Taking the Fat with the Lean

Review #13

Book: Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

Audience: G-U

Genre: Historical Fiction

Rating: bookbookbook

Stella Bain wakes up in a French army hospital during the Great War with pain in her head and feet and no recollection of who she is. She knows she has certain nursing skills and can drive an ambulance, but has no clue as to why she possesses these skills. She pieces together that she is an American and has a feeling that the answers to her questions can be found at the Admiralty in London. She attempts to get there and collapses on the way. A kindly woman and her husband take Stella into their home to heal. August Bridge, the husband, is a cranial surgeon who has read much about talk therapy. He and Stella begin regular sessions and when she regains her strength, he takes her several times to the Admiralty, hoping to piece together her past—which she eventually does. Stella remembers her real name, her husband, her children, why she was even in France helping in a war effort before American involvement, and when she was wounded. She then returns to America to face and address the issues she left behind.

There were parts of this book I liked, and some characters I enjoyed, but there were three elements that served to tarnish my opinion.

One was what I’ll call fuzzy accuracy. Stella was an American serving as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), part of a British organization providing field nursing services, particularly during the two world wars. The British are known for encouraging (or even requiring) people to “do their bit” for a national effort. The organizations are disciplined and expectations of those who serve are high. They would not look kindly or the other way when one of their members deserts. Yet that is what Stella does when she goes to England. Yes, she is an American and doesn’t know who she is, but even as an amnesiac, she chose to serve. There would have been consequences for her going UA (or AWOL as it might have been known then)—consequences for which neither she nor the Bridges have any concern. That did not seem likely to me. Another was August Bridge introducing himself as “Doctor.” August is a British surgeon—men in that line of work are called Mr., not Dr. I could see Stella, as an American, calling him that, but he would not have introduced or referred to himself (repeatedly) as such.

The second element is the reliance on coincidence. Etna (Stella’s real name) is friends with a young man before her marriage. Years later, after no contact, this young man is competing with Etna’s husband for an academic position. He does not get it due to machinations by Etna’s rather evil husband and, as a British citizen, joins the war effort. Etna becomes a VAD in hope of finding him and apologizing. Out of all the places in Europe where either one of them could have been assigned, they find themselves in close proximity and she does indeed meet up with him. Later, when she attempts to go to the Admiralty in London, she collapses and is taken home by a woman whose husband happens to be a medical doctor who happens to have an interest in the new methods of treating shell-shocked individuals. All of this is too much coincidence for my taste.

The third element is the one that bothers me the most. Borrowing a term from another book, I’ll call this one an annoying plot device. During Stella’s sessions with August, it becomes clear that they are attracted to each other. August, however, is still very much in love with his wife Lily, with whom Stella is quite friendly.  While Stella resides with the Bridges, Lily becomes pregnant. After Stella returns to America, she and August correspond. One of his letters discloses that Lily died in childbirth. How convenient. With the subtlety of a machete, Miss Shreve has used an annoying plot device (Lily’s sad, noble, death) to clear the way for Etna and August with no dishonor or recriminations.

I found Stella/Etna to be an intriguing character. I also greatly liked the man she went to France to find, Philip Asher. I liked the idea of a woman having to deal with repercussions of the battlefield, and I liked Etna’s eventual independence and defiance to her husband. This helped mellow my sharp opposition to the slight inaccuracies, the many coincidences, and the annoying plot device that dampened my enthusiasm for the novel.

Not So Happily Ever After

Review #12

Book: Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: bookbookbookbook

Whoever invented the phrase “and they all lived happily ever after” knew much about capturing the public’s imagination and nothing whatsoever about life.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie takes my premise to the utmost, chronicling multiple examples of (mostly) real princesses who did not necessarily live happily ever after. Miss McRobbie categorizes her princesses as Warriors, Usurpers, Schemers, Survivors, Partiers, Floozies, and Madwomen. Several princesses were familiar to me (Njinga of Ndongo, Isabella of France, Lucrezia Borgia, Sophia Dorothea of Celle, Christina of Sweden, Caroline of Brunswick, Margaret of Great Britain, Elisabeth of Austria, and Franziska who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia), but more were new (Olga of Kiev, Roxolana of the Ottoman Empire, Charlotte of Prussia, Anne of Saxony, Charlotte of Belgium, among others). Each princess got her own brief chapter outlining her ancestry and upbringing, her marital situation, her claim to fame, and how it did not end so well for her.  There were also some additional essays about general princess issues such as maintaining the bloodline through incest, women who faked being a princess, and the dollar princesses. All were informative yet enjoyably readable.

Going into the book I was a little concerned about the whole myth v. truth aspect which can rear its head when regaling history, especially about women. So often I read books that tell the stories that were popular, but not necessarily true. That did not seem the case here. Miss McRobbie recognized when actual documentation about a princess’ life was lacking or when sources for some of the stories were created or perpetuated by persons who wanted to discredit the princess in question. I appreciated her acknowledgement that many contemporary chroniclers did not bother to include women, or when they did their purpose could likely be to tarnish the reputation of a consort who lost favor in the eyes of her husband. My only concern was early on in the book she attributes the stirring speech to rally the British troops at Agincourt to Henry IV instead of properly to his son, Henry V. I am hoping this was a typo or one small error rather than typical in her work.


Review #11

Book: Wonder by RJ Palacio

Audience: C

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Rating: bookbookbook

August Pullman is a genetic perfect storm. His parents, Nate and Isabel, share multiple recessive traits that when combined caused Auggie to have many serious facial abnormalities. He has spent a great number of his 10 years recovering from assorted surgeries to correct his conditions (while being homeschooled), but most people still react with a combination of shock, fright, and revulsion when seeing him for the first time. Yet overall, Auggie, his parents, and his older sister Via are positive and upbeat, sharing a close family bond.

Then August’s world changes—his parents have decided that it’s time for him to attend school. Auggie is trepidatious, but before the school year begins he meets the middle school director and some hand-selected students and decides to give it a try. August spends the next year adjusting to life among hundreds of middle-schoolers with their cliques, cruel games, betrayals, friendships, loyalties, and acts of courage.

I really liked Auggie—indeed, who could not? By no means perfect, he faces the unique challenge of being August with bravery and a wonderful spirit.  And yet…

The Pullman family was easy to admire, too. They all had genuine love for each other and were united in their determination to protect Auggie while still allowing him to interact with the cruel world around him. And yet…

Fellow middle-schoolers Summer, Jack, Julian, and Charlotte were realistic. Via’s friends Miranda, Ella, and justin (the no cap is deliberate) and their various dramas were well representative of high school. And yet…

I wanted to love this book, but I didn’t. Auggie is an inspiration, but ultimately his tale is commonplace. He has ups and downs, heartache and triumph. There was nothing really new here. His particular conditions were new to me, but his story, honestly, was not.

Miss Palacio has a likeable writing style, but this lack of originality is a hallmark of a first-time author. It’s almost like she’s trying too hard to make a “statement” book, but since you can see her effort, her statement gets diluted. Another example of this is her visible determination to have authentic characters. I love when characters are genuine, but when I can see that everyone has just enough imperfections to make them realistic, they come off as contrived rather than true-to-life. Let the characters simply be authentic rather making sure the audience knows that they are.

So, yes, I liked this book, this perfect story of the triumph of spirit over the cruelties of a superficial society. But I would have loved it, though, if it had been more like Auggie himself—imperfect, surprising, and content to be itself, without trying so hard to impress.

A Real Housewife of the Army

Review #10

Book: Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction


Army Wives was a popular television drama, and there are, sadly, any number of Real Housewives of… wherever shows. The drama show recounted a fictionalized version of what happens when wives send their soldier husbands off to war, and the “reality” shows purport to give the viewer a glimpse of what it is like to be married into a particular social set. Both creations would do well to take a lesson from Unremarried Widow, about a real Army housewife.

When Artis Henderson was a child, she climbed into a small plane piloted by her father. She survived the crash, but he did not. Artis saw her mother deal with the sudden loss of a husband, not knowing that eventually she would share the same fate. In her touching and poignant memoir, Artis recounts the courtship, brief marriage, and heart-wrenching widowhood that comes to her when she meets and falls in love with Army helicopter pilot Miles Henderson.

I found myself captivated by this book. Yes, the subject matter was painful at times, and yes, the reader knows the outcome going into the book, but Mrs. Henderson’s incredibly accessible style and forthright storytelling made this work hard to put down. I think a big factor in this was Mrs. Henderson’s honesty: she recounts her struggles without a bid for sympathy, reveals some of her less-than-admirable moments, and does not assess blame in her anger and grief. It is a simple yet complex story of love, duty, loss, grief, and recovery that will stay with me for a long time to come.

Just a Small Slice for Me

Review #9

Book: Pi in the Sky by Wendy Mass

Audience: C

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: bookbookbook

Joss, as the youngest son of the Supreme Overlord, has his own special duties to make sure the universe runs as it should.

As the above sentence indicates, this book is a Wendy Mass foray into science fiction. Perhaps technically not her first, since the Willow Falls series can be classified as sci-fi (although I prefer simple fantasy for that), but certainly her most sincere. I loved the typical Mass Appeal features of the story, but as someone who really does not care for sci-fi, I can’t say I loved the book.

So, back to the story. Joss’ particular duty is to deliver pies. While making one of his routine deliveries, something very un-routine happens: someone from Earth has spotted The Realms (the “world” of Joss, the Supreme Overlord of the Universe, and everyone else who helps run the universe), which instantly results in the destruction of Earth. It also has a rather unexpected consequence. Annika, the girl from Earth who looked into The Realms is now here, totally clueless as to where she is or what has happened to Earth, while Joss’ best friend Kal has vanished into thin air (well, not quite thin air, but I’ll let you read the book to actually understand it all).  Annika and Joss become friends as Joss tries to find a way to rebuild Earth, bring Kal back, and send Annika home, which, incidentally, will involve those pies.

I tend to get lost in all the exposition and technical muck that are hallmarks of sci-fi, and this book was no exception. Probably why I’m really not fond of the genre. But this is Wendy Mass, who knows how to let her characters speak. I don’t simply mean dialog and speech patterns. Miss Mass crafts her characters beautifully—in their actions, their thoughts, their humor, their relationships, and yes, their speech—so they are immediately accessible, relatable, authentic, and seem like old friends as soon as you meet them. That was where the charm was for me in this book. Not in the plot, not in the futuristic setting, and not in all the science and technology that were essential to the plot structure. As always, I look forward to Miss Mass’ next book, but I sincerely hope it takes place in terra firma, here and now.