Urchin, by Kate Story

Urchin is a weird, twisty tale full of unexpected directions. It weds electricity with fairy magic in 1901 St. John’s, as Guglielmo Marconi arrives to test his new wireless technology. Thirteen year old Dorthea has plenty of worries: she doesn’t fit in at her posh girls’ school; her family is ruptured after the deaths of six siblings in infancy or early childhood; her mother is distant and her father often absent; her house is said to be built on a fairy path which might account for any number of strange occurences. Add to this the fact that Dor’s feeling of being uncomfortable in her own skin is extreme even for a pubescent girl in a society with extremely rigid gender roles: she’s never really felt “right” about being a girl, and also she’s got a pretty intense crush on her best friend. In other words, Dor has a lot to cope with even before Marconi arrives in town and a friend who is also a newspaper reporter needs a spy inside Marconi’s operation to find out what the mysterious inventor is really up to.

When Dor slips into the disguise of Jack Kelly, she finds an identity that fits far more comfortably than her own — but she also discovers that the fae activity that’s been disturbing her home is more dangerous than she suspected, and is being exacerbated by Marconi’s experiments. Fairies apparently don’t like people interfering with unseen forces like electricity, and Dor ends up fighting unexpected battles — not least, the battle to discover her own identity.

Urchin is technically a young-adult novel, and would definitely appeal to young readers who enjoy a challenging read with a blend of realism and fantasy, but it’s also a great adult read, with a vividly realized turn-of-the-20th-century St. John’s as its backdrop and an unconventional protagonist who pulls us into this tale of fairy lore, modern technology, and self-realization.

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Bloomsbury Girls, by Natalie Jenner

Bloomsbury Girls is, very loosely, a sequel to Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society, but only in the sense that it follows one character from that novel into her future life (other JAS characters make cameo appearances in this book, but none are central to the plot).

At the end of The Jane Austen Society Evie Stone, a brilliant girl from a poor family, had performed an amazing feat by quietly cataloguing the vast library of books in the old manor house where she worked as a servant, and was on her way to study at Cambridge due to the support and encouragement of her friends in the Society. Bloomsbury Girls picks up with Evie at the end of her college career, her path to academic advancement thwarted by the old boys’ network. Instead, the same book-cataloguing and sleuthing skills that started Evie’s academic career now lead her to a rare bookshop in London that is mired in the past while the rest of the world seems to be moving into the future. Evie needs the bookstore job to support herself, but she also has a secret mission while there.

However, the novel is just as much about the store’s other employees, particularly the other two women, aspiring novelist Vivien, and unhappily married Grace who needs the job to support her husband and two sons. Though the women are the focus, the men of the bookshop are just as intriguing, as are the cast of real-life writers and publishing people from 1950 London who make fictional cameos in this book. I really enjoyed this perspective on the lives of working women and the book business in postwar London.

The Boudica series, by Manda Scott

Having seen this series recommended online a few times, I checked the first book (virtually) out of the library to take on vacation with me. After reading it, I immediately wanted to get back into reliable wifi range, which was sketchy for a lot of our vacation, so that I could download the rest of the books and finish the series.

This is a fictional re-creation of the life of Boudica/Boadicea, a queen or warrior leader among the early Britons who resisted the Roman invasion — unsuccessfully, but she more than gave the Romans a run for their money. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a vividly reimagined picture — based on archeology, and on extrapolation from indigenous group in other places, along with a healthy dose of imagination — as to what the lives of people in Britain might have been like before the Roman invasion, and how the Iceni (Boudica’s tribe) and other tribes might have experienced and resisted that invasion (and not always resisted — as always with invasions, there were some collaborators as well, British tribes who gambled that their best hope of survival might be to cooperate with the Romans). It’s peopled by a huge cast of characters, all the main ones vividly drawn and memorable, especially Boudica herself and her brother Ban, kidnapped at a young age, raised among Romans, and torn by divided loyalties.

There are huge fictional leaps here — the biggest one being that the author imagines the two towering figures of British resistance, Boudica and the Catuvellauni leader Caractacus/Caradoc, as knowing each other and having a close relationship. Both are mentioned separately in Roman accounts of the invasion, conquest, and resistance of Britain, but given the relationships amongst the different tribes and how they both clashed with each other, and worked together against the foreign invader, as Scott has imagined their world, it doesn’t strain credibility too much. I got completely caught up in this series and really enjoyed it.

Haven, by Emma Donoghue

Irish/Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue is one of those rare writers (my good friend Michelle Butler Hallett is another) whose novels exhibit a startling diversity of subject because she writes about literally whatever pops into her head to be interested in. There’s no “finding a groove and sticking with it” as many of us do, for an author like Donoghue. Emma Donoghue books I have loved have touched on topics ranging from Victorian divorces, to an 1876 smallpox epidemic in San Francisco, to a contemporary story about a woman and child held captive in a tiny room — probably her most commercially successful and best-known work. Donoghue could have followed up the massive success of Room by writing more contemporary fiction about victims of crime, but instead she continued to delve into dusty corners of the past such as an Irish girl allegedly surviving miraculously for months without eating, and a lesbian love story amid the chaos of the 1918 influenza epidemic (The Pull of the Stars, coming out in the summer of 2020, proved to be surprisingly timely, but only by accident — even if the timeline weren’t so tight, Donoghue is not an author you would ever accuse of writing a “pandemic novel” just to capitalize on current events).

All this lead-in is just to say that I will follow Emma Donoghue pretty much anywhere her fancy takes her, even if it takes her to an isolated, unpopulated island off the coast of Ireland in the 7th century CE. The place is Skellig Michael, where monastic communities have existed for centuries (it was the film setting for Luke Skywalker’s monastic-style retreat in the later Star Wars movies). But this novel is not based on the real history of any of those communities. Rather, it’s a story about three men: a single-minded, visionary monk, and the two companions he recruits in response to what he believes is a call from God to leave the monastery and set up an even more isolated contemplative community, far from any human interactions, in what some might call a God-forsaken place. The visionary monk, Artt, believes passionately that as God has called them to the island, God will provide everything they need to live there — a vision that inevitably clashes with the day-to-day realities the other two monks face as they try to keep themselves and Artt alive through the winter. I read most of this novel in a single night and found it engrossing and thought-provoking,.

The Matchmaker’s Gift, by Lynda Cohen Loigman

This was one of the lightest of the many books I read on my recent vacation. It’s a sweet, uncomplicated story that juxtaposes the tale of a young Jewish woman named Sara Glickman with that of her granddaughter Abby. Sara discovers her gift as a matchmaker when her family emigrates to America in 1910 and Sara finds an ideal husband for her sister on the boat crossing the Atlantic. Over the years, her ability to spot soulmates and link them up only becomes stronger, although she has to hide it for many years because the traditional male matchmakers in her community resent the interference of a young girl who doesn’t use their methods and lacks their institutional stamp of approval.

In the parallel modern day story, Sara’s grand-daughter Abby is a divorce lawyer, dealing with prenuptial agreements and messy splits between high-profile celebrity couples. But when Sara dies and Abby begins exploring her grandmother’s legacy, she also begins to develop more of an interest in connecting people than in shepherding them through their divorces.

The premise of this novel relied a little too heavily on the “soulmate” idea for me, but I loved the historical background and it was a fun read nonetheless.

We Should Not Be Afraid of the Sky, by Emma Hooper

Of all the half-told, half-obscured women’s stories that come down to us from history and legend, some of the hardest to make into compelling fiction for modern readers are probably the lives of the saints — particularly those obscure “virgin saints” of the early Christian era who suffered martyrdom rather than submit to marriage and sex. In this novel, Emma Hooper takes the tale of Saint Quiteria, a Portuguese 2nd century martyr, and weaves it together with other traditions and saints’ tales, including one that says that Quiteria was one of a set of nonuplets, all beautiful young women who converted to Christianity and were martyred for their faith. The result is a rich, image-soaked novel that feels more like mythology or fantasy than historical fiction — appropriately, since saints’ tales are generally full of the kind of miracles and unlikely occurences that take us out of the realm of realistic fiction.

The Last Queen, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

It’s always great to read about amazing women from history that aren’t the ones I already know from my own English history. This novel is about Jindan, one of the wives of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Sikh Empire in the early 1800s. Jindan’s young son, Duleep, briefly becomes king with Jindan as regent, in the power struggles after Ranjit Singh’s death. Looming over these internal power struggles within the Sikh Empire is the constant threat of the British Empire and its bid to rule all of the Indian subcontinent — which, as we know, they eventually succeeded in doing, at least for awhile.

Because it’s history, we know Jindan’s struggle to see her son rule over an independent kingdom as his father had done is going to be a doomed one; however, there’s a lot here I didn’t know and the book had me flipping back and forth between it and many Wikipedia pages about Jindan and her son. Their story is fascinating, both in the novel and in real life, and is interlaced with that of a jewel we heard a lot about during the recent ceremonies around Queen Elizabeth’s death — the Kohinoor diamond, which Duleep Singh gave to Queen Victoria and which Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan all claim rightfully belongs to their countries rather than being embedded in the British Crown Jewels.

The only quibble I had with this novel was with pacing. Jindan’s early years — her childhood, her early marriage to the already-elderly king, and the events leading up to his death — are portrayed in wonderful detail. But once the events where she is at the centre of the action began — when the king dies and the struggle over his succession, and the struggle to keep the Punjab free of British rule, actually starts — so much is happening that those events, and the later years of Jindan’s life in exile, feel rushed, almost as if they’re being summarized. Particularly during the bloody and brutal times right before and during Duleep’s short rule, when betrayals and assassinations are happening almost too quickly to keep up with, the body count feels almost numbing for the reader and left me wondering how it felt for the people going through it. I sometimes have this thought when reading historical fiction set during particularly bloody periods in history (the French Revolution comes to mind as well) — do people become inured to that level of trauma? Most of us would be deeply traumatized by seeing even one body of a person who had been brutally murdered, especially if it was someone we knew: what’s the impact of seeing that over and over for months or even years? I felt distanced from Jindan’s perspective during those events (even though the story is still being told in first person) when the earlier chapters had been so vivid and immersive. But despite those small quibbles this was a fascinating story to read and learn about.

The House With the Golden Door, by Elodie Harper

Although they are very different types of books, everything I said in my last review about Tasha Suri’s The Oleander Sword is relevant here — this, too, is the second volume of a trilogy, so it is not the place to start; the important thing to tell you about The House With the Golden Door is that it is a magnificent follow up to The Wolf Den, a tale of enslaved sex workers in a Pompeii brothel. At the end of that engrossing novel, our heroine Amara has experienced a change for the better in her circumstances — she is a wealthy man’s mistress, a courtesan rather than a slave, with a greater degree of freedom. But of course she is not completely free — and still has many enemies and faces many dangers. And the greatest of these dangers might just be falling in love.

There’s some really thoughtful exploration here of the institution of slavery in the ancient Roman world — what it meant to be enslaved, what enslaved people could and could not do, and how even as people chafed under the cruelty of that system, it was so ingrained in the culture that many newly-freed slaves became slaveowners themselves. Some people have criticized this series for sounding “too modern” but I feel like it does that only with language, making ancient places and customs feel vivid and real and reminding us of our similarities to them — such as when characters refer to the places that sell hot meals to the public as “fast food stalls,” which might not have been exactly the term they used in Pompeii, but does emphasize that people 2000 years ago had the same urge to pick up hot food they didn’t have to cook themselves, as we do today! (I did balk a bit at one of the characters referring to something as happening “on Wednesday” — since that’s a day of the week that’s tied very specifically to a mythology the Romans would not have known or used — but lapses like that are rare). What Harper does so well, though, is avoid anachronism where it really matters — in people’s thoughts or attitudes, particularly in the way they view the institution of slavery. It would be so easy to impose modern sensibilities on a character like Amara, but she is completely a woman of her time, even if she swears in modern English.

The setting is not just a beautifully evocative picture of the ancient world in the first century CE — it’s also quite specifically Pompeii in the mid-70s CE. This is a great setting because of course the author is able to draw on so much of the Pompeiian graffiti that’s been preserved, not just as chapter epigraphs but as windows into how people thought about prostitutes, slaves, love, sex, and power. It’s also a time setting with an obvious looming bit of foreshadowing of which the characters are unaware … and that I’m sure is going to play a key role in the third volume of the series.

Beautiful, vivid, so engaging and powerful — I love this series and can’t wait for book 3.

A Wayside Tavern, by Nora Lofts

I came to this novel by a rather roundabout route. I had just watched the episode of Sandman (the new TV series based on the Neil Gaiman graphic novels) in which Death makes a deal with a man in 14th-century England who doesn’t want to die. Death grants him immortality on the condition that once every hundred years, the man will meet up with Death and tell him how eternal life is going. I loved the episode, and my favourite part about the whole concept was that they kept meeting up in the same location, which was a tavern in the 1300s and retained its nature as some kind of an inn/pub/etc throughout the centuries. Seeing how the tavern and its patrons changed over 700 years was one of my favourite things about the episode.

A day or two after I watched that, in a completely unrelated online conversation, someone mentioned this novel, which I’d never heard of, and of course I had to find it. The premise is that the same building on the spot in, I think, Suffolk, serves as some kind of a tavern or inn from the era when the Romans are pulling out of Britain, up to the mid-20th century. The story jumps forward a hundred years or more in each chapter, showing how the inn, the town around it, and the people running it (often descendants of the same family) change with the changing times. I loved the little glimpses into people’s lives and how they intersect with the larger stories of history, the details about the inn itself, the way unfinished stories from one time period would be referenced in passing as bits of family history years later, the tiny details that become memory and then legend — I just loved everything about this book. Great stuff.

The Nature of Fragile Things, by Susan Meissner

Susan Meissner, whose novel As Bright As Heaven was about the 1918/19 flu pandemic, has a gift for writing historical fiction about subjects that don’t get enough historical fiction written about them. (Seriously, I know every single thing about WW2 is fascinating, but it seems like in the past few years, 80% of the historical novels I see in bookstores are about the war, the Nazis, the Holocaust, the Resistance, the spies, the war, the war, the war … and it’s all fascinating and there are so many untold women’s stories from the WW2 era of course … but there are so many great untold stories from other events too!). This one is about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and a young Irish immigrant woman with a mysterious past, a hasty marriage to a mysterious stranger, a child in need, and an unlikely friendship with another woman who should be her enemy. In the midst of all this, the city is torn apart by the earthquake, and it’s both a fascinating bit of history and an apt metaphor for the upheaval of Sophie Whalen’s life. A really good read.