The Circle of Ceridwen

Octavia Randolph

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I received this book free from the author in exchange for a review.

Set in 9th century Britain, the book tells the story of Ceridewen, a orphan girl trying to find her way through the dangers of Anglo-Saxon times. The first part of the book was quite good. Ceridwen leaves her safety as an orphan in a monastery when it is suggested that she remain permanently. Soon she falls in with Aelfwyn, a young woman who has been given up as a wife to Yrling, a Danish raider in hopes of bringing peace to her people. Brought into her household, Ceridwen finds refuge and a place for herself.

Her peace is shattered when a young man, previously known to Aelfwyn, is brought as a captive to Yrling’s stronghold. Battered and bruised, blinded by the captors, Gyric is dependent upon Ceridwen to escape and return to his father’s home. As Lord of Kilton, Ealdoerman of Wessex, Gyric’s father is an important liegeman to Kind Alfred the Great. The second half of the book their journey back to Wessex, and details Ceridwen’s growing love for the blinded man.

I wish she has stayed at home. The details of life with the Danes is fascinating and Aelfwyn’s struggle to make a home for herself and an better life for the people around her make for good reading. Ceridwen on the road and life in Wessex not so much.

I made it through all 636 pages with admiration for the author’s research and knowledge of 9th century English history, and little desire to find out what happens next. If you can overlook lie/lay errors and sentences that use ‘between he and I’ constructions, you will be able to enjoy the book. There are six novels in this series, so if you like it, there’s lots more to come.

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The Magdelen Girls

V.S. Alexander

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The cover art questions ‘Who will save them?’ the answer, unfortunately is nobody. From the 18th to the late 20th century ‘fallen’ women, prostitutes, and young women whose only crime was to appear too attractive were imprisoned in institutions and labeled ‘Magdalenes,’  where they worked without compensation at laundries under the supervision of the Catholic Church. Most of these inmates of these institutions were unwed mothers or rebellious daughters. The fathers of their children were, of course, never punished and their babies were given up for adoption.

Although the laundries were in several countries, it is in Ireland that this book is set. Young Teagan is guilty of nothing more than being an attractive teen who flirts with a handsome young priest. The priest confesses his attraction to his superior and the result is the incarceration of the young girl in a Magdalen laundry. For life.

Teagan meets the strict Sister Anne, superior of the laundry. She appears to be struggling with demons of her own. Teagan makes friend with rebellious Nora and pious Lea, as she struggles to maintain her sanity and identity against the weight of constant oppression.

I had my own struggles with this book. This is an important story that needs to be told, but it is poorly served by this melodrama. The twisted Sister Anne is a cliche villain, and Teagan is too insipid to care about. The ending is forced and unbelievable and Sister Anne’s backstory is just as unbelievable. Someday someone will write a powerful novel about the Magdalen laundries. Until then, we’ll just have to wait.

 

ARC from Netgalley

For You Mom, Finally

Ruth Reichl

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I picked up this book for $1.99 because I had read and enjoyed her books about food a restaurants. I was unaware of the tension between her and her mother. This touching memoir, written after her mother’s death, tells of finding a box of letters and notes her mother kept over the years.

A very different person from the one Ruth thought she was emerges from this  treasure trove. A woman forced into the life of wife and mother, she struggled to maintain her sense of self. She knew she wasn’t the perfect mother, and she tried to encourage her daughter Ruth to be all that she couldn’t be.

I wish I had read this book while my mother was still alive, so I could ask her the questions I have.

Bread Givers

Anzia Yezierska

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This autobiographical novel of a young woman trying to escape life as a poor immigrant on NY lower East Side was originally published in 1925 and reissued in 1950. Sarah Smolinsky is one of four daughters of a family who immigrates from a shtetl in Poland to America, where they find a life of grinding poverty. Any extra money they bring in from their jobs is given away by their father to various charities he supports. He doesn’t work, but instead lives off their earnings and spends his time studying and teaching Torah. He believes women exist to support men and without men, women have no reason to exist.

Sarah sees her three sisters sold into marriage, but vows to fight this fate for herself. Determined to get an education, she earns the nickname ‘blood-and-iron’ from her father, who rails against her ‘unwomanly’ attitude. Fed by a fierce desire to learn, she works her way up to a respectable position as a teacher, getting a college education by her own efforts.

By the end, Sarah realizes that there is more of her father’s strength and determination than she had first thought, and she is reconciled with him.

Anzia’s voice is similar to the voice of many first-generation immigrants who try to break free of the old world but who have difficulty finding their place in the New. In the introduction, Alice Kesslelr-Harris writes of Anzia ‘Everyone admired her and no one could bear to be with her for very long.’ The same could be said for her heroine.

Three Hearts and Three Lions

Poul Anderson

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This was a nostalgic read for me, as I first encountered Poul Anderson in high school. I decided to read it to see if it held up over time. For the most part it did. The story of Holger Carlson, a Danish engineer wounded fighting the Nazis is transported back in time to fight the forces of Chaos. Known as Ogier the Dane, he is the champion of Law. His shield bears three hearts and three lions, and he is famous. Although he knows nothing of this land or its problems, he immediately aligns himself with the forces of Law against Chaos.

The part I remember best is the saying ‘Bare is brotherless back,’ and I have encountered it many times in various forms over the years. Holger finds that in spite of the fact he is literally brotherless, he has allies in the fight against Chaos. Some are human, and some are magical. Alienora the swan maiden is especially appealing.

A champion for all times, we could use his like today as the forces of Chaos rise again.

The Custom of the Country

Edith Wharton

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I confess to being baffled. I can (just barely) understand why Undine is so relentlessly social climbing, always wanting more and despising it once she has it, but I’m completely puzzled by what the men see in here. There is  only one man who has enough insight to realize that if she treats her husband so cruelly that she is likely to treat him that way too, and he drops her.

I think part of her attraction must be the high value she puts on herself. She’s pretty enough, all right, but it is her own self-worth that bedazzles the eyes of the men who surround her. She holds herself so high that they think by possessing her they are enhancing their own value.

Wharton sums up her greediness and ignorance in one sentence: ‘She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.’

I’ve known women like Undine and have always wondered about the attraction they hold for men. Other women don’t seem to like them, but men can’t get enough of them. A mystery.

Mischief and the Masters

Cherise Sinclair

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I like Cherise Sinclair, but I feel she has run out of gas with this one. All the other subs have been paired off with Masters, with only Uzuri left. Sinclair tried to make her attractive, but she just wasn’t funny. The backstory of a stalker was boring and better done with previous subs. He wasn’t scary and Uzuri was just annoying. I get the sense that there won’t be any more Shadowlands stories, unless Sinclair gives us Holt’s story. He’s the only Master who isn’t married. I don’t know who he is going to marry because we have run out of subs.

Even the sex scenes seem tired and repetitive.

 

Arcadia

Lauren Groff

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Well, it had to come eventually. I tried to make it last as long as possible, stretching out the reading as long as I could. I just didn’t want this book to end. I wanted to live at Arcadia, in spite of the druggies and other problems. I wanted the innocence that the main character, Bit, had. An dispassionate observer of life, Bit loves Arcadia, but when his parents become disillusioned and leave, he goes with them. What happens to him in the ‘real world’ makes up the second half of this book.

Thrust out from Eden, Bit continues as an impartial observer, making his living as a photographer and teacher. Caring for his mother, loving his daughter, and missing his wife, he continues life as the innocent he started.

Groff’s luminous writing makes this a book to savor and reread. I already miss her world.

The Only Problem

Muriel Spark

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I bought this book because I had read and enjoyed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie after watching the picture. This book is quite a departure from the other. It is the story of a wealthy man who lives a solitary life to be near a painting of Job. He is fascinated by Job’s story and plans to publish a monograph on the subject.

His estranged wife, whom he left because of her kleptomania, is now a terrorist wanted by the police. The police don’t believe him that he has no contact with her or knowledge of her whereabouts.

That’s the bare bones of the story. Miscellaneous people drop in and out of the story without adding much interest. All in all I wonder why she bothered to write about them.

Inside the Victorian Home

Judith Flanders

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If you ever wondered what it would be like to be a Victorian woman, this book will answer your questions. I say woman, because the home was peculiarly her domain. Designed for a man’s comfort and ease, it was the woman’s responsibility to make it  a place of retreat and refreshment for him. To this end, the women worked endlessly, day after day.

Every aspect of the home, from the bedroom to the street outside, was a constant battle with dirt and dust. Hours every day were spent washing, dusting and cleaning in an effort to combat soot and dust. Hampered by up to 37 pounds of clothing, the woman battled against her foe. The kitchen was especially dirty, and the war on bugs and rats was a losing one.

I can’t imagine having my whole life revolve around cleaning the way a Victorian woman did, even though she did very little of herself, delegating the tasks to her servants. She had to supervise, train, hire and fire an endless troop of servants. All this effort must, of course, be hidden from her husband. Not a word of complaint must pass her lips to upset him.

Her life was an endless round of toil, and she spent the greatest proportion of it at home, especially once the children arrived. Reading this book made me so thankful I live when and where I do.