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.

The Latinist, by Mark Prins

Ever since she was a teenager and fell in love with Roman poetry, Tessa has wanted to be a Classics scholar. By the time we meet her in The Latinist, by Mark Prins, Tessa is about to complete her Ph.D. at Oxford University after climbing her way up the academic ladder. Once she has her Ph.D., she can get a position at another university and make her mark on the scholarly scene. Except that no one seems to want to hire Tessa, despite her stellar track record, and she seems trapped in a highly ironic retelling of the story of Daphne and Apollo. I was utterly hooked by this book. I raced through it because I just had to know if the story would end differently this time.

Tessa lives a life that would seem circumscribed by non-academic standards. She tutors students studying the Classics at Westfaling College (a fictional college at Oxford University). She works on her dissertation about Ovid’s version of the Apollo and Daphne story in Metamorphoses. And she assists Chris, her thesis advisor, as he continues to expand his reputation as a pre-eminent Classicist. She’s either at Westfaling, the Bodleian Library, or her apartment. She lives an ordinary, scholarly life until she receives an anonymous email claiming to contain the real version of Chris’s letter of recommendation that’s been going out with her job applications to British and American universities. It is a devastating document that, if true, is torpedoing her academic career before it even begins. It also detonates Tessa and Chris’s relationship; she no longer trusts him to help her climb the academic ladder.

Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, 1625 (Image via Wikicommons)

What follows is (at least for me and other fans of university lit) a gripping, dramatic chase between Tessa and Chris. Because part of this story is narrated by Chris, we know that he loves Tessa. He doesn’t want her to leave him. Even worse, we learn that Chris has been breaking some rules in order to get closer to Tessa. The letter of recommendation is Tessa’s first clue that not everything is as it seems with Chris, but he starts to unravel when she starts to ask questions. His behavior drives Tessa away and, in another ironic twist, pushes her towards an incredible academic discovery that will help her eclipse her mentor. Because I knew that Tessa’s story was supposed to be a retelling of Daphne’s, I felt a lot of tension as I waited for the dramatic transformation that would either mean that Tessa will be free of Chris or destroyed by him.

The retelling at the center of The Latinist is not the only thing going on. There are side plots and Tessa’s deeply satisfying discovery, meditations on mortality and honesty, true love and ironic love and infatuation, the scholarly record, sexism, and so many other topics that I would love to delve into someone. There was so much going on—and I was reading so fast—that I’m going to have to read this book again. And I was so entertained by it that I know I won’t mind a bit.

I really, really enjoyed this book.

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

The Kitchen Front, by Jennifer Ryan

Trigger warning for brief domestic violence and emotional abuse.

In her note at the end of The Kitchen Front, Jennifer Ryan explains that rationing began in Britain in 1939 and lasted through 1954. Rationing included fuel, cloth, rubber, paper, and a whole host of food products. For people used to a worldwide empire of sugar, spices, grains, and more, women (mostly) had to scale back on what and how much they could cook. Privation and stress play major roles in this novel, as four women compete for a job on a BBC/Ministry of Food radio show, a job that could change their lives forever.

Set in Fenley, a small town somewhere outside of London, four women decide to compete in a cooking competition set by The Kitchen Front, the aforementioned radio show. The prize is to become the co-host along with Ambrose Heath (a former restaurant critic whose scripted advice makes it clear that he’s not the person who has to tuck into the spam, whale meat, and endless boiled vegetables advocated by the Ministry of Food). Ambrose will judge the women as they create a starter, main, and dessert out of whatever ingredients they can scrounge up. Extra points are awarded for thrift and cunning use of rationed ingredients. Recipes are included in the novel.

The first woman we met is Audrey Landon, a war widow in straightened circumstances. After the death of her pilot husband, Audrey turned her knack for cooking and large kitchen garden into a bustling pie business. She works every hour in the day and then some to keep her crumbling house intact and her boys fed. The second woman to enter the contest is Lady Gwendoline Strickland, Audrey’s sister. Gwendoline is a character readers will hate at first. Her inflated sense of self and ambition grated. Thankfully, she softens over the course of the book. Third is the ruthless Zelda Dupont, who worked at a London hotel until it was bombed. She might be the one who struggles most with the restrictions of rationing. She longs for the elegant dishes of pre-war haute cuisine. Lastly, we meet Nell Brown, who works in Gwendoline’s kitchen. Nell is a gifted, overworked cook who wishes for a better life.

Over the course of the novel, the four women start to realize that they’re better friends and allies than they are enemies. Once that process starts to happen, The Kitchen Front improves a lot. The characters are a little wooden at the beginning of the novel, with a bad and unrealistic habit of verbalizing their thought processes. One thing that is consistently good throughout the book is the descriptions of cooking during World War II. These range from frankly unappetizing (never reuse tinned sardine oil to make pastry) to mouthwatering (roasted hare in elderberry wine sauce) to transcendent (mushroom soup and a surprising croquembouche made with honey instead of caramel). I kind of wish I had read this book yesterday; The Kitchen Front is a perfect book about food and friendship.

The Hidden, by Melanie Golding

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

Ruby is a special person. She has a big heart, but is haunted by family secrets and loneliness. Unfortunately, she’s also prickly—prickly enough that it’s hard for people to learn about the kindness and loyalty underneath Ruby’s apparent standoffishness. Everyone gets Ruby wrong. And when Ruby gets caught up in sinister events in The Hidden, by Melanie Golding, it means that a lot of people end up surprised while they chase her across Great Britain.

Ruby is one of the narrators of this odd genre-hybrid. The other is her putative sister, a detective named Joanna. On Ruby’s side, The Hidden is a story of rescue and folklore come to life. On Joanna’s, it’s a manhunt involving a missing child. For us readers, it takes several chapters and some backtracking to find out what’s really going on. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure about this book at first. I worried that it would try to do too many things and The Hidden would be a shallow experience or that the two genres wouldn’t mesh together enough to be a cohesive narrative. Thankfully, The Hidden worked for me.

So, just like the narrative, let’s backtrack. One day, Ruby is caught spying on a very attractive neighbor doing yoga in his flat. The next couple of days sees Ruby and the man doing the dance of the socially awkward who are into each other. I thought it was cute, too, until Ruby accepts an invitation over to yoga man’s apartment only to find a toddler and a woman who really, really doesn’t want to be in that apartment. This is strange, but not as strange as the woman’s fixation on a coat she believes yoga man has hidden away from her. When we join the narrative, some months later, Joanna and other police officers break into yoga man’s apartment and find him near death in an overflowing bathtub. This is strange, but not as strange as what happens when yoga man wakes up from his coma and violently escapes the hospital.

There is a lot going on in The Hidden‘s plot, but what really made this book work for me was the attention the author gave to the shifting psychologies of the characters. So many characters flip from good to bad, dubious to heroic, rulebound to rebel in totally believable arcs that I was kept guessing right up until the last pages. This book was a wild, fascinating ride—although, I’m curious to see if the combination of genres works for other readers, too.

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

A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske

What is it about watching two characters who are into each other but won’t reveal their feelings that draws us in? When I discover that this trope is surrounded by unique characters, an intricate conspiracy, and an original magic system—as in A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske—well, that’s just catnip to me. I inhaled this book on a cool weekend day with a pair of cats and a pot of tea (and probably a dumb, happy grin on my face). This book was a joy to read.

After a very intriguing prologue, A Marvellous Light opens with Sir Robert Blyth (he prefers Robin) visiting his new office for the first time. He has no idea what his new job is or who he reports to. All he knows is that his predecessor has disappeared and that he only got the post because someone higher up on the food chain hates him. Then a very curt upper-class man, Edwin Courcey, walks into that very office and reveals that magic exists. The post, Robin is informed, is liaison between the Prime Minister and a magical ministry that regulates the sorcerous part of the country. No moss has a chance to grow on Robin before he finds himself in the middle of the sinister mystery that (we later learn) took the life of the missing man who used to have Robin’s job. At the end of his very first day in the position, Robin is slapped with a painful curse that no one in Edwin’s magical world has ever seen.

The plot whisks us off to the country (where we meet dangerous holiday entertainment and a murderous hedge maze) as Edwin tries to figure out how to remove the curse, Robin tries to find his feet in the magical world, and both of them try to figure out what the hell is going on. Best of all, we get to watch while Edwin and Robin strike sparks. Edwardian England (magical or not) is not friendly to gay men, so both of them are used to interpreting glances and touches. My heart warmed as I saw Robin work his way past Edwin’s prickles to find a sensitive, loyal lover. For Edwin’s part, he finds a partner who stops him from constantly running himself down and pushes him to innovate even more in magic.

I am so looking forward to the next books in the series.

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

The Peculiarities, by David Liss

Thomas Thresher is the sort of person who, if I met him in real life, I would have nothing to do with. He’s a child of privilege who’s never had to work very hard in his life. He’s used to having fun and feels very put upon having to work as a junior clerk at the family bank. He feels even more put upon because his blustering older brother demands that he marry a woman he’s never met before. He struck me, at first, as the kind of useless, rich man who likes to get his way. My first impression of him was not sweetened with his casual Victorian-era anti-Semitism. But, over the course of The Peculiarities, by David Liss, Thomas started to win me over with his stubborn determination to uncover secrets and put things right.

Thomas doesn’t make a very good impression on many of the people he meets at the beginning of the novel. Miss Feldstein doesn’t like his casual sexism. His boss at the bank doesn’t like his inability to keep his mouth shut. And his brother really doesn’t like him, but we don’t really learn why until much later in The Peculiarities, when Thomas’s investigations start to bear fruit. The only people who actually seem to like Thomas are the wolfwomen he meets in the East End and the one and only Aleister Crowley…but that comes after Thomas starts poking around at the bank and finds some financial peculiarities. The financial peculiarities led Thomas to new friends, but also to a mystery involving the Peculiarities—the supernatural phenomena that have appeared around the world that have caused people to transform, women to give birth to rabbits à la Mary Toft, and strange creatures to messily kill people in the poorer districts of London.

Aleister Crowley in his Golden Dawn regalia, c. 1910
(Image via Wikicommons)

All of those plot threads—plus Thomas’s attempts to stop his own transformation and not marry Miss Feldstein—take Thomas to the East End, to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and to a trio of mysterious women (including Miss Feldstein) who might be able to help him unravel all the threads. All of these threads (and the women) push Thomas to grow into something more than a young man with a big allowance and too much time on his hands. He also started to shed his Victorian notions of proper behavior for women and the stereotypes about Jewish people. Thank goodness.

Because of my initial reaction to Thomas, I wasn’t sure I would like The Peculiarities all that much. I’m not averse to unlikeable characters, not as long as they have some kind of redeeming features or are interesting in some other way. But I’m glad I stuck with the novel. Liss’s supernatural reinvention of London was highly original and very entertaining. Crowley had me laughing every time the egotistical pervert showed up. Most of all, I love that The Peculiarities never went where I expected. I appreciate a story that never makes anything simple.

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

Girl A, by Abigail Dean

Trigger warning for child abuse, including starvation.

I was brought up in a vaguely Christian household (Lutheran, not Evangelical). I was taught about the virtues of forgiveness, although I don’t recall a whole lot about repentance or atonement. Christianity—except where adapted for the twelve step program—always seemed to put more weight on forgiving the trespassers instead of encouraging the trespassers to apologize and make amends. I thought about this a lot as I read Abigail Dean’s challenging novel, Girl A. The “girl” of the title, now a grown woman, is confronted with people on one side telling her she should forgive and the other telling her that what her parents did was unforgivable. Are there unforgivable acts? Can someone who never expresses regret, let alone never atones, be forgiven? Can forgiveness heal?

Alexandra is one of five surviving siblings who were so abused by their father that it made national news in the United Kingdom. The news gave the children pseudonyms, but they only have to reference their address to clue people in to their identities. Alexandra makes a living as a corporate lawyer. She gets to travel around the world, seeing places she dreamed of visiting with her younger sister while they were locked in their rooms. She’s never forgotten—or forgiven—anything that happened to her, but she tries very hard not to think about it. We meet Alexandra on a day when she’s struggling to maintain her composure. Her mother (who was in prison) has died. The mother’s will names Alexandra as executor. Alexandra and her siblings now have to decide what to do about what the media called the House of Horrors. Everyone she meets at the prison tells her that she should forgive her mother. It’s been years, they tell her. Her mother is a nice lady, they tell her. Alexandra shuts them all down. She then tells them that she and her siblings will not claim the body. Alexandra tells them to cremate her mother’s body.

Over the course of Girl A, Alexandra visits each of her siblings to get their agreement on her plan to turn the House of Horrors into a community center. We also see the downward progression of her family life as her father goes from bad to holy terror. He was always controlling and willing to use his hands, but failure after failure at everything he touches turns him into a monster who uses scraps of religion to give himself a veneer of respectability. The narrative shows us the cause and the effects, over and over again. I was left wondering if Alexandra and her siblings would ever be able to find happiness, let alone forgive their parents for their treatment. But, like Alexandra and her siblings, I wondered if there are some things that can’t be forgiven.

Girl A isn’t for everyone. In fact, there are some readers I would steer away from Girl A. But I would recommend it to readers who are interested in questions about forgiveness and atonement, psychology, and healing. This book was an incredible read. Even though the content was hard to read and I was worried for the siblings even though I knew who was able to escape the House of Horrors, Girl A was beautifully structured to tell a far-reaching story about the long aftermath of abuse.

The Matchmaker’s Lonely Heart, by Nancy Campbell Allen

Not everything I choose to read is an intellectual puzzle or a heartbreaking exploration of human pain. Sometimes I read fun, sweet books like Nancy Campbell Allen’s The Matchmaker’s Lonely Heart. In this book, idealistic Amelie Hampton wrangles her way into gruff detective Michael Baker’s investigation of a possible wife-killer. I realize this doesn’t sound very fun or sweet when I summarize the book that way but, as in so many cozy mysteries, the investigation gives our protagonists something to do while they slowly open their hearts to one another.

Amelie and Michael don’t have the most auspicious meet-cute. Michael catches Amelie spying on the man he is also spying on: Harold Radcliffe. Amelie is hovering outside the cafe where Radcliffe is dining with a young woman Amelie advised from her desk at the Marriage Gazette, where she works for her aunt. She’s there to see if the meeting is going well. Michael is there to learn more about his quarry, who he believes murdered his young wife scant months earlier. When Amelie starts to leave, Michael chases her down. (Amelie frequently describes this as “running to ground” to tease the detective.) Before he quite knows what has happened—he merely intended to find out what Amelie knows about Radcliffe—Amelie has volunteered herself as Michael’s deputy. She’s going to help get Michael closer to Radcliffe by inviting him along to her book club, where Radcliffe is also a member.

The mystery and the romance plots are brisk but not forced. There are enough twists in the mystery to keep things interesting, while the romance plot is punctuated with moments between the protagonists that had me smiling widely at the pair. I won’t say much more about this book; I don’t want to ruin either plot. So I’ll conclude by saying that if you want something that’s a delight to read, you should pick up The Matchmaker’s Lonely Heart.

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

The First Day of Spring, by Nancy Tucker

Trigger warnings for child neglect.

I’ve always thought one of the biggest questions our species has had to wrestle with is forgiveness and unforgivableness. Forgiveness is hard. The worse the crime, the more impossible it seems to forgive the perpetrator. It’s little wonder that, at least in Western culture, we talk about things that are unforgivable. We struggle to design just solutions that punish the criminal and make appropriate reparations to the victims. In fact, we seem to leave punishment to our governments and atonement to religion. I’ve even struggled to write this opening paragraph because I just lack the vocabulary to be precise about my thoughts. Ever since I finished Nancy Tucker’s searing exploration of forgiveness and unforgiveness The First Day of Spring, I’ve been thinking hard about whether there are such things as unforgiveable crimes and just punishment. This novel is an amazing exploration of impossible questions.

Chrissie, the protagonist of The First Day of Spring, starts her crimes early. On the first page of the novel and at the shocking age of eight, Chrissie strangles another child to death. This is the kind of crime that shocks us. The victim is a child. The perpetrator is a child. We don’t have laws for this kind of situation. And it’s rare enough that this kind of crime just short circuits us. It’s only after several chapters from Chrissie’s perspective that we start to learn how a little girl became “a bad seed”—a term that a neighbor uses and Chrissie adopts. The way that Chrissie has grown up is another crime. Her mother is extremely neglectful. Chrissie is left to fend for herself, down to creating strategies for cadging food out of mothers in the neighborhood and getting extra milk at school. The only time she gets attention from any adults is when she misbehaves. It doesn’t take a semester of Psychology 101 to know what this teaches Chrissie to do. None of this excuses what Chrissie does, but it helps to explain it a little.

Chrissie’s chapters alternate with chapters narrated by a woman named Julia. Julia is Chrissie, more than a decade later. We learn early on that Chrissie was sentenced to a Home, a secure group home for juvenile offenders that rehabilitates more than punishes. After her release, Chrissie is given a new name and a chance to restart her life. By the time we meet her again, Chrissie/Julia has had a daughter. Molly is Chrissie’s entire reason for living these days, and she is terrified that social services will take Molly away. These chapters fascinated me Chrissie has changed so much that she hardly seems like the same person. She has been completely transformed by years of enforced boundaries, good nutrition, and maturity. Instead of acting out of rage and impulse, Julia is afraid of not following the rules. She emotionally punishes herself by avoiding happiness and good things in life. Her “punishment” wasn’t the kind of punishment that one grows to resent. Instead, Chrissie’s time in that Home saved her from being a monster for the rest of her life.

But, as we read Julia’s chapters in The First Day of Spring, I was constantly thinking about the rightness of Chrissie’s punishment. Nothing that could’ve happened to Chrissie that would truly punish her for what she did. Chrissie’s extreme hunger and the parental neglect are complicating factors. They did so much psychological damage to Chrissie that her legal defense could probably have made a good case for Chrissie being not guilty by reason of insanity. When I read Julia’s chapters, I found myself so sympathetic to the transformed character that I felt that any further official punishment would be like punishing the wrong person. The First Day of Spring is the kind of novel that I wish I had read with others, either friends or a book group. There is so much to think and talk about here that I would love to know about what others think. I’m not a parent. Would I think differently of Chrissie/Julia if I had a child of my own? I’m also not a psychologist or social worker, so I don’t know if Chrissie’s situation would cause the behaviors seen here. Could Chrissie be more a product of nurture than nature? What on earth can or should be done with child offenders?

All of this is handled in solid prose that doesn’t belabor its themes. The dialogue feels realistic and brutally honest. There are so many ways that The First Day of Spring could’ve gone wrong. That it didn’t just makes this book even more spectacular. Tucker is deft hand at treating heavy topics with a light touch. I can’t say enough good things about this novel. If you’re the kind of reader who can handle insoluble, emotionally wrenching topics, I think you’ll love this book.

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

The Kingdoms, by Natasha Pulley

Beware of Scottish standing stones! It was true in the Outlander series and it’s true in Natasha Pulley’s new novel, The Kingdoms. This book might be Pulley’s most complicated story yet. It crosses history with alternate history, love and suppressed love, characters blinking in and out of existence, amnesia and shifting identities, and lots of conflicting motives. This sounds confusing. I’m not going to lie; parts of The Kingdoms are confusing. But I was hooked on figuring out what the heck was going on and the charmingly bewildered main character.

Joe wakes up on a train somewhere in England in 1891. He doesn’t know where he’s going. He’s not entirely sure what his name is. And when he learns that the train has just pulled into the Gare du Roi in Londres, he suddenly gets the feeling that something is seriously wrong. On arriving at the station, Joe is whisked off to the new Salpêtrière and told that he, like many other Britons, has a kind of epilepsy that has caused him to lose his memory. Readers with a dollop of French and a smidgen of history will know that this London—now Londres—is one where England was successfully invaded by the French, instead of an England that won at the Battle of Waterloo. Joe has no idea what’s wrong; he barely knows what his name is. So when two people show up at the hospital and claim him as an escaped slave, he has little choice but to go with them and try to settle into some kind of life.

The feeling of wrongness doesn’t go away in spite of Joe’s efforts. So, when he has the opportunity to travel to a lighthouse that has some link to his lost past, Joe finagles a trip to the wild, unconquered north. And then The Kingdoms starts to get really weird. Joe is kidnapped and whisked through time to 1807, finding himself in the middle of a very different version of the Napoleonic Wars. The strange stones off the coast of Eilean Mor in Scotland is where everything went wrong. It’s where, in 1797, a steam-powered ship blundered through from an England that won the war against Napoleon. It’s also where a man named Jem fell overboard and the ship and the crew were captured by the French. Not only does the ship, The Kingdom, represent a lot of advanced technology for the French, its crew is also a wealth of knowledge that the French can use to manipulate the future. Poor Joe and his engineering knowledge are caught in the middle of all of this. It’s not until much later that he learns how he got involved and just what his connection is to the disturbing and invincible Captain Missouri Kite.

The Kingdoms is the kind of time-travel/alternate history story that fascinates me. I love to think about historical what-ifs and might-have-beens. I like to follow chains of events back to moments that might be turning points. If this happens instead of that at just this moment, what will the downstream effects be? And, on top of that, what’s the “right” version if there is such a thing as “right”? After all, we wouldn’t think anything was wrong if the French had won at Trafalgar. It would just be history as we know it. Why should Joe help Missouri and the English win? He has no idea which side offers the better future.

Pulley’s other novels—and I’m thinking specifically of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street here—had whimsy to leaven the heavy moments. The Kingdoms, on the other hand, is a very serious book. There are several moments of surprising violence that stunned me and I completely lost track of the number of explosions. If anything lightens this book up, it’s the hints of love between Joe and Missouri that appear in the brief, quiet moments. The hope that Joe might finally recapture his lost memory and the hope that he and Missouri will be able to be together are what pulled me through this twisty, turn-y, exciting novel.

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