Review: Maggie Bright


I love Tracy Groot's writing for a number of reasons, but a big one is her characters. She loves her characters, so much that you can't help but love them too. They are quirky and spunky and sparking with life. They are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, facing extraordinary evil, and they defiantly put their little brick in the wall erected against that evil. Groot doesn't write the world-changers—the Hitlers and the Churchills—she writes the common people caught up in the maelstroms of the worldchangers who find a way to do their part in perilous times. How can we do anything but cheer? Groot clearly believes that such small players matter, and matter immensely, seeing as she seems to seek them out in so much of her historical fiction.

In Maggie Bright, it is 1940 and we are in London. The British Expeditionary Force is being pushed back to the beaches of Dunkirk, and Hitler can no longer be dismissed as a delusionary buffoon, not even in far-off America. Maggie Bright is a yacht, one that young Clare Childs has inherited. Little does she realize that along with it, she has inherited a cause. The yacht harbours a secret that she is unaware of, but that others are eager to get their hands on. The Burglar Vicar and far darker characters turn up looking, and Clare gets pulled into a story bigger than herself. The Shrew, an indomitable retired schoolmistress with a shrill shriek and a killer kettle, William, a repressed bobby with a passionate heart under the rigid exterior, and Murray, a young American cartoonist with an international following and his own claim to the Maggie Bright, soon tangle their lives up with hers, and they all find themselves doing battle in one way or another.

At the same time as the Maggie Bright's story is playing out, Private Jamie Elliot is frantically scrambling through Normandy, trying to get safely to Dunkirk with his charge, Captain "Milton", who has lost both his men and his mind and can now communicate only by quoting Milton. The image of the grieving captain laying leaves across the gaping chest wound of a dead French child in a ditch while quoting Paradise Lost is not one that is likely to leave me soon.

Groot's blurbs come from some prominent historians. My husband, who is also a historian, was suitably impressed. This speaks to the quality of her research, and her ability to put a very human face on the great events of history. Maggie Bright will appeal to lovers of history, lovers of humanity, and anyone who believes that small lights shine brightest in the deepest darkness.

Tracy Groot's website

Review: The Name of the Rose


The Name of the Rose has got to be the most philosophical mystery novel of all time, the one the most layered with symbolism and cryptic meanings. To fully appreciate the book that launched Umberto Eco's career as a novelist, it would be helpful to be well acquainted with several languages, at least basic notions of philosophy and logic, as well as medieval church history. Fortunately, Eco has wrapped all of this in a first-class mystery story, so readers with a less classical education can skim through the denser parts.

The novel takes place in a fictional medieval monastery (modelled very roughly on Monte Cassino) in fourteenth-century Italy. Preliminary talks between proponents of papal and imperial power are about to take place there. William of Baskerville, a Franciscan and a former inquisitor, arrives on a mission from the Emperor, accompanied by a German novice, who is the first-person narrator of the story. They find out on their arrival that a young monk has just died under suspicious circumstances. In the next seven days, there will be a series of deaths which William is tasked to investigate and hopefully put an end to, in the midst of multiple personal antagonisms and a high-level political dance between the delegates of the Pope, the Emperor, and the abbot himself.

William is a stand-in for the modern man, our window into the medieval mentality, which another very important element of the story: the medieval mind which assigns deep symbolic meaning to virtually everything, and for whom authority is more trustworthy than evidence interpreted by very fallible human beings. William is an anomaly, disabused by all the abuse of authority that he has seen, and at the forefront of the new kind of thinking that will sweep the world during the Renaissance. We find ourselves at a pivotal point in history. He is very much a Sherlock Holmes, in a world that really doesn't know what to make of him. Adso, his young assistant, is very impressed by him but also rattled profoundly. He is in many ways a Watson figure. And where is Moriarty, you ask? We spend most of the book realizing that he must exist and then finding him and, true to form, the story concludes with a dramatic between him and William-Holmes.

But because this book is more than a whodunnit, the now elderly Adso who is telling the story finds himself at the end of the book reflecting on the meaning not only of the events he witnessed but of life itself, and the meaning of everything he has ever been taught or believed.

Eco is a semiotician, someone who studies the meaning behind signs, which are themselves representatives of reality. The constant play between meaning, symbol, and reality is at the heart of this novel, and it is quite clear that he wants to bring us to a deep reflection on these things.

I was very much taken at the beginning of the story by how well Eco establishes the setting and the atmosphere. We find ourselves at the foot of the mountain on which the monastery is built on a snowy winter day, and we truly do find ourselves there, in another place and another time. It was beautifully done.

There are generous sprinklings of passages in different languages throughout the story, for the monastery is a very international place, with monks of many different nationalities, drawn to a monastery famous for its library and its learning. These are never translated, although occasionally reworded by one of the characters. Fortunately for me, my studies were in foreign languages, but the Latin was perplexing to me. This is not a fatal flaw in the book, but you might find it irritating. Anybody who likes a light read will hate this book. It is dense and requires quite a bit of thought to be appreciated. Those who enjoy the challenge will love it. It is certainly fine example of how literature can expose you to worldviews and experiences totally different from your own. The fact that it has not gone out of print in the last thirty-five years also speaks to the broadness of its appeal, despite its difficulties.

I would really love to explore the parallels between the fictional abbey and the famous Monte Cassino, but that would turn this into an analytical essay more than a review, and more to the point, would necessarily involve some serious spoilers. So I will refrain. For those who are interested in such things, Monte Cassino also inspired A Canticle for Leibowitz, an excellent work of science fiction which also provokes thought about the nature of civilization, faith, and learning.

Umberto Eco's website

Review: Hild

I wanted to love this book, I really did. I had a good personal recommendation, the blurbs were very impressive, and once I dipped into it, the writing was like music. But somewhere around the halfway mark, I had to start pushing myself to pick it up again, and the ending left me rather unsatisfied. I almost feel guilty about saying this, so many people are raving about it. But first things first.

Hild is a historical novel. It takes place in seventh century Britain, and covers the early life of the woman who would become St. Hilda of Whitby. Historians know nothing of this stage of Hilda's life, leaving the field wide open for the author. She tells us the story of the niece of a powerful and rising king, one whose mother created a legend for her before she was born, and who has the gifts to grow into that legend. She is the king's seer, feared and honoured for her ability to see the future. In reality, she is an extraordinarily observant and intelligent child whose gift is more one of being able to connect the dots that no one else even notices. Britain is in the process of converting to Christianity, alliances are shifting, it is a complex and turbulent time. And a fascinating time, well-portrayed in the book.

So why did I not love it in the end? The prose is absolutely lovely, the characterization is rich and believable, the setting is lovingly rendered, so that you can almost smell the fields in spring. Nicola Griffith has done her research and brings the era to breathing, pulsing life. There are so many things that are right. Well, part of the problem was the historical accuracy, an overdose of historical accuracy. It was a complicated time. There were many petty kings with a complex and shifting web of alliances. Keeping track of all of them as Hild helped to steer her uncle through this maze made my head spin. I couldn't keep the names straight, much less why they mattered and what they were up to. Add to this the large number of secondary characters, and the family tree at the beginning was not adequate for this confused reader. We needed a two- or three-page cast of characters. If you are already knowledgeable about seventh-century Britain, you will have a very different reaction.

Secondly, and more important, was Hild herself and as a result how the story was constructed. For all her major role in shaping the events of her time, Hild was more reactive than proactive. Her only real goal was to ensure the survival of her family and loved ones in a perilous world. I was well past the halfway mark and I realized I had no idea what the book was aiming at, or what Hild herself was aiming at. She reacted to events and did so deftly, but her management style would have to be characterized as skilful muddling through. At the end, I was not sure if I could say she had succeeded because the terms for her success had never been defined. The story felt oddly directionless and ended more or less arbitrarily.

However, most of the incidents themselves were interesting, and the texture of the writing is lovely. If you like a long, meandering hike through the countryside, much like Hild herself, you could be one of the many people singing this book's praises. It is very good, but in my mind it is not great. Not quite Gourmet Reading status.

Nicola Griffith's website

Review: The Sentinels of Andersonville

Some stories are drawn in black and white because the black is so deep and so dark that we could not bear to read them without the light to keep us from drowning. Yes, I know I'm mixing metaphors, but I just finished reading The Sentinels of Andersonville and I'm feeling a bit scrambled. The Civil War prison camp at Andersonville was a piece of hell on earth, and reading about it at all would be unbearable without the counterpoint of the genuinely good people who tried to do something about it.

Tracy Groot's historical novel was inspired by an incident during the Civil War, when some concerned people from Americus, Georgia, having learned of the plight of the starving prisoners of war in nearby Fort Sumter, took up a collection of food and tried to deliver it to feed their starving enemies. They were turned away, their food undelivered. Groot imagines a story inspired by them and the other individuals who did what they could to stand against the evil among them.

The descriptions in the novel of the conditions in the camp – and I suspect that Groot spared us some of the worst – are quite simply hellacious. We can count ourselves lucky that words do not convey actual smells. But the novel focuses on the people of integrity who tried in their various ways to do something about it and while they weren't able to eradicate the evil they were at least able to alleviate it a bit. And because we spend the bulk of our time with them rather than down in the camp (although we do spend some time there), it becomes bearable reading. Not just bearable, inspiring. The deep friendships and romances that form between the people battling vicious hatred, the ones who can see the human face of their enemies and who bear the reproach of being branded traitors for doing so, balance out the horror of those who knew exactly what was going on and didn't care, or worse, actively supported it. In real life, the commander of the camp, Captain Henry Wirz, was put to death for war crimes in 1865.

I enjoyed The Sentinels of Andersonville very much. Groot is a skilled, award-winning author who wins praise from almost every quarter, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, and is one of authors whose books I buy as soon as I see the name on the cover. I expected good things, and I got them. I smiled, I laughed, I fought back tears. And perhaps more important, it made me wonder what I should not be looking away from and what I can do about it. Yes, I'm afraid this book will do that to you.

My review of Tracy Groot's Madman

Tracy Groot's website

Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Absolutely charming. Just like the title.

That should be enough information, but you want more, don't you? Fine.

What drew me into this book right off the bat was the voice. Or the voices. They are quirky, cheerful, entertaining, and varied, as the book is actually a collection of letters, written to, from, or about Juliet Ashton, a London writer emerging from the Second World War in desperate need of a new perspective. And she gets it, quite a few, actually, as she discovers the war-time history of Guernsey, an island which spent almost the entire war occupied by Nazi forces.

The characters are the second thing that drew me in. I loved them all, even the ones I hated, who were so much fun to hate. There is the butler posing as a lord, the pig farmer, the local eccentric, the spunky Englishwoman, the sour paragon of virtue, the collaborator, the noble Nazi, the escaped prisoner of war, the London publisher, and of course, Juliet. We get to know many of them in their own words.

There are glimpses of the grimness of war, and the particular grimness created by the Nazis, but they do not overwhelm the book. It is more a story of new beginnings, and finding hope, and overcoming. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society itself was born in an act of defiance, when a group of neighbors is discovered out drunk after curfew and invent a book club on the spot to cover their real activities, which had been a party to eat a contraband pig. To make the cover complete, they invite the soldiers to the next meeting, and a disparate group of farmers, misfits, and well-to-dos spend the rest of the war discovering each other, literature, and inventing potato peel pie. Juliet Ashton gets pulled into their world when she arrives post-war and adds her own dynamic to it.

Part historical, part romance, completely delightful.

Sadly, author Mary Ann Shaffer's health declined after she found a publisher, and it was her niece, Annie Barrows, an author in her own right, who did the revisions and polishing. It is truly a pity we can't look forward to more books by Shaffer, who undertook to write this novel in later life on the goading of her book club. They should have goaded her years earlier.

Shop Indie Bookstores

Review: Color Song

Giulia Borromeo's life is defined by walls, the walls of her convent, the walls of the cell into which she is locked every night, the walls of the society which decrees she can be only a servant, a nun, or a prostitute. But Giulia is an artist, a painter with a gift that is bigger than the small space her world wants to give it, a painter who can literally hear the song the pigments make as they await the artist's hand. And yet within the walls of her life, she had found an unexpected treasure, the only workshop for female artists in all of medieval Italy, presided over by a nun of immense talent, and a heart big enough to recognize and encourage Giulia's.

But when her mentor dies, the workshop leadership is assumed by Domenica, a woman with an entirely different attitude. Giulia knows that once she takes her final vows, she will be relegated to a lifetime of menial tasks, whether or not she accedes to the demand to yield up the secret formula for Passion Blue, a pigment that dazzles like no other. The only other option is fleeing the safety of the convent and throwing herself into a dangerous world for which she is totally unprepared, pursued by the unscrupulous man who desires Passion Blue above all else, and beset by all the other predators waiting to pounce on a solitary young woman with no street smarts, no resources, and no protector.

Kirkus Reviews named Passion Blue, Victoria Strauss's first book about Giulia Borromeo, a Best Teen Book of 2012. I had not read Passion Blue, but I did not find that to be much of a problem, as Strauss fills us in on the back-story without being unduly heavy-handed. The fantastical elements in the first seem to have been more pronounced; in Color Song they are negligible, consisting only in Giulia's ability to actually hear colors, a kind of enhanced synaesthesia.

Color Song is more historical fiction than fantasy. Above all else, it is a coming-of-age story, taking place in a world that gave women very few options. Giulia's determination to be an artist puts her in opposition to an entire society, and places her very life in danger.

The story is well-told, with excellent pacing. The author allows the tension to subside occasionally, but just when we – and Giulia – are starting to get a wee bit comfortable, another wave rocks the boat, or perhaps I should say gondola, seeing as the story takes place mostly in Venice. Strauss very ably makes us appreciate the magnitude of the challenges facing Giulia, as well as the sacrifices she must make in a society that will not allow her to be both a woman and a painter. The characters are also nicely sketched, although hewing perhaps a little too closely to well-worn stereotypes. It is not a fatal flaw, even less so in a book aimed at teen readers who have not yet been exposed to them multiple times.

It is my hope that Color Song will find a wider audience than just teenage girls. By squeezing us into the very narrow passages that society imposes on Giulia, it makes us appreciate her desperate efforts to scale the walls, literally and figuratively, and encourages us to reflect on the nature of oppression in all times and places.

As a special note to authors, Victoria Strauss is also well-known as the co-founder of Writer Beware, a website set up to protect writers from the various predators and dangers besetting them. You owe it to yourself to check into this invaluable resource.

Victoria Strauss's website

Writer Beware

Review: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

Don't be deceived. There is nothing miniature or cute about this story.

Melanie Benjamin is doing something that is a little different. She is writing historical novels in the first person, the life stories of historical figures as she imagines them. I would quibble with this, rather preferring Guy Gavriel Kay's approach of changing all names in his historical novels, but in Benjamin's books, the actual identity of the person is really the point. In this case, we are looking at the life of Lavinia Bump, the midget wife of the even more famous midget General Tom Thumb, who was the cornerstone of the career of the legendary P.T. Barnum.

I picked up this book because the title pulled me in, and I looked harder because I am currently writing a novel with a protagonist named Lavinia, also in the first person. After reading a chapter or two I plunked down my cash. Why? Because the voice of Lavinia sings. She is a feisty non-conformist, both naive and calculating, determined to break out of the confines imposed on her by her sex and her size. And break out she does, horrifying her family by leaving the protection of her genteel home and taking up a life of performing and traveling. Her naivete is rapidly left behind, as she encounters the harsh realities of exploitation, sexism, and prejudice. But she refuses to be broken and finds a way to surmount the challenges of her environment, although she herself is not entirely exempt from pettiness and prejudice.

Benjamin does a good job of recreating the late 19th century, with its prejudices and wars and rapid changes. She details the findings of her research, the liberties she took, and why, in an Author's Note at the end of the book, something I appreciated very much. She also does a good job in presenting the various characters sympathetically and giving them distinctive voices and viewpoints.

I enjoyed this book. It should appeal to almost anyone who reads historical fiction, especially American or 19th century, or anybody who enjoys looking at the world through the eyes of someone unique.


Author's site

Shop Indie Bookstores