Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review: People of the Book

Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book 

By Geraldine Brooks
Penguine Books, December 2008

About the Book

Inspired by a true story, People of the Book is a novel of sweeping historical grandeur and intimate emotional intensity by an acclaimed and beloved author. Called a tour de force by the San Francisco Chronicle, this ambitious, electrifying work traces the harrowing journey of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, a beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript created in fifteenth-century Spain. When it falls to Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, to conserve this priceless work, the series of tiny artifacts she discovers in its ancient binding—an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair—only begin to unlock its deep mysteries and unexpectedly plunges Hanna into the intrigues of fine art forgers and ultra-nationalist fanatics.

My Review

In this 2008 novel by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks, we are invited to view a fictionalized history of the Sarajevo Haggadah. For those who don’t know, a Haggadah is a Jewish religious text used to oversee the Passover seder. Here Ms. Brooks dreams up a fictionalized journey for one of the more famous editions.

Australian antique manuscript expert Hanna Heath is called by the UN to catalogue and conserve the newly resurfaced 15th century text. This Haggadah is different than most in that it’s intricately illustrated and is one of the oldest known copies in existence. As Hanna carefully unlocks the mysteries the book holds, she finds a series of artifacts—part of a butterfly’s wing, a white hair, a red stain—that gives her clues to the book’s incredible journey.

Interspersed with Hanna’s story are flashbacks that give the reader insights into how the artifacts link to those who created and cherished the book throughout its history. The physical evidence takes us from 15th century Spain, to 17th century Venice, to the 1990s, and although the evidence itself is fascinating, it’s truly the “people of the book” that Ms. Brooks highlights. As we trace the book’s path, we relive the struggles of the Jewish people across time and space.

I admit I was far more interested in the physical artifacts than in the stories (just a personal preference), but the stories are undeniably moving and the book serves as the bridge to link these disparate groups together. If you are like me and don’t read much in the way of Eastern European history, this book is really eye opening. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer

Monday, April 25, 2016

All-of-a Kind-Family and Historical Diversity

by Michelle Ule

Growing up in the port of Los Angeles, I lived in an ethnically diverse community. Many neighbors and schoolmates came from families that originated in European fishing villages.

I lived in a babble of foreign tongues, regularly hearing the languages of Croatia, Norway, Italy, Greece, Spain, Sweden and even Mexico.

Most of these nations supported a strong Catholic Church with the addition of Lutherans from Scandinavia.

I didn't meet a Jewish person until I was a teenager.

 Yet, I knew a lot about the traditions and customs of the Jewish faith because of a series of children's historical stories I checked out of the library: The All-of-a-Kind Family of books by Sydney Taylor.

The five short novels which I discovered at age 10, tell the story of a five sisters living in the Jewish lower east side of New York City in the second decade of the 20th century.

They were poor, the children of a rag collector and a determined mother. Yet, the homelife depicted was rich with family life, the Jewish holidays, terrific food (except maybe gefullte fish--it never appealed to me) and the normal everyday-life of going to the library and hoping to save up enough pennies to buy candy.

Two years apart, like stair steps, Ella, Henrietta, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie were “five little girls [who] shared one bedroom—and never minded bedtime. Snuggled in our beds we would talk and giggle and plan tomorrow’s fun and mischief.”

We read historical fiction to learn about a different time and place, to gain cultural understanding as to why things might have happened the way they did and to recognize how similar people are across time, races, tradition, religion and elementary needs.

The All of a Kind Family stories are amusing and with a light tone, the five books were set against a society in turmoil and riven by class, money and the threat of World War I.

The five girls learned what it meant to sacrifice for others, to give generously to those in less prosperous circumstances than their own, and to rejoice in the simple pleasures of family life.

I hadn't read the books in many years, but was struck by how fondly I remembered how they handled trouble. To name a few:

* Dying a white dress that had tea spilt on it by dipping it in more tea, for one.

* Learning to dust well when a clever mother hid pennies to find and keep if you dusted the right places.

* The kindness of a librarian when--gasp--your friend lost your book.

* The generosity of sharing with your sisters to help someone in need, even if it your discouraged father.

* The family and food traditions of a different faith, told in a simple matter of fact way.

These books are the reason I've understood Purim, Hannukah and the Festival of Booths!

The stories were born of Sydney Taylor's family and at her death in 1978, a prize was established to honor Jewish Children's Literature: The Sydney Taylor award.

It didn't take me long to read the five All-of-a-Kind books as an adult; I'll soon be reading them aloud to my own granddaughters.

The All-of-a-Kind Family teaches gently, with love, and provides historical insight without a child even knowing it!


 All-of-a-Kind Family and cultural diversity. Click to Tweet

 How I learned about Jewish traditions in a Catholic town. Click to Tweet

 Kid books and Jewish traditions: All of a Kind Family. Click to Tweet

Michelle Ule is the bestselling author of historical fiction novellas. She is currently writing a
biography of Mrs. Oswald Chambers which will be published in 2017. For more information about her, check out her twice-a-week blog at

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review: A Curious Beginning

Deanna Raybourn
A Curious Beginning
By Deanna Raybourn
NAL, September 2015

About the Book

London, 1887. As the city prepares to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, Veronica Speedwell is marking a milestone of her own. After burying her spinster aunt, the orphaned Veronica is free to resume her world travels in pursuit of scientific inquiry—and the occasional romantic dalliance. As familiar with hunting butterflies as she is fending off admirers, Veronica wields her butterfly net and a sharpened hatpin with equal aplomb, and with her last connection to England now gone, she intends to embark upon the journey of a lifetime.

But fate has other plans, as Veronica discovers when she thwarts her own abduction with the help of an enigmatic German baron with ties to her mysterious past. Promising to reveal in time what he knows of the plot against her, the baron offers her temporary sanctuary in the care of his friend Stoker—a reclusive natural historian as intriguing as he is bad tempered. But before the baron can deliver on his tantalizing vow to reveal the secrets he has concealed for decades, he is found murdered. Suddenly Veronica and Stoker are forced to go on the run from an elusive assailant, wary partners in search of the villainous truth.

My Review

In this first installment of the Veronica Speedwell mystery series, we meet Veronica, a foundling raised by two elderly aunts, the last of which has recently died, leaving her alone in the world. A passionate naturalist with an enthusiasm for butterflies, Veronica has traveled the globe in search of prized specimens and steamy romantic entanglements, according to her own strict terms.

Independent, tart, bold, non-traditional, and terribly unapologetic, Veronica sets out to start her own life just before Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, when a German baron warns Veronica that her life is in danger. He takes her to London and puts her in the care of his friend, a reclusive malcontent named Stoker, but before the baron can explain things further, he is murdered. Stoker and Veronica, at first reluctant allies, must work together to learn who killed the baron and why they are now targeting Veronica. Of course, Stoker has his own secrets to keep, and as their anonymous enemies close in, Veronica and Stoker must stay steps ahead of people who very much want them dead.

Filled with sparkling wit, witty repartee, and palpable romantic tension, this book is a delight from beginning to end. There is only one (slight) complaint I have with the ending, but I can’t reveal it here, as it would spoil it for others. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to revisiting Veronica and Stoker in the next installment.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

This Week in History 4/17 - 4/23

This Week in History
April 17:
  • Apollo 13 arrives safely on Earth after oxygen tank explosion (1970)
  • US Civil War: Virginia secedes from the Union (1861)
  • 11,745 immigrants arrive at Ellis Island in New York (1897)
  • The Bay of Pigs invasion begins (1961)
  • Charles Henry Parkhurst, preacher who challenged Tammany Hall in New York City where police and organized crime were in cahoots, was born (1842)
  • Ford Mustang formally introduced (1964)
  • WW2: The Kingdom of Yugoslavia surrenders to Germany (1941)
  • Geoffrey Chaucer tells the "Canterbury Tales" for the first time at the court of English King Richard II (1397)
  • Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures & Louis B Mayer Co merged to form Metro Goldwyn Mayer - MGM (1924)
April 18:
  • US Revolutionary War: Paul Revere and William Dawes warn of British attack in what is now known as “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” (1775)
  • Thousands of Chinese students continue to take to the streets in Beijing to protest against the government (1989)
  • US Civil War: Colonel Robert E. Lee turns down offer to command Union armies (1861)
  • WW2: James Doolittle bombs Tokyo & other Japanese cities (1942)
  • Great San Francisco Earthquake (1906)
  • Martin Luther would not recant his thesis at the Diet of Worms (1521)
  • Grace Kelly marries Prince Rainier of Monaco (1956)
  • WW2: Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed by Japanese machine-gun fire (1945)
  • WW1: US Secretary of State Warns Germany that the USA may break diplomatic relations unless torpedo attacks on unarmed ships stop (1916)
  • WW2: "Stars & Stripes" paper for US armed forces debuts (1941)
  • A United States federal court rules that poet Ezra Pound is to be released from an insane asylum (1958)
  • Supreme Court rules states could make it a crime to possess or look at child pornography, even in one's home (1990)
  • Mount Everest sees its deadliest day when 16 Nepali mountaineering guides are killed in an avalanche (2014)
April 19:
  • American Revolutionary War: Revolution begins with the Battle of Lexington, the shot heard around the world (1775)
  • American Revolutionary War: New England militiamen begin the siege of Boston, hemming in the British army garrison (1775)
  • First Boston Marathon (1897)
  • American Revolutionary War: John Adams secures Dutch Republic's recognition of the United States as an independent government, and the Netherlands became first American embassy (1782)
  • American Revolutionary War: Paul Revere is captured by the British (1775)
  • Sally Ride announced as first woman astronaut (1982)
  • US Civil War: Lincoln orders blockade of Confederate ports (1861)
  • Reformers were first called Protestants (1529)
  • Supreme Court outlaws excluding people from juries because of gender (1994)
  • Connecticut finally approves Bill of Rights, 148 years late (1939)
  • Shirley Temple appears in her first movie, Stand Up & Cheer (1934)
  • General Douglas MacArthur ends his military career (1951)
April 20:
  • At Columbine High School, two teenage gunman target Christian, killing 15 and wounding 23 (1999)
  • WW2: Germans Nazi troops massacred the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto (1943)
  • First known performance of Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth at the Globe Theatre (1611)
  • Birth of David Brainerd, missionary to the Stockbridge, Delaware and Susquehanna Indians (1718)
  • Klu Klx Klan Act authorizes President Grant to declare martial law, impose heavy penalties against terrorist organizations, and use military force to suppress the Ku Klux Klan (1871)
  • WW1: Manfred Von Richthofen, aka The Red Baron, shoots down his 79th and 80th victims marking his final victories before his death the following day (1918)
  • First detective story, Edgar Allen Poe's Murders in Rue Morgue, published (1841)
  • US Revolutionary War: New York adopts new constitution as an independent state (1777)
  • Territory of Wisconsin created (1836)
  • Pope Gregory IX who instituted the Inquisition (1233)
  • First check sent by radio facsimile transmission across Atlantic (1926)
  • Pope Eugenius IV issued the bull which asserted the superiority of the pope over the Councils (1441)
  • 136,000 mine workers strike in Ohio for pay increase (1894)
April 21:
  • Traditional date Christ was crucified (33 AD)
  • D.L. Moody was converted to Christianity (1855)
  • William Bradford become governor of Plymouth, Massachusetts (1621)
  • Birth of A. W. Tozer, Bible scholar and author of The Pursuit of God and The Root of Righteousness (1897)
  • Rome was founded by Remus and Romulus (753 B.C.)
  • Spanish-American War: The U.S. Congress, on April 25, recognizes that a state of war exists between the United States and Spain as of this date (1898)
  • WW1: German fighter ace Baron Manfred Von Richthofen "The Red Baron", shot down and killed over Vaux sur Somme in France (1918)
  • Fire at Ohio State Penitentiary kills 322 (1930)
  • FBI arrested Timothy McVeigh & charge him with Oklahoma City bombing (1995)
  • The Toleration Act was passed by the Maryland Assembly which protected Roman Catholics within the American colony against Protestant harassment (1649)
  • William III & Mary Stuart proclaimed King & Queen, duel monarchs, of England (1689)
  • Death of St. Anselm, Bible scholar, Christian philosopher, and apologist  (1109)
  • The first discoveries of extrasolar planets are announced by astronomer Alexander Wolszczan (1994)
  • John Adams sworn in as first US Vice President nine days before Washington (1789)
  • Abraham Lincoln's funeral train leaves Washington (1865)
  • First Lady Lucy Hayes begins egg rolling contest on White House lawn (1878)
April 22:
  • Oklahoma land rush begins (1889)
  • “In God We Trust” first appears on US currency (1864)
  • WW1: First military use of poison gas, chlorine by Germany (1915)
  • US President Washington attends opening of Rickett's, first circus in US (1793)
  • Spanish American War: US President McKinley orders blockade of Cuban harbors (1898)
  • Spanish American War: Congress passes Volunteer Army Act calling for a Volunteer Cavalry (1898)
  • Holocaust Memorial Museum dedicated in Washington D.C. (1993)
April 23:
  • Traditional date Christ rose from the dead on the first Easter (33 AD)
  • William Shakespeare born (1564)
  • Democratic convention in Charleston SC divided over slavery (1860)
  • US Civil War: Robert E. Lee named commander of Virginia Confederate forces (1861)
  • Bishop Adalbert, first missionary to the Prussians, was murdered (997 AD)
 * Reprinted from Word Sharpeners with permission.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review: Hanging Mary

Susan Higginbotham
Hanging Mary
By Susan Higginbothem
Sourcebooks Landmark, March 2016

About the Book

1864, Washington City. One has to be careful, with talk of secession, of Confederate whispers falling on Northern ears. Better to speak only when in the company of the trustworthy. Like Mrs. Surratt.

A widow who runs a small boardinghouse on H Street, Mary Surratt isn’t half as committed to the cause as her son, Johnny. If he’s not delivering messages or escorting veiled spies, he’s invited home men like John Wilkes Booth, the actor who is even more charming in person than he is on the stage.

But when President Lincoln is killed, the question of what Mary knew becomes more important than anything else. Was she a cold-blooded accomplice? Just how far would she go to help her son?

Based on the true case of Mary Surratt, Hanging Mary reveals the untold story of those on the other side of the assassin’s gun.

Historical Novel Society Review

In this novel we meet Mary Surratt, the only woman convicted and executed in connection with the Lincoln assassination. The widow of a drunkard, Mary remakes her life as a boarding house owner in Washington, DC. With her eldest son, Isaac, fighting for the Confederacy, Mary has concerns about her wayward son, Johnny, an impressionable and frequently unemployed young man who undertakes dubious schemes in support of the Southern cause.

The other voice within this novel is that of Mrs. Surratt’s boarder, Nora Fitzpatrick, admirer of President Lincoln and loyal friend to the Surratt women. When Johnny Surratt brings home the charismatic actor John Wilkes Booth, Mary’s boarders are star struck. Although concerned by Johnny’s mysterious associates, Mary agrees to look the other way and is eventually convinced to pass along cryptic messages, although she prefers to remain blissfully ignorant of the details.

Higginbotham’s Mary is a supremely devout woman, a true “victim of circumstance” who pays dearly for her naiveté. She is tried in a military court, and despite several pleas for clemency, she becomes the first woman executed by the U.S. government.

Three things make this novel truly shine: the many historical details that paint a vivid picture of those days in 1865, and the facts that neither narrator is an eyewitness to the assassination and that Mary’s fate is revealed on the title page, yet the plot never suffers for it. Two notable women, with different perspectives, get a chance to tell their tales. Whether you believe Mary was an active accomplice or unwitting victim, the injustice she faces at the hands of those out for revenge won’t fail to grip you until the final pages, even as she approaches her own inevitable conclusion.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Review: Little Century

Anna Keesey
Little Century
By Anna Keesey
Picador, July 2013

About the Book

In the tradition of such Western classics as My Ántonia and There Will Be Blood, Anna Keesey’s Little Century is a resonant and moving debut novel by a writer of confident gifts.

Orphaned after the death of her mother, eighteen-year-old Esther Chambers heads west in search of her only living relative. In the lawless town of Century, Oregon, she’s met by her distant cousin―a cattle rancher named Ferris Pickett. There, she begins a new life as a homesteader in the hope that her land will one day join Pick’s impressive spread.

But Century is in the midst of an escalating and violent war over water and rangeland. As incidents between the sheep and cattle ranchers turn to bloodshed, Esther’s sympathies are divided between her cousin and a sheepherder named Ben Cruff, sworn enemy of the cattlemen. Torn between her growing passion for Ben and her love of the austere land, she begins to realize that she can’t be loyal to both.

My Review

Esther Chambers’ mother passes away, and so she makes the journey from Chicago to the ranching lands of Century, Oregon. A distant cousin, Ferris Pickett, meets her and asks her to homestead a piece of land he hopes to one day add to his thriving cattle operation. Only 18, Esther doesn’t meet the qualifications for homesteading, but Pickett encourages her to claim she’s 21 and to live on the land in a tiny cabin and farm it with minimal help until enough time passes that he might obtain it.

Esther meets a cast of characters very different from any she’s known in Chicago. There’s the postmistress who steams open everyone’s mail and reports her intelligence; there’s the school teacher with a shady past who changed her name and hopes for a new life; there are the sheepherders, namely the Cruffs, who want to share the land with the cattle ranchers, who refuse to do so; and there is the railroad the cattlemen attempt to woo in the hopes that the line will be extended to include tiny Century, making it easier to ship their cattle east. But the conflict between the cattlemen and the sheepherders becomes vicious, with stock slaughtered, men beaten, and homes torched.

When Pickett asks Esther for an “understanding” for them to wed, she agrees. She has come to love the land and enjoys her little patch of it more than she ever thought. But Pickett hasn’t told Esther much about himself, and as Esther comes to understand his past and his involvement in the current conflict between the cattlemen and the sheepherders, she finds herself in a tough position.

The publisher likens this book to Willa Cather’s work, and I’d agree. It’s a grown up Little House on the Prairie with some historic conflict over grazing rights thrown in. It’s very slow in the beginning as Esther acclimates to Oregon life, but as the discord in town grows and Esther must choose a side, it comes to a satisfying conclusion.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Author Lyn Cote Brings Historical Conflict to Life in her Quaker Brides Series

Author of over 40 books, award-winning author Lyn Cote writes contemporary and historical romance. Her homepage blog features "Strong Women, Brave Stories."
To contact her, visit her website/blog at and find her on Facebook, GoodReads and Twitter.

Welcome to Novel PASTimes, Lyn! We’re glad you’re here. Have you learned anything new that’s helped you currently with your writing journey that you could share with us? 
I’ve started using James Scott Bell’s new book, Writing from the Middle. It really helps me Focus in on the theme of the book.
Please tell us about your latest novel, Faith, from your Quaker Brides series.

Faith is the youngest daughter of Honor Cathwell. Faith’s family began working for abolition since 1819. In Honor and Blessing, the first two installments, the mother and oldest daughter of the family worked toward this goal. Now the Civil War has begun and Faith serves as a nurse for the Union Army. She is also searching for childhood friend who though freeborn was kidnapped back into slavery.
What spawned the idea for this story? What do you feel boosts your creativity? 

I always like to find a period of great change and conflict for my historical novels because then there are a lot of events that trigger responses. People must make choices. Reading a really good book or watching a really creative movie invigorates my own creativity.

Who is your favorite character? And why? Do you see yourself at all in
this character?

I really can’t choose. There is some of me in all my heroines.

As an inspirational author, how do you feel your faith and/or ethical values come through in your writing? 

I find that my heroines are almost always crusading for some cause. I think that my faith causes me to root for the underdog. I also like to challenge my readers to examine what they are doing now that is for the betterment of others.

Is there a genre different from the one you write in, which you particularly enjoy reading? And why?

 I love to read cozy mysteries. My favorite series right now is the Arbor Vale mystery series by Eunice Loecher. These are set in my home town area, in the north woods of Wisconsin.

Would you be willing to share with our readers what a typical productive writing day in your life is like?  

I wake early and start writing while my husband walks the treadmill and showers. After he makes me breakfast, I get dressed for the day and then I start writing again. I write everyday except one. And I try to write seven pages a day. That’s my goal and my limit.

Do you have any tips for aspiring or new authors in marketing or blogging? 

Take time to figure out what readers connect with in your stories. Read what people say after they read your books--not just that it was good. That’s how I discovered my brand which is Strong Women, Brave Stories. It includes a crusading heroine, a multicultural cast of characters, and authentic history.

Thank you, for visiting with us at Novel PASTimes this week. It’s been a privilege interviewing you.

Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it too.
Lyn Cote is giving away her e-book novella, Where Honor Began, a prequel to her Quaker Brides series. Please leave a comment by Sunday, April 10, to be entered in the drawing this week.  PLEASE REMEMBER TO leave your email address in the form of [name]at[domain].com to qualify. Thank you! 

About Where Honor Began:

How can unexpected visitors turn one’s world upside down? 

Honor Penworthy, a young Maryland lady, tries to keep faith with a friend amidst family turmoil.

But the stakes rise higher when the war that seemed so faraway comes dangerously close to her and those she loves.

What a difference three days can make in one life--leaving a legacy of conflict but with honor.