The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World by Brian Doyle

Robert Louis Stevenson resided in San Francisco for a few months straddling john carsonthe years 1879-1880, at which time he lived in the boarding house owned by Mary Carson.  There Stevenson recovered his health and awaited the finalization of a divorce between his fiancée  and her first husband.  His finances were meager, as Stevenson was at this time struggling to make a living as a writer.

During his stay, Stevenson was enthralled by the stories of Mary’s husband John, a former seamen who had traveled much of the globe.  Stevenson supposedly wanted to write a book about Mr. Carson’s experiences, and this book is an imagining of what Stevenson might have written.

The stories that John Carson tells are fanciful but possible, as far-flung as Borneo, the Canadian Northwest, Australia, and western Ireland.  He tells of stern tribal chieftains and noble shipmates, all with stories of their own.  The most intriguing story is about Carson’s encounter with a feral girl living in a deserted stone village; her future takes her far away from her solitary existence, and she and John are destined to meet again.

One might wonder what kind of influence Mr. Carson’s stories had on the future renderings of  Treasure Island or Kidnapped, or whether Stevenson chose his final home of Samoa, notwithstanding his health problems, as a nod to John Carson and his wanderings.

Brian Doyle is obviously a great admirer of Stevenson’s, and I think he got the rhythms of Stevenson’s prose fairly well.  Doyle’s lively descriptions of pre-1906 earthquake San Francisco the bring the city wonderfully alive; the town is practically a character itself.  The Adventures of John Carson… is also a deep study of the natures of connection and friendship.

The preface and afterword (and the Thanks & Notes!), although fairly brief, are rich in back story and recommendations for further reading.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

It is to be expected that a graveyard comes alive with ghosts at night-time.  One wouldlincoln in the bardo imagine they congregate and converse in a social manner, and perhaps gossip about new arrivals.

This book expands on this idea, the setting being Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown in the year 1862.  It is the aftermath of  Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie’s death at the age of eleven.  Obviously, his parents were devastated.  The rumor was that President Lincoln would visit the crypt his son was interred in and actually remove the body from the coffin to mourn over.

The night time residents of Oak Hill take note of their human nocturnal visitor, as well as talk to the ghost of his son, who is bewildered as to why he can’t interact with his father.  And as Willie lingers here, in this purgatorial state or “bardo“, his soul is increasingly in peril, as the ectoplasmic denizens of Oak Hill experience in graphic detail, when they try to help Willie along the next leg of his journey – and find theirs as well.

A cast of dozens tell the tale here in Lincoln in the Bardo, a sad yet playful view of the afterlife.  The book alternates between events of the “real” world (White House parties, the Civil War, Willie’s sickness) and the drama of the spirit world, populated by dandies, preachers, slaves, miscreants, and others.  The narrative is fanciful and occasionally confusing, but let your mind go…well, back to the 1860s, put things in context, and the subject matter will make more sense.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



The Kingmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory

If you enjoy the TV series “Game of Thrones,” you may like The Kingmaker’s Daughter, set during kingmakers-daughterEngland’s War of the Roses, the historical period that’s most like the fantasy world of the series.  There are even online comparisons of the TV show’s Sansa Stark with the real-life woman who’s the main character of this book – Anne Neville, the wife of Richard III.

If you are familiar with Shakespeare’s play “Richard the Third,” you’ll find this portrayal of Richard much more favorable than Shakespeare’s.  Shakespeare followed the Tudor era’s view of Richard as a monster, blaming him for multiple murders, but Gregory’s Richard comes closer to the opinions of modern historians.

Anne was the daughter of the Earl of Warwick, a power behind the English throne in the 15th century.  During the War of the Roses, many people changed their allegiances from one royal line, the Yorks, to the other, the Lancasters, or vice versa.  This was true of Warwick, whose goal was to put in power the king of his choice and to become his major adviser.  He used his daughters as pawns in his ambitious schemes.  When Anne was only fourteen years old, Warwick arranged her marriage to the Lancastrian heir.  After her husband’s death in battle, Anne married Richard.  Part of the plot involves the tale of the young princes in the Tower of London – their fate is, to this very day, a cold case!  Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV, is also a character in the novel; contemporaries believed her to be a witch capable of causing storms and bringing death to her enemies by supernatural means.

This dramatic tale is a fascinating glimpse into English history, seen through the eyes of a queen.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Sisi : Empress on Her Own by Allison Pataki

Most readers have probably never heard of Elisabeth, who married Emperor Franz Josephsisi of Austria in 1854.  I enjoy reading historical fiction about royalty and was delighted to discover a complex, fascinating character who was completely new to me.  Her story, according to the author, is “a fairy tale meets a Shakespearean tragedy meets a family soap opera meets an international saga.”  Elisabeth, known to her subjects as Sisi, was sixteen years old at the time of her arranged marriage.  Pataki’s novel The Accidental Empress tells the story of her earlier married life.  This novel that I read, Sisi, begins in 1868.  Disillusioned with her husband and with a life where protocol rules every move she makes, her controlling mother-in-law keeps her away from her children, and the press constantly criticizes her, she often leaves Vienna for long trips, accompanied by her fourth and last child, Valerie, and her attendants.  Away from the stifling court life, she enjoys long, hard horseback rides, as well as the freedom to spend time with her little girl.  She also finds men who are more suited to her than Franz Joseph is.

Pataki gives the reader a glimpse of Europe before World War I, in the era when Strauss composed his waltzes and Wagner his operas.  Sisi’s cousin, the mad king Ludwig of Bavaria, is a character in the novel, seen in some of its most dramatic scenes.  While the novel very briefly covers politics, there isn’t enough political history to become hard to understand – or boring.

While most readers probably will want to start by reading The Accidental Empress, I only knew about that novel after completing Sisi.  This book completely stands on its own.

Pataki, whose ancestors lived in Austria-Hungary, is a bestselling author.  She did a great deal of research, relies heavily on historical facts, and says that you can’t “make this stuff up.”

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

White Collar Girl by Renée Rosen

Jordan Walsh, a journalism graduate, lands a job as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune.  Herindex goal is to cover local politics and to expose scandals in Mayor Daley’s Chicago.  However, in the 1950s, male reporters dominate the newsrooms, and Jordan’s job involves covering social events and celebrity sightings and writing such articles as “Gifts for Your Boss on His Birthday.”  While covering a wedding, she makes some contacts at the Police Department and City Hall and begins to move towards the meaningful career of her dreams.

When she becomes engaged to Jack Casey, a reporter from another publication, she discovers that marriage may conflict with her job.  Jack seems to resent her successes at work, and he and his parents assume that she’ll give up her career to become a typical 1950s wife and mother.

Also, Jordan and her parents are still grieving for her beloved brother, killed by a hit-and-run driver.  The police have never found the driver who hit him, and Jordan starts doing some investigating of her own.

For White Collar Girl, the author did a lot of research on Chicago history and on the newspaper world of the 1950s.  I enjoyed the details from that era, especially the brief appearances by real people, including Marilyn Monroe and Ann Landers.  Jordan’s personal life and professional achievements will keep readers turning pages!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Accommodations for death row prisoners in rural 1820s Iceland was hit or miss, to say theburial rites least.  Instead of any kind of maximum security setup, they were usually farmed out (literally) to a farm family, where they would work as a servant until their execution.

Such was the fate of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a thirty-three year old woman convicted along with two other people for murder and arson.  The family she stays with is not pleased with the government’s decision to place her at their farm.  After all, Agnes is a convicted killer, and there’s no telling what harm she might do to the family, or whether she might take flight to the hinterlands.

It turns out that neither escape or bodily harm are worries.  While Agnes is familiar with the terrain they live in, the fact of her conviction means that there’s nowhere else for her to go, being a branded criminal, and the environment, regardless of the season, is not exactly hospitable.  And even though she is doomed, antagonizing her host family won’t make her last few months any better.

As Agnes learns the rhythm of the farm, she proves her worth with the daily work, having done it most of her life, and while she doesn’t win over the whole family, her tenure on the farm is generally favorable.  From time to time, Agnes is counseled by a local parish priest, who is new to his calling and convinced that personal salvation is in order.  Instead, in their sessions, Agnes relates to him the backstory of her crime.

I generally don’t read books about death row subjects, but the setting (Iceland of almost two hundred years ago) and situation were intriguing.  The book initially begins slow, but once you get into the societal dynamics and start to imagine what it was like living on the edge of nowhere, the reading picks up.  The book shifts perspectives often, so sometimes it’s in third person, sometimes an occasional letter, and then it will be Agnes herself doing the recounting, so be prepared for the changes in narrative, and lots of Icelandic place names.

I thought it interesting that literacy was fairly strong there, even among rural families, but knowledge of history and the written word was apparently a strong current in Icelandic culture, and still is today.

Burial Rites is based on actual events.  Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, in 1830.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Honolulu by Alan Brennert

honoluluA friend told me that she, as well as most members of her book club, enjoyed this novel, and I completely agree with them!

This novel begins in Korea in the early 20th century.  To get an idea of the role of girls in that society, it’s enough to look at the name of the main character, “Regret,” and the names of her brothers, “Joyful Day,” “Glad Son,” and “Goodness of the East.”  Regret has no opportunity to attend school.  When, as a teenager, she manages to learn to read, her father tells her that she has dishonored her clan – and then he hits her.  A friend tells her about Hawaii, a beautiful place where a Korean girl can find a handsome, rich husband, and she hopes for a better life in that faraway land.  She submits a picture, and a Hawaiian man chooses her as his “picture bride,” sending money for the long voyage.  This does not end well, but after much determination and hard work, Regret creates a happy life in Hawaii.

Based on extensive research, Honolulu gives a fascinating picture of life in Hawaii from 1914 until the 1930s.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)