The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly – Book Review

The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly
Published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

Lulu is the failure of the Atwood family, at least that’s how she feels. Her younger sister, Sophie, seems to actually be on the verge of a successful acting career, and their responsible elder sister Emma is getting married. Lulu is not in a relationship, and has no idea what she wants to do with her life, taking dead-end jobs that drive her parents mad. Somewhat depressed, Lulu is up in the attic on an errand when she discovers a trove of letters from her great-grandmother Jo March to Jo’s sister, Meg. Jo reminds Lulu so much of herself: unsure the path she wants to take in life, unwilling to enter into romantic entanglements with her neighbor. Both women are spunky, but somewhat lost. Watching Jo find herself in the series of letters, Lulu begins to feel better about her prospects, and finds herself too.

A fascinating idea to me, the concept of Little Women never having existed, because the Atwood sisters are continuing to live in the March sisters’ universe. Even so, just as millions of young girls have found strength in Jo March, her great-granddaughter is able to do the same. Donnelly had a bit of a tricky line to walk with The Little Women Letters. On one hand, she could have made them too much carbon copies of the March girls and their experiences, and made the whole book trite and derivative. On the other hand, she could have made them too very different from Jo and her sisters and the Little Women angle would have felt tacked on. Instead, Donnelly found a lovely balance. Leaving out Beth, she imbued the other three March girls into each of the girls in the Atwood family, while still leaving Emma, Lulu, and Sophie to be thoroughly modern English girls.

Perhaps the best part of The Little Women Letters were the titular letters which Lulu discovered in the attic. Donnelly caught Jo’s voice and style very well, creating letters that are not canonical to Little Women, but do mesh with the happenings in the book.

All in all The Little Women Letters is a hugely enjoyable novel for fans of Little Women. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
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Source: publisher, for an episode of What’s Old is New.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair – Book Review

The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair
Published by Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of Hachette

At some level, Rakhee knew her mother wasn’t happy in their home in the Midwest; at some level she may have even known that her mother’s heart did not truly belong to her father. Safe at home, however, these facts are (mostly) easy to ignore. To children parents are parents, they are not unique people. When Rahkee’s mother takes her to visit India, she is pulled unwillingly into the realization that her mother is a real person, with real desires that may not involve either Rakhee or her father. In the midst of these adolescent realizations, Rakhee finds a secret garden out behind her family’s house and what may be her family’s greatest secret.

The Girl in the Garden is a beautiful coming of age novel, an immediately engaging story. Rakhee is a likeable narrator, but appropriately flawed. As any adolescent she can be demanding and obnoxious, but she is also trying to hold her family together the  best that she can. Certainly she is willful, but it is that very willfulness that leads her to the garden and gives her the knowledge to either break her family apart or bring it back together.

Nair’s lush writing pulled me right in, and the emotional depth she imparted upon her young narrator kept me turning the pages. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: publisher, for an episode of What’s Old is New.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Vlad: The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys – Book Review

Vlad: The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks

Five years after the death of Vlad Dracula, the Turks are encroaching more and more on Christian lands. If only the Order of the Dragon had not been discredited when Vlad was, it could still serve as a tool of Crusade for Christendom. In an effort to rehabilitate both Vlad and the Order of the Dragon, the three people who best knew him have been brought to one of his former castles to make confession on his behalf, telling Vlad’s story from his captivity with the Turks through the height of his power and cruelty, on to the time of his discrediting.

Vlad: The Last Confessions is the certainly the story of the ‘real’ Dracula, but more than that, it is a story of how history is written and warped to fit the needs of the victors:

The listeners had been fashioning their own Vlad, according to their needs. For Petru it was simple. he wanted the man who built the castle he commanded to be a hero; more, a Wallachian hero. He had heard of a time of justice, order, strength in his land. Of the smiting of Christ’s foes. He wanted that time again.-p. 69

At one time it was expedient for both the Turks and Hungarians to paint Vlad as a monster, but Vlad: The Last Confession posits a time when it may have been necessary for other European Christians to try to clear his name. The truth will never exonerate Vlad entirely, he was by no means a benevolent ruler, but it does shed a light on his motivations, which may have been more complex than cruelty for cruelty’s sake.

So laughed, the sound harsh. “So I have become a tale to amuse fat burghers over their suppers, and to hush their children with terror when they will not sleep,” He lifted his goblet, drank, set it down. “All I did, all the measures I took for Wallachia, against thieves and traitors and Infidels, come to this.” He jabbed a finger at the pamphlet. “Me, reduced to a blood-sucking monster.” -p. 327

The device of telling Vlad’s story through those who knew him best worked very well. In practice it meant that most of Vlad’s story could be told as a seamless narrative. The impression is that all three confidants are telling the story in an integrated fashion, picking up where another left off, coming back to the scene in the castle only when exposition is needed. Some of the scenes of war and violence got a bit old after awhile, but it would have been difficult to avoid them, as they were a very significant part of Vlad’s life.

Overall, Vlad: The Last Confession was an interesting and engaging look at the life of Vlad Dracula and how history is shaped by political needs. Recommended.

For a more in-depth discussion of the book and Humphreys’s inspiration for it, please check out my interview with him on my podcast, What’s Old is New.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, for an episode of What’s Old is New.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips – Book Review

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
Published by Random House

Arthur Phillips’s father is a two-bit forger and con artist, but, still, when he claims to have discovered a lost Shakespeare play, Arthur believes him. At first.

That might be the shortest synopsis I’ve ever written, but The Tragedy of Arthur is a difficult book to summarize without giving too much. The story builds upon itself and circles back around in such a way that it is difficult to know how much is too much.

The first section is a memoir-ish introduction to the titular play. The tension between Arthur – who, by the way, has apparently a very similar history to the novelist Arthur Phillips, which may cause some readers to wonder how much is fact and how much fiction – and his father is masterfully done. The voice of a child terribly scarred by his parent seems dead on. The majority of what Arthur does is in response to his childhood and his father in one way or another, right down to his feelings towards Shakespeare, his father’s favorite author:

I have never much liked Shakespeare. I find the plays more pleasant to read than watch, but I could do without him, up to and including this unstoppable and unfortunate book. I know that is not a very literary or learned thing to confess, but there it is. I wonder if there isn’t a large and shy population of tasteful readers who secretly agree with me. -p. 1

Everything was put together so well, I found myself second guessing what I knew to be true about the book, conflating Arthur the character with Arthur the novelist. The alleged lost play was simply the icing on the cake, the thing that completed The Tragedy of Arthur and made it worthy of its ambition. I cannot wait to read more of Arthur Phillip’s work.

Highly recommended.

For a more indepth discussion of the book and Phillips’s inspiration for it, please check out my interview with him on my podcast, What’s Old is New. For those who are so inclined, you can also listen to the original spoilery intro and Arthur’s notes on the play.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer – Book Review

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
Published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin

I read The Uncoupling for an episode of What’s Old is New. You can check out our interview with Meg about the book, and if you’ve already read it, check out our spoilery outtakes.

Stellar Plains, New Jersey is a relatively happy town. Dory Lang and her husband Robby are certainly happy, even if they do wish that their teenage daughter would read a bit more. Still, they are happy with their lives, with their jobs as high school teachers, with their relationship. Then Fran Heller enters all of their lives as the high school’s new drama teacher and decides to put on Lysistrata as the school play. Suddenly, Dory has no desire to sleep with her husband, which has never been the case in the entire time they have been together. She isn’t the only one, either, all over town women are turning away from their husbands, boyfriends, and lovers. Suddenly the little flaws that have been overlooked in everyone’s relationships are front and center, and sex is nowhere to be found.

At its height, it was a knockout of a spell, fortified by a classic work of literature – a play that had lasted since 411 B.C., and which lasted even now, in this age of very different gratifications. -p. 246

Wolitzer’s prose is phenomenal. I am typically a reader who requires a mixture of good writing and good plot and character development in order to love a book, but I think I could have loved The Uncoupling even if the plot had been completely uninteresting, the writing was good enough to suck me in and keep me reading compulsively all on its own. The quote above is, I think, a perfect example of the compelling style of prose – in addition to containing a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.

And then there was the fact that the prose was not the only thing that The Uncoupling had going for it. Certainly the book uses the famous Aristophanes play, Lysistrata, as a jumping off point, but it is not about a sex strike in order to end war. Instead, it is an examination of love and sex, of relationships and desire, and how the waxing and waning of one element can have such great consequence for another. So many relationships are examined that a reader would be hard-pressed to become emotionally involved in more than one or two (likely those of Dory and Robby, or their daughter Willa and her boyfriend Eli), but all of the characters are fully realized, even those with extremely minor roles, which lends a richness to the story as if the reader was actually a part of the town of Stellar Plains, watching this spell strike all of his or her neighbors.

I absolutely adored The Uncoupling, it offered me the full package of what I believe makes a book worth reading: prose, characters, plot, and something to connect with on a deeper level. This is a book I can very highly recommend, and one that is likely to make an appearance on my ‘best of’ list at the end of the year (and likely that of many other people as well).

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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