If you've ever harbored the suspicion or opinion that historical fiction is a genre just of corsets, heaving bodies, and royal bedhopping, this book wIf you've ever harbored the suspicion or opinion that historical fiction is a genre just of corsets, heaving bodies, and royal bedhopping, this book will change your opinion. If you know how rich, violent, and disturbing historical fiction can be, this book will make you cackle with delight.
Set in 60 AD, this episodic novel follows the rebellion of Boudica and the native peoples of the UK against the Romans. Despite the fact that this book is penned by seven authors -- each chapter follows a different point of view -- this book has a cohesive feel, and the absolutely gutting story of Boudica, her daughters, and the Romans fighting against her are presented in raw, hard, and unapologetic prose.
I loved this book for all the reasons I adore historical fiction: it illuminated a foreign era for me and each author created a vibrant human I couldn't help but relate to (even if I didn't want to!). The arc of the story is chronological, but the story is pushed along by each new character. Previous characters aren't forgotten, but each -- whether Briton or Roman -- are articulated so well, I actually found my loyalties waffling! (And I say this as an unabashed Boudica fangirl!)
The participating authors are fabulous, and the writing here is top notch. There's enormous emotion, cinematic battles, and darkly hilarious moments to punctuate the gut-punching sorrow. The characters are deliciously wide ranging -- from queens to servant girl, Druid priest to lowly Roman soldier -- and I loved that I found myself viewing this conflict from 360 degrees.
The brutality of this campaign is presented unapologetic detail, which meant I was gasping, wincing, and squinting my eyes closed more than once. It very nearly verged on too gruesome for me but I appreciated that -- there's nothing whitewashed about war in this era. As I said, the characters are so fully realized that each time I thought -- oh, I'm for the Britons -- I'd find myself melting in sympathy toward the Romans. (Well, maybe not sympathy, but you know...)
This is a fav read for 2015, and another knockout for the H Team (the loose collection of historical fiction authors who are penning collaborative novels together). I never thought I'd be so devoted to the collaborative novel, but I'm already impatiently awaiting their next endeavor!...more
This lovely, slender novels imagines a friendship between poet Emily Dickinson and their Irish maid Ada Concannon.
I was immediately taken with this boThis lovely, slender novels imagines a friendship between poet Emily Dickinson and their Irish maid Ada Concannon.
I was immediately taken with this book, as both Ada and Emily are charming and captivating. The chapters alternate between their viewpoints, as the story of their friendship and the dramas around them unfold.
O'Connor's Emily grabbed me immediately, an intellectually curious woman happy to be in her home, moved by the wilds of nature and the passions of the heart. She hovers in the kitchen for sweets and bakes as a way to shower love on those around her; she composes in secret and doles out her poems carefully.
Ada is a willing audience, a teenager fresh from Ireland, bemused by Emily. The Dickinsons are a kind family to work for, and she thrives in their home, yet heartache still hits her. It is Emily who rallies to defend her and who helps her gain some measure of happiness despite tragedy. O'Connor puts away any imaginary idea of Emily Dickinson as a pallid, passive ghost hiding in the rafters; the complicated and curious woman emerges from her pages, immediate and intriguing.
It goes without saying that a novel featuring Emily Dickinson should read poetically; in this case, O'Connor manages lyrical prose that doesn't emulate Dickinson's yet still offers the passion and boldness the poet captured in her spare lines. My copy is heavily dog-eared from the various quotes that caught me up and gave me pause, like
I look at her words, one by one. Love. Thee. Breath. Smiles. Tears. It pleases me that each word is solitary, a loner. Side by side, their staccato nature blends with others, but in the end they stand alone. Each word is a fence post -- upright, demanding, shrill -- but each one holds the fence erect, and as such, is indispensable. (p119)
From now on I shall be candle-white. Dove-, bread-, swan-, shroud-, ice-, extraordinary-white. I shall be blanched, bleached and bloodless to look at; my very whiteness will be my mark. But inside, of course, I will roar and soar and flash with color. (p121)
The more I write or talk about this book, the greater my affection for it grows, and it is one of my top ten reads for 2015.
I think this would make a fabulous book club read -- zippy yet bursting with wonderful discussion topics -- as well as those who love historical fiction featuring well-known historical figures. And of course, fans of Irish fiction and Irish authors must get this one!
DNF'ing. In a year when I'm hoping to get 25 books read, I can't waste time on ones that bore me. I'm pretending I might pick this one up again but IDNF'ing. In a year when I'm hoping to get 25 books read, I can't waste time on ones that bore me. I'm pretending I might pick this one up again but I really ought to just call a spade a spade a move on.
My biggest problem is the narrative style is oddly choppy and reminds me a bit of Hilary Mantel. It doesn't land for me; I don't know if it works better in French but as it is translated, it just feels distant and disjointed. I don't feel anything for our child brides, the princesses being exchanged between Spain and France, and despite the promise made in the Foreward -- an exploration of the emotional abuse caused by flinging children into strange households -- the novel felt super clinical. ...more
Purcell's previous novel, Queen of Bedlam, made my top ten of 2014; it was a compelling, sympathetic look at a royal family not often featured in fiPurcell's previous novel, Queen of Bedlam, made my top ten of 2014; it was a compelling, sympathetic look at a royal family not often featured in fiction, and it kindled in me a renewed interest (and sympathy) for royal women.
In this book, Purcell tells the story of Henrietta Howard, courtier in the Hanover court of George II and Caroline. Trapped in a violent marriage, Henrietta moves her abusive, gambling husband to Germany in hopes of bettering their lives. Her obvious plight touches Caroline, and the two develop an intimate friendship of sorts.
So loyal is Henrietta that when asked by Caroline, she becomes the King's mistress. And from there, Henrietta is plunged into even more emotional tumult. What privilege and comfort she got from that romance was countered by the loss of her friendship with Caroline as well as access to her only child.
I was gripped by this novel from the first page. Despite the scandalous plot, it's a deeply melancholy novel -- so much loss, so much sacrifice -- and I loved that Purcell focused on the darkly pragmatic nature of royal mistresses. The point of view switches between Henrietta and Caroline (occasionally in the same paragraph, which was confusing!), allowing the rich, complicated relationship between these two women to come into full view. I liked and felt for both of them, two women battling the unfair power wielded by the men in their lives.
The characters are all vibrant and unforgettable. In some ways, Henrietta could be seen as a passive puppet ("...she had given and given of herself until she was nothing but a limp rag rung through a mangle." p 290) and yet, Purcell articulates such tender affection for her, I felt the same way. George I, Caroline's father-in-law, is a manipulative, villainous man I loathed -- fun, since in her Author's Note, Purcell comments that she wrote him from the view of George II and Caroline and plans to feature him in a future novel -- one I will undoubtedly get because I cannot wait to see how she makes me care for him!
The world of the Hanover court is also portrayed with evocative detail, small dashes of description that linger in my mind -- the mushrooms growing from the walls in the dank rooms of one palace, the glittering splendor of another -- as well as other tidbits about life in this time. (For a behind-the-curtain look at writing historical fiction, I recommend Purcell's blog post about wrestling with the historical stuff that readers think aren't historical!)
Moms will appreciate this endorsement for what it means, but this book was so good, I read it in bed (under my pillow, to keep from waking the baby!).
With this read, Purcell can count me a devoted fangirl. She does historical fiction beautifully, taking people and places foreign and unfamiliar, and rendering them warm, real, and approachable. ...more
We are enormous Louisa May Alcott fans in my house -- so much so, my son's middle name is Alcott!
When I saw mention of this book, a novel about LouisaWe are enormous Louisa May Alcott fans in my house -- so much so, my son's middle name is Alcott!
When I saw mention of this book, a novel about Louisa's sister Abigail May (or Amy in Little Women), I was consumed with need for it. I knew a little of May from our visits to Orchard House, and my wife and I tripped over an exhibit of May's art at the Concord Public Library by accident some years ago. But I never thought more about her; I just assumed the girl portrayed by Louisa was more or less that vain and silly.
Yeah, I'm the silly one.
I inhaled this novel in a matter of days. The May portrayed here is an ambitious young woman who wants more than her family expects; and worse, she's made to feel bad for wanting it all -- a husband, a family, an artistic career, money, a home. Teaching art to young women who do it out of obligation, May yearns to go to Europe to learn from the masters. Conservative New England mores combined with her family's poverty means she struggles for access to materials, classes, and inspiration yet the fierce hunger we see in Louisa's Jo (from Little Women) is just as urgent in May.
Atkins reveals a less appealing side to Louisa May Alcott, but she offers it with such respect for the Alcott family that I appreciated her unvarnished story. In Atkins' hands, Louisa's determination comes off callous and brusque, cruel even, and suddenly the bratty Amy I had written off most of my life seemed less selfish and more sympathetic.
In fact, May's life is rife with tragedy and full of unexpected encounters with the luminaries of her time. She makes it to Europe where, for a while, she has professional praise, income, and even love. For those unfamiliar with how her life proceeds, I'll not say more, but it reads like the best kind of novel, and I heaved a big, teary sigh at the end.
Atkins' writing style is lovely, mixing wonderfully evocative details with brisk dialogue, and I don't think one need be familiar with the Alcotts or the world of mid-19th century Concord to enjoy this story. It's a kind of coming-of-age story, an exploration of the obligations of family and the wishes of personal fulfillment. As a new mother trying to work on my novel, I appreciated the tension the Alcott women faced, from angry Marmee to impatient May, in trying to balance family life with vocation.
Fascinating and delightful, this is a marvelous novel for those who enjoy biographical fiction that focuses on figures less well-known. And of course, any fan of Little Women will want this one -- it'll invite a rereading of that classic with a new eye!...more
I'd been dying to get my hands on this book solely because I adored Jefferson's debut novel, Girl on the Golden Coin. And while I loved that book, I tI'd been dying to get my hands on this book solely because I adored Jefferson's debut novel, Girl on the Golden Coin. And while I loved that book, I think I might love this one more. It has another charming, convincing heroine whose voice sealed my adoration from the first page, evocative historical details, and a dramatic plot that made me race to the last page.
Set during the reign of the young Louis XIV, the titular enchantress is Marie Mancini, an Italian noblewoman and niece of the powerful Cardinal Mazarin. She and her beautiful sisters are better known as the Mazarinettes for their obedience to their ambitious uncle, who is the close personal adviser to King Louis.
Mazarin has no qualms about throwing his nieces into the king's arms to keep the monarch's attention, and Marie's older sister Olympia is Louis' current mistress. But Marie and Louis have an immediate, intense connection, and Mazarin doesn't hesitate to encourage Marie's relationship with Louis when Olympia becomes pregnant. But Mazarin doesn't count on the true passion between Marie and Louis, nor Marie's intense desire to free the young monarch from her uncle's clutches.
As with Jefferson's debut, it's the heroine that so seduces me, and in this case, Marie -- clever, smitten, and conflicted -- won me immediately. She's from an intensely ambitious family and has no delusions about the expectations of herself and her sisters, yet in Jefferson's hands, Marie manages to hold onto youthful wistfulness, optimism, and naivete. I was so caught up in Marie's dream that found myself hoping Jefferson managed to change history to give Marie her happy ending.
There's a complicated swirl of plot surrounding Marie and Louis -- war with Spain, the Mancini's family connection to witchcraft and astrology, marriage contracts and other noble concerns -- and Jefferson manages to make these elements effortlessly connect without bogging down the story and narrative flow. And even with the strong romantic thread in the novel, Marie's story is really that of freedom -- from her uncle's tyranny, from imprisonment in a convent or a forced marriage -- and coming-of-age when one's value was assigned, not seen.
This is a Top Ten of 2015 read for me, and cinches my status as a Marci Jefferson fangirl. Francophiles and fans of royal hist fic, get this immediately! For anyone wanting a splashy summer read, enjoy this one on the beach (perhaps with a few macarons!)....more
Review out in July. Just loved this one even though McLain's articulation of Beryl is quite different from the woman I'd previous read about -- in McLReview out in July. Just loved this one even though McLain's articulation of Beryl is quite different from the woman I'd previous read about -- in McLain's hands, Beryl is tender and uneasy, a motherless girl who stumbles into love affairs rather than aggressively bed hops. ...more
May 2015: Am going to just DNF this and move on. Am at about 73% and while I'm liking it a smidgen more, I'm just exhausted by the encyclopedic focusMay 2015: Am going to just DNF this and move on. Am at about 73% and while I'm liking it a smidgen more, I'm just exhausted by the encyclopedic focus on Sand's life (to the detriment of the story, I feel), and the dual story lines (I do not see a difference in young Sand and older Sand, and it just makes the story drag on and on and on...).
Berg's articulation of a writer, however, was interesting (I love writers on writers). It's obvious she likes and admires Sand, for all her flaws, but despite the amount of words dedicated to Sand, I actually didn't feel like I knew her.
April 2015: I just cannot get into this book. Every time I mention it, everyone talks about how much the love Berg's novels, so I keep trying (this is my first time reading her) but the story is agonizingly slow. The split narrative -- her childhood, and then her adulthood -- just slows things down even more....more
Webb's second novel focuses on a less well known figure, French Belle Époque sculptor Camille Claudel, and this novel surpasses her first (which was pWebb's second novel focuses on a less well known figure, French Belle Époque sculptor Camille Claudel, and this novel surpasses her first (which was pretty fabulous!).
Camille is a bit of a savant, a self-taught sculptor with immense talent and a matching ego. Driven to pursue her art, she receives tutoring in Paris from one of France's preeminent sculptors, but her family is split in their support of her passion. Camille's father supports her while her mother rages against the unorthodox behavior of her daughter. While her mother tries to arrange a marriage, Camille is instead drawn to her newest tutor, the much lauded Auguste Rodin.
Lest you fear this is just another hist fic focusing on a lady with a famous lover, let me reassure you this is a far more complicated, rich, and eventful story. Camille is a hard heroine to love: prickly, confident to the point of obnoxious, and single-minded. In Webb's hands, she isn't softened nor does she turn flat the moment she falls into her lover's arms.
In fact, Webb's emotional sensitivity is something I've come to admire in her books as the dramatic events unfold without veering into melodrama. Webb doesn't shy from the hard, heartbreaking parts of Camille's life (I'm being vague about these parts for those unfamiliar with Camille's story, but there's nothing fluffy here!) and intense moments are touched with humor, bittersweet sadness, or irony, making it impossible for this reader to shake Camille's story.
I sometimes find books about artists tricky; it can be hard to render into compelling narrative endeavors that depend on other senses. But Webb managed to evoke the tactile experience of sculpting as well as describing the various sculptures and pieces of art without sounding like a text book. I "saw" the works even without having to google them (although google I did!). I have to give a particular shout out to Joshua DeLillo, who sketched three of Camille's works for use in this novel. They look like photographs, they're so finely rendered, and were a welcome addition to the story.
This is the second novel I read since having my baby (and the second for 2015), and it was a knockout -- well worth stealing time to read. It's a fabulous read for those who enjoy biographical novels; I'm particularly reminded of Melanie Benjamin, who I also think takes shocking, notorious lives and renders them realistically, tenderly, and with empathy. Enjoy this one with espresso or cocoa over a snowy weekend. ...more
I've long wanted to read Donna Thorland as I love Revolutionary-era historical fiction and have seen rave reviews for her books. Happily, I wasn't disI've long wanted to read Donna Thorland as I love Revolutionary-era historical fiction and have seen rave reviews for her books. Happily, I wasn't disappointed with this read, which was atmospheric, detailed, and vividly done.
Set in 1777, Mistress Firebrand features a young American playwright, Jennifer Leighton. Niece to the much toasted actress Fanny Leighton, Jennifer aspires to fame, and considers a daring plan to do so: have British general John Burgoyne act as her patron. Burgoyne is a notorious womanizer, so British spy Severin Devere decides to ward off any distractions, but finds himself charmed and intrigued by the writer. Pretty soon, both become caught up in the war between England and the colonies, and both have to decide where their loyalties lie, a decision made more complicated by their very obvious interest in each other.
In addition to being a fabulously fun historical romance, Thorland tackles some rather "modern" issues in the story, which just ratchets the book from good to great: careers over relationships, safe sex through condom use, and the idea of pleasure and happiness. Jennifer and Severin (and their friends and enemies) felt historical grounded and yet, discussed and debated topics that are relevant to people today (which I love). There was a real struggle, not just for Jennifer and Severin to survive a war unscathed (which was exciting enough), but for the two of them to have professional happiness, too.
I mean, read this, from our heroine Jennifer. I practically cheered on the subway:
"...I have seen love up close now, and I will not settle for the kind that limits and diminishes me. You are capable of more than killing. I am capable of more than domestic devotion. I do not wish the kind of love that reduces over time who we each are. I want the kind that makes the whole of us greater than the sum of our parts." (p298-299)
There were sexytimes that were hot and plotty (and surprising!). There's a fabulous wealth of detail about 18th century theater (Jennifer is inspired by Mercy Otis Warren and her aunt by Mary Darby Robinson, two real life figures I love, so I've got love-upon-love here!) as well as exciting wartime drama. This isn't a fluffy read, not precisely, but it races from the mix of romance, tension, and humor -- a combo I love.
Technically, this is the third book in Thorland's Renegades of the American Revolution series, although I don't think they're actually connected in any way other than setting. I'm dying to get my hands on the other two now -- I'm a Thorland fangirl!...more
I've been on pins-and-needles for this book, the second historical mystery featuring notorious Victorian author/drug user Thomas DeQuincy, his daughteI've been on pins-and-needles for this book, the second historical mystery featuring notorious Victorian author/drug user Thomas DeQuincy, his daughter Emily, and their friends in Scotland Yard. The first book, Murder as a Fine Art, made my Top Ten of 2013.
My impatience was well rewarded; this book has everything I love in a great historical novel: a plot that drives one into Wiki rabbit holes, an intriguing heroine who is unconventional - but grounded in the era - and historical details that are evocative without being overwhelming.
Set in 1855, just weeks after the end of the first novel, notorious author and opium addict Thomas DeQuincy and his charming bluestocking daughter Emily are being shuffled home to Scotland when a gruesome murder at St. James' Church requires their assistance. It soon emerges that there's a plot to assassinate the queen as a series of grotesque and dramatic murders strike fear in London. (I will say, as someone who is a puss about gross things, the murders were icky but not put-the-book-down disgusting. Just the right side of scary for my tastes!) The calamitous results of the Crimean war complicate the political stage in London, too, and running parallel to the murder mystery is a storyline of privilege, heroism in war, and class background (which I found more fascinating than the murders, frankly!).
As with the previous novel, Morrell emulates Victorian literature in the narrative style: the novel switches between the point of view of our murderer and our heroes as well as various secondary characters, interspersed with excerpts from Emily's diary, resulting in a rich, dramatic narrative reminiscent of my favorite 19th century thrillers. There's a big cast but Morrell makes everyone vibrant and distinct, and I loved the secondary characters as much as the primary ones.
And while this is a second in a series, it stands well for those unfamiliar with the first book: Morrell provides enough background to make new readers (or those of us, like myself, who forgot a few details) comfortable with the main players and their relationships without spoiling the first book.
Of the characters, Emily once more won my heart; she numbers among my favorite heroines for her mix of sensitivity, moxie, and grace. But I love that Morrell tackles drug use and addiction through DeQuincy -- a topic I rarely see in historical fiction -- and DeQuincy is a sympathetic character, struggling with his demons.
There's a nine-page Afterward as fascinating as the novel and spells out what is based on history and what is Morrell's invention. To my surprise, more was historical than I expected!
It should go without saying that I can't wait for the next book in the series, should there be one. A detail-laden delight for those who dig the Victorian era, murder mysteries, or heroines who rock bloomers....more
I love the idea of collaborative novels but find that unless it's a duo, anything more is usually a bit of a disaster (Naked Came the Manatee or HoI love the idea of collaborative novels but find that unless it's a duo, anything more is usually a bit of a disaster (Naked Came the Manatee or Hotel Angeline). But I wasn't going to pass up this hist fic, which features six standout historical novelists all writing about Pompeii's deadly explosion -- and to my delight and great relief, this was a knockout.
Set on, or a few days before, the day of the destructive Mount Vesuvius eruption -- the novel follows seven interconnected characters. Each author tackles one character and one small portion of the overall story arc, although the same characters are threaded through the entire narrative. The disaster is pieced out in a series of snapshots but there isn't a disconnected, vignette-y feel. Instead, the shifting lens provides a extra layer of tension as I raced through the story to see if my favorite characters were going to appear again, and if I would learn more about their fate.
The entire novel reads like one cohesive piece in part because the authors intentionally worked that way, constantly consulting with each other about characters and plot points. (I learned this and other fun details in my interview with them; it'll be posted tomorrow.) That extra effort is felt quite clearly in the distinct narrative arc that holds the volume together, and the seemingly disparate threads are tied up as neatly as can be in a disaster. (And kudos to the authors for resisting wholly pat endings!) We don't learn how everyone ultimately ends up, and it leaves a deliciously bittersweet feeling at the end.
I loved every story in this volume but I'll admit to sobbing like a crazy thing while reading E. Knight's 'The Mother'. Being a pregnant lady six days from her due date is likely why it affected me so greatly, but the stories have a wonderful balance of action, emotion, and at moments, grim humor. As the book continues, the characters are deeper and deeper in the throes of the eruption, and the stories race even while focusing on some serious emotional development -- plot isn't thrown over for character, nor vice versa.
There's eight pages of Historical Notes to go with this, for the volume and each story, which provides the kind of geeky historical detail and narrative nuts and bolts I love.
Highly recommended for historical fiction fans, especially those who love disaster flicks, ancient settings, and/or armchair escapes that leave you gasping for air. Those who are fans of the authors in this volume will not be disappointed and those who are new to these authors will be excited to have more of their works to dig into. A wonderfully creative endeavor. I'd love to see this group do something like this again!...more
The luxurious Chanel brand is iconic -- the perfume, the fashion, its founder -- and I'm surprised Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel hasn't been featured in a hThe luxurious Chanel brand is iconic -- the perfume, the fashion, its founder -- and I'm surprised Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel hasn't been featured in a historical novel before. Her hist fic debut comes from C.W. Gortner, whose sublime The Queen’s Vowhumanized Isabella, and this novel has set the high water mark for any future reads that attempt to tackle the notorious Chanel.
Born at the end of the 19th century in abject poverty, Gabrielle Chanel was turned over to a convent where she mastered sewing. Rather than taking vows to become a nun, Gabrielle instead became a seamstress and more daringly, a club singer -- where she earned her nickname Coco. Quickly, through her skill, ambition, and some fortuitous relationships, Chanel managed to project herself to fame over the decades as her once radical designs -- corset-less, trim, daring, modern -- set the standard for chic fashion. Weathering World War I and II, as well as devastating heartbreaks and notorious love affairs, Chanel lived a life that knew deprivation and luxury in equal part.
While the subject of this book is fascinating -- not just Coco herself, but the world she lived in -- the novel is made by Gortner's writing. Occasionally, I eye-roll when biographical novels use the first person viewpoint, as I find it makes the narrative all tell and no show, and allows the author off the hook when it comes to thornier details.
In Gortner's hands, however, Coco articulates her life with the spare, artistic verve of her designs. (He took his hand away. Not with harshness. His fingers just unraveled from mine, like poorly spun threads., p11) Even more delightfully, Coco's voice grows as she does, rather than remaining static throughout the book.
And the clincher: Gortner dealt with the ugly stuff. I was most curious about how Gortner would handle the allegations that Coco was a Nazi collaborator and spy. It's obvious from this sympathetic novel that Gortner admires Chanel, and his suggestion of how the fashion designer became embroiled with the Nazis is sympathetic. But he offers characters who question her motives, her contradictions, allowing the reader to voice their doubts, too -- and like Coco's friends, we have to decide if we believe her. I found Gortner's articulation of Coco so solid that while I clucked at her choices, I understood why she made them.
This makes my second top ten read of 2015. Even if you're not a fan of fashion, consider grabbing this book, as it really is the story of a self-made woman, a visionary who imagined the way women wanted to live that differed from what society said. There are tawdry details brushing shoulders with heavier themes, armchair escape to early 20th century France, and some delicious name dropping that sent me into Wiki rabbit holes. At this point, I want Gortner to tackle every fashion designer -- like Chanel's nemesis, Elsa Schiaparelli -- but regardless of who he tackles next, I'm there. ...more
This intriguing YA historical novel has Swift's usual deft use of historical background and unusual but strongly defined characters. (My reviews for 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). ...more
I'm woefully behind on this review -- I inhaled this one back in January, the first full length novel I read after giving birth to Unabridged Baby inI'm woefully behind on this review -- I inhaled this one back in January, the first full length novel I read after giving birth to Unabridged Baby in November. It was a wonderful return to reading.
I'd been dying to get my hands on this one since it's original release; between the setting -- Revolutionary War -- and the premise -- a woman who passes as a man -- I was immediately intrigued. My eagerness was well placed as this is a wonderfully engrossing read that is impossible to shake.
Set in 1782, the novel follows Deborah Samson, an indentured servant who is a weaver in a small Massachusetts town. Frustrated by her present circumstances and impatient with the few opportunities ahead of her, Deborah signs onto the Continental Army as Robert Shurtliff. She finds soldiering immediately fits her personality and years of hard work allows her to blend in with the other recruits. In time, her identity as Robert the soldier blends, bleeds, and trumps that of Deborah, but as she tries to imagine what her future is like, she's forced to decide who she is and how she wants to live.
Booth took the stack of coats the soldier passed him. "Think of the lasses in Massachusetts weaving and sewing these garments for you," he said. The words caught Deborah short; she had been such a lass, weaving cloth at Sproat's, listening to the other girls talk of their brothers and husbands gone to be soldiers. She had woven and envied and wished, and now here she was, on the other side -- on the inside -- of that same fabric. (p72)
Samson is a real historical figure, and her time in the Continental Army is fact. Myers convincingly depicts the life of Deborah/Robert -- the historical details are fabulous, rich without being overwhelming -- and makes believable this fascinating story. (And the end, oh the end! I cried. In a good way.)
My favorite part of this book was Myers' narrative style and the way he articulated the conflicting push-pull of Deborah/Robert. Deborah is Robert and Robert is Deborah, and yet, each struggled to live fully within the social constructs facing them: Robert could live the unencumbered free life that Deborah always yearned for, but love and motherhood seemed something only Deborah could have. In the story, Myers would shift between identifying Sampson as Deborah or Robert, but this isn't a story of two people, or split personalities. It is a bittersweet -- and occasionally just bitter -- look at the complicated dance done when society tries to push people into tight frames, relevant now and compellingly done.
A wonder historical novel of Revolutionary era New England, and a fascinating biographical novel of a forgotten, but intriguing, figure. ...more
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 -- medievalWhile 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....more
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 anI 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!...more
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 bI'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!...more
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 13thThe 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!). ...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 t 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. ...more
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 thiI 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!...more
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 siWhile 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!...more
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 edOpening 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! ...more
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 tOn 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!...more
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 divOn 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. ...more
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 foSet 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....more
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 inI'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....more
This slender novel -- just 288 pages -- is a rich, emotional look at love, ambition, the human soul, the creative impulse, the last immortality of artThis 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....more
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 wiThis 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!...more
This bawdy, dramatic, and atmospheric historical novel brings to life Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, a nearly forgotten Elizabethan poet -- the first woman iThis bawdy, dramatic, and atmospheric historical novel brings to life Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, a nearly forgotten Elizabethan poet -- the first woman in England to be published -- who, in O'Reilly's hands, becomes a lover and muse to William Shakespeare -- the inspiration of his Dark Lady sonnets.
Set between 1592 and 1616 in London, the novel is narrated by Aemilia. The young mistress of an older courtier, Aemilia is renown at court for her wit and beauty, and she catches the attentions of playwright Shakespeare. But their affair leads her to a forced marriage with her cousin and she's removed from court, where she stews over improving her fortunes, pursuing her passion for poetry, and raising her son. As the plague strikes London, Aemilia's focus shifts toward more dangerous territory as she explores black magic to save all that she loves.
This was the kind of book I dove into one morning and couldn't put down until I finished. Aemilia's voice is knowing, brash, and unapologetic. She's hungry for her independence, frustrated with her useless husband and her writing, which doesn't match her aspiration. (How I can relate to that!)
Although Aemilia reads vibrant, real, and realized, sadly, the grand love affair between Aemilia and Shakespeare felt flat to me. Thankfully, their affair is only a brief interlude in Aemilia's long and eventful life (despite the importance implied by the book jacket), and I was more caught up in her relationship with her son (especially as I had just found out I was having a boy) and her struggles as a writer.
I found the setting, while not specifically articulated in any detail, was well evoked -- I felt like I was in Elizabethan London, all the glittery and grimy parts of it. There are some supernatural elements, especially toward the end of the story, which I quite liked; the hints of magic reminded me of those magical moments in Elizabethan works and touch upon the historical Lanyer's own writing.
The book is filled with marvelous extras: about ten pages of historical notes, a timeline, glossary of Elizabethan terms, and a list of suggested reading.
A delicious read of a long-forgotten writer, this is a fun historical novel for those who like fierce heroines, some vulgar language (Aemilia doesn't mince words!), fabulous sense of place, and plenty of drama....more