Reading the Backlist, part 3: Rumer Godden

bredeThis week, I’m continuing my exploration of favorite authors’ backlists by picking up In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.

Godden’s 1945 novel, Take Three Tenses, was one of my Top Ten Books in 2014 as well as a recommendation from Jo Walton in her book, What Makes This Book So Great. It was a short, very feminist book about the life of a house over 100 years. (Check out this interesting publisher’s note from the wartime printing).

I skipped ahead over 20 years of Godden’s work when I opened In This House of Brede, which is a thick novel about the lives of Benedictine nuns. It was a very different experience, and one that was probably colored by my expectations from Take Three Tenses

In This House of Brede could easily be a TV miniseries. Although there is an overarching plot in the spiritual development of Dame Phillippa the executive-turned-nun, this book is really a string of subplots involving scandal, money troubles, intrigue, and personal crises among the nuns. There’s also a lot of info-dumping about how a Benedictine monastery works, and about the changes taking place in the Catholic church in the 1950s.

I was initially intrigued by Dame Phillippa’s story, because she started as an executive-level businesswoman (type unspecified) in her 40’s. Based on my expectations from Take Three Tenses, I expected this very feminist character to further develop her leadership skills when she became a nun, and triumph in that way. Nope – this was primarily a book about spiritual development, and so instead, she grows in humility and patience while working on her personal issues. Plus, she does this somewhat in the background, because there’s so much other drama going on around her. By the end of the book, her narrative has almost been dropped, and is wrapped up for a hasty conclusion.

In the end, I’m not warning anyone off of In This House of Brede. Just don’t read it because you loved Take Three Tenses. If you  are looking for entertainment in the form of a dramatic, soap-y read about Benedictine nuns, this is a good offering.

Readers: Have you tried anything else by Rumer Godden?

Reading the Backlist, part 2 – Elizabeth Wein

This week, I’ve been digging deeper into Elizabeth Wein’s backlist.

I first fell in love with this author’s work when I read Code Name Verity. Rose Under Fire was just as good, and I have her latest release, Black Dove White Raven, on my TBR (here’s a really positive review from In Bed With Books, and a less enthusiastic one from Bookshelf Fantasies). All are excellent character-driven YA novels with unusual historical settings, and a moderately strong feminist perspective. lionhunter

Last year, I dipped into her backlist when I read the Mark of Solomon series which wins my award for diversity in setting: Aksum (modern-day Ethiopia) in the sixth century A.D. While I loved being introduced to a new world, and there was nothing really wrong with the books, I wasn’t in love with them either. I blogged more about this series last August – we’ll call that Reading the Backlist, part 1.

This spring, I picked up her very first novel, The Winter Prince, as well as its sequel, A Coalition of Lions. winprince First novels are tricky beasts – but The Winter Prince satisfied in every way. It was wildly imaginative with an interesting structure, and I zoomed through it in a single day. It focuses on the story of Mordred in the Arthurian legend. If you’re not familiar, Mordred is the incestuous son of King Arthur and his sister, and he can play a very dark role in the Arthurian saga. In this case, the story focuses on Mordred’s perspective on the later part of Arthur’s story as he is explaining it to his highly dramatic and influential mother. It’s also the story of Mordred’s relationship with his half-sister and half-brother, and his eventual ability for self-determination. In strength and scope, if not in subject matter, The Winter Prince is the equal of Wein’s later novels such as Code Name Verity.

coallionsI can’t say as much for A Coalition of Lions. This story picks up where The Winter Prince left off, but follows the story of Mordred’s half sister as she flees Arthur’s crumbling kingdom after a series of disasters that have occurred between the two books. Her flight takes her to Aksum in Ethiopia (sound familiar?) where she is involved in court intrigue to ensure the future stability of Arthur’s empire. It may be my own distaste for court intrigue related plots, or it could be related to my lack of enthusiasm for this author’s Aksum books, but I’d recommend skipping A Coalition of Lions.

However, if you are a fan of Wein’s recent novels, definitely give The Winter Prince a try.

Readers, what’s your favorite Wein novel?

Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday: Vanessa and her Sister

New WoWI’m doing my Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday Wishlist Wednesdaypost for two fabulous book memes, Wishlist Wednesday (hosted by Pen to Paper) and Waiting on Wednesday (hosted by Breaking the Spine).

Today I’m waiting for Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar, with an expected publication date of 12/30/14. Why? Mostly because I loved her first book, Exit the Actress, an unusual, scrapbook-like historical novel about Nell Gwynn.

 For fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank comes a captivating novel that offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of Vanessa Bell, her sister Virginia Woolf, and the controversial and popular circle of intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group.

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Review: The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

bloodflowersIs reading an author’s books in reverse publication order a good idea?

I read Anita Amirrezvani’s second novel, Equal of the Sun, earlier this year. It followed the real-life story of a Persian princess from the Sufi dynasty who tried to rule her country after the death of the shah. Similar to a Jeanne Kalogridis novel set in renaissance Italy, and set at about the same time, it was a well-written tale of intrigue and politics with a rich historical setting. The admirable yet largely unlikeable princess was viewed from the perspective of a more sympathetic servant, reminding me strongly of Kalogridis’s The Scarlet Contessa. In the end, it was a good book, but heavy politicalsun historicals are really not my thing: I read the whole thing, liked it, didn’t review it, and never planned to read another of Amirrezvani’s again.

This is why I’m so thankful for randomness and used books.

I ended up with a used copy of Amirrezvani’s first novel, The Blood of Flowers. Like Equal of the Sun, it is set in 17th century Persia, but follows the story of a simple village girl who is very good at tying rugs. She has two loving parents and expects a wonderful life married to a local boy and surrounded by the close network that is her village. When her father dies unexpectedly, she and her mother must depend on the charity of a distant uncle in a large city. She finds that she loves city life, and her uncle is kind – but he is also a rug maker to the Shah. This awakens longings in the girl to be more than just a home crafter: she wants to be an artist, a rug designer, and a business owner, longings that are not easily fulfilled in her time and place.

This book works on so many levels. Of course, there’s the self-actualization of the village girl (who the novelist does not name) finding her place in a world that is not always friendly to women. That story line was so true that it resonated with me as a current-day woman engineer in heavy industry. There’s some light romance and intrigue, foreshadowing what Amirrezvani manages with her second novel. And the setting is absolutely wonderful: richly and lovingly detailed in a very unusual setting.

(Really, historical fiction readers, aren’t you tired of England and Italy all the time?)

I also appreciated the way the character’s perception of the world around her was handled. She was, appropriately, a seventeenth-century Persian girl with all of the beliefs and attitudes that come along with it. She had all kinds of misconceptions and fears about Christians, and in fact the one Christian in the novel is not a good guy. Yet all this is handled with a light touch, and I felt the author was describing the main character’s perspective rather than trying to force a point.

I originally started listening to this book on audio, and that was almost the best part. Compared to my experience with reading Equal of the Sun, I got a much richer sense of Persia, as well as a better understanding of the place names and some of the common sayings of the main characters. However, I liked the book so much that the audio wasn’t fast enough, and I finished reading in print.

Overall, I could recommend The Blood of Flowers to many different readers: historical fiction lovers, for sure, but also those who enjoy women’s fiction or romantic subplots, audio book fans, and anyone looking for a diverse read. Then, if you enjoy heavier political historicals and want another dose of Persia, follow up with Equal of the Sun.

Reading the Backlist

lionhunterElizabeth Wein. You know, the author of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, two amazing WWII-era historicals featuring strong teenage girls as heroines?

Well, she also wrote a series of books connected to the Arthurian legend (haven’t read those yet) and two more loosely connected books about a half-Ethiopian, half-British boy with an amputated arm.

In her series The Mark of Solomon, which includes The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom, I especially enjoyed the unusual setting: Aksum, Ethiopia in the sixth century A.D. Ms. Wein has the same voice and the same courage in unique plot lines that made Code Name Verity so great. And even though it’s fantasy, The Mark of Solomon maintains a strong connection to actual history.

If you’re interested in these two books, I only have two cautions. First, The Lion Hunter refers incessantly to the previous book, The Sunbird, which features the same main character. I didn’t have any trouble following The Lion Hunter as a result, but if you’re a read-everything-in-its-proper-order type of person, I think it would bother you. Second, the series has less action and more political intrigue than Code Name Verity, almost reminding me of a Tudor era book. Depending on your tastes, you might find these two books a little slower.

Other than that, enjoy your trip through Wein’s backlist. I plan to continue mine…

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