“They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bl
“They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”
On 12 January, 1830, the last instance of capital punishment in Iceland occurred when Friðrik Sigurðsson and Agnes Magnúsdóttir were executed in Vatnsdalshólar in Húnavatnssýsla, for the murder of two men.
While often painted as “monstrous”, a cold-blooded murderer, a figure of Lady Macbeth style ruthlessness - the truth is that there is a dearth of factual information about Agnes Magnusdottir. While the instrument of her execution – a broad axe – has been preserved, little is known about the life of the woman sentenced to death, and publicly beheaded. (A third person was also convicted: Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, whose sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment).
“They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.”
Burial Rites is the product of a ten year quest to uncover what remains of Agnes Magnusdottir’s life. Instigated by an exchange visit to Iceland after high school, Hannah Kent spent the ensuing years absorbed in intense archival research, examination of primary sources and retracing of Agnes’ steps from her birth to her final resting place. Kent called the result a “speculative biography”, a weave of fact and fiction, and her own “dark love letter to Iceland.”
While Burial Rites presents the question of whether history has misrepresented Agnes, the novel does not necessarily demand sympathy for her. It does, however, offer a more empathetic, albeit ambiguous, portrayal of a woman condemned – and an attempt to understand what circumstances might have led to her conviction in a double murder.
The result is an exquisitely beautiful novel. Kent’s prose is rich and clear, rendering the melancholic, claustrophobic atmosphere of the Icelandic winter and Agnes’ impending execution in evocative language. Agnes herself, awaiting death and exiled at the farm of a minor public servant, emerges from the pages vividly.
“Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it. I am barren; nothing will grow from me anymore. I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. No, I am still warm, my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself, and it shakes the empty nest and asks where all the birds have gone, where have they gone?”
Kent writes with a kind of graceful maturity, a depth of emotion that befits the subject matter. This a story about a woman facing her imminent death, a woman with one final opportunity to speak her truth, and Kent captures the desperation, isolation and grief of Agnes with stunning clarity. The book is interspersed with Agnes’ inner monologues, and these sections are the most vivid; pouring forth in a steam of raw psychological pain and striking imagery.
Though she spent much of her life employed as a servant and a period of her childhood as an orphaned pauper thrown on the mercy of the parish, there is evidence to suggest that Agnes was also an intelligent and highly literate woman. And this is the version of Agnes that Kent chooses to portray; beneath the hard and icy veneer of a woman reviled and silenced, she is compelling, passionate and astute.
While living and working alongside Jón Jónsson and his family, fragments of Agnes’ story begin to emerge. As she confides in Tóti, the young assistant priest commissioned to reconcile her to her fate and to God, Agnes’ version of events takes shape as the remaining days of her life pass. Through this gradual unwinding, Tóti and the family come to confront the idea that the truth may not be all that it seems. While we already know how Agnes’ story ends, it’s this suggestion of dissonance between public opinion and her personal reality that fuel the novel’s tension. Burial Rites suggests that truth is open to interpretation, and is rarely as straightforward as commonly perceived. Fear, gossip and hatred twist the idea of Agnes into something horrifying and loathsome; an opinion no doubt perpetuated by the pervasive social, religious and sexual politics of the time.
To this end, Kent’s novel faithfully depicts life in 19th century Iceland, and is immersed in historical detail without the narrative being weighed down or bloated. It is clear that care has been taken to accurately represent the conditions of Agnes’ world, to reconstruct the framework of her life with as much integrity as possible. The gaps in historical record, which Kent has fleshed out with fiction, fit seamlessly within the broader context of time and place, resulting in a story that respects its origins.
We cannot know the entirety of Agnes Magnusdottir’s story, but Burial Rites asks us to remember her, if not reconsider how history may have buried her own truth with her body. Knutur Oskarsson, who accommodated Hannah Kent during part of the writing and research of the novel, stated: “I do believe that the execution of Agnes is still an unhealed wound in Iceland, in the history of Iceland.”
Burial Rites is a respectful and moving acknowledgment of that wound; a reminder that Agnes Magnusdottir’s voice once existed, even if it was lost to time. ...more
I wanted to like this book so much more than I actually did. I mean, look at that cover! I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its co*heavy sigh*
I wanted to like this book so much more than I actually did. I mean, look at that cover! I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I can’t lie, that gorgeous art and the blurb had me thinking this would definitely be a REY-BOOK.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t quite for me.
To start with the good: I loved the setting and the historical context of the novel. By choosing to set The Mimosa Tree during the final years of the Cold War, against a back drop of the anti-nuclear movement and the very palpable tensions of the international arms race, Preto frames Mira’s internal conflict with an interesting external parallel. When Mira’s very real fears and sense of impending disaster on a global scale are pre-empted by a tragedy much closer to home, the setting and political climate take on a symbolic significance.
As for the not-so-good, here’s where I confess I’m a monster with a heart of stone: Mira’s family tribulations did nothing for me. I’m sorry. The cultural and generational dissonance between Mira and her family is interesting, particularly when it comes to her relationship with her father. Yet despite the truly sad things that happen to Mira’s family, I had no emotional investment in these characters. The novel feels bloated, weighed down and slow with scenes that establish how the family functions internally: the relationships between Mira’s mother and aunts, her parents, their world view, the fact that Mira is attending university. This is all important, particularly in terms of understanding Mira as a character, but it’s all too long and dense. The opening chapters meander through interminable scene-setting, recounting the minutiae of conversations and the drinking of copious cups of coffee.
The tedium is broken somewhat by Mira’s commencement of university and gradual establishing of relationships with Felicia and Harm. It’s here also that we see Mira’s connection to alternative youth culture of the 80s, particular in the music she listens to (Goth, New Romantic, alternative rock etc) and the social movements around her (anti-nuclear, resistance to US foreign policy etc). Combined with and in response to her family circumstances, Mira engages in risk-taking behaviour and drug use, becoming drawn to the apparent freedom of Harm’s lifestyle, romanticising his choices. (Personally, I completely fail to see Harm’s appeal.)
But as much as this is a story about family, death and struggle to define identity – which are all strong themes – I feel they were explored with varying degrees of success. Mira’s safety map, the motif of the mimosa tree, and the atmosphere of catastrophe are effective, but the pacing is weak. It’s a patchy novel: powerful at moments, but unengaging in others. Unfortunately, I think I like the idea of this story much more than the story itself.
* * * * * * Not a review (yet), but if you want to check out the New Romantic/Goth/alternative 1980s playlist hop on over here or here.
Here are two things about me you should probably know about me before I jump into this review:
(1) I’m a huge history nerd. (And proud). A by-product oHere are two things about me you should probably know about me before I jump into this review:
(1) I’m a huge history nerd. (And proud). A by-product of this is a long and enduring love of historical fiction since I was old enough to check my own books out of the library.
(2) As a teenager I went through a period of being obsessed with all things war related. I read, watched, listened to just about anything I could on the subject, hoarding facts with an unprecedented gluttony for detail.
So, picking up A War Between Us felt familiar and comfortable; I had a strong suspicion I was going to love it.*
First, a note on the cover: on one hand it’s cute and vintage-esque and most importantly relevant, on the other hand it reminds me to those Sunfire historical romances, with the heroine always flanked by her two obligatory love interests:
(Also, the cover artist has really gone to town with Nat’s eyebrows - they’re kind of distracting).
While it would seem that the cover of A World Between Us is screaming “HISTORICAL LOVE TRIANGLE”, that’s both true and not true, and does the novel a disservice in seemingly reducing the plot down to merely its romantic elements. Because sure, romance plays a part in this story, but primarily this is a novel about how three young people become involved in the Spanish Civil War in various capacities and the subsequent impacts of the conflict on their lives.
And Lydia Syson has done her homework. This book is rich with historical detail, not only of the political situation in Spain at the time, but the role of the International Brigades and volunteers who aided the Republicans, working class movements and youth activism of the time, religion in Francoist Spain, the influence of censorship and propaganda. By writing from the perspective of a volunteer nurse, a soldier, and a journalist, Syson conveys the conflict and its impacts from various viewpoints. Further, by imbuing these characters with different incentives for becoming involved in the conflict, Syson is able to examine it through various lenses:
“What prompted thousands of men and women, some only teenagers (like Nat and Felix in A World Between Us), to leave everything they knew to go and help the Republican cause in Spain – often without a word to their families? Many had never left Britain before, most didn’t speak a word of Spanish, and a fifth of them were killed there.” – Lydia Syson, “Come and See The Blood in the Streets” April 22, 2013
Arguably, Nat – the young, working class, Jewish socialist - Felix initially meets at an anti-Facist march has the most incentive to join the Republican’s cause in Spain. From the outset, his motivations are fairly straightforward. Slightly more complex are Felix and George’s reasons for eventually volunteering, though it’s through their eyes that Syson is able to communicate a gradual loss of innocence and complacency through exposure to the violence and devastation wrought throughout Spain. Syson traces the nationalist advance across the country, depicting the battles (including Bilbao, Ebro, the siege of Madrid, the bombing of Guernica etc) with vivid clarity and keen insight, not just from the perspective of those on the front lines, but the communities left desolated in their wake.
There’s a genuine poignancy to Syson’s depiction of three young people facing the horror of war, and her writing is expressive without being cloying or dramatic. Yes, there’s kissing, but there’s also much conveyed in the scenes of sheltering from air raids, in the simple generosity of touch and human contact. Here Syson depicts the urgency and desperate yearning of love born in times of uncertainty, the bittersweetness of moments stolen from the realities of war. In the characters, there is a true sense of camaraderie and courage, without the novel waxing poetic or sentimental about circumstances are clearly are neither romantic nor nostalgic . Rather, Syson develops fully-realised characters that undergo physically and mentally trying circumstances; her characters are sympathetic because they are realistic and flawed.
A World Between Us is an impeccably researched work of historical fiction, and also a compelling, human story. If it’s any indicating of what’s to come, I eagerly anticipate Lydia Syson’s next novel, That Burning Summer.
*Not that I’m saying you need to be a history nerd to enjoy this book, I’m just revealing my biases. ...more
I read Scarlett as a teen and I decided it had put me off this prequel/sequel written by someone else business for life. (Really, can you bla3.5 stars
I read Scarlett as a teen and I decided it had put me off this prequel/sequel written by someone else business for life. (Really, can you blame me? That book is the worst.) Then they went and made Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story and I could have rage-cried from the whole ’have we learned nothing?!’ of it.
And yet here I am, reviewing a prequel to Frankenstein, and as far as I’m concerned, Kenneth Oppel can have at it because this was good and it really works as a YA complement to Shelley’s gothic classic.
I say this because while reading Frankenstein is not strictly a pre-requisite for enjoying This Dark Endeavour, it does heighten appreciation for how skilfully Oppel has entwined his novel with the original work. He doesn’t simply borrow from the source material; but creates a story that both stands solidly on its own merits, and also weaves the characterisation and thematic elements of the original with his own.
Despite my initial misgivings at the idea of inventing an identical twin (Konrad) that didn’t exist in Shelley’s work, Oppel won me over with his dedication to writing a Victor that could plausibly evolve into the man Shelley had envisioned. Teenage-Victor is not an archetypal YA hero. He is sympathetic, but he is coloured with the shades of ambition, drive and selfishness that define him as an adult. Teenage-Victor is not above manipulation, and experiences complicated feelings of jealously and covetousness towards his twin. There’s clear internal conflict between Victor’s desire for recognition and glory, and his deep fraternal bond with Konrad. It’s the collision of these feelings that direct much of the plot of This Dark Endeavour.
The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein is Oppel’s take on Victor’s introduction to the dark sciences, and his thirst for knowledge that won’t be satiated. Stumbling upon a concealed library of forbidden texts on alchemy – initially a source of amusement – takes on serious significance when Konrad falls ill . Fearing for Konrad’s life, Victor and his companions embark on a quest to create the Elixir of Life, aided by shunned former alchemist Julius Polidori. Complicating an already tense situation is the fact that the practice of alchemy has been outlawed in Geneva, a decree Victor’s magistrate father had part in enforcing.
The novel had more of an adventure-style storyline than I was expecting, as the teens (Victor and Konrad, their adopted sister Elizabeth Lavenza and close friend Henry Clerval) endeavour to source each ingredient of the Elixir as Konrad’s health wanes. Victor leads much of the venture, driven by both his need to see his brother return to health, and his desire to step out of Konrad’s shadow and be recognised for greatness on his own.
Elizabeth is possibly the biggest departure in characterisation from Shelley’s work, though this is no bad thing. While not a complete reimagining, Oppel gives Elizabeth a strong, feminist sensibility in his novel, and she plays an active role in the quest. There is a love triangle of sorts in the novel (a little literary cousin-love doesn’t bother me), but rather than being a tacked-on romantic subplot, Oppel uses it effectively to drive certain aspects of the story, and highlight elements of each character’s personalities. While Konrad apparently loves Elizabeth for her generous and warm nature, Victor is drawn her spirited and animalistic side. In a similar manner, we see the conflict of Elizabeth’s faith (she is the only member of the family who believes in God) and Victor’s belief in science, when Konrad’s life hangs in the balance. As such, there is some interesting discussion in the novel about science, spirituality, medicine and “magic” and how the lines between them (at least in context of this story) are blurred.
The novel isn’t without anachronisms, particularly in its rendering of the characters and the way they act, but I can more readily forgive this is a novel with clearly fantastical elements, as opposed to a work of strict historical fiction. The teens’ escapades require significant suspension of belief, but not in a way that detracts from enjoying the story. It’s such a fun story to get caught up in that I don’t find the fluidity between the possible and impossible a negative aspect.
Though I did just call this a “fun” story, it’s also quite dark. Not in a ”won’t somebody think of the children” way, but in the sense that the story doesn’t shy away from the darker side of human nature. As I mentioned earlier, I found Victor sympathetic, but he is also somewhat morally ambiguous at times, and his choices present an interesting and complicated conflict for the reader.
This Dark Endeavour is a fitting lead in to the nightmare of ethics to come in Frankenstein, and a skilful foreshadowing of Victor’s impending obsession.
* * * * *
Okay, can someone please fix the synopsis for this edition because it's f#@&*^gPIQUE not peak. ...more
Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls is less a mystery than a straight up coming-of-age story. Though the synopsis bills the novel as a suspenseful page-turMister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls is less a mystery than a straight up coming-of-age story. Though the synopsis bills the novel as a suspenseful page-turner, it’s really more of a slow-burn, character-driven exploration of how an unsolved crime impacts a community.
Downing Hahn’s novel fictionalises real events that took place in 1955, altering the specifics of the crime and people involved to create a parallel version through which to examine the subsequent fallout. The story is related primarily from the viewpoints of Nora Cunningham, a peer of the murdered girls (Cheryl and Bobbie Jo), and Buddy Novak, ex-boyfriend of Cheryl and commonly believed perpetrator of the murders. In additional to their perspectives, Downing Hahn weaves in letters and diary excerpts, fleshing out the range of perceptions and reactions to Cheryl and Bobbie Jo’s deaths.
Perhaps because this is a story anchored in the author’s own experience, there’s an authenticity to Nora’s voice and the response of the wider community. Downing Hahn depicts the fear and grief that permeate the neighbourhood, and how it at times manifests as anger or denial. A pall is cast over Elmgrove, the promise of summer freedom curtailed by anxious parents locking the doors at night and curfews enforced. Parents and peers alike eye Buddy askance, convinced of his guilt. And Nora descends into depression and a crisis of faith, unconvinced that a God who truly cared would allow her friends to be brutally murdered.
Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls explores questions of religious belief and doubt, burgeoning sexuality, and the gravity of public opinion. Convicted by the community, if not by the law, Buddy forms a tenuous connection with Nora, who is increasingly isolated as the lone believer in Buddy’s innocence. Her former friendships, in various ways, succumb to the pressure of the tragedy. Her friends want to move on, move away from the killings, while Nora cannot. Instead she finds herself progressively more effected by them, and her belief that the killer remains at large. Nora questions her faith and her future, her relationships with her parents and friends, and why Cheryl and Bobbie Jo had to die.
Largely, this is a novel about emotional journeys in the wake of tragedy.
Which, while thought-provoking and well-written, may be slightly anticlimactic for readers seeking a greater sense of closure and explanation. While reading Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls I made various assumptions about where the story might lead at various points; I was wrong on all counts. This book isn’t written to answer all the questions it raises, but merely to point out their existence.
That said, on the strength of the writing, Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls is an impressive novel. Downing Hahn captures the uncertainty and self-consciousness of adolescence, the on-the-cusp sensation of being a young adult, and the spiralling of becoming unmoored from long–held beliefs and connections. Downing Hahn points out that teenagers in the 1950s weren’t all that different from teenagers of today, in terms of the emotional, social and physical turmoil they face. This lends Nora, Buddy, Ellie – even Cheryl and Bobbie Jo – an immediacy and relevance to a broad readership.
This is a strong novel, satisfying even without furnishing all of the answers, and is recommended for readers looking for introspective, character-driven writing. ...more
I adored Sepetys’ debut, Between Shades of Gray, and had been eagerly awaiting her follow up novel. I was not disappointed. Reader, I loved this book.
I adored Sepetys’ debut, Between Shades of Gray, and had been eagerly awaiting her follow up novel. I was not disappointed. Sepetys’ commitment to impeccably researching her subject matter shows, and she brings 1950s New Orleans to life on the pages of Out of the Easy.
I really enjoyed Sepetys’ take on class and social stigma in Josie’s story. As the daughter of a prostitute, and in the employ of shrewd Madam Willie, as a cleaner, Josie is keenly aware of the limitations society would put upon her. Savvy and streetwise, Josie dreams of getting out of New Orleans and attending Smith college, while at the same time being conscious of her allegiance to her Mother. When a mysterious death occurs, Josie finds herself drawn more deeply into the underbelly of the Quarter, and her plans for escape and a future of her own making at risk.
Sepetys excels at crafting nuanced, believable characters, and this was the highlight of the novel for me. These are flawed, realistic people and they bring the story to life, make you care about what happens to them. Josie herself is relatable: a resourceful, strong teenager who also experiences self-doubt and fear. The plot necessitates Josie questioning her conscience and her choices, and the conflict feels real.
Some readers may have preferred to see a story that deals with prostitution handled through the perspective of the women involved directly. By framing the narrative through Josie’s perspective, it could be argued that it is inherently biased, and the agency of those characters is denied. I respect that opinion, although I don’t share it. What felt important to me here was that the story be true to Josie’s experience and voice; the lens through which she views the world. I think Sepetys succeeds in this. Josie’s narration and opinions are influenced by her past, and I think it’s conveyed without disrespect to the other characters. In fact, I believe the opposite is true.
So much about this book worked for me: the clear, vivid setting, the strong characterisation, the complex relationships and questions of family and loyalty. And I can’t wait to see what Ruta Sepetys writes next. ...more
The third and final volume of the Montmaray Journals lands squarely at the intersection of what I wanted this book to be, and what I think it needed t The third and final volume of the Montmaray Journals lands squarely at the intersection of what I wanted this book to be, and what I think it needed to be. Happily, those were not mutually exclusive outcomes, although “happily” feels like the wrong word to use. Because the ending of the trilogy was bittersweet, as most good endings are.
It’s difficult to review The FitzOsbornes at War in great detail because SPOILERS, and not just for this book but for all three, as they are very connected. However, as the title states, the third book is the account of the FitzOsborne’s (exiled royal family of the fictional island of Montmaray) experiences throughout World War II.
First of all, standing ovation for Michelle Cooper on writing an impeccably researched work of historical fiction. The attention to detail and factual accuracy is really impressive, and I say this as someone with an abiding love of historical fiction and aggressive loathing of anachronisms. The fatal flaw in some historical YA is a tendency to temper the narrative and characterisation with a contemporary outlook. But I’d argue that this isn’t necessary to create a story that’s engaging for a modern audience; history doesn’t need to be injected with a dose of Gossip Girl to make it relevant or interesting. Cooper’s plots remain firmly rooted in their respective time periods, but the themes are still compelling and her characters relatable. Granted, an interest in history / historical fiction is probably necessary to gain maximum enjoyment from the series, but I admire the integrity of the books to their setting.
Cooper has written a masterful blend of fact and fiction, weaving historical figures and events into her characters’ story seamlessly. The inclusion of real life people of note – Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, the Kennedys, Unity and Deborah Mitford to name very few – doesn’t feel awkward or didactic. Rather, they are an organic part of the story, and integral to the period of history in which Sophie and her family lived. It hurts my head to think of the amount of research and fact checking required to write these parts of the story as authentically as Cooper does, but the end result is a story rich with historical context. Cooper brings this section of history to life: the Blitz, the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the Allied invasion of Normandy, and living conditions in England throughout the war are all vividly communicated through the lens of Sophie’s experiences. The human element of her personal emotions makes this novel more than merely a recounting of past events - it places the reader in the story, enables them to experience joy and grief, boredom and fear alongside her.
Sophie’s narration really carries this series for me. While I came to love all of the characters and their dynamics, it’s her voice that brings the story to life. It would be easily to draw comparisons (or rather, similarities) between Sophie FitzOsborne and Cassandra Mortmain; A Brief History of Montmaray is in part an homage to I Capture The Castle, yet Sophie retains an individuality that I find very appealing. She’s self-deprecating, though not frustratingly so, and is rather more worldly-wise than Cassandra, which is occasionally revealed through the sharp edge of humour to her voice. Sophie’s growth throughout the series is evident – fitting, considering the amount of time the books cover – but especially in the last book, where her transition into adulthood is poignantly and realistically depicted.
On the ending, which I desperately want to talk about but can’t for fear of wrecking the entire experience for others, I’ll simply say that it felt right. It’s a slightly surprising, yet brave resolution that feels like the right way to leave these characters. (For those with questions, Michelle Cooper has a Montmaray Q & A on her blog, but be aware that page is extremely spoilerific).
The FitzOsbornes at War is my favourite book of the series, perhaps because it’s the most complex, the most difficult, and the most emotional. Cooper pushes the character further in this instalment, demands a heavier toll in the plot, yet delivers a greater reward in the conclusion.
Overall, I think the Montmaray Journals are classics in the making, and their value will be enduring. ...more
Among my Goodreads friends, Code Name Verity seems to fall very clearly into two categories: "Not for me" and "True love 5ever!". There are actually vAmong my Goodreads friends, Code Name Verity seems to fall very clearly into two categories: "Not for me" and "True love 5ever!". There are actually very few people I know who sit in between these.
When I first attempted Code Name Verity, I thought I was Camp A. Upon second attempt, turns out I'm Camp B. Which actually isn't all that surprising considering my love of war history, unreliable narrators etc.