The Butcher’s Daughter, by Victoria Glendinning

36361421Victoria Glendinning’s The Butcher’s Daughter explores a theme I hadn’t considered before—or even really addressed—in historical discussions of Henry VIII’s dissolution of abbeys and monasteries after he threw off the Catholic Church and established the church of England. I realize this sounds dry, but exploring what happened to women and men who suddenly had no place to stay or way to make a living after the dissolution turned out to be rich territory for historical fiction.

At least, it might have been if Glendinning hadn’t used her narrator purely as a pair of eyes with almost no opinions of her own. My reaction to Never Anyone but You was not a fluke, apparently; this type of narrator just doesn’t work for me.

Agnes Peppin, the titular daughter of a butcher, is sent to Shaftesbury Abbey in Dorset after she gives birth to an illegitimate son. Marrying the father is not an option, so it’s a nunnery for Agnes. There aren’t a lot of options for women even if they don’t run afoul of the social mores of the time. If you’re not a wife, you have to become a nun. (Spinsterhood doesn’t seem to be an available option either.) Agnes doesn’t have a religious calling, but she does seem to appreciate being useful without being a drudge. Early in the novel, Agnes references the Biblical story of Martha and Mary. When Christ visits, Mary listens to him speak while Martha does the cooking and serving. Martha’s complains are met with scolding that listening to men talk about religion is more important than getting things done. Agnes is on Martha’s side. Life at Shaftesbury agrees with her for the most part, though she wishes that she might be free to explore the wider world.

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Angel sculpture, Shaftesbury Abbey ruins. (Image via Wikicommons)

Agnes is offered a position as the Abbess’ secretary shortly after she arrives at Shaftesbury, thanks to her ability to read and write. As a secretary, she is privy to all sorts of discussions that a mere novice would never get to hear. She shows us the Abbess’ struggle to preserve as much of the Abbey’s riches and land as possible so that the women of the abbey can have somewhere to stay. Many of them are old. Most have no where to go or family to take them in. A few are so devoted to their faith that they wouldn’t be able to function in the outside world even if they did have a place to go to. After Shaftesbury is dissolved, Agnes heads out into the world and makes a meager living with one of the odder inhabitants (one who ends up threatening her life more than once).

I worried for Agnes and her fellow former nuns and novices. It’s a hard world now for a single woman. Life was exponentially harder for one in the sixteenth century. And yet, even though this is rich emotional ground for a writer, Agnes only gives us glimpses of the struggles of the other women. Her own struggles are glossed over with little reflection. I was intrigued, but disappointed by how this book fails to fully explore the issue. It’s entirely possible that I just don’t like this kind of narrator and it’s coloring my review. Other readers may enjoy this book for its unique setting and themes. I’m going to wait for something with a little more soul.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be release 19 June 2018.

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Island of the Mad, by Laurie R. King

36296239Laurie R. King’s Island of the Mad is the fifteenth entry in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, which imagines the characters as a married couple who are always willing to dive into a new case. This episode is set in 1925 and sees the pair on the trail of a woman who, formerly an inmate of Bethlem Royal Hospital, disappears into thin air during the festivities of her marquess brother’s birthday.

Vivian Beaconsfield is the aunt of Mary’s good friend so, when that friend asks Mary to find out where Vivian went, Mary can only agree. Besides, if Russell and Holmes don’t have a case, they tend to get a little itchy. Mary starts asking questions at the family estate—Vivian’s last known location. Holmes snoops around London to see if Vivian pawned her share of the family jewels. The trail leads to Venice and Mary and Holmes set off in hot pursuit.

Unlike some of the other books in the series, Island of the Mad doesn’t seem to be about solving a mystery so much as it is about the setting. Mary and Holmes—who also has a task from his brother, Mycroft, to perform—decide to divide and conquer. Mary puts on the disguise of a Bright Young Thing and hangs around Venice’s Lido, hoping to catch word of Vivian among scads of people intent on having a great time. Holmes sidles up to Cole Porter, where he might catch word of Vivian through the artistic crowd. Readers who know the songwriter’s oeuvre will be tickled pink at all the references to his songs.

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Venice’s Hotel Excelsior, c. 1914, where a lot of the book’s action takes place.
(Image via Panorama)

The pairs’ points of view show the frenetic decadence of the Roaring 1920s. Everyone drinks and parties like it’s their last day on earth. As a dark counterpoint to all this high-octane frivolity, Blackshirts roam the city in increasing numbers and throwing their weight around. It doesn’t take too long to see the dichotomy of the times. On the one hand, you’ve got the live-and-let-live crowd. On the other, there are fascists who will violently assert their version of how they think people should live.

Island of the Mad is a mostly languid mystery, with most of the action crammed at the end. Readers should be prepared for regular doses of Venetian history and plenty of foreshadowing about what the fascists are going to get up to in about a decade. Even though it’s not the most gripping of mysteries, Island of the Mad is an entertaining jaunt to the height of the 1920s in always popular Venice. The scenery is so richly described that I started to feel like should put on some sunblock as well as Russell as she zips up and down the canals. This is very much a summer read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 19 June 2018.

A Million Drops, by Víctor del Árbol

36755919There is a maxim by Francis Bacon that lodged itself in my head as I read A Million Drops, by Víctor del Árbol and translated by Lisa Dillman. The maxim is, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune, for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.” In this novel about human monsters, characters are constantly stymied when their children are threatened. Great wrongs are allowed to go unavenged for a long time because no one has the strength—or the arrogance—to tell their enemies go to hell.

This achronological novel takes place in two different times. In 2002, in Barcelona, Gonzalo Gil is dreading having to merge his fledgling law firm (consisting only of himself) with his father-in-law’s rich and powerful firm when he learns that his sister has committed suicide after being accused of killing the man who kidnapped and killed her son. In 1933, in the Soviet Union, Gonzalo’s father, Elías, is sent to the gulag after being betrayed by men he thought were his friends. On the train to far eastern Russia, he encounters a psychopath who will emotionally torture him for the rest of his life. These plot-paced sentences should be a good indication of just how much happens in A Million Drops. So much happens between 1933 and 2002 that it’s little surprise it took del Árbol almost 700 pages to describe the conspiracies and revenges that connect Gonzalo to his father, as well as explain the decades of violence that Elías and his nemesis caused.

In addition to all the plot (seriously, guys, there is so much plot in this book), A Million Drops gives us numerous portraits of men who face horrible choices about what they would be willing to do to get what they want. Elías wants to be a good Communist, but he quickly realizes that the Soviet leadership are more interested in power and bloodshed than they are about building the Worker’s paradise. His nemesis, a truly monstrous individual named Igor, takes full advantage of the chaos in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. In 2002, Gonzalo has the chance to finish the good work his sister started, but only if he can find a way to stop people from ruining his family. Over and over, men are asked to compromise their ethics. Some struggle. Some gleefully compromise. Some make what they think is the right choice, only to be twisted by guilt and anger.

A Million Drops is, I think, a good read for characters who like thrillers blended with historical fiction, served with a big spoonful of ethical and moral dilemmas and plenty of evil machinations. Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky and there are some things that could probably have been cut. Unlike some of the other books I’ve read lately, I can promise that this book has an ending in which all questions are answered and we get to learn what happened to everyone. I ended up being more satisfied by this book than I thought it would as I was making my way through all that plot. This book was grim and fascinating at the same time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 15 May 2018.

In the Distance with You, by Carla Guefelbein

36755921In this multi-layered novel, three people slowly discover the secrets of the mysterious cult writer Vera Sigall. The three characters take turns narrating the tale after Vera falls down the stairs of her Chilean home and has to be put into an induced coma while the swelling in her brain goes down. As In the Distance with You, by Carla Guelfenbein and translated by John Cullen, develops it explores creativity, soulmates, incompatibility, unequal relationships, curious parallels, and literary influence. The more I read, the more I enjoyed this novel.

Daniel is the first to discover Vera at the bottom of her stairs. He has been a friend to the enigmatic writer almost the entire time they’ve been neighbors. They have a strange friendship. She’s an elderly writer who refuses to give interviews. He’s a young architect whose award-winning design for a cultural center is stuck in development hell. For all their differences, they enjoy each others company. Meanwhile, Emilia has arrived from France to study the few papers Vera has donated to a library of Latin American women writers. Emilia wants to explore the star and astronomy motifs throughout Vera’s novels. But when Emilia hears that Vera is in the hospital, close to death, she starts to lurk outside the writer’s room until Daniel spots her and strikes up a friendship. Later, the voice of poet Horacio Infante joins the chorus, taking us back into the 1950s as he begins an affair with Vera.

Daniel and Emilia’s deepening relationship mirrors Vera and Horacio’s. All four are creative people, albeit in different fields. While there are moments of instant attraction, it takes time for the characters to learn how to genuinely care for and love each other. It feels organic, even if it’s bittersweet to see one character fall faster than the object of their love. I’ve never read a book that looks so closely at partners that don’t love each other equally. How can such couples move forward when one half of the couple is more in love than the other? As if this wasn’t enough, both couples also run headlong into the thorny problem of influence. Daniel and Emilia start to collaborate on a restaurant idea. Vera and Horacio dip in and out of each other’s work. The problem is, who owns the finished product? Is it possible to share credit? If one person’s name is put down as the creator of something, what might happen if it is revealed to be a collaboration? And then what happens if the partnership breaks up?

In the Distance with You is a moving and thoughtful book. I loved the realistic and original character development; by the end, I was sad to leave the characters. What I loved most, however, were the questions about influence and collaboration. Readers who are interested in author processes or inspiration will love this book. Even readers who aren’t so much into the psychology and problems of authors will probably still enjoy this book for the story of friendship turning into love in a faraway city balanced against a potentially impossible romance.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.

Treeborne, by Caleb Johnson

36031239Caleb Johnson’s novel, Treeborne, is a deep dive into a family with serious skeletons in their closets and firm beliefs in their own righteousness. The Treebornes of Elberta, Alabama have always been considered weird by the rest of the town. Hugh Treeborne made weird sculptures from found objects. His daughter Tammy wants to clearcut the family property and has dreams about being in the movie business. His granddaughter, Janie, is probably the strangest Treeborne of all. Janie narrates her story—and her family’s story—to her own grandson. Each chapter takes us further into the dark history of the Treebornes.

Janie, when we first meet her, is a stubborn old woman whose house is about to be flooded when the local dam is finally destroyed. She refuses to move. She fought hard to hold on to her family’s land around Elberta, called the Seven. In 1958, when Janie’s grandmother died, the land was left to Tammy. Tammy wants to sell off the timber from the Seven, ruining what makes the land special to Janie. At 13, Janie still seems like a feral child. She roams the hills in and around Elberta in the company of one of her grandfather’s creations: a “dirt boy” that sometimes speaks and moves, but only when a Janie or another Treeborne is around.

To stop her aunt from clearcutting the Seven, Janie hatches a plan with the other young adolescents in her circle to kidnap Tammy. They have no idea what will happen after that. It’s clear they never thought that far and things quickly get out of hand. Meanwhile, Janie’s chapters alternate with the stories of her grandparents. Hugh Treeborne gets tricked into losing some of his art to a Northerner who takes credit for it and then gets into a macabre entanglement with the Tennessee Valley Authority while building the dam that will eventually be destroyed and flood Janie’s house and land decades later. And all that’s before the storm.

Things keep happening to the various generations of Treebornes. There’s a lot of plot to keep track of, but what I was most interested in Hugh and Janie’s strangeness. They both seem to be under compulsions. For Hugh, it’s his art. For Janie, it’s the woods. Unfortunately, the strangeness wasn’t really explored in the kind of depth I wanted. Without some kind of psychological clarity, Treeborne felt muddled and opaque to me. It felt like a lot of characters doing bad things to each other with no thought for the consequences. I like reading about consequences, but I have a hard time sympathizing with characters when I don’t really understand their motivations.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.

Half Gods, by Akil Kumarasamy

36348067Akil Kumarasamy’s story collection, Half Gods, is, I think, a collection that requires a bit of background reading before readers open its pages—unless readers are familiar with the Indian epic, the MahabharataHalf Gods references the epic in character names, themes of war and exile and sacrifice, and, I’m sure, a lot of other things I missed because I am not familiar with Hinduism and Indian literature. Even without understanding the cultural references, these stories create an affecting portrait of an exiled Sri Lankan family (and their acquaintances) who fell apart when they lost their homeland.

Even though this is a collection, it’s best read as a whole work because the stories are so interconnected. I picked up the book after putting it down for the night and had to co back and re-read the first two stories because of all the call backs. As the stories move back and forth in time, a portrait of the Padmanathan family develops that spans from just before Sri Lanka became independent in 1948 to the present. Each story is either narrated by or focuses on a member of the family or acquaintance who knew the Padmanathan family.

Every character in these stories struggles to cope with loss. The family patriarch is perpetually angry at having to go into exile because he is a Tamil, an ethnic group that was (and possibly still is) oppressed by the Sinhalese majority. His daughter tries her best to be a good wife, but she falls in love with her brother-in-law and loses her marriage. The grandsons feel adrift between their Sri Lankan past and their American present. One of those sons, Karna (named for a character in the Mahabharata), wrestles with his sexuality.

Watching the characters battle internal and external fights creates an opportunity to look at the world through the eyes of an exile. What might it mean to know that you can never go back to a place where people speak your language, understand your world view, and so on? It’s little wonder that most of the characters carry a heavy emotional burden of anger or sorrow that they can’t find a way to put down. I suspect that, if I had read the Mahabharata, this collection would have been more than just a family portrait. Perhaps, the stories might represent an entire diaspora. That said, this is still a unique look at a family dealing with problems most people have never considered before.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.

The Lost Family, by Jenna Blum

36341202In The Lost Family, by Jenna Blum, I saw a family shaped by unspoken disappointment and selfishness. In this mostly quiet novel that jumps from character to character and time to time, we watch the Rashkins struggle to be a family in spite of their collective inability to articulate what they want and failure to speak up for themselves. This novel is the kind of book that demands close attention. On the surface is the plot, of course. Just underneath are a host of (mostly) unspoken pressures that push the three protagonists out of shape. Those unspoken pressures are fascinating to watch while waiting for the moment when the family has to break or heal.

The Lost Family opens in 1965 with Peter Rashkin. Peter is a Holocaust survivor who lost his wife and twin daughters in 1943. Now, he lives a lonely life as a chef who rarely leaves the restaurant named for his wife. On the night the novel opens, Peter meets June. June is an aspiring model with an eating disorder. They’re attracted to each other, but they don’t seem quite right as a couple. Peter is still mourning and wrestling with survivor’s guilt. June wants to have a career, to make something of herself like none of the other women back in her little Minnesota town ever did. But they bow to expectations. The widower marries the model when June becomes pregnant.

The section set in 1975 is narrated by June, now Mrs. Rashkin. She is an unhappy housewife who frets about her lack of maternal feeling towards their daughter, Elsbeth. Peter and his set are very much of another generation and June is lonely in their midst. Whenever she hints at her dissatisfaction, her in-laws or her doctor or whoever either seems baffled by June’s desire to restart her career. So, when June actually meets a man who seems to understand what she wants, she starts a passionate affair.

The last section is set in 1985 and is narrated by Elsbeth. Elsbeth has grown up with two unhappy people and seems doomed to be unhappy herself. I think this section was the saddest, perhaps because I found it especially heartbreaking to see a young girl develop her own eating disorder and throw herself at the only person who shows her a bit of affection.

The Rashkin family inheritance seems to consist entirely of sorrow. And, maybe because of the societies they grew up in, none of these characters seems willing to break free of the relationships that are holding them back. Peter is held back by his appallingly stereotypical relatives. (Seriously, Peter’s cousins seem like American Jews straight out of mid-Twentieth century casting.) June is held back by her husband. Elsbeth is held back by her parents. This book has the potential to be hugely depressing for a lot of readers. However, readers who are looking for an interesting psychological portrait of a family (and who can deal with the stereotypes), might enjoy The Lost Family.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.

The Hawkman, by Jane Rosenberg LaForge

36596712After World War I, millions of traumatized men returned to their homes to sink or swim with very little support for what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.* PTSD was called shell shock or battle fatigue by people who recognized it as a psychological condition. People who didn’t called it cowardice or malingering. In Jane Rosenberg LaForge’s The Hawkman, we see a both reactions to a severely damaged returning soldier. Michael Sheehan has wandered Gloucestershire since the end of the war. He doesn’t speak. His hearing is damaged. He rarely sleeps. He is teased and chased off by most people he encounters. When he meets Eva Williams, it is the first time someone treats him with sympathy. Her kindness might save him from his memories.

Eva Williams teaches at a local women’s college in Bridgetonne; she also writes fairy tales that reference the modern world. Her forthrightness tends to startle the English villagers and annoy Lord Thornton, who’s money and influence attempt to keep the town the way it was before World War I and the Second Boer War. When Michael Sheehan arrives in Bridgetonne, Lord Thornton and everyone else wants him gone, in spite of Eva’s entreaties to help him. Lord Thornton thinks Sheehan is a malingerer; others think he’s a madman and a danger to ordinary people. So Eva starts to help him on the sly, helping him to slowly return to himself.

The Hawkman is a blend of Eva and Sheehan’s story, Eva’s fairy tales, and Eva and Sheehan’s past. Something will remind Eva of her mother, then her mind will drift back into the past before morphing into something like a fairy tale. Chapters will start with episodes that reveal Sheehan’s service as an Irishman in the British Army during the war before he became a prisoner-of-war. The closer we get to the end of the book, however, the harder it is to distinguish between Eva’s stories and what appears to be happening to Eva as she succumbs to a disease that’s not quite like tuberculosis. The more I read, the less I cared about what was might be real and what was fantasy.

This novel is an incredibly moving account of a returning soldier and the woman who is kind to him. The flashbacks and the tales add depth to a story that already had a lot of emotional weight. What I loved most was the way the layers of story circled around each other. By the end, I realized that some of the stories Eva wrote foreshadowed what happened to her in Sheehan. I was already intrigued by the story, but I marveled at the way The Hawkman was written. In addition to readers who like their fiction blended with fairy tales, I would also recommend this novel to writers who want to learn how to experiment with structure and genre boundaries.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.


* Post-traumatic stress disorder certainly existed before World War I, it just didn’t get much attention as far as I can tell.

Invitation to a Bonfire, by Adrienne Celt

36348145I have a special place in my heart for characters who are lonely enough to be duped by people who pretend to love them. I always end up reading the book with my heart in my mouth, wanting to reach into the book to warn the lonely character. Reading Invitation to a Bonfire, by Adrienne Celt, was no different—at least until the end, when the tables turned more than once. The beginning of the novel led me to think that it would be the story of people teasing and tricky a girl who just can’t blend in. But about half way through, the stakes rise sky high when a central character tries to drawn our protagonist into a murder conspiracy.

Zoya Andropova might be considered lucky. After all, she was rescued from a Soviet orphanage and brought to the United States in the early 1920s. The organization that rescued Zoya and other children paid for Zoya to attend the elite girls boarding school, the Donne School, in New Jersey. Even though she is cared for materially, Zoya just can’t blend in. She was too old to learn how to be an American. So she was ignored and teased, even after she started working as a gardener for the school post-graduation. When the handsome, talented Russian author, Lev Orlov, is hired by the school and seduces Zoya, it seems like a turning point in her lonely life. The only problem is that Lev is married.

Because Zoya has mostly grown up without love or a affection, she is an easy mark for characters without scruples. Early in the novel, some of her fellow students blackmail her into taking part in a séance. Zoya ultimately takes part because it’s a rare opportunity to be part of a group. The experience isn’t enough to prepare her for the wiles of Lev Orlov, who she meets in 1930. Lev completely bowls her over. All I wanted to do as I read these chapters was shout at Zoya, who desperately needed to learn self-preservation even before Lev asks her to do something terrible. I wanted to shake and and tell her that no one who loved her would ask her to do what Lev asks. A lot of the tension in the latter half of this book comes from wondering if Zoya will do what Lev asks or if she’ll open her eyes and get the hell out of that relationship.

Invitation to a Bonfire is written in documents. There are sections from Zoya’s diary that alternate with airmail letters from Lev, as he returns to the Soviet Union to reclaim a novel that was lost during the Revolution. We also get to see an “oral history” of Vera Orlova, Orlov’s wife. Because this history comes courtesy of the local police department, we know that something criminal happens to one of the major players in this book. I started reading faster and faster the closer I got to the end because I was completely sucked into this book. Invitation to a Bonfire was amazing.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.

The Vanishing, by Sophia Tobin

36415770One of the most difficult skills to learn in life is discovering who one can trust. I daresay it’s a skill that takes a lifetime to learn, even though some people say they are a good judge of character. Annaleigh Calvert learns this lesson the hard way in Sophia Tobin’s The Vanishing, a gripping thriller set in Yorkshire in 1815. By the end of this book, I had had my socks knocked right off. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started it. And I loved every chapter of it.

The Vanishing opens as Annaleigh makes her way to her new place of employment. She has just been turned out of her home in London by her foster family. She has no one else to turn to to help her make her way in the world, so she takes a position as a trainee housekeeper at a remote Yorkshire country house called White Windows. When she arrives, there are ample clues that things are not right. The master of the house often flies into rages and can only be soothed when his sister dips into her medicine box. There are only two servants and Annaleigh has to get dispensation to hire extra help on laundry days. It doesn’t help that other people are constantly warning her not to trust either the master of the house or the handsome, kind man who all the local girls seem to be in love with.

Novels like Jane Eyre might lead us to trust the troubled Mr. Twentyman. He broods. He clearly has reasons for his inappropriateness. But Mr. Twentyman is a lot more sinister than Mr. Rochester. As the chapters progress, we learn just how far he is willing to go to get what he wants. The tentative expectations the novel set up with its similarities to a Brontë novel go right out the window as the novel gets darker and darker. For all its similarities to those Gothic classics, this book goes places that none of the Brontës would have dared to go.

The Vanishing is a roller coaster. The longer I read, the more I liked it because it kept me guessing. This book is packed with atmosphere and Annaleigh is a fascinating character. I felt like I was riding on her shoulder as she struggles to work out who she can really trust—and who she can love—over the course of this novel. This book was such a great read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.