During the past 6 months I was on a reading binge. Partly because I was travelling for pleasure and book promotion. Also because I’ve been in a heavy research phase for a novel, and sought out a variety of books for pleasure and entertainment. My choices are not in ranked order of preference.
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
So many close personal friends were telling me, “You have to read this book! You will love it! This book reminded me of you!” I have had some less than wonderful experiences with recommendations. As a very selective reader (aren’t we all?), I’m never quite sure whether to trust other people’s impressions of what I would like. I was on book tour shortly after this nonfiction memoir was released, and I saw it prominently displayed in the stores where I was signing my novel Several times I heard Helen MacDonald interviewed on radio, and was intrigued by her story of training and bonding with a goshawk while in the throes of grief at her father’s death. I’m bird watcher and photographer, we have resident raptors, I’ve explored falconry for book research and in real life, I’ve witnessed falconers at work in England.
I therefore had very high expectations for this book by the Cambridge scholar and hawking enthusiast. Her writing is lyrical and at times brutally—but always beautifully—descriptive. Exploring the nature of grief, a universal and yet a unique experience, is never easy. The little murders perpetrated by a raptor make for difficult reading. But MacDonald’s devotion to her hawk Mabel, the demands of the training, and the healing capacity of their bond, are magnificently depicted.
She weaves in the experiences of reclusive author T.H. White (famous for his Arthurian novel The Once and Future King) and his attempt, many decades previously, to train a goshawk he called Gos. MacDonald had read The Goshawk as a child and found it baffling and distressing, as I did, from her descriptions of it. Training her own goshawk, Macdonald was prone to self-doubt and depression, and she dreaded repeating White’s mistakes. This element strengthened the tension between her hopes, her fears, and the challenging reality she creates for herself and her feathered companion.
Three Amazing Things About You by Jill Mansell
This author has a gift for depicting the lives of young-ish British women and men in a lively and believable and highly entertaining way. But in doing so, she can hit notes of pathos and deep pain that make it hard to categorise her work as the fluffy variety of “chick lit.”
There are three main characters. Hallie, living with cystic fibrosis, is on the list to receive a lung transplant—which means the continuation of her life depends on somebody else’s loss of life. Because of the restrictions on her mobility, she writes—an online advice website from which the novel takes its name. Her recommendation is based upon three things her correspondents use to describe themselves. She’s secretly in love with someone, but in her situation can’t depend on a happy ending for herself.
Tasha meets the man of her dreams, only to discover he is a risk-taking daredevil whose adventurousness threatens their relationship and could even endanger his life.
Flo, a dependable, reasonable woman, inherits a cat from the wealthy lady she worked for—and her charge comes with a valuable property attached. She must endure the insults of her late employer’s highly suspicious granddaughter, who insists that the place should be hers and is determined to dislodge her, and the grandson—to whom Flo is attracted.
Jill Mansell is an auto-buy for me and hasn’t let me down yet.
The American Heiress (My Last Duchess in the UK) by Daisy Goodwin
Cora Cash is a wealthy American—the nation’s richest heiress—whose title-hungry mother is determined to leverage the family fortune to make her the bride of an English aristocrat. Cora has a worthy and devoted suitor, whose marriage proposal is forestalled by an accident during a lavish farewell party at her family’s Newport mansion. Bertha, Cora’s black maidservant, travels with her to England for the husband hunt, and the pair must navigate a new and unfamiliar world. Cora discovers that a dollar princess, however attractive and popular, won’t necessarily have an easy time convincing British aristocrats of her worth. Cora’s chosen husband is a duke whose heart might not be whole, and her mother-in-law thrives on scandal and mischief-making. Gilded Age America and Late-Victorian England are rendered with telling detail, and the social rules, culture of marital infidelity, and ruling personalities are very well depicted.
Moving from spoilt, untested girl to determined wife to desperate mother, Cora faces an increasingly difficult decision about exactly where she belongs—and with whom. And her choice will have a corresponding effect on Bertha’s future, just when it begins to look most promising, because race is not the barrier to acceptance and prosperity as it was in America.
This was my introduction to Daisy Goodwin, and immediately after finishing this, I read The Fortune Hunter. It deserves a mention, but as often happens, the first book I read by an author is the one that really sticks in my mind.
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Ballet novels can be either excellent or extremely predictable. As a former dancer, who still dances for exercise, I can be very critical. I was extremely pleased that this one, told through multiple viewpoints, is extraordinary! Joan, a former dancer, has a husband, a son, and a past. After assisting Russian dance star Arslan’s defection, and the end of their affair, she abandoned her lackluster ballet career for marriage to teacher Jacob and motherhood. They attempt to assimilate in a quiet California community where she doesn’t feel entirely at ease, and where the neighbors regard her with curiosity. As professional dancers often do, she becomes an instructor at a ballet academy. In this role she’s responsible for forming the skills of her disturbingly gifted son Harry and his best friend Chloe, the neighbours’ daughter. By preparing the younger generation for the career she surrendered, Joan finds herself propelled towards the New York ballet world she left behind, and her former life, friends, and loves—with the worst imaginable consequences.
Enchantress of Paris by Marci Jefferson
I was a big fan of Girl on the Golden Coin, about Frances Stewart, and one of the best historical novel debuts I can recall. So of course I had to read this book as soon as it was released. Marie Mancini is probably less well-known than her sister Hortense, one of Charles II’s mistresses. Marie’s relationship with Louis XIV in an early period of his rule, is well-drawn, as are her relationships with her sister Olympe, their uncle Cardinal Mazarin, and various other members of the Sun King’s court. Her fate seemingly fore-ordained by astrology, the protagonist must either accept it or fight against it. The novel gives an insider’s view of courtiers’ machinations, and the highly-charged atmosphere surrounding a monarch seeking to establish his power.
Margaret Porter is the author of the bestselling A Pledge of Better Times and eleven other British-set historical novels for multiple publishers, in hardcover and paperback, and many foreign language editions. She studied British history in the U.K. and returned to the U.S. to complete her theatre training, and subsequently worked in film and television. After earning her M.A. in Radio-Television-Film, she was a freelance writer and producer for film and video projects. She worked on location for three feature films and a television series. An occasional newspaper columnist and book reviewer, she also writes for lifestyle magazines. A member of the Authors Guild, Novelists, Inc., Historical Novel Society, London Historians, and other organizations, she is listed in Who’s Who in America; Who’s Who in Authors, Editors and Poets; and Who’s Who in Entertainment. Margaret returns to Great Britain annually to research her books. More information is available at her website, www.margaretporter.com. Her blog is Shaping the Facts, and she is a monthly contributor to the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. She tweets as @MargaretAuthor.