And now for something completely different… my turn at reading a historical fiction page turner– the trade pb of A Foreign Affair by Caro Peacock. I’m not a big fan of mystery series with the notable exception of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries. I’m a sucker for all things Egyptian and her Victorian heroine Amelia is my kind of woman– brilliant, funny, totally head-over-heels in love without all the gooeyness, and loves everything having to do with the Pharaonic period. She’s treated as an equal by her husband and isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. But my love for Amelia aside, I’ve finally found another heroine who just might lure me into her world for a couple of books– Liberty Lane.
It is 1837 and young Queen Victoria has just ascended to the throne. In the midst of this national excitement, we meet 22 year old Liberty Lane. She is an extremely self-possessed young woman determined to find her father’s murderer and restore his good name. Along the way, Liberty finds herself embroiled in political intrique so serious that England’s stability hinges on her success. Liberty is intelligent, capable, heroic, and completely unaware of her own attractiveness– all features that serve her well whe she is contacted by the mysterious ‘man in black’ asked to pose as a governess at Mandeville Hall to spy on its master, Lord Herbert Mandeville.
Peacock adds to this mixture Liberty’s fondness for a thoroughbred racehorse, her unusual friendships with a Hereford horse trainer named Amos Legge, and Daniel Suter, a musician friend of her dead father’s. Nothing in Liberty’s world is quite what it seems, and as she seeks to regain her bearings and bring her father’s killer to justice her strength and intelligence become increasingly apparent. She’s the kind of heroine you want to join you for a glass of wine or a cup of tea so you can hear more about her adventures.
Needless to say I’m looking forward to the next Liberty Lane installment, A Dangerous Affair. British readers know that Peacock has published these same first two books under different names in the UK. Avon (a Harper Collins imprint) has the US rights and is publishing them with ‘series’ titles (A Foreign Affair, A Dangerous Affair).
I finished David Ebershoff’s book, The 19th Wife, this weekend more relived to get on to my next book than happy with its resolution. Ebershoff’s writing is great and the topic FASCINATING to this lover of HBO’s series Big Love. The problem for me was not in the story, but in the stories. You see, there are two novels here and I got the feeling neither was particularly fully developed so Ebershoff decided to put them together rather cleverly and call it a day.
Let me explain. I keep sounding like quite the contrarian about some of the best loved and reviewed book s of 2009 (see my comments on Netherland), but I think I can make a solid case here for editorial revisions.
1. The story of Ann Eliza Webb Young is compelling enough to be fictionalized without any other ‘add-ons.’ I picked this book up to read about her– the infamous ’19th wife’ and I found the 2nd or ‘co-plot’ incredibly distracting and sort of in bad taste. More on that in #2. When Ebershoff is writing her story he’s at his best– no question. I was riveted.
2. The second plot line revolves around a young gay man, a ‘lost boy,’ kicked out of an LDS splinter group called ‘The Firsts.’ Jordan managed to survive being expelled from the community and dumped on the side of the road until early adulthood. He’s existing and still working to make sense of the terrible life he lead as the child of a plural marriage when his mother is arrested for the murder of his father at the First’s compound. Jordan goes to jail to see her and realizes she’s not guilty; he sets out to find the killer. This could be an equally compelling narrative but it just didn’t seem that developed. It was an add-on without enough flesh. I could see that Ebershoff’s intent is to weave the two stories of plural marriage together so readers can see the early foundations of the practice and its effects on family life and social culture since Brigham Young. My concern is that it’s just too convoluted and in the end they feel more like two separate stories than links in a chain.
3.Jordan’s homosexuality was a caricature and completely unnecessary to the plot of the book. Ebershoff is at his best with the historical characters. A stand-alone novel with Jordan as it’s center could have been really compelling but not necessarily in Ebershoff’s hands. The modern characters felt fake to me– each one over the top– from the homeless kid Jordan takes in to the new boyfriend, Tom. I was especially irritated by the character of the MA student researching Ann Eliza. Ebershoff’s Jordan keeps telling us SHE gets him, but it seems he’s trying to reassure the reader about this and he does not let the development of their relationship demonstrate this.
All of this said, the book is absolutely worth reading because the topic is fascinating and the writing can be excellent. I couldn’t stop reading it even when Jordan’s story drove me crazy. You’ve got to give an author credit for work like this. It kept me thinking and writing and that’s the mark of a an interesting book.
These are in no particular order but represent the books I most enjoyed this past year. I read many, many other very fine books, but these are the ones I’d recommend most quickly to friends.
- Olive Kitteridge
- Unaccustomed Earth
- The Good Thief
- The Monsters of Templeton
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
- When You are Englufed in Flames
- The Guernsey Literary and Potate Peel Pie Society
This book is FABULOUS! I think some reviewers consider this a YA book and perhaps it is, but it had me riveted even through a Christmas time bout with stomach flu. I couldn’t put it down unless I was forced to do so. The only good thing about being so sick was that when my eyes could focus I could read Hannah Tinti’s book and savor ever sentence. She’s a terrific writer and her characters truly do come alive on the page.
The story is a combination of Dickensian orphan-makes- his-way-in-the-world (think Oliver Twist and even Harry Potter) and an on the road adventure story. Ren is young orphan left at a monastery without a left hand and without any sense of his own history. He’s ‘rescued’ by a man claiming to be his older brother and they set off together for a new life. Unfortunately for Ren, it’s a life of street crime and an introduction to some of life’s even seedier sides. Tinit deftly creates hopelessly unique characters in this novel (there’s a midget that lives on a roof and enters the boarding house only through the chimney!) and it’s a page turner to the end.
This is a 5 Star book if ever there was one. I’d suggest it for readers old enough to read Harry Potter (the later installments with more adult issues) by his or herself and adults of every age and stage. The Good Thief is an instant classic. I can’t wait to read it again when my girls are older.
I recently finished Kathleen Kent’s The Heretic’s Daughter and admit to being disappointed. I even waited two weeks since finishing it to write this review in hopes my feelings about it would change. But they did not. It’s incredibly well written and impressively researched (the author is a distant relative of the main character), but I fear I’m ‘witched’ out and could not enjoy this book in the way it deserved to be enjoyed. In 2008 I simply read too many books about witches– Elizabeth Gaskell’s Lois the Witch, Brunonia Barry’s, The Lace Reader, and something else I can’t even remember. I thought I’d love the varying takes on the witch trials, but obviously, they began to run together.
That said, there is no question in my mind that The Heretic’s Daughter is head and shoulders above the other books I read. I wish I’d been able to get a copy of it earlier. I wouldn’t have wasted my time on the others. It’s so much better written and so much more real that it deserves to be read with attention and care. I will absolutely recommend this to others as the first and perhaps ONLY ‘witch’ book they read.
My book club will be discussing this gem of a book in March and I am thrilled to be finished with it early so I can develop some meaty discussion questions. Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac was a Booker Prize winner and I found it similar in many ways to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Both center on a very small period of time when a critical event happens in the life of the main character and it’s clear that nothing will ever be the same. They’re both incredibly British (that’s a good thing for me!) and both use geography to represent the changes the characters manifest.
For Brookner the rather gentrified hotel in question is at the end of the tourist travel season and is slowing to its off-season pace complete with eccentric guests. The main character rather slowly reveals her reasons for hiding away and pondering the nature of love. That sounds gooey and potentially overwrought, but it’s not. It’s real and it’s honest.
Some reviewers consider the book too slow (it’s not necessarily for the plot-driven reader), but I found it absolutely spot on in its reflections on who we love and why we choose them. I’d love to post more but I fear it would give even more away than is helpful. Read this book— it’s a gem!