Thursday, December 31, 2015

Cora Harrison's A Shameful Murder, a superb mystery of 1920s Ireland

In this debut of a new series, Irish novelist Cora Harrison swiftly gets down to business, introducing her sleuth and murder victim with the first sentence: “It was Reverend Mother Aquinas who found the body of the dead girl.” Harrison’s long-running Burren Mysteries, set amid the rocky terrain of 16th-century western Ireland, proved her talent for evoking original settings beautifully, and this new venture is no different.

A Shameful Murder takes place in 1923 in the southwestern Irish coastal city of Cork, described in earlier times like “a Venice under a grey northern sky.” It was constructed on a marsh, and while the wealthy, of course, make their homes in the nearby hills, waters continue to emerge and flood the streets where Cork’s poorest residents live. Corpses washed up by floodwaters are common enough, sadly, even at the convent at St. Mary’s of the Isle.

More unusual in this case are the dead girl’s satin gown, belongings, and identity. After her less-than-distraught father identifies her, the Reverend Mother knows something’s not right. Tellingly, Angelina Fitzsimon would have received a significant inheritance if only she’d lived a few months longer.

The investigating sergeant from the newly formed civic guard, Patrick Cashman, happens to be the Reverend Mother’s former pupil, and they both dismiss the prevailing theory of suicide. Identifying with the young woman, “a girl from a privileged background like her own… a daughter of one of the rich merchant families of Cork,” Mother Aquinas decides to apply the intellectual skills granted her by God to finding answers.

What unfolds is a superbly crafted mystery that makes fine use of its locale and the diverse characters living there: the moneyed elite who attend the annual Merchants’ Ball, lecturers from the University College, and the energetic young people who fight for Ireland’s future by joining the illegal Republican Party.

There’s a delightful irony about the fact that, as a nun working amid Cork’s lower classes, the Reverend Mother is better versed in her world’s realities than most. A caring woman in her seventies, and of a practical frame of mind, she has the chops to see justice done. When she guesses one major clue before anyone else, she quietly revels in her triumph, and readers will too.

A Shameful Murder was published by Severn House in July ($28.95 hardcover, $14.49 Kindle, 256pp).  Thanks to the publisher for granting my access via NetGalley.  This is my last review for the year.  See you in 2016!

Monday, December 28, 2015

An unexpected Western adventure: This Godforsaken Place by Cinda Gault

This literary debut novel comprises the account of 22-year-old Abigail Peacock, a British woman who had accompanied her father to remote Wabigoon in northwestern Ontario, following his dream of finding adventure.

Now, in 1885, with her father ailing, Abigail writes about her loneliness and despair as she’s forced to take up his post as a schoolteacher, her own hopes abandoned in favor of an unwanted life of survival in a shack on the frontier. Then, at the local storeowner’s suggestion, she buys a Winchester rifle – which, in classic western fashion, becomes her first step along the road to perdition. Her attempts to teach herself to shoot lead to her entanglements with a half-dead outlaw, a Pinkerton agent, a large amount of cash, and finally a daring adventure of her own.

Abigail’s brash, dryly humorous voice makes her an engaging heroine, a woman with the potential to be a colorful western character, if she’d only admit it. Her descriptions of the mostly unpopulated landscape are starkly beautiful. She muses frequently about the plight of Métis leaders Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, finding their stories fascinating after reading many newspaper accounts about them during her father’s illness. While educational, the frequent insertions of details on their lives feel puzzling, although they make more sense after one realizes that Dumont himself appears later on in the book. As for how Annie Oakley and a young man called Shea Wyatt get involved, that’s left for readers to find out.

There are really two separate novels here, an exciting western quest for justice and the somber tale of the Métis. Although they aren’t as well-integrated as they could be, Gault does an admirable job evoking the struggles to find one’s place in the rugged late 19th-century West.

This Godforsaken Place (great title and cover) was published by Brindle & Glass, a Canadian press, in September (trade pb, $15.95 or Can$17.95, 232pp).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Vacation reading: Anna Romer's Lyrebird Hill, set in modern and turn-of-the-century rural Australia

If you celebrate Christmas, hope you had a nice holiday yesterday. I’ve been taking some time off for the break, and we didn’t travel anywhere for a change. Instead, I’ve been enjoying the quiet time at home and am catching up on reading, in particular titles that I’d bought but hadn’t had the chance to pick up.

One of these is Anna Romer’s Lyrebird Hill. Since I’d been neglecting the Australian Women Writers Challenge, it seemed like a good choice.

It’s a dual-period novel about two women, generations apart, and the gradual discovery of traumatic secrets from the past – and their impact on the present time. Yes, I know; this premise could be used to describe many novels. It’s become a common theme. You’ll find them compared to Kate Morton’s style, since she’s the most prominent and successful author in the field (and her characterizations and complex structures remain unsurpassed, imho).

Where Lyrebird Hill stands out are in the author’s obvious love for the wild landscapes of rural Australia – the descriptions of the local botany and terrain of northern New South Wales are worth reading at leisure – and her evocation of Australia’s traumatic past, specifically white settlers’ ruthless treatment of the Aboriginal peoples. Romer also successfully employs the same sleight-of-hand that all good mystery writers use. Although the beginning of both women’s segments unfolded as expected, several final revelations were startling. Since I’ve read a great many novels with parallel narratives and recognize their patterns, I love it when they can surprise me.

The protagonist of the earlier segment is Brenna Magavin, a young woman of nineteen living with her father and younger brother on an isolated, 3000-acre estate called Lyrebird Hill in 1898. She spends her days illustrating local flora and spending time with the Aborigines at their encampment on their property, despite continuing tensions and her aunt’s disapproval. Although Brenna makes a brave sacrifice to preserve their land, and her situation evokes empathy as it becomes steadily more dire, I admit I had trouble warming to her following one naïve, thoughtless act she commits.

Thirty-year-old bookshop owner Ruby Cardel, in the present day, is at a crossroads in life. She has an attractive boyfriend who writes bestselling self-help manuals, but suspects he’s cheating. When Ruby attends an exhibition of her estranged mother’s artwork, an elderly former neighbor who she meets there implies that her sister Jamie’s death, eighteen years earlier, was no accident. When Ruby decides to return to Lyrebird Hill, her childhood home, her amnesia from long ago slowly begins to lift.

While the douchebag boyfriend has become a trope – ditching him lets a heroine show her empowerment and opens the possibility of a new romance – Ruby’s gradual uncovering of her past, and her knowledge about herself, is emotionally involving. Her family relationships, specifically with her mother, are refreshingly absent of stereotype.

How the two plotlines come together appears later in the book, so I won’t reveal the details. Lyrebird Hill is worth seeking out, although it’s getting harder for American readers to do that. The audio version is at Amazon, but for the print, try; it’s not in stock at Fishpond anymore, even though the mass market paperback just came out in September. Other suggestions welcome.

Lyrebird Hill was published by Simon & Schuster Australia in 2014 (trade pb, 404pp), which is the copy I bought last year. The mass market pb is priced at A$19.99, or NZ$21.99.  This is my 4th entry for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Book review: Médicis Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois, by Sophie Perinot

When you’re the daughter of Catherine de Médicis, Queen Mother and de facto ruler of France, you do as you’re told. After you’re introduced to court life, you avoid imitating other women’s flirtations, since it’s behavior unbecoming of your status. You acquiesce to potential marriage arrangements, even if it means a union with an unstable Spanish prince, or your unrefined Protestant cousin, Henri of Navarre. You must spurn the advances of the attractive Duc de Guise, even though your youthful heart yearns for warmth and understanding.

Above all, you must stay loyal to your family. While you’re an unmarried woman under their protection, there’s no opting out.

Told in an unobtrusive present tense, Médicis Daughter follows Marguerite de Valois, youngest sister of France’s Charles IX, and the difficult path she traverses over a ten-year period, beginning with her childhood in the year 1562. During this time, the setting swirls with dark undercurrents as France is torn apart by religious wars between the ruling Catholics and those they term heretics, the Protestant Huguenots.

Marguerite makes some unwise decisions, but hers is a constrained life, and it understandably takes time for her to awaken to the reality of her situation and figure out where to place her trust. There’s as much political scheming, secret romance, and family dysfunction as any fan of royal fiction could want as Marguerite comes of age at the French court, slowly becoming less of an observer and more of a participant.

Given all the intrigue that surrounds Marguerite, her story could have been an over-the-top drama-fest, but Perinot keeps the atmosphere tightly controlled, which increases the level of tension. This suits the time and place. Character is key here, and the combination of Marguerite’s personality and circumstances makes her a complex individual indeed.

Perinot excels at illustrating the nuances of interpersonal relationships, and those she depicts – and their transformations over time – are worth beholding. These include Marguerite’s interactions with her next oldest brother, the Duc d’Anjou; with her would-be lover, the Duc de Guise; and with the King of Navarre, the cousin she finally agrees to marry. All of these men, incidentally, are named Henri, although this doesn’t cause confusion. Instead, Perinot plays upon this historical fact to craft some revelatory character-defining moments.

As one can guess from the title, the mother-daughter relationship sits at the heart of the book, and this is handled with finesse. Catherine de Médicis, who inspires both awe and fear, is a powerful antagonist. To round out her character, she’s granted moments of vulnerability, ones that hint at her deep-rooted motivations at the same time.

The novel’s ending, culminating at the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, is both devastating and magnificent, with Marguerite courageously taking a stand. At this point, Marguerite’s life is far from over, but the decision to conclude the novel here makes for an extremely satisfying character arc.

Médicis Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois was published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, this month (hardcover, $26.99/C$31.50, 369pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bits and pieces

I have a few longer posts here as drafts, but nothing completed yet. Even though events are slowing down on campus, December 15th is the reviewers' deadline for the Historical Novels Review, so my inbox is overfull and demanding attention.  In the meanwhile, here are links to some sites worth perusing.

The Historical Novel Society's guide to forthcoming historical novels for 2016 is getting longer all the time, with listings available through next August.  It's compiled by me (for US titles) and Sarah Cuthbertson (UK titles).  Also, the HNS guide to upcoming children's and YA titles for 2016 is even longer; Fiona Sheppard is its editor.

"The novel was coming along quite well, until I got to the ­foreskins." Take a read through Geraldine Brooks' December 11th article for the New York Times, in which she speaks about the process for writing The Secret Chord, which is set 3000 years ago. And how refreshing to hear a novelist state outright, in a newspaper, that "I write historical fiction."

Does winning a Goodreads Choice award create more awareness and influence sales?  The Goodreads blog talks about this issue, with Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale, the 2015 winner in historical fiction, as an example.

For those who love romantic historical epics like The Thorn Birds, the Heroes & Heartbreakers blog has many reading suggestions.  Check out the comments, too.

Parade Magazine has a roundup of historical novels in their 2015 holiday gift guide.

More reviews and previews will be coming up soon!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Dictator by Robert Harris: the courageous life and continuing relevance of Marcus Tullius Cicero

Following Imperium (2006) and Conspirata (2010), Harris offers this thrilling final volume of his trilogy about Cicero, ancient Rome’s most skilled orator. The novel opens as Cicero is forced into exile in 58 BCE, following the Catiline conspiracy. His story will powerfully stir the heart and mind, for it presents the coda to a life lived with intelligence and courage.

A fierce defender of the Roman republic and the rule of law, Cicero struggles to promote his principles amid marital discord and increasingly volatile political circumstances. He’s flawed but entirely human as he makes several disastrous mistakes and is obliged to make compromises to serve a greater goal.

As before, his thoughts and exploits are rendered via the lucid narration of Tiro, his loyal secretary. Spanning 15 years, Tiro’s account covers significant ground, from the breakdown of the First Triumvirate through the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Caesar’s dictatorship, and the blood-soaked chaos after his assassination. The cast is extensive, but the plotting is brisk, and Harris never loses sight of his themes' or his protagonist’s relevance for today.

Dictator will be published by Knopf on January 12th (hardcover, 416pp, $26.95).  This review first appeared in the 12/15 issue of Booklist, which went online today.  I hadn't read either of the first two books in the series, though always meant to get to them; fortunately, this third in the trilogy stood alone just fine.  If you're an admirer of Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series, you'll want to put this on your list as well.  The British publisher is Hutchinson, and the second book is called Lustrum in the UK. 

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Book Review: Stephanie Thornton's The Conqueror's Wife

From an early age, Thessalonike of Macedon learns that the world is cruel, unfair, and not created for the likes of her – or anyone of the female sex. Still, despite the strictures placed upon them, she and the two other women who narrate The Conqueror’s Wife aren’t content to stay in the shadows and let the men in their lives direct their future.

In her fourth novel to bring women from ancient times back into the spotlight, Stephanie Thornton follows a similar pattern to her earlier The Tiger Queens, about the female supporters of Genghis Khan who ensured his legacy. Here, the warrior in question is Alexander the Great, who ruled over an enormous land empire in the 4th century BC, spreading from Greece to Persia to south Asia and beyond, by means of military conquest.

Besides Thessalonike, Alexander’s half-sister, who learns to fight while staying behind at home, the female viewpoints are those of Drypetis, the plain, outspoken younger daughter of King Darius of Persia, who becomes one of his captives after her father’s defeat; and Roxana of Balkh, a beautiful minor noblewoman who uses all her wiles to escape a bad family situation and seize power of her own.

Also included is the perspective of Hephaestion, Alexander’s boyhood companion, general, and occasional lover, who knows him better than anyone but sometimes fails to temper his excesses.  Given Alexander's personality, it isn't likely anyone could. Hephaestion’s is a valuable viewpoint to have, since it brings readers front and center into Alexander’s army campaigns and victories, plus the athletic games held afterward in celebration.

Unlike Genghis Khan (Temujin) in Tiger Queens, Alexander has a more elusive presence on the page here; but this is probably wise. As the narrative makes clear, getting close to him is risky, and Thornton doesn’t downplay the price that Alexander’s enemies and allies pay for being in thrall to his ambitions. Undeniably brutal in places, deeply romantic in others, the novel is well-paced as it covers significant ground, both geographical and emotional. (One minor issue: the love-hate relationships between two pairs of would-be lovers felt rather similar.)

From the arena at Aigai in Macedon, where Alexander’s fate is set in motion, to the opulent throne room of Persepolis, abundant in both wealth and in misfortune, the story places readers into the midst of Alexander’s world. It’s highly recommended for readers who like their historical fiction colorful, vigorous, and populated by tough women who lived life at full volume.

The Conqueror's Wife is published by NAL this month (trade pb, 496pp, $15.00).  This review is part of a blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours; thanks to the author for providing me with an ARC.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Sun, sand, and secrets: Summer at Hideaway Key by Barbara Davis

Since the themes and cover for the previous book reviewed here were pretty dark, here's one with a more summery setting.  That said, it does tackle serious issues.

For the core of her third novel, Barbara Davis takes a staple of historical women’s fiction – the discovery of an old diary – and grafts around it an engrossing story about sibling jealousy, the difficult path to self-discovery, and the importance of understanding the past and taking chances on the future.

In 1995, following her father’s death, wealthy fashion designer Lily St. Claire is surprised to discover he left her a beach house, Sand Pearl Cottage, on the small island of Hideaway Key on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The house once belonged to Lily’s beautiful lookalike aunt, Lily-Mae Boyle, the long-estranged older sister of Lily’s mother, Caroline. Determined to learn more about her family, despite her mother’s firm disapproval, Lily takes up residence in the cottage, sorts through her late aunt’s belongings, and makes connections with many of the locals – including her nearest neighbor, Dean Landry, a hunky architect whose friendly overtures she doesn’t fully trust: he wants to buy her cottage and tear it down for a new building project.

Beginning in 1953, Lily-Mae’s journal reveals the story of her difficult adolescence and the adult decisions that led to her renown as a cover model and, much later, her dying alone in her bed at Hideaway Key. With a heartfelt tone revealed through her rural Tennessee twang, Lily-Mae tells how her Mama abandoned her and Caroline at a poor farm after their money ran out. Lily-Mae’s resolve to do whatever it takes to protect her younger sister, even to her own detriment, instills in Caroline a resentment that festers throughout their lives.

Both tales are flawlessly interwoven, each enhancing the plot and themes revealed in the other, and they exert a similar emotional pull. The ending is perfect – have some tissues ready – and the glorious depictions of the Florida beaches will satisfy anyone who’s ever dreamed of an idyllic tropical haven.

Summer at Hideaway Key was published by NAL Accent in August ($16.00/C$20.00, trade pb, 386pp).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The dark side of the Middle Ages: Dana Chamblee Carpenter's Bohemian Gospel

The averted eyes, the signs of the cross, the looks of awe and fear...

Mouse is an unusual name for a young woman in 13th-century Bohemia, but then she's far from ordinary.  She's intelligent and literate in several languages, yet unbaptized and forbidden to attend Mass.  All are uncommon for her time.  Raised in Teplá Abbey without a mother or father, she grows up knowing she has special talents – healing, for one – and is about to discover how far her power extends, a journey that takes her into the darkest realms of her world and of the human spirit.  

At fourteen, Mouse saves the life of Ottakar, the Younger King of Bohemia, when he's brought to the abbey, gravely wounded by an arrow.  The two form an immediate connection that endures despite their vast differences in social status and the danger they find themselves in – him, because a traitor wants to kill him, and her, because her supernatural abilities and closeness to the king elicit others' enmity.  And her quest to discover more about her personal history proves to be the most treacherous path of all.

Bohemian Gospel is a strong debut, a historical fantasy novel taking place in a setting few readers will recognize or be comfortable in, which works to its advantage.  The supernatural focus was much more prominent than I expected, given the publisher's blurb; this is far from a traditional historical novel.

The brutal court politics, full of bloody betrayals and deadly familial rivalries, call to mind the setting for Maurice Druon's Accursed Kings series.  Ottakar comes to be known as the Golden and Iron King, which itself gives a hint at the book's atmosphere.  I appreciated how period folklore was woven into the storyline (soul cakes, anyone?); likewise, the firm grip held by the church on regulating people's behavior.

Despite this, individual members of the clergy see something in Mouse worth protecting, which makes a refreshing change from stereotype.  Father Lucas, her longtime mentor, calls her an andílek, or angel, and risks much to keep her alive and safe. 

This made for an ideal read for All Hallows Eve, with its creepy suspense and unexpected-yet-apropos ending, but it should work well for any other time, especially if you'd like to take a stroll on the dark side of history.  It was published on 11/16 by Pegasus ($25.95, hardcover, 367pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC at my request.