New Release Review: Hidden Figures

Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures (2016)

hidden-figures-pb-cover-copySo, if you’re simply wondering whether I think this book is worth reading, and you’re interested in women’s history, civil rights, U.S. history, the space program, math, or computer science (which I should think covers most of us), I will save you some valuable reading time and say: yes, it is. Go get a copy of this book pronto, and don’t just rely on watching the movie. You’re going to want to know the facts behind the film.

But if that’s not enough for you, here’s my more detailed description and response: Hidden Figures tells the fascinating story of a group of “colored computers,” black women employed to do essential mathematical tasks in the development of air and space technology. During World War II, when employment opportunities were of necessity stretched beyond their normal limits, these brilliant, talented women got a toe in the door of the burgeoning military economy, even though they were segregated and often overlooked and undervalued. Shetterly focuses on four of them, though she believes that there were many more than even the available historical record shows. The story of their bravery, determination, and intelligence makes for some compelling and inspiring reading, as in our world today it becomes clear that the ugly prejudice that they had to fight against has by no means been conquered.

Not just a peek into an obscure, forgotten corner of our history, this is a subject that touches on so many important and relevant topics that it’s really essential for anyone who wants to know where we came from and where we are going. Shetterly expertly interweaves the personal stories of the women into the larger picture of social and technological change that took place during their era, an enormous upheaval that we still have to wrestle with. She didn’t conduct her research just in dusty archival records; she actually knew some of the women growing up, as her parents moved within some of the same circles, and this helps bring them closer to us.

tlc logoIn spite of that personal connection, Shetterly generally writes in a calm, measured third-person style, describing rather than dramatizing the incidents of her narrative, though she occasionally inserts some stirring and passionate commentary. She also has a tendency to use flowery similes that I found unnecessary and distracting, but mercifully these were few and far between. It’s going to be interesting to see how the book is turned into a film, since there is almost no dialogue given; much will have to be invented. For that reason, if you’re interested in historical accuracy I definitely recommend the book to ground you in reality, although the dramatic potential of the story on screen is certainly irresistible.

However you experience it, Hidden Figures is a story that definitely deserves to come to light. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Official publisher link from HarperCollins

Copy gratefully received for review from TLC Book Tours – click here for more stops on the tour

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Top Ten Books on my Fall Review List

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I’m so fortunate to have several publishers who send me review copies on a regular basis, and I want to do them justice by at least cracking them open for review consideration. However, fall seems to be an especially busy time all around, both for the publishers and for me, so I’ve been getting terribly behind.

Here I can at least give a mention to some of the fall releases that are waiting on my shelves, and that I hope to get around to reading and possibly reviewing in the next few months. They all look marvelous — maybe some of them will spark your interest as well.

Necessity by Jo Walton (Tor)
Third in the series that started with The Just City. I can’t wait to see what Walton does with her neo-Platonists next.

The Spice Box Letters by Eve Makis (Thomas Dunne Books)
A past-and-present narrative shaped by the Armenian genocide, this looks like a fascinating historical read.

frenchrhapsodyFrench Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain (Gallic Books)
I enjoyed Laurain’s The President’s Hat, and look forward to more elegant French entertainment.

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson (Dean Street Press)
One of the debut books for the new Furrowed Middlebrow imprint, which brings back lost classics from the middle of the last century.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (Dean Street Press)
Another Furrowed Middlebrow book, this WWII memoir gets high praise from Kate Atkinson. ‘Nuff said.

Wonder Women by Sam Maggs (Quirk Books)
YA nonfiction about some of the female “innovators, inventors and trailblazers who changed history.” One of my favorite subjects.

weepingashThe Weeping Ash by Joan Aiken (Sourcebooks Casablanca)
I loved reading through Aiken’s Wolves chronicles last year; now some of her adult romances are being republished, and I’m eager to read them too.

The Gilded Chalet by Padraig Rooney (Nicholas Brealey Publishing)
Subtitled “Off-piste in Literary Switzerland.” I’m up for any book that will take me to Switzerland.

Emily Dickinson: Selected Poems (Folio Society)
A stunning new illustrated edition of Dickinson’s poetry. Definitely one one for the gift list, whether to give or receive.

Persuasion by Jane Austen (Folio Society)
Folio continues their current series of Austen editions with this, her last and many say her greatest love story.

Are you also interested in any of these? What books are on your list this season?

New Release Review: Summerlong

Peter S. Beagle, Summerlong (2016)

summerlongThe Puget Sound setting and mythological overtones of Peter S. Beagle’s new novel, Summerlong, made it sound irresistible to me — and it turned out to be a lovely end-of-summer read. A long-term unmarried couple, one living in Seattle and the other across the water on Gardner Island, find their lives transformed in unexpected¬† ways when they meet an enchanting but mysterious young waitress. Where does she come from, and what is she fleeing? Why does she have such a magical effect on everyone around her? As her secrets are slowly revealed, we find that nothing can ever be quite the same again.

I really appreciated how Beagle treated the theme of mature love and relationships, a subject not often approached in fantasy fiction these days. He’s brave enough to acknowledge that some hurts cannot easily be healed, that endings in life are often not as tidy as turning the last page of a book. I liked seeing the characters constantly evolve, as old routines die away and new capacities come to light — being retirement age doesn’t mean losing one’s capacity to learn and grow, after all.

I did find that I enjoyed the build-up of the story, characters, and the setting — which is very vividly and accurately evoked — more than the denouement. To me the mythological aspects were more effective when hinted at than when overtly referenced. Still, the world and people of Summerlong will linger in my memory for more than a season, leaving traces of beauty, wisdom, and heartache behind.

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New Release Review: Unearthed

Alexandra Risen, Unearthed (2016)

unearthedSubtitled “Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden,” Unearthed is a gardening memoir that will appeal even to non-gardeners (like me). To start with, there’s the chance to vicariously experience taking an unloved, abandoned place and turning it into a magical place of refuge and healing — without having to actually get our hands dirty. When Alexandra and her family buy a house that backs up onto a ravine with traces of earlier gardening efforts, she can’t resist the project. Years later, after countless hours of toil and not a few misadventures, her dream comes to completion, and as readers we can experience her satisfaction.

Intertwined with that of the plants and animals is also a human story, of Alexandra’s growing up with her mysteriously distant Ukrainian refugee parents. Though her silent father is now dead and her mother sliding into dementia, as Alexandra works on her garden refuge she starts to find some measure of acceptance and understanding of her difficult memories. Her oasis in the middle of Toronto becomes a place to honor and remember them, with nature’s gift of peace.

Then there’s the way each chapter, named for a plant or element in the garden, ends with a recipe or project that can be taken up even if you have no land of your own. Often made from foraged or overlooked materials, they represent another way to create something of beauty and pleasure out of what might otherwise be considered worthless.

I enjoyed Alexandra’s voice in this book, as in spite of her painful early experiences she shared her story with honesty and also a quirky sense of humor. I felt that I was really working alongside her in a way, getting to know her personality along with the garden and its inhabitants. I loved her sense of wonder at the natural world, even at things to which we non-urban dwellers have become jaded — a single deer is no longer such a breathtaking sight when your garden is overrun with them, but Alexandra’s joy in the deer’s presence is infectious nevertheless.

So thanks to Alexandra Risen, her family, and all the trees, flowers, leaves, roots, raccoons, ducks, deer, and other creatures for sharing their garden with us. I’ll definitely be dreaming of my own “secret garden” now.

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New Release Review: The Evil Wizard Smallbone

Delia Sherman, The Evil Wizard Smallbone (2016)

evilwizlgWhen a book gets compared to the work of Diana Wynne Jones, I’m not sure whether to read it or not. On the one hand, there’s the hope that the reading experience will evoke the brilliant qualities of my all-time favorite fantasy author. On the other, there’s the dread that the latter-day work will be derivative, uninspired, or otherwise lackluster, and that the disappointment will simply increase the pain of what I’m missing.

Fortunately, although The Evil Wizard Smallbone does have some scenes and motifs that could have been lifted from a DWJ novel, Sherman works with them in a way that feels fresh and original. When Nick Reynaud, a runaway from an abusive home, stumbles across the “Evil Wizard Bookshop” in the picture-perfect Maine town of Smallbone Cove, he at first wants to stay just one night and move on. But he soon finds out that “evil wizard” is not just a cute name, the bookshop is truly magical, and the animals and humans of the town are not all they seem. He also finds that he himself might have some abilities and potential that his relatives and teachers have overlooked, and that might help to save Smallbone Cove itself.

Though not as mind-stretching or inventive as the best of Diana Wynne Jones, this was an entertaining story with warmth and heart, memorable characters, a fantastic setting (who wouldn’t want to live in a magical bookshop?) and a satisfying conclusion. Nick’s inner and outer journey, in which magic is a counterpart to emotional growth, is sensitively portrayed without being heavily didactic. Unlike lesser fantasy works that just throw magic around like firecrackers, leaving nothing behind, there’s real substance here, for readers both young and old.

Much as I enjoyed Smallbone, there was something about its construction and pacing that bothered me. I think it has to do with the fact that although the bulk of the story belongs to Nick, it kept getting interrupted with other points of view — especially at the beginning, which had me quite confused for a while. Even though these parts were well done in themselves, they somehow felt like a distraction; they were not given enough weight to become a true second/third/fourth story thread, but pulled us away from Nick’s narrative just as I wanted it to be filled out more.

However, this was in the end a minor drawback for me, and it might not bother you at all. If middle grade fantasy is your cup of tea, do read The Evil Wizard Smallbone, and be sure to let me know what you thought. (It’s a perfect choice for both Witch Week and the Reading New England challenge, too!)

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New Release Review: Marrow

Elizabeth Lesser, Marrow (2016)

marrowWhat are the ties that bind us as human beings? Can our thoughts and feelings influence our bodily well-being, even that of another person? How does releasing personal hurt, anger, and misunderstanding bring healing to our relationships and the world? When confronted with loss, betrayal, and death, can we learn to actually “love our fate”?

These are some of the questions that Elizabeth Lesser engages in with this memoir of the time she spent with her beloved younger sister during the last stages of Maggie’s long fight against lymphoma. To her own surprise, Elizabeth was found to be the rare “perfect match” for a bone-marrow transplant for Maggie, which meant that all of Maggie’s blood would be replaced with that produced by stem cells harvested from Elizabeth. It became more than just a medical miracle for both of them, as they sought to support the procedure with therapeutic conversations that strengthened their new identity as “Maggie-Liz.” By speaking their own hurt and forgiving one another, hearing and honoring the truth of each other’s experience, they come closer to the marrow of their true selves.

In recalling their journey, Elizabeth intersperses memories of her sister and other family members with the spiritual wisdom she’s gleaned from a lifetime of searching (she is the founder and director of the Omega Institute, a renowned center for spiritual development). She does not set herself up as an infallible expert or guru, and her way of writing about the soul and the human quest is humble, open, and honest. The truths of the spirit, which are in essence simple yet in practice so hard for us imperfect human beings to work out, are expressed in connection with her own experiences. Though in some ways these are extraordinary — not everyone can call up Deepak Chopra for advice — Elizabeth keeps the emphasis on the universal, everyday, basically human details that we can all relate to. For me, this was the most compelling aspect of her work.

tlc-logo-resizedThere are still failures and loose ends to take up — in caring for one sister so intensely, Elizabeth tended to come across as controlling to her other siblings, and that caused some further hurt. But what she learned from her time with Maggie only strengthened her faith in the power of the soul to work through such challenges, when we connect with our deeper selves. In the end, this is a story of hope, and of a love that truly became stronger than death.

Thanks to HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review this book.

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New Release Review: Lady Cop Makes Trouble

Amy Stewart, Lady Cop Makes Trouble (2016)

LadyCopThe second entry in Amy Stewart’s historical mystery series based on the real-life Kopp sisters is as compulsively readable and effortlessly enjoyable as the first. Constance Kopp has become the first female deputy sheriff in New Jersey — or thinks she has. But politics and a devious criminal get in the way, and Constance finds herself demoted to prison matron. That doesn’t stop her from engaging in the exciting chase after a dangerous fugitive, with her own unique blend of determination, guts, and luck (of both kinds).

These are books that combine character- and relationship-building with the pure fun of a detective story. I found that the first book, Girl Waits with Gun, was heavier on the former, while this one emphasizes the latter. I would definitely recommend reading them both together to get the full story, for the important history of Constance and her family doesn’t get much play in the sequel, nor do they have many scenes with each other since Constance is often off on her own. I hope this element will come back in future volumes, but for now it was fine to de-emphasize that aspect in favor of more action. The relationship of Constance and the sheriff (and the sheriff’s wife) does come a bit further here, in some interesting ways that make one wonder where it will be headed. Not in any conventional or hackneyed direction, I would guess.

The way Stewart mixes fact and fiction might be controversial for some, but I found that she does it in a responsible way. She makes it clear that she has played around with characters and incidents for narrative purposes; I can accept that this is a sort of fictional alternate reality to be enjoyed on its own terms. On the other hand, the real-life nuggets she’s pulled from the headlines and archives of the past give verisimilitude and ground the story in reality. Stewart expertly plays imagination and research off of one another in a way that is a pleasure in itself; for example, she comes up with a reason for Constance to appear as she does in a particular real-life newspaper photo that is perhaps not factually accurate, but plausible enough in the context of the world she has created, and also an amusing comic touch.

So bring on more of the Kopp sisters! I can’t wait to see what they get up to next.

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New Release Review: The House by the Lake

Thomas Harding, The House by the Lake (2016)

HouseLakeThough it focuses on a single location — a simple lakeside house built by a prosperous Berlin doctor as a family retreat — this book takes us on a tour of an astonishingly volatile period in German history. As if in a time-lapse film, we watch what was once an aristocratic estate become parceled into bourgeois country houses (some, like this one, owned by Jews). Then the house and its surroundings are seized by the Nazis, bought up by opportunists, taken over again by East Germany, cut off from the lake by the Berlin Wall, and returned to the Western world again when the Wall comes down. We watch the house itself, once proud in its simple elegance, erode into utilitarian socialist housing, become a squatter’s den, and finally be scheduled for demolition. And we meet the people who called it home, for a few years or many, as holiday retreat or permanent residence or temporary shelter, and enter into their many ways of living and being human in a fractured world.

Harding did not choose this house at random; it was built by his great-grandfather, and his grandmother, having escaped with her parents to England in the 1930s, still called it her “soul place.” He got to visit it once with her, twenty years ago, after the reunification of Germany, and meet the couple then in residence (reassuring them that the family was not trying to get it back). When he learned it was going to be torn down, he wondered whether it could be saved, and started to piece together the remarkable history of this place so that it might be seen as a focus for remembrance, education, and reconciliation.

In reconstructing the biography of the house, he intersperses scenes from his own journey of research and family negotiation, which was not always easy or straightforward. Forget the house, some said. It’s too painful, too difficult, too obscure to remember or bring back to life, even in writing. But Harding persisted, and has given us a record of an ordinary place in an extraordinary time, going beyond the borders of the usual kind of history book to help us understand what history really means.

Harding’s style is understated, some would say to the point of dryness, but I found that the events he portrayed spoke for themselves. The image of the Berlin Wall suddenly running through the bottom of the garden is about as concrete as you can get. Don’t skip the footnotes, as they include additional anecdotes that add even more fascinating details to the story.

Though Alexander Haus, as it is now called, has been saved from destruction, there is much to be done to make it a viable educational center. You can visit the website to learn more, and also to see fascinating videos taken at the house during different points in its history. What will be in store next for the house and its visitors? Only the future will tell.

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New Release Review: Looking for Betty MacDonald

Betty MacDonald Bio

Paula Becker, Looking for Betty MacDonald (2016)

LookingBettyShortly after I included Betty MacDonald in a post about funny female authors, this book landed in my mailbox. I was delighted to explore MacDonald’s life and work through Paula Becker’s thoughtful, painstakingly researched biography, and even more thrilled to see that University of Washington Press is going to be reprinting three hard-to-find later works by the bestselling author of The Egg and I: Anybody Can Do Anything, The Plague and I, and Onions in the Stew. I’m so excited to share them with you, and hope that if you’re not a MacDonald enthusiast, you will be soon.

But back to the matter at hand: if you’ve ever read one of MacDonald’s memoirs, or the classic children’s series Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, you may share historian Paula Becker’s curiosity about the woman behind the words. Where did the comedic craft she executed so brilliantly come from? What was the real life that gave rise to her autobiographical works? What was the effect on her of the smashing success of Egg, and how did her story continue past that point?

Becker explores all these questions, shedding light not only on MacDonald’s life but on early Pacific Northwest history, the vagaries of the publishing world, the media circus, the trials of being a woman author in postwar America, and more. Like many comic artists, MacDonald had a good measure of tragedy and suffering in her life, and it is fascinating to learn about what didn’t make it into the books. Money troubles were a constant theme, but she also went through spousal abuse, divorce, illness, lawsuits, and in the end died far too soon of cancer. But what comes through in the biography is a portrait of a brave, determined, not necessarily easy-to-live-with woman, who was nevertheless able to make readers feel they had found a trusted friend.

Though Egg was a phenomenal success on publication, the first book to sell a million copies in under a year, it is the one that is perhaps the most difficult to read today due to MacDonald’s one-sided, unflattering portrayal of Native Americans and of her unsophisticated neighbors (the ones who sued her for libel). Yet at the time it was what the public wanted; her later books, with more broad-minded views, met with less success, leading to an unfortunate cycle of financial and artistic pressure that ended with her heirs owing the advance for unwritten books on her death. Still, she managed to inspire a whole generation of women writers to mine the vein of domestic comedy, and was also a pioneer in her writing about women in the workplace. Her achievements and her frustrations were both important, and Becker brings both aspects to light.

Becker was inspired by the real-life places where Betty MacDonald and her family lived, and if you know Seattle, you’ll especially appreciate her journeys through places like Laurelhurst, Ravenna, and Vashon. How I wish I had known about the house on NE 15th Street — like Becker, I must have driven past it many times, but I never realized its connection with the author. Though the house is now demolished, we can be grateful that Becker has preserved it for us in words, and has given us valuable insights into her world, her books, her family, and the writer herself.

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New Release Review: Carry On

Carry On Fenn

Lisa Fenn, Carry On (2016)

CarryOnAt the rare times when I watch sporting events (mostly during the Olympics), I’m less drawn in by the goals and records scored than by the human interest stories that sportscasters concoct to tug at our heartstrings and make us feel the emotions we have in common with these amazing athletes. Even when they’re engaged in the most mystifying and uncongenial of activities to me — dashing about, throwing things and clouting one another — their passion, dedication, and overcoming of obstacles can be inspiring, as can the many different paths they take toward achieving their dreams.

So it is with Lisa Fenn’s memoir, Carry On, which takes the story of two teenage boys who meet on the wrestling mat (perhaps the sport, along with boxing, that I would normally find the most repugnant) and makes of it a most moving portrait of human resilience and the bonds of love. The two boys, Dartanyon and Leroy, are black, poor, and disabled, one legally blind, the other a double amputee; one would not expect them to try out for the school wrestling team, let alone win a single match. But they forge a friendship that boosts them beyond the limits life has made for them, and carry one another in ways neither could have dreamed of alone.

Fenn herself, who starts out recording the piece for ESPN, becomes more personally involved than is generally the wont of reporters. She realizes she cannot profit off of these boys without helping them in return, and also simply falls in love with them. She learns that part of what is holding them back is the untold stories locked within them by trauma and misunderstanding, and that as a storyteller it is her privilege and obligation to allow those stories to unfold, to give them wings. She shares the slow process of gaining the boys’ trust and understanding their real needs, which involved some triumphs but also many times of feeling as though they had been slammed to the mat by life, when simply “carrying on” was the most they could manage. And she also describes some of her own journey toward love and reconciliation, including her and her husband’s hard-won decision to adopt an infant while also opening their hearts to Dartanyon and Leroy.

tlc logoFenn finds in this journey a sign of God’s calling her to participate in the divine mission of love, but mainly she lets her faith stay quietly in the background of the story she has to tell, and readers of any religious persuasion can relate to the basic human emotions and experiences related here. Viewers of the ESPN piece certainly responded in droves, finding hope and inspiration and offering support of many kinds in return. But unlike many flash-in-the-pan stories of ephemeral fame and lost potential, this one resulted in real and lasting transformation of three individuals, and many more beyond that whose lives they touched. Read it, and your life will be touched and changed by them too.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review Carry On. For more information and tour stops, visit the TLC site.

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