Book Review: The McCloud Home for Wayward Girls

Judging by the author blurb in the back of the book,The McCloud Home for Wayward Girlsis Wendy Delsol’s first book for adults, as opposed to young adults. It shows, particularly in the first couple chapters, as Ms. Delsol lays the groundwork for the book’s mystery and begins to build suspense around the tissue of lies the characters have created for themselves. But as the novel gains speed, Ms. Delsol gains confidence, and the writing becomes less clunky and much smoother.

By the end of the book, the reader realizes that the main character, Jill, and those closest to her have been living in a world of lies for decades. Nothing is as it seems, and the entire house of cards comes down when Ruby, Jill’s mother and family matriarch, begins acting very strangely. All’s well that ends well, but it is an emotionally wrenching journey to get there.

I do recommend this book — stick with it through the first couple chapters and you will be well-rewarded. Four out of five stars.

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Book Review: In the Shadow of the Moon

In the Shadow of the Moon, by M. M. Kaye, is a sweeping novel of Regency and Victorian England and India. The bulk of the novel is set in India in the dying days of the Company Raj, when India was ruled by the East India Trading Company of Britain.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead. The latter part of the book contains many graphic descriptions of people being violently killed during the Mutiny, when the Indians of the British Army in India rebelled against their British masters.

This is a very good book. I enjoyed it very much, although I was unprepared for the violence. Mrs. Kaye is an excellent writer, and although she herself is British and sympathetic to the British rule of India, she does present the Indian perspective, too. It did cross my mind to wonder how accurate that presentation is, but as far as I can tell from the distance of 150 years and thousands of miles, it seems fairly accurate.

I have also read Mrs. Kaye’s autobiography, The Sun in the Morning, and so I know Mrs. Kaye grew up in India. It was British policy to have children go home (to Britain) at the age of seven or eight for schooling, but she was prevented from doing so by World War I, so she spent many more years in India than most British children and did not go to Britain until she was a teenager. According to the jacket of In the Shadow of the Moon, she also returned to Britain as an adult, with her husband, in the 1950s. I believe these experiences of India as a teenager and an adult helped her to see the perspective of Indians, not just Britons.

I find In the Shadow of the Moon to be deeply frightening, in that the the British leaders willfully ignored the signs of impending mutiny and refused to take any action that might have prevented it (on the grounds that mutiny was not going to occur and it would cause a loss of morale to be seen doing anything that might prevent it). Reading this book, and descriptions of the genocide in Rwanda of a few years back, I realize that when the mob comes for you, there is nothing you can do.

In my area, there are many people who prepare (not in a scary way, just a very, very prepared way) to have supplies in case of a natural disaster/emergency/collapse of society. I also prepare, but in a more low-key way. It makes me wonder if they are truly prepared, am I truly prepared, for the kind of emergency that results in the loss of normal societal behavior. Watching New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was very scary. The people preparing here often hold educational seminars on how to prepare supplies for a disaster, and while I am sure they truly don’t want their neighbors to be in trouble, I suspect there is also more than a little self-interest there.

I don’t know if there is any real point to this rambling. In the Shadow of the Moon just made me think about how fast a society can collapse into utter anarchy and destruction. It is a very good book, and I recommend it.

Four out of five stars.

 

Book Review: Saving CeeCee Honeycutt

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman

This is a fantastic book for a first novel. CeeCee has been taking care of her bipolar, psychotic mother for years, as her traveling salesman father ignores the problems he can’t solve on his own.

Carl Honeycutt was much older and married Camille knowing she was moody. Sometime after taking her North to Ohio, she began exhibiting signs of bipolar disorder and eventually psychosis when she refused to take her medicine.

Did Camille show signs of mental illness first, or did Carl have a girlfriend in Detroit first? Hoffman implies the latter, but doesn’t really engage or answer the question. Carl refused to ask for help, ignored the neighbor who tried to help (and who subsequently moved away), and didn’t notify Camille’s family of the problems Camille was having. He left his daughter, Cecilia Rose, CeeCee, to take care of her mother as best she could. When CeeCee was twelve, Camille was hit by an ice cream truck on her way to the Goodwill store where she was a regular purchaser of old prom dresses, helping her relive her glory days as the 1951 Vidalia Onion Queen.

After her mother’s death, CeeCee’s great-aunt, Aunt Tootie, comes and takes her away to Savannah. In a magical world of women, CeeCee learns to grieve and how to live again. She helps Mrs. Goodpepper catch slugs to fling into her neighbor’s, Mrs. Hobbes, backyard and watches the serious consequences. She finds a second mother in Oletta Jones, Aunt Tootie’s cook, and watches her cope with racism and a frightening theft that turns against the thief.

She brings sunshine to the nursing home where Oletta’s aunt is living out her days, and in return Oletta’s aunt and her best friend come to the party welcoming CeeCee to Savannah. At the end of the book, at the end of summer and after coming to terms with her mother’s life and death, CeeCee heads off to her new school to start the new school year in company with her new friend, her first friend her own age.

This is a sweet, heartwarming book. I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to Ms. Hoffman’s future novels. This was a great novel, and I am sure her future offerings will only improve. Definitely an author to look for again.

After writing this review, I saw the review by Publishers Weekly (on Google Books). That reviewer liked the book much less. The review ends:

Unfortunately, any hint of trouble is nipped in the bud before it can provide narrative tension, and Hoffman toys with, but doesn’t develop, the idea that Cecelia could inherit her mother’s mental problems. Madness, neglect, racism and snobbery slink in the background, but Hoffman remains locked on the sugary promise of a new day.

I definitely disagree with these statements. I think the book is written from the perspective of a twelve-year-old, and so the problems are dealt with at that level, not at an adult level. The idea of Cecilia inheriting her mother’s illness is not developed further because the adult characters are trying to reassure Cecilia, not scare her. I’m not sure how the question could have been further addressed without leaving Cecilia’s point of view behind. Also, and I think this is important, the book is set in the early 1960s, perhaps 1962 or 1963. There was not a whole lot to be done for the treatment of mental illness at the time, and I think the characters’ attitudes of hoping for the best with Cecilia are in perfect keeping with the times.

I think that the times can also explain the racism and snobbery that are problems in the book but not really dealt with. I think those were issues not really being talked about then, especially by white people. It was something to ignore, which is exactly how the characters behave.

For me, I don’t like reading books set in the past where the characters have modern discussions and attitudes. I would much rather read a book that accurately (or as accurately as possible) reflects the attitudes of society at that time. I’m sorry that the reviewer at Publishers Weekly doesn’t understand that pleasure.

I give Saving CeeCee Honeycutt four stars out of five.

Book Review: Cinnamon Gardens

Cinnamon Gardens, by Shyam Selvadurai, is a meticulously researched account of two distantly related families in an exclusive (and eponymous) neighborhood  in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), in the late 1920s. I really enjoyed the book, but I have read much about the British Empire and its colonies. A reader without that knowledge might be somewhat mystified by portions of the novel.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead.

The Mudaliyar Navaratnam, member of the Governor’s Council, rules his large house and the people in it with an iron hand. Twenty-eight years ago, when his eldest son wanted to marry a low-caste servant in the house, he exiled them both to Bombay and forbade the other members of the household from contacting them. Twenty years ago, upon learning that his younger son, Balendran, was living with another man as more than just flatmates, he traveled to England and destroyed their relationship. Now, Balendran’s former lover has returned to Ceylon with an English government research commission.

Meanwhile in the much smaller house next door, Louisa lives with her three daughters. They are distant relatives of the Mudaliyar and moved there after Louisa and her husband, the father of the girls, became estranged due to his return to Hinduism (after being a Christian for many years, like Louisa) and his abusive treatment of his eldest daughter, Annalakshmi. Annalakshmi, against the wishes of her family, has become a teacher and an aspiring feminist.

Mr. Selvadurai does an excellent job of evoking 1920s Ceylon and its oppressive social strictures. Woven throughout the book is an account of the caste and ethnic divisions in Ceylonese society, and how they translate into the politics. I have been rather interested in current Sri Lankan politics, particularly in the recent war between the Tamils of the north and the Sinhalese of the south. I found it fascinating to see the roots of this struggle in the colonial period and how the British Empire handled these divisions.

The book focuses mainly on Annalakshmi and Balendran. They each embody a different facet of struggling against Ceylonese society. Annalakshmi must fit herself into a society that considers women to be less than men, and fit only to be married. She also encounters racism when her beloved teacher and headmistress, Miss Lawton, refuses to promote her to assistant headmistress of the school when the position opens, and instead hires a male clerk. Annalakshmi discovers that appearances are everything, and that she can easily become an outcast of polite society for the smallest, seemingly innocent actions, like riding a bicycle.

Balendran learns that he can acknowledge his homosexuality and reach out to the man he loved in college without endangering his wife and son’s home and position. He does not need to remain in thrall to his father, but at the same time he does not need to run away from his duties that make possible the house his wife loves and the education his son is receiving in England.

Having sent away his former lover because they fell in love again, at the end of the book Balendran writes to him, asking for his friendship even though he, Balendran, cannot offer more because of his obligations to his wife and son. Through this, and earlier confronting his father, Balendran releases himself from the web of guilt and recrimination that has haunted him since his father’s visit to England.

Cinnamon Gardens is an excellent book about finding one’s place in society, and the nature of love, marriage, and family. Four out of five stars.

This Week’s Reading

Updated: More books added at the end.

New from the library:

Till the End of Tom: Gillian Roberts: finished

The Crimson Rooms: Katherine McMahon — finished: absolutely fantastic, love this book, plot is not predictable and takes some great twists and turns, yet nothing seems out of character or unbelievable for the characters. I would write a longer review, but I do not want to spoil the book. This is a rare book, one so amazing, that it should only have its ending revealed in the proper way, by actually reading the book. I can think of only two other books for which I would say that. Five out of five stars.

Two Classic Stanislawski Novels: Nora Roberts: classic romance, but sometimes one just wishes to escape into a simple story. — finished — I found myself impatient with the plot, since it was quite obvious who was going to fall in love with whom.

Moon Mirror: Andre Norton: see description of above book, omit classic romance. *grin* — finished — turned out to be a collection of short stories. Quite enjoyable, and I found myself wishing I could find out more after the end of some of the stories.

Also read last week but didn’t post separately:

A Year on Ladybug Farm: Donna Ball: Excellent book, with unexpected plot twists. Quite enjoyable.

A Risk Worth Taking: Robin Pilcher: He is just as good at writing as his mother (Rosamunde Pilcher) and I quite enjoyed the book. I read some early criticism of his first books, as not being very good, but I considered the critics should cut him some slack with his first couple books, they can’t all be as good as his mother’s masterpieces (and, when it comes down to it, not all his mother’s books were as good as her masterpieces). But I think Mr. Pilcher is slowly coming into his own, and this book, his third, shows it. I was disappointed at the end that there weren’t more pages. I can’t wait to get the next ones written and that he will write in future. Four out of five stars.

And … we went back to the library, so I got more books (of course):

Thicker than Water: Rett MacPherson: finished
Orchard Valley: Debbie Macomber — didn’t read because I had already read it. :(
Afternoons with Emily: Rose McMurray: finished: Very good, but I wanted it to focus more on Emily Dickinson than it did. The ending also felt a little rushed, but still good. Four out of five stars.
Unfinished Desires: Gail Godwin: finished — this was really good. About the way our past behavior can haunt us and change the course of our life and that of others for years. I found it haunting, because we don’t normally think of the consequences our actions have on the lives of the other people around us. Four out of five stars.

Book Review: Lady Vernon and Her Daughter

Lady Vernon and Her Daughter by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway is an adaptation and expansion of a novella, Lady Susan, by Jane Austen. I enjoyed the book very much, and I thought Rubino and Rubino-Bradway did an excellent job of adaptation.

Just like a true Austen novel, Lady Vernon and Her Daughter starts slowly but gradually becomes more interesting and lively. I thought some of the phrases a bit unlike Austen’s voice, but the first quarter of Lady Susan is provided at the back of the book, and some of the very phrases I had found annoying were there, written in the original.

I thought the adaptation very clever, because the original is written in epistolary form, so it consists entirely of letters. The authors take those letters, provide a history, and weave the letters into a continuous narrative.

Spoiler Alert: Spoilers Follow

The original makes Lady Vernon (Lady Susan) out as not a very nice person, and in fact quite flirtatious with married men, and manipulative. The genius of the adaptation is that it takes this flirtatious, manipulative person, explains her actions, provides her motives, and shows how many of her actions were misperceived by those around her.

In the end, the cruel brother-in-law is foiled, and he actually loses his inheritance (gained through manipulation of his brother) when Lady Vernon is delivered of her late husband’s baby, his son and heir. I thought that was a nice touch, but I couldn’t help but wonder if that was in the original. I somewhat doubt it, but as only the first quarter of the novella is at the end of the book, I have no way of knowing. I rather want to see the original, but I’m not sure I’d actually read it, as the sample was a little clunky, especially due to the epistolary format.

Overall, an excellent book, especially compared to the material the authors had to work with. Four out of five stars.

One final note: in reading the comments of reviewers on the back of the book, I notice that C. Allyn Pierson, author of And This Our Life: Chronicles of the Darcy Family, writes, in part, “I believe that Jane Austen would be the first to congratulate the authors on their achievement.” I’m not so sure about that. Lady Susan was the turning point where Austen became an adult author, and I think she might have been upset at having her work messed with. But then again, maybe she would be pleased that someone was able to turn it into a novel.

Of course, the beauty of adapting Jane Austen’s work and rewriting it for a modern audience is that all the work is out of copyright, Jane Austen is dead, so she can’t complain, and she’s popular and readable. Overall, an ideal candidate. I sometimes wonder how much reasoning like that is behind the Austen adaptations we see, instead of a desire to emulate Austen. But I’m as guilty as anyone of seeking the books out, reading them, and enjoying them, so I probably shouldn’t complain.

Book Review: Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It is Maile Meloy’s new book of short stories. I found myself fascinated, riveted against my will, as the characters find their lives, against all odds, sliding to new lows.

I think the best story was the first one, “Travis, B.” in which a lonely ranch hand falls in love with a lawyer making an impossibly long drive twice a week across Montana to teach school law to teachers. He knows it’s impossible to have a relationship with her, but when a local replacement is unexpectedly found, he finds himself making that long, difficult, all-night drive across Montana just to see her one more time. She doesn’t ask to see him again, or ask him to stay, and he is disappointed, even though he would have had to say no. The cows and horses that depended on him were waiting for food and water.

The other stories were good, but the pathos either didn’t quite measure up to the first story or felt contrived.

Four out of five stars.

Book Review: Queen Bee of Mimosa Branch

Haywood Smith writes of Linwood Breedlove Scott, forced by her husband (now ex)’s financial profligacy and affairs to return home to her parents’ house after thirty years of being gone. She finds her town of Mimosa Branch, Georgia, to be much changed, but her family crazier (literally) than ever. But with an attitude of ‘Just for today. Just until tomorrow,’ and her supportive friend Trisha, she starts getting to know the community again. I laughed so hard I almost cried, and then there were the painful places where I almost cried. Wonderful book about a woman finding herself again in middle age.

Four out of five stars.

Mini Book Review: Chesapeake

I have finally finished Chesapeake by James Michener. I said months ago I would be reading it. Well, I finally did. It was excellent. I really enjoyed it. I might even read another James Michener novel, although it was a very long book. It would have taken a very long time if I hadn’t been feeling unwell. I have done nothing the past two days but read it.

I don’t have much else to say, except I had finished the entire book before I realized that he drops ‘casual’ remarks about the geography throughout the whole book, that put together tell the reader significant things about the land (and the way it was in the Ice Age), but he never quite comes out and says them. It was kind of mind-boggling.

Four out of five stars (one knocked off for sheer length).

The Blackstone Key: Book Review

I’m not sure if I liked The Blackstone Key or not. It is set in 1795 in England while France and Britain are at war. It centers on a young schoolteacher, Mary Finch, who receives an unexpected letter from her estranged uncle. She sets out to meet him and becomes caught up in a complicated web of spies, smugglers, and police.

Most of the book is quite convoluted and it is very difficult to discern the motives of several of the main characters. I picked up the book because I saw the sequel in the new book section at my library and I hate reading books out of order. Now I cannot decide if I liked this one well enough to bother getting the sequel.

Rose Melikan is adept at setting the scene. The author bio says she is an American who lives in England where she is a Fellow at Cambridge and researching “eighteenth- and early nineteenth British political and constitutional history.

Unlike some academics who write fiction books, she doesn’t overwhelm the reader with the history, but instead focuses on setting the scene and developing the plot. The history unfolds through the course of the book. The nice thing about this book is that, as an English resident, she uses the proper terms and dialect, yet as an American, she knows which terms will not be easily understood by American readers and explains them in a casual manner, as she lets the history unfold.

Spoiler alert: Small spoilers follow. Just as I was becoming completely frustrated with the convolutions of the plot and the opaque motives of Hicks, Deprez, and Holland, the whole plot opened up like a flower and all became clear. My original suspicions of Deprez were accurate, although I was not completely correct about his full motives. It was quite satisfying.

Unfortunately, to get to that point required holding several threads of the plot and several possible motives for each character in mind as the plot unfolded and motives crossed and recrossed. The more I think about it, the more I think I will read the sequel. If you want to read the book, be forewarned that it is complicated and opaque, and nothing is clear until the very end.

Four stars out of five.

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