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: ★★★★☆

 

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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

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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

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Review: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad was one of the most discussed books of 2016, so if you haven’t read it, chances are you know something about it. In any case, it is the story of runaway slave Cora who is making her way north from a Georgia plantation using the Underground Railroad, which in Colson’s novel is not a metaphorical name for the network sympathizers, abolitionists, former slaves, and others who helped escaping slaves on their way to freedom but an actual technological marvel—a railroad, under the ground. The book has been compared to Gulliver’s Travels, which earns a mention in the reading of Cora’s friend and fellow escapee, Caesar. At each station or stop in Cora’s journey, she is confronted with a different sort of evil that Americans have perpetrated against their fellow Americans, from bringing them to America in chains, to lynching, to terrorism, to more subtle means of subjugation and deception, such as medical experimentation.

My book club selected this to read, and I knew our meeting was coming up, but I wasn’t sure when until one of my friends reminded me. It’s this coming week! I wasn’t sure I could finish the book in time for our meeting, but I decided I had best pick it up and read at least some of it, especially because I was one of the members who suggested we read it.

I actually couldn’t put it down, and I read it in two big gulps over yesterday and today. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Whitehead plays with documented historical fact, entwining it with speculative fiction, imagining an antebellum America where South Carolina had skyscrapers and an actual railroad leading slaves north ran underground. These fantastic aspects of the novel allow Whitehead to explore the broader history of the African-American experience through the eyes of a single character. The only other way I think he could have done it would have been a sort of immense Roots-like multigenerational epic rather than this tight narrative that allows us into the life of one character. It also allows Whitehead to show the scope of the atrocity of slavery and racism in all its depth and breadth. It’s hard to put down—I wanted to see Cora to safety in the North so badly, that I sat and read for two days! I can’t give the ending away, but I will admit I needed more satisfaction after following Cora on her odyssey all that way. And as much as anything else, the ending has to be that way because it is the truth about the African-American experience.

This novel hit me like Beloved. I credit Beloved with finally helping me get it, as a white woman. After reading Beloved, I felt like for the first time, I had a small understanding of what the lingering and devastating effects of slavery on our country. Of course I can’t ever really understand what I haven’t experienced, but through books like Beloved and The Underground Railroad, I can gain empathy I didn’t have before I read them. This book is Beloved for the next generation. It’s a critical book for our times, just as Between the World and Me is critical. In fact, I recommend they be read back-to-back if you haven’t read either book yet. It’s a wonderful book, and it might be the best one I read all year. It’s certainly in the top five.

Ron Charles (as usual) has a great review in the WaPo. Michiko Kakutani liked it, too, and she is tough. Definitely read both reviews, which capture the power of this novel better than I have been able to do here. As Kakutani so astutely notes in her review, quoting Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the case of this book, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book ostensibly about slavery that also so accurately describes our own moment in history.

Rating: ★★★★★

Set in the antebellum South as Cora travels from Georgia to Indiana and that vague fantasyland known as “North,” though with some elements of speculative fiction, this book works for the Historical Fiction Challenge.

 

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Sunday Post #44: No Snow

Sunday Post
Last year I installed a plugin that makes it snow. I can enable it whenever I like, so I let it snow on my blog most of the winter because that’s usually what it’s doing here in Worcester. This winter has been sort of mild, however, and it hasn’t even been that cold with the exception of Valentine’s Day weekend. I’m turning off the snow today until next year. I’m not sure winter is really done with us because March is typically an iffy month around here, but the weather usually calms down by April.

I can’t believe I opened with the weather.

I’ve been reading up on the French Revolution for a while now. I admit to being a bit scared to take on Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety because it is over 750 pages long, but I do love Hilary Mantel, and I imagine it’s a pretty good book. Having just finished Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette this week, I dove back into Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, and it’s so long and daunting that I really wish I could read it on Kindle. I find with e-books that I don’t feel quite so intimidated by long books, not to mention they’re easier to hold up when I’m reading in bed. This book is seriously not easy to read. Interesting so far, however.

My book club is reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. We meet Wednesday, and I don’t think it’s likely I’ll be finished with the book by then, but I’m going to keep at it because I am really enjoying it. I wouldn’t have picked up this book on my own, but people I respect recommended it so highly that I gave it a chance, and I’m glad I did. Brown is a good writer, and heart and humanity with which he imbues the subject of the book is a master class in how to write compelling narrative nonfiction.

Now seems like a good time to check in on my reading challenges, too. I’m on track to finish 55 books this year so far. I have completed nine books. I haven’t done much with a few of the challenges, so I need to get going. I have made little progress on the Reading England Challenge (which is very unusual for me, as I typically read quite a lot of books set in England—though this ninth book I mentioned a moment ago is book number one for this challenge). I have made zero progress with the Reading New England Challenge.

On the other hand, I’m doing well with both the #ShelfLove Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge. I’m showing my shelves and TBR pile some love so far. Some small progress on the Historical Fiction Challenge, but as it’s my favorite genre, I’m not worried yet. I’m sure I’ll read more.

That ninth book I mentioned before I should go ahead and write about. It’s The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. I had first read it some years ago. I am not really sure how long now, so it was a re-read. I always forget how many of Wilde’s bon mots come from his writing rather than some quip he made in his travels. He’s extremely funny. Probably one of the funniest writers I’ve read. I find it so tragic the way he was treated toward the end of his life. I’m not sure he was exactly the nicest person. It’s hard to tell when someone is as sarcastic as he is exactly what they might really have been like. It’s entirely possible I wouldn’t have liked him if he’s as catty as he comes across, but since I don’t have to be tested by actually knowing the guy, I can declare I adore him absolutely. If you haven’t read any Wilde, this play is a wonderful place to start because it’s short, hilarious, and absolutely wonderful. It’s a great send-up of Victorian mores and frivolity (Rating: ★★★★★).

Here is hoping I can catch up a bit now that some duties at work will lighten a bit starting this week. How has your reading week been?

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme. Image adapted from Patrick on Flickr.

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Review: The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli

Walt Whitman once said that “the real war will never get in the books,” but that hasn’t stopped writers from trying, from Stephen Crane to Ernest Hemingway to Tim O’Brien. Tatjana Soli’s debut novel The Lotus Eaters tells the story of a woman photojournalist, Helen Adams, who covers Vietnam. Helen is drawn to cover the conflict in order to find out what happened to her brother Michael, who was killed in action. Even long after she discovers the truth, she has been seduced by the war, the country, and its people—both repulsed by the horrors she sees and compelled to cover them, hence Soli’s title, inspired by Homer’s land of the Lotus-eaters in a quote that opens the novel:

… we reached the country of the Lotus-eaters, a race that eat the flowery lotus fruit … Now these natives had no intention of killing my comrades; what they did was to give them some lotus to taste. Those who ate the honeyed fruit of the plant lost any wish to come back and bring us news. All they now wanted was to stay where they were with the Lotus-eaters, to browse on the lotus, and to forget all thoughts of return.

I remember first reading The Odyssey and finding the passage about the Lotus-eaters poignant, even though it’s short and perhaps not as striking in terms of its danger as other passages involving the Cyclops, Circe, and Scylla and Charybdis. In their way, the Lotus-eaters might be the most dangerous group of people Odysseus and his men encounter because one thing that keeps them going is their desire for home. The title is an apt one for the novel.

Helen arrives in Vietnam a naive young woman who dropped out of college to become a freelance photographer because she was afraid that if she waited until graduation, the war would be over. She has only rudimentary photography skills, and she’s woefully unprepared for what she will see. However, she learns quickly and discovers she has a natural talent for capturing a shot. By the end of the war, she is a respected photojournalist with several Life magazine covers under her belt. She has an opportunity to escape with her fellow photojournalist (and lover) Linh as the last Americans are leaving Saigon. Linh is wounded, and Helen is concerned about his safety. As the helicopter prepares to leave, Helen decides she has to stay through the Fall of Saigon and cover the very end, but she ensures Linh is safely aboard the helicopter and on his way to treatment before she plunges one more time into the war.

The novel begins at the Fall of Saigon and then steps back in time to Helen’s arrival, tracing her experiences through the war and back to the end of the war. Soli explains the frame device and why she used it in this video:

The book’s language is gorgeous, and I found as I read that I had to underline passages. I don’t typically do that when I read paper books, unless I plan to teach them, but this novel is so beautiful, and I found so much truth in the language, that I had to mark it up.

To be honest, I don’t know a lot about Vietnam. I teach several students from that country in my classes, and I have learned some really interesting things from them, but I haven’t read a lot about the war. My father was in Vietnam when I was born, and as far as I know, he was never in a position of extreme danger, but that’s relative when you’re in a war-torn country. I think I have actually avoided the subject to a certain degree. The senselessness of the whole thing is heartbreaking, and perhaps more so now that I’ve read this book. One thing Soli does that intrigues me is she captures the brutality and horror of the war, yes, but she also captures the beauty of the country and its people.

The patrol was still out, and they watched the sun rise up out of the east and color the western mountains from a dull blackish purple to green. So many shades of green. Darrow said, that Vietnamese legend told that every shade of green in the world originated in this mountain range. The emerald backbone of the dragon from which the people of Vietnam sprang. Until then she had been blind, but when she saw those mountains, she slipped beneath the surface of the war and found the country. (17)

The air boiled hot and opaque, the sky a hard, saline blue. For miles the black mangrove swamp spread like a stagnant ocean, clotted, arthritic. Farther on they passed the swollen tributaries of the Mekong. Papaya, grapefruit, water palm, mangosteen, orange—fruit of every variety grew in abundance, dropping with heavy thuds on the ground to burst in hot flower in the sun. (162)

I found the characters easy to become invested in. I liked them, and at the same time, they infuriated me, which I think is partly the point. They were driven in a way I can’t claim to have experienced, but Soli infuses them with reality—they seem like flesh-and-blood people rather than figments of the imagination. By the end of the novel, their compulsion to capture the war makes a sort of sense.

The narrative is as intriguing as the characters. The last 100 pages or so I read in almost one gulp in an attempt to find out if everyone would be okay in the end. Some passages are so gripping in their imagery that I had to put the book down and catch my breath—to come up for air in the real world, as it were.

Even more than the characters and the narrative, however, I loved Soli’s writing. She tells a gripping story with lush, beautiful language that actually made me long to see the places she was describing, even in the midst of the horrors of a war.

I also felt drawn to learn more of the history of the war and of the country. It’s amazing how so many stories of Colonialism—and I’m thinking here of Heart of Darkness, The God of Small Things, The Poisonwood Bible, and Things Fall Apart—eventually wind up traveling down the same roads. And yet. It’s a story we repeat over and over again. This novel is, in my estimation, as good as any of these books, and I can’t give it higher praise than that.

I’m calling this one a new favorite, and I’m recommending it to everyone. I haven’t read such a lyrically beautiful, haunting book in quite some time. I can’t understand why this book isn’t more known. Or perhaps it is and just escaped my radar. I’m not sure it was a bestseller (no claims to that effect, anyway), but it won several awards. It’s literary fiction and a true descendent of books like A Farewell to Arms. A gorgeous book.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Sunday Post #8: Reading Challenges Update

Sunday PostMarch 1 seems like a good time to reflect on how I’m doing with the various reading challenges I’ve taken on this year. As of today, I’ve completed nine books. The goal of the Outdo Yourself Challenge is to read more than the previous year. So far, I’m on track with that challenge. I don’t think I have ever been in the position of having read nine books at the beginning of March before.

I’ve read four books for the Historical Fiction Challenge: Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel; The Wolves of Andover aka The Traitor’s Wife, Kathleen Kent; The Fiery Cross, Diana Gabaldon; and The Serpent of Venice, Christopher Moore. I committed to reading ten historical fiction books for the challenge. I’m currently reading The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. I’m only a little over two chapters into it, but wow, what a beautifully written, gripping read so far. I have to read it in small sips, put it down and think about it, and plunge in again when I’m ready. I got a pencil and went back over the two chapters I had finished and underlined my favorite parts.The Lotus Eaters

This is how the world ends in one instant and begins again in the next.

It seems early days to be predicting this will be my favorite read of the year, but perhaps not. It is gorgeous so far.

I’ve read three books for the Reading England Challenge:

I committed to reading twelve books for this challenge.

The Literary Movement Challenge involves reading at least one book a month for that month’s movement. So far, I’ve read one selection each for the Middle Ages and for the Renaissance: The Lais of Marie de France and As You Like It by William Shakespeare. I committed to reading twelve books.

The Back to the Classics Challenge involves reading classic selections from various categories. I committed to nine books and have read two:

This week I posted reviews for As You Like It by William Shakespeare and The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson. I am about an hour away from finishing Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning.

One last glimpse of The Lotus Eaters before I go.

The Lotus Eaters

 

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Sunday Post #5: History Makers

Sunday PostSince last week, when I mentioned that we have all the snow, I can tell you we probably have five feet on the ground with more on the way tonight and tomorrow. My children have yet another snow day tomorrow. My own school just called me to let me know I also do not have school; however, I do believe I have a meeting via Google Hangout, and I need to make some soap for a wholesale account, so I imagine I will be busy. We have had record-breaking snowfall the last few weeks.  The Sunday Post is starting to sound monotonous with the weather report each time. When you’re more or less snowbound, however, there’s not much else going on.

I finally finished listening to the audio book of Diana Gabaldon’s novel The Fiery Cross this week. I also finished reading The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore. Look for the review for that book to be posted on 2/17. I started reading four books this week as well:

The Tell-Tale Heart, like The Serpent of Venice, is part of a TLC Book Tour. I’m reading As You Like It as my Renaissance selection for the Literary Movement Challenge. Finished Act I as of yesterday. I am listening to Neil Gaiman read the short story collection Trigger Warning. After finishing The Fiery Cross, I didn’t want to dive right into another really long Gabaldon audio book right away. I have had Marie Antoinette: The Journey in my Kindle library for a very long time, but I finally decided to read it after watching the Kirsten Dunst film Marie Antoinette, which reminded me how fascinated I am by the French Revolution and all the history leading up to it.

The movie itself, I have to say, was kind of weird. The costumes and sets were gorgeous. The music was strange. Some of the casting was bizarre. The jury’s still out on whether I liked it or not. I searched in vain for a documentary about the French Revolution on Netflix last night, so I decided to start reading the book. Also on my list at some point is Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. I’m always on the lookout for good historical fiction set during this time period as well, so let me know if you know of anything. I have previously read Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution (loved!), Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud, and Melanie Clegg’s The Secret Diary of a Princess. And of course, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. I can’t recall any others, so let me know what I’ve missed. I am not particularly more interested Ancien Régime versus post-Revolution or nobility versus Estates-General. I’m not picky.

I love reading historical fiction, which is one of the reasons I always try to participate in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, no matter how active I actually am in the challenge. If I had to peg my favorite periods, I would say 18th and 19th century America (particularly New England, but really, it’s all pretty interesting), the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, 18th century France and England, and 19th century England. I do not much like to read WWII historical fiction, which reminds me of a post of Stefanie’s that I read over at So Many Books: “Books I Won’t Read.” I am not going to go quite so far as to say I will not read books about World War II. I really hesitate, though. I find it mentally exhausting and very depressing to read about that war, for obvious reasons. Inevitably, the books are heart-wrenching. I hate to say it feels like manipulation on the part of authors to write about the events of that war, especially when they really happened, but it’s also quite difficult to criticize. After all, anything you say in critique of books about the Holocaust just makes you sound heartless. So, I’m really careful about what I choose to read from that era. If a book has a whiff of cashing in on that tragedy at all, I can’t read it.

So far, I’ve finished seven books this year. I can’t recall ever having read that many at this point in the year. Honestly, I think the goal I set of reading 52 books has been a good motivator for me. I know I’m making more of an effort to read. I think of myself as a slow reader, but it looks like I have managed to pick up speed over time without noticing much. I very rarely can sit and read an entire book all day, and I haven’t tried timing myself to see how fast I’m actually reading. It’s more just a sense I have that I’m able to read books faster than I have in the past.

The biggest news in the book world this week is the impending publication of Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, which will feature an adult Scout Finch. Some speculation in the media has made me wonder if Harper Lee was aware of what her lawyer was doing, but it’s hard to tell. This New York Times story does a fair job discussing the controversy. I am going to read the book. I have actually already selected it for my school summer reading choice. I called dibs the day the announcement was made. I am not going to miss another Harper Lee novel. Am I worried it might not be as good as To Kill a Mockingbird? Of course. It’s natural. But there is no way I’m going to miss it. And while I’m on the subject, I wish Goodreads would stop people from reviewing or rating unreleased books. Or, to be more specific, unreleased books that no one has read yet. I actually find ratings and reviews from folks who had uncorrected proofs or early access through other channels helpful. This book already has a 3.72 rating on Goodreads. Come on.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Review: The Wolves of Andover, aka The Traitor’s Wife, Kathleen Kent

Kathleen Kent’s novel The Wolves of Andover, also known as The Traitor’s Wife, is something of a prequel to The Heretic’s Daughter, a novel told from the viewpoint of Sarah Carrier, daughter of Martha Carrier, who was executed in the Salem Witch Trials. The Wolves of Andover tells the story of the courtship Thomas Carrier and Martha Allen alternating with the story of several conspirators of Charles II bound for America to find and capture the man who cut off the head of Charles I in the English Civil War.

As the story begins, Martha is sent to her cousin Prudence Taylor’s house to serve as Prudence prepares to give birth to her third child. Her husband Daniel is often away on business, but two men, Thomas and John, work for Taylor household in the hopes of earning a piece of Taylor’s land. Whispers surround Thomas Carrier. Some claim that he was the regicide, the man who wielded the very axe that struck King Charles’s head from his shoulders. He is uncommonly tall and possessed of a quiet air of mystery. Martha soon finds herself in love with him. Meanwhile, several men in the employ of spy Tiernan Blood make their way across the Atlantic after a harrowing journey in an attempt to find the Welshman, known as Thomas Morgan, and capture him for execution in London. What they don’t realize is that Oliver Cromwell’s old followers have spies of their own, too.

One of the things I realized reading this book is that I have never really given a lot of thought to the ways in which the English Civil War created America, and (it could be argued) led to the American Revolution. Of course, I knew the early founders of Massachusetts were Puritans, and of course I knew Cromwell was a Puritan, too, but for some reason, perhaps because it’s the story we always tell, I always pictured the Puritans who settled New England as religious dissidents instead of political ones. I don’t think our own history plays up the role the Puritans played in the English Civil War very much, probably because the first group of Puritans to arrive in America came well before the English Civil War began; however, successive waves of Puritans arriving later must surely have included soldiers who fought with Cromwell, even if the greatest wave of Puritan migration occurred before the English Civil War. It certainly stands to reason that these early settlers had quarrels with the monarchy and that they passed their feelings down to their children and children’s children.

I was able to hear Kathleen Kent speak at an English teachers’ conference several years ago, so I know that she descends from the Carrier family, which is partly why the subject matter intrigues her. Though Martha Carrier’s notoriety is more established, as a documented victim of the Salem Witch Trials, Thomas Carrier’s is somewhat more speculative and based more on family and local legends.

The Wolves of AndoverThe violence in the book can be graphic, and I definitely was glad I was reading it instead of watching it, though nothing seemed so gratuitous that it strained credulity. The violence also offered an interesting contrast between the monarchists and the Puritans, who are painted as hardy survivalists, but ultimately peaceable and good people. To be fair, the monarchists presented are probably the worst sort of folks imaginable, but Charles II himself is not depicted in a good light (though I give props to the writer who does manage to make Charles II look like a fairly decent human being).

The stage for Martha Carrier’s later accusation is deftly set as Martha comes across as contentious and headstrong (which is why she’s not married at the book’s beginning). Another spoilery incident I won’t recount adds additional evidence to the pile.

Martha Carrier

I took this picture of Martha Carrier’s memorial on our trip to Salem.

Knowing how Martha Carrier’s story will ultimately end lends sadness to this book, but Thomas Carrier emerges as quite the character, and one of those folks family historians love to weave tales around—a Welshman who changed his name and has mysterious antecedents, who was nearly seven feet tall, who lived to be about 109. He’s a little hard to resist.

Upon its paperback release, the book’s title was changed, hence the two names. Since it appears to be more readily available in paperback form, I have linked to that version of the book. To my knowledge, the title and cover design are the only changes made.

Rating: ★★★★½


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2015 Reading Challenges

One of the reasons I keep signing up for reading challenges, even though my completion rate the last few years has not been stellar, is that challenges make me think about reading books I might otherwise not read, and they help me classify my reading. You might be wondering why reading needs to be classified. Well, perhaps it doesn’t, but I like to do it for some reason. It’s like tagging on Goodreads or Shelfari. It gives me something to hang the book onto, and for some reason I like it.

Each year, I think this year is going to be my year. In truth, I do need to make more time for reading, and around December, when I start reflecting on my reading year, I think also about what I want to read the next year. The older I get, the less patience I have for books that don’t grab me, and I haven’t had a really excellent reading year for quite a long time. Sometimes, reading challenges help me focus and select books. I don’t always select books I wind up enjoying, but when I’m on a good book streak, there’s nothing like it.

I am signing up for the following reading challenges in the hopes that they’ll contribute to a great reading year in 2015.

Reading Challenge 2015The Reading England Challenge looks like a great deal of fun. Typically, English and/or British reading challenges have a broader focus on the country as a whole (or even the entire UK). This challenge shakes things up a bit by asking readers to “travel England by reading, and read at least one book per however many counties of England you decide to read.” I already keep track of the settings for each book I read, and this seems like an interesting way to explore the country a little more purposefully and thoughtfully. I’d love to try to do 12+ counties, and in the spirit of going big or going home, I’m going to shoot for that level. I already read so many books set in England—the challenge here will be to try to select books from a variety of places in England.

literary-movement-reading-challenge-buttonThe Literary Movement Reading Challenge speaks to my English teacher side. I don’t always stretch myself to read outside of favorite genres and literary movements, and this challenge could be just the thing to encourage me to try some books I’ve been meaning to read. Weirdly, I am excited about the constraints in this challenge, and I’m looking forward to selecting potential books.

OY2015_bannerThis year, I expect I will probably meet my goal of reading 30 books. Even in my best year, I didn’t make it to 52 books, and I’d really like to do that, just once. It could be this is the year. To that end, I’m signing up for the 2015 Outdo Yourself Reading Challenge with the goal of reading at the I’m on Fire! Level of 16+ books more than I read in 2014.

backtotheclassics2015BUTTONThe English teacher in me is also excited by the Back to the Classics Challenge. I’m going to shoot for completing nine categories in this particular challenge. If I’m able to complete all twelve categories, that’s great, but for this particular challenge, I decided to aim for the middle.

As I have the last few years, I’ll also join the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge once the challenge details are posted, as well as the R.I.P. Challenge once it happens.

4aFinally, I want to do the Where Are You Reading Challenge as I have done the last couple of years. I really enjoy keeping track of the settings for the books I read.

I don’t want to bite off too much more than I can chew, and I left several challenges this year completely untouched because they went perhaps a bit too much out of my usual reading habits, but I do hope to make a dent in these challenges as well as read a lot of young adult fiction next year, mainly so I can talk books with students and not feel out of the loop.

Updated 1/7/15 to add: The Historical Fiction Challenge is open! I’ll be attempting to read 10 books for the Renaissance Reader level.

2015 HF Reading Challenge Button_FINAL

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