Review 2033: Astonish Me

I enjoyed Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, although maybe I thought it was a little overhyped. However, I liked it well enough to look for something else by her and found Astonish Me.

When ballet dancer Joan sees Arslan Rusakov dance, she falls madly in love with him. A brief encounter leads to a correspondence, and a few years later, in 1975, Joan helps him defect from the USSR. Arslan is not faithful to her, however, and once he finds that she is not a good enough dancer to dance with him, he seems to lose interest.

Joan finds she is pregnant and decides to leave the dance life. She seduces her lifelong friend, Jacob, and marries him. They settle in to a suburban life in California.

Their son Harry develops the same kind of friendship with his neighbor Chloe that Jacob had with Joan—he worships her while she seems often embarrassed by him, yet appreciates his friendship. But as they reach their teens with both turning to ballet, it becomes obvious that Harry will be a great dancer while the jury is still out on Chloe.

At first, I was turned off by Joan’s decision to deceive Jacob. I felt it was particularly unlikely for that time. However, as the novel digs deeper into the fascinating world of dance, I found it more and more compelling. I liked, too, that Shipstead’s characters have their faults. They’re human, not perfect. If anything, I liked this novel better than Great Circle.

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Review 1872: The Bass Rock

Told in three compelling narratives that take place over centuries, The Bass Rock is a novel about the history of violence toward women. The novel is located on the banks of the Firth of Forth, an area of Scotland dominated by the Bass Rock.

Early in the 18th century, the local priest comes upon some young men raping a very young girl, Sarah. The priest rescues her, but the young men claim she must be a witch because she enchanted them and forced them to do it. Soon, the men have burned down the priest’s house, and the entire household must flee toward the beach.

Post-World War II, Ruth and her husband Peter have recently moved into the big house in North Berwick. Ruth doesn’t quite understand the reason for the move, since Peter works in London. He says it is for the benefit of his sons by his previous marriage, Christopher and Michael, but they are being sent off to school. Soon, newly wed Ruth finds herself left very much on her own with only the housekeeper Betty for company. She begins to discover some secrets in the family.

After Ruth’s death as an old lady, Michael’s daughter Viv is hired by the family to sort through the things left in the house so it can be sold. She has recently had some mental issues and feels like she is the family failure. Almost despite herself, she befriends Maggie, a homeless occasional sex worker who has an interesting take on things. Maggie tells her there is a ghost in the house.

This is a powerful novel. Although its theme is grim, its main characters are relatable and sometimes likable. I loved All the Birds, Singing, and this is another winner from Wyld.

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Review 1861: Great Circle

After getting fired from a hit TV series with a cult following for damaging the brand, Hadley Baxter thinks her career might be over. However, she is approached about starring in an independent film about the life of Marian Graves, an early aviator who disappeared in 1950 while attempting to circumnavigate the earth via the poles.

Although the novel sometimes follows Hadley as she tries to figure herself out, its main focus is on Marian and her twin brother, Jamie. As babies, they are on their father’s ship when it sinks, and because he chooses to save them rather than go down with his ship, he serves time in jail. They are raised in Missoula, Montana, by their alcoholic artist uncle, who lets them run wild.

When a pair of barnstormers stop over, Marian is bit by the flying bug. She is already doing men’s work, so she begins working harder to earn enough for flying lessons. But no one will teach her until she meets Barclay Macqueen, a bootlegger.

Great Circle is a broad-ranging novel that takes us from bootlegging in the West to serving mining camps in Alaska to ferrying planes in England before the flight around the world. I found Marian’s story more compelling than Hadley’s but still found the novel fascinating. Since I read it, it has been nominated for the Booker prize, so is part of my project.

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Review 1827: The House Between Tides

A house on an island separated from the main island by a causeway only open at low tide is the focus of this novel set in the Outer Hebrides. It’s a dual timeframe novel, which format I have to admit I am tiring of.

In 1910, Beatrice Blake arrives with her new husband, the famous artist Theo Blake, to his home on the island for the summer. In 2010, Hetty Devereaux has inherited the house and is considering turning it into a hotel.

Neither woman has made a good choice of partner. Theo thought Beatrice would drive away his thoughts of his first love Mailí but realizes very soon that she cannot compete and begins to neglect her. Hetty’s fiancé Simon has forced his way into her plans and has hired people to do surveys and look into such issues as financing before Hetty has even seen the property.

Both of these stories deal with how the property should be handled and how much claim the crofters have to the island, but in 2010, bones have been discovered under the foundation of the house. The 1910 story eventually reveals whose bones they are.

I found this novel interesting, and the descriptions of the island are lovely. However, even though I saw complaints about Hetty’s lack of backbone, I was more interested in the modern story than the older one. Possibly it’s because it was obvious to me why Theo is so interested in his factor’s son, Cameron, and also because I wasn’t interested in Beatrice’s romance. The final twist was obvious to me, although I didn’t figure out who the bones belonged to.

This novel is atmospheric but a little hackneyed, I think.

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Review 1820: The Drowning Kind

Jax’s sister Lex has been calling a lot lately. Jax knows that means Lex is off her meds and in one of her manic phases. So, Jax, who has been estranged from her sister, doesn’t answer the phone. Lex’s messages are cryptic and incomprehensible, something about measurements. Later, Jax’s aunt calls to tell her that Lex is dead, drowned in the spring-fed pool behind her house. Since Lex has spent much of her life in the pool, suicide is assumed.

Back in Vermont for the funeral, Jax finds the family home a wreck, filled with notes and other documents Lex collected about the history of the house. The house had been their grandmother’s, the place where the two sisters spent every summer. One reason Jax was angry was because the house was left to Lex, whom she believes everyone liked best. Jax decides to try to find out what happened to Lex, what Lex discovered. It all seems to center around the pool, which has a local reputation of being cursed. Several people have drowned in it.

In 1929, Ethel and Will Monroe take a romantic trip to a new hotel next to a spring-fed pool. The spring has a reputation for granting wishes and healing. Ethel has been trying to conceive, so she goes to the pool and says she will give anything to have a child.

Back in 2019, Jax finds wet footprints in the house and catches glimpses of something in the pool. She also figures out that Lex has been measuring its depth, although the girls have always been told it was bottomless.

In general, this is a nice, creepy story, although I felt that maybe it signaled the truth of the pool a little too early. Of course, that adds to the suspense, as the reader knows more than Jax does. Another good one for McMahon.

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Review 1774: The Silent Companions

In the mid-1800’s, a badly burned Elsie Bainbridge is confined to an asylum. She is said to be dangerous. She cannot speak and has not been able to tell what happened to her. Her doctor suggests that writing her version may save her from being executed.

In 1635, Josiah and Anne Bainbridge excitedly begin preparing for the arrival at their home, The Bridge, of King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria. Josiah decides, however, that their daughter Hetta will not participate in the festivities. Hetta was born with a deformed tongue, and Anne blames herself, because she took herbs to conceive when her doctors said she could not.

Elsie’s written account begins when she arrives at The Bridge to live there after her husband’s unexpected death. She finds the house decrepit and the people in the neighborhood unwelcoming. Then she and her companion, Sarah, find the silent companions, some wooden cut-out figures that appear lifelike.

This novel seemed as if it was going to be a good old creep fest. It was certainly a ghost story, but I prefer something—I was going to say that could actually happen, but that’s silly. I guess I prefer something more subtle without freakish gory events.

As far as the approach taken to the material is concerned, although all the chapters except the ones set in the asylum are supposed to be written, the later ones as Elsie’s account and the earlier as a diary, neither of them are convincing as such.

Although I make a final caveat that I don’t believe the doctor’s treatment reflects psychiatric treatment of the times, I am not saying I disliked this novel. I thought both stories were compelling, but not so much so that I didn’t think of these things while I was reading it.

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Review 1746: The Hand That First Held Mine

Best of Ten!

It’s the mid-1950’s, and Lexie Sinclair has already made arrangements to leave her family home in Devon when she meets Innes Kent. He is a stylish magazine editor whose car has broken down on their road. When she tells him she is coming to London, he asks her to look him up. Instead, he looks her up.

Lexie takes up an exciting life as part of the Soho art scene. She and Innes are the loves of each other’s lives even though he is married. His wife has, however, taught her daughter Margo to hate Lexie even though she and Innes have been split up for years.

In present-day London, Elina and Ted have just had a baby. The birth was difficult, and Elina is having a hard time coping with the pressures of motherhood. At the same time, Ted, whose memory is notoriously poor, has begun having flashes of memory that do not correspond to what he understands of his life. Slowly, these two stories connect.

Maggie O’Farrell is always wonderful, I find, but this novel had me sobbing. It is beautiful and tragic as it explores the themes of motherhood and family secrets.

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Review 1536: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Best of Ten!
I’m late to discover Maggie O’Farrell, but better late than never. I’ve read a few books by her now, and she just keeps getting better and better.

Iris Lockhart is contacted by a mental hospital, which wants to find out if she can offer a home to her great aunt, Esme, who has been incarcerated there for more than 60 years. The problem is that Iris has never heard of Esme and believes her grandmother to be an only child.

Her mother now lives in Australia and has never heard of Esme, either. When Iris tries to discuss Esme with her grandmother, Katherine, who is suffering from Alzheimers, she gets a fractured response that implies Esme is her sister. In particular, she says, “She wouldn’t let go of the baby.”

Through third-person narration from Iris’s point of view, Esme’s stream of consciousness memories, and Katherine’s more fractured ones, we learn how it came to pass that vibrant and unconventional Esme was abandoned in the hospital from the age of 16. Iris is shocked to learn that Esme was incarcerated for such outrages as insisting on keeping her hair long and dancing in her dead mother’s clothes. She learns that at the time women could be committed on the signature of one doctor.

This is a shattering, sad story about a girl whose life is stolen because she doesn’t fit in. It is spellbinding as it draws you along to learn Esme’s story. This is also fascinating tale about how sisterly love turns to jealousy and anger.

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Review 1519: Perdita

On holiday from his university job, Garth Hellyer takes on a task for the Longevity Project by calling on Marged Brice, who is supposed to be 134 years old. Garth can hardly believe she can be as old as she says she is, and although she has a birth certificate, she has no other form of identification. Marged says she would like to die, but she has to find someone to take care of Perdita.

Marged gives Garth her journals, and he begins to read the fascinating story of a girl attuned to nature, in particular to Georgian Bay off her home on the Bruce Peninsula of Ontario. The journals begin in 1887 and tell the story of the girl’s love for the bay and for George Stewart, an artist.

Meanwhile, Garth becomes reaquainted with Clare, a neighbor on the bay. She, it appears, has cared for him since they were teenagers, but he has never paid attention to her.

This novel is atmospheric with a strong sense of place, particularly the older story, and interesting, although I sometimes wondered when we would get to Perdita. It’s a long novel at 400+ pages, and it takes a long time to get to Perdita, but it kept my interest. If anything, the explanation of Perdita seemed a little unclear. I almost think I would prefer this as a ghost story, which it is not. It does have a faint ecological message.

I’ve said I’m getting tired of the split timeframe novel, but it didn’t bother me for this one and was, in fact, necessary. On the other hand, the historical portion of the novel was definitely the more important.

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Review 1457: The Alice Network

I would estimate that 90% of the recent historical novels I’ve read in the last two years—and I’ve read a lot of them—are dual timeframe novels. Although I have read some excellent ones (The Weight of Ink comes to mind), I’m beginning to feel that they often indicate laziness on the author’s part. Why write a carefully researched novel about one period when you can write two hastily researched ones?

In post-World War II England, Charlie is on her way to Switzerland to a clinic for unmarried pregnant women when she ditches her mother to try to search out what became of her cousin Rose during the war. This all sounds very well, but the flippant first-person narrative style undermines everything serious about this section, turning it into, well, a historical romance.

She finds Eve, whose name as a preparer was on the reports her father received about Rose. And what are the odds that Eve is going to handle a report that mentions a name important to both her and Rose’s fates? Not too likely, I’m guessing, but that’s what happens.

In any case, then we plunge into the story of Eve, a spy during World War I, and back and forth we go for a book that is about 100 pages longer than it should be and very repetitive.

Worse, some of the detail and conversations, especially in the spy section, seem unlikely. I felt as if the characters were being put through their paces in benefit of the plot rather than evolving more organically. Characters are given traits to round them out, but these traits are just sort of thrown into the mix. For example, Charlie is supposedly a math whiz, but the most complicated thing she does is figure a tip or quote the Pythagorean Theorum (which I learned in 7th grade, and I think kids learn even earlier now). Neither is exactly high mathematics.

I know this book was very popular, and I think the subject matter is interesting, but I am not a fan of the execution of this novel. I wasn’t that drawn in by Manhattan Beach, but compared to this and some of the other World War II-based novels I’ve read lately, it was a masterpiece.

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