Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Book review: A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii

Confession: I’ve read A Day of Fire twice. The first time, I breezed through the pages, gripped by each individual storyline, their multidimensional characters, and the collective whole. For the second round, I paid more attention to the structure, thinking about what a detailed process it must have been to put together. Because it really has been very carefully assembled, and the result is impressive.

Six well-known historical authors – Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn, and Vicky Alvear Shecter – got together to collaborate on a high-concept novel set in Pompeii. Separately and together, they evoke the lives of a large cast of characters during the lead-up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed the port city in 79 AD.

Within their six interlocking stories, the people come from different walks of life and across the social spectrum: an earnest young man, a Roman senator, a young woman of wealth, a former soldier, an expectant mother, her proud father, and two slaves working in a tavern at the Vesuvian side of town. The way the authors construct their tales, the protagonist of one will appear in many of the others. It allows for a distinctive form of character shaping and progression throughout the entire book. This isn't limited to the main characters; even Cuspius Pansa, the handsome, much-despised aedile (magistrate) of Pompeii, has a satisfying story arc.

Regardless of each person’s status, the personal danger bearing down upon them forces them all to re-evaluate their lives as they fight to escape. Real-life historical suspense doesn’t get more dramatic. Not everyone survives, but because impending peril often elicits courage from deep within, the overall tone isn’t gloomy; rather, the novel works as a celebration of life.

Within most short story anthologies – generally not my preferred format – there are some strong entries and some less memorable ones. There are no weak links in this bunch, though.  A few notes on each:

Vicky Alvear Shecter’s “The Son” was the perfect choice to open the novel, with its youthful tone and portrayal of a young man’s emergence into maturity (complicated and messy, as it always is). My figuring out his historical identity partway through was an added bonus.

“The Heiress” by Sophie Perinot, which sees a privileged young woman torn between a gorgeous bad-boy type and the sensible older man her father wants her to marry, stands out for the thoughtfully realistic transformation of its heroine.

I enjoyed the scene-setting details, camaraderie, and build-up of suspense in Ben Kane’s “The Soldier,” which looks at a military man from a less frequently seen angle: the trying years of near-poverty after his career in the legions has ended.

Kate Quinn’s “The Senator” brought back, to my delight, two characters I’d last met in her standalone novels. Their witty banter kept the action moving along, and it was great to see a take-charge woman getting the job done.

When the heroine of E. Knight’s “The Mother” first appeared, in Vicky Alvear Shecter's "The Son," I had a sinking feeling of where her story would lead. The difference in style between it and the previous segment made the telling feel a bit formal at first, but that soon faded away once the characters' situation became clear. Reading this was a wrenching experience, but it held some surprises, too, in seeing how the members of one family interacted and changed during these all-too-brief moments.

Stephanie Dray’s “The Whore” successfully brings the collection full circle, to a hot-tempered prostitute introduced in the very beginning – and to her spiritually-minded sister, who plays a minor but significant role in several other stories. The grand finale is intense and shattering, and I mentally applauded at the epilogue. Masterfully done.

Throughout the book, readers also see the ongoing development of the most overarching character of all, Mount Vesuvius: the initial earth tremors, the rising cloud of ash and tainted air, the flying missiles of molten rock, the deadly hot flow of lava. Both the big picture and the little details matter here.

Each entry complements and enhances the others and gives you a chance to sample the work of authors you may not have tried before. Although it’s based on the latest archaeological research, no prior knowledge is needed; you’ll experience the last moments of a once-vibrant city just as its people might have done.  If you seek out fiction set in the ancient world, it’s not to be missed.


A Day of Fire was published in October by Knight Media in e-book ($4.99) and trade paperback ($14.99). This review forms part of the blog tour for the book, and there's a giveaway that goes along with it:

To enter to win this beautiful one-of-a-kind Roman style Necklace (18″) and earring set, hand-crafted with real carnelian, and inspired by jewelry of the ancient world, please complete the Rafflecopter giveaway form below. Giveaway is open internationally.

Giveaway ends at 11:59pm on December 5th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
Winner will be chosen via Rafflecopter on December 6th and notified via email.
Winner have 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Barefoot Queen by Ildefonso Falcones, a dark portrayal of 18th-century gypsy life

In Falcones’ newest historical epic, set mostly in Andalusia in the mid-eighteenth century, expressions of cultural pride, artistic exuberance, and unlikely love are enclosed within a dark, research-heavy tale of persecution and blood vengeance.

After her former master dies while en route from Havana, Caridad arrives alone in Spain, clearly unused to her new freedom. Her ebony skin quickly attracts unwelcome attention, but she is rescued by Melchor Vega, a Gypsy who draws her into his world of tobacco smuggling in Seville’s Triana district, where she befriends his feisty teenage granddaughter, Milagros. “She sings with the same pain,” Melchor notes, recognizing Caridad as a fellow outcast. The detonation of long-standing family rivalries and a royal mandate demanding the Gypsies’ arrest lead to long separations and heartache as they struggle for their liberty.

Caridad and Milagros are robust characters, both resilient and sensual yet equally powerless in their male-dominated country. Exciting in places, slow and meandering in others, this lengthy novel demands commitment, but its multifaceted look at Gypsy life and morality is vivid and memorable.

The Barefoot Queen will be published by Crown this week in hardcover ($28, 640pp).  Mara Faye Lethem translated it from the original Spanish.  This review first appeared in Booklist's October 15th issue. 

This was the first of Falcones' novels I've read, so I don't have firsthand knowledge of how typical his tone and themes are here (can anyone comment?). There were many segments of dry history, and it was also extremely dark; in particular, the brutal treatment the women experience made it hard to read in places, even though it didn't feel unrealistic for the time and place.  I did appreciate learning about a culture that was new to me, though.

I had just 175 words to encapsulate my thoughts; for additional and more detailed viewpoints, check out Tara's review/rant at Book Babe and Mystica's review at Musings from Sri Lanka.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Lodger by Louisa Treger, a journey into the mind and heart of an unconventional Edwardian woman

Sometimes one can judge a book by its cover. The content of Louisa Treger’s debut is just as exquisitely formed as the luminous jacket art. Dorothy Richardson was an early 20th-century literary star whose innovative stream-of-consciousness style influenced countless others but who is essentially forgotten today – undeservedly so, per Treger, and her thesis is convincing. Tracing Dorothy’s journey to self-recognition, she movingly illustrates both the price and rewards of independence.

In 1906, Dorothy visits her old school friend, Amy Catherine, now married and living with her husband, author H. G. “Bertie” Wells, on the Kentish coast. At their home, Dorothy can temporarily forget her threadbare existence at a boardinghouse in London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood and her dreary secretarial job. Amid this intellectual company, Dorothy feels overwhelmed. Here her conversation is hesitant, but she and the charismatic Bertie clearly share an attraction – which she resists at first but eventually succumbs to, after hearing he supposedly has an open marriage. Then the arrival of a new lodger at the boardinghouse, vibrant suffragette Veronica Leslie-Jones, throws Dorothy’s world into turmoil. Soon she’s fully engulfed in two illicit sexual relationships. As she struggles to balance her competing needs for togetherness and solitude, her literary voice is born.

Through Treger’s sensitive, poetic writing, The Lodger offers a wonderful study in character growth. Haunted by her mother’s suicide and disturbed by her unorthodox desires, Dorothy matures through experience, acknowledging her dual-sided nature and emerging triumphant. Alongside, she comes to recognize the many facets of the city of her heart, London, a place of “terror and beauty, squalor and splendor” where women’s rights are brutally suppressed but whose magnificence at sunset can take her breath away. Also noteworthy is the subtle depiction of the novel’s other female characters, as seen through Dorothy’s eyes. In all, a rich portrait of the times and of an unconventional woman’s interior life.

The Lodger was published in September by Thomas Dunne ($24.99, hardcover, 262pp).  This was one of my Editors' Choice selections from November's Historical Novels Review.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A long-sought historical novel about a Princess of Monaco finally found

Jennifer Ellis' A Princess Dies is a historical novel that's been on my wishlist for 20 years.  I found mention of it in an early volume of Cumulated Fiction Index, a series of guides to British fiction by subject.  The Graduate Library at the University of Michigan, where I went to library school, owns copies of most CFI volumes (I've since purchased them all for my personal library).  I used to spend hours in their reference room going through these books, jotting down the titles of historical novels about people who sounded interesting.  My special interest was lesser-known members of royal or noble families.

Last month I got an automated email from Abebooks that one of their sellers had a copy.  The price ($40ish) was high but not unreasonable given how hard to find the book is.  I snapped it up, and now it's sitting on my desk.  The condition is pretty good considering the book was published the year I was born.  Thanks to the Cornwall County Library in Truro for withdrawing it from their collection!  From the slip pasted onto the flyleaf, it was last checked out in December 1972.

The novel's subject is Françoise-Thérèse de Choiseul-Stainville, Princesse Joséph de Monaco, who was one of the last victims of the guillotine during the French Revolution.  The book's title (depressing, I know) gives away the ending.  I'm eager to read more about her life in this novelized biography, since you don't read much about the Monegasque royal family in fiction.  It promises to be a different take on a well-known historical event.  Per the blurb, it's based on research that Ellis did in the Archives of the Palace of Monaco and in the Grimaldi family's private papers.  She dedicated her book to Princess Grace, "another lovely but happier Princess of Monaco."

I haven't had the best luck with books I've waited years to read; Sea Change by Robert Goddard (one of my favorite thriller writers) turned out to be a big disappointment, and I wasn't captivated by Diana Norman's Daughter of Lir, either.  So I'm very curious to see how this one turns out.  I see I haven't done any posts in my Reviews of Obscure Books series in a few years, so it's about time for a new one.  I'll report back.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Rainbows on the Moon by Barbara Wood, a lively journey through early Hawaii

The enticing setting for Barbara Wood’s latest entertaining epic, the tropical splendor of old Hawaii, is a strong selling point. Her heroines’ linked stories are tightly woven into the islands’ cultural and political history, and while the narrative is packed with detail, the flowing prose style makes for smooth reading. Her characters grow and change over time, and the light tone doesn’t lessen the impact of the tragedies the Hawaiians experience.

Emily Stone is a new bride who settles at Hilo in 1820 with her priggish missionary husband, Isaac, to minister to the natives and improve their moral standards by eradicating promiscuity and incest. Unhappy with her grass hut of a home and her distant marriage, Emily finds herself attracted to a handsome sea captain who visits on his trade stops. While she makes inroads with educating the people, changing their behavior proves harder than expected. Earnestly devout and set in her ways, Emily is also a compassionate woman who has a tough life, isolated from family and familiar comforts in this lushly verdant, alien land.

The switch over to 1850s Oregon partway through comes as a surprise, but the story loops back to Hawaii soon enough. Anna Barnett is a determined young woman whose passion for nursing leads her to convert to Catholicism, become a nun, and travel to Honolulu, where competent medical care is sorely needed. Her path draws her to the prominent Farrow family, who appear to be cursed. The Hawaiians’ perspective is shown via a powerful chiefess, Pua, and her daughter, Mahina, who struggle to keep their beliefs alive amid rapid industrial development and an ever-shrinking native population. The broken English they speak in dialogue feels overdone and distracting, however. With its adventurous women, island lore, and stunning scenery, this is a lively read for anyone thinking or dreaming of visiting Hawaii.

Rainbows on the Moon was published by Turner this fall in paperback ($21.95, 460pp).  I read it from an Edelweiss e-galley.  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.

I appreciate Barbara Wood's willingness to venture into less familiar settings in her novels.  Other books of hers which I've reviewed here previously are The Divining, set in the 1st-century Roman world, and Woman of a Thousand Secrets, set in 14th-century Guatemala and Mexico.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Portrait of a Girl by Dörthe Binkert, a historical novel of self-discovery and artistic inspiration

The Hotel Spa Maloja, a ritzy venue high in the Swiss Alps, is the scene for life-changing encounters and romantic entanglements during the summer of 1896. In her uneven but ultimately worthwhile second novel, Binkert sets up an interesting convergence of personalities and social classes, with a vast gap between the wealthy hotel guests, there for a health cure or to photograph the views, and the impoverished, proud locals.

The large cast includes a flirtatious Englishman and his best friend, a young woman with bad lungs, a family of mountain farmers, Italian pastoral painter Giovanni Segantini, and a bitchy American socialite who could have sprung from a Jackie Collins book. The main plotline centers on Nika, a mute stranger with striking strawberry-blond hair who endured a traumatic childhood and who’s searching for her true identity. Readers follow her on her journey of self-discovery, which is alternately helped and impeded by the men who fall in love with her.

I found the novel rough going early on. The translation has some odd phrasings for a historical novel (“he didn’t suck up to people”). The story jumped from viewpoint to viewpoint with abandon, and few people felt distinct. Fortunately, after enough time in the clear mountain air, they and their motives began to sharpen, and the reading became smoother. My interest was also piqued after discovering the novel imagines the backstory of a real painting, Segantini’s La Vanità (which looks nothing like the demure image on the book’s cover!).

Binkert is gifted at describing the beautiful Engadine region and evoking her characters’ deep, swirling emotions. Another strong point is her depiction of a master artist at work in his preferred element, outdoors, where he can mix the perfect palette of colors and “capture the harmony of light.” Overall, a good choice for readers in search of thoughtful escapism.

Portrait of a Girl was published by AmazonCrossing, Amazon's imprint for translated fiction, in September 2014 ($14.99/£8.99/$4.99 ebook).  Margot Bettauer Dembo translated it from the original German.  This review, which first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review, was based on a personal purchase via Kindle First.

And here's Giovanni Segantini's La Vanità, below.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Book review: The Tiger Queens, by Stephanie Thornton

The four protagonists of Stephanie Thornton’s latest book aren’t household names. After reading this magnificent history-based epic, though, readers won’t question why she chose to write about the extraordinary women who supported Genghis Khan and strengthened his kingdom. “These Mongols were fearsome warriors because everything in their lives, from the food to the weather, was raw and harsh,” observes one of them. The sturdiness of character this environment produced wasn’t limited to the men.

The Tiger Queens, beginning in 1171 AD and spanning nearly 80 years on the Mongolian grasslands, is divided into four segments of unequal length, but each heroine’s story is equally valiant.

The first perspective is that of Borte, the promised wife of a young man called Temujin.  She's a young woman born under a dark star who is predicted to “become the sword that would spill the clans’ blood across the steppes.” As Temujin attracts followers and conquers rival tribes on his way to being named Genghis (“all powerful”) Khan, her sympathetically-told narrative unfolds against a backdrop of bloodlust, revenge, and the destructive power of jealousy. Hers and Temujin’s is an unusual marriage, one tested by a pretty devastating betrayal, but their union becomes the bedrock of a large family – and of an empire.

The remaining three stories skip down to the next generation. Borte’s daughter Alaqai, like her father, is born clenching a clot of blood, a visceral image that foreshadows her fiery nature. As a foreign bride in a hostile land – the fate of most of Genghis’ female descendants – she must leave her beloved horses and nomadic lifestyle behind for wooden dwellings and camels, but her life is hardly a settled one. Thirdly, Fatima, the Muslim widow of Nishapur’s governor, is introduced when her beautiful, elegant homeland is invaded by Mongols. Once bent on vengeance, she rises, through her fellowship with the other women, to become one of their greatest supporters.

Over the course of nearly 500 pages, and numerous routs and alliances, the plot moves forward with unstoppable momentum. There truly isn’t a dull moment. The Golden Family continues to expand, and, after the death of their fearless leader, it begins to splinter due to internal disputes. It seems the Great Khan’s sons, who lose themselves in drink, aren’t as capable as their wives and sisters.

Just in the nick of time, the widow Sorkhoktani, Genghis’ quietly crafty daughter-in-law, emerges from the shadows to take up her life’s purpose: preparing the throne for her sons. Other strong women make their mark, too, both for good and not.

This was a brutal time and place, as the Mongols’ “resistance is futile” modus operandi makes them a ruthless enemy. (Their horses, being sources of transportation, food, and drink, have it rough as well.) However, their saga as told by Thornton is one to get lost in for days.

In an ideal world, The Tiger Queens would be an enduring hardcover, but the trade paperback is plenty gorgeous and represents its contents well. Readers will find themselves fully involved with these characters, existing alongside them as they sleep within their felt-walled tents, receive nourishment from fermented mare’s milk, ride their horses over the steppes, and fight to sustain the greatest land empire in history, living boldly under the Eternal Blue Sky.


The Tiger Queens is published this month by NAL (454pp + author's note, interview, and discussion guide, $15.00/$17.00 in Canada).  I received an ARC from the author as part of the blog tour for Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours (and check out the other glowing reviews it's been receiving).