About thebooklookery

I started the blog thebooklookery at the suggestion of a friend who noticed the prolific literary oriented posts I make on my personal fb page. thebooklookery will feature reviews of an eclectic reading list of my own choosing, along with occasional posts regarding all things literary. I look forward to your following thebooklookery, and any comments you may make on the blog!

A lookery at “Circling the Sun: A Novel” by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun: A Novel

Paula McLain

Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine

July 28, 2015

384 pages

$28.00

Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun: A Novel is the fictionalized memoir of Beryl Clutterbuck Purves Markham, a woman ahead of her time. This novel of Beryl Markham’s youth takes you deep into the soul of this unusual and unconventional woman.

Abandoned by her mother before the age of five, Beryl is a maverick from the get-go, spending most of her childhood in the bush with her toto friend, Kibii, learning the skills of a young Kipsigis boy. Alongside her father “Clutt”, she learns how to assess, raise and train thoroughbred racehorses.

Beryl could not be tamed by Emma, the housekeeper her father brought into the home, nor by a governess, nor by a boarding school in Nairobi that expelled her after two and a half years.

When Clutt’s farm fails in her mid-teens, Beryl marries neighboring farmer Jock Purves, but is quickly disillusioned. She leaves her husband, who won’t grant her a divorce, determined to make her way as a trainer of thoroughbreds. Guided by a family friend with a vast stable, she is allowed to prepare for a license as an English Trainer; the first woman in Africa to do so. At the age of nineteen Beryl becomes the first licensed female racehorse trainer on the continent.

But Beryl is not schooled in the unique and unwritten social standards of the 1920’s colonial ex-pat community of the British East Africa Protectorate (eventually, Kenya). Her affairs, including an on-going secret relationship with Denys Finch Hatton — the lover of the Baroness Karen Blixen, who would later pen Out of Africa as Isaak Dinesen — become scandalous even in this loose society. She flees to England to escape the disgraceful reputation she has created.

She returns to Kenya with a sponsor, and begins to repair her status as a young woman of society and as a trainer. Eventually, Jock divorces Beryl, and she later marries Mansfield Markham.

A trail blazer, Beryl breaks barriers for women in the world of horse training, and later as the first professional female pilot in Africa. She has a deep love of the lush country she lives in — its wilderness as well as the natives who live on the land and who remain her lifelong friends.

Paula McLain shows us the beauty of the wild country as Beryl experienced it, and we feel Beryl’s passion for all things wild and untamed, much like Beryl herself. Beryl channels her energy into her love for the land and into challenging boundaries. The author’s storytelling in Circling the Sun: A Novel is as remarkable as the woman she writes about. Deeply visual, visceral, entrancing and exciting, Circling the Sun: A Novel is one of the best novels I’ve read in quite some time. As an author, McLain is a true thoroughbred.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher Random House Group – Ballantine for a preview copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A lookery at Lauren Willig’s “The Other Daughter”

The Other Daughter

The Other Daughter

Lauren Willig

St. Martin’s Press

July 21, 2015

304 pages

$25.99

Rachel Woodley, raised in a remote English village by her widowed mother Katherine, is employed as a governess in France. After several years abroad, Rachel receives a telegram, maliciously and intentionally delayed by a member of the household staff. The news is horrible. Rachel’s beloved mother is bedridden with influenza and Rachel is summoned home.

She arrives home to find her mother dead and buried, and receives notice from the landlord that she has but a few days to move out of the home she has shared with her mother since the death of her father Edward, a botanist. Amongst her mother’s belongings Rachel discovers a recent photo of her father, now called Lord Ardmore, escorting his daughter Lady Olivia to a debutante ball.

Suddenly, the only life Rachel has known is a lie. Her father is an earl, her mother his mistress, and she has a half-sister — the legitimate daughter — she has never met or heard of.

A visit to her Cousin David, keeper of the family secrets, confirms that the Woodleys have been quietly living a lie for decades. Rachel storms out of her cousin’s digs, determined to confront the father she remembered so fondly, and who abandoned his by-blow family.

A chance encounter with gossip columnist Simon Montfort gives Rachel the opportunity to enter London’s aristocratic social circle of Bright Young Things under the assumed name of Vera Merton. Simon supplies the flat, the attire and image that Vera needs to gain a toehold with this crowd, and Simon gains a new subject for his column. Rachel’s ultimate goal — to be given an invitation to her father’s estate where she will challenge Lord Ardmore’s duplicity, and force him to acknowledge her.

Rachel soon finds out that there are a myriad of rules governing the behavior of the BYTs, and struggles to remain herself while pretending to be one of the fast crowd. She learns that even the most superficial and shallow of her new friends are complicated companions. Vera also discovers the far-reaching effects of The Great War on soldiers, their families and friends, nearly ten years after the Armistice.

In The Other Daughter, Lauren Willig displays a flair for societal and historical details, develops complex and conflicted characters, presents surprising plot twists and delves into the manner in which deceit and lies become tangled, taking on a life of their own. The conclusion of the novel is surprising and satisfying, and in keeping with the true personalities of the characters.

I have wanted to read one of Lauren Willig’s novels for some time. Courtesy of NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press, an advance copy of Willig’s latest novel The Other Daughter, was made available to me in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

A lookery at “The Flying Circus” by Susan Crandall

The Flying Circus

The Flying Circus

Susan Crandall

Gallery Books

July 7, 2015

368 pages

$26.00

Author Susan Crandall first caught my attention with her recent novel Whistling Past the Graveyard, which I always recommend to readers looking for a wonderful title. Her newest novel, The Flying Circus is likewise excellent.

Set in the Midwest shortly after the Great War, a trio of misfits come together by accident to form an aeroplane and motorcycle barnstorming act. Meet Henry Schuler Jefferson, on the run from his Indiana foster home and in great fear of being arrested for a heinous crime; Cora Rose Haviland, a tomboy of a socialite who escapes on her brother’s motorcycle the stultifying life as a marriageable debutante; and Charles “Gil” Gilcrest, a daredevil pilot and veteran of World War I — with a past, a secret and a death wish — who flies from town to town earning his living as a barnstormer. The new act, Mercury’s Daredevils, features Gil as the pilot, Cora as the racing motorcyclist with a mutt, and Henry, who acts as the show’s mechanic. The little group has modest success with their act until they encounter Hoffman’s Flying Circus — a professional air show featuring several pilots with shiny new planes.

It becomes obvious to the three friends that they must join the larger group in order to survive as an act and to keep flying. Cora has learned to fly, becoming a rare female pilot. She also has a strong desire to pursue daring stunts in the air. Henry signs on as part of the mechanical crew and a stunt coordinator and is thrilled to be on the move farther away from Indiana. Gil begrudgingly joins the Flying Circus too, moody as always with his secret past hidden at the bottom of a bottle.

When winter arrives, Hoffman’s Flying Circus goes on hiatus. Gil returns to his home while Cora and Henry strike out for Santa Monica, California. There, Cora hopes to find a career in films as a stunt pilot. What Henry and Cora find in California astonishes them and brings unwanted pain and attention to the fugitive and the debutante.

Each character is hiding a secret. As they return to their base camp, secrets and lies begin to unravel. Crandall slowly, teasingly, offers up bits of information on each intricately designed character. By the time all three of the show people are back together, it is uncertain how Henry, Gil and Cora are going to fare. The three of them are caught in their lies as their lives fall apart just in time for an air race in Miami with a big cash prize.

Susan Crandall brings to life both the post World War I prejudices as well as the flashy and phony life of early Hollywood. Her characters are flawed but genuine human beings, who have banded together to form a family. The awe-inspiring world of early aviation is explored in detail, illuminating the glory, the wonder and the disasters of flight.

The Flying Circus gives a glimpse into the current and future states of aviation. It also exposes the effects of war and narrow-mindedness in both the upper echelon of society and the working class. Susan Crandall’s novel shows her readers that everyone has a past and secrets that bring out the best and the worst in people. It also depicts the importance of family and friendship, which make us better human beings. One of the most anticipated releases of the summer, The Flying Circus will entertain readers on every page. And once you’ve finished The Flying Circus, read Susan Crandall’s Whistling Past the Graveyard, too. Neither novel will disappoint.

With thanks to NetGalley and Gallery Books for a preview copy of this novel in return for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A lookery at “My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” by Fredrik Backman

my-grandmother-asked-me-to-tell-you-shes-sorry-9781501115066_lg

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrick Backman

Atria Books

June 16, 2015

384 pages

$25.00

Precocious seven-year-old Elsa, and her seventy-seven year old Granny, who is quite possibly bonkers, are inseparable. Elsa is very different from other children her age, but Granny says that it’s okay to be unique. Granny is a retired surgeon, Elsa’s greatest champion and a superhero with a wicked sense of the absurd. The pair have their own secret language, which Granny uses to entertain Elsa with fairy tales about the Land of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas.

Elsa and Granny live in a large house with several flats. Among the residents of these apartments are oddball characters with quirky personalities such as a rigid rule enforcer, a taxi driver, a drunkard, a woman who bakes dream cookies, a boy with a syndrome, and perhaps most frightening of all, The Monster and Our Friend the Wurse. Granny delights in teasing some of their neighbors while giving preferential treatment to others.

But when Granny dies, she sends Elsa on a hunt through each of the lands, delivering letters apologizing for her ways. It is the adventure of a lifetime, and one full of peril and danger to Elsa. Still, Granny has provided protection for Elsa as she goes about her journey. With each letter, Elsa meets the natives of each of the seven lands in the fairy tales, and learns more about herself, her mother and others in her real life. The journey transforms not only Elsa, but reveals much about her grandmother’s secret life as a superhero.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Swedish writer Fredrik Backman, author of the best-selling novel A Man Called Ove, is both humorous and heartbreaking. The characters are intricately drawn, the plot is engaging and moves at a rapid pace as Elsa makes good on Granny’s last wishes. Beautifully translated and impeccably developed, the charming novel My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is not to be left on the shelf unread.

With thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for a preview copy of the novel, in exchange for an honest review. 

A Mother’s Day lookery at “The Mapmaker’s Children” by Sarah McCoy

Mapmaker's Children

The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy

Crown Publishers

May 5, 2015

320 pages

$25.00


In honor of Mother’s Day today in the United States, this lookery examines two women who redefine “mother” and “children” in Sarah McCoy’s The Mapmaker’s Children.

To be frank, the opening paragraph of this historical novel did not appeal to me. If I had picked up the book in a bookstore, it would have gone right back onto the shelf. However, because Crown Publishers were kind enough to send me an advance copy of the book in exchange for my honest review, I stuck with it — and I’m glad that I gave this novel another chance. The following pages were well worth reading.

Sarah Brown is a daughter of abolitionist John Brown. Her story starts in New Elba, New York in 1859. Although her age is not revealed, she seems to be in her teens. She has barely survived a wide-spread plague of dysentery, only to overhear her physician tell her mother that Sarah would never be able to have children. Mrs. Brown is devastated by the news. Who would love and marry her barren daughter?

Fast forward to 2014, New Charlestown, West Virginia, where Eden and Jack Anderson have moved into an older suburban home. Like Sarah, Eden is not been to conceive, in spite of years of trying and enduring various fertility treatments. As much as she loves Jack, Sarah’s mood swings and other treatment side effects have left her feeling hopeless and on the verge of proceeding with a divorce.

Jack attempts to enlarge their household with the addition of a dog. Eden is NOT amused, and rejects the pet at once. Jack travels for work, so he hires Cleo, a ten-year-old girl to care for Cricket until he can find the mutt a new home. Although Eden and Jack have lived in the small town for some months, Eden’s unsettled health kept them housebound. Cleo becomes Eden’s guide to life in the hamlet of New Charlestown.

The author alternates between Sarah’s and Eden’s stories. Sarah stumbles upon her father’s secret Underground Railroad (UGRR) activities late one night. She draws a map to guide an illiterate group of slaves to safety. John Brown and his select group of trusted friends of the railroad are so impressed by the simplicity and accuracy of Sarah’s map, that they swear her to secrecy and set her to work on creating pictures with hidden codes and symbols directing escaping slaves to freedom in the North.

Eden and Cleo become close friends as Eden drifts away from Jack. Soon the two are cooking organic dog food for Cricket. Keeping her strange eyes on the cooks is an antique porcelain doll’s head found when Cricket discovered a forgotten root cellar beneath Eden’s home.

Back in the nineteenth century, John Brown is arrested for his part in ambushing the Harper’s Ferry armory. Sarah, her mother and sisters rush to Virginia to see the horribly wounded prisoner before his death sentence is carried out. The Hill family are their hosts in New Charlestown, and also trusted friends with an active role in the Freedom Train. George Hill and his son Freddy accept Sarah’s involvement as well, although her family remains ignorant of her activities. The Browns return to their home in New York, but Sarah and Freddy maintain a lifelong friendship and correspondence.

McCoy traces the life of Sarah and the Brown and Hill families based on documents and research into the families’ histories. She ties Sarah’s life to Eden’s, a century and a half later using compellingly believable creative license as well as historical facts. Both women’s stories are intriguing — one real, one fictional. With letters, newspaper articles and other devices, author Sarah McCoy has created an exceptionally readable novel of two women’s struggles to define themselves in their personal lives and communities. Meticulously researched, but never dry or boring, The Mapmaker’s Children is a testament to the abilities of women to take on the mantle of motherhood without being broodmares both one hundred fifty years ago and today.

A lookery at “Inside the O’Briens” by Lisa Genova

Inside the O'Briens

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

Gallery Books

April 7, 2015

352 pages

$26.00

A preview copy of this novel was provided by NetGalley and Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Prepare yourself for an emotional wild ride when reading Lisa Genova’s novel about a family coping with the devastating affects of Huntington’s Disease in Inside the O’Briens.

Joe O’Brien is an officer on the Boston PD, a third generation Irish “Townie” of the Charlestown neighborhood in Boston, and a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan. Fearing that he will end up like his mother Ruth, who was rumored to have driven herself to drink and the nuthouse, and who died when Joe was only twelve years old, Joe never allows himself more than two beers. Except, of course, on St. Patrick’s Day.

Joe and his wife Rosie have four children in their twenties. All of the children live in the family home — a “triple decker” — with three separate units. Katie and Meghan occupy the top floor as roommates, JJ and his wife Colleen live in the middle, and Patrick still has a room in his parents’ home on the first floor. The close-knit Catholic family gathers in Joe and Rosie’s kitchen each week for Sunday night dinners.

As a police officer, Joe is always “on”; aware of his surroundings, activity in the home and Charlestown, and always in control of his emotions. Very slowly, Joe seems to be losing some of that control. He begins to misplace items, including his service firearm, finds it difficult to write reports at work, becomes confused and clumsy, and experiences involuntary body movements that he doesn’t notice. He begins to make mistakes at work, and loses his temper at home.

Finally, he agrees to see a doctor about his symptoms, and is referred to a specialist in movement disorders. Joe’s diagnosis is devastating. Joe O’Brien has Huntington’s Disease. Inherited from a parent, Huntington’s Disease is a rare illness that usually starts in the prime of life, slowly killing a person by their mid-fifties. The worst news — each of Joe and Rosie’s children have a fifty percent chance of already having the disease.

Genova’s novel delves into each of the family members’ reactions to the diagnosis of their father, and their individual struggles whether or not to be tested for the presence of the disease in themselves.

JJ is a firefighter and his wife is expecting their first baby. Is he affected, and if so, what about his unborn child? Patrick is a bartender, and still trying to find his way in life. A positive diagnosis for Meghan, a dancer with the Boston Ballet, could end her dream career, and yoga instructor Katie has just fallen in love.

Even the most hardened of readers will have a difficult time not tearing up or outright sobbing at the challenges and decisions the family members face. Genova’s ability to evoke such strong emotions in her readers is masterful. Inside the O’Briens not only tells the story of a family, but deftly and simply educates the reader about Huntington’s Disease. Lisa Genova’s novel is a fantastic book and is exceptional on all levels. She has definitely hit a grand slam with this book.

A lookery at “The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand” by Elizabeth Berg

Dream Lover

The Dream Lover:  A Novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg

Random House

April 14, 2015

368 pages

$28.00

The prolific author George Sand, born Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin in 1804 to an aristocratic father and commoner mother, is the subject of Elizabeth Berg’s, The Dream Lover:  A Novel of George Sand. This fictionalized autobiography, written in the style of a personal memoir of Sand’s is typical of the era of the 19th century, giving the reader some insight into how the writer viewed her life experiences.

Aurore was raised by her paternal grandmother on the family’s country estate of Nohant, where as a child she was tutored by the philosopher Deschatres. Her grandmother tried to instill the duties of a lady in Aurore, who preferred nature and freedom to the conventions of her time. At the age of eighteen, she married Casimir Dudevant and later gave birth to a daughter and son. However, Aurore was bored with domestic life, and eventually separated from Casimir, sharing custody of the children with him. Although Aurore was wealthy in her own right, under French law her husband had control of her finances. Unhappy with his wife’s decision to move to Paris for a more exciting existence, Casimir allotted her a pittance of an allowance. Eventually the couple sought a formal and legal separation (divorce being illegal in France), and Aurore took the children to live with her.

Realizing that she would have to work to support the lifestyle she wanted to experience in Paris, Aurore began writing for a local paper in tandem with another journalist, and eventually took the nom de plume of George Sand. As a theater critic for the newspaper, Sand was required to pay her own admission to the plays she reviewed. At the suggestion of her editor, she dressed in men’s clothing to gain access to the less expensive seats in the house. Sand discovered great freedom dressed as a male, and continued to dress as one the rest of her life, although she carried on numerous affairs with men.

Among her friends and lovers were Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt, Gustave Flaubert, Alfred de Musset and the actress Marie Dorval. Her social and intellectual circle consisted of some of the greatest minds of the European Enlightenment. Sand was often perceived as a promiscuous and fickle bisexual lover, even to this day. In Berg’s novel, she is portrayed as a woman constantly searching for true love. Love, not necessarily sex, is what drove Sand’s affairs, but she was rarely satisfied with her romantic relationships. At the end of her life, she discovers her key to true and constant love, and also realizes which of her many lovers was the one that captured her heart.

At times long-winded, The Dream Lover:  A Novel of George Sand can be difficult to read. The stylized writing and Sand’s constantly shifting romantic loyalties begin to wear on the reader. However, for fans of George Sand who’d like to discover more about the woman’s thoughts and heart, this novel explores the mind of the great writer. It is not simply biographical details of the author’s life; Elizabeth Berg’s novel is an interesting view of this extraordinarily gifted woman’s unconventional life in 19th century France.

Thank you to the publisher, Random House and NetGalley for a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.