The Greenest Branch is an engrossing historical novel set in the 1100’s about the early life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician.
At the age of 10, Hildegard enters the cloister of the Abbey of St. Disibod, following an ancient custom of families’ tithing their tenth child to the church. Enclosure within the cloister means that Hildegard will never see her family again, but she possesses a deep faith and a strong intellect and is thrilled that, unlike other girls of marriageable age, she will be able to continue her education. She has already displayed a talent for the medicinal arts, taught to her by the family nurse, and she longs to become a physician.
Soon she is permitted to train in the abbey’s infirmary, where she develops her knowledge of the curing powers of herbs. As she grows older and more skilled, her ambition flies against the powers of the Church, which regards women who heal as practicing witchcraft. She encounters a powerful nemesis in Prior Helenger, who is determined to thwart her, despite St. Disibod’s growing wealthy from her skills at treating the infirm. The danger to Hildegard increases when she starts to write about theology, which the Church expressly forbids women from doing. Her writings attract the attention of Papal authorities, involving her in the conflicts between the Papacy and the Rhineland’s political leaders.
I highly recommend The Greenest Branch to readers of historical fiction, particularly those who enjoy reading about the medieval period. Fans of Elizabeth Chadwick, Ken Follett, Bernard Cornwell, Tony Riches, and Hilary Mantel will love this book.
Chronicle in Stone is a searing coming-of-age novel, set during World War II in an Albanian hill town that has the misfortune of lying between Italy and Greece. Gjirokaster, today a UNESCO World Heritage site, is built of stone from the Southern Balkans and counts amongst its citizens Muslims, Christians, Gypsies, nuns, and prostitutes. Its highest peak is capped by a formidable fortress that has repelled invaders as far back as The Crusades; it is here that every segment of Gjirokaster society seeks refuge during the worst of the Allied bombings, peasants mingling with nose-holding aristocrats.
The protagonist, a young Muslim boy who reads Macbeth and loves words, imagines the picturesque homes of Gjirokaster to be living creatures, each with its own story. Even the cistern in his home’s basement speaks to him, and the planes from a nearby airfield become big-bellied friends that he imagines couldn’t possibly hurt him.
The boy at first casts an amused eye on the town’s traditions, such as its fear of witchcraft and the ancient women who haven’t ventured outside in decades. He grows more observant as he notes the violence inflicted on those who flaunt its sexual mores. One man, likely a hermaphrodite, is killed the morning after his wedding for the audacity of falling in love. During a bombing, a young girl kisses her secret boyfriend and is hauled home by her hair, where she disappears in what her ever-searching boyfriend fears is an honor killing. A woman, who reveals herself as a lesbian, is dismissed with the euphemism of “having grown a beard” and banned by her own father from the safety of air raid shelters.
Chronicle in Stone proves the cruelty not only of wartime, but of unexamined traditions and of a culture that attacks its own iconoclasts. The boy’s great wisdom lies in the growing realization that not all the traumas of wartime are inflicted by invading armies.
Unraveling Oliver, by Liz Nugent, is a deeply engrossing psychological tale of deceit set in Ireland and France.
Oliver Ryan is endowed with dark good looks, but he has suffered a harrowing childhood. He was born out of wedlock to a father who works for the Church and regards himself as an icon of moral purity, his only slip-up a seduction by a woman whom he dismisses as “a whore.”
His mother abandons the newborn, leaving him on his father’s doorstep, who acts as if he would rather the child died than raise him. When his father marries, Oliver is sent to a nearby boarding school, where he spends years spying on his old family home from an upper window. Through his binoculars, he discovers that his father has begat another son, a blond-haired golden child who is showered with paternal affection. The boy even attends the same school as Oliver, who is never allowed to reveal their shared parentage.
Oliver constructs a careful façade to hide the damage his childhood has wrought, becoming a best-selling author of children’s books. After a tragic, failed romance, he rebounds by eloping with his illustrator, a woman described by his primary mistress as “way beneath him.” For a boy who grew up wearing tattered clothing and lacking spending money, he now enjoys literary acclaim, fawning acolytes, and a home in which he can hide his secrets.
Years later, suffering from writer’s block, he punches his wife into a coma.
Told from the perspectives of those whom he has hurt, the book attempts to decode Oliver and explain his violence. This book ultimately asks—and answers—the question, “How well can one really know a person?” In the case of Oliver Ryan, it appears one can only know a sliver of the fractured, shattered man.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, set in a Cambridge-like city in the martial state of Gilead. The book is a stunning achievement, a prescient tale written in 1985 about the subjugation of both women and opposition forces in a future, totalitarian America. In Gilead, women are treated as nothing more than wombs for the procreative benefit of the ruling class, while opposition forces are hung up on a citadel wall and left to rot until the next batch of executions.
After reading The Handmaid’s Tale, you will be terrified of women who can smile and cry at the same time and long for bad-ass friends like Moira. Most of all, you will listen, with growing desperation, for the word “Mayday.”
Faithful Place is a police procedural set in Dublin, Ireland, about Frank Mackey, a divorced undercover cop determined to shield his 9-year-old daughter, Holly, from his crazy family, especially his violent, alcoholic father and his battered mother, who could teach master classes on inducing guilt in children.
Frank Mackey has been estranged from his parents and three of his four siblings for twenty-two years, ever since the night his teenage love, Rose Daly, disappeared from Faithful Place in Dublin’s Liberties section. He and Rose had plotted to escape the Liberties’ brawling jealousies and working class pecking order, intending to start new lives in London. Only Rose never showed up, creating a scar in Frank’s heart that ultimately would lead to the demise of his marriage to Holly’s mother. What living woman could compete with a ghost, one who forever retains the perfection of youth?
As the third book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, the book wields less of the staccato writing that is Tana French’s trademark style, although the dialogue is often cutting and insightful (one scatological comment about ZZ Top was jaw-droppingly funny).
To my disappointment, I indentified the murderer about halfway through the book. The perpetrator seemed so obvious that I kept hoping to be proven wrong, but the ending contained few surprises.
Faithful Place will appeal to Tana French’s fans–and I am one, but I would argue that In the Woods and The Likeness are more suspenseful.
#amreading #fiction #books #TanaFrench
Elmet is a literary suspense novel set in Yorkshire, England, about John, a fighter for pay and former enforcer of rents, struggling to protect his two children and to save their home, which he built himself on land owned by Mr. Price, his violent and rapacious old boss.
Invoking an ancient Celtic Kingdom that once existed in Yorkshire, Elmet is a story that could take place across the centuries. 15-year-old Cathy and 13-year-old Daniel come of age in the woods, each whittling their own bow and arrow from ash trees, hanging homemade Christmas lights from pine trees, and hunting for deer for their dinner in the copse behind their house. What little formal education they receive is provided by a school where their poverty makes them targets and, later, by Vivienne, a next-door neighbor who teaches Daniel—while Cathy runs free in the woods—the beauty of old sagas and imparts rudimentary technology skills using household appliance blueprints.
Cathy is a wild child at heart, unsuited to society’s norms and consumed with anger at the dangers women and girls face, whether from strangers, from the sons of Mr. Price, or from the ginger-haired travelers with whom they sometimes interact. Like her father, she is a formidable opponent and drives much of the story’s disturbing ending, when the conflict with Mr. Price and his cartel of fellow landowners reaches a horrifying crisis.
Elmet is a grim story, but its gorgeous prose and sharp delineation of character speak deeply to the love of a son for his Daddy and the bond that exists between siblings—and how hard one will search for the prodigal family member who has not yet found her way home. Elmet was a finalist for the Man Booker prize in 2017, an honor that it richly deserves.
The Elementals is a masterpiece of Southern Gothic fiction. It upends the notion that scary things only happen at night and turns the hot Alabama sun into a terrifying and enervating character of its own. By the time the reader finishes The Elementals, he or she will fear a sun that blazes too strongly, sugar that tastes like sand, and dunes that swallow both houses and people.
The book opens in Mobile, where Marian, the matriarch of the Savage family, is being buried in a gruesome funeral ritual that dates back hundreds of years. The grieving Savage and McCray families then retreat to an isolated spit of land called Beldame on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, where they have been vacationing—and dying—for decades.
Three houses sit on the shore at Beldame, but the third is falling apart, as it is slowly being consumed by a sand dune. No ghosts appear in the book, only mysterious, violent creatures who inhabit the third house, where their movements are visible as shadows flitting past the windows during the hottest hours of the day. Their presence can be heard in a bedroom door slamming shut of its own accord and in the sound of sand sifting through a broken window.
Each of the characters has his or her own reasons for fearing the third house, but it is India McCray, the granddaughter from New York, who brings about the final resolution. That resolution is equal to the finest in horror fiction, even as it leaves the reader wondering just who or what the creatures in the third house really are.
The Loney is a literary horror novel that failed to horrify me. It describes a group of pilgrims travelling to St. Anne’s shrine in coastal England to cure Farther and Mummer Smith’s eldest son, Hanny, of mutism.
On the positive side, the sense of place and atmosphere was engrossing. I loved the setting of the book in what the pilgrims discover is an old Tuberculosis sanitarium. Also, the tension between the simplistic Catholic faith of the Smith family and the naturalistic superstitions of the locals was powerful. In the end, both traditions seemed cruel, more designed to torture Hanny than to cure him.
My big problem with The Loney is that, in the climactic scene, Hurley shies away from giving the reader a close view of the ritual that cured Hanny. Instead, Hanny’s brother, Tonto, steps out into the hallway, so that he cannot witness the violence of the final cure. This takes away from the real horror of the book.
Ultimately, I thought Hurley’s second book, Devil’s Day, was a better book.
The Woman in the Window, by A. J Finn
Dr. Anna Fox is a gifted child psychologist with a bad case of agoraphobia and an even worse fondness for Merlot. Shut inside her New York City brownstone, she observes her neighbors and their daily routines through the lens of her camera, until one day she witnesses what she believes to be a murder.
Anna’s constantly inebriated state makes her an unreliable narrator, so the reader is left questioning whether a murder really occurred—or if the supposed victim ever even existed. The book reminded me of one of the old movies that Anna spends her evenings watching, especially Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
Unfortunately, the middle of the book dragged to the point of boredom. If the pace had been more exciting, I would have given The Woman in the Window 5 stars.
Fans of The Girl on the Train will love this book.
Devil’s Day, by Andrew Michael Hurley
John Pentecost and his pregnant wife Kat return to the Endlands, a small farming community in Lancashire, when his grandfather—the Gaffer—dies suddenly, “like a lightbulb blowing out and blackening the glass.” There, he learns that the Gaffer had recently committed a heinous crime and now someone has tried to burn down the Endlands’ woods. Was it retribution?
He also discovers that Dadda, his ailing father, can no longer handle the farm on his own. John longs to return to the Endlands, which he’d fled years earlier for a stifling job in academia. Kat, however, sees the Endlands “as the setting for a part of my life that was well and truly over… a place where she would always be a visitor and happily so.”
What did I love about Devil’s Day? The sense of place is amazing. Hurley conveys the beauty, rituals, and antagonisms of rural life the way that someone can only if he or she has experienced the annual Gathering of sheep from the moors.
Also, so much of the writing is gorgeous. I especially loved Hurley’s description of Kat’s relationship with the little girls at her nursery. “It was on her knee that they sat to cry, her sleeves they snotted on, her hair they plated with their jam-sticky fingers, her hands they clung to when it was time to go home.”
So, what would it have taken for me to give Devil’s Day 5 stars? I would have wanted to see a better resolution of Kat’s opposition to returning to the farm. This conflict was glossed over at the end and I was left confused by the twists in John and Kat’s relationship.
One thing is certain: I look forward to reading The Loney, Hurley’s debut book, which won the Costa First Novel Award in 2016