Tuesday, September 16, 2014

1844: A Turning Point in American History

The presidential election of 1844 was a hard fought contest that solidified America as a nation stretching from coast to coast. The annexation of Texas was a major issue in the election. Henry Clay, the Whig nominee, worried that bringing Texas, a slave state, into the union would tip the balance of power and potentially lead to a breakup of the union. Polk, on the contrary, did not fear annexation and as president brought not only Texas, but Oregon and California into the union.

The presidential election was not the only momentous occurrence in 1844. It was a turbulent time for religion also. The Millerites believed the end of the world was upon them. The Mormons were facing persecution that resulted in the death of their leader Joseph Smith.

Families were heading west looking for better opportunities. This is also the story of wagon trains and John C. Fremont's exploration of vast tracts of the West.

If you enjoy history, this is an excellent book. It highlights an era that always seems to be glossed over in the history of America, but in fact it was an era that changed the character of America for all time. John Bicknell has done an excellent job of bringing the events of 1844 to life. I liked his presentation. Instead of concentrating on dry facts, he brought in some of the people in the era, like Fremont's wife, Jessica. The story of Fremont's campaign reads almost like fiction. Likewise the stories of the wagon train bring real people into the story. They faced hardships and tragedy, but also had fun. Moses, a teenage boy going West with his family, enjoyed the adventures, particularly hunting.

I recommend this book. It shows that many of the controversies, like immigration, that trouble the nation today were also an issue in 1844. The picture of our past can help us understand who we are today.

I reviewed this book for Net Galley.

An Inspiring Story of Courage and Helping Others

Stacey and Erik heard the most dread words any parents can hear. Their twelve-year-old daughter, Jessie, had an inoperable brain tumor. The family was devastated praying to God to heal Jessie. They couldn't think of anything else to do.

Bit Jessie was a very special little girl. Instead of focusing on her own plight, she noticed that some of the children fighting cancer had to stay in the hospital and couldn't go home the way she could. She wanted to help them – to make them smile. From this desire was born the concept of Joy Jars, jars filled with toys and goodies that were passed out to hundreds of children during Jessie's short life.

If you're a parent, this is a very hard book to read. It could have been written as the perfect family faces cancer together, but Erik's book is more honest than that. The family has many crises. There were strained relationships between grandparents who wanted to help and the parents who were carrying most of the burden. Reading it, you realize that Jessie's slogan, Never Ever Give Up, has a special meaning for parents, too.

If your family has a child fighting cancer, I highly recommend this book. Even if you are lucky enough to have healthy children, this book makes you realize how lucky you are, and encourages you to do what Jessie did – help others.

I reviewed this book for Handlebar Publishing.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Wealthy Family's Dark Secrets

Mable Dagmar wins a scholarship to an elite woman's college in the East. Her roommate, Genevra Winslow, is all the things Mable, short plump and bookish, wishes she were: tall, slender, blonde beautiful, and most of all wealthy. Genevra or Ev ignores Mable until the trauma of her cousin's death pulls the two together.

Ev invites Mable to spend the summer at Winloc, the Winslow compound on the shores of Lake Champlain. Here Mable falls in love with the Winslow traditions, their way of life, and Ev's older brother. She desperately wants to be one of them. However, as the summer rolls on, Mable senses dark secrets under the perfect facade. Her investigation uncovers more than she's prepared for and puts her in personal danger.

If you enjoy a glimpse of the lives of the wealthy, you'll love the setting of Winloc and the traditions of the Winslows. At first it seems idyllic. I loved the descriptions of the setting and the shabby cottages that allow the Winslows to feel as if they're roughing it.

The plot, however, is predictable and slow moving. The first half of the book is devoted primarily to Mable longing for what Genevra was born to. She is almost a voyeur when it comes to her roommate. There is a hint of bad things, but not much happens until the rather rushed ending. I found it unsatisfactory.

Mable, for me, is a very unpleasant character. She desperately wants to have what someone else has and will go far, including digging up family secrets, to achieve it. Although the book covers an extended period of time with events in which the characters could change, I didn't see that they grew much. It was a major disappointment, since the author spent so much of the novel focused on the two girls.

If you want a beach read, this is a good choice, but don't expect too much in terms of exciting plot or well developed characters.

I reviewed this book for the Amazon Vine Program.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Find Your Life Story by Writing a Memoir

Memoirs come in a variety of flavors: travel, spiritual, food, legacy, and others. Although each has a unique focus, they share the need for story. Vignettes can be sad, funny, or poignant, but they need the structure of story to captivate the reader.

The first chapters of the book give a plan for starting a memoir and finding the story buried in your reams of material. After this section, the authors devote a chapter to each type of memoir from travel to legacy. At the end of each chapter, you will find exercises to help you use the information in the chapter, writing prompts and a short section on publication.

The second part of the book is devoted to publishing. Sarah Jane writes about what agents do. After reading her section, I think anyone would be fortunate to find an agent like her who not only tries to sell your book, but helps you over the rough places while you're writing it. Several editors discuss what they do and how to edit your work. Finally, they include a section on self-publishing which is valuable if you want to give your descendents a real book, but aren't looking for a traditional publisher

If you plan to write a memoir, this is an excellent way to start. The book is crammed with information on writing memoir and on publishing. Although you may need other references along the way, this one combined with a good critique group can get you started in the right direction.

I also recommend this book for fiction writers. Although the information isn't new, seeing it from a slightly difference perspective may give you ideas for improving your writing.

I didn't choose this book with the idea of writing a memoir, but after reading it, I'm thinking about starting one. Writing a memoir, like any writing project, is a lot of work, but the payoff is learning more about yourself, finding your story, and having a gift to pass on to your descendants.

I reviewed this book for the Amazon Vine Program.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Reminiscent of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Cristie

Amory Ames' wandering husband, Milo, returns unexpectedly from Monte Carlo. At the same time Gill Trent, her ex-fiancé, arrives to ask a favor. Gil wants Amory to accompany him to the Brightwell Hotel where his sister Emmeline and her fiancé Rupert are on holiday. He knows that Amory's marriage to Milo is less than ideal and hopes that she will be able to convince Emmeline to end the engagement. He also has feelings to Amory, but is too much of a gentleman to act on them openly.

Amory realizes that she's playing a game that could lead to a scandal by going off with Gil, but she wants to help Emmeline, and she wants to think about her disintegrating marriage. Milo, however, is not one to give up gracefully and soon they are all ensconced at the Brightwell. The holiday starts well enough, but when Rupert is murdered and Gil is the main suspect, Amory feels she must do something to solve the crime no matter who is guilty.

This is a delightful mystery. It reminded me of Dorothy Sayers' Have His Carcase which also takes place a a seaside hotel in the 1930s. The hotel, situated on a cliff overlooking the ocean, is elegant without being ostentatious. This was the era when wealthy holiday makers wore evening dress to dinner and danced to the strains of a live orchestra hired by the hotel for the season. I would love to have visited the Brightwell. Until the murder, it sounded quite the perfect place for a holiday.

The book features a number of interesting characters from the elegant playboy, Milo, to the very unhappy Hamiltons, and mismatched Rogers. Amory is typical of the wealthy women of that era. Brought up in a household where emotion was frowned upon, she has trouble recognizing it in other people which leads to some amusing encounters, particularly with Gil and Milo.

The plot has several threads and ends with a twist that I didn't see coming. I throughly enjoyed the book and highly recommend it if you like mystery served with more than a dash of romance.

I reviewed this book for the Amazon Vine Program.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The World of the Queen of Fashion: Elsa Schiaparelli

Elsa Schiaparelli was born into a wealthy Roman family. She was a difficult child to manage, always wanting to be noticed, which often involved dangerous antics. Although young girls from well-to-do families were expected to find husbands to take care of them, Elsa again went her own way choosing to marry a charming conman, Dr. Kerlov, although he used several other names. The marriage didn't survive, but learning to live by her wits gave Elsa skills she needed to succeed in the competitive world of couture fashion.

This is a wonderfully comprehensive biography of Elsa from her early years through her success in the couture business and into her old age. My favorite parts were her early years getting insight into how her youthful development led to her ability to succeed in a difficult world. I also enjoyed the descriptions of her fashion experiments. There is no question that she was extremely creative, using feathers and man-made fabrics that other designers eschewed and making them a sensation. The pictures in the book are abundant and do a good job of showing her creations. It's much easier to understand the scope of her work when you can look at the dresses.

Several parts of the book become rather gossipy, particularly the end. I enjoyed learning about her friends and lovers and how she teamed up with artists of the era, but it's a long book and the gossip became a bit tedious.

If you're interested in fashion, or in how the 30's were affected by the coutures, this is an excellent resource.

I reviewed this book for the Amazon Vine Program.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Finding God Through Adversity

Lucy and Steve have just received the worst possible news. His brain tumor has recurred, and he has at most a month to live. Lucy is pregnant, and one of the things he most wants is to live long enough to see his baby daughter. They return from the doctor's visit to the house they've recently bought and both love, but while Lucy makes tea, Steve hangs himself in the basement.

Lucy is distraught. It isn't possible Steve wouldn't do something like that. She's in shock, but her problems are only beginning. A cache of old geological maps showing the location of minerals in the African Congo are wanted by Andrew, a man Steve thought was his best friend. Now because Lucy won't agree to sell them, he accuses her of murder.

The plot of this book is excellent. Action, mystery and murder combine to make a page turner. The pace is fast. In addition there's a spiritual component. Lucy begins as an unbeliever, but as her troubles mount she begins to find her way to accept that God is acting in her life.

The characters are another story. Because the plot is so complex and fast moving, there is little time for character development so most of them appear one dimensional. This isn't terrible in what is basically an adventure story, but Lucy is different. I was disappointed in the main character. Troubles keep piling one on top of the other, but each time Lucy is rescued. She is sad, frightened, and tearful for most of the book and never gets a chance to take control of her life until possibly at the very end. I was disappointed.

If you like plot driven novels with a spiritual component, you'll like this book. If you prefer novels with a strong character component, you may be disappointed.

I reviewed this book for PR by the Book.