Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar – Book Review

I found this book both enjoyable, for it was well written and researched, and at the same time annoying because of the actions and attitudes of Vanessa’s sister, Virginia. Of course, the Vanessa and Virginia that are portrayed here are none other than the Stephen sisters who later become Vanessa Bell, the painter and Virginia Woolf, the writer.  This book is extremely well-written and I enjoyed it immensely.

While the book itself is not objectionable, I had a really hard time with the absolute narcissistic, needy Virginia. This is not a book to read if you have put Virginia Woolf on any kind of pedestal, as the Virginia that we are shown through this book is a woman who has been coddled and treated with kid gloves all her life. There is one passage where Vanessa writes that her parents told her when she and Virginia were young, that because Virginia was so special, she did not need to follow the prescripts of “normal” behavior. You are left wondering if Virginia would have fared better if she had been held to “normal” behavior from a young age.

Vanessa & Virginia

Vanessa & Virginia

The book has as its focus the story of Vanessa, and I found this story to be riveting. At the risk of revealing too much, Virginia basically does her level best to ruin Vanessa’s life. That Vanessa doesn’t let her life be ruined by her own sister’s betrayal of trust is a testament to the strength of will that Vanessa possessed. Vanessa comes across as the “best” of the two sisters, and a hero in her own right. As the Author’s Notes state, Vanessa Bell went on to become a well-respected artist whose paintings now hang in Museums around the world. A very good book and one that I highly recommend!

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Incantation by Alice Hoffman – Book Review

I love love love Alice Hoffman. Her adult books are really good, so when I realized that she wrote for young adults also, I just had to read Incantation. I actually listened to it on CD and the reader did an absolutely wonderful job. It was a joy to listen to, and of course the story was just what I expect from Hoffman.

The story involves a love triangle, the Inquisition, and the plight of Spanish Jews during the 1500’s. Estrella has been raised to believe that she is a Christian, but discovers that she is really a Jew whose family practices Kabbalah, the mystical branch of Judaism. When she finds out that she is indeed Jewish, the world becomes a frightening place. The Inquisition has arrived in her little town, and has begun its reign of terror by burning books. Shortly after that the family living next door to Estrella is arrested, the parents burned and the children given away to “good” Christian families to be raised appropriately.

 

It the same time that all this is happening, Estrella realizes that she is in love with her best friends’ cousin Andres. This presents a problem since her friend Catalina has been promised to be his wife as a condition when her family allowed him to come and live with the family when he was orphaned at a young age. This creates the love triangle; but also the impetus which causes Catalina to betray Estrella and her entire family.

I found this novel’s storyline to be both consuming and also touching on historical events that have been whitewashed by much of history (and certainly the Catholic Church). It points to the fact that we cannot just push historical fact, especially one that lasted roughly from the years 1213 to the late 18th century under the carpet. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/Inquisition.html

Hoffman deals with the historical facts while presenting them with a compelling storyline that has you hoping that Estrella and her family will win out in the end. While not everyone is saved, the survivors make you hope that all will end well. I highly recommend this book, regardless of your age.

Before I Go by Colleen Oakley – Book Review

I  wasn’t sure at first, if I really wanted to read this book. It seemed like it could be rather depressing, since it’s about a 27 year-old woman who is given between four and six months to live because of her returning cancer.  However, once I began reading the book and was introduced to the main character, Daisy, I was extremely glad that I decided to read it. What I found noteworthy about this book was the way that Daisy was portrayed. She was a likeable character who was dealing in her own way with one of the worst situations someone can face. The way that she decided to deal with her cancer and prognosis was at various times both humorous and heart wrenching.

In a fashion that would conceivably be true for an overly neat and organized wife, Daisy decides that she needs to find her husband a new wife. This is one way that she feels she can help him cope with her death. So, this is what she sets out to do. Only, once she finds the “perfect” next wife, she begins to have second thoughts. I won’t reveal what happens. Just read the book, it’s definitely worth the time. So, once again I highly recommend this book. Before I Go has everything, including both laughter and tears.

The Lightkeeper’s Wife by Sarah Anne Johnson

I have to start by saying that I loved this book. It’s set in 19th century Cape Cod, and follows both the story of Hannah Snow who is married to the Light keeper, John Snow; and Annie, married to ship captain, Daniel. Both women rebel against their “place” in society: Annie in an extremely violent way, eventually transforming first into the pirate “Blue”, and then the sailor William “Billy” Pike; while Hannah who grew up helping her fisherman father while young, and then once too “old” for such work, forced by the conventions of the day (and her mother) to work in the shop owned by her mother in an effort to marry her off.

 

By defying her absent husband, who in the past hasn’t rescued drowning sailors, Hannah goes out into a storm and rescues the drowning Billy. She then lets him stay with her while her husband is first presumed missing, and then dead; Hannah refuses to act within the confines of societal norms. Over the course of the book, Hannah finds herself attracted to Billy, even after learning the truth of “his” sexuality.

 

I really liked that this book took the time to explain through both these women’s lives how conscripted women’s lives actually were. At a time when so many young women post how they are not feminists, it’s important to remember exactly what life was like before Emmeline Pankhurst, Marie Stopes, Mary Wollstonecraft, Susan B. Anthony, Simone de Beauvoir, among many others, began the hard work of changing our lives.  It’s much too easy for modern woman to forget where women were and how far they’ve come.  I seriously doubt that those girls and woman who like to say that they’re not feminists would enjoy not being allowed schooling, and really having only the jobs of whore or cleaner available to them.  This book would be an enjoyable way of helping them understand what it truly means to be a feminist.  For this reason, and others, I recommend this book, as it’s one of those rare books that you will be thinking about long after you finished reading the last page.

My Favorite Books I Read in 2014

I thought I would do an overview of the books that I liked the most in 2014, even though it’s almost impossible to decide which books to talk about.  I reviewed some of them, and others I simply read and enjoyed. My favorite series would have to be The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. My second favorite series would be Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiant by Veronica Roth.

Another book that I enjoyed was Chestnut Street by Maeve Binchy, although this was her last book, and it was particularly sad reading it. I recommend anything that she wrote. It was devastating when she died in 2012. She will be missed.  Other books that were really very good include: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green; Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige; Chomp by Carl Hiaasen (I recommend anything by him); Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith (his books are wonderful, but I really enjoy the Scotland Street series); Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough was fabulous; The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory (again, anything by her is wonderful); and I’ll end with Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland.

I could go on and on but I can’t just list every book I read this year. As I look back at the books that I’ve read over 2014, I have to say that they ran the gambit from King Henry VIII to the dystopian worlds of The Hunger Games and Divergent, and then to the fantastical world of Carl Hiaasen’s Florida. I seem to have a wide-ranging interest in just about anything. I really like my fantasy and my “real” world. But how else could I have become as well-traveled through time and space but inside the world of books?