Monday, February 27, 2017

A Deadly Affection by Cuyler Overholt, The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict, The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan and The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh

After last night's Oscar debacle, I am even more sold on being a bibliophile, and I am glad to note that I am ahead of schedule in making my way to 600 posts of book reviews on Butterfly Books. The four books I am reviewing on this post are all from the Maple Valley branch of the King County Library System (KCLS), and each book was excellent in it's own surprising way.

A Deadly Affection by the lyrically-named Cuyler Overholt (I found myself imagining a car named for her, as in "This deluxe 2017 Cuyler Overholt sports coupe in lipstick red goes from zero to 60 in 10 seconds!") is a Victorian mystery with a female protagonist who is a physician/psychiatrist at the turn of the last century. Usually anything with a brave woman who blazes a trail in an all-male field hooks me into a book right away, but I hesitated a bit with this book because it was the first of a series, and those can be spotty, if not handled deftly. 
I need not have worried, Overholt handled the history and the characters like an old pro, delving right into the life and times of Dr Genevieve Summerford with graceful prose that would seem to come from an author with dozens of books to her credit. Here's the blurb: 
"Do no harm" is easier said than done...
Dr. Genevieve Summerford prides herself on her ability as a psychiatrist to understand the inner workings of the human mind. But when one of her patients is arrested for murder-a murder Genevieve fears she may have unwittingly provoked-she begins to doubt her training and intuition. Unable to believe that her patient could have committed the gruesome crime, Genevieve seeks out answers, desperate to clear the woman's name-and her own.
Over the course of her investigation, Genevieve uncovers a dark secret-one that could, should Genevieve choose to reveal it, bring down catastrophe on those she cares most about. But, should she let it lie, it will almost certainly send her patient to the electric chair. Steeped in the gritty atmosphere of turn-of-the-century New York City, A Deadly Affection is a riveting debut mystery and the first in an exciting new series featuring Dr. Genevieve Summerford.
Though I know it's appropriate for the time, my only difficulty with the book is the parent/child relationship that Genna has with her bullying, straight-laced, old fashioned father, who wants his daughter to take a fluff job at a hospital where she will be bored and safe, instead of doing what she loves and helping women with mental illness that is causing them physical ailments as well. Dr Gen is a proponent of what is now called "group" talk therapy, wherein a group of people with similar mental or physical ailments get together and commiserate and talk through their issues, ridding themselves of loneliness and bringing their pain into the open, so that they can heal. Unfortunately, her advice is misinterpreted by one of her patients, who is then accused of decapitating the doctor who delivered and sold her baby daughter 20 years earlier. When it comes to light that this patient may have Huntington's Chorea, a dreadful genetic disease, Dr Gen hunts for the real killer and for the father of her patient's baby to see if he had the disease as well. Readers should note that there are two gruesome decapitations and a horrible incest/rape scene that might be a trigger. I am not a fan of horror, but that said, I loved this book, which was a real page-turner, despite the heroine's constant knuckling under to her awful father and his good opinion of her. I think she should have told him to go to hell and moved out, but at the time this book takes place, that wasn't really an option. Also, I want to note here that Huntington's Chorea still has no cure, 100 plus years after this story takes place, which is a crime unto itself. Still, I'd give this moving book an A, and recommend it to anyone who likes historical mysteries with strong female protagonists.

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict is the story of Mitza Maric, the brilliant young woman who studied physics, science and math with Albert Einstein in the late 19th, early 20th century in Switzerland. She was Albert's first wife, and from what is posited in the story, she was the one who did the math and wrote most of his original paper on relativity, which had him up for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. Apparently Albert, like many German men I've known in my own family, was a lying, cheating, immature, oppressive sexist bastard who felt that Mitza's only role should be as his slavish hausfrau, taking care of his children and writing papers for him and not getting any credit because, as a woman, she doesn't deserve any.  The first half of the book focuses on Mitza's life and studies, and it is only in the second half that she succumbs to Alberts blandishments, in which he assures her that he wants a "bohemian" marriage of equals, where they'd work alongside one another and she'd get credit for her work just like he does. Of course that doesn't happen, and Mitza, who has a lame leg and who has been told she'd never wed because of it, ends up giving up her studies, her career and her dignity when Albert welshes on their deal ASAP. Here's the blurb:
In the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein offers us a window into a brilliant, fascinating woman whose light was lost in Einstein's enormous shadow. It is the story of Einstein's wife, a brilliant physicist in her own right, whose contribution to the special theory of relativity is hotly debated and may have been inspired by her own profound and very personal insight.
Mitza Maric has always been a little different from other girls. Most twenty-year-olds are wives by now, not studying physics at an elite Zurich university with only male students trying to outdo her clever calculations. But Mitza is smart enough to know that, for her, math is an easier path than marriage. And then fellow student Albert Einstein takes an interest in her, and the world turns sideways. Theirs becomes a partnership of the mind and of the heart, but there might not be room for more than one genius in a marriage.Publisher's Weekly:Albert Einstein may not have been the only mastermind behind his groundbreaking ideas about relativity; it turns out the renowned theoretical physicist collaborated a great deal with his first wife, Mileva Marić—a Serbian woman of modest means who was one of the few women to study math and science at the Zurich Polytechnic School where the two meet. In her compelling novel, Benedict shows how Mileva transforms from a sheltered girl into a personally and professionally fulfilled young woman as she meets other educated women like her in the Swiss boarding house near her school and, through her new acquaintance Albert Einstein, engages in theoretical discussions with male colleagues during which her intelligence is both admired and supported. But Albert and Mileva are a product of their times; the turn of the century wasn’t exactly a liberating time for women, and the self-centered Albert has no compunctions about deleting her name from papers they assiduously work on together. Their tenuous personal life (including a child he ignores), his affairs, and his insistence that his wife be more possession than spouse causes the marriage to implode. Did giving Mileva his Nobel Prize earnings assuage his guilt for her unacknowledged assistance and confirm her contribution to his work? Benedict makes a strong case that the brilliant woman behind him was integral to his success, and creates a rich historical portrait in the process.
By the end of this book I wanted to kick Albert Einstein in the gonads and punch him in the face, repeatedly, just as he physically and mentally abused Mitza, also called Mileva. Still, it serves as a cautionary tale to women with ambition that it is rare to be able to "have it all" with a spouse and children and a career. It also highlights how much women give up when they marry men, who take time away from their goals and careers. Benedict's prose was workmanlike and clean, and her plot moved at a measured pace. I'd give this novel an A-, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in Einstein's early life.
The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan isn't aptly named, as the protagonist doesn't have a book shop on the corner at all, she has a big old book bus that she drives all over Scotland, bringing the love of reading and storytelling to rural people hungry for good literature. Other than the cliche of Nina Redmond, the protagonist, being a "petite" mousy librarian, afraid of her own shadow, those were the only problems I had with this delightful story that I devoured in one sitting.  Here's the blurb:
Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.
Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile—a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling.
From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending. Kirkus Reviews: What’s a shy English librarian to do when she’s downsized out of a job and her only hope for remaining employed is to become a social media–savvy coordinator of online content? For 29-year-old Nina, it’s time to pursue her dream of opening a small bookshop. After all, since no one reads anymore, the library system is practically throwing away its books, and no will mind if Nina rescues them like orphans and finds them new homes. Certainly her roommate, the beautiful Surinder, will be pleased to rid their apartment of the architecture-imperiling weight of piles of novels. But real estate is expensive, so Nina decides to buy a van and travel around in a mobile bookstore. She locates the perfect vehicle in Kirrinfief, Scotland, where her real adventures begin. Soon enough, she’s relocated to the Highlands, and her life is newly populated with delightfully quirky characters, including Marek, a Latvian train engineer and romantic hero, who begins exchanging love letters and books of poetry with Nina on a tree at a railway crossing; Ainslee, a mercurial teenage girl eager for a job yet wary of revealing anything about her home life; and Lennox, Nina’s grumpy landlord, who’s separated from his posh wife and who increasingly occupies Nina’s thoughts. Amid the gorgeous scenery of Scotland, Nina sets out to find the right book for everyone in her new town. With a keen eye for the cinematic, Colgan is a deft mistress of romantic comedy; Nina’s story is laced with clever dialogue and scenes set like jewels, just begging to be filmed. A charming, bracingly fresh happily-ever-after tale with playful nods to the Outlander series.
I disliked the Outlander series, so I don't agree with the last line of the Kirkus review, but I did find the book to beautifully written and well plotted, and I was heartily disappointed that Marek turned out to be a jerk who was married, with a family back in Latvia, but because he was lonely he felt he could woo Nina and have an affair with her without consequence. Nina is quick to forgive him when I wouldn't have been, but once she picks up with her grumpy landlord Lennox, things start to fall into place for her, and her life gets back on track. Scotland, which is on my bucket list (along with Wales), sounds like a fantastic place to live and work, full of interesting and quirky people and hearty delicious cuisine. It was also the perfect place for Nina to grow up and gain a spine, to become the person she was meant to be, changing lives one book at a time. A well deserved A, with the recommendation to anyone who loves good stories and books and Scotland.

The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh is the second and final book in this wonderful duology based on the 1001 Nights tale of Shaharizad. Though I seriously doubt women in the middle east were given this much power or latitude in their lives, even now, I was still delighted by the kick-butt protagonist Shazi, who learns to control her powers and her flying carpet and wins the day, along with her Caliph/King in the end. Here's the blurb:
The much anticipated sequel to the breathtaking The Wrath and the Dawn, lauded by Publishers Weekly as "a potent page-turner of intrigue and romance."
I am surrounded on all sides by a desert. A guest, in a prison of sand and sun. My family is here. And I do not know whom I can trust.
In a land on the brink of war, Shahrzad has been torn from the love of her husband Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan. She once believed him a monster, but his secrets revealed a man tormented by guilt and a powerful curse—one that might keep them apart forever. Reunited with her family, who have taken refuge with enemies of Khalid, and Tariq, her childhood sweetheart, she should be happy. But Tariq now commands forces set on destroying Khalid's empire. Shahrzad is almost a prisoner caught between loyalties to people she loves. But she refuses to be a pawn and devises a plan.

While her father, Jahandar, continues to play with magical forces he doesn't yet understand, Shahrzad tries to uncover powers that may lie dormant within her. With the help of a tattered old carpet and a tempestuous but sage young man, Shahrzad will attempt to break the curse and reunite with her one true love.
Shazi's father Jahandar is a complete asshat, whose only interest is to gain power and status and have people bowing down to him, instead of actually helping people with his magic. He does redeem himself at the end, but it's a near thing, and I felt so sorry for Shazi that she has such a crappy family (including her weak and idiotic sister, who keeps making things worse)and no one but herself and her husband to rely on for support. However, Ahdieh serves up mesmerizing prose that is so lush and sensual that you can feel the hot sand beneath your feet and smell the exotic spices in the air throughout both books. Her plots fly like the magic carpet and her characters are fascinating. The HEA with Shazi and Kahlid is welcome and perfect, and I felt this set of novels deserves an A, with a recommendation for anyone who is interested in Tales of the Arabian Nights updated for the YA audience.

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