Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage

It’s 1928 and, in Britain, women of property now have the vote thanks to brave and tireless women like Mattie Simpkin.  Even so, Mattie stays in contact with her suffragette sisters, continues to lecture on her experiences and for the right of all women to vote.  She also carries a small club of polished ash in her handbag and lives in a charming old house called the Mousehole with her friend and assistant Florrie Lee, known as The Flea.  When they engage a sixteen-year-old housemaid named Ida, Mattie begins to see just how limited ordinary young women of the day actually are.  With Ida as the first member and reluctant recruit, Mattie begins a club for girls and young women – outdoor activities, exercise, sleuthing games, debate and adventures.  Mattie believes in living life with brio, and it all goes swimmingly, as they say.  Until, that is, Mattie, always a confident woman, becomes a bit over-involved, puts a foot wrong, steps in something smelly, and it all goes to hell.  But keep your eye on the wickedly intelligent Miss Simpkin.  This good woman has a sure instinct for steering the right course, and she will find her way.

Tell you what.  I think I was in the mood for (or maybe in need of) a case of the Brits.  Steadying, bracing, what is it?  Don’t know about you, but I can only go so long without ‘em, and Ms. Evans book is so very, very……well, it’s as British as a cup of tea and a biscuit.  Characters, time and place, humor – loved all of it, and there’s an interesting political timeliness as well.  Topping, spot on, jolly good, righty-o and all that.  This one will put you right as rain.

Available now, so shop your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by HarperCollins Publishers / Harper Perennial via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Christy Lefteri’s The Beekeeper of Aleppo

According to Christy Lefteri, the question she asks in her novel is this.  What does it mean to see?  Afra, an artist and the wife of the beekeeper, is blind.  Is it because her eyes are damaged or because she does not want to see any more than she has already seen?  Nuri, the beekeeper, sees a small child called Mohammed.  Does this child exist or does Nuri want to see him, need to see him?  When do we see what is there to be seen, and when are we blind?

As soon as I began to read, my question was this:  Who is Christy Lefteri, and how does she know so much about Syria, the Syrian people, the culture and its refugees?  Is she Syrian?  No, she isn’t, but this talented writer must also be a magician because I was transported, a rare and profound experience.  As she explains in the Author’s Note, Ms. Lefteri worked as a volunteer at a UNICEF refugee center in Greece – absorbing faces, stories, mental images of Syrian and Afghani refugees.  Back in the UK between stints, she engaged a Syrian tutor to teach her Arabic, and this young man also served to verify authenticity as she wrote this fine book.  OK, that’s the background, the good practical answer, but it doesn’t explain the magic.

But bees are magic, aren’t they?  Must be.  Bees turn pollen into honey.  Somehow they build perfectly uniform cells in which to store honey and raise their young.  They communicate without words, cooperate, sacrifice and live peacefully within the hive.  Oh, wow, magic.  We can’t do any of that, and we’re humans.  In a once peaceful Syria, Nuri and his cousin Mustafa, a scientist, kept bees that could do all these magic things, but it is not peaceful now and the bees have died.  Mustafa sends his wife and daughter to safety in the UK and soon joins them, but Nuri and Afra stay behind amid increasing fear and destruction.  Mustafa begs Nuri to come to the UK where they can start again with the bees they love, and, at last, Nuri and Afra join thousands and thousands of refugees making their way out of the Middle East and across Europe.  Hoping, despairing, giving up, hoping.  No guarantees.

Something powerful going on with those bees.  Is the Universe calling on Line One?  So many bee-themed books in recent years, don’t you think?  And here’s another one………that you should read.  Doesn’t matter how many bee books there are.  This one.

This one buzzed onto bookstore shelves back in late August, so go ahead and order up a copy from your local indie bookstore now.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine / Ballantine Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines – October 4, 2019

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The only food I had was the three pieces of brown bread – which tasted of the outdoor oven where they had been made – and a cookie I’d stolen.”

Keele Burgin, Wholly Unravelled:  A Memoir

Catch me.  My knees are gonna buckle.  This sentence is as simple as a Shaker chair and almost as beautiful.  I like it more and more every time I read it.  You see, this line is a poem – in and of itself, sufficient to stand on its own merit.  These words alone are lovely:  “…three pieces of brown bread….”.  Alliterative, looks good on the page, tingles on the lips.  Three pieces of brown bread.  And three is exactly right, isn’t it?  Try another number there.  Doesn’t work as well, does it?  Who knew?

As a first line you ask, how does it work as a first line?  Like a question mark; it works like a twenty-eight word question mark.  Stop reading after that?  No way.  You got me.

I am serious as a heart attack, and, no, I am not just hungry!  Speaking of hungry, what about the stolen cookie?  It’s all part of the poetry, I tells ya, and the question mark.  That cookie puts the dot on the question mark.  But here’s my theory about cookies in general.  You should eat every cookie like you stole it.  Cookies are so good they should all be illegal.  Maybe I am hungry.

Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream

The tiny, tiny town of Royal, Nebraska had a zoo, more of an optimistic roadside attraction or a sort of do-it-yourself menagerie with aspirations.  It never made much money (or any at all), but the people of Royal, near the South Dakota border, were proud of it; it was popular, and it gave them something to fight over.  Nebraska native Johnny Carson even donated money to build a “primate center” for Reuben the chimp who was later joined by Jimmy Joe, Tyler and Ripley.  Zoo Nebraska, in its day, housed a variety of wildlife, but the chimpanzees, the “non-human primates”, were the center of the attraction.  However, it’s the “human primates” (though I’m hard-pressed to make a distinction) who are at the center of Carson Vaughn’s book.  If this “one-horse town” had had a horse, they’d have fought over the horse.  They did, in fact, have someone who made buggy wheels, quite a unique character, and, boy, did they fight with him.  Did you know there’s still a market for buggy wheels?  It’s a wasted day if you don’t learn something.

Anyway, Royal resident and really good-hearted fellow Dick Haskins fell in love with Africa and the Great Apes after seeing a Jane Goodall documentary in eighth grade.  From that point he’s all about going to Africa to work with Goodall or Dian Fossey, so after college, he finds a job at the Folsom Children’s Zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska working with “non-human primates”, and this is where he meets Reuben the chimp.  And he’s off – on his way to becoming a self-styled primatologist.  When the Folsom Zoo seeks to relocate Reuben to another facility, Haskins gains custodianship of the chimp and begins planning a primate center in, of all places, Royal, Nebraska – population about sixty.  The school is closed; the Methodist church is closed; the library is closed.

For years, Haskins works himself to the bitter end without pay – adapting as his hoped-for primate center becomes a small zoo, and losing sight of Africa all together.  When, at last, he must give it up, Zoo Nebraska begins its long and contentious downhill slide to oblivion.  Just plain folks doing the best that they can?  Maybe, maybe not.  But first Royal will be in the national headlines and not in a good way.  Human primates.  What is that saying about big fishes in small ponds?  A good piece of non-fiction.  I read it, and, if I were you………I’d read it, too!

Zip on out to your local bookstore for this one or support an indie bookseller online by clicking here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little A via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Wholly Unraveled: A Memoir

How does a child make any sense of a life that can go from the light of day to the dark of night in a heartbeat?  From smooth waters to dangerous rapids that you never see coming?  Each step could be the one that takes you from a safe place into terror and pain.  Keele Burgin’s young life was one of  glaring contrasts and terrifying uncertainties.  Life on high alert.  Wealth and luxury (a lavishly restored Victorian home on the ocean, horses, station wagons and Cadillacs), a severely abusive, all powerful father, a vacant, submissive mother, a stultifying, fundamentalist version of Catholicism.  (Amazed me.  Didn’t know that existed.)

It was rough – far more than most could imagine or endure.  But if it was rough, she was tough.  Their housekeeper Shirley called her Little Ox.  She develops a hard shell and becomes a headstrong, hard-eyed child and teen-ager, not particularly likeable, to tell the truth.  She couldn’t let herself hate her parents, so she hated herself and became an even harder, self-damaging adult, unable to maintain a giving relationship.

To be honest, at one point, I gave serious thought to bailing out of this read.  Portions are somewhat erratically written, and there is an inconsistency of voice that bothered me from time to time, but I suspect it was either purposeful – a reflection of her erratic young life and inability to find any voice at all of her own –  or just hard as hell to write.  Or both.  Too ugly, too scary – not anywhere I thought I wanted to be.  (Sometimes I get a little down, you know.)  Stuck it out, though, just a little longer, and was rewarded with a redemptive ending that is filled with hope.  This book?  Tough, but worth it.

Currently available from your local indie bookstore here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little A via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Louisa Treger’s The Dragon Lady

I was ready for a good chunk of a novel – not genre, not froth, not gimmick, not avant garde.  And by chunk, I’m not talking about heft, but rather, density, depth, a novel that you unpack as you read.  A novel that ends before you want it to.  Are you with me?  I just wanted a dadblamed book!

So…..you know that first line thing, lines that get the job done?  Well, here’s one.  “I’ve spent a lifetime trying to forget, yet the smallest thing takes me back to the time the Dragon Lady was shot.”  Let the unpacking begin.  The Dragon Lady is Virginia Courtauld (Gini), wife of Stephen Courtauld, and the dragon is not a dragon.  It is a snake, a fearsome serpent, tattooed up the side of her leg.  Scandalous.  How far up it goes no one knows except Stephen.  Did such a tattoo ever exist?  Not sure about that, but Gini and Stephen did, and The Dragon Lady is a fictionalization of their lives – Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courtauld.  In fact, their home, La Rochelle in what was then Rhodesia, is now a hotel.

Stephen’s family is British and very wealthy.  To be more precise, they are upright folks, filthy, stinking rich, and so is he.  He’s a WWI vet (with flashbacks), a highly principled man, involved in the Arts, devoted to Gini, and he spends gobs and gobs of money.  Gini, well, she is already tattooed when she marries Stephen.  She is wealthy, too, but not as, and it’s upstart wealth.  Also, she’s half Italian, half Romanian.  Hmmm.  Antecedents are so important, you know.  A fascinating, mysterious woman and a bit of a social climber, but, to her disappointment, she never quite makes the cut.  As a couple they are genuine, liberal, philanthropic and always, always controversial.

The book moves back and forth in time from the 1920s to an epilogue in the 90s, but focuses on Stephen and Gini in Rhodesia in the 1950s.  They move to Africa for a new start, and build a beautiful home only to find that native Africans are held in dreadful contempt, and white society is both fearful and fearfully racist.  The Courtaulds reach out for ways to help.  They start a Home and Craft Center for native women, a school for African children, a model farm teaching agricultural methods; they build a theater and an art gallery.  However, as you well know, no good deed goes unpunished.  Stephen is ultimately knighted for his work, but they gain only anger and animosity from their white neighbors.

Oh damn, I hope I haven’t managed to make a slam dunk sound boring.  And I was off to such a good start, too.  Trust me, Rhodesia, a powder keg at that time, cannot be boring.  Neither can Stephen and Gini.  Nor can a ghost, a pet lemur, ladies who smoke slim cigarettes and people who – as if in a Noel Coward play – call each other “darling”.  The very names of African trees will make your eyes light up.  And did I mention the Duke and Duchess of Windsor?  This, my darlings, is a book.

Book your trip to Rhodesia and the past on August 13 when The Dragon Lady hits bookstore shelves.  Support your local indie bookstore if you like by pre-ordering here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Bloomsbury USA / Bloomsbury Caravel via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines – July 16, 2019

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“Celeste Jones had kissed so many frogs looking for her prince, she should have turned green and grown warts on her lips.”

Sheila Roberts, The Summer Retreat

I don’t think I’ll ever get over this one.  It may leave me scarred for life, this first line gone horribly wrong.  We were doing just fine through “green”.  Period.  Just a period or, if you want, maybe “and croaked” or “and hopped”.  Probably not “and ate flies”.  It’s marginally better, but risky.   It could get you almost back to where you landed in the first place.

Folks, I’m sorry, and I’m not saying this isn’t funny, but you know how it is.  Sometimes when you’re among friends or out with the girls (or the boys), you say something gross that gets the big yucks.  I mean, they really fall out.  Somebody thinks about it five minutes later, and they’re losing it again.  Trust me though, there are those types of funny that cannot be counted on to come across well in print.  I can hear my snarky self saying something like this to get a laugh.  Unfortunately, in writing, I saw the horror of it.

I haven’t read the book at this time, and this is not meant to reflect in any way on Sheila Robert’s work, so please be fair.  Simply my observations on a single line, and one line is not a book.

Going to the drugstore now for some Compound W.