Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

Summary from the publisher:
All her life, Mary has been a slave to the wealthy Van Lew family of Richmond, Virginia. But when Bet, the willful Van Lew daughter, decides to send Mary to Philadelphia to be educated, she must leave her family to seize her freedom.

Life in the North brings new friendships, a courtship, and a far different education than Mary ever expected, one that leads her into the heart of the abolition movement. With the nation edging toward war, she defies Virginia law by returning to Richmond to care for her ailing father—and fight for emancipation. Posing as a slave in the Confederate White House in order to spy on President Jefferson Davis, Mary deceives even those who are closest to her to aid the Union command.

Just when it seems all her courageous gambles to end slavery will pay off, Mary discovers that everything comes at a cost—even freedom.

The moment I heard The Secrets of Mary Bowser was based on a true story, I had to get my hands on it. I knew absolutely nothing about the slaves and abolitionists who gathered intelligence on the Confederacy for Lincoln and was eager to see the Civil War from that point of view. I was also intrigued by Mary herself, a woman about whom very little survives, but who, according to historical documents, was a vital part of the spy network. Luckily, Ms. Leveen provides ample insight into all of these things in this sweeping, meticulously researched novel.

The historical side of The Secrets of Mary Bowser made my inner nerd sing. The book spans a twenty year period where we see the South undergo drastic changes as they struggle to hold on to the institution of slavery and fight and lose a devastating war. At the same time, we get a glimpse of life in the North, where free blacks often encountered the same discrimination they did in the South—sometimes from their own people. Ms. Leveen maintains a strong sense of time and place throughout, and the little details she includes really make the story come alive. The scenes that took place inside the Confederate White House, a.k.a. the Grey House, were especially fascinating in the way they revealed the underpinnings of the government and how the Southern politicians often sidled up to their president’s wife to get their requests heard, but also gave an idea of how the Davises behaved when they weren’t hosting strategy meetings and dinner parties. It really brought home the fact that the abolitionist spy ring succeeded largely because the Davises regarded their slaves as little more than furniture.

The true heart of the novel, though, is the title character. Mary’s voice won me over from the very first page, and it was a pleasure to go on this journey with her as she gained her freedom, left her parents to study in Philadelphia, struggled to fit in with Northern society, and eventually returned to a much more dangerous Virginia to help end slavery. It was really interesting to watch her mature from someone who quickly jumped to conclusions, to someone who saw that, in the abolitionist cause and in spying, nothing is simple. Her final words to President Lincoln warmed my heart and gave me chills.

I so enjoyed disappearing into the world of The Secrets of Mary Bowser, to the point where, even after I’d read the abundant bonus materials, I still didn’t want the book to be done. A wonderful addition to an already rich summer of historical fiction.


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We interrupt our regularly scheduled reviewing to bring you some very exciting news:

I got a job!!!!!

(and yes, that photo is an accurate depiction of what I did when I found out)

As of Wednesday, July 25, I will be working in the marketing and publicity department at Gotham and Avery, which are two non-fiction imprints at Penguin. I’m so excited to join the team over there and to be back in the offices where I interned last summer!

I’m so grateful to all of the people I’ve met in publishing over the last year, who have been so helpful and encouraging. I’m especially thankful to the incredible book community on Twitter, because you guys always knew what to say when I was feeling low and made me genuinely believe I’d get here!

This blog will continue as normal, i.e. I will try to post reviews as often as I can and will probably continue pasting a synopsis from the publisher, rather than write my own. And maybe I’ll post a bit about what it’s like to work in publishing, too!

We now return to our semi-regularly scheduled posting.

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The Absolutist by John Boyne

The Absolutist by John Boyne

Summary from the publisher:
It is September 1919: twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver a package of letters to the sister of Will Bancroft, the man he fought alongside during the Great War.

But the letters are not the real reason for Tristan’s visit. He can no longer keep a secret and has finally found the courage to unburden himself of it. As Tristan recounts the horrific details of what to him became a senseless war, he also speaks of his friendship with Will–from their first meeting on the training grounds at Aldershot to their farewell in the trenches of northern France. The intensity of their bond brought Tristan happiness and self-discovery as well as confusion and unbearable pain.

I went into The Absolutist armed only with the knowledge that it was a WWI story that would likely explore a friendship between two soldiers that developed into something more. By the end, I was an emotional wreck. This is an incredibly visceral book that takes you deep into the trenches in a way that you’ve never experienced before, then poignantly captures the year immediately following the war, when everyone was still coming to terms with the enormity of loss. And all the while, the question: what truly defines a coward?

The stand-out here is John Boyne’s utterly transporting writing. He sets the scene so perfectly that you can easily visualize the small town in Norwich where the Bancrofts live, the spartan training grounds at Aldershot, and the filth of the trenches in France. The scenes in France were especially good, and a particularly memorable moment for me was one harrowing charge where a young recruit became paralyzed with fear right before going over the top, to the point where those behind him had to shove him bodily into no man’s land. It’s a completely unvarnished look at a devastating war, and it made complete sense for Tristan to constantly wondered how he was still alive. But then the soldiers interact with one another like the boys they are, and you can’t help but laugh at a welcome moment of lightness.

I also loved the way Boyne explored what it meant to be a conscientious objector during this war. I didn’t know that there were varying degrees of objectors, from those who refused to fight but still wanted to do something for the war effort, to those who refused to do anything at all, a.k.a. absolutists, and while I was familiar with the way these men were treated at home, I was unaware of how they were treated in the army, and while it was unsurprising, it was still horrifying.

Finally, Boyne unravels Tristan’s story at a perfect pace as he moves between Norwich in 1919 and the war years, so that by the time the darkest secrets are revealed, you’ve gotten to know and understand him, and even though his actions are horrible, you can see what drove him to make his choice and why it will torment him for the rest of his life.

The Absolutist is an incredible novel of war and loss that will resonate with you long after you’ve finished it. If you love history and WWI, this is definitely for you.

Thanks Jen and the folks at Other Press for my copy! I can’t wait for tomorrow’s discussion at Linus’s Blanket.

And, by the way, aforementioned Jen is the new mother of twins! Happy birthday, Margaret and Elizabeth!


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Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

Summary from the publisher:
Catherine Bailey has been enjoying the single life long enough to know a catch when she sees one. Gorgeous, charismatic and spontaneous, Lee seems almost too perfect to be true. And her friends clearly agree, as each in turn falls under his spell.

But what begins as flattering attentiveness and passionate sex turns into raging jealousy, and Catherine soon learns there is a darker side to Lee. His increasingly erratic, controlling behavior becomes frightening, but no one believes her when she shares her fears. Increasingly isolated and driven into the darkest corner of her world, a desperate Catherine plans a meticulous escape.

Four years later, Lee is behind bars and Catherine—now Cathy—compulsively checks the locks and doors in her apartment, trusting no one. But when an attractive upstairs neighbor, Stuart, comes into her life, Cathy dares to hope that happiness and love may still be possible . . . until she receives a phone call informing her of Lee’s impending release. Soon after, Cathy thinks she catches a glimpse of the former best friend who testified against her in the trial; she begins to return home to find objects subtly rearranged in her apartment, one of Lee’s old tricks. Convinced she is back in her former lover’s sights, Cathy prepares to wrestle with the demons of her past for the last time.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read something this frightening. From the very first page, my heart started pounding. When Cathy met Stuart about a quarter of the way in, I was so mistrustful that I couldn’t believe he was a genuinely nice human being. By the end, I couldn’t walk by a door without thinking of Cathy going through her checking. This book had officially crawled under my skin and invaded my life, and I loved it.

The credit here goes to Elizabeth Haynes, who makes an astonishing debut with a book that truly merits the genre of thriller. She expertly built the tension as she moved back and forth between 2004, when Cathy was in the relationship with Lee, and 2007, when Cathy learned of Lee’s release from prison just as she was beginning to move past everything. Both situations reach their height in tandem, and it was incredible to see the contrast between the beaten down Cathy of 2004 and the warrior Cathy of 2007, and the common thread of strength in both.

If the tension wasn’t enough, the subject matter made the story even more powerful. As I read, all I could think of was that this would be one of my worst nightmares: to be in a mentally and physically abusive relationship with a controlling psychopath who has managed to turn all of my friends against me, leaving me completely alone. Cathy’s situation is very real, yet in a departure from similar stories, she points out something that really struck me: before Lee, she regarded battered women with scorn for not leaving at the first sign of abuse, but in hindsight, it’s not at all that simple, because part of you wants to hold on to the tender moments, and part of you is afraid of what will happen if you try to leave.

The psychological elements were also extremely fascinating. It’s clear that the author did a lot of research into how OCD develops, why the habits persist, and the various forms of therapy; it all resulted in a very authentic recovery for Cathy, complete with backslides and anxiety attacks, not to mention the fact that she’s not necessarily cured of her disorder, rather she’s found an effective way to manage it.

Into the Darkest Corner is easily up there with Gone Girl as one of the best thrillers of summer, if not the year. Thanks to the fabulous Maggie from Lemuria Books for recommending it to me, and to the equally fabulous folks at Harper Books for sending me an ARC!

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