Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

I'm taking a break from this week's post since it is Christmas Eve. I'm busy baking up a storm now that I have decent kitchen to do so. The Christmas lights are blinking and my record player turning out the sounds of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas".

But I wanted stop in quickly to wish you all a very Merry Christmas (or Happy Hannukah...am I too late for that?) and a stupendously fabulous New Year. I haven't accomplished much on the writing front this past year, I can only hope that the coming months will bring with them a revival of my passion for the written word. I have so many stories to tell, after all.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Review: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

So today's read was another book that I read during 2013. "The Painted Girls" by Cathy Marie Buchanan is a fascinating look at the world of 19th century France and the ballet that inspired such great artists as Edgar Degas.

We don't get enough French historical fiction in my opinion, so I'm always glad to read something set in that country. "The Painted Girls" is set during the heady years of Belle Epoque Paris. While the novel can be somewhat depressing sometimes (as life must have been for those scraping by to make a living wage during this period), the novel ultimately celebrates triumph over adversity.

 The van Goethems, a poor family living hand to mouth in the slums of Paris are main protagonists. Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte are three sisters, with the oldest, Antoinette, being a stand-in mother to her two younger sisters as their mother is too busy drinking the family's wages in Absinthe. Marie is the very sensitive, over thinking intellectual of the family who is pulled from her convent school and enrolled (along with her sister Charlotte) in the ballet school at the Paris Opera. Meanwhile Antoinette becomes embroiled in a torrid romance with the street wise Emile Abadie. They both end up working as extras in a theatrical production with Emile often passing along his wages to help Antoinette out. Nonetheless he is a sulky bad boy who conceals a dangerous side until the end of the novel. There were times that I wanted beat Antoinette senseless for believing his tripe, but we all have a gullible side, I suspect.

Despite the trials and travails of the van Goethems, the ending is quite satisfying. An interesting read if you enjoy the old Parisian landscape of cafes, music halls, and of course, the beautiful Paris Opera House.

This novel also got significant coverage in the Washington Post and on NPR, so well worth a read.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Review: My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

Hello there dear readers. As promised, I have returned for Review Tuesday. I'm very proud of myself...but I digress.

This week's review is from my August 2013 review for the Historical Novel Review, and this novel also happens to be another favorite of mine. "My  Notorious Life" by Kate Manning is partly based on a true story from the mid-19th century, but completely smart and witty.

The novel focuses on scrappy Axie Muldoon, a child of the gritty New York streets. Begging is a way of life for her and her two siblings when they are scooped up by one of the 19th century’s moralizing do-gooders and packed off for Illinois on an orphan train. Once in the small town of Rockford, Axie’s family is torn apart as her younger sister Dutch and little brother Joe are adopted by different families. Axie herself is considered an undesirable and is sent back to New York with fellow orphan Charlie. There she begins a meteoric rise from humble servant girl to midwife apprentice to a benevolent abortionist known as New York’s most infamous “she devil.”

"My Notorious Life" is a humorous but often heartbreaking look at New York’s forgotten ones. Axie is a plucky heroine, feisty and determined to not only make something of herself but to reunite her family. She does it all on her own terms, and even as rises up from the gutter, she never forgets her roots. She is a very three-dimensional character, which is a hard feat to accomplish. You sympathize with her, cry with her, and laugh at her antics and wry sense of humor.

Manning deftly captures the abject despair of poverty and the dazzling glitter of the Gilded Age. The hypocrisy of late 19th-century America is always present and rendered brilliantly through the people who come to Axie for help, as well as those who seek to destroy her. There are aspects of social commentary woven into the narrative – some might even say that they are applicable to modern times – but the plot itself shines the brightest and should be enjoyed. My Notorious Life is highly recommended and not to be missed.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Review: A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams

Probably my hands down favorite novel of 2013 was A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams. I read this novel in under twenty four hours, and if that is not the mark of a good book, I don't know what is.

I read Williams' first novel, "Overseas" when it was released, and while it had merit, and was riveting enough to keep me turning the page, it also had many flaws. The author apparently learned from her mistakes because "A Hundred Summers" grabbed me from the opening paragraphs and did not let go.

I loved the protagonist Lily. It is rare that a character is so nuanced; she is both innocent and jaded, a mixture of traits that could easily be eye-rollingly impossible to believe, but Lily manages to pull it off. She has a big heart and loves deeply, but yet possesses a few base characteristics (jealousy, for one) that make her a stunningly real character. Nick, her former love interest, is at times too perfect (a problem, if I remember correctly, with the male protagonist in "Overseas" as well), but he is sufficiently tempered with "bad" traits as well. The whole cast of characters were interesting and well drawn. Even Budgie, the girl everyone loves to hate, has a few redeeming qualities.

What got me was the stunning secret revealed towards the end of the novel. The author had me convinced (as was all of New York society) that a particular situation detailed in the book had gone down one way, and so I was shocked when the truth was revealed. Slow clap for Ms. Williams for I am rarely stunned by a big secret in a novel.

I'll wrap this up with a hearty recommendation to read "A Hundred Summers". You won't be sorry.