Thursday, November 14, 2013

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Becoming Mary Mehan by Jennifer Armstrong -- Young Adult Historical Fiction

In The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan, the Civil War is off to a bloody start but Mary Mehan is hardly affected by it. Her family left Ireland during the potato famine and though she's lived her whole life in Swampoodle, the Irish slum of Washington City, she has yet to be touched by war. The Irish community is divided. Mary's father, already out of work, descries the war, believing that if the slaves are freed, they will take the Irish jobs for less money. Mary's charming roguish brother sometimes works building the new Capitol dome. When Mary meets a male nurse, Mr. Walt [Whitman] he encourages her to go in the hospitals and help out, but Mary can not. She is grateful that her brother can not be drafted because he's an alien. Then Michael Mehan does the unthinkable, he enlists in an Irish brigade and marches off to war. Mary's father goes out of his mind and thinks only of going home to Ireland. Mary wonders how her brother could have left her alone to support herself and is certain that she has only to say come and he will return. She dreams of her brother and plans of their return. She can't think about the unthinkable. Mary must decide whether she's Irish or American and where her duty lies.

This book is divided into books and each book is divided into chapters. The prose is similar to poetry and the story is told in a stream of consciousness manner. Mary's dreams and real life are interwoven. The story jumps between Mary's head and Michael's head. I didn't like the way the story was told and had a hard time following it. This novel is very depressing and I had a hard time getting through it.

In Mary Mehan Awake, the war is over. Mary's friend Mr. Walt, the nurse/poet convinced her to nurse the wounded soldiers. Mary spent two years listening to dreams, holding hands, bathing wounds and watching bloody men die. She's cut off her senses and refuses to feel anything at all. Mr. Walt believes she needs a rest and arranges for her to go work as a domestic in the country. In her new job Mary discovers a loving, eccentric couple. Mr. Dorsett is a naturalist who can't bear to shoot birds in order to study them so he runs after them with his camera hoping to catch them in their natural habitat. Mary learns a bit about photography to help her new employer. Inside the house she helps in the kitchen and is treated as a friend by Mrs. Dorsett. The Dorsetts also have a chauffeur/handyman, Henry, a minister's son who lost his hearing and his dreams in the war. Henry and Mary are the only two who understand the horrors of war. Through silent communication they become friends and unexpectedly, Mary begins to feel again. 

This book is better than the first. It's told in beautiful prose. There are many metaphors likening the natural world to what Mary is experiencing or will experience. I really liked them and thought it helped the story along without getting too wordy. Mary's slow transformation back to the human word is handled so delicately and beautifully. She's very emotionally fragile and she's never really had the opportunity to decide what she wants out of life. This story is her spring awakening. I liked her relationship with Henry as it slowly develops. They're good for each other and encourage each other. The ending is a little abrupt and we're told what happens through the words of other characters. I wish there had been a bit more development of the plot there but otherwise the story works for me. It's a quiet emotional read. I recommend these two books more for adults than teens.  

The Pursuit of Lucy Banning (Avenue of Dreams 1) by Olivia Newport -- Historical Fiction

Lucy Banning is beautiful, from one of the best families in Chicago and engaged to a perfectly suitable wealthy young man. Her fiance, Daniel, is a childhood friend of her brothers and she should be thrilled that she is to marry him. However, Lucy wants more out of life than just being a society wife. She is secretly enrolled in a class at the University of Chicago and spends her free time volunteering at an orphanage and working on the women's committee for the upcoming World's Fair. Her brother Leo is somewhat sympathetic if only to be rebellious and her eccentric Aunt Violet is fully supportive but Lucy feels the need to keep her activities a secret from her fiance. When she meets her brother's friend Will, an architect, she discovers a man who is kind and caring in a way her fiance is not. She finds Will a good friend. She feels increasing pressure from her parents and fiance to settle down and give up her "hobbies" but her heart doesn't want to listen.

Charlotte Farrow is new in service at the Banning Household. She arrived with a few forged references and a big big secret. She's determined to survive this job no matter how snobby the butler. When Samuel Banning notices things missing from his study, Charlotte fears she'll take the blame and then what will happen to her? She carefully guards her secret until Miss Lucy discovers just what Charlotte is hiding. Can Charlotte trust Lucy to help her?

This book is supposed to be Inspirational but it can be enjoyed by anyone of any denomination or lack thereof. There's frequent references to church going and a very brief quote from the minister's sermon. There is also a reference to a character's grandmother's Bible. There's no real message or preaching in this book that I could tell. Whatever message there is, it's too subtle to notice at 1:30 am bleary eyed and unable to put the book down.

I think I should hate Lucy because she's such a do-gooder but I can't really. She's very sweet and kind. She's stubborn and tries hard to be independent at a time when women had very few rights. This story unglamorizes (is that a word?) the aristocratic world of the Gilded Age. Lucy and Charlotte both face adversity. This book also shows that wealthy men also faced expectations and sometimes could not hold up under the pressures of society. I really liked that the story provided a realistic window into Gilded Age Chicago.

The characters seem well-rounded and interesting. I was very interested in Charlotte's story, having guessed her secret right away. Her story never fully comes to a close so the reader has to read the sequel to find out what happens to her. The plot is really good until halfway through when it turns melodramatic. A character becomes a creepy stalker and I could have done without that. Yet, by the time I finished the book I the whole point of the plot and why it had to be so. It makes the story very different from the typical Gilded Age/Edwardian girl in a cage plot. It's different even from Downton Abbey though Lucy and Lady Sybil are very much alike. The ending is a bit random and rushed. I would have liked another chapter or two to further develop the story but as I was reading at 1 am, I was glad the book wasn't longer!

The period details are amazing. The author did an incredible amount of research to create a portrait of late 19th century Chicago. I loved learning who the neighbors were, the architecture of the houses, what routes Lucy traveled along and the planning of the World's Fair. I learned a lot about a location I don't know much about.

I recommend this book to Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs fans who don't like soap opera plots. (ahem Downton Abbey Season 3). 

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