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 whic...moreIt’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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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-a...moreThe 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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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 life...moreOnce 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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Combine one part retelling of an ancient, classic tale with one part Margaret Atwood, and you’re sure to come up with something I’ll love. The Penelop...moreCombine one part retelling of an ancient, classic tale with one part Margaret Atwood, and you’re sure to come up with something I’ll love. The Penelopiad is The Odyssey, retold from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’s patient wife who fends off an island full of suitors for twenty years, waiting for her husband’s return. Atwood re-appropriates the male-centric story and tells a much more nuanced and dark version, in which a chorus of wronged maids plays counterpoint to the misunderstood Penelope. Her tale comes to us from the afterlife (a decidedly pagan version unconnected with the conventional Christian heaven). Penelope tries to make sense of her life, her years spent waiting for a wandering husband who many said spent his time in the arms of goddesses (or were they merely mistresses?). She can’t forget about her twelve maids who were killed by Odysseus upon his return. Their crime: being raped by the usurping suitors.
Atwood’s tale is haunting and beautiful, told in alternating chapters by Penelope and the chorus of the twelve maids. The maids write poems, sing songs, and plead their case before a judge, while Penelope just lays out the story as she saw it. Much of Atwood’s work explores female sexuality, and most specifically how some men seek to control it. The Handmaid’s Tale is the most well-known example, but you can see the theme repeated in The Blind Assassin or even one of her earliest, The Edible Woman. She also explores the complex emotions between women that often lead them to become rivals rather than friends. One has to look only at Penelope’s resentment towards her famous cousin Helen or her excuses for abandoning her maids in their time of need to draw out questions about how women relate to one another and how we could do more to foster sisterhood.
This book is short and clever, and despite its deeper themes, quite easy to read. I finished it in a couple of hours and felt excited by the questions Atwood raised and also inspired by the beautiful poetry and prose.
Would I recommend? Yes. If you’ve read The Odyssey, this book will open your eyes to parts of the story you may not have absorbed in your English Lit classes. Lovers of Greek mythology and those who want to think about deeper women’s issues will also devour this novella.
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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...more**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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I first read Little Women as most girls do sometime between the ages of 10 and 13 and, like many others, I’ve always remembered it fondly. I’ve seen t...moreI first read Little Women as most girls do sometime between the ages of 10 and 13 and, like many others, I’ve always remembered it fondly. I’ve seen the movie versions and even a community theater production many years ago. So when I unwrapped my new Kindle at Christmas, it was one of the first free downloads I made. Rereading this classic has been extremely interesting and worthwhile, I think. There are some scenes I literally recall word for word, but some elements that I have no memory of at all. I also find myself thinking of the characters and their struggles great and small much differently so many years on.
I’ve read what a few others have thought when reexperiencing the book as an adult, and two feelings in particular seem to be common. 1. The book is far more moralistic than I remember. 2. While I actively disliked Amy as a child, I quite like her now.
In terms of the first point, the book is quite strongly vocal about Protestant morals of the time and goes beyond just “teaching lessons” with each event. Jo advises Teddy never to drink and he shakes hands on it, a promise that Alcott tells us he will never regret. Jo takes to writing “sensation” stories to make money, which seem to just be what we would call fiction today, but these tales begin to weaken her morally and something terrible might have happened had not Professor Baehr admonished her against them. Some of the lessons of the time do not mesh with how we’d want a girl to behave today. Amy prepares an art table for the fair and a rival demands that Amy let her run the table. Instead of defending her work and being proud of it, Amy gives up her table and the lesson is that she should turn the other cheek.
But speaking of Amy, I found her to be a much different girl than I remembered. The fault may lie with the film versions, which make her out to be very vain and spoiled. But though the Amy of the book begins a bit silly, it must be remembered that she is the youngest and will of course say and do the most childish things. As she grows up, Amy is not vain or spoiled at all; rather, she is quite grateful to others, and seeks to make them happy. While I remembered Amy’s trip to Europe as a slight to Jo, the actual event is quite different. In reality, Jo is rude and snobbish to her aunt, while Amy is appreciative, kind and patient, so her aunt chooses her for the trip. I also remember feeling quite let down that Jo didn’t marry Laurie, but in my rereading I now agree with her feeling that they are too alike. I think this is a lesson of age. At 12 or 13, I would have been just like Laurie and nothing would have pleased me more than to fall in love and marry a childhood sweetheart. It would have been poetic and romantic. But now, I see things Jo’s way and understand her choice.
Meg’s character also surprised me as some of the qualities I had given to Amy are actually hers. I remembered Meg as almost motherly, as a demure girl who marries the sweet tutor next door. But Meg is the one who longs for riches, who lets herself be dressed up in finery and paraded like a doll at a friend’s ball until she is shamed by comments behind her back. Meg is also described as the beauty of the family, where I had always imagined her as plain and Amy as the beauty, perhaps because of the old blonde v. brunette trope. I send my apologies to Amy; you are exonerated and Meg, rather than being ruined by these realizations, is actually given dimension and humanity.
All those things considered, there are still so many moments that shine bright, especially the dynamics of the four March sisters. Despite each being a “type,” you still find them endearing and all too human. Their struggles are quite relatable, if occasionally put quite bluntly. What young girl doesn’t wish to be rich, famous, beautiful and loved by all? The turning point for me in the book is the crisis of their father and Beth falling ill simultaneously. Before this, the book’s greatest traumas are those of children—Amy wasting her money on a bag of limes only to have the teacher throw them out and send her to the corner; Jo learning to deal with her hot temper. Even Amy’s near-death drop into the ice falls lightly and the lesson is quickly learned and passed over. But Beth and Mr. March mark a turning point, after which the girls must quite truly become “little women.”
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Paris, 1878. The van Goethem sisters struggle to survive in the poorest neighborhood of Paris. Their father has died and their mother must be constant...moreParis, 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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