Book Recommendation: Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

The Author

Naomi Novik is an American fantasy writer with a passion for fairy tales and some interesting books under her belt. I first encountered her as the author of His Majesty’s Dragon, which is the first book in a fantastically different fantasy concept (think an authentic history of the Napoleonic wars…but with dragons providing an air force). Novik also wrote the Grimm-like Uprooted, which is basically an extended fairy tale and in that regard is quite similar to Spinning Silver.

The Book

Spinning Silver takes the familiar fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin and adds many, many layers of complexity. It centres around three young women: Miryem, Wanda, and Irina. Miryem is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, whose family is reviled by the local villagers and whose father is too gentle to convince debtors to repay their debts or pay fair interest. When her mother falls ill, Miryem grits her teeth and takes over the debt-collecting business herself, determined to make her family’s business profitable. She succeeds, to the point where she is able to pay a local farmer’s daughter, Wanda, to assist her each day both with household chores and with the business.

Trouble arises for Miryem when she unwisely boasts about being able to turn ‘silver into gold’ (through her money lending business) in the hearing of a Staryk prince. The Staryk are a magical race who live in an icy kingdom and regularly raid human settlements for gold. The Staryk expects her to change his silver into gold, and failure could mean death. Non-magical Miryem has to scramble to find a way to make it happen, and in the process accidentally involves a duke’s daughter, Irina, in a dynastic marriage she had never expected to make.

Why I Love It

This is fantasy for readers who are a little tired of the more standard heroic-warriors-and-mages-lead-their-country-in-an-epic-battle form. The action centres around Miryem, Wanda, and Irina, three young women fighting stubbornly (and intelligently) for what they believe in, and it’s nice to see such strong female protagonists. Male protectors aren’t really useful in this world: Miryem’s father is loving but out of his league, Wanda’s father is a brute, and Irina’s father is more interested in politics than his daughter. Marriage doesn’t precisely help, either; these young ladies have no time or space to be shrinking violets.

In addition, this book’s setting is rich, vibrant, and believable. The Staryk begin the book as flat-out villains, but it isn’t long before you begin to see that things are far more complex and nuanced than they first appear. A money lender doesn’t at first glance seem like a protagonist you could care that much for, but Miryem is wonderful, and I actually found myself siding with her against the villagers who were happy to borrow but never wanted to repay. Another character, the tsar, is selfish and vicious, but even he has hidden depths and complexities which come to light as the novel progresses.

Overall, I think what I liked best about Spinning Silver is that it takes the idea of a fairy tale back to what it was in the days of the Brothers Grimm. This is not a cutesy Disney version; this is a magical world where bad things happen to good people, and you’d better think quickly if you want to keep your head above the water. But – like any good fairy tale – there are hidden rules. Miryem, Wanda, and Irina aren’t living in a chaotic universe where crap just happens, and when they’re able to figure out the system, they’re also able to control it. There’s something extremely satisfying in that, and Novik handles it brilliantly.

Where To Get it

I pre-ordered Spinning Silver through my local library, and still had to wait for a number of other people to finish with it before I could get my hands on a copy. I didn’t initially buy a copy (I’ll be honest, and confess that I didn’t really think Novik could pull off this particular fairy tale as a full-length novel), but it’s now on my list to buy from Book Depository.

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Book Recommendation: Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper

The Author

Sharon Draper is an American author and teacher who writes books for children and teenagers. She often tackles difficult or challenging topics in her writing (for example, this book is about the discrimination faced by a child with a disability, and another of her books deals with the violent racism faced by African-American families in 1932), but does so through compelling stories rather than lecturing to the reader.

Draper’s extremely comprehensive website is here, and includes all sorts of resources which would be useful for teachers reading her books with their students.

The Book

Out of My Mind tells the story of eleven-year old Melody, an extremely intelligent child who happens to be non-verbal and wheelchair bound. She has cerebral palsy and when she was very young, doctors told her parents that she was profoundly intellectually disabled. Fortunately, there are people in Melody’s life – her family; her neighbour, Mrs V; certain teachers – who can see that there is a lot going on in this little girl’s head if you can only see past her physical difficulties. With communication boards and an electronic talking device, Melody gradually becomes more and more able to interact with the outside world, including the teachers and students at the mainstream school she attends.

In fact, with Melody’s improved ability to communicate, she is able to join her school’s team in a competitive trivia contest, and gets an opportunity to travel interstate to take part in the finals. Not everything goes to plan, but Melody’s reactions to events as they unfold are achingly well-written and one scene in particular is breathtakingly satisfying.

Why I Love It

This is a beautiful book. It’s a not a feel-good, chirpy story about a sweet disabled child who conquers the world – it’s far more realistic than that. There are times when Melody is as contrary, sulky, and stubborn as any child, and there are times when her mother utterly loses her cool. There are even times when Melody gets so frustrated with her inability to communicate that she has what she calls ‘tornado explosions’:

Nobody gets it. Nobody. Drives me crazy.

So every once in a while I really lose control. I mean really. My arms and legs get all tight and lash out like tree limbs in a storm. Even my face draws up. I sometimes can’t breathe real well when this happens, but I have to because I need to screech and scream and jerk.

– Out of My Mind, p15

Many things are tough for Melody, and making friends with the other kids at her school is one of the toughest. I love the way she learns some hard lessons (as do they), and there is a chapter in the book that I occasionally re-read just to cheer her on as she confronts inequity. Reading this book makes me feel like Draper must personally know someone who confronts the issues that Melody faces – either that, or she has done a superlative job of researching what it’s like to be a person with a disability.

Out of My Mind is very reminiscent of R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, and highly recommended for anyone who enjoyed that book.

Where To Get It

Out of My Mind is fairly widely available, and there are multiple copies on the shelf in my local library system. However, I knew from the beginning that this was one I wanted for myself, so I purchased this version from Book Depository.

Book Recommendation: If This is a Woman, by Sarah Helm

The Author

Sarah Helm is a British author who wrote a book on Vera Atkins (who worked for Britain’s secret service in and after World War II), and in the process stumbled across references to a Nazi concentration camp for women, called Ravensbruck. She writes incredibly detailed, well-researched non-fiction which includes a plethora of historical sources and interviews with survivors. Her subject matter certainly isn’t light and fluffy, but it’s definitely fascinating.

The Book

If This is a Woman: Inside Ravensbruck, Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women is a comprehensive (823 pages) look at how the story of this camp and its inhabitants unfolded over the course of World War II. Ravensbruck’s function shifted over time, as did the composition of the women imprisoned there, which at various times included criminals, lesbians, communists, Jews, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. At times these women were political prisoners (the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in particular, were very much conscientious objectors to the war, who actually could have secured their own release by agreeing with the Nazis), victims of unethical medical experimentation, and slave labour for manufacturers. The prisoners were watched over by female guards, who operated at all times under the supervision of male SS officers.

This is a hard book to summarise, because it covers an extraordinary amount of territory, ranging from the broader political climate to letters written by individual women. There were times while reading it that I got a little lost in the details – and times when I needed to set it aside for a time while I reminded myself that humanity as a whole is not a terrible as it might seem when reading about a concentration camp – but overall If This is a Woman is both powerful and moving.

Why I Love It

In many ways, ‘love’ seems the complete wrong verb to use when describing this book. It’s not something I read because I enjoyed it, or because it was light and fun; it’s not a book I pulled off the shelf because I was looking for a happy ending. Nevertheless, this is a book that I wanted for my keeper shelf so badly that I bought a copy online before I had even finished reading my library copy.

Why?

Because it tells the story of people whose voices are often lost in the World War II narrative.

Because it reminds me that seemingly normal people can do terrible things.

Because there are times when I look at the world around me in 2018 and wonder whether there are things I’m as blind to as many people were blind to concentration camps in 1940.

Before reading this book, I had no idea that there was a concentration camp specifically for women, or that Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned as conscientious objectors to the war. I had done some reading about the Holocaust previously, triggered by a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau a few years ago when I happened to be in Poland, but Helm’s work put a lot of what I already knew into context, and fleshed it out.

I think one of the most memorable parts of this book for me is in the photograph section, where there are a series of pictures of the female guards of Ravensbruck. These are black and white photographs of smiling young women, looking like they might be my grandmother and her friends – rowing a boat, posing in a field, standing with dogs, clustered in a congenial group. Their faces don’t look brutal or vicious or cruel, which makes it particularly jarring to look at them while you’re in the process of reading about the camp they worked at. These women were employees; they were free Germans being paid to do a job. They could presumably have walked away…but they didn’t. Trying to reconcile the happy faces with the harsh reality of what the guards were involved with gave me as a reader a lot to think about.

I don’t always want to read books which make me think as much as If This is a Woman did, but there are times when it’s good to get outside your comfort zone. For me, this was one of them.

Where To Get It

If This is a Woman was available from my local library, but – as I said earlier – I actually chose to purchase this version from Book Depository before I had even finished reading it.

Book Recommendation: Tales of a Female Nomad, by Rita Golden Gelman

The Author

Rita Golden Gelman is a fascinating woman with an interesting story.  She’s an author of both travel memoirs (like this one) and children’s picture story books, and she’s been living a nomadic existence since 1986.  Her travelling began when she was 48, after her marriage fell apart and she took a long look at her life to decide what she actually wanted to do moving forwards.  With grown up kids and a portable career as a writer, Gelman headed off to live in local communities in a succession of different countries.

Gelman’s blog is worth a visit, particularly this TED talk she gave in 2014 (though, unless you’re interested in helping to promote gap years for young Americans, you don’t really need to watch the last few minutes).

The Book

Tales of a Female Nomad tells the story of Gelman’s travels between 1986 and 2000, beginning with the breakdown of her marriage.  To begin with, she has a lot to learn about how to be an independent traveller.  For example, she tells the story of flying to Mexico, and sitting in her hotel room panicking because she doesn’t have anyone to go to dinner with and she can’t imagine going to a restaurant on her own!  Over time, though, she falls in love with the idea of living as part of a local culture, and lives in a series of different countries for months or years at a time.

Why I Love It

As a starting point, I should probably say that while I admire Gelman deeply, I could never be her. Her way of moving through the world involves a lot of trusting strangers, going with the flow, and accepting a place to stay from people she barely knows. While this works well for Gelman, I cringe at the very thought of replicating it for myself.

With that caveat out of the way, though, here is what made me really fall in love with Tales of a Female Nomad: reading Gelman’s story made me stop and think about what is truly possible.  It’s easy in today’s culture to fixate on youthful celebrities, child prodigies, and teens who somehow make a fortune by becoming ‘influencers’ on social media (I may be showing my age when I say I just do not understand how ‘influencer’ became a viable way to make money!). I’ve still got a couple of years to go until I hit 40, but there are times when I feel like I’ve missed my chance at accomplishing anything significant, or like all the best opportunities go to people younger than me.  Logically, I know it’s ridiculous to feel washed up while still in my 30s, but I bet I’m not the only one.

Gelman’s book made me stop and examine my assumptions about youth and achievement.  She was 48 years old when she began her nomadic lifestyle – in 1986, when ‘digital nomads’ didn’t exist, and far fewer people had the will or capacity to make the leap into living overseas while working remotely.  As far as I can tell, she has continued her travels ever since.  Reading this book made me think to myself: If Rita Golden Gelman could be living a nomadic lifestyle in any number of different cultures when she was 50, 60, 70 years old, what on earth is stopping ME from doing the things I want to do?

That thought has been reverberating through my mind ever since I closed the book, and I’ve gotta say, it’s an exciting one.  I picked up Tales of a Female Nomad expecting an interesting travel memoir and, while I certainly did get that, I also got much more.

Where To Get It

My local library doesn’t own a copy of this book, but fortunately I was able to order it in from a library elsewhere in my state.  As soon as I can, I’ll be ordering my own copy from Book Depository, because this is definitely a book that’s going on my keeper shelf so that I can pull it down when I need a jolt of inspiration or motivation.

My life is endlessly fascinating, filled with learning, adventure, interesting people, new and enlightening experiences. I laugh, sing, and dance more than I ever have.  I am becoming the person inside me.

Rita Golden Gelman

Book Recommendation: Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

The Author

Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879 – 1958) was an interesting woman with a passion for writing, education, and social justice.  She had a particular interest in Montessori education, and that shows up clearly in Understood Betsy, which is (to date) the only work of hers which I have read.  Finding Fisher’s works in hard copy can be difficult, which is the only reason I haven’t followed up my enjoyment of Understood Betsy by trying out more of her writing.

You can find out more about Fisher from her Wikipedia biography.

The Book

Understood Betsy was written in 1917.  It’s a children’s book and tells the story of a little girl who is orphaned as a baby and being raised by her Aunt Harriet and Cousin Frances.  These two women are extremely well-intentioned and love young Elizabeth dearly, but Frances in particular creates problems for the child by ‘understanding’ her so much that she exacerbates minor issues like a bad dream or seeing a big dog while out on a walk.

When Elizabeth is nine years old, Aunt Harriet falls ill, and on doctor’s orders is sent to live in a warmer place, with Cousin Frances to look after her.  Poor Elizabeth is shipped off to ‘the Putney cousins’ – relatives who had originally offered to take her as a baby, and who Harriet and Frances have disparaged in her hearing for years.  The Putneys are a no-nonsense farming family, consisting of Aunt Abigail, Uncle Henry, and Cousin Anne, and life for Elizabeth (promptly rechristened Betsy by the informal Putneys) is soon very, very different.

Why I Love It

I do love a good, old-fashioned children’s book – the kind with extraordinary amounts of tasty-sounding food, children charging independently through the countryside, and a depiction of a simple way of life which may never have existed in reality – and Understood Betsy is a great example of this.  There’s definitely a moral to the story (it’s not hard to tell which method of child-rearing Fisher supports!), but it’s not too heavy-handed for a book of this period, and you get a good sense of the characters as individuals.  Cousin Anne is a delight, and it’s sweet to see how her relationship with Elizabeth/Betsy changes over time.

I’m not sure how many modern children would love this book as the pace might be a bit slow, but any child who enjoys books like Anne of Green Gables should be fine with the gentle meandering of Understood Betsy.  For myself, the slow pace and uncomplicated plot is what makes this book a recurrent favourite.  This is one of those books I reach for when I’m tired, stressed, and in need of something easy and comfortable.

Where To Get It

Sadly, my local library system (which allows me to request books from any library in my state) doesn’t have a copy of Understood Betsy, or any other works by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.  It is possible to buy a copy, though – there’s a nice paperback version for sale through Book Depository which is on my ‘To Buy’ list.  The only reason it hasn’t made it to the top yet is that I do already own this book as an audiobook and an ebook!

My first exposure to Understood Betsy came when I stumbled across it on Librivox, which (if you haven’t had the pleasure) is a fantastic site which provides free public domain audiobooks read by volunteers.  I listened to this version, and enjoyed it very much.

I also now have a copy of Understood Betsy as an ebook, downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg (another great source of free public domain books); the direct link to Understood Betsy is here.

Book Recommendation: The Gilded Hour, by Sara Donati

The Author

Sara Donati is the pen name of Rosina Lippi, a former academic who writes contemporaries under her own name and historical novels under Sara’s.  This is the first book I have read by Donati/Lippi, but it certainly won’t be the last.  I particularly enjoyed the sense I got from this book of meticulous research (I think you can see Lippi’s academic background coming through here) combined with rich storytelling, and hope to see that same combination in her other works.

Rosina Lippi has an interesting bio of her own life on her website, including numerous quirky facts about her likes and dislikes, which is well worth checking out.

The Book

The Gilded Hour is set in New York City in 1883, and as a reader you definitely get a sense of the period right from the opening pages.  Though told from several different points of view, The Gilded Hour predominantly tells the story of a young female surgeon, Dr Anna Savard, and (to a lesser extent) her racially mixed cousin, Dr Sophie Savard, a physician.  Both women face considerable prejudice in a time when female doctors are not common, but it is particularly difficult for Sophie, who faces the additional stigma of what many of her contemporaries call ‘mulatto.’

As the story begins, Anna assists an order of Catholic nuns by providing health certificates for a group of predominantly Italian children orphaned in a recent smallpox epidemic.  These certificates are necessary for the children to gain entry to New York City, where they will be separated by gender and sent to orphanages.  In the processing of examining the children, Anna meets a family of four: Rosa, Tonino, Lia, and Vittorio Russo, who range in age from nine years old (Rosa) to infancy (Vittorio).  Little Rosa is fiercely determined to keep her family together, to keep a promise to her now-dead mother.  Anna also meets Giancarlo ‘Jack’ Mezzanotte, an Italian-American police officer who is assisting the nuns by translating for those of the children who speak little English.

Afterwards, Anna returns to her normal life as a member of a wealthy and well-respected family, but it isn’t long before big changes begin.  Rosa and her siblings are, predictably, separated by the nuns, with the two boys sent in one direction and the two girls sent in another.  Worse still, there is a scuffle on the docks as the children are being sorted into different conveyances, and it afterwards becomes apparent that the two boys never even made it to the orphanage with the others in their group.  Rosa and Lia flee the orphanage they are taken to, and go in search of Anna, who Rosa believes will help them find their brothers.

Fortunately for Rosa and Lia, Anna’s family is unconventional, kind, and perfectly willing to take in two orphaned children.  Anna, along with Jack Mezzanotte, also begins searching for the missing Russo boys, though it’s a daunting task and involves treading carefully through the bureaucracy of the Catholic church.

Alongside the search for the boys, Anna and her cousin Sophie find themselves facing trouble of a different kind.  One of Sophie’s patients, desperate to prevent another pregnancy, asks her for information on contraception, which Sophie is legally forbidden from providing her.  The patient later dies after an abortion gone terribly wrong, and Anna and Sophie find themselves under the scrutiny of Anthony Comstock (a real-life figure who was obsessed with censoring ‘obscene’ materials such as information about birth control).

Why I Love It

It took me a few chapters to really get into this book, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down.  The Gilded Hour begins a new series, but the characters are the descendants of people whose tale was told in a previous six-book series.  I feel like some of my initial confusion about how all the different family members fit together may have been lessened if I had read that other series first.  However, I can assure you that it is indeed possible to get on top of things, and The Gilded Hour is well worth it.

Once I had the characters sorted out in my mind, I fell in love with the depth and richness of this novel.  I had no previous familiarity with 1880s New York City, but after reading this book, I feel like I know considerably more.  The Gilded Hour is clearly thoroughly researched, but what I think is particularly impressive is that Donati avoids ‘information dumps’ and never lectures the reader with historical fact. Rather, she uses her historical knowledge to make her setting and characters come alive.  There were times during this book when I wanted to shout with frustration at some of the things Anna and Sophie were forced to deal with because of the laws and beliefs of the time, and at least one moral dilemma comes up in the course of the book that – days later – I still haven’t come to a firm opinion on.

As well as the setting, I liked the characters in this book.  Anna and Sophie are wonderful, and I wish it was possible to meet their Aunt Quinlan in real life.  Jack Mezzanotte and his fellow cop, Oscar Maroney, are good men trying to do their best in a corrupt force, and it’s particularly interesting to watch how the police respond to the demands of Anthony Comstock.  In addition, there’s a huge cast of supporting characters of varying levels of importance; this isn’t one of those books where the main characters float around in isolation.  There are plenty of shades of grey to be found here; Jack’s family, for example, is gregarious and kind, but one of his sisters is rather unpleasant to Sophie based on the colour of her skin.

One thing to be aware of with The Gilded Hour: This is not the end of the story, and there are a lot of questions left unanswered.  The next book in the series (Where the Light Enters) is not due out until next year, though there are a couple of short excerpts posted on the author’s website.  I’m going to spend that time digging up the six books in the previous series, but I will still be waiting with bated breath to see what happens next for Anna.

Where To Get It

My local library didn’t have The Gilded Hour when I went looking for it, but I was able to order it in from a library elsewhere in my state.  It’s also available on Book Depository.

Book Recommendation: The Search, by Nora Roberts

The Author

Nora Roberts is one of my favourite authors.  I don’t love everything she writes (Year One, I’m looking at you), and I find her earliest works to be fairly bland, generic romances – but in the last 15-20 years, she has produced an incredible number of novels, many of which have found a permanent place on my shelves.  She is an author I turn to when I feel like something light and easy to read, with enough of a plot to hold my attention, and a guaranteed happy ending.  Most of Roberts’ books have some sort of mystery intertwined with the romance, some have supernatural elements, and almost all of them have characters with interesting professions which are well-researched and integrated into the plot in realistic ways.

The Book

The Search, published in 2010, tells the story of dog-trainer Fiona Bristow and artisan furniture maker Simon Doyle.  Both live in a small island community, and meet when Simon brings his new puppy, Jaws, to Fiona for training.  Though close to others in the community, Fiona is a very private person who lives alone with her three Labradors (Newman, Peck, and Bogart), and chooses not to discuss the fact that several years ago she was the survivor of a terrible crime.

Of course, being a romance, Simon and Fiona begin spending more time together, and Fiona soon talks him into considering Jaws as a candidate for the canine search and rescue squad she coordinates on a volunteer basis.  Being a Nora Roberts book, with a side-helping of mystery and suspense, it’s not long before Fiona’s past rears its head as well, with new victims beginning to appear despite the perpetrator who attacked her eight years ago being securely imprisoned.  It seems that there’s a copycat on the loose, and there’s every reason to believe that eventually he will head for Fiona, to finish what his idol started.

Why I Love It

The Search is one of my all-time favourite Nora Roberts books, for a number of reasons.  As a dog lover, I really enjoy the way the canine characters in this book are written, and the way the human characters live with and love their pets rings very true to life.  For example, right at the start of the book, there’s a scene where Fiona goes out with one of her dogs to help find a missing toddler.  She’s successful, and brings the little guy out of the woods to his terrified parents.  The father desperately tries to hold it together, but when he’s invited to meet the dog who led Fiona to his son, he breaks down and weeps on the dog’s neck.  The dogs aren’t part of this book as window dressing; they’re integral to the plot, and they’re written very well.  As a bonus, for anyone who is wary of stories where an heroic dog sacrifices him-or-herself to save their beloved human, all of the canine characters in this one make it safely to the end!

Another thing I love about The Search is the level of detail it includes on Fiona’s work as a dog trainer, and her volunteer work in canine search and rescue.  This is a feature of many of Nora Roberts’ books: many of her characters have interesting professions, and she clearly puts considerable time into getting the details of those professions right.  There are no information dumps for the sake of showing off research, but I came away from this book with a new-found interest in canine search and rescue.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I really liked the human protagonists in this book.  Fiona is a tough woman who has fought hard to make a life for herself after a traumatic past.  She has friends and family who are a close and active part of her life (something that can often be missing in romance novels), and a career she loves.  Simon isn’t quite as thoroughly fleshed out as Fiona, but he is a charming combination of no-nonsense gruff on the outside, and considerate and sweet on the inside.  There aren’t a lot of sweet words from Simon, but when someone needs him, he’s always there.

Where To Get It

Nora Roberts is a big name, so it should be fairly simple to access a copy of The Search through your local library system.  This is a repeat read for me, so I purchased my own copy from Book Depository, and pull it off my shelf when I’m in need of an easy, uncomplicated read.