The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore

We like to think that we would be heroes, the kind of people who would save others or stand up for our principles. History and literature are full of examples of folks who become heroes when the opportunity arose. For my part, I’ve always had a soft spot for people who make different decisions because I think these stories are more honest, even if they’re more ignoble. I know enough about myself to realize that I’m no hero. If given the choice between dying to save someone else and living, I’ll probably choose to live. So when I met Rebecca West, the protagonist of A.K. Blakemore’s outstanding novel The Manningtree Witches, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit in this regard.

The Manningtree Witches is based on historical events that took place during the English Civil War. It even features real people like the notorious Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins. Rebecca West and her mother also appear in the historical record. We meet the prickly and peculiar Rebecca on an ordinary day in the town of Manningtree, Essex in 1643. It’s an ordinary day for her. She gets up, grabs a bit, bickers with her mother, and goes to work. She lives a hard life near the bottom of the social pecking order. Shortly after this introduction, Matthew Hopkins arrives and purchases one of the town’s taverns. His quiet but menacing presence makes his real business—seeking out witches—readily apparent. It’s not long before cold, hunger, and misfortune start to bring out the worst in people. Egged on by Hopkins’s talk of witches and demons, folk start to point fingers at Rebecca’s mother and her friends. Rebecca gets swept along with them because it is a lot easier to tar someone with the brush of witchcraft than it is to exonerate them.

Frontispiece from The Discovery of Witches, by Matthew Hopkins, 1647 (Image via Wikicommons)

We follow Rebecca as tensions rise in Manningtree. Through her eyes, we see the mundane spats between West’s mother and the other accused witches that later become the evidence used to convict these women. A sharp word to an annoying child is transformed by the townspeople into a witch’s curse. A fatal illness or a miscarriage are seen as proof that there are agents of the devil walking around. Rebecca is much more rational than Hopkins and the rest of the accusers. She knows that there are reasonable explanations for everything. But, because she is so shy and of such low status, no one listens to her when she manages to get a word out.

Rebecca’s inability to speak up for herself also provides ample room for her to think about the catch-22 she’s in. When Hopkins gives Rebecca a way out—if she lies about her co-accused and confesses to being caught up in witchcraft—she’s faced with a stark choice. On the one hand, is there any honor in telling the truth and being hanged as a witch? On the other, could she live with herself for lying and condemning her mother and her mother’s friends? Rebecca grew up in a Puritan town. Lying is a sin, let alone betraying her mother. But then, committing the sin of a lie might be a small price to pay for one’s life and the chance to get far, far away from Manningtree.

The Manningtree Witches is written in lively and authentically old-fashioned language that made me feel like I was sitting on Rebecca’s shoulder while she worked and pondered and debated. I relished the vocabulary of this book and utterly adored the vivid descriptions of the poor, backward town of Manningtree. The fantastic writing, paired with the rich character development of Rebecca and Hopkins, made this a knockout work of historical fiction. It’s one of the best I’ve ever read about a witch trial. It’s never sentimental but honest and gritty.

The Seed Detective, by Adam Alexander

Have you ever wondered, when you visit the produce section of a grocery store or encountered an unusual dish at a new restaurant, how our ancestors ever worked out how to take the wild things growing around them and turned them into giant pumpkins, lethally hot chillis, or the stunning variety of Brassicas? I certainly have, but not to the extent that Adam Alexandar has. In The Seed Detective, Alexander discusses the wide variety of heirloom and heritage varieties of vegetables he’s collected on his travels around the world and now grows in his garden. By the end of the book, Alexandar will have taken you on a global tour of peas, beans, tomatoes, nearly all the Brassica species and varieties, lettuces, alliums, corn, and chillis—and will probably have you wanting to make a quick trip to the store to stock up.

Bookended with an introduction about one of the first plants Alexander collected the seeds of and a conclusion about the dangers of monoculture agriculture, The Seed Detective is divided into two major parts. The first covers plants of the Old World (Europe, the Middle East, India, North Africa, and Asia). The second goes over plants from the New World (North and South America). The distinction has to do with place of origin but, as Alexander shows us over and over again, a tasty plant will grow legs. The story of chillis is proof enough of this. Plants in the Capsicum genus are native to southern Mexico and Central America. They proved so popular (partly as a replacement for expensive black pepper and partly because a lot of people really like challenging the fortitude of their tastebuds) that folks started growing them everywhere. What would Indian, southeast Asian, Chinese, and Korean food be like without the system-clearing fire of chillis? North American tomatoes, too, are so popular in Italy that it’s almost impossible to imagine Italian food without them.

Alexander is not just a seed collector and gardener; he’s also a student of botany and the etymology of plant names. All of the chapters about the plants Alexander has collected over the years include histories of how the plants came to get their names, botanical and common. To be honest, these were some of my favorite parts of The Seed Detective. I was delighted to learn how many indigenous names are partially preserved in their English common names. For example, the Nahautl name tomatl is where we got “tomato” and the name for squashes can be traced back to a Narragansett word (entirely separate from the etymology of the verb “squash”). Garlic, it turns out, has been with English speakers so long that its name is an Old English word that hasn’t changed much in over a thousand years.

Botanical illustration of Capsicum annuum, from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1897 (Image via Wikicommons)

The only place that Alexandar’s book falls flat is when he talks about how any of these plants that he gushes over actually tastes. He has a strangely limited vocabulary when it comes to flavor. Alexander mostly talks about plants as being either tasty or bland. We can get a bit more detail when he compares varieties, although he mostly just declares one variety as tastier than another. Some types of corn are described as nutty or sweet, but that’s about as detailed as it gets. This flaw is very noticeable given that Alexander can vividly describe the appearance of seeds or growing plants. I understand that flavor is a difficult thing to describe as it’s such a subjective sense and Alexander is not a chef. Still, I was annoyed that Alexander would sort plants into the tasty or bland categories after waxing lyrical about verdant foliage, the length of the seed pods, or the vibrant colors of tomatoes and chillis.

In spite of Alexander’s apparent inability to talk about flavor, I think gardeners and self-taught botanists will enjoy The Seed Detective. There’s a lot to learn here about not just the origins of plants and how they came to be cultivated over the centuries but also small bits of advice about growing a global array of plants on a couple of acres in Monmouthshire, England. I might suggest that, if you don’t have access to a garden full of dewy fresh vegetables at hand, you might want to make up a batch of your favorite bean casserole or some ratatouille before you open up The Seed Detective.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Shrines of Gaiety, by Kate Atkinson

I know Dickens isn’t to everyone’s taste. All those characters and all those crisscrossing plots and, yikes, the coincidences! But I love his style and I am a sucker for Dickensian books like Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety. I love the sprawl of these books, how they seem to contain entire worlds. Most of all, I love the fully realized characters in settings that are rich enough to climb into and walk around in. Shrines of Gaiety takes us into London, 1926, and a collision of characters who are plotting with and against each other. This book is absolutely stunning.

Shrines of Gaiety opens with the notorious Nellie Coker walking out the gates of Holloway prison. She’s just served a six-month sentence for a little light law-breaking. Now free, she can return to her half-dozen nightclubs scattered around London and her almost half-dozen children, who’ve been left to tend the empire in her absence. The opening chapters introduce all of those children, plus other characters like the delightfully capable Gwendolen Kelling, the morose Detective Frobisher, and the scrappy Freda Murgatroyd. There’s far too much plot in Shrines of Gaiety to sum up, so I won’t even try. Instead, I’ll say that there are missing girls, crooked cops, revenge, and lots of betrayal.

Even though there’s so much going on in Shrines of Gaiety, it’s the sort of book that carries you along. All of those intersecting plots are presented through the various characters’ eyes, so that you understand everyone’s motivation. Atkinson is particularly good at pacing everything based on how information is revealed. Several of the characters—Kelling and Frobisher in particular—believe that they have the upper hand for a long time, thinking they know more than the people they’re spying on. The reversals of power with each revelation are simply breathtaking.

There are some missteps at the end. They come straight out of Dickens’s playbook of coincidences. After all of the beautiful plotting, several of the loose ends are wrapped up really quickly. I can forgive those, however, because I liked the rest of the book and its characters so much. Gwendolen was an absolute joy to read and I cheered Nellie every step of her sneaky way. (Never underestimate an old lady!) In spite of those missteps, I would still heartily recommend this to fans of immersive historical fiction.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Book Eaters, by Sunyi Dean

Devon, the protagonist of Sunyi Dean’s unsettling novel, The Book Eaters, is caught between a rock and a hard place. In her case, the rock is her family and the hard place is her child. Devon’s family is special. They sustain themselves by eating books and not in a metaphorical way. The family keeps to themselves as much as possible. By the time we meet Devon, however, she has managed to break free somehow. Well, sort of. Her rock and her hard place keep her from being truly free. The hope that she might be keeps Devon putting one foot in front of the other as the rock and hard place collide, catching her in the middle.

The Book Eaters jumps back and forth from Devon’s present to her past and it takes several chapters to learn what on earth is going on with Devon and her son, Cai. All we know at first is that Cai is very sick. There’s a drug that can make him well, but the only people who make it have gone off even the secretive book eater grid. Unlike his mother, who draws nourishment from books (the older the better), Cai eats minds. At this point, I realized that, instead of a bookish flavored fantasy, this book is actually a horror novel. This book gets very bloody (or inky, as the case may be) very quickly.

The chapters set in Devon’s past explain why and do absolutely nothing to relieve the creepy atmosphere. Devon, we learn, was the treasured girl-child of a family in decline. The book eaters are struggling to reproduce. As soon as they are of age, girls are entered into arranged marriages in the hope that they will have children before their ovaries shut down. The girls have no choice in the matter. Sometimes, the marriages go well, while they last. Unfortunately for Devon, her first marriage was not good and her second was much worse.

I understood Devon’s motivations. She loves her son and would do anything to keep him alive. On the other hand, I didn’t understand the motivations of her brother, Ramsey, who sets himself up as her antagonist. Where Devon just wants an escape for herself and her son, Ramsey wants to restore the old way of things, with himself bossing everyone around. He’s given a background full of the kind of abuse meant to make him loyal to the “knights” who are tasked with controlling people like Cai and with arranging the marriages that produce the next generations of book eaters. It works too well for me to find it plausible. I found Ramsey’s monologing and stubbornness weirdly one-dimensional, especially in comparison to Devon and Cai’s characterization.

I try not to fault books for not being what I hoped they would be after reading the early publisher blurbs. I wish there had been more about the history of the book eaters. Some of the characters hint at their origins, but we only ever get hints. Instead, the book takes its premise and the wonderful character of Devon and insists on steering the plot into horror and thriller territory. The Book Eaters is an interesting book, sure, but I wouldn’t recommend it to fans of fantasy or dark academia. This book is for readers who like original scenarios along with flying bullets.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence, by R.F. Kuang

Learning another language is hard work for most of us, and I’ve always been a little jealous of kids who grew up bilingual and people who have the knack for picking up new languages. It’s not just the memorization, which I think of as a feat on its own. It’s also the ability to get one’s brain to push a native language to the side enough to let in new grammar, idioms, word order, and cultural context. That first language always leaves a big imprint. I’ve never really been able to get past the stage of translating in my head whenever I’ve attempted to pick up a new language. I’ve always dreamed in English. The protagonists of Babel, or The Necessity of Violence, by R.F. Kuang, however, have the knack for language. Once their linguistic talents were discovered, our protagonists were scooped up from around the British Empire and sent to Oxford University, to take part in the multilingual machine that fuels the whole operation. Word nerds will love this highly original historical fantasy.

Robin Swift was rescued from death by cholera (which killed his family) in Canton by a wealthy Oxford don. His early fluency in Cantonese and English gave Professor Lovell enough confidence in Robin’s talents to take him to England, teach him Latin, Greek, and Mandarin, and eventually send him to the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University. The Royal Institute controls the silver-work trade. In this version of history, silver has the ability to transform the inherent instability* of translations to make ships go faster, heal the sick, ensure the safety of roads, and do so many of the things that keep the British Empire ahead of the rest of the world. At the Royal Institute, Robin and the rest of his cohort—Ramy, from Bengal; Victoire, from Haiti via France; and Letty, the sole British student in their group—learn to trace etymologies along with studying the vocabulary and grammar of their designated languages to create the powerful match-pairs of words that fuel the silver.

Robin has had doubts about the British Empire and his role in it almost since he met Lovell. These doubts grow in the face of the casual racism he and, later, the brown members of his cohort experience constantly in England. Robin also grows up starved of love in Lovell’s house. There are strong hints that Lovell is Robin’s biological father and yet the man is incapable of praising Robin or showing him any sign of affection whatsoever. Worse, Lovell firmly believes in the superiority of the white race and is violently prejudiced against Asians. The only reason he learned Mandarin and Cantonese—and fathered children with Chinese women—was because the Royal Institute required increasingly diverse match-pairs because the English language notoriously adds new vocabulary whenever its speakers meet a new language. Robin’s questions about the injustice he sees everywhere around him only grow louder as he learns more about what the Royal Institute and the British government have done and are doing to preserve their preeminence.

As Robin and his cohort get closer to graduation, the novel shifts from Babel to The Necessity of Violence. More people than just Robin, Ramy, and Victoire are unhappy about the status quo. They are contacted by members of the Hermes Society, a group of disgruntled students and former students of the Royal Institute who want to change the world. They want justice. They want equality. The problem is that they are tackling entrenched, systemic inequality and they can’t decide if the best way to affect change is by persuasion or through violence. Robin et al. waver between peaceful protest and violent acts of sabotage for much of the book, until betrayal and events that look an awful lot like the start of the Opium Wars kick off. They can’t go on among Oxford’s dreaming spires with clear consciences. Something has to be done.

Some readers might find Babel a little preachy at times. Even though I agree with a lot of the arguments made here about redistribution of wealth, anti-racism, gender equality, and dismantling monopolies, there were some sections of dialogue I skimmed over. That said, there was a lot I loved in this book. I loved the tricky character development and psychological realism. I adored Kuang’s reimagined Oxford and magical system. I was absolutely hooked by the sections that discussed with relish the intricacies of language. As I said, word nerds are going to enjoy the hell out of this book. I also think that readers who see injustice in the real world around them will find a lot to relate to here and, maybe, find some of the gumption Robin finds to make a stand and foster change for the better.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Panorama of Oxford University, 2016 (Image via Wikicommons)

* While it is possible to translate words one-for-one between languages, something is always lost in terms of nuance and context. Translators often wrestle with fidelity (perfectly capturing the original language) and making something flow in another langauge. For example, German word order often kicks a verb to the end of a sentence. For example, if I were to faithfully translate the sentence “Ich würde lieber Kaffee trinken” in English, I would end up with the ungrammatical “I would prefer coffee to drink.” It’s easy with this simple example to re-render the sentence into “I would prefer to drink coffee” without losing much, if anything. But this small example doesn’t involve untranslatable terms like Schadenfreude**, idioms, complex tenses, etc. When that happens, translators have to make choices about what’s essential and what’s grammatically/lexically possible.

** One of my absolute favorite words and I’m glad English stole it from the Germans.

Death and the Conjuror, by Tom Mead

When a wealthy psychiatrist is murdered in his locked study, who do the detectives call when they’re stumped? In another series, they’d call Sherlock Holmes. In Tom Mead’s Death and the Conjuror, Detective George Flint calls Joseph Spector, a semi-retired magician, to help him figure out how the hell someone managed to brutally murder someone and escape from a locked room without anyone seeing or hearing anything. This quick read will be a delight for fans of fair-play mysteries who like to pick apart seemingly impossible cases.

Death and the Conjuror opens in Agatha Christie fashion by introducing us to all the players just before the crimes start to happen. We meet two actresses at a not-so-high-class London theatre who hate each other and get a glimpse of Spector as the curtain is about to go up on the theatre’s latest Gothic horror. In another part of London is an author of gruesome stories who seems to be losing a battle against his paranoia. In yet another part of London is the study of a very exclusive emigre psychiatrist (soon to be murder victim), who we meet as he is listening to one of his three patients talk about his haunting nightmares. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist’s daughter is preparing to go to the theatre with her rich, obnoxious fiance. By the next day, the psychiatrist is dead, a valuable painting is missing, and a whole lot of people are under investigation by Scotland Yard. Unfortunately, Scotland Yard—in the form of Detective Flint—is stumped. There’s no possible way for the murder to have occurred without something to point to the murderer, motive, and means.

I enjoyed every chapter of Death and the Conjuror: racing the detective and magician as they try to figure out what happened and whodunnit, evaluating the motives and characterizations of the various suspects, watching everyone race around either investigating or incriminating each other, and the brilliant reveal at the end. Everything in this book is perfect, especially the vibrant portraits of the very believable cast of characters. I could actually see this book playing out in my head. This book is a great way to, ahem, kill an afternoon.

This review is shorter than what I usually write but that’s only because I don’t want to ruin anything for any of you readers out there who want to pick it up. No hints or spoilers from me; you’ll have to read it to figure out what happened and why.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss and NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy, by Jamie Ford

Trigger warning for depictions of rape, racism, and abusive relationships.

The Bible tells us that the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son. But what about the mothers and daughters? Jamie Ford asks that very question in The Many Daughters of Afong Moy. Afong Moy is a real historical figure, believed to be the first Chinese woman to come to America. Newspapers in the 1830s wrote about her appearances as a traveling “exhibit,” in which she would sing and show her four-inch-long bound feet. From this inspiration, Ford imagines a series of female descendants who are haunted by trauma that compounds over the generations. Unfortunately, this interesting premise suffers from inadequate character development and a plot that races along too quickly to properly explore ideas and questions.

Afong Moy, at least in this book, seems like a person born to suffer. Instead of being able to marry the man she loves, she is given away in marriage to a man who has actually died. (Moy’s family can’t, for some reason, go back on the agreement with the other family.) Another of her dead fiance’s wives offers her an out: go to America. This rescue quickly turns sour as the people she was sent to end up exhibiting her as a curiosity. Things get even worse from here. Afong’s experiences—rape, exploitation, silencing—become the template for the lives of a series of descendants we meet in 1900s San Francisco, 1920s England, 1940s Myanmar, and Seattle in the 2010s and 2040s. In a sense, the racing plot might be a blessing in disguise because we are rarely given enough time with each of these women to bond with them.

An image of Moy from The Pittsburgh Gazette, 1836 (Image via Wikicommons)

We spend the most time with Dorothy, Afong’s descendant in a climate-ravaged Seattle of the mid-2040s. Dorothy’s homelife with her schmuck of a husband is just as tempestuous as the weather outside. The only bright spot is her daughter (we are told more than shown how precocious she is). Dorothy is afflicted with a depression that she can’t shake and can’t explain. After all other avenues have been explored—and with the pressure of possibly losing custody of her daughter—Dorothy tries an experimental treatment that claims to unlock past traumas. And by past traumas, the researcher means Dorothy’s and all her ancestors’ traumas. The ideas is that these traumas have been embedded in her DNA and the only way Dorothy can learn to deal with her inchoate feelings is to confront all of them.

The most interesting parts of The Many Daughters of Afong Moy come when Dorothy’s treatment begins to grant her access to her ancestors’ experiences. This mostly unexplained element of science fiction turns into a way for Dorothy to right some historic wrongs, if she can find enough courage in herself. It’s fun to watch. Unfortunately, at least for me, it was too little, too late. I felt like I was being whisked through a slide show of anti-Chinese racism and sexism over the centuries rather than engaging with realistic characters. If the plot had slowed down enough for more of the descendants to become more than waypoints, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. That said, I wonder if a slower plot could’ve been supported by characters that didn’t have enough individuality to feel distinct from each other. Although there were interesting parts, I think The Many Daughters of Afong Moy just doesn’t live up to its premise.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Facemaker, by Lindsey Fitzharris

During the pandemic, in the months when the faculty and staff were working from home, I worked my way through all of the episodes of ER and Botched (among other shows). I was fascinated by the way medical knowledge advanced during the run of ER (1994-2009) and what the two surgeons on Botched were able to do for their patients to rebuild faces and bodies. Lindsey Fitzharris’s illuminating (and occasionally harrowing) account of the work of Sir Harold Gillies during World War I, The Facemaker, takes us back just over 100 years, to explore the dawn of plastic surgery. It turns out that some of the things the doctors on Botched do were pioneered by Gillies and his collaborative team of surgeons and dentists whereas others (like the use of ether and chloroform as anesthesia) are now seen as primitive. It’s even more remarkable when you know that this incredible, ground-breaking work was done as thousands of patients were pouring into Gillies’s hospital over four years of unceasing warfare on the Western Front.

Although Gillies practiced surgery before and after the war (Gillies died just a month after performing his last surgery), Fitzharris focuses her account on the war years, when Gillies and his team were constantly pushed to innovate. She opens by explaining that soldiers in World War I faced weapons that were much more dangerous, on a much bigger scale, than in previous wars. Poison gasses could kill, blind, and maim lungs in seconds. Machine guns were in every trench, ready for anyone to stick their heads over the top. Artillery produced massive craters in and out of the trenches that would obliterate anything in their path. And yet, at the beginning of the war, some armies sent their infantry into battle with flimsy helmets or no hard protection for their heads at all. The iconic Tommy helmets came a bit later. Conditions on the ground meant that, if a soldier was wounded, they were very likely to pick up infections before they could be rescued and sent to a hospital. Given the nature of the weapons they faced, it was little wonder that so many soldiers suffered catastrophic injuries that also required their doctors to learn, almost on the fly, radical techniques to treat their patients.

Fitzharris is incredibly good at condensing a lot of medical history in the chapters of The Facemaker. She can dip into medical history reaching as far back as Sushruta or briefly explain the history of blood transfusions and blood-typing to catch readers up on what they need to know to understand what Gillies et al. are doing with their surgical techniques. Plastic surgery (plastic in this case meaning shapeable or malleable) had been performed before World War I, but it was rare. Pre-anesthesia, pre-antisepsis, and pre- a lot of things we see as necessary for safe surgery, plastic surgery was very experimental before Gillies came to maxillofacial surgery. Fitzharris’ descriptions of Gillies’s techniques are clear. For readers who want more, there are archives of before, in-progress, and after photos of soldiers who had their faces rebuilt at Gillies’s hospital. Rebuilt is the right word. Some of the patients Gillies and his fellow surgeons saw were missing teeth, jaws, noses, eyes, and a lot of skin. Gillies and his team were able to rebuild faces from ruin.

It takes a remarkable kind of person to walk into unprecedented medical cases and think about what was possible, rather than focus on what they’d been taught was impossible. Gillies and many of the people he worked with during the war had the right mix of talents, thoughts, and personalities to work with patients who had been through physical and psychological hell. I’m glad Fitzharris retells Gillies’s story and the stories of several of his patients and colleagues; these stories should never be forgotten.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Gassed, by John Singer Sargent c. March 1919 (Image via Wikicommons)

Love Marriage, by Monica Ali

Trigger warning for brief discussion of rape.

When Love Marriage, by Monica Ali, opens, we meet Yasmin Ghorami at her most anxious. She and her fiance, Joe, are about to introduce their parents to each other. Yasmin is very embarrassed by her traditional Bengali parents and extremely apprehensive about the judgment of her British future mother-in-law, a sex-positive intellectual. Ali is so descriptive in this opening chapter that I was cringing on Yasmin’s behalf. Strangely enough, the dinner goes relatively well. It goes well enough that it lures Yasmin into a false sense of security. Little does she know but that dinner is one of the last times that her life will be on course for many months.

Over the course of Love Marriage, almost everything will go wrong in Yasmin and Joe’s lives, and in their parents’ lives. That dinner—with all of the characters straining to make a good impression—gives us a strong hint about what’s going to go wrong in all those lives. You see, part of the reason why all the characters are sitting with their hair clenched (to borrow a line from one of my favorite movies, A Fish Called Wanda) is because all of them have secrets they desperately want to keep hidden from each other. We learn those secrets over the course of the novel as the characters make mistakes, get angry with each other, and are forced to renegotiate their relationships with each other. Sadly, Yasmin et al.’s stories prove that the course of true love really doesn’t want to run smooth.

I realize that my summary might make this book sound like a soap opera (and I haven’t even mentioned the sex addiction or the illegitimate child or the racial harassment). All of that drama serves a valuable purpose. Once the secrets start to come out, all of the characters can finally ask themselves important questions about what matters to them, who do they really love, and what are they willing to compromise over. The other benefit of all those secrets coming out is that the characters can face the things that have been haunting them, sometimes for years, and heal.

Love Marriage is one of the most cathartic books I’ve ever read. When I finished the last paragraph and closed the book, it felt like I had run a marathon. I felt emotionally wrung out. Again, this might sound bad, but it was a deeply satisfying kind of wrung out. Ali’s character development is absolutely stellar. The secrets the characters hold are original but still plausible and relatable. This is one of the best works of literary fiction I’ve read in a very long time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Maiden of All Our Desires, by Peter Manseau

The Maiden of All Our Desires, by Peter Manseau, takes place in a remote convent in northern England, twenty-odd years after the Black Death burned through Europe. I deliberately pulled this book out of my to-read pile this weekend because I wanted to see two back-to-back depictions of monastic life, in two different religious traditions, after reading When I’m Gone, Look For Me in the East. I wanted to see what was similar and what was different. It was fascinating, even if neither author was aware of my serendipitous experiment.

In medieval Europe, women had few choices in life and, in the opening chapters of The Maiden of All Our Desires, we see some of those few choices taken away from some of our female protagonists. One is forced into marriage before she manages to wrangle herself into the convent. Some are pushed into the convent because of their bad behavior. One is born in the convent and doesn’t see any other future for herself. Men don’t have much choice either, especially when they get on the wrong side of the bishop.

The novel circles around three characters. Mother John is the elderly head of the convent and is heading pretty firmly into feminist, mystical, heretical territory. Father Francis is the convent’s confessor and is in permanent exile from civilization. And there’s Sister Magdalene, who was born at the convent, seems perfectly content with her life. The descriptions of The Maiden of All Our Desires say that the plot plays out over one day during a blizzard, but there are frequent flashbacks that explain how everyone ended up where they are.

What interested me most about this book—and this might be because I just read When I’m Gone, Look For Me in the East—was how each character viewed their faith. Father Francis only ended up a priest because he was good at numbers and because he didn’t quite have his family’s knack for lifelike woodcarving. Mother John is a true believer, although she seems to have more faith in the former abbess and founder of the convent. Magdalene is somewhere in between. On the one hand, she’s never had a chance to live any other life. On the other, she seems to find real comfort in the daily offices and prayers. Doubt is not so much the issue in this book, as it was in Barry’s. Instead, the issue seems to be orthodoxy versus heterodoxy, in a world where there’s no room for anything other than following orders.

The Maiden of All Our Desires was an engaging read, full of great characters and the kind of intertwining plots and subplots I enjoy. I really enjoyed this original take on religious (and not-so-religious) life in the wake of the Black Death.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.