If you've ever harbored the suspicion or opinion that historical fiction is a genre just of corsets, heaving bodies, and royal bedhopping, this book wIf you've ever harbored the suspicion or opinion that historical fiction is a genre just of corsets, heaving bodies, and royal bedhopping, this book will change your opinion. If you know how rich, violent, and disturbing historical fiction can be, this book will make you cackle with delight.
Set in 60 AD, this episodic novel follows the rebellion of Boudica and the native peoples of the UK against the Romans. Despite the fact that this book is penned by seven authors -- each chapter follows a different point of view -- this book has a cohesive feel, and the absolutely gutting story of Boudica, her daughters, and the Romans fighting against her are presented in raw, hard, and unapologetic prose.
I loved this book for all the reasons I adore historical fiction: it illuminated a foreign era for me and each author created a vibrant human I couldn't help but relate to (even if I didn't want to!). The arc of the story is chronological, but the story is pushed along by each new character. Previous characters aren't forgotten, but each -- whether Briton or Roman -- are articulated so well, I actually found my loyalties waffling! (And I say this as an unabashed Boudica fangirl!)
The participating authors are fabulous, and the writing here is top notch. There's enormous emotion, cinematic battles, and darkly hilarious moments to punctuate the gut-punching sorrow. The characters are deliciously wide ranging -- from queens to servant girl, Druid priest to lowly Roman soldier -- and I loved that I found myself viewing this conflict from 360 degrees.
The brutality of this campaign is presented unapologetic detail, which meant I was gasping, wincing, and squinting my eyes closed more than once. It very nearly verged on too gruesome for me but I appreciated that -- there's nothing whitewashed about war in this era. As I said, the characters are so fully realized that each time I thought -- oh, I'm for the Britons -- I'd find myself melting in sympathy toward the Romans. (Well, maybe not sympathy, but you know...)
This is a fav read for 2015, and another knockout for the H Team (the loose collection of historical fiction authors who are penning collaborative novels together). I never thought I'd be so devoted to the collaborative novel, but I'm already impatiently awaiting their next endeavor!...more
This lovely, slender novels imagines a friendship between poet Emily Dickinson and their Irish maid Ada Concannon.
I was immediately taken with this boThis lovely, slender novels imagines a friendship between poet Emily Dickinson and their Irish maid Ada Concannon.
I was immediately taken with this book, as both Ada and Emily are charming and captivating. The chapters alternate between their viewpoints, as the story of their friendship and the dramas around them unfold.
O'Connor's Emily grabbed me immediately, an intellectually curious woman happy to be in her home, moved by the wilds of nature and the passions of the heart. She hovers in the kitchen for sweets and bakes as a way to shower love on those around her; she composes in secret and doles out her poems carefully.
Ada is a willing audience, a teenager fresh from Ireland, bemused by Emily. The Dickinsons are a kind family to work for, and she thrives in their home, yet heartache still hits her. It is Emily who rallies to defend her and who helps her gain some measure of happiness despite tragedy. O'Connor puts away any imaginary idea of Emily Dickinson as a pallid, passive ghost hiding in the rafters; the complicated and curious woman emerges from her pages, immediate and intriguing.
It goes without saying that a novel featuring Emily Dickinson should read poetically; in this case, O'Connor manages lyrical prose that doesn't emulate Dickinson's yet still offers the passion and boldness the poet captured in her spare lines. My copy is heavily dog-eared from the various quotes that caught me up and gave me pause, like
I look at her words, one by one. Love. Thee. Breath. Smiles. Tears. It pleases me that each word is solitary, a loner. Side by side, their staccato nature blends with others, but in the end they stand alone. Each word is a fence post -- upright, demanding, shrill -- but each one holds the fence erect, and as such, is indispensable. (p119)
From now on I shall be candle-white. Dove-, bread-, swan-, shroud-, ice-, extraordinary-white. I shall be blanched, bleached and bloodless to look at; my very whiteness will be my mark. But inside, of course, I will roar and soar and flash with color. (p121)
The more I write or talk about this book, the greater my affection for it grows, and it is one of my top ten reads for 2015.
I think this would make a fabulous book club read -- zippy yet bursting with wonderful discussion topics -- as well as those who love historical fiction featuring well-known historical figures. And of course, fans of Irish fiction and Irish authors must get this one!
Review out in July. Just loved this one even though McLain's articulation of Beryl is quite different from the woman I'd previous read about -- in McLReview out in July. Just loved this one even though McLain's articulation of Beryl is quite different from the woman I'd previous read about -- in McLain's hands, Beryl is tender and uneasy, a motherless girl who stumbles into love affairs rather than aggressively bed hops. ...more
I've been on pins-and-needles for this book, the second historical mystery featuring notorious Victorian author/drug user Thomas DeQuincy, his daughteI've been on pins-and-needles for this book, the second historical mystery featuring notorious Victorian author/drug user Thomas DeQuincy, his daughter Emily, and their friends in Scotland Yard. The first book, Murder as a Fine Art, made my Top Ten of 2013.
My impatience was well rewarded; this book has everything I love in a great historical novel: a plot that drives one into Wiki rabbit holes, an intriguing heroine who is unconventional - but grounded in the era - and historical details that are evocative without being overwhelming.
Set in 1855, just weeks after the end of the first novel, notorious author and opium addict Thomas DeQuincy and his charming bluestocking daughter Emily are being shuffled home to Scotland when a gruesome murder at St. James' Church requires their assistance. It soon emerges that there's a plot to assassinate the queen as a series of grotesque and dramatic murders strike fear in London. (I will say, as someone who is a puss about gross things, the murders were icky but not put-the-book-down disgusting. Just the right side of scary for my tastes!) The calamitous results of the Crimean war complicate the political stage in London, too, and running parallel to the murder mystery is a storyline of privilege, heroism in war, and class background (which I found more fascinating than the murders, frankly!).
As with the previous novel, Morrell emulates Victorian literature in the narrative style: the novel switches between the point of view of our murderer and our heroes as well as various secondary characters, interspersed with excerpts from Emily's diary, resulting in a rich, dramatic narrative reminiscent of my favorite 19th century thrillers. There's a big cast but Morrell makes everyone vibrant and distinct, and I loved the secondary characters as much as the primary ones.
And while this is a second in a series, it stands well for those unfamiliar with the first book: Morrell provides enough background to make new readers (or those of us, like myself, who forgot a few details) comfortable with the main players and their relationships without spoiling the first book.
Of the characters, Emily once more won my heart; she numbers among my favorite heroines for her mix of sensitivity, moxie, and grace. But I love that Morrell tackles drug use and addiction through DeQuincy -- a topic I rarely see in historical fiction -- and DeQuincy is a sympathetic character, struggling with his demons.
There's a nine-page Afterward as fascinating as the novel and spells out what is based on history and what is Morrell's invention. To my surprise, more was historical than I expected!
It should go without saying that I can't wait for the next book in the series, should there be one. A detail-laden delight for those who dig the Victorian era, murder mysteries, or heroines who rock bloomers....more
The luxurious Chanel brand is iconic -- the perfume, the fashion, its founder -- and I'm surprised Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel hasn't been featured in a hThe luxurious Chanel brand is iconic -- the perfume, the fashion, its founder -- and I'm surprised Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel hasn't been featured in a historical novel before. Her hist fic debut comes from C.W. Gortner, whose sublime The Queen’s Vowhumanized Isabella, and this novel has set the high water mark for any future reads that attempt to tackle the notorious Chanel.
Born at the end of the 19th century in abject poverty, Gabrielle Chanel was turned over to a convent where she mastered sewing. Rather than taking vows to become a nun, Gabrielle instead became a seamstress and more daringly, a club singer -- where she earned her nickname Coco. Quickly, through her skill, ambition, and some fortuitous relationships, Chanel managed to project herself to fame over the decades as her once radical designs -- corset-less, trim, daring, modern -- set the standard for chic fashion. Weathering World War I and II, as well as devastating heartbreaks and notorious love affairs, Chanel lived a life that knew deprivation and luxury in equal part.
While the subject of this book is fascinating -- not just Coco herself, but the world she lived in -- the novel is made by Gortner's writing. Occasionally, I eye-roll when biographical novels use the first person viewpoint, as I find it makes the narrative all tell and no show, and allows the author off the hook when it comes to thornier details.
In Gortner's hands, however, Coco articulates her life with the spare, artistic verve of her designs. (He took his hand away. Not with harshness. His fingers just unraveled from mine, like poorly spun threads., p11) Even more delightfully, Coco's voice grows as she does, rather than remaining static throughout the book.
And the clincher: Gortner dealt with the ugly stuff. I was most curious about how Gortner would handle the allegations that Coco was a Nazi collaborator and spy. It's obvious from this sympathetic novel that Gortner admires Chanel, and his suggestion of how the fashion designer became embroiled with the Nazis is sympathetic. But he offers characters who question her motives, her contradictions, allowing the reader to voice their doubts, too -- and like Coco's friends, we have to decide if we believe her. I found Gortner's articulation of Coco so solid that while I clucked at her choices, I understood why she made them.
This makes my second top ten read of 2015. Even if you're not a fan of fashion, consider grabbing this book, as it really is the story of a self-made woman, a visionary who imagined the way women wanted to live that differed from what society said. There are tawdry details brushing shoulders with heavier themes, armchair escape to early 20th century France, and some delicious name dropping that sent me into Wiki rabbit holes. At this point, I want Gortner to tackle every fashion designer -- like Chanel's nemesis, Elsa Schiaparelli -- but regardless of who he tackles next, I'm there. ...more
Set in 1377, Sinful Folk follows a band of starving villagers who are pilgrimaging to court to plead for justice following the suspicious deaths of thSet in 1377, Sinful Folk follows a band of starving villagers who are pilgrimaging to court to plead for justice following the suspicious deaths of their sons. Five boys burned to death in a house, intentionally locked in by an unusual knot. The village, already facing a hard winter and impending famine, immediately suspects Jews as the culprits. The boys' bereaved fathers gather the bodies of their sons and decide to keep them unburied to let the King witness their cruel deaths.
Each villager, however, carries a dark secret with them, and on the road, beset by bloodthirsty knights and bands of murderous rogues, one twisted truth after another emerges.
The deceptively simple premise belies a more complicated novel that hit every note right for me: wonderful evocation of setting & era, fascinating characters, dramatic plot, and surprising historic details. The grimy, wintry feel of the landscape is a character, too: with just a hint of air conditioning, I was shivering along with our travelers, my skin crawling at the everyday reality of life for a medieval peasant.
The story is carried by Mear, mute parent to a murdered son, who has lived nearly two decades as a man in this small village after fleeing the convent where she thought her lover -- her son's father -- would come for them. As our narrator, Mear is curious, clever, and observant, her voice inviting us to experience the sadness and horror she does. (I suspect this would make a smashing audiobook for that reason!)
Despite the dark premise, the novel reads quickly, with many exciting interludes, and I found myself racing through the story. Nikki McClure, the illustrator who did the cover design, provides small illustrated elements that open every few chapters, and they're striking and interesting.
My only complaint is that the historical note was really a brief piece about Edward the Black Prince rather than a larger essay touching on the other events that occurred in the novel. While the details about Edward were interesting, I am intensely curious to learn if some of the things that befell our travelers were historically true or wholly fictional.
Recommended for fans of medieval fic as well as those who like stories of commoners (seriously, between the cold and the grime, I was esp grateful for my shower!). A great end-of-summer read, or one to save when facing a snowy weekend!...more
Authority is the second book in Jeff VanderMeer's creepy and delicious speculative sci-fi-ish Southern Reach trilogy. (My review of the first book, AnAuthority is the second book in Jeff VanderMeer's creepy and delicious speculative sci-fi-ish Southern Reach trilogy. (My review of the first book, Annihilation.)
This is going to be a tricky review for me as there are things from the first book I don't want to inadvertently spoil, and let's be real, detailed recap of a second book from a trilogy one is unfamiliar with makes for boring reading.
John Rodriguez, called "Control", has become the new director of the Southern Reach. His job to dissect what happened with the last expedition, and make sense of what is happening in the area. His co-workers and subordinates are hostile, strange, and jumpy, and his work is a mix of sorting through bureaucratic layers as well as injecting new life into a stagnating agency.
But things aren't straightforward for Control; the strange, alien, hallucinatory world we experienced in Annihilation encroaches on the "ordinary" world Control inhabits, and like Control, we're left wondering what is in his head, and what is far more insidious.
Meatier than the first book (this one runs 341 pages, compared to Annihilation's 195 pages), this one occasionally dragged for me. There's more back story as we learn about Control's family, working history, and complicated relationship with his mother -- which does impact his work at Southern Reach -- but I found it a tiny bit slow at times, especially as I was consumed with wanting to know "the truth" about Area X. Still, the delightful creepiness comes through with this one, including a scene at the end so deliciously frightening, I still get shivery thinking about it. (I understand the trilogy has been optioned for a movie, and this scene will make everyone jump out of their seats!)
There's a smidgen of a cliffhanger at the end of this one, and I am biting my nails impatiently for the final book in the series, Acceptance.
If you're an X-Files or Lost fan, or enjoy Dan Simmons or Jules Verne, consider starting this series -- it's fast, creepy, atmospheric, and wonderfully fun....more
I don't always read speculative fiction, but when I do... Okay, that's a wicked lame start, but seriously, I feel like I need to qualify my review. I'I don't always read speculative fiction, but when I do... Okay, that's a wicked lame start, but seriously, I feel like I need to qualify my review. I'm not much for "weird" fiction -- I can be very impatient and/or lazy when it comes to elaborate world-building or well, weirdness -- but now and then I enjoy something, well, odd.
I've long been a VanderMeer fan because his novels have plenty of oddity along with some delicious narrative description and fabulously unforgettable characters. (His Veniss Underground -- a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth -- is a desert island pick of mine.
In this slender, gripping novel -- the first of a trilogy (sorry!) -- VanderMeer creates a world like ours with one outstanding difference: thirty years ago, some event literally reshaped part of the country, and Area X (as the place is now known) is a wild, "pristine" uninhabited preserve closed off by the government. Mostly forgotten by the public, Area X is an unsolved mystery still as there has been no successful expedition into the space: one expedition had all its members kill themselves; another where they murdered each other. The most recent one had members return without notice only to die of aggressive cancers.
Our narrator is a biologist who is part of the twelfth expedition. The novel is her diary from the expedition, and in it she recounts what she knows of Area X. From the first handful of pages, we're plunged into a creepy world where even the other expedition members can't be trusted and our guide, the biologist, carefully parses out details as she sees fit.
As with his other books, VanderMeer's imaginative and poetic narrative style is seen here, too; despite the biologist's dry and pragmatic approach to her job, the events she witnesses and the landscape around her defy neat prose, and there are passages that feel nearly feverish, they're so wild and linguistically fancy. There's delicious tension, plenty of creepiness, and a brisk plot that has one racing to find out what is next.
I adored this novel and read it one night -- a rarity for me since getting pregnant! -- and I immediately got -- and inhaled -- the second book, Authority. (Review coming soon.) I'm on tenterhooks for the final book, Acceptance, which doesn't come out until September.
The publisher has the first chapter posted online for those who are curious; if you like survivalist stories, strange happenings, government conspiracies, and movies like Prometheus or shows like Lost, consider giving this one a read....more
I was immediately charmed with this book from the first page: the narrative style is musical and playful, the characters varied and full of personalitI was immediately charmed with this book from the first page: the narrative style is musical and playful, the characters varied and full of personality, and the heart of the story emotional without being cloying.
Set on Christmas Eve Eve in Philadelphia, the novel follows a variety of characters who are interconnected in a variety of ways, all colliding together over the course of twenty-four hours.
Our stars are many but focus primarily on three: Madeleine Altimari, 9-years-old ingenue-in-training, whose mother, a jazz singer, recently passed away. Virtually abandoned by her bereft father, Madeleine has taken up smoking, practicing her shimmies daily, and gets into constant trouble at school. I was in love with her from the start -- Bertino makes her childish and mature in realistic ways, and she's both darling and maddening.
Madeleine has no friends. Not because she contains a tender grace that fifth graders detect and loathe. Not because she has a natural ability that points her starward, though she does. Madeleine has no friends because she is a jerk. (p24)
The other two primary characters are Sarina Greene, fifth grade teacher to Madeleine and a new divorcee, who ends up in an unexpected reunion with a married high school crush; and Jack Lorca, the owner of The Cat's Pajamas, a formerly famous jazz club, now facing a death sentence from fines and a watchful cop.
The handful of other tertiary characters are vibrant and distinctive like Lorca's son Alex, gifted and desperate for her father's approval; or Mrs. Santiago, an elderly shop owner who is one of the many locals who cares for Madeleine after her mother's untimely death. The cast is large, but easy to keep straight, colorful and delightfully chaotic.
The whole novel is written in present tense, which I didn't really notice while reading -- the immediacy of the day ticking by captured me, as well as Bertino's prose. Like Michael Chabon, her narrative has a musicality to it that emphasizes and enhances the action and events. There's a bit of a magical realism element to the story, too, which I didn't anticipate -- it surprised me at first -- but fits with the story's fairy tale-like arc -- all Madeleine wants is her Happily Ever After (on stage).
A lovely, zippy read, this was fluffy enough for my pre-move brain but intricate-enough that I was captivated while reading. A little twee, a little sweet, a little precocious, this is a great contemporary read for fans of slightly improbable (but magical) days, ensemble story lines, and love songs to our wildest dreams....more
I loved this volume of short stories, right from the first page. Reminiscent of Aimee Bender, Elizabeth Hand, Sara Maitland, and Ludmilla PetrushevskaI loved this volume of short stories, right from the first page. Reminiscent of Aimee Bender, Elizabeth Hand, Sara Maitland, and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Kupersmith's stories have that wonderful mix of mood, slightly supernatural-y elements, and lovely language you just want to pluck out and savor.
These nine stories are set in Vietnan or in Vietnamese-American households in the US. Most have an undercurrent of creepiness to them due to a vaguely supernatural or paranormal element, usually due to creatures from myth and folk lore. They're about family -- and the mysteries in families -- or one's identity. They're about the power and danger of stories and questions. They're flat out awesome.
I don't know if I can pick a favorite from the collection, as I adored each one as soon as I finished. Kupersmith quickly evokes sense of place and characters in a few sentences, but nothing ever felt rushed or quick. There's both mood and plot in every piece.
Our muddy patch of the world was already shadowy and blood-soaked and spirit-friendly long before the Americans got here. (p56)
I inhaled this volume in a night. Apparently Kupersmith is writing a novel, and I cannot wait for it. Given this taste of her style of writing, her novel is going to be incredible.
Highly, swoon-i-ly recommended. Those who aren't wild about short stories should give these a try -- each story has a satisfying arc and a fabulous ending. Short story fanatics will obviously want to get this collection. Anyone who wants an armchair escape and a brush with something ghostly and otherworldly, this is your book....more
On my bucket list is doing every bus tour offered Esotouric. My wife and I are both obsessed with Los Angeles and its sordid history, and when I saw tOn my bucket list is doing every bus tour offered Esotouric. My wife and I are both obsessed with Los Angeles and its sordid history, and when I saw that the Esotouric's creator had just written a novel about Raymond Chandler, I went it into a swooning fit. Then I read the book, and swooned again.
Set in 1929, the story is told by Raymond Chandler, then an oil company executive, who is tasked with ascertaining how his boss's son lost thousands of dollars, including oil leases, over the years. This is historical Chandler -- an English ex-pat living in LA, melancholic, pipe-smoking, an older wife -- not Chandler by way of his fictional creation, Philip Marlowe. As such, he needs help with his investigation, and calls on his spunky secretary-slash-girlfriend Muriel and a beat cop whose moral compass cost him his promotion, Tom James. But what seems to be a simple case of a couple taken in by hucksters turns out to be more complicated, dangerous, and messier than Chandler and company expected.
By far, Muriel made the story for me, and I wouldn't mind a whole series about her. (In a blog post about the novel's origins, Cooper says that once she had the idea for Muriel, 'everything came alive', and I couldn't agree more!)
Cooper's writing style is wonderful, warm and inviting, and rich with ambiance. I don't think those unfamiliar with the era will be lost, as Cooper includes tidbits that evoke a strong sense of time and place without overwhelming the action. Her articulation of Raymond Chandler is so good -- pathetic and intriguing in equal part, clever and cowardly -- and those who are new to Chandler will enjoy this seedy sort of introduction.
My only critique of this book is that there's a shift in narrative POV early on that I found jarring: the novel starts off with first person POV in Chandler's view point, but quickly drops that to third person POV between Chadler, Muriel, and Tom James. I actually didn't notice it while reading, and it wasn't until I entered in the novel's first sentence did I realize at some point there was a POV shift. I'm glad for it, as I enjoyed being with Muriel as much as I did Chandler!
According to this Kirkus Reviews feature, Cooper is considering a sequel, and like the author of the piece, I too am hoping she'll write one.
In the end, a deeply delicious read. Those who like ripped-from-the-headlines type crime stories will want this one, as well as anyone who enjoys the atmosphere of 1920s LA. Until February 27th, you can enter to win a copy of the book via the author's website!...more
This slender novel -- just 288 pages -- is a rich, emotional look at love, ambition, the human soul, the creative impulse, the last immortality of artThis slender novel -- just 288 pages -- is a rich, emotional look at love, ambition, the human soul, the creative impulse, the last immortality of art. And yet, despite the lofty themes, it's a wholly accessible, can't-put-it-down read-able novel with a handful of unforgettable characters and one devastating day.
Inspired by Rembrandt's massive painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the novel takes place during the day of Dr. Tulp's anatomy lesson. The narrative shifts between seven voices and point of view, but rather than distract and dilute the tension and the story, this serves to provide a dense, captivating experience.
We meet Adriaen 'Aris the Kid' Adriaenszoon, a criminal who, after his hanging, will be used for the anatomy lesson; Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, an ambitious Dutch doctor who conducts the lesson; Flora, the pregnant country girl who hopes to prevent her lover's execution; Jan, a curio collector who also moonlights as an acquirer of medical cadavers; René Descartes, who will attend the dissection in the course of his quest to understand where the human soul resides; and the twenty-six-year-old Dutch master painter himself, who feels a shade uneasy about this assignment. And in the twenty-first century, there is Pia, a contemporary art historian who is examining the painting.
Each voice is so clear, their arc so well delineated, that the myriad of characters doesn't muddy the plot nor lose the reader. In fact, the story is made more rich by the variety of viewpoints. I was unfamiliar with this painting and the circumstances surrounding it, but Siegal articulates the technical aspects of the painting's design and layout as well as the (likely fictional) events leading up to it in such an engrossing way, I couldn't put this book down for anything but work. (It also makes me yearn for more novels about specific works of art!)
Highly recommended -- a really fantastic debut. For those who like novels about art, or historical novels that feature more ordinary people, this is a must read. Fans of lightly literary works will want to pick this up, too. You can read an excerpt at the publisher's website....more
I'm an enormous Michelle Diener fangirl. Her writing is warm and inviting, her stories the right mix of adventure and romance, her heroines are alway I'm an enormous Michelle Diener fangirl. Her writing is warm and inviting, her stories the right mix of adventure and romance, her heroines are always delightful, and there's rich historical detail and ambiance in every book.
This one was familiar and cozy and new and imaginative, and was the kind of book I love for cranky days: it got me out of my head and wholly absorbed me.
Mistress of the Wind, inspired by the fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, is ambigu-historical, set in a land resembling Scandinavia (or thereabouts). Bjorn, a half-god prince cursed to live as a bear, searches for the woman he met when they were both children. Should he not find the maiden, he must marry a troll's daughter and unite his kingdom with theirs.
Astrid is a woodcutter's daughter who feels an affinity with the wind. Whether a fancy or real magic, her family doesn't care. Starving and exhausted, they are only briefly taken aback when a massive talking bear asks to take Astrid for the price of two bags of coins. Astrid agrees out of curiosity and an awareness of her family's need for the money, but she's unprepared for Bjorn's rules once she arrives at his palace. Despite their growing intimacy, she doesn't trust his rules and secrets, and becomes embroiled in the greater danger in Bjorn's kingdom.
While the story arc follows the fairy tale, Diener incorporates pieces of the Cupid and Psyche myth as well as original elements that make this a satisfying read. The novel just races; I inhaled it in a matter of hours, unable to stop reading. Astrid is a resourceful if not occasionally maddening heroine and I was charmed immediately by her. The magical world Diener invents for Bjorn is intriguing and appealing.
Diener shares some of her thoughts about this book on GoodReads, but her comments could be spoiler-ish for those who aren't familiar with how the Cupid and Psyche myth shakes out.
For those who are intrigued by Elizabeth Blackwell's While Beauty Slept, this is another book to add to the queue. Fans of fairy tales will absolutely want to read this one as well as those who enjoy fierce heroines who aren't flawless. Diener's next endeavor, The Golden Apple, is inspired by the less often used fairy tale, The Princess on the Glass Hill and I am so excited for it. ...more
In 2011 I read Weisgarber's fantastic debut, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree. It was the kind of historical novel I adored -- unique setting aIn 2011 I read Weisgarber's fantastic debut, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree. It was the kind of historical novel I adored -- unique setting and era, unbelievable heroine, fabulous historical detail. It got tons of love (lots of wonderful prize nominations), and most recently, was praised at a writing class I took -- all for good reason.
Weisgarber's newest surpasses my love for Rachel Dupree. I'm in that flail-y, can't speak coherently kind of place with this review, so I'll just say this: read this book, stat!
Set in Galveston, Texas in 1900, ahead of the devastating hurricane, the novel follows two women loosely bound together by Oscar, a dairy farmer, and his five year-old son, Andre. Nan Ogden is a neighbor, a hearty woman asked by Andre's mother, on her deathbed, to care for him. Devoted to the boy, and half in love with Oscar, Nan's unprepared and angry when he suddenly remarries.
Catherine Wainwright is from a monied Ohio family, college educated and gifted at piano. But she falls from grace (and society) when her affair with her crippled cousin's husband comes to light, and renews her acquaintance with Oscar, whom she knew when they were children. Recently widowed, he proposes after a few letters, and she accepts with resignation that grows when she arrives in Galveston.
Despite the seeming love triangle set up, this isn't a novel about who wants who. Instead, it's a book about family connections, secrets, obligations and the assumptions we make; Weisgarber describes an emotional storm ahead of the very real hurricane we know is coming.
The descriptions of place are just stunning. I know nothing about 1900s Galveston, and Weisgarber paints a world hot, steamy, bustling, and lonely. (It turns out Galveston the city is also on Galveston the island; Catherine and I both assumed she'd be living in the city, but it turned out she was going to live out on the island.) Catherine as an outsider means Weisgarber can load up on details about what Galveston was like, but it never feels awkward, heavy, for infodump-y.
The writing generally is just lovely, too: Nan and Catherine have two distinctive voices, their own views and prejudices, their own keen observations and their own blindnesses. But there's poetry and lovely evocation of place and mood through the book.
It was a sorrowful time; there wasn't no other way to put it. What the storm did to us was cruel, and I won't never forget it. Or forgive it. The storm did what it wanted and then blew itself out, leaving us to try to put things right. But some things can't be put right. (p290)
A must read for historical fiction fans, as well as anyone who a love for Texas. This is a wonderfully emotional novel, too, in the vein of women's contemporary fiction, and I think those who aren't sure they like hist fic might want to consider this one for it's exploration of love and family. A top ten read for 2014, hands down. ...more
I don't know if I'll be able to coherently express just how much I loved this novel. It was fantastic. Compelling, emotional, plotty, and atmospheric,I don't know if I'll be able to coherently express just how much I loved this novel. It was fantastic. Compelling, emotional, plotty, and atmospheric, this book had me in its thrall from the first page. This one will make my top ten of 2014, I'm sure! (Apologies for the small novel that follows!)
Set in the mid-1800s, the novel follows Emma Davis, a young woman from a Georgia slave-owning family. Thoughtful, intelligent, and yearning for connection, Emma finds herself called to mission work, drawn toward the vague idea of an Africa she imagined a beloved family slave coming from. When she meets the handsome, charismatic Texas Ranger-turned-missionary Henry Bowman, Emma believes she's found her calling, and once married, she and Henry embark for Yorubaland (Nigeria) in West Africa.
Once there, Emma finds herself overwhelmed by and taken with West Africa, but struggles some in her new marriage. Henry is afflicted with a variety of vague, unknown ailments, ranging from a sensitive spleen to hallucinations, and he hungers for more a challenging mission. Emma, however, wants to settle down and build up a church and community, and finds herself challenged by her husband and her friendships with her West African neighbors and paid servants.
While this isn't a particularly quiet novel, it isn't bombastic or filled with wild drama. The tension comes from watching Emma grow into herself and into her life, as we wait and wonder how she and those she loves will respond. It's a gorgeous coming-of-age story, a wonderfully compassionate examination of marriage, and a captivating historical that illuminates and enlightens.
Despite the focus on missionaries, this isn't a religious or inspirational novel, but Orr deftly and convincingly handles the passion and pain of following a spiritual path. That articulation of the hunger for a convincing religious life/experience is one of the best things about this book. Emma's faith is rooted in a desire to spread Christianity in West Africa, to save souls (thankfully, the Bowmans aren't the hellfire-and-damnation sort), and yet, her happiness comes from far more mild experiences: teaching a child to read, keeping house well, being at harmony with her husband.
Orr acknowledges race and slavery in an emotional and disquieting manner which invited the reader to see what took Emma so long to realize: that slavery dehumanizes everyone, however beloved, and is never a benevolent institution. (There's a gutting scene where Emma draws a map of West Africa and the US in the dirt to show villagers where she came from and where they are, then she draws a line connecting Georgia to the village. A villager walks along that line, and Emma has the horrible realization she's just drawn the slave route from Africa to the US.) As with everything else in the novel, Orr handles this element gently, lightly, and while the novel is emotional and raw, it isn't devastating.
And the writing, the writing! The writing was so good it made me jealous. The narrative moved at a brisk pace, weighty with meaning but not heavy or ornate. It has literary sensibilities without feeling aloof, removed, or obfuscated. I got teary more than once while reading, caught up in the pain and beauty in Emma's life, and I often paused to linger over a turn of phrase.
Fans of Geraldine Brooks, Amanda Coplin, and Barbara Kingsolver will absolutely want this book. (I'm stunned it didn't get more press when it was released last year; it has to me the elements of that popular literary-ish fiction of Brooks and Kingsolver.) Those who enjoy historical fiction in unusually settings should absolutely add this to their TBR. An unforgettable read....more
I begged for a review copy of this novel knowing nothing about but that it was Kate Forsyth's newest. Forsyth wrote one of my 2013 top ten reads, BitI begged for a review copy of this novel knowing nothing about but that it was Kate Forsyth's newest. Forsyth wrote one of my 2013 top ten reads, Bitter Greens, and I will basically read anything she writes. My blind devotion was well rewarded with this one!
Set in the early 19th century, this novel follows Dortchen Wild, neighbor of the Grimm brothers -- yes, those Grimm brothers. One of a handful of daughters of a cruel apothecary, Dortchen has had feelings for Wilhelm Grimm, but a relationship between them seems impossible: Wilhelm is poor and seems more interested in her older sister, and her father is ruthlessly controlling of her and her time. Still, Dortchen maintains contact with the Grimm family, eventually becoming a crucial source for Wilhelm and Jakob as they assemble their volumes of German folk tales.
Although I expected this novel to be more about the fairy tales -- perhaps even some retellings of Grimm's most well known stories -- this is actually a novel about how the stories were gathered, and most importantly, who told the stories to Wilhelm and Jakob.
In her opening note, Forsyth points out that the Grimm brothers were collecting their tales as young men at the same time of Byron and Austen -- not musty old men from the Dark Ages, as many (like me!) might imagine. Even more, the interest in gathering these stories came out of a desire to preserve rural German culture in the face of Napoleon's relentless conquest and rule. It was this political background that made this story most fascinating and illuminating, and the narrative is flavored by the terror of occupation and the cruel realities of war.
Dortchen and Wilhelm's relationship is slow to grow, made more complicated by some terrible abuse Dortchen suffers. Here is where Forsyth's skill shows, for she makes the tribulations suffered by Dortchen both grimly realistic and reminiscent of the trials of a fairy tale heroine, mythical and mundane in equal part. I didn't know whether to wallow in the unfairness of life or hope for magic beans to liberate her, but I needn't have worried as Dortchen is an immensely capable heroine. Her story left me teary and a bit breathless.
Fairy tale retellings are very trendy, and I appreciate this "behind the scenes" kind of story that makes those familiar stories richer and more intriguing. Those who like a knockout heroine who doesn't wait to be rescued will love this one as Dortchen has neither a Prince Charming nor Fairy Godmother to rescue her. This is a nice brick of a novel that reads very quickly and is wildly engrossing -- the kind of historical fiction that will send you down Wiki rabbit holes and stick in your mind for quite a while. ...more
I never went thru a passionate pioneer/homesteader phase like so many of my peers (perhaps because my family's moves to Nebraska and South Dakota madeI never went thru a passionate pioneer/homesteader phase like so many of my peers (perhaps because my family's moves to Nebraska and South Dakota made the fiction too real) but I'm perpetually interested in the stories, bleak and unvarnished, of life for women out West. Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels might not have caught my interest, but the story of their journey to publication is fascinating.
Albert's biographical novel of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, is an eye-opening account of the creative process that lead to the publication of the eight books so beloved and cherished, as well as a rather deft look at the tense, trying, and intense relationship between mother and daughter. Based on Rose's unpublished diaries and Laura's letters to her, Albert reveals just how much Rose shaped Laura's stories, and reveals the truth -- thorny and complicated -- of their collaboration.
Set between 1928 and 1939, Rose tells the story of how she came to be the editor and ultimately ghostwriter for her mother's famous books. A smart, restless, cash-savvy published journalist and writer, a divorcee and mother to a dead child, Rose has always tried to leave behind her poverty and small-town roots, but is pulled back when her mother pleads for help, citing illness. When the market crashes in 1929, the wealth that allowed Rose the freedom she loved is gone, but finds a way to support herself and her family by reworking her mother's stories about pioneer life.
More than just a story about stories, Albert's novel also delves into the fascinating creature Rose Wilder Lane was. Now considered a 'mother of Libertarianism', Albert details how the events of the '20s and '30s shaped her political ideologies, and how both Rose and Laura needed their memories of pioneer life to be a parable of American ingenuity and triumph. While obviously quite fond of both Rose and Laura, Albert's articulation of both women is clear and feels honest; they're shown to be hard, shockingly cold at times, astoundingly resilient, and fiercely devoted to their family. At times I wanted to shake them both, but felt admiration, too.
The writing style is warm and brisk, straight-forward but rich with personality. Early on, Rose shares her deep love for houses, a passage that struck me as both pretty and telling.
For me, houses are a vice. No, more than that: they are a seductive, enthralling, soul-stirring joy. My life is littered with the bones of houses that have enchanted me, on which I have lavished time and money -- a curse and I know it, but there it is. (p22)
I inhaled this book in a matter of days, mesmerized by the story and enthralled by Rose. (Yeah, I've got a bit of a admire!crush on her.) Albert evokes the grim, grimy, stark, optimistic era of the Great Depression, and probes an American legend in a way that is respectful, thoughtful, and human. Fans of the Little House books will absolutely want to read this one but I don't think those unfamiliar with the series will be lost, as the focus isn't on the stories within the books but the circumstances around producing them. Anyone interested in 1930s American history will want this one, too, with the Midwest setting and Rose's sharp political eye.
A really fantastic biographical novel. A fav of 2013!...more
Historical fiction set during wartime is a favorite genre of mine (or, I suppose, a 'favorite' -- I'm not a fan of war) because there's a real focus oHistorical fiction set during wartime is a favorite genre of mine (or, I suppose, a 'favorite' -- I'm not a fan of war) because there's a real focus on the ordinary, everyday people against a massive canvas. Jennifer Cody Epstein's novel represents what I most love about this genre: it's illuminating and educational without being cold, it's emotional in ways both familiar and alien, and it offers the reader a place to see herself in a situation she, hopefully, will never experience.
Set between 1935 and 1962, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment shifts between Japan and the US and follows a handful of people loosely connected by their pre-war lives in Japan (or, in one case, the US). Written in a vignette style, each chapter opens with a location and date, often jumping years ahead of the previous chapter. Epstein's skill is seen in that the narrative never felt rushed nor choppy, and the characters indeed changed during the unseen time.
There's Anton, a Czech expat and brilliant architect who loves Japan but betrays his soul's home to help the US war effort and his son Bobby, a sensitive photographer with his own secrets; Kenji, Anton's Japanese best friend and colleague, a visionary for Japan during the war; Hana, his beautiful but resentful wife and their daughter Yoshi, who witnesses betrayal, crime, and the horrific bombing of Tokyo. There's a young American pilot who joins 'Doolittle's Raiders', his smart wife and devoted younger brother.
Delightfully and disturbingly, Epstein's characters are human, warm and flawed. I liked Kenji despite myself - and his cruelties - just as I adored broken Hana. There wasn't a particular 'villain', per se, as most everyone was articulated in shades of gray. The descriptions of time and place put me immediately into the story, and I couldn't put this book down. The tension comes from needing to know who survives and at what cost; from the meager hope more than one ends up happy.
Refreshingly, the novel's focus on Japan and sympathy for the Japanese makes this an appealing read. While portraying atrocities on both sides, Epstein also evokes very complicated characters who hate and love their homelands, adopted or otherwise, who are selfish and selfless, who represent the innumerable dead.
While WWII is oft covered territory in historical fiction, I found Epstein's focus on Japan and the 1945 bombing of Tokyo to be fascinating (albeit horrifying). Much like one of the viewers at a photo exhibition, I assumed Tokyo was 'just bombed' but the reality is far more devastating (it was the deadliest raid of World War II, in fact).
I was strongly reminded of Jennifer Haigh's Baker Towers and Ursula Hegi's Floating in My Mother's Palm, both books I loved. This was a zippy read -- I finished it in a few hours -- but one that will linger with me. Highly recommended, especially for those who enjoy World War II narratives or are interested in Japan. ...more
I don't even know where to start with this review other than to say I loved every word of this book.
This volume of four brutal short stories depict aI don't even know where to start with this review other than to say I loved every word of this book.
This volume of four brutal short stories depict a wide range of heroines: a monied Brit finishing off a deranged family acquaintance; a Nebraskan ex-con with a seriously effed up childhood and an equally serious grudge; an Arkansas waitress determined to protect her sister from the violence of the local boys; and a Southern hitwoman on the run with a minxy Miami bombshell.
I can't recall reading a book with this level of twisted moodiness, unabashed violence, and evocative ambiance featuring dangerous heroines in the lead (usually it's men who get this kind of fun!). Megan Abbott comes close, but I find her fiction is more homage-y of classic pulp and noir, while this collection leans toward Drive and Quentin Tarantino's films.
Each story has a different flavor, but the writing is fast, punchy, gritty, wild. The reader is immediately plunged into the action, no preamble, and I was literally breathless at the end of each story. The book is full of fabulous lines, evocative and pretty and wrong -- Crossing the lobby, heels clicking against the tiles like an angry Geiger counter, something out of place catches my eyes. (from 'Crown Victoria' by Evangeline Jennings, p131) -- and despite their violence, I loved every single one of our heroines. (But I'm a sucker for a good anti-hero.)
Highly, highly recommended -- this is a favorite of 2013 -- this book is great for dirty, diverting evenings or weekends. If you like gritty, gruesome, and gorgeous, get this collection. Pankearst is new to me but I'm hooked; there's a sequel to this volume in the works and I can.not.wait....more
I adored this collection of six short stories set in Hawaii, covering the world of locals and tourists, the flashy veneer of hotels and beaches, the mI adored this collection of six short stories set in Hawaii, covering the world of locals and tourists, the flashy veneer of hotels and beaches, the mix and clash of cultures and social classes.
Kahakauwila's Hawaii is not the one we see in the tourist brochures -- it's there, a little, if you squint -- but the world she writes about is both alien and familiar. Her characters are locals in a tourist town, some charmed by the flash and the out-of-towners, others dismissive.
I loved almost all of the stories. The blackly comedic 'Thirty-Nine Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral Into a Drinking Game' had me laughing out loud, it's numbered list of hypocritical clergy and commentary on education and coming home.
With your degree in English, your aunties expect you to deliver the most grammatically correct homage to your grandmother. Take this responsibility seriously. Your copyediting skills are all you have to offer your family. (p112)
The opening story, 'This is Paradise', could be an episode of Law & Order, perhaps, or a Greek tragedy. Our narrators are the young local girls who surf and disdain the tourists; the older women who are housekeepers and have maternal affection for those they see; the young professional women who returned to Hawaii to shape it's future. All three groups -- Greek choruses -- interact with a young white tourist who comes to a tragic end. The story is poetic without being obscure; dark without being agonizing.
Perhaps my favorite is 'Wanle', which I should have hated as it's about cock fighting. A young woman takes it up in honor of her father, who died mysteriously, perhaps due to a rival. Despite her lover's constant entreaties, she continues to raise roosters for fighting, and in her pursuit of revenge, her lies do more damage than she anticipates. It's a dark and bloody story, but not grotesque nor graphic for shock value. Wanle calculates the damages her roosters can take -- perhaps the damage she thinks her lover can take, that she can take -- and seeks out happiness, success. What results shocked and surprised me and made me cry. (Yeah, I got teary for someone who enjoys cockfighting!)
Kahakauwila's stories made me uncomfortable. I'm very often that tourist swanning about a beautiful locale, willfully (or not) ignoring the reality of those who live there. Her stories made me teary as she wrote about belonging, family, identity, and the yearning we all have to belong and fit in. I inhaled this collection in a single night and probably reread each story twice since then. A knockout collection....more
In 2011, Van Booy took my heart, crushed it, reassembled it, and gifted it to me in a wrapping of gorgeous prose in the form of Everything BeautifulIn 2011, Van Booy took my heart, crushed it, reassembled it, and gifted it to me in a wrapping of gorgeous prose in the form of Everything Beautiful Began After. Unsurprisingly, Van Booy has done it again with this book.
Van Booy is a short story writer (Everything Beautiful Began After was his first novel), and this book straddles both forms. In a series of breathtaking vignettes, Van Booy fills out a larger story arc that comes clear as we read on. Opening in 2010, the vignettes flash between then and 1939, following six people or so from the battlefields of World War II through to a convalescent home in California, New York and Manchester.
Despite the brief sketches, the characters feel real, from the first page. There's Mr. Hugo, a German soldier who was shot in the face, living now with the horror of who he was and what he'd done. Martin, adopted at a young age, learns later the tragic partial history of his childhood. John, an American soldier, thought to be dead by his wife and family back in the States, scrabbles to survive after being shot down in his plane. Amelia, his blind granddaughter, is a museum curator who pieces together a story of the war and era in such an inventive, imaginative way I wished it was a real exhibit.
The pacing of the story is gentle, easy, inviting one to linger; but there's tension, too, in understanding how everyone is connected and when -- or if -- the characters will learn the truth of their 'illusion of separateness'.
I just adore Van Booy's use of language, his turn of phrase, which is simply and poetic. Andre Dubus III blurbed his style as 'F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marguerite Duras' which is spot on -- punchy, sharp, achingly gorgeous. (Apparently Van Booy writes fully dressed, right down to sock garters, and I swear, you can feel it in the language.) This is the kind of book that makes me joyful as a reader; I want to dive into the sentences and just swim.
I think this would make a great book club novel for those who might want to dip their toes into more 'literary' fiction; there's some deep emotional choices that would provoke great conversation; and the familiar WWII theme is made fresh with the imaginative narrative style. Lovers of a stunning good sentence will want this book for sure....more
Marie Antoinette is one of those historical figures I will always be drawn to; I'm rather sympathetic toward her and feel she was treated unfairly byMarie Antoinette is one of those historical figures I will always be drawn to; I'm rather sympathetic toward her and feel she was treated unfairly by history. Grey's trilogy about the infamous queen is a welcome addition to the subgenre of royal historical fiction.
Her first book, Becoming Marie Antoinette, beautifully articulated the teenaged queen in an honest but appreciative light (many of the insults and crimes lobbed at Marie Antoinette, including the infamous 'Let them eat cake' quote, had been previously attributed to other hated women in power) as the second, Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, showed the young queen carving out some measure of pleasure and happiness for herself, at great personal expense, a woman growing into herself despite -- or because of -- intense public scrutiny.
This book, the final in the trilogy, plunges immediately into the wild, violent turmoil of the burgeoning French Revolution. Grey splits the narrative in this book between Marie Antoinette and a 'commoner', a (historical) sculptor named Louison Chabry. While I initially resented this interloper, within a chapter, I was convinced. As Grey explains in her afterword, Louison allows the reader to see what Marie Antoinette can't, and the result ratchets up tension and anxiety.
This novel spans October 5, 1789 through to October 16, 1793 -- the day of Marie Antoinette's execution. (I will admit I bawled at the end.) Scarred by the loss of two children, the cruelties of court life and the unceasing hatred thrown at her by the populous, the queen's steely resolve -- seen through all three books -- is even more obvious as she strives to support her husband first and foremost. More than once she says she'll die at his side than flee to safety. The heart-wrenching abuse heaped upon the royals makes me wonder if I might be a closet royalist, especially as she reveals the twisting machinations of the revolutionary supporters that Louison knows. Despite knowing how everything ends, I was fairly breathless most of the book, just dreading That Moment.
Biographical fiction can be tricky: authors need to stick to t historical record but must also convince the reader of the emotional truth of any decision or action. From the first page of the first book, Grey had me convinced: I believed her Marie Antoinette, I understood her, and I empathized with her. One of the aspects of Grey's trilogy I've come to deeply appreciate is that she alters her Marie Antoinette from one book to the next. The Austrian princess we meet in Becoming Marie Antoinette is a very different creature from the one we say goodbye to at the end of this book, yet she's not a whole new character in each volume. Grey articulates the way this sweet, occasionally superficial teenager grew into a mature woman -- a flawed creature I just loved.
Those new to the trilogy might be able to follow the novel - Grey lightly reminds us who is who in the narrative, but I think the emotional oomph could be missing for those who haven't read the first two books. (For example, there's a historically accurate scene in which the previous king's mistress offers shelter to Marie Antoinette and her family. Readers who missed their acrimonious interactions in the first book might not get the same emotional sizzle I did.)
Grey offers an extensive - 19 pages! - afterword about all the major players from the trilogy, which is satisfying and peppered with enough tidbits to make me wish many would get their own novel. Grey's considerable research is apparent but not obvious: the story comes first, and it's impossible not to be gripped.
This final book was just the conclusion I needed, filled with rich detail and human emotion. Grab all three books and settle in for an emotional, surprising armchair escape and get to know one of history's more infamous royals. Vive Juliet Grey! (May she write more books for me to inhale!)...more
I wish was a) brave enough to do a video review or b) lived near all of you so I could just gush in person about this book, which would be easier thanI wish was a) brave enough to do a video review or b) lived near all of you so I could just gush in person about this book, which would be easier than trying to write down with words how reading it made me feel. I loved this book -- it broke my heart about ten times -- and I found Lyon's writing style beautifully sharp, modern, slightly magical, a teeensy bit mysterious, and very, very human.
Set in 4th century BCE, the novel follows Pythias, beloved daughter of Aristotle. Brilliant, but not pretty, Pythias' life is unfair: doted on by her father, educated by him and once praised as having one of the most brilliant minds he's come across, but still a woman, and good only for keeping house. She must remain modest, chaste, veiled, silent.
When Alexander dies, Athens grows hostile to Macedonians, and Aristotle's family flees to a seaside town, heavily fortified by the army, where he has a family estate. After Aristotle's unexpected death, the impact of his passing is more than just an emotional loss. His mistress, the woman who raised and loved Pythias since she was four, is sent away, neither blood nor family nor a slave bequeathed to Pythias. When the family's stores raided, Pythias finds that the household slaves she loves do not feel the same way. Penniless and adrift, an unwanted woman among her father's acolytes, Pythias first fights to survive and then to find some measure of happiness.
Little is known about Pythias, so Lyon created a life for Pythias that is wild, complicated, incomplete (the story ends around, I think, Pythias' mid-twenties.) The strength of this story comes from Pythias, who is smart and striking, emotive and honest. Lyon's writing style is precise and sharp, yet heavy with inference and intimation. Pythias speaks in polite obfuscation at times -- ever the lady -- until her experiences shift her from someone reserved and polite to someone who owns her agency, decisions, voice. The plot follows this subtle transition; at some point the story drifts into the fantastical, but whether it is really magic or just hysteria (we learn earlier from Pythias' young friend about the wandering uterus), there's a disquieting sense that the concrete reality Pythias grew up with may not be the reality of the world she lives in.
Technically, this book might be a 'sequel' to Lyon's The Golden Mean, but I haven't read The Golden Mean and I don't think I missed anything. This takes place, I believe, some decades after the events in The Golden Mean and is a vibrant, beautiful novel about growing up in the shadow of someone brilliant, famous, and contradictory; coming-of-age in a brutal way; and the powerful agency claimed by this historically forgotten woman. ...more
I was interested in this book because my paternal grandmother's family were Sicilians who ended up in West Virginia and western Maryland coal country.I was interested in this book because my paternal grandmother's family were Sicilians who ended up in West Virginia and western Maryland coal country. We're a taciturn people on my father's side of the family; my wife and sister-in-law marvel at the long, drawn out conversations we have about weather -- the current weather, the past weather, the weather to come -- but for my brother and I, that's just how you communicate with those relatives.
My wife and sister-in-law, being bolder, nosier people who didn't get the memo that one talks about the weather, are unabashed questioners, a trait I've come to deeply appreciate as they've elicited some of the loveliest and surprising stories from that side of the family. Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away after she and my wife met only once, and that brief glimpse into her family's life was eye-opening and fascinating. It's one of my greatest regrets I didn't get to talk to her about more than the weather.
In some ways, this book felt like I got a chance to continue that conversation.
Spanning almost fifty years, from 1924 to 1973, this novel is a collection of vignettes following a West Virginia family. Emma, a 16-year old Sicilian immigrant, loathes her mother's joyless existence and marries impetuously. Caleb, her new husband, works for the railroads and has a generous but drifting kind of focus that emerges even more strongly in his son Dean. Tragedy forces Dean from his family's land and upon his return, his devotion to the ground, the earth, the animals, and even the people he crosses creates joy and anguish in equal part. His daughter comes of age when her immigrant Italian relatives are old and frightening and the lure of the world outside of her family's property lines calls her more than her family's link to the land.
Tekulve's writing style is pretty, poetic, but not ornate or obfuscated. Each chapter feels like a self-contained short story in many ways; together, they show the arc of a family and place, but individually, there's a brilliant, bright, or blinding moment that stings or illuminates. I got the sense that some of the pieces were composed independently of the volume: Tekulve occasionally repeats an incident or a particular turn of phrase from one story in another, as if trying to offer context to a chapter were it removed from the collection. I didn't mind the repetition as it sort of emphasized the almost fairy tale quality to the family: fatherless children, magical gardens, temptations.
The familiarity of Tekulve's characters and place resonated with me as much as the writing. She articulated the nuances of rural poverty that felt authentic rather than shocking or exploitative. In her description of the Sypher family property, with the creeks and trees, random cabins, farm animals semi-feral, men obsessively working the land -- hauling, pulling, cutting, chopping -- I was reminded of my grandfather, father, and even now, my brother. (A trip to see that part of the family isn't complete without something being hauled, a cabin or milk house explored.)
I will admit to laughing a few times Tekulve's characters remarked on the West Virginia landscape as resembling Sicily; my family was stationed in Sicily for a few years when I was a child, and the country was gripped in a terrible drought the entire time we were there. My memory of Sicily is of a dry, stony, yellowed place, scrub and withering trees rather than the sort of verdant hilliness I associate with West Virginia. It wasn't until a few years ago when traveling in the Mediterranean did I see Sicily as it usually is -- fresh, green, hilly but alive -- but I still can't shake the sense of it as I knew it.
The vignette-y style reminded me immediately of Jennifer Haigh's Baker Towers and Ursula Hegi's Floating in My Mother's Palm, so readers who enjoy those kind of family sagas will enjoy this volume (grandmother with Sicilian background not needed). Highly recommended for fans of immigrant stories and rural American life in the first half of the 20th century....more
It's no secret the Tudor era is not a favorite of mine but Nancy Bilyeau makes me sing a different tune: first, with her fabulous novel The Crown andIt's no secret the Tudor era is not a favorite of mine but Nancy Bilyeau makes me sing a different tune: first, with her fabulous novel The Crown and again this year with the sequel, The Chalice.
Returning to the 16th century and her ex-nun Joanna Stafford, this novel delves more into Joanna's life and past as well as the drama Henry VIII's decisions were wrecking on the country. As with The Crown, Bilyeau opens her novel with another fantastic first sentence -- When preparing for martyrdom on the night of December 28, 1538, I did not think of those I love. -- and the story races from there.
Joanna struggles to make sense of her life and the rapid changes she's endured: once a dedicated nun, she's now living a secular life due only to a decree of the King and by no choice of her own. Raising her cousin's child -- a woman burned at the stake for treason -- Joanna hopes to make a living weaving tapestries when conspiracy and danger find her again. Brought to London with the promise she won't be forced to go to court, Joanna instead is embroiled in a plot to return England to the Catholic Church when she factors into three prophesies, including one by Elizabeth Barton, the Mad Maid of Kent. (Which, if there's going to be religious conspiracies, give me an oracle nun, and I'm in heaven.)
Although from a noble family, Joanna is hardly a typical courtier, which makes Bilyeau's novels such a refreshing entry in the Tudor genre. Bilyeau articulates what it might have been like for those who took religious vows, forced by edict to abandon their life and their beliefs. While the dissolution of those institutions might have ferreted out those who weren't truly religious, for those who were devoted -- like Joanna -- the world has upended. She still believes Henry VIII is divinely ordained, for example, and is rocked to the core when those around her suggest he isn't.
There are some hints of romance in this book, but there's a twist: Henry VIII banned former clergy, nuns, and monks from ever marrying. Still, Joanna feels some attraction to men now -- a monk she's known, a sheriff she just recently met -- and she has to navigate this new tension as well.
I'm not super familiar with this era, so I can't say how many liberties Bilyeau has taken (if any) but I loved the mix of historical and fiction. Joanna is able to move through two worlds -- court life and religious life -- comfortably, and as an educated woman, has a smart 'voice' through which to tell her story. (Although I will admit, she maddened me at times with her choices!)
For Tudor fans, I think this is a must (I've read a few reviews by folks who say this one can be read as a fine standalone, but I encourage you to start with The Crown), and for those tired of Tudor novels, but interested in meaty hist fic, pick up these two. Joanna Stafford might be one of my top ten favorite heroines and I'm dying for the third book....more
I feel kind of terrible writing this review because this book is awesome ... and not available in the U.S. (It is available in the UK.) As usual, withI feel kind of terrible writing this review because this book is awesome ... and not available in the U.S. (It is available in the UK.) As usual, with a book I love this much, I'm having a hard time writing a coherent review. I really ought to just do a video review so I can wave my hands and make excited noises -- that'd probably convey more.
I'm a sucker for a fairy tale retold, especially when they're placed in a historical era, marrying 'real' with 'fantasy'. In this case, the fairy tale is Rapunzel, and the historical eras are 17th century France and 16th century Venice. Told in a story-within-a-story style, Forsyth manages to write a wonderfully solid historical novel with all the details I like -- customs, costumes, and characters -- as well as a fairy tale fantasy that resonates and delights. Shifting between three perspectives, this brick of a novel (about 500 pages) had me hanging on every word, literally, and I was lugging this thing with me everywhere and reading it with every free second.
Opening in late 17th century France, the novel focuses first on Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a witty noblewoman banished to a convent by the Sun King, Louis XIV. There, the woman once bedecked in jewels and luxurious fabrics finds herself stripped of her belongings (including her writing implements), head shorn, condemned to lowly tasks. When a nun takes Charlotte-Rose under her wing, she enchants the Frenchwoman with a tale from her own life, and the story shifts to Renaissance Venice. One of Titian's muses, Selena Leonelli, has taken to witchcraft to preserve her youth, and when a neighbor steals greens from her yard, the witch takes their Margherita for use in her own dark magic.
De La Force is the real life author of a Rapunzel variation, and Forsyth's novel guesses at how this Frenchwoman might have heard of the Venetian original. Using the Venetian motifs in her own version, Forsyth mixes magic and history, and comes up with a delicious and heartbreaking treat.
Forsyth's writing is evocative and pretty without feeling heavy or ornate; she conveys a sense of time and place without the dreaded infodump. What I appreciated, She also doesn't mince words about the way women were treated in these eras -- she creates strong heroines who are quite real but don't reek of anachronism.
Like others on this tour, I'm totally unwilling to part with my copy of this book. I had hoped to offer a giveaway but Book Depository doesn't have this one available yet. Keep your eye out -- if you like fairy tales, French history, and escapist historical fiction, you'll want this novel....more
I'm not a Napoleon fangirl but I love novels set during his time. I cut my teeth on Georgette Heyer and the Georgian-era is still a favorite. And whilI'm not a Napoleon fangirl but I love novels set during his time. I cut my teeth on Georgette Heyer and the Georgian-era is still a favorite. And while I like books set during wartime, I'm not really drawn to the combat narrative -- I like stories about those at home -- but recently, I've found that novels set squarely in the battlefield have been engaging and this book is no exception.
Opening in 1814, Mace drops us in the middle of a violent skirmish in Toulouse, France, in which famed British military hero, the Duke of Wellington, is driving back Napoleon's armies. Alternating between French and British viewpoints, Mace sets up a rather complicated back story fairly easily, contexting the conflict that just happened and establishing what's to come. It took me about two chapters to get totally up to speed, I admit, but by the third chapter, I was hooked. As the European powers wage peace, Napoleon frets in exile, and it is only a matter of time before he returns to Europe to take back France, an invasion that culminates in the Battle of Waterloo.
Mace weaves these bursts of conflict in with a few character-driven threads (or perhaps the other way around) and as a result, I was caught up in the drama of both 'what will Napoleon do next??' and 'I hope that sweet British widower will remarry that nice Englishwoman!'. Reminiscent of Heyer, Mace's novel touches upon the rigid class stratification in the British Army, the societal changes happening in the world around them, and the shocking reality of life for a 19th century soldier. Being the opposite of a war buff, I wouldn't know my bayonet from my ... some other 'b' term, but Mace peppers the narrative with tidbits and hints to help the reader envision the scene and understand what is going on.
What really impressed me -- because I love it when done well -- is that Mace balances a light touch (hints of a courtship between two characters) with a darker one (the behavior of the 'good guys' during a particularly hellish combat moment). In his 'Final Thoughts' (more on that later), he reveals he strove to create some ambiguity about who were the 'good guys' and 'bad guys', and he nailed it: I was for the British and French constantly.
This particular edition was a treat to read, an enhanced e-book loaded with extras. The novel clocks in at about 480 pages with a rich collection of appendices to answer any armchair historian's questions, from a detailed list of military ranks with explanation, a historical afterward that shares the fate of the major historical players, and perhaps my favorite section, an annotated list of what historical regiments from this novel still exist and in what form. The book is peppered with illustrations -- either historical or contemporary renditions of the events at the time -- which I loved and appreciated.
Mace's 'Final Thoughts', in which he shares his thoughts on writing this novel, was a pleasure to read. I love reading about the craft of writing as much as the actual product and Mace echoes that refrain I've heard from other historical novelists, a desire to balance accuracy with entertainment.
You can read a preview chapter at the publisher website to get a sense of Mace's style but I will again mention it took me two chapters -- and was worth it. A wonderfully rich and detailed chunkster for those who like Georgian-era historical fiction, war stories, or the Franco/Anglo divide....more
This 100 page novella is a horrifying snapshot of a suicidal mission. Technically a prequel to I Stood With Wellington (which I loved), this can be reThis 100 page novella is a horrifying snapshot of a suicidal mission. Technically a prequel to I Stood With Wellington (which I loved), this can be read alone. (As can I Stood With Wellington.)
Set in 1812, Mace takes the reader into the siege of a Spanish fortress, focusing on the group of soldiers known as the 'Forlorn Hope' -- the first wave of attackers expected to die, meant only to pave the way for further assault. Mixing gritty details and cinematic elements in his combat scenes with a focus on a few individuals -- both French and British -- Mace hooked me on this story.
I'm not typically a reader of combat/military fiction, but this is a story of soldiers -- good, bad and everything in between -- and the military culture of 19th century armies. From the 'ranks' to the officers, we're given glimpses of the snobbery, prejudices, and camaraderie common in the time.
Mace builds tension methodically, ticking away the hours to the siege, introducing us to some of the men participating. A young officer volunteers impetuously, aching at the sudden death of his wife. When the breach is delayed, he finds himself less certain about his decision but is committed nonetheless. A young raconteur fears he'll die without knowing love; a terminally ill man chooses this death over a more protracted one.
Even though I technically 'knew' what happened at Badajoz from characters referencing it in I Stood With Wellington, I was still glued to this book. It was quite a nail-biter, shockingly gory at moments (but not gratuitously), and thankfully ended beyond the last moments of Badajoz.
As with I Stood With Wellington, Mace's Notes are fascinating to read. Again sharing his goals and desires in writing this novella, he also reflects on his sources and the historical and fictional characters featured.
At about 100 pages, this was a zippy read, a wonderful introduction to Mace's writing style and a good dip into a historical novel that mixes well military and combat narrative with character-driven plot....more