The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve

Have you ever looked at the cover of a book and knew that the story was going to hook you? That’s how I felt when I saw The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve. Swirling fire, a deep red cover, and a bold font all signaled to me that the content of this book was going to leave me wanting more. Shreve exceeded my expectations with this novel.

The Stars are Fire is a piece of historical domestic fiction that focuses around the Great Maine Fire of 1947. This real event is given a fictionalized twist as Shreve tells the story of Grace Holland’s attempts to survive and rebuild after her life falls into ruins around her. After a summer-long drought, fires began near Bar Harbor and started ravaging the coast of Maine. People were left wondering where to escape to and hoping that the closeness of the sea would spare them from the brunt of the fire.

Grace Holland lives with her husband Gene and their two small toddlers. Five months pregnant, Grace is left to protect her children on her own after Gene leaves her to go help fight the fires. Grace and her best friend, Rosie, race to the sea with their four children to try to survive the flames. Keeping their children alive is their only priority as Grace and Rosie watch in abject horror as their houses and the community that they have grown to love bursts into flames. Hunkered down in the sand by the ocean, Grace fights to keep her children alive, sacrificing her own body to do so.

In the morning, Grace finds herself and her children wonderfully alive, but their lives have irrevocably changed. They’re penniless, homeless, and without a father or husband. Gene never returned from fighting the fires and no one knows where he is. Facing an uncertain future, Grace is forced to rely on the kindness of strangers until she either finds Gene or her mother or gets a job to support herself. Grace has to make a new life for herself and her children, something that both frightens and excites her since her life with Gene was not the most loving or supportive. While she has suffered great losses, Grace is able to move forward, find new happiness, and discover all the things she was missing when she was living with Gene. Just when she is settled into a new normal, something out of the blue happens and Grace is forced to be braver than she ever was before.

I really enjoyed this book. It was the first Anita Shreve book that I read and the first book in a really long time that had me wishing it would have been longer. There were so many characters whose backstories I was yearning to know more of and the ending had me on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen. This book is set up so well that Shreve could easily spin it into a series. Here’s to hoping she does!


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Minding the Manor by Mollie Moran

minding the manorBorn in 1916 in Norfolk, Mollie Moran is one of the few people still alive today who can recall working “downstairs” in the golden years of the early 1930’s before the outbreak of WWII. She provides a rare and fascinating insight into a world that has long since vanished in Minding the Manor: the Memoir of a 1930s English Kitchen Maid.

Mollie left school at age fourteen and became a scullery maid for a wealthy gentleman with a mansion house in London’s Knighsbridge and a Tudor manor in Norfolk. Even though Mollie’s days were long and grueling and included endless tasks, such as polishing doorknobs, scrubbing steps, and helping with all of the food prep in the kitchen, she enjoyed her freedom and had a rich life. Like any bright-eyed teenager, Mollie also spent her days daydreaming about boys, dresses, and dances. She became fast friends with the kitchen maid Flo, dated a sweet farmhand, and became secretly involved with a brooding, temperamental footman. Molly eventually rose to kitchen maid for Lord Islington and then cook for the Earl of Leicester’s niece at the magnificent Wallington Hall. (description from publisher)

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher explores how a lone man’s epic obsession led to one of America’s greatest cultural treasures: prizewinning writer Timothy Egan tells the riveting, cinematic story behind the most famous photographs in Native American history — and the driven, brilliant man who made them.

Edward Curtis was charismatic, handsome, a passionate mountaineer, and a famous photographer, the Annie Leibovitz of his time. He moved in rarefied circles, a friend to presidents, vaudeville stars, leading thinkers. He was thirty-two years old in 1900 when he gave it all up to pursue his Great Idea: to capture on film the continent’s original inhabitants before the old ways disappeared. An Indiana Jones with a camera, Curtis spent the next three decades traveling from the Havasupai at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the Acoma on a high mesa in New Mexico to the Salish in the rugged Northwest rain forest, documenting the stories and rituals of more than eighty tribes. It took tremendous perseverance — ten years alone to persuade the Hopi to allow him into their Snake Dance ceremony. The undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate.

Eventually Curtis took more than 40,000 photographs, preserved 10,000 audio recordings, and is credited with making the first narrative documentary film. In the process, the charming rogue with the grade school education created the most definitive archive of the American Indian. His most powerful backer was Theodore Roosevelt, and his patron was J. P. Morgan. Despite the friends in high places, he was always broke and often disparaged as an upstart in pursuit of an impossible dream. He completed his masterwork in 1930, when he published the last of the twenty volumes. A nation in the grips of the Depression ignored it. Today rare Curtis photogravures bring high prices at auction, and he is hailed as a visionary. In the end he fulfilled his promise: He made the Indians live forever. (description from publisher)

 

Beguiling the Beauty by Sherry Thomas

The titular beauty of Beguiling the Beauty is Venetia Easterbrook, a young widow widely regarded as the most beautiful woman in London society, who vows revenge against the Duke of Lexington when he slanders her good name. Since he knows her by her famously stunning face, she wears a veil to seduce the Duke, London’s most eligible bachelor, while crossing the Atlantic on a luxurious steamer, planning to ditch him at the end of the journey and teach him a lesson about love gone wrong. Little does she know that their shared love of fossil-hunting and study of dinosaurs will cement their intellectual compatibility even as their physical chemistry sizzles.

Sherry Thomas’ newest novel, first in a planned trilogy, is a delight: it’s absurd, it’s sensual, and it’s great fun! In what other novel is the gift of exquisitely preserved tetrapodichnites (fossilized dinosaur tracks) fraught with emotional significance?! Where else in literature does a veil that blocks the wearer from seeing, eating, and kissing seem like a glamorous accessory with only the addition of a few paillettes? Nowhere!

With the exception of the denouement (which is silly) and the groundwork laid for the two planned sequels (which is distracting), this romance is a pure, unadulterated delight. The historical setting feels genuine rather than slapdash, and Thomas’s writing is smart and snappy. A flat-out perfect beach read for any romance reader, though it doesn’t stand up to vigorous literary scrutiny: after all, the Beauty is the one doing all the Beguiling here, and if even the title doesn’t take this book too seriously, how can readers? Despite that, the conceit of the masked seductress combined with the interest in paleontology makes this romance uniquely entrancing – or even beguiling.

 

Spartacus: Blood and Sand

Is it good for your mind? No. Is it a titillating hi-def splatterfest with Matrix/300 bullet-time effects enjoyable to watch? A definite yes. You wouldn’t be lying if you told your friends there were love stories and a healthy amount of unpredictable plot twists and skullduggery either.

I came upon Spartacus: Blood and Sand due to its free streams on the Roku box last year. I stayed because I could not look away, despite the thinly-veiled disclaimer at the beginning of the historical drama assuring us “the sensuality, brutality and language is to suggest and authentic representation of that period.”  Come on, it’s based on actual history.  Does that count?

The production and costuming is exemplary. Virtually every ancient Roman has the standard-issue Shakespearean lilt and some 20th century vulgarities.   You’re too busy watching heads and period garb falling off to care about the anachronism.  Lucy Lawless will NEVER be able to be called a warrior “Princess” again.

Sadly, production was suspended last spring for star Andy Whitfield’s (Spartacus) health, as he was treated for lymphoma. When it was determined he would need a more aggressive regimen, Whitfield bid the franchise and the most physically demanding role on television goodbye.

In just a few weeks on January 21st, a stopgap measure 6-episode prequel will begin on Starz network, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. Whitfield is rumored to make a couple cameo appearances among the regular cast of seeming professional body builders.  Casting has begun on his Dick Sargent-esque replacement in Season 3.

I, for one, will lament the loss of Whitfield and hope for his full return to good health.

In other news, Kirk Douglas is 94 years old and could probably still reprise his original motion picture role. I wouldn’t rule that bruiser out as a replacement.

Re-reads: All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

I’m going to cheat a little. All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot would be my choice, but I love all four in the “All Creatures” series.

The story begins with the author’s arrival in Yorkshire during the Depression when veterinary jobs were scarce. A city boy, James has to quickly learn how to care for horses and cows in very primitive conditions.

He soon learns to love the beauty of the Dales and his eccentric clients. His tales of caring for beloved pets as well as farm animals can be heartwrenching as the patient doesn’t always survive.

There is plenty of humor in his hilarious descriptions of the Yorkshire dialect, way of life, and diet, as well as his volatile boss Siegfried and Siegfried’s irresponsible yet charming brother Tristan.

Not only are the books laugh-out-loud funny but you come to know the village of Darrowby, James, Siegfried and Tristan so well that you never want to leave the little world that Herriot has created.