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Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline 

orphan trainThe Grade: A

Why I Picked It: The author came and spoke at my public library

Quick Take: Molly, a Penobscot foster child, begins her community service at Vivian’s home in Bar Harbor. Vivian was sent on one of the orphan trains from New York city in the 1920’s and the novel alternates from the present to Vivian’s childhood.

My Thoughts: This will be one of my favorite reads of 2014. I adored this book. Both Vivian and Molly are compelling, empathetic, inspiring heroines and I loved both their stories. Sometimes with novels that alternate between time periods or narrators, I find myself bored with one and skipping through those chapters to get back to my preferred narrative. That wasn’t the case with Orphan Train.

As a Mainer, the Maine setting created a personal connection for me: I’ve  been to the Abbe Museum, my aunt curated the “Four Mollys” exhibit which included Molly Molasses, and Women of the Dawn is on my bookshelf.

I also want to believe that we find our way back to the people we love and that there are all kinds of families, not just the ones in which you are born, and there are echoes of both themes in this novel.

If you enjoy historical fiction, contemporary fiction, strong female characters, happy endings, good writing, or moving novels, I highly recommend Orphan Train.

 

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

BSBThe Grade: B

Why I Picked It: Recommended in Bookmarks Magazine and for #ReadWomen2014

Quick Take: In the 1950’s, a young woman runs away from her abusive father and marries a widower. When she gives birth, she discovers a secret his family has been hiding.

My Thoughts: A week later, I’m still puzzling over this book. I liked it, but I don’t think I will read it again. It’s billed as a Snow White story, and there are some echoes of Snow White, but I wouldn’t categorize this as a fairy tale retelling.

Of course, an underlying theme of the book is how people can’t be categorized by race or color. So maybe that’s the point.

It’s not a spoiler to say that when Boy marries Arturo Whitman and gives birth to their daughter Bird, she discovers that the Whitmans are light-skinned African-Americans living as whites. But Bird has black skin. As Bird herself later says, “I accidentally brought truth to light, and bringing truth to light is the right thing to do” (150).

In previous generations of the Whitmans, the children who couldn’t pass for white were sent to live with other relatives. But when Boy calls her sister-in-law, she asks her to take Snow, Arturo’s light-skinned daughter from his first marriage, instead.

There are interesting questions about race and identity, but we don’t get to know enough about the characters to know why they act the way they do. Why does Boy send Snow away for so long? Why is Aruturo okay with this? Snow can pass for white but grows up with black relatives. How does this affect who she is?

Then there is a new subplot introduced in the final chapters that raises more questions and casts new light on previous events.

There’s good stuff here, but it doesn’t quite connect for me.

 

The Message: The Reselling of President Obama by Richard WolffeThe Message

The Grade: A-

Why I Picked It: I’m an Obamaniac, a political junkie, and I work in communications.

Quick Take: Wolffe covers the messaging and communications strategy of the Obama reelection campaign

My Thoughts: This was an “A” book until the final chapter when Wolffe gets grand and lofty and moves beyond the scope of the reelection campaign’s messaging.

Overall, I loved it. Communications strategy and messaging fascinate me and I liked the limited focus of this book.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Grade: A-

buddha in the atticWhy I Read It: I was inspired by Lilit Marcus’s decision to read only women writers for a year and Joanna Walsh’s #readwomen2014

Makes Me Want To: Read Otsuka’s first book, When the Emperor was Divine

Quick Take: Otsuka’s novella shares the experiences of Japanese picture brides, women who immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century to marry Japanese men.

My Thoughts: Otsuka uses first person plural narration, a rare narrative device that works wonderfully. She begins the story on the boat from Japan and the final chapter covers the forced relocation to internment camps during WWII.

I loved Otsuka’s prose. It’s evocative and lyrical. This is from the first chapter, when the picture brides are on the boat and some have left daughters behind in Japan:

We wept for her every night for many nights in a row and then one morning we woke up and dried our eyes and said “that’s enough,” and began to think of other things…Because we were on the boat now, the past was behind us, and there was no going back (12).

Others had ended affairs with married men, knowing there was no happy ending, but also knowing “we would do it all over in an instant, because being with him was like being alive for the very first time, only better” (16).

I can see why the novella is being added to curricula and reading lists. It’s powerful and compelling; a quick read, but one that lingers with you after you’ve finished the last page.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

 

I am MalalaGrade: A

My Thoughts: Malala is amazing and so inspiring. She grew up in the SWAT valley in Pakistan and began advocating for girls’ education when she was a child. When she was 15, the Taliban shot her in the head. She has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and on her 16th birthday she delivered a speech at the United Nations.

I am in awe.

Malala has a remarkable spirit and an incredible outlook. She will not be defeated. She is an icon, and she is also a typical teenage girl. She has fights with her best friends, watches Ugly Betty, and reads Twilight.

I hope her story is added to the curriculum in schools around the world.

“Are you scared now?” I asked my father. “At night our fear is strong, Jani,” he told me, ” but in the morning, in the light, we find our courage again.”

She and her family now live in England, and she has founded The Malala Fund to increase girls’ access to education. In the book, she quotes Muhammed Jinnah, founder of Pakistan:

“No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men. There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a third power stronger than both, that of women.”

 

 

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood

cocaine bluesGrade: A-

How I Found It: I began watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix. I loved the first one, and decided to read the first book, which I devoured in two days.

Makes Me Want To: Read the rest of the Phryne Fisher series

My Thoughts: I love mysteries. They are my genre fiction of choice, though some are more engaging than others, some have better settings than others, and some have more entertaining detectives than others.

Phryne Fisher is three for three.

The plot involves the cocaine trade, a Turkish bathhouse, Russian dancers, and the takedown of a butcher abortionist. The books are set in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1920’s, and Phyrne is fabulous. In reading a bit more about her, I learned that Kerry Greenwood wanted to create a female hero as free as a male hero. Victory.

I also read Flying Too High and Murder on the Ballarat Train. Phyrne’s third adventure was different and darker than the televised version, and not as enjoyable. Continue Reading »

[Note: I just found this review in drafts. Even though I read this in December 2012, I never got around to publishing this review. I've since read Maggie Hope #2 and Maggie Hope #3, and Mr. Churchill's Secretary remains my favorite]

Mr. Churchill's SecretaryThe Grade: A-

Makes Me Want To: Read more Maggie Hope mysteries, finally read Apollo’s Angels and Citizens of London, watch Enigma again, and read other WWII-era fun London fiction.

My Thoughts: The Unabridged Chick read this and recommended it. I’m so glad she did; I adored it. Maggie Hope is a young British citizen raised in Massachusetts academia by her aunt. She returns to London to sell her grandmother’s house, ends up staying, and is hired as a secretary for Prime Minister Winston  Churchill.

Maggie is a mathematician  and has a spot at MIT waiting for her. She really wants to be one of Churchill’s Private Secretaries, which would be a better use of her skills, but is denied because she is a woman. Maggie is not to be deterred, and what follows is a rollicking good historical fiction spy mystery, complete with codes, spies, terrorists, secret identities, friendship, love, and some feminism.

My one complaint is that after the denouement,  the story continued, and continued. And continued. This wasn’t a bad thing, in fact there was still story to tell, though the departure from traditional mystery pacing momentarily distracted me. Now that I’m familiar with MacNeal’s writing, I will be prepared for the future Maggie Hope mysteries.

Finally, I am concerned that since we meet Maggie in 1940, there are only another 5 years of World War II. However, the Cold War lasted several decades, so hopefully Maggie Hope will be with us for several more adventures.

2013 Favorite Reads

Excluding rereads, I read 47 books, essay collections, short stories, and plays in 2013.  Of the 47, most were fiction; I read only 11 nonfiction books this year, though I suppose the play (8 by Dustin Lance Black) could be considered nonfiction. I read 9 young adult or children’s books, and 9 mysteries.

This year, I didn’t have any five star reads, but about half were four stars. Here are some of my favorites:

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

Letters from SkyeThis is an epistolary novel about finding our way back to the people we love. In short, it is a novel written for me. Elspeth Dunn lives on the Isle of Skye and has never left. She is a published poet, and American college student David Graham writes her a fan letter, beginning their correspondence. The novel is told primarily through their letters, which begin in the early 20th century and continue through World War I, and letters of Elspeth’s daughter written during World War II.

I saw this on the new book shelf at my library and grabbed it. It is Brockmole’s first novel, and I look forward to her second.


The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Lucy variations

Another library find, this one a young adult novel about embracing uncertainty. Lucy was a concert pianist, a child prodigy at the top of her game, until she walked away from it. She has’t touched a piano since. Now her 10 year old brother has a piano teacher who may help Lucy find her way back to music. This is from the goodreads description: “The Lucy Variations is a story of one girl’s struggle to reclaim her love of music and herself. It’s about finding joy again, even when things don’t go according to plan. Because life isn’t a performance, and everyone deserves the chance to make a few mistakes along the way.”

It’s okay not to know what’s next–a good message for me right now.

I looked for the playlist Lucy makes for Will and haven’t found it, so I have tried to create it myself on Spotify.

CuckooThe Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) 

This wasn’t on my radar until the news broke that it was actually a J.K. Rowling novel. I got a sample on my eReader and was hooked. Jo Rowling is a fantastic writer, and as a fan of mysteries and private detective stories, I loved this. Cormoran Strike is a good lead detective and I really liked Robin Ellacott, his assistant/secretary. The mystery is interesting and entertaining, too. There are more Strike mysteries coming, thank goodness, and I’m sure they will be on many more radars now.


Morantholgy by Caitlin Moran

MoranthologyAh, Caitlin Moran. To call her Britain’s Tina Fey is insufficient. Caitlin Moran is Caitlin Moran. Funny, fierce, feminist, insightful, etc., her collection of essays cover a diverse range of topics including drinking with Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey, visiting a sex club with Lady Gaga, geeking out on the set of Doctor Who, defending public libraries, her hair, growing up poor, balancing work and parenting during summer break, burqas, internet trolls, and Keith Richards, to name a few.

I adore Caitlin Moran. I follow her on twitter, and I started following the Guardian on twitter and facebook hoping to see more of her columns. That hasn’t worked, but I do appreciate the Brit news.

The Great Pearl Heist The Great Pearl Heist by Molly Caldwell Crosby

In 1913, jewel thieves planned and executed a bold heist to steal a pearl necklace. This was before cultured pearls, so pearls were even more valuable. Crosby’s account of the events and aftermath is well-paced and highly readable. It is a heist story, and a true one. I also loved the pre-World War I England setting.

In honor of Equal Pay Day, I’ve decided to share the response I received from Senator Angus King about equal pay, specifically the Paycheck Fairness Act. The Paycheck Fairness Act would prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who discuss their salaries, and require employers to prove pay gaps are necessary for the business, tied to job performance, and not related to gender. All good things in my book. Senator King disagrees.

Because I have to have the last word, I’m responding to his response. My comments are in [blue brackets].

Dear Amy,

Thank you for being in touch with me about the Paycheck Fairness Act. [Your'e welcome!] While I fully support the goal of achieving gender pay equity [whoo-hoo!], I am not sure that this bill is the best approach we can take to solving this problem. Congress and the President already passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 [I know; I'm so proud], which I believe strikes the correct balance between ensuring women’s rights to challenge wage discrimination and the ability of business owners to avoid excessive regulatory burdens [excessive regulatory burdens? Like paying me the same amount of money as an equally qualified man who does the same work?]. We should work within the current legal framework, which already provides women with the opportunity to win compensation for discriminatory wage practices [only if they know the discriminatory practices exist], to close the gender pay gap.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, as modified by the Equal Pay Act of 1963, employers are prohibited from paying women lower wages than men who are working in positions with the same responsibilities and necessary skills [and we're still making less than 80 cents to the dollar, so there's room for improvement]. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, workers are allowed to file lawsuits against wage-discriminating employers within 180 days of their most recent affected paycheck. This means that under current law, women already have the latitude to contest wage discrimination at any point during their employment when their pay has been unfairly limited or reduced in comparison to their male co-workers [again, only if you know the wage discrimination is occurring. That's not something employers advertise in the break room].

The Paycheck Fairness Act presumes that these current protections are not enough. First, the Act would tighten the definition of what constitutes an allowable pay differential. Second, the Act would open the door for class-action lawsuits based on gender pay gaps, exposing employers to significant additional risks beyond the individual lawsuits they may already face [as they should if they are screwing over women]. Third, there would be added wage reporting requirements. I believe that these provisions place too much of a burden on employers without providing significant further protections for women in the workforce. This is why I cannot support the Paycheck Fairness Act as currently drafted. [So.....do you have a counter-proposal? Or do you think everything's working fine right now?]

Once again, thank you for being in touch with me. I really appreciate hearing the concerns and insights of my constituents as I join with the rest of my Senate colleagues in addressing the issues vital to our nation. Please feel free to contact me in the future on other matters that I can bring to the Senate’s attention [I think we both know I will].

Best Regards,
ANGUS S. KING, JR.
United States Senator

So there you have it folks. Happy Equal Pay Day.

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