Booking Through Thursday

Thursday, September 30, 2010

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If you read series, do you ever find a series “jumping the shark?” How do you feel about that?And, do you keep reading anyway?
I really don't read that many series - the only one that comes to mind is Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander" series.

I read the first two books in the series - Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber when I was around 16/17 years old. I came back to them in my mid-twenties and at that point Diana had gotten ahead of me with several more books in the series. I think I read the first four all in a row and then started on the fifth "The Fiery Cross." In my opinion, that whole book was a jump the shark moment for the series. Long, tedious descriptions of community gatherings and extended examinations of Roger and Brianna's relationship. To make matters worse, the series did not seem to be moving forward at all! I stopped reading about 100 pages in and haven't returned to the subsequent books in the series.

I've since heard that many people felt that way about "Fiery Cross" and have improved opinions of "A Breath of Snow and Ashes" and "Echo in the Bone." At some point, I may return to those books but it would take a lot to get me back in with "The Fiery Cross."

W.W.W. Wednesdays

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

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It's time for W.W.W. Wednesdays: 


* What are you currently reading? "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett - this is a bit commercial/mainstream for me but I'm enjoying it so far.
 

* What did you recently finish reading? I just finished "The Psychick Book of Deliverance Dane."
 

* What do you think you’ll read next? I was intrigued by Reading the Past's review of "Conceit" by Mary Novik - a novel about John Donne, the 17th century English poet. I ordered it from Amazon and will probably end up reading that next. But then again - a couple of my library holds just came in - "My Name is Mary Sutter" and "A Vision of Light" by Judith Merkle Riley - I might work my way through those first.

Review: The Psychick Book of Deliverance Dane

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

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Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin needs to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie's grandmother's abandoned home near Salem, she can't refuse. As she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the family house, Connie discovers an ancient key within a seventeenth-century Bible. The key contains a yellowing fragment of parchment with a name written upon it: Deliverance Dane. This discovery launches Connie on a quest--to find out who this woman was and to unearth a rare artifact of singular power: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge.   

As the pieces of Deliverance's harrowing story begin to fall into place, Connie is haunted by visions of the long-ago witch trials, and she begins to fear that she is more tied to Salem's dark past then she could have ever imagined.

I remember visiting Salem, Massachusetts as a teenager and being simultaneously repelled and interested by the tourist circus centered around the 1692 witch trials. As Katherine Howe points out in her light but fun read, Salem is one of the few places on earth where a moment in history marked by human suffering and folly has been turned into a kind of Wiccan Disneyland. But take away the pointy witch hats and the broomstick key chains and Salem still has a dark, windswept, old-New England appeal.

In its best moments, Deliverance Dane manages to recreate this feeling of history - how it can both comfort and oppress those of us who live in the present. It made me miss those October days in Vermont when the wind is whipping the last leaves off the trees, mist shrouds the mountains and your thoughts inevitably turn to the past.

But that rusty creaking sound? Its not a ghost or a demon opening door - its the sound of the plot pieces moving into place.From the crazy, bow-tied professor to the too-good-to-be-true love interest, Dane doesn't hold many surprises. I did appreciate the way Howe handled an unusual plot twist about 2/3 of the way through the book - it could have come off as absolutely absurd, instead I sympathized with her protagonist, American history PhD candidate Connie Goodwin, and went along with the silly fun.

Be warned - this is not really a historical novel. I picked it up thinking it was primarily set in late 17th century Massachusetts but there are only brief flashbacks to those times. The bulk of the book focuses on Connie in 1991 - a time I'm sincerely hoping doesn't count as history quite yet!

Would I recommend Deliverance Dane? Yes - if you're worn out by longer, bigger-think reads and want something fun and light to read around Halloween, I would say go for it. Howe is a talented writer and you won't feel as if you've wasted your time by the end.

Teaser Tuesday

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Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

- Grab your current read
- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS!

- Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

I'm almost finished with "The Psychick Book of Deliverance Dane" by Katherine Howe. I'm not sure if it even counts as historical fiction unless 1991 (when most of the book takes place) counts as the past! The book has a lot to say about what it's like to be a historian and imagine the past, so I'll count it here anyway:


"No further sound issued from the shadows, and Peter moved softly towards the bed where his daughter had lain for the better part of a week. He pulled aside the heavy woollen curtains that hung from the bedposts and lowered himself onto the edge of the lumpy feather mattress, careful not to jostle it. The lapping light of the fire brushed over the woolen blankets, illuminating a wan little face  framed by tangles of flax-colored hair. The eyes in the face were half-open, but glassy and unseeing."

Review: Duchess

Monday, September 27, 2010

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Sarah Jennings's ascent from poverty as a 13-year-old to the highest echelons of late 17th- and early 18th-century English society has all the trappings of supermarket tabloids: intrigue, treachery, deceit and scandals. In this first-person telling, Scott takes a near-scholarly approach but maintains the thrills as Sarah and her equally ambitious husband, John Churchill, risk charges of treason (and thus, their necks) to ensure the crown for Anne Stuart. Sarah and John become the ultimate power couple: she gets her way, her riches and her title nearly without sacrificing her own principles, while John, despite his personal ambition, seeks the best for his family and country, becoming England's greatest military hero.

I was quite excited to read my first Susan Holloway Scott book since I’ve heard so many good things out there on other historical fiction blogs. Unfortunately, my expectations did not quite meet the reality of the book. As imagined by Scott, Sarah Jennings Churchill is an engaging and vibrant woman. We first see her in the midst of one of the greatest crises of her life before backtracking to her origins and her start as a maid at King Charles II's court.

Despite her constant desire for power and her almost relentless pursuit of titles and influence, Scott manages to make Sarah a likeable character. The choice to tell her story in the first-person goes a long way towards implicating the reader in Sarah’s worldview, carrying us along in the adventure of court machinations and king-making. Scott takes what could have become dull explanations of dynastic battles and diplomatic negotiations and turns them into moments that feel as fresh as today’s news.

Unfortunately, the key relationship of the book – the grand romance between Sarah and John Churchill – feels obligatory and by-the-numbers. John never feels like a real person and so all of their interactions – meant to display a meeting of soul mates – feels wooden and repetitive. I’m always concerned when a character repeatedly tells the reader that another characters is “the love of her life” rather than allowing each scene to grow organically and show us!

I think a great deal of the character underdevelopment is due to Scott’s decision to write short chapters, focusing on individual moments in Sarah Churchill’s life, that then skips ahead to another moment, often two to three years later. Half the chapter is spent updating the reader on what has happened in between and this gives the entire book an unsettled, unreal quality that even the best characterization and research could never overcome.

My disappointment with Duchess will not stop me from trying other novels by Scott – I can tell that she is a scrupulous researcher and a writer who cares deeply for her characters and the era. I have a deep-rooted dislike of reading about Restoration England and it’s a tribute to Ms. Scott’s skill that I managed to look past these drawbacks and remained engaged in Sarah Churchill’s story.

Mailbox Monday

Sunday, September 26, 2010

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Another Monday, Another Mailbox!! This is a feature where we all share with each other the yummy books that showed up at our doors! WARNING: Mailbox Mondays can lead to extreme envy and GINORMOUS wishlists!!

Mailbox Monday is hosted by Marcia at The Printed Page, but for the month of September MM is on tour and hosted by Bermudaonion Weblog. 


This week was mostly about making my way through the backlog from previous weeks' library visits and book buys. I did visit one of my favorite used books stores and got the following:


Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.
Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.


I really have no idea why I picked up this book other than it was from an era I usually don't read about and it received good reviews.

The Perfect Summer chronicles a glorious English summer a century ago when the world was on the cusp of irrevocable change. Through the tight lens of four months, Juliet Nicolson’s rich storytelling gifts rivet us with the sights, colors, and feelings of a bygone era. That summer of 1911 a new king was crowned and the aristocracy was at play, bounding from one house party to the next. But perfection was not for all. Cracks in the social fabric were showing. The country was brought to a standstill by industrial strikes. Temperatures rose steadily to more than 100 degrees; by August deaths from heatstroke were too many for newspapers to report. Drawing on material from intimate and rarely seen sources and narrated through the eyes of a series of exceptional individuals — among them a debutante, a choirboy, a politician, a trade unionist, a butler, and the Queen — The Perfect Summer is a vividly rendered glimpse of the twilight of the Edwardian era.

I LOVE this book - I only wish there were more books like it. I picked up a copy as I'd originally read it from the library.

Roger Williams, through whose eyes this novel is told, was the most compelling figure in Colonial America. Plucked from obscurity to clerk for the celebrated English jurist Sir Edward Coke, Williams had a ringside seat on the brutal politics of Jacobean London. He was witness to the pomp of the Star Chamber; the burning of a dissenter; and the humiliation of his master by King James and his favorite, the dangerously beautiful Buckingham. Haunted by ambition and love for a woman above his station, he fled to New England, where repression and conformity wore different clothes

This looked like a different take on New England colonial history - plus, I'm always happy to support Vermont historical fiction authors!

Review: Into the Wilderness

Friday, September 24, 2010

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This highly praised novel follows the adventures of a woman in the late 1700s who joins her family in a remote New York mountain village, teaches the school children there, gets into conflicts with local slave owners, and meets a white man involved with the Mohawk Nation.

The final shot of the 1992 film, "Last of the Mohicans" lingers on three survivors - Hawkeye, Cora Munro and Chinghacook. When I was kid watching that ending, I always wondered what happened after the movie ended - did Cora stay with Hawkeye? Did they all settle somewhere in the mountains and try to stay out of trouble? What happened to them during the Revolutionary War?

I only recently discovered that an author actually set out to answer these questions. Wilderness opens in the wilds of upstate New York in 1793, as Elizabeth Middleton, a spinster schoolteacher newly arrived in America, meets Hawkeye and Cora's son, Nathaniel. Needless to say, they both fall deeply in love and encounter numerous obstacles and adventures along the way.

Wilderness is the first book in a series of novels following the Bonner family (a nice change from the Bumpo last name of Fenimore Cooper’s novels) and I’m hardly the first person to note that its very similar in feel to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I checked this book out of the library on a Saturday afternoon and by Sunday night, I had devoured almost 500 pages – its that kind of book. Wilderness will never impress anyone with its original take on romance or an innovative plot – everything in its almost 900 pages verges on the formulaic.

But that really doesn’t matter – the book is immensely readable and Elizabeth and Nathaniel are incredibly likeable characters. Wilderness takes its time, allowing for detours into the backwoods and mountains, spending plenty of time in a frontier town and acquainting the reader with the details of post-Colonial life.

Wilderness borrows a great deal of atmosphere and character development from the 1992 film - even down to the word choice and tone of some of the characters. You also get the sense - as the film portrayed - of a great respect and wonder for the wilderness of the Colonial northeast. There are brief moments when you feel the fear and awe the settlers felt for this new land. 

That said, I felt that the treatment of relations between blacks, whites and Native Americans was handled with far too modern a sensibility and whenever these elements of the plot came up I was immediately yanked out of that world. Sometimes, Elizabeth Middleton sounds as if she is running a diversity class in a modern boardroom. The book also loses momentum once Elizabeth and Nathaniel overcome the major obstacles to their relationship and settle down to married life. I tore through 2/3 of the book in two days and then spent the next four days slogging through the last third.

I appreciated the chance to imagine a frontier town in upstate New York and know that at some point I’ll return to the numerous books in the series. I actually think the series would benefit from a prequel – Cora Munro is one of the strongest characters in Wilderness even though she has already passed away by the start of the story. Almost every character cherishes fond and vivid memories of her and I found myself longing for that novel instead. Then I really would get to see what happened after the final scene in “Last of the Mohicans!”


Books of a Lifetime Guest Blog

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

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I'm the guest poster for this week's "Books of a Lifetime" series over at Historical Tapestry. They do great work over there and I'm happy to be a part of the fun!

Teaser Tuesday

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

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Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

- Grab your current read
- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS!

- Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

This week, my book is "Into the Wilderness" by Sara Donati. I can't believe it took me this long to realize there is an 800-page historical novel drawing inspiration from the 1992 film version of "Last of the Mohicans!"

"Trees of more kinds than she could recognize covered the rolling landscape and moved up the hills and over the higher peaks without pause. The farther they traveled, the fewer the clearings; the track snaked back and forth, narrowed, approached the river and then fell back again. Through birches and white pines, Elizabeth caught a glimpse of the frozen river now and again, the ice reflecting the forest and sky in revolving blur of blues and greens." 

Mailbox Monday

Sunday, September 19, 2010

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Another Monday, Another Mailbox!! This is a feature where we all share with each other the yummy books that showed up at our doors! WARNING: Mailbox Mondays can lead to extreme envy and GINORMOUS wishlists!!

Mailbox Monday is hosted by Marcia at The Printed Page, but for the month of September MM is on tour and hosted by Bermudaonion Weblog. 


A productive library visit and my first book contest win made this past week a fun one! I'm looking forward to next week when I will be visiting the National Book Festival on the National Mall in Washington, DC!


A captivating story of a mother's love stretched to breaking and a knight determined to rebuild his life with the royal mistress, For the King's Favor is Elizabeth Chadwick at her best. Based on a true story never before told and impeccably researched.

Thanks to Reading the Past and Sourcebooks for my first book contest win. I started this but wasn't really in a medieval mood - I'm sure I'll return to it.



A visit to my fantatstic county library (the picture above is just the lobby of the place!) netted some good finds:



This highly praised novel follows the adventures of a woman in the late 1700s who joins her family in a remote New York mountain village, teaches the school children there, gets into conflicts with local slave owners, and meets a white man involved with the Mohawk Nation.

I love how this description skirts a major plot point - some of the characters are from "Last of the Mohicans" but they seem to be taking their cues from the 1992 movie version rather than James Fenimore Cooper's classic. No complaints here - I loved the movie and am hoping the book can live up to my expectations.


Praised for her historical fiction by critics and devoted fans alike, author Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles took the romance world by storm some 30 years ago, firmly fixing Dunnett's reputation as a master of the historical romance.

At least once a year, every year of my teens I would try to start this novel. Elizabeth Chadwick mentioned these books in a recent interview and I thought I'd give them another try.


A historical novel based on the life of the lady-in-waiting who helped bring James II to the throne of England.

I have a great local library but for some reason, Duchess is the only Susan Holloway Scott in the ENTIRE county system! Guess I'll just have to buy all of them!


Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin needs to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie's grandmother's abandoned home near Salem, she can't refuse. As she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the family house, Connie discovers an ancient key within a seventeenth-century Bible. The key contains a yellowing fragment of parchment with a name written upon it: Deliverance Dane. This discovery launches Connie on a quest--to find out who this woman was and to unearth a rare artifact of singular power: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge.
As the pieces of Deliverance's harrowing story begin to fall into place, Connie is haunted by visions of the long-ago witch trials, and she begins to fear that she is more tied to Salem's dark past then she could have ever imagined.
 
I guess I'm not done with witches and Puritan New England quite yet!

Historical Fiction on the stage

Saturday, September 18, 2010

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This week, I've had the welcome opportunity to attend the DC premiere of THE GREAT GAME, a series of plays examining more than two hundred years of Afghan history.

Twelve different playwrights were assigned to specific moments in Afghan history and asked to write a 20-30 minute play about that moment. Each playwright tackles his/her subject in a different way and so in each night, you get to see many different ways of bringing history alive.


I've  seen the first (1841-1929) cycle and will see the third (1996-present) cycle of plays this Sunday night. The first and third cycles focus on British and American involvement in Afghanistan (Sadly, it looks like I'll miss the second cycle looking at the Soviet years). Since I wrote my undergrad thesis on Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and now work on projects in the region, getting to see this play was a special treat. The different approaches to specific historical moments got me thinking about what makes a fictional approach to history successful or not.

The first play (pictured above) is "The Gates of Jalalabad" set just after the infamous massacre of 16,000 British during the Second Anglo-Afghan war. The play imagines four British soldiers at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, discussing the massacre, the alien nature of the Afghan people and the reasons for British involvement in the region. I think the most important thing I pulled out of this play was the danger of drawing too many parallels between the past and our present time.

The play rarely missed an opportunity to talk about Afghanistan being "a death-trap for foreign invaders" or to portray suspicious British soldiers bemoaning the cost of "foreign wars." The current political commentary was laid on a bit thick - I kept wondering how more period research would have focused the dialogue amongst the soldiers and really illuminated why they thought they were going to war, rather than mouthing something an American soldier might be thinking today.

The play also introduces a cringe-worthy moment when a kind, gentle Afghan welcomes the British soldiers as "people of the book." It was the kind of discussion that feels anachronistic in historical novels - you know, when a "fiery" female character living in the Middle Ages sounds like a third-generation Feminist or a Roman soldier suddenly starts analyzing a situation using Freudian psychology.

"Durand's Line" - another play in the cycle, looked at the moment in the late 19th century when the British were drawing the borders of present-day Afghanistan - was much more successful. The play is just two men in a room but by their very natures and their position in society - one is foreign secretary for Great Britain and the other is the Amir of Afghanistan - you have instant tension. The playright allows the tension to grow from the two men's opposing personalities rather than beating the viewer over the head with monlogues on political parallels.

The plays also allowed the men to be funny - I love when writers of historical fiction remember that whether people were living a hundred or a thousand years ago, they wanted to laugh. They found situations ironic or ridiculous. The characters were real people - not types - and so the final moment - when the Amir agrees to the borders - is so much more moving. We know exactly how he feels about giving up his ideas and we know what price Afghanistan will have to pay in the future.

Tomorrow night, I'll be in the unusual position of watching history I remember - the destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas, 9/11 and the American invasion - being enacted on stage and I imagine that will be a completely different and even more challenging experience.

Review: Daughters of the Witching Hill

Friday, September 17, 2010

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Daughters of the Witching Hill brings history to life in a vivid and wrenching account of a family sustained by love as they try to survive the hysteria of a witch-hunt. Bess Southerns, an impoverished widow living in Pendle Forest, is haunted by visions and gains a reputation as a cunning woman. Drawing on the Catholic folk magic of her youth, Bess heals the sick and foretells the future. As she ages, she instructs her granddaughter, Alizon, in her craft, as well as her best friend, who ultimately turns to dark magic. When a peddler suffers a stroke after exchanging harsh words with Alizon, a local magistrate, eager to make his name as a witch finder, plays neighbors and family members against one another until suspicion and paranoia reach frenzied heights. 

There is nothing like a good historical novel about witchcraft. The uncontrolled hysteria, the uneasy power dynamics of paranoid townspeople and a touch of the supernatural all combine to make for strong stories and unforgettable characters. I thought it would be difficult for another novel to top Kathleen Kent’s The Heretic’s Daughter, but Sharratt comes close with a story told in the first person by a grandmother and granddaughter, set not in the familiar territory of  Puritan Salem but in Old England during the time of Queen Elizabeth.

Sharratt does a fantastic job of looking at the wider historical canvas through the lens of her fictional characters. I've read piles of books about Henry VIII's sacking of the monastaries, the birth of the Church of England and the handful of unstable years when Edward, then Mary and then Elizabeth each took their own approach to the religion question. But I've never really thought about what it meant for a poor villager to live through those times, to watch the old ways pass and learn how to keep up with all the new commands.

I was fascinated by the connections Sharatt made between old folk magic, lost Catholic beliefs and witchcraft. I tuly felt that I was witnessing a mix of traditions and fears swirl into something else - a power bordering the place between unholy and healing.

I doubt I'll forget the lead character of Bess Southerns - she tells her own story, in a unique voice that speaks straight out of the 16th century. Some of the phrases and words may sound a bit awkward but they should - Sharratt is signaling to to us that this is a time not near our own, a time when an uneducated and starving woman can conjure a vision of a "familiar" and make her own power in a powerless world.

Unfortunately, Bess' voice is so strong, the novels loses something when it switches halfway through to the perspective of Alizon, her granddaughter. Her voice is interesting but far more conventional and since we know that certain characters will be arrested for witchcraft, it sometimes feels as if the story is just biding its time until the ultimate conflict.

I loved the image of the fairy queen that was woven throughout the book and the way the supernatural is accepted as a part of daily life. Sharratt has created a book in which the quieter elements of history - folklore, food, farming, the bonds between generations - come to the forefront and illuminate one of its' more widely-known dark spots.

WWW Wednesdays

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

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What are you currently reading? Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt..I'm in the middle and it seems to be lagging a little bit.
* What did you recently finish reading? I just finished "Russian Winter" - my first review copy from a publisher. 
* What do you think you’ll read next?
I just won "For the King's Favor" from Reading the Past. I'm excited about receiving that in the mail and trying out a new author - this will be my first Elizabeth Chadwick novel.

Review: Russian Winter

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Set in both modern-day Boston and post-WWII Moscow, RUSSIAN WINTER tells the story of Bolshoi ballerina Nina Revskaya as she become a member of Stalin's cultural elite before escaping to the West following a terrible betrayal. Decades later, she has decided to auction off her famed jewelry collection—including the rare set of amber that a Boston professor, Grigori Solodin, translator of the works of Revskaya's late poet-husband, believes may hold the key to a long-kept secret. The literary mystery Grigori sets out to solve—with the help of Drew Brooks, a young associate at the Boston auction house—reaches much deeper: to the cost of making art and trying to live and love under circumstances of enormous repression.

About halfway through "Russian Winter" one of the main characters - a woman in her thirties working at an auction house - contemplates her insular, intellectual existence and thinks "it was also true that the internal world was an expansive one, always growing, full of possibilities that the real one did not necessarily offer."

"Russian Winter" is that rare book that grants respect to the lives lived inside its' characters' minds. In this book, people are allowed to love words, to feel passionate about research and dance and literature and feel longing for a vanished world without the usual nihilism of contemporary fiction.

That care and compassion is just one mark of this beautiful, well-considered book but it also made me pause, feeling somewhat lost at the end. I allowed a day to pass between finishing “Russian Winter” and starting this review. The contemplative tone of Kalotay’s novel actually pushed me into doing something I don’t normally do when reading a book I enjoy – I read slower. I paused between chapters to consider the characters and their situation.

Perhaps this was due to Kalotay's handling of time - you never notice that she’s skipping between eras with barely a transition, with almost no differentiation between past and present. In this world, they are all happening at once and even though we know how some moments must end because of how they will bring us into the present of the book, it feels like they’re being lived again with the opportunity for change.

This method enhances the book, mingling past with present with no distinction, allowing the one to constantly shape the other. You never notice that the present-day story is told in past tense and the story set in the past is told in present tense – in Kalotay's hands it becomes more than a literary trick, it’s what we all suspect deep down when our memories feel closer than the present day.

The old woman looking back on her life, heavy with regret, is a wildly overused fictional conceit. In Kalotay's novel it becomes a rare opportunity to see life from a new perspective. She guides us through an old woman's memories, reminding us that hope, irritation and curiosity don’t disappear with age. I was almost relieved about a hundred pages into the book when I realized that Kalotay would not allow the underlying mystery to consume the narrative as happens in so many other historical novels with a central mystery at their core. Her gaze is always firmly on the people and their wants and needs.

Kalotay succeeds at the one thing every historical novelist must master – the telling detail in a sea of research, the human moment in a larger panorama - from the harsh whisking sound of housewives’ brooms as they sweep the streets of Moscow to the silence of snow and a crumpled brown leaf on an old womens' windowsill.It is rare to read a novel that captures physical exertion – in this case, the challenges of ballet dancing – without descending into cliché or overblown metaphor.
 
For me, the great surprise of this book is how vibrantly the supporting characters live on the page - from the Hungarian poet Zoltan to Grandma Ritti to Nina’s mother-in-law – these people feel like characters living the book of their lives while briefly touching on the main characters in this book. It’s a testament to Kalotay’s skill that I closed the book wanting to know more about all of them. From a historical fiction perspective, I particularly appreciated the way Nina’s attitudes toward Stalin were handled carefully and changed quite subtly through the book – he is always the all-seeing father figure and, depending on the situation, he can be a benevolent presence or a terrifying specter in Nina’s life. "Russian Winter" wears its' author considerable research lightly - the ultimate compliment in historical fiction.

Ultimately, I think that’s why I paused and waited to review "Russian Winter" – I felt a certain sense of incompletion, it felt odd to leave these characters and their lives. "Russian Winter" is by no means perfect. The beginning felt slow – you can sense Kalotay putting the pieces into place and the first few encounters with the main characters feel rushed as if she's is trying to bring the reader up to speed on everyone’s secret hurts and longings before setting them all in motion. Oddly, the ending feels just slightly rushed as well - there's no warning that we are leaving Nina Revskaya for the last time, no neat tying up of the ultimate mystery.

These ragged ends make the book and its' tragedies more realistic and more potent - life in the world of the book just keeps moving forward. Personally, I look forward to Kalotay's next work and hope that she considers historical fiction for her next novel - the genre needs authors such as these to treat memory and the past with respect and compassion.

Disclosure: This book was an ARC, sent to me by the publisher for review purposes.

Teaser Tuesdays

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Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

- Grab your current read
- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS!

- Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!


My Teaser Tuesday is from "Daughters of the Witching Hill" by Mary Sharratt - a novel about the Pendle Witches in late Elizabethan/early Jacobean England:

"Our luck was changing, so I prayed, from woe to weal. Everything I passed on my way seemed to promise a good season ahead. Twilight washed the blooming blackthorn, broom flowered brilliant gold, and primroses sprang from the moist earth. Ducking through a gap in the hedge, I headed out across green meadows. Mare's tail clouds whipped across the fading sky where the new crescent moon sailed high. As I neared the beck, the sun sank behind Blacko Hill."

Mailbox Monday

Sunday, September 12, 2010

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Another Monday, Another Mailbox!! This is a feature where we all share with each other the yummy books that showed up at our doors! WARNING: Mailbox Mondays can lead to extreme envy and GINORMOUS wishlists!!

Mailbox Monday is hosted by Marcia at The Printed Page, but for the month of September MM is on tour and hosted by Bermudaonion Weblog. 

This was week was all about quality - not quantity - I'll start with the Borders bargain table buys:



Mistress of Rome and The Rose of Sebastopol - it's always nice to pick up two, well-reviewed historical novels from varying eras to add to my collection - and for only $3.99 each! Bargain table buys are uneven for me - these will either moulder in my closet for the rest of time or I'll pick one up months from now and find that it was a great read. I have a feeling Mistress will be the great read and Rose will end up being the book that sits.



Only one library book this week: Daughters of the Witching Hill - a novel about the Pendle witches in late Elizabethan-early Jacobean England - as told from the perspective of the witches!

I'm halfway through this one and loving it - I'll save the details of what I like for the upcoming review.

And, my first review copy from the publisher arrived in the mail this past Friday. Look for my review tomorrow! This is a good one!

Review: The House at Riverton

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

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Summer 1924: On the night of a glittering Society party, by the lake of a grand English country house, a young poet takes his life. The only witnesses, sisters Hannah and Emmeline Hartford, will never speak to each other again.

Winter 1999: Grace Bradley, 98, onetime housemaid of Riverton Manor, is visited by a young director making a film about the poet’s suicide. Ghosts awaken and memories, long-consigned to the dark reaches of Grace’s mind, begin to sneak back through the cracks. A shocking secret threatens to emerge; something history has forgotten but Grace never could.

I am a complete sucker for the type of story where an old lady looks back on her long life, musing on the past, on hidden secrets and tucked-away regrets. Combine that familiar but fascinating frame of a story with a late Edwardian/WWI setting and you’ve completely hooked me into your book – no questions asked.

But that’s exactly the problem with Riverton - the pages will fly beneath your fingertips and you’ll find yourself consuming chapters at a rapid pace but ultimately you’ll get to the end of the book and you’ll have more questions than answers.

Without completely giving away the plot, I felt that the big “surprises” were completely obvious almost from the get-go while some of the key relationships in the book – between Grace and Hannah and between Hannah and Emmeline were underdeveloped. Grace makes a decision about 75% of the way through the book that occurs far too quickly and yet it’s meant to be a moment of ultimate sacrifice that sets up the tragedy of later events – instead, it feels rote and predictable.

I suspect that a great deal of the book’s problems have to do with pacing – you know the results of the key moment in the book almost from the beginning and hear about it so many more times throughout the 468 pages that by the time it actually takes place in the narrative, it’s almost a letdown. The reader has been repeatedly told that the events of that night were “horrifying” and changed several lives permanently. I read it and had only one reaction - “Finally!”

Riverton does succeed at pulling you into a seductive narrative, walking you through a great English manor house at leisure; allowing you to roll in summer-heated gardens and ward off a chill by an enormous fireplace. You’ll see parties from both sides of the social spectrum – from the upper-class dining room to the servant’s kitchen downstairs. The sense of social customs, the servants and the family’s ways of speaking to each other and the descriptions of ball gowns, parties and motorcars all feel spot-on. You can even subtly sense the changes in society from pre-WWI to the beginning of the Roaring Twenties.

Unfortunately, it feels as if Morton devoted more time to recreating a literary world she loves rather than creating a plot that is something more than a pastiche of familiar Gothic novels. If you want to read a book with an old lady as an unreliable narrator, a forbidden love affair, a tortured sister relationship and a rich family’s fading fortunes, try Margaret Atwood’s vastly superior The Blind Assassin – a book that brilliantly stitches together several different literary traditions into something new. Or, give Kate Morton another try with the more interesting The Forgotten Garden.

W.W.W. Wednesdays

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It's time for W.W.W. Wednesdays: 

* What are you currently reading? Mmm....not sure yet! Possibly, historical non-fiction for a change.
* What did you recently finish reading? I just finished "The House at Riverton" last night (review coming soon).
* What do you think you’ll read next?
I have my very first review copy from a publisher making its' way to me right now. As soon as that arrives, I'll start in on it! For now, I want to keep the title a secret.

Teaser Tuesday

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

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Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:


- Grab your current read


- Open to a random page


- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page


- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS!


- Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Ok, my first Teaser Tuesday will be from "The House at Riverton" by Kate Morton. I'm about halfway through the book as it's an easy read. Here it goes:
 
"Standing along on the stone platform at the top of the rear stairs, I scanned the dark beyond. The moon cast a white glow, painting the grass silver and making skeletons of the briars that clung to the arbor. The scattered rosebushes, glorious by day, revealed themselves by night an awkward collection of lonely, bony old ladies."

Mailbox Monday

Sunday, September 5, 2010

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Another Monday, Another Mailbox!! This is a feature where we all share with each other the yummy books that showed up at our doors! WARNING: Mailbox Mondays can lead to extreme envy and GINORMOUS wishlists!!

Mailbox Monday is hosted by Marcia at The Printed Page, but for the month of September MM is on tour and hosted by Bermudaonion Weblog.

This is my first Mailbox Monday - I'm very excited to share it with everyone! Hopefully, my Mailbox Monday will soon grow to encompass review copies and contest wins coming to my mailbox. For now, I will stick with bookstore purchases and library visits.

Despite a flurry of Borders coupons, I only bought one new book this week: "The French Mistress" by Susan Holloway Scott. I'm prepared to conquer my fear of both first-person narratives and Restoration England in one go!

I had a very productive trip to the library last Thursday. I love when I find all the books I was thinking about picking up for $4 a piece or more on Amazon. The haul includes:

"The Childrens' Book" by A.S. Byatt - this received wildly varying reviews and clearly represents a commitment in terms of length but I'm willing to give it a try because there are so few novels set in the Edwardian period.


"Savage Lands" by Claire Clark - the book blurb seems to give away a large chunk of the plot and the title sounds like some terrible bodice-ripper but it has received good reviews. Since I'm still in a colonial mindset, I would like to give it a try.


"House at Riverton" by Kate Morton. I've read her latest "The Forgotten Garden" and while I didn't think it was a great book by any means I had fun reading it.

Review: The Winthrop Woman

Thursday, September 2, 2010

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This bestselling novel follows Elizabeth Winthrop, a courageous Puritan woman who finds herself at odds with her heritage and surroundings. A real historical figure, Elizabeth married into the family of Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In those times of hardship, famine, and Indian attacks, many believed that the only way to prosper was through the strong, bigoted, and theocratic government that John Winthrop favored. Defying the government and her family, Elizabeth befriends famous heretic Anne Hutchinson, challenges an army captain, and dares to love as her heart commanded. Through Elizabeth’s three marriages, struggles with her passionate beliefs, and countless rebellions, a powerful tale of fortitude, humiliation, and ultimate triumph shines through.

I cannot believe that after all these years of devouring, collecting and sorting historical novels, The Winthrop Woman represents my first try with an Anya Seton book! Katherine has hovered at the edge of my TBR pile for years but it was my new-found interest in Colonial New England that finally pushed me to pick this one up. I think my initial reluctance to try Seton was tied to my perception of her as belonging to the old-school of historical fiction populated by Georgette Heyers and Jean Plaidys. Don’t get me wrong – I love those venerable old ladies but I wasn’t sure I had the patience for a lot of classic 1950s historical prose, full of dashing men, retiring heroines and faux-old-fashioned dialogue.

While Winthrop Woman had its share of “Oh fiddles” and other exclamations that didn’t entirely ring true, I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of historical detail and multi-dimensional characterizations. This book is old-fashioned in the sense that it follows a main character from childhood through death and through everything in between. I appreciated the novel’s sense of space and time – the luxury of getting to sink into the full narrative of someone’s life. It was quite an experience to see beautiful, rebellious Elizabeth Fones change into Bess Winthrop, a wife and a mother who braves the journey to Colonial Massachusetts and shifts into the responsible housewife Mrs. Feake and finally into the much-maligned but happy Elizabeth Hallet. I think Seton did a brilliant job of portraying those small changes over time. She gives Elizabeth a soul capable of appreciating nature and seeking out spiritual fulfillment – two aspects of life that are rarely explored in fictional female characters.

I felt completely confident in the colonial world Seton created and especially enjoyed the brief glimpses into secondary characters’ thoughts and points of view. Rather than viewing it as a break from Elizabeth’s perspective, I found that it enhanced my understanding of her time and character.
Unfortunately, Seton made the odd choice of slipping out of Elizabeth’s point of view at a key moment in the narrative – when she’s fighting for her happiness and the right to marry the man she loves. From there on out, Elizabeth completely loses substance as a character and the narrative loses steam. I understand that Seton is setting up Elizabeth’s inevitable decline towards illness and depth but it muted the power of Elizabeth’s long sought-after freedom.

Seton’s command of the religious and political battle of that time are second to none and she manages to make each character into a real person when they could be simply a mess of Johns, Harrys, Elizabeths and Annes. I was a bit suspicious of her timeline involving the divorce of Robert Feake and the marriage to Will Hallet – it seemed carefully calculated not to offend Fifties-style morality and to avoid making Elizabeth seem anything less than blameless and relatable. My final nitpick was with the descriptions of religious rapture and the sense of spiritual completion Elizabeth felt in nature – particularly passages toward the end of the book. They felt a bit overwritten and unrealistic but I appreciate what Seton was trying to accomplish with the examination of those emotions.

I thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity to spend several hundred pages in the world of Colonial New England and would urge anyone on the fence about Anya Seton’s novels to give her another try. In this instance, they really don’t make historical novels the way they used to and everyone deserves a big, sprawling biographical novel every now and then!

The Wolf Hall effect

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

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During my after-work trip to Borders today (I can't help it - it's between my office and my Metro stop!), I spotted the brand-new paperback version of Hillary Mantel's Wolf Hall.

Tied to the paperback release, Intelligent Life, a culture magazine published by The Economist has a cover story by Mantel in their Autumn 2010 issue. In the piece, she honestly examines what it was like to win the Booker Prize for a - gasp! - historical novel.

I read Wolf Hall earlier this year, socked in for 5 straight days, off from work due to the massive blizzards in the DC area. I wonder if the intensity of that reading experience, the chance to devote hours of my time to the book changed my perception of Mantel's now much-lauded triumph. I loved that she was able to make Cromwell and Henry VIII feel like modern people while smoothly hitting the rhythms of 16th century speech. So often in historical fiction you get this creeping sense of characters behaving as if they know they will be reduced to dates, places and names. I doubt I'll read a more flesh and blood, well-rounded portrait of Anne Boleyn in any other novel and I never imagined I would want to spend 600 pages with Thomas Cromwell!

That said, the present tense takes some time to get used to and much-debated 1st person/3rd person "he" viewpoint can make for some wildly strange contortions of language. In the end, I think every great book has to hack out its own territory and its own ways of seeing - Wolf Hall accomplished this and more.

Don't miss the Economist's sidebar piece on how Wolf Hall - at one point the most popular book in the world - will effect both the popularity and the respectability of historical fiction. I cringe whenever someone refers to HF as stories of "lances and ladies." I think the genre progressed far beyond those potboilers a long time ago - we just need to get the word out and let people know that!

Then I can feel comfortable saying to my co-workers as I head out the door, "Yeah, I'm going to Borders to check out (latest HF release). Want to come along?"