Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Brothels and Bawds in Shakespeare’s England: A guest post by Sam Thomas

Sam Thomas is visiting Reading the Past with two linked guest posts to celebrate the paperback release of The Harlot’s Tale, the second book in the Midwife Mysteries series. This essay covers brothels in Shakespearean England, and on Thursday, Sam will have a second post about the women who worked there.  As it happens, the first book in the series, The Midwife’s Tale (a book I very much enjoyed reading), is currently available as an e-book for $2.99 (see the author's website for some buying options). The Harlot's Tale is published in paperback today by Minotaur ($16.99, 336pp).

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Brothels and Bawds in Shakespeare’s England
Sam Thomas

When I began work on the second book in the Midwife Mysteries series, I needed a hook. It would be a mystery, it would feature Bridget Hodgson and her butt-kicking assistant Martha Hawkins, but what would it be about?

As the title indicates, The Harlot’s Tale focuses on sex and sin and is thus right up Bridget’s alley: When it comes to these subjects, who knows more than a midwife?

The next step in writing the book was to learn as much as I could about the business of prostitution in early modern England – and what a fascinating world it turned out to be! In a few days I’ll have a post about bawds over on English Historical Fiction Authors, and here I’d like to share what I learned about the brothels.

Despite their (deservedly!) seedy reputation, many English brothels had wealthy and respected owners behind the scenes. Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, Lord Hunsdon, owned several brothels, as did several well-known actors from the Elizabethan stage. This is not terribly surprising given the links between prostitution and the theatre; as we shall see, theatres and brothels lived cheek by jowl! More remarkable was that for centuries brothels outside London were under the control of the Bishop of Winchester. This was so well known that prostitutes became known as “Winchester geese.”


Many of London’s brothels were found not in the city itself, but across the Thames in the Southwark neighborhood. For centuries, Southwark operated as a sort of Las Vegas, satisfying Londoners’ less acceptable desires, and existing just beyond the reach of city officials. The south bank of the Thames features both brothels and theatres, cementing in many minds the connection between the two. Some brothels also doubled as alehouses, and one in Essex featured a common drinking vessel crafted to look like – er, there’s no good way to say this – a man’s sexual organs.

The question this raises is why brothels were tolerated at all. Other than rank hypocrisy, why would the Bishops of Winchester put their imprimatur on such a sinful business? It turns out that in the early modern world, brothels – and places like Southwark more broadly – were seen as necessary outlets for London’s sins.

Many commentators compared brothels to sewers and cesspools, but not in an entirely negative way. We may not like the smell of sewers, but they do us a service. In the same way, places like Southwark drew sins away from the city, and without them the city would become contaminated. They were, in short, a necessary evil.

The Harlot’s Tale is set in York rather than London, so I could not send Bridget off to Southwark – Spoiler alert: that will be in a later book! – but I did my best with the history I had at hand, and hope you will enjoy reading about it!

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Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife Mysteries from Minotaur/St.Martin's. The third book in the series, The Witch Hunter’s Tale, will be released on January 6, 2015. For more on midwifery and childbirth, visit his website.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dinner with Jane, Charlotte, and Will: A guest post by Syrie James

In today's guest post, Syrie James, a longtime fan of British literature and the author of many historical novels set in the 19th century, reflects on an imaginary dinner conversation with three of her favorite authors.  There's a Jane Austen-themed giveaway, too, open internationally to anyone who leaves a comment.  See details at the end.

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Dinner with Jane, Charlotte, and Will


I was having lunch with a friend the other day and she asked me, totally out of the blue, “If you could dine with any three authors in history, who would you choose?” It isn’t the kind of question you expect to be asked while chatting about life and family and books in the courtyard of a really cute café over ahi tuna salads, and I promptly replied, “You mean I can only pick three? Out of all the literary greats in history? That’s harsh.” But I was game. I gave it a go.

“I guess I’d love to sit down for a bite and a chat with Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and William Shakespeare,” I told her. Now, this was a really good friend who had read (mostly) all of my books, so she didn’t have to ask “Why Jane and Charlotte?”—I mean, she knew. She knew how much I admire them both. She knew I’d studied them for years, have read everything they’ve ever written (including their juvenilia and poetry, which in Charlotte’s case is a lot), and have written novels about them from their points of view. She knew how excited I’d been to go to their homes in England, as well as many of the places they’d visited (and in Charlotte’s case, one of her schools.) So what my friend said (and this endeared me to her even more) was:

“Great choices. How awesome would it be if we had a time machine and could transport them all to your house for dinner tonight! If we did, what would you say to them?”

“Well, after I recovered from the shock of seeing them in person,” I said, “I’d thank them for the wonderful books and plays they wrote, which have so enriched my life and the lives of others. Then I’d fill them in on how incredibly popular and famous they’ve become over the past two hundred years. I’m sure they’d be astonished—and proud.”

“If you showed them the nearly endless variety of film versions of their novels and plays, it would blow their minds. And as for Jane and Charlotte, they’d love the books you’ve written about them—I mean, as them.”

“I hope so.” I went briefly quiet. “It was so important to me to get that right—to emulate Jane’s and Charlotte’s voices as closely as possible in my novels, and to honor their spirit, their courage, and their accomplishments. I hope they’d feel that I portrayed them accurately.”

“I’m sure they would,” my friend said, smiling.

“It’s so much fun to climb into their heads, view the world from their perspective, and bring them to life on the page,” I replied with enthusiasm. “But to see them in person! I have so many questions. I’d love to ask Jane about her mysterious seaside romance. I’d love to learn more about Edward Taylor, the remarkable young man who she adored in her youth, and who I wrote about in my new novel Jane Austen’s First Love.”

“What would you ask Charlotte Brontë?”

“Where do I start? I’d ask her about Mr. Nicholls, who loved her for eons before he had the nerve to propose. I’d love to chat about her brilliant sisters, Emily and Anne. It astonishes me that these three sisters who lived in the wilds of Yorkshire and didn’t have a single connection in the literary world, managed to get published at the same time, and wrote Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, two of the most beloved novels in the English language. That journey is what inspired me to write The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë.”

“One of my favorite books,” my friend said. Suddenly she added: “Wait, would it be a problem to put Jane and Charlotte in the same room together? Didn’t Charlotte make several unflattering remarks about Austen’s work?”

I laughed. “Yes, she did. She also said a few nice things, but nobody remembers that. Still, there’s a good chance that sparks would fly—like in the play I did.” (I’ve had the honor of playing Jane Austen in a theater piece written by Diana Birchall. You can watch a video highlights reel here.)

“But let’s not forget Shakespeare,” I added. “He would round out the conversation at this dinner table, and could mediate those sparks. Let’s face it: he was the greatest literary genius of all time.”

“Unless, of course, he didn’t actually write those plays himself,” my friend pointed out.

“I’d love to pick his brain and learn the truth, once and for all!” I replied, as I finished my iced tea. “What fun it would be to tell all three of these incredibly talented writers about their legacies. What a fascinating evening of conversation it would make. Just think: I’d get enough material to keep me busy writing books for a lifetime!”

Readers, what famous people from the past would you like to have dinner with, and why? 

 
BOOK DESCRIPTION:

In the summer of 1791, fifteen-year-old Miss Jane Austen is determined to accomplish three things: to do something useful, write something worthy, and fall madly in love. While visiting at Goodnestone Park in Kent for a month of festivities in honor of her brother's engagement to Miss Elizabeth Bridges, Jane meets the boy-next-door—the wealthy, worldly, and devilishly handsome Edward Taylor, heir to Bifrons Park, and hopefully her heart! Like many of Jane’s future heroes and heroines, she soon realizes that there are obstacles—social, financial, and otherwise—blocking her path to love and marriage, one of them personified by her beautiful and sweet tempered rival, Charlotte Payler.

Unsure of her own budding romance, but confident in her powers of observation, Jane distracts herself by attempting to maneuver the affections of three other young couples. But when her well-intentioned matchmaking efforts turn into blundering misalliance, Jane must choose between following her own happily-ever-after, or repairing those relationships which, based on erroneous first impressions, she has misaligned.

AUTHOR BIO:

Syrie James, hailed as “the queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings” by Los Angeles Magazine, is the bestselling author of nine critically acclaimed novels that have been translated into 18 languages. Her books have been awarded the Audio Book Association Audie, designated as Editor’s Picks by Library Journal, named a Discover Great New Writer’s Selection by Barnes and Noble, a Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association, and Best Book of the Year by The Romance Reviews and Suspense Magazine. Syrie is a member of the WGA and lives in Los Angeles. Please visit her at syriejames.com, Facebook or say hello on Twitter @SyrieJames.

GIVEAWAY DETAILS:

Win One of Five Fabulous Jane Austen-inspired Prize Packages

To celebrate the holidays and the release of Jane Austen's First Love, Syrie is giving away five prize packages filled with an amazing selection of Jane Austen-inspired gifts and books! 


To enter the giveaway contest, simply leave a comment on any of the blog stops on the Jane Austen's First Love Holiday Blog Tour.

Increase your chances of winning by visiting multiple stops along the tour! Syrie's unique guest posts will be featured on a variety of subjects, along with fun interviews, spotlights, excerpts, and reviews of the novel. Contest closes at 11:59pm PT, December 21, 2014. Five lucky winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments on the tour, and announced on Syrie’s website on December 22, 2014. The giveaway contest is open to everyone, including international residents. Good luck to all!

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Downstairs Maid by Rosie Clarke, an early 20th-century romantic saga

The author’s biography says she “has penned over one hundred novels under different pseudonyms.” A little research reveals that Rosie Clarke is the newest pen name for novelist Linda Sole. Spanning 1907 through WWI, her latest is a comfortable read in the romantic saga mold.

Emily Carter is the much-loved daughter of a farmer and secondhand goods salesman living near the English market town of Ely. Though times are hard, she tries to remain upbeat but must contend with her resentful mother and lecherous uncle, a classic villain. Although the blurb promises a Downton Abbey-style experience, the plot goes beyond this description. A full third takes place before Emily goes into service at nearby Priorsfield Manor to pay for her sick father’s medical expenses. This provides a more complete picture of Emily as a person.

At a social event, Emily shares a dance with Nicolas Barton, the younger grandson of Lady Prior of Priorsfield, and makes a strong impression on him (and vice versa) despite her tawdry homemade dress and unfashionable boots. He continues to admire her even after she applies to work at his home. The novel realistically shows Emily’s adjustment to her place of employment – the ornate and old-fashioned décor, the women’s beautiful gowns, her amazement at the family’s rich meals – and her accompanying loss of independence. She makes friends there and moves up in status over time.

Included periodically are the viewpoints of the two Barton daughters: beautiful, snobbish Amy, who has more depth than first appears; and kindly Lizzie, who loves Austen’s novels as well as her sister’s beau. The action unfolds against a backdrop of changing social attitudes and the encroaching specter of war. Despite the author’s tendency to repeat facts and an overabundance of soap opera drama in the last 50 pages, this is an appealing story.

The Downstairs Maid was published by Ebury in 2014 (£5.99, paperback, 445pp).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review and is based on a personal purchase.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn, an uncommon Tudor wife novel

Suzannah Dunn’s latest novel is narrated by Jane Seymour, the unassuming maid of honor who became the third of Henry VIII’s six queens. That said, if you’re hoping to read a standard tale about political scheming and juicy scandals at the treacherous royal court, head elsewhere.

The May Bride is refreshingly unlike most fiction of the Tudor wife variety. It’s a quieter sort of tale, at least on the surface, and it moves along at a leisurely pace. (In an interview, the author said – maybe in jest, maybe not – that her biggest challenge in writing it was staying awake.)

Dunn knows what she’s doing, though. Her character-centered story is full of sharp yet subtle observations that keep readers alert to the shifting relationships among her characters – even when her young, innocent heroine doesn’t notice them herself.

As the eldest daughter among the eight living children of Sir John and Margery Seymour of Wolf Hall in Wiltshire, Jane is a sensible, introverted teenager who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. The Seymours are of the gentry, with servants to help them out, but everyone gets involved in keeping the estate running. Jane’s days are spent in domestic pursuits: embroidery, laundry, mending her brothers’ torn clothes, gathering fruit for jam, making pastry in the kitchen. One highlight for the Seymours is their twice-yearly trek to the fair at Great Bedwyn.

The novel offers many scenes showing these aspects of country life, and the details are fascinating. In fact, you’ll find it easy to forget all about Jane’s illustrious marriage, still years in the future, because it seems so unlikely.

Although everything is seen through Jane’s eyes, the plot’s focus is actually Katherine Filliol, her older brother Edward’s golden bride, a local heiress who makes her entrance while “fresh as a daisy in her buttercup silk.” Katherine’s cheery, casually lighthearted ways enchant her in-laws, Jane in particular, and they become good friends at first. As time passes, it becomes clear that Edward and his wife are horribly mismatched. His accusation, several years into their union, that she was unfaithful to him with his father shocks them all.

This is the same incident that runs through the background of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, of course, but here it’s explored in depth. In imagining the lead-up to this rumored episode, The May Bride tells an affecting story about the sidelining of women and a family torn apart in the aftermath of a dreadful mistake. And finally, although the final segments set at court feel a bit muddled with their multiple time-shifts, it provides a believable context for Jane Seymour’s unanticipated rise in status.

The May Bride was published in November by Pegasus ($25.95, hardcover, 308pp). The UK publisher is Little, Brown. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy.

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Public Gaze: A guest post by S.K. Rizzolo, author of Die I Will Not

Today S.K. Rizzolo is here with an entertaining post about political scandals, early 19th-century style.  Die I Will Not, third in her Regency mystery series, was published in November by Poisoned Pen Press (279pp, $14.95 pb/$24.95 hb).

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The Public Gaze
S.K. Rizzolo

Nowadays we are all too familiar with living under the public gaze, but this phenomenon is not new. Set in 1813 London, my novel Die I Will Not explores royal scandal, early 19th-century journalism, and dirty politics. As I researched these topics, I became fascinated by the idea of individuals struggling to preserve their privacy under the ubiquitous modern gaze—a gaze feeding voracious scandals that often refuse to die. Perhaps in our own era of 24-hour news cycles trumpeting the latest brouhaha, readers can relate.

I learned that “spin” is by no means a modern concept. It was common in Regency England to insert a “squib,” a short, satirical paragraph, in the papers to lampoon one’s enemies, or one could purchase a “puff,” extravagant praise designed to polish up one’s image. The royals were not immune from this scramble for positive press. Indeed, the Prince Regent (later George IV), who was very sensitive to public perception, often sent his secretary Colonel McMahon to the newspapers to bribe or browbeat the editors into withholding or publishing information.

No one experienced the glare of scrutiny more relentlessly than the unpopular Regent and his detested wife Caroline. Both sought to manage their reputations in “the public mind,” and I would argue that both ultimately failed, though, as we shall see, Caroline scored some notable triumphs over her husband. My character Penelope Wolfe also struggles with scandal and a tarnished reputation, at one point waking “to find herself notorious.” Penelope is the daughter of a radical philosopher suspected of treason and murder. She is also the target of sly innuendos about her rocky marriage to a spendthrift artist as well as her relationships to my other sleuths, barrister Edward Buckler and Bow Street Runner John Chase. I found it interesting to parallel her experiences to Caroline’s: two women, two “injured mothers” attacked in the press for a presumed loss of virtue.

In Caroline’s case, the Prince had instituted an inquiry into her conduct, which came to be known as the “Delicate Investigation.” Well, it’s hard to imagine anything less “delicate” because the agents were busy interviewing her reputed lovers and accusing Caroline of having borne an illegitimate child. The investigators even grilled the poor woman’s laundry maid and other servants to find out what she’d been up to. But in the end the Regent’s attempt to divorce his wife had failed when she was cleared of the primary charge. Her defender Spencer Perceval summed up what may have been the general view at the time: “I believe the princess to be playful, and incautiously witty, in her deportment; but I prefer that to secret intrigue and infamous practices." In other words, she had become the sympathetic victim of her royal husband’s scheming. One hack writer even made her the heroine of a Gothic romance.


This Cruikshank caricature depicts George and Caroline as the plump green bags that contained the evidence collected against Caroline in preparation for her trial in the House of Lords.   As the caption aptly puts it, “Ah! sure such a pair was never seen so justly form’d to meet by nature.”  One notices, however, that George is rather more rotund than Caroline.

So the nasty scandal that erupted in the spring of 1813 was only the latest salvo in a long-running war between Caroline and George—but this time she fired the first shot. Despite having earned a somewhat qualified verdict of innocence in the Delicate Investigation of 1806, Caroline’s contact with her daughter Charlotte, heiress to the throne, continued to be restricted. In response, Caroline wrote the Regent a letter, and when he declined to read it, she sent this letter to the newspapers, sparking a national uproar. The “Regent’s Valentine,” published on February 10, 1813, masqueraded as an appeal to her husband’s better nature but was actually a wily move on Caroline’s part to drum up public support. By the way, Henry Brougham, the opposition lawyer and politician, was said to have composed this letter for Caroline—for, of course, the Regent’s political enemies, Whigs and radicals alike, were all too eager to make use of his domestic discord for their own purposes. Excerpts from the letter were even printed on commemorative china!

When the furor finally subsided, Caroline was the undisputed victor in the publicity battle, the Times having declared her “complete innocence” and the Lord Mayor having organized a proclamation and procession in her honor (according to one source, “the Prince Regent, foaming with impotent rage, found it convenient to go out of town that day”). Amid rumors that he had been planning to revive the Delicate Investigation in yet another vindictive attack on his wife, he essentially slunk away in shame. But by 1814 Caroline had left England for the Continent, where she shocked Europe by frolicking with her Italian servant Bartolomeo Pergami, before returning to England in 1820 to face divorce proceedings in the House of Lords. She beat her husband this time too. After passing the Lords, the divorce bill was abandoned because of the enormous public outcry in her favor. Sadly, Caroline died a few weeks later after trying and failing to storm Westminster Abbey in order to join her husband’s coronation.

And what has been history’s verdict? Dr. Steven Parissien titles his article for the BBC “George IV: A Royal Joke” and quotes from an obituary, which states, “At an age when generous feelings are usually predominant, we find him absorbed by an all-engrossing selfishness, not merely careless of the feelings of others but indulging in wanton cruelty.” Though George is often acknowledged as a patron of the arts, his poor reputation has refused to die, echoing down the centuries, labeling him bloated, dissolute, profligate, and ungrateful. How’s that for an image problem? And though I think that Caroline has fared better under the public gaze, probably because she figures as a persecuted woman, she too has image problems. With some justice, she is often said to have been vulgar, smelly, and promiscuous. I’ve often wondered why anyone could wish for immortality when so often one is left with mud all over one’s face. I wonder too how many of our own 21st-century scandals will live on to become the subject of historical novels.

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S.K. Rizzolo is a longtime Anglophile and history enthusiast. An English teacher, Rizzolo has earned an M.A. in literature. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter. Set in Regency England, The Rose in the Wheel, Blood for Blood, and Die I Will Not are the three titles in Rizzolo’s series about a Bow Street Runner, an unconventional lady, and a melancholic barrister.

About Die I Will Not: Unhappy wife and young mother Penelope Wolfe fears scandal for her family and worse. A Tory newspaper editor has been stabbed while writing a reply to the latest round of letters penned by the firebrand Collatinus. Twenty years before, her father, the radical Eustace Sandford, also wrote as Collatinus before he fled London just ahead of accusations of treason and murder—a mysterious beauty closely connected to Sandford and known only as N.D. had been brutally slain. Now the seditious new Collatinus letters that attack the Prince Regent in the press seek to avenge N.D.’s death and unmask her murderer. What did the dead editor know that provoked his death? Her artist husband Jeremy being no reliable ally, Penelope turns anew to lawyer Edward Buckler and Bow Street Runner John Chase. As she battles public notoriety, Buckler and Chase put their careers at risk to stand behind her and find N.D.’s killer. They pursue various lines of inquiry including a missing memoir, Royal scandal, and the dead editor’s secretive, reclusive wife. As they navigate the dark underbelly of 1813 London among a cast driven by dirty politics and dark passions, as well as by decency and a desire for justice, past secrets and present criminals are exposed, upending Penelope’s life and the lives of others.

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.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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.