The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang #TBRYear10

I’ve had R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War on my TBR for a long time because the premise sounded interesting, many of the reviews were rave ones, and because the historical elements interested in me. I finally added it to this year’s list after reading Kuang’s Babel last year, and interestingly enough, my overall likes and dislikes about this one echo what I felt about Babel.

I’ll start with the dislikes, or disappointments. Much like Babel, I felt that the pace was sometimes even. Many of the scenes were rapid-fast (perhaps not uncalled for in a fantasy/adventure, which should be a page-turner) to the point of sacrificing characterization. It also became hard to connect with the protagonist because the things that would’ve gotten me on board, like following through her training, were oh-so-briefly described. Years of education and training in martial arts were skipped over in a few passages, to get to the meat of the war which broke out about half-way into the book. Part of me wonders whether this was planned as a single book and thus the attempt to cram everything into it? Even still, I’m left preferring something like Samantha Shannon’s Priory of the Orange Tree, which prioritizes both character and plot, but which, of course, ends up being a thousand pages long. There’s got to be a happy medium somewhere, right?

What Kuang gets right again, though, is her no-holds-barred daring into the realities of Chinese history, specifically the relationship between Japan and China. While this book is fantay, it is steeped in actual historical events, such as those told in books like The Rape of Nanking. Just as the author did in Babel, she here forces the reader to confront atrocities head on. It encourages readers who don’t know much about this history to perhaps go out and learn more, of which I’m a huge fan, and it reminds readers (probably the vast minority of western readers) who have learned about some of this, just how brutal it was. Steeping these events in a fantasy world is surprisingly effective in general, despite the imbalance of prioritizing history and politics to the detriment of the story elements, in my opinion. That said, while I’ve read fantasy reimaginings of historical events in other genres, I’ve often found them ineffective, even potentially damaging to the real historical figures involved (through mythologizing and thereby weakening the figures’ real legacies). I don’t think that happened, here.

I’m all for political writing, as I think pretty much all writing is political. The myth of objectivity often rears its ugly head when talking about fiction, but it’s just that: myth. Still, in Kuang’s case, I think her brilliance and her desire to educate are getting in the way of story, and I hope that’s something she can work out as she continues writing and gifting us with her tales. They’re definitely worth reading, and learning.

Should I read the rest of the trilogy?

The Poppy War is Book 1 completed for my #TBRYear10 challenge.

Interview with Sarton Award-Winning Author, Kathleen Renk

Today, I’m thrilled to welcome author Kathleen Williams Renk to the blog, to discuss her most recent novel of historical fiction, Vindicated: A Novel of Mary Shelley, as well as her previous works and upcoming projects. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll consider getting yourself a copy of Vindicated, which was one of my favorite reads of 2022!

Author image: Kathleen Williams Renk

I think that we must tell sad stories, even if they make us uneasy, for often in reading about tragedies, we also discover great courage exercised by those who experienced loss.

Kathleen Williams Renk

AB: Having had the pleasure of reading your first novel, Vindicated, I agree with Amy Newman, who said the book is “an engrossing narrative studded with historic detail and the passionate experiences of a woman’s extraordinary life.” I’m wondering, what was the research process like, and how did you choose which elements from Shelley’s life and experience to highlight?

KWR: First, I’d like to thank you, Adam, for reading and enjoying my debut historical fiction novel and for your interest in my project.

In order to write Vindicated, I conducted extensive research. I began with reading Muriel Sparks’ biography of Mary Shelley, entitled Child of Light, which I’d owned for many years but never had time to read for pleasure because of my teaching and research responsibilities. Then, I reread Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s other novels, much of Percy’s poetry, William Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft’s fiction, and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, as well as her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. I also read Mary and Percy’s joint journal that they wrote when they ran away to the Continent (while Percy was still married to his first wife Harriet, who was pregnant with their second child at the time). 

In addition, I drew on my travel experiences to write about locations where Vindicated is set. London, of course, but I also visited Rome where some of the novel is set as well as Tuscany and Pompeii. While in Rome, I visited the Keats–Shelley Museum, next to the Spanish Steps, where they display Shelley’s jawbone as well as some of his hair, both of which were retrieved by his friend Trelawny (along with Shelley’s heart) before Shelley was burned on the beach where his body washed ashore after his deadly sailing accident.

I wanted to obtain the fullest picture I could of Mary’s life and works so that I could accurately portray her and try to capture her voice. I pretty much stuck to the major events and then tried to fill in the gaps to create scenes that highlighted these events. Most importantly, I knew that she longed for the mother that she never met so I developed key scenes in which her dead mother met with her. The reader can interpret these “haunting” scenes however they wish, as reality, dreams, or hallucinations.

AB: Lucy Pick says this book “immerses [the reader] deep in the world of Mary Shelley” and Mary Martin Devlin adds that “the remarkably sustained voice captures Mary Shelley” and is “a book lover’s delight.” I think I’d describe this novel as a kind of love-letter to Mary Shelley, to women, and to readers and writers alike. But how and why did you decide on Mary Shelley as your subject? Why do you think she remains relevant to readers and writers today?

KWR: I love reading and writing about women’s lives and I thought that Mary Shelley’s story had not been told in its entirety.

Awhile back I was communicating with another writer who had written about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. An agent told her that the story was too sad to publish. I think that we must tell sad stories, even if they make us uneasy, for often in reading about tragedies, we also discover great courage exercised by those who experienced loss.

I chose Mary Shelley because she was so much more than the author of Frankenstein. She wrote eight novels and was the editor of her husband’s poetry. She was also a translator. In addition, she was a mother who lost four of her five children, a daughter of a mother who died 11 days after Mary was born, a rebel who ran away with a married man, a daughter whose father rejected her after she ran away with Percy, a sister to Fanny who committed suicide, and a widow after Percy died at the age of 29 in a sailing accident.

I find her life story quite compelling, and I think she serves as a role model for all women who long to realize their full human potential as artists. 

AB: Coincidentally, one of the forms I most love to introduce my students to, and explore with them, is the epistolary. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose Shelley’s journal as the vehicle for this story?

KWR: The epistolary form seemed absolutely natural since journal keeping and letter writing fit the early nineteenth-century mode of self-reflection and communication. I wanted to explore the emotive side of Mary though as well as her intellectual interests and I was dissatisfied with her joint journal with Shelley. Their joint journal basically lists the books they read and the places to which they traveled. It contains little emotion in relation to the many tragedies and challenges that befell them.

I often thought of how Mary must have mourned the mother she never met and how her situation resembled Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s fictional Aurora Leigh who stared at her dead mother’s portrait. I knew that Mary studied her mother’s portrait and read her mother’s works at her mother’s grave so that led me to the haunting aspect of the novel, which would have been something that Mary would only reveal in a personal journal.

AB: The legends surrounding Mary Shelley and the creation of Frankenstein are wide and varied. In recent years, I’ve seen them pop-up on television shows, like Drunk History, and educational web series, like Crash Course Literature. How did you deal with issues of rumor, legend, and fact as you attempted to craft an authentically voiced narrative?

Cover image for Vindicated: A Novel of Mary Shelley.

KWR: To be honest, I really dislike film depictions of Frankenstein, which are so antithetical to the philosophical novel. But, even in Mary’s time, playwrights were writing dramas based on the novel that were rather far-fetched and Mary realized that the novel would have a life of its own. I surmise that it’s the forbidden knowledge emphasized in the novel that’s the impetus for much of the various renditions and iterations over the two hundred years since the publication of the novel.

Instead of attending to adaptations of the novel, I stuck with my close contextual reading of the novel. My reading and interpretation of the novel rests on the Creature’s longing for his creator who abandoned him, and I’ve always seen this as our human plight. We have no idea whether we have a “creator” or why we’re here on this planet. We are similar to the abandoned creature who must teach himself everything. At the same time, we are all Victor Frankenstein whenever we obsess or reach beyond our human limitations. We wish to be “god-like,” as we create our fallible, imperfect “creatures,” whether they are artistic, literary, or scientific creations.

Beyond that, the Creature is also quite similar to Mary herself who felt abandoned by her father after she eloped with his disciple. And, naturally, Victor’s dabbling in esoteric “dark” arts and nascent natural philosophy, the emerging science, resembled Percy’s own interests and activities. Percy was also a member of the Resurrectionists, a group that robbed graves for physicians so they could learn anatomy, so in many ways, he served as a model for Victor Frankenstein.

AB: As your biography attests, and as I can speak to as one of your former students, you’re a brilliant and experienced academic. Can you speak a little bit about process? What was it like turning your attention to fiction? How did the approach and experience compare to writing scholarly nonfiction?

KWR: Of course, I relished writing my scholarly books and articles, which were a pleasure to research and write, but it was also exciting to return to writing fiction, which I had done when I was a doctoral student at the University of Iowa, the home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

I’d have to say that both types of writing are gratifying, the former being more intellectual, and the latter a little more intuitive. I enjoy imagining the fictional characters and sometimes allow them to take over. For example, there’s a moment when Mary’s Creature asks her to give him dreams and she tells him that she can’t. Of course, he is vastly disappointed, and she has great sympathy for him.

AB: What else would you like to share with readers?

I might add that Vindicated won the 2021 Story Circle Network’s Sarton Award in Historical Fiction and it was shortlisted for CIBA’s Goethe Award in Historical Fiction. I feel quite honored to have had my novel recognized in these ways.

I’d also like to tell you about my current work. I recently signed a contract to publish a novel with an independent press in California, Bedazzled Ink Press, about the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, which focuses on the lives of the poet-artist-model Elizabeth Siddal and her sister-in-law, the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti. It’s forthcoming in November 2023 and its title is: In an Artist’s Studio. I’m thrilled that my readers will learn about these Lizzie’s and Christina’s struggles to be taken seriously as artists. I’m also happy to be able to share the alternative history that I’ve written for them.

I’m also revising a novel called No Coward’s Soul Have I, which centers on an imagined meeting in 1812 between the idealistic and revolutionary Percy Shelley and the Irish heroine Anne Devlin, who was confined in Dublin’s notorious Kilmainham Jail for three years. Editors have offered encouragement and I’m still looking for the best press or agent for this novel project.

In addition, I’d like to tell you about other aspects of my life. I’ve recently returned to singing, which was my first love, and I try to play the violin and guitar. And now that I’ve moved to CO, I’ve become a hiker and have met fabulous new friends in Boulder County, where people try and seem to succeed at being super-agers.

My thanks to Professor Williams Renk for stopping by to talk about her compelling work and what’s coming up soon! It was such a pleasure to read Vindicated last month, so to have this opportunity to talk more about it was a real treat.

More About the Author

Kathleen Williams Renk taught British, Irish, Postcolonial, and Women’s literature for nearly three decades in the U.S. and abroad (in Oxford and Dublin). Her scholarly books include Caribbean Shadows and Victorian Ghosts: Women’s Writing and Decolonization (Univ. Press of Virginia, 1999), Magic, Science, and Empire in Postcolonial Literature: The Alchemical Literary Imagination (Routledge, 2012), and Women Writing the Neo-Victorian Novel: Erotic “Victorians” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). Williams Renk studied fiction writing at the University of Iowa with the Pulitzer-Prize winning author James Alan MacPherson. Her short fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Iowa City Magazine, Literary Yard, Page and Spine, and CC & D Magazine. Vindicated is her first historical fiction novel. ​

If you would like to connect with the author you can find do so via Facebook and Twitter, and her website.

Click here to order your copy of Vindicated: A Novel of Mary Shelley.

January Check-In #TBRYear10

Hello, TBR Pile Challengers! 

Yahoo! It’s time for our very first Challenge Check-in. As a reminder, the deadline to sign-up for this challenge is January 31st, 2023, so if you know of someone who would love to join and/or if you have been trying to make up your mind, here’s your chance. P.S. This also means currently registered participants should feel free to make a change, up to January 31st, provided the link leads to an updated list as of that date. 

Progress: 1 of 12 Completed

So far, I’ve read 1 of my 12 challenge books! This puts me at 100% on pace, except, of course, I still haven’t written the review for it, even though I tell myself every morning that “I’m going to write it today!” Oh well. After all, tomorrow is another day. Still, I’m glad to be on track. My plan is to read one TBR Challenge book and one Friends’ Recommendation book each month, with an extra in the summer months, and that will ensure that I read all 27 of my “challenge” books before the end of this year.

The next book scheduled from my challenge list is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

Books Read:

  • The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

How are you doing?


Below, you’re going to find the infamous Mr. Linky widget. If you read and review any challenge books this month, please link-up on the widget below. This Mr. Linky will be re-posted every month so that we can compile a large list of all that we’re reading and reviewing together this year. Each review that is linked-up on this widget throughout the year may also earn you entries into future related giveaways, so don’t forget to keep this updated!

2022 Challenge Winner

In 2022, there were a total of 226 entries at the end of the year. That’s amazing! It’s now time to announce the winner of the overall challenge. Congratulations to Fanda from Fanda’s Classic Lit! The randomly drawn entry from the final list was Fanda’s review of 84, Charing Cross Road. Fanda will win up to $50 in books, or a $50 gift card to a bookstore of choice.

Be sure to come back for February’s check-in for mini-challenge #1 and your chance to win a book of choice ($20USD or less) from The Book Depository! (All mini-challenge and annual challenge winners need to have registered for the challenge on/before January 31, 2023, and will need to have participated by commenting on challenge posts and/or linking up challenge list book reviews.)

Friends Recommending Reads

New Year, New Challenges.

I mean that in a good way, this time.

Actually, this year, I’m determined to only participate in one reading challenge, which is my tenth anniversary edition of the TBR Pile Challenge, hosted right here at the Roof Beam Reader blog! There’s still time to sign-up, by the way, but not much!

I did also jump on the “Recommend Me a Book” meme that was floating around social media. The gist is to ask friends/family to recommend you one book to read in 2023, to collect a total of twelve titles (ideally, one per month.) I made the request back on January 2nd and received a total of thirteen different suggestions.

I’m going to do my best to read all thirteen, but I’m listing them here as the core twelve (in keeping spirit with the original challenge) plus one alternate. Below, listed in no particular order, are the titles my friends and family recommended that I’ll be adding to my TBR for 2023. What do you think!?

  1. True Biz by Sara Novic (recommended by Sara S.)
  2. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (recommended by Andrew B.)
  3. Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse (recommended by Bev H.)
  4. Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree (recommended by Allie D.) (Completed Feb. 17)
  5. The Lure by Felice Picano (recommended by Ryan G.)
  6. The Year of the Horses by Courtney Maum (recommended by Lori W.)
  7. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (recommended by Tracy S.)
  8. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (Recommended by Darlene O.) (Completed May 2)
  9. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (Recommended by Laurie)
  10. Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima (Recommended by Esther H.) (Completed Jan. 21)
  11. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute (Recommended by Nany H.)
  12. The Winds of War by Herman Wouk (Recommended by Janet)

Alternate/Bonus: A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard (Recommended by Gretchen A.)

Thanks to my friends who sent in their suggestions! I have only read three of these authors so far (Picano, Wharton, and Mishima), but not the ones recommended, here. I’m looking forward to the whole list, to be honest, perhaps especially Dark Matter, which has been on my radar for a long time, and The Sea of Fertility, as I have a bunch of Mishima on my shelves, but somehow, I missed this particular tetralogy (and it sounds perfect for me!)

What are you reading this week?

See you on Jan. 15th for our first #TBRYear10 check-in!

2022 Monthly Retrospective

Happy New Year!

As I mentioned in my 2022 Year in Review, I’m back today to share my favorite reads of the last year. I decided to share one book from each month, so a total of twelve. This is, of course, a bit of an arbitrary way of doing it, and it will ultimately leave out some of my best/favorite reads of the year, but oh well, nothing is perfect!

Don’t forget, too, that the TBR Pile Challenge is back for the tenth year! (#TBRYear10) In celebration, the final end prize will be double the usual: a $100 gift card to a bookstore/website of choice! Now, on to my twelve favorites of 2022, one from each month.













So, there they are! My favorite read from each month in 2022 (sort of). Some of these were REALLY difficult choices, as there were certain months where I read a few 5-star books. The stress of picking just one! Ultimately, when it came down to making a choice, I tried to pick one that I didn’t highlight in my end of year survey.

Incidentally, I’ve started my first book of the new year, James Brandon’s The Edge of Being, which I’m really excited about because his first novel, Ziggy, Stardust and Me, is one of my absolute favorites.

I’d love to hear what your favorite reads of 2022 were! And what book are you reading to start 2023? Please share in the comments!