The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

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At its worst, the historical novel can be a kind of museum diorama: a grand and obsessively detailed but ultimately lifeless reconstruction of another period behind glass. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably read it anyway, or at least try. When a historical novel is good, though, it’s so darn good. The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton’s debut novel, is the kind of historical fiction that reminds us to let in a little light and air: this is not a stuffy period piece, but an enjoyable historical novel with generous side of magic realism.

The Miniaturist is set in 1686 during Amsterdam’s waning Golden Age. The Amsterdam we come to know in the novel is richly rendered and full of contradictions: material excess and wealth abut conservative social codes and, meanwhile, an even more Puritanical energy seems to be taking root among the people. Petronella Oortman, or Nella as she’s called in the novel, arrives in Amsterdam as a wide-eyed young bride with good blood and fallen fortunes. She has been hastily married off to her new husband, the wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt; in exchange, he will help her family out of the debt accrued by her late father. In her exciting new life in the big city, Nella is suddenly mistress to a house that appears to be full of secrets and intrigue. Her merchant husband is emotionally and often geographically distant, and Nella doesn’t know whether she can trust the house’s other inhabitants: her stern sister-in-law Marin, and the household servants Cornelia and Otto.

Early in the novel, Nella obtains a dollhouse as a gift from her husband. The novel was in fact inspired by such an object of conspicuous consumption: a “cabinet house” once owned by the real Petronella Oortman that the author saw on a visit to Amsterdam. The actual cabinet house is on display at the Rijksmuseum, but thanks to the wonders of the Internet you can view it and other historical dollhouses by clicking over to the museum website. The Miniaturist is not intended to be a biographical piece about the real Petronella Oortman who was, in fact, a wealthy widow by the time she married Brandt. Instead, it’s a fun fiction arranged around the set piece of the dollhouse. In the author’s own words, “Her cabinet house is a thing of beauty, an exact replica of her real abode, at the same cost. I was inspired by her decision to spend thousands of dollars on a house she could not inhabit, food she couldn’t eat, and chairs she couldn’t sit on. Why did she do that?” The book’s plot grew out of this imaginative speculation rather than historical fact, and what results is a lush and engaging historical fantasy.

As Nella settles into her new home and begins to distract herself by furnishing the dollhouse with the finest miniatures that money can buy, she begins to notice odd similarities between her doll house and real life that seem to go well beyond the superficial. Or is she imagining the similarities? I’m going to stop here, though, for fear of spoiling anything. The interplay between the miniature world and the wider world, the replica and the real thing and, eventually, between Nella and the miniaturist is what makes this novel so fun.

The Miniaturist has been marketed as historical fiction but it is really historical fantasy, and it seems to have turned off many readers who were impatient with either the magical elements of the story or the departure from fact. If you come to this novel looking for the historical exactness of the Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies, you will likely be disappointed. If you don’t much care where the story comes from as long as it’s well told, though, you’ll enjoy this book. It reminded me a bit of Sarah Dunant’s excellent novels The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, as well as The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch, but with the magical stylings of the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. What’s that old adage about never letting the truth spoil a good story? Once I decided to give myself over to the storyteller and quit fact-checking, I thoroughly enjoyed the book for what it was: a very imaginative, immersive, and atmospheric novel that whisked me off to a period I don’t often get to see rendered in literature.

Melissa is writer who lives with her husband and two warring felines in Portland, Oregon. When she isn’t reading, writing, or cooking, there’s a good chance she’s trying to clicker-train her cats.

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A Story of Strangeness

I have tr18166936ied to write this recommendation in a number of ways. Telling too much about the plot will ruin your experience as a reader; I think the summaries in all the usual places give too much away. Yet, I know you’ll want to know something about the book I’m recommending — that’s why you’re here, after all. It’s not enough to say: “here is The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton. Go read.”

If you’re as shallow as me, maybe that gorgeous cover is enough to draw you in, if not, I shall try to help. Let me begin where Ava does, because I don’t think it will hurt you to know a few things. First, Ava Lavender is the narrator of the story and she takes pains to tell you that the tale she’ll tell has been well researched, though perhaps biased, as it is about her own family. In trying to understand herself and the events that occurred the year she turned sixteen, she has to go back to the beginning, starting with her great grandparents’ immigration to America from France.

Ava takes us on a  transatlantic, transcontinental journey through time to tell us how the story of her strange and beautiful family came to shape the events of her life. In the prologue, Ava reveals that she wants to explain the consequences of being a girl born with a set of feathered wings. She says,

To many I was myth incarnate, the embodiment of a most superb legend, a fairy tale. Some considered me a monster, a mutation. To my great misfortune, I was once mistaken for an angel. To my mother, I was everything. To my father, nothing at all. To my grandmother, I was a daily reminder of loves long lost. But I knew the truth — deep down, I always did.

 

I was just a girl.

Walton’s ability as a storyteller is strong. Every snippet of a promise those opening words make is fulfilled. After I finished the novel, I was impressed with the way each part of the story clicked into place, solving the mystery the prologue lays out. Though the backstory of Ava’s family takes almost a full half of the book before getting to the real action, it’s never pointless. Every bit of the story Ava tells is used. Each piece of information given adds up to one climactic and devastating moment.

And that moment shocked me. The nature of Walton’s storytelling and the voice she gives Ava doesn’t quite jive with the intensity of the horrific climax. This seems intentional. Ava, being a sixteen year old girl at the time of this event didn’t see it coming, but careful readers will know. The signs are there. Still, let me say this, if tragic, incidental violence bothers you, this might not be the book for you. But the violence is not gratuitous. In fact, as I look at it now, it fits. Tragically, horrifically, it fits.

Ultimately, this is a story about femininity. It’s about the ways in which women are mothers, wives, lovers, friends, sisters and children. It’s about the way that strangeness in a woman often evokes fear, mistrust and sometimes violence. This is a story about powerful love and acceptance. It’s about listening to yourself and keeping good watch. It’s a reminder that pain can lead to love and renewal. It’s a powerful testament to women’s resilience.

I’d recommend this book to lovers of magical realism. Fans of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake* and Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic will find a new favorite in The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender.

Allison Carr Waechter is a writer, reader, teacher and lover of tea and a fat cat named Winnie. Find her on twitter or her website.

*If you’d like to read a recommendation for Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, we’ve got one right here.


New Literary Horror: The Walls Around Us, Bones & All, Bone Gap

For my February finale, I’d planned to follow up on my last post with a look at my favorite series of fairy tale retellings: Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles. But I just couldn’t wait any longer to recommend three March releases in a different genre—literary horror. Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us, and Camille DeAngelis’ Bones & All show how eloquent and imaginative prose can amplify horrific events and our most primal fears.

Like a classic horror movie, Bone Gap is set in a stereotypical Midwestern town, with cornfields that haunt the main protagonist, Finn. They talk to him and grow at an alarming rate, among spooky scarecrows and crows that threaten to pluck out his eyes and peck him to death. Like a chorus in a Greek play, the people of Bone Gap introduce Finn as a freak, calling him Spaceman, Sidetrack, and Moonface because he is distracted and avoids eye contact. Finn’s strange behavior is more understandable when he becomes a main narrator and the horror story develops. Two months ago, he was the only witness to the disappearance of Roza, his brother’s girlfriend. While the people of Bone Gap stop looking for her because they think she fled, Finn believes she was kidnapped and he must find her, but he can’t recall what her abductor looks like.

Roza’s narrative reveals that a man with eyes like ice has taken her because she is a beautiful woman who will love him. Her abduction seems mythical (think Persephone) and Bone Gap uses magical realism to emphasize its sinister nature. But while the captured woman is often powerless and voiceless in myths, Roza has agency and willpower. Bone Gap emphasizes the victimization of women that is typical of horror and empowers “the damsel in distress.”

Also told through alternate voices, The Walls Around Us is a creepy supernatural tale, combining prison drama and dance rivalry — “Orange is the New Black meets Black Swan” as some reviewers have called it. There’s Amber, imprisoned in a girls’ juvenile detention center, and Violet, a dancer haunted by her best friend Orianna’s imprisonment and death in that detention center. The book opens with Amber experiencing a phenomenal event: suddenly the prisoners are set free from their cells. But she is a ghost reliving what happened years ago, and they didn’t really escape.

In her first narrative, Violet is onstage during her last performance before achieving her dream of attending Julliard. But she feels broken: on stage, she loves people and they love her, but offstage she is haunted by dark memories and secrets. During intermission she visits the site where a crime took place three years earlier, leading to Orianna’s arrest. Enthralling prose and magical realism unite the stories of Amber, Violet, and Orianna, and explore complex issues of lies and truth, disadvantage and privilege, wrongdoing and justice, guilt and innocence, betrayal and friendship, vengeance and forgiveness.

Bones & All wrestles with similar issues, and it is not your typical horror story, nor is Maren Yearly your typical villain. Like most teenagers (and humans, for that matter) she wants to belong and feel normal, be loved and love herself; but a dark secret keeps her ashamed and alienated. In the opening scene, we learn that Maren devours people, starting with her babysitter when she was just a few years old. She tries to distance herself from everyone emotionally and physically, but if they do get close it’s not like she can’t not eat them. Then she and her mother have to move again…and again. While living with her secret is difficult, as long as she has her mom everything turns out okay; but she wakes up on her 16th birthday to discover her mom has abandoned her, leaving behind her birth certificate with her unknown father’s name. Hoping to find answers to her cannibalism, Maren’s search for her father turns into a much greater adventure.

From its poignant beginning to its unconventional ending, Bones & All will mess with you (in a good way). Horrifying and entertaining, loathsome and loving, cruel and forgiving, confining and adventurous, bizarre and normal: this novel will challenge your emotional footing, moral compass, and plot expectations. Normally heroism is about gaining justice by defeating “the monster”, but in this original and spectacular novel heroism is about Maren accepting and being loved for “the monster” she is. DeAngelis’ choice to narrate her novel from an antihero’s perspective, portraying Maren sympathetically and with integrity while she confronts the shame and loneliness of her crimes, challenges us to ponder many philosophical questions about what it means to be good versus evil, a villain rather than a hero, and guilty rather than innocent. When is killing someone or something considered a crime rather than a natural instinct or as necessary for survival? Maren will take your eyes and your heart, but I hope you enjoy being devoured by this deliciously dark novel as much as I did.

Alyssa Raymond loves to read, review and collect books–thanks to her many years as a bookseller. She can’t wait to share with you her favorite new and upcoming releases and thanks Edelweiss, NetGalley, the Boulder Book Store, and publishers for providing her with advance reading copies in exchange for her honest reviews.


New Fairy Tale Retellings: Echo, Nightbird, Monstrous

Last week I recommended my favorite YA epic fantasy books published this month. Now I will share with you a few of my favorite new releases in another subgenre of fantasy/science fiction: fairy tale retellings.

You would think by now that reading classic fairy tales and their many adaptations and retellings would get old. But, amazingly enough, many writers have used familiar fairy tale elements to create surprisingly inventive and complex narratives. Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo, Alice Hoffman’s Nightbird, and MarcyKate Connolly’s Monstrous employ fairy tales in their narratives in very diverse ways.

Echo, a breathtaking novel of interconnected stories, begins with an original fairy tale involving a magical harmonica that unites two boys and a girl growing up before and during World War II. They live in different worlds, strangers to one another, but they all experience prejudice and share a love of music.

The first story features Friedrich, an aspiring conductor who is called “Monster Boy” because of his birthmark and labeled an undesirable in Nazi Germany. In the second story, set in Pennsylvania, Mike and his brother desperately try to escape from an orphanage and their musical talent may be their best hope. In the final story, which takes place in California, Ivy struggles with her school system’s segregation of Mexicans (including those American-born like her) and discrimination against Japanese Americans following the Pearl Harbor bombing. By uniting these individual stories, Echo not only emphasizes their common experiences of injustice but their love of music—an enduring source of hope and resilience during dark times.

Nightbird, which will be released in March, also employs magical realism and is a fairy tale set in contemporary times. In 12-year-old Twig’s small town of Sidwell, Massachusetts, a winged monster is rumored to come out at night and is believed to be responsible for strange incidents of theft and graffiti. Twig is a keen observer of what goes on in the town, but she also stays separate, and Nightbird fuses fairy tale elements with everyday life to bring more meaning to her isolation. She is not just a lonely and awkward 12-year-old who has difficulty making friends and feeling normal. A family secret—more specifically, a witch’s ancient curse—keeps her and her mother in self-imposed isolation. That is until Twig befriends their new neighbors who have ties to her family secret, and she starts to believe that breaking the curse is possible.

Monstrous also features a magical creature that humans fear and a curse the characters struggle to overcome. Fairy tale fantasy combines with a Frankenstein motif, as Kymera is brought back to life by her father, but without her original human body and memories of her previous life. A year ago she was killed, along with her mother, by the evil wizard who abducts and murders girls, using their young blood as a powerful ingredient in his magic spells. After many experiments joining his daughter’s human parts with multiple animal parts, her father has finally succeeded in recreating her as a hybrid with patchwork skin, cat eyes, claws, wings, and a barbed tail.

Monstrous’ fantasy world mirrors Kymera’s beloved volume of fairy tales, which she and her father read together during their seclusion in a hidden cottage outside of the city of Bryre. Her father wants to keep them safe from the evil wizard’s magic and from humans who would feel threatened by her appearance. Humans would see her as a monster, he explains, and not as his perfect creation and their salvation.

The wizard has cursed Bryre with a spreading deadly briar and a disease that sickens girls who he imprisons before using them for his dark magic spells. Bryre’s salvation depends on Kymera: her hybrid form is ideal for rescuing the girls from the wizard’s prison and bringing them to her father who cures and protects them. Her rescue missions become more complicated, however, as memories of her former life slowly resurface and her friendships with a mysterious boy and a rare dragon cause her to question what she believes to be true.

Although written for middle grade and young adult readers, I recommend these books for all ages—especially if you like fairy tale retellings. I love how they apply fairy tale magic to universal experiences of loneliness, prejudice, and finding hope and love in a damaged world. Older readers may find plot twists predictable, but I hope that doesn’t prevent anyone from picking up these enchanting reads. I also recommend Bird and Beastkeeper if you are looking for comparable books.

Perhaps what I love most about these novels and about many fairy tale retellings is that so-called monsters (who are alienated, judged, feared, and threatened because they are different in appearance or status from people considered normal and acceptable) demonstrate extraordinary humanity and don’t stop fighting for justice.

If you want a sense of just how many YA fairy tale retellings there are, check out this wonderful infographic.

Alyssa Raymond loves to read, review and collect books–thanks to her many years as a bookseller. She can’t wait to share with you her favorite new releases and thanks Edelweiss, NetGalley, the Boulder Book Store, and the publishers for providing her with advanced readers copies in exchange for her honest reviews.