Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Book Review: The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

Title: The Madwoman Upstairs
Author: Catherine Lowell

First line: The night I arrived at Oxford, I learned that my dorm room was built in 1361 and had originally been used to quarantine victims of the plague.

Review: This is the kind of book that gets the cutesy adjectives thrown at it -- quirky, charming, playful, breezy -- and they're all apt. This is a quirky, charming, playful, and breezy read, a kind of chick-lit-y coming-of-age story that did, I confess, occasionally kill me with the snark, but ultimately had me sighing with satisfaction as I closed it.

Our narrator, Samantha Whipple, is that last living descendant of the Brontes, and is newly arrived at Oxford University where she plans to study modern literature.

Homeschooled by her brilliant but unconventional father, novelist Tristian Whipple, Samantha is an odd duck who has a love/hate relationship with her famous ancestors. Her father's obsessive study of their writings combined with the public's insatiable curiosity about them has Samantha wanting to do anything but study them -- but they immediately intrude into her life. Copies of her father's books -- thought to have been destroyed in the fire that killed him -- appear at her doorstep, and her family's nemesis, the caretaker of the Bronte's Haworth home, nags her for a meeting. Add in a crush for her prickly, brilliant tutor and an insta-hate relationship with an Oxford professor who seems to see her only at her worst, and Samantha has a very full -- but entertaining -- plate.

I will admit upfront that two things made me bonkers while reading this book. One, Samantha is a non-stop font of sarcasm and glib one-liners. They're amazing and hilarious but extremely tiresome in large doses, and at moments, I felt like her tart testiness and wry zingers were actually a bit mature for her -- she made observations that didn't quite feel true for a 19/20 year old homeschooled girl. And two, Lowell unloads mystery after mystery without revealing the answer to any for almost two-thirds of the book, which was exhausting -- I just wanted some relief from the wondering and mystification!

Still, I could not put this book down. The mysteries unfolded deliciously, surprising me, and I found myself sighing a little over the romance. It was the perfect mix of nerdiness, silliness, and drama, and I can't recommend it enough for this summer. The lingering memory of this read makes me smile, and I'm almost contemplating a reread one sunny weekend this summer!

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / University / Coming-of-Age / Father-Daughter Relationships / Bronte Family / Mystery / Romance)
Publisher/Publication Date: Touchstone (3/1/2016)
Source: The publisher

Monday, May 30, 2016

Interview with author Susan Wittig Albert

Last week I reviewed Susan Wittig Albert's wonderful Loving Eleanor, a historical novel about AP reporter Lorena Hickock and her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt. I'm delighted to share my interview with Ms. Albert, so please read on to learn more about her and writing.

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

I sold my first short story when I was still a teenager. It was called “Her First Violin,” about a young girl who played violin in her high school orchestra--and finally got to play first violin. It was published in a children’s magazine called Jack and Jill, which paid a penny a word. I still remember the delight of holding that check in my hand. I’ve been writing ever since.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

No rituals, a fairly stable routine. I show up at the computer early in the morning for a date with my social media friends, then catch up on email, do volunteer work for Story Circle Network (a women’s writing organization), and--by 10:30, I hope--settle down to the current work-in-progress. I start by revising the previous day’s work, then move into the new material. I’m currently alternating between mysteries and historical/biographical fiction. If I’m working on a mystery, I aim for about 1500 words a day; if the project is historical fiction, I aim for 800-1000 words. I quit for the day about 4:30 or 5. I do my research reading (usually for the next project) in the evening.

Was Loving Eleanor the original title of your book?

Yes, actually it was. When the book was done, I made a list of about 5-6 other titles for consideration and asked my beta readers what they thought. Loving Eleanor was their choice, too.

As you were writing Loving Eleanor, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Lorena Hickok was always a surprise, all the way through. Hick was a skilled journalist (I collected literally hundreds of her newspaper articles), a marvelous correspondent (her letters are enormously interesting), and she was well ahead of her time in her understanding what women could do and supporting their efforts. In my research, I was also surprised by FDR’s behind-the-scenes manipulations of people--and created several fictional depictions of his interventions.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I love needlework, especially needlepoint and cross stitch. My husband Bill and I live on 31 acres in the Texas Hill Country, where I have a large veggie garden and a flock of laying chickens. Over the years, we’ve had an assortment of animals here: cows, horses, geese, ducks, peacocks--and of course cats and dogs. They’re all an important part of my life.

Read any good books recently?

For research, I’m currently reading Closest Companion (edited by Geoffrey Ward), the diaries of Daisy Suckley, with letters she exchanged with FDR. On my list for the weekend: John Sandford’s new thriller, Extreme Prey.

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My thanks to Ms. Albert for her time and thoughtful responses. To learn more about her and her books, visit www.susanalbert.com and follow her on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Goodreads, and Pinterest.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Book Review: Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert

Title: Loving Eleanor
Author: Susan Wittig Albert

First line: Hick didn't go to the funeral.

Review: For good and for bad, I do most of my learning through historical fiction. This historical novel about Eleanor Roosevelt and the reporter who was, for a time, her lover, was a delicious, delightful read that gave me many oh-no-way! moments and lots of trips to Wiki to research more.

Albert wrote the fabulous A Wilder Rose, about Rose Wilder and her famous mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was so curious to see how she would handle Eleanor Roosevelt and her romantic relationship with AP reporter Lorena Hickok.

Lorena Hickok, a journalist, met Eleanor Roosevelt in 1928, when she was assigned to cover the elections that year. She and Eleanor had an instant rapport, and Hick (as she was called) was nursing a broken heart. She didn't think something would flare up between her and this soon-to-be very public figure -- but something did, and it had wide-ranging impact on the both of them, both emotionally, personally, and professionally.

The novel reads in a kind of journalistic manner, very matter-of-fact at times, which is both maddening and seems appropriate for Hick. She reflects on her relationship with "Madam", her nickname for Eleanor, and through her, Albert provides a wealth of fabulous detail about the era, the politics of the time, and illuminates a woman who is both very public and very private. (For those with anxieties about gay sex, it is merely alluded to, and very lightly, so please don't let that be a reason to skip this intriguing read!)

And while the book's hook is that romance, in many ways, this is a biographical novel about Hick, too -- a woman I've never heard of but am now fascinated by. When it seems her romance with Eleanor becomes too public, Hick is shunted off to work as an investigator for the newly formed FERA -- Federal Emergency Relief Administration -- a job she accepts reluctantly. But it transforms her into an advocate for those without a voice, and allows her to shed light on the real hardships Americans faced in the 1930s. 
In the worn-out coalfields of West Virginia and Kentucky, the human pain was inescapable. It  lay like an open wound across the landscape. (p189)

Albert includes an 11-page Biographical Afterward, that details some of the whitewashing of Eleanor Roosevelt's romantic past (a read as fascinating as this novel!). There's also a four-page Who's Who and two pages of bibliography.

A wonderful read from an author who consistently impresses me with her great choice in heroines, detailed research, and warmly rendered stories.

Genre: Fiction / Historical / Biographical / 1930s / Eleanor Roosevelt / Journalism / LGBTQ / Romantic Relationships)
Publisher/Publication Date: Persevero Press (2/1/2016)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Friday, May 6, 2016

Weekend reads and Mother's Day...

This weekend is our second Mother's Day as mothers, and it's both exciting and no-big-deal. My baby is really no longer a baby, le sigh, but we'll be spending the day together. We plan to do the Mother's Day Walk for Peace with our church and then a quiet brunch with my in-laws. Obviously, I hope to get in some reading, too.

In addition to reading this weekend, I'm hoping to do some work on my novel. I had my second appointment with my life coach, and it's been wonderfully illuminating and fun -- a mix of therapy and a sympathetic cheerleader.  I'm grateful my wife thought of this gift, and I'm hopeful I can get out of my rut and finish my MS!

I just started C.W. Gortner's historical novel Marlene (and am wearing rhinestones in her honor). What are you reading this weekend?