An antebellum story, set in Charleston, with whiffs of The Kitchen House in its character development, this is a solid first outing by a debut author. When young Abby Milton comes to live in Charleston, all we know is the life of poverty she left behind. Yet Friedland slowly spools out the details of Abby's past, and we see how this past impacts her introduction into Charleston society and her life with her benefactor, The author does a solid job of creating a strong female character that still fits into the time period, not always an easy thing to do. Abby is no wilting violet. Douglas Elling, an Englishman and shipping magnate, has a troubled past of his own, as his abolitionist work has brought him great sorrow. Slavery is white-washed a bit, but there are some incidences that show the degradation, the violence, the humiliation of the institution that are powerful parts of the book. The minor characters in this story are well developed, particularly Miss Larissa, the governess and Grace, the newly found best friend. As passions collide, the story builds to a somewhat predictable ending, and yet an explosive epilogue. If you are a fan of love stories and historical fiction, this book will suit you well.
Love and Ruin by Paula McLain
The author of The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun is back, delving once again into a strong woman engulfed in a relationship with America's iconic writer, Ernest Hemingway. This time she focuses on Martha Gelhorn, a young woman from St. Louis, a travel addict and aspiring writer. Her elite circle pulls her into contact with a variety of famous people, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Lillian Hellman, and yes, the great Hemingway. This book focuses solely on the years of their relationship: their meeting in Key West, the affair begun in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, a life in Cuba, their struggles with his literary success and her literary frustrations, and the time apart as Martha pursues her own career as a war correspondent. This book is aptly named, as their love for one another shines through, but it is apparent that neither are great candidates for marital bliss. As always, the book is well-written, well-researched, and has well-developed characters. However, my huuuuge complaint is that McLain has done to Martha Gelhorn exactly what the press did to her decades ago; she minimizes Gelhorn's own career (read the Author's Note at the end - Gelhorn is an icon in the journalistic world, one of the all-time great war reporters this country has ever known, and she did it by breaking every gender stereotype) and puts Gelhorn's life into context only as a wife to Ernest. Aargh...I can hear Marty Gelhorn turning over in her grave. Gelhorn is a fabulous choice for a novel, but I wish McLain had used her as she did Beryl Markham in Circling the Sun, as an incredible portrait of what a woman must do to survive in a man's world, the resilience and grit it takes to never give up, and the incredible courage it requires to turn one's back on marriage and motherhood and pursue one's career. Ah, that's where the story of Martha Gelhorn belongs and McLain misses it, at least she did for me.
Silent Companions: A Ghost Story by Laura Purcell
Do not - I repeat do not - read this book late at night. This is a throwback to the old Victorian Gothic books I was addicted to year's ago, full of mystery, ghostly companions, mysterious family members, and creepy servants. In other words, I could not put this book down. Set at the end of the 19th century, the story begins with Elsie talking to a doctor in the asylum, a hint of the hot mess found in the past. As Elsie relates her story as part of her 'therapy,' she tells of the dark, overgrown estate of her late husband and the village who won't work for her (you know, the ghost and witch rumors will kill a good employment opportunity). Her only companion is her husband's cousin, Sarah. Oh, and the creepy wooden 'silent companions' carved a few hundred years ago for the previous family members to keep them company and show off to King Charles the First. Those pesky wooden cut outs just will not go away and survive being locked away and even burned. The hair on the back of your neck will be permanently raised, and the ending will make your jaw fall on the floor. If you like a little bit of fright (no blood or serial killers, just gothic creep), you may love this book as much as I did. And the cover is just stunning - well worth the paper copy.
Tin Man by Sarah Winman
This is a gorgeous little book that is so hard to describe. The characters drive all the action, yet not a lot of action exists. Feelings exist, as does history, disease, paintings, words. Two young boys, Michael and Ellis, become friends, fall in love, then fall in friendship. Annie comes along, loves Ellis and forms a triumvirate with the two young men. Ellis is left alone in the world, with only his memories and Michael's diaries to keep him company. It all sounds so simple, yet Sarah Winman takes these intense feelings of youth, of hope, of confusion, of death, of tragedy, of grief, and of renewal, and she melds them into a stunning book that I just could not put down. A bit reminiscent of A Little Life, this is a gorgeous story.
The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
A topical and powerful setting for a debut novel, this book moves between two unique times: medieval Syria where a famous Muslim mapmaker and his legendary female apprentice fight mythical creatures, Crusaders, and the elements to map the world as it is known; and Syria in 2011, where a widowed mapmaker returns with her three teenage girls, after years in NYC, to find family and cultural connections, but runs straight into the Arab spring and a civil war. I struggled with the first half of this book, finding it hard to connect to either story. The 12th century story is rife with Arabic names of ancient places no longer heard of, as I found myself skipping the long descriptions. Once the story settled more on the characters and their quest to map the world, it was far more interesting. The modern tale is told through the eyes of 12 year old Nour, a daughter who grieves her father and suffers through unimaginable horror as her world is literally blown up around her. Yet it took until the second half to care deeply about this family. I wanted the author to dive deeper in their hearts, to flesh out more of the story through the characters rather than the plot. I do hope this author writes another book on Syria as I believe she has great potential for educating many of us on the need for more compassion, not a law banning refugees getting a hand up from America.
Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall
This book reminds me of a combo of Gone Girl + Girl on the Train + Fifty Shades of Grey. Take an unreliable, batsh*t crazy narrator, toss him into a sexually charged relationship with some twisted beliefs, mix it in with a death and plenty of bias against women, and Our Kind of Cruelty is what comes out of the oven. Don't get me wrong; the story is unique and quite compelling. I just feel like I want to take a shower after spending a couple days in the world of Mike and Verity. If you like dark, nasty twisted tales, where the courtroom scenes put on full display the hypocrisy of what the world thinks of sex and women, then this book is for you. It would definitely be a provocative choice for a book club. Thanks to Net Galley for a free copy in exchange for an honest review.