Miss Kate’s CBRV review #9: City of Women, by David R. Gillham

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1943 Berlin. The title of this book refers to the fact that at this point in WWII, Berlin is basically populated mostly by women holding the home front together.

Sigrid is the wife of a soldier away at war. Middle-aged, living in a drab apartment with her horrible mother-in-law, she goes through the motions every day. She works at an office, tries to make her rations go as far as they can, tries to keep her had down and be a model citizen.

She has desires, though. Sigrid can’t stop thinking about her former lover, who is Jewish. She has lost contact with him and is frantic to hear whether he has managed to get out of Germany. There are other people who enter her life, as well: the high-ranking Nazi officer and his pregnant wife who move in to her building, the young girl downstairs working as a mother’s helper who is more than she seems.

Soon Sigrid is involved with things and people she knew existed, but was careful to avoid. She is faced with the choice of either continuing to ignore the reality around her, or to face it and do what is right.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Sigrid felt real to me: intelligent, passionate – she is compelling, a hausfrau who rises above what is expected of her. What struck me the most, I think, is how nuanced many of the characters are. Like real people, they are neither completely good nor bad.

I highly recommend this book.

Read more reviews at misskatessays: http://misskatesays.com/2014/01/04/miss-kates-cbrv-review-9-city-of-women-by-david-r-gillham/

Miss Kate’s CBRV review #8: Lady of Hay, by Barbara Erskine

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OK. This book looked promising to me at first. Part historical fiction, part thriller/romance/fantasy, it seemed the perfect Next Read. But for me it devolved into full-on hate read.

Set in 1980s London, the book centers on Jo Clifford, a “modern, independent career woman”. She is a journalist, and in the course of researching a story on past life regression, she is hypnotized and begins to have visions of life in the 12th century. it turns out that Jo is the reincarnation of Matilda de Braose, wife of William de Braose, actual historical bully, and one of King John’s closest friends.

As she goes deeper and deeper into the investigation, Jo starts to regress automatically. She has no control over when or for how long these sessions last. She gets more and more involved with Matilda’s life, believing that YES, she is Matilda.

This part was interesting. Although a lot of the real Matilda’s life is murky, it’s obvious that the author did her research here. De Braose was a noble with lands in Wales, and was responsible for some pretty gruesome attacks on the local population. He was raised up quickly, and when he angered John (a petulant SOB if there ever was one), he lost everything. While de Braose fled to France, his wife Matilda and oldest son were captured and starved to death at Corfe castle in 1210.

Again, I enjoyed the parts of the book that dealt with Matilda. But Jo was a bore, and my heart sank every time the book switched back from Matilda’s story. Seriously. Jo is supposedly a “strong” woman. How do we know? Because we keep being told this. There’s clearly no evidence of it in over 600 pages, as she really has no personality. Ugh. (I’ve never read Barbara Erskine before, so I can’t say anything about her other work, but I’m not likely to try her again.)

I generally don’t like straight romance novels but I like good writing, so I gave this book a chance. Is this a Romance novel? I don’t know. The “romance” itself was pretty sickening. The men in her life are the Worst. SPOILER! Everyone Jo knows was also regressed. They knew her in the past, all want her now, and at various times they: let themselves into her apartment/hypnotize her against her will/RAPE!/BEAT!/or just creepily take advantage of her. But at no time does this nitwit consider calling the cops or even changing her freaking locks. CHANGE YOUR LOCKS!

She just keeps going back for more. And on. For 600-plus pages. I’d say that this is the author’s commentary on the mindset of an abused woman, but I think that would be giving her too much credit. I honestly believe that Erskine thinks this shit is romantic.

Lady of Hay could also have used an editor – at over 600 pages, I can’t tell you how much time is wasted describing about Jo’s latest linen shift dress or how often she shared dinner and a bottle of wine with Nick despite the fact that he’d tried to strangle her the night before. the story could easily have been told in half the pages. At one point, about 500 pages in, new characters are introduced out of the blue and become important for a hot minute. I liked them, but kept waiting for them to have a purpose. I frankly would have preferred the book to be about them.

Why did I keep reading? Because I’m not a quitter, that’s why. But seriously – if you want to read a good book about the Plantagenets or Wales in the 12th Century then read Sharon Kay Penman. Spare yourself this dreck.

Read more reviews at misskatesays: http://misskatesays.com/2014/01/04/miss-kates-cbrv-review-8-lady-of-hay-by-barbara-erskine/

Miss Kate’s CBRV Review #3: Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

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Set in 1820s Iceland, Burial Rites is a novel based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir. In 1829, she was executed for a double homicide, the last person to be so sentenced in that country.c

At this time, Iceland is a backwater, provincial outpost whose officials have to answer to Copenhagen. There is no prison, so Agnes is sent to a farm to wait out her sentence. It’s a lonely place, and the family with whom she is staying (understandably) distrust her. She becomes close with the young clergyman sent to prepare her soul for the afterlife, and eventually, heartbreakingly, her full story comes out. As we hear of Agnes’ life, you get the sense that in this time and place, a woman like her never had a chance and that her fate was probably inevitable.

Burial Rites is not just the story of Agnes, though. It is rich with a sense of time and place, the descriptions of the stark Icelandic landscape vivid. We witness the effect Agnes has on those around her. As we near her execution time, the sense of dread is palpable. It’s a sad but beautifully written story.

It’s a sad, yet beautifully written story. 

http://misskatesays.com/2014/01/03/miss-kates-cbrv-review-3-burial-rites-by-hannah-kent/

 

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #104: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

outlanderWell . . . that was certainly an experience. Parts of it I LOVED and parts of it were SO WEIRD I didn’t even know what to do with myself.

It’s clear that Gabaldon pretty much wrote whatever the hell she wanted to, ignoring a lot of steadfast  “rules” in the process. The result of this is a book that could fit into dozens of different genres, and that contains dozens of scenes that make you go “wait, did she just write that?”

For those of you not familiar (and I’m betting there are still some of you out there), Outlander is the first book in Diana Gabaldon’s titular series about a nurse from World War II-era England who travels back in time two hundred years to Scotland, and among other things, is accused of being a witch, becomes a healer, is forced to marry a handsome young Scot, and deal with a psychopathic Englishman, all the while dealing with her reduced freedoms as a woman and navigating both the smaller and larger political and historical issues that she alone knows are coming.

It’s a long book, and it’s hard to describe. Even if you think you have a pretty good idea of what to expect, I guarantee there will be at least once scene you won’t see coming at all, and more than one that will make you need to put the book down, like under your pillow or in a freezer or somewhere else that is safe and away from you while you alternatively cool down/stop being weirded out/insert overextended emotion here. It’s a romance, and an extremely well-researched historical novel. And it’s speculative, and a bunch of other shit as well.

And I enjoyed it. And I was weirded out by it. And it made me need to go take a cold shower.

The most notable thing about it, of course, is the central romance between our time-traveling heroine Claire and young Scottish virgin, Jamie Fraser, which was extremely swoonworthy, excepting one notable scene involving corporal punishment. I realize Gabaldon needed to have Jamie conform to time-specific ideas about male/female relationships, but I really think I needed to see Claire be more vocal about refusing to be subjected to anything like that in the future, and I needed to see Jamie agree. The scene at the end with Jamie and Randall was . . . interesting. And I’m still not entirely sure what the point of all of it was.

Also, there was probably more sex in this book than in any other book I’ve ever read. Just . . . there’s so much of it. So, so much of it. I kind of wish she’d been a little more spare with it, because after the first three or four times so close together, the scenes sort of began to lose their spark.

Anyway, I’ll definitely be continuing with this series, but probably not until after the first season of the TV show airs on Starz next year. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Ron Moore can do with this story (and with it being on Starz, I’m sure the sex scenes will get their due as well).

And with that, I have finished my Double Cannonball goal for the year, and so now I shall go collapse into my bed and not wake up until Thursday.

Even Stevens’s #CBR5 review #26: Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers

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Finished my half cannonball just under the wire! I really liked this book and was glad I could close out the year on a high note.

Dark Triumph is the second book in the His Fair Assassin series by LaFevers.  The second volume switches points of view – whereas the first book, Grave Mercy, focused on Ismae and gave us brief glimpses of Sybella, this time we learn Sybella’s story, and all the secrets in her past and her present. Dark Triumph picks up immediately following the events at the end of Grave Mercy, and Sybella is struggling to find a way to cope with her current assignment at the cruel Count D’Albret’s castle, when she is ordered to carry out another: smuggle out the most closely guarded prisoner at the castle and return him to the queen’s company.

On the whole, I really liked this book. There are some pros and cons here: I think LaFevers is a great storyteller and I like her voice, character styling, and the flow of the stories. I also think she side-stepped a big obstacle in writing trilogies, which is that most of the time, the second book feels like filler. This most definitely does not feel that way and the story is fast paced and gripping. However, I think (at least judging from Goodreads ratings) that I am in the minority of people who enjoyed the first installment more. Ismae, Duval, and Anne really grew on me and I wanted to keep up with their characters much more. Sybella turned out to be a pretty great protagonist but sometimes I felt that parts of her personality and her story were more the result of engineering and trying to fit her into the plot, rather than vice versa.

Both volumes are set in the late 1400s and many of the people in the books existed and many of the events happened. I love historical fiction the more I read it and both of these books have been a pretty fascinating look at some long past history (even if some of it is embellished).

I really enjoy LaFevers’s writing and I will definitely be checking out the final part of the trilogy when it comes out next year (which will feature the third girl of their group, Annith). This is a quick but engrossing read and I was entertained to the very last page.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #37: The Falcon In the Glass

Here’s the part where I plug my personal blog, and hope someone, anyone goes to check it out.

It’s not the most memorable of plot lines or characters, but the commitment and appreciation of setting is a tremendous boon. Set in a Renaissance Venice glass blower-y, The Falcon in the Glass captures a young adult’s struggle to find their place in a world that doesn’t involve a single school (but has a big chunk of teaching), that has no cliques, but definitely deals with class and sectarianism.

It’s rare to find really well done historical YA fiction, let alone historical YA fiction that delves into long past times. To capture both the universality of teenage education, social conflict and family trouble and the unique experience of Renaissance Venice is tremendous to find. Chances are it’s not propping up any island displays in your neighborhood Barnes & Noble, and it won’t grab much attention. But if you have a young reader with a hunger for history, you could do a lot worse than this book.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #10: The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I accidentally left The Corner That Held Them (Virago Modern Classics 2012) on a train, but fortunately only after I’d finished it. And I’m glad I did finish it because it would have been very hard to be cut off from it in the middle – not because so many important things happen, but because so many unimportant things flow so steadily in such a stream of gentle vitality that not reaching the end would be like a river dammed and ruined at its most limpid and beautiful.

Published in 1948, the story begins around 1153 when Brian de Retteville catches his wife Alianor in bed with her lover Giles. Giles is summarily and bloodily killed, as is the old woman who was supposed to stand guard. Alianor lives for another ten years, and when she dies de Retteville, in an excess of grief, founds a convent by the Waxle river, presumably somewhere in the fens and moors of East Anglia. From these beginnings of sex and murder springs the tale of a community of (theoretically) chaste and (theoretically) benevolent ladies, who must manage the lands belonging to their convent, maintain their religious ceremonies, and negotiate with various bishops and businessmen for funds and recognition. Meanwhile, the world between 1349 and 1382, when the bulk of the story takes place, is a dangerous and unstable site of conflicting religious theories, rebellious peasants, fraudulent friars and an occasional anxiety about the apocalypse which must surely loom very near. The nuns themselves reflect this turmoil – their superstition, jealousy, and worldly concerns are not expunged with holy water, and the various power struggles and secrets threaten to upset the entire convent and their relationship with God.

The Corner That Held Them is masterfully written. The narrator displays evenhanded insight – no one nun emerges as a heroine, no one man of God as a complete villain, and the various preoccupations of this community of women ranging from the very old to the barely pubescent are told in realistic detail – there are pustules and plagues as well as heavenly visions and vocations, worry about harvests and decay as well as the aspiration of building a new spire for the glory of God. Curiously for such subject matter God and religion are left shadowy; masses and prayers are such a matter of rote that little special attention is paid to them, which I think enhances the immersion of the reader into the novel – historical novels are often written with big signs pointing to “period detail” instead of it emerging naturally from the narrative. New philosophic and spiritual ideas of man’s place in the world and by extension women’s place in relation to man are woven skilfully into the mundane events of the rural community, and the hostility of peasants and Lollards is also made real. Overall, this is a great book; the nuns themselves become very real the further you read.

Sylvia Townsend Warner also wrote Lolly Willowes, which I reviewed here for CBR IV.