Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

victoriaIf you saw the Masterpiece presentation “Victoria” on PBS, as I did, I recommend that you also read this novel by the series’ screenwriter.  I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read it, since I already knew the story, but the novel, which gives deeper insights into the characters, fascinated me as much as the TV series did.

Most of us think of Queen Victoria as an elderly woman, but as this novel opens, she is a teenager, under the control of her mother and her mother’s adviser.  She sleeps on a cot near her mother’s bed and has never been alone in a room with a man.  Her mother does not even approve of her going up or down stairs without holding her governess’ hand.  She has learned that protesting is useless; all she can do is wait until her seriously ill uncle, the king, dies.  If she has reached her 18th birthday by the time of his death, she will be queen – no regency required – and able to make decisions for herself.

That day comes, and she declares her independence by using her middle name, Victoria, instead of the name that she’s used since birth.  As a young, inexperienced queen, she makes mistakes and learns that not all of her subjects like her.  In fact, some consider her emotionally unstable and too inexperienced to rule.  However, the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, takes her under his wing, tutoring her in the role she must play.  Her relationship with this politician, old enough to be her father, becomes personal enough for some people to call her “Mrs. Melbourne.”

Then her cousin Albert comes from his home in Germany for a visit.  Will they marry, as their families think they should?  Victoria is determined that this will not happen; she met Albert three years earlier and declared him to be boring.  Reading about their visit will prove to be anything but boring, no matter how much or how little you know about Victoria’s life!

Goodwin, who has a history degree from Cambridge, has done extensive research and bases much of Victoria on the young queen’s diaries.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)


The River of Kings by Taylor Brown

Lawton and Hunter Loggins are brothers in their twenties, one a Navy Seal, the other inriver of kings college.  After their father’s death, they set out on a kayaking trek, navigating the wilds of Georgia’s Altamaha River to a specific place where they intend to empty their dad’s ashes.

As we travel with Lawton and Hunter, two other tales intertwine with their story – that of their father in his earlier days, and that concerning the first French settlers of this area of southeast Georgia.

Hiram Loggins was a harsh man – unlucky with shrimp boats and the law, and in love with the wrong woman.  As the brothers grew up, he raised them hard and tender – hard with the physical abuse, and tender in the ways that he taught them to revere the Altamaha and its swampy terrain.  It is to this river that they fare, to do their unforgiving dad one last favor.

The third strand of the book concerns the settlement of Fort Caroline, begun by the French in 1564.  Varying alliances with natives and clashes with the Spanish ultimately spell doom to the settlement.  The main character here is Jacques Le Moyne, an artist charged with rendering the sights of the new world with his sketches.

Le Moyne was an actual person; facsimiles of his works illustrate the book.   The River of Kings plays on the proposal that Fort Caroline was situated on the Altamaha rather than the St. Johns River; a theory about this came out about three years ago.

The area of the Altamaha in all three storylines is rich with myth, including the accounts of a mysterious aquatic creature that inhabits the lower reaches of the river.  The French hear tales of it from the natives, and Le Moyne is obsessed with seeing the creature, if anything to sketch it.  The monster also plays into Lawton and Hunter’s story – Lawton especially believes that their father was aware of the creature.  Their leg of the book is its own odyssey, a hero’s journey of siblings and their discovery of each other, while keeping sharp eyes on the dangers of the river, should they be river monster or two-legged nemesis.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

This biographical novel tells the story of Mileva “Mitza” Maric, Albert Einstein’s firstother einstein wife.  She was brilliant enough to earn admission in 1896 to the physics program at Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, where she was the only woman in her class and a classmate of Einstein’s.  She made friends with three young women who were students in other programs at the school.  They made a pact to remain single and devote themselves to their professions, since it was then very rare for a woman to combine marriage and family with a career.  This pact fell apart when Mitza married Einstein.

She dreamed of a marriage between equals who would work together on their scientific studies.  At times, she felt that she had achieved this dream, but eventually she came to feel more like Einstein’s servant than his wife.

I’ve never studied physics but did not find scientific knowledge necessary to enjoy reading about Mitza’s life.

Is the story true?  While the author read many books on her subject and drew on letters between Einstein and Mitza, as well as on Mitza’s letters to her friend Helene, she learned that two major areas of Mitza’s life remain mysteries.  Scientists do not agree on the role that Mitza, as Einstein’s wife and as a fellow physicist, probably played in his discoveries, and history does not record the fate of the oldest Einstein child, Lieserl.  In these parts of the story, the author had to decide what story line to take.

The Other Einstein introduces this little-known woman to modern readers.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The Revenant by Michael Punke

While working as a trapper and guide for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1823,revenant frontiersman Hugh Glass is savagely mauled by a bear during a routine scouting mission for food.  Captain Henry, leader of the ill-fated expedition, reluctantly decides to leave the mortally wounded Glass behind in the care of two other trappers, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger, promising extra wages to them both if they will give Glass a proper burial after he inevitably dies.  Glass, however, stubbornly clings to life, much to the chagrin of the unscrupulous fugitive Fitzgerald who covets Glass’s possessions – particularly his Anstadt rifle – and is eager to catch up with the departed expedition.

When a hostile Native American tribe is spotted near the clearing where they are tending Glass, Fitzgerald seizes the opportunity to legitimately flee, convincing a hesitant Bridger that they must not only abandon Glass, but take all of his belongings with them as well if they hope to survive.  Glass helplessly witnesses this act of treachery and vows to take revenge on the pair, even though doing so requires him to not only recover from his wounds, but to somehow survive in the wilderness without flint, a knife, or his beloved rifle, and crawl hundreds of miles through only partially mapped territory.  Having already endured captivity on a pirate ship and a stint living among the Pawnee tribe, Glass is up for the challenge.

Michael Punke’s The Revenant, based on the true story of historical figure Hugh Glass, is subtitled “A Novel of Revenge”, but it would be more accurate to describe it as a novel of survival.  Page after page, Punke’s lean, sinewy prose details the bloodthirsty determination of various characters and the nascent industries which employ them to survive in hostile times, with “endurance” emerging as the book’s true theme.  Punke’s sparse style allows the story to almost tell itself, and his descriptions of the 19th century American wilderness are a joy to read.  The action sequences are appropriately tense and engaging, while the infamous bear attack stands out as a gory highlight.

Problems only really arise when Punke attempts to set the historical stage in too-broad strokes (the quick history of the fur trade on page 38, for example, reads like a quote from a Wikipedia article), or decides to invent characters simply to pad out the story.  The group of French companions (especially the two brothers) whom Glass is paired with in Part 2 of the book are stereotypes lifted out of any action/war film from the last ten years and wholly remove the reader from the reality the author has worked so hard to create.  The ending is also problematic, but some readers might actually savor its absence of dramatic closure.

Overall, The Revenant is recommended reading.  And for those interested in a version of Glass’s story re-purposed as an epic tale of vengeance, seek out Alejandro González  Iñárritu’s bloody and absolutely gorgeous filmed adaptation of The Revenant, which takes generous liberties with its source material.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World by Brian Doyle

Robert Louis Stevenson resided in San Francisco for a few months straddling john carsonthe years 1879-1880, at which time he lived in the boarding house owned by Mary Carson.  There Stevenson recovered his health and awaited the finalization of a divorce between his fiancée  and her first husband.  His finances were meager, as Stevenson was at this time struggling to make a living as a writer.

During his stay, Stevenson was enthralled by the stories of Mary’s husband John, a former seamen who had traveled much of the globe.  Stevenson supposedly wanted to write a book about Mr. Carson’s experiences, and this book is an imagining of what Stevenson might have written.

The stories that John Carson tells are fanciful but possible, as far-flung as Borneo, the Canadian Northwest, Australia, and western Ireland.  He tells of stern tribal chieftains and noble shipmates, all with stories of their own.  The most intriguing story is about Carson’s encounter with a feral girl living in a deserted stone village; her future takes her far away from her solitary existence, and she and John are destined to meet again.

One might wonder what kind of influence Mr. Carson’s stories had on the future renderings of  Treasure Island or Kidnapped, or whether Stevenson chose his final home of Samoa, notwithstanding his health problems, as a nod to John Carson and his wanderings.

Brian Doyle is obviously a great admirer of Stevenson’s, and I think he got the rhythms of Stevenson’s prose fairly well.  Doyle’s lively descriptions of pre-1906 earthquake San Francisco the bring the city wonderfully alive; the town is practically a character itself.  The Adventures of John Carson… is also a deep study of the natures of connection and friendship.

The preface and afterword (and the Thanks & Notes!), although fairly brief, are rich in back story and recommendations for further reading.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

It is to be expected that a graveyard comes alive with ghosts at night-time.  One wouldlincoln in the bardo imagine they congregate and converse in a social manner, and perhaps gossip about new arrivals.

This book expands on this idea, the setting being Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown in the year 1862.  It is the aftermath of  Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie’s death at the age of eleven.  Obviously, his parents were devastated.  The rumor was that President Lincoln would visit the crypt his son was interred in and actually remove the body from the coffin to mourn over.

The night time residents of Oak Hill take note of their human nocturnal visitor, as well as talk to the ghost of his son, who is bewildered as to why he can’t interact with his father.  And as Willie lingers here, in this purgatorial state or “bardo“, his soul is increasingly in peril, as the ectoplasmic denizens of Oak Hill experience in graphic detail, when they try to help Willie along the next leg of his journey – and find theirs as well.

A cast of dozens tell the tale here in Lincoln in the Bardo, a sad yet playful view of the afterlife.  The book alternates between events of the “real” world (White House parties, the Civil War, Willie’s sickness) and the drama of the spirit world, populated by dandies, preachers, slaves, miscreants, and others.  The narrative is fanciful and occasionally confusing, but let your mind go…well, back to the 1860s, put things in context, and the subject matter will make more sense.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



The Kingmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory

If you enjoy the TV series “Game of Thrones,” you may like The Kingmaker’s Daughter, set during kingmakers-daughterEngland’s War of the Roses, the historical period that’s most like the fantasy world of the series.  There are even online comparisons of the TV show’s Sansa Stark with the real-life woman who’s the main character of this book – Anne Neville, the wife of Richard III.

If you are familiar with Shakespeare’s play “Richard the Third,” you’ll find this portrayal of Richard much more favorable than Shakespeare’s.  Shakespeare followed the Tudor era’s view of Richard as a monster, blaming him for multiple murders, but Gregory’s Richard comes closer to the opinions of modern historians.

Anne was the daughter of the Earl of Warwick, a power behind the English throne in the 15th century.  During the War of the Roses, many people changed their allegiances from one royal line, the Yorks, to the other, the Lancasters, or vice versa.  This was true of Warwick, whose goal was to put in power the king of his choice and to become his major adviser.  He used his daughters as pawns in his ambitious schemes.  When Anne was only fourteen years old, Warwick arranged her marriage to the Lancastrian heir.  After her husband’s death in battle, Anne married Richard.  Part of the plot involves the tale of the young princes in the Tower of London – their fate is, to this very day, a cold case!  Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV, is also a character in the novel; contemporaries believed her to be a witch capable of causing storms and bringing death to her enemies by supernatural means.

This dramatic tale is a fascinating glimpse into English history, seen through the eyes of a queen.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)