Monday, September 22, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Swan-Daughter by Carol McGrath

Over this past Christmas break, my family went to England on vacation and one of the sights we saw was Battle Abbey and the fields at Battle where King Harold fell to William the Conqueror in 1066. On the plane ride home, I read Carol McGrath’s transportive novel, The Handfasted Wife. This was the story of Harold’s first wife Edith (Elditha) Swanneck. It is first rate historical fiction and I recommend it highly. I’ve been waiting for McGrath’s follow-up novel, which was recently released.

The Swan-Daughter follows the life of Gunnhild, daughter of Elditha and King Harold. Following
Harold’s defeat, his young sons scattered to various foreign courts while the noble ladies (wives, widows, daughters, mothers) took refuge in convents. Gunnhild was brought up in Wilton Abbey. The church is anxious to keep her there, to keep hold of the lands that were once her mother’s and might, conceivably come to her as an inheritance. However, Gunnhild has no calling and dreams of escaping.

An opportunity arises from an unlikely corner. Count Alan, a powerful knight from Brittany, an enemy of her father who once courted her very beautiful and wealthy mother, appears with a proposal and a plan. He wants her to elope with him.

There are definite risks. It will anger the church and most likely the king, who has not given the count approval for the politically risky wedding. But Count Alan has always been a strong supporter of the king and believes his continuing loyalty will win over the king in the end.

Gunnhild is desperate enough to agree. They elope. He whisks her off to Brittany, wooing her along the way. She is taken with him. At first. Until reality begins to set in. The more she learns about her husband, the more she questions his reasons for wedding her. He wants her lands. He wants an heir. But does he love her? She wants to be loved–and that is something he has no time or inclination to provide.

Gunnhild is the lady of the castle. She is the one who presides while her husband is off serving the king during his never-ending wars. She grows into her role, finding her strength and power within the confines of her own domain, a subtle rebellion against the husband who wants complete control.

Again, McGrath has brought to life a forgotten woman from a distant time and place. Facts from this period may be sparse, particularly facts about women, but the author uses what information is known to weave an emotionally gripping love story and very satisfying tale.

The Swan-Daughter is book two of The Daughters of Hastings trilogy, so now I’m eagerly awaiting book three.

This is my 17th book for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Monday, September 15, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from Netgalley. This did not affect my review.

My most recent read is a beautifully written historical novel that imagines the life of the loyal nurse in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Although the nurse doesn’t spring to mind as one of the major characters in the play, she does have an influential role. In Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen, the nurse, Angelica, takes center stage.

The story is set in the plague-ridden city of Verona in the mid-1300s. Angelica is a woman nearing middle-age who lives in a poor part of town with her beloved Pietro, a bee-keeper and confectioner. A warm and loving couple, they’d begun raising six boys together but lost them all in a week to the plague. As the story opens, Angelica is giving birth to a surprise, a daughter she had not realized she’d conceived. But the couple’s joy turns quickly to despair. Pietro rushes the baby off to be baptized, and returns with the sorrowful news that the baby is dead.

In an effort to soothe his wife’s grief, Pietro arranges to contract her as a wetnurse to the wealthy and powerful Cappelletti family. Here is where the story truly begins. Angelica becomes "Nurse" to the baby Juliet.

In this household, we meet the Cappellittis, including Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, who first presents as a charming young boy who is able to help ease Angelica’s isolation from the world. We watch Juliet grow up in a wealthy but dysfunctional home, embraced by the love of her father, her Nurse, her cousin, and the beekeeper who sneaks in to visit. And we also get a wonderful sense of the violent, vibrant city of Verona. Growing up within that city are all of the Cappellitti’s enemies, including the Montecchis, their most bitter foes. Nurse also watches as the nephews of the prince, Mercutio and Paris, develop over time. So the stage is set for what we know is to come, but it is so richly set that it helps the whirlwind to come make more sense.

Juliet’s Nurse is a lush, full story that gives each of the characters a fully developed personality. We know what’s going to happen when Juliet meets Romeo. It’s still tragic. The whole desperately in love after five minutes of chitchat at a party still seems a bit ridiculous. And it remains a bit frustrating that the adults in the room, like Juliet’s nurse, seem to be complicit in bringing about the tragic end rather than being able to find a way to prevent it. But it’s possible to see how Angelica is backed into a corner by her own experiences with love and what she believes she wants for Juliet. The beauty of this novel is that the focus is not so much on the teenage lovers as it is on the long-suffering Angelica. Lois Leveen has made this minor character into a star.

Juliet’s Nurse will be available on 9/23/14. It can be pre-ordered now.

This is my 16th historical novel for the Historical Novel Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

I’ve completed my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy.

I confess that one reason I picked this book is because it’s short. (My copy is 113 pages, including the introduction.) But it’s also supposed to be "one of the world’s supreme masterpieces on the subject of death and dying."

Ivan Ilyich is a court justice of middle age (45 years), previously in good health, respected in his profession, who rather suddenly sickens and dies. He leaves behind a wife, two children (pretty much grown), and a few startled friends/acquaintances whose reaction to his death range from better-him-than-me to how-will-this-affect-my-career-prospects? The novel examines the reactions of the wife and friends at Ivan’s funeral, but the bulk of the story summarizes Ivan’s life and drawn-out death,

Ivan lives for his career and little else. He marries because it is what men in his station should do. He and his wife quickly discover their incompatibility and proceed to make each other miserable. He’s able to bury himself in his work. He likes to have things and to play whist. Then, he buys a new house and during the redecoration process, he injures himself. It seems minor at first, but then he starts to sicken. He grows sicker and sicker. Although in denial at first, it soon becomes clear he is dying. The death is agonizing and terrifying. Ivan becomes more and more unpleasant, furious with everyone and with himself. Eventually bedridden, reflecting on his life, he sees how badly he has lived, that his life has been wasted.

This is a pretty bleak book. Ivan is very real in his distress. His bitterness makes him a rather unsympathetic character, and yet, it’s difficult not to pity him because he is so hopeless. Ultimately, Ivan must accept his fate. The story becomes redemptive and Ivan finds a way to let go and die in peace. It’s a fascinating study of the way we live, look at life, and die.

Most of my classics challenge books are also TBR pile challenge books because I have a stack of classics I’ve been holding onto for years. So, this is another double challenge book.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Nest by Esther Ehrlich

This is Freshman orientation week for my daughter at college. A whole new life phase has begun. I’ve been wallowing in nostalgia lately, and one piece of that was a mental tabulation of the literary journey I’ve taken with my kids. Because of them, I revisited so many favorites from my own youth and discovered kids' classics I hadn’t gotten around to or known about, as well as a wealth of new children’s literature. It saddens me to think how much of that has trailed off. I still read YA, but not as much as I used to. And I never read middle grade fiction anymore.

So it was fortuitous to see Nest by Esther Ehrlich as a Netgalley offering. I thought, why not? And then I devoured it in a sitting.

Nest is the story of Naomi (Chirp) Orenstein and her neighbor, Joey, two eleven-year-olds with big problems. Chirp’s tight-knit family is on the verge of rupture by her mother’s impending diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and depression. Her father, a psychiatrist, cannot cure his beloved wife’s ills, and has difficulty dealing with a truculent thirteen-year-old daughter (Rachel, Chirp’s sister) and the sensitive Chirp.

Chirp’s lifeline is her friend, Joey, a good kid who’s been dealt a bad hand. He lives next door. His older brothers are bullies, behavior learned from an abusive father. Chirp knows something isn’t right in Joey’s family but doesn’t know what. There are secrets in everyone’s families.

This is a lovely book. It’s a bit dark and might be too heavy for children on the younger end of the targeted age group, though it is certainly appropriate for older tweens. The writing is superb so it is a perfect book for strong readers in that age range who are moving beyond the simplistic. Naomi has an endearing voice and the author also captures the frightened, rebellious voice of the 13-year-old sister perfectly. Joey is heartbreakingly real.

If you are fortunate enough to have a tween reader in your life at this stage, one who enjoys contemporary novels, Nest is due out September 9.

DISCLAIMER: I received a free review copy from Netgalley. This did not affect my review.

Friday, August 15, 2014

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

So, back to historical fiction—young adult historical fiction. I haven’t read a YA historical in a while so it was time. And this was a good one!

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross is an interesting and original look at late 1800's Paris from the point of view of a strong, intelligent young woman named Maude Pichon. Maude, a country girl from Brittany, fled an arranged marriage to a middle-aged butcher to seek the excitement of city life. She wanted to explore what the world had to offer, little understanding the world didn’t offer much to a poor girl except hard labor.

Then she stumbles upon an advertisement from the Durandeau Agency looking for young women for undemanding work. She applies and is offered a job before she knows what she is being hired to do. As soon as she realizes what is expected of her, she is appalled. She is to be a "repoussoir."

Wealthy women who wished to stand out in a crowd would hire foils—companions who were plain to downright ugly. These companions were to accompany them to social events to make them appear more attractive by comparison.

Maude is shocked and hurt to realize she’s unattractive enough to be hired as one of these foils, but she is desperate enough to take the job. She is hired by the cold-hearted Countess Dubern who needs a companion for her daughter, Isabelle.

Isabelle is not so unattractive that she needs a "foil," but Isabelle is headstrong and rebellious and in danger of ruining her own season by insufficient attention to the importance of attracting a husband. Maude is to befriend her, spy on her, and report back to the countess. The countess is paying her. But how far down this path can Maude go?

Paris in the 1880's is a fascinating time, and Maude is in the thick of it. Isabelle, too, is an interesting character with a mind of her own. Maude’s demeaning job and Isabelle’s struggle to lead an independent life despite her mother’s determination to see her appropriately married off demonstrate the difficulties women faced in the nineteenth century. Fiction allows a bit of leeway with the resolutions. You’ll root for these women and their friendship. And it’s Paris.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Thanks to my library’s New Fiction newsletter, I requested A Man Called Ove, a debut novel by Swedish blogger and columnist Fredrik Backman. This is sweet, contemporary, "book-group" fiction along the lines of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.

Ove is a middle-aged man who has never had much use for people and who doesn’t like change. He has been set in his ways since he was a child. His life has been hard, but he has gotten by in a very self-reliant fashion and he doesn’t understand why others can’t do the same. The only person he has ever loved, or so he believes, was his wife, Sonja. But Sonja died six months earlier and Ove is determined to join her.

However, on the day he has appointed to end his life, new neighbors upset his plans by backing over his mailbox with their moving van. Ove is introduced to a quite pregnant and forceful Iranian woman, her incompetent husband (the "Lanky One"), and their two daughters, ages 3 and 7. Against his will, Ove is forced to become useful to them and, before he knows what has hit him, he realizes there are a few more things that need straightening out before he can go be with his wife.

Ove’s story unfolds in a series of short chapters that reveal his backstory: the tale of his courtship and marriage to Sonja, the good and the bad, as well as the ups and downs of the one friendship he had with a neighbor that soured over the years. These chapters alternate with the story moving forward, where Ove’s continuing attempts to kill himself are thwarted by the various needs of others.

Although Ove is not a likeable character early on, he becomes first understandable and then admirable and finally sympathetic. The vignettes work to charm the reader. Although some of the situations are a bit over the top, and some are a little too predictable, it isn’t really the specifics of the plotting that carry this story but rather the loveliness of the interactions of the characters. If you’re looking for a warm novel with a "feel-good" sentiment, this is an entertaining read.

Monday, August 11, 2014

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Wharf of Chartrons by Jean-Paul Malaval

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

The pile of books I want to read seems to grow by the day, so it isn’t as if I needed to go out of my way to find an entire category of books that I’ve been neglecting. But I do feel bad that I’m so limited to English-language writers. There is a whole world of wonderful literature out there that I just ignore. Every once in a while I read a translation of some old classic, but what about new books from other countries? What about new historical fiction that is being produced in...say...France? I’m completely missing out on all those books!

Well, not all those books. There is a company called Open Road Media that has a variety of digital media ventures, including foreign translations. One of their imprints is Publishers Square, which brings French authors to U.S. markets. Through Netgalley, I had the opportunity to read a translation of a French historical novel, and it was a treat.

The Wharf of Chartrons by Jean-Paul Malaval is set primarily in Bordeaux just before and during World War I. Two cousins, David Pierrebrune and Gaspard Madelbos, make the decision to break with their families, but not with family tradition, and set up a vineyard in Bordeaux. They come from a long line of winemakers in ChantegrĂȘle. However, diseased vines and old family hatreds have poisoned that area. The young men want to start fresh.

It’s difficult to break into the wine-making business in Bordeaux, where large vintners are already established. It takes money and connections, things the two cousins are lacking. Except that they do know a wealthy, well-connected engineer named Geoffrey Castillard. Castillard is a ruthless businessman who made his fortune in railroads. Now he is interested in investing in wine. He fronts over half the money for the venture. Before they even start, control is taken out of the hands of the honest young wine makers. But maybe that’s for the best given their naivety?

The story follows the rise of their vineyard and the compromises the men make to succeed. Wine-making is not the pure venture they initially imagined. It’s a dirty business built on bribery, corruption and deceit. Gaspard becomes the protegĂ© of the wheeler-dealer Castillard, and finds that he is adept at such business dealings himself. David is much more a man of the land. He stubbornly pretends not to know what is going on. Maybe he doesn’t. But he is very reliant on Gaspard’s salesmanship. And Gaspard relies on David to produce a fine quality wine.

As their winery develops, the two men eventually meet women and fall in love, but those relationships follow two very different courses.

The novel is rather oddly compelling. It is a very interesting look at the politics of turn-of-the-century wine-making in France. The novel paints a picture of corrupt practices and petty local politicians and a concern for profit above all else. The art of wine-making is somewhat left behind, but not the love of wine production.

It’s an interesting story and it held my interest because I wanted to see if they could make a success of the vineyard and how it would survive the economic changes brought on by the war. But it did read awkwardly for a novel. I’m not sure whether it was because it was a translation or whether it’s because the author started his writing career as a journalist, but the book has a very journalistic flavor. The narrator reports on the story. What happens to each of the characters is related in a flat almost monotone way, whether they are buying a piece of property, burying a parent, or consummating a long-desired adulterous affair. The characters seemed to be necessary props for the historical setting. The historical setting was very interesting, but I never did come around to caring about the characters. Usually historical novels work on me the other way around. I get emotionally invested in the characters even when the author doesn’t do a particularly good job of emphasizing the importance of the historical setting.

So if you’re interested in a different perspective on pre-WWI and WWI France or interested in the history of wine-making, particularly the business of French wines, have a look at The Wharf of Chartrons.