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.

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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.

The Girl With Seven Names

Those of us who live in the West know that North Korea is a brutal regime. But what is that world actually like? I read The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee for book club. And what a read it was. Here’s the premise:

As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal totalitarian regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realise that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet”?

Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family.

She could not return, since rumours of her escape were spreading, and she and her family could incur the punishments of the government authorities – involving imprisonment, torture, and possible public execution. Hyeonseo instead remained in China and rapidly learned Chinese in an effort to adapt and survive. Twelve years and two lifetimes later, she would return to the North Korean border in a daring mission to spirit her mother and brother to South Korea, on one of the most arduous, costly and dangerous journeys imaginable.

What aspects of North Korean life surprised or shocked me?

  • Indoctrination begins from birth.
  • There is a caste system called songbun in North Korea. If you’re fortunate, you belong to a high caste. It’s very difficult to improve your caste position. Falling down the caste system is relatively easy. “The hostile class which made up about 40 per cent of the population, learn not to dream. They got assigned to farms and mines and manual labour.”
  • It was unthinkable to defy one’s parent.
  • Kim Il Sung, Kim Jung Il, and now Kim Jung Un are revered almost like gods. Every family must have pictures of the dear leaders in their family. Inspectors come into your house and check to make sure these pictures are prominently displayed and impeccably clean. “They had to be the highest objects in the room and perfectly aligned. No other pictures or clutter were permitted on the same wall.”
  • Police “prowl the city looking for violators of North Korea’s myriad social laws – anyone in jeans, men whose hair was a touch too long, women wearing a necklace or foreign perfume – all of which were unsocialist and symbolic of moral degeneracy and capitalist decadence.”
  • Bribery is often the only way of making anything happen.”
  • There are informers everywhere: “Neighbours could be relied upon to inform on neighbours; children to spy on children; workers to watch co-workers; and the head of the neighbourhood people’s unit, the banging, maintained an organized system of surveillance on every family in her unit.”
  • heroin is one of the few products North Korean makes to an international standard.” It is sold abroad to raise foreign currency.
  • people are executed publicly. Neighbours and family members are expected to watch. Even little children.
  • in school, children have ‘life purification time’, or self-criticism sessions. “Everyone took turns to stand up, accuse someone, and confess something. No one was excused for shyness. No one was allowed to be blameless.”
  • independent though is discouraged. “We were not required to formulate any views of our own, or to discuss, or to interpret ideas in any subject.”
  • America is the enemy.
  • “Every child learned to subordinate their will to that of the collective.”
  • North Korea has a communist youth movement – the Young Pioneer Corps. Participation is mandatory. Members undergo military training.
  • “Kindness toward strangers is rare in North Korea. There is risk in helping others.”
  • North Korea is an atheist state. Anyone caught in possession of a Bible faces execution or a life in the gulag.”
  • suicide is taboo. “Not only is it considered gravely humiliating to the surviving family members, it also guarantees that any children left behind will be reclassified as ‘hostile’ in the songbun system … it is a highly emotive means of protest. The regime regards it as a form of defection.”

There’s much more but I’m sure that’s enough to make you shiver.

Hyeonseo Lee’s story of her own escape and the dangers she subsequently undertook to get her mother and younger brother out of North Korea is harrowing. Her bravery, determination and guts will amaze you. Hyeonseo says  that “curiosity had always been greater than my fear — not a good trait to have in North Korea, where fear keeps your senses sharp and helps you stay alive.” Somehow, she prevailed.

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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 Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.