Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion by Catriona Menzies-Pike


The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion by Catriona Menzies-Pike
ISBN-10: 1524759449 - Hardcover $25
  • Publisher: Crown (May 23, 2017), 256 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher.

The blurb:
When her parents died in a plane crash, the last thing twenty-year-old Catriona Menzies-Pike knew how to do was grieve.  One day she'd been a punked-out art student worrying about her semiotics thesis, the next she was answering questions like Where will the family live?  What will you do with the house? The following decade was a period of searching--hard drinking, bad living--and though Catriona made it through in one piece, it often felt as if she was barely holding it together.

Something changed when, at age thirty, she signed up for a half marathon. Her enthusiasm surprised no one more than her, until she recognized that during the years of her coping with her parents' deaths she had already been "preoccupied with distance and endurance."  She realized running, a "pace suited to the precarious labor of memory," was helping her to process the loss in ways that she had been, for ten messy years, trying to run from. 

As Catriona excavates her own past, she also grows curious about other women drawn to running. What she finds is a history of repression and denial--running was thought to endanger childbearing, and as late as 1967 a Boston Marathon official tried to drag a woman off the course, telling her to "get the hell out of my race" -- but also of incredible courage and achievement.  Cartoon intertwines the stories of women who defied convention with her own journey of coming to terms, in what becomes a fierce and moving testament to our power to reshape the stories the world tells about us and the ones we tell about ourselves.

Review:
The Long Run is a memoir by a young woman in Sydney who hadn't identified as an athlete or a runner.  The books and articles that she'd read about running seemed to focus on ambitious, Type A people or on self improvement or weight loss.  Menzies-Pike shares her own story of how running opened up a "new geography" of her home city.  She discusses books about running from the point of view of a reader (as compared to reading the books as a runner).  With self-depreciating humor shines through whether she discusses what first women marathoners faced in 1896 or her family anecdotes or her own travel stories, Menzies-Pike delivers an engaging, well thought-out discussion.  Her book is about running but it is also about determination, perseverance, and taking control while keeping a sense of humor.


About the Author:
Catriona Menzies-Pike is the editor of the Sydney Review of Books. She has worked in digital media for a decade and her journalism and essays on feminism, literary culture, and politics have been widely published. She holds a PhD in English literature and has taught film, literature, journalism and cultural studies units to undergraduates since 2001. In 2008 she ran her first half-marathon, and five marathons and dozens of half marathons later, she's still running.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Shattered Tree by Charles Todd (A Bess Crawford Mystery)


The Shattered Tree by Charles Todd
  • ISBN-10: 0062386271 - Hardcover $ 25.99
  • Publisher: William Morrow (August 30, 2016), 304 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of the Publisher.

The blurb:
France, October 1918.  Though the war is nearing its end, the German enemy refuses to go quietly. During a nighttime barrage, British stretcher bearers find an exhausted officer, shivering with cold and a loss of blood from several wounds, clinging to life at the foot of a tree shattered by shelling and gunfire.  The soldier is brought to Bess Crawford's aid station, where she stabilizes him and treats his injuries before he is sent to a base hospital.

Surprisingly, the officer isn't British -- he's wearing the tattered remains of a French uniform.  And even stranger, when he shouts out in anger and pain, he speaks in fluent German.

When Bess reports the incident to the hospital's matron, her weary superior offers a plausible explanation.  The soldier must be from the Alsace-Lorraine, a province in the west where the tenuous border between France and Germany has shifted through history, most recently in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which was won by the Germans. Of course, Matron could be right. Still, Bess remains uneasy -- and unconvinced. What was a French soldier doing so far from his own lines. . . and so close to where the Germans are putting up a fierce, last-ditch fight? And if he is Alsatian, on which side of the war do his sympathies really lie?

Before she can inquire further, Bess is wounded while helping to evacuate soldiers from the battlefield.  Sent to Paris to recuperate, she discovers that her mysterious soldier is also in the French capital. . . but has disappeared.  Could he have been the infamous German spotter for the "Paris Gun" that is the talk of the Allied Army? It had shelled terrified Parisians earlier in the year, then fell silent. Or could he be involved in some other dark treachery?

With the unexpected help of Captain Barkley, the congenial American whose path crossed with hers once before, the intrepid Bess -- a soldier's daughter and dedicated nurse -- embarks on a dangerous hunt to find the man and uncover the truth, even at the risk of her own life.

Review:
I am an avid fan of historical mysteries in general and of these Bess Crawford mysteries in particular.  This latest novel gives us the familiar sense of frustration as Bess ignores her safety to take on obligations and make difficult promises to virtual strangers in order to fulfill her sense of honor and justice. There are junctures where I was begging her to tell Simon or another military ally what dangers she faces, but Bess is determined to assert her independence and follow her instincts.  It's both admirable and foolhardy.  Her instincts take her to considerable danger and to the dark world of espionage.

The Shattered Tree does have those heartwarming moments when Bess and character shine through. She wins the loyalty of the people she meets and many soldiers who she's treated are fiercely protective.  I find it satisfying when her personality comes across and strict officials recognize the value of the work that she does.  Bess is determined, smart, fearless to the point of being near foolhardy - she's an endearing heroine.   The Shattered Tree takes us on another satisfying adventure!

About the Authors:
Charles Todd is the author of the Bess Crawford mysteries, the Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries, and two stand-alone novels.  A mother-and-son writing team, they live on the East Coast.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang


Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang
ISBN  0062388959 - Paperback $15.99
William Morrow Paperbacks (January 10, 2017), 400 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The blurb:
That night I dreamed that I had wandered out to Dragon Springs Road all on my own when a dreadful knowledge seized me that my mother had gone away never to return....

In 1908, Jialing is only seven years old when she is abandoned in the courtyard of a once-lavish estate outside Shanghai.  Jialing is zazhong--Eurasian--and faces a lifetime of contempt from both Chinese and Europeans. Until now she's led a secluded life behind courtyard walls, but without her mother's protection, she can survive only if the estate's new owners, the Yang family, agree to take her in.

Dialing finds allies in Anjuin, the eldest Yang daughter, and Fox, an animal spirit who has lived in the courtyard for centuries.  But Jialing's life as the Yangs' bondservant changes unexpectedly when she befriends a young English girl who then mysteriously vanishes.

Murder, political intrigue, jealousy, forbidden love. . . Jialing confronts them all as she grows into womanhood during the tumultuous early years of the Chinese republic, always hopeful of finding her long-lost mother.  Through every turn she is guided, both by Fox and by her own strength of spirit, away from the shadows of her past toward a very different fate, if she has the courage to accept it.

Review:
Dragon Springs Road takes us to China at the turn of the century, close to the time of the Opium Wars, of foreign missionaries teaching Chinese religion and English, when women suffered foot binding and family restraints on their freedoms, education, opportunities.  

We meet our heroine when she is 7 years old, living with her mother in an remote compound.  They are friends with a "fox spirit".  Her mother has a wealthy patron who occasionally visits for an evening (during which Jialing stays out of sight).  When Jialing's mother's patron goes bankrupt, her mother leaves for a short trip -- and does not return. While Jialing stays on the estate as a bondservant of the new owners, she learns what it means to be alone, Eurasian, and poor.  Jialing is tough, positive, and loyal -- as she faces all sorts of prejudices and problems, she finds friends and ways to survive.  Dragon Springs Road delivers a satisfying tale of a young girl with ambition, smarts, and bad luck living in a quickly changing China.  Janie Chang's story drew me in from the start.  If you're interested in China in this period, it's a wonderful read!

About the Author:
Janie Chang spent part of her childhood in the Philippines, Iran, and Thailand. She has a degree in computer science and is a graduate of the Writer's Studio Program at Simon Fraser University.  She is the author of Three Souls.  

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken


Passenger by Alexandra Bracken
  • ISBN-10: 1484715772- Hardcover $17.99
  • Publisher: Disney-Hyperion (January 5, 2016), 496 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Netgalley.

The blurb:
In one devastating night, violin prodigy Etta Spencer loses everything she knows and loves. Thrust into an unfamiliar world by a stranger with a dangerous agenda, Etta is certain of only one thing: she has traveled not just miles, but years from home. And she's inherited a legacy she knows nothing about from a family whose existence she's never heard of. Until now.
Nicholas Carter is content with his life at sea, free from the Ironwoods-a powerful family in the Colonies-and the servitude he's known at their hands. But with the arrival of an unusual passenger on his ship comes the insistent pull of the past that he can't escape and the family that won't let him go so easily. Now the Ironwoods are searching for a stolen object of untold value, one they believe only Etta, his passenger, can find. In order to protect her, Nick must ensure she brings it back to them-whether she wants to or not. 
Together, Etta and Nicholas embark on a perilous journey across centuries and continents, piecing together clues left behind by the traveler who will do anything to keep the object out of the Ironwoods' grasp. But as they get closer to the truth of their search, and the deadly game the Ironwoods are playing, treacherous forces threaten to separate Etta not only from Nicholas but from her path home forever.

Review:
Henrietta Spencer or Etta is a gifted violinist and has sacrificed much of her childhood to perfecting her skills.  On the eve of her first public solo at the Metropolitan Museum, she is suddenly uncertain.  She overhears her mother and her teacher in the middle of a heated argument which she believes to be about her ability to perform in public.  She's determined to continue with her solo and butts in angrily.  But something disrupts her performance and she runs from the stage.

Etta finds herself suddenly in the middle of an earlier time, subject to great danger and unaware of the shifting alliances.  She's forced to work within the restrictions and limitations of women in Colonial America without the buffer of wealth and family connections.  As Etta tries to find the time traveling item that can bring her back to her time, she must determine who she can trust and how to survive in this new world.  

Passenger ticks all the boxes for a fun, unusual read but I found Etta too timid. I had hoped that she'd rebel, but her actions were tempered by her caution and trust of those around her.  Though I enjoyed Passenger, I'm hoping that the next book in the series will prove more daring.

About the Author:
Alexandra Bracken is the New York Times bestselling author of The Darkest Minds series. Born and raised in Arizona, she moved East to study history and English at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. After working in publishing for several years, Alex now writes full-time and can be found hard at work on her next novel in a charming little apartment that's perpetually overflowing with books. Visit her online at www.alexandrabracken.com and on Twitter @alexbracken.