Saturday, December 03, 2005

Review - My Lady Scandalous by Jo Manning

In this eminently readable and enjoyable biography, Regency author Jo Manning reveals the life and times of a celebrated courtesan. Born in Scotland some time in the mid-eighteenth century, Grace Dalrymple eventually warmed the beds of both George, Prince of Wales and the Duke of Orléans.

This book is a curious dichotomy - half serious history, based as it is around primary documents and half celebrity bio, with catty asides and lots of gossip. The sidebars enhance the background information, but this historian would also liked to have seen footnotes.

That aside, its easy style and fascinating subject won this reviewer over.

© Teresa Eckford, 2005

This review first appeared in the November 2005 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - The Wedding: An Encounter with Jan Van Eyck by Elizabeth M. Rees

Have you ever wondered about the story behind a painting? You're not alone. In The Wedding, children's author Elizabeth Rees brings Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait to life.

Focussing on the bride, Ms. Rees introduces us to a young woman from Bruges caught between duty and her first crush. Giovanna Cenami's father arranges a marriage for her with a business acquaintance at the same time she falls for a charming young nobleman who works for Van Eyck. It turns out the latter is a member of the family with whom her own has feuded for years. Can she trust him?

Though Giovanna seems a little modern in some of her ideas, it is easy to sympathize with her plight, while Signor Arnolfini is an understated hero in every sense. Ms. Rees's other characters are equally well-drawn and brimming with personality, moving in a world depicted accurately through small details and slightly formal language.

My only quibble came with a violent scene towards the end that struck me as over written and not in keeping with the overall tone of the book. That aside, I believe readers will enjoy this fast-paced and historically authentic tale set in 15th century Flanders.

© Teresa Eckford, 2005

This review first appeared in the November 2005 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - The Silent Witness: a True Story of the Civil War by Robin Friedman and Claire A. Nivola (Illustrator)

This picture book fictionalizes a little girl's experience during the American Civil War. Lula McLean lives on a farm near Bull Run and her home serves as headquarters for the Confederate Army before the 1861 battle there. She and her brother even help out in the camp. Afterwards, Lula's family moves south to Appomattox Court House, where Lula's doll, the Silent Witness, is present for the peace negotiations towards the end of the war.

While a charming tale at heart, this story suffers from information dumping in the form of too many military details that only slow the pace. Lula herself is an appealing protagonist and her every day life will draw young readers in alongside Ms. Nivola's rich, evocative illustrations.

My seven year old niece, Nylah, liked the story and thought some of the history facts were neat, but she wanted to know more about what happened to Lula and less about the soldiers. Her favourite part was when the cannon ball landed in the pot of stew and exploded.

While I commend Ms. Friedman for wanting to teach history through fiction, a lighter hand with the military minutiae was needed to make this book a true keeper.

© Teresa Eckford and Nylah Eckford2005

This review first appeared in the November 2005 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - Just Jane: A Daughter of England Caught in the Struggle of the American Revolution by William Lavender

Spanning the era of the American Revolution, this YA novel is a coming-of-age story about an English orphan sent to live in the fledgling United States with her uncle. Jane soon finds her loyalties torn between her Loyalist guardian and her Rebel cousins. Life becomes more complicated when she finds herself attracted to a Rebel as well, while being romanced by her uncle's obnoxious son and a British officer. In the end, Jane must choose between family, love and loyalty.

Jane herself is an appealing heroine, thought at times she does seem a little too good. Still, her courage and dedication to family are well-motivated. The secondary characters, however, all seem rather stereotypical, with the exception of Cousin Hugh. He stood out as a flesh and blood person, just like Jane. The writing itself is adequate, though at times the over abundance of telling, rather than showing, distances the reader from the events. More successful was the setting - Mr. Lavender immerses his reader in Colonial America, incorporating a wealth of detail, effectively recreating Charleston and its outlying plantations.

A well-paced and often exciting tale, Just Jane will appeal to younger teens eager to learn about early America.

© Teresa Eckford, 2005

This review first appeared in the November 2005 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Friday, June 03, 2005

Review - Angel of Harlem by Kuwana Haulsey

In Angel of Harlem: A Novel, Kuwana Haulsey recounts the remarkable life of Harlem's first woman doctor, Dr. May Chinn. Told in a mixture of first and third person, this fictional biography is at its most absorbing once the author settles in to telling May's tale, beginning with her childhood. The first few chapters jumped from May's first person recollections of her father to the latter's escape from slavery during the American Civil War.

May herself is an engaging character, by turn vulnerable, intelligent and tough. Drawing strength from her remarkable mother, May perseveres through illness, heartbreak and resistance to her ambitions from both her father and society. Far from a cardboard character she comes across as a passionate and dedicated musician and doctor as well as a fun-loving, sometimes rebellious young woman and loyal friend.

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries came alive through the author's setting which was detailed, yet not overwhelming. Similarly, the racial prejudice that existed, while not glossed over, doesn't dominate either. Though May and her parents dominate, all the characters both appealed and were true to their time. The story moves along well, following May from her childhood through to her life's end. I finished the book in two nights, not wanting to put it down.

Aside from the slightly disjointed beginning, I found the final chapter a bit of an anti-climax. It appeared almost as an after-thought, included to wrap up the story when the same information would have been just as effectively included in the Author's Note.

That said, this minor quibble by no means should discourage readers from picking up this inspiring novel about a woman who dedicated her life to helping others, despite the many obstacles thrown in her path. One for my keeper shelf and highly recommended.

© Teresa Eckford, 2005

This review first appeared in the May 2005 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - Annie Between the States by L.M. Elliott

Set in Virginia during the American Civil War, Annie Between the States, tells of a young girl's coming of age. While helping her mother treat the wounded from Manassas, Annie Sinclair meets a Yankee soldier who both intrigues and challenges her. Throughout the course of the war he periodically reappears, growing more important to her with each visit.

At the same time, Annie copes with the increasingly difficult conditions on her family's farm, her mother's illness, her younger brother's rebellion, and, most frightening of all, continued raids by Yankee. When faced with the loss of a close friend, Annie takes action which results in her arrest.

Though a good story lies at the heart of this historically accurate second novel from L.M. Elliott, it is lost amidst an over-stuffed narrative and a good number of stereotypical secondary characters.

The dialogue was especially problematic, with many of the characters uttering impossibly long and often unrealistic speeches. I fear that in this day and age, when teens expect instant gratification, many will set the book down quickly.

On the positive side, the setting is beautifully rendered and I genuinely cared about Annie, even if she did strike me as a little silly at times. And the story itself, when given its chance to shine in the final third of the book, is very appealing and timeless. I just wish the author had been able to curb her seeming desire to insert all her research, thus slowing the pace.

That said, I do intend to keep this book for my nieces because it illustrates how horribly devastating war can be and the human spirit's ability to rise above it. No small feat.

© Teresa Eckford, 2005

This review first appeared in the May 2005 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - Ride the Fire by Pamela Clare

Nicholas Kenleigh is a broken, guilt-ridden man. When he arrives at Bethie Stewart's cabin on the western frontier with a serious injury, she is eight months pregnant, a widow living alone. Together they set out on a desperate mission to warn settlers further east of an uprising by the native population.

While the pacing is good and the writing engaging, Bethie is less than convincing, an abuse survivor who protests Nicholas's help delivering her baby but then bares her breasts quite openly to nurse her child. Nor did I understand why instead of asking for Bethie's help Nicholas chose instead to threaten her. These character inconsistencies seriously detracted from the novel's strengths. Also, the last fifty pages appeared designed only to showcase historical characters and add one more rather forced element of conflict.

It's clear the author did a lot of research, which she incorporates into a vibrant setting. At times the realism is overly gritty, especially the extensive details of torture techniques of the Wyandot tribe. While I appreciated the author's dedication to historical realism, I wish she had written more believable characters and toned down the gory aspects of Nicholas's past.

© Teresa Eckford, 2005

This review first appeared in the May 2005 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

American graduate student Eloise Kelly is in England to research her dissertation on "Aristocratic Espionage". When a descendant of the famed spy, the Purple Gentian gives Eloise access to family papers, she is thrilled to find a collection of letters recounting his adventures. Maybe through him she'll learn the identity of the elusive Pink Carnation.

From there the story moves into the past where 20 year old Amy de Balcourt returns to France from exile, determined to join the League of the Purple Gentian, led by its eponymous figure of romance and daring. Though half-French, she blames the Revolution for her parents' death and wants to bring Napoleon down.

A doctoral candidate in history, Ms. Willig has crafted an amusing and intriguing tale that brings the early nineteenth century to vibrant life. There can be little doubt she has done her research. However I did find the point of view control less than stellar and some rather awkward prose, while the device of the letters didn't really work as the story came across more as a journal than correspondence.

Amy meets and falls in love with the Purple Gentian, aka Richard Selwick. The latter is dashing and intelligent, so his attraction to the oft childish Amy had me questioning the romantic element of the story. The secondary characters fared far better, notably Richard's mother, Amy's cousin Jane and their chaperone, Miss Gwen. Occasionally we glimpse Eloise's own growing romance with her benefactress's grandson.

Ms. Willig's aim was to write a historically accurate romance novel and she succeeded, though a couple of minor continuity errors jumped out at me. Despite the noted minor niggles I still enjoyed this debut novel, a charming romp into the fictional past, and so, I believe, will fans of both Chick Lit and Historical Romance.

© Teresa Eckford, 2005

This review first appeared in the May 2005 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Review - The Hunter's Tale by Margaret Frazer

Thirteenth in Margaret Frazer's Dame Frevisse series, The Hunter's Tale is the best yet. As expected, the mystery is well-plotted with the requisite red herring or two, the setting brims with historical details and the story moves along at a gentle yet insistent pace. But it's also a brilliant study of human nature.
            The victim is Sir Ralph Woderove, who chases after his dog into the woods and turns up dead within the hour. The terms of his will set the stage for further foul deeds. As Dame Frevisse learns, he was a vicious man who loved his dogs more than his family, which includes his second wife Anneys, his sons Tom and Hugh, daughters Elyn, Lucy and Ursula and grandson Miles. His only friend was Elyn's husband, their neighbour Sir William Trensal. Little wonder Frevisse finds herself with so many suspects and a plethora of motives.
            Sir Ralph's physical and verbal abuse echo throughout the story, revealed through each of the main characters as it becomes clear they are protecting one of their own. In this manner, Ms Frazer reveals her genius, as she explores each member of the family and what drives them to act as they do. Highly recommended.

© Teresa Basinski Eckford
This review first appeared in the August 2004 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - Skylark by Jo Beverley

Fans of Jo Beverley's Company of Rogues will thoroughly enjoy this latest addition to the series featuring Sir Stephen Ball and his widowed childhood friend Laura Gardeyne. Six years before the story opens, Stephen had asked Laura to marry him, but a misunderstanding resulted in her rejecting him. Now her husband is dead, her son is in danger and Stephen is as much in love with her as ever. He offers to help her and together they search for a blackmailer threatening to expose a family secret. Laura soon learns Stephen is a man of principle, one who is more worthy of her love than the man she married.

As always, Ms. Beverley spins an exciting tale, effortlessly transporting her reader to Regency England. The mystery adds to the romance rather than dominating it, while Stephen and Laura are appealing protagonists whose rekindled relationship develops naturally. Peopled with a delightfully quirky cast of secondary characters, Skylark zips along at a good pace that kept me turning the pages.

If you are searching for a book in which history and romance blend seamlessly, look no further than this enjoyable and engrossing novel of love and redemption.

© Teresa Eckford, 2004

This review first appeared in the February 2005 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Review - Mable Riley by Marthe Jocelyn

Mable Riley and her sister Viola have travelled from home so Viola can help support the family with her first teaching job in early 20th century Ontario. Eager for excitement and inspiration for her writing, Mable keenly anticipates the adventure and starts a journal to record all that happens. And plenty does. Not everyone is thrilled with the young female teacher, questioning her methods of instruction, while Mable herself makes friends with a scandalous young widow, who cycles and wears split skirts.

Marthe Jocelyn has written a charming story, replete with details of everyday life woven into a well-paced narrative. Her appealing heroine pulls the reader in with her mix of romantic notions and rebellious spirit as she learns about life, love and loyalty. Further strengthening the tale are a cast of well-rounded secondary characters involved in historically relevant subplots. What appealed most was the use of the diary format. When done well, as it is here, it gives the reader a real sense of immediacy and verisimilitude.

Those who have preteen girls to buy books for should add this lovely volume to their list. I know I'm keeping mine for my nieces. Very higly recommmended.

© Teresa Eckford, 2004

This review first appeared in the February 2005 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - The Secret Shelter by Sandi LeFaucheur

This time travel adventure story sees three children and their teacher journey from present day to World War II Britain, September 1940 to be precise. There they must cope with the terror of nightly bombing raids and the danger that lurks in the form of suspicion of anyone different.

Sophie Pinkerton tells the tale. Young and impressionable, she finds life in 1940 both terrifying and exhilarating as she and her friends live history rather than just read about it. Taken in by a young mother whose husband flies with the RAF, the four time travellers must adapt to their new circumstances while trying to find a way home. The hardest part is knowing what the future holds for their hostess. Dare they try to change the past?

The author does a good job of recreating war-time England taking her readers back to an era of terror and privation. Unfortunately the prose is awkward at times, especially the dialogue which features long speeches that don't ring true. However, the fast pace and well-plotted story do much to make up for this deficiency. Youngsters with an interest in history will likely enjoy this intriguing read.

© Teresa Eckford, 2004

This review first appeared in the February 2005 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - The Snow Pit by Reuben Bercovitch

Set during World War II, The Snow Pit follows the lives of a graduating class of 1941 in rural Nebraska, while concentrating on the troubled romance between Ethan and Evelyn. The war touches each of the characters in different ways as they struggle to come to terms with the unexpected changes the world conflict brings. Themes such as racism, poverty and guilt are explored through the course of the story.

This is a hard book for me to review because, though I recognize a skillfully plotted narrative and well-drawn characters, the manner in which the story was told did not appeal to me. Not only was there at least one scene of, in my opinion, completely unnecessary violence, but the author included very detailed accounts of various battles that had me skipping pages at a time.

Nor did I find the main characters particularly sympathetic. Evelyn especially made some questionable choices in her relationship with Ethan that seemed selfish and went against the character development illustrated throughout the story. What really hurt the book for me, however, was the ending, but that is a matter of personal taste.

This being said, there is no doubt that Mr. Berkovitch is a skilled writer, one who creates interesting secondary characters who move in a completely believable and tangible world. Never did I doubt any of the period details or settings. Indeed there are times his prose is breathtakingly beautiful such as when he describes a new location or shows the impact of the war on those left behind.

My feeling is that men will find this book far more to their taste than most women, focussing as it does on the nitty-gritty details of military life and strategy. Recommended only for those who enjoy novels about the grim realities of war.

© Teresa Eckford, 2004

This review first appeared in the February 2005 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Friday, February 25, 2005

Review - A Century of November by W. D. Wetherell

Evocative. Haunting. Engrossing. These are the words that echoed through my mind as I read this wonderful novel. Set in the closing weeks of WWI, it traces the journey of a recently widowed apple-grower who, after learning his only son was killed in Flanders, sets out to find him. It's a journey that takes him across Canada by train as the Spanish flu epidemic is starting, then across the Atlantic by ship to England. There he discovers his son had a girlfriend, Elaine Reed, who is likely carrying their baby, a young woman determined to discover the last resting place of her lover. Following on her heels, Charles Marden finds himself in a place worse than hell, the very recently abandoned battlefields of Europe, a place of pilgrimage and death.

Told in a combination of first and third person, this tale of love, loss and hope plunges the reader into a chaotic and heart-wrenching period. From its opening on Vancouver Island to its closing on the battlefield of Ypres, it takes the reader along with Marden through richly detailed prose, powerful imagery and a rivetting narrative.

Marden himself is a highly sympathetic protagonist. We want him to find Elaine. Even more, we want him to find some kind of peace. Losing his wife and son in such quick succession has cast him adrift and in his search for Elaine we sense a quiet desperation for some return to normalcy, once he has seen where his son died and met the woman who carries his grandchild. The secondary characters are many and while few of them occupy more than a few paragraphs or a few pages each, they all come alive and serve a purpose, especially the battle-scarred veterans who refuse to leave the trenches in which they'd fought for so long. Very highly recommended.

© Teresa Eckford, 2004

This review first appeared in the November 2004 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Book Review - Death in the Age of Steam: A Mystery, Mel Bradshaw

This literary mystery, set in 1856 Ontario and Quebec, focusses on a banker's quest to find his missing former love, the daughter of a prominent politician who died suddenly. Isaac Harris always regretted not declaring himself to Theresa Sheridan before she married business man Henry Crane three years earlier. Now he sees a way to make things right when it appears her husband is willing to give her up for dead when she disappears before her father's funeral. Certain she is in trouble, Isaac devotes himself to tracking her down.

This convincing portrait of life in pre-Confederation Canada holds many charms, from its snapshots of Victorian-era Toronto and various towns along the St. Lawrence River to its well-crafted mystery. Isaac is an appealing hero and detective, often falling into his discoveries, yet realistically portrayed. Theresa is a little more troubling and not entirely convincing, while the secondary characters range from stereotypical to bizarre.

Though the story moves along quite well, the pace lags at times as the author sometimes immerses the reader in too many details. Still, as mysteries go, this one held my interest and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about mid-18th century Kingston. It's clear the author did his research and those interested in this period of history should enjoy this fascinating combination of detective story and historical novel.

© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2004
This review first appeared in the November 2004 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - The Vanishing Point by Louise Hawes

This fictionalized biography recounts a year in the life of Renaissance painter Lavinia Fontana. Teenager Vini is an only child, her mother having suffered multiple miscarriages. Desperate to fulfil her desire to paint, Vini conspires with her friend, Paolo, to bring her work to her father's notice. Prospero Fontana is thrilled to find his daughter has both the soul and the talent of an artist and welcomes her to his studio. But all is not well in the Fontana household. Lavinia falls victim to a childhood disease and must live with the possibility she will never see again while her mother's latest pregnancy leads to tragedy.

With careful research and a deft hand, Ms. Hawes convincingly recreates the Renaissance period, full of colour, noise and politics. Similarly her characters, especially Vini and her father, leap from the page and grab our attention. The story starts slowly, but picks up speed about half-way through as the various plot threads, including a romance between Vini and Paolo, come together. My one real quibble was the author's use of present tense, which I found rather distracting. Still, as an introduction to art and history, few parents could go wrong buying this for their teens.

© Teresa Eckford, 2004

This review first appeared in the November 2004 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Book Review - Lady Allerton's Wager, Nicola Cornick

Ms. Cornick's seventh book, Lady Allerton's Wager is an enjoyable romp through Regency-era England. A romp with a touch of mystery and a pair of star-crossed lovers, whose families have been feuding for half a century.

By disguising herself at the Cyprian's Ball, the widowed Elizabeth, Lady Allerton tricks her family's enemy, Marcus, Lord Trevithick into wagering with her for the island his family stole from hers many years ago. She wins and he agrees to honour their wager, until he finds out who she is. They race to reach the island first, but during their encounters along the way, they find themselves drawn to each other.

While Beth is a heroine with spirit and intelligence, she also is a little too impulsive. Marcus, on the other hand, is a hero through and through, honourable and caring.

The plot skips along at an enjoyable rate and it's clear Ms. Cornick is comfortable recreating Regency England. Only a Big Misunderstanding towards the end of the book detracted a tad from my enjoyment.

Fans of the Regency period will want to pick this book up. I intend to seek out Ms. Cornick's backlist and the books that followed this one.

© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2004
This review first appeared in the May 2004 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Book Review - Right as Rain, Bev Marshall

Mississippi born Bev Marshall has crafted a memorable and evocative tale, revolving around three families. Set in the mid/late 20th century American South, Right as Rain tells the story of Tee Wee, a woman determined to hold her family together and make a better life. She works as cook for the Parsons, renting a house on their land with her husband Luther and is less than enthusiastic when they hire a new housekeeper, with whom she feels an instant rivalry. Still, she and Icey form a thorny friendship that endures through the years that follow, punctuated by both tragedy and success.

It is also the story of the Parsons' daughter Ruthie, who longs to be loved for herself, but chooses unwisely. Her story is both heartbreaking and uplifting as she learns about loyalty and friendship. Her brother Browder and Tee Wee's daughter Crow also figure prominently.

In many ways the setting is the most impressive aspect of this thoroughly engrossing tale, coming to life on every page, the heat and humidity palpable. I could hear the thunder, taste the dust and smell the animals on the farm. Especially impressive was how well Ms Marshall wove the political and social history of the period into the narrative. I learned a lot without realizing it, which speaks volumes for her skill as a writer.

Her dialogue also stands out. Each of the characters has a distinctive voice and she reflects time and place without resorting to cliché.

The many threads of the plot came together in a gripping court trial, the outcome of which sees the climax of the story and kept me reading with the proverbial bated breath. A fine ending to this compelling and very readable family saga, whose characters will stay with your long after you close the book.

© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2004
This review first appeared in the August 2004 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Book Review - Slightly Wicked, Mary Balogh

Another entry in the Bedwyn series, Slightly Wicked is the story of Rannulf and his lady love, Judith, who has been sent to live with her wealthy relatives to help ease the burden on her impoverished father. When Judith's coach overturns an attractive young man offers to help. Convinced she will never marry (her parents have told her she is ugly and on the shelf), she seizes the opportunity to have a little adventure.

Rannulf is faced with the prospect of his grandmother marrying him off, a fact about which he is less than enthusiastic. Encountering a sultry actress in peril provides a pleasant diversion. Imagine his surprise when she turns out to be his intended's poor relation. Not only must their love overcome a wide social chasm, it must also defeat a vengeful spurned suitor.

Though the story is fairly standard, the quality of Ms. Balogh's writing sets it apart. She breathes fresh life into typical lead characters and surrounds them with an outstanding supporting cast (especially Judith's grandmother). Her setting is realistic, full of period detail without seeming like a catalogue of facts, while the plot contains some unique twists. A fast-paced, well-written enjoyable read.

© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2003
This review first appeared in the May 2003 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Book Review - Murder on Grammercy Park, Victoria Thompson

Victoria Thompson's third Gaslight Mystery, Murder on Grammercy Park, once again plunges the reader into life in turn-of-the-century New York City. Midwife Sarah Brandt and Police Detective Frank Malloy team up once more to solve a murder. The victim is a healer, Edmund Blackwell, whose clients number many of the city's elite. But who wanted him dead and why?

Ms. Thompson weaves a credible plot, replete with interesting characters, assorted motives and the requisite red herring. The historical background is both rich and accurate, yet never takes away from the mystery. Sarah and Malloy share the detective duties equally, combining their particular talents to piece together the puzzle of Blackwell's death. Their romance continues to blossom amid all the skullduggery.

This reviewer will admit, however, that she did strongly suspect the murderer's identity by the midpoint of the story. Overall, though, this novel is a highly entertaining and well-executed piece of historical detective fiction.

© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2001
This review first appeared in the August 2001 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Book Review - Catherine's Heart, Lawana Blackwell

Set in the late Victorian period (1880-1884), this novel recounts the academic and romantic adventures of Catherine Rayborn, a sheltered young woman revelling in her first taste of independence at Girton College, Cambridge.

Catherine's first year passes relatively quietly, broken only by a brief flirtation with a young man from Lincoln College. After returning from visiting her family in India, where she encounters another young man, she meets Lord Holt, a rake and sworn enemy of her cousin Sarah's husband. Soon she is deeply involved with him, despite warnings from her family and friends. Heartbreak follows and she must look within herself before moving on to find true love and academic success.

Ms. Blackwell's research blends seamless into the narrative, effectively recreating the period. I enjoyed the details of life at a women's college and the bustle of Victorian London. While her secondary characters shone, I found Catherine to be somewhat problematic. She gave her heart too easily and appeared fickle and more than a little too naive, even for a young lady of her time. The author's explanation at the end was not convincing. The leading male characters were a little more successful, especially in the area of motivation, notably Lord Holt. However, I would have liked to have seen more interaction between the hero and heroine.

While the author's writing style did not engage me, her pacing and plotting more than compensated, allowing me to finish the book in only a couple of sittings. The incorporation of the spiritual aspects seemed a little heavy-handed in spots, but as I have no other experience reading inspirational fiction, I do not know if it was excessive.

Overall a pleasant read for fans of Victoriana and light romance.

© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2002
This review first appeared in the February 2002 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Book Review - Slightly Tempted, Mary Balogh

Lady Morgan Bedwyn is visiting Brussels in June 1815, just prior to Waterloo. There she is seen by Gervase Ashford, a man who hates her oldest brother, Wulf. Though revenge is his initial motive, Gervase discovers Morgan is a charming, caring woman. Friendship and romance blossom, only to be threatened by past injustices and betrayal.

Set in Belgium and England, Slightly Tempted is the fifth entry in Mary Balogh's Bedwyn series and a well-paced, exciting and heart-warming story of love and redemption. Ms. Balogh chronicles the after-effects of the great battle in all their grit, blood and horror. Morgan shines through as a worthy heroine, believable in her role of debutante turned nurse - not something easily achieved. Though we are told Gervase is a rake, I found this hard to believe as his nobility and strength shine through almost from the beginning. Their developing romance is totally believable.

The rest of the setting is equally well portrayed, from London to the countryside, while the supporting cast of the Bedwyn and Ashford clans bring added warmth to the story. Though I enjoyed Slightly Wicked 'slightly' more, I do not hesitate to recommend this book.

© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2004
This review first appeared in the February 2004 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Book Review - There is a River, Charlotte Miller

There is a River brings to a close Charlotte Miller's trilogy of Southern life spanning the 20th century. This book, however, stands on its own, relating the story of Janson Sandors and his rivalry with the town's powerful bigot, Buddy Eason. A supporting cast of interesting characters adds depth as we follow Janson from the local mill, to the battlefields of Europe and later the recession-bleak 1980s.

Following a weak opening, from which I could not glean in what period the story was set, the story proved a rivetting one. The author soon made up for the lack of historical detail in the early chapters, lavishly depicting life in a small Southern town during the late 30s and early 40s. The bonds of family and friendship stood out in stark contrast to the prejudice and hatred of Buddy Eason. The harsh division between the factory workers and their employers, the Eason family, rang true.

Janson and Elise struggled to support their family, but their devotion carried them through. The agony they endured while he is at war recreates the experience of so many from that era, as did Elise's resourcefulness in coping with the loss of Janson's income. Their son Henry and granddaughter Joanna, who falls in love with Buddy's grandson, followed in the same tradition.

The story follows a leisurely pace to its satisfying conclusion, marred at times by over-written narrative and awkward prose. Had the characters not been so genuine, it might have suffered more as a result. For it was Ms. Miller's rich portrayal of Janson, Elise, Henry, Joanna and Buddy that made this book unique.

Anyone yearning for a quiet yet powerful tale of love, revenge and redemption would do well to seek this one out.

© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2003
This review first appeared in the February 2003 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Book Review - The Midwife's Secret, Kate Bridges

Independent midwife Amanda Ryan arrives in Banff, Canada, determined to help the women there deliver their babies safely. She actually has two secrets, and considering the time period, 1888, it is hardly a surprise she is keeping them. Life does not get any easier when she discovers the piece of land she bought actually belongs to local mill owner Tom Murdock. It seems his partner has fleeced him and sold his land to Amanda. Together Tom and Amanda must track down the miscreant to sort things out while overcoming ghosts from their past. Along the way they fall in love.

This engaging historical romance is well-written, with an unusual and beautifully depicted setting, well-rounded characters and a heart-touching, satisfying romance. The reader readily believes that Tom and Amanda are meant for each other and will go the distance.

Those looking for a Western romance with a twist will enjoy this book.

© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2003
This review first appeared in the November 2003 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Book Review - My Dearest Cecelia, Diana Haeger

Built around a Civil War legend about William T. Sherman and a young southern belle, Ms. Haegar's latest novel recounts their passionate affair. While fans of romance will find it three-hankie read, serious historians will dismiss it as mere fantasy.

In May 1837, Cecelia Stovall visits her brother at West Point. There she meets William Sherman, her brother's roommate. They dance, spar verbally, and meet secretly. When they are found out, her brother whisks her away. Eventually she is married off to a family benefactor. On three or four occasions she and Sherman meet, most significantly when Cecelia works as a spy for the North. In the end, Sherman spares her home, invoking a vow he made when they first met to "ever shield and protect" her. The note is extant, though the author's version differs from the text of the real one.

Ms. Haegar's prose is not overly inspiring at first, most notably her weak grasp of point-of-view, with male characters expressing themselves in distinctly female voices and an over-use of southern dialect. This improved over the course of the novel, but made the first few chapters a tough slog.

The plot itself, while good and well-paced, is, from what I have learned, based very little in historical fact. For instance, I have found no mention of Cecelia Stovall being a Union spy. On a more positive note, Ms. Haegar is skilled at creating a believable setting, evoking strong images of the heat of the South and plantation life, while her characters are generally well-drawn. An author's note detailing what was real and what was fictional might have helped.

Civil War buffs not overly worried about accuracy will likely enjoy this book. I found it a pleasant enough read after the first few chapters, but do not consider it a "keeper".

© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2003
This review first appeared in the August 2003 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Book Review - My Enchanted Enemy, Tracy Fobes

Juliana St. Germaine, born and raised beneath the sea, must break an ancient family curse by seducing the one man who fears her most. In order to protect his family and keep the bloodline pure, Cole Strangford must marry a gypsy. He is far more interested in finding the Sea Opal stolen by Juliana's ancestor that will free the Strangfords from their bad luck. Yet something about Juliana appeals to him, and when she passes the seawater test, he reconsiders his initial rejection of the match.

Thus the stage is set for Tracy Fobes' sixth novel of paranormal romance. And an enjoyable one it is, if you prefer more romance than history. Set in 1810 England, My Enchanted Enemy features engaging characters, a believable romance and a satisfying conclusion. An interesting subplot revolves around Cole's efforts to invent an underwater diving suit and his rivalry with William James, who introduced an early scuba suit in 1825.

The pace lags in a couple of spots and the history is for the most part a decorative background. Fans of the genre, however, will find it a charming way to while away a summer afternoon.

© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2002
This review first appeared in the May 2002 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Book Review - Wilderness Run, Maria Hummel

This coming-of-age story, set just before and during the American Civil War, is historical fiction at its best. Bel and Lawrence are cousins, raised in a rich family in Vermont. But their wealth cannot protect them from the realities of slavery and the war. Lawrence enlists and discovers that war really is hell, but learns to cope. Bel remains at home, living a pampered life, one she grows to resent after meeting Louis, a handsome young Canadian who joins up to fight for the North.

Soon she begins to rebel against her mother. When her aunt and uncle give her a chance for freedom, she takes it, even if it means nursing in Washington. There she too learns the realities of war, made worse when she must nurse her cousin after he is badly injured. Louis' presence does mitigate the circumstances somewhat and they begin to snatch moments of privacy.

As in so many historical novels, romance does have a role in this one. Bel is a worthy heroine, attractive and intelligent, yet also impulsive and far from perfect. Louis is a little more perfect, yet still so engaging that it is difficult to fault the author for creating him thus. Their developing relationship adds a hopeful touch to a novel so centred on war.

Ms. Hummel has crafted a heart-wrenching tale of love, friendship, family secrets and war. Her carefully chosen words draw images in the mind of the reader, effectively bringing the era to life, while her characters are both appealing and true to the period. The complicated family relationships add an extra touch of realism. My only quibble was that the sections detailing life in the trenches sometimes dominated the action for a little too long.

Highly recommended for both its historical atmosphere and rivetting storyline.

© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2003
This review first appeared in the August 2003 issue of The Historical Novels Review.

Book Review - The Measure of the World, Denis Guedj (Arthur Goldhammer, translator)

In June, 1792, two astronomers set off from Paris on what proves to be a six year long mission to survey the meridian running through France from Dunkirk to Barcelona and thus establish a standard measure of length, the meter. Pierre Méchain and Jean-Baptiste Delambre face adversity, suspicion, danger and hardship as they struggle to complete their assignment, compounded by the turbulent politics of the French Revolution.

Denis Guedj does an admirable job bringing the era of the Revolution to life through the eyes of his two very different protagonists. Each has a distinct voice and deals with the hardships of their assignment in very different ways. Méchain has an especially hard time after enduring an almost fatal injury. Their relationship is one of mutual respect and it grows stronger, despite their separation, through semi-regular correspondence. No-one else truly understands the challenges they face and they draw on each other for strength, though Méchain is at times jealous of Delambre's early successes.

The social history and politics of the time are interwoven naturally so as not to interrupt the narrative of the main storyline. At times, however, the science is a little overwhelming for those less versed in that discipline. Overall, though, the story rattles along at a good pace, never boring and always intriguing. The various characters encountered by Méchain and Delambre add to the novel's charm, while the glimpses of such historical personages as Lavoisier, Condorcet and Borda further ground it in the period.

I also feel it necessary to praise the translator of this work, Arthur Goldhammer. His English prose is flawless and had I not been told, I'd never have guessed this work was a translation.

Reading this engrossing book was pure pleasure and I recommend it to all.

© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2002
This review first appeared in the May 2002 issue of The Historical Novels Review.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Book Review - The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Wayne Johnson

This is a difficult book to review. A fictionalized life of Joey Smallwood, the last Father of Confederation in Canada, it has many merits, but some significant weaknesses too. I certainly enjoyed reading it, but a number of things niggled at me as I did so.

The story is told mostly in the first person, from either Smallwood's point-of-view (the main narrative) or that of his friend and rival Sheilagh Fielding (her journal entries.) It follows Joey's life from his boyhood in St. John's, Newfoundland to the aftermath of Confederation in the 1950s and beyond.

The writing itself is very good. Johnston knows how to hook and involve the reader and I admit to being pulled in from page one. His descriptions are wonderful. Though I've never been to St. Johns I could taste the salt air and feel the damp chill of an Atlantic fog. Despite the use of the first person, I felt I knew the secondary characters as well, so skillfully were they depicted by the chief protagonists. Smallwood's father stands out in particular.

A mystery is thrown into the mix early on, one that is not solved until close to the end of the book - it adds an interesting dimension to the story. Each time the reader thinks it has been resolved, Johnston throws in another twist.

The plot progresses nicely for the first half of the book, then bogs down in the middle before building steam towards the end.

Smallwood is a fascinating character, but not an entirely likeable one. Sometimes his stubborn pride comes across more as stupidity. Some readers may find that the interruption of the main narrative by Fielding's journal entries, newspaper columns, letters and excerpts from her fictional history of Newfoundland to be more and more annoying. Though some of these devices add depth to the story, others merely slow the pace.

The ending, however, is the biggest disappointment of all. Rather than tying up loose ends, it left me wondering if I was missing a chapter. An Author's Note explaining that Fielding was fictional would have been a good idea - I only learned this by cruising the Internet for background information.

Lest you think I either disliked this book or would not recommend it, this is untrue. Despite the structural problems and the less than stellar ending, it is well worth picking up. The 500 odd pages passed quickly for the most part and proved an enjoyable way to brush up on an oft overlooked area of Canadian and Newfoundland history.

This review first appeared in the December 2000 issue of The Historical Novels Review.
© Teresa Eckford, 2002

Book Review - The Dragon's Bride, Jo Beverley

When Susan Kerslake and Con Somerford meet again after eleven long years apart, much has changed. She is now sister to the chief smuggler and Con's housekeeper, while he is the battle-hardened new Earl of Wyvern. Determined to find the smugglers' gold stolen by Con's predecessor, Susan reluctantly remains at Crag Wyvern, despite the rising tension between her and Con. He suspects she is up to more than tending house and sets out to discover her secret.

The Dragon's Bride is classic Jo Beverley, a skillful mix of romance, history and adventure. As always, Ms Beverley's engaging characters and strong plot make the story sparkle with an energy all its own. The historical details blend naturally into the narrative, creating a rich and authentic backdrop. Con and Susan's romance, fraught with guilt and doubt, blossoms slowly as they rediscover each other and learn to put the past behind them. The smuggling subplot provides added depth and excitement as the local riding officer is determined to identify and capture the area's lead smuggler.

All in all, The Dragon's Bride is an enjoyable, well-paced and satisfying read. Very highly recommended for fans of the genre.


This review first appeared in the August 2001 issue of The Historical Novels Review.

© Teresa Eckford, 2002

Book Review - River Thieves, Michael Crummey

River Thieves is a tale of early 19th century Newfoundland, when the native Beothuk still roamed in small groups, considered a curiosity by those new to the land. The English settlers, some of who are transported criminals who must earn their way as they can, face many hardships eking out a living trapping and fishing. Michael Crummey brings all these elements together in this, his first novel.

The tale unfolds gradually, interrupted from time to time by flashbacks filling in character backstory. A less talented writer might not have been able to make this work, but Crummey succeeds admirably. His unique voice and finely tuned narrative, seasoned with period words, carry the reader on an exciting journey.

Told from a variety of viewpoints, the story centres around the capture of a young Beothuk woman and its consequences. Her interaction with her captors is poignant as she struggles to make herself understood. She affects them all in different and unexpected ways, teaching them something about themselves.

The myriad complex characters walk right off the pages, while the reader feels the cold, hears the water crashing on the shore and tastes the fried fish that was a diet staple. There is no doubting the time period or its realities. Of particular note is the mind and body numbing winter journey to the Beothuk's winter camp

The only quibble is with the rather dark atmosphere as most of the characters suffer in some way. Though this adds to the verisimilitude, it would have made the book difficult to finish had Crummey not been such an accomplished storyteller.

This review first appeared in the December 2002 issue of The Historical Novels review.
© Teresa Eckford, 2002

Book Review - The Devil's Heiress, Jo Beverley

Clarissa Greystone, known as the Devil's Heiress, is haunted by the circumstances surrounding the death of her despised fiancé. Forced to take her place in society, she is intrigued to meet Major George Hawkinville. Little does she know that he is trying to prove her guilty of murder and fraud.

Major George Hawkinville needs Clarissa's ill-gotten fortune to save his family's estate. A fortune that rightfully belongs to his father. Expecting to find a devious beauty, he is surprised to find a rather ordinary, yet appealing young woman - one who does not seem capable of murder.

Danger from the past lurks in the background, threatening both Hawk and Clarissa. It seems Hawk is not the only one after the Devil's legacy.

Jo Beverley has crafted a well-written and historically grounded piece of romance fiction. Though the book is a little slow to take off, the unique characters and well-paced romance soon draw the reader in. The setting comes alive and the secondary characters sparkle. Fans of the author's Company of Rogues series will be delighted to encounter Nicholas, Lucien and Con again and will be especially thrilled by one of the final plot twists.

If you want to step back in time to Regency England and enjoy a well-written historical romance, this book is for you.


This review first appeared in the February 2002 issue of The Historical Novels Review.

© Teresa Eckford, 2002

Book Review - Latitudes of Melt, Joan Clark

In mid-April, 1912, two Newfoundland fisherman find a year-old baby in a basket on an ice pan, two days from shore. Francis St. Croix takes her home to his family and when no-one claims her, she remains with them and settles into life in the Drook.

Aurora is different from the other children, so different that Francis and Merla fear for her future. But tragedy forces her to grow up and take on responsibilities. Her marriage to Tom, a fellow dreamer is a happy one until the arrival of their daughter. Nancy demands most of her attention, but grows jealous after her brother is born. When life proves too difficult Aurora turns to her now abandoned childhood home for comfort and peace. As Nancy grows, she too faces challenges and finds her relationship with her mother difficult, while her brother Stan longs to understand all he can about ice and the ocean.

More than just a family saga, Latitudes of Melt is a chronicle of the 20th century. Aurora and her family learn the ties that bind are stronger than they'd ever imagined, that family is more than just to whom you were born after the mystery of Aurora's appearance off Newfoundland is solved by her granddaughter in Ireland.

This quiet book, with its gently rolling plot, lingering and evocative images and lively cast of characters takes the reader on an unforgettable trip through time. The past is tangible and real, not merely a backdrop for the narrative. Newfoundland's harsh beauty and spirited inhabitants come vividly to life through Ms. Clark's finely tuned prose. She is able to draw a picture in the mind with remarkably few words.

Readers looking for an intelligent, beautifully rendered tale will want to add this book to their To Be Read pile.

This review first appeared in the May 2003 issue of The Historical Novels Review.
© Teresa Eckford, 2003

Book Review - The Heretic, Lewis Weinstein

Set in fifteenth century Spain, The Heretic by Lewis Weinstein tells the story of a converso Christian who rediscovers his Jewish roots, with dire consequences. Steeped in late medieval culture, the novel immerses the reader in a world of religious intolerance and cross-cultural cooperation.

Mr. Weinstein clearly did a wealth of research and manages to weave most of it in skillfully. His characters, both fictional and historical, are vital living beings, well motivated, true-to-life and, more importantly, true to the period. Gabriel Catalan, his wife Pilar, their son Tomas and daughter-in-law Esther, shine through the book, confronting their past and fighting for a future for their family.

Set against the turbulent period in Spanish history just prior to the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition, the story follows Gabriel's quest to preserve the great works of Judaism using the newly invented printing press. He and his family risk their lives to keep their activities hidden from the Church authorities, most notably from the Dominican monk, Friar Ricardo Perez, a protégé of Torquemada.

The narrative is compelling, sweeping the reader along on a well-paced journey, while the setting comes alive with the sights, sounds and smells of medieval Spain. The history of the relationship between the Jewish people and the Christians is incorporated in a believable way so that readers become acquainted with the historical background behind the rise of the Inquisition.

The writing is uneven at times, some of the dialogue stiff and the prose a little dry, while on occasion some of the descriptions were a little awkward. However the plot is so strong that it more than compensates for those minor technical distractions. I do not hesitate to recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction, especially those who enjoy learning about different cultures as they read.


This review first appeared in the August 2000 issue of The Historical Novels Review.

© Teresa Eckford, 2002

Book Review - My Lady Beloved, Lael St. James

Gabriella Redclift has spent most of her childhood in a convent. When her betrothed sends for her, she bravely sets forth, only to be kidnapped by a young man in search of revenge. Morgan Chalstrey soon finds himself caring for his captive, when he should be concentrating on avenging his childhood sweetheart.

Set in England in 1369, this book begins and ends well, but the middle leaves much to be desired. The heroine repeatedly does stupid things, the hero and heroine don't communicate and the entire book is rife with anachronisms.

However, the writing is good and the hero far more appealing than his true love. Morgan is not a stereotype and learns a lot as a result of his conflict with the villain. The secondary characters are also quite appealing, especially Dame Johanna.

Fans of historical romance fiction who can get past Gabriella's foolish, headstrong antics, and don't mind too much about historical accuracy, might want to add this book to their TBR list, if only for Morgan's major scene near the end. It saved the book for me.


This review first appeared in the December 2001 issue of The Historical Novels Review.
© Teresa Eckford, 2002

Book Review - Push Not The River, James Conroyd Martin

Push Not the River is based on the real diary of Polish Countess Anna Maria Berezowska. It follows her life during three of the more turbulent years of Polish history - 1791-1794. Left an orphan at age 17 she moves in with her aunt, uncle and cousin. While there she meets and falls in love with their handsome neighbour, Count Jan Stelnicki, but their relationship is scuttled by her cousin Zofia with devastating results. The family moves to Warsaw after her uncle's death and Anna Maria's marriage to Zofia's former suitor, Lord Antoni Grawlinski. Anna Maria never forgets Jan, who fights alongside those wanting to maintain Poland's independence, but their love must wait as each deals with the turbulence in their personal lives.

I had few quibbles with this book. The story is well-paced and compelling, the historical detail plentiful, yet not overwhelming and the characters engaging and true to the period. In addition the author accurately conveyed the spirit of the Polish national pride. It's something I'm fairly familiar with as my father is Polish.

The writing in places is a little awkward and could have benefitted from an editor's red pen. I really would have appreciated an Author's Note, telling me what was fictional and what wasn't as there is no public access to the diary upon which the story is based. The heroine's many adventures seem almost too much, yet I know that truth really can be stranger than fiction. I could find no information about any of the main characters.

Towards the end of the book, we see less and less from Jan's point of view, so the reader is left wondering what has happened to him right along with Anna Maria. Had his point of view not been employed so frequently earlier, I might not have noticed it so much.

Characterization is the strength of this book. Most notable was that of Anna Maria, who changes from a naive country girl to a sophisticated, politically aware woman, her aunt Countess Stella Gronska and the enigmatic Zofia, who served as Anna Maria's foil. Entries from the latter's real diary appeared in Anna Maria's and are neatly integrated into the novel. From one scene to the next the reader never knows how Zofia will react or what she'll do next.

This novel reminded me of a Polish Gone With the Wind, though with a reversal in roles as the heroine is closer to being Melanie while Zofia is much like Scarlett. Both novels cover turbulent periods of history, invading forces and women left to fend for themselves who rise to meet the challenge with strength and courage. I recommend it to all, especially those of Polish heritage.


An abbreviated version of this review first appeared in the May 2001 issue of The Historical Novels Review.

© Teresa Eckford, 2002

Book Review - The Knight and the Rose, Isolde Martyn

Fans of Isolde Martyn have waited a long time to read this, her second novel, The Knight and the Rose, published in Australia two years ago. First published by Bantam (The Maiden and the Unicorn), the author has been picked up by Berkley.

Lady Joanna FitzHenry is married to Sir Fulk de Enderby, a brute who beats her night and day for, among other things, her failure to conceive a child. When she gets a chance to return to her childhood home, she takes it, ready to confront her parents about their apparent abandonment. She soon learns that her husband is to blame, while her mother seeks to find a way to save her daughter from the marriage she didn't want.

Geraint is on the run. He must save his young companion from a sure death and the best way to do that is to find somewhere to hide. When he is caught by the lady of the manor, he tells her he is a scholar who was robbed. She agrees to hide him and his companion if he will swear to a church court that he and Joanna secretly betrothed themselves before her marriage to Sir Fulk.

Set during the reign of King Edward II, just after the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322, this novel is loosely based on a real court case from the period and straddles the genres of historical romance and romantic historical fiction. Though the main focus of the story is indeed the relationship between the hero and heroine, the politics of the era are not ignored and figure prominently. Geraint and Joanna fall in love while preparing for the court case, but must also deal with the consequences of Geraint's actions as a supporter of the rebels. Nor does Joanna's husband quietly accept that his marriage is not legal.

As with her first novel, The Maiden and the Unicorn, Ms. Martyn has created memorable characters, a realistic setting and exciting plot. Her writing is polished and the depth of her research is obvious in the many small details of daily life. Geraint stands out, a worthy hero with dark secrets who is noble yet far from perfect, while the supporting cast is, for the most part, well-drawn. Sir Fulk, however, comes close to being a moustache-twirling villain as the reader never truly understands the motivation for his evil personality.

Also slightly problematic is the character of Joanna, who at times appears shrewish and overly stubborn. Over the course of the story, though, she does grow and proves worthy of her husband, risking all in the end to save him.

The plot has many twists and turns, saving one last surprise for the end. Pacing, however, isn't a problem as the author has a deft touch, balancing periods of intense action with slower domestic scenes. Also, there is no awkward dialogue to interfere as there is little "gadzookery". Instead the period is represented through more formal phrasing and the occasional medieval word.

Readers who so eagerly anticipated this novel need not fear disappointment. As with her debut novel, Ms. Martyn has succeeded in combining romance and history with aplomb, crafting an unforgettable story of love, intrigue and adventure. I look forward to her next release, Moonlight and Shadow (to be published shortly in Australia as The Silver Bride), the sequel to The Maiden and the Unicorn and set during the upheaval of 1483. To learn more about the author or to read some excerpts, you can visit her website at


This review first appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of The Ricardian Register.
© Teresa Eckford, 2002

Book Review - Nine Bells for a Man, Peter Unwin

Robert Pachal is a farmer from Saskatchewan who agrees to accompany his late brother-in-law's body back to Ontario, after the latter dies mysteriously on the prairie. Having never been far from home before, the journey is an adventure filled with wonder. Until he boards the small boat that will take him to his wife's hometown of Combermere. There he meets a group of travelling salesmen, an elderly woman and his wife's uncle and his friends. Together they will share an entirely different sort of adventure, one marked by both tragedy and survival.

Based on a true story and set primarily in pre-WWI Ontario, Canada, this novel immerses the reader in the period. The author drops tidbits of historical events and characters throughout the narrative. His image-laden prose is a joy to read and savour while the well-rounded characters draw you deeper into the story.

Two minor problems did detract from my reading pleasure. First, the initial two chapters confused me slightly as they bounced me around in time, however, once Robert began his trip, I was hooked. Second, I was a little disappointed when some of the other characters took over too soon as narrators. I'd come to care for Robert and would have liked to have seen more of his reactions as the plight of the boat became clear. Also, fans of single or limited viewpoints may find the use of multiple viewpoints, especially later in the story, a little disconcerting.

All in all, though, this book is well worth reading for the fascinating slice of small town Ontario life in the early 20th century and the beautiful prose. Especially recommended for Canadian members of the HNS.


This review first appeared in the May 2001 issue of The Historical Novels Review.

© Teresa Eckford, 2002

Book Review - Danegeld, Susan Squires

In this debut historical romance, set in late 7th century Britain, the Saxon witch Britta and Viking warrior Karn ally themselves against the ambitious and cruel thegn Offa. Britta saves and hides Karn, nursing him back to health. But Offa discovers their whereabouts, forcing them to flee to the mainland, where they encounter further danger.

The narrative oozes historical detail while Britta and Karn are true products of their time. Offa is horrible, yet avoids being a stereotype, though his behaviour early in the book might make some romance readers close it. In this manner, the author distinguishes herself and her work from the bulk of the genre. The story moves quickly, enhanced by the supernatural atmosphere and well-rounded collection of secondary characters. Britta and Karn's relationship develops believably, as each fights to overcome their inner demons and acknowledge their need for the other.

My only quibbles come from the author's propensity for changing history. Also, there was no mention of the specific year this story took place - I discovered it by looking up the date of the battle depicted near the end of the book.

Still, an impressive novel that will satisfy those who love lots of history with their romance.


This review first appeared in the May 2002 issue of The Historical Novels Review.
© Teresa Eckford, 2002

Book Review - The Late Mr. Shakespeare, Robert Nye

In this fictional biography of The Bard we meet Pickleherring, an aged actor writing about the life of his former employer and friend after several years of research. He recounts the many tales and myths about Shakespeare interspersed with his own recollections and brief glimpses of Plague-and-Fire-ravaged London of 1665-66.

This book was both a frustrating and fascinating read. Nye's style did not appeal to me at first. In some places the writing seems disjointed, while in others it flows as the narrator recounts a particularly intriguing anecdote or event. It is written in the first person and Pickleherring often addresses the reader directly. When he sticks to the topic of Shakespeare's life, all is well. However I found myself annoyed by the subplot of Pickleherring's obsession with the young prostitute he spies on through the hole in his floor (he lives in the attic of a brothel.) Those scenes border on pornography and struck this reader as repetitive and gratuitous.

What did capture my interest was the recount and analyzing of the myriad legends surrounding the life of Shakespeare, along with the author/narrator's ruminations on the possible identities of the Friend and Dark Lady from the Sonnets. The chapters devoted to them were among the most interesting in the book.

Nye's characters are true to the period, varied and often intriguing, coming to life in Pickleherring's stories. The setting is exceptionally well depicted, especially the scenes near the end during which the Great Fire ravages London.

As a historian I often wanted to reach for a biography or two of Shakespeare in order to check which anecdotes were true, or to see how others have interpreted the same facts.

This book is difficult to recommend wholeheartedly as I did not always find it a pleasurable read, and at times I found it quite tedious. It is not for everyone, but readers who enjoy a very literary style of historical fiction and are interested in Shakespeare and/or the Elizabethan period may well want to pick it up.

I cannot say that I truly enjoyed the book, yet neither do I regret having read it. There were even passages I was tempted to mark so I could find them again. Yet that special magic that compels me to finish a novel was not present in this one.


This review first appeared in the December 2000 issue of The Historical Novels Review.

© Teresa Eckford, 2002

Book Review - Devilish, Jo Beverley

For years the romance fiction world has waited for the Marquess of Rothgar's story, since he first appeared in My Lady Notorious, and in subsequent Malloren books. With his family happily married, readers are eager to learn if Rothgar can now, somehow find a ladylove of his own.

Except, for Rothgar marriage is not possible. Haunted by his mother's murderous madness, he vowed not to marry and risk tainting his children. For years he has stayed true to his vow, content to advise the young king and pursue a relationship with his mistress, a women known to be infertile.

Diana, Countess of Arradale, changes all that, with the barrel of her pistol, her intelligence, beauty and wit. After travelling north to her estate for the wedding of his brother Brand and her cousin Rosa, Rothgar receives orders from King George III to escort the Countess to London. Angered by Diana's request to take her seat in the House of Lords as is her right as Countess, the king is determined to see her married. Rothgar agrees to help Diana avoid that fate, even promising to wed her himself, in name only, should the need arise.

As Countess, Diana is used to ruling her estate and answering to no one, while pursuing her less than feminine past times and avoiding the formal world of Court. A husband would reduce her status and control of her land. Since her first meeting with Rothgar, though, she has found him difficult to forget. Especially his offer of seduction. The smoldering attraction flares to life at the wedding and burns with increasing intensity during their journey south, despite the knowledge that Rothgar means to avoid intimacy between them.

Rothgar's role as Royal advisor leaves him open to attack. The journey is interrupted twice by those seeking to destroy him, leaving him vulnerable to Diana's charms. Once back in London, though, he rebuilds the walls around his heart, determined to keep her at bay. But Diana is not a woman to surrender easily and even turns his own motto "With a Malloren anything is possible" back on him when he states that nothing can change his circumstances.

Danger continues to stalk them and Rothgar is forced to come face to face with just how much Diana means to him. But can he put aside the fear of hereditary madness and accept her love?

Once again, Jo Beverley has penned a love story of emotion and suspense. Rothgar is a strong hero who captures the imagination - cool and controlled, yet vulnerable and caring. Diana is a worthy, clever and brave, but at little spoiled. She grows throughout the story, and together they find a way to battle the demons haunting Rothgar.

The story is well paced, the secondary characters exquisitely drawn and the historical detail plentiful, without overshadowing the romance or the plot. Is Rothgar's story worth the wait? In my opinion, it most definitely is - devilishly so!


© Teresa Eckford, 2002

Book Review - A Far Better Rest, Susanne Alleyn

"To-day they guillotined Danton; and with him died the fragile dream of Clemency, and all my hopes and prayers."

So opens Susanne Alleyn's debut novel A Far Better Rest, described on the back cover as "A reimagining of Charles Dickens' classic novel A Tale of Two Cities." In the hands of a less skilled writer, this book could have been a disappointment or worse, yet Ms. Alleyn succeeds admirably.

Told from Sydney Carton's point of view in a journal written during the weeks before his execution, the novel tells the same story as the Dickens original, but on an intensely more personal level. One by one Carton introduces the reader to the main characters as he reflects on his life's journey from Georgian England to Revolutionary Paris.

This novel is engrossing right from the start. The author uses a slightly archaic form of English that is easy to understand and read, yet evocative of the turbulent period in which the story is set.

Though we only see the characters through Carton's eyes, they are nevertheless well-rounded and thoroughly captivating. Of special interest to this reviewer were the brief glimpses of Charlotte Corday and her eventual victim, Jean-Paul Marat. Meeting these and other historical figures in such an informal setting was an added pleasure. Among the most appealing of the fictional characters were Carton's friend Molly, Darnay's daughter Lucie-Anne and Darnay's cousin, Eléonore. They lived, breathed and touched the heart.

As for setting, Ms Alleyn brings the period to life, especially those scenes set on the streets of Paris during the key events of the Revolution such as the attack on the Bastille and the preparations for the Festival of Federation. The readers sees, hears and smells the past and is, in effect, transported back in time.

I highly recommend A Far Better Rest, not only for fans of Dickens wanting to see the story told in a different way, but for anyone interested in the French Revolution and how it affected the lives of so many people. Though literary in nature, this novel appeals to the heart and soul and left this reader haunted by its wonderful characters, most notably its hero, Sydney Carton.


This review first appeared in the August 2000 issue of The Historical Novels review.

© Teresa Eckford, 2002

Book Review - The Maiden and the Unicorn, Isolde Martyn

During the turbulent period, now known as the Wars of the Roses, Marjorie of Warwick finds herself caught between love and loyalty, wed to a man who would thwart her duty to her former love, King Edward of England. Danger stalks them as they travel through France on a dangerous mission, caught in the tangled politics of ambition and revenge.

Ms. Martyn's debut novel is an exciting, action filled historical romance. The story is well plotted, her lead characters, Marjorie of Warwick and Sir Richard Huddlestone appealing and intriguing and the historical background convincingly drawn. There is little doubt that the author did a great deal of research, and readers will enjoy the depth of historical detail and period politics alongside the developing romance between Marjorie and Richard.

Nearly all the characters in this novel really lived, including the hero and heroine. Ms. Martyn does a good job of portraying these historical figures as flesh and blood people. Fans of the era will particularly enjoy the scene where Warwick meets Margaret of Anjou to ask for her forgiveness and beg her help with his invasion plans.

My one quibble with this book is a rather long torture scene towards the end. It wasn't entirely necessary and could have been considerably shorter.

All in all, however, an impressive debut. I look forward to reading Ms. Martyn's next book, The Knight and the Rose, set in the early fourteenth century.


This review first appeared in the May 2000 issue of The Historical Novels Review.
© Teresa Eckford, 2000

Book Review - Lords of the White Castle, Elizabeth Chadwick

Lords of the White Castle is Elizabeth Chadwick's eleventh book. Set in late twelfth and early thirteenth century England, it recounts the true tale of the outlaw Fulke FitzWarin, a proud man who dared to stand against King John in order to reclaim his family castle and his wife Maude le Vavasour.

Together they fought for justice, while founding a dynasty that lasted 200 years. This superb novel will appeal to readers who appreciate a rich historical background. As with her previous works, Ms Chadwick paints a detailed picture of the Middle Ages, both its glory and its less appealing aspects. The minutiae of everyday life is woven tightly into the narrative, enriching the background yet not overwhelming the story.

Every setting comes alive, from the banquet hall at Westminster Palace to the forest outside Canterbury into which Fulke and Maude flee after their marriage. In similar fashion, the language is neither overly archaic, nor annoyingly modern. The author uses a few choice older terms and more formal prose to create a medieval feel without drowning the reader in thees, thous, yeas and nays.

Her characters are true to their time. Fulke, Maude and King John elicit both sympathy and scorn, while the supporting players are vibrant entities, rather than mere foils for the protagonists. Fans of this period will delight in meeting Henry II, Richard I, William Marshal, the Earl of Chester, William of Salisbury and Hubert Walter and enjoy brief glimpses of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella of Angoulême. Fulke and Maude moved in the highest echelons of Anglo-Norman society and it is to the author's credit that she depicts the well-known historical characters as living, breathing beings, not glittering icons.

The plot follows the facts known about Fulke and his struggle with King John. The numerous subplots are well integrated, serving to add depth to the main one rather than distracting from it. As is common when writing about the Middle Ages, the author must build upon a skeleton of history, adding nuances and taking license where necessary. Her talent lies in her ability to do so without destroying the overall historical integrity of her carefully researched background.

Some readers may find the use of omniscient point-of-view a little off-putting and there are a couple of times it isn't clear from whose point-of-view the story was being told. However, it by no means detracted from the story.

Ms. Chadwick has established herself as one of the premier writers of medieval fiction and her reputation is well deserved. She blends history, adventure and romance into a story that enthralls, entertains and educates.


This review first appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of The Ricardian Register.

© Teresa Eckford, 2002

Review - The Temptress, Claire Delacroix

The Temptress is the final book in The Bride Quest series. It follows the adventures of Esmeraude, a maiden in search of adventure and her determined suitor, Bayard.

Bayard has returned from the Third Crusade, a follower of King Richard I. Determined to protect his family's holding, he learns that he must win Esmeraud's hand before his grandmother will name him her heir.

Esmeraude's parents have arranged for the most eligible men in the kingdom to compete for her hand in marriage. But she surprises them by embarking on her own quest, seeking the man her heart will tell her is right. She is convinced that none of the men her parents have invited, especially the foreign ones, are right for her. After setting a riddle for all those gathered, she flees. If one of the knights is indeed meant for her, he will be able to solve her riddle and claim her.

Bayard arrives to find the lady in question gone. Determined not to be thwarted he sets off in search of her and finds her. She seduces him, believing that men want her only for her maidenhead. Little does she know that the stranger is one of her suitors, one who is not put off by her behaviour.

Once Bayard understands Esmeraude's yearning for adventure, he allows her to have one, admiring her spirit. They meet up with her other pursuers at her sister's castle, where the wooing begins in earnest. But there is one knight determined to have Esmeraude who values her only for her ability to bear children and when he learns she is indeed with child, the adventure becomes a desperate race to save herself and her child. Part fairy-tale, part adventure and part romance, The Temptress is an engrossing read. In the hands of a less talented author it could have been very clichéd, yet each time the story appears to be going in one direction the author surprises the reader with a deft plot turn.

Esmeraude is a spoiled young lady who at first appears to be a stereotypical heroine - feisty, beautiful, stubborn and silly. Yet the author soon shows that she is much more than that as Esmeraude learns from her mistakes and matures. When she realizes that Bayard does not believe in marrying for love, she sets out to show him otherwise. Bayard is an intelligent and worthy hero, one who battles his own demons and comes to realize there is more to love than he ever expected.

The depth of the author's research is clear in the many historical details, yet she manages to slip them into the narrative unobtrusively. Ms Delacroix has been writing novels set in the Middle Ages for many years and her comfort level is obvious. Though historical events don't play a huge role in this story, there is no doubt that it is set firmly in the medieval world. At several points in the story, Bayard sings a ballad, the story of Tristan and Iseult, based on two separate translations, including that of Beroul, who wrote in the 12th century. An interesting subplot involves Dame Fortune, who appears after one of the characters invokes her name.

All the characters are unique and well depicted, even the most minor ones. Ms. Delacroix's writing style is fluid and elegant, with just enough archaic language to give a medieval flavour without overwhelming. There is also a supernatural element to the story, handled deftly by the author, adding to the fairy-tale quality of the story.

I found little to criticize as I read the book in two sittings. If the pace lagged a couple of times, specifically with a very minor subplot concerning the romance of Esmeraude's younger sister, it did little to detract from the book's overall appeal.

Fans of the romance genre looking for a well-written, literate tale would do well to pick up The Temptress.


This review first appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of The Ricardian Register.
© Teresa Eckford, 2002

Review - The Clerk's Tale by Margaret Frazer

This latest entry in the Dame Frevisse mystery series does not disappoint. Once again Margaret Frazer plots an intriguing mystery for her crime-solving nun to investigate. Dame Frevisse and her superior, Domina Elisabeth arrive at St. Mary's priory in Berkshire shortly after a royal official has been found dead in the infirmary's garden. Master Montfort was not popular and several people have motives. Soon Dame Frevisse, who knew and disliked Montfort when he was a crowner, finds herself drawn into finding the identity of the killer.
In typical Frazer fashion, interesting secondary characters abound, complicating the investigation, while the clerk of the title lends Dame Frevisse a helping hand. Many aspects of the medieval period come to life in this book with details that fascinate rather than overwhelm, while the mystery takes twists and turns along the way.
Dame Frevisse remains the quiet centre of the story, using her deductive powers to unravel the many tangled strands of the mystery. Somehow Frazer manages to add new dimensions to Frevisse's character with each outing, not an easy feat for a series writer.
If you love medieval mysteries, this one should not disappoint.

Teresa Basinski Eckford
This review first appeared in a 2001 issue of The Historical Novels Review