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.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Magical Moonbow Night



By Michelle Ule

Laura Frantz' A Moonbow Night delights the senses with a rich historical read.
Set in southeastern Kentucky during the early years of the Revolutionary War, A Moonbow Night tells a frontier tale of heartbreak, violence, threat and joy.

Which is exactly what happened on the western side of the Cumberland Gap when my ancestors traveled through a generation later.

Daniel Boone's real family are characters and the mixture of fact from their family's tragedy propells A Moonbow Night emotionally.

I enjoyed the book very much.

What happened?


A Moonbow Night tells the story of Temperance (Tempe) Tucker, whose family fled Virginia after an encounter between her father and a surveyor that turned nasty.

The family lives in relative isolation not far from a waterfall, where they run an inn that caters to travelers along the road through southern Kentucky.

Her father lives hidden from home, an outlaw with excellent tracking skills in that wild land of unruly Native Americans who understandably don't want their land taken away.

When King George across the water stirs up his soldiers and incites the Native Americans to further rebellion, every movement in the wilderness becomes fraught with danger.

Into this country comes a surveyor, Sion, who just wants to finish his job with his scalp intact. He needs a tracker.

To his surprise, and that of Tempe--who was drafted into the job to keep her father safe--he gets a woman.

They head west with a half-dozen men employing clanking surveying chains--right into land the Native Americans are killing to keep.

The read 


A Moonbow Night's story is engrossing, but as ever, Frantz excells in her writing skill.

Powerful imagery and careful observation of the land, flora and fauna enrich the reading experience in a satisfying way. 

Her prose is so beautiful, you almost don't care how savage the story turns.

Except, of course, you're cheering on Tempe and Sion--when you're not feeling as disquieted as Tempe is about the surveying task.

I've read a lot of history about this place and era. Frantz' story detailed a way of life in an authentic fashion while providing insight into a time long ago.

How can people be so brave in the face of such danger and brutality?

Can I ever live up to the sacrifices my family made to travel through that part of the world?

Enjoy A Moonbow Night and draw your own conclusions.

Tweetables


A rich, authentic look at pioneer Kentucky: A Moonbow Night Click to Tweet

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Michelle Ule is the descendent of pioneers who crossed through the Cumberland Gap through
Kentucky and on to Tennessee and Texas. She draws on her family history in several of her bestselling inspirational historical novellas.

Her most recent historical undertaking will be published in October 2017: Mrs. Oswald Chambers; a biography of the woman who comipled the best selling devotional of all time. Learn more at her website www.michelleule.com


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review: The Memory of Us







The Memory of Us

by Camille Di Maio


Lake Union Publishing, May 2016

Julianne Westcott was living the kind of life that other Protestant girls in prewar Liverpool could only dream about: old money, silk ball gowns, and prominent young men lining up to escort her. But when she learns of a blind and deaf brother, institutionalized since birth, the illusion of her perfect life and family shatters around her.

While visiting her brother in secret, Julianne meets and befriends Kyle McCarthy, an Irish Catholic groundskeeper studying to become a priest. Caught between her family’s expectations, Kyle’s devotion to the Church, and the intense new feelings that the forbidden courtship has awakened in her, Julianne must make a choice: uphold the life she’s always known or follow the difficult path toward love.

But as war ripples through the world and the Blitz decimates England, a tragic accident forces Julianne to leave everything behind and forge a new life built on lies she’s told to protect the ones she loves. Now, after twenty years of hiding from her past, the truth finds her. Will she be brave enough to face it?

My Review

Juliann Westcott, the debutant daughter of a Liverpool shipping magnate, discovers a blind and deaf twin brother locked away in an institution. It’s at the institution that Juliann meets gardener Kyle McCarthy, an impoverished Irishman who is studying to be a priest. Despite her parents’ strong disapproval of Kyle’s social standing and religion, Juliann and Kyle fall in love and elope.

In London, Kyle takes on odd jobs, while Juliann studies to be a nurse, but after Kyle enlists to fight the Germans, the Blitz forces Juliann to return to Liverpool. While staying with a friend in a basement shelter, a German firebomb changes Juliann forever and she makes a choice that changes her life, and Kyle’s, forever. Then, 20 years later, at the bedside of a dying woman, nurse Juliann runs into priest Kyle again and must face the consequences of those long ago choices.

A classic rich girl-poor boy tale takes a slightly different turn amidst the rubble of a bombed out building. This is a tale of redemption, of forgiveness, and of reconciliation. Mostly, this is a tale of hope—that despite the worst that life and fear can unleash, there is still a chance for love to win. The predictability of the plot is easily forgiven in view of the sweetness of the ending.

I’m particularly proud to say that this author is not only a mega-selling real estate agent by day but also homeschools her four children—oh and writes novels too. She must be a superwoman! And I’m not usually one to gush over cover art, but this cover is lovely.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review: Secrets in the Mist

Anna Lee Huber

Secrets in the Mist

By Anna Lee Huber

Brightstone Media, October 2016


About the Book

England 1812. Since the death of her mother and brother, Ella Winterton’s life has been consumed by keeping her drunkard father out of trouble and the roof of their crumbling cottage over their heads. But even isolated deep in the Norfolk broads, Ella has never been afraid of the marshes surrounding her home, despite their being riddled with treacherous bogs and local smugglers. Until one night a man masquerading as a Lantern Man—a frightening figure of local legend—waylays her in the marshes near her home, and her world suddenly begins to spiral out of control.

Ella can tell that her friends and the local villagers are all hiding something terrible, something they refuse to share, and she can’t help but wonder if it has to do with the Lantern Man and his secret activities in the shadows of the seemingly quiet broads. But when  the authorities catch Ella’s father with smuggled brandy and levy a crippling fine, she is forced to turn to the stranger for help, despite her distrust and his alarming ability to kiss her senseless.

Now she must unravel a twisted trail of deception and secrets and uncover once and for all whether the Lantern Man is friend or foe. Or else risk being dragged down into the marshes, like the victims from the myth, and buried in a watery grave.

My Review

Anna Lee Huber, author of the wonderful Lady Darby mystery series, tries her hand at gothic mysteries in this volume 1 of the Gothic Myths Series. We meet Ella Winterton, who lives in Norfolk in the early 19th century with her widowed father, not long after the loss of her brother Erik in the Napoleonic Wars. Ella’s father has become a drunkard, and she must rely on her own wits to keep a roof over their heads. When she meets a mysterious stranger on the Broads—one of the famed “Lantern Men” from local lore—she’s initially frightened, and then intrigued. She knows that smugglers abound in this area of the country, but when her father is repeatedly fined for drinking smuggled brandy, Ella has few options and casts her lot with the smugglers in order to survive.

Dark, brooding, sinister, and with a sly plot twist at the end, this is a hugely satisfying Gothic novel à la Jane Eyre, perfect for cold, dark winter nights. Ella is brave, resourceful, and spirited. You will root for her to the last page. I’m anxious to see what’s in store for Ella in the next volume.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Review of Pages of Ireland

Cindy PagesIreland_frontonly300Pages of Ireland
Book #2, Daughter of Ireland

by Cindy Thomson

About the Book:

In sixth-century Ireland, books are rare treasures.

Aine, a young woman unwillingly pledged to marry, believes the book is a talisman with the power to change her circumstances. When she steals it from her betrothed’s clan, desperate to use it to help her mother’s impoverished people, events tumble out of control. She seeks help from Brigid, the woman who rescued her long ago, but doing so puts an entire monastery at risk as the king deploys his army to get the book back.

The formerly banished druid Ardan hopes the book can be traded for revenge, but a mysterious force curses him with a reoccurring mark in the shape of Brigid’s famous reed cross. Is it the power of a vengeful god or the command of the book that is causing his anguish?

While many seek to possess the book, it appears to choose who will hear its words. No one in Ireland will know the power of the words written on its pages if the book does not survive the battle. 

My Review:

by Tamera Lynn Kraft

Pages of Ireland is the second book in Cindy Thomson's Ireland Series. Set in the Middle Ages, she continues her tales of how Christianity took root in Ireland. This novel focuses upon Aine, the girl Brigid saved in the last novel Brigid of Ireland. Cindy weaves Ireland legend and folklore into stories about early saints and missionaries in a way no one else has. I enjoyed Pages of Ireland even more than her first book in the series. I highly recommend it.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Imperial Wife: Catherine the Great

Image result
By Michelle Ule

Catherine the Great comes alive in this fabulous historical and present day novel by Irina Reyn: The Imperial Wife.

As a long-time Russophile, I picked up this novel by Irina Reyn out of curiosity.

Catherine the Great has never been one of my favorites--she was a focused and ribald ruler during despotic times.

But Reyn's novel brought Catherine to life in a sympathetic fashion that made me consider her from a different angle. I liked it very much.

Past and Present in parallel

This is not a time travel story--it's a parallel tale of two women torn from their homeland and required to make gutsy decisions in a world that isn't quite their own.

Catherine's 18th century story mirrors that of Tanya's present day experience in the rarified Russian art world of New York City.

They're both confused in love, tantalized by beautiful works of art and the mind and responding to powerful forces.

I learned far more about the Russian oligarchs now dominating the international art market then I ever imagined.

Reyn has done an excellent job of conveying the high-stakes world in which both Catherine and Tanya risked everything for success.

And there's a fascinating twist--somewhere in the story--that caught me surprise and threw the whole book into a different realm of parable.

I loved it.

And I didn't put it all together until the final page.

Replica of Catherine II's wedding dress (1745) by MKhT school-studio 05 by shakko
This sash--the Order of St. Catherine,
plays a major role in the story.

Catherine the Great and Tanya 


Catherine comes off as a far more sympathetic character than I've ever given her credit.

Her young life had several disappointments that made her into the empress she became. (Which is where Reyn ends her story).

Reyn does a fine job of helping us see why Catherine made her choices.

We see what life was like in that long ago period when Peter the Great's grandson became the tsar and was not up to the task.

Catherine had to seize power for the sake of Russia--right?

In Tanya's case, she too, seized power of a different sort and may--or may not--have ruined her personal happiness as a result.

Her dealings with the Russian art world fascinated when they didn't appall.

I learned so very much in such an enjoyable fashion.

The Imperial Wife--does that refer to Catherine the Great or Tanya herself?--is a terrific historical novel.

Tweetables 

The Imperial Wife--Catherine the Great, art and NYC. Click to Tweet

Historical and present day fiction at its finest: The Imperial Wife. Click to Tweet

Best-selling novelist Michelle Ule writes historical fiction and now, a biography of Mrs. Oswald Chambers (Baker, October 2017). Find out more about her and her love of Russian history at
www.michelleule.com