Book Review – Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini

I believe the first I heard of Ada Lovelace was from one of my college roommates taking a Women in Mathematics class. Years later, I learned the full extent of her influence on mathematics and early computer science, as well as the fact that she was Lord Byron’s daughter. When I read the description for Jennifer Chiaverini’s Enchantress of Numbers, I was excited to get a more tangible portrait of such a significant woman in STEM than I’d been able to find from simple, factual research (the humanizing of historic figures one of the reasons I adore historical fiction). However, Chiaverini’s approach to Ada Lovelace and the story of her life wasn’t what I had hoped it would be. It’s not badly written, but it did fail to resonate with me and often left me unexpectedly bored.

Enchantress of Numbers is told by Augusta Ada Byron Lovelace in the first person but is narrated by her as an adult and (unknowingly) near the end of her life. Yet it begins with a lengthy examination of how her parents met, married, and how that marriage fell apart. From there, it progresses chronologically through all but the very end of Ada’s life. It’s written as though it could be a memoir and it often felt more like a memoir than a novel. It also tended to feel more like a book about Lord Byron’s legacy and failed marriage than about his daughter. While I don’t doubt that coming to terms with her absent, famous father and the way it impacted how her mother raised her were crucial in how Ada Lovelace grew up and her personal sense of identity, it made the book (and Ada’s life) feel like it was all about her parents and not really about her at all. Just as she seems to reconcile the two influences in her life, the novel (and shortly thereafter, her life) ends. Continue reading


Book Preview – The Hidden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang

If there’s a subgenre of historic fiction that I find difficult to turn down, it’s historic fiction set during the American Civil War. There were so many factors at play with consequences rippling through so many groups of people in so many places and so many ways that I don’t think we’ll ever run out of stories to tell about that period of American history. The sheer size and scope of it also makes it difficult to tackle in a novel and trying to engage with too many angles of it at once can be a mistake. There is so much in Daren Wang’s The Hidden Light of Northern Fires that is done well, but I found the novel as a whole to be underwhelming and I think that this is the culprit—plots with great promise that went underdeveloped because there were simply too many of them.

The town of Town Line in New York is near Buffalo but along the border with Canada. This means that the town is home to many slave hunters who make a living catching escaped slaves when they’re just steps away from freedom. But not everyone in town looks fondly on the practice, least of all Mary Willis whose father essentially founded the town and whose sawmill built most of it as well. When an escaped man called Joe turns up in their barn half dead, she calls on the doctor and helps to first heal then conceal the man from the men who would capture Joe and return him south. Tensions in the town rise when the war begins as many young men head off to fight for the Union where others have ties to the Confederacy. Continue reading

Book Review – After the Bloom by Leslie Shimotakahara

For all the atrocities of foreign wars that take place on the front lines and in the nations where the battles are being fought, there are often atrocities that happen back home; atrocities that get swept under the rug of history or dismissed as unimportant in the larger scheme of things. One such atrocity that is coming to light more in recent years—thanks in part to recent political moves that echo the problematic themes of this atrocity—is the internment of people of Japanese descent during World War II. Until reading Leslie Shimotakahara’s recent novel, After the Bloom which is in part inspired by her own family’s history in the American internment camps, I had no idea that camps like that were established in parts of Canada too. What her novel brings to life so importantly is that these camps had lasting effects at all levels—the individual, the family, and the community.

Rita knew her mother, Lily, had spent time during the war in an internment camp in California but since her mother never really spoke about it, Rita knows very little about that period of her mother’s life. It’s clear that it might be linked to the ways her mother can become ‘confused’ but Rita has more pressing things to worry about in the wake of her recent divorce and subsequent move. That is, until her mother goes missing. The police investigate but with no evidence of foul play, there isn’t much they can do. Rita takes it upon herself to look into why her mother might have left and where she might have gone. The more questions she asks, the more the answers seem to center around an incident that happened at the internment camp. Continue reading

Book Preview – The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

I have had Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel The Historian sitting on my To Read shelf for some time so while I recognized her name when her upcoming The Shadow Land came up in my possible preview pile, I hadn’t actually read her work before. The Shadow Land also fell into my recent inclination towards historic fiction that explores the nations of Europe in the aftermath of World War II so I jumped to preview it. Though it proved for me to be slow reading, the depiction of life behind the Iron Curtain in the 1950s is a harsh one that the area struggles to deal with even in the decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Alexandra Boyd decided she needed a change so she signed up to teach English in Bulgaria but before she can even reach her hostel and start to settle in, things begin to go wrong. Assisting a middle-aged man and his elderly parents into a taxi, Alexandra soon discovers that one of their bags has gotten mixed in with her own. Containing the ashes of someone obviously dear to them, she sets about trying to find them again so she can return the urn and apologize for the mix-up. Her taxi driver, Asparuh who tells her to call him Bobby, offers to help her in her efforts to track the family down. Receiving an address from the police, Alexandra insists on returning the remains personally. As she and Bobby follow a trail of breadcrumbs, it becomes clear there’s more to the story of the man in the urn and his family than they realized. Continue reading

Book Preview – My Last Lament by James William Brown

Growing up, I read a lot of novels that centered on the Holocaust and World War II. Many of those novels were part of the public school curriculum and they frequently told tales of the persecuted and the brave people who tried to shelter them. While I still find myself drawn to historic novels set in that time period, in recent years I’ve found many more books that go beyond just the years of the war itself, just the Jews hiding in Germany and Austria and Poland, extending their stories into the years after the war officially ended and the world began piecing itself back together. Seeing examples of the lasting damage and turmoil across Europe after the Nazis had been defeated carries more weight for me now than it would have when I was in elementary and middle school. James William Brown’s upcoming My Last Lament is one such novel.

An old woman now, Aliki lives in the same village in Greece where she grew up but she is among the last of her generation and is the area’s last lamenter. An American student wanted to study and document her laments leaving a tape recorder behind so Aliki can record them when it’s convenient for her. In the process of trying to fulfill the student’s wishes, Aliki records the story of her own life beginning with her teenage days when her small village was occupied by German soldiers and two boys came into her life whom she would constantly find herself torn between. Takis is the young son of the woman who takes Aliki in after her father’s death and becomes a brother of sorts to her, though there is something strange and sometimes dangerous about him. Stelios is a little older than Aliki, a Greek Jew in hiding whom Aliki grows to love. But the lives of all three are threatened and tossed about as Greece reels in political unrest following the defeat and retreat of the Germans. Continue reading

Book Preview – The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

witchfinder's sister - book coverOne of my favorite classes in college was a history course where our focus was on witches. We examined various outbreaks of witch scares in Europe and the American colonies, compared how they unfolded and the methods for dealing with the accused, we looked at who the accused tended to be and why they might have been accused (spoiler alert: mostly widows and single women who were in more independent positions than the men in their communities were comfortable with them having). So a novel like Beth Underdown’s upcoming The Witchfinder’s Sister should be right up my alley.

Having just lost her husband in an accident, Alice returns home to her brother, Matthew’s, home where their mother has also recently died. It has been several years since Alice has seen her brother who did not approve of her marriage and in their time apart it quickly becomes clear to Alice that much about him has changed. He has gained a noted position in their old community since he has become involved in taking down complainants’ accounts and questioning accused witches in the area. Alice is horrified but convinces herself that it will all blow over in the end while also piecing together the truth of what happened in her parents’ household that might be driving Matthew in his mission. Will she be able to save anyone from her brother? Continue reading

Book Preview – The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

second mrs hockadayAlways game for a novel set during and around the events of the American Civil War, I didn’t have to read too far into the description of Susan Rivers’ soon-to-be-released The Second Mrs. Hockaday before I knew I wanted to read it. I didn’t think much of the fact that the novel promised to tell the story in question through letters, journal entries, and inquest papers—it actually would have made it more appealing because telling a story through such limited means can lead to particularly creative story-telling. In the case of The Second Mrs. Hockaday however, I think these narrative conventions fail to live up to that potential and ultimately rob the story of some of its natural tension.

Placidia Fincher Hockaday met her husband the day of her step-sister’s wedding and married him the next day when she was but seventeen years old. A widower with an infant son, Major Gryffth Hockaday and his new bride didn’t have much time to themselves before he was called back to the Confederate front lines by his commanders. For the remaining two years the war lasted, they were separated with Placidia running his farm, raising his son, and commanding his slaves. When he returned at the end of the war, he discovered that there were scandalous rumors about just what his wife had been up to in his absence—and with whom. Decades later, the Hockaday children—having buried their parents—begin to uncover their mother’s secrets from those two years, what drove a wedge between their parents, and what brought the couple back together again in the end. Continue reading

Book Preview – The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter by John Pipkin

The Blind Astronomer's Daughter - book coverI was fascinated and thoroughly enjoyed The Stargazer’s Sister last year, a novel about Caroline Herschel, the sister of eighteenth century astronomer William Herschel who became a prolific astronomer in her own right. The description for The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter promised to explore similar themes in a similar setting. While there are elements of what I was expecting—hoping—to find in the novel, Pipkin goes beyond focusing on his titular heroine and not always with tremendous success.

Fictitious astronomer Arthur Ainsworth is determined to find a new planet in the heavens so he can name it for his late wife and honor her legacy. It is a mission he enlists his daughter, Caroline, to help him with as he transforms his Irish estate into an observatory and commissions work on a telescope to rival that of William Herschel in England. But there is more going on in Ireland and there are more secrets in Caroline’s past than she is aware of until her father, blinded by looking too often at the sun through his telescope, dies. She learns the truth of who she is and it upends everything she once thought about herself, her father, and his work. It will take many years for Caroline to pick up the pieces of her shattered self and reassemble them into someone new, just as Ireland threatens to rip itself apart in 1798.

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Book Review – The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas

illusionists - book coverRosie Thomas’ novel, The Illusionists is one that I bought a few years ago after reading The Night Circus and rewatching a few of my favorite magic/illusion movies (The Illusionist, Scoop, The Prestige except for the last few scenes, etc.). I don’t remember now why I had put off reading it but it has inspired me to do another rewatch. The Illusionists captures more than just the wonder of the illusions the novel’s central troupe performs, it captures the ways that reality and illusion play into each of their lives as well.

Devil Wix is a struggling magician looking for more regular work than what he gets performing in the streets. He stumbles across a dwarf by the name of Carlo Boldoni who has a knack for devising illusions as well as gift for performing them. The two prove to be effective collaborators as their competitive sides drive them both forward. Nabbing a recurring act on the stage of the newly reopened Palmyra Theater, their biggest obstacle to success becomes the theater’s owner, a greedy man called Jacko Grady who knows nothing about marketing or talent. The pair aren’t the only ones dissatisfied with Grady and soon the performers and their friends outside the theater begin to form an alliance and finally a company of their own. Heinrich is an engineer who builds automatons but is socially awkward and has difficulty grasping the line between real and machine, the controllable and those with free will. Jasper knows Devil’s real name and history having grown up together as boys, but his waxwork models prove valuable to Boldoni and Wix’s illusions. Eliza becomes a focal point for most of the men in the company as she challenges so many expectations of women during the time in which the novel is set but knowing what she needs from a relationship in order to maintain her sense of independence, she cannot make them all happy though she aims to keep them balanced without losing herself. Continue reading

Book Preview – Tasa’s Song by Linda Kass

tasa's song - book coverAfter reading The Girl from the Train by Irma Joubert, I came across the description for Linda Kass’ upcoming novel, Tasa’s Song and found it intriguing enough to request to preview the book. Like The Girl from the Train, Tasa’s Song takes place in eastern Poland during World War II and involves the impact of the Soviets and communism on the Polish people as the war progresses. Where The Girl from the Train looked at adopted families, Tasa’s Song looks more at the close ties that can develop between members of an extended family; where The Girl from the Train looked at words and language and their connection to one’s spirit and identity, Tasa’s Song looks at those same things through music.

Tasa—short for Anastasia—is from a wealthy and prominent Polish Jewish family in a rural area of Poland. She and her cousin, Danik—with whom she grew up and continues to develop a specifically close relationship to—board in a larger city to attend a private school. Tasa began learning violin from her grandfather and the instrument and music become a key part of how she interacts with the world around her. Moments—particularly of high emotion—become associated with certain pieces of music or movements within larger pieces. Playing those pieces proves to be an integral part of coping with the increasing uncertainties and terrors surrounding her as she, her family, and her friends become stranded between the advancing Nazi forces and the Soviets who took over eastern Poland at the outset of the war.

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Book Preview – Chasing the North Star by Robert Morgan

chasing the north star - book coverRobert Morgan’s upcoming novel, Chasing the North Star is one that I came across during a stretch when my interest in the American Civil War was strong—it never does go away entirely but there are times when that interest is more prominent and I indulge it, and this was one of those times. Not set during the Civil War itself, Chasing the North Star is a novel about two runaway slaves as they make their journeys north to freedom. The way this novel unfolds is actually rather unique among novels in this subgenre.

As a house slave whose tasks centered around serving his master’s children—including during their lessons—Jonah Williams learned how to read and write. These skills, along with his ability to stop and think his way through situations in a clear and organized manner, prove invaluable when Jonah impulsively runs away from the plantation one night. His journey north to freedom is full of surprises and threats but no surprise is as complete as the young slave woman, Angel, whom he first meets incidentally in the woods. She immediately recognizes Jonah as a runaway and decides that she will run away too, following Jonah who clearly has a plan. Since two slaves are always more conspicuous than one, Jonah makes it his mission to abandon Angel when he gets the chance—but she somehow manages to find him again and again and again. Continue reading

Book Preview – Into the Dim by Janet B. Taylor

book cover - into the dimDescribed as a young adult Outlander—and being a fan of that series as well as young adult fiction—Janet B. Taylor’s upcoming Into the Dim immediately caught my eye. The first book in what promises to be an interesting time-exploration series aimed at teens, Into the Dim offers explorations of parent/child relationships, the links between cause and effect, and how much say people have in defining themselves.

It’s been eight months since Hope Walton’s mother was presumably killed in an earthquake overseas. Her mother’s sister—whom she’s never met—invites Hope for a visit to the family’s ancestral home in Scotland and promises Hope she will learn more about herself and the mother she still mourns. Hope’s low expectations are turned on their head when she discovers that the family secrets involve an underground cavern where the ley lines of the earth converge to allow time travel. What’s more, Hope’s mother isn’t dead after all, simply marooned in the past by a rival band of time travelers who make a profit off of stealing artifacts regardless of the impact such interference has on history. Hope and two companions are to be sent back to find and bring her mother home safely but before she leaves, Hope encounters a strangely familiar young man who turns out to have an unexpected connection to her.

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Book Preview – The Vatican Princess by C. W. Gortner

vatican princess - book coverFollowing my enjoyment of Médicis Daughter and still waiting for the next in Laura Andersen’s Tudor Legacy series to become available, I’d been looking for something else in the fifteenth or sixteenth century royal court, intrigue and drama niche. When I saw that there was an upcoming novelization of the life of Lucrezia Borgia—C. W. Gortner’s The Vatican Princess—I figured that would fit the bill. While it certainly was full of political and personal maneuvering and drama, I realized that it wasn’t quite what I was looking for but not for the reasons I’d expected.

Told from Lucrezia’s first person perspective, The Vatican Princess begins with the conclave during which her father, Rodrigo Borgia, is elected as Pope and becomes Alexander VI. She is only getting ready to turn thirteen at the time of her father’s ascension to the papacy and while she doesn’t get along too well with her mother or her brother, Juan, she is quite close to her oldest brother, Cesare who is vocal about his resentment for the being pushed by their father to join the church. The rivalry between Cesare and Juan is established early and Lucrezia finds herself at the center of it inadvertently, paying a high price for being female in a man’s world. A political pawn expected to marry where and when her father bids, Lucrezia learns just how far her family is willing to go to protect itself and how much being a Borgia means to her.

Now, Lucrezia Borgia is one of those women whom history painted as a femme fatale, manipulative, depraved, and any other unflattering thing that ever has been or could be said about women. In the last few years, maybe even a decade or two, she’s been approached academically and opinions of her have been revised to suggest she was less an active participant in the infamous Borgia plotting and depravity and more a pawn used to solidify alliances and doing as she was bid by the powerful men in her life—the truth likely lies somewhere between an adept puppet-master and completely innocent victim. In Gortner’s novelization, the victim angle is hit a little hard for my taste.

That’s not to say that Lucrezia Borgia wasn’t very much a victim of her father’s and brother’s machinations, but many of the gaps in the historical narrative—primarily details surrounding a possible/probably pregnancy at the time of her annulment from her first husband—are filled in such a way that emphasizes her passivity of Lucrezia, flattening her as a character and, in my opinion, weakening a novel that is supposed to center around her (these changes feel like they were contrived to shock the reader as much as possible and that they serve a story that isn’t really hers and with her as the central character and narrator of the novel, it was a choice I really didn’t care for).

I can’t help drawing comparisons to Médicis Daughter where Marguerite de Valois is in a very similar situation, surrounded by manipulative family with a great deal if not total control over her life. In that novel, despite the mistakes Margot makes when she does trust her family, she isn’t a passive character always sixteen steps behind everyone around her. But in The Vatican Princess, that’s exactly how it feels to be trapped in Lucrezia’s perspective and only so many excuses can be made for her age at the time—in the beginning when she’s thirteen or fourteen, maybe but beyond a certain point it stops being believable, especially for how educated she’s portrayed as being. Despite being ostensibly about Lucrezia Borgia, The Vatican Princess is more an examination of Cesare Borgia as told by Lucrezia.

The Vatican Princess by C. W. Gortner will be available February 9, 2016.

Book Preview – Fallen Land by Taylor Brown

book cover - fallen landI honestly don’t remember what it was about the description for Taylor Brown’s upcoming Fallen Land that caught my attention—there’s a pretty good chance it was the Civil War setting and the mention of Sherman’s march to the sea. As far as historic fiction set during that time period goes, you usually get books where the characters are deeply engrossed in the actions of war—the battles, the army maneuvers, the women and children left behind to cope with occupation, etc. Fallen Land follows characters who manage to remain largely on the outskirts of those kinds of things—they’re obviously still impacted, but the war itself is a backdrop rather than the driving force of the plot.

Callum is a teen who has taken up with the Colonel and his band of Confederate-leaning guerilla fighters who raid where and when they can. When the band stumbles across the house where they find seventeen-year-old Ava alone, she becomes the target of some of Callum’s companions’ violent desires. Callum intervenes to protect her and is nearly killed for his trouble. The first opportunity he gets, he heads back to look for her, stealing the Colonel’s horse to do so and bringing him and his men after him. During an altercation with them at Ava’s house, the Colonel is killed and Callum and Ava decide to head south together since neither of them have anything left where they are. It doesn’t take long for them to learn that the Colonel’s men—along with his slave-hunter brother—aren’t going to let the matter drop and are still on their trail. Continue reading

Book Preview – Médicis Daughter by Sophie Perinot

medicis daughter - book coverI have long been fascinated by historic fiction centered around the Tudor Court in England. It’s an interesting period in history for so many reasons and the political, religious, and romantic intrigue are legendary. But with so much attention paid to the Tudors it’s easy to forget the cutthroat situations of other royal courts in Europe. When I saw Médicis Daughter by Sophie Perinot as an upcoming release–a novel centered around Marguerite de Valois, the youngest daughter of Catherine de Médicis—I was eager to see how another royal court of the period compared on the page (Catherine de Médicis, her husband, and his mistress also featured in It Ended Badly so with the names fresh in my mind, the premise caught my attention quickly).

Marguerite—Margot—is only about ten years old when she is finally invited to join her mother’s household in her older brother, Charles’ royal court. Initially close to her other older brother, Henri—later the Duc de Anjou—she slowly learns to navigate the flirtations and manipulations of French court, eager to do her duty to her family, her king, and her faith. The French Wars of Religion impact life at court for all but for Margot perhaps most. Though the court and her main companions are all strictly Catholic, there are other factors at play—family loyalties and plays for power and influence. Margot—struggling to build a future that suits herself—finds herself used and abused by her closest family and friends. But as she grows, she learns, and when the time comes Margot can and will take a stand against her mother and the formidable power she wields. Continue reading

Book Review – Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, 1001 Books to Read Before You Die #163

9780385490443_p0_v1_s260x420The more I read of Margaret Atwood the higher she climbs on my list of favorite writers. Some of this is because she writes in two of my favorite genres (science/speculative fiction and historic fiction). Though I had mixed feelings about The Blind Assassin, I thoroughly enjoyed the next of her works to appear on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, Alias Grace. Inspired by a true story, the questions of truth, justice, and how to define either as a woman in the nineteenth century are at the heart of Alias Grace.

Grace Marks was only a teenager when she was working as a servant in the household of Mr. Thomas Kinnear. When her fellow servant, James McDermott, murdered the housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, as well as Mr. Kinnear, Grace was caught up in the storm, the only question was in what capacity. McDermott claimed she not only egged him on but that the whole thing was her idea and that she had promised herself to him in exchange for his doing the deed. Grace claimed little or no memory of events at various points during that fateful day and there were many who believed her to be either too dimwitted or too young to have actively participated, that she might have gone along with McDermott because she was too scared to do otherwise. While both were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Grace’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Almost twenty years later, a committee working to petition the government for her release engages the services of Dr. Simon Jordan who specializes in mental illness to meet with Grace, evaluate her condition, and determine her likely guilt or innocence at the time of the murders.

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Book Preview – The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows

9780385342940_p0_v1_s260x420History and memory are two of my favorite subjects to see addressed in literature so some of my favorite novels to read are ones where the two meet head on, like in Annie Barrows’ upcoming The Truth According to Us. Beyond history and memory, family bonds and loyalty as well as growing up and learning what it means to be an adult are also addressed and explored at length.

Macedonia is a small town in West Virginia that’s trying to find the right way to commemorate their sesquicentennial in 1938, so they commission one of the Great Depression’s relief programs to send someone who can compile a short book about their town and its history. Layla Beck, a spoiled young woman of privilege whose Senator father decides to teach her a lesson, find herself boarding in Macedonia with the Romeyn family while she works on her first job, the writing of this obscure town’s history. It turns out the Romeyn family have played a significant role in town but have had a strained relationship with much of its people since a divisive incident in 1920. Josephine “Jottie” Romeyn raises her brother, Felix’s two girls while proving to be a valuable source for Layla. Willa, the older of the two girls, struggles with wanting to be included in the adults’ world but learns quickly that being grown up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and that what people say and do isn’t always the truth. From different angles and for different reasons, both Willa and Layla begin digging up the past and become particularly interested in the events of 1920, threatening a delicate balance in the process. Continue reading

Book Preview – The Virgin’s Daughter by Laura Andersen

9780804179362_p0_v1_s260x420I loved last summer’s conclusion to Laura Andersen’s Boleyn Trilogy and was thrilled to find that she’s starting what appears to be another trilogy in that same alternative history universe. The upcoming The Virgin’s Daughter continues with the characters and premise set up in the original trilogy (what might have happened if Anne Boleyn had borne Henry VIII a son who lived to rule?) but with its main focus on the next generation.

Rather than starting from scratch and simply positing the idea of Elizabeth I marrying with history as it happened originally (with Henry VIII still having had six wives, etc.), Andersen continues with the history as she envisioned it in the original trilogy. This means that the reader gets to see Minuette and Dominic but the main focus is on the next generation, particularly Lucette, Minuette’s daughter who may or may not have been fathered by the late king, William and whose relationship with her parents has been difficult since learning that possibility from the queen herself at age fifteen. Now in her twenties, Lucette has been charged with a special request from her queen: going to her family’s friends in France (the LeClercs) to play the spy and uncover information concerning the Nightingale plot, presumed to be about assassinating Elizabeth. Continue reading

Book Preview – At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

9780385523233_p0_v1_s260x420It’s been several years now since I first read Water for Elephants and while I haven’t had a chance to read Ape House yet (it’s still on my library wish list and I will probably get to it later this year), I jumped at the chance to preview Sara Gruen’s latest novel, At the Water’s Edge.

As World War II rages in Europe, Maddie Hyde, her husband, Ellis, and their best friend, Hank Boyd, are safely enjoying their wealth back in the US, both men having been rejected from serving for medical reasons. Except it isn’t their wealth (or not entirely). Ellis and Maddie live off an allowance from his parents and when their behavior threatens to get them cut off entirely, they embark on a dangerous and foolish plan to cross the ocean, find the Loch Ness monster, and redeem the family name. The journey brings them face-to-face with the realities of the war they’ve been protected from and, for Maddie, proves to be an eye opening and life changing experience. Continue reading

Book Preview – Spy of Richmond by Jocelyn Green

9780802405791_p0_v1_s260x420My affinity for historic fiction tends to seek out an inordinate number of books set during the American Civil War. Spy of Richmond by Jocelyn Green will be the fourth in her Heroines Behind the Lines series, focusing on the extraordinary lives of women during the Civil War. The books do not need to be read in any order, as there is only a little overlap between the stories (Spy of Richmond is the first I’ve read of the series, but I understand several of the characters first appeared in the second of the series, Widow of Gettysburg).

Sophie Kent is a daughter of Richmond but her Yankee mother insisted on her receiving an education in the north. In part because of this education, Sophie has expressed many opinions disagreeable to her father and neighbors, particularly after the start of the war. There are many who suspect her of more than simple sympathies but after the death of her mother, Sophie takes steps to actively assist the Union put an end to slavery and the war.

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Book Review – The Siege by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

9781400069682_p0_v1_s260x420I really enjoyed Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas when I read it several years ago, so I jumped at the chance to preview the English translation of The Siege. Unfortunately, time was not on my side so what was supposed to be a preview is now a review. The Siege weaves together several narratives, all centered in and around Cádiz during the French siege of the city from 1810 to 1812. Espionage, murder, war, loyalty, and business all come together as Pérez-Reverte paints several detailed portraits of a city and its citizens under siege.

Soldiers, corsairs, policemen, and everyday citizens who at first glance appear to be connected only by the city they inhabit (or propose to occupy) turn out to have a far more sinister connection, as a murderer strikes with a precision and violence as devastating as the French bombs that slowly gain in accuracy and range. Comisario Tizón tests the limits of his own sanity in his protracted battle to catch a man butchering young women. Lolita Palma, a single woman who took over the family’s shipping and lending business after the deaths of both her father and brother, overcomes her initial objections to invest in a corsair ship and finds an odd kindred spirit in the ship’s captain, Pépé Lobo. French artillery officer, Simon Desfosseux, must reconcile his superiors’ demands that he shell further into Cádiz with their refusal to give him the equipment he deems necessary for such a feat.

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Book Review – The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

9780670024780_p0_v3_s260x420Since I enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees, when I saw that Sue Monk Kidd had a new novel coming out, I threw my name on the (extremely long) waiting list at the library and rejoiced when my number finally came up. In The Invention of Wings, Kidd once again dives into the challenges facing both women in general and women of color, but this time in a more distant historical context: the slave-holding south of the early nineteenth century. Following the lives of Sarah Grimké, the middle daughter of a slave-holding family in Charleston with objections to the institution, and Hetty, a slave girl owned by the family who is about Sarah’s age, The Invention of Wings looks at the multitude of ways a person could be considered enslaved or free.

On her eleventh birthday in 1803, Sarah Grimké is given her very own slave, a girl not much younger than herself, to be her personal maid. Despite having lived her life in Charleston surrounded by slavery, Sarah objects and immediately tries to free Hetty. It proves to be an act her family won’t allow so she must find other ways to demonstrate her objections in a world where her voice, opinions, and desires are challenged and disregarded simply because she’s female. Those challenges are set down alongside Hetty’s (a.k.a. Handful) life under slavery and her struggles to hold onto the hope for freedom.

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Book Review/Preview – The Boleyn Trilogy by Laura Andersen

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In a reading world that has become saturated with novels about Tudor England and the tantalizing life at court, how does a writer make sure their book or series stands apart from the rest? Many tactics have been tried: accounts of Henry VIII’s reign told from the perspectives of those closest to king and his wives and told from the point of view of the largely overlooked serving staff; novelizations sticking so close to the historical facts that they border on non-fiction; some novels that indulge in the supernatural or provocative speculation surrounding Anne Boleyn and her successors as Henry’s queen while others go out of their way to explain it all away. Inevitably, some facets of history are changed for the sake of the story. For Laura Andersen and her Boleyn Trilogy, the answer was to take that inevitability and run with it. The premise of her Boleyn Trilogy lies with the question, what would have happened if Anne Boleyn’s third and final pregnancy had resulted in the healthy son so much depended upon?

Beginning with The Boleyn King, Andersen’s trilogy focuses on the lives of William a.k.a. King Henry IX and his closes family and friends. Rather than spending much of her early life as a threat to her siblings, Elizabeth has grown up under the care of her mother, Anne Boleyn who remained queen and outlived her husband (eliminating wives three through six from the legend of Henry VIII). A close advisor to her younger brother, there are two others who round out the royals’ inner circle. Genevieve “Minuette” Wyatt, the orphaned daughter of one of Anne Boleyn’s favorite ladies was born the same day as the young king and grew up as a royal ward, a playmate and companion to both royals. Similarly, Dominic Courtenay, though a few years older than the king, has been a constant in the monarch’s life and is one of the few people he truly trusts and whose advice William will take. Continue reading

Book Review – Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara

After having been so horribly disappointed with The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, I needed to read a piece of historic fiction that I knew would be good and Jeff Shaara’s Gods and Generals did not disappoint. A tribute and prequel to his father’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Killer Angels chronicling the three day Battle of Gettysburg, Gods and Generals focuses on some of those same generals in the few years preceding Gettysburg.

Starting in November 1858 and ending on the eve of Gettysburg, Shaara’s novel switches perspective between Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson who would lead the Confederacy and Winfield Scott Hancock and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who would rise to help lead the Federal army. Shaara’s novel focuses a great deal on the behind the scenes planning on both sides of the battlefield and less on the events of the battles (with the exception of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in the latter half of the novel).

The beginning of the novel is slow-moving and methodical. It felt like Shaara had a difficult time deciding just how and where to focus. He could have shown the first battle of Manassas from Jackson’s perspective (it is, after all, the battle where he earned the nickname “Stonewall”). But instead he mentioned it through Lee who was stuck in Richmond, sifting through the red tape of organizing and supplying the Confederate army while Joe Johnston still held official command. The battle of Shiloh is casually mentioned. Antietam is briefly shown but mostly from Chamberlain’s vantage point with his unit of reserves who only saw the drifting smoke of battle but were behind a hill and didn’t see any action. There is little mention of anything that was happening away from the Virginia front.

At times, this approach felt like a missed opportunity on Shaara’s part (especially after the skill he demonstrated with Hancock’s maneuver at Williamsburg early on; his ability to clearly and effectively narrate the more difficult tactical movements is exhilarating and the continued use of diagrams and maps that were used in The Killer Angels remains a useful supplement). It seems to fit since missed opportunities are what Shaara focuses on for most of the novel, particularly the many retreats of the Union army and the frustrations this caused to less hesitant commanders like Hankcock. I knew that the Union had changed their lead commander several times, but I did not realize or remember that it had happened so many times. Shaara doesn’t leave Lee and the Confederacy out of the line of fire when it comes to chances slipping through powerful fingers.

Knowing that Gettysburg is coming, the focus of the end of the novel is Jackson’s role in Lee’s army and his demise in the days following the battle at Chancellorsville. Shaara is at his best as he captures the tensions of battle and the chess-like precision of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and there are moments when I could faintly hear the voice of David Muccullough narrating. I mainly wish that he had chosen to turn these talents to either of the battles at Manassas because it is the only battlefield I have visited (in fact, that was where I purchased my copy of Gods and Generals). Having walked those historic hills enhanced my appreciation of what took place there and of Shaara’s nuanced novel.

There is only one choice that Shaara made that causes me to pause. Aside from a brief glimpse of an unhappy Chamberlain in the third chapter, he is largely absent from the first half of the book. In fact, I think that the only reason Chamberlain is in the novel at all is because of the role he plays at Gettysburg and, consequently, in The Killer Angels. His only occasional perspective does offer a glimpse at an inexperienced officer, someone who was given a high rank in the military due to necessity and prestige rather than experience. However, with all the time spent away from the famous battlefields and near the battlefields but not actually watching the fighting on those battlefields, much of the time spent with Chamberlain feels like missed opportunities.

Now I’m going to let my inner history nerd show and start planning a trip to Gettysburg while watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary (again) and skimming through The Killer Angels (for the third time) before diving into the last novel in the unofficial Shaara Civil War trilogy, The Last Full Measure.

Book Review – The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

Despite a bewitching subject matter and modern approach, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe is riddled with clichés and lacks consistency. This debut novel tells the tale of a graduate student splitting her summer between conducting research for her dissertation and cleaning up the run-down house of her late grandmother. The work on the house slows as Connie’s research sets her on the trail of a text that could change the world’s understanding of a dark chapter in American Colonial history – the Salem Witch Trials. With her advisor pressuring her to find the book, Connie’s discoveries turn into discoveries about herself, her family’s history, and her own abilities.

Clichés abound throughout the novel, though none so prominently as tragic and sudden harm befalling the menfolk of the women possessing “the gift.” Each time this trend was hinted at, my mind flashed to the movie Practical Magic (in my opinion it worked better for the film). But clichés can be overlooked when other aspects add balance to the narrative. Howe failed to achieve that balance as glaring inconsistencies and illogicalities frustrated this reader and were compounded by an admitted altering of history.

The main narrative following Connie’s search for Deliverance Dane’s mysterious book is broken up with glimpses into Deliverance’s life and those of her descendants. In the first part of the novel, these dips into the past follow the trail of the book in pace with Connie’s search. In the novel’s second half, rather than continue with this interesting approach, Howe returned to Deliverance and placed her in the heart of the witch trials, put her on trial, and hanged her with one of the earliest and most famous groups of the accused (in reality, she was not from Salem, she was one of the later accused, but she was never tried, let alone hanged). In an afterword, Howe explains the exact changes that she made to history, and for that I give her credit. These later narrative jumps occur with greater frequency, becoming a distraction from Connie’s storyline and making it unclear where the focus of the novel lies. I think she would have done better to keep the trials out of the main narrative and examine their legacy rather than using them because they are a source of inherent tension and drama.

This change to history only makes other aspects of the plot shakier, especially those circumstances designed to set up the plot. Connie finds the name Deliverance Dane while examining the contents of her grandmother’s house but the name means nothing to her and she isn’t initially convinced that it is a name at all. But with the changes to Deliverance’s personal history made by Howe, there is no reason that a Harvard graduate student of Colonial New England who extensively studied for PhD candidacy exams (one of the first things the reader learns about Connie) shouldn’t recognize the name someone hanged during the hysteria of 1692. The argument that one of the many accused went undocumented is vaguely plausible, but someone as close to the events as Howe specifically places Dane goes beyond the believable. It is one of many misguided illogicalities that loosely hold this novel together.

What bothered me most about this book was not the weakly explained alterations to history nor the hokey and clichéd attempts to inject real magic into the Salem Trials’ legacy (both of which struck me as a little insensitive and Howe’s explanation that her own ancestors were among those accused does not make those differences any easier to swallow). What I found to be the greatest distraction was her haphazard Boston accent. Having lived an hour from the city my whole life, reading Howe’s presentation of it had me rolling my eyes. Capturing linguistic expression is never a simple formula. A Boston accent is far more complex and subtle than replacing all “R”s with “ah.” Vowels are dropped in some places leaving consonants to run together and those “R”s that are dropped get glued on to other words so they don’t go unused. It might not be noticeable to those unfamiliar with the patterns, but calls attention to it in ways that don’t make sense. Finding Deliverance’s daughter Mercy under the name Marcy in historic records makes enough sense for a less literate society. There is no reason to try to blame it on an accent that would have evolved in three hundred years anyway. Bostonians would not pronounce Mercy as “Mahcy” as Howe does consistently. The “er” combination would be lower and become something closer to “Muhcy.” The accent is also applied to characters inconsistently and the lack of colloquialisms further remove the dialogue from authenticity.

For those whose interest was piqued by the research that went into tracking Deliverance’s physic book, The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr illustrates the process in a clearer and more efficient way (perhaps because it is a true tale) while those interested in the Salem Witch trials and beyond would probably do better to try Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 by Richard Godbeer (a short work of non-fiction that addresses the Salem hysteria in contrast with a simultaneous witch trial in Connecticut). The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is one Barnes & Noble Recommends book that I would recommend leaving on the shelf.