Book Review: The House Girl

house girlThe House Girl by Tara Conklin holds every hallmark to become a favoured historical fiction novel.  Family secrets, pre-Civil War American history, perserverance of the human spirit, alternating time perspectives…it’s all in there!

Many may know of my personal penchant for the historical fiction genre,  especially if it involves personal history in some way and definitely when it shows the perseverance of the human spirit or the willingness of those few that put their own lives in danger for others. The House Girl offers all of this and more.

Here’s what The House Girl has to offer (taken from Tara Conklin’s site): Lina Sparrow, an ambitious first-year associate in an elite Manhattan law firm, is given a difficult, highly sensitive assignment that can make her career: find the “perfect plaintiff” to lead a historic class-action lawsuit worth trillions of dollars in reparations for the descendants of American slaves.

An unexpected lead comes from her father, renowned artist Oscar Sparrow, who tells her about a controversy currently rocking the art world. Art historians now suspect that the revered paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist known for her humanizing portraits of slaves from her plantation Bell Creek, were actually the work of her house slave, Josephine. A descendant of Josephine’s would be the perfect face for the firm’s lawsuit—if Lina can find one.  But nothing is known about Josephine’s fate following Lu Anne Bell’s death in 1852.  Did Josephine die at Bell Creek?  Was she sold? Or did she escape?  Searching for clues in old letters and plantation records, Lina begins to piece together Josephine’s story—a journey that leads her to question her own life, including the full story of her mother’s mysterious death twenty years before.

Alternating between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, this searing tale of art and history, love and secrets explores what it means to repair a wrong, and ask whether truth is sometimes more important than justice.

Josephine and Lina are two superb and inspirational women, but it wasn’t only them that drew me so deeply in to this story. No, because while I’m a sucker for personal historical fiction, I’m an even bigger devotee to ones that are written using letters as a way to tell the story. Oh how I adore those! And, The House Girl features much using this format, between sisters and in one part, and a letter from a father to his son in another. Through much of this book I couldn’t keep my eyes away from it, but when it came time to read the letters written by Dorthea Rounds to her sister Kate, I was enthralled. Dorthea has but a fleeting moment with Josephine, but it is her writing about her abolitionist work with her father that is truly fascinating. These letters describe the danger the Rounds involved themselves all in order to help the tortured and mistreated slaves seek freedom. Ms. Conklin has written complete fiction in these women and in this particular tale, but has done such an astounding job on making it seem as though we were reading about true historical figures. (Believe me, I was searching online!) Much like myself, Lina, while researching this “perfect plaintiff” becomes entranced in the correspondence written by Dorthea, and also develops this fierce bond with the history of a woman whom lived 150 years before.  The writing in these letters were like a gift and just added such richness to the tale.

Even when it flips back to the present day and we read of Lina and her personal and professional struggles, we are not left wanting for the quick return to Josephine’s tale, because Lina’s is just as engrossing! The House Girl is a thoroughly enjoyable tale! I know you will be seeing this book around quite often once it releases (mid-Februrary). It is definitely going to be sought after book-club read and is for certain a Literary Hoarders approved book!

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Book Review: The Drowning House

13512660Thank you to Net Galley for providing an advanced copy of The Drowning House by Elizabeth Black. They actually provided access to this last year, but the release date wasn’t until this week.

The synopsis (from Goodreads): A gripping suspense story about a woman who returns to Galveston, Texas after a personal tragedy and is irresistibly drawn into the insular world she’s struggled to leave.

Photographer Clare Porterfield’s once-happy marriage is coming apart, unraveling under the strain of a family tragedy. When she receives an invitation to direct an exhibition in her hometown of Galveston, Texas, she jumps at the chance to escape her grief and reconnect with the island she hasn’t seen for ten years. There Clare will have the time and space to search for answers about her troubled past and her family’s complicated relationship with the wealthy and influential Carraday family.

Soon she finds herself drawn into a century-old mystery involving Stella Carraday. Local legend has it that Stella drowned in her family’s house during the Great Hurricane of 1900, hanged by her long hair from the drawing room chandelier. Could Stella have been saved? What is the true nature of Clare’s family’s involvement? The questions grow like the wildflower vines that climb up the walls and fences of the island. And the closer Clare gets to the answers, the darker and more disturbing the truth becomes.

Steeped in the rich local history of Galveston, The Drowning House portrays two families, inextricably linked by tragedy and time.

 

Unfortunately, I could not finish this story. That creates such a sadness in me. I hate it when I start reading a book that I can’t get through! I even put this one on the “schedule” and everything! As I read the first dozen pages all I kept thinking was how all over the map it was. One paragraph would say one thing and then the next paragraph had absolutely no connection to its previous one at all. It resulted in a very choppy and confusing read. This is a haplessly written first novel and it pains me to criticize it. I had a moment where I sent an email to my fellow hoarders criticizing myself for saying this was terribly written. But I was talked off the ledge when I was reminded that while I may not have written any novels myself, I have read countless and I can easily identify a “bad” one. Okay, okay, that’s true.

I tried to continue last night with it, but again, it’s so all over the map with very choppy thoughts and details scattered on every page. I have so much to read that I decided it was time to abandon. Man, do I hate to do that!

So, overall, the very choppy thoughts and details that skipped here there and everywhere, and those thoughts that didn’t take the time to flesh out their idea, the character, the sense of place has me putting this one away. Far too many times I went “huh?” and  had to re-read sentences only to still come up with the “huh?” reaction.

It makes me sad when I read a book I don’t like. I want every book to be a great read, but I’ll just come to terms with the fact that this one wasn’t one of those “stellar debuts” and move on. No more needs to be criticized or dissected, that’s just not appropriate. For me, it just wasn’t good and I’ll be leaving it at that. 😦

Audiobook Review: The Light Between Oceans

lightIf you want to be 100% drawn into a story, then this is the novel for you.

We originally received this audiobook thanks to Audiobook Jukebox and Simon & Schuster Audio last year.  Fellow Hoarder Penny listened and reviewed the tale, giving it a heartfelt 4 stars.  She wrote a beautiful review, which can be found here.  It encapsulated the story perfectly.  I’m just writing a second, somewhat abbreviated review perhaps as a therapeutic measure.  I miss the characters.

Tom Sherbourne, a decorated veteran of WWI, takes a position as a Lighthouse Keeper on Janus Rock back in his native Australia.  He figures that any man with as scarred a past requires isolation, and he looks forward to the time alone.  This might give him the opportunity to sort out his thoughts and his life up until that point.  However, upon a visit to the mainland shortly thereafter, he meets Isabel and is swept away.  They marry and live together happily on Janus Rock.

Their idyllic situation is soon dashed on the rocks as Isabel suffers two miscarriages and a heartbreaking stillbirth.  Their attempts to grow into a family of three look all but lost… until oddly, a dingy is found on their shore one night.  Inside, the couple find a dead man, and baby girl who is very much alive.  Tom, who lives by meticulous means with arduous logs and shining prisms, wants to report the event.  Isabel, however, believing the baby to be a gift from God for the souls they have lost, talks him out of the lawful thing to do.  Reluctantly, Tom eventually buries the poor deceased man, and agrees to keep the baby. Surely, the infant’s parents have been lost at sea. Surely, loving this child as their own is the most logical and kind thing to do.  Surely, no one will ever be the wiser.  They name the child Lucy, and adore her from the start.

But this heaven-on-Janus can’t possibly last.  When the child is two, and smitten with her loving parents, Tom and Isabel discover that Lucy’s mother is alive.  Her name is Hannah, a sweet girl from a very well-to-do family on the mainland.  Since losing her beloved husband and infant girl to the sea (following a harrowing incident with the local townspeople), the poor creature is a mere shade of the person she used to be.  She’s heartbroken, and haunted.  There isn’t a day that passes that she does not ache for her loved ones.  She is also convinced that her daughter is still alive.

The couple face a choice.  The right thing to do is clear to both of them.  For Tom, they must report what they have done, and return the child to her mother.  For Isabel, they must keep Lucy, as they are the only parents the child has actually known.  The back and forth between the two is exhausting.  More often than not, it’s infuriating.  Tom’s stance understands that they have caused irrevocable hurt, and he wants to remedy the situation by returning the child to her grief-stricken mother.  Isabel’s stance revolves around her own personal needs, and the heartbreak she has endured in the past.  Isabel digs in, maintaining that keeping the girl from her biological mother is in the child’s best interest.

This is the part where I must be coy, lest I give away too much.  What I will say is that regardless of which side you take, you will still ache for everyone else.  Tom is a moral gentleman.  Isabel is a heartbroken mother.  Hannah is a heartbroken mother.  In a situation where right and wrong can be blurred, it becomes very difficult to see.  I, for one, took no prisoners when I chose my side, and grew increasingly furious with one of the characters.  One more than one occasion, I texted Penny for comfort, pleading with her to tell me if my hunches were on the right track.  Penny wouldn’t divulge a thing. I had to listen for myself.  I’m so happy that I did.

For a magnificently written story, The Light Between Oceans is a must read.  You’ll languish when there’s heartache, and will smile when there’s compassion.  The plot is creative and the dilemma is painful.  Your emotions will be swept away with the tide.

5 stars for a remarkable journey.

Narration: This audiobook was read by Noah Taylor.  While I will say that his accent was perfect (beautiful, in fact), and his voices for the characters hit every mark, I have to admit that I would often get frustrated with how quiet he would become.  He seemed to whisper a good portion of the book, which would force me to increase the volume.  When he would suddenly return to a regular tone, I would jump out of my skin.  Essentially, I would go from straining to hear to a panicked slap of the volume dial.  Still, Mr. Taylor was effective, and clearly had affection for the characters.  That came through loud and clear.

Audiobook Review: The Beautiful Mystery

louise pennyAh, Louise Penny has given us a beautiful mystery in The Beautiful Mystery (ha, see that? yeah, I know, right?) Not only was the story itself superb, but the audio book narration is exactly as Audiofile’s statement on the back cover reads, “Ralph Cosham’s excellent narration of Louise Penny’s newest mystery demonstrate why a terrific narrator is an author’s best partner.”

Amen to that one! (again, ahem, did you see that there? you know, because this is a story about a secluded monastery, monks that have taken the vow of silence…amen…okay, okay I’ll give it a rest now.)

At any rate, The Beautiful Mystery is very unlike the others in Penny’s series featuring Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir, in that it does not take place in its usual setting of  Twin Pines, the tiny Quebec village. Instead, Gamache, and Beauvoir are requested to enter a remote monastery and solve a murder of one of their brothers. No one, not for hundreds of years, no outsider ever, has been granted access or even glimpsed at what is behind those heavy locked doors of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups. However, when their choir director is murdered, Gamache and Beauvoir are brought in to solve the crime.

The monks inside Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups are the masters of Gregorian plainchant. These ancient chants have such significant effect on people, both the singer and the listener, and are so profound they are known as “the beautiful mystery”. (Click here to listen to some of these chants.) As an aside, the playing of a chant at the beginning of the audio CD and again at the end was marvelous. No, actually, listening to this whole story was marvelous. The descriptions of nuemes and chants and of these monk’s devotion and dedication to chant and their quiet, introspective lifestyle was such a beautiful and absolute listening delight. Although there was a murderer among them, I found myself quite calmed and relaxed during my daily commute as I listened to this story.

It is not long before Gamache and Beauvoir realize however that there is a great divide among the monks and they must work through this in order to uncover which of the remaining 23 monks is responsible for killing the choir director. To pause and reflect on this aspect of the story, I must comment that this investigation did seem to continue in a far more prolonged manner than was necessary. It is, and remains, my only complaint with this story. It was, toward the end, someone that I had considered but it was still quite some time before he was actually revealed.

But, in addition to the mystery requiring their solution, Penny also treats us to more character growth and to the continued healing that Jean-Guy is undergoing following a harrowing factory experience from a few novels ago. Jean-Guy is still quite fragile and not quite handling well his recovery. Here, well, here is where the narration of Ralph Cosham simply shone. Oh how absolutely brilliant Cosham is when bringing to life Gamache and Beauvoir. No, I do not believe Ms. Penny could have found a more brilliant actor for her characters. It was as though I was seated in a room across from them and listening in on their conversations. So many, many times I would bust out loud laughing in the car listening to their banter. I’m afraid there will never be a time when I don’t seek out the audio book of this series. It would just never do it justice or provide the level of entertainment I experience every time I listen to Cosham. 4.5 shining stars for another wonderful Louise Penny/Ralph Cosham experience.