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Genre: women's fiction

In Another Life by Julie Christine Johnson

InAnotherLifeWhat happens when love lingers long after death?  This is what Julie Christine Johnson asks us in her debut novel In Another Life, which is a genre-bending tale set in the Languedoc region of southern France that explores the many varieties of love that we encounter during our lives.  Johnson combines a contemporary love story with a dramatic retelling of one of the darker periods of Christian history, when the 14th century Catholic Church launched the Albigensian Crusade to wipe out the Cathars.  Never heard of the Cathars?  Neither had I, which was a fascinating aspect of the novel.

The Languedoc region was the home of the Cathar faith, a medieval gnostic Christian sect that incorporated reincarnation into Christian doctrine.  Johnson centers the medieval events of the novel on the assassination of of the Archdeacon Pierre de Castelnau, a 13th century ecclesiastic whose death launched the crusade.  But those are just the facts that we’re handed down from history.  Johnson guides us through the last years of the Cather resistance by introducing us to Lia Carrer, a modern day graduate student who is writing her doctoral thesis on the Cathar faith.

Newly widowed, Lia Carrier returns to the Languedoc, where her closest friend, Rose, has settled as the wife of a successful wine maker.  Wounded and still grieving the seemingly accidental death of her husband Gabriel, Lia moves into Rose’s guest house and returns to work on her doctoral thesis.

On her first night in France, Lia is startled by the sight of a man at her window, who disappears by the next flash of lightning.  He’s quickly replaced by a Bonelli’s eagle, a bird so rare as to be facing extinction.  It happens so fast that Lia isn’t entirely certain what she’s seen.

She backed away from the glass with a curse of surprise but stopped as something white flashed just beyond the window. In the space between heartbeats, she saw the face of a man. Moonlight revealed fierce dark eyes and the etched planes of cheekbones. A seeping black streak marred the left side of his face, running from his temple down his cheek to the corner of his mouth. The palm of a hand came into view, reaching toward her. Her own hands flew up and smacked the glass as adrenaline, warm and electric, seared the weariness from her bones.

It should not — and does not — surprise the reader when Lia recognizes that face at her window as Rose’s new neighbor Raoul d’Aran, who has quite a few secrets of his own.  Woven into the events unfolding in the 21st century are scenes from the 13th, where we learn of Raoul’s history as a winemaker, husband, father and leader of the last Cathar rebellion.  As the plot quickly moves forward, Lia begins to see, impossibly, how the deaths of her husband and of the 13th century Archdeacon might just be intertwined.

Although the intrigues of medieval Church history might seem like a hard sell for a modern audience, Johnson brings enough of the personal into the 13th century events to make them relevant and alive.  It is, above all, love that moves the story forward and a shared grief that draws Lia to Raoul.

A gust of cold air pulled at her hair like the fingers of a ghost, tossing it across her face. Lia tucked the loose strands into her coat collar. “Your wife’s name was Paloma,” she said. Raoul winced, as though the sound of her name caused him physical pain. “What were your children’s names?”
“Bertran was my son,” he replied. “Aicelina was my daughter.”
His simple declaration broke her heart. There is no other way to say your loved ones are gone but was and were. “Those are old Occitan names.”
“My wife was from Languedoc, like your family.”
“Do you have family in Languedoc still?”
“No. There’s no one left.” His answer was a door clicking shut. Quiet, but final.

One of the best qualities of the novel is Johnson’s love of France, which comes through in the vividly depicted setting.  Drawing on her background as a wine buyer and frequent traveller, Johnson fills the novel with delightful sensory details that take the reader away.  Why not indulge in some of the delights of French wine country?

Lia walked into the covered pavilion of the marché. Fish caught before dawn released aromas of the sea that mingled with the scent of vanilla-sweet crepe batter on a hot griddle and the sultry whiff of cumin and cardamom as spice merchants opened their bags. A tiny patisserie stood tucked between the long, refrigerated cases of a cheese-monger and a vendor of cured meats. The shop specialized in the pastries of Catalunya, the territory just across the Spanish border that shared so much of Languedoc’s history and culture, and Lia made her last purchases there.

Delicious.  Don’t you want to go to France?  Isn’t this why we read?

Johnson’s writing is rich and the story line interesting and adventurous, filled with just enough of the mysticism between past and present to keep the pages turning.  Lia’s love and appreciation of the finer things in life are a delightful escape from the humdrum, but the real reward of the novel is discovering how the Cathar story really ends.  In Another Life brings a relatively unknown period of history to life by filling it with memorable characters and a love of the Languedoc region that will make you want to book a flight immediately.

  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
  • Publish Date: February 2, 2016
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • ISBN: 1492625205
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: contemporary, fiction, historical fiction, women's fiction
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Her Name Is Rose by Christine Breen

HerNameIsRose Iris Bowen has just been sacked.

It’s not her fault, as the author of a weekly gardening column in a regional newspaper, that the publishing industry has been in decline and budgets are being slashed everywhere.  Her work is good.  A lifelong gardener and natural writer, she has been performing well, despite having lost her husband to cancer only two years prior.  But the world is changing.  Perhaps, her editor suggests, she could guest write a blog for free for a while?  If it becomes popular…well, what writer doesn’t know the thrill of writing for exposure?

Quiet and undemanding, Iris tries to focus on her job options, but her bigger problem that day is her mammogram.  In her forties, it is time for Iris to go for her screening, which has taken on a particular terror after the quick death of her husband.

The old linoleum was so polished that with every move, as she crossed and uncrossed her legs, it squeaked.  The chill in the air made her shiver.  She clutched her breasts.  Nobody had touched them since Luke.  She held her breath and counted.  exhaled long.  Breathed again.  One, two, three–

When the results from the mammogram reveal that there’s an distortion in her left breast that will require further testing to rule out cancer, Iris’s world is turned upside down.  She fears for herself, but she’s more frightened because she is the adoptive mother of a 19 year old daughter named Rose and she is terrified of leaving her orphaned at such a young age.

Rose, a musical protégé, is in London studying to be a classical violinist at the Royal Academy.  Like Iris, she is still wrapped in her grief for Luke, and filled with questions about her future.  When her final master class goes badly wrong, she makes a grand gesture that throws her entire future into question and amps up the tension of the novel.

Back in Ireland and facing her own mortality, Iris recalls the promise that Luke extracted from her before he died — that she would track down Rose’s birth mother, who had been a young American graduate student at Trinity College.  Iris goes to the Adoption Board in Dublin and discovers only a decades-old address in Boston.  Ignoring her follow-up appointment and telling no one where she is going, Iris impulsively books a plane ticket and sets herself to follow the footsteps of her daughter’s birth mother.  She has planned her trip so impulsively that she even forgets to pack a nightgown.

Looking at herself in the mirror now as she was ready to go downstairs, she felt acutely like an imposter.  (What does one wear when meeting the woman who birthed your child?)  She sat down on the edge of the bed and took off the sandals and put on the heels.  She wanted to look smart meeting Hilary Barrett.  She wanted to look like she’d measured up to the mother Hilary had probably hoped for when she gave her baby over to the adoption agency all those years ago.  She tried to think about what she was wearing tjat day, but she couldn’t remember.

In Boston, a deeply emotional Iris finds herself at an eccentric B&B, run by a good-hearted but lonely widow who talks entirely too much for Iris’s taste.  The other residents also forcefully intrude on Iris’s solitude, forcing her to unburden her fears onto strangers as she figures out how to face them. She meets Hector Sherr, a celebrated jazz pianist who is instantly drawn to the red-headed Irish widow, and who refuses to let her go on her journey alone.  When Iris feels her own attraction to him, she must face the fact that Luke is dead, but she is still very alive.  In Ireland, Rose faces a parallel journey to her mother, as she is courted a the custom violin that is proclaiming to have fallen in love with her at first sight.

As Iris looks for Hilary, the members of Hilary’s world also find their ways into the narrative, and the novel’s theme of unlikely connections between strangers emerges.  They are being drawn together by Rose, who is ironically unaware of her own importance to the story.  The novel takes place only over the span of a few short weeks, but as the lives of the characters turn, the setting of time and place begins to feel magical.

Her Name is Rose is foremost a novel about love and loneliness, where sadness often serves to unite strangers and make unlikely friendships.  Although there’s nothing surprising in the denouement, all of the characters are so sympathetic that it remains a compelling and heart-warming read to the end.  Iris’s identity as a gardener and Rose’s role as a musician also fill the book with beauty.  When their talents merge in the final emotional scene of the novel, it just feels right and true.

  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
  • Publish Date: April 14, 2015
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • ISBN: 1250054214
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: chick lit, fiction, women's fiction
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