Hild by Nicola Griffith

Hild

Information

Goodreads: Hild
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: November 12, 2013

Official Summary

‘Hild is born into a world in transition. In seventh-century Britain, small kingdoms are merging, usually violently. A new religion is coming ashore; the old gods’ priests are worrying. Edwin of Northumbria plots to become overking of the Angles, ruthlessly using every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, belief.

Hild is the king’s youngest niece. She has the powerful curiosity of a bright child, a will of adamant, and a way of seeing the world—of studying nature, of matching cause with effect, of observing human nature and predicting what will happen next—that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her. She establishes herself as the king’s seer. And she is indispensable—until she should ever lead the king astray. The stakes are life and death: for Hild, her family, her loved ones, and the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can read the world and see the future.

Hild is a young woman at the heart of the violence, subtlety, and mysticism of the early medieval age—all of it brilliantly and accurately evoked by Nicola Griffith’s luminous prose. Recalling such feats of historical fiction as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Sigrid Undset’s Kristin LavransdatterHild brings a beautiful, brutal world—and one of its most fascinating, pivotal figures, the girl who would become St. Hilda of Whitby—to vivid, absorbing life.

Review

I have had this book on my TBR list for a very long time. It’s about a fascinating historical figure, Hild of Whitby, and it’s about the Anglo-Saxon period, which I think is an under-featured era in British history in today’s fiction. (The only other book I’ve read that occurs generally in this time period is The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.)  It was with great disappointment, then, that I realized Hild may be one of the slowest books I have ever read.

Interestingly, the blurbs on the back cover disagree with me, and I seriously wonder how the publisher managed to solicit such verbs because they are absolutely glowing.  I have never seen blurbs offer such high praise.  One goes so far as to suggest that Hild could have been the source material/inspiration for great works like Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings.  (Seriously, they suggest that the greatest poem of the Anglo-Saxon period could take lessons from this novel.)  Another blurber specifically praises the pacing of the novel, insisting it’s not slow at all.  I’m very confused.

The book, you see, is not action-packed at all.  It’s sort of about political intrigue and how Hild’s uncle King Edwin expands his kingdom and maintains his power, and how Hild’s family schemes and plots to stay in favor with him.  However, a lot of it is just Hild’s character development.  Historically, Hild was renowned for her wisdom, and powerful people sought her advice.  So Griffiths starts the book when Hild is a toddler and basically spends hundreds of pages showing Hild growing up, sitting around pondering birds and trees and people and barely speaking to anyone ever so she can hone her observation sills.  I have to say, this gets boring quickly.

I was not particularly impressed even when Hild finally start coming into her wisdom/prophetic powers.  Basically the whole thing is a sham.  Because Hild sits around observing people and being weird, she is apparently smarter than everyone around her, even when she’s ten years old.  Her “mystical advice” and “prophecies” for the king, then, are just statements she has made from logic.  (Ex. King So and So will attack us soon because I realized he hates us, and the weather will be good for moving armies in a couple weeks.)  She dresses it all up as magical omens from the gods to be taken more seriously, but she’s just lying. And since her uncle the king converts to Christianity later in the book, she just switches things around to claim she’s getting visions from the Christian God instead of Woden. I’d probably be okay with this if the book were just fiction and not historical fiction.  However, I found it weird that Griffith would take a historical figure who was a saint and a nun and write a version of her where Hild thinks religion is a joke but manipulates it for her own gain.  I’d have liked to see a version of St. Hilda who, you know, actually believed in God.

There are elements of the book that are sound.  The intrigue is occassionally interesting (though there are lots names to remember and alliances to follow), and the research seems sound enough (though sometimes I do thin Griffith inserts her own modern sensibilities about things).  If there book were about 200 pages shorter, I think I could recommend it.  As it is, it’s slow and tedious and frequently unconvincing with the characters.  I wanted to like, but I just can’t.

Briana

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Odd and True by Cat Winters (ARC Review)

Odd and True by Cat Winters

Information

Goodreads: Odd and True
Series: None
Source: Publisher
Publication Date: September 12, 2017

Official Summary

Trudchen grew up hearing Odette’s stories of their monster-slaying mother and a magician’s curse. But now that Tru’s older, she’s starting to wonder if her older sister’s tales were just comforting lies, especially because there’s nothing fantastic about her own life—permanently disabled and in constant pain from childhood polio.

In 1909, after a two-year absence, Od reappears with a suitcase supposedly full of weapons and a promise to rescue Tru from the monsters on their way to attack her. But it’s Od who seems haunted by something. And when the sisters’ search for their mother leads them to a face-off with the Leeds Devil, a nightmarish beast that’s wreaking havoc in the Mid-Atlantic states, Tru discovers the peculiar possibility that she and her sister—despite their dark pasts and ordinary appearances—might, indeed, have magic after all.

Review

Odd and True is the electrifying yet heartwarming story of two sisters who team together to hunt monsters in early twentieth century America.  I’m always in favor of a good story about sisters, and Odd and True puts that relationship in the forefront, as the protagonists—Odette (Od) and Trudchen (Tru)—support each other even as they work through different opinions and try to come to terms with the fact that both of them have secrets.

Family in general is at the forefront of the story, as Od and Tru deal with their troubled past in different ways—partially because, as the older sibling, Od has totally different memories of their early childhood than Tru does.  The book switches between their points of view, with Tru narrating the present day action of their new quest to hunt down a devil they believe to be terrorizing the area around Philadelphia, while Od’s chapters focus on the past—her childhood and then a few teen years she spent away from true.  The result is a richly textured story that addresses love, loss, identity, and the definition of family itself.

The monster hunting aspect of the story is deliciously creepy yet not always the most compelling part of the story.  Winters plays coy, making readers wonder what exactly about monsters is real and how the story as a whole is going to play out.  It’s also worth noting that she keeps the story tight by featuring one primary monster the sisters go after.  This may be disappointed to readers who expected a little more gallivanting and epic showdowns, but I really liked it.  Some books in a similar vein cram in so many monsters that the fights seem episodic or even repetitive; Winters builds the excitement up around one main moment that’s really worth it.

I had never read a book by Cat Winters before Odd and True, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  If you read my reviews regularly, you probably know I have a tendency towards disgruntled mutterings about the sad state of prose in contemporary, particularly YA fiction (as much as I love YA).  Well, Winters’s prose is beautiful.  She drew me into the story with it from the opening pages, and the beauty never flagged. The chapters from Odette’s point of view have a particular tendency towards the magical and whimsical which really worked with Winters’s style.

I would be willing to read another novel by Winters just because of the writing in this one, but the story and character development are also remarkably well done.  It’s a great blend of magic, historical fiction, and real world issues.  Highly recommended.

4 stars Briana

Duels and Deception by Cindy Anstey

Duels and DeceptionInformation

Goodreads: Duels and Deception
Series: None
Source: Publisher
Published: April 11, 2017

Official Summary

Miss Lydia Whitfield, heiress to the family fortune, has her future entirely planned out. She will run the family estate until she marries the man of her late father’s choosing, and then she will spend the rest of her days as a devoted wife. Confident in those arrangements, Lydia has tasked her young law clerk, Mr. Robert Newton, to begin drawing up the marriage contracts. Everything is going according to plan.

Until Lydia—and Robert along with her—is kidnapped. Someone is after her fortune and won’t hesitate to destroy her reputation to get it. With Robert’s help, Lydia strives to keep her family’s good name intact and expose whoever is behind the devious plot. But as their investigation delves deeper and their affections for each other grow, Lydia starts to wonder whether her carefully planned future is in fact what she truly wants…

Review

Like Anstey’s first novel, Love, Lies and Spies, Duels and Deception is a light-hearted Regency romance that will keep you vastly amused if you like spirited girls and swoon-worthy guys in historical fiction.  The novel is, in some senses, ridiculous.  The dialogue seems a bit overdone with the author’s attempts to make it period, and the action is certainly on the absurd end (kidnappings and conspiracies and scandals, oh my!).  To top it off, the whole plot is incredibly predictable.  And yet…it’s just so.much.fun.

Anstey, I have to admit, is just good at what she does.  I don’t normally read books I would call “fluffy,” yet that’s exactly what Anstey’s fiction is, and I love it.  You can tell she had such a good time writing it that you can’t help but have a good time reading it.  Part of me can’t even say that this novel and her first are distinctly different (they are but they aren’t), but I don’t care.  I was entertained, and I kept turning the pages.

The highlight is really the plot, but the characters help make the book, as well. Anstey write heroines that don’t quite conform to the expected gender roles of their time, but they pay just enough deference to propriety that they don’t seem unrealistic.  And she is fabulous at writing romantic love interests who are thoughtful, intelligent, and brave.  Secondary characters ranging from good friends to absurd family members to nasty villains round out the cast.

I have no idea if Anstey plans to continue churning out Regency novels in this vein, but I’ll keep reading them if she does.

4 stars Briana

Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

Stalking Jack the Ripper

Information

Goodreads: Stalking Jack the Ripper
Series: Stalking Jack the Ripper #1
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Official Summary

Groomed to be the perfect highborn Victorian young lady, Audrey Rose Wadsworth has a decidedly different plan for herself.  After the loss of her beloved mother, she is determined to understand the nature of death and its workings.  Trading in her embroidery needle for an autopsy scalpel, Audrey secretly apprentices in forensics.  She soon gets drawn into the investigation of serial killer Jack the Ripper, but to her horror, the search for clues bringers her far closer to her sheltered world than she ever thought possible.

Review

Stalking Jack the Ripper takes readers to Victorian England, where protagonist Audrey Rose is learning forensics and flaunting all societal standards.  While the premise of the novel is a unique one, and Maniscalco has put clear effort into creating a world where people dabble with dark deeds and death to write a YA novel that stands out from the crowd, I ultimately thought the plot lagged.

Maniscalco takes an unsolved mystery and puts her own spin on it, but I found the solution to the mystery too obvious to guess too early in the novel, which was disappointing.  There are a limited number of characters in the book to begin with, and both the jacket summary and the snippet on the back of the hardcover give even more painfully broad hints.  Once you note this and account for some popular mystery tropes, it’s not difficult to tie everything together.  I would have liked a more surprising outcome, or at least more of a puzzle.  I also didn’t believe the Jack the Ripper character had particularly believable motivations or actions in many circumstances.

Beyond the mystery, the novel focuses on the life and personal development of protagonist Audrey Rose.  The book jacket calls her a “remarkably modern Victorian girl,” and that’s apt, so modern it’s nearly grating and definitely anachronistic.  I understand a lot of readers like anachronism; they want YA historical fiction heroines who break from the mold and do things they would not have actually been able to do in the time period.  However, Maniscalco simply takes things too far.  Audrey Rose does not only do remarkably modern things; she won’t stop explicitly stating how progressive she is!  The book is speckled with multiple direct remarks about how men cannot control her, how she refuses to dress properly, how she wants women to have rights, how she has her own mind, how women are the same as men, ad nauseum.  She has some decent points, but she won’t stop proclaiming them.  She can’t even put on makeup without thinking,

“I dreamed of a day when girls could wear lace and makeup—or no makeup at all and don burlap sacks if they desired—to their chosen profession without it being deemed inappropriate” (25).

Or attend an afternoon tea without assuming all the other girls must be like her and want to talk about exciting, manly, scientific things:

“As the afternoon wore on, I watched them, noting the role they were all playing.  I doubted any of them truly cared about what they were saying and felt immensely sorry for them.  Their minds were crying out to be set free, but they refused to unbind them” (149).

Indeed, she is disappointed to learn they might actually be interested in the silly conversations they are having…yet remarks multiple times that of course she is allowed to be interested in both fashion and science!  To think they are mutually exclusive would be absurd!

Basically, I tired of Audrey Rose early on, and none of the other characters saved the novel for me.  I have seen other readers swooning over the love interest, but to me the romance was too quick and forced; I didn’t feel any real spark or chemistry.  Audrey Rose and Thomas seem primarily to have their love of examining cadavers in common, and the fact that Thomas never bats at eye at all the supposedly scandalous things Audrey Rose does.  Indeed, I would have liked to see someone be scandalized because Audrey Rose seems to be all talk on this front; she continuously points out how she’s breaking social conventions and destroying her reputation, but hardly anyone seems to notice or care.  That makes it less believable and makes her seem less brave.

I almost DNFed this but carried on simply because I felt I could get through the book quickly, which ended up being true.  My standard for books I want to DNF is two stars, so that’s what this is getting.  Again, the concept is unique, and I think it could have been really great for a dark YA historical fiction, but never in the novel really worked for me.

Briana

Nat Turner by Kyle Baker

nat-turnerINFORMATION

Goodreads: Nat Turner
Series:  None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2006

SUMMARY

Baker combines his wordless graphic novel with excerpts from Nat Turner’s confessions to telll story of the 1831 slave uprising in Southampton County, Virginia.

Review

Kyle Baker sheds light on an overlooked portion of American history, the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nate Turner, which resulted in the deaths of dozens as a group of slaves and free Black individuals went from plantation to plantation killing the white inhabitants.  Turner’s legacy has been controversial, with some viewing him as a hero and others condemning his violent methods.  His impact, however, was immediate, as his actions caused swift revenge upon the black community but also inspired Black Americans, who admired his spirit of resistance.  Baker’s graphic novel captures the intensity and the mystery of this somewhat forgotten historical figure.

Baker’s contribution to the novel is wordless, suggesting that the violence experienced by slaves in America  is, in fact, beyond words.  The beatings, the separations, the fear must all be experienced visually, and it almost feels sometimes as if you the viewer must be complicit, as you stand by in deafening silence, watching brutality occur.  Baker pairs the images with excerpts from Turner’s confessions.  The stark account of his past and the uprising contrasts sharply with the panels, again suggesting that some things really cannot be spoken of.

Nat Turner is a powerful book, one that will likely make readers feel uncomfortable as they confront the violence of slavery.  Baker provides some end content  that reinforces the story, including an image of the crowded conditions in slave ships, further reading, and discussion questions for classes.  The material reminds readers that this is all very real, something they must engage with.

4 starsKrysta 64

Maud by Melanie J. Fishbane

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Maud
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: April 2017

SUMMARY

Fourteen-year-old Lucy Maud Montgomery dreams of attending college and becoming a writer, but her grandfather does not believe in higher education for women.  Worse, when she finally goes out west to be with her father again, her new stepmother treats her as nothing more than a nanny.  Will Maud ever find a way to follow her dreams?  Or will she grow old feeling that her world has grown increasingly smaller?

Review

Fans of Anne of Green Gables, rejoice!  If you have ever wished to find a similar book and have already read and reread all of L. M. Montgomery’s other titles, this might just be the book for you.  Based on Montgomery’s journals and letters, Maud recounts the author’s teen years on P.E.I. and in Prince Albert.  Maud is a little bit of Anne and little bit of Emily, combining a love for life and beauty with a desire to overcome the odds.  But Maud is, most importantly, ultimately herself–and you are sure to fall in love.

The early parts of the book most resemble Montgomery’s novels, which can make it feel at times like the author and the reader are playing a game of “spot the allusion” together.  Perhaps this is understandable, however.  Montgomery’s stories sprang from her own life and her own feelings of loneliness, frustration, and despair–as well as the moments of deep joy– certainly made their way into her heroines’ journeys.   Maud’s tale is, however, a little darker than those of her young female protagonists, and readers will find themselves sympathizing with her as her world shrinks and her hopes diminish.  Knowing how history turns out does not make the journey less moving.

The pacing of the story does feel a little uneven, with Maud’s years in P.E.I. and her blossoming romance with a certain handsome someone cut abruptly short at the end of Book One.  Book Two, which chronicles Maud’s years with her stepmother and her father in Prince Albert, takes up the bulk of the story.  This is where much of the drama is, as Maud tries to hone her writing skills even as her stepmother tries to keep her from school so she can play nanny to her stepmother’s children.  However, Book One offers many delightful friendships, quiet and reflective moments, and cherished time spent on the Island.  Fishbane could have made Books One and Two roughly equal in size to keep the narrative pacing consistent.

Overall, however, Maud is a charming tale of a young woman growing up, discovering herself, and chasing her dreams.  Fans of Montgomery’s works will love it, but, with its compelling protagonist and sweet romances, fans of YA will find much to enjoy in it, as well.

4 stars

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

Wolf HollowInformation

Goodreads: Wolf Hollow
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: May 3, 2016

Official Summary

Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby’s strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. She will soon need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount.

Brilliantly crafted, Wolf Hollow is a haunting tale of America at a crossroads and a time when one girl’s resilience, strength, and compassion help to illuminate the darkest corners of our history.

Review

Wolf Hollow brings readers to rural western Pennsylvania, where World War II is hovering ominously in the background but has mostly passed young protagonist Annabelle by.  Rather, her biggest issue is the new girl at school, Betty, who seems determined to make her life miserable.

The setting of Wolf Hollow is definitely one of its strong points. I found it fascinating to read about a place that, technically, is the middle of the 1940s, but because of it’s rural location often looks like something out of an L.M. Montgomery novel (late 1800s/early 1900s).  While the characters have electricity and other conveniences we would recognize today, the children still attend school in a one-room schoolhouse and seem primarily invested in playing and helping out on the family farm.  I also was intrigued by how the ongoing war seemed both present and absent in the novel, something Annabelle is aware of but isn’t directly affected by.

The characters are interesting and sharply drawn.  I felt like most of them are round, and most are willing to change their habits or opinions when new information presented itself; they have recognizable characteristics, but they never get into a rut.  Protagonist Annabelle is spunky and brave, even when she is sure she is not, and her friendship with Toby is one of the highlights of the novel.  Her family, schoolmates, and neighbors, all come equally to life, however.

I have seen numerous comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird, and while I agree the themes of othering and judgement are similar, this is a hard sell for me because To Kill a Mockingbird just seems like a better book. It’s well-written, in prose and structure, and it treats its themes with an amazing blend of empathy, complexity, and subtlety.  Wolf Hollow has solid prose, so no complaints there, but the treatment of tough, complicated themes simply isn’t on the same level.  The narration often states things explicitly in the sense of “People don’t trust citizens of German heritage because the US is at war with Germany,” but without any real delving into the issue.  In fact, I think this book in large part about bullying more than it is about some of the more political themes it alludes to, ones relating to the current World War II and ones related to the aftermath of World War I.  Those things are there, but the narrative is so very much on the new girl at school being a jerk and a bully to everyone around her, with or without motivation.

Other readers have commented on how dark the book is, and I grant that (even as I’m arguing that it seems to skirt some of the darkest issues).  I disagree, however, with assertions that this necessarily means the book is not appropriate for children or is somehow not “really” a middle grade book.  It is, indeed, different from much of the middle grade on the market–but I think that’s a feature, not a flaw.  Readers don’t want books to seem factory produced, to feel that there’s only one aesthetic for a middle grade book.  Certainly, if you’re considering giving this book to a child, take into account their individual ability to read about dark topics and depressing events.  Not all the loose ends tie up nice and rosy here.  But I think this is very much a middle grade book that will find middle school age readers.

4 stars Briana