For now, a non-review. My reflection for Literary Wives. It's long, I'm sorry, and I sound like a nut job, I know.
In Summary This book blew my mind: I...moreFor now, a non-review. My reflection for Literary Wives. It's long, I'm sorry, and I sound like a nut job, I know.
In Summary This book blew my mind: I hated it, or maybe I loved it. I'm really torn.
I will say I read this nearly 600 page book in about two days, unable to stop, consumed with curiosity. My opinion on it will, I'm sure, shift and change with time, and while I haven't written my review yet, I hope to soon. (There's a good deal about Sittenfeld's writing style, the episodes she chooses to focus on, the graphic sex! that I'll talk about in my review since it doesn't fit here.)
The proposed frame to kick off the conversation are these two questions:
1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?
First, A Confession and Then An Apology I will admit that this novel provoked me politically and I've been really working to separate my political values from this conversation -- but for me, the personal is political blah blah and much of my response to this novel is shaped by my own personal values. Here's hoping I can convey that well without being offensive! Also, sorry this is a small novel.
Who is a Wife? (In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?)
The title of this book in particular just amplifies this question, for our heroine is not just defined by being a wife, she's also THE American Wife at one point.
Alice Blackwell (our fictional Laura Bush), is defined by wife for her whole life -- aspiring to be one, fearing she may never be one, becoming one. In fact, a good deal of the novel dealt with the pleasures, pains, tragedies, and tradeoffs of romantic partnership (both those that occur and those that fizzle away and die).
Her being defined by her marriage, however, only seems to become particular to her identity when her husband takes political office; before that, being a wife seems to be one of the many parts of her life, from being a librarian, a mother, a competent party planner, a supportive in-law, or a reader.
On Life Partnership (What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?)
Returning to the first question, I'll admit to some real hostility when looking at Alice's marriage and her experience as a wife. Although Sittenfeld is careful to articulate a woman who, for the most part, is happy with her marriage, I couldn't help but read this book as a beautifully written subsummation of someone rather interesting into someone rather boorish. Alice is everything her husband isn't, and at no point does Alice ever seem to flounder for self-identity, and yet she spends most of the novel justifying not only why she doesn't really care what her husband does but why she doesn't feel a need to stop him, sway him, press back against him, or leave him.
I'm being glib: she cares what he does, obviously, and yet -- especially during the sections when her husband is in political office -- she lives with little desire to be a separate entity from her husband. When she thinks about how much she doesn't want her husband to run for office, she simply says she doesn't believe she can tell him what to do; when she's misquoted in the media, she doesn't bother to correct people; when she shares a politically inexpedient opinion, she's happy to let the White House scramble to correct assumptions about what that means; when she commits a betrayal that will likely break her husband's heart, she does it in a way that affects and impacts absolutely nothing. It was such a staggering handing over of will, agency, and self-direction, I was breathless with wonder for most of the book.
This was where I felt the most resentment and dislike for Alice and where I thought for sure she and I had nothing in common when it came to our marriages and experiences as wives.
BUT. I had an 'ah-ha'.
When I met my wife, close to a decade ago (!wow!), she was in divinity school studying to be a Christian minister. I was working for a non-Christian religious organization doing justice advocacy and was up to my nose in ministers. The last thing I wanted was to date a minister, but she was smart and funny and pretty and I was really, really intrigued. Despite my determination to avoid ministers, I ended up falling in love with one, and for a good four years, found myself looking at a future as a pastor's wife. All the things I had no patience or interest in -- churches, Sunday services, Jesus, potluck, Christian holidays, funerals, pastoral counseling -- were suddenly part and parcel of my life, and even though it was never a life I would have chosen for myself, I wasn't going to give up my then-girlfriend over it. I maintained my non-Christian beliefs and attended church on Sundays and made nice to the well-meaning congregants because it made my wife happy, because I wanted to be a part of something that was important to her, and because this was my wife's vocation and who was I to tell her what to do?
Yeah, I'll admit to being shocked I used half the arguments Alice did.
So even though my wife and I share the same political beliefs, I suddenly understood Sittenfeld's angle and focus on this famous couple. While I wanted to loathe Alice for loving a man whose political beliefs are so antithetical to mine I literally get foamy at the mouth thinking about it, she has the same values and desires I do: to have the opportunity to spend her life with someone she loves and admires even she when doesn't agree with them.
While reading this book, I kept thinking back to Melanie Benjamin's The Aviator's Wife, a novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh. (The Aviator's Wife is our August pick!) Anne was married to another intensely political public figure with whom she didn't always agree with; while reading The Aviator's Wife I felt more sympathy toward Anne than I did toward Alice, but upon finishing both books, I think I respect Alice more. Anne was a wife and soldiered on as a partner to her husband, but almost unfailing as his shadow and cheerleader; Alice, despite my pretending otherwise, used the privilege and eventually the power granted to her by her husband, and her being a wife -- a president's wife -- allowed her to amplify her ability to affect change in a way Anne never did.
In Conclusion Sittenfeld writes this one in first person, with Alice at some points literally appealing to the reader to understand her decisions. At the time, I resisted, mostly because I'm a giant Judgy McJudgerton but having some space, I think I can appreciate her arguments, her appeal to understand her American marriage, and the mythology behind a 'solid' marriage. (less)
A novel about Dracula that doesn't involve vampires?! Be still my heart!
Needless to say, when I was offered to be on the tour for this one, I leapt at...moreA novel about Dracula that doesn't involve vampires?! Be still my heart!
Needless to say, when I was offered to be on the tour for this one, I leapt at the chance, and my leap was rewarded: this is a great novel of court intrigue, war, and love -- and I'm happy to say, this isn't a Tudor-esque fic simply plunked into Transylvania.
Alternating between 1474 and 1454, the novel follows Ilona Szilágyi, a Hungarian noblewoman, and her friendship, courtship and love affair with Vlad Dracula.
My historical knowledge of Vlad Dracula is fuzzy (or, really, nonexistent), and Lancaster's novel quickly and neatly delves into his violent and heartbreaking life -- hostage to the Ottomans, a pawn during war, an ambitious military leader regarded with awe and horror for his unapologetically brutal ways -- who becomes a Prince and eventual political prisoner. Vlad's ambitions are boundless as is his determination to remain a ruler, and he allows himself to be used by the Wallachians and Hungarians to remain in power. Lancaster opens with Machiavelli's quote (better a prince be feared than loved), which is coined some forty years after Vlad's reign and yet exemplifies his leadership style.
And still, knowing all that, I was kind of into Vlad. Even with a mustache and his cruel military prowess, I was digging him! It helped that our heroine, Ilona, was fun, a realistic mix of innocence and boldness, a bit fiery and a bit shy; I could relate to her, and when she was smitten, I was a tiny bit smitten.
Lancaster's writing is effortless, geeky with detail without feeling like infodumping or oversharing. She plunges us into the story, opening with the end of Vlad's imprisonment before taking us back to his youth, when he first met the impetuous Ilona. The political tangle of that region is lightly explained but really offered through context, and I appreciated that. (For those who are curious, you can read Chapter One on Lancaster's website.)
There's a long cast of characters at the beginning of the book as well as a map of the region. There's no Author's Note or Afterward, which I would have liked -- I'm intensely curious about this era and the players now!
I'm unsure how to describe this one: it's beach-y fun to read, but it isn't a bodice ripper or a sexed up historical ala Philippa Gregory. It isn't the weighty military historical necessarily but it's obviously a novel of war and conflict. It's a tiny bit coming-of-age for our young noblewoman; it's a bit middle-age-looking-back-at-youth as well. Whatever it is, it's fun, and effortless to read, and worth picking up if you like court intrigue but want a little variation, or if you're curious about Eastern Europe in the 15th century, or even if you just want to know a bit about the historical Dracula. (And, at the moment, it's $2.99 as an ebook.) (less)
I was a bit apprehensive when I got this book: with a white heroine proudly emblazoned on the cover and a premise set during the 19th century Anglo-Zu...moreI was a bit apprehensive when I got this book: with a white heroine proudly emblazoned on the cover and a premise set during the 19th century Anglo-Zulu War in South Africa, I was afraid it would be White Man's Burden meets The Power of One. (And I say this as someone who loves The Power of One, but let's be real, it's problematic.) Instead, this is a lovely historical romance with a bold heroine living in two worlds, belonging to neither, and a fascinating armchair escape to an era and locale rarely seen in historical fiction.
Set in 1878 in the eastern coastal region of what is now South Africa, the story follows Elizabeth Jones, a white Englishwoman who was washed up on the coast at fourteen when her ship wrecked. Taken in by the local Zulu tribe, she is raised alongside them, her rescuer Lindani virtually a brother to her. Now twenty, Elizabeth and her Zulu family watch in horror as the British army masses against them, clearly bent on war. At the behest of the Zulu king, Elizabeth crops her hair short and dons stolen British uniforms to infiltrate the army and report back to the Zulu what the British plan.
Through a tiny bit of helpful coincidence (which I forgive, because otherwise, things would have progressed way too slowly), Elizabeth ends up masquerading as a batman (a personal servant) to Captain Jack Burdell. Jack is a seasoned soldier and a gentleman farmer, recently disillusioned with army life, a sentiment that grows when he reads his father's journals and finds his father felt the same way.
Fairly quickly, Jack sees through Elizabeth's disguise, but buys her cover story, and the two fight off their sexual interest. Elizabeth, who witnessed the British Army at their worst as a child, finds herself softening toward the soldiers around her, less convinced she wants to be party to anyone's annihilation, Zulu or British. As the story marches (literally) toward battle, Elizabeth has to learn who to trust and what world she wants to live in -- and of course, what the cost of that choice will be.
While the romance is straight-forward, I so loved Diener's acknowledgment of the hypocrisy of the mores and values held by Victorian British. In one scene, when Jack learns Elizabeth dressed in traditional Zulu fashion -- that is, topless -- all her life, he is aghast. For a moment, his sexual desire for her dissipates as he makes the erroneous leap that she was ravaged by the Zulu. Her semi-nudity, he's convinced, was sexually explicit -- whereas the reality, as Elizabeth points out, is that no Zulu stared at her breasts the way Jack stared at them. The repressed Victorians are the savage ones here.
Diener's premise, while seemingly far-fetched, is based on some historical tidbits, including the real-life survival story of a ship-wrecked child adopted by locals as well as the fact that after the battle of Isandlwana, survivors were questioned as to whether they had seen a woman on the battlefield. (As Diener writes, why would anyone ask that question?, and I agree!) Every chapter opens with a historical quote from the Zulu or British from this time, prescient and heartbreaking, and there's a glossary of Zulu phrases as well as an extensive bibliography.
I raced through this book in a day, following the Boston Marathon bombings and it was just the read I needed. Easily losing myself in the story, it had a romance I was rooting for and a larger historical arc that was tense and fascinating. (Being unfamiliar with the Battle of Isandlwana, I raced to the end to see how it resolved.) Fans of unique historical settings will enjoy this, as well as anyone who hankers for a historical romance that is spicy, a little complicated, and very bittersweet.(less)
I had such a flippin' great time with this book. From the first page, I was sucked in, and the only reason I didn't finish this one in a day is that I...moreI had such a flippin' great time with this book. From the first page, I was sucked in, and the only reason I didn't finish this one in a day is that I made myself slow down and enjoy the journey -- I could have taken another 300 pages and been only slightly satisfied.
Set in 1854, the novel opens with 'the artist', a violent serial killer bent on replicating -- and improving upon -- a series of violent murders from 1811. (And ew, are they grim.) For the police and the London public, these crimes are chilling and frightening, and one suspect immediately comes to mind: writer/philosopher/laudanum-addict Thomas DeQuincey whose essay 'On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts' detailed the 1811 murders and seemingly offered admiration for the killer.
DeQuincey, now in his 60s, is still infamous for his Confessions of an Opium-Eater, perhaps the first tell-all drug memoir published. Chased by creditors, DeQuincey returns to London after a mysterious missive promises to reunite him with a woman from his past, accompanied by his smart, pragmatic, bloomer-wearing daughter, Emily.
Two London police officers -- an Irish detective named Ryan and a British constable named Becker -- are tasked with arresting notorious writer/drug addict Thomas DeQuincey for the murders -- and that's when things get really hairy.
This book hit every note for me: wonderful sense of place and era, fascinating characters, a gossipy treatment of history, and a narrative style that has as much personality as the characters. In the (wonderfully fascinating) Afterward, Morrell explains this novel is his take on the 19th century novel; he employs a third-person omniscient viewpoint and intersperses the narrative with excerpts from diary entries. The effect is fun without being exhausting (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was fun, but felt a bit much at times) and offered that lovely mix of 'education' (the narrative is peppered with trivia about the era) and escapism (there were some moments that were positively cinematic).
Hands down, Emily was my favorite character -- she might rank up there with my favorite heroines -- as she was smart, sympathetic, 'modern' (for the times), and vibrant. Morrell conveyed a Victorian woman raised with a rather unconventional thinker of father who still felt authentic to the era. She wasn't a contemporary woman in corsets (because Emily doesn't wear them, but you know what I mean.). I enjoyed every character, though, even our creepy 'artist of death', and I couldn't stop reading. There's non-stop action but the feel of the book isn't bombastic or exhausting -- having the cerebral DeQuincey helped temper the speed, I think, and balanced out the police officers and murders. He was certainly a fascinating foil for the story.
If you like Victorian London, take this trip. If you like historical mysteries, consider this one: the focus is less on the mystery since we know 'who' the murderer is (just not his name) and has a hint of the police procedural with a good helping of psychological profiling. I can't say whether or not DeQuincey nerds will approve of Morrell's portrayal of him and his daughter, but I just loved him and am super eager to read his works. (I kind of wish this would become a series with DeQuincey and company.)(less)
This book is the sequel to Rocamora, a beefy historical novel following Isaac Vicente de Rocamora. Continuing the tale of real-life Dominican-priest-...moreThis book is the sequel to Rocamora, a beefy historical novel following Isaac Vicente de Rocamora. Continuing the tale of real-life Dominican-priest-turned-Jewish-physician, Platt's book again delves deeply into 17th century life, this time focusing on Jewish communities in Amsterdam rather than the grim drama of the Spanish court.
I preferred this book to the first one, perhaps because of the more domestic focus. Vicente -- now Isaac -- is settling in his new home as a Jewish man, honoring his family's history in a way he couldn't while in Spain.
The reader follows Vicente through his education -- a bit of a crash course, as he's in his 40s and spent a good deal of his life absorbing Catholic doctrine -- and his courtship with the young, beautiful Abigail. A man who has run through a number of passionate, beautiful lovers, Isaac's focus on his family and his community is a refreshing change from the blood, guts, gore, and court intrigue found in Rocamora -- a shift seemingly so absurd I wouldn't believe it were it not based in fact!
As with his first book, Platt's meticulous research is clear and I found the historical details fascinating. Jewish culture and community in this era wasn't homogenized -- as with any broad denomination, there are various factions and levels of conservatism -- and Platt lightly touches upon the prejudices and tensions between these smaller groups.
Where Rocamora had plot so rich it dripped off the page, House of Rocamora is a quieter, slower novel, focused more on the man rather than the man's actions. I preferred this shift and enjoyed watching the man of action settle into life as a community leader, as a husband and father, and later, as a widower.
By the end of the novel, the story shifts to one of Isaac's children, and as with the first book, I found the ending could both be satisfying and a cliff-hanger, depending on your mood!
This edition has some lovely extras to help the reader: a map, a preface to set the mood and place, and information about the cost of living in the area -- helpful in evoking and imagining life there!(less)
This immense novel clocks in at nearly 400 pages and is set among the tumultuous, violent, vibrant world of 17th century Spain. Growing up amidst a cu...moreThis immense novel clocks in at nearly 400 pages and is set among the tumultuous, violent, vibrant world of 17th century Spain. Growing up amidst a culture obsessed with limpieza de sangre, or the 'purity' of one's background, our hero Vicente de Rocamora juggles the truth of his heritage with his ambitions -- and that of his family.
The feel of the novel is like Margaret George meets Emilio Salgari: meaty, weighty, huge, enormously detailed, with a kind of swashbuckling hero and a melodramatic setting.
Unsure of his own heritage and his limpieza de sangre, a teenaged Vicente is forced by his very vile relatives to become Dominican priest. His nautral intelligence and curiosity give him wisdom and the foresight to grab opportunities when they come; his natural charisma leads him to ladies. Becoming confessor to the King's sister, Infanta Maria (later the Empress of Austria), Vicente uses his influence and stature to get revenge on those who betrayed him and to wrest control of the Inquisition, hoping to put an end to the outrageous torture and stifling effect religion had on Spanish society. (And there is torture in this one -- I sometimes found it hard to read!)
All this might seem pretty over-the-top, but Vicente de Rocamora is a real historical figure, whose life is the stuff of novels. Platt has clearly done his research: every page drips with details of the era, and the effect is almost overwhelming. (It is undoubtedly educational.)
There's a real saga-like feel to this one, too, as if we've followed Vicente his whole life, although the book only covers 26 years -- 1617 to 1643. I think the book could have used a little tightening and some editing down, but overall, it's a pretty grand historical adventure.
Also, this book has the most amazing conclusion -- jaw-dropping, cinematic, really -- and makes for a fine ending or cliffhanger, depending on your mood. (Which, if you find it to be cliff-hanger-y, you'll be happy: there's a sequel!)
There are three pages of historical notes, and opens with a summary of the rest of Vicente's life, so if you plan to read the sequel, considering skipping down the page. There's info on the value of money during the era as well as an extensive cast list (helpful for keeping everyone straight!). (less)
It's no secret the Tudor era is not a favorite of mine but Nancy Bilyeau makes me sing a different tune: first, with her fabulous novel The Crown and...moreIt's no secret the Tudor era is not a favorite of mine but Nancy Bilyeau makes me sing a different tune: first, with her fabulous novel The Crown and again this year with the sequel, The Chalice.
Returning to the 16th century and her ex-nun Joanna Stafford, this novel delves more into Joanna's life and past as well as the drama Henry VIII's decisions were wrecking on the country. As with The Crown, Bilyeau opens her novel with another fantastic first sentence -- When preparing for martyrdom on the night of December 28, 1538, I did not think of those I love. -- and the story races from there.
Joanna struggles to make sense of her life and the rapid changes she's endured: once a dedicated nun, she's now living a secular life due only to a decree of the King and by no choice of her own. Raising her cousin's child -- a woman burned at the stake for treason -- Joanna hopes to make a living weaving tapestries when conspiracy and danger find her again. Brought to London with the promise she won't be forced to go to court, Joanna instead is embroiled in a plot to return England to the Catholic Church when she factors into three prophesies, including one by Elizabeth Barton, the Mad Maid of Kent. (Which, if there's going to be religious conspiracies, give me an oracle nun, and I'm in heaven.)
Although from a noble family, Joanna is hardly a typical courtier, which makes Bilyeau's novels such a refreshing entry in the Tudor genre. Bilyeau articulates what it might have been like for those who took religious vows, forced by edict to abandon their life and their beliefs. While the dissolution of those institutions might have ferreted out those who weren't truly religious, for those who were devoted -- like Joanna -- the world has upended. She still believes Henry VIII is divinely ordained, for example, and is rocked to the core when those around her suggest he isn't.
There are some hints of romance in this book, but there's a twist: Henry VIII banned former clergy, nuns, and monks from ever marrying. Still, Joanna feels some attraction to men now -- a monk she's known, a sheriff she just recently met -- and she has to navigate this new tension as well.
I'm not super familiar with this era, so I can't say how many liberties Bilyeau has taken (if any) but I loved the mix of historical and fiction. Joanna is able to move through two worlds -- court life and religious life -- comfortably, and as an educated woman, has a smart 'voice' through which to tell her story. (Although I will admit, she maddened me at times with her choices!)
For Tudor fans, I think this is a must (I've read a few reviews by folks who say this one can be read as a fine standalone, but I encourage you to start with The Crown), and for those tired of Tudor novels, but interested in meaty hist fic, pick up these two. Joanna Stafford might be one of my top ten favorite heroines and I'm dying for the third book.(less)
This is a messed up book. It's also odd, imaginative, a little gimmick-y, gross, captivating, fascinating, horrifying, and weird.
Set in the mid-1700s...moreThis is a messed up book. It's also odd, imaginative, a little gimmick-y, gross, captivating, fascinating, horrifying, and weird.
Set in the mid-1700s, our narrator is Tristan Hart, a young man of some means and some madness. Growing up with a depressed widower father, Tristan's best friend was the ethereal Nathaniel Ravenscroft, a handsome and daring young man who eventually runs off with gypsies. Tristan grows up a rather ordinary boy until an incident with a tutor brands him high-strung and prone to nerves.
It is only his father's friend, novelist and magistrate Henry Fielding, who prises Tristan from the country and into medical school in London. There, Tristan learns he is gifted at the art and science of surgery and that his sole sexual pleasure comes from provoking pain.
That's just the first half of the novel; the other half is Tristan learning to live with himself, his bouts of 'illness' and brushes with the supernatural, his love affair with a young teenager who matches his hunger for pain, and his passion for medical research.
The novel is written in an archiac homage to 18th century literature, with all nouns and some adjectives capitalized, and unusual spelling. Although I started to grow accustomed to Wolf's archaic writing style, I also found it slightly obfuscated the action, especially the moments when Tristan was going mad/experiencing something supernatural. I'm undecided if this purposefully overwrought manner is awesome or too much of a gimmick. Here's a sample:
I bade my Father's Gamekeeper bring me live Subjects for Experimentation and Study, and within a Fortnight of my Return my Cages had begun to fill, and my Laboratory to rustle. Yet, despite my stated Design, I found My Self incapable of performing a Dissection upon any of these, for the mere Effort of preparing Board and Instruments seemed beyond me. (p311)
This book is gruesome and at times, was almost too disturbing (for me) to read. Wolf -- through Tristan -- lingers over his experiments in pain, his fantasies, which are not my speed and I found this book distressing at moments -- and suuuuuuuuuuuper addictive.
While reading, I was reminded of Patrick Süskind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Bret Easton Ellis if he adopted 18th century literary stylings, and the film Secretary. I'm totally undecided about how I ultimately feel having finished this novel. If you like dark, evocative, brilliant, chilling, creepy, overwrought, twisted and wicked fun, some literary gymnastics, historicals that feel historical, and very unreliable narrators, this is your book.(less)
Alternating between the past and the present, this novel tells the story of a tapestry, and the individuals affected by it. In 1520, Belgian Beatrice...moreAlternating between the past and the present, this novel tells the story of a tapestry, and the individuals affected by it. In 1520, Belgian Beatrice tells the story of the making of the tapestry in her father's shop. She and her sister Marie care for her father after their mother's unexpected death, and the arrival of the slimy Father Bernardo from the Vatican changes everything.
In contemporary Newport Beach, California, Detective Claire DeMaer investigates art theft. When her flashy interior decorate friend Nora begs her to attend a party of Nora's newest client, and lover, Claire agrees -- and to her surprise, spots a tapestry identified by Interpol as stolen from the Vatican. She confronts the owner, who confesses to stealing it, but alleges the Vatican stole it from his family first. That claim sends Claire chasing the truth.
This is the first in a series following Claire and it's a good start. I enjoyed the historical sections of the story, reminiscent of Tracy Chevalier's The Lady and the Unicorn, and young Beatrice's search for justice and vengeance in a time when priests were untouchable, their crimes accepted. In revenge, she decides to alter the cartoons -- or patterns -- to the tapestry to include, via symbols, the story of her sister's tragedy.
The contemporary sections felt a little uneven to me, and I didn't quite enjoy Claire's story as much as Beatrice's. A good deal of Claire's story -- her motivation as well as her back story -- is tied up with her best friend Nora, who frankly seemed awful. Claire's investigation of the tapestry's provenance is dependent on at least two professionals bending the rules or turning a blind eye to her technically illegal behavior, which might be true in these circles, but also felt a little coincidental.
The novel moves pretty briskly, which is good given that it's 237 pages. Staes conveys the background need to understand the story -- the making of tapestries, how an art theft investigation unfolds -- without any awkward infodumps, and there were two twists to the story I hadn't anticipated but enjoyed greatly. With a throwaway shout out to one of my favorite musical groups -- The Mediæval Bæbes -- and the inclusion of a new-to-me medieval poet, Vittoria Colonna, I ended the book satisfied. Staes includes a cast of characters, terminology guide, and resources at the end of the book.(less)
I feel kind of terrible writing this review because this book is awesome ... and not available in the U.S. (It is available in the UK.) As usual, with...moreI feel kind of terrible writing this review because this book is awesome ... and not available in the U.S. (It is available in the UK.) As usual, with a book I love this much, I'm having a hard time writing a coherent review. I really ought to just do a video review so I can wave my hands and make excited noises -- that'd probably convey more.
I'm a sucker for a fairy tale retold, especially when they're placed in a historical era, marrying 'real' with 'fantasy'. In this case, the fairy tale is Rapunzel, and the historical eras are 17th century France and 16th century Venice. Told in a story-within-a-story style, Forsyth manages to write a wonderfully solid historical novel with all the details I like -- customs, costumes, and characters -- as well as a fairy tale fantasy that resonates and delights. Shifting between three perspectives, this brick of a novel (about 500 pages) had me hanging on every word, literally, and I was lugging this thing with me everywhere and reading it with every free second.
Opening in late 17th century France, the novel focuses first on Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a witty noblewoman banished to a convent by the Sun King, Louis XIV. There, the woman once bedecked in jewels and luxurious fabrics finds herself stripped of her belongings (including her writing implements), head shorn, condemned to lowly tasks. When a nun takes Charlotte-Rose under her wing, she enchants the Frenchwoman with a tale from her own life, and the story shifts to Renaissance Venice. One of Titian's muses, Selena Leonelli, has taken to witchcraft to preserve her youth, and when a neighbor steals greens from her yard, the witch takes their Margherita for use in her own dark magic.
De La Force is the real life author of a Rapunzel variation, and Forsyth's novel guesses at how this Frenchwoman might have heard of the Venetian original. Using the Venetian motifs in her own version, Forsyth mixes magic and history, and comes up with a delicious and heartbreaking treat.
Forsyth's writing is evocative and pretty without feeling heavy or ornate; she conveys a sense of time and place without the dreaded infodump. What I appreciated, She also doesn't mince words about the way women were treated in these eras -- she creates strong heroines who are quite real but don't reek of anachronism.
Like others on this tour, I'm totally unwilling to part with my copy of this book. I had hoped to offer a giveaway but Book Depository doesn't have this one available yet. Keep your eye out -- if you like fairy tales, French history, and escapist historical fiction, you'll want this novel.(less)
I'm not a Napoleon fangirl but I love novels set during his time. I cut my teeth on Georgette Heyer and the Georgian-era is still a favorite. And whil...moreI'm not a Napoleon fangirl but I love novels set during his time. I cut my teeth on Georgette Heyer and the Georgian-era is still a favorite. And while I like books set during wartime, I'm not really drawn to the combat narrative -- I like stories about those at home -- but recently, I've found that novels set squarely in the battlefield have been engaging and this book is no exception.
Opening in 1814, Mace drops us in the middle of a violent skirmish in Toulouse, France, in which famed British military hero, the Duke of Wellington, is driving back Napoleon's armies. Alternating between French and British viewpoints, Mace sets up a rather complicated back story fairly easily, contexting the conflict that just happened and establishing what's to come. It took me about two chapters to get totally up to speed, I admit, but by the third chapter, I was hooked. As the European powers wage peace, Napoleon frets in exile, and it is only a matter of time before he returns to Europe to take back France, an invasion that culminates in the Battle of Waterloo.
Mace weaves these bursts of conflict in with a few character-driven threads (or perhaps the other way around) and as a result, I was caught up in the drama of both 'what will Napoleon do next??' and 'I hope that sweet British widower will remarry that nice Englishwoman!'. Reminiscent of Heyer, Mace's novel touches upon the rigid class stratification in the British Army, the societal changes happening in the world around them, and the shocking reality of life for a 19th century soldier. Being the opposite of a war buff, I wouldn't know my bayonet from my ... some other 'b' term, but Mace peppers the narrative with tidbits and hints to help the reader envision the scene and understand what is going on.
What really impressed me -- because I love it when done well -- is that Mace balances a light touch (hints of a courtship between two characters) with a darker one (the behavior of the 'good guys' during a particularly hellish combat moment). In his 'Final Thoughts' (more on that later), he reveals he strove to create some ambiguity about who were the 'good guys' and 'bad guys', and he nailed it: I was for the British and French constantly.
This particular edition was a treat to read, an enhanced e-book loaded with extras. The novel clocks in at about 480 pages with a rich collection of appendices to answer any armchair historian's questions, from a detailed list of military ranks with explanation, a historical afterward that shares the fate of the major historical players, and perhaps my favorite section, an annotated list of what historical regiments from this novel still exist and in what form. The book is peppered with illustrations -- either historical or contemporary renditions of the events at the time -- which I loved and appreciated.
Mace's 'Final Thoughts', in which he shares his thoughts on writing this novel, was a pleasure to read. I love reading about the craft of writing as much as the actual product and Mace echoes that refrain I've heard from other historical novelists, a desire to balance accuracy with entertainment.
You can read a preview chapter at the publisher website to get a sense of Mace's style but I will again mention it took me two chapters -- and was worth it. A wonderfully rich and detailed chunkster for those who like Georgian-era historical fiction, war stories, or the Franco/Anglo divide.(less)
This 100 page novella is a horrifying snapshot of a suicidal mission. Technically a prequel to I Stood With Wellington (which I loved), this can be re...moreThis 100 page novella is a horrifying snapshot of a suicidal mission. Technically a prequel to I Stood With Wellington (which I loved), this can be read alone. (As can I Stood With Wellington.)
Set in 1812, Mace takes the reader into the siege of a Spanish fortress, focusing on the group of soldiers known as the 'Forlorn Hope' -- the first wave of attackers expected to die, meant only to pave the way for further assault. Mixing gritty details and cinematic elements in his combat scenes with a focus on a few individuals -- both French and British -- Mace hooked me on this story.
I'm not typically a reader of combat/military fiction, but this is a story of soldiers -- good, bad and everything in between -- and the military culture of 19th century armies. From the 'ranks' to the officers, we're given glimpses of the snobbery, prejudices, and camaraderie common in the time.
Mace builds tension methodically, ticking away the hours to the siege, introducing us to some of the men participating. A young officer volunteers impetuously, aching at the sudden death of his wife. When the breach is delayed, he finds himself less certain about his decision but is committed nonetheless. A young raconteur fears he'll die without knowing love; a terminally ill man chooses this death over a more protracted one.
Even though I technically 'knew' what happened at Badajoz from characters referencing it in I Stood With Wellington, I was still glued to this book. It was quite a nail-biter, shockingly gory at moments (but not gratuitously), and thankfully ended beyond the last moments of Badajoz.
As with I Stood With Wellington, Mace's Notes are fascinating to read. Again sharing his goals and desires in writing this novella, he also reflects on his sources and the historical and fictional characters featured.
At about 100 pages, this was a zippy read, a wonderful introduction to Mace's writing style and a good dip into a historical novel that mixes well military and combat narrative with character-driven plot.(less)
This might be my biggest reader-ly booboo as I totally thought this was some kind of steampunk-y novel set during the historical demimonde (late 1800s...moreThis might be my biggest reader-ly booboo as I totally thought this was some kind of steampunk-y novel set during the historical demimonde (late 1800s, France) although to be fair, other than the title, nothing about this book should have lead me to that conclusion. Nope, I own this mistake and fortunately, it ended pretty well.
The actual premise is that it is 2018 and the Demi-Monde is an online training 'game' for US soldiers to experience immersive extreme combat situations in foreign locales with factions headed by some of history's most violent, deranged, and methodical leaders. The game is self-learning, an active world of 30 million 'dupes' who continue to grow, shape, change, adapt, and evolve even when not in use. (There's a 'Product Description Manual' available for download from the book's website -- oddly enough, from option 9, 'Fashion of the Demi-Monde' -- which has some fascinating, nerdy details about the game world, factions, that kind of thing. I found it enormously helpful for understanding the world.)
Most 'dupes' are just ordinary historical figures, but eleven are 'Singularities' -- the super insane, psychotic, charismatic, violent leaders from world history: Ivan the Terrible, Reinhard Heydrich, Henry VIII. Programmers designed the world into five factions, modeled on real world cities and loose exaggerations of cultural stereotypes, and created a nomadic people to increase tension so that there would always be conflict and war between at least two of the factions.
This is a world designed for armed personnel, but at the novel's open, the U.S. President's daughter is scrambling around inside the Demi-Monde, trying desperately to keep away from the SS-Ordo-Templi-Aryanis -- a group that, even if you're not exactly sure who they are, is obviously very very evil -- as, for totally bizarre reasons, the primary currency in Demi-Monde is blood, and the dupes don't make blood. (Seriously, this book takes something from every genre and the kitchen sink, and weirdly, it kind of works!)
The military wants to stage a rescue of the President's daughter Norma, but there's a hitch: the Demi-Mondians have started wondering about the random soldiers who show up now and then (in the Demi-Monde, Aleister Crowley has invited a pseudo-science that says real world humans are demons from another realm) and have sealed off entrances to the Demi-Monde. (I will admit I still have some serious fuzziness on how a computer game can 'stop' people from entering the game, but whatever.) So the military has to 'trick' the Demi-Monde into accepting their hero, an 18-year old high school jazz singer named Ella.
Thankfully, Ella is as ignorant as we of the Demi-Monde, so the first few chapters explain all the world-building around the Demi-Monde, like why the world is centered around Victorian-era techonology(allegedly to replicate the kind of circumstances that US troops face when storming foreign locales), why it feels so real, who some of the factions are, that kind of thing.
And here's where I get to some of the things that didn't work for me in this book, starting with Ella. For all this creative, elaborate world-building, the three lead female characters all super flat and dependent on static shorthand. Ella is a gorgeous, tough, sassy woman of color -- which is exciting -- but her main survival skill seems to be being too gorgeous for the villains to mess with. Her off-the-charts intelligence isn't reflected; in fact, she has a frightening lack of basic knowledge. Our imperious 'British' Demi-Mondian, Trixiebelle Dashwood, who flouts convention in the search for what she wants, remains just that, foot-stompy and head tossing, straight out of a romance novel. Norma, the President's daughter, alternates between being remarkably tough and annoyingly pathetic.
After the heroines, I struggled with Rees' exaggerated Demi-Mondian cultures. One faction, 'The Coven', is basically an extreme man-hating-lesbian-feminist cult. As a lesbian and a feminist who doesn't hate men, it is one of my pet peeves when feminism and lesbians are twisted into this horrible caricature. Not that he singles out feminists and lesbians for this treatment: the Abrahamic traditions are twisted into an extreme anti-woman patriarchy, the Germanic/Tuetonic cultures are smashed into a crazy Nazi/Occult potpourri, the European joie de vivre and bohemianism of the 19th century has mutated into a hedonistic sex party. Subtlety isn't the thing 'round these parts. When I could get past my irritation, or, grew so accustomed that I no longer was bothered, I got lost in the very messed up world of the Demi-Monde.
The end has a serious cliff-hanger, so I'm kind of eager for the next book, but at the same time, I really wish this wasn't a four book series. I'm exhausted by the Demi-Monde and Rees' use of random capitalization and acronyms -- I would probably take more time between books were I not scheduled to review the second book. (Speaking of the second book, I was super confused about the books as there seem to be multiple editions of these novels under varying names, but I think this book, the first, also goes by The Demi-Monde: Winter while the second book, The Shadow Wars, also goes by The Demi-Monde: Spring. I believe the third book has been released in the UK as The Demi-Monde: Summer but I haven't seen what the US release will be titled.)
If you like dystopias, this is your book: it is a dystopia of dystopias. If you like Tron or The Matrix and big chunksters, this also is your book.(less)
First, see my review of the first book in this series -- I semi-exhaustively (it felt) recapped the premise of this world.
This is the second book in R...moreFirst, see my review of the first book in this series -- I semi-exhaustively (it felt) recapped the premise of this world.
This is the second book in Rees' four-book series exploring the virtual world of the Demi-Monde, a computer model filled with 30 million historical figures who are self-learning, free-thinking, and self-governing. Initially designed to train US military in aggressive warfare, the real reasons for the programs design comes clearer in this book, and there's an insidious religio-political plot to make Dan Brown jealous.
As with the first book, the world of Demi-Monde is the star and Rees' is unstinting in his time spent there, with the people, the places, the philosophies of the Demi-Monde (for good and for bad). However, if pressed, I'd say there was a smidgen less emphasis on the world as much of this novel's plot revolved around the real world / Demi-Monde divide (or lack thereof).
The story still has a fairly tight focus on characters, so despite the million side players who show up, I felt I understood what was going on. I had some of the same problems with this one as with the first one: when I'm not frustrated by the caricatures and stereotypical exaggerations, I'm caught up in the drama -- its like Les Mis meets any WWII resistance film with a dash of government conspiracy. Rees makes these disparate styles work in his world and it is a fun, escapist mish-mosh.
Still, Rees' exaggerated world and focus on Super Nazi Heydrich's Final Solution as a plot means lots of racism and sexism. But he's also set up one of his three female leads as the messiah, so, pretty amazing. I'm really torn!
I found Rees' writing very readable - quite cinematic, very action packed - but I really could go without the PoMo caps. (Given that the computer characters have independent thought - enough to form religions, philosophies, and scientific communities - one would imagine that linguistically, they'd drop the random caps esp since they love corrupting words, ie jouissance as JuiceSense, etc.) As with some of his characterizations, he's uneven.
Definitely not a standalone novel - start with the first book to get your feet solidly on the ground. I'm stunned there are to be two more books - clocking at more 400 pages each, rees has a huge canvas to paint his cyber-steampunk epic. I'm daunted at the idea of two more but I'll be getting the third book!
As I said in my review of the first book, fans of Tron or The Matrix will like this series as well as anyone who loves a dark dystopia. I think Rees is trying for the kind of punk fantasy saga of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy -- an examination of religion, philosophy, sex, identity, oppression -- so those who enjoy that kind of adventurous fiction should give this series a go!(less)
This is another juicy slice of historical awesomeness from Stephanie Dray. I've fallen hard for Dray's Cleopatra's Daughter series, a kind of magical...moreThis is another juicy slice of historical awesomeness from Stephanie Dray. I've fallen hard for Dray's Cleopatra's Daughter series, a kind of magical historical trilogy that is dark, unapologetic, epic, and fun. So when I saw this short story, I did grabby hands and got started.
I know nothing of the historical Arsinoe II, but being aware of Dray's dedication to historical accuracy, I sat back and let the story unfold.
Arsinoe is one of the pharaoh's daughters, sweet and eager to be loved, teased mercilessly by her older, ambitious half-sister. When contracted into marriage to the King of Thrace, she finds some measure of happiness in her new home among her friendly in-laws. But good things rarely happen to royalty, and Arsinoe has some pretty awful things happen.
This is a short story -- which was too bad because I seriously wanted more! This story is more straight-up historical (rather than magical historical or historical fantasy), for those who care, and is a great intro to Stephanie Dray if you're new to her. (less)
I just loved this book. Loved, loved, loved. It was flippant and fun, total escapism, with a minxy heroine I adored from the first page, a long list o...moreI just loved this book. Loved, loved, loved. It was flippant and fun, total escapism, with a minxy heroine I adored from the first page, a long list of exotic locales to divert, and piles of dramatic intrigue to keep me engaged.
Set in the late 1880s through 1910s, the story follows May Dugas, a small town Michigan girl with a foxy figure, clever mind, and an impatience with ordinary life. Told in first person, May's 'voice' is sophisticated, wily, artificially innocent, glib.
The novel opens in 1917, with May on trial, accused of swindling more than $50,000 from a former friend, Miss Frank Shaver. Returned to her childhood hometown of Menominee, Michigan, May has been dubbed by the Pinkertons as 'the most dangerous woman in America'. (And without having murdered a soul!) Notorious, rich, and titled (she's a baroness now!), May tells the reader the truth of how she came to that point. (I didn't put truth in quotes because I've decided she's sharing the truth -- I'm like her innumerable suitors, smitten past the point of reason!)
May reminded me of Lola Montez, another notorious adventuress with lovers and scandals trailing behind her like the train on her dress. May's story strains credulity until you remember, like Ms. Montez, May was a real woman. Biaggio does a wonderful job of making May's escapades seem feasible, albeit excessive, and I was with her every ill-timed, poorly-conceived, and ambitiously bold step of the way.
The other characters in the book -- especially the men -- are rather flat (and I don't think that's a bad thing!), but that's to be expected with May. She's the star of her own story, and with good reason: men are drawn to her for same reasons we are. Biaggio balances May's self-centered ruminations, justifications, and pep talks with lovely tidbits and details about the era, setting, clothes, and mores. (Biaggio doesn't stint on describing May's flashy jewels and I could practically see them winking at me from between the lines.)
The novel alternates with the trial and May's account of her life. I will say, I've recently tired of dual story lines, especially when they break up the flow and action of the story, but in this case, I actually enjoyed the two timelines. Both lines are fascinating, and thankfully Biaggio ends each chapter neatly, with no wild cliffhangers -- which means I can go into the new chapter relatively relaxed. (Relatively, as overall, I couldn't stop mentally screaming, 'So how does it all end for May?!')
I think this would make a wonderful audiobook due to the first-person narration and May's lively tone. (Although having just listened to sample of it, I might take this claim back. I found the narrator a bit flat.) Despite May's sexual prowess, this book is light on tawdry details, so no need to worry about detailed or flowery descriptions of her and her lovers. In the end, this was a straight up enjoyable novel -- the kind of book that sucked me in, made me miss my subway stops, and had me reading as I walked up the sidewalk home. If you like your hist fic with a hint of grandeur and a heavy dollop of drama, consider this!(less)
I'm no fan of the Tudors but having enjoyed Bogdan's previous novel, I decided to give this one -- with its focus on Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry V...moreI'm no fan of the Tudors but having enjoyed Bogdan's previous novel, I decided to give this one -- with its focus on Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII -- a go, and I'm glad.
This is a wonderfully readable hist fic that hits the elements of what I like in a read: historical ambiance that feels real, a main character I like, historical relationships articulated in a way that seems believable, and enough drama and emotion to make me care.
The Margaret of this novel is Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII. Raised by her father Henry VII to embrace her God-given sovereignty, she is a girl who wants love after so much loss -- her brother Arthur, her mother, her other siblings who died as infants.
Margaret is married at 13 to James IV, King of Scotland, told to keep peace between the two kingdoms. Her new husband is 30, an experienced lover of women, and father to five bastards. Margaret drowns herself in fripperies and fetes, basking in her husband's sweet attentions. But tragedy strikes -- thanks to her brother, Henry, now king -- and suddenly the sweet girl yearning for love finds herself struggling for so much more. Her infant son is crowned King and she risks losing her position as regent if she marries. And yet, on her mind, always, is the desire to be loved for herself, and that motivates her decisions as much as her passion to defend her son's birthright.
Bogdan handled well the historical issues that always give me the squicks, like 13-year old brides, and I liked her characterizations. (I'm not a Henry VIII fan so that he shows up like a jerk in this book is fine with me.) I was taken with Margaret, who could potentially be cloying to some readers: she's so desperately needy for love, she'll take affection at any turn, and hungers for it in almost all her interactions. (It means she also makes some frustrating life choices.)
In her author's note, Bogdan expressly states this novel is "a dramatic interpretation meant to entertain". As I'm not wedded to this era, that was just fine for me, and I was deeply entertained by this book. Moved, amused, saddened, gladdened, this was a quick read of a less-known royal that I enjoyed. Very much worth breaking my Tudor ban! (less)
I love a good mystery series for the mix of new and familiar: the return to characters I know and enjoy, settings and eras that are appealing and made...moreI love a good mystery series for the mix of new and familiar: the return to characters I know and enjoy, settings and eras that are appealing and made different with new crimes, perhaps new tidbits about my beloved detectives and crime stoppers. Nicola Upson's series featuring 1930s mystery novelist Josephine Tey is a new favorite -- in 2011, I reviewed Two For Sorrow, and was taken with Tey, Upson's lovely writing style, and the dark moodiness of the locale and crime.
(A note about the heroine: Josephine Tey is a real-life author of mystery novels from the 1930s. Tey is the pseudonym for Elizabeth Mackintosh, a very mysterious and shadowy writer. I don't know if Upson's articulation of Tey is meant to be a reflection of Mackintosh or if she's styling her Tey as a person independent of Mackintosh, so if you're me, try not to assume Tey's sapphic inclinations are historical fact.)
The setting of this book is almost the polar opposite of Two For Sorrow -- a sunshine-y resort in Wales, Hitchock and movies, the golden glitz of birthdays and celebrities -- and yet, underneath is the same dark sadness, moodiness, and bittersweet mix of loss and longing I found so appealing.
That sense of bittersweet loss was evident from the first page, in 1954, when we learn our heroine, Josephine Tey, is dead. (I was so stunned I reread this page about a dozen times before deciding to trust Upson and see what was going on.) Tey's friend, Detective Archie Penrose, has been asked to consult on a series of murders in Hollywood that might be connected to a series of murders from 1936. The connection: both happened on Alfred Hitchcock's film sets and were possibly committed by the same person -- despite the fact the 1936s murders were considered solved.
Upson takes us back to that summer. Tey, celebrating her 40th birthday, is considering selling her newest mystery to Hitchcock, and is vacationing at Portmeirion, a planned resort on the coast of Wales. Archie has joined her as well as a coterie of friends and acquaintances, including a woman for whom she has complicated emotional feelings. Hitchcock and his wife Alma are staying there as well, with a gaggle of actors and film crew, observed by the locals who work and live around the resort. Quickly, things turn tense: Hitchcock is a cruel practical joker and a prank of his goes to far; a murder victim turns up and quickly the mood on the resort turns from nervous and excited to anxious and angry. Tey struggles with her romantic feelings for a woman -- and all that implies -- while Archie finds his own romance.
The feel of this story is a bit of 1950s Hollywood noir meets Agatha Christie's closed room English murder mysteries. (Perhaps even reminiscent of Tey's novels but I've never read them.) While I can't wholly endorse this one as a standalone I do think those who are interested in Hitchcock will enjoy this one and could read it outside of the series. Upson has done personal interviews with those who knew Hitchcock and this novel is full of gossip-y tidbits about what the man was like, his gifted wife Alma Reville, and what on-set life was like with the famed director. The insight into the British film industry in the 1930s was also fascinating. Upson shifts from character to character which is both fun -- you see the whole story unfold -- but also slightly maddening, as I wanted very much to just settle down with Tey and know exactly what she's thinking and feeling!
I finished this one quickly -- it reads fast -- and I will admit to being panicked that this was the last Tey novel Upson had planned. Thankfully, her website says one will be coming out at the end of this summer. (Whew!) I know there are many novels set during this era, but what I enjoy about Upson's series is her heroine -- this smart, chic, pragmatic author -- and the setting -- the eve of World War II, in a way, Britain in the years leading up to the war. There's a mix of glamor and grit I find appealing and as I mentioned before, a lingering sort of melancholy I can't resist.
(Also, this book introduced me to HarperCollins' new mystery imprint, Bourbon Street Books. They'll be re-iussing the Lord Peter Wimsey books by Dorothy L. Sayers!)(less)
So, I went into this knowing it was a Tudor book (featuring Elizabeth), but so many people swear by Byrd's novels I decided to give it a go. What I di...moreSo, I went into this knowing it was a Tudor book (featuring Elizabeth), but so many people swear by Byrd's novels I decided to give it a go. What I didn't realize until I got my galley was that this is a Howard Book release. (Howard Books is Simon & Schuster's faith-based imprint and belongs to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.) So I must confess I was immediately apprehensive, being not Christian and not inclined toward inspirational fiction.
My apprehension was unnecessary.
I had a great time with this book -- it read fast, was plotty, well-written, and just the diversion I needed. I'm definitely a Sandra Byrd fan right now and will have to be less snobbish about some inspirational fiction!
Byrd tells the story of Elizabeth I's court through the eyes of a Swedish courtier, Elin von Snakenborg, who later becomes Helena, Marchioness of Northampton, the highest ranked woman in England after the Queen. At seventeen, Elin leaves Sweden aware that her charismatic sister and her fiance are liking having a fling, and spends the next ten months -- ten months! -- sailing to get to England. Upon arriving in England, Elin's only friend is William Parr, 1st Marquess of Northampton, an older widower who is taken with her. Hungry for family, chilled by the English courtiers, Elin's situation changes when she's allowed to stay in England to wed Parr after the Swedish delegation departs. But once her countrymen are gone, she learns the widower Parr isn't marriageable: his first wife still lives, and the courts can't decide if his marriage is legal or not.
Resolute -- more resolute that I would have been! -- Elin adopts a more English name, Helena, and uses her skills in herbal medicine to impress Elizabeth. As she slowly gains Elizabeth's friendship, Elin finally marries but learns what the spark of true passion is like. She's witness to the greatest upheavals and personalities in Elizabeth's court, and is even party to one or two scandals.
Even though this is a novel of court life, Elin's less ambitious nature made her a comfortable guide for me. Observant, loyal, and well-placed (no need for intrigue and shenanigans!), Elin could have been just a little too perfect but came off rather darling, and I admit, I was smitten. Byrd's Elizabeth is shown in her complicated glory, mercurial and moody, and court life exhilarating and exhausting.
Faith and religion certainly showed up in this story, but the context and use of it in the story fit. Religion, and the state of one's soul, was certainly on everyone's minds during this time, and the appearance of prayers and Bible snippets felt appropriate, in character, and unobtrusive. The theme of faith -- having faith in one's family, especially -- was echoed throughout the story, both in Elin's personal life as well as Elizabeth's.
There's no sex in this book (unless lightly mentioned among married folk) so it could be a 'clean' novel but that certainly didn't diminish any excitement in the story nor take away from the romance. (If you've got a young or teen reader chomping at the bit to read 'adult' historical novels, consider this one.)
There are tons of extras in this one: pages of family trees to help with lineages and familial connections, a meaty Afterword where Byrd shares what is historical, conjecture, and her own invention, a reading group guide, and a wonderful interview with her.
Recommended for Tudor fans as Elin's story is fascinating and almost unbelievable; for those who might be Tudor'd out, consider this one if you a novel that touches on that world of religion and intrigue without getting mired in it. (less)
I loved everything about this book. The plot, the places, the people (oh, the people!), the mood, the drama -- everything. I'm not even sure where to...moreI loved everything about this book. The plot, the places, the people (oh, the people!), the mood, the drama -- everything. I'm not even sure where to start with this gush-fest!
Blackadder's novel grew out of her research into her surname, and while normally family-inspired novels give me the gibblies, in this case, we all win. The historical Blackadders have a story straight out of an opera or Gothic tale: widow violently married off to a vicious noble, evil stepfather marries her daughters to his brothers, and subsequent Blackadders are all murdered before they can foment rebellion against him. In this climate, surviving Blackadder William is re-invented as a merchant sea captain and his daughter Alison -- the Blackadder heir -- is transformed into his nephew, Robert Blackadder.
The novel opens in 1561, with Alison-as-Robert on the ship that is bringing Mary Stuart aka Mary, Queen of Scots, to Scotland. Although Alison has grown used to living life as a boy, her father believes they can better push their cause if Alison becomes one of Mary's ladies-in-waiting, and Alison finds herself away from the comfortable identity (and clothes) she's familiar with and struggling to embody a sophisticated lady at court.
What could be a simple story of a girl-who-dresses-like-a-boy shenanigans -- a little sapphic longing, lots of court drama -- is actually a rather meaty, dense, and evocative historical novel of Mary Stuart's court and a woman's confusing place in it. When Alison's skill at passing for a boy is discovered, it becomes her greatest asset and one that grants her unusual access and power -- and of course, increased danger. While Alison's father is driven to reclaim Blackadder Castle, Alison finds herself more drawn to her Robert persona and all it entails -- right down to romance with women.
Blackadder (the author) created a fantastic main character in Alison/Robert -- I was there, from the first page to the last -- and I fell in love with the world she evoked. Royal court hist fic is not a favorite of mine, but through Alison/Robert, the reader sees a more robust view of 16th century Scotland -- the court and the life of the non-nobles. Being unfamiliar with this era, I can't say how accurate the events are represented, but in terms of pacing, narrative arc, and character development, I was immersed. I didn't want this book to end.(less)
In classic 'it's-me-not-you', I just didn't quite get into this book. It's chock full of historical intrigue, some solid personalities, great sense of...moreIn classic 'it's-me-not-you', I just didn't quite get into this book. It's chock full of historical intrigue, some solid personalities, great sense of place, and a twisty plot that takes in politics, art, loyalty, and the Ottoman Turks -- but it and I didn't click for some reason.
Set in 1480, the story follows Guid'Antonio Vespucci and his nephew, Amerigo Vespucci (yeah, that one), as they return to Florence from a two year ambassadorship to France. Things in Florence are, to put it bluntly, not good: the Pope is gunning for Lorenzo de' Medici, who is the sort of unofficial head of Florence; a local beauty was allegedly kidnapped by roving Turks; a painting of the Virgin Mary has started crying; and Guid'Antonio's personal life is kind of a mess. Guid'Antonio is deeply loyal to Lorenzo de' Medici, even if most of the townspeople and even his own family are turning against the man. The city is in the grip of a famine, and the common people are getting angry. Lorenzo is being blamed for everything from the famine to the weeping painting, and Guid'Antonio is determined to clear Lorenzo's name.
For those who think historical fiction is just romance with corsets, White's novel will correct your misunderstanding. There's no romance to speak of, unless you count our hero's love for Florence and his patron/friend, Lorenzo de' Medici. (And by love, I'm being cutesy, there is no homoerotic longing happening.) In this novel, there's a metric ton of political machinations so those who enjoy political thrillers might like this unique take on corrupt politicians and dark, decadent, decaying urban locales.
I yearned for a cast list for this book, confusing my Antonio with my Amerigo, my Giuliano with my Giovanni. Cousins, brothers, kinsmen a-plenty. It took me a good ninety pages or so to really get into the story -- White crams a lot into the opening chapters to establish the setting of her story -- and other than Guid'Antonio, the rest of the characters aren't immediately notable. Guid'Antonio, however, was immensely interesting. He's complicated, to say the least: a bit cranky, obstinately loyal (to Lorenzo de' Medici, at least), dogged, lonely, confused.
I can't put my finger on my why I wasn't sucked into this book, but it wasn't for lack of trying on White's part. I plan to revisit this one in the future, perhaps when I'm less mushy-brained from winter. For those who like armchair escape, solid mysteries, and political intrigue -- this is your book! (less)
Lola Montez was a 19th-century adventuress who started in the UK, traveled all over Europe -- at one point, as the mistress to a King! -- then Austral...moreLola Montez was a 19th-century adventuress who started in the UK, traveled all over Europe -- at one point, as the mistress to a King! -- then Australia and the US. She was known for a scandalous dance of her own invention, her romantic escapades, and her liberal use of a whip.
In this novel, Brennan imagines the year when Eliza Rosanna Gilbert transformed herself into Lola Montez (what actually happened is fuzzy, so Brennan takes liberties, which she acknowledges in her Afterward).
In 1842, Rosanna -- as she prefers to be called -- is facing a divorce trial from her husband on grounds of infidelity (on her side, scandalously). Virtually penniless, she finds herself a patron, of sorts, and decides to take acting lessons, where she is introduced to Juan de Grimaldi, a dance master for the Spanish court.
The novel is written in Lola's voice, and like her life, the prose is breathless, dramatic, punctuated with exclamation points and a variety of oaths, curses, and wails. I found it playful ('“¡Fabulosa!” he’d squeak, and “¡Deliciosa!” I’d gasp back.', p26) and dramatically emotive as Lola punctuates her story with commentary and coy asides.
While reading, I was reminded a bit of Kage Baker and Carol K. Carr, with the mix of banter, snark, and history. There's a very earthy sense of sex and sexuality here -- not explicit, but obvious, if that makes sense -- and I found it hilariously fun. There's a sense of heaving bosoms here, but not because Lola's met her One True Love -- no, Lola is on the run, working her wiles, and trying to come out on top.
I'm super excited for the sequel -- Whip Smart: Lola Montez and the Poisoned Nom de Plume -- because Brennan's Lola is a trip. (less)
Given the Downton Abbey craze, I was apprehensive about this trilogy: was it any good or just a marketing ploy to cash in while DA is hot?
Thankfully,...moreGiven the Downton Abbey craze, I was apprehensive about this trilogy: was it any good or just a marketing ploy to cash in while DA is hot?
Thankfully, happily, awesomely, this book is good. Great. Another meaty hist fic that satisfies. This review, however, is probably going to be a hot mess, because how do I describe what is contained in these 500+ pages without just squeeing stupidly? Here goes:
The novel follows a few families and tangential individuals from 1914 through 1920, and at first, the enormous cast was be a bit overwhelming. There are the rich, titled, old money families, the wealthy trade families who are trying to gain their own social standing, the working class, the serving class, and everything in between.
As a result, this book is massive, in size, cast, and scope. Still, I loved every frickin' page. It's the kind of epic book I love to snuggle up with and devour over a weekend, and devour I did -- I was sneaking reads as often as I can. (I recommend not putting this down for any length of time -- given the size of the cast, it could be very easy to forget who is who.)
Opening at the beautiful, bucolic country estate of Abingdon Pryory, the reader basks in the refined dramas of the titled rich -- marriages, love affairs, training house hold staff -- before widening to incorporate a wider lens. As the residents of Abingdon Pryory move to London for the season, we meet the educated tradesmen, American relatives, reporters, and politicians. Then war strikes and everything changes.
Rock's writing style reminded me of the 'classic' historical fiction I love. There's a little romance -- some vague intimations of sex among the younger set -- and a leeetle bit of philosophic ruminations on war and violence. As this was originally written in the late 1970s, Rock has some distance from the era to insert a little sharp and wry commentary and observation. Early on, for example, one of his characters muses about the inequality of marrying American heiress made rich from trade while an Englishwoman with a successful merchant father is completely out of the picture. It's a darkly funny moment and this novel is punctuated with that -- the hypocrisy and beauty of the pre-World War I era.
Rock's characters do change and shift and I liked them, all of them. Some are selfish, some are jerks, some are badly behaved -- but I found all of them to be real and settled in their 'place' -- even as their place shifted as time went on. (Rock conveys that shift so very well -- when one of the titled rich girls seeks out her former maid, now a nurse, their interaction is painful and striking.)
If you like family sagas, this is your book -- while I normally bristle now at sequels, I am bouncing with excitement for the second book. I don't want to leave these people yet. (less)
Between Lincoln the movie and last year's (or was it 2010's?) Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and my complete lack of professional know-how on publis...moreBetween Lincoln the movie and last year's (or was it 2010's?) Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and my complete lack of professional know-how on publishing and media trends, I'm predicting Lincoln-mania for the next year.
Set in 1865, the novel opens quite dramatically: DC police detective Temple McFadden witnesses a murder at the B&O railroad station and rescues two diaries. Before he has a chance to investigate what the materials contain, he's shot at and pursued and finds himself wanted by numerous groups. Quickly he and his merry band -- his doctor wife Fiona and his bestie, freed slave Augustus -- have to dodge Pinkertons (the agents and Mr Pinkerton himself) as well as conspirators and cover-up-ers as they untangle the dramatic conspiracy they've landed in. At the center of the mystery is Lincoln's assassination and the far-reaching implications of it.
From the start, I was immediately taken with Temple McFadden and his wife Fiona -- although more with his wife -- as I found them vibrant and real. Temple is an Irish immigrant, an orphan adopted as a child and brought to the US, who has his own demons, scars, and strengths, and while he comes off at times as a bit of a uber-hero, he also felt wonderfully human in his foibles. Fiona, with her medical training, should be a doctor on her own but is treated instead as simply a nurse and assistant -- which she bristles at. I feared she'd turn into an anachronistically feminist heroine but she remained anchored in late 19th century reform and post-war societal shifts. I liked her and her marriage to Temple; they held the story together for me and made me care.
This book evoked a wonderful sense of place -- I felt like I saw mid-19th century D.C. vibrantly, and that might be my favorite aspect of the novel. Antebellum DC is not a place/era I'm familiar with, and I really loved the dirty, grimy, rural and urban center O'Brien evoked. It's obvious O'Brien has done an immense amount of research into the time, which can be felt in the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink narrative that was, now and then, a little too detailed.
I'm not super familiar with this era, so I can't say how accurate O'Brien's history or conclusions are, but one blogger felt this was a bit revisionist/alterna-historical at times, so sticklers might not be so wild about this.
If I'm right about a new era of Lincoln-themed fiction, this novel is a good start to the trend: meaty, imaginative, loaded with detail and ambiance. (less)
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of my all-time favorite places on the planet. It's this funky, twisty, non-traditional art museum, where pi...moreThe Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of my all-time favorite places on the planet. It's this funky, twisty, non-traditional art museum, where pieces crowd the walls in a random mish-mosh, without placards, placed there by Isabella herself. In 1990, thirteen pieces of art were stolen from the museum in what is now the largest unsolved art heist in history. Beautifully and chillingly, the museum has the empty frames still hanging on the walls.
Shaprio's novel merges that historical fact with her own imaginings about one of the 'missing' pieces of art (she creates a fictional Degas painting to use at the center of this story). Claire Roth is a Boston-based painter shadowed by scandal, snubbed by the art scene. Unable to sell her original art, she instead creates high quality reproductions of classic art for an online company, and while it pays her rent, the work depresses her. Aiden Markel, a well-known Boston art dealer and an acquaintance familiar with her past, appears one day with a stunning offer: make a reproduction of one of the stolen Gardner Degas paintings to earn a one-woman show at his gallery. The original painting, he promises, will be returned to the Gardner Museum as well.
Understandably torn, Claire eventually agrees but finds herself doubting the authenticity of the Degas in her studio. Her research on the painting leads her to learn a shocking amount about art forgeries, including the theory that many 'originals' gracing museum walls might be forgeries themselves.
Lest you think I'm giving away the entire book, that chunk of plot all occurs in the first 70 pages. What happens when Claire finishes the painting is where the book gets thrilling, although that isn't to say everything before it isn't enjoyable. I loved learning about the world of forgeries, the legality of reproductions,
Interspersed between Claire's story -- now and three years earlier, during her infamous scandal -- is a one-sided correspondence from Isabella Stewart Gardner to her (fictional) niece. I admit, I groaned when I hit the first letter. At the moment, I'm so over that sort of dual story line as it seems to inevitably end with the heroine being the great-great-great something of one of the historical figures. However, despite my initial irritation, the letters weren't as jarring as I anticipated and they did, in fact, offer a way to show the 'truth' of the story that wouldn't have been possible. Happily, Claire isn't the great great etc of anyone, either.
Although this is described as a literary thriller, I found it to be far less nail biting than Jennifer McMahon, for example, which is fine by me. It was still exciting and interesting. I don't think you necessarily need to be an art fan to appreciate the story -- Shapiro shares enough about how art is made and the visceral sensations associated with making art and art products to give the reader a sense of being there. A fascinating, fun read -- and a wonderful introduction to a historical figure I admire and a place I adore.(less)
It is 1934 in Cascade, Massachusetts, a small town in the western part of the state. Picturesque, bucolic, it was once a thriving summer vacation spot...moreIt is 1934 in Cascade, Massachusetts, a small town in the western part of the state. Picturesque, bucolic, it was once a thriving summer vacation spot, with a gorgeous Shakespearean theater managed by the big-hearted, passionate William Hart. Then the crash happened, the Depression hit, and like everywhere in the U.S., Cascade started going through hard times.
For Desdemona Hart Spaulding, talented daughter of William, her sacrifice to survive came in exchange for her happiness. An artist who trained in Boston and New York City, she married Cascade-native Asa Spaulding, a mild pharmacist who wanted nothing more than to settle down and have many babies. Dez, afraid for her ailing father and his now-shuttered theater, married in hopes of saving what she could -- her remaining family -- only to lose that two months later. Against that bitter loss came additional heartbreak: that Cascade was in competition with another small town to be leveled for a reservoir. Just when things couldn't possibly make Dez's life more agonizing, she meets Jacob Solomon, a Jewish artist who evokes in her deep passion and reminds her of the life she once thought she'd live.
This is the novel's opening -- we learn all this in the first few chapters. This gutting, beautiful, emotional setting spills into a story far more complicated and rich than I initially thought. I anticipated a historical novel with a love triangle; and there is that, the history, and the triangle, but there's more, too. There's the conflict of obligation to one's self, one's family, one's reputation, one's hometown; the very real march of progress and of war. In small town Cascade, one's reputation is a major currency, and Dez, Asa, and Jacob all feel the brunt of their town's changing and shifting opinion of them.
There's tragedy and betrayal and romance on a Shakespearean scale, and Dez is a complicated, maddening, honorable, childish, and beautiful heroine. I liked her and felt angry with her in equal part, but O'Hara wrote Dez so well that even when I wanted to shake her, I still wanted to hug her. I appreciated where her choices came from; I felt like I really knew her.
This is a historical novel of place -- a small-town during the Depression, a beloved landmark in danger of destruction -- and a romance -- star-crossed lovers -- as well as a snapshot of wartime America in the '30s and '40s -- national prejudices, fears, patriotism, the New Deal. O'Hara's writing is beautiful -- simple and sparse, but not thin -- and I lingered over this novel because I was so unwilling for it to end. This is O'Hara's first novel and it has ensured I am going to be a slavish fangirl of hers.(less)
I fell in love with Melanie Benjamin's first novel, Alice I Have Been -- it was emotional and a bit raw, it made human this nearly mythological figur...more I fell in love with Melanie Benjamin's first novel, Alice I Have Been -- it was emotional and a bit raw, it made human this nearly mythological figure (Alice Liddell) -- and so I have been a slavish fangirl since. Which is why, as I'm no Lindbergh fan, I still went into this book with some excitement, curious about how Benjamin would handle Lindbergh's politics and later-in-life choices.
If you don't know much about Charles Lindbergh beyond his famous flight on The Spirit of Saint Louis, that won't be an impediment here. You can learn about him in much the same way his wife Anne Morrow did, by simply spending some time with him.
The novel opens in the 1970s, with Anne facing her dying husband and the proof of his last selfish acts. As she struggles to make peace with with the man, the story flashes back to their marriage, beginning in 1927 when Anne met Charles.
Anne Morrow was the daughter of an American banker who later became an ambassador. A student at Smith -- like her sister, like her mother -- Anne was the mousy, quiet, invisible Morrow. Her older brother Dwight was the Morrow heir; her older sister Elizabeth was golden and clever. Her younger sister Con was the baby, all excitement and enthusiasm. But Anne seemed to offer nothing of note until her surprise engagement to famed aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Their marriage propelled Anne into a world of stardom and fame unseen, Benjamin suggests, until Princess Diana. Chased by the press and public alike, Charles and Anne had to dress in disguises to go out and hire security guards for their homes. Worse, perhaps, was their marriage, full of expectations as well. Charles challenged Anne to be his co-pilot and crew, and she became a licensed pilot and radio operator, breaking records on her own. Yet her fame really lay, of course, in her connection with Charles. Their marriage becomes seriously fractured in 1932 when their 20-month old baby was kidnapped, and to my surprise, Anne's story didn't stop there. (Forty more years of things happen, but I'm not going to summarize them -- you'll want to see how things shake out here.)
Benjamin is a star at biographical historical fiction. She wrestles with the historical record and evokes people who are real, who answer to the choices we know they made. And while I might be dubious of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and seriously judge her as a person, I feel like I got a glimpse of who she was -- and I couldn't shake her. (Although I suppose my only critique -- and this is totally emotional knee jerk stuff -- is that I thought Benjamin was too much of an apologist, voicing for Anne an acknowledgment of Charles' dangerous political beliefs even though, in her lifetime, she made no noise of dissent or disagreement.)
As with Alice I Have Been, I was struck by Benjamin's ability to convey the both the mores and societal attitudes of the time as well as critique of those expectations and behaviors without feeling anachronistic or didactic. (less)
I was, for some reason, unabashedly excited for this book the moment I learned about it. Even though I hadn't read any of the Tarzan novels (until las...moreI was, for some reason, unabashedly excited for this book the moment I learned about it. Even though I hadn't read any of the Tarzan novels (until last month), the idea of Jane's story, through her eyes, immediately grabbed imagination.
Briefly, this book and I got off to a rocky start. The novel's opening sentence -- Good Lord, she was magnificent! -- about our heroine Jane did not endear the book to me, I admit. (I hate it when authors are overly in love with their heroines.) When the character thinking about how awesome Jane was turned out to be none other than Edgar Rice Burroughs, I just about threw the book down.
Thankfully, I didn't, and around page 17, the story really started. Jane, sharing her tale with Ed Burroughs, begins in Africa, when she wakes up in a nest made by a gorgeous man of European descent, savage and wild. Flashing back to how she ended up in Africa, and her growing relationship with the man she comes to call Tarzan, we meet a woman striving to find her own identity, indulged and encouraged by a brilliant father, interested in science, anthropology, and evolution. A chance meeting with an American adventurer leads her and her father on an expedition into Africa which changes her entire life.
Maxwell hit all the right notes for me in evoking Jane as a Victorian 'New Woman' and I'm grateful she had Jane embrace that radical identity (rather than, say, have Jane be conservative but feisty, blah blah). In chewing over what Jane Porter might be like, I immediately thought of Mary Kingsley, and to my delight, Maxwell has Jane being a huge Kingsley fangirl. Jane is a woman of privilege who both relishes her privilege -- it gets her into Cambridge -- and bristles at it -- she loves to fight her mother about getting married. She's both curious about sex and dresses modestly (sans corset, of course!). She has contradictions, strengths, and shortcomings that felt authentic to me, and yet embodied the kind of larger-than-life ideal of the pulp world she came from.
This is a Burroughs estate authorized Tarzan novel, and I was a little nervous it might suffer from a sunny, cheesy tone but to my surprise (and relief), there is some darkness, an awareness of the thorny, problematic setting and mores of the era, and unabashed sensuality. (Jane's lingering, longing, lustful admiration of Tarzan's body was a bit lost on me, but I have friends who love cheesecake and I think they'll appreciate Jane's feelings.)
Unsure if I needed the background, last month I went ahead and read Burroughs' first Tarzan novel, which was a fine but not a favorite read for me. I will say I don't think you need to have read the Tarzan books to enjoy this one -- it very much is a standalone novel that is set in a universe familiar to many, but with new twists, angles, and arcs. It is both an homage to a pulp hero and mythos as well as an original historical novel.(less)
Thankfully, I don't mind when historical figures are wrangled into improbable fictions, and in this case, I loved watching Francis Bacon slum it and f...moreThankfully, I don't mind when historical figures are wrangled into improbable fictions, and in this case, I loved watching Francis Bacon slum it and fight crime in World War II London.
Bacon, a crazy surrealist modernist painter who totally creepies me out (warning: painting is wicked disturbing!), is the narrator of this quick, dirty, exciting murder mystery set in the 1940s. An asthmatic, Bacon was unfit for service and instead worked for the Air Raid Precautions (ARP), doing rounds in London during the Blitz, ensuring blackout conditions were observed. Those dark nights, when his duties were completed, he would indulge in a quick pickup at a local park with an anonymous man. Living with his beloved nanny -- near blind, but sharp as a tack -- Bacon was kept in painting supplies thanks to his married lover, a local alderman, with whom he ran an illegal roulette parlor now and then for extra cash.
Naturally inclined toward trouble with a strong disinterest in police, Bacon nonetheless finds himself forced to work with a local cop when he continues to stumble upon murdered men in his neighborhood. With the Blitz killing many indiscriminately, the pointed murders provoke additional fear in Bacon and his circle of acquaintances.
I don't know much about Bacon other than having a passing awareness of his art, so I can't say whether Law's articulation of him is accurate or irreverent. I loved him -- he was wry and self-deprecating, quick and clever and kind of sketchy, bold and dirty and observant -- and he was a fascinating narrator for a World War II/London Blitz murder mystery. Through Bacon, Law's writing is pretty and poignant, artistic without feeling contrived. I had something like ten pages of bookmarks for a 179-page story -- I couldn't stop noting lines I loved, like this one, from about midway, when Bacon helps a crew of men dig rubble off someone after one of the nightly bombings.
The dog dived toward the cavity newly opened in the mess of brick and timber before raising an eerie howl. Strange how effortlessly expressive animals are, while we hairless beasts must struggle over canvass and paints and the English language. (p73-74)
For those who care, there's lots of implied gay sex but nothing overt; still, I felt deliciously seedy while reading. I raced through this one and would have loved it if it were twice or three times the length; hell, I'd love it if this became a series. I so liked Bacon, that rascal, dapper and damaged. Whether 'accurate' to the historical figure or not, Law's Bacon is a character I already miss.(less)
It is no secret I loveIndia Black. This third full length adventure with India has the elements I adored from the first book and stokes my love for t...moreIt is no secret I loveIndia Black. This third full length adventure with India has the elements I adored from the first book and stokes my love for this dark-haired madam slash spy.
Our girl India is back in London after her stint in Scotland working undercover as a lady's maid. Just when boredom sets in, India is enlisted by Dizzy (aka Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister) to infiltrate an anarchist cell in London.
Her usual spy companion, French, is mysteriously assigned elsewhere (which elicited a big sigh from me -- oh, how I love that French!) and India is determined to show Dizzy and French that she can be spy extraordinaire without his help.
To get in with the anarchists, India lures a prostitute from another brothel, inspiring ire from her competing madam, and she has to juggle brothel feuds with convincing a group of paranoid anarchists that she's the real deal. Around all that, she tries to learn more about her mother and ascertain just what is going on with French. There's the usual delicious banter, bouncing action, and hint of romance that I adore.
In addition to the snark and antics I just love in Carr's novel, this book was a particular winner for me in that the story returned squarely to India and her profession. While I enjoyed the second novel, I thought that by sending India away from her brothel, it became easy to ignore her work-- and I was a little afraid India was going to be whitewashed. I shouldn't have worried: India is back in all her tawdry glory. While Carr doesn't delve into any salacious or sexy details, she also doesn't pretend India hasn't turned tricks herself. And I love that about India and Carr's articulation of her: there's no shame in India about what she does.
For India Black fans, this is a welcome volume featuring all that is fabulous in Carr's series: our deliciously lovely heroine, an action-filled mystery, a little romantic intrigue with a dashing government spy, witty banter, handguns and whiskey. If you're new to India Black, immediately get yourself the first book (named after our heroine) and read on to this one! (While Carr explains enough of books one and two for someone to follow along, you'll be happier with the twists if you've read the previous two!)
As with all of Carr's novels, the moment I'm done I'm dying for more, and this one was no exception. I'm just going to sigh away in a corner and await India's next adventure with bated breath.(less)