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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Sound Bytes is a meme that occurs every Friday! I encourage you to review your audiobooks on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.
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.
The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. by Carole DeSanti, narrated by Kate Reading Published in audio by Blackstone Audio, published in print by TK
From the publisher:
Love and war converge in this lush, epic story of a young woman’s struggle with life and love during and after the Second Empire (1852 – 1871), an era that was absinthe-soaked, fueled by railway money and prostitution, and transformed by cataclysmic social upheaval.
Eugénie R., born in foie gras country, follows the man she loves to Paris but soon finds herself marooned. An outcast, she charts the treacherous waters of sexual commerce on a journey through artists’ ateliers and pawnshops, zinc bars and luxurious bordellos.
Giving birth to a daughter she is forced to abandon, Eugénie spends the next 10 years fighting to get her back, falling in love along the way with an artist, a woman, and a revolutionary. Then, as the gates of the city close on the eve of the Siege of Paris, Eugénie comes face to face with her past. Drawn into a net of desire and need, promises and lies, she must make a choice and find her way to a life that she can call her own.
Thoughts on the story:
There is an awful lot going on in The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. and it is, perhaps, slightly overambitious. However, the fact that it is told from the perspective of not only a single woman, but a woman whose name is in the register of prostitutes, which makes her even less than a second class citizen, brings something to the story that is both fascinating and helps it be cohesive. DeSanti is covering a lot of historical ground here, and the strength of Eugenie’s character helps hold it all together, as it could have easily been a loose mess of historical vignettes.
Thoughts on the audio production:
Narrator Kate Reading seems to fit Eugenie’s character very well, with accurate French pronunciation where necessary. At over 16 hours, a lesser narrator could have made this a very dull listen indeed, but Reading kept me engaged and interested in Eugenie’s life.
I’m launching a brand-new meme every Friday! I encourage you to review any audiobooks you review on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.
May the Road Rise Up to Meet You by Peter Troy, narrated by John Keating, Barrie Kreinik, Allyson Johnson, and Adam Lazarre White Published in audio by AudioGo; published in print by Doubleday, an imprint of Random House
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From the publisher:
Four unique voices; two parallel love stories; one sweeping novel rich in the history of nineteenth-century America. This remarkable debut draws from the great themes of literature—famine, war, love, and family—as it introduces four unforgettable characters. Ethan McOwen is an Irish immigrant whose endurance is tested in Brooklyn and the Five Points at the height of its urban destitution; he is among the first to join the famed Irish Brigade and becomes a celebrated war photographer. Marcella, a society girl from Spain, defies her father to become a passionate abolitionist. Mary and Micah are slaves of varying circumstances, who form an instant connection and embark on a tumultuous path to freedom.
All four lives unfold in two beautiful love stories, which eventually collide. Written in gorgeous language that subtly captures the diverse backgrounds of the characters, and interspersed with letters, journals, and dreams, this unforgettable story, rendered in cinematic detail, is about having faith in life’s great meaning amidst its various tangles
Thoughts on the story:
I don’t always enjoy American historical fiction, but May the Road Rise Up to Meet You is a phenomenal novel. Each of the four storylines is wonderfully written and plotted in and of itself, but they mesh beautifully and authentically. It is obvious that the lives of the four characters will have to cross or connect at some point, but it is not always clear exactly how they will do so. The intertwining of the stories could easily have been very forced and contrived, but Troy draws his characters together naturally. In addition to the four strong and compelling characters, each with fascinating backgrounds, Troy’s writing is very good, combining to make May the Road Rise Up to Meet just a wonderful historical novel.
Thoughts on the audio production:
Troy’s novel is wonderful in and of itself, but the cast of narrators put together by AudioGo elevates May the Road Rise Up to Meet You to an even higher level. Each of the four main characters is voiced by a separate, talented narrator. Each of them manages to completely become their character and, perhaps even more impressively, each is able to seamlessly switch accents when one of the other characters engages in dialog during one their character’s sections.
A wonderful historical novel, no matter how you experience it, but if you have the option I strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which will only enhance the experience. Very highly recommended.
The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin Published by St. Martin’s Griffin, an imprint of Macmillan
Cora Cash is just about as close to royalty as an American can get. Her family isn’t old money, but they’re wealthy enough to be the talk of the town – and own a mansion in Newport that makes the Vanderbilt estate look miniscule. Even so, Cora’s mother is always looking for the next step to improve her family’s standing, and she’s fairly sure she has found it in Europe: a title. Rich American girls are all the rage among Europe’s cash-strapped gentry, to the point where there is actually a publication in the States listing those titled men looking hardest for an heiress. After all, who but a duke could be worthy of the Cash family’s only child? Luckily for Mrs. Cash’s plans, the Duke of Wareham happens upon Cora when she is injured in the woods while riding, and before long the two are engaged. It isn’t long, though, until Cora discovers that she is not quite as prepared for this life as she believes herself to be.
Daisy Goodwin’s American Heiress is a fun and engaging read. Nobody is particularly likable – the closest is Cora’s maid Bertha, Cora herself is quite spoiled – but Goodwin still manages to evoke some empathy for those characters who find themselves in situations they don’t entirely understand. The time period was believable, as was the fairly dramatic plot, both of which contributed to the cotton candy can’t-stop-reading aspect. At close to 500 pages, though, it was just too long. Considering it was much more plot-driven than character-driven, not enough happened to justify that length of book. Quite a bit could have been cut down to create a tighter story.
American Heiress is a flawed but interesting novel. Certainly the concept of Gilded Age American heiresses infusing a generation of British nobility with money is a fascinating – and true – one.
The American Heiress is the SheKnows Book Club pick for May.
The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye Published by Amy Einhorn/Putnam Books, an imprint of Penguin
Police reports are meant to read “X killed by Y by means of Z.” But facts without motives, without the story, are just road signs with all the letters worn off. Meaningless as blank tombstones.
In 1845, New York is already full of Irish immigrants;. the Catholicism of most of the Irish did not sit well with the majority Protestant New Yorkers, so when the Great Potato Famine hits and an influx of immigrants promises to pour into the city, tensions rise to an all time high. On the surface, this would seem to be a good time for the city to add a police force, but such a move is not without controversy itself. New York’s new police force is very much a part of the Democratic machine, which in turn relies on votes from the Irish, making many in the city – not least the powerful thugs and criminals – its natural enemies.
Although Timothy Wilde wants nothing to do with the Democratic party, he finds himself appointed to the police force by his older brother after a terrible fire takes both his home and his place of work. Although being a copper star doesn’t really appeal to Tim, it seems that he is in the right profession when he literally stumbles across a case involving a murdered little Irish boy, a case Tim is determined to solve.
Faye excels at bringing history, mystery, and phenomenal writing together. She did so in her first novel, Dust and Shadow, and she has done so again with The Gods of Gotham. In Gods of Gotham the reader is fully immersed in mid-19th century New York, with racial, cultural, and political conflicts. Particularly good at setting the scene is Faye’s masterful use of flash in the vocabulary of her characters. In order not to confuse her readers, Faye includes a dictionary of selected flash terms at the beginning of the book, as well as weaving explanations into the context of the story. It is impressive how she manages to do this without it seeming as if she is explaining what is being said on each and every page, but while still remaining true to her characters. As far as the mystery, Faye provides enough clues that a reader can begin to guess who might be involved and perhaps even why, but not so many that there are no surprises left during the climax. As for Faye’s writing, her prose is beautiful and evocative, without getting in the way of the fascinating story she has to tell.
Mystery, history, and prose, The Gods of Gotham has everything. Highly recommended.
In P.T. Barnum’s over-sized world, Lavinia “Vinnie” Bump was both the biggest and the smallest thing around. Born a normal size, both Vinnie and her younger sister Minnie simply stopped growing as young children, Vinnie eventually standing only 32 inches high, and Minnie even smaller. Vinnie, however, was determined never to let her height define her or hold her back and set out to make sure that she had access to nearly everything life could offer.
Melanie Benjamin has a special talent for ferreting out fascinating women who most people would never think to wonder about and bringing their stories to life, first with Alice Liddell, the real Alice behind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and now with Lavinia Bump. Benjamin’s Lavinia was strong and determined, although fallible and occasionally naive. There were times that her voice seemed a bit too reminiscent of Alice’s in Alice I Have Been, but the women did, at least how Benjamin wrote them, have somewhat similar, at times almost imperial, personalities.
The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb provides a much different perspective of the 1850s and 60s than most readers are probably familiar with, but Benjamin makes both her characters and the time period come to life. Recommended.