Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Sport of Kings

Author: C.E. Morgan
Publisher: Macmillan, 2016
My Source: Carmichael's Bookstore

Recently I attended a book reading at Carmichael's by C.E. Morgan, author of the new novel, The Sport of Kings. Morgan, who grew up in Cincinnati and attended Berea College and Harvard Divinity School, calls Berea, Kentucky home. Morgan did not take questions or talk about her book (except to say that it took nine years to write), she simply read excerpts from her book, letting it be the star of the show.

Themes of wealth, poverty, slavery, racism, sex, and rage prevail in this epic saga about Henry Forge, a boy who grows up in the 1950's on a farm in Paris, Kentucky with a brutally strict father and deaf mother. He yearns to turn the family crop farm into a horse farm to breed and raise thoroughbreds for racing. His father is vehemently opposed to this idea, but Henry does it anyway after his father's death.

As an adult he marries and has a daughter, Henrietta, whom he grooms from a young age to take over his horse farm. His wife, Judith, leaves when Henrietta is a young child. Henry and Henrietta breed and raise many horses and dream of winning the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown. They suffer ups and downs throughout the process and their journey comes to an unexpected ending.

I'm finding this book hard to describe and review due to its expansive nature. This ambitious book felt like several stories in one because it spans several generations and introduces new characters throughout.

There are six long chapters with five interludes between them plus an epilogue at the end. The interludes are like mini stories themselves. They do not include the characters of the main story but instead introduce interesting new characters with adjacent themes such as horse racing, slavery, and a new imagining of the creation story.

I found the book to be very engaging at first and it seemed to move at a quick pace, but about 2/3 of the way in I felt like the pace slowed down, and I was less interested, but still motivated to read on to find out what was going to happen to the characters

At 545 pages this hefty book with dense language and obscure words took a little getting used to. I could not read it in a noisy place because it required a lot of concentration. The author uses heavily descriptive metaphors which at times feel like tangents. Also there is not a lot of dialog between characters as much of the action takes place in the characters' minds.

Professional reviews of this book say that its strengths outweigh its flaws. One even considers it the great American novel. That being said it is not for the casual reader because it requires quite a bit of effort. But if you feel ambitious this book is worth the challenge.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 high fives

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Whip

Author: Karen Kondazian
Publisher: Hansen Publishing Group, 2012
My Source: Amazon for Kindle

This book is a historical novel about triumph in the face of adversity, loosely based on the true life story of Charlotte "Charley" Parkhurst (1812-1879), a woman who lived most of her life as a man to get a job as a whip (a stagecoach driver.)

Charlotte grows up in an orphanage in New England where she meets a boy named Lee. They form a friendly childhood bond that turns sour when they become adults. Due to their friendship, Charlotte gets into a lot of trouble. Her punishment is to live in the barn and learn how to care for horses and drive a stagecoach with Jonas, the man who cares for the animals on the property. Jonas teaches her everything he knows and becomes like a father to her.

Fresh from her beating, Charlotte was led across the yard by the iron clasp of her headmistress at a great pace. The stable yard at night might have been nightmarish--all those long shadows, the soughing in the branches, the sudden mad motion of the underbrush shagging the margins; but strange though it might be, Charlotte felts at peace. Being led at all by someone felt good.

In her 30's, Charlotte meets and falls in love with an African American man despite the prejudices of the time. They have a baby together and then tragedy strikes at the hands of Lee and Charlotte is determined to seek revenge on him.

Charlotte finds out that Lee is living out west. She sees an advertisement for a position as a whip that would take her out west and decides to apply for it. The only problem is that they don't hire women, so she disguises herself as a man, changes her name to Charley, and gets the job.

Charlotte has many adventures as a whip. She conducts a secret love affair, kills a famous outlaw, and lives with a female housekeeper who, not knowing Charlotte's true sex, falls in love with her.

I was fascinated by the description of this book, especially knowing that it was based on a true story. I was not disappointed as the book lived up to its engaging description despite a slow beginning. Given the fact that Charlotte, like all women of the time, was raised to be submissive, it was amazing that she was able to bridge the gap between the sexes and convincingly pass as a man. She kept her secret safe until her death. It almost wouldn't be believable if I didn't already know that it was true.

Although this story is one of the wild wild west and will certainly appeal to fans of that time period, it is much more than that. It is an emotional human interest story that transcends its time and place and offers a little something for everyone.

                                                      Rating: 4 out of 5 high fives

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Eleanor & Park

Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 2013
My Source: Amazon for Kindle

I skipped this book when it first came out because it is YA and I don't tend to read YA, but I heard so many good things about this book and I enjoyed Attachments, also by Rowell, so I gave this one a try. I am so glad that I did!

It is a story about first love between two teenagers over the course of a school year in 1986. Eleanor is the new girl at school and sits with Park on her first day on the school bus and everyday after that. They don't speak, but one day Park notices that she is looking over his shoulder reading his X-Men comic books. He starts to move them closer to her and then brings in more comics for her to read at home. Park finally speaks to Eleanor when he sees handwritten song lyrics on her book cover and finds out she has never listened to The Smiths. He goes home that day and makes her the first of many mixed tapes. Slowly they form a friendship around their shared love for comic books and music, which then turns into a love for each other.

Eleanor has challenges at school and at home. At school she gets bullied for her unruly curly red hair and mismatched outfits. At home, her step-father is a tyrant who controls the family with intimidation, threats, and strict rules. Park provides a safe haven away from all of the chaos in her life.

This novel beautifully captures the essence of being an insecure self-conscious adolescent experiencing love for the first time. Unlike other books of teenage love which are written only from the perspective of one of the main characters, this story is told from the perspectives of both main characters through short alternating chapters dominated by engaging dialog.

Eleanor and Park are adorable, likeable characters with strengths and weaknesses everyone can relate to. I found myself rooting for them the whole way through. The story is a quick read and once I started I couldn't put it down.

I would recommend this book to young adults both experiencing or yearning for first love, and "old" adults who are young at heart reminiscing about first love from the past.

Rating: 5 out of 5 totally awesome high fives

Bonus: In 2014 DreamWorks purchased the rights to turn the book into a movie, however it was supposed to have been completed by now.

Here is a link to a blog post by @wildfirecharm discussing what she thinks would be a fitting potential soundtrack if the movie version of the story is produced. Brilliant idea!

Sunday, June 5, 2016


Author: Miranda Beverly-Whittmore
Publisher: Crown, 2016
My Source: Goodreads Giveaway

I won this Advance Reader's Edition of the book from a Goodreads giveaway contest. I entered the contest for this specific book because I read and reviewed the author's first book, Bittersweet. Whittemore's second novel is an enjoyable read, but in my opinion, not as good as her first one.

The story revolves around a grand house called Two Oaks built in 1895 in rural Ohio. The action alternates between two time periods: 1955 and 2015. In 1955, 18 year-old June lives at Two Oaks with her mother, a disabled distant uncle, and a female African American servant. June's best friend, 14 year-old tomboy, Lindie, lives next door and often sneaks into June's bedroom window to read movie star magazines with her. In this particular summer, a Hollywood movie called Erie Canal starring Jack Montgomery, is being filmed in their little town of St. Jude. Lindie gets a job with the film crew, but June is uninterested in the movie. She has just agreed to marry Artie, though he has been away from St. Jude for sometime now.

In 2015, the reader meets 25 year-old Cassie, whom has inherited Two Oaks from her recently deceased grandmother, June (yes, the same June.) Cassie finds herself having pleasant recurring dreams of two girls from the past living in Two Oaks. The house has fallen into disrepair and Cassie doesn't have the money to fix it up. One day, a man comes to her door telling her that the actor, Jack Montgomery, has left his $37 million fortune to her because he believed her to be his granddaughter. One of Jack Montgomery's famous daughters is contesting the will and comes to St. Jude to meet Cassie. Together they try to determine whether or not June had an affair with Jack Montgomery in 1955.

Good god, yes, Tate Montgomery in the flesh, removing her glasses and cap, climbing the steps, getting closer and closer like she had stepped out of some ridiculous Technicolor movie where she was larger than life and a chorus of strings swelled at the sight of her. But this was not a movie at all. It just kept going.

Essentially this novel consists of two stories in two different time periods, both of them compelling. The author portrays Two Oaks as a recurring character in the two stories. In 1955 it is a happy place unlike any other home in town, large and ornate, and inspiring curiosity among the townsfolk who jump at the chance to tour it at the movie's wrap party. By 2015 it is a sad broken down house, in need of much repair, not unlike its sole inhabitant, Cassie. Through the use of Cassie's dreams, the author beautifully connects the events that take place in the house of the past to those that take place in the house of the present.

Cassie tells Tate Montgomery that she will only give a DNA sample if she first helps her research the events that took place in the summer of 1955. It seems unrealistic that they would together sift through historical documents and talk to long-time residents of St. Jude to find the answer to Cassie's parentage, rather than just doing the DNA test, but then there wouldn't be this lovely story.

The novel is longish (379 pages) or at least it felt that way. It was drawn out and could have been wrapped up in about 300 pages. Also, my expectations were quite high based on my enjoyment of the author's previous novel. While a very enjoyable read, my expectations were not fully met.

                                                      Rating: 3.5 out of 5 high fives