The House of Velvet and Glass, Katherine Howe

The House of Velvet and GlassKatherine Howe’s debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, concerned a setting near her home in Marblehead and the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Howe returns once again to Massachusetts of an earlier era, this time pre-WWI Boston. Sibyl Allston, daughter of a wealthy Salem sailor and a society gal, has lost her mother and younger sister in the sinking of Titanic. Her mother introduced her to the spiritualist gatherings at the home of the medium Mrs. Dee, and Sibyl continues to go in a desperate attempt to contact her mother and sister from beyond the grave. Discouraged by her inability to connect, she accepts a scrying glass from Mrs. Dee, and at first, she finds her attempts to use it unsuccessful, too. Her brother, sent home from Harvard in disgrace after he is caught in flagrante delicto with an actress in his rooms, brings his flamboyant girlfriend Dovie home, where she and Sibyl become unlikely friends. Dovie takes Sibyl to an opium den, where Sibyl is able to use her scrying glass for the first time. At first, she sees snatches of images she doesn’t understand, but once she realizes what she is able to see, Sibyl becomes desperate to know if what she sees in the scrying glass can be changed. The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks to her seventeen-year-old father’s sailing voyage to Shanghai and friendship with a young Chinese scholar and her mother and sister’s voyage on Titanic.

This book took me a while to get into, but about halfway into the book, the pace started picking up. Throughout, the descriptions are gorgeous, and I admired Howe’s ability to capture the early twentieth century well on many occasions. I liked the characters, and the setting was intriguing. The book has interesting things to say about all the what-ifs we wonder about in life, and also what our legacies might be if different choices are made. The old Calvinist thinking of early Massachusetts settlers is a surprising theme of the novel, as well. How much of our lives do we really have control over, and if we try to change events, can we really? Or is so much of what happens to us determined by Fate or God, or whatever you want to call the force of Predestination, that things will happen certain ways whether we try to intervene or not? The book does make one think about one’s place in the grand scheme of things.

Downton Abbey fans might like this book set in the same era in America. I think readers who enjoyed Howe’s first book will like this second one as well, though it is different from the first. Historical fiction fans who enjoy WWI-era novels will like it, too. Be patient with the first half, especially with the flashbacks that might not seem as if they are connected to the main narrative, as you will be rewarded once the book begins to coalesce during the second half. Enjoyable read!

Rating: ★★★★☆

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The American Heiress, Daisy Goodwin

With Downton Abbey on hiatus, I’ve been going through withdrawal, and Daisy Goodwin’s novel The American Heiress was like methadone. The American Heiress is the story of Cora Cash, daughter of a wealthy American flour company magnate. Cora is spoiled and rich; in the beginning of the novel, she compares herself to Emma Woodhouse. She is used to having her way. Her mother, ambitious and conniving, wants to see her daughter land a titled husband. Fate throws Cora quite literally in the path of Ivo Maltravers, Duke of Wareham. After a whirlwind courtship, Cora becomes the Duchess of Wareham, but she learns that accepting this title will mean she might have to give up more than she realized and live in a strange country with a man she barely knows.

The similarities between this novel and Downton Abbey are a little uncanny. Cora, like the character Cora on Downton Abbey, is a rich American heiress who marries a titled aristocrat from an old family in the UK. This novel takes place during the Gilded Age and is therefore set slightly before the events of Downton Abbey begin. I enjoyed Cora’s mother-in-law, the Double Duchess—so-called because she married the Duke of Buckingham after the death of her husband, the former Duke of Wareham. It may be that Goodwin was thinking of Louisa Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, who was also known as the Double Duchess because she married both the Duke of Manchester and the Duke of Devonshire and lived during the right period (though she may have been a bit older than Goodwin’s Double Duchess). Cora’s own story calls to mind the real story of Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the Duke of Marlborough. Consuelo Vanderbilt was, of course, a rich American heiress like Cora. Consuelo’s real mother-in-law was none other than the Double Duchess, Louisa Cavendish, herself. If you are a fan of this period in history and like costume drama, you would probably like this novel. It was an engaging, quick read. I did not find Cora particularly likable because she was quite spoiled and melodramatic. It was hard to feel sorry for her for too long. However, despite a lack of sympathetic characters, I found the plot of the story held my interest. If I had cared about the characters a little more, I might have been somewhat disappointed in the ending, but I found that the ending was realistic, and I’m not sure I would have liked a different ending.

Some time ago, I asked readers if they wanted me to cast books, and this book is the first book I’ve had a chance to cast.

Carey Mulligan

I could see Carey Mulligan as Cora Cash. She has the chestnut hair color and a certain naivete that could carry the part.

Kerry Washington

I like Kerry Washington as Bertha, Cora’s maid.

Tom Hardy

Tom Hardy should play Ivo Maltravers, Duke of Wareham. The book refers often to Ivo’s straight Roman nose and dark “gypsy” looks.

Robert Sean Leonard

Robert Sean Leonard (slightly younger version) as Teddy Van Der Leyden, Cora’s childhood sweetheart. I don’t know why other than he looks like a Teddy Van Der Leyden.

Christina Cole

Christina Cole has the sort of slithery, catlike quality that Charlotte Beauchamp needs. Charlotte is a snake in the grass, y’all. And this gal would be perfect in the role.

Samantha Bond

Samantha Bond was the only person I really cast in my head as I was reading. She is exactly how I imagined the Double Duchess. She would be so perfect!

Interesting side note (if you are still reading): The American Heiress is called My Last Duchess in UK. This title is, of course, an allusion to the Robert Browning poem. I like it, but after reading the novel, I’m not sure it’s very descriptive of events in the book. I’m sure the title was changed because 1) the publisher thought Americans wouldn’t get the reference and/or 2) the publisher thought Americans would like “American” in the title. Whatever.

Rating: ★★★★☆

 

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Outlander (audio), Diana Gabaldon

OutlanderI took advantage of the time I had during a recent car trip to finish Diana Gabaldon’s novel Outlander for the third time (but for the first time as an audio book). I have reviewed the book previously. I am a big fan of Gabaldon’s, and the first time I read the series, which at that time only included four books, I couldn’t wait for the fifth book. When it did finally come out, I didn’t get through much of it before I set it aside, so I’m hoping participating in the Outlander Challenge will help me finish the series.

For those not in the know, Outlander is the story of Claire, a nurse during World War II, who travels to the Scottish Highlands for a second honeymoon with her husband Frank and finds herself mysteriously transported about 200 years in the past, where she is almost immediately confronted by her husband’s ancestor, Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, an English officer garrisoned in Scotland. She is rescued from the clutches of Black Jack by members of the Clan MacKenzie, who take her to their stronghold, Castle Leoch. Claire finds herself drawn to Jamie, a young man in the MacKenzie party. She establishes herself as a healer in the castle and though she never stops trying to figure out how to return to Frank, she begins to build a life for herself in the past. Later, she is forced to marry Jamie in order to protect herself from Black Jack and the English army, and it is after that event that her adventures truly begin.

One of the things I noticed for the first time on this reading is the long scenes that in another book might simply have been cut. Gabaldon tends to write scenes and stitch them together later rather than write in a linear fashion. I know this because I have heard her speak about her writing process. It has benefits and drawbacks. One of the benefits is that readers feel they have intimate connections to the characters through vignettes that develop the characters into fully fleshed people. Gabaldon is gifted with description. No reader should have any trouble picturing her scenes. However, one of the drawbacks, and it’s something I really only noticed on this read, is that some scenes feel superfluous and don’t really develop the plot so much as the characters. I am huge fan of characters and will enjoy a book with good character development over a book with weaker characters and a fast, tight plot, but on this read, I really noticed the fact that much of the writing was unnecessary. Given the length of the book, that is kind of a problem. And the books only progressively get longer. I may not mind as much with the rest of the series because I have only read the next three books once, and I have never read the final three. I might find I enjoy the ride a little more when the plot is not quite as familiar, and truthfully, I don’t think most readers would have a problem with the superfluous scenes given how engaging a writer Gabaldon is.

Davina Porter is a superb reader, and listening to the books will give readers a whole new appreciation for Gabaldon’s Scots.

Rating: ★★★★☆

I’m counting this book as my romance novel for the Mixing it Up Challenge.

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The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey

Margot Livesey’s novel The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Like Jane, Gemma is taken in by her uncle and his family after the deaths of her parents, and once her uncle also passes away, she is abused and neglected by her aunt, who ships her off to a boarding school as a “working girl,” where she pays for her tuition and board through menial labor for the school and is treated like a second-class citizen. When the school closes, Gemma must shift for herself, so she answers an ad for an au pair position in the Orkneys. She moves into Blackbird Hall and quickly subdues her wild charge, Nell. Hugh Sinclair, Nell’s uncle and guardian, returns to Blackbird Hall and soon finds himself entranced by Gemma.

While the story closely follows the plot of Jane Eyre, Livesey has added details that make the story Gemma’s own. Gemma, born in Scotland to a Scottish mother and Icelandic father, wonders about her Icelandic family and yearns to travel to Iceland to see if she can uncover her past. The story is set mostly in Scotland in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Gemma has opportunities that Jane couldn’t have imagined; for instance, Gemma is able to sit for exams and go to college.

The danger in writing updated versions of classic novels is that they will seem too derivative to be their own story, but I didn’t find this to be the case with The Flight of Gemma Hardy. Because I had read Jane Eyre, I could guess the general directions in which various plot points would turn, but Livesey threw in enough unique details and changes that I felt the novel was much more of an homage to Jane Eyre than an imitation. Another challenge Livesey successfully navigates is making the story of Jane’s sad childhood and subsequent removal to Thornfield Hall believable in the twentieth century. Not only does Livesey answer this challenge, but in my opinion, she tempers a bit of the horrific improbability present in Jane Eyre. I know, I know—Charlotte experienced some of the horrible events she describes in Jane Eyre at the Clergy Daughters’ School. Tragedy ran rampant through the Brontë family, and I don’t mean to make light of it. However, it reminds me that sometimes true stories sound over the top when rendered in fiction. Young Jane’s early experiences, the goodness of Helen Burns, the evil of Aunt Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst—all these rang slightly too awful to believe when I read them, which isn’t to say I didn’t love Jane Eyre. Gemma’s experiences, while uniquely horrible in their way, read as more realistic, and Helen’s counterpart Miriam is a more believable and less “Mary Sue” type of character (and yes, I know that Charlotte based Helen on her sister Maria, and that Charlotte claims Maria really was that good).

I liked Gemma. She is smart and spunky, particularly as a child. The supporting cast are all enjoyable, too, particularly Gemma’s charges Nell and Robin. I loved the Rivers sisters’ counterparts Hannah and Pauline. St. John Rivers’s counterpart Archie was more likable than St. John himself. The relocation to Scotland and Iceland made for an intriguing setting that rendered events in the story more believable, I think, than they might have been had Livesey set her novel in England. I do think fans of Jane Eyre will enjoy this book, but I think it stands on its own as a fine novel without its connection to its literary ancestor.

Rating: ★★★★½

You can find Margot Livesey online at her website, her Facebook page, and her Twitter account.

I read this novel for the TLC Book Tour. You can visit the other stops below on the dates listed to read other reviews of this novel.

*Also reading Jane Eyre

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A Northern Light, Jennifer Donnelly

Jennifer Donnelly’s YA novel A Northern Light is based, in part, on the same crime that inspired Theodore Dreiser to write An American Tragedy: Chester Gillette’s murder of Grace Brown in the Adirondacks in 1906. The novel’s protagonist, Mattie Gokey, is the teenage daughter of a poor farmer in the North Woods. Mattie’s mother died not too long before the events in the book start. Before she dies, Mattie’s mother extracts a promise from Mattie that she will stay to help take care of her siblings. Mattie’s older brother Lawton left home after a fight with their father, and Mattie is responsible for her three younger sisters. Mattie, however, dreams of going to college. Her teacher, Miss Wilcox, encourages Mattie, who she believes has a gift for writing. Mattie’s friend Weaver Smith has dreams of attending Columbia University, and Miss Wilcox encourages both of them. They both take jobs at the Glenmore Inn, where Grace Brown and Chester Gillette come to stay. Before Grace is murdered, she entrusts Mattie with her letters and asks Mattie to burn them. After Grace’s body is found and Mattie finds herself unable to dispose of the letters as Grace asked, she reads them instead, and she uncovers a motive for Gillette’s murder of Grace as well as motivation to follow her own dreams.

Jennifer Donnelly’s books are all good. This particular novel’s narrative flashes backward and forward in time, but the plot is not difficult to follow, and in the end, Donnelly’s reasons for telling the story in this less linear fashion are clear. Mattie is an engaging heroine, representative of so many girls of her age who were expected to marry, often without love, and raise a family. Weaver is an interesting character too. His father was killed in a racial hate crime, but rather than making Weaver fearful of whites, it instead empowered him to stand up for himself when he encounters racism. Like Mattie, the reader can have no doubt that Weaver will go to Columbia and become a fine lawyer despite the odds. Donnelly’s setting is vividly painted for the reader, both in time and place—which is a particular gift of Donnelly’s and something I have enjoyed about all of her books.

I would recommend this book even to readers who aren’t necessarily fans of YA, mainly because I think readers will enjoy learning about this time and place and will like Mattie and her friends and family (except, of course, for those we aren’t supposed to like). Grace Brown’s murder is more or less incidental to the plot, as the main story is Mattie’s coming of age.

Rating: ★★★★½

I thought about counting this book as a crime/mystery book as part of the Mixing it Up Challenge, but I ultimately decided not to because the crime is not the center of the novel.

Full disclosure: I obtained this book via PaperBackSwap.

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Moloka’i, Alan Brennert

Alan Brennert’s historical novel Moloka’i tells the story of the leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i through the life of one remarkable woman named Rachel, who is sent to live at the colony at the age of seven when she contracts Hansen’s Disease and is exiled to Moloka’i, forced to leave her family and live as a virtual prisoner.

Once on the island, she has a difficult adjustment, but she also finds a second family, friends, love and causes for joy that she never expected. She builds a life for herself on the island, and she endures her share of tragedy, but ultimately, the book is not sad, and I would even say I felt it ended on a triumphant note. I liked this passage at the beginning and thought I’d share it:

Papa tied up at the Esplanade, his children putting on a brave face as they escorted him back to the SS Mariposa, all of them quietly determined not to cry.

But almost as though someone were taking their secret thoughts, their hidden grief, and vocalizing it, there came—from the pier immediately ahead—a terrible, anguished wail. It was not one voice but many, a chorus falling like the wind. It was, Henry and Dorothy both knew, not merely a wail, but a word: Auwē, Auwwayy! (Alas! Alas!)

It sounded exactly like the cries of grief and loss that Rachel had heard the day the king had come home. “Mama,” she said, fearfully, “is the Queen dead, too?”

“No, child, no,” Dorothy said.

Moored off Pier 10 was a small, decrepit interisland steamer, the Mokoli’i. A distraught crowd huddled behind a wooden barricade, sighing their mournful dirge as a procession of others—young and old, men and women, predominantly Hawaiians and Chinese—were herded by police onto the old cattle boat. Now and then one of the people behind the barricade would reach out to touch someone boarding the ship: a man grasping for a woman, a child reaching for his mother, a friend clasping another’s hand for the last time.

Ma’i pākē,” Kimo said softly.

“What?” Rached asked.

“They’re lepers, you ninny,” Sarah admonished. “Going to Moloka’i.”

“What’s a leper?”

Someone in the crowd threw a flower lei onto the water, but contrary to legend, it was not likely to ever bring any of these travelers back to Honolulu.

“They’re sick, baby. Very sick,” Mama explained. Rachel didn’t understand. The people didn’t look sick; they didn’t look much different than anyone on the other side of the barricade.

“If they’re sick,” Rachel asked, “why isn’t someone taking care of them?”

No one answered her; and as that word, leper, hung in the still humid air, Dorothy dug her fingers into Rachel’s shoulders and turned her away from the Mokoli’i. (16-17)

This passage sets up the events in the novel beautifully and creates a thread, with the cry of Auwē, Alas! that is woven throughout the book. I liked Rachel a great deal as a character. The characters as a whole are well developed, and I think this book tells the important and little known story about Moloka’i respectfully and beautifully in a way that exposes the pain that the colony’s residents surely felt while still acknowledging that even in circumstances of pain and loss, it’s possible to find great joy and happiness. Rachel’s incredible life is a monument to the real residents of the colony at Kalaupapa, Moloka’i. I am very glad I was introduced to their story.

I will admit that for part of this book, it wasn’t coasting on a full five stars, mainly because Brennert does make some choices as a writer in terms of style that detracted from my enjoyment of the novel, but the characters and plot swiftly drew me beyond caring anymore, and by the end, I was in love with the book. If you have a mind to learn about Hansen’s Disease or late nineteenth and early twentieth century Hawaii, or if you just like a good historical novel, I highly recommend this book.

Rating: ★★★★★

Full disclosure: I obtained this book from PaperBackSwap.

Historical Fiction Challenge 2012

Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2012

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2012 Reading Challenges

I love reading challenges! Here are some 2012 reading challenges I’ve found and decided to try. I probably will add a few more, and once the calendar flips over to January, you’ll find permanent links to these challenges in the sidebar where all the 2011 ones are right now. What I need to be better about this year is actually participating on the blog challenge sites themselves—posting links to my reviews, and the like.

Historical Fiction Challenge 2012

I participated in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2011, and it was easily one of my favorite and most successful reading challenges of the year, so I wouldn’t want to miss it again. I’m going for the Severe Bookaholism level of 20 books. Sign up here.

Where Are You Reading 2012 Challenge

The Where Are You Reading Challenge is another challenge I also did in 2011 and thoroughly enjoyed. You can see my Google Map here. I’ll post it again later in the month in my recap post. Sign up here.

Mixing it Up Challenge

I’m kind of excited about the Mixing it Up Challenge. The idea is to branch out and try books in different genres:

  1. Classics
  2. Biography
  3. Cookery, Food, and Wine
  4. History
  5. Modern Fiction
  6. Graphic Novels and Manga
  7. Crime and Mystery
  8. Horror
  9. Romance
  10. Science Fiction and Fantasy
  11. Travel
  12. Poetry and Drama
  13. Journalism and Humor
  14. Science and Natural History
  15. Children’s and Young Adult
  16. Social Sciences and Philosophy

I’m going for the “All the Trimmings and a Cherry on Top” level of participation at one book in each genre. Not sure what I’ll read yet, but I have a few ideas for some of the categories. Sign up here.

Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2012

As soon as I described this one to my husband, he said I needed to sign up for it. I do have a small TBR mountain leaning against the wall on my side of the bed. Steve would be glad if I could plow through some of it. I’m not too insane, so I’m going for Pike’s Peak (plus, I’ve been there because it’s in my home state of Colorado), which requires me to read 12 books from my TBR pile. I’m not sure which ones I’ll read yet, but as I said, I have a huge stack, and I also have a lot of unread Kindle books. Sign up here.

Why Buy the Cow? Reading Challenge

How absolutely adorable is that button? This challenge asks participants to read free e-books. For the purposes of this challenge, ARC’s, library books, or books I’ve won can’t be counted. The books must be free, legally downloaded books. FYI NetGalley users, it looks like NetGalley books are counted as ARC’s for the purposes of this challenge, so they’re out, too. I’m going for the Coupon Clipper level of 12 books. Sign up here.

Outlander Series Reading Challenge 2012

I have actually only read the first four books of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Series. I just recently downloaded all of the audio books with Audible credits I had saved up, so this challenge seems like a good incentive to actually listen to the books and actually catch up with the series. Sign up here.

You know of any other great challenges I should check out? Naturally, I’ll be doing the Once Upon a Time Challenge and the R.I.P. Challenge that Carl hosts once he announces them later.

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