Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Immortalists

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A few months ago, I picked this up, liked the first chapter, and then put it down because I became too busy. Earlier this month I picked The Immortalists up again, and I regretted it. Not because it was horrible. I simply did not get along with it at all. Why? Well, it’s definitely a “me” thing. If you are not in good place mentally, you may want to avoid this one for now. It could be triggering to anyone who is sensitive to reading about grief, trauma, suicide, self harm, or abortion.

It’s New York City in 1969, and the Gold children, Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon, escape their parents’ apartment long enough to visit a woman who is rumored to have the ability to predict the day you will die. The children receive their predictions with mixed reactions, but such a simple and supposedly “fun” outing ends up complicating all of their lives for many years to come. The Immortalists follows the Gold children into adulthood as they experience the unique challenges that the 80’s, 90’s, and the new millennium brought to the United States. The novel is broken into four parts, with each part following one of the Gold children.

Fortune telling, death days, family, and historical fiction, it all sounds great! The reality is that this is really just a historical fiction family saga with a little magical spice thrown in. That’s still an interesting premise, but if you are excited about this being a magical realism novel, you might be disappointed. After the fortune teller gives them their death dates, the rest of the novel focuses on the characters’ adult lives. Though the day of their deaths obviously play a large role, it is more of an underlying driving force than being in the forefront of the plot.

I really enjoyed seeing different parts of the country at different points in time. We get to see New York in the late 60’s and early 70’s and San Francisco and Las Vegas in the 80’s and 90’s. Although the book was not very descriptive or atmospheric, it was nice to see such an interesting historical backdrop to the family drama. The family isn’t overtly dysfunctional, but as time goes on, it is easy to see the cracks in the family’s foundation, which is what the novel is mostly about. The family as a whole have some issues with communication and openness, but more and more issues crop up as their death dates approach.

I couldn’t help thinking that a lot of what was predicted became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In particular, a couple of the children made some (in my view) very odd, out-of-character, and just plain bad choices that led to very bad things happening. A few of the family members likely had some mental illnesses and issues with trauma, but I had a hard time believing some of the characters’ reactions and actions. I know I’m speaking in extremely general terms here, but hey, that’s the trade off when I try not to spoil anyone!

The family is Jewish, and I liked that their faith actually played a role in how they processed their problems and viewed the world. Each child of the family even had a different way of viewing and utilizing their faith, and some were more optimistic than others, of course. There were also some very beautiful lines and some interesting connections between main and side characters. The characters were all pretty “gray” in that no one was always perfect or good. They made mistakes and did morally questionable things, but no one was painted as a true bad guy either. There are touches of levity and humor, but the novel as a whole I would describe as melancholy.

The book is about life, and life isn’t always great. The choices you make can be far-reaching, and the impact certain people make can change the course of another’s life. The book is often sad, but if you have recently lost someone, I could see how it may also be comforting. For me, it was not, but everyone copes differently. I hesitate to rate this one. For pure reading enjoyment, 3/5 stars. However, the book was not bad, but as far as family sagas go, it was solid but not standout.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Essex Serpent

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Cora Seaborne’s husband has passed away. She isn’t terribly upset about this, but she knows she should act the part of the bereaved widow. Cora is a free spirit who enjoys nature and science. A woman being interested in these “masculine” subjects is frowned upon in 1890’s England, but she does not care. Upon hearing about the sightings of the “Essex serpent,” Cora moves herself, her son, and her female companion to the countryside to investigate the serpent. However, Cora finds much more than a mythical beast. She finds love, friendship, and her identity.

If I had to describe this novel in one word, I would choose slow. The pace of the plot and character development is steady but slow, which may turn off some readers. If you want to relax, enjoy beautiful writing, and read about some Victorian romantic drama with a touch of feminism, I would say that The Essex Serpent is a good fit. Personally, while I enjoyed what read, I had to push myself through the first 100-150 pages. I listened to most of the novel on audio book just to get into the story. However, once I become attached to the characters, it became a much more enjoyable reading experience.

Despite my summary and most blurbs going on about Cora, there are at least a dozen other characters in the novel that get not insignificant page time. Most of them are well developed with their own beliefs, personalities, and relationships. (There are a few that I would have liked to see more of, particularly Cora’s son.) There are also love triangles and romantic pairings everywhere. The book is less about the mythical serpent and much more focused on the relationships (both romantic and not) the characters have with one another. This is not a bad thing, but it should be said so that no one gets the wrong idea about the plot. Yes, the serpent is alluded to often and has an effect on the townspeople, but it seems secondary to the lives of the main characters.

I was slightly disappointed by The Essex Serpent, but I had very high expectations for the mythological aspect of the novel. This is much more of a Victorian romance with a bit of folklore thrown in. Still, I would give The Essex Serpent a 3.5 out of 5 stars for its beautiful writing and strong characters.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

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I do not usually buy books new or buy them soon after they are published, but this was an exception. I felt like this book would be a five-star read for me, so I made a point to buy it quickly. It sounded magical, Gothic, and character driven, which are all things that I love in books and in historical fiction in particular. It was also short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. So, you know, that must mean something for a debut author… The good news is that I was not disappointed by my assumptions about the book, but the bad news is that it fell slightly short of my five-star expectations.

Mr. Hancock is a merchant from a wealthy family, but as of late, his luck and wealth has taken a bit of a turn. He has not heard from one of his ship’s captains for quite some time. He is worried that the ship might be lost because that stroke of bad luck would cripple him and his family. When the captain shows up without a ship but with some exotic cargo, Mr. Hancock is not quite sure how to proceed. Angelica Neal was a rather famous prostitute, but she found a man to keep her. Unfortunately, that man died, leaving Angelica to fend for herself once again. Mr. Hancock’s special cargo brings he and Angelica together, but they come from vastly different lifestyles. Can the two of them find any common ground when it seems everyone else is against them?

I was correct that this was a character-driven novel. It is a slow, slow burn, which could easily turn many people off. Thankfully, the characters are quite well written, which makes it easy to keep turning pages. Mr. Hancock is a rather simple, honest, and innocent man, but he is still imperfect in some ways. Angelica is at times grating with her expensive, luxurious tastes and ill judgement, but by the end, I warmed up to her. Angelica may seem superficial, but in reality, she is a complex character that evolves throughout the novel with her discovery of her true self. Admittedly, I do not think that the other characters grow and change as much as Angelica. There are a handful of other important characters like Angelica’s cold assistant, Mrs. Frost, and Mr. Hancock’s niece, Susanna (Sukie). They are all well constructed and realistic, but if you do not like the characters, you may dislike the novel as a whole.

The author’s writing is very descriptive but not overly embellished. I had hoped that the writing would be a little more lyrical, but it was still very good. There’s a reason that this book has earned some acclaim. One gripe some readers might have is that it isn’t really a very fantastical novel. When the title says mermaid, you expect a mermaid. I expected a bit more magical realism, but there really wasn’t much magic or much “mermaid” in the novel. Don’t go in expected to see Ariel from The Little Mermaid is all I’m saying!

If you expect magic and traditional mermaids, I would advise you to adjust your expectations slightly but not give up on reading the novel entirely. This is simply more of a literary, historical novel than magical realism or a fairy tale retelling. If you love getting to know characters very well, enjoy a well-described historical atmosphere, and like just the lightest touch of magic, you will likely enjoy The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock as much as I did. Four stars!

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Incarnations

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I have barely been reading lately, and I hate it. I apologize for missing a few weeks of reviews. I started a new job, and it has been occupying a lot of my time. But you’re not here to read about all of that, are you?

The Incarnations follows a man who has a not-so-great job. Beijing taxi driver, Wang Jun, lives a dull, modest life with his wife and daughter. One day Driver Wang finds a letter in his taxi from someone who knows all about his life. The letter almost sounds like the writer is stalking him. Driver Wang keeps the letter to himself, but more and more letters find their way to him. The mysterious writer claims to know Wang from their previous lives. The letters go into great detail about who Wang was in his past lives, and they begin to urge Wang to leave his wife. Wang feels himself drawn to the letter writer, but the writer is convinced that Wang is his/her true love.

My favorite thing about this book was its writing. The novel takes place right before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The descriptions of Beijing as it prepares to host an international competition are claustrophobic, dirty, frantic, and at times dystopian. Quite a few scenes also take place in China’s past via Wang’s reading of the mysterious letters. The author describes the cruelty, poverty, and riches of past eras just as well as she details modern Beijing. The novel includes many nods to true historical events and people, but it also includes some folklore and mythology.

The characters are well-rounded for the most part, but the characters from the historical sections feel a bit more flat and fairy-tale like. We are led to believe that certain characters are Wang’s past selves, but they do not always feel like present-day Wang. Perhaps the historical characters give insight to parts of Wang’s inner self that he represses, but there is a chance that Wang or the letter writer are unreliable narrators, which adds another layer to the story.

The plot of the book had a lot of promise, but in the end, it did not satisfy my expectations. The historical sections did not feel like they meshed well with the modern parts. Despite how prevalent the historical portions were, they did not feel like they had much impact on the overall plot. Perhaps if there was more of an echo of repeated events and character actions between the past and present sections, the novel as a whole might feel more cohesive. I also felt like the novel ended too soon. I am very interested in knowing the outcome of some of the ending events.

This is a book that definitely gives you a lot to think about. It might even be a solid book club selection. The plot, historical facts, folklore, and daily life in Beijing make it a smart and expansive novel, but the execution could have been slightly tighter. I gave The Incarnations 3/5 stars.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Thirteenth Tale

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This book is another one that has been sitting on my shelf for so long that I forgot what it was about. Upon rereading the summary I was re-intrigued. It mentions ghost stories, mysterious authors, references to Jane Eyre, and old mansions. I also remembered that The Thirteenth Tale got some acclaim when it came out, and there’s a BBC movie of the book. All good stuff.

The Thirteenth Tale is mainly told from aspiring biographer, Margaret Lea’s, perspective. Margaret has been summoned by the legendary author Vida Winter to write the aging author’s true life story. Throughout her rise to fame, Vida Winter has told her story to many biographers and journalists, but she has always made it all up. Now Vida is deathly ill and wishes to finally tell the truth, but Margaret cannot figure out why Vida would want a nobody like her to write her final biography. Margaret soon finds that she and Vida have a few things in common from their pasts, and their futures will be forever intertwined.

As mentioned, a lot of the book is from Margaret’s perspective, but the sections where Vida tells about her past are from Vida’s perspective. It is clear that Margaret has some secrets about her own past, but the driving force of the novel is figuring out Vida’s secrets. In fact, I found myself bored with Margaret’s sections unless she was finding out something about Vida. Margaret feels oddly secondary next to Vida, despite us following Margaret for most of the novel. I wish Margaret was more of her own character, but she feels more like a vehicle created to further Vida’s tale. Vida is an extremely interesting character, and I greatly enjoyed unraveling her secrets. Most of the other characters did not make an impression on me, but a few secondary characters (the Missus, John-the-dig, and Aurelius) got some time to shine.

The plot slowly reveals itself, but I felt like the answers to the many questions about Vida’s life came at a good pace. The atmosphere in the novel is great. Vida’s childhood home is sufficiently creepy and mysterious, Vida’s current home is dark and foreboding, and Margaret’s journeys elsewhere are explained clearly and beautifully. The only thing lackluster about the plot was the ending. Without saying too much, part of the ending felt a bit cheap. Throughout the novel you expect one thing, but the end reveals that that “thing” is not what it appeared to be. It did not go completely “dues ex machina,” but the explanation for one of the big secrets felt unsatisfying to me.

I would still give The Thirteenth Tale a high recommendation. It is a slow, quiet novel that puts forth a good mystery. To me, it felt like a mix between the movie Big Fish, Jane Eyre, and those creepy girls in The Shining, and in my opinion, that sounds pretty interesting.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Muse

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I love this cover. I love it so much that I kept it on my shelf for a year and a half. OK, I’m joking, obviously. I have a lot of historical fiction on my bookshelves, but I never seem to be in the mood for one. But, when I finally pick one up (usually out of guilt of it sitting there so long), I almost always enjoy it.

 

As you may know, Jessie Burton also wrote The Miniaturist, which I also enjoyed and reviewed a while back. Like The Miniaturist, The Muse has lovable characters, tackles some tough social/societal issues, and has an enchanting and mysterious plot. In my opinion, The Miniaturist did not quite live up to its name since there was very little about the character who made the magical miniatures. The Muse does a better job of providing a clear narrative and the characters are crafted much more carefully.

The Muse focuses on two timelines. In 1967, we follow Odelle Bastien, a Trinidadian woman who has come to London to follow her dreams of being a writer. She finds a job as a typist at an art gallery, but living alone in London is often difficult for her as a single, working woman of color. Odelle meets her boss, Marjorie Quick, who is a woman with a mysterious past. In 1936, the Schloss family has moved to rural Spain for a fresh start. Olive Schloss is a headstrong young woman with an extraordinary painting ability. Olive’s family gets wrapped up in the Spanish Revolution when they employ the revolutionary siblings, Teresa and Isaac. Although many of these characters and details appear unrelated to each other, the plot intertwines nearly everything in a believable way.

If you have read both of Burton’s novels, you’ll see that she likes to leave gaps in her narratives. So, if you like to have everything tied up neatly at the end of the novel, beware! The Miniaturist left some large gaps in the plot and with characterization, which left me feeling unsatisfied as a reader. The Muse still leaves some minor details out, but it is much less ambiguous overall. The characters in The Muse were also a bit more fleshed out. Their pasts, ambitions, and feelings went beyond the page and the main plot line. There were a few events that were a little bit of stretch of reality (convenient meetings/connections between characters, relationships that did not progress realistically), but as I said earlier, most things came together in a way that made sense and felt natural. I loved a lot of what The Muse had to offer, and I particularly liked Odelle as a character. She was a strong female character, and her inner thoughts and feelings about her writing mirrored my own.

The Muse has a lot of strengths, and I wholeheartedly believe that Burton improved as a writer from her first novel to this one. However, if I had to give one critique about the novel, I would have to say that at times it felt like it was trying to do too much. It talked about colonialism, racism, sexism, historical events, the art world, writing, creating art in general, guilt, trauma, and the characters’ love lives to name a few off the top of my head. These are great subjects to take on, but few are explored in depth. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it is realistic to some extent as these topics do often come up in the course of everyday life. We cannot always process every little part of these subjects as we go about our day, so should we expect a novel to untangle all of these parts of life? Perhaps not. Still, it is something to keep in mind if you plan on reading The Muse. You may be like me and feel like it spread itself a bit thin in trying to cover so many issues and topics. Despite this, I would still give this novel a very high recommendation. Even if you did not like The Miniaturist, The Muse is worth giving a chance.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Little Stranger

TLSbySWI read The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters last year and loved it. It was a slow, character-focused tale with a touch of mystery and a good bit of slow-burning romance. The average rating on Goodreads has The Paying Guests at a 3.4 out of 5 stars, which surprised me. Still, I can definitely see the faults in the novel that might turn some readers off. So, when I saw the 3.5/5 average rating for The Little Stranger, I was not deterred. I had a feeling I would like The Little Stranger more than the average rating, and I was right.

World War II is over, and the British upper-class is feeling out of place and outdated. A local doctor, Dr. Faraday, strikes up a friendship with an old family named Ayres in Warwickshire. As the Ayres’s old mansion crumbles around them, the family tries to keep up their upper-class appearance. They keep a maid they cannot really afford, make what repairs to the house they can afford, and close up the many rooms they cannot keep up with. Dr. Faraday (our first-person narrator) falls in love with the family and their old home. He tries to help his friends as best he can, but when the family and their servants begin to experience supernatural occurrences, Dr. Faraday tries to keep them grounded. He provides logical explanations for the strange marks on the walls, creepy noises, and misplaced objects. Is there a ghost in the Ayres’s home, or is it something that can be explained away by science or medicine?

The biggest “con” to reading this book is that it is very, very slow to start. As I have said many times, I like slow books, but many people do not. So, fair warning, nothing really happens for a while besides some very British conversations, lots of tea drinking, and Dr. Faraday’s inner monologue. All of these things are done well, and it is easy to get a sense of all of the characters during this time. Just… don’t go in expecting the ghostly goodness to start any time soon. There are hints of course, but the paranormal stuff does not ramp up until about 100-200 pages from the end. Speaking of the ending, it is somewhat ambiguous. Is there a ghost? Is there a curse on the family? Or are all of the happenings merely a result of stressed and unstable minds? In my opinion, there is a chance that Dr. Faraday could be an unreliable narrator too, but I have not looked into whether other readers agree or disagree with me. The answers to all of the aforementioned questions may be pretty clear to you after the book ends, but some readers might also be unsatisfied with the ending as it does not tie things up conclusively. Again, just a warning.

For me, the pros outweighed the cons for this novel. The characters were great. They are not perfect. Often, they react badly but believably to an event. They make mistakes and have misunderstandings. Everyone feels like a realistic, three-dimensional person. Even the side characters feel as if they have their own lives off the page. And, despite the slowness of the plot, I think it was done well. Just when I started to forget about the paranormal stuff and got wrapped up in a side plot, something happened and surprised me. The strange occurrences got more and more frequent toward the climax until suddenly everything reached a fever pitch. The novel also discusses class hierarchy and life in post-WWII Britain, which adds a layer of realism and some more character depth. This is simply a well-written title that feels like a classic.

Even days after finishing, I still think about this novel. The characters are so vibrant, and I miss reading about them. I really enjoyed the everyday conversations and worries of the characters. I could probably read a whole novel about them just living their lives with no actual plot. I would give The Little Stranger 4.5/5 stars, as the beginning was just a little bit slow even for me. And, from what I hear, there may be a film adaptation of The Little Stranger this fall.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

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The atmosphere of Manhattan Beach put me in the mood to keep reading historical fiction. After seeing many people on the internet rave about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, I picked it up. In my opinion at least, the hype is real and deserved.

In the 1950’s, Cuban-American Evelyn Ferrera gave up everything to go to Hollywood and become a star. She stopped speaking Spanish, married a man she did not love, dyed her hair blonde, and changed her name to Evelyn Hugo. She became a household name and a legendary star. But now Evelyn is nearly eighty. All of her old friends are gone, and she wants to come clean about her years of scandals and secrets. For some reason, she seeks out unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant to write her biography. Monique’s outlook and perception of her life will irreversibly change after she finds out she has a connection to the mysterious and beautiful Evelyn Hugo.

Wow, this book was good. This was another fairly atmospheric read. It felt very early Hollywood. It was glamorous, sexy, heartbreaking, romantic, and engrossing. The book gave a “behind the scenes” look at 19050’s through 1980’s Hollywood. You might think this book is just about rich people problems, (and it is to some extent) but it is so much more. Stars are actual people after all. Evelyn is such a complex and strong woman, but she has faults and makes mistakes. She falls down and pulls herself back up. Most of the side characters are also amazing, but some could use more development. Each of Evelyn’s husbands were interesting and often horrible, but they each served a purpose for Evelyn and made her character grow realistically.

The novel tries and succeeds in tackling tough subjects of the past as well as today’s social issues. Specifically, the novel is very LGBTQ+ oriented. People who were not heterosexual had a very hard time in old Hollywood. Being outed could easily ruin a career and/or get the person killed. There is also discussion on cultural identity, racism, sexism, sexuality and sex in general, self-confidence, and women’s control of their bodies. Somehow the novel touches on all of these things without being preachy and without slowly down the pacing.

This a brutally honest novel with a lot of heart. I laughed, cried, and could not put it down. I gave the novel five stars. This has been a great reading year for me so far, and I am still craving historical fiction for some reason!

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

Manhattan Beach

MBbyJEOn my recent trip to New York City, I went on a bookstore spree. One of my favorites, and the one with the most personal feel, was Astoria Bookshop. It was there that I picked up a signed copy of Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. I didn’t go there for this specific book. I had heard of Manhattan Beach because it had some buzz around it, and it was longlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction. The reasons I bought it were that it was signed (despite not really knowing the author’s work) and I wanted to support the bookshop. As luck would have it, I also ended up loving the novel.

Manhattan Beach is a novel about life in New York around the time of WWII. The primary character is Anna Kerrigan, a girl who loves her father, her disabled sister, her mother, her eccentric aunt, and loves a little bit of adventure. The novel begins when Anna is a child. She follows her father around when he does business dealings, but she is too young to understand what his job exactly is. When he suddenly goes missing, Anna is heartbroken. She tries to forget all about her father, and for a few years, she is able to move on. Once Anna enters the workforce, she meets one of her father’s old associates, a gangster by the name of Dexter Styles. As Anna gets closer to Mr. Styles, she finds out many of her father’s secrets.

My advice for going into this novel is to know that it isn’t all about Anna. The narration is third-person, but often the focus skips to one character or another. Sometimes the narration seems omniscient. The plot is much bigger than Anna’s own life. Dexter clearly his own complicated affairs, and there’s a lot about Anna’s sister and how her disability affects everyone else. The novel touches on sexism during the time period and how race and disability were viewed. There is a lot covered in the novel, and sometimes, it felt a touch messy. The time period and setting feel honest and accurate though. The author mentions the extensive research she did during the writing process, but I am no expert myself. It feels very New York, and it feels very WWII-America. It is a slow read. It is very character-focused, but it was the perfect book for my mood when I read it. A very solid 4.5/5 stars from me.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Paying Guests

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World War I is over, but Europe is disillusioned. Frances Wright’s family was once wealthy, but her father died and left Frances and her mother with his debts to settle. This has left Mrs and Miss Wright with no choice but to rent out part of their family home for extra income. It is an insult to have people of the “clerk class” in their home, but the money is desperately needed and the renters– a young couple called Leonard and Lillian Barber– seem quite nice. Frances feels drawn to the couple, but she does not expect to get tangled up in their strange drama, all the while dealing with her own past.

I am new to Sarah Waters, but she sounded like an author I would like. I wanted to start with one of her other books (Fingersmith, perhaps), but I had a difficult time finding a large hardback edition of any of her other novels besides The Paying Guests. I’m a picky buyer, what can I say? The Paying Guests has a pretty low Goodreads rating, but I did not let that deter me, thankfully. I really enjoyed the novel even though it really isn’t something I would think I would enjoy. I was drawn in by the promise of a mystery, but it is really more of a romance.

A lot of complaints from Goodreads members seem to be that The Paying Guests is too long or too slow. I would actually agree to an extent. It is a chunky book and the plot moves slowly for a while. There is a lot of focus on Frances’ inner thoughts. While I do think that at least 100 pages could have been trimmed out, I found the book hard to put down. This was actually a stressful read. I felt on the edge of my seat many times. There would be a build-up to something, that something would happen, and then something would go wrong for the characters I was rooting for. There was a quiet tension throughout the novel that I greatly enjoyed. The characters were complex and I was very invested in what happened to them all. I actually really liked the ups and downs of the romance! There were twists too! I went into the novel knowing very little and it paid off.

Though not quite a thriller, I was engrossed in the novel from start to finish. My only complaint is that the ending wasn’t quite satisfying to me. This felt like a novel that just kept building and building tension so much that the ending would never measure up. And for me, it didn’t. I really couldn’t say what I wanted to happen or how I would prefer it to end though. For that reason and for it being a touch too long, I gave it a solid four out of five stars.