Review: Ghostwalk, Rebecca Stott

I have to admit that the back of the jacket book blurb convinced me to read this book:

Did Sir Isaac Newton’s ambition drive him to murder? A haunting literary thriller in which a contemporary Cambridge murder story becomes entangled with a true-life historical mystery involving Isaac Newton’s alchemy.

A Cambridge historian is found drowned, leaving her study of Isaac Newton’s rise in fame unsolved. Her fellow writer, Lydia Brooke, agrees to finish the book as a favor to the historian’s son, a neuroscientist with whom she had a long affair. But her attempt to complete the book’s final chapter, and her return to her former lover’s orbit, put her in mortal danger as she uncovers troubling evidence surrounding Newton. As Lydia becomes ensnared in a conspiracy that reawakens ghosts of the past, the seventeenth century slowly seeps into the twenty-first, with the city of Cambridge the bridge between them.

In the end, I’m not sure the book delivers on this promise. Rebecca Stott has clearly done a huge amount of research for Ghostwalk, and I found the format of the book interesting as well. At times, we glimpse chapters from the fictional historian Elizabeth Vogelsang’s unfinished book and the novel paints a vivid picture of Cambridge, both in the seventeenth century and modern age. But in the end, I feel like it doesn’t quite cohere. Maybe it isn’t meant to because it is based on so much speculation, and as a result, the threads remain elusive and don’t quite join together. One clear thread woven throughout the book, from present to past and back again, is the dangers of obsession, whether in the name of science or rooting out the truth. Stott quotes a line from Swift in response to an excuse having “more plausibility than truth” (263). In its way, the book is an interesting comment on the fictions we tell ourselves or the stories we’re told that in many ways are much more believable than the truth.

The book was a true page-turner, and it’s the first book I’ve read in a while that I didn’t want to put aside and that I actively looked forward to picking back up again. I don’t know what is up with my luck lately, but I haven’t been picking books that are grabbing me. I really liked the references to Macbeth sprinkled throughout the text, and I find literary thrillers a lot more fun, when they’re well done, than your average thriller. Still, I wish that the various strands of the story had come together a little more elegantly.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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Review: Drums of Autumn, Diana Gabaldon, narrated by Davina Porter

Drums of AutumnAs I make soap, I’ve been listening to audio books, and I just finished a really long one—Drums of Autumn, the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Like the other books in this series, Drums of Autumn is narrated by Davina Porter.

This book picks up the story of Jamie and Claire as they settle in North Carolina on Fraser’s Ridge. Their daughter, Brianna, who lives about 200 years in the future in the late 1960’s, discovers disturbing news about her parents and decides to go through the stones at Craigh na Dun and help Jamie and Claire. Roger Wakefield, sometimes known by his birth name of Roger MacKenzie, discovers what Brianna has done and follows her through the stones.

I have read this book once before. I will just lay this on the table: I am not a fan of Brianna’s. I don’t like her personality much, and I can’t put my finger on why. Claire, to me, is interesting because she’s so knowledgeable about medicine, and I found her understanding of herbal healing particularly fascinating. I’m not into herbalism per se, but as a soap maker, I do find it interesting. Claire is no-nonsense, passionate, intelligent, and above everything else, interesting.

Because this book focuses so much on Brianna’s trials and tribulations, I find I don’t like it as much as the other books. I like the parts that dwell on Claire, Jamie, and even Young Ian, however. I didn’t realize until I read it again this time, but I also don’t care much for Roger. I don’t know if it’s because the pair of them seem indecisive and dispassionate compared to Claire and Jamie. I do feel that Gabaldon tries to impart some passion in their relationship, but I don’t buy it as a reader. It doesn’t feel the same. I wonder if it has something to do with this interesting comment Gabaldon made in her book The Outlandish Companion:

These [hard nuts] are the most difficult characters for me to animate; the characters whose function in the story is structural—they’re important not because of personality or action, but because of the role they play.

One example of a hard nut is Brianna, Jamie and Claire’s daughter. She existed in the first place only because I had to have a child. The fact of her conception provides the motive for one of the major dramatic scenes in Dragonfly, but it didn’t matter at all at that point who this kid was or what she would be like…

But who the heck was this character? And having created her purely for plot purposes, how was I to give her a personality? (130-131)

Perhaps it’s just my opinion, and others might disagree, but I would argue that Gabaldon doesn’t succeed fully in making either Brianna or Roger as real or as interesting as Jamie and Claire, or even as real and interesting as other minor characters who pop off the page.

Davina Porter is a heck of a good narrator, especially deft with handling all the voices of the characters. I would definitely seek out other books she has narrated just to hear her read.

In case you are wondering at this point, I have been enjoying the new Outlander series on Starz quite a bit. It is very true to the book, and the casting is excellent. I haven’t missed an episode yet. Even my husband is watching with me, insisting, “I don’t get how this is considered a woman’s story. I mean, I guess the books are romances…” Not exactly. Sort of difficult to classify. At any rate, the series is beautifully shot with great music and some fine acting. Check it out, if you haven’t.

Book Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Widow’s War, Sally Gunning

The Widow’s War: A NovelSally Gunning’s novel The Widow’s War is the story of Lyddie Berry who lives with her husband Edward in 1761 Satucket (Brewster), Massachusetts on Cape Cod. When Edward dies in a whaling accident, Lyddie finds herself not only bereft of his companionship but also of the life they shared: as a widow, most of her property—including her house, cow, and furniture—is now owned by her son-in-law, Nathan Clarke, who also happens to be a jerk and a pig. As the novel unfolds, Lyddie, determined to maintain her independence and continue living the life she led before Edward’s death, challenges Nathan and attempts to hold on to her freedom.

This novel is an enlightening peek into what women’s lives in the eighteenth century might have been like. Gunning’s research is meticulous, and her characters leap off the page in full relief. All the historical details ring true. One thing I think Gunning gets right in her historical novels is she is able to produce strong heroines who live within but also challenge the strictures of their time periods in ways that are believable. Lyddie’s struggle for independence was heartbreaking, realistic, and intriguing. I know that some reviewers have challenged whether or not the book realistically depicts Lyddie’s relationship with her Native American neighbor Sam Cowett, but I didn’t find it difficult to believe. I also liked that the author did not choose to have Lyddie be “rescued” through a second marriage or a sudden change of heart on her son-in-law’s part. I could have put a spoiler alert before that last sentence I suppose, but I liked the ending enough (and for a stretch of the book didn’t think it was going to happen that way) that I went ahead and spoiled it anyway. Lyddie is a likable character. She could be called stubborn, but no one would say she was stubborn if she were a man. She is independent in a time when it’s just about criminal or at least unheard of for a woman to be so, and I found myself rooting for her to be successful. She’s made of some pretty strong stuff.

The Widow’s War is the first in what she calls her Satucket trilogy. I previously read the third book, The Rebellion of Jane Clarke.

Rating: ★★★★½

I read this novel as part of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

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Review: Voyager, Diana Gabaldon, narrated by Davina Porter

Voyager audio book (Voyager)Voyager is the third book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Outlander is filming right now and will appear on Starz this summer. Can’t wait! The casting looks phenomenal. Spoilers follow for the first two books, so you might not want to read the rest of this review if you don’t want them wrecked for you. I figure you probably wouldn’t be reading a review of the third book in a series unless you had either already read the others or don’t mind their being spoiled.

If you’re not familiar with this series, it’s a most unusual and difficult to classify series of books: part historical fiction, part romance, part fantasy/sci fi—I can’t think of too many books like these that so defy labels. In the first book, a World War II nurse named Claire Randall steps through standing stones in a stone circle near Inverness and finds herself over 200 years in the past. As she tries desperately to get back home to her husband Frank, she winds up forced (after a fashion) to marry young Jamie Fraser and unexpectedly falls in love with him. In the second book, Dragonfly in Amber, the Jacobite Rebellion draws closer, and Claire and Jamie try to think of a way to avoid the devastation that will follow, even spending time in France, but Jamie is inevitably called to fight at Culloden, but before he faces a battle where he expects to die, he sends his wife Claire back through the stones to save her life and that of the baby she is carrying.

Voyager begins some twenty years later. Claire and Jamie’s daughter Brianna is grown, and Claire has become a doctor. She and Brianna travel to Scotland and discover that Jamie did not die at Culloden after all. Claire decides to go back through the stones one more time to reunite with the love of her life, leaving her daughter behind with Roger Wakefield, a young historian who helped Claire discover Jamie’s history and who is falling in love with Brianna.

The first time I read this book was probably around 1998 or 1999. I remember that I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first two at that time because I thought I like it better when Claire and Jamie were in Scotland, and I also had more difficulty enjoying them as an older couple, which sounds pretty horrible now (thought it’s an accurate representation of my feelings at the time). For crying out loud, Claire was something like 50! And Jamie was at least mid-40’s. Now that I am actually a lot closer to their ages in this book, I found that I no longer seem to have much trouble enjoying Jamie and Claire as an older couple. ;-)

I will admit that this book starts a little bit slowly. I suppose it is necessary for the reader to be filled in on exactly what Jamie did following Culloden and how Claire found out he was still alive and decided to go back in time to reunite with him, but the book drags a bit through this part. Once Claire goes back through the stones and finds Jamie in Edinburgh, the book picks up quite a bit, and frankly, the action doesn’t let up for pretty much the remainder of the book. I had forgotten what a swashbuckling story this one is. Jamie and Claire spend much of the book running away from or chasing Really.Bad.People. Pirates even. Witches! Possibly—just possibly even zombies. It’s crazy adventurous, and for that reason, it makes for quite a gripping read.

Gabaldon does get bogged down in details sometimes, but that’s actually one of the interesting things about her writing. Sometimes these scenes she writes, which don’t necessarily move the plot forward, are compelling in terms of character development. I am surprised she has been able to get them past an editor, who might be tempted to cut them. Then again, like I said before, these books tend to break all the rules.

I enjoyed this one much more this time around than I did the last. Davina Porter is an excellent reader who is able to do a wide variety of accents and brings life to the characters. She’s so good that I’ve just about decided listening to her read is the only way I want to read the rest of the series.

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Mr. Timothy, Louis Bayard

Mr. Timothy: A NovelCharles Dickens’s yarn about the redeeming power of Christmas is one of my all-time favorite stories. I try to watch a version of it every year, and one year, I read the book itself. When Mr. Timothy came across my radar, I couldn’t resist. I think I requested the book on PaperBackSwap. And then it sat unread on my shelf for quite some time.

In Mr. Timothy, Louis Bayard takes up the story of Tiny Tim Cratchit, all grown up and mourning the recent passing of his father. Aside from saying “God bless us, every one,” Tiny Tim is probably most famous for being the saintly crippled child who finally melted old Ebenezer Scrooge’s icy heart. When Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Present if Tiny Tim will live, the ghost replies, flinging Scrooge’s own words back at him: “If he be like to die he had better do it and decrease the surplus population.” Louis Bayard imagines a Timothy Cratchit who is altogether crushed under the weight of expectations of having survived and received the beneficence of the former “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” He has grown up, but who has he become? He is as lost, in his way, as Ebenezer Scrooge. He lives in a whorehouse, where he pays for his room and board by teaching the madam to read. His parents are gone, and he is reduced to taking handouts from Uncle N (old Uncle Scrooge, that is). He hates himself for being unable to cut the purse strings, but he seems stuck, unable to do anything with his life. Then he finds the bodies of two girls, curiously branded with a letter G, and he discovers another lost little girl being hunted, and fearing she will be next to die, Timothy enlists the help of a foul-mouthed street urchin to save her. What he uncovers is the grossest exploitation of the lower classes by the upper echelons of British society. But is he the man to do anything about it? Bob Cratchit once said that in church, Tim said he was happy that others could see him in church and remember, on Christmas Day, who it was who made blind men see and lame beggars walk. Grown up Mr. Timothy insists he never said any such thing—his father only wished that he had. When it really counts, can Timothy Cratchit really offer salvation to anyone? Can he even save himself?

A page-turning tale of Victorian gothic suspense, this novel really begins to pick up once Timothy is hot on the trail of the people at the center of a horrific child slavery ring. Do not look for Dickens in this novel, though I admit he shows up a bit in chapter 16, when Timothy Cratchit is brought before a magistrate on trumped up charges of sexual assault. I love the description of the lawyer Peter Cratchit has engaged to defend his brother:

A stout, whey-skinned man with a decamping hairline and advancing whiskers, soldierly red on both fronts. The hand he presents to me is quite damp, and there is a prevailing humidity all about his person: wet eyes, wet lips, wet teeth … and, exhaling from his pores, an effluvium that, unless my nostrils deceive me, represents the final gaseous iteration of imported Jamaican rum. … There is no doubt, however, that Mr. Sheldrake exudes confidence. (213)

The whole chapter through had me chuckling, and brought to mind Dickens’s own way with characterization and scenecraft.

Bayard deftly captures the soot begrimed streets of Victorian London, from the refuse in the streets, to the cabbies, to stately manors behind lacy wrought iron fences. Timothy’s character winds up being believable. He has so long been the protagonist of a narrative written by others, as he reflects, that it is easy to see how he might lose his way and find it necessary to discover who he really is. If you are looking for the squeaky clean, cherubic Tiny Tim of myth in this story, you’ll be disappointed. However, if you are looking for a different sort of tale of redemption, Mr. Timothy should do nicely.

Rating: ★★★★½

Check out these other reviews of Mr. Timothy:

Mr. Timothy is the first historical fiction book to count towards the 2014 Historical Fiction Challenge.

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The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton

The Forgotten Garden: A NovelI finished reading Kate Morton’s novel The Forgotten Garden some time last week, but I haven’t had a chance to review it. The novel is a multi-generational saga about secrets. As the novel begins, Cassandra is mourning the death of the grandmother who raised her, and she discovers her grandmother has left her a cottage in Cornwall. Astonished to discover her grandmother had ever even been to Cornwall, much less bought property there, she begins to investigate and discovers her grandmother was put on a ship when she was a small child, apparently abandoned or kidnapped, and wound up in Australia, where she was adopted by the man who found her. When Nell, the grandmother, discovers she is adopted, she searches for her lost origins, but life events prevent her from rooting out the truth. Cassandra takes up her grandmother’s search and returns to the Forgotten Garden surrounding the cottage her grandmother bought in Cornwall.

First, I should say I was expecting this book to be creepy—a sort of ghost story. I can’t fault it for not meeting that expectation. I have been wanting to find a really good creepy book like Rebecca or The Little Stranger. If you have recommendations, please share. I am still in R. I. P. Challenge mode. I failed to read the number of books I wanted to, but I’m still looking. Bonus points if you find me one set in Ireland.

That said, it was a good story. I thought I figured out what happened to Nell halfway through the book, and then the author threw in a curve ball, and I thought I was wrong, but then it turned out I had been right all along. That bothered me a little bit. I did like the setting, and the characters were engaging. The story was told well, and I wanted to find out what happened.

I do think it was a little overlong. I do not complain about long books, but this one could have been trimmed to tighten the plot. I liked Eliza Makepeace, but I didn’t care for her cousin Rose, and I had a hard time understanding why Eliza liked her so much. She was spoiled. She wasn’t as nasty as her evil mother or father, but she wasn’t awesome, either, and Eliza’s devotion to her is weird. Of course, who else did Eliza have?

There was a really, really interesting mystery at the center of the novel that involved Eliza’s mother and her brother, Linus, and that mystery never did get unequivocally resolved. I have my theory, but I would rather the book made the reveal more explicit. Similarly, some hints are thrown out about the connection between Nell’s adopted family and a Cornwall family with connections to the Mountrachet family, but none of the characters make these connections, so it remains an unexplored thread (and perhaps too coincidental, given the distance we’re talking, but it’s still interesting enough to explore).

I am struggling with a rating, but I’m going to go with 4 stars, despite some flaws, because it did hold together enough for me to turn pages and look forward to reading it, but I could completely understand anyone who gave it 3 stars. I might have also, if it hadn’t been set in Cornwall and had Jack the Ripper references.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Avi

I realize that The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle has been around for a while, and it’s been on my list, but I didn’t actually read it until my daughter chose it for one of her summer reading books. She said she had read and excerpt of it in school and thought it sounded good.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is the story of thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle, who has been away at school in England and is returning home to Providence, Rhode Island aboard the Seahawk. Through a confluence of events, she winds up being the ship’s only passenger, a fact which makes her very uncomfortable. Both the cook, Zachariah, an older sailor from Africa, and Captain Jaggery, the ship’s master, try to befriend Charlotte, but she doesn’t know who to trust. When the crew rises up against Captain Jaggery’s cruelty, Charlotte is even more confused about her place and winds up getting herself into a heap of trouble.

I have to admit it starts slow. I really wondered if Charlotte was going to become likeable and get some sense. She eventually does become likeable, but I think sense is a hopeless case. Once the book gets going, it’s pretty good. I think Avi was attempting to create a 19th century cadence through the first-person narration of Charlotte, but some of the sentences were awkwardly constructed, and I had to read them a couple of times to get them sorted out right. There is quite a lot of naval terminology, but the book has a helpful diagram of a ship and a glossary in the appendix. My daughter gave it two thumbs up. I’m glad she liked it. We read it together, and it was really nice to hear her say she didn’t want to stop at just two chapters once we reached the end of the book. This from a girl who says she doesn’t like reading. So that has to count for something.

If my daughter hadn’t chosen it for summer reading, I might not have gone past the slow start, but I did like it more once the action started, and towards the end, it was a regular page turner. Avi’s characterization brings all the players to life, and he has a true knack for setting, though I think he over-describes a bit. I don’t need to see “everything.” Then again, he is writing for children and may feel he needs to describe a bit more. I don’t know.

It’s a solid YA story, and I’m very glad my daughter liked it.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

My students and I are reading Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart over our Spring Break, and just today, I heard the news of Achebe’s death at the age of 82. He has contributed something remarkable to the world with his work. We frequently say that history is written by the victors, and so it is that the bulk of colonial literature we have has been written by white men. A recurring theme of the latter part of Things Fall Apart, after the missionaries arrive, is that white men do not understand the ways of the Igbo people they seek to evangelize, and further, they do not see them as worthy in and of themselves, which is shown perhaps no more clearly than in the book’s final paragraph.

My students are studying the book through a chosen anthropological lens: gender, religion, family, community, coping which change/tradition, and justice. I think this book has really interesting insights into the Igbo culture in each of these areas. On the surface, it’s easy to make snap judgments about the way that the people of Umuofia do certain things, and Okonkwo in particular can be infuriating because he seems, on the surface, so cruel to his family. Given the values of his clan, however, I can understand why he did some of the things he did. His fear of turning out like his father, or that his children would turn out like his father, drove many of his decisions, and above all, he seemed concerned about presenting himself as masculine.

I hope my students will find the journey interesting. I know I learned a lot through my own reading of the book. In the obituary I linked above:

“It would be impossible to say how Things Fall Apart influenced African writing,” the African scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah once observed. “It would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians. Achebe didn’t only play the game, he invented it.”

The obituary calls Things Fall Apart “the opening of a long argument on his country’s behalf.” Achebe said, “Literature is always badly served when an author’s artistic insight yields to stereotype and malice… And it becomes doubly offensive when such a work is arrogantly proffered to you as your story.”

Things Fall Apart is an important book, an “education,” as Toni Morrison described it. I highly recommend it.

Rating: ★★★★★

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The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier

The Last RunawayTracy Chevalier’s latest book, The Last Runaway, is a bit of a departure from her other work. I have read several of Chevalier’s books, and I can’t think of one that isn’t set in Europe. The Last Runaway is the story of Honor Bright, a young Quaker woman who decides to accompany her sister Grace across the Atlantic to America. Grace plans to marry a man who emigrated to Ohio and used to be a member of the Bridport Friends’ Meeting where the Brights worship. Honor has been jilted by her fiancé, Samuel, who throws her over and leaves the Society of Friends in order to marry outside the religious order. The voyage is terrible for Honor, who suffers from the worst bout of seasickness you’ve ever seen this side of Outlander‘s Jamie Fraser. Honor realizes that she is stuck in America because she can’t imagine being able to endure a crossing back to England. After disembarking, Honor and Grace travel to Ohio by stagecoach, but Grace contracts yellow fever and dies on the voyage. Now all alone in America, Honor must find her own way. Her sister’s fiancé, Adam Cox, takes her in for a time, but his brother has recently died, and he is living with his brother’s widow, Abigail. Before long, the Quakers frown at their unorthodox living arrangement. Adam marries Abigail, and Honor rushes into a marriage with Jack Haymaker, whose stern mother Judith is a Quaker elder who does not approve of Honor.

One of the most interesting threads in the book dealt with quilting. Honor is a quilter. Her adjustment to America is hard, and she especially does not like Americans’ ways of quilting. Her skill with a needle earns her the friendship and hospitality of Belle Mills, a milliner in Wellington. However, it also draws the unwelcome attention of Donovan, Belle’s brother and the local slave catcher. Honor quickly finds herself caught up in the American debate over slavery. Just as the Fugitive Slave Act is passed, Honor finds herself helping slaves cross to Canada as a part of the Underground Railroad. While her in-laws disapprove of slavery, they are also unwilling to allow lawbreaking in their family, and Honor has some difficult decisions to make.

I am a fan of Tracy Chevalier’s books. I especially liked Remarkable Creatures and The Virgin Blue, which was one of the first books I reviewed for this blog. I was interested in reading this book because some of my own immigrant ancestors were Quakers. I imagine they came to America to worship more freely, but they were quite different from the Quakers of Ohio. Within several generations, at least in my own line of the family, they had abandoned their faith for various other Protestant denominations, but my 7th great-grandmother Elizabeth Clark Anthony was the mother of fifteen children and after her husband’s death, she became a Quaker missionary who made four trips between Virginia and Georgia on horseback and lived to be 103 years old.

Perhaps because I was hoping to see a glimpse of what my own ancestors’ lives were like, I really wanted to like this book. I was underwhelmed, however. I found Honor hard to like. She seemed to feel quite sorry for herself a lot of the time, and while it’s true that she was living in difficult circumstances, she created a lot of them. Her attraction to Donovan was inexplicable. I thought Chevalier did everything she could to make him odious, and it was impossible for this reader to understand Honor’s feelings for him. Honor’s disdain for the American way of doing just about everything was trying as well. I understand she was a fish out of water, but for a Quaker, she was terribly judgmental. Almost every chapter closed with a letter from Honor to her family or friends. I found the transition from third person to first jarring in some cases, though I wished more of the story had been told in first person. Though I didn’t like Honor much, I found her voice in the letters to ring true.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Thursday Threads: Where Are You Reading?

Historical Tapestry Thursday ThreadsWhere in historical fiction are you reading?

This week, I’m reading Tracy Chevalier’s new book The Last Runaway, set in 1850 Oberlin, Ohio. I’ve only read a few chapters, but so far I know the main characters live in a Quaker community and will likely be involved in the abolitionist movement. I also know that quilting (an art form I have always admired) will have a role in the story, as Chevalier has already established the protagonist, Honor Bright, as a talented quilter.

I love Tracy Chevalier, and I am interested to see what she does with this one. Her other books are mostly set in England and France, and this book seems like a bit of a departure for her. Some of my own ancestors were Quakers who emigrated to Virginia from England via Barbados, though they were quite different from the Quakers who lived in the North. I am still hoping to learn something about their values and way of life from this book.

I am enjoying the book so far. Tracy Chevalier has a talent for evoking other times.

Thursday Threads is a weekly meme from Historical Tapestry.

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