This intriguing YA historical novel has Swift's usual deft use of historical background and unusual but strongly defined characters. (My reviews for...more This intriguing YA historical novel has Swift's usual deft use of historical background and unusual but strongly defined characters. (My reviews for Swift's The Gilded Lily and A Divided Inheritance.) Set in the 17th century in the midst of the English Civil War, the novel is the first in a trilogy, each book following one of the three leads.
Abigail "Abi" Chaplin is a cheap maid after she lost her hearing to childhood illness, and she's sent to Markyate Manor to work as a maid. Shocked to find the grand estate virtually abandoned save for a cranky cook and a vile overseer, she's even more shocked to find her mistress, Lady Katherine Fanshawe, is a girl her same age.
While cold and imperious at first, Abi and Katherine become unlikely allies when Katherine decides to pass herself off as "Kate", another maid. To Abi's horror, her brother Ralph is taken with Kate, and invites them to join in his Digger community -- a commune-like movement of tenants and farmers who organize to live on public land rather than as paid tenants for the local manors.
Against this social drama -- one that was totally new to me, and deeply fascinating! -- is the backdrop of war, and in particular, the way it impacted the local folks as the armies mustered and marched through town. Katherine's fortune and inheritance is stolen from her by her milquetoast husband and her brutal father-in-law, and she has to protect herself as best as she can.
At 200 pages, this is a quick read, but one that is rich with characterization and wonderful historical details. Although I wasn't a fan of Katherine -- I couldn't fathom why Abi liked her or what Ralph found appealing about her other than her beauty -- I appreciated the complicated relationship she and Abi had (and how it changed as time went on), and the rich mix of real life details with fictional ones. I also loved that there was a deaf main character; it's rare to see in fiction, especially historical fiction, and made for an even more interesting story.
As with Swift's other novels, there's a delightfully detailed historical note that more than satisfies. This is the first in a trilogy, but has a solid conclusion that doesn't require one to pick up the other two -- but as the following novels follow Katherine and Ralph from their viewpoints, I can't help but want to get them, despite my exhaustion with trilogies.
Fans of English historical fiction, especially the Civil War era, will like this book. Although there's some romantic elements, this is really a novel about friendship, class, and identity (as well as forgiveness and patience). (less)
Super lots of fun; made my wife laugh hysterically at times, to the point of tears. It helps being familiar with and/or passionate about some of the w...moreSuper lots of fun; made my wife laugh hysterically at times, to the point of tears. It helps being familiar with and/or passionate about some of the works, I suspect, but the books I hadn't read still were snarky and funny. Real review to come.(less)
Set in 1377, Sinful Folk follows a band of starving villagers who are pilgrimaging to court to plead for justice following the suspicious deaths of th...moreSet in 1377, Sinful Folk follows a band of starving villagers who are pilgrimaging to court to plead for justice following the suspicious deaths of their sons. Five boys burned to death in a house, intentionally locked in by an unusual knot. The village, already facing a hard winter and impending famine, immediately suspects Jews as the culprits. The boys' bereaved fathers gather the bodies of their sons and decide to keep them unburied to let the King witness their cruel deaths.
Each villager, however, carries a dark secret with them, and on the road, beset by bloodthirsty knights and bands of murderous rogues, one twisted truth after another emerges.
The deceptively simple premise belies a more complicated novel that hit every note right for me: wonderful evocation of setting & era, fascinating characters, dramatic plot, and surprising historic details. The grimy, wintry feel of the landscape is a character, too: with just a hint of air conditioning, I was shivering along with our travelers, my skin crawling at the everyday reality of life for a medieval peasant.
The story is carried by Mear, mute parent to a murdered son, who has lived nearly two decades as a man in this small village after fleeing the convent where she thought her lover -- her son's father -- would come for them. As our narrator, Mear is curious, clever, and observant, her voice inviting us to experience the sadness and horror she does. (I suspect this would make a smashing audiobook for that reason!)
Despite the dark premise, the novel reads quickly, with many exciting interludes, and I found myself racing through the story. Nikki McClure, the illustrator who did the cover design, provides small illustrated elements that open every few chapters, and they're striking and interesting.
My only complaint is that the historical note was really a brief piece about Edward the Black Prince rather than a larger essay touching on the other events that occurred in the novel. While the details about Edward were interesting, I am intensely curious to learn if some of the things that befell our travelers were historically true or wholly fictional.
Recommended for fans of medieval fic as well as those who like stories of commoners (seriously, between the cold and the grime, I was esp grateful for my shower!). A great end-of-summer read, or one to save when facing a snowy weekend!(less)
Authority is the second book in Jeff VanderMeer's creepy and delicious speculative sci-fi-ish Southern Reach trilogy. (My review of the first book, An...moreAuthority is the second book in Jeff VanderMeer's creepy and delicious speculative sci-fi-ish Southern Reach trilogy. (My review of the first book, Annihilation.)
This is going to be a tricky review for me as there are things from the first book I don't want to inadvertently spoil, and let's be real, detailed recap of a second book from a trilogy one is unfamiliar with makes for boring reading.
John Rodriguez, called "Control", has become the new director of the Southern Reach. His job to dissect what happened with the last expedition, and make sense of what is happening in the area. His co-workers and subordinates are hostile, strange, and jumpy, and his work is a mix of sorting through bureaucratic layers as well as injecting new life into a stagnating agency.
But things aren't straightforward for Control; the strange, alien, hallucinatory world we experienced in Annihilation encroaches on the "ordinary" world Control inhabits, and like Control, we're left wondering what is in his head, and what is far more insidious.
Meatier than the first book (this one runs 341 pages, compared to Annihilation's 195 pages), this one occasionally dragged for me. There's more back story as we learn about Control's family, working history, and complicated relationship with his mother -- which does impact his work at Southern Reach -- but I found it a tiny bit slow at times, especially as I was consumed with wanting to know "the truth" about Area X. Still, the delightful creepiness comes through with this one, including a scene at the end so deliciously frightening, I still get shivery thinking about it. (I understand the trilogy has been optioned for a movie, and this scene will make everyone jump out of their seats!)
There's a smidgen of a cliffhanger at the end of this one, and I am biting my nails impatiently for the final book in the series, Acceptance.
If you're an X-Files or Lost fan, or enjoy Dan Simmons or Jules Verne, consider starting this series -- it's fast, creepy, atmospheric, and wonderfully fun.(less)
I don't always read speculative fiction, but when I do... Okay, that's a wicked lame start, but seriously, I feel like I need to qualify my review. I'...moreI don't always read speculative fiction, but when I do... Okay, that's a wicked lame start, but seriously, I feel like I need to qualify my review. I'm not much for "weird" fiction -- I can be very impatient and/or lazy when it comes to elaborate world-building or well, weirdness -- but now and then I enjoy something, well, odd.
I've long been a VanderMeer fan because his novels have plenty of oddity along with some delicious narrative description and fabulously unforgettable characters. (His Veniss Underground -- a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth -- is a desert island pick of mine.
In this slender, gripping novel -- the first of a trilogy (sorry!) -- VanderMeer creates a world like ours with one outstanding difference: thirty years ago, some event literally reshaped part of the country, and Area X (as the place is now known) is a wild, "pristine" uninhabited preserve closed off by the government. Mostly forgotten by the public, Area X is an unsolved mystery still as there has been no successful expedition into the space: one expedition had all its members kill themselves; another where they murdered each other. The most recent one had members return without notice only to die of aggressive cancers.
Our narrator is a biologist who is part of the twelfth expedition. The novel is her diary from the expedition, and in it she recounts what she knows of Area X. From the first handful of pages, we're plunged into a creepy world where even the other expedition members can't be trusted and our guide, the biologist, carefully parses out details as she sees fit.
As with his other books, VanderMeer's imaginative and poetic narrative style is seen here, too; despite the biologist's dry and pragmatic approach to her job, the events she witnesses and the landscape around her defy neat prose, and there are passages that feel nearly feverish, they're so wild and linguistically fancy. There's delicious tension, plenty of creepiness, and a brisk plot that has one racing to find out what is next.
I adored this novel and read it one night -- a rarity for me since getting pregnant! -- and I immediately got -- and inhaled -- the second book, Authority. (Review coming soon.) I'm on tenterhooks for the final book, Acceptance, which doesn't come out until September.
The publisher has the first chapter posted online for those who are curious; if you like survivalist stories, strange happenings, government conspiracies, and movies like Prometheus or shows like Lost, consider giving this one a read.(less)
DNF as it was wildly overdue at the library. Liked the premise and the setting, but just didn't quite get sucked it -- hence the four plus weeks it to...moreDNF as it was wildly overdue at the library. Liked the premise and the setting, but just didn't quite get sucked it -- hence the four plus weeks it took me to get halfway through.(less)
This delicious novel is penned by a novelist and poet, who co-wrote the entire thing, creating an atmospheric, emotional, and vivid story of love, pla...moreThis delicious novel is penned by a novelist and poet, who co-wrote the entire thing, creating an atmospheric, emotional, and vivid story of love, place, betrayal, and violence. I apologize now if my review doesn't convey my deep like and enthusiasm for this novel -- writing reviews recently has been hard! (Pregnancy brain! and all that, right??)
Set in 1927 in a fictional town on the Mississippi, the story is split between Dixie Clay, a bootlegger who lost her son two years ago; and Ted Ingersoll, a IRS agent searching for two murdered revenue agents with his partner Ham Johnson. But the plot isn't precisely a cat-and-mouse tale, nor a will-they-or-won't-they love story, as the threat of the Mississippi flooding over its levees colors everything and everyone.
Ingersoll, a jazz-loving orphan who fought in Europe during World War I, stumbles upon an infant when he and his partner investigate the scene of a shootout. Loathe to leave the child at an orphanage, on the recommendation of a shop keeper he gives the baby to a young housewife, pretty Dixie Clay.
Dixie, still heartbroken over the death of her infant, clings to the new child, disbelieving -- and unwilling to give him up even when her good-for-nothing husband threatens her. While Ingersoll and his partner masquerade as engineers arrived to help fortify the levees against the swelling Mississippi, they quickly learn that Dixie Clay's swank and swaggering husband is an ambitious criminal, and Ingersoll has to reconcile his interest in Dixie with his desire to do his job well.
There's a love story in this novel that is predictable, but I didn't mind, as I just adored both Dixie and Ingersoll. The flood of 1927 was totally new to me, despite being considered by some to be the worst natural disaster to ever occur in our country, and the events and impact of the flood were fascinating and disturbing and made for a fantastic backdrop to this story.
I'll admit I was curious how coherent the story would feel with two authors. My apprehension was that the two viewpoints would be split between the authors -- Ingersoll penned by Franklin and Dixie by Fennelly -- and according to the Reader's Guide included with the novel, this was the original plan. In the end, however, both authors worked on both characters and sections, and the resulting prose is just gorgeous -- lyrical, poetic, rich, and action-filled.
As one who is going to give birth in a few months, I enjoyed Dixie's ruminations on motherhood and parenting -- I haven't been drawn to fiction around those themes for some reason, but welcomed them here. (Fennelly wrote Great With Child, a volume of letters she sent to a pregnant friend -- "These are letters I would have welcomed when I was pregnant," she said -- and if they're half as tender and thoughtful as her writing here, I'm going to love them.)
For those who enjoy Jazz Era-novels but want something different, consider this one -- I haven't stumbled over many novels that feature jazz fans and flappers that aren't set in a large urban center. Fans of fiction set in the South absolutely will want this book -- place is a very rich character here! Thoughtful and action-filled, this is a wonderfully escapist novel with two very appealing characters and an absorbing story. (less)
While most of the bloggers on this tour enjoyed A Triple Knot, I'm sad to say I did not. Despite the focus on a little-fictionalized royal -- medieval...moreWhile most of the bloggers on this tour enjoyed A Triple Knot, I'm sad to say I did not. Despite the focus on a little-fictionalized royal -- medieval Joan of Kent, cousin of the King, Edward III and eventual spouse of Edward of Woodstock, aka the Black Prince -- I was a bit bored by this plot-and-action heavy novel.
Set between 1338 and 1361, the novel follows the famous "fair" Joan of Kent -- and sadly, she was the heart of my problem with this novel. Her biggest claim to fame is her beauty, but Campion also paints her as relentlessly good. Dominated by her bratty, cruel cousin, Ned (as Edward is styled), who is obsessed with marrying her, Joan instead boldly marries -- at 12! -- a man twice her age. When her family learns of her marriage, their cold response is to declare her marriage a invalid and marry her to another man. Ned is relentless in his abusive attentions, and powerful figures in English and foreign courts jockey to minimize her power.
So much salacious excitement, yet reading more than half of the book (290 pages) was an exhausting effort. Campion's narrative style has a kind of distance to it that made me feel disconnected from the characters. Additionally, our heroine felt static to me: Joan was a naive, overly kind child who never grew out of her passive desire to please everyone and worse, despite the twenty year story arc, she sounded the same on the first page and the 200th page.
Still there were deft and interesting characters and interactions: Joan's rival, so to speak, an experienced courtier, treats Joan with a measure of kindness as she privately advocates to keep Joan from marrying -- or being seduced -- by an older man. Even though she's envious of Joan's connection with a handsome knight, she still offers to help Joan and the knight be public with their relationship. (I found her more interesting than Joan, sadly!)
As for extras, my review copy only contained a skimpy cast list -- just the royal English family -- and a brief Author's Note detailing some of Campion's choices for her Joan.
Sarah Johnson of Reading the Past has a fabulous review of this book for those tempted but unsure based on my review. This one just didn't click with me -- I'll admit to being a bit mushbrained at this point in my pregnancy -- so if you're intrigued by Joan, medieval English aristocracy, or the Black Prince, consider this one.(less)
I can't squee enough about this novel -- it was so fascinating, disturbing, intriguing, and exciting it pulled me out of my reading slump -- and is an...moreI can't squee enough about this novel -- it was so fascinating, disturbing, intriguing, and exciting it pulled me out of my reading slump -- and is another fabulous example of great, escapist historical fiction.
Set in the late 18th/early 19th century during George III's reign, the novel follows his wife Charlotte and a handful of their 14 children (primarily their daughters). George -- "mad" King George as well as the hated George of the American Revolution-- is a beloved husband and father, and his wife and daughters flock to his side when his mysterious illness manifests in bouts of mania, violence, and occasional cruelty. As time goes on, however, the constant threat of his madness provokes everyone to begin to look out for themselves, fracturing the family, and costing his daughters enormously.
Purcell manages to make George's chronic mental illness read compellingly, and I couldn't help but feel sympathetic toward him. His wife, Charlotte, is harder to like -- she cruelly depends on her children, mostly her daughters, to help her deal with her changing husband -- and her choices really stuck in my craw. The myriad children were distinctive individuals, but the story focused mostly on the Royal Princess Charlotte and Sophia -- both of whom had tragic dramas I loved/felt awful about.
Despite the heavy tragedy implicit in the plot, the story really races, and didn't feel crushingly dark or depressing. Purcell offers happiness to her characters when she can, and moments of grace when she can't.
Originally a self-pubbed bestseller -- as God Save the King -- it's been picked up by Myrmidon. I can't speak to any changes made between editions as I've not read the original release, but I'm delighted that it will find new readers. This edition has a family tree and a brief historical note about what details she fictionalized.
Purcell has ambitious plans to tackle the Hanoverian/Georgian dynasty in fiction so those who are unfamiliar with this family but enjoy royal drama will have some meaty escapades to dig into. I'll be eagerly anticipating her next release!(less)
This intriguing little book -- less than 300 pages -- contains precisely what the title says: one thousand fleeting moments for which there is no sing...moreThis intriguing little book -- less than 300 pages -- contains precisely what the title says: one thousand fleeting moments for which there is no single word to describe them. Whimsical, occasionally edge, melancholy and exultant in equal part, this is a lovely sort of coffee table book that invites one to thumb through and share.
Hand lettered and illustrated by Ray Fenwick, each feeling is articulated in a different font, punctuated with images and graphic elements. (You can click on the pictures for a more hi-res view.)
The feelings range from embarrassing to ethereal. Some favorites of mine:
188: The panic that you might not make it to the bathroom on time.
359: The disappointment that that smile was meant for someone else.
OR, one I can relate to all too much: 920: The helplessness in the face of your cat's whims.
There's a helpful index at the end which categorizes the various options: accident feelings, British feelings, red wine feelings, train-platform feelings, etc. The book has a great hand feeling, too: French flaps, and a slightly heavier paper inside, like a sketch-book.
A lovely gift-y sort of book for someone who struggles to articulate their feelings or those who are very good at it, as well as fun kind of graduation, house-warming, or birthday gift. Those who are into illustration might also enjoy this. My wife and I have been having fun picking out one feeling to sum up our day, and could be a neat sort of way to diary through life, noting what feeling you have when (and perhaps how often!).(less)
I've never considered Livia, wife of Emperor Augustus, to be a very sympathetic figure. Popular culture tends to paint her as a cold, scheming woman b...moreI've never considered Livia, wife of Emperor Augustus, to be a very sympathetic figure. Popular culture tends to paint her as a cold, scheming woman but in Smith's hands, Livia is far more sympathetic, likable, and warm. As an enormous fan of Stephanie Dray's trilogy about Cleopatra's daughter, I pretty much thought I'd never like Livia. This book proves the power of a well-written novel: a reader, despite herself, can't resist a convincing main character and realistically articulated emotions and drama.
Opening in the 20s BC, I think, the novel is told by Livia at the end of her life. She begins with the event that shaped her life in many ways: the assassination of Julius Caesar. Her father marries her at 14 to a cousin to ensure his loyalty. And while Livia manages to make her marriage work, she is shocked by the attraction she feels for her family's enemy, Octavius -- Caesar's heir.
As Octavius wages a war of vengeance on those who betrayed his adoptive father, Livia struggles to hide her feelings for him. Still, they marry, under shocking circumstances, and Livia casts her lot with Octavius. As politically minded as he is, they make a powerful couple, and with her increased influence comes, unsurprisingly, controversy!
In Smith's hands, the complicated (and for me, unfamiliar) world of Roman politics and Octavius' reign becomes intimate, easy to understand, and deeply compelling. The Livia of cruel depravity and malicious machinations isn't seen here; instead, we have a young woman, deeply loyal to Rome and its citizens, passionate about improvement and urging her husband to be his best self.
This novel raced; Livia is a survivor, eyewitness to a tumultuous and violent time in Roman history. While the story isn't heavy with historical detail, there is a sense of place and era there, and Livia is an appealing heroine.
A great read; fans of ancient Rome will want this one, as well as those who are curious about Livia. This has some shocking drama and the promise of romance (without being an out-and-out romance), making it a lovely summer read -- deliciously escapist!(less)
This is a cranky review of a book with a good deal of hype. The writing is nice enough, and there's lots of plot, and some historical ambiance; but I...moreThis is a cranky review of a book with a good deal of hype. The writing is nice enough, and there's lots of plot, and some historical ambiance; but I have a giant huge quibble with the marketing and mystique surrounding it which, for me, didn't enhance my reading experience.
I'm hesitant to even try to recap the book lest I give away something I shouldn't. In brief, it's set in the 1890s in London, and features siblings who have to find each other as adults after some dramatic stuff happens. There's lots of hype about a 'twist' in this book which I'll say is not a twist so much as a bait-and-switch.
Owen sets up her book deliciously -- a decaying country estate, two imaginative siblings, the push-pull of Victorian expectations for men and women -- and then, bam!, around 80 pages in, the wonderful sort of gothic-y family novel becomes something else entirely, and not, in my opinion, for the better.
In order to articulate why I'm so meh on this book, I have to just name what my problem with it was (below the spoiler tag). I'll add that I don't think knowing the 'twist' will hurt your enjoyment of the novel -- if it's your thing, you're going to be super happy, and if it isn't your thing, you might be glad for the warning!
(view spoiler)[This book is Just Another Vampire Novel. Think Anne Rice with a dash of the 2004 Van Helsing movie mixed with a bit of the now-cancelled Dracula television show, topped with a veneer of Victorian-style narrative a la Sarah Waters. There's rich vamps and rogue vamps. Secret vampire hunters. There's a reluctant vampire with homosexual inclinations, a scientist experimenting on them, concerned and curious humans in spades. I'm not a huge fan of the vampire genre, and I don't read a ton of vampire books, and yet Owen's vampires and their world felt very familiar to me. Those tenderhearted siblings who hooked me at the start of the novel became flat and predictable, lost the the mass of other stock characters: lady vamp hunter, a doctor in league with the undead, the drunk priest mired in the world of the occult. (hide spoiler)]
After the 'twist', my other complaint is about pacing. Owen uses a mix of third person narrative interspersed with diary excerpts, and I found it slowed down the already creeping plot even more. Worse, the diary entries came before the characters were introduced, repeatedly, which made things even more frustrating. I think I get what Owen was trying to do -- these snippets avoided lots of exposition -- but they didn't keep things chugging along or amp up the tension. The novel's conclusion was uneven and meandering, and felt like Owen sandwiched together short pieces from other works.
Still, the writing was lovely, and there was great promise there; her articulation of a pragmatic marriage that might have, perhaps, blossomed into something loving, touched me, and I wished the novel had more of that, just as I wish the moodiness of the novel's start had lingered.
The raves for this book are unbelievable: Hilary Mantel, Kate Atkinson, and Tana French all blurbed it quite enthusiastically (although I did rather bitchily wonder on GoodReads what books they typically read if they found this one so swoon-worthy). But other fabulous bloggers with great taste enjoyed it, too, including Amanda of BookRiot, so obviously, it just didn't work for me but might work for you!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I was immediately charmed with this book from the first page: the narrative style is musical and playful, the characters varied and full of personalit...moreI was immediately charmed with this book from the first page: the narrative style is musical and playful, the characters varied and full of personality, and the heart of the story emotional without being cloying.
Set on Christmas Eve Eve in Philadelphia, the novel follows a variety of characters who are interconnected in a variety of ways, all colliding together over the course of twenty-four hours.
Our stars are many but focus primarily on three: Madeleine Altimari, 9-years-old ingenue-in-training, whose mother, a jazz singer, recently passed away. Virtually abandoned by her bereft father, Madeleine has taken up smoking, practicing her shimmies daily, and gets into constant trouble at school. I was in love with her from the start -- Bertino makes her childish and mature in realistic ways, and she's both darling and maddening.
Madeleine has no friends. Not because she contains a tender grace that fifth graders detect and loathe. Not because she has a natural ability that points her starward, though she does. Madeleine has no friends because she is a jerk. (p24)
The other two primary characters are Sarina Greene, fifth grade teacher to Madeleine and a new divorcee, who ends up in an unexpected reunion with a married high school crush; and Jack Lorca, the owner of The Cat's Pajamas, a formerly famous jazz club, now facing a death sentence from fines and a watchful cop.
The handful of other tertiary characters are vibrant and distinctive like Lorca's son Alex, gifted and desperate for her father's approval; or Mrs. Santiago, an elderly shop owner who is one of the many locals who cares for Madeleine after her mother's untimely death. The cast is large, but easy to keep straight, colorful and delightfully chaotic.
The whole novel is written in present tense, which I didn't really notice while reading -- the immediacy of the day ticking by captured me, as well as Bertino's prose. Like Michael Chabon, her narrative has a musicality to it that emphasizes and enhances the action and events. There's a bit of a magical realism element to the story, too, which I didn't anticipate -- it surprised me at first -- but fits with the story's fairy tale-like arc -- all Madeleine wants is her Happily Ever After (on stage).
A lovely, zippy read, this was fluffy enough for my pre-move brain but intricate-enough that I was captivated while reading. A little twee, a little sweet, a little precocious, this is a great contemporary read for fans of slightly improbable (but magical) days, ensemble story lines, and love songs to our wildest dreams.(less)
I enjoy historical mysteries but must say my favorites are often set during times of war - Sam Thomas' Bridget Hodgson (17th century), Janice Law's Fr...moreI enjoy historical mysteries but must say my favorites are often set during times of war - Sam Thomas' Bridget Hodgson (17th century), Janice Law's Francis Bacon (WWII), Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther (WWII), to name a few. The ordinary horror of murder becomes increasingly meaningful amidst so much other death, and touches on the best and the worst of humanity.
I was intrigued by this book after seeing nonstop raves for it following the first HFVBT for it. And since I adored J. Boyce Gleason's Anvil of God, another other fan favorite, I decided to take the 480+ page plunge with this one.
It was so worth it.
Featuring the same tense wartime era and enclosed urban locale as Thomas' series, this novel takes place during the winter of 1643/1644 during the English Civil War. Set in Nantwich, Cheshire, the story is told by Constable Daniel Cheswis, a cheeseseller and salt works owner.
Clocking in at 488 pages, this is a brick -- but it doesn't read like it. In fact, if I was told that in addition to the murder mystery plot and the war time stuff, there was also rich details and subplots featuring the cheese selling business, the drama of salt guilds, and the political press, I might have passed, but Bradbridge makes the pages race.
A warm and sympathetic everyman, Cheswis' concern for his community guides him, even if it's a task he's rather not perform. But when faced with not one but two murders, possibly political, both involving friends and family, he finds himself having to navigate the thorny world of politics as well as keeping the peace in the increasingly tense town.
Courted on one side by the parliamentary army to keep them apprised of details, the royalist-leaning families of Nantwich are quick to remind Cheswis that they will be around long after the army leaves, urging him to drop any political investigations. Worse, an ex-flame from his childhood appears with her power-hungry printer husband, who is happy to print and distribute inflammatory papers in support of whichever group takes control.
Even though there's a thread of political drama, this isn't a politics-heavy novel; despite the wartime atmosphere, it's not a war novel, either. It's a delightful historical novel that draws from the very rich mess of the era, and presents a slice of life that is both ordinary and exotic. The drama of the arduous (but interesting) process of investigating the crime is balanced by enough interpersonal excitement to keep the story from feeling rote or familiar, and I hung on every page. Highly recommended -- can't wait to see what Bradbridge releases next!(less)
The premise of this book is completely bananas, and I mean that in the best way.
The ghost of Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame) is on his 13th...moreThe premise of this book is completely bananas, and I mean that in the best way.
The ghost of Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame) is on his 13th and last mission to redeem his soul when he's sent to 1977 New Orleans. Tasked with helping Emmeline, a 9-year old girl who was just sold by her prostitute mother to the highest bidder, he agrees to help her find her father. They're pursued by a murderous judge who is convinced Emmeline is the reincarnation of his beloved wife -- and worse, as Merry discovers, the judge is a lost ghost like himself, and a dark figure from Merry's past.
To return Emmeline to her father in Nashville, Merry treks the Natchez Trace -- a 400+ mile long trail that runs from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee -- which is also the site of his mysterious death. The journey transforms them while providing many moments of danger and excitement for the reader.
Despite the crazy setup, the story works, and works well. Alternating viewpoints between Merry, Emmeline, and the Judge, Watkins manages to make this credulity-straining premise feel believable and real. There's some philosophical wrestling that makes this lightly literary but doesn't get so ethereal as to lose the emotional oomph from Emmeline's plight. The Judge is unabashedly malevolent while Merry struggles to be the best kind of (ghost) man he can for Emmeline's sake. Emmeline herself shifts between childishness and too-early maturity and provides the real emotional hook of the story.
Watkins walked the entire Natchez Trace in honor of the book's debut and her passion for the place shines through in her writing.
While not precisely historical fiction -- the novel is set in 1977 -- it has a sense of place and time from our ghostly characters that inspired me to start googling the moment I finished. If you like adventure stories with strong young women and you don't mind a little paranormal-ness, consider this one. It might sound odd, but I promise there's a lovely emotional payoff along with some eye-opening details about Meriwether Lewis and the first governor of Louisiana (a double agent, as it turns out!). (less)
I loved this volume of short stories, right from the first page. Reminiscent of Aimee Bender, Elizabeth Hand, Sara Maitland, and Ludmilla Petrushevska...moreI loved this volume of short stories, right from the first page. Reminiscent of Aimee Bender, Elizabeth Hand, Sara Maitland, and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Kupersmith's stories have that wonderful mix of mood, slightly supernatural-y elements, and lovely language you just want to pluck out and savor.
These nine stories are set in Vietnan or in Vietnamese-American households in the US. Most have an undercurrent of creepiness to them due to a vaguely supernatural or paranormal element, usually due to creatures from myth and folk lore. They're about family -- and the mysteries in families -- or one's identity. They're about the power and danger of stories and questions. They're flat out awesome.
I don't know if I can pick a favorite from the collection, as I adored each one as soon as I finished. Kupersmith quickly evokes sense of place and characters in a few sentences, but nothing ever felt rushed or quick. There's both mood and plot in every piece.
Our muddy patch of the world was already shadowy and blood-soaked and spirit-friendly long before the Americans got here. (p56)
I inhaled this volume in a night. Apparently Kupersmith is writing a novel, and I cannot wait for it. Given this taste of her style of writing, her novel is going to be incredible.
Highly, swoon-i-ly recommended. Those who aren't wild about short stories should give these a try -- each story has a satisfying arc and a fabulous ending. Short story fanatics will obviously want to get this collection. Anyone who wants an armchair escape and a brush with something ghostly and otherworldly, this is your book.(less)
I must admit I'm always reluctant to pick up a historical novel about a historical figure if I've already read an amazing book about her or him. In t...more I must admit I'm always reluctant to pick up a historical novel about a historical figure if I've already read an amazing book about her or him. In this case, having devoured and adored Stephanie Thornton's novel on the Empress Theodora, I was nervous that this book would pale in comparison.
I need not have worried, for this novel provides a delicious, racy, personality-filled sibling to Thornton's book, and offers another take on this infamous prostitute-turned-empress.
Penned by a monk, Fabianus, who is a childhood friend of Theodora's, the novel is split between covering her life, from circus child to prostitute to consort of the Emperor; and detailing how Justinian, the son of a pig herder from a rural province, became Emperor.
The narrative style is wonderfully playfully: our scribe, Fabianus, shares his apprehensions in doing justice to Theodora's story (and the ways she still affects him); Theodora is brassy and bold and bombastic, always in motion, theatrical. The cadre of men involved with the Emperor are selfish and weak-willed or clever and grasping. There's drama in spades, ranging from court intrigue to the various tribulations Theodora faces on her way to becoming Justinian's beloved.
The story shifts from the present -- Theodora telling her story to Fabianus -- to the past, as Fabianus fills in the empty spaces to help the reader along. Sometimes this can be jarring and disruptive, but in this case, I found the shifts smooth and unobtrusive, and they helped build up tension.
The historical landscape is effectively evoked -- Strickland's experience in writing about art and architecture can be seen in the descriptions of things -- and I loved every grimy, grandiose minute in 6th century Constantinople.
Strickland's Theodora is a different animal than Thornton's, but I loved her as much as I did her other incarnation. Strickland is unabashed in noting Theodora's sex work, and while there's nothing clinical or detailed about how sex is portrayed in this novel, it is very much present. I loved the unapologetic way Theodora talks about herself and her life, and more than once I snorted at one of her snarky digs and comments.
This edition includes some book club questions but is missing my favorite part of any historical novel, an Author's Note or Historical Note, identifying what is fiction and what is fact.
There's an enhanced e-book in the works, according to a publisher's note in this; Part One is available as a free download from the publisher.
On a different note: I didn't know this when I accepted this book for review, but Strickland is also the author of a beloved favorite of mine, The Annotated Mona Lisa. It was gifted to me when I was 12 or 13, and shaped my passion for art. I can't rave enough about this book, and if you are curious about art or have a budding art fan in your life, consider gifting it. (less)
I'll admit that I keep meaning to be super snobbish about Amazon's Lake Union imprint, but then I forget -- and good thing, because I keep enjoying th...moreI'll admit that I keep meaning to be super snobbish about Amazon's Lake Union imprint, but then I forget -- and good thing, because I keep enjoying the reads I've come across (I Am Livia and now this one).
Set over a month in Venice in 1879, the novel follows four individuals: Odilé Leon, an immortal courtesan who feeds on genius to survive, gifting the artist in question with immortal fame; Nicholas Dane, a failed poet who never made a bargain with Odilé and is determined to destroy her; Joseph Hannigan, a deeply gifted artist with a disturbingly dark past and an impossible-to-ignore sexuality; and his twin sister, Sophie, who provides sensuous inspiration to her brother.
Odilé is on the hunt for a great genius to gift her curse to, and her sights land on Joseph. But Nicholas is determined to protect him -- and finds himself half obsessed with the artist and his alluring sister. Joseph and Sophie are on the hunt for the perfect patron -- someone to keep them fiscally comfortable so they can avoid the penniless pain of their childhood.
The plot of this novel is straight up melodrama -- in the best way. The Hannigan twins have a back story to make V.C. Andrews proud, and the supernatural elements harken to Anne Rice, Alma Katsu, and Lauren Owen. The setting -- 19th century Venice -- enhances the decadent, decaying allure of our courtesan and the give-and-take between the rich expats and the artists vying for their attention.
While the premise of the novel is fabulously over-the-top, it's the four main characters that make the story grounded and real. In Chance's hands, they are all mufti-faceted and intriguing -- even our "villainess", the succubus Odilé, is sympathetic (in fact, she was my favorite part of the story).
The narrative was a tiny bit too long-winded for my tastes: I felt like the set up for the denouement was perfectly established well before Chance did, and as a result, the conclusion felt a bit rushed for me. Still, there was a deliciously bittersweet ending that caught me up despite myself and made for a satisfying finish.
A delightful escape for summer, or, something for October's R.I.P. challenge, Inamorata has all the right elements for a juicy, slightly titillating supernatural read.(less)
I was just swept up by Stephanie Thornton's first novel, The Secret History, about Empress Theodora and as a result, was waiting impatiently for this...moreI was just swept up by Stephanie Thornton's first novel, The Secret History, about Empress Theodora and as a result, was waiting impatiently for this book and her third novel (about the women in Genghis Khan's life!). Thornton has that wonderful knack for finding nearly forgotten women from history and giving their credulity-straining lives notice, dignity, and vibrancy.
In this book, she turns her attention to Hatshepsut, an Egyptian royal who ascended to Pharaoh, only to be almost completely erased from history after her reign. A prophecy warned her that while she would bring glory to Egypt, it would come at the cost of everyone she loved -- a warning Hatshepsut was determined to circumvent. She wanted glory, but she wanted love, too.
When it comes to drama and big emotions, Thornton doesn't hold back. By page 10 -- the end of the first chapter -- I was wiping away tears. The reign of peace that Hatshepsut brought really came at dramatic cost for her, and I was hanging on every page. Love, betrayal, friendship, motherhood, war, and artistic endeavors: this book has it all!
Her Hatshepsut is strong-willed, occasionally stubborn, clever and ambitious -- believable traits in a woman who would crown herself Pharaoh. While many of her personality quirks and preferences are wholly invented by Thornton, they rang true for me, and felt authentic to her heroine and the era she was from -- something I always appreciate in a historical novel!
As with her previous novel, Thornton makes the scandalous grounded and what could be tawdry or licentious touched with humane warmth. Haptshepsut is married to her half-brother and is to sire his children, and Thornton handles that element in a way that recognizes history without totally alienating modern readers.
The historical details were well integrated in the narrative; through context, the reader is able to understand some of the more alien aspects of life in Egypt in 1400ish BC, and there's no over-explaining or info-dumping to slow things down.
Readers who love splashy historical novels with royal intrigue will want this one; Thornton joins the host of authors who shine a light on dynasties and families that give the Tudors and Borgias a run for their money. Those who are obsessed with Egypt will also want this one, as well as fans of Stephanie Dray, Kate Quinn, and Michelle Moran. Another highly recommended read -- perfect for the beach!(less)
While I'm a fan of Josephine Bonaparte, I actually know very little about the Bonaparte family, so I jumped on the chance to read a novel about her si...moreWhile I'm a fan of Josephine Bonaparte, I actually know very little about the Bonaparte family, so I jumped on the chance to read a novel about her sister-in-law. With the Bonapartes, I anticipated some drama, but I had no idea what I was getting into when I started this fabulous novel.
Baltimore belle Elizabeth 'Betsy' Patterson longs for more than the life as a merchant's wife, and as a child, is told she's destined for royal courts. When Napoleon Bonaparte's dashing younger brother Jerome appears in Baltimore, both are immediately smitten with each other. After a passionate courtship, they marry, and Betsy finds that being embroiled with the Bonapartes comes with a greater cost than she anticipated.
I'm being purposefully vague because I don't want to ruin any of the (historical) twists of the novel; if you, too, are unfamiliar with Betsy Bonaparte, don't google her -- just settle in and start this novel. I probably gasped aloud at least once a chapter -- the events of Betsy's life are shocking and surprising and make for a delicious novel.
Chatlien's writing is easy and reads quickly, although there were a few times where I wished the pacing had been tightened up, particularly early on in the novel during Betsy's childhood. However, once Betsy meets Jerome, the story races, and I found it impossible to put the book down.
While Betsy occasionally frustrated me with her life choices, she's portrayed sympathetically and with affection, and I couldn't help but like her. The numerous secondary characters, including the many famous 18th century American and European figures who crossed paths with Betsy Bonaparte, are evoked neatly and warmly.
The historical details are just wonderful in this book. I've never 'visited' 18th century Baltimore so this was a particular treat; Chatlien manages to evoke era and place in an effortless way, without the dreaded infodump.
There's a detailed bibliography and discussion questions included in this volume, although there was no Historical Note, sadly.
For Francophiles, this is a must read, as well as those who like historical novels about ordinary people coming up against the impossible (in this case, Napoleon Bonaparte's will!). A lovely, fast reading novel of a young American woman coming of age at an exciting time, caught up in a love affair that seems doomed from the start. I'm looking forward to Chatlien's next offering!(less)
Opening in 1916, this rich novel follows the life of Penny Joe Copper, a young woman from Everett, WA. Born into a union family of shingle weavers, Pe...moreOpening in 1916, this rich novel follows the life of Penny Joe Copper, a young woman from Everett, WA. Born into a union family of shingle weavers, Penny Joe's life is dominated by the labor movement when first her father, and then her brother, become heroes of the cause. She's swept into the movement herself by accident and the machinations of Gabe Rabinowitz, a ruthless organizer, and finds herself going from being a photo op to revolutionary, almost without being aware of it. But as she grows up and learns to separate the wants of others from her own desires, she finds some measure of happiness and independence.
Everything about this novel was delightfully unexpected.
Shapin's narrative style has character, but doesn't distract from the story. Told in first person, we're plunged into the drama from the first page, but as with distraught narrator, the tale doesn't unfold completely neat and chronological. Penny Joe flashes back to her childhood, then jumps to the present, then shifts to the immediate past. This might sound confusing but in the flow of the story, feels quite natural -- not jumbled precisely, but wonderfully ramble-y -- and the whole of the book has the feel of a colloquial memoir.
Penny Joe's grief is complicated and heavy; it doesn't dissipate easily nor resolve itself within a chapter. She's an appealing heroine who is flawed in the kind of way that makes one want to keep reading; she's silly and brave, passive and active, and wholly realized. The 'great love' plot thread is surprising and wonderfully unlikely, nothing I've read before, and kept what is often a tiresome trope interesting and fresh. The secondary characters are deliciously complicated, hard to love and hard to hate in equal part.
I couldn't stop thinking about this book while reading and didn't want to put it down. For those who like novels of American history, especially early 20th century history that isn't focused on the World Wars, this is for you. Fans of coming-of-age stories might find Penny Joe's long journey intriguing and gripping.(less)
Opening in the 16th century, this novel follows two families separated by culture, but connected by love. The titular Tamar is a young Jewish woman ed...moreOpening in the 16th century, this novel follows two families separated by culture, but connected by love. The titular Tamar is a young Jewish woman educated in Istanbul after her family escaped Spain during the Inquistion. Tamar has fallen in love with the Sultan's son, Murat, but her father doesn't approve of their match and sends Tamar away. The rending heartbreak Murat suffers is the debt her descendents must repay.
Dweck's novel dips in and out of the centuries to follow each family: Tamar's through Europe during the 20th century and Murat's in contemporary Turkey. Sweeping across the centuries, this is a novel of family and love, the deep connections between people that can span decades.
This book was high on TBR based on a lot of swoony love from bloggers I like and trust, but sadly, I was underwhelmed. For whatever reason, it just didn't quite hit me right, emotionally: I found the character development to be thin, the moments of collision and interaction between folks rushed.
Still, there's much I liked in this book. I was delighted to read a novel featuring a Turkish protagonist and I enjoyed the armchair travel to both historical and contemporary Istanbul, a city I just love.
I found Dweck's writing to have an imaginative, poetic quality at moments, like this passage, on the yellow star stitched onto the clothes of Jewish residents in 1940s Paris: "In every conversation, the star was like a third character, an unwanted interloper hovering dismally over every encounter, lurking suspiciously over seemingly innocent tête-à-têtes." (p298)
For those who enjoy big family-ish sagas, plot lines that encompass centuries, and exotic locales, this book is for you! (less)
On my bucket list is doing every bus tour offered Esotouric. My wife and I are both obsessed with Los Angeles and its sordid history, and when I saw t...moreOn my bucket list is doing every bus tour offered Esotouric. My wife and I are both obsessed with Los Angeles and its sordid history, and when I saw that the Esotouric's creator had just written a novel about Raymond Chandler, I went it into a swooning fit. Then I read the book, and swooned again.
Set in 1929, the story is told by Raymond Chandler, then an oil company executive, who is tasked with ascertaining how his boss's son lost thousands of dollars, including oil leases, over the years. This is historical Chandler -- an English ex-pat living in LA, melancholic, pipe-smoking, an older wife -- not Chandler by way of his fictional creation, Philip Marlowe. As such, he needs help with his investigation, and calls on his spunky secretary-slash-girlfriend Muriel and a beat cop whose moral compass cost him his promotion, Tom James. But what seems to be a simple case of a couple taken in by hucksters turns out to be more complicated, dangerous, and messier than Chandler and company expected.
By far, Muriel made the story for me, and I wouldn't mind a whole series about her. (In a blog post about the novel's origins, Cooper says that once she had the idea for Muriel, 'everything came alive', and I couldn't agree more!)
Cooper's writing style is wonderful, warm and inviting, and rich with ambiance. I don't think those unfamiliar with the era will be lost, as Cooper includes tidbits that evoke a strong sense of time and place without overwhelming the action. Her articulation of Raymond Chandler is so good -- pathetic and intriguing in equal part, clever and cowardly -- and those who are new to Chandler will enjoy this seedy sort of introduction.
My only critique of this book is that there's a shift in narrative POV early on that I found jarring: the novel starts off with first person POV in Chandler's view point, but quickly drops that to third person POV between Chadler, Muriel, and Tom James. I actually didn't notice it while reading, and it wasn't until I entered in the novel's first sentence did I realize at some point there was a POV shift. I'm glad for it, as I enjoyed being with Muriel as much as I did Chandler!
According to this Kirkus Reviews feature, Cooper is considering a sequel, and like the author of the piece, I too am hoping she'll write one.
In the end, a deeply delicious read. Those who like ripped-from-the-headlines type crime stories will want this one, as well as anyone who enjoys the atmosphere of 1920s LA. Until February 27th, you can enter to win a copy of the book via the author's website!(less)
On the surface, this isn't precisely the kind of historical fiction I'm drawn to, a medieval tale of fathers and sons, conflict and war, a kingdom div...moreOn the surface, this isn't precisely the kind of historical fiction I'm drawn to, a medieval tale of fathers and sons, conflict and war, a kingdom divided. But after seeing one rave review after another for this one, I jumped on the chance to review it, and I'm so glad I did.
Opening in 741, the novel follows Charles Martel (grandfather to Charlemagne) in his last days. Dividing his kingdom among his three sons Carloman, Pippin, and Gripho, Charles thinks to quell rebellion and infighting. Instead, pious Carloman chafes that the more pagan-minded Gripho has land, while Pippin is preoccupied with his mistress. Charles' daughter, Hiltrude, grew up indulged by her father to the point that she trained with a sword while wearing Saracen armor, but despite her wishes, is betrothed to a foreign prince to shore up his loyalty. Upon his death, Charles' plans are for naught as his children strike out on their own, and the resulting conflict has enormous implication.
This novel reads with the rich, lurid, dramatic, and soap opera-ish intensity of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Philippa Gregory. In addition to the battle between siblings, there is a war of religion, and Gleason's use of pagan spirituality is what lead to my Bradley comparison (although this is a decidedly non-magical novel). I'm not one for detailed descriptions of battle, especially in a book filled with battles, but Gleason marvelously described the events without making it a blur of weapons and tools and gore.
At 405 pages, this is a beast, but despite its size, the novel raced. Gleason's characters were distinct and huge with personality while the plot was, well, plotty! Shifting between the brothers and Hiltrude, Gleason kept hold of his story while stoking drama and tension. (There is a slight whiff of an anachronistic heroine in Hiltrude, the sword-fighting noblewoman, but I have to admit, I so liked how he handled her, her father's indulgence of her, and how she behaved through the novel that I didn't mind she danced the line between historical and wholly fictional.)
I have to admit I did give a small eye roll when I saw this is the first in a trilogy. Before starting, I thought surely there would be no more story to tell -- but I was wrong. Nothing dragged nor felt extraneous in this book, and when I got to the book's end, I could have easily dove into another 400 pages just to remain with everyone.
There are nice extras to help the reader -- a small map, a family tree, and chart detailing which noble belongs to which locale. Gleason's Author's Note is 9 pages long and footnoted, and covers the plot line, characters, and places in the book.
Although this is the first in a trilogy, I very much found it a stand alone novel as most everything is resolved (to a point), so one can walk away satisfied or, like me, be impatient for the next book. Fans of medieval fiction will absolutely want to get this one as well as those who enjoy the court/royal setting. (less)