Inspired by the true stories of the first female doctors, The Heart Specialist promises a story of overcoming adversity and struggles to gain acceptan...moreInspired by the true stories of the first female doctors, The Heart Specialist promises a story of overcoming adversity and struggles to gain acceptance in a male-dominated world. The novel also promises a mystery and family drama as Agnes searches for clues to her father’s whereabouts who deserted the family after possibly murdered his mentally imbalanced sister. Unfortunately, the novel does not deliver on these promises or any of the other intriguing plots and characters Claire Holden Rothman introduces only to leave dangling or set aside in favor of another.
The novel begins when Agnes is a child and concludes when she’s in her 50s. In between, it pauses at what may be important moments in Agnes’ life before jumping several months or years to another moment even as it skips scenes Agnes alludes to later.
In some sections, Rothman provides detailed settings and secondary characters only to turn her back on them just as the novel’s world starts to feel real. Events move too quickly to get more than a fleeting glimpse of Agnes’ formative years at her grandmother’s home in rural Canada and then at a boarding school. Her time as an undergraduate college student is only mentioned as a stepping stone to her thwarted attempt to attend McGill University as a medical student. When reading these early sections, it can feel as if they’re delaying Rothman from getting to the meat of her story, yet simultaneously wanting her to slow down and explore the world’s she’s creating.
Characters other than Agnes are given short shrift. Her sister Laure is sketched broadly, so when Laure’s marriage or her medical problems draw her back into Agnes’ story, it’s hard to care about what happens to her. Agnes’ obsession with a former student of her father’s is equally hard to understand.
Relationships between characters are ill established or based on contradictory information, diluting any effect from what clearly should be important scenes and character moments. It requires too much time or flipping back to recall when a relationship became so testy or so familiar.
The love story Rothman introduces late between Agnes and her assistant pops up out of the blue, even including a digression into Agnes’ discovery of auto-eroticism, which stands apart jarringly from the rest of the novel.
The mystery that seems to set the tone for the novel and seems to serve Agnes’ raison d’etre – her father’s disappearance and possible crime – is wrapped up as an afterthought, no real answers given and Agnes (along with the reader) not particularly caring about the resolution.
These flaws are a shame. At times, Rothman shows a deft hand at drawing you into a scene. Agnes’ childhood leaves you wanting more, as does her time organizing the medical museum. Unfortunately, Rothman doesn’t trust her instincts and let you spend time there.
Ultimately, The Heart Specialist comes across as an outline of a larger, more complete and more interesting novel, as if Rothman had written key scenes and then neglected to go back and fill in the missing pieces and transitions. (less)
A teenager with Jekyll and Hyde personalities. A young duke with mystical powers. A girl genius who can speak to machines. A rough-and-tumble boy with...moreA teenager with Jekyll and Hyde personalities. A young duke with mystical powers. A girl genius who can speak to machines. A rough-and-tumble boy with a heart and bones of metal. All joined together to thwart a plot against Queen Victoria.
The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross is set in a steampunk version of Victorian England. For readers not familiar with the steampunk genre, it (typically) refers to a world in which steam power is the main source of energy but more modern technology is available. In Cross' world, this means pocket-size telegraphs, clockwork robots as servants and steam-powered motorcycles.
This young-adult romance novel centers on Finley Jayne, the Jekyll-Hyde character. She never knew her father, whose scientific experiments passed on his genetic quirks to his daughter. Now, her blood teeming with Organites (organic nanobots that can heal), she struggles to accept the second personality inside her.
A chance encounter brings her to the attention of Griffin King, a young duke with powers and secrets of his own. King can access the Aether, a mystical energy from the spirit world. When the story starts, King has already gathered teens with other abilities and set up a sort of investigative service, continuing his parents' work.
The adventure story follows the teens as they investigate a series of thefts orchestrated by a man calling himself The Machinist. His talent is creating automatons with sufficient strength to kill a man along with a few other secrets.
As part of the Harlequin family, a romance is expected. Griffin helps Finley as she tries to meld her personalities without losing herself. Naturally, the two are drawn to each other, despite the complications of Finley's attraction to Jack Dandy, a mysterious underworld figure who is equally drawn to Finley. This triangle is a weaker part of the story, in part because Finley is the weakest character. Her motivations are unclear at times, and she is more likely to accept what others are telling her despite descriptions of being a strong character. Why Griffin and Dandy are drawn to her is muddy: that she's the female lead is the best explanation.
Better portrayed is the relationship between two secondary characters, Sam and Emily. Sam's powers lie in his strength and the fact that Emily, an engineering whiz, was able to save his life by replacing his heart and several bones with metal. All of this happens before The Girl in the Steel Corset begins. Sam's discovery of his cybernetic parts threatens to destroy his friendship with Emily before it can blossom into love.
Sam and Emily, along with Griffin and the other characters, come across as more real than Finley. Although the reader is dropped into what feels like the middle of an ongoing series (the book is actually the first in The Steampunk Chronicles), Cross' descriptions of these characters and their actions in the opening chapters give the reader a quick sketch of who these people are. Would Finley have as much beneath her skin.
As the group finds more clues about The Machinist's plans, the reader quickly puts together the plot before the characters do. Some of the clues are obvious, and it's hard to accept some of supposedly brilliant characters take longer to reach the same conclusions. The plot plays out largely as expected, but the pacing is good and there's some fun to be had in seeing how it all plays out.
In an afterword, Cross says she "wanted to write League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets teen X-Men." She falls a short a bit. It's not Alan Moore's League she emulates as much as something between Moore's graphic novels and the maligned film. The steampunk elements are done well. Cross' inventions are machines that fit well into Victorian London. The abilities of the teens could have used some more explanation or background. Finley is the only one who's discovering what she is for the first time. The others' abilities change slightly through the book, but they don't seem surprised and have already accepted their differences. If Cross had spent more time detailing how Griffin, Sam and Emily adapted to their abilities or discovered them, the reader's relationship with these characters would only have been strengthened.
For all its faults though, The Girl in the Steel Corset is entertaining and enjoyable. Most of the characters create an impression and show promise for future books in the series.(less)
For many Americans, the time between the American Revolution and the Civil War is a blur. General U.S. history classes in school paid the period littl...moreFor many Americans, the time between the American Revolution and the Civil War is a blur. General U.S. history classes in school paid the period little mind except brief mentions of westward expansion and the presidents between Washington and Lincoln.
The Whiskey Rebels takes a closer look at this time, focusing on 1789-1791. The story follows two main characters. Captain Ethan Saunders left the Army of the Potomac in disgrace and, in 1791, finds himself caught up in intrigue swirling around his former fiance, Alexander Hamilton and the Bank of the United States. Joan Maycott and her husband leave Philadelphia for the wilderness around Pittsburgh in 1789 and become heavily involved in distilling whiskey.
Liss does an excellent job putting the reader in the time and locales. Readers appreciate the access to historical figures like Hamilton. Liss paints a vivid picture of everyday life for the wealthy, the would-be wealthy, the poor and the desperate.
Chapters alternate between Maycott and Saunders. It's a common enough device, but hits some rough patches here. Saunders' story takes place during the latter half of 1791, while Maycott's begins 3 years earlier. As their stories involve some of the same characters, it's difficult at times to keep track of what a supporting character has and hasn't done yet. At the same time, Maycott's struggle to establish a life in the west is often more interesting than Saunders' daily activities.
There's a reason for that. Saunders and Maycott eventually meet in 1791, but to keep the chapter sequence going, it may seem that Saunders is killing time until the other character shows up. His story is told on an almost daily basis, while weeks or months go by between Maycott's chapters. The Saunders sequences, however, could not be combined into a long expository meeting between him and Maycott as much of what he does explains to the reader the intricacies of bank speculation at the end of the 18th century. It's necessary, but readers may find themselves preferring one of the two plot lines more than the other until they come together.
Saunders and Maycott find themselves on opposing sides of the financial and political future of the country, although Maycott is the only one who knows that until the last few chapters of the novel. Until this point, the reader has been rooting for each character to succeed in his or her private missions. Then it feel necessary to choose a side between two people the reader has come to care about. And Maycott doesn't seem at all like the woman we met in the early pages. The signs and reason for her changing personality are clear in the book, but the positions she and Saunders stand for require a choice between them.
A quick perusal of Wikipedia entries on Hamilton, Maria Reynolds, Whiskey Rebellion and William Duer can tell you how history worked itself out without the intervention of the fictional characters. Liss doesn't create an alternate history by changing the outcomes, but presents an alternate catalyst that ties together some of history's disparate threads. By the end of the novel, the reader comes away with a better sense of why Hamilton mattered in the early government. (less)
The first half of Sarah’s Key hints at a captivating story: the Vel d’Hiv roundup in Paris on July 16, 1942. The roundup is one of the forgotten trage...moreThe first half of Sarah’s Key hints at a captivating story: the Vel d’Hiv roundup in Paris on July 16, 1942. The roundup is one of the forgotten tragedies of history. More than 12,000 Jews (over half of whom were women and children) were arrested by French policeman and taken to the Velodrome d’hiver, an indoor cycle track. Guarded by their countrymen, men were separated from their families and sent to internment camps and then on to concentration camps. Then the women were separated from their children. Almost all ended up at camps; few of the children survived.
Conditions in the velodrome were deplorable; the few working toilets quickly failed, and food and water were limited. The glass roof of the building helped to heat the crowded conditions on the track during the days the Jews were held.
Tatiana de Rosnay, herself a French citizen, uses the Vel d’Hiv as the background for the two stories she tells in Sarah’s Key. The first follows Sarah, a young Jewish girl taken to the Vel d’Hiv. During the arrest, she hides her brother in a secret cupboard in their apartment. She locks him in, takes the key and promises him she’ll be back soon. The second story follows Julia, a contemporary middle-aged American ex pat assigned to write about the Vel d’Hiv for a Paris magazine and her search for what happened to Sarah.
For the first half of the novel, de Rosnay alternates between the two characters; chapter breaks and a different font indicate the time shift. As Julia discovers more about the roundup, the reader learns more about Sarah. Unfortunately, the promise of Sarah’s story doesn’t come to fruition. de Rosnay captures a child’s voice, but, in doing so, she leaves out a full discussion of the turbulent emotions of the character and what 1942 Paris is experiencing. Sarah wishes her parents had told her what was happening since 1939; the reader, too, wishes for more insight into the events. The first-person point-of-view isn’t necessary here for the reader to empathize with Sarah and her family because the events are so tragic. A third-person point-of-view may have served the novel better.
Julia’s story is interesting in its own right, but boils down to little more than chick lit set against an historic backdrop. Her husband, Bertrand, cheats on her and, as portrayed in the book, offers no reason beyond their daughter for Julia to stay with him. de Rosnay describes Bertrand as a charismatic, sensual Frenchman, but the reader only sees his cruel side. At the end of the novel, Bertrand’s explanation of his actions seem dropped in from some other novel because the reader never saw even a hint of what was happening. Also infuriating is Julia’s editor’s criticism of her final article. He wishes she had contacted the French police involved in the roundup and detailed more of the 1942 and contemporary French reaction to the treatment of the Jews. His admonition is a reminder not only of what isn’t in Julia’s article, but also what isn’t in de Rosnay’s novel.
By the time Julia discovers what happened to Sarah, de Rosnay drops the alternating plots and focuses on Julia’s reactions. The events that follow are predictable, down to the final scene in a New York café. Focusing more on Sarah than on Julia would have led to a stronger novel that resonated with the reader. Instead de Rosnay produces an easy read that may spur some readers to do their own research into the events of July 1942. (less)