The sixth installment in the adventures of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, impatiently awaited and worth the wait. This one has a more thoughtful tone than the...moreThe sixth installment in the adventures of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, impatiently awaited and worth the wait. This one has a more thoughtful tone than the others, since it hinges on everyone waiting to see when Alfred the Great will die, and whether they will be able to survive the attack that will surely come from the Danes afterward. Their best hope of keeping Alfred's fragile kingdom together is Uhtred, but will Alfred's young successor trust him? Uhtred snaps and snarls and swears at priests, delightfully crochety as ever, but Alfred's impending death and his own advancing years (he is startled to find his beard gray, and has to admit that at forty-five he is officially old) have given Uhtred a more elegiac bent. Old or not, Uhtred can still swing and chop in the shield wall with the best of them, and Cornwell's battle scenes are as good as ever. Alfred's daughter Aethelflaed is a welcome sidekick, the only woman with enough steel in her spine to keep up with Uhtred, and the subplot with Uhtred's children is growing more interesting by the book. A strong chapter in the tales of Uhtred, though I have to wonder if he's ever going to go north and retake his castle as he's been threatening since Book 1?(less)
Sheila was born poor and pretty in a backwater Irish village, and she wants out by any means necessary. Her first attempt at escape is a beauty contes...moreSheila was born poor and pretty in a backwater Irish village, and she wants out by any means necessary. Her first attempt at escape is a beauty contest where she is named the local textile factory's linen queen, but before she can take her prize money and flee, World War II arrives with a bang. Sheila then sets her sights on marriage to an American soldier (any American soldier will do) for a ticket to the United States, but war and love will change her despite all her best efforts. Sheila is a fascinating heroine: tough, profane, unabashedly self-centered, but when you see what she came from you understand why. Her journey from hard-as-nails opportunist to mature and loving woman is real and believable, and her two love interests (a taciturn childhood friend and a gentle Jewish soldier) are not exploited for a cheap Edward-Jacob love triangle, but given problems and struggles of their own. A gritty, entertaining, atmospheric twist on the standard formula of WWII romantic drama.(less)
A truly delightful book which manages the near impossible: a WWII story with both humor and pathos. A post-war correspondence springs up between a Lon...moreA truly delightful book which manages the near impossible: a WWII story with both humor and pathos. A post-war correspondence springs up between a London war journalist named Juliet and the various members of a Guernsey Island book club, and their resulting letters chronicle the little-known story of Guernsey's wartime occupation by the Nazis. Juliet is a delightful heroine, effervescent and hilarious, and the Guernsey islanders range from a taciturn farmer to an eccentric witch to a courageous unwed mother who disappeared into the camps and has not been seen since. My joy at having discovered this very talented author was only muted by the fact that she produced just this one book before her death. I would have loved to read more of her witty, moving prose. (less)
There are not many authors who could convincingly tie together such diverse things as flower magic, Highland politics, and a hero who wears eyeliner -...moreThere are not many authors who could convincingly tie together such diverse things as flower magic, Highland politics, and a hero who wears eyeliner - but Elizabeth Loupas is such an author. Her debut novel "The Second Duchess" was one of my favorite reads last year, and "The Flower Reader" proves that Loupas has successfully dodged the Sophomore Slump. As with "Second Duchess," "Flower Reader" revolves around the heroine's unraveling of a mystery - but the mystery here is rougher, the danger greater, and the heroine not so sheltered from harm. The result is a complex, gripping, sobering thriller with plenty of swordplay and politics for good measure.
Scotland is the setting this time around, and refreshingly, Loupas uses a rarely-explored period of Mary Queen of Scots's reign as backdrop: the years when she had just returned home from France as a teenage widow, before the mess of Darnley and Rizzio and Bothwell reared its ugly head. Queen Mary is not the heroine here, however: that role belongs to Rinette, a young lady-in-waiting entrusted with a casket of letters and prophecies intended to guide the new queen. But Rinette's adored young husband is murdered in a mysterious assassination, and Rinette demands his killer be found before she hands over the casket. It's a decision she'll have ample time to rue.
I like a heroine who is motivated by something other than love, and Rinette is an arrow bent on revenge, on protecting her children, and on saving her beloved home by the sea from rapacious lords. The man she should be with will be quickly evident to a sharp-eyed reader, and he's even evident to Rinette - but this girl is too focused, too careful, too busy, and too battered to make time for love. Her quest for her first husband's killer will lead her to heartbreak, imprisonment, a forced second marriage at swordpoint, and possibly death. Her one consolation is her gift of floromancy: the ability to read people and situations in the flowers she sees around them. This could have been a sentimental gimmick but it is subtle and lovely, woven into the story with grace and never used as a deus ex machina.
A tender, touching, sometimes brutal, always absorbing read. I wanted to hug Rinette for being so brave, and I wanted to choke Mary Queen of Scots for being such a callous mercurial cow. And thank goodness (for those like me who can't stand to read about animal deaths) that Elizabeth Loupas can be counted on never to kill the dogs in her books!
Note - I was lucky enough to meet Elizabeth in person at the Historical Novel Society Conference last year. A lovely lady, and I wish her all success with her second book. More, please! (less)
After the wall-to-wall action of "Changes," Harry Dresden is back for a more contemplative ride in "Ghost Story." He has much to contemplate: for star...moreAfter the wall-to-wall action of "Changes," Harry Dresden is back for a more contemplative ride in "Ghost Story." He has much to contemplate: for starters he's dead, and he's back as a ghost to solve his own murder and save three of his friends (but which three?) from destruction. He's cut off from his magic, cut off from his friends, decimated by the memories of the things he did in the last book, but he still struggles to do the right thing, and it's why we love Harry. Harry's travails seem tangential at first - when will he stop drifting around on side jobs and start solving his own murder? - but be patient; everything has a reason. There's some nifty character development, particularly with Molly who has long stamped along as the teenage sidekick but has now blossomed into a very dangerous woman indeed (and perhaps not an entirely sane one). The identity of Harry's murderer was truly a shocker, and the next book is set up nicely. And the Star Trek scene? I never stopped giggling. (less)
The first installment of a highly enjoyable series about an Elizabethan sleuth. Ursula Blanchard makes for an unusual heroine: a resourceful young wid...moreThe first installment of a highly enjoyable series about an Elizabethan sleuth. Ursula Blanchard makes for an unusual heroine: a resourceful young widow who serves Queen Elizabeth as a lady in waiting, and is offered the chance to supplement her meager income by spying for Elizabeth's intelligence master Sir William Cecil. Desperate to support her young daughter, Ursula takes on the task of watching over Amy Robsart, the sickly and paranoid wife of the Queen's favorite Robert Dudley. Amy ends up dead at the bottom of a staircase, and Ursula must unravel a murder, a Catholic plot, and a disquieting romance of her own with a court gallant who just might be a traitor to the queen. Ursula makes a moving narrator as she struggles believably between her duties to queen, country, family, daughter, and conscience, and Buckley offers an intriguing new solution to the historical mystery of Amy Robsart's death. A strong start to a good series. (less)
Book 2 in the Ursula Blanchard mysteries. Ursula's adventures as Elizabethan lady-in-waiting and part-time spy continue as she is recruited this time...moreBook 2 in the Ursula Blanchard mysteries. Ursula's adventures as Elizabethan lady-in-waiting and part-time spy continue as she is recruited this time to spy on a Catholic household which might be hiding more than just Latin prayers. Ursula's loyalty to her queen is put to the test: she hates spying on a family she genuinely likes, and she wrestles with the more personal dilemma of whether to follow her beloved but estranged Catholic husband into exile in France. Ursula's two servants and partners in crime are nicely fleshed out here: Fran the maidservant whose comic wailing is always entertaining, and her husband Brockley whose deadpan oneliners and ready sword spring equally to Ursula's defense in the face of danger. Ends on an unexpectedly somber note as Ursula takes murder on her conscience in order to save a man from the horrific price of treason. Good character development and an always-excellent sense of Elizabethan time and place. (less)
Elizabethan sleuth Ursula Blanchard crosses the Channel in her third adventure, braving war-torn France to carry a private letter from Elizabeth to Ca...moreElizabethan sleuth Ursula Blanchard crosses the Channel in her third adventure, braving war-torn France to carry a private letter from Elizabeth to Catherine de'Medici. Religious hysteria, an accusation of murder, and a malicious priest land Ursula's faithful maid Dale in prison and Ursula scrambles to rescue her, struggling at the same time to rescue her own future with her estranged husband Matthew. Ursula might love Matthew, but his Catholic faith keeps leading him into plots against the Queen; and Ursula must decide once and for all if she will choose love and war-torn France, or duty and peaceful England. Her choices are sometimes bleak - and I love a heroine who can struggle with the eternal head-or-heart dilemma, and go with her head. The ending of this one may surprise you. (less)
Perhaps my favorite of the Ursula Blanchard series. Ursula has survived a disastrous pregnancy and a bitter quarrel with her husband Matthew, and is b...morePerhaps my favorite of the Ursula Blanchard series. Ursula has survived a disastrous pregnancy and a bitter quarrel with her husband Matthew, and is back in England to bring her young daughter back to France - without being at all certain that she wants to live in France anymore herself. Once in England Ursula cannot help but end up neck-deep in a mystery, and finds herself sent to spy out potential trouble in a Welsh castle. The mystery is fun and has a poignant conclusion, but the moment of satisfaction really arrives when a wave of unexpected passion comes along in the most unromantic of settings. Ursula's turbulent marriage to her French husband has long been withering under the storms of their differing religious and political views; it has been her steady manservant Brockley who understands and supports her through her troubles - and finally, locked in a dungeon together, they are forced to confront their feelings for each other. All in all, a good historical mystery with excellent character development and some surprisingly unflinching things to say about the troubles of Elizabethan-age marriage, pregnancy, and cross-class romance. (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)
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)
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)
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)