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.

800px-King_James_I_of_England_and_VI_of_Scotland_by_John_De_Critz_the_Elder

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. 

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Gateway to the Moon, by Mary Morris

35791945There are many factors that contribute to the creation of a person. Three of them are highlighted in Mary Morris’ expansive family saga, Gateway to the Moon. First, there is our family history, portrayed here by the harrowing tale of the Cordero de Torres family from 1492 to the 1600s. Next, there is what happens to someone during their life, seen in the struggles of Elena Torres to make peace with the night a group of teenage boys attacked and raped her. Lastly, there is one’s own internal fire, which can propel a person like Miguel Torres out of his poor circumstances, past his mistakes, to a distinguished career as an astrobiologist. This novel moves slowly, but offers plenty of food for thought.

Miguel Torres comes from a long line of Jews, though he does not know it. Four hundred years before he was born, the Cordero and Torres family were forced to convert by royal decree (and brutally, sometimes fatally, enforced by the Inquisition). Even though his ancestors were persecuted, hints of Judaism survived. Miguel’s mother lights candles and says a blessing before dinner Friday night. No one in his New Mexico town of Entrada de la Luna eats pork or mixes dairy with meat. If you ask any of them, they’ll say they’re Catholic or not that religious. Not a lot of this matters particularly to Miguel, who is much more interested in what’s going on among the stars and on other planets until he gets a job with the newly arrived Rothsteins as a babysitter.

While we watch Miguel struggle with his attraction to Rachel Rothstein and wonder about the universe, we also get chapters narrated from the perspective of his putative aunt Elena. After her attack, Elena left home on a dance scholarship. I would say that she left and never looked back except she is constantly looking back. She travels the world trying to get as far away from who she was as she can, but she can’t forget—especially after she eats a dish of lamb tagine with chickpeas and apricots in Morocco that is almost exactly like the one her grandmother used to make back in Entrada.

To me the most interest sections were the chapters set in the 1490s, 1500s, and 1600s. These chapters follow fathers, mothers, sons, and wives as the Corderos and Torreses travel or emigrate permanently to the New World. These families converted to Catholicism under pain of death. Though they appear in public to practice Catholicism, they keep their Jewish faith and customs alive in secret. They keep these things alive so long that their descendants forget why they do them and accept these things as tradition. On the one hand, it’s sad that custom and ritual lose their meaning entirely. What is tradition without meaning, after all? Not only that, but members of the family paid high prices in money and lives to preserve the meaning of those traditions. But on the other hand, it means there is a little piece of secret Judaism being passed on in New Mexico of all places.

Gateway to the Moon has a leisurely pace, giving readers plenty of time to think about what they’re reading and why we get so many perspectives. This book offers us many opportunities to meditate on identity, purpose, faith, forgiveness, and many other topics, with just enough plot to keep our brains from melting under the strain of thinking about high concepts for extended periods of time. In sum, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would.

I received a free copy of the book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 10 April 2018.

Tomorrow, by Damian Dibben

35087548One of the firmest rules I follow in my reading is that I do not read books about pets. I don’t read these books because the pet almost always dies and I can’t handle that. But I have broken this rule for Damian Dibben’s Tomorrow, because the dog in the book doesn’t die—even after waiting for his master to return for him after two hundred years.

Our canine protagonist has been with his master for a long time. His earliest memories are of roaming the castle of Elsinore and going oyster digging with his master in the early 1600s. His master is a chymyst (he serves as the model for Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, but has issues with his portrayals). They travel from court to court, where the master offers his services as a natural philosopher, doctor, or other profession that helps fund his personal researches. Our hero and his master are not the only immortal beings wandering around Europe and their happily peripatetic lifestyle is disrupted when Vilder blows into town to make demands.

One of those interruptions separates dog and man in the late 1600s in Venice, though our hero doesn’t know it until later. Our poor narrator spends almost two hundred years waiting for his master in Venice, following his last instructions to stay put if they get separated. In 1815, however, he has enough and decides to start actively looking for his master, along with his companion, an ordinary street dog named Sporco.

Tomorrow moves back and forth in time from the 1600s to the 1800s. Unlike other books about immortal characters, we’re not inside the worldweary head of a human. Instead, we are off to one side while humans wonder what their purpose is and whether it’s a bad thing to be immortal. Because we’re in the head of an extremely loyal dog, Tomorrow is more a meditation about what we might do for the people (and animals) we love. Without the love of another, we learn, life is pretty pointless. It was a surprisingly sweet book, with plenty of interesting history to keep it all from getting too saccharine.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 30 March 2018.

The Silent Companions, by Laura Purcell

35458733It’s not a delusion if someone else sees something strange, right? This is what I told myself as I read Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions. This is also what the protagonist, widow Elsie Bainbridge, tells herself when she hears unexplained noises, sees doors lock and unlock, and finds the “silent companion” statues all over the house she inherited from her husband after his sudden death. Even at the end of the book, I had questions about what was real and what wasn’t.

The Silent Companions takes place in three different times at The Bridge, the ancestral home of the Bainbridge family. In 1866, a badly burned woman is treated by a new doctor. This doctor thinks the woman might be innocent of arson and murder, as everyone else thinks. This woman, a year before, is the widowed Mrs. Elsie Bainbridge. She’s pregnant and suddenly in charge of running a country home. And in 1635, Anne Bainbridge grows increasingly worried about her daughter—a child she believes she conceived through magic.

The Bridge is an unsettling place, especially once Elsie orders the garret reopened. She and her companion find a painted statue of a girl that they decide to place in the house’s entrance hall. After that, nothing goes right. More and more of the statues, called the companions, appear all over the house. Elsie would worry more about her sanity if her hired companion, Sarah, didn’t also see and hear the same things she does. Like Anne’s increasing alarm about her uncanny child, everything that happens to Elsie seems believable because they’re not the only one having those thoughts or experiencing the weirdness. At the end of The Silent Companions, we’re asked to weigh in on what really happened to Elsie. Is she insane? Is The Bridge actually haunted?

I was a little disappointed in how the 1635 plot and the 1860s plots were integrated in The Silent Companions. The 1635 plot is used in the 1860s plots, but not as much as I would have liked. The timelines don’t really hang together most of the time. This was really my only problem with the book. I enjoyed the rest of it. It was fascinating to follow two women down the road to what might (or might not) be insanity.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018.

Peculiar Ground, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

34950861Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Peculiar Ground meditates on the function and meaning of walls. The themes of separation, incarceration, and isolation are hammered into a story about two generations of people who live in and around the vast estate of Wychwood, Oxfordshire. Wychwood is as much a symbol as it is an estate, even though it is lovingly described. So much so that it’s hard to read this book as a story about multi-dimensional people. Because of the way the narrative constantly drew my attention to what walls can mean, I kept seeing the characters as experiments in what happens to personalities who are caught on one side of a wall or the other.

In the opening chapter, we meet John Norris, an early landscape architect. He has been hired in 1663 by Lord Woldingham to turn Wychwood into a marvel of the age. Norris’ plans won’t be fully realized until centuries later, though his early efforts are magnificent. He creates artificial lakes, a secret garden, and a massive avenue of beech trees. He also helps to build a wall encircling the estate, which causes problems with the local dissenters but gives the lord’s family a sense of serene isolation from the rest of the world.

I thought that Peculiar Ground would move through the centuries, or at least go back and forth in time. It does not. Most of the novel is spent covering the mostly petty doings of the aristocratic owners of Wychwood, their guests, and their servants between 1961 and 1989. I was not very enamored of these characters, who mostly struck me as entitled, oblivious, or just very sad because of unrequited love. It’s very clear who’s in or out, who’s spent too much time sheltered at the unreal Wychwood, and who wants to be one of those sheltered. Norris’ wall has analogs in the boundaries of celebrity and wealth, legal rights, and even the Berlin Wall. The plots of Peculiar Ground, such as they are, never really build up to anything.

Peculiar Ground was not the story I was hoping for—a multigenerational story based around a great country house—what I got instead was barely engaging enough for me to keep reading. I should have stopped, but I kept hoping that the novel would return to the 1660s so that I could see what happened to the first characters we met. Apart from the beginning and the end, I was very disappointed by this book.

The Maze at Windermere, by Gregory Blake Smith

34962936Shakespeare said it first: “The course of true love never did run smooth.” This is certainly true in Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere. In fact, the course of love (or something sinister masquerading as love) runs in such crooked paths that at first it’s hard to tell if the characters are even on the same one. This novel is more like a series of linked stories that share a setting (Newport, Rhode Island) and themes of unrequited love, deceit, dependence, dissociation, and observation. As the narratives draw to their finales, coincidences and motifs pile up to highlight the similarities and differences in the choices the characters make in their attempts to get love or something like it.

The first chapters of The Maze at Windermere almost made me give up. The first character we meet is a tennis pro in the resort town of Newport who finds himself somewhat dependent on the indulgence of a very wealthy family. (I don’t know why I’m so turned off by tennis pros, but I’m going to just chalk it up as a personal eccentricity.) When Henry James showed up, I was very tempted to give up on the book altogether. I loathe Henry James because the one time I tried to read one of his books, The Turn of the Screw, I found the prose impenetrably dense and I hate it when someone makes me feel like an idiot.

I think it was the lure of the puzzle that kept me going. I wasn’t going to let the ghost of Henry James hold me back. So I kept reading. I met characters who didn’t quite know what they wanted until it was snatched away from them or who thought they knew what they wanted until something sent them haring down left turns. Over and over, I saw characters wrestle with what it was they wanted from life, whether it was love, security, or knowledge of others. Only one of the narratives, the one set in 1692, is fairly straightforward and the other narrative circle around it as if to show us all the ways things can go wrong when one refuses to be honest.

There’s a lot to unpack, as we English majors say, in The Maze at Windermere. I’m sure I didn’t understand everything lurking under the surface of these connected stories—mostly because everything I know about Henry James and his work comes from Wikipedia. In particular, the moments in which several of the characters have mystical experiences (a nod to the work of James’ brother, William) require a lot more thought, since I was too busy trying to spot all the links between characters and plots.

The Maze at Windermere is definitely not a light read, so I would only recommend it to readers looking for a challenge. It’s very clever, requires patience, and ready access to the internet if, like me, you feel the temptation to run down hunches and look up names. I’ve never read anything like this book. It tackles topics—unrequited love and dissociation in particular—that I can’t recall ever seeing explored in depth in fiction. Those who take up the challenge will be amply rewarded. I feel quite a lot smarter now because I’m pretty sure I understood part of what the book contained.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 9 January 2018.

The Willow King, by Meelis Friedenthal

The seventeenth century was a time of great confusion—even more so on the edge of the Swedish kingdom in Dorpat (now Tartu) Estonia. On the one hand, scientists like Newton and Boyle were making great strides in physics and chemistry, Descartes was taking on Aristotle and Plato, and Hobbes and Locke were reinventing government. On the other, 1692 saw the Salem Witch Trials and physicians were letting blood from Ireland to Turkey. This confusion between early modern science and old superstitions and beliefs is embodied in the protagonist of The Willow King, by Meelis Friedenthal (translated by Matthew Hyde). Laurentius, a Swedish university student at the new university in Tartu, is on a quest to understand the soul while repeatedly getting caught up in potentially deadly local superstition.

Laurentius is not a well man. He suffers from melancholia, an excess of black bile, and olfactory and gustatory hallucinations. He has fevers. He is regularly dissociated from reality. His quest to understand the nature of the soul is also a quest to try and cure himself of his afflictions. The only thing that seems to help him during these episodes is a tincture of willow bark and alcohol. Over the course of a week in Tartu, Laurentius tries to settle in and not let anyone know how abnormal he is.

Meanwhile, Estonia is in the middle of a famine. Those without connections to the Swedish government are starving. Things are getting ugly as peasants start to turn on each other, accusing each other of witchcraft or just attacking anyone who is a little bit strange. The title of this book refers to a spirit that people believe is visible when someone as about to die. Laurentius’ use of willow is problematic; it might even lead to his being accused of witchcraft even though we know now that that the salicylic acid in willow bark is good for treating pain and fever.

I was tempted to diagnose Laurentius for most of the book. Does he have schizophrenia? A seizure disorder? Is he making himself sick and is a hypochondriac? There are hints to the nature of Laurentius’ condition in some first person chapters. (Most of the book is in the third person.) When he was a child, Laurentius saw and did things that might be causing all of his symptoms. Perhaps a seventeenth century Freud might have sorted him out. But these revelations come much later in the book.

The Willow King is the sort of novel that leaves a lot of space for readers to draw their own conclusions about what’s going on and what it all means. Some readers, especially ones who don’t have the patience for the way Laurentius gets himself tangled up in mental knots of philosophy, will be annoyed by much of the book. Other readers who enjoy stepping into the brains of people who lived hundreds of years ago will probably like this book quite a lot. I don’t think I’ve read any other books set during this time that really captured how people lived during a time when modern science was taking off but old modes of thought were still hanging on.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.