Historical Fiction, Reviews, Woman's Fiction

Review: Tidelands (Fairmile #1)

Tidelands (Fairmile #1)Tidelands by Philippa Gregory

My rating: 3.25 of 5 stars

“Whether it’s a sin against God or not. Whatever you could say it would be […] and offense to me […] It would be a deep offense to me, against myself.”

“It doesn’t matter – “

“It matters to me.  I matter:  in this, I matter”

That quote from the most heartrending passage in Philippa Gregory’s latest novel, Tidelands sums up the feelings the novel provoked in me perfectly.

Sometimes you know right away that a book isn’t going to be a quick read. Such was the case with this story of Alinor, the abandoned wife of a fisherman who uses her skills and knowledge to raise her two children in an unforgiving land and an even more unforgiving society during the English Civil Wars.

The story is set during the last months of the reign of Charles I of England and James’s part in the tale is driven by his loyalty to the crown. While James’s service to Charles serves as the vehicle to his meeting Alinor and the change represented by Charles’s ultimate fate is a symbol of the changes great and small it will take to change Alinor’s lot and the lot of women and the poor throughout history, the choice to set the story at this particular moment in history is not key to the true heart of the story.

Though much of the novel reads like a romance between impoverished Puritan Alinor and wealthy Catholic priest James, it is truly an exploration of women’s lives in a time when they had none. Part of why Tidelands was such a slow read for me was that I often couldn’t bear to read too much in one sitting because the appalling treatment of the women made me so angry that I had to put the book down. When I read historical fiction (or classic literature) I, like so many readers, imagine if I could live in the time or place in which the story is set. In reading Tidelands I quickly learned that England in the mid 17th century was not for me. The treatment of women as nonentities in the realms of politics, the home, the community, and the church while being thought of as the source of so many troubles was just heartbreaking to me. And it wasn’t just the Puritans with their storied intolerance of independent, intelligent women. My strong feelings while reading Alinor’s story just went to show me how far we’ve come in the ensuing 400 years but they also highlighted how much further we have to go before women worldwide are truly considered equal. We can pass all the laws we want but it is the mentality of inferiority that must change. And it isn’t just the men with this mentality. When Alinor’s daughter, Alys points out to her mother how she defers to men and to anyone better off than she (which is pretty much everyone!) even though she has more knowledge and experience than most of them, I realized that we still see women doing this every day. Sorry to sound preachy but this book brought up such strong feelings in me.

Alinor may have been a strong, independent (by the standards of the time) heroine but, for me, the true hero of the story is her daughter Alys who sidesteps the societal strictures throughout the story then barrels right through them at the end. It was only Alys and this ending that made me happy to learn that Tidelands is just the first in a series that will follow generations of Alinor’s family and gives my review the little extra quarter star.

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking read that demonstrates what fear of the unknown and prejudice has done throughout human history, I highly recommend Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time with its unique look at the repercussions of intolerance and the fear it causes. 

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Historical Fiction, Reviews, World Literature

Review: An Irish Country Doctor (Irish Country #1)

An Irish Country DoctorAn Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My mother and I share a love of stories from the British Isles – TV shows, books, or movies, it doesn’t matter – so after reading this first installment of Patrick Taylor’s Irish Country series, she recommended it to me and I decided that March was the perfect time for this story.

All’s well that ends well in this delightful tale of a small Northern Irish village as seen through the eyes of a newcomer in the form of a young doctor apprenticed to the village’s GP. The novel is filled with the requisite oddball characters and funny moments I expected but because of the novel’s medical framework, it also deals with the realities of small-town medicine, and life and death. The point of view of Dr. Laverty, too, lends the narrative some weight with a message about not judging people – or places – too quickly. All in all An Irish Country Doctor is a joy to read, especially if you want to travel to another time and place for a nice escape.

Although I haven’t yet read any, reading An Irish Country Doctor brought to mind James Herriot’s series of memoirs based on his life as a country veterinarian and the TV show based on them that I did watch as a child.  So if you like stories with a sense of humor,  and a delightful cast of characters set against a medical backdrop like An Irish Country Doctor, you may also enjoy Nick Trout’s The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs.

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Historical Fiction, Reviews

Review: The Paris Hours

The Paris HoursThe Paris Hours by Alex George

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

I am torn over my rating of Alex George’s upcoming novel, The Paris Hours: A Novel, an ARC I received through Goodreads.com. The historical drama is set in 1927 in interwar Paris, a time and place that saw much creative innovation and was populated with many cultural icons but was also filled with the struggles, hidden pain, and cautious hope of those that had endured WWI and were still dealing with its consequences. While many of the famous faces that could be seen and heard in Paris during those years appear and often take part in the narrative of The Paris Hours, the focus is on the lives of four seemingly unconnected French citizens each with their secret post-war struggles – Guillaume, a penniless artist surrounded by this historical gathering of genius but unable to make a name for himself; Camille, an innkeeper, and mother haunted by the loss of her employer and friend, Marcel Proust; Jean-Paul, a journalist who longs to leave Paris and the memories it holds of those he’s lost but hope chains him to the city, and Souren, an Armenian refugee who has seen unspeakable horrors and carries with him a guilt over having survived.
These characters are richly drawn and the reader quickly comes to care for them even as each alludes to unforgivable transgressions. The reader is left wondering what these secrets and betrayals are until the climactic scene at the nightclub, Le Chat Blanc. The journey to this scene with its descriptions of 1920s Paris is also beautifully written even when describing the less beautiful areas of the city. With each mention of a street name or a bridge, a park or a cafe, I felt as if I were traversing the city along with the lonely characters.
The novel and its secrets stealthily inhabit your mind until you find yourself trying to figure out how the characters fit together and learn their terrible secrets before the author reveals them instead of sleeping or working as you should be. The reason I find myself torn comes from all of the questions the novel leaves unanswered at the end. The reader is left to imagine how the characters’ stories end, ending at what could have been the most dramatic scene of all. I can imagine many things but after spending so much time getting to know the characters, I want to know what happens to them.

Note:  My favorite celebrity cameo in the novel is the composer Maurice Ravel.  I kept wondering what the heartbreaking piece he kept playing was so I thank Alex George for telling us in his notes at the end of the book.  I’ve since listened to the piece and plan to download it as soon as possible.  Gorgeous.

If you enjoy novels with lots of secrets, unexpected connections, and surprising twists at the end like The Paris Hours, then you may also enjoy M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper, or Elizabeth Joy Arnold’s The Book of Secrets.  And I definitely recommend (again) Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty.

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Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Reviews

Review: The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3)

The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy, #3)The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

My rating: 4.75 of 5 stars

The Winter of the Witch, the third installment of Katherine Arden’s wonderful Winternight Trilogy is a gorgeous, thrilling, heartbreaking, horrifying, magical, and, yes, romantic conclusion to the series. As with the first two books, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, there are plenty of elements of the fantastic mixed seamlessly with the historical. This combination echoes the many dualities explored throughout the series – nature vs. civilization, Christianity vs. paganism, tradition vs. being true to your nature.  While the series doesn’t necessarily reconcile all of these conflicts, the conclusion is deeply satisfying – even in its most heartbreaking moments.  I only wish there was more of Vasya’s tale to read.
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Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Reviews

Review: The Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy #2)

The Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy, #2)The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

Arden’s descriptions in this second novel of her gorgeous Winternight Trilogy of Vasya’s world are as stunning as they were in the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale but what she describes is far from beautiful. From the oppressiveness of medieval Moscow to the violence of the times, The Girl in the Tower is a more brutal read with a bit less magic and more of the realities of the era, especially as they pertain to women.
It was often as infuriating for me as the reader as it was for Vasya to read about the way women in feudal Russia (and everywhere in these Dark Ages) were seen as property or prizes that were little more than vessels for carrying heirs. As modern women, our frustration comes not just from the lack of rights and choice women suffered 500+ years ago or the knowledge that in many cultures women are still treated that way. What is frustrating is that even in cultures not governed by religious strictures, we often still feel that lack of choice and that some people still view women as prizes to be won.
I make it sound like The Girl in the Tower is a feminist rant but, while there is a feminist undertone, it is a gorgeous folklore based fantasy that serves as a riveting exploration of nature versus civilization as well as a fascinating glimpse of a time and place not often observed. I am already reading the third installment of the trilogy and cannot wait to see where Vasya’s tale goes next.

If like me, you enjoy novels that combine fantasy with folklore and history, I highly recommend this series, beginning with The Bear and the Nightingale.  When you’ve finished with this trilogy (as I soon will be 😞), I recommend Juliet Marillier’s beautiful Sevenwaters series, starting with Daughter of the Forest

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