Archive for the ‘read in 2011’ Category

Source: Review copy from author
Rating: ★★★★☆

[This review was originally featured on AustenBlog]

At last she forced herself to tune in to the play; just as well Three Sisters was one where she could instantly pick up the thread.  She’d almost grown up with it, intrigued by the title as well as her mother’s passion for Chekhov.  When she was young, she couldn’t make much sense of it; but by her twenties, she’d come to understand it only too well — and, instead of identifying with only one sister, she found traces of herself in each of them.  Like Olga, she was practical and conscientious.  Like Irina, she was idealistic about finding true love — but, ultimately, resigned to a life without it.  And like Masha she’s fallen for someone at eighteen…

(from Persuade Me, page 263)

Persuade Me, the second book in Juliet Archer’s Darcy & Friends series, is a modern re-telling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, with lots of regret and resentment but also much humor and romance. Dr. Rick Wentworth is a marine biologist who returns to England to promote his book, Sex in the Sea, which, along with his striking good looks, has turned him into a celebrity. Rick has never forgotten the woman who broke his heart 10 years ago, and all of the anger and hurt is churned up when their paths cross. Anna Elliot, a professor of Russian literature at a college in Bath, never stopped loving Rick, and she regrets allowing her family to end their relationship.

Instead of confronting the past, Rick gets involved with Lou Musgrove, and Anna can do nothing more than sit and watch the two of them flirt. Meanwhile, Anna catches the eyes of both Rick’s friend and wannabe poet, James, and an old family friend and slimeball, William Elliot-Dunne, who ended a relationship with Anna’s sister, Lisa, to run off with a rich divorcee from Texas. Rick and Anna’s interactions are tinged with pain and jealousy, and of course, misunderstandings abound.

Once I started Persuade Me, I had a hard time putting it down. I loved Archer’s easy writing style and her appreciation of Austen’s humor when it comes to exaggerated secondary characters, especially in transforming Anne Elliot’s hypochondriac sister, Mary Musgrove, into Anna’s alcoholic sister, Mona, and Mrs. Clay into Cleopatra, a masseuse with a phony French accent. I also enjoyed how she lets readers into the heads of both Anna and Rick, though knowing the innermost thoughts of both lessened the excitement a little bit.

I must admit I am always thrilled to see a variation that takes on an Austen novel other than Pride and Prejudice. Fans of Mr. Darcy will be happy to know that he introduces the novel by describing how he and Georgiana met Rick, though these few pages have absolutely nothing to do with the book — except for the fact that it is part of the “Darcy & Friends” series, and a friendship must somehow be forged.

Archer does a wonderful job adapting Persuasion for a contemporary audience while staying true to Austen’s story of second chances. Her ability to add a modern flair to every event that transpires in Persuasion exemplifies the timelessness of Austen’s novels.

Disclosure: I received Persuade Me from the author for review on AustenBlog.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Unknowingly, she sank to her knees.  But before she was there a minute a soldier came by.  “Get on with you, lad.  You can’t stop now.  Keep on.  It’s only twenty-two miles to Alexandria.”

He helped her to her feet.

As he did, Sarah saw that his blouse was shot away and his shoulder had a gaping wound.  She felt ashamed.  She should have been helping him.  She went on.

(from Girl in Blue, page 88)

I’m glad I saved Girl in Blue for my last book for the U.S. Civil War Reading Challenge because Ann Rinaldi brings to life two women featured in another book I read for the challenge, Petticoat Spies by Peggy Caravantes — Rose Greenhow and Sarah Emma Edmonds.  Rinaldi tells the story of a fictional Sarah Louisa Wheelock, a teenager longing to escape her family’s Michigan farm and her abusive father.  Sarah expertly rides horses and can shoot a gun to put food on the table, so it’s not surprising that she resists her father’s efforts to marry her off to a widower who is just as bad as her father and merely wants her to care for his children.

Sarah is meant for bigger and better things, and with her mother’s help, she escapes to her aunt’s shop in Flint.  Excitement erupts as war brews between the North and the South, and it is in the midst of this chaos that she does some serious thinking about her future.  She knows she can never return home, so she uses her strength to her advantage, dresses as a young man, and joins the army.  Sarah holds her own through the long marches in ill-fitting shoes in the heat, and unlike many men, she manages to survive the First Battle of Bull Run.  But Sarah sees and does things in battle that will change her forever.

It’s not long before some officers learn of Sarah’s true identity, and at this point, the novel takes an abrupt turn.  Sarah is recruited by Allen Pinkerton’s Union Intelligence Service and becomes a spy.  She is sent to the Washington, D.C., home of known Confederate spy Rose Greenhow, who is under house arrest.  Acting as a maid to Rose and her young daughter, Sarah is tasked with finding out how Rose continues to deliver information to the Confederates.  Sarah soon learns that being a spy is both exhilarating and tricky when she develops feelings for Rose’s daughter and Lieutenant Sheldon, one of the guards who often flirts with Rose.

Girl in Blue is loosely based on the life of Sarah Emma Edmonds in that Sarah Wheelock escapes an abusive home and an arranged marriage, joins the army, and ultimately serves as a spy.  Edmonds became “Franklin Thompson,” while Rinaldi’s Sarah becomes entangled in the web woven by Rose Greenhow.

Once again, Rinaldi makes history exciting for adults and children alike and has created a strong female character in Sarah.  Sarah is forced to make decisions that no adult should have to, and in choosing freedom, she must leave behind her beloved mother and siblings forever.  But Sarah doesn’t merely run away; she chooses to serve her country, which is an admirable thing to do, never mind the fact that she went against society’s expectations and proved that women can indeed do a “man’s job.”  At the same time, Sarah is a typical teenage girl, overcome with emotion and unsure of herself at times, especially when it comes to the opposite sex.

My only complaint with the book is that it seems to end too soon.  Rinaldi spends a lot of time on Sarah’s army service and her work in the camp hospital when the real focus of the novel is her time as a spy.  Sure, her success at disguise is crucial to securing a job with Pinkerton, but I wish Rinaldi would have spent less time on Sarah’s job at camp and more time resolving certain issues related to her confusion about how to handle relationships when she’s told that she can’t trust anyone.

Despite my feelings that the ending was a bit rushed and not as fleshed out it could have been, I still enjoyed Girl in Blue.  It’s an exciting novel that puts a young woman on the front lines.  Through Sarah, Rinaldi puts a face on war and shows that even heroes are scared during their bravest moments.

Disclosure: I borrowed Girl in Blue from my local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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I read 103 books in 2011, down from 116 in 2010, but I went through a bit of a reading slump during and after my July vacation.  Still, I’m happy with the books I read last year, and that’s all that matters.  I wanted to highlight the best books I read last year, and I managed to narrow down my favorites to 10.  Nearly all of them are historical fiction and set during World War II.  That wasn’t intentional, but it certainly doesn’t surprise me.  These are the books that are still with me, months or weeks after reading them.

The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman

(from my review) “The Lost Wife emphasizes the difficult decisions people in love are forced to make during times of war and chaos and how true love lives on even when all hope has been lost.  There are scenes of tenderness, agony, and despair, and yet because Richman begins the story at the end, there is still hope.  I didn’t want to put the book down because it was so good, but at some points, it hurt too much to continue so I had to lay it down for a bit.  I cried several times while reading The Lost Wife, but to be so affected by an author’s writing and to fall so in love with the characters are, to me, signs of a fantastic book.”

The Woman Who Heard Color by Kelly Jones

(from my review) “Jones does a great job enabling readers to feel the tension that built up in Germany prior to WWII, and showing the lasting effects on one family made it all the more heartbreaking.  Though the impact of power on art and the passion for preserving creativity are at the forefront, The Woman Who Heard Color is also a story about relationships and how sometimes history conceals the truth.  The Woman Who Heard Color is a must-read for fans of historical fiction set during WWII and for those who are as passionate about art as its main character.”

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

(from my review) “Between Shades of Gray was sad and heartbreaking, but at the same time, I couldn’t put it down.  I finished this 344-page book in about a day.  When I wasn’t reading, the story and the characters were with me…and about a week after finishing the book, they still are.  I’ve read dozens of World War II books over the past couple of years, but none dealt with the Lithuanian deportations.  The thousands and thousands of deportees who survived were forced to keep the trials they endured at the hands of the NKVD a secret long after the war, given that Lithuania remained under Soviet control until the 1990s, but Between Shades of Gray gives them a voice and aims to ensure we never forget.”

Small Wars by Sadie Jones

(from my review) “Small Wars is a powerful book about the impact of war on the individual and on relationships, how a sense of honor and right and wrong can eat away at the soul, and how traumatizing experiences can cause people to turn away from those they love.  The novel is sometimes quiet and sometimes exciting, and because I knew nothing about Cyprus and the war over unification with Greece when I picked it up, I found it hard to put down.

Jones writes with a tenderness for her characters and their marriage, without assigning blame.  It’s the same when it comes to the skirmishes between the British and the Cypriot terrorists.  Jones doesn’t choose sides but shows the good and the evil in both.  Small Wars is about the small battles played out between nations, between soldiers, between spouses, and inside ourselves.”

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

(from my review) “The Night Circus is a book to be savored.  Morgenstern’s descriptions of the circus are so vivid and detailed that you almost feel as if you are part of all the excitement, and you will finish the book wishing and hoping that it will spring up in a field nearby so you can enjoy the sights and smells for real.  In fact, the circus is so brilliantly painted and feels so alive within the pages of the book that it almost becomes the main character.  The other characters, the creators of the circus, its performers, and its ardent followers, are just as interesting, and even thought they aren’t so developed that you know everything about them, you still feel like you know them enough.”

When We Danced on Water by Evan Fallenberg

(from my review) “In When We Danced on Water, Evan Fallenberg covers so much ground and takes readers on a whirlwind journey, but the book is written so beautifully and reads so easily that they won’t realize the enormity of it all until they turn the last page.  When I reached the end, I just had to sit still and contemplate its depth and breadth.  When We Danced on Water is a novel about passion and art, love and obsession, war and survival, and how the hurts in our past don’t have to dictate our future.”

Far to Go by Alison Pick

(from my review) “Pick’s writing is tight, beautifully conveying emotion in few words.  I became so involved in the lives of her characters, and as I watched their world fall apart, I felt a deep sadness in my chest.  It’s amazing how writing can hit you so hard, but even though Far to Go is fiction, I kept thinking about all the Jewish families who actually lived through what the Bauers and Marta experienced — people losing their family businesses, being forced to choose whether to keep their children close or send them away, not knowing who to trust.

Far to Go is a powerful novel about a painful part of our world’s history.  It’s about loyalty and family, love and loss, betrayal and guilt.  It’s about how a single action can change everything.  Most importantly, it’s about remembering and makes you wonder how many survivors of the Holocaust — especially children — had to piece together the story of their families and even their own existence before the war from letters and scant memories.”

Displaced Persons by Ghita Schwarz

(from my review) “Displaced Persons is a quiet novel about the long-term affects of the Holocaust.  It is not a light novel, but there are periods of light when you think the characters will be okay.  It’s a book that really gets you thinking about survival — how the Jews survived the horrors of World War II only to face more years of struggle and hardship; how they were threatened and forced to leave when they returned to their former homes hoping to find something left; how they continued to live in overcrowded conditions in the refugee camps; and how those who moved to Israel were called “the weak of the diaspora, Old Jews, the ones who let themselves be slaughtered for fear of fighting” (page 214).

This was a very emotional read, one that made me sad and angry, one that kept me blabbing to my husband about the unfairness of it all.  But then I reread the passage I included at the beginning of this review and recognized the beauty of the characters’ survival.  Displaced Persons touches upon ordinary people who will never know the paths they would have taken in life had war not taken its toll, and rather than thinking of the survivors as a nameless and faceless group, Schwarz personalizes the survivor experience through characters both brave and haunting.”

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah

(from my review) “The Last Brother reads like poetry, and I’m convinced that nothing was lost in translation because the words just flow beautifully. Appanah pulls readers into the scene so that they can feel the dirt crusted on the skin of the villagers and the fear before the torrential rain that will soon become mudslides. They can feel the innocence of childhood friendship and the sorrow and guilt that Raj has carried with him for 60 years.

Appanah barely scratches the surface of the Holocaust, as Raj understandably has no idea that a war has been raging around the world. Readers will understand David’s story even when Raj doesn’t, and although David’s suffering is not talked about in the open, his story is still moving and heart-breaking. The Last Brother is a novel about innocence lost, how friendship can change our lives forever, and how stories can help us heal wounds that have festered for decades.”

The Katyn Order by Douglas W. Jacobson

(from my review) “Jacobson obviously did his homework, infusing The Katyn Order with fascinating historical details and describing in detail well-known landmarks in Warsaw, Krakow, and Berlin and how they fared after the war. He does a wonderful job showing how personal losses and participation in combat affect the characters and how the desire for revenge drives them to commit acts they never would have dreamed of during peacetime. The horrors of combat — particularly the atrocities committed by the SS and NKVD against both Polish civilians and the AK fighters — are emphasized in much detail (though not too graphic), which creates much tension and excitement during the battle scenes. By focusing on a small group of people, whether a mother and child hiding in a cellar, helpless patients in a makeshift hospital, or brave AK fighters not much older than my 10-year-old daughter, Jacobson personalizes the experience of hundreds of thousands of people during the war and drives home the point that the SS and the NKVD were ruthless killers and that war is heartbreaking and senseless.”

The 2011 Honorable Mentions:

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston — A feast for the eyes!

Next to Love by Ellen Feldman — A novel that drives home the point that soldiers aren’t the only ones traumatized by war.

The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney — A far-fetched but captivating WWII adventure that is all about the storytelling.

The Ever-After Bird by Ann Rinaldi — A touching pre-Civil War novel about a broken girl who learns about love and hope after witnessing the horrors of slavery.

To the Moon and Back by Jill Mansell — A novel that is both heart-breaking and hopeful, sad and hilarious, and sprinkled with fun characters.

What are your favorite books from last year?

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Aunt Susan Elizabeth used to say there was something in all of us that delighted in bullying those lower in the social order of things.  And that was what made slavery so easy for the white folks to practice.

My father said fear is what made it easy to practice.  That down in the Deep South there were places where the blacks outnumbered the whites.  And the whites had to keep them under control.

Both reasons frightened me.  Because whatever my reason was, I was good at it.

(from The Ever-After Bird, page 61)

Yesterday I said Come Juneteenth was my favorite of Ann Rinaldi’s middle grade and young adult historical novels; then I read The Ever-After Bird, which is just as good, if not better.  I read The Ever-After Bird in just a couple of hours, and it blew me away.  Rinaldi based this book on Dr. Alexander Ross, a Canadian physician and renowned ornithologist who sketched birds on the Southern plantations and also was involved in the Underground Railroad.  Because little is known about Ross, much of The Ever-After Bird is fiction, but her version of the doctor is both charming and captivating.

The Ever-After Bird is set in 1851, more than 10 years before the start of the American Civil War, but Rinaldi does a wonderful job showing the horrors of slavery, the persistence of the Abolitionists, and how they both paved the way for war.  CeCe is a 13-year-old girl living in Pennsylvania on the Maryland border wondering why her father felt the need to help raggedy slaves on their way to freedom when he couldn’t treat his own daughter with kindness.  After he is killed by angry plantation owners looking for their runaway slaves, CeCe is left in the care of her Uncle Alex, a doctor and an ornithologist with a kind smile but pain in his eyes.

He proposes to take CeCe with him and his assistant, a former slave turned college student named Earline, on a trip to visit various plantations in Georgia on a search for the scarlet ibis, called the Ever-After Bird by slaves who believed that if they saw it, they would be free ever-after.  CeCe and Earline are unable to see beyond their past hurts to understand one another, and therefore, they are constantly mean to each other.

While on the plantations, Uncle Alex plans to talk to the slaves, give them directions to safe houses on the Underground Railroad, and provide them with a little money.  However, he needs to keep up appearances so that they don’t get caught, and Earline must play the role of slave, not assistant.  CeCe finds that it is easy to treat Earline badly, but then she witnesses some things on the plantations that cause her to rethink everything she’s believed in and realize that her previous stance that people should just be allowed to live how they want to live without interference may not be the best way after all.

The Ever-After Bird is the first Rinaldi novel that I’ve read so far that doesn’t gloss over the issue of slavery.  Many of the characters I’ve encountered so far in her novels are Southern, daughters of slave owners who insist that their families treat their slaves kindly and that their slaves are content in their place in society.  I understand that’s the character’s point of view based on her situation in life, but it felt to me that the reality was barely visible.  However, I excused it because slavery wasn’t the main theme in those novels.

Here, Rinaldi doesn’t sugar-coat slavery.  Female slaves are attacked by their masters and their masters’ sons, but because the book is intended for younger readers, there are no graphic scenes, just mentions of such treatment.  Slaves are used in scientific experiments, they live in crowded conditions where illness is rampant, and they are whipped.  These scenes are necessary for CeCe’s evolution from a young girl broken by guilt and abuse and blind to the mistreatment of others to a young woman who learns about love, kindness, and friendship from Uncle Alex and Earline.  Rinaldi makes it easy for readers to feel CeCe’s pain and understand why she acted the way she did.  I loved Uncle Alex; he understood CeCe because he’d been raised by her father, his older brother.  He knew what CeCe needed, to be loved and feel loved, and he took on the role of “daddy-uncle” with a tenderness that melted my heart.

The Ever-After Bird had me on the edge of my seat.  The tension built as the trio went from one plantation to another, and the cruelty they witnessed intensified.  Rinaldi brilliantly balances the harsh images with more tender ones.  It is a powerful and emotional novel, but it is also sweet and heartwarming.  Definitely not one to be missed.

Disclosure: I borrowed The Ever-After Bird from my local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Was it right?  We didn’t discuss it.  Did they suspect?  They had no outside information, not even in the slave grapevine, because Pa forbade the visiting back and forth to other plantations, even by men or women who had wives or husbands there.  And they had Sam the overseer’s cooperation.

We became a country unto ourselves.  Did it matter? we asked ourselves.  Who would be hurt with a couple more months in bondage?

I am sure God has that question written down in a dark book in gold print somewhere.

(from Come Juneteenth, page 89)

I’ve read several of Ann Rinaldi’s middle grade and young adult historical novels this year, and so far, Come Juneteenth is my favorite.  In the Author’s Note, Rinaldi says these characters haunted her and that she’s most fond of them, and her love for them shines through in this book — the only one of her novels that has made me tear up.  Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in 1863, but in Texas, the slaves were not told they were free until more than two years later, on June 19, 1865, which is known to this day as Juneteenth.  Come Juneteenth is Rinaldi’s attempt to determine exactly why and how the Texas plantation owners kept the slaves’ freedom a secret until the Union Army rolled in.  Was it because Texas wasn’t part of the States?  Was it because the plantation owners were afraid their slaves would walk away and leave them scrambling to find workers to take over their tasks?  Were they afraid of an uprising?

Rinaldi personalizes this historical event by focusing on the Holcomb family, mainly Luli, her older brother, Gabe, and her “almost” sister, Rose, or Sis Goose.  Sis Goose was born to a slave and a white steamship captain and given to Luli’s Aunt Sophie, a witch of a woman who’s always trying to turn Sis Goose into a servant and threatening to sell her.  As an infant, Sis Goose took to Luli’s mother, so the Holcomb family raised her as their own and never treated her as a slave.  Three years older than Luli, they grew up together as sisters, getting into trouble together, laughing, and trading secrets.  However, as teenagers, their relationship changes when Luli realizes that Gabe and Sis Goose are in love.

Honor means a lot to Gabe, and when he joins the Confederate Army and is sent to fight the Native Americans, he is haunted by the images of the women and children that died at his hands.  He means to marry Sis Goose, but she says she must be free first.  However, when a former slave arrives at the ranch and tells the Holcombs that the slaves have been freed, he is given payment for his silence and sent on his way.  Luli’s brothers insist that she must not let the news slip, not even to Sis Goose.  Gabe is torn throughout the book between his love for Sis Goose and his decision to keep her freedom a secret, his love for Luli and his need to discipline her, his duty to his country and his belief that the country should be united, and his belief that his family treated their slaves well and the realization that slavery in any form is wrong.

With her father near death and the Union Army taking over the plantation house, Luli’s life is in chaos.  When Sis Goose finds out that her family has hidden the fact that she has long been free, the consequences bring the Holcombs to their knees.  How can a family torn apart by war and lies ever be reassembled?

Come Juneteenth is a fast-paced novel that grabbed my attention right from the start.  Why are Luli and Gabe making their way across the prairie in search of a young woman they both love?  Why did they have to conceal Sis Goose’s freedom, when she loved them and wasn’t likely to leave?  The answers to these questions pulled at my heart, and Rinaldi doesn’t pave the way for a happy ending this time…but that’s what makes this book so good.  The characters are so flawed, yet so easy to love:  Gabe with his sense of honor, his tenderness and affection for Luli, his loyalty and love for Sis Goose; Luli, the sassy, trouble-making girl who can shoot a gun and ride a horse and has nothing but good intentions; and Sis Goose, whose brokenness hit me hard in the gut.  I can see why Rinaldi had a hard time leaving these characters behind.

Rinaldi never fails to inform me about historical events that I didn’t learn in school.  I knew nothing about Texas during the Civil War and had never heard about Juneteenth until reading this book.  That’s why I insist that Rinaldi’s novels are perfect for adults and younger readers alike.  Come Juneteenth has a little something for everyone:  war, romance, action, family secrets, complicated sibling relationships, tragedy, and redemption.  Highly recommended, but keep the tissues handy.

Disclosure: I borrowed Come Juneteenth from my local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Here is a man [Matthew Brady] who has seized the moment, and I admire him very much.  He was at Fort Sumter to take pictures three days after the evacuation of the Union garrison.  This will be a war of photographs, he says.  His aim is to place these photographs in front of the people so they do not become complacent about the killing.  He says he aims to photograph dead bodies.  Well, I suppose he has a point.  If people actually see what is being done, they won’t be so eager to have parades and military celebrations in honor of the war.

(from Sarah’s Ground, page 123)

Mount Vernon, the Virginia plantation and family home of George Washington, was the only neutral ground during the American Civil War.  I had the pleasure of touring the home and the grounds more than a decade ago, so it was interesting to read about the home when it was being restored and war was being waged all around it.  Sarah’s Ground is based on the true story of Sarah Tracy, a young woman from New York who took a job at the estate as a caretaker of sorts.  Ann Rinaldi used historical information in Sarah’s letters to Miss Cunningham of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in writing the book, but Rinaldi imagined much of Sarah’s story because her journals and other papers from her years at Mount Vernon were destroyed after the war when her home near Fairfax burned.

Sarah has just completed her schooling at the Troy Female Seminary when she gets the job as Mount Vernon’s caretaker in 1861.  She will be working alongside Miss Cunningham, mostly writing letters, raising money, and bringing back some of the home’s original furnishings.  One of the area’s most eligible bachelors, Upton Herbert, is also in residence, and he is overseeing the restoration of the home, Washington’s tomb, and the grounds.  He longs to join the war effort, but he promised Miss Cunningham that he wouldn’t, that his job at Mount Vernon was just as important.

Sarah is the youngest child in her family.  Her parents are older, and she was mainly raised by her siblings.  She views accepting the job as a rebellion of sorts; she’s sick of being sent away to stay with friends of the family in hopes of finding a husband.  However, she worries that Miss Cunningham will find out about her little lie — that she’s only 18, not 22, like she said when applying for the job.

Sarah soon shows her spunk.  She responds to criticisms of the restoration project, kicks Washington’s relative out of the home, and questions whether the servants — descendents of Washington’s slaves — are free and insists that they be paid — all during her first day on the job.  On trips to Washington, D.C., to procure supplies, Sarah presses General McClellan and even President Lincoln for the necessary passes for her and the servants.  She makes soldiers wear shawls to cover their uniforms when visiting Washington’s tomb, entertains Napoleon, and refuses to give Mrs. Lincoln a tour for fear that she would be viewed as taking sides in the war.  When Miss Cunningham must return to South Carolina to care for her ill mother, Sarah is left alone with Upton — which is okay because he’s a true Southern gentleman — until her flirty and obnoxious friend, Mary, arrives and creates waves.

Sarah’s Ground is an interesting novel (intended for younger readers but enjoyable to all) about Sarah Tracy’s efforts to create an island of neutrality in the midst of a very divisive war.  I liked Sarah and Upton, and I enjoyed watching their relationship grow in a very caring, innocent way.  Even though much of the story is fiction, I think Rinaldi did a good job making Sarah strong, likable, and true to the women of the era.  Although there isn’t much plot, Sarah’s Ground is a nice, quiet novel that introduces readers to a little known event in our nation’s history, the preservation of Mount Vernon and how it survived the Civil War.

Disclosure: I borrowed Sarah’s Ground from my local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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The American Civil War is not the only war in which women played an active role, but that doesn’t make the stories of these brave women any less interesting.  These women are to be admired for their courage and their willingness to put their lives on the line for their beliefs, regardless of which side they took in the fighting.  In Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War, Peggy Caravantes tells the stories of three Confederate spies and three Union spies, six ordinary women whose lives were forever changed by war.  These women were young and old, married and unmarried, mothers, actresses, nurses, from both prominent and unknown families.

Elizabeth Van Lew lived in the most stately mansion in Richmond and was the daughter of a slave owner, but her views changed after attending school in Philadelphia.  She hid Union soldiers in her attic and carried letters to and from Union prisoners in food trays.  When her father died, she freed her family’s slaves, purchased their children, and freed them as well.  Many of these former slaves acted as her agents.

Sarah Emma Edmonds ran away from her abusive father and eventually became a Federal field nurse.  Her body was muscled from working the family farm, and she was manly in appearance, which made it possible for her to become “Frank Thompson” and gather information from the rebels that she passed on to the Union.  She put her life on the line many times, even disguising herself as a slave and having to perform back-breaking work until she could escape.

Belle Boyd was a determined, fearless young woman who spied for the Confederacy.  When she was 17 years old, the Yankees began looting houses in her town, and they made their way to the Boyd home because it was known that she hung rebel flags in her room.  When her mother was roughed up by a Yankee sergeant for resisting the raising of the Union flag over their home, Belle shot and killed the sergeant.  She was arrested and imprisoned several times, and she supported herself and her children after the war by transforming her memoirs into a stage act.

Caravantes brings these women to life in Petticoat Spies.  The book is comprised of six chapters, giving each woman their own chapter and making it easier for readers to follow their stories.  She provides a lot of information about each woman, from their childhood before the war to how they fared after their spying careers ended.  Caravantes enables readers to really get to know these women as people and as spies.  Not every woman had a happy ending, of course.  Some did not live to see the end of the war, some were recognized and honored for their service, and some found themselves penniless.

The Girl (age 11) and I both enjoyed Petticoat Spies.  Caravantes provides historical details in an interesting fashion, and The Girl listened attentively while I read the book aloud.  These women sacrificed a lot to smuggle information; one was abandoned by the man she loved, one was sentenced to death and fell into a depression after narrowly escaping the gallows, and many were separated from their families.  But these women were brave through it all, not letting fear and the prospect of capture deter them.  The Girl and I talked about whether we would have done what they did in their circumstances, and we’re not so sure.  Petticoat Spies is a short exploration of how some women endured the war and fought on their own terms, and it gets you thinking about the many other women who were just as brave but whose stories have been lost over the years.

Disclosure: We borrowed Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War from our local library. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Monday, March 7, 1864

The war has been going on far longer than anyone thought, so long that I fear we have become accustomed to it.  We have grown accustomed to having no men around, accustomed to things we had taken for granted — coffee, ink, flour for baking — all becoming precious, and accustomed to all the gaiety having vanished from our lives.  We seem to have lost all hope, as if this is the way it will be forever.

(from When Will This Cruel War Be Over? The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson, page 40)

Part of the Dear America historical fiction diary series for young readers, When Will This Cruel War Be Over? The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson is set in Gordonsville, Virginia, in 1864 toward the end of the American Civil War.  Barry Denenberg gets into the head of a fictional 14-year-old girl who keeps a diary over the course of one year — a year filled with war, loss, and hardship, probably the toughest year Emma Simpson (and girls like her) ever faced.

The diary starts off with the loss of Emma’s brother, Cole, in the war.  Her brother’s death hits her and her mother hard, especially as it occurred just before Christmas.  With her father off fighting as a colonel in the Confederate Army, nothing is the same for the Simpson family, and Emma can’t help but remember how just one year before, she and her extended family had a festive Christmas.  Cole’s death is the beginning of the end of life as Emma knew it.  In the coming months, she will meet a young man who captures her heart then rushes off to fight, she will lose more family members to illness, and the war will arrive on her doorstep as the Yankees take over her home and force her and her family to a few rooms on the third floor.

Meanwhile, the slaves on other farms are rebelling, sometimes violently, sometimes just running off.  Readers will have to understand where Emma is coming from when she describes how her family’s slaves are loyal and content and not likely to run off.  It is not likely that her family’s slaves are content, and it is not likely that they appreciated her father’s “firm guiding hand,” but Emma is the daughter of a slave owner and has grown up thinking slavery is normal and that blacks are simply inferior to whites.  The letters from her father insist that the Abolitionists must be beaten, but Emma’s letters from her boyfriend, Tally, and the things she has seen with her own eyes show her how war isn’t always black and white.

I find it impossible to imagine them lying cold upon some battlefield with no one to care for them.  I cannot bring myself to believe — as others seem to — that somehow it would be worth it.  Is anything worth dying for?  Is this awful waste — this painful sacrifice — justified in God’s eyes?  (page 129)

One could call The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson a homefront novel of sorts.  While the men are off fighting, Emma and her cousin, Rachel, are pondering hair styles, clothes, and marriage.  But those conversations come to an end when Emma confronts death, hunger, cold, and Yankee soldiers.  The war actually comes to her doorstep, though what she experiences is nowhere near as horrible as what the men experienced on the battlefield.  It really drives home the point that war is a hardship for everyone, though at different degrees.

The Girl (age 11) read this book first, then told me I had to read it, too.  She says she thought it was interesting for the most part, but some parts dragged, and she didn’t think it was necessary for Emma to call her family Brother Cole, Cousin Rachel, and Baby Elizabeth over and over.  She thought that was annoying.  I see her points, but the book was so short that these things didn’t bother me as much.

The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson is a good book for parents and children to read together about the Civil War.  It definitely raises some talking points about war and slavery, how war dramatically changes every day life, how it forced children to grow up early, and how it pushed people to their limits.  The novel is not a cheerful one, and at times, Emma seems to lose all hope and wonders if things will be this bad forever.  But that feeling of desolation, helplessness, and pain is what makes it authentic.

Disclosure: We borrowed When Will This Cruel War Be Over? The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson from our local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★★ (the Minor Works overall)

I’m still working my way through Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, concentrating for the moment on the short writings in Volume the First, which were written between 1787, when Austen was just 12 years old, through 1790.  These short pieces were written in notebooks and read aloud to her family and friends.

Edgar and Emma is a “novel” with three chapters that take up about four pages.  The first chapter gives an interesting description of the Marlows, Sir Godfrey and Lady Marlow and their two daughters, Emma being the youngest.  Sir Godfrey doesn’t understand why they are staying in “deplorable Lodgings” in a “paltry Market-town” when they own three houses where they could be living instead.  Lady Marlow agrees, not knowing why they have stayed so long, but Sir Godfrey says it was solely for her pleasure.  Austen’s humor emerges right away, when readers discover that they have been living in these Lodgings at a “great inconvenience” for two whole years!

While the first chapter seems very similar to how Austen sets the scenes in the beginning of her later novels, the final three chapters are very quick, without much character development but much melodrama and tragic romance.  Austen seems to enjoy poking fun at overly emotional women who are quick to faint, cry, or lock themselves away forever when minor setbacks occur in their relationships.  In Edgar and Emma, readers are never really introduced to Edgar, who is merely mentioned.  We just know that he is the eldest son of the Willmots, whose family is so large that they can’t all fit in the family’s coach.  Only nine could travel at one time, and they took turns.

Emma is eager to see her dear Edgar, but he is not one of the Willmots to come calling when the Marlows return home.  I’m not going to say where Edgar is or describe Emma’s over-reaction, but Austen creates so much drama with such simple language and sparse prose.  I was laughing out loud at Emma’s hysterics, and I could image Austen chuckling herself as she composed these lines.  There is not much of a plot in Edgar and Emma, and of course, the characters could have been fleshed out more, but the only thing really missing from this piece is dialogue, which Austen later proved to master.  Although many of the works in the Juvenilia are unfinished or really short and quick, like Edgar and Emma, readers can see little glimpses of the characters she would create later on in her novels.

Henry and Eliza is among my favorite works in the Juvenilia.  This one is a little longer at seven pages, and the young Austen really went all out with the melodrama and tragedy in this one.  Eliza was found at the age of 3 months (amusingly already able to talk) under a Haycock by Sir George and Lady Harcourt, who took her in.  Much is said about Eliza’s beauty and happiness that it seems Eliza could do no wrong.  However, she is quickly cast out by her adopted parents when she is caught stealing a banknote.

Such a transition to one who did did not possess so noble & exalted a mind as Eliza, would have been Death, but she, happy in the conscious knowledge of her own Excellence, amused herself, as she sate beneath a tree with making & singing the following Lines.  (page 34 in the The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen:  Volume VI:  Minor Works)

Because Eliza is just so darn wonderful (except she’s already proven that she’s not and will continue proving that in the pages ahead), she finds a new living situation right away as the Humble Companion to the “Dutchess of F.”  Eliza and the Dutchess’ daughter were poised to be such good friends, sisters even, until Eliza steals away her lover, Mr. Cecil.  Henry and Eliza marry quickly, then leave for the Continent, worried about the Dutchess’ reaction.  From there, Austen infuses her story with a pursuit by the Dutchess’ army of 300, tragedy in Henry and Eliza’s marriage, captivity in a tower, a hilarious escape, and an even funnier reunion with the adopted parents who tossed her out and her mother’s serious problems with memory loss.  It was one of the silliest, most ridiculous stories I’d ever read, and definitely the light entertainment I’m so in need of these days.

Finally, I read The Beautiful Cassandra, which was dedicated to Austen’s sister, Cassandra.  It’s a novel in 12 chapters, but is really short at only a few hundred words and about four pages.  Each chapter encompasses only a sentence or two, making it perfect for readers who need a little Jane Austen fix every now and again.  Cassandra is an only child; her mother is a “Millener” and her father is of noble birth.  When she turns 16, Cassandra, described as “lovely & amiable,” falls in love with a bonnet made by her mother and wears it as she walks out of the shop and into the world “to make her Fortune.”

Cassandra engages in a host of silly and senseless activities.  For instance, she eats six ices and doesn’t pay, then takes a Hackney Coach to Hampstead and immediately after arriving turns around and goes back.  And of course, she couldn’t pay the driver.  Cassandra may be beautiful as the title suggests, but she doesn’t have much sense.  She sets out to make something of herself, but returns home after almost seven hours, declaring the day “well spent.”  It seems as though Austen and her sister shared a similar sense of humor, and I’m sure her sister Cassandra was nothing like the Cassandra in this short tale.

I’m having a lot of fun trying to read all of Jane Austen’s published works.  The Juvenilia obviously isn’t as good as her novels, but it’s a must-read for Austen fans, and these short writings are quite entertaining.  I love how I can flip through my edition of the Minor Works until something catches my fancy.  I hope to read more from the Juvenilia in the coming year.

Disclosure: The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Volume VI: Minor Works is from my personal library.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Disquiet and desire.  All the difference between world and want — the difference between being an adult who counted the cost and a child who just got on it and went, for instance.  All the world between.  Yet not that much difference at all.  Bedfellows, really.  The way you felt when the roller coaster car approached the top of the first steep grade, where the ride really begins.

Disquiet and desire.  What you want and what you’re scared to try for.  Where you’ve been and where you want to go.  Something in a rock-and-roll song about wanting the girl, the car, the place to stand and be.  Oh please God can you dig it.

(from It, page 1085)

I still don’t know how Serena talked me into reading It, given the fact that clowns really, really creep me out, but I’m glad she did.  After being disappointed by The Birthing House by Christopher Ransom, I’d been looking for a book that would truly scare me, and while I can’t say I was terrified at any point while reading It, there were a few times when I didn’t want to turn the lights off until my husband came to bed.

Stephen King showcases his talent as a storyteller in It, which focuses on an evil entity living under the fictional town of Derry, Maine, that emerges every 27 years to feed on children (and the occasional adult) and the seven kids who join forces to beat it.  Led by Bill Denbrough, whose little brother, George, is brutally murdered by It in the form of Pennywise the clown, the self-proclaimed “Losers” — Ben Hanscom, Richie Tozier, Eddie Kaspbrak, Beverly Marsh, Stan Uris, and Mike Hanlon — spend much of the summer of 1958 contemplating ways to rid Derry of It, an evil with many faces based on the fears of its prey and the ability to control the people and world around it.

The novel shifts back and forth in time, mainly between 1958, when the gang thought they killed It, and 1985, when Mike — now Derry’s librarian — realizes It has begun another killing spree and reminds his old friends about the blood oath they made 27 years before — that if it started up again, they’d come back and get rid of It once and for all.  However, only Mike remembers what happened that day under the city in 1958, and as the others slowly remember, they wonder whether they can recapture the faith and power they had as children, because only that will rid Derry of the evil that has plagued it since prehistoric times.

King includes many details about Derry and its people, and at times he seems to ramble a lot.  At first, I thought a large chunk of the book’s 1,090 pages probably could have been cut out, but after turning the final page, I changed my mind.  He jerks readers back and forth in time and tells seemingly unnecessary and unrelated stories, and then a light goes on and you see how these details fit into the larger scheme of things.

Derry is a messed up town, a town with a violent past, a town with a lot of stories to tell, and only when these stories are told does the reader understand how long It has been on the prowl and how much of a hold It has on its inhabitants.  Can you imagine anyone sitting at a bar and ignoring a gruesome ax murder occurring behind them?  Can you imagine all the men of the town positioning themselves in various locations of downtown to massacre a notorious gang in broad daylight?  You can once you learn that a clownish man or a man dressed in a clown suit was in the midst of the chaos.  It’s both chilling and fascinating, and it’s a novel where you just have to go with the flow and know that you’ll “get” it by the end.

There are several things that surprised me about It, beyond the fact that I could read about Pennywise and not have nightmares.  For some reason, I expected King’s writing to be more on the “fluffy” side (for lack of a better word), so I was surprised at his amazing use of language and description.  I was also surprised by how well he juggled so many main characters.  One could argue that Bill is the main character, as he is viewed as the leader, but the rest of the gang and even the bully Henry Bowers, who terrorizes them as children and as adults, get plenty of time in the spotlight.  King’s characters are so well developed, each with their own unique personalities.  They feel like real people, and you know them almost as well as you know yourself.  Moreover, I was surprised by how invested I was in these characters, so much so that I cried at the end of the Last Interlude.  I didn’t just tear up; I actually sobbed for a minute or two.

Readers shouldn’t be scared by the fact that It is a chunkster.  I read it over a period of five months, and each time I picked up the book, it felt like I hadn’t put it aside for a few weeks, it was still so fresh in my mind.  Readers also shouldn’t dismiss It as simply a horror novel.  Yes, there are some gory scenes, and yes, King plays with your mind a bit, but there’s a lot more going on here.  It is a coming-of-age story, a novel about friendship and love, and he touches upon the idea of childhood innocence, memory, and fear and how our perceptions of the world change as we get older.  The plot picks up the pace so that by the last section, I couldn’t read it fast enough.  It is a novel that is creepy, yet thought-provoking at the same time.  And believe it or not, despite the page length, I think it’s one I would read again in the future.

Disclosure: I received my copy of It as a gift. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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