Review 2109: Orphans of the Carnival

After reading Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie, I had high expectations for Orphans of the Carnival, especially as it had in common the carnival setting. However, my reactions to this novel were much more mixed.

The subject of the novel is a woman who really existed, Julia Pastrana, a 19th century performer. Julia was more than a performer, though. She was a famous “freak” at a time when such shows were popular. She is described only here and there and in pieces so that we slowly get an idea of what she looked like, but she was labeled an ape-woman, among other names.

The novel opens as Julia has decided to take up a showman’s offer and leave her home in Mexico, where she works as a servant, to travel to New Orleans to work in a sideshow. But her hunger for travel and adventure is stifled, because her boss wants her to stay out of view except when she’s on exhibit, discouraging her from even walking around heavily veiled, as she usually does.

Julia eventually changes agents and quickly becomes world famous, being an accomplished performer and speaking several languages. But she yearns for a fulfilling private life.

The trouble is, Birch didn’t succeed in making Julia an interesting personality. This problem may be because she was a real person and Birch didn’t want to take too many liberties, but sometimes I want to say to authors, “Your characters aren’t inherently interesting even if you put them in interesting situations. You have to make them interesting.” Further, she doesn’t do much with the carnival setting.

Birch also uses at least one anachronism when she puts Julia in pantyhose. Pantyhose wasn’t actually invented until 1959 and was called “panty legs” at first. The term “pantyhose” didn’t become common until the mid-1960’s.

There is also a present-time story about a woman who fills her apartment with lots of odd objects she’s picked up. There seems to be no connection between the two story lines until the very end of the book. However, when they do link up, the connecting is haunting.

The end of the novel is very much the best part of the book, but otherwise I had trouble staying with it and read two other books in between starting and finishing it. This for me means I am having trouble concentrating on the one I’m reading.

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Review 2105: The Royal Secret

When James Marwood and Cat Lovett, now the widowed Mrs. Hakesby, meet Mr. Van Riebeeck at the theater, Marwood has no idea that his investigation of someone selling state secrets will involve him. Cat, who has carried on her husband’s architectural business since his death two years before, has thought she would never be drawn to a man, but she is to Van Riebeeck.

When Marwood’s investigation begins to focus on Van Riebeeck, he tries to warn Cat, but she just thinks he is jealous, which he is. In the meantime, Cat is working on plans for a chicken house for the King’s sister, Madame, and is asked to take them and a model to France.

Van Riebeeck has already killed three people and proposed marriage to Cat before he disappears. But since one of the murdered is Marwood’s own footboy, he is determined to find him.

This is another excellent entry in the Marwood/Lovett series. The main characters remain interesting, and Taylor involves them in some intriguing plots. I am enjoying them.

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Review 2104: The Other Side of the Bridge

Mary Lawson’s milieu is the tough life in remote northern Ontario. In The Other Side of the Bridge, she examines the relationships between parents and children and between brothers.

In the late 1930s, Arthur and Jake Dunn are a farmer’s sons. Jake was born after their mother had several miscarriages, and she has been so worried about him that he has not been made to work the farm, while Arthur works hard to help his father. Jake gets by on charm and recklessness, while Arthur tries to protect his mother by lying about the various fixes Jakes gets himself into. Arthur, who is quiet, solid, and dutiful, realizes at one point that Jake is purposefully making trouble for him.

Although his mother loves only Jake, Arthur has the moral high ground until a fateful accident on a bridge.

In the 1950s, Ian Christopherson is a high school student whose mother has left him and his father. He is harboring hatred for his mother for leaving and a disinclination to become a doctor like his father just because it’s expected. He also has a crush on Laura Dunn, Arthur Dunn’s wife, and asks for a summer job on the farm just so he can sometimes be around her. The couple seems content, but their relationship is more complex than he realizes until brother Jake comes home after having been gone for 15 years.

This novel is deeply affecting, dealing with long-suppressed emotions and intricate relationships. It is written in beautifully spare prose. Another great book from Lawson, who deserves a lot more attention than she seems to be getting.

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Review 2096: The Raven’s Children

I thought Yulia Yakovleva’s Punishment of a Hunter was an excellent 1930’s-era Russian mystery, so I looked for more. But all I could find was The Raven’s Children, a children’s book.

In Stalinist Soviet Union, seven-year-old Shura lives with his older sister Tanya, his baby brother Bobka, and his parents. All of them are patriots, but one night his father disappears. The next day, their mother behaves oddly, packing a suitcase, saying she quit her job, but she doesn’t tell them anything. The family unusually has a two-room apartment with Shura and Tanya’s bedroom accessed by a wardrobe so the second room is not obvious. That night Shura is awakened to see someone being taken away in a black car. The next morning, their mother and Bobka are gone, and Shura overhears a neighbor saying that they were taken away by the Black Raven. Their neighbors won’t speak to them except the timid old lady down the hall, who gives them a purse of money from their mother with instructions to go to their aunt.

Neither child wants to go to the aunt, so they spend the day wandering around talking to the birds (who talk back), trying to find the Black Raven. Gradually, they understand that their parents are thought to be spies and traitors. They think there must be some mistake and if they find the Black Raven they can tell him so. Then when they arrive home at their apartment that night, they find their neighbor living in it.

I always go under an assumption that the age of the protagonist in a children’s book is roughly the age of its intended audience. That being said, I think that children that age would understand very little of this book and be terrified by some of it. And I’m not a person who thinks children shouldn’t be scared by books.

For one thing, Yakovleva slowly brings in an element of magical realism. The talking animals and even Shura becoming invisible and having people walk through him was okay. But Yakovleva makes metaphors become real, so ears and eyes appearing in the walls are really creepy. But the worms are the worst. And I don’t want to spoil anything, but some characters, once disappeared, stay disappeared.

Yakovleva wrote this novel because her grandfather had similar experiences as a child during Stalin’s Reign of Terror. This novel might work as a teaching tool, but I would advise it to be with discussions with an adult who has read up on the period. Otherwise, I don’t think children are going to understand this novel.

By the way, several adult Goodreads readers complained that they didn’t understand what was going on, and at least one of them said she was from a former Soviet country.

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Review 2086: Beyond the Rice Fields

I was looking forward to reading Beyond the Rice Fields as the second book set in Madagascar that I’ve recently read (the other was Red Island House) but even more so as the first book ever translated from Malagasy into English. It is set during a fascinating period in the 19th century.

The child Tsito has been a slave since his family were killed or sold into slavery, but his luck changes when he is bought by Rado, a trader in zebu who travels all over the country. He purchases Tsito more as a companion for his young daughter Fara, the product of an unmarried union with Bao, a very beautiful dancer. So, Tsito grows up in a family unit with Fara, Bao, and Bebe, Bao’s mother.

When he is older, Tsito learns to read from foreign missionaries, and this makes him valuable to Andriantsitoha, the provincial lord. He takes Tsito to the City of Thousands to work for him. Tsito is hoping to earn his freedom, because he is in love with Fara. However, the political situation is looking more uncertain since rule of the kingdom was forcibly seized by the Sovereign Queen after the death of the Sovereign King. Powerful lords are taking land away from others who seem to have no judicial recourse, and Andriantsitoha has very little power in the city. The country becomes more chaotic, as a backlash against Christianity leads to large-scale denunciations and slaughter.

I know nothing about the history of Madagascar, so I probably would have found this novel fascinating except for issues that may or may not be cultural. It was hard for me to know. I often found myself confused about the larger picture because except for the final dramatic scenes in the last 50 pages of the book, Naivo doesn’t explain what’s going on very clearly. He tends to only bring in information or characters when he needs them, and if then, doesn’t really give them much dimension. For example, some of the children that Fara and Tsito play with become important later in the book, but he hardly mentions them as children and doesn’t show you what they are like, except the bully.

The narrative point of view switches between Tsito and Fara, and Fara spends a lot of time recounting stories and thinking about some family curse that is never fully explained. So, during the first half or so of the novel, I wasn’t always sure whether we were in the past or the present.

In general, I felt that Naivo had a problem knowing what to tell and when.

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Review 2081: The Night Ship

In 1628, Mayken, the child of a wealthy Dutch merchant, sets sail on the Batavia to join her father in the Spice Islands after the death of her mother. She is accompanied by her nursemaid, Imke, but Imke being ill from the beginning of the voyage, Mayken soon has the run of the upper ship. Dressed in raggedy boys’ breeches, she also sometimes explores the depths of the ship.

In 1989, young Gil has gone to live on an island in the Indian Ocean with his fisherman grandfather after his mother’s death. Gil’s mother and her father Joss had been estranged, and Joss doesn’t seem happy to have him. The island is inhabited by fishermen who only live there during the fishing season and by archaeologists exploring the site of the sinking of the Batavia. There are rumors that the island is haunted by a girl who died after the shipwreck.

This novel is utterly fascinating. Kidd does a great job with her characters, especially the enchanting Mayken. The story of the Batavia, an actual shipwreck, is gut-wrenching, but Kidd makes her more modern story almost as interesting. This book is great.

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Review 2078: The Silver Collar

Antonia Hodgson states in the Notes to The Silver Collar that she intended to write this novel from the very beginning of the Thomas Hawkins series. The Silver Collar is the fourth book in the series.

It’s 1728. Things are going well for Thomas Hawkins and his beloved Kitty Sparks, but Thomas begins to feel discontented because he is being supported by Kitty’s wealth and her pornographic bookstore. Then the couple quarrel because Thomas learns she has secretly been seeing Magistrate Gonson, who recently got him unjustly convicted of murder.

After they argue, Thomas stomps out. He returns to find out belatedly two things—Kitty is pregnant and Magistrate Gonson has conspired to help her mother, Lady VanHook, kidnap her.

Thomas knows that Kitty is terrified of her mother, whose intentions are twofold—to take over Kitty’s fortune and to torment Kitty. Finding her pregnant adds some spice. Thomas gets help from Jeremiah, a black man whose little daughter is enslaved by Lady VanHook, and from Sam and Gabriela Fleet. They find that Kitty has been incarcerated in an insane asylum, but that’s just the beginning of this fast-moving, adventurous novel.

There was one place where the pace slowed to a slog, and that was in reading Jeremiah’s letter, which was too long and went into too much extraneous detail. Hodgson created a trap for herself when she gave him speech problems, because this section would have worked much better as a dialogue. However, in all, this was an exciting entry in the series.

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Review 2075: The Land Breakers

John Ehle grew up in North Carolina and can trace his ancestry back to one of the first three families to settle the remote western North Carolinian mountains (the Appalachians) in the 18th century. The Land Breakers is the first of a series of seven novels about the families who settled in that area.

It’s 1779: Mooney Wright and his wife Imy have been released from their indentures and are traveling around trying to buy land for a farm. However, no one will sell them land in the more settled areas. They find a store owner who offers them land in the remote western mountains, which have not yet been settled, and almost inadvertently they end up buying 600+ acres.

It is a hard journey to get there, but at last they end up in a pretty valley with soil that has never been cultivated. They are both hard workers, and they set about building a cabin and clearing land for planting the next spring. However, during the winter Imy dies of a sickness, and Mooney sinks into a depression.

Tinker Harrison, a comparatively wealthy man, arrives with his family and slaves the next spring. He wants to establish the valley as a settlement he can control. They arrive shortly after Mooney buries Imy. Following them are Ernest Plover and his family. The Plovers are in-laws to Harrison, because Ernest’s oldest daughter, Belle, married Tinker, although she is younger than Tinker’s son, Grover. Ernest is a shiftless man with seven daughters, the next oldest to Belle being Mina.

Once Mooney starts to come out of his depression, he becomes interested in Mina, who is beautiful but very young. However he has also noticed Lorry, Harrison’s daughter and the mother of two young boys. She married Lacey Pollard, but he left to look for a home in Kentucky four years earlier, and she never heard from him again. Mooney needs a wife to work for and make his plans succeed, and he is torn between the two women.

This novel is a sparely written story of the difficulties faced by those early settlers. These do not so much involve people as problems with wild animals and weather and the sheer remoteness of the area from anywhere else. Occasionally, when describing the landscape, the prose becomes lyrical. With its details of work, it reminded me a bit of the trilogy I read by Tim Pears, although that was set 150 years later. I was interested enough in this novel to order the second in the series.

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Review 2065: The Invisible Bridge

One of the reasons I learned to love reading was that I got swept up into another time or place or even world. As I got older and more discriminating, this experience happened less often. It happened most recently within a few pages of starting The Invisible Bridge, which I read for my James Tait Black project.

Andras Lévi, a young Hungarian Jew, arrives in Paris in 1937 to study architecture. He has brought with him a letter that an acquaintance asked him to mail once he was in Paris. He mails the letter but notices the address.

Soon he is involved in the technicalities of art school, made more difficult because he almost immediately loses his scholarship, a first act of the anti-Semitisim that is perceptibly increasing, although not as bad in Paris as it was in Budapest. He seeks a job at a theater from Zoltán Novak, a man he met on the train from Hungary. When he begins a friendship there with an older actress, she sends him to lunch with friends at the address on the envelope he mailed, and that’s how he meets Klara, an older woman with whom he falls madly in love.

This novel, which starts out seeming very particular, about a love affair between two people, grows into a novel of great breadth, covering events of World War II, the Hungarian Holocaust, life in work camps, the siege of Budapest. All of it is centered in the importance of family.

I absolutely loved this novel. It is sweeping, wonderfully well written, touching, harrowing. And what a story, based on the lives of Orringer’s grandparents. I can’t recommend this book enough.

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Review 2059: The Fortune Men

I didn’t read what The Fortune Men was about ahead of time, because I was reading it for my Booker prize project. That meant that at first I wasn’t sure why the novel switched between the stories of two characters, Mahmood Mattan, a Somali stoker who is a gambler and a petty thief, and Violet Volacki, a middle-aged Jewish storekeeper. However, when I turned to the back of the book, I learned that Mattan was the last man in Cardiff to be sentenced to death for the murder of Violet Volacki in 1952 and that years later he was found to have been wrongfully convicted.

Mahmood is not a perfect man. He has quit going to sea to be near his Welsh wife and children, but work is hard to find for a black man, and he has too much time on his hands. He spends it gambling and womanizing and occasionally stealing. He has a big mouth and he lies a lot. But he is not a murderer.

When the police come to see him because a woman was robbed and her throat cut, he doesn’t tell the exact truth about where he was, because he was dangling after a Russian woman and he doesn’t want his wife to know. A black man, possibly a Somali, was seen outside the store, but even after the victim’s sister and niece say it was not Mahmood, it’s pretty clear that the police decide it was him and look for people to place him there. After a reward is announced, plenty of them pop up.

This novel is well-written and should have been haunting, but first I kept having problems staying with it, and later, even after I got more interested, I felt distanced from the characters and the story. Mohamed went on side trips through the memory of Mahmood’s life that should have made readers feel closer to him, but I did not, and I noticed Goodreads reviewers complaining about the same thing.

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