A triumph of imagination and dedication, Dreaming the Eagle is the first novel in a historical fiction quadrilogy on Boudica, warrior-leader of the Eceni tribe. Beginning at age twelve, we watch the young Breaca transform into Boudica, the warrior-queen, as she and her tribe weather the storms of the world they have known being reshaped under their very feet by Roman invaders. While keeping rituals, searching dreams for guidance, and honoring their gods of land and fauna these pre-British tribes struggle against challenges none of them could have predicted. Violent battles. Gruesome wounds. Treachery. Deaths. Torture for Roman captives. Bloodshed is regular and I would class it as mild to moderately graphic. Infrequently the violence is directed at children. If you are not troubled by that, then the writing is lyrical and descriptive, the characters richly complex and the whole story will have you flipping pages as fast as you can. The peoples of pre-Roman Britain live again in Scott’s words.
Not just a memoir, The Woman Warrior combines fiction and biographical elements too. Hong Kingston writes partly of her childhood in America; she’s never been to China; partly of her mother’s childhood in China and later years in America, and partly of fables her mother shared while they were growing up. It is utterly un-nostalgic. She writes honestly of the myriad griefs of growing up too American for Chinese parents, and too Chinese for the surrounding American culture. And writes honestly of her own failings in some disturbing accounts of bullying her schoolmates – the classmate who refused to speak, the boy with mental disabilities who spent his spare time sitting silently at her family’s laundry while they steamed and washed and pressed in tropics-like conditions. She is not exactly remorseful. Nor is remorse evident in the first chapter, No Name Woman, which recounts a mob raiding and trashing the house of Hong Kingston’s aunt. Animals are slaughtered and stores strewn into the mud as punishment for the aunt’s adulterous pregnancy, her husband having gone overseas years ago to make money during a time of extended scarcity. The aunt is expelled from her family and her name is deliberately forgotten. She dies soon after. She doesn’t name the man who impregnated her. He doesn’t come forward and remains unpunished. It’s a dark way to start off a book even if it is followed by a fictionalized tale of the author leaving home in her youth and training in marital arts for 15 years with an elderly couple living alone on a mountain. She returns to her family, raises an army, and sets about avenging the wrongs done to her village by wealthy barons and a government concerned only with its own wealth, eventually putting a new emperor on the throne. She is hailed as a hero everywhere. Valued and powerful. And a cutting, polar opposite to the rest of the book. To her real life.
Briggs plumps up her Alpha & Omega series with another offering readers will want to devour in a day. We rejoin Charles and Anna Cornick keeping an eye on their werewolf pack while the leader, Bran, Charles’ father, is away sorting out some other troubles. Trouble stops in to visit when the volatile, fragile wolves living on the edge of the pack for the support and comfort Bran brings them are targeted by mysterious kidnappers. Anna and Charles rally the pack to defend the vulnerable wolves, but they also need to piece together who could even know about these wildlings, as they are called, let alone what this ineffable someone wants them for. As fast-paced as ever, Briggs keeps the action humming until the last page. As is fairly standard with Briggs, there is minimal, somewhat descriptive violence, and brief mentions of sexual assault and violence towards a child.
Exciting isn’t quite the right word to describe this book, but it was certainly difficult to put down. It starts with Jonas, just days before his idyllic community will hold the yearly December Ceremony marking all of the children turning a year older; this year Jonas will be partaking in the Ceremony of Twelve and receiving his Assignment. He will be informed of the career that has been selected for him and embark upon a regime of training. Jonas is different. He is chosen as his community’s new Receiver, a mysterious position few know anything about. When he begins his training with The Giver, he soon begins to see his community in a new light. To see the things it is lacking. And while his work with The Giver and his Assignment introduce him to capabilities he never suspected, when the unexpected happens and he has to try to save someone he loves, will he be strong enough?
The unhappy ending to every story ever written. Because this time we are talking about the women who’ve been refrigerated, a term coined by Gail Simone to refer to the trope of destroying a female comic book character to further the plot-line of the male protagonist; which started a discussion about how when “bad things” happen to male superheros they are frequently returned to their original status but female superheroes are not, and about how women characters are being used as plot devices for male protagonists instead of fully-rounded characters in their own right. Valente has created a book where we finally hear these women telling their own stories. She weaves all of these tropes, all of these classic deaths, into new tales and has the woman tell her own story, about her dreams and aspirations and wants and rage over being demoted from the protagonist in her own story to the supporting cast in someone else’s. At being “food for a super hero.” (144)
Comes with the a milder dose of the standard selection of comic book violence: murders, mentions of rape, abuse, and assault, and the death of a child.
When nineteen year old Charlie St. Clair finds herself momentarily unattended by her mother as they dock for an overnight stay in England on their way to a clinic in Switzerland at the end of World War II, she seizes the moment and her freedom and boards a taxi for 10 Hampson Street, Pimlico, London. It’s the address of one Evelyn Gardiner, the last person to have information on the whereabouts of Charlie’s beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared while in France during the Second World War. Eve was part of a network of female spies embedded in German occupied France during the first world war, feeding tidbits of information to British brass and trying their best to turn the tide of the war. Now she lives alone in London, trying to drown her nightmares and bitterness in alcohol. Charlie succeeds in persuading Eve to help find Rose and the two of them set off for France. Quinn alternates chapters; one narrated by Charlie and set in 1947 will be followed by one narrated by Eve and set in 1915. It’s very well constructed and not difficult to keep track of the plot despite bouncing around in both time and space. There won’t be time for you to forget what happened in the previous chapter, because you won’t want to put this book down until you’ve turned the very last page. Quinn has crafted an enthralling, fictionalized account of the real-world, women-run spy network that existed during World War I, with just enough romance and intrigue stirred in to lighten the darkness of the wartime passages. It’s a great book.
Sensitive readers should be aware that there are instances of violence, torture, mentions of rape and coercive sex, slut shaming, abortion, drug use, and gun violence.
The perfect book to cap off February and move into March with, Hidden Figures reveals the little known story of the black women mathematicians who worked with NASA to help the United States win the space race and set the first man on the moon. Let me say that again for the people in the back: in the 30’s there were black women mathematicians working for NASA. And Shetterly introduces you to almost all of them. These women are brilliant. Determined. Ambitious. They leave their steady, if drastically underpaid teaching jobs when NASA puts out the call in WWII for more “computers” to hand calculate pages of complex equations about aerodynamics for the engineers and physicists – careers often denied to the black female computers regardless of their qualifications – to fine tune the performance of the new planes NASA – at that time the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA – was inventing. Shetterly does a beautiful job integrating the personal lives of these women with the changes in American society, and world history from the 1930s to the end of the space race. Hidden Figures is a science-packed read and a great story.
Combining powerhouses of Gothic literature Radcliffe and Walpole with the insightful parody of the Gothic tale that is Austen’s Northanger Abbey, this helpful text could stand proudly alongside any English Literature coursebook, while being dramatically more engaging. I had been wanting to read each of these books for quite some time; seeing the three of them in one volume at the library seduced me to depart from my themed reviews and I am delighted to have seized the opportunity. Here’s a brief overview of the separate novels:
Only the linear nature of time prevents The Castle of Otranto being the bizarre lovechild of Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors and every haunted castle story every written. This weirdly comic tale of an ambitious family whose oversized birds finally come home to roost can’t quite decide if it wants readers to laugh or cry, so it mooshes together mistaken identities with murders and aims to achieve both at once. I’m hoping Walpole was inventing the Gothic genre when he wrote this.
My one disappointment in this collection relates to The Mysteries of Udolpho: space constraints necessitated the version included here be abridged quite heavily. The full story runs 300 000 words over four volumes; about half the length of War and Peace or Atlas Shrugged, roughly as long as Middlemarch, and about six times the length of Fahrenheit 451. Pruning was justified, but disconcerting. If you pay attention to the tiny printing on the cover and the specific chapters that make up each individual volume, you will notice when something has been omitted. If, like me, you are bellyflopping into the body of the text, you are presented with a choppy, confusing story that changes countries and secondary characters in the time it took you to flip a page. We meet the St. Aubert family in their bucolic cabin in the French countryside, and saunter along with Monsieur St. Aubert and daughter Emily as the duo travel to the seaside in the hopes of restoring St. Aubert senior’s flagging health. The wheel of fortune turns and Emily is deposited unceremoniously with the unscrupulous, mendacious Montoni family deep in the Apennines, in the secluded, crumbling Udolpho castle, where who knows what creeping horrors await her? Certainly not us, that part got edited out. The editors smoosh on an ending of sorts, but if you’ve never read The Mysteries of Udolpho before, this chopped up offering may leave you unsatisfied.
Northanger Abbey is a delight. Our staunchly average heroine, Catherine Morland, adores Gothic novels (she’s reading The Mysteries of Udolpho) and hopes with all her heart to have a Gothic adventure of her own one day. When she joins her friends Eleanor and Henry Tilney at their home, her determination to see an eerie portent in every cabinet and a mystery down every well-lit hallway brings her sharply up against good sense and rationality as Austen subverts the genre. It’s an excellent conclusion to this collection of Gothic works, and yet another example of Austen’s genius.
An incredible book. Walker has crafted a heart-breaking, heart-filling story that captivates you from first page to last. Despite assaults and abuse from parents and husband, Celie stands “bloody, but unbowed” throughout her childhood, unwanted marriage, and finally sees the slow growth of her own heart from a forgotten seed into a magnificent tree. Despite this being a story built around child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, and the millions of everyday griefs that filled a black woman’s life in the early 1900’s, Walker has presented us with a work is not just uplifting, but redemptive. If you are in a place where you are able to read books that deal with the content warnings I’ve listed, then I can not recommend The Color Purple strongly enough.
A complicated personal history of Ethiopian Yètèmegn Mèkonnen; one hundred years of life retold by her granddaughter Aida Edemariam. Yètemegn is born in Ethiopia in the early 1900s to reasonably well off parents and married off at the ripe old age of eight to a man almost in his thirties, an ambitious priest named Tsèga Teshale. Yètèmegn will have 10 children by him and weather revolutions, famine, Tsèga’s unjust imprisonment, his death and the deaths of several of their children. Despite not being able to read, she makes it her personal mission to clear his name and regain their family home and lands, taking on the court system to win back the house they built together from the priests who stole it after he was imprisoned. Edemariam weaves her grandmother’s story in amongst the seasonal changes, cultural events, and political machinations Ethiopia endured from 1916 to 2013 and speckles the whole work with the legends, hymns, and religious passages that would have informed and governed Yètèmegn’s days. Some of it I was baffled by; the unexplained ritual early on in Yètèmegn’s marriage where her neck is daubed with a dark cooked paste of soot, kohl and oil seeds and the marks are then tattooed on with a needle was obviously something she was enraged and horrified by, but I lacked the necessary background to understand what was happening or why she reacted the way she did. But overall, the cultural gap is tidily bridged by Edemariam. Her skill, and Yètèmegn’s courage and spirit, will linger with you long after you finish this book.