Fiction, Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 historical fiction books I loved

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The three loves of my life in one pic

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly top ten list hosted by Jana at Artsy Reader Girl.

This week, the theme is ❤ love ❤ . Since I’m doing a historical reading challenge this year, I thought it might be fun to share historical fiction I’ve read and loved in the past.

Here goes!


1. The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton

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I discovered Anya Seton’s excellent historical fiction last year and started with The Winthrop Woman. It features a strong female character in colonial America. I now want to read all her books.

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2. The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier

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Featuring another strong female in a different era – the English civil war. Funny, I always think of du Maurier as one of my favorite authors and yet I’ve only read two of her books. This and Rebecca. Must remedy that.

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3. Clara Callan by Richard B. Wright

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Set in rural Ontario, this one is about two sisters and their relationship, as well as their different choices during a time of cultural upheaval. Clara’s sister moves to NYC to become a radio star and something terrible changes Clara’s life. Just talked myself into re-reading it…

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4. The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

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Murder at an English boarding school. What could be better? I’ll tell you. The audiobook version being read by the talented Jayne Entwistle, that’s what.

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5. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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Lesbian characters, 1920s London, murder, Sarah Waters’ incredible storytelling. Audiobook read by Juliet Stevenson. You can’t go wrong.

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6. The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

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More strong female characters, this time enslaved women of the antebellum South.

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7. Doc by Mary Doria Russell 

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I freakin’ love Doc Holliday. And at the hands of Mary Doria Russell, he comes to life, as does the 19th-century American West.

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8. The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

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Starring the woman who is hired to be the chaperone of early film star Louise Brooks. I might re-read this one too, actually.

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9. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles 

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If you enjoy tangled webs of tricky and codependent relationships played out to great drama in historic settings, you’ll probably like this as much as I did.

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10. Brief Gaudy Hour: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Margaret Campbell Barnes

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One of my favorite English queens through the eyes of Margaret Campbell Barnes, a talented writer who probably doesn’t get remembered as she should. And isn’t that a great book title?

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I could go on, but this is a top ten. I just adore this genre. As you can tell, I lean toward women’s stories, though the books I’ve listed here are mostly focused on white women’s stories. I aim to read more diverse books this year.

That said, got any historical fiction recommendations for me? Bonus points if they feature minority women characters!

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2020 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

2020 Classics Challenge: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

TwentyThousandLeaguesUndertheSeaJules Verne, you entertaining S.O.B.

My reaction while reading the initial chapters of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne was one of utter amusement. As I remarked to Ben, anyone who says the classics are boring isn’t reading the right classics.

I was vastly entertained by the plot and characters of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. One of Verne’s classic adventure novels, this book is the origin of numerous names and tropes that would live on in the science fiction genre in perpetuity.

The novel follows narrator Professor Pierre Aronnax, a French marine biologist who joins an expedition on an American frigate, the Abraham Lincoln, in hot pursuit of what is believed to be a rowdy narwhal causing trouble in the open seas.

Of course, the narwhal turns out to be that contraption you see on the cover of the book, a uniquely designed submarine called the Nautilus, which boasts a full crew commanded by the formidable Captain Nemo.

I knew the name Captain Nemo, but didn’t know where it came from. Isn’t it funny how bits of culture become so universal that you can be aware of them most of your life without knowing the origin?

This is exactly why I take joy in the classics challenge. I feel like I am getting an education on all the important books I missed in school, despite having covered a lot of ground as an English major.

I digress.

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How cool is this pic? I really want to learn more about actual Narwhals now. Source

Noteworthy notes about the book:

  • The most interesting conflict in the book, to me, is the fact that the professor and his two companions are held captive on the Nautilus. From the time they are rescued from death at sea by Captain Nemo, he warns them that they are to live out their days on the submarine. Death at sea is the other option and they are alive at his pleasure. So, while traveling in the submarine is a grand adventure, it is also a prison for the three captives which keeps the reader asking “Will they escape?” until the end.
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  • Team Ned Land forever. Ned Land, a Canadian harpooner, is along for the ride. He’s a classic jock/meathead type who is quite disgruntled at having been taken captive and eager to get back to land. One of my favorite lines of his is in reaction to Aronnax encouraging him to look forward to their first meal aboard the Nautilus:
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    “Bah!” said the angry harpooner, “what do you suppose they eat here? Tortoise liver, filleted shark, and beef steaks from seadogs.” Lol.
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  • This is very much a book of its time, by which I mean there is racism. When Aronnax and his companions come upon the people of Papua New Guinea, I’m afraid they refer to them as savages, cannibals, and wretches. Ick.
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  • Science fiction readers will be accustomed to some of the technical descriptions in the book. These are especially lengthy while Captain Nemo is explaining the workings of the submarine to Aronnax.
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    I found passages like these mind-numbingly boring, however:
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    “When you are about 1,000 feet deep, the walls of the Nautilus bear a pressure of 100 atmospheres. If, then, just now you were to empty the supplementary reservoirs, to lighten the vessel, and to go up to the surface, the pumps must overcome the pressure of 100 atmospheres, which is 1,500 lbs. per square inch.”
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    Sorry, but I have no patience for this sort of thing.
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  • I loved the awe-inspiring scenes of underwater travel. Coral reefs, an ice tunnel, an underwater volcano, majestic ocean animals, and schools of fish are all featured.
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  • That said, I should have known that spending time, even in my imagination, in a submarine under the sea would give me anxiety. Anything that hints remotely at possible loss of oxygen makes me nervous and cringey and moments in this book were no exception. I had to remind myself to breathe at times.
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  • The ending was not. satisfying. at. all.

I’ll leave it there as I’ve run on much longer than I intended, per usual. Overall, worth the read. But I’m still mad about the ending.


Back to the Classics 2020This is my selection for category 9. Classic with Nature in the Title for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen of Books and Chocolate.

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2020 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

2020 Classics Challenge: Ethan Frome made me mad at first

5246Not the book, the man.

As you can see, I am continuing my theme of reading short classics that pack a punch (à la Passing by Nella Larsen).

I sped through Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton this week. It is my first Wharton novel. It just happened to catch my interest on the library shelf and, at an easy 99 pages, I thought it may be a way of easing myself into her oeuvre.

In the beginning, Ethan Frome looks to me like a man who only wants to see himself reflected in the woman he loves, rather than loving the woman for who she is.

He falls hard for his wife’s cousin, who, 20, orphaned, and unmarried, comes to be a sort of caregiver and helper to Frome’s sickly wife Zeena (Zenobia—isn’t that a great name?).

Ethan’s story starts off with a scene where he is creeping around a church hall, spying on the dance happening inside, and specifically on the young woman, Mattie, who he is in love with.

He watches her through the windows and then hides in the shadows where she can’t see him. Watching her brief interactions with the various young men, Denis Eady, son of the town grocer, in particular, Ethan’s jealousy mounts.

Turns out, this creeper was there to walk her home and instead of just walking up to her, he decided to creep on her instead. This pissed me off to no end. And because it made me mad, I kept reading. Way to keep me involved, Wharton.

After my initial irritation with Ethan, further reading led me to understand what drove him to seek himself reflected in the eyes of the woman he loves. First, he led an austere childhood in rural New England in the aptly named fictional town of Starkfield. He cared for sick parents, whose illnesses, coupled with the utter silence in his home, left him bereft of human contact.

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Austere winters – hmmm, sounds familiar.

The following passage helped me to develop some compassion for Ethan:

There the silence had deepened about him year by year. Left alone, after his father’s accident, to carry the burden of farm and mill, he had had no time for convivial loiterings in the village; and when his mother fell ill the loneliness of the house grew more oppressive than that of the fields. His mother had been a “talker” in her day, but after her “trouble” the sound of her voice was seldom heard, though she had not lost the power of speech. Sometimes, in the long winter evenings, when in desperation her son asked her why she didn’t “say something,” she would lift a finger and answer: “Because I’m listening”; and on stormy nights, when the loud wind was about the house, she would complain, if he spoke to her: “They’re talking so out there that I can’t hear you.”

Can you imagine? Wharton so thoroughly communicates the loneliness Ethan must have felt through those sentences. The silent, oppressive winters of rural Massachusetts are a perfect backdrop.

Given his history, and the fact that his wife, Zeena, has descended into the same preoccupation with illness, along with the same pervasive silence, it’s no wonder Ethan longs to be seen.

This post is already too long and I feel like I could write a book about this book. So, I will just offer a few more bullet points to sum up my thoughts:

  • I loved the character of Zeena. Could have used more development there, but I didn’t mind that she was a somewhat two-dimensional villain.
  • The broken red dish. What a scene when Zeena discovers it!
  • Unfortunately, the character of Mattie, Zeena’s cousin and Ethan’s object of affection, is just that. She is a two-dimensional ingénue, simple, sweet, endlessly good-natured, and pretty, and serves only to motivate Ethan’s feelings and actions. That makes the story nice and tight, but I would like to have seen more focus on her perspective.
  • There is a surprising and sad, sad ending. The novel ends in great irony, which I will leave you to discover for yourself.

Goodness, if you read all that, I applaud and thank you!

Obviously, I so loved this book. It’s a quick read, yes, but if you love exquisite writing, you may enjoy lingering over the language and perfectly constructed sentences as I did. Likewise, the tragic events of the plot.


Back to the Classics 2020This is my selection for category 7. Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen of Books and Chocolate.

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2020 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

2020 Classics Challenge: Passing

349929Well, I don’t know how any of the classics I read next can possibly measure up the 1929 Harlem Renaissance-era novel Passing by Nella Larsen.

It’s a quick read, clocking in at around 122 pages. And those pages are packed with tightly focused prose which, along with the set-up of the book, felt very much like a play.

The book is divided into three parts, like acts in a play: Encounter, Re-encounter, and Finale.

Throughout each, protagonist Irene Redfield encounters and re-encounters former schoolmate Clare Kendry Bellew in both Chicago (their hometown) and New York.

Both women are black, specifically African American. Both are light-skinned. The book examines the consequences of the various ways in which the women have chosen to “pass” or not pass as white in society.

Irene married a black man, Brian, after school and they have a family. She passes when it’s convenient to do so. For example, in the first scene, she’s actually passing when she stops at a fancy hotel to have some iced tea and recover from the summer heat. That’s where she runs into Clare, also passing.

But Clare’s situation is different. She is living a secret life, totally passing as a white woman. In fact, she has married a white man who doesn’t know she’s not white. And—dramatic pause—that man is a terrible racist.

The re-encounter actually takes place at Clare’s home in New York City, where Clare’s husband comes home and, not knowing that Irene, along with another school friend who passes, are black, spouts off with a number of racists slurs, even jokingly greeting his wife with one.

Author Nella Larsen 1928 via Wikipedia

Author Nella Larsen in 1928, via Wikipedia

The irony is incredible. The language and outright racism are shocking to me. But, I’m not on the receiving end of any racism, so I’m guessing the disgusting jokes are all things many black Americans have heard before, in general if not directed at them.

The relationship between Irene and Clare is at the center of this book. It’s the lens through which race and the idea of passing are examined. Their interactions reveal their emotions and motivations around passing, as well as what leads each to the final action of the novel.

There are moments of incredible irony and even moments of humor. Larsen manages to elegantly pack in a wealth of themes in addition to that of race, from women’s friendship to marriage and adultery. The writing is lovely. The setting, against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, gives one a real sense of the era.

I’m off to read more about Nella Larsen’s life. I know she has a couple of other books, most notably the novel Quicksand, which I will also be reading.


Back to the Classics 2020

This is my selection for category 5. Classic by a Person of Color for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen of Books and Chocolate.

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Audiobooks, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Paper Wife

45171444._SX318_The protagonist of Laila Ibrahim’s novel Paper Wife is one bad bitch. I loved listening to the audio version of this book read by Nancy Wu.

Set in the early 1920s, the novel follows Mei Ling, a young Chinese girl who is married to a widower that lives in San Francisco. She goes in place of her older sister, who becomes too ill to travel the night before her wedding is to take place. So Mei Ling, working through a Chinese matchmaker, is compelled to pretend to be her sister. Once wed, she finds out that in order to get into the U.S., she must now pretend to be her new husband’s deceased wife. She is also now mother to his four-year-old son Bo.

Bo becomes Mei Ling’s constant companion throughout the long and harrowing journey to San Francisco. Because it’s 1923, they go by ship and men and women, including husbands and wives, are separated on the ships. Children go with their mothers and so Mei Ling travels alone with Bo. It takes two ships, one from China to Hong Kong, and another from Honk Kong to Angel Island off the shore of San Francisco.

Thus, Mei Ling is thrust into a new life in which she must immediately navigate being married to a stranger, pregnancy, mothering a young child, grueling travel, and nervewracking immigration interviews in both Hong Kong and the U.S. And she must do it all while pretending to be someone else entirely. This is where the book’s title is taken from. She’s her husband’s deceased wife “on paper” and her papers get Mei Ling into the U.S.

What makes Mei Ling such a badass in my mind is her strength. Through the many daunting challenges of immigrating, she draws strength from her family back home. The parting words of her beloved grandmother echo in her mind. And she also relies on her faith, praying to goddess Quan Yin for protection and strength through adversity.

On the second ship, Mei Ling also cares for a six-year-old girl, Siew, who was brought aboard by an uncle, but separated from him while on the ship. Over the months-long journey, Mei Ling, Bo, and Siew become a family. June, an older woman who has already lived in San Francisco, befriends Mei Ling and helps her prepare for her immigration interviews.

Once they arrive in San Francisco, both Siew and June remain a part of Mei Ling’s life, though Siew is separated from her new little family. Searching for her and rescuing her from a terrible future consumes Mei Ling, even as she struggles to adjust to life in a new country.

This is an immigration story. While I came to care about the characters, I also appreciated the many details Ibrahim includes about the process of immigrating from China to the U.S. in the early twentieth century.

Because Mei Ling doesn’t understand English, narrator Nancy Wu reads the English spoken in front of her with the correct tone but only emits gibberish sounds. I don’t know how it’s written in the book because I don’t have a hard copy, but I thought that a brilliant way to show how a forgein language sounds to someone unfamiliar with it.

On her first trip to the Chinatown post office, Mei Ling learns that mail isn’t picked up. It’s delivered right to her home instead. She doesn’t know how many stamps to buy for a letter and a kind postal worker speaks to her in Cantonese and helps her learn the ropes.

Experiences like these, along with the overt racism on the part of white people on the street, drives home the isolation an immigrant might live in when unable to speak the language of their new country or attempting to understand unfamiliar customs. If you want to read a book that lays bare the immigrant experience in the 1920s, I highly recommend this one.

You’ll find many other joys along the way. They include the growing love between Mei Ling and her new husband, the incredible scene in which Mei Ling gives birth, and her and her husband’s dreams for the future of their family.

All in all, it was a wonderful listening experience and I was disappointed when it ended.

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

Woman No. 17

36030995._SY475_.jpgI’m always impressed when an author can move successfully between two different voices and perspectives in the same novel. Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki is a good example of this. The story features two separate narrators. The first is Lady Daniels, fledgling writer and recently separated mother of two sons living in the privileged world of the Hollywood Hills. The other is Esther “S,” the young nanny Lady hires to look after her toddler, Devin.

The story alternates between the two perspectives, both voices distinctive. I though Lepucki did an especially good job of making S sound young, though, for her youth, she probably displayed remarkable self-awareness. On the other hand, Lady doesn’t so much. And that’s part of her character.

Throughout the book, the women form a friendship. Lady has her first book deal and is struggling to write a memoir about herself and her older son, Seth, an 18-year-old who is mute. Seth is the son of Lady and an ex-boyfriend, Marco, who left the two when Seth was a baby. Now, lady is married to rich husband Karl and they have two-year-old Devin together.

S is a recent college graduate embarking on an art project that involves imitating the personality of her unreliable mother. She dresses, speaks, and drinks like her mom did in her youth, presenting a facade to Lady, while intensifying her “project” (aka, a lot of drinking) at night in the pool cottage where she lives. In the meantime, S and Seth form a relationship.

Mothers are a major theme in the novel as both Lady and S have fraught relationships with their mothers. Lady gives us background on her mother, also unreliable, but firmly in the past. And S’s feelings about her mother are revealed through current interactions throughout the book.

Social media plays a key role too. Lady is new to Twitter and her tweets are at turns funny and sad, but always revealing. Seth is on Twitter as well and it’s one of the ways he communicates.

Twitter helps bring things to a head when both Lady and her son Seth separately track down Marco on the platform, ending in a climactic scene the novel builds to steadily over the course of the book.

There are lots of fun details that add to the personalities of the characters and bring the setting, the Hollywood Hills, to life. For example, there’s Lady’s husband’s twin sister, Kit Daniels, a hugely successful photographer who plays the role of villainess in Lady mind.

Kit is a pretentious artist with money who dresses in “edgy” L.A. fashion, and capitalizes the nouns in her emails. You get a sense that Lepucki is poking fun at the L.A. art scene with her. Kit is an important character and gives the book its title as she took the photo of Lady that is titled Woman No. 17. Likewise, S tells the story of a college boyfriend, another pretentious artist who breaks up with her because art is “all I care about.”

Overall, the tone and feel of the book reminded me of kind of a mash-up of some of those super popular dark thrillers (Girl on the Train, etc.) with the malaise and quirkiness of a book like Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I enjoyed the atmosphere.

Have you read it? Tell me what you thought!

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

Where the Heart Is: I should have known better

WheretheHeartIsbookThere are so many books I come across and think, “Why isn’t this a movie?”

Take, for example, one of teenage-Shannon’s favorites, Downtown by Anne Rivers Siddons. It’s a well-written novel by a doyenne of Southern literature with a lovable protagonist, Smokey, a small-town Georgia girl who moves to big city Atlanta to write for a premier magazine under an infamous editor during the escalation of the Civil Rights movement in the South. This. This should be a movie. But it’s not.

And yet, some agent or producer read Billie Letts’ 1995 novel Where the Heart Is and said, this. This should be a movie.

Which, I guess I can see. It was a successful film as films go, right? It starred Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, and Stockard Channing. And, sure, it features Novalee Nation, a lovable teenage protagonist from small-town Tennessee who is pregnant and delivers her baby at a Walmart by herself….OK, nevermind, I just convinced myself that, yes, this book could have made a good movie.

The subject, yes. The writing – ehhhh. Like, why was it chosen by Oprah’s Book Club? The writing is not that good. It’s all melodrama. (I know, the more fool I, right? I mean, it’s called Where the Heart Is for heaven’s sake.)

I picked it up because I have a weirdly fond and somewhat poignant memory of watching the movie on TV. I was 19 and around seven months pregnant with Jacob. I was living with my parents and had woken up in my childhood bedroom that morning with severe cramping. My mom and best friend nursed me through the worst of it and laughed with me when it turned out to be……………gas. Yeah. Anyway, we watched the movie on TV while I was coddled and fussed over due to a debilitating case of pregnancy gas.

The point is, I remember it fondly and, thus, when it came up as a newly available Kindle book at the library, I checked it out. It was an easy read and I was in the mood for something light. Something heart-warming. Something you might pick up in the line at the supermarket. This seemed like just the ticket.

And it was except for one small issue. I’d be reading about little Novalee and her encounters with the kooky yet endearing people she meets in the Walmart parking lot and suspending my disbelief just fine when – BAM – turns out the boyfriend who left her there was raped in prison and his rectum was torn!

Criminy. Too sudden and too real, Billie!

The whole book was like this. Novalee is doing great and falling in love and maybe having a few problems here and there but generally doing OK when – BAM – the person she’s closest to dies! Sheesh. I was not prepared.

And that’s why, in my mind, this book will always be a Lifetime Book. The movie should have been a Lifetime movie and the book is most certainly a Lifetime-style book.

Be careful what you read.

BAM!

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