Book Review: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt by Andrea Bobotis

Title: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt
Author: Andrea Bobotis
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: July 9, 2019
Length: 311 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Some bury their secrets close to home. Others scatter them to the wind and hope they land somewhere far away.

Judith Kratt inherited all the Kratt family had to offer—the pie safe, the copper clock, the murder no one talks about. She knows it’s high time to make an inventory of her household and its valuables, but she finds that cataloging the family belongings—as well as their misfortunes—won’t contain her family’s secrets, not when her wayward sister suddenly returns, determined to expose skeletons the Kratts had hoped to take to their graves.

Interweaving the present with chilling flashbacks from one fateful evening in 1929, Judith pieces together the influence of her family on their small South Carolina cotton town, learning that the devastating effects of dark family secrets can last a lifetime and beyond. 

Miss Judith Kratt has lived in the imposing family home in Bound, South Carolina all her life. Now in her mid-70s, she lives contentedly with Olva — an African American woman who seems to be both servant and companion, the two women having spent their entire lives together. Judith has the idea to start an inventory of the house’s objects, all of which seem to hold a piece of the family history.

The Kratt family rose from nothing with Judith’s father, a bully of a man who strong-armed and cheated his way into a fortune in the cotton and mercantile business. He ruled his family and his town with an iron fist, inspiring fear and obedience whever he went.

In alternating chapters, we visit Judith’s memories of her teen years, going back to the fateful year of 1929 when her family’s fortunes changed dramatically.

Meanwhile, in the present of 1989, a local man and his six-year-old daughter take shelter in the Kratt home after being pursued by the grandson of Daddy Kratt’s former business partner. We see the cycles of hate and violence being carried through the generations, as the descendants of the grown-ups from Judith’s childhood still carry their forefathers’ handed-down grudges.

Judith seems odd and standoffish at first, but the more we learn about her childhood, the more her strange life starts to make sense. There are powerful family secrets buried in her and Olva’s pasts, and these secrets are still weighty enough to change lives all these years later.

As Judith makes her inventory, we come to understand the meaning of all the difference objects in her house, and how they relate to the family tragedy. It’s a clever and strangely moving approach to showing the weight of memories, and how those can add up to an entire life defined by the past.

The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt isn’t exactly what I expected, especially based on the book cover (which was what originally caught my eye). The image made me expect a work of historical fiction, maybe 1950s era or thereabouts, about Southern belles and their families. That’s not this book at all, though.

Instead, The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt is about a 15-year-old girl and the older woman she becomes, and the family secrets that shadow her entire life. This book is my book group’s pick for March, and I can wait to hear what everyone else thought and to pick apart the tangled web of secrets with them. Definitely a recommended read!

Book Review: The Deep by Alma Katsu

Title: The Deep
Author: Alma Katsu
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Horror/Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐

Someone, or something, is haunting the Titanic.

This is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the passengers of the ship from the moment they set sail: mysterious disappearances, sudden deaths. Now suspended in an eerie, unsettling twilight zone during the four days of the liner’s illustrious maiden voyage, a number of the passengers – including millionaires Madeleine Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, the maid Annie Hebbley and Mark Fletcher – are convinced that something sinister is going on . . . And then, as the world knows, disaster strikes.

Years later and the world is at war. And a survivor of that fateful night, Annie, is working as a nurse on the sixth voyage of the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, now refitted as a hospital ship. Plagued by the demons of her doomed first and near fatal journey across the Atlantic, Annie comes across an unconscious soldier she recognises while doing her rounds. It is the young man Mark. And she is convinced that he did not – could not – have survived the sinking of the Titanic . . .

I had high hopes for The Deep, but sadly, I finished the book feeling underwhelmed after struggling throughout to stay engaged.

Partially, this may have been due to mistaken expectations. I expected a story about something coming from the deep to menace the Titanic and the people on board. I mean, based on the cover and the title, that’s reasonable, right? But that’s not really the story here, not exactly.

The Deep reads mostly like a fictionalized recounting of the Titanic’s doomed voyage. We meet the famous real-life first class passengers, including the Astors and Guggenheims, and see the luxury of their accommodations. At the same time, we’re introduced to the fictional Annie Hebbley, a stewardess working in the first -class cabins, as well as several other fictional passengers.

Much of the story is a straight-forward narrative of upper class and lower class, the gossip and intrigue that ensues by having so many people of privilege in this exclusive setting, and the below-stairs pressure on the ship’s serving crew. We don’t actually spend any time in steerage, coming closest in the presence of two boxers who charm the first-class passengers while running cons and planning for a new life in New York.

The supernatural elements creep in as weird things happen involving Annie, her strange connection to a couple and their baby, and some unexplainable interludes with a few of the top tier passengers.

The Titanic scenes alternate with scenes on board the Britannic four years later, where Annie works as a nurse to wounded soldiers, and which undergoes its own nautical tragedy.

Look, a novel about the Titanic has to hit certain beats. It needs to follow the historical events, present some of the real-life characters, and give a sense of the scope of the tragedy. The Deep is only partially successful here. The scenes amongst the first-class passengers focus on their petty interactions, but as a whole fail to really captivate or give a sense of the grandness of the sailing. And there’s more or less a complete disregard for the passengers in steerage. They’re referenced in passing, but we really don’t get any sense of their experience.

As far as the iceberg and the sinking, these are told through the eyes of the characters we’ve come to know, but again, the main events seem just like backdrop.

I ended up interested in the ghost-story twists revealed toward the end of the book, but that’s not enough to rescue what was mostly a struggle to stay interested. The supernatural elements are scattered throughout the story, but not strongly enough to create any sense of suspense or horror.

Perhaps the ghost story would have been better served by being set on an anonymous, fictional ship. You don’t need the Titanic for the story that was ultimately told, and that piece of the narrative just isn’t grand enough to have an impact on what we know of the true tragedy of the Titanic and its passengers.

I’ve read other works of fiction set on the Titanic which hew very closely to the real events and yet manage to bring us up front and center. The two that come to mind most strongly are Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge and The Midnight Watch by David Dyer. Both are excellent.

For me, The Deep was not a great reading experience. And it’s up to you whether you’d consider this a plus or a minus, but I’ve had images of Titanic (the movie) firmly embedded in my brain ever since starting the book. And obviously, Celine Dion’s soundtrack has been haunting me ever since…

Book Review: A Murderous Relation (Veronica Speedwell, #5) by Deanna Raybourn

Title: A Murderous Relation (Veronica Speedwell, #5)
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian colleague Stoker are asked by Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk to help with a potential scandal so explosive it threatens to rock the monarchy. Prince Albert Victor is a regular visitor to the most exclusive private club in London, known as the Club de l’Etoile, and the proprietess, Madame Aurore, has received an expensive gift that can be traced back to the prince. Lady Wellie would like Veronica and Stoker to retrieve the jewel from the club before scandal can break.

Worse yet, London is gripped by hysteria in the autumn of 1888, terrorized by what would become the most notorious and elusive serial killer in history, Jack the Ripper–and Lady Wellie suspects the prince may be responsible.

Veronica and Stoker reluctantly agree to go undercover at Madame Aurore’s high class brothel, where another body soon turns up. Many secrets are swirling around Veronica and the royal family–and it’s up to Veronica and Stoker to find the truth, before it’s too late for all of them. 

Five books in, the Veronica Speedwell mystery series remains delightfully fun, with intrigue, arch dialogue, and an undeniable sexual chemistry between the main characters.

Veronica and Stoker have been through all sorts of hair-raising escapades by this point. They’re each strong, opinionated, and stubborn, but also fiercely devoted to one another and to helping those in need. Being highly intelligent natural scientists is just icing on the cake.

The story in book #5 picks up a couple of weeks after their latest adventure (A Dangerous Collaboration, book #4). Veronica and Stoker are looking forward to getting back to a normal routine and final consummating their relationship, but it’s not to be — at least, not yet.

They’re called upon to use their adept sneaky ways to save the royal family from a potentially explosive scandal… and since Veronica herself has a connection to the royals, she feels both an obligation and a resentment over this latest intrusion into her life.

Nonetheless, it’s Veronica and Stoker to the rescue, throwing themselves into a costumed ball at a high-end brothel and ending up in mortal peril themselves. Their adventures are, as always, fast-paced, full of danger and absurdly self-sacrificing moments of bravery, and plenty of snark.

There’s a tangential connection to the Whitechapel murders, and the disquieting threat of Jack the Ripper hangs over the story as a backdrop. Meanwhile, there are feats of physical daring, although ultimately it’s Veronica and Stoker’s smarts and instincts that make all the difference.

This series is so entertaining and delightful! It’s not terribly serious. And who doesn’t need a breezy Victorian romp every once in a while? Veronica and Stoker are terrific characters on their own, and together, they’re a powerhouse couple who can achieve just about anything without losing a hint of their devotion and attraction to one another.

I definitely recommend this series as a whole — but as with any good series, it’s always best to start at the beginning. Fans of the Veronica Speedwell books will not be disappointed by this book! And I’m happy to know that at least two more books in the series are planned. Excelsior!

Want to know more? Check out my reviews of the previous books in the Veronica Speedwell series:
A Curious Beginning
A Perilous Undertaking
A Treacherous Curse
A Dangerous Collaboration

Shelf Control #205: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Ghost Wall
Author: Sarah Moss
Published: 2019
Length: 144 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In the north of England, far from the intrusions of cities but not far from civilization, Silvie and her family are living as if they are ancient Britons, surviving by the tools and knowledge of the Iron Age.

For two weeks, the length of her father’s vacation, they join an anthropology course set to reenact life in simpler times. They are surrounded by forests of birch and rowan; they make stew from foraged roots and hunted rabbit. The students are fulfilling their coursework; Silvie’s father is fulfilling his lifelong obsession. He has raised her on stories of early man, taken her to witness rare artifacts, recounted time and again their rituals and beliefs—particularly their sacrifices to the bog. Mixing with the students, Silvie begins to see, hear, and imagine another kind of life, one that might include going to university, traveling beyond England, choosing her own clothes and food, speaking her mind.

The ancient Britons built ghost walls to ward off enemy invaders, rude barricades of stakes topped with ancestral skulls. When the group builds one of their own, they find a spiritual connection to the past. What comes next but human sacrifice?

A story at once mythic and strikingly timely, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall urges us to wonder how far we have come from the “primitive minds” of our ancestors.

How and when I got it:

I bought this book sometime last year, and can’t for the life of me remember when or where! Maybe I buy too many books…

Why I want to read it:

I think I must have heard about this book through someone else’s book blog. That, or it was in the window display of my favorite local bookstore on one of my visits — that’s probably pretty likely! It’s a slim book, and the title and the cover are certainly eye-catching. Beyond the look of the book, the description makes it sound really terrific and disturbing and otherworldly. I’m glad I stumbled across this book again this week, because I definitely want to read it!

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Shelf Control #204: The Highland Witch by Susan Fletcher

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Highland Witch (original title: Corrag)
Author: Susan Fletcher
Published: 2010
Length: 368 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

The Massacre of Glencoe happened at 5am on 13th February 1692 when thirty-eight members of the Macdonald clan were killed by soldiers who had enjoyed the clan’s hospitality for the previous ten days. Many more died from exposure in the mountains. Fifty miles to the south Corrag is condemned for her involvement in the Massacre. She is imprisoned, accused of witchcraft and murder, and awaits her death. The era of witch-hunts is coming to an end – but Charles Leslie, an Irish propagandist and Jacobite, hears of the Massacre and, keen to publicise it, comes to the tollbooth to question her on the events of that night, and the weeks preceding it. Leslie seeks any information that will condemn the Protestant King William, rumoured to be involved in the massacre, and reinstate the Catholic James. Corrag agrees to talk to him so that the truth may be known about her involvement, and so that she may be less alone, in her final days. As she tells her story, Leslie questions his own beliefs and purpose – and a friendship develops between them that alters both their lives. In Corrag, Susan Fletcher tells us the story of an epic historic event, of the difference a single heart can make – and how deep and lasting relationships that can come from the most unlikely places.

How and when I got it:

I’ve had this book on my shelf for at least five years, and I’m pretty sure I received it from a book group friend during one of our annual book swaps.

Why I want to read it:

Basically, put the word Highland in a title, and throw in the word witch as well… and I’m sold! I’m always on the lookout for good historical fiction set in Scotland, and this one sounds terrific! 

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Shelf Control #197: The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Girl Who Wrote in Silk
Author: Kelli Estes
Published: 2015
Length: 391 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Inara Erickson is exploring her deceased aunt’s island estate when she finds an elaborately stitched piece of fabric hidden in the house. As she peels back layer upon layer of the secrets it holds, Inara’s life becomes interwoven with that of Mei Lein, a young Chinese girl mysteriously driven from her home a century before. Through the stories Mei Lein tells in silk, Inara uncovers a tragic truth that will shake her family to its core — and force her to make an impossible choice.

Inspired by true events, Kelli Estes’s brilliant and atmospheric debut serves as a poignant tale of two women determined to do the right thing, and the power of our own stories.

How and when I got it:

I bought the e-book a year ago, when my book group selected this as an upcoming read.

Why I want to read it:

This is me being a bad book group member! The Girl Who Wrote in Silk was our group read for January 2019, and I had the best of intentions… and then time just slipped away, and I never got around to reading the book or participating in the discussion. A couple of months ago, I read the author’s newest book, Today We Go Home, and I absolutely loved it. It was a beautiful, moving story, and it made me very eager to finally go back and read the book I’d missed!

Plus, the plot does sound like something I’d enjoy. When well done, I love a dual timeline story, and between the secrets of the silk and the Pacific Northwest setting, this book sounds like it’ll be powerful and atmospheric.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

Title: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter
Series: The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club 
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: June 20, 2017
Length: 402 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a reward for information leading to his capture…a reward that would solve all of her immediate financial woes.

But her hunt leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana, a feral child left to be raised by nuns. With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde, and soon befriends more women, all of whom have been created through terrifying experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.

When their investigations lead them to the discovery of a secret society of immoral and power-crazed scientists, the horrors of their past return. Now it is up to the monsters to finally triumph over the monstrous.

 

When we meet Mary Jekyll, she’s in a sorry state. Her mother has just died after many years of madness, and Mary is left in her family home, already stripped of valuables over the years as she sold whatever she could in order to make ends meet. Now, Mary has no choice but to dismiss the household staff, count her few remaining coins, and try to find a way to eke out a few more. When Mary learns that her mother was sending regular payments to “Hyde”, care of a religious society, she’s both suspicious of blackmail and motivated to find out more.

Seeking the help of the famous Sherlock Holmes, Mary sets out to discover the truth about these payments, and ends up stumbling into the mystery of the Whitechapel murders as well. Could there be a connection? 

As the story progresses, Mary learns that her deceased father was a member of a secret society dedicated to scientific pursuit outside the bounds of the established scientific community. Specifically, these mad scientists seem to be dedicated to transmutation — pursuing a faster path to evolution by creating new forms of life. Mary’s investigations lead her to the daughters/creations of these men. Soon, this group of women are bound together by circumstance as well as affection, as they pursue the truth about their fathers’ Society of Alchemists and end up fighting for their lives.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is utterly charming and engaging. It’s a clever concept, bringing together a group of young women who are at best side notes in the original classic fiction from which they and their fathers originate and placing them at center stage. As the author makes clear, these women cannot and and will not be thought of as scientific oddities; they are unique individuals, new and different and outside the norms of society, yet with rich inner lives and a strong will to set the course of their own lives.

The writing here is smart and quirky. The book is presented as the narrative of the women’s adventure as written by Catherine — but throughout the book, the others interject their comments and critiques, pointing out places where Catherine is being too flowery or dramatic, or where she’s getting the details wrong. Meanwhile, as Mary meets each new character, they get the chance to tell their own stories, and each one is powerful and fascinating. 

There’s plenty of action, and quite a bit of humor. The Victorian setting works perfectly as a backdrop for the adventure. I always love stories of found families, and this one is a terrific example. All these women have been maltreated and discarded, but together, they form a new family in order to face the world together. As with any family, there are squabbles and disagreements and bickering, but at bedrock, there’s also love and support and protection — the whole is definitely greater than its parts.

There are two more books in the series, and I do intend to continue… although I may hold off for a little while, after realizing that book #2, European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, is over 700 pages. Still, I definitely want to see what happens next with this eccentric group of daring women! 

Highly recommended! Fans of the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger and the Veronica Speedwell books by Deanna Raybourn will appreciate the setting, the bantering, and the role of the scientifically adventurous women. It’s all great fun — don’t miss it!

 

Shelf Control #193: Witchmark by C. J. Polk

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Witchmark
Author: C. L. Polk
Published: 2018
Length: 318 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.

Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.

When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.
 

How and when I got it:

I picked up a copy last summer on a visit to a beloved neighborhood bookstore.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve heard such good things about this book! I love the sound of the witchcraft elements mixed with the historical setting. And now seems like a good time to read Witchmark, as the sequel will be out in February.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: The Mermaid by Christina Henry

From the author of Lost Boy comes a historical fairy tale about a mermaid who leaves the sea for love and later finds herself in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum as the real Fiji mermaid. However, leaving the museum may be harder than leaving the sea ever was.

Once there was a mermaid who longed to know of more than her ocean home and her people. One day a fisherman trapped her in his net but couldn’t bear to keep her. But his eyes were lonely and caught her more surely than the net, and so she evoked a magic that allowed her to walk upon the shore. The mermaid, Amelia, became his wife, and they lived on a cliff above the ocean for ever so many years, until one day the fisherman rowed out to sea and did not return.

P. T. Barnum was looking for marvelous attractions for his American Museum, and he’d heard a rumor of a mermaid who lived on a cliff by the sea. He wanted to make his fortune, and an attraction like Amelia was just the ticket.

Amelia agreed to play the mermaid for Barnum, and she believes she can leave any time she likes. But Barnum has never given up a money-making scheme in his life, and he’s determined to hold on to his mermaid.

You guys. I LOVED this book.

I was blown away by the story itself, as well as by the gorgeous writing and the passion that comes through on every page.

She loved him almost as much as she loved the sea, and so they were well matched, for he loved the sea almost as much as he loved her. He’d never thought any person could draw him more than the ocean, but the crashing waves were there in her eyes and the salt of the spray was in her skin and there, too, was something in her that the sea could never give. The ocean could never love him back, but Amelia did.

In The Mermaid, we first meet Amelia as a beautiful, wild being of the sea. After being freed from a net by the kind fisherman who finds her, she can’t stop thinking about the look in his eyes, and finds herself leaving the sea to find him. Once reunited, Amelia and Jack fall deeply in love — and while she leaves his seaside shack to swim in the ocean at night, she sees him as her heart and her home… until the day he goes out fishing and doesn’t return.

For ten long years, Amelia watches the sea, mourning yet refusing to believe that her beloved will never return to her. Meanwhile, far off in New York, rumor has reached the ears of P. T. Barnum and his associate Levi Lyman about a beautiful woman in coastal Maine, whom the locals believe to be a mermaid. Barnum dispatches Levi to find her and bring her back to New York, dreaming of the riches that will pour into his pockets once he puts the mermaid on display in his American Museum.

Amelia has other ideas, though. At a time when women defer to men on all matters, Amelia refuses to become any man’s belonging. She sets her own terms and makes the rules for how, when, and how often she’ll be on display. She yearns to travel the world and knows she needs money to do this, which is why she agrees to Levi and Barnum’s plans in the first place — but once she arrives in New York, she begins to realize how difficult it will be to fit into the world of humans and to survive in a crowded, dirty city full of people who see her as a curiosity, or even worse, as an abomination.

“A bird in a cage still knows it’s in a cage, even if the bars are made of gold,” Amelia said softly.

The Mermaid tells a beautiful story of a woman’s strength, while highlighting the devastating circumstances of woman who lack all power in the world. We see friendship, loyalty, and love, as well as greed and disdain and cruelty. Amelia herself is a marvelous character, intelligent and passionate and determined to stand her ground. The magical elements are lovely — mermaids here are not the objectified versions as seen in drawings and sailors’ tattoos, but beings who are indisputably other, not half-fish, half-woman, but people who are wholly something beyond human understanding or definition.

The ocean was a violent place, yes, but it was violence without malice. When a shark ate a sea lion, it did not hate the sea lion. It only wanted to live.

Author Christina Henry draws on the historical record — Barnum really did have an exhibit called the “Feejee Mermaid”, although it was a grotesque fake, not a live woman swimming in a tank of sea water before a mesmerized public — and then builds a story of wonder and magic and love.

I couldn’t help thinking about The Greatest Showman whenever Barnum and wife Charity and the museum appear, although Barnum’s portrayal in The Mermaid is not at all admiring or sympathetic — he’s a greedy con artist looking for the next big attraction, a lousy husband and father, and overall a cold-hearted, scheming man. Still, reading this book made me itch to watch the movie again… and I will, soon.

I really, really loved this book and will want to read it again before too long. Meanwhile, I look forward to reading more by Christina Henry. Earlier this year, I read her newest novel, The Girl in Red, and (big surprise) loved that as well. Time to go back and read her earlier books too!

Click on the image to read my review of this amazing book!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Mermaid
Author: Christina Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 19, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased

Audiobook Review: Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy

 

A bold, heartfelt tale of life at Green Gables . . . before Anne: A marvelously entertaining and moving historical novel, set in rural Prince Edward Island in the nineteenth century, that imagines the young life of spinster Marilla Cuthbert, and the choices that will open her life to the possibility of heartbreak—and unimaginable greatness

Plucky and ambitious, Marilla Cuthbert is thirteen years old when her world is turned upside down. Her beloved mother has dies in childbirth, and Marilla suddenly must bear the responsibilities of a farm wife: cooking, sewing, keeping house, and overseeing the day-to-day life of Green Gables with her brother, Matthew and father, Hugh.

In Avonlea—a small, tight-knit farming town on a remote island—life holds few options for farm girls. Her one connection to the wider world is Aunt Elizabeth “Izzy” Johnson, her mother’s sister, who managed to escape from Avonlea to the bustling city of St. Catharines. An opinionated spinster, Aunt Izzy’s talent as a seamstress has allowed her to build a thriving business and make her own way in the world.

Emboldened by her aunt, Marilla dares to venture beyond the safety of Green Gables and discovers new friends and new opportunities. Joining the Ladies Aid Society, she raises funds for an orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity in nearby Nova Scotia that secretly serves as a way station for runaway slaves from America. Her budding romance with John Blythe, the charming son of a neighbor, offers her a possibility of future happiness—Marilla is in no rush to trade one farm life for another. She soon finds herself caught up in the dangerous work of politics, and abolition—jeopardizing all she cherishes, including her bond with her dearest John Blythe. Now Marilla must face a reckoning between her dreams of making a difference in the wider world and the small-town reality of life at Green Gables.

After reading the entire Anne of Green Gables series this year for the very first time, I felt a need to stay immersed in Anne’s world a bit longer, and decided to read this prequel book, written by contemporary author Sarah McCoy and published in 2018. I’m often skeptical when modern authors decide to continue or riff off of a beloved older book or series (I’m thinking about the debacle that was Scarlett, the “sequel” to Gone With the Wind, among others).

Can a modern author pull off the tone and feeling of the original? Does the new story add anything in terms of character development? Does it feel true to the heart of the original story?

In the case of Marilla of Green Gables, the answer is YES to all questions. While not completely perfect, Marilla is a worthy addition to the Green Gables saga, and I enjoyed it start to finish.

As readers of Anne of Green Gables know, Marilla is the aging spinster who, along with her older brother Matthew, adopts an 11-year-old orphan girl (while actually thinking they were bringing home a boy to help with the farm), and completely up-ends their orderly life. Anne Shirley is a wonder, and her bright, inquisitive, imaginative nature brings new life to Marilla and Matthew and changes their world forever.

But what do we really know about Marilla from the Green Gables books? We only see her through Anne’s eyes –an older woman who keeps house while her brother farms, who has never left the family home and never married. She’s a pillar of the community and has many close friends… but we really don’t know much at all about her childhood or adult life prior to Anne’s arrival.

Marilla of Green Gables starts when Marilla is thirteen. Her mother Clara is pregnant, her brother Matthew works the farm with their father Hugh, and their home life is simple but happy. Marilla has a growing friendship with a classmate of Matthew’s, John Blythe, who is a few years older than Marilla. They seem to be on the verge of romance, but when Clara dies during childbirth, everything changes for Marilla.

Having promised her mother to always take care of Hugh and Matthew, Marilla knows that she will never leave Green Gables. As her relationship with John strengthens over the years, she feels torn between her feelings for him and her responsibility toward her family. On top of this, there’s growing political unrest in Canada, and the Cuthberts are on opposite sides of the issue from John. Finally, it’s the political disagreements that drive a wedge between Marilla and John, leading to an estrangement that lingers for many years.

Over the years, Marilla becomes more and more involved in the issue of runaway slaves from America, motivated initially by orphaned children she encounters who were rescued from enslavement but are still pursued by bounty hunters. While on the surface a simple farm woman with an ordinary, house-bound life, Marilla becomes involved in the abolition movement and works to arrange shelter as part of the underground railroad.

There’s something really heartbreaking about a prequel. You know where the players have to end up, having read the original story. So, seeing Marilla and John’s romance blooming over the years was incredibly bittersweet. On the one hand, they’re just so lovely together, and their affection and regard for one another is sincere and pure and heartfelt. At the same time, I know that Marilla never marries, and that John must end up married to someone else, since his son Gilbert is Anne’s love interest and eventual husband in the Anne books. It really felt terrible at times to see Marilla’s happiness with John and see her experiencing all the sweet emotions of a young first love — not knowing how it will go wrong, but knowing all along that they simply can’t end up together.

Author Sarah McCoy does a lovely job of emulating the feel and style of the Anne books, reveling in the natural world of Prince Edward Island, the simple joys of a small community in an earlier time, and the daily routines and habits that build a full life. Marilla’s voice and perspective feels clear and authentic — we’re able to see a young Marilla and see the roots of the woman she’ll become someday.

The only jarring note for me was the emphasis on politics. Politics rarely gets mentioned in the Anne series, and here, the unrest within Canada is a large focus and becomes the driving point for the breakdown of Anne and John’s relationship. It’s not that it’s uninteresting; simply that it doesn’t feel all that well aligned with the tone of the original series.

Still, I found the book as a whole delightful. It felt like a revelation to get to know a young Marilla and understand how she became the stern spinster we meet in Anne of Green Gables. I love the depiction of life in Avonlea, and was moved by Marilla’s devotion to improving the life of those less fortunate, including putting herself at risk in order to protect children fleeing enslavement.

Marilla of Green Gables is a lovely addition to the world of Anne of Green Gables. For those who haven’t read the original series, I’d say start with those books, at the least the first three or so, before reading Marilla. While Marilla of Green Gables could stand on its own, I think the heart and soul would somehow have much less impact without the greater context of the Anne series.

A note on the audiobook: Lovely! The narrator captures Marilla’s sweetness, the gossipy nature of Marilla’s friend Rachel, the compassion of John, and all the flavor of the many other characters in the story. Really a terrific listen.

I highly recommend Marilla of Green Gables for any fans of the Anne series, and really applaud author Sarah McCoy for adding a new and interesting storyline while staying true to the essence of the original books.

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The details:

Title: Marilla of Green Gables
Author: Sarah McCoy
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: October 23, 2018
Length (print): 320 pages
Length (audiobook): 9 hours, 14 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library