Category Archives: Men and Women

Stepsister, by Jennifer Donnelly

StepsisterThe prince’s footman is impatiently waiting in the mansion’s foyer while Ella’s stepmother is heating the knife in the kitchen fire so that her daughter, Isabelle, can slice off her own toes. Maman doesn’t care about the pain if Isabelle can fit into the glass slipper, marry the prince, and elevate her whole family to wealth and power. Unfortunately for Isabelle, the prince is tipped off by all the blood, Ella frees herself from the attic, and they ride off into a beautiful life together, while Isabelle is left with her mother and sister, still single, and now minus five toes.

Behind the scenes, and unbeknownst to mortals, the three sisters of Fate have already drawn up the map of Isabelle’s life, and it’s a short one covered with toxic inks. Everything could come to a rapid and disastrous end if not for the intervention of the carefree Chance, he of the long, dark braids and amber eyes. Chance capers into the sisters’ room, steals Isabelle’s map, and makes a bargain with the old crone, later known as Tantine.  Thus begins a contest for Isabelle’s life, along with the dubious aid of Tanaquill, the fairy queen of the Wildwood, who had turned a pumpkin into a coach for Ella on the night of the royal ball. Tanaquill reveals to Isabelle that she will only be saved if she can put her heart back together by finding the three pieces that have been cut away. Frustratingly, she does not tell her what those pieces are.

Life is going from bad to worse for the “ugly stepsisters,” and Isabelle is sure that everything would be peaches and cream if she were only pretty, like Ella. Instead of behaving like a princess, though, she has always loved riding horses and roughhousing with the groom’s son, while her sister Tavi wants to study and perform scientific experiments, all of which is completely unsuitable for finding husbands. With war brewing in France and villagers attacking them for their cruelty to the lovely Ella, Isabelle is wasting precious time by mistakenly trying to piece her heart back together by becoming someone else, a girl who could be approved of by whoever it is who makes the rules. If only she could get on the right track in time to save her own life!

Character development reigns in this fiercely feminist retelling of the Cinderella story. All of the wildly diverse secondary characters shape and mold Isabelle’s understanding of real life and of her inner landscape: Chance’s ragtag troupe of magicians and actors, the wealthy yet miserly widow and her bullying dolt of a son who offer Tantine a room in exchange for the hope of an inheritance, and the groom’s son, who is no longer a young boy, but a successful carpenter who builds coffins for a living and whittles toy soldiers in the evenings.

Jennifer Donnelly’s writing is as exquisite as ever. The first line of the prologue reads: “Once upon always and never again, in an ancient city by the sea, three sisters worked by candlelight.” I first read Donnelly in her novel Revolution, in which a teen girl goes back in time to the late 1700s in France, and then later as Anne of Cleves in The Fatal Throne (reviewed here). In Stepsister, Donnelly is once more in historic France, this time in a more magical setting, slashing at the patriarchy and setting Isabelle up as a sort of Joan of Arc without the crazy voices in her head. Although I have no wish to swing a sword, as Isabelle does, nor to write quadratic equations on cabbage leaves like Tavi, the restrictions on the girls’ lives are entirely, oppressively realistic. While women did not become free several centuries ago through magic, such tales cause us to rejoice that today women are much more— though not quite completely— free. Free to study science and do research, or free to bake cookies and have teas. Free to ride horses and fight battles, or free to cuddle babies and knit socks. Free to show the world who they truly are.

A fantastical adventure with plenty of depth.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available to the public. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Becoming Mrs. Lewis, by Patti Callahan

Becoming Mrs. LewisRivers of ink have been spilled by and about C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don who wrote 20th century classics for children and adults, such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Through the years since his death, biographers have given us hints of his late-in-life marriage to Joy Davidman, and the book and movie Shadowlands have introduced her to the public. Rarely, though, have we seen their relationship through her eyes, but now Patti Callahan has written a novel that moves this misunderstood woman to the forefront.

Joy Davidman was born into a scholarly Jewish family and later converted to Christianity as an adult. When the novel opens, she is a young mother of two boys, married to an alcoholic and adulterous husband. Both of them are writers, and because of the times, Joy is expected to put up with her husband’s behavior and concentrate on improving her homemaking and motherly skills, pushing her own writing aside until her boys are grown. When a friend gives her a couple of books by C.S. Lewis, she takes a risk and writes to him for advice on a theological question. They continue to exchange letters for several years, increasingly confiding in one another and becoming close friends.

When several health issues and her difficult marriage have both reached crisis level, Joy travels to England to consult with doctors there and to do research for her writing projects. Here she finally meets Jack, as Lewis was called, and his brother, Warnie. She soaks in the history and beauty at Oxford and at The Kilns, Lewis’ home. While she is there, she receives a letter from her husband informing her that he is in love with her cousin and is living with her, along with their young sons. Joy’s life is at a crossroads.

The story takes place over years, but nothing goes smoothly for Joy, her sons, or her overwhelming love for Jack, fifteen years her senior and seemingly oblivious to her devotion. She is an acclaimed poet, but no one sees the series of sonnets that she writes to him. She longs to tell him of her feelings, but he is cheerfully friendly and perhaps purposely obtuse. All the while, he arranges to see her every day, asks for her help with his work, and considers her a member of his family. Warnie is devoted to her, and Jack acts as a father to her children, but romantic love is completely absent. It takes a catastrophe to open his eyes, and then it is almost too late.

Using all of the Lewis scholarship available, plus Joy’s prolific papers, poems, and the letters between them, Callahan has filled in the gaps with imagined conversations and Joy’s intimate thoughts on her frustrating, fulfilling, and quietly spectacular life. There are many famous individuals among their acquaintance, and they weave in and out of the narrative. Tolkien, in particular, disapproved of Joy intensely, even though he was a happily married man himself. Callahan is not on a feminist rant here at all, but she does include gentle reminders that even nice men did not respect women’s work just fifty or sixty years ago (or ten or five or yesterday). Callahan has also interviewed Douglas Gresham, Joy’s son and one of Lewis’ most authoritative biographers. As a matter of fact, I own a Lewis biography by Gresham and had forgotten that Gresham was Joy’s married name.

Lewis lived most of his life before he met Joy, and his earlier romantic relationships have been—and remain—an interesting and perhaps unseemly mystery, but his evolving and complex relationship with Joy Davidman affected him so deeply as to change him in foundational ways. Not only did he rethink his opinions on serious issues, but he also seemed to open doors in his soul that he had kept locked all of his life. Joy was his muse for the book he declared to be his favorite, Till We Have Faces, and, of course, she is the subject of A Grief Observed. However, Joy Davidman met her great love after having lived a full life, as well, and together they played a tragic, but magnificent, final act.

I highly recommend this book to all those who are fellow Lewis nerds, historical fiction fans, and to anyone who relishes a great story with literary characters.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Fatal Throne: The Wives of Henry VIII Tell All

Fatal ThroneSurely, we’ve heard everything there is to say about the Tudors, right? We’re Tudored out! Well… tell me everything you know about Anne of Cleves. Yeah, me too.

The fact is that most of us know a good bit about Catherine of Aragon and far more than we should about Anne Boleyn, and that’s it. Maybe a smattering of Jane Seymour. From an academic viewpoint, the separation of England from the church of Rome happened during the divorce of Catherine and the marriage of Anne, and Anne Boleyn was the first reigning queen to be executed in England, all of which makes for a lot of dramatic material. From a more prurient, Hollywood standpoint, a young and handsome king committing adultery on his religious wife with a beautiful, coquettish daughter of the nobility will bring in the dollars. Shows about sickly, old boors who are still trying for more heirs won’t pop anybody’s popcorn.

In this brand-new collaboration, celebrated female authors each take one of the six wives and tell her story, interspersed with the perspective of Henry, written by National Book Award-winning author M.T. Anderson. These are big names in young adult literature: Candace Fleming, Stephanie Hemphill, Lisa Ann Sandell, Jennifer Donnelly, Linda Sue Park, and Deborah Hopkinson. They reveal girls who grew up quickly, traveling across the sea or thrust from their fathers’ and brothers’ bargaining tables, setting aside their own dreams to become childbearers in a huge political game, changing the course of history while embroidering a royal layette. Anne Boleyn was not concerned with the fate of Christendom, but her name is permanently entwined in the story. Anne of Cleves was not interested in marriage at all, while Catherine Parr was an excellent theologian, and almost lost her head by revealing the depth of her knowledge. Anderson’s interludes are infuriating to read– hence brilliantly effective– as Henry never doubts that he is justified in all of his actions, since he is both a man and the king.

I have always felt a great sympathy for Catherine of Aragon, who expected to lead a noble and dignified life and certainly lived up to her part of the bargain, although she produced a terrifying daughter. Even Mary’s story and that of the other Tudor children are woven into the background of the tale. By the time Henry’s life was over, his wives and his daughters were getting close to the same age. This is probably the first time since the 1970s BBC production that I’ve gotten to know the later wives so well—the good, the bad, and the fascinating.

This story is written for adults and young adults who are old enough to understand the sexual details of producing heirs and how that process might get complicated with an older man with health issues. I admit to being surprised at the candor of some of the bedroom scenes, which are far from romantic. A bracing antidote to any steamy television shows concerning Henry.

No teen could ever consider history boring again after this happy combination of talents brings the ultimate dysfunctional family to life. Highly recommended for adults and mature teens.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Blood Water Paint, by Joy McCullough

Blood Water PaintOnce her father had despaired of finding any talent in his sons, he put Artemisia to work in his studio, grinding pigments and preparing canvases. He soon realized that she could paint, so he allowed her to fill in the backgrounds on some of his paintings. Artemisia began encroaching further and further into her father’s figures, and then she struck out on her own. Her father’s signature was always in the corner, but his patrons knew that an old man would not suddenly become gifted. No, it was the silent girl in the shadows who brought life to the old, traditional pictures.

Judith and her servant with Holofernes

Artemisia reveled in painting the great heroines of the Bible. Although she could not read, her mother had made sure that her only daughter knew these stories before she died in childbirth with her second girl child, who also perished. All of the artists before her had portrayed Judith and Susanna as mild and pleasant, but Artemisia knew their fear and anger, and she painted their true emotions onto her canvases. Eventually, her father decided to nurture her gift, so he hired another artist to teach her perspective. Artemisia fell in love, and she thought that he was proposing marriage to her, but he was proposing something else entirely.

McCullough relates this true story in verse, with dialogue noted in italics. The reader sees through Artemisia’s eyes, with other characters’ dialogue appearing in a separate column. Artemisia Gentileschi was a Renaissance artist in a time when women were not encouraged to express themselves publicly. A quick Google search will display her prolific work in the familiar Renaissance style, with shimmering figures glowing out of the darkness. Although paintings of these Biblical—often apocryphal— stories were common, Artemisia’s women are different. Her madonnas love the baby Jesus, they are not ethereal and passive. In McCullough’s story, the artist identifies closely with Judith, so it is not strange that we see strength and vengeance in her eye as Judith cuts off Holofernes’ head. And here is Jael, enthusiastically driving a stake through Sisera’s head. There seems to be a theme here. Jael and SiseraFortunately for posterity, when she was not painting women murdering men, she turned to self-portraits. In this picture, she presents herself as the personification of Painting.

Artemisia self-portrait

Artemisia Gentileschi as the Personification of Painting

Released at the height of the #MeToo movement, Blood Water Paint is an important and brutal work. Young women, especially, can take heart that Artemisia Gentileschi survived rape and went on to become a great artist, against all odds. This story will provide an opportunity not only to learn about Renaissance art, but also about Biblical women who are characters in the part of the Bible that is called the Apocrypha in Protestant churches. Because of the mature subject matter, this book is best for older teens and adults.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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A Library for Juana: The World of Sor Juana Inés, by Pat Mora

Library for JuanaWhen she was just a little girl in Mexico City in the 1600s, Juana Inés wanted to read all of the books in her abuelo’s library, but her mother said that she was too young. She asked endless questions, and skipped along making rhymes all day long. When her older sister went to school at her neighbor’s house, Juana begged to go, too. Her parents relented, and soon Juana was studying everything she could find and writing poems for her mother’s birthday. Later, living with her aunt and uncle in the big city, she kept her tutor busy teaching her Latin and many other languages. At fifteen, she became a lady-in-waiting at the palace, writing poems and riddles for the amusement of the court, amazing scholars with her learning, and reading as much of the royal library as she could. Eventually, the young woman decided to become a nun, changing her name to the now well-known Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

When someone mentioned her in a library meeting recently, I had never heard of Juana Inés, so after looking her up on Wikipedia, I checked out this children’s biography. I have often found children’s biographies to be quick, introductory sources of information that avoid getting bogged down with all the tiny details of a person’s life. They convey the central importance of the subject and are often very beautiful, as is the case with this volume, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal. Of course, Pat Mora could not delve deeply into the struggles that Juana had with the men over her in the church hierarchy who did not accept a woman speaking and writing about theological issues. Eventually Sor Juana was severely punished and lost everything. Today, she is known as one of North America’s greatest poets, earning the nickname “Mexico’s Tenth Muse.” Probably the most famous book for adults exploring Juana Inés’ philosophy and theology is Sor Juana: Or the Traps of Faith, by Nobel laureate Octavio Paz. Juana Inés is widely revered for her lifelong support of female education. Imagine the riches we have forfeited through the centuries because women were kept from learning.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan

chilbury-ladies-choirIn 1940s England, all the men of fighting age are gone. Since there are no male voices, the vicar of the Chilbury village church decides to suspend the choir. However, Miss Prim is a determined voice instructor, and she sees no reason that the women cannot continue to sing on their own, shocking as that decision may be. Once the ladies realize that they can sing by themselves, work hard for the war effort, and run their families and their village quite well, they begin to rethink many of the traditional restrictions on their lives.

A village is a perfect setting to stage a microcosm of life. All types of people live here, from the bullying general to the mousy church lady, the flirtatious young beauty and the quiet young scholar. In every tiny town, one can find an evil villain masquerading as a good neighbor and a most unlikely courageous hero. All of these characters and more are living in Chilbury, struggling through the dangers and privations of World War II. Tough times tend to highlight the strengths and deficiencies of one’s character, and we can watch the villagers change as they see themselves more clearly or adjust to the tumultuous world around them.

This epistolary novel is told in letters, journal entries, and the occasional poster or announcement. At first, the rotating point of view seems confusing, but there are only a few regular writers, and the reader comes to know and care for them deeply. All the other villagers are seen through their eyes. The many plot strands weave together seamlessly, revealing that village gossip and scandal never take a pause, even during world-changing events.

Ryan’s novel has been compared to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, since they are both epistolary British novels set in World War II. The comparison is apt, up to a point, but I recommended Guernsey to everyone, and although Chilbury is both emotionally moving and loads of fun, it is much more of a women’s novel. The few men in the story are quite often reprehensible, along the lines of a Lifetime Channel movie, and are seen through women’s eyes. There are no male primary characters. That being said, there is much to discuss in this novel, and it would make a fantastic women’s book club choice. It is also the first book I read on the new porch, so it will always have a place in my heart!

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available for purchase. Opinions expressed are solely my own, and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

Lie TreeFourteen-year-old Faith Sunderly and her family are fleeing to a remote island, and Faith has no idea why. Her stern clergyman father is a naturalist of some renown, and she suspects that he has made someone upset. Has he been outspoken about his position on the new theory of evolution? Not that Faith is sure what his position might be, if he has. All she knows is that she and her pretty, flirtatious mother, her affable Uncle Miles, and her little brother, Howard, have been whisked away to the island of Vane, where her father will be joining a local archeology dig.

Plain, brilliant Faith is a disappointment to her mother, so she is usually banished to the nursery to take care of Howard, while she would rather be studying natural science with her father. The servants in the house they’ve rented are gossiping over a newspaper story about Faith’s father, but young ladies are not allowed to read newspapers, so she can’t figure out why the islanders whisper about them, or why her family seems so nervous. Faith has learned that hiding her intelligence allows her to listen quietly and to gather information without being noticed. When a terrible calamity happens, Faith may be the only one who can solve a mystery and save her family from ruin.

Hardinge’s multi-starred historical fiction novel has well-developed secondary characters, including the coroner’s strange teenage son and several adults who are much more dangerous than they seem. The magical tree at the heart of the story feeds on lies, and Faith begins to realize that the wild growth of the lie tree reveals the darkness that grows in her own soul. The increasing struggle between the mother, who is transparently using her beauty and almost scandalous flirtation to get her own way with men, and the scholarly daughter, who is suffocating from the narrow confines of women’s roles in the nineteenth century, is brought to a poignant resolution in a scene near the end of the novel.

This slowly-unfolding mystery has heart-stopping suspense and a strong streak of feminism, and it shines a bright light on the darkness in our souls that may cause us to pursue our own desires, no matter what the cost to ourselves and others. Recommended for young teens.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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