Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Song of Hartgrove Hall by Natasha Solomons

Harry Fox-Talbot better known as “Fox” is a young composer living in the shadows of his older brothers who have recently returned from fighting overseas in WWII.  They’ve returned to Hartgrove Hall, the family estate that is in vast disrepair, especially after being occupied by British troops during the war.   They clean up the place as best they can to host a New Year’s Eve party.  His older, glamorous brother Jack brings home Edie Rose, “England’s Rose” who has sung many popular patriotic songs during the war.   Fox is instantly smitten, but loving your brother’s girl is not proper.   When the three brothers learn that their father, “the General” wants to tear the house down in order to sell the property, they decide to try their hand at farming and raising enough money to save the place.  Fox finds himself torn.  He loves music and collecting old ballads that have not been written down, but he is not able to find his passion with farming and dreams about returning to school . . . and Edie.

Fifty years later, Fox is trying to live life again after the death of his beloved wife.  He discovers that his young four year old grandson, Robin, is a musical prodigy. He starts to teach him piano himself, but soon brings in his friends to help and give advice on what will be best for Robin’s future.  Through Robin, Fox feels he is living again.  He also feels the pull of music and of writing one last great composition.

I enjoyed how the story flipped back and forth every other chapter through time.  I wasn’t quite sure what had happened in the past to bring Fox to his future and it was wonderful putting all of the pieces together.  I also liked how there was forgiveness in the future as well.

I also thought an interesting subtext was that Edie Rose was Jewish and what dynamic that played at times through the novel.  I want a book just on Edie and her back story!

I loved the musical world that was woven throughout this novel. It was fascinating reading “A Note on Song Collecting” at the close of the novel that tells all about how people have performed this important past time to preserve our musical heritage.  I loved how Fox had his compositions and musical collections and how his Song of Hartford Hall and musical festival held at the hall helped to save his home even though his farming skills could not.  I also enjoyed his friends and how he met them in the past and how important they were to him even as an old man.

Overall, The Song at Hargrove Hall is a wonderful historical fiction read with great characters, a unique setting, and a fascinating premise.  I highly recommend it.  I also thought it was a good fit as I get ready to enjoy the next season of Downton Abbey on what the future could hold for that great estate as well.

Book Source:  Review Copy from Penguin Random House.  Thank-you!  

Monday, December 28, 2015

Jonas Salk: A Life by Charlotte Decroes Jacobs

Title: Jonas Salk:  A Life
Author: Charlotte Decroes Jacobs
Read by: Pam Ward
Blackstone Audio
Length: 20 hours and 15 minutes
Source: Review Digital Audio from Audiobook Jukebox – Thanks!

Jonas Salk:  A Life tells the complete story of Jonas Salk from his birth through his death and is a fascinating look into the research involved in the discovery and production of the polio vaccine.  What fascinated me is that while Salk is primarily known for his polio vaccine, it only occupied a small portion of his actual research work.  The notoriety from this research impacted the rest of Salk’s life.

This biography started with Salk’s early life in the Bronx as the son of ambitious Jewish immigrants.  It also set the tone telling of the devastation of the great influenza of 1918 as well as polio epidemics that swept through killing and disabling primarily children, but also adults as well.  Salk did well in school and was able to become a researching M.D.

As a Michigan native, I was fascinated that Salk’s first research was on the influenza vaccine at the University of Michigan.  It was disturbing how inmates at prisons, people at mental institutions, institutionalized children were used for testing vaccines in the 1940’s and 1950’s in particular in Michigan by Salk and all across the United States by other various researchers.  I know that this research helped with many important discovers, but the ethicacy of it troubles me.

Salk left the University of Michigan and went to the University of Pittsburg where he started his groundbreaking Polio Vaccine.  With an entire crew of great researchers, they were able to put together an effective polio vaccine that used a killed virus.  This was a fact widely disputed by Saber a leading proponent of using a life virus.

After discovery, the vaccine was taken away from Salk and was tested on second graders throughout the United States.  One of the venues that was making the vaccine did not follow the detailed directions first put together by Salk, which led to the death of many children and adults.  It was a disturbing look at how you can have a good idea that works in a lab, but without oversite, companies will try to cut corners.

Once the vaccine was proven to be safe, the public clamored for it and Salk become an instant celebrity.  This put a giant strain on his wife and three young boys.  Much changed for Salk and his family after this with Salk founding the Salk Institute in California.

Later in life Salk studied MS, cancer, and AIDs and seemed to make good progress, although he was never able to have a breakthrough as he did with Polio.

I was frankly disturbed by what a womanizer Salk was.  He seemed to be bowled over by any pretty young thing that was smart and liked his ideas from his night time ramblings.  A seventy-something year old married man hooking up twenty something year olds makes me question the elder man’s ethics and morality.  There seemed to be some rationalization in the book such as either of his wives were not paying attention to him or that he needed validation because other scientists didn’t respect him.  I kept thinking, maybe his wives aren’t paying attention to him because he’s never home and it’s widely known he has a lot of girlfriends.  One of the stories was rather disturbing where he seemed to take advantage of his stepdaughter’s friend although she rationalized it later on.

It was also strange in the book that there seemed that pretty much the entire scientific community did not like Jonas Salk and there didn’t seem to be an answer besides that he liked to be in the public eye too much and that other scientists were jealous.  It really made me want to look at the science angle and see for myself.  What else was going on?  I wish this question would have had a more satisfactory answer.

One of my favorite quotes was, “But once again sensationalism trumped science.”  This is sadly too true even now.

Pam Ward was a good narrator for this book and I found the material to be fascinating.  It was a great audiobook to keep me interested during my daily commute.

Overall, Jonas Salk: A Life is a very interesting audiobook that details the life of one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century.  I learned a lot and I really liked learning about the disease of polio, its devastation, and how the vaccine successfully eradicated it.  I liked how Salk and Sabine’s dispute about which vaccine was the best was discussed throughout the book as it happened in the timeline.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Star Wars Books for Kids

I love Star Wars and luckily my husband and I are raising a new generation of Star Wars fans.  My eldest son Kile is especially a fan and has been devoted to Star Wars books the past few years.  These are some of his favorites and I’m sure we’ll be adding some new ones to the list after Episode VII opens this weekend.

Star Wars: A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi by Ryder Windham
Kile and I started this junior novelization set of the original trilogy this past summer with A New Hope and we just finished Return of the Jedi this week.  This books do a great job of bringing the movies to light and Kile loves reading the Star Wars stories at his level.  Some of the words are a stretch for Kile (4th grade), but it is usually just technical terms.  He corrects me on my poor pronunciation of some of the Star Wars names and planets.  He also likes how the pictures from the movies are in the middle of the books.

Star Wars Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown
There are three books in this series now and they are written in the same format as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which are Kile’s favorite books.  In this series, Roan Navachez travels from Tatooine to the Jedi Academy on Corascant to train with Yoda and other middle school students.  It has a journal entry format with drawings to illustrate points and plenty of middle school angst.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
This series is the trials and tribulation of the 6th grade Origami Rebel Alliance at McQuarrie Middle School.  Dwight is a goofball and does odd things which embarrass his friend Tommy, but Dwight makes cool origami.  This series is a nice combination of art, Star Wars, and school angst.  Kile especially loved the directions for how to make origami Star Wars characters.  I still have two origami Yodas up on our cork board. 

Star Wars:  The Weapon of a Jedi, a Luke Skywalker Adventure by Jason Fry
Kile said this book is good and that he likes the story.  This book is set between a New Hope and Empire Strikes Back.  Luke is on a mysterious planet where he must use the force to save a young girl.  Kile got this book for St. Nick’s day and read it quickly on his own.  He liked it so much that he wants to read it over again with me.

Star Wars Rebels:  Rise of the Rebels by Michael Kogge et al.
This novel follows the characters from the popular Disney cartoon series, Star Wars Rebels including.  In this novel, Ezra and Sabine outsmart storm troopers.  Kile really enjoys this television series and enjoyed this book as well.

Star Wars Lego Visual Dictionary by Simon Beecroft and Jason Free
Kile has basically memorized all of the characters and space ships in this book and refers to them when watching the shows, movies, or reading other books.  He also has other Star Wars Legos books that he enjoys, especially when they come with an action figure.

Lego Star Wars DK Readers by Emma Grange et al.
The boys got these books for Christmas last year from Aunt Jenn and they vastly enjoyed them. They are reading levels 1-3 and the level increases as you move through each trilogy.  Daniel was in 1st grade last year and could read the level one books (and maybe level two) and Kile would read the level three to Daniel.  Now this year Daniel can also read them all.

Star Wars Phonics by Quinlan Lee
Daniel got these books in kindergarten and read them all summer afterwards.  He said they were interesting and are very easy books to read now that he is in second grade.  My daughter Penelope is in preschool and likes to have these books read to her.  Soon she’ll be reading them herself!