Unabridged Chick

I'm Audra, a 30-something married lesbian. I love interesting heroines, gorgeous prose, place as character, and the occasional werewolf.

Underwhelming

A Triple Knot - Emma Campion

While most of the bloggers on this tour enjoyed A Triple Knot, I'm sad to say I did not.  Despite the focus on a little-fictionalized royal -- medieval Joan of Kent, cousin of the King, Edward III and eventual spouse of Edward of Woodstock, aka the Black Prince -- I was a bit bored by this plot-and-action heavy novel. 

Set between 1338 and 1361, the novel follows the famous "fair" Joan of Kent -- and sadly, she was the heart of my problem with this novel.  Her biggest claim to fame is her beauty, but Campion also paints her as relentlessly good.  Dominated by her bratty, cruel cousin, Ned (as Edward is styled), who is obsessed with marrying her, Joan instead boldly marries -- at 12! -- a man twice her age.  When her family learns of her marriage, their cold response is to declare her marriage a invalid and marry her to another man.  Ned is relentless in his abusive attentions, and powerful figures in English and foreign courts jockey to minimize her power.

So much salacious excitement, yet reading more than half of the book (290 pages) was an exhausting effort.  Campion's narrative style has a kind of distance to it that made me feel disconnected from the characters.  Additionally, our heroine felt static to me: Joan was a naive, overly kind child who never grew out of her passive desire to please everyone and worse, despite the twenty year story arc, she sounded the same on the first page and the 200th page.

Still there were deft and interesting characters and interactions: Joan's rival, so to speak, an experienced courtier, treats Joan with a measure of kindness as she privately advocates to keep Joan from marrying -- or being seduced -- by an older man. Even though she's envious of Joan's connection with a handsome knight, she still offers to help Joan and the knight be public with their relationship.  (I found her more interesting than Joan, sadly!)

As for extras, my review copy only contained a skimpy cast list -- just the royal English family -- and a brief Author's Note detailing some of Campion's choices for her Joan. 

Sarah Johnson of Reading the Past has a fabulous review of this book for those tempted but unsure based on my review.  This one just didn't click with me -- I'll admit to being a bit mushbrained at this point in my pregnancy -- so if you're intrigued by Joan, medieval English aristocracy, or the Black Prince, consider this one.

Creepy, atmospheric, and very weird.

Annihilation - Jeff VanderMeer

I don't always read speculative fiction, but when I do... Okay, that's a wicked lame start, but seriously, I feel like I need to qualify my review. I'm not much for "weird" fiction -- I can be very impatient and/or lazy when it comes to elaborate world-building or well, weirdness -- but now and then I enjoy something, well, odd. 

I've long been a VanderMeer fan because his novels have plenty of oddity along with some delicious narrative description and fabulously unforgettable characters. (His Veniss Underground -- a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth -- is a desert island pick of mine.

In this slender, gripping novel -- the first of a trilogy (sorry!) -- VanderMeer creates a world like ours with one outstanding difference: thirty years ago, some event literally reshaped part of the country, and Area X (as the place is now known) is a wild, "pristine" uninhabited preserve closed off by the government. Mostly forgotten by the public, Area X is an unsolved mystery still as there has been no successful expedition into the space: one expedition had all its members kill themselves; another where they murdered each other. The most recent one had members return without notice only to die of aggressive cancers. 

Our narrator is a biologist who is part of the twelfth expedition. The novel is her diary from the expedition, and in it she recounts what she knows of Area X. From the first handful of pages, we're plunged into a creepy world where even the other expedition members can't be trusted and our guide, the biologist, carefully parses out details as she sees fit.

As with his other books, VanderMeer's imaginative and poetic narrative style is seen here, too; despite the biologist's dry and pragmatic approach to her job, the events she witnesses and the landscape around her defy neat prose, and there are passages that feel nearly feverish, they're so wild and linguistically fancy. There's delicious tension, plenty of creepiness, and a brisk plot that has one racing to find out what is next.

I adored this novel and read it one night -- a rarity for me since getting pregnant! -- and I immediately got -- and inhaled -- the second book, Authority. (Review coming soon.) I'm on tenterhooks for the final book, Acceptance, which doesn't come out until September.

The publisher has the first chapter posted online for those who are curious; if you like survivalist stories, strange happenings, government conspiracies, and movies like Prometheus or shows likeLost, consider giving this one a read.

Shocked that my wait for the library's copy of The Miniaturist ended after mere days -- so I'm taking it as a sign from the universe I can put off unpacking to read.  I mean, I've only at 14 days to finish this thing...!

Library cull
Library cull
Books gone!
Books gone!

We're moving to a smaller apartment and decided we had to cull our library.  In the end, we decided to part with more than 700 books (and trust me, we're still swimming in books!).  We sold most of my wife's grad school reading (about 200 books), and got friends to adopt another 200.  The rest were donated to a variety of places -- some local book clubs, a very avid reader from Freecycle, a literacy group, and a local library.  I'm so grateful they're gone, I'm not even sad any more about the cull!

Coming-of-age in the 1920s, Egypt, friendships, dads...

The Visitors - Sally Beauman

Real review to come someday but I just inhaled this one -- it's helped me stay out of my reading funk.  Emotional, interesting, with a 10-year-old narrator who feels authentic -- both observant and ignorant -- and enough historical details to make the setting -- 1920s Egypt and England -- feel worthwhile without being overdone.

Imaginative, gothic biopic of Edgar Allan Poe and Frances Osgood

Mrs. Poe - Lynn Cullen

Set between 1845 and 1847, this novel is narrated by Frances Osgood, a Boston blueblood who enraged her family when she eloped with a talented, but grasping, portraitist.  Abandoned now by her serial philanderer husband, she is living with friends as she struggles to make enough money from her writing to support herself and her two daughters.  

When she meets Edgar Allan Poe -- newly superfamous for his poem "The Raven" -- her life becomes more rich and more complicated as he helps her career and spurs intense passion.  Complicating things, however, is Poe's childlike wife, who is a mix of sweetness and vindictiveness that has Frances torn between guilt and anxiety.  

There's a juicy, gossipy feel to the world of 19th century New York literati that will inspire you to camp out on Wiki.  Cullen takes figures that popular culture seems to "know" and turns our perceptions of them on edge: Poe is Mr. McDreamy while Margaret Fuller comes off as a mere tabloid writer, hungry for money and headlines.  Louisa May Alcott is a flitting fangirl and Herman Melville is a pest to be waved off.  (Loyalists may dislike her imaginings, but even I, as a devoted Fuller and Alcott fan, found it fun to see my favs painted in a different light.)

Mixed into this cameo-laden fest are the atmospheric historical details that I love in hist fic, from hints about costume and dress, social behaviors, inventions and other industrial changes, and the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty.  

And while the love story didn't work for me (it's the rare romance sprung out of infidelity that can warm my heart!), I still greatly enjoyed the drama and atmosphere in Mrs. Poe.  The gothic overtones to the story harken back to the 19th century penny dreadful and echoes Poe's works, and make some of the credulity straining moments feel less outrageous.

This edition includes the entire text of Poe's "The Raven" as well as as a poem by Osgood, and a brief Author's Note. 

Perfect for summer, this is a great novel for longtime fans of Poe as well as those unfamiliar with him and his world.  It's eye-opening, a little provocative, and dramatic fun.   

Emotional hurricanes before the Galveston Hurricane of 1900

The Promise - Ann Weisgarber

In 2011 I read Weisgarber's fantastic debut, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree.  It was the kind of historical novel I adored -- unique setting and era, unbelievable heroine, fabulous historical detail.  It got tons of love (lots of wonderful prize nominations), and most recently, was praised at a writing class I took -- all for good reason.

Weisgarber's newest surpasses my love for Rachel Dupree. I'm in that flail-y, can't speak coherently kind of place with this review, so I'll just say this: read this book, stat!

Set in Galveston, Texas in 1900, ahead of the devastating hurricane, the novel follows two women loosely bound together by Oscar, a dairy farmer, and his five year-old son, Andre. Nan Ogden is a neighbor, a hearty woman asked by Andre's mother, on her deathbed, to care for him.  Devoted to the boy, and half in love with Oscar, Nan's unprepared and angry when he suddenly remarries.

Catherine Wainwright is from a monied Ohio family, college educated and gifted at piano. But she falls from grace (and society) when her affair with her crippled cousin's husband comes to light, and renews her acquaintance with Oscar, whom she knew when they were children.  Recently widowed, he proposes after a few letters, and she accepts with resignation that grows when she arrives in Galveston.

Despite the seeming love triangle set up, this isn't a novel about who wants who.  Instead, it's a book about family connections, secrets, obligations and the assumptions we make; Weisgarber describes an emotional storm ahead of the very real hurricane we know is coming.   

The descriptions of place are just stunning.  I know nothing about 1900s Galveston, and Weisgarber paints a world hot, steamy, bustling, and lonely.  (It turns out Galveston the city is also on Galveston the island; Catherine and I both assumed she'd be living in the city, but it turned out she was going to live out on the island.)  Catherine as an outsider means Weisgarber can load up on details about what Galveston was like, but it never feels awkward, heavy, for infodump-y.

The writing generally is just lovely, too: Nan and Catherine have two distinctive voices, their own views and prejudices, their own keen observations and their own blindnesses. But there's poetry and lovely evocation of place and mood through the book.

It was a sorrowful time; there wasn't no other way to put it. What the storm did to us was cruel, and I won't never forget it. Or forgive it. The storm did what it wanted and then blew itself out, leaving us to try to put things right. But some things can't be put right. (p290)

A must read for historical fiction fans, as well as anyone who a love for Texas.  This is a wonderfully emotional novel, too, in the vein of women's contemporary fiction, and I think those who aren't sure they like hist fic might want to consider this one for its exploration of love and family.  A top ten read for 2014, hands down. 

Reblogged from Maven Books:

Tom Gauld's cartoon for the Guardian Review

Daughter of the Gods: A Novel of Ancient Egypt - Stephanie  Thornton

I was just swept up by Stephanie Thornton's first novel, The Secret History, about Empress Theodora and as a result, was waiting impatiently for this book and her third novel (about the women in Genghis Khan's life!). Thornton has that wonderful knack for finding nearly forgotten women from history and giving their credulity-straining lives notice, dignity, and vibrancy.

In this book, she turns her attention to Hatshepsut, an Egyptian royal who ascended to Pharaoh, only to be almost completely erased from history after her reign.  A prophecy warned her that while she would bring glory to Egypt, it would come at the cost of everyone she loved -- a warning Hatshepsut was determined to circumvent.  She wanted glory, but she wanted love, too.

When it comes to drama and big emotions, Thornton doesn't hold back. By page 10 -- the end of the first chapter -- I was wiping away tears.  The reign of peace that Hatshepsut brought really came at dramatic cost for her, and I was hanging on every page. Love, betrayal, friendship, motherhood, war, and artistic endeavors: this book has it all! 

Her Hatshepsut is strong-willed, occasionally stubborn, clever and ambitious -- believable traits in a woman who would crown herself Pharaoh.  While many of her personality quirks and preferences are wholly invented by Thornton, they rang true for me, and felt authentic to her heroine and the era she was from -- something I always appreciate in a historical novel!

As with her previous novel, Thornton makes the scandalous grounded and what could be tawdry or licentious touched with humane warmth.  Haptshepsut is married to her half-brother and is to sire his children, and Thornton handles that element in a way that recognizes history without totally alienating modern readers.

The historical details were well integrated in the narrative; through context, the reader is able to understand some of the more alien aspects of life in Egypt in 1400ish BC, and there's no over-explaining or info-dumping to slow things down.

Readers who love splashy historical novels with royal intrigue will want this one; Thornton joins the host of authors who shine a light on dynasties and families that give the Tudors and Borgias a run for their money.  Those who are obsessed with Egypt will also want this one, as well as fans of Stephanie Dray, Kate Quinn, and Michelle Moran.  Another highly recommended read -- perfect for the beach!

1,000 Feelings for Which There Are No Names - Mario Giordano, Isabel Fargo Cole, Ray Fenwick

This intriguing little book -- less than 300 pages -- contains precisely what the title says: one thousand fleeting moments for which there is no single word to describe them. Whimsical, occasionally edge, melancholy and exultant in equal part, this is a lovely sort of coffee table book that invites one to thumb through and share. 

Hand lettered and illustrated by Ray Fenwick, each feeling is articulated in a different font, punctuated with images and graphic elements.  (You can click on the pictures for a more hi-res view.) 

The feelings range from embarrassing to ethereal.  Some favorites of mine:

188: The panic that you might not make it to the bathroom on time. 

359: The disappointment that that smile was meant for someone else.

OR, one I can relate to all too much: 920: The helplessness in the face of your cat's whims.

There's a helpful index at the end which categorizes the various options: accident feelings, British feelings, red wine feelings, train-platform feelings, etc. The book has a great hand feeling, too: French flaps, and a slightly heavier paper inside, like a sketch-book. 

A lovely gift-y sort of book for someone who struggles to articulate their feelings or those who are very good at it, as well as fun kind of graduation, house-warming, or birthday gift.  Those who are into illustration might also enjoy this.  My wife and I have been having fun picking out one feeling to sum up our day, and could be a neat sort of way to diary through life, noting what feeling you have when (and perhaps how often!).

The world of 17th century Parisian theater, and life as maid to the king's mistress...

The Shadow Queen: A Novel - Sandra Gulland

Gulland won my undying readerly love with her fantastic trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte.  Her writing is warm and inviting, her characters rich and appealingly complicated.  I've been waiting on tenterhooks for this novel, as I'm slightly obsessed with the notorious Athénaïs de Montespan, official mistress to the 17th century French 'Sun King' Louis XIV, and this delightfully detailed and well-plotted novel did not disappoint.

Apologies for the clunky review; is it too early to blame pregnancy brain? In brief, I inhaled this novel. It has all those qualities in a great hist fic: ambiance, sense of era, historically accurate drama, some splashy interpersonal drama, and fabulous clothes.

While this book is titled for Athénaïs, this novel is really about her loyal and devoted attendant, Claudette de Oeiletts. Poor, from a family of theater players, Claudette would likely be forgotten were it not for her relationship with Athénaïs and Louis XIV.  Meeting the rich and spoiled noblewoman as a young teenager -- Athénaïs asked Claudette for a potion to kill her governess -- the two didn't cross paths again until in their twenties, when Claudette becomes a seamstress and confidante to Athénaïs.

In her time away from Athénaïs, Claudette lives in the vibrant world of playwrights and players, and Gulland's articulation of the people, protocols, and places of 17th century French theater makes this novel go from good to great.  (Honestly, the theater world stole the show, apologies for the pun, and made even the licentious court feel pale!)

Claudette makes an appealing narrator: her voice is knowing and unsure at believable points, brave without feeling anachronistically bold.  Her mistress Athénaïs is unbelievably awful, and yet, like Claudette, I was captivated by her, curious to learn more about her life.  But she remains, in many ways, shadowy even to Claudette, masked in more than one way.  

There are lovely extras in the book, including a five-page annotated cast list (which I didn't need: despite this being a heavily-peopled novel, everyone was so vibrant, they were easy to remember!), five-page glossary, a note about currency, and a genealogy as well as an Author's Note with some historical details. For theater geeks, Gulland's website includes her references and favorite websites about baroque theater.

Recommended for Francophiles and those who like court intrigue; but readers who enjoy novels about less wealthy heroines will also enjoy this.

Sympathetic look at historical villainess

I Am Livia - Phyllis T. Smith

I've never considered Livia, wife of Emperor Augustus, to be a very sympathetic figure.  Popular culture tends to paint her as a cold, scheming woman but in Smith's hands, Livia is far more sympathetic, likable, and warm.  As an enormous fan of Stephanie Dray's trilogy about Cleopatra's daughter, I pretty much thought I'd never like Livia.  This book proves the power of a well-written novel: a reader, despite herself, can't resist a convincing main character and realistically articulated emotions and drama.

Opening in the 20s BC, I think, the novel is told by Livia at the end of her life. She begins with the event that shaped her life in many ways: the assassination of Julius Caesar. Her father marries her at 14 to a cousin to ensure his loyalty. And while Livia manages to make her marriage work, she is shocked by the attraction she feels for her family's enemy, Octavius -- Caesar's heir.

As Octavius wages a war of vengeance on those who betrayed his adoptive father, Livia struggles to hide her feelings for him.  Still, they marry, under shocking circumstances, and Livia casts her lot with Octavius. As politically minded as he is, they make a powerful couple, and with her increased influence comes, unsurprisingly, controversy!

In Smith's hands, the complicated (and for me, unfamiliar) world of Roman politics and Octavius' reign becomes intimate, easy to understand, and deeply compelling.  The Livia of cruel depravity and malicious machinations isn't seen here; instead, we have a young woman, deeply loyal to Rome and its citizens, passionate about improvement and urging her husband to be his best self. 

This novel raced; Livia is a survivor, eyewitness to a tumultuous and violent time in Roman history.  While the story isn't heavy with historical detail, there is a sense of place and era there, and Livia is an appealing heroine.

A great read; fans of ancient Rome will want this one, as well as those who are curious about Livia.  This has some shocking drama and the promise of romance (without being an out-and-out romance), making it a lovely summer read -- deliciously escapist!

Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club is turning 25.  To celebrate, I'm giving away two copies of this classic novel: one hardcover from Penguin's Drop Caps series and one paperback from their Penguin Classic collection.

The Frangipani Hotel: Fiction - Violet Kupersmith

Halfway through this volume of short stories -- really wonderful.  The second story, 'Reception', featuring a rundown Hanoi hotel and a young man who discovers a water-obsessed woman in one of the rooms, is just gorgeous -- reminiscent of A.S. Byatt.  (Byatt's collection, Elementals, comes to mind.)  So far, a strong recommendation -- can't wait to finish.

Being a Bonaparte bride

The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte - Ruth Hull Chatlien

Full review here.  Despite being a Josephine fangirl, I know very little about the Bonapartes and was excited to start this novel about the wife of Napoleon's brother Jerome. 

 

Elizabeth 'Betsy' Patterson was a Baltimore belle determined to marry better than a merchant, and she does when she marries dashing, immature Jerome Bonaparte.  A teen who plays at war and loves to shop, Betsy very quickly realizes that the great passion Jerome feels for her is little comfort when Napoleon demands he abandon Betsy to marry a princess. 

 

The events of Betsy Patterson's life were all new to me, so I spent a good deal of this novel gasping.  It reads fast, very easily, although my e-book had a few frustrating errors ('reigns' for 'reins', that kind of thing).  Otherwise, a fun and zippy read about a woman I'm eager to learn more about.

 

 

Imaginative novel of Napoleon's campaign in America

Napoleon in America - Shannon Selin

Full review here.

 

A very fun read -- what if, instead of getting sicker, in February 1821 Napoleon escaped from St. Helena and ended up in New Orleans?  He petitions for asylum and promises Americans he wants to be an ordinary citizen.  But the lure of empire is too much, and eventually -- humbly -- he accepts the call to liberate Mexico.

 

Selin's writing style isn't precisely 19th century but has some of that philosophical wordiness I associate with the era, and made the novel read delightfully.  I found the situations felt rather credible, save for the inevitable meeting of Napoleon and Marie Laveau, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment.