Review of “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. 1970. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

Paperback | $14.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0307278449 | 206 pages | African-American literature/Historical Fiction

4 stars

I would like to preface this review with a brief summary of my prior experience with Toni Morrison. I was first introduced to her work upon beginning my major-focused coursework for my Bachelor of Arts in English in Spring 2012 when the professor, a well-intentioned woman, assigned Beloved. That book so traumatized me, and along with a few other books assigned while in the program, like The Things They Carried, soured me toward what the average literature professor thought of as “quality” literature and moved me further toward embracing genre fiction. And based on a quick perusal of the syllabi for this coming fall semester, Morrison is not only a continued staple of the curriculum, but Beloved itself remains that same professor’s book of choice for teaching her work.

Thus, I decided that, even if Morrison was a key figure in the history of African American fiction, that she just wasn’t for me, like many influential classic writers before her. But in the wake of her death, African American historical romance author and literature professor Piper Huguley presented a more approachable alternative, called “the hierarchy,” that allows the reader ” to get the best understanding of the richness of her prose.” Wanting to give Morrison another chance, I snapped up a copy of The Bluest Eye.

And while it’s still much more stylistic than I prefer, and there are some sudden narrator changes that I didn’t even notices until I was looking at some analyses and plot summaries online, I found that the broad themes it deals with made it worth the read for me. I think the central theme of race connected with beauty is especially profound, especially given how it continues to dominate pop culture, even if we try to deny that it’s there. It also blatantly confronts the issue concerning the racial divide in America, something that is as bad an issue now as it was then, even if people like to chock it up to “race-baiting.”

If I have one complaint, it’s that the book doesn’t shy away from the graphic sexual violence, and the graphic content is something that also turned me off Beloved. But reading it with greater respect for it in context of the African American experience shows me how necessary it is. However, I know is something that could be a trigger for some people, so keep that in mind.

That being said, I find myself unsure of who to recommend this to, given the bleakness of it. I suppose if you’ve felt even the smallest urge to give Morrison her fair chance, follow Piper Huguley’s advice and start here.

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Review of “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White

White, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. New York: Delacorte Press, 2018.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0525577942 | 292 pages | YA Historical Fiction

4.5 stars

I had seen some good reviews for The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein on BookTube, so this book has been on my radar for a while. And while I did read Frankenstein in school, and it’s one of the required readings I have fonder feelings about, I was excited at the prospect of a story from Elizabeth’s perspective, especially since I heard it further amplifies some of the twisted stuff that happens in the original.

And I was not disappointed. While a few of the plot beats are predictable and the first hundred or so pages takes a bit to get into, there is still enough new elements that there were still moments of surprise, particularly the jaw-dropping ending.

I also love the contrast between Elizabeth and Victor in terms of how their arcs run both parallel and in reverse to one another. While she starts out somewhat manipulative in order to ingratiate herself with Victor, she softens in a believable way as Victor goes down a dark path of murder for the sake of his experiments.

This book forms the perfect complement to Frankenstein, and while I think you could read this without having read the original, it is helpful to have at least have a basic grasp of the central themes, as this serves to fill in the gaps more than to fully retell the story.

Review of “Betrayal in Time” (Kendra Donovan #4) by Julie McElwain

McElwain, Julie. Betrayal in Time. New York: Pegasus Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $25.95 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1643130743 | 388 pages | Historical Fiction/Time Travel/Mystery

5 stars

I am always excited for more Kendra Donovan time travel Regency mysteries, and Betrayal in Time is no exception. Once again, the hodgepodge of genres comes together seamlessly to create a fun, suspenseful, and subtly romantic tale.

I continue to love seeing Kendra trying to adapt to her surroundings, and while it’s noted that certain superficial things have changed, like she’s gotten used to lack of modern conveniences like electricity, and her hair has grown out so it can accommodate the latest styles, she is still very much an oddity in the sense that she doesn’t fully grasp the mores of the time period, even while it is growing more obvious to her that her parents’ raising of her to be the best has some parallels with the very pedigree-focused English high society.

And while her romance with Alec is still more of a subplot, and isn’t even as present as it was in some of the previous books, I like how McElwain somehow manages to make the push-and-pull created by the difference in their respective values interesting. And while many mystery series do a “will-they-won’t-they,” it seems like almost a foregone conclusion that Kendra and Alec will end up together in some form, especially given the risks present for women of the station she’s presenting as in high society, it’s just a matter of when.

It’s also wonderful to see the deepening bonds between the secondary characters. My favorite is still between Kendra and the Duke, and their surrogate father-daughter relationship. But I also liked getting further insights into Lady Rebecca, and how she’s in such an odd position of being cast aside by society due to her appearance, but unable to embrace the more radical ideas she’s been learning about from the writings of Wollstonecraft and de Gouges, due to the impropriety of it.

The mystery this time around is also quite interesting, once again with a twist I did not see coming, and ultimately a rather bittersweet ending when all was revealed, given the killer’s identity and motives.

I really enjoyed this one, and I already can’t wait for the next one, even if there is no information, except the fact that McElwain has confirmed that there will be a book 5. And I wholeheartedly recommend this series to all fans of Regency romances and crime thrillers.

Review of “The Light Over London” by Julia Kelly

Kelly, Julia. The Light Over London. New York: Gallery Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $26.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1501196416 | 293 pages | Historical Fiction

2 stars

The Light Over London was recommended by Theresa Romain in her readers’ group around the time of publication, and my interest was piqued, because I’m always looking for more World War I and II books. But once I got into the book, I found myself disappointed, as, were it not for the ending, I would call it another casulty of romance readers’ rejection of the World Wars as a time period, consigning them to historical fiction.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I obviously love historical romance, and there are plenty of historically rich historical romance books out there, even if historical accuracy and sense of place are not universally demanded within historical romance. But it is an expectation in historical fiction, as well as adding some substance and something new to help readers feel like they’re learning, and perhaps leave some resources for them to get more accurate information at the end. While Kelly does endeavor to provide some context for the experience of a gunner girl during the war, I felt it was largely overshadowed by the ill-fated romance.

I think this would make a good book for someone who is just starting to learn about the World War II period, because, bizarre twist ending notwithstanding, it does decently depict the stakes of love during World War II. However, it lacks any real originality to make it worth reading for anyone who is more well-read in the period.

Review of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” by Baroness Orczy

Orczy, Baroness Emmuska. The Scarlet Pimpernel. 1905. New York: Signet Classics/New American Library, 2000.

Paperback | $4.95 USD | ISBN-13: 9780451527622 | 267 pages | Classics/Historical Fiction

4 stars

One of my favorite series of all time is the Pink Carnation series by Lauren Willig, and this was how I first heard about the Scarlet Pimpernel, who plays a minor role in the first book, and I’ve wanted to read the original classic ever since, but never really got around to it until now, despite hearing good things about it. However, as I’m now getting into another series about the Scarlet Pimpernel, this one by Shana Galen, I thought it would be a good time to finally read the original and see what it was really about.

And it’s more or less enjoyable in its own right. While it’s not as much of a swashbuckler as I may have initially come to expect, with much of the book focusing on his wife, Margeurite’s, perspective, there’s still a lot of intrigue, especially given her own position throughout the book as a Frenchwoman, and interacting with the villain of the story.

And with both “secret identity” trope and what descriptions of spy escapades there are, it’s easy to see how this book was so pivotal in inspiring heroes in the decades that followed, like James Bond or numerous comic book superheroes like Superman and Batman. While there are some minor elements that don’t hold up in a modern context, that is the case with many enduring works of literature, and given its legacy, I feel that the The Scarlet Pimpernel is an enjoyable book, and one I would recommend to fans of adventure and romance, especially if they’re looking to learn more about the literary history that may have inspired some of their modern favorites.

Review of “The Other Alcott” by Elise Hooper

Hooper, Elise. The Other Alcott. New York: William Morrow, 2017. gen

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062645333 | 408 pages | Historical Fiction

3 stars

I picked up The Other Alcott out of interest in Little Women and Louisa May Alcott, particularly in gleaning some insight into both her relationship with her sister May, and how being connected with a character so many readers hate impacted May.

And, using the primary and secondary sources available and adding embellishments of her own, I feel Hooper did a decent job at both. May’s resentment at being portrayed so negatively, even if it was just fiction, really resonated, and I could also empathize with her struggles with being considered for most of her life to be the “other Alcott sister,” not accomplished in art the same way Louisa was with writing.

However, while I did admire May at various points, I feel like she as a whole makes a much less compelling protagonist that Louisa, even if explorations of Louisa’s life have been done to death. I was much more interested in Louisa’s complicated relationship with her Little Women fame (I love her response to the readers clamoring to see all the sisters married in the second installment…God only knows what she would make of the Jo/Laurie shippers and Amy haters today) than in the day-to-day stuff with May traveling, studying art, and improving her craft. And that is a shame, since May’s perception of inferiority to her sister is such a key plot point, but I just didn’t feel like there was enough there to make me care.

I am glad this book exists, to provide a new take on Little Women and the Alcotts, even if, unfortunately, the most compelling moments are the ones more directly related to Louisa. However, I think this is still a solid read, and one I think any fan of Louisa May Alcott looking to find out more about her family could start with.

Review of “The Golden Hour” by Beatriz Williams

Williams, Beatriz. The Golden Hour. New York: William Morrow, 2019. H

Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062834751 | 468 pages | Historical Fiction

3 stars

I find myself a bit conflicted about The Golden Hour, as I often do when it comes to Beatriz Williams books. I love that she writes books with complex, interwoven plots that can take a while to come together, but sometimes it works better than others. And this is a case where some of the more minute things worked, but I found that while there was some payoff, given the fact that it doesn’t really pick up until the last one hundred pages, I didn’t enjoy it as much as some of her prior books.

Conceptually, the book is great, highlighting a topic I knew nothing about: when the Duke of Windsor served as Governor of the Bahamas during World War II. I had heard about some of his and the Duchess’ more questionable connections during the World War II period and the years preceding it (which are alluded to, but not discussed heavily, in the book), but it was fascinating to find out that he was given another political appointment following his abdication. And the fact that there’s an unsolved murder that occurred during his tenure, which formed one of the more interesting elements of the book once it FINALLY kicked into high gear surely did not help his reputation in that regard.

Because of all this, I found the 1940s chapters compelling, even if there was an incredibly slow build up to the excitement discussed in the blurb, and, adding to my frustration, there were two narratives, a sort of “Before” and and “After” following that period’s heroine, Lulu, which aided in suggesting what would happen on her end, but did not help the pacing.

And while I did like the tie-in with the early 1900s/World War I heroine, Elfriede (who, in typical fashion, also serves as the connection to another of Williams’ books), the ending both confused me and let me down, as if it was meant to be two books. Her narrative prior to that was compelling in its own right, with her own love affair with some tragic undertones and questions revolving around the whereabouts of her beloved, who went off to war. But, aside from the initial familial connection between the two arcs, with Lulu falling in love with Elfriede’s son, I felt the ending which purports to bring it all together was a little too confusing.

This is still a great read, and there were things I really enjoyed, like the historical context and some elements of both story arcs, but perhaps I just picked it up at the wrong time for me when I wasn’t necessarily in the mood for a read like this one. But I would still recommend it, especially to readers who have more consistently enjoyed Williams’ past work, or those who are in the mood for a more complex, multi-layered historical fiction read.

Review of “The Memory House” by Rachel Hauck

Hauck, Rachel. The Memory House. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0310250965 | 374 pages | Christian Fiction/Historical Fiction

5 stars

The Memory House is another poignant dual timeline novel from Rachel Hauck, and I loved the exploration of grief and the differing reactions to the tragic loss of a loved one explored through the interwoven narratives, whether it be memory loss or holding onto memories, both of which prevent the person from moving forward and growing.

And this is one of the rare times where I found the contemporary arc as compelling as the past one, if not more so. While I have not faced loss in the same way Beck has, I could empathize with her struggles and how her mind essentially shut out memories of that time due to her grief, and I found it poignant how this grief manifested in her present life, with her choosing a career as a police officer in the NYPD. I also loved how there were some parallels and contradictions with her childhood friend and love interest Bruno’s life, as he faces some discoveries about the fate of his own father.

It juxtaposes very well with Everleigh and Don’s story, and how she is holding onto the memory of her late husband, even as she’s developing feelings for someone else, and I also love the reveal of the blood ties between the two women, which is at the center of why Everleigh left the house to her, along with the deeper spiritual connection.

This a deeply emotional book, one that deals with the struggle to move on after a monumental loss. I would recommend it to readers of deep, introspective multi-generational novels.

Review of “His Majesty’s Dragon” (Temeraire #1) by Naomi Novik

Novik, Naomi. His Majesty’s Dragon. New York: Del Rey, 2006.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.50 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0345481283 | 356 pages | Historical Fantasy

5 stars

I had long heard good things about Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, and with a combination of historical fiction (and set in the Regency period!) and fantasy elements sounded right up my alley. And it ended up being a nice fun read, with and engaging plot and characters, as well as being grounded enough in both the manners and politics of the Regency period while also adding an intriguing new element with the dragons.

I love the central relationship between Will Laurence and Temeraire, and how well they play off each other as this kind of serious naval officer whose life has been upended and this childish, and sometimes funny, young dragon.

I also like how well the lore around dragons is integrated into the world, especially with the exploration of certain dragons that only bond with women, and that leading to an exploration of the gender politics of the period to an extent, with them seen more as exceptions to the rule than as truly groundbreaking. And I also really enjoyed the inclusion of some excerpts from an in-universe text at the end, providing more context for the history of dragons, as well as further discussing different breeds.

This is a delightful book, and one that manages to seamlessly incorporate elements of both historical fiction and fantasy. I would recommend it to fans of either genre, and I would definitely recommend it to those who like blends of both (on the off chance you haven’t read it yet of course).

Review of “The Summer Country” by Lauren Willig

Willig, Lauren. The Summer Country. New York: William Morrow, 2019.

Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062839022 | 464 pages | Historical Fiction

4 stars

Lauren Willig has always been one of my favorite authors when it comes to dual-timeline novels, and one of the few who consistently does them right. And The Summer Country is another winner in that regard. With two distinct, well-drawn and interconnected arcs that lead into each other so well that you never feel like you are left hanging in either, and compelling characters on both sides, I found myself initially confused as to how it would all fit together, only to find myself floored as I finished and it all came together in such a beautiful way.

One of the highlights of the 1810s story arc for me was the exploration of slavery and race relations, a topic which Willig definitely seems to have done a lot of research on, if her author’s note is any indication, along with providing some interesting research books for further reading. Given that I expressed interest recent scholarship surrounding the analysis of master-slave relationships in a previous review, I was impressed both to see Willig to depict it so sensitively in Charles and Jenny’s relationship, the consequences of it, and the lengths they went to to keep their own offspring from being born into slavery and discuss her inspiration for their relationship as well as addressing the doubt as to whether the relationship was one of love or “whether she merely submitted to him” (450) It adds a lot of necessary nuance to the conversation surrounding race relations in this regard.

I don’t have as strong sentiments to express about the 1854 arc. I felt Emily was an interesting enough character to follow, but given the nature of the book’s structure, the standout elements for me were seeing if I could figure out how the two arcs were connected, and it fulfilled that incredibly well.

This is a compelling historical fiction read that kept me entertained and guessing as to how it all fit together. I would recommend it to other historical fans, especially those who love multi-timeline stories.