Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review: The Summer Throne

Elizabeth Chadwick
The Summer Throne (Eleanor of Aquitaine Series, Book 1)
By Elizabeth Chadwick
Sourcebooks Landmark, July 2014

About the Book

New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Chadwick brings Eleanor of Aquitaine to life with breathtaking historical detail in the first volume of this stunning new trilogy.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, the legendary 12th century queen of France and later of England, is one of the most powerful and irrepressible women in medieval history, and her story of romance, scandal and political intrigue has fascinated readers for centuries. Young Eleanor (or Alienor as she was known) has everything to look forward to as the heiress to the wealthy Aquitaine. But when her beloved father William X suddenly dies, childhood is over. Sent to Paris and forced to marry Prince Louis VII of France, she barely adjusts before another death catapults them to king and queen. At the age of just 13, Eleanor must leave everything behind and learn to navigate the complex and vivacious French court. Faced with great scandals, trials, fraught relationships, and forbidden love at every turn, Eleanor finally sees what her future could hold if she could just seize the moment.

The first in this highly anticipated trilogy, The Summer Queen follows Eleanor through the Second Crusade to the end of her marriage to Louis VII. The author’s meticulous research (including delving into the Akashic records) portrays the Middle Ages and Eleanor with depth and vivid imagery unparalleled in historical fiction that will keep readers riveted and wanting more.

My Review

The first in Ms. Chadwick’s sweeping trilogy of Eleanor of Aquitaine (known as “Alienor”) begins when her father, Duke of Aquitaine, dies on a pilgrimage and 13 year old Alienor is ordered to wed Louis (eventually Louis VII) of France for her own protection and the continuation of her duchy. A second son who trained to be a monk until his older brother’s death forced him to the throne, Louis is ill-matched to handle the independent, driving force that is Alienor. Louis blames her for their inability to conceive a son, for her flamboyant style of dressing, and for her quick, decisive, and intuitive style of governing that is so different than his own.

After a miserable crusade to the Holy Lands, Louis and Alienor agree it’s better to have their marriage annulled. Leaving behind her two daughters Marie and Alix in Paris, Alienor strikes out on her own and takes a chance on a young upstart who aspires to the throne of England. Henry and Alienor form an instantaneous, almost innate bond. Both share a fiery determination to protect their vassals, expand their lands, and succeed. But there is a darker side of their relationship, too, with an ongoing jousting match to determine position. Henry is consumed with a restless ambition that marginally includes his wife. It is only when Henry is weakened by illness that he gives Alienor the respect and attention she so craves. Once again Alienor rails against her lot as a broodmare, yearning for a true partnership that neither of her husbands are willing to give.

Though this version of Alienor’s story isn’t significantly different than other published accounts, the strength of this book lies in Alienor’s relationships, her connection (of lack thereof) with her husband Louis, her rigid first mother-in-law Adelaide, her impetuous sister Petronilla, her paramour Geoffrey de Racon, and her imperious second mother-in-law the Empress Matilda. I was struck by how much Alienor’s life seemed to mirror that of the late Princess Diana. Their journeys from scared young bride to independent woman in control of her own destiny are eerily similar, though Alienor was granted a much longer life to complete her trek.

The only woman to be both a queen of France and a queen of England, Alienor is an eternally fascinating character, probably the first woman powerful and brave enough to write her own story, going against the tide of society, the church, and conventional wisdom. This book reveals a woman who comes into her own, grasping for her own destiny with both hands—a story that is rich and inspiring.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Or Give Me Death:Ann Rinaldi's Fine YA Historical Fiction

By Michelle Ule

I'm not sure when I first stumbled on an Ann Rinaldi's novel at the library, but it was a revelation.

I went looking for her work recently and picked up Or Give Me Death, a young adult novel about the family of Virginia's first governor Patrick Henry.

You know, the man who famously said, "Give me Liberty or Give Me Death," during the Revolutionary War.

The book is not a simple family story.

It is about his first family (six children by his first wife; 11 by his second), and how they struggled to deal with their mother's mental illness while Henry solved all the problems of a countryside preparing to fight the British.

Mental Illness and a Young Adult Novel?

I was surprised by the theme as I read this book and yet, aren't many young people struggling with mental health?

Don't many teenagers have parents who may have "issues?"

The strength of a young adult novel is that while it tackles challenging topics, it uses concepts that might be easier for a young person to understand and apply.

Told through the point of view of first the oldest child, 16 year-old Patsy, and then the second daughter, Anne, Or Give Me Death wrestles with family of origin troubles set against a world descending into war. Fascinating.

Research and Experience

Rinaldi wrote out of deep research and wisdom born of her age (She's in her eighties now; Or Give Me Death was published ten years ago).

A journalist, she began looking into history when her teenage son became a reenactor.

Or, as she liked to say, "Most mothers go to soccer or football games, but I went to wars.”

She began to participate herself, cooking meals over iron kettles and wearing costumes. (The things we do for our children!)

The historical experiences drove her to research and from there, story ideas formed.

As the author of 59 novels, Rinaldi prefers American history and often writes of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War periods.

Her protagonists are usually young women, often minority women, confronting difficult situations. Rinaldi allows the teenagers to experience doubt, fear, jealousy and uncertainty--just as modern young people do.

Wikipedia noted:
"In 2000, Wolf by the Ears was listed as one of the best novels of the preceding twenty-five years, and later of the last one hundred years."
Wolf by the Ears is the story of a Hemings slave in Thomas Jefferson's household who has to decide if she will remain enslaved or flee to freedom.
Not your standard YA fare.

Truth or Fiction?

I love how Rinaldi ends her books with a several-page section explaining what was true and what was her fictional embroidery.

In so doing, she demonstrates anew how there's nothing new under the sun and history has much to teach us.

Or Give me Death portrays a family's anguish with mental illness using the means available at the time to cope.

It was very insightful to this woman in 2016 America--whose ancestors lived in the neighborhood.


Ann Rinaldi portrays common YA problems in a Revolutionary household. Click to Tweet

Wolf by the Ears or O Give Me Death; YA historical fiction at its finest. Click to Tweet

Michelle Ule is the biographer of Mrs. Oswald Chambers and five historical novellas. You can learn more about her at

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review: As Death Draws Near

Anna Lee Huber
As Death Draws Near (A Lady Darby Mystery, Book 5)
By Anna Lee Huber
Berkley, July 2016

About the Book

July 1831. In the midst of their idyllic honeymoon in England’s Lake District, Kiera and Gage’s seclusion is soon interrupted by a missive from her new father-in-law. A deadly incident involving a distant relative of the Duke of Wellington has taken place at an abbey south of Dublin, Ireland, and he insists that Kiera and Gage look into the matter.

Intent on discovering what kind of monster could murder a woman of the cloth, the couple travel to Rathfarnham Abbey School. Soon a second nun is slain in broad daylight near a classroom full of young girls. With the sinful killer growing bolder, the mother superior would like to send the students home, but the growing civil unrest in Ireland would make the journey treacherous.

Before long, Kiera starts to suspect that some of the girls may be hiding a sinister secret. With the killer poised to strike yet again, Kiera and Gage must make haste and unmask the fiend, before their matrimonial bliss comes to an untimely end.

My Review

Kiera and Gage are newly married, but their relaxing honeymoon in the Lake District is rudely interrupted by Gage’s disapproving father. Lord Gage asks the newlyweds to journey to Ireland where a distant cousin of Lord Wellington’s, a novice at an abbey outside of Dublin, has recently been killed. With nothing to go on but the few facts in Lord Gage’s note, Kiera and Gage make their way to the abbey.

Once they arrive, Kiera and Gage get a sharp and sudden reminder that religious differences in Ireland are at a fever pitch and members of the English aristocracy are not welcomed with open arms. Many on both sides resort to violence and intimidation to settle the differences between the largely Catholic public and their English Protestant overlords. What a girl from a prominent, English Protestant family is now doing as a Catholic convert in an Irish abbey, Kiera and Gage can only guess. When another woman is murdered and tensions begin to boil over, however, Kiera and Gage must solve the murder before they need to fear for their own lives.

Readers get to experience Ireland through Kiera and Gage’s eyes, and it’s a welcome change of pace for these two now-familiar detectives. Kiera must reconcile her role as investigator with her newfound role of wife and, one day, mother. She also gains a fresh perspective on just how fraught the religious situation is in Ireland and how the Catholics she comes to know there are not the villains she was always told they were. This investigation proves to be a whole new playing field for both Kiera and Gage, and it’s a wonderful journey to see them work through this new phase of their lives as a team in both work and life.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review: The Secret Keeper

Kate Morton
The Secret Keeper
By Kate Morton
Washington Square Press, July 2013

About the Book

During a picnic at her family’s farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson witnesses a shocking crime, a crime that challenges everything she knows about her adored mother, Dorothy. Now, fifty years later, Laurel and her sisters are meeting at the farm to celebrate Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday. Realizing that this is her last chance to discover the truth about that long-ago day, Laurel searches for answers that can only be found in Dorothy’s past. Clue by clue, she traces a secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds thrown together in war-torn London—Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy—whose lives are forever after entwined. A gripping story of deception and passion, The Secret Keeper will keep you enthralled to the last page.

My Review

It’s 2011 and actress Laurel Nicholson and her siblings are watching as their 90 year old mother falls into ill health. But Dorothy Nicholson does not spend her waning days peacefully, looking at photographs, crying over the past, and speaking wistfully of “second chances”. Laurel is anxious to get to the bottom of her mother’s ravings, particularly as once, decades ago, Laurel witnessed a murder. From her perch in a tree house, Laurel watched as her mother stabbed a man to death in the garden of their family home. Laurel was young and even though her mother insisted it was self defense, Laurel could never shake the feeling that it was someone her mother had known. Decades later, Laurel wants to get to the bottom of her mother’s life during the war years and what her mother means when she said she had been given a second chance.
This one starts out slowly, quite slowly, and at times, you may have trouble getting into it. Like all of Ms. Morton’s books I’ve reviewed, she likes to take a leisurely pace, and that can be frustrating for pacing fanatics, like myself. But most of the time for Ms. Morton’s books (and that is certainly the case here), it’s totally worth it. In the midst of the many, many tangents, you find carefully planted nuggets of information that (only when viewed in hindsight) provide you with the clues needed to solve the major mystery of the novel.
And still, I can’t imagine anyone predicts the entire finish. Knowing Ms. Morton’s work, I did guess the ending, but only in pieces and parts. The total wrap up is a carefully crafted surprise. When you step back to look at how well the threads have been woven and how completely in the dark Ms. Morton keeps her readers until the very end, you’ll be amazed, as I am. The plotting is slow and complicated, so missing a single detail can throw you off. But the sheer complexity of the work that Ms. Morton creates can only be fully appreciated at the end, when the reader is left dumbstruck at all the twists and turns.
As with all Kate Morton’s works, this is something to be savored—a leisurely feast to really soak in all the intricacies of a master plotter.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Review of Brigid of Ireland by Cindy Thomson

Brigid of Ireland
by Cindy Thomson

In 5th-century pagan-dominated Ireland, Brigid is born a slave to her own father and is separated from her mother. Desperately seeking love and acceptance, Brigid becomes a believer in Christ. Knowing how the Irish people cling to superstitions and fears, can Brigid overcome them? Will her hatred for her father and a scheming evil sorcerer destroy her faith? Set in the era of St. Patrick, this fantasy-filled novel will captivate readers as Brigid must choose between God’s will and the desire to save her family. 

My Review:

by Tamera Lynn Kraft

I admit I knew nothing about the legend of Saint Brigid of Ireland, so all of this was new to me. I found the story Cindy Thomson weaved about Brigid to be fascinating. In this novel, Brigid was a real girl with longings and temptations just as every other girl has had. She wasn't some larger than life saint. She was ordinary. What made her extraordinary was that she surrendered her life to God and prayed every time she or someone else needed help. Because of this devotion to God, God used Brigid mightily perform many miracles through her, most to feed those who were hungry and destitute but some for protection. Brigid, in some ways, reminded me of George Mueller who prayed every time he needed food to feed the orphans he was caring for.

Another thing I loved about this novel was the sense of Irish folklore and the element of danger throughout the story. I couldn't put it down because I need to find out what happened next. I recommend this novel.

I was given a free copy of Brigid of Ireland but was not required to give a favorable review.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Why Read Historical Fiction?

Why do we like to read historical fiction?

By Michelle Ule

Experts say if you want to learn about political history, read history books.

If you want to learn about social history and what life was like at a given time and place, read historical fiction.

While I happen to like reading history books, I find most of the fiction I gravitate toward is historical.

I suspect the same may be true of many of you.

By definition

Fiction take us out of current living for entertainment.

Historical fiction takes us back to a different time and place and, if read with an eye toward themes, can give us insight into our present.

Or not.

Regardless of your reasons, by reading historical fiction you gain knowledge.

My mother, for example, based all she knew about the Regency era in England on the novels she read.

She may not have been able to articulate Prime Minister William Pitt's political ideals, but she knew what the women wore, how they liked to spend time and what their concerns were.

Her knowledge, of course, was for members of the Jane Austen era and her character's peers and up into the aristocracy.

"But what about the poor people, the ones Dickens wrote about, Mom?" I asked.

She shook her head. "Their lives were very hard."

So she did know, though perhaps not in the nitty-gritty sense Charles Dickens described.

The history of historical fiction

It's been around a long time. William Shakespeare, for example, relied upon past histories to write his own plays--plays like Henry V and even Hamlet.

Many fine works are the result of altering an historical tale and adding fictional characters to explore themes and other ideas using basic facts.

I've used it myself in nearly all my historical novellas, particularly the two written out of family history events: The Dogtrot Christmas and An Inconvenient Gamble. 

The past true stories enabled me to embroider with descriptions and character studies to tell a deeper tale than what a straight recounting of events provided.

There really isn't anything new under the sun.

Our takeaway.

It's fiction therefore it isn't real, so what is our takeaway as a reader?

Universal truth is true, no matter the time or place.

Historical fiction, using its deep imagery and description can slip insights into our minds without cluttering them with the sense, "I need to learn something from this."

For example, "there's nothing new under the sun," which is a Biblical principle described by King Solomon, is proved every time you read an historical novel.

The events in which the characters find themselves feels familiar, if you strip them past whatever their time period.

Putting them into a different setting enables us to look at the human emotions and reactions without necessarily squirming until later.

So, when I read Scarlett O'Hara defiantly shaking her head and saying, "I'll think about that tomorrow," it can also be true of me.

But if I'm disapproving of Scarlett's behavior but recognize my own similar attitude, I can stop--and squirm.

(Use this argument only if you have people complaining about your reading habits).

Pure Entertainment?

If you read historical fiction for pure entertainment, good for you. 

There's nothing like a good book--no matter the genre!


Why read historical fiction? Click to Tweet

Scarlett O'Hara and Jane Austen as role models? Click to Tweet

Michelle Ule is the author of six published works. Her current project is a biography, Mrs. Oswald Chambers, which releases in October 2017. Read more about her at

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: Three Sisters, Three Queens

Philippa Gregory
Touchstone Books, August 2016

About the Book

As sisters they share an everlasting bond. As queens they can break each other’s hearts.

“There is only one bond that I trust: between a woman and her sisters. We never take our eyes off each other. In love and in rivalry, we always think of each other.”

When Katherine of Aragon is brought to the Tudor court as a young bride, the oldest princess, Margaret, takes her measure. With one look, each knows the other for a rival, an ally, a pawn, destined—with Margaret’s younger sister Mary—to a sisterhood unique in all the world. The three sisters will become the queens of England, Scotland, and France.

United by family loyalties and affections, the three queens find themselves set against each other. Katherine commands an army against Margaret and kills her husband James IV of Scotland. But Margaret’s boy becomes heir to the Tudor throne when Katherine loses her son. Mary steals the widowed Margaret’s proposed husband, but when Mary is widowed it is her secret marriage for love that is the envy of the others. As they experience betrayals, dangers, loss, and passion, the three sisters find that the only constant in their perilous lives is their special bond, more powerful than any man, even a king.

My Review

I have read a number of books by Ms. Gregory and have enjoyed them all. This one didn't grab me as much as others like Lady of the Rivers and The Kingmaker's Daughters. At any rate, I did enjoy this story. With so little being known about the main character, Margaret Tudor, who became the queen of Scotland at the same time her brother, Henry VIII was king of England, the author had a lot of unknown details where she could use creative license to fill in the blanks. Other than the fact that she married three times, there was a lot of leeway for the author to create a background to explain why she might have married two more times.

The first time resulted in King James of Scotland. The other two were with clansmen, one with noble blood and one without. I found it interesting how she went from loving her sisters (Kathryn of Aragon by marriage and Mary Tudor, her younger sister) to hating or envying them quite a bit. Her attitude changed like the wind and she was full of pride, yet she had a softer side to her. I think the fact that it rarely came out made her less likable, though she was a strong woman. In the beginning she seemed a bit weak because of her human desire to be wanted and loved. Interestingly enough, the three sisters all had something in common. The first time each of them got married it was by contract and planned for political reasons. After being widowed, they each married for love and not for political reasons.

The point of view of Margaret Tudor provided an interesting perspective on how Kathryn of Aragon may have been perceived by many in England. She was loved by the people because of her commitment to the king, her husband King Henry VIII, despite how he treated her toward the end. I found it interesting how Margaret Tudor was granted a divorce from her unfaithful and power-hungry husband of the Douglas clan before her brother King Henry VIII sought his divorce (though they were requested for different reasons) and how that would reflect on the Tudors as well as the perspective of the time: marriage was for life when it came to royalty. And yet they each broke their marriage contracts.

Interesting book with one main character, Margaret Tudor. I always wondered what her life might have been like, and Ms. Gregory provided some details that painted a picture, though it is obviously fiction.

Michelle Szymanoski
Michelle Sutton author—Healing Hearts