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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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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Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Reviews

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy #1)

The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy, #1)The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

My rating: 4.75 of 5 stars

A great read is one that has you craving to know what happens next while wishing that the story would never end. When it does it, however, you are left wanting more. The Bear and the Nightingale is one such book. I long to read more about the characters, more about the lore that inspired the tale, and more about the history surrounding the story. I rushed through the haunting story of the family of a wealthy landowner in the far north of what is now Russia as they struggle to survive a clash between their old beliefs of spirits that dwell in the surrounding forest and the creatures that protect their homes, and the still-new Christian religion, anxious to know what would happen to the family, especially Vasya, who is more attached to the old ways than even she knows.
I’d had this book on my TBR list for a while and I’d almost picked it up at the library a few times; it was only when I saw that the third book in the trilogy was a finalist for a Goodreads Choice Award that I decided that this first book would be a good winter read.  I’m so glad that I did and I cannot wait to read the rest of the series.  Arden’s writing is gorgeous, transporting me almost immediately from the mild south Louisiana night to the great northern forest and the seemingly endless winter. The lore which battles with the new ways is fascinating, leaving me with a desire to read the folk and fairy tales that inspired Vasya’s story. It was a perfect read for a long winter’s night.

I’ve really been looking for some good fantasy fiction over the past few years and I particularly enjoy the fantasy fiction that combines history and mythology or folklore like The Bear and the Nightingale does.  If you like this fantasy/history/folk tale combination, I highly recommend Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series.  The first book in the series, Daughter of the Forest, in particular, has a lot in common with The Bear and the Nightingale.  

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