent in honing and studying the craft of writing. This isn’t a novel that’s just a story – although it does have a good one of those as well. This is a novel about novels and writing.

Because I think it does a good job, here’s the summary from Goodreads:

From as early as he can remember, the hopelessly unreliable—yet hopelessly earnest—narrator of this ambitious debut novel has wanted to become a writer. From the jazz clubs of Manhattan to the villages of Sri Lanka, Kristopher Jansma’s irresistible narrator will be inspired and haunted by the success of his greatest friend and rival in writing, and endlessly enamored with his rival’s enchanting friend, the green-eyed girl who got away. After the trio has a disastrous falling out, desperate to tell the truth in his writing and to figure out who he really is, Jansma’s narrator finds himself caught in a never-ending web of lies.

So what else do I have to tell you about this book? Not much. I don’t want to give away the reading experience. This book came highly recommended from Joanna Robinson over on the Pajiba mothership a couple years ago and I am just now getting around to it. If you put this book on your to read list then and have lost track of it, it’s time to get your hands on a copy and give it a read.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.