The Stopped Heart by Julie Meyerson

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stopped heart

One house, two stories, over a hundred years apart. Julie Meyerson weaves the two tales together, overlapping and intermingling until one isn’t sure where one ends and the other begins.

Mary Coles is living underwater. At least that’s how it feels to her. We know something terrible happened in the past, something to do with her children who are no longer present in her life. She and her husband move into a cottage in a small town outside of London where they plan to fix up the place, restore the garden, and start their lives over.

Eliza is still just a girl at 13, yet as the oldest of her family she is often called upon to care for her younger siblings. When a storm blows through and knocks down a giant elm everyone is surprised to find a young man trapped beneath it’s spreading limbs. When he regains consciousness, James insinuates himself into the family, even though Eliza doesn’t like him. But he works hard to bring her around and soon he is having a sexual relatioship with the new teenager. But a string of horrific events leaves Eliza and her family destroyed.

The house is the same. The tragedies are different but equal in each woman’s life. But when Mary begins to notice strange things: childrens’ voices, slamming doors, and a stranger with red hair in the lane, we begin to wonder if the house is haunted by the disasters of the past, or is the grief she carries catching up with her?

I really liked the way Myerson told these two tales. The past is told in third person past tense and the present is told in first person present tense. It didn’t jar, in fact it was the perfect vehicle for distinguishing the two parts without the use of chapter headings.

Heartbreaking, violent, and terrifying, Myerson created a thrilling tale, beautifully written. The way she unveiled the stories little by little had me clinging to her words and turning the pages.

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The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

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lie_tree-xlarge_trans++Ecdmp8g_QXGoofzFP1iv1nbtwsyAseKiOxN7NjU1zMYThere is a dark side to all of us. We all tell lies, no matter how hard we try to be honest, lies to each other and lies to ourselves. Frances Hardinge explores that darkness in her new young adult novel about the destruction lies cause.

Fourteen-year-old Faith struggles with being a sneak. It’s so hard for her to be bright, precocious, and a girl in Victorian England. She wants desperately to be recognized for her clever mind but her mother is oblivious and her father is uninterested.

Her father, a natural scientist and a curate, is uprooting the family and setting them on a small island off the coast of southern England. He has been asked to lend his expertise on an excavation. Faith is excited but is quickly put in her place: girls are not expected to be interested in such manly, indelicate pursuits.

But it isn’t long until the true reason her father moved the family comes to light: he has been outed as a fraud who has passed off bogus fossils. Faith is rocked by the news: surely her father, a man of God, would never do such a thing. Would he?

But the plot thickens when Faith’s father is found dead. All signs point to a suicide, but Faith doesn’t believe it. And she is going to find out the truth through lies. This is because Faith is the only one who knows about her father’s most prized plant: The Mendacious Tree. The legend that accompanies the tree is this: if a person feeds it a lie the tree will bear a fruit that when eaten will reveal hidden truths.

Faith needs lies to find the truth. But Faith is unprepared for the consequences of her falsehoods.

Frances Hardinge is a lovely writer. The concept of the Lie Tree seems a bit far-fetched, but she weaves its roots into the story so well that a Victorian naturalist would be completely convinced by the time the story ends. Cleverly plotted with beautiful language, magical realism and palpable emotion, The Lie Tree is a great read.

The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman

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DarkDaysClubBefore I went to England for the first time my mother gave me a copy of Georgette Heyer’s Black Sheep to read. I devoured the Regency romance and adored the witty confrontations between Abigail Wendover and the delicious Miles Calverly. The historical details set a glittering spectacle of balls, dinner parties, and nights at Vauxhall Gardens, or horseback riding on Rotten Row.

The Dark Days Club is spot on it its tone and sense of place as a classic Regency romance with one exception: there are demons and demon hunters mixed into all levels of society.

Lady Helen Wrexhall is just about to have her coming out. She is eighteen and the “season” is about to start: a round of parties, balls, and dinners that will introduce this newly available young lady to the most eligible bachelors London has to offer. She is praying the scandal of her mother’s treason so many years ago does not taint her chances for finding a good husband.

After the laborious preparations for her entrance into society and presentation to Queen Charlotte at Court, Lady Helen finds that her whirlwind social calendar is darkened by an unexpected presence. The Earl of Carlston, rumored to have murdered his wife, is back from the Continent and has taken an interest  in her. But what is even more surprising and upsetting are the strong new energies stirring within her, giving her strange abilities.

Then Lord Carlston finally reveals the truth: she is a Reclaimer, a rare human with lightning-quick reflexes and unbelievable strength that can stop a hidden demon race from draining ordinary people of their life force. But can she choose a life of daring impropriety or will her desire for the tamer pursuits of polite society win her over?

Oh my gosh this was an absolute delight. A perfect mashup: the tone was so completely Regency, and yet the introduction of demons did not clash nor detract from the historical details. The plot had everything: intrigue, royalty, a kick ass heroine, and a perfectly flawed love interest. It is a bit long, but the pacing never lagged–there was always a new twist waiting in the next chapter. I gobbled this one up and eagerly await the next Lady Helen novel.

Wink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke

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It’s a catchy title for a catchy story. Wink, Poppy and Midnight are the three narrators of Tucholke’s tale. Poppy is the beautiful mean girl, Midnight is the boy who loves her, and Wink is the oddball girl next door. The tag line on the cover says, “A hero. A villain, A liar. Who’s who?”

It’s a clever premise for sure. Each narrator starts out telling their perspective of a chain of events that happen in their little town of Broken Bridge over one summer. Poppy, who has been hooking up with Midnight, finds herself feeling jealous when he turns his attention to his new neighbor Wink. In typical mean girl fashion, she starts to torment both of them. When a planned prank goes too far, the tables are turned on Poppy and she is left holding the bag.

But then Poppy disappears and the reader begins to wonder who really is telling the truth. It all comes out in the end and is surprising, to say the least. Narrators can often be unreliable and there is at least one of them in this story.

Tucholke wrote a twisty tale that has an almost fairy-tale quality to it. There is talk of archetypes (the hero, the thief, the wolf, etc) and the language is fresh and the writing sharp. The three voices are clearly defined as separate personalities, which is not easy feat to accomplish. And getting to the bottom of the mystery is delicious fun.

The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters

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cure for dreamingWhen I think of Women’s Suffrage, or the right of women to vote, it seems very far-removed to me. It is not something we think about that much today, it is a right I have always enjoyed, as has my mother. But her mother was a child during the time when women were granted the right to vote, and she must have remembered it. I wish she were around so I could ask her about it.

Even so, I do know something about being a woman in what is still a man’s world. I see injustice, have felt belittled because of my gender, and watched males be favored over me. Even at eight years old I watched a male classmate receive more math instruction than me, even though we were both struggling.

My mother has told me that when she and Dad were looking for their first house in the early 70’s that she had to write a letter to the bank promising not to have children until Dad could made enough on his salary so she could stay home. That’s right, you heard me.

Cat Winters has written an amazing book. It has everything: quirky characters, a little magical realism, a plot that careens around corners, and a smart portrayal of Women’s Suffrage in Portland, OR in 1900.

Olivia Mead is the daughter of a Portland dentist, a man who seems to be famous for enjoying his work extracting teeth and applying leeches to swollen gums. Add to that horror that Olivia’s mother abandonded them for the stage in New York and you get the picture of what her home life is like: stifling, lonely, and tedious. She is an avid reader, her favorite is the recently-published novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, and feels women should have the right to use their voice. Her father does not agree.

On Halloween, the night of her seventeenth birthday, Olivia is treated to a hypnotist’s show at the theater. To Olivia it is a mystical and deliciously frightening treat, especially when she is called up on stage to be a participant. Henri Reverie is a handsome young man with a French accent who puts Olivia in such a trance he is able to balance her rigid form on the backs of two chairs, and stand on her stomach, much to the horror and delight of the audience.

But Olivia’s interaction with the mysterious young man is not over. When her father learns she was at a rally for Women’s Rights, he hires the young hypnotist to remove all traces of rebellion from his daughter’s brain. While Henri does not agree with her father’s idea, he is desperate for the money to pay for surgery for his ailing sister.

The upshot is that while she is no longer able to argue with her father, she now sees the world as it truly is. Men who are against women’s right to vote appear vampiric, women who are belittled by their husbands and fathers seem to disappear before her very eyes. It is horrifying to Olivia and she seeks out Mr. Reverie to put her back the way she was.

But even if she can go back, should she?

Good heavens, this was a great read. Cat Winters pulled me in on the very first page and had me hooked through the entire novel. The plot never lagged, never slowed. The magical realism was just the right touch to make the story atmospheric and dark without making the plight of women in the 1900s seem insignificant. She did a great job of weaving the history of Women’s Suffrage with the plot and made Olivia a perfectly flawed but extremely likable character.

The book itself is a treasure of design. Many chapters begin with a photograph or piece of ephemera and a quote of the times. Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain, Carrie Nation, Bram Stoker and Kate Chopin all make quotable appearances. The chapter headings, endpapers, and cover art all make the book even more atmospheric and dark. It is a jewel of a book from all angles.

The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry

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passion of dolssaThere is an abbey just outside of Ménerbes, Provence that is my happy place. It is called St. Hilaire, and is set on the hillside looking out into a lush green valley filled with poplars and cyprus trees, vineyards, and snug stone cottages. The convent dates to the mid-1200’s and the very stones of the walls are steeped in serenity. My husband and I visited one quiet afternoon in September of 2013 and I could have sat in the stillness of the shadow of the walls forever if only breathing were required to sustain me.

It is interesting that I found the convent and its grounds so peaceful, since it was built during a period of great turmoil in Provençal history. In the 13th century the Catholic church believed Provence was a hotbed of heresy, and much blood was shed (or burned) in an attempt to root out the alleged sinners and bring them to holy justice. While the Abbey of St. Hilaire was not directly involved with the persecution of heretics (at least that I have been able to discover), the ground upon which the stones of the church were laid were in the very lands where neighbors betrayed each other to save their lives and souls from the fires.

Julie Berry wrote The Passion of Dolssa about these violent times when the Dominican friars hunted heretics and burned them at the stake. While they believed they had justice and the Lord’s will on their side, most who died on the pyre were merely God-fearing peasants who lived a life that did not correspond with the strict dogmatic code outlined by the Church.

Dolssa, an eighteen-year-old noblewoman lived in Toulouse and was very pious and devout in her faith. What we would call in modern times a mystic, Dolssa was very close to Jesus–she believed she could speak with him, could see his face, feel his arms about her like a lover. While most would call that blasphemy, or downright crazy, Dolssa also had the healing touch: she could lay hands upon others and eliminate their physical ailments, bringing many back from the brink of death.

But word of her miraculous deeds did not go unnoticed by the Church. The elders of the church in Toulouse summoned Dolssa to interrogate her on charges of heresy. How could a woman claim to know the Savior’s face? Her healing must come from not from a holy place, but from the devil himself.

Botille was a seventeen-year-old with a gift for matchmaking in her tiny village of Bajas on the Mediterranean. She and her sisters ran the tavern in their town and all three girls were clever, resourceful, ad survived by their wits. While Botille was on a journey for a neighbor, she discovers a young woman, near death, hiding in the shadows of the road. It is Dolssa, who escaped burning at the stake, though her mother did not.

Botille rescues the emaciated and broken Dolssa and brings her back to Bajas in secret. There she and her sisters nurse the young woman back to health and are startled to find the serene power of healing that flows from Dolssa’s hands. Soon the whole town knows of the young woman’s gifts and the news travels like wildfire straight back to Toulouse, where the Church has almost given up their hunt for the heretic.

Can Dolssa save hersef? Will Botille risk putting her family and the entire village in danger from the Dominican’s thirst for blood?

Berry’s novel is sophisticated, beautifully written, and builds to a heartstopping climax. Told from multiple points of view we see the perspectives of both the hunted and the hunters. While I wonder if it is a little too adult in theme for teens, I heartily recommend it to anyone whose heart has been grabbed by Provence and its charms. It is a revealing look at what human beings can do to each other in the name of God.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

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eileenIt’s 1964 and Eileen is twenty-four, works at a prison for juvenile boys and takes care of her deeply entrenched alcoholic father. Yes, the situation is bleak, but Eileen is such a complexly drawn character that her tragic circumstances don’t make for an overly maudlin story.

There are prisons on many levels of this story. There is the prison for which Eileen works, which is the most obvious, but there are also many self-imposed prisons here too. Her father’s alcoholism leaves him frozen in his house, paranoid and erratic. Eileen herself is in prison too. She feels the hopelessness of caring for her father who is cruel and uncaring towards her.

Like I said, Eileen is an interesting character. She’s friendless and angry at her situation in life, yet hopeful of escape. She finds small joys in driving the car, stalking a good-looking prison guard, and is enchanted when she meets Rebecca, the new educational coordinator at the prison. Rebecca is the first person to show kindness and friendship towards Eileen, and Eileen responds like a drowning person grateful for a savior.

It’s shocking and yet completely understandable what a person will do to keep their only friend. We’ve all been in prison of one form or another.

Told in the rambling first-person narrative of mercurial Eileen, the story slowly builds to a surprising conclusion about the lengths to which people will go to burst free from prison.

Favorite line: “A grown woman is like a coyote–she can get by on very little. Men are like house cats. Leave them alone for too long and they’ll die of sadness.”