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I became a Sandra Gulland fan years ago, when I read her Josephine B. trilogy. It remains one of my favorite works of historical fiction. I’ve had Mistress of the Sun on my shelf for a while now and finally decided to pick it up.

About the Book:

Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland (reviewed on Erin Reads)

We first meet Louise de la Vallière — known as Petite — as a child of just six years old. She has wandered off from her father to watch a Roma woman perform on horseback, and Petite is transfixed. She finds her way to the Romas’ horses, where she falls in love with an unbroken White aptly named Diablo. Though the horse is wild and so dangerous that the Romas are willing to sell him cheap, Petite insists her father purchase the animal, and once home, she does everything in her power to tame him.

This peculiar, precocious, strong-willed, horse-loving little girl is destined to become the mistress of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. The winding path that leads her there — and what happens when she arrives — are the subjects of Mistress of the Sun.

My Thoughts:

One of the problems with historical fiction is that you usually know (or at least suspect) how it will turn out. No matter how great the love between Louise and Louis, they remain mistress and king; they’re never going to run off into the sunset together to start a life of happiness and obscurity, no matter now badly you want them to. And so for me, really good historical fiction has to get so deeply into its characters that I don’t mind the ending being fixed.

Though both of Gulland’s narratives are absorbing, one accomplishes that character depth better than the other, in my opinion. (Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two, but I can’t help myself!) The Josephine B. trilogy is written in the first person; Mistress of the Sun is written in a limited third that occasionally jumps to a character other than Petite. The former is styled as diary entries, whereas the latter is a straightforward narrative. And where Josephine gets three whole books in which to tell her story, Petite gets only one. The ending of neither is what I, as a reader, wanted for the characters, and yet I feel an attachment to and fondness for the Josephine books that isn’t there with Mistress of the Sun. I think that’s due in a large part to the way in which the two main characters are presented and developed.

Despite the differences I’ve just highlighted, I recognized plenty of Gulland’s hallmarks that the two works share. Both stories are dripping with historical flavor in a subtle, not-at-all-overpowering way. Gulland has a talent for working period details into the fabric of her novels, from furnishings and clothing to superstitions and vocabulary to social customs. Characters besides the main ones have depth and intrigue, standing out as individuals in what could, in other hands, be a crowded and confusing landscape of personalities. The research is careful, but the author skillfully employs her imagination as needed to smooth out gaps and fill in holes. And the writing is quite enjoyable to read.

If this review sounds negative toward Mistress of the Sun, that’s not my intention. Petite is a fascinating character, someone you root for throughout, and her life is an interesting one, to be sure. It’s less that Mistress of the Sun has any particular flaws and more that I can’t help comparing it — perhaps unfairly — to a set of novels by the same author that I fell in love with and continue to list among my favorites.

The Verdict: Enjoyable

Regardless of my obviously biased review (sorry!), I think readers who enjoy good historical fiction will find lots to like about Mistress of the Sun. It has interesting characters, a strong story, and a rich setting — even if the bonds of history do keep the ending from being what many readers may want!

Your Turn!

Have you ever found your love (or hatred) for one work by a particular author flavors how you feel about all his or her others?

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Desirable Daughters was recommended to me years ago by a bookstore coworker. I finally got around to reading it.

About the Book:

Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukherjee (reviewed on Erin Reads)Tara Chatterjee is happy enough in her current life. She and her teenage son, Rabi, live in San Francisco, where they moved after Tara’s divorce from the man her father choose for her. Her ex-husband, known as Bish, is a heavyweight in the Silicon Valley tech scene, and he and Tara have remained on good terms.

The youngest of three, Tara has one sister (the middle, Parvati) in Bombay and another (the eldest, Padma) in New Jersey. Theirs is a traditional Brahmin family from Calcutta, governed by strict rules and conventions that the sisters, even thousands of miles away from their parents, find it hard to stray beyond. They seem locked into their roles, unable to bridge the gaps that have existed for so long.

Then a stranger shows up at Tara’s door, telling a story that — if true — would bring a decades-old family secret tearing through the sisters’ lives. Determined to get to the bottom of things, Tara begins pushing at boundaries that have long been in place. In doing so, she opens old wounds, reaches new levels of trust and intimacy with her sisters and son — and places all of them in grave danger.

My Thoughts:

In some ways, Desirable Daughters felt like two different books. On the one hand, there’s the potentially dangerous mystery Tara pursues to uncover the truth behind the stranger’s story. On the other hand is the family drama: the relationships between Tara and her sisters, the sisters and their parents, Tara and her son, Tara’s whole family and their peers in India; the customs of a traditional Brahmin family; the struggle to adapt traditional ways to new lives and situations. Honestly, it kind of felt like Mukherjee wanted to explore the family angle but needed some kind of plot, so she threw in the mystery to give the novel some structure.

The mystery side was fine, I suppose. Perhaps some readers would require it in order to keep themselves engaged. But to me, the shifts between the two components felt jarring. It also felt like the mystery side was an afterthought and, as such, didn’t have enough room to really grow into a believable plot line. Given more focus and room to develop, a few more twists and false leads, it could have grown into a proper thriller, but as it was, this aspect felt far-fetched.

What I really liked were the family parts. Mukherjee really digs into the relationships, expectations, history, culture, and stories of Tara’s family. She illuminates, more clearly than any other novel I’ve read, the dynamics of a family like Tara’s. And that alone was plenty interesting for me. Had the novel simply been about Tara overcoming the culture she’d grown up with in order to form closer ties with her family members, I believe I’d have enjoyed it just as much (if not more).

The writing in Desirable Daughters is smart and the characters are well differentiated. I particularly liked Rabi, Tara’s teenage son. It’s he, more than anyone else in the novel, I wanted to see succeed. And though we don’t actually get to see him grow up, I have a feeling he’ll be fine.

I’ve read one other by Bharati Mukherjee: Miss New India. It, too, delved into social and cultural themes, though in a more outward-looking way (as opposed to the more family-focused Desirable Daughters). Mukherjee does seem to have a talent for bringing broader issues to bear in a way that doesn’t overwhelm her characters, which I appreciate.

The Verdict: Mediocre

I liked Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukherjee well enough. There were aspects I could take or leave, but what I really liked was the exploration of Tara’s family within the matrix of Indian society and with respect to the individual members. If that kind of thing intrigues you, you might want to give Desirable Daughters a try.

Your Turn!

What novels have you read that do a particularly good job exploring some “bigger” issue without overshadowing the smaller story within?

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Top Ten Tuesday badge (erinreads.com)This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, as set forth by the crew at The Broke and the Bookish, is “inspiring quotes from books.”

I love this prompt! I keep a notebook of handwritten quotes from books I read, and it was so much fun to go through it to find some quotes for this post.

After considering various possible themes, I finally settled on books and reading (surprise!). These quotes inspire me because they’re like glimpsing amorphous bits of myself — things I can relate to but have never really articulated — translated into verbal form. To see them appear as the product of someone else’s thoughts — whether in fiction or nonfiction — reminds me that I’m not the only crazy book lover out there who feels this way!

#1: From The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby

“[A]ll the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal…with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.”

#2: From Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

“Do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.”

#3: From Are You Somebody? by Nuala O’Faolain

“In any case, I would prefer to read something I don’t enjoy than do almost anything else. I like the act of reading in itself. Following the lines of something — not just the story but the rhythm, the tone, the feel of what has accumulated from before and what is beginning to impend — becoming surefooted on the high-wire of the author’s intention.”

#4: From The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

“Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the remembrance of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes — characters even — caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.”

#5: From The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

“At times Ren felt like he was reading fragments of his own dreams, reassembled into words that pulled at his heart, as if there were a string tied somewhere inside his chest that ran down into the book and attached itself to the characters, drawing him through the pages.”

#8: From I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb

“She told me I should keep reading — that books were mirrors, reflective in sometimes unpredictable ways.”

#7: From The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

“As I have pointed out before, characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about.”

#8: From Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith

“She loved books. She loved them with her senses and her intellect. The way they smelled and looked; the way they felt in her hands; the way the pages seemed to murmur as she turned them.”

#9 & 10: From The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac

“‘He was an echo chamber for all books, the physical incarnation of words, the book made human.'”

“Reading offers a kind of companionship that takes no one’s place, but that no one can replace either. It offers no definitive explanation of our destiny but links us inextricably to life. Its tiny secret links remind us of how paradoxically happy we are to be alive, while illuminating how tragically absurd life is. So our reasons for reading are as strange as our reasons for living. And no one has the right to call that intimacy into account.”

 Your Turn!

What’s your favorite quote about books and reading? Do any of these in particular resonate with you?


Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer crossed my path at a library sale. I finally took it off my shelf because, after reading several books that I found merely ok, I wanted to sink myself into something bound to be good.

About the Book:

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver cover (erinreads.com)The setting: Zebulon County, in the mountains of Appalachia. Three characters are living out their lives, determinedly walking the paths they’ve landed on.

There is Deanna, more comfortable with the animal kingdom than her own kind, who has chosen the solitary life of a forest ranger high on Zebulon Mountain. There is Lusa, an educated and well-traveled young woman whose marriage to a Zebulon County native — the only son in a family of older sisters — has landed her in wholly unfamiliar territory and among resentful and overwhelming in-laws. And there is Garnett Walker III, a crotchety old man whose sole reasons for living appear to be his ongoing feud with his equally elderly organic apple-growing neighbor and his quest to create a blight-resistant chestnut tree.

As Kingsolver spins out her story, we spend one exquisite summer with these three and the lives they inhabit.

My Thoughts:

My hopes for a great read were not disappointed. I was, in fact, a little surprised by just how much I enjoyed Prodigal Summer. I liked Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and The Poisonwood Bible quite a lot, but I do believe Prodigal Summer may have surpassed them both.

One thing I loved about the book was how incredibly real it felt. We’ve all read novels that feel like novels, maybe because of a particular writing style or way of dealing with characters, or the manner in which it’s been edited, what’s been revealed or concealed. But Prodigal Summer simply unravels, coming off the spool as the story unfolds. It’s technically told in the limited third person, with the perspective shifting between the three main characters and their individual story lines. But more than simply taking up a character’s story, Kingsolver seems to slip inside their heads. The result is free of artificial foreshadowing or external judgment. It’s like a first-person vibe wrapped in limited third-person language. You feel like you’re experiencing the story right along with the characters, rather than being told it from some remote remove.

The characters, too, are so vividly alive. These are people I feel I could have coffee with, whose reactions to novel situations I might be able to guess, who I’m almost certain must take up physical space somewhere in the world. And their arcs are lovely, so satisfying and believable. All three begin locked into the tracks they’ve started on, certain they know who they are, where they stand, where their lives are headed. But as things happen — and not extraordinary or flashy things, per se, but just things in the course of living — we watch the characters struggle, then soften, relaxing at last into a broader, kinder, more forgiving interpretation of who they are and how they fit with the world around them. They recognize, settle into, and even begin to embrace their actual lives instead of resisting reality, rigid and alone. And it feels natural, inevitable even, rather than forced.

Kingsolver’s writing is, as always, both unassuming and lovely. Her style isn’t overly flowery, and yet she manages to capture the essence of things, the truth and the beauty, and to express those things in a way that’s accessible to others through language. It’s almost sneakily poetic. You don’t notice her weaving the textures of her landscape, her characters, her themes — and yet you look up and see them wrapped around you.

I also appreciated that the novel didn’t end with some big, happy conclusion. Story threads drifted together here and there, but there was no big reveal at the end where everything suddenly becomes clear. You feel good at the end, confident that people will be ok, but Kingsolver doesn’t go out of her way to tie everything up with a bow. Life continues, messy and unpredictable and beautiful.

I’m trying to think of some complaint with which to temper this review, but honestly, I have none. I think Kingsolver is just one of those authors whose writing style fits with my reading preferences on most, if not all, of the key points. Of course, I’ll keep testing that theory (The Lacuna is waiting patiently on my shelf), but so far, so good!

The Verdict: Excellent

Bet you didn’t see that one coming, eh?

Your Turn!

Have you encountered an author whose every book you seem to love, like they’re writing just for you? What do you think it is about their work that draws you in?


Top Ten Tuesday badge (erinreads.com)This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, as set forth by the crew at The Broke and the Bookish, is “characters you’d like to check in with” — as in the book or series is over, but you’d like to know what they’re up to.

Such a fun topic! Be warned, though: since we’re talking about endings and beyond, there may be spoilers in this post. I’ll link to my (usually spoiler-free) reviews of books mentioned here, in case you’re curious.

In no particular order, my picks are:

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver cover (erinreads.com)

1. Lusa from Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Lusa goes through a lot in Prodigal Summer for which I do not envy her. But she is smart, sensitive, and determined, and by the end of the novel, she’s started to build a new life for herself. I’d love to know where that life takes her. (Review coming later this week.)

Black Swan Green

2. Jason from Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

We spend a lot of time with Jason as a kid throughout the book — he is, after all, the narrator — and I found him endearing. The book ends on a hopeful note after some tough stuff has happened with his family. I think he’ll be ok, but I’d love to hear from him ten or fifteen years down the line and see what he’s up to.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (cover)

3. Jane and Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I know, I know, Jane says they’re happy. But we wait so long for them to be together…I want to know what that happiness looks like! I’m pretty sure I would read a sequel in which all they did was be happy.

Pennies for the Piper cover (erinreads.com)

4. Bicks from Pennies for the Piper by Susan McLean

Poor Bicks loses her mother early in the novel. Now orphaned, she’s supposed to take the bus straight to her aunt’s house in Iowa, but — long story short — she doesn’t and ends up having to get to her aunt’s mostly on foot. We leave her just after she arrives. I’d like to see what happens to her and who she grows into.

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (erinreads.com)

5. Kitty from The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

At the end of the novel, the shallow and immature Kitty we meet at the beginning has metamorphosized into a clear-sighted, determined young woman. She is pregnant and about to sail for the Bahamas with her elderly father. I would be curious to hear the rest of her story, to see where her new outlook and attitude take her.

Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

6. Frankie from The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

I like Frankie quite a bit. Admire her, really. And I think once she figured out a direction for all her creativity and frustration, she would be a powerhouse force to be reckoned with. It’d be cool to have a glimpse of that future.

Oryx and Crake cover (erinreads.com)

7. The whole cast of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdam trilogy

I adored this trilogy and wanted it to keep going. If I’m recalling correctly, you get a little bit of closure at the end, but nothing that implies everything is settled. I would very much like to see what the world looks like as time passes and what the characters are up to in its new landscape.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns cover (erinreads.com)

8. Elisa from Rae Carson’s Fire and Thorns trilogy

Elisa is one of those characters you can’t help but like: smart, honest, earnest, brave (but not unbelievably so), with plenty of weaknesses but a determination to do what she believes is right. She loses friends, is betrayed, risks her life almost constantly. When we leave her, we’re pretty sure she’ll be alright but also that she has the potential to revolutionize her world. What she does is something I’d like to see.

Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (cover)

9. Viola and Todd in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy

If you’ve read this trilogy, you know it’s…intense. There’s never much of a break in the action, even at the end. I’d just like to see what happens after all the craziness. What does the new world Todd and Viola have helped to shape look like? What roles do they find to fill in it? That sort of thing.

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakaruni (cover)

10. The whole cast of One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

This novel is about a group of nine strangers trapped together by a massive earthquake in the visa office of the Indian Consulate in an unnamed city. Divakaruni leaves us as rescue seems imminent but isn’t guaranteed, and I would love to know what happens to all those people with their individual stories.

A Few Thoughts

Can I just say: I kind of love thinking about these characters extending beyond the confines of their respective novels!

Looking back over my list, it seems I’d most like to check in with:

  1. Characters I liked who were left just past the danger or hardship, with things looking up;
  2. Interesting worlds or situations I want to hear more about; and
  3. Kids whose grown-up selves I’d like to meet.

I think it’s also interesting to note that I had no complaints about how the authors chose to end any of these books or series. As a matter of fact, they have some of the most fitting and appropriately timed endings I can think of — despite the fact that I’d like to hear more from their characters.

Your Turn!

What characters would you most like to check in with?