Great Historical Fiction: The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton

The Secret Keeper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When she was sixteen, living on her family’s farm outside of London, Laurel Nicolson saw her beloved mother committing the murder of a stranger. Although Laurel’s own testimony established that it was done in self defense, her parents never fully explained why it happened. Now Laurel, a successful actress, is in her 60’s, and her mother is dying. This is her last chance to discover the truth about this dark family secret.

The Secret Keeper is wonderfully labrynthine novel, which, as it progresses through its various stages, is told and retold from the perspectives of three women. There is Laurel herself, speaking mostly in the present time, explaining things as she understood them then and how she interprets them now. Her mother, Dorothy, relates her own version of events as they unfolded during the Blitz in WWII. An alternate version is provided, also from 1940’s London, by Dorothy’s glamorous friend Vivian. All three are remarkably captivating individuals, and, every step of the way, author Morton surrounds them with an array of vibrant supporting characters. The bulk of the action takes place in wartime London, which comes alive in all the life and death peril of the bombings.

Although some reviewers have remarked that the secret was a fairly easy one to guess, I was unable to figure everything out until close to the end. When the truth becomes apparent, it’s very bittersweet, and very satisfying. Having read all three of Kate Morton’s earlier books, I feel confident in describing her writing as literary, elegant and eloquent, and she creates memorable stories bursting with life. She’s a terrific novelist, well worth reading.

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Modern Lit: The Wishing Thread, by Lisa Van Allen

The Wishing Thread

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tarrytown, NY, a mere twenty five miles from Manhattan, abounds with legend, folklore, and history. The village of Sleepy Hollow, named for the famous story by Washington Irving, was called North Tarrytown until 1996, when the name was changed by the vote of the populace. It is here that Lisa Van Allen has set The Wishing Thread.

Aubrey Van Ripper has two sisters, but it’s always been assumed that she would take over The Stitchery, a yarn shop that’s been in the family for two centuries. Aubrey’s never left Sleepy Hollow, but her sisters, spooked by the tradition that the Van Rippers can knit garments for their customers that will make their fondest wishes come true. Some say the Van Rippers are swindlers; other say they’re witches. When Aubrey’s aunt dies, her sisters Bitty and Meggy return for the funeral, and are shocked to learn that the aunt has left the property to all three of them, with the stipulation that they all agree on its future. Each of the sisters has her own share of problems, secrets, and dreams. Unable to reach an agreement, their relationships with each other are challenged to the breaking point. Seems there is no magic to be knitted up to resolve this conflict. Can Aubrey continue to believe? Has she ever truly believed?

Gracefully written and evocative of past and present, The Wishing Thread is about family ties, learning to be oneself, and the power of love and hope. Knitters will love this story, but there’s much to enjoy for non-knitters as well.

(Note: Historically, there are many old traditions based upon the belief that knitting can be used to “work charms and spells with.”)

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It’s a Mystery: Over Her Dead Body, by Kate White

Over Her Dead Body

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Would-be authors are often advised to “write what you know”, and former Cosmopolitan magazine editor Kate White has done just that with her series featuring Bailey Weggins. In Over Her Dead Body, Bailey has just lost her job at Gloss and lands on her feet with a new one as crime writer for a celebrity rag. She’s happy to have it, despite warnings from a co-worker about what a *itch her new boss, Mona, is. But someone bashes Mona in the head, and Bailey’s assigned to write an on-the-scene article about the murder from an insider’s point of view. There is an entire roster of possible suspects, all of who had axes to grind with Mona.

This is a light, brisk mystery, with the reader following Bailey as she works at solving the case during the day, and at building a new romantic relationship in the evening. She’s definitely a Devil Loves Prada, Sex and the City sort of career woman, never hesitating to get down and dirty. The plot is a simple one, but loaded with red herrings (scarlet/vermilion/puce???). There are two neat twists at the end, one for the murder case and the other for the romance, the latter a teaser to entice readers into picking up the sequel. But I like my mysteries a little less chick-litty.

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Modern Lit: Heartbroken, by Lisa Unger


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lisa Unger explores the family rifts that can grow and fester as a result of truths never spoken. Kate Burke’s annual vacation on remote Heart Island, her family’s private Adirondack hideaway, becomes more burdensome than pleasurable. Her seventy five year old mother, Birdie, hasn’t softened with age, and Kate’s always agonized over why Birdie is so emotionally remote and critical. Kate knows she’s become a disappointment to Birdie, settling for a life as a stay at home mom. But this year, her novel, based upon family journals, is about to be published, and Kate hopes her mom will be impressed, but fears her reaction nonetheless. Birdie has her own secrets.

Emily is a young woman in an abusive relationship, and lives with her mother’s disapproval. The rash acts of her live-in boyfriend will soon bring her back to Heart Island, which she visited as a child and recalls as idyllic.

The lives of these three women are about to collide, to erupt in the sort of violence none of them could have imagined. Ms. Unger has developed into a masterful storyteller: Heart Island is outstanding. The novel begins ordinarily enough, but chapter by chapter, the commonplace begins to spin faster and faster, until none of the women can foresee or control the consequences. Multidimensional and suspenseful, what begins as a family saga morphs into a nail biting psychological thriller, in which the outcome is anything but predictable. Some hearts will be broken, while others will be reborn.

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Historical Fiction: Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, by Jennifer Chiaverini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1868, seamstress and former slave Elizabeth Keckley (she, herself, spelled it Keckly) did the unthinkable, when she had the audacity to write a memoir of her life in general and her years in the White House in particular. She would soon regret it, or at least regret her honesty and her misplaced trust her publisher. Drawing primarily from that memoir, author Jennifer Chiaverini has written a fictional account of her life from 1860 to her death in 1907, and although the perspective is primarily Elizabeth’s, appears to have provided a fair picture of the tumultuous life of Mary Lincoln as First Lady.

Her engagement to serve as Mary’s “modiste” was quite a feather in Elizabeth’s   cap, contributing greatly to the success of her dressmaking business. Mary quickly came to rely upon her for much more than her sewing skills. Mary was never well accepted into the society of the capitol, and Elizabeth became her truest friend and confidante. She also gained great insight into the character of Abraham Lincoln. Each woman was remarkable in her own right, for very different reasons, and each suffered substantially in the years following the President’s assassination.

Ms. Chiaverini writes a series of historical novels involving quilting during the Civil War, and Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is produced in the same simple, cozy style. Apparently, she couldn’t resist including a few slow chapters on the making of a quilt said to have been designed especially for Mary by Elizabeth, although she never managed to give it to her. What this book does well is paint a picture of race relations during the Civil War era; particularly evocative are the passages on the derogatory and overtly racist public reaction to the memoir, and on the difficulties Mary and Elizabeth encountered when traveling together. Mary is sympathetically portrayed as a well-meaning woman who did many fine things, but who undermined her popularity through her own behavior, likely due to bipolar disorder. Less uniformly successful is the portrayal of the personality of Elizabeth. Her extraordinary accomplishments are justly explicated, but the character herself comes across as a candidate for sainthood.

No book, of course, is perfect, and this is a story well worth reading. Elizabeth Keckley deserves a prominent place in the history of her era, and Mary Lincoln a more compassionate image, as Jennifer Chiaverini has demonstrated.

Bad Girls: Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda Sayre was born in Alabama in 1900, 6th child of a prominent Southern family. She was an active child who studied ballet, was a bright but indifferent student, and in high school developed a reputation as a “speed”, the antithesis of the demure belle she was expected to be.

In 1918, Zelda performed “Dance of the Hours” for the crowd at her country club, among whom was a 21-year-old first lieutenant, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was stationed nearby. Fitzgerald asked her to dance, and they were immediately entranced with one another. He began to call her daily, visiting on his days off. Lt. Fitzgerald talked of his plans to be famous, and sent her a chapter of a book he was working on, telling her “the heroine does resemble you in more ways than four.” He was not the only man courting Zelda, and the competition only drove him to want her more. The following year, Fitzgerald was discharged from the service and moved to New York City to establish himself as a writer.Zelda and Scott corresponded by mail, and in March, they became engaged, against the wishes of her family. Among their objections to Scott was his religion (Catholic) and his excessive drinking. Zelda continued to flirt with other men, and, accidentally, she was to claim, she mailed to Scott a gift she meant to return to one of her other suitors. The engagement was broken, but only for a time. The couple married in April, 1920.

Zelda was now expected to be the witty and charming wife of an up-and-coming writer. After the publication of This Side of Paradise, the media focused attention upon the couple’s flamboyant life style. Zelda became jealous of her husband’s success, and Scott of the male attention directed toward his wife. Their drinking often caused their arguments to get out of hand. Their partying affected their health as well as their relationship, and they spent as much money as Scott could earn.

The birth of their only child, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald in 1921 did little to change their lives, and although Zelda was fond of her daughter and wrote to her frequently, Scottie was cared for by nannies. The following year, The Beautiful and the Damned was published, and Zelda accused Scott in print of plagiarizing material that she herself had written. Zelda had a strong desire to develop her own talents. She wrote a number of short stories, several of which were published in Scott’s name. As Zelda’s discontent grew, she encouraged the attentions of other men. She also became obsessed with ballet, practicing 8 hours a day, which Scott considered a waste of time.

As Fitzgerald’s literary fame increased to international proportions, they moved to Paris, where they socialized with such celebrities as Ernest Hemingway and Isadora Duncan. The attention Scott devoted to his friends increased Zelda’s sense of isolation and envy. Her dancing fixation contributed to her exhaustion, and she began to exhibit signs of obsessive-compulsive and bipolar disorders. She was admitted to a hospital in France, where she was ultimately diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Returning to America, Zelda continued to receive psychiatric treatment. While in the hospital, she wrote a novel of her own, submitting it to Scott’s publisher. The book was a semiautobiographical account of their marriage, and Scott was incensed, as he planned to use the same material in his upcoming Tender is the Night. He forced Zelda to revise her text, which was published in 1932 to little notice. Scott deeply wounded her by calling her work third rate.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was mentally ill for the rest of her life, although she did outlive her husband. Scott did not remarry, although he had a love affair with columnist Sheila Graham while working on a screenplay in Hollywood. Zelda died in North Carolina in a hospital fire in 1948.

The Fitzgeralds are buried together in his family plot in Rockville, MD. The closing line from The Great Gatsby is carved on their stone: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Great Nonfiction: The Creation of Anne Boleyn, by Susan Bordo

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who was Anne Boleyn? I can never think of her without thinking of Scarlet O’Hara as well, because that’s how I picture Anne, as strong willed, determined, feisty, and unafraid. Anne was real though, not fictional, and she’s come through history as a scarlet woman, an unscrupulous home wrecker who probably deserved to be executed. Susan Bordo has tackled the question of who/what this woman truly was and why Henry VIII, once so besotted with her, came to feel compelled to wipe her off the face of the earth.

The first half of The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a historical study of contemporary documents, most of which, alas, were written by the queen’s detractors (especially Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador.) But Anne had her admirers as well, and Ms. Bordo does an admirable job teasing out and presenting their opinions as well. Of particular merit is the space the author devotes to chronicling Anne’s valuable religious work and her genuine social concerns; there is some evidence, for example, that Thomas Cromwell, who played a major role in her downfall, agreed with Anne’s religious tenets but differed with her about what should be done when the religious houses were “reformed”.

The second part of the book examines Anne’s role in popular culture over the centuries. Ms. Bordo provides brief reviews of her treatment in literature, up to the present day. Surprisingly, she devotes even more time to Anne’s portrayal in the movies and television, with entire chapters describing the production of the recent Showtime series, “The Tudors”. Not being much interested in pop culture and celebrity, reading this section seemed to me like perusing an issue of People magazine at the hairdresser. Hence the four star rating. But hey, that’s just me.

Overall, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is strong enough to counter the image of Anne Boleyn as a thoroughly immoral concubine or witch. Perhaps she is not England’s greatest queen, but she made an important contribution to the country’s religious development, and was, after all, the mother of England’s greatest queen. Talk about important contributions!