Reading New England: Hidden View

Brett Ann Stanciu, Hidden View (2015)

HiddenViewIf you’re tired of seeing the same books from the same big-name publishers hyped everywhere, and would like to discover some quality under-the-radar fiction that not everyone knows about, I have got something for you. Hidden View by Brett Ann Stanciu is a true hidden gem, a novel with a distinctive and haunting voice that taps into universal, archetypal themes while being grounded in a very particular place.

The voice belongs to Fern, a young woman who became pregnant and married at nineteen, and now finds herself and her young daughter trapped on a failing Vermont hill farm with an increasingly distant and brutal husband. When her husband’s brother returns to claim his inheritance, love, fear, desire, and pain mingle explosively.

If this all sounds too depressing and maudlin for words, it isn’t — and that’s in large part what impressed me so much about Stanciu’s writing. Yes, she unflinchingly portrays the difficult realities of Fern’s life, but most of all she makes us feel the presence of Fern herself, the strength of her essential being that endures in the face of hardship and finds joy, wisdom, grace in this most unlikely of places. Through the precious, painful gifts of motherhood, by the cultivation of growing things, in her awe and wonder at the natural world, she grows toward the light and we suffer and grow along with her.

Stanciu’s prose is sometimes as flamboyant as a maple grove in October, sometimes plain as an unpainted pine board. She knows the art of suggesting much and stating little, of bringing together inner and outer images in a poetic alchemy.

I leaned against the barn’s cornerboard, wide as my back, stretching from my heels to far above my head. Make myself so, I thought, for my child, as solid as this barn that has stood here, uncomplaining, for so many decades. The weakness of my careening heart I could stamp into the earth and set my foot upon it. Who would need a heart when I had my strong hands? I pushed off from the barn and headed up the drive, snow whirling. Wind blew icy and wet on my face. It filled my bones and muscles, swooped me up in its great embrace, slitted my eyes.

Fern is no saint, and she doesn’t always make smart choices, but her story is all the more riveting thereby. Stanciu has shown how modern people in an ancient landscape struggle to make their way against the forces of nature and their own demons, trying to find and save what is of value in themselves and the land. It’s a story that deserves to find many readers who will love this brave, piercingly honest novel as much as I did.

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Mystery on the Rock: A Dangerous Place

Jacqueline Winspear, A Dangerous Place (2015)

DangerousPlaceWelcome to the Maisie Dobbs readalong! TLC Book Tours is hosting a month-long celebration of the first eleven books in this popular historical mystery series, on the occasion of the release of number twelve, Journey to Munich, on March 29. I’ll be posting about that title next month, but in the meantime I had the chance to read and review one of the earlier books in the series.

I chose the eleventh book, A Dangerous Place, thinking it might be helpful as a lead-in to the new one, for although I’ve read the first volume, Maisie Dobbs, which introduced me to the former housemaid turned detective/psychologist in 1920s London, I never continued with the other installments. However, it turns out that Winspear does quite a bit of exposition in each book in order to orient new readers, so that wasn’t really an issue. More problematic is what she does to longtime followers of the series in this one: a seemingly happy event anticipated in earlier books is cut short by tragedy, with all the shocking events reported in a cursory manner through second-hand reportage, documents, and letters in the space of just a few pages. Other readers have complained that there should have been a whole book or even two to cover such an important stage in Maisie’s life, and I would tend to agree, even though I don’t feel betrayed in the same way as some of the fans of the series, who have invested so much time and emotional energy in following her adventures.

Once this extremely peculiar beginning is past, including at least 25 rather awkward pages of retrospect and flashback, we settle into Maisie’s point of view and get into the main thread of the story. It’s 1937 and Maisie has jumped ship in Gibraltar, unable to quite face going home to England after her traumatic experiences. She becomes involved in investigating the murder of a young photographer, whose death seems to be connected to the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War taking place just across the border. In trying to help others in this dangerous place, can she find the way back to life for herself?

Maybe it was because Maisie herself was still in a state of shock, or perhaps because of the oddly distant way her tragedy was reported, but I couldn’t feel much connection to her in this book. The descriptions of her grief and misery, which lead her even to the edge of suicide, left me cold. I’m all for a well-rounded mystery that gets us into the minds and hearts of its characters, but the inner drama here failed to pique my interest enough to outweigh a sluggish, slow-moving plot.

tlc logoThe historical setting is a fascinating one, and the outward events truly dramatic — the bombing of Guernica takes place during the novel, as Maisie observes Fascist planes flying over Gibraltar — but even this promising material failed to completely capture my imagination. I’m not giving up on Maisie Dobbs, though; along with following her into the next book, I’d like to pick up some of the earlier ones in the series to see if one of them will spark more more interest for me.

And don’t take my word for it — for more on all the books in the Maisie Dobbs series, do visit the tour page and see what other bloggers have to say!

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New Reprint Review: Heather, Oak, and Olive

Rosemary Sutcliff, Heather, Oak, and Olive: Three Stories (1971)

HeatherOakOlive_72_largeThis slim collection of stories by Rosemary Sutcliff takes us to three different historical settings — tribal Wales, Roman Britain, and ancient Greece — with the author’s characteristically vivid sense of place and time. In each story, a pair of young people forges bonds of loyalty and friendship that go against custom and circumstance.

I enjoyed all the stories, but the third one, “A Crown of Wild Olive,” was the one that stood out for me. This tale of an Athenian boy and a Spartan boy competing in the Olympic games was subtle and gracefully written, and gave a true sense of what such an experience might have been like. The ending brought the stories to a close in a poignant and thoughtful way.

Sensitive line drawings throughout by Victor Ambrus complement the text beautifully. The cover and typography are also nicely done. This is a small delight for fans of Rosemary Sutcliff and historical fiction, and I’m glad it’s been brought back into print.

The publisher, Paul Dry Books, is one that I had not come across before, and I’m intrigued by its eclectic, intelligent list. Heather, Oak, and Olive is the latest entry in the “Nautilus” series of reprints of forgotten classics for young people. Definitely worth a look, if you’re interested in discovering treasures from the past that go beyond the everyday bestsellers.

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New Release Review: The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse

Piu Marie Eatwell, The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse (2015)

DeadDukeThe best narrative nonfiction, for me, is as fluidly told and as riveting as fiction while still being solidly grounded in fact. In the Kingdom of Ice was one book that reached this ideal, a perfect balance of true-to-life detail and narrative skill. Less successful efforts tend toward either clunky, disjointed assemblage of facts, or frantic speculation in an effort to fill in the blanks.

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse doesn’t quite reach the summit of great nonfiction in this regard, but it’s still an absorbing story with a factually respectable basis. In 1897, a woman surfaced with the wild claim that her father-in-law, a London merchant, had actually been the fifth Duke of Portland, an ultra-rich, ultra-eccentric aristocrat who was leading a double life. This meant that her son was the the heir of the childless duke…and so a frenzied legal battle commenced, to be played out over decades on a very public stage. Corruption, madness, fortune-hunting, identify theft: it’s all here, in a plot worthy of a Wilkie Collins novel.

In fact, all the ingredients for a fantastic stranger-than-fiction narrative are present, but I was left just slightly unsatisfied. The large cast of characters (identified and listed as such in the front matter) is hard to keep track of, as many don’t have enough personality to be memorable. The device of announcing some startling turn of events but then abandoning it for another narrative thread was also confusing, and some obvious questions were not addressed for too long — where was the evidence of the movements of the duke and his supposed alter ego, for example? I was also a bit skeptical of the scenes that go into certain characters’ inner thoughts and experiences without apparent basis in diary or letters, though these are unobtrusive and plausible enough.

Still, I don’t want to dissuade you from meeting the Dead Duke and his manifold associates. You’ll be immersed in a colorful and dramatic slice of Victorian and Edwardian life, and learn about an example of media frenzy that rivals any to be found in our own times (whole companies were created for the purpose of floating shares to speculate on the outcome of the case). You’ll gain an understanding of historical legal issues that are a bit out of the common, like when it was acceptable to open a grave, and peek into the early days of our criminal justice system. You’ll be grateful for the author’s scrupulous research that turned up important elements overlooked for many years, putting together a puzzle left unsolved by history. And you’ll be tantalized by the still-unknown motive that sparked the whole spectacle. As it delves into the mysteries of the human mind and heart, The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse gives a fascinating window into an era that in many ways is not so far from our own.

Read for the RIP X challenge hosted by the Estella Society

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New Release Review: Symphony for the City of the Dead

M.T. Anderson, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dimitri Shostakovich and the Seige of Leningrad (Candlewick, 2015)

SymphonyCityUsing the life and work of the composer Dimitri Shostakovich as a “hook,” and specifically his masterful Seventh Symphony (the “Leningrad”), Symphony for the City of the Dead explores one of the most horrific places and times to live in human history: Russia from the 1917 Revolution through the rise of Stalin and the Second World War.

Leningrad (formerly and now again St. Petersburg) has a long and proud cultural history, which a native musical prodigy such as Shostakovich should have been free to inherit and build on. Instead, he found himself hemmed in by demands that his music fit Stalinist ideas of what music should be and do for “the people,” and by murderous forces from both inside and outside his country. At one time he slept outside his apartment door so that his wife and child would not be awakened when he was taken away by the secret police; surviving that peril at the cost of the suppression of his “formalist” Fourth Symphony, he found himself caught in the Nazi trap that became the seige of Leningrad, a three-year ordeal that Hitler devised in order to bring the Slavs to their knees. Yet within this deathly environment he began composing a symphony that would capture the imaginations of the nation and of the world.

It’s a fascinating topic, and I found that Anderson marshaled his information well, keeping his narrative moving along while incorporating an impressive number of facts and eyewitness reports. In this real-life horror story, there is no happy ending and no way to escape the incredible brutality of human beings, making us question what lurks behind the thin veneer of civilization. Yet there are also glimpses of bravery, endurance, and the power of art to both articulate and transcend our sufferings. The description of the first performance of the symphony within beseiged Leningrad is incredibly moving, as emaciated, tottering musicians push themselves to the limit in order to play for their city.

Finding the truth about the Soviet era is not easy, and Shostakovich’s true thoughts and feelings are basically impossible to uncover, given his need to mask and conceal himself in order to survive. But Anderson brought clarity into a murky time while still allowing us to feel its painful ambiguity. I was not so enamored of the author’s writing style, with its short, choppy sentences enlivened by the occasional hyperbolic statement or pop-culture reference. I’m not sure if this was meant as a gesture toward the book’s intended audience, older teens and young adults, but I found it unfortunate  and clumsy.

Still, I learned a tremendous amount about events of which I knew little and am even more impressed than ever by Shostakovich’s ability to create under such circumstances. I appreciated how Anderson made it vividly clear throughout his text that art — the making and experiencing of art — is a vital part of our nature as human beings, never more so than when our humanity is threatened by the brutal impact of war. For readers of any age, this is an important, profound message for our times.

I also have to mention the stunning cover and excellent design overall. As with another new release from Candlewick that I enjoyed recently, The Hired Girl, the design is perfectly in tune with the contents, and I also appreciate that attention to detail.

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New Release Review: Girl Waits with Gun

Amy Stewart, Girl Waits with Gun (2015)

GirlWaitsBestselling nonfiction writer Stewart (The Drunken Botanist) hits all the high notes in her fiction debut, Girl Waits with Gun. She gives us a meticulously researched historical setting (the factory district of New Jersey in 1914), a trio of gloriously unconventional and independent female protagonists, a tone that effortlessly ranges from wry humor to suspense to drama, and a first-person narrative voice that vividly evokes a personality and a period. What more could you want? If you’re wise, you’ll stop reading this review right now and go track down a copy.

But if you need more convincing, I’ll tell you that the premise — sisters Constance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp, after their horse-drawn buggy is wantonly destroyed by factory-owner-cum-thug Henry Kaufman’s automobile, find themselves unlikely assistants in the local sheriff’s crime-fighting efforts against Kaufman and his gang — is not only brilliant, but absolutely true. Kaufman and the Kopps really existed, as did Sheriff Heath of Hackensack. Stewart based her story on records and news articles of the time, which, incredibly, have been completely overlooked and forgotten since. The title, to begin with, is an actual headline referring to the formidable six-foot-tall Constance, who along with her sisters was issued firearms as protection against Kaufman’s reprisal attempts. Other actual documents have been worked into the narrative, adding to its authentic period flavor.

There are blanks in the record, which is why Stewart decided to present her story as fiction, and sees her characters as living a fictional existence parallel to the real ones. She’s invented a subplot that allows Constance to try out her detective skills and also reflect on the secrets of her past, and given Norma a rather noticeable hobby (raising carrier pigeons) that isn’t mentioned anywhere in the historical record. Some of the most astonishing details were drawn from life, though, according to an afterword that helps to sort out fact from fiction. It all merges together seamlessly in the reading, though, and storytelling is the focus rather than research.

This is definitely a character-driven mystery, not one with an elaborate or twisty plot, and though there are lots of threats there’s little on-stage violence. The pleasure is in getting to know tart-tongued Norma, flamboyant Fleurette, and especially Constance, whose search for a place and a purpose in life is tantalizingly given a direction at the very end. I’ve no doubt that readers will be begging for a sequel, and Stewart seems inclined to oblige us. I’ll be eagerly waiting for another installment in the story of the Kopp sisters.

Counted for the Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP X) challenge, hosted by The Estella Society

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In Brief: New Releases for Young Readers

GoodbyeStranger  Marvels  HiredGirl

 

This fall, three of today’s brightest names in writing for children and young adults have new titles out. Even if you haven’t read their previous award-winning works, and whatever your age, these are all worth a look.

Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me; Liar and Spy)
With its mature themes of social media abuse and sexual teasing, along with fluctuating viewpoints and jumps in time, Stead’s latest may be a challenging read for the middle-school age group it’s aimed at. But it’s a challenge that could be well worth taking, as at the heart of this story are genuine, relatable, questioning young characters who in their varying ways are searching for the meaning of selfhood. They make mistakes, sometimes serious ones, but find the courage to try again and re-forge broken relationships. Some of the solutions seemed a bit pat to me, but the quietly eloquent writing carried me along and the hopeful, sweet ending made me smile.
August 4, 2015 from Wendy Lamb

The Marvels by Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret; Wonderstruck)
Author-illustrator Selznick starts his story with (mostly) wordless pictures — nearly 400 pages of them, creating a historical-theatrical extravaganza that intrigued me greatly. I wasn’t as enamored of the second, narrative part of the book, which seems to go initially in a completely different direction before returning to the image-story with a twist of perspective. Ironically enough, the “real story” rang less true to me than the fantasy, too heavy with Meaningful Issues and forced connections that didn’t feel genuine. An interesting experiment that fell somewhat flat.
September 15, 2015 from Scholastic

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, Splendors and Glooms)
This was far and away my favorite of the three, a historical novel in diary form written by a fourteen-year-old Joan, a farm girl in 1911 Pennsylvania who hopes for a better life. As articulated by Schlitz, Joan’s voice is alternately funny, fierce, and vulnerable, as she bravely — but very naively — makes her way from an oppressive family to employment that has its own risks and challenges. The unusual exploration of clashing minority religions (Joan is Catholic; her employers are Jewish) is sensitively done, and the historical setting is fully and convincingly realized. Many facets of history and culture are seamlessly integrated, from the chapter titles taken from real works of art that Joan might have seen, to the origins of the Baltimore school founded by progressive Jews where Schlitz works today as a librarian. A pleasure from beginning to end.
September 8, 2015 from Candlewick

Advance reading copies were received from the publishers for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

 

New Release Review: CS Lewis and His Circle

Roger White, Judith Wolfe, and Brendan Wolfe, eds., CS Lewis and His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford CS Lewis Society (2015)

CSLewisCircleClosely following The Fellowship, a splendid group biography of the Inklings, comes this new collection, a fine companion volume for those looking for more on CS Lewis and company. A student society founded in 1982 with the aim of grappling with “the rich relationship between Christianity, culture, and the imagination, including literature,” the Oxford CS Lewis Society has had hundreds of talks given under its aegis throughout the years. What a delight it must have been for an Oxford student sympathetic to these themes to be able to belong to this club and participate in its activities.

Much of the material produced for the club has never been published, but in this volume we are privileged to read a pithy but very rich and deep selection, encompassing essays on philosophy, theology, and literature in the first half, and memoirs of the Inklings in general and CS Lewis in particular in the second. Some highlights for me included Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, giving an appreciative reassessment of one of Lewis’s less popular novels, That Hideous Strength; Peter Bide’s memory of how he married Lewis and Joy Davidman, setting straight the record which has been rather sentimentalized and distorted by fictional treatments; and Owen Barfield himself, who outlived almost all his fellow Inklings, brilliantly analyzing his relationship with Lewis and teasing apart their intertwined opinions.

Each reader, however, will find his or her particular points of interest, whether in studies of the esoteric fiction of Charles Williams, considerations of the relationship of WH Auden to the Inklings, or personal reminiscences of Lewis and his family and friends. Framed by a Foreword and Afterword that put them into the context of the origin and history of the Society, these diverse contributions give a welcome taste of the many ways there are of encountering and understanding Lewis and the Inklings.

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New Release Review: The Philosopher Kings

Jo Walton, The Philosopher Kings (2015)

PhilosopherKingsRejoice, readers of The Just City! The sequel to Jo Walton’s fantasy about gods and humans attempting to create Plato’s Republic in ancient Greece is here, and you’ll be wanting to snap it up to find out what happened after that book’s dramatic ending. (If you haven’t read The Just City, go and read it now, and then come back. This one doesn’t really work as a standalone.)

Naturally, Jo Walton doesn’t do with this sequel what you might expect. Rather than starting at the point at which she left off, she skips quite a few years during which the one Just City has split into several, according to different factions’ ideas of what the experiment should look like. Pytheas (who is actually the god Apollo) has sired a number of semi-divine children, including a daughter with his beloved Simmea, and as the novel opens Simmea herself has been killed in one of the art raids that have unfortunately become common between the cities. Spurred by grief at this outrage, Apollo and his daughter Arete become part of an expedition to find the exiles who fled the City on the ship called Goodness, whom they suspect might have played a role in the raid. But what they find changes everything. . .

If The Just City sought to bring a philosophical thought experiment to life, The Philosopher Kings brings us a new perspective on mythology. Apollo’s children are discovering and growing into their powers, with the potential to become a whole new pantheon. There’s a rather clever variant on one of the more obscure and puzzling myths of Apollo, and a rationale for Plato’s myth of a golden age (from which his idea of the Republic was drawn). There’s even a deus ex machina at the end in classical dramatic style, but with a decidedly modern twist.

The triple narration of the earlier book continues, with Arete taking over Simmea’s part. Her sections are most numerous, and her coming of age in the new, splintered Republic is the main thread of the story. Apollo continues to learn from his experiences as a human in surprising ways, and Maia, now growing old, reflects on how the effort to make the Just City has and has not come to fruition. There are many unresolved threads from the first book to follow up on, as well as a plethora of new ideas and imaginative leaps to encompass, but Walton carries it all off with aplomb. The narrative drive is not as strong or absorbing as in that first venture, but the difference seems natural — it’s the difference between the exciting stage of building things up, and the difficult but necessary stage of rebuilding after one’s first ideas haven’t worked out as planned.

If the series carries on, my personal wish is for more subtlety in the religion department; the demigods are too much like newly minted superheroes for my taste, and Christianity is written off as “silly” in a cavalier way that I find unworthy of a true philosopher. Still, Walton continues to entertain and enthrall us with the sheer energy of her inventiveness. I can’t wait to see where she takes us next.

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New Release Review and Giveaway: The Wild Girl

Kate Forsyth, The Wild Girl (2013, US edition 2015)

WildGirlOnce upon a time, there was a young girl who fell in love with the boy next door. He was handsome, clever, and kind, but much too poor to think of marriage, and her stern and forbidding father kept her closely guarded. Only after many years of trials and delays were the couple able to marry, and build a happier life together.

This is no fairy tale, but the true story of Dortchen Wild, who became the wife of Wilhelm Grimm, editor with his brother Jakob of the famous German story collection Kinder- und Hausmärchen. While little is known about her — not much more than the bare outline above — out of these scraps of material Kate Forsyth has woven a moving and compelling novel that demonstrates the power of stories to reveal and heal our innermost souls.

For one thing we do know about Dortchen is that she was a storyteller. She told Wilhelm a quarter of the tales included in the first edition of the Grimm collection, although she and other contributors were uncredited and remained largely ignored throughout most of the ensuing reprints and revisions. The brothers wanted to emphasize the roots of the tales in old Germanic tradition, not how they were filtered through the imagination of a nineteen-year-old girl. And while their deep universality and archetypal value have become clear over the past two centuries, it’s still intriguing to wonder what individual experiences might have shaped the stories and their tellers. With so little else to go by, what do Dortchen’s stories tell us about her? They are some of the most beautiful, extraordinary, and puzzling of the whole collection, including the disturbing “Coat of Many Furs,” with its themes of incest, oppression, and silence. Where did they come from, and what happened to the girl who told them?

Without reducing these stories to mere personal allegories, Forsyth imaginatively reconstructs a possible life for Dortchen that is as dark and grim as the tales themselves, but ultimately as uplifting and redemptive. Along the way she also illuminates the place, time, and people that gave them birth, to which I’m embarrassed to say I never gave a thought before. I never considered the plight of the Germanic kingdoms under Napoleonic rule, the fight to preserve their heritage as they were being overrun by French and Russian soldiers, having their young men conscripted into a doomed army, their wealth and resources ruined and lost by puppet kings. I never thought of how determined and brave the Grimm brothers were to keep at their task of preserving stories and poems that many must have thought useless at such a turbulent time, even though they were so poor they could hardly keep body and soul together. And above all, I never wondered who told them these stories, or what gave them their sources of spiritual strength and power.

I’m so glad that Kate Forsyth brought these questions to light, and that in The Wild Girl she has crafted them into such a rich story of love, suffering, and redemption. We may never know most of the objective facts of Dortchen’s life, but for the time of this telling she can live for us again, in a way that is true to the nature and essence of her marvelous tales.

I’m delighted to be able to offer a copy of The Wild Girl courtesy of Thomas Dunne Books. This giveaway will run through July 7 and is open to US entrants age 18 and over. Please use the Rafflecopter widget below to enter, and good luck!

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