Monday, August 12, 2013

Ashes on the Waves by Mary Lindsey, Born of Illusion by Teri Brown and The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

Gloria Steinem to Receive Medal of Freedom

I started reading Gloria Steinem's books and essays in the 1970s, when I was a teenager, and I found her works inspirational and, not to be too punny, glorious. She put a face on feminism for me, as I am sure she did for many women, and she wrote in a practical, intelligent fashion that made equality seem so sensible, so right and true, that I found myself wanting to challenge all the myths that I'd been raised with in Iowa society, not really in my home (my mother was an ardent believer in equality, and always told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, and that I never need marry or produce grandchildren for her sake.) Now Steinem is being lauded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is long overdue, and I couldn't be more pleased. Thank you, Gloria Steinem, for making feminism less remote and scary and more real to this Iowan.

Activist and writer Gloria Steinem was one of 16 people named by
President Barack Obama to receive the nation's highest civilian honor,
the Presidential Medal of Freedom,
which is presented to "individuals who have made especially meritorious
contributions to the security or national interests of the United
States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or
private endeavors." This year's recipients will be honored at the White
House later this year.

Steinem was praised as "a renowned writer and activist for women's
equality. She was a leader in the women's liberation movement,
co-founded Ms. magazine and helped launch a wide variety of groups and
publications dedicated to advancing civil rights. Ms. Steinem has
received dozens of awards over the course of her career, and remains an
active voice for women's rights."

President Obama observed that the medal "goes to men and women who have
dedicated their own lives to enriching ours. This year's honorees have
been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is
their gift for sharing that talent with the world. It will be my honor
to present them with a token of our nation's gratitude."

I adore Dame Judi Dench, and I eagerly await the opening of this movie, which looks fascinating.

A trailer has been released for Philomena,
based on Martin Sixsmith's book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A
Mother, Her Son and a Fifty-Year Search. Indiewire noted that the movie,
directed by Stephen Frears and starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, is
"designed as a hopefully awards-grabbing vehicle for an older British
actress" and the trailer suggests "she might well be in with a shout
when Oscar season nears." Philomena will be unveiled at the Venice Film
Festival August 31, with a U.K. release November 1 and "a U.S. bow
that's yet to be announced, but should come before the end of 2013."

Three books I've recently read: Ashes on the Waves by Mary Lindsey,  Born of Illusion by Teri Brown and The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton.

 I know of three people who would love Ashes on the Waves, which was a combination of Poes Annabel Lee and Meyer's Twilight, though thankfully it is much better written than the latter. It also contains elements of Shakespeare's The Tempest, which I found deliciously fun to spot, because it seemed clear to me that Liam was Caliban and Anna was Miranda, both on a remote Island and doomed by the machinations of others. Still, it was a glorious fish out of water romance, with lots of Celtic supernatural ocean myths thrown in, and a housekeeper fit for Du Maurier's Rebecca.
The story begins with a beautiful young Scotch/Irish lad named Liam who has one paralyzed arm and is considered a 'demon' in human form by his fellow villagers because of a tale told by Brigid Ronan, the mysterious housekeeper at the local mansion on the hill. Ronan told everyone that Liam clawed his way out of his mother at birth and killed her, and that he was found in a pool of blood near his mother, father unknown. (Turns out it was the lord of the manor who impregnated her).  So Liam is hated and shunned by the townsfolk, including his foster father, a drunken fisherman who beats him, and his only friend, now that he's grown, is Francine, who owns the local Mercantile store where Liam works and owns a small shack where his mother lived with him until he was born, and where Liam now resides, isolated and pining for the only friend he ever had as a child, a little girl who lived in the mansion named Anna.
Anna, whose family is wealthy, is exiled to the Island in disgrace for stripping nude at parties and behaving so outrageously it keeps her in the tabloids. Unfortunately, her sibling is getting married to a political figure and they don't want any adverse publicity before or during the wedding, so they send teenage Anna off to the Island of Dochas.
Liam meets up with her again when he sees that she has been "called" by the Mermaids/Mermen during a storm and is about to throw herself off a cliff into the sea. He rescues her, only to be kicked in the groin and accused of being a pervert.
However, as soon as Anna comes to her senses, she meets Liam in the store, and the two begin a romantic relationship not long after. Though dogged by Ban Shes and selkies and all manner of supernatural skulduggery, Liam and Anna manage to solve the mystery of Liam's birth and the soulmates pledge themselves to one another forever. There's not really an HEA ending, but it's still satisfying to those who believe that love goes on after death. I'd give this fantasy novel an A, with the caveat that it is a bit overwrought in spots, yet the Celtic creatures and the charming prose save the story from drowning in sentimentality.
Born of Illusion was a surprise to me, because I'd assumed it was going to be a kind of Steampunk YA version of Christopher Priest's "The Prestige."  I'm glad I was wrong. Born of Illusion was a marvelously atmospheric novel about a young psychic magician, Anna, who assists her mother Marguerite Van Housen in grifting the public with fake seances while also performing in legitimate magic stage shows. Anna's mother seems to be a nasty, egotistical woman who wants to control her daughter and insists the spotlight be on her all the time. She doesn't know that her daughter has real visions and psychic powers, and Anna works hard to keep it that way, lest her mother mistreat or abandon her. Anna's mother also sends out rumors to all and sundry that her daughter is the illegitimate child of Harry Houdini, whom she met when both lived in the "Old Country" (one assumes they mean Bulgaria or Hungary or Romania).
Anna doesn't know if the story is true, or just another way for her mother to garner publicity for their shows and seances, which Anna hates. Still, Anna is an expert lock picker and can get herself out of all kinds of hand cuffs, straightjackets and can do a variety of card tricks when she's not overwhelmed by her visions.  Once Anna meets Cole, a young male "sensitive" she learns of several groups who are vying for control of any and all psychics, to use for their own nefarious purposes.  Though she's kidnapped twice, Anna manages to come out of the situation on top, with the help of Cole, and in the end, she gets a surprising offer from Harry Houdini himself.
Thoroughly researched and very well written, I'd give this book an A and recommend it to those who love Steampunk, magic and the legend of Harry Houdini.
The Secret Keeper was also a surprising novel, because it starts out being a standard kind of modern day alternating with WW2 chapters book, not unlike The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Letters From Skye, without the epistolary structure. Yet the farther into the story the reader goes, the more convoluted the plot becomes, until 2/3 of the way through, the reader thinks the story will end one way, and soon discovers, in a shocking twist, that it ends in a completely different way, because one of the main characters isn't who she said she was. Perhaps I am just naive, but I was flabbergasted by the ending, yet I felt that I should have seen it coming. Still, the prose, while  workmanlike, gets a bit pudgy at times, and I felt that the plot flagged in a couple of spots. I think there are about 30 pages that could have been trimmed from this novel without it losing anything at all, especially up front, when there's way too much time spent on describing the landscape of Australia.  The story itself is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of young people in England during WW2. Laurel Nicolson witnesses her mother killing a man during her childhood, and though her mother is never charged with murder (it was called self defense since the man reached for Laurel's baby brother), now that Laurel's mother Dorothy is dying, and all her children are coming home to the family farm to be with her, Laurel wants to figure out what really happened on that day long ago when her mother stabbed a man for no apparent reason. What Laurel and her brother find, now that they are middle aged adults, is a twisted tale of love and blackmail and revenge that culminates in an ending that I've said I didn't see coming, but was pleased with nontheless. I'd give this book a B+ and recommend it to anyone who is fascinated by WW2 stories based in England, and wartime romances.

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