A Year of Reading – part 2

Last week, I listed a bunch of books that I either read or, in many cases, did not finish in 2020. Here’s the rest of the books from a confusing, stressful, distracted and unfocused year.

As in prior years, I’ve used the following rating scheme: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type. As I said in last week’s post, my apologies to those authors whose novels I did not finish.

  • A Well-Behaved Woman by Theresa Anne FowlerER – The title of this one appealed to me as did the peek into the lives of the Vanderbilts, specifically Alva Vanderbilt who married into the “newly rich but socially scorned family” this saving her own family from financial ruin. By the way, Alva Vanderbilt isn’t as well-behaved as the title implies.
  • The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff – DNF – This novel kept popping up on Facebook and other places and I’ve enjoyed other novels by Jenoff, so I gave it a try. I think I’ve read too many novels about women who become SOE agents in WWII and this one didn’t differentiate itself in the early chapters.
  • Marlene by C.W. Gortner – ER – I’m a big fan of C.W. Gortner’s novels. In this novel he’s written the fascinating story of Marlene Dietrich from her early schoolgirl days to her rise as a Hollywood star and her support for US troops during WWII.
  • The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee – ER – Memoir of a teenager who escapes North Korea’s brutal and repressive regime and ultimately reaches the safety of South Korea. A story of daring, ingenuity, perseverance, and triumph.
  • Circe by Madeline Miller – OR – A discussion of favourite historical fiction authors led me to a discovery of Madeline Miller and her novel Circe. I’ve never been a fan of mythology – I find all those gods, their powers, and their complicated relationships confusing. In Circe, Madeline Miller creates a compelling, action-filled tale that explores the intersection of gods and humans. Her prose is superb.
  • Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin – DNF – An American woman works for the French resistance during WWII “while playing hostess to the invading Germans at the iconic Hotel Ritz in Paris.” Unfortunately, the characters did not grab my attention, but that could just be the pandemic, as I’ve enjoyed other novels by Melanie Benjamin.
  • Double Cross by Ben McIntyre – GR – Non-fiction: the story of the double-agents involved in Operation Fortitude and how they tricked the Germans into believing that the Allies would attack Calais rather than Normandy. What detracts from the story is the huge cast of characters and the detail with which McIntyre explores each one of them, often going back in time at length before proceeding with the main drama.
  • The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan – OR – Non-fiction account of D-Day. I found it mesmerizing, superbly told, suspenseful and very satisfying.
  • The Library of Legends by Janie Chang – ER – I had the privilege of an early-release copy of this novel. Janie Chang’s tale of a convoy of student refugees who travel across China, fleeing the hostilities of a brutal war with Japan is quite wonderful. The students have been entrusted with a 500-year-old collection of myths and folklore known as the Library of Legends. Here’s the article I wrote for the Historical Novel Society.
  • Anya Seton: A Writing Life by Lucinda MacKethan – ER – when the opportunity came along to read an early-release of this biography, I quickly said yes. Anya Seton is one of those novelists who got me hooked on historical fiction. During her tumultuous life she wrote multiple bestsellers. As I said my review, Lucinda MacKethan’s biography is a superb story of a famous author’s life along with her struggles for recognition and fulfilment. 
  • Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig – ER – A story of a group of Smith College graduates who travel to France during WWI to help citizens whose lives have been destroyed by war. The novel compellingly tackles a central question: “What happens when you take a group of women with wildly different personalities and interests and set them down in the high-pressure situation of a war zone.” To be released in early March.
  • Red At the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ER – Selected by my book club, this novel “looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives–even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.”
  • The Lost Girls by Heather Young – ER – From the six-year-old girl who disappears to her sisters, mother and nieces, everyone in this novel is lost in her own way. Through multiple timelines, Heather Young patiently and carefully reveals what really happened in this compelling story.
  • The Year I Made 12 Dresses by Patricia Parsons – ER – As Charlie sews her way through the year after her mother’s death, she finds wisdom and unexpected happiness while uncovering secrets from the past. This was one of those novels that grabs you slowly and suddenly you find yourself in that I-can’t-wait-to-get-back-to-it mode.
  • A Castle in Wartime by Catherine Bailey – ER – I was delighted to discover another book by non-fiction author Catherine Bailey. Catherine writes non-fiction with the drama and excitement of fiction. A superb story of one family, their missing sons, and the fight to defeat the Nazis.
  • Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain – OR – I began 2020 with Vera Brittain’s biography. Abandoning her studies at Oxford in 1915 to enlist as a nurse in the armed services, she served in London, in Malta, and on the Western Front. By war’s end she had lost virtually everyone she loved. It is “both a record of what she lived through and an elegy for a vanished generation.”

This is the sixth year I’ve shared my reading. You can check our previous years: 2019 (part 1 and part 2), 2018 part 22018 part 1, 2017 (part 1 and part 2), 2016 (part 1 and part 2). A Year of Reading 2015 – Part 1 and Part 2. A Year of Reading 2014 – Part 1 and Part 2

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

2020- a Strange Year of Reading

This was the year of DNF. After the middle of March, I would find a book, read five to ten chapters and then say, “Nope. Not that one.” I tried historical fiction, my favourite genre, but that didn’t work. I tried beach reads, but that didn’t work either. I was able to lose myself in a few non-fiction selections like Samantha Power’s compelling memoir The Education of an Idealist and The Girl with Seven Names by Lee Hyeon-Seo, a memoir of a woman who escaped North Korea. If you think Covid is bad, try living in North Korea. I checked best selling lists and couldn’t even generate enough enthusiasm to get past the descriptions.

My reading mojo returned when I selected several books for a novel that’s brewing inside my head. In total, I’ve read 33 books give or take. See below for comments on the first bunch.

I apologize to all of the authors whose novels I did not finish. I hope 2021 will be a better reading year and that I’ll get back to each and every one of them.

As in prior years, I’ve used the following rating scheme: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type.

  • Seven Lies by Elizabeth Kay – ER – A page-turner about toxic friendships between women, about obsession and what we can lose in the name of love
  • I’ll Never Tell by Catherine McKenzie – ER – A family-owned camp, a murder, and the unravelling that occurs after the parents’ will is read.
  • Scholars of Mayhem by Daniel Guiet and Timothy Smith – ER – Non-Fiction: The true story of an SOE team that commanded a ghostly army of 10,000 French Resistance fighters.
  • Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan – ER – Fiction based on a true story of a young Italian man’s courage and resilience as a WWII spy. See interview featuring Mark Sullivan.
  • The Old Success by Martha Grimes – DNF – Murder mystery set on the Cornish coast.
  • Ladies Night by Mary Kay Andrews – DNF – A woman discovers her husband is cheating on her and ends up in therapy.
  • American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – DNF – I wasn’t up for the gritty nature of this story about a Mexican woman and her child on the run from a drug cartel.
  • The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis – GR – An interesting look at the early part of the 20th century and an iconic building, although I found the back and forth timelines somewhat choppy.
  • High Tide Club by Mary Kay Andrews – LR – A satisfying story of old friendships, secrets, betrayal and a long-unsolved murder.
  • The Rumor by Elin Hilderbrand – LR – Best friends with perfect marriages and beautiful kids form a backdrop for a rumor that almost destroys everything.
  • The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power – ER – A compelling memoir of Samantha Power’s journey from immigrant to war correspondent to presidential Cabinet official and ultimately US Ambassador to the UN.
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison – ER – I’ve never read Toni Morrison and a friend recommended that I start with this novel. Superb prose, compelling characters and deep insights into the Black experience in America.
  • The Lost Girls of Devon by Barbara O’Neal – DNF – Four generations of women grappling with family betrayals and long-buried secrets.
  • 28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand – ER – Explores the agony and romance of a one-weekend-per-year affair. A page turner full of emotion.
  • The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson – DNF – In 1936, a lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian.
  • The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes – DNF – Depression-era America. This story also explores the Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and the women who made it a success. Apparently, the release of these two novels at about the same time caused a lot of controversy.
  • There There by Tommy Orange – DNF – A book club read and a story of twelve characters from Native communities who are all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Too much angst to read during lockdown.

More to follow in another post.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Anya Seton: A Writing Life by Lucinda MacKethan

Ask fans of historical fiction to list some of their favourite authors and Anya Seton’s name will always pop up. Ask historical fiction authors who inspired their writing and Seton will be near the top of that list too. So, when a publicist from Independent Publishers Group contacted me with an offer to read this biography, I couldn’t get my hand up fast enough!

While writing Anya Seton: A Writing Life, Lucinda MacKethan had access to reams of letters, financial data, publicity materials, and over three thousand handwritten pages of Anya Seton’s journals. After exploring the author’s early years with a domineering, self-centred father and a mother who constantly travelled for months on end, MacKethan relates how Anya’s tumultuous life unfolded in parallel with the novels she wrote. This structure works brilliantly and provides intriguing insights into Seton’s motivations behind her characters and plot.

Anya’s father, Ernest Thompson Seton (his original surname was Thompson), was a naturalist, fieldworker, scientist and prolific writer. In 1896, he married Grace Gallatin, Anya’s mother, who was an author, suffragist and world traveller. Anya, originally named Ann, was born in 1904. As MacKethan tells us, Anya’s parents were “both confident, wilful, and absolutely determined to achieve individual goals at whatever cost. In addition, they both had a sense, in part due to a shared mystical bent, that they were destined for greatness, which meant that they would be not only competitive but also combative about getting what they were sure they deserved.”

Ernest’s and Grace’s personalities had a long-lasting and detrimental effect on their daughter. In childhood, Anya had several homes and often travelled with her mother, which meant that she could not “count on being in her ‘real’ school any more than she would be able to count on a home that she could feel was her own, something that eluded her for decades.” Her father’s absences, his passions for nature and the native way of life, his travels, and his prolific writing meant that he was rarely there to nurture his daughter. In addition, he was prone to criticism rather than praise.

In 1966, she had this to say about her father:

Although initially Anya felt destined to be something other than a writer, “to live vivid exciting things, not write them for imaginary creatures”, “that occupation was in the air she breathed.” She declared that she was “thoroughly aware of the seamy side of the profession–the drudgery, the essential loneliness, and the tough hide needed to persevere through discouragement and misunderstandings.”

Through two marriages, three children, two divorces, and ten novels, Anya Seton struggled to achieve literary success equivalent to the male writers of her time, to secure financial stability, to balance her writing and home lives, and most of all, to find love. It saddened me to learn that Seton also struggled for years with drugs, alcohol, and at times a debilitating lack of confidence.

After writing a few of what Anya Seton called “love pulps”, from her first work of historical fiction, My Theodosia, to her last, Smouldering Fires, her novels won awards, were on best-sellers lists, and earned significant income. They also achieved commercial success through serialization, book club and film rights.

Anya’s novels had recurring themes: the domineering and arrogant male, women held in an emotional prison, three-sided male entrapments, and loving, forceful mothers. Most stories also included a “beautiful, sexually inexperienced girl determine to find a great love.” Writing about Green Darkness, Lucinda MacKethan says: “Anya’s sporadic creative effort during these stormy years resulted in a novel that was indeed full of tumult, some of it horrifically related to dim history and some of it a parable of the inner darkness in which Anya has so often felt trapped.”

While for Anya, there was a “cleavage between writing and living”, she acknowledged that “the purest pleasure in life is intellectual–historical delving.”

I’ll leave you with two quotes in Anya Seton’s own words. The first is written shortly after finishing her final draft of Katherine:

I suppose I write myself over and over again in the heroines.

And later as she reflects on writing historical fiction:

The details of living change fast, but people change slowly and emotions not at all. It seems to me that a story set in any period may have validity and meaning for the present.

Anya Seton: A Writing Life by Lucinda MacKethan

Lucinda MacKethan’s biography is a superb story of a famous author’s life along with her struggles for recognition and fulfilment. Anya Seton: A Writing Life will fascinate readers and authors alike.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.