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Books We Loved, Jul. 2018

July 21, 2018

Lots of activity this month, especially in reference to C. P. Lesley’s Legends of the Five Directions series, now officially drawing to a close. In addition to a revised edition of the first book, The Golden Lynx, and the appearance of the last—The Shattered Drum—Lesley has made minor changes to the three other novels and combined them in box sets. Alas, the economics of small-press publishing mean that we can release the box sets only for Kindle, but if you have an e-reader and want to save some money while catching up, check out the box set page. For excerpts (audio and print) from each book, check the individual titles, all accessible through our historical page. Sixteenth-century Russia was a fascinating place, perfect for fiction, so don’t miss your chance to find out more!

 

As for C. P. Lesley herself, she’s already well into her spinoff series, Songs of Steppe & Forest, which will begin to appear early next year.

 

And now, our monthly picks, a bit later than usual due to all the new releases.

 

Elizabeth Blackwell, On a Cold Dark Sea (Lake Union, 2018)

Some might say that the Titanic has been done to death, and if I weren’t so intrigued by this brief period in history (an intrigue which predates the movie), I might agree. But I am intrigued, which means I’ll almost never pass on an opportunity to read a novel set on the so-called unsinkable ship. Where On a Cold Dark Sea deviates from the norm is that it spends very little time on that ship, including the night it sinks. Instead we are treated to the very different, though inextricably linked, befores and afters of three women: Anna, a Swedish immigrant heading to America to start a new life; Charlotte, one half of a con-artist duo from London on their way to New York to commit the ultimate con job; and Esme, a young newlywed who’s already beginning to realize that her marriage to her much older husband was an enormous mistake. These three women from disparate backgrounds unite briefly against the backdrop of the Titanic's sinking, then head their separate ways once more—until decades later, when an unexpected death brings them back together and forces them to come to terms with their pasts, their choices, their secrets, and their futures.—CMK

 

Julia Fine, What Should Be Wild (Harper, 2018)

What Should Be Wild is really asking who should be wild? Simultaneously a plea against the domestication of women, a unique fairy tale, and impressive literary fiction, this novel explores the taming of women through the experiences of the modern Maisie and some of her female ancestors, who sought shelter in a magical forest. 

 

Maisie Cothay, whose story unfolds in the present, is frightened of her unique gift. Just her touch will take life but also return it. Though she can revive those she kills, her somewhat inept father confines her to the grounds, spending their time together in devising meaningless tests, which bring neither of them much insight. In the first few chapters, Maisie is presented like an artifact in a contemporary version of a medieval tower, with a loving jailor.

 

Deep in the forest, there is another version of Maisie, a powerful supernatural girl with black eyes, who is slowly waking as Maisie reaches the brink of womanhood. The persecuted Blakely women who have fled to this forest throughout the centuries gather around the new arrival, both hoping, and fearing change. 

 

And they should fear. For while Maisie is civilized and compliant, the black-eyed girl in the forest is a creature of appetite, feral and without compassion.

 

She metes out death. But is she evil? Read closely, and ponder. What Should be Wild is a novel well suited for writing that thoughtful English paper.

 

Should you find the symbolism and the themes too strenuous, you can always luxuriate in the beautiful writing. Here, for instance, Lucy, one of the Blakely women, finds shelter in the woods. “The usual sounds of the forest—plaintive owls, scuttling wood mice, the papery screech and flutter of young bats—have been usurped by the lullaby of ancient temperate trees, a sentient quiet, a deep and subtle whisper.” There’s even a touch of horror for those who like to be a little scared.

 

Truly a joy to read, Julia Fine’s bold debut has me anticipating her future work.—GM

 

Robert Goolrick, The Dying of the Light (Harper Perennial, 2018)

“It begins with a house and it ends in ashes.” With an opening like that, I was instantly hooked, and the rest of the book didn’t disappoint. In richly lyrical prose, Goolrick paints a world now gone—or in the case of interracial relations, not as gone as it needs to be—a world in which the landscape and especially the house are as much characters as the people who live there.

 

The house is Saratoga, a colonial-era estate in Virginia that is at once a joy and a burden to the family that lives there, the Cookes—especially Diana Cooke, the eighteen-year-old heiress charged with saving her family and her home from poverty right after World War I. Diana reluctantly agrees to marry Captain Copperton, a wealthy but uncouth man who doesn’t hesitate to remind the Cookes at every turn that he owns not only the house but them, in principle if not in fact.

 

Copperton has one virtue in addition to his entrepreneurial abilities: he is a good father to the son he has with Diana. And it is, in the end, their son who unwittingly sets off the series of events that leaves Saratoga in ashes. Along the way, a cast of delightfully realized and often eccentric characters interact in sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising ways against the backdrop of Saratoga and its ever changing, ever inspiring river. For an interview with the author, see New Books in Historical Fiction.—CPL

 

Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (Simon & Schuster, 2017)

An empathically told tale of mothers and daughters that also manages to incorporate the economics of the international Chinese tea trade, Chinese overseas adoptions and the rituals and shamanic practices of the Akha, a minority ethnic group in China. Lisa See deftly tells of Li-Yan, an innocent Akha girl strongly tied to her mother, who must give her infant daughter away for adoption. In the course of her adult life, Li-Yan will become a wealthy tea merchant. Her daughter, meanwhile, will become Haley, a Pasadena teen and college student with identity issues. Mother and daughter, in their disparate worlds, come to understand what is in their control as Chinese women and what is the role of fate.  In the end, fate is good to each woman.—AA

 

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