Illuminations by Mary Sharratt – Book Review

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard Von Bingen by Mary Sharratt
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

As a young girl, Hildegard sees visions, visions that she believes come from God. Of course, in the 11th century, visions can be a tricky proposition. Do they come from the Lord or the devil? Perhaps Hildegard’s mother believes her visions will make her unmarriageable, perhaps as the youngest of many children she will have no dowry, or perhaps she simply wants to curry favor with the noble house of Sponheim. Regardless of the reason, Hildegard’s mother makes the decision to give her daughter, her youngest child to the church. Hildegard will be a handmaiden to Jutta van Sponheim. This all seems bad enough to Hildegard, but then she learned that she and Jutta were not to be normal nuns, but would be enclosed – literally walled inside a series of small rooms in a monastery. After many years in her literal and figurative prison, Hildegard wins her release from her prison – although not her vows – upon Jutta’s death, becoming renowned as a Christian mystic.

Hildegard’s story is bizarre, terrifying, and inspiring by turns, to the point where it seems that it simply must be fiction. At the same time, though, it is clear that Sharratt has done her historical research here, because both Hildegard and the world in which she lived are vividly rendered and fully fleshed-out. Hildegard herself is an absolutely fascinating human being, accomplishing much more than one might think possible for the youngest child of minor Germanic nobility in the 11th century – and a woman, no less! Her visions and eventual relative power could have made her a difficult character to empathize with, but Sharratt humanizes her very effectively, partially by describing her almost maternal feelings towards the young women who are given to the church against their own will to serve alongside her.

Although I really enjoyed Sharratt’s Daughters of the Witching Hill, I absolutely loved Illuminations. Sharratt writes about a women who was formerly unknown to me, and does so in a way that makes me feel that I truly know her. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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How Children Succeed by Paul Tough – Audiobook Review

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, narrated by Dan John Miller
Published in audio by Tantor Media, published in print by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Synopsis:

From the publisher:

A foremost New Yorker and New York Times journalist reverses three decades of thinking about what creates successful children, solving the mysteries of why some succeed and others fail – and of how to move individual children toward their full potential for success.

Thoughts on the text

Much of what Tough talks about in How Children Succeed – such as the need for strong attachments – is not new. However, combined with some of the newer and less-known research about non-cognitive skills, often referred to as character traits, such as curiosity and grit, these old Psych 101 ideas take on new life. Tough’s reporting is straightforward, informative, and interesting. Perhaps his greatest skill is his ability to explain his ideas across audiences. The average parent could absolutely pick up How Children Succeed and understand any and all of Tough’s theses and explanations, but he is not too simplistic for our household, with our education and education-reform backgrounds. That being said, much of the content in How Children Succeed that will appeal most to those interested in education reform. There is information for parents, but this is decidedly not a parenting book. Tough focuses primarily at students at the outsides of the socioeconomic divide: poor minority students and the children of the 1%. Still, there are things in here that parents can easily extrapolate for their own children.

As far as the issue of school reform goes, How Children Succeed reports ideas from some of the leading lights in today’s movement and comes up with some very interesting ideas, many of which do seem to have the potential to effect great change. If only the parents and caregivers of my old students on the South Side of Chicago had been given attachment therapy! Our school days might have been much different and more productive.

As a side note: having been a Teach for America teacher in Chicago I was familiar with many of the reformers Tough refers to, which may have increased for me the legitimacy of his arguments, I am clearly predisposed to agreeing with many of these people.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Dan John Miller does a great job keeping How Children Succeed interesting. Of course, Tough writes engagingly enough that the text itself is interesting, but Miller adds audible interest as well. When narrating conversations between Tough and some of the subjects of his investigations or direct quotes from some of the same people, Miller gives these people unique voices. The voices are fairly subtle, so it doesn’t matter that Miller isn’t exactly a credible high school girl. In addition, Miller seems just as passionate about the subject matter of How Children Succeed as Tough is himself, which gives Tough’s findings an increased feeling of importance to listeners.

Overall:

A fascinating look at the non-cognitive markers of success. Interesting for parents, but especially relevant for the school reform-minded out there. If you’re going to want to take notes, by all means you probably want to approach this in print, but if you want a general introduction to Tough’s arguments, Dan John Miller’s narration is a great choice.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Audio/Print*
Indiebound: Audio/Print*

Sound Bytes is a meme that occurs every Friday! I encourage you to review your audiobooks on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. by Carole DeSanti – Audiobook Review

The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. by Carole DeSanti, narrated by Kate Reading
Published in audio by Blackstone Audio, published in print by TK

Synopsis:

From the publisher:

Love and war converge in this lush, epic story of a young woman’s struggle with life and love during and after the Second Empire (1852 – 1871), an era that was absinthe-soaked, fueled by railway money and prostitution, and transformed by cataclysmic social upheaval.

Eugénie R., born in foie gras country, follows the man she loves to Paris but soon finds herself marooned. An outcast, she charts the treacherous waters of sexual commerce on a journey through artists’ ateliers and pawnshops, zinc bars and luxurious bordellos.

Giving birth to a daughter she is forced to abandon, Eugénie spends the next 10 years fighting to get her back, falling in love along the way with an artist, a woman, and a revolutionary. Then, as the gates of the city close on the eve of the Siege of Paris, Eugénie comes face to face with her past. Drawn into a net of desire and need, promises and lies, she must make a choice and find her way to a life that she can call her own.

Thoughts on the story:

There is an awful lot going on in The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. and it is, perhaps, slightly overambitious. However, the fact that it is told from the perspective of not only a single woman, but a woman whose name is in the register of prostitutes, which makes her even less than a second class citizen, brings something to the story that is both fascinating and helps it be cohesive. DeSanti is covering a lot of historical ground here, and the strength of Eugenie’s character helps hold it all together, as it could have easily been a loose mess of historical vignettes.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Narrator Kate Reading seems to fit Eugenie’s character very well, with accurate French pronunciation where necessary. At over 16 hours, a lesser narrator could have made this a very dull listen indeed, but Reading kept me engaged and interested in Eugenie’s life.

For more on the audio production, see my review for Audiofile Magazine.

Overall:

A long but engaging listen. Recommended

Buy this book from:
Powells: Audio/Print*
Indiebound: Audio/Print*

I’m launching a brand-new meme every Friday! I encourage you to review any audiobooks you review on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.

Source: Audiofile Magazine.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers – Book Review

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers
Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

This is the first book in the His Fair Assassins series.

The scars on Ismae’s body mark her as something different, something to be feared. Leftover from the failed abortifacient taken by her mother before her birth, the scars also mark Ismae as a daughter not of a human man, but instead sired by St. Mortain, otherwise known as Death. The fear induced by her heritage keeps her safe – barely – from her turnip farming father, but enrages the man she is sold to in marriage, a man who promises to see her killed. Luckily, there are many who are still loyal to the old gods of Brittany, gods who must now be called saints to avoid conflict with the Catholic church and these priests and herbwives smuggle Ismae to the convent of St. Mortain. In the convent, Ismae becomes a handmaiden of Death, trained in the art of killing those marked by St. Mortain, those enemies of Brittany.

Brittany has many enemies these days. The Duke is dead, and his daughter the Duchess Anne is only 12, although she is a wise and mature young woman. France is hungry to expand its borders and it seems that she must marry to ensure the safety of her country, but her most ardent suitor is a man not remotely suitable. Ismae, who grew up a peasant, finds herself sent to Anne’s court with a courtier and member of the Privy Council, Duval, to protect the Duchess and Brittany, and to ensure that Mortain’s will be done.

LaFevers has created in Grave Mercy a wonderful and engaging world that is particularly effective for being set against true historical events, such as Anne’s ascension to the Duchy of Brittany, and the ensuing Franco-Breton War. Whether Brittany the veneration of ancient pagan gods as saints continued in 15th century Brittany I do not know, but LaFevers certainly made it ring true, particularly when setting this veneration against the close relationship between Brittany’s enemy France and the Pope. In addition, Ismae is an incredibly captivating heroine, naive and damaged at the same time she is brave and strong. Her reactions and emotions are entirely consistent with her character as LaFevers develops it.

Perhaps best of all is the way that LaFevers ended this, the first book in the series. Although there is a question of what will happen in Anne and Ismae’s futures, the story that is being told is also completely wrapped up. I would be thrilled to read about Ismae’s continuing adventures, or in learning more about some of the other girls from the convent, and yet Grave Mercy completely satisfies in and of itself.

This series shows much promise, and I can’t wait for the next installment in 2013. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via Netgalley.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Accidents of Providence by Stacia Brown – Book Review

Accidents of Providence by Stacia Brown
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

It is 1649 and England is in the grip of a Civil War, but for a number of women there is an even more consuming war being fought. Unwed mothers can be punished and forced to reveal the father of their child. Even worse, any unwed woman caught concealing the death – natural or otherwise – of a child born out of wedlock is legally guilty of murder. One such woman is Rachel Lockleyer, an unmarried glove maker whose employer Mary claims to have seen her head into the woods with a bundle. Mary later retraced Rachel’s path and found the body of an infant with a bruise around its neck.

Accidents of Providence picks up Rachel’s story after she has been arrested for the murder of her illegitimate child and works through the investigation and her trial. Brown includes a great deal of historical information without resulting to info dumps. Of particular interest is the subplot about the Leveller movement, which is brought in as Rachel’s lover is a married hero of the Leveller cause.

The themes of Accidents of Providence are particularly interesting in light of the recent rhetoric from the USA 2012 Republican Presidential Primaries and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in America, as well as the brouhaha with the Susan G. Koman Foundation and Planned Parenthood, in which reproductive rights, even the basic access to birth control, is being debated are reconsidered. While Accidents of Providence can at times be a bit slow – it does, after all, revolve around a 17th century trial – it would make a fascinating read for book clubs who aren’t afraid to merge the discussion of literature and modern politics.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via Netgalley.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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