An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole [Review]

AEUI’m actively looking to diversify my reading, especially in genres where minority voices are not always heard, and diverse characters are not always seen. I jumped at the chance to read an advance copy of this title and wasn’t disappointed. Sometimes nothing is better than curling up for the afternoon with a book you know you’re going to race through and enjoy in a single afternoon. This book was exactly what I was looking for.

An Extraordinary Union follows Elle Burns, a woman born into slavery. Living free in the North, she chooses to use her eidetic memory to help the Union by posing as a mute slave in Charleston.   There, she meets Malcolm McCall, a Pinkerton detective who’s also in the South under false pretenses. Danger, intrigue, and romance ensue.

I haven’t read a lot of straight-up romance. (I’m not counting romance-heavy YA or historical fiction here.) I’ve read and enjoyed Sarah McLean and Courtney Milan, but that’s about as far as I’ve made it, though every once and a while I get a hankering for a romance and will pick something up. What was immediately noticeable to me with An Extraordinary Union was that the stakes were so much higher than I was used to. Usually in a regency romance, someone’s honour or virtue is at stake, and the biggest obstacle is how society views the couple. In this case, the situations Elle and Malcolm found themselves in were literally life and death, and it added an element to the story that I really appreciated.

One of the challenges with a story like this is the ending. I recently saw some internet angst around the question of whether or not a romance novel needs a happy ending. Romance readers will shout at you (usually politely), “YES, OF COURSE.” In this book we have a mixed race couple working as spies across enemy lines during one of the deadliest wars in American history. I don’t really want to talk about the ending too much, my brain found it hard to reconcile all of the moving pieces here. I do think Cole handled it very well, but it was a little bit jarring to me as a reader.

The best news is that this is the first book in a series, and that we’ll get more of The Loyal League. I will absolutely be looking to read the next installment, and in meantime, will continue my search for diverse romance reads. If you have recommendations, please let them in the comments!

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney [Review]

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

lillianboxfishOn New Year’s Eve 1984, Lillian Boxfish takes a walk. It’s a simple premise that serves the narrative well. What follows is the story of a life fully lived, told in roughly chronological flashbacks as Lillian moves through the neighbourhoods of her past.

Lillian is the heroine we want to read about. In the 1920’s, she takes a job in advertising and quickly becomes the highest paid woman in her profession. She gains fame for writing catchy light poetry and for disdaining all things traditional, including love and marriage. And then she meets the man that will become her husband. She struggles to balance her marriage and her passion for writing. She becomes a mother. And a divorcée. And the times are changing.

As Lillian walks the streets of the mid-80’s she tells her story with a quiet simplicity. She’s not lost her spunk or ability to intuit a new situation, and her insights about what it was like to be a woman living a life of her own through the 20th century feel so understated and wise that I had to remind myself that this is a work of fiction. (Sort of. More on that later.) By this point she’s an old woman who knows herself completely and remains to the end a modern woman.

It’s impossible to ignore New York City as a character in the book. It grows and changes in parallel with Lillian’s life, but is ever-present and beautifully rendered. While reading this, I was also listening to Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run on audio, and I couldn’t help but make comparisons between Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and the early songs of Springsteen’s career. The characters of New York City Serenade, It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City, and Jungleland all feel like they could be right around the corner.  Like the best songs, nothing Rooney does is in your face trying to get your attention. Her writing is calm and measured, but immediately transports you to a specific time and place, and then a chapter later moves you again. The result isn’t whiplash. It’s a smooth ride.

I got to the end of the book and was excited to read about the inspiration for Lillian Boxfish. Rooney spent time with the papers of Margaret Fishback, the real-life Boxfish who was the highest paid woman in advertising in the 1930’s. Her life was as remarkable as Lillian’s and reminds us that we need to hear more stories about smart and strong women.

Feminist literature is new to my reading life. I really started to look for fiction titles with feminist themes only in the last year or so. If I know anything about publishing, it’s that readers need to be proactive about finding things that matter to them. You could easily spend your entire reading life reading books that publishing spends money making sure you see on every website and on the front shelf of every bookstore. It’s easy and there are a lot of fantastic books that get that sort of treatment and are deserving of your time.

But if you care about diversity in your reading and therefore in publishing, you unfortunately usually have to do more work. Luckily for this book, it was a Book of the Month selection, so is being read pretty widely already. A lot of books don’t have this advantage. So if you do pick this up (I suggest you do) and like it, and haven’t been thinking about your reading habits, I encourage you to. It’s something I continue to work on with every book selection I make.

 

 

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet [Review]

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

bloodyproject.jpgHis Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae is great. Let’s start with that. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this work of fiction (yes, it’s fiction, but I had to double check after the first couple of pages) tells the story of a bloody triple-murder in a remote farming community in Scotland in 1869 as told through witness testimony, medical examiner’s reports, trial transcripts, and the confessions of Macrae himself.

We know at the beginning of the book that Macrae is imprisoned for the crime, and that he doesn’t seem too bothered by that fact, but as the story goes on, we learn more about Macrae’s possible motivations and the events leading up the crime. The waters are muddied as we hear more from other sources about Macrae’s actions and character.

The book succeeds most in creating a vivid and atmospheric world. It’s less of a thriller than a character study as told through the various documents pertaining to the case, and explores some of the fundamental elements of the criminal justice system that we still ask ourselves today. Under what circumstances is a crime understandable or explainable? How does your upbringing impact your choices as an adult? At what age should we be held accountable as an adult? Are humans inherently good or evil?

I think that the best books don’t really answer these questions. They present a story to the reader in such a way as to ask the reader to consider it for themselves, and by the end of the novel, to either have a better understanding of their views, or to walk away from the book ready to admit that they aren’t entirely sure.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Criminology has always interested me, and the details of the crime didn’t bother me too much. If you have a weak stomach, you might want to skim over those parts, but I think the violence does add something to the story. We spend a lot of time with Macrae before we hear any real details about the crime, so when it is discussed, the brutality only serves to make the plot and the character development more rich. I found that although there were a few parts that lagged, by the time I realized that I wasn’t as engaged, the next section was only a few pages away and the story would transition to another document type or point of view.

While the book is quite literary (in my mind, it is, whatever that means…), I think it’s one of the more genre-focused books I’ve noticed on the Man Booker lists. The first half of this reads more like historical fiction (which the Man Booker judges seem to like more than say, science fiction) but there’s also a detective story thread that runs throughout, making it more fast-paced than your average work of straight-up literary fiction. I really appreciated reading something different for this prize.

I’m always curious about how other readers approach awards. I pay the most attention to the Man Booker Prize, from the time the longlist gets announced to the winner. I also tend to keep track of who wins the National Book Award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and sometimes the Pulitzer. Part of this is surely because I’m a librarian and avid reader, and so this sort of news is my jam, but I always buy a copy of the Man Booker winner if I don’t already have it, and I’ve been working my way (very slowly) through the Pulitzer winners since 1990. I don’t think award-winners are better than other books in so many ways – I think for me it’s just a point of interest and a desire to have my own opinion about the “big” books.

 

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue [Review]

I received a copy of The Wonder in exchange for an honest review by the publisher.

I sit here wondering what the last Donoghue I read was. I read Room shortly after it was published in 2010. Goodreads tells me that I never made it Frog Music, so I think it would have been Astray, a collection of short stories based on historical events published in 2012. At the time, I would have been reading for a Canadian award committee, and I believe it did make it to the shortlist that year. I wonder these things, because for some reason, I forgot that Emma Donoghue can write one hell of a story.

The Wonder is the story of Lib Wright, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale who is brought to Ireland to watch over 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell. Since her last birthday 4 months previous, Anna and her family swear she hasn’t eaten any food, and instead is subsisting on “manna from heaven”. A local committee wants to test the veracity of her claims by having a respected nurse either confirm or deny a miracle.wonder.jpg

Once I had finished reading the story, I noticed that not a whole lot had actually happened. There was a resolution to the plot, and there were some anxious moments throughout, but what Donoghue does so well is get into her characters and develops her narrative through them. Anna is a fully-formed devout child who, for all her conviction, sees the world as any child would. Lib struggles at times to reconcile her training with what she’s observing and feeling first-hand. The story is really about the relationship between these two characters and how the influence and change the other.

What I enjoyed more than this relationship was the setting and the feeling of Ireland a hundred-plus years ago. Donoghue captures all of the superstition, religious fervor, and political history of a people in her small town personalities. The potato famine, the relationship to England, and the continuing power of the Church are all there, but it never felt heavy-handed to me.

The story is based on the phenomenon of “fasting girls”, a largely Victorian phase, but with roots hundreds of years previously. Young girls would claim to go months or years without eating anything, and they quickly became local celebrities. I didn’t know much about the topic prior to reading this novel, but have since poked around and read about some of the most famous cases from the period. This BBC article about Sarah Jacobs was great, though hold off if you want to read the novel spoiler-free.

Overall I liked this book. The writing was phenomenal, and Donoghue really manages to capture a time and place through her characters in a way that doesn’t bog down the pacing or plot of the story. I’m glad that it wasn’t any longer, as there were already a few parts that dragged a little bit for me, but that’s a minor grievance. This would make a great book club selection, or a cozy weekend read as we move through fall and into winter.

 

Poseidon’s Gold by Lindsey Davis (Marcus Didius Falco Book 5)

Poseidon's Gold Marcus Didius Falco has finally made it through the wilderness (though he’s no virgin) and back to the cramped, smelly, and familiar streets of Rome.  After an extended foray into Germania, Falco and his live-in aristocratic girlfriend Helena Justina return to find that Falco’s modest apartment has been ransacked, and of course, that’s only the beginning.

In this fifth book of the series, we get an in-depth look at Falco’s life, and more interestingly, his family history.  When his mother asks him to investigate slanderous accusations made against his dead brother Festus, Falco is forced to agree.  Though his brother apparently died a hero’s death, he was always mixed up in some sort of business dealings that may or may not have been above board.  While investigating, Falco comes across the man who is determined to sully Festus’ good name, and in true Falco style, things take a decided turn for the worst when that man turns up dead.  Falco is of course the prime suspect, and now he must find the true murderer in time to save his own neck.

Along the way, he’s forced to come face to face with the father who abandoned him and other varied family members.  This is the best look we’ve had at where Falco comes from, and although I didn’t much care for the angsty father-son scenes, it made this the best book in the series so far.  The first four books were good, but I often found myself in sections where I had to force myself to keep reading, but by the end I was left wanting more.  This book had me from the beginning and it just got better as the plot progressed.

My favourite part of this novel was the nature of the supposed crime itself.  The plot revolves around a lost piece of art, and as we move through the world of Roman business and art sales, we get a real feel for how white collar crime would have worked in Ancient Rome.  I have a soft spot for any white collar crime in storytelling as it often involves a more intelligent breed of criminal, and there are some serious skills involved.  Art forgery is great in any plot in my opinion, and though the story included a number of different elements including the import/export business, I was impressed by the whole thing.  I often think of white collar crime in a really modern way, with sophisticated technology and a lot of computer software hard at work, so it was refreshing to set it set in the past.

The relationship between Falco and Helena Justina continues, and with it the problem of needing 400,000 sesterces to buy a place in the middle class so that a proper marriage can take place.  While Helena seems content for things to continue on as they are despite her parent’s objections, Falco remains consumed by the problem.  He’s presented with an opportunity to make a substantial sum of money through the course of the investigation, but it just felt like more of the same old.  Without including any big spoilers, I will say that I was pleased that the ending of this book changes things in a big way, so hopefully the next book offers a new element to the development of this relationship.

That being said, the conclusion of this book changes things for Falco in a number of big ways, and it will be interesting to see him operate after the disillusionment sets in. Book 6, Last Act in Palmyra is on its way, and I can’t wait to get started.  Let’s take a moment here to appreciate the joy of reading an older series of books where all of the titles are already available and we aren’t left waiting for distant publication dates to arrive.

His Majesty’s Hope by Susan Elia MacNeal (Maggie Hope Mysteries Book 3)

His Majesty's Hope book coverThis series just gets better and better.  I noted that Mr. Churchill’s Secretary had a lot of preamble and I felt like we didn’t really get that far with Maggie, and that Princess Elizabeth’s Spy made some significant improvements.  I was really excited by the setup for this third installment at the end of Book 2, and I’m happy to say that it didn’t disappoint.  Reader beware: If you like to read a series in order and want to avoid spoilers, stop here.

Maggie is finally getting a chance to enter enemy territory and do some real spying when she’s sent to Germany in His Majesty’s Hope.  What starts as a relatively simple mission quickly becomes more complex and more dangerous as Maggie tries to navigate the upper crust of Berlin society under Nazi Rule.  Her mother, back from the dead, is actually a high-ranking Nazi official, and was responsible for the attack on Princess Elizabeth’s life. Maggie’s mission is to bug her mother’s office, deliver some much-needed supplies to the underground resistance, but she doesn’t expect to come face-to-face with a half-sister and an old friend she was afraid had been killed.

This book was more complex in terms of plot and narrative structure than the previous two.  We jump between characters and settings much more frequently, and as a result get a much more complete view of the war.  As Germans are starting to understand more about what is actually happening in the Third Reich, resistance mounts, while staunch supports of Hitler’s regime dig their heels in.  Though the book is relatively short and light in places, it does take the time to point out dissenting opinions, and tries to present a realistic portrait of life at the time.

I was especially happy with the ending of this novel, considering that Maggie is left in a decidedly unhappy place.  It would be too easy to have each novel end on a positive note: Maggie Hope saves the day and Britain remains strong in the face of their enemies, and that sort of thing.  I like that Maggie is suffering, as bad as that might sound.  Too often, fictional characters are made to endure all sorts of trauma and then expected to just come out of it with a few battle scars, and a good laugh.  The events in the last quarter of this book really serve to give Maggie and the reader pause, and gives the story a weight that it didn’t necessarily have in the earlier books.

Of course, this leaves me eagerly anticipating the next installment.  GoodReads tells me that The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent should be published July 2014.