Book Review: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (2018)

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Review #107

The story of two girls living eight hundred years apart—a modern-day Syrian refugee seeking safety and a medieval adventurer apprenticed to a legendary mapmaker. 

Following the death of her husband to cancer, Nour’s mother wants to be closer to her home country and her family. In the summer of 2011, Nour and her family move from their apartment in New York City to Homs, Syria. But Syria is changing, and not for the better. Shells and bombs become a daily occurrence, and when their house is destroyed Nour and her family are forced to flee across the Middle East and North Africa as refugees.

Eight hundred years ago, a young girl named Rawiya disguises herself as a boy and becomes an apprentice to al-Idrisi, a world-famous cartographer who is embarking on a journey to make a map of the known world. Along the way, Rawiya ferocious mythical beasts, epic battles, and real historical figures.

The gorgeous cover art for Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars is what initially attracted me to this book. I knew little to nothing about the plot, and therefore had no expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find a novel that uses the Syrian Civil War as a backdrop for a story about family, bravery, and finding a place to belong.

A lot of attempts have been made recently to capture the refugee experience. The Map of Salt and Stars tells a deeply personal story. Nour doesn’t care why her neighborhood is suddenly being bombed. She doesn’t understand the political tensions between Libya and Algeria, or why refugee boats are shelled before they can reach shore. All Nour knows is that she has lost everything but her mother and two sisters. She knows that she wakes up every day in a different place, often cramped with groups of other people, all of whom are running away from the destruction and danger of war. By keeping laser-focused on Nour and her plight, Joukhadar ensures that the reader forms a close bond with her.

Also contained within the pages of The Map of Salt and Stars is the story of Rawiya, a young girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to become an apprentice to the esteemed cartographer al-Idrisi. Her 11th century journey with him along a route similar to the one taken by Nour as she flees from country to country. I enjoyed Rawiya’s story and the fresh perspective that it offered. Most of our ideas of the ancient world are from the Greco-Roman viewpoint, but The Map of Salt and Stars shows it through Muslim eyes instead. While Europe was buried in the Dark Ages, the scholars and scientists of the Muslim world made terrific advancements in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. They also made some of the most detailed maps of the time period, and that is where Joukhadar sets her story.

The Muslim names for the ancient cities of the Mediterranean were unfamiliar to me, and I often found it difficult to know exactly where the ancient adventurers were at any given time. There is a map included along with the table of contents, but it is a bit inconvenient to switch back and forth to the map on an eReader. This may have been one of the reasons why Rawiya’s story fell short in comparison to Nour’s. Rawiya’s struggles against mythical beasts feel far removed from reality, where Nour must fight against an enemy that is far more real and more dangerous.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Map of Salt and Stars here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

I Made it – OneYearOneHundredBooks is One Year Old!

Last month I completed my goal of reading and reviewing one hundred new books over the course of a year! The feeling of setting and reaching a goal has been incredible satisfaction mixed with mild exhaustion.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I enjoyed creating and writing this website for the past year. I have tried blogging many times in the past, and it’s never stuck until now. Setting a goal and working hard to achieve it has helped me through some rough patches in the past twelve months, and I’m surprised by how much I learned about myself. In no specific order, here are a few observations from my first year of blogging.

1. ) Looking back, it is startlingly obvious that I was not in a good state of mind last year. My immigration process was taking forever, I had no friends in the city, and I spent the majority of my time binge-watching television shows. In the twelve months since, it’s as if nothing has changed but everything has changed. I am much happier and healthier both mentally and physically than I was last year. I’ve spent hours scavenging the city looking to books to complete my Goosebumps collection (only five to go!). I joined a book club, which has forced me to confront my social anxiety and join in on group conversations. I began volunteering for an amazing charity which allows me to spend time with rescue cats. And my permanent residency was finally approved! Now I am entering the terrifyingly exciting world of job hunting and trying to launch a new career in writing. Reading some of my earlier posts, it’s as if at some point over the past year I emerged from a darkness that I hadn’t even realized I was drowning in. There are still struggles of course, and there are times when I feel like I’m spinning out of control, but overall the general feeling is one of hopefulness.

2. ) Running this website helped me a lot this year. I’ve never been able to truly commit to writing a blog, mainly because I’ve never felt that my thoughts and ideas were terribly interesting or important. I have tried to stay away from tracking hits and likes, but it has still given me a boost of confidence to know that people visit my site and enjoy the things I’ve written. I don’t get crazy traffic, but it’s rare for me to go a day without at least one visitor. I am so proud and so grateful to all of the people who have journeyed with me through this year and more than one hundred books.

3.) I started this blog out of boredom, but it’s become surprisingly useful. As I said, last year was not the best time for me. I remember how homesick I was at the prospect of yet another holiday season away from my family. When I came up with the idea to start writing book reviews, I knew I needed to set myself a challenge. I never really expected anyone to actually read the reviews I was writing, but I was desperate for something, anything to occupy my attention. Fast forward a year later, and I am attempting to begin a career based around writing. I’ve applied for jobs for content writers, proofreaders, copy writers, and other related fields. One thing that I noticed was many of these companies ask for writing samples to be included with a resume and cover letter. So this website has had the unexpected benefit of doubling as a portfolio!

4.) I fully intend to challenge myself to read another hundred books next year, and I want to expand oneyearonehundredbooks as well. Starting next year, I will be welcoming guest bloggers to post their own reviews on this site. I am hoping to bring more variety and opinions to the table, and I’m always looking for contributors! If you’d like to write a book review or a book vs film comparison, please leave a comment or email me at oneyearonehundredbooks@gmail.com.

Keep an eye out in the next few days; I’ll be publishing lists for the best and worst reads of the year! Until then, check out 2017’s My Ten Favorite Books of 2017 and Ten Most Disappointing Books I Read in 2017

Happy reading everyone!

-Ashley

Book Review: The Midnight Watch by David Dyer (2016)

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Review #106

As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead.

I was ten years old when James Cameron’s Titanic was released, and like millions of young girls in 1997, was completely obsessed with the film and the boyishly handsome, adorably baby-faced Leonardo DeCaprio. Twenty years later, my love for Leo has never faded, and neither has my interest in the story of Titanic and its place in history.

The Midnight Watch has the odd challenge of trying to sustain a narrative using characters that were only indirectly involved in the events of April 14, 1912. The story of the Californian, which was the nearest ship to the Titanic on the night of its sinking and could potentially have saved the lives of the 1500 people who died that night, is more of a footnote in the larger context of the Titanic story. The failure of the Californian to respond to the Titanic’s distress signals is one of the countless bits of misfortune that all came together to cause one of the most famous maritime disasters in history. Even James Cameron, whose insistence on historical accuracy during filming bordered on obsessive, did not include the Californian in his film. stating that switching perspectives to another ship took away from the feeling of isolation that the passengers on the Titanic must have experienced that night. In a way this book reminded me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, another instance of “background” characters being given the full spotlight.

Author David Dyer needed to present a cast of characters strong enough to make us forget that our old favorites such as Captain Smith, Thomas Andrews, Bruce Ismay, and Molly Brown are conspicuously absent. He splits his narrative between Second Mate Herbert Stone, the watchman who first saw the white distress rockets sent up by the sinking ship, and Steadman, a bulldog journalist on the hunt for the truth about the Californian. Stone is plagued by guilt and indecision when he wakes up the morning after his midnight shift and learns the fate of the Titanic. His story is sympathetic, but pales in significance when viewed next to the deaths of over a thousand people on the Titanic. Steadman is the archetypal hard-jawed bourbon-soaked workaholic newspaperman from the turn of the century. His only defining characteristic is that he somehow manages to chase down leads and secure interviews with various higher-ups all while being soddenly drunk.

I did enjoy Dyer’s meticulous attention to detail, particularly when describing the Californian and its crew. Dyer worked for years as a ships officer, and he is clearly writing from a place of experience. I don’t know much about naval terminology besides port and starboard, so I enjoyed learning a little bit more about steamer ships. Also, it’s refreshing to read a completely different perspective on a well-known event. One of the things I love most about historical fiction is its ability to help me think of an issue from a variety of angles. The Midnight Watch offers a unique and creative approach to the enduring legend of the Titanic.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Midnight Watch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository!

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Witch Elm by Tana French (2018)

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Review #105

 

Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life: he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

This is author Tana French’s seventh novel, and marks her first departure from her fantastic Dublin Murder Squad series. For The Witch Elm, French doesn’t stray too far from her distinctive style, and it’s clear that she feels the most comfortable when writing detective-style novels. Which is fine by me, since she’s amazing at it.

I’ve had a rather bad run of luck this year with thriller novels, but have always enjoyed French’s work. Her use of foreshadowing feels organically woven into the narrative, as opposed to awkwardly shoehorned in. By slowly building a sense of tension using small clues and a few shortly but intensely written passages, French ensures that when the plot reaches its climax, it feels like a genuine reveal as opposed to a cheat. I also have to give props to French for avoiding the horribly cliche “flackback” plot device that has been become nearly ubiquitous in modern thrillers. There is a reason I have never been disappointed by her novels, and her mature and richly descriptive writing style has a lot to do with that.

The main difference between The Witch Elm and French’s previous works is that the main narrative is written from a civilian’s viewpoint, rather than a detective. I did find myself missing the police perspective. Toby, as the main character, just wasn’t terribly sympathetic. He is privileged, entitled, and oblivious to the struggles of those around him. His love for his girlfriend Melissa was a saving point, but their relationship always seemed a little too good to be true. Hugo, Leo, and Susanna as the supporting characters were more interesting than Toby, and I would have liked to know more about their lives.

I won’t give away too much of the main plot, only that I kept expecting French to take a turn for the supernatural. Ivy House somehow gives off a misty, Gothic feel from the outer suburbs of Dublin. The creepy atmosphere of The Witch Elm reminded me of the forest passages from In The Woods, which literally gave me goosebumps when I was reading them. I would love to see Tana French venture into the world of horror. It would definitely be a combination of two of my favorite elements.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Witch Elm here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017)

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Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

This novel by debut author Angie Thomas packs an emotional punch. The American epidemic of unarmed black men being shot by law enforcement is an incredible divisive issue, and Thomas embraces the many factions and facets of the situation. She asks her readers to privately consult their own inner bias and determine for themselves the best possible outcome when there is little chance for a happy ending.

Starr Carter is not your average girl from the “ghetto”. The first thing that sets her apart is her strong family bonds. Starr is lucky enough to have a male role model in her life; her father is a proud black man who firmly believes that the only way to save his community from gangs and drugs is if people stick around and work together. Thomas does not play down the fact that Starr lives in a dangerous neighborhood; she lost her best friend in a drive-by shooting at age nine. Now sixteen, she is tired of hearing gun shots every night. But there is also a life and a spirit to Starr’s community, people help one another and give what they can to those who are less fortunate. This isn’t some Mad Max style wasteland ruled by constant warfare. The people of Garden Heights have known a lot of hard times, but they stick together and try to make the best with what they have. Too often the ghetto is depicted as a gray and crumbling area where everyone has ties to criminal activity. Thomas instead shows a more human side to the wrong side of the tracks.

“I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve Tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.
Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.”

Another thing that makes Starr unique among her peers is that her parents send her to an expensive private school where she is one of the only students of color. Some of the most interesting aspects of The Hate U Give is when Starr describes her own split personalities. There is “Ghetto Starr” who uses slang and knows how to survive on the tough streets of Garden Heights. Then there is “Williamson Starr”, a girl who makes sure never to use slang, has a white boyfriend and all white friends, and listens to Taylor Swift. Starr is walking a constant tight-rope trying to be black enough for her black friends but not too black for her white friends.

The Hate U Give takes a lot of the important points of the police brutality issue and runs at them headlong. This novel has the potential to make a lot of people uncomfortable, but it is the kind of discomfort that leads to personal growth. And while it did get a little overtly preachy towards the end, I would definitely recommend this book. Perhaps it would help in opening up a dialogue between the opposing forces on this tragic issue.

My rating; 4.5/5

You can find The Hate U Give here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Kingdom of Ash (ToG #7) by Sarah J. Maas (2018)

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Review #103

The long-awaited conclusion to Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series, Kingdom of Ash sees Aelin and her friends risking everything they have to fight against the dark armies of Morath and the vicious Queen Maeve. Effort was made to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but some key plot points may be revealed.

Aelin has risked everything to save her people―but at a tremendous cost. Locked within an iron coffin by the Queen of the Fae, Aelin must draw upon her fiery will as she endures months of torture. Aware that yielding to Maeve will doom those she loves keeps her from breaking, though her resolve begins to unravel with each passing day.

For her final installment, bestselling fantasy author Sarah J. Maas wants to make sure that she harnesses every available drop of tension and substance from the world she has worked so long to build. I commented in an earlier post that the first installment of ToG felt rather flat and one-dimensional, with the heroine boasting about her prowess a hell of a lot more than demonstrating it. In the six books following Throne of Glass, the world of Erilea has taken on sharp definition and an emotional weight that builds satisfyingly to a final conclusion.

As always, Maas gets major props for having a diverse cast of kick-ass female heroines at the forefront of her novel. Aelin’s journey comes full circle here, and the readers have been with her for so long as she struggled towards her destiny that to see her reaching her potential was a wonderful moment. Maas has a tendency to use very dramatic writing when narrating Aelin’s point of view. It gives the proceedings a very operatic feeling, but occasionally goes too far to where it begins to feel like self-parody. The character arcs of other important female figures such as Elide and Manon Blackbeak are also brought to a satisfying conclusion.

As strong as all these characters are, Maas certainly does make sure that they are all happily settled in their committed, monogamous, heterosexual relationships by the end of the novel. I wasn’t necessarily bothered by the very traditional “happily ever afters”, but I definitely did notice that the plot would not allow for such-and-such characters to end up apart from one another. It ended up giving the final climactic scenes a predictable feel, since I knew that any of these matched-up characters would not be permitted to die.

At nearly one thousand pages, the rising action of this novel encompasses nearly two-thirds of the book’s length. There are periods when Kingdom of Ash spins its wheels a bit, and feels the need to check it with various characters even when there is no new information to report. It takes nearly seven hundred pages for all of the main characters to finally get together, which gives the middle section a bloated feel, like some of the slower episodes of Game of Thrones.

Overall, I have fully enjoyed my time in Erilea. These novels aren’t perfect but they’re a lot of fun and creative addition to the YA fantasy genre. I continue looking forward to reading more from Sarah J. Maas.

Full disclosure: I skipped Tower of Dawn, the sixth installment in the ToG series. I didn’t want to spent six hundred pages with Chaol, who I always thought was completely boring. I did not regret my decision, and was able to follow the plot of Kingdom of Ash without difficulty.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Kingdom of Ash as well as the rest of the Throne of Glass novels here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book vs Film: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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Earlier this year, I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (GLPPPS) and fell in love with its lively, romantic spirit and quirky characters. When I heard that they were making this novel into a film starring Jessica Findlay Brown, I was eager to see how they translated a plot consisting only of letters into a cohesive narrative. A few days ago I finally got the catch to see director Mike Newell’s 2018 interpretation of GLPPPS. In no particular order, here are my thoughts on the film versus the novel. I will try to keep it as spoiler-free as possible but my give away certain plot points.

1. This film is a Downton Abbey reunion.  Part of the reason I was so excited to see this movie was that at least four of the main characters were involved with Downton Abbey, my favorite drama about rich British people chatting. Lily James, who plays bright-young-thing Rose on Downton appears here as Juliet Ashton, the writer and book lover who is first drawn to the story of the book club on Guernsey. Jessica Findlay Brown is Elizabeth McKenna, the popular but mysteriously absent creator of the club. Penelope Wilton (also from Doctor Who) is a grief-stricken widow and Matthew Goode is Juliet’s friend and publisher. The sight of all these comfortingly familiar faces helps to ground GLPPPS in its historical time period.

2. Lily James is strangely flat in her role. One of the most engaging parts of the novel is Juliet Ashton’s sincere love of books and literature. She is fully capable of defending her opinion on the relevant styles and thoughts of the day, but does so with such cheerfulness that she never comes across as schoolmarmish. Lily James, who was so bubbly and joyful in Downton Abbey and Disney’s 2015 live-action Cinderella, never comes across as a great lover of reading. Juliet Ashton’s infectious curiosity is also missing, and her eventual spontaneous journal to Guernsey happens almost as a lark rather as a deliberate decision to learn more about the lives of the people there. James seems unable to commit to the more dramatic elements of the plot as well, almost as if she is afraid of looking less than pretty.

3. Jessica Findlay Brown is tragically underused. I understand that Brown’s character doesn’t appear in person during the events of GLPPPS. She is a memory, a reference, a figure in a funny or sad story. Despite that, in the book she always felt so full of life, a bright spot in a dark world that everyone remembers with a mixture of joy and pain. This story belongs to Elizabeth McKenna as much as it does to Juliet Ashton. In the film, she is just demoted to just one of many quirky characters that inhabit flashbacks and whispered stories. Her daughter is supposed to be a turning point in the plot, but is instead relegated to a side note in the film. For an actress as beautiful and talented as Brown, I thought director Mike Newell would find a way to make her shine.

4. The film looks absolutely stunning. Though it was shot in parts of Devon, Bristol, and London instead of Guernsey, the harsh rocky landscape of coastal Britain is always breathtaking to look at. The time period is also accurately portrayed, and the attention to detail on the costumes and props is of the impeccable quality usually found in British historical dramas.

5. The beginning of the film attempts to pay homage to the letter-writing style of the book, but doesn’t quite pull it off. During the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, Lily James’ Juliet Ashton is exchanging letters with Dawsey Adams, a farmer on Guernsey played by Michael Huisman. The movie accomplishes this through use of narrative voice-over and long shots of James curled up in various armchairs, reading letters while drinking tea. Although I appreciated that Newell wanted to include a nod to the letter exchanges of the novel, but it came across as a bit too obvious. Especially when it ends abruptly during the first act and is never revisited.

Overall, I thought the film did a good job of capturing the main plot points and historical details of GLPPPS, but a little bit of the novel’s heart was lost in translation. Given it’s almost complete lack of publicity or marketing, I wonder if the studio didn’t see that as well.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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Review #102

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains of North America.

Everyone loves a good post-apocalyptic novel! Station Eleven has been on my to-read list for over a year and I finally got a chance to read it after finishing my 100th book review last week.

The first thing I enjoyed about this novel was that Emily St. John Mandel has taken pains to ground her apocalypse firmly in the real world. This is not The Walking Dead where gasoline never goes bad and everyone has perfectly tweezed eyebrows. The merry troupe of the Traveling Symphony is unwashed and their horse-drawn caravan is worn. Young people are growing up hearing about extinct and mythic wonders such as electricity and internet.

The added element of the twisting, meandering timeline works well in Station Eleven, giving the scenes set in the past a dreamy, nostalgic feel. Since the main plot revolves around a character who dies in the first chapter, we view him from a multitude of perspectives. The people whose lives the actor touched weave together and interlock throughout the novel.

In a way, this was the most loving post-apocalyptic novel I’ve ever read. Not necessarily in the romantic sense, but in the way that Mandel paints such a sentimental portrait of everyday items. Characters often glance longingly at light switches, air conditioners, and iPhones and I found myself appreciating all the many small conveniences that my small apartment affords me.

Most end-of-the-world novels have some sort of all-powerful antagonist that has driven humanity to the brink of extinction. Nuclear weapons, zombies, aliens have all played this role in the past. Station Eleven felt very different because it lacked a primary villain. The closest thing to a looming threat would be a cult of religious fanatics lead by a power-hungry prophet, but even they lack any real sense of menace. Almost as if the events of Stephen King’s The Stand had occurred without the dueling battling between Good and Evil. As if Randall Flagg had never walked the Earth and instead the lonely remnants of a barren new world live by one simple motivation. Survival is insufficient.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Station Eleven here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake (2011)

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Review #101

For a high-schooler, Cas Lockwood has an unusual after-school job. He tracks down and kills ghosts, like his father before him. Folklore and rumors have brought Cas, his mother, and their ghost-detecting cat to Thunder Bay, Ontario to hunt down a spirit known as Anna Dressed in Blood.

I found the exposition and rising action of Anna Dressed in Blood to be wonderfully fun and creepy. Cas operates a bit like a one-man Winchester brother, roaming from small town to small town across North America in pursuit of evil spirits and malicious ghosts. Instead of a cool and competent older brother, Cas instead travels with his mother, who insists on cleaning his demon-killing knife after he returns home every evening from battling the undead.

Cas also evokes a memory of Buffy, in that he is often accompanied by his faithful Scooby Gang. There’s the newly hatched witch, the beautiful but down-to- earth popular girl, her testosterone-driven boyfriend, and the wise teacher who shows them the way. Despite all this, Anna Dressed in Blood managed to avoid feeling like a tired re-tread of old themes, but was often fresh and funny. Unlike some novels I have reviewed for this site, Kendare Blake understands how teenagers speak and act amongst themselves, which gives this novel a grounding in reality as a comfortable jumping-off point into the paranormal.

I went into this book expecting a ghost story, and I guess that’s what I got. The Supernatural vibe dies off after the first hundred pages or so, and is replaced by a rather generic “catch the monster” second act which plays it pretty much by-the-numbers. I enjoyed the overall writing style, but ultimately it failed to as expected. Namely, to scare me.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Anna Dressed in Blood here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (2018)

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Review #100

In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor on the banks of the Upper Thames. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.

Kate Morton has been on my shortlist of favorite authors since I first discovered The Forgotten Garden way back in 2011. All of her novels merge historical fiction with mystery, often spanning decades and generations. Morton stays true to form with her latest novel, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, and manages to throw in a few surprises along the way.

Morton loves writing about crumbling English manor homes and her settings often serve as characters unto themselves. The majority of The Clockmaker’s Daughter takes place in isolated and empty Birchwood Manor, but far from the gloomy, neglected halls that characterized Morton’s The Distant Hours, Birchwood is haunted by a ghost of a different sort. The presence which roams the halls of Birchwood Manor is filled with curiosity and kindness for the occasional visitors that come to her home, which has been turned into a museum and historical site. When a new visitor by the name of Elodie Winslow turns up looking for answers that lead back to a long ago summer when a group of artists descended upon the manor, the spirit of Birchwood Manor realizes that secrets are about to be uncovered that have been buried for centuries.

The wonderful thing about Kate Morton’s writing is that it flows so smoothly from time period to time period. The bulk of the narrative follows a group of young artists who venture into the country for a summer of nature and inspiration. The technological and social changes that embody Victorian England are present here; it was interesting to read about the introduction of photography, which would bring about major changes to the art world as the popularity of portraiture faded.

The rest of the novel is set in the present day. It is partly narrated by Elodie, a young archivist who stumbles upon a sketchbook that has been hidden away for decades. The spirit of Birchwood Manor has its own voice as well, detailing the events that have occurred in the house in the long years since its arrival. This is the first novel by Morton to contain a solid supernatural element. There were whispers of fairies and magic in some of her previous works, but the ghost in The Clockmaker’s Daughter is a defined presence with real wishes and desires.

If I had a critique of this novel, it would be the title. While one of the main characters is the daughter of a clockmaker, that fact has no real bearing on the overall storyline. Too many novels are “The _____’s Daughter” or “The _____’s Wife”. It is often is used in fiction to give a different perspective on historical events; however, it is unnecessary in this case. Instead it serves to undermine a strong female character by forcing her to be named only under the title of a male who is not even terribly relevant to the plot. It just felt lazy.

Overall, this was another highly enjoyable novel by a woman who remains at the top of my list for favorite authors. My only disappointment is that I have to settle in for a long wait until her next novel.

My Rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Clockmaker’s Daughter here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!