The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier

The Last RunawayTracy Chevalier’s latest book, The Last Runaway, is a bit of a departure from her other work. I have read several of Chevalier’s books, and I can’t think of one that isn’t set in Europe. The Last Runaway is the story of Honor Bright, a young Quaker woman who decides to accompany her sister Grace across the Atlantic to America. Grace plans to marry a man who emigrated to Ohio and used to be a member of the Bridport Friends’ Meeting where the Brights worship. Honor has been jilted by her fiancé, Samuel, who throws her over and leaves the Society of Friends in order to marry outside the religious order. The voyage is terrible for Honor, who suffers from the worst bout of seasickness you’ve ever seen this side of Outlander‘s Jamie Fraser. Honor realizes that she is stuck in America because she can’t imagine being able to endure a crossing back to England. After disembarking, Honor and Grace travel to Ohio by stagecoach, but Grace contracts yellow fever and dies on the voyage. Now all alone in America, Honor must find her own way. Her sister’s fiancé, Adam Cox, takes her in for a time, but his brother has recently died, and he is living with his brother’s widow, Abigail. Before long, the Quakers frown at their unorthodox living arrangement. Adam marries Abigail, and Honor rushes into a marriage with Jack Haymaker, whose stern mother Judith is a Quaker elder who does not approve of Honor.

One of the most interesting threads in the book dealt with quilting. Honor is a quilter. Her adjustment to America is hard, and she especially does not like Americans’ ways of quilting. Her skill with a needle earns her the friendship and hospitality of Belle Mills, a milliner in Wellington. However, it also draws the unwelcome attention of Donovan, Belle’s brother and the local slave catcher. Honor quickly finds herself caught up in the American debate over slavery. Just as the Fugitive Slave Act is passed, Honor finds herself helping slaves cross to Canada as a part of the Underground Railroad. While her in-laws disapprove of slavery, they are also unwilling to allow lawbreaking in their family, and Honor has some difficult decisions to make.

I am a fan of Tracy Chevalier’s books. I especially liked Remarkable Creatures and The Virgin Blue, which was one of the first books I reviewed for this blog. I was interested in reading this book because some of my own immigrant ancestors were Quakers. I imagine they came to America to worship more freely, but they were quite different from the Quakers of Ohio. Within several generations, at least in my own line of the family, they had abandoned their faith for various other Protestant denominations, but my 7th great-grandmother Elizabeth Clark Anthony was the mother of fifteen children and after her husband’s death, she became a Quaker missionary who made four trips between Virginia and Georgia on horseback and lived to be 103 years old.

Perhaps because I was hoping to see a glimpse of what my own ancestors’ lives were like, I really wanted to like this book. I was underwhelmed, however. I found Honor hard to like. She seemed to feel quite sorry for herself a lot of the time, and while it’s true that she was living in difficult circumstances, she created a lot of them. Her attraction to Donovan was inexplicable. I thought Chevalier did everything she could to make him odious, and it was impossible for this reader to understand Honor’s feelings for him. Honor’s disdain for the American way of doing just about everything was trying as well. I understand she was a fish out of water, but for a Quaker, she was terribly judgmental. Almost every chapter closed with a letter from Honor to her family or friends. I found the transition from third person to first jarring in some cases, though I wished more of the story had been told in first person. Though I didn’t like Honor much, I found her voice in the letters to ring true.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Woman Who Died A Lot, Jasper Fforde

The Woman Who Died A Lot: A Thursday Next NovelJasper Fforde’s latest and seventh book in the Thursday Next series, The Woman Who Died A Lot, picks up Thursday’s story in the year 2004. Thursday is recuperating from an assassination attempt, and she is looking to run SpecOps 27, the Literary Detectives division, the agency responsible for dealing with forged or stolen manuscripts and works of literature. Meanwhile, she has other problems. Her son Friday has received a letter detailing his new future, now that the ChronoGuard has been disbanded and he will no longer be saving the world from destruction by asteroid HR-6984. Instead, he will murder Gavin Watkins the very week during which the book is set and spend the rest of his life in prison. Meanwhile, her daughter Tuesday is feverishly working on an Anti-Smite Defense Shield to protect Swindon from the wrath of the Global Standard Deity (GSD), who has enacted “a series of cleansings” all over the world “mostly as a warning to His creations that messing with the Big Guy’s Ultimate and Very Important and Unknowable Plan was not going to be tolerated.” Thursday’s brother, Joffy, supreme head of the Church of the Global Standard Deity, is taking a stand against the GSD and means to be in his cathedral when the smiting occurs, but Goliath, the large, evil corporation bent on running the world, has plans to lure the GSD’s smiting away from the city center by gathering together a large collection of unrepentant evildoers with the idea that the GSD will smite them instead. Goliath is up to new tricks, replacing Thursday with synthetic “day player” versions of herself. Aornis Hades is on the loose again, and the mindworm about having a daughter named Jenny that she implanted in Thursday continues to wreak its sad destruction. Thursday, older and and not up to her previous physical abilities, must contend with a rival who manages to push her out of her desired position in SpecOps, relegating her to the deceptively tame-sounding job of Chief Librarian of the Wessex Library Service. But this is Jasper Fforde’s world, where “many frustrated citizens who weren’t selected … to train as librarians … will have to console themselves with mundane careers as doctors, lawyers, and lion tamers.”

If it sounds like there was a lot going on, believe me, I have barely scratched the surface. Fforde’s plot had so much going on that it seemed even he was having trouble containing it, and I admit I gave up trying to follow it and just went along for the ride. I think Fforde is at his best when he lures his readers into the BookWorld, the fictional realm of literature in this series. I haven’t enjoyed the last few books in the series as much as I had enjoyed the first few. The story in this particular book doesn’t really ever come together until close to the end, and at that point, I was already so confused, I had forgotten some of the important details from earlier in the book. However, it’s Jasper Fforde, which means fun and hilarity will ensue. While I didn’t laugh out loud as often as I have while reading his earlier books in this series, I did enjoy the whimsy of Jasper Fforde’s alternative world, just as I always do when I visit it. And I will probably read the promised eighth Thursday Next book, too.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Making Soaps & Scents, Catherine Bardey

Making Soaps & Scents : Soaps, Shampoos, Perfumes & Splashes You Can Make At HomeOn my last trip to the local library, I checked out Catherine Bardey’s [amazon asin=1579120598&text=Making Soaps and Scents], thinking I could learn a few more recipes and tips for my new soap-making endeavor. The book is exactly what it advertises in the title—instructions for how to make soap and scents.

The Good: There are quite a few good ideas in this book, a helpful troubleshooting section (so if something goes wrong, you can determine what the problem is and whether you can fix it/how to fix it), a standard SAP index for figuring out how much lye and water to use depending on the oil type, and nice historical information (how well documented? not sure…). There are quite a few interesting variations, and Bardey includes recipes for shampoo bars and hair rinses—interesting idea. I love my shampoo, so I’ll have to think about it, but it could definitely be a fun gift. In addition, the scent section is interesting. I’m interested in trying solid perfumes, and she had no recipes for that, but who knew cologne could be made with vodka? Probably everyone but me, but I learned something, and that’s good. There is a healthy list of resources, but given the book is now thirteen years old, I’ll bet many of them are no longer available.

The bad: Almost all the soap recipes are based on her vegetable basic soap recipe or her animal basic soap recipe. She uses vegetable shortening in her soap, and I’ve heard of other folks using that, but what if I don’t want Crisco® in my soap? I would basically need to ditch the recipe and start with my own basic oil mixture and her additives, by which time, I may have created some sort of Frankenstein monster soap that won’t play nice with the additives (for all I know). I would have liked to have seen more variety in the recipes, and more discussion of the variety of oils. She doesn’t help out with that much aside from the SAP value chart in the back, and even then, there is no discussion of why you might use one oil over another and how that might impact your recipe. Which is huge! Another quibble I have with the book is that it is an odd size: 9.5 x 4.7 x 0.8 inches. In shape, it has roughly the same dimensions, length and width, as a standard envelope. That limited the size of the pictures. Soap-making books should have a ton of pictures, and this one has some good pictures, but not enough of them. I want to see more. A final quibble: no mention of using a stick blender to help you reach trace faster. In fact, Bardey discourages using hand mixers. Almost every website and book I’ve looked at recommends using stick blenders. I can’t believe that so many excellent soap-makers are wrong. Plus, my own experience is that it worked great. I can’t see why she discourages the use of anything but a wooden or stainless steel spoon. Seems odd to me, and I’d hate for a beginner to be put off soap-making by following that recommendation and finding the process more difficult and perhaps giving up. I know I wouldn’t want to be stirring the soap forever before something happened. Screw that.

The Verdict: This book has some good information, but it’s not for beginners, and is really not diverse enough to be worth hunting down to add to your collection. I found Basic Soap Making by Elizabeth Letcavage and Patsy Buck much more helpful for beginners as well as as a great addition to a more experienced soap-maker’s library. It has more variety in terms of recipes and more helpful information and pictures. I still learned some interesting information from Making Soaps & Scents, and for that reason, I think it’s worth checking out of the library (if your library has it), but it’s not the kind of book I’d consult more than once (well, maybe the troubleshooting section, but that’s it).

Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

[amazon_image id=”0385534639″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Night Circus[/amazon_image]Erin Morgenstern’s novel [amazon_link id=”0385534639″ target=”_blank” ]The Night Circus[/amazon_link] has generated a great deal of buzz, and it isn’t hard to see why. It’s not precisely like anything I’ve read before. Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair are rival magicians, entered into a competition by their teachers, Celia’s father Hector (also known as Prospero) and the mysterious Mr. Alexander H.—. No one, including the reader, really knows what the competition is about or what the stakes are until the end of the novel, but the venue for the competition is a magical black-and-white circus, filled with memorable characters and enchantments. The storyline is not chronological, but is instead told in a series of vignettes, out of order and from different points of view.

The imagery in the novel is vivid. Everything from the scent of caramel and taste of apple cider and chocolate popcorn to the vivid black-and-white striped tents and the colorful swatches of red in the Murray twins’ hair and the rêveurs‘ hallmark clothing is vividly described. The book is absolutely gorgeous with description, and it is in this area that Morgenstern excels. The sights, sounds, and smells of the circus pop right off the page. The book itself is a visual treat, from the gorgeous black, white, and red cover to the stripes on the end papers and even the fonts.

On the other hand, the plot was plodding in some areas, and the choice to tell the story out of order came off as gimmicky and confusing for me. In the end, the story did not satisfy nearly as much as the description and imagery. Some readers will enjoy the book in spite of this flaw (and, in fact, it has 4.17 stars on Goodreads after over 5,000 ratings as of this writing, and those readers are a notoriously picky lot). In many ways, it’s a beautiful book, and it’s gorgeously vivid. The story just didn’t hang together in the end. I found myself having no trouble putting the book down for days at a time, even during a month when I had a lot of time off work (to read!) because of school holidays. That’s always a danger sign to me. As beautiful as the imagery was, I never managed to become invested in the story’s plot.

Obviously, I am in the minority, and the book is receiving rave reviews, so please try it out and see what you think. If you can manage to snag one, Starbucks was giving out extended samples as their first book Pick of the Week, and perhaps you could try it on the Kindle and see if it will work for you. I can easily see Tim Burton doing something fantastic with it in film (and I believe film rights have been purchased, though who will direct, I haven’t heard). Johnny Depp would be an excellent Mr. Alexander H.— or Prospero or even Chandresh Lefèvre. A set designer and costumer will have  field day creating the images Morgenstern describes.

I really wanted to like this book because I have heard that it began life as a NaNoWriMo novel, which is always exciting for me to hear about since I would like to turn one of my own NaNoWriMo novels into a smashing success (so wouldn’t we all). Ultimately, however, I needed to have more investment in the storyline and characters than in the vivid descriptions, and the descriptions are the only thing that really kept me reading until the end. I kept waiting for another appearance of Herr Thiessen’s wonderful clock or the chocolate popcorn, and that, in the end, is just not enough.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Man with Two Left Feet, P. G. Wodehouse

[amazon_image id=”1466273089″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Man with Two Left Feet[/amazon_image]P. G. Wodehouse’s [amazon_link id=”1466273089″ target=”_blank” ]The Man with Two Left Feet[/amazon_link] is an early collection of short stories and contains the first short story featuring Wodehouse’s famous Jeeves and Wooster (“Extricating Young Gussie”). Most of the stories are humorous. Though the collection was published in 1917, the stories have a freshness that, with scant changes, could be adapted to modern scenarios. Most of the twelve stories have, at their heart, a romance, a bit of humorous confusion, and a happy ending.

Easily my favorite stories were “The Mixer: He Meets a Shy Gentleman” and “The Mixer: He Moves in Society.” The self-proclaimed “mixer” is a dog who defines himself by this term because he likes to socialize—he’s not shy. He’s a great little character, and is misunderstanding of human behavior is funny. These two stories reminded me just a little of the Disney film [amazon_link id=”B000B8QG4A” target=”_blank” ]Lady and the Tramp[/amazon_link]. There wasn’t a dog romance or anything like that, but the Mixer’s confusion about humans reminded me a bit of Lady’s, while his personality was pure Tramp. Very cute stories.

All of the stories are at least good. Probably only Wodehouse could make a story about man about to commit suicide funny. However, as a whole the collection felt a little light, and towards the end, the stories were predictable.

If I were to read the stories again, or for that matter, any short story collection, I’m not sure I’d do it via DailyLit. There was nothing wrong with the formatting or anything, but the installment reading didn’t work for me with short story format. I think I might be better off just dipping into a short story collection from time to time and finishing a whole story in one sitting rather than reading in installments as I did. I found myself sometimes bogged down and falling behind, and then finding it difficult to pick up where I left off. I would try Wodehouse again, especially as I can see even from this early collection that he has a gift for a light, humorous story.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Mansfield Park (Penguin Classics)I finished Mansfield Park just under the wire with less than 24 hours remaining in the year, which means that I have also completed the Everything Austen Challenge.

Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price, daughter of the poor sister of Lady Bertram of Mansfield Park. The Bertrams offer to take Fanny in as a favor to their sister, who has had the misfortune to marry poorly and have yet another child practically every year. Fanny is at first treated disdainfully by the Bertrams and her aunt Mrs. Norris, the other sister of Lady Bertram, but she proves her worth to the family through her constancy of character, her forbearance, and her usefulness. Her cousin Edmund, the second eldest son, is the only member of the Bertram family to love Fanny from the first. She develops a love for Edmund beyond the sort of brotherly love he feels for her and is appalled when Henry Crawford, a man with what Fanny deems to be a dubious character, begins trying to win Fanny’s heart. Even worse, Edmund falls in love with Henry’s sister, Mary Crawford. Will Fanny ever catch a break?

This book is very different from the other Jane Austen books I’ve read. I always enjoy a trip into her world. However, it is in this book that Austen truly shows us a peek into the lives of people outside the gentle class with her portrayal of the Prices. Mary Crawford is a nasty little piece of work, and I never liked her. Very selfish and vain. I never liked the Bertram daughters, Maria and Julia, either. They were spoiled and reminded me of the ugly stepsisters in Cinderella. In fact, their aunt Mrs. Norris compares well with the wicked stepmother in that story as well, and of course, Fanny is the too-good-to-be-true, long-suffering Cinderella. She always puts others before herself. I feel at some points in the book, she plants herself on a bit of a moral high horse. But worse, she doesn’t seem to have a single fault. It’s no wonder that some readers don’t like her. She’s a bit too perfect. On the other hand, she is spunky in defying the Bertrams in refusing to marry Henry Crawford. She alone seems to have the true measure of his character.

Here in this novel we have an elopement even more scandalous than that of Lydia and Mr. Wickham. I was extremely puzzled by that plot turn, even though I knew it was coming, because I didn’t feel the groundwork was properly laid for it. I didn’t buy that either Maria or Henry Crawford were interested enough in each other to run off together they way that they did. On the other hand, I did feel Jane Austen explored some issues in this novel that she didn’t explore in her others, and the ending is not nice and neat. Maria has irreparably damaged her reputation and relationship with her family. Tom is sick, and it looks like consumption. Julia didn’t fare much better than Maria. Definitely not a happy ending for all.

Ultimately, I liked the novel better than I expected to, but not as much as Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, or Sense and Sensibility. However, now I can say I’ve read all of Austen’s complete novels.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Ruby in the Smoke, Philip Pullman

The Ruby in the Smoke: A Sally Lockhart MysteryIt figures the first day of my winter break I would develop a cold. I have been lying in bed, willing myself to recover by Christmas (and thanking myself for finishing the shopping relatively early for a change). Of course, it gave me plenty of time to read today, so I decided to finish Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke.

This novel is the first of the Sally Lockhart trilogy. Sally Lockhart’s father has died under mysterious circumstances, and all she has to go on is the warning “Beware the Seven Blessings.” The first person she asks about the phrase dies of fright. Sally comes face-to-face with the seamy underbelly of Victorian London—opium dens, ruffians, and sooty, Dickensian waifs. She meets a photographer who agrees to help her, but he, like Sally, doesn’t know exactly what he’s gotten himself into.

I think Pullman evokes the setting of Victorian London well. The story is fast-paced and action-packed. Sally and the other characters, especially Jim, are likable enough. For some reason I can’t put my finger on, however, this book just didn’t grab me. I had no trouble putting it down on occasion, and I had to force myself through it a bit. I can’t figure out why because it has all the elements I like in a story, from setting to characters and plot, but it just didn’t interest me. I probably won’t read the other two novels in the series. You know, I tried to pick up The Golden Compass and felt the same way—it has all the elements I like in a story, too, and I never could get into it.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Classics)Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, widely regarded as one of the finest scary stories ever written, is the story of Dr. John Montague, who brings together guests Theodora and Eleanor along with the home’s future owner Luke in the hopes that they can help him in his quest to find scientific evidence of the supernatural. Theodora and Eleanor are invited because they have experienced the paranormal before; of the many guests Dr. Montague invites, they alone accept. The guests quickly begin experiencing terrifying events, and Eleanor seems to be an especial target of the house. But is she becoming possessed by the house, or is she the cause of all the supernatural events herself?

I found this book a little difficult to get through because I didn’t really care for the characters. I think because Eleanor clearly has some psychological problems, and the third-person limited narration seemed to focus on her point of view, it could be difficult to tell what was really going on, and what Eleanor imagined. For instance, she has quite a few arguments with Theodora, and I’m still unsure all of them weren’t in her mind. She isn’t a very likable character—a sort of child. On the other hand, the writing is superb in some places, and Jackson has an excellent aptitude for evoking mood and describing setting. She is wonderful at characterization. Mrs. Montague and Arthur were hilarious. Even Eleanor is well-drawn in her way, but I’m wondering about Jackson’s attraction for grown women with child-like minds—We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which I never finished, has one, too. In the end of the book, it’s unclear exactly what happened, and the reader is left to interpret events. I will give this book a higher mark than I ordinarily give a book I kind of had to slog through simply because the writing was brilliant. I just really need a reason to care about the characters if I am going to enjoy a book, and I didn’t find one in this book.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill

How the Irish Saved Civilization Thomas Cahill inaugurated his Hinges of History series with How the Irish Saved Civilization. When Rome fell, Cahill says, the Irish clerics not only spread Christianity, but also saved the great Latin works from being lost to the ravages of history. He also argues the Irish kept the flame of Western culture burning as the rest of the world descended into the Dark Ages.

Parts of this book were quite interesting. Cahill’s love for Irish mythology shines through in his description of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, which made me want to return to the Táin again. His descriptions of St. Augustine, St. Patrick, and St. Columba were interesting and definitely had me searching the Web to learn more about them, but in the end, Cahill never really proves his thesis. The first half of the book is good, but somewhere during the chapter “What was Found,” Cahill loses the thread of his argument and ultimately admits most of what we retained could have survived without the Irish, then attributes the survival of Latin literature to the Irish without really explaining how. He also makes the leap that because the Irish had the oldest vernacular literature in Europe, they were somehow responsible for or influential over the vernacular literature that followed. Readers can learn a great deal about the lives of Patrick and Columba and a bit about early Irish literature, but they won’t learn how the Irish saved civilization.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

I read this book for the Bibliophilic Books Challenge. This is my sixth book for this challenge, which brings me to the level of Litlover. I will not be able to read six more books before the challenge ends in December, so I’m going to call this challenge complete. I originally committed to just three books, so I surpassed my expectations.

Gulliver’s Travels

Gulliver's TravelsJonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels is as excellent a satire today as when it was published in 1726. Lemuel Gulliver is a surgeon with the soul of an explorer. Gulliver’s Travels purports to be the tale of his voyages, including descriptions of the strange peoples and sites he encounters. Most readers are familiar with his iconic adventures in Lilliput, a land populated by beings six inches tall, where Gulliver towers over the inhabitants like a giant. Gulliver is initially mistrusted and even held captive in Lilliput until he enters into the service of the king. Over time, Gulliver learns that Lilliput is at war with neighboring country Blefuscu over which end of the egg it is most proper to break—the little or the big. When Gulliver refuses to help Lilliput fight her enemy Blefuscu, he is charged with treason. He manages to escape and is rescued by a ship and returns home.

It’s not long before he’s at sea again and winds up in the land of Brobdingnag, a land populated by giants. Gulliver now finds himself in a land where he is of Lilliputian size in comparison to the inhabitants. He is cared for by a Brobdingnagian girl and exhibited as a curiosity. This time, his leave-taking is accidental as an eagle snatches the traveling box in which he’s being carried and drops it into the sea, where he is once again rescued.

On his third voyage, Gulliver visits several more interesting countries, including Japan, which I found curious as it’s the only “real” country described in the novel. The flying island of Laputa, with its focus on mathematics and music, was really interesting to me, especially in light of their impracticality. It reminded me a little bit of Donald in Mathmagic Land. You remember seeing it in school?

The final voyage, which Gulliver undertakes after swearing off exploring for good, takes Gulliver to the land of the Houyhnhnms, who are horse-like creatures. Gulliver comes to admire the Houyhnhnms more than people. The people he encounters in the land are course, uncivilized Yahoos. In this final voyage, Gulliver learns to appreciate the Houyhnhnms over his own kind, which he afterward refers to as Yahoos.

I think Lemuel Gulliver is a huge jerk. He abandons his family. His wife was pregnant when he left on his last voyage. When he returns, he rejects his family and prefers to spend time with a pair of horses he has procured. He passes judgment on the people he encounters. I found the Houyhnhnms to be haughty and proud and certainly couldn’t understand Gulliver’s adoration of them. Perhaps it is Swift’s way of asking the reader to think about why they look up to anyone. As usual, Swift’s satire is razor-sharp. I admit some of the book surprised me. Gulliver talks quite a lot about his bodily functions, and I admit I didn’t expect that out of a book written during that time, but I suppose it makes sense given that this is not the prim Victorian period. The book had some enjoyable moments. I liked the parts set in Brobdingnag and Laputa the best. I’m glad I read the book despite finding its protagonist to be hard to sympathize with, but I think a book about Gulliver’s wife would have been interesting, too. I would have kicked his sorry tail out the door, and good riddance. I think one of the chief ironies of the book is that Gulliver criticizes so many of the societies, ultimately idolizing the Houyhnhnms (undeservedly, in my opinion) and despising his own race, without seeing that he is one of the least likable, least worthy, and most fallible of them all. Ultimately, I just like to read about protagonists I can care about more. I found myself hoping Gulliver would suffer harm. A good frying pan over his head and kick in the ass administered by his wife when he showed up after the Houyhnhnms kicked him out would have redeemed the book nicely for me.

I read this novel via DailyLit.

Rating: ★★★½☆