Never make a promise

I give up. Life has become so hectic as a parent and full-time employee, as well as doing my volunteer job for the HNS, that I can’t keep up with this blog. I don’t expect to have followers when I am unable to post regularly. Rather than trying to be a professional blogger, I am just blogging on a personal basis. Blah, blah, blah.

My book collection has gotten larger recently, but I haven’t been reading very fast. I did review Godiva by Nicole Galland for the August 2013 issue of the Historical Novels Review and here it is:

Set in Anglo-Saxon England, this is a reimagining of the legend of Lady Godiva, Countess of Mercia, an 11th-century noblewoman well-known for riding au naturel through Coventry to relieve her people of unfair and oppressive taxation. Godiva’s unlikely friendship with Abbess Edgiva of Leominster, who has her own troubles, and her playful relationship with her husband, Leofric, also play major roles.

The novel is well-written with colorful description and detail; however, this reader chafed at elements of predictable and clichéd plotlines, such as the abbess’s pregnancy resulting from a one-night stand, and Earl Sweyn’s attempt to “abduct” her from the abbey. The notion of a countess playing matchmaker for an abbess, in the first place, pushes the limits of believability.

The most troublesome aspect, however, is the difficulty sympathizing with Godiva’s plight, as the countess is not portrayed as a sympathetic character—she is a woman who outspokenly prides herself on her ability to manipulate men for personal gain and expresses no remorse about doing so. Therefore, when the king offers her a choice of punishments, either to literally bare herself to the people of her town, or surrender the lucrative holding of Coventry, this reader could not summon up sympathy for her dilemma. Godiva engages in a game against a crafty opponent, and King Edward gets the best of her. The plot’s power to engage hinges on the reader’s sympathy for Godiva, which is simply absent in this case.

As much as I want to be able to recommend this book, unfortunately I found Godiva uninspiring.

Obviously, I wasn’t very taken by the book, and I hope my review explains why well enough.

After returning from the HNS conference, I dove right into one of the books that was given away in our gift bags, Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole. I was in the mood for a good old-fashioned WW2 tear-jerker of a romance, and that’s exactly what I got. I loved it. A multigeneraltional tale of love and loss (to put it simply), it was smoothy written, fast-flowing, and engaging.

Right now I am working on another two review books, Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet (the Europa publicist raved about this one) and The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott. The latter novel struck my interest because when I lived in Boston, I was exposed to the fascinating history of the Lowell textile mills, and the class struggles that ensued in the factory towns. The smell of textiles is still pungent when you tour one of these mills. Many have been turned into condos and there is still that eerie smell when you walk inside- talk about living history! THIS is the reason I love historical fiction.

 

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Next Up for Review: The Concubine’s Gift

concubineThe next book up for review is The Concubine’s Gift by K. Ford K. This may not qualify as a strictly traditional historical fiction novel, as most of the action occurs in a contemporary setting,  so I’m moving out of my comfort zone a bit. The premise mixes a number of unusual elements: a famous brothel, a conservative little Nevada town,  an antique makeup case containing an almost magical powder, a sexually inhibited resident who becomes drawn into the world of a famous Chinese concubine…It’s probably difficult so see how the plot falls together, but I’m only 50 pages in so my description is purposely vague. So far, I’m finding the text to be easy and quick to read, and the author has me caught up in the explicit but tasteful plot already…

The novel isn’t very long–a little over two hundred pages–and I should have a review up right after Christmas.

Until then, Happy Holidays!

Review: The Cross and the Dragon by Kim Rendfeld

crossKim Rendfeld’s The Cross and the Dragon is “a tale of love in an era of war and blood feuds” set in eighth-century Europe during the reign of Charlemagne.  I dove right into this book before understanding the background and historical context—as the plot is so absorbing—and the further I read, the more familiar the plot seemed to me . . . at first I thought to myself that the “recognition” was from reading too many medieval romances this year . . . but no, there was much more to it. I have since discovered that The Cross and the Dragon was inspired by the romantic legend of Roland (The Song of Roland, an epic poem based on the Battle of Roncevaux in 778). That is why I was getting vague flashbacks of a similar plot! I read this epic poem as an undergraduate and remember feeling rather untouched by it, and that was a shame. Had I been assigned this historical novel alongside the epic poem, I would have been emotionally affected and inspired to read on… I would have learned the difference between fact and fiction during that era and appreciated the impact of the poem. Historical fiction could be such a boost to classroom learning…

Simply put, I enjoyed this book. The reasons? Engaging narrative. Steady pace. Strong, living characters. Evocative sense of place and time.  A comforting return to the world of chivalry and morality, with defined heroes and villains.  Obvious careful attention to research and detail. A touch of the spiritual.  And a couple of chewy historical tidbits, one of which is the idea of a woman’s “plumpness” symbolizing femininity, attractiveness, and contentment during this time in history—modern readers may find this difficult to comprehend, given our twenty-first century obsession for attaining the near-anorexic body.

From an editorial perspective, the book has been well-edited—I don’t think I found a single typo! But Fireship Press is a small, independent, professional mainstream operation (and one of the small presses I work with in my new position), so one would expect quality editing. I also recall being among the numerous voters on facebook for this piece of cover art, so. . .

My only quibble–and it’s a minor one–is that I would have enjoyed if the relationships between characters had been delved into more deeply, but this is simply a personal preference. Given the historical context, the author’s choice of allowing the plot to take the driver’s seat is entirely appropriate.

If I have one constructive criticism I’d like to share, it is that, at times, the prose read a bit stiffly. The use of a string of simple sentences beginning with an article (a, an, the) in short portions of the narrative could become monotonous and temporarily distance the reader.  More variation in the sentence structure could improve the reading flow. However, this did not lessen my enjoyment of the book. Not at all.

The Cross and the Dragon is an absorbing medieval treat.

The Cross and the Dragon by Kim Rendfeld. Published by Fireship Press, July 2012, as both an e-book and paperback. Visit the author’s website at http://kimrendfeld.wordpress.com/ or http://kimrendfeld.com/

Disclaimer: The author provided me with a print copy of her novel in exchange for a review

Battle of the Book Review Blogs

I was asked to join the “Battle of the Book Review Blogs” at undergroundbookreviews.com–and I thank them for inviting me! I have much respect for this blog, as it aims to “put a spotlight on the emerging world of independent and e-publishing, as well as new authors in traditional publishing” through “QUALITY” (my caps) reviews…meaning intelligent, in-depth, and thoughtful reviews–exactly the same goal I am pursuing here.

This is a friendly competition for votes for excellent independent book review blogs. No matter who wins, I hope that more people are exposed to the world of quality Indie and self-published books–that is the ultimate goal here. If you enjoy this blog, I would appreciate your support! Thank you!

http://www.undergroundbookreviews.com/3/post/2012/08/battle-of-the-book-review-blogs.html

Next in the “From Mainstream to Indie” series

I am working on an interview with prolific writer Joan Druett, author of the recently re-released historical novel,  A Love of Adventure:

Set in the 1850s, this novel follows the adventures of a sea-captain’s daughter as she struggles both to learn the truth about her father’s death and to claim her inheritance, the brig “Pandora.” It is a tale of love, mutiny, and life aboard the whaling ships of the last century. (from amazon.com)

AND the Wiki Coffin series of seafaring mysteries based on the events surrounding the fates of the ships of United States South Seas Exploring Expedition, set in the mid-nineteenth century.

Joan is not only a fiction author but also a maritime historian and writer of nonfiction on maritime topics including women’s roles in the nautical realm. You can read about her publications and background on her website:  http://www.joan.druett.gen.nz/index.htm. We will be talking about her journey from mainstream publishing  to Indie, as she has recently re-released her above-mentioned historical novel as a self-published e-book.

As for the next review, I will be publishing the link to the HNS review of Julie K. Rose’s Oleanna and some further thoughts at the beginning of August.

Review: Sea Witch by Helen Hollick

I have to admit, I am not generally a fan of nautical adventures. I have never particularly desired to read, for example, Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander or Julian Stockwin’s Kydd adventures series (but did, come to think of it, enjoy Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, hmm…), so I was a rather skeptical of my ability to become engrossed in Sea Witch. However, knowing the author is a writer of enjoyable historical fiction, I was open to giving this a try.

In all honesty, I have to say this is the best Indie book I’ve read to date. In fact, this is one of the best novels I have read in a very long time.

Sea Witch is set in the golden age of piracy, 1716, in the “pirate round” from Africa to the Caribbean. This is the story of Jesamiah Acorne, who is forced to leave his home by an abusive half-brother and fend for himself at age 15. He becomes a pirate, one of the few options open to men in this circumstance, and this is the story of his first adventure: a tale of revenge, love, and struggle, all entwined with his passion for the sea. There are four books so far in this series, I believe, and you can find all of Helen Hollick’s books on her website: Helen Hollick’s website

Everything that an avid reader and reviewer looks for in a novel is here: strong character development, multidimensional portrayal (one of the biggest strengths of the book), a superbly plotted story with excellent tempo and a tight narrative, gripping and fluid language, vivid description, and tension and release at just the right moments.

This is a pirate adventure with wide appeal; there is something for everyone. I have been skittish about nautical adventures because to me, the subject seems geared toward masculine tastes (and having not read many, I could be completely wrong about that!). Here, we have a pirate who is internally tormented and struggling with a sense of vulnerability; a character who may appeal to a more emotional sensibility.  On the other hand, our hero is not “soft”; he is a hardened pirate through-and-through, who takes pride in his work and is very good at it. He is a complex man, fighting his past, making the most of his present circumstances, and trying to avoid terrible possibilities that lurk in the future. He gets into scrapes and makes quite human mistakes: a multidimensional rogue of sorts.

A deeply moving, but not overly sentimental, love story is also well done in Sea Witch.  Tiola Oldstagh herself has been injured deeply and is the one woman who could possibly break down Jesamiah’s tough barrier. The two must exercise extraordinary patience and faith during times of great despair, and we don’t know until the conclusion if they will make it—the punches keep on coming at the end, one after the other after the other, and I couldn’t sleep until I turned the final page.

The details of the ship’s workings, the descriptions of the crew’s behavior and pirate culture throughout the book are impressive. The author has a tight grasp on nautical details (the parts of a ship, sailors’ language, the lifestyle—as far as a novice such as I can tell) and a way of writing about them that makes this book an entertaining education on top of all else.

My favorite aspect of the story, and one of the reasons, I’ve heard, that this book was rejected by mainstream publishers, is the mystical, supernatural element. The subtle, overarching theme is the epic battle for Jesamiah’s body and soul between the living, immortal “soul of the sea, spirit of the waves” Tethys and Tiola, the young healer, Jesamiah’s soul mate, who turns out to be a “White Witch,” who uses her power of “The Craft” only for good. This epic battle is a powerful element of the story. It adds a depth and a spiritual texture that is beautiful and convincing, even carrying over to the terrifying aspects of Tethys herself. There is much veneration of nature, of beauty, and of the unknowable in this theme. Let yourself float off into this element of the story, without judgment or skepticism, and your enjoyment of the book will only increase.

I appreciated the short length of the chapters—I find that short, effective chapters don’t challenge my concentration and do allow me time to digest what I’ve read. The language flows beautifully, with at least one literary reference that brought a smile to my face:

(In his first meeting with a man who would eventually come to play an important role in his future, Jesamiah is listening to Captain Woodes Rogers blathering on…)

My good friend DeFoe, back in England, so his prattling letters mention, cannot wait to meet Selkirk here. He intends to write his experiences down as an adventure story. Says he’ll call it Robinson Crusoe to protect the innocent involved in the tale. Absurd, eh? Haha!  (p. 45)

How interesting to read the opinion of a rather self-indulgent traveler of the sea about a future classic of literature when it was just a thought in the author’s mind! This is the kind of intelligent detail you will find in this novel.

The author has included a map, an illustration of a square-rigged ship with parts identified, as well as a glossary of seafaring terms at the back of the book, so readers can follow along with the  “sailor-speak” (which, gratefully, does not interfere with the reading flow).

My criticisms are miniscule compared with the overall quality of this book: more than a few typos and missing words; perhaps the dependent clause-technique was overused a bit too much for the comfort of my editorially trained ear; and a cover that is a little dark for my personal taste, but does describe the atmosphere of the book. Overall, the publication is professionally laid out and pleasing to look at.

Shame on mainstream publishers for rejecting a book of this quality. Historical fiction with an infusion of fantasy is not an uncommon or unpleasant combination in a novel! I think Sea Witch would sell quite well if it were to be aggressively marketed. This is the work of a professional, experienced author, not a novice.

I absolutely loved Sea Witch and highly recommend it whether you are a fan of pirating/seafaring adventures or not—and I will be reading the next book in the series as soon as I can get my hands on it!

Sea Witch, by Helen Hollick. Published by Silverwood Books, 2011. ISBN: 9781906236601. Price US paperback $18.50, Kindle edition $3.99; UK paperback £10.99, UK Kindle edition £3.20.

DISCLAIMER: The author and I work on the HNS Indie Reviews team together, however, this review is an unbiased opinion piece of my own, with no influence from the author. She sent me a published copy of this novel for an independent review.

The Summer Line Up

I will soon be completing Helen Hollick’s Sea Witch, and will post a review as soon as I am able. The line up for the next few months is as follows:

May review:The Duke Don’t Dance by Richard Sharp  (All summaries from Amazon.com):

Compressed between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom were those who became known to some by the ill-chosen name of the Silent Generation. They were those born too late to share in the triumph of the great victory, too early to know only the privilege of the American empire and in too few numbers to assure themselves a proper identity and proper legacy. Despite those attributes, they invented rock and roll, filled the streets in the struggle for racial equality, bled in the heated precipitates of the cold war and opened the doors to the sexual revolution and feminism, her serious-minded sister. Their triumph lay not in their completion of these transitions, but in their survival through them. The Duke Don’t Dance follows the adult lives of men and women who made that journey.

This book may not fall under the category of historical fiction exactly, but it comes close.

June review: The second in Sam Baty’s thriller series, Darkness into Light:

Even though the ferocious battles of World War II have concluded, the world is unfortunately not a safer place. The iron curtain has dropped in front of Eastern Europe, Josef Stalin is focused on world domination, and United States Army nurse Jennifer Haraldsson is on a mission to find her former patient and foe, German POW Otto Bruner. Once attracted to Otto until wartime secrets divided them, Jennifer must know the truth. Does she love him or not? After Otto is transferred to a detention camp in West Germany, he remains devastated by the loss of Jennifer and witnessing the post-war destruction of his beloved Germany only makes it worse. Desperate to win Jennifer back, Otto summons his friend Ernst Peiper to help, but they soon discover they are being targeted by a group of Nazi extremists and must be transferred to another camp. But Otto is ready to risk everything for love and escapes off the transporter truck into the dark of the night. In a last-ditch effort to rendezvous, Otto and Jennifer throw caution to the wind and cross into the other’s territory, never realizing that their unsettled world is much more complicated than they ever imagined.

July review: Eucalyptus and Green Parrots by Lori Eaton:

Virginia Reed has followed her husband, Clem, to Argentina, trading in her mother’s Texas poultry factory for an apartment in Buenos Aires and a cocktail-bright social life among American expatriates. But it is 1943. The Nazis have overrun Europe, Japan dominates the Pacific, and Allied and Axis agents are fighting a secret war for control of Argentina. When Clem’s clandestine activities put her family at risk, Virginia is shaken from her comfortable life and forced to take control of her family’s destiny. As Virginia navigates the political undercurrents of a country struggling to remain neutral in a war that is consuming the world, she finds friends in unlikely places and enemies frighteningly close to home. In the face of conflicting loyalties and desires, Virginia uncovers a hidden strength and a dormant thirst for independence.

I’d like to review Sarah Bruce Kelly’s Vivaldi’s Muse at some point, as it looks like a splendid read, as well as Before the Fall by Orna Ross and The Silk Weaver’s Daughter by Elizabeth Kales. For the August edition of the HNS Indie Reviews, I will be reviewing Oleanna by Julie K. Rose (and will also post comments about the book here). What a wonderful summer of reading ahead!!

 

The Novels of Juliette Marillier

I’m going to start from a later book and work my way backward here. The first Marillier fantasy I read was The Dark Mirror, in May of 2006, for an HNS review. I immediately fell in love with the author’s style and subject matter. She writes fantasy but combines that with just a tug of realism, enough to jump-start the imagination and pull one from the outer world into her realm. The Dark Mirror, a story set in the Dark Age, pre-Celtic Scotland and seeped in early Druidic magic, reminded me of an Arthurian saga: it’s the story of a young boy who is sent away to be raised and educated by a wise sage in preparation to become a great leader of men and a uniter of a divided land. Bridei, the child king, finds a tiny infant, a gift of the fairy folk ( he believes), on the doorstep one night, and is enchanted. He convinces Broichan, his tutor, to allow her to stay, against Broichan’s desire. Tuala grows up a wild, fey child while Bridei trains diligently for his future duty,  each coming to terms with their destinies that are both separate and entwined. This is a beautiful and enchanting coming-of-age fantasy, the first in an the Bridei Chronicles trilogy, all of which I read, reviewed, and adored. The second book is Blade of Fortrieu, and  the third, The Well of Shades.

After completing this trilogy, I worked backward, wolfing down the entire Sevenwaters trilogy.

The first was Daughter of the Forest, based on the traditional story of The Six Swans, which appears in Grimm’s Fairy Tales and has been re-told in many versions (including one by Hans Christian Andersen). The plot centers around Sorcha, the youngest daughter and seventh child of Lord Column of Sevenwaters, who has been raised almost entirely by her six older brothers, as her mother died during her birth. When her father’s new wife, the Lady Oonagh, attacks Sorcha and her brothers, Sorcha alone is able to flee into the forest and escape. Sorcha’s brothers, however, have been turned into swans.

Sorcha learns that if she can spin six shirts from nettles, remaining absolutely silent until the last one has been completed, she can free her brothers from Oonagh’s spell. Sorcha agrees to this and spends several years in the forest, hiding from Oonagh as she works on the shirts. The plot only thickens from here, as Sorcha is not destined to remain isolated to complete her painful task.

From this description, it might seem as if this book couldn’t possibly be filled with human relationship, struggles, pain, and grief. However, this was one of the most vividly emotional and expressive novels I have ever read. Marillier manages to bring alive the suffering of men who cannot control their changing form. The fear, the danger, the tenuous hold to life, the struggle to survive in the fight-to-the-death natural world that they inhabit, hunger, disease, predators…all these things haunt them until Sorcha can complete her life-saving, yet torturous task.

The author herself states, “In my story I sought the human dilemmas at the heart of the fairytale, for such tales have at their core the most wondrous and the harshest of human experience, the best and worst of human behaviour. Honour, trust, courage, true love. Treachery, betrayal, cowardice and hatred…” And oh, did she succeed! And all this with a happy ending…not a “Hollywood, perfection, happily ever after” ending, but a realistic, haunting, and touching ending. Daughter of the Forest won the American Library Association Alex Award in 2001, very well-earned indeed.

Sevenwaters Pronunciation Guide

The second novel in the series, Son of the Shadows, was just as enchanting and captivating with the same high-quality writing and characterization as the first. From the author’s website: “Son of the Shadows takes up the tale of the Sevenwaters family one generation after the events of Daughter of the Forest.

After years of comparative peace, darkness has fallen upon the region and leaders are called upon to declare their alliances. Golden-haired Niamh, elder daughter of Sorcha, finds herself required to make a strategic marriage, while her sister Liadan must venture into the shadowy world of the Painted Man and his followers. In doing so, Liadan begins a journey that is to transform her life.” This book won the Aurealis Award for Excellence in Speculative Fiction in 2000.

Child of the Prophecy is the final installment. “Raised in an isolated cove in County Kerry, the young sorceress Fainne is sent to Sevenwaters and burdened with a terrible task. She must use whatever powers she can to prevent the Fair Folk from winning back the Islands, no matter what the cost. The price of disobedience is weighed in human lives: the lives of all those she holds dear.

Child of the Prophecy is set one generation after the events of Son of the Shadows.”

I have also read and reviewed Heart’s Blood, which was published in 2009. Described as a “beauty and the beast tale with gothic sensibilities” (Booklist), I wholehearted agree with that description. Vivid, touching, evocative, atmospheric. Dark, otherworldly, yet hopeful.

“A haunted forest. A cursed castle. A girl running from her past and a man who’s more than he seems to be. A tale of love, betrayal, and redemption…

Whistling Tor is a place of secrets, a mysterious wooded hill housing the crumbling fortress of a chieftain whose name is spoken throughout the district in tones of revulsion and bitterness. A curse lies over Anluan’s family and his people; the woods hold a perilous force whose every whisper threatens doom.

And yet the derelict fortress is a safe haven for Caitrin, the troubled young scribe who is fleeing her own demons. Despite Anluan’s tempers and the mysterious secrets housed in the dark corridors, this long-feared place provides the refuge she so desperately needs.

As time passes, Caitrin learns there is more to the broken young man and his unusual household than she realised. It may be only through her love and determination that the curse can be lifted and Anluan and his people set free…”

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In summary, I am a great fan of Australian writer Juliette Marillier’s superb historical fantasies. I think what I like best is that she chooses to tackle and put a human face on fairy tales, turning the purely imagined and perhaps somewhat one-faced into a matrix of living, breathing complexity and color. Stunning work. Here is a link to an interview with the author:

http://writerunboxed.com/2006/10/20/interview-juliet-marillier-part-1/

The Bridei Chronicles:

The Dark Mirror, Tor Books, 2006

Blade of Fortriu, Tor Books, 2007

The Well of Shades, Tor Books, 2007

Sevenwaters Trilgy:

Daughter of the Forest, Tor Books, 2001

Son of the Shadows, Tor Books, 2002

Child of the Prophecy, Tor Books, 2003

Heart’s Blood, Roc, 2009

Review: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

As I am currently reading The Courtesan and The Samurai by Leslie Downer (a novel set in 1868 Japan about a young girl sold to a brothel who becomes a courtesan), I thought I should post a review from 2001 of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, simply because at least the concept of a young, innocent woman being sold into a big city’s pleasure quarter is common to both books. Before jumping down my throat about the differences between the geisha and the courtesan, here is how author Leslie Downer explains the difference (and similarities) between the two:

Geisha and courtesans . . . were (and are) part of the demi monde. Geisha are entertainers – the word means artistes – who performed dances and songs to private gatherings usually of men. In old Japan they were at the very bottom of the social system (like actresses in the Victorian west – think ‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington.’) Traditionally they were not supposed to sell sex. That was the courtesans’ job and they were prohibited from stealing the courtesans’ clients. If they married they had to stop being geishas–geishas and wives were like opposite sides of the coin.

A review of The Courtesan and The Samurai is forthcoming, but for now, based on my 2001 review, it has very large shoes to fill when compared with Geisha.

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I refuse to believe this 1997 rags-to-riches bestseller about the life of an (imaginary) famous geisha was written by a man, and an American from Tennessee at that!  The author grasped the correct emotional overtone and feminine sensibility seemingly effortlessly (although I’m sure it was not). Not only that, but he also presents a crystal clear picture of Japanese culture at the time– so real that it seemed I was looking at a sharp black-and-white photograph instead of reading words on paper–and intricate details and insight into the competitive and harsh world that the geisha inhabited.

A blend of memoir,  historical fiction, and fairytale, this is an inside look at the world of the geisha through the eyes of Sayuri, born Sakamoto Chiyo. She recalls her early childhood as a young girl growing up in a poor fishing village until she, along with her older sister Satsu, is sold into a life of servitude by her elderly father and dying mother when she is nine years old. Satsu is sold to a brothel, while Chiyo is acquired by the unsympathetic proprietress of the Nitta okiya (geisha house). From there, Sayuri must fight to survive the competitive, backstabbing world of the geisha. The narrative takes places in the mid-20th century, from the 1930s through the Second World War, beginning with the 70-year-old Sayuri telling her life story to an American professor and progressing through orderly flashbacks to different periods in her life.

This author’s storytelling was so convincing that I was fooled into believing the entire plot was true–from the professor’s claim that the book was an accounting of the life of a famous geisha that was told to him in interviews, down to the intimate details of her life. However, after reading a bit about the history of this book, I learned that the author had the appropriate material to draw on, based on this comment from a summary of the book:

Despite the success of Memoirs of a Geisha, its most outspoken challenger of the book has been Mineko Iwasaki, the retired geisha who provided much-needed detail, background, and context. According to Galloway in U.S. News & World Report, Iwasaki went so far as to say that she regretted helping Golden, that he “did not get anything right,” and that he “made a mockery of Japanese culture.” In response, Golden stated that her reaction was not all that surprising because the closer a book is to the truth about something to which a person is loyal, the less that person is going to approve of it.

Now, I can’t claim to know or suppose anything further about the controversy or whether the author “made a mockery of Japanese culture.” From my layperson’s point of view, I found the details entrancing and believable, although I am quite aware that fiction is FICTION and many truths are stretched or distorted in the telling. So, I keep that in the back of my mind and enjoy the book for what it is: an utterly intriguing and “unputdownable” book. The writing was so clear I felt that I was looking at a snapshot of this life. The plot was utterly absorbing. The author refrained from utilizing banalities and clichés and simply expressed with the perfect mixture of emotion, introspection, and an objective perspective that comes with hindsight. Beautiful!

As with many bestseller novels, Hollywood grabbed Memoirs of a Geisha for the big screen. It was released in 2005, but despite its beauty and epic silver-screen treatment, the book still remains the better choice. No movie, no matter how well done, can match the limitless imagination of a reader or portray the minute details that made the book such a roaring success.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, Vintage Trade Paperback, 1999, 448pp, 978-0679781585

Review: Hawk of May by Gillian Bradshaw

Gillian Bradshaw was only 17 years old when she finished the first draft the first book in her acclaimed Arthurian fantasy trilogy: Hawk of May. It was released in 1980, and won an award in its manuscript stage. I’ve seen many hyped-up versions of “super-hero” beginnings of  a literary career, just like this, only to be disappointed in the final product. This, however, is NOT one of them. I was highly impressed with this book. Supposedly a young adult-targeted novel, I say this novel can teach us adults quite a lot!

Although Hawk of May is an interpretation of Arthurian legend, and many of those already existed by the time the novel was published, this book is unique. Telling the story of Gwalchmai (otherwise known as Sir Gawain), the novel approaches the person and history of King Arthur from a backdoor perspective. The early years of Gwalchmai are featured here, and it is he who is the subject–his struggles with the temptation of darkness (one could say evil or the dark arts), of proving himself against opposition and odds,  and the topic of faith even when all seems to be crashing in around him. Gwalchmai is the younger son of the evil sorceress Morgawse, and her warlord husband, King Lot of the Orcades. Our hero is not a typical warrior–he is a loner, is as talented as the great bard, Taliesin, with words and song, and fights with his mind and intellect as well as through the unconventional method of  battling from horseback.  His brother Aggravain is both loving and cruel to his younger brother, and quite obviously his father’s favorite. Medraut, the youngest son, is closest to Gwalchmai, at least in the beginning.

After battling his inner demons (as well as a few tangible ones), making daring escapes, and testing his own faith, Gwalchmai’s one desire is to join Arthur’s innermost circle, “The Family,” yet no matter how he tries to prove himself, he is rejected. We all know that Sir Gawain was one of Arthur’s trusted warriors, but how he manages to overcome Arthur’s distrust is the mystery this book seeks to unravel.

The topic of spirituality  is dealt with here, very intelligently and thoughtfully, in my opinion. In some ways, I saw this story as a metaphor of our human struggle with faith in a power we cannot see or hear; faith that a succession of events will culminate in our ultimate best good, and in a grand plan for the good of all.

The story is also a commentary on the corruptive effects of power, a philosophizing about the nature of man and right and wrong, and a consideration of the spiritual control of a higher power over the will of man.

The Light* of its–his–own nature must always be right . . . and I believed that it was. But the world of man is mixed, good and evil together, and there was no simple and clear struggle . . .(p. 219)

(*is what I interpret as being a metaphor for God, as opposed to the Darkness, the devil)

This quote is just one of many such ponderings, which is one of the aspects of this book that turn it into more than just an entertaining story (which it is as well). It caused me to think deeply about my own faith, my own trust in a higher power and ability to “let go and let God” and “to do His will” that is the basis of my personal spiritual beliefs. I can only guess that the concepts of light and darkness spoken of in this book were a reference or comparison to Christianity of a sort, although I may be wrong.

This is no preachy plot, however. It is a gentle discourse of spiritual issues with no reference to a particular religion, and for the author’s delicate handling of this topic, I have great respect. The magical elements in this book fit seamlessly and believably within the tapestry of the story and the topic of spirituality as well.

If you haven’t yet read Hawk of May, I highly recommend it. And you can be sure I’ll soon be digging into books two and three in the series.

***On a practical note, Gillian Bradshaw is the daughter of an English mother and American father, attended the University of Michigan and then proceeded to Newnham College, Cambridge. She currently lives in Britain, which explains the mystery of why I was reading British spellings in this reissue, when her short biography on the back page stated that she grew up in Northern Virginia!