Stacking the Shelves (139)

Stacking the Shelves

Welcome to my shortest book stack ever. I can’t remember a week where I picked up so few books.

Admittedly, I’m cutting this week a bit short as well. We’re traveling this weekend, so I had to compile this post on Wednesday. I kinda hope I found something else interesting by the end of the week.

On a completely other note, I’m starting to see Christmas books on NetGalley and Edelweiss. Just a few, but definitely a harbinger of things to come. I know galleys have to be well ahead of the date of publication, but it is WAY TOO EARLY to think about Christmas stuff. Not to mention winter stuff. Summer just got here!

For Review:
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
Reed (Hell Squad #4) by Anna Hackett

Review: The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy

mapmakers children by sarah mccoyFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: historical fiction, literary fiction, women’s fiction
Length: 320 pages
Publisher: Crown
Date Released: May 5, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

When Sarah Brown, daughter of abolitionist John Brown, realizes that her artistic talents may be able to help save the lives of slaves fleeing north, she becomes one of the Underground Railroad’s leading mapmakers, taking her cues from the slave code quilts and hiding her maps within her paintings. She boldly embraces this calling after being told the shocking news that she can’t bear children, but as the country steers toward bloody civil war, Sarah faces difficult sacrifices that could put all she loves in peril.

Eden, a modern woman desperate to conceive a child with her husband, moves to an old house in the suburbs and discovers a porcelain head hidden in the root cellar—the remains of an Underground Railroad doll with an extraordinary past of secret messages, danger and deliverance.

Ingeniously plotted to a riveting end, Sarah and Eden’s woven lives connect the past to the present, forcing each of them to define courage, family, love, and legacy in a new way.

My Review:

The lives of two women, 150 years apart, tied together by a doll’s head. And a little bit of mystery.

The two women at the center of this intertwined story wouldn’t seem to have much in common. And they don’t except for an accident of place and a misfortune of circumstance – both Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson are childless, and not by choice.

They are both caught in the position of making a fulfilling life for themselves that does not fit the standard pattern, and both find themselves mothering children not theirs by birth. They also both occupy the same house, at very different points in time.

Sarah Brown was the daughter of revolutionary abolitionist John Brown. History remembers him for his famous (or infamous) raid on the Federal Armory at Harper’s Ferry (West) Virginia in the fall of 1859. The raid was an attempt to start a slave uprising and help the slaves to free themselves. Brown was either ahead of history or a catalyst for it, and was hanged when his raid failed ignominiously. His sons and most of the others who participated were either killed in the raid or hanged afterwards.

Sarah Brown, along with her mother and sisters, were left behind when Brown died. Sarah, too, was an abolitionist, and was also an artist who drew maps on anything handy in order to assist runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.

Some of those “handy things” were dolls’ faces, and it is one of Sarah’s doll heads that Eden Anderson finds in the root cellar under her new home in New Charlestown, West Virginia in 2010. The search for the history of that poor little head, and the house surrounding it, become the catalyst for Eden’s healing after the final ending of her hopes for a baby.

At the beginning of Eden’s story, it also seems possible that the house will witness the end of her marriage, as strained and cracked as it is after many years of failed attempts, failed hopes, failed dreams, and fertility hormone-induced moodiness and finally depression.

Her husband Adam brings her a dog. The dog brings a little girl to take care of him, and most importantly, a reason to get out of the house and to let other people in. And Cricket brings his loving self and his need for a forever home, no matter how brief his forever might turn out to be.

Escape Rating B+: I really enjoyed this story, but I can’t point to a specific reason. I just did. The two parts don’t gel until the very end, and the switches between Sarah’s story in the past and Eden’s in the present sometimes felt abrupt. At the same time, I liked and felt for both women, and no matter which story I was in, I always wanted to know how the other one was doing.

Both women are in the middle of lives that need rebuilding. In Sarah’s case, that rebuilding is frequent and often, due to circumstances outside her control. From the moment her father leaves to conduct his famous raid, until the Fisher children arrive at her home in California, Sarah keeps dealing with blows that strike her from all sides.

At the same time, she takes a licking and keeps on ticking right up until the very end, making a new life each and every time she is struck down. Much of her life in this story moves in the direction it does (and did in history) because in fiction, at least, she was declared to be unable to bear children after a near-fatal attack of dysentery.

In history, she did not marry or have children, but the reasons are lost to us.

Sarah really did paint maps for the Underground Railroad, but whether she used doll’s heads for her maps is not certain. In this story one doll’s head provides a much-needed link to Eden in our present.

While Sarah seems like a heroic figure, Eden starts out her story as a self-absorbed and self-centered depressed wreck. All of her attempts to conceive a child have failed, and her IVF clinic has told her that it’s over. After 7 years of fertility treatments and failed hopes, she has given up everything that she was in pursuit of something that will never be, and she feels like she has nothing left.

The dog her husband brings home, Cricket, slowly brings her back to life, an irony that is not apparent until the very end. Because Cricket needs care, and her husband, out of a desire to help her and keep her from reaching past her current constricted boundaries, has given her not just a dog but a person to care for the dog.

Eleven-year-old Cleo needs just as much care as Cricket, but is much, much less willing to admit it. But Cleo is an incredible little girl who stirs up everything in her wake, and in that stirring, Eden comes back to life. She begins to reach out to the life she now has, instead of reaching back to the one she gave up or the child she will never have. And in that reaching out, she finds the world again.

It’s not so much Eden’s reawakening that brings the joy, as Cleo’s fascinating ability to make it happen. It all starts with Cleo’s amateur investigation into the mysterious doll’s head that Cricket finds in the root cellar, a search that ties Eden back to the town, and ties her house and its history all the way back to Sarah Brown. And all the way forward into the life of a place that Eden has come to love.

This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews.
***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 4-26-15

Sunday Post

Yet another week where I managed to tie myself up for the week. This past week all the books were for blog tours. I enjoyed the hell out of all of them, but there wasn’t much flexibility in the schedule. This coming week is almost as constrained. The one day that isn’t tied up, well, for once I’m managing to read the book before the book in next week’s schedule. Sometimes it works out. But there are days when I would give my kingdom for a clone!

Current Giveaways:

$25 Gift Card + ebook copy of Officer Elvis by Gary Gusick
Kindle Voyage, $50 Amazon Gift Card and 2 $20 Amazon Gift Cards from Catherine Bybee
3 ebook copies of Seduced by Sunday by Catherine Bybee
$25 Gift Card + ebook copy of Medium Dead by Paula Paul
3 Scandals That Bite book bundles by Brooklyn Ann

medium dead by paula paulBlog Recap:

A- Review: Bite at First Sight by Brooklyn Ann + Giveaway
B+ Review: Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert
A- Review: Medium Dead by Paula Paul + Giveaway
A- Review: Seduced by Sunday by Catherine Bybee + Giveaway
B+ Review: Officer Elvis by Gary Gusick + Giveaway
Stacking the Shelves (132)


brass giant by brooke johnsonComing Next Week:

Chaos Broken by Rebekah Turner (blog tour review)
Diamond Head by Cecily Wong (blog tour review)
Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (review)
The Brass Giant by Brooke Johnson (blog tour review)
Pirate’s Alley by Suzanne Johnson (blog tour review)

Stacking the Shelves (132)

Stacking the Shelves

The good and bad news about midnight impulse buying, all in one tidy list. This was a week where it seemed like everything I read was a mid-series book where I not only hadn’t read the previous books, but in some cases hadn’t even known there were previous books.

After I finished each of them (Medium Dead, Seduced by Sunday and Officer Elvis) I decided that I’d had so much fun and/or enjoyed them so much that I had to get the rest of their respective series. And after I reviewed M.J. Scott’s The Shattered Court over at The Book Pushers, I discovered that she writes contemporary romance as Melanie Scott. So damn many books, so very little time.

For Review:
After Midnight (Denver Heroes #1) by Kathy Clark
After the War (Homefront #2) by Jessica Scott
Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Potting Shed #3) by Marty Wingate
Cities and Thrones (Recoletta #2) by Carrie Patel
Lawless in Leather (New York Saints #3) by Melanie Scott
The Paris Time Capsule by Ella Carey
Risk It (Rule Breakers #4) by Jennifer Chance
Ruthless by John Rector
The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
This Wedding is Doomed by Stephanie Draven, Jeannie Lin, Shawntelle Madison and Amanda Berry

Purchased from Amazon:
Angel in Armani (New York Saints #2) by Melanie Scott
The Devil in Denim (New York Saints #1) by Melanie Scott
Fiance by Friday (Weekday Brides #3) by Catherine Bybee
Half a Mind to Murder (Dr. Alexandra Gladstone #3) by Paula Paul
An Improper Death (Dr. Alexandra Gladstone #2) by Paula Paul
The Last Clinic (Darla Cavannah #1) by Gary Gusick
Marcus 582 (Cyborgs: Mankind Redefined #3) by Donna McDonald
Married by Monday (Weekday Brides #2) by Catherine Bybee
Single by Saturday (Weekday Brides #4) by Catherine Bybee
Symptoms of Death (Dr. Alexandra Gladstone #1) by Paula Paul
Taken by Tuesday (Weekday Brides #5) by Catherine Bybee
Wife by Wednesday (Weekday Brides #1) by Catherine Bybee


The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 4-19-15

Sunday Post

First and foremost, I want to thank everyone who participated in my Blogo-Birthday celebration for their suggestions. I very much appreciate the kind words, and will take the suggestions seriously. I know Reading Reality needs a makeover, and I’m on a waiting list to get that done. (I actually CAN carry a tune in a bucket, but I can’t draw a bath. My graphic and artistic skills are seriously limited, so I need help!)

On the more directly bookish front, I was surprised when I looked at next week’s schedule and saw that all my books are blog tour books next week. When I was in school, even though I loved to read, I hated to read anything that was assigned. I guess that because I assigned these to myself, it doesn’t feel quite the same. And of course I only sign up for tours when I really think I’m going to like the book. It usually works out that way.

Current Giveaways:

$25 Gift card + ebook copy of Ivory Ghosts by Caitlin O’Connell

Winner Announcements:

The winners of the $10 bookish prizes in my Blogo-Birthday Celebration are: Jennifer K., Ann S., Michelle L. and Amyc.

bookseller by cynthia swansonBlog Recap:

B+ Review: The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg
A Review: The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson
B Review: One Bite Per Night by Brooklyn Ann
B+ Review: BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google by John Palfrey
B Review: Ivory Ghosts by Caitlin O’Connell + Giveaway
Stacking the Shelves (131)



bite at first sight by brooklyn annComing Next Week:

Bite at First Sight by Brooklyn Ann (blog tour review)
Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert (blog tour review)
Medium Dead by Paula Paul (blog tour review)
Seduced by Sunday by Catherine Bybee (blog tour review)
Officer Elvis by Gary Gusick (blog tour review)

Review: The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

bookseller by cynthia swanson new coverFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: literary fiction
Length: 338 pages
Publisher: Harper
Date Released: March 3, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Nothing is as permanent as it appears . . .

Denver, 1962: Kitty Miller has come to terms with her unconventional single life. She loves the bookshop she runs with her best friend, Frieda, and enjoys complete control over her day-to-day existence. She can come and go as she pleases, answering to no one. There was a man once, a doctor named Kevin, but it didn’t quite work out the way Kitty had hoped.

Then the dreams begin.

Denver, 1963: Katharyn Andersson is married to Lars, the love of her life. They have beautiful children, an elegant home, and good friends. It’s everything Kitty Miller once believed she wanted—but it only exists when she sleeps.

Convinced that these dreams are simply due to her overactive imagination, Kitty enjoys her nighttime forays into this alternate world. But with each visit, the more irresistibly real Katharyn’s life becomes. Can she choose which life she wants? If so, what is the cost of staying Kitty, or becoming Katharyn?

As the lines between her worlds begin to blur, Kitty must figure out what is real and what is imagined. And how do we know where that boundary lies in our own lives?

My Review:

I’ll say this up front. This story really got me in the feels.

The story starts out simply enough, and then switches into something awesome.

We meet our heroine in the Autumn of 1962 in Denver. She owns a not-too-successful bookstore and has a generally happy life. She and her best friend Frieda own “Sisters Bookshop” and have been besties since high school. Kitty Miller is single and is in control of everything in her life. Everyone she is close to is generally pretty happy, and things always seem to work out for the best.

But she and Frieda are facing an economic crisis. The streetcar line that used to bring lots of business into their little shop is long gone, and the bus that replaced it doesn’t stop on their street. They are having difficulties making the rent, and they need to either close or move out to one of the new suburban shopping malls, because that’s where all the customers have gone.

When Kitty sleeps, she dreams another life. It is Denver in the Spring of 1963. She is Katharyn Andersson, and she is married. She met Lars Andersson in the mid-1950s, when she placed a personal ad in the Denver Post. It was during the otherwise brief time in her life when she wanted to be called by her full name, Katharyn, instead of the more familiar Kitty.

Kitty and Katharyn are the same woman, but their joined life split when Kitty placed that personal ad. In her real life at the bookstore, she called one of her respondents and they had a lovely long chat on the telephone. The talk was so lovely that they agreed to meet, but he never showed up. Lars Andersson died of a heart attack right after the call, because he was alone and there was no one to call an ambulance.

In the dream life, that lovely phone call lasted just long enough for Kitty to still be on the line when Lars’ heart tried to kill him. Kitty ran next door and called the ambulance that saved Lars’ life. The rest is another history. A happy and successful marriage, children, a home in the suburbs, and no bookstore.

At first, it seems as if the story is slightly science-fictional. A tale of parallel universes, or a weird version of It’s a Wonderful Life, where Kitty gets to see the consequences of her various choices.

That Kitty is reading Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (published in September 1962) makes the mind go down an SF path.

But the more that Kitty dreams herself as Katharyn, the more she falls in love, not just with Lars, but with the life that they have together. Until tragedy strikes, and she begins to wonder which life is her real one.

Once Katharyn discovers that her dream is not of a better future, but merely a different one, she decides to take charge of her own life, whichever it might be, so that she can finally come to grips with what is real. Especially because it is hard.

Escape Rating A: I loved this because it shook me up, made me think, and nearly made me cry. Also because I had to get almost halfway through the book before I figured out what had caused the break and which life was probably real. And why.

At the same time, I loved the way that the protagonist takes lessons from her dream life and uses them to make substantive changes in her real life – her dreams were an escape, but they also brought about significant healing.

This could have been science fiction and it still would have made a powerful story. Everyone has probably had moments in their life that turned out to be a crossroad, and we all wonder what would have happened if we had gone down the other path. In our darkest moments, we tell ourselves that the other choice would have put us into a better place than the one we are in. Sometimes we forget that if you change one thing, you change everything.

The protagonist finally figures out that she has to move forward, and that she can’t retreat from unhappiness and grief, no matter how much she tries. There is beauty in the future, even if there is also a serious lack of control over circumstances. The pleasure, in the end, is worth the pain.

Readers who do not remember the early 1960s will be surprised at how different life was for women. Not just the societal expectation, if not downright compulsion, towards marriage and motherhood, but also the subtle but completely accepted norms of economic repression and racism. Frieda and Kitty could not get a business loan without a co-signer, for example. Not because their business was new, but because they were women. Women did not have credit on their own without a man, either a husband or a father. The casual assumption that women with children didn’t work, and if they did they must be doing harm to their children was universal. And terribly hurtful.

The Bookseller is a compelling and appealing portrait of a woman faced with overwhelming challenges who uses a novel but fascinating way of giving herself time to move on. And it is also a marvelous peek back to a time that is behind us. Or is it?.

Reviewer’s Note: After finishing the book, I did the math and realized that I was the same age as Katharyn’s kids in 1963. I would have been a year behind them in school, because my birthday is later in the school year. But still, this is a time and a world that I have hazy memories of. And it felt right.

This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews.
***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott

touch of stardust by kate alcottFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: historical fiction
Length: 304 pages
Publisher: Doubleday
Date Released: February 17, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

When Julie Crawford leaves Fort Wayne, Indiana for Hollywood, she never imagines she’ll cross paths with Carole Lombard, the dazzling actress from Julie’s provincial Midwestern hometown. Although the young woman has dreams of becoming a screenwriter, the only job Julie’s able to find is one in the studio publicity office of the notoriously demanding producer David O. Selznick —who is busy burning through directors, writers and money as he begins filming Gone with the Wind.

Although tensions run high on the set, Julie finds she can step onto the back lot, take in the smell of smoky gunpowder and the soft rustle of hoop skirts, and feel the magical world ofGone with the Wind come to life. Julie’s access to real-life magic comes when Carole Lombard hires her as an assistant and invites her into the glamorous world Carole shares with Clark Gable—who is about to move into movie history as the dashing Rhett Butler.

Carole Lombard, happily profane and uninhibited, makes no secret of her relationship with Gable, which poses something of a problem for the studio as Gable is technically still married—and the last thing the film needs is more negative publicity. Julie is there to fend off the overly curious reporters, hoping to prevent details about the affair from slipping out. But she can barely keep up with her blonde employer, let alone control what comes out of Carole’s mouth, and–as their friendship grows – soon finds she doesn’t want to. Carole, both wise and funny, becomes Julie’s model for breaking free of the past.

In the ever-widening scope of this story, Julie is given a front-row seat to not one but two of the greatest love affairs of all time: the undeniable on-screen chemistry between Scarlett and Rhett, and off screen, the deepening love between Carole and Clark. Yet beneath the shiny façade, things in Hollywood are never quite what they seem, and Julie must learn to balance career aspirations and her own budding romance with outsized personalities and the overheated drama on set.

My Review:

gone with the wind movie posterAnyone who is a fan of Hollywood in the Golden Age, or of the movie Gone With the Wind (GWTW) and any or everyone who starred it in should probably read this book. Even though it is fiction, and the story is seen through the eyes of a fictional character, it feels true.

It feels like you are there, in those heady and tumultuous days just before the outbreak of World War II, watching the impossible come to life.

Because that’s what the movies do – they make something nebulous into a script and then a movie – so the unreal becomes real for everyone to see.

We follow the making of Gone With the Wind through the eyes of Julie Crawford, a young woman who has come from Ft. Wayne Indiana to make her fortune in Hollywood. Not, thank goodness, as an actress, but as a screenwriter.

Julie comes from a wealthy and influential family back home, but she does not want that same lifestyle for herself, along with its requirements of marrying the “right” man, raising her children the “right” way and keeping herself occupied by sitting on the boards of the “right” charities.

She wants a life of her own, on her own terms. And Hollywood is the place where people come to reinvent themselves. So off she goes, with a one-year deadline from her parents to either make it or come home. Julie knows that she won’t be coming home, but her parents are of the impression that the girl who leaves will be the same girl they can guilt into submission in a year.

That never happens. Time and circumstances change who we are. We grow up. And so does Julie.

She starts out as a mimeograph girl in the publicity department, but catches the eye of Carole Lombard. The two former Ft. Wayne girls hit it off, and the story takes flight.

We all know that Gone With the Wind was a huge success. (Adjusted for inflation, it is still the most successful film in history) But while it was being made, the picture was a huge gamble.

There were a lot of people who wanted the producer, David O. Selznick, to fail, and fail big. He was a tremendous micro-manager (to use today’s term) and drove everyone to exhaustion with his demands – including himself.

Lombard in 1940
Lombard in 1940

But the central figure in this story was not actually in GWTW. Carole Lombard was actually the cause of some of the publicity department’s bigger nightmares, which is how Julie meets Carole. Hollywood history remembers Gable and Lombard as one its great real-life romances. But when GWTW begins, they are living together while Gable is in the throes of divorce from his first wife. This violation of the morals code then in force, as well as Lombard’s joy in flaunting it in everyone’s face, drove the publicity people crazy.

(The morals code was part of all the actors’ contracts. The star-making machinery of Hollywood was both more invasive and more protective than it is today. But there was still a double-standard. Lombard was on set often during the filming, even though Gable was still married to someone else for part of the time. On the famous other hand, Vivien Leigh had to keep her lover, the still-married Laurence Olivier, very much under wraps during production.)

But Julie Crawford comes to Hollywood with her eyes wide shut. She thinks she knows what she is getting into, but of course she doesn’t. Her eyes get opened in every possible way, as she breaks out of her mold and learns the ropes.

Through her friendship with Lombard, she also sees the insider’s view of Hollywood that mere spectators don’t get to see. It’s Julie’s sisterhood with Lombard that gives her an entree into the business, and the screenwriter Frances Marion who gets her the first rung up the stair of scriptwriting.

And on the brink of World War II, in the steaming hothouse environment of making one of the most expensive and most successful films ever made, Julie falls in love with someone that her parents would find totally unacceptable – and Julie needs to decide who she really is.

Escape Rating A: In case you can’t tell, I loved this one. It’s a story that steps into another world. Actually two other worlds, because the making of Gone With the Wind is a world onto itself. Golden Age Hollywood is also a separate world. The movie-making machinery was at its heyday in the 1930s, and it was trying desperately to ignore the growing clouds of war on the horizon.

One of the things that is not glossed over in the book, is the amount of both racism and antisemitism that was prevalent in Hollywood and the country at large. GWTW whitewashes the period it covers. And even though the production created large numbers of jobs for African-American actors, at the same time all the roles were subservient, and the Black actors, including future Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel, were not welcome at the opening night gala held in Atlanta. (Looking back, this was obviously not one of Atlanta’s finer moments)

Antisemitism was also rampant in Hollywood, and all over the country. This is both in spite of and because of the number of studios owned and managed by Jews in the pre-war years. The knowledge of what was happening in Europe under Hitler, and the fears that the U.S. might get dragged into another war at least in part as a way of combating the treatment of Jewish people in Nazi Germany, just added fuel to the fire.

This is brought home to readers in the story through Julie’s boyfriend Andy. His grandparents are shipped to the Dachau concentration camp, and he does not know the fate of his brother in Paris. He faces antisemitism at home and a growing fear for his family that will be realized.

Then there is the Gable and Lombard romance. As Carole Lombard’s friend and confidant, Julie has a front row seat for the scenes of what appears to have been a true-life love story. Julie sees Gable and Lombard as a romantic couple who, even though they have their ups and downs, have forged a true relationship in the midst of everything fake about Hollywood. (That readers know the future, and Lombard’s death in 1942, makes the scenes between the two Hollywood icons all the more poignant).

Julie, in many ways, stands in for us. While she does have her own story, an important part of her function as a character is to give us eyes to see this world through. She is able to see both the tinsel and the dross that it covers, and she’s someone you’d like to have a drink or a meal with.

Frances Marion in 198
Frances Marion in 198

However, my favorite scene in the story is where the famous (and quite real) screenwriter Frances Marion gives a mentoring session and coaching class to a group of young women, including Julie, who want to become screenwriters just like Frances. She holds up an Oscar (her own) and shows the women the back of Oscar’s head.

“What I want you all to know first is that Oscar is a perfect symbol for the movies,” Frances Marion said. “He’s a man with a powerful athletic body, clutching a gleaming sword, right? But half of his head, the part which held his brains, is completely sliced off. In other words, my dear ladies, this place called Hollywood is run by men, and they’re not always smart. So don’t be too much in awe of them.”

Neither Frances Marion nor Carole Lombard are too much in awe of the men who run Hollywood. And they teach our Julie not to be, either.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett

jam on the vine by lashonda katrice barnettFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genre: historical fiction, literary fiction
Length: 336 pages
Publisher: Grove Press
Date Released: February 3, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

A new American classic: a dynamic tale of triumph against the odds and the compelling story of one woman’s struggle for equality that belongs alongside Jazz by Toni Morrison and The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Ivoe Williams, the precocious daughter of a Muslim cook and a metalsmith from central-east Texas, first ignites her lifelong obsession with journalism when she steals a newspaper from her mother’s white employer. Living in the poor, segregated quarter of Little Tunis, Ivoe immerses herself in printed matter as an escape from her dour surroundings. She earns a scholarship to the prestigious Willetson College in Austin, only to return over-qualified to the menial labor offered by her hometown’s racially-biased employers.

Ivoe eventually flees the Jim Crow South with her family and settles in Kansas City, where she and her former teacher and lover, Ona, found the first female-run African American newspaper, Jam! On the Vine. In the throes of the Red Summer—the 1919 outbreak of lynchings and race riots across the Midwest—Ivoe risks her freedom, and her life, to call attention to the atrocities of segregation in the American prison system.

Skillfully interweaving Ivoe’s story with those of her family members, LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s Jam! On the Vine is both an epic vision of the hardships and injustices that defined an era and a moving and compelling story of a complicated history we only thought we knew.

My Review:

On the one hand, Jam on the Vine is kind of a quiet book. Ivoe Williams reports on the life she sees as much as, or more, than she experiences it herself, especially at the beginning. Until she is faced with a crisis, and then she acts, even when those actions endanger her.

But then again, just living puts Ivoe in danger every single day. She is a black woman in the early twentieth century, a period where Jim Crow held sway in the South, and lynchings were a public spectacle. She could be attacked, raped, imprisoned, beaten, tortured at any time and in any place, while having no recourse to the law on account of her race. Her gender was no protection – it merely provided more ways in which she could be assaulted.

As a story, Jam on the Vine is a number of things, all of them fascinating. It is, first of all, a novel. So when the author says that the story was inspired by the life of pioneering black journalist Ida B. Wells, a look at the historic record shows events that were similar to the protagonist’s life, but not quite the same. Ivoe lives and creates her groundbreaking newspaper just a few years later than her real-life counterpart, in order to pull more dramatic national and international events within its timeframe.

Fiction is great for that.

At the same time, the author uses real newspaper accounts of the time to set the stage, and to emphasize that while Ivoe’s participation in these often horrific events may be fiction, the events themselves unfortunately are not.

But with Ivoe as the center, we are able to view events through eyes that may be very different from our own. She, and the members of her family, personalize history for the reader in the way that a purely factual historical accounting may not.

The story begins with Ivoe as a young girl in central East Texas. Her father is a blacksmith and her mother is the housekeeper for the local white estate owners. Between them, they barely scrape by. Even so, they are slightly better off than their neighbors in the segregated community of Little Tunis, because they own their land.

Ivoe is a dreamer of a child, often lost in her own busy mind. The newspapers that she is allowed to read at the Stark Mansion while her mother is working open her eyes to a world outside her isolated rural town. (White Starkville is certainly better off economically, but still isolated.)

Ivoe dreams big, she dreams of a world outside Little Tunis and Starkville. At the same time, the more she reads, the more she understands that life for her family and friends is more than unfair. The game is rigged and always against them because of their race. The “courtesy” lessons that all the children, but especially the boys, have to have drummed into their heads just for a hope of survival make the reader want to scream. Or cry. (And will remind the reader that things have not changed enough).

They have no rights. Or what few they seem to have they all know can be taken away by the stroke of a white man’s legislative pen, or a lynching.

Ivoe wants to change the world. As she grows up, she finds Little Tunis more and more intellectually stifling, as well as finding herself educated enough to be aware of both the unfairness of it all for her people, and how even fewer options she has as a woman.

Somehow, her parents scrape together enough money to send her to a black women’s college in Austin. For two years, she is able to soar, only to crash to earth upon her return home.

Ivoe is trained to edit, print, publish and totally run a newspaper. But newspapers would rather hire white male high school graduates than her overqualified black, female self. She feels as if her life is closing in. She finally takes one last stab at making her mark by moving to Kansas City, away from Little Tunis. Even though the job she was promised vanishes when her employers learn her race and sex, she perseveres.

She finally commits to the love of her life, and to the work that makes her whole. But by starting a black newspaper in Kansas City, she places herself on the front lines of a battle that is still not won.

Escape Rating A-: Jam on the Vine is a story that will make you think, because the fictionalized events that happen to Ivoe and her family are all real events and real fears that happened in the early 20th century. The road to even as far as we have come is bloody, and we’re not done. The causes that Ivoe (and by extension Ida B. Wells) fought for have not yet been resolved.

Ivoe published reports on the fact that justice in America is not colorblind. While many of us want to believe that is no longer true, a study of the prison population in any state will swiftly prove otherwise.

(Likewise the recent spate of deaths of young black men, often killed by white police officers, shows that we haven’t come as far as we think we have.)

By personalizing the story, the author is able to strike at the heart of both the reader and the still-smoldering issues.

This is also a story about the power of the press to inform and to motivate. Things that we don’t know about don’t move us. They don’t exist for us. In the establishment newspapers of the time, all that the white population read was slanted by the powers that be to continue the status quo that favored them. Black newspapers printed stories that interested their readers, and printed an entirely different view of conditions that the establishment wanted to remain suppressed. (In recent times we have seen the powers that be in Ferguson blame social media for the criticism they received, instead of looking to their own actions.)

One of the characters who moved the plot as deux ex machina seemed underused. (Actually the character is a devil ex machina) Ivoe’s first lover, Berdis, is destructively jealous of Ivoe’s relationship with her journalism teacher, Ona Dunham. While Ivoe and Ona do fall in love after Ivoe leaves school, during their university days Berdis acts like a destructive child and throws away a vital application that Ivoe has asked her to mail with not much reason other than spite. Later in the book, Berdis returns just long enough to set Ivoe and Ona’s house on fire. Literally. Berdis serves as a diabolus ex machina at a couple of critical junctures, but I didn’t get quite enough of her motives.

But I loved this story for the way that it made me think. It made me see the world through Ivoe’s eyes. The best kind of fiction.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 2-22-15

Sunday Post

This was a week where I suffered long moments of extreme desperation – my iPad died (temporarily) one afternoon and I got a bit frantic realizing that my entire life was on the damn thing and that I hadn’t backed it up since Pluto was a planet. (Not quite, but too awfully close). I’m pretty sure I got this one when we lived in Atlanta the last time, so it’s at least three years old. In internet years, that’s a couple of lifetimes. I think this weekend includes a trip to the Apple store.

Also, in the note to self category, I need to remember not to schedule 3 (or more) creepy books in the same week. I like a little creepy of the ghostly/paranormal variety, but four close together is at least two too many. A book that is the wrong book for the time, even if it’s good, can serve as an albatross around the neck. In other words, avoiding reading the next creepy book on the schedule kept me from reading anything for a couple of days. And it’s not that the books were bad per se, it’s more that too much of even a good thing is not wonderful.

I’m all creeped out.

Current Giveaways:

$25 Gift Card + In Flames by Richard Hilary Weber
Those Rosy Hours at Mazadaran by Marion Grace Woolley

Winner Announcements:

The winner of the $10 Amazon Gift Card in the Share the Love Giveaway Hop is Michelle B.

homecoming by robyn carrBlog Recap:

A- Review: The Homecoming by Robyn Carr
B+ Review: Escape Velocity by Jess Anastasi
B Review: Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran by Marion Grace Woolley
Guest Post by Marion Grace Woolley on The Music of the Night + Giveaway
C- Review: In Flames by Richard Hilary Weber + Giveaway
B+ Review: Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King
Stacking the Shelves (123)


jam on the vine by lashonda katrice barnettComing Next Week:

Miramont’s Ghost by Elizabeth Hall (blog tour review)
One Wish by Robyn Carr (blog tour review)
The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell (review)
Garrett by Sawyer Bennett (review)
Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett (review)

Stacking the Shelves (122)

Stacking the Shelves

Happy Valentine’s Day!

And speaking of lovely presents, a couple of boxes of books appeared miraculously this week. Sourcebooks sent me an interesting pack of literary fiction and nonfiction, and Harper sent The Bookseller, which looks utterly fascinating. I’m finally digging my disorganization out of two weeks of barely scraping by. Just as soon as we got back from Chicago, I came down with what Galen calls “con crud”. It’s the cold/flu combination that one gets after airplane trips and conferences.

I got a lot of reading done, but I’m still catching up to myself on writing it all up!

For Review:
The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson
The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes
Her Wild Hero (X-Ops #3) by Paige Tyler
The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell
Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett
Phoenix in My Fortune (Monster Haven #6) by R.L. Naquin
Pieces of my Mother by Melissa Cistaro
The Rhyme of the Magpie (Birds of a Feather #1) by Marty Wingate
Rock Hard (Rock Kiss #2) by Nalini Singh
The Shattered Court (Four Arts #1) by M.J. Scott
A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott
Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye
Way of the Warrior by Suzanne Brockman, et al.
Whiskey & Charlie by Annabel Smith

Purchased from Amazon:
Unbound (Magic Ex Libris #3) by Jim C. Hines