Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What I Read in July 2015 Part II

What I Read in July 2015 Part II ...

The Firebird's Feather by Marjorie Eccles  --Historical Fiction/Edwardian Romance

The Firebird's Feather Kitty Challoner has always been fascinated by her mother, Lydia, a beautiful but moody woman. Kitty especially loves Lydia's tales of her childhood escape from Tsarist Russia in the dead of winter with her beloved father. Kitty loves to look at the Russian Orthodox icon in her mother's room and the lovely firebird box. On the eve of Kitty's come out, Lydia is shot and killed while riding her horse in Hyde Park. In the chaos of a suffragette demonstration, the killer got away. The police immediately suspect Lydia was involved with the Bolshevik terrorists who have recently robbed a jewelry store and murdered policemen. The police also believe Lydia could have been involved in the women's suffrage movement. Kitty is perplexed and confused by the police questions and why would they take her father away? It seems like everyone in the house is hiding secrets and those secrets may or may not lead to the killer. Kitty turns to her mother's companion on that fateful day, Marcus Villiers, for help. He would do anything for Kitty but he too has secrets and he feels guilty that he may have inadvertently caused Lydia's death.

This story isn't much for a story. It's a great background on the social issues of the time, especially the events that led to the Russian Revolution in 1917. This is one of the few times I will say there's too much history and not enough plot. The little plot there is moves sooooo slooowwwwly. There are a large number of suspects and each has a complicated backstory and secrets that are all revealed at once. The point-of-view shifts too frequently between each of the characters which is confusing and complicates the plot with a lot of unnecessary subplots. There's really not much below the surface of the story. It's mostly a compilation of the research the author did with a mystery thrown in. I guessed some of Lydia's secrets so it didn't come as a huge surprise. The killer's motive however, was super lame and not what I expected. The romance plot comes out of thin air and then rushes to an unlikely conclusion. I was hoping for more plot. Everything is just told and not really shown. It reads more like an outline than a novel...mirroring a subplot in the novel!

Kitty Challoner is a pretty but empty headed young lady. She just goes with the flow until her world is rocked by her mother's murder. I can relate to Kitty's interest in her family's heritage and love for the family heirlooms but her major interest to begin with, is protecting her mother's reputation. The whole mystery could have been solved a lot faster if people just told what they knew.  Kitty's father Louis is not all that likable. He's a respectable British businessman and I don't see how the lively Lydia ended up with him. He is shaken by his wife's death which apparently gives him an excuse to become an alcoholic and be rude to his daughter. His business partner is creepy and there's a backstory there that isn't fully revealed. His business partner's wife Fanny's point-of-view makes her husband into a cold fish while everyone else sees him as a Latin lover and her as the cold fish. Which is it? Who do we believe? She's not a very nice person either but I did feel kind of bad for her.

The rest of Kitty's family are so flat. There's Aunt Ursula, who is very kind but not a deep person. Her children Jon and Bridget, on the other hand, reject all they've been brought up to believe. Why? I don't know. Jon prefers living in a hovel and editing a socialist radical newspaper to a life of privileged for no good reason at all except he was influenced by his Aunt Lydia's beliefs in justice. Bridget falls in with the suffragettes in an unrealistic way. There's a subplot about her infatuation with a suffragette leader that is dropped in like a lead balloon and never fully develops.

Marcus' plot comes out of nowhere and has potential to be an interesting story in and of itself. We get some of his emotions and feelings about what he has done and should do but they're still on the surface and told to us. There's no real passion or true romance in his plot though he claims he loves a certain character. The best characters are the servants. Emma has a backstory that is apparently hair raising but we never get the full of it or see much of her. We're just told about her. Hester Dax has the most interested and complicated story but again it never really gets fleshed out completely. She makes some strange decisions for no known reason. She was my favorite character and the only one I really felt sorry for. She alone was truly affected by Lydia's death - until the unrealistic ending.

Under a Painted SkyUnder A Painted Sky by Stacey Lee-- Young Adult Historical Fiction 

In St. Joe, Missouri in 1849 there's a Chinese-American population of 2: Samantha and her dad. Samantha earns money giving music lessons with her trusty violin Lady Tin-Yin and her father runs a dry good store. Samantha's dad has dreams of going to California and has given his last precious valuable to a friend from New York to help pay their way. Before they can leave, Samantha's dad perishes in a deadly fire, Samantha's virtue is put in danger and she makes an unexpected friend in Anna-Mae, an enslaved girl near her own age. Anna-Mae was planning to run when Samantha interrupted and now they both have to flee. Where to? California with everyone else, of course, to catch up to Samantha's family friend and Anna-Mae's brother. For safety's sake, they disguise themselves as boys and soon Sammy and Andy are on the western trail headed for California with a couple of cowboys (emphasis on the boys). There are many dangers on the trail - not the least of which is a feminine heart beating inside Sammy, but she's certain that if her love interest knew she was a girl he still wouldn't be interested because of her race. White people and Chinese just don't mix. Will she make it to California alive and with her heart in tact?

I was wary of reading a western since I took a seminar on History of the West, and I thought the author was being too politically correct in making her narrator a Chinese-American girl when there really weren't any in America at that time. However, I need not have worried. This book is well-researched and fun to read. I couldn't put it down at all. Though I didn't read until my usual late late hour for a good book, I still felt the need to wake up early and finish it before I could sleep. A good book haunts my dreams and this was no exception. The plot was faced paced, fun and sounded authentic to me. The story deals with tough topics like slavery, rape, prostitution, premarital sex, murder and racism. It sounds like a lot but issues are worked in seamlessly as part of the plot. The romance subplots were interesting but the book would be great even without it. I felt like I was there on the westward trail with Sammy, Andy, Cay, West, Petey and of course the animals.

Samantha and Anna-Mae/Sammy and Andy are the two main characters. Though Sammy narrates the story, Andy is a co-heroine. They have to put up with a lot of terrible things both as women/women of color and as boys on the trail. Through it all, Andy retains her dry sense of humor and no-nonsense personality. The one thing I didn't care for was her deep Christian Faith. I guess she was supposed to counterbalance Sammy's Chinese philosophy but her constant Christian commentary was too much and for me. Sammy's character growth is amazing. She narrates her journey and acknowledges her childish temper which was her downfall. She incorporates her father's Chinese philosophy into her life and fears her Year of the Snake birth date has made her unlucky. She grows up a lot, learning from her heritage, Andy's stories and the boys she rides with. Yes she falls in love but she matures and learns about love and relationships. I really enjoyed this story and recommend it to older teens and adults.

The boys or I should say young men: Cay, West and Petey are all very different but equally well-drawn as the girls. Cay is a little too open and disgusting for me, but I suppose all young men like to discuss their sexual prowess and their manhood parts. There was just a bit too much of it. He's also very reckless and gets the party in danger many times. West is the strong, silent type. He's quiet, observant and has a good head on his shoulders. His role is to keep his cousin Cay in line. He has inner demons to battle and I thought more of that would come out in the story, especially at the end. His reason for trying to deny his feelings was stupid. Petey is sort of the comic relief character yet he too has demons he's running from. I love his way with animals and how his horses are also central characters in the novel. The horses also add some comic relief and charm to the story.

Content warning: near rape, some violence, alcohol/drunkenness, lots of talk about sex, one character catches another having sex with a girl though it's just an impression more than a description. This would be a good PG-13 movie.

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