30 August 2010

Extraordinary; Nancy Werdlin

ExtraordinaryExtraordinary by Nancy Werlin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Definitely not an "ordinary" book, but not quite "extra-ordinary" either - this falls somewhere solidly in the middle. What starts out being a tale about Something's Wrong in Faerie evolves into some interesting questions about self-image and family.

Phoebe's feelings of self-worth are caught up in her being a Rothschild (it's never explained why she has her mother's name, not her father's, particularly when her parents are married); she's become friends with some of the Mean Girls in school but is starting to question this after a summer in Nantucket. The current object of the Mean Girls' "affection" is Mallory, a new girl who has more than questionable fashion taste; Phoebe, thinking for herself for a change, chooses to leave her former friends in favor of taking care of Mallory (and ultimately Mallory's clearly unstable mother).

Intercut with this are a series of interviews with the Fairy Queen, in which it becomes clear that Mallory's "mom" is unstable because of something Mallory - who is not human but some agent of the Queen's, on some mission that involves forcing Phoebe to do something. Through these interviews we learn that this something will greatly affect Faerie, and is somehow tied into the patriarch of the Rothschild family.

Flashing forward a few years, we see Mallory failing in her mission yet being Phoebe's best friend. The Queen decides to send Ryland, Mallory's brother, to complete the mission. It's at this point that the questions of self-worth become interesting.

Essentially, Phoebe's self-confidence is being undermined both subtly and overtly by the siblings. Her confusion and shock is very real, and will resonate with any reader who has also wondered whether it is possible to live up to powerful, prominent parents. The passage where she says that her parent's unconditional, unearned love when she was born makes her special - no matter what happens later in life - is particularly moving. It's also great that she doesn't feel that she must be beyond ordinary, that ordinary is perfectly ok.

This is exactly what the Faerie Queen is waiting for, and the shift from this coming-to-grips with your intrinsic value and worth to a discussion/decision about genocide is a bit jarring. A lot is made about Phoebe's Jewish roots and her identification with the cultural aspects (deep religious feeling is not indicated). This book would have been equally effective had Phoebe not been a Rothschild and not Jewish but simply a girl who understands that she (and she alone) can save an entire race.

Of course, things don't end unhappily, and Phoebe and Mallory end on a good note; Mallory has learned to care for her "mother" and feels bad about her manipulation of Phoebe, while Phoebe forgives Mallory (at least, that's what it appears happens) and has the confidence to deal with a changed relationship with Benjamin, her Nantucket friend.

One wonderful thing about this book - it's not part of a series! YAY!! (that's not to say I don't want to read more from the author, but I'm so tired of stories being stretched out to accommodate this idea that what we readers really want are series and trilogies and not well-written one-offs).

ARC provided by publisher.

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28 August 2010

The Lunatic, the Lover and the Poet; Myrlin A. Hermes

The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet: A NovelThe Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet: A Novel by Myrlin A. Hermes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Maybe this book wasn't "amazing" but it definitely deserves a five-star rating. Why? Because it's clever and fun, in addition to being unique, something all too rare these days.

Horatio is a perpetual student in Wittenberg, the son of a whore/witch and an unknown father, so there's no money and he lives a rather restricted life. Raised by Catholic monks, he's asked to convert (Luther being the in thing there). Essentially, he's studying divinity and had developed many philosophies (you may remember being told that there are more things in heaven and earth than Horatio can dream of? yep, it's that Horatio). He makes ends meet by translating and writing for others, and is given a commission by Lord Maricort to create a play from some bits and pieces, none of which really work together.

Anyway, one night he sees the most gorgeous man nude in the river. At first he thinks the man is crying, but figures out that it's not quite crying that's going on. Dared to jump in, he strips and meets the love of his life, a Prince from Denmark, Hamlet. And yes, Hamlet has two "friends", Rosencrantz and Gilderstern.

Horatio writes his play, convincing Hamlet to play Rosalind. The love between the two grows, and soon it's more than just a play he's writing, it's sonnets. He also starts an affair with the rather mannish/jolie laid wife of the Lord, Lady Adriane. This triangle becomes a square with the addition of rival poet Master Will Shake-spear (clearly a made up name)... or does it?

What makes this such fun is finding the references to the Canon - they're not always obvious but they are there. For example, there's a squabbling Thane and his wife (it's a brief mention). Hamlet has nightmares about stabbing a tapestry in his mother's room. Etc..

One caveat: this tale includes love scenes, both straight and gay. Nothing graphic, but it's clear what's going on. Very clear.

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27 August 2010

I Am Not a Serial Killer; Dan Wells

I Am Not A Serial Killer (John Cleaver, #1)I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What if Dexter had been raised not by a cop, but by the Fishers (as in, the Six Feet Under family)? In this book, John Wayne Cleaver lives with his mother above the mortuary she runs with her sister. He thinks he's a sociopath, incapable of making an emotional connection to others and essentially friendless (except for Max, another weirdo). To cope with his obsession over serial killers and death he's created a list of rules by which to live, rules designed to keep the monster out. His therapist approves.

He lives in Clayton, a small town in Clayton County (no state given). And there's a serial killer on the loose. John's fascinated: what does it feel like to kill? He starts to keep track of what's going on, stalking the killer. One day, John sees him and his next victim and follows them to the lake, where - sure enough - there's a killing.

The rest of the book follows John's obsession with the killer and keeping track of his movements, inserting himself into the killer's house. This stalking morphs into a resolve to take the killer down, as John leaves notes saying things like "I know who you are" in and around the house. Ultimately, John decides to prevent the next killing by killing the one thing the killer loves.

This could have been a five-star book, because John is such an interesting character. Where it lost me was the introduction of something supernatural - making it a demon that does the killing was an unnecessary element. That one element broke the flow for me, taking me out of John's world. A human killer would have been just as effective.

The author's setting this up to be a Dexter, Junior series (at least, the jacket copy says that there's another two books in the works). With luck he'll stick to the realm of the real and not the unreal.

ARC provided by publisher.

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26 August 2010

Mockingjay; Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay (Hunger Games, #3)Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was never big on the Team Peeta/Team Gale debate, and now I hear that there's a Team Liked the Ending/Team Didn't Like the Ending debate going on. The fact is I was underwhelmed by Mockingjay.

Katniss always seemed to be a reactive person - she did what she had to do, but didn't always think about the consequences except as they related to her family. The machinations around the Games, her romance with Peeta and her becoming the symbol of a rebellion were never part of who she was, she was just moved along on the tide of what others wanted. So when she's in District 13, asked to become the Mockingjay and make prosos for the rebels to broadcast, she's torn because all she really wants to do is be left alone There are countless scenes of her escaping to some corner (at one point a pile of silk clothing), just trying to be Katniss and not some symbol or just trying to be, period.

The violence, which seems to be the trigger-point for the debate, does seem a little excessive. Is it overly so? I don't think so. The book is about war, and rebellion, and so killing seems to be needed. The big scene toward the end (she wrote coyly, trying not to spoil things) is a little horrific, but not outside the realm of the world of Panem. The trigger for that is surprising in some ways, but if you couldn't see it coming, well...

My "meh" feeling for the book puts me in the minority, I'm sure. It's just that compared to the other two books, it felt stale. Except for Butterscotch. But then, I'm a cat person.

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25 August 2010

Jump; Ginger Rue

JumpJump by Ginger Rue
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Poor Brinkley: she's pretty, relatively smart, rich and, well, most amazing girl at Story High. It's hard work making sure you're always dressed better than anyone else, that your boyfriend also qualifies as arm candy, and to keep a ready supply of Mean Girl comments and quips coming at those less fortunate. Until, of course, she finds out what it's like being a loser. Yep, Jump has a whole Heathers-meets-Being John Malkovich theme going on.

We open with Brinks in therapy, part of a deal her parents were able to make (in addition to a large donation to the school) to keep her from being kicked out for being the Head Mean Girl, responsible for four people transferring out of the school. Irirangi (no distance-creating Dr. for her) starts by asking about Brinkley's relationships, and shows her a group of photos that Brinkley describes as "loser types".

Then the weird thing starts happening: she wakes up as other people. All losers, all people Brinkley would ignore or slight, and all whose lives have a certain teachable quality to their lives (compassion, listening, etc.). Seems her therapist has a Mrs. Piggy-Wiggle approach to helping people work through their issues.

Here's the thing - the amount of time Brinkley spends as each of these people is minimal (I think the longest is 12 hours). Yet somehow what she experiences is so intense that she's forever changed. Sorry, not buying it. Out of Sight, Out of Mind (another new book) is more believable because Amanda spends more time as Tracy - in as far as these books are believable.

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24 August 2010

Glimmerglass; Jenna Black

Glimmerglass (Faeriewalker, #1)Glimmerglass by Jenna Black
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm giving this 3 stars because IT'S ANOTHER FRICKIN' SERIES. I cannot tell you how much I hate this "let's thin out the plot and extend the profits by making the book a trilogy (or more)" trend. Publishers have oohed and aahed over each book, and NO. It is NOT exciting and the thought that there's a sequel or two does not make me get all tingly. For the love of all that's holy, stop!

Ok, now that's out of my system...

Dana's being raised by a single, alcoholic mother, moving every few months. She's been forced to grow up too quickly, doing all the adult work in the house (paying bills, etc.). She's also very embarrassed by her mother's antics, wishing that just once she could have a normal mother. The last straw is Mom's behavior at Dana's vocal recital.

So Dana decides to run away to finally meet her father. Thing is, Dad lives in Avalon, a city-state that's technically in England but is actually a separate entity that links to Faerie. Oh, and Dad's a very powerful Fae. Mom, of course, is human. Dana's introduction to Avalon is not quite the warm, fuzzy greeting she'd like to have gotten; she's basically imprisoned by her Aunt Grace. And then rescued by the impossibly good-looking Ethan and his sister Kimber... which is great until the Spriggans appear (don't ask).

There's a whole lot of "Seelie Court" this and "Unseelie Court" that (read Marr's Wicked Lovely series for more on this topic) and a Knight and his incredibly good-looking rebel son and more kidnappings and fighting and, well... you get the picture. Dana's trust in people is continually being challenged, particularly after Mom flies to Avalon to take her back. And Dad? Like the others, there's manipulation and hidden motivation going on.

With a little good editing, some tightening up of the plot and a commitment to a larger physical book, this could have been one really good book (didn't Twilight, Inkheart and the last four Harry Potters, not to mention Larsson's Millennium trilogy prove that people will read thick books?). As it is, my guess is that it will make an ok series.

ARC provided by publisher.

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23 August 2010

Rivers of Gold; Adam Dunn

Rivers of Gold: A NovelRivers of Gold: A Novel by Adam Dunn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rivers of Gold isn't quite a dystopian novel, more a future-noir look at NYC (places like Bloomingdales are out of business, ditto Bryant Park Cafe; the Atlantic Yards project never took off). Told mostly through the viewpoints of Renny, a photographer phenomenon and of Santiago, a CAB cop, this book was not quite my cup of tea but was compelling enough for me to finish it.

The idea that NYC could crumble that way didn't bother me (after the 70s "drop dead" phase, anything's possible) nor did the casual drugs, sex and violence. More's character was probably the most intriguing, probably because he was filtered through Santiago's experiences. Much of the book read as though it might become a movie - there are some great action sequences, and enough description to satisfy any set designer.

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The Holy Thief; William Ryan

The Holy ThiefThe Holy Thief by William Ryan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The second mystery I've read this year set in the early Soviet era - is this a new mystery trend? It's a dark mystery, definitely not a cozy, and the layers of suspicion and paranoia that run through the story are interesting. If the author is accurately depicting life back then, people like Captain Korolev are rare: not a Party member, not for sale, perhaps not buying all the Party is selling but sincerely believing that this is all for the greater good.

His investigation into the murder of a young woman, who turns out to be a Russian-born, American-raised nun looking for an icon brings him into contact with Chekists, Thieves and a band of Holmesian Irregulars. It also raises many questions about who to trust and how to keep safe during this time of doubt and questioning (even the young officer assigned to him turns out to be something else).

One thing about this book that I particularly liked was the source list; while I do wonder about the bias of the materials, they look like a good place to learn more about this time in history.

ARC provided by publisher.

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22 August 2010

White Cat; Holly Black

White Cat (Curse Workers, #1)White Cat by Holly Black
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An alternate reality, one in which magic workers are real - some can kill, some can con, most just bring luck or hope - and in which bare hands are a rarity. This is an interesting world, and Cassel's role in it is unclear at first. He's a non-worker in a powerful family of workers, the youngest brother of three, and trying to fit in to a relatively posh boarding school. His mother's a con artist (currently in jail) and he's picked up quite a few of her tricks, including how to make book.

As the story unfolds we learn more about how workers work, and about Cassel's conflicted family life. His relationships with non-workers are also interesting: he feels he's spent 2 1/2 years conning his way to normalcy at Wallingford, but by the end of the book it's clear that he was never viewed as "normal" although he does have friends (something he didn't think he had). Given that within the space of three weeks his beliefs about his past and his family are completely shattered, he's a little too sanguine about the changes in his life.

In part because the exposition is lightly given the story feels a little more natural than most fantasy books. The pacing is a little off at times, with action scenes sometimes halting a little abruptly with a twist that takes it into a new direction.

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Exley; Brock Clarke

ExleyExley by Brock Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Exley is one very strange book - the intertwining of fantasy and reality is so well done that by the end it's difficult to tell exactly what's real and what's not. By "fantasy", I don't mean the genre starring otherworldly ideas and creatures, I mean the type of lies one makes up to help you get through difficult times.

And M is definitely going through difficult times: his father has left, to go to Iraq, while his mother states quite clearly that no, T has not gone to fight. As a result, M is sent to see a shrinkmental health professional; this book combines the notes from those visits with M's journal in a way that makes you question what is actually going on. There's added confusion because M writes in a way that echoes that of Frederick Exley, author of his father's favorite book. I was surprised to learn that Exley actually existed in our world, not just in the world of the book!

The descent of Dr. ? (we never do learn his real name) into an alcoholic Exley-substitute is just a little too rapid to be believed - are his notes really his notes, or are they M's version of his notes? Does T really die, or are the Dr. and C. in collusion about it even being T in the hospital? Why do so many people give in to M's fantasy, or is this just another part of his fantasy?

All-in-all, a very satisfying read.

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21 August 2010

Passion Play; Beth Bernobich

Passion Play (Erythandra Series, #1)Passion Play by Beth Bernobich
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Reading the ARC's jacket copy (and the publishers info on Amazon) is misleading: there's very little in the book that explains why Therez fears Galt beyond a creepy feeling during one evening. Since this is the reason she decides to leave home, one would think that her reasons for fearing him would be given greater prominence.

After running away and renaming herself Ilse, she finds her escape route is, well, perhaps an even worse choice. The scenes after Alarik Brandt's discovery of her worth started to read like one of the bodice rippers I'd read years ago, but the scenes were not graphic enough (actually, none of the sex scenes graphic enough to equal anything in a book like Love's Tender Fury, nor were they clean enough for me to consider this for high school students). There was a lot of suggestion, however.

I found those scenes distracting from the rest of the book - the political intrigues, the sense of magic as a real thing (and like the sex, it's not explored in enough detail to qualify as a real fantasy book), the growing relationship between Raul and Ilse, Nadine's role in the household and Ilse's life. It was almost as though the author was taking bits of different genres and mushing them around to create something somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Yes, this is the first in a series, so perhaps things will get better in books to come. I'm not hopeful.

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18 August 2010

Nemesis; Philip Roth

NemesisNemesis by Philip Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book may well resonate more with older readers because the era of the polio epidemic and the fear the disease engendered has become part of our rapidly disappearing past. It isn't until we're about halfway through the book that we learn that the narrator is one of 'Bucky' Cantor's playground boys, one who caught polio in the summer of '44.

'Bucky' is an orphan, being raised by his grandparents. The Newark in which he lives is sweltering in the summer heat, and instead of fighting overseas (he's 4F thanks to his eyesight) he is overseeing the summer program at a local playground. Lucky for him, he knows most of the boys through his work as p.e. teacher at the local school. One day, a bunch of Italian boys come to bully the Jewish playground kids... and polio rears its ugly head.

Children get sick and die, and Bucky begins to panic and to question God and faith. His girlfriend is a counselor at a summer camp in the Poconos, a "safe" area. Worried about him, she gets Bucky a job at the camp as waterfront director; initially thrilled to be with her, Bucky continues to question God's role in things in addition to his feelings of cowardice in the face of polio.

When polio follows Bucky to the camp, and ultimately taps him on the shoulder, it feels like fate (or a nemesis). While you don't feel as though you're reading a memoir, you are: Bucky is telling the tale of that long-ago summer to Artie, one of the polio victims/survivors from that summer. The bitterness and self-pity Bucky feels prior to polio is given full-reign after, and his relationship with Marcia is abruptly cut short (by his choice).

He's not a sympathetic character, but readers might relate to his fears and questions, not to mention his feelings of inadequacy due to his physical limitations. The ending, a memory of his incredible javelin tossing and his being (from the children's point-of-view) invincible, is poignant.

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15 August 2010

Brave Girl Eating; Harriet Brown

Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with AnorexiaBrave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anorexia by Harriet Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ms. Brown has written a mix of memoir and analysis of how to treat anorexia, based on the year(s) her family battled daughter Kitty's "demon". I've worked with students that have had eating disorders, and I've seen the toll it takes on families - it's definitely a disaster for everyone.

Kitty's descent at first appears normal: what girl doesn't watch her weight? Particularly a girl who is involved with some form of athletic activity (in this case, gymnastics)? Our society constantly bombards us with images of thin = in, and even the extreme cases (like, Calista Flockhart or Kate Moss) are somehow acceptable rather than shunned. So dieting, or 'restricting' appears normal to parents. At some point, however, you notice that this normal has become grossly abnormal, and by then your child is helpless in the grip of the disease.

How the Brown's cope with this - from treatment and therapy to battling the insurance companies - makes for interesting reading. It's clear that this is an on-going battle, that even three years (or five years) later Kitty is still in danger of allowing her demon to take over. The decision to go with FBT rather than the usual in-patient therapy is interesting, so their results aren't typical but it's an option families should consider. This is definitely going in our parenting collection.

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11 August 2010

Tales from the Madman Underground; John Barnes

Tales of the Madman Underground: An Historical Romance 1973Tales of the Madman Underground: An Historical Romance 1973 by John Barnes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know how I missed reading this earlier, but this is a perfect back-to-school book.

Karl Shoemaker's first week of senior year is supposed to be his ticket to "normal" - he's leaving the self-described Madman Underground, a disparate group of students who have some sort of troubled home life (incest, alcoholism, missing parents, etc.) that causes them to act out in school. He's also only a few months sober, recently broken up with his girlfriend, and trying to keep his alcoholic, hippie mother somewhat on track. Of course, as always happens when one makes plans, things don't go the way Karl plans.

The six days described in the book are so filled, I got tired reading it! Thinking back to my days in school, it made me wonder how many of my peers were having similar lives - working several jobs, dealing with dysfunctional families, and trying to act normal during the school day. Sometimes it felt as though Karl's life was a little too full.

As the first week draws to a close, events move even faster. As Karl tries to make decisions about his place in the Underground, and how to deal with his friends (including his imploding friendship with Paul), not to mention losing his virginity to a girl that thinks he's the next Charles Manson, normal seems far away. Again, there is so much packed in that it doesn't feel as though the action is taking place in one 24-hour period. Of course, by the end, Karl's life does move solidly into the normal range: he's learned that there are adults that will take care of him, and that being a kid is ok.

My guess is that this was set in the 70s because our ideas of what 'normal' for students lives was different: child services weren't as on top of things, latchkey children were common, and things were somewhat simpler. However, it would have been easy to move this into the modern era, particularly since this is set in Ohio, where there's a different mindset than in coastal urban areas.

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09 August 2010

The Fall; Guillermo del Toro

The Fall (The Strain Trilogy, #2)The Fall by Guillermo Del Toro
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another vampire trilogy, this time positing that the cause is a blood worm parasite... I didn't read the first book, and I'm not sure I'll read the third, but this is a series meant for boy readers, filled with End of Days-type fighting and terror.

This wasn't a bad take on the genre, except that I often got the feeling that the book was essentially a film script turned into a book, not implausible given that the authors are both directors. At times there was too much scene-setting (did we really need a paragraph or so on Sotheby's or Penn Station?) and at times too little. The location of the new OEM is given as Brooklyn, which is true, but taking the LIE to get there and passing "empty mall parking lots" is simply, well, wrong.

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07 August 2010

Mothers and Other Liars; Amy Bourret

Mothers and Other LiarsMothers and Other Liars by Amy Bourret
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is a very well-written book about a young woman, Ruby, orphaned, who on a trip to California finds an abandoned baby, rescues her and then ends up in Las Vegas New Mexico (aka "not the real Las Vegas"). Nine years later she realizes that the life she and Lark have created is about to come apart at the seams: Lark was not abandoned, she'd been kidnapped, and Ruby was now accessory to the crime.

She approaches an attorney, who starts to work on a deal but the entire thing unravels when the Dallas DA gets involved. Suddenly, Ruby is on trial and Lark (now called Tyler) has been whisked to her "real" family, the Tinsdales with no regard for her relationship with Ruby (or Aunt Wonnie, Chaz, the Ms or anyone else). Ruby is acquitted, and she comes up with the idea of approaching the Tinsdales with a swap: her unborn child for Lark. Of course, it all goes wrong (or, well, right) in the end.

So why the one star? This will feed into many adoptee's fears (being abandoned, not wanted by their birth parents) and hopes (that there's a "real" family out there that wants them), as well as many adoptive parents hopes and fears.

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02 August 2010

The Lucky Ones; Mae Ngai

The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese AmericaThe Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America by Mae Ngai
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This story of Joseph and Mary Tape (to use their American names) and their family is one that we rarely hear: how the Chinese came to America and became part of our country's melting pot. We've all heard about coolie labor during the gold rush and the building of the railroad, or those Chinese prostitutes, but what about the others? The vast majority that weren't either, but wanted to have what Euro-Americans had? The Tapes may not have been unique, but their story does illustrate this chapter in our history quite nicely.

There are two main problems with this book, however. The author became interested in the Tape's saga after hearing about Tape v. Hurley, a court case in which the Tapes sued to get access to American public education for their daughter. Given that starting point, one would think that there would be more about the case in the book. Instead, it's buried inside, with little real discussion and/or analysis. I felt a little as though I were some 50 years in our future, reading a biography of the Brown family in which Brown v. Board of Education was dispensed with in a few pages.

The other problem is the over reliance on "perhaps" and other suppositions. If you don't know, fine. But sentences that start "Yet it must have been awkward..." and "What did Mary think about..." with nothing to give you a sense that the author has anything concrete to go on are problematic.

In short, an important story ill-served by the author (and editor).

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