Monday, March 27, 2017

Slender Reeds: Jochebed's Hope




By Michelle Ule

I first read Texie Susan Gregory's Slender Reeds years ago in manuscript form and it has stayed with me. I was delighted to get a copy of the book recently and see if I remembered well.

Gregory's story and meticulous research into Egypt during Pharoah's time was interesting and thorough. Slender Reeds is about Moses' mother, Jochebed, as Pharaoh's rule clamps down on the Israelites.

Jochebed begins the book as an uncertain girl dependent on her mother and puzzled by her fractured friendships with two friends. Her story arc shows maturity and a greater sense that fear does not need to control her life because Elohim can be trusted.

The trauma of crocodiles in the river is what I remembered best--the fear of encountering such a beast while drawing water or washing clothes.

Egypt was more knowable from Gregory's book, and I could better understand--even though this is a novel--what it might have been like to live during that time.

Jochebed is a weaver, which is where Slender Reeds gets its title. Her skill enables her to construct the basket which saved her youngest son's life and, of course, gave us Moses.

The story is woven through with the relationship struggles teenager girls often have. Jochebed doesn't always behave in as mature a manner as I would like--but she was a teenager.

Told from several points of view--including that of the arrogant Pharaoh--the story ties itself as neatly as Jochebed's knots.

We see Jochebed's faith grow with maturity until the very end where her friendships finally complete a full picture of Israelite women on the brink of Moses' life.

I enjoyed it.

Tweetables

What was Egypt like before Moses' birth? Click to Tweet

Slender Reeds, a story of Moses' mother in Egypt. Click to Tweet


Michelle Ule is the best selling author of six novels and the upcoming biography, Mrs. Oswald Chambers. Learn more about her at her website, www.michelleule.com

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review: Three Maids for a Crown

Ella March Chase
By Ella March Chase
Broadway Books, August 2011

About the Book

In the second novel from Ella March Chase, we meet sixteen-year-old Jane Grey, a quiet and obedient young lady destined to become the shortest reigning English monarch. Her beautiful middle sister Katherine Grey charms all the right people—until loyalties shift. And finally Lady Mary Grey, a dwarf with a twisted spine whose goal is simply to protect people she loves—but at a terrible cost.

In an age in which begetting sons was all that mattered and queens rose and fell on the sex of their child, these three girls with royal Tudor blood lived under the dangerous whims of parents with a passion for gambling. The stakes they would wager: their daughters’ lives against rampant ambition.

My Review

I enjoyed this author’s writing style and perspective. Normally I would read books like this in a day, or two at the most, but I’ve been pretty busy lately so I haven’t had much time to read. That said, I would definitely recommend this book. I have always found the reluctance of Jane Grey to be appointed queen and being forced to marry at fifteen a bit of a travesty. Women had no rights and were used as pawns back then. And being of royal blood makes the issue that much worse, especially if people wanted you to help their family take over the kingdom. This story was told over time through the perspectives of the three sisters. They all experienced grief and loss. They were all used by their parents to further the family’s ambition and power. None were truly valued for themselves.

At any rate, I found the story tragically beautiful. The love stories of the two remaining Grey sisters, of Lady Mary and Lady Katherine, was emotionally moving. I felt their pain and the denial of true love by the crown. They had to marry in secret and hope to be forgiven, but Elizabeth was not a forgiving queen, at least from the perspective of the “sisters of royal blood”. She always saw them as a threat and kept them imprisoned or in her service. I loved how Lady Mary Grey pitied Queen Elizabeth whose fear put her in a prison of her own making.

Good story and worth the read for the take-away value alone. It made me think about the meaning of true love and commitment to family. I am glad I picked up a copy.

Michelle Szymanoski

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Review: The Mark of the King

Jocelyn Green
By Jocelyn Green
Bethany House, January 2013

About the Book

After being imprisoned and branded for the death of her client, twenty-five-year-old midwife Julianne Chevalier trades her life sentence for exile to the fledgling 1720s French colony of Louisiana, where she hopes to be reunited with her brother, serving there as a soldier. To make the journey, though, women must be married, and Julianne is forced to wed a fellow convict.

When they arrive in New Orleans, there is no news of Benjamin, Julianne’s brother, and searching for answers proves dangerous. What is behind the mystery, and does military officer Marc-Paul Girard know more than he is letting on?

With her dreams of a new life shattered, Julianne must find her way in this dangerous, rugged land despite never being able to escape the king’s mark on her shoulder that brands her a criminal beyond redemption.

My Review

Passionate, vividly written, and thrilling, The Mark of the King is Jocelyn Green’s finest tale to date—and I’ve loved them all.

The story of young midwife Julianne Chevalier is set in a period and place I knew little about—the settling of New Orleans in the early 1700s—which intrigued me for that reason alone. Then I found the characters to be so well-drawn and believable that I quickly identified with them and their plight and came to care a great deal about their fate. The love story that developed as delicately and sweetly as an unfolding rose kept me reading and hoping for their happiness.

I loved the way Green wove her stellar research throughout in such a natural and intrinsic way that I not only learned a lot about this period in America’s history, but it also helped to define the characters and their motivations. Added to that, the plot takes numerous unexpected twists and turns right up to the riveting ending, which made the book exceptionally hard to put down.

All I can say is bravo to the author! Green has raised the bar in historical fiction with this gripping story.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Five Minute Marriage? Or Absurdity?




Publisher's Weekly chose a 1978 reissue, The Five-Minute Marriage by Joan Aiken as one of the most anticipated books of 2017. 


By Michelle Ule


Curious, I ordered it from the library and wound up with the original 1978 edition.

I'm still trying to decide what I think about this Regency novel which struck me as being absurd.

Joan Aiken

Author Joan Aiken, the daughter of a distinguished novelist Conrad Aiken, has a quirky sense of humor which I'd read before.

She's well known for her The Wolves of Willoughby Chase novels for young adults, which I read as a young adult.

I didn't get it at the time, not being a sophisticated enough reader to recognize when my leg was being pulled.

I'm older now and suspect I'd enjoy the book more--because Aiken has a sly and wicked sense of humor.

Several times in reading The Five-Minute Marriage, I paused to wonder if this wasn't like Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey--a send up of the genre?

Story Line

Oh, the story line is absurd and convoluted and something happens--usually ridiculous--in every chapter.

The basic premise is the very likeable Philadelphia Carteret manages to visit her elderly great-uncle, whom she has never seen.

She travels on behalf of her ailing mother, long disinherited, in search of some of the funds any reasonable person would have granted the woman years ago.

Arriving at the gloomy old house in Kent, she discovers an imposter has claimed her name and birthright.

But the woman isn't there, the elderly great-uncle may very well die that night and an inheritance is at stake.

With the promise of 300 pounds a year for her mother, "Delphie" enters into a sham marriage.

Except, as you would expect, the great-uncle doesn't die, the marriage turns out to be valid and then there's the new, glowering, unhappy husband.

And secrets to be kept from her mother.

What next?

A rollicking tale that will not disappoint Regency fans. Even if it is ridiculous.

Problems

Written in 1978, The Five-Minute Marriage, I can only assume, uses the writing style of the time--which is awful.

The first two chapters, in particular were difficult to read because of all the "head hopping," and overuse of adjectives and adverbs.

I wasn't sure I could go on, but decided that on an empty night, the novel would entertain-- which it did just fine.

Can I recommend it?

If you like Joan Aiken's sense of humor and Regency novels, enjoy.

It takes a little longer than five minutes to read, but the time will go quickly.

Tweetables 

A regency with a twist and Joan Aiken's wicked humor? Click to Tweet 

Five-Minute Marriage, a fast-paced Regency and funny, too. Click to Tweet   

Bestselling historical novelist Michelle Ule has moved to nonfiction with two books in 2017: In
June, she’ll be an essayist in Discovery House’s Utmost Ongoing: Reflections on the Legacy of Oswald Chambers  and as a biographer in Baker Book Publishing’s Mrs. Oswald Chambers: The Woman Behind the World’s Bestselling Devotional (October).

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review: A Perilous Undertaking

By Deanna Raybourn
Berkley, January 2017

About the Book

London, 1887. Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an invitation to visit the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women. There she meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Accused of the brutal murder of his artist mistress, Artemisia, Ramsforth will face the hangman’s noose in a week’s time if Veronica cannot find the real killer.

But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems, and unmasking her true identity is only the first of the many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer—a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia’s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime. From a Bohemian artists’ colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed....

My Review

Ms. Raybourn returns with her unconventional Victorian heroine Veronica Speedwell for this second book in the Speedwell mystery series. Veronica and Stoker are reunited for another mystery inquiry. This time, none other than Princess Louise (one of Queen Victoria’s daughters) asks Veronica to investigate the murder of Artemisia, a young artist brutally murdered while a few months pregnant. Artemisia’s lover and alleged murderer Miles Ramsforth is now awaiting execution for his crimes, but the princess is convinced of his innocence and orders Veronica to vindicate him. 

Veronica is unsure of the princess’ motives but never backs down from a challenge, particularly when she has something to prove. So Veronica and Stoker enter the dark and secretive world of aristocratic eccentricity—secret grottos, pleasure palaces, bohemian lifestyles, and spouses who are supposed to look the other way. Through opium dens, funeral parlors, and aristocratic homes, Veronica and Stoker rifle through the upper class’ dirty laundry to reach the truth.

Like most mystery series (think Columbo or Sherlock Holmes) the main character(s) far outshine the actual mysteries themselves. That is certainly true here but the main characters are so intriguing, multi-faceted, scandalous, and saucy that you could watch them do practically anything and still be amused. Veronica is not your normal Victorian woman. She is sexually liberated, completely stubborn, and ruthlessly pragmatic when it comes to societal conventions. A lepidopterist by day, she enjoys putting her scientific mind to work when it suits her interests.

The sexual tension between her and Stoker is an ongoing (if sometimes overdone) theme. Both Veronica and Stoker are so full of scientific logic, sarcastic comments, biting wit, daring feats, and unconsummated passion, that you willingly follow along, not really caring who was murdered or why but convinced that you’ll enjoy the ride. And believe me, you will. The plot hiccups are easily overlooked when you have so much fun simply eavesdropping on their adventures.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Review: The Fortune Hunter

Daisy Goodwin
Daisy Goodwin
St. Martin’s Press, July 2014

About the Book

Empress Elizabeth of Austria, known as Sisi, is the Princess Diana of nineteenth-century Europe. Famously beautiful, as captured in a portrait with diamond stars in her hair, she is unfulfilled in her marriage to the older Emperor Franz Joseph. Sisi has spent years evading the stifling formality of royal life on her private train or yacht or, whenever she can, on the back of a horse.

Captain Bay Middleton is dashing, young, and the finest horseman in England. He is also impoverished, with no hope of buying the horse needed to win the Grand National—until he meets Charlotte Baird. A clever, plainspoken heiress whose money gives her a choice among suitors, Charlotte falls in love with Bay, the first man to really notice her, for his vulnerability as well as his glamour. When Sisi joins the legendary hunt organized by Earl Spencer in England, Bay is asked to guide her on the treacherous course. Their shared passion for riding leads to an infatuation that jeopardizes the growing bond between Bay and Charlotte, and threatens all of their futures.

My Review

Charlotte Baird, orphaned heiress and amateur photographer, meets the famous ladies’ man Bay Middleton through mutual acquaintances. He is dashing, a cavalry officer, widely known as the country’s best horse rider, and he has just hastily exited a many-month affair with Blanche Hozier, who goes on to bear his daughter, a girl, Clementine. Charlotte is serious, independently-minded, and eager to escape the claws of her soon to be sister-in-law Augusta Lisle. They eventually promise to marry that is until the “Red Earl” Spencer asks Bay to pilot the Austrian Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) when she comes to England to hunt.

Bay reluctantly accepts but he, like so many other men of that era, become dazzled by the renowned beauty. Only 38 years old, with an avid passion for hunting, a 19″ waist, and hair that cascades past her ankles, the international celebrity makes men melt. Despite his promises to Charlotte, Bay falls for the monarch. Tension ensues when Charlotte takes a photograph of the famously secretive ruler without her permission and accidentally exhibits it at a Royal Society of Photography exhibition. Bay is caught between the two—Sisi, the demanding monarch who requires all of his time and attention, and the small, quiet photographer who adores him above all others. When Bay decides to ride in the Grand National horse race and both women attend, Bay is forced to choose.

Although the plot is rather long and predictable and the author jumps from head to head when it comes to POV, this one shines for its historical detail and authenticity. Ms. Goodwin goes out of her way to weave in the subtle aspects of royalty, hunting, and photography, to name just a few. I have to agree with many of the Goodreads reviewers and say the ending is disappointing, but a few smaller characters, namely the “diamond in the rough”, American Casper Hughes, still make this a story worth following to the end. This is a fictionalized account of real people, and it’s fun to imagine something like this playing out just before the turn of the 20th century. Clementine Hozier eventually married Winston Churchill, and the “Red Earl” Spencer was Princess Diana’s ancestor, which gives the story added dimension.

The parallels between Princess Diana and Sisi have often been mentioned elsewhere, but the reader will feel them keenly here. Both women were very young, beautiful consorts when they were first thrust onto the world stage. Both ladies were famous for their looks, had unhappy marriages, struggled with eating disorders, experienced extreme public scrutiny, and felt trapped in their roles. It is interesting to note that the women shared tragic endings too. Ms. Goodwin emphasizes this with many references to “Diana the huntress” which speaks to Sisi’s love of the hunt and Diana’s objectification by the press.

This cover is simply stunning—one of the best “view of a woman from behind” that historical fiction covers have adopted so often lately. The stars, one of Sisi’s best-known fashion accessories, her riding habit, and Sisi staring across at an English house as the outsider she was all work incredibly well here.


Thursday, February 09, 2017

Review: The Nightengale

Kristin Hannah
By Kristin Hannah
St. Martin’s Press, February 2015

About the Book

In love we find out who we want to be. In war we find out who we are.

France, 1939. In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France … but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can … completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

My Review

Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol’s father returns from the Great War a changed man. After their maman dies, the girls are left with a cold, distant father and must make their own ways in the world. Viann falls in love, marries, has a daughter, and sets up life as a housewife in the Loire Valley. Isabelle is the troublemaker, bouncing from boarding school to convent, each of which throws her out due to her rebellious ways.

When the Nazis arrive in Paris, Isabelle’s father sends her to the country to be with her sister in safety. But Isabelle chafes under Vianne’s roof where they must billet a German captain and follow the rules laid down by the invaders. Isabelle forces herself into the French resistance, initially handing out pamphlets and sending secret messages. She graduates to more dangerous work when she takes on the role of “the Nightingale” and helps downed British and American pilots, setting off on foot and taking the men across the Pyrenees to safety in Spain. Isabelle risks everything to thwart the Nazis, while at home in the country, Vianne and her daughter starve as their Jewish friends are deported and families are torn apart.

I should begin by saying that I listened to this book on Audible, narrated by Polly Stone. I believe this novel to be solid historically speaking, but I found it positively glacial when it came to plot pacing. Some of that may be due to the narrator. When Audible narrators speak quite slowly, as Ms. Stone certainly did, I feel like the momentum usually suffers. Despite the slow narration, the plot doesn’t gather steam until the very end or vary from a pattern of repeated, worn out themes. Even the scenes which should be more suspenseful—such as the times Isabelle and the pilots escape the Nazis by crossing the Pyrenees—the plot merely plods along. Ms. Stone treats it like reading a list of ingredients (and her British accents are truly cringeworthy), and the result is clichéd and difficult to get through.

The story trips along like one long laundry list of repeated events from each sister’s perspective. For Vianne it’s starving, illness, the deportation of neighbors, caring for Jewish children, and housing Nazis. These themes cycle over and over with same plot, different people. The German captain dies and is replaced by an SS officer—more of the same. For Isabelle it’s coded messages, saving pilots, and a tepid romance with a fellow freedom fighter. Isabelle is incredibly naive, often putting her sister, niece, and friends in grave danger to do whatever she thinks is right, regardless of the consequences. The end is just the predictable culmination of this slow build. The book is far too long and really suffers for its redundancy, length, and (in the case of the audio book) monotonous tone.

This is an interesting look at WWII from a perspective of two Frenchwomen, which I know, is a rather unusual literary perspective. It’s simply a shame that the plot, characterizations, and pacing don’t do the subjects more justice. A story of a female French freedom fighter should be more exciting and engaging, I think. I know I’m disagreeing with many Amazon reviewers here, but I wouldn’t bother with this one.