Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
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The Good House

The Good House By Ann Leary St. Martin’s Press, 2012 The North Shore of Massachusetts is famous for its light, the low angle at which the sunset illuminates its farms and marshes as it slides towards the marshy inlets to disappear into the sea. The string of little towns, Newburyport, Rowley, Marblehead, Salem, Ipswich, Hamilton and Gloucester have attracted settlers since the time of the Puritans. The area is famous for its seventeenth century witch trials, its fishermen still haul in cod and lobsters, while its wealthier denizens ride to the hunt and play polo. About forty miles from Boston, the North Shore is still not easy to get to, and therefore, to live there is a conscious choice by those who can afford to choose, or it is somewhere you live because you were born there, your ancestors were born there and truly, there is no where else you would rather live. In the fictional town of Wendover, set in the North Shore, who better would know the town gossip and exemplify the symbiotic relationship between the townies and the newcomers than the town’s top real estate broker? Hildy Good, the narrator of Ann Leary’s The Good House, knows that the only way to make money in the town these days is through antiques and real estate. The creaky old houses are pulled apart by their wealthy new owners, and renovated to look old again, providing work for realtors and  antique dealers, plumbers, handymen and landscapers. Hildy Good parlays her descent from a famously hanged witch and her deep knowledge of the townspeople to advantage when she sells houses, and she straddles the world of her rich clients and the townies. Hildy is the hinge to the story of a relationship between someone whose ancestors have lived in the town for generations and a newcomer. But Hildy is a secret alcoholic. Actually, the secret is only to herself. It is obvious to all around her that she has a problem. When the book begins, she has recently come out of rehab, drinks soda water at parties and at night puts herself to sleep after several glasses of the wine she’s stashed in the trunk of her ex-husbands MG, which he abandoned in the garage.  This kind of wonderful detail permeates the writing of this terrific novel. Ann Leary’s gentle satire absolutely nails the socio-economics of the area, and her delightfully unreliable narrator pulls the story along.  The underlying theme of an addiction’s lure provides the emotional heart of this book. Highly recommended.

Queens of Ancient Crete – And The Men Who Loved Them

Queens of Ancient Crete – And The Men Who Loved Them The Year God’s Daughter The Thinara King The Moon of Asterion By Rebecca Lochlann Erinyes Press, 2011 A rich blend of historical novel and fantasy, the first three books of  The Child of the Erinyes  series are set in Bronze Age Crete. The Year God’s Daughter, The Thinara King, and In the Moon of Asterion, trace the fortunes of Princess (later Queen) Aridela, her lover and consort, Chrysaleon, and his half-brother and rival in love, Menoetius. I was captivated from the start, ordering the next book as soon as I had finished the last. Rebecca Lochlann has created a world both recognizable and yet sinister, a world that spun its year around the annual ritual sacrifice of the king and his apparent cannibalization by the island’s women. The people believed that the annual sacrifice was necessary to fructify the crops. Horrible, yet Lochlann convinces us of the characters’ sincere belief in the necessity for this ritual, and in their faith in their gods and their afterlife. She’s spent many years researching this ancient world, then let her imagination fly with her strong female characters, Aridela, her tutor, Selene the Amazon, and Themiste, the priestess. Beautiful descriptive writing, fast-paced and convincing.

Hand of Fire: A Novel of Briseis and the Trojan War

Hand of Fire A Novel of Briseis and the Trojan War

By Judith Starkston Fireship Press, 2014 It’s hard enough to write about an historical figure. Hard because the experts will always be there to find an inaccuracy, tiny or large. How much harder it is, then, to write about a figure from a poem? A figure twice removed from reality. Judith Starkston has achieved this. In her excellent book, Hand of Fire, she brings to life Briseis, the healing priestess of the goddess Kamrusepa and noblewoman of the city of Lyrnessos, an ally of Troy. In Homer’s epic, the Iliad, Briseis was captured by Achilles during the Trojan War. Judith started her book with a question. If Briseis, an intelligent woman as her profession attests, was captured and enslaved by the Greeks, why would she develop such an attachment to her enemy, Achilles? After all, he had killed her father, her three brothers and her husband. Briseis apparently loved her captor. According to Homer the affection was mutual, or when Agamemnon demanded Briseis be given to him, Achilles defied his commander and refused to fight. The decision gave the edge to the Trojans and the Greeks begged Achilles to relent. Only when Patroclus took to the field in Achilles’ armor and was killed did Achilles return to battle, kill Hector, and desecrate the body. Later he is killed by an arrow to the heel. The novel skillfully weaves complicated emotions into a plot that is built on the edifice of the poem. What we know from the Iliad is that Achilles was a golden hero, beloved of his men. He loved Patroclus, his companion from boyhood. Briseis may have been as star-struck as others in the presence of Achille’s charisma. Judith Starkston knows that it would be too simple to say Achilles loved Briseis and that his jealousy when Agamemnon seized her was the linchpin that caused the crisis of the poem. She shows us that Achilles was caught in a larger psychological web. His mother Thetis, a water goddess, had tried to make him immortal but left a weakness. In the poem, Achilles is fated to die. Hand of Fire ends just before this inevitability. Caught up in a war made by men, Briseis will have to make a choice. A great read. Recommended.

What is Women’s Fiction?

Big Little Lies By Liane Moriarty G.P. Putnam’s Sons-Penguin Books USA, 2014

What is Women’s Fiction? It is not romance, though it usually has what the Romance Writers of America call “romantic elements.” Neither is it exactly “chick lit”. That genre was established well and truly with Helen Fielding’s character Bridget Jones and her diary. Awkward, warm, silly Bridget is so easily recognizable we all love her. Helen Fielding apparently based her book on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – and that, dear readers, is in my opinion, a classic work of Women’s Fiction. I’d say the major definition is that the characters in Women’s Fiction are usually a little older than in chick lit, maybe in their thirties or forties. Often they have children. Or they want children and that drives the plot. Unlike romance, or chick lit, Women’s Fiction often deals with larger issues than ending happily ever after with Mr. Right. Women’s Fiction is often indistinguishable from “upmarket commercial fiction” except that the viewpoint character is a woman. That is not to say that works of Women’s Fiction get the literary attention they deserve. Even if they are best-sellers. Take Liane Moriarty. This exceptionally talented novelist has written book after book that zooms to the best seller list. In her latest book, Big Little Lies, Ms. Moriarty takes on the subject of kindergarten. Bullying, by the children, and by the parents, is her theme, as the innocuous school, in its beautiful Sydney beachside setting, becomes a microcosm for all the nastiness that inhabits the world of adults. The author’s sense of humor is never too far beneath the surface and the book is laugh out loud funny at times. The heart of the story, however, is domestic violence. It is riveting and disturbing, the more so as it shows how difficult it is for the victim to leave. This is not chick lit by any means. So, what it comes down to is this. Women’s Fiction, in my view, simply shows a fictional world through the eyes of a woman or women. That’s why, in my next couple of posts, I’m going to review books of historical fiction with female protagonists. Watch this space.

The Age of Miracles

The Age of Miracles By Karen Thompson Walker Random House, 2012 I’ve been captivated by Karen Thompson Walker’s dark vision of the end of the world. The novel, narrated through the eyes of a middle school girl, tells the story of the “slowing”, when the earth one day slowed its rotation around the sun, and days and nights extended. Crops die, birds drop from the ground because gravity has changed, and I won’t give away the plot by saying that scientists are mystified. In the book, the narrator recalls that a few years before, the bees had started dying. That is actually happening now, and no one knows why. By intermingling real events with imaginary ones, Walker makes us believe her story could happen. Karen Thompson Walker’s narrator’s awakening adolescence fits the sense of wonder that people feel with the “slowing.” The world she shares with others is changing drastically, just as her own world shifts as hormones work their bodily magic. Walker captures the confusion these changes bring, and writes with elegiac sadness of the loss of the ordinary. A tragedy for the planet, perhaps, and yet Walker’s title is just right. She manages to infuse her tale with a sense of life’s mystery and amazement.