The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

The Girls at the Kingfisher ClubTitle: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
Author: Genevieve Valentine
Published: 3 June 2014
Publisher: Atria Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: historical fiction
Rating: 9/10

For years the twelve Hamilton sisters have been prisoners in their own home. They are the shameful evidence of their wealthy father’s inability to have a son, so he keeps them hidden from the world. No one except his staff knows how many daughters he has. He hasn’t even met some of them.

But although they never get to go out in the daylight, the sisters go out dancing in New York’s jazz clubs every night, from the Salon Renaud and the Swan, to the Kingfisher club they eventually call home. Jo, the eldest, the “General”, is the one in charge of every outing. She calls the cabs, watches over her sisters and decides when to leave. She’s the only one who speaks to their father, so she’s the one who has to break the news when he decides to marry them off, basically selling them to men of his choosing.

The girls might not know much about the daylight world, but they know a lot about men, and they know exactly what kind of men would marry a girl who’s been locked up in the house all her life – men like their father. As their leader, Jo needs to figure out a way to save her sisters, and for once it seems she can’t do it all by herself. She’ll have to turn to a bootlegger she met ten years ago for help. She’ll also have be extra careful to keep their dancing a secret, after a newspaper report about dancing girls and gin makes their father suspicious. Not only are their outings a defiance of his will, but their behaviour will spoil his plans “to sell them off one at a time as untouched goods who had never been so wild as to go out dancing”.

In case you haven’t realised it yet, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is based on the fairytale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. And was exactly what I wanted it to be – a relatively quick light read but with an in-depth psychological portrait of Jo and her sisters, and a close look at the whole idea of these trapped girls and women who escape into a vibrant world every night. It perfectly balances introspective character studies and the relationships between the sisters with the excitement of the dancing in jazz clubs and the tension of the threats posed by their father. It’s the kind of novel that makes me feel an intense and varied mixture of emotions, and I absolutely loved reading it.

I’m also glad that it eschewed the use of sexual violence. I kind of assumed that it would be an inevitable and discomforting part of the story, given that it’s about twelve beautiful girls and women who go dancing and drinking every night, but Valentine does not victimise them in this way. On the contrary, the Hamilton sisters are pretty street smart. They could drink most men under the table, and you don’t see them flopping around drunk and helpless. They learn how to read people and handle them, so they can spot trouble or soothe a tense situation. We don’t know the full extent of their sexual experiences (there are only references to little flings and heartbreaks) but whatever they do, you never get the sense that they’re not in control.

The girls’ strengths actually go a long way in making this a pleasant read. It could be really depressing, but the way the girls handle themselves, whether they’re having fun, being sold to men like property or alone and terrified, makes it satisfying rather than disturbing. You tense up and worry at the challenges they have to face, but every little triumph makes you smile.

This is particularly true with Jo, whose character we get to know in the greatest detail. Jo is in the incredibly difficult position of being the girls’ guardian. The blurb suggests that she’s the closest thing to a mother that they have, but the novel specifically says otherwise. It’s Ella with her kind, nurturing nature, who is more like the mother figure. Jo on the other hand is strict and commanding. Jo snaps her fingers and her sisters obey. She speaks to their father and enforces his commands. After a failed affair with a young bootlegger, Jo stopped dancing, deciding that it was too dangerous for her, no matter how much she wanted to. The result is that her sisters think she’s heartless. It’s even suggested that she’s just as much their jailer as their father is. Jo finds this deeply hurtful, especially since it’s already occurred to her.

As the reader however, you see how much Jo’s ‘heartlessness’ has done for her sisters. She describes her nickname “General” as ” the mortar that let her stand in both places at once and not fall”. She can only be the amazing sister they need by also being an authoritarian leader. It’s only because she’s so strict and careful that her sisters are able to go out every night and not get caught. She protects from their father, and it’s only when some of the girls actually have to be in Mr Hamilton’s presence as he starts trying to marry them off that they realise what a monster Jo has been fighting with on their behalf. She was the first one to learn to dance and start teaching her sisters. She initiated the first trip to a jazz club (imagine doing this when you almost never go outside), but everyone remembers it being Lou, the second eldest’s idea, because it’s hard to imagine Jo being so spontaneous.

You also see Jo trying too hard, sacrificing too much, wanting her sisters to need her because she’s become so wrapped up in her identity as the General. So part of the story involves her giving in to the things she wants, and being a sister rather than a General. It can be quite sad, but it makes for great reading. I also like the way Valentine wrote Mr Hamilton’s character. Again, she exercises restraint by not making him grossly monstrous. He’s quietly evil, with a very calm, polite manner that makes his cruelty stand out like an unexpected slap.

Overall, the book is also just beautifully written, and I highlighted many quotes on my Kindle. It’s one of the few that leaves me satisfied but also sad to leave behind because I’m not going to find another book like this any time soon. However, that does give me good reason to re-read it a few times 🙂

Up for Review: Something Red

This sounds like something that’s best read in the dead of winter. Which, for me, has passed, but it’s still cold enough that I sometimes wonder what the hell is wrong with characters who leave the house in shorts. And how can I say no to “shapeshifters, Irish battle queens, Norman knights, Templars, pilgrims, Saracens, a Lithuanian noblewoman, warrior monks, strong—even dangerous—women, and ten murderous mastiffs”?

Something Red by Douglas Nicholas (Atria Books)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

During the 1200s in northwest England, in one of the coldest winters in living memory, a formidable middle-aged Irishwoman and the troupe she leads are trying to drive their three wagons across the mountains before the heavy snows set in. Molly, her powerful and enigmatic lover, her fey granddaughter, and her young apprentice, soon discover that something terrible prowls the woods. As the group travels from refuge to refuge, it becomes apparent that the mysterious evil force must be faced and defeated—or else they will surely die.
An intoxicating and spirited blend of fantasy, mythology, and history, Something Red features the most fascinating of characters including shapeshifters, Irish battle queens, Norman knights, Templars, pilgrims, Saracens, a Lithuanian noblewoman, warrior monks, strong—even dangerous—women, and ten murderous mastiffs, as well as an epic snowstorm that an early reader described as “one of the coldest scenes since Snow Falling on Cedars.”

Something Red is being published today (18 September) by Atria Books, and imprint of Simon & Schuster. It’s available in hardcover and eBook formats.

Buy a copy:
The Book Depository
Amazon: Hardcover / eBook
Simon & Schuster

About the Author
Douglas Nicholas is an award-winning poet whose work has appeared in numerous poetry journals, and the author of four previous books including Iron Rose, a collection of poems inspired by New York City. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.  – from NetGalley
Author profile at Simon & Schuster
Goodreads

Review of Advent by James Treadwell

Title: Advent
Series: The Advent trilogy
Author: James Treadwell
Published: First published 02 February 2012; this edition published 03 July 2012
Publisher: Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Genre: YA, fantasy, mythology
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

In Advent, two tales of magic intertwine and converge.

In 1537, Johan Faust, the most powerful magician of his age, seeks immortality. Humanity has scorned magic in favour of science and religion, and Faust believes that, to save the world from this error, he cannot die. He leaves behind a mysterious woman he once loved, a woman who gave him a ring that contains all the magic in the world.

In the present day, 15-year-old Gavin Stokes takes a train from London to stay with his aunt in the countryside. He was suspended from school after telling his guidance counsellor what his parents are sick of hearing – that he sees things no one else does, like the ghostly woman he calls Miss Grey, who has been appearing to him throughout his life. Gavin used to find Miss Grey’s presence comforting, but his mother and domineering father insist that such things are impossible, implying that he’s either stupid, lying or insane. Unable to reconcile his own reality with the one the world forces upon him, Gavin is lonely and deeply unhappy.

His aunt Gwen has always been more understanding, but when Gavin arrives at her cottage on the ancient Pendurra estate, he cannot find her, or any evidence of where she may have gone. While trying to track her down, he finds that Pendurra is a mysterious place both liberating and terrifying. Gavin meets other people who have experienced magic, making it seem as if he has been simply been living in the wrong place, with the wrong people. But Pendurra is also a place where magic is leaking back into the world after being trapped for centuries, and something cruel and dangerous is coming with it.

The marketing copy for Advent promises a “spellbinding return to old-fashioned storytelling”, and for once the blurb writers are not exaggerating. Or at least not very much. Advent is rich with old, wild magic that infuses a classic coming-of-age story entwined with mythology. The writing is wonderful and the settings include an English forest in winter and an ancient mansion that looks like it hasn’t aged in centuries. The characters are mysterious and varied, and many seem to carry the depth and weight of personal histories that would make good stories on their own. Reading it is a bit like wandering through a vault full of treasure chests and only being able to open a few, and Advent reminded me a lot of some of the YA novels I loved as a kid.

As a hurt, withdrawn teenager, Gavin is what first drew me into the story. I identified with his loneliness and insecurity, and sympathised with the way his reality is considered unacceptable by everyone in his life:

His dreams were a whirl of turbid darkness lit by fire, full of prophetic voices clamouring in alien speech. He was fourteen and miserable. The expensive school did its work and he at least knew that Miss Grey should not exist, that she was impossible, that the fact that he kept on seeing her was like an error in a calculation, a tear in the canvas of a painting, a misprint. He understood that if he tried to explain his life to anyone, the only thing they’d be able to think was that there was something seriously wrong with him. But because it had always been there, it was impossible for him to imagine how it was wrong.

Because of the way people treat him, Gavin has “spent most of the last four years desperately wanting to be left alone”. At one point in the novel, he tries to make polite conversation but fails because “he had no practice at it. He’d spent the past couple of years learning to stop conversations, not start them”.

His parents tend to treat him with disappointment, annoyance or anger. “My mum and dad don’t like me much. Especially Dad” Gavin says. His father is a mean, hateful man. He’s not physically abusive, but he’s an asshole. His parents clearly have a troubled marriage, but this is no longer something Gavin worries about: “Once he’d realised they didn’t want to know about his unhappiness, he’d stopped caring much about theirs.”

For the first half of the novel I kept wanting to give Gavin a hug. It’s comforting to find that things are better for him at Pendurra, especially when he meets Marina, the owner’s 13-year-old daughter. Marina is weirdly innocent and naive. She’s not stupid or completely uneducated, but she seems to know almost nothing about the world outside Pendurra. She often says such odd things that Gavin stops to check if she’s being sarcastic, although I doubt that Marina even knows what sarcasm is. She’s never learned how to be mean, and she’s always straightforward and honest. She has never heard swearwords, and asks Gavin for a definition every time he uses one.

Marina’s innocence makes her the perfect companion for Gavin. She doesn’t treat him with the “contempt, or anxiety, or bewilderment” he’s learned to expect from people. If he tells her something that seems strange or impossible, she is curious even when skeptical, and in fact has her own experiences with magic. Gavin has become so used to guarding his words for fear of being “dismissed, or ignored, or even laughed at” that he’s “lost the power to say what he meant”. But with Marina, he can just be honest; a unique experience for him.

Gavin sometimes finds Marina’s naiveté frustrating, but mostly their budding friendship offers him some solace – he finally knows that he’s not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with him. And Pendurra itself is a life-changing place. The massive house is one of those incredible fictional spaces that you long to visit. It’s centuries old and has never been modernised – there is no electricity and no modern plumbing. It’s structure is all in plain, impressive sight – “great slabs of swelling wood”, “bare patches of grey stone”, “curves of iron”. Nothing is smooth and anonymous; everything is rough and unique. Every door is made of heavy, knotted wood, with every nail visible and slightly different from all the others. It is stunningly, unbelievably old “with that sense of foreignness, forgottenness, that he’d caught as a smell the moment he’d stepped inside; old like the sounds of a dead language”. Gavin emphasises that this is not like some boring museum though – it’s more like another world entirely.

Despite its age, Pendurra is in excellent condition thanks to the magic leaking into the area. The theory of magic in the novel (or at least Faust’s theory) is that it is “the commerce and the interchange” between mankind and God’s “generative spirit”. This is pantheistic rather than religious. Faust deplores monotheistic religion, which sees creation as fallen and corrupt, and views God as nothing but a talented architect. In his view, God is contained within his creation, rather than existing as a separate entity, and some humans have the power to communicate with and manipulate this spirit, although this always comes at a cost. The novel is entitled ‘Advent’ because Advent is about the second-coming; here (I assume) the return of magic is synonymous with the return of God.

I’m a tad confused about how exactly magic works though, and this was my main problem with the novel. I like the idea that magic is an interaction with God’s spirit, which is basically a life spirit. But then how is it that Faust’s ring contains all the magic in the world? Does this mean God is trapped inside that ring? How is that possible? And how has the world survived with this spirit trapped in one tiny location? Or is it that the world has been dying slowly ever since the ring’s creation, and deteriorated further when Faust trapped the ring in a magically sealed box? It could also be argued that magic is a form of knowledge, but how does that explain the existence of some of the creatures that begin to emerge as the leak gets worse? These concerns aren’t irreconcilable, and I found them tolerable while I was reading, but I would have preferred a more thorough explanation. The novel is set up for a sequel, so hopefully there is more to be discovered.

Another hitch is the change in narrative that happens about halfway through. For the first half, the story is told from two POVs – Gavin’s and Faust’s, with Faust’s story mostly told in reverse. Then we start getting new POVs and a series of flashbacks. After seeing everything from either Gavin or Faust’s perspective, these new narrators made the story feel fragmented and I wondered if there wasn’t a more elegant way to tell it.

It’s also quite slow. At first I liked this – you’re immersed in the rich detail of an unfolding story that’s worth savouring. After a while though, it does get a bit tiring and you might start to wonder when the plot is going to get going. No one knows what happened to Gwen, but there’s no real rush to find out. Gavin does a little investigating that happens mostly by accident. There’s a lot of sorcery in Faust’s narrative, but it’s a long time before you see any in Gavin’s. For me this was just a niggle, but I imagine that YA fans who enjoy the genre for its quick reads will get bored.

In my opinion though, Advent is one of the best kinds of YA. It doesn’t feel dumbed down or glossed over in any way. It also has, as promised, some “spellbinding… old-fashioned storytelling”, including an indescribable sense of escaping into other worlds that it seems I can only find in a few precious YA novels (adults’ novels just don’t achieve quite the same effect). Advent is not without its flaws so I had to give it a rather than an 8, but it’s the kind of book that immerses me in a world I want to disappear into.

But a copy of Advent at The Book Depository

Up for Review 25/06/2012

God Save the Queen by Kate Locke (Orbit Books)

Marketing copy from Netgalley:

Queen Victoria rules with an immortal fist. 


The undead matriarch of a Britain where the Aristocracy is made up of werewolves and vampires, where goblins live underground and mothers know better than to let their children out after dark. A world where being nobility means being infected with the Plague (side-effects include undeath), Hysteria is the popular affliction of the day, and leeches are considered a delicacy. And a world where technology lives side by side with magic. The year is 2012 and Pax Britannia still reigns.

 

Xandra Vardan is a member of the elite Royal Guard, and it is her duty to protect the Aristocracy. But when her sister goes missing, Xandra will set out on a path that undermines everything she believed in and uncover a conspiracy that threatens to topple the empire. And she is the key-the prize in a very dangerous struggle.

God Save the Queen will be released on 3 July 2012 by Orbit Books. Follow the link to read the first chapter. You can check out the author’s website here.

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Advent by James Treadwell (Atria Books)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

1537. A man hurries through city streets in a gathering snowstorm, clutching a box in one hand. He is Johann Faust, the greatest magician of his age. The box he carries contains a mirror safeguarding a portion of his soul and a small ring containing all the magic in the world. Together, they comprise something unimaginably terrible.

 

London, the present day. Fifteen-year-old Gavin Stokes is boarding a train to the countryside to live with his aunt. His school and his parents can’t cope with him and the things he sees, things they tell him don’t really exist.
At Pendurra, Gavin finds people who are like him, who see things too. They all tell him the same thing: magic exists, and it’s leaking back into our world—and bringing something terrible with it.

 

     Advent is an epic novel with heart-stopping moments, notable as much for its atmosphere as for its pace and sense of place. With numerous themes deftly woven throughout the compelling narrative, this novel is a spellbinding return to old-fashion storytelling and impossible to put down.

Advent was published in the UK on 2 February 2012. The US edition will be published on 3 July 2012 by Atria Books. You can check out the author’s website here.