The odd thing about this book is that the titular conceit—the miniaturist—is completely unnecessary to the story. The main character, Nella, leaves heThe odd thing about this book is that the titular conceit—the miniaturist—is completely unnecessary to the story. The main character, Nella, leaves her provincial home to marry a wealthy merchant from the Dutch East India Company and take up her role as a wife in cosmopolitan Amsterdam. But she soon finds herself lonely and neglected in the house that should have been hers to run. Her husband Joahnnes mostly ignores her and his sister Marin holds on to control of the household with an iron grip. Nella, only 18 years old, is overwhelmed and feels lost. Her husband gives her the gift of a cabinet house and she contacts a miniaturist to commission pieces to fill it. But, as I said at the start of this review, the miniaturist and the "coded messages" sent with the tiny dolls and furniture are totally unnecessary to the story. It is the weakest part of the narrative. The lives of the household—Nella, her husband, her sister-in-law, and their servants (one an orphan and the other a black man whose skin makes him stand out in this part of the world)—are far more interesting than the peripheral mystery of whether the craftsman is spying on the family or has some kind of supernatural gift. To me, the book would have been stronger without the person who gives the book its name....more
Paris, 1878. The van Goethem sisters struggle to survive in the poorest neighborhood of Paris. Their father has died and their mother must be constantParis, 1878. The van Goethem sisters struggle to survive in the poorest neighborhood of Paris. Their father has died and their mother must be constantly watched lest she squander the little money she makes as a laundress on absinthe. Eldest sister Antoinette makes what money she can as a walker-on at the opera, but the family’s best hope lies with the youngest two daughters, Marie and Charlotte, who have begun their training as petit rats, the youngest ballet girls. Both hope to be promoted first to the quadrille and then up the ranks of the ballet corps. It’s not only a way to make a decent living, but a chance to rise above their birth and become something beautiful and admired.
Painter Edgar Degas sits in on each class, sketching the dancers in a novel way: as they are in the practice room—small, tired and thin—rather than as they are on the stage. He chooses Marie as one of his models, creating portraits of her that ultimately result in a sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Marie is grateful for the extra money and finds that she is a quick study, becoming one of the more promising students in the class though she began her training later than the other girls. She dares to hope that she may be promoted to the quadrille, but is haunted by the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with her. Marie is a student of the most recent studies on human physiology, which link physical features like a broad forehead or large jaw with criminal behavior and moral degradation When Marie looks in the mirror, she can’t help but see these features…and wonder when her baser nature will make itself known.
She seems them also in Antoinette’s lover, Emile Abadie, a roguish youth who calls home wherever he can find a bed and spends his money on rounds of drinks at the cafes. Antoinette is enamored with the way he adores her, the pretty words he showers on her, and the two become more deeply involved as they work together as permanent extras in a sensational new play depicting the bleak lives of the working class—a plot all too close to home. Blinded by her devotion to Emile, Antoinette refuses to admit that she is drifting away from her sisters and compromising her chance at a good and honest life.
The Painted Girls was everything I look for in historical fiction. All of the main characters are real figures, but their stories have been massaged in some cases to intersect. Marie really was the model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen and Antoinette really did act in the adaptation of Zola’s naturalist novel on the stage, but the insertion of Abadie (another historical figure) into her life is a liberty—but one I didn’t mind. Since Buchanan has chosen to chronicle the lives of such peripheral figures—not kings and queens, but average people—there’s little chance of jarring us with a bit of historical play. The Painted Girls concentrates on the story of sisterhood and finds its strength therein. It’s an absorbing novel, balancing the emotional weight of poverty and class strife with the grace of the ballet and the hope of childhood.
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When Edie’s mother receives a letter from Juniper Blythe, it arrives almost fifty years too late. Juniper’s letter is one of a few that got lost in thWhen Edie’s mother receives a letter from Juniper Blythe, it arrives almost fifty years too late. Juniper’s letter is one of a few that got lost in the mail during World War II, and only now have the letters been delivered through a quirk in the postal service. But Edie is surprised to see her mother’s strong reaction when she opens the letter, and even more surprised to learn who Juniper is. Edie discovers that her mother spent part of the war in the countryside, taken into Milderhurst Castle by the three Sisters Blythe. Glimpsing this hidden chapter of her mother’s life, Edie becomes obsessed with learning more about the castle and the sisters, especially when she discovers who their father is—Raymond Blythe, author of the children’s classic The Mud Man, the story that first got Edie interested in writing and set her on the path to becoming an editor. As Edie meets the sisters, she begins to discover secrets long buried, about her mother, the sisters, the castle, and the origins of The Mud Man.
About a year ago I picked up Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden and found myself lost in a gothic mystery that was both delightful and surprising. I say surprising because I hadn’t expected much from the book—I picked it up at an airport bookstore in an hour of need—so the payoff was all the sweeter. I noticed two books of equal girth that also carried Ms. Morton’s name and mentally filed them away (or added them to my Goodreads queue) for a future read.
I’m sorry to say that my second encounter with Ms. Morton left me more than a little disappointed. In fact, though The Distant Hours seemed like it would have many of the same characteristics as Morton’s earlier work, they were almost entirely absent from this book. The Distant Hours felt under-crafted and under-thought, with paper-thin characters and a heavy-handed delivery. It’s all the more surprising because I described The Forgotten Garden as finely crafted, with a light touch of symbolism. The Distant Hours is the opposite. Edie is a clunky narrator with no apparent personality and her voice often drew me out of the narrative with references to “what she’d learn later” or things she “wished she could have known then.” She has no personality of her own and her mother’s connection to the castle is never properly exploited.
Instead of developing the ostensible main character, the book focuses on the three sisters and Edie becomes just a set of eyes, an outsider stand-in for the reader who does a lot of telling instead of showing. Morton wants to deliver a mystery, to make us wonder about how these three women came to spend their entire lives in a decaying castle. But the “mystery” of it all is laid on so thick that we learn next to nothing about the characters until the final act. By then, I cared little for Saffy and Percy Blythe or the origins of the mysterious Mud Man. These people even edit their own thoughts to keep us from discovering their secrets (which, by the way, are not even that scandalous or surprising). The only one with any semblance of depth was Juniper Blythe, who had some vivacity in her early appearances in the novel as a young girl, but is rendered into a Jane Eyre Bertha-esque specter in Edie’s present-day interactions with her. As Morton keeps us from the secrets, whole chapters end up feeling like treading water. I kept telling myself there’d be some kind of shocking payoff, but there wasn’t. t can hardly believe the same person wrote both these books.
Would I recommend? The Distant Hours was a real disappointment to me. I’d certainly recommend The Forgotten Garden (I even consulted some others who had read that book to be sure it was as good as I remembered. I started to doubt myself after reading this one. They assured me I had not lost my mind or taste in books.) But my advice is to skip The Distant Hours. It’s not a good reflection of Ms. Morton’s talent.
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**spoiler alert** When Minke is 15, a distinguished older man in a yellow car arrives at her parents’ home looking for a girl to come to Amsterdam to**spoiler alert** When Minke is 15, a distinguished older man in a yellow car arrives at her parents’ home looking for a girl to come to Amsterdam to nurse his ailing wife, Elisabeth. Minke’s time with Elisabeth in the attic of her lavish home is short, but the two form a bond as Elisabeth relates her travels to Argentina through sporadic opium-induced dreams. Then, suddenly and almost without warning, Elisabth passes away and Sander DeVries—the man who came to fetch Minke—proposes to Minke, hoping to secure a new wife less than three days after his last has died. At first scandalized, but later charmed by Sander and his promises of adventure and beauty in Argentina, Minke accepts and the two are married in the old way, breaking a ring in the company of her family. Minke and Sander board a ship for Comodoro Rivadavia, along with Sander’s business partner, Cassian, an enigmatic doctor charged with looking after Minke while Sander sees to his business ventures onboard. Minke’s life settles into a series of peaks and valleys. She falls deeply in love with Sander, enjoying their nights together and his passion. But Sander often leaves her alone and in the dark, about himself and their future. The nature of his business is murky, mixed up in oil, shipping, and morphine, and he shows streaks of jealousy and possessiveness as Minke befriends some of the men onboard. At her first sight of Argentina, Minke is disappointed by the barren, dirty town, its houses with walls of corrugated iron and dirt floors, but she soon embraces her new surroundings, befriending the wild gauchos who ride into town to trade, much to the dislike of her husband. Minke will soon find out that Sander is not the man she thought he was and will have to fight for a happy future for herself and her children.
A Young Wife is compelling, partially as it’s based on the true story of the author’s maternal grandmother. It’s the second book I’ve read this year that tells of women’s struggles to carve out better lives for themselves and their children in male-dominated societies. (More on the first here.) Minke’s voice is honest and clear and Lewis weaves a beautiful narrative. Some elements are a bit expected, but in general the story is fact-paced and engrossing. I could have done without Minke’s secondary love interest and found Cassian inconsistent, sometimes acting in sinister capacities for Sander and sometimes proving Minke’s ally. But these niggling points aside, it struck me that while Minke’s story is a coming-of-age tale, it’s also about a woman learning to understand a man and the progression of their relationship. We see Sander through Minke’s eyes and though there are clues that he’s duplicitous, we always have Minke’s understanding and also her love for him, especially in the first portion of the book. As their story unfolds, we see what Minke thought was a love story dissolve into a tragedy. But with this dissolution, Minke learns about herself and grows up. She is, after all, a very young wife.
Would I recommend? I enjoyed this book and read it quickly. It has many elements that I am drawn to: a strong female narrator, a historical basis, and travel to exotic locales. Though a few plot points didn’t come together for me, A Young Wife is emotionally honest a worth a look for fans of historical fiction and romance.
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**spoiler alert** Soo-Ja dreams of traveling to the capital of Korea to study as a diplomat, but her parents object, wanting her to follow a tradition**spoiler alert** Soo-Ja dreams of traveling to the capital of Korea to study as a diplomat, but her parents object, wanting her to follow a traditional path of marriage and family that will bring her comfort and stability. Soo-Ja devises a plan: she’ll marry a weak man, one who will let her make all the decisions and won’t stand in her way. When she meets Min, a young student swept up in a protest movement and a member of her own class, she thinks she’s found the perfect target. Min seems madly in love with her and promises to follow her to Seoul. Soo-Ja agrees to their marriage, only to be approached the next day by Yul, a handsome doctor who is also a part of the protest movement and who once saved Soo-Ja’s life. Yul asks for her hand as well, warning her not to marry Min, but Soo-Ja believes she’s made the right choice. Min will take her away from the confines of traditional Korean life. Or so she thinks.
Three years later, Soo-Ja knows differently. Trapped in a loveless marriage and forced to serve ungrateful in-laws, Soo-Ja’s only joy is her daughter, Hana. She will do anything to build a better life for her child, even if it means bowing to the very doctrines she tried to escape. And Yul is always in her mind and sometimes in her life, reappearing as if by providence when she needs him most. Soo-Ja knows she can never leave Min if she hopes to keep her daughter. Korean law will give custody to the father and leave her with nothing. Bound to Min, Soo-Ja must give up everything else—her ambitions, desires, and even her dignity—to hold on to her daughter. A troubled love story, This Burns My Heart explores the aftermath of choosing the wrong person, what it means to live with that decision, and how we go on with life, even as our hearts burn.
So, the plot of This Burns My Heart is by no means revolutionary. I’ve read my fair share of books about Asian women searching for love in a patriarchal oppressive society, variously set in China and Japan between 1850 and 1980. This version takes us to Korea and is set a bit on the late side, post-Korean War and into the 1970s. The tropes of the genre are still there: the sacrifice of love for duty, the domineering mother-in-law, the repression of the female perspective. That said, I still enjoyed This Burns My Heart. It’s greatest redeeming factor is Soo-Ja’s voice, which is raw and intimate. This book is less about the particulars of Korean society, only touching on some of the details of cultural practices, but it’s not really meant to be a portrait of a place in the way that Memoirs of a Geisha or Empress Orchid were. This book is far more internal and, at its core, a romance novel.
Would I recommend? Sure! I think I’d wait for the paperback release, but as a light summer read I’d endorse This Burns My Heart. I don’t typically read romance novels, but this one was well done, with just the right balance of forbidden, repressed desire and hope and a compelling heroine to give the story depth.
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Once upon a time, a little girl found herself all alone on a dock in Australia, unable to remember even her own name. Her one clue to her former lifeOnce upon a time, a little girl found herself all alone on a dock in Australia, unable to remember even her own name. Her one clue to her former life was a book of fairy tales written by the woman known only to her as the Authoress. Once upon another time, the Authoress was a little girl, too, but an outcast in the English manor of her formidable aunt and reclusive uncle. Her only light was her cousin, Rose, for whom she would do anything in the world. Once upon a third time, a young woman lost everyone in her world and so she traveled across the sea to unravel the a past that connected herself, her grandmother, and the Authoress.
The Forgotten Garden weaves together the stories of these three women, in chapters that skip from the the Authoress’s life in the early 1900s to Nell’s search for her identity in the 1970s to her granddaughter Cassandra’s mission to finish what Nell began thirty years ago. This story works on so many levels, but at heart it is a fairy tale. Morton is a master of this language and her story bears a lot of unpacking. Not only do we have the haunting and beautiful original fairy tales penned by the Authoress, we also see them subtly referenced in the unfolding “real” story. I think what I appreciated most was how this was done with such a light touch. If you want to delve into the symbolism in The Forgotten Garden, it’s there in spades. But if you just want a gothic mystery set in a haunted cottage on the edge of an English manor’s garden maze, this book can be that for you, too.
It reminds me a bit of Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, another fabulous book that proves you can still combine fairy tales, English manors, and little girls and create something striking and fresh. Some of the strength of this genre is found in its familiarity. These tales evoke the ones we heard as children and there’s a natural, emotional response to the earliest stories we knew.
Would I recommend? Definitely. The Forgotten Garden is beautifully written, a compelling mystery, a misty grown-up fairy tale, and quite a satisfying read.
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When the Romans invade Israel, no place is safe for the Jewish people. Not Jerusalem, where their Temple is toppled to the ground, and not any town orWhen the Romans invade Israel, no place is safe for the Jewish people. Not Jerusalem, where their Temple is toppled to the ground, and not any town or village along the way, where the people are burned out of their houses, forced to flee or be killed or enslaved. There is only one place left to flee, a Zealot fortress in the desert that was once Herod’s palace, his last retreat and defense, a complex built to last a siege and protect its residents. The survivors now place their hope in this stronghold and their small army of boys and men who roam the desert in search of supplies and Roman raiders. But a feeling of dread hangs over the fortress. Its inhabitants know they are only waiting for the Romans to arrive, for the final test of their strength and their faith.
To this place come four women and each is called to work in the dovecotes. Yael crossed the desert with two assassins—her father and the man who became the love of her life. Unfortunately, this man also traveled with his wife and children. Always treated like a dog by her father, she finds a lion within herself when she meets her love and despite her guilt she cannot give up her newfound joy. Revka’s journey is one of loss, as both her husband and daughter are killed before reaching safety. Her son-in-law becomes a different man, leaving her scarred grandchildren in her care. Both boys have lost the power to speak after the horrors they’ve seen. Revka lives to care for them and to restore their voices if possible. Shirah is the only one to cross the desert with purpose, not fleeing the Romans, but seeking her long-lost love. Now she shares her gift of magic and wisdom with the troubled and bereft in the fortress. She brings her daughter Aziza, a girl drawn to men not for their love, but for their freedom and abilities. Together, these four women must find a way to survive.
Though the premise of this book sounds great, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. The historical context is rich and the characters are unique and interesting, but this book had one major flaw that kept me from getting immersed. It wasn’t in the plot—it was in the writing. Hoffman uses extremely minimal dialogue. Whole chapters seem to go by without any sign of quotation marks and often conversations are summarized rather than shown. As a result, I found the characters understandably rather voiceless. I realized that dialogue is incredibly important to my enjoyment of a book.
Some people might not feel as strongly about dialogue as I do, and if so, you might enjoy this book. But if you need to hear the voices of the characters to get caught up in their struggle, this isn’t for you.
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The circus arrives without warning. It opens at nightfall and closes at dawn. You enter through a star-filled tent, only to find yourself in a black-aThe circus arrives without warning. It opens at nightfall and closes at dawn. You enter through a star-filled tent, only to find yourself in a black-and-white world of acrobats and jugglers, labyrinths and ice gardens, a bonfire burning white and the scent of caramel and popcorn in the air. It is Le Cirque des Rêves, the circus of dreams, and it delights patrons around the globe with tattooed contortionists, fortune tellers, and a lovely young illusionist by the name of Celia Bowen. What few people know if that Le Cirque des Rêves is merely a venue for a magical competition, two student magicians bound by rules that neither of them fully understand. Celia was bound by her father, the great illusionist Prospero, who endlessly drilled his child to shatter and fix teacups or pull birds from the air. The opponent in the game is chosen by Prospero’s longtime rival, the man in the gray suit. He selects an orphan boy, Marco, who studies ancient symbols and signs. While Celia’s education is visceral, Marco’s is cerebral. The final battle is to be a test of philosophy and much as it is skill. But to Celia and Marco, this test is so much more. It’s their entire existence. They’ve never known anything but the coming challenge, the mark burned into their fingers that signifies the bond. And after years of training and study it’s finally come in the form of something delightful. They each find themselves falling in love with the circus, challenging themselves to create more wonderful attractions and deepen its mystery, only to find that while they are supposed to be competing they are unquestionably also drawn to one another.
The Night Circus is one of the best books I’ve read all year and I’ll add it to my list of all-time favorites. What appealed to me most was the absolutely mind-consuming beauty of the narrative. I left this book with a deep, deep longing to visit The Night Circus, as if Morgenstern had pulled a hidden place from my mind and breathed life into a dream I’d always carried. The circus is almost supernatural in its pull. The story is magic, mystery, intrigue, and romance all at once. It reminded me a bit of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in terms of language and atmosphere, but it doesn’t have the density of that book and it adds desire. The Night Circus is written in a series of vignettes or scenes, which really adds to the mystery and otherworldly or dreamlike feeling. Morgenstern is able to craft striking, almost haunting images that stay with you long after you close the book. I flew through it.
Would I recommend? Most certainly! What a stunning debut! I may find it hard to forgive Ms. Morgenstern for instilling such a burning hope that the Night Circus exists, but I’ll certainly pick up her next book (and read this one again!).
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Peter Force relocates to New York City at the turn of the century and takes a job helping to drill the first subway tunnels. A poor newcomer to the ciPeter Force relocates to New York City at the turn of the century and takes a job helping to drill the first subway tunnels. A poor newcomer to the city, Peter finds a room in a flophouse and befriends his fellow workers, but the city only really seems to come alive for him when a chance encounter introduces him to Cheri-Anne Toledo, a woman who believes she has traveled seven years into the future. Cheri-Anne is the last of the House of Toledo, a small independent kingdom that few know has existed in the center of Ohio since before the Revolutionary War. She insists that she and eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla were working on a time-travel device and that an attack on her home caused the machine to activate and catapult her to a future New York City. Peter believes Cheri-Anne to be insane, but after meetings with Albert Einstein and fiscal baron J. P. Morgan, he starts to wonder if there might be some truth to Cheri-Anne’s wild tale.
My first issue with the book comes from what I would call wasted potential. While the title of the book may be The Kingdom of Ohio, the kingdom itself plays a bit part. It’s merely in Cheri-Anne’s backstory and we get only some “historical” excerpts and a chapter that seems ripped from a dry history book. I would have gladly read an entire novel on the struggle to found the Kingdom of Ohio, the secret royal family that existed within the United States, the mechanations of the government to take control of the tiny rebellious state. Was it real? Or was all that “history” invented for the book? I still have no idea! But it hardly matters because the story of the Kingdom is buried and told without personality or character.
Speaking of character, there were two in this book with great potential about whom I would have gladly read an entire novel: namely, Tesla and Einstein. But these colorful characters in American history seem merely props in a time travel romance. With all the historical potential here–Ohio, Tesla, Einstein, New York, J. P. Morgan, the subway, the Brooklyn Bridge–why was the focus on a romance between two watery nobodies and a time travel device clumsily laid over more interesting material?
My other minor problem was that the book happens to be framed by one of my greatest pet peeves–a narrator who writes about writing the book we now read. I just hate this. In rare cases, it can be done well, but more often than not the effect is to pull me out of the story and disconnect me from the narrative. When one of the first paragraphs in the book started off something like “getting the first sentence down was the difficult part” or “I wondered how to best capture the story,” I knew I was in trouble. I recognize this voice of the fictional narrator as the voice of our author as well. It only served to disconnect me from an already scattered story with too many potential directions. I only wish the focus hadn’t been romance and time travel, what I consider to have been the weakest points in The Kingdom of Ohio‘s arsenal.
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It’s 1799 and the Dutch East Indian Company has the only window into shuttered Japan, a tiny island called Dejima in the harbor of Nagasaki, from whicIt’s 1799 and the Dutch East Indian Company has the only window into shuttered Japan, a tiny island called Dejima in the harbor of Nagasaki, from which they are allowed to trade sugar, cotton, and other goods for Japanese novelties and precious copper. Clerk Jacob de Zoet’s coming to Japan is less by choice and more by necessity, as he hopes to win the blessing of his sweetheart Anna’s family on his return to Holland. But five years is a long separation and Jacob finds his heart captured by Orito, a bright Japanese woman who is studying medicine and midwifery from the Dutch doctor. Troubles of the heart are the least of his worries though, as he has few allies on Dejima. He’s been tasked with investigating corruption from the previous administration and his findings are exposing the misdeeds of those still in power as well. His principles make him even less popular as he refuses to turn a blind eye as officers skim money and goods.
A natural linguist, Jacob begins to illegally learn Japanese and befriends some of the interpreters who are never far from the Dutch officers. Still, navigating foreign politics and protocols can be dangerous, as Jacob finds himself in a battle of wills with the powerful Lord Abbot Enomoto, master of a mysterious shrine from which recruited nuns never again emerge.
Though David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors, I was originally apprehensive about the plot of his newest novel. I love historical fiction, but not necessarily the colonial period, which can be a but dreary and heavy on nautical themes. But I shouldn’t have doubted Mitchell, because although there are plenty of ships, he has crafted a beautiful human drama that encapsulates a love story, political struggle, murder, intrigue, and mysticism. The cultural clash between the Dutch and Japanese is one of the most fascinating elements as we see the Japanese slowly coming to terms with the wider world and realizing that their isolation may have irreversibly handicapped them. My favorite section actually takes place away from Dejima, in the heart of Japan in Lord Enomoto’s cloistered shrine. I won’t give any more away.
Would I recommend: Yes! Mitchell is a master of language and a captivating storyteller. His Cloud Atlas is still one of my all-time favorite books because of his stunning ability to capture voice. He’s able to do what many writers of historical fiction cannot: paint a picture of the past that is both accessible to a modern audience but also authentic and raw. Though I maintain that the title is far too long, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a wonderfully fulfilling read.
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