Maximum Shelf: Outlawed by Anna North

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on September 16, 2020.


Outlawed by Anna North (America Pacifica; The Life and Death of Sophie Stark) is a wild, ripping western with a firm feminist bent, set in an alternative North America.

“In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw.” Some decades ago, the Great Flu decimated the national population, the United States government collapsed and, in its place, the people established Independent Towns west of the Mississippi. Ada has grown up in the Independent Town of Fairchild, where she has lived a good enough life. Her mother is a skilled midwife; Ada excels in her own training in the profession and helps care for her beloved three younger sisters. She marries at 17, as girls do when they become able to reproduce, and so begins the serious and sacred work of trying to become pregnant. But when six months pass, then more, Ada begins to worry. To be barren in Fairchild is a crime punishable by death.

At the end of a year, her husband’s family rejects her, and Ada’s mother sends her to the Sisters of the Holy Child, hoping to keep her safe. In the nunnery’s library Ada continues to read and study, seeking the truth about infertility; her mother had taught her, against popular belief, that barrenness was a medical condition and not witchcraft, but the details are not well understood. It is not a wish to have children herself, but Ada’s hunger for knowledge that drives her from Holy Child and further west, to join up with the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang. This band of outlaws is led by the Kid, “nearly seven feet tall, the sheriff said, and as strong as three ordinary men put together. His eye was so keen he could shoot a man dead from a mile away, and his heart was so cold he’d steal the wedding ring from a widow or the silver spoon from a baby’s mouth.” But like everything else Ada has been taught, these stories aren’t quite accurate. The Kid is charismatic, beloved and possibly dangerous in entirely different ways than the rumors insist, and the outlaws are not what they are thought to be. It is only in the West that it occurs to Ada that “perhaps barren wives were not hanged for witches everywhere.”

Outlawed is a delightful tale of adventure, rebellion, the importance of knowledge and the value of family–however family is made or defined. With the Hole in the Wall Gang, Ada finds unexpected freedoms and fluid gender roles, and is forced to consider what she has to offer her new friends and the world. “I don’t think I’m much of a threat,” she tells the Mother Superior when she leaves Holy Child, but her story is just beginning.

In her new life of crime, Ada learns to care for horses, to shoot and to be a member of a community she’s chosen and loves. As the gang plans and attempts robberies, North’s narrative is often lighthearted, with style, humor and a sense of fun, but her protagonist never forgets the high stakes. Ada meets men and women who are not what they seem, including an actor who’s studied male dress, movements and mannerisms because “the male roles were the most prestigious.” She becomes aware of not only gender but also race as a point of prejudice and contention in North’s version of the Wild West. She learns new skills to supplement her midwife training; she treats gunshot wounds and mental illness and comes to be called Doctor. She learns to carry herself differently. But she never stops worrying about the sisters she’s left behind in Fairchild, who are vulnerable to punishment simply for their relationship to Ada, “a barren woman, a discarded wife, an outlaw wanted for cursing women’s wombs even though I had helped coax dozens of babies into the world.” Ada does not take naturally to the business of holding up stagecoaches or robbing banks, but her devotion to her new group of friends forces her to take risks. Eventually she must choose to invest in their future, or strike out on her own again.

Part of the genius of Outlawed is that its feminist themes juxtapose neatly with the traditionally male-dominated western genre. In Ada’s first-person narration, the critical significance of reproduction and fertility seems simply a background element, central to the workings of North’s fictional world, which is in itself curious and thought-provoking. Ada’s voice is perfectly authentic and easily believable: her developing rebellion is organic, born of her love for her family and friends. She is a maverick, and the best kind of heroine: adventurous, innovative, self-doubting but brave, with intense loyalty and a magnetic, compelling curiosity.

Outlawed boasts a lively, quick-paced plot, a well-constructed alternate-historical setting and an indomitable heroine. While North clearly has something to say about gender in society and the politics of reproduction, this novel is absolutely a work of energetic literary entertainment first. For all readers in all times.


Rating: 7 drops.

Come back Friday for my interview with North.

The Secret Music at Tordesillas by Marjorie Sandor

Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book by the author in exchange for my honest review.


Marjorie Sandor (author of the lovely essay “Rhapsody in Green“) shines a light on the Spanish Inquisition through the voice and music of one man with her historical novel The Secret Music at Tordesillas. It is 1555, and the Spanish Queen Juana I of Castile, also known as Juana (or Joan) the Mad, has just died at Tordesillas following forty-seven years of gentile captivity. One of the handful of musicians employed for her entertainment is the elderly Juan de Granada, who chose not to leave the palace when the rest of Juana’s retinue did; instead, he remains to be questioned by inquisitors, firstly over the fact that he is not at church. The novel is told in his first-person perspective as he recounts his life for a very specific audience, the commissioner and scribe sent to investigate rumors of a secret Jew at Tordesillas. This choice of narrative voice and audience is the first interesting move by Sandor to bring her subject to light. The ways in which Juan aims to ingratiate himself serve to characterize and set the tone; we are always clear on who holds the power in this transaction.

Juan’s story begins by cycling back to 1492, when the Jewish quarter of Granada was conquered and cleared out, and ten-year-old Juan was baptized. He relates how his family and neighborhood were torn apart and forced to assimilate, how he escaped, and how he came to be a part of Infanta Juana’s household as a small boy. Clutching his father’s oud (“that antiquated ‘lute’ of the Moors”) and already well trained in music, he is lucky to continue his musical education and play for royalty. He travels with Juana to Flanders for her wedding to Archduke Philippe, and then back to Spain; he is rarely away from her, in fact, in all his years. And therefore he is frequently with Inés de Castro as well, one of Juana’s most trusted ladies, and a central figure in Juan’s long life.

The old man sits for hours spinning his story for the commissioner and the scribe; there is a hint of Arabian nights in the way he holds his audience, both those two in the book and us, the readers. Between the times he brings us back to his immediate situation – under threat of the suspicion of his inquisitors – we get lost in the story, the present tense of young boy and then young man and then maturity. Juan and Inés, and others, walk a fine line between dangerous secret Jewish traditions and outward propriety. Numerous cultural, musical, and culinary details mark this tightrope.

I confess I was often confused. Better familiarity with this period in history and Spanish and Jewish cultures would have made me a much better reader for this novel. Perhaps I’m unusually ignorant of this material; if you’re like me in that regard, be prepared to keep close track of the details, and perhaps to do a little research as you go.

One of the first things I notice about Sandor’s writing is its lyricism, which is fitting since this is a novel about music and the appreciation of music. I was unfamiliar as well with the implications of musical instruments and styles, but didn’t feel troubled about that; the way Juan talks about his family background and the significance of music was effective and affecting. It was often a lovely story to get lost in, even if I sometimes missed a cue. It is also, of course, a disturbing story. “You know how vigilant the pious are. It is their duty to keep an eye on us all.”

It has been a theme for a few reviews now that I’ve gotten a bit bogged down in the middle of a book. Especially after a few such experiences in a row, I guess this is likely to be at least as much about me as about the books in question. This story is both lovely and absorbing; I don’t know what to say about my small struggles. Perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with the historical period, I was not the perfect audience. There is always so much more to learn!


Rating: 7 lemons.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain (audio)

From the author of The Paris Wife, about Hemingway’s first wife Hadley, comes this novel about his third, Martha Gellhorn. Each novel focuses on the woman first, with Hemingway in a supporting role. This one is told from Gellhorn’s first-person point of view, with very few, brief glimpses into Hemingway’s own perspective – I enjoyed these but I think it was wise to limit them. We follow Gellhorn from young womanhood, early in her writing career, into meeting Hemingway in her 20s – he’s married to Pauline – and into the Spanish Civil War, where Gellhorn finds the talent she will be best known for: she becomes one of the most important war correspondents of the 20th century. The arc of their relationship defines the novel’s timeline, but it is as much the story of the woman. Such a fiery relationship with such a larger-than-life figure as Hemingway does threaten to dominate, but one of the things I love about Gellhorn is that there was so much more to her than this, and I think McLain communicates that.

A little like with The Trespasser, I felt a slowdown in the middle of this book. I’m not sure it’s a criticism of McLain, or simply the fact that Hemingway is a difficult character: mythic, swaggering, enormous, and perhaps difficult to write without becoming a sort of cardboard cut-out who makes dramatic (not to say predictable) pronouncements. I even considered the possibility that I’m a bit sick of him; maybe I’ve read too many fictional treatments of the man. I definitely rolled my eyes at Gellhorn’s hand-wringing and devotion over her selfish, cruel, immature lover, but I had to remind myself that this nonsense is likely perfectly realistic. Which doesn’t make it any easier to sit in.

Whatever that was about, McLain pulled me back. It’s definitely a good strategy, I think, to keep Gellhorn front and center. Along with Hadley, she’s my favorite of Hemingway’s wives; she didn’t entirely take his shit, and had a formidable career of her own. She refused to sublimate, which is why their marriage failed, but it’s why she got to keep herself, too. In the end, I was left feeling really good about this read, although it hadn’t always been easy to take in. Kirkus writes, “Martha comes across as one tough cookie, Ernest as a great writer but a small man,” and well, yes. Welcome to Hemingway.

It’s been a long time since I read The Paris Wife – almost ten years – which I remember loving without reservation. But I suspect I’m a more critical reader now, so I’m not certain at this distance that the first was a better book. Certainly I recommend Love and Ruin for the Hemingway completist, and I think it’s a good overview of the Gellhorn story. Kirkus further writes that “it basically rehashes information and sentiments already available in [Gellhorn’s] own memoir and published letters,” but I don’t know why that has to be such a criticism. Having that information presented in a stylish fictionalization seems like a service, and I found it an enjoyable read.


Rating: 7 rabbits.

Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

An unusual story of 1970s Communist Romania with a thread of magical realism, told in flash-style snippets.

Bottled Goods, Sophie van Llewyn’s first novel, is a curious story of oppression set in 1970s Communist Romania, featuring a young woman pressing against the confines not only of culture and state but of family. Largely realistic, the narrative takes the odd, surprising turn toward magical realism, making the already strange world of heavily monitored government control feel stranger still.

Readers first meet Alina as a girl, then a young single woman, working as a translator and tour guide on the Romanian coast. It is here that she meets her future husband, a history student (later professor) named Liviu. While Alina comes from a background of privilege and property, lost when the Communists took power, Liviu comes from privation, which he does not let her forget. When they marry, “It was not a wedding, but a documentary about customs and traditions that she had been watching, trapped inside the bride’s body.” Trapped indeed in several ways, she goes to work as an elementary schoolteacher–which she dislikes–but life is tolerable until Liviu’s brother defects to France. Then the Secret Services enter their lives and everything changes.

Luckily or unluckily, Alina has an aunt with connections to the government, to whom she turns for help. Aunt Theresa’s assistance varies from intervention with the authorities to entanglements with fairies and strigoi (Romanian folk spirits). When Alina gets desperate, the fairies’ form of help will upturn her life yet again.

The short chapters in Bottled Goods resemble pieces of flash fiction (van Llewyn’s accustomed form). Some unfold in first-person narration, some in third person; some take the form of lists, postcards or how-tos. This formal variation puts readers slightly off-balance, as Alina is continually off-balance, trying to navigate the dizzying rules of her society and increasingly frustrating relationships with her husband and her mother, among others. Van Llewyn’s prose, often simple and unadorned, has moments of lovely imagery: “The beach is a conglomerate of eyes glazing her as if she were an apple.”

Though not always entirely likable, Alina is an insistent protagonist, pulling readers along relentlessly. The magical elements of her story play well off the mundane and the grotesque in everyday life, with surprisingly charming details throughout. Fluid in form, often stark in style and surrealistic in subject matter, Bottled Goods is a strange and compelling story about freedom of choice and those we choose to keep near to us.


This review originally ran in the June 16, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 pairs of Levi’s blue jeans.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Recommended by Liz to help break my reading slump. I picked up Pachinko as an e-book from my local library, and saw the descriptors ‘multigenerational epic,’ among others, go by as I opened it. Now, normally ‘multigenerational’ and ‘epic’ are both turnoffs for me, but I trust Liz entirely. And it’s a great book – maybe I should consider more multigenerational epics.

The cultural backdrop was fascinating to me, and almost entirely new. Pachinko is set in Korea and Japan, following a family of Koreans who become Korean Japanese, across most of the twentieth century. The cultural implications – the perceptions of Koreans in Japan – were a big part of the appeal, and the point, of this novel. I learned a lot. And as far as that (potential) ‘multigenerational epic’ problem, any hesitations I might have felt were well taken care of by Min Jin Lee’s excellent handling of a large cast of characters over time. I didn’t have any trouble keeping track of them, because each was well-developed and clearly delineated. I lived so thoroughly with these people that I still feel myself a little bit with them, even now it’s been a few days since I finished reading.

The first line of the book reads: “History has failed us, but no matter.” In 1910, in a little Korean fishing village, an old fisherman and his wife have a single son, Hoonie. Given his cleft palate and club foot, he considers himself lucky to marry at all. With his wife Yangjin he has a single surviving daughter, Sunja. She becomes pregnant as a young woman by an older, wealthy, married man. Therefore she also considers herself lucky to marry Izak, a young minister who considers it a charitable act to give her child legitimacy. Izak and Sunja go to live in Osaka, in Japan, with Izak’s brother and sister-in-law. Sunja’s first son is Noa; her second, with Izak, is Mozasu.

Sunja is surprised to find how poorly Koreans are treated in Japan. Back home her family was poor; here they are poor and abused. Circumstances are harder still during World War II, until Sunja’s first lover Hansu – Noa’s biological father – resurfaces to help the family. It turns out he’s been helping behind the scenes all along, which is not equally appreciated by all. When Noa learns the truth, he cuts all ties, and establishes a new life for himself in another city, where he represents himself as full Japanese. Both brothers wind up working in pachinko parlors, in different parts of the country and in different contexts.

Sunja and her dearly loved sister-in-law support the household, now including elderly Yangjin as well. Mozasu’s wife dies young. They have one son, Solomo, who attends college in New York, then returns to Japan with his Korean-American girlfriend. But even in 1989, Korean Japanese occupy a special sort of cultural no-man’s-land, unable to return to a national home that no longer exists (Korea in its pre-war form), and not accepted in Japan despite having been there, in many cases, for four and five generations.

The book’s central themes include cultural dislocation and (the myth of) racial difference; home, identity, and belonging; gender (there is a refrain that “a woman’s lot is to suffer”), class, and the stereotypes about pachinko (a totally legal, highly profitable and enormously powerful industry, but with continuing perceptions of criminality). It is a gorgeously rendered novel, rich with details and with food (which I love), and with wonderfully wrought characters: complex, complete, sympathetic but flawed. I loved the, yes, epic sense of time and scope, everything that Hoonie’s generation and Solomon’s do and do not have in common. I noted that when Sunja got pregnant out of wedlock, her mother did not shame her; she seemed sorry that her daughter would have a hard road to walk, but she never called her any names. Yoseb and Kyunghee take her in and ignore the elephant in the room. It is only when Hansu returns to their lives that there is a sense of shame. “A woman’s lot is to suffer”: if she has a baby out of wedlock, certainly; if her brother-in-law won’t let her work for a living; if her son finds out she’d been pregnant out of wedlock; because she must work long and hard from childhood until old age ends her life; because she must bow to the wishes of the men in her life. But also, a Korean’s lot in Japan is to suffer; and they will remain “Korean” even when it’s been several generations since anyone in the family saw Korean soil. That sense of cultural homelessness touched me deeply.

My ebook came with an interview with the author. Lee indicates that it was indeed the cultural situation of Korean Japanese that she wanted to explore with this novel. “Although the history of kings and rulers is unequivocally fascinating, I think that we are also hungry for the narrative history of ordinary people, who lack connections and material resources,” Lee says, and I couldn’t agree more: the narrative history of ordinary people is endlessly appealing to me, and beautifully accomplished here.

This is an absorbing novel of a world quite far from the one I know, but with people I easily recognized and related to. I could spend more time lost in Lee’s remarkable writing and characters. Definitely recommended.


Rating: 8 cups of kimchi.

Maximum Shelf: Cuyahoga by Paul Beatty

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on May 13, 2020.



Pete Beatty’s Cuyahoga is a wild romp, a colorful tall tale and a tender-hearted revisionist history. In the early days of Ohio City and Cleveland, the two cities at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River struggle for primacy, peopled by larger-than-life heroes and classical fools.
The year is 1837, and the narrator of this farfetched story is Meed (short for Medium Son). He promises “wholesome tales, without too many fricasseed widows. True mostly–I will not lie any more than is wanted for decency.” His own protagonist is his brother, Big Son, part superhero and part town mascot, a “foremost spirit of the times,” with “shoulders wide as ox yokes… waist trim as a sleek lake schooner.” In the opening pages, Big must subdue a forest before Ohio City can be founded. “I imagine you are accustomed to meek and mild trees that do not want correcting,” Meed tells readers in a confidential tone, but “you do not know the manners of our trees.” Big’s feats are the stuff of legend, and the crafting of that legend is Meed’s work:

“Stories will go to rot without puttingup. You must salt them into Egyptian mummies, or drown them in lying sugar. Bury them in winter and freeze their blood.

But you would hide the honest stink, the moschito bites, the wounds, the living glory.

Let you and me do without salt and sugar. Taste matters true–even if the truth is half rotten.”

Cuyahoga often appears to be Big’s story, but like many of the best narrators, Meed must eventually step forward and reveal himself. Along the way he will profile the conjoined cities and a number of their livelier inhabitants. The fate of the brothers is inextricable from the drama of the towns’ rivalry.

Big’s problem, which launches this picaresque tale, is that his fabled feats inspire the admiration of the townspeople, but rarely pay in currency. He wishes to marry the beautiful, strong, quick-witted and thoroughly independent Cloe Inches, “somewhat-sister” to Meed and Big (all three are adopted). Readers understand early on that Cloe does not wish to marry at all, but the protest she makes over Big’s lack of funds is the message he hears most clearly. Much of Cuyahoga tracks his attempts to earn a living that will let him “make an honest man of myself,” as Big puts it, and win her hand.

Big’s attempts to better himself merge with Ohio City’s bid for greatness. The towns’ rivalry comes to a head with the question of a bridge across the Cuyahoga: Who will pay for it? Where will it be located (and therefore who will get the business of the tradespeople who use it)? When a location is chosen that puts Cleveland at an advantage, a chant rises up in Ohio City: “Two bridges or none.” This is the kernel of conflict that will put Big at odds with his town, unsettle Meed’s established loyalties and threaten the peace of the Cuyahoga’s twin cities.

Cuyahoga is seasoned liberally with other memorable characters: the prickly Cloe is joined by “Elijah Frewly, the worst rastler in Ohio, who wore black eyes regular as whiskers” and the grimly nurturing Mrs Tabitha, who “ambuscades” her children (adopted and natural) with corncakes each morning. (One of Meed’s poetic traits is the coining of words: “To ABSQUATULATE were a general term for departing with haste.”) Even among such a cast, grocer (read: barkeeper) August “Dog” Dogstadter stands out. Dog’s bar brims with uncouth characters and bristles with weaponry: “Hoes, plows, rakes, scythes. Mattocks and sledges. Pokers and tongs. Mammoth laundry spoons and rusted cleavers. Implements for encouraging people. Pikes, clubs, a spear….” Dog himself embodies and leads this menagerie, not necessarily a force for good. After the first attack on the hated bridge, Dog and his motley crew are immediate suspects. Meed is always on hand to record the drama, including horse and boat races, midnight graveyard hauntings, threatening nocturnal pigs and the finer points of the frontier coffin-making business.

For all its vivid spirits and outsize feats, Cuyahoga‘s greatest achievement is Meed’s unorthodox voice, unpolished but often piercingly wise, and peppered with surprising allusions. “FIVE DOLLARS SHERIFF’S FINE FOR ANY PIG TO WONDER IN THESE PREMISES,” the graveyard sign reads; “I believe the sign maker meant WANDER and only spelled badly. But the mistake had a poem to it.” Meed is given to poetry in his own cockeyed way. Early morning events take place “before dawn put a rosy finger on Ohio,” in reference to ancient Greek classics. His voice and perspective are by turns simple, philosophical, silly and serious. Readers are entirely on his side by the time the loveable, hapless Meed must eventually balance his devotion to his hero brother with his own desires, and ask: “If I were a spirit, how would I go?”

Zany Midwestern history, oddball superhero story, poignant tale of brotherhood and self-discovery: this is an utterly fresh debut novel. Cuyahoga is ever surprising.


Rating: 7 shinplasters.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Beatty.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart (audio)

When I heard, some years ago, that the author of The Drunken Botanist had written a women-centered detective story, you can bet I couldn’t wait to get to it. Because it’s a touch longer than I usually have time for, it took me some four years to get to it, but I finally did, in a very nice audio format performed by Christina Moore.

Constance Kopp lives with her two younger sisters, Norma and Fleurette, on the family farm in the New Jersey countryside, even though their brother keeps insisting they sell it and move into town, because three “girls” shouldn’t be out there on their own. In the summer of 1914, their buggy is struck by an automobile driven by silk merchant Henry Kaufman. Constance insists that Kaufman should pay for damages, but Kaufman is a jerk and sort of a gangster type, and he refuses. The rest of 1914 and well into ’15 are absorbed with the Kopp-Kaufman conflict: Kaufman and his unsavory friends harass and stalk the Kopp sisters, eventually attempting to burn down their house and shooting at them, and sending letters threatening to kidnap young Fleurette and demanding money. At every point the “girls” (Fleurette is a teenager, but Constance is closer to 40 than 30) are encouraged to just let this thing drop, but Constance will not be deterred. She sues Kaufman for the damages and then pursues charges against him for the rest of the violence and threats; a friendly local sheriff’s assistance is critical to her persistence. Constance will prove a better detective than many real detectives, and this novel ends with her being offered just such a job. (The series of “Kopp Sisters” novels follows that thread.)

These events are closely based on the true Kopp sisters, and if you want to avoid spoilers for the novel, you’ll avoid reading the history just yet, too.

I had mixed feelings for this one. It’s got a solid plot, but one that dragged on far longer than it needed to; well-portrayed characters with complexity and flaws and quirks, but a bit more likeability would have helped me enjoy them far more. (I don’t require that I absolutely love all, or even any, characters in a book. But there has to be enough that I invest in them in some way. And while I appreciated Constance quite a bit, and Sheriff Heath, almost everyone else grated. You don’t want your reader to spend most of your book exasperated.) I dig the feminist pluck, the setting in time, and the period-appropriate details. The sisterly interactions were cute at first, but started to irritate me. I was often impatient. Nearly 500 pages? This novel could have been done in half that, I think, and would have been a snappy ripping little novel at that length. I would definitely be signing up for book 2 in the series in that case; as it is, I’m not sure I won’t look into it, which is of course a vote of some confidence. But I’m not sure I will, either, because it bogged down for so long. Why was this book as long as it was? We spent entirely too much time watching the same things happen over and over again.

The reading of this audio format was above average. I enjoyed the voices for the different characters and the contribution to Constance’s character.

Some high points for sure, but I can’t give a strong recommendation. Many readers have loved this book, so feel free to seek other opinions. To each her own.


Rating: 6 blue bands.

Time and Chance by Sharon Kay Penman

Sharon Kay Penman writes epic historical novels that I love to sink into. (I have read 7 of her 15 to date, and she’s still writing, thank goodness!) It’s funny, but for me, what lasts about these books is not detail, but feeling. Individual characters, emotions, and relationships resonate, but I find I can retain almost nothing about the monarchies, battles, and power struggles – the real *history* – she has so meticulously researched. I’m resigned; this seems to be a feature of how my brain works (or doesn’t), as I certainly don’t think it’s a feature of Penman’s work. Also, the English monarchs tend to reuse the same names over and over. It makes it very hard for me to keep them straight.

Years ago, I read the first novel in the Angevin “trilogy” (now at five books, ha), When Christ and His Saints Slept (also here). Here I am finally with book two in that series. “It began with a shipwreck on a bitter-cold November eve in God’s Year 1120,” which kills the one legitimate son of King Henry I. He names his daughter Maude, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as heir, but the people balk at the rule of a woman, and her cousin Stephen seizes power. The Empress Maude makes an armed bid for the throne which fails, but in her remarriage to the Count of Anjou she produces a son who will call himself Henry Fitz Empress and rise to great heights. At nineteen he marries Eleanor of Aquitaine, an older woman, a great beauty, former wife to the King of France; at twenty-one she is a queen again when he becomes King of England. …All this is prelude; Time and Chance covers several decades of Henry’s rule over England, his passionate and eventually rocky marriage with Eleanor, and his changing relationship with Thomas Becket. More than 500 pages flew by for me, as I was entirely spellbound by the characters, their relationships and machinations.

Henry is controlling, confident, charming, single-minded, arrogant, and brave. For a king, he can be quite informal, appreciating simple clothes and food and bawdy humor; but his temper flares easily (much talk of the Angevin temper) and he does not tolerate disrespect. Eleanor is quite his equal, passionate and ambitious, not to be crossed; she is wise and clever, and he doesn’t take her advice as often as he should. They’re well-matched and truly love each other, in Penman’s telling, but he’ll betray her late in the book. Betrayal is central to this story, because the third main character is Thomas Becket, who has risen from a low birth to serve as Henry’s chancellor and one of the few (alongside Eleanor and the Empress Maude) whom the king fully trusts. When Henry promotes him to Archbishop of Canterbury, though, Becket’s loyalties shift. The two men will spend the next eight years as enemies, with Becket pushing for Church powers while Henry pushes for his own. Henry, Eleanor, and Becket form the triangle that is the heart of this book. But for me, a loveable fourth figures heavily as well: Ranulf, Maude’s brother and Henry’s uncle, had a Welsh mother and has made a home and a life for himself in Wales, with a Welsh wife and children who consider the English to be an ‘other’ (if not an enemy). Ranulf’s loyalties are obviously split, but they are deep; he feels himself bound to Henry but also to the Welsh King Owain, and when the two come into conflict he is sorely pained. As impressive as Henry and Eleanor can be, Ranulf is the one who feels most human, most the friend whose eyes I see this story through.

The book is written in a third person perspective that moves around, close to one character and then another; the reader gets views inside of Eleanor’s heart and mind, glimmers into Henry’s, but I think we do get closest to Ranulf, and even his wife. (Rhiannon is blind, which is quite a remarkable condition in this time.) Thomas Becket remains an enigma, as I think he is to history, and we know Penman takes her historical accuracy very seriously. It’s one of the things I love and respect about her, even if I can’t seem to retain the historical details of her novels once I put them down.

My first Penman, which I fell in love with, was The Reckoning, which centers the Welsh. I don’t know if she writes especially lovingly of Welsh characters or if I respond especially to them, but Ranulf won my heart, again. Interestingly, he’s the character in this novel that Penman entirely invented: she writes that Henry I had so many illegitimate children (at least 20) that one more couldn’t hurt.

When these characters get in ships or on horses and go charging over land and water and meet with dignitaries and offer gifts and make agreements, and break them, and when the lists of names get long, I tend to glaze over a little. But when they are engaged in close, interpersonal relationships – when Ranulf and Henry joke, or Ranulf and Rhiannon discuss decisions, or Eleanor and Henry fight or make love, or Ranulf and his brother Rainald catch up, or the Welsh prince Hywel makes poetry and flirts and jests, or Eleanor and Maude and Maud (yes, another one) confer on the role of women… these moments compel me. The larger power plays are interesting, and they are the plot points that coerce the interpersonal relationships. But it’s the private and interpersonal that drive my devotion to the story. There is a certain romance to the way that Penman lets these characters generally be their best selves, a sentimentality in some (not all) marriages and in parent-child relations. I cynically suspect that this perspective is a rather optimistic reading of history, but it certainly makes for enjoyable fiction.

I still admire this author so much, and I find her work so enjoyable. She makes decades of political intrigue feel like an intimate drama among people I could be friends with. Five hundred pages of historical fiction about the Plantagenet dynasty sounds like it would be a slog, but here it’s an indulgence. I’m still committed to reading all her work, over the years!


Rating: 8 shared trenchers.

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland (audio)

Hello, yes, it’s Wednesday! With school just about done, I’m returning to book reviews as a more-or-less full-time venture, and social distancing is still in full effect, so it seems I’ll be producing plenty of blog content for the summer and we’re going back to a three-day-a-week schedule. Thanks for tuning in.


I have loved Susan Vreeland’s ekphrastic fiction for years now. In spirit of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring or Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue, this 2007 novel fictionalizes the story of the real-life painting Le déjeuner des canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

It opens with Renoir riding his three-wheeled steam-cycle to a village on the Seine outside of Paris to paint. We immediately meet several of the characters who will become models for his ground-breaking painting; and it does revolve around characters. While this is in part the story of the painting itself coming into being, issues of composition and light and technique, it is most about people. Renoir chases women; he is obsessed with beauty and must “love” (read: make love to) all his female models. He is also committed to “the impressionists” as a group and a movement. After reading Émile Zola’s indictment of the impressionists, that they “are inferior to what they undertake. The man of genius has not yet arisen,” Renoir knows he must get ambitious. He plans an enormous painting that will be landscape, figure painting, study of light and personality all in one. This novel follows him from discontent and conception through to the end of the painting, plus a years-later epilogue-style reflection.

But again: people. Renoir selects his models carefully, and then navigates their comings and goings; several bow out and new ones must join; he agonizes over the problem of having 13 around a dinner table (an unacceptable reference to the Last Supper), and must make a number of replacements. (Vreeland’s Author’s Note explains that all the models in her novel are the true and established models of Renoir’s painting, with the exception of the 14th, a brief glimpse of a man whose identity is unknown.) These changes in lineup, as well as the luncheons where the modeling and painting actually takes place, are the drama and plot of the novel. Over eight Sundays (the limited span of painting opportunity, because of seasonally changing light), the party meets to flirt and drink and joke and laugh and love. They take boating trips, of course, and several boat races close out the season. Part of the overall feel of the novel is this laughter, love, and conviviality. Partly too it is stressful and sad, but Renoir is always chasing joy.

Most of the story is told from a limited-third-person perspective that follows Renoir, but a handful of chapters track a few of the models. I think these might have been my favorites, actually: Renoir is engaging, and it makes sense that he forms the heart of this story in some sense, but he can be a bit exasperating (especially in his womanizing), and I loved getting to know some of his models a little better. The chapter that followed Angèle might have been my favorite departure from Renoir’s self-absorption. He is an engaging character in his own right, but not always very likeable.

The general feeling is indeed one of the appreciation of beauty, joy, and living in the moment, which (at least as portrayed here) are pillars of Renoir’s own worldview. I enjoyed being immersed in such appreciations, and in the love of lines, colors, light, and brushwork. I genuinely liked almost every character we met, and it felt like escaping into something lovely to rejoin this audiobook. (As I’m saying about everything I read and take in these days, I can’t separate the experience of this book from the pandemic. This one took me longer than usual because I usually listen to audiobooks in the gym and while driving, and midway through this book I lost access to the gym and had nowhere to go. It was a delicious escape, though, when I did get into it.) There was also an elegiac tone to things, especially late, and especially in the character of Alphonsine, who closes things out for us. She’s a somewhat tragic figure who I would happily spend more time with. In fact, I loved the women of this story most of all. I think Vreeland does women beautifully, especially in my favorites of hers, The Forest Lover and Clara and Mr. Tiffany.

Karen White’s reading of the audiobook feels right to me, and I greatly appreciate having all that French spoken aloud for me; it is a language I find confounding, and I can’t imagine how I would have heard all the names and vocabulary in my head if I’d read it off the page myself. I’m so glad I found this book in this format. I learned some things about art, about impressionism, and about period France; in the author’s note, Vreeland notes where she stuck to the historical record and where she diverged, and I feel pretty good about historical accuracy here. (Divergences were minor enough, and my retention vague enough, that I don’t think I’m leaving with any meaningful misinformation.) I’m still a fan of this author, who, incidentally, I just learned died in 2017. Luckily there are still a number of her novels that I haven’t yet read; I will look forward to those.

Lovers of historical fiction, art and ekphrasis, human dramas, and beauty for its own sake should take note.


Rating: 8 canotiers.

Sin Eater by Megan Campisi

In this enchanting alternate history, a Sin Eater consumes the misdeeds of others, and may have a chance to right some wrongs.

Megan Campisi’s Sin Eater opens with a 14-year-old girl named May being arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, in an alternate version of Elizabethan England. The royal family of Angland is entangled in court intrigue and murders, including of babes, to secure favored heirs to the throne, even considering marriage to the hated Northern lords. Common people work hard for a meager living; some starve unless given special permission from the queen to beg in the street. The penalties for petty crimes are high: vagrants have a hole “burned through the gristle of [the] ear with a hot iron as thick as a man’s thumb.” The penalty for a second offense is death.

In this cruel world, below even dung men and woad dyers in the social order, lies a cursed role: that of the Sin Eater. “It’s always women who eat sins, since it was Eve who first ate a sin: the Forbidden Fruit.” Marked by the iron collar locked around her neck and her tattooed tongue, she may be neither seen nor heard. She is called to deathbeds to hear the Recitation, a confession of sins; she translates these sins into foods, which the family will prepare for the Eating. By taking the sins of others into herself, the Sin Eater absolves the deceased. Every child in the street knows the basics. “Salt for pride. Mustard seed for lies. Barley for curses.” When a deer’s heart appears on a noblewoman’s coffin, the city’s older Sin Eater will not eat it, for the terrible sin it refers to was never confessed. She is tortured and killed, leaving May on her own to wrestle with a deadly royal plot.

Recently orphaned and terribly talkative, May is now forbidden to speak. Her apprenticeship as Sin Eater was both silent and short; she’s still learning which foods match the more esoteric crimes. In her favor, May discovers the strange power of the Sin Eater: afraid to touch her, people move out of her way, granting her access to prison cells and royal bedchambers. Chance introduces her to a group of fellow misfits, including a disfigured man, a leper and a roguish theater player. But she must solve the royal mystery alone and, just maybe, create a new fate for herself.

Sin Eater is a fully fleshed work of speculative fiction, abundant with the fine details of Elizabethan life and, of course, food. May is a damaged and sympathetic heroine, at once intelligent and innocent. This is an opulently imagined debut, horrific and weirdly beautiful, filled with earnest feeling as well as cruelty. Set aside time to read this engrossing novel in one go.


This review originally ran in the March 16, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 small loaves of bread.
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