Review: Once Upon a River ~ by Diane Setterfield

480 pages ~ Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

2018 ~ Atria/Emily Beatles Books

My Rating: 5/5 ✰✰✰✰✰

Goodreads Description:

A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.

Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle?

Is it magic?

Or can it be explained by science?

Replete with folklore, suspense, and romance, as well as with the urgent scientific curiosity of the Darwinian age, Once Upon a River is as richly atmospheric as Setterfield’s bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.

“Along the borders of this world lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place.”

My Thoughts:

First, let me say that this book is probably not for everyone. It is a very meandering, atmospheric type of narrative that is more about mood than it is about plot. Although there is a mystery at the heart of the plot, it is not the type of suspenseful mystery that would keep someone up till 3 am trying to get to the bottom of. I would not recommend this to readers who need a fast-paced, suspenseful plot in order to stay engaged. I would recommend this to readers who, like me, enjoy rich, dreamy beautiful prose, simply for the sake of beautiful prose. Fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries would definitely be into this. The plot is slow moving, but this book is more than plot. It is about storytelling in all of its various forms and what those stories provide us. Setterfield has a very distinct style that I can only describe as magical. Here were some highlights for me:

-The celebration of storytelling- As I said above, this book is really a celebration of how stories influence us, inspire us, help us cope, and help us make sense of things we can’t understand. The river, in this story, both gives and takes life, it is both salvation and destruction simultaneously. It both inspires the stories, while the stories, in turn, define the river and what it is capable of. This was really such a beautiful theme, especially for someone who spends their life between the pages of a book.

-Darwinian themes- Because so little was known about the nature of medicine and science during the Victorian era, it was really interesting to see how these characters created stories in order to make sense of things that were, to them, unimaginable.

“Once upon a time, a long time ago, an ape became human. And once upon a time, long before that, an aquatic creature came out of the water and breathed air.”

-Connection to the real Henry Taunt– I had no idea that there was an actual Victorian photographer who floated around the Thames on a boat with a darkroom. When reading Setterfield’s notes at the end of the novel, it was really fascinating to see how her own research of Taunt lead her to create this story. I spent about two hours online mesmerized by his photography. I think that it would have been really lovely if the book included a map of the river and some of Taunt’s photography.

-Setterfield does a remarkable job of making the reader feel as if they’re are part this magical transaction of storytelling. You feel as if you are sitting down at the Swan with a pint, listening to this remarkable tale.

“And now, dear reader, the story is over. It is time for you to cross the bride once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue following without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, you surely have rivers of your own to attend to?”

Happy Reading!!

For more information on Diane Setterfield and her books, check her out on Goodreads

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Review: The Silence of the Girls ~ by Pat Barker


Review: The Silence of the Girls ~ by Pat Barker

291 pages ~ Literary Fiction/Greek Mythology Retelling

2018~ Doubleday Books

Audio Narrated by Kristin Atherton and Michael Fox

10 hr 44 mins

Published by Random House Audio

Presented by

My Rating: 5/5 ✰✰✰✰✰

Goodreads Description:

The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war’s outcome. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position, able to observe the two men driving the Greek army in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate not only of Briseis’s people but also of the ancient world at large.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war—the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead—all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives—and it is nothing short of magnificent.

“Many of these songs I remember from my own childhood. As a small girl at home in my father’s house, I used to creep down to the courtyard when I was supposed to be in bed asleep and listen to the bards playing and singing in the hall. Perhaps, at that age, I thought all the stirring tales of courage and adventure were opening a door into my own future, though a few years later- ten, eleven years old, perhaps- the world began to close in around me and I realized the songs belonged to my brothers, not to me.”

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My Thoughts:

Barker does something pretty brilliant in this book- she manages to simultaneously celebrate The Iliad (the original source of this story) and challenge it. Her challenge comes in the form of perspective because her story brings to light the thoughts/feelings/struggles/triumphs of the women in this story- who both A) played a crucial role in the politics and the emotion of the story, and B) whose perspectives were woefully left out of the original. However, her book also celebrates the Iliad. She gives you a sense of the majesty of this story and the complexity of its heroes. I honestly can’t say enough about how much I loved this book- it was a breath of fresh air, it was moving, emotional, honest, and beautifully written. Below were some of the high points for me:

  • The connection to the Iliad- Barker is very careful to interject Briseis’ voice into Achilles’ story- Briseis never attempts to rewrite it or make it her own. She is very honestly telling the events from her own perspective- inserting her own thoughts and feelings while also commenting on the differences between her story and the romanticized legends of Achilles and the Trojan War.

“Suppose, suppose just once, once, in all these centuries, the slippery gods keep their word and Achilles is granted eternal glory in return for his early death under the walls of Troy…? What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginable distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.

His story. His, not mine. It ends at his grave.”

  • With this connection to the Iliad, we also see Achilles in a completely new light. He continues to be the brutal, ruthless, killing machine that we know, but in seeing his love for Patroclus and his connection to his mother, there is a new depth to him. Even his relationship with Briseis changes over the course of this story. They form a mutual respect and understanding of each other. It’s not loving, I wouldn’t even call it friendship, but it’s definitely a shared acceptance and protection.
  • The everyday struggles and triumphs of the women and their day-to-day life in the camp was beautifully captured. The women like Briseis who have been captured and taken away from their homes to live as slaves in the Greek war camp find a magical way to cope with their reality. Through caring for the children, caring for the sick and wounded, preparing the dead for cremation, all preparing the food, the women in the camp find connection and purpose despite what they are forced to endure.
  • Use of the Gods- There is not as much interaction with the Gods in this story as there is in The Iliad. In fact, Achilles’ mother, Thetis, is the only God these characters ever interact with. The subtle inclusion of the Gods allows for the possibility that some of these “curses” and “bargains” with said Gods could actually be in the minds of the characters rather than a reality.
  • Narrative style- For the most part, the story is told in the first person by Briseis. It is as if you are sitting down with an old friend and she is telling you about the most horrific experiences of the life. This story is raw and unsentimental, unlike the romanticization we find in the Iliad. This story is coming from a person who has become immune to the horrors and the pain that she suffered. To her, it is just her life, not a heroic legend or fanciful tale. Briseis even poses questions for the reader. Questions that she knows the reader might have or questions that a friend might have in hearing her story.

“This man killed your brothers, he killed your husband, he burned your city, he destroyed every single thing you’d ever loved- and you were prepared to marry him? I don’t understand how you could do that?

“Perhaps that’s because you’ve never  been a slave?”

Again, I can’t say enough about the beauty of this book. If you are a fan of Greek Mythology retellings, this is a must!

For more information on Pat Barker and her books, check her out on Goodreads

Follow me on Instagram @somewhereinpages & Goodreads @erinrossi


Review: If We Were Villains ~ by M.L. Rio

Review: If We Were Villains ~ by M.L. Rio

354 pages ~ Adult Fiction, Academia  

2017~ Flatiron Books

My Rating: 4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Goodreads Description:

Enter the players. There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us. Until that year, we saw no further than the books in front of our faces.

On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.

Ten years ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extra. But in their fourth and final year, the balance of power begins to shift, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.

Part coming-of-age story, part confession, If We Were Villains explores the magical and dangerous boundary between art and life. In this tale of loyalty and betrayal, madness and ecstasy, the players must choose what roles to play before the curtain falls.

“You can justify anything is you do it poetically enough”

My Thoughts:

There is so much to love about this novel. I am a giant theater nerd, I love Shakespeare, and I loved getting a glimpse into the dark side of this seeming perfect academic world of art and classical scholarship. The aesthetic definitely made my little heart happy. As much as I loved the mood and the mystery element, there were some issues that kept it from being a 5 star read for me. Below were some high points and low points for me:

High Points

  • The discussion of how art imitates life and vice/versa. This was by far my favorite element of the book and I think that the author did a really great job playing with this theme throughout the book. The actors themselves are constantly playing a role, even off stage. So much of who they become is influenced by the roles they are assigned. The martyr, the villain, the savor, ect. “Was I not always his right-hand man, his lieutenant? Banquo or Benvolio or Oliver- little difference.”
  • The appreciation for the power of words was another cool theme that kept coming up: “How could we explain that standing on a stage and speaking someone else’s words as if they are your own is less an act of bravery than a desperate lunge at mutual understanding? An attempt to forge that tenuous link between speaker and listener and communicate something, anything, of substance.”
  • “I need language to live, like food- lexemes and morphemes and morsels of meaning nourish me with the knowledge that, yes, there is a word for this. Someone else has felt it before.”
  • The detailed description of the Dellecher Conversatory, the costumes, the sets, the plays (especially the Halloween Macbeth scene), the old “castle” that the fourth-years live in- I ate up all of this detail and it really set the perfect mood and background for the dark tale.
  • I liked Rio’s decision to write certain scenes as if they were a play themselves, this was a cool stylistic feature – a play within a play.

Low Points

  • Some of the banter between the characters is very cheesy at times. They sometimes hold full conversations only using lines from Shakespeare’s plays. I get that they are Shakespearean scholars and actors, but what 20-somethings talk like this? At one point, one of the characters actually has a nervous breakdown while spouting nothing but lines from their past plays. This was a little unbelievable for me.
  • Towards the beginning of the novel there is a lot of foreshadowing and it felt very over the top. I kept thinking, “ok we get it, something bad is going to happen.”
  • Relationships between characters felt disingenuous at times. A lot of the time the reader is told rather than shown how these characters feel about one another, so it became a little difficult for me to believe in the full force of their feelings.

Overall, I really did enjoy the novel. I would recommend it to fellow theater nerds, fans of Shakespeare, and anyone who also enjoys the darker side of academic life.  However, I would caution readers who are not familiar with the general plots of most of Shakespeare’s works because they might be a little lost when reading this novel. Plays and characters are referred to so often that if you were not familiar, you might spend a lot of time googling. I have read all of the plays that they refer to and I still had to rely on google a few times. I would also suggest reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History first, if you haven’t already. It is a much better version of this same type of narrative. As always, I would love your thoughts! Happy reading!

For more information on M.L. Rio and her books, check her out on Goodreads

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Review: The Immortalists ~ by Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists ~ by Chloe Benjamin

Putnam ~ 2018

My Rating: 4/5 ⭐️s

Genre: Literary Fiction ~ Pages: 343

“If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?” This is such an interesting tag line that really draws you in, however, I feel like this doesn’t really do the book justice. This tag line gives you the idea that this book is about fate, which is what I was expecting going into it. But this book really connects to choices, specifically, the choices we make based on a perceived fate. Halfway through I kept thinking that it should really read, “If you thought you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life.” This book is truly a magical contemplation of uncertainty, fate vs. choice, and the unbreakable bonds of family, and home. Here’s my breakdown:

• What I loved most:

The Magic element (mainly in Klara’s story) ~

Even though Bruna (the fortune teller) is not a main character in the novel, her presence runs through the lives of the Gold siblings. I really liked the way the book grappled with the difficultly in painting Bruna as the villain. Raj claims that it is the magician’s job is to force the person to make a choice. (Pick a certain card out of the deck, ect.) There is even a name of this type of magic trick, “forcing.” Klara, Raj and Bruna are all have a similar profession in this regard. Even Klara states, “if all magic exists alongside reality-two faces gazing in different direction, like the head of Janus- then Klara can’t be the only one able to access it. If she doubts the woman (Bruna), then she has to doubt herself.” But the book makes you ask yourself, “where do we draw the line with magic?” Is forcing someone to pick a certain card out of the deck different then forcing someone to believe that they have a specific number of days left on earth? Is all magic the same? In the book, magic takes on both a serious and playful tone. Klara compares it several times to religion; it’s just another tool in coping with the uncertainty of life to her:

“You could call it a trapdoor, a hidden compartment, or you could call it God: a placeholder for what we don’t know. A space where the impossible becomes possible. When he said (her father) the kiddish or lit the candles on Shabbat, he was doing magic tricks.”

But that it can also help us deal with the uncertainty of life: “Some magicians say that magic shatters your worldview. But I think magic holds the world together. It’s dark matter; it’s the glue of reality, the putty that fills  the holes between everything we know to be true. And it takes magic to reveal how inadequate-reality is.”

This was such a compelling theme running throughout the novel and I would have loved more of it.

• What I’m still on the fence about- didn’t hate, but didn’t love:

The writing style ~ Benjamin’s writing style feels very much like a montage. Each sibling’s life is woven together through quick, clean prose that I can only describe as a montage of the most important events in their lives. Time is not linear, but instead events are jumbled together. For the most part I really enjoyed this style and its uniqueness, however, there were moments were it felt a little jarring to jump around so quickly from event to event.

The ending ~ Because the book was stirring up such interesting questions and thoughts about life/death, uncertainty, and reality vs. imagination, I was really excepting an amazing ending to tie it all together. Unfortunately, I didn’t really get that. I didn’t dislike the ending, I was just expecting a little more.

Overall take away: this book has definitely left a lasting impression on me. I don’t think I’ll be able to let The Gold siblings go anytime soon. I would truly recommend this book to everyone. Even though the book brings up some dark questions, it’s surprisingly comforting at the same time. We all deal with uncertainty and we grapple with the question of “time.” No matter how hard we try to understand our “fates,” whether through religion, or superstition, or magic, it’s impossible for us to truly “know,” but if we spend your lives obsessing over these questions, we will miss out on the beauty of the here and now.

If you have read this, or plan to, let me know!! Happy Reading ~ XO

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