Books We Loved, Feb. 2020
Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna (HarperCollins, 2009)
An uneasy task, mixing the fictional with the historical, but Kingsolver succeeds in relating the fictive life of Harrison W. Shepherd, a half-Mexican, half-American boy enmeshed in the very real lives of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky. Action and color abound in the Rivera household during the period it harbored Lev Trotsky, with Harrison serving as plaster mixer, cook, and translator. The result for me was riveting and often poignant.
The politics of Europe and the Americas are inseparable; events rebound off others, but how great civilizations crumble is the concern of the adult Shepherd’s novels when he returns to live in a small southern town and write. His story is told largely through his journals, letters, and news articles that were faithfully assembled by his loyal stenographer, Violet Brown, so that we read the terrible events of the 1930s to the 1950s, from world wars to the House on Un-American Activities, as the tragedies that Harrison W. Shepherd experiences. This is a rich and fascinating story. I was really sorry that these humble characters came to an end.—AA
Georgette Heyer, Faro’s Daughter (Sourcebooks, 2008)
Nothing fits better for Valentine’s Day than a classic romance, and Faro’s Daughter, originally published in 1941, is as fresh now as the day it first appeared.
Deborah Grantham has resigned herself to helping her aunt run a gaming house, scandalous as that is in Regency London. But when the immensely rich and formidable Max Ravenscar shows up unannounced to demand that Deb release her hold on his besotted nephew and offers her £20,000 if she agrees, Deb hits the roof. She’s determined to teach Max a lesson, and while her aunt follows her about aimlessly bleating, “But Deb, £20,000!” Deb not only refuses to be bought but sets out to convince Max that she is every bit as bad as he imagines her to be.
Sparks fly, swords cross, and eventually it occurs to even the misogynistic Max that he has met his match. Convincing Deborah that he’s changed his mind about her, though, proves a good deal more difficult than he imagines.
It’s no accident that many people consider Heyer the natural heir to Jane Austen. Here she’s at her best, with vivid characters and sparkling dialogue and a plot that twists every time you think you know where it’s heading—and, of course, a happily ever after ending.—CPL
Sarah Kozloff, A Queen in Hiding (Tor, 2020)
Sarah Kozloff does her world building gradually and carefully, introducing you to a few characters you get to know and care for before moving on to other lands and cultures. The land of Weirandale is ruled by a line of queens with unique magical talents which are granted to them by Nargis, the spirit of the water. We first meet the future queen in hiding when she is a child and given a menagerie of pets by her fond mother, Cressa, who tries to spend as much time with her as she can while ruling Weirandale.
Cressa is perhaps not temperamentally suited to be queen. A retiring and innocent person by nature, she is unprepared for the machinations of her chief counsellor, who wishes power for himself. After an assassination attempt, Cressa conceals her daughter’s identity through magic, sending her to live with a family that is unaware of her true identity.
Her daughter, Cérulia, likewise is not ambitious, nor does she show much desire to lead. She does, however, have a kind heart and will fight for her friends, if not for herself.
But the world at large has even more serious problems than the fate of Cérulia, who is orphaned halfway through the first book and must rely on her magical gift to see her through some tight spots. In another country, ruled by eight terrible magi, food shortages have led to their army invading a peaceful democracy, the Free States. Thalen, a student, must use his analytical and curious mind to come up with a plan to rescue his plundered country from the ruthless invaders.
How the story of these two, Cérulia, the queen in hiding, and Thalen, the son of a pottery maker, connects is not yet revealed. But with the four books of the series being released monthly, you won’t have to wait long to find out.
Interview with the author at New Books in Fantasy and Adventure.—GM
Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale (Washington Square Press, 2007)
Margaret Lea, a reclusive young woman who works in her father’s antique book shop, receives a letter one day from well-known aging novelist Vida Winter, asking her to come to Winter’s estate and write her biography. This is strange on several counts: Vida Winter is known to have messed with the minds of all the biographers who have sought her out in the past, telling them stories that didn’t come close to being true. So why would she want to divulge the truth now? And why would she solicit someone like Margaret, who has published only a few obscure biographical articles, to be the recipient of the truth? And how can Margaret—who is uncompromising when it comes to the accuracy of her work—ever know for certain that Vida isn’t planning to weave yet another web of falsehoods?
And so begins a beguiling story full of the sorts of twists and turns that Setterfield (for whom this was a debut novel) will soon become well known. Lies, secrets, twins, siblings, ghosts, and a particularly eerie version of identity theft are all present here. Like Margaret Lea, we are all ears and on the edge of our seats listening to Vida Winter’s every word of her most unbelievable tale ever, and we go all in when, between sessions with Vida Winter, Margaret engages in some detective work to ensure Vida isn’t pulling her leg. These side excursions bring Margaret face to face (sometimes literally) with her own personal well-concealed truths. They also bring a few new people into her life, leaving readers hungry for a follow up. The Thirteenth Tale is spellbinding. Setterfield writes the kinds of books reader never want to end.—JS