Review: Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

Review: Homegoing, Yaa GyasiHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Published by Vintage ISBN: 1101971061
on April 7, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 305
Format: Paperback
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Ghana, eighteenth century: two half-sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.

Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.

Homegoing took my breath away. At times, I had to put it down for a little bit just to think about what I had read, and other times, I couldn’t put it down. I finished it in about three giant gulps over a couple of days. While Gyasi’s prose isn’t flashy, the story she tells pierced me right through the heart. I think it’s changed my life. Ernest Hemingway said once, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” That’s how I feel after reading this book. That it’s truer than if the stories it told really happened and that those stories now belong to me in some way. I can’t find it now, but I swear I’ve read a quote by some famous smart person that said something along the lines of this: every once in a while, you encounter a book, and it becomes such an important book to you and leaves such an impression, that you can mark your life before you read it and after.

The book is drawing inevitable comparisons to Roots, and for good reason. One criticism I’ve read of Gyasi’s writing in several reviews is that many of the experiences of the African-American branch of the book’s family seem sort of “shoehorned” into African-American history. In a sense, I can see it, but to me, it never felt inauthentic. I mean, it wasn’t like Forrest Gump. In a way, I saw some of these passages as connections to African-American literature, such as James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” or the American legend of John Henry. Isabel Wilkerson criticized Gyasi for perpetuating a stereotype:

And there is a jarring moment when the last of the West African line, a young girl named Marjorie, immigrates to America with her parents, settling in Huntsville, Ala. (as did Gyasi’s family). There, she learns that the people who look like her “were not the same kind of black that she was.” The only African-American student we meet is a girl named Tisha, who ridicules the studious Ghanaian. “Why you reading that book?” Tisha asks her. When Marjorie stammers that she has to read it for class, Tisha makes fun of her. “I have to read it for class,” Tisha says, mimicking her accent. “You sound like a white girl.” It is dispiriting to encounter such a worn-out cliché—that ­African-Americans are hostile to reading and education—in a work of such beauty.

I totally understand Wilkerson’s pain at encountering this stereotype. Yet, the incident as described in the book smacks of something that really happened to Gyasi. One has the feeling that as a Ghanaian immigrant, she did feel different and was treated differently. I certainly don’t mean to discount Wilkerson’s criticism. When I read the scene, I felt the same way as Wilkerson, and yet, I also sensed it was possible an uncomfortable true story was fictionalized for Gyasi’s character.

Gyasi is at her most brilliant in describing the relationships between parents and children. It’s maddening and frustrating that the reader knows the stories of the ancestors unknown especially to the African-American family, but also to the African family as well, and in their case, because of choices made by the characters. So much loss. It’s difficult to comprehend. Some studies suggest that trauma leaves an intergenerational impact. And when you have a situation in which trauma is re-inflicted, for generation after generation, recovery seems almost hopeless. But empathy—telling our stories, and especially listening to the stories of others—is one path forward.

I had a feeling about the way the story might end up, and it was gratifying and redemptive. While parts of this book are difficult and grueling—Gyasi does not flinch from the realism of the characters’ experiences, and she forces us to look, too—there is also much joy and love, and it’s hard not to feel hopeful after reading the end. This is one I think I’ll be recommending to everybody.

Review: Sky in the Deep, Adrienne Young

Review: Sky in the Deep, Adrienne YoungSky in the Deep by Adrienne Young
Published by Wednesday Books ISBN: 1250168457
on April 24, 2018
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
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three-half-stars

OND ELDR. BREATHE FIRE.

Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield—her brother, fighting with the enemy—the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother's betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan thought to be a legend, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.

I received a signed first edition of this book in my Owl Crate box subscription. The cover and premise of the book intrigued me. Sky in the Deep is unusual in that its Viking-inspired setting and warrior heroine aren’t often found in YA fantasy. The book’s trailer does a good job capturing the setting, the real star of the novel:

The egalitarian society Adrienne Young describes in the book is one of its more interesting aspects. Women and men both can be warriors, healers, spiritual leaders. Eelyn, the novel’s heroine, is a warrior, and based on descriptions of her prowess, a pretty good one. Despite a lot of wishful thinking, I believe the jury is still out on the extent to which shieldmaidens were a real thing in the Viking era, though a quick glance at Norse myth supports the idea at least in part. I liked the Riki characters Eelyn winds up living with, but one can’t help cry foul over the Stockholm syndrome. I’m not sure how healthy it is for YA books to continue with the trope of the woman who falls in love with someone who captures and in this case, abuses the protagonist—he has his blacksmith fit her with a slave’s collar. Fiske never emerges as very interesting to me anyway; though he’s written in that swoony way you see in a lot of YA fiction, it’s not overdone (to the author’s credit). I loved that the author didn’t try to make the reader fall in love with Fiske.

In any case, the book is a quick, fun read. Be warned: it’s pretty violent. Young doesn’t flinch from describing this warrior culture in full detail. Many of the names—both people and places—come from Old Norse and are still in use today. In searching out some of the names in the book, I stumbled on the author’s Pinterest board for inspiration. Of course, now I’m looking for it to link it, I can’t find it again. I halfway wonder if she’s made it private in the days since I found it. I am not sure why, but discovering that Pinterest board of inspirational images utterly charmed me.

This book is different from typical YA in many ways, and it’s easy to keep turning the pages, and though the plot unwinds in a fairly predictable fashion, the ride isn’t any less fun. I probably would have loved it had I read it as a teen, and given that is who the audience is, it’s worth giving it a try if you’re in that demographic. If you’re not, you still might enjoy it.

Though it might be more accurate to describe this book as Viking-inspired fantasy, I’m still going to count it as historical fiction also because I think it fits that genre, even if the story is not strictly based on true historical events. For the Literary Voyage Challenge, I’m settling on Norway as a setting.

 

 

three-half-stars

Review: The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

Review: The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh NguyenThe Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Published by Grove Press ISBN: 0802124941
on April 12th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
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four-stars

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Sympathizer is a Vietnam War novel unlike any other. The narrator, one of the most arresting of recent fiction, is a man of two minds and divided loyalties, a half-French half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent living in America after the end of the war.

It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. But, unbeknownst to the general, this captain is an undercover operative for the communists, who instruct him to add his own name to the list and accompany the general to America. As the general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, the captain continues to observe the group, sending coded letters to an old friend who is now a higher-up within the communist administration. Under suspicion, the captain is forced to contemplate terrible acts in order to remain undetected. And when he falls in love, he finds that his lofty ideals clash violently with his loyalties to the people close to him, a contradiction that may prove unresolvable.

A gripping spy novel, a moving story of love and friendship, and a layered portrayal of a young man drawn into extreme politics, The Sympathizer examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

I’ve been working on finishing this book for a long time, and I am trying to figure out why it was so hard to pick back up again on the occasions when I put it aside because I did like the book. I don’t have to sympathize with the main character in order to like a book (I love Wuthering Heights and find all the characters difficult to sympathize with). So, even though the narrator can be difficult to “like,” I don’t think that is the problem. I can appreciate a finely tuned sentence. I think ultimately, however, the plot really needs to move along, and in some places, the plot of The Sympathizer plods. Two notable exceptions are a chunk of the middle of the book when the unnamed protagonist is consulting on a Vietnam War movie, The Hamlet, that is clearly modeled after Apocalypse Now and Platoon and again towards the end after the protagonist is captured upon returning to Vietnam. I recognize Nguyen’s argument that the Vietnam War is exceptional in that the war’s defeated have controlled the narrative about that war, starting with movies like Apocalypse Now and Platoon and continuing with novels like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I love that novel, but it erases the Vietnamese people entirely from its narrative. In my favorite passage in the book, the protagonist reflects on his failure to reclaim the narrative through working with the director of The Hamlet:

I had failed and the Auteur would make The Hamlet as he intended, with my countrymen serving merely as raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people. I pitied the French for their naïveté in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit I was maddened by my helplessness before the Auteur’s imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination). Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, better to be a villain, loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.

The Sympathizer is brilliant. I think it suffers a bit from some of its own good press. For example, Ron Charles (who writes brilliant reviews for The Washington Post), described this book as “a cerebral thriller around a desperate expat story that confronts the existential dilemmas of our age.” So, I was expecting a thriller. It’s not, really. As to the rest of Charles’s description, it’s accurate, and his review will give you an excellent idea about what makes the book great. Ultimately, it dragged in some places for me, but I can appreciate what Nguyen has done with this novel.

 

four-stars

Review: The Movement of Stars, Amy Brill

Review: The Movement of Stars, Amy BrillThe Movement of Stars by Amy Brill
Published by Riverhead Books ISBN: 1594487448
on April 18th 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 380
Format: E-Book
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four-stars

A love story set in 1845 Nantucket, between a female astronomer and the unusual man who understands her dreams. It is 1845, and Hannah Gardner Price has lived all twenty-four years of her life according to the principles of the Nantucket Quaker community in which she was raised, where simplicity and restraint are valued above all, and a woman’s path is expected to lead to marriage and motherhood. But up on the rooftop each night, Hannah pursues a very different—and elusive—goal: discovering a comet and thereby winning a gold medal awarded by the King of Denmark, something unheard of for a woman.

And then she meets Isaac Martin, a young, dark-skinned whaler from the Azores who, like herself, has ambitions beyond his expected station in life. Drawn to his intellectual curiosity and honest manner, Hannah agrees to take Isaac on as a student. but when their shared interest in the stars develops into something deeper, Hannah’s standing in the community begins to unravel, challenging her most fundamental beliefs about work and love, and ultimately changing the course of her life forever.

Inspired by the work of Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer in America, The Movement of Stars is a richly drawn portrait of desire and ambition in the face of adversity.

Amy Brill’s writing reminds me a bit of that of Tracy Chevalier, though perhaps not quite as deft. As the inspiration for Brill’s Hannah Price is Maria Mitchell, I wonder why Brill didn’t just write about Maria Mitchell. I assume she wanted to take some artistic license with the story, especially perhaps in bringing in Hannah’s student Isaac Martin. I might have appreciated the storyline the more if Hannah had continued to view Isaac as a friend a pupil. I didn’t necessarily need a love story. And the love story was impossible for their times in any case.

Brill explains in her author’s note that she changed some dates. For example, Maria Mitchell met Mary Somerville in 1858, but Brill placed the meeting between Somerville and Hannah Price some eleven years earlier. Hannah’s friend photographs Mizar and Alcor in 1847, but the real photograph was taken a decade later. After I read that, I wondered if the technology to take the photograph even existed in 1847. If not, that’s a pretty large issue. Brill paints the setting of Nantucket well, and I enjoyed her characters, especially Isaac.

I initially started reading this book some time back and put it down for a while. It had been a long time since I’d put it down, so I just started over again. My reason for reading it now is that the Monthly Motif Challenge theme for April is “Read Locally.” I couldn’t really find much of anything to read that’s set in Worcester, but Worcester does get a mention in this book when the third-person narrator explains that many Nantucketers had moved to find work in the Worcester mills. Close enough!

four-stars

Review: The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton

Review: The Miniaturist, Jessie BurtonThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Published by Ecco ISBN: 0062306847
on June 2nd 2015
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 416
Format: E-Book
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four-stars

Set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam—a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion—a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery, in the tradition of Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant.

"There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed . . ."

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office—leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella's world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

Johannes' gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand—and fear—the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

I can’t remember when I bought this book for my Kindle. I think maybe it was one of those deals, and the book had caught my eye in any case because of its cover. However, it looks like it’s been shelved on Goodreads since June 2014, which is around the time it was released, I believe.

I read most of this book (nearly 2/3 of it) today in one pretty big gulp. It takes a little while to get going, but once it does, things seem to be happening left and right. The book feels well-researched, with strong historical details that ring true. The book even has a glossary detailing further information about economics and Dutch terms from the seventeenth century. The characters are also vivid and interesting. One thing that struck me as I finished this book is one constant in human history is man’s inhumanity to man as well as the perseverance of strong women in the face of the world’s cruelty. On the other hand, some details don’t ring true—women characters in historical fiction are often more a reflection of our own times than theirs, and I can see why. I don’t really want to read about a meek woman who keeps her mouth shut and does as she is told, either. Perhaps the least plausible aspect of the book is Nella’s devotion to Johannes. He hasn’t been all that great of a husband, truth be told. And while certain aspects of his behavior would be viewed differently today than in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, the way that he consistently ignores Nella and her feelings didn’t engender a whole lot of sympathy from this reader.

Many times when I am reading a book, I am curious what others on Goodreads have to say about it, and in the case of this book, one reviewer noted she thought the conceit of the miniaturist was unnecessary. This might merit a spoiler alert, but really, we never do learn much about the strange miniaturist who knows so much about Nella’s home and the dangers coming or what motivates the miniaturist, so in that sense, I can understand why some might consider the character unnecessary. I am undecided, myself. Mainly, I was curious as to what inspired the book, because it reads like something definitely inspired it, and I found this snippet from an interview Jessie Burton gave in advance of the BBC’s miniseries based on The Miniaturist:

I was in Amsterdam on holiday. We went to the Rijksmuseum and that’s where I first saw the real dolls’ house, which is actually called a cabinet, which became the symbol of the novel and my point of focus for writing it. I was immediately struck by how beautiful it was and how imposing it was, as well as intricate and intimate. Then when I found out that the woman who owned it, Petronella Oortman, spent as much money on it as a real house, I became interested in the psychology of the cabinet house and what it symbolised, both in regards to the city of Amsterdam and this woman is her domestic, claustrophobic existence. It took her 19 years in total to complete it and she hired the services of over 800 craftsmen and women in the city of Amsterdam and beyond. In my mind’s eye all I could see was one woman, Nella, turning up at this imposing merchant house in Amsterdam.

Using the real Petronella Oortman as inspiration, Burton invented Petronella Oortman Brandt. I didn’t realize it had been made into a miniseries before searching for information about the book’s inspiration. I don’t believe the miniseries has been released in the USA.

In all, I enjoyed the book quite a bit for what it was—an interesting peek into the life of a merchant’s wife in seventeenth-century Amsterdam rendered with some very nice passages of good writing.

  

This book counts for the Literary Voyage Around the World Reading Challenge, the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, and the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge due to its setting of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, Netherlands. March’s motif for the latter challenge is “Travel the World.”

 

four-stars

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey RatnerIn the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
ISBN: 1451657714
on September 1st 2012
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 322
Format: Paperback
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four-half-stars

A beautiful celebration of the power of hope, this New York Times bestselling novel tells the story of a girl who comes of age during the Cambodian genocide.

You are about to read an extraordinary story, a PEN Hemingway Award finalist "rich with history, mythology, folklore, language and emotion." It will take you to the very depths of despair and show you unspeakable horrors. It will reveal a gorgeously rich culture struggling to survive through a furtive bow, a hidden ankle bracelet, fragments of remembered poetry. It will ensure that the world never forgets the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the Cambodian killing fields between 1975 and 1979, when an estimated two million people lost their lives. It will give you hope, and it will confirm the power of storytelling to lift us up and help us not only survive but transcend suffering, cruelty, and loss.

For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours, bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. Over the next four years, as the Khmer Rouge attempts to strip the population of every shred of individual identity, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of her childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival. Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a moving debut. Ratner is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970’s and later came to America. She says in her author’s note that this novel is her own story with some details compressed or changed. It’s quite a lyrical and moving account of the horrific story of the Cambodian Killing Fields from the viewpoint of a child.

Where the novel suffers, if it does, is the focus. Ratner explains she wanted to show us Cambodia as it was before its destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, but as a result, the novel takes a while to get going. The bulk of the first half is devoted to the first few days and weeks after the Khmer Rouge sends citizens of Phnom Penh into the countryside, and the last several years are compressed. For example, in an interview in the back of the book, Ratner says her journey escaping to Thailand was more fraught and would rate a book in itself. While I wasn’t looking for the worst of the story at the expense of fonder memories, it felt a bit of a cheat to magnify some events at the expense of others that might have been more compelling. As a result, the novel feels uneven; however, as a debut, it’s quite powerful with some poetic moments and beautiful storytelling as well as an emphasis on the importance of living and telling your story.

I read this book for several reading challenges:

Due to its late 1970’s setting in Cambodia, this novel counts for the Historical Fiction Challenge. It’s also my third country stop for the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge. As I enjoyed several cups of tea, mostly Bigelow’s Constant Comment and at least one cup of Simpson & Vail’s Jane Austen Black Tea Blend, it also qualifies for the Share-a-Tea Challenge.

four-half-stars

Review: Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

Review: Alias Grace, Margaret AtwoodAlias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Published by Doubleday Nan A. Talese ISBN: 0385475713
on November 2, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 468
Format: Audio
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five-stars

From the number one New York Times best-selling author of The Handmaid's Tale

Soon to be a Netflix Original series, Alias Grace takes listeners into the life of one of the most notorious women of the 19th century.

It's 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.

An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?

Captivating and disturbing, Alias Grace showcases best-selling, Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood at the peak of her powers.

The miniseries Alias Grace is a Halfire Entertainment Production made for CBC and Netflix.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but my husband and I like to listen to audiobooks while we cook dinner, and I have picked most of them. We made a deal that I would pick one more, and I was supposed to surprise him and pick whatever I wanted, and then it would be his turn. We had tried to listen to Lincoln in the Bardo, but I just couldn’t follow the story in audio. That was the last book my husband picked, I think. I thought long and hard about which book to pick. I almost picked The Handmaid’s Tale because I don’t think he’s read it, but I have read it, and I had wanted to read Alias Grace. I thought maybe my husband would like it because it is based on a true crime story, and he is something of a true crime aficionado.

Both of us liked the novel quite a lot. I think we are planning to watch the Netflix series, too. My husband remarked several times about what an excellent writer Margaret Atwood is. I am not sure if we were meant to think about Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which was also based on a true crime. To my way of thinking, Alias Grace has more than a healthy dose of Naturalism as well. It explores themes of mental health, treatment of women, sexuality, and gender as well as social issues involving Irish immigrants. Grace emerges as a sympathetic character, but at the same time, it’s difficult to know who she really is, especially by the end. Atwood weaves the narrative together well through the frame device of Dr. Simon Jordan, an American interested in mental health issues, who visits Grace to learn more about her story and the infamous murders that resulted in her imprisonment as a teenage girl.

Sarah Gadon plays Grace Marks in the Netflix adaptation of the novel, and she does a worthy job with the narration of this novel as well. This one is definitely worth a listen.

five-stars

Review: The Scribe of Siena, Melodie Winawer

Neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato books a flight to visit her historian older brother Ben, who raised her after the death of their mother, in Melodie Winawer’s debut novel The Scribe of Siena. Ben dies suddenly of a heart ailment before her flight, but she decides to go anyway, this time to settle Ben’s estate. He had seemed so happy in Siena; he had finally found his home. Ben’s studies involved medieval Siena during the Plague (1347-1348). He had apparently uncovered some interesting information and was preparing to publish it before his death. Beatrice feels compelled to take on his work and protect it from rival scholars. As she takes up Ben’s research, she finds herself entranced by the story of fresco artist Gabriele Accorsi. She has Accorsi’s journal from the 1340’s, and as she studies one of his frescoes, she is stunned to find her own likeness in the corner. Before she knows what is happening, she is swept into the past, to Siena in the summer of 1347… right before the Plague is about to devastate Siena. Beatrice must figure out how to avoid catching the deadly disease and return home safely, but she finds herself even more entranced by the real Gabriele Accorsi than she was by his journal, and she establishes ties in medieval Siena as she becomes a scribe in the Ospedale, today a museum called the Santa Maria della Scala.

A few of the details and mechanics involved with time travel might bother some readers (admittedly me among them), but this was a pretty good read. For one thing, Winawer is a doctor herself, and the descriptions of Beatrice’s surgeries and medical knowledge rang true. Often when I read time-travel novels, the past is romanticized to such a degree that the parts when the protagonist is in the present are irksome (Diana Gabaldon is pretty guilty of this), but I found Beatrice’s present as interesting as the past she travels to. In fact, maybe a little bit more (but not by much). Winawer argues in her book that one reason Siena has maintained its distinctive “medieval” character is that its evolution was stunted by serious losses to the Plague. Siena may have lost up to half its population, more than other comparable cities in Tuscany. Winawer comes up with an appropriately sinister explanation for why, too. If the mechanism for time travel is a little fuzzy, at least the historical details are mostly accurate (admittedly, I found one big historical error that really bothered me), and the story moves along at a nice clip. Ben’s discovery, which Beatrice must uncover, makes for a page-turning mystery. The characters are well-drawn, though one in particular is quite a lot more credulous than seems logical, and in general they feel like real people (with the possible exception of a few caricatures, and you’ll know them when you see them). A Library Journal review touted on the book’s cover proclaims that “Readers of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring will be swept away by the spell of medieval Siena.” I can’t disagree with that assessment. In many ways, the setting of this book was as much a presence as the people that inhabit it, and I just love it when books have settings with strong character.

I received this book as part of my Cozy Reader box subscription. I’m not sure it would have been on my radar this soon (and perhaps not at all), if not for that subscription.

Rating: ★★★★☆

 

Review: 13 Rue Thérèse, Elena Mauli Shapiro

I found a copy of Elena Mauli Shapiro’s novel 13 Rue Thérèse at a used bookstore in Northampton, MA, where we spent my birthday weekend last year. As such, I suppose this book was a birthday present for myself. I loved the cover, and in flipping through the book, I was intrigued by the premise.

An American historian named Trevor Stratton is given a box of artifacts belonging to a woman named Louise Brunet, who lived at 13 Rue Thérèse in Paris with her husband Henri after World War I. He discovers through piecing together her story that she lost a cousin with whom she was in love and whom she wanted to marry in World War I. She married a man who worked in her father’s shop, and she was desperate for a child. She embarks on a flirtation with a new neighbor, a teacher, who surprises Louise by taking her up on her suggestions. Meanwhile, Trevor can’t explain why he knows things about Louise’s life that don’t appear in the artifacts. How can he know, for example, so intimately how Louise feels and what she does as she goes about her life in Paris in November 1928?

This book is based on an interesting idea. Shapiro apparently has a box of relics belonging to a real-life Louise Brunet who died alone. The landlord of 13 Rue Thérèse allowed the residents to claim her belongings, and Shapiro’s mother selected this box. From the artifacts in the box, Shapiro constructed this story. I’m not sure how I feel about her taking that kind of license with a real person’s life, especially when so much of the story is speculation and doesn’t necessarily cast Louise in a positive light. She is a likable character, but I wonder what her descendants, had she had any, would have thought about her fictional treatment. There is a time-travel element that is not quite gracefully handled as well. One wonders about the necessity of including Trevor Stratton at all. His story seems somewhat superfluous, perhaps because it isn’t woven into Louise’s story as seamlessly as it might be. I love a good time travel story, but I wonder if this book might not have been better as strictly historical fiction. In addition, I would have liked to have seen the plot hang together a bit more tightly.

Despite some flaws, I didn’t give up on it, and it was a very quick read, if not a gripping one. I think in the case of this particular book, I am probably just not the right audience because many reviewers seem to have liked it more than I did. The QR codes in the back of the book are a nice touch; they allow the reader to see higher resolution photos of the artifacts. I found the color images in the book sufficient. The book is a beautiful book, as well, with a gorgeous cover and thick creamy pages and a pleasant font. It isn’t quite like any other book I’ve read before. You might enjoy it if you like quirky French films.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book for several reading challenges. It’s Paris setting makes it my French book for the European Reading Challenge. I’ve had it on my backlist at least since September when I bought it, so I’m also counting it for the Beat the Backlist Reading Challenge. Finally, it is set mainly in 1928, so I’m also counting it for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

European Reading Challenge 2017 Beat the Backlist

Review: The House Between Tides, Sarah Maine

Sarah Maine’s novel The House Between Tides begins with a mystery. Hetty Deveraux (which feels too much like a name only a novel character would have) travels to a remote manse belonging to her ancestors and discovers a body has been found under the floorboards. Hetty soon finds herself untangling a century-old murder as she tries to determine what to do about Muirlan House—tear it down and try to preserve the island’s unique character, as the inhabitants of Muirlan Island think best, or renovate it into a resort hotel as her partner Giles urges her to do. Meanwhile, Hetty becomes curious about her ancestors. The island had once been the inspiration and refuge of her great-grandmother Emily’s brother Theo Blake, a famed painter. Hetty discovers that Theo’s wife deserted him under mysterious circumstances, and she begins to fear she knows whose bones were found underneath the floorboards of Muirlan House. Meanwhile Beatrice Blake, Theo’s wife, tells her story in flashbacks. The the stories of two women, living a century apart, link inextricably with family secrets and a crumbling ancestral home in the space between them.

I have to admit this book was a slow starter for me, even with the discovery of a body under the floorboards. Maine does a great job of creating the atmosphere of Muirlan Island in the Outer Hebrides, a remote and unforgiving landscape that nonetheless lures both Hetty and Beatrice with its fierce beauty. Once the story gets going, however, it’s pretty good. Some aspects of the plot were a little easier to guess than others, and the unraveling of the mysteries that lay buried for so many years made for a satisfying ending. However, I was a good third of the way through the book and contemplating giving up on it before it started to capture my interest. I enjoyed the rest of the book. The parallels between Hetty and Beatrice were interesting, and the family secrets intrigued me enough to persevere through some of the parts that dragged. I have seen some reviewers claim not to have enjoyed the parts set in 2010 with Hetty, but I actually found them more interesting because the discovery of the body as well as Hetty’s conflicted feelings about her partner and his plans for her ancestral home were intriguing to me. I love historical fiction, and at first, I found Beatrice’s story the less interesting of the two. However, as I kept reading, Beatrice grew on me. The book is compared to Daphne Du Maurier’s atmospheric writing, which is a shame because few writers can create a brooding setting like Du Maurier, and anyone suffers by comparison. I think I need to stop having such high expectations of anyone whose work is compared to Du Maurier’s. Still, it was a good read, and the setting was well drawn, if perhaps the characters were not always—I found the minor characters very difficult to keep straight, and the family trees impossible. I also found parts of the story frustrating as I hoped Maine was going somewhere with a thread that was never quite woven in well enough.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I am counting this book toward the following reading challenges:

Beat the BacklistI am counting this book for the Beat the Backlist Challenge. This book has been on my Kindle since last September, but I didn’t start reading it until recently. It was published in 2016, and therefore meets the challenge’s qualification of being released before 2017. I read this on my Kindle, but Goodreads says the paperback version has 400 pages, which is the equivalent of 40 points for Ravenclaw, and posting this review should net 50 more points for a total of 90.

Because about half the book takes place in 1910, I’m also counting it for the Historical Fiction Challenge. In addition, Sarah Maine is a British writer, so this book counts towards the British Books Challenge.

British Books Challenge

Finally, as the book is set in Scotland, part of the UK, it also counts as part of the European Reading Challenge, though this is the only UK book that will count toward the challenge.

European Reading Challenge 2017