More Book reviews!

Here are a few of the recent reviews I’ve posted on Goodreads that are not for Historical Novels Review — my favorite reads of 2021 so far…

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown & Co.)

Even putting aside this astounding novel’s accidental timeliness, it renders with laser focus a historical moment we are unfortunately reliving in 2020. We follow, minute-by-minute, the actions and emotions of Nurse Julia Powers, as she tends a handful of Spanish flu-afflicted women in a Dublin maternity ward. Each character, almost all women, is drawn with crystalline clarity in a few details; the suffering of each is unique and the compassion of Nurse Powers heart-rending. Donoghue’s research into the 1918 flu and the period’s approaches to childbirth become vehicles for slashing indictments of the Anglo-Irish government and Catholic Church’s callous, abusive treatment of unwed mothers and poor children. It sounds grim, but this novel is one of the most inspiring portraits of altruism and bravery I have read in a long time. A definite can’t-miss read. ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf)

Brilliant and heartbreaking, in a similar mood as Never Let Me Go, but more haunting because Klara makes the “uncanny valley” of AI personhood as real as fictionally possible. An unforgettable meditation on consciousness, personhood, and love. ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

Perestroika in Paris, by Jane Smiley (Knopf)

An utterly delightful romp through the City of Lights with the most charming companions imaginable. Smiley does what she did so well in Horse Heaven — get into the minds of animals without anthropomorphizing or sentimentality. It’s a fantasy tale for sure, but one so grounded in plausibility that you have no trouble getting emotionally involved with a horse, a dog, a raven, and a rat. The humans are OK too. ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

The Hidden Palace, by Helene Wecker (Harper)

A worthy sequel to The Golem and the Jinni — in some ways even better. Wecker has added some fascinating new characters, and has deepened the relationship between Chava the golem and Ahmad the jinni. Sophia is sent on an expansive journey to the Middle East that balances the intimate experiences of the inhabitants of New York. As Chava and Ahmad draw further into themselves to avoid the emotional cost of their presence in the world of humans, Sophia circles the desert restlessly, attracting the attention of a jinniyeh who throws all the carefully-won balance of Chava and Ahmad’s life into chaos. Wecker’s careful research creates a solid foundation for the realistic details of life in New York between 1900 and 1915, which in turn create a strong human framework in which the fantastical lives of the golem and jinni take on accessible emotional richness. I hope that the warm, appealing community Wecker has created will form the basis for further sequels to this enchanting story. ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

Revelations, by Mary Sharratt (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The genuinely fascinating true events of the life of medieval mystic, businesswoman, matriarch, and pilgrim Margery Kempe, combined with Sharratt’s gift for vivid descriptions of women’s daily lives, create a novel that’s incredibly compelling. She captures Kempe’s medieval voice accurately and fleshes out her spiritual autobiography with the kind of details traveling women of that time would have had to concern themselves with — food, clothing, chamber pots, the beauty and discomfort of living on the road, the stress of never knowing whether the next stranger you meet will be kind or cruel. Margery’s religious insights are skillfully blended with her practical experiences, and her struggles with misogynistic Church clerics force her to draw on both her faith and her hard-won knowledge of people and negotiation. A brilliant telling about an unforgettable woman. ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

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