Review: The Orphan of Cemetery Hill, Hester Fox

Review: The Orphan of Cemetery Hill, Hester FoxThe Orphan of Cemetery Hill by Hester Fox
Published by Graydon House ISBN: 1525804571
on September 15, 2020
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 337
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
three-half-stars

The dead won’t bother you if you don’t give them permission.

Boston, 1844.

Tabby has a peculiar gift: she can communicate with the recently departed. It makes her special, but it also makes her dangerous.

As an orphaned child, she fled with her sister, Alice, from their charlatan aunt Bellefonte, who wanted only to exploit Tabby’s gift so she could profit from the recent craze for seances.

Now a young woman and tragically separated from Alice, Tabby works with her adopted father, Eli, the kind caretaker of a large Boston cemetery. When a series of macabre grave robberies begins to plague the city, Tabby is ensnared in a deadly plot by the perpetrators, known only as the “Resurrection Men.”

In the end, Tabby’s gift will either save both her and the cemetery—or bring about her own destruction.

I wanted to read this book for two reasons:

  1. I had just finished Hester Fox’s newest book, A Lullaby for Witches, and there was an excerpt of this book at the end. I liked the first chapter.
  2. It is set in Boston, one of my favorite places.

After reading two of Hester Fox’s books (and having started a third), I feel secure in saying Fox is at her best in setting the scene. She evokes gothic New England settings with the practiced hand of the historian she is. The inspiration for Cemetery Hill is the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston’s North End. The North End is one of my favorite areas of Boston. Fox brings 19th-century Boston to life, but in my case, she didn’t have to work too hard since I had seen many of the places in the novel.

Characterization is more of a challenge. I found Tabby to be naive—especially for someone who has had to live by her wits for so long. I didn’t understand why she was so interested in Caleb. I didn’t like him at all, and it didn’t say much about her taste in men that she was that interested in him. He never seemed able to make up his mind what he wanted, and I suppose that’s realistic enough—real people have that problem. More problematic was that Fox didn’t seem to know if he was a decent guy or not, so he just came off to me as confusing. The lead characters just didn’t strike me as real in the way the characters in A Lullaby for Witches did. I don’t have to like characters in order to enjoy a book. Wuthering Heights is my favorite book, and I hate all the characters. I suppose something I have discovered about myself is that if a writer can take me to a place, I enjoy the reading experience, and Hester Fox can certainly take a reader to a place.

This paragraph contains a slightly spoilery detail. The sinister plot at the heart of the book didn’t ring true. I found it easier to believe Tabby was clairvoyant than that the villains in this novel were interested in using her ability to reanimate the dead. Why? What were they hoping to accomplish? That question was never clearly answered. I get why people would want to contact the dead, but I didn’t understand their Frankenstein-like pursuit of reanimation.

Those quibbles aside, I still believe the book is worth 3.5 stars. Why? I really enjoyed the setting, and I found Fox’s evocation of 1850s Boston fascinating. Though the lead characters didn’t interest me, I did like Eli and Tabby’s sister Alice. The book is escapist fun for any reader who likes gothic stories in a New England setting.

three-half-stars

Review: A Lullaby for Witches, Hester Fox

Review: A Lullaby for Witches, Hester FoxA Lullaby for Witches by Hester Fox
Published by Graydon House on February 1, 2022
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
four-half-stars


Two women. A history of witchcraft. And a deep-rooted female power that sings out across the centuries.

Once there was a young woman from a well-to-do New England family who never quite fit with the drawing rooms and parlors of her kin. Called instead to the tangled woods and wild cliffs surrounding her family’s estate, Margaret Harlowe grew both stranger and more beautiful as she cultivated her uncanny power. Soon, whispers of “witch” dogged her footsteps, and Margaret’s power began to wind itself with the tendrils of something darker.

One hundred and fifty years later, Augusta Podos takes a dream job at Harlowe House, the historic home of a wealthy New England family that has been turned into a small museum in Tynemouth, Massachusetts. When Augusta stumbles across an oblique reference to a daughter of the Harlowes who has nearly been expunged from the historical record, the mystery is too intriguing to ignore. But as she digs deeper, something sinister unfurls from its sleep, a dark power that binds one woman to the other across lines of blood and time. If Augusta can’t resist its allure, everything she knows and loves—including her very life—could be lost forever.

I enjoy a good witch book, and this was a pretty good witch book. As a bonus, it’s set in my current home state of Massachusetts in the fictional town of Tynemouth, somewhere on the North Shore (my best guess, based on its proximity to the real cities of Salem and Boston). Parts of Margaret’s story seemed stilted, I think in part because of the author’s choice to bring her into the present to reflect on her growing power in several italicized sections. The Margaret sections set entirely in the past rang true. I am not sure how else Fox might have accomplished her storyline, but those passages always took me out of the story for a minute. However, I kept turning the pages, wanting to know what would happen. Some of my questions remained unsatisfied, but I’m afraid they’re spoilers. If you highlight the text that follows this paragraph, you’ll see my spoiler questions, but if you don’t want the story spoiled, you can keep reading the paragraph that follows the spoilers section.

Spoilers!

  1. I never found out exactly how Augusta and Margaret were related. I worked on the assumption that she’d be a direct descendant until Margaret was killed before her child could be born. After that, I didn’t know how Augusta could be related to Margaret. 
  2. I also wanted to know more about Augusta’s family history. Fox teased several times that there were some big reveals buried in the boxes of mementos of her father, and Augusta sifts through them a few times, even finding Margaret’s comb and a family tree with the name Montrose, the maiden name of Margaret’s mother. “Bishop” was also on the family tree, and Bridget Bishop was executed during the Salem Witch Trials. Fox wouldn’t be the first writer to use Bridget Bishop as a real witch, if that’s the case—Deborah Harkness makes her protagonist in A Discovery of Witches a descendant of Bridget Bishop and a real witch.
  3. What exactly happened to Margaret? Did she vanish? Is she still out there, lurking? 

I understand some character names from Fox’s other books appear in this book as well, but this was my first book by Hester Fox. I liked it enough that it will not be my last. She reminds me a bit of Brunonia Barry in how she captures Massachusetts’s witchy history, and I really liked the idea that Augusta worked in a museum—the former home of a prominent family. There is a hint of Barry’s characterization from The Lace Reader and A Map of True Places in this book. I will always have a soft spot for Brunonia Barry because I won a trip to Salem, MA in connection with her book A Map of True Places, and I’m convinced it was a sort of beginning that led to our moving to MA two years later. I will also always have a soft spot for Salem, and truthfully, I’d love to live on the North Shore one day.

I really enjoyed Fox’s comment in her acknowledgments, offering “thanks and admiration” to “the many museum workers and volunteers who are actively decolonizing the field and making museums more equitable places, both for the audiences they serve and in the stories they tell.” This idea plays out in the novel in how Augusta and her co-workers work to remember the stories of the women of Tynemouth. For far too long, the stories of so many people have been forgotten, and this is especially true of women and people of color. Fox tried to include both in this novel. She was more successful in capturing the women, but I appreciated watching Augusta try to uncover forgotten stories for her exhibit.

four-half-stars

Review: The Bookshop on the Corner, Jenny Colgan

Review: The Bookshop on the Corner, Jenny ColganThe Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan
Published by HarperCollins Publishers on September 20, 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 368
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
four-half-stars

Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.

Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile—a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling.

From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending.

If you’ve read my previous post, you know my cat doesn’t have long to live, and it’s been difficult to read anything. I haven’t listened to audiobooks like I usually do on my walks because I find it hard to concentrate. I thought if I found a sort of cozy read, something of a love letter to books, I might do all right, and I was right. This book was just what the doctor ordered. It’s not great literature. It’s not going to change the world. It’s even pretty corny and twee. It’s like a Hallmark Channel movie made into a book. But it was kind of nice to disappear into Nina’s world in Kirrinfief, a place I desperately wanted to be real as much as I wanted the lovely children’s book Up on the Rooftops to be real.

I really enjoyed Jenny Colgan’s characters, especially the ancillary ones. Fair warning: this is the kind of book where the minor characters sort of steal the show whenever they’re on the page and the main characters are more of a vehicle for the story than anyone you fall in love with.

The one thing I didn’t like about this book was the title. I read somewhere that the book’s title only appears in the American edition, but I’m not sure that’s true. The title is misleading because Nina buys an old van and converts it into a mobile bookshop, so it’s not on any corner. The cover art makes no sense, given the novel’s story. I read that the original title was The Little Shop of Happy Ever After, which makes more sense as it’s the name of Nina’s mobile bookshop.

I’ll probably read more of Jenny Colgan’s books. This book isn’t for everyone, and I suspect some people would hate it for being so twee, but if twee is what you need, it’s perfect. It was perfect for me, at this moment.

four-half-stars

Mid-April Reading Update

I finished a couple of books this week and decided to roll the reviews together.

Mid-April Reading UpdateA Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders
Published by Random House on January 12, 2021
Length: 14 hours 44 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

For the last twenty years, George Saunders has been teaching a class on the Russian short story to his MFA students at Syracuse University. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he shares a version of that class with us, offering some of what he and his students have discovered together over the years. Paired with iconic short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, the seven essays in this book are intended for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times.

In his introduction, Saunders writes, “We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art—namely, to ask the big questions, questions like, How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” He approaches the stories technically yet accessibly, and through them explains how narrative functions; why we stay immersed in a story and why we resist it; and the bedrock virtues a writer must foster. The process of writing, Saunders reminds us, is a technical craft, but also a way of training oneself to see the world with new openness and curiosity. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a deep exploration not just of how great writing works but of how the mind itself works while reading, and of how the reading and writing of stories make genuine connection possible.

My husband and I listened to this on audiobook. He has been trying to get me to read George Saunders since an aborted attempt at Lincoln in the Bardo. I just couldn’t follow that one on audio, but I do want to try to read it in print. I see this book as a companion to Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Essentially, it’s a master class in how literature works using short stories by several Russian authors as a focus for analysis. If I had to pick a favorite short story, it would probably be “The Nose” (Chekov) or perhaps “Alyosha the Pot.” The book has a wonderful cast of narrators, including Rainn Wilson, B. D. Wong, Glenn Close, Phylicia Rashad, and Nick Offerman. Saunders narrates the analytical parts. I bought a print copy for use in my classroom. I’m not yet sure how I might use it, but I can see the potential.

Mid-April Reading UpdateThe Familiars by Stacey Halls
Published by MIRA on February 19, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 335
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
three-stars

Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a noblewoman, is with child again. None of her previous pregnancies have borne fruit, and her husband, Richard, is anxious for an heir. Then Fleetwood discovers a hidden doctor’s letter that carries a dire prediction: she will not survive another birth. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Gray, who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. But Alice soon stands accused of witchcraft.

Is there more to Alice than meets the eye? Fleetwood must risk everything to prove her innocence. As the two women’s lives become intertwined, the Witch Trials of 1612 loom. Time is running out; both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.

Rich and compelling, set against the frenzy of the real Pendle Hill Witch Trials, this novel explores the rights of 17th-century women and raises the question: Was witch-hunting really women-hunting? Fleetwood Shuttleworth, Alice Gray and the other characters are actual historical figures. King James I was obsessed with asserting power over the lawless countryside (even woodland creatures, or “familiars,” were suspected of dark magic) by capturing “witches”—in reality mostly poor and illiterate women.

I love reading books about witches, “real” or not, and I wanted to like this book more. It was compelling enough for me to finish; however, some of the author’s choices were perplexing. I didn’t find the protagonist, Fleetwood Shuttleworth, to be all that engaging, and I kept thinking about how much more interesting the story might have been if the protagonist had been one of the accused witches. It seems like a missed opportunity to me to have a relatively privileged outsider tell the story of the Pendle Witch Trials. Also, Fleetwood rides a horse all over Creation while hugely pregnant. I’m not sure how she got on the horse, never mind rode it, in that condition. Granted, I’m not a horsewoman, so what do I know. Another issue I had was that Fleetwood discovers early in the book, within the first few pages, that her husband is secretive, and she finds he’s hiding even more important information. They have a falling out, and it seems implausible when they reconcile. The author didn’t really lay the groundwork for that reconciliation to make sense. Still, I did learn some things about this interesting historical event.

Review: The Good Lord Bird, James McBride

Review: The Good Lord Bird, James McBrideThe Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Narrator: Michael Boatman
Published by Penguin Audio on August 20, 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 14 hours 35 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857; the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town with Brown, who believes he is a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry, whom Brown nicknames Little Onion, conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually, Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, which was one of the major catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride s meticulous eye for detail and character, THE GOOD LORD BIRD is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

I absolutely loved this book, and I think listening to the audiobook was a major reason why. Michael Boatman’s narration is excellent. I loved his characterization of John Brown and Owen Brown in particular. In style, this book reminded me a great deal of Mark Twain, particularly Huckleberry Finn. McBride’s portrayal of John Brown is sympathetic yet realistic. Through the voice of his narrator, Henry, we have a full picture of a complicated man: a religious zealot called by God to end slavery and a man who truly believed all people are equal. I honestly haven’t read enough about the real John Brown to know if the characterization is completely accurate, but it definitely rings true.

I love it when historical fiction asks me to research, too, and this book had me checking out other sources so I could learn about John Brown. Confederate President Jefferson Davis once said that what he feared was “thousands of John Browns.” It’s interesting to ask what might have happened had John Brown not conducted his raid on Harper’s Ferry or engaged in the skirmishes in Bleeding Kansas. Would the war have happened later? Would the South have organized in the face of ardent abolitionism? In any case, it’s difficult for me not to admire his dedication to the cause of freedom for African Americans at a time when that was not just unpopular but illegal. His tactics were violent, but it’s probably true that nonviolent protest would have accomplished nothing. After all, it took a bloody war to resolve the question of slavery, and the question of racism is still open.

I appreciated McBride’s invention of Henry as a narrator. He offered an opportunity to interpret John Brown’s actions through the lens of one of the enslaved people Brown was attempting to free and also to offer an outside perspective that is both sympathetic and critical of Brown. This balance makes it easier for McBride to draw a more complex picture of Brown and his followers than if he had chosen a narrator from among them or even a further outsider.

There is a chunk of the story in the middle when Henry is separated from Brown that I didn’t find as enjoyable. During this section, Henry is working in a hotel/whorehouse and falls in love with one of the prostitutes. However, he is disguising himself as a girl, so it’s complicated. I’m wondering now, as I finished the book, if that section added to the story or not. I suppose it depends on whether the reader sees this as a story of John Brown or a story of Henry Shackleford. I tend toward the former, and I will admit that part of the book slowed down the story’s momentum a bit for me, but not enough for me to dock any stars.

One literary aspect I appreciated was McBride’s clever use of motifs. For example, on several occasions, Brown wants to stop and pray when the group is in danger, and his son Owen is often the one to tell him to wrap it up so they can get out of danger. Another example is Brown’s directive to Henry to “hive the bees,” or try to rouse support for Brown’s cause among the Black population. He brings both motifs back touchingly at the end of the novel. We know how John Brown’s story ends, but McBride managed to make it satisfying and true to the characters he created. The first thing I did upon finishing this book is to check out Deacon King Kong, another of McBride’s novels. I wanted more. I can’t wait to watch the film!

five-stars

Mid-March Reviews

I’m in spring break for school and catching up on some recent book reviews.

Mid-March ReviewsKeep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change by Maggie Smith
Published by Atria Books ISBN: 1982132078
on October 6, 2020
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 224
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Goodreads
four-stars

Perfect for fans of Anne Lamott and Cheryl Strayed, this is an inspiring and uplifting collection of essays and quotes on creativity and resilience by the award-winning author of the viral poem Good Bones.

When award-winning poet Maggie Smith started writing daily Twitter posts under the title “Keep Moving” in the wake of her divorce, they unexpectedly caught fire. People around the world connected to her short, inspiring quotes which brilliantly captured the complexities of the human heart. Funny, wry, and profound, Maggie’s writing has been and continues to be a form of healing for herself and countless fans.

Now, you can experience her outstanding and healing prose with this powerful and evocative collection. Featuring some of her most popular posts and essays, Keep Moving also includes new and never before published writing. Gorgeously and lovingly wrought, this is the perfect gift for anyone looking for a daily dose of optimism and spiritual nourishment.

This book is mostly encouraging aphorisms and short meditations. I found some of it helpful, hence four stars, but I prefer Maggie Smith’s poetry.

Mid-March ReviewsDavid Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Narrator: Richard Armitage
Published by Audible Studios on February 9, 2016
Genres: Classic
Length: 36 hours 30 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

David Copperfield is the story of a young man's adventures on his journey from an unhappy and impoverished childhood to the discovery of his vocation as a successful novelist. Among the gloriously vivid cast of characters he encounters are his tyrannical stepfather, Mr Murdstone; his brilliant, but ultimately unworthy school-friend James Steerforth; his formidable aunt, Betsey Trotwood; the eternally humble, yet treacherous Uriah Heep; frivolous, enchanting Dora Spenlow; and the magnificently impecunious Wilkins Micawber, one of literature's great comic creations. In David Copperfield—the novel he described as his 'favourite child'—Dickens drew revealingly on his own experiences to create one of the most exuberant and enduringly popular works, filled with tragedy and comedy in equal measure.

My husband and I listened to this one. First, it’s completely easy to understand why this novel has always been popular and remains a classic. It’s a delight from start to finish. Betsey Trotwood has to be one of the most brilliant characters ever conceived, and David’s old nemesis Uriah Heep is horribly realistic (surely Charles Dickens knew a guy like this, right?). Richard Armitage’s narration is amazing. His acting talent is on full display in the various voices; his Uriah Heep is entirely unctuous. Every time he says “Uriah writhed,” you can feel it. Gross. To be fair, Dickens’s writing suffers a bit from the addition of an annoying-young-damsel-who-is-supposed-to-be-attractive-for-some-reason-no-one-can-figure-out. I noticed it in A Tale of Two Cities and to an extent in Great Expectations, but Dora takes the cake. I thought she was stupid and annoying and completely incompatible with David. What a cast of memorable characters. What a great book. I’m glad I finally read it.

Mid-March ReviewsSongs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie
Narrator: Kristen Sieh
Published by Random House Audio on June 22, 2021
Length: 10 hours 45 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
three-half-stars

A scintillating debut from a major new voice in fiction, Songs in Ursa Major is a love story set in 1969, alive with music, sex, and the trappings of fame.

Raised on an island off Massachusetts by a mother who wrote songs for famous musicians, Jane Quinn is singing in her own band before she's old enough to even read music. When folk legend Jesse Reid hears about Jane's performance at the island's music festival, a star is born—and so is a passionate love affair: they become inseparable when her band joins his on tour. Wary of being cast as his girlfriend—and haunted by her mother's shattered ambitions—Jane shields her relationship from the public eye, but Jesse's star power pulls her into his orbit of fame. Caught up in the thrill of the road and the profound and lustful connection she has with Jesse, Jane is blind-sided by the discovery she makes about the dark secret beneath his music. Heartbroken and blackballed by the industry, Jane is now truly on her own: to make the music she loves, and to make peace with her family. Shot through with the lyrics, the icons, the lore, the adrenaline of the early 70s music scene, Songs in Ursa Major pulses with romantic longing and asks the question so many female artists must face: What are we willing to sacrifice for our dreams?

I wanted to like this book more. It suffers from the fact that Daisy Jones & The Six and The Final Revival of Opal & Nev exist and it’s not as strong in comparison. This novel is sort of a thinly-veiled story of James Taylor and maybe Joni Mitchell set mostly on a fictionalized version of Martha’s Vineyard. I think there are some anachronisms to start with. For example, “What Would Jane Do” based on “What Would Jesus Do?” might be a bit out of time. While the WWJD saying goes back to the 1800s, its resurgence only dates to the 1990s. It felt out of place for Jane Quinn’s fans to pick it up. At one point, Jane’s record label guy (I forget what exactly his role was, but he discovered Jane) had an answering machine. I guess they existed prior to the 1980s, but they were not widely used. The fact that things DID exist doesn’t mean they were WIDELY USED, hence the feelings of anachronism. These were the two most glaring issues, but they were not the only ones. The other issue was a spoilery plot point. I won’t divulge it, but it felt like a cheat when it was revealed because the author used third-person limited and focused on Jane. It’s one thing for Jane to keep something from Jesse, but it’s another for her to keep it even from the reader. I understand why the author felt the need to save the secret, but I didn’t like the way it was handled, and it was at that point that the book lost me. If you’re going to have a protagonist lie to the reader, you need to pull it off with a bit more finesse. I finished it because I’d become invested, and I did enjoy part of the journey, which is why it ultimately landed on 3.5 stars.

Review: Possession, A. S. Byatt

Review: Possession, A. S. ByattPossession by A.S. Byatt
Narrator: Virginia Leishman
Published by Vintage ISBN: 0679735909
on October 1, 1991
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 555
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.

Man Booker Prize Winner (1990)

I first read this novel about 20 years ago on my husband’s recommendation, and I felt like revisiting it. It’s even better than I remembered. The blurb doesn’t do Byatt’s genius justice. Not only did she invent a fictional love story between two fictional Victorian poets, but she also managed to build a world of literary criticism around the poets, replete with territorial academics and tongue-in-cheek digs at some of the wild theories academics espouse about symbolism and meaning. On top of all that, she wrote poetry and critical excerpts purportedly the work of her characters. All of this serves to make this novel and its characters very real. You might swear, after reading the book, that you also had to read Randolph Henry Ash in school and also couldn’t make any sense of him (just as a few of the characters say).

Ash appears to be based on Robert Browning, and this supposition is strengthened by the fact that Byatt’s mother was a Browning scholar. She likely heard many of the things that later cropped up in her book around the dinner table at home. Christabel LaMotte seems to be a composite of writers like Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and Charlotte Brontë. The scholars studying their work seem pretty recognizable figures in academia. I think this book might potentially have a narrow appeal. I’m sure English literature nerds, poetry lovers, and anyone interested in Victorian literature would enjoy it, but beyond that, the poetry passages are purposefully dense and difficult, and I’m not sure the general reading public would find the plot thrilling. (I did.) If your interests lie within that narrow window, reading this book will provide great rewards.

Because a good chunk of this novel is set in the 1850s-1860s, I’m counting it as my first book in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge for 2022. I’m also counting as a book set in the United Kingdom (a small part is set in France) for the European Reading Challenge. See my reading challenges page for more.

five-stars

Review: In the Midst of Winter, Isabel Allende

Review: In the Midst of Winter, Isabel AllendeIn the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
Published by Atria Books ISBN: 150117813X
on October 31, 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Goodreads
four-stars

New York Times and worldwide bestselling “dazzling storyteller” (Associated Press) Isabel Allende returns with a sweeping novel about three very different people who are brought together in a mesmerizing story that journeys from present-day Brooklyn to Guatemala in the recent past to 1970s Chile and Brazil.

In the Midst of Winter begins with a minor traffic accident—which becomes the catalyst for an unexpected and moving love story between two people who thought they were deep into the winter of their lives. Richard Bowmaster—a 60-year-old human rights scholar—hits the car of Evelyn Ortega—a young, undocumented immigrant from Guatemala—in the middle of a snowstorm in Brooklyn. What at first seems just a small inconvenience takes an unforeseen and far more serious turn when Evelyn turns up at the professor’s house seeking help. At a loss, the professor asks his tenant Lucia Maraz—a 62-year-old lecturer from Chile—for her advice. These three very different people are brought together in a mesmerizing story that moves from present-day Brooklyn to Guatemala in the recent past to 1970s Chile and Brazil, sparking the beginning of a long-overdue love story between Richard and Lucia.

Exploring the timely issues of human rights and the plight of immigrants and refugees, the book recalls Allende’s landmark novel The House of the Spirits in the way it embraces the cause of “humanity, and it does so with passion, humor, and wisdom that transcend politics” (Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post). In the Midst of Winter will stay with you long after you turn the final page.

In the Midst of Winter is my first Isabel Allende, and I enjoyed it. The story kept me turning pages, wondering what would happen next. It was a deceptive book in that it reads like a cozy mystery, to a certain degree, but it tackles some fairly important issues, such as the Disappeared in Chile in the 1970s and 1980s and the plight of Guatemalans living with violence in the present day. It also touches on depression, cancer, alcoholism, and human trafficking. There is a surprising amount of humor in the novel, but I never felt Allende wasn’t treating the subjects with seriousness. Some aspects of the ending will not surprise, but others might keep readers guessing.

I read this book because Twitter friends and founders of the hashtag #THEBOOKCHAT are planning to discuss the book on January 23, and I wanted to be able to participate in the chat—talking about books with other adults is always fun for this high school English teacher. Otherwise, I would likely never have read it, and I’m glad I did. It was a nice way to start off the reading year. It examined some serious social justice issues but included some dark humor and warmth. The characters were fully realized and well-drawn. I’m excited to participate in the chat with my Twitter friends in a couple of weeks.

four-stars

Review: Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro

Review: Klara and the Sun, Kazuo IshiguroKlara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, Sura Siu
Published by Random House Audio on March 2, 2021
Length: 10 hours 16 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

'KLARA AND THE SUN' IS A MAGNIFICENT NEW NOVEL FROM THE NOBEL LAUREATE KAZUO ISHIGURO - AUTHOR OF 'NEVER LET ME GO' AND THE BOOKER PRIZE-WINNING 'THE REMAINS OF THE DAY.'

'KLARA AND THE SUN,' the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her.

'KLARA AND THE SUN' is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: What does it mean to love?
In its award citation in 2017, the Nobel committee described Ishiguro's books as "novels of great emotional force" and said he has "uncovered the abyss of our illusory sense of connection with the world."

Kazuo Ishiguro seems to me, more than any other author living, to be writing to explore what it means to be human. Where does our humanity reside? How do we remember? How are we remembered? Or, as Josie’s father asks Klara in one of the most profoundly moving parts of the book, “Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you believe there is such a thing?” That passage was the first part of the book to cause me to burst into tears—it was not the last—and as I explained to my husband, it reminded me of this essay, “Joyas Voladores” by Brian Doyle, adding more dimension to the essay (which, honestly, didn’t make me cry the first time I read it but now makes me cry because I associate it with this passage). Ron Charles argues in his review of Klara and the Sun that ” the real subject, as always in Ishiguro’s dusk-lit fiction, is the moral quandary of the human heart.”

I have yet to finish an Ishiguro novel without bawling, and this book was no exception. As with his other novels, in Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro’s narrator has a compelling voice. Her childlike propensity to hope, her belief in the healing power of the sun, is simply heartbreaking. It’s hard not to draw parallels to both The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, and both of those novels also have memorable narrators who struggle to make sense of the mysteries of the human heart as well. There is something different in Klara’s struggle to please, to understand. She has the lack of agency of Kathy in Never Let Me Go and the outsider observational perspective of Stevens in The Remains of the Day, but she’s somehow more innocent. The ending of the book just wrecked me.

This book is one of the best I read this year. It has me thinking about what it means to be human and how much of our humanity we have lost over the last several years. Prepare the tissues if you read it. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Superb.

five-stars

Review: Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family, Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth C. Denlinger

Review: Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family, Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth C. DenlingerShelley's Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family by Stephen Hebron, Elizabeth C. Denlinger
Published by Bodleian Library ISBN: 1851243399
on January 15, 2011
Genres: Biography, Nonfiction, Poetry
Pages: 192
Format: Paperback
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Goodreads
five-stars

It is difficult to think of a family more endowed with literary genius than the Shelley family—from the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, novelist Mary Shelley, to Mary’s parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft—all were authors in their own right. Using extensive archival material Shelley’s Ghost explores the making of this remarkable literary family’s reputation.

Drawing on the Bodleian Library’s outstanding collection of letters, poetry manuscripts, rare printed books, portraits, and other personalia—including Shelley’s working notebooks, Keats’s letters to Shelley, William Godwin’s diary, and the original manuscript of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—Stephen Hebron charts the history of this talented yet troubled family. After Percy Bysshe Shelley’s drowning in 1822, Mary published various manuscripts relating to both her husband’s and her father’s lives, and passed this historical legacy to her son, Sir Percy Florence Shelley and his wife, Lady Jane Shelley. As guardians of the archive until they bequeathed it to the Bodleian in 1892, Sir Percy Florence and Lady Jane helped shape the posthumous reputations of these writers. An afterword by Elizabeth Denlinger of the New York Public Library offers an additional perspective, exploring material relating to the Shelley family that slipped beyond the family’s control.

An unparalleled look at one of the most significant families of British Romantic literature, Shelley’s Ghost will be welcomed by scholars and the many fans of this enduring literacy legacy.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was the poet who made me fall in love with poetry. I can’t claim I always understand what he says, but he captures something that really spoke to me as a high-school student with dreams of being a writer, too. Later, I took a course in college called Late Romantic Literature. My university was on the quarter system at that time, and each quarter was 10 weeks long. I recall we spent two weeks each on Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Mary Shelley. I don’t remember what the other two weeks’ focus was. The course only deepened my appreciation for the Romantic poets, especially Shelley. About ten years ago, I was given this book after entering a contest. The goal was to record yourself reciting a Shelley poem, and the best entry would win a signed edition of this book. I didn’t submit the best entry, but I submitted one of only three entries, so the Bodleian decided to give all of us a copy. It was rather nice of them to do, and I started to read the book, but one thing happened and then another, and I’m sad to say I let the book sit on my bookshelf. I finally read it over my winter break.

The images in the book are gorgeous. I wish I were better able to read the letters and manuscripts photographed for the book, or perhaps that full transcriptions had been provided in an appendix. Unfortunately, the Bodleian has taken down the exhibition website as the technologies used to build and maintain it are obsolete. You can see some of the exhibition in this video:

I am not sure to what extent this exhibition was permanent or that visitors to the Bodleian could see it today, but the exhibition book captures beautiful photographs of everything from artwork to manuscripts. The text of the exhibition book presents the history of the family from William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft through Percy Florence Shelley and his wife Jane, Lady Shelley. Percy Florence Shelley was the only child of Percy Bysshe and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley to survive to adulthood. I found myself particularly interested in Lady Shelley as she turned out to be something of an eccentric, and her devotion to the memory of her late father- and mother-in-law may be one reason why we have so many of the family’s manuscripts and belongings. She seems to have adored her mother-in-law, Mary Shelley.

I really love seeing the handwriting of writers, and this book includes several images from journals, notebooks, and letters written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and her parents William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. I was particularly intrigued by the chapter on Shelley’s notebooks. Shelley drowned, along with his friend Edward Williams, when his boat the Don Juan capsized off the coast of Italy. How poignant and sad that Shelley had a tendency to draw boats in his journals. I was also struck by the work Mary Shelley did to secure her husband’s literary legacy while fighting her father-in-law’s wishes to bury all of his son’s work, especially as Mary needed her father-in-law’s support to ensure her son, Percy Florence Shelley, had a proper education and inherited the Shelley baronetcy. (I’m not sure she cared as much about the title as she did that her son was educated and had the support he needed.)

I was moved by William Godwin’s letter to his daughter in February 1823 (some months after Shelley’s death):

Do not, I intreat you, be cast down about your worldly circumstances. You certainly contain within yourself the means of your subsistence. Your talents are truly extraordinary. Frankenstein is universally known; &, though it can never be a book for vulgar reading, it is every where respected. It is the most wonderful work to have been written at twenty years of age that I ever heard of.

I wonder if she felt at all encouraged that her father, widely considered a great philosopher and writer in his time, felt this way about her work, and not because she was his daughter, but because she was good.

I think anyone with an interest in Romantic poets or Shelley, in particular, will enjoy the beautiful images in this book. The text may or may not illuminate the family history, depending on the reader’s familiarity with the broad strokes of their lives. It’s a beautiful book and one I’m happy to own (even if it took me a decade to finally read).

five-stars