Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The White


"I was born a white at sea on the way to the New World . . . But I was taken by those whom we called Indians. Nearly speechless for a time, I was beset by terrors." This is the voice of Mary Jemison, who, in 1758, at the age of sixteen, was taken by a Shawnee raiding party from her home near what would become Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In this intimate reimagining of her life story, Mary endures the brutal scalpings of her parents and siblings and is given to two Seneca sisters who treat her as their own--a symbolic replacement for the brother they lost to the white colonists. Renamed Two-Falling-Voices, she gradually becomes integrated into her new family, learning to assist with the hunt and to cultivate corn. She marries a Delaware warrior, raises a family in her adoptive culture, becomes friends with two former slaves, and eventually, remarkably, fulfills her lifelong dream "to own land bordered by sky, as my mother and father had once purchased woods and fields which were dappled with changing light." A testament to the resilience of the human mind and spirit, The White is a cut-crystal narrative of Mary's life among the Seneca, lit by flashes of her own voice and revealing her curious, open heart. From the novel's bloody opening to its arresting conclusion--by her own choice Mary does not return to white society--Deborah Larsen never flinches from the violence and the splendor that marked the settling of the New World.

(From mfpl.org)


There have been a plethora of books written about the young colonial woman, Mary Jemison, who was violently ripped from her family and home near present day Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In The White, Deborah Larsen gives a raw and at times violently graphic account of the events leading up to and after her capture. Mary’s story is a tale so frightening, that one could easily assume that it holds no basis in truth, but that would be a rather large mistake. At the tender age of 16 and terrified beyond belief, Mary must witness the brutal slaying of her family and neighbors, only to be forced to live among the very people who committed these heinous acts. Rendered unable to speak due to the sheer terror of her circumstances, Mary is given to two grieving Seneca tribeswomen who use her as the physical replacement of a brother lost during a skirmish with the white colonists. They give her the name Two-Falling Voices. This seems to represent not only the fallen voice of the brother she is to replace, but also the lost “voice” of Mary herself. Over time, Mary becomes more than accustom to the native ways, marrying a Delaware tribesman, and raising a family within his native culture. Many years later, when given the chance to leave the tribe, Mary makes the unexpected choice to stay; finding her new way of life actually suited her in a more spiritual way than that of the white colonists.

I chose this book by happenstance. I was shelving books one day at the library and came across it quite by mistake. I saw a small, simple book with the bold title “The White” written very plainly along the spine. This immediately piqued my interest. Where was the flashy script writing with the fancy, artistic curlicues that so typically adorn the cover of fiction novels?  I grabbed it from the shelf, and decided to take a peek at it during my lunch break.  Boy was I pleasantly surprised! My initial reaction to the writing was one of admiration. Deborah Larsen wrote this novel with a subtle, yet lyrically expressive voice. Her descriptions of the colors that surround Mary in the natural settings that have become her home are mentally exhilarating.  I could easily visualize Mary and her warrior husband frolicking among the golden fields of corn and amber hues of the autumn leaves. Although at times her descriptiveness was unnecessary to the scene, and seemed like fluff, it was rather attractive fluff and exceptionally enjoyable to read and visualize.
  Once you wade through the cream of Larsen’s eloquent and elaborate writing style, Mary’s narrative takes on a life of its own that transcends her contemporary time period. It can be translated into various modern scenarios, which makes her tale endearing and relatable. To the modern day reader, Mary is remarkably strong-willed and free-thinking for a woman of her time. She comes across as a person who is dealt an undeserved hand, and finds a way to make the best of her situation. She shows tolerance and compassion in the face of complete and utter despondency, not only in her dealings with the native people, but also her treatment of the former slaves she befriends. Hers is a true life saga that expresses wholeheartedly the internal fortitude and grit necessary to overcome any obstacle, and shows that even in the direst situations, hope can spring eternal. I give this book three and a half stars. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Frog Music


   Summer of 1876: San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman named Jenny Bonnet is shot dead. 

The survivor, her friend Blanche Beunon, is a French burlesque dancer. Over the next three days, she will risk everything to bring Jenny's murderer to justice--if he doesn't track her down first. The story Blanche struggles to piece together is one of free-love bohemians, desperate paupers, and arrogant millionaires; of jealous men, icy women, and damaged children. It's the secret life of Jenny herself, a notorious character who breaks the law every morning by getting dressed: a charmer as slippery as the frogs she hunts.

In thrilling, cinematic style, FROG MUSIC digs up a long-forgotten, never-solved crime. Full of songs that migrated across the world, Emma Donoghue's lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes captures the pulse of a boomtown like no other
(From Goodreads)

   When I originally read the description of this novel on the New York Times Best Seller list, I was intrigued. I am a sucker for a based on reality, historical crime novel. I immediately added it to my reserve list at the library, and patiently waited for it to come in. Finally, after a month wait, I got the long anticipated email telling me this treasure awaited me behind the circulation desk. I dove head first into this novel as soon as I arrived home, and quite honestly suffered from sleep deprivation the next day because I did not want to put it down. 

   The opening scene, set in an old dusty 1870’s saloon just outside of San Francisco, hooked me quicker than stink bait does a hungry catfish. Yes, I know that might be a slightly unusual way to describe it, but it is the complete truth. The death of a main character in the opening paragraphs seems a bit morose, and quite daring, but Emma Donoghue pulls it off with a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. The raw, gritty way that Donoghue portrays the death of Jenny Bonnet instantly grabs hold of you, and no matter how unfortunate it may be you can’t get away. What starts off as a couple friends, Jenny Bonnet and Blanche Beunon, singing songs from their French homeland while preparing for bed, quickly turns into a violent, confused scene of murder. The way she chronicles Blanche mentally dissecting the situation as it is happening plants the reader right in the room with the two women, allowing you to almost feel the bloody bed and smell the sulfur for yourself.

    So, who killed Jenny Bonnet and why? To answer that question, the story rewinds to approximately two months prior to the fatal night. Blanche, a French burlesque dancer, is the toast of the nightlife scene. Men want to be with her and women want to be her. Her talent to seduce and tease on the stage is second to none, and her “off stage skills” are in high demand. Little did she know that her life would forever be altered by the fateful day that she was nearly run over by the cross dressing frog catcher, Jenny Bonnet. From that point on, whether they liked it or not, their fates would be intertwined. The characters of Jenny and Blanche were such a breath of fresh air. Not once was there a moment of needy whininess. Oh no! Not from these girls. These were strong-willed, no nonsense, Wild West ladies looking to escape the bondage of male domination. Jenny’s way of doing this was by dressing as a man, which allowed her access to places that a proper lady would never venture. Her male disguise also gave her a separation from her secretive past, which ironically is the inspiration for her persona. Blanche, on the other hand, used her sexual power over the men to her own advantage, earning a very sizable living on their concupiscence. 

 For Blanche, however, the stakes were slightly higher. Enter P’tit, her love child with her Bohemian boyfriend, Arthur. Blanche felt that she would not be able to provide a stable home for her child given her lifestyle, so she agrees to allow her Madam to farm him out, if you will, to a family who takes in unwanted children. To her dismay, Blanche comes to find out that this was not the reality of the situation, causing her world to be turned upside down. She quickly discovers that everything she held as evident truths was nothing more than a lie. The tailspin that ensues threatens to bring about momentous changes in the lives of those around her, including the very existence of Jenny Bonnet. 

 At this point, I will discontinue my explanation of events to prevent me from giving away too much. I will, however, add a bit of commentary about the writing prowess of Emma Donoghue. I am an enormous fan of a good storyteller, and Donoghue did not leave me disheartened in the slightest. The action and intrigue in this book are astounding. Her narrative is colorful and filled to the brim with dynamic and vivid depictions of what life was like in San Francisco just before the turn of the century. From the constant fear of contracting smallpox, to the vast chasm that existed between the wealthy and the poor, Pre-1900 San Francisco was the epitome of the Wild West following the Civil War. Emma Donoghue was able to accurately and romantically bring the characters of Frog Music to life in this dusty, and at time earthquake ridden city, while maintaining the integrity of the factual details of the murder of Jenny Bonnet. I confidently give this book 4 stars.

Monday, October 6, 2014



A gripping historical novel set amidst the confusion and chaos of the Civil War, Booth is the story of the only conspirator in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln who was not killed or executed--a young man who falls under the spell of the charismatic and captivating world-famous stage actor, and is gradually sucked into the vortex of Booth's insidious plans.

The novel opens in 1916, the last year of narrator John Surratt's life. Surratt, who has spent the years since Lincoln's death as an obscure shipping clerk, is approached by D.W. Griffith to read from his Civil War diary in Griffith's movie Birth of a Nation.  As Surratt reads over his diary for the first time in fifty years, the reader returns to the tumultuous days of 1864, and a chance encounter between Surratt and John Wilkes Booth.  Booth, a larger-than-life personality whose appetites, fame, and sheer force of will bedazzle everyone around him, helps to secure Surratt a position as the assistant to renowned photographer Alexander Gardner.  Over the following weeks, Booth continues to lavish attention on Surratt, slowly drawing him bit by bit into his web of intrigue.  By the time Surratt discovers the desperate nature of Booth's true intentions, it is too late, and he finds himself caught up in a firestorm of violence that shatters forever his insulated life and mild ambitions.
(from Goodreads)


 If you are a history geek like me, you are all too familiar with the story. . . A group of Southern sympathizers collaborate to exact revenge on the man that they hold responsible for the collapse of the Confederates hopes of a successful cessation.  The man, who in their eyes turned his back on half of the nation that he swore to protect; a man whose lofty political aspirations defied the very fabric of Southern society by abolishing their peculiar institution. This man was Abraham Lincoln.
 The novel begins a little more than 50 years after the assassination of Lincoln. John Surratt, the son of Mary Surratt (the only female conspirator to be hanged), is contemplating a recent offer to do a filmed reading of his Civil War diaries. While Surratt is perusing the diary that has been untouched since that fateful time, the reader is instantly transported back to 1864 on the very day that he meets John Wilkes Booth, actor extraordinaire! The emotional roller coaster that is Booth is immediately known to the reader, while John Surratt comes across as a naive, easily lead by the nose young man seeking the approval of this semi-celebrity.
 I will begin my critique of this novel by saying I am absolutely appreciative, from a history geek standpoint, how accurate and based on factual events this piece of fiction truly is. I realize there would be no way for David Robertson to have been privy to the intimate conversations that took place in the Surratt house, and his speculation as to the nature of the relationship between Mary Surratt and John Wilkes-Booth is based solely on hearsay. With that said, the layout of events, as well as the precise way he maintained a genuine adherence to the conspirator’s motives and intentions makes this novel not only an adventure in intrigue and suspense, but a real history lesson, too. I very much liked the evolution of the association between Surratt and Booth. At the start, Surratt seems mystified by the larger than life Booth, but as time passes, Booth’s star seems to fade into a drunken stupor, leaving him looking like a washed up has been. John Surratt, on the other hand, has a measure of success working as a photographer’s assistant, but risks it all to help out Booth’s cause.  As the only one in the group not to be convicted and hanged, John Surratt is able to quietly fall into obscurity until he is approached 50 years later to relive these events through the words of his personal diary.
 This is the only book that I have read by David Robertson. I found him to be a compelling and attention holding storyteller, easily blurring the line between fact and fiction. After the conclusion of the novel, he carefully dissects his use of creative license to reveal how he interwove the factual aspects of the assassination by way of diaries, first-hand accounts, official records, and contemporary news articles with his own imagined interpretation of events. I also appreciated the use of actual photographs of the hangings and the conspirators, allowing me to have a visual connection with them as well. I have read other pieces by different authors that make an attempt to do what Mr. Robertson has done with the Lincoln assassination, each leaving me with varying aftertastes. In Booth, I found an impeccably written, believable storyline that made me want to learn more about that time period and the fascinatingly sinister conspirators who played such a detrimental role in American history. For those reasons, I give this book four stars!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Gone Girl


On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer? 
(from Goodreads)

** I would like to preface this review by stating that there will be NO spoilers in this commentary. **


 I, like many other avid readers, prefer to read the book prior to watching Hollywood’s on-screen interpretation. When I found out that Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was being made into a blockbuster film, I immediately grabbed the book off the library shelf and began plunking away. I could not have imagined that the journey I was about to undertake would be so infuriatingly long and drawn out.  The novel is broken up into two very distinct and differing sections. The first half I found to be hard to digest, while the second half, albeit more reader friendly, was not as satisfying as I would have liked. For that reason, I am going to assess the novel in two parts. 
PART I-  It is difficult to place my finger on exactly what it was that rubbed me the wrong way about the first section, for the writing was superb. I am leaning towards the notion that the scenarios that were presented were not as true to life as the author was pushing for, leaving the reader full of doubt that the story was really going in any direction. My best description would be that I felt as though I were on a perpetual round-about, desperately wanting to make a right turn to exit, but knowing deep down that once I start a book, I must finish! Previous to my reading the book, a friend had forewarned me that I might feel that way, but suggested that I trudge along because the second section was much more worthwhile.
 The first section of this book is told from a first person point of view through the present eyes of Nick and the past journal entries of Amy. At this point in the story, the reader is unsure of the guilt or innocence of Nick in the disappearance of his wife, although he seems to be a prime suspect.  Amy comes across as a needy and weak wife who desperately seeks the approval of her husband and her parents. Nick, on the other hand, looks to be a pompous and arrogant man-child whose only concern is his own happiness and the hometown bar that he now operates.  I felt as though each narrator was hiding something, and this left me with an mistrustful taste in my mouth. Amy’s depiction of her loving and supportive reverence toward her husband does not mesh well with Nick’s morose view of his wife, causing me to question the integrity of each account. Amy’s sudden disappearance on the eve of their 5th wedding anniversary, with the information given, could not possibly be contributed to anyone but Nick! 
PART II-  In part two of this novel, the truth begins to unveil itself, revealing a lot of ugliness and deception on both sides. Nick is outed as a husband who has made some egregious mistakes, but did they drive him to harm his wife? While Amy, who worked fiercely to uphold her squeaky clean, good girl image, is not necessarily what she seems to be on the surface. Once the reality of the situation is revealed, the ingestion of the story is much more palatable. Flynn’s wit and flair truly shine when she stops trying to deceive the reader. Had she used this approach during the first portion of the piece, I would have found this a much more enjoyable ride.  Without giving away the twist, the finale of the book did raise a lot more questions than answers. I am not one of those readers who must always have storylines tied up with a bright shiny bow, but it would have been nice to walk away with some semblance of justice. In a sense, I felt cheated, making me dislike the author more than the wretchedness of the characters she created. For that reason, I give this book three stars. I hope the upcoming film can redeem my faith in Gillian Flynn.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The White Queen


In 1464, the War of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster is in its ninth year.  Although the sly Earl of Warwick has succeeded in having the easily-controlled Edward IV of York crowned, all his work could be undone when the new monarch falls in love with Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner.  This BBC adaptation of Philippa Gregory's series, The Cousin’s War, follows the women caught up in the battle to be the rightful king of England.
This show was commissioned by the BBC and aired in the UK first.  However, an 'uncut' version of the show was later shown by Starz in the US.
(From TV.com)


 Having read Philippa Gregory’s Cousin War Series (The White Queen, The Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter), I was over the moon excited to find that Starz and BBC had created a made for TV series sculpted after the novels. With Philippa Gregory as executive producer, I hoped that the series would run true with the books, and I was not disappointed. Set in late 1400’s England, The White Queen brings viewers inside the intriguing and secretive world of the York and Lancastrian dynasties. Starting with the chance meeting of Elizabeth Woodville and Young King Edward, The White Queen depicts the a more intimate side of the English court. The series allows the viewer to catch a glimpse of the ethereal royals in very earthly and precarious situations ranging from adultery, jealous rages, and blissful unions.

 To draw comparisons between the books and the series, one would assume, would cause me to find great fault where actor choice and scene selection are concerned. Surprisingly, that did not occur. The choice of actors for the roles of  Queen Elizabeth Woodville, Richard Duke of Gloucester, (later King Richard III), Anne Neville, and Lady Margaret Beaufort were exceptionally true to their descriptions in the books, leaving me to wonder if someone was spying on my mind’s eye as I read the novels. I was particularly thrilled that the scenes from the books that were omitted in the series were few, and those included were taken directly, word for word, from the pages of the three novels. My only criticism is the manner with which the series ends. Originally, the White Queen was to have multiple seasons in order to encompass the breadth of material in the novels. After mixed reviews on the BBC, the series was pulled, leaving those who have not read the books at the edge of an exceedingly lofty cliffhanger. With that said, it was an appropriate place to end had another season been in the works. My suggestion would be to read the three novels, or her entire Cousins War series if you are feeling adventurous, and then watch the series. Doing so will give you a greater appreciation for the close relationship between what was written and what was shown, as well as not leaving you wanting when the series is over. I give this series four stars. It could easily have been a five if the series had not been canceled. The books, however, get a resounding and bold five stars! 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Invention of Wings


 Hetty "Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.

Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid.We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty-five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.
(From Goodreads)


 What does it mean to be free? Does it take the literal form as being physically free from bondage? Or, perhaps freedom can also be used to describe an independent state of mind? In Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings, both scenarios are true. Set in the slave-driven south, Kidd’s fictional interpretation of the lives of famed abolitionists and female rights activists Sarah and Angelina Grimke delve into the idea of freedom as a concept both mental and physical, showing each from the unique perspective of both hesitant master and slave.

 The opening scenes of the book truly set the stage for what will develop into a complicated and, at the time, socially unacceptable relationship between Sarah Grimke and her 11th birthday present, a young slave named Hetty “Handful” Grimke. Sarah, even at the young age of 11, knows that slavery is wrong, and tries to reject her “gift”, much to the chagrin of her overbearing mother. This disdain for the peculiar institution of slavery never leaves Sarah, even after forcibly accepting Handful as her slave. If anything, it propels her to follow a path that she feels is righteous and true.  Sarah has dreams and aspirations of pursuing a career in law, just like her father and brother, hoping to be able to one day make a real difference in the world. She feverishly studies her father’s law books, and even garners her father’s praise as having a gift for the vocation.  A turning point for both girls is the discovery that Sarah has taught Handful to read. This is viewed as criminal in the racially divided South, leaving Handful with physical scars from a severe beating, and Sarah with the mental scars of being severed from her father and his beloved books.  

 After having her dream of attaining a law degree is dashed, Sarah leaves the South and Handful behind to pursue an abolitionist’s cause. Once in the North, however, Sarah finds that her freedom from the South is merely just a physical removal, encountering her own form of discrimination because she is a woman who holds strong opinions. Her struggle for women’s rights brings her great notoriety, as well as influential enemies bent on suppressing her voice. This begs the question: Is she TRULY free?

 Handful, in contrast, spends her days perfecting her seamstress craft. Eventually, she becomes well known for her talent with a needle and thread, and finds herself in high demand, not only on the Grimke plantation, but all over Charleston, South Carolina. Handful hopes this new found demand is her ticket to freedom. She creates a mental sense of independence that gives her the courage to believe that one day she could be free. Her true freedom comes by way of a family quilt started by her mother that depicts the lineage of her family. Her need to finish this quilt allows her a spiritual freedom that transcends the physical bondage of slavery, even though she remains on the Grimke plantation where even Sarah is unable to set her free. It becomes clear that her mental freedom is far more liberating than Sarah’s bodily freedom in the North.

 After reading this novel, I was left with a real admiration for Kidd’s attention to detail and adherence to historical reality . . . as much as that is possible in a piece of fiction. As I read the story, I found that I could hear the characters speaking to me right from the page. The dialogue is written in such a way, that you feel as though you are there, hearing every twang and colloquial term that you might expect from the time period.  The complex task of unveiling the antebellum South through the eyes of both master and slave is done with great mastery, while still making this a story of triumph over great adversity that transcends the centuries.

Admittedly, I have not read any other pieces by Sue Monk Kidd, so I really have no basis to compare this with her other novels, but as a stand-alone The Invention of Wings has all of those smart touches that makes the reader want to devour more of her work. She runs the gamut of emotion from witty humor to unabashed disgust over the treatment of Hetty and her fellow plantation workers. Readers will laugh, cry and cheer out loud! If you are expecting the run of the mill antebellum novel, you will be more than pleasantly surprised at the depth of the characters, as well as the brazen and bold face put to the early abolition and women’s right movements. Without reservation or hesitation,  I give this book 5 stars. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Hello! It's nice to meet you. . .

Greetings! My name is Jenny, and I will be the new author of the Lit Writ blog! I hope to delight and inform you with the same enthusiasm as my predecessor, with a heaping spoonful of my own quirkiness and unique perspective. Feedback is always welcome...if you think I should review something, shoot me a message, and I will check it out! I look forward to sharing my thoughts and ideas with you, and hope you find them useful, or at the very least entertaining. My first official blog entry is currently brewing! Check back soon for my debut! :)