Saturday, December 28, 2013

Review: The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath

What happened to Harold Godwinson’s first wife Edith Swaneck (or Elditha as she is known in this novel) after his tragic death during the 1066 Norman Conquest? Too often, women are merely a footnote in history and I love historical fiction which speculates about the unknown, untold stories of women in history. Instead of focusing on Elditha’s life leading up to the conquest, this novel explores the after events. How did this woman cope with losing her husband and the father of her children first to another woman and secondly to death and the Norman invasion? What was her fate and the fate of her children once they were in the hands of the enemy and what did she do improve their chances at safety and happiness?

On one hand, this approach certainly set it apart from other books focusing on the Norman Conquest and allowed for more creative freedom but on the other hand, it wound up being a little anti-climatic to focus on the events following 1066 rather than leading up to it. While the book was very eventful, I didn't really get a sense of the emotional turmoil both Elditha and others would have gone through upon learning the outcome of the Battle of Hastings, not on the scale I expected anyway. What should have been the biggest event of the book was quickly passed over in the beginning and while the following events were thrilling at times, without giving away any specific spoilers, they wound up being all for nothing. The efforts Elditha made to escape and keep her children safe were moot in the end and I struggled to understand how Elditha could abandon her children as many times as she did. Granted, she had many children and they were split up and she always left them in trusted care and sometimes she didn't have a choice - but sometimes she did and I just think if I had been her, I would be doing everything I could to remain with my most vulnerable children, whatever the cost to myself. When she finally attempted to extract one of them, she unnecessarily risked everything she'd spent half the novel accomplishing. So that was a little frustrating.

That said, it was very well written and researched. The dialogue and characters were realistic, even if I didn't always agree their decisions. It was written in third person, mostly from Elditha's point of view but also a few others. When it was told from a male point of view, it was still in relation to the women's world, as this is very much a story about women and we do not get to see the Battle of Hastings in action. The author had a lot of room to work with a creative license since soon after Hastings, Elditha disappears from records so her fate was open to lots of speculation and the author used her knowledge of the times to make believable assumptions. This is the first in a planned trilogy called Daughters of Hastings and I look forward to the second two which are to feature Elditha's daughters Gunnhild and "Thea" (renamed such in the novel because her real name, Gytha, would have caused confusion with more than one character named Gytha), I am interested to see what the author does with these characters.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review: The Arnifour Affair by Gregory Harris

Received ARC from publisher via NetGalley.
Release date: January 28, 2014

The first in a planned series, this is pretty much a Holmes and Watson mystery with different names. Colin Pendragon is the eccentric and unorthodox but brilliant observationalist and private detective. Ethan Pruitt is the more down-to-earth medical sidekick and roommate who serves as narrator. While he makes a point of clarifying that he’s not a doctor, presumably in attempts to set him apart from Watson, he apparently picked up a lot of medical knowledge during his time as a drug addict in the slums. I’m not really sure how that equates to informally gaining some basic biological understanding but it was obvious the author did not want to lose Watson’s medical training entirely since it’s often beneficial during investigations. However, Pruitt’s fall from grace in the past certainly sets him apart from Watson more than not being a doctor does. Additionally, Pendragon abhors drug useage because of what it did to Pruitt and this sets him apart from Holmes.

There’s been suggestions of a homosexual relationship between Holmes and Watson and the author capitalizes on that with Pendragon and Pruitt. Nothing explicit, of course, but it’s clear from the beginning the two protagonists have a romantic relationship and I do wonder if this was the main reason for not simply writing another Holmes mystery, given that many Holmes fans would object to it.

The story opens around the “turn of the century” and after Pendragon and Pruitt have been together for twelve years already. This also fits with the timeline of Holmes and Watson, who met in 1881 so twelve years later would put us around 1893, roughly turn of the century.

Pendragon and Pruitt live together in a home in London maintained by their maid and cook, a grumpy old woman who I suppose is meant to be Mrs. Hudson. And their investigations mean they frequently clash with Inspector Varcoe, who may take the place of Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade.

On one hand, the fact that it was basically just a Sherlock Holmes novel with different names made it feel unoriginal but on the other hand, the fact that it’s not a Holmes story allowed for a little more creative freedom. It was well written and the dialogue was good, but every once and a while the characters would do something a little unrealistic or out of character. There's a lot going on with a main plot and a subplot which keeps the pace moving and makes it very readable.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

It’s no secret that I felt The Other Boleyn Girl was overrated. But I requested a free review copy of The White Princess, a novel based on the life of Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) and mother of Henry VIII, because I thought I should give Philippa Gregory another chance. After all, other readers in my family enjoy her novels and I value their opinions.

It’s written in present tense which I’m not a huge fan of because I find more often than not, it comes off sounding pretentious but admittedly, this is well written and it’s the one thing I can’t criticize her for. It’s also written in first person and here again, I can’t criticize Gregory’s ability to write well in first person, but I felt like the nature of it is too restrictive, especially for this complex subject matter. However, what really let this book down was the characterization, mainly of Elizabeth.

For starters, I could not understand how she could be in love with the man who kidnapped and imprisoned her brothers and then declared them, along with herself, illegitimate so he could steal their crown. Elizabeth seems to think he had no other choice but I’m not buying this “woe is Richard” attitude. She also seems to think that if Richard had won at Bosworth, he would have married her but the fact is, he could not marry a bastard and he could not re-legitimize her without admitting that he was wrong to declare her brother illegitimate and thus, admitting that he was a usurper and not the lawful king. I could maybe excuse Elizabeth’s expectations with Richard as youthful ignorance but even her mother seems to agree Richard would have married her had he survived. So this struck me as Gregory not fully understanding the situation or perhaps just choosing to disregard the reality of the situation to suit her fanciful story. I don’t mind using a creative license in novels but it has to be believable and it’s this kind of disregard for realism that makes it difficult to enjoy. For example, I’m okay with Gregory claiming that when Elizabeth’s family took refuge in Westminster Abbey, it was in the dark, damp “crypt under the chapel” even though in reality, they stayed in the luxurious house where the Abbot lived, in his best rooms as his guest. I’m okay with that because while it’s untrue, it’s not completely unbelievable that had the Abbot not been so accommodating, they might have hunkered down in a section of the Abbey where they could secure their safety. So I’m okay with using this idea as dramatic license, but I’m not okay with things that don’t even make sense within the contexts of Gregory’s own fiction. She makes a point of showing how Henry had to legitimize Elizabeth before marrying her because a king can’t marry a bastard so why would this not apply to Richard as well?

What bothered me about The White Queen miniseries (and I suspect of the book as well, which precedes The White Princess) was the portrayal that the women involved were the true engineers of these pivotal moments in history and the men were practically just their pawns. I enjoy stories about strong, influential women in history and how they cope with the turbulent events they often get caught up in, but I feel like Gregory’s portrayal of this is very unrealistic. However, Elizabeth of York was in a very different situation than her mother had been and so The White Princess took the opposite approach and portrayed Elizabeth as a victim and pawn of Henry Tudor and Margaret Beaufort. But Elizabeth does nothing to win favors or gain influence and spends most of the book clueless and passive. Apparently, there's no middle ground with Gregory - women either engineer everything or have no influence at all. Even Henry himself, after Elizabeth responded with “I don’t know” to all his questions, appropriately tells her:
“When I think of the fortune that was spent on your education, Elizabeth, I am really amazed at how little you know.”
I realize that he suspected she knew more than she was admitting but that’s the frustration thing, with one exception, she really didn’t know anything. And while I understand why she doesn’t know anything, the fact that it’s written in first person means the reader doesn’t know anything more than Elizabeth does, which makes for a frustrating read. Here is where third person would have been beneficial and there were many people around Elizabeth whose stories we got tantalizing glimpses of and would had really added more dimension to the story had we been able to see them.

I can also understand why Elizabeth wasn’t scheming and plotting in league with her mother, but I can’t understand why Elizabeth does nothing to improve her own situation. If I were Elizabeth, no matter how much I hated Henry, I’d be doing everything I could to convince him that he can trust me so that perhaps I could have more influence over him. But Elizabeth never even considers this.

Eventually, she does come to care for Henry but I struggled to understand why. He spends most of the book demanding to know what she knows (which is nothing, of course), sulking or throwing a tantrum when yet another “York boy” pops up, and cowering behind an army he has no faith in. He is driven half mad by fear, which is understandable, but it’s hardly going to make a woman fall in love with him. On Henry’s end, he claims to have hoped for Elizabeth’s love from the first moment he met her but again, I’m not really sure why since she is dull and clueless and spends most of the book turning away from him. Henry goes on and on about how she has some kind of inherent likability that all Yorks do and which eludes him, but apart from being pretty and smiling and waving at crowds, I couldn’t see what was so likable about her. It’s not enough to say a character is this or that, if you don’t show me, it falls flat.

I really thought we were going to see a woman who was quietly influential in the shadows of not only her husband but her growing son Henry as well but instead we get a girl who has basically given up on life and is just passively enduring it.

Then there’s Henry. I felt like Gregory’s attempts to paint him as multidimensional missed the mark. On one hand he is cold, calculating, and untrusting but on the other hand he almost immediately begins readily opening up to Elizabeth about his insecurities and fears, despite the fact that she has done nothing to coax this out of him and despite the fact that he never trusts her. Making a character multidimensional doesn’t mean having them do things that don’t make sense.

I get that this is supposed to be a story about a woman who was forced to ride the line between two warring factions and how she was powerless to stop the people she loved on both sides from destroying one another. I get that it’s supposed to be about a man who is barely able to cling to a throne that was never his and how it will haunt him for all his days. In theory, it sounds like a great story but it just wasn’t executed very well.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier

Received ARC from publisher via NetGalley.
Release date: March 11, 2014

Philologist Diana Morgan has always had a fascination with the legend of the Amazons from the time her supposedly mentally ill grandmother claimed to be one and even gave her a notebook with a dictionary of a strange, unknown language. So when Diana is approached by a mysterious man with a photograph of an archaeological site covered in the very same language (which I suspect is supposed to be the language from the Phaistos Disc), she can’t resist the offer to investigate.

Running parallel to her story is that of Myrina, a young woman struggling to survive within classic tales from Greek mythology and Homer's Troy, who will stop at nothing to protect her younger sister. But Fortier's retelling is anything but traditional and manages to put realistic spins on The Iliad that link several elements from history and mythology. Though the premise of novels like this can sometimes be a little far-fetched, this was one of the more believable ones.

I love a good treasure hunt/archaeological mystery and the fact that it was based on Greek mythology intrigued me more. From the time I was 12, when I first learned about classical mythology, I've been fascinated by it so this was right up my alley. There's lots of action and adventure as Diana follows clues taking her in Myrina's footsteps across the Mediterranean but the character development isn't neglected either and the personal journeys that both the main characters go through make it difficult to put down. 608 pages may be longish for an action novel but they flew by. The feminism could be a little heavy handed at times but that's to be expected from a novel about a sisterhood and it's important to remember the brutal world the Amazons lived in and particularly how women were often treated.

While Diana's chapters are told in first person, Myrina's are told in third person, which is not normally something I'm fond of but it works well to distinguish the different time periods. Despite being split over thousands of years, the book flows between the two worlds effortlessly.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review: Sisters of the Bruce, 1292-1314 by J.M. Harvey

Received free review copy from publisher via NetGalley.

Robert the Bruce was King of Scots and a key figure in the Wars of Scottish Independence against the English and as such, he plays a major role in several novels. This book attracted my attention because it’s the first novel I’ve seen devoted to the women of the Bruce family, initially the two eldest sisters of Robert, Isabel and Christina - or Isa and Kirsty as they are called in this novel. A large portion of it is told through letters between the two of them (and occasionally Robert the Bruce himself), and later letters include Matilda, so there is a lot more “telling” than “showing”, not my preferred method of storytelling. When events are described in the letters, however detailed they may be, they still felt as though they were merely glimpses of what should have been so much more, and I kept wishing I could read a scene of the event taking place, hear the dialogue, etc. It meant I never really formed an emotional attachment to what should have been important characters in the sisters lives.

It’s obviously very well researched and portrays the medieval world accurately. However, even once the letters cease being the primary storytelling method, the book continues to tell the story often more as like an overview of events. For example, there is rarely any dialogue, which I found very strange. Though there was internal dialogue, it was too little too late. I couldn’t get into it and spent the second half of the book skimming it. There could have been a great story here and I really wanted to like it but the method of storytelling let it down.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Review: Letters From a Murderer by John Matthews

When the Ripper murders abruptly ceased after the autumn of 1888, the assumption could only be made that the murderer had either died, gone to prison on an unrelated charge, or left London for new grounds. This novel is based on the latter theory, that the Ripper may have continued his slaughters in 1891 NYC. Investigating is a capable Italian-American NYPD detective and a criminal analyst from London who had worked on the original Ripper case.

Naturally, there have been many comparisons to The Gangs of New York but this novel attracted me after recently being obsessed with BBCA's historical drama Copper, which has it's own comparisons to The Gangs of New York as well. Being a gritty 19th century crime novel set in NYC, I thought this sounded like a good, similar type novel to help wean me through my withdraw after Copper was cancelled even after being hailed as the most popular BBCA show ever. However, that's about where the similarities ended. This novel can’t help but stand on its own.

Being a Ripper novel really set it apart from either The Gangs of New York or Copper. Ripper novels have perhaps been a little overdone and though there have been many theories about the Ripper appearing in America, setting this in NYC provided something new and allowed the author more creative freedom.

One thing really bothered me though, and that was the use of the myth about name changes due to immigration officers who couldn't spell or pronounce foreign names. Any knowledgeable genealogist will be able to tell you why this persistent tale is so false. For starters, immigration officers - even in history - were often multilingual. Do people really think immigration departments in history didn't make use of translators? Secondly, immigration officers worked off written documentation compiled at the port of departure. I don't know why people seem to think that in history, documentation wasn't a requirement for immigrants. Lastly, the incorrect recording of one’s name during immigration does not mean one’s name was forcibly changed. When we see this in genealogy, it's considered an error, not a legal name change. Of course, many immigrants did anglicize their names but it was of their own choosing and typically occurred after the point of immigration.

I have seen this myth appear in several novels but this is the first time I've seen it in historical fiction and frankly, a historical novelist should really know better. I don't expect an author writing a contemporary novel to do historical research but I do expect it of a historical fiction author so to include such a myth just strikes me as sloppy. Of course, I was able to get passed this. It was one sentence in the whole book so I got over it and enjoyed the story as a whole.

There's a lot going on in this novel, there's many twists and turns to keep you guessing and many subplots, both the main characters have interesting back stories dealing with issues unrelated to the Ripper case, so it's not just a simple murder mystery or Ripper-hunt. Supposedly the first in a series, I look forward to the next book from this author.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

CW's Reign

Ad for 'Reign' showing the fictional
'Bash' character and inaccurately
portrayed Dauphin Francis.
I intended this to be a book review blog but after just watching the CW's pilot on Mary, Queen of Scots, I had a few things to say about it. It does contain a few spoilers, I've written it on the assumption of those reading this have already watched the first episode.

The show opens with a teenage Mary living in a convent in France and, after an assassination attempt, is sent to live at the French court, where she briefly had spent some time before when she'd first arrived in France as a child. This of course is inaccurate, the real Mary never lived in a convent, she grew up at the French court after arriving there at five years old. I could excuse this though, it made some sense to introduce the audience to the story at the same time that Mary was being reintroduced to the French court. It means that we learn things about the court as Mary learns them, which helps us empathize with her. Although she knows many of the people at court, she is learning about them as an adult and therefore, in a way, she is new to the court and still settling in. It's a good starting point, even if not true.

When Mary arrives at the French court, we discover that she is betrothed to the Dauphin of France, the heir to the throne, Francis. Understandably for a teen show, it centers on romantic intrigue when Francis is already involved with a random pretty girl at court, complicating his feelings for Mary, while Mary herself finds some emotional refuge with Francis' half brother, the king's bastard 'Bash' (short for Sebastian). Meanwhile, the romantic interest of one of Mary's ladies fills a sub-plot while another of her ladies gets involved with the king himself when he encounters her masturbating after covertly watching a princess of France lose her virginity on her wedding night. While it's true that the consummation of royal marriages often required witnesses, the idea that the maiden Queen of Scotland and her ladies could sneak a peek from behind a screen is pretty far-fetched. Even more far-fetched is the idea that one of them would masturbate in the middle of a stairwell. The scene was heavily edited down and is really only suggestive, you're left not entirely confident that's what she was doing because apparently, the show's producers felt that showing a young woman discovering and exploring her sexuality on her own is more controversial than a teenage girl having an affair with an grown, married man.

The real Francis and Mary
The other two major inaccuracies I spotted were the introduction of a fictional character, Bash, and the portrayal of Francis. I don't mind storytelling involving fictional characters, even some of the best historical fiction authors make use of them, such as Sharon Kay Penman and Bernard Cornwell. It allows the storyteller greater creative freedom and often creates additional sub-plots, giving the story a more complex and multi-dimensional feel. The danger zone of fictional characters in a historical story is when they get too involved with the main historical characters. If taken too far, it becomes unbelievable that a historical figure had quite so much involvement with someone who never existed, unless there is a good reason they never appeared in the history books despite being a pivotal player. We'll see if 'Reign' goes down that path or not but for now, I can understand why they've created a fictional bastard of the king and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers (historically, Diane had no children by the king, only two daughters who could not have been the king's since they were born around the same time he was). Not only does it involve Diane more in the family politics but Bash also serves as an alternate love interest for Mary, which I guess is practically a necessity when your target audience is teenage girls. In reality, though there's no speculation that Mary was ever involved with a king's bastard, for the sake of a good story, Mary would have been in a prime position to find love elsewhere than with her fiance, not because he was already sleeping with other women, or because he felt it politically unwise to marry her, as the show would have you believe. No, in reality the reason would have been much simpler, though admittedly also much less sexy, because the historical Francis was an underdeveloped, sickly little boy. Already a year younger than the developing and tall Mary, Francis' growth was stunted by his health problems and made the age difference between them seem even greater. Though by all accounts, Mary got along with and cared for Francis, it was probably more as a little brother than as a passionate lover. So it's not unreasonable that a fictional story would speculate on Mary finding love elsewhere, I just don't fully understand the need to make Francis a healthy, handsome, strapping young man when he was anything but. Apparently, everyone in this TV show must be attractive and I find it difficult to believe that today's young women are quite so vain that they couldn't appreciate a well portrayed, if unattractive, character. A beautiful young queen and a handsome forbidden bastard evidently isn't enough, pretty much the entire court must be good looking. Even Diane, who as a mistress of the king you might except to be beautiful, is played by an actress in her 30s when in reality she was 20 years the king's senior and approaching 60 by this point.

Scene showing some of the more inaccurate dresses
Appealing to modern young women brings me to my next complaint, the costumes. Apparently, the CW believe that today's teenagers won't be interested in anything even remotely resembling historically accurate costumes. Strapless dresses? Really? Need I say more?

Another romanticized element of this is how much time Mary conveniently gets to spend alone, which of course allows her to have private conversations with Francis and Bash. For the very reason that, in the show, Mary's reputation was nearly ruined when a young man is found in her bed, she equally would not be able to spend so much time wandering around on her own, running into handsome and dashing young men who, of course, fall hopelessly in love with her. In this way, it is more like a fairy tale than history.

While the show might appeal to many for purely entertainment purposes, it's unsurprisingly an epic fail on historical integrity. Still, I can still the appeal as a guilty-pleasure and I support any mainstream entertainment that encourages people, especially young people, to develop an interest in history. If this show gets young women wanting to learn more or picking up books, even novels, about Mary Stuart or French royalty, I hope it runs for a very long time. Perhaps, in that way, it will do for young people what The Tudors did for so many adults, a show that I admittedly loved and that partially sparked my own interest in royal history, despite it's own numerous inaccuracies. Sometimes, a story doesn't have to be historically accurate to be enjoyable and let's hope 'Reign' proves this to be true. I, for one, will continue to watch it if only to see Torrance Coombs' alarmingly beautiful blue eyes again. I never said I was above a bit of eye candy...

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Review: Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World by Alison Weir

UK Release Date: November 7, 2013
US Release Date: December 3, 2013

I was thrilled to receive this as an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley because I have a lot of respect for Alison Weir, her history books being so detailed, comprehensive, and extensively cited. I was particularly curious to see what she had to say about Elizabeth of York, a woman who always seemed an elusive figure to me. Was she just a pawn in the final acts of the Wars of the Roses? How did she really feel about her uncle? About her husband? Who did she think responsible for the disappearance and presumed death of her brothers? There are so many questions surrounding her and I was eager to read Weir’s take on these questions. And she didn’t disappoint, while there have been other dedicated biographies on Elizabeth of York, none are as extensive as this and Weir tackles many of the common questions about Elizabeth without hesitation. Of course, she’s limited by how little is known about Elizabeth and Weir often can only make suggestions or put forward theories but she is always clear when doing so.

It’s worth mentioning that Weir was writing this while Richard III’s remains were being discovered which means she was able to incorporate new conclusions from this. Apart from Langley’s book on the dig, Weir’s is the first I know of to include this, which made it all the more intriguing.

Naturally, the period covering the Wars of the Roses is the most fascinating but it’s definitely a must read for anyone interested in the Wars of the Roses or Tudor history.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: A Disappearance in Drury Lane (Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries #8) by Ashley Gardner

Captain Gabriel Lacey agrees to investigate the disappearance of a famous Drury Lane actress after she received threats and an explosive package. But he has to balance his investigation with managing his new marriage, getting to know his daughter again, and avoiding a new Bow Street runner determined to see him hang for his involvement with criminal James Denis. All while not getting himself killed, of course.

So there's a lot going on in the eighth installment of this series and it kept me guessing until the end, making it hard to put down. As always, the characters are a big part of what makes me return to this series, whether protagonist or antagonist, they each have their own intricate backgrounds and unique personalities.

My only criticism is that I didn't find Mr. Holt's motive very believable. I could get on board with Mrs. Holt's obsessive dedication to her sister but I didn't really understand why her husband would get involved.

After eight books, it has not gotten stale at all and I'm already eagerly awaiting the ninth book.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Review: The King's Grave: The Discovery of Richard III's Lost Burial Place and the Clues It Holds by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones

Received ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.
Release date: October 29, 2013

I was eager to read this because the discovery of Richard’s grave was an incredible moment in history and I wanted to learn more about it and how it changes what we know of Richard.

The information about the dig was very interesting and exciting to read about. But Langley’s obvious bias was thick throughout much of the book. She accuses Vergil of having an “all too apparent bias”, which is not a completely unreasonable comment but in the past, the same thing was said of Rous’ comments about Richard’s “hunchback”, which turned out to be based in truth. I am aware that scoliosis is not what we now consider a true hunchback but in the Middle Ages, there would have been little to no distinction, they likely would have called any spinal deformity a "hunchback", particularly a "severe" case like Richard's. But this fact is totally overlooked in the book. Langley admits that when she first heard the word "hunchback" after finding the skeleton with the curved spine, she was devastated to think it would validate all the negative accounts of Richard. But the moment she finds out it was scoliosis instead of kyphosis, she dismisses any possibility that this should still throw other presumed “propaganda” into some question too. If the legend of his hunchback was based in fact, what else that she is dismissing as propaganda might actually have some truth to it?

Additionally, going back to Vergil, she later uses his more positive comments about Richard's sharp wit to show how intelligent Richard was. While I'm not denying that Richard was intelligent, it just seems to me that Langley is picking and choosing which Vergil comments are accurate and which aren't purely to suit her agenda.

Langley claims that she never wanted to paint Richard as a saint but she proves herself wrong on that account every step of the way. That said, it appears that co-author Michael Jones was brought in to attempt to counterbalance Langley's bias. When it comes down to it, the official line in the book regarding the fate of the princes in the tower following an attempt to break them free says:
"On the basis of all the material available we do not know what happened to the princes. (This is an issue where the co-authors disagree - for this, see the debate in Appendix 1.) But there is strong circumstantial evidence that Richard now ordered their murder, possibly on the advice or yielding to the persuasion of Buckingham - as most people thought at the time."
So in the end, I did feel that the book attempted to be objective and put forward more than one viewpoint, but Langley's bias still managed to shine through much of the book. Also disappointing is that while the book names several sources within the text, there are no citations throughout the book and so most of the historical accounts, particularly Langley’s take on the (non-medical) details of how Bosworth went down, are completely unsourced.

(For the record, I do think Richard is most likely suspect in the murder of his nephews but I don’t think that necessarily makes him evil and I do agree there was negative propaganda put out about him too).

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: Bloody Lessons (A Victorian Francisco Mystery #3) by M. Louisa Locke

In the third full novel of this series, Nate Dawson's little sister joins Annie Fuller's boarding house in San Francisco. While dealing with events from the previous year, she takes up a teaching job in place of her best friend, Hattie, who has abruptly resigned and plans to hurriedly marry the principle. Meanwhile, several teachers are receiving threatening letters and Nate, Annie, and Laura collaborate to find the blackmailer.

I really enjoyed this cozy historical mystery, although I have to say I called "it" on both counts from the beginning! So it wasn't a big mystery but sometimes you just have to enjoy the journey there, it's not all about finding out "whodunnit". There's a lot going on in the story to keep readers wanting to know more.

I liked that a new character was brought into the investigative fold, while it took Annie a little off center stage for a while, it was a refreshing change of pace. But don't worry, Annie and Nate still play significant roles and their romance is not neglected!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Review: The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World by Sue Woolmans

Received ebook ARC from publisher via NetGalley.
Release date: September 3, 2013

I have to admit, I did not know much about World War I or it’s causes. For starters, I don’t have much interest in military history and the First World War is often eclipsed by the infamous Second. To me, WWI was just an event that took place between the Victorian area and the Depression. I did not have any living relatives who fought in WWI like I do with WWII. While I had some vague knowledge of it involving the three ruling cousins of Britain, Germany, and Russia, as well as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, I didn’t know much more beyond that. I knew more about the Scottish band named after him than I did of Franz Ferdinand himself.

This book appealed to me because its goal was to examine Franz Ferdinand’s personal life rather than focusing entirely on the politics; without the human side of history, a book will struggle to hold my attention. Beautifully written and easy to follow even if you’re somewhat new to the subject matter, this book accomplished its goal effortlessly. From what I could gather, the author’s sympathetic approach is new and unique and earned it the exclusive approval of many descendants of Franz Ferdinand. Although it paints Sophie as something of a saint, never putting a foot wrong and retaining her tact and dignity in the face of harsh and unfair disrespect and elitism, it is honest about Franz’s shortcomings, mainly that he lacked charm and had a temper only Sophie could calm. Both were attentive and loving parents, raising children who, just like Sophie, had better manners and more class than those of higher rank who constantly sought to remind them of their place.

The politics leading up to the war certainly weren’t left out and strongly addressed in the latter half of the book but the human touch of this really brought this tragic family’s story to life.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: The Passing Bells (Greville Family #1) by Philip Rock

This is the original Downton Abbey. In fact, I’d be very surprised if the creator of Downton, Julian Fellows, hasn’t read this and taken some inspiration from it. The time period and setting, particularly in the first third before the war begins, is precisely like Downton and there are notable parallels among some of the large cast of characters, both upstairs and down.

Much like the Earl of Grantham, Anthony Greville, Earl of Stanmore, is expectedly traditional and struggled to adapt to the changing ways of the world. We soon learn his wife, just like Cora Crawley, is a wealthy American, and that their marriage was a love match. Unlike Robert Crawley though, Anthony doesn’t have to worry about who will inherit his title and home since he has more than one son and a spirited daughter.

Downstairs, we learn that the stiff valet, who could be Mr. Carson’s twin, doesn’t approve of the young, new chauffeur who is perhaps a mix of Downton’s two Toms (Thomas Barrow and Tom Branson). In fact, most of the staff bristle at the chauffeur’s boastful nature, except the new, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed maid who is much like Daisy.

What sets it apart from Downton is that the Greville’s story deals much more with War World I, taking us to the trenches and hospitals on the war front. Downton is strictly about the ongoings at Downton, Passing Bells is more of a WWI novel. It’s really about how the war effects and changes the lives of the many people connected by this great house. Additionally, one thing Abington Pryory is missing is their own Violet Crawley and therefore much of the humor she brings to the TV show is also absent. On the other hand, Passing Bells has a valuable addition in the form of an American cousin who spends time on the front lines as a journalist, giving us an American perspective of the war too.

Still, it will certainly appeal to Downton fans and I highly recommend it to anyone suffering from Downton withdraw during the off season.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: The Iron King (The Accursed Kings #1) by Maurice Druon

A novel of Philip the Fair of France and the scandalous and violence of his court, first book in The Accursed Kings series about the Capets.

“If you like A Song of Ice and Fire, you will love The Accursed Kings” - George R.R. Martin.

You can imagine my excitement. A Foreward written by one of my favorite authors explaining how this series was one of his inspirations for possibly my favorite series ever.

I don’t know if it’s because this is a translation or if it’s because it was written nearly 60 years ago, or perhaps both, but I found the writing style and dialogue very stiff. The narrative even reads more like a history book at times - very matter-of-fact. I think this was an even bigger let down because of the hype around it, not only revered by readers but recommended by George R.R. Martin. Most of the criticism seems to be from GRRM fans who, like me, picked it up on the back of his recommendation, but it’s important to note that it’s the plot content, not the writing style, which is “Game of Thrones-like”. Don’t expect this to have Martin’s narrative. However, I also read a lot of historical fiction about royalty so this should have been right up my alley even if Martin had never spoken a word about it so it’s not just the comparison to ASOIAF which is causing this to be a disappointment.

I did see some of the influence it may have had on Martin's series though, mostly in the characters, so that is saying something. Isabella reminded me a little of Cersei sometimes, though not nearly as evil. But if I had to recommend something similar to ASOIAF, I'd probably go with any of Bernard Cornwell's medieval based novels/series. Though his cast of characters is not as extensive, his portrayal of the medieval world is very similar, as is his sense of humor. Apparently the two authors are good friends as well.

There is a great story here, if you’re willing to get passed the methodical style of the narrative and dialogue. Those who are used to Jean Plaidy’s writing style, for example, might get on board with this easily (evidence that it has something to do with being written in the 1950s) - and I have been able to enjoy Plaidy’s work so I feel a little hypocritical given this a lower rating. But after my anticipation was so high, this was a greater let down.

I would have liked to see what a more modern translator could do with this, since I’m pretty sure it’s just been reissued as it was at the time of the last release and not re-translated.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: Hild by Nicola Griffith

Received ARC from publisher via NetGalley.
Release date: November 12, 2013

A novel of the early life of Hilda of Whitby, Christian saint, founding abbess of the monastery of Whitby, and niece of King Edwin of Northumbria.

What attracted me to this novel was the fact that it’s written about a rather obscure time period. I love novels that introduce me to a lesser known part of history and make it feel more familiar to me. And when I open a book set in Anglo-Saxon England, I want it to feel distinctly different from the more stereotypical idea we have of the medieval world, which is usually of the high to late middle ages. It should reflect that this is pre-Norman Conquest.

Griffith did not let me down in this regard. Her narrative and historical knowledge made the period feel completely different from our own, to the point where she may have actually gone a little too far and so I had really mixed feelings about this book. Griffith does not spend a lot of time overtly explaining who’s who or what’s what - a lot of the history has to be worked out by the reader as the story progresses. Equally, there are a lot of Anglo-Saxon words that many readers may not be familiar with and though sometimes the context gives you a vague idea of what it means, if you want to know more, you’ll have to check the glossary or google it. On one hand, I can appreciate this because often, an obvious explanation can feel too much like an anachronistic narrative. However, taking this too far can make it too difficult to read and sometimes I felt like I was spending more time googling Old English words than reading the book (because the glossary was difficult to access in the ebook ARC - additionally, not every Old English word is included in the glossary!). I especially found it unnecessary when the word has a known modern equivalent - such as the use of “ælf” when “elf”, “fairy” or “nymph” could have just as easily been used. When the author was describing an Anglo-Saxon concept that does not have a modern name, it’s more understandable - but using Old English words when it’s completely unnecessary just came across as the author showing off or trying too hard to prove herself by throwing in so many words most readers won’t know.

Scene descriptions were very detailed which many people will love but for me, that made it drag a bit at times. Yes, a certain amount of scene setting and world building is necessary but there is such thing as too much of a good thing. I can enjoy a slow paced novel but this just dragged in too many places.

The characters and their interactions were the best part of this novel for me but it just got bogged down by these other things.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review: The Outcasts by Kathleen Kent

Received ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.
Release date: September 24, 2013

Book description:

It's the 19th century on the Gulf Coast, a time of opportunity and lawlessness. After escaping the Texas brothel where she'd been a virtual prisoner, Lucinda Carter heads for Middle Bayou to meet her lover, who has a plan to make them both rich, chasing rumors of a pirate's buried treasure. 

Meanwhile Nate Cannon, a young Texas policeman with a pure heart and a strong sense of justice, is on the hunt for a ruthless killer named McGill who has claimed the lives of men, women, and even children across the frontier. Who--if anyone--will survive when their paths finally cross? 

As Lucinda and Nate's stories converge, guns are drawn, debts are paid, and Kathleen Kent delivers an unforgettable portrait of a woman who will stop at nothing to make a new life for herself.


Another excellently written novel from Kathleen Kent. I think what I really enjoy about her books is her character development and complex relationships between her characters. This one is faster paced than The Heretic’s Daughter and is accurately described as a “thriller” but neither the character development or historical setting suffer for it. There are several twists and turns in the plot and I found it very difficult to put down. For a mere 336 page book, Kent packs a lot in without neglecting any element required for a great read.

I wasn't sure how well Kent would do with a later time period than she has written in before but she made the switch seamlessly, bringing the period to life just as well as she had in her previous novels.

My only complaint is that the very end seems a little too coincidental to be realistic. I suppose it also adds some meaning to the story though. I won’t say more than that for fear of spoilers.

I can’t wait for Kent’s next novel, she is definitely going on my favorite authors list.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: The Bones of Paris (Harris Stuyvesant #2) by Laurie R. King

ARC received from publisher via NetGalley.

Private detective and former FBI agent Harris Stuyvesant explores the darkest sides of the Surrealist movement in Paris as he searches for a woman he briefly met before she disappeared.

There is no denying that Laurie King is an excellent author or that this book is superbly written. However, I found the dark subject matter very disturbing, to the point where I was feeling depressed just by picking my Kindle up, knowing what was waiting for me. I like murder mysteries and I don’t mind if they are dark and violent as it can add realism (ironic, in a book about Surrealism) but this is particularly heavy and gritty. In a way, the fact that the book evoked such emotion in me is a testament to how well written it is but it just got a bit too much for me.

It was also a little too modern for my tastes, although I did appreciate the appearances of certain celebrities from this time period (Man Ray, Cole Porter, etc), I guess I prefer my historical novels to be set pre-WWI.

Lastly, I have to admit I did not realize that this was part of a series and not the first book. I hate reading series out of order and had I known that this book was a sequel, I honestly wouldn’t have requested an ARC. There is definitely a lot that made me feel out of the loop so I would not recommend it to someone who has not read the first book.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Review: Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York by Lisa Hilton

Received free review copy from publisher via NetGalley.

At first glance this looked similar to Helen Castor’s “She Wolves”. But Castor focuses more on the misogyny of the times, the individual powerful women who took control of their own destinies in spite of it, and what that meant for their reputations, whereas ‘Queens Consort’ is more about the role of queenship, both domestic and political, how each consort defined those roles and how it evolved. Castor also talked about Mary I and the lead up to her ascent after her brother Edward VI died when, for the first time, all the contenders for the throne were female. Hilton does not discuss female regnants, only the role of queen consort. There is some overlap in the factual biographies but the thesis and assessment are approached differently and Hilton studies several more queen consorts than Castor.

And for this reason, I was glad to see Hilton actually covered each and every consort from Matilda of Flanders to Elizabeth of York (the subtitle of the book is a little misleading in this regard), whether they are well known or not; you can’t explore the role of queenship by picking and choosing certain queens. The conclusion sums everything up by analyzing how Beowulf and Thomas Malroy’s Le Morte d'Arthur portray, and thus how the different time periods they were written in perceived queenship.

It’s very well written and it feels comprehensive despite fitting so many historical figures into one book so I expect this will make an excellent reference book.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Review: Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

This is an endearing novel made up of fictional letters between the main characters, which I won in a giveaway. It’s a somewhat unique approach to tell a story entirely in letters but it tells a story of a long distance romance between a woman in Scotland and a man in Illinois during the early 20th century, around the time of WWI. It also consists of letters between the same woman and her daughter and others during WWII and through them pieces of the past are put together. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this approach but it wound up working really well, the scenes manage to come alive as the characters recall and reminisce to each other.

Due to the format of the storytelling, I didn’t quite get a sense of the historical setting. The book description says “full of captivating period detail” but I’m not sure I’d fully agree with that. Apart from talk about the world wars, the history didn’t really come alive for me.

But on the other hand, the relationship between the two main characters really struck a chord with me since my English husband and my American self met online, first communicating by email, then “instant messenger”, then phone, and then finally meeting in person. The letters reminded me of the emails between my husband and I - the feeling of knowing someone so well before you’ve even met them in person, feeling so connected to someone who is so far away, eagerly awaiting the next letter from them, the thrill of meeting them in person for the first time.

It was a little bit predictable but that’s okay because the end game isn’t what this book is about, it’s about the characters and their relationships and their journey, which was really well done.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Review: The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

Perhaps it’s just because I recently read Germs, Genes, and Civilization but I was a little disappointed to see the author get her plagues mixed up. The book opens in 1690 with the onset of an illness of the main character’s brother. It’s named as smallpox but the author then goes on to describe what sounds more like the Bubonic plague (black death) than smallpox. The main character talks of how entire families would wake up healthy in the morning and all be dead by nightfall; this is a completely inaccurate description of smallpox. By 1690, smallpox was not that fatal - the mortality rate was only about 30% so the likelihood of an entire family perishing from it was small. Furthermore, smallpox does not kill this quickly, death usually occurs after about two weeks from onset. All of this IS an accurate description of the bubonic plague though. The only thing that didn’t sound like the black death was the mention of the pustules on the face. Sounds like the author either didn’t do her research well enough or got mixed up in the process of her research.

Granted, I did consider that it was being told from the point of view of a small child and perhaps the author intended it as the child who got confused with the stories of the bubonic plague and smallpox. But you’d think if that were the case, the narration would mention that later in life the girl realize her mix up so that readers don’t get confused.

(Btw, I’m not considering this a spoiler since it occurs in the opening chapter and is mentioned in the very first paragraph).

I was also a little perplexed to find a randomly thrown in passage written in present tense near the end when the rest of the book was in past tense. I’m guessing the author was trying to distinguish the moment but it felt more jarring and out of place to me.

So why am I giving it 4 stars? Because the book is otherwise very well written with excellent, complex characters and a great plot. Though it is slow paced and there’s a lot of internal dialogue, it’s not boring - it's very emotionally powerful.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: Germs, Genes, & Civilization: How Epidemics Shaped Who We Are Today by David P. Clark

This is very informative book about the history and evolution of bacteria and viruses and how they have influenced the development of civilization, but I took issue with certain passages such as this:
“The great age of hygiene lasted from roughly 1850 to 1950. The front-line troops in the battle for cleanliness were mostly women. Since the 1950s, women have gradually abandoned the home and ventured forth to find external employment. Hygiene standards in the home have inevitably relaxed. Houses are cleaned less often, laundry is done less often, and both are done less thoroughly. Despite the outbreaks in fast-food restaurants that hit the headlines, most foodborne disease actually occurs in the home and goes unreported.”
I felt like the author was trying to say that women who work full time are putting their families health and hygiene at risk. It was suggestive that a woman’s place is in the home, cooking and cleaning. There was no evidence or stats supplied to support this theory that homes today are less hygienic than 60+ years ago or that even if they are, food poisoning is a direct result of it. Indeed, the author does at least admit that most food-borne diseases go unreported but this means there is no evidence to support his ridiculous claims.

Despite being full of useful information, passages like this unfortunately cause me to question the respectability and intent of the book as a whole. Fortunately, I did not pay anything for it - it was a Kindle freebie once upon a time.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Review: The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz

Book description:

In freezing London, November 1890, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson receive a man unnerved by a scarred-face stalker with piercing eyes. A conspiracy reaches to the Boston criminal underworld. The whispered phrase 'the House of Silk' hints at a deadly foe. Authorized by Doyle's estate.


This was very enjoyable and I thought the characters mostly did the originals justice but I took issues with two things.

First, Holmes’ escape from prison by disguising himself as someone else with just the aid of a wig and different clothes. I understand that it was supposed to be a testament to his ability to put on a completely different persona but I found it unbelievable that no one would have recognized him without at least some makeup on. Holmes’ may be a remarkable character capable of great feats but he can not change the features and structure of his face just through acting.

Secondly was Moriarty’s attempt to help break Holmes’ out of prison by giving Watson the key to his cell door. Once Watson got into the prison, it was clear that this plan never would have worked since there were more gates and doors to get passed than the one key would open. I find it difficult to believe that a mastermind like Moriarty would make such an ignorant mistake. The whole thing felt contrived just to feature Moriarty.

However, I can’t fault it too much - it was a very well written and complex story that kept me guessing while at the same time, I was pleased to discover at least one of my theories turned out to be right. I felt the writing was definitely in keeping with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s style, which is not surprising since it’s been endorsed by the Conan Doyle Estate.

This was my first book by this author and I thought it might be worth mentioning that this is an ADULT book. It seems the author’s previous work was mostly in the young adult/children genre so please don’t assume that this is also young adult just because it’s the same author.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Review: Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell

Being the second of only two novels written about Emma of Normandy so far, it’s difficult not to compare this to the first, Helen Hollick’s The Forever Queen. Hollick’s novel is one of my favorites and so it would be difficult to stand up against in my eyes. At the same time, it's difficult to compare them because this novel only covers a portion of Emma's life whereas Hollick's novel covers her whole life.

Shadow on the Crown tells a tale of a strong young woman well groomed for queenship who finds herself a near prisoner of a husband who does not trust her. Her fate is in the hands of her brother, who will most likely put her in jeopardy by breaking his agreement with the English king - an agreement that was sealed with Emma’s marriage. And her attempts to make friends at court are rejected by her eldest wary stepsons and sabotaged by a jealous rival. Her position will be secured and protected if she bears a son but this is also the very thing that threatens her stepson’s positions as heirs. It’s told in third person, from the four points of view of Emma, King Æthelred, his son Æthelstan, and Elgiva (Ælfgifu of Northampton), the daughter of an Ealdorman.

It’s very well written but I don’t think the characters were quite as well done as Hollick’s. The antagonists were pretty one dimensional and I felt like the romance between Emma and Æthelstan was very sudden and unexpected. I don't fully understand what prompted Æthelstan to give Emma a chance and I felt like he did a very quick 180.

I felt like Bracewell took a lot more liberties with the unknown than Hollick did. It worked well for the story but it did make it feel less likely to have really happened. I don't mind authors taking a creative license though, as long as it works and makes sense, which it did, and there is a lot unknown about Emma which the author had to work with.

There's no denying this was a well written and well crafted story that was very enjoyable. Though it’s the first in a trilogy whereas Hollick’s novel on Emma is stand alone (there is a sequel but it does not strongly feature Emma), I’d say being split into shorter novels makes it easier to read and maybe more appealing to the mainstream. I’d still rank Forever Queen higher but I am looking forward to the next in this trilogy from Bracewell.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Review: Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman

In classic Sharon Kay Penman style, this brilliant account of Richard the Lionheart's crusade is told from the points of view of the women in his life, namely the two who accompanied him to the Holy Land, his wife Berengaria of Navarre and his sister, Joanna, Queen of Sicily.

Part of what I really liked about this one was that it was set in in the Mediterranean/Middle East, which was a refreshing change from the areas Penman usually writes in (mostly England, Wales, and France).

As usual, the characters are what make it shine but I am also amazed that Penman manages to make the battle scenes just as interesting to me since I’m not very hugely interested in military history. Penman really shows why Richard is considered such a brilliant military leader, why men would follow him and believe in him against all odds. It really explains why, despite the fact that Richard didn’t do much for England as a King and used it primarily to fund his Crusades, he is remembered favorably as Richard the Lionheart. At the same time, Richard was not flawless and as ever, Penman created a wonderfully multi-dimensional character.

I also really enjoyed her portrayal of Berengaria, the perfect example of how women can be strong and capable without being outspoken and rebellious. It was also interesting to watch how the two main women in the story were so different and yet formed such a strong bond over their love for Richard and their willingness to follow him through any hardship.

This was a Goodreads Giveaway.
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