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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Review 1382: The Sport of Kings

To paraphrase Sophia Brownrigg, a reviewer from The Guardian, The Sport of Kings is about horse racing like Moby Dick is about whales. It is ambitious—attempting to tell the history of Kentucky through that of two families—one white, wealthy, elitist, and bigotted, the other black, poor, and beleagered. It is sometimes magnificent in its prose and sometimes overblown. It is Southern Gothic, focussing on the ramifications of slavery and bigotry.

Henry Forge is the only son of a proud Kentucky family. As a youngster, he was brutalized by his father and lectured about his place in history. We have some sympathy with him until, in his teens, he commits an unforgivable act.

He rebels against his father by turning the family corn plantation into a horse farm, but the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree. When his wife leaves him, his daughter is nine. He takes his daughter out of school and teaches her himself, all his lessons revolving around horses and breeding and including much out-of-date or just plain incorrect information. He is as elitist as his father—and worse.

Henrietta grows up with a talent for working with horses and a keen, cold intelligence. She also likes to pick up men for sex. Then she meets Allmon Shaughnessy, the new African-American groom, fresh from a prison program for working with horses.

Up to that point, the novel seems mostly a multigenerational saga, occasionally discoursing on geology, genetics, or history in the interludes. But after that it becomes wildly overblown at times, reminding me of the characteristics of Moby Dick that I disliked.

Like one other reader on Goodreads, every time I picked up this novel I wanted it to end. It is about deeply unpleasant characters; the least at fault—Allmon—whines his way through the novel. Its long asides are often irritating. It is sometimes beautiful and very dark, but it is often annoying.

Last year I read an essay—I can’t remember who wrote it—complaining about what I call “books only men like,” usually the ones that win awards. (I read this one for my James Tait Black prize project.) This essay commented that because a certain type of book gets attention and wins awards, now some women are beginning to write like men, using All the Birds, Singing as an example. I did not agree with the writer’s example but couldn’t help thinking of this essay while I read this novel.

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Review 1370: Unsheltered

Unusual for Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered is a dual time-frame novel, changing centuries every other chapter. The setting is the same, though, the odd town of Vineland, New Jersey.

In the present time, Willa’s family has discovered that the house she inherited in Vineland is no asset. Both she and her husband, Iano, have recently lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Willa’s magazine failed, and so did the college in West Virginia where Iano was tenured. When he finally got hired in an inferior level for a one-year position, the inherited house nearby had seemed like a godsend. But now she has found that it is falling down, with part of the old house not even on a foundation, and too expensive to fix.

To make matters worse, they are the only people in the family who offered to take in Iano’s ornery dying father. Their daughter, Tig, has also unexpectedly returned from a year in Cuba. Finally, their son Zeke’s partner has committed suicide, leaving him in an apartment he can’t afford with a baby son. Willa and Iano offer him a place to stay, but what he wants is to leave his son with them.

In mid-19th century Vineland, Thatcher Greenwood has moved his new bride, Rose, back into the house she grew up in. They are also living with her mother, Aurelia, and young sister, Polly. Thatcher is delighted with his wife but is soon to find that they don’t share the same values. His position as a science teacher pays very little, but Rose and her mother continue to demand elegancies that belong to their former life, before Rose’s father went broke.

Next door, Thatcher meets Mary Treat. Rose knows her as the poor woman who was deserted by her husband, but Thatcher learns that she is a scientist, whose correspondents include Charles Darwin.

Vineland was founded as a sort of utopia by Captain Landis, but Thatcher begins to see the cracks in that utopia. One of them is his employer, who will not allow him to teach anything more than rote memorization and hates most recent scientific theories, particularly Darwin’s.

Both of these main characters are concerned with keeping shelter over their families’ heads, but while Kingsolver links the stories through Willa’s growing interest in Mary Treat, she is also able to draw many parallels between the two times. The present uncertainty in the poor economy of the Eastern Seaboard she compares to the uncertainty in the lives of Vineland’s population, of workers promised much by a man who can repossess their property if they fail. An unmistakable political figure in the present day, nicknamed by Willa The Bullhorn, bears a metaphorical resemblance to Landis, who is essentially a conman. The main characters’ housing insecurity stands for the insecurity of the entire population as a result of climate change and the death of the American dream. Kingsolver has lots to talk about.

I’m not so sure how much I liked the dual narrative. I was far more interested in the present-time story than I was in the older one. Kingsolver seemed to want to write about Mary Treat, but Treat features more as an important secondary character. And I have to say that some of Willa’s discussions with her daughter and her ruminations about those discussions border on the didactic (which we know has been a fault of Kingsolver in some other books).

Still, it is great to have another book out by Kingsolver. She can be hit or miss, but I have very fond memories of some of her books.

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Review 1344: Minds of Winter

Cover for Minds of WinterBest Book!
By coincidence, Fay Morgan, who has traveled to Tuktoyaktuk, within the Arctic Circle, to track down information about her missing grandfather, meets Nelson, a man whose brother Bert has also disappeared. Fay’s search has been jump-started by the discovery of an old chronometer disguised as a carriage clock. This instrument was carried into the Arctic by Commander Crozier, a member of Franklin’s ill-fated expedition of 1845. Fay remembers the clock, however, in her grandmother’s house when she was a child. Oddly, Bert Nilsson, Nelson’s brother, was investigating the disappearance of his own great-uncle, whose tracks seem to intersect with those of Hugh Morgan, Fay’s grandfather.

Mixed in with the story of Fay’s investigations is the track of the chronometer, beginning in 1841 in Van Diemen’s Land, to which the ships Terror and Erebus are lately returned from Captain Ross’s exploration of the Antarctic. They will be going to the Arctic in Sir John Franklin’s search for a Northwest Passage. With him goes Commander Crozier.

This is an absolutely riveting book, following the course of a series of polar explorations up through the years to post-World War II, and finally to the present with Fay’s search. This novel does not so much document their physical hardships but explore the state of mind that leads men to return to these harsh regions again and again. It also follows the mystery of the chronometer. What path brought it back to England after it disappeared into the Arctic? What happened to Commander Crozier, last seen traveling with an old one, a race of men known by the Inuit to have been there longer than they?

O’Loughlin has done a beautiful job of intermingling history and fiction, reality and mysticism to write this novel, an exploration in itself. This novel is wondrous.

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Day 1297: The Weight of Ink

Cover for The Weight of InkThe Weight of Ink is a dual time-frame novel set in the current time and the 17th century. At first, I wasn’t as captured by the present-day sections as I was by the past, but eventually the entire novel absorbed me. There is a big revelation at the end that I anticipated, but that did not lessen the power of the novel.

In the present day, Helen Watt is an English university professor of Jewish history who is elderly and ill. Requested by a previous student to examine a cache of papers he found in a wall of his 17th century house, Helen does not expect any great finds. What she discovers is a genutza, the hidden papers of a 17th century rabbi, and on one page, a mention of Spinoza. Understanding that this could be a major discovery, she requests help and gets that of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student.

One of their first, startling discoveries is that Rabbi HaCoen Mendes’s scribe, identified only by the Hebrew letter aleph, is a woman. Having reported her initial findings to Jonathan Martin, the head of the History Department, so that he could buy the papers from the owners, Helen is dismayed to find her place on the investigation usurped. She can continue working with the papers, but Martin has also given Brian Wilton access. He arrives with four graduate students to beat Helen and Aaron to any discoveries and immediately publishes an article about one of the topics in the letters.

In 1657, Ester Velasquez is a young Jewish woman who has been allowed an unusual education. In these dangerous days of the Inquisition, her family fled Portugal for Amsterdam, where her parents were killed in a fire. She and her brother Isaac are part of the household of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, who travels to England to educate the British Jews in their heritage, these people having been hiding there pretending to be Protestants during hundreds of years when Jews were not allowed in England. Rabbi Mendes’s difficult job is made harder when Isaac, his scribe, leaves. But the rabbi lets Ester take his place.

Offered an opportunity of knowledge, Ester comes to know that she does not want to return to a woman’s life. So, she sets about a daring deception.

Aside from covering some key events of its time—the Inquisition, the return of Jews to England, the plague, and the Great Fire—The Weight of Ink offers us an intrepid, determined heroine in Ester as well as an interesting modern story. I was really touched by this novel. It’s terrific—the kind of novel I look for in historical fiction.

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Day 1289: The Clockmaker’s Daughter

Cover for The Clockmaker's DaughterBest Book of Five!
The first character we meet in The Clockmaker’s Daughter is the ghost of the clockmaker’s daughter. Although she used the name Lily Millington, we don’t find out her true name, or why she haunts Birchwood Manor, until the end of the novel.

The novel begins in the present, though, with Elodie, an archivist. She is about to be married, but she is having trouble concentrating on the wedding. That is because, in going through the archive of James W. Stratton, a philanthropist, she has found the belongings of a Victorian artist, Edward Radcliffe, in particular, a sketchbook. This discovery is of interest because inside it is a picture that she realizes is of a house from a children’s story handed down in her own family.

link to NetgalleyWhile Elodie begins exploring this link between Radcliffe and her family, we slowly hear the stories of Lily Millington, of a beloved house, and of a long-lost family heirloom. We also learn the stories of a series of inhabitants of the house.

Although I love a good ghost story, I wasn’t sure whether I would appreciate the ghost being one of the narrators. And this is not a traditional ghost story, for the ghost is not one that frightens. Kate Morton is a masterful storyteller, however, so that I was engrossed as always. Although this is not my favorite book by Morton, which still remainsĀ The Forgotten Garden, I really enjoyed it.

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Day 1275: The Women in the Castle

Cover for The Women in the CastleIn 1938, a group of Germans meet at Burg Lingenfels, a castle in Bavaria, during a party. They are resistors against the Nazis, and they are planning to kill Hitler. After the meeting, Connie Fledermann, a childhood friend of Marianne von Lingenfels, asks her, if the plot fails, to take care of his wife, Benita, and the other wives of the men involved in the plot.

In 1945, the European war is over. Marianne’s husband was executed during the war for his part in the conspiracy. She has returned to the castle and begun looking looking for the wives she promised to help. So far, she has only found Benita, who spent time in a camp, and Anie, the wife of a man she can’t really remember. But both women have secrets, and post-war Germany is a dangerous place. This novel tells the women’s stories through flashbacks as it moves forward in time to the 1990’s.

Although I don’t understand quite why, I didn’t really get that involved with this novel. It may have been because Benita and Anie have some secrets that aren’t revealed until the end, which leaves them relatively unknowable. Marianne is the only character who seems to have much depth.

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