Review: The Firebird

Saturday, July 27, 2013

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Nicola Marter was born with a gift. When she touches an object, she sometimes sees images; glimpses of those who have owned it before. It’s never been a gift she wants, and she keeps it a secret from most people, including her practical boss Sebastian, one of London’s premier dealers in Russian art. But when a woman offers Sebastian a small wooden carving for sale, claiming it belonged to Russia’s first Empress Catherine, it’s a problem. There’s no proof. Sebastian believes that the plain carving — known as “The Firebird” — is worthless. But Nicola’s held it, and she knows the woman is telling the truth, and is in desperate need of the money the sale of the heirloom could bring. Compelled to help, Nicola turns to a man she once left, and still loves: Rob McMorran, whose own psychic gifts are far greater than hers. With Rob to help her “see” the past, she follows a young girl named Anna from Scotland to Belgium and on into Russia. There, in St. Petersburg — the once-glittering capital of Peter the Great’s Russia — Nicola and Rob unearth a tale of love and sacrifice, of courage and redemption…an old story that seems personal and small, perhaps, against the greater backdrops of the Jacobite and Russian courts, but one that will forever change their lives. (from Goodreads)

Susanna Kearsley's books require a heaping dose of disbelief but once you set aside your preconceptions and allow yourself to sink into her impeccably researched and all-too real seeming historical settings, you are in for a treat. The Firebird is no exception. 

All of the familiar elements of Kearlsey's novels are here - a sympathetic, smart female lead; ravishingly gorgeous settings and a deep sense of the connections between the past and the present. But unlike Kearsley's other books - that are usually set in Scotland and England - this story takes the reader to 18th century Russia. I  adore Russian history and was happy to see a new addition to the small list of historical novels with Russian settings. 

Kearsley's great strength is storytelling - every time I open up one of her novels, I remember what it felt like to be twelve or thirteen years old and immersed in a historical novel. There are very few books that can give me back that sense of immersion and wonder now that my brain has been turned to mush by the adult world! Kearsley's books never fail. 

Readers of Kearsley's previous books will be happy to see beloved characters pop up in new ways. Although this billed as (I think?) the second book in a series, it's really not necessary to have read the other books - but you'll find yourself enjoying the story much, much more! The best parts of the book are set in 18th century St. Petersburg. It was so wonderful to read a richly detailed story about an under-explored time in history. There is a beautiful, tasteful love story and  a finely drawn characterization of the Empress Anne. By the end, Kearlsey had drawn such an imaginatively detailed portrait of life in St. Petersburg, I felt I could have navigated the streets by myself!

I wasn't as overly fond of the way she worked in the supernatural this time - I liked Nicola's reluctance to use her limited psychic powers but prefer the excitement of her heroines who find passageways between the past and the present and actually travel back through the centuries.
The denouement is a bit understated and I found myself rushing through the present-day romance (which felt a bit unnecessarily drawn-out) to get back to the past story. 

I can hardly wait to see what Kearsley writes next. I've read and enjoyed all of her time-slip novels but after reading The Firebird, I now know that Kearsley is on my short list of authors who will go on my "must buy on publication day" list! 



Review: Letters from Skye

Thursday, July 25, 2013

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A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart. March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive. June 1940: At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago (from Amazon). 

Letters from Skye is a sweet and simple book that ultimately disappointed me because the author seemed to believe that the cliched plot twists and insubstantial characters and setting could be saved by a charming concept. 

I love the idea of a novel told in letters or diaries and just last week read and reviewed a great example of this type of novel - Margaret Forster's Diary of an Ordinary Woman. But to make that kind of novel succeed you have to have a strong narrative voice, a sense of a real person setting events down in real time. Unfortunately, all of the letter writers in Skye sound the same - there's no differentiation in voice between an American college student and a Scottish poet in 1912 or a young woman and her boyfriend in the midst of WWII. 

I've read interviews with the author and she seemed to have done a great deal of research on the language of the time. The words may have been correct but her diction and sentence structure were completely off - the letters read like zippy emails back and forth, full of jokes and some fairly explicit conversations between a man and a woman in 1912. I suppose I'm inclined to nit-pick because I have all the letters between my great-grandfather and his parents, covering a time period from the 1880s-1930s. People wrote very differently back then and spoke about things in a far more poetic way than we do. I didn't feel any of that in Skye. 

I reached a point about halfway through the book when I realized it wasn't going to work for me. I plowed through to finish it as I'd received a review copy and kept myself occupied by wondering what the novel might have been like as a straight-forward narrative with the key letters interspersed throughout. I think this could have been a very good novel in the vein of a dual-timeline, Kate Morton-type story full of secrets. The different settings - the isolated Isle of Skye, college life in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century, the battlefields of France during the Great War and Blitz London. What amazing settings - what an opportunity for a sweeping novel showing the impact of war on families. None of that comes through in Skye because of the limitations imposed by the letters. 

I'm sure many readers will not be bothered by these problems and can accept this as a sweet, generic love story. Unfortunately, I feel as though I've read this book many times and had hopes for something more. 

Disclaimer: I received an advance e-galley of this book from the publisher for review. 

Congratulations to William, Kate and Baby Cambridge

Monday, July 22, 2013

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I've always loved this photograph for its sense of continuity and history. There is Queen Victoria - a woman who knew the last Hanoverian kings of England - holding a King who would depart this life in the 1970s. They are watched over by two more (future) rulers of England.

Regardless of your views about the silliness of making such a big deal out of the birth of one child or the impropriety of Americans celebrating the birth of a future English king, this is a historic, once in a generation moment. It is a moment of history and - all too rare - a happy moment in history.

Now, this very picture can be recreated for our own time, with Queen Elizabeth II taking Victoria's place. And the young prince she would hold? In all likelihood, he will live to see the 22nd century. Any way you look at it, something extraordinary happened today.

Most importantly, how will we know him? My metaphorical money is on the name James. It's a name from the House of Stuart - just like William and Charles before him. It sounds traditional without being too fussy and old-fashioned.

I think George is the next strongest possibility - it was the name the current Queen's beloved father took when he ascended to the throne. But his family referred to him by his nickname "Bertie" so I wonder if George has the same resonance within the House of Windsor. 

I would be shocked if he received the names of his father or grandfather - I think William and Katherine are more modern and inventive than that. As for everyone betting on Edward as the name? Not a chance. That was the name of the boy being held by Victoria in the photograph above. He grew up to become Edward VIII, the king who abdicated his throne for love.

What do you think the future king will be named? 

Review: Diary of an Ordinary Woman

Saturday, July 20, 2013

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Margaret Forster presents the 'edited' diary of a woman, born in 1901, whose life spans the twentieth century. On the eve of the Great War, Millicent King begins to keep her journal and vividly records the dramas of everyday life in a family touched by war, tragedy, and money troubles. From bohemian London to Rome in the 1920s her story moves on to social work and the build-up to another war, in which she drives ambulances through the bombed streets of London. Here is twentieth-century woman in close-up coping with the tragedies and upheavals of women's lives from WWI to Greenham Common and beyond. A triumph of resolution and evocation, this is a beautifully observed story of an ordinary woman's life - a narrative where every word rings true. (from Amazon)

Sometimes when you buy a book, it turns out that you're setting aside a gift for your future self. I bought this book almost two and a half years ago in a Charing Cross Road bookshop during my first trip to London and it's sat on my bookshelves ever since then. I don't know what pushed me to pick it up a few days ago but I could almost instantly tell that it was a case of right book, right time. I was deeply moved by the opportunity to follow one ordinary woman through her life as it spans the 20th century - from her girlish observations of the Great War to the restless, roaring Twenties and on to the growing unease of the 30s and the life-changing experience of living through World War II. This is historical fiction at the foundational level - all of the messy details of life played out large and the big historical events in the background. 

This the kind of book that has a narrative that consumes you and a strong voice that leads you to turn pages. You do need to suspend disbelief since the "diary" conceit requires the entries to have more explanation that I think a real person would include in their diary but Forster manages to neatly sidestep most of the historical background by providing herself as the "editor" of the diaries. She occasionally comes in to skip over dull years or to provide perspective on the events of Milicent's time. The interaction between historical events and real life becomes a bit heavy-handed during Milicent's later years when she fights with her niece/adopted daughter over the growing Feminst movement. All of their conversations feel stilted as if Forster had to find a way to play out the central questions of Milicent's life in the last quarter of the book. 


This is a very small flaw in an otherwise deeply textured novel that clearly illustrates how quickly we forget the dramas of the everyday and how soon all the moments of life can become something written in a journal or an email. The diary conceit works beautifully for Forster to say a great many things about how we chose to live our lives and - in particular - how womens' lives in the 20th century were shaped by the historical events. As the pages of the diary go by, the reader lives a life along with Milicent, seeing and understanding things that perhaps she herself has not yet understood. Diary is a fascinating experience that I would urge every lover of historical fiction to seek out and read. 


 

A Queen, a Boleyn and the treasure of the Tsars

Saturday, July 6, 2013

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I've been reading a mixed bag of historical non-fiction lately. I think of these as in-between reads - good stop-gap measures when I'm having trouble making up my mind about what kind of fiction I'm in the mood for reading or after I've read a particularly good novel and need a palate cleanser so that I stop comparing every novel that comes after it. 

I've long enjoyed Alison Weir's non-fiction on the Tudors and have always been curious to see how she handles a less documented life such as Mary Boleyn; The Mistress of Kings. Personally, I like histories that reveal how an author evaluated the existing evidence. I find that it can be a fascinating "behind the curtain" glimpse into the mind of a historian. Since there is very little verifiable evidence on Mary (the sister of Anne and the mistress of Henry VIII), Weir spends quite a bit of time guessing and speculating and filling in a lot of historical background. Of course, speculation can sometimes lead to wishful thinking (which Weir does a couple of times here) but overall this was a quick read that gave me greater insight into a typical life in the Tudor age. 

I've always found reading about Queen Victoria strangely comforting. There's something both familiar and fascinating about the Victorian age - perhaps because that age is so very different from our own but not really that far removed. I
also suspect that it goes back to when I was ten years old, reading one of the very first full-length adult books I can ever remember finishing, Elizabeth Longford's massive biography of Queen Victoria. I remember lying sick in bed reading it and feeling as if the book was as long as Victoria's reign (61 years) and that the experience of reading it was almost like being in Victoria's England. "We Two" is an excellent addition to Victoria biographies if a little overly critical of Victoria's beloved husband Prince Albert. Gill's Victoria comes across almost as a battered spouse, bullied into submission by her husband.  Fortunately, Gill makes up for this almost relentlessly negative view with a wealth of detail on the politics and daily life of Victoria's court. There are a few missteps in regards to Romanov history - Gill says Victoria was elated to see her granddaughter Alix married to the Russian heir. This was far from the truth - Victoria viewed Russia as a barbaric country and (it turns out rightfully) worried for her granddaughter's safety there. I didn't notice any other glaring historical errors - I hope they aren't there because this is otherwise a very readable biography of Victoria and Albert. 

I haven't quite finished The Lost Fortune of the Tsars yet but can already tell it is a disappointment. I happen to live about a 1/4 of a mile from the Hillwood estate. Hillwood is a little-know gem in Washington, DC and definitely worth a visit for anyone who loves Downton Abbey, the Romanovs or French and Russian cultural history. Hillwood was owned by the Post cereal heiress who was married to the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union during the 1930s. She loved collecting pretty things and happened to be in Russia when the Soviets were selling off the Romanov jewels. I've read that Hillwood is the largest collection of Romanov artefacts outside of Russia. Whenever I'm reading about the Romanovs, I always think about the strange path that brought Empress Alexandra's nuptial crown and one of the Faberge eggs almost to my backyard. 

I feel as though there is a fascinating story behind the dispersal of the Tsar's fortune and jewels. Unfortunately, this book spends way too much time repeating the familiar details of the execution of the Romanov family and the discredited stories of false claimants. 

Those are my non-fiction reads for the past two weeks. I've also been chipping away a couple of historical fiction favorites and will be posting reviews soon.