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Saturday, January 15, 2011

It's a Twofer!

Bonus Day!
We have a double review today. I recently read two historical fiction/adventure novels for our genre book group, so I’m reviewing them as a pair.

So Wild a Dream
Win Blevins
Forge, 2004

An ambitious and daring young man, Sam Morgan leaves his home in 1820s Pennsylvania to seek adventure and a fortune in the frontier west, accompanied by a colorful assortment of companions he meets along the way.

This is the first in the Rendezvous Novels series. If I didn’t have a pile of books to read (yes, I always seem to have a pile of books to read), I would pick up the next one in the series because this was pretty good. It starts a little slow as the author builds the saga. Will is a likeable young man searching for his own way in the world after his father died. He wants adventure, and true to form, he finds it when he hires on as a riverboat crewman. His job is to hunt for food along the route in order to feed the men aboard the boat. When the trip is over, he latches onto an expedition of explorers and mountain men going west to trap beaver pelts, but he becomes separated from the group and must survive on his own. This is where the story gets really good, but then, I’m a sucker for a good survivor story. It’s no secret that Will somehow survives on his own, since he is featured in the next book in the series, but he learns a great deal about himself and the characters of others along the way. Once the plot builds tension, the story becomes faster paced and more compelling than the beginning half was. Will is young and impressionable, but not very interesting as a person. It’s not until he’s on his own that his true character starts to be revealed, which makes him more developed as a man AND as a character.



Richard S. Wheeler
Forge, 2010

John Charles Fremont was many things: an explorer, a territorial governor, a husband and father, and a major-general in the U.S. Army. He was gifted in leading men, whether it was into battle against the Indians or into the snow-covered mountains of Colorado. Somehow, his quiet strength and self-confidence was enough to persuade even the most doubtful man that an expedition along the 38th Parallel from St. Louis to San Francisco,in the middle of winter was a logical and reasonable thing to do.

Based on a true story, this biographical novel is fascinating. As I wrote above, I love survival stories, especially those involving people being stranded in snow or ice. Maybe it’s because I live in Arizona (which has plenty of snow and ice, by the way), but I really enjoy reading about groups of desperate people faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, like being stuck in many feet of snow with no food or shelter or even a sunny day to keep themselves warm and dry. I think I am curious about how people respond in difficult circumstances. Do they turn on each other or work together? Do they figure out ingenious ways to survive or are they just plain lucky? Or perhaps they must do the unthinkable and draw straws for the ultimate horror? (I also like shipwreck stories. Yes, maybe I’m a little weird.)

This book did not disappoint me, and in many ways, I enjoyed it far more than the first one. Told in alternating chapters by different characters, Snowbound relates the story of a slightly deranged man who planned a doomed excursion in which men and animals would needlessly die. Each character attempts to explain why they joined this crazy man and why they continued to stick with him even though every day got worse and worse as they crossed the mountains. Yet John Fremont, who also narrates several chapters, is convinced that he knows what he is doing. He explains his philosophy of leadership and character, sure than anyone who doesn’t survive this trip will die because of his own failings and not because John Fremont has led then astray. I had a hard time putting this book down; even though history tells us how the story ends, I needed to know how Fremont would (fictionally) justify his actions and the expedition’s outcome.


Other novels you may enjoy:
The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe (2002)
Ordered by their father to find their missing brother, Englishmen Charles and Addington Gaunt set off to America, where guide Jerry Potts and a growing number of companions journey by wagon train and confront a number of personal demons.

Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati (1998)
Weaving a vibrant tapestry of fact and fiction, Into the Wilderness sweeps us into another time and place ... and into the heart of a forbidden, incandescent affair between a spinster Englishwoman and an American frontiersman. Here is an epic of romance and history that will captivate readers from the very first page. First in the series.

Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (1998)
Part adventure, part love story, this unforgettable novel captures a crucial moment in the history of exploration. Combining fact and fiction, the story focuses on Erasmus Darwin Wells, a 19th-century scholar/naturalist and his expedition to search for an open polar sea.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Fun + Undemanding = Fundemanding

The holidays are finally over, and I expect to have time to catch up on my reading. You would think that some time off would have helped, but then I ambitiously decided to make little ornaments to give away. Then I ambitiously decided to make dozens of holiday cookies. And, in the middle of piles of fabric and chocolate chips and tiny snowman noses, my son brought over Super Mario Bros to play on the Wii, which was so much fun that the books kept piling up. I finally picked out one that looked light and fun, and it was.

I Still Dream About You
Fannie Flagg
Random House, 2010

Hiding her unhappiness from those who believe she has a perfect life, former beauty queen Maggie has decided to end it all. Literally. She carefully plans everything to be perfect so no loose ends remain – even to the extent of planning who will find her body. She has decided life just isn’t worth living anymore, so she closes her checking account and cancels her credit cards and picks a day to end it all. Only something happens to make her postpone her decision: a big beautiful old house that she has always loved is going on the real estate market and Maggie just has to stick around to make sure she sells it to a good owner, who will love and cherish it the way it deserves to be cared for. So she reinstates her financial accounts and gets the utilities turned back on until she can take care of business a little while longer, until – you guessed it – something else comes along to make her change her plans.

This charming undemanding book is just the thing for reading over the holidays or on the beach during spring break. The characters are likeable, except for the nasty realtor trying to take over Maggie’s business, but then, she’s supposed to be. The plot is predictable but pleasant and who really wants to read heavy depressing stuff all the time? I enjoyed it, but not as much as some of Flagg’s other books.

PS: I can’t figure out the meaning of the title at all.


Other books by this author:
Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven (2006)
A Redbird Christmas (2004)
Standing in the Rainbow (2002)
Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! (1998)
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1987)
Coming Attractions: a wonderful novel (1981)
Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man (1981)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Best of Friends by Cathy Kelly (2005)
Four very different women: a television actress, her painfully shy teenage daughter, a woman reeling from her ex-husband's new romance and a wife returning to Ireland to help her husband's career are brought together in Ireland as they get the chance to transform their lives for the better.

The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas (1995)
In 1930s Harveyville, Kansas, Rita Ritter, a recent arrival, is invited to join the Persian Pickle Club, but her interest in journalism brings her dangerously close to a secret the club has sworn to keep.

Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani (2000)
The 35-year-old self-proclaimed spinster of a small Virginia village discovers a skeleton in her family's formerly tidy closet that completely unravels her quiet, conventional life.