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