Friday, November 15, 2013

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

The blurb:
Between 1854 and 1929 so-called orphan trains ran regularly from the cities of the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children whose fates would be determined by pure luck.  Would they be adopted by a kind and loving family, or would they face a childhood and adolescence of hard labor and servitude?

As a young Irish immigrant, Vivian Daly was one such child, sent by rail from New York City to an uncertain future a world away.  Returning east later in life, Vivian leads a quiet, peaceful existence on the coast of Maine, the memories of her upbringing rendered a hazy blur.  But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past.

Seventeen-year-old Molly Ayers knows at a community-service position helping an elderly widow clean out her attic is the only thing keeping her out of juvenile hall.  But as Molly helps Vivian sort through her keepsakes and possessions, she discovers that she and Vivian aren't as different as they appear.  A Penobscet Indian who has spent her youth in and out of foster homes, Molly is also an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past.

Moving between contemporary Maine and Depression-era Minnesota, Orphan Train is a powerful tale of upheaval and resilience, second chances, and unexpected friendship.

I loved Orphan Train.  It's not the sort of book that I'd pick up for a quick escape,  I had put off reading it because I thought it might be a bit too depressing.  While Kline puts her main characters through challenging times, Vivian Daly (or Niamh pronounced "Neev") never comes across as a victim or weak and the story is never depressing.  Instead, the even the difficult moments are empowering as Niamh's personality comes through.

She travels across the Atlantic from Ireland to Ellis Island with her family. They find their way to a tenement in the Lower East Side but a disastrous fire leaves Niamh an orphan. Niamh's brave and uncomplaining when she joins the other orphans on the train and at each stop where the younger, better looking orphans are taken in.  Niamh eventually finds a place at a working home and her difficulties don't end.  Each development seems to make Niamh's situation worse but her attitude and determination kept me engrossed.   Orphan Train is encouraging and uplifting despite all the awful things that Niamh endures.

About the Author:
Christina Baker Kline was born in England and raised in Maine.  She is the author of five novels, including Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be.  Writer in Residence at Fordham University from 2007 to 2011, Kline is also a recent recipient of a Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Fellowship and several research fellowships to Ireland and Minnesota.  She lives outside of New York City and spends as much time as possible in northern Minnesota and on the coast of Maine.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

King of Swords: Book One of the Starfolk by Dave Duncan

The blurb:
Rigel has always known he is not quite human, but the only clue to his origin is the otherworldly bracelet that he has worn since childhood.

His search for his parentage leads him to the Starlands where reality and fantasy have changed places.  There he learns that he is a human-starborn cross, and his bracelet is the legendary magical amulet Saiph, which makes its wear are an unbeatable swordsman.  Fighting off monsters, battling a gang of assassins seeking to kill him, Rigel finds honorable employment as a hero.  He knows that he must die very soon if he remains in the Starlands, but he has fallen hopelessly in love with a princess and cannot abandon her.

Through the imaginative landscape of the Starlands, Rigel's quest leads him to encounter minotaurs, sphinxes, cyclops, and more fearsome creatures in Dave Duncan's latest fantasy series.

I'm a big fan of Dave Duncan and was so excited to find King of Swords, his latest novel and the first book of his new series, Starfolk,  featured in the Amazon Vine Program.  This new series, The Starfolk, shows us a completely new world where star folk have built their world by imagining new places and destinations.  Many of the Starfolk have visited Earth at different times and have used these experiences to imagine unusual places in their world.  

In the Starfolk's world there are clear and distinct hierarchies with those with Royal blood and special magical gifts at the very top, the others of Royal blood and rank make up the next tier, then the different Starfolk based on their magical gifts (rank is shown by color), those of mixed blood are of significantly  lesser rank and must be sponsored by one of the Starfolk in order to live free and move in their world.  The humans in the Starfolk world are considered property, much like slaves.

The hero of the series grows up on Earth but knows himself to be an alien of sorts.  When he suddenly finds himself in the world of Starfolk, he discovers that he's been gifted with one of the most powerful amulets/swords in the universe.  This gift that he's had throughout his life is a clue to his parentage.  As he learns how to use his power, he searches for his parents and discovers a tie to some of the most dangerous beings in the Starfolk universe.  

Dave Duncan's King of Swords introduces a new hero in an unusual world.  I had hoped to care for the characters but while the mystery of the hero's family was particularly interesting, I wasn't invested in the other characters or their problems.

  • ISBN-10: 147780739X - Paperback $8.97
  • Publisher: 47North (September 17, 2013), 394 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of the publisher and the Amazon Vine Program.

About the Author:
Dave Duncan is a prolific writer of fantasy and science fiction whose books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.  He is best known for his fantasy series, particularly The Seventh Sword, A Man of His Word, The King's Blades, and Against the Light.  He and his wife Janet, his in-house editor and partner for over 50 years, live in Victoria, British Columbia.  They have three children and four grandchildren.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Trains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith focuses Trains and Lovers on four people journeying from Edinburgh to London. "This is the story of four people, all strangers to one another, who met on that train, and of how love touched their lives, in very different ways." The trip itself changes from ordinary to memorable when the passengers find themselves opening up to each other.

McCall Smith recounts the individual stories through dialogue, through narration and through interior thoughts. The stories themselves draw you in. Not all the love stories are happy, some are marked by regret and longing. I don't want to spoil anything and the bare details of the love stories don't do them justice. McCall Smith writes so beautifully here and though the book is short, I found myself slowing down to savor his writing.  Some stories are incredibly sad, but all of the stories stay with you long after you've finished the book. 

ISBN-10: 034580581X - Paperback $10.09
  • Publisher: Anchor (December 31, 2013), 256 pages. 
Review copy courtesy of the publisher and the Amazon Vine Reviewers Program.

About the Author:

Alexander McCall Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe and taught law at the University of Botswana. He is now Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh. He has written more than fifty books, including a number of specialist titles, but is best known for The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, which has achieved bestseller status on four continents. In 2004 he was awarded British Book Awards Author of the Year and Booksellers Association Author of the Year. He lives in Scotland, where in his spare time he is a bassoonist in the RTO (Really Terrible Orchestra).