A Day of Fire is a collection of six interconnected stories set in Pompeii on the day Vesuvius blew up. The stories immerse us into a variety of stratA Day of Fire is a collection of six interconnected stories set in Pompeii on the day Vesuvius blew up. The stories immerse us into a variety of strata of Roman life in this iconic city. They build a rich palette of characters despite being in the format of short stories, and we genuinely care what happens to each of them: senators and other officials, whores, a pregnant lady of privilege, an insecure but appealing young man, and more than one determinedly independent woman.
Despite the setting, it’s not all gloom and doom—well, the gloom covers the sky for much of the book on a literal level, but there’s light in a metaphorical sense. Some characters survive and some don’t, and hence suspense builds with each story as we watch their choices and weigh the possibility of life for these three-dimensional souls we’ve gotten to know. I found myself trying to will certain characters into a speedy departure from Pompeii, but these are complex people, held or drawn back by love, duty and spirituality, as well as the expected fear. Some of the victims face their fates in a way that gives the collection a sense of hope and a positive outlook. Sometimes it’s raw courage found deep in the inner reserves when no one would have suspected its presence. Some characters responded to the challenges around them with transformative growth, even in the short time allotted. When that development happens with a character who lives on, the destruction gains a mitigating purpose for the reader. When such growth occurs just before death, the character is imbued with a dignity and sense of self worth in those final moments that lifts the reader out of a grim view to a powerful one. We, after all, are looking in from a world that continues unburied by ash and fire, and we want to believe that humans are hard-wired for positive metamorphosis. The stories explore the ethics of what we owe other human beings even at the risk of our lives. This is a universal idea that here is also played out against the decidedly Roman ideals of civic duty and family obligation. A Day of Fire also plumbs notions of ancient spirituality and what they offer as a promise of hope or optimism even in the grimmest of environments. These stories place us back in Roman times not only through their vivid and painstakingly accurate depiction of Pompeii’s physical setting and daily life but also through the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of that world.
A good writer makes lots of bad things happen to his or her characters. By that measure this is one knock-out book—but all those bad things do not add up to a depressing read. That’s skillful writing where meaning and excitement are interwoven. This is a talented group of writers, so I’m not surprised, but even with my premonitions of a good read, I was still delighted with how much fun this book was. You’re not supposed to enjoy disaster this much. A Day of Fire is a perfect read if you’d like to visit Pompeii on its last day but don’t want to get burned.
In this sensitive novel, MacDonald plumbs the emotional depths of human relationships under extreme tensions and stresses. She portrays a young familyIn this sensitive novel, MacDonald plumbs the emotional depths of human relationships under extreme tensions and stresses. She portrays a young family when the father is diagnosed with ALS just as his second son is born. The novel is told from the point of view of the wife’s mother. Grandma arrives to help with the birth of her second grandson only to discover a death sentence has been handed out to the father. Grandma is not without her baggage and challenges in her relationship with her daughter. Nothing here will be easy. ALS transforms some people’s personalities into extreme self-centeredness just as their bodies are freezing up and making them dependent on others. The young wife is a lawyer and she has to keep working this demanding job to pay the bills as well as take care of two kids and a helpless husband. You begin to see why this is a compelling tale of family dynamics under major trials.
There are layers to this subtle story. People do not act as you thought they might. Philosophic insights into that odd creature, humanity, flow naturally from crisp, involving dialogue and painful character choices. Imagery provides a sophisticated underlay of the action.
Whether you are facing the tragedy of ALS somewhere in your life or not, this novel will provide a rich, nuanced read. ...more
Penman’s epic novels about the lives of English royalty are much beloved by many—and with good reason. Penman’s most recent novel completes her cyclePenman’s epic novels about the lives of English royalty are much beloved by many—and with good reason. Penman’s most recent novel completes her cycle about Richard the Lionhearted, including both Lionheart and A King’s Ransom. Penman’s novels engage in a kind of alchemy that’s worth analyzing in a review because you won’t be aware of it while you’re in the midst of reading. That’s the point—she’s so good at it you won’t notice what she’s doing—you’ll be caught in the story. She does three things as a writer that ought to make the reader draw back or slow down, and yet, they don’t. In the hands of a less skillful writer these stylistic choices would, but the magic here works. Hence my claim that Penman is a kind of literary alchemist, turning the ordinary or even disastrous in most writers’ hands into something transformed and transforming.
So what are the three things? One is the length of her books. They are big. Don’t try to hold on with one hand while balancing A King’s Ransom over your cup of tea. You will drop the book. I’ll grant there are other historical writers who draw their readers through 650 pages without slowing down, but it is a relatively rare talent.
The second aspect of Penman’s style that should set off warning bells, but does not, is the amount of historical information she includes. You’ll get the complete story of Richard the Lionheart and you’ll enter into precise details of warfare, daily life, international political intrigue, personalities of all relevant persons both famous and less so, clothing, armor—pretty much everything. She even follows thru on historical tangents that are important but not central to the main tale. Writing historical fiction well is usually all about balance—including enough period detail to persuade your reader they are there, but not too much. I’ve never felt while reading Penman’s books that there was too much. But when I step back and break the spell she’s cast, it looks suspiciously like a lot of history. How does she get so much in without weighing down the tale? I wish I knew. It’s her special alchemy.
The third bit of alchemy is the most impressive to me. Her epic arcs of history require contributions from a wide range of narrators. The ordinary writer with many shifting points of view will be told the novel suffers from confusing “head-hopping.” Somehow Penman can glide her reader from one character’s viewpoint to another without any hitches even within one scene. When I read Penman’s first novel The Sunne in Splendour, I remember being forced to put it down in order to cook dinner. I was stirring something when it dawned on me, as my thinking shifted from reader to writer/analytical mode, that I couldn’t identify who was telling the novel. I grabbed the book and scanned the scenes I’d read. When I realized what she’d accomplished, I was awestruck—seamless shifts without any awareness on the reader’s part, with no sense of disorientation. It’s a style perfectly suited to her grand subject matter. We can delve into history through multiple minds and perspectives. Each feels intimate. Each persuades. I never wonder whose head I’m in; I always know. I honestly have no idea how she does it. As the warning in ads says, “Don’t try this at home.” Unless you’re an alchemist. ...more
It’s hard not to enjoy a good pirate yarn and Helen Hollick makes it especially easy with Sea Witch. Pirate lore and a large dose of magic from the seIt’s hard not to enjoy a good pirate yarn and Helen Hollick makes it especially easy with Sea Witch. Pirate lore and a large dose of magic from the sea witch of the title (and mystical appearances from Tethys, spirit of the oceans) put this series squarely in the fantastical range, so be sure you enjoy a leap onto the wild side before you pick up this book.
Once you’ve established that, this is a page-turning, entertaining read. Hollick builds in the details of pirate life both on ship and in port with a precision and depth that can only come from good historical research, but you won’t have time to notice this sturdy framework as her plot twists and surprises.
We get to know a three-dimensional young woman named Tiola just as she is cut adrift from her family and known world when her mother is suspected of being a witch and hanged for the murder of her husband. The irony, as Tiola points out, is that she is the witch, not her mother—a white witch with very handy medical skills that she eventually turns into a steady if modest income in her new surroundings. Through Tiola we watch the limitations on 18th century women—choose a loveless marriage to a rich man or try to make it alone in a world that assumes you can’t—with the piquant sauce of knowing that Tiola isn’t the helpless lass she appears to be.
The hero, Jesamiah Acorne, has a similar origin tale in the sense that he also as teenager was thrown out to make his life without family or financial support—despite his upper class start. Generally speaking, men of the 18th century had an easier time making a living than women, but then Jesamiah doesn’t have any otherworldly powers, so Tiola may not have to fight as hard as he does. What he does exploit are his natural talents for strategy, reckless courage and his dead father’s connections to the pirate world. By the time his path crosses Tiola’s (that he can remember, anyway), he is an accomplished pirate captain, perpetually in trouble, but as free as can be. Well, mostly. Prison and pirating do seem to collide at times.
These parallel stories of young people making it alone and turning themselves into the adults of their choice give this spicy tale a pleasing resonance that goes beyond “just a good story.” That they face such daunting enemies keeps the excitement high throughout. Their love story is charming and full of humor as well as sexual allure.
Nothing happens quite how you expect in this book, which is certainly how I like my books, unpredictable and fun.
Flirtations of the most dangerous and serious sort entangle Frances Stuart first in the court of Louis XIV and then in the Restoration court of CharleFlirtations of the most dangerous and serious sort entangle Frances Stuart first in the court of Louis XIV and then in the Restoration court of Charles II. Despite the luscious gowns and extravagant jewels she wins for herself, we don’t envy her the high-wire balancing act she must maintain as she tries to win first one king’s influence and then another, while concealing the tragic secrets that would destroy her family and herself. That she manages to hold onto her virginity and her dignity for much of this engaging book while obeying the selfish commands of various powerful women and men is a testament to the inner strength and resiliency of Frances Stuart, the famous mistress of Charles II. This remarkable woman carries the book—we deeply want her to find happiness and an identity that will allow her to remain true to herself. The first step that she must accomplish is to understand her own nature and sense of purpose. That isn’t easy in the treacherous seas of the courts she grows up in, nor is it easy to find when everyone who should love and protect her is out to use her. Frances carries the weight of her mother’s and siblings’ futures as well as her own. This is a book about an admirable woman in morally ambiguous circumstances where the price of failing at any one moment can destroy a family or a country. That’s a lot of pressure on one young woman, and the turns and twists of her life will keep you thrilled on every page. That Jefferson has so fully and accurately recreated the splendor of the Restoration court—its rich fabrics, gems, palaces, dalliances and betrayals—adds to the delight. ...more
Another page-turning, alternately funny and bone-chilling mystery from Julie Kramer. Riley Spartz, investigative journalist for Channel 3 in MinneapolAnother page-turning, alternately funny and bone-chilling mystery from Julie Kramer. Riley Spartz, investigative journalist for Channel 3 in Minneapolis is still sparring with her intellectually stunted, over-sexed boss while trying to keep her career afloat. Then there’s her ex-fiancé who she’s not so sure should stay exed, except he seems to be awfully tight with his attractive new boss so there seems no hope there. Misery does love Riley, but you won’t be miserable reading as Riley’s dry, cynical humor carries a twisty plot that will keep you guessing. Perhaps I should have opened with “tooth-aching” instead of bone-chilling because that’s the clue that starts Riley off on her lethal investigation—the arrival of human teeth in an envelope. Were they taken out while someone was alive? What on earth do they mean? Someone less brave (or less in need of a story) might have left it up to the police to sort out, but Riley plows right through a mass-marriage, a mortuary and any number of other gruesome settings to get things uncovered. Her persistence might get her killed—or someone else she cares about. ...more
“Webb holds up a light into the inner recesses of a fascinating and contradictory woman . . . Becoming Josephine is an accomplished debut.” Read my rev“Webb holds up a light into the inner recesses of a fascinating and contradictory woman . . . Becoming Josephine is an accomplished debut.” Read my review of Becoming Josephine on the New York Journal of Books....more
Teatime for the Firefly creates a vivid portrayal of the exotic world of the Assam tea plantations and Indian life during both WWII and the momentousTeatime for the Firefly creates a vivid portrayal of the exotic world of the Assam tea plantations and Indian life during both WWII and the momentous upheavals immediately following the war. The tensions between British colonialism and Indian aspirations for a free nation are played out against the intensely personal story of Layla and Manik. From their chance and rather magical meeting through their unusual marriage, Patel has given us a sophisticated understanding of daily life in India through the eyes of one young woman. Layla, born under an “unlucky star” and orphaned early on, has been given the great gift of choosing her destiny by her wise and progressive grandfather. With a good education and a strong will, she moves between challenging the assumptions of her world and conforming. The violence and bigotry of this period add excitement to a plot that is as much about place and richly developed character as it is about actions. The reader will feel, smell and see this isolated, remarkable corner of India. Patel has wound into her story many themes and events imbued with Indian culture and in the process woven a rich tapestry for the reader: leopard attacks, rogue elephants, the paternalistic role of the tea companies, the childlike naiveté of the “coolie” workforce, children sold into prostitution, the racist attitude of the English toward all things Indian, the Hindu-Muslim riots, the need for education reform, the rejection of widows and the vulnerabilityThis review first appeared in the November 2013 issue of Historical Novels Review. ...more
Stephanie Dray's latest novel in her series about Selene, Cleopatra's daughter is an excellent read--whether you've read the other books or not. My reStephanie Dray's latest novel in her series about Selene, Cleopatra's daughter is an excellent read--whether you've read the other books or not. My review is posted on the New York Journal of Books here....more
Bilyeau’s first book, The Crown, brought us the determined but naïve Joanna Stafford, Dominican nun and daughter of a disgraced aristocratic family, dBilyeau’s first book, The Crown, brought us the determined but naïve Joanna Stafford, Dominican nun and daughter of a disgraced aristocratic family, during Henry VIII’s reign. In The Chalice Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries has sent a more experienced but no less stubborn Joanna out into the secular world where she’s trying to build a quiet life as a weaver of tapestries. A mysterious prophecy and those who would like to use it to further their power and political desires drag her unwittingly into a bizarre plot against the king and his plans to undermine “the true faith” in England. The most powerful people in England once again tug and pull at Joanna, alternately threatening her life (and those she loves) and courting her as an essential element to their plans. Joanna’s devotion to the Catholic Church and her abhorrence of Henry’s destruction of the cloistered life make her willing to participate to a certain extent—a dangerous vulnerability as it turns out—but she becomes entangled in acts that she never anticipated and that violate her deepest beliefs. Faith, its value, and the willingness of supposedly true believers to exploit faith for their own ends, become intriguing, multi-faceted themes in this book. Bilyeau continues from her first book the subtle, complex development of Joanna’s character and combines that with a fast-paced, unexpected plot to hold the reader’s interest on every page. From mystical prophets to court intrigue to the challenges of romance and love amidst those who had once sworn themselves to chastity, The Chalice is writ large across England and the Continent as history and supernatural mysticism combine in this compelling thriller. ...more
The Golden Dice is the second novel in Storr’s series about the Etruscans and their conflicts with the Romans during the early period of Roman historyThe Golden Dice is the second novel in Storr’s series about the Etruscans and their conflicts with the Romans during the early period of Roman history. At the heart of this novel is the marriage and love between the Roman Caecilia and the Etruscan general Vel Mastarna. In the earlier novel, The Wedding Shroud, Storr showed how this unlikely union came about and moved it from fear and distain to a powerful bond of complicated passion. Although this marriage still has its strains and doubts, the conflict of the story no longer arises from the relationship between Caecilia and Vel, but rather from external forces brought on by the long war between Rome and the Etruscan city of Veii. The dangers to Vel and Caecilia come from the Roman army outside the walls and from within the highest ranks of Veii’s nobility, whose distrust of the Roman woman provides an excellent excuse for undermining her powerful husband. The reader’s view into this world is widened in this book to include multiple women as narrators: Caecilia, Pinna and Semni. Since Pinna and Semni are from the lower ranks in their respective cities, Storr is able to build a vivid picture of Etruscan and Roman life from both ends of the social spectrum instead of only through Caecilia’s privileged point of view. While Semni in Veii is of the artisan class, Pinna is a Roman whore who cleverly parlays information into an escape to a better but tenuously held position in life. Her crafty role shows us a very different woman than Caecilia’s somewhat stern and morally unambiguous one. We can walk the streets of Rome and the solders’ camps with Pinna and see the war from the “enemy” side, even while our sympathies lie with Vel and Caecilia. In this way, Storr develops our understanding of the expansionist and self-preserving motivations of both sides with good subtlety. Storr’s books contain a wealth of detail about Etruscan and Roman life. Once in a while I found obscure word choice or an overload of detail slowing my reading, but for the historically curious, Storr’s thoroughly researched books offer a rewarding read. If you want to learn about this early period of Rome’s conquests and the remarkable, luxuriant lives of the Etruscans while being engaged with a compelling story, I recommend Storr’s series. ...more
Renaissance food in yummy detail, a sophisticated, lascivious pope and his gorgeous (not to mention smart and courageous) concubine, murders reflectinRenaissance food in yummy detail, a sophisticated, lascivious pope and his gorgeous (not to mention smart and courageous) concubine, murders reflecting some fascinating if sick mental states, an ornery but lovable dwarf, a mummified saint’s hand with strong opinions—what is not to like about Kate Quinn’s foray into the world of the Borgias? I’ve enjoyed Quinn’s novels set in the Roman period and I viewed her defection from the ancient world with mixed feelings, but she is now forgiven. The Serpent and the Pearl is full of the trademark Quinn humor, quirky, complicated characters and colorful historical details. She skillfully develops the darkly cynical politics of Renaissance Rome and uses this backdrop to reveal what her characters often want to hide: their deep-seated humanity and golden hearts (often surrounded by a casing of well-earned bitterness). You’ll luxuriate in the silks and jewelry, you’ll positively salivate over the descriptions of authentic period food and its careful preparation (do visit Kate’s Goodread's blog, A Virtual Potluck, for some recipes), but mostly you’ll keep turning pages with a plot full of seductions and betrayals of every kind, not just the sexy sort. This is one very fun, adventurous read. ...more
Few books make me want to reach into history and grab events by the neck and throttle them. Few books make me cry so much my dog gets frantic to comfoFew books make me want to reach into history and grab events by the neck and throttle them. Few books make me cry so much my dog gets frantic to comfort me as I read. All Different Kinds of Free did both. Jessica McCann builds an emotionally engaging, heartbreaking story out of a fundamentally unfair situation in American history. A free Black woman, Margaret Morgan, and her three children are kidnapped in 1837 from their home in Pennsylvania and sold into slavery. The bits of information about this tragedy are preserved in the record not out of a sense of outrage about the fate of this woman, but because her kidnapping violated a Pennsylvania law and raised issues of states’ rights. Eventually the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution protects the property rights of slave owners and no state can pass laws impeding those rights, thus fanning the growing split between North and South that led to the Civil War.
In all this wrestling over “rights,” none of the trials addressed the issue of releasing these previously free citizens and history forgot about Margaret and her three children. Jessica McCann has rectified this injustice. She will break your heart in the process—she’s that good at bringing Margaret’s story to life. However, part of this novel’s sophisticated success arises from McCann’s refusal to portray even such a clear injustice in simplistic terms. Selfishness and cruelty intermix with redemption and forgiveness. The woman who is primarily responsible for Margaret’s kidnapping, for example, grows in our understanding so that she is partially redeemed in the reader’s mind. How can that be, you wonder? Through skillful, deep characterization and subtly built moral gradations in human beings within all walks of life.
Another way that McCann modulates and softens her story telling is through her lyrical descriptions. The descriptions are integrated to reflect mood and emotional content so they never feel like bits you want to skip over. For example, when the young lawyer who will defend Pennsylvania’s case before the Supreme Court rides into DC, he looks about with interest on his first visit to the nation’s capital. Evening is falling and most people have headed home for the night. “This exodus had brought a hush to the scene, a bit enchanting and a bit eerie at once. Elegant maple saplings lined the road, casting skeleton-like shadows upon the ground as the sun dimmed and the lanterns glimmered.” The rawness of our nation is emphasized by the saplings—our unfinished state is both literal and figurative in the newly built capital that has yet to face its defining challenge in the Civil War. Will we stay true to our founding principles of liberty or not? These skeletal shadows throw a deathly aura on the scene. The natural sunlight is dimming and the artificial light of cynical manipulation is growing brighter. This atmospheric setting is furthered in a contrast: the coach stops to allow a free-roaming goat to go unharmed across the road right next to a high-walled, wooden pen of slaves held for auction. You can feel the foreboding of the young lawyer and his mentor as they ride through this scene. That’s excellent writing: communicating your characters’ inner states through the physical details of their world. The reader is spell bound.
The grim realities of slavery and the difficulty of reading about them are intermingled with moments of joy and tenderness. McCann knows how to pace this story. You will sob—bring your tissues—but you’ll also feel better at the end of the book than before you began it. You’ll still want to reach into history and throttle a few folks, but then, as a nation, we shed blood to redeem the Margarets from their bondage and we continue to fight to achieve racial equality as a nation. I think this book’s overall emotional impact will remind you why the fight is worth your focus and energy. Why hope is worth holding onto, even when none seems anywhere around. I highly recommend this book. ...more
I love books that take me to a time and place I know little about and then make that setting utterly real to me. When the author also spins a mysteryI love books that take me to a time and place I know little about and then make that setting utterly real to me. When the author also spins a mystery that won’t let go of me, then I’ve found a great read: Susan Spann’s Claws of the Cat. Spann takes us to Japan during the period of samurais and limited contact with the West. Her two “sleuths” are a most unlikely pair. Hiro, a shinobi assassin (think ninjas for the most part), is living undercover as the protector of Father Mateo, a Jesuit priest who has come to Japan to make converts. Interestingly, in many ways Japan has converted Father Mateo. To the disgust of the only other Westerner we encounter, Father Mateo has “gone native.” Hiro’s honor, and hence his life, depend on keeping Mateo alive and well. He’s been sent on this mission against his will originally, but these two are fast becoming a true partnership of intelligent, quirky friends in pursuit of justice. Unfortunately for Hiro, Mateo views his duties to his new flock as more important than his life. When a samurai is found brutally murdered and everyone identifies the killer as a young woman entertainer whom Father Mateo has converted to the “foreign religion” and whose innocence he insists on proving, things get very dicey indeed. Apparently the son of the victim has the perfect right to avenge his father’s death by slaughtering the supposed killer, and once the priest stands up for the accused, the son decides Mateo’s life should be forfeit also. Two days are all Hiro has to find the real killer and save Mateo—and he’s not convinced it isn’t the woman after all. The politics of the Shogunate, family dynamics, religious beliefs, the role of women in Japan (and a renegade or two just to keep things especially intriguing), Zen meditation, the differing world views of East and West—this entertaining book will fool you with the range of ideas it covers. Spann’s depth of knowledge about Japanese history and culture shines through with great authority and I enjoyed the insights she gave me. Don’t you love getting a painless education while indulging in the best escape of all—a good book? Pick up this book for a read you won’t be able to put down. ...more