Historical Fiction: Beheld, by TaraShea Nesbit

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ of 5

Was there a murder on the Mayflower? Maybe. But without doubt, a murder did occur in Plymouth Colony, ten years after its founding. That crime is the vehicle upon which TaraShea Nesbit builds a story that blows America’s long standing myths about the “godly” Pilgrims clear out of the water.

Nesbit’s two protagonists are women, Alice, the wife of Governor William Bradford, and Eleanor, married to indentured servant John Billington. On a daily basis, all must grapple with a myriad of unfamiliar dangers as they try to establish successful lives in a strange new environment. In spite of the pious religious ideals espoused at the meeting house, the identical socio/economic tensions that existed in Europe continue to cause tremendous strain in the new world. Bradford is responsible for allocating land allotments to all colonists, and does so with an uneven hand. With every new wave of incomers, tensions multiply, and when the elites conspicuously fail to assuage them, the first murder of a colonist by a colonists occurs.

The story plays out in alternating chapters, essentially mini-autobiographies, narrated by the educated, refined Alice Bradford and the working class Eleanor Billington. In spite of their status difference, as women, each of them is virtually powerless in this society, as their experiences make clear. Through their words, we watch conflicts take root that grow so innate that they continue to dominate America today.

Nesbit’s research for her novel appears sound and deep, and her prose is evocative. Read this short but compelling book, and watch the the cloying myth of the noble and selfless puritans finally shatter.

It’s a Mystery: Confessions on the 7:45, by Lisa Unger

Confessions on the 7:45Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

There has been a rash of crime novels lately that involve train rides, and Confessions on the 7:45 is one of the better ones. This is a complex, two sided tale that takes place over a period of ten years. Selena is a happily married career woman who, little by little, discovers that her husband is quite different from the man she thought he was. Hers is the story with which the book opens. Pearl is an orphaned teenager adopted after her mother’s murder by one of her mother’s kind employees. After the introduction of Pearl, the twin threads alternate in a long series of episodes that build high drama and suspense. Their stories, merging only gradually, provide the author with the opportunity to explore the myriad delusions that people adopt as reality when the truth is too painful to face. How well do we ever know the people we love and trust? How do we know when we’re being manipulated? Why and how do we ignore our own instincts? What does it take to force us to recognize and let go of our illusions? How do we recover?

This thriller is the product of a skilled writer. The plot is multi-layered, the characters well drawn and relatable. How would we react, or perhaps more importantly, act, when placed in the situations facing Selena and Pearl? There is little behavior here that does not commonly play out, to some extent, in our own lives.

Modern Lit: East Coast Girls, by Kerry Kletter

East Coast GirlsEast Coast Girls by Kerry Kletter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four high school girls, intelligent, pretty, and vivacious, share a series of idyllic summers on the beaches of Long Island. All of them have less than ideal home lives, and their deep friendship helps to fill that void. Their final vacation together after graduating is bittersweet, separation looming as they prepare to set forth as individuals into life’s next phase. Driving home on their last day, they vow to remain close and visit often, when the unthinkable happens. East Coast Girls is the story of how each copes with a future quite different than what was confidently expected.  Now, at age 30, they meet at the beach one last time, but not without trepidation.

For the reader, what happened on that tragic night is a mystery, clarified slowly and haltingly, until the book ends. None of the women, for that matter, know the whole truth about what actually took place. This is what motivated me to keep reading, because much of the tale, related by each of characters in turn, seemed like a coming of age novel.  Having outgrown the support system they had created, and in the absence of any other, their confidence has dwindled in the face of the daunting difficulties that life pitches at them.

The summer reunion is beautifully developed. It is in this sequence that the characters are their most authentic. It reminded me of the movie The Breakfast Club, which in essence was a successful group therapy session. As in the film, these struggling, damaged women somehow find the nerve to speak painful truths to one another, and can come to understand and accept those truths because they are told by people they once trusted and can come to trust again. During this process, the reader ultimately learns about the traumatic experience that once had the power to divide them, and now has the power to unite.

Difficult material. Well done, Kerry Kletter!

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jack the Ripper, that most infamous of serial killers, was never caught or even identified. If he had been, it’s doubtful that his legend would still enthrall people more than a century after he disappeared. Few of us, other than those who call themselves “Ripperologists”, know the names of any of his victims, not even the canonical five. Though it never occurred to me before reading this book, that fact is appalling. But it did occur to author Hallie Rubenhold, who was prompted to remedy that by researching and writing biographies of  the lives of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

Written with compassion and scrupulous attention to historical detail,  The Five is as much sociological study as biography. What becomes clear is that these women fell victim to a merciless killer not because of who they were, but because of the horrific conditions the entirety of  working poor had no choice but to endure. All of the women had been born into respectable working class families. With no access to reliable birth control, their economic circumstances worsened appreciably, often disastrously,  as each new child was born into the family.  Their standard of living was appalling. This was the widespread, repetitive  cycle experienced by each of the The Five. They did not know each other but faced the same struggles. Homelessness is a huge problem today in the U.S. just as it was in Victorian England, for many of the same reasons. Add rampant misogyny to the mix, and destitute women were left with few choices. Hallie Rubenhold has done a masterful job of debunking the myths that have masked the humanity of each of them. Among her new findings was the documented fact that only two of them were prostitutes by trade,  but all were reduced, despite their best efforts at subsistence, to regularly sleeping on the streets.  She posits the plausible theory, based upon the absence of defensive wounds and official inquest reports,  that each woman was set upon as she slept. On other nights, any of the multitude of other women who struggled to survive in Whitechapel would have been the victim.

Among the hundreds of books that deal with the Ripper murders, The Five is the first and only to study the victims. In doing so, Rubenhold has removed the onus of immorality from them, showing them for the first time as real women who did not “deserve ” their fate. It is a well researched, evocative study that restores to them their identities and a kind of justice.

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Books Within Books: The Library of Lost and Found, by Phaedra Patrick

The Library of Lost and Found 
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I dearly love reading books in which other books, some real and some not, play an active role. The Library of Lost and Found has the added advantage of being set within a library and narrated by a middle aged woman, Martha Storm, who volunteers there. As a child, Martha used to write stories, allegories, really, based upon her own experiences of growing up within a family tightly regulated by her domineering father. When her parents became elderly and required live-in assistance, Martha reluctantly gave up her own marriage plans and devoted fifteen long, stultifying years to their care. Now that they are gone, Martha is painfully introverted. She can barely remember a time when she had hopes, dreams, and a life of her own, and devotes her free time to doing chores for others. Then someone anonymously leaves a slim volume of fairy stories on her doorstep, and everything Martha thought she knew is about to change…

Make no mistake, this novel is not reliant upon “magical realism”. Rather it is a charmingly told, often painful, journey of self discovery. Martha’s backstory comes out in a series of flash backs, which ordinarily annoy me, but these serve a important purpose both for the reader and for Martha herself, when she is forced to recall in detail some of the forces that shaped her. In her quest to discover who wrote the book, and why it has been inscribed to her by her beloved but long deceased grandmother, she is supported by a cast of vibrant, small town characters who help her along the way.

The Library of Lost and Found is an intelligent, heartwarming tale about finding the courage to step outside one’s comfort zone and face some facts and truths that for many reasons may long have been buried.

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Historical Fiction: Before I Met You, by Lisa Jewell

Before I Met You
My rating 4 of 5 stars

Splitting a story between two parallel time frames has become a popular convention in historical fiction, and Lisa Jewell does that seamlessly in Before I Met You. The novel opens on the island of Guernsey when young Betty meets her aging but still glamorous grandmother, Arlette, at her crumbling clifftop mansion. Betty will stay on as caregiver as Arlette slips into dementia and dies several years later. Arlette’s will leaves a small inheritance to her granddaughter, and intriguingly, a much larger one to an unknown individual named Clara Pickle, who lives in England. Betty decides to move back there to try to locate Clara.
From this point forward, Betty’s story, set in 1995, will mirror Arlette’s, which took place in the 1920’s. Both are romantic tales involving two young women setting out for adventure, struggling to start building lives of their own in Bohemian Soho. Both find low-paying jobs and cramped flats, and both will become enamored of two famous musicians. In chapters alternating between the jazz age and the age of heavy metal, Betty and Arlette each have experiences they never imagined. Both will have to make difficult choices. One of them will face heartbreak, the other, a happier resolution. Arlette’s story is the more compelling, mainly because of the verve and color that infuse her era and the genuine charm of her love interest. Betty’s, which bogs down from time to time, is enlivened by her search for the elusive Ms. Pickle, who turns out to be a lovely example of characterization. The book’s conclusion is truly edifying. Quite often, novels that feature very young protagonists fail to capture my interest, but, particularly in its second half, Before I Met You managed very well to do so.

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Modern Lit: The Child Finder, by Rene Denfeld

The Child Finder (Naomi Cottle, #1)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Naomi Cottle is a civilian investigator specializing in finding children who are missing and presumed by police to have been abducted. Like many PIs in this genre, she is dedicated to her work to the point of obsession, driven by her own personal demons. Naomi’s unique set of experience, insight, and motivation stems from her own childhood, when she made an escape from the clutches of a pedophile. Her current case centers on Madison, a little girl who disappeared 3 years ago into the wilds of Oregon when her family ventured out to find the perfect Christmas tree.
While most mysteries focus on procedural details, The Child Finder is quite different. Readers do follow Naomi’s search, but her reactions and thought processes are the focus. Interestingly, those of Madison and her abductor are also revealed in chapters describing how she tries to adapt to her strange, frightening new life. Her abductor is a trapper, a loner who has learned how to live under the radar, his point of view is also presented.
Though very dark, this is a novel about the resilience of the human spirit and its ability to survive terrible, incomprehensible circumstances. The writing is intelligent, controlled, and frequently luminous. As Naomi begins to recall more of her own horrific past, as the abductor recalls his own fearful childhood, and as Madison finds creative ways to sustain herself through her own fear, it becomes possible for the reader to develop a glimmer of understanding about how and why crimes such as this occur.
Not an easy read, but a worthwhile one.

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It’s a Mystery: Pieces of Her, by Karin Slaughter

Pieces of Her
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Andrea Cooper has never wondered much about her mom, Laura, a respected speech pathologist living in a cottage by the shore. Like most of us, from time to time she’d question her about her past, in a general sort of way, always pretty sure about the woman Laura was. Then came the day when their mother-daughter birthday lunch was interrupted by gunshots which take down two customers. Understandably terrified, Andrea cowers helplessly behind Laura, and is stunned to witness her mom coolly take charge of the scene by killing the shooter before he can murder anyone else. As the media frenzy and the police investigation ramp up, Laura forces her daughter to go on the run, providing her with a detailed plan, a burner phone, and a handgun. Don’t, she warns Andrea, even think about returning to the state until she calls her with the all clear.

Thus begins a saga in which a hapless, badly frightened, and insecure young woman embarks on a harrowing mission to discover who her mother really is, and, in the painful process, discovers herself. This enthralling tale bounces between two separate narratives, one gradually revealing the shocking details of Laura’s past, and the other chronicling Andrea’s own coming of age in the present. There are countless heart stopping, heart breaking moments for each as they grapple with and dodge the deadly fallout from events that occurred thirty two years ago, shortly before Andrea’s own birth.

In an era in which strong female protagonists are valued in novels, Karin Slaughter comes in with two. While Pieces has a complicated plot, the complexities of their personalities are just as engrossing, as are the positive changes that we witness evolving within them. What fills the novel with topical relevance is that the themes over which the decades-old conflict of the plot was waged are still threatening ordinary citizens in the present day. It’s always heartening when a best selling thriller author    writes cogently about things that really matter, in addition to providing good  entertainment.

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Historical Fiction: The Gown, by Jennifer Robson

The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel piqued my interest following the  two recent royal weddings in England, which must have required prodigious feats of planning and organizing. Queen Elizabeth II’s own wedding took place seven decades ago, when she was still a princess and her country was grappling with the myriad deprivations caused by WWII. Discovering that the story was told from the points of view of the embroiderers of the wedding dress clinched the deal, and I raced through this fascinating book, enthralled by the details of the experiences of the ordinary women who created this most important gown. The narrative unfolds in two far apart years and places, London during 1947 and Toronto in 2016.

Norman Hartnell functioned as couturier to the royal family during the 40’s and 50’s, and he and his army of seamstresses and embroiderers would create Elizabeth’s top secret wedding dress, with much stress and drama along the way. One of these skilled embroiderers was a real life French refugee named Miriam Dassin, who later in the century would become world renowned as a talented textile artist. Miriam, who features prominently in the book’s historical narrative, will also play a role in the 2016 segments. The second is the fictional Ann Hughes, who takes her in as flatmate. Through their eyes, the reader experiences the making of one of the world’s iconic textile creations, the struggles of commoners during this prolonged era of deprivation, and the contrast between their lives and those of the aristocrats that cross their paths.

The modern narrative focuses upon a bequest made to Heather Mackenzie by her grandmother, a parcel of exquisite embroidered and beaded flowers. Her Nan had emigrated to Toronto from London in 1947, but since she had never mentioned embroidery to Heather, what was the purpose of the bequest? Her attempts to solve this mystery lead her to England and France, where she will serendipitously encounter Miriam Dassin, who had worked alongside Heather’s grandmother at Hartnell for a brief time.

Friendship, family, romance,  struggle, betrayal, and glamour all coexist in the pages of The Gown, which is well worth reading by those with an interest in textiles, history, WWII, and the endless ways in which humans can make lemonade when life hands them a lemon.

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Historical Fiction: At the Water’s Edge, by Sarah Gruen

At the Water's Edge

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When the water referenced in book’s title turns out to be Loch Ness, my interest is immediately piqued. In this particular novel, set in the final year of WW II, a pair of wealthy, 4F buddies, Ellis and Hank, set off for Scotland to find and film the famed monster, thereby redeeming their reputations as cowards and making their own mark on history. Hank has governments contacts, who improbably agrees to find them passage in an official convoy. Ellis drags along his socialite wife, Maddie, who quite rightly is terrified to cross the u-boat infested Atlantic. One of this book’s liveliest, most interesting passages recounts a u-boat attack and its aftermath, and serves to define the personalities of the three main characters, establishing Maddie as protagonist.

The spoiled, entitled trio are appalled by their quarters at the tiny country inn on the shores of Loch Ness, and rather oafishly, Ellis and Hank are openly disdainful toward the staff and the paltriness of food made scarce by rationing. From the moment of their arrival, a series of mildly comical events ensues (their outrage when the chambermaid fails to unpack their belongings, their bumbling attempts to spot Nessie, the staff finding ways to retaliate for their arrogance). Vivid descriptions of Loch Ness, wartime deprivations, and the culture and folklore of the area enliven the narrative. Toward the middle of the plot, Maddie is left alone at the inn for days at a time, and it is then that Maddie begins her journey toward self awareness and compassion, responding to the courage and kindness of the locals as they cope with the trials and fears of survival during wartime. Though a bit heavy handed, this is the central theme of At the Water’s Edge. Toward the end, the narrative descends somewhat into melodrama and romance, but it is heartening to see Maddie’s life grow much richer and more meaningful.

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