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)
In 2011 I read Weisgarber's fantastic debut, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree. It was the kind of historical novel I adored -- unique setting an...moreIn 2011 I read Weisgarber's fantastic debut, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree. It was the kind of historical novel I adored -- unique setting and era, unbelievable heroine, fabulous historical detail. It got tons of love (lots of wonderful prize nominations), and most recently, was praised at a writing class I took -- all for good reason.
Weisgarber's newest surpasses my love for Rachel Dupree. I'm in that flail-y, can't speak coherently kind of place with this review, so I'll just say this: read this book, stat!
Set in Galveston, Texas in 1900, ahead of the devastating hurricane, the novel follows two women loosely bound together by Oscar, a dairy farmer, and his five year-old son, Andre. Nan Ogden is a neighbor, a hearty woman asked by Andre's mother, on her deathbed, to care for him. Devoted to the boy, and half in love with Oscar, Nan's unprepared and angry when he suddenly remarries.
Catherine Wainwright is from a monied Ohio family, college educated and gifted at piano. But she falls from grace (and society) when her affair with her crippled cousin's husband comes to light, and renews her acquaintance with Oscar, whom she knew when they were children. Recently widowed, he proposes after a few letters, and she accepts with resignation that grows when she arrives in Galveston.
Despite the seeming love triangle set up, this isn't a novel about who wants who. Instead, it's a book about family connections, secrets, obligations and the assumptions we make; Weisgarber describes an emotional storm ahead of the very real hurricane we know is coming.
The descriptions of place are just stunning. I know nothing about 1900s Galveston, and Weisgarber paints a world hot, steamy, bustling, and lonely. (It turns out Galveston the city is also on Galveston the island; Catherine and I both assumed she'd be living in the city, but it turned out she was going to live out on the island.) Catherine as an outsider means Weisgarber can load up on details about what Galveston was like, but it never feels awkward, heavy, for infodump-y.
The writing generally is just lovely, too: Nan and Catherine have two distinctive voices, their own views and prejudices, their own keen observations and their own blindnesses. But there's poetry and lovely evocation of place and mood through the book.
It was a sorrowful time; there wasn't no other way to put it. What the storm did to us was cruel, and I won't never forget it. Or forgive it. The storm did what it wanted and then blew itself out, leaving us to try to put things right. But some things can't be put right. (p290)
A must read for historical fiction fans, as well as anyone who a love for Texas. This is a wonderfully emotional novel, too, in the vein of women's contemporary fiction, and I think those who aren't sure they like hist fic might want to consider this one for it's exploration of love and family. A top ten read for 2014, hands down. (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)