Book Review: Miss Whitaker Opens Her Heart

91HNJI5C5SLMiss Whitaker Opens Her Heart is about a woman named Sarah who owns and runs a sheep ranch in Australia in 1815 (at the time, it was the Colony of New South Wales). Sarah falls in love with the rancher next door, but he has a Dark Secret. I very much enjoyed this unusual Regency romance, even though the vast majority of the character development fell upon poor Sarah.

At the beginning of the story, eleven-year old Sarah is sailing to New South Wales to be reunited with her father. When she gets there, she’s crushed to discover that he died while she was at sea. Somehow Sarah convinces her cranky and very proper aunt (her chaperone during the sea voyage) that the two of them should stay and run the deceased father’s sheep ranch. The aunt doesn’t get much page time, and frankly I could have used a book just about her.

Anyway, there’s a time jump to 1815. Sarah is an adult and a very capable rancher. The aunt has passed away. Sarah discovers that she has a new neighbor, David. Of course she first meets him when he is bathing in the woods half naked because that’s how these things work.

ANYWAY, at first Sarah sees David as a rival since he buys land she had planned on buying herself, and, like her, is raising sheep for the wool market. However, she quickly warms up to him. For his part, David likes and respects her immediately. However, he’s troubled by her insistence that one cannot trust a convict. Her reasoning is that “people do not change.” David finds this awkward, not only because it makes Sarah act like an enormous jerk to convicts, some of whom she reluctantly employs, but also because David, unbeknownst to Sarah, arrived in New South Wales as a convict himself (he was pardoned on arrival due to having a rich protector).  David keeps trying to tell Sarah the truth but he always thinks maybe the time isn’t right, or he gets interrupted – you get the idea.

Sarah’s biggest character flaw is that once someone hurts her, she distrusts not only that person but also everyone similar to that person. She hates the Aborigines because one of them killed her father.  She hates people who arrived in New south Wales as convicts because they have cheated or otherwise betrayed her in the past. Over the course of the story she makes her peace with both groups. She learns that people can change and that the behavior of one person does not apply to a whole group of people.

She also learns to respect the Aboriginal people. Early on, Daniel becomes friends with Charrah, the leader of the local clan. Charrah is depicted as skilled and knowledgable, but (thankfully) not magical. He and Daniel have a significant language barrier but enjoy hunting together. Later on, Sarah meets an Aboriginal mother and baby. The three are caught in the same rainstorm and the mother is injured. Sarah helps the mother and baby until Carrah shows up to help all three of them. It’s more a matter of teamwork than a white savior sequence. Sarah develops a bond with the mother and the baby and is finally able to respect their clan. These are not point of view characters (the only point of view characters are Daniel and Sarah) but I appreciated their inclusion even though I wanted their characters to be much more fleshed out.

Unlike Sarah, who undergoes an enormous amount of character growth, Daniel gets all of his character growth out of the way in his first couple of chapters. Even then, it’s not really character growth. We meet him in his prison cell and he’s already repented for his crime. He bet on a race, gave a horse some drug that was supposed to make it sleepy, and it died. He is stricken with terrible remorse and thanks he deserves to be hung. He’s the most repentant of all repenters. His character growth has basically already occurred and the rest of the book is the reformed Daniel being a romantic guy.

From this point on Daniel is a paragon. He forms an immediate bond with an Aboriginal man and shows nothing but compassion to the less fortunate convicts in the colony. He has no problem asking a woman for ranching advice. He’s just generally awesome other than feeling unable to reveal his Big Secret to Sarah.

This book is published through a Christian Press (Covenant Communications) but the only quality of the book that tipped me off about the publisher is that there’s no sex. As would be typical of people with access to a church in the 1800s, Daniel and Sarah attend church but the only discussion of religion comes into play when Sarah and Daniel have to deal with sanctimonious, holier-than-thou neighbors.  I’m not a Christian but I thought that the themes of redemption, forgiveness, acceptance and trust were fairly universal.

I liked this book despite its lack of balance with the character development. Both of the characters are likeable. I liked Daniel because is upfront about being new to ranching and grateful for Sarah’s advice, as so few other men are. Meanwhile, Sarah’s intolerance and rigidity are horrible flaws, but she is given plausible reasons for both having those flaws and for being able to overcome them. I admire a woman who isn’t afraid to get messy by sticking her hand up the business end of a laboring ewe to help deliver a lamb. She’s resourceful, tough, and hardworking and still likes a pretty dress now and then.

Above all, I loved the setting. During this time period, there’s a small but well-established town, a clear but somewhat flexible social hierarchy, and opportunities for social events. There’s also a sense of wildness. At one point Sarah takes Daniel and some friends to see a platypus (she calls it a water mole). It’s an idyllic scene, but also one in which Sarah makes everyone take precautions on the hike towards the platypus den to avoid spiders and quicksand. There’s a storm and a fire. The human characters feel very small against a massive backdrop of mountain and forest.

This is a short book that would have benefitted from expansion. It touches on the more painful aspects of that period of Australia’s history (sexism, virulent racism, and the harsh lives that most convicts led) just enough to avoid insulting the reader’s intelligence, but it doesn’t go into detail. All of the supporting characters, regardless of gender, class, or race, exist only to further the character development of the leads, and I would have liked to have gotten more of a sense of these characters as people in their own right.

This book wasn’t perfect, but it was enjoyable. The setting made it special and unusual, and the relatability of the characters made me care about their fates. It doesn’t hurt that there were details about the best shears to use for shearing sheep and details about fabric for a new dress. Also, there’s a lot of food. It was a comforting and entertaining read.I would not use this as a history guide, but I do recommend it for a rainy day with some tea and biscuits.

 

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Between the Lines Book Club: At Home by Bill Bryson

between the lines book club logoWelcome back to Between the Lines Book Club. This month we’re reading At Home by Bill Bryson. It’s a long book, but a quick and easy read. We’ll be meeting to discuss it in person on January 27, 2018 at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM.

At Home is a nonfiction history of how and why houses are the way they are. Because of how the book is arranged, it’s easy to either read the book straight through or pick and choose chapters based on interest level. Here’s a quick rundown of the chapters and their topics:

Chapter One: The Year: Describes the year 1851, when the house was built.

Chapter Two: The Setting: The development of agriculture and ancient housing.

Chapter Three: The Hall: Covers the time when The Hall meant the entire interior of a house to the development of separate rooms.

Chapter Four: The Kitchen: Food! The development of ice as a common means of food preservation, mason jars, and cans, and the change in eating habits through the Victorian Era.

Chapter Five: The Scullery and Larder: In which being a servant was just awful.

Chapter Six: The Fuse Box: Life by candlelight, gaslight, and the development of the electric light.

Chapter Seven: The Drawing Room: The invention of comfortable furniture. Also, lots and lots of architecture.

Chapter Eight: The Dining Room: Spices, scurvy, salt, vitamins, coffee, and tea.

Chapter Nine: The Cellar: What was used to build homes in Britain and America, and why? If you have an interest in wood, bricks, stone, or cement, this is the chapter for you.

Chapter Ten: The Passage: The Eiffel Tower, The Gilded Age, the telephone.

Chapter Eleven: The Study: Mice and rats and bedbugs, oh my! Also germs and bats and locusts and lice!

Chapter Twelve: The Garden: Much architecture. The switch from formal to more naturalistic parks. The development of Central Park. The development of gardening as a hobby. The rise of the lawn.

Chapter Thirteen: The Plum Room: In which Bryson discusses Monticello and Mount Vernon.

Chapter Fourteen: The Stairs. Household hazards!

Chapter Fifteen: The Bedroom: Sex, disease, death, and burial.

Chapter Sixteen: The Bathroom: The very smelly history of hygiene.

Chapter Seventeen: The Dressing Room: Fashion!

Chapter Eighteen: The Nursery: Childbirth and child rearing is not for wimps.

Chapter Nineteen: The Attic: Darwin, economics, and the end of the parsonage era.

Enjoy, and feel free to pick and choose!

Book Review: The Fishing Fleet

cover of The Fishing Fleet showing women riding elephantThe Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj may be nonfiction catnip for historical romance readers and fans of Victorian and Edwardian history. This book details the lives of women who travelled to India from England in hopes of finding a husband. The book spans about 1750 to 1940, but most of it involves Victorian and Edwardian Era marriages. It is mostly told in the third person but has a lot of quotes and excerpts from letters in which women speak for themselves.

Women who married British government and military officials during the British Occupation (the Raj) were expected to be intelligent but not too intelligent, virtuous, dedicated to upholding a British way of life, and extremely self-reliant. Women experienced a weird mix of a whirl of parties during social seasons (one woman danced “twenty-six nights in a row”) and stultifying boredom and loneliness the rest of the time. They needed to be prepared to deal with rabid dogs, rats, snakes and insects. They also needed to be ready to choose between going with their children when the children were sent to school in England, or sending the children to school alone and staying in India with their husbands.

This book is worth looking at for the descriptions of clothing. Never have I read so many lavish descriptions of outfits that were so terribly suited to climate and condition. For a long time, both men and women were supposed to wear a “cholera belt” which was a thick layer of flannel wrapped around the belly – so in addition to petticoats and stays and an actual dress, they were also wearing at least one flannel undergarment. It is not surprising that women typically spent the hottest part of the day lying on a bed in their petticoats trying not to cook themselves to death. Here are some descriptions of nighttime outfits:

1896: “She had a new dress for it, blue satin, with spangled net on the bodice and she was instructed by the dressmaker that to suit the new fashions she should wear her hair in a little bundle on her head, with a rose or small comb as ornament – only married women could wear whole coronets of flowers. Her sister Christian wore white satin trimmed with white violets.”

1929: “My new blue bathing suit is the most decent thing ever – a one-piece garment but it has kicks underneath.”

1932: “I had about a dozen evening dresses. My favorite was a gorgeous gold color one with a cowl neck that was backless – you couldn’t wear a bra but one was very firm in those days. Backless was very fashionable then.”

Other things of note: young women often gathered up their skirts in their hands and rode bicycles to dinner, sports were all the rage among men despite frequent injuries, and people often married very quickly, sometimes right after arrival. The stories of proposals are often delightful. One woman met a man in India, but he was deemed by her mother to be too young to marry (military men weren’t supposed to marry until they turned thirty). The woman went back to England and got a call from the young man six years later (they had been writing but hadn’t seen each other during the six year interval). He asked her to marry him over the phone and she said, “Certainly I will!”

On a less delightful but certainly fascinating note are tales of disease and skin ailments and lassitude brought on by the heat and by frequent illnesses. One woman survived malaria, smallpox, and the bubonic plague (she didn’t actually catch it but avoided catching it despite living through an epidemic). This same woman had two children, one of whom was delivered by a gynecologist and the other by a veterinarian (both turned out fine). Life in India was often extremely difficult for married women who had no occupation to pursue, were not encouraged or often allowed to make friends with Indian women, and were tasked with maintaining a British lifestyle in a hostile climate.

My biggest criticism of The Fishing Fleet is that it does not provide a rigorous critique of nor context about the British Empire. No Indian viewpoints are expressed and there are no major Indian characters with the exceptions of a woman who is part English and part Indian. The book is entirely about the viewpoint of the British, and British women in particular, who were very much encouraged to have minimal interaction with Indian people other than servants.

The problem with the tight focus of the book is twofold. In practical terms, it’s confusing. There’s very little information regarding how the British came to rule India, or what happened during their rule. This book covers the mid-1700s to the 1940s – almost two hundred years. Yet almost no historical events are noted. The only changes in women’s lives are clothing styles. With more context, this might be an interesting contrast to historical upheaval and a commentary on how tightly bound these women were. With no or minimal context, it loses all meaning. The implication is that nothing happened in India during all this time, which is untrue.

This leads us to the second problem, which is that the lack of context, critique, and Indian voices presents an image of the Indian people as passive and unimportant – not only to the British women profiled in this book but to history at large. I’m not an expert on the history of India, but even a few minutes of online research indicates that Indians were far from passive during British Occupation.

One way to keep the book focused on British women and their daily lives would have been to delve more deeply into the lives of the British women’s servants. Not only would this have reminded the reader that Indian women (and men) also had important lives, but it would have provided more insight into the running of the households. The book might also have provided a look at the daily lives of Indian women in villages and in cities, which would not only have been more inclusive but would also have provided a helpful contrast and comparison to the lives of British women. As it is, the book perpetrates the idea that only stories about white wealthy people matter.

I felt that this book was half of a very good book. What it offered was fascinating – a look at the lives of women who are barely known about today, with everyday details and a touch of scandal and glamour mixed with raw survival. However, because the focus was so tight, the book felt half-finished. I was left with a lot of questions about Indian history and culture, and a lot of frustration about the omission of Indian voices.

I may also have been left with an intense desire to go on an adventure, marry impetuously, and buy some new clothes. Just not a cholera belt, because, I’m sorry, but those are just silly.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

IMG_3043The years between 1861 and 1863 were not kind to the American poet, Henry Wadworth Longfellow. In 1861, his wife died after an accident when her dress caught fire. In 1863, his son Charles ran away to join the Civil War on the Union side. Charles was sent home after being horribly wounded in the back. Charles eventually recovered and went on to have a full and adventurous life, but during that year his future looked bleak.

Longfellow wrote “Christmas Bells” on christmas Day in 1863. It seems especially relevant as we celebrate this Christmas, undaunted despite a scary year behind us and a scary year ahead. Merry Christmas, dear readers!

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet
The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along
The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound
The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn
The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Thanks to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Heard_the_Bells_on_Christmas_Day for lyrics and background

 

 

Book Review: The Book Of Dust

cover of The Book of dust
Reading the His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman, was one of the most emotional experiences of my reading life. Other than bits and pieces of scenes, I remember two things about reading the His Dark Materials trilogy. One was that I read it feverishly and passionately. The other is that when it ended I cried, with big sobs, and tears pouring down my face. I have the trilogy, but I’ve only read it that one, revelatory time.

Now Philip Pullman is back to rip my heart out of my chest and jump on it again with a new series. The first book, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, is out and it reminded me of what an amazing storyteller Pullman is. La Belle is magical, fast-paced, thrilling, and sometimes horrifying. I ate it right up.

First some background. The first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass) came out in 1996. The series was incredibly influential and popular despite being overshadowed by a small series you may have heard of that was launched in 1997 (Harry Potter). The series followed the adventures of Lyra, who is twelve years old at the start of the series.

Lyra lives in an alternate world version of Earth, one in which every human has a daemon. According to the His Dark Materials Wiki:

The dæmon /ˈdiːmən/ was the physical manifestation of a human soul in Lyra’s world Humans in other worlds had dæmons; however they were invisible to those who had not learnt the technique used to see them.

During the childhood of a human, their dæmon could shapeshift into any kind of animal. This change could be due to emotion, need for a particular skill such as night vision, or simply whim.

When the human and their dæmon reached maturity, the dæmon settled into a permanent form. This form represented the personality of their human.

Lyra’s world is ruled by the Magisterium, a religious institution that seeks to conceal the existence of a substance called ‘Dust’. Dust is a conscious elementary particle (don’t worry about it) not to be confused with the stuff that accumulates on my piano when I forget to practice. Eventually the series involves other worlds, including our own. As you may guess, the series involves a lot of philosophy and science, but also intrigue, action, cute animals, and armored polar bears that talk.

This brings us to The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (I know, FINALLY). In La Belle, which is set before The Golden Compass, eleven-year-old Malcolm goes to school during the day, helps his parents run their pub at night, and helps out the local nuns on Sundays. When someone leaves an orphaned baby named Lyra at the convent, Malcolm becomes enchanted with the baby and determined to help protect her. In the course of his efforts he becomes a spy for the resistance movement against the Magisterium. As the plot thickens, Malcolm and one of the helpers at the pub, Alice, get caught up in a flood and a chase, both of which force them to find a safe haven for Lyra. The eleven-year-old boy, sixteen-year-old girl, and infant have to fight off human and supernatural enemies as well as the natural perils of the massive flood that they navigate in Malcolm’s canoe.

The characters in this book are wonderfully realized, even baby Lyra who is fussy and wriggly and poops a lot. Since she’s an infant her job is basically to be alternately cute and infuriated, coddled and imperiled, but she’s realistically hard to care for and her shape-changing daemon is freaking adorable. The more interesting characters are Malcolm, who always has a question, and teenaged Alice, who sulks and snarls at everyone except the baby. The story is told in third-person from Malcolm’s point of view, and I adored him because most of his sentences end with a question mark.

This book is not a romance, but it does emphasize the importance of connection and love in many forms. Malcolm and Alice start off as bitter enemies but become allies and then friends. Here’s a lovely passage in which Malcolm studies Alice’s face as she sleeps:

The little frown that lived between her eyebrows had vanished; it was a softer face altogether. Her mouth was relaxed, and her whole expression was complex and subtle. These was a sort of kindness in it, and a sort of lazy enjoyment-those were the words he found to describe it. A hint of a mocking smile lay in the flesh around her eyes.

The book is an amazing study in pacing, in tone, and in descriptive writing. Initially, we learn about everyone’s everyday lives. Malcolm peels potatoes and does his homework. Alice rolls her eyes. Lyra poops. Because Malcolm keeps picking up new information, the story isn’t boring, it’s just grounded. Then a flood transforms the landscape we’ve come to know into something else:

Through the bare branches he saw a wild waste of gray water, surging from left to right across the wide open space that had been Port Meadow; he could see the city’s spires beyond it. Nothing but water: no ground, no riverbank, no bridge. And all speeding with a mighty force, almost silent, certainly irresistible. There was no possibility of paddling against it and making their way back home.

My only problem, and it’s a big one, is that this is not a full book. It tells of one episode of Lyra’s life, and it describes that episode from beginning to end. It is probably pretty accessible to anyone who hasn’t read the His Dark Materials story. However, while it’s a pleasing prequel, it doesn’t have much substance of its own. We don’t have enough context to understand why Lyra is so important (unless we’ve read the other books), and even though Malcolm and Alice complete their arc in terms of plot, they don’t get any time to complete their arc emotionally. The book doesn’t conclude. It just stops.

The book ends on a major cliffhanger, but you can resolve the cliffhanger, more or less, by immediately starting The Golden Compass. The problem is less that it ends on a cliffhanger and more that it doesn’t end at all except in the sense that the pages run out. Because of the lack of context for new readers and the lack of closure, I’m giving this book a B+ instead of an A, but I loved it and I’m so much looking forward to the next one which will, no doubt, cause me to cry like a baby.

A Geeky Thanksgiving, Only Slightly Belated

Robin and Batman from Lego Batman Movie
I know what you’re thinking! You are thinking, “Hey, I thought CarrieS was not going to blog in December!” However, I’ve decided that in keeping with holiday tradition I owe to myself to remember some of the geeky joys that got me through a shitty 2017. There was so much great stuff! There was Orphan Black! And Wonder Woman! And more!

Usually I count the number of things that matches the number of days from November 1 until Thanksgiving. Since I missed Thanksgiving this year, here’s a full 31 days worth of geek joy.

  1. Helena’s twins eating sand in Orphan Black
  2. “We’re friends! From work!” (Thor: Ragnorak)
  3. Unexpected yet perfect team-ups on The Expanse
  4. Diana and Steve discuss sex in Wonder Woman
  5. The No Man’s Land sequence in Wonder Woman
  6. ALL OF WONDER WOMAN
  7. Bob Newby, superhero (Stranger Things, Season 2)
  8. Science dogs

dog with sign that says, "I'm a cat...#alternative facts" 

  1. Aunt May gets Peter Parker ready for prom in Spider-Man: Homecoming
  2. The trailer for Valerian that gave us all the pretty but none of the stupid

  1. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson taking their jobs in King Kong VERY SERIOUSLY.
  2. Samuel Jackson, John Goodman, and John C. Reilly not taking their jobs on King Kong seriously at all.
  3. The new Doctor (Doctor Who).
  4. The Good Place, starring everyone’s perfect facial reactions.
  5. Stylish spies in Amberlough and Atomic Blonde.
  6. Feminist Lovecraft is a thing (Dreamquest of Vellitt Boe, Brimstone, etc.)
  7. I may not be into Justice League, but Jason Momoa sure is pretty.

shirtless Jason Momoa as Aquaman

  1. Charlize Theron and her Atomic Blonde wig collection.
  2. Rogue One. “This is a rebellion, isn’t it? I rebel.”
  3. Feminist Horror, Feminist Gothic, Feminist all the things.
  4. Alt National Park Service shows us where the real heroes are.
  5. http://worstcats.tumblr.com
  6. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. goes insane, in a good way.
  7. The Lego Batman Movie.
  8. “So, to my galaxy of women, thank you for the nurture.” Felix throws the best party ever on Orphan Black.
  9. I finally watched all of Parks and Recreation. Yes, I would play Cones of Dunshire.
  10. Phillip Pullman is back with The Book of Dust.
  11. Women dominate the Hugo Awards of 2017.
  12. Captain America helps me cope with the election by punching Nazis hard in the face (thank you, iTunes and my DVD collection).
  13. Crimson Peak continues to comfort me during down times, because I love watching Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska chase each other all over an insane mansion in their insane nighties.
  14. Only 78 more days until Black Panther!