Reviews – Historical Novel Society https://historicalnovelsociety.org Historical fiction reviews, features, guides and member news Sat, 24 Jun 2017 05:22:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8 Ironside https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/ironside/ Mon, 01 May 2017 09:28:59 +0000 https://historicalnovelsociety.org/?post_type=review&p=48688 Review of "Ironside" by

King Sweyn Forkbeard invaded England in the summer of 1013, when this novel begins. We follow the story of Wulfgar, a ten-year-old boy in the service of Edmund (later named ‘Ironside’), son of Ethelred the Unready and the focus of English resistance against the Danes. The history of this struggle is little known—and Edmund surely one of the least celebrated of England’s warrior kings.

Fen Flack tells the story in Henty-like style, with Wulfgar mostly a passive recorder of the great events. Wulfgar accompanies Edmund as he travels across England, and we thus overhear his conversations and confrontations, and the story is mostly relayed in expositional dialogue. This has the advantage that the history is presented clearly, but it lacks immediacy, and a ten-year-old’s perspective on the politics of the day is necessarily simplistic.

The book works best when Wulfgar is an active protagonist—the vulnerability of a child in a soldier’s world is engaging. However these scenes are too few and far between. Wulfgar never really breathes as a character; he is a tool by which the ‘history’ is conveyed. This is a shame. My children would certainly enjoy discovering this obscure English hero, but they would need a more visceral narrative than this to hook them.

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We’ve Come to Take You Home https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/weve-come-to-take-you-home/ Mon, 01 May 2017 09:00:59 +0000 https://historicalnovelsociety.org/?post_type=review&p=47797 Review of "We’ve Come to Take You Home" by

This debut takes us into the lives of two 15-year-old girls: Sam Foster, who lives in modern-day England, and Jess Brown, who lived during the Great War. The lives of the two girls become entwined when Sam begins to remember and experience Jess’s life.

While Sam is dealing with the usual angst of a modern teen, her father becomes hospitalized, and her time-slips become more intense. Jess is coping with the hardships and losses of the war. The author does a great job of planting the reader in the gore, horror and sadness of WWI. People suffered on the Home Front, too, Jess’s family in particular undergoing wrenching hardship. Jess copes by reluctantly stealing bread, and is eventually sent by her mother to the city to become a maid of all work. While there, she falls in love and the consequences of her love story set up the situation into which Sam is drawn.

Given the premise of a modern girl finding herself in the life of someone who lived one hundred years before, I expected a great novel. And there are scenes that are very moving. However, at times over-description took me out of the flow of the story. In one scene, “She [Sam] pulled open the front door, ran down the steps, down the path, through the gate and out onto the pavement.” Another time, describing Sam’s favorite place, the author lists every point of interest. That much description was too much for me. However, with Ms. Gandar’s background in television, I can see how a camera would catch those details.

Be sure to pay attention so that the ending will make sense. I was expecting something more profound to have put the two girls together and was left feeling let down, although I admit I did cry.

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Matilda Empress https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/matilda-empress/ Mon, 01 May 2017 09:00:25 +0000 https://historicalnovelsociety.org/?post_type=review&p=47795 Review of "Matilda Empress" by

Life is anything but easy for Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England. As a child she was married to Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor, and now as a young woman in her twenties, she is forced to marry again, this time Geoffrey of Anjou, whom she considers a nobody. Meanwhile Matilda’s heart belongs to the dashing auburn-haired Stephen, Count of Boulogne, but Stephen is already married, and Matilda’s father will not permit the match. From the moment she meets the cold and commanding Geoffrey, she realizes just how ill-fitting they are, two unhappy people who are both in love with other people.

When Matilda’s father, Henry dies without an heir, her former lover, Stephen, seizes the English throne. After Stephen proclaims himself King of England, the greatest betrayal in itself, those who have sworn fealty to her seem to flock to Stephen. What was once love is now poisoned with a bitter hatred.

Matilda Empress is a rich romp through 12th-century Europe, replete with political intrigue, dynastic drama, and compelling characters. In the heroine we have a strong-willed and pious woman who will let nothing stand in the way of her desire to reclaim her homeland. While a force to be reckoned with, Matilda is not unaffected by the pangs of love, especially that of her lover who betrayed her and this is where we see her at her most vulnerable. The writing is superb and the descriptions so apt that I felt that I was in the novel alongside the empress. It is a gripping story from start to finish. If you enjoy a strong female lead, then this is the book for you!

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The Cavalier Historian https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/the-cavalier-historian/ Mon, 01 May 2017 07:52:19 +0000 https://historicalnovelsociety.org/?post_type=review&p=48685 Review of "The Cavalier Historian" by

Robert Hardwick has been hired to help develop an English Civil War-period themed attraction at Marston Manor. While paging through a family Bible in the manor, Rob discovers a personal link dating back to the time of King Charles I. Rob has been searching for this part of his family tree for years, and he’s ecstatic. But his excitement quickly turns to fear when he’s visited by a malevolent spirit during his first night in the manor house. The spirit proclaims that Rob will pay for the crimes of his family. The following nights, through his dreams, Rob finds himself reliving the life of his ancestor, Simon Hardwycke. Rob isn’t sure if these events are real or if he’s simply going mad. Then he meets Rebekah, a mysterious woman who seems to be at the center of Simon’s story. Can Rob find a way to right a wrong three centuries in the past that involves both Rebekah and the spirit that haunts him?

I found this to be a slow read, but when the plot is so wonderfully rich in historical details, this is not a negative critique. However, the book’s focus, Simon and Rebekah’s budding relationship, becomes lost in the middle section of the story as the plot shifts far into Civil War battles and war politics. Dorinda has definitely done her research, and fans of 17th-century England will delight in how the time period is realized.

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A Daughter’s Courage https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/a-daughters-courage/ Mon, 01 May 2017 07:40:29 +0000 https://historicalnovelsociety.org/?post_type=review&p=48069 Review of "A Daughter’s Courage" by

Renita D’Silva takes the popular parallel-narratives format to a new level with her engrossing saga intertwining four women’s stories. They all center on a secret temple in south India, but the points where they meet, and how, aren’t easy to predict.

In 1924, Gowri is only fourteen when her parents dedicate her to the service of the goddess Yellamma in hopes of saving her younger brother’s life. She yearns to continue her education but, as a devadasi, instead she’s installed in a newly built temple, made to live alone at the jungle’s edge, and forced to sleep with the local landlord. Her pain and confusion are poignantly expressed in letters she writes to the goddess, questioning why she was sacrificed, and wondering why Yellamma doesn’t intervene on her behalf.

In another strand, a privileged Londoner named Lucy decides to marry a man she barely knows, an heir to a coffee plantation in India, in the wake of a scandalous love affair. Left to follow the trail of their secrets in the modern day is Kavya, who returns to her Madras home after major heartbreak. While there, she faces pressure from her overbearing mother to get married and learns about her ajji’s (grandmother, in Kannada) connection to a newly discovered temple that’s been attracting national attention. Introduced later on is the viewpoint of Sue, a recent war widow, whose link to the others is less obvious but critical.

This novel bursts with rich, sensual descriptions of southern India, though the word choices are sometimes odd (“the navy autumn scent of smoke”). All the women are fully rounded characters with well-developed personal histories, and the narrative skips briskly along as it ensnares readers in a story designed to keep them up far too late. The emphasis on women’s resilience and agency is subtle yet unmistakable.

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Envoy of Jerusalem https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/envoy-of-jerusalem/ Mon, 01 May 2017 07:26:22 +0000 https://historicalnovelsociety.org/?post_type=review&p=48682 Review of "Envoy of Jerusalem" by

This is the third in Schrader’s biographical trilogy about Balian d’Ibelin and the death-throes of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. Previously Balian has served the leper King Baldwin, fought against Saladin at Hattin, and taken command of the besieged city of Jerusalem. In this volume he is caught up in the new politics of Outremer as Conrad of Montferrat vies with Guy of Lusignan for power. The arrival of Richard the Lionheart and Philip of France further complicates issues, and the narrative continues with the iconic battles and infamous squabbling of the Third Crusade.

The history of Outremer is spectacularly highly coloured without the need for fictional embellishments. Assassinations, defenestrations, child-marriages, plagues, betrayals and annulments abound. Against this backdrop Schrader’s Balian is strikingly normal. In some ways this is to the detriment of the story. He is very much a hero in a modern sense: moderate, balanced, tolerant and humane. His story arc is a little flimsy compared to the big characters and events around him. The chief enjoyment is therefore in cameos – Richard and in particular his sister Joan always glitter and sparkle. This is an old-fashioned style of historical novel. It is not a page-turner, but the history is soundly researched and often extraordinary enough in itself to satisfy the reader.

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The Warden’s Daughter https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/the-wardens-daughter/ Mon, 01 May 2017 01:00:59 +0000 https://historicalnovelsociety.org/?post_type=review&p=48424 Review of "The Warden’s Daughter" by

In the summer of 1959, Cammie O’Reilly is about to turn thirteen. Cammie’s mother died in an accident when she was a baby, and her father is the warden of the Hancock County Prison. She and her father live in an apartment above the prison entrance, and Cammie has been through a succession of “Cammie-keepers,” who are trusted female inmates who dust, cook and help take care of her. This summer her keeper is Eloda Pupko, and Cammie decides she wants Eloda to be her mother. She implements a series of events to try to bring out Eloda’s maternal instincts, most of which leave Cammie frustrated and enraged.

Cammie is a soup of teenage emotions: sometimes good-hearted, sometimes verging on evil, a friend, a bully, angry, sad, and always unhappy. She hangs out with the female inmates (which I found odd and a little unrealistic) and her best friend, Reggie, who wants more than anything to be famous. Spinelli does a good job of bringing 1959 alive, with the music, soda fountains and pedal pushers. Cammie seems headed for an emotional breakdown, and the suspense of what will come of her crazy behavior is engaging. Unfortunately, the climax left me disappointed, as it was too easy. An epilogue of sorts explains more clearly what Cammie’s father and Eloda were doing and thinking, but I would have preferred for that to be integrated into the actual story. The intended audience, ages 9-12, may have an easier time than me relating to Cammie and her coming-of-age summer.

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Alex and Eliza: A Love Story https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/alex-and-eliza-a-love-story/ Mon, 01 May 2017 01:00:59 +0000 https://historicalnovelsociety.org/?post_type=review&p=48400 Review of "Alex and Eliza: A Love Story" by

Young Colonel Alexander Hamilton works as secretary to General George Washington in Albany, New York, in 1777. Hamilton begs for a command of his own so he can fight the British during America’s Revolution, but Washington depends on Alex’s diplomatic skills. Alex is sent to deliver news of a court-martial for General Schuyler after the loss of Fort Ticonderoga. The Schuylers are throwing a party, and Alex reports his ugly mission as the general’s middle daughter, Eliza, overhears. An energetic, practical girl who is working for the rebel cause, she dislikes Alex at once. But Alex is instantly smitten with her. The Schuylers are a prestigious family, while Alex is an illegitimate child born in the West Indies to a Scottish aristocrat who abandoned him. He’s penniless, with little hope of marrying one of Albany’s “princesses.”

This novel is a good introduction to Hamilton, one of our Founding Fathers, and Elizabeth Schuyler, a formidable woman and humanitarian. Details of the American Revolution are worked in with the horrible conditions of the war for soldiers. The story focuses on Hamilton’s determination to rise in importance and win Eliza’s hand—even after she’s promised to a wealthy cad. The author admits to embellishing much of the private moments, since scant information is known of their courtship. De la Cruz’s writing is fluid, intelligent and beautiful, with spurts of humor and witty dialogue. The characters are well drawn. Recommended for teens who are interested in a lively tale and one of history’s great love stories. For ages twelve and up.

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Kingdom of Twilight https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/kingdom-of-twilight/ Mon, 01 May 2017 01:00:59 +0000 https://historicalnovelsociety.org/?post_type=review&p=48332 Review of "Kingdom of Twilight" by ,

This lengthy novel begins in German-occupied Poland towards the end of the Second World War, with the German forces in retreat from the advancing Red Army. The story focuses on three main protagonists: two Jewish survivors of the War, Anna Stirnweiss and Lisa Kramer, and a former S.S. officer, Josef Ranzner, who returns to Germany from captivity in the Soviet Union and takes on a new identity. The author shows how the war reverberates throughout the lives of the characters and even crucially influences those who either were just children or were born after the end of hostilities. For all of them the war is never over. And even if they can find some form of peace or reconciliation, then the random nature of human life trumps all anyway.

There is no conventional linear narrative, and the author uses a variety of means to advance the meandering plot. It is literary, intelligent, reflective fiction that descends deep inside the protagonists’ consciousness, their motivations and most private thoughts—their various experiences of the horrors of the conflict and its aftermath are examined from unusual but intriguing perspectives. It demands the reader’s full alertness, but is rewarding and wholly engaging reading. The plot has a couple of blistering coincidences that keep the characters swirling together in the maelstrom of life, and there are a couple of historical errors. This is a deeply political novel, elements of which may irk the reader depending upon one’s own position and interpretation of events. Nevertheless, it is a superb account of humanity and what it means to be human.

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Racing the Devil: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/racing-the-devil-an-inspector-ian-rutledge-mystery/ Mon, 01 May 2017 01:00:59 +0000 https://historicalnovelsociety.org/?post_type=review&p=48328 Review of "Racing the Devil: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery" by

In November 1920, a motor car runs off a Sussex road, killing the young rector at the wheel, and prompting Scotland Yard to send Inspector Ian Rutledge to investigate. There is no telephone in the village, and the local constable rides a bicycle, so Rutledge is constantly on the road, keeping an eye out for red cars with green scratches and interviewing the villagers. Many, like the injured ex-officer and his jilted lover, the rector’s housekeeper and his (secret) fiancée, are cooperative, while others, like the rector’s taciturn replacement, force the inspector to venture farther afield. When he uncovers not one but a series of odd murders, some involving an automobile, perpetrator(s) unknown, he remembers something he heard: In 1916, a group of British officers, all with an interest in motor cars, agree to a road race after the war. When the ex-officer who was there refuses to name names, Rutledge gets a note to London. The reply is devastating—but it doesn’t tell him how a gentlemen’s agreement, made four years ago, connects to recent murders in the south of England. Finding the answer will, as usual, test Inspector Rutledge’s powers of deduction.

Racing the Devil shows us what happens when old-fashioned crime-solving methodology is used by an experienced, highly intelligent policeman with a hidden disability. Rutledge, who was injured during WWI, suffers from something like PTSD. The struggle to keep his nightmares and hallucinations secret complicates his work and, to his mind, makes a private life impossible. This adds to the excitement in Racing the Devil and makes his accomplishments remarkable. A Fine Summer’s Day (2015) explains Rutledge’s nemesis Hamish, but all the Inspector Rutledge mysteries are highly recommended.

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A Fortune Foretold https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/a-fortune-foretold/ Mon, 01 May 2017 01:00:59 +0000 https://historicalnovelsociety.org/?post_type=review&p=48285 Review of "A Fortune Foretold" by ,

Mid-twentieth century Sweden. By the time Neta is in the 6th grade, she has been “the new girl” so many times, “she feels the familiar chafing of being an outsider, the gnawed sensation that comes from being painfully compelled to see herself through the eyes of others. That is the worst thing of all. You are out of yourself, fumbling blindly.”

An outsider at school, Neta becomes increasingly embroiled in her parents’ failing marriage. “Dad tells stories, does the dishes, and tries to cheer everyone up, but it doesn’t help. When he notices that none of this makes Mom feel any better, he becomes distant, as if a veil is drawn over his face.” As her father retreats, Neta becomes the bulwark between her depressed mother and her mother’s disappointing, unfulfilled life.

It is therefore Ricki—Neta’s calm, stable aunt, an architect “surrounded by a magic all her own,”—whom Neta most wishes to emulate. “I am trying to remember Ricki, but I am the one who takes center stage. Or rather she does—the girl.”

The narrator relates her coming of age in third-person, present-tense, non-linear scenes, referring to her younger self as “the girl” or “she” and peppering her story with first-person, past-tense reminiscence and commentary. This dissociated narrative style occasionally proves unwieldy when time and place become unclear or when the identity of “she” comes into question, but it adroitly complements the narrator’s striving to reassemble and reconcile a distant, chaotic, peripatetic life. Highly recommended.

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The Girl from Simon’s Bay https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/the-girl-from-simons-bay/ Mon, 01 May 2017 01:00:59 +0000 https://historicalnovelsociety.org/?post_type=review&p=48268 Review of "The Girl from Simon’s Bay" by

Simon’s Town is on the coast of South Africa and dominated by the Royal Navy port. In 1937, the dockyard is busy with ships from all over the world coming and going, but two years later, at the outbreak of WWII, it is busier than ever. At this time the population is categorised into three sections: the white people, the “coloureds” (those of mixed race), and the native Africans. Our heroine, Louise Ahrendts, the narrator of the story, is of mixed race, and thus there are few careers open to her beyond cleaning and other menial occupations, but from a child she dreams of becoming a nurse. To everyone’s surprise, she is taken on as a trainee at the prestigious Victoria Hospital, the first coloured girl to do so. With the outbreak of war Louise finds herself seconded to the naval hospital, and when casualties begin to arrive, Lieutenant David Horrocks, DSO, is brought in needing an urgent operation. Louise is assigned to care for him afterwards. The story continues with life in South Africa, the loves and pitfalls encountered and, with the ending of the war, the beginning of apartheid.

I became totally absorbed by this book. The characters live, the pace is well-balanced, and the eventual outcome not quite as the reader might expect. This one will sit quite happily on my bookshelf and will probably be read again, as there is so much in it. Highly recommended.

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Someone to Hold https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/someone-to-hold/ Mon, 01 May 2017 01:00:59 +0000 https://historicalnovelsociety.org/?post_type=review&p=48015 Review of "Someone to Hold" by

Someone to Hold, the 2nd book in the Westcott series, focuses on Camille Westcott. Camille is trying to come to grips with her father’s bigamy and the fact that she is now penniless and no longer Lady Camille after Anna Snow—now Lady Anastasia—assumes the family fortune (as told in Someone to Love). With her sister, Camille moves to Bath to live with their grandmother. Stubborn and determined, Camille sets out to become her own woman. She starts teaching at the same orphanage where Anna once lived. But it doesn’t come easy. Adding to her troubles is the art teacher, Joel Cunningham, who also lived in the orphanage and knew Anna. A stormy, feisty relationship begins between the two, culminating in a sweet ending.

Camille’s character comes off at times rigid and difficult to like, but that’s the charm of Balogh’s writing. She takes a mostly unlikeable character, pushes her boundaries and, in the end, she becomes someone that the reader cares for. A subplot of a surprise fortune feels too familiar from the first book and too coincidental, and a thinly drawn villain’s reappearance felt forced. However, these are not enough to spoil a nice Regency romance.

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The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/the-sultan-the-vampyr-and-the-soothsayer/ Mon, 01 May 2017 01:00:59 +0000 https://historicalnovelsociety.org/?post_type=review&p=47962 Review of "The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer" by

1442: The Draculesti family rules Wallachia (modern-day Romania), the buffer between the Holy Roman Empire to the north and the Ottoman Empire to the south. The family patriarch, Dracul, finds his loyalties being torn apart. While his heart is with the Greeks, he is friends with the Catholic Hungarians, and he must honor an oath to the Ottoman Sultan. In the midst of these opposing forces, Dracul is concerned about a family malady which affects his middle son, Vlad, a sickness he once suffered from himself. In a search for answers, Dracul travels with his two youngest sons to Constantinople to review ancient texts that may have a clue about their family’s illness. On the way, however, Dracul’s caravan is intercepted by Ottoman soldiers and brought before the Sultan. Sultan Murad desires control over Constantinople, the Orthodox Greek capital. His hopes are on his son, Mehmet. To ensure Dracul’s fealty, Murad captures Dracul’s sons and keeps them as hostages. The two boys are quickly sent away to train to become servants of the Ottoman Empire.

Mehmet and Vlad were both born middle sons. Both feel they’re meant for more than their birth order has in store, and both sons have a dangerous secret. When Murad asks a soothsayer for advice, the fortunes revealed bring to light startling truths from the past as well as the future.

With a multifaceted narrative, diverse characters, and stunning historical detail, this book is completely absorbing. The author stirs together history, myth, political intrigue, and religious conflict to create a gripping, expertly researched story. Was it a curse, a medical condition, or the simple fears of local farmers that led to the legend of Count Dracula? See what you think after reading. Highly recommended.

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A Twisted Vengeance https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/a-twisted-vengeance/ Mon, 01 May 2017 01:00:59 +0000 https://historicalnovelsociety.org/?post_type=review&p=47951 Review of "A Twisted Vengeance" by

Kate Clifford’s life is seriously disrupted when her mother, Eleanor, returns to York in 1399. Despite unrest seething in the city because of the dispute between King Richard and Duke Henry, and despite family feuds, Kate’s life has been going well. Her mother’s arrival, however, is never welcome, and when she moves in next door with a group of religious sisters, it puzzles Kate. When one of the gentle sisters is viciously attacked, Kate starts to ask questions.

Rapidly, Kate and her two wolfhounds are drawn into the conflict between the army camps flooding the city, between antagonistic religious groups, and between families, not to mention simple thievery. The answer to many of Kate’s questions seems to lie with her mother, but Eleanor refuses to talk about her precipitous flight back to York. Kate’s fight to find answers and to save her livelihood and her family leads her to explore hidden corners of 14th century York with danger always threatening.

The author’s research is evident in this book, as with her previous novels. Her knowledge of the time and place creates a strong foundation for an exciting and readable tale. Her characters are skillfully drawn, and the pacing is strategic. A very satisfying read.

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