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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-02-03 21:13
Longbourn, by Jo Baker: a Book review
Longbourn - Jo Baker

The story of Pride and Prejudice, but seen through the eyes of the hidden class, the servants in the Bennett household.  If you are a dyed-in-the-wool P&P fanatic, this might just turn you off, because the characters in P&P are mere backstory here.  In addition, it is a somewhat moody novel, even bleak or grim in places, without the cherry-on-top happy ending that we often crave, so bear that in mind.  That said, I liked it a lot (and I am a Jane Austen reader, but not a fanatic)  and am glad to have read it, and would recommend it.

Our hero is the Bennett's downstairs maid, Sarah, an orphan who chafes at her restricted life, and whose concerns are far more pressing than when the next ball might be.  The servants have a whole world of their own "under the stairs".  There is a hierarchy of servants, and they have their own spats, and secrets, as well as kindness and hope, and perhaps a bit of romance as well.  But their days are long, unbearably long, and their labors are far more burdensome than the upper-crust Bennetts might realize.  It was interesting to me, from a historical point of view, to see the amount of dirt and mess and muck and manure (lots of that) they had to deal with, while always appearing pristine, polite, and well-coiffed.  The reader unfamiliar with what it takes to maintain an "aristocratic" home (though the Bennetts barely make the cut, as country gentry) will be surprised by the long and arduous daily tasks the servants must do, and always do invisibly, to keep the household running.  There was a reason maids often died before age 30.

Our main character, Sarah, spends a lot of time complaining about her chilblains (blisters that arise when skin is exposed to extreme cold or heat).  She is in charge of laundry, so her hands are constantly subjected to hot water and cold water, and hot irons and and cold air, and yet she must take care not to get any fluids from her chilblains onto the laundry.  Then there's the wood to cut, the water to boil, the uniforms to starch and iron, the food to store and cook and serve and clean up after... This disconnect between the leisurely life of the Bennett sisters, who chat and read, visit with others,  and play the piano, while changing clothes three or four times a day, and the stupefying struggle of their maids to just get through the workload of another day really highlights the difference in the classes.  In some places I found Sarah to be a bit TOO modern in her thinking.  By that I mean that most house servants in the Regency era knew they were servants and were, quite early on I imagine,  disabused of any ideas of moving up in society.  Sarah has a more modern outlook:  she KNOWS she can be more.  That said, the truth of the matter is, she probably cannot.

The main housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, (I loved this character)  is stern but kind hearted, and (SPOILER ALERT) towards the end when Mr. Hill dies we discover just how kind-hearted she really was. She sees in Sarah the yearnings for a larger world, and tries to help her find some peace with her lot in life, as she herself has done.  But in Sarah's eyes, Mrs. Hill has merely "settled" for less than she could have had, and Sarah refuses to do so.  The reality was, in those Regency days, crossing "up" into higher levels of society was virtually impossible.  Mrs. Hill found her love and her peace where she could.

There's a love interest for Sarah, who seems like a good hearted fellow, but he leaves, and while he is gone, there is an exotic footman she meets as well, who pursue her a bit. So, SORT of a romantic love triangle, but not really, because good guy comes back and footman graciously yields.  (Through the footman's eyes we see how narrow Sarah's life experience really is.) Honestly the romance was far less interesting to me than the feeling of peeking behind the kitchen door to see what was REALLY going on in the gentry homes of that era, all across Europe.

Recommended.  Conservative parents should be aware of the presence in the novel of a brief mention of a loving, committed homosexual relationship, and an out of wedlock pregnancy. Makes for great conversations with your teens!

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2015-11-18 04:13
Book Review: The Naming, first book of Pellinor, by Alison Croggon
The Naming - Alison Croggon

How did I not notice this novel until now? Shame on me! Go buy it, all of you! Go now and get the whole set! I'm in process of getting the rest of them into my hot little hands.


The book opens with a marvelous "Note on the text", explaining that these folk tales from the Annaren society have not ever been translated into English before. The legends of the Edil-Amarandh people are therefore being here presented for the first time by the author. This intro lends a bit of historicity to the book. It is of course utterly fictional, but still, a delightful device.


Maerad, our heroine, is a lowly slave in her mid-teens, living in a pretty depressing mountain stronghold at the beginning of the book. She's considered a bit of a witch, and has only a few memories of her mother to console her in her lonely life. An accidental encounter in a barn changes everything: or was it accidental at all? Escaping her life of sorrow and drudgery with a strange man named Cadvan puts her on a road filled with danger and surprises, but also many delights.


They must first escape the evil that holds her in her mountainous prison. Along the way, Cadvan begins to suspect there is far more to Maerad than even she knows. He is a Bard, a musician and teacher. All Bards in the land of Annar are teachers of some kind, or makers, of everything from music and writing to swordplay and carpentry. The Barding schools, scattered across the country, have traditionally been places of learning, hope, and service.... but a darkness is spreading through the land, and Cadvan is out to find out where it comes from. As he begins to know more about Maered, he begins to suspect that she is of an ancient and important line, and may in fact be the Foretold, who will save the world from being engulfed in evil.  The two must travel across the land (well, not all of it yet, but I suspect that will come in the other books) to get assistance in getting Maerad instated as a Bard and to find out what is causing the growing Darkness.


SO much to like here.  The author is a gifted writer who bothers to craft marvelous sentences and meaningful dialogue.  The battle of Light against Darkness, obviously,  The stunning poetry of the lyrics. Vast and sweeping in scale like Tolkien (it even has an awesome hand drawn map at the front, so cool!,) I found it easier to read overall. There's considerable backstory added at the end, an explanation of the "Ages" of Annar. The charmingly imperfect female lead character of Maerad is easy to love, and she visibly grows in her maturity, self-knowledge, and confidence as the book progresses, and her slightly mysterious but likable male guide, Cadvan, has a back story that is only just getting revealed as the first novel ends. The good guys are complex, not flat, and just like in real life, often disagree about thing and even aggravate one another--  but they are connected and they know it, simply because they all love the good. The bad guys are not written as flat characters either.  In some cases, they even  appear to be good: "demons appearing as angels of light", if you are Scriptural. But the evil they do is centered on selfishness, and the darkness that grows from that is threatening the entire land.


I was utterly charmed by the beautiful lyrics to the songs in this book, and am dying to hear them sung aloud. (I had the same feeling about the songs from Anne McCaffrey's glorious Pern series, and finally managed to get my hands on a CD called MasterHarper of Pern.) If anyone knows whether or not the songs from this series have been scored and/or recorded, I would be eternally grateful.


I loved this. LOVED it. Read it in two days flat. Have already ordered the rest of the series. Ms. Croggon avoids cliches and heavy-handed foreshadowing, and (rare for me) I did not often know ahead of time what was going to happen. The bit with Hem was a great twist to the story and I hope we get to find out what develops with him as the series progresses. The characterizations are so wonderful, I feel like I know some of the people in this book as real persons.


Regarding this book for children: I highly recommend it. The book contains no sex and the only romance present is shown between married couples, with the exception of one poignant kiss for Maerad. Scary monsters/ evil creatures like weyrs and wights, do appear, and there are several instances which refer to bad guys doing terrible things to innocent people, especially towards the end as Maerad's memories return. But I would say, nothing a 6th grader (say age 11?) cannot handle, especially if they have already read anything by Tolkien, or The Hunger Games.


Put it in every school library and push it at your children. Make them listen to the audio CD in the car. This is a great book for young adults ... and for us regular ones, too.

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review 2015-03-28 21:04
Strikers, by Ann Christy
Strikers - Ann Christy

Book review for Strikers, by Ann Christy

What a joyous find, when I discovered this author quite accidentally via a free Kindle book. Ann Christy is a recently retired Naval officer and this book of her has me hunting down the rest of her work avidly. Strikers is the best kind of dystopian novel: strong central character, interesting ethical dilemmas, hints but not giveaways about the nature of the world and its collapse, thoughtful details, NO LOVE TRIANGLE (Thank you Ms. Christy for that), and an ending that, while satisfying, leaves me ready for book two. It is both a novel exploring the right role of government, a journey tale, and a coming of age story, all wrapped together.

Karras, 16, is our heroine, who lives alone with her abusive alcoholic mother, in a small Texas town in the Republic of Texas. Her father disappeared years ago across the border. The United States is apparently long gone, and several nations are now spread across the continent. They do not apparently get along very well at all. The state of things beyond the boundaries of the nation is reported to be quite terrible: but is that true? The event(s) leading to this state of affairs are not discussed in this first novel, but I wonder if they will come further in. Within Texas, society is pretty orderly, and the law is quite clear and firm: you are allowed four 'strikes" or crimes, and for each you are given a stripe tattoo on the neck, or a "strike". Earn five, and you are labeled a "habitual criminal" and executed, with alarming efficiency. Karras has two strikes already, for destruction of a neighbor's property (even though it was accidental). In Texas you have total freedom: but you also have to take total responsibility for all actions.

When Karras and her friend Connor attend the mandatory "parade of prisoners" in town, they make two startling discoveries: first they discover that Conner's brother, Maddix, who ran off a few years before to cross the border into the Wildlands, has been captured and returned, and will surely be killed for his crime of leaving. But they also discover that one of the other prisoners is Karras' father. He too is certain to be marked for execution: and Karras and Connor quickly decide they have to take action to rescue them. Things go badly: a clean get away becomes impossible.

Thus begins a headlong flight out of Texas, along with her friend Cassi, who is blessed with natural physical beauty and a cheerful, kind heart, and an old acquaintance, Jovan, who despite his wealth and family's elevated position turns out to have his own reasons for wanting out of Texas. Unfortunately, Jovan's father does not wish to let him go. The group is pursued with relentless intent by evil henchmen who were hired by Jovan's father, to return him, at all costs. As they travel, they must find food, shelter, and water, and learn the different cultural norms in each area they approach, but they also have to avoid the bad men chasing them.

There are so many things I appreciated about this novel. First off, strong female character who does not fall apart or cry all the freaking time, and does not need or pursue a romance. Second, relatedly, NO LOVE TRIANGLE. This is a HUGE plus for me, as it seems all dystopian novels lately must have this absurd gimmick, and she avoids it entirely, thank you Ms. Christy!! Third, realistic world: we are never really told entirely what happened to lead to the separation of the states into competing and often hostile nations with tightly closed borders, but hints are given, and the regional differences have, over time, developed into cultures that are different and have different concerns and priorities. Karras thinks Texas has the best of all things, but she begins to discover that perhaps what she has been told about life outside Texas is just propaganda after all. The reader gets to learn about things as the characters learn about things: slowly, bit by bit. I very much enjoyed watching Karras and her friends encounter and struggle to understand new things, like squirrels and the Gulf of Mexico.

I also got a real kick out of figuring out the map as she travels. Names have changed and some towns are gone while others remain, such as Houston. As a North Texan, I really enjoyed this: Wicha, for example, is surely Wichita Falls. Benton is most likely Denton. The sunken city of Nola must be New Orleans, and its plight a hint at what may have occurred to change he world so drastically. The Mighty Miss, clearly, is the Mississippi River, and so on.

The novels asks some pretty serious questions: What is freedom worth? Is total order and peace possible, and if so, what is the price we pay for that? Where should the balance between social order and personal liberty be drawn? In Karras' hometown, things are orderly, but not really fair: yet the people have agreed to live this way and now it has become institutionalized. Some families hold the vast majority of water and land: the rest make do. Wealthier families are far less likely to earn a strike for the same exact action that would earn a poor family a strike. This is known and simply accepted, with some frustration but no real sense that it can be changed. On the way they encounter places with a different set of balances.

There is romance in the book, but it is handled so softly that I will have no trouble putting this novel into my 8th grade classroom.  (basically two kisses, and a clear sense of attraction between two characters.) I am EAGER for the sequels to be released and in the meantime and buying other Ann Christy novels to read. I finished this one in two days.




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review 2015-03-09 00:48
Book Review: Naughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman

Book Review: Naughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman


Powerful and thought provoking book about prejudice. I found it disconcerting -- in the best possible way.


"Crosses" rule the country and are the only ones holding jobs in government and other higher-up well-educated careers, both economically and status-wise. Sephy, our heroine, is a Cross, and her father is powerfully high up.  Her mother, however, is a pretty miserable soul. Their money and social status cannot make her happy. (Lesson there!) 

Her love interest, Callum, is a Naught.  Romance between a Naught and a Cross is utterly unthinkable and unacceptable to everyone.  Naughts are not permitted higher education, but Callum really wants it: and suffers greatly when he gets a chance to go to school.  A few "Naughts" have gotten educated, but at great personal cost -- and with little to show for it, as Crosses simply won't hire them for jobs requiring educationed skills. Callum's family is struggling, both financially and emotionally, from the opening scene in the novel, despite being hard working and fairly loving individuals.  His sister is.... well, mentally unstable as a result of an "incident" which is never really fully revealed, but implications are clear.  His parents are exhausted, grief stricken, and worried.  His brother is just pissed off.  


For the first third or so of the book, it is unclear to the reader what exactly separates the Naughts from the Crosses.....and when you discover it, you will be startled and hopefully uncomfortable.  The book raises some powerful questions. For example, what if we are prejudiced and we do not even know it or see it in ourselves?   How do you change the mind of a prejudiced person? And a burning issue: what are the ethical limits of revolt when you are being grossly oppressed?  Is militant violence acceptable?  Necessary?  Even noble and understandable? 


As both Sephy and Callum wrestle with this situation, the tension seeps into their own relationship. Things become messay and complicated, just like in real life, and they struggle to discern what is the right thing to do in the face of rising violence and opposition to their relationship. 


This may be the best novel for youth on racism that I have ever read. 

Not appropriate for younger students, say beneath high school age,  as there is considerable adult drunkenness, some very nasty racially motivated bullying, a handful of kidnappings and beatings, one instance of premarital sex and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But a powerful read for older students, say 15 and up,  or those concerned with racism and other social justice issues.

Kudos to the author,  I look forward to reading her other novels. 

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