Audiobook Review: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

Title: Miss Austen
Author: Gill Hornby
Narrator:  Juliet Stevenson
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: January 23, 2020
Print length: 288 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 56 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was?

England, 1840. For the two decades following the death of her beloved sister, Jane, Cassandra Austen has lived alone, spending her days visiting friends and relations and quietly, purposefully working to preserve her sister’s reputation. Now in her sixties and increasingly frail, Cassandra goes to stay with the Fowles of Kintbury, family of her long-dead fiancé, in search of a trove of Jane’s letters. Dodging her hostess and a meddlesome housemaid, Cassandra eventually hunts down the letters and confronts the secrets they hold, secrets not only about Jane but about Cassandra herself. Will Cassandra bare the most private details of her life to the world, or commit her sister’s legacy to the flames?

Moving back and forth between the vicarage and Cassandra’s vibrant memories of her years with Jane, interwoven with Jane’s brilliantly reimagined lost letters, Miss Austen is the untold story of the most important person in Jane’s life. With extraordinary empathy, emotional complexity, and wit, Gill Hornby finally gives Cassandra her due, bringing to life a woman as captivating as any Austen heroine.

What a lovely book! I have to admit that prior to reading Miss Austen, I’ve never really spent much time reading about Jane Austen’s life beyond the occasional article or Wikipedia page. I love her novels, but somehow never found myself wanting to look beyond into the author’s actual life.

In Miss Austen, we learn about Jane and the larger Austen family through the eyes of Jane’s older sister Cassandra. As the story begins, Cassandra journeys to Kintbury in 1840, ostensibly to help Isabella Fowle pack up the vicarage after her father’s death, but in reality, Cassandra has a different mission: She knows that Jane frequently wrote to Isabella’s mother Eliza, and she worries that unless she intervenes, potentially damaging personal correspondence of Jane’s may end up in the wrong hands, possibly tarnishing her public reputation.

Note: Throughout this book, lines from Hamilton kept popping into my head: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Who gets to tell a person’s story, who decides what to keep private and what to make public — these questions are very relevant to Cassandra’s main plot arc in the 1840 chapters of the book.

Using a split timeline, we follow Cassandra’s quest as an older woman to retrieve Jane’s letters. Through flashback chapters, we also see Cassandra’s journey from young woman to older spinster, always with Jane first and foremost in her mind.

As a younger woman, Cassandra became engaged to Tom Fowle (Eliza’s brother). Over the moon in love, the two were eager to wed, but agreed that a long engagement would be prudent. However, tragedy prevents the marriage from taking place, and from that point forward, the course of Cassandra’s life is set.

As the years progress and the fortunes of the Austens rise and fall, we see Cassandra’s devotion to Jane, as she protects her, nurtures her, and cares for her during her spells of melancholy (which today would likely be diagnosed as depression). The sisters’ love is quite beautiful to read about, and eventually, they and their cousin Martha find happiness in their lives as three single women setting up a home together.

I won’t go into a ton of detail here, but suffice to say, the characters are well-drawn, and the circumstances of Jane and Cassandra’s life together invokes some sadness, even during their happier years. There were moments when I almost wished I wasn’t reading historical fiction about real people: Certain plot points had me practically begging for a different outcome, but knowing that key elements of the Austens’ lives really couldn’t be changed (you know, since they were real people!), it was frustratingly sad to see possible love and joy slip away time after time.

Still, I was also captivated by the sisters’ wit and humor, by the clever dialogue created for Jane, and by the family’s tradition of having Jane read her works in progress to the family each evening. Again, seeing how I’d never read an actual biography of Jane Austen, the depiction of her writing challenges and successes was quite informative, and based on what I’ve looked up since, largely sticks to the facts as they’re known.

I need to give a huge hurrah to the terrific audiobook narration by Juliet Stevenson. What a treat! A few years ago, I went on an Austen audiobook binge, and five of the six I listened to were narrated by Juliet Stevenson. She’s amazing. Having her narrate Miss Austen made this an especially delightful experience. Because I’m used to hearing her narrate Austen’s characters, it felt like slipping back into those worlds listening to her voice this story as well. And I had to chuckle when certain obnoxious family members (especially a self-satisfied sister-in-law) were voiced so similarly to particularly annoying Austen characters. (Mrs. Elton from Emma is one who came immediately to mind… which made me wonder, was that character perhaps inspired by Jane’s real family member?)

I’ve had my eye on Miss Austen since it came out in 2020, but hadn’t gotten around to it until my book group selected it for this month’s group read. So, once again, enormous gratitude to my book group for leading me to yet another terrific reading experience!

I very much enjoyed Miss Austen. Highly recommended for Jane Austen fans!

PS – Now that I’ve read Miss Austen, I’m much more interested in a good Jane Austen biography! Any recommendations?

Book Review: Carrie Soto Is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Title: Carrie Soto Is Back
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: August 30, 2022
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In this powerful novel about the cost of greatness, a legendary athlete attempts a comeback when the world considers her past her prime—from the New York Times bestselling author of Malibu Rising.

Carrie Soto is fierce, and her determination to win at any cost has not made her popular. But by the time she retires from tennis, she is the best player the world has ever seen. She has shattered every record and claimed twenty Grand Slam titles. And if you ask Carrie, she is entitled to every one. She sacrificed nearly everything to become the best, with her father, Javier, as her coach. A former champion himself, Javier has trained her since the age of two.

But six years after her retirement, Carrie finds herself sitting in the stands of the 1994 US Open, watching her record be taken from her by a brutal, stunning player named Nicki Chan.

At thirty-seven years old, Carrie makes the monumental decision to come out of retirement and be coached by her father for one last year in an attempt to reclaim her record. Even if the sports media says that they never liked “the Battle-Axe” anyway. Even if her body doesn’t move as fast as it did. And even if it means swallowing her pride to train with a man she once almost opened her heart to: Bowe Huntley. Like her, he has something to prove before he gives up the game forever.

In spite of it all, Carrie Soto is back, for one epic final season. In this riveting and unforgettable novel, Taylor Jenkins Reid tells her most vulnerable, emotional story yet.

I’ve read all of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s books by now, have loved most, and at a minimum, have really liked even the ones that didn’t quite rise to 5-star levels for me. But I hesitated — a LOT — about reading Carrie Soto Is Back. A book about a tennis player? How could that possibly be relevant to me?

I should have had more faith! In the hands of Taylor Jenkins Reid, even a book on a subject I didn’t expect to care about managed to pull me in and hook me until the end.

Carrie Soto was born to be a tennis star. Daughter of a man who was himself a tennis phenomenon, she’s been on courts since she was a toddler. Under the coaching of her father Javier, Carrie’s entire existence has been focused on one thing only: being the best. Period.

The first section of the book is about Carrie’s rise to the top. From her childhood training sessions to the all-consuming process of going pro, to finally becoming the woman who set record after record by winning the most Grand Slam titles in history, Carrie is untouchable in her success. She also has earned the nickname of “The Battle-Axe” (and worse things) — she’s ruthless and unabashedly (some might say cruelly) competitive. She doesn’t pretend to be polite or nice. She wants to destroy her opponents on the court, and she does, tournament after tournament. She’s the most well-known woman athlete of her time… but no one actually likes her.

The story really heats up in the mid-90s, when Carrie, several years after retirement, sees her Grand Slam record broken by a younger player, Nicki Chan. Carrie feels as though her entire existence is being called into question. At the “old” age of 37, Carrie decides to win back her record. And despite exactly no one in the world of tennis thinking she can do it, Carrie and Javier set out to prove — one more time — what she’s capable of.

Carrie is a hard character to like, which is entirely intentional. She’s driven and focused — nothing but tennis and being the best matter to her. She has no use for flattery or friendship. She’s not here to make nice. She’s here to win. Yet as we spend time with Carrie, we get to see more of what drives her, and finally start to see the chinks in her armor give way, just a tiny bit, as she admits to herself that she does actually need people in her life.

I’ll admit that I had a hard time with parts of this book. I mean, I really have no experience with tennis, so reading shot-by-shot descriptions of each match felt a little much at times. Still, once I got into the rhythm of the book, I did find myself absorbed by Carrie and Javier’s meticulousness in their strategy and gameplay. If you’d asked me before I read Carrie Soto Is Back, I’d have said that tennis is just two people hitting a ball back and forth until one misses. But now, I have a much greater appreciation for the minutiae of shot planning and match strategy, and have a little bit more understanding of the complexity of what actually happens on the court.

As for the emotional impact, it’s slow to hit, but eventually, I felt very invested in Carrie’s comeback, especially as we spend so much time on her inner world and get to see how it aligns (or doesn’t) with what the rest of the world sees. Carrie is difficult and prickly, but there’s an inner core that a few people manage to reach, and when we see Carrie’s connection with certain people, it’s quite lovely.

As a book set in the world of professional tennis in the 80s and 90s, there are depictions of the casual sexism of the time that are just astonishing. Not that our own time is free of this, but we have definitely come a long way. The cruelty of the sports commentators and media coverage, as shown through transcripts throughout the book, is just infuriating — and made me root for Carrie all the more.

Overall, I’m glad that I finally picked up Carrie Soto Is Back. It’s a fast, engrossing read about an unusual, powerful woman. Despite my initial hesitation, this book is a winner.

Shelf Control #344: The Book of V. by Anna Solomon

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!

***Question for Shelf Control participants: I currently go ahead and add the links for participants’ posts as they’re shared in the comments or via pingbacks. Does this work for you, or would you prefer a system where you add your own links (such as via InLinkz or similar)? Please let me know!**

Title: The Book of V.
Author: Anna Solomon
Published: 2020
Length: 320 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Anna Solomon’s kaleidoscopic novel intertwines the lives of a Brooklyn mother in 2016, a senator’s wife in 1970s Washington, D.C., and the Bible’s Queen Esther, whose stories of sex, power and desire overlap and ultimately converge—showing how women’s roles have and have not changed over thousands of years.

Lily is a mother and a daughter. And a second wife. And a writer, maybe? Or she was going to be, before she had children. Now, in her rented Brooklyn apartment, she’s grappling with her sexual and intellectual desires while also trying to manage her roles as a mother and a wife.

Vivian Barr seems to be the perfect political wife, dedicated to helping her charismatic and ambitious husband find success in Watergate-era Washington D.C. But one night he demands a humiliating favor, and her refusal to obey changes the course of her life—along with the lives of others.

Esther is a fiercely independent young woman in ancient Persia, where she and her uncle’s tribe live a tenuous existence outside the palace walls. When an innocent mistake results in devastating consequences for her people, she is offered up as a sacrifice to please the king, in the hopes that she will save them all.

Following in the tradition of The Hours and The Red TentThe Book of V. is a bold and contemporary investigation into the enduring expectations and restraints placed on women’s lives.

How and when I got it:

I bought the Kindle edition of this book late in 2020.

Why I want to read it:

This is my second week in a row with a historical fiction pick for Shelf Control! So why this particular book?

Dual timeline narratives seem to be everywhere when it comes to historical fiction, particularly novels that focus on women’s lives and societal roles. I can’t say I’ve ever come across a split timeline combining modern women’s lives with Queen Esther before now!

I’ve always loved the story of Queen Esther — as a child, we learned the simplistic version about a good and beautiful queen saving her people. We never did give much thought to the previous queen, Vashti, except to consider her the “bad” queen who came before Esther. Of course, as an adult, I’ve enjoyed more nuanced views of the tale, and especially learning about Vashti as a feminist icon!

The idea of Esther/Vashti as ancient counterparts to contemporary women’s experiences sounds… weird??? But also potentially fascinating. On the surface, it seems like a stretch to me — but I remain interested in seeing how the author balances and contrasts the two stories, and wonder whether it works well or feels forced.

I do think I’ll read this one — maybe I’ll time it just right and read it in time for the holiday of Purim!

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 or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Shelf Control #343: The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent

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!

Title: The Heretic’s Daughter
Author: Kathleen Kent
Published: 2008
Length: 332 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Martha Carrier was one of the first women to be accused, tried and hanged as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts. Like her mother, young Sarah Carrier is bright and willful, openly challenging the small, brutal world in which they live. Often at odds with one another, mother and daughter are forced to stand together against the escalating hysteria of the trials and the superstitious tyranny that led to the torture and imprisonment of more than 200 people accused of witchcraft. This is the story of Martha’s courageous defiance and ultimate death, as told by the daughter who survived.

Kathleen Kent is a tenth generation descendant of Martha Carrier. She paints a haunting portrait, not just of Puritan New England, but also of one family’s deep and abiding love in the face of fear and persecution.

How and when I got it:

I have no idea! I’ve had a paperback edition on my shelf for many years now, but I’m not sure how I ended up with a copy. (Library sale is a likely suspect!)

Why I want to read it:

The subject of the Salem witch trials is an endlessly fascinating (and terribly tragic) topic to read about. Until I sat down to write this post, I didn’t realize that the author of this book is a descendant of the real-life person this historical novel is about.

While I’ve read several novels focused on the Puritan era and witch trials, this one sounds like it has a different perspective from what I’ve read so far, and I’m interested to see how the author presents this mother-daughter story.

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 or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: When Franny Stands Up by Eden Robins

Title: When Franny Stands Up
Author: Eden Robins
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: November 1, 2022
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Historical/speculative fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Nothing is more dangerous than a woman with a showstopping joke.

Franny Steinberg knows there’s powerful magic in laughter. She’s witnessed it. With the men of Chicago off fighting WWII on distant shores, Franny has watched the women of the city taking charge of the war effort. But amidst the war bond sales and factory shifts, something surprising has emerged, something Franny could never have expected. A new marvel that has women flocking to comedy clubs across the nation: the Showstopper.

When Franny steps into Chicago’s Blue Moon comedy club, she realizes the power of a Showstopper—that specific magic sparked when an audience laughs so hard, they are momentarily transformed. And while each comedian’s Showstopper is different, they all have one thing in common: they only work on women.

After a traumatic flashback propels her onstage in a torn bridesmaid dress, Franny discovers her own Showstopper is something new. And suddenly she has the power to change everything…for herself, for her audience, and for the people who may need it most.

I first became aware of When Franny Stands Up when an author I love recommended it. I’ve since read a couple of stellar reviews. And all this leaves me wondering — what did I miss?

In When Franny Stands Up, women’s comedy clubs are struggling to survive in the 1950s, after male comedians become popular on TV and grab all the attention. But women know a secret: in the live stand-up shows for women only, certain talented comedians have Showstoppers — moments of magic where the performer induces certain special effects on the women in the audience as they laugh.

For Franny, she first encounters a Showstopper years earlier, sneaking away from her protective parents’ home in a Chicago suburb to see the famous Boopsie Baxter perform. But Franny is not at all prepared for her powerful reaction to Boopsie’s Showstopper, and runs back home in shame and fear, only to discover that her soldier brother has gone missing in action in Europe. For Franny, these two events become very much linked, and she determines to be good and give up her interest in comedy forever.

But as the main part of the story opens, 23-year-old Franny is burdened by her daily life, her worries over her brother, now home but suffering from PTSD, and her alienation from her former best friend, who’s about to get married, and whose family is responsible for one of Franny’s worst memories. When events at the wedding go badly, Franny runs off yet again, and finds herself at the Blue Moon club, where a whole new world awaits.

Sadly, so much of this story simply didn’t make sense to me. Franny’s interest in comedy, especially in becoming a stand-up comedian, seems to come out of nowhere, and isn’t well explained. And why the club owner and other performers take an interest in Franny or immediately sense her potential talent — well, I have no idea.

There are many interesting concepts scattered throughout the story, but whether it’s the writing itself or the approach to the plot, it never particularly gelled for me. I found the writing style choppy, with descriptions and plot actions not quite making sense to me. As new occurrences and situations popped up, I often felt like I must have accidentally skipped some pages — just how did we get from point A to point B? Some characters as well just never made sense — I can think of one in particular who, by the end of the story, I still didn’t know if she was supposed to be sympathetic or an antagonist, and that definitely did not seem like an intentional construction of a morally gray characters. Instead, it was just another example of a writing approach that didn’t work for me.

The idea of the Showstopper concept is pretty cool, absolutely — but the plot, inconsistent character depictions, dropped or under-developed storylines, and unclear character motivation all got in the way of my enjoyment of When Franny Stands Up. There are some interesting ideas here, but sadly, the book as a whole just didn’t work for me.

Book Review: Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen

Title: Lavender House
Author: Lev AC Rosen
Publisher: Forge Books
Publication date: October 18, 2022
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A delicious story from a new voice in suspense, Lev AC Rosen’s Lavender House is Knives Out with a queer historical twist.

Lavender House, 1952: the family seat of recently deceased matriarch Irene Lamontaine, head of the famous Lamontaine soap empire. Irene’s recipes for her signature scents are a well guarded secret—but it’s not the only one behind these gates. This estate offers a unique freedom, where none of the residents or staff hide who they are. But to keep their secret, they’ve needed to keep others out. And now they’re worried they’re keeping a murderer in.

Irene’s widow hires Evander Mills to uncover the truth behind her mysterious death. Andy, recently fired from the San Francisco police after being caught in a raid on a gay bar, is happy to accept—his calendar is wide open. And his secret is the kind of secret the Lamontaines understand.

Andy had never imagined a world like Lavender House. He’s seduced by the safety and freedom found behind its gates, where a queer family lives honestly and openly. But that honesty doesn’t extend to everything, and he quickly finds himself a pawn in a family game of old money, subterfuge, and jealousy—and Irene’s death is only the beginning.

When your existence is a crime, everything you do is criminal, and the gates of Lavender House can’t lock out the real world forever. Running a soap empire can be a dirty business.

Lavender House opens with a desperate man in a bar having one last drink while contemplating suicide — before a broad in bright colors walks in.

She has a deep, sharp voice, and it cuts through the fog of drunkenness in my mind. She’s right out of a movie — she could ask me to kill her husband any second now.

In this noir-tinged murder mystery set in 1950s San Francisco, there’s no place to hide if you’re queer, and that’s especially true if you’re a cop. Our main character, Andy Mills, has just been fired from the SFPD after being caught in the act during a police sweep of gay bars. Broken, beaten, and with no hope, he’s having one last drink while considering throwing himself into the Bay, when Pearl walks into the bar.

Pearl is a classy older woman with an aura of money, and as Andy listens to her pitch, he learns something truly shocking: Pearl refers to her long-time companion Irene as her “wife”. How can two women possibly live a domestic, committed life together without persecution? Soon, Andy learns much more: Irene is the head of the Lamontaine family, who own a fabulously successful soap company known for its lush floral scents and secret formulations. With the Lamontaine money, Irene and Pearl are able to live a rich, free life within their secluded, gated estate in Marin, along with their son Henry, Henry’s partner Cliff (who poses publicly as Henry’s secretary), Henry’s wife Margo (again, a public-facing role), and Margo’s lover Elsie, who runs one of the most successful queer clubs in San Francisco, sheltered by generous payoffs to the police.

Henry turns and kisses him on the forehead. And everyone acts like it’s the most natural thing in the world. No one even seems to notice it happen. I’ve seen affection like that in the clubs before, sure. But here, in morning light, at a breakfast table, it’s like they’re so bright it makes my eyes hurt.

The Lamontaine’s idyllic life is devastated, however, by the event that’s brought Pearl to Andy: Irene is dead, and Pearl suspects murder. While the rest of the household believe the death was an unfortunate accident, Pearl thinks there’s something more sinister at play, and she invites Andy back to the mansion to investigate. As he takes up residence in a guest room and gets to know the family, Andy uncovers many secrets, but also sees both the freedoms and limitations of the family’s isolated lives, and considers whether he might ever find a way to live a freer, truer life himself.

There’s so much to love about Lavender House! First, the murder mystery itself is well developed, with an intriguing set-up, plenty of clues and red herrings, and a cast of characters who all seem like good people, until we’re forced to see other sides of them and wonder what lies beneath the friendly surfaces. This is a manor house mystery — an isolated, grand house, with each resident a suspect, and a detective in their midst, who may end up in grave danger himself. It’s quite deliciously built, as we get to know and like the various characters — but like Andy, we need to also look beyond the smiles and sympathetic conversations and to hold ourselves at a bit of a distance while we assess which of these people is a murderer.

Beyond the mystery itself, there’s also the historical setting and the depiction of gay life in the 1950s. The era shines through via the author’s descriptions of the bars and alleys and criminal life, as well as the music, clothing, and cars. But it’s the narration of Andy’s inner turmoil, the constant threat of discovery and the very real danger of beatings and abuse that give this book such a gritty, sad, realistic feel.

Even amidst the seemingly open life of the Lamontaine house, Andy is constantly aware of the redwood trees that line the drives, looking like prison bars, and the heavy gates that must be kept locked to keep the world out — and by extension, to keep the family locked within their private haven, unable to leave without putting on masks to shield them from the world.

As long as the world out there stays the same, a paradise like this keeps you in as much as it keeps you safe.

There’s so much sorrow in Andy’s experiences of living a secret life, his attempts to keep himself safe and his shame at not having done more to help others like him, his knowledge that the camaraderie he once experienced on the police force was erased in an instant the moment his true self was exposed, and the physical danger he faces simply by being spotted by someone who might recognize him. Through Andy’s investigation, we also learn more about the backgrounds of the various other inhabitants of Lavender House, and it’s a sad litany of secrets, shame, family disgrace, and abuse.

The murder is, of course, tied up neatly by the end of the book, and I thought the resolution was quite clever and not at all obvious. Andy’s life seems on the verge of a new beginning, and it’s wonderful to be able to leave him with a sense of hope. Life in the 1950s hasn’t magically changed, but he at least has options and a vision for how his life might be better. It felt as though the ending might be leaving the door open for additional mysteries starring Andy, and that would be amazing! Here’s hoping this is just the first in a continuing series.

I’m not at all surprised that I ended up loving this book. The author, Lev AC Rosen, has written some fabulous books already, including two gems that I think deserved much more attention than they got (All Men of Genius and Depth — go look them up and check them out!!). I haven’t read his YA novels yet, but they’re on my TBR list. In any case, Lavender House seems to be generating lots of buzz and is getting a big, splashy release, so I hope this is the book that will finally provide this talented author with a much bigger audience.

Lavender House is a fast-paced, intriguing mystery with a deep inner core of emotional impact and sensitivity, and I loved the sharp way the characters’ experiences enhanced the murder genre aspects of the story. This is a terrific new release for October — don’t miss it!

Shelf Control #335: The Book of Speculation by Erica Swyler

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!

Title: The Book of Speculation
Author: Erika Swyler
Published: 2015
Length: 339 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone in a house that is slowly crumbling toward the Long Island Sound. His parents are long dead. His mother, a circus mermaid who made her living by holding her breath, drowned in the very water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, ran off six years ago and now reads tarot cards for a traveling carnival.

One June day, an old book arrives on Simon’s doorstep, sent by an antiquarian bookseller who purchased it on speculation. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things, including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of “mermaids” in Simon’s family have drowned–always on July 24, which is only weeks away.

As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly worried about his sister. Could there be a curse on Simon’s family? What does it have to do with the book, and can he get to the heart of the mystery in time to save Enola?

In the tradition of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, The Book of Speculation–with two-color illustrations by the author–is Erika Swyler’s moving debut novel about the power of books, family, and magic.

How and when I got it:

I picked up a paperback in 2016, and it’s been on my shelf ever since.

Why I want to read it:

As I’m writing this post, it occurs to me that perhaps I never even read the synopsis before today! The plot sounds kind of bonkers, in a really good way, but doesn’t seem in the slightest bit familiar. So, I’m thinking I may have grabbed this book at a library sale based solely on the cover. I mean, can’t go wrong with a book with books on the cover, right?

Now that I’ve read what it’s about, I’m much more interested in finally giving the book a try. Generations of circus mermaids? A mystery curse? Count me in!

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 or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Title: Hamnet
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Tinder Press
Publication date: March 31, 2020
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

New York Times Notable Book (2020), Best Book of 2020: GuardianFinancial TimesLiterary Hub, and NPR.

Hamnet is a powerful, emotional, beautifully written story about grief, mourning, and sorrow. Also, Shakespeare.

In Hamnet, the main point-of-view character is Agnes, although we do get passages from the perspectives of Agnes’s children and husband too. Agnes is gifted with sight and special powers. A talented healer, she can also see people’s futures simply by touching them. About herself, she has one clear vision: She will be the mother of two children.

When Agnes meets her husband, the son of a disreputable glovemaker and Latin tutor to her stepbrothers, they’re immediately drawn to one another, and eventually marry. Agnes can see her husband’s unhappiness casting a shadow over their lives. He lacks purpose, a means of fulfilling his own pursuits — so she sends him off to London, ostensibly to further his father’s business interests there. They plan for him to get settled, then send for Agnes and their children.

But all does not go as intended. Already the parents of a healthy girl, Agnes soon delivers not the 2nd child she expects, but a 2nd and 3rd. The twins are a girl and a boy, the girl born so weak and fragile that she was not expected to survive. She names the babies Hamnet and Judith, and they are inseparable. It soon becomes clear that moving to London will never be an option for Agnes and her children — Judith’s health is too delicate to allow her to live in a crowded, dirty city. And so Agnes and her husband live apart, with him returning for visits when he can, although he’s achieving success as a playwright and creating a separate life for himself in the world of theater.

But Agnes can never quite forget her own vision, of herself as the mother of two children.

She fears her foresight; she does. She remembers with ice-cold clarity the image she had of two figures at the foot of the bed where she will meet her end. She now knows that it’s possible, more than possible, that one of her children will die, because children do, all the time. But she will not have it. She will not. She will fill this child, these children, with life. She will place herself between them and the door leading out, and she will stand there, teeth bared, blocking the way. She will defend her three babes against all that lies beyond this world. She will not rest, not sleep, until she knows they are safe. She will push back, fight against, undo the foresight she has always had, about having two children. She will. She knows she can.

When “pestilence” — the Black Death — reaches the family’s home in Stratford, it’s Judith who is stricken. But Hamnet will not abide the idea of losing his twin, and eventually, he is lost while Judith survives. Agnes and the family are plunged into the horrors of loss, the devastating death of a child punching a hole through the fabric of their lives.

In Hamnet, Shakespeare himself is never named (he’s always the husband or the father or the son), but we know who we’re reading about. It feels appropriate for him to be presented in this way — if the story were about him, his life and career would overshadow all the rest. Here, though, it’s a story about a family, and especially about a mother, trying to find a way to live in the shadow of unbearable grief. The father’s way of dealing with the loss, through the power of his words, is just one aspect of what the family experiences.

The writing in Hamnet is absolutely gorgeous. I’m not usually a fan of “literary” fiction, but this novel is an exception for me. The carefully constructed characters, the lyrical descriptions of their world and their lives, and even the passages describing the transmission of the plague are all presented in a way that’s beautiful and haunting and powerful.

Hamnet is a special book, and I’m so glad my book group chose it for this month’s discussion. Once again, thanks to the group, I’ve read an excellent book I might otherwise have missed!

Very highly recommended.

To read more about Hamnet:

New York Times review (written by Geraldine Brooks)
NPR review
Washington Post review

Shelf Control #329: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

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!

Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Published: 2016
Length: 221 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

While the Titanic and Lusitania are both well-documented disasters, the single greatest tragedy in maritime history is the little-known January 30, 1945 sinking in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise liner that was supposed to ferry wartime personnel and refugees to safety from the advancing Red Army. The ship was overcrowded with more than 10,500 passengers — the intended capacity was approximately 1,800 — and more than 9,000 people, including 5,000 children, lost their lives.

Sepetys (writer of ‘Between Shades of Gray’) crafts four fictionalized but historically accurate voices to convey the real-life tragedy. Joana, a Lithuanian with nursing experience; Florian, a Prussian soldier fleeing the Nazis with stolen treasure; and Emilia, a Polish girl close to the end of her pregnancy, converge on their escape journeys as Russian troops advance; each will eventually meet Albert, a Nazi peon with delusions of grandeur, assigned to the Gustloff decks.

How and when I got it:

I have a paperback edition on my shelf, which I think I bought at a used book store at least 3 or 4 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

This book had so many great reviews when it came out! I remember reading newspaper reviews (all positive) at the time, plus so many bloggers talked about how powerful it is.

I’ve read one book by Ruta Sepetys before — Out of the Easy — set in 1950s New Orleans. I liked it, but not as much as I’d expected to, and while I’ve heard good things about other books by this author, I haven’t gotten around to exploring any other of her works.

I’m drawn to Salt to the Sea based on the premise — because yes, while I’m quite familiar with the Titanic and the Lusitania, before picking up this book, I’d never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff. There’s something so awful about ships sinking — the idea of it is absolutely terrifying to me, and the scale of this particular tragedy is so huge that it’s hard to comprehend.

I’m glad I stumbled across my copy of Salt to the Sea while thinking about what book to feature this week! It sounds like an emotional read, and I’m interested in the historical aspects as well as the stories of the individual characters.

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 or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate

Title: The Book of Lost Friends
Author: Lisa Wingate
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication date: April 7, 2020
Print length: 388 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A new novel inspired by historical events: a story of three young women on a journey in search of family amidst the destruction of the post-Civil War South, and of a modern-day teacher who rediscovers their story and its connection to her own students’ lives.

Lisa Wingate brings to life stories from actual “Lost Friends” advertisements that appeared in Southern newspapers after the Civil War, as freed slaves desperately searched for loved ones who had been sold off.

Louisiana, 1875 In the tumultuous aftermath of Reconstruction, three young women set off as unwilling companions on a perilous quest: Lavinia, the pampered heir to a now-destitute plantation; Juneau Jane, her illegitimate free-born Creole half-sister; and Hannie, Lavinia’s former slave. Each carries private wounds and powerful secrets as they head for Texas, following dangerous roads rife with ruthless vigilantes and soldiers still fighting a war lost a decade before. For Lavinia and Juneau Jane, the journey is one of inheritance and financial desperation, but for Hannie, torn from her mother and eight siblings before slavery’s end, the pilgrimage westward reignites an agonizing question: Could her long-lost family still be out there? Beyond the swamps lie the seemingly limitless frontiers of Texas and, improbably, hope.

Louisiana, 1987 For first-year teacher Benedetta Silva, a subsidized job at a poor rural school seems like the ticket to canceling her hefty student debt–until she lands in a tiny, out-of-step Mississippi River town. Augustine, Louisiana, seems suspicious of new ideas and new people, and Benny can scarcely comprehend the lives of her poverty-stricken students. But amid the gnarled oaks and run-down plantation homes lies the century-old history of three young women, a long-ago journey, and a hidden book that could change everything.

After reading and enjoying this author’s previous novel (Before We Were Yours), I was excited to get an ARC of The Book of Lost Friends… and yet I left it unread until now, somehow never quite feeling in the mood to get started. So, I was glad when my book group chose The Book of Lost Friends as our July 2022 Book of the Month — finally, a commitment to get me motivated!

Unfortunately, while I finished the book, I can’t say that I loved it. In fact, I’ve been wavering between rating this one 2.5 or 3 stars.

The narrative alternates between a historical timeline set in 1875 and a more modern timeline set in 1987. Both stories are situated in Augustine, Louisiana, and in both timelines, the Gossett family is at the center of the community.

In 1875, the Gossett plantation has been transformed post-war into sharecropper properties, still dominated by the plantation’s former mistress, who seems determined to undermine and cheat the formerly enslaved people now working to secure their own land. Her husband has disappeared to Texas in search of his wayward son, and the future of the land and its people is very much up in the air. The main character, Hannie, ends up accompanying the former master’s two daughters (one white and legitimate, the other biracial and illegitimate) on a dangerous journey to find their father and find the missing documents needed to secure their inheritance. Hannie’s own goal is more personal: To find the missing members of her family, all of whom were sold off while enslaved and stolen by an unscrupulous relative of the plantation owners.

In 1987, the main character is Benny (Benedetta) Silva, a young teacher who accepts a rural posting in exchange for student loan forgiveness. Benny is ill-prepared to teach in a school where there are inadequate resources, apathetic staff, and students who lack the most rudimentary skills or interest needed to pursue an education. Benny is determined to find a way to connect with her students, and begins a research project that puts her at odds with powerful town leaders.

I don’t want to go too far down the road of discussing the dual plots, so I’ll stick to some key concerns and takeaways.

In both timelines, the plot is often confusing and muddled. We alternate chapters between the two timelines, and yet as we pick up a storyline after a chapter away from it, there’s often a gap in the action from where we left off. Intervening events do get explained, but the initial impression is always that something has been missed or that the pieces don’t quite connect.

The family chronologies and connections are not well explained, and neither is the make-up of the town itself or its history. There’s a lot of detail thrown around in the book, but often through exposition rather than incorporation into the plot. The details often felt muddy to me, leading to my feelings of disengagement.

Benny’s role, in my opinion, is problematic. Her character really smacks of white saviorism. She arrives in town as an outsider, and immediate becomes the catalyst for changing the lives of the poor children and disempowered community members of Augustine. Why did it take Benny’s arrival to make this happen? Why was it Benny and the (white) descendants of the Gossett slaveowners who enable the discovery of the town’s history and the revelations that ensue?

I did appreciate learning about the Lost Friends advertisements, which were a real historical phenomenon used by formerly enslaved people to try to track down and reunite with family members. The inclusion of real Lost Friends ads is touching and powerful.

However, overall, the plot didn’t build in a way that connected the dots, and the action sequences and outcomes felt disjointed. I did not feel emotionally involved with the characters, and while certain moments elicit sympathy or sorrow or horror, these responses related more to the general circumstances described rather than being connected to actual care or concern for the specific characters.

I was also turned off by a weirdness to the ending, in which a big revelation about a character’s backstory is shared literally on the last two pages of the book. Why?? It felt awkward and unnecessary — perhaps it was intended to provide an “aha!” moment about the character, but really, it just felt tacked-on and beside the point.

Overall, this was not a great reading experience, and if not for my book group commitment, I probably would not have finished. The “Lost Friends” element is interesting from a historical perspective, but the fictional storylines built up around this element just never made me feel connected or invested.

Final note: I will add that many of my book group friends enjoyed this book more than I did, and one person who is herself an educator commented that she found Benny’s work with the students and the challenges she faced very relatable and well done. In other words… while I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, your mileage may vary!