BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt

BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done, by Sarah SchmidtTitle: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press
Published: August 1st 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 328
Format: Hardcover
Source: Goodreads
Goodreads

 How many years does it take to grow into someone?

Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done is a strange and sometimes engaging reimagining of the famous Lizzie Borden murders. Told from alternating perspectives over the course of a few days, we are given insight into the minds of Lizzie and those involved in one way or another with the murders of Lizzie’s father Andrew and stepmother Abby.

By the end, I enjoyed this book, but I felt the book suffered from two things: target market and a slow exposition/initial pacing. I understand that publishers want to reach a wide range of audiences with certain titles, but I felt like this one was YA as I was reading it because of the writing style. It took me about a good third or more of the book to feel really engaged with the characters and the story, and then it seemed to pick up and then I couldn’t put it down. If you aren’t much of a YA reader, this one might feel a bit simplistic in the way in which it’s told. However, in some ways, I think that starkly simple language is what makes Lizzie’s story effective, because if you’re familiar with Lizzie Borden, you already know what’s coming, and by the time it does, it’s one of those chest-grabbing moments.

See What I Have Done explores in greater depth the relationships between Lizzie and the rest of her immediate household. At thirty-something, she still lives at home, unmarried, and behaves as if she is still a teenager with temper outbursts and juvenile outlooks on the world (which is where my “this feels like YA” comes from). It’s apparent from the very beginning that something is off about Lizzie’s mental state, and this disconnect between reality and what goes on in her mind adds to the Lizzie’s relationship with her father is odd and unsettling. At times, her attention-seeking behavior appears as if she’s a love-sick girl starving for the object of her affection’s attentions, and other times it feels as if her behavior is that of a child wanting her father to pay attention to her. Lizzie’s behavior toward and eventual murder of her father and stepmother stems from her deeply rooted jealousy toward her stepmother. As it happens in fairy tales, the stepmother “replaces” the dead mother, and to the main character, the stepmother is therefore “bad/evil,” and for Lizzie, she is the displaced princess.

In a series of twists and turns, Sarah Schmidt delivers a chilling examination of what goes through the minds of those closely involved with Lizzie Borden and her forty whacks. While it takes a bit to warm up to it, See What I Have Done is a solid debut.

I won a copy of this book through Goodreads giveaways for review! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jefferies

BOOK REVIEW: The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah JefferiesTitle: The Tea Planter's Wife by Dinah Jefferies
Published by Broadway Books
Published: June 20th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 448
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

Dinah Jefferies’s The Tea Planter’s Wife begins with nineteen-year old Gwen arriving from London to join her new husband Laurence at his tea plantations in Ceylon. In her struggles to adjust to being a wife and to her new surroundings, Laurence begins behaving oddly toward Gwen and the two have a strained relationship throughout the book, both typical of the time period and for other reasons that I won’t spoil. After she becomes pregnant with twins and gives birth, Gwen harbors a weighty secret for years until she no longer can hide the truth.

Jefferies’s prose is vivid and descriptive, and she crafts an engaging cast of characters. We feel for Gwen’s struggle to adjust to her new life and role as mother and wife, we are charmed by Mr. Ravasinghe, and we are irritated by Laurence and his sister Verity, especially their attitudes and behavior toward Gwen throughout the novel. Each character seems well-developed and suited for the narrative, and I wanted to know more about Mr. Ravasinghe and Gwen’s friend, Fran, and their relationship, but alas. Perhaps in a future/companion novel?

The Tea Planter’s Wife highlights the racial divide, and the subject of race threads through each character’s story. It makes the reader consider the effects of prejudice and how often day-to-day struggles could be lessened if one let go of that prejudice. The book itself has those Gothic undertones that I enjoy, and while some of the events are predictable, I enjoyed the book from beginning to end. It’s the perfect book for those late summer rainy days when you can almost imagine being in one of those plantation houses in Ceylon listening to the rain.

A copy of this book was provided to me for review by Blogging for Books! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Address, by Fiona Davis

BOOK REVIEW: The Address, by Fiona DavisTitle: The Address by Fiona Davis
Published by Dutton Books
Published: August 1st 2017
Genres: Historical, Fiction
Pages: 368
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

After reading her second novel, Fiona Davis has become one of my new favorite historical fiction writers. In The Address, Davis expertly weaves two women’s lives and the history of a landmark residence, The Dakota, in New York City. The lives of two women from the 1880s and the 1980s are woven together as the mystery behind The Dakota unfolds. The Address begins in 1985 when Bailey Camden, heir without genetic proof to The Dakota’s architect, is released from rehab and reenters the world, ready to make something of herself. The famed residential hotel, The Dakota, has fallen into disrepair, and Bailey, who is trying to reestablish herself as an interior designer, wants to learn more about the history behind the building. The narrative weaves in and out of Bailey Camden’s discovery of the history of The Dakota while exploring Sara Smythe’s connection with the residence.

For me, Sara Smythe’s part of the story was the most interesting. I have a soft spot for stories about women who rise from the bottom to become more than they ever dreamed of becoming. Sara, when we first meet her, is a hotel manager in England who saves the life of an architect’s daughter. Theodore Camden, the architect, offers her a position at the residential hotel he has built in New York City. The attraction between Sara and Theodore is immediate right from the start, and that relationship develops over the course of the novel. The twists and turns at the end of her story were a little unexpected and thrilled me. It’s revealed at the beginning of the novel that Sara stabbed Theodore, but the true thrill are all of those little events that lead up to that event. However, I felt like Bailey’s desire for a fresh start and her refusal to compromise herself tied the lives of both women and tied the story together, because no matter the hundred years between them and no matter the different social structures, both women faced similar struggles and strove to overcome them.

Overall, this is an enjoyable historical fiction novel. For the first third of it, I felt like the story was weighed down by the amount of research and detail in the set up, but that detail redeems itself when the story does pick up and become difficult to put down. I’ve already hand-sold this and her previous novel, The Dollhouse, to some of my customers looking for new historical fiction recommendations, so if you enjoy fiction about women who overcome their struggles and enjoy historical fiction set in New York City, The Address comes highly recommended!

Thanks to Netgalley and Dutton/Penguin for a review copy! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Good People, by Hannah Kent

BOOK REVIEW: The Good People, by Hannah KentTitle: The Good People by Hannah Kent
Published: September 19th 2017
Genres: Historical
Pages: 464
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

 Some folk are forced to the edges by their difference. … But ’tis at the edges that they find their power.

I really, really loved Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, and I read that when it was Waterstones’s pick of the month. I was swept away by the atmospheric writing and the compelling story, so when I head that Hannah Kent was releasing a new book, I requested it and moved that book to the next spot in my reading list. The Good People is a stellar sophomore novel that weaves together the stories of three women who are involved in the horrific treatment of a child whom the women believe is a fairy changeling in a tiny village in Ireland in 1825.

In the beginning of the novel, Nora’s husband Martin dies, leaving her with her daughter’s four year old son Michael who has an unnamed disability in which he cannot speak and cannot fend for himself. Nora finds it difficult to care for the child and her household as a widow with no family on which she can rely, so she hires a girl named Mary to help with the work. When she can’t handle Michael even with Mary’s help, Nora enlists the help of Nance, the local woman trained in the art of natural healing. With the arrival of the new priest in the village, Nance is beginning to be considered a witch and evil and as a result an outcast, but she attempts to cure Michael to prove her skills to herself and to the village. Each “cure” that these women try become increasingly more dangerous until the final act is horrifically devastating.

The Good People is an atmospheric novel that balances the struggles these three women face in a changing society and the risks they must take in order to survive, no matter how dubious those risks are. It is interesting how Kent uses the tropes of the three women (the crone, the mother, and the virgin) to explore the actions and reactions of these women and the actions and reactions of others to these women. Kent also explores how the ideas of poverty and the lack of education in rural areas and ignite a fiery fear toward anyone who is different or toward the unexplainable. The best part of the novel is the last third, when everything culminates in an emotionally charged trial that showcases the growing rift between the old ways of thinking (believing in fairies, believing in changelings, and a reliance on old folklore, old pagan traditions, and old wives’ tales) and the new (following the Christian tradition and following new medical practices).

The only drawback I found to The Good People is the long set up to get to the more thrilling parts of the story. I felt like a third of the novel focuses on the slow development of Nora and Mary’s experiences with Michael, and a third of the novel focuses on Nance and a fairly long account of her life. At the end, I found this knowledge of their lives enriching to the heartrending trial, but before that, I found myself getting a little bit bored and wondering when the story would ever pick up. If you are turned off by a long build up, this might not be the novel for you. But if you are interested in novels about the experiences of women in certain periods of history, the collision between the old ways and the new, and compelling trials, this is one you you’ll want to add to your reading lists as soon as possible.

An advance readers copy was provided to me for review by Little, Brown & Co. and Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Goodnight From London, by Jennifer Robson

BOOK REVIEW: Goodnight From London, by Jennifer RobsonTitle: Goodnight from London by Jennifer Robson
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks
Published: May 2nd 2017
Genres: Historical, Fiction
Pages: 400
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Book Sparks
Goodreads

In Goodnight From London, Ruby Sutton is an American journalist who moves to London from New York in 1940 to report on the war as a staff writer for publications in both cities. In a series of vignettes, we see Ruby through her struggles and growth in her new job as a foreigner and as a woman. Goodnight From London is a captivating story about a young woman finding her own ground in the midst of war.

Even though the novel was told in little glimpses of her every day life, I felt like I really connected with Ruby Sutton as she navigated her way through a foreign city besieged by war, raid sirens, air strikes, destruction, rationed food, and as she found a determined, resilient hope in the people she met. For me, one of the best parts about this book is the development of her work and personal relationships. None of them felt forced, and each of them felt genuine, especially for that era. Ruby is an orphan of sorts and never really knew what it was like to have people who cared for her, and in the midst of the terror that was WWII, finding people who had been through hell but still were able to show their humor, their love, and their friendship was such an eyeopener for Ruby. We see her adjust, sometimes awkwardly, to the generosity of those around her. As a reader, I wanted to see her succeed, to see her overcome her fears and reservations, and to fall in love with that mysterious Bennett.

While not as grim and heavy as some other WWII novels I have read, I enjoyed that the setting and the struggles felt realistic. Robson’s writing style is effortless and crisp, and the writing made it clear that she has done her research. If you like historical fiction that isn’t so heavy and dark and heroines you can root for, I think you’ll enjoy reading Goodnight From London.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review by Book Sparks and the publisher. All opinions are my own.