Reading New England: A Visit to Amesbury with Author Edith Maxwell

Delivering the TruthCoverWhen I heard of Edith Maxwell’s new “Quaker midwife” mystery series, I was immediately intrigued. What a fun way to investigate a corner of New England history — the series is set in late nineteenth century Amesbury, Massachusetts, a former mill town at the mouth of the Merrimack River north of Boston —  from an unusual angle.

In Delivering the Truth, Quaker midwife Rose Carroll becomes a suspect when a difficult carriage factory manager is killed after the factory itself is hit by an arsonist. Struggling with being less than a perfect Friend, Rose delivers the baby of the factory owner’s mistress even while the owner’s wife is also seven months pregnant. After another murder, Rose calls on her strengths as a counselor and problem solver to help bring the killers to justice before they destroy the town’s carriage industry and the people who run it.

I enjoyed the character of Rose, an intelligent and caring young woman, and was fascinated by all the details of her midwifery practice. I also loved learning more about the Quaker community and about poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, a real-life citizen of Amesbury who appears in the book. The story is well-paced and keeps you guessing as Rose races to try to find the killer before there is more loss of life. I sometimes was distracted by a modern-sounding word or phrase, but the language in general flows easily and serves the storytelling.

Maxwell’s love for and knowledge of her historic home town are especially evident in the way she brings it to life on the page. I’m looking forward to a visit some day, but until then I’m so happy that the author agreed to share a description of a recent tour she gave to celebrate the book launch. Enjoy this glimpse of Rose’s world, and I do hope that you’ll look into her adventures — book two is coming in 2017.



Because my new historical mystery, Delivering the Truth, takes place in the northeastern Massachusetts town where I live, I decided to create an historical walking tour to help launch the book two months ago. I ordered up a custom-made Quaker dress for myself from a local seamstress, made myself a bonnet, acquired an apron, and we were off!

Many of the buildings still standing in Amesbury were already built and in use in 1888 when my Quaker midwife Rose Carroll is walking around delivering babies and solving crimes. I started the tour in Market Square in front of one of the many Hamilton Mills buildings. The square was the center of activity in any old New England town.


I was surprised, pleased, and a little concerned that sixty people showed up, but all went well. I introduced the book and the tour, and read a short scene that takes place as Rose walks through the square the morning after a disastrous fire.

Tour Map 4-10-16 copy

We moved up Main Street, pausing to admire a mural that depicts carriages and life in the period when my book is set, as well as the lower falls of the Powow River rushing below, where one of my (fictional) bodies was found. We proceeded to the Josiah Bartlett statue. This tribute to the native son who was the first signer of the Declaration of Independence was dedicated on July 4, 1888 – which is the opening to my second book, Called to Justice (April 2017).

#2 copy

I led the group to the historic Friends Meetinghouse, a thriving Quaker church (mine, actually),which John Greenleaf Whittier help design and where he worshiped. I shared a short scene from the book before we moved on to Whittier’s home on Friend Street. My guests got a quick tour and listened to part of a scene with Rose talking to Whittier in his study.

#3 copy

We moved on, pausing to talk about the original library and the Opera House, neither still standing, then walked along the upper falls of the Powow, with a brief stop to talk about the mill industry and mill girls like Rose’s niece. The tour ended with a last reading in the amphitheater.

#4 copy

People seemed to very much enjoy the stroll, the history, and the readings. I conducted a second walk in late June during Amesbury Days, also well received. You can see a taste of the walk on my YouTube channel.

I’m delighted that the Amesbury Library and the Whittier Home are sponsoring Delivering the Truth as an All-Community Read this summer. Several high school teachers are also assigning it to their classes, which I’ll be visiting in the fall. The summer activities will culminate in a staged reading by two costumed actors of the four scenes in the book that feature both Rose and Whittier, and the event will take place in the Friends Meetinghouse.

Readers: What’s your favorite historical site? Have you ever gone on a walking tour connected with a mystery? Would your town like to host an All-Community Read of the book, too?

Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Foods Mysteries, the Country Store Mysteries (as Maddie Day), and the Lauren Rousseau Mysteries (as Tace Baker), as well as award-winning short crime fiction. Her short story, “A Questionable Death,” was nominated for a 2016 Agatha Award for Best Short Story. The tale features the 1888 setting and characters from her Quaker Midwife Mysteries series, which debuted with Delivering the Truth in April, 2016.

Maxwell is Vice-President of Sisters in Crime New England and Clerk of Amesbury Friends Meeting. She lives north of Boston with her beau and three cats, and blogs with the other Wicked Cozy Authors. You can find her on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, and at her web site,



New Release Review: New England Bound

Wendy Warren, New England Bound (2016)

NewEnglandBoundLGNew England likes to position itself as the cradle of liberty, home of many of the figures behind American independence from Britain, as well as a land of freedom in opposition to the slave-owning South. But in this new study by historian Wendy Warren, we are given a very different view of the early days of the New England colonies, during which the bondage of African and Native American slaves formed an essential part of the economy and indeed of the identity of the region.

The evidence is scant and scattered, but Warren has painstakingly gone over probate records, lawsuits, sermons and other documents and assembled a picture of a land and people  “bound” up with the institution of slavery in multiple ways. Though the proportion of chattel slaves in seventeenth-century New England was relatively low, with their numbers and mode of employment never so dramatic as on the large plantations of the South, they were widely used as household labor and fully accepted even by the most piously Puritan of colonists. The extent of colonial involvement in the slave trade, however, is greatly magnified when one considers that New England was part of a wider Atlantic mercantile system for the English, supplying the West Indian sugar plantations and thus endorsing and enabling that most horrifically deadly form of slave labor.

It depended on that system, too, as the northern land was too poor to produce a cash crop out of itself. By sending goods and foodstuffs (often substandard or rotten items deemed adequate for slaves) to the rich planters who gained more profit by devoting all their time and land to growing sugar, members of the dominant merchant class of New England gained an essential market. They also began to feel their power as a key player in the English trading triangle, which may been the germ of the drive for independence.

The colonial impulse also required “unplanting and replanting” the native people who already inhabited the land the settlers wanted for their own needs. Some were forced into local servitude, but many others, too unruly for that purpose, were transported to serve elsewhere even as Africans were imported in the other direction. In one telling incident, a group of native Americans captured in King Philip’s War were sent abroad, except for an old man too decrepit to work. After some debate, his captors showed him mercy — by decapitating him rather than having him torn apart by dogs.

That is just one of the cruel stories that Warren has unearthed for us, illuminating a strange irony. Without intimate knowledge of the miserable state of slavery, without day-to-day intercourse with people treated as property and denied a will of their own, would the New England states have waved the banner of freedom so forcibly? The bloodstained origins of our vaunted rights and freedoms must not be overlooked, if we are to move forward into a truer form of justice.

According to the jacket publicity this book has been hailed by other historians as an important new contribution to the topic, and though I’m by no means an expert I see no reason to argue with them. The writing was sometimes a bit stiff and repetitive, perhaps showing its origins as a dissertation. But the arguments and the research backing them up are compelling, disturbing, and enlightening. Certainly, I’ll no longer be able to walk the Freedom Trail or sing songs of liberation without remembering the chains that our nation forged in its earliest days, and that are in many ways still binding us today.



New Release Review: The Summer Guest

Alison Anderson, The Summer Guest (2016)

SummerGuestAlison Anderson is perhaps best known as a translator — maybe you’ve heard of a little phenomenon called The Elegance of the Hedgehog? — but she’s also a novelist in her own right. With her latest novel, The Summer Guest, she seems poised to come to greater prominence in the latter role, with a beautiful and moving story that brings together life, language and literature in a magical way.

The “summer guest” is Anton Chekhov, who at the beginning of his literary career spent two summers on an estate in the eastern Ukraine belonging to the Lintvaryova family. There he met Zinaida Lintvaryova, a young doctor tragically stricken by blindness and seizures that she knew would soon prove fatal. Their growing friendship is the main subject of Zinaida’s diary, in which she painstakingly documents the precious experiences and revelations that illumine her darkness. Most intriguingly, Chekhov tells her of a novel that he is working on, in which he’s striving to do something different from the short stories and drama that come more naturally to him. She becomes almost a working partner to him, giving him the wisdom earned through suffering, even as he gifts her with his wealth of observation and description, his bubbling sense of humor, and his attentive respect.

The diary, though, is only one layer of this multi-faceted narrative. In the present day we meet Katya, a Russian woman now living in Britain with her husband, where they run a publishing company teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The publication of the diary, Katya hopes, may be a turning point in their fortunes…but it soon becomes clear there are further layers of secrets and intrigue to be uncovered. Is the diary only the beginning of another story?

Then there is Ana, the translator to whom Katya entrusts the manuscript. As she works through its pages, she becomes more and more engrossed in the lives of Chekhov and the Lintvaryovas, and in the idea of the novel that might be waiting to be discovered. Figures from her past come back to haunt her as she starts to investigate what she thinks may be the key to her own future.

As you can tell, there is a lot going on here, and some of the strands are more successful than others. The diary is the strongest and most substantial part, while the stories of Katya and Ana sometimes feel like a distraction, creating tangents that take away from the main narrative. Certain elements — like the present-day troubles in the Ukraine, or Ana’s former love life — feel somewhat haphazardly thrown into the mix, not given quite enough time or depth to be meaningful.

Portrait of Anton Chekhov by his brother Nikolay. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yet in the end, I did find that the presence of the other two women added poignancy and meaning to Zinaida’s story. The life-giving nature of literature and the vital role of translation, of communion between artistic souls, is seen from different angles and given a new slant. The perspectives of publisher and translator, as well as of writer, reader, listener, and interpreter, come together to show how important stories are to us as human beings, how powerful our need for creating and receiving and living them.

The language is carefully and lovingly crafted, most impressively in the diary, which is written in an English that flows with ease and eloquence and still somehow gives an indefinable sense of being a translation, leaping across the gulf of another language and culture to speak of that which is both foreign and common to us all. I don’t want to think of Zinaida’s diary as a fictional construction, or of her friendship with Chekhov as a novelist’s fantasy, so real and convincing are their interactions, so deeply moving some of the passages in which she speaks of how she lives in the face of approaching death. Here she speaks to Chekhov, or rather to her friend Anton Pavlovich:

I have paused innumerable times since my first headache, my first dizziness. Each time, with each spell, seizure, degree of blindness, I have lost a part of life. Each time fear comes in, showing death to me. You have seen for yourself, from last summer to this, how life is draining out of me…And each time I do not die — although I could choose to let go, see the pointlessness of it all — I do not die because I shake my fist at fear. This is all there is, yet it is still so much. Even I have my moments of hope — not for eternity, not even that I might survive or recover my sight — because I already have survived, and I have learned to see.

tlc logoIncluded in the novel is the real obituary that Chekhov wrote for Zinaida, in which he spoke of the “rare and remarkable patience with which [she] endured her suffering.” From such fragments, a few lines in a letter, the known facts of two summer visits, Alison Anderson has brought her people, both real and imagined, past and present, into shimmering life. It may be an illusion, but it’s one of those magical works of fiction that helps us to better see the truth.

This review is part of the TLC Blog Tour for The Summer Guest. Visit TLC to see more reviews and features from the tour.


New Release Review: A Man of Genius

Janet Todd, A Man of Genius (2016)

ManGeniusWhat happens when an eminent scholar and biographer turns her hand to fiction? In the case of Janet Todd’s A Man of Genius, we get a highly distinctive, engrossing tale of mystery and madness, centering on a woman writer of one of those “horrid books” that were so popular around Jane Austen’s time. In Todd’s novel, Ann St. Clair has no respect for her own writing, seeing it only as a profitable and not too unpleasant way to make a living. She’s also glad to be independent of her uncaring, distant mother, who is entirely wrapped up in the memory of her dead husband.

The gothic elements of Ann’s fiction start to intrude into her own life, though, when she tumbles into a bizarre relationship with a male writer whose friends think him a genius-in-waiting, based on his one fragmentary work. Haunted by the bitter ghosts of her childhood, tying herself to an increasingly unstable man who neither needs nor wants her, Ann trails him across the post-Napoleonic landscape of Europe to a strange, shadowy existence in the underworld of Venice. The conclusion is shattering, surprising, and for me, unforgettable.

Ann’s story is not a comfortable or easy one to read, and this is not an amusing historical pastiche. Todd takes us into the dark heart of nineteenth century London and Venice, following her protagonist into a horrible form of emotional and physical subjugation. Her journey is harrowing, violent, and sad, and readers must have a strong stomach to follow her through to the teasingly hopeful end. But for those who do, the journey into the depths becomes a confirmation of the power of the self, which sometimes only lights up when threatened by utter eclipse.

Todd doesn’t attempt an imitation of the writing of the time — we are looking over the characters’ shoulders from a modern perspective, as it were — and yet her highly mannered style chimes well with the historical period. One can tell that she has immersed herself in it to such an extent that she can play freely with its language and people and ideas, so that her creation is relevant to both the “then” of the story and the “now” in which we experience it.

I usually avoid books that are gleefully advertised as “dark” and “harrowing,” as I dislike the kind of prurient pleasure-in-others’-pain that they often seem to trade on, but Ann’s story offers something more complex and far more interesting than that. As we move with Ann from the fragmentary to the whole, from blind folly to a hard-won wisdom, we are touched by some of the deepest mysteries of the human heart. Janet Todd has beautifully translated her passion for and knowledge of the era and its literature into a compelling fictional creation. I hope she will give us many more.



New Release Review: The Children

Ann Leary, The Children (2016)

The Children_COVER copyAnn Leary’s new novel caught my eye largely because of its Connecticut setting, as I’ve been looking for representatives from that state for my Reading New England challenge. And the setting — a slowly disintegrating lakeside estate, situated near an insular town and private school — is indeed very important to the book, and quintessentially New England.

The longtime retreat of the proud, wealthy (and stingy) Whitman family, Lakeside is now home to former patriarch Whit Whitman’s widow Joan, and her two daughters from another marriage, Sally and Charlotte. Charlotte, who rarely leaves Lakeside, is the narrator, and as she tells her rambling, discursive story we slowly come to see the cracks in the family foundations. For the house is actually owned by the sons of Whit’s first wife, and when one of them brings his prospective bride into the women’s sanctuary, it brings up ghosts from the past that still have power to wound and destroy.

In counterpoint to the claustrophobic pull of this singular place is the bewildering, fast-moving realm of the digital world, through which anyone can go anywhere and be anything without leaving home. Charlotte, the reclusive homebody — don’t call her agoraphobic! — has a secret, highly social, and lucrative life on the Internet; e-mails, texts, computer hacking, blogging, and social media all have their role to play in this modern twist on the age-old story of the snake in the grass. Leary pokes fun at the superficial, inauthentic nature of much of our online life, while pointing out some of its very real dangers.

Charlotte’s voice is funny, endearing, and sad, as she gradually circles toward the real matter at the heart of the family’s disconnect. Through her half-knowing, half-naive perspective Leary skillfully drops in bits of information that keep us guessing and engaged to the very end of this short novel. I’d definitely recommend it for reading by the side of any lake this summer.


In Brief: Mixed feelings for new fiction

Here are four new or reprinted works of fiction that caught my eye in the first half of the year — each offering something of interest, but none of which quite captured my heart. I can imagine other readers having a different response, though. Have you read any of these? What did you think?

StargazersSister copyThe Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown
After loving the nonfiction book The Age of Wonder, which included a section on astronomical pioneers William and Caroline Herschel, I was so excited to learn that there was a new historical novel coming out that was centered around Caroline. I ended up being slightly disappointed, but it probably had more to do with my expectations than with the book. While it was a beautifully written and moving account of a unjustly overlooked woman in science, I found being trapped in the limitations of her life somehow too confining, and wished for a wider angle on the time. I was also a little surprised when I learned from the Afterword that several important characters and incidents were made up; this went beyond what I would expect from authors who are trying to make their narratives fit reasonably into the historical record. However, if you aren’t hampered by my expectations, and not bothered by authorial inventions, you may well find this a compelling look at a fascinating corner of history and a remarkable woman.
• Pantheon, January

MadwomanUpstairsThe Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
This novel had so many elements that I love — the Brontes, Oxford, a literary treasure hunt — that I hoped it would be a sheer delight, yet it left me feeling slightly queasy. I think the main reason was the relationship between the narrator/protagonist, a kooky American named Samantha who’s supposedly the last living descendant of the Bronte family, and her hunky tutor who can’t seem to remember or stick to the rules about, er, intimate relations with students. Aside from this disturbing theme, their interactions didn’t ring true to me, and the pathologically isolated Samantha made some amusing remarks but was otherwise just too odd to relate to. The literary discussions scattered throughout the text were also frustrating in their emphasis on the assumption that everything in the Bronte novels must have actually happened: Rochester’s bed was set on fire by a madwoman, therefore one of the Bronte girls must be mad and have committed arson at Haworth, etc. This is simply silly and not something one would write papers about at Oxford.
• Touchstone, March

LightYearsThe Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
This is the first in the Cazalet Chronicles, a series of five books about an English family during the years surrounding the Second World War. The whole series has now been reissued in e-book form, and is being marketed to readers looking to fill the gap left by Downton Abbey. I haven’t seen that show, but I can imagine Howard’s work, with its large cast of characters and lovingly detailed descriptions of a bygone time, fitting neatly into that niche. I found myself feeling strangely distanced from the characters, though; they were treated almost journalistically rather than novelistically, and I watched their trials and tribulations from afar rather than feeling caught up in them. Worth a look, though, if you love family sagas or WWII historical novels.
• Open Road Media, April (originally 1990)

VersionsUsThe Versions of Us by Laura Barnett
There have been many books and films in recent years about the theme of exploring different options or paths in life (Sliding Doors, One Day, Life After Life) — kind of like “Choose Your Own Adventure” for grown-ups. Here’s yet another one, which presents three versions of how a couple might have gotten together, or not, been married or not, split up or stayed together or come together again. Eva is a writer, Jim a painter, and their careers also take wildly different trajectories in each version, and some unexpected twists and turns. Each chapter takes up a version, usually though not invariably in sequence (1 – 2 – 3), and usually giving three different snapshots of the same point in time in these different lives, before moving on some months or years, as the narrative unfolds from youth into old age.
There is no supernatural explanation, or suggestion that the Eva and Jim in each version know about the others; they are simply presented side by side like a triptych of the same subject with variations between the panels (a kind of painting that Jim does indeed create in one scenario). I enjoyed it, though not as rapturously as did the reviewers of the original UK edition. Following the versions was often quite confusing, with their sometimes minor differences that were easy to mix up. Though this was an interesting and well-executed concept, for me the fragmenting of the characters’ lives ultimately weakened their impact rather than multiplying it.
• Houghton Mifflin, May (original UK edition 2015)

Finished copies of The Light Years (e-book) and The Versions of Us (hardcover) were received from the publishers for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

New Release Review: The Lie Tree

Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree (2016)

LieTreeI think that Frances Hardinge is destined to become one of my new favorite authors. I loved The Lie Tree (as well as her previous novel, Cuckoo Song) for the interesting things she does with ideas and relationships and history and myth. Hardinge’s prose is vivid and distinctive without being overly stylized, and her concepts spring out of real imaginative power rather than gimmicky formulas. Her young-adult characters are striving toward selfhood in a complex, nuanced way that can be appreciated by readers on both sides of the child/adult divide. With so many ingredients that are very much to my taste, the result was a delicious treat for me.

In The Lie Tree, we are introduced to Faith Sunderly, a bright, talented girl on the threshold of Victorian womanhood. Neither her father, an renowned paleontologist, nor her social-butterfly mother have the least idea of what is going on inside her head, or that she might want to break out of the bounds of what society has decreed for her. But when the family suddenly moves to a remote island for a research project, Faith finds that the surface veneer of her family’s safe, conventional life is beginning to crack. What was the true motivation for this abrupt dislocation? Why have none of their servants been brought along? What is her father hiding in the summerhouse? And what is the inner and outer menace that threatens him? As she begins to investigate, danger comes close to her as well, and cannot be escaped without demanding a dark sacrifice.

The theme of lying and deception is intricately woven into the plot and embodied in the image of the Lie Tree. This is a fantastical creation that yet is plausible within the world of the story, which takes place during a time when science was opening up undreamed-of wonders and shaking the foundations of human knowledge. Theories and notions about the relationship between the physical and spiritual world proliferated wildly, and the notion of a plant that feeds on human mendacity would fit right in. Hardinge’s slow build-up of the insidious Tree made for a narrative that was both thrilling and psychologically astute.

Though I enjoyed much of the book immensely, I admit to feeling somewhat disappointed in the ending, which left me wishing for more development of certain characters. Friends turned into villains, villains into friends, but then the rising action culminated in a frantic chase that cut off any opportunity to explore these surprising developments further. I wouldn’t have minded another chapter or two in that direction.

That’s not going to stop me from reading Hardinge’s next book, though, and seeking out as much of her earlier work as I can. For thoughtful, emotionally satisfying, imaginative entertainment, she’s one author that I will treasure.


New Release Review: Journey to Munich

Jacqueline Winspear, Journey to Munich (Harper, 2016)

JourneyMunichJourney to Munich is the twelfth entry in the bestselling Maisie Dobbs series, which follows a former London parlourmaid through her career as a private investigator and beyond. If you’ve been reading the series all along, you will probably know already that you want to read this one. If you haven’t gotten into it yet, you might wonder whether you can jump in so late in the game.

To help answer this question, I purposely avoided reading earlier books in the series before starting Journey to Munich. (I had read the first book, Maisie Dobbs, but that was such a long time ago that I barely remember it.) Would it work as a standalone, or would it be too dependent on former episodes? A bit of both, I would say. The heart of the story, in which Maisie travels to Munich on the eve of the second World War to try to rescue a captured inventor, works on its own as a chilling glimpse into Hitler’s regime. Around the edges, though, there is a good deal of exposition about Maisie’s past experiences and acquaintances, which, while giving necessary information for new readers, tended to stall the action. For longtime followers of the story, this might awaken pleasurable memories of well-known characters and incidents, but without that context I found such passages somewhat dry and repetitive.

That was one obstacle to my enjoyment of the story; the other was the curiously convoluted plot. When she’s asked to help British intelligence for not-terribly-clear reasons, Maisie also has to come to terms with a person who betrayed her in the past, an act that led to an unbearable personal tragedy. The combination of straight thriller and psychological drama did not quite work for me, though it’s hard to put my finger on why. The tension and release that are hallmarks of the cloak-and-dagger type of story were strangely employed, and left me dissatisfied. There were several times when I expected something to happen and … it didn’t. Of course, this might be a conscious attempt to subvert expectations, but it came across more as sloppy storytelling.

tlc logoWhat I did like about the story was the character of Maisie, an independent woman trying to bravely make her way forward in the world; the the vivid evocation of a city on the edge of war; and the suggestion at the end that the adventures will continue and old relationships be revived. Before that happens, I am going to be looking back at some of the earlier volumes, and I suggest you do too, before taking this journey. Clearly, Maisie Dobbs has much to offer in the way of suspense and drama, with characters who grow and develop over time amid a fascinating historical milieu. Even though this installment in her saga had some problems for me, I enjoyed it enough to want to seek out more.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review Journey to Munich. For more reviews of this and all the Maisie Dobbs books, visit the Tour page.


New Release Review: Nelly Dean

Alison Case, Nelly Dean (2016)

NellyDeanUpon rereading Wuthering Heights last year, I finally realized what a major role Nelly Dean — the servant who tells most of the story-within-a-story to hapless outsider Mr. Lockwood — plays in that novel. Far from being a passive observer of events, she lies, withholds information, and manipulates situations to suit her own idea of what is right. Is her version of what happened at Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange even true? What other facts might she be keeping back from us? What would we learn if she were asked to tell her own story?

In Nelly Dean, first-time novelist Alison Case gives Nelly another chance to speak, this time focusing on her own life and experiences. Her narrative overlaps mainly with the first quarter of Emily Bronte’s novel, up until Nelly is forced to move from the Heights to Thrushcross Grange. She fleshes out several scenes that only take up a sentence or two in the original, and fills in much of the background story that was barely hinted at or not present at all. She also rearranges events and casts characters in a different light, but since we already know Nelly is an unreliable narrator, this does not come as a complete surprise. What emerges is a moving portrait of a woman caught between conflicting loyalties, trying to find the meaning of love and family within a setting that has distorted both almost beyond recognition.

But how does it measure up to the towering classic that inspired it? While in its writing style it successfully evokes the period without slavishly imitating the original, the tone overall is much gentler and softer. It even includes some humorous passages, which some readers may find a welcome change from the bleakness of Bronte’s novel, but which brings in quite a different mood. Heathcliff in particular, who stays on the periphery of the story, does not appear as the psychopath Bronte created, and Nelly has a more sympathetic attitude toward him than in the story she originally told Mr. Lockwood. Indeed all the characters, including Nelly herself, are more likeable, more easily comprehensible than Bronte’s people, who often seem more like forces of nature than human beings.

For these reasons, even though I very much enjoyed Nelly’s story as a novel in itself, I didn’t find it quite worked as a convincing extension of Wuthering Heights, which remains an astonishing singularity in fiction. At the same time, I’m not sure it would work as a standalone either, as it frequently refers to the plot of the earlier novel, without going into detail. The drawback is that readers who are looking for a repeat of the passion and drama of Wuthering Heights will not find it here, and may be disappointed.

If you can accept it on its own terms, though, you might be absorbed by this version of Nelly’s story as I was. The characters touched my heart, the story drew me in, and the language was unobtrusively artful. I’m very much looking forward to whatever Alison Case writes next, and I hope it’s going to be a true original this time. She has some wonderful tales to tell.



New Release Review: How To Be Alive

Colin Beavan, How To Be Alive (2016)

How to Be Alive coverWhen I was in high school I took an English class called “Utopia.” After exploring the utopian and dystopian visions of writers from Thomas More to Aldous Huxley to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, our assignment was to create a plan of our own for the “perfect society.” Having heard all our grandiose ideas, our teacher asked if we’d like to hear about her own notion of utopia.

She said that rather than moving to a distant island or making sweeping societal changes, she’d start with her own Seattle neighborhood, by strengthening the ties of community, sharing more and consuming less. Not every house on a street needs its own lawnmower, for example. While not advocating that we throw away the benefits of individualism — not everyone needs to move into the same house — she argued that we can’t create a better world without working together. And who better to work with than the people we already know?

Her idea has stuck with me for all these many years since, as an example of how to create change in the only way we truly can: starting from where we are. And when I read Colin Beavan’s new book How To Be Alive, I recognized exactly the same impulse. Beavan believes that ideas like my English teacher’s are not just nice ideas, but the way to realize our true selves while making the world a better place.

Colin Beavan APHaving taken some rather dramatic action himself — he’s the author of the bestselling book No Impact Man, which chronicles his year of trying to live as lightly on the planet as possible, and founder of the No Impact Project — Beavan has some impressive practical experience in which to ground his ideas. But it’s not necessary to go so far in order to follow in his footsteps. Indeed, the point of this book is to help people take that first step toward change, no matter how small.

Beavan incorporates research, real-life examples, and step-by-step exercises in chapters that touch on all the basic needs of our lives, which include meaning, purpose, and community as well as food, shelter, and transportation. He asks us to rethink the conventional wisdom that’s gotten us into our current mess — that selfishness and competition are the driving forces of human nature — and consider that cooperation and sharing are not only truer ways to realize our highest potential, but also make us happier.

You don’t have to be “alternative.” All that makes you a lifequester is that you actively choose what is authentic to you.

Are you alive to who you really are? Are you awake to the world around you and its needs? Do you do things because they are what everyone else does? Or do you do things because you are awake and conscious and want to do the best by yourself and everyone else?

Most of the information Beavan presents is not new. Some of it is thousands of years old, as all religious and meditative traditions exhort us to remember that we are part of one another and that our truest selves are found through that awareness. It’s his way of combining ancient philosophies, humanist psychology, scientific discoveries, and true stories of people changing their lives and the world that made for a fresh and compelling presentation. Although I wasn’t always enamored of his word choices or casual writing style (I couldn’t call myself a “lifequester” with a straight face), his points were clearly made, well organized, and thought-provoking.

Not all of his suggestions are applicable to my particular situation — it would be pretty difficult for me to go car-free, for example, as I live in a rural area with no public transportation — but this book is not a blueprint to be mindlessly followed. It’s meant as inspiration for each of us to get more creative with our individual lives, to realize how precious and incredible are the opportunities we have just through being here on this planet, and to stop being paralyzed by loneliness and fear. What will happen if a significant number of people take up this challenge? I don’t know, but I do hope we’re going to find out.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to join in their tour for How To Be Alive. Click on the link for more tour stops and information.


tlc logo