Tuesday, January 24, 2017

REVIEW: Black Diamonds:The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England by Catherine Bailey

Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England
by Catherine Bailey      
Published 12.30.2014
544 pages
Publisher: Penguin
Source: library

From the New York Times–bestselling author of The Secret Rooms, the extraordinary true story of the downfall of one of England’s wealthiest families

Fans of Downton Abbey now have a go-to resource for fascinating, real-life stories of the spectacular lives led by England’s aristocrats. With the novelistic flair and knack for historical detail Catherine Bailey displayed in her New York Times bestseller The Secret RoomsBlack Diamonds provides a page-turning chronicle of the Fitzwilliam coal-mining dynasty and their breathtaking Wentworth estate, the largest private home in England.

When the sixth Earl Fitzwilliam died in 1902, he left behind the second largest estate in twentieth-century England, valued at more than £3 billion of today’s money—a lifeline to the tens of thousands of people who worked either in the family’s coal mines or on their expansive estate. The earl also left behind four sons, and the family line seemed assured. But was it? As Bailey retraces the Fitzwilliam family history, she uncovers a legacy riddled with bitter feuds, scandals (including Peter Fitzwilliam’s ill-fated affair with American heiress Kick Kennedy), and civil unrest as the conflict between the coal industry and its miners came to a head. Once again, Bailey has written an irresistible and brilliant narrative history. (from GoodReads)

REVIEW:  C'mon.  Admit it.  Between Kate Middleton and Downtown Abbey, you have a certain fascination with the Brits' Class System of Current Era and Yesteryear.  

I get it.  You're talking to a girl who's read her way through the Plantegnets, Tudors, most of the Hanoverians, and then moved onto the Romanovs and various French ruling houses.  When I read my fill, I moved on to various aristocrats.

It's interesting stuff, but at times, can make for dense reading.  Catherine Bailey's Black Diamonds is anything but and makes for a terrific balance of family battles and intrigue, class wars and social change, and the consequences the mix brought.  The book covers the following topics in a well-structured, informative way that move in and out of each other smoothly:
  • Wentworrth family history
  • Their ancestral home, Wentworth Wodehouse, including grounds, staff, events and artifacts
  • Coal industry in the United Kingdom, with especial attention to Nothern England and Wentworth collieries
  • Government intervention and regulation thereof
  • To a lesser extent, WWI & WWII

So, this book isn't  just about the Fitzwilliam family, but as the last Earl Fitzwilliam decided to burn 16 tons of family papers and saved correspondence, putting together a comprehensive history of a family shrouded in smoke and ash must have a herculean task.  However, Bailey gets bits and pieces where she can from passed down oral histories, letters saved by other families and interviews with survivors of the era.  While some might be disappointed that the book isn't exclusively focused on the family, I found the information on the coal industry, and specifically, the colieries that the family owned, to be an intergral part of the story to the point where I could not imagine speaking of one without involving the other. 

A few minor complaints stand out.  The bulk of the Wentword family history focused on the 6th, 7th and 8th earls.  The 9th earl apparently was an alcoholic of little note.  However, I don't feel the 10th and last earl got his due.  The bulk of the information on him seemed lacking in comparison to the others, and he seemed to be defined by his legal fight with his older brother for the title, and how that brother was treated by his parents, rather than by his own life.  As a consequence, his personal story is not fleshed out and falls short, and the book ends abruptly.  However, despite this, I enthusiastically recommend this book to any reader who enjoys the subject or loves a good example of nonfiction.  Cheers!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review: Gated by Amy Christine Parker

by Amy Christine Parker
Released: 08.06.2013
352 pages
Random House Books for Young Readers
Source: library

A fast-paced, nerve-fraying contemporary thriller that questions loyalties and twists truths.

Appearances can be deceiving.

In the Community, life seems perfect. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Pioneer invited Lyla’s family to join his group and escape the evil in the world. They were happy to be chosen, happy to move away from New York and start over in such an idyllic gated community. Now seventeen, Lyla knows that Pioneer is more than just their charismatic leader, he is their prophet . . . but his visions have grown dark.

Lyla is a loyal member of the Community, but a chance encounter with an outsider boy has her questioning Pioneer, the Community—everything. And if there’s one thing not allowed in the Community, it’s doubt. Her family and friends are certain in their belief. Lyla wishes she could feel the same. As Pioneer begins to manipulate his flock toward disaster, the question remains: Will Lyla follow them over the edge?

From the outside looking in, it’s hard to understand why anyone would join a cult. But Gated tells the story of the Community from the inside looking out, and from behind the gates things are not quite so simple. Amy Christine Parker’s beautiful writing creates a chilling, utterly unique YA story. Perfect for fans of creepy thrillers and contemporary fiction alike. (from GoodReads).

REVIEW: Here's my general impression of Gated: mediocre writing in terms of word choice and descriptions. While a decent writer in terms of structure and plot, Parker's writing in Gated did not achieve much in terms of artistry. Here's a sample from the first page:
The sky is a perfect cloudless blue and the air is hot from the summer sun.
Do you see what I mean? Just boring, first year lit & comp type of writing. I was constantly reminded of the writing style one would find in a Sweet Valley Twins book. However, in that case, we are talking about writing for a serial series, something familiar that a reader can return to the same way she (or he) will tune in for a favorite sitcom. For the subject matter in Gated, I would expect the language to be compelling; instead, it felt languid. Additionally, Sweet Valley Twins was written for middle-grade girls, while the protagonist in Gated is shortly turning 18, and I believe was marketed to the YA crowd.

This is not to say that there are not interesting aspects of Gated. In particular, the reason why Lyla's family joined the Community was a potentially intriguing look into the psychology of family grief, guilt and responsibility. Had this been fleshed out more, I think this would have added more of an emotional base to the book. Again, the rather ho-hum writing rendered many of the emotions expressed in Gated as two-dimensional and flat.  This is very unfortunate as the plot was well executed.

Please bear in mind that I am saying this is boring writing for older YA readers. There is a reason that I kept thinking of an MG series when reading - the writing is very young. Middle graders or struggling readers might find this a very good book and find some excitement that I could not.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Me, Neil Gaiman & a Hammock

Well, hello all!  Welcome to Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by the lovely people over at the Broke and the Bookish.  This week we are discussing our top books on our TBR lists this summer!

Unfortunately, I won't be at the beach this summer, nor am I a 'beach read' kind of girl, but I still have my books to read marked!

Stardust by Neil Gaiman - I've been a fan of Neil Gaiman's work ever since I got way into comic books in junior high and discovered Sandman (although I really was more of an X-titles girl).  Gaiman came to Pittsburgh over a year ago, and I got this beautiful anniversary copy of Stardust, which he was lovely enough to sign, too!

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman - I was pregnant when I was there,
and as any good bibliophile does, I picked up a copy for my soon-to-be-born son.  When I told Mr. Gaiman who it was for, he looked at me funny and said, "You know, I normally put the person's name I'm inscribing it to in a headstone.  Somehow that doesn't seem appropriate as he is not here, yet. "  HAHAHAHA!!!  Guess he was kind of right!  He did wish my son pleasant slumber, though: 

Night Beach by Kirsty Eagar - yeah, I know, right?  I have no excuse.  This pretty has been on my shelf FOREVER.  In my defense, I stopped blogging shortly after getting this, then got pregnant and then was reading only about baby products, sleep training and how french kids eat everything and are better behaved than U.S. kids.  Considering how much I LOVED Raw Blue and Saltwater Vampires, I have my fingers crossed for this one.

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin - another I've had on my
shelf for too long and have heard good things about.  I also think I have the sequel somewhere. . . .  I'm not usually into book covers since they tend to get faddish in YA, but that one really is well-designed.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo - I borrowed and loved The Tale of Despereaux so much that I went out and bought my own hardback copy of it and this one, too.  Never quite managed to get around to reading it, but I'm really looking forward to escaping to my kiddie dreamscape.

White Cat by Holly Black - people SWEAR by this book.  I tried it
once a few years back, but didn't get far.  I think I was just burned out, but I've always wanted to try again and have faithfully kept my copy (it's signed, too - I won it from Midnyte Reader several years back).

Beatle Meets Destiny by Gabrielle Willaims - I got this one from a lovely blogging acquaintance as a thank you for a book tour I organized.  It was so unexpected, and I was very touched that she did that, especially since she knew how much I love Aussie YA.  I started this recently on a family trip - loved what I read so far, but was utterly exhausted at the end of the trip and need to pick it back up.

Semi-Charmed Life by Nora Zelevansky -  Nora came to Pittsburgh over a year ago for a
program and signing.  I went with my chapter of the FYA book club and had a wonderful time talking with her.  If I remember correctly, this one is a bit satirical, about a very young woman who ghost writes a celebrity's blog - sounds like it's going to be a fun, tongue-in-cheek read to me!

Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn't Have) by Sarah Mlynowski - yet another that's been on my unread shelf for far too long!  Also heard fun things about it and look forward to the shenanigans!

That's it for me!  What do you think?  Can't wait to hear about yours!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Reunited & It Feels So Good!

Well, hello there!  Remember me.  No?  I don't blame you.  It's been a very long time.  So long that I am a tiny bit embarrassed.

Some things have happened.  The first thing is that I simply got into a reading rut.  Nothing really captured my interest anymore.  The second thing is that I became a mom for the first time in spring of 2013!  It's been a wonderful, yet overwhelming, experience.  I've still read for pleasure throughout it all, but mostly books that I've read before or series that I could slip comfortably into at the end of a great, but very tiring day with my son.

But I've missed writing.  And I've missed discussing.  So, here we are.

The posting will be sporadic, but I hope to post at least once a week.  Posts will go up fairly soon after I write them.  And despite what I say in my review policy, I won't be asking or accepting ARCs (e-galleys or hard copies) or review copies any time soon.  I have a LOT of books sitting on my shelf that I need to read before I even think of doing that.  And frankly, trying to 'keep up' with all of that is what burned me out the first time around.  I have to try this out again, find my rhythm and go with it.  My priorities have changed.  So, if I want to blog, how I do it has to change, too.  You'll likely see more back-listed stuff and maybe some books other than YA.  Everything else I'm playing by ear.  As always, I welcome your feedback.

Thanks for sticking around.  I hope you'll continue to do so, and I look forward to talking about the bookish goodness here with you again.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Bring Raw Blue to the States!

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Hello Everyone!

I know.  It's been a while, right?  I don't really blog anymore because frankly, I don't feel like I can keep up with a busy reading and reviewing schedule like I used to.  You, as readers, deserve the best.  I can't give my best right now, so here we are.

BUT. . . .  you know I can't pass up an opportunity to stump for my favorite book!

As most of you know, I am a die-hard fan of Kirsty Eagar's work, and of Raw Blue in particular (you might have seen my "Case for Carly" page), so I wanted to send all of you a little request.  Melissa from i swim for oceans and I were tweeting the other day about how we could help promote it better so maybe/hopefully someday it will catch the eye of a U.S. publisher (it's being published in the U.K. this August).  

National Public Radio (NPR) is compiling a list of the Top 100 Best YA Books ever, and to help them, they are asking listeners to send in their lists of their personal Top 5 YA books.

I encourage you to send in your list, regardless of whether Raw Blue is among your personal Top 5. If Raw Blue is among your top reads, I hope you'll consider putting it on there.  Imagine how awesome it would be if a group of book lovers and bloggers starting listing this book that not too many people in the U.S. have ever heard of  - in my world of hoped-for results, the peeps at NPR would be scratching their heads saying, "Whaaaa?"  


Again, I hope you'll consider submitting your list regardless of whether Raw Blue is on there, but I do hope you find room for it!  You can find the link for the article/comment list sections here.  

U.K. Cover
ALSO!  You might have read the sentence up there about Raw Blue being published in the U.K.?  The book is available for pre-order RIGHT NOW at The Book Depository for $8.18 and NO SHIPPING!  So, all you wonderful readers who have expressed an interest in reading this gem now have the opportunity to do so at very little cost!  Go, go!  What are you waiting for?

A special shout-out and thanks to Melissa for also posting about this - if it's a contemp that Melissa is advocating for, you know it's good!