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