Monthly Archives: June 2013

ILLUMINATIONS by Mary Sharratt

Mary Sharratt is such a talented author. I first “met” her between the pages of a book when I read THE VANISHING POINT, a poignant portrayal of an unwanted English girl sent to marry someone suitable in the 17th century American colonies, and of the sister who followed her.

This was followed by DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHES HILL, a sensitive portrayal of the various people put to death in 1612, during the Pendle Witches Trial.

IlluminationsAnd now we have ILLUMINATIONS, a fictionalized biography of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), the musician, poet and mystic, known during her lifetime as “The Sybil of the Rhine”.

Ms. Sharratt opens her tale when Hildegard is 8 years old, and is walled up in a cell as companion to 14-year-old Jutta who has taken vows an an anchorite. She spends the next 30 years imprisoned in this cell, only being let out after Jutta’s death.

A potential reader might now be wondering if this book is interesting. How can 30 years of boredom and suffocation in a cell be interesting to read about?

But it is.

It is fascinating, and this is what makes Mary Sharratt such a terrific author. In this book, she has outdone herself (and her other novels are very good).

If you have never read Mary’s novels before, or you want to know more about Hildegard von Bingen, BUY THIS BOOK! You won’t be sorry. Five stars. A book club recommendation.

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THE BLACK VELVET GOWN by Catherine Cookson

My grandmother, Stephanie Treffry, was a great admirer of Catherine Cookson, and so I picked up this novel to try and find out what she liked so much about this writer.

 

Like Norah Lofts, another British best-seller, Catherine Cookson’s novels are tied to a particular place, in her case the mining and fishing areas of the north-east around Durham and Tyneside. So it is no surprise that this novel opens next to a coal-pit.

 

TheBlackVelvetGownIn this novel, however, we have more than one protagonist. The book description from Amazon emphasizes the tangled mother and daughter relationship between Riah Millican and her daughter Biddy, and you could describe this book as having two protagonists, Riah in parts one and two and Biddy in parts three and four. But that completely ignores the title that Ms. Cookson chose to give this book, THE BLACK VELVET GOWN.

 

As far as I can see, the incident over the black velvet gown, has everything to do with Riah’s relationship with her eldest son Davey, and very little to do with Biddy.

 

TheBlackVelvetGownKindleIn my opinion, the way to think of this novel is as a book with multiple story threads, with multiple story arcs. So the incident over the gown forms the top of the story arc about the relationship between Mother and Son. Whereas the top of the story arc about Mother and Daughter is the incident in which Biddy overhears information that tells her that Riah has deceived her.

 

On top of all that, we have two (three? four?) love stories, a family feud, and a complexity of relationships between staff members of a large house in England in the 1830s, and their employers.

 

But this novel is never confusing, and I don’t think that most readers will complain that there are too many characters. Somehow, through it all, Ms. Cookson’s writing is so clear, and the relationships she describes are so vivid and grounded in reality, that I don’t think anyone reading this will be confused. If you have never read this author before, you should try this novel. Five stars. A book club recommendation.

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JASSY by Norah Lofts

JassyJassy is one of those Norah Lofts novels set in East Anglia around the fictional town of Baildon, patterned on the real one of Bury St. Edmunds. So the landscape is bleak, flat and stark, and those of us who’ve lived in those parts remember that biting East wind in winter that seems to come straight from Siberia.

 

The landscape is a fitting backdrop for this story, which is at once stark, haunted, beautiful, noble and sordid.

 

Jassy is an outsider. To make matters worse she is female, and as everyone is well aware, strong, intelligent women often seem to be the lightning rods for society’s frustrations.

 

And so it is here. Jassy is unusually intelligent and perceptive, and she carries herself well. She impresses people. But she has some qualities that put people’s backs up. She has trouble governing her temper. She is the kind of person that things happen to. And she has powers of prophecy. Jassy is not bland, neutral or easy to ignore. People either love her or hate her. That is what makes her such a wonderful protagonist. It is also what leads to her downfall.

 

What is so striking about this book from a craft perspective is that none of it is in Jassy’s voice, breaking the conventional rule that one gets from agents, that the best way of making a character vivid is to use first person.

 

In spite of the fact that throughout this novel we are NOT privy to Jassy’s own thoughts via interior monologue and the like, the reader will come away from this knowing Jassy thoroughly.

 

How does Ms. Lofts do it?

 

The novel is written in four books, and each one is narrated by a different person, so that we get a collage of opinions and impressions of the protagonist. What I found really helpful was at the beginning of each book, Ms. Lofts has included a quote about Jassy from the person narrating the book, as well as an introductory sentence about that person. So Book One opens: GENESIS IN EXILE. “She was a local girl , of rather peculiar parentage…” So this story is told by BARNEY HATTON, who lived next door and took an interest in his neighbours. (Barney Hatton is a young man of around Jassy’s age.)

 

Wonderful! It was a brilliant way to orient the reader to the narration that followed.

 

Book Two is narrated by Elizabeth Twysdale, who ran a school for Young Ladies.

 

Book Three is narrated by Dilys Helmar, a young lady of around Jassy’s age, who escaped with Jassy from school and brought her home to Mortiboys.

 

Lastly, Book Four is narrated by Belinda Wicks, who is subject to Visitations.

All four of these people have strong reactions to Jassy, and it is through THEIR interior monologs as they try to puzzle her out that we learn so much about her. What a novel, and interesting way of writing about a protagonist.

 

If you have never read this book before, and you love absorbing characters, you should read it now! Five stars. A book club recommendation.

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THE DARK ROSE by Cynthia Harrold-Eagles (Morland Dynasty #2)

TheDarkRoseTHE DARK ROSE is Cynthia Harrold-Eagle’s second novel in her MORLAND DYNASTY series, and it is every bit as good as the first.

 

I love the ambiguity of the title. Usually, a book with “rose” in the title refers to the Wars of the Roses, but the main part of this novel takes place between 1514 and 1550, too late to be in that time period. So who is the dark rose? Does it refer to Henry VIII (grandson of the White Rose of York Edward IV), the dark tyrant who beheaded two of his wives? Or does it refer to Anne Boleyn, the dark-haired beauty who so captured his heart?

 

Yes, you got it, this is yet another novel about Anne Boleyn. But this one is so much more successful that TO DIE FOR, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. To begin with, the fictional narrator, Nanette Morland, has such an interesting personal history that is so completely gripping and fascinating, that when they are confiding secrets in a bedchamber together one night, you almost wish that Anne Boleyn would shut up about the King of England’s infatuation with her, so that you can hear more about Nanette’s story. That is really quite a feat!

 

And because Nanette’s story is so fascinating, the novel doesn’t die when Anne Boleyn dies. Instead, it becomes just as gripping as we follow Nanette through the rest of her life, as she finally blooms under the love of two good men. Five stars. A book club recommendation.

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John Irving’s THE CIDER HOUSE RULES

CiderHouseRulesOstensibly, THE CIDER HOUSE RULES is the story of Dr. Wilbur Larch, who founds an orphanage at St. Cloud’s Maine, and of his favorite orphan Homer Wells, who follows in his footsteps and eventually becomes a doctor.

 

But the novel is so much more than that. During the time period of this novel, set between the 1920s and the 1950s, abortion was illegal. Dr. Larch’s formative years as a medical student were marked by various experiences with desperate, pregnant women, and the horrors they had to undergo at the hands of back-street abortionists who didn’t know what they were doing. And so, unofficially, Dr. Larch is an abortionist, providing safe abortions for those women desperate enough to trek all the way to back-of-beyonds Maine because they have heard about the good doctor. Homer Wells, having seen the “products of conception” as they are being thrown away, and horrified at the thought of killing babies, refuses to go along with this part of his training. And this disagreement is one reason why Homer Wells, aged nineteen, finally leaves St. Clouds to go off into the wide wide world with his new chums Candy and Wally.

 

So there you have it. By the magic of his story-telling skills, John Irving gives us a balanced portrayal of abortion, in all of its agonies and difficulties.

 

So what are THE CIDER HOUSE RULES? During Homer’s sojourn away from the orphanage he becomes a part of a cider making business, owned by Candy and Wally. It is his responsibility to type up these rules for the apple-pickers who come all the way from South Carolina for the seasonal job. The Cider House Rules becomes a metaphor for rules, your rules, my rules and society’s rules, and how this plays out in the abortion debate.

 

I won’t say any more so as not to spoil this story for you. But if you haven’t read John Irving’s THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, you are in for a treat. Five stars. A book club recommendation.

 

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