Sunday, March 29, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Mademoiselle Chanel by C. W. Gortner

Who knew Coco Chanel was such a fascinating woman? A lot of people, apparently, and, fortunately, C.W. Gortner is one of them. An acclaimed historical novelist, Gortner is known for books that are set in the medieval or Tudor periods. (I have one of his earlier books waiting on my shelf.) Given my usual preference for those time periods, it’s perhaps a little strange that instead of starting with one of those, I’ve jumped to his new release: Mademoiselle Chanel. Since I’ve been meaning to delve into Gortner’s work, my reading habits have been including more twentieth century fiction, and because this book has been generating a lot of buzz, I grabbed a copy from my local library.


Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel begins her life in miserably disadvantaged circumstances. Coming from a poverty-stricken, rural French home, Gabrielle, along with her siblings, is abandoned by a shiftless father after her mother dies. Her aunts send her and her sisters to be brought up at a convent. It is there that her talent for sewing is nurtured and her dream of one day owning a shop is born.

Owning a shop takes time, hard work, and most importantly, capital investment. Gabrielle has the drive and is not afraid of work. With her youth, verve, and good looks, she has a remarkable penchant for attracting men with money, LOTS of money. But she never intends to be a "kept" woman. She wants to earn her own way by creating something, building something of her own. Fortunately, she is able to attract a man who believes in her enough to stake her start in a business of her own and she takes it from there. The iconic Coco Chanel is born, more than a designer but a personality and businesswoman of immense influence.

The novel, told in Chanel’s first person viewpoint, paints a nuanced portrait of a complex woman. She lived in Paris during both World Wars. (That alone caught my interest. Of course, that’s what French people did, but what might such a life be like?) She never married but had a series of lovers (French, British, and German.) She faced a number of business and economic challenges, tackling them all with a ruthless determination to succeed and stay relevant in an ever-changing world. Gortner puts the reader right into the midst of all that talent, striving, yearning, loneliness, and success. Although the novel is clearly a labor of love, the author does not sugarcoat Coco’s flaws. With this balanced portrayal, her accomplishments shine forth all the more.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor

I just finished a charming book: An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor.

We recently had a mini-vacation and I spent some time browsing in bookstores. I saw a bright, eye-catching cover: An Irish Country Doctor at Peace and At War and the blurb sounded interesting. I almost bought it, but then I realized it was book nine in a series. Well, I couldn’t do that. So, I put it back on the shelf and resolved to look up the previous books. Usually when something like that happens, I promptly forget the author. Fortunately, this title was distinctive enough to stick with me, and something about the blurb appealed to me enough, that I actually did check my library when I got home.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading for challenges and for Netgalley, so I wanted to read something just because. Although now I’m debating counting it toward the historical fiction challenge.

The novel is set in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Dr. Barry Laverty is a freshly trained physician contemplating what to do with the rest of his life. He’s quite sure he doesn’t want to be a surgeon, like his good friend, Jack Mills, who stayed on in Belfast for specialized training. Instead, he applied to be an assistant to a rural general practitioner, Dr. Fingal O’Reilly, in Ballybucklebo, to see if general practice suits him.

Dr. O’Reilly takes him on and shows him the ropes of small town doctoring. Dr. Barry Laverty is well-trained as far as medical school and residency go, but nothing beats experience–as he is about to find out. O’Reilly is full of folksy advice, gruff one moment and sensitive the next. He knows his patients well and he reads Laverty like a book because he was once just like him. There is a housekeeper/gatekeeper/cook with a heart of gold. There is also an assortment of pets full of personality. (Laverty’s position comes with salary, room, and board so he gets to experience it all.) The town is stocked with people of all stripes, sick and malingering, well-to-do and poor, kindly and nasty, sensible and eccentric. O’Reilly deals with them all in turn, occupying a central part of the community and helping to insert Laverty into the same central space, managing to make room for them both.

There is also a budding love interest for the young doctor.

There is something predictable and a bit corny about the book. . .and yet, it’s a sweet and satisfying read and one that made a few hours speed pleasurably by. Taylor describes the rural Northern Ireland setting with obvious love and made me yearn for a place I’ve never been. Although nine books cut of the same cloth might get to be a bit much, I was sort of disappointed to turn the last page because I could have gone on reading. So I’ll likely move on to the second. And then. . .well, I tend to stick to series once I start them. And these are likeable characters.

The 1960s were 50 years ago. And Dr. O’Reilly’s surgery/office was in his house and he spent his afternoon making house calls. So, yes. I’m counting this toward the historical fiction challenge.

Friday, March 20, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: When Books Went to War. The Stories that Helped Us Win WWII by Molly Guptill Manning

Just before Christmas, I heard a book review on NPR that caught my attention. Shortly afterward, a catalogue/advertisement came in the mail from our local independent bookstore, and the same book was one of the featured offerings: When Books Went to War. The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning. I pointed it out to my husband. Happily, the book appeared under the Christmas tree.

This is the uplifting narrative of a determined campaign to keep the U.S. troops in WWII supplied with books. It’s hard to imagine 1) how many hours–tedious and terrifying hours–the soldiers had to spend and 2) how pleased and grateful they were to fill those hours with books.

The author contrasts the Nazi book burning frenzy, their determination to stomp out freedom of thought and ideas with the American passion for free speech and dissemination of ideas. While the Nazis were destroying books wherever they went, Americans were bringing books.

Initially, a used-book donation campaign, run by librarians, gathered upwards of 20 million books. While wildly successful in many ways, this book drive had its flaws. Not all the books were of the type enjoyed by servicemen. And, they tended to be bulky hardcovers, heavy and difficult to transport. Something else was needed.

So, the War Department banded together with the publishing industry to produce paperback books in a tremendous volume and breadth: The Armed Service Editions. They published novels, histories, biographies, philosophy, poetry, plays, books on science, humor, music, self-help, short story collections, travel. . .pretty much anything. The books were small enough to fit in the soldier’s pocket. Over the course of the war, 120 million of these books were printed and distributed.

When Books Went to War is a surefire crowd pleaser for book lovers. It places books right up there as one of the most important weapons used against the enemy. And it essentially credits the Armed Service Editions with improving the educational status of a generation of men, inspiring them to come home and take advantage of the GI bill. It’s also nice to see how the government agencies worked with private industry to help the soldiers and no one attempted to get rich by profiteering. And, when the enterprise was nearly derailed by censorship during some election year hijinks, politicians, bureaucrats, the military and the press worked together to save the program. If it wasn’t for the horrors of the war necessitating the books in the first place, this is one of those books that would make you wish for those happier, simpler times. But, of course, nothing is that simple. There was a war going on.

Manning does not give an in-depth history of the war, but she does use the war’s timeline to provide a framework for what is happening in the world and with the book program. It’s a concise summary of events, wrapped up in a thoroughly heartwarming story of the pleasure of reading and the extremes the War Department went to in order to ensure the GIs were provided with books to read.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Madeleine's War by Peter Watson

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

It may be a shift in my reading interests, or it may be that there really is an increase in historical fiction set in WWII showcasing female British flyers and spies. Ever since Code Name Verity, the interest in these women seems to be higher. At least, my interest is higher–so I was quick to request this book from Netgalley.

Madeleine’s War by Peter Watson is another such novel, set primarily in England in the days just before D-Day in 1944 and in the aftermath of the invasion. The narrator and protagonist is Matthew Hammond, a British military intelligence officer working with SC2. Although initially working with the French resistence behind enemy lines, he was injured and lost a lung, so he is now back home where his assignment is to train new spies, including women. His prize pupil is Madeleine, code name "Oak."

Madeleine is smart, spunky, brave, and beautiful. She reminds him of a French resistance fighter that he fell in love with during his time in France–a romance that ended tragically. Matthew and Madeleine also begin a romance. When the time comes to send her on her mission, he is reluctant to do so. Things have become even more complicated in France. But her skills are needed all the more and she is determined to go.

Madeleine has some baggage from her own past that makes sending her to France complicated.

Shortly afterward, the invasion begins. Communication with many of the spies in place, including Madeleine, is lost as the war is being won. Matthew is tasked with discovering what has happened to the lost spies, particularly the women.

This is an interesting story and a different way to present the role of female spies. It is entirely told through the eyes of the military man. We never really see Madeleine’s point of view, so we are left with images of her through his eyes. He was given a set of tasks to perform, so the storyline really focuses on Matthew’s war rather than on Madeleine’s war. She spends most of the book missing and the book is about his search and the things he does and his thoughts and doubts about her. The reader gets caught up in those questions and in the search.

This is a fairly gentle read. It held my interest throughout, but it wasn’t a page-turner. The love story was OK but not particularly memorable. If you like WWII stories that delve into the role of women, or that look at how Britain supported the French resistance, this is a solid historical to add to the genre, with a different angle since it is all told through the eyes of the male commanding officer.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Enemies at Home by Lindsey Davis

I’ve been an avid reader of Lindsey Davis’ historical mysteries set in Rome for many years, ever since the first Marcus Didius Falco novel, The Silver Pigs. Although I would continue to read Falco books forever, I do understand that they’d run their course and Davis was ready to move on. Falco is retired and the private informer business has been taken up by his adopted daughter, Flavia Albia. Falco’s influence (though not his actual person) hung lightly over the first book in the series, The Ides of April, but he is more conspicuously absent now. Flavia Albia has come into her own in book two of the new series, Enemies at Home.

Flavia Albia is twenty-nine years old and an independent woman who learned the business from the very best. She has support from a pair of uncles (Helena Justina’s brothers) when needed, and perhaps more importantly, she has an in with an important aedile, Manlius Faustus, with whom she has worked before. Faustus needs her help again.

A wealthy and influential Roman couple, newlyweds, have been found murdered in their bed. It is customary, if no other suspects are found, to hold the household slaves accountable and execute them for the crime. A cursory investigation by the local authorities failed to uncover any other leads. The slaves in the house therefore hied off to sanctuary in a temple across town. The temple is in Faustus’ jurisdiction, and the presence of the slaves is causing trouble. Either they are innocent, meaning the real murderer is still at large, or they are guilty and should be prosecuted. Either way, the inhabitants of the temple would like an excuse to boot them out. Faustus would like to get to the truth. And so would Albia.

Albia is a witty, intelligent detective who has inherited much of her father’s cynicism and charm as well as his skill in piecing together what’s what when a crime has been committed. She goes about her sleuthing in a no-nonsense fashion. At the same time, she is aware that something is going on between herself and Faustus, she’s just not sure what that is.

The mystery is absorbing and the cast of characters is entertaining. There is not quite the sense of danger that simmered under the surface in most of the Falco books. Albia seemed to have plenty of time to solve her murders. . .or not. She also had the option of admitting defeat, though clearly that was not her preferred option. So it was not as "high stakes" a murder mystery as others. Yet I was rooting for her to figure out whodunnit–I wanted to know. And the developing relationship between Albia and Faustus is enough to get me to return to read book three.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Rose and the Thorn by Michael J. Sullivan

I had a little time off and managed to get some reading done. I wanted to read something just for fun, so I chose a book that I’ve been saving: The Rose and the Thorn by Michael J. Sullivan. A while back, I read the trilogy The Riyria Revelations and fell in love with the books and the world Sullivan created. I was thrilled that he went back and wrote prequels, The Riyria Chronicles, so I hurried out and bought them too. I read the first book, The Crown Tower, right away These are pure escapist fantasy adventure fun. The problem was, I was then left with only one remaining book. I couldn’t bring myself to read it all at once because once I finished, there would be no more!

Well, more than six months passed, and I thought I may as well read it now.

This novel picks up a little while after The Crown Tower leaves off. Royce and Hadrian, the ill-matched team of thief and assassin, are recovered from their previous adventures, thanks to the seer/prostitute, Gwen DeLancy. They’ve moved on. However, they haven’t ever really thanked her properly and Royce, in particular, can’t forget her. So, they are on their way back to Medford.

Meanwhile, in Medford, a young servant in the castle is working his way up to the position of castle guard, just like his father. Reuben Hilfred is clumsy and ill-trained, but one thing he has going for him is his utter devotion to the princess, Arista. This all becomes important later, and throughout the series.

When Royce and Hadrian reach Medford House, Gwen’s brothel, they are surprised to be turned away. Gwen refuses to see them. They soon learn that it’s because she has been severely beaten by an important nobleman. Because Gwen fears how the pair will react if they find out, she tries to hide her injuries from them. She’s right to be concerned. Royce wants revenge. On the other hand, she has no need to be concerned. This is, after all, Royce and Hadrian.

There is more going on than meets the eye. While Royce and Hadrian are avenging the wrong done to Gwen, there are more sinister forces at work in Medford that are setting the stage for a larger battle in the Empire. This book fills in some of the gaps between The Crown Tower and The Riyria Revelations. Once again, because it’s a prequel, we already know what will come down the road. And we already know the skeleton of what will happen in this book. Still, it’s worth the read to have the stories fleshed out. Hilfred was a minor character in the later books. Here, his backstory brings him more fully to life. The same is true for the nobleman in the thieves’ circle, Viscount Albert.

If I have one complaint, it’s that there is comparatively less of Royce and Hadrian, with more attention paid to the other characters in the series and more time setting the blocks into place for the rest of the plot. The story is always most entertaining when we are watching the interplay between Hadrian and Royce and there wasn’t enough of that in this book. But maybe that’s just because it’s the last one available and I’m already missing them.

If you like fantasy adventure, this series is wonderful. The best place to start is with Theft of Swords. It’s better to read them in the order they were published rather than the chronological order. Enjoy!

Friday, March 6, 2015

GUEST POST: J.F. Ridgley--Author of Red Fury Revolt

I'm thrilled to have J.F. Ridgley, the Author of Red Fury Revolt as a guest blogger today, talking about the process of writing historical fiction (a subject near and dear to my heart.)

Writing Historical Fiction is not a “walk in the park.”

Writing historical fiction is more of a learning quest. Upon writing the first draft of Red Fury Revolt, I had the Roman legion coming into the Iceni village and taking over the people’s huts, imprisoning Boudica and her two daughters in a hut with an escape tunnel. And yes they did escape. It was a fantastic scene. However totally wrong.

First, Roman legions didn’t camp in a village. Each night, they built a marching camp with an encircling ditch, dirt berm, and perfect rows of tents inside. That was the beginning point of my learning details of Rome’s powerful force, as complicated as understanding the details of the U.S. Marine Corp.

The first draft of Red Fury Revolt began eighteen years ago. It started out with the discovery of the magnificent Iceni queen Boudica, or most commonly known as Boudicca or Boudicea. I discovered a book by Graham Webster titled Boudica where Mr. Webster explains why why he changed the spelling of her name because no one on this island could write at this time, so no one knew for certain how her name was spelled. When the History Channel began referring to her as Boudica, I decided to go with Mr. Webster’s spelling.

Okay I’m searching through Boudica’s history and discover a young Roman named Gnaeus Julius Agricola who was present in Britannia when the queen was flogged and her daughters raped. During Boudica’s revolt, Julius became the consul/governor’s second-in-command, or as I had his title as his lacticlavius. This is a misspelling because, as one of the wonderful Roman reactors told me, it’s laticlavius. These reenactors were and are amazing with their knowledge and with keeping me straight.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola started and, after many tours here, ended his career in Britannia. After his time as laticlavius, Julius returned to be commander/legate of the XX Legion. Then he returned again four more times as consul/governor. My thought was why? Research said Britannia was NOT Rome’s most profitable province. Besides, it’s cold, rainy weather was not a favorite of many in command. So why did Julius Agricola spend 90% of his career here?

That was my author’s inspiration to changing my story from Boudica’s to his story. Why did Julius return? My answer resulted in my Agricola series, which addresses why he chose to return to take the legions farther than any consul ever did, including Hadrian and Antonius. Then he was recalled to Rome to die at the age of 53. Some say he was murdered by Domitian Caesar. But no one knows that for sure either. Again, as an author, I have to say no.

My advantage and greatest resource was the great historian Tacitus who was his son-in-law and wrote Julius’s biography. However with all Tacitus’s adoration of his father-in-law, Tacitus never mentioned Julius’s daughter by name. His wife! Not in anything he wrote. I looked and asked everywhere and everyone I could find on her name. His daughter had to be a character in her father’s story…right? So, what was her name? NO ONE KNOWS.

So I had to pull on what I had learned of Rome’s customs. The ‘name game’ in Rome is a nightmare for any author. Sons carry their father’s name exactly. Gnaeus Julius Agricola’s sons’ names would have been Gnaeus Julius Agricola, even if he had ten sons. Daughters’ names followed in the feminine form of his name. So, all of Julius’s daughters name would be Julia. And daughters’ were prima, secunda and so on, meaning the girls were named Julia Prima and Julia Secunda.

The name game doesn’t stop there.  Only the personal family may use the first name only of a family member.  Common folk had to use the full name- Gnaeus Julius Agricola, or, Julius Agricola. Julius’s wife and mother referred to Julius as Gnaeus. 

And as a writer, how do you keep these kids clear, dear readers? So I named his daughter Julia, and everyone referred to Julius by Julius, including his mother and future wife. If I didn’t do that, my readers would be banging my book on the wall.

This is the adventure I love of writing historical fiction as well as the challenge of sticking as close to the discovered facts as I can. I never know where I’m going to land or what I’m going to do. But I do love writing in ancient Rome.

Links :

Cornelius Tacitus

Graham Webster  Boudica


Book one of my Agricola series

 London’s statue to Boudica
 Roman officer with his legions


For a chance to win a copy of Red Fury Revolt or other great prizes, visit the HFVBT host site here.


Red Fury Revolt Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, March 2
Spotlight at The Maiden’s Court
Tuesday, March 3
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Friday, March 6
Guest Post at The Reading World
Saturday, March 7
Review at Book Nerd
Spotlight at Curiouser and Curiouser
Sunday, March 8
Review & Excerpt at A Virtual Hobby Store and Coffee Haus
Monday, March 9
Interview at A Virtual Hobby Store and Coffee Haus
Tuesday, March 10
Interview & Excerpt at Becky on Books
Wednesday, March 11
Review at Deal Sharing Aunt
Thursday, March 12
Interview at Curling Up With A Good Book
Friday, March 13
Review at Genre Queen
Review at With Her Nose Stuck in a Book
Guest Post at Just One More Chapter