Tag Archive for Book review

Fraternité: A Vivid Snapshot of France’s Revolutionary History

A photo of the cover of the book, FraternitéSome books simply take you there. The minute you start reading, you’re not reading the story—you’re living it. And Fraternité, by Margaret Pritchard Houston, is exactly like that. Through several characters whose loves, griefs, and aspirations come alive before and within you, you are transported to Paris in 1848 and find yourself breathlessly experiencing the beginnings of the revolution that essentially brought to completion the earlier French Revolution of 1789-99 once and for all.

Sebastian Duval, the main character, doesn’t sense how momentous those beginnings are at first. While it’s true that he has been sent by the police to infiltrate the district of Saint-Antoine and report on any anti-government rumblings there, he gets more caught up in investigating the murder of a prostitute who has been one of his primary informants. But before long, his discoveries begin to alarm Allard, his superior officer, who recognizes their dangerous implications for the restored monarchy well before Sebastian does.

Sebastian, meanwhile, still struggling with the deep grief from losing his child two years ago, which has led to a partial estrangement from his wife Marie, finds that he must call upon the aid of an old friend and fellow undercover agent, Gilbert Montserrat, who was also deeply involved in that earlier loss. Soon these three—Sebastian, Marie, and Gilbert—gradually uncover the mystery behind the prostitute’s murder and her connection to secrets that could threaten the very future of France. And throughout his investigations, Sebastian finds himself emotionally torn: torn between duty and friendship, torn between guilt and desire, and torn between loves. As the final revolution gathers momentum and becomes inevitable, Sebastian works frantically to salvage and protect whoever he can and survive to fashion a new future with a deeper understanding of his own heart and the new world that his struggles have helped to create.

When it comes to this history, Ms. Pritchard Houston really knows her stuff. Between her knowledge of the underpinnings of the revolution and her extensive research into the layout of Paris and the living conditions of its downtrodden citizenry, she makes you feel as though you are right there in the midst of things as they happen. Yet it’s not just a matter of knowing the facts; those alone could be dry as dust. It takes great insight into the human character, a delicate and precise level of control and plotting, and, quite simply, terrific writing skills to bring characters and the events in their lives so vividly alive. Ms. Houston has all of that, in spades.

I really loved this book and read huge swaths without being able to put it down. I highly recommend it, both for the fascinating history it chronicles and for the poignantly real story of some of the people who lived that history.

One Way Trip: A Universal Story on any Planet

One Way TripImagine blasting off on a trip to Mars—one of the first two humans to set up a colony there, unable ever to return to Earth—and suddenly you realize that you actually yearn to go back home after all. In his short novel, One Way Trip, Stephen M. Braund follows Martin, a young astronaut, on exactly this journey, with all its implications. This bittersweet story of love and loss takes the reader back and forth between Martin’s childhood, where he meets Gwen, his true love and the one who inspired his love of the stars, and his adulthood, where he has lost Gwen forever and must aim for the stars without her. It’s hard for the reader to imagine that Martin can forge a new life successfully, yet Braund makes us care about him and root for him to succeed.

Neither of the two courageous men who will establish this Mars colony are emotionally whole, despite how level-headed and firm in their commitment they seem at first. It’s as though both Martin and his companion, Jomo, with tragedies and serious losses in their past, must lose even the very planet that shaped them before they can truly face up to and deal with the lives they lived there. Talk about needing to get perspective!

Braund carefully but convincingly reveals the details of both Martin’s and Gwen’s lives as we gradually come to understand what led both of them to the places they now occupy, one on Mars and one on Earth. And as more of the truth comes out, it’s disconcerting to discover that Martin is perhaps more to blame for this vast gap between them than he appeared at first; we don’t want to think that this isolation, loneliness, and loss might in any way be something he “deserves.”

But as the story moves through the years, where Martin and Jomo have gradually been joined by other scientists and have worked through the beginnings of a colony that slowly starts to thrive, we begin to sense that the griefs of the past may finally have settled into a sense of peace. And in the end, this very long journey of loss may result in unexpected fulfillment.

The only extra insight I would have wanted from this book would have involved some details about the colony itself—how it really worked and how the people created a viable place to live on another planet. But of course, that’s mainly because I love the stars and the thought of venturing out into them as much as Martin and Gwen do.

But Braund is primarily interested in the very human story and the motivations behind this launching into the astronomical unknown. He captures the depths of Martin’s and Gwen’s (and even Jomo’s) emotional work in a surprisingly deep and insightful way, considering that this is not a long book. He literally demonstrates that there is no place distant enough to allow anyone to flee the inner work they must do in order to heal; their past will always follow them, wherever they go.

This is a story that is as moving and insightful on Mars as it has ever been on Earth.

Book Review: The Shadow King, by Jo Marchant

Cover of and link to the book, "The Shadow King," by Jo MarchantIf there’s one thing archaeologists like to do when studying the mummy of Tutankhamun, the ancient Egyptian pharaoh, it’s top each other’s stories. But that’s not too surprising when you recall that that’s what many pharaohs used to do too: erase the previous pharaoh’s story in favour of their own.

Science journalist and writer Jo Marchant chronicles all the archaeology stories about Tutankhamun in her new book, The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy. Starting in 1922 with Howard Carter, she shows how each successive archaeologist, with each new test and new discovery about the ancient boy king, tried to erase previous theories about his life and death in favour of new ones. Many of the new stories stemmed from genuinely new or refined evidence. But one suspects that some of them also stemmed from the agendas of the storytellers.

But that’s precisely the thing. Marchant gradually concludes that while the evidence is important, the storytelling may be almost more important. Here’s how she describes the history of all those archaeologists’ stories about Tutankhamun: “The king has gone from a tragic child who succumbed to tuberculosis, to a murder victim, daredevil chariot racer, malaria-infected cripple, brave soldier, and even a hippo’s last meal. You can pick whichever story you like.” We can pick because these stories go hand in hand with society’s own fascination with the ancient king’s history; they tell a great deal about us.

Think of Dr. Zahi Hawass, that most famous leading man in documentaries about ancient Egyptian archaeology. It’s very likely that the evidence described in some of those documentaries was just a liiiiittle bit slanted in his preferred direction. In many ways, he’s less of a rigorous archaeologist and more of a storyteller. But he tells his stories for the sake of Egypt, for the idea of Egypt’s continuity from Tutankhamun’s day till today, and for Egypt’s own self-esteem. (And you wonder whether his stories are finally over, as Hawass has fallen out of public favour, and modern Egypt is now in turmoil. Can Tutankhamun’s story—or one of his many stories—ever help Egypt now?)

Marchant takes us on a fascinating trip from the past to the present, giving us the stories and ideas of the archeologists as well as of the young pharaoh. Her book is thorough and objective when it comes to the actual evidence about Tutankhamun, but it’s also an exploration of the complexities of the human tale itself. Through her own story, she gives us hints of what the people in our society want—maybe even need—from the history of Tutankhamun. And given the fact that the boy king’s mummy has been handled so much over the years that it may soon be on the verge of crumbling at last into final nothingness, the book may well be one of the final memorials and stories of Tutankhamun himself.

Amity and Sorrow, by Peggy Riley, Promises Hope

Cover of and link to the book, "Amity & Sorrow,," by Peggy Riley It’s not easy breaking out of a religion that you’ve been taught from birth is the only truth in the world. It’s even harder when you’re isolated from the rest of the world and depend on one man alone—the husband of all fifty women in the community and the father of all the children. When your mother grabs you and flees during a crisis that looks like it’s part-Waco and part-Jonestown, you’re going to suffer the mother of all identity crises.

Amaranth and her two daughters, Amity and Sorrow, fetch up on a dustbowl of a farm, depending for help on a poor farmer named Bradley. The girls struggle to retain their customs—fully cover their hair and bodies even in hot weather, don’t enter a field or any building where a man lives, and don’t talk to any male—even while their mother must break those rules to help keep them alive. The girls are pulled in two directions. Amity can’t help but be curious about this new world, and she, too, begins breaking rules as she starts to explore. But Sorrow, yearning for the honored position she held in the cult community and yearning for the father who promised that the world was about to end, despises both her mother and sister and plots to find a way—any way—to subvert them and find a way back to him.

In the book, Amity and Sorrow, Peggy Riley paints a devastatingly accurate picture of the culture shock and internal struggles faced by the woman and especially the two girls, torn from their close and sheltered family. Riley shows the small steps Amity has to take as she begins learning the customs of the world and the power of free choice. But Riley also demonstrates that for some people born into a cult, escape is truly impossible. We begin to suspect that Sorrow, in her yearning for the end of the world and her preoccupation with her father as God, may never really be saved.

This is not a story with a lot of overt action. The action is more psychological: Amaranth must understand the mistakes she made and the undercurrents she ignored in her extended family, which led to her current situation. Bradley must work through his sorrow over his ex-wife, so he can open his heart again. Amity undergoes gradual, eye-opening explorations and blossoming. And Sorrow…her resentment turns into slow, zealous madness and may destroy all of them.

The gradual psychological action may not be action enough for some readers. When the climax comes and each character must decide his or her own fate, it’s shocking and disturbing and arrives and passes relatively quickly. Yet Peggy Riley has created a personal and moving snapshot of both the appeal of a cult and the sadness and difficulty of trying to break out of it. Fortunately, for most characters and the readers alike, there are enough glimmers of light left to promise hope.


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