Uncertain Glory by Lea Wait

Uncertain Glory is middle grade historical fiction set in Maine as the Civil War is about to begin. Joe Wood is a sixteen year old newspaper publisher, with his own printing equipment, a newspaper that is has built up a small but faithful readership, a few printing jobs on the side, and a large debt that is due in just a few days. Joe borrowed the money to buy his printing press and other materials, and now he’s working hard to pay back the lender.

Until now the news in Joe’s sleepy town of Wiscasset, Maine has been just that–slow and sleepy. But now, in April 1861, things are stirring. Nell, a young spiritualist, has come to town to give readings to people trying to contact their loved ones “on the other side.” And there’s talk of war as the country heads for a violent confrontation in South Carolina.

The story moved a bit slowly for me. Perhaps it was the story, or maybe just my mood. At any rate, I wasn’t drawn into the time period and the characters and their stories as I often am in the best historical fiction. Joe, his best friend Charlie, Owen the colored boy who helps out at the newspaper office, and Nell the medium were all a little insipid and dull. I would say that rather than being character-driven or plot-dirven, the story was “history-driven”, and although I like history, I didn’t find much new or exciting in the book. Others not as familiar with Civil War history or those who want a book that focuses on the role of Maine soldiers and civilians in the war might find it fascinating.

I did like the details of the work it took to publish a newspaper back in the days before computer typesetting or even linotype. It takes the boys hours and hours to set the type to print even a small newspaper:

“Even with Owen’s and Charlie’s help, it took all of Monday afternoon and evening to write up the news, set it in type, and print it on both sides of a two-page Herald.”

Then they have to go out and sell the paper door to door themselves. The amount of work it took to do anything 150 years ago must have bred patience. And now I can type up a blog post in half an hour, and I think that’s a long time.

I’d recommend Uncertain Glory to those who have an interest in the Civil War time period and to those who might enjoy the story of an enterprising young man. The story of Joe’s industry and of what it took to run a business is worthwhile and might be inspirational for some young entrepreneur of today.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson.

Speaking of hurricanes, as I was a few dye ago, Mr. Larson also wrote Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, about the infamous Galveston hurricane of 1900. The Devil in the White City, set in about the same time period, The Gilded Age 1893, is about a very different kind of man-made disaster, a “perfect storm” of assassination, serial killing, and inflated ambition.

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” ~architect and world’s fair designer Daniel Burnham.

The plan for the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the Americas, was no little plan. Daniel Burnham and his partner John Wellborn Root were the lead architects for the fair, which was seen as Chicago’s and indeed the United States’ opportunity to outshine and outdo the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889-90. The pièce de résistance of the Paris Exposition was French engineer Gustave Eiffel’s La Tour Eiffel, at the time billed as “the tallest edifice ever erected by man” and still to this day the tallest structure in the city of Paris.

“The most marvelous exhibit of modern times or ancient times has now just closed successfully at Paris. Whatever you do is to be compared with that. If you equal it you have made a success. If you surpass it you have made a triumph. If you fall below it you will be held responsible by the whole American people for having assumed what you are not equal to. Beware! Take care!” ~Chauncey Depew, New York railroad tycoon upon the awarding of the world’s fair to Chicago.

So a fantastic, superlative, financially successful, and hugely admired show and exposition was the goal. And Burnham and Root had less than two years from the awarding of the fair to Chicago to put this grand spectacle into place. This half of the book was fascinating and informative.

Intertwined with the story of the building and opening of the world’s fair was the much darker story of a serial killer who operated a house of horrors in Chicago only a few miles from the fair itself. The house of horrors was ostensibly a boarding house/hotel, but it had a number of rather macabre features, such as gas jets in some of the rooms, controlled by the proprietor, and a walk-in furnace in the basement. This part of the story depressed me. Such evil in the shadow of such an ambitious endeavor!

At any rate, the book gives a vivid picture of turn of the century Chicago and the height of the Gilded Age. Mr. Larson is an excellent writer, and if the descriptions of murder and mayhem were a bit too vivid at times, it could be blamed on the actual historical material. Herman Webster Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes, was an evil man, a sociopath and a man who delighted in deception and murder. How could a book that is partly about his crimes be anything but lurid and depressing?

Does anyone in or from Illinois have a suggestion for my Nonfiction of the States list that would be more representative of the state, not as depressing, but still just as interesting and informative?

Other nonfiction books set in about the same time period (1890-1910), with overlapping characters and events:
American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu.
Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt.
Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson.

Related fiction, 1890-1910:
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. This book is the fictional version of The Devil in the White City, except I don’t remember the World’s Fair figuring into the story, and Carrie doesn’t get murdered. She just gets seduced and ruined. Reading these two books together, The Devil in the White City and Sister Carrie, would produce an excellent book club discussion.
Unleavened Bread by Robert Grant.
Beautiful Dreamer by Joan Naper. Reviewed at Reading the Past.
The Great Wheel by Robert Lawson. Newbery honor fiction about an Irish worker who helped build the great Ferris wheel in Chicago in 1893.
The Pit by Frank Norris. Wheat speculation and the commodities market in Chicago.

Saturday Review of Books: August 2, 2014


“When a day passes, it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told or books weren’t written, man would live like the beasts, only for the day.” ~~Naftali the Storyteller and His Horse, Sus by Isaac Bashevus Singer

SatReviewbuttonWelcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read. That’s how my own TBR list has become completely unmanageable and the reason I can’t join any reading challenges. I have my own personal challenge that never ends.

Scroll down to the next post to help with my 50 states nonfiction booklist project. What nonfiction book will inform the reader about your state?

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana

I thought Zane and the Hurricane, fiction set in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, was kind of intense for middle grade, but Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere takes intense and tragic to another level. It’s not gruesome or gratuitous, but people do die. Some middle grade readers might find the book quite upsetting.

That said, this book does do a good job of showing how an ordinary day can turn into horror and tragedy in very little time. Along with the characters in the book —ten year old Armani, her little sister Sealy, Memaw, the twins, and the rest of the extended family— I continued to shake my head in disbelief as the family lived through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the bursting of the levee in the “Lower Nines” (Ninth Ward) of New Orleans –not to mention the aftermath of flood, crime, and disease in NOLA as the hurricane subsided.

Armani “realizes that being ten means being brave, watching loved ones die, and mustering all her strength to help her family survive this storm.” I liked Armani and her family and had no trouble believing their story was true to life. It was also sad, and –WARNING!—the ending is very sad. I won’t say the story is without that “sense of hope” that some of us look for in children’s literature in particular, but it maybe difficult for some readers to stomach.

The author, Julie Lamana, lives in Grenwell Springs, Louisiana and was working in the schools in LA as a Literacy Specialist in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. She heard lots of survivors’ stories firsthand, and I assume that some of those stories were incorporated into her novel in some form. Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere is Ms. Lamana’s debut novel, although she does have a picture book, published by Outskirts Press and also set in Louisiana, called Three Little Bayou Fishermen.

“Apparently it is very difficult to talk about Hurricane Katrina in a book if you don’t include a dog.” ~Betsy Bird

Or any hurricane. Examples:
Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick.
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Juie T. Lamana.
Rain Reign by Ann Martin. Publication date: October 7, 2014. My review will appear here at Semicolon on that date, but I will say now that I highly recommend Ms. Martin’s story of a girl and her dog.
Buddy by M.H. Herlong.
Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods.
I Survived: Hurricane Katrina, 2005 by Lauren Tarshis

I don’t think I’m up for yet another dog/hurricane story (especially since I just read—and loved– an ARC of Ann Martin’s new middle grade novel, Rain Reign, about a beloved dog who gets lost in a hurricane/storm, not Katrina), so you’ll have to get more comparisons somewhere else.

Hurricane fiction and nonfiction, sans dog.

Saturday Review of Books: July 26, 2014


“The aura of a book I have yet to read, with its promise of rapture, surprise and edification, might be even more powerful than the aura of a book I have read, enjoyed and duly forgotten.” ~Jeff Salamanacters

SatReviewbuttonWelcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read. That’s how my own TBR list has become completely unmanageable and the reason I can’t join any reading challenges. I have my own personal challenge that never ends.

Scroll down to the next post to help with my 50 states nonfiction booklist project. What nonfiction book will inform the reader about your state?

50+ Nonfiction Books for 50 States

I’m going to move this post to the top of the page for a while, until I get at least a suggestion for each state.

I found this list of 51 adult nonfiction selections, one for each state in the union and D.C.,, interesting but rather slanted toward the liberal (Obama’s book for Hawaii and Biden’s memoir for Delaware?) and the trendy and lurid (lots of drug memoirs and true crime). Maybe “Flavorwire has dug up some of the best nonfiction about specific American locations — in this case, our 50 states — and found 50 books that will shed light on every corner of the country,” but maybe there are better nonfiction books for at least some of the states.

So I thought, why not come up with our own list? I wrote in the ones that I liked or agreed with from the Flavorwire list and added in a few of my own suggestions.

Alabama: Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington. This exploration of Alabama/Appalachia sounds fascinating. Suggested by Nancy Pearl in Book Lust To Go.
Ava’s Man by Rick Bragg. Reviewed at Hope Is the Word.
Alaska: Tisha: The Wonderful True Love Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaska Wilderness by Robert Specht and Anne Purdy. I’ve seen this one recommended by more than one person. Anyone here read it?
Or maybe A Land Gone Lonesome by Dan O’Neill, recommended in this article at Salon.
Flavorwire suggests Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, a book I have not yet read.
Arizona: Going Back to Bisbee by Richard Shelton. Memoir.
Arkansas: Cash by Johnny Cash with Patrick Carr. From Flavorwire. I haven’t actually read this one, but it sounds good. Any other suggestions from Arkansans?
California: Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner. I’m adding this book because it looks interesting and informative. Has anyone else read it?
Colorado: A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird.
Connecticut: A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle. Or The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by the same author. Both are reflections on family life in a Connecticut farmhouse.
Delaware:
Florida: Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans, and Other Florida Wildlife by Diane Roberts.
Georgia: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. From Flavorwire. I haven’t read this one either, but I’ve intended to read it. Comments anyone?
Hawaii:
Idaho: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan.
Illinois: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. Another book I’ve been intending to read, recommended by my sister. READ.
Indiana:
Iowa:
Kansas:
Kentucky: The Thread That Runs So True by Jesse Stuart.
Louisiana: Huey Long by T. Harry Williams. I read this doorstop of a biography about thirty years ago, and I still remember it. For better or for worse, my conception of Louisiana politics is highly formed and colored by this book.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher. I can’t resist providing an antidote to Mr. Long’s out-sized loudmouth life with this tribute to a small life well-lived, also in Louisiana. If you only read one of the two, read Dreher.
Maine:
Maryland: Charm City: A Walk Through Baltimore by Madison Smartt Bell.
Massachusetts: Paul Revere and the World He Lived In by Esther Forbes.
Michigan: The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s Dilemma by Alex Kotlowitz. Crime and racial division in southern Michigan.
Minnesota:
Mississippi:
Missouri: Truman by David McCullough. Truman was probably about the best thing that ever came out of Missouri. However, my cousin commented on Facebook that he tried to read this bio, and that it was as dry as the man himself. Other suggestions for the Show-Me state?
Montana:
Nebraska: My Nebraska: The Good, the Bad, and the Husker by Roger Welsch.
Nevada: Men to Match My Mountains: The Opening of the Far West, 1840-1900 by Irving Stone. I could make this one the definitive book for California, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado, but I put it here, arbitrarily. No matter which state you focus on, this book is fantastic, readable, well researched, educational, and entertaining.
New Hampshire:
New Jersey:
New Mexico: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. From Flavorwire. Engineer Husband recommends this Pulitzer prize winning classic.
New York: The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson. An unromantic contrast to West Side Story, this book tells how God was still working among gang members in New York City in the 1950′s and 60′s.
North Carolina:
North Dakota:
Ohio:
Oklahoma: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. This book could be classified under “North Texas” or even Kansas, but Oklahoma seems like the center of the Dust Bowl.
Oregon: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.
Pennsylvania:
Rhode Island:
South Carolina: Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream by Adam Shepard. Adam Shepard went to Charleston, South Carolina with $25, a sleeping bag, and the clothes on his back. His goal was, by the end of a year, to have a car, a furnished apartment, and $2500 in the bank.
South Dakota:
Tennessee: Maybe The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan?
Texas: Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger. Texas is a big state, practically five states, but this book at least illuminates one aspect of Texas culture.
Utah: Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston.
Vermont:
Virginia: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. From Flavorwire. OK, I’ll go along with this recommendation, even though I’ve tried it and not been able to get in the mood for this nature observation journal of a modern-day pilgrim. I’m still willing to grant that it’s probably very good, and I’ll probably enjoy it very much someday.
Or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
Washington: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.
Washington D.C.:
West Virginia:
Wisconsin:
Wyoming:

What do you think? Do any of my readers live in one of the states for which I do not yet have a book listed? I’m even willing to reconsider one I’ve already listed if you have a better choice. Help me fill out this list with books to give us a sense of each state in the union.

Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting by Erin Dionne

This 2014 middle grade adventure is a companion novel to the author’s Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking, a book I read and enjoyed last year when it came out. In this “14 Day Mystery” Moxie’s friend Ollie steps up and becomes the featured character and detective and lead treasure hunter as he searches for pirate treasure at his Wilderness Scout camp.

There’s danger, boy pranks, camping stuff, and island adventure. Ollie goes to Wilderness Scout camp to get himself out of the media spotlight after his and Moxie’s solving of the (in)famous Gardner art heist. I wanted to adopt Ollie in the first book, and in this one he just gets better and more adorable. He’s a little bit tired of being seen as the sidekick, so when one of the adults at camp asks him to help find a pirate treasure, he can’t really turn down the opportunity—’cause after all, it’s pirate treasure!

The book includes some boys-will-be-boys sneaking and pranking that didn’t offend me, but might be too much for some adult readers. And the whole finding of the long lost pirate treasure rather easily and accidentally is a little bit unbelievable. But hey, go with it and enjoy the ride. How many books have you read lately about kids and pirate’s treasure?

You can go back into the out of print archives:
Mystery in the Pirate Oak by Helen Fuller Orton. I used to read Ms. Orton’s mysteries when I was a kid of a girl. Good children’s mystery books.
Ghost in the Noonday Sun by Sid Fleischman. Oliver FInch, because he was born exactly at midnight, has the ability to see ghosts. And the pirates who kidnap him need his help to to get to a treasure guarded by ghosts, of course. Fleischman wrote lots of funny adventure stories just right for a rollicking good time.
Captain Kidd’s Cat. The True Chronicle of Wm. Kidd, Gent. and Merchant of New York as narrated by His Ship’s Cat, McDermott, Who ought to know by Robert Lawson. Not as well known as Lawson’s other animal-narrated historical chronicles, Ben and Me and Mr. Revere and I, but this story of Captain Kidd is written in the same style and just as fun and informative. By the way, I think I may be related to Captain Kidd. At least I have some Kidds in my family tree.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Classic story of the boy, Jim Hawkins, and the pirate, Long John Silver.

But for contemporary piratical adventures, I’m drawing a blank. (I did find my review of Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey, but it’s not exactly set in the twenty-first century, more Dickensian.)

Do you like to read treasure hunt adventures? Do you know of any good pirate treasure books I didn’t mention?

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett

The fourth book in Dorothy Dunnett’s historical series Renaissance man, Francis Crawford of Lymond, aka Comte of Sevigny, takes the characters, especially Lymond himself, to a new level of complexity and human triumph over adversity and suffering. And at one point in the story, we are informed or perhaps reminded that Lymond is only twenty-six years old. He’s already survived more than most men three times his age, even in the adventurous Renaissance times in which he lives.

In this book, Lymond manages to escape a couple of assassins disguised as nuns, imprisonment in a North African harem, poisoning, an underwater struggle with his murderous arch enemy, and a rather deadly chess game featuring human chess pieces who forfeit their lives if taken by the opposing player. The chess game in the seraglio in Istamboul is unforgettable, by the way. And that’s just a sample of the perils and predicaments that face Mr. Crawford in this highly entertaining adventure.

Entertaining, yes, but the denouement of the novel is heart-rending. Lymond must choose whether or not to forfeit the life of one innocent in order to save the lives of many more. It’s a no-win situation, and of course, since Lymond is the sensitive soul that he’s always been in all of the other books in the series, he blames himself for the outcome and carries a heavy burden of guilt into the next book in the series, The Ringed Castle.

Has anyone else read this series, and if so, what did you think? The vocabulary and writing style are challenging for me, in a good way, and I don’t usually find that to be so with novels written after 1900. Lymond is also a complex, conflicted, and challenging character. I do have a prediction to make at this point in the series, a prediction I came up with halfway through this volume: I predict that Lymond and Philippa will end up truly married by the end of the sixth book. Don’t ask me how (I don’t know) and don’t tell me if I’m right or wrong. I’ll see how my prediction pans out as I read books five and six.

If you want to read a little more about this engaging novel, here are some other blog reviews of Pawn in Frankincense:

She Reads Novels: Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett.
Shelf Love: Pawn in Frankincense (some spoilers)
Semicolon review of The Disorderly Knights, book three in the series.
Semicolon thoughts on Game of Kings, the first book in the series.

The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

“Varian Johnson lists his inspirations for this book as Ocean’s 11, The Westing Game, Sneakers, The Thomas Crowne Affair, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” I would, guessing, add the movies Star Wars and The Sting, not to mention a few pick-up basketball games along the way, but I could be mistaken about those particular influences.

Jackson Greene has reformed, changed his ways, and sworn off all scheming, finagling, conning, and pranking. When the girl you like (Gaby) sees you brush lips with another cutie and totally misinterprets the situation, and when the principal catches you breaking into his office, you had better call it quits as far as con games are concerned. Even if it’s for a good cause. Then again, maybe if Keith Sinclair, Jackson’s arch enemy and nemesis of all good clubs and organizations at Maplewood Middle School, plans to run for Student Council against that same girl, Gaby, the one Jackson kinda sorta likes—then, maybe, a small benevolent interference, just to keep Keith from stealing the election, is in order. What could it hurt?

Mr. Johnson’s middle grade (upper middle grade since it has lots of tame boy/girl stuff) heist novel got a boost on Twitter earlier this spring and summer with people using the hash tags #weneeddiversebooks and #greatgreenechallenge, the latter tag referring to a friendly competition between independent bookstores to handsell Mr. Johnson’s book. The book does feature “diverse” characters, Asian American, African American, and Hispanic, and it is a a good solid summer read. As far as kid caper books are concerned, I preferred I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora, but Acampora’s Mockingbird doesn’t have quite the same “diversity factor”. (Catholic characters and bookish characters don’t count as “diversity” the same way people of color do. Who makes up these rules, anyway?) Still, reading The Great Greene Heist was an enjoyable way to spend a summer evening, and I recommend it to fans of Paul Acampora’s book or of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls and Heist Society books.

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer, besides authoring several Golden Age of detective fiction mysteries, also wrote romance novels and according to Wikipedia “essentially established the genre of Regency romance.” During her career,she published over thirty Regency novels, for a period of her life publishing one mystery/thriller and one romance per year.

The Grand Sophy, one of those Regency novels, was published in 1950. It’s the story of a rather indolent and somewhat impecunious family, Lord and Lady Ombersley and their several children, including the eldest, Charles, who has become something of a family tyrant in his quest to save the family from bankruptcy. When Lady Ombersley’s niece, Sophy, comes to stay for a while while her diplomat father goes on an ambassadorial trip to Brazil, the entire household is turned topsy-turvy by Sophy’s free and easy ways and her lack of female propriety, not to mention her monkey, Jacko.

Sophy is a grand character. She’s independent, intelligent, and spirited without being obnoxious. Sophy’s cousin Charles is less well-developed as a character. At first, he seems like a petty family dictator, ruling over his parents and his younger brothers and sisters in a rather arbitrary way while planning to marry an heiress to re-coup the family fortunes. As the story continues, Charles becomes more sympathetic as a character, but I was never sure why he was so high-handed and unbending at the beginning.

Jane Austen fans and Regency romance readers should definitely check out The Grand Sophy. Ms. Heyer’s novels, including this one, are not as subtle and deep as Jane Austen’s, but as far as straight light romance novels go Georgette’s Heyer’s books rise near to the top of the list.