“Admission” by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Princeton University admission officer, Portia Nathan, heroine of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, Admission, is closing in on middle age and things in her life are quickly falling apart on every conceivable level. In the first chapter, she has a one-night stand with a man she barely knows. They had gone to college together at Dartmouth, although she doesn’t remember him. They meet again when she visits the progressive, if not downright hippie, high school campus where he teaches. After reading the first chapter, you’ll think you’ve heard this story before, that she’s a lonely woman who needs the right relationship to get her back on track. That may be so, but that’s not this story. This novel takes a nonlinear path through a realistically-drawn adult landscape cluttered with missed opportunities, regretted decisions, and alienating relationships.
While the novel revolves around the actions and insights of Portia, it also gives readers a behind the scenes look at the Ivy League college admission process. Each chapter begins with a very personal excerpt from a college admission essay. Jean Hanff Korelitz is a talented, readable writer. Her writing style is intelligent, thoughtful, and at times beautiful. I hope she publishes again.
I would recommend this novel to readers who enjoy John Updike, Anne Tyler, or John Irving. Oprah picked it for her list, so it will have an audience among her devotees as well. Parents with high aspirations for their children would find this book enlightening and unnerving as well. I know I did.
“Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon
Reading a book by Michael Chabon is like eating an incredible meal. You don’t want to rush through it. No, you want to savor it; enjoy the texture and depth. If you go too quickly, you may miss a subtle nuance, or heaven forbid, it might be over too quickly.
Chabon’s 2008 novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is a masterpiece. The story is set in a world where the state of Israel has collapsed and Jews are given a temporary settlement in–of all places–Alaska. Now, after 60 years in Sitka, Alaska, they are being forced into exile once again.
The exile is really a subplot and map for the underworld of corruption that plagues their refuge. Chabon has a great ability to create wonderfully-flawed characters–and not always flawed in an endearing way. If Detective Landsman isn’t at rock bottom at the beginning of the novel, he makes his way there over the course of the book. But in his work to solve the murder case of a young Yiddish man, and with a rich community to surround him, he finds his way through the darkness.
If you want fast, action-packed adventure, look somewhere else. This is not a novel to be rushed. It is a novel to be enjoyed, morsel after delicious morsel.
“A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate” by Susanna Calkins
In Restoration London, the chambermaid Lucy Campion considers herself lucky to work for the benevolent Magistrate Hargrave, who appreciates her intelligence and is supportive of her attempts to better herself. Still, working for the Hargrave family is a life of monotonous chores, such as emptying chamber pots and polishing silver, until the routine is broken by the murder of Lucy’s best friend and fellow servant Bessie. When Lucy’s brother is arrested for the crime, she must use her quick wits to exonerate him and catch the real culprit. But it is a task complicated by the return of the plague and the great Fire of London.
In her debut, Susanna Calkins has combined atmospheric period detail, a touch of romance, and intrigue to produce an entertaining historical mystery. This book is not only a good mystery, but also a compelling social commentary. It explores the persecution of Quakers and Catholics, as well as the mistreatment of servants, women, and criminals, which includes the concept of guilty until proven innocent. I thoroughly enjoyed A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, and I look forward to reading future books from this author.
“Blood Sisters: The Women behind the War of the Roses” by Sarah Gristwood
The War of the Roses was the dynastic battle fought amongst the numerous descendents of King Edward III for the English throne. These fifteenth century Plantagenets were initially divided into two rival camps: the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Cousin fought cousin, and the House of York emerged triumphant, but it wasn’t long before the victorious Yorks would turn upon each other. Now, brother conspires against brother, eventually paving the way for the rise of the Tudors.
Historians generally tell the story of this conflict from the perspective of the male combatants. However, in Blood Sisters Sarah Gristwood focuses on the lives of the women within this deadly family feud, namely Margaret of Anjou, Cecily Neville, Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville, Margaret of Burgandy, and Elizabeth of York. They were the mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of kings. Some were merely pawns, being married off into rival factions as family alliances shifted, while others were power players, actually ruling, albeit in the name of a husband or son. Regardless of the roles they played, they all helped to shape the War of the Roses.
Gristwood has done an admirable job of conveying what could have motivated these individual ladies’ actions and decisions, and explaining how they were all interrelated by both birth and dynastic marriages (which is no easy feat considering the complex family relationships that went back for generations.) Unfortunately, as in all collective biographical works, this book leaves you longing for even more in depth character analysis of these royal ladies. Hopefully, with the upcoming television series based upon Philippa Gregory’s fictional books on the Plantagenets, interest will be renewed in these women and individual biographies will begin to appear.
“The Madman’s Daughter” by Megan Shepherd
Facing possible arrest for unsavory medical experimentation, Dr. Moreau flees London, abandoning his wife and young daughter Juliet to a life of poverty. After her mother’s death, the destitute 16-year-old Juliet is barely making ends meet as a scullery maid in a medical school. However, Juliet’s position there is precarious, as one of the staff doctors is making unwanted sexual advances towards her. When Juliet runs into her old childhood friend, Montgomery, she learns that he is still working as her father’s assistant. Believing she has found a solution to her problems, Juliet convinces the reluctant Montgomery to take her to the island where her father is hiding. On their voyage they pick up the mysterious castaway Edward Prince, who, along with Juliet, receives an icy welcome from Dr. Moreau when they dock. Juliet struggles to come to terms with her father’s begrudging hospitality and to sort out her feelings for Montgomery and Edward, both of whom she is attracted to. Meanwhile, she comes to the shocking realization that the island is no safe haven, for Dr. Moreau has continued his horrific experimentations, which will endanger them all.
The Madman’s Daughter is a reworking of H.G. Wells’ classic The Island of Dr. Moreau, but told through the eyes of the insane doctor’s daughter Juliet. She is a realistically drawn and multifaceted character. At times she is tough and determined, while in other instances she’s fragile and self-doubting. I’m not generally a fan of love triangles, and the one in this book felt forced. Thankfully, the author excels at creating a dark atmosphere–the descriptions of vivisection are particularly disturbing–and an unexpected ending. This book is the first of a planned trilogy, and I can’t wait to see where Shepherd takes her story next.
“Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria” by Julia P. Gelardi
Queen Victoria of Great Britain has often been called the Grandmother of Europe due to the number of her descendents who married into Europe’s royal families. Five of her granddaughters, Maud “Harry” of Wales, Alexandra “Alix” of Hesse, Sophie of Prussia, Marie “Missy” of Edinburgh, and Victoria Eugenie “Ena” of Battenberg were queen consorts to reigning monarchs of the early 20th century and helped shape the future of the continent for better or worse. The effect of Queen Victoria on her granddaughters can’t be underestimated, as several inherited her shyness. Sophie’s, Alix’s, and Ena’s natural reserve and German blood was not well received in their husband’s countries and was said to have helped led to the downfall of the monarchies in Greece, Russia, and Spain. On the other hand, Maud’s natural modesty and informality endeared her to the Norwegian people.
Gelardi effortlessly weaves together the stories of the five princesses with little repetition. While most readers will be somewhat familiar with Alix’s story, Ena’s struggles with hemophilia, which she passed on to at least two of sons with devastating consequences for her marriage, is less known. Sophie and Marie also led somewhat tragic lives. The much maligned sister of Kaiser William II, Sophie endured multiple exiles from Greece before dying in Italy. Married off at a young age, Marie later grew to revile her weak willed husband, King Ferdinand of Romania, and was unlucky in her children, whose parentage is questionable. Only Maud of Norway seems to have achieved some sort of contentment, which may explain why she receives something of a short shrift from the author, who focuses a little too much on the flamboyant Marie of Romania, admittedly the most colorful of the bunch. Thus, my only complaint about Born to Rule is that I would have liked equal attention devoted to the queens of Norway, Spain, and Greece, as was to the Empress of Russia and the Queen of Romania.
“A Maiden’s Grave” by Jeffrey Deaver
While driving to a poetry recital in Topeka, the bus driver, Mrs. Harstrawn, innocently pulls the bus over to investigate a recent car collision. Unfortunately, she, the eight deaf schoolgirls on board, and their hearing-impaired teacher, Melanie Charrol, are suddenly taken hostage by three escaped convicts who spring out of the nearby cornfields. Pursued by state troopers, the felons make their stand at an abandoned slaughterhouse, and senior FBI agent Author Potter is called in to negotiate the hostages’ release. While Potter struggles on the outside to establish a bond with the convicts’ ringleader, sociopath Lou Handy, Melanie, who usually considers herself weak and ineffective, vows to save her students herself at great risk to her own safety.
A Maiden’s Grave starts with a bang and rarely lets up until the very end. I could not put the book down until I discovered what happens to Melanie and the other hostages. Deaver has obviously done his homework, realistically portraying the inner workings of the FBI hostage team as well as providing great insight into deaf culture. His attempt at romantic subplot, however, felt unnecessary, and fails for me. Also, the book can be a bit graphic at times, so it may not be for everyone. Other than that, A Maiden’s Grave makes for a thrilling read.