Friday, August 21, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

I’ve heard so many good things about Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale that I bumped it to the top of my reading list despite feeling a bit burned out on WWII books. I’m glad I listened to the recommendations.

The Nightingale is set in France, partly in Paris but mostly in a small, rural village called Carriveau. It follows two very different sisters, Vianne Mauriac (married name) and Isabelle Rossignol.

The two are well-acquainted with the horrors of war—or at least with its aftermath. Their father fought in WWI, and was never the same afterward. Shortly after the war, their mother died and their father, who’d started drinking, essentially abandoned them. Vianne, the eldest, was in no way prepared to take care of her significantly younger sister. Vianne could scarcely take care of herself. In short order, she fell in love, got pregnant, got married, and miscarried.

Fortunately for Vianne, the man she married, Antoine, was a rock. They had a solid, loving, mutually supportive marriage, although the supporting was mainly done by Antoine. Isabelle stayed with them on and off, but she was a difficult child. When Vianne lost another baby, she was too grief-stricken to deal with Isabelle and sent her away.

Isabelle experienced a lot of being sent away during her youth. She was constantly being expelled from the boarding schools her father sent her to. And when she tried to go to her father in Paris, he couldn’t be bothered. She grew up fiercely independent, yet needy.

War breaks out. Antoine is sent to the front lines. Vianne is left to cope. She and Antoine now have a young daughter, Sophie, and Vianne realizes she has to be strong for their child. Isabelle is sent away from Paris as it becomes too dangerous and she comes to the little town to join them. During the evacuation of Paris, she meets and falls in love with Gaetan, a young man determined to fight the Germans from within France. But he, too, abandons her to pursue his dangerous goals.

Things really fall apart when the Germans invade Carriveau. A German officer moves in to Vianne’s home. She is ready to do anything to protect Sophie. Isabelle is much more rebellious and willing to risk all to resist the Germans.

So, the women fight the war on the home front, each in her own way.

This is a touching story of the relationship between sisters, a love tested in every conceivable manner. And it’s a story of a horrific war. The atrocities committed by the Nazis always make reading about WWII depressing and infuriating. People did inhuman things to other people–and it’s painful to read. And yet, it’s uplifting to read about those who resist.

The novel starts off a bit slow, setting the stage for what’s to come. I felt it got a bit repetitive as it reinforced the reasons for the estrangement between the sisters and their personality traits and why they behaved as they did. However, once we get into the meat of the story, the pace really picks up and the conflicts become increasingly emotionally involving. Overall, it’s a wonderful book, deserving of the hype.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Determined Heart. The Tale of Mary Shelley and Her Frankenstein by Antoinette May

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

The Determined Heart. The Tale of Mary Shelley and Her Frankenstein by Antoinette May is a touching story of the devoted love of Mary Godwin Shelley for the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. It recounts details of the unconventional lives they lived and follows Mary’s struggles with her own literary pursuits, including her most famous work, Frankenstein.

Mary was the daughter of the famous Mary Wollstonecraft, a philosopher and women’s rights advocate and William Godwin, a political philosopher. Her mother died from complications of a difficult childbirth. Mary and a stepsister, Fanny, were raised by William Godwin. When Mary was four, her father remarried, bringing another stepsister, Claire, into the household, along with a stepmother who was so glaringly different from her brilliant mother that Mary could not help but rebel.

Mary is quite young when she first meets Shelley who is an admirer of the writings of her parents. Her father is quick to welcome him into their household because Shelley has an expectation of a large inheritance and the Godwins are chronically short of money. William Godwin is forever looking for handouts. Shelley is pleased to offer what he can to support Godwin’s intellectual pursuits. Before long, he seduces Mary. (Shelley is already married with children but his prior obligations don’t weigh very heavily on him.)

Part of William Godwin’s credo (supported by Mary’s mother) had always been advocacy of free love and the rejection of the chains of marriage. So the fact that Shelley was married should have been no obstacle to his pursuit of Godwin’s daughter. Imagine Shelley’s surprise when Godwin refused to let the pair run off together. Mary is warned that a man who abandons his wife and children so readily is not likely to be faithful to her, but she can’t believe that. Their love is different.

Shelley arranges to run away in secret. Mary must choose between her father and her lover, and she chooses Shelley. Imagine Mary’s surprise when Claire appears at the meeting place and Shelley, without any apparent hesitation, invites the interloper along.

Mary makes the best of a situation that isn’t exactly what she imagined. She and her poet do have a life filled with passion, love, and intellectual engagement. She meets other men and women with similar interests (for example, Lord Byron.) They travel. She and Shelley both write. There are babies and miscarriages. She has to put up with his infidelities. She has to put up with Claire. And yet, her love for him runs so deep, she forgives everything, always, and takes refuge in her writing.

The Determined Heart is an absorbing novel. I was familiar with the historical basis of the story from having read Passion by Jude Morgan—a tremendous novel that looks at the lives of the women involved with Shelley, Byron, and Keats. The Determined Heart has a more narrow focus, allowing it to provide more biographical information about Mary—a protagonist well deserving of the attention. For a more sweeping look at the historical times and an examination of several passionate, literary women, I also recommend reading Passion.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: A Study in Death by Anna Lee Huber

I’m a devoted follower of the "A Lady Darby Mystery" series by Anna Lee Huber, so I dove in to the newest offering: A Study in Death.

The series is set in Scotland in the early 1800's. Lady Kiera Darby is a young widow. Her late husband, Sir Anthony, was at one time a respected anatomist. However he became embroiled in scandals which included the revelation that he forced his wife (a talented portraitist) to illustrate the dissections he conducted. That he beat her and terrorized her meant nothing to fashionable society—they ostracized her for her part in the ghoulish business.

After his death, Kiera retreated to the safety of her sister’s home where she found some protection in the sheltering arms of her sister and brother-in-law. But her peace did not last. A murder was committed on their property and Kiera, too well acquainted with death, was drawn into the murder investigation, as both suspect and investigator. During the course of the investigation she met the official ‘gentleman investigator’, Sebastian Gage. By the time they solved the murder, a relationship had blossomed between them.

The next books continue to develop Kiera’s investigating skills as well as her comfort with the fact that this is something she is not only good at but compelled to do. The relationship between the sleuths also continues to develop.

In the current book, Kiera is occupied with her first talent, portrait painting. She has been commissioned to paint a young lady of her social set, Lady Drummond, whose kindness and friendliness have drawn Kiera in. More, Kiera is drawn to her by the recognition that Lady Drummond’s husband is a bully just as Sir Anthony had been, and Lady Drummond is terrified of him. Kiera feels Lady Drummond is about to open up to her and wonders if she can encourage her without prying. Then Lady Drummond dies, quite horribly, and Kiera is certain she has been murdered.

Kiera and Gage investigate, though Gage is not, at first, sure that a murder has occurred.

Complications include the impending birth of Kiera’s nephew (or niece.) Her sister has a history of difficult deliveries and this one may be life-threatening. Her brother-in-law is acting oddly, straining the usually tight-knit household. And, there is the problem of Gage’s father arriving in the city, determined to break up the partnership between Gage and this very unsuitable female. Finally, there is the criminal mastermind/head hoodlum that Kiera crossed in the previous book who owes her a favor and now lurks in the background, both threatening violence and protecting her from it.

As in previous books, there is a thoughtful, deliberate collection of clues, sifting of evidence, and an element of danger that keeps things moving swiftly. But it is the personalities of the characters, Kiera’s psychological journey and Gage’s steady support along with some growth on his part as well, that make these books particularly enjoyable. I look forward to the next book in the series!

Monday, July 27, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: A Court of Thorns and Roses

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas is a page-turner of a romantic fantasy for young adults/new adults. A fairy-tale reworking of Beauty and the Beast, the protagonist is the nineteen-year-old human Feyre, who has been forced by poverty and the uselessness of her father and older sisters to become the provider for the family. For this reason she has taught herself to hunt. One day, in desperation, she kills a wolf that is clearly more than a wolf—it’s a fairy. And one of its kind comes to claim retribution.

Feyre is hauled off beyond the wall that separates the fairy world from that of the humans, a tenuous boundary meant for mutual safety. Although the fairy has promised not to kill her, she expects to be enslaved. She doesn’t expect the beautiful castle she finds there or the civilized treatment she receives. The fairy who has captured her is not a beast after all, but a handsome member of the High Fae named Tamlin. At first, she wants nothing more than to go home. It’s the one thing he denies her. But as time passes, and she learns more about the world of the fairies, she discovers that the land is under a curse. Tamlin is doing everything in his power to protect his world and to protect her. It isn’t enough. Feyre steps up her game.

There’s a lot going on in this story: fairy legends, rivalries between courts, ancient rituals, and a growing passion between Tamlin and Feyre. There is also a cynical yet delightful sidekick, Lucien. And there is a handsome, sexy nemesis to challenge Tamlin, one who works for the evil queen who put the land under the curse in the first place. Feyre, human as she is, has to find a way to deal with all these different fairies. Clever, spunky, and determined, she refuses to give up. The odds seem overwhelmingly against her, so it’s a fast-paced, enjoyable read watching her fight.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Love's Alchemy. A John Donne Mystery by Bryan Crockett

I reviewed Love's Alchemy. A John Donne Mystery by Bryan Crockett for the latest issue of The Historical Novels Review and a link can be found here, along with reviews of other new releases in historical fiction. I loved this book and wanted to mention it again here:

It’s fashionable now to take popular writers from the past and turn them into sleuths. I was intrigued by this debut novel that centers on John Donne, the famous English metaphysical poet. Donne? What kind of mystery would he be called upon to solve?

As it turns out, this is no mere whodunnit. Set in 1604, Donne is already married to Anne More and suffering the poverty and fall from grace that marrying for love was bound to cause. His political career is in ruins, so to survive, he needs to find patronage for his poetry. Unfortunately, the patroness he attracts is a beautiful and manipulative woman who tempts him to stray. He has another option, one he literally can’t refuse—to turn spy for King James’ chief counselor, Robert Cecil. Cecil is rabidly anti-Catholic and has heard rumors of a Catholic plot against the government. Donne, although currently divorced from the Church, has Catholic connections going way back. If he can convince his family he wants to return to the fold, he should be able to uncover the plot—so believes Cecil.

The mystery is this: is there a plot? Who is behind it? This provides for a tension-filled mission for Donne. But the deeper mystery driving the book is: who is John Donne? As he embarks on the journey, he wrestles with his qualms about betraying those who trust him, his separation from the Church, his love for his wife and his lust for his new patroness. This is a remarkably intense and emotional portrayal of the poet that makes him believably brilliant and flawed. It is a wonderful blending of history and fictionalized biography. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Tiffany Girl by Deeanne Gist

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Tiffany Girl by Deeanne Gist is a sweet romance set at the end of the nineteenth century in the lead-up to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Flossie Jane has aspirations of becoming an artist. Her parents have supported her painting endeavors until her father’s gambling drains the family income beyond their ability to keep up with her art lessons. It now seems more important to them that she help her mother with the in-home sewing business that provides the bulk of the family’s support. Flossie rebels, thinking it unfair that her mother’s hard work goes to pay for her father’s gambling. This is a time of change for women– a time for "the New Woman." Young women have been taking chances, taking jobs on their own, supporting themselves. Flossie yearns for a chance to do just that.

Fortunately, Mr. Tiffany (of the famous Tiffany glassworks) has need of talented, artistic young women. He has commissioned a stained-glass chapel for the World’s Fair to showcase the work of his corporation. He is in a terrible bind because of a glass-workers’ strike. One of his managers, a woman, has convinced him to give female workers a try. Women are not allowed to join unions so. . .

Flossie is one of the women chosen for the job. She moves into a boarding house, expressly against her parents’ wishes. There she meets a varied cast of characters who enliven her life. More so, however, she brightens theirs. Her true talent lies in her ability to bring people together. One of these people is the aloof reporter, Reeve, who has an abhorrence for "New Women" in general and whose initial impression of Flossie is that she is a chatterbox and a busybody, but a very beautiful one.

The story provides an interesting look into Tiffany’s stained glass making process and the excitement of the World Fair. It brings up some of the issues that these women in transition had to face (not all of which are resolved, such as harassment on public transportation). The love story progresses at a realistic pace. It’s a long book and Howard Books is the Christian publishing imprint of Simon & Schuster so adjust romance expectations appropriately. The goal for this New Woman, for all her initial insistence on independence and her desire to pursue her painting, is always first and foremost marriage and family. And Gist steers the storyline into a position where love is the happy-ever-after Flossie is looking for all along. I found myself drawn along with Flossie’s journey even if I didn’t find her the most inspiring of heroines. (I think I would have been more interested in the story of her manager! But that would not likely have been a romance.)

So, Tiffany Girl is recommended for its peek into the historical events, particularly if you like sweet, clean romance.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer

Wanting to read something purely escapist, I turned once again to Georgette Heyer. A recent review of Regency Buck put that one on my list and my library had it on the shelf, so I was able to settle in and enjoy.

Judith Taverner and her brother, Peregrine have recently lost their father and come into large inheritances. They are now wards of the fifth earl of Worth, a man they have never met—a man who has no desire to meet them and who has instructed them to stay in their small town and not come to London. Judith and Perry disobey.

To their shock, Lord Worth is not an old grump, but a handsome, arrogant young man. Worth has no wish to be a guardian, but he is, nevertheless, a very good one. He sets them up in a London house, arranges for a chaperone for Judith, and makes sure they meet all the right people. Before long, Judith, who is worth a fortune and beautiful to boot, is receiving marriage proposals galore, all of which Worth refuses for her.

Judith is dismayed by her guardian’s high-handedness. Not that she is interested in any of her suitors, but she is used to her independence and finds Worth’s interference in her affairs insupportable. She much prefers the assistance of her cousin, Bernard, whom she has also just recently met. He treats her with the utmost civility. And tenderness.

Worth is also too dismissive of Perry. Judith worries about her younger brother, who is letting the attractions of London—gambling, drinking, and spending his inheritance as fast as Worth will allow—spoil him completely. And there is something even more worrisome. If Perry were to die, she will be his heir. And Perry seems to be increasingly prone to scrapes that are dangerous, even life-threatening. She’s starting to think they are not accidental. She’s starting to wonder why it is that Worth is turning away all of her suitors. And then. . . Perry disappears.

Regency Buck is another pleasant romance to transport you to Regency England for an amusing romp. Judith is, for the most part, a strong, practical heroine who is easy to root for. She gets carried away at times, but is willing to recognize her mistakes and back down from them. Worth is about as alpha as they come. He can be unpleasant, but he has his reasons. Bernard stands as a reasonable rival. The plot twists enough to make you wonder–even though a Romance reader will surely know how it will have to turn out. Another winner from Georgette Heyer!