Review of “Castle on the Rise” by Kristy Cambron

The Easter Rising, also known as the Easter Rebellion, was an armed insurrection in Ireland during Easter Week, April 1916. The Rising was launched by Irish nationalists seeking to end British rule in Ireland. Britain had controlled Ireland for some 700 years, in ways disadvantageous and cruel to the Irish Catholics.

The Easter Rising came 118 years after the unsuccessful rebellion of 1798, which was the first armed action of Irish revolutionaries.

This historical fiction romance uses three time frames, including the period of these two rebellions, as well as the present day. The three stories alternating in the book are all tied together by family, setting, and history. In addition, somewhat parallel romances characterize each period.

In the portions set during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, we learn something about the enmity between the Irish and the British, when Maeve Ashford, the Mistress of Ashford Manor since her mother’s death, becomes acquainted with Eoin O’Byrne, an Irish activist.

In 1916, we meet Issy Byrne, a would-be photojournalist who, like Maeve, is also from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy but finds herself in love with an Irish patriot.

Children collect firewood from the ruined buildings damaged in the Easter Rising Photo: Getty

And in the present day, Laine Forrester is reluctantly drawn to her best friend’s new brother-in-law, Cormac Foley, who has just inherited a castle on the grounds of Ashford Manor.

All of the couples have to deal with the difficulties of bridging the span between two different worlds – worlds that have been characterized by much pain and sorrow. The romance between each couple is well-done; there is nice tension and pacing surrounding the “forbidden” attraction each of them experiences.

Cambron resolves the conflicts realistically, and at the same time leaves room for expansion of their stories if she so chooses. (Apparently this book is the second of a series. I was unaware of that, but had no trouble following the story.)

Evaluation: With strong female characters and a compelling historical and geographical setting, this book has much to recommend it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Thomas Nelson, 2019

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Women’s History Month Kid Lit Review of “The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science” by Joyce Sidman

As Newbery Honor-winning author Joyce Sidman explains, Maria Merian, born in 1647, loved to draw bugs from the time she was a young girl. But just drawing them wasn’t enough; she wanted to understand them as well:

“With no formal training or university education, Maria Merian took on the role of artist, adventurer, and scientist in seventeenth-century Europe – a time when women were rarely allowed responsibilities outside the home, and unusual interests led to accusations of witchcraft.”

But as Sidman notes:

“Her intrepid fieldwork and careful observation helped uncover the truth about metamorphosis and changed the course of science forever.”

This beautiful book about Maria and her accomplishments begins with an insect glossary – such a great idea to put a glossary in the front! It is helpful to know at the outset, for example, the differences between moths and butterflies.

The illustrations in this book are lovely. Some are drawings and paintings (many of which are reproductions of those made by Maria Merian herself), and some are stylized excerpts from Maria’s writings, but there are also many contemporary color photographs.

There are informational pictures with captions as well, like one demonstrating the parts of a copper engraver’s workshop, similar to that owned by Maria’s father.

When Maria’s father died, her mother eventually remarried, this time to a different type of artist. Jacob Marrel specialized in still lifes, and Maria was happy to help him. The author reports:

“Her stepfather prized insects as models and sent Maria outside to capture them.”

At the time, most people believed insects came from “spontaneous generation.” This was Aristotle’s theory and no one questioned it.

Marrel taught Maria how to draw and paint, and soon she was so skillful that she was helping produce pictures for sale. But her curiosity over the nature of caterpillars, moths, and butterflies only intensified, and she began to do her own experiments to find out where they came from and how they developed.

Women in Maria’s time could not attend a university. They could not neglect their “duties” as a female in favor of intellectual pursuits. They also had a “duty” to marry (and indeed, that particular duty was necessary for financial reasons as well as societal ones). In time Maria married one of her stepfather’s apprentices. But in spite of having and raising children and doing housekeeping, she continued to paint and even published a book in 1675 featuring pictures of her flowers.

In 1679 she published a second book, this one including not only plants but images of specific caterpillars showing the preference of plant associated with each one.

Maria found it increasingly difficult to balance all the parts of her life. In 1685, she left her husband, took her daughters and widowed mother, and went to join a religious commune in the northern Netherlands, where her half brother already lived. After six years, finding the restrictions of the community too limiting, she took her daughters to Amsterdam. Because the Netherlands [outside of religious communes] had more progressive laws for women, Maria could open her own business there. She became successful, but her curiosity hadn’t abated. Now she wanted to know more than just about European species of insects. In 1699, Maria and her younger daughter left for Surinam. [Suriname, a small country on the northeastern coast of South America, was formerly known as Surinam when became a Dutch colony beginning in 1667.]

The author writes:

“Maria delighted in the diversity of insects in Surinam and carefully painted them all, from stinging caterpillars to tarantulas.”

But the climate made her ill, and after just short of two years, she and her daughter returned to Amsterdam. In 1705, she published a book with her findings, The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam.

The book was widely praised and even acknowledged by the Royal Society of London, the famed scientific society which would not admit women to its membership for another 250 years.

But Maria never really recovered from the tropical illness she contracted in Surinam and died at the age of sixty-nine in 1715.

The author writes:

“On the very day of her death, an agent of Tsar Peter the Great bought a collection of almost three hundred of her original watercolors to help found Russia’s first art museum.”

Moreover, the famous scientist Carl Linnaeus relied heavily on Maria’s discoveries for his own work.

But many men were offended by her presumption to conduct science, and insisted she had to have had help from a man. Moreover, they said, she was only self-taught, and therefore not a real “scientist.”

Today’s scientists, Sidman points out, “have rediscovered and acknowledged her work for what it is: amazingly beautiful, accurate portrayals of insect metamorphoses and ecosystems.”

The book concludes with an Author’s Note, a Timeline, and a Selected Bibliography. Recommended age range is Age 10 – 12 years.

Evaluation: This book is replete with historical side notes as well as gorgeous photographs and paintings of plants and insects. Even aside from the inspirational story of Maria Merian, the book has a great deal to recommend it in the categories of history, science, and art.

Note: Awards include the 2019 Sibert Medal Informational Book Award from the Association for Library Service to Children, and New York Public Library Top 10 Best Books of 2018.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018

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Review of “Catwoman: Soulstealer” by Sarah J. Maas

Catwoman is part of the “DC Icons Series” featuring [non-graphic] novels centered around the teenage versions of Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, and Catwoman. This is my second one (I previously read and reviewed Wonder Woman), and I have enjoyed both of them in spite of not currently being a fan of comic books.

In the comics world, Catwoman, whose real name is Selina Kyle, was originally portrayed as a supervillain and adversary of Batman. Gradually she morphed into Batman’s partner.

In this book, Batman is not Catwoman’s love interest; he is an older guy already and not really in the picture. Instead, Catwoman establishes a relationship with Batwing. Batwing, a.k.a. Lucius Fox, is a young African-American crime-fighting associate of Batman’s.

Selina is beautiful, sensuous, smart, and calculating. Her criminal tendencies are checked by several factors: (1) her “heart of gold” – she does everything in service of taking care of her little sister Maggie, who has severe cystic fibrosis; (2) she knows how harmful poverty is to those caught in its net and so takes a “Robin Hood” approach to stealing, restricting her victims to the rich; and finally, (3) she doesn’t want to disappoint Batwing, who is a Good Guy.

As Maas constructs Catwoman’s origin story, she is not, as in the comics series, a former stewardess who had lost her memory after a plane crash, and then needed to steal jewels in order to survive. [Well, she could have tried a job, but whatever.] Maas’s Selina, 17 when we first meet her, began her life of robbery to get funds to take care of Maggie (their druggie mother abandoned them), but that didn’t come close to covering medical costs. [Cue up Issue Number One: outrageous medical costs, especially for the poor!] Selina then turned to participating in fights set up by a mob boss who made a profit over the bets. Selina, thanks to her past in gymnastics, excelled in agility, flexibility, and speed.

As the story begins, Selina is still undefeated, but gets arrested by dirty cops. Once in police custody, she is recruited by the League of Assassins, a group of fictional villains appearing in the DC Comic books who are enemies of Batman and who somehow have an “in” with the local bad cops. Selina then leaves Gotham City for an extensive training program with the League. Two years later, she returns to Gotham City disguised as blonde socialite Holly Vanderhees, intending to help “take the city back” from the rich and corrupt.

DC Comics Art by Adam Hughes

The first thing Selina/Holly does is catch the eye of her neighbor – none other than Luke Fox – on the penthouse level of her swanky high-rise building. Luke, like Selina, has brains and looks, but he comes from a family with money (yet cares about the downtrodden: strong yet tender!) He also has PTSD from his Marine days [Issue Number Two!], a condition which acts like Clark Kent’s glasses – i.e., if Superman ever put them on, wouldn’t everyone know he was also Clark? Similarly, Luke can’t control his panic attacks either as Luke or Batwing. Hmmm, what a coincidence!

Maas inserts elements of other hot-button topics: Poison Ivy, a lesbian, teams up with Selina, and Maas treats the barriers Ivy faces quite sensitively. Ivy is also into protecting the environment and thereby saving the planet, so we can check off that concern as well. The two become a trio when Harley Quinn, another DC Comics character, joins their group. Harley is infatuated with The Joker, who is reputed to be evil incarnate, but Harley will do anything for him. That particular issue (of abused and battered women who can’t let go) is elided over.

Poison Ivy, Catwoman and Harley Quinn on a refrigerator magnet (LOL)

The three women pull off some heists, outwit Batwing, and generally create havoc in Gotham City. And remember Selina’s desire to help her sister Maggie? It’s all related.

As the story winds up, we know it is just the beginning for these characters, who will go on to have numerous gests, trysts, and other adventures in the DC Comics Universe.

Discussion: In spite of any sarcasm in the above plot summary, I enjoyed this book, as I generally enjoy books by Sarah J. Maas. There were two jarring notes for me in this book however.

One was that Batwing was almost laughably incompetent. Sarah J. Maas likes strong women, but Batwing is so inept compared to Selina it’s a wonder he could experience any success at his avocation were it not for his Kevlar vest and retractable wings he designed himself. Yes, he was a Marine, a boxer, and trains with Bruce Wayne – Batman himself! – but all that is nothing compared to what Selina can do. No wonder Gotham City was still a hotbed of crime with Batwing on patrol!

Batwing as depicted by DC Comics

Second was the issue of the “diversity” of the book. Luke, rich and privileged, is African-American, but pretty much acts the same as all his rich white friends. He talks about past crushes on women who are white, and is smitten with the blonde Selina (she died her black hair to “become” socialite Holly). There is nary a black woman in sight in the story aside from Luke’s mother. This seemed like the biggest injustice in the superhero League of Justice. The fact is, we do not live in a “post-racial” world, and black women are always, in this country at any rate, at the bottom of the [white-male-promulgated] social-attractiveness hierarchy.

Black women are more likely than any other group to be discounted, discredited, and stereotyped: dually victimized by race and gender. And here they are, marginalized once again. Having one of the most powerful (and “ripped”) black men in Gotham City evince no interest whatsoever in black women is off-putting and a tragic missed opportunity to counter the constant images in our society that define beauty as white faces (or at least caucasian features) and straight blonde hair.

I think that the author is trying to be well-meaning and inclusive, but for white women to have good intentions is not often adequate. I hope authors and publishers can “take the risk” of having black women at the center of stories and of showing how heroic they can be, without being only tragically heroic or playing second fiddle to the hot white girl.

As LeBron James said on Instagram about role models, “My daughter is watching!”

Evaluation: I haven’t been into comic book characters for many years, but this series of books for young adults is quite appealing. The featured superheroes are all aware that they are at the cusp of their futures, and want desperately to make their marks and realize their dreams. I didn’t find Catwoman to be quite as sympathetic of a character as Wonder Woman, but I enjoyed the book. The pacing is well managed and the plot has lots of interesting complications.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House, 2018

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Review of “Once Upon A River” by Diane Setterfield

This Gothic story infused with magical realism takes place in Radcot, Oxfordshire, England, sometime not long after 1859 (the publication date of Darwin’s Origin of Species, which figures into a plot strand pitting science against belief). The center of the action is the Swan, an ancient inn known for the storytellers who habituated the place.

One night, on the winter solstice, a horribly injured man came into the Swan carrying what everyone assumed was the dead body of a little four-year-old girl. They both collapsed, and Rita Sunday, the town nurse and midwife, was called in to help. The fact that the solstice has traditionally been considered to be “a night of magic” in which “dreams and stories merge with lived experience,” fed into the impression that the girl was dead and then she lived; that a miracle had occurred.

The man turned out to be Henry Daunt, a photographer from Oxford, but the little girl’s identity was more enigmatic. She was mute and in shock, so they all tried to guess. Some thought she could be Amelia, the daughter of Anthony and Helena Vaughan. Amelia was kidnapped two years before at age two. Ransom was paid but the Vaughans did not get their daughter back. They hadn’t seen Amelia in two years, however, and children change a lot. Robert and Bess Armstrong believed the little girl might be their granddaughter Alice, age 4 and recently disappeared. The Armstrongs, however, never met their granddaughter, so couldn’t say for sure. Another local woman, Lily White, seemed convinced the little girl was her sister Ann.

There was even another possibility – at least, according to the villagers. They believed in the tale of a mysterious ferryman on the Thames named Quietly. The legend of Quietly was based on the story of an actual man named Quietly who lost his daughter in the river. He left in pursuit of her. A year later, Quietly returned the little girl to her mother, but wouldn’t enter the house. The mother saw that her husband wasn’t quite substantial, and understood that he was lost to her forever. Rita explained to Henry:

“…since that day any number of people on the river have met Quietly on the river. There was a price to be paid for the return of his daughter, and he paid it. For all eternity he must watch over the river, waiting for someone to get into difficulty, and then, if it is not their time, he sees them safely to the bank; and if it is their time, he sees them safely to that other place….”

Could the little girl be Quietly’s daughter?

All the interested parties stay absorbed in the identity of the little girl, and through that focus we learn more about the inhabitants of Radcot: their hopes, dreams, weaknesses, and strengths. The characters are well-drawn, with the females especially resilient. Much of their toughness comes from the stories they tell themselves to ease the pain of reality. Indeed, stories and their power are central to the plot.

The Thames, winding through the story as well as the landscape, also reflects the path of stories: sometimes clear, sometimes opaque, sometimes meandering, sometimes strong and overwhelming. The water can come in a trickle or a torrent, and as you follow its path, it can take you to other worlds.

The meandering Thames

Evaluation: This was a good book, although I thought the author could have stayed out of the text. (As an example: “And now, dear reader, the story is over.”) There was much to like, however, including well-developed characterizations; the spotlight given to small gestures, such as the joy elicited by a child grabbing the finger of her parent; and the revelations of changing light – so critical to artists from Impressionists to photographers, and in a deeper sense, to storytellers.

How do stories – even fictional ones – pull us into the light and show us the truth of a matter? Setterfield provides a creative and entertaining answer.

Rating: 3.5/5 (reflecting the fact that I’m not such a fan of magical realism; I think most reviews are more favorable)

Published by Emily Bestler Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2018

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Women’s History Month Kid Lit Review of “Pioneers of Science and Technology (Brilliant Women)” by Georgia Amson-Bradshaw

This illustrated book for readers aged nine and up is part of the “Brilliant Women” series about women who have made their marks in fields traditionally seen as only appropriate for men.

There are eight women who are featured in four-page profiles, with some additional science and technology heroines who receive thumbnail sketches.

Caroline Herschel, born in 1750, began working as her astronomer brother’s housekeeper and then became his assistant. She ended up making her own discoveries. In 1786, she became the first woman to discover a comet. She was also the first woman ever to be paid for scientific research.

In 1783, Caroline discovered fourteen new nebulae and star clusters and two new galaxies (all while still doing the housekeeping).

She was the first woman to be awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1828), and garnered a number of other scientific awards as well. In addition, the King of Prussia presented her with a Gold Medal for Science on the occasion of her 96th birthday (1846).

Mary Anning, born in 1799, was a paleontologist who only began fossil hunting to earn money. It was Mary who discovered the skeleton of the ichthyosaur, a finding that “began to make scientists question the history of the Earth…” She also discovered plesiosaurs and pterosaurs, and figured out what coprolites were, i.e., “fossilized dinosaur poo.”

Ada Lovelace, born in 1815, is known as the creator of the first computer algorithm because of her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.

Interestingly, Ada was also the only legitimate child of the poet George, Lord Byron and his wife Anne, Lady Wentworth. Byron, while now regarded as one of the greatest British poets, during his life was known for his aristocratic excesses, including huge debts and numerous love affairs with both men and women. Lady Wentworth left her husband a month after Ada was born, and Byron left England forever four months later; Ada never knew him.

Marie Curie, born Marie Sklodowska in Poland in 1867, was the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes, and the only person honored with a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. Marie’s husband Pierre Curie was also a Nobel laureate, as were her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie and her son-in-law Frédéric Joliot-Curie.

The author tells us that Marie initially attended an illegal underground college called the “Flying University” because women could only be taught in secret. She wanted an “official” degree though, so she left Poland for Paris to attend the Sorbonne. There she completed two degrees, one in physics and one in math. She and her future husband, professor Pierre Curie, studied x-rays together, and discovered two new elements, radium and polonium.

Lisë Meitner is known as the mother of the atomic bomb. She was born in 1878 in Vienna. She and Otto Hahn together discovered nuclear fission. Lisë had to flee Austria when the Nazis took over, but stayed in touch with Hahn to help him understand nuclear fission. Only Hahn won official recognition for the discovery with his award of the Nobel Prize.

Barbara McClintock, born in 1902 in Connecticut, was a ground-breaking geneticist. She produced the first genetic map for maize, linking regions of the chromosome to physical traits. She demonstrated the role of the telomere and centromere, regions of the chromosome that are important in the conservation of genetic information. She was recognized as among the best in the field, awarded prestigious fellowships, and elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1944. Her work was finally recognized with a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983.

Photo of Barbara McClintock from the Nobel Foundation archive.

Katherine Johnson, born in West Virginia in 1918, was one of the “human computers” who helped NASA, especially in the days before machine computers, put men into space. By age thirteen, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. At eighteen, she enrolled in the college itself. Katherine graduated with highest honors in 1937 and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia. 

 

In 1952 she heard about open positions at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (later renamed NASA), headed by fellow West Virginian Dorothy Vaughan. Katherine and her husband decided to move the family to Newport News to pursue the opportunity, and Katherine began work there in the summer of 1953.

Katherine did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight. In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Katherine Johnson was called upon to verify the work of the machine computers; Glenn waited for her analysis before he would go ahead with the Friendship 7 mission.

Jane Goodall, a primatologist born in London in 1934, “made amazing scientific discoveries about chimpanzees by studying them in the wild.” Jane was only the eighth person to be allowed to gain a Ph.D. at Cambridge without having a degree. In 1977 she founded the Jane Goodall Institute, a global wildlife and environmental conservation organization.

Thumbnail sketches of some additional exceptional women scientists follow. These women represent a more diverse selection than the eight who have the main profiles; I would have liked to have seen a better mix in the main portion of the book.

The author appends a glossary and list of sources for further information.

Rita Petruccioli is an Italian illustrator and comic book artist. Her cartoon-like illustrations are colorful and entertaining.

Evaluation: These stories of women science and technology pioneers, selected from a diverse group of women around the world, are inspirational and awe-inspiring. The book is a welcome addition to any collection for kids.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. (now B.E.S. Publishing), 2018

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