Day 1027: In the Month of the Midnight Sun

Cover for In the Month of the Midnight SunI enjoyed Cecilia Ekbäck’s first novel, Wolf Winter, very much, so I was delighted to hear that her second was out and ordered it right away. This novel is also set in the Lapland area of Sweden, near the fictional Blackåsen Mountain, but it takes place about 75 years later, in 1856.

Magnus Stille is an administrator at the Bergskollegium, the Swedish Board of Mines. His father-in-law, who is also the state minister of justice, asks him to travel north to investigate a situation that has developed. Three men have been murdered, apparently by a Lapp. The minister wants to make sure the murder is not related to a Lapp uprising, which could put a huge mining agreement in jeopardy.

At the last minute before Magnus leaves, the minister asks him to take along his sister-in-law, Louisa. Louisa has gotten into some kind of trouble, and her father is apparently throwing her out of the house.

These two characters act as narrators of the novel, along with Büjá, an older Lapp woman who is grieving for her husband. Also speaking at times is Nila, Büjá’s dead husband.

Magnus has not been asked to go all the way to Blackåsen Mountain, but when he meets the Lapp, he is not sure he believes he is the murderer. So, he decides to walk all the way to the remote village. Once he gets there, he feels there is something terribly wrong at the foot of the mountain.

Like Wolf Winter, In the Month of the Midnight Sun features tension between the native ways of the Lapp and the settlers’ Christianity. It also has a supernatural element to it. The unusual setting makes these novels really interesting, as does Ekbäck’s talent for depicting her characters.

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Day 1026: Imperium

Cover for ImperiumOne of the books on my Walter Scott prize list is the second in Robert Harris’s trilogy about Cicero, so I thought I’d start with this first book. The only other straightforward historical series about this period of Roman history that I’ve read is Colleen McCullough’s Master of Rome series about Julius Caesar. This series makes an interesting contrast.

The novel is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and amanuensis. Cicero is already in his 30’s when the novel begins with his decision to prosecute the corrupt governor of Sicily, Verres. Cicero is usually an advocate, but he sees in this case a way to further his ambitions to ultimately become consul.

Although corrupt governors are apparently not unusual, Verres has completely abused his authority, by even condemning to death without due process a Roman citizen or two, something that was unspeakable to the Romans. Still, as a policy the powerful aristocrats are behind him, including the renowned orator Hortensius, who is defending Verres. Cicero must take a trip to Sicily to collect evidence.

This novel is a really fine combination of a legal and political thriller. McCullough’s series was mostly positive on Julius Caesar and negative on Cicero, even faintly ridiculing him. Harris’s novel makes Cicero a complicated sympathetic character and Caesar a slippery conniver. If you are at all interested in this period, I highly recommend this novel. And for excellent plotting and writing, I recommend it if you are at all interested in historical fiction.

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Day 1025: Dolly: A Love Story

Cover for DollyDolly lives a Bohemian life in what she calls Vagabondia with her sisters and artist brother Phil, his wife, and baby Tod. They are poor, so Dolly works as a governess for her disapproving Aunt Augusta. Dolly is not pretty, but she is witty and vivacious, and at a party she attracts the attention of the wealthy Mr. Gowan.

Only Dolly’s inner circle knows that Dolly has been engaged for seven years to Griffith Donne. The couple has not married, because they can’t afford to, although they dream of the day they can. Grif is a volatile young man who gets discouraged at the lack of progress in his career and becomes jealous of Dolly’s flirtatious behavior. He has a wealthy aunt, Miss Berenice MacDowlas, but she disapproves of him.

Dolly’s troubles begin when Aunt Augusta dismisses her, declaring that her children are too old for a governess. She must find work, and she finally gets a position as companion to Miss MacDowlas. Unfortunately, she must live in, which limits her meetings with Grif. He becomes more and more upset until an unfortunately convergence of circumstances and a true emergency lead him to believe Dolly is toying with him. He breaks from her without allowing her to explain.

Burnett creates a warm family life for Dolly, and we get to know and appreciate her family. She is also good at appealing to our sympathies for her heroine.

This novel was marred for me, however, by my dislike of Grif. The core problem between him and Dolly is that Grif does not trust her, but Dolly takes the blame because of her flirtatiousness, a Victorian conclusion, for sure (and worse, the novel accepts the problem as her fault). Even in their ultimate misunderstanding, when Grif refuses to listen to her very good reason for missing their date, Dolly blames herself. Well, obviously attitudes have changed, but these days his behavior would raise all sorts of red flags. I very much preferred the behavior of Mr. Gowan, who proves to be a true friend. So, I guess in this case I am guilty of judging a book by today’s standards.

And, to give away a plot point, Dolly goes into a decline. I thought that she was an unlikely character to do so. So, a mixed reaction to this one, one of Burnett’s first novels.

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Day 1024: Vittoria Cottage

vittoria-cottageVittoria Cottage is a gentle post-war romance with likable characters. Caroline Dering is a widow with three children. She was married at a very young age to a selfish, complaining man many years her senior, and the marriage was not a happy one. Now she is alone with her two teenage daughters, her son James being away in Malaysia.

Caroline meets Mr. Shepperton, a stranger to the village who doesn’t say much about himself. Caroline gets along with him very well, and he begins making himself at home with her family. Everyone likes him but her older daughter, Leda.

Leda, unfortunately, takes after her father. She soon announces her engagement to her childhood friend, Derek. Caroline and Derek’s father both have reservations because of the young people’s ages, but frankly Caroline does not believe they will be happy. Still, she and the admiral agree that the young couple can become engaged, as long as they don’t marry until Derek gets his degree.

But the central romance in the story is between Caroline and Robert Shepperton. Caroline falls in love with him and thinks he is in love with her. But then her sister Harriet arrives for a visit, and Caroline comes to believe he prefers Harriet.

It isn’t often that I develop an affection for a character within a few pages of meeting her, but that was how I felt about Caroline. The other characters are mostly engaging. This is a pleasant and touching little novel about post-war village life.

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Day 1023: The Second Mrs. Hockaday

Cover for The Second Mrs. HockadayBest Book of the Week!
Shortly after the American Civil War, Placidia Hockaday begins a series of letters to her aunt about the peril she finds herself in. But she refuses to say exactly what happened. While her husband, Major Gryffth Hockaday, was away fighting for the South, Placidia had a child and is being accused of murdering it. But at first, all she wants to talk about in her letters is her first meeting with Major Hockaday and the circumstances of her wedding. She was a naive 18, and he was twice her age and a widower with a baby son. They knew each other all of one day.

Eventually, we learn that Placidia, or Dia, as her family calls her, does not know how her baby died. It seems obvious that her real crime is her pregnancy and her refusal to name the father of her child. All she will say is that she cannot betray someone who helped her. Rumors are rampant.

Susan Rivers is pretty clever about how she spins out her story, although at times I got impatient with Dia’s relatives’ squeamishness in avoiding reading her diary of the time. Her son has found it written on the backs of the pictures in a copy of David Copperfield, and the contrast between the picture captions and the content of Dia’s diary provide a note of irony and a whole other level of information. Nevertheless, we are completely captured by the story of her difficult life during the war, as she slowly and with great suspense works her way to the point.

Dia has been left without enough support on a remote farm in South Carolina after only being married a few days. She soon dismisses the slave woman caring for baby Charlie when she sees her smack him. Eventually, she is left with too little help on a farm that is repeatedly looted by deserters and bandits, as well as undergoing normal threats to agriculture by the weather.

link to NetgalleyThis is a powerful novel. If I have any complaints about it, it is for Dia’s devotion to her husband after he leaves her without word or enough help for several years and then, upon returning home and hearing rumors of her illegitimate child, apparently turns her over to the authorities without even speaking to her. Then she decides not to tell him what happened for his own sake.

Told in a series of letters and diary entries, this story gripped me from the first page. it is a forceful depiction of the vicissitudes of war on the innocent civilians and a great character study of a strong woman.

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Day 1022: The Girl Who Played with Fire

Cover for The Girl Who Played with FireHaving started this series with the last book, I am finally finishing it with the second. As with the original Larsson trilogy, this graphic novel begins to get into the conspiracy by SAPO to criminalize Lisbeth Salander.

Lisbeth is on vacation on a tropical island after the events of the first novel. Mikael Blomkvist and his magazine are working on an issue about human trafficking with Dag Svensson. Meanwhile, Mr. Bjurman, Lisbeth’s guardian, is trying to figure out a way to control her.

Lisbeth has returned home when Dag Svensson and his girlfriend are found murdered. Also dead is Bjurman, and evidence links Lisbeth to the murders. Lisbeth realizes that all this is pointing back to her past, and she must follow clues while a huge manhunt is going on for her.

Despite being the transitional second novel, this one is engaging, with a lot going on. The art is just excellent. Even though the graphic novels are taken from a hefty series, these writers and artists have managed to condense the Millenium trilogy into an effective series.

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