Posts Tagged ‘historic fiction’

Book Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane (Audiobook narrated by Candace Thaxton)

Book Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane (Audiobook narrated by Candace Thaxton)Summary:
Have you ever heard of Typhoid Mary? The Irish-American cook in the early 1900s who was lambasted for spreading typhoid through her cooking. What many don’t know is that she was an asymptomatic carrier. This was the early ages of germ theory, and most didn’t realize you could pass on an illness without any symptoms. Captured and held against her will on North Brother Island, it’s easy to empathize with her plight. Until she’s released and begins cooking again.

I grew up hearing the cautionary tale of Typhoid Mary, who was mostly mentioned within hearing range in combination with an admonition to wash your hands. But some people (mainly other children) told tales of her purposefully infecting those she served. These sentences were spoken with a combination of fear and awe. On the one hand, how understandable at a time when worker’s rights were nearly completely absent and to be both a woman and Irish in America was not a good combination. On the other hand, how evil to poison people with such a heinous illness in their food. In any case, when this fictionalized account of Mary Mallon came up, I was immediately intrigued. Who was this woman anyway? It turns out, the mixture of awe and fear reflected in myself and other children was actually fairly accurate.

I’m going to speak first about the actual Mary Mallon and then about the writing of the book. If you’re looking for the perfect example of gray area and no easy answers mixed with unfair treatment based on gender and nation of origin, then hoo boy do you find one with Mary Mallon. The early 1900s was early germ theory, and honestly, when you think about it, germ theory sounds nuts if you don’t grow up with it. You can carry invisible creatures on your skin and in your saliva that can make other people but not yourself sick. Remember, people didn’t grow up knowing about germs. It was an entirely new theory. The status quo was don’t cook while you’re sick, and hygiene was abysmally low…basically everywhere. It’s easy to understand how Mary was accidentally spreading sickness and didn’t know it. It’s also easy to understand why she would have fought at being arrested (she did nothing malicious or wrong and was afraid of the police). Much as we may say now that she should have known enough to wash her hands frequently. Wellll, maybe not so much back then.

Public health officials said that they tried to reason with Mary, and she refused to stop cooking or believe that she was infecting others. This is why they quarantined her on North Brother Island. Some point to others (male, higher social status) who were found to be asymptomatic carriers who were not quarantined. True. But they also acknowledged the risk and agreed to stop doing whatever it was that was spreading the illness. Maybe Mary was more resistant because of the prejudice she was treated with from the beginning. Or maybe she really was too stubborn to be able to understand what a real risk she posed to others. Regardless, it is my opinion that no matter the extraneous social factors (being a laundress is more difficult than being a cook, people were overly harsh with her, etc…) Mary still knowingly cooked and infected people after she was released from North Brother Island. Yes, there were better ways public health officials could have handled the whole situation but that’s still an evil thing to do. So that’s the real story of Mary Mallon. Now, on to the fictional account (and here you’ll see why I bothered discussing the facts first).

At first Keane does a good job humanizing a person who has been extremely demonized in American pop culture. Time and effort is put into establishing Mary’s life and hopes. Effort is made into showing how she may not have noticed typhoid following her wherever she went. She emigrated from Ireland. She, to put it simply, saw a lot of shit. A lot of people got sick and died. That was just life. I also liked how the author showed the ways in which Mallon was contrarian to what was expected of women. She didn’t marry. She was opinionated and sometimes accused of not dressing femininely enough. But, unfortunately, that’s where my appreciation fo the author’s handling of Mallon ends.

The author found it necessary to give Mallon a live-in, alcoholic boyfriend who gets almost as much page time as herself. In a book that should be about Mary, he gets entirely too much time, and that hurts the plot. (There is seriously a whole section about him going to Minnesota that is entirely pointless). A lot of Mary’s decisions are blamed on this boyfriend. While I get it that shitty relationships can cause you to make shitty decisions, at a certain point accountability comes into play. No one held a gun to Mary’s head and made her cook or made her date this man (I couldn’t find any records to support this whole alcoholic boyfriend, btw).

On a similar note, a lot of effort is made into blaming literally everyone but Mary for the situation. It’s society’s fault. It’s culture’s fault. It’s Dr. Soper’s fault. They should have rehabbed her with a new job that was more comparable to cooking than being a laundress. They should have had more empathy. Blah blah blah. Yes. In a perfect world they would have realized how backbreaking being a laundress is and trained her in something else. But, my god, in the early 1900s they released her and found her a job in another career field. That’s a lot for that time period! This is the early days of public health. The fact that anyone even considered finding her a new career is kind of amazing. And while I value and understand the impact society and culture and others have on the individual’s ability to make good and moral decisions, I still believe ultimately the individual is morally responsible. And at some point, Mary, with all of her knowledge of the fact that if she cooked there was a high probability someone would die, decided to go and cook anyway. And she didn’t cook just anywhere. She cooked at a maternity ward in a hospital. So the fact that the book spends a lot of time trying to remove all personal culpability from Mary bothered me a lot.

I’m still glad I read the book, but I sort of wish I’d just read the interesting articles and watched the PBS special about her instead. It would have taken less time and been just as factual.

Source: Audible

3 out of 5 stars

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Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

February 22, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen DunmoreSummary:
Cathy and her brother Rob live with their emotionally distant grandfather on family land in England because her mother left, and her father died in a mental institution. Cathy and Rob seek refuge with each other against the world, but World War I won’t let them keep the world at bay forever.

I generally enjoy controversial books, and I heard that this historical fiction included the always controversial plot point of incest. The short version of my review is: it’s amazing how boring a book about incest and WWI can actually be. For the longer version, read on.

The book is told non-linearly in what appears to be an attempt to build suspense. The constant jumping with very few reveals for quite some time, though, just led to my own frustration.

I was similarly frustrated by the fact that Cathy’s childish interpretation of her father’s mental illness never progresses. She never moves from a child’s understanding to an adult’s understanding. This lack of progress gave a similar stagnant feeling to the book.

Of course, what the book is best-known for is the incest between Cathy and Rob. I found the scenes of incest neither shocking nor eliciting of any emotion. There are scenes where Cathy and Rob discuss how “unfair” it is that they cannot have children and society will judge them. But then again there are scenes that imply that Rob took advantage of Cathy. Well, which is it? It’s not that I demand no gray areas, but the existence of gray areas in such a topic would best be supported by a main character with insight. Cathy remains childlike throughout the book. Indeed, I think the characterization of Cathy is what holds the whole book back. Because the book is Cathy’s perspective, this lack in her characterization impacts the whole thing. What could be either a horrifying or a thought-provoking book instead ends up being simply meh. A lot of time is spent saying essentially nothing.

That said, I did enjoy how the author elicits the setting. I truly felt as if I was there in that cold and often starving rural England. I felt as if I could feel the cold in my bones. That beauty of setting is something that many writers struggle with.

Overall, this book read as gray and dull to me as the early 20th century English countryside it is set in. Readers with a vested interest in all varieties of WWI historic fiction and those who enjoy a main character with a childlike inability to provide insight are the most likely to enjoy this book. Those looking for a shocking, horrifying, or thought-provoking read should look elsewhere.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

August 20, 2015 6 comments

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara KingsolverSummary:
In 1959 Nathan Price took his wife and four young daughters on a mission to the Congo to spread the Evangelical Baptist message.  Nathan, abusive and stubborn, refuses to listen to anyone around him–not the chief of the village he’s living in, not their Congolese maid, not the organizers of the mission, and certainly not his wife or daughters.  When the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium arrives, Nathan refuses to return to the United States with lasting consequences on all of the Prices.

I was told by several people that as a deconvert from the Evangelical Baptist faith I was raised in, I would enjoy this secularly published take on an Evangelical mission to Africa.  While I did enjoy the beginning of the book for its honest look at what missions are actually like, the character development becomes increasingly more lackluster and flat throughout the book, working in direct contrast with an increasingly complex plot and souring the whole book.  Additionally, although the book avoids having a Christian slanted take to missions, it certainly does not manage to tell the neutral story I was hoping for.  The author’s slant is more and more apparent as the book goes on, and it ends up being quite heavy-handed by the end.

The beginning of the book is excellent.  Rather than giving Nathan the voice, all of the story telling is from the point of view of one of the women in his life whom he silences–Orleanna (his wife), Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May.  It is so powerful to see him through their eyes.  To see him striving so hard to maintain control over everyone and simultaneously hear from their thoughts that he can never truly control them.  It’s empowering and simultaneously heartbreaking.

It’s also interesting to see how Nathan’s stubbornness and know-it-all nature prevents him from ever truly connecting to or even helping the people in the village he’s working in.  He thinks his way is always the best, completely missing that he and the villagers could actually trade knowledge and information and all end up better.  Because they are, in his mind, backwards and unsaved, he refuses to ever listen to them.  His refusal to ever bend causes the mission to break.  For instance, he insists on baptism in the river, even though the villagers are afraid to go in the river because of crocodiles.  He could have made a compromise, perhaps a tub of water in the church, but he continues to insist on the river, leading the villagers to believe he is out to get their children killed by crocodiles.  It’s a gentle and subtle message, unlike others in the book, that could be applied to many aspects of many lives.  Be willing to listen, grow, and learn.

Once the Congo rebellion starts though, the book begins a slow slide off the rails.  The voices of the women change from developing toward a well-rounded presentation of their characters to flat cardboard cut-out versions of their original selves.  For instance, Rachel goes from being a femme teenager frustrated with being stuck in the jungle to a cardboard cut-out racist white supremacist.  While being a white supremacist is obviously wrong, Rachel isn’t well-rounded enough to let her still be human.  She is instead a monster, which is a disservice to us all.  It is only by seeing how those who seem monstrous are just humans gone wrong can we learn something.  The same is true of the rest of the women, although they are all taken in different directions toward different stereotypes.  One loses her mental health, another becomes a scholar, etc… But they all become stereotypes rather than older versions of their well-rounded younger selves.

Similarly, although the multiple different perspectives work well for a bunch of different sets of eyes seeing the same situations play out in the same village, when the daughters grow up, the multiple perspectives become instead individual perspectives of their own individual lives with some periodic judgment from one sister to another on how she’s choosing to live her life.  Instead of giving a richly varied representation of one situation, the reader instead gets a slanted viewpoint of several different situations.  It again renders the story flat instead of well-rounded.  I found myself thinking many times that the book would have been better if it had just ended at the end of the section that takes part in the daughters’ childhoods.

The plot and character shifts both line up with a tone shift that goes from neutrally presenting what occurs in the village to having a decided political slant.  It feels as if the point goes from telling a good story to convincing the reader to feel a certain way.  I think it’s interesting that this slant and the weaker writing go hand-in-hand.  It’s a good reminder that if you focus on telling a good story, a message may come across on its own anyway, but don’t try to force a story to fit a message you want to tell.  That hurts the story.

Overall, the beginning of the book is quite strong, featuring an interesting plot and characters but about 2/3 of the way through, it loses its strength, falling into caricature and message pushing that hurt the story as a whole.  Recommended to readers who are quite interested in the beginning and wouldn’t mind skimming the end.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge

Announcement: I Am Open to Review Requests Now Through December 30th for Review in 2016

Image of confettiHooray!!

I am happy to announce that as of now I am open to review requests for books to be reviewed in 2016!!!

Now through December 30th, feel free to fill out the submission form if you are interested in being reviewed right here on Opinions of a Wolf at some point during 2016.

Here’s how it’s going to work:

  1. You lovely indie authors and indie publishers read my review policies to determine if your book is a good match for me.
  2. If it is, fill out the submission form.  I do NOT accept submissions via comments or emails.
  3. Between December 1st and 30th, I go over the submissions and determine which ones I will accept.  The number I accept will depend upon both the number that interest me, and the number I feel comfortable committing my time to in 2016.
  4. I send out acceptance emails to all the accepted authors/publishers anytime between December 1st and January 8th.
  5. By January 15th, accepted authors/publishers reply to this email either with a copy of the ebook or confirmation that they have sent out the print book to me.  If I do not hear back from accepted authors/publishers by January 15th, the review acceptance will be rescinded.
  6. By January 31st, I will write a post right here announcing the books I have accepted for review.  This means that if you are accepted for review, you have the potential for three instances of publicity: 1) the announcement 2) the review 3) a giveaway (if you request one AND your book receives 3 stars or more in the review).  You may view 2015’s announcement post here.  I highly recommend checking it out, as it reveals some interesting data on genres that have many versus few submissions.

I would like to note that I strongly encourage women writers and GLBTQA writers to submit to me, particularly in genres that do not normally publish works by these authors.  I was quite disappointed last year to get only 38% of my submissions from female authors.  I would like to get at least 50% of my submissions from women authors.  Although I received 14% of my submissions from authors who self-identified as GLBTQA, I would like to see this grow to at least 25%.  Please help me get the word out that I am actively seeking works by these authors.

If you are interested in the full breakdown of submissions I received last year and what was ultimately accepted, check out my 2015 accepted review copies post.

Thank you for your interest in submitting your books to Opinions of a Wolf!  I’m looking forward to reading through all of the submissions, and I can’t wait to see what review copies I’ll be reading in 2016!

Book Review: The Keep by F. Paul Wilson (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

December 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Book Review: The Keep by F. Paulu Wilson (Series, #1)Summary:
Captain Klaus Woermann isn’t a fan of the Nazis or the SS and doesn’t exactly keep this a secret.  But he’s also a hero from the First World War, so the Nazi regime deals with him by sending he and a small troop to Romania to guard a pass the Russians could possibly use.  They set up to guard the place in a building known as the keep.  It should be a quiet assignment, but when the German soldiers start being killed one a night by having their throats ripped out, the SS is sent to investigate.

SS Major Kaempffer wishes to solve this mystery as soon as possible so he may start his new promotion of running the extermination camp for Romania.  He is sure he can solve this mystery quickly.

Professor Cuza and his daughter Magda are Romanian Jews who have already been pushed out of their work in academia.  They also just so happen to be the only experts on the keep.  When the SS sends for them, they are sure it is the beginning of the end.  But what is more evil? The mysterious entity killing the Germans or the Nazis?

It’s hard not to pick up a book that basically advertises itself as a vampire killing Nazis and the only ones who can stop the vampires are a Jewish professor and his daughter.  I mean, really, what an idea!  Most of the book executes this idea with intrigue and finesse, although the end leaves a bit to be desired.

The characterization of the Germans is handled well.  They are a good mix of morally ethical people who are caught up in a regime following orders and see no way out (the army men) and evil men who enjoy inflicting pain upon others and are taking advantage of the regime to be governmentally sanctioned bullies, rapists, and murderers.  Having both present keeps the book from simply demonizing all Germans and yet recognizes the evil of Nazism and those who used it to their advantage.

Similarly, Magda and her father Professor Cuza are well-rounded.  Professor Cuza is a man of his time, using his daughter’s help academically but not giving her any credit for it.  He also is in chronic pain and acts like it, rather than acting like a saint.  Magda is torn between loyalty to her sickly father and desires to live out her own life as she so chooses.  They are people with fully developed lives prior to the rise of the Nazis, and they are presented as just people, not saints.

In contrast, the man who arrives to fight the evil entity, Glaeken, is a bit of a two-dimensional deus ex machina, although he is a sexy deus ex machina.  Very little is known of him or his motivations.  He comes across as doing what is needed for the plot in the moment rather than as a fully developed person.  The same could easily be said of the villagers who live near the keep.

The basic conflict of the plot is whether or not to side with the supernatural power that seems to be willing to work against the Nazis.  Thus, what is worse? The manmade evil of the Nazis or a supernatural evil?  Can you ever use a supernatural evil for good?  It’s an interesting conflict right up until the end where a reveal is made that makes everything about the question far too simple.  Up until that point it is quite thought-provoking, however.

The plot smoothly places all of these diverse people in the same space.  The supernatural entity is frightening, as are the Nazis.  These are all well-done.

One thing that was frustrating to me as a modern woman reader was the sheer number of times Magda is almost raped or threatened with rape, and how she only escapes from rape thanks to anything but herself.  In one instance, the Nazi simply runs out of time because the train is about to move out.  In another, she is saved by a man.  In a third, she is saved by supernatural devices.  While it is true that rape is a danger in war zones, it would be nice if this was not such a frequently used conflict/plot point for this character.  Once would have been sufficient to get the point across.  As it is, the situation starts to lose its power as a plot point.

The ending is a combination of a deus ex machina and a plot twist that is a bit unsatisfying.  There also isn’t enough resolution, and it appears that the next books in the series do not pick up again with these same characters, so it is doubtful there is more resolution down the road.  It is a disappointing ending that takes a turn that is nowhere near as powerful and interesting as the rest of the book.

Overall, this is an interesting fantastical take on a historic time period.  The ending could possibly be disappointing and not resolve enough for the reader and some readers will be frustrated with the depiction of the sole female character.  However, it is still a unique read that is recommended to historic fiction fans and WWII buffs that don’t mind having some supernatural aspects added to their history.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Giveaway Winner: Bad Elephant Far Stream by Samuel Hawley (INTERNATIONAL)

December 13, 2014 2 comments

Close-up of an elephant's eyeThe giveaway winner of one ebook version of Bad Elephant Far Stream (review) by Samuel Hawley, courtesy of Samuel Hawley himself is……..

Comment #1 Jeane!

Jeane, I’ll be providing the email you left with your entry to the author, who will send along the ebook to you himself.

Thanks for entering!

Giveaway: Bad Elephant Far Stream by Samuel Hawley (INTERNATIONAL)

December 6, 2014 1 comment

Close-up of an elephant's eyeIt’s the penultimate giveaway of 2014 here at Opinions of a Wolf.  I was so happy to be able to offer so many giveaways this year! Thanks to the indie authors and indie publishing houses that made it possible.

There are TWO ebook versions of Bad Elephant Far Stream (review) available courtesy of the author, Samuel Hawley!

What You’ll Win:  One ebook copy of Bad Elephant Far Stream (review) by Samuel Hawley.

How to Enter:  Leave a comment on this post stating the coolest fact you know about elephants.


Contest Ends: December 13th.  One week from today!

Disclaimer: The winners will have their ebook sent to them by the author.  The blogger is not responsible for sending the book.  Void where prohibited by law.