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

Image result for the clockmakers daughter

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!

 

Book Review: The Terror by Dan Simmons (2007)

Image result for terror dan simmons

Review #98

In 1845, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror departed from England with one hundred and twenty-nine men on a three-year expedition to finally discover the illusive Northwest Passage. The leader, Captain John Franklin, had previously served on three Arctic expeditions, and was the commanding officer on two. Laden down with years worth of food, oil, and coal, the two ships were the pinnacle of British shipbuilding technology.

Both ships became trapped in the ice near King William Island in the winter of 1846. They never moved again. There were no survivors.

Dan Simmons blends historical fiction and horror to recreate the final years of the doomed Franklin expedition, and adds in a supernatural twist. The endless dark and freezing cold of the pack ice is home to a creature of terrifying size and intelligence that is stalking the men in the endless night of Arctic winter.

Simmons treats the environment surrounding Terror as a living thing, constantly growling and shifting to create sudden upthrusts and hidden crevices.  The polar region is one of the most unforgiving places on the Earth, and it is immediately apparent that Franklin and his crew are out of their depths. The ever-moving ice remains implacable in the face of their modern British inventions. After months pass trapped in ice, a summer passes without an escape route emerging. Food rations begin to run low, and mutterings of mutiny can be heard belowdecks. The beast on the ice quickly becomes the least of their worries.

My only negative issue with The Terror is its length. Nearly seven hundred pages is a long time to read about ice. Simmons occasionally becomes repetitive; there are only so many ways to detail a group of people with sinking morale and empty bellies. I enjoyed his use of multiple perspectives, but some of the voices didn’t serve a purpose in furthering the overall plot.

I find myself liking The Terror more in retrospect than I did while actually reading it. I found the length and some of the more meandering narratives a bit frustrating at the time, but I keep finding myself thinking about the fate of the HMS Terror and the horrible conditions that these sailors found themselves unable to escape. This will be a novel that I’ll remember on cold winter nights.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Terror here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (2008)

Image result for winter sea book

Review #87

Carrie McClelland comes to the tiny Scottish village to write about Slains, the local castle that played an important role in the Jacobite uprising of 1708. Carrie hopes to use the crumbling ruins in a historical fiction novel she is writing, but ends up writing a completely different kidn of book when she finds herself overwhelmed by someone else’s memories.

Nineteen-year old Sophia Paterson comes to Slains castle after her parents die on a sailing voyage. She finds safety and comfort with her aunt, the Countess, who is playing an active role in bringing the exiled King of Scotland back from France. Sophia finds herself embroiled in a plot that is doomed to fail.

This is my first novel by acclaimed author Susanna Kearsley, and I can see why she is so popular. Her writing style is comfortable and familiar, and she incorporates complicated historical elements in a way that is easy to understand. It is obvious that she has done a great deal of research on the Jacobite uprising and the castle of Slains. I can certainly say that I now know a lot more about the deposed King James II and those who sought to restore him to the throne than I did before reading this novel.

Generally, when an author splits the plot of the book between two characters in different time periods, one of them is going to be more well-developed than the other. That ends up being the case here, as the novel-within-a-novel that is Sophia’s story is far more interesting than Carrie’s plotline. I think Kearsley even began to understand that, since after The Winter Sea hits the halfway mark less and less time is devoted to Carrie’s narrative.

The descriptions of the harshly beautiful Scottish coastline poked my inner travel bug pretty hard. Might have to start looking into a trip to Northern Scotland. Perhaps I’ll stop by Slains castle while I’m there.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Winter Sea here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Note: This novel was later released under the title Sophia’s Secret. No idea why as The Winter Sea is a much better name.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Gods of Howl Mountain (2018)

Image result for gods of howl mountain

Review #86

 

After losing a leg fighting in the Korean War, Rory Docherty returns to the isolated mountain of his birth and continues running bootleg whiskey and trying to out-maneuver the federal agents who are determined to crack down on illegal alcohol. His grandmother Maybelline spends her days mixing potions and herbal remedies for the local townspeople. When Rory meets the daughter of a snake-charming preacher, he finds himself falling in love. But Maybelline Docherty is against the match for reasons that she refuses to admit.

Taylor Brown has a wonderfully descriptive writing style that draws his readers into the world of his creation. The isolated people who live in the hills of Appalachia exist in a society that refuses to conform to modernity even today. In the days following the Korean War, many of the mountain people had little to do with outsiders and instead lived, loved, and died without ever venturing into the larger world. Brown describes the wild and untamed nature of the mountains with a deft hand. His use of metaphor and imagery describe a harshly dangerous world that only a strong and hardy few would chose to live in.

Unfortunately, the characters that Brown places into this beautiful and well-defined world have all the intensity and vigor of a brown paper sack. I felt very little towards Rory because his thoughts, dreams, and desires are never clearly defined. We know he is haunted by memories of the Korean War because Brown tells us he is. But I never felt his pain or his fear. We know he becomes entranced by the preacher’s daughter because the words are written, but I never felt that spark of passion that accompanies the first days of love. His rivalry with a fellow bootlegger and his relationship towards his mentally ill mother are equally uneven.

If you asked me to summarize Gods of Howl Mountain, it would take me a few minutes to remember anything significant about the plot. It simply didn’t leave much of an impression. I do remember a feeling of relief when I finally finished the book.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Gods of Howl Mountain here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Mermaid by Christina Henry (2018)

Image result for christina henry the mermaid

Review #85

Once upon a time there was a mermaid who was curious about the lives of men. One day she swam too close to shore, and was trapped in a net by a fisherman. Moved by her alien beauty, the fisherman released the mermaid back into the sea. But the mermaid, entranced by the loneliness in the eyes of the fisherman, used an ancient magic to give herself legs and join the fisherman on land. He named her Amelia and together they lived a long and happy life, until the day came when the fisherman went out to sea and didn’t come back. Isolated in her small cabin on a cliffside, Amelia spends her days watching the sea and missing the fisherman. Many years pass, until another man comes into her life. A man by the name of P.T. Barnum.

Christina Henry has published several revisionist fairy tales, included Lost Boy which I reviewed earlier this year. I would describe her latest novel, The Mermaid, as a re-imagining of the classic story of a mermaid who dreams of life on land. The plot of The Mermaid bares almost zero resemblance to the original Danish fairy tale, choosing instead to follow its own path to 19th century New York City.

The opening of The Mermaid reads very much like a classic fairy tale, with very little dialogue and an omniscient narrator who constructs a sweet and believable love story between a mermaid and a fisherman. The rest of the novel switches to a more modern narrative with the mermaid Amelia as its heroine, a creature who is older and stranger than anyone around her realizes. Christina Henry does a wonderful job of portraying Amelia has inhuman but not inhumane. She has difficulty identifying with those around her but is filled with empathy for the everyday struggles of the people she encounters in New York.

If The Mermaid is lacking anything, it’s a solid antagonist. Because Henry has grounded her story away from its Danish roots, Amelia never makes a deal with a vengeful sea witch. There is no pressing time limit for her to win her true love and remain human. The nearest thing to a villain is P.T. Barnum as the immoral collector of freaks and oddities, but even he is presented as distasteful and greedy rather than actively monstrous.

So far I have enjoyed both of Christina Henry’s novels. I love the imaginative way she transports her readers to another time and place. Her writing is captivating and begs to be read. I’ll keep my eyes open for her next fairy tale interpretation.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Mermaid here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015)

Image result for the nightingale by kristin hannah

Review #82

Sisters Vianne and Isabelle Mauriac have a strained relationship. Isabelle feels that Vianne abandoned her to a series of convent school and a life of loneliness after the death of their mother. Vianne, still mourning a series of miscarriages, feels that Isabelle is reckless and never stops to think about how her actions may affects others. In a quiet French town in 1940, both sisters are put to the test as the Nazis edge ever closer to the French borders. Vianne believes that France will never fall, and is determined to quietly live and raise her daughter. Rebellious Isabelle longs for a chance to contribute to the war effort. The following years will test their bond, their morality, and their desire for survival.

Earlier this year I read and reviewed Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, and immediately fell in love with her writing style and her focus on relationships and the importance of family. I had heard a lot of good things about The Nightingale and was eager to read another book by this author.

There are dozens of novels published every year that deal with World War II and its aftermath. The Nightingale earns its place in the upper echelons of the genre, but ultimately it has to compete with the likes of All the Light We Cannot See and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and sadly it falls a little short. There simply isn’t anything new or surprising presented by this novel. It felt as if Kristin Hannah had a checklist of “Nazi Atrocities” that she was gradually ticked off as she wrote. The things endured by the Mauriac sisters somehow seem obligatory rather than organic.

The novel occasionally includes chapters that are set in the United States in the 1990’s. One of the Mauriac sisters, now elderly and fragile, contemplates returning to France to confront her past and honor the sacrifices made. These chapters are utterly unnecessary and were obviously put there to lead up to a “twist” that lacked any sort of punch.

This novel has been so highly recommended by so many people that perhaps I went in with expectations that were impossible to fulfill. Ultimately, I enjoyed The Nightingale, but apparently not as much as others.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: One Thousand White Woman by Jim Fergus (1999)

Image result for one thousand white women

Review #67

In order to solve the increasingly violent clashes between the United States government and the Native American tribes of the Black Hills, a radical solution is proposed. The Cheyenne are a matrilineal society, meaning that the children belong to their mother’s tribe. The United States asks for volunteer women to marry into the Cheyenne, becoming part of their culture while also trying to introduce Western values within the Native Americans. May Dodd, who has spent a year wrongfully committed to a mental institution, joins a group of women volunteers venturing into the untamed prairies of the Midwest in hopes of finding a new and better life among the “savages”.

It’s clear that author Jim Fergus did an extensive amount of research on the time period and the Cheyenne people prior to writing this novel. Their language and culture are well represented in One Thousand White Woman. He represents the Cheyenne as a people with both good and bad aspects, and thankfully manages to avoid the “noble savage” trope. This is not Dances with Wolves, where the Native Americans are represented as being in perfect and peaceful communion with nature and their fellow man. The Cheyenne are capable of stunning violence as well as loving relationships, just like every society that has ever existed on Earth.

Since the Native Americans are presented as rather primitive I kept waiting for my other least favorite stereotype to rear its ugly head, that of the “white savior”. Also easily recognized in Dances With Wolves, the white savior brings logic and reasoning to a group of people who would would be utterly lost without them. I was pleasantly stunned to see that Fergus somehow evades this pitfall as well. The white woman are looking to be saved more than they are looking to save the Native Americans. Most of them have volunteered for the “Brides for Indian” program to escape horrible circumstances, and have little interest in converting their new husbands to a Westernized system of thinking. The few women that are depicted as attempting to convert or manipulate their Native husbands are seen as an annoying menace.

Considering that Fergus somehow managed to walk the incredibly thin tightrope between cliches, I thought I’d enjoy this book more than I actually did. However, there were a few problems with his writing style that took away nearly all my enjoyment from One Thousand White Women. The first is the Fergus seems to have been trying to break the world record for number of extraneous commas in a novel. This could be something that no one else notices and just annoys me, since I spend an above average amount of time correcting English grammar.

The second thing I found increasingly maddening was how Fergus chose to write his dialogue. He made the decision to italicize any words that are in an English dialect. For example:

“No you don’t, suh, you do not so much as touch my Feeern Louuuuise. Evah. You heah me? Nevah, evah do you lay a finger on my darlindawg

Ya’ve come to the right place, if you’re looking for remote, Broother Anthony that’s for shooore,” said Meggie Kelly greeting the fellow. “Me an’ Susie are a couple a good Catholic gooorls ourselves. An’ we’re ‘appy to ‘aveya along – right Susie?”

Is is just me, or is that the most infuriatingly distracting way to write dialogue? It annoyed me just to type it. Reading this book gave me an active headache, and towards the end of the novel I just started skipping sections that contained italics out of sheer spite. Had I known what I was in for, I would read this book on my eReader, which lacks the ability to italicize words. Although that still would have left the ridiculous drawn out vowels…

It’s rare that such small things are able to detract so greatly from my enjoyment of a book. But both of these issues were so prevalent and obvious that, despite its virtues,  I nearly put One Thousand White Women back on the shelf without finishing it.

My rating: 2/5

You can find One Thousand White Women here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen (2018)

Image result for alison weir jane seymourReview #58

The third wife of King Henry VIII, Jane Seymour was the Queen of England for barely more than a year. Having served in the court of both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Jane saw the fall of both women when they failed to deliver an heir for their King. She was widely praised for her virtue and devout Catholic faith, and clung to her religion even as Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church. She died of complications following childbirth at only twenty-eight years old. Renowned historical biographer Alison Weir writes a fictionalized account of Jane Seymour’s life as seen through her eyes.

This is the third installment in Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series. I’ve read and enjoyed the previous novels, and was interested to see how Weir proceeded after the tumultuous and widely documented reigns of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Not nearly as much is known about the life of Jane Seymour, given that she was married to King Henry for a mere eighteen months. I was surprised, therefore, when I picked this book up from the library to find out that it was nearly six hundred pages long.

How do you write a six hundred page fictional biography on a woman’s life that is not well documented? Turns out, you add an insane amount of extraneous detail, milk any morsel of archival evidence, and generally drag things out far longer than is necessary. Reading Jane Seymour felt like an exercise in extreme patience at times, since Weir seems to be striving for a nearly day-by-day record of Jane Seymour’s life during leading up to an including the death of Anne Boleyn.

I think part of the problem is that of all Henry VII’s wives, Jane Seymour is the least interesting. The letters and documents that mention her all describe her as “devout” and “pious”. She was not well-educated like the two queens who came before her, so we simply don’t know if she had strong opinions on anything other than her Catholic faith. And because Jane is defined by her religious devotion, she makes for a rather nondescript character. She lacks the fierce fight and devotion of Katherine of Aragorn, or the wild chaos and manipulative personality of Anne Boleyn. She is simply plain Jane. Weir seems to  understand this, and a great deal of her novel is focused on Katherine and Anne’s tumultuous and historical battle for control of the King. At times, Jane feels like a supporting character in her own narrative.

Jane’s primary character traits are her devotion and her dutifulness. She never seems to take any initiative in deciding her own fate, instead allowing others to take agency over her future. I had to fight the urge to begin taking tally of the amount of times Jane is described as “lowering her eyes” when others are discussing key religious or political ideals. The emotion she seems to convey the most strongly is pious indignation over the sins of others. Which doesn’t make for a terribly interesting protagonist. Instead, Jane feels for all the world like that one coworker we’ve all encountered who smugly informs you that your various sins have condemned you to hell.

I’ve read several of Alison Weir’s books, both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve always appreciated her attention to detail and her dedication to research. The Tudors and their court are often sensationalized as a historical Harlequin romance novel or a medieval soap opera. Weir grounds her novels in historical fact, even if this means that some of the sex appeal is lost. She does her best with the third wife of Henry VII, but ultimately there isn’t enough research available to maintain the narrative. I wonder why she felt the need to make this novel six hundred pages long, when half that length would have told the story equally well.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn (2017)

Image result for the alice network

Review #57

Nineteen year old Charlie St. Clair arrives in London in 1947 with a mission. During the chaos of WWII her cousin Rose vanished somewhere in France, and Charlie is determined to find her. Adding to her troubles is the fact that Charlie is pregnant, unmarried, and struggling to gain independence from her high-society family. Her one clue leads her to the door of Eve Gardiner, a former spy-turned-drunk with twisted hands and a foul mouth. When Charlie turns up with a name from Eve’s path on her lips, the two women set off on a journey to find out the truth, no matter the consequences.

This was my first novel by acclaimed historical fiction writer Kate Quinn, and I can definitely see why she is so popular. In The Alice Network, Kate focuses her story on two women from wildly different backgrounds who find themselves asked to fight for what they want in life. She alternates between Charlie’s narrative in 1947, and Eve’s as she begins her career as a spy in the French city of Lille at the onset of the first World War.

In 1915, Eve is recruited by the British Army to infiltrate a restaurant owned by a war profiteer. Seen by others to be of limited intelligence due to her stutter, she is exhilarated to be given a chance to contribute to the war effort in a meaningful way. Her starry-eyed innocence is a radical change from the Eve Gardiner of 1945. Since we as readers already know from the onset that things are not going to end well, this creates an atmosphere of heightened suspense that drives Eve’s narrative forward with the force of locomotive.

Unfortunately, this does tend to make Charlie’s passages pale in comparison. Not that her story isn’t compelling, but it simply cannot hold a candle to the pathos evoked by the unraveling of Eve’s past. Also, Charlie’s quest for her cousin often feels a bit like a red herring. Quinn needed her characters to come together with a combined sense of purpose, and the search for Rose gives them that; but it often feels like little more than  plot device. Since the reader is unacquainted with Rose except through Charlie’s eyes, her potential predicament is incapable of inspiring a similar level of intensity to Eve’s.

The treatment of women during WWI and WWII is a central focus of The Alice Network. One of Eve’s fellow spies is based on the true story of Louise de Bettignies, a Belgian spy who helped pass essential information to the Allies from German-occupied France. One of the reasons that de Bettignies was able to succeed in her position for so long was that no one thought that a woman had any invested interest in the war, nor the courage to undergo the dangers inherent in espionage. Louise and those like her were able to pass valuable information by appearing silly and foolish. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. I found myself enraged early in the novel when Charlie was unable to withdraw her own finances from a bank without permission from her father, and later when a sleazy pawn broker attempts to take advantage of her unmarried status. One of the main themes presented in this book is how women can use the ignorance of those around them to overcome their difficulties, and also how women often need to ignore the social strictures of the previous generations if they hope to achieve their goals.

I truly enjoyed this novel, and would definitely recommend it to fans of the historical fiction genre. I will be on the lookout for more novels by Kate Quinn.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Alice Network here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

Book Review: The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman (2018)

Image result for the home for unwanted girls

Review #49

 

When she discovers that she is pregnant, fifteen year old Maggie Hughes finds herself trapped by the expectations of her parents and the rigid Catholicism of her small Quebec town. She is forced to give up her baby to an orphanage, thereby surrendering all legal rights to her infant daughter, Elodie. When the the French-Canadian government seeks to funnel more money into the Catholic church by turning all Quebec orphanages into mental asylums, Elodie is labeled as mentally deficient and is effectively committed to a life of brutality and neglect.

I had no idea going into this novel that it was historical fiction, and I became increasingly horrified as I learned that the events described in The Home for Unwanted Girls are based in reality. In the 1950’s the provincial government, led by staunch Catholic governor Maurice Duplessis, was highly reliant on the Church for most of its social welfare programs. Upon discovering that more federal funds were being allocated towards the care of mental patients than towards orphans, his reaction was to reassign all orphanages in Quebec as insane asylums. The children, who were already considered an unwanted burden on society due to the fact that the majority of them were born out of wedlock, were falsely labeled as suffering from mental illnesses. They were no longer allowed to go to school, and there were widespread reports of physical, mental, and sexual abuse by the doctors and nuns running the mental asylums. These practices were discovered in the 1960’s, but the Catholic Church has never admitted or apologized for its actions. (Wiki)

Author Joanna Goodman, a native of Montreal, does not shy away from the dark history surrounding this time period. The situation of Maggie and her daughter is one of incarceration. Maggie is trapped by the social structures of the time period, she is never asked if she wants to keep her child and she is denied all legal rights to her daughter after she is born. The child, Elodie, is a victim of a terrible crime. As she grows older and begins to question the system that does not seem to care for her or any of the other motherless children, she is met with violence, lies, and derision. The nuns see Elodie as a product of sin, and treat her as such. Modern supporters of the Catholic Church will have a difficult time reading this novel.

As heart-wrenching as the passages from Elodie’s perspective were, I wish there had been more of them. Of the approximately four hundred pages, I would estimate that only one hundred or so were devoted to telling Elodie’s story. The rest are given over to her mother, Maggie, as she attempts to reconcile her past with her future. This is not to say that Maggie’s story is not compelling, it just feels that a book entitled The Home for Unwanted Girls would spend more time with the girl who is told she is unwanted.

Good historical fiction can be just as useful as a nonfiction history book in teaching us about a specific time and place. Joanna Goodman’s novel did just that, it sparked my curiosity and encouraged me to learn more about the the “asylum orphanages” of Quebec. I later spoke with a friend of mine, a Canadian Catholic whose ancestors came from French Canada, if he had ever heard of the events described in this novel. He had absolutely no idea. Perhaps this time period is being left out of the history books, in which case, The Home for Unwanted Girls is certainly an eye opener.

Sometimes it feels as though nearly all historical fiction novels are centered around either the second World War or the British monarchy. It was a refreshing change of pace to encounter a story set in a time period that I was unfamiliar with. I definitely came away from Joanna Goodman’s novel feeling as thought I’d learned about something important.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!