Monday, August 22, 2016

Book Review: The Dark Lady's Mask by Mary Sharratt

Title: The Dark Lady's Mask
Author: Mary Sharratt

First line: The hunger to know her destiny enflamed Aemilia's heart, driving her to Billingsgate on a scorching afternoon.

Review:  Aemilia Lanier is credited as one of the first Englishwomen to publish their poetry with the intention of profit.

The daughter of one of Queen Elizabeth's Italian court musicians, Aemilia received a fabulously deep education at the hands of two noblewomen, becoming well-versed in Greek and Latin, as well as other contemporary languages. Through her wit and beauty, she becomes mistress to Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain before an accidental pregnancy sends her into a miserable arranged marriage.

Happiness, an escape from her life, and a moderate income are found, however, in her collaboration with a poet, William Shakespeare. From friends, to lovers, to seeming enemies, their words bind them together, and both find inspiration in their failed loved affair -- yet Shakespeare, as a man, has far more opportunities to profit from his bitterness, and Aemilia yearns to both set the record straight and earn her own income.

I delighted in this novel from the first page. I confess I had intended to read this book with an eye toward craft, hoping to learn, but instead got lost every single time I opened it up. The word that keeps coming to me is "effortless", from the articulation of setting and era, the small details that make a scene blaze brightly, to the captivating way time passes without being obvious or distracting. And of course, the characters.

Her characters have depth and nuance, and as soon as I decided I could safely hate someone, Sharratt managed to make me feel sympathy and fondness for them. Aemilia anchors the story, a smart and creative woman who wants what so many of us want -- satisfaction in life and vocation -- and she faces the challenges of her life with admirable determination (and not a tiny bit of shocking, but delicious, ambition!). (And speaking of shocking, I looooved Sharratt's articulation of Shakespeare in this book. I'm not a fan of Shakespeare-as-a-love-interest but she sold me on this arc one million percent.) When there are so many "strong" female heroines who are depicted in rather flat ways, I found Sharratt's Aemilia -- and her friends -- to be truly strong and admirable. (And at risk of going on way too long, how much do I love that Sharratt included, and lingered on, Aemilia's wonderful friendships with other women?! I j'adore.)

In addition to the fabulous writing, I was especially delighted by Sharratt's imaginative exploration of what-if: what if some of Shakespeare's most beloved plays were co-written by someone? What if his most scathing, bitter, and unfortunate plot twists, characters, and sonnets were the result of real life insult and injury? What if his constant use of Italian locale in his works wasn't just an attempt at fashion, but the influence of a real life sojourn there? Her answers to these questions feel so real and possible, I'm letting myself imagine a world in which they happened!

I could go on and on, clearly. (And I did: have you seen the chapter dropcaps? So much detail in this book!) Bottom line: this is a marvelous read -- intense and fun in equal part -- and one of my top reads for 2016. So grateful for and appreciative of Sharratt bringing this intriguing figure to life in such a compelling, gripping way.

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 16th Century / 17th Century / Aemilia Lanier / Historical Fiction Fictionalized / Poets / Shakespeare / Love Affair / Patronage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (4/19/2016)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

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I'm thrilled to offer a paperback copy of The Dark Lady's Mask to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only; giveaway closes 9/5. See additional rules on my Giveaway page.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Book Review: Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Ghost Talkers
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal

First line: "The Germans were flanking us at Delville Wood when I died."

Review: This book, as I squeed on Twitter, shattered my expectations -- and my heart.

Set during World War I, the novel follows the British Army's Spirit Corps, a group of mediums who take the reports of soldiers killed on the front. They have an edge, as the campaigns of Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle -- plants for the British government -- have made the world think spiritualism was bunk.

But with the guidance of a West Indian woman, Helen, soldiers are "programmed" to want to report in before they pass on, and the Spirit Corps -- thought to be merely a morale boosting team -- hold continuous, hours-long seances to gather this precious intel from the newly dead.

Our heroine is Ginger Stuyvensant, an American heiress engaged to British officer Ben Harford. She's committed to the Spirit Corps, the other mediums and the ones in their circles with the slight "sight". But not everyone is as convinced that they are valuable, and when Ginger and Ben turned up tidbits and evidence of a spy, they face considerable resistance. Still, they fight for their colleagues, and seek out the truth where ever it leads them -- and it leads to much delicious heartbreak.

All the characters are wonderfully fun, even the tertiary ones, and the setting and world are describe in enough detail to be real without overwhelming the narrative. In particular, Kowal evokes all those elements that I appreciate in novels set during wartime conflict -- race and class and gender, bittersweet love and gutting loss -- as well as including original touches that transform this expected narrative into something more ethereal and unbelievably, more poignant.

Kowal is attentive, too, to the other details that matter, like the inclusion of a character of color as one of the main characters -- a touch I appreciate, as she acknowledges that people of color were in Europe, fighting, during World War I.

So obviously, a winning read for me -- definitely a top ten of 2016. I've been trying to pass along my physical ARCs but I think this is one I'll keep -- I see a reread in my future! (Also, this cover. Unfgh. J'adore it and it so captures the novel.)

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Fantasy / World War I / France / Spiritualism / Paranormal / Espionage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Tor Books (8/16/2016)
Source: Won from Based on a True Story
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Friday, August 12, 2016

Weekend reads and winding down...

Summer is winding down, which bums me out so very much. Unabridged Toddler is getting so big I can't stand it.

In addition to reading, I've applied to a 9 month writing class to help with the creation -- and completion -- of a novel, and I'm trying hard not to hope too much. Would be lovely to get to focus on my writing with such dedication and support. Cross your crossables for me, would you?

My weekend read is still Mary Sharratt's The Dark Lady's Mask (which, as you might be able to tell from this photo, is lacking a bookmark. Slippery thing escaped from the book when I pulled it out of my bag this morning!! Tres tragique!).

It's a great read, which is wonderful because I just finished listening to Imogen Robertson's fabulously fun The Paris Winter. (Nothing worse than being stuck after a good read with nothing good to follow it with!)

What are you reading this weekend?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Wordless Wednesday, August 10

My offering for today's Wordless Wednesday is a sampling of the lovely dropcaps from Mary Sharratt's The Dark Lady's Mask.

It's about Elizabethan poet Aemilia Lanier, an intriguing figure who might have been the muse William Shakespeare refers to in his sonnets.

I love small touches like this in books, and it provides a touch of whimsy and magic to this rather intense, but delicious, novel. 

Link your Wordless Wednesday if you've got something, or tell me what you're reading right now!

Friday, July 29, 2016

Weekend reads and feeling very busy...

My weekend read is Mary Robinette Kowal's new historical fantasy, Ghost Talkers. This one is set during World War I, and features the British Army's Spirit Corps, a group of mediums who debrief those who die in action in hopes of using that intel to help their troops. I'm totally smitten already and wish I could just read this rainy day rather than work!

Life has been pretty busy otherwise: lots of things to do on weekends, which is both lovely and tiring; and both my wife and I have had hectic work lives. I'm also doing some writing in hopes of getting into a nine-month writing intensive, so if things go well, it seems like the busy won't end! But that's not always bad, right?

What are you reading this weekend?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Book Review: Grace Without God by Katherine Ozment

Title: Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age
Author: Katherine Ozment

First line: One night five years ago, I heard a strange noise outside the window of our brick row house near Boston.

Review: I've got a lot of complicated feelings about this book, and reviewing it requires a little coming out and disclosure.

I work for the Unitarian Universalist Association, the national office for the denomination. I'm married to a former seminarian. And until a few months ago, neither of us were members of a church because we both struggled with religion, religious organizations, and our own personal faith beliefs (but we've spent a decade searching for a church home).

Ozment's book immediately intrigued me because of the title (and subtitle): I know we're in a historical era of "spiritual-but-not-religious" and "nones", or people who identify as having no religion, and my wife and I are among those many.

From the subtitle, I had hoped this book would help me wrestle with the conflict I experience of yearning for some kind of faith community while resisting religion, but the "search" in this book is more about Ozment's personal journey toward finding meaning and purpose and belonging for her family.

The book's narrative style is Salon and Vanity Fair-ish interviews with thinkers -- mostly professors -- about religion ("He wore glasses and had thinning gray hair, and he reclined on a tan chenille couch in his art-filled living room, his shoes off and his pale blue golf shirt open at the collar.", p100) combined with reportage about Ozment's own experience at a religious or spiritual worship gathering.

She shares tidbits about coming up against the results of her family's lack of spiritual home -- children who don't know what the Golden Rule is or that an angel isn't a woman doing yoga -- and the attempts she and her husband have made to create a kind of spiritual community for their family. These admissions all resonated with me, as my wife and I have tried to create a faith home, of sorts, out of our circle of friends, especially now that we have a child, and our attempts haven't always been successful.

However, not all parts of this book worked for me. I will confess I bristled at Ozment's articulation of Unitarian Universalism (especially her insultingly flip description that it is a "well established 'religious lite'" option) but I'm going to refrain from evangelizing because it's not really appropriate. (But please don't let her opinion of UUism put you off checking out your local UU church!) I also found myself bored by the summary of studies about the state of spirituality in the US, likely because the research and articles she cites are ones I've used at work. I suspect others who aren't so immersed in the topic will find it new and interesting. And finally, I found Ozment made firm rulings about the various spiritual and religious services she attended in a way that seemed to imply the reader wouldn't like it either, which disappointed and frustrated me. I had to remind myself this wasn't a workbook for finding a faith home, but really a memoir of one woman's journey.

In the end, it seems Ozment and her husband decided to embrace their religious culture anyway -- a decision that echoes my own. Two months ago, my wife and I decided to formally join our local UU church; it fits me theologically and the church is minutes from our new house. My wife loves the diverse congregation and lovely group of children that our son can grow up with. We've decided to split time between that church and a local Quaker meeting, because that fits my wife's theology more, and we appreciate the Quaker values of pacifism and witness. We celebrate Christmas because our families do, even if we don't identify as Christians, and we are honored to celebrate holidays that speak to our friends. Rather than feel guilty for some of this picking-and-choosing, we enjoy having those cultural connections that remind us we're part of something bigger, deeper, longer, and older than us.

For those readers, however, who were hoping for a more secular end, I wonder if this book will satisfy. Despite her warm embrace of and sympathy toward atheists and those who reject religion, ultimately she returns to the traditions of religion (even if she avoids the theology). I'm not sure she offers a good alternative, either.

Ozment has a robust resources section that includes a kind of spiritual self-interview as well as a very long bibliography sorted by topic.

A timely book that takes on the heavy topic of religion in a light manner, this is an easy heavy read (if that makes sense!). While not a book that wholly worked for me, it is one that speaks to a hunger that so many of us are experiencing. In a time when talking about religion -- especially during this election season -- can be so fraught, it was refreshing to read about faith removed from moral judgment.

Genre: Non-Fiction (Religion / American Culture / Parenting / Theology / Self Help)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Wave (6/21/2016)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Reading Challenges: Read Harder!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Book Review: Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Glamour in Glass
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal

First line: There are few things in this world that can simultaneously delight and dismay in the same manner as a formal dinner party.

Review: This second book in Kowal's Glamourist series returns to the Regency world she created in Shades of Milk and Honey (my review here), but Kowal departs from the strongly Austen-y feel of the first to a more standard paranormal historical feel -- a development I welcome!

Jane and her new husband find themselves in Belgium for their honeymoon, and they use the time to study some of the Continental glamour techniques and skills, as well as experimenting with the use of glass in glamour work. But Napoleon escapes Elba and suddenly they're at the front lines of battle. Unhesitating in their support of the British army, their loyalty to country and their skill in glamour make them targets.

As with the first book, I think heightened expectation set me up for disappointment, for while I liked this one more than Shades of Milk and Honey, I wasn't in swoons as I imagined I would. Once again, I yearned for more -- more detail, more character depth, more exploration of the world and its mores, that kind of thing. Kowal evokes warm intimacy, real sexual chemistry, and devoted friendship between Jane and Vincent, but it's done in quick brushstrokes that didn't satisfy me.

There was also a huge plot element I found problematic, but can't really discuss without spoiling it, so check out my GoodReads review if you want all the spoiler-y deets.

In rereading this review, I can see I'm damning with faint praise -- which isn't my intention. (I'm hooked enough that I'm starting the fourth book!) It's fluffy, Regency-ish fun, in which artists use magic, there are no love triangles, and we follow a couple through their new marriage (which is refreshing!).

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Regency / 19th Century / Magic / Napoleon / Marriage / Pregnancy / Espionage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Tor Books (4/10/2012)
Source: My public library
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction