September Sky by John A. Heldt

September SkyInformation

Goodreads: September Sky
Series: American Journey #1
Source: Received from author in exchange for an honest review
Published: 2015

Summary

Former reporter Charles Townsend and his son Justin, recently dropped out of college, take a cruise to Mexico in hopes of finding themselves but instead find the adventure of a lifetime.  A new acquaintance invites the pair to travel into the past, the only requirements being to bring back a detailed report of the people and places they see and to promise not to meddle with history.  When Charles and Justin arrive in 1900 Galveston, Texas, however, Charles knows he cannot sit around and do nothing when an ancestor finds himself accused of murder and when the entire town stands ready to be wiped off the map by an oncoming hurricane.

Review

John Heldt begins his new series with a strong effort, packing September Sky with all his signature elements–time travel and romance, of course, but also compelling characters, historical detail, and enthusiasm for bringing the past to life.  The story is, furthermore, a satisfying one, the kind that gives a sense of completeness at the close, and provides relief–thank goodness the world does not always go completely awry!  Any fan of Heldt’s will find this a worthy addition to his body of work.

Typically the protagonists in a Heldt novel go on a personal journey as well as on a journey through time.  So far each book has featured a very different, but always compelling story–we have seen a middle-aged woman facing a mid-life crisis, a college graduate and a college senior looking toward the future, twin sisters out for a good time, and a woman out of time all face their secret fears, their personal problems.  In this book, we meet something new yet again–a father and a son hoping to find direction in their lives, but also hoping to rebuild their relationship.

Heldt’s stories, though typically featuring a historical disaster, are always, in the end, character-driven.  The father-son relationship takes center stage in September Sky, as it rightly should, but all the characters receive Heldt’s sensitive treatment–even the minor ones, in the end, are always revealed as three-dimensional, as fully human, and thus somewhat surprising.  No one ever falls into the trap of becoming a stereotype.  These are characters drawn so realistically that one might expect to look up from the pages to find them walking down the street.

And what lovely characters they are.  Conventional wisdom dictates that every story needs an antagonist, but though this story involves a murder mystery, even the villains come across as understandable–it is not that their actions are excused, but that their personalities are drawn with such detail, that readers can fathom the motives for their actions perhaps before they do themselves.  They seem real and human, flawed but not necessarily evil.  As for the rest–why, they’re the type of people you’d love to befriend and spend an afternoon with.  Some might think goodness boring but Heldt proves that good characters can live just vibrantly as the bad.

September Sky is a pleasant time-travel romance, one that invites readers to take a trip into the past and just enjoy the life surrounding them.  Though it ends with a natural disaster, its  highlights are the small moments, the ones that illustrate just how much the people of Galveston stand to lose when the hurricane hits.  It is a book that does not seek to educate about history so much as to share an appreciation of the past.  That attitude, that feeling that the author simply says, “Come, let us stroll through 1900 Texas for awhile,” then stands back to give you the space you need to look around, maybe meet a friend or two, is what gives September Sky its own special charm.

The Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth (ARC Review)

Secrets of MidwivesInformation

Goodreads: The Secrets of Midwives
Series: None
Source: Shelf Awareness Giveaway
Publication Date: February 10, 2015

Official Summary

A novel about three generations of midwives (a woman, her mother, and her grandmother) and the secrets they keep that push them apart and ultimately bind them together

THE SECRETS OF MIDWIVES tells the story of three generations of women devoted to delivering new life into the world—and the secrets they keep that threaten to change their own lives forever. Neva Bradley, a third-generation midwife, is determined to keep the details surrounding her own pregnancy—including the identity of the baby’s father— hidden from her family and co-workers for as long as possible. Her mother, Grace, finds it impossible to let this secret rest. For Floss, Neva’s grandmother and a retired midwife, Neva’s situation thrusts her back 60 years in time to a secret that eerily mirrors her granddaughter’s—a secret which, if revealed, will have life-changing consequences for them all. Will these women reveal their secrets and deal with the inevitable consequences? Or are some secrets best kept hidden?

Review

To start, let me say that I understand why this book is being published.  Although the ARC cover features a pile of green baby blankets, the final cover has a photo clearly meant to call to mind Call the Midwife and capitalize on the popularity of the television series (a fact that becomes even clearer when one realizes that The Secrets of Midwifes takes place in present-day Rhode Island, with only a few flashback to a time when midwifes were riding bicycles and wearing blue dresses with red cardigans).  This book, delineating the history, secrets, and relationships of three generations of women, also has clear book club appeal.  I can see that it is going to sell.  It is less clear to me how much readers will enjoy the book after they buy it.

The first major issue with The Secrets of Midwives is bad prose.  This is, of course, something of a subjective issue.  However, I have shown my ARC to enough people and skimmed enough Goodreads reviews to note that I am not in the minority when I say the writing is something the reader will probably have to ignore or overcome in order to enjoy the book.  I showed the novel to a friend who refused to stop reading after the first paragraph.  I probably would have done the same if I were in a bookstore, skimming the book and deciding whether I wished to purchase and read it.  Primarily, I finished reading The Secrets of Midwifes because I received a review copy and felt obligated to do so.  To allow other readers to make their own decisions, however, I will quote the first paragraph (AS IT APPEARS IN THE ARC; the finished book may read differently):

I suppose you could say I was born to be a midwife. Three generations of women in my family had devoted their lies to bringing babies into the world; the work was in my blood.  But my path wasn’t so obvious as that.  I wasn’t my mother—a basket-wearing hippie who rejoiced in the magic of new, precious life.  I wasn’t my grandmother—wise, no nonsense, with a strong belief in the power of natural birth, I didn’t even particularly like babies.  No, for me, the decision to become a midwife had nothing to do with babies.  And everything to do with mothers.

This certainly isn’t the passage of the novel I experienced the most annoyance reading.  But it is the place where many readers will have to decide whether they wish to keep going.

In addition to mediocre prose, the book employs a difficult structure, switching each chapter to give the point of view of Neva (the daughter), Grace (the mother), or Floss (the grandmother).  This in itself is unproblematic.  However, Hepworth does not employ her multiple points of views in (what I would consider) the most profitable way.  Readers get the very basics from Hepworth’s technique: they get a window specifically into each woman’s mind.  However, there is no obvious reason any woman is narrating any particular chapter.  Hepworth literally opens the book with the three meeting for dinner, and switches the point of view in the middle of this dinner.  First readers get Neva’s perspective on drinking tea; then they get her mother’s.  I don’t think anything is really gained by the switch, and I wish Hepworth would have more thought into who should tell what part of the story, instead of employing a very basic 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 pattern as the characters switch off.

The multiple points of view do highlight one thing, however: the skill and subtlety with which Hepworth draws Grace.  Readers are initially introduced to Grace through Neva, who, although fairly close with her mother in one sense (they hang out a lot, talk a lot, etc.) is not actually on good terms with her because she finds her overbeating and obtrusive.  Hepworth then gives Grace’s perspective, and somehow manages to convey the sense that, yes, she is a somewhat meddlesome woman who doesn’t know how to leave people alone, while eliciting some sympathy for her because, in her own mind, she always has a rationalization for her actions.

The other characters do not come across quite as nuanced to me.  The possible exception is a love interest, and there readers get the pleasure of seeing his actions and complicated decisions simply as actions—he does not get to narrate his own tale.

With prose, structure, and most of the characters disappointing me, I was left reading with the hope that the plot would be interesting.  In some ways, it is.  The book claims to be about secrets, after all, and there is one primary mover: Who is the father of Neva’s baby?  So, while ultimately I was actually bored by most of the plot, I was hooked by the cheap suspense tactic.  I wanted to know who the father was.  Unfortunately, this tactic can only work on readers once.  I know who the father is now and nothing else particularly captivated me about the book; I have no reason ever to reread it.

Neva’s grandmother Floss also has a secret, but I did not find it quite as compelling.  In actuality, hers may have been more surprising.  The book definitely leads readers to one obvious conclusion, only to hint later that maybe that is not the right answer, after all.  However, I was not personally invested in the technicalities of Floss’s past life, and while I think she does have a good reason for having kept that secret, I don’t think it comes across as that persuasive in the narrative.  A one-line explanation for why someone has hidden something for her entire life, and then a moving past that moment, is not too provocative.

The Secrets of Midwives is simply not the book for me.  With poor prose and a generally flat plot, it did not give me much to read for.  The scenes of the actual midwifery will probably be appealing to many readers.  However, I think Call the Midwife manages to get themes of the beauty and difficulties of life and motherhood across more compellingly, so anyone who has seen the show—and buys this book because they have seen the show and are now interested in midwives—might be disappointed by the book’s comparative lifelessness.  I’m disappointed I could not like the book more, but I predict the book will have a lot of commercial success, my opinion notwithstanding.

Author Heather Gudenkauf on The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

THE EVENT

i love authors 3

30 Authors in 30 Days is a first of its kind event aimed at connecting readers, bloggers, and authors. Hosted by The Book Wheel, this month-long event takes place during September and features 30 authors discussing their favorite recent reads on 30 different blogs. There are also some great prizes provided by GoneReading.com and BookJigs. For the full schedule of participating authors and bloggers, visit The Book Wheel.

OUR GUEST AUTHOR

Heather GudenkaufAt Pages Unbound, we’re pleased to have Heather Gudenkauf guest post about The Good Girl by Mary Kubica.

Heather Gudenkauf is an Edgar Award nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. Heather lives in Iowa with her husband and children. In her free time Heather enjoys spending time with her family, reading, and running.  You can buy her books here.

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THE GOOD GIRL

 

The Good GirlWhen I was asked to share a few words about my favorite novel released in the past six months Mary Kubica’s THE GOOD GIRL immediately came to mind. THE GOOD GIRL chronicles the abduction of a young inner-city Chicago art teacher, Mia Dennett, through multiple perspectives.

Kubica delivers, with skill and acuity, all the elements that I look for in a highly satisfying thriller—relatable characters and a twisty, fast-paced journey with a surprise ending.

Mia Dennett, the daughter of a well-regarded Chicago judge, is simply attempting to find her own way in the world and tries to distance herself from her well-heeled childhood. Then, with uncharacteristic impulsivity, she connects with a handsome stranger, Colin Thatcher. Very quickly Mia learns that Colin’s intentions are nefarious and he whisks her away to an isolated cabin in the frigid north woods of Minnesota.

I loved the way Kubica structured this novel. Told in the alternating perspectives of four of the principal characters—Mia, her mother, Colin, and the detective assigned to the case—THE GOOD GIRL relates Mia’s saga in chapters labeled “before” and “after” her rescue. Brilliant! The author carefully lays clues so the reader can try and piece together the motive for Mia’s abduction. She also paints a vivid picture of the relentless search for Mia and deftly develops the surprising emotional connection that emerges between abductor and victim.

As I reached the final pages of THE GOOD GIRL, I made a concerted effort to read more slowly; I didn’t want this novel to end. When I did close the book, I often found my thoughts returning to the story and to the wonderfully drawn characters.

I can’t wait to see what Mary Kubica is going to come up with next!

ABOUT MARY KUBICA

???????????????????????????????????Mary Kubica holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in History and American Literature.  She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two children and enjoys photography, gardening, and caring for the animals at a local shelter.  The Good Girl is her first novel.  You can buy it here.

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THE GIVEAWAY

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Mystery Box by Gordon McAlpine

Mystery BoxInformation

Goodreads: Mystery Box: A Novel About the Creators of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys
Source: Library
Published: 2003

Summary

Gordon McAlpine imagines Carolyn Keene and Franklin Dixon as real people who meet in 1920s Paris and mingle with the American expatriate literary circle.

Review

In Mystery Box, Gordon McAlpine imagines Carolyn Keene and Franklin Dixon, not as the pseudonym of a series of ghostwriters, but as real people whose life experiences shaped their stories.  Such a premise might suggest that both Keene and Dixon experienced idyllic childhoods with model families, but McAlpine boldly invents a troubled past for both of them–pasts they attempt to escape by fleeing to 1920s Paris and diving into the American expatriate literary circle thriving there.  Of course, this raises the question of whether this story addresses current readers of the series or readers who enjoyed them in their own childhoods.  Either way, the premise seems flawed–current young readers may well not understand the veiled references to Keene’s life of depravity among the avante garde while nostalgic readers may not wish to see their childhood idols handled so rudely.

Indeed, the question of what the book means to accomplish plagued me throughout my entire reading, distracting me from the plot.  The story seems to take itself rather seriously, attempting to transform names that would typically be associated with wholesome, though over-idealized, books into names that conjure up thoughts of broken families, wasted potential, and lost souls.  But why?  Is it for the shock value?  Is it because doing something so counter-intuitive must be thought “original”?  Seeing Carolyn Keene run from a place she feels unwanted and begin to experiment in an attempt to find herself, watching Franklin Dixon leave everything he’s known behind because of one harsh conversation–none of it really sheds light on the creation of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys.  So, why, I asked myself repeatedly, why do it?

Because, frankly, giving Keene and Dixon troubled lives actually makes less sense in light of their creations.  I can only suppose that Keene, for instance, gives all her characters the same names of the people she’ s known (her “real” father, for example is actually named Carson) but completely different attributes in an attempt to give herself the story she wishes she could have lived.  And Franklin, torn from his family, writes himself into a story all about brothers going on adventures together.  But does that really work?  Does making an alternate life for yourself in fiction heal you or keep you from accepting that you that you need to find healing in the outside world, as well?  Mystery Box seems to think writing heals all wounds, but I wonder.

The rest of the book is taken up by parading Carolyn and Franklin among the “Lost Generation” and their crowd.  F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas all make substantial appearances, mentoring the young writers and offering them advice on love.  Waiting for the famous names to appear proves by far the most interesting part of the book, for the plot is little more than Carolyn and Franklin waiting to find each other and I think few readers can accept that finding one’s soul mate makes you suddenly the writer you always wanted to be.  Whether the author characterizations actually match their historical counterparts is beyond me, but I suppose they are close enough for the purposes of Mystery Box.  I wonder, though, whether young readers of Keene and Dixon would be particularly interested in these figures.

Altogether, Mystery Box proves a disappointing read.  I grew up with Nancy Drew and loved her for her kindness, her bravery, and her independence.  Carolyn Keene, in this version, is said to possess these traits also–but she quickly loses them in her own self doubt.  Franklin, meanwhile, meanders about playing at detective, but never achieves the kinds of cases he probably would like.  Watching these figures shatter in the face of life is depressing and seeing them write their books in an attempt to take control is not particularly uplifting.  I think a book about these authors would have been better served with a fun plot, one that does not take itself seriously (in acknowledgement of the fact that these authors are not real) and just generally gives a crazy detective-style story full of inside jokes.  Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are, in the end, happy books, and I think a book about their creators should be written in that spirit.

The Mirror by John Heldt

The MirrorInformation

Goodreads: The Mirror
Series: Northwest Passage #5
Source: Received from author
Published:
 March 2014

Summary

The year is 2020 and to celebrate their birthday, twin sisters Ginny and Katie Smith attend the local fair, where a fortune teller predicts they will embark on a mysterious journey.  The girls laugh off the woman’s fear–until they enter the House of Mirrors and suddenly find themselves trapped in 1964.  The fortune teller told them they would have one chance to return and the girls desperately want to do so.  But living in the past is not really so bad, especially once the twins start to fall in love.  But even if the twins can change the past, should they?

Review

The Mirror is a fitting close to the Northwest Passage series.  Many of the loose ends come together and readers get glimpses of a few of their favorite characters from previous books while enjoying a brand new adventure.  As with all the Northwest Passage books, the plot may run fairly smoothly, but the real charm lies with the actors.  Ginny and Katie prove just as likable as their predecessors.  They are young and lighthearted and prone to making the sorts of mistakes teenagers make, but their hearts are always in the right place.  Reading about them is like reading about girls you may know in real life.

Perhaps it is a bit misleading to say that most of the charm comes from the characters, however.  Surely just as important to these stories is the time travel.  John Heldt makes history come alive, no matter what period he chooses.  Previous selections have featured the age of swing and the Great Fire of 1910, but these time Heldt transports readers to the 1960s.  Social change is all around and the Smith twins are right in the middle.  They get to experience the rush of attending a Beatles concert while still grappling with the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam.  Growing up in the past, it seems, is not always a “simpler time.”

While it is bittersweet to close the pages of the final book in the Northwest Passage series, this story seems to have run its course.  I look forward to following Heldt in his future writing endeavors.

The Fire by John Heldt

The FireInformation

Goodreads: The Fire
Series: Northwest Passage #4
Source: Received from author
Published:
 August 2013

Summary

Twenty-two year old Kevin Johnson has dreams of going to grad school, but first plans to give himself a well-deserved vacation on an old family estate.  His ancestors harbored a time travelling secret, however, and soon Kevin finds himself in the midst of the Great Fire of 1910.

Review

The Fire returns readers to the magical world of John Heldt’s Northwest Passage series, a place where the past intersects with the present and characters have the ability to change not only their destinies, but also the destinies of the people they love.  Though the plot may seem familiar from previous installments of the series, the characters make the story their own.  Smart, caring, confident, and thoughtful, these are people with whom readers can feel comfortable, like talking with friends.

Though the cast proves varied and each character possesses enough depth to stand on his or her own, even when they appear only infrequently, the three standouts are protagonist Kevin Johnson and the two women he comes to love.  Kevin, a recent college graduate, may seem at first a standard college kid– naively optimistic and perhaps a little overconfident–but he also shows real maturity, a trait not often granted to his age group.  In fact, he sometimes seems meant to travel back to 1910, not because it is in his genes but because he seems so seriously focused on working hard, making a career, and building a family.  And here we all thought millenials were entitled narcissists glued to the Internet.

The two women who help Kevin clarify his goals in life are Sadie and Sarah, respectively an orphan determined to better herself and a clever schoolteacher attempting to forge her own way.   Though both find themselves drawn to the handsome stranger in town, neither ever falls into the trap of building their identity around the  man they desire.  Even Sadie, less confident in her abilities and charms than Sarah, continues to work toward her own dreams, apparently knowing that vision is very attractive indeed.  Their intelligence, dedication, selflessness, and kindness inspire Kevin, so that their friendships are mutually beneficial.  Even if you are not a fan of love triangles, this may be the literary relationship you were looking for–the one where the players already know themselves and do not expect someone else magically to complete them.

All this plays out against the charming background of 1910 in the western United States.  Kevin jumps back in time from the year 2013, so readers get to experience the thrill of exploration through his eyes–it is a little like walking into Diagon Alley for the first time.  Horses still draw wagons, men and women alike observe strict social codes, and the old red light district is actually in operation.  Even as Kevin delights in the novelty, however, he comes to realize that the past is not strictly idyllic–women experience pressure to leave their careers for marriage and do not yet have to vote.  Also, Kevin happens to know from history that the nation’s largest wildfire is about to rage through the town.

Fans of history, time travel, and romance are all sure to find something to please in The Fire.  Filled with vibrant characters determined to live life to the fullest–even if that means changing the course of history–the book by turns delights, surprises, and touches.  Readers will be eager to follow Heldt on his next literary journey.

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The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy

The White BoneInformation

Goodreads: The White Bone
Series: None
Source: Library
Published:1998

Official Summary

For years, young Mud and her family have roamed the high grasses, swamps, and deserts of the sub-Sahara. Now the earth is scorched by drought, and the mutilated bodies of family and friends lie scattered on the ground, shot down by ivory hunters. Nothing-not the once familiar terrain, or the age-old rhythms of life, or even memory itself-seems reliable anymore. Yet a slim prophecy of hope is passed on from water hole to water hole: the sacred white bone of legend will point the elephants toward the Safe Place. And so begins a quest through Africa’s vast and perilous plains-until at last the survivors face a decisive trial of loyalty and courage.

Review

Presenting the world through the eyes of elephants, The White Bone is a powerful and moving novel about nature and the vast intelligence and awareness of animals.  The protagonists, ranging from visionary Mud to the “link bull” Tall Time  to flirtatious She-Snorts, encompass a wide variety of developed personalities.  These elephants laugh, cry, doubt, and rage—experiencing emotions that until recently we believed unique to humans, but experiencing and acting upon them in distinctly animalistic ways.

Gowdy imagines her elephants as a spiritual species.  Each family group includes a visionary and a mind talker, the only ones who can communicate with other animal species.  The elephants worship a powerful She and carry a long tradition of legends about their creation, the corruption of humans, and their afterlife.  The plot focuses on a mystical white bone, which, if found, can lead them all to the Safe Place, where they need fear drought and human poachers no longer.  Although some of the elephants’ beliefs could bear a little more explanation, and the mind talkers are not entirely necessary to the plot, Gowdy’s vision of elephants as a spiritual and contemplative group seems fitting.

However, Gowdy does not neglect the extreme physicality of elephants, as she grounds the novel in realism and animal instinct.  For instance, there are frequent references to animal dung and urine, and their surprising number of uses—tracking other elephants, food during a famine, a poultice for a wound.  The elephants are also highly sexual, and while a few of the characters explore concepts like love and the unnatural state of monogamy, many are happy to recount their various sexual desires and escapades with less emotional attachment.  The book even opens with Mud’s renaming to She-Snorts, as she has mated for the first time and official become a cow.

The emphasis on the daily lives of elephants means The White Bone is not quite as much of a quest story as the summary might suggest.  The elephants are indeed looking for the white bone, having experienced enough recent tragedy to make the adventure worthwhile, even if some elephants believe the bone is merely a myth.  However, most of the elephants tend to keep an eye out for the bone as they do other things—track lost family members, look for food, mourn their dead, avoid poachers.  In many ways The White Bone is “slice of life” about the lives of elephants—and it is nothing but fascinating.  Gowdy’s combination of known elephant fact with speculation about their thoughts, desires, and abilities makes her characters both real and awe-inspiring.

The White Bone will resonate marvelously with animal lovers, but is such an interesting exercise of the imagination that its artistry, emotion, and creatively should impress any reader.  Highly original, and highly recommended.

The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien, Ed. by Christopher Tolkien

Fall of ArthurInformation

Goodreads: The Fall of Arthur
Source: Purchased
Published: May 2013

Official Summary

The world’s first publication of a previously unknown work by J.R.R. Tolkien, which tells the extraordinary story of the final days of England’s legendary hero, King Arthur.

The Fall of Arthur recounts in verse the last campaign of King Arthur who, even as he stands at the threshold of Mirkwood, is summoned back to Britain by news of the treachery of Mordred. Already weakened in spirit by Guinevere’s infidelity with the now-exiled Lancelot, Arthur must rouse his knights to battle one last time against Mordred’s rebels and foreign mercenaries.

Powerful, passionate and filled with vivid imagery, The Fall of Arthurreveals Tolkien’s gift for storytelling at its brilliant best. Originally composed by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930s, this work was set aside for The Hobbit and lay untouched for 80 years.

Now it has been edited for publication by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who contributes three illuminating essays that explore the literary world of King Arthur, reveal the deeper meaning of the verses and the painstaking work that his father applied to bring it to a finished form, and the intriguing links between The Fall of Arthur and his greatest creation, Middle-earth.

Review

Arthur eastward in arms purposed
in war to wage on the wild marches.
over seas sailing to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm ruin defending. (1-4)

Tolkien’s retelling of the King Arthur legend is lyrical and imaginative.  It draws on medieval sources and the Old English poetry form to create a version that is fresh yet a worthy addition to the tradition.  The poem, of course, is unfinished, but the parts that do exist are interesting and well-written.  A few lines might be better phrased, but readers can excuse them based on the fact this poem is still a draft, even if a later version of drafts that had already seen multiple revisions.  The poem’s most intriguing facet may be Tolkien’s unique portrayal of the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere.  The pair loved each other at some point, before the start of the poem, but are drifting farther apart, appearing “strange” to each other when they meet again.  Unfortunately, their story, like Arthur’s, is incomplete, and readers must rely on the outlines of projected cantos that Christopher publishes later in the book in order to approach anything resembling a sense of closure.

The poem is certainly worth reading.  A better combination than King Arthur and J.R.R. Tolkien can hardly be imagined.  As a medievalist and an author interested in creating mythology for England, Tolkien doubtless must have known and loved the Arthurian legend and it is only right he incorporate it into his own writing.  Readers who love Tolkien will love seeing him work with this classic tale, just as he worked with Norse legends, Anglo-Saxon poems, and other medieval romances.

The rest of the book, however, readers can probably take or leave based on their preferences.  The first section Christopher contributes is called “The Poem in Arthurian Tradition” and is essentially lengthy summaries of his father’s major soucres: Historia Regum Britanniae, the alliterative Morte Arthure, the stanzaic Morte Arthure, and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur.  I, having read most of these works in the original, did not find this section very interesting.  Those who have not read the originals may find the section either enlightening or tedious, based on whether they enjoy reading such summaries.  Christopher does helpfully point out what is different between these works and his father’s work, however, so readers need not bother to flip back and forth between the poem and this section to figure it out for themselves.

The second section is “The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to The Silmarillion.”  Christopher publishes some of his father’s notes about The Fall of Arthur and highlights potential relationships between Lancelot and Earendil and Avalon and Tol Eressea.  Unfortunately, Christopher does not always know what to make of potential parallels or relationships between The Fall of Arthur and The Silmarillion and often simply observes their existence without drawing any interpretations or conclusions.  This section also contains detailed outlines J.R.R. Tolkien intended to follow when finishing th poem and some drafts of cantos not included in the officially published poem.

In the third section, “The Evolution of the Poem,” Christopher publishes various drafts of each canto and points out some changes his father made as he wrote and rewrote.  This chapter will be interesting to those readers who enjoy exploring the evolution of texts but can be skipped by those who do not.

The appendix is a brief explanation of the alliterative Old English poetry form that Tolkien adopted for The Fall of Arthur, mostly in J.R.R. Tolkien’s own words, as Christopher Tolkien publishes parts of a talk his father gave on the subject.  This section may not be the most accessible explanation to readers completely unfamiliar with the verse form, but it does nicely highlight the major features of Old English poetry. The appendix closes with an excerpt from The Fall of Arthur, with the “patterns of strong and weak elements in each half-line” listed, so readers have a clear example of how the patterns work.

Each section of the book can be read on its own, and it will behoove readers to determine beforehand which they may find useful.  The book itself seems unclear on whether it is intended for an audience who loves Tolkien but knows nothing about Arthur or an audience of medievalists who love Arthur but may not particularly care about Tolkien.  It tries to walk a middle ground, speaking to both a scholarly and a popular audience—and therefore will leave both types of readers a little unsatisfied.  The poem itself is beautiful and worth a read by anyone.  Christopher’s commentaries can be read or skipped with discretion.

Briana

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

EnchantressGoodreads: The Enchantress of Florence
Source: Purchased

Summary: A blonde-haired foreigner arrives in the court of the Mughal emperor Akbhar claiming he carries a secret that will kill anyone who hears it—save Akbhar himself.  His tale spans decades and continents, following the life of the princess Qara Koz, whose decision to forge her own destiny caused her name to be erased from the annals of history.  The foreigner’s tale captivates not only Akbhar, but also the entire capital—but is it true?

Review: In The Enchantress of Florence, Rushdie mixes history, legend, and fantasy to create a story breathtaking in its scope and imagination.  Although the narrative seems to build slowly at first,  each word is like an exquisite jewel woven into an increasingly intricate tapestry; readers will find themselves drowning in the depths of a story so rich, so sensual, and so luscious that the plot could stand completely still and the beauty of the world Rushdie has woven would still ensnare them.  Though the story ostensibly revolves around the titular enchantress of Florence, Rushdie is the true enchanter here.

Perhaps best classified as magical realism, the book seamlessly blends the fantastic and the factual, playing with the readers’ suspension of disbelief.  Because some of the most outrageous claims are actually rooted in history, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction; the readers experience the confusion of the characters as they desperately try to untangle the threads of the foreigner’s tale to discover the truth of his journey.  As his words begin to take on a reality of their own, however, the question arises: if lies can create so much beauty, is it still worth searching for the truth?

The Enchantress of Florence is a rare treasure among books, one that will make readers want to slow down to savor it, rather than rush through to discover how it ends.  It casts a spell with its unique sense of the absurd, as well as its acceptance of that absurdity as a condition of life.  Like the foreigner’s audience, readers may find themselves unwilling to break the enchantment.

Published: 2008

Beau Brocade by Baroness Orczy

Goodreads: Beau Brocade
Source: Purchased

Summary: King George’s troops scour the countryside of Derbyshire for traitors after the failed rebellion led by Bonny Prince Charlie.  Falsely accused of siding with the pretender, Philip, the young Earl of Stratton, hides on the moors until his sister Lady Patience can deliver to London letters that prove his innocence.  The man who accused Philip, however, remains hot on his trail.  Only one man can help the Earl and his sister outwit their adversary, but dare they place Philip’s life in the hands of the notorious highwayman Beau Brocade?

Review: Beau Brocade should please fans of Orczy’s better-known work The Scarlet Pimpernel as it contains many of the same elements—a beautiful young aristocrat with her brother in danger, a dashing hero with a double identity, and a ruthless villain who will stop at nothing to catch his prey.  Although the plot is unlikely to catch any readers by surprise, it proceeds apace—the majority of its interest lying in the budding romance as well as the various tricks played upon the villains by the audacious Beau Brocade.  As is usual with Orczy’s books, the characters carry the story;  hating the villains is almost as fun as cheering on the protagonists.

Beau Brocade has immediate reader appeal as he functions as a slightly more questionable version of the Scarlet Pimpernel–a man who lives outside the law, but who steals from the rich only to give to the poor (and always while wearing the latest fashion).  Thus, although Orczy takes care to draw attention to his chivalry, his boyish laughter, his zest for life, and his ability to win the loyalty and love of all the poorer folk in Derbyshire, an air of mystery surrounds him; if this man is so noble, what crime in his past forces him to hide upon the moors like a common thief?  That nagging doubt plays into his relationship with Lady Patience, who finds herself attracted to his honorable qualities but fearing to lose her heart to a man who could betray her for personal gain.

If Beau Brocade is the Scarlet Pimpernal (or perhaps a better parallel can be drawn to Blakeney’s ancestor Diogenes, hero of The Laughing Cavalier), Patience obviously corresponds to the Pimpernel’s love interest, Marguerite.  Fortunately, however, she lacks that lady’s talent for falling captive to her enemies every so often so they can more easily blackmail the hero.  I admit I had high hopes for Patience.  Her brother thinks highly of her intelligence and good sense, and early on in the story she takes the initiative to discover his whereabouts and formulate a suitable plan for his recovery.  She, too, quickly discerns the identity of their hidden enemy and takes various precautions to attempt to elude his clutches.  By the end of the story, however, she finds herself unable to resist the relentless plots of her adversary and meekly places herself in the hands of the hero.  Admitting one’s weaknesses and deferring to another’s strengths indeed counts as good sense.  Even so, I wish Lady Patience had had a few more opportunities to exhibit the intelligence she clearly possesses.  She has the ability to take stock of a situation much more quickly than anyone else in the story and tries to use this to her advantage.  For some reason, however, things never work out in her favor, which leads to the sense that Beau Brocade is forever rescuing her–even though I think they would work remarkably well together as a team.

I thought the villain of the story was particularly notable, especially in light of comparisons with the Scarlet Pimpernel’s main adversary, Chauvelin.  I suspect Chauvelin can gain the sympathy of readers much more easily, especially considering the implication in various adaptations (such as the musical) that he and Marguerite were once a couple.  Chauvelin’s defining trait, after all, is merely his obsession with capturing the Scarlet Pimpernel–an understandable one considering his precarious position in the new hierarchy of the French Revolution.  As book after book progresses and Chauvelin always loses, he increasingly becomes more pitiable than threatening.  The villain of Beau Brocade, however–well, there’s a villain for you.

This villain lacks all honor, all chivalry, all trace of any finer trait.  Perversely, however, he acts always with the intention of winning the hand of the Lady Patience in marriage.  His love turned to obsession paints the picture of a truly warped mind–one so far gone that he would hurt the one he claims to love simply to possess her.  He may not be threatening physically, but he is truly terrifying psychologically.  One can almost see him tottering on the brink of madness.  Even more terrifying, he retains the ability to enlist others in his cause–solely because of his place in society.

Though I am a fan of Orczy’s Pimpernel books, Beau Brocade still surprised me with the depth of its characterization (often hidden behind seeming stereotypes), the gripping nature of its plot, and the general feel-good quality of the story overall.  If you like dashing heroes, scheming villains, and a good romance, Beau Brocade is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Published: 1907