Thursday, October 16, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Sharp Hook of Love by Sherry Jones

The Sharp Hook of Love by Sherry Jones is an extraordinary book. It has all the right elements in place to be a must read. It’s medieval historical fiction, set in my favorite time period (twelfth century), in Paris. And it tells the story of Abelard and Heloise. So I knew I wanted to read it. But I was thrilled by how quickly I fell in love with the book–and it never disappointed.

If you look at top ten lists of all time great love stories (which are always tragic), some couples will pop up repeatedly: Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Lancelot and Guinevere... Some of the couples are fictional, some are real. But one couple who should make every list is Heloise and Peter (Pierre) Abelard. Not only were they real people, but their affair is documented and their love letters survive. And the tale has everything.

No spoilers here, but some background: Abelard was one of the greatest twelfth century minds–a philosopher and teacher. Heloise was another brilliant person of the era, but a particular oddity since she was a woman. Brought up by an uncle, she was permitted to learn and had achieved a reputation for her intelligence. That attracted the interest of Abelard. As a woman, she could not attend the Parisian schools. In order to further her education, her uncle hired Abelard to be her private tutor.

Abelard was not only gifted, but arrogant, handsome, dashing, charming, etc. He was a man of influence with a great many friends and enemies. Heloise was a strong-willed young woman and a beautiful one. They fell in love and became lovers.

Then (as now) a teacher is not supposed to seduce a student. In addition, Abelard was supposed to be abstinent. And it goes without saying that Heloise was supposed to be chaste. So, by breaking all the rules, they were setting themselves up for a fall.

Sherry Jones tells the story from Heloise’s point of view, using fragments from the surviving letters to introduce the chapters and set the tone. She is able to capture the brilliance of these two extraordinary people and the electricity of the meeting of their minds. It’s possible to believe that the passion springs from that excitement, even though passion soon takes over and the meeting of their bodies consumes more of their time than the lessons Heloise is supposed to be having.

The author paints these larger-than-life characters with an exquisite attention to detail. They are very real and flawed, and though the reader may wince at some of their choices, it’s also easy to see how the choices were made. It would not be easy to live in those times, much less to live, love, and leave behind such a legacy as Abelard and Heloise did with their writings and their story. With The Sharp Hook of Love, Sherry Jones has given us a beautifully written, passionate, fresh look at that legacy.

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

This is my 19th book read for the historical fiction challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Monday, October 6, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: A Tangled Web. Allan's Web Miscellany 1846 by Sandra Schwab : Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

I don’t like to be without something to read when I’m traveling or running errands—I always like to have a book to keep me occupied. Although I prefer physical books, I have to admit my e-reader comes in handy. And although my preference is for big, meaty historical fiction, there are times when something short and light is just what I’m looking for to pick me up or to fill the gaps.

A Tangled Web. Allan’s Web Miscellany 1846 by Sandra Schwab is a lovely historical romance set in London in the mid-eighteen hundreds. Estimated at right around a hundred + pages, it is a quick, easy read without a lot of subplot or development of peripheral characters. But the main plot, the romance, is sweet and drew me right along. The two protagonists are well-rounded and sympathetic. It was enjoyable cheering for them. And the setting of the magazine adds unique and interesting historical context.

Sarah Browne is a poor relation, a youngest daughter who has grown up believing her fate is to serve her family members with little thought for herself. She’s always accepted that she is plain, without prospects, and she should be grateful for the crumbs from the family table. After the death of the elderly aunt for whom she was caretaker, she has no choice but to return to her older brother’s London home and take up the role of governess to his ungovernable children. It’s a bleak prospect.

Lawrence Pelham is an illustrator for the weekly magazine Allan’s Miscellany. He draws satirical cartoons, commentary on the events of the day. He's also charming.

They "meet cute" at an art supply store, a meeting that leads to a slow (delightfully unrushed- not dull) courtship. Slow--because Sarah feels compelled to hide her beau from her family and her true identity from her beau. But just as love blossoms between them, so does mistrust, which threatens to drive them apart.

Allan’s Miscellany is a series of short Romances that use the magazine setting as a base, but that stand alone as stories. Having thoroughly enjoyed A Tangled Web, I’ll be looking for more by Sandra Schwab.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free in return for an unbiased review from HFVBT.

02_A Tangled Web
Publication Date: July 14, 2014
eBook; 104p

Series: Allan's Miscellany
Genre: Historical Romance

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Lawrence Pelham works as a comic artist for Allan’s Miscellany. A chance meeting with a young woman dressed in mourning changes Pel’s whole life, and without his even knowing, he is thrown into a world of mystery and intrigue, where nothing is as it seems to be—especially not the woman he has given his heart to.

Her whole life Sarah Browne has been told how plain she is, how nondescript, destined to become an old maid. For years she has been her family’s dutiful nursing maid and caretaker, but now a secret inheritance and an encounter with the charming Mr. Pelham seem to offer her a chance to break out of her life of duty and drudgery—if she dares to take it. Yet how could such an interesting, witty man like Mr. Pelham be possibly interested in her boring self?

And so, Sarah soon finds herself entangled in a web of lies and deceit, which might even cost her the love of her life.

Praise for A Tangled Web

"Once again [Schwab] weaves brilliantly researched historical details into a story that not only is irresistibly romantic, but also sparkles with wit. To top it off, she has come up with an enchanting couple that truly earns their happy ending." ~ Tina Dick, LoveLetter

Praise for The Bride Prize

"The Bride Prize is, in a word, delightful. [...] I smiled for a long time when it was over. I cannot wait until the next installment in this series." ~ Michelle Boule,

Allan's Miscellany Series Titles

Book One: The Bride Prize
Book Two: Falling For a Scoundrel
Book Three: A Tangled Web
Book Four: Devil's Return

About the Author04_Sandra Schwab2

Award-winning author Sandra Schwab started writing her first novel when she was seven years old. Thirty-odd years later, telling stories is still her greatest passion, even though by now she has exchanged her pink fountain pen of old for a black computer keyboard. Since the release of her debut novel in 2005, she has enchanted readers worldwide with her unusual historical romances.

She holds a PhD in English literature and lives in Frankfurt am Main / Germany with a sketchbook, a sewing machine, and an ever-expanding library. Her new series about the fictional magazine Allan's Miscellany combines her academic research on Victorian periodicals with her love for story-telling.

For more information please visit Sandra Schwab's website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and GoodReads.

A Tangled Web: Allan's Miscellany 1846 Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, September 29
Review at Book Nerd
Spotlight at Just One More Chapter

Tuesday, September 30
Interview at Curling Up With a Good Book
Spotlight at Romantic Historical Reviews

Wednesday, October 1
Spotlight & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages

Thursday, October 2
Guest Post at Book Babe

Friday, October 3
Review at Unshelfish
Spotlight at Flashlight Commentary

Monday, October 6
Review at Reading World

Tuesday, October 7
Spotlight at CelticLady's Reviews

Wednesday, October 8
Guest Post & Giveaway at Historical Tapestry

Thursday, October 9
Spotlight at Historical Fiction Connection

Friday, October 10
Review at Back Porchervations
Spotlight & Giveaway at Susan Heim on Writing

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Monday, September 22, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Swan-Daughter by Carol McGrath

Over this past Christmas break, my family went to England on vacation and one of the sights we saw was Battle Abbey and the fields at Battle where King Harold fell to William the Conqueror in 1066. On the plane ride home, I read Carol McGrath’s transportive novel, The Handfasted Wife. This was the story of Harold’s first wife Edith (Elditha) Swanneck. It is first rate historical fiction and I recommend it highly. I’ve been waiting for McGrath’s follow-up novel, which was recently released.

The Swan-Daughter follows the life of Gunnhild, daughter of Elditha and King Harold. Following
Harold’s defeat, his young sons scattered to various foreign courts while the noble ladies (wives, widows, daughters, mothers) took refuge in convents. Gunnhild was brought up in Wilton Abbey. The church is anxious to keep her there, to keep hold of the lands that were once her mother’s and might, conceivably come to her as an inheritance. However, Gunnhild has no calling and dreams of escaping.

An opportunity arises from an unlikely corner. Count Alan, a powerful knight from Brittany, an enemy of her father who once courted her very beautiful and wealthy mother, appears with a proposal and a plan. He wants her to elope with him.

There are definite risks. It will anger the church and most likely the king, who has not given the count approval for the politically risky wedding. But Count Alan has always been a strong supporter of the king and believes his continuing loyalty will win over the king in the end.

Gunnhild is desperate enough to agree. They elope. He whisks her off to Brittany, wooing her along the way. She is taken with him. At first. Until reality begins to set in. The more she learns about her husband, the more she questions his reasons for wedding her. He wants her lands. He wants an heir. But does he love her? She wants to be loved–and that is something he has no time or inclination to provide.

Gunnhild is the lady of the castle. She is the one who presides while her husband is off serving the king during his never-ending wars. She grows into her role, finding her strength and power within the confines of her own domain, a subtle rebellion against the husband who wants complete control.

Again, McGrath has brought to life a forgotten woman from a distant time and place. Facts from this period may be sparse, particularly facts about women, but the author uses what information is known to weave an emotionally gripping love story and very satisfying tale.

The Swan-Daughter is book two of The Daughters of Hastings trilogy, so now I’m eagerly awaiting book three.

This is my 17th book for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Monday, September 15, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from Netgalley. This did not affect my review.

My most recent read is a beautifully written historical novel that imagines the life of the loyal nurse in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Although the nurse doesn’t spring to mind as one of the major characters in the play, she does have an influential role. In Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen, the nurse, Angelica, takes center stage.

The story is set in the plague-ridden city of Verona in the mid-1300s. Angelica is a woman nearing middle-age who lives in a poor part of town with her beloved Pietro, a bee-keeper and confectioner. A warm and loving couple, they’d begun raising six boys together but lost them all in a week to the plague. As the story opens, Angelica is giving birth to a surprise, a daughter she had not realized she’d conceived. But the couple’s joy turns quickly to despair. Pietro rushes the baby off to be baptized, and returns with the sorrowful news that the baby is dead.

In an effort to soothe his wife’s grief, Pietro arranges to contract her as a wetnurse to the wealthy and powerful Cappelletti family. Here is where the story truly begins. Angelica becomes "Nurse" to the baby Juliet.

In this household, we meet the Cappellittis, including Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, who first presents as a charming young boy who is able to help ease Angelica’s isolation from the world. We watch Juliet grow up in a wealthy but dysfunctional home, embraced by the love of her father, her Nurse, her cousin, and the beekeeper who sneaks in to visit. And we also get a wonderful sense of the violent, vibrant city of Verona. Growing up within that city are all of the Cappellitti’s enemies, including the Montecchis, their most bitter foes. Nurse also watches as the nephews of the prince, Mercutio and Paris, develop over time. So the stage is set for what we know is to come, but it is so richly set that it helps the whirlwind to come make more sense.

Juliet’s Nurse is a lush, full story that gives each of the characters a fully developed personality. We know what’s going to happen when Juliet meets Romeo. It’s still tragic. The whole desperately in love after five minutes of chitchat at a party still seems a bit ridiculous. And it remains a bit frustrating that the adults in the room, like Juliet’s nurse, seem to be complicit in bringing about the tragic end rather than being able to find a way to prevent it. But it’s possible to see how Angelica is backed into a corner by her own experiences with love and what she believes she wants for Juliet. The beauty of this novel is that the focus is not so much on the teenage lovers as it is on the long-suffering Angelica. Lois Leveen has made this minor character into a star.

Juliet’s Nurse will be available on 9/23/14. It can be pre-ordered now.

This is my 16th historical novel for the Historical Novel Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

I’ve completed my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy.

I confess that one reason I picked this book is because it’s short. (My copy is 113 pages, including the introduction.) But it’s also supposed to be "one of the world’s supreme masterpieces on the subject of death and dying."

Ivan Ilyich is a court justice of middle age (45 years), previously in good health, respected in his profession, who rather suddenly sickens and dies. He leaves behind a wife, two children (pretty much grown), and a few startled friends/acquaintances whose reaction to his death range from better-him-than-me to how-will-this-affect-my-career-prospects? The novel examines the reactions of the wife and friends at Ivan’s funeral, but the bulk of the story summarizes Ivan’s life and drawn-out death,

Ivan lives for his career and little else. He marries because it is what men in his station should do. He and his wife quickly discover their incompatibility and proceed to make each other miserable. He’s able to bury himself in his work. He likes to have things and to play whist. Then, he buys a new house and during the redecoration process, he injures himself. It seems minor at first, but then he starts to sicken. He grows sicker and sicker. Although in denial at first, it soon becomes clear he is dying. The death is agonizing and terrifying. Ivan becomes more and more unpleasant, furious with everyone and with himself. Eventually bedridden, reflecting on his life, he sees how badly he has lived, that his life has been wasted.

This is a pretty bleak book. Ivan is very real in his distress. His bitterness makes him a rather unsympathetic character, and yet, it’s difficult not to pity him because he is so hopeless. Ultimately, Ivan must accept his fate. The story becomes redemptive and Ivan finds a way to let go and die in peace. It’s a fascinating study of the way we live, look at life, and die.

Most of my classics challenge books are also TBR pile challenge books because I have a stack of classics I’ve been holding onto for years. So, this is another double challenge book.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Nest by Esther Ehrlich

This is Freshman orientation week for my daughter at college. A whole new life phase has begun. I’ve been wallowing in nostalgia lately, and one piece of that was a mental tabulation of the literary journey I’ve taken with my kids. Because of them, I revisited so many favorites from my own youth and discovered kids' classics I hadn’t gotten around to or known about, as well as a wealth of new children’s literature. It saddens me to think how much of that has trailed off. I still read YA, but not as much as I used to. And I never read middle grade fiction anymore.

So it was fortuitous to see Nest by Esther Ehrlich as a Netgalley offering. I thought, why not? And then I devoured it in a sitting.

Nest is the story of Naomi (Chirp) Orenstein and her neighbor, Joey, two eleven-year-olds with big problems. Chirp’s tight-knit family is on the verge of rupture by her mother’s impending diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and depression. Her father, a psychiatrist, cannot cure his beloved wife’s ills, and has difficulty dealing with a truculent thirteen-year-old daughter (Rachel, Chirp’s sister) and the sensitive Chirp.

Chirp’s lifeline is her friend, Joey, a good kid who’s been dealt a bad hand. He lives next door. His older brothers are bullies, behavior learned from an abusive father. Chirp knows something isn’t right in Joey’s family but doesn’t know what. There are secrets in everyone’s families.

This is a lovely book. It’s a bit dark and might be too heavy for children on the younger end of the targeted age group, though it is certainly appropriate for older tweens. The writing is superb so it is a perfect book for strong readers in that age range who are moving beyond the simplistic. Naomi has an endearing voice and the author also captures the frightened, rebellious voice of the 13-year-old sister perfectly. Joey is heartbreakingly real.

If you are fortunate enough to have a tween reader in your life at this stage, one who enjoys contemporary novels, Nest is due out September 9.

DISCLAIMER: I received a free review copy from Netgalley. This did not affect my review.

Friday, August 15, 2014

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

So, back to historical fiction—young adult historical fiction. I haven’t read a YA historical in a while so it was time. And this was a good one!

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross is an interesting and original look at late 1800's Paris from the point of view of a strong, intelligent young woman named Maude Pichon. Maude, a country girl from Brittany, fled an arranged marriage to a middle-aged butcher to seek the excitement of city life. She wanted to explore what the world had to offer, little understanding the world didn’t offer much to a poor girl except hard labor.

Then she stumbles upon an advertisement from the Durandeau Agency looking for young women for undemanding work. She applies and is offered a job before she knows what she is being hired to do. As soon as she realizes what is expected of her, she is appalled. She is to be a "repoussoir."

Wealthy women who wished to stand out in a crowd would hire foils—companions who were plain to downright ugly. These companions were to accompany them to social events to make them appear more attractive by comparison.

Maude is shocked and hurt to realize she’s unattractive enough to be hired as one of these foils, but she is desperate enough to take the job. She is hired by the cold-hearted Countess Dubern who needs a companion for her daughter, Isabelle.

Isabelle is not so unattractive that she needs a "foil," but Isabelle is headstrong and rebellious and in danger of ruining her own season by insufficient attention to the importance of attracting a husband. Maude is to befriend her, spy on her, and report back to the countess. The countess is paying her. But how far down this path can Maude go?

Paris in the 1880's is a fascinating time, and Maude is in the thick of it. Isabelle, too, is an interesting character with a mind of her own. Maude’s demeaning job and Isabelle’s struggle to lead an independent life despite her mother’s determination to see her appropriately married off demonstrate the difficulties women faced in the nineteenth century. Fiction allows a bit of leeway with the resolutions. You’ll root for these women and their friendship. And it’s Paris.