Thursday, December 27, 2018

Young Benjamin Franklin (Nick Bunker)

Much has been written about Benjamin Franklin’s life, especially the parts pertaining to his inventive side and his diplomatic prowess. He was also one of the early statesmen in the American colonies and soon-to-be American republic. However, capturing the evolution of Franklin into the preeminent American requires a dive into his early life. Nick Bunker’s Young Benjamin Franklin is a fascinating and ingenious read into a man that many could argue is the poster definition of a Renaissance Man.

Bunker takes us back to before Franklin’s 1706 birth, chronicling his family through its journey from Northamptonshire, England to London to Boston. Franklin’s evolution and rise to American prominence is paralleled in some respect by the life journeys of his uncle and his father, both moving upward and beyond in order to seek a better life. It was in Boston that Josiah, Ben’s father, cobbled through a life of Puritan idealism. Ben struck out on his own, alienating many in his family for his choices, as he moved from Boston to Philadelphia to London and back to Philadelphia over a several year period. Ben ultimately became the City of Brotherly Love’s dominant printer and helped forge many institutions that have carried on to the present day.

The early Franklin’s evolution into science is also chronicled, with the voyage ending just as his well-known electricity experimentation begins. Most of us are well aware of how the rest of the story ends up. But learning about Logan, Penn, Kinsey, Hopkinson, Allen, Potts, Nutt, and many other names that carry on to the present day in streets, schools, buildings, and communities throughout Pennsylvania helps us see Franklin’s astute understanding of relationships and alliances from an early age, with that knowledge helping shape him and our early nation in the years to come. Bunker does a great  job educating the reader about life in early 18th Century America and how Franklin evolved with the colonies and the times.


Monday, December 17, 2018

Nine Perfect Strangers (Liane Moriarty)

Wow, was I glued to this one -- but not always in the best way. Liane Moriarty has no rival in her ability to keep you reading long into the night. The problem is that when all her characters get together in Nine Perfect Strangers, it reads like the soapiest soap opera  -- or a trainwreck that I can't look away from.

The title couldn't be more perfect. Nine perfect strangers descend on a tucked-away health resort, having spent a ton of money in their quest for self help. A romance novelist, an ex-football player, a lawyer, a single mother, a couple in trouble, and a family in turmoil will all be at Tranquillum House for ten days. They will be led in their quest by Masha, and some of her methods are far from traditional.

Moriarty is slow to develop each character's past, and many of their secrets really pack a punch. This is where she excels. However, Masha is such a caricature character that I half expected her to be twirling a mustache behind the scenes. But don't let this deter you from reading Nine Perfect Strangers. It isn't my favorite by this author, but it's definitely a page turner.


Thursday, December 13, 2018

Marooned (Joseph Kelly)

European exploration (and exploitation) of what is now America has a long and (at times) mysterious history to it. We all know about the Pilgrims, the Mayflower, the first Thanksgiving, and the other lore that arose to help shape the American story. We were also educated on Jamestown, Pocahontas, John Smith, and the gradual rise of Virginia to colonial prominence, but many of us know little of the struggles that the Jamestown colony endured in its first years.

Joseph Kelly’s Marooned is a well-researched book that tackles the beginnings of Jamestown (and Bermuda) through the trials and tribulations of its first years, how a shipwreck helped create the first seeds for Bermuda’s founding a few years later, and how early Jamestown was marked by general incompetence, hunger, and an ebb and flow of relations with the native population. Kelly spends a lot of time talking about how many early colonists simply “melted away” into the wilderness and assimilated into the native communities that resided nearby, and how John Smith’s leadership in Jamestown was marked by a hybrid between a native chief and local warlord. None of this was the stuff of Plymouth lore or Puritan aspiration but much of it came out of necessity and in Smith’s case, because of a dash of ego and bravado.

Marooned’s strongest argument is the one Kelly puts forth at the end, stating “the truly American story is the lives of the discontents. We need to discard that image of a city shining on a hill . . . our city does not shine. It is messy. It is the nature of a free society.” From Smith to Paine to a gentleman of the name of Stephen Hopkins, Kelly shares the stories of the messy, the ugly, and often crazy early colonists who gradually became a part of our American story.


Thursday, December 6, 2018

Little Darlings (Melanie Golding)

There's nothing I like more than a great psychological thriller. When Melanie Golding's Little Darlings began, I was sucked right into it, but as often happens, the rest did not live up to my expectations.

Lauren Tranter is a new mother of adorable twins, Morgan and Riley. Because she has some complications, she stays in the hospital for a few days after the birth. One night, Lauren claims that a creepy woman in her room tried to take her babies and replace them with her own "creatures." Is Lauren having hallucinations? Or did something sinister really happen? Lauren continues to see the woman in her daily life until, one afternoon in the park, her babies disappear. When they are eventually found, Lauren insists they are not Morgan and Riley but are the "replacements."

Little Darlings reads like an evil fairy tale, but it just did not keep my interest after the beginning. Whether it is the detective on the case or the husband who doesn't seem quite right, the book needs more character development and fleshing out of the plot to really make it work.


Monday, December 3, 2018

The Clockmaker's Daughter (Kate Morton)

I've been singing the praises of Kate Morton for a long time now, and I'm happy to say that now when I recommend her, people no longer say "Who? Never heard of her!". She's finally getting the recognition she deserves for her mesmerizing second-to-none prose. While I had a few issues with her latest, The Clockmaker's Daughter, it still told a terrific story.

A word of warning -- if you're looking for an easy-breezy read where you don't have to think too much, this one isn't for you. Morton uses multiple time periods and many characters to create her puzzle, so you're definitely going to want to turn off the TV and get the kids out of the room before you dive in. In 1862, a group of artists, led by Edward Radcliffe, turn Birchwood Manor into a retreat of creativity. Before the summer is through, however, one of them will be shot dead, and Lily Millington (AKA The Clockmaker's Daughter and Edward's love and muse) will have disappeared. This is just one facet of Morton's novel; she weaves back and forth in time until finally, at the end, we have our answer as to what really happened that summer.

Here, Morton stays true to her sophisticated, smart writing. However, while at times I was on the edge of my seat, in other instances, it was difficult to keep all the stories and time periods straight. I also thought the entire book could have been trimmed at least 100 pages. So while not my favorite Morton book, it's still a great addition to her collection.