Sunday, July 24, 2016

Summer's Dreaming Spies

By Michelle Ule

I stumbled on Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King recently when the cover caught my eye.

(Doesn't it always happen like that?)

 The cover pictured a young woman wearing a cloche hat gazing over the spires of Oxford with the Bodleian Library's distinctive dome.

 Since I had just started writing a chapter set in 1920s Oxford, I picked up the novel thinking I might find some insight or description of that dreamy place long ago.

 I was wrong.

 But very right.

 While Dreaming Spies starts in Oxford, it quickly dashes off to India and catches a cruise on a luxury steamship to Japan circa 1923.

 For those familiar with Laurie King's extensive series, you'll not be surprised to learn it stars the intrepid Mary Russell and her aging yet spry and wiley husband THE Sherlock Holmes.

(I'd read the first book in the series, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, long ago and enjoyed it so much I bought a copy for my Sherlock Holmes-loving daughter.

 Unfortunately, I've not kept up, but mean to on these long languid and warm days of a Northern California summer. To think, 18 more books await me!)

Dreaming Spies

I'm not a mystery fan per se, but this book pulled me into the story right away.

 Told from the first person by a clever young woman who is having trouble living up to her even more clever husband's detecting abilities,

Mary actually is looking for a rest on the trip.

 Yet, that's not what happens as her brain clicks into overload, noticing odd events and a nearly paranormal and strong Japanese woman.

 Martial arts, along with marital arts, soon come into play and the reader is plunged into a story very different from the norm.

 While I've spent a day in Tokyo, I know next to nothing about Japan, and when Mary and Holmes hike through the countryside following a mysterious trail, early twentieth century Japan is revealed to be a lovely country of simple harmony and exacting beauty.

I loved learning about the Hermit Kingdom when it really felt like a closed country.

 The mystery seems to center on a missing book--or does it?

By the end, the 1923 Bodleian Library helps solve the riddle!

Mary learns a little more about marriage.

The Japanese woman dazzles often.

 And Holmes?

 He remains the same--doesn't he?

 Well worth reading, savoring and if you can figure out who did it, well, why not?

My Goodreads  Review:

I'm not a particular mystery fan and have never read anything by Arthur Conan Doyle, but I thoroughly enjoyed this lengthy and detailed story.
Sherlock Holmes and his much younger wife Mary Russell traveled the world unexpectedly caught unraveling a mystery for Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan while in the company of a female ninja!
It worked!
Along the way, I got to remember a sparkling day in Tokyo and a much different afternoon at the Bodleian Library, thanks to Laurie King's excellent writing and attention to detail.
Five stars for sure, the best book I've read in 2016.
  New York Times best selling author Michelle Ule is currently writing a biography of Mrs. Oswald
Chambers (Baker Books Fall 2017) and is the author of a number of novellas. Her most recent novella can be found at the end of The 12 Brides of Summer. Read more about her at www.michelleule.com  

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review: At the Edge of Summer


Jessica Brockmole

At the Edge of Summer

By Jessica Brockmole
Ballantine, May 2016

About the Book

Luc Crépet is accustomed to his mother’s bringing wounded creatures to their idyllic château in the French countryside, where healing comes naturally amid the lush wildflowers and crumbling stone walls. Yet his maman’s newest project is the most surprising: a fifteen-year-old Scottish girl grieving over her parents’ fate. A curious child with an artistic soul, Clare Ross finds solace in her connection to Luc, and she in turn inspires him in ways he never thought possible. Then, just as suddenly as Clare arrives, she is gone, whisked away by her grandfather to the farthest reaches of the globe. Devastated by her departure, Luc begins to write letters to Clare—and, even as she moves from Portugal to Africa and beyond, the memory of the summer they shared keeps her grounded.

Years later, in the wake of World War I, Clare, now an artist, returns to France to help create facial prostheses for wounded soldiers. One of the wary veterans who comes to the studio seems familiar, and as his mask takes shape beneath her fingers, she recognizes Luc. But is this soldier, made bitter by battle and betrayal, the same boy who once wrote her wistful letters from Paris? After war and so many years apart, can Clare and Luc recapture how they felt at the edge of that long-ago summer?

Bringing to life two unforgettable characters and the rich historical period they inhabit, Jessica Brockmole shows how love and forgiveness can redeem us.

My Review

When Clare Ross’ father dies, she finds herself in the home of family friends, hoping in vain that the artist mother who abandoned her so many years ago will come back to find her. But Clare’s mother never reappears, and Clare is left to fend for herself as an artist and an individual until she meets the son of her hosts, Luc Crépet.

The two embark on a childish summer romance in the French countryside. Luc encourages Clare’s sketching, and Clare inspires Luc with her independence and bravery. Clare is eventually reclaimed by her grandfather and follows him abroad to study dialects. She and Luc write letters, most of which never reach the other.

Luc enters the army when World War I breaks out and he finds himself in the very fields in which he and Clare spent so much time together. Separated by space and experiences, the two never forget each other. That is until Clare finds herself working in a studio that creates masks for disfigured soldiers, and a certain boy from the past, now scarred and damaged, reappears.

Bittersweet, this is the quintessential first love story—the first love you never forget. This story felt uneven at times, but the love story between the main characters is just as riveting as the romance between the two leads in Ms. Brockmole’s earlier work, Letters from Skye. Filled with historical details including the carvings soldiers left in caves during the war, the masks created for mutilated soldiers after the war, and with a characteristic artistic flair, this is a story that will transport you to the French countryside, many years ago.



Thursday, June 30, 2016

Review: The Other Daughter


Lauren Willig
The Other Daughter
By Lauren Willig
St. Martin’s Press, July 2015

About the Book

Raised in a poor yet genteel household, Rachel Woodley is working in France as a governess when she receives news that her mother has died suddenly. Grief-stricken, she returns to the small town in England where she was raised to clear out the cottage...and finds a cutting from a London society magazine, with a photograph of her supposedly deceased father dated all of three month before. He’s an earl, respected and influential, and he is standing with another daughter—his legitimate daughter. Which makes Rachel...not legitimate. Everything she thought she knew about herself and her past—even her very name—is a lie.

Still reeling from the death of her mother, and furious at this betrayal, Rachel sets herself up in London under a new identity. There she insinuates herself into the party-going crowd of Bright Young Things, with a steely determination to unveil her father’s perfidy and bring his—and her half-sister’s—charmed world crashing down. Very soon, however, Rachel faces two unexpected snags: She finds she genuinely likes her half-sister, Olivia, whose situation isn’t as simple it appears; and she might just be falling for her sister’s fiancé…

From Lauren Willig, author of the New York Times bestselling novel The Ashford Affair, comes The Other Daughter, a page-turner full of deceit, passion, and revenge.

My Review

Rachel Woodley is a governess in France when she gets a belated message that her adored mother is dying. She arrives back home too late, and is left only with the remnants of her mother’s life. As Rachel sorts through pictures and magazine clippings, she comes to realize that her mother had kept a life-altering secret from her, namely that her father did not die when Rachel was 4 years old. Instead, he assumed an Oxfordshire lordship, married an heiress, and had two more children, all while Rachel and her mother lived out their simple lives in obscurity.

Shocked at her mother’s betrayal and her father’s abandonment, Rachel joins forces with a gossip columnist to assume a new identity, ingratiate herself with the aristocracy, and reestablish contact with the father she thought long dead. But all this comes with an enormous cost—how will she return to her quiet life after she’s glimpsed all the comes with the upper-class life? How will she approach her father, who does not recognize her? How can she hurt a half-sister who has depths Rachel has come to appreciate?

This 2015 novel by Ms. Willig really lacked the punch of her other works I’ve enjoyed: Forgotten Room and That Summer. Rachel seems too clueless in her real life and almost maniacal when she transforms into Vera to insert herself into the upper-crust of society. The romance (I won’t give it away here) feels terribly forced— the hero is given redeeming virtues rather late to make him likable—and only Lady Olivia (Rachel’s half-sister) seems to ring true. The premise of the separation (Rachel’s mother telling Rachel her father died and starting a new life elsewhere) doesn’t feel authentic. Overall, it’s an interesting premise, if a bit forced with no real plot surprises. For a heroine with more pluck and a more engaging plot, I’d recommend Ms. Willig’s That Summer.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Newberry Medal Books--Great Summer Reading for Adults and Kids!

 By Michelle Ule

One summer when my children were still home we read many Newberry Award winning books.

This might be a good summer for you to do the same.

Perhaps you've been in a mood when you want to read good books but your life is crazy and you don't have the time nor energy to wend your way through a 600 page historical novel.

That's where I was that summer. I wanted something good to read, but I didn't want to spend three months on one book.

I also read these books so I'd know the best children's books published every year in the United States back to 1921.

I wanted to share them with my children. Not all of them are historical fiction, of course, but a lot of the older books were.

I read stories I never would have considered before.

You can read the list of all the winners here. The Newberry website is here.

Some were good.

Some have not stood the test of time.


NewberryThe medal shows why they're a good choice, however: that's an author sharing a book with a boy and a girl.

Just like me.

We'd read and loved some of them before, of course: Caddie Woodlawn, The Wheel on the School, The Long Winter, The High King (the boys' all-time favorite).

But that summer we read and enjoyed stories from the past in other lands --which is the goal of reading historical fiction.

I wanted my children to get a sense of what it was like to live in the Middle Ages with the horror of the plague surrounding young people (The Door in the Wall)

They loved war stories, why not read Irene Hunt's Across Five Aprils, Harold Keith's Rifles for Watie, or even delve into the Revolutionary War with Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain?

Sure, I originally checked them out of the library for the children (our library had a section just for Newberry medal winners--honor books included), but I loved some of them more than they did.

I've written before about The Witch of Blackberry Pond--pre-Revolution Connection not far from where we lived at one time.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, of course, appears on the list in several places (we'd already read her books).

Stories from my childhood caught my attention in ways I more fully appreciated as an adult.

I'd never been attracted to Eric P. Kelly's 1929 winner The Trumpeter of Krakow before, but it's terrific.

Some of the books had not aged well--including the original winner, The Story of Mankind.


Some of the more recent books felt like they were pushing an agenda and didn't enthrall me as much as the earlier ones.

I found it worked best to read the books that appealed to my interests or those of my children (they didn't bother, for example, with Hitty: Her First Hundred Years).

We didn't finish the entire list that summer, but we read a lot of new books to us all and loved them.

We talked about them, remembered them and when we drove across the United States the next summer (with stops in both Boston and Gettysburg), the children had a story they loved to match historical locations.

As did I!

I've not kept up reading everything on the list, though this year's winner by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, The War That Saved My Life, is an excellent World War II story.

If you're looking for something new to read this summer, or want to remember historical fictions you may have loved as a child, why not take a look at the Newberry medal award winning titles?

Do you have a favorite Newberry medal winning book?

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NY Times best selling author Michelle Ule has a new book out this summer: The 12 Brides of Summer, a fun collection of 12 historical fiction novellas. In addition, she's writing a biography of Mrs. Oswald Chambers which will be released in fall 2017. Learn more about her at www.michelleule.com

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review: That Summer


Lauren Willig
That Summer
By Lauren Willig
St. Martin’s Press, June 2014

About the Book

2009: When Julia Conley hears that she has inherited a house outside London from an unknown great-aunt, she assumes it’s a joke. She hasn’t been back to England since the car crash that killed her mother when she was six, an event she remembers only in her nightmares. But when she arrives at Herne Hill to sort through the house—with the help of her cousin Natasha and sexy antiques dealer Nicholas—bits of memory start coming back. And then she discovers a pre-Raphaelite painting, hidden behind the false back of an old wardrobe, and a window onto the house’s shrouded history begins to open...

1849: Imogen Grantham has spent nearly a decade trapped in a loveless marriage to a much older man, Arthur. The one bright spot in her life is her step-daughter, Evie, a high-spirited sixteen year old who is the closest thing to a child Imogen hopes to have. But everything changes when three young painters come to see Arthur’s collection of medieval artifacts, including Gavin Thorne, a quiet man with the unsettling ability to read Imogen better than anyone ever has. When Arthur hires Gavin to paint her portrait, none of them can guess what the hands of fate have set in motion.

From modern-day England to the early days of the Preraphaelite movement, Lauren Willig’s That Summer takes readers on an un-put-downable journey through a mysterious old house, a hidden love affair, and one woman’s search for the truth about her past—and herself.

My Review

A perfect book to review in the waning days of summer.

Julia inherits a great aunt’s house on Herne Hill, just outside of London. Unemployed and adrift, she leaves her home in New York City to prepare the house to sell so that she can return to her life. But the house, a place where her late mother grew up, is more than a run down building filled with old junk. Julia encounters a haunting portrait of one of her ancestors, Imogen Grantham, and when she discovers another painting—one attributed to the mysterious pre-Raphaelite painter Gavin Thorne—she wants to learn the truth. Julia delves into the home’s secrets and learns more about the home’s history, more about herself, and more about her own past.

The historical aspect is a look into Imogen’s life. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Imogen has a reawakening when her husband hires Gavin Thorne to paint her portrait. In Gavin, Imogen finds a match for her intellectual curiosity, passion, and interests. A secret love affair ensues but a plan to flee goes awry, leaving Imogen trapped in her husband’s home forever.

If you’re looking for anything really earth shattering, that won’t be here. This is a very pleasant, if quite predictable, story of two women struggling to make their way in different times. The story feels familiar because it’s because these aspects become frequent themes in this type of dual-timeline stories: mysterious painting(s), abandoned house, tortured historical heroine, damaged modern heroine, dashing but complicated modern hero, etc. That doesn’t make this any less enjoyable, however, and as an end-of-summer getaway book, this is a solid choice.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Review: The Queen of Last Hopes: The Story of Margaret of Anjou

Susan Higginbotham

The Queen of Last Hopes: The Story of Margaret of Anjou


By Susan Higginbotham
Sourcebooks Landmark, January 2011

In her latest novel, Susan Higginbotham takes on the task of redeeming yet another maligned historical figure: Margaret of Anjou, wife of the ineffective King Henry VI and mother of the doomed Edward of Lancaster. Told in multiple first-person accounts (including a few from the grave), the story follows Margaret from her marriage to Henry as a sprightly girl of 14, through a few short happy years of marriage, to the decades of conflict and heartbreak that would later be known as The Wars of the Roses and led to her ignominious end.

Rather than an evil, heartless manipulator, Margaret is portrayed as a regular woman who loves her eccentric husband dearly; as he grows more distant and her son comes of age, that love is transformed into a determination to save her family from ruin. Instead of an emotionless monk or raving lunatic, Henry is shown as a loving husband, pious and mild-mannered but not completely useless. Their love is sweetly comfortable, even after separation and madness.

The prose stays within the parameters of this genre; there’s plenty of exposition, but it never feels unnecessarily packed in. Readers unfamiliar with the Wars of the Roses might be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information, but that’s par for the course with this time period. A more balanced view of Margaret might have been more convincing; it could be argued she’s been redeemed so much that she has few (if any) flaws left. Otherwise, however, the historical research is impeccable as always, the characters endearing, and the storytelling as engaging and entertaining as this author’s fans have come to expect. Another fine volume of biographical fiction from Susan Higginbotham.

Originally appeared in Historical Novels Society Reviews.


Thursday, June 09, 2016

Review: Secrets of a Soprano


Miranda Neville

Secrets of a Soprano

Miranda Neville
Miranda Neville, April 2016

About the Book

No one knows the perils of celebrity better than Teresa Foscari, Europe’s most famous opera singer. The public knows her as a glamorous and tempestuous diva, mistress to emperors, a reputation created by the newspapers and the ruthless man who exploited her. Now she has come to London to make a fresh start and find her long lost English family.

Foscari’s peerless voice thrills all London—except Maximilian Hawthorne, Viscount Allerton, the wealthy patron of opera—and lover of singers. Notorious Teresa Foscari is none other than Tessa, the innocent girl who broke his youthful heart. When his glittering new opera house sits half empty, thanks to the soprano filling the seats of his competitor’s theater, Max vows to stop the woman he unwillingly still desires.

Amidst backstage intrigue and the sumptuous soirées of fashionable London, the couple’s rivalry explodes in bitter accusations and smashed china. With her reputation in ruins, Tessa must fight for her career—and resist her burning attraction to the man who wishes to destroy her.

My Review

“La Davina”, opera singer Teresa Foscari, comes to London to perform in the opera house and take a closer look into her English family tree. Teresa has quite a reputation for scandalous liaisons with the wealthy and powerful and a penchant for breaking china.

Very few know, however, that the gossip is all untrue (all manufactured for public intrigue by her late husband) and that the most famous of opera singers is, in fact, nearly broke. To make matters worse, Lord Allerton, the man who broke Teresa’s heart years ago, now runs a rival opera house and wants nothing to do with the young woman he once knew. Teresa can’t avoid Allerton, a major player in the opera and social circles, and he is hell bent on thwarting her, never knowing that all her alleged liaisons are false and the diamonds she wears are fakes.

I confess that I am not an enthusiastic fan of the straight romance genre, as it has too little plot for me, and I think this book falls into that category. The opera details and the characters are well drawn, but the plot twists will be surprises to no one who has read a romance novel before. That being said, Ms. Neville does a great job at highlighting secondary characters for flavor: Max’s wily mother, Tessa’s cousin, etc. But no one will miss the time honored romance plot line of misunderstandings, conflict, torrid reunion, another misunderstanding, declaration, and reconciliation.

I would probably fall more into the historical romance category where the emphasis is on plot and romance is more of a flavor, but if you want a solid romance novel to get you ready for summer, this is a good choice.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer