Women of the Dunes – Sarah Maine

dunesI love a mysterious story set in Scotland! This is the perfect book for those who enjoy Kate Morton and Susanna Kearsley. This novel is structured with interconnected stories spanning three generations of women: one from the 9th century, one from 19th century, and one in present day.

Ullaness, Scotland, an island on the western coast, is named for the legend of Ulla, a woman who escaped her cruel husband with her lover and remained there with a monk until she died in childbirth. The question still remains, who was the father ─ Ulla’s husband, lover, or the monk?

Libby Snow, archaeologist, has arrived in Ullaness to excavate near the Sturrock estate, hoping to find clues to the legend of Ulla. An unexpected discovery of a body in the dunes dating to the 19th century raises more questions, and deepens the mysterious connection between Libby, her ancestor Ellen who lived in Ullaness in the 1800s, and the legend of Ulla.

This novel is a tangled story of lovers and daring escapes. There is passion, betrayal, and sacrifice. It was a fascinating puzzle that pieces together with Libby’s discoveries and her relationship to the present-day owners of the Sturrock estate.

A very enjoyable read that I tore through in a few days. Many thanks to Netgalley and Atria Books for the copy in exchange for my review.

 

Meet Me at the Museum – Anne Youngson

museumThis is just what I wanted.

I love epistolary novels. A story in letters creates a novel that is immediately intimate. Meet Me at the Museum is well-crafted and heartfelt without being maudlin or sentimental.

Tina Hopgood, farm wife in East Anglia, writes to Dr. Glob in Denmark, a professor who dedicated a book about The Tollund Man to her and her classmates when she was a girl. Dr. Glob is deceased, so the curator of the museum, Anders Larsen, responds to Tina’s inquiry, which at first sparks a casual, friendly correspondence that soon blossoms into letters between two lonely people confiding their fears, regrets, and hopes to one another.

Anders and Tina are both in their 60s, a time of life, Anders explains, where there is more behind them than ahead of them, and yet there’s still time to make a change. Anders is widowed and his children have grown up and moved away. He is alone, and lonely. Tina is married with a farm full of her children and grandchildren, and yet she is also alone and lonely. The both find the companionship they never had in one another.

The ideas explored in this book were profound: feeling alone in a crowded room, questioning life decisions and wondering if those choices mattered, being overwhelmed with noticing things one once took for granted. This book is far from being trite; it offers insight into the big questions that are revealed when one takes a step away from the mundane.

It is a beautiful book. At fewer than 300 pages, there is still enough substance within the letters to gradually develop a relationship that is succinct and revelatory, and the denouement is satisfying without giving away too much.

Highly recommended if you enjoyed 84, Charing Cross Road or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Meet Me at the Museum is a stellar example of all that can be accomplished with letters.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Flatiron Books for the advance copy in exchange for my review.

Dear Mrs. Bird – AJ Pearce

3.5-4 stars 

mrsbirdDear Mrs. Bird is a sweet, charming story; almost saccharine, but nevertheless lovely with a satisfying plot. 

Recommended for readers who liked Letters from Sky by Jessica Brockmole, or As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner, or The Memory of Us by Camille de Maio. It’s also reminiscent of shows like “Call the Midwife” and “Land Girls”.  

 In London during WWII, Emmeline is a young woman longing for a career in journalism, and she unwittingly takes a job as a typist for a brash woman, Mrs. Bird, who writes an advice column for a ladies’ magazine. Em takes it upon herself to respond to the “inappropriate” letters that Mrs. Bird refuses to answer, getting more and more daring and ultimately sneaking them into the magazine.  

Em’s self-appointed career as an advice columnist is only part of the story. This book raises some deeper issues regarding women’s often overlooked trials during the war. Losing spouses either to combat or desertion, rationing, and the constant bombings throughout the city led to some unprecedented struggles with grief, guilt, and fear. The women left behind at home were told to “buck up” and put on a brave face for the men returning from the fight. They weren’t allowed to feel the pain of their fears and sacrifices. Dear Mrs. Bird addresses this issue with finesse around an enchanting story.  

Many thanks to Netgalley and Scribner for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review.  

Adrift – Brian Murphy

adriftI highly recommend Adrift to anyone who enjoys survival tales. I’ve read many books in this genre and this one is a stand-out.

Murphy spends part of the book reviewing the major news stories of the mid-nineteenth century, including the history and economy of packet and luxury ships. This approach gave the book a well-rounded background with some substance. He also includes anecdotes, some relevant biographical information, and an overview of the situation of immigrants in Ireland. It may have seemed tangential, but the stories were relevant to the ship, the John Rutledge, and afforded the reader a clearer picture of what the passengers were facing, both at home and abroad. Murphy describes the appalling conditions aboard the John Rutledge for the immigrant passengers in steerage – the sea-sickness, the overpowering smells, the turbulent seas, the terror.

The actual ordeal of the sinking of the John Rutledge and subsequent fight for life for those who made it to lifeboats was riveting. There was only one survivor from the shipwreck, and the book follows the story of his lifeboat, in which there were originally 13 aboard, including some children. The gripping horrors that these castaways endured is heart-wrenching.

Overall, Adrift presents a fascinating perspective on the shipping industry of the 1850s and the danger aboard these ships as they navigated the icy Atlantic. Highly recommended.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Perseus Books / DeCapo Press for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

Lying in Wait – Liz Nugent

lyinginwaitLiz Nugent does it again with Lying in Wait! If you were stunned by Unraveling Oliver, this will be right in your wheelhouse. Lying in Wait is a thrill ride right from the opening sentence. This is not a simple “who’s the killer?” mystery. Nugent deftly reveals the murderer on the first page. The whodunit and the whydunit are not the core of the story — it’s the family collapse and desperate murder cover-up that make this book so enthralling.

I don’t want to delve too much into the story for fear of giving something away, but it begins with Lydia, an agoraphobic, mentally-unstable housewife of a crumbling estate, and her obsession with her only child, Laurence. Lydia has a shady past that she’d rather not come to light, and more recently has been involved in a murder that she wants kept under wraps, no matter the cost. Laurence pieces together the truth about his mother, and events spiral out of control.

As in Unraveling Oliver, Nugent doles out the story from multiple points-of-view, which rounds out the perspective and gives it some depth. Numerous twists and interwoven relationships will spin you around, and no detail is irrelevant. The ending is satisfying with enough mystery to keep you speculating about what really happened.

Definitely pick this one up! Once you do, you won’t want to put it down.

Many thanks to Simon & Schuster | Scout Press/Gallery Books and Netgalley for the opportunity to read and review this book.

Melmoth – Sarah Perry

melmothThis book is just what I hoped for with Sarah Perry’s new novel: chilling and wonderfully Gothic.

Melmoth the Witness has been roaming the earth for 2,000 years, seeking others to commiserate with her in their crimes of betrayal and cowardice. Melmoth is always in the shadows, her black shroud dripping on the cobblestones, her bloody feet leaving streaks on the floor. The imagery is eerie and those who see her suffer from their guilt. Melmoth is interspersed with a series of vignettes of the Witness’s encounters throughout history, each story coming together in a powerful denouement.

The story follows Helen Franklin, a lonely translator in Prague, who falls prey to the lure of the Melmoth legend after her friend Karel disappears. Helen investigates Karel’s Melmoth documents and realizes her connection to the legend is far stronger than she realized. This novel capitalizes on the fears of the guilty, their foreboding anxiety of being discovered, and the realization that there is no way out.

This is a solid follow-up to Perry’s The Essex Serpent. I look forward to reading her next one!

Many thanks to Custom House (HarperCollins) and Edelweiss for the advance copy in exchange for my review.

The Vanishing – Sophia Tobin

vanishingSet in the dreary Yorkshire moors . . . Annaleigh, a foundling raised by a portrait painter, runs from a doomed romantic entanglement to be a servant at White Windows to a brother and sister, Marcus and Hester Twentyman.

Two other mysterious servants warn her not to develop any kind of friendship with the Twentymans, no matter how warm or inviting they seem. Annaleigh soon discovers that Marcus is volatile and tempestuous, often running into the foggy moor at night to be alone. Hester is timid and paranoid, and suffers from crippling headaches.

The beginning of the story is compelling and has all the elements required for a juicy gothic thriller. The darkness and isolation of the moors enhance the creepiness and claustrophobia of White Windows. There is no escape from the house, nowhere to run. The atmosphere is chilling with a constant presence of foreboding.

The second half of the book, however, becomes more unbelievable, and the characters are inconsistent. Their motivations are ambiguous and their reactions are often incongruous with their earlier temperaments. The story is still interesting enough keep the pages turning, but it requires a strong desire to suspend disbelief in order to accept the plot developments. The plot twists left me with a lot of questions, and the inexplicable actions of the characters were distracting.

I always enjoy a spooky tale, and The Vanishing did not disappoint, but other reviewers’ comparisons to Jane Eyre and Fingersmith are too generous. Despite its flaws, if you seek out Gothic mysteries, as I do, The Vanishing is for you.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Simon and Schuster for the advance copy.