Josephine Bonaparte springs so vividly to live in these pages she practically walks right off them. Webb paints a full and charming portrait of the Cr...moreJosephine Bonaparte springs so vividly to live in these pages she practically walks right off them. Webb paints a full and charming portrait of the Creole beauty born and christened Rose Tascher, not side-stepping her faults but instead making them lovable. Whether she is running up dress bills by the mountain, scolding her children, or bed-hopping blithely between lovers in Paris, you want to shake your head indulgently and say "Rose, you scamp!" It's easy to see how Napoleon fell victim to her charm, why he showered her with more jewels than any queen ever owned, why he raged and lost his temper and then always came crawling back for more: Josephine's wayward lovability was perhaps the only thing ever to conquer the conqueror. Her tempestuous early marriage, her knife-edge survival during the Reign of Terror, and her years as Empress of France pass in a blur of love affairs, parties, politics, and occasionally bloodshed. If the novel has a fault, it's perhaps too short - with a life so colorful, I'd love to see what Webb could have done with another two hundred pages to stretch her narrative. But this is a strong debut for an author I was lucky enough to meet and congratulate in person at the last Historical Novel Society Conference, and I look forward to her next book on Rodin. (less)
I've rarely been so happy to offer a cover quote for a novel. Elizabeth Loupas hit it out of the park with "The Second Duchess," and "The Flower Reade...moreI've rarely been so happy to offer a cover quote for a novel. Elizabeth Loupas hit it out of the park with "The Second Duchess," and "The Flower Reader" proved she was no one-hit wonder. With "The Red Lily Crown" she establishes herself as a major talent in the world of historical fiction. Heroine Chiara is a scrappy tough-as-nails street urchin who would be happy to sell her body to a ruthless Medici Duke if it would support her family, but since the Duke is mad for alchemy and already has a far more beautiful mistress, Chiara sells him her father's alchemical equipment instead. Chiara ends up with a job as the Duke's virgin acolyte assistant, as well as a front-row seat to the world of Medici madness, murder, and blood-lust. The Duke is a first-rate creep who needs to die, his mistress is one of the nastiest villainnesses I've ever read (and I've created a few nasty ones, myself), and a mysterious maze steals the show in a way I never thought a series of fictional hedges could. A subplot of poison and addiction gives everything the sheen of a dark fairy tale, the kind where the fair maiden might just get eaten instead of rescued. You'll cheer for Chiara to come out of everything as safely as her dogs do - Elizabeth Loupas never kills the dogs in her books, and thank goodness. This book comes out early April - pre-order it now. You won't be sorry. (less)
If "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" took time to set the stage, "Hollow City" practically burns down the theatre. Picking up right where...moreIf "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" took time to set the stage, "Hollow City" practically burns down the theatre. Picking up right where we left off, Jacob and his band of peculiar friends embark on a headlong run through war-torn London, dodging all kinds of sinister enemies as they try to save their redoubtable headmistress. But what if the real danger is right there among them? There are even more of the compelling and sinister real-life photographs, sprinkling the pages and the plot with equal dash. An even stronger follow-up than the original, ending on a dark cliffhanger that will really have you howling. (less)
I somehow missed meeting Nancy Bilyeau at the last Historical Novel Society Conference, which is a pity because I'd have liked to congratulate her on...moreI somehow missed meeting Nancy Bilyeau at the last Historical Novel Society Conference, which is a pity because I'd have liked to congratulate her on just what she pulled off with "The Crown" - a serious investigation of the personal ramifications of the Dissolution, paired with the headlong chase of an Indiana Jones magic-relic hunt. The plot is simple: Sister Joanna has entered the Dominican order as a nun at a time when nunneries are on the brink of going extinct in England under Henry VIII. Joanna is blackmailed by the sinister Bishop of Winchester to find the mysterious Athelstan Crown, a relic whose power might be useful in stopping the dissolution of the monasteries . . . oh, and there's a killer on the loose, too. The murder mystery and the McGuffin of the crown are great fun, but I found Joanna and her theological dilemma the most fascinating. She's a woman of faith but not fanaticism, and the dilemma of how she will live her life if she cannot be a nun is movingly handled. Most Tudor-centric fiction takes a positive spin on the dissolution of the monasteries: Catholicism = bad, and without Henry VIII's split from the church, we would have no Elizabeth I. But "The Crown" shows us the plight of those like Joanna who were horrified to find their way of life - a good, moral, and gentle way of life - torn away from them. I will be eagerly moving on to Bilyeau's sequel "The Chalice" to see how Joanna adjusts to her new world. (less)
Eva Ibbotson's books are always delightful, and her children's books are in particular a grand escape for an adult who feels a bit battered by the rea...moreEva Ibbotson's books are always delightful, and her children's books are in particular a grand escape for an adult who feels a bit battered by the real world. Here we have a lonely little rich boy whose parents can't see why he's upset when the dog they've rented for one weekend just to give him "the dog experience" has to be returned. Hal refuses to accept this and takes off with the dog, along with a variety of other dogs from the shelter who are also yearning for homes. Adventures ensue, and Ibbotson's trademark humor lifts her prose a cut above, such as when a fiery little Pekinese reflects, "There is absolutely nothing wrong with old ladies, but when your ancestors have been bred to ride on the saddle of the Emperor when he gallops off to war, you do not feel like being told you are an itsy-bitsy little doggie, aren't you." This is comfort food for the soul: if you are feeling wrung-out and teary after reading "The Invisible Bridge" and watching your favorite characters get loaded into cattle cars, or if "Gone Girl" has left you feeling there is no goodness or trust left in the human psyche, then this is the book for you. (less)
I got an early peek at this book because the author is a friend and I begged shamelessly for one of her early-author copies. Her alter-ego novels abou...moreI got an early peek at this book because the author is a friend and I begged shamelessly for one of her early-author copies. Her alter-ego novels about Cleopatra's daughter Selene are great faves of mine, but I didn't know what to expect here because this was my first real dip into reading erotica. And with "It Stings So Sweet" I got the point of the genre: it's not just cover-to-cover bonking (or it shouldn't be). Yes, there is plenty of sex (and the sex here is both explicit and daring, so be warned) - but the sex is a vehicle to explore character growth and change. We are presented here with three interlocked couples, all with problems that extend far beyond the bedroom, and by the end they have all grown and changed in subtle, subtle ways.
We have society girl Nora and her working-class hubby; their marriage is on the rocks and divorce seems inevitable. Talking things out hasn't helped, and nor has being polite, so Nora and her guy decide to just let the anger out and see where it leads. It leads to cruel words and slaps and some rough sex, but the punishment here isn't used to degrade, but to forgive. For our next couple we have film-star Clara (a tip of the feathered hat to Clara Bow) and her adrenaline-junkie daredevil-pilot suitor Leo; this is my favorite couple, and their raunchy good fun is undercut tenderly by the wounds that this flashy self-confident pair carry on the inside. Finally we have suffragette Sophie attempting to carry her liberated ideals into the bedroom in an affair with the millionaire boss who stands for everything she hates - and he might be the teacher between the sheets, but she's got something to teach him when it comes to the bright new world of the 20s.
And it's the 20's setting that really makes these stories sing. This is "Chicago" on steroids: the beaded gowns, the smoky jazz, the bathtub gin, the pearls rolling around in the backseats of all those vintage coups - it's all real enough to taste. And you might come away with far more information than you think about this most decadent of decades: not just the jazz and the gin, but the silent movie industry and the burgeoning suffragette movement and the deep silent hangover from WWI. If you want to dip your toe into erotica, then put your feet up, get a long jade holder, mix a gin martini, and try this one out.(less)
There's a lot about truth in "Code Name Verity" - who's telling the truth, who's concealing the truth, who's manipulating the truth - and it all swirl...moreThere's a lot about truth in "Code Name Verity" - who's telling the truth, who's concealing the truth, who's manipulating the truth - and it all swirls around Verity herself, a nameless WWII spy for England who has fallen into the hands of the Gestapo, and is gladly betraying her country for a chance at life. We learn about Verity, her past, her mission, and most of all we learn about Maddie: her best friend, a female flyer who dropped Verity into occupied France, and who now may or may not be dead.
What a superbly written book this is. The narrative is as straightforward as the facts are twisty; Verity tells her story, and the horrors of war drop in so casually that they punch you in the gut a moment too late. ("I wish they would stop torturing that French resistance girl; she is never going to tell them anything.") Most remarkable is the way the facts coil in on themselves and make you doubt them: how reliable a narrator is Verity? Is she really spilling her guts like a coward, or is she playing a deeper game? And where IS her gutsy little pilot friend Maddie? A book to read at white-heat, turning the pages feverishly to get at the real truth. (less)
Spain is difficult for historical fiction readers. Say "Spain" and thoughts trigger of bullfights, bloodshed, torture, and religious fanaticism. Spani...moreSpain is difficult for historical fiction readers. Say "Spain" and thoughts trigger of bullfights, bloodshed, torture, and religious fanaticism. Spanish figures in many HF novels are usually saints (heroic, devout Katherine of Aragon), or villains (the evil Armada bearing down on poor beleaguered Elizabeth I). And true, much of Spain's history IS dark, blood-drenched, and overhung by religion. But C.W. Gortner does something remarkable in "The Queen's Vow" - he takes this country and its complicated history, and makes it real. Better than that, he makes it ours - and through the eyes of a queen who is herself the possessor of a checkered reputation: Isabella of Castile, who funded Christopher Columbus, expelled the Jews from Spain, and brought the Spanish Inquisition down on her people.
But she is much more than that, and Gortner gently humanizes this daunting figure without glossing over some of her less appealing (but accurate-for-her-time) faults, such as her distaste for homosexuals and her conviction that non-Christians are hell-bound. He introduces us instead to Isabella the young girl, negotiating the snakepit politics of her brother's court with a touching grace. Her religiousity is not mere fanaticism but her only comfort in a very dangerous world that wants to sully and kill her. Her bravery in seeking out a mate who will accept her as fellow queen and partner leads her to brash warrior Fernando of Aragon; their romance is passionate but realistic, since this couple has its problems over the years and Fernando has considerable struggles acknowledging his wife as true equal. Together they achieve some truly splendid things: victory over the intruding Moors, the beginnings of universities and education for women, and above all the uniting of a fractured series of warring kingdoms into a world power known as Spain. Isabella might be short-sighted (when she prays earnestly over whether history will condemn her for expelling the Jews, you want to reach through the page and yell in her ear) but she is also a hard-working visionary who carries her country on her back, and never complains about the cost of that burden. She understands her country and she loves it, and through her eyes, you will too. An insightful book about a fascinating woman, and an eye-opening insider view of an often-maligned country. (less)
Sometimes it seems as if the only historical fiction is yet another retread about a Tudor Queen or Plantagenet princess - where are the little people...moreSometimes it seems as if the only historical fiction is yet another retread about a Tudor Queen or Plantagenet princess - where are the little people and their stories? And here is "Blue Asylum," a passionate and poetic epic about a Southern wife and a battered soldier from the American Civil War; ordinary people embarking on a journey that can fairly be called Homeric. They meet not on some famous battlefield or picturesque white-columned plantation house, but at a madhouse: Ambrose a Confederate soldier suffering from what we would now call PTSD, Iris a plantation wife who is perfectly sane but inconvenient to a brutal husband. Iris, raging against captivity and determined to escape it, begins to form bonds inside the asylum: wounded Ambrose whom she begins to love, the smug asylum director against whom she pits her wits, and the doctor's lively young son who may prove the key to getting out. But even if Iris and Ambrose manage to escape, can they leave their mental wounds and tragic pasts behind them? The writing is poetic and beautiful, consisting of a vivid series of images as the mentally fragile characters view the world in a succession of visual snapshots, and I came to care almost unbearably for the characters themselves as I hoped they would get the happy ending they deserved. A gripping, moving, beautiful read. (less)
Oh, what a book, and oh, what a heroine. There's nobody quite like Linda; a Jewish-German secretary from Queens with a foul mouth, a wry sense of humo...moreOh, what a book, and oh, what a heroine. There's nobody quite like Linda; a Jewish-German secretary from Queens with a foul mouth, a wry sense of humor, and enough steel in her spine to build a bridge cable. Linda works for movie-star-handsome Wall Street lawyer John, fantasizing about her boss by day and taking care of her alcoholic mother by night, as Hitler rises in Europe. A passionate love affair and an unplanned pregnancy lead to a marriage proposal from John, but this fairy tale doesn't end at the altar. Marrying John isn't quite the happy ending Linda imagined, and when John's intimidating boss Edward needs a German speaker to handle his secret war correspondence, Linda jumps at the job. From the fringes of the spy business, Linda will land right in the thick of it, sent to Berlin to spy on a Nazi official as D-Day approaches. Linda's unforgettable voice makes the book fly, but the tense and terrifying third act is where it really soars; painting a mesmerizing picture of Hitler's Berlin, the intelligence business (the real intel business, not the James Bond stuff), and of an ordinary woman gutting her way through impossible dangers on common sense and sheer toughness alone. "I wanted to fight as much as any boy who enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor," she tells us, and boy, does she. Note: a movie was made of this book starring Michael Douglas and Melanie Griffith. It sucks. (less)