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!