Emma of Normandy is only a teenager when she is deemed the sister strong enough to wed the troubled King Aethelred of England. Normandy and England have an uneasy peace. Danish Viking raiders frequently attack English shores, while the Danish leader, Forkbeard, appears to be allied with Emma’s brother, the Duke of Normandy. Upon reaching England and wedding Aethelred, Emma finds herself completely alone and surrounded by those who mistrust her and her motives: some who seek merely to undermine her, and others who seek her life. A few trusted women and men live and travel with her, but no one can protect her from the cruel, slightly demented Aethelred who is racked with guilt and fear over the death of his brother years ago or the attractive and unattainable Athelstan, son of the king and current heir to the throne or Elgiva, the seductive, conniving would-be queen whose place was usurped by Emma. With exquisite prose and a thorough but not condescending knowledge of the world of 1002 AD, Bracewell writes of the lives of those we seldom discuss in history courses, but whose actions changed the shape of the world. The children of these characters paved the way for William the Conqueror in profound ways. Although the story occasionally strays onto predictable paths, the events unfold in surprising ways. After Emma succumbs to the inevitable, the novel seems to rush to its triumphant but cliff-hanger ending. Bracewell deals gently but realistically with her characters. Few authors indeed would allow a woman who lost a child to mourn that child so obviously, and to return to the pain of that grief so frequently and believably. If that weren’t remarkable enough, Bracewell also gives all of her characters, men and women alike, depth and personality and legitimate, often contradictory viewpoints. Bracewell’s admirable and excellent debut novel should stand proudly on the shelves beside those of Alison Weir, Philippa Gregory, and Geraldine Brooks.
Zoe is trapped in a nightmare reality. She used to be an extremely intelligent, recently bereaved woman moonlighting as a janitor at one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the city. Then a jar suddenly appears in her apartment. Two things happen simultaneously: she feels a growing, irrational fear of the jar, and the people around her start to get sick. And all the cats nearby start to behave strangely. As readers, we know the jar is in reality a menacing item. For Zoe, her fear of the jar causes her to seek therapy. Although frustrated by Dr. Rose’s questioning and tough love approach–she pretends the jar is a dream when speaking with him—she values his perspective. As the world starts to crumble around her, Zoe thinks she may just be going mad. And Dr. Rose urges her to open the jar and face her fears. That was then. The narrative flashes back to the time before the world ended, but the main story takes place in Zoe’s terrifying present: most of the world’s population has succumbed to a strange disease dubbed White Horse (after one of the horsemen of the apocalypse), a disease that starts out like the flu and either kills the patient or irrevocably alters their DNA. As a scientist, I find any story suspect that suggests an alteration of the genetic code can so profoundly change an organism who then continues to live, but I am a sucker for a great post-apocalyptic tale, particularly those involving main characters battling nature, other people, and their own natures in order to survive. The story shifts from past to present frequently, as the revelations of the past inform the current plotline, in a measured and suspenseful way. As Zoe’s struggles reveal she is pregnant, the plotlines of both past and present take on new meaning. In the present Zoe finds herself traveling in the company of many interesting characters: the blind, abused Lisa; the menacing, stalker Swiss, whose enigmatic character provides many surprises for the reader and for Zoe herself; and a strange, prophetic oracle and her unfortunate sister. Zoe’s desperate odyssey unfolds slowly, and all those questions of where, why, how, and who eventually come to light. Although she doesn’t realize it at first, Zoe may hold the key to the survival of her entire species, just as she once unknowingly wielded the key to their destruction. Adams’ novel reads like a warped Homer, with the ever-patient Zoe journeying to find her heart’s desire rather than waiting for fate to tear it from her. What an excellent, exhilarating journey it is.
Lizzie has only been married a brief time before her husband heads out to fight for The Cause (being the independence of the colonies!). After his death, she finds herself alone on their plot of farmland. Grief takes its toll on her and her land, but comfort comes in the form of neighbors, chiefly the eminent Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams. The two embark on a lifelong friendship as Lizzie begins to feel she is part of the neighborhood. Lizzie also resumes her work as a midwife in this new community, aiding mothers before, during, and after birth, and attending those who are ill. Soon enough, Abigail insists Lizzie must have help on her homestead, and recommends Martha as a servant, although the bond between the three resembles sisterhood after a short time together. Along with Martha’s arrival comes more news of the war, on their very doorstep it seems! A vibrant cast of characters, all of whom exhibit a remarkable capacity for change throughout the course of the novel, revolve around Lizzie and her fight for The Cause. Daynard has written a compelling and hopeful book about a dark and dangerous time in American history. She has peopled her story with characters real and imagined, and given all of them depth. The complex relationship between Lizzie and her women friends, particularly Martha and Lizzie’s sister-in-law Eliza, fill the novel with heart and warmth and many pleasing and surprising twists. Although the dialogue tends toward the archaic at times, as do the often-infuriating manners of the day, it is written true to its time and subject matter. As Lizzie heals and grows, she opens her heart to the secret child of a close friend and eventually to a man who could possibly be more than just an acquaintance. The “revolt” referred to in the title seems, as Lizzie’s friends all advise, quite dangerous and there is barely an instigating event to spur her to pretend to be a spy, although her method of doing so is clever and engaging. Although many of the characters’ storylines have been wrapped up in the novel, perhaps there still might be room for a sequel.
Veronica Mars meets Harry Potter in this devilishly clever young adult novel. Kami Glass is your typical teenager—she feels like a perpetual outsider and she protects herself with the sharpest wit imaginable. She’s also capable of defending herself physically (she’s no wilting damsel calling for help in a crisis). Yet Kami has a secret. Since infancy she has shared a mental link with a boy (be he real or imagined) named Jared. When the real Jared walks into her life and her small town, Kami’s carefully constructed worldview blurs and then shatters. Kami’s small town is plagued with sayings about the noble family that used to live there, and when that family returns, the secrets they and the entire town have kept blow wide open. A series of attacks followed by a murder lead Kami and her small group of interesting, misfit friends into danger and beyond—into the realm of the supernatural. Brennan’s writing follows Kami’s headstrong, caustic wit, providing readers with a glorious mash-up of teen-coming-into-adulthood insights and magical imagery. The story contains many creepy elements as well, balancing a finely-wrought emotional storyline for Kami and Jared. In perhaps the book’s most sinister moment, supernatural elements collide and several characters celebrate the coming of the rain in a deliciously spooky scene. Brennan has crafted an excellent story and a complex world where the everyday and the magical live side by side.
Watson tells the story of Veronica’s life after her marriage, during the year she comes unraveled, in brief vignettes—scenes scattered like buckshot or blood splatter. Although the nature of Veronica’s job is never clear, she travels frequently to conferences and meetings. Nearly all the scenes take place during one of these excursions. Either she travels all the time or these are the only times she considers herself alive. Her husband is only a shadowy, alcoholic figure stranded in Veronica’s past. Instead of focusing on her home life, Veronica moves from man to man (and the occasional woman is alluded to): a work colleague, several old friends, one of whom she has never been physically close to but with whom she seems to be either in love or obsessed—both of them are familiar with the tragedy of her parents’ lives and deaths, an old boyfriend and his adopted sister who is also the object of Veronica’s strange obsession and with both of whom she shared a defining sexual encounter. The staccato beat of the scenes is mesmerizing, dropping the reader from one pivotal moment in Veronica’s life to the next as her life spirals slowly out of control. Watson’s writing is precise and expert. Scenes of Veronica’s nameless longing as she watches barges drift down the river from a hotel window unspool as meaningfully as her discussions with her various partners and friends whom she visits in a circular, dizzying pattern of need. A River So Long is a lyrical, seductive read to be savored, and one that, more than likely, will reveal even more depth of character and an even greater cleverness of scene patterning upon rereading.
Gavin is a newspaper reporter who loses his job. Gavin is not perfect, but he does mean well. He becomes obsessed with a photo that may or may not depict his daughter—she looks a lot like Gavin’s own sister and she is supposedly the daughter of his long-lost high school girlfriend. So ten years after leaving for college, Gavin returns to his hometown in steamy, humid, perpetual summer Florida. Along the way, the reader also becomes privy to the past lives and choices of Gavin’s gaggle of high school friends, namely those belonging to the Lola Quartet, their musical group. The Lola Quartet boasts some lively characters whose subsequent choices shaped their lives and the lives of those around them in ways they could never have predicted. Jack heads out to music school but fears he’ll never have “have the music” the way truly talented musicians do. Daniel helps a friend in a desperate situation that turns into a ten-year nightmare for everyone involved. Sasha’s life fizzles due to an addiction (or a sickness—the novel neatly debates whether her particular addiction is something she can control or if it is a sickness that will always try to control her). Sasha’s little sister, though not part of the quartet, instigates the novel’s most complicated mystery and helps unwittingly unravel the lives of nearly everyone around her. Mandel’s writing is lyrical and mesmerizing and can be compared most easily to that of Kate Atkinson in her ingenious use of character-switching and time-swapping throughout the narrative. The Lola Quartet is part thriller, part mystery, and all literary fiction of the highest order.
In Baker’s sophmore outing (after The Little Giant of Aberdeen County), she builds a story around a small New England coastal town and three incredible women whose lives are rooted in the earth. Jo and Claire are the Gilly sisters, born to a life working the salt marsh, tied to the evanescent, magical properties of the salt itself and its ability to foretell the future and save or ruin lives. Both of their lives are marked by tragedy as they grow older, one a physical tragedy and the other a hidden, emotional tragedy. Their lives are altered, too, by the town’s favorite son, Whit Turner, who seems to love them both in turn, but keeps much to himself as well. Into this complicated world of salt and secrets comes Dee, a motherless teenager with a tendency to follow where she is beckoned by handsome, charismatic men. The narrative is reminiscent of Alice Hoffman in its tendency to harken to the fantastic in the everyday. Baker has written a lovely, lively, engaging novel about strong women and their choices and how their ultimate loyalties lie with the land and each other. The ending, however, in which a character makes an unfortunate mistake and several others suffer the consequences (nicely foreshadowed earlier in the book), then is rewarded with everything she ever wanted, provides a complicated, if unsettling denouement to a harshly beautiful novel.