Review: Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse

Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse, Faith SullivanMost people would consider Nell Stillman’s life rather ordinary. Harvester, Minnesota was founded when God was a boy, and no amount of modern conveniences seem able to drag it into the modern age.

But when you look closer, you see that Nell’s life is actually extraordinary. She raises her son alone, falls in love, experiences some of the horrors of war, and has an impact on the world around her.

Throughout the ups and down, literature is Nell’s constant companion. The books of Austen, Chekhov, and her beloved Wodehouse console her, transform her, and give her something to live for.

A total surprise

Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse started off as what I call a “quiet” novel: the plot is very domestic and calm — there’s no murder, explosions, or heavy drama. Nell is simply a good person with realistic characteristics and flaws.

Things change at about the halfway point. Her son is home from WWI, recovering from wounds and crippled by shell shock. She starts getting anonymous notes calling her a “whore” for loving a man who is not her husband. The Great Depression and old age sap the life from her dearest friends.

Now the quiet novel I was liking just fine became a study of the human condition, and I couldn’t stop reading. It was obvious the author wanted me to appreciate the classic books Nell was reading, but in truth I kept skimming over that stuff. I wanted to read about the characters.

The ending was so poignant, and hit me right in the gut. My husband found me crying on the couch with the book in my lap. Fortunately this is a sight to which he is accustomed, so it didn’t cause a freakout.

Sullivan has written a beautiful, heartbreaking, uplifting novel. The characters feel like family, and I love them. Please read this book.

Review: Deception’s Princess

Deception's Princess, Esther FriesnerPrincess Maeve has been her father’s favorite child since the age of five, when she tricked and outran his herds’ devilish black bull. And now that he is High King, Maeve is the favorite of many — particularly those looking to gain a kingdom along with a wife.

Maeve is not interested in being the sacrificial lamb; she believes she should control her own destiny. With an intimate knowledge of court life and intelligence beyond her years, Maeve knows when to be silent and when to speak out, which suitors to repel, and which visitors to flatter.

Her choreographed steps falter when she meets Odran, a traveling druid-in-training. For the first time in her life she has a friend, one who encourages instead of discouraging or ignoring her. Now Maeve must decide whether to trust her High King father’s plan, or her heart.

A heroine I can get behind

The summary makes it sound a little sappy, but Deception’s Princess was surprisingly complex. It’s what I was hoping for when I read Hild: a nice mix of storytelling, history, and politically savvy women.

Maeve is young, but smart. She puts her foot in her mouth often, but is quick-minded enough to flatter or outwit her opponent. She does a lot of growing throughout the book, which is bittersweet. On one hand I was glad to see her become a stronger person; on the other, sad to see her slowly start looking at life through jaded adult eyes.

Deception’s Princess is fairly low on action and angst, with most of the story happening in Maeve’s head (rather than in actions by anyone else). If you like books about life at court, political intrigue, and strong heroines, this might be just what the doctor ordered.

Review: Roosevelt’s Beast

Roosevelt's Beast, Louis BayardIn 1914, Theodore Roosevelt, his son Kermit, and a handful of naturalists and explorers began a months-long trip down the Rio da Dúvida (River of Doubt), an unmapped tributary of Brazil’s great Amazon River. The expedition claimed the lives of several, and nearly killed Roosevelt.

Louis Bayard’s novel Roosevelt’s Beast uses this true trip as a foundation for a psychological thriller that pits Roosevelt and Kermit against a terrifying unseen beast, a foe that mutilates its victims and drinks their blood.

What is this beast? Is it a member of an undiscovered species, or a known but incredibly violent animal? Is it terrestrial, or even real at all? How can they defeat a creature they can’t even see?

Not really my thing

It’s never a good sign when the best thing you can think to say about a book is, “Well, it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read.” The story is nicely written and has some great horror elements, but I just wasn’t feeling it.

I think it’s because I already know too much about the real Roosevelt. It started two years ago with Richard Zack’s Island of Vice, continued last year with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit, and right now I’m about halfway through Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt biography.

Roosevelt was such a marvelous, interesting person, and his trip down the treacherous river fascinating enough, that Roosevelt’s Beast felt like overkill (pardon the pun).

Spoilers ahead

The truth behind the “monster” killing the local natives, and its connection with Kermit, didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

How could this thing that basically lives inside Kermit be killing people no one knew existed, before Kermit even got near them? It just happened to be chilling in an unmapped armpit of an unmapped river on the off-chance that Kermit would saunter by?

And if it used to live inside Kermit’s dead uncle Elliott, whom Kermit never even saw, how would Elliott be able to haunt Kermit and pass along the “beast”?

Give Roosevelt’s Beast a pass, and pick up a biography instead. Roosevelt’s real life is exciting and interesting enough!

(I read this book as a part of the 2015 Monthly Motif Challenge. September’s challenge was to read a book that includes an animal either as a main character or supporting character.)

Review: Hild

Hild, Nicola GriffithLittle is known about the girl who would eventually come to be known as St. Hilda of Whitby: she was born in 614 A.D., baptised in 627, disappeared from written record, and reappeared 20 years later and became a powerful political advisor and teacher.

Hild is author Nicola Griffith’s attempts to fill in the historical gaps, to describe hypothetical circumstances that could have contributed to Hild’s growth as an advisor. The book also provides a detailed look at what seventh century life was like in Britain, particularly for women. It’s the first in what I’m sure will become a popular epic saga.

Incredibly unsatisfying

I love historical fiction, especially when it focuses on women who end up being the power behind the throne. And I tried so hard to like Hild. But in the end, it felt like 536 pages of…mush.

There’s a map provided, but the author doesn’t provide any historical context as to who all these warring factions are. No toddler — even in medieval times — would be as mature as Griffith portrays Hild in the first several chapters. There are dozens of characters, many of whom disappear and reappear at random, and all with names that are impossible to keep straight. Hild is married to a man for political reasons that aren’t fully explained, but she’s also got a weird quasi-homosexual relationship with one of her servants (that’s also never explained). They’re all squabbling over land and religion, and I just couldn’t care less.

I should have known better — I never enjoy a book that critics describe as “lush,” “sweeping,” or “absorbing.” It all just winds up feeling pretentious.

A polarizing read

Normally I don’t pay much attention to what other bloggers think of a particular book, but in this case I checked out the Goodreads reviews to see if I was missing something — is Hild great and I’m just uncultured swine?

Turns out it’s a mixed bag: overall the book has a four star rating. Lots of people disliked it for the same reasons I did, and lots of other people loved its “sweeping” saga-like feel.

Who edited this?

In typical “I’m-a-blogger-and-am-giving-suggestions-for-improvement-despite-having-no-real-world-novel-writing-experience” fashion, I think there’s two things the publisher could have done to make Hild an easier read.

Give context up front

It’s not until the afterword that the reader learns anything about the real Hild. Why couldn’t the editor/publisher have put that information at the beginning of the novel, so the reader has some idea of real-world context? If we know as little about Hild as the author says, it should be easy to include a Wikipedia-like entry at the beginning.

Get thee to an editor!

Much like Kathy Reich’s Déjà Dead and Katia Fox’s The Copper Sign, Hild falls prey to the “Include ALL the information” problem. It’s clear Griffith did a lot of research on Hild and the world/time in which she lived, but a good editor probably could have knocked out 50-100 pages of useless info without compromising the story. That “kill your darlings” advice applies to more than just characters.

Final thoughts

Hild is my least favorite read of the first half of 2015. It’s confusing and dull, and I don’t care about any of the characters or the political machinations Griffith describes in mind-numbing detail. I’m glad other people enjoyed it, but this is one I’d toss back.

(I read this book as a part of the 2015 Monthly Motif Challenge. July’s challenge was to read a book in which the main character stands up for themselves, against an enemy, or for something they believe in.)

Review: The Midwife’s Tale

The Midwife's Tale, Sam ThomasIt is 1644 in York, England; while most of the town’s citizens think the greatest danger sits encamped outside the city, midwife Lady Bridget Hodgson and her assistant Martha know better. Esther Cooper stands accused of poisoning her husband, and Bridget and Martha have just a few days to save their friend from her demise at the stake.

What starts out as an attempt to clear her friend’s name soon turns into a deadly game of cat and mouse for Bridget, with every investigation turning up more questions. Was Stephen Cooper really the man he claimed to be? Is Esther truly innocent? Who profits the most from keeping Stephen’s murder unsolved?

The Midwife’s Tale is a commentary on the nature of treason and the servant-master relationship, as well as a pretty good murder mystery.

An exciting read

Strong female characters are my favorite, and this book has two. Bridget is a twice-widowed heiress who spends her time delivering babies to wealthy and poor women alike and chooses to investigate a man’s death in order to prove her friend’s innocence; Martha is a servant girl turned thief to escape a horrifying life.

The Midwife’s Tale was nicely paced, with several well-done red herrings and twists that had me holding my breath. Bridget and Martha are likeable, flawed characters for whom I couldn’t help rooting.

But it could have been better

As much as I enjoyed The Midwife’s Tale, it simply can’t hold a candle to Arianna Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series. Bridget and Martha were great characters, but they didn’t feel complete — the dozen or so other characters around the periphery even less so.

This is partly explained by the fact that the book is the first in author Sam Thomas’ Midwife Mysteries series — there’s a lot of exposition and backstory that has to happen. But I don’t recall getting that same feeling from Franklin’s series. Just because it’s a first book doesn’t mean the author should skimp on details.

More than a dose of social commentary

In many ways I feel like the author really wanted to write about the esoteric aspects of treason and explore the historical servant-master relationship, but his publisher convinced him it wouldn’t sell unless he wrapped a mystery around it — just like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, but with far better success.

It’s positively miserable reading about the way that many of the characters treat their servants, or are treated by their masters.

Masters had power over their servants’ bodies, and short of murdering them (usually) could do whatever they wanted. This was considered by the courts and contemporary culture as the way it should be, with masters having near-divine power over their servants. A servant’s disturbing that belief — through running away or attacking or killing a master — was seen as the worst kind of treason: a betrayal of God’s plan and word.

In the end I found the mystery side of The Midwife’s Tale entertaining, but it’s Thomas’ commentary on contemporary culture that stuck with me. I hope he keeps writing — especially if his next book is non-fiction.