Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: R.L. Prendergast's DINNER WITH LISA

I grew up with my father’s stories of the Great Depression. Only it never seemed so depressing at all. My father was part of a huge Irish-American family, growing up among some 30 cousins in New York City. He spoke wistfully about taking potato sandwiches to school because there was no meat. And how he hated rice, because eating it meant that they couldn’t even afford potatoes. (To this day, my dad won’t eat rice unless it’s safely tucked under a plate of Chinese food!)

R.L. Prendergast’s Dinner with Lisa gave me a new appreciation for my own family’s Depression era history. So much so that I already put the book on my dad’s Christmas list. It’s that good!

Joseph Gaston is out of luck. His beloved wife died right after the birth of their fourth child, and his small farm has been taken in bankruptcy. His only hope for his family’s future lies a week’s train ride away on the other end of Canada, in a little town called Philibuster, where his Quebecois brother Henri and his wife have helped him secure a coveted job at a local dairy. Without a job, he might soon be forced to give up the children to a relative – or worse, the government . Prendergast does a good job of outlining the bleak options available to the poor in mid-Depression, as well as explaining the failed policies that brought them to that place. Sometimes the situations seem eerily familiar:

Joseph had heard stories of camps where men spent eight hours a day clearing brush and piling stones. The workers could have been employed productively, cutting timber to make houses for the poor, or constructing public buildings, but for the fact that some big contractor or lumber company with political connections would raise a stink. Free labour would kill their businesses. The rich knew how to stick together.Kindle location 1775
I remember my dad telling stories about his uncles getting work with the W.P.A., and I always love seeing the results of those projects when I visit National Parks in the US. The book made me think about how bad the situation must have been for the government to have taken such extraordinary steps to put people to work.

Joseph soon finds that the little town retains its Wild West character, with a crooked mayor, divided loyalties and a deep hatred of outsiders that constantly threaten to undermine his chance at a new life. But it’s also home to a group of industrious free spirits who are making the best out of a very bad situation, finding fun, food and fellowship whenever and wherever they can. The supporting cast brought Prendergast’s novel to life for me: Beth Hoogaboom, the rowdy dry goods store owner; Police Chief Montgomery Quentin, who knows the dark side of the mayor’s policies, but remains under his thumb to keep his job; and Tom Wah, a Chinese immigrant fearful of losing the family he has built in Canada to the town’s bigotry. I also loved the intimate way the Prendergast brought us into the lifeworld of the Canadian plains, with black blizzards and freezing temperatures and lots and lots of gophers.

Dinner with Lisa was a surprising title. I sat down to read it and didn’t put it down until I finished. Prendergast is a new author to me, but I will definitely seek out more of his work. This is highly recommended for lovers of historical fiction, Canadian fiction, and fiction with Western themes.

I read this book as part of a Premier Virtual Author Book Tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here.

This is another hit for the Historical Fiction 2012 Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry. Looks like there is little chance of me not finishing that one!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review: ENCHANTMENTS by Kathryn Harrison

How does a teenager process the fact that her beloved father’s murder signals the death knell of the world she’s known? What part of her old world can she take with her into the ominous new one? And who can she turn to for comfort when her lot in life is to comfort others? These would be difficult enough questions to tackle for any young woman – but for a daughter of the monk Rasputin, the personal turmoil reverberates throughout a country.

Kathryn Harrison’s Enchantments is a beautifully written story about the end of the Romanov dynasty, imagined from the point of view of an actual eyewitness: Matryona “Masha” Rasputina. Novels that present a well-known story from a new standpoint are certainly not uncommon. Still, there is something to be said for “pivoting the table” as my quantitative friends would say, and exploring a tale from a new or unique angle. Harrison uses the tsarina’s desperation at the loss of Rasputin to bring Masha inside the palace as a surrogate healer for her hemophiliac son, Tsarevich Alexander, which gives her narrative a unique insider/outsider perspective on the last days of the royal family – and a turbulent time in history.

The novel centers on the relationship between the tsarevich, known to his family as Aloysha, and Masha. Rasputin led the tsarina to believe that Masha shared his healing powers, but Masha is not convinced, and instead uses her true gift – story telling – to amuse the doomed young man while they wait for they know not what. Ironically, her stories give him an appreciation for a Russia that none of the other Romanovs ever bothered to know, which is the reason why he’ll never rule it.

Harrison’s writing is rich and evocative, as she describes the end of an era:

In the years before the Bolsheviks seized the city, St. Petersburg was a playground in the throes of a kind of decadence – determined, desperate – that presages collapse. As if the aristocracy knew apocalypse was imminent and, also knowing there was nothing to prevent its arrival, stayed up drinking and dancing and inhaling cocaine when they could get their hands on any, distracting themselves by whatever means they found. Spending money in a frenzy of champagne, caviar, jewels, gowns. On parties with full orchestras, themed costume balls excusing all manner of ostentation: hostesses riding through ballrooms on gilded elephants, servants dressed up like gondoliers or Vikings or pharaohs. p. 180
I loved Masha’s voice, but unfortunately the disjointed, asynchronous narrative was not as successful for me. The story jumps from Rasputin’s early life to the family’s time in St. Petersburg to Siberian folk wisdom to Masha’s exile from Russian rather incoherently at times, so that I often didn’t have a handle on the plot. I cared about the characters, but in fits and starts. I also found the “coming of age” portions of the book between Aloysha and Masha squirm-inducing. They seemed to belong more in a YA title than in this one – especially because they were accompanied by high-end philosophical thought on the nature of virtue and morality.

Still, the story was interesting and fast-paced, and it made me rethink what I knew about Rasputin and the Romanovs, so I would highly recommend it to lovers of historical fiction, especially those with an interest in imperial Russia. This title counts toward the Historical Fiction 2012 Challenge, which seems to be the only one I’m tearing up so far this year. Thanks to Historical Tapestry for hosting! I do have some additional books to review, though, so I’m hoping to start really making progress on my reading goals for the year!

I read this book as part of a TLC book tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here.

In 140 characters or less:The beginning of adulthood and the end of the world from a Rasputin's perspective.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Book Review: TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis

Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog introduces readers to a near future when Oxford historians routinely travel through time for investigative purposes. Their work is underwritten by a wealthy, overbearing American – Lady Schrapnell – whose pet project is the rebuilding of the Coventry Cathedral to reproduce its appearance on the day her revered Victorian-era grandmother saw it for the first time, and thereby changed the course of her life, as well as the whole family’s. But the small-scale interactions of the historians and their environment set up the possibility of large-scale disasters down the proverbial road: like the possibility of the Allies losing World War II.

The book represents a loving homage to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, whose subtitle was “To Say Nothing of the Dog.” Ned, the time traveler tasked with finding an artifact from the Coventry Cathedral called “the bishop’s bird stump,” has made so many time jumps that he has a form of the bends, and misunderstands the mission he’s on. And like Jerome’s crew, Ned and new found friends Terence St. Trewes and his absent minded Oxford don Professor Peddick travel the Thames in a skiff, and find more adventure than the relaxation they so desperately need.

I think it’s taken me seemingly forever to review the book because this Hugo-award winning novel defies simple description. Yes, it’s a time travel story. But after reading it, I’d probably categorize it under “humor,” before “science fiction.” Because unlike other novels that might focus on the mechanics of voyages in time and space, this book shoves those aside, focusing instead on the truly hilarious consequences of unintended actions. I adored the way Willis took a beloved classic and retrofitted it – even allowing the characters from the original to make a cameo appearance! Oh, and there’s even a couple of love stories.

In fact, if there’s any downside to the book, it’s that Willis seems to gloss over some information about the “world” she’s created that the reader could really use. For example, what is the new time traveling ability based on? Why do individuals react to it so differently? If I was in a mood to be particularly persnickety I’d call it somewhat troublesome that the book’s ending reveals that one of the science fiction “premises” the story was based on was completely unfounded. But it feels like quibbling, because those things didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book.

If you’re looking for a light and amusing sci-fi title, this is definitely it. I’d also suggest it to those who love contemporary humor titles, especially Douglas Adams (although I’m certainly not promising you’ll love it as much as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Christopher Moore (and I’d call this a clear winner over his Fluke). I was planning on counting this for Carl V’s Science Fiction Experience in January, but couldn’t get my act together to get the review up in time. Reading this did inspire me to seek out a few more sci fi titles, so it’s still a win!

In 140 Characters or Less: Time travel hijinks, in search of a cantankerous cat.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Saturday Snapshot: Gone hikin'

Red Rock Cairns, Fay Canyon, AZ

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Alyce at At Home with Books. To participate, post a photo that you (or a friend or family member) have taken then leave a direct link to your post in the Mister Linky. Photos can be old or new, and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see. How much detail you give in the caption is entirely up to you. Please don’t post random photos that you find online.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Gone hikin'

Shhhh! This week I will be catching up on my reading in a quiet, much photographed location. I'll be back -- and recharged -- next week! Hope you all have a lovely week of reading ahead.