BOOK REVIEW | Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

My thoughts:
This book is stunning – unique in style and rich in substance. I have never read anything like this before, and loved this new reading experience. This is one of those rare books that I could start over again immediately.

Willie, Abraham Lincoln’s eleven year old son, falls ill and dies leaving Abraham wrought with guilt and sorrow. Willie passes on to the bardo, a Tibetan concept of purgatory, and is greeted by other spirits who are stuck in this place, refusing to believe themselves dead. The ghosts want to help Willie move through to the other side, as young ones are not meant to tarry. Over the course of one night, Abraham visits Willie’s grave multiple times to be with his boy once more. Meanwhile, the United States is at war and we gain insights into Abraham’s torment about the state of the country, and how his grief shaped his presidency.

The story is told by the ghosts in purgatory as well as through historical accounts, making for a completely new reading journey. It took me a little getting used to, but all of the insights painted a layered picture of who Abraham Lincoln was, as well as the depth of his grief.

The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.

An examination of grief, Saunders astutely captures the horror of a parent loosing a child. It’s all consuming, backwards, unimaginable. This is not the story of a president, but rather of a father who is desperate in his sorrow – so desperate that holding his son’s body, just a little longer, feels like the right thing to do. A beautiful and haunting book that won’t leave me soon.

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BOOK REVIEW | Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor (The Chronicles of St. Mary’s #1)

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2/5 stars

From the publisher:
Behind the seemingly innocuous façade of St Mary’s, a different kind of historical research is taking place. They don’t do ‘time-travel’ – they ‘investigate major historical events in contemporary time’. Maintaining the appearance of harmless eccentrics is not always within their power – especially given their propensity for causing loud explosions when things get too quiet.

Meet the disaster-magnets of St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research as they ricochet around History. Their aim is to observe and document – to try and find the answers to many of History’s unanswered questions…and not to die in the process. But one wrong move and History will fight back – to the death. And, as they soon discover – it’s not just History they’re fighting.

Follow the catastrophe curve from 11th-century London to World War I, and from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria. For wherever Historians go, chaos is sure to follow in their wake….

My thoughts:
This was a book club selection and way outside of my normal realm of reading – which I guess is the point of participating in a book club, right? Unfortunately, partially due to my own shortcomings, this book didn’t work for me.

I will be the first to admit that I struggle with any sort of fantasy or science fiction – it takes a lot to sell me on plots of this nature. I find it difficult to suspend reality, and as a result am unable to become invested in the story or the characters. That said, I understand why so many people love this series: there’s romance, passion, a strong and independent female lead, action, adventure, and a ton of fun. I guess I’m just a boring old biddy who likes her books more on the introspective side.

This is the story of St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research and the historians that work there. These historians, however, take their research to the next level through breakthrough technology – they can travel through time to investigate the historical events they are so enamoured with. Naturally, messing about with time travel and diving into time periods such as the Cretaceous can only lead to troubling results. The story revolves around Maxwell, described early on as a disaster magnet, and it’s no surprise that she finds herself in a wild array of dangerous situations. The cliffhanger at the crux hints at another wild ride for those who continue on to book #2.

I found the writing underwhelming – I crave great writing even when reading something that is just for fun. Additionally, I found some of the plot points to be choppy and there was a bit of jumping around which I found jarring. I think if the writing was tightened up I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. That said, I don’t regret this read at all – it introduced me to a new genre of book and definitely piqued my interest in this category! I’ve heard of a few other series’ with similar time traveling plot lines that I am curious to look into now.

BOOK REVIEW | Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

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3.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Like the heroine of the novel she adores, Jane Steele suffers cruelly at the hands of her aunt and schoolmaster. And like Jane Eyre, they call her wicked – but in her case, she fears the accusation is true. When she flees, she leaves behind the corpses of her tormentors.

A fugitive navigating London’s underbelly, Jane rights wrongs on behalf of the have-nots whilst avoiding the noose. Until an advertisement catches her eye. Her aunt has died and the new master at Highgate House, Mr Thornfield, seeks a governess. Anxious to know if she is Highgate’s true heir, Jane takes the position and is soon caught up in the household’s strange spell. When she falls in love with the mysterious Charles Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: can she possess him – body, soul and secrets – and what if he discovers her murderous past?

My thoughts:
I warn the tempted: secrets decay, as corpses do, growing ranker over time.

I’ve wanted to pick up Jane Steele since it’s release, and finally decided to jump in. Jane Eyre is one of my all time favourite books and as a fan of the macabre, this had my name all over it. This is a fun read, especially for fans of it’s inspiration. This book works really well if you haven’t read the original – however, there are a lot of great moments in there for those who have.

The first half of Jane Steele had me sold and I was loving every second. The story begins with Jane as a young girl, living at Highgate House with her mother. Family drama ensues, leaving Jane and her mother to live in a guest house on the property. Shortly before her death, Jane’s mother reveals to her that she is will inherit Highgate House one day. Jane is sent to boarding school, events unfold, and let’s just say more murder takes place. In the second half of the book, Jane returns to Highgate House as a governess hired by it’s new master, Charles Thornfield. A bit of momentum was lost for me during this part of the story but there were enough twist, turns, revelations, and gore to satisfy. Oh, and the love story between Jane and Charles is fantastic.

Jane Steele is well written and engaging, and I enjoyed that Jane was a Dexter-style killer – she only takes down bad guys. I have a copy of The Gods of Gotham sitting on my bookshelf unread, and I think I’ll pick it up soon as I’d definitely like to read Faye’s 100% original work.