Waterfall by Lisa T Bergen

Genre: YA historical
Secondary genre: romance/adventure
Format read: audiobook
Series: River of Time vol. 1
CW: violence
Rating: planchet-3

My mom and I do not have similar taste in books. Her favorite author is Nora Roberts. I would gleefully fire all of her books into space. I like reading creepy books with fierce women. My mom “doesn’t get it.” If it isn’t in the mass market romance section at Half Price books, she basically doesn’t read it.

So I was shocked when she recommended a book to me that was not only young adult, but not horrible.

I used to live in Italy (Florence) so I tend to be drawn toward books set in the country, especially in the 1500-1600s (Renaissance art was my area of study).

Gabie and her younger sister, Lia, get dragged after their mother, an archaeologist, to the hills outside of Sienna to study an Etruscan burial site. While hiding from Italian authorities bent on taking over the dig, Gabie is somehow sucked back in time to the 1300s, where she’s nearly murdered, then is rescued, kidnapped and mistaken for a spy all in one go. Meanwhile, she has no idea where Lia has disappeared to. Is she sill in present day? Has she also been pulled back in time and caught in the heat of battle? Or worse?

Determined to find her sister and get home, Gabie weaves lie after lie to avoid telling her captors-turned-hosts the truth, afraid of what the consequences might be, even if someone believes her. Though these lies, she becomes swept up in the messy politics of the time and era, disrupting treaties and arranged marriages in the process.

I thought this book was great fun from a history perspective, however I did find the romance predictable and I did not like Gabie’s love interest. In my notes, I nicknamed him “Gladiator Ken,” because through about half the book that’s how much personality he had. There were actually two other people I would have preferred to see her with that were not only more dimensional as characters but less…Controlling? Bossy? Misogynistic? Annoying? Take your pick.

I’m still on the fence on whether or not I want to read the next two books. I have them saved in my Overdrive wishlist, but haven’t checked them out yet. What do you think? Have you read them?

No Idle Hands by Anne L MacDonald

Genre: nonfiction
Secondary genre: social history
Format: ebook
Rating: planchet-5

This is easily one of my favorite books I’ve read this year (Yeah, I know, it’s a short list. Don’t judge).

MacDonald looks at the history of knitting in America, starting with the colonial period. It was educational and entertaining, and while ebooks are my least favorite format, I devoured this book, highlighted all over it, and then ordered a physical copy so I could transfer my notes to post-its and add them in.

There were so many interesting stories, from women knitting for soldiers during the American Revolution, to WWI prison inmates who were supposed to be knitting for soldiers making themselves a rope out of Red Cross yarn and escaping.

I’m half tempted to re-read it already.

Strange and Ever After by Susan Denard

Genre: YA fantasy/sci-fi
Secondary genre: historical romance
Format: audio
Series: Something Strange and Deadly vol. 3
CW: violence
Rep: Chinese, mixed race/Creole
Rating: planchet-3

As much as I loved the first book, I found that the sequels were a little disappointing on several fronts, no only in some of the attempts at representation, but just in general terms of enjoying the story. I disliked the way the characters behaved in some aspects, and how they were unwilling to bend or show understanding for each other. I was angry at a specific character died, even though I saw it coming, and the end of the book felt…off. In a way it was too tidy, but in another way it just didn’t fit and almost seemed to leave lose ends.

The greatest problem I had, however, was the pacing. The book begins with a fair amount of action, to the point that I was shocked to look at my phone and see I was only a third of the way through the book, as the sequence felt more like a climax than part of the rising action.

It’s a shame, because I was completely obsessed with the first book, and series finale just kind of let me down. I don’t want to call it a bad book, because it isn’t. It just left me feeling a bit…unmoved, through most of it. The last quarter of the book was, by far, the best part of it, but it still didn’t match the emotional impact of Something Strange and Deadly.

A Backpack, A Bear, and 8 Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Genre: Memoir
Secondary genre: Modern history
Format read: Audio
Content warnings: bullying, racist slurs
Rep: Ukranian/Russian, Jewish (racial), refugee, immigrant/1st gen American
Rating: planchet-4

In the 80s, the Russian government was in flux. After a period of anti-Jewish legislation, Mikhail Gorbachev open the borders briefly, allowing Jews and other “undesirable” people to flee. Among them was Lev Golinkin and his family: his parents, older sister, and grandmother.

Tracing his time growing up in what is now Ukraine, through their flight to Vienna and eventual immigration to the US, this book tells a heartbreaking story of the world as it existed around the time when I was born. Littered with humor, it’s an ultimately hopeful tale, but still makes us look at the world we live in today through a different lens. How much has changed since then? How have we really progressed? Are things better? These are questions Lev asks himself as an adult, returning to Vienna to interview the people who made his immigration possible.

As with most of the nonfiction I’ve read, it’s hard to summarize the story into something as short as a blog post without giving away the details. But it’s a wonderful book and one that I highly enjoyed listening to on my commute. If you are curious about the 1980s, international politics, immigration, or Eastern Europe, then this is a definite pick.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

Genre: memoir
Secondary genre: medical, modern history
Rep: poverty
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet-4

We all know the show. But does the book match the drama and intensity of television?

Hell yes.

Following WWII, the UK made an effort to equalize things between the classes, instituting a large network of social services and welfare oportunities to increase health, sanitation, and access to services throughout the country.

Eastern London was poverty stricken, reeling from bombings during the war. The slums that had housed so many for centuries were in the process of being shut down, but with a housing shortage across the country and in London in particular, there were few other places for people to go. Residents of the now-famous Poplar neighborhood found themselves crammed 10-20 deep in 1-3 rooms, with no running water, except maybe a tap in the hall. Toilets were shared and located outdoors. Families scraped by on minimal food and income, wearing clothes until they became little more than rags.

The midwives of St. Nautilus house were a major part of the welfare initiative, proving free pre-natal screenings, delivery, post-natal care, and in home health services. At a time when one couldn’t simply go to the pharmacy to pick up a month’s supply of insulin–for starters most of their patients didn’t even have refrigerators–they administered medication, tended wounds, and checked in on the elderly or injured.

Jenny Worth was one such midwife and district nurse, working in the early 1950s. By bicycle she traveled all over London, mixing with the lowest members of society. Even on streets where policemen feared to walk, a midwife could go alone and be unmolested because of her uniform.

This book looks at several specific cases, some of which are interwoven as patients come back again and again. The last story in particular–which I won’t spoil here–was absolutely amazing to hear, and I have a hard time believing it’s even true.

Is it identical to the television show? Or rather, is the show identical to the book? Absolutely not. But I do think the show has done a great job of maintaining the heart of Mrs. Worth’s memoir, so if you enjoyed that, you should certainly pick up the book.

Code Talker by Chester Nez & Judith Schiess Avila

Genre: modern history
Secondary genre: war
Format read: audiobook
Content warnings: violence, racism, cruelty to animals
Rep: Native American (Navajo)
Rating: planchet-4

Navajo is a very tricky language. It’s said that one has to be born into it to speak it fluently because there are so many subtleties in pronunciation and meaning that an outsider just can’t pick them all up.

This is why the US government selected Navajo as the basis for it’s code during WWII.

Code Talkers is the story of Chester Nez, one of the original Code Talkers, from his upbringing just outside the Navajo reservation in New Mexico through his service in the Pacific theater, to his life after the war. It covers the many hardships and abuses visited on his family and his people by the government, and the fierce sense of patriotism that still lived in him. It is told in his own words, recorded by journalist Judith Schiess Avila.

It’s only been in recent years that I’ve learned how bad things are for Native peoples in the US and Canada, even today. I was unprepared for the events at the beginning of this book, and that fact that Chester and his compatriots remained fiercely loyal to the US, despite everything, I think shows a strength that I would not have.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about life for Native Americans or the hidden history of WWII.

For more information on conditions in American reservations, I highly encourage you to look at the Navajo Water Project, which the readers of my main blog voted to sponsor as our 2019 charity.

We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow we will be Killed with Our Families by Paul Gourevitch

Genre: modern history
Secondary genre: politics
Format read: audiobook
Content warnings: violence, racism, genocide
Rep: African (various, but mostly Rowandan)
Rating: planchet-4

I had a very conservative upbringing that neglected or skewed a lot of world events. Since starting college, I’ve tried to educate myself about world events, but it’s a slow process.

This book covers events in Rowanda from 1993-1997 (the book was published in 1998) surrounding the government sanctioned genocide of civilians and how the US exacerbated the problem through ignoring it, refusing to act, and then finally helping–the perpetrators.

It’s a difficult book for me to summarize without giving everything away. But the short version is that when Belgium colonized Rowanda at the end of the 19th century, they created a division between the Tootsie and Hutu people. For centuries, they had been getting along. But then the white Victorians, with their twisted ideas of racial superiority, stepped in. They decided that the Tootsie, who generally had lighter skin and looked “more European” were superior, genetically, intellectually, and physically, and began taking rights away from the “more African” Hutu peoples. For their own protection, obviously.

Flash forward a hundred years, through oppression and political turmoil, and the new Hutu leader of Rowanda called on all Hutu citizens to murder their Tootsie neighbors.

This book made me absolutely sick to read. Following WWII, we vowed that we would never allow this sort of thing from happening again, but we did. It was barely a blip in the American News Media. While I was very young when this happened, it was not something I recall being spoken of at all. And now, in the Middle East and even our own country, we have allowed this kind of behavior to continue–in the name of money, power, and “freedom.”

This is a powerful book, but one that I know will be hard for many people to read. But if you want to know more about world politics, and to find out more about the darker side of America  when it comes to international relations, then this is a very important book.

The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

Genre: nonfiction biography
Secondary genre: history, spiritualism
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet-3

In the wake of WWI, The Scientific American magazine announces a contest: $5000 to any medium who can prove before a panel of investigators that their powers were real.

And among those investigating was the master of sleight-of-hand himself, Harry Houdini.

After years of failure, one promising medium finally piqued the panel’s interest: Mina Crandon. Unlike most of the other psychics the SA had tried, Mina was not some stage performer hard up for cash. She was a society wife who performed seances for her friends. In fact, for the purposes of the investigation, Mina went by her middle name, Marjory, to protect herself in the articles the Scientific American published after her seances. Her “spirit guide” was her deceased brother, a sarcastic and ribald man who had died some years before. In her private seances, Walter told his friends secrets, made off-color jokes, whistled, played with a photograph and a selection of musical instruments, and played practical jokes on the sitters.

From the first, Houdini declared Mina was a fraud. While he repeatedly mimicked her act, he never made the attempt to catch her red-handed, as he did with all the other so-called mediums he examined.

The book chronicles roughly a decade of investigation into the phenomenon surrounding Mina. Though Houdini continued to declare her a fraud and mock her outright on stage, she only ever voiced the utmost respect for him.

I think Mina was a classy lady who pissed off a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. Some of it was straight up sexism. Some of it was prejudice against her vocation. But whether you think she’s an actress or really had conversations with the dead, there’s no denying she drew the short end of the stick after the investigation.

I do think the book was misleading, however. From the title, one would think it was about Mina, but about 2/3 of the book is dedicated to Harry Houdini, from his upbringing to his death, while Mina seems to arrive fully formed on the scene around the time the Scientific American prize is announced. Whether this is due to a lack of sources regarding Mina’s earlier life (it’s implied that she had a shady past) or the author’s choice is unclear, but the sexism that ultimately spelled her downfall in society can be felt in the author’s recounting of her story. It’s not overt, and in fact many will probably disagree with me on this point, but it was in the way the author spoke about her, and the quotes form those nearest to her. She was improper for a woman, and therefore could not be trusted or respected.

Have you read this one? Do you disagree?

Master Thieves by Stephen Kurkjian

Genre: history
Secondary genre: heist
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet-3

If you read yesterday’s review of The Map Thief, then this book ties in very nicely with it, but is much more enjoyable.

Art enthusiasts and fans of heist fiction might be familiar with the story of the Gardner Museum theft in 1990 when 2 security guards were tied up and locked in a room, 13 works of art were stolen, and other were damaged in what appeared to be a random act of vandalism.

This book follows a slightly different investigative route than the police, arguing that the plan to rob the Gardner and the plan the thieves followed was thought up by another man–a may who was serving a prison sentence at the time of the robbery and had no connection to the crime. Which begs the question: Who were the thieves? How did they find out about the plan? And above all, where are the missing artifacts?

A real life mystery, Master Thieves reveals how what at first appears to be a hap-hazard robbery leaves many questions and no clues.

I really really enjoyed the story, though on audio it was a little hard to follow, frequently jumping between different criminal elements and naming many people in quick succession. I think it would have been a bit easier for me to read if I’d had a hard copy or ebook, but it was still quick to get through and I wasn’t bothered by my few moments of confusion.

Aside from the obvious link of being about theft of cultural objects, there is one other link between Master Thieves and The Map Thief: The changes in how crimes involving museum objects and cultural items had a direct impact in how the crime at the Garden was investigated, and how it would have been prosecuted, had there been any leads on who committed it.

If you enjoy art history, mob stories, or books like Catch Me If You Can, then this is worth giving a try.

The Map Thief by Michael Blanding

Genre: biography
Secondary genre: history, heist
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet

Fans of Catch Me If You Can and White Collar might fight my next selection interesting.

The Map Thief is a biography of a dealer in antique maps turned con man. E. Forbes Smiley didn’t start out dealing maps, but rather fell into it through his interest in history.

For about twenty years he was above board and well respected, but then his high living finally caught up to his checkbook, and he started stealing from the libraries and museums he’d helped establish.

The case was huge, impacting American laws regarding cultural patrimony (that is, things of historical and cultural value that may or may not have a high monetary value). As someone trained in art history, restoration, and conservation, it was a fascinating read from that perspective.

Sadly, if this were a fictional account I’d say it was poorly written with flat, unappealing characters. Smiley is just another mediocre, middle aged man who can’t handle his money or manage to show respect for others, thinking the world owes him something. Through the book he takes criticism poorly, lashes out at those who challenge him, and justifies the thefts through the fact that he helped establish most of the collections his maps came from. From a cultural preservation standpoint, I have a hard time imagining he was even a very good thief, cutting and tearing pages, folding them, and retouching with materials that weren’t historically accurate.

I won’t deny he was treated unfairly by the justice system after his arrest (though nonviolent, he was put in solitary for months at a time and denied basic hygiene), but all in all I thought the book was dull and it’s subject unsympathetic. The author’s last name says it all, really.