Sinful Folk – Ned Hayes

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Set in medieval England, Sinful Folk follows Mear, a nun named Miriam disguised as a mute, old man. In Mear’s small village, five boys burned to death in a house fire, including Mear’s son, Christian. The fire was not an accident. The door was roped shut and the murderer has not been discovered. Mear and some village men decide to make the long trek to London to demand justice for their deaths, hauling the boys’ dead bodies in a cart behind them. Mear is going on the journey to discover her son’s killer, whom she believes may be one of her companions.

The historical detail and quality story-telling in this book was a surprise. I would categorize it as a historical thriller, though it’s not a swashbuckling, sword-fighting type of story. Sinful Folk is agonizingly suspenseful. It’s a slow burn, full of unreliable stories and questionable characters. It never lagged, never meandered, and I was riveted.

Along this journey we learn Mear’s backstory, why she is disguised, how she came to have a son, and why she can’t reveal her identity to any of her companions, even though she trusts many them with her life. The lives of these men are harsh. The winter is brutal and meat is scarce. It’s painfully cold, and the men are filthy and tortured with agonizing hunger. Every character is selfish, starving, and angry in their grief. The writing was above par, and the pacing was intense. I looked forward to reading this story every time I cracked the spine, and towards the end I eschewed chores, phones, and schedules to get to the end.

I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads because I enjoyed the entire book, not just the ending, or the middle, as is so often the case. I was full of anticipation to read it as it reached its close. The author’s attention to detail only enhanced the mystery of Mear’s story.

Sinful Folk is a hidden gem. I don’t give out 5 stars on Goodreads readily, and this book deserves the praise.

The Last Days of Night – Graham Moore

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The Last Days of Night is the story of the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. Which of them actually invented the lightbulb, and who has the legal control to provide electric light to the nation? Is A/C power even safe? This is the argument between alternating current versus direct current, and though it might sound scientific and dry, this fight involves scheming, betrayal, and attempted murder. The story is told from the vantage point of Paul Cravath, Westinghouse’s greenhorn wunderkind lawyer, who’s still wet behind the ears but thrilled to take on the challenge of bringing down Thomas Edison, one of the most powerful men in the country.

While the story is interesting, it reads like a legal thriller. Bottom line, the book is entertaining and, in this particular case, informative, but in actuality most of it is just a series of events. You know the procedure: everything will be revealed in bite-sized pieces and it’s all going to turn out all right in the end. I enjoyed the unexpected twists, the events were exciting, and the research behind the story, especially what Moore manipulated for plot reasons, was very well done. It’s a good story, and one that I wasn’t familiar with. The Last Days of Night is an original legal procedural,  and there’s engaging fiction woven with true events and real people. I was on Wikipedia more than once chasing down my own research questions.

The Last Days of Night is well done; it’s just not my usual type of historical fiction. If you’re at all interested in the history of this story, or would just like to dig into a fun, fast-paced legal thriller, then this is for you. It doesn’t disappoint, and each chapter leaves you wanting to turn to the next page.

Many thanks to the author, Random House, and NetGalley for the copy in exchange for my honest review.

The North Water – Ian McGuire

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WOW, what a story. It’s like a punch in the solar plexus.

The North Water follows Irish surgeon Patrick Sumner on board an ill-fated whaler outfitted with murderers and corruptibles in 1857. Sumner himself has a tormented past and is using The Voyager to flee from his sins. Little does he know that worse things are aboard the ship than he could have ever faced on land. When all other whalers are heading south to chase their quarry, The Voyager heads farther north, into pack ice and madness.

There are no bonny, sea-weathered blokes having a gam in this book. This story is all murderous plotting and barbarism. Based on the true accounts I’ve read from actual whalers, McGuire’s fiction isn’t far off the mark.

At less than 300 pages, The North Water is a quick read, but the pacing is, at times, too inconsistent. In some parts I was just starting to feel the desperation, the isolation, the grueling, unfathomable cold, and McGuire moved on. I wanted more story with Sumner’s bear hunt and more time with the Yaks, but I was also content that McGuire didn’t linger too long.  I’m not one to advocate filler, so I appreciate that McGuire kept the story moving. The descriptions of the grime, the tortuous ship, the starvation and deprivation are impressive. The environment on The Voyager is all viscera, excreta, and blood.  This may sound gruesome, but it couldn’t have been better. His word choice is enviable. I found myself highlighting single words in order to later applaud their specificity. I think my vocabulary increased seven-fold.

The North Water is gory, bloody, corporeal. If you’re at all squeamish, as in “can’t handle Tarantino films,” then this is not for you. Unlike some readers, I didn’t find the brutality and violence overbearing at all. This book requires it, or it wouldn’t work. A story set in the 19th century about a psychologically-tormented, drug-addicted surgeon  aboard a cursed ship full of pedophillic murders and mutinous traitors isn’t going to be full of cupcakes and rainbows. I for, one, enjoyed it enormously. If you have the stomach for it, dive in. You won’t regret it.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Henry Holt & Co. for this advance copy.

The Phoenix of Downton Abbey

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Rising from the ashes of the final episode of the beloved “Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes, marketing genius  creator of Downton, Gosford Park, and just about all much-adored historical soap operas, has a new project! I, for one, am still in mourning over the end of Downton, daydreaming about the end of all the characters on the show, such as the name of “Anner” and Mr. Bates’ baby and whether or not Molesly and Baxter finally hook up.

But fear not, fellow mourners! Belgravia has appeared, and it’s a SERIAL. Fellowes has designed a literary serial online, set in 1815 on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. From the description on the Web site, there is much betrayal, gossip, affairs won and lost — all the dramatic frenzy one should expect from Julian Fellowes.  The novel will be released as eleven “episodes,” sent straight to your favorite device. The first episode, the one that most likely will hook you like crack, is free. Move over, Chuck Dickens, it’s time to party like it’s 1861.

To add to the temptation, there is an app, some online maps, and a family tree (which only fills in as you meet the characters, so no spoilers given). I’m hoping Belgravia may be the light at the Downton terminus. I imagine Fellowes whispering, “Shhh, do not weep. There is more to come.”

I’m on board. I’ve subscribed to read the first episode, but haven’t fully committed to the $14 for all eleven. I’m reservedly optimistic. Great expectations, indeed.

Check it out here

 

 

 

 

Lily and the Octopus – Steven Rowley

Before I cracked the cover, I really wasn’t all the way on board with this. Another dog book? Another book with that annoying “all the feels” phrase attached to it on Goodreads reviews? I’m not a sucker. I don’t fall in for maudlin claptrap.

But something about that title. There’s an octopus in there. I thought, I may have to investigate this after all.

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Find it on Goodreads

And I’m so glad I did. I LOVED IT.

This book actually made me laugh out loud, and then, later, much to my embarrassment, cry out loud. I want to hug Steven Rowley and let the hug linger just a little bit too long. I hated that my life was getting in the way of my reading this book. “I can’t go to work today! I need to know how Lily’s doing! How can I possibly leave the house when that damn octopus is still there?!”

It’s part semi-memoir and part magical realism, or, more accurately, part denial and part unconscious acceptance, which is something we can all relate to. This is a step-by-step to letting go. And Lily’s voice just made me smile the entire time. There are many fantastical elements: Lily converses, the octopus glares and growls, and there’s even a glorious battle at sea.

Just a warning: don’t read this book in public. At one point, I looked up (just so I could get a grip and breathe) and people are staring at me with concerned looks on their faces, wondering if they should intervene or at least offer me a Kleenex. I just smiled sheepishly. “Allergies. They get me every spring! What can you do, ya know?” I blew my nose and pretended nonchalance, while inside me my heart was being wrenched into Lily-sized pieces.

Rowley’s writing is original. This story doesn’t ride the crest of accepted tropes. There’s an adventure here, one that you’ll want to take. I fell in love with Lily and you will too, even if you go into this thinking you won’t. You’ll love this. Guaranteed. Go home, read it, and scritch your dog behind the ears. You know she loves that.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for this advance copy.

 

Gushing over LAB GIRL

Where have I been?

Well, I applied to be a contributor to BookRiot, so I’m waiting to hear back to see if I’ve been accepted. Considering that their acceptance rate is about 20 out of the 1600 or so applications they receive, my chances are about as good as getting into Harvard Law. Worse, actually.

So, rather than leave you all in nail-biting anticipation of when I may post again, I’ve decided to gush about a book I’m super excited about that came out yesterday:  Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

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Find it on Goodreads

Part non-fiction science book about plants, trees, flowers, and soil, and part memoir, Lab Girl entails Dr. Jahren’s coming of age as a geobiologist. From the reviews I’ve read online, this book is perfect for scientists and non-scientists alike, especially those who like a little humor and human interest thrown in to their educational reading.

 

Currently a professor at the University of Hawaii, Jahran includes the stories of her lab work, relevant plant information that will interest even the passive naturalist (as I am), her upbringing in Minnesota, her marriage, and her symbiotic relationship and scientific capers with her lab manager, Bill Hagopian. Most importantly, Jahren addresses her struggle with manic-depression and how she manages to pursue her scientific passions without losing sight of her priorities. I haven’t read her book yet and I already think I want to be BFFs.

As a former lab girl myself, I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

I applied to NetGalley to be a reviewer for this book, but, alas, the publisher turned me down. NetGalley so placatingly suggested that this may be because I’m American and am therefore “outside the UK publisher’s territories” (translation: a dumb colonial). Heads up, UK publisher: Americans read books, even books from the UK. This is probably not the reason for the stiff-upper-lip UK “territorial” refusal of Little, Brown, considering the US book edition that just came out is published by Knopf (last I checked, Broadway NYC  is not in the UK), but thanks, NetGalley, for the tea and sympathy. I’m still going to read the book. In the meantime, until I hear from BookRiot, I will keep hurling my bookish thoughts into the ether à la Carl Sagan’s Voyager Golden Record. Perhaps if I also include “hello” in 55 human languages more people may read my blog. Just an idea.

Other books you might want to check out if Lab Girl interests you:

Wild – Cheryl Strayed      Find it on Goodreads

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A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Plants Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants – Ruth Kassinger      Find it on Goodreads

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The Blue Bath – Mary Waters-Sayer

bluebathThanks to NetGalley, Mary Waters-Sayer, and St. Martin’s Press for the opportunity to read this book in advance and provide an honest review.

The Blue Bath is an absorbing, tumultuous read from debut author Mary Waters-Sayer. The story centers around Kat Lind, a middle-aged, married mom recently returned to London after the death of her mother. Her days are filled with the mundane: renovating her newly-acquired aging English mansion, taking care of her son, Will, and occasionally speaking on the phone to her businessman husband calling from Hong Kong. Kat’s life is up-ended when her former lover, Daniel Blake, shows up in London to display his new paintings at a show at the prestigious Mayfair Gallery. Kat surreptitiously attends the show, hoping to catch a glimpse of Daniel from afar. She is astounded to discover that all the paintings are of her, young and beautiful, from their long-ago love affair in Paris. The affair ended abruptly, but apparently never really died.

Water-Sayers’ writing is exceptional. There are some philosophical passages in this book with thought-provoking ideas. I also got a striking sense of place in her descriptions of both London and Paris, which became characters unto themselves.  She focused on small wonders: the morphing shadows on the wall, the strength of a tendon in a wrist, the delicateness of light. I appreciated the attention to detail, and how these small details add up to a whole picture.

The story goes back and forth between Kat’s present life in London and her short time in Paris when she was 19 and lived with Daniel. The book is never explicit; sex is implied, or begun and then skipped over. This approach actually enhanced the romance of the story, as Kat and Daniel’s relationship was more about the beauty they saw in one another. Water-Sayers doesn’t dwell on plot points, but often just hints at backstory and lets the reader fill in the details.

The only complaint I have about this book is that Daniel was not fully fleshed out. I needed more from him, more about him, more dialog from him. When he first meets Kat, there is instant attraction, though he only speaks in practiced phrases or profound statements. There is little motivation for their initial relationship, other than this undeniable, inexplicable force of attraction. They have no conflict, just dreamy Paris days spent languishing in bed together, surviving on minimal food and charcoal sketches. We never get any normal, everyday talk from Daniel. He’s too far above, too mysterious and deep, which is unbelievable for a love affair that would last more than 24 hours. But it still made for an enjoyable story.

Kat wants to hide her identity as the girl in the paintings, especially when Daniel begins painting her as she is 20 years later. If she’s discovered, she could lose everything, but being truly “seen” by Daniel is the purest form of love she’s ever known. Can she give that up?

Water-Sayers deftly weaves in recurring themes into this book: outsiders can never understand the nature of a relationship, what others see in you may not be what you see, the core of your beauty is what is seen when someone loves you.

If you love Paris, London, art, or first loves, this is the book you should pick up next. This is not some sappy romance. The Blue Bath is best for experienced readers who have had a relationship or two, readers who will appreciate the conflict between the pull of the comfort of security and the lure of nostalgia. I look forward to reading Water-Sayers’s next book!