Confinement by Katharine McMahon
I picked this book up expecting it to be about pregnancy. With that title, and that cover image, I thought it was a given. Nope! Confinement instead refers to the places and ways in which we confine ourselves, and the way we limit our goals and aspirations. It’s a unique take on feminist thought, focusing on the personal rather than societal rigors women have to face. Once again McMahon uses two time periods, this time connected by a school and a painting, but it functions quite well in this example. The choices both main characters face are not easy, and you might not agree with them, but perhaps the ability to choose a confinement at all is one that should not be forgotten.
A Way Through the Woods by Katharine McMahon
This is probably the weakest book by Katharine McMahon that I’ve yet read (I know, I’ve been on a bit of a kick.) Inspired by a photograph of two little girls in the forest, the author attempts to conjure a mystery, but succeeds in creating a couple of whiney and somewhat hysterical little girls. I was glad this book was so short. The structure of the plot is also off, since it’s told from the present tense but with flashbacks to a diary, and also including personal reminiscences to older times, with several groups of young girls and the same mysterious meadow. Basically the whole book is overwrought. I appreciate what McMahon was trying to do, and perhaps little girls really are just overwrought and dramatic, but unless you have something to add to that trope, I don’t think an entire book should be written about it.
Footsteps by Katharine McMahon
This is one of those time-traveling books that jerk you around between the present character and her grandmother, leaving you a little queasy at the changes and similarities between 1918 and 1980. Helena Mayrick is asked to help research a book about her grandfather, a famous photographer. She agrees because she’s looking for something to lift her out of a depression following her husband’s death. Little does she know what family drama will be uncovered during her search. Including the (SPOILER ALERT) totally creepy revelation that she and her deceased husband were, in fact, close cousins. Ew! And yet Helena isn’t totally creeped out, she thinks it’s kind of sweet. While the story was haunting, and the writing is classically McMahon, I could have done without the creepy cousin-bit.
Last Concubine by Lesley Downer
This is one of those books that seems to have all the elements of success: a riveting plot, strong characters, fanciful locales, and a strong historical setting, and yet just doesn’t seem to come together. The book is overly long (at 496 pages) and seems to drag interminably. The writing is too modern and too western, and the British slang used throughout “‘Ey there guvna? Wots ‘appenin?” is just laughable. For a story about the fall of the Shogunate and the restoration of the Emperor, there is so much potential that fails to materialize. I would recommend it if you really like this type of literatire (Memoirs of a Geisha or Murasaki), but it will really only make you appreciate those other books more, and wish that Lesley Downer had done a greater justice to a lovely idea.
Book of Fires by Jane Borodale
Fireworks! Sparklers! Things that burn! Jane Borodale does an excellent job of combining historical fiction and scientific fact. The year is 1752, the country is England, and the problem (isn’t it always?) is that young Agnes is pregnant. Oops! She steals some coins from a neighbor, and runs away to London to try her luck at city life. In a slightly unbelievable turn, she randomly knocks on a door and is accepted immediately as a lab assistent to Mr. Blacklock, a pyrotechnist. (And that’s just about the coolest job title ever, isn’t it?) Agnes soon proves a deft hand when dealing with explosives, and she succeeds in earning Blacklocks trust. Unfortunately the whole oops-pregnant thing is still an issue, so she creates an elaborate plan to marry Blacklock’s business associate. Throughout her struggles, Agnes and Blacklock work together to try and add color to the fireworks, something which has never before been done. Although the ending comes as a surprise, like any good fireworks display, it’s one that leaves you breathless and wanting more.