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Teaser Tuesdays: Lillian & Dash by Sam Toperoff

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.


I am really loving this treat: a glimpse into the lives (fictionally rendered here) of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, in their irresistible, funny, dry voices. Here, from inside Hellman’s head:

Store detectives. Hammett once held such a job, briefly. He quit. He identified too closely with the shoplifters.

Of course he did, dear.

Do check out Lillian & Dash; it’s great fun, and this audio edition is tops.

guest review: A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, from Pops

Thank you, Pops, for sharing another recommended read. I remember hearing about this one several months ago!

Truly a classic of Scottish literature, A Scots Quair is a fictional trilogy written in 1932. I am totally enthralled; it is proletarian rustic history, romance of the earth, real-time anti-war essay, epic of Scotland’s industrial emergence, Victorian romance, visionary social observation, heartfelt conservationist ecology, salt-of-the-earth characters, staggering timeless relevance, Gaelic heart, linguistic challenge, lyrical poetic voice. Simply amazing. There are also striking cultural & spiritual similarities with the Pacific Northwest, and I’m not just talking cold & rain!

This was a “recommended” book discovered in planning for our 2010 trip to Scotland, which I loved and it certainly contributed to my appreciation and devotion here after such long delay. I wrote most of this summary after reading only book one, and it rings true as I finish the set two months since beginning the journey.

My paperback is printed in painfully small print; that combined with the blend of colloquial Gaelic & unfamiliar sentence structure to present a long learning curve before I fell into its flow and grew to cherish its voice. It took me a while to squeeze this commitment into a busy time, but after that tentative beginning I never wavered; the story was a reliable companion and ultimately I rued reaching the end.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon is the author. He writes of the period in which he lived: the dawning of the 20th century in Scotland up until publication in the 30s. The helpful 1986 Introduction by scholar David Kerr Cameron notes: “Sadly, Gibbon died aged only thirty-four, in 1935, almost as he completed the trilogy that would be his outstanding achievement, already aware of the fate of his beloved peasant folk but hardly realizing how important he himself would become.”

The story observes the course of change during this time in northeast Scotland by following Chris Guthrie from her birth to death, divided into three formative periods & locales in her life. The characters flowing in and out are countless, yet so many become familiar & cherished. Tragedies of the time are ever-present, as is a rich appreciation of nuance and humor in those lives. I am struck again by the wonder of a female character portrayed so compellingly by a male author.

This is one for all time, and I thirst to find some of it’s legacy in other forms…

Teaser Tuesdays: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

out stealing horses

I am enjoying this audiobook on Pops’s recommendation; recall his review here. And I am enjoying, particularly a little joke like this one, in which author Petterson has his narrator note a very strange coincidence and then comment that he does not appreciate it when novelists put such strange coincidences in their books, since they are so unbelievable. It takes humor as well as guts for a novelist to poke at himself in this way! Here is the line that follows…

It may be all very well in Dickens, but when you read Dickens you’re reading a long ballad from a vanished world, where everything has to come together in the end like an equation, where the balance of what was once disturbed must be restored so that the gods can smile again.

A Dickens reference is always welcome as well; and I think this is a fine way of describing Dickens, as coming from a vanished world. It does feel that way sometimes, and perhaps recognizing his work in this way could help us enjoy him.

Well done, Pops. I will carry on.

The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell by William Klaber

rebellion lucy annI am absolutely charmed by Lucy Ann Lobdell.

The backstory to this novel is an attractive little plot in itself. Journalist moves into an old farmhouse in upstate New York. Years later, he sits down with a local historian and hears the story of Lucy Ann Lobdell, who inhabited the area and is even linked to journalist’s own farmhouse. The aging local historian has searched and searched for Lucy’s memoir but never found it; he is now too tired to pursue her story further, but hands over his significant research to the younger journalist to follow. Journalist is likewise unable to find the memoir; but sensing the power in Lucy’s story, he writes it in novel form instead. And here it is.

Backtrack a little over 100 years. Lucy Ann Lobdell has had a difficult youth, and is entirely frustrated by the lack of options for women in the mid-1800′s, especially a young woman like herself with a daughter and whose no-good husband has run off on her. She runs away from home, leaving her daughter behind with her disapproving family, to put on men’s clothing and seek work as a man. Lucy works as a man can work (earning what a man can earn – and this references a problem that is somewhat ameliorated, but not solved, today) and lives independently – choosing her own company, holding her own hours, answering to no one. And thus she learns how much she has gained, and vows not to return to womanhood, where she will be manhandled, abused, underpaid, and never allowed to make her own choices. She dreams of having her daughter join her own day in her new life, but worries over what form that might take. What might she, as Joseph Lobdell (a name borrowed from her grandfather), be to the young Helen? Not a father; an uncle, perhaps?

Klaber’s novel, told in Joseph’s own first person voice, follows him as he works different jobs in different towns, moving around, facing various challenges. He’ll repeatedly be found out. He will eventually marry a woman named Marie – not the first with whom he’s had a romantic connection, but the first who has known his secret. Marie will accompany him through some of his roughest times, when he suffers from some form of mental illness. Of course, his conservative contemporaries will ascribe this to his sexuality, sexual preference, sexual identity – none of which terms were available to Joseph in the late 1800′s.

Here you see that I have switched pronouns; I’d like to note the brief statement that author Klaber makes, that “just which of the modern labels of sexual orientation or gender should be applied to the historic Lucy is something I will leave for others.” He notes that he honors Lucy/Joseph’s person journey. This strikes me as an appropriate stance for him to take. Such labels are fluid, and as none were open to “the historic Lucy,” I think we should take her as she presents herself. Of course, Klaber’s presentation of her or him are not her or his own; but we take what we have.

It’s easy to see what a an easy character Lucy can be to commiserate with. She is high-spirited, refuses to accept society’s limitations on her sex, and instead demands more. Her struggles are very sympathetic; not that it’s easy today, to figure out one’s sexual identity or sexuality, but how much more difficult in her time, with no role models or examples of what she might be. (Klaber cites one historian who claims the first use of “lesbian” in its current meaning was in reference to Lucy.) A theme running through her life, as told here, is the question of the extent to which she is a woman, or a man; only late in life she will come across the writings of Margaret Fuller, who proposes that we are all on a continuum between the two. Naturally Lucy/Joseph appreciates this concept.

We would like to know a little more accurately what happened to the historic Lucy/Joseph. Lacking that option, I’m glad Klaber chose to share with us as he could. He does invent dialogue, and it’s not clear to me how much of this might have come from the historical record. So as always with historical fiction, take a grain of salt. But her story is told feelingly. And as you know, I always have a weakness for women in history fighting uphill battles; her obscurity makes her rather more interesting still.

I’m glad I accepted this copy for review.

Rating: 7 wolves.

Full disclosure: I received my copy of this book from a publicist in exchange for my honest review.

A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

A medieval scholar takes a fictional turn in 14th-century London, in a story full of murder, literature, politics and intrigue.

burnable book

A young prostitute watches horrified from the bushes as a woman is beaten to death–then looks down at the book in her hands, placed there by the victim moments before. A London “fixer” and minor poet named Gower is asked by his friend Geoffrey Chaucer to track a missing book. The court surrounding the new and untested King Richard II worries over the new games of playing cards and a book rumored to contain a series of verses circulating London regarding the deaths of kings past and present. This one book that troubles bawdyhouse prostitutes, the royal court, bureaucrats, poets and criminals holds potentially great consequences for England’s future. It is treasonous, a “burnable book.”

Bruce Holsinger, a prolific and respected medieval scholar, turns his hand to fiction with A Burnable Book. His academic background makes him well suited to render diverse settings in 14th-century London, from the Southwark stews to the grand halls of Westminster. The young woman murdered outside the city walls is only the first victim, and Gower is not the only one searching for the book in question, for scruples are scarce when the stakes are so high: England’s royal command itself is under threat. Murder mystery, political intrigue and the engaging world of Chaucer’s London are brought to life with a cast of complex, sympathetic characters who are far removed from and yet also familiar to our modern world. Holsinger’s expertise with medieval times is put to good use in a thriller filled with suspense and literary taste.

This review originally ran in the February 25, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 quatrains.

Wake by Anna Hope

With expertly written characters and a convincing melancholy tone, Anna Hope brings the aftermath of World War I to life through the lives of three English women.


Anna Hope’s debut novel, Wake, follows three English women over a span of five days in 1920, building toward the two-year anniversary of Armistice Day and the end of World War I.

Hettie works in London as a dance instructor, paid by the dance to twirl with strangers, many of whom are missing limbs. She struggles to support herself as well as her irritable, aging mother and a brother who has not worked–or hardly spoken–since the war’s end. The festive, exotic dance hall where she works presents an interplay between light and dark, and Hettie’s forays with a more fortunate friend to a breathtaking speakeasy emphasize class differences. There, she meets a handsome, wealthy young man who intrigues her, but the distance from which he regards the world seems unconquerable.

Evelyn handles veterans’ pension complaints, a thankless job that keeps fresh the wound left by her boyfriend’s death in France. Asked every day to consider the fates of damaged young men, her bitterness grows. She used to be close to her brother, an officer, but he has not been the same since he returned.

And Ada is nearly mad, haunted by her son, whose death “of his wounds” has never been properly explained to her. Her loving husband feels that he has lost a wife as well as a son. When a young man appears on her doorstep and speaks her son’s name, Ada is staggered; this event threatens to precipitate her descent into mental illness.

Woven among the three women’s stories are brief views of military exhumation of unidentified bodies, candidates for the unknown soldier who will be reburied and honored on the anniversary of Armistice Day. These scenes establish and emphasize a gray, cold backdrop to the lives of Hettie, Evelyn and Ada.

Hope’s strengths lie in nuance and atmosphere, as she gently and subtly reminds the reader of humanity under the worst of conditions. The pervading mood of the novel is reinforced by poverty, an inability to talk about past trauma and the presence of countless maimed and begging young men. As the lives of her three protagonists come together and the unknown soldier nears his final grave, Wake’s deeply moving, ultimately universal story speaks evocatively across nearly a century.

This review originally ran in the February 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 dances.

Falls the Shadow by Sharon Kay Penman

falls the shadowI call Sharon Kay Penman one of my favorite authors, and yet it has been far too long since I read any of her work. It felt so good to curl up inside Falls the Shadow.

I began reading Penman with The Reckoning, back in 2001 or thereabouts I believe – that was on a trip overseas with my father. I fell in love with the Wales pictured in that historical novel, and I loved the romance and tone of epic historical tragedy. Falls the Shadow comes just before that book in Penman’s Welsh trilogy, so I recognized the youthful characters in this novel that I loved so much in that one; kind of a strange way to go about reading a series (or a history), but it was enjoyable this way, too. Often in life, I think, we learn stories out of chronological order; so be it.

This book centers on the fate of Simon de Montfort in 13th century England, under King Henry III’s ill-fated rule, and the parallel story of Llewellyn, Prince of Wales. Nell, Henry’s sister and daughter of King John, was widowed at 15 and took an oath of chastity; but her friendship with Simon would challenge that oath, and eventually break it so they could marry. Simon was a minor lord, and a Frenchman to boot; their union scandalized both the Church and the English power-brokers, who would have married Nell into a political alliance rather than for love. Simon, with Nell behind (or even often beside) him, would challenge the weak King Henry to stand by his word, to allow Englishmen a say in their own lives. They had four sons and a daughter, who play large roles in The Reckoning.

Falls the Shadow spends some time in Wales, as well, on the rivalry of several generations of princes: the sons of Llewellyn Fawr: Davydd and Gruffydd; and Gruffydd sons’s: Owain, Llewellyn, Davydd, and Rhodri. Welsh tradition divides land and property among the sons (even the illegitimate ones), but Llewellyn Fawr recognized that this division of political power among princes led to a Welsh weakness that would only be exploited by their shared English enemy. Instead, he hands all his power to Davydd, beginning the bloody battles between brothers that continue at the close of this book.

So, Falls the Shadow deals with the political intrigue and power struggles of Wales and England (and involving their neighbors as well); charts the filial intrigues & alliances of both Welsh and English royalty; sees battles fought and power debated; and tells the romantic stories of such marriages for love as that of Llewellyn and Joanna, and Simon and Nell. This is one of Penman’s shorter books at nearly 600 pages of tightly spaced small print; and yet I’ve never seen so much type go by so quickly. For being historical fiction with an epic sweep and involving those bygone times in which everyone seems to have the same names… Penman’s fiction is positively riveting. I am completely lost in it, and sorry to see it end. Luckily, she still has several books I haven’t gotten to yet.

As she writes in the Author’s Note, Penman originally intended for this to be the story of both Simon and Llewellyn; but she found the two men each too large to share the stage, so Falls the Shadow became Simon’s story and The Reckoning, Llewellyn’s. Just as the Welsh play into this novel, though, Simon’s children will play in Llewelyn’s story, too.

Penman’s attention to detail feels very real; and I’ve written on this before, but it’s my understanding that she is very faithful to the historical record. I know she makes overseas research trips because I’ve followed them on her blog. And yet for all the research, history, and fact, the dialogue and the emotions feel both relevant and absolutely real.

I love this author. If you like large, sweeping, engrossing stories that involve both large-scale and individual-scale humanity – do check out Sharon Kay Penman.

Rating: 8 swords.

Teaser Tuesdays: A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

burnable book

A Burnable Book (whose title, I’m sure, strikes fear into many our hearts) is a to-be-published work of historical fiction, with a pedigree: author Bruce Holsinger is, according to the back of my review copy, “a prolific and award-winning scholar of the medieval period” at the University of Virginia. Thus we should trust him, and his research capabilities. But that’s not all! Any book lover would be charmed by the following passage:

Angervyle possessed a strong sense of history, citing examples of renowned book-buyers from the past, including Plato and Aristotle, as well as some negative exempla of those who spurned their volumes. There was also a long discussion of the treatment and storage of the bishop’s own books. Dripping noses, filthy fingernails, pressed flowers, cups of wine brought too near the precious folios: all of these represented destructive forces to the volumes in his collection, which he sought to preserve and protect against the ravages of their many potential abusers. To this end, he wrote, his plan was to endow a hall of books at Oxford, a chamber that would lend out his collection, rendering it a great public good to the entire Oxford community. “The treasures of our books,” he wrote, “should be available to all.”

Well, naturally. Librarians and modern-day book lovers nod their heads sagely. Dripping noses, indeed! Although, the cups of wine…

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

burnable book

A historical novel for you today, to start the new year, with quite a bit of style to it and with Geoffrey Chaucer taking a role somewhere between costar and sideline. It begins:

Under a clouded moon Agnes huddles in a sliver of utter darkness and watches him, this dark-cloaked man, as he questions the girl by the dying fire. At first he is kind seeming, almost gentle with her. They speak something like French: not the flavor of Stratford-at-Bowe nor of Paris, but a deep and throated tongue, tinged with the south. Olives and figs in his voice, the embrace of a warmer sea.

I enjoy the olives, figs, and warm ocean water in this man’s voice, and am immediately intrigued. Stay tuned. Happy new year and Happy Friday, kids!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Sue Monk Kidd

Following yesterday’s review of The Invention of Wings, then, here’s the gracious Sue Monk Kidd!

Sue Monk Kidd: Inhabiting the Past

Sue Monk Kidd was born and raised in Georgia and now lives in Southwest Florida with her husband, Sandy, and their black lab, Lily. Since her first publication in 1988, she has written fiction, nonfiction and memoir; The Invention of Wings is her first work of historical fiction. Kidd’s bestselling books include The Secret Life of Bees, The Mermaid Chair and, as co-author with her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor, Traveling with Pomegranates. Kidd is very active on Twitter.

photo: Roland Scarpa

photo: Roland Scarpa

How much research did you do on the real Grimké sisters?

Well, I began reading about the Grimké sisters and I could hardly stop. I was inspired to write the novel because I discovered them at Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party exhibit in New York, and I came home very excited and began to read about their lives. And that went on for months. I suppose I did full-time research for about six months before I began writing, and then I wrote for three and a half years, during which I was still doing a lot of research. I would sit in front of the computer, inventing and writing, and suddenly I would have to get up and figure out what kind of mourning dress widows wore in 1819. Or what were the emancipation laws in South Carolina at that time. It was constant, ongoing research. And it wasn’t just reading books; I made trips to the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the New York Historical Society–and of course a lot of places in Charleston. That was a primary site for me, and a lot of organizations were helpful.

Did you enjoy that research?

I loved it so much that I had to make myself stop and start writing. I think a writer can get lost in her research if she’s not careful! There’s a point where you just have to put it aside and begin writing. I was very concerned that I get that era right. I wanted it to be as authentic as I could make it, rich with details, and I wanted the reader to be plunged into a real world. So I needed to gather a lot of information, and I really had fun doing it.

How important is historical accuracy in fiction, and how faithfully does this novel stick to the historical record?

That is such a large question for any author of historical fiction. In this case, I was not only writing about a time and place that existed, but I decided to populate the book with real historical figures. As this was my first book of historical fiction, it was a learning curve for me. I started off so enamored with Sarah Grimké’s history, just in reverence for her life and her history and that of her sister, too, that it was very hard to deviate from that historical script. It took me a long time to come to a place where I understood that there was Sarah Grimké, the historical figure, and then there was Sarah Grimké, my character. And I’m not a biographer, and I’m not a historian; I’m a novelist. I had to come home to that again, because I was so caught by her history. I would say that I wrote the truth of Sarah’s life as much as I possibly could, and I think that anyone who reads the novel will find her life rendered there pretty closely. But my goal, I realized, was to serve the story itself, and that meant that I had to deviate some. It meant that I had to invent; it meant that I had to find Sarah in my own imagination as well as in history, and that was really crucial. The moment that I was able to let go and do that, she became alive for me in this book.

How did you make the decision to write this story in two voices?

When I began I was inspired to write the story of Sarah Grimké, and that was as far as I got. I knew I wanted to write her story in first person, because I love the intimacy of that first-person voice. I feel like I can inhabit her and her mind and her heart, and I love seeing the world through her eyes. I love the closeness of that and what it allows me to do, to get into her inner life. But as I began reading about the history, it became very quickly apparent to me that I could not just tell her story without telling the story of an enslaved character. It seemed that in order for this whole time and place to be fully fleshed out, I needed to enter the lives of two characters. So as I was reading about Sarah’s childhood I discovered she had been given what she called a waiting maid, when she was somewhere around 11 years old. This waiting maid was named Hetty, and Sarah taught Hetty to read, and then Hetty died soon after that, as a young person. That’s everything I knew about her life. But the moment I read about her I knew that this was the character, and that I could have this close relationship between them that’s also a complicated, difficult relationship, and I could talk about both worlds. Now, it was daunting to me to do this, to be honest, because writing first person from the standpoint of an enslaved female character is pretty far flung for me. So that was sort of my literary sky dive, I guess! But it was apparent to me that that’s what I needed to do, to tell both stories.

Sarah left plenty of detail to history, including many writings in her own voice, while Hetty barely existed at all on the record. Was it freeing to write Hetty, in comparison?

It was absolutely freeing. Maybe the biggest surprise in writing this novel for me was that Hetty’s voice was more accessible, that it came to me more easily. This I did not expect. I thought it might be the opposite, actually. I think it was because Sarah came with this big historical script, and we knew basically nothing about Hetty. So I had this broad imaginary canvas to fill in. It freed me, I think, just to be able to explore and to just let her talk–and she would talk! I mean she would just talk, talk, talk to me.

Hetty’s mother, Charlotte, is a rich personality who keeps her secrets. Does she have a historical counterpart? Where did you find her?

There was a little seed of something that kind of helped me to create her character. When I was reading the slave narratives I came upon one sort of secondhand story: one woman was speaking about her time in slavery, and referred to someone named Sukie, who was apparently a very defiant, unusual woman. She told a story about how Sukie resisted her master’s advances and pushed him into–I think it was a hot pot of lye soap or something like that–and he was burned, and for that she was sold. And she remained very defiant to the very end. Something about that ignited this idea in me, and I wanted to be sure that Charlotte was someone who could protest and resist and who was concerned about her own self-possession, who had this spirit of insurrection and even subversion. I think it’s important to offer images of enslaved women who are not just victims. We’ve had far too much of that, I think. I wanted to show women who were not just victims, certainly not in their minds. They were in a struggle to be human, self-possessed, to fight back and to show this kind of defiance and resistance. In that regard, the slave narratives were evocative for me of the kind of character that I tried to bring to Charlotte.

Do you have a favorite character? Or one with whom you especially identify?

Oh, it’s always hard for an author to say which character is her favorite! It’s like picking between your children! As a writer, I feel like you have to love all your characters, even the so-called misbehaving ones. But having said that, it’s true, your heart gravitates to your characters in special ways. I remember reading something Alice Walker said that I referenced recently. She spoke about writing about her mother in literature, and she said, my mother was all over my heart, so why shouldn’t she be in literature? And I just loved that line! I thought, that’s how I feel about Handful. She’s just all over my heart. And every day that I wrote, I had this very special feeling about her. I love Handful’s great hope, and the way she used irony and wit to deal with things.

Sarah’s big struggle, at least in my novel, was to find her voice. I literally gave her a speech impediment, which the historical records say she did not have, but I have this idea that writing a novel is really about taking a bad situation and making it worse! Sarah had difficulty speaking in public, but she didn’t have an impediment, so I sort of enhanced it and made it a little worse. That’s one example of how I deviated from the record to serve the story. Her journey was to find her inner voice and to be able to articulate her truth in the world, and I identify with that–I think many people identify with that.

What have you read and loved lately?

Well, I just made this long transatlantic flight, and I hauled books on board instead of my iPad! I don’t know what that says about me. I read three Edith Wharton novels that I had not read before, and I hate to admit that I hadn’t read these; but I guess we all have classics that we’ve not read and we’re ashamed to admit we’ve not read until we finally do! Those were The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence, and I thought–what took me so long? And then I read Delia Ephron’s Sister Mother Husband Dog: Etc., which I just loved. The other book I read recently was Dear Life by Alice Munro. All wonderful books. There are so many and so little time! That’s what’s so great about a nine-hour flight, you know.

This interview originally ran on December 18, 2013 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


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