Arts & Entertainment, Last Word

Intrigue and Enchantment

Intrigue and Enchantment

By Miriam R. Kramer

What’s next, a plague of locusts? Following a record rainfall and flash floods in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, temperatures and high humidity recently combined to create a heat wave up the East Coast with a real feel of about 110°F in DC and Old Town Alexandria. If the weather keeps you from sunbathing or sitting on a beach, keep blasting that air conditioner while a clutch of novels entertains and relaxes you during your vacation days. You can try an airport read, The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian; a tell-all about sisters and family, Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner; or a majestic piece of historical fiction, The Lost Queen by Signe Pike.

The Flight Attendant is a fun airplane diversion: a thriller that I gulped on a recent flight along with my complimentary ginger ale and Cheez-Its. Cassie Boyden, a flight attendant with a layover in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, wakes up with a horrible hangover next to her previous night’s fling, a first-class passenger whose throat has been slit open. Scrambling to remove all traces of herself and make it to her flight to Paris, she tries to piece together a previous evening featuring copious alcohol and several blackout periods.

As she flies first to Paris and then JFK in New York, Cassie attempts to reconstruct her night with Alex, a hedge fund manager with a flair for number crunching and an unusual penchant for Russian novels. She vaguely remembers that a so-called female business colleague of his had stopped by the room with a bottle of Stoli, after which she can recall nothing until the moment she woke up with a first-class headache in Alex’s first-class hotel.

The Flight Attendant is an enjoyable thriller in which Russian spies, the FBI, jet setters, and high finance intertwine. Cassie, a lonely woman with a penchant for spontaneity, lying, experimentation, and risky behavior comes to terms with her history as a functioning alcoholic while keeping several steps ahead of an increasingly frightening set of events. If you want to suspend your disbelief, learn what it’s like to be a flight attendant, and indulge in some international armchair travel to glamorous destinations, Chris Bohjalian’s book will fulfill your wishes.

Jennifer Weiner’s recent book Mrs. Everything certainly seems to contain everything. It touches on any and every secret or family dysfunction under the sun. Jo Kaufman and her younger sister Bethie are classic Baby Boomers who move in the 1950s with their parents from Detroit to a new house in the suburbs: their piece of the American Dream. Jo is a tomboy who constantly disappoints her mother, Sarah, by never living up to her mother’s standards of what a young Jewish girl should be, while Bethie is busy trying to be the perfect little lady while taking on a part in the school play.

When their beloved father Ken dies, all goes haywire for the two and their mother. Sarah, a typical housewife of the period, has to find herself a job in a world that assigns women only certain kinds of occupations. Jo struggles with her own romantic feelings and growing pains as she finds out that she’s attracted to women, and in particular her teenage best friend. Weiner describes Jo’s relationship in descriptive, racy terms. Young Bethie attracts the attention of her well-off uncle, who finds a way to get Bethie on her own in his car regularly.

Weiner explores many issues and topical events the girls face as they become women and go off to college: sexual abuse, eating disorders, racism, biracial relationships, the Civil Rights movement, flower power, drug and alcohol experimentation, the Vietnam War, and the pressure to conform. Jo falls in love in college, where she must decide whether to become a typical wife and mother or forge an unconventional and lonely path as a lesbian without the love of her life by her side. Bethie adopts multiple faulty coping mechanisms as a way of managing her own pain, discarding the conventional way in which she was brought up as Jo reluctantly explores taking the path most chosen.

As they come to terms with themselves and their unexpected life choices, the sisters react to each other’s judgments while appreciating one another’s support. They find love and forgiveness for each other over time as children are born and other long-term relationships fall apart. Those who like juicy family dramas and Judy Blume’s adult works will get their money’s worth from this dishy, earthy novel, along with Baby Boomers looking back on their patchwork quilts of life experiences.

Of these three novels, my favorite by far is an unexpected contender: The Lost Queen by Signe Pike. Pike’s deep research over many years into Celtic culture and language has blossomed into this book about Lailoken, a sixth-century figure upon which Merlin the magician was most likely based, and his twin sister, Languoreth. Pike focuses on Languoreth as a formidable figure in her own right, one heretofore forgotten by history. This first book of an eventual trilogy offers a sweeping story of enchantment and burgeoning war.

Lailoken, son of a petty lord, trains to become a Wisdom Keeper, a druid and warrior with knowledge of culture, song, oral history, storytelling, prophecy, and ways to evoke spirits. Against her will, Languoreth is destined from birth to become the lady of their rural estate, Cadzow, in what is now Scotland. She must marry a high lord or king in this region where crafty King Tutgual resides.

Languoreth’s viewpoint is both dreamy and down-to-earth, revealing an inspiring heroine whose strength of character, intelligence, and unusual beauty make her destiny as a queen seem inevitable. Historical novels about ladies, princesses, and queens are not uncommon. Signe Pike, however, has a flair for using language as delicate as gossamer or a spring flower bowing to rain to tell a dramatic story that never fails to fascinate. This novel surpasses its genre in its faultless early medieval world building and gorgeous writing.

A thin veil separates Languoreth from the spirits of nature and those who have passed on. Pike’s descriptions of nature are exquisite, and Languoreth defines herself in part by her earthly surroundings and those she loves who command its powers. She and her family set themselves against early Christians led by a charismatic charlatan who wants to eradicate their pagan moral codes and beliefs to gain power. Her foster brother, Gwenddolau, becomes Uther Pendragon, the leader of an army fighting off invading Angels while keeping other petty kingdoms in check.

When her husband’s interests eventually conflict with those of her brother and foster brother, the potential for civil war nearly tears her in two. Languoreth’s saga will continue with Pike’s next installment, which I will read as soon as it’s released.

Fans of Game of Thrones who appreciate less cynicism and more contemplation may enjoy The Lost Queen. This story also evokes a lovely book named Hild by Nicola Griffith, in which a teenage seer and natural leader gains power through advising her uncle, King Edward of Northumbria, in the seventh century. (I reviewed Hild in an earlier copy of the Old Town Crier.) If you enjoyed that novel, you will most certainly cherish this one. They are not cookie-cutter copies, but they are complementary.

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