Review: Conversion, Katherine Howe, narrated by Khristine Hvam

My most recent audio book was Conversion by Katherine Howe and read by Khristine Hvam. Conversion alternates between two stories. Colleen Rowley is a high school senior at St. Joan’s Academy in Danvers, Massachusetts. She’s currently in a heated competition for school valedictorian and is stressed about getting into Harvard. Her classmates suddenly develop mysterious ailments—one girl has an apparent seizure, but soon another girl is losing her hair, while others develop tics and coughing fits. What is going on?

The other story is that of Ann Putnam, Jr., one of accusers in the Salem Witch Trials, and a real historical figure who later confessed to being “deluded by Satan” and apologized for her role in the deaths. As she tells the story of her involvement in the trials to Reverend Green, it becomes increasingly clear she’s still disturbed (which might not be historically accurate, but it was fun). What exactly caused the girls of Salem Village to think they were bewitched in 1692? And what was wrong with the girls at St. Joan’s 320 years later?

When Colleen is given an extra credit assignment by her AP US History teacher to read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and write a paper about why Miller changed the details connected to some of the girls—Ann Putnam in particular—she discovers an eerie connection between the events in the Witch Trials and the girls’ illnesses at St. Joan’s that no one else seems to have noticed.

Katherine Howe has written about Salem before, particularly in The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (which happens to be one of my favorite historical fiction novels). In fact, Deliverance Dane, her daughter Mercy, and her descendant Connie Goodwin all make cameo appearances in this novel (which I rather enjoyed). In this case, she was also inspired the the story of a mysterious illness that afflicted students at at high school in Le Roy, New York. The true cause of the “hysteria” in the Witch Trials has been debated, and we will likely never have an answer—just perhaps more plausible theories. In juxtaposing the events in modern-day Danvers (which used to be Salem Village) and Puritan Salem, Howe shows us it’s just possible that the girls were under a great deal of stress and that their treatment as girls and, in some cases, lower class servants, contributed to the deaths of innocent people when the witchcraft accusations began to fly. It’s certainly a plausible explanation and takes into account that perhaps the girls really were faking at first and later became caught up in a shared delusion.

Conversion is a highly enjoyable book that has a lot to say about the stress teenagers are under in today’s competition for grades and college spots and also the ways in which we discount teens’ voices. I should think that teenagers would find a lot to relate to, and at the same time, they would learn some interesting things about American history and literature.

The narrator, Khristine Hvam, did an excellent job not only capturing the voices of the teenaged girls, but also the old New England cadence of Ann Putnam’s speech. She was perfect for the novel, and she’s one of the better book narrators I’ve heard. I am really glad I listened to the audio book with the exception of one reason: the Author’s Note was not included in the reading, and it has some interesting information for readers. I had to track it down so I could read it.

I really liked this interview at Bustle and this other review at the Nerdy Book Club.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

(P. S.: Some of the novel is set in the past, but as the focus is more on the present, I have decided not to count it for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.)

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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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The Heretic’s Daughter

The Heretic’s Daughter: A NovelKathleen Kent has a personal stake in telling the story of Martha Carrier, who was executed for witchcraft during the Salem witch trials: she is a tenth generation descendant of Martha Carrier. The Heretic’s Daughter is a story of the witch trials told through the point of view of eleven-year-old Sarah Carrier, Martha’s daughter, who herself was one of the youngest among the accused. In fact, the real Sarah Carrier was younger than Kent’s Sarah by about five years!

Sarah describes contention against her family and the climate of Andover, Billerica, and surrounding environs prior to the witch trials. She doesn’t understand her mother’s ways, and they seem to be at odds with each other all the time. Then whispers of witchcraft start finding their way to Sarah’s ears, and before long the entire Carrier family is embroiled in the trials.

Martha Carrier

I took this picture of Martha Carrier's memorial on our trip to Salem. Click for larger version.

The Heretic’s Daughter is beautifully written and poignant. However, it’s also slow to start. The first half of the book moved slowly for me, but after the witch trials begin, the book finds its stride and moves quickly. I read the second half in one sitting. I did enjoy Kent’s portrayal of the Carrier family’s contentiousness, which does much to explain why their neighbors turn on them—and in fact, it was often contentious men and women who were accused. It’s also refreshing to read a book that seeks to portray the accused realistically instead of glorifying them as saints. It is mostly well-researched and rings true with the exception one glaring mistake—Giles Corey, one of the most famous figures in the trials because of his resistance and his major role in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, is called Miles Corey in this book. Not only is that a strange mistake given the attention to detail Kent otherwise displays, but it’s astonishing that an an editor didn’t catch the error. However, setting that issue aside, the book itself is more accurate than Miller’s play, and I found it much more enjoyable to read, too.

I’m glad I persevered with this book through the slow beginning—which did have some beautiful passages, good description, and it laid essential groundwork—the second half of the book was worth the investment. Readers might also be interested in Maud Newton’s interview with Kent.

Rating: ★★★★☆

R.I.P. Challenge V

This book is my second book for the R.I.P. Challenge, which means I have officially finished at the level to which I committed; however, I am going to read Dracula, My Love and Wuthering Bites in the hope that I can read four books and move up a level in the challenge.

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Re-Reading The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Katherine Howe and MeAfter my trip to Salem in July, I have been reading books set there, and I just finished a re-read of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. I found the book as enjoyable the second time as I did the first. I’d really like to read some more books set in Salem, but aside from The House of Seven Gables, I don’t have any on hand. I decided to go forward with the Everything Austen Challenge and read Syrie James’s The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. I’m looking forward to reading her newest book, Dracula, My Love. Anyone reading that one?

My students seemed interested to hear about my trip to Salem. Many of them had read The Crucible last year, and they remembered the characters. I told them I had seen Judge Hathorne’s grave and all the memorials for each of the people who were executed. I think I’ll have a lot of fun teaching The Crucible this year.

I think I’ll try to start both The House of Seven Gables and The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen tonight.

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Reading Update: August 8, 2010

HatsI’m still reading books set in Salem. After finishing Brunonia Barry’s The Map of True Places and The Lace Reader, I returned to Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, although this book is set more in Marblehead than Salem, it does have some scenes in Salem. I think my favorite thing about Salem was just walking around and looking at everything. It truly is a unique town, and I do hope I have the opportunity to go back.

In addition to The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, I’ve begun a new DailyLit selection: Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. I haven’t read this one. I know, I know. Well, it sure starts off with a bang! Dickens was a master of characterization.

I am still reading just finished Charity Girl. I believe I’ll be finished with that one in a day or two, but my review will not appear here until the day it is published at Austenprose.

I am now about halfway through A Farewell to Arms. At this point, Catherine is pregnant, and Henry is going back to the front. I am wondering what is going to happen. I know the ending of this book. Years of being an English teacher have spoiled that plot, but I still wonder how we will get from here to there, and I wonder what will happen in between. I also found myself looking up “jaundice” on Wikipedia to see if it can be caused by alcoholism, and it looks like it can. Hemingway’s economy with words is beautiful in its simplicity. He still manages to capture so much with so little.

I’ve been trying to decide what I should read next. I’m still on this Salem kick, so I might read The Heretic’s Daughter, but I think I will scout around. Has anyone read Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman? I was going to swear off Hoffman after her Twitter rant last year, but this book looks interesting to me.

On a side note, Apture, the tool I use to create links on this site, appears to be broken at the moment, so the links might not pop up as enhanced links the way they usually do. And this post took twice as long to write as it would have with Apture. Hope they fix it soon!

photo credit: danahuff

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The Lace Reader: A Re-Read

The Lace Reader: A NovelI first read Brunonia Barry’s debut novel The Lace Reader right before it was published as an advanced reader copy. You can read my review here. I decided to re-read the novel after my trip to Salem. I think Barry’s Map of True Places captures the character of Salem perhaps more clearly than Barry’s first novel, but I think that The Map of True Places is also more about Salem than The Lace Reader. It’s strange, but this time reading, I did see some elements of a feminine hero’s journey that I didn’t pick up on before. Before I go on, I should warn you that I won’t divulge the big reveal at the end of the book, but the remainder of this review might be a bit spoilery.

Katherine Howe, writer of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, has said that historically dogs have been considered witches’ familiars in greater numbers than cats, who have the association with witchcraft today. She gave her Connie a little dog named Arlo in her book. I wondered as I read about all the dogs on Yellow Dog Island, who seemed to be able to know what Towner wanted and would listen to her, especially in one crucial scene in the end. Did Barry intend to hearken back to the idea of dogs as familiars, or was it a coincidental choice? I myself would consider Towner, May, and Eva to be witches in a sense, though they don’t explicitly embrace that notion themselves in the same way that Ann Chase does.

One of the elements Joseph Campbell describes as an aspect of many hero’s journeys is the rebirth in the forest or the cave. For example, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry walks into the Forbidden Forest to face Voldemort, fully believing he will die. Instead, the Horcrux inside him is destroyed, and he is, in a sense, reborn. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck fakes his own death to escape from Pap. He emerges from the cave on the island a new person, so to speak. I saw a similar rebirth in The Lace Reader. Toward the end, when Towner is trying to rescue Angela from Cal’s followers, the two women travel through a secret doorway in Eva’s basement that leads to a tunnel. Because the tide is in, the water partially fills the tunnel, and the women will have to swim in order to escape because Cal’s followers have set fire to Eva’s house behind them. Towner takes Angela by the hair and instructs her to go limp so that she can help both of them swim to the end of the tunnel. They emerge in Eva’s boathouse at the other end. In a way, this seemed to me to be a feminization of the emergence from the cave in that the water surrounded the women. It actually made me think it might be a metaphor for the birth canal. After that moment, both women are in a sense reborn. I wondered if that metaphor had occurred to Barry, if she had been aiming for it. By the way, I subscribe to the belief that just because a writer didn’t intentionally mean to create a symbol or metaphor, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Reading is a creative act, and we bring our thoughts and experiences to reading. If we see a symbol there, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s there. Tolkien is famous, for example, for hating allegory. Yet The Lord of the Rings, and especially The Silmarillion can be read as biblical allegory. I actually like Jasper Fforde’s explanation: he says a book only belongs to an author as long as no one else has read it. After that, it belongs to the reader, too, and the creative act of reading allows for readers to interpret books in ways that authors might not have considered. And they’re right, too.

The Lace Reader is more intriguing on a re-read because knowing the big reveal at the end enabled me to read the book with a different eye. I caught many more of Barry’s hints regarding what might be going on in Towner’s psyche than I did when I read it the first time. Unreliable narrators are difficult because I think as readers we are trained to trust the person telling the story, and some people don’t like this book because they feel betrayed by the narrator. However, Barry has not betrayed anyone. It would take a more astute reader than I to pick up on all the clues on a first read, but she does plant clues, and in the end, the big reveal makes sense given what the reader knows about Towner and how other characters react to her. Re-reading revealed much more starkly to me the ways in which Barry takes pains not to cheat the reader, but I think some of the negative comments I’ve seen about this book centered around not feeling prepared for that ending, and on a re-read, I didn’t think it is a fair criticism. I admit to being surprised by the ending the first time, but it isn’t completely out of the blue, and it makes sense in the story. And as I said in my last review, readers would do well to take Towner at her word in the first few sentences. She is telling the truth, there.

I think Barry is an interesting writer. She has a great knack for evoking a place, turning that place into a character in its own right. Her secondary characters like Eva, Ann Chase, who appears in both of her novels, and Melville, Finch, and Jessina in The Map of True Places are well-drawn and fun to read. In all, I think The Map of True Places is a stronger book, and I think those who didn’t enjoy The Lace Reader precisely for the reasons I discussed will like it better, but I thoroughly enjoyed both books. I thought this interview, in which Barry examines the novel herself with a critical eye, was illuminating.

Both times I have read this book, I’ve finished wanting know how to make lace. I am looking forward to whatever Brunonia Barry writes next. I find her writing inspiring in that I would like to be able to write about place and create such interesting characters in the same way that she does.

My rating is still the same.

Rating: ★★★★★

Full disclosure: I received this book originally as an advanced reader copy, and the second copy, the one I re-read, as part of a prize package from William Morrow and Destination Salem. I like the paperback cover better than the hardcover version.

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Reading Update: August 2, 2010

Finished scarfAfter finishing The Map of True Places, I decided to re-read The Lace Reader. I won’t give away the spoilery ending, but I will say that The Lace Reader is an interesting and different book on a re-read after the reader knows how it ends. I had forgotten that Ann Chase, who appears in The Map of True Places, was also in this book, but when she mentions being friends with Towner Whitney, I looked it up and discovered she had indeed been a character. She is such a fun character and so well drawn. It would be interesting for Barry to give her a story in which she takes center stage. Barry casts Ann Chase as a descendant of Giles and Martha Corey, which isn’t possible because they had no children together. I don’t know if it’s a mistake, poetic license, or Towner’s error. It might have been fun to cast Ann as a descendant of John and Elizabeth Proctor—perhaps even the baby Elizabeth was carrying that saved her life until the hysteria died down. Lace reading is one of those things that sounds so true it’s a bit of a surprise to learn that Brunonia Barry invented it. I’ll bet it has some practitioners now. At any rate, I think I’m actually enjoying this novel more on a re-read than I did the first time around, perhaps because I recently visited the novel’s setting or perhaps because I’m reading it with different eyes knowing the ending. Either way, I’m turning the pages. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Barry signed my paperback copies of The Lace Reader in addition to my copies of The Map of True Places. I won two copies of each book as part of my prize package. I’m on about page 60, but will probably read some more before I call it night.

Aside from The Lace Reader, I’m also reading Georgette Heyer’s Charity Girl for Austenprose’s Celebration of Georgette Heyer. It’s a quick read, but I have to admit that the Regency slang is hard for me to navigate. I have had to use the dictionary a lot (thank goodness I’m reading it on my Kindle, so that’s easy). I have a quibble with the Kindle edition, however. Many of the words are broken up (i.e. to gether) and the paragraphs are formatted wrong. No indentation at the beginning of a new one and little indication of a new paragraph. It’s been maddening to read from an aesthetic viewpoint. I think I’ll finish it quickly. I’m 46% done now.

I am also reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which I have never read. I am teaching American literature again this year, and it’s the only required book for summer reading. The other books are choice books. Because we are supposed to teach the required book as our first unit, I need to read it. It’s not bad, but it’s not really what I want to read right now in my current frame of mind, so I’ve not got too far. I’m also reading it on the Kindle, and I’m 12% finished.

So what are you reading? Is it good?

photo credit: Maria Keays

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The Map of True Places

The Map of True PlacesBrunonia Barry’s second novel The Map of True Places is the story of Hepzibah Finch, known as Zee, a Boston therapist. When her patient Lilly Braedon commits suicide, Zee’s life spirals out of control—how could she not have seen the suicide coming? After all, wasn’t Lilly so much like her mother, who committed suicide about twenty years ago? Zee visits her father in Salem only to find the medication he’s taking for Parkinson’s is causing him to have hallucinations that he’s Nathaniel Hawthorne. Furthermore, she discovers that her father, Finch, has broken up with Melville, his partner for about twenty years. Suddenly Zee doesn’t know what she wants. Should she remain a therapist? Is she even a good one after what happened to Lilly? Does she still want to marry Michael?

After my recent visit to Salem, I enjoyed this book very much. The novel is set mostly in Salem. I pulled out my maps a few times to remind myself exactly where Barry’s locations were. I had visited some of them, including the House of the Seven Gables, across the street from the home where Finch and Zee live, Sixty2 on Wharf, Nathaniel’s, the Peabody-Essex Museum, and Ye Olde Pepper Companie candy store, just to name a few. Barry writes with a clear sense of place, and the city is almost another character in the story. She draws in characters from The Lace Reader toward the end—Ann Chase most prominently, but also Rafferty and mentions of Towner and May Whitney. Barry places Ann Chase’s witchcraft shop on Pickering Wharf, right about where Laurie Cabot’s shop is. I know I enjoyed this book more for having visited Salem such a short time before reading it, especially because this book focuses much more on the maritime history of Salem than the witchcraft history. When I visited I really felt a much stronger sense of Salem as an old trading port and imagined the ships returning from exotic places laden with spices two centuries ago.

The plot of the novel is intricately woven, and Barry doesn’t drop a thread. Every puzzler or detail she mentions is resolved by the end, but each had me wondering for most of the book. Why did Melville and Finch fight? What about that strange fortune teller’s story to Zee’s mother? It was obvious too that Barry had done her research about mental illness and her own experiences with her father’s Parkinson’s lend authenticity to Zee’s experiences with Finch.

I think the cover of the novel is gorgeous. I love the colors. The cover is a perfect evocation of the novel’s theme of finding yourself—the novel is really more about Zee trying to figure out who she is and right herself as her world is turned upside-down. I picked this book up late last night and read into the wee hours of the morning. When I woke again, I read straight through until I finished with a few breaks on the computer. I love being swept away by a book, and it was such a lovely visit back to Salem.

Rating: ★★★★★

Full disclosure: I won this book as part of a prize package from Destination Salem and William Morrow.

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Reading Update: July 31, 2010

WitchI have been reading Georgette Heyer’s Regency romance Charity Girl for the Celebration of Georgette Heyer at Austenprose. I am about 1/3 the way through. I also picked up Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms because I need to have it read before school starts: it’s summer reading for my 10th grade students, and I haven’t read it before. I know, shocking! I like it so far, but I can’t deny that I have truly been wanting to read something set in Salem ever since my trip. I tried to tell myself I was going to finish these two books first and then I could indulge, but you know what? It’s summer, and I’m going to read it now if I want to. So I have started Brunonia Barry’s The Map of True Places. I will probably move on to something else set in Salem for as long as the mood lasts. I had a wonderful time there, and I so enjoyed seeing everything I had read about.

Plus, how cool is it that the first few results in my Photodropper plugin that helps me find Flickr images I can use on my blog returned my own photographs?

photo credit: danahuff

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Salem Trip

I originally hadn’t planned to post this video of our trip to Salem, MA., but I will share it for a short time. I created it in iMovie using photographs and video taken with our iPhones and Flip camera. It’s a little distorted to fit here, but not substantially so. It clocks in at about 11 minutes.

Trip to Salem, MA., July 2010

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