See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

See What I Have Done is one of those books that gets an awful lot of hype and press, and often this puts me off for some reason – but in this case it is entirely deserved and I couldn’t be happier to see promos and reviews all over social media. I read a proof copy back in November and loved it instantly. The premise alone drew me in: it is the story of Lizzie Borden and the infamous murders of her father and stepmother. I love historical fiction, and I love true crime, so this  was a perfect blend of both. Lizzie Borden is a fascinating character from history that just gets under your skin. She was famously acquitted of the murders, but there remains suspicion that she was guilty, and the mysteriousness of her character is something that Schmidt uses excellently.

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Tinder Press 2017 edition (image via goodreads.com)

The book is narrated by four people: Lizzie herself, the maid Bridget, Lizzie’s sister Emma, and a man named Benjamin who gets caught up in their story. All of them are unreliable, something that becomes more and more clear the more you read. The women are all wrapped up in the strangeness of the household and the family, tortured by the strained emotions and simmering tensions. Lizzie is clearly not an easy person to live with, but she is not the only one guilty of making things difficult. The Borden family are filled with sadness and a longing for the past, for better days. Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden, keeps all the windows and doors locked for fear of criminals, and this literal confinement only exacerbates the feeling of being trapped in their lives that all the characters seem to feel.

The women of the house are trapped in their feminine roles and their corsets, never to be free like men and do as they please. And Andrew, the only one with any real power, keeps them that way. The relationships between the women – Lizzie, Emma, Bridget, and the stepmother Abby – are quietly brilliant and acutely observed. They have no obvious reason to dislike each other, but the oppressive atmosphere in the house brings out the worst in them, even if they do not intend it. Like any family they have a few small disputes, but for the Bordens these become life-changing.

Benjamin is one of the only entirely fictional characters in the book. He turns up in their town of Fall River looking for work, and by chance meets their uncle John. Now I’ve decided not to tell exactly how Benjamin gets wrapped up with the Bordens – but suffice to say he gets quite close to them and, crucially, provides an outside view to the events of the story.

I thought both Benjamin and Bridget were excellent choices as narrators. They are both outside of the family, but still close to it, and they give us a slightly different perspective. Bridget observes the quarrels between Lizzie and her parents, and the effects of Lizzie’s moods and is the unique position of being part of the household but not part of the family, so she observes everything without always knowing what it means. The Bordens are a family full of unexpressed emotions, unfulfilled desires, and stifled arguments. Lizzie is the only one that seems to let anything out, and for this she if often treated like a child by her parents, but particularly by her father. Andrew Borden is very stuck in his ways, and is emotionally closed off and quite cold and hard towards his family, even his wife Abby. He does not deal with Lizzie’s outbursts and tantrums very well, and I think he makes her feel even more trapped and stifled than she already does.

Living in the 1800s meant that Lizzie could not have an independent life, and is stuck living in the family home. You can see why she is frustrated with her life, but she is also, frankly, quite childish and selfish, and doesn’t always see that life is sometimes hard for the rest of her family as well. She has a push-pull relationship with her sister Emma, and I think though they love each other there is also a lot of resentment and negative feelings.

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Lizzie Borden in about 1890 (image via wikipedia.com)

Schmidt excels at this sort of family psychology, and as a result the entire cast of characters feel entirely real. This is also due to the first person narratives, and the fact that all the events of the book take place over only two days. This means that everything is examined, often from multiple angles, and small events often take on more meaning. The short time frame allows Schmidt to really get inside her character’s heads and examine exactly what happened and when. I felt that the two days covered in the novel are the culmination of a lifetime of family secrets and strong emotions, of dysfunctional relationships, and unfulfilled desires. All the problems and issues within the Borden family are exemplified in those two days, and as we know the results are extreme.

As the book progresses you realise that Schmidt has a clear opinion about whether or not Lizzie is guilty, but this doesn’t ruin anything and I don’t think she is trying to influence the reader. It is still up to you to decided whether you think she really killed Andrew and Abby. She remains a mystery to this day.

Sarah Schmidt writes a wonderful blog where she often discusses her experiences of writing See What I Have Done, and tells the story of why she chose to write about Lizzie Borden. I would really recommend reading this as it helps to explain some of the reasons why Lizzie remains in the public consciousness and why she is still so fascinating.

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Published in May 2017 by Tinder Press in the UK. I read a proof copy kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

The Good People by Hannah Kent

Like many readers I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites (2013), so I had high expectations for The Good People. Like its predecessor it is set in the first half of the 19th century, this time in 1820s Ireland. Also like Burial Rites, it features unhappy women as its central characters.

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The blurb dedicates a paragraph each to the three central women of The Good People – Nóra, recently widowed and looking after her disabled grandson Micheál; Mary, her maid, who cares for Micheál; and Nance, the local ‘handy woman’ who has ‘the knowledge’ and serves as a healer for the village. Initially the focus is on Nóra as she grieves for her husband and struggles to take care of Micheál. We learn that his mother, Nóra’s daughter Johanna, passed away and his father brought him to Nóra because he could not care for him himself. Micheál is about four years old and before he was brought to her, Nóra had only seen him once before, at the age of two, and he was healthy. He could speak and walk – two things that he cannot do when he is brought to her.

Micheál, though four, is more like a baby and can do nothing for himself. His condition is inexplicable to his family, and theories abound as to why he is now so unwell, when once he was healthy. When the villagers come to Nóra’s house for her husband’s wake, she asks her neighbour Peg to look after her grandson – she is ashamed of him and does not want to face the stares and questions of her visitors, or their theories about him.

Initially Nóra worries that Johanna and her husband may have mistreated or neglected Micheál as he is so thin, but over time she doubts this. Slowly both Nóra and the others in the village begin to think that the child may be a changeling – not really a child at all but a fairy left in his place, while the real Micheál has been taken away by the ‘Good People’, the fairies. This was a common belief in many cultures at the time (the Wiki page is quite good) and was how people explained disability or conditions that we now understand thanks to modern science and medicine.

Nóra soon employs Mary to help her look after Micheál. She becomes more and more convinced that her grandson is a changeling and leaves Mary to care for him. The village is a place filled with old stories and beliefs, and its people are ruled by superstition and fear, as well as gossip. There is a dichotomy between their Christianity and their belief in fairies, curses, and the healing powers of herbs and old remedies. This is nicely demonstrated by the cynicism of their priest, Father Healy. He does not believe in the Good People and condemns them as pagan nonsense.

He similarly condemns Nance and her belief that she has been given knowledge by the Good People and is able to cure illnesses and ailments. There are several fascinating and challenging conversations between them as he urges her to give up her practices, and she calmly defends herself. Nance’s whole life has been filled with magic and fairies, with her mother being ‘taken’ by them, and her aunt Maggie teaching her how to use their knowledge and cures. In a series of flashbacks to Nance’s youth it becomes clear that her mother was mentally ill in some way, and Nance’s grief was eased by her new knowledge of the Good People and their ways.

As Nóra becomes more desperate she turns to Nance for help with Micheál, and this is where the story really gets interesting. It is heartbreaking to read about the boy’s suffering, and the stress of caring for him, but it gets worse as Nóra’s belief that he is not really her grandson deepens. She starts to call him ‘it’ and becomes angry when he cries. As Nóra becomes more and more hardened to the boy, Mary becomes more worried about him, and warns Nóra that even if she believes he is a changeling she should not be so cold and cruel towards him. Mary’s fear of God means that she is able to protect the boy from the worst of his grandmother’s feelings towards him.

I won’t spoil the book by writing about what happens when Micheál is taken to Nance, and what happens at the end. It is a story that is sometimes difficult to read, as we can see that Micheál is suffering – but we also see how hard it is care for him without modern conveniences and technology. Mary has the best intentions but is still worn down by sleep deprivation and the constant attention her young charge requires. The world these characters inhabit is hard and cruel, and unforgiving. Towards the end of the book you really begin to realise just how isolated they are in their rural community and how ignorant they are of the developments of science and technology. They are illiterate and exist in their own small world.

Hannah Kent sensitively portrays a certain time and a certain place in The Good People. None of the characters are portrayed as evil or bad because they believe that Micheál may be a changeling – rather they are ignorant of any other explanation for his condition and desperately want a way to make things better. They are torn between folklore and Christianity and inhabit a world that seems completely alien to us now. Some parts of the novel are heart-wrenchingly sad, and you wish you could reach in and make the characters see that what they believe simply isn’t true.

The Good People is as intense and moving as Burial Rites, and also presents a lot of moral and ethical questions, many of which are indirectly but carefully examined. As expected Hannah Kent’s writing is as lovely as ever, and the novel is immersive and engaging. I would only warn readers against the deep sadness in this book – but otherwise it is highly recommended.

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Published in 2017 by Pan Macmillan (UK edition pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

Looking back on the books of 2016

This is another overdue blog post, but one that I’ve really been looking forward to writing. I read 31 books in 2016, of varying quality, but overall it was a good reading year. I tried to branch out, accepting a total of eight review copies from publishers – which is a lot for me these days. Of these the highlights for me were (links go to my reviews):

The last of these is not out until May 2017, so my review will come a little closer to the time. It was offered to me by Georgina Moore at Tinder Press and I am very glad I accepted. It is a wonderful blend of crime fiction and historical fiction based on real events, coupled with multiple narrators (all unreliable) and some really beautiful writing. In case you didn’t know, it’s about Lizzie Borden, and I loved it. You can read more here. And just look at that beautiful cover!

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(image via goodreads.com)

I read a lot of history books in 2016, both fiction and non-fiction. One other historical novel I must highlight is The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. I’d been intimidated by its length (over 900 pages) but finally gave it a go earlier in the year – and I was not disappointed. It is a fictional autobiography of a former Nazi officer which the author spent five years researching, and it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it brilliantly written but it is deeply philosophical and challenging, and I greatly admire Littell for somehow managing to write it.

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I read a handful of other books about the Second World War and three of the best were written by and about women, real women of the War who faced huge challenges and trials but who remained strong and determined throughout. The first of these was Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon. The book is a compilation of her stories (recorded on tape and put together by her son) from her time living in Berlin during the War as a Jewish woman. She lived ‘underground’, in hiding, using an alias and constantly moving. It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. Similarly, I also read A Woman in Berlin. It is an anonymous account of the last few months of the War by a German woman living in Berlin. She is not persecuted as Jalowicz Simon was, but her whole life is destroyed and she suffers immensely. It is a harrowing but necessary book and shows the cost of the War on ordinary German people that often gets overlooked. I read these two books close together and wrote about them in one blog post (linked above) and they have really stuck with me. I think they are vital reading for anyone considering the experience of women in Europe during the Second World War.

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Another book that fits into that category is If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm. It’s a massive book so I waited until it was out in paperback before I read it, the delay making my expectations quite high – and they were all met. It is the first book dedicated to the story of Ravensbrück, the only Nazi concentration camp built specifically for women, and it was one of the most incredible books I have ever come across. I had read If This is a Man by Primo Levi so I had some idea of what to expect; but of course each story is unique, and these women all had incredible stories. Sarah Helm is to be hugely admired and respected for telling these stories, for doing the research and making sure each name is mentioned, each life is honoured in some way. I will not soon forget this book. I should note that in America the title is simply Ravensbrück.

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Towards the end of the year I wanted to branch out from history, and so I read The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, which was just brilliant. I was already a fan of Jackson’s writing but I’d never actually read any of her short stories. Some of these are still quite fresh in my mind (least of all the title story) and I am desperate to read more. Luckily I was given two more volumes of her short stories for Christmas, so I have those to look forward to. These were Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales.

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The other highlights of my reading year, which I don’t have space to write more about here, were:

I have enjoyed reading other ‘best of 2016’ posts – it was a good year for books – and I look forward to a great 2017 filled with marvellous things to read. I am on my second book of the year at the moment and frankly I am dying to get back to it, so I shall finish here. Happy 2017!

 

Overdue update on Christmas and birthday books

As I said in my last post, life has rather gotten in the way of blogging over the last month or so (probably more than that), so I am only just getting around to organising posts I meant to write and publish a while ago…

First I must ask you to cast your mind back to the excitement of getting presents at Christmas, and then double it, because my birthday is just after Christmas and so I get lots of presents around that time. Not too bad.

I actually received fewer books than I expected to, seeing as I asked for quite a few, but I am so pleased with the ones I did get. And aren’t they pretty!thumb_img_9248_1024

These were all on my wish list apart from The Prose Factory, which was a pleasant surprise from my fiancé’s mother.  I’d never even heard of it but it looks fascinating so I’m looking forward to getting into it at some point.

I’ve just finished reading the book about Katherine Howard and have a blog post in the works. It has made me really want to read more about the women of the Tudor period, particularly Henry VIII’s other wives, as well as Elizabeth I and Mary. I am particularly keen on reading about my namesake as she has always held a certain mysterious magic for me and I would love to understand more about her life and reign, and her character.

I also asked for every Shirley Jackson book that I haven’t already got, and I am very pleased to now have Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales, especially as the latter is a very nice little hardback with a bright green back cover. I can’t wait to get back into more of Jackson’s eerie and wonderful short stories.

I asked for The Devil in the White City as it’s something I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. The book is set in 1893 and “tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the [Chicago World’s] Fair’s construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.” (quote from GoodReads). I think both these men have interesting stories, and it just sounds like a fascinating time. It also doesn’t hurt that H.H. Holmes was the inspiration for the character of J.P. March in American Horror Story: Hotel – and for the hotel itself.

My fiancé’s amazing brother and sister also got a set of Vintage Classics editions of Virginia Woolf, which was a lovely surprise.

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I’ve some of these but not all, and I’m very glad I get to read them in such lovely editions! I plan to start with A Room of One’s Own as I’ve never actually gotten around to reading it…

So there you go – lots of amazing reading to be getting on with. I did also get vouchers for Foyles so there may even more books soon, what a surprise!

Happy reading!

A little update!

Hello dear readers! My apologies for my absence. Life has been a wee bit crazy in the last month or so, but we have finally moved into our new house and things are evening out… I actually have the time to sit down and write a blog post! Yay! I’m sitting at the dining table in our new house, and I could not be happier about it.

Anyway. I have read a few books since my last post, and I have lots of reviews to write! Here are some of the books I have read recently that you can expect to read about here soon:

  • Zodiac by Robert Graysmith
  • The Ice Child by Camilla Lackberg
  • In the Labyrinth of Drakes and Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

I am also going to do a belated Best of 2016 post very soon, so watch out for that too! I’m currently reading Josephine Wilkinson’s book on Katherine Howard and loving it, so I’ll write about that when I have finished it. I also received a few books for Christmas, and expect to get a couple for my birthday, so I’ll post about that those as well. So lots to come! Your patience will be rewarded!

In the meantime, happy reading and happy new year!

Most Anticipated Upcoming Books

I try to read a mixture of old and new books, and often find myself reading ‘new’ books some time after they come out, purely because I always have so many books I want to read that I rarely get to read things when they are really new. Often I just get to look at other reviews and wish I didn’t have so many books to read! There are several books that I am really excited about reading in the next few months – some new and some not-so-new. Here are the ones I’m most looking forward to…

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
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Sept 2016 Picador edition (image: goodreads.com)

I loved Room but somehow didn’t feel the need to pick up Frog Music; but now Emma Donoghue’s new novel The Wonder really appeals to me. I know from reading Room that she is a wonderful  writer, and this story is not like anything I have read before. Kim Forrester wrote a brilliant review of it here. Fingers crossed I’ll get to read it before Christmas!

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
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May 2017 Tinder Press edition (image: goodreads.com)

This is coming out in May 2017 from Tinder Press, and I am really looking forward to it. It is a fictional take on the story of Lizzie Borden and the murder of her father and stepmother. She was acquitted of their murder but of course suspicion remains, and the story is fascinating. This looks like a really interesting and modern interpretation of the story, and I cannot wait to read it.

Labyrinths: Emma Jung, Her Marriage to Carl, and the Early Years of Psychoanalysis by Catrine Clay
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Nov 2016 Harper edition (image: goodreads.com)

I’ve always had a vague interest in psychology and psychoanalysis and the fact that this book focuses on Emma rather than Carl Jung really appeals to me. It just seems like another way of looking at a familiar story, and I hope it’ll be as interesting as it looks! It’s always a pleasure to read about wonderful women from history.

The Good People by Hannah Kent
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Feb 2017 Pan Macmillan edition (image: goodreads.com)

Like many other readers, I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites. It really stuck with me and as soon as I heard she had written a second novel I knew I had to read it. The premise really interests me and I think it will be a great multi-layered book.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
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Sept 2016 Liveright/Norton edition (image: goodreads.com)

I have read three of Jackson’s novels and have The Lottery and Other Stories on my shelf waiting to be read, so I just have to read this new biography of her. New PMC editions mean that Shirley Jackson is again popular, and I am so glad she is – her writing is some of the most beautiful and beguiling I have read in years. Luckily she also seems to have been a brilliant and intriguing person, so I’m really looking forward to this one.

I’d love to hear about books that you are looking forward to – there are always too many to read!