Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Review: Dancing on Deansgate by Freda Lightfoot

A neglected and abused girl in wartime Manchester tries to find her way out of poverty and crime with music.

I originally picked this up because it was set during the Manchester Blitz, which my mother-in-law lived through, so I thought it might have some personal relevance. But it's really not about the Blitz. It still could have been a good story, but I found there was way too much "telling" and not enough "showing". The majority of the beginning of the book felt like a big info dump. I find I struggle to connect with the characters when that is the case because it feels more like a matter-of-fact narration than experiencing the story as the characters do. It's a shame because Freda Lightfoot has written several historical novels set in Manchester, which appeals to me since I lived there for 8 years, but not if the writing is like this.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Review: Lily of the Nile (Cleopatra's Daughter #1) by Stephanie Dray

Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony struggles with the complexity of her relationships with her parent's enemies, and her loyalty to her home and religion after she and her brothers are orphaned and held captive in Rome.

In the past, I've been known criticize books that are heavy handed with magic and mysticism, but in truth, I don't mind magic being used in the novels I read, I just want it to make sense and not come across as contrived just for the sake of it. In Lily of the Nile, although magic was frequently involved, I didn't mind it since it did not feel contrived. The plot did not rely too heavily on magic, but Selene's relationships and religion did, which is what this novel is all about.

I'm looking forward to completing this series and seeing how Selene uses her power and influence as a queen in a new land.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Black Friday Historical Fiction and Non-Fiction Sales

Happy belated Thanksgiving! Hopefully not too late on this - Black Friday sales on Amazon often extend to Cyber Monday. There's dozens of historical fiction on sale right now - view them here. There's also a number of non-fiction history books on sale here.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Review: The Huntress by Kate Quinn

Release Date: February 26, 2018

There are some books that are really difficult to review because it's difficult to express just how good it is, at least not without sounding like I'm gushing or fangirling all over. This is one of those books.

In the wake of WWII, an English journalist, American translator, and Russian female pilot track down a German Nazi murderess who committed horrific war crimes before fleeing to Boston where she embeds herself in an All-American family.

Kate Quinn is a master at weaving real history into fictional characters and stories. You might think the fact that they are fictional takes away from the impact of the story but it doesn't, because although the main characters are fictional, they are usually inspired by real life historical figures, and the plot based on real life historical events. And best of all, Quinn's hallmark is her strong and compelling, yet realistic heroines.

Like "The Alice Network", this one jumps back and forth in the timeline, but only over a span of about 10 years. We see the war only through Nina's eyes, a Russian pilot who grew up in the wilderness of Siberia with an abusive father. In the scenes after the war, it's told from the point of view of Ian, a former journalist turned war criminal tracker, and Jordan, a young woman in Boston who can't get passed the niggling thought that something isn't quite right with her seemingly perfect new stepmother.

It was a little frustrating to know the whole time where "the huntress" was hiding but the characters having no way of knowing that, but it did not detract from the enjoyment of the story. For a moment in the beginning, I thought maybe Nina's identity was stolen by the huntress, but then I realized that was silly, Kate Quinn doesn't really do twists like that. It's not a mystery. But it is an incredibly good story and I had great difficulty putting it down.

Advanced review copy from publisher via Edelweiss. My opinions are my own.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Review: The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

Release Date: January 15, 2019

A great novel on an incredible woman. Honestly, if it wasn’t true, I’d hardly believe it. A Hollywood actress who escaped an abusive marriage and the Holocaust just before it came to her Austrian homeland, and became a self taught scientist and inventor, partnering with a musician to develop an unappreciated radio guidance system for torpedoes, which wasn't adopted by the US Navy until the 1960s, and later became the basis for Bluetooth and wi-fi. I know it almost sounds like I just strung a random selection of words together, but it's true and it rightfully makes a great story. My only criticism is that I felt like the ending was a bit of a let down, being somewhat anticlimactic, which I thought might be inevitable given Hedy's life story.

Hedy is a flawed but enormously strong and highly intelligent woman. She uses her beauty to the best of her advantage without compromising her integrity, yet she's not vain, and in some ways, her beauty is what holds her back, as so many people can't see beyond it. She is driven by her empathy and survivors guilt to aid the US military against Hilter. Fulfilling her acting obligations at the same time, she invents a radio guidance system that solves the problem of signal jamming, something no expert with formal education in the industry could do. Sadly, the government rejected her invention until the 1960s for a number reasons, none of them justified.

I feel a little bit like Hedy must have been something of an inspiration for Legally Blonde's Elle Woods: "Did she just wake up one morning and decide 'I think I'll go to law school'?" Did Hedy just wake up one morning and decide, 'I think I'll solve radio signal jamming today'? Of course, it wasn't that simple in reality, but it parallels the movie of an underestimated beautiful woman proving the world wrong and showing everyone just how smart and capable she really is, even if it took some time before they realized it.

Advanced review copy from publisher via NetGalley. My opinions are my own.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

More 2019 Historical Fiction Releases

The Poison Bed: A Novel by Elizabeth Fremantle

Release Date: April 2, 2019

In the autumn of 1615, scandal rocks the Jacobean court, when a celebrated couple, Robert and Frances Carr, are imprisoned on suspicion of murder. Frances is young, captivating, and from a notorious family. She has been rescued from an abusive marriage by Robert, and is determined to make a new life for herself. Whatever the price.

Robert is one of the richest and most famous men in the kingdom. He has risen from nothing to become one of the country’s most powerful men. But to get to the top, you cannot help making enemies.

(Full description at Goodreads)

City of Flickering Light by Juliette Fay

Release Date: April 16, 2019

It’s July 1921, “flickers” are all the rage, and Irene Van Beck has just declared her own independence by jumping off a moving train to escape her fate in a traveling burlesque show. When her friends, fellow dancer Millie Martin and comedian Henry Weiss, leap after her, the trio finds their way to the bright lights of Hollywood with hopes of making it big in the burgeoning silent film industry.

(Full description at Goodreads)

Wunderland: A Novel by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Release Date: April 23, 2019

Things had never been easy between Ava Fisher and her estranged mother Ilse. Too many questions hovered between them: Who was Ava's father? Where had Ilse been during the war? Why had she left her only child in a German orphanage during the war’s final months? But now Ilse’s ashes have arrived from Germany, and with them, a trove of unsent letters addressed to someone else unknown to Ava: Renate Bauer, a childhood friend. As her mother’s letters unfurl a dark past, Ava spirals deep into the shocking history of a woman she never truly knew.

(Full description at Goodreads)

The Red Daughter: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz

Release Date: April 30, 2019

In one of the most momentous events of the Cold War, Svetlana Alliluyeva, the only daughter of the infamous Soviet despot, abruptly abandoned her life in Moscow in 1967, arriving in New York to throngs of reporters and a nation hungry to hear her story. By her side is Peter Horvath, a young lawyer sent by the CIA to smuggle Svetlana into America. She is a contradictory celebrity: charismatic and headstrong, lonely and haunted, excited and alienated by her adopted country's radically different society. Convincing herself that all she yearns for is a "simple American life," she attempts to settle into suburban existence in Princeton, New Jersey. But one day an invitation from the widow of architect Frank Lloyd Wright arrives, and Svetlana impulsively joins her cultlike community at Taliesin. When this dream ultimately ends in disillusionment, she reaches out to Peter, the one person who understands how the chains of her past still hold her prisoner. As their relationship changes and deepens, it unfolds under the eyes of her CIA minders, and Svetlana and Peter's private lives are no longer their own.

(Full description at Goodreads)

Anna of Kleve, The Princess in the Portrait: A Novel (Six Tudor Queens) by Alison Weir

Release Date: May 14, 2019

Newly widowed and the father of an infant son, Henry VIII realizes he must marry again to insure the royal succession. Now forty-six, overweight and unwell, Henry is soundly rejected by some of Europe's most eligible princesses, but Anna of Kleve--a small German duchy--is twenty-four and eager to wed. Henry requests Anna's portrait from his court painter, who enhances her looks, painting her straight-on in order not to emphasize her rather long nose. Henry is entranced by the lovely image, only to be bitterly surprised when Anna arrives in England and he sees her in the flesh. She is pleasant looking, just not the lady that Henry had expected.

(Full description at Goodreads)

Thursday, October 11, 2018

2019 Historical Fiction Upcoming Releases

The Huntress: A Novel by Kate Quinn

Release Date: February 26, 2019

Bold and fearless, Nina Markova always dreamed of flying. When the Nazis attack the Soviet Union, she risks everything to join the legendary Night Witches, an all-female night bomber regiment wreaking havoc on the invading Germans. When she is stranded behind enemy lines, Nina becomes the prey of a lethal Nazi murderess known as the Huntress, and only Nina’s bravery and cunning will keep her alive.

Transformed by the horrors he witnessed from Omaha Beach to the Nuremberg Trials, British war correspondent Ian Graham has become a Nazi hunter. Yet one target eludes him: a vicious predator known as the Huntress. To find her, the fierce, disciplined investigator joins forces with the only witness to escape the Huntress alive: the brazen, cocksure Nina. But a shared secret could derail their mission unless Ian and Nina force themselves to confront it.

(Full description at Goodreads)

The Woman in the Lake by Nicola Cornick

Release Date: February 26, 2019

1765: Lady Isabella Gerard asks her maid to take her new golden gown and destroy it. Its shimmering beauty has been tainted by the actions of her husband the night before.

Three months later: Lord Eustace Gerard stands beside the lake looking down at the woman in the golden gown. As the body slowly rolls over to reveal her face, it’s clear this is not his intended victim…

1996: Fenella Brightwell steals a stunning gown from a stately home. Twenty years later and reeling from the end of an abusive marriage, she wonders if it has cursed her all this time. Now she’s determined to discover the history behind the beautiful golden dress…

American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt by Stephanie Marie Thornton

Release Date: March 12, 2019

Alice may be the president's daughter, but she's nobody's darling. As bold as her signature color Alice Blue, the gum-chewing, cigarette-smoking, poker-playing First Daughter discovers that the only way for a woman to stand out in Washington is to make waves--oceans of them. With the canny sophistication of the savviest politician on the Hill, Alice uses her celebrity to her advantage, testing the limits of her power and the seductive thrill of political entanglements.

(Full description at Goodreads)

The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer

Release Date: March 19, 2019

Since she was nine years old, Alina Dziak knew she would marry her best friend, Tomasz. Now fifteen and engaged, Alina is unconcerned by reports of Nazi soldiers at the Polish border, believing her neighbors that they pose no real threat, and dreams instead of the day Tomasz returns from college in Warsaw so they can be married. But little by little, injustice by brutal injustice, the Nazi occupation takes hold, and Alina’s tiny rural village, its families, are divided by fear and hate. Then, as the fabric of their lives is slowly picked apart, Tomasz disappears. Where Alina used to measure time between visits from her beloved, now she measures the spaces between hope and despair, waiting for word from Tomasz and avoiding the attentions of the soldiers who patrol her parents’ farm. But for now, even deafening silence is preferable to grief.

(Full description at Goodreads)

When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton

Release Date: April 9, 2019

The Cuban Revolution took everything from sugar heiress Beatriz Perez--her family, her people, her country. Recruited by the CIA to infiltrate Fidel Castro's inner circle and pulled into the dangerous world of espionage, Beatriz is consumed by her quest for revenge and her desire to reclaim the life she lost.

As the Cold War swells like a hurricane over the shores of the Florida Strait, Beatriz is caught between the clash of Cuban American politics and the perils of a forbidden affair with a powerful man driven by ambitions of his own. When the ever-changing tides of history threaten everything she has fought for, she must make a choice between her past and future--but the wrong move could cost Beatriz everything--not just the island she loves, but also the man who has stolen her heart...

The Abolitionist's Daughter by Diane C. McPhail

Release Date: April 30, 2019

On a Mississippi morning in 1859, Emily Matthews begs her father to save a slave, Nathan, about to be auctioned away from his family. Judge Matthews is an abolitionist who runs an illegal school for his slaves, hoping to eventually set them free. One, a woman named Ginny, has become Emily’s companion and often her conscience—and understands all too well the hazards an educated slave must face. Yet even Ginny could not predict the tangled, tragic string of events set in motion as Nathan’s family arrives at the Matthews farm.

(Full description at Goodreads)

Monday, October 8, 2018

Review: A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler

Release Date: October 16, 2018

A leader of the woman's suffrage movement, Alva Vanderbilt (nee Smith) rejected much about the social convention of her time, and yet arguably also beat them at their own game. If you can't join them, beat them.

The first half of this was a little boring. I know it was setting the scene for Alva coming into her own later on, and we did get to see sparks of the woman she would become, but much of it was just inane snobbish chatter. I suppose it's fitting because that's probably exactly how Alva felt about it too, but it didn't make for the best reading. If we'd gotten to see a bit more of that sarcastic wit that occasionally flared up in Alva, even just internally, it probably would have been a lot more entertaining.

Additionally, I kept waiting for this to turn more political and see how Alva became so important to the suffrage movement, but we actually see very little of that, and only at the very end. It's definitely more about her earlier private life, which could have been more interesting if her characterization was fuller.

Still, watching Alva go from dutiful daughter, sister, wife, and mother to taking her fate and future into her own hands was very fulfilling and I was cheering her on the whole time. About the last third of the book is when it gets most interesting.

Advanced review copy from publisher via NetGalley. My opinions are my own.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Upcoming Historical Fiction Releases

City of Secrets (A Counterfeit Lady Novel) by Victoria Thompson 

Release Date: November 13, 2018

Elizabeth has discovered that navigating the rules of high society is the biggest con of all. She knows she can play the game, but so far, her only success is Priscilla Knight, a dedicated young suffragist recently widowed for the second time. Her beloved first husband died in a tragic accident and left her with two young daughters--and a sizable fortune. While she was lost in grief, Priscilla's pastor convinced her she needed a man to look after her and engineered a whirlwind courtship and hasty marriage to fellow parishioner Endicott Knight. Now, about nine months later, Endicott is dead in what appears to be another terrible accident.

(Full description at Goodreads)

Once Upon a River: A Novel by Diane Setterfield

Release Date: December 4, 2018

On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.

(Full description at Goodreads)

The Falcon of Sparta: A Novel by Conn Iggulden

Release Date: February 5, 2019

401 BC. In the ancient world, one army was feared above all others. The Persian king Artaxerxes rules an empire stretching from the Aegean to northern India. As many as fifty million people are his subjects. His rule is absolute. Though the sons of Sparta are eager to play the game of thrones . . .

Yet battles can be won—or lost—with a single blow. Princes fall. And when the dust of civil war settles, the Spar- tans are left stranded in the heart of an enemy’s empire, without support, without food, and without water.

Far from home, surrounded by foes, it falls to the young soldier Xenophon to lead the survivors against Artaxerxes’s legendary Persian warriors.

American Duchess: A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt by Karen Harper

Release Date: February 26, 2019

On a cold November day in 1895, a carriage approaches St Thomas Episcopal Church on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Massive crowds surge forward, awaiting their glimpse of heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt. Just 18, the beautiful bride has not only arrived late, but in tears, yet her marriage to the aloof Duke of Marlborough proceeds. Bullied into the wedding by her indomitable mother, Alva, Consuelo loves another. But a deal was made, trading some of the vast Vanderbilt wealth for a title and prestige, and Consuelo, bred to obey, realizes she must make the best of things.

(Full description at Goodreads)

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner

Release Date: March 19, 2019

Elise Sontag is a typical Iowa fourteen-year-old in 1943--aware of the war but distanced from its reach. Then her father, a legal U.S. resident for nearly two decades, is suddenly arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. The family is sent to an internment camp in Texas, where, behind the armed guards and barbed wire, Elise feels stripped of everything beloved and familiar, including her own identity.

(Full description at Goodreads)

Lost Roses: A Novel by Martha Hall Kelly

Release Date: April 2, 2019

It is 1914 and the world has been on the brink of war so many times, many New Yorkers treat the subject with only passing interest. Eliza Ferriday is thrilled to be traveling to St. Petersburg with Sofya Streshnayva, a cousin of the Romanovs. The two met years ago one summer in Paris and became close confidantes. Now Eliza embarks on the trip of a lifetime, home with Sofya to see the splendors of Russia. But when Austria declares war on Serbia and Russia's Imperial dynasty begins to fall, Eliza escapes back to America, while Sofya and her family flee to their country estate. In need of domestic help, they hire the local fortuneteller's daughter, Varinka, unknowingly bringing intense danger into their household. On the other side of the Atlantic, Eliza is doing her part to help the White Russian families find safety as they escape the revolution. But when Sofya's letters suddenly stop coming she fears the worst for her best friend.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Review: The Lost Queen by Signe Pike

Release Date: September 4, 2018 (yes, I'm behind on my advanced review copies)

Although based on the twin sister of the legend who inspired Merlin, I would not say this is the Arthurian legend. "Pendragon" is featured, but he's not among the main characters. It's really about the daughter of a Celtic chieftain, Languoreth (aka Gwendydd in Welsh folklore), after the withdrawal of the Romans, during the invasions of the Angles and Christianity. This has always been a time period that fascinated me because there's so little reliable written history from it. This novel is a mixture of that history and the folklore that predates Geoffrey of Monmouth's Arthurian legend, and really brings this obscure time period to life.

The Celtic mysticism was a little heavy for me, but it was very well written with fleshed out characters, and the plot moved along at a steady pace.

Languoreth character was a little frustrating though. The book goes on and on about how important it was that she marry the high king's son so she (and therefore her father and brother) would have influence at court. But I really didn't see any examples of how she used her influence and power to aid her family, or her people. On the contrary, she usually does precisely the opposite of what her father, advisers, or any other allies tell her to do, and usually with unsuccessful results. She is otherwise a likable character, and the author does well to evoke empathy for her, but I kept waiting for her to do something politically significant since that's what the book had been building up to the whole time.

Additionally, there was one thing that didn't make sense to me but this one might be a bit of a spoiler:

So there were definitely things that let this book down a little bit, but overall it was a good story with excellent prose - the author certainly knows how to bring a scene and setting alive. It begs for a sequel, hopefully one in which the main character is a little more useful.

Advanced review copy from publisher via NetGalley. My opinions are my own.

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