Category Archives: Books

Summer Reads: New Treat for Fans of Emily Dickinson


Book: Miss Emily (NewJuly 2015)by Nuala O’Connor

Destination: Amherst, Massachusetts, U.S.

One more summer read before you put away your summer whites and get back to the work-a-day-world.  What could be more appropriate than a book about a woman who famously decided to wear white every day?  In Miss Emily, Nuala O’Connor a writer well-known in her native Ireland as Nuala ní Chonchúir, makes her American debut with a book about the quintessential New Englander, Emily Dickinson.  And a stunning debut it is.

Emily Dickinson HOme
Emily Dickinson Home Museum, Amherst Massachusetts. Photo from Massachusetts Office of Tourism via Flickr.

As I started reading, I realized what an enormous challenge O’Connor had taken on.  First, she’s Irish, creating the Amherst of late 19th century New England–a very different place than her native land and time.  Second, inevitably people will compare her style to the poetry of a renowned poet.  Third, Emily had a notoriously reclusive life, making her life a difficult subject for story telling.

Where’s the drama in the life of a woman who sits in her room, peers out the cupola window on the roof, and occasionally ventures into the kitchen to bake? (I have written about the Emily Dickinson Black Cake that I make every year.) A zillion or so biographies of Emily have familiarized us with her uneventful life.  Some spiced it up with speculative love affairs–with men or with women, and indeed Miss Emily leaves us wondering about the nature of the relationship of Emily and her beloved sister-in-law, Sue.

O’Connor, I quickly learned, is up to the task of juggling a challenge. First, she creates a fascinating character as a foil for Emily’s sedate life. The young Irish maid, Ada, not only breathes life into the Dickinson manse, but her quick mind and poetic expressions make her a worthy  companion for the odd buy kindly Emily. In fact, Ada quite upstages Emily throughout the book.

The writing is delicious. O’Connor steeped herself in Dickinson’s poetry, so that we here the poet’s thoughts expressed in scraps that sound familiar. Fully formed they will become the poems we already know.

Matching Emily’s rather airy philosophies, we have the down-to-earth poetry of Irish sayings passed on by Ada from her grandmother or mother.

One that was very meaningful to me, because I express similar sentiments in my other website, Ancestors in Aprons, is the way that everything Ada does reminds her of her “Mammy” and “Granny.”  As she greases her boots with butter, she thinks,

Even the smell of the butter brings her near to me; it was she who taught me to churn and it was Granny Dunn who taught her before that. The butter I make is the daughter of Mammy’s butter just as I am hers.

In another place, Ada is sitting with her boyfriend.

We sat on, and the sky grew black, as if all the crows of the world flew wing on wing together, a dark gathering to blot out the moon and stars.  The wavery whistle of a gosling carried up from the farm below….The young goose went on to speak as all geese do, in gabbles and blasts and strings of sentences, and we listened to its chatter for a long time before it fell silent and the night was ours alone.

It is passages like these that make you begin to wonder just who is the poet and who is the unschooled Irish maid.

O’Connor, writing under her Irish name Nuala ní Chonchúir has written poetry as well as fiction, so she seems to have a visceral understanding of the way that Emily thinks and how to squeeze the most out of every word and sentence.

Because the focus here is more on words and thoughts than action, the book goes slowly. The middle section bogs down a bit and I wondered if anything was ever going to happen to either woman. But excitement breaks out in the final third of the book.

Emily describes her usual life compared to an uncharacteristic morning run through town with Ada in an emergency situation.

I remain sequestered at home by my own choice or by some reason that is mine but lives outside me.  But oh, the morning air fills the lungs with such vigor when you move through it at a pace.  The street air holds Ada and me, and it passes us along with a high energy, handing us from one step to the next.

It makes one wonder if Emily ever had the opportunity to do something similar, and question her reclusiveness.

Perhaps not. Here is something I wrote a few years ago with Emily’s thoughts on travel.

Ada’s character also serves to inject the dramatic (and romantic) moments into the story that a novel about Emily alone would fail to provide.  Ada falls in love with one man and is injured by another. Emily is drawn out of her retreat from the world in an attempt to help the maid who has become indispensable, not just for housework, but also for companionship.

Although this is a novel, and not a biography, the reader gains a lot of insight into what makes Emily Dickinson tick as we meet her family and see her town through both her eyes and Ada’s. I began the book thinking what a large task O’Connor had undertaken, and finished with gratefulness that she manged it so beautifully.

By the way, if you’ve never visited Amherst, and it is too late for a summer jaunt, remember that the fall leaves are glorious in New England.

Note: the publisher provided a digital book for me to read and review.  This is standard operating procedure in publishing, and has no impact on what I recommend to you.

I have links to Amazon in the post. You need to know (so says the FTC) that although it costs you no more to shop through my links, I earn a few cents for anything you buy. Thanks for the support.

Summer Read: Page Turner Novel Takes Us to Australia–Then and Now


Destination: The Blue Mountains, Australia

Book: Evergreen Falls by Kimberley Freeman (New in paperback, first published in 2014)

 

This book was just plain FUN!  Not that the characters were always having fun.  Au contraire, the life of an heiress in one of the parallel plots, set in the 1920s, was not as carefree as you might imagine. And the love story of the waitress in the tony resort where the heiress, her brother and her finance and his thugish pals were spending some away time, becomes a nightmare before the novel ends.

In the second plot, set in 2014, a young woman trying to escape her smother mother, flees to the same Blue Mountains where the heiress had vacationed. There she gets a job waiting tables in a cafe. The old resort is in ruins, but is undergoing restoration, so as the present day waitress fires up her own romance, she also finds hints of a 1920’s love affair that make her want to find out who was involved and how it turned out.

Just as in Lighthouse Bay, (the earlier book by Kimberley Freeman that I reviewed here), the two interwoven plots have us bouncing between the past and the present in one place.

While I recommended Lighthouse Bay for a summer read, I like this one even better. And talk about a book making you want to GO Somewhere, how would you like to stay at a glam resort in this location? (Just remember Australia seasons are reverse of U.S., so go in THEIR summer. Winter could be brutal (see the book.)

Blue Mountains Australia
Blue Mountains of Australia. This gorgeous picture is by Tony Fernandez, found at Flickr.com

We want to know to, and that’s what kept the pages turning, and the vacuuming undone, as I read-read-read about these delightful characters.  Australian writer Kimberley Freeman has a way with creating likable and interesting characters–each distinct–never sliding into romance novel stereotypes.

The setting is charming, and made me do a bit of research to find out where these remote Blue Mountains of Australia are. Turns out they are not so remote after all, their foothills spilling into the suburban enclaves of Sidney.  However, the area is huge and you can definitely get away from civilization–even living the life of the wealthy in the early 20th century in classic old resorts.

So dive in.  You don’t have a lot of time left for summer reading–but this romance- adventure-mystery visit to Australia is just the ticket for a fun read.

Here Kimberley Freeman talks about her inspiration for the book.

Note: This post contains links to Amazon, in case you’d like to buy one of these books. You should know that I am an Amazon affiliate, so anything you buy, although it costs you no more, earns me a few pennies.

The publisher provided me with a paperback copy of this book for review, which is standard practice, and in no way influences what I recommend to you.

COMING SOON: A book for Emily Dickinson fans and a book set in Germany during World War II that is possibly my favorite of the year. Stay tuned. Tell your friends they can subscribe for free updates, just like you do. You DO, don’t you? And you know that I would NEVER use your information for anything other than this subscription?

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Audio Books for Road Trips

MacMillan Audio Books regularly sends me their books on CDs for review.  This summer they have flooded my mail box with much more than I could keep up with.  I may eventually read them all, but meanwhile, here’s a quick look, in case you are going on a road trip and looking for an exciting book to keep you awake during the dull stretches on the road (like between Tucson and San Diego, or across the endless plains of Texas or the flat boring I-10 across southern New Mexico.)

The Patriot Threat by Steve Barry

I received The Patriot Threat: A Novel just before we left for our Southern Road Trip.  The trip turned out to be full of interesting views and things to comment on, so we did not finish the book while on the road, but the story was intriguing enough that Ken listened to the rest of it as he drove back and forth to work when we got home.

In a nutshell, the story combines a thriller present-day adventure with a historical conspiracy theory, all wrapped around the question of the legality of the Internal Revenue System of the United States. It hooked me with “insider” meetings with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and financier Andrew Mellon and a plot based on the financing of the Revolutionary War for heavens’ sake! it hooked Ken with the derring-do of the hero Cotton Malone, a retired Justice Department Intelligence operative called back to foil North Korean bad guys who are out to bring 21st century America to its knee with an 18th century incident.

The production of this audio makes a bit of news itself, as it is an “author’s cut.”  That means that Steve Berry pokes his voice in every now and again to give us some background on the research that went into the writing, or the way he names his characters. You’ll have to decide if you like this addition. I found it interesting at times, but more often annoying–like being forced to read footnotes whether I wanted to or not.

Badlands by C. J. Box

I’ve talked about C. J. Box novels before. Set in the wide open spaces of Wyoming and Montana, he wrote about a family adventure in Yellowstone Park, and most recently about a terrifying trucker gone bad. The new book, Badlands: A Novel, picks up some threads from the last one, but reads more like the first one I read.

In that last book, The Highway, his previous hero Cody Hoyt was joined by a woman police officer, Cassie. In Badlands, Cassie takes over the investigation, and we get a break from the terror of The Highway, even though it is clear that story line has not been exhausted, and we will see more about it in the future.

Ken listened to this one and gave me the information in the last paragraph.  He actually liked it better than The Highway, because it was a relief not to have that totally evil bad guy around. I haven’t listened to this audio book of Badlands yet, but I am looking forward to it, because I like C. J. Box’s gritty presentation of life in the wild west of the 21st century.  And this one is set in North Dakota, one of the TWO states I have not yet visited.  I know he’s great at describing locations, plus he takes on the current oil boom in that state.

Run You Down by Julia Dahl

This one I have listened to with anticipation.  I loved Julia Dahl’s debut novel about a murder among the Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, Invisible City.  The heroine, Rebekah Roberts , a beginning reporter for a secondary newspaper in New York City, was raised by her Christian father, but knows that her mother, who she never met, was Jewish.

In addition to learning about her heritage of Judaism, and specifically about the lesser known Hasidic sect, Rebekah, continues to seek her mother. Alternating sections feature Rebekah’s current search–both reportorial and personal and her mother, Aviva Kagan’s, story of her own history.

I am not sure that this book is strong enough on location to qualify as a help to writers, but it certainly is a terrific primer in understanding “foreign” cultures.  In the process of learning about the Hasidic way of life, Rebekah also is exposed to a Nazi and White Supremacy Culture–more variety than she signed up for in trying to determine if a young married Hasidic woman died by accident or suicide or murder. And is the murder only the tip of the iceburg of a cover up of a broader involvement by Jew-haters?

The Precipice by Paul Dorion

With The Precipice, we’re back in Paul Doiron’s state of Maine with Mike Bowditch, Maine game warden. I have enjoyed the previous books by Paul Doiron, not just for the ripping good stories they present, but even more for the great introduction to the state of Maine–particularly the wilder parts–or which there are plenty. (I actually liked The Bone Orchard more than Massacre Pond, and you can see why in the linked reviews)

I have not gotten to this one yet, but I’m looking forward to the Doiron look at  lesser-known regions of what is in my opinion a seriously under-visited state. Most people don’t get beyond the fringes of the seacoast where the majority of the population are, but the real beauty of Maine is on the lakes and in the forests, away from civilization.  Granted, once you’ve read about the monsters lurking in the woods in Doiron’s books, you may be a little reluctant to set off down a path–in Precipe, it’s a part of the Appalachian Trail–but at least you’ll know what it looks like and that the game wardens are your friends.

Pinnacle Event by Richard A. Clarke

If there were a contest for the most impressive resume for an author of an international thriller, Richard A Clarke would win hands down. He’s got the “write what you know” thing down pat, that is for sure. Before serving ten years in the White House as a Special Advisor to the President for Global Affairs and Cyberspace and the National Coordinator for Security and Counter terrorism, he served in various other diplomacy roles. All of that makes him well suited to write a book like Pinnacle Event, based on an International conspiracy involving atomic weapons and more typical murders.
I have to admit that this is not my kind of novel, but Ken enjoys the international spy thrillers, so he’s listening to this one. He tells me it is very technical and a bit to end-of-the-world-ish for his taste. As far as being a good book for A Traveler’s Library–I have my doubts. While it wanders the world, the action, not the locale, is clearly the focus.

 

The Cavendon Women by Barbara Taylor Bradford.


I am not sure why MacMillan even bothered to send me this book, since I made it pretty clear what I think of Taylor-Bradford in a former review, which you can see here. I did not listen to this one, and the breathless prose describing it on the back of the box did not persuade me. “From the #1 New York Times bestselling author comes a stunning and dramatic saga of love and loyalty.”Why she is such a stupendous hit is a mystery to me, but obviously, I’m in the minority.

Bradford didn’t get to be a best selling author if no one is  reading her. So FYI, any fans out there–this is about the Ingham family who serve the Swann family and is set between 1926 and the crash of 1929.

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And that’s it for my summer road trip audio book suggestions (and cautions).  What does it mean that four of the six authors of the books that Macmillan Audio sent to me are people I have reviewed before?  Guess I’ve been at this for a while. And these authors seem to write faster than I read.

Note: There are links here to Amazon, in case you’d like to add these books to your car trip luggage.  I do that because I’m an affiliate of Amazon and make a few pennies when you order through those links, however, as I explained in a prior audio book review, Amazon is making a concerted effort to bury audio books by companies other than their own digital audiobooks.  If you do a search and come up with the title as a Kindle book, be sure to click on the button for “other formats” if it does not show audio books on CD–if that is what you are looking for.