Sunday, May 3, 2009

Rumors (A Luxe Novel) by Anna Godbersen

High society New York, socialites on the verge of getting everything they want, and all those delicious, frothy dresses and society events- what's more to love in historical chick lit? Rumors, the sequel to The Luxe, delivers all of this and more. If you have not read The Luxe, you should stop reading this review now as it will spoil what happens in the first book of the series.

Elizabeth Holland has pulled off the trick of the year by faking her death and running off to be with her love, Will, in California. Only her sister, Diana, and her best friend and rival, Penelope, know Elizabeth's secret. Well, at least until Diana spills the beans to her maid who in turn tells her sister, Lina, who is in love with Will too. Penelope on the other hand, is happy to have Elizabeth out of the picture as this puts her in a prime position to get her hands on Elizabeth's former fiancee, Henry Schoonmaker, who Penelope sees as her ticket into the old money society her newly wealthy family has been having trouble breaking into. But there's a little problem there too, for Diana and Henry are secretly in love and are just waiting for the proper amount of time of mourning to go by after the supposed death of Elizabeth. Got it all?

This topsy-turvy novel is not so hard to follow as it may seem, and Godbersen will keep you glued to the end. The story is a juicy, guilty read with just enough historical fact to make you feel not too guilty. If you liked The Luxe, you will enjoy this story too as it follows the same format. But, don't expect a neatly wrapped up ending here as there is more of the series to come.

Book; 13+; ISBN 9780061345692; New York : HarperCollins Publishers, 2008

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks

Today, we know the plague was carried by fleas hitching rides on rats. Back in the day, nobody knew what caused the plague, a highly contagious disease that could wipe out entire towns. When townspeople showed signs of the plague, some would freak out and run to another town, not knowing they carried the plague with them to infect even more people. This is the climate in which Anna Frith, an 18 year old widow with two kids, lived in from 1865 – 1866. When her town’s people come down with the plague, some want to run away, but the town vicar, who Anna works for as a maid, convinces most of the townspeople to stay. The town locks down into a year of forced isolation. Nobody can leave, and nobody is allowed in. Of course, as the plague spreads, some still run off—some to join a group of flagellants, people who believed that the plague was sent by God to make people atone for their sins and that if they whipped themselves into enough pain, God would forgive them. As the year of isolation goes on, the townspeople suffer greatly and begin to look to each other for someone to blame. Is there a witch in their presence? Or did someone bring God’s wrath down upon everyone for his own sin? Anna, the vicar, and his wife are only a few of the townspeople who manage to cling to their humanity. Will they survive the year? Will the plague go away?

This book is based on an account of a true town that shut itself off from the world. Brooks does a great job of making even the mundane events of daily life readable and interesting, and the book is littered with one shocking event after another. Brooks keeps her readers emotionally involved, and you will be almost afraid to turn the page to see who else has died of the plague or violated the town's agreement to quaranting themselves.

Book; 13+; ISBN 9780142001431; New York: Penguin Books, 2002

Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Wouldn't it be nice to have a friend who you know will always be there for you? Someone you know you can count on throughout your life? Told from the point of view of 80 year old Lily, this is the story of two “old sames,” Lily and Snow Flower. The two girls’ families match them in an arrangement meant to create lifelong friends and provide an opportunity for Lily, whose family is not as high of status as Snow Flower’s family. The girls become fast friends and correspond with each other throughout their lives through secret letters written in the folds of a fan. They write in a secret form, called nu shu—created by women over a thousand years before—to protect their conversation from the male dominated society in which they live. As Lily describes her life, we learn about what it was like to be a woman in 19th century China, specifically in the Hunan province. We suffer with her through foot binding, an experience that can be difficult for some to read. We follow Lily and Snow Flower from young girls to old women, through marriages and children, and hardships. When Lily marries higher than Snow Flower, their friendship takes a hit, but they survive through that and more.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book and a great way to learn about old Chinese traditions (you will cringe as Lily goes through foot binding- a barbaric practice in which the bones of the feet are broken then the feet are wrapped tightly to force them to stay small forever). There are enought twists to keep you interested. The story was written so beautifully that I found myself looking to see if it was based on a traditional story or legend- nope, the author is just a great storyteller!

Book; 13+; ISBN 9780812968064; New York: Random House, 2006

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

In 1959, missionary Nathan Price takes his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo on the African continent. The story is told in turns by Orleana Price and her four daughters, Rachel, the oldest at 16, twins Leah and Ada, and Ruth May, the youngest at five years old. It is the tale of a family falling apart and a nation struggling for independence. The Price family has chosen what may have been the worst time to try to convert the people of the Congo who are suspicious of all whites as they are fighting for their independence from Belgium. Nathan Price either doesn’t get that he is putting his family in danger or just doesn’t care. For example, he is determined to baptize the people of his chosen village in the river even though it goes against their traditions and sense of safety—there are crocodiles and poisonous snakes in the river. The village is suspicious and fearful of Nathan Price, but begins to accept the daughters as children who need protection. Leah in particular begins to fit into village life as she learns the village ways and traditions. However, even she is considered unconventional as she insists on learning to hunt, a man’s task. Rachel just dreams of going back home to school dances, rock and roll, and in-style clothing. Ada lives in her own world of backwards writing and palindromes while she observes the affects of the experiences on those around her. Ruth May is the first to make friends with the village children and becomes a leader in their games. The first half of the book covers the family’s life in the village and their attempts to fit in. The second half of the book follows each family member after their escape to various locations when Congolese rebels revolt against the Belgian government. Orleana and Ada make it back to the U.S., Leah stays in the Congo, which becomes Zaire, and Rachel runs to South Africa.

Warning: This book is a page turner that is very difficult to put down! Each daughter's tale is a story in its own, and you will have trouble deciding whose story you like the most. The book looks long, but the tale flows so well that you will finish before you are ready. The author is very good at describing the Congo environment and making her readers feel as if they are there. The story takes place during real events but never gets preachy. You will find yourself looking up the history to learn more for yourself and to see if the U.S. really was as involved as described in the book. Found in the adult section.

Book; ISBN 978-0060786502; Thorndike: G.K. Hall, 1999

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

What would you do if you contracted leprosy? Would your friends and family still love you or would they be ashamed to know or be related to you? This is what Rachel Kalani has to deal with when she contracts the disease. Rachel is 5 years old in Honolulu, Hawaii when her mother first sees the tell tale sign of leprosy (today known as Hansen’s Disease). Her mother, knowing what will happen to Rachel and her family if anyone finds out, tries to hide the sore that won’t heal and succeeds for a over a year. Unfortunately, Rachel’s condition is outed at school, and the health inspector finds out. This rest is the story of Rachel’s life at the Kalaupapa leper colony on remote Moloka’I island. She is sent there at 7 years of age and raised in dorms with a group of children who also have leprosy. Rachel and the others in the colony live their lives in isolation, forbidden from ever seeing family and friends again in case they might spread the disease. Any infants born at Kalaupapa are taken away from their parents and given up for adoption so they won’t contract the disease too. Many characters in the story are based on real people, including Father Damien, who devoted his life to caring for and treating lepers until he himself contracted leprosy and died. The story follows Rachel’s and her friends and family’s lives for about 80 years. The story unravels as Rachel’s granddaughter tries to uncover her family’s mysterious ties to the island only to find out her own grandmother had been a patient and resident.

This is a beautiful book about the ways people make the best of their situation and manage to live their lives in spite of the conditions while their families back home try to pick up the pieces and move on. It is a tearjerker whose story will stay with you for a long time. It is not a difficult read although sometimes it is not clear for a few sentences when the author has switched between the story of Rachel and the story of her granddaughter. Found in the adult section.

Book; 14+; ISBN 9781429943239; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003

Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig

Would you be willing to move to a country you have never seen to live on your own- without your parents? 19 year old best friends, Angus McCaskill and Rob Barclay, move from Scotland to the U.S. to become homesteaders in Montana. It is the turn of the century (the 20th century that is), and the novel follows the two young men as they go through their initial experiences as sheep ranchers, marry, have kids, and ends during WWI. The story is told from Angus’ viewpoint. To make ends meet when sheep ranching won’t, he takes a job as a school teacher. He falls in love with another teacher, Anna. When their relationship doesn’t work out, Angus, desperate to get over her, marries Rob’s little sister, Adair. When Rob realizes that Angus is still in love with Anna, not his little sister, the men’s friendship will be tried.

This is a great book for those interested in the Old West and immigration stories. It has just enough romance, but the focus is on Angus’ and Rob’s overall experiences as they grow from greenhorns to experienced homesteaders. The story is truly a piece of art and something you will want to read again and again. This is actually the prequel to Ivan Doig’s English Creek so if you must read books in the order they came out, you might want to start there first. This book is a true hidden gem, and one you will want read again. Found in the adult section.

Book; 14+; ISBN 9780684831053; Boston: G.K. Hall, 1987

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Troy by Adele Geras

This story retells the Iliad through the eyes of teen servants to Hector, the ruler of Troy. While the Trojan war wages on, Xanthe and her sister, Marpessa are caught up in romantic triangles (yes there is more than one triangle) partially created by the goddess, Aphrodite. Xanthe falls in love with the soldier, Alastar, when he is brought in with injuries from the war and she nurses him. However, bored Aphrodite decides to have some fun and makes Alastar and Marpessa fall in love with each other. Then, there is the stableboy, Iason, who is in love with Xanthe—not that she notices. Starting to feel a little like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? There are appearances by other gods and goddesses and plenty of war, including the infamous Trojan horse.

This is a fun summer read for guys and girls. The romantic plot is predictable, but the new setting makes for an interesting story. There are some inconsistencies in the story, but if you are not looking for them, you probably won't notice. At times the love triangle can get a little convoluted. In spite of it's flaws, it is still a good read and may be a good pick for a book report or just to supplement your learning of the Trojan War.

Book; 12+; ISBN 978-0152045708; San Diego: Harcourt, 2002