Blog Posts by Ultra Violet

Posted by Ultra Violet on 08/08/11
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At her full adult height Lavinia Warren Bump was 2 feet, 8 inches tall, yet she was a proportional dwarf, meaning she was a "perfect woman in miniature". Melanie Benjamin was inspired by her appearance in the E. L. Doctorow masterwork, Ragtime, to write Lavinia's fictionalized autobiography.
 
The book traces her life from the Massachusetts farm where she lived a protected life with her family, to her achievement of becoming a school teacher, to her disheartening and sometimes shocking life on a Mississippi riverboat as a performer. Lavinia maintained her dignity and grace through it all. It was her most distinguishing characteristic. She returns home to find that she misses the lime-light, and approaches P. T. Barnum with a business offer. Barnum takes her into his troupe and Lavinia Warren becomes a household name. With a bit of manipulation from Barnum, Lavinia meets and marries the famous General Tom Thumb, who is only a few inches taller than her. The wedding of the tiny people was the event of the year. It even bumped the news of the Civil War off of the front page of the New York Times. They travelled the world together and amassed a fortune. Nonetheless, Lavinia had many hardships to endure.
 
Any reader interested in P. T. Barnum, or Gilded Age America will enjoy this historical treat. It is rich with detail about the period, including clothes, customs and lifestyles of the rich and famous, such as the Astors and Vanderbilts.
Posted by Ultra Violet on 07/13/11
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Dr. Jennifer White had a stellar career as a hand surgeon until early onset dementia forced her into retirement. Her best friend, who lives only a few doors down, is murdered and Dr. White is a prime suspect. There is no evidence of forced entry or struggle and the victim is missing fingers from one hand. There were expertly removed, even Dr. White commends the work when she is shown the pictures. However, she keeps forgetting that Amanda was killed, as she keeps forgetting everything. Dr. White's son and daughter are alternately a support and an annoyance to her as they struggle with losing their mother and their own neuroses. The entire book is told from the point of view of Dr. White and it is painful and frightening to get inside the head of someone in the situation of slipping away. It is especially hard for Dr. White because she has always been such a powerful woman. If one has gone through the despair of witnessing a loved-one with dementia, this book will be difficult to read, but cathartic as well. LaPlante has achieved something very special in that she has written a work of literary fiction that is also an exciting thriller as the murder investigation unfolds.
Posted by Ultra Violet on 06/27/11
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Andrew Harrington is a wealthy, handsome, Victorian gad-about who has fallen in love with the model in a painting at his Uncle's home. He is understandably shocked to find that she is a common prostitute from White Chapel. His wily cousin, Charles, had commissioned the portrait and gifted it to his father as a joke. However, the knowledge of her low status doesn't dampen Andrew's ardor for the girl. Through Charles he finds out her name, Mary Kelly. Andrew begins evening forays to White Chapel to meet her, and he even takes a cheap room for their liaisons. Imagine his horror when he finds her completely mutilated by Jack the Ripper in the very room where they had shared so much happiness. Seeing that his cousin was genuinely suicidal, Charles goes to Andrew with the news of a time travel company that is offering trips to the future. Charles convinces Andrew to go with him to meet the eccentric man behind the company to beg him to take them into the past to save his precious Mary. From that point on, the story gets weirder, deeper, wittier, and thrilling.
 
A time travel book with Jack the Ripper, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker and Henry James as characters isn't really so strange these days; what makes Map of Time special is the multi-layered deception and misconception and fact, fiction and science. This is the most creative book I have read in years. Not everyone will enjoy the mental gymnastics it takes to keep up with what is going on here. But if one is willing to suspend disbelief and just enjoy the ride, The Map of Time is exciting, and delightful. I was particularly impressed with the fact that Felix J. Palma is Spanish and yet he created a tremendously believable Victorian England. But what stands out the most is the complexity of the intricate web of the plot. Get ready for a wild ride!
Posted by Ultra Violet on 06/07/11
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Audrey and Randy come from hearty Iowa farm stock, and they are living out the American dream in their suburban house with four children. They find strength in their stoic Norwegian, Lutheran traditions. But it's the late 1970s and the lives of their children will take some very unexpected turns. Their eldest daughter, Anita, is the consummate girly cheerleader who wants nothing more than to get married and stay home with her children. Her husband is on the fast track to success as a banker and her future seems all planned out. It doesn't take long for Anita to find the joys of motherhood leave her cold, and her husband's drinking habit becomes problematic. After a DUI, Anita takes more control of her life and finds a new side of herself as a realtor. Second oldest, Ryan, has continual trouble with the women in his life, and is unfulfilled in his job as a computer programmer. Ryan finds an uneasy friendship with his burnout, Vietnam vet cousin, Chip. Even though Chip tends to cause Ryan trouble, he is also a voice of reason that grounds Ryan in reality. Blake is the next child in line. Blake finds a career in construction and a good life with a wife and kids. The youngest child, Torrie, had been the one with the most promise. She was a beautiful and impetuous young woman who excelled in school. On the way back from a funeral, Torrie is involved in an accident that shatters her dreams, but opens the door to a new world.
 
Jean Thompson creates characters that are breathtakingly real. There isn't a page of this book that doesn't ring true. It covers issues as diverse, controversial and relevant as alcoholism, Vietnam veterans, Native Americans, farm subsidies, motherhood, and women's roles. It is political and intimate at the same time. Every family in America has dealt with some of these issues in one way or another. This is definitely not a light summer read, but a perfect choice for a book club or for someone who is looking for a contemporary family saga that is painful at times, but hopeful in a way that never gets sentimental.
Posted by Ultra Violet on 05/18/11
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Journalist, John Thigpen, is sent to cover a story about bonobos, a primate species that can communicate through sign language. What seems like a routine story gets more complicated when the scientist, Isabel Duncan, is critically injured in a bombing shortly after the interview. Thigpen has become infatuated with the lovely young scientist, and is devastated to learn of her injuries. Worse yet, his story is stolen out from under him by his co-worker and he quits his job in a fit of anger. Seeking consolation from his wife doesn't work out very well since she is suffering from depression because of her failed writing career. Amanda Thigpen wants to have a baby and John has just quit his job. The tension rises between them when Amanda takes a job in LA writing for television. John is reduced to writing for a tabloid just so he can be assured of being assigned to follow the ape story. The apes were taken and sold when the bombers broke into the lab. John and Isabel have to get very creative if they are going to get the bonobos back.
 
Bonobos are a rare species of great ape that has more in common with humans than any other animal. They are very affectionate, matriarchal, peaceful creatures. They have their own form of communication which scientists have been unable to decipher and yet they can learn to understand and use American Sign Language in addition to being able to understand spoken English and respond in ASL. Ape House is a novel with great deal of research behind it. The human story is completely fiction, but the interactions with the bonobos were taken directly from the author's conversations with the bonobos at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa.
Posted by Ultra Violet on 04/28/11
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Hugh Laurie is best known for starring in the TV series, House, or for his role in the popular BBC series, Jeeves and Wooster, but not many people think of him as an author. The gun seller is a witty, gritty espionage thriller packed with black humor. Under-employed ex-Scot's Guard, Thomas Lang, is offered a substantial sum of money to kill a wealthy American businessman. Lang, being and all-round good egg, not only refuses, but tries to warn Wolf, the American he is supposed to kill. He ends up getting involved in an international affair that is much more than he bargained for. He can't get out, or the gun sellers will kill Wolf's daughter. The first half of this book is very funny and ironic, while the second half gets down to the serious action, but I found both parts thoroughly enjoyable.
Posted by Ultra Violet on 03/27/11
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On a cold November night in 1910, Will Anderson is summoned to a meeting with John Cooper, a man who was once his close friend, but is now his romantic rival. Cooper has told Will that he needs to meet him at Detroit Electric, the automotive company owned by Will's father. Cooper says that Elizabeth Hume is in great danger. Elizabeth was Will's fiancee and now is engaged to Cooper. When Will goes to the automotive works late at night to meet with John Cooper, he finds the man brutally crushed beneath the steel stamping machinery. When Will hears footsteps and voices he runs. Fleeing the scene of the murder for which he has such a strong motive puts Will in a pretty tough spot. Things go from bad to worse as more bodies show up and more evidence piles up against Will.
 
Detroit Electric Scheme is a fun, suspenseful mystery, but it is also a well-researched historical novel that sets the reader firmly in early 20th Century Detroit. Two of the main characters are struggling with addiction problems. This is also a story of redemption and overcoming oneself in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Posted by Ultra Violet on 03/17/11
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I picked this up because I wanted something light and fun. It was certainly witty, but it was much more than I expected in terms of the insight into women's rights. Nora Ephron's stories of her struggles as a young journalist were fascinating, and they were so clearly, objectively written that I felt like I was getting a real sense of what it was like in New York in the 60's for a young woman with ambitious career goals. Some of the other essays included in this book are about aging and her memory loss. Her anecdotes were poignant and charming.
 
I remember nothing: and other reflections is an enjoyable, pleasant read. Women of Ephron's age can relate to her personal stories, while younger readers can take away some valuable women's history told first hand.
Posted by Ultra Violet on 02/07/11
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This is Toby Ball's debut novel, and I can't wait for his second. The Vaults is a suspenseful tale of three men who get in over their heads while they try to unravel the secrets of a crooked mayor. It's an alternate history set in the 1930's in a nameless city that feels very real. Ball starts his story with Arthur Puskis who is the city's police archivist. For nearly 20 years Puskis has only left the vaults to go home and occasionally stop at the corner store. One day, he discovers a duplicate file. To his exacting mind, this is unthinkable. When he discovers a second forged file, he is compelled to leave his safety zone and investigate. Meanwhile, reporter, Frank Frings, is investigating the suspect mayor and his cronies. A bomb destroys the home of one of the mayor's underlings, and the local union is blamed. More bombings are on the way. One of the union's supporters happens to be a private investigator and he gets involved too. All three men spiral around each other as they piece together the complex mystery and reveal the truth behind the bombings.
Mystery
Posted by Ultra Violet on 01/19/11
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You may know Chris Kimball as the host of America's Test Kitchen on PBS. This book is a very entertaining account of Kimball's journey through the Fannie Farmer cookbook to stage an authentic twelve-course 19th century supper for twelve in his Victorian brownstone. Kimball's anecdotes about his rather sketchy Boston neighborhood were interesting. But of course, the trials and tribulations he and his staff faced in recreating Victorian cookery were the most amusing parts of the book. Apparently, mock turtle soup is made by boiling a whole calf's head. Kimball tried actual turtle as well, but they are a protected species now, so that complicated matters. There were more adventures with the calves' foot jellies for dessert. 
 
This is a must-read for foodies interested in the history of American cuisine, but it is also of interest to history buffs, in general. Kimball includes quite a bit of information on life in Boston in the late 19th century. 

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