The Bloodletters Daughter by Linda Lafferty (Fictionalized History)

Yuck.

This is the *worst* kind of fictionalized history. I’m not a fan of fictionalized history to begin with — combining fact with imagination without clear separation is irritating. But in this case the author went one step further — she simply threw out any real history that didn’t support her story and added in a completely false story, using with real historical characters. If she wanted to write a melodrama and place it in an historical context, why not just pick a time and some fake characters and go from there? Instead, she uses a real King (Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, King of Bohemia, and King of Hungary and Croatia from 1576 – 1612), his bastard son (Don Julius), and a rumor that the latter abused, killed, and disfigured the local barber’s daughter and turned it into a giant melodrama featuring a lunatic (Don Julius), a ravishing and determined “simple Bohemian bath girl” (the barber’s daughter), and an entire people who simultaneously lived in fear because the King was so powerful that Don Julius could do whatever he liked and yet forced the King to leave his throne at the end because they were so angry that Don Julius killed an innocent girl.

Honestly, the whole book was stupid from beginning to end. There were some poorly integrated sections referencing conflict between the Catholics, Protestants, and the Ottomans, and some others talking about Kepler, Galileo, and Brahe but they had absolutely nothing to do with the story.

Normally I would have stopped reading after the first references to the “azure eyes” and “russet hair” of the heroine — clear markers of a frivolous book — but this was a book club selection so I had to see it through to the end.

Circe by Madeline Miller (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 3.5/5

A surprisingly engrossing page turner that brings to life the stories of antiquity in a new genre of fictionalized mythology. Circe is a sorceress featured in multiple classic texts including the well-known Homer’s Odyssey. Miller has woven together all references into a gripping narrative that embeds many well-known stories (Theseus and the Minotaur, Jason and the Golden Fleece, etc.) She is astonishingly accurate in her mythology — I was constantly checking some of the stories and always found them documented in some old text — but Miller has brought them to life with a more modern sensibility on the part of Circe herself.

At first I thought this was an “anti-man” book as there were so many scenes of men as raping, pillaging, murdering, beasts, but then I realized that most of the women were pretty awful too: power hungry, scheming, nasty, and cruel. This book will be a big hit with the Games of Thrones crowd. She embedded a different perspective on what had been considered “heroic” literature, allowing the characters (Circe, Penelope, and Telemachus in this case) to question what kind of man Odysseus really was and whether he should actually be considered heroic. All done without getting preachy or pushing an agenda. Also included was a philosophical discourse on the nature of mortality, change, and loneliness.

The writing is excellent — lyrical prose painting vivid mythological portraits of the gods with insight into their motivations and inner world. For example, when her father, Helios the sun god, leaves a place Circe thinks: “Of course he did not consider how black it would be when he was gone. My father has never been able to imagine the world without himself in it.”

Good story, compelling writing, and food for thought all in one.

Some good lines:

“I have seen her do a thousand such tricks a thousand times. My father always fell for them. He believed the world’s natural order was to please him.”

“Yet they were both Titans and preferred each other’s company to those new-squeaking gods upon Olympus who had not seen the making of the world.”

“It made me dizzy to realize that this was but a fraction of a fraction of all the men the world had bred. How could such variation endure, such endless iteration of minds and faces? Did the earth not go mad?”

“The revulsion was plain on her face. Once when I was young I asked what mortals looked like. My father said, “You may say they are shaped like us, but only as the worm is shaped like the whale.” My mother had been simpler: like savage bags of rotten flesh.”

“This was how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practice and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun. But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters”

“The closest we come is weaving or smithing, but these things are skills and there is no drudgery to them since all the parts that might be unpleasant are taken away with power. The wool is dyed not with stinking vats and stirring spoons, but with a snap. There is no tedious mining, the ores leap willing from the mountain.”

“I had scarcely known true intelligence — I had spoken to Prometheus for only a moment, and in all the rest of Oceanos’ halls most of what passed for as cleverness was only archness and spite. Hermes’ mind was a thousand times sharper and more swift.”

“He did not thank Medea for her aid; he scarcely looked at her. As if a demigoddess saving him at every turn was only his due.”

The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear (Mystery)

Writing: 3 Plot: 4 Characters: 3.5

The latest in Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series (#15) finds Maisie investigating the murder of Catherine Saxon — the irrepressible American journalist from a wealthy, politically connected, and a defiantly isolationist family.

This series never feels stale — each volume moves forward in time (the first took place in 1929 and we’re up to 1940 now) and is based on a factual piece of British History. In this case, the Blitz and the effort to get the U.S. to enter the war. Woven into the plot is Joseph Kennedy, the anti-Semitic and somewhat pro-Hitler, then American ambassador to England and the U.S. Organization America First. I’m sure it’s not an accident that she chose this particular topic for this year’s entry.

Always fun to read these — very little “filler,” a twisted plot, and Maisie’s character progresses as well.

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall (Historical Fiction)

A slow-paced, deeply interior book about love, marriage, and faith. It follows a linear progression through the lives of four individuals, two marriages, and a forty-year shared ministry.

The real center of the book is the place of God in people’s lives. Each character has his or her own relationship (or lack thereof) with God: Charles knows absolutely that there is a God and that he has a calling to the ministry; his wife Lily is equally certain that there is no God and has no affinity with the tasks expected of a minister’s wife, preferring an academic life. Nan is a minister’s daughter and has never questioned her faith; James is not religious and has doubts about God, but feels the ministry would be a good platform for his drive towards social justice.

As each character grows into his or her life and faces difficulties both large and small, God is at the center of many thoughts and actions and is present on most pages. This was surprisingly non-repetitious, and the arguments, discussions, reflections, and historical references were balanced and intriguing, even to someone like myself who has no interest in religion.

The characters are all very earnest — even in their doubt and questioning, there is no cynicism (or any humor which I’m now realizing is often predicated on cynicism). It was somewhat refreshing and made me realize how very cynical the world feels today and how it wasn’t always that way.

The prose is beautiful, though at times over wrought. It is a philosophical and reflective look at life and marriage and documents the details of a healthy approach to personal growth — listening, discussing, reflecting, and resolution.

I was initially quite put off by the number of references to God and faith — it really isn’t my thing — but I found myself quite taken by the four individuals and their personal quests for understanding and a fulfilling life. I learned quite a bit more than I expected.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 13th, 2019.

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Story: 3.5/5 Historical depiction: 5/5

In 1933, Violet Speedwell is one of the many “surplus” women — women for whom there simply are no men, WWI having depleted the stores. This quiet, slow-paced, and yet utterly engrossing novel follows the 38-year old Violet as she slowly makes an independent life for herself without the availability of traditional options.

Leaving her home in Southampton and her embittered and critical mother, she takes a low-paid typing job and a room in a boarding house in nearby Winchester. It is there that she becomes drawn into the community of Cathedral Broderers who have taken on the task of producing the Cathedral embroideries (360 kneelers, 62 stall cushions and 96 alms bags). I am in no way “crafty,” but I found the description of the entire effort, from overall design, to process, to individual effort to be fascinating. As one of the volunteers (also a Latin teacher) says, “sic parvis magna — from small things, greatness,” commenting that these may be the only mark they are able to make on the world. I liked the fact that the lives described may have been “small” by modern dramatic standards, but were rich and full of meaning to those who lived them.

There is more: early forays into independence; friendships with other women who have not made conventional choices; beautiful descriptions of the natural beauty of the region; and some utterly fascinating descriptions of bell-ringing (did you know that in campanology (bell ringing) a “Peal” is a pattern of bell ringing that goes through 5,000 changes without stopping and can take over three hours? I did not. Don’t forget — each bell is pulled at the precise time by an actual human being.)

Excellent historical fiction based on real events and organizations and beautiful writing that stays true to the mores and habits of the period.

Thank you to Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

When I was Yours by Lizzie Page (historical fiction)

Writing: 3 Plot: 3 Characters: 2.5

I loved the beginning of this book — tight prose, humorous, great writing, and the promise of a story that spanned two world wars (as told in alternating chapter time periods). In 1914, Vivi Mudie-Coates is the young, beautiful, and conventional British woman who wants nothing more than to marry Edmund, the handsome, upper crust friend of her cousin Richard. In 1939, she is indeed married to Edmund, but is anything but happy. When the children begin to be evacuated from London, the childless couple are given Pearl, somewhat against Edmund’s wishes.

The parallel stories wander through all the standard places — nursing on the continent during the Great War, the bombing of Britain in WWII, the evacuation of London children, driving ambulances, friends and relatives killed… There is a theme of casual anti-semitism threaded throughout that becomes more personal to Vivi as the story evolves. This book has all the elements of a great story but it just didn’t work for me. The plot was dragged out, so what started as a tight beginning just went on and on without any of the depth that would make the time spent feel worthwhile. Instead, it veered into pure melodrama with increased bombing deaths, close calls, suicides, and missed opportunities for true love. Even worse (for me), I found the main character to be shallow and kind of stupid. She did not behave in a way that I found at all believable. I never warmed to her, and even towards the end — when she finally started to do the right thing — she did it in a petulant, selfish manner that I found quite off-putting.

This is possibly the first book I’ve reviewed that kept me going to the end because I wanted to know what happened, but that I really disliked. I hate to be so negative — I tend to only review books that I like because I don’t bother finishing the others but …

Thank you to Bookouture and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 16th, 2019.

Clover Blue by Eldonna Edwards (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 5

When 10-year old Clover Blue witnesses his first live birth in his Northern California commune, he begins to wonder which of the sister-mothers he actually came from. But there is an odd hush around that subject, in this otherwise open, loving, and caring community.

Ranging from 1974 through 1978, the book follows Blue’s quest to understand who he really is. Blue is a wonderful character and the detailed depiction of communal life and those who chose it are inspiring. The author manages to paint a full picture of real people who have consciously formed a family in a spiritual environment and yet who have also made mistakes with serious impact. I love the balanced way she has shown what might happen in such circumstances — with an objective tone which simultaneously portrays the beauty of the people, their relationships, and their way of life as well as the struggles, frailty, and hypocrisies.

I loved reading this book — particularly for the characters and the fact that it embodied all the best things I remember from that era (Blue is four years younger than I was during the time period). The commune members have their own backstories and their relationships within the commune parallel the evolution of the commune itself. The story unfolds beautifully with ongoing reflection. The commune is clothing optional and the kids are home schooled — with each of the “Elders” imparting their own wisdom. The local library serves as a fantastic resource. The essay Blue is assigned to write about people watching TV is priceless (he has to go to the local clinic to observe this as there is no television at the commune). One of the Elders sums up all of the great religions with: “Great prophets like Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha pretty much said the same thing… Be kind. Respect life. Pay attention. And focus on the here and now, not the promise of something better in the afterlife.” So simple.

The start is a little slow — I initially found the writing a little clunky and almost stopped reading — but fairly soon I was completely caught up in the characters and their surroundings and forgot I was reading at all (my measure of a good book!).

Highly recommended!

Thank you to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 28th, 2019.