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?


Why not read the Newberry award winners this summer? Click to Tweet

Kids, summer reading and the Newberrys  Click to Tweet

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

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 soirĂ©es 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

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review: The Midnight Watch

David Dyer
The Midnight Watch
By David Dyer‏
St Martin’s Press, April 2016

About the Book

As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chart room below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored.

The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead. When they learned of the extent of the tragedy, Lord and Stone did everything they could to hide their role in the disaster, but pursued by newspapermen, lawyers, and political leaders in America and England, their terrible secret was eventually revealed. The Midnight Watch is a fictional telling of what may have occurred that night on the SS Californian, and the resulting desperation of Officer Stone and Captain Lord in the aftermath of their inaction.

Told not only from the perspective of the SS Californian crew, but also through the eyes of a family of third-class passengers who perished in the disaster, the narrative is drawn together by Steadman, a tenacious Boston journalist who does not rest until the truth is found. The Midnight Watch is a powerful and dramatic debut novel—the result of many years of research in Liverpool, London, New York, and Boston, and informed by the author’s own experiences as a ship’s officer and a lawyer.

My Review

Parts of this book were really good and others seemed to drag on a bit too long. It read sort of like a whodunnit mystery, but without the red herrings. The many lies and the cover-up testimonies were interesting to read about because the stories kept changing. No one wanted to admit to anything that would make them the cause or contributor to the tragedy and such a great loss of life. I liked reading most of the novel from the point of view of a newspaper reporter. At the same time, I didn’t feel like there was enough about the Titanic tragedy itself, as the plot was more focused on the Californian. 

Now, technically I understand the intention was to focus on the inaction of the other ship when they saw the rockets, which makes the Titanic’s story all the more tragic because the boat was only ten or so miles away and could have saved a good number of passengers had they done something. The feeling I got at the conclusion of this book was more like I’d been reading depositions of the Nazi leaders and their testimonies of their participation in international war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials. So if you find that approach a bit dry, you might not stick with this book until the end.

My favorite part of the story was when the author showed the last hour of the Sage family’s life. It was an intriguing perspective of how a large family with nine children might have dealt with the ship’s sinking as a unit. Since the eleven-member family actually died when the ship disappeared under water, I found it especially intriguing that not one of them survived. They didn’t want to be separated even if that meant they could live, and that was an emotional part of the book for me. As a family they fought to stay together despite the hopelessness of their situation. Such a tragic ending.

All in all this was a decent story. Would I rave about it and recommend it to friends? Probably not. But that’s just my opinion. What makes a Titanic-themed story intriguing is the tragedy and experiencing the events as if you were there as the ship went down. The book did include some of these scenes, but most of the story was about digging up the facts and trying to get to the truth. That’s the part that dragged on longer than necessary.

Michelle Szymanoski
Michelle Sutton author—Healing Hearts

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Rumors and Promises by Kathleen Rouser ~ Book Review

Rumors and Promises by Kathleen Rouser

We are so excited that one of our PASTimes contributors has a new book out, her first full-length novel! Congrats, Kathy!!!!

From Amazon:

Sophie Biddle, an heiress on the run with a child in tow, considers herself abandoned by her family and God. Wary, self-reliant Sophie is caught off guard when meeting a kind, but meddling and handsome minister at the local mercantile.
 In 1900, Reverend Ian McCormick is determined to start anew in Stone Creek, Michigan, believing he has failed God and his former flock. He works harder than ever to forget his mistake, hoping to prove himself a most pleasing servant to his new congregation and once again to God.  
While Sophie seeks acceptance for the child and a measure of respect for herself, the rumors swirl about her sordid past. Should Ian show concern for Sophie plight, he could risk everything - including his position as pastor of Stone Creek.
Now the pair must choose to trust God and forgive those who slander and gossip, or run. Will the scandals of their pasts bind them together forever, or drive both deeper into despair? 

Reviewed by Donn Taylor, author of Lightning on a Quiet Night, Rhapsody in Red, etc.
Sophia Bidershem, a teen-aged heiress in late nineteeth century Detroit, was taken advantage of by a predatory older man and bore a daughter outside of marriage. To avoid a forced marriage, she runs away with the Daughter, Caira, always fearing her predator might find them. Taking the name Sophie Biddle and pretending that the now-two-year-old Caira is her sister, she arrives destitute in Stone Creek, Michigan, to take a job in a boarding house and start a new life. Her pleasant personality, competence, and obvious love for Caira quickly win her friends, but she feels guilty for lying about her status, and she lives in fear of being found by the girl’s ruthless father.

                  The young minister Ian McCormick provides Sophie charitable help and is instantly attracted to her. But Ian has hidden secrets of his own, secrets that leave him as guilt-ridden as Sophie. He tries unsuccessfully to assuage his guilt feelings through good works. Sophie’s presence and their growing attraction to each other only complicate his situation.

                  Kathleen Rouser threads this story skillfully from that point, surrounding her protagonists with a colorful group of well-drawn secondary characters, introducing new conflicts, and building to a thrilling climax and satisfying denouement, all the while weaving in the spiritual dimensions of her characters. The result is an always-interesting, well-written historical romance that will keep readers turning the pages.

Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he earned a PhD in English literature (Renaissance) and taught literature at two liberal arts colleges. His publications include three suspense novels, one historical novel, and a book of poetry. He lives near Houston, TX, where he writes fiction, poetry, and essays on current topics.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Summer Before the War

By Michelle Ule

A good friend and I are having a good-natured disagreement about Helen Simonson's The Summer Before the War.

You can and should read Jamie Clarke Chavez' remarks here: Study This: The Summer Before the War.

I'm the friend disagreeing with her--on some things.

If you're in Downton Abbey withdrawal or love the thick juicy novels of R. F. Delderfield, this is an excellent book for you.

It's a rich, long story featuring multiple characters and their points of view during the hot, glorious summer of 1914 England.

I've been looking forward to it for months and saved it to read on my recent vacation.

Here's what it's about, from the blurb Jamie kindly included in her post:

East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small,  coastal town of Rye.
Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.
 When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking—and attractive—than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing.
But … the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.
We have plenty of characters and their lives to root for as we delve through a luxuriously long and detailed telling of their days that fateful summer.

"They" say if you want to know political history, read history books. If you want to know about domestic life, read historical fiction.

The Summer Before the War is the perfect book for learning about British domestic affairs before WWI.

Simonson has done her homework and filled the tale with spot-on facts and insights about that time in post-Edwardian England. (George was the king that year).

I savored moments of irony and interesting facts.

She's also filled the story with unusual characters, as well as different slants on men and women whose quirks often appear in stories from this time period.

But you don't mind, because they are interesting--when was the last time you read about a Romany (Gypsy) boy in England who made an ultimate sacrifice?

The foppish poet is here, but you like him despite of his irritating idiosyncrasies and particularly for his decisions by the end of the book.

The dutiful doctor, perhaps led into the wrong path by the foolish marriageable daughter of his mentor, is also in attendance.

But Hugh has a heart that recognizes it is negotiating with his brain and you root for and encourage him to see clearly.

And Beatrice--a bright orphaned woman who has to face the reality of what making a life for herself means in 1914 England when her financial situation cripples her dreams. She reflected the burgeoning feminist movement at that time in an admirable and understandable way.

Agatha oversees it all; happy in a long marriage but disarmed by the poor choices the nephews she loves so much appear to be making, not to mention how to cleverly foil some of the ridiculous and short sighted townspeople.

There were lots of people to root for and few antagonists except in a "I recognize that woman and man" type of way.

The involved story takes us all over the countryside that summer, often by bicycle, and it's a fine period piece to set the stage for what is to come.

There is much to like in this book.

My problem

Choosing to read a 500-page book while traveling several hundred miles a day by car probably isn't the best way to wallow in this rich read.

At best I read several chapters a night before falling asleep. I'm very sorry I didn't read it on the four hour plane trip--which would have immersed me in the experience.

Snatches and sips don't allow for much mulling or nuance recognition.

It's perfect for a long, lazy, warm, free summer weekend--or two.

Plan to spend time savoring this read.

The major issue for me, however, is something most people won't suffer from.

I've just finished writing a WWI novel.

I've spent the last three years researching WWI.

You can visit my Pinterest board to get a feel for what I've seen: World War I Shots

A good novel pulls you in and entertains. It enlightens and immerses you in the emotions of the story.

It paints pictures that stay in your mind and insights which causes you to think slightly differently about what you thought you knew.

That's available to most readers of The Summer Before the War.

My problem was I know too much and I could not shake the reality from my head.

I recognized and delighted in the irony of their innocent statements about what was happening across the Channel.

I laughed out loud more than once on the ridiculously naive things characters said.

But for me, beneath that laughter--and which often overtook it in the reading--lay the grim horror of what I knew was happening and what probably would happen to all those beautiful young men--whether in their flying machines or not, and certainly in those grotesque trenches.

I just couldn't laugh every time, even as I recognized the delicious irony and absurdity.

Simonson, I believe, was making a statement about the naivete and innocence, not to mention arrogant ignorance, of much of England and France during the summer of 1914.

Agatha's husband knew and warned, but he was brushed off as being able to solve any diplomatic crisis.

Sometimes, though, even the most experienced and qualified person can't solve all the problems.

And that, friends, is one of the major tragedies of the Great War.

If you can set knowledge aside, enjoy The Summer Before the War.

I'm glad I read it.


Two friends disagree--sort of--about The Summer Before the War.  Click to Tweet

Setting aside what you know to enjoy a novel--or not. The Summer Before the War. Click to Tweet

About the author

Michelle Ule is the author of five historical novellas including The 12 Brides of Summer Collection which will release on June 1, and an outlier Navy SEAL novel. She is currently writing a biography for Baker Books: Mrs. Oswald Chambers, which will be published in fall, 2017. You can follow her and her twice-a week blog at