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The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson

The Tell-Tale Heart

Taking place in Britain, the novel opens when a 50 year-old college professor receives a heart-transplant.  His donor is a teenaged boy involved in a motorcycle accident.   Author Jill Dawson sets the stage for a beautiful telling of the lives involved, which due to the transplant, are forever connected.

I so enjoyed this novel!  I was pleasantly surprised when author Dawson incorporated some amazing true history of Willie Beamish, and connected this family history to Drew Beamish, the donor, and then to Patrick.  It’s obvious that Dawson takes the time to carefully research her subjects, and then is able to incorporate all those important points and subtleties alike, into a well-crafted novel.  Throughout the book, questions are raised about what makes us who we are – is our soul, our heart, more than science and genetics?  And finally, what are the things that truly connect us?  Wonderful book!  Thanks to Harper/Perennial for providing me with a review copy of this novel.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2015
245 pages

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A Separate Country by Robert Hicks

A Separate Country

Robert Hicks is known for his vast knowledge of the American Civil War and also for his excellent writing ability.  His novel, The Widow of the South, is a wonderful example of the aforementioned.  A Separate Country, however, falls short of the mark.

In this novel, Hicks tells the story of Confederate General John Bell Hood, not during the war, but after it.  The narration is primarily through journals and letters of three characters: John Bell Hood, his wife Anna Marie, and Eli Griffin – a man who attempted to Kill Hood, but later becomes his accomplice.

Most civil war historians are fascinated with the Civil War story of Hood – how he lost major battles, including Peachtree Creek and the Battle of Franklin.  He let down his men and himself.  Another reviewer writes “in the end, all southern generals were losers.”  True enough.  So what happens to a defeated leader of men?

Hood’s story is of remorse and redemption.  Much of this tale is a head game of Hood trying to make sense of his life in the midst of so much disappointment.  While I don’t usually lean towards books that are so internal, I might have appreciated A Separate Country more had Hicks left it that way.  Unfortunately, as it dragged on into a sea of melancholia, Hicks interjected a bizarre mystery involving a dwarf, a mulatto, and a decidedly unholy priest.  It was confusing and made for a strange game.  I joked to my friend (who read the book with me) “I’ll take the dwarf, the mulatto and the rope in the conservatory.”  Not my cup of tea.

2 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2009
419 pages

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The Downing Street Years by Margaret Thatcher

Downing Street Years

All I can say is “I can’t believe I took so long to read this!”  I have owned this book for 20 years, and for 20 years it has sat on my shelf collecting dust.  I have always been a fan of Margaret Thatcher, but somehow felt I was not well versed enough in British politics to appreciate Lady Thatcher’s memoirs of her time as Prime Minister.

In some ways, it is very interesting to read this book now.  From the outset, the Britain she faced when taking office was very much like America today:

“…the British Government soon jammed a finger in every pie.  It levied high rates of tax on work, enterprise, consumption and wealth transfer.  it planned development at every level – urban, rural, industrial and scientific.  It managed the economy, macro-economically by Keynesian methods of fiscal manipulation, micro-economically by granting regional and industrial subsidies on a variety of criteria.”

“It made available various forms of welfare for a wide range of contingencies – poverty, unemployment, large families, old age, misfortune, ill-health, family quarrels – generally on a universal basis.”

“Labour moved Britain towards statism; the Tories stood pat; and the next Labour Government moved the country a little further left.  The Tories were the corset of socialism; they never removed it.”

Mrs. Thatcher described the economic problems Britain faced as having evolved from the ideal of a “democratic socialist society” that Labour espoused.

“No theory of government was ever given a fairer test or a more prolonged experiment in a democratic society than democratic socialism received in Britain. Yet it was a miserable failure in every respect.”

Fortunately for Prime Minister Thatcher, Britain’s system of government meant that as long as she convinced her Tory party members to back her, she had a free hand reversing the course set by Labour.  She understood that her primary goals were to set the British economy on a better footing through deregulation, privatization, debt reduction, income tax reduction, and sound fiscal policy.  Another large component of her administration was to raise Britain up to, once again, a high ranking power in the world.  When she left office she had accomplished these goals.

I was fascinated with her chapters on improving Britain’s economy, dealings with the European Council and the way she took on the trade unions.  The Falkland War chapters were also enlightening.  I have studied much about the collapse of the Soviet Union and it’s relations with the United States, so Thatcher’s discussion of these events and the repercussions to Europe were particularly interesting.

One the things that kept me from reading this book for so long, was my fear that I was not familiar enough with British politics or government to fully appreciate this memoir.  In some instances that was true.  Lady Thatcher used so many acronyms that were lost on me.  I had to look up many, and oftentimes, even when I understood what they now meant,  the people and departments were still too foreign for me to fully comprehend.  That said, those times were the minority.

Margaret Thatcher had a keen insight about the way the world works.  Her writing is powerful – her speechwriters always claimed that they never wrote her speeches, but that she wrote them and they “helped.”  There were many times I wanted to yell “Yes!” to an eloquent comment she made, or picked up the phone to call someone to further discuss something she had said in the book.   There’s an old game people play where you are asked if you could choose one person, living or dead, to sit down to dinner with, who would it be?  I can most definitely say it would be Margaret Thatcher.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1993
914 pages

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On Agate Hill by Lee Smith

On Agate Hill

The premise to On Agate Hill is a good one.  A box of mementos from a once stately southern plantation house is found, offering a glimpse into the past and an introduction to a young girl who lived in the house during the years following the Civil War.  The author, Lee Smith, uses a variety of narrative tools to acquaint the reader with young Molly Petree, but I found these to create a disjointedness about the novel.  For starters, we have young Molly’s diary – a laundry list of people that left me more confused than anything about who these people were.  Next came letters from two women who ran the school Molly later attended.  This tool was better, but the author created whole scenes and dialogues from the letters that seemed very unlikely to have appeared in a letter.  Lastly, Smith incorporates newspaper clippings, which in and of itself were alright, but when you place all these different types of narratives together, it greatly affects the fluidity of the book.

I enjoyed the story of Molly Petree, but was not appreciative of the means Lee Smith used to tell it.

3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2006
367 pages

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The Map Thief by Michael Blanding

The Map Thief

The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps

A somewhat disappointing book. The age-old-story of a man, E. Forbes Smiley III, living beyond his means who makes a bad decision to steal rare maps from various libraries. This snowballs until he’s caught. Contrite, Smiley tries to make good on the thefts but there are too many. The justice system isn’t prepare to deal with these kind of thefts and gives Smiley a light sentence. The libraries don’t learn their lesson. The libraries come across as weird institutions who probably shouldn’t be holding rare maps in the first place. The best part of Blanding’s book is the history of the maps themselves. Unfortunately, I read this on a Kindle so the map illustration were small and b&w- not conducive to map reading.

275 pages

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Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's Crossing

On the island of Nantucket in the 1660’s, a young girl named Bethia grows up in a Puritan household.  The daughter of a minister, Bethia has the opportunity to meet members of the Wampanoag tribe, and she develops a particular (and secret) friendship with Caleb, the son of a chieftain.  Author Geraldine Brooks discovered the history of a Wampanoag youth who became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard.  This is the foundation for her character Caleb.  Through the eyes of Bethia, the reader becomes acquainted with this young man, and the conflicts and rewards that arise when he crosses over from his native world into the white colonial culture.

There is something about reading a Geraldine Brooks novel that makes you want to sit back, smile, and say “Ahhhh.”  Brooks is clearly a master of the art of historical fiction.  I’m sure, like me, you have picked up book after book and while somewhat enjoying it, you feel that somehow the research could have been better, certain questions answered or the prose taken to a more eloquent level.  This is the book you’ve been waiting for.  The one that compiles all those elements of a truly remarkable work of historical fiction!

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2011
318 pages

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