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Belle Cora

Belle Cora
Phillip Margulies

Arabella Godwin is an old lady when her life is shaken, quite literally, by one of San Francisco’s famous earthquakes. The disaster throws her together with a woman who remembers her, not as a rich society widow, but as the most infamous madam on the west coast.
Realizing that she has nothing to lose, Arabella finally sits down to write her own account of her early years. It is this memoir that makes up the bulk of Belle Cora.

Arabella was born into a comfortable merchant family, but the untimely death of her parents scattered the siblings, sending Arabella and her younger brother Lewis to live with relatives in the country. Farm life did not suit Arabella; but it was there she met Jeptha, who may just have been the love of her life.
Circumstances developed (I don’t want to give away the whole plot) that led Arabella to the gold rush town of San Francisco. She quickly worked her way up from being a prostitute to running one of the best brothels in the city. She also became known as the wife of the notorious gambler Charles Cora.
Of course a fast lifestyle came at a cost, and Belle paid that cost. She was still very young when she retired and started another life with a respectable man.

The narrative of Belle Cora– the story development and historical details-  is good enough. It is populated with a supporting cast of interesting characters. But what makes it exceptional, in my mind, is the voice of Belle as an old woman looking back over her life. Her perspective, at once unashamed and defensive, really elevates the story.
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I had not even finished Belle Cora before I started recommending it to people. I’m recommending it even more now.

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The Visionist

The Visionist
Rachel Urquhart

When May Kimball finally left her abusive drunken husband, taking her children Polly and Ben with her, Polly took a lamp back into the house for one last look at the father she hated. Teenage Polly dropped the lamp, burning the house to the ground and killing her father.
May took her children to the safety of the nearby Shaker religious community, and left them there. Polly was taken under the wing of another young girl, Charity, who had been raised as a Shaker her whole life. Charity was a devout believer who had been ostracized for a skin condition.
In the safety of the Shaker community, Polly began to speak of the rhings she imagined in her dissociative state when her father raped her. The Shakers took these words as divine revelation and began to see her as a “visionist.”
Meanwhile, fire inspector Simon Pryor was looking into the fire on the Kimball farm. His plan was initially to help his corrupt employer buy the property cheaply. As Simon Pryor dives more deeply into the issues of inheritance on the farm, he begins to question his own motives.
All the while, Polly is moving towards her moment of truth. Is she really a Visionist? Has Charity’s faith been misplaced? What will happen when the whole truth is finally laid out?

The Visionist alternates narrators between Charity, Polly and Simon Pryor. To be honest, at first I skimmed Simon’s chapters because I wanted to read more about the growing friendship between the girls. But as his story unfolded, he developed into a very interesting character.

The Visionist excels in two areas. The first is the characters. Not only are Polly, Charity and Simon well-written, but there is a whole cast of supporting characters that are well developed with just a few lines.
The second is the portrayal of the Shakers. It is clear that Urquhart did extensive research into this historical sect. It would be easy to portray them with skepticism, but she treats them with warmth and respect. The details of Shaker life make this book come alive.
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The Visionist is an outstanding first novel. I hope the author writes another one just as good, because I would like to read it.

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The Kept

The Kept
James Scott.

The Kept is a novel about family, about the things we do for the people we love, and the lengths to which we will go to protect them. Its also a story about revenge, and about how one action can not balance the scale of another.
Elspeth came home to her remote family cabin from a stay in the city, working as a midwife, to find her husband and four children had been murdered. Her last son, 12 year old Caleb, was nearly mad with hunger and grief. Mistaking her for the men who killed his family, he shot her.
When Elspeth recovered just a little, the two of them struck off on a long cold trek to the nearest city, looking for answers.

Scott draws his characters with fine lines, revealing their inner lives in action and gesture. He uncovers information slowly, so that when the facts are finally stated, you are surprised but feel like you also knew it all along.
Sadly,  Scott creates these characters and then ruins them. Most of this book, people are starving, freezing and bleeding- or all three at once. The Kept is about family, and about revenge- and it doesn’t end well.

James Scott has produced an excellent first novel. I didnt precisely like it, because it was so bleak, but I still admire his talent. I am eager for him to write another book soon…maybe one with some hope.

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The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd

During the Civil War era, sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimpke were widely known not only as abolitionists but also as feminists. When she was a young girl, Sarah had been gifted a young slave named Hetty for her birthday, and Sarah taught her to read.
From the bare bones of these historical facts, Kidd has brought to life an outstanding novel, remarkable for its human characterization and insight.

In Kidd’s novel, Sarah is a restless girl with big dreams of becoming a lawyer and freeing her slave, Hetty. Her teen years sharpen her awareness of the inequalities faced by women and people of color (both slave and free.)
Hetty’s alternate chapters provide an unflinching look at the harsh realities of life for a female slave. Her mother, Charlotte, is a gifted seamstress who passes on her family’s African oral traditions through the art of her quilts.
Although it is illegal, Sarah is determined to give Hetty a tiny freedom in being literate. Neither of them can forsee the long-ranging consequences of this descision.

As an adult, Sarah is free to travel, and encounters the Quakers, who have radical ideas about freedom for slaves and women. She soon discovers that some of these ideas are more theory than practice.
Hetty, meanwhile, gets drawn into plans for a slave revolt. These plans, too, might never become a reality.

When she was only 12, Sarah was made the godmother to her sister Angelina. Their relationship is at once close and volatile. As a young woman trying to find her own way, Sarah is ill-equipped to help her sister in her own rebellion against societal expectations. But when both sisters are adults, they grow into an unexpected partnership. The differences that drove them apart as girls make them an effective pair in the fight for equal rights for all people.

Hetty’s mother taught her to always make quilts with black triangles,  representing blackbird wings. Like Sarah and Angelina, Hetty never gives up hope that someday she, too, can fly free.

The Invention of Wings is an outatanding book. Kidd has done an excellent job with both historic detail and character development that make the story come alive.
Having already read most of Kidd’s previous works, I recognize many common themes from her: anti-slavery and racial equality, as well as equal rights for women- especially in the church- being the most obvious. The importance of contemplative prayer, art, and symbolism of nature are others.
In the context of Sue Monk Kidd’s other books, The Invention of Wings is clearly a natural progression as well as a pinnacle of her writing

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You might like: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter Franklin.

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The Mountain of Light

The Mountain of Light
Indu Sundaresan

The Kohinoor diamond today is part of the British crown jewels. But hundreds of years ago, it belonged to rulers of India, Persia and Afghanistan. It was taken as kingdoms were conquered, and given in ransom and tribute. The name “Koh-i-noor” means “mountain of light” and refers to the diamond’s unusual brilliance.

Sundaresan has written a beautiful account of almost 100 years in the life of the Kohinoor diamond, during the British conquest of India. The story traces real events and features some historical characters, although many of the details are fictional.
Sundaresan opts to move the story along through a sort of chain of narrators, each one linking to the next. I found each narration break a bit confusing, as it always took me a little while to figure out the connection to the previous segment. However, this unique style brought a wide range of perspectives to the story (male and female; British and Indian; royal, military and civilian.)
The segment I enjoyed the most was also the saddest one: at the end when the last heir of the Punjab empire, Dalip Singh, has followed the Kohinoor to England.  His life there is in sharp contrast to the stories of his predecessors in India just a few decades before.

Sundaresan excels at descriptions: lush gardens, vivid colors and sparkling mirrors form the backdrop for the story of the Kohinoor diamond. The contrast between Indian and British cultures is especially sharp.  This is a part of history I don’t know much about, but Mountain of Light brought the stories of the past alive.
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You might like: The Namesake, Lahiri. The Blood of Flowers, Amirrezvani. The World We Found, Umrigar.