A Well-Behaved Woman

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A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts

By:  Therese Anne Fowler
Published:  
2018
# of pages:  400
Challenges:  A to Z, What’s in a Name? (“woman”)

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Goodreads description:

In 1883, the New York Times prints a lengthy rave of Alva Vanderbilt’s Fifth Ave. costume ball–a coup for the former Alva Smith, who not long before was destitute, her family’s good name useless on its own. Marrying into the newly rich but socially scorned Vanderbilt clan, a union contrived by Alva’s bestfriend and now-Duchess of Manchester, saved the Smiths–and elevated the Vanderbilts.

From outside, Alva seems to have it all and want more. She does have a knack for getting all she tries for: the costume ball–no mere amusement–wrests acceptance from doyenne Caroline Astor. Denied abox at the Academy of Music, Alva founds The Met. No obstacle puts her off for long.

But how much of ambition arises from insecurity? From despair? From refusal to play insipid games by absurd rules? –There are, however, consequences to breaking those rules. One must tread carefully.

And what of her maddening sister-in-law, Alice? Her husband William, who’s hiding a terrible betrayal? The not-entirely-unwelcome attentions of his friend Oliver Belmont, who is everything William is not? What of her own best friend, whose troubles cast a wide net?

Alva will build mansions, push boundaries, test friendships, and marry her daughter to England’s most eligible duke or die trying. She means to do right by all, but good behavior will only get a woman so far. What is the price of going further? What might be the rewards? There’s only one way to know for certain…

Review:  I checked this book out thinking it was a non-fiction biography.  However, I quickly discovered that it is actually a novel based on a real person and true events.  In the back of the book the author says why she decided to write a book about Alva Vanderbilt, where she found her references, and why she included certain elements in the book.

The story follows Alva Vanderbilt’s life from before she was a Vanderbilt to her extravagant life after marrying William K. Vanderbilt.  At the time, the Vanderbilts were new to New York City high society (basically the nation’s high society).  Alva was influential in the Vanderbilts’ acceptance.  The same energy, positivity, and tenacity that helped her accomplish that feat served her well in the years to come as she changed both NYC’s appearance and society.  As the years wore on, she also made a huge difference in women’s rights in the U.S. and Britain both intentionally and unintentionally.

Alva questioned norms and stood up for herself.  This novel allows the reader to see her point of view and question the information that has previously been published about this strong willed woman.  Of course it’s fiction and there’s no way to know exactly what Alva thought about or how she acted in private, but the author claims to have researched Alva’s life thoroughly and explains why she chose to portray Alva the way she did.

I recommend this book to fans of historical fiction and biographies.

Why I gave this book 4/5 stars: Interesting, well written, informative.

The Map of Salt and Stars

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The Map of Salt and Stars

By:  Jennifer Seynab Joukhadar
Published:  2018
# of pages:  361
Challenges:  What’s in a Name (both “of” AND “and”), A to Z, Monthly Motif (cover love), Book Bingo (chose because of cover)
Quote:  “People make such beautiful things, I think, even though they destroy so much.”

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Goodreads description:

The story of two girls living eight hundred years apart—a modern-day Syrian refugee seeking safety and a medieval adventurer apprenticed to a legendary mapmaker.

It is the summer of 2011, and Nour has just lost her father to cancer. Her mother, a cartographer who creates unusual, hand-painted maps, decides to move Nour and her sisters from New York City back to Syria to be closer to their family. But the country Nour’s mother once knew is changing, and it isn’t long before protests and shelling threaten their quiet Homs neighborhood. When a shell destroys Nour’s house and almost takes her life, she and her family are forced to choose: stay and risk more violence or flee as refugees across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in search of safety. As their journey becomes more and more challenging, Nour’s idea of home becomes a dream she struggles to remember and a hope she cannot live without.

More than eight hundred years earlier, Rawiya, sixteen and a widow’s daughter, knows she must do something to help her impoverished mother. Restless and longing to see the world, she leaves home to seek her fortune. Disguising herself as a boy named Rami, she becomes an apprentice to al-Idrisi, who has been commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily to create a map of the world. In his employ, Rawiya embarks on an epic journey across the Middle East and the north of Africa where she encounters ferocious mythical beasts, epic battles, and real historical figures.

Review:  I’ll be honest, I chose to read this book based on the cover and the title.  I’m a geographer (majored in geography with a concentration in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  My dad is also a geographer as is my husband.  So needless to say, anything to do with maps catches my attention!

This book is hard to review.  It was beautiful and heartbreaking and enlightening, but I also felt it was a little over-the-top as far as cliches and being oversentimental.  For some reason it fell a little flat for me, but at the same time, I appreciated it and think it was an important read.  Something I haven’t figured out yet is that there’s a paragraph in the book where the mom talks about Straight Street in Damascus and how it’s mentioned in the Bible.  I didn’t have any recollection of this although it’s possible I’ve read that passage of the Bible.  The day after I finished this book I went to a church service and the sermon was about this same passage of the Bible.  Straight Street and all.  So I feel like it’s significant, but I don’t know how yet.

Sorry to get personal on my blog and mention religion, but I can’t get it out of my head.  This isn’t a religious book although Muslim traditions are mentioned here and there.  It’s also mentioned how the main character, Nour, was raised both Catholic and Muslim.  For the most part the religious aspects are just generally mentioned, but that’s one reason why I found this “coincidence” in my life even more profound.

The book is about a girl, Nour, who was born in New York. After her father’s death her mom, a mapmaker, moved her and her two sisters back to their original home in Syria.  Unfortunately their arrival takes place just before the violence in Syria erupts.  Nour and her family become refugees, just like the ones we’ve been hearing about on the news in the U.S. over the past few years.  As Nour’s family travels from place to place they meet new friends and encounter both dangers and wonders.

Nour’s story intertwines with the story of Rawiya, a young woman in the 1100s who is apprenticed to a mapmaker and goes on a journey to discover and record new places.  Not only does she discover new places, she makes friends and is forced to confront many dangers.

Overall, I recommend this book to both adults and mature young adults.  There is an intense part that may trigger victims of sexual assault.  I now want to learn more about the conflict in Syria.  This story is a great way to enable readers to “walk” in a refugee’s shoes.

Why I gave this book 3/5 stars:  Important story, beautifully written, seemed a little “empty” to me for some reason.

 

The Clan of the Cave Bear

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The Clan of the Cave Bear

By:  Jean M. Auel
Published:  1980
# of pages:  516
Series:  Earth’s Children (#1)
Challenges:  A to Z

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Goodreads description:

Through Jean M. Auel’s magnificent storytelling we are taken back to the dawn of modern humans, and with a girl named Ayla we are swept up in the harsh and beautiful Ice Age world they shared with the ones who called themselves the Clan of the Cave Bear.

A natural disaster leaves the young girl wandering alone in an unfamiliar and dangerous land until she is found by a woman of the Clan, people very different from her own kind. To them, blond, blue-eyed Ayla looks peculiar and ugly–she is one of the Others, those who have moved into their ancient homeland; but Iza cannot leave the girl to die and takes her with them. Iza and Creb, the old Mog-ur, grow to love her, and as Ayla learns the ways of the Clan and Iza’s way of healing, most come to accept her. But the brutal and proud youth who is destined to become their next leader sees her differences as a threat to his authority. He develops a deep and abiding hatred for the strange girl of the Others who lives in their midst, and is determined to get his revenge.

Review:  I searched a bit to see if there were any articles that mentioned how the animated movie “The Croods” was inspired by this book from the 80s, but I didn’t see anything about that being the case.  Basically, The Clan of the Cave Bear is an amazingly elaborate and detailed version of “The Croods.”  I mean, really, they’re incredibly similar.

After a cave in destroys their cave, a clan wanders to try to find a new cave.  On the way they meet Ayla (instead of Guy) who looks different and thinks differently than they look and think.  The clan takes her in, but over the years they are constantly challenged by her ideas and feelings.  Her mind works differently than theirs.  She is able to come up with new ideas (sound familiar?), something that hasn’t happened in the clan for thousands of years.  Their brains aren’t capable of thinking of new ways of doing things and the fact that Ayla’s brain is able to make new connections and that she challenges the clan’s traditions is both fascinating and frightening for the clan members.

The book is remarkably detailed.  I found myself amazed that it sounded so real and had to keep reminding myself that we don’t know that much about early people.  This is mostly fiction, but the author must have researched hunter/gatherer ways of life and what there is to know about early humans.

I became intensely wrapped up in Ayla’s story.  She kept showing her differences in dangerous way and I’d like be like, NOOOO. Not again, please get out of this danger.  Please, clan, don’t send her away.  I was a little emotionally caught up in the story!

Two people I know who have similar tastes in reading to my own said that they really enjoyed this first book of the series, but didn’t like the following books.  If you’ve read all the books what do you have to say to this opinion? Should I keep reading the series or leave it at the first book that I enjoyed?

Why I gave this book 4/5 stars:  Amazing world building, interesting plot, and good characters.

Red Dragon

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Red Dragon

By:  Thomas Harris
Published: 
1981
# of pages:  464
Series: Hannibal Lecter (#1)
Challenge:  A to Z, Print Only

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Goodreads description:

In the realm of psychological suspense, Thomas Harris stands alone. Exploring both the nature of human evil and the nerve-racking anatomy of a forensic investigation, Harris unleashes a frightening vision of the dark side of our well-lighted world. In this extraordinary novel, which preceded The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, Harris introduced the unforgettable character Dr. Hannibal Lecter. And in it, Will Graham — the FBI man who hunted Lecter down — risks his sanity and his life to duel a killer called the … RED DRAGON

Review:  Of course I’ve heard of The Silence of the Lambs, both the book and the movie, and I’ve even seen part of the movie.  However, I never had a strong desire to read the books in the series.  A friend let me borrow the entire series so I decided to go ahead and check it out, starting with the first book in the series.  I was a little confused, when, a few pages in, it is clear that this book chronologically takes place after The Silence of the Lambs.  I wondered if I was supposed to read this last even though it was published first, but sure enough, it is number one in the series and most people recommend reading it in the series order even though they don’t line up chronologically.

The story is about a retired investigator named Will Graham.  He’s enjoying his well deserved retirement with his wife and stepson in Florida after hunting down several serial killers, including the famous Hannibal Lecter.  However, his peaceful life is interrupted by a FBI agent asking him to temporarily leave retirement to help track down another serial killer who is already responsible for murdering 2 entire families.  Investigators are stumped and they know Will Graham is the best at understanding and predicting the behavior of serial killers.

Graham ends up immersing himself in the investigation of the “Tooth Fairy,” who eventually morphs into the “Red Dragon.”  He’s willing to do anything to track down the person responsible for 8 murders who will most likely kill again within the next few weeks, including consulting Hannibal Lecter, who is locked up in a high security mental facility.

This book is filled with fairly graphic descriptions of horrific murders.  I was wondering if I would be really disturbed, but it reminded me of some of Stephen King’s books, especially the Bill Hodges trilogy, so I felt prepared.  The reader hears about the horrible stuff through Graham’s point of view and also the killer’s point of view.  It’s weirdly intimate and emotionally confusing being able to see into the killer’s mind and past and sometimes even feeling sorry for the murderer.

I ended up really enjoying the story.  I couldn’t put it down and kept thinking about it throughout the day when I wasn’t reading.  While the content was disturbing, I didn’t feel traumatized by the descriptions, although some people may not have the same experience.  I recommend this to adults who are fans of crime fiction/mysteries.

Why I gave this book 4/5 stars:  This has been added to my favorites list because of the engaging plot and interesting characters, but it wasn’t as well written as some of the other books that have received a 5 star rating from me in the past.

The Witch Elm

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The Witch Elm

By:  Tana French
Published: 
2018
# of pages:  464
Challenge:  Monthly Motif (new to you author)Book Bingo
Quote: “The rain had started, a light unobtrusive patter, its shadows down the windowpane mottling the sill and the bare floorboards. I stayed there for a long time, watching the drops merge and course down the glass, picking two and betting on their race to the bottom, the way I had when I was a kid.”

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Goodreads description:

Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life: he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

Review:  I saw a review about Tana French’s books and decided to check this one out after hearing it was good.  French is a new-to-me author, so it counts for January’s Monthly Motif challenge.  I enjoyed The Witch Elm so much that I’m planning to check out more of Tana French’s books soon!

I spent much of this book feeling amazed that the author could think of something so complex and keep it going for so long.  The whole book is intricate – from the plot to the many characters.  The story mainly follows Toby, a young man whose life is abruptly ruined when he’s attacked in his own home and almost killed.

Toby is an interesting character because the reader can’t help but like him and root for him, but also feel dislike for him at times.  And honestly, don’t we all know people like Toby, people with the gift of gab and with enough luck to easily swim through life’s ups and downs?  Sometimes you wonder what that person would do if something truly awful happened to them, something that would be difficult or impossible to talk their way out of or ignore.  That’s partly what this book is about and I commend the author for writing her character so well and avoiding what was probably a temptation to dilute him and make him “better.”

I’m recovering from a surgery on my nasal passage to correct a deviated septum, so maybe that’s affected my thought process, but I couldn’t stop thinking of this book over the days I spent reading.  I wanted so badly to figure out the mystery of the skull.  I sort of figured it out, but that wasn’t even the main point of the book.  The story took a weird turn at the end, but overall I enjoyed it thoroughly and would recommend it to adults who enjoy mysteries.

Why I gave this book 4/5 stars:  Interesting plot, intricate and realistic characters, thought provoking.

Where the Crawdads Sing

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Where the Crawdads Sing

By:  Delia Owens
Published: 
2018
# of pages:  384
Challenge:  A to ZBook Bingo
Quote:  “Kya bit her bottom lip as she watched. Wondering how it would feel to be among them. Their joy created an aura almost visible against the deepening sky. Ma had said women need one another more than they need men, but she never told her how to get inside the pride.”

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Goodreads description:

For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

Review:  My first book read in the new year and it was worthy of five stars and a place on my favorites list!  In a way I hate reviewing amazing books because I can’t do them justice.  This book is beautifully written, has a great plot full of thought provoking subjects and an intriguing mystery, and the character of Kya is one easy to emphathize with and understand.

Kya was abandoned by her mother at age six and in the short years that follow, her siblings and father leave her as well.  She makes do in the marshes of coastal North Carolina, but while she doesn’t physically starve, she often feels emotionally starved.  In order to feel connected to the world, she falls in love with the nature that surrounds her on a daily basis.  Where the Crawdads Sing is the story of how she interacts with all of nature, that of the marsh environment and that of the townspeople floating by on the fringes of her existence.

At times this story made my heart ache, but it was also inspiring.  Kya led a rough life that no one deserves, but she made the best of it and handled situations with strength and resolve.  This would be a good book club read.  The way Kya interacts with people and the mystery that’s presented throughout the novel made me want to discuss the book with someone!  I recommend it to all adults.  And I also recommend visiting the NC coast if you haven’t done so yet, it’s a beautiful place.

Why I gave this book 5/5 stars:  Interesting plot, beautiful story, strong characters.

Mr. Mercedes

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Mr. Mercedes

By:  Stephen King
Published:  2014
# of pages:  449
Series:  Bill Hodges Trilogy (#1)
Challenges:  Full House (last book added)

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Goodreads description:  

In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in a distressed Midwestern city, desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair. Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.

In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime. When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the “perk” and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.

Brady Hartsfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. He loved the feel of death under the wheels of the Mercedes, and he wants that rush again. Only Bill Hodges, with two new, unusual allies, can apprehend the killer before he strikes again. And they have no time to lose, because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim thousands.

My review:  I placed a hold on The Outsider a few weeks ago.  My mom read it and said that she didn’t really enjoy it, but maybe because she didn’t get some of the references to other King novels.  She has read Mr. Mercedes and said that was referenced.  So I decided to read Mr. Mercedes and the other books referenced in The Outsider.

This is a crime mystery sort of book and not a horror like many of King’s novels.  I’m not super into crime/detective books, but I liked the main character, Bill Hodges, as well as his unlikely sidekicks.  Bill is a retired police officer.  His unsolved cases still bother him, but he spends most of his days laying in front of the TV and eating junk food so he doesn’t waste too much brain power fretting about the past.  However, one day he briefly thinks about an unsolved past case about the “Mercedes Killer” and is struck by a thought.  He can’t stop thinking about it and he soon finds himself getting out of his armchair, out of the house, and back into the world of crime solving.  His teenaged neighbor is the only friend he still sees since retiring, but he soon adds to his number of friends as he’s pulled farther and farther into the investigation.

The reader is also pulled into the world of Brady, a disturbed young man who isn’t afraid of his own death but also isn’t afraid to end the lives of others.  If you’ve read many of King’s novels you know how disturbing some of his characters can be and Brady Hartsfield is no exception.

Overall I’d recommend this if you like crime and detective books.  And if you aren’t afraid of seeing into a depraved murderer’s mind.

Why I gave this book 4/5 stars:  Nothing super amazing, but the characters are fun and I’m eager to see what happens in the next books in the series.