Cluny Brown, by Margery Sharp

29893549If you were to ask any of Cluny’s family members what’s wrong with her, they would tell you that it’s because she doesn’t know her place. If you were to ask Cluny, she would probably agree. She hungers for experiences and isn’t afraid to do anything that seems like a good idea. In Margery Sharp’s short novel, Cluny Brown, we watch the charmingly innocent Cluny take on a challenge that might help her find her place after at last.

When we first meet Cluny, she’s living in London with her uncle. She’s an orphan, but she’s making the best of it. She’s a delightful naïf who sometimes reminds me of a less destructive Amelia Bedelia. The day that she decides to take a call meant for her uncle and goes off to tackle an emergency plumbing job puts an end to get dreamy days in the big city. Uncle Arn takes his sister-in-law’s advice and sends Cluny into service. Because it’s 1938 and servants are thin on the ground, it’s not hard for her to get a job as a maid at a Devonshire estate called Friars Carmel. The idea is that the strict discipline of service will help Cluny settle down.

At first, it appears to be working. Cluny isn’t afraid of hard work and the fact that the estate is understaffed seems to appeal to Cluny’s scattered brain since she has to do a bunch of different jobs in a day. She even managed to form an attachment to a local chemist. But then, Cluny will be Cluny and, after spending all this time with her, I had to cheer. The world would’ve been a duller place without Cluny’s essential Cluny-ness in it. Meanwhile, the book is filled out with a Polish writer in exile who also doesn’t seem to know his place, a lovelorn future lord of the manner, and other denizens of Friars Carmel and the village.

I’ve read two other Margery Sharp novels, The Nutmeg Tree and Britannia Mews, and this one is my second favorite. It’s not quite as funny or as satisfying as The Nutmeg Tree, but it’s much zippier than Britannia Mews. I had a few problems with Cluny Brown that kept it from being a complete winner for me. I found the pacing to be off in places. Some of the book is slow and there’s a logjam of events right at the end of the book that seemed to come out nowhere. Cluny herself does a lot to rescue the book, though. She’s well worth the price of entry.

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The King’s Witch, by Tracy Borman

36619965Frances Gorges is a bright, forthright, intellectually curious woman. Unfortunately, she was born at a time when those characteristics were not seen as feminine virtues. Tracy Borman’s novel, The King’s Witch, opens in 1603 and continues over the next couple of years as Frances gets into several kinds of serious trouble at the Court of James I.

All Frances wants is to be able to learn more about herbal medicine and live at her family’s estate in Wiltshire. She definitely does not want to marry a man picked out by her social climbing uncle or go to court. But because she’s an unmarried woman, she is at her uncle’s beck and call. She only gets to pleasantly languish at the estate before she is summoned to be a lady of the bedchamber for Princess Elizabeth. Frances might have been able to turn this into a pleasant life for herself it it weren’t for that uncle and the paranoid, witch-obsessed King James—and if it weren’t for the fact that she fell in love with an up-and-coming lawyer, Tom Wintour.

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James I, c. 1606
(Image via Wikicommons)

Frances is highly intelligent, but she’s not really a match for the politically savvy men who are fighting for dominance in James’ court. She’s barely at court for a few months before she’s accused of being a witch. She survives that by the skin of her teeth, only to get caught up on the fringes of the Gunpowder Plot. During her travails in the Tower of London as an accused witch, Frances has only herself to look out for. But after that, she grows fonder of her charge and of the lawyer Tom. It isn’t just her anymore. In the middle of potential treason, how can a powerless woman save everyone she has come to love?

The more I read The King’s Witch, the more I enjoyed it. I was on the edge of my seat as I flipped the pages because I had to know what would happen to Frances and Tom. I already knew from the rhyme (“Remember, remember the fifth of November”) that the Gunpowder Plot would come to ruin. Given how paranoid James was about Catholic plots and the supernatural—and how ruthless Borman is with her characters—the ending of The King’s Witch could have gone either way.

And I’m not saying which way it went. Interested readers will just have to find out themselves.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 3 July 2018. 

Dear Mrs Bird, by A.J. Pearce

36373413Blessed be the meddlers—but only the fictional ones who can’t actually meddle in your life. Perhaps its just that they’re fictional and there’s no way that their particular brand of obtrusive wackiness will never actually touch my life, but I dearly love to read about characters who mean well but tend to sow havoc when they try to help. These were my thoughts when I read the adventures of Emmy Lake in A.J. Pearce’s delightfully funny novel, Dear Mrs Bird.

When we meet her, Emmy has not yet become aware of her meddler status. She seems content as a soldier’s fiancée, legal secretary, and volunteer dispatcher for London’s air raid fire service. But then, she gets what she thinks is a once in a lifetime job opportunity: a job as a junior at a Fleet Street magazine. Unfortunately, this is not the first step to becoming a Lady War Correspondent (there are a lot of very British capital letters in this book). Emmy’s brand new job is as an assistant to the very bombastic and very old-fashioned advice columnist, Mrs Bird, at Women’s Friend. Since there aren’t any other job prospects, Emmy stays put, even though Mrs Bird is absolutely horrible. It isn’t long before Emmy is tempted to unofficially expand her job duties. Mrs Bird has a long list of topics for letters that are Unacceptable. She refuses to write about anything to do with adultery, sex, the war, and any adjacent topics. When she does answer a reader’s letter, her advice is as brisk as a cold shower with vinegar. So, Emmy starts to answer the letters herself.

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A man and a woman share a bottle of wine on Christmas Day, 1940, in a London bomb shelter.
(Image via WW2Today)

Dear Mrs Bird follows Emmy as she continues her subterfuge and Do Her Bit during the worst months of the Blitz. The language of the novel is very much Keep Calm and Carry On. It’s hard to get a sense of what Emmy and her fellow Londoners really feel unless you’re fluent in understated British English. As the Blitz continues, however, it gets harder for Emmy, her friends, and family, start to lose their stiff upper lip, just a little. The sadness makes this book feel more real, giving us a small taste of what life might have been like when you didn’t know if you might get bombed out or killed by the Germans.

It’s only a taste though, and Dear Mrs Bird has wonderfully funny language, a romance subplot, hilarious characters, and plenty of period detail for the history buffs among us. I really enjoyed reading this book. It scratched an itch I didn’t know I had since I read Cold Comfort Farmby Stella Gibbons, in which another character who is convinced of the rightness of her actions turns a community on its head. Perhaps the thing I liked most about Dear Mrs Bird is its sweetness. What inspires Emmy to answer that first letter is a deep empathy for a writer who has no one else to turn to, who needs a sympathetic ear and a kind word of advice.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 3 July 2018.

Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi

27272632What would it be like to exist in a world where death doesn’t really matter? For the British Empire, it means colonizing the afterlife and continuing to play the Great Game forever. Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi, is a spy versus spy story set in an alternate 1938 where the Spanish Civil War might lead to another world war. Rachel White works for the Winter Court, the lively side of the British Secret Service. Peter Bloom is a Russian double agent undercover in the Summer Court, the afterlife version of the British Intelligence Service. Rachel knows there’s a mole and Peter knows that someone knows—neither of them knows that there might be a larger, deadlier conflict about to kick off.

As one of the lone women in the Secret Service on either side of the veil, Rachel is underestimated by everyone. She does not appreciate it. When she uncovers the identity of a Russian mole and is ignored, her disgruntlement blossoms into full blown fury. Rachel decides to go rogue enough to try and track down Peter Bloom. Bloom, meanwhile, is on a mission to join the Presence (a shadowy hive mind of Soviet ghosts—which is the most communist thing I have ever heard of). While the two spies chase each other around London and Summerland, they slowly learn that their governments are playing a much deeper game than Rachel or Peter could have realized.

The plot is entertaining, but what I enjoyed most about this book was the world-building. Rajaniemi put it in a lot of thought to ecto-based technology, the Presence, and the big question of what it would mean if people could look forward to a long afterlife. In Rachel and Peter’s world, medicine is a half-hearted pursuit and people (especially young college men) do stupid things because it doesn’t really matter if they die. Sure, some ghosts fade away to nothing, but if you have your Ticket, you’re in like Flint. I imagine that Peter is utterly weary of the fact that he has to keep fighting for the foreseeable future. Rachel, meanwhile, starts to have second and third thoughts about the way her superiors throw away lives. Without death, live doesn’t mean as much in this world.

Even though Summerland has a lot of dead characters and is set half in the afterlife, this is a lively read. There are spies, chases, betrayals, secrets within secrets, and sacrifice. There are parts of this book that meander, so I had to trust that the spy v. spy plots and the secrets would lead so something. I am happy to report that the ending of Summerland knocked my bookish socks. I really liked this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 26 June 2018.

Confessions of the Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg

36470806Confessions of the Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg, is a very sneaky book. It begins as a discovered manuscript story when academic R. Voth comes across a handful of eighteenth century pages that purport to be the “confessions” of legendary thief and jail-breaker, Jack Sheppard. This is exciting enough, but then it quickly becomes an audacious and extremely erudite story about an intersex protagonist and transgender archivist, slavery, and capitalism. The book sucked me in with Jack’s story only to leave me thinking unsettling thoughts about how much we might (or might not) own our own bodies and livelihoods.

Jack Sheppard was a historical figure with short career as a thief. He is mostly known to us today because he escaped Newgate Prison four times—which was believed to be impossible—before being hanged at Tyburn at the age of 22. In the manuscript Voth discovers, Jack Sheppard has an even more intriguing secret: he is intersex. He prefers male pronouns and dress, but he constantly worries about being found out as well as being rejected by the women he is attracted to. Jack does find love with Bess, a sex worker (as Voth deliberate names her), and the two lead their nemesis, Jonathan Wild, a merry dance, for as long as they can.

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Jack Sheppard in Newgate
Wikicommons)

Voth speaks to us through footnotes. In the beginning of the book, the notes define eighteenth century London slang and offer references to actual scholarly works. But then, they begin to comment on the strangeness of the text—and to fight with their employer, the Dean of Surveillance. The Dean, and his bosses (a nefarious company with too many holdings and very good lawyers), very much want the manuscript. Unlike Voth, who wants to share the text with the world, the Dean and PQuad have a prurient interest in Jack and Bess’ sex life and Jack’s anatomy. The Dean and PQuad don’t understand Jack. They see someone they can gawk at like the Lion-Man in Jack’s story. Their interest raises the stakes for Voth, who suddenly has a bigger mission than just transcribing the manuscript.

I loved the interplay between Voth and Jack’s stories. The parallels between the two lives get stronger as Confessions of the Fox continues, leading to a twist that I’m still thinking about. There is so much in this novel to unpack; this is one of the smartest books I’ve read in a long time. Readers with an academic background will be right at home with this metafictional marvel. Readers who don’t like footnotes, however, may have a hard time with this book. This is also one of the rare books I recommend people read in print.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 26 June 2018.

The Lost for Words Bookshop, by Stephanie Butland

37946044Trigger warning for domestic violence.

Lovejoy Cardew is in hiding. She has good reasons for laying low. There’s the notoriety of what happened with her parents. There’s the lingering trauma of foster card. There’s the obnoxiously persistent ex-boyfriend. But when books from her past start to arrive at work at the beginning of The Lost for Words Bookshopby Stephanie Butland, Lovejoy rethinks the wisdom of hiding. Perhaps the time to hide is over and it’s time for her to get angry and live.

I really enjoyed taking a peek into Lovejoy’s life. (Also, her name is the best.) When we first meet her, she’s a quiet employee of Archie’s York-based bookshop. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of the store’s contents and can find readers anything they ask for. The biggest annoyance in her life is Rob, a former boyfriend who won’t take no for an answer. Her biggest fear, we learn, is that she will be found out once more as the daughter of a violent father and a criminal mother. It takes several chapters for us to learn what actually happened; the writing moves luxuriously slowly. Some chapters are set in 1999, when Lovejoy is nine, in the last happy year she spent with her parents. Others are set in 2013, in the months when she dated Rob. The chapters in 2016 show Lovejoy as slowly falls in love with poet and magician Nathan—and as she tries to figure out who is sending her books that she knows her mother owned.

Some of this plot summary makes it seem like The Lost for Words Bookshop sound a bit like a mystery. That’s not really what this book is about. Rather, this book is about how difficult it is to break free of controlling, abusive relationships. The relationships in this novel are like frogs in boiling water. The wronged partner (with one notable exception) doesn’t leave immediately. They’re invested in the relationship. They believed their abusers’ apologies. They stay long enough to be hurt terribly. There’s no pity in The Lost for Words Bookshop, only understanding, for which I am very thankfully. Domestic violence is not used to create instant backstory or to raise the stakes for narrative tension. This book also offers a deep look at what it might feel like to be a secondary victim of domestic violence: it’s not just the partner who is physically and emotionally hurt, but also their children.

I really enjoyed the emotional depth of The Lost for Words Bookshop, as well as the thread of book love that runs through the entire story. I also loved watching the relationship between Lovejoy and Nathan as it grew. The epiphany that hits Lovejoy towards the end of the book is so satisfying that I would have liked the book just for the conclusion. This is a great, booky read.

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

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.