Monday, November 23, 2015

Book Review: After Alice by Gregory Maguire

Title: After Alice
Author: Gregory Maguire

First line: Were there a god in charge of story -- I mean one cut to Old Testament specifics, some hybrid of Zeus and Father Christmas -- such a creature, such a deity, might be looking down upon a day opening in Oxford, England, a bit past the half-way mark of the nineteenth century.

Review: I wanted to like this book so much. I've somehow never read Maguire before, despite loving retellings, and given the slavish devotion so many have to Wicked, figured I finally needed to hop on the Maguire bandwagon. This book, however, was a massive fail for me, and I'm not entirely sure I'm going to attempt Maguire again.

This take on Alice in Wonderland follows Ada, an awkward and ungraceful playmate of Alice's, who stumbles into Wonderland, as well as Alice's older sister Lydia, who stays in the equally confusing real world.

Ada's story line -- a long bumble through the Wonderland -- was agonizingly slow for me. Maguire spoofs on Carroll's classic, and after a handful of pages, it triggered in me the same impatience with the nonsensical world that the original does. Worse, it felt as if it were going nowhere -- just cameo after cameo from the classic -- and in the end, I'm still not sure what the purpose of Ada's story was.

Lydia's story line was more intriguing, and I wish she had claim to the entire novel. A 15-year-old girl, now mistress of her home after her mother's death, floats uncertainly in her home. Her father is hosting the famous Darwin and a handsome American man. She imagines a courtship between them, but is treated by her father and the household staff as a child, tasked with keeping an eye on her sister, and the American's ward, a freed slave child named Siam.

In Lydia's story, there's an exploration of Victorian life for women, that challenging place between child and adult, the scars of slavery, and the clash of faith and science. But those exciting themes are only briefly tackled in the last 30ish percent of the novel.

I think I was frustrated with this book because I also found Maguire's style to be clunky to the extreme:
To a deity lolling overhead on bolsters of zephyr, however, the city rises as if out of some underground sea, like Debussy's La cath├ędrale engloutie, that fantasia about the submerged Breton cathedral rising once ever hundred years off the island of Ys. (Yes, Debusys is early twentieth century, but time means nothing to Himself.)

or bits like "sky could aspire to eternal bucholia" or "A vitality in the clouds suggested muscular air". I love me some tangled language but this felt so ornate and unnecessary.

Bottom-line: not a read for me, but maybe for others who love Maguire (and know what his style is like) and those who enjoy novels inspired by classic literature.

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Victorian / Inspired By / Alice in Wonderland / Mythical Worlds / Slavery / Children)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow (10/27/15)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Friday, November 20, 2015

Book Review: A Year of Ravens

Title: A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica’s Rebellion
Author: Ruth Downie, Stephanie Dray, E. Knight, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, S.J.A. Turney, and Russell Whitfield

First line: We were both queens.

Review: If you've ever harbored the suspicion or opinion that historical fiction is a genre just of corsets, heaving bodies, and royal bedhopping, this book will change your opinion. If you know how rich, violent, and disturbing historical fiction can be, this book will make you cackle with delight.

Set in 60 AD, this episodic novel follows the rebellion of Boudica and the native peoples of the UK against the Romans. Despite the fact that this book is penned by seven authors -- each chapter follows a different point of view -- this book has a cohesive feel, and the absolutely gutting story of Boudica, her daughters, and the Romans fighting against her are presented in raw, hard, and unapologetic prose.

I loved this book for all the reasons I adore historical fiction: it illuminated a foreign era for me and each author created a vibrant human I couldn't help but relate to (even if I didn't want to!). The arc of the story is chronological, but the story is pushed along by each new character. Previous characters aren't forgotten, but each -- whether Briton or Roman -- are articulated so well, I actually found my loyalties waffling! (And I say this as an unabashed Boudica fangirl!)

The participating authors are fabulous, and the writing here is top notch. There's enormous emotion, cinematic battles, and darkly hilarious moments to punctuate the gut-punching sorrow. The characters are deliciously wide ranging -- from queens to servant girl, Druid priest to lowly Roman soldier -- and I loved that I found myself viewing this conflict from 360 degrees.

The brutality of this campaign is presented unapologetic detail, which meant I was gasping, wincing, and squinting my eyes closed more than once. It very nearly verged on too gruesome for me but I appreciated that -- there's nothing whitewashed about war in this era. As I said, the characters are so fully realized that each time I thought -- oh, I'm for the Britons -- I'd find myself melting in sympathy toward the Romans. (Well, maybe not sympathy, but you know...)

This is a fav read for 2015, and another knockout for the H Team (the loose collection of historical fiction authors who are penning collaborative novels together). I never thought I'd be so devoted to the collaborative novel, but I'm already impatiently awaiting their next endeavor!

Genre: Historical Fiction / Ancient Era / !st Century / UK / Boudica / Historical Figure Fictionalized / War / Royalty / Multi-Author)
Publisher/Publication Date: Knight Media LLC (11/13/15)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Book Review: Castles, Customs, and Kings (Volume 2)

Title: Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors (Volume 2)
Author: Debra Brown and Sue Millard, eds.

First line: Perhaps you know the significance of the year 1066, or the gist of the English Civil War, or that Mary, Queen of Scots, lost her throne.

Review: This beefy volume of articles about British history, ranging from pre-Roman to 20th century, is drawn from the fabulous English Historical Fiction Authors blog.

I love books that come from blogs. At first blush, it seems counter-intuitive, buying a book with content from a free blog, but this volume proves how awesome the idea is.

At close to 600 pages, this book anthologizes a whole year's content from nearly fifty authors, compiling their intriguing blog posts in chronological order. It's a welcoming format: I can dip into and out at my leisure, and a book like this begs that kind of languid reading.

In her introduction, Brown writes this volume is meant to evoke "the soul of the past with personal stories and strange happenings", and it does just that. Each piece has a warm, conversational tone (so those expecting something deeply academic should look elsewhere). What I most enjoyed about these pieces is that they make up a love letter to the genre of historical fiction, as well as a behind-the-curtain expose of hard work and miraculous, plot-affirming surprises that bolster writers.

It is that tone, excited and nerdy, that hooked me and kept me paging through these pieces. Even for eras I'm not typically fascinated by, there were still essays that intrigued me (like Nancy Bilyeau's article on Mary Shipton, Tudor prophetess).

The group of participating authors is impressive; some of the names that I'm familiar with include Sandra Byrd, Anna Belfrage, Nancy Bilyeau, Patricia Bracewell, Stephanie Cowell, Christy English, and Deborah Swift. (You can see a complete list of participating authors at the blog.)

Fans of British historical fiction will want this book; it's a bit like the extras on a DVD, loaded with trivia that helped me have a better sense of life for the characters of many of the books I love to read. Keep bedside or even loaded on your smartphone for when you need a few minutes of reading (and be prepared to look up and see an hour or two has passed!).

Genre: Non-Fiction (History / UK / Medieval / Tudor / Stuart / Georgian / Victorian / 20th Century / Writers on Writing)
Publisher/Publication Date: Madison Street Publishing (9/30/15)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Little Woman in Blue by Jeannine Atkins

Title: Little Woman in Blue
Author: Jeannine Atkins

First line: May's nightgown brushed her feet as she and her sister climbed the hill behind their house.

Review: We are enormous Louisa May Alcott fans in my house -- so much so, my son's middle name is Alcott!

When I saw mention of this book, a novel about Louisa's sister Abigail May (or Amy in Little Women), I was consumed with need for it. I knew a little of May from our visits to Orchard House, and my wife and I tripped over an exhibit of May's art at the Concord Public Library by accident some years ago. But I never thought more about her; I just assumed the girl portrayed by Louisa was more or less that vain and silly.

Yeah, I'm the silly one.

I inhaled this novel in a matter of days. The May portrayed here is an ambitious young woman who wants more than her family expects; and worse, she's made to feel bad for wanting it all -- a husband, a family, an artistic career, money, a home. Teaching art to young women who do it out of obligation, May yearns to go to Europe to learn from the masters. Conservative New England mores combined with her family's poverty means she struggles for access to materials, classes, and inspiration yet the fierce hunger we see in Louisa's Jo (from Little Women) is just as urgent in May.

Atkins reveals a less appealing side to Louisa May Alcott, but she offers it with such respect for the Alcott family that I appreciated her unvarnished story. In Atkins' hands, Louisa's determination comes off callous and brusque, cruel even, and suddenly the bratty Amy I had written off most of my life seemed less selfish and more sympathetic.

In fact, May's life is rife with tragedy and full of unexpected encounters with the luminaries of her time. She makes it to Europe where, for a while, she has professional praise, income, and even love. For those unfamiliar with how her life proceeds, I'll not say more, but it reads like the best kind of novel, and I heaved a big, teary sigh at the end.

Atkins' writing style is lovely, mixing wonderfully evocative details with brisk dialogue, and I don't think one need be familiar with the Alcotts or the world of mid-19th century Concord to enjoy this story. It's a kind of coming-of-age story, an exploration of the obligations of family and the wishes of personal fulfillment. As a new mother trying to work on my novel, I appreciated the tension the Alcott women faced, from angry Marmee to impatient May, in trying to balance family life with vocation.

Fascinating and delightful, this is a marvelous novel for those who enjoy biographical fiction that focuses on figures less well-known. And of course, any fan of Little Women will want this one -- it'll invite a rereading of that classic with a new eye!

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / Massachusetts / Louisa May Alcott / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Sisters / Artists)
Publisher/Publication Date: She Writes Press (9/2015)
Source: Publicist
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Readathon Mini Challenge: Cover Escape!

I'm so thrilled to be hosting a Readathon mini challenge this morning!

Bet it's not 40 degrees here!
It's a brisk 40-something degrees outside, and we're supposed to go camping tonight.

And while I do love some nature and all that, this endeavor is more my wife's speed than mine. I couldn't help but indulge in a little daydreaming as I cast my eye over my books, which gave me the idea for this challenge!

The Challenge

Dig through your shelves and share with us a book cover you'd like to escape into! Doesn't matter if the subject, plot, or genre isn't typically your thing; in this case, we're totally judging the book by its cover!

Leave a link to your Cover Escape (posted to your blog, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram) so we can all oooh-and-aaah over your selection. 

The Prize

I'm thrilled to offer a book of choice from the Book Depository (up to $15) to one lucky participant, chosen randomly. This is open to any readathon-er that Book Depository delivers to and will end at 9am Eastern Sunday.

Share your Cover Escape!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Weekend reads and it's a long one...

I took today off to give myself a decadently long weekend, and to add extra luxury, have indulged in a brownie for breakfast. Feeling pretty great already...!

I'm working on some posts for Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon, which takes place next weekend. I won't be able to participate, but I plan to cheerlead the heck out of folks who are. And of course, am slowly chipping away at the seemingly neverending pile of reviews I need to finish, le sigh. Although, victory, I did finally review Karen Abbott's marvelous Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy.

My weekend read is Twain's End, Lynn Cullen's newest, a historical novel about Mark Twain's relationship with his secretary Isabel Lyon. After blessing her marriage to his business partner, he then wrote a 429-page screed accusing them of all kinds of dastardly things, slandering her publicly! Plus, there's some juicy details about an apparent love triangle that Helen Keller was involved in! Could there be a more perfect weekend read?

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Title: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
Author: Karen Abbott

First line: In the town of Martinsburg on the lower tip of the Valley, a seventeen-year-old rebel named Belle Boyd sat by the windows of her wood-frame home, waiting for the war to come to her.

Review: My one word review: WOW.

This chunky non-fiction book about four women who worked undercover during the American Civil War made numerous top ten lists when it was released last year; it has a ringing endorsement from Erik Larson, among others. It reads like a novel, featuring women doing some jaw-dropping stuff, and renders the Civil War and the world of that era vibrantly.

I don't often read non-fiction -- too dry for me, and it takes me forever to finish -- but in this case, I finished reading this in about a month, and it was anything but dry.

Abbott details the adventures of four women who took a particularly active role in the Civil War: there's Belle Boyd, a teenager who decides to become a spy for the Confederacy and who does so with great panache; Emma Edmonds, a woman who disguises herself as Frank Thompson, and joins the Union army; Rose O'Neal Greenhow, a Confederate widow who ruins her reputation among the upper class in order to help her beloved Confederacy; and Elizabeth Van Lew, a Richmond abolitionist whose spy network includes her former slave Mary Bowser, a plant in the Jefferson Davis household.

Their stories are told chronologically, which further creates a novelistic feel to this book, and by focusing on women with such different aims and lives, plunges the reader deeply into battle, besieged cities, and jail (among other locales and challenges).

Through the lens of these four women, especially Emma Edmonds, we also learn about how the war was fought, especially by Union General George McClellan. I'm personally not keen on battlefield strategy and all that, but Abbott had me gripped -- helped, no doubt, by the drama of McClellan's choices. The gruesome reality of 19th century combat, too, was unshakably portrayed.

The most vibrant figure is Belle Boyd, the teenaged spy nicknamed the "Secesh Cleopatra"; her giant personality and firm conviction in herself bounces off the pages.

Belle could feel Eliza trembling beside her. The motion set her off and she too began shaking, their bodies meeting in quick and nearly imperceptible collisions. (p202)

If, like me, you thought how could she possibly know that?, the pages and pages of notes and resources cited attest to the wealth of sources Abbott consulted in the building of this book. It's breathtakingly detailed without being ponderous to read, and this book deserves the accolades it's gotten.

Whether you're a fan of the US Civil War or not, pick this up if you enjoy reading about women's lives, especially during conflict and war. The pluck, verve, and commitment shared by these women is inspiring, too, and their commitment toward their values forced me to reconsider my own opinions about the Civil War.

Genre: Non-Fiction (19th Century / US / American Civil War / Espionage / Combat /
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (9/8/15)
Source: TLC Book Tours