The Edge of the Earth by Christina Schwarz Published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
In the last years of the 19th century, Trudy leaves her comfortable, upper-middle class life in Wisconsin and the man everyone always knew she would marry to strike out for California, newly married to her intended’s cousin Oskar. Together, Trudy and Oskar find themselves working at a light house in Point Lucia, far away from everything they have ever known.
Christina Schwarz’s The Edge of the Earth reminded me strongly of Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures. Part of the comparison is the focus on women of science. Chevalier’s main characters were dinosaur hunters and Trudy finds herself drawn to studying the creatures in the pools at the edge of the sea. The rest of the comparison has to do with the beautifully atmospheric nature of both works.
The Edge of the Earth is historical fiction at its finest. Highly recommended.
Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman, narrated by Kathe Mazur Published in audio by Random House Audio, published in print by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, both imprints of Random House
November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly set off to travel around the world in less than eighty days, an attempt to break the record set by Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg from the novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Bly’s travel was paid for by the paper she worked for, Joseph Pulitzer’s World paper in New York. Although the idea originated with her, by the end of the day Nellie Bly was not the only young woman traveling around the world. The publishers of The Cosmopolitan decided to send Elizabeth Bisland, who wrote a books column for the magazine, on her own journey heading west instead of east, in at attempt to beat not only Phileas Fogg, but Nellie Bly as well.
Thoughts on the story:
I love it when authors find fascinating historical events about which I know nothing and tell it really well. I knew a bit about Nellie Bly before Eighty Days, but interestingly not about her race around the world. My knowledge was limited to her expose on the insane asylum on Blackwell Island, a reference it is possible I learned from my massive The West Wing marathon earlier this year. Goodman lays his story out very clearly, alternating between the two women’s stories in a way that is faithful to the timeline while still maintaining a good flow. While the book itself is rather long, it has a good pace and is continually interesting.
Thoughts on the audio production:
Kathe Mazur does a wonderful job narrating. Like Goodman’s writing itself, she maintains a good pace and, while she doesn’t do much vocal differentiation between the stories, it isn’t really necessary or called for here, and there is no problem keeping the narrative straight.
Source: Audiofile Magazine.
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The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin
After a romantic disappointment, Honor Bright is ready for something new, a change of scenery. As such, she has agreed to travel with her sister, Grace, when she leaves England for her wedding in Ohio. If Honor ever had any idea that she might one day go back home, her catastrophic sea sickness on the voyage over puts an end to that train of thought very quickly. Even so, that might not have been a problem if Grace had not gotten very ill after they reached America. Now Honor is all alone and mourning the death of her beloved sister, with nowhere to go but on to Grace’s fiance, a man who may not have even known that she was coming. America is very foreign to Honor: the people, the scenery, and perhaps most of all the institution of slavery. Before long, she finds herself drawn by her convictions into the world of the Underground Railroad.
The Last Runaway ended up being less about the Underground Railroad than I had thought it would be. Certainly that was an aspect of it, but I think I learned more about 19th century Quakerism and immigration to the United States than I did about the Underground Railroad. Honor herself does not know much about what was happening. She knows what she believes, but not what is really happening as people attempt to escape slavery. She also has a difficult time initially understanding the complex motivations of those around her.
Despite the fact that this was not quite what I expected, it is an interesting and enjoyable book. Chevalier brings Honor to life, her ignorance perhaps doing more to make her realistic than any amount of courage of her convictions ever could. Recommended.
The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin
The death of Mr. van Goethem creates a crisis for his three daughters. The are not orphaned, they still have their mother, but with her absinthe drinking they basically just have her in name only. Antoinette had hoped to keep her sisters Marie and Charlotte out of work and allow them their childhood, but it is no longer possible, so instead she helps her sisters find positions as petit rats in the ballet of the Paris Opera, where they can earn seventeen francs a week to train. Antoinette was kicked out of the ballet some time before, but manages to find a part in the stage adaptation of Zola’s L’Assommoir. Things seem to be looking up for the van Goethems with everyone working and Marie even modeling for Edgar Degas – she is the inspiration for his statuette Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen – but their luck can’t last. Antoinette’s new beau, Emile Abadie, is driving a wedge between her and Marie, who is certain that he is bad news.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Painted Girls is that, while Degas himself is not a particularly major player in the book, all of the characters are based on the real people behind his art work. Marie van Goethem was really the inspiration for Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen and even Emile Abadie was the subject of some of Degas’s art, although to say what might constitute a spoiler. Buchanan’s van Goethem family is so vivid that I assumed she had created them from whole cloth, and I am impressed that her story is built largely on the verifiable facts of the van Goethems’s lives.
If you’re looking for a book to completely immerse you in late-19th century Paris, The Painted Girls is for you. Recommended.
The Second Empress by Michelle Moran Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House
From the publisher:
After the bloody French Revolution, Emperor Napoleon’s power is absolute. When Marie-Louise, the eighteen year old daughter of the King of Austria, is told that the Emperor has demanded her hand in marriage, her father presents her with a terrible choice: marry the cruel, capricious Napoleon, leaving the man she loves and her home forever, or say no, and plunge her country into war.
Marie-Louise knows what she must do, and she travels to France, determined to be a good wife despite Napoleon’s reputation. But lavish parties greet her in Paris, and at the extravagant French court, she finds many rivals for her husband’s affection, including Napoleon’s first wife, Joséphine, and his sister Pauline, the only woman as ambitious as the emperor himself. Beloved by some and infamous to many, Pauline is fiercely loyal to her brother. She is also convinced that Napoleon is destined to become the modern Pharaoh of Egypt. Indeed, her greatest hope is to rule alongside him as his queen—a brother-sister marriage just as the ancient Egyptian royals practiced. Determined to see this dream come to pass, Pauline embarks on a campaign to undermine the new empress and convince Napoleon to divorce Marie-Louise.
As Pauline’s insightful Haitian servant, Paul, watches these two women clash, he is torn between his love for Pauline and his sympathy for Marie-Louise. But there are greater concerns than Pauline’s jealousy plaguing the court of France. While Napoleon becomes increasingly desperate for an heir, the empire’s peace looks increasingly unstable. When war once again sweeps the continent and bloodshed threatens Marie-Louise’s family in Austria, the second Empress is forced to make choices that will determine her place in history—and change the course of her life.
Although I loved Moran’s The Heretic Queen, I stalled on her after Cleopatra’s Daughter. It was the YA-crossover aspect of that one that didn’t work for me, so I fully intended to pick up more of her work, but when she jumped from Ancient Egypt to late 18-th century France in Madame Tussaud I was highly skeptical and ended up not reading it. The Second Empress appealed to me, though, as I know nothing about Marie-Louise, so I picked it up.
Like The Heretic Queen, The Second Empress is a wonderfully engaging and absorbing book. The characters are vividly drawn and there are people you can love, hate, and love to hate. Recommended.