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)
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)
Set between 1903 and spanning through to 1940, this rich novel follows Helena Moloney, a Dublin-born woman who became crucial to the Irish movement fo...moreSet between 1903 and spanning through to 1940, this rich novel follows Helena Moloney, a Dublin-born woman who became crucial to the Irish movement for independence as well as the labor movement and women's rights.
I was initially intrigued by this book after Evangeline Holland of Edwardian Promenade blurbed it positively; I was deeply curious at the idea of Edwardian Ireland and the wild tumultous mix of passion and politics seen during this time.
Neary plunges the reader into the excitement, opening after the famous 1916 Easter Rising, then moving to 1903 when Helena first entered the movement for Irish independence. For those unfamiliar with early 20th century Irish history, Neary provides enough context and details for readers to understand what is happening. With Helena new to the movement at the story's start, the reader and Helena move together through the ranks and various intrigues in the fight for Irish independence, and within pages, I found myself gripped by the story.
The hook of the novel is Helena: she's smart and committed, both starry-eyed and level-headed. While historically a marvelously grand woman, in Neary's hands her accomplishments feel real and authentic, and I never found myself frustrated with a too-perfect heroine.
Neary makes vibrant the various figures from the movement, and the story reads almost like a soap opera -- from Countess Constance Markievicz's tiara-wearing arrival at an organizing event to her founding of an armed scouting movement or Maud Gonne's revolutionary group for women, Inghinidhe na hÉireann, to her involvement with poet W.B. Yeats -- without becoming cartoonish or silly. Every character is delightfully flawed and portrayed with warm humanity; I was horrified and charmed by Countess Markievicz at various times, for example.
My only complaint is a lack of Author's or Historical Note, which is my favorite part of a historical novel; otherwise, this book is a fantastic saga-ish read of a wonderfully dramatic era in history.
Fireship Press is becoming a new favorite for finding unusual historical fiction and this offering sets a high bar for other historical novels and indie presses.
For those who like early 20th century settings but might be Downton Abbey-ed out or want something different than a straight up World War I narrative, consider this book. Hibernophiles and those who love all things Irish absolutely need to start reading.(less)
I'd long been interested in Nancy Horan having heard nothing but raves for her first novel, Loving Frank, and I'd been long eying this book.
Opening in...moreI'd long been interested in Nancy Horan having heard nothing but raves for her first novel, Loving Frank, and I'd been long eying this book.
Opening in 1875, the novel follows American Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, who has left California with her three children after realizing her husband wasn't going to give up his mistresses. A beloved nanny, heartbroken at their departure, paid her own passage to join them, and Fanny and company move first to Belgium, then France, so Fanny and her daughter Belle can pursue an art education.
After devastating tragedy, Fanny meets a Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years who junior, who is immediately smitten with her. Their love affair turns into marriage, a life of Bohemian artists and authors, exotic travel, petty squabbles and great passion. I'm being vague because there's no point in recounting the details; clocking in at 496 pages, this beefy chunkser does the heavy lifting.
Horan's novel represents what I most love about biographical historical fiction: fascinating people made real, their decisions and choices explored and imagined, given emotion. I was immediately charmed by the ambitious Louis, as Stevenson preferred to be called, but felt most for Fanny. Being a woman with ambition in the 19th century was no easy thing, and though she found a kind of freedom in Europe after leaving her philandering husband, once she became Louis' wife she had other obligations that squelched her dreams.
Horan articulates both Fanny and Louis with tender warmth, so even when they behaved badly, I still cared for them. While the pacing of the book occasionally felt slow to me, I was gripped by their story. Horan's use of historical details was effortless, and her narrative had hints of the philosophical to it, which I adored. I've read nothing set in 19th century South Pacific, so the sections in Samoa were fascinating -- those who enjoy armchair travel will want this book!
Rich, dense, emotional, and stirring, Horan's novel is a meaty exploration of marriage, creative endeavors, and the price of partnership. Those who love novels about the unknown women behind great men will want this one, as well as anyone who's suffered through (or enjoyed!) studying Stevenson in school. Strongly recommended.(less)
This slender novel -- just 288 pages -- is a rich, emotional look at love, ambition, the human soul, the creative impulse, the last immortality of art...moreThis slender novel -- just 288 pages -- is a rich, emotional look at love, ambition, the human soul, the creative impulse, the last immortality of art. And yet, despite the lofty themes, it's a wholly accessible, can't-put-it-down read-able novel with a handful of unforgettable characters and one devastating day.
Inspired by Rembrandt's massive painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the novel takes place during the day of Dr. Tulp's anatomy lesson. The narrative shifts between seven voices and point of view, but rather than distract and dilute the tension and the story, this serves to provide a dense, captivating experience.
We meet Adriaen 'Aris the Kid' Adriaenszoon, a criminal who, after his hanging, will be used for the anatomy lesson; Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, an ambitious Dutch doctor who conducts the lesson; Flora, the pregnant country girl who hopes to prevent her lover's execution; Jan, a curio collector who also moonlights as an acquirer of medical cadavers; René Descartes, who will attend the dissection in the course of his quest to understand where the human soul resides; and the twenty-six-year-old Dutch master painter himself, who feels a shade uneasy about this assignment. And in the twenty-first century, there is Pia, a contemporary art historian who is examining the painting.
Each voice is so clear, their arc so well delineated, that the myriad of characters doesn't muddy the plot nor lose the reader. In fact, the story is made more rich by the variety of viewpoints. I was unfamiliar with this painting and the circumstances surrounding it, but Siegal articulates the technical aspects of the painting's design and layout as well as the (likely fictional) events leading up to it in such an engrossing way, I couldn't put this book down for anything but work. (It also makes me yearn for more novels about specific works of art!)
Highly recommended -- a really fantastic debut. For those who like novels about art, or historical novels that feature more ordinary people, this is a must read. Fans of lightly literary works will want to pick this up, too. You can read an excerpt at the publisher's website.(less)
This inventive, engrossing novel imagines Napoleon's escape from his exile on the island of St. Helena in 1821 which lands him in America. Reunited wi...moreThis inventive, engrossing novel imagines Napoleon's escape from his exile on the island of St. Helena in 1821 which lands him in America. Reunited with former army officers and surrounded by sympathetic Americans, Napoleon repeatedly protests of his desire to be a simple citizen -- but the lure of a new kingdom, Mexico, becomes too much to resist.
I was immediately taken with this novel. Selin's writing style (you can read an excerpt at the author's website) sucked me in from the first page.
The narrative is peppered with diary entries, letters, newspaper articles, and other missives to round out the story as we experience it. (I just died of happy reading the diary entry by John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State, wrestling with the news of Napoleon's request for asylum.) The feel of the book is slightly 19th century, which I enjoyed; the writing is wordy and philosophical.
While the cast of characters is huge, there's enough context in the story to understand who is who if one doesn't want to flip back to the list of characters included at the end.
More than once, I had to remind myself this was wholly fictional, not a fictionalized account of events that really happened. The strength of this book comes from Selin's ability to keep this story from being ludicrous, despite the outlandish plot. Her Napoleon is slightly delusional and very ambitious, surrounded by supporters and allies who bolster and encourage him. Every decision made felt realistic and possible, and I read hungrily to see just how things would end. (I found myself kind of rooting for Napoleon to be successful!)
Included are two pages of sources and seven pages of who's who. There's no historical note as the events of the novel are entirely fictional; historically, Napoleon dies in May of 1821, without having escaped from St. Helena, while Selin starts the novel just a few months earlier, in February.
A fantastic read for fans of French history and those who like 'what if' kind of stories; any fan of Napoleon will want to read this, too, and imagine a world where this might have happened. Those new to speculative fiction should give this a try -- it's dangerously addictive!(less)
I'm an enormous Michelle Diener fangirl. Her writing is warm and inviting, her stories the right mix of adventure and romance, her heroines are alway...more I'm an enormous Michelle Diener fangirl. Her writing is warm and inviting, her stories the right mix of adventure and romance, her heroines are always delightful, and there's rich historical detail and ambiance in every book.
This one was familiar and cozy and new and imaginative, and was the kind of book I love for cranky days: it got me out of my head and wholly absorbed me.
Mistress of the Wind, inspired by the fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, is ambigu-historical, set in a land resembling Scandinavia (or thereabouts). Bjorn, a half-god prince cursed to live as a bear, searches for the woman he met when they were both children. Should he not find the maiden, he must marry a troll's daughter and unite his kingdom with theirs.
Astrid is a woodcutter's daughter who feels an affinity with the wind. Whether a fancy or real magic, her family doesn't care. Starving and exhausted, they are only briefly taken aback when a massive talking bear asks to take Astrid for the price of two bags of coins. Astrid agrees out of curiosity and an awareness of her family's need for the money, but she's unprepared for Bjorn's rules once she arrives at his palace. Despite their growing intimacy, she doesn't trust his rules and secrets, and becomes embroiled in the greater danger in Bjorn's kingdom.
While the story arc follows the fairy tale, Diener incorporates pieces of the Cupid and Psyche myth as well as original elements that make this a satisfying read. The novel just races; I inhaled it in a matter of hours, unable to stop reading. Astrid is a resourceful if not occasionally maddening heroine and I was charmed immediately by her. The magical world Diener invents for Bjorn is intriguing and appealing.
Diener shares some of her thoughts about this book on GoodReads, but her comments could be spoiler-ish for those who aren't familiar with how the Cupid and Psyche myth shakes out.
For those who are intrigued by Elizabeth Blackwell's While Beauty Slept, this is another book to add to the queue. Fans of fairy tales will absolutely want to read this one as well as those who enjoy fierce heroines who aren't flawless. Diener's next endeavor, The Golden Apple, is inspired by the less often used fairy tale, The Princess on the Glass Hill and I am so excited for it. (less)
In brief: sweet, funny Regency with thankfully few obstacles due to hero and heroine not using their grown up wo...moreMy review for Historical Novel Review.
In brief: sweet, funny Regency with thankfully few obstacles due to hero and heroine not using their grown up words. Very tame sexytimes, although novel opens with a surprising tumble in bed -- right in the first chapter!(less)
In brief: loved the focus on working class hero and heroine in this Regency, with the surprise ascension of hero...moreMy review for Historical Novel Review.
In brief: loved the focus on working class hero and heroine in this Regency, with the surprise ascension of hero to dukedom. Plot verged on the gothic-ridiculous at moments, but heroine was pleasingly complicated and pulled her weight like nobody's business.(less)
From the first page of this delightful, delicious novel, our heroine Nora Simms makes no bones about who she is. A teenaged prostitute from Boston, No...moreFrom the first page of this delightful, delicious novel, our heroine Nora Simms makes no bones about who she is. A teenaged prostitute from Boston, Nora has moved to San Francisco in search of gold of her own, and she works hard to improve her standing in life. As prostitutes are murdered, however, Nora finds herself doing a little organizing and crime-fighting in hopes of living long enough to enjoy her earnings.
There's a rave quote on the cover from Diana Gabaldon, and I have to say, it's no hyperbole: this novel is wonderful (it's just upset my top ten of 2013 list!).
This book has everything for a diverting historical read: great sense of place (19th-century San Francisco, back when it was a frontier town!), standout characters (Nora, our prostitute narrator; Mehitabel Ashe, her tender-hearted landlady; Abe, her simple-minded client); and various plot threads that are dramatic and fun (self improvement, murder mystery, and a search for a kind of happy ending).
Nora tells us her story, and she's a charming and warm narrator. And though Nora is funny and wry in her narration, Mailman doesn't use quippy banter to make light of the real desperation of Nora's life and situation. Nora is trying to improve herself, but she's not a self-loathing woman swayed by Christian reform. No, Nora wants to work in a parlor house and refashion herself a kind of courtesan rather than a common street woman. When faced with real threats on her life and those around her, Nora acts with courage and cleverness. (Why yes, I'm not a Nora Simms fangirl for life!)
Mailman's inclusion of historical detail is wonderful. With first person narrators, infodumps can be especially awkward, what with our narrator lecturing us, but Mailman never lectures. Nora shares small tidbits about 19th century San Francisco in a way that felt authentic and effortless, and I felt immersed in that dirty, grimy, frontier city. Mailman doesn't whitewash Nora's work, so those who are uncomfortable with the realities of sex workers might want to pass, but the scenes are presented without salaciousness. They were grim, hilarious, adorable, sexy, discomforting, scary, and weird, and they helped me get a sense of Nora and her world.
My only complaint is a lack of Historical Note (something I depend on now to help me separate the imaginary from the factually historical). Otherwise, this novel is flawless -- a real delight.
Highly recommended, Woman of Ill Fame will appeal to those who enjoy stories of the American West and the women who tamed it, as well as those who enjoy novels with a strong voice. This is a can't-put-it-down-once-you-start-it read, so splurge and hope for a snow day!(less)
I don't know what's wrong with me but I really ought to have loved this book.
Told in first person by Rose 'R.B.' Manon as she looks back at her time...moreI don't know what's wrong with me but I really ought to have loved this book.
Told in first person by Rose 'R.B.' Manon as she looks back at her time in Europe before World War II started, the novel is filled with action yet has an aloof, distanced narrative style that really left me feeling cold and detached. There are so many disparate themes and threads in the plot I couldn't find anything to really hang onto, and I didn't feel any sort of connection with Rose.
Born to a Jewish mother who denied her heritage and a Catholic father, Rose grew up in Nevada and wished to live in New York City where her parents were from. In her twenties, she moved to Paris to be a journalist, covering Berlin and the rise of Hitler in Germany. Tragedy strikes first when Rose's actress cousin Stella is murdered and later when Rose's lover is caught up in the violence in Berlin. Her strangely adversarial relationship with her mother comes to a head, in a manner, during the trial of her cousin's murderer. Through her journalistic work, she brushes up against famed European thinkers and writers, like Janet Flaner and Colette, which shape her as well.
Despite the rich potential of this novel, I just couldn't get into it. The various elements felt disjointed and distracting -- was it a novel of World War II? a kind of murder mystery? a coming-of-age and a mother-daughter tale? -- and I wasn't wild about the writing style, which felt so awkward and clunky, like:
Stella, near tears, was sitting in Clara's living room. "Damn this Hitler character," she said. "he's making us all so nervous."
"It's a scary time, Stella," I replied. "I don't think nay of us can find a context for what we're feeling." (p56)
or very heavy-handed:
The public was fascinated: that monster, who had no papers, crossed the frontier into France, killed a woman -- and almost got away with it. It was a metaphor for what the German war machine was threatening across Europe -- except that the Germans were indeed getting away with it. (p105)
I started this book at least six times since I got it in December but it just didn't work for me. However, others have really enjoyed it, like Anna of Diary of an Eccentric (her review) so do check out the other blogs on tour for their thoughts. Those who like novels about World War II will want to consider this one for sure.(less)
I don't know if I'll be able to coherently express just how much I loved this novel. It was fantastic. Compelling, emotional, plotty, and atmospheric,...moreI don't know if I'll be able to coherently express just how much I loved this novel. It was fantastic. Compelling, emotional, plotty, and atmospheric, this book had me in its thrall from the first page. This one will make my top ten of 2014, I'm sure! (Apologies for the small novel that follows!)
Set in the mid-1800s, the novel follows Emma Davis, a young woman from a Georgia slave-owning family. Thoughtful, intelligent, and yearning for connection, Emma finds herself called to mission work, drawn toward the vague idea of an Africa she imagined a beloved family slave coming from. When she meets the handsome, charismatic Texas Ranger-turned-missionary Henry Bowman, Emma believes she's found her calling, and once married, she and Henry embark for Yorubaland (Nigeria) in West Africa.
Once there, Emma finds herself overwhelmed by and taken with West Africa, but struggles some in her new marriage. Henry is afflicted with a variety of vague, unknown ailments, ranging from a sensitive spleen to hallucinations, and he hungers for more a challenging mission. Emma, however, wants to settle down and build up a church and community, and finds herself challenged by her husband and her friendships with her West African neighbors and paid servants.
While this isn't a particularly quiet novel, it isn't bombastic or filled with wild drama. The tension comes from watching Emma grow into herself and into her life, as we wait and wonder how she and those she loves will respond. It's a gorgeous coming-of-age story, a wonderfully compassionate examination of marriage, and a captivating historical that illuminates and enlightens.
Despite the focus on missionaries, this isn't a religious or inspirational novel, but Orr deftly and convincingly handles the passion and pain of following a spiritual path. That articulation of the hunger for a convincing religious life/experience is one of the best things about this book. Emma's faith is rooted in a desire to spread Christianity in West Africa, to save souls (thankfully, the Bowmans aren't the hellfire-and-damnation sort), and yet, her happiness comes from far more mild experiences: teaching a child to read, keeping house well, being at harmony with her husband.
Orr acknowledges race and slavery in an emotional and disquieting manner which invited the reader to see what took Emma so long to realize: that slavery dehumanizes everyone, however beloved, and is never a benevolent institution. (There's a gutting scene where Emma draws a map of West Africa and the US in the dirt to show villagers where she came from and where they are, then she draws a line connecting Georgia to the village. A villager walks along that line, and Emma has the horrible realization she's just drawn the slave route from Africa to the US.) As with everything else in the novel, Orr handles this element gently, lightly, and while the novel is emotional and raw, it isn't devastating.
And the writing, the writing! The writing was so good it made me jealous. The narrative moved at a brisk pace, weighty with meaning but not heavy or ornate. It has literary sensibilities without feeling aloof, removed, or obfuscated. I got teary more than once while reading, caught up in the pain and beauty in Emma's life, and I often paused to linger over a turn of phrase.
Fans of Geraldine Brooks, Amanda Coplin, and Barbara Kingsolver will absolutely want this book. (I'm stunned it didn't get more press when it was released last year; it has to me the elements of that popular literary-ish fiction of Brooks and Kingsolver.) Those who enjoy historical fiction in unusually settings should absolutely add this to their TBR. An unforgettable read.(less)
One of my all-time favorite trilogies is Sandra Gulland's series about Josephine, which turned me into a full-blown Josephine fangirl. I must confess...moreOne of my all-time favorite trilogies is Sandra Gulland's series about Josephine, which turned me into a full-blown Josephine fangirl. I must confess I started this novel nervously, afraid it wouldn't satisfy.
My anxieties were for naught.
Webb's Josephine is a fully realized heroine, steely and soft in equal part, a character who grows from a girl to a woman in the course of the novel, and it was a delight being with her. As with my favorite heroines, I miss her now that I'm finished with the novel!
Written in first person, the novel spans 1779, when Josephine -- then Rose Tascher -- is a teenager in Martinique to 1814, the year of her death. Brisk and plotty, the story races through the tumultuous events of Josephine's life without ignoring our heroine's development. From the first page, Josephine's charming and winsome personality shines through, making me fall as easily in love with her as her many admirers and friends. (I'm a stickler about that: if we're told a character has X trait, I want to see it demonstrated, and Webb more than once revealed a woman of grace, resolve, and passion.)
For those unfamiliar with Josephine's life outside of her role as Napoleon's wife, Webb's novel is a marvelous introduction. The events of her life -- her marriage to a handsome rake, her imprisonment during the French Revolution, her life as an arms dealer -- are brought to life with the kind of effortless historical detail that makes me love this genre. (As a tarot aficionado, I was delighted by the competent and respectful inclusion of the occult elements of Martinique in Josephine's story; it felt natural to the character and the era.)
Near the end of the novel, Webb's Josephine says, "Who I had become, where I longed to be, eluded me." (p298). It was a line that hit me emotionally; I felt very strongly that I knew who she had become, and yet, I felt acutely her own sense of being unmoored.
My only complaint is that I wished the novel was longer; at 300 pages, it reads quickly, and more than once I wished the story could have lingered or delved more deeply into Josephine's life. But then again, I'm rapacious when it comes to Josephine.
A wonderful debut, this novel is a marvelous introduction to Josephine and a welcome reunion for those who know her already. Francophiles and fans of royalty fic will want this book as well as anyone who likes a rags-to-riches story. If you want mood and an unforgettable heroine, grab this and book yourself a weekend to read -- you want want to put it down.(less)
I was taken by surprise more than once while reading this book, for it is both a Regency romance and a beefy historical novel of early 19th century Ma...moreI was taken by surprise more than once while reading this book, for it is both a Regency romance and a beefy historical novel of early 19th century Manchester. For anyone who tends to dismiss historical romances, hear me out before passing on this one!
The novel opens with a ludicrous plot thread that seems typical to romances: young Madeline Wetherby arrives at Shaftsbury Castle to marry the new Earl, Deacon Quinn, having grown up being told by Deacon's father that she was his intended. Her arrival is not greeted with enthusiasm, however, for her expectation comes as a stunning surprise to the Quinn family. None have heard of this engagement, and the louche Deacon is loathe to marry Maddie. Worse, Maddie learns her background is not what she was told and she has nothing to her name nor any prospects. Deacon's younger brother Nash, a prosperous Manchester merchant, marries Maddie instead, wooed by familial obligation, a tiny bit of guilt, and a cash gift from Deacon. (While this might feel spoiler-y, this, and more, is revealed in the book blurb.)
Although the basic start of the novel has the kind of will-they-or-won't-they fall in love tension one expects from a romance novel, the story really settles into a more rich, complicated plot: found family versus blood family, loyalty to class and one's social station, the changing of 'traditional' industry to 'modern' industry. Manchester in 1819 is a time of tumult and change, as the city chafes under lack of political representation in Parliament, and labor unions are forming an organizing, much to the panic and horror of the merchants and peers.
Penttila's novel is rich with historical detail, ranging from clothes to landscape to the political temperature among various individuals. The strength of this novel lies in the scope of the action rather than the relationship between Nash and Maddie. (Maddie, I'm sorry to say, was not a favorite character of mine; she had great potential and I loved her go-getting attitude, but at times she did things that made me put down the book in frustration!)
Still, even with my conflicted feelings for Maddie, this novel was engrossing and rich. I have to confess, there were moments this book reminded me of Thomas Hardy! Penttila's narrative style has a kind of dramatic flair to it that, when combined with Maddie's plight, made me think of the big, boisterous novels of the Victorian era that tackle social issues and romance with ease.
For those who like historicals that examine huge, sweeping issues of the day through the viewpoint of one or two characters, this is for you. Anyone intrigued by the Regency era, but eager for a setting outside of London and focused on people beyond the ton, this is for you.(less)
This collection of eight short stories touches upon, reimagines, wrestles with, and are inspired by Shakespeare, Jane Eyre, and Thomas Eakins' paintin...moreThis collection of eight short stories touches upon, reimagines, wrestles with, and are inspired by Shakespeare, Jane Eyre, and Thomas Eakins' painting, The Gross Clinic. Funny, emotional, knowing, meta, and geeky, they read quickly but invited meditation and musing, whether one is a casual reader of some of the greats of the Western canon or a devoted fan.
The opening story, 'Casting Call', has the characters of Othello reincarnated, in a way, as professors in an English Department at a small university. Juxtaposing their shared collective past with the process of hiring a new faculty member, the story is both outlandishly silly and sweetly poignant, as Desdemona is tasked with ensuring their new colleague is more 'diverse'. Iago can't resist some behind the scenes machinations, and Othello's jealousy is provoked, but this isn't merely a re-imagining of the famed play -- Bamber gives Desdemona chance to name the horror that happened to her, which I found especially satisfying.
Her 'Time to Teach Jane Eyre Again' had me cackling with delight; one of my best friend's teaches Jane Eyre yearly to high school students, and it's a beloved favorite of hers. (Sadly, not one of mine!) The way Bamber describes the process -- the boredom and joy of going through the same text, year after year -- and the resulting conversation is fascinating and illuminating. (It made me especially sure I'm going to read Jane Eyre this year.)
'An Incarnation of Hamlets' is another favorite piece, although I can't tell how fictional it is. Inspired by a real This American Life radio piece on the use of Shakespeare in prisons, Bamber's story includes Q&As with the play's characters, asides about the play's action, and biographical snippets and interviews with the prisoners involved. Despite my loathing for Hamlet, it made me appreciate the play a little!
Delightfully, being unfamiliar with the source material isn't a hindrance to enjoying Bamber's stories as she includes enough background to understand where she's going. (For example, 'Playing Henry' is about a bunch of Shakespeare's history plays, which I've never read/seen, but I certainly understood the struggle Bamber's heroine had with working with her part, the tension with her father, the yearning to be really good at something.)
I think this volume would have wide appeal: English majors and lit geeks will find a kindred soul here, as well as readers who enjoy fiction that isn't neatly contained. This would make a wonderful book club pick, too, especially if read in tandem with any of the works mentioned. Needless to say, I want to read all the plays mentioned in this volume, if only to experiment myself with taking what I like from them. (less)
I'm a sucker for happily ever afters, but I'm picky about the journey. When a historical romance doesn't work for me, it's usually because the obstacl...moreI'm a sucker for happily ever afters, but I'm picky about the journey. When a historical romance doesn't work for me, it's usually because the obstacles are created due to lack of direct conversation or there are misunderstandings so outrageous they beggar belief. When historical romances do work for me, they feature a hero and heroine who are learning about themselves as much as they are learning about each other, and the challenges in their courtship are dramatic and emotional without being unhealthy.
This book is one of those that work.
Henry Weston comes from the blessed Westons -- wealthy, good-looking, good-humored. While his sisters have fallen happily into matrimony (Lindsey's two previous novels), Henry is just as happy to keep up with his string of women and fun-loving life. Except, he's kind of not. When he finally acknowledges he has an aspiration -- to breed horses -- he learns that the owner of the famed stud he plans to purchase is afraid Henry will turn it into a brothel or some pleasure palace. To purchase the stud, Henry has to prove he's a real gentleman. Henry's parents are agreed; if Henry can find investors for half the cost, they'll front him the other half.
Diana Merriwether is the granddaughter of a duchess, facing her seventh season single. Resigned to being a spinster, Diana has guarded herself from all impropriety due to the scandal of her parents' separation more than fifteen years earlier. Wounded, too, from her father's rejection of her and preference for her brother, Diana is certain that love is fickle. She wants none of that nonsense.
After being encouraged to be nice to Diana for years, including being urged by his mother to dance with her at least once if they're at the same event, Henry offers Diana an odd bargain. If she'll enter into a mock courtship with him to make him seem as if he's the reformed gentleman -- for who but the blameless would Diana Merriwether court? -- he guarantees his interest in her will draw other suitors, and she may 'throw him over' at the end of the season for her real choice.
You can imagine the shenanigans that ensue from this arrangement. Refreshingly, while there are some moments of miscommunication that do add conflict, Lindsey doesn't turn this into an agonizingly long wait for Diana and Henry to just admit their feelings.
To my surprise and delight, the novel's end doesn't come with their inevitable to marriage, but their growth as a couple learning to trust each other and behave honestly. Diana doesn't trust that she's loveable. Normally that's a trope I loathe in a heroine but Lindsey articulates it in a manner that makes sense, given Diana's past, and when Diana gets over it, it's so very satisfying. (And kind of made me teary, because, yeah, I've got my own anxieties about my loveable-ness!)
Now, for the important part: the sex is hot. They're into each other, there are no weird hang ups about liking sex or their bodies, Lindsey doesn't use any uncomfortably odd euphemisms for body parts, and happily, it's more than just missionary style. Those who are shy or prude-ish might be uncomfortable but the sexy scenes still feel romance novel-y rather than erotica-y.
I was stunned to discover upon finishing this book, that this is self-published. The quality of the writing, the editing, and the e-book's formatting had me assuming this came from a traditional publisher. Kudos to Lindsey for that.
I'm absolutely eager for another book from Lindsey and can see why her fans keep calling for more of the Westons. They're a charming bunch, and I'm smitten. If you're facing hectic holidays, consider adding this one to the queue for fun, engrossing escapism.(less)
This rich novel, set in 15th century Spain and Portugal, follows the life of Amalia Cresques, a conversa who eventually returns to her Jewish faith at...moreThis rich novel, set in 15th century Spain and Portugal, follows the life of Amalia Cresques, a conversa who eventually returns to her Jewish faith at great personal expense.
Born to a famous mapmaker, Abraham Cresques, who eventually went deaf, Amalia's gift for languages allows her to accompany him to court where she assists him with his work. But after his passing, she finds herself a wife in an unhappy marriage and in constant search for the home and community that will allow her to worship openly as a Jew.
I hesitate to describe this as an 'inspirational' novel but it is a rather faith/spirituality heavy book, which I struggled with at times. Despite the title, the story has very little to do with mapmaking; it's really about Amalia's life and her passion for her Jewish faith. There's non-stop action, from the erratic behavior of the various monarchs to the rough hatred for the Jews by Christians and the Inquisition, punctuated by moments of domestic drama or bliss.
I have some complicated feelings toward this book. One critique is that it felt a little too long and exposition-heavy; I found myself skimming pages at times, especially at the end when Amalia's family grows so huge it's hard to tell everyone apart. She lives in an incredibly violent, tumultuous era, so there's non-stop action, and that was occasionally tiresome.
Personally, I was frustrated with Amalia for her choices; her devotion to her faith really cost her in terms of happiness and love, and I found her story ultimately quite depressing, although I don't think that was the author's intention. Still, I enjoyed her voice and found her to be well-written and evocative.
This edition includes a 26-question discussion guide and some book club activities; I was surprised to learn that Amalia's father and her acquaintances were all historical figures, and that the heartbreaking incident at the very end was real. (Apologies for being vague, but I don't want to spoil anyone!)
For those who like great heroines, sagas of family, and coming-of-age stories, this is your novel. It's a wonderful arm chair escape, too, as Corona evokes 15th century Iberia in vivid detail.(less)