Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Review - Before Versailles by Karleen Koën

The Sun King, "L'état, c'est moi." Versailles...These are the first three things that come to mind where Louis XIV of France is concerned. But what about before he became the all-powerful monarch? Karleen Koën's fourth novel, Before Versailles, published this month in trade paperback by Sourcebooks, focusses on five months of the young king's life during the spring and summer of 1661, soon after he began his personal rule. Until then his mother, Anne of Austria (a Spanish princess) had been regent, guided by Cardinal Mazarin.

In May of 1661, Louis had been married to Maria-Teresa of Spain for almost a year and she was pregnant with his first child. The court was at Fontainebleu and had recently welcomed Louis' cousin and sister-in-law, Henriette, sister of Charles II of England. Into this glittering company came a young, impoverished noblewoman, Louise de la Baume le Blanc, to serve as one of Henriette's maids of honour. It is through her eyes that Koën tells the story.

An innocent in many ways, Louise is thrilled to have escaped the boredom of the Orléans household, in which she had served, to join the court of the young king. Soon she is caught up in the intrigue and jealousies of the king, his brother, his sister-in-law and the young queen. Additionally, she encounters a strange young man in an iron mask and seeks to learn his identity and the reason his face is kept hidden.

Counselling her are her cousin, François-Timoléon de Choisy and her friend Fanny de Montalais, another maid of honour. As the summer progresses, Louise finds herself drawn into a relationship with the king after confiding in him about the boy in the mask. Their love blossoms, but remains hidden from the prying eyes at court, while at the same time Louis grasps the reins of power for himself, seeking to eliminate all those who challenge him.

Known for her dedication to period detail and tight plotting, Ms. Koën has produced a masterpiece of historical fiction. The story starts slowly, introducing characters and laying the groundwork for a multi-threaded story that culminates in Louis' independence from all who seek to control him. By a third of the way through the book, the reader is reluctant to put it down as Louise and Louis begin their inexorable dance towards each other.

But it is more than the love story that entices, it's the brilliant portrayal of a court full of so many undercurrents it's amazing its inhabitants don't drown. Add in the smallest attention to dress, food, flora, fauna, architecture and social history, and it is little wonder that dedicated readers of historical fiction rave about Ms. Koën's work.

I loved her characterization of Louis XIV, as a young man transforming himself into the Sun King, taking control of his government, yet still maintaining some sense of himself as just a man, caught in a situation over which he has little control - married to a woman he doesn't love and whose destiny it is to rule a kingdom.

Louise also stands out, growing in confidence and maturity as she navigates the increasingly dangerous waters of a court obsessed with power and position. A typical teenaged girl of the time, she swings between poor judgement in some situations and acts of genuine empathy - it is easy to see why Louis is drawn to her. She is not perfect, nor does she behave like the more experienced women at court who sacrifice their souls to achieve power and wealth.

The supporting characters also shine, from the child-like queen to Viscount Nicholas, from Louis' brother Philippe to his mother's former lady-in-waiting, the Duchess de Chevreuse. Each has a role to play that adds to the story's depth without detracting from the central plot.

I did notice that on a few occasions Ms Koën hints to the reader of what will happen to certain characters beyond the scope of the book. This sporadic use of the omniscient pov would, in the hands of a less experienced writer, prove annoying and distracting, yet her skill is such that those passages fit naturally into the narrative.

Ultimately, what makes this work a successful and enthralling piece of historical fiction is the absolute sense of place and the believability of the characters and their mindset. Their motivations rang true and it was easy to get caught up in their lives, so easy, in fact, that I was disappointed when I reached the final chapter. This book is a veritable feast for anyone interested in 17th century France and its star, Louis XIV.

Teresa Basinski Eckford

This review first appeared on my Thoughts from Lady Tess blog on September 20, 2012

Review - Staying at Daisy's by Jill Mansell

One of the reasons I love Jill Mansell's book so much is her characters. She really makes you care about them and  Daisy MacLean is no exception in Mansell's latest Sourcebooks release, Staying at Daisy's. A young widow who runs a hotel owned by her father, Daisy fights her attraction to a guest at a recent wedding reception, the charming rugby star, Dev Tyzack. The development of their relationship is the core of the story, but Ms. Mansell's subplots are another of her strengths. They feature an endearing mix of characters, each of whom is caught up in romantic circumstances fraught with complications, from Daisy's friend Tara, who is having an affair with her now married former boyfriend, to young Barney, recipient of one of Daisy's late husband's kidneys, each has a part in this enjoyable and heartwarming tale of love and life.

The area of Bristol is familiar territory for fans of Ms. Mansell, and once again she depicts it so effectively that the reader is left with a feeling of having actually walked beside the characters throughout the story and breathed the same air they did. The hotel is a character in itself, charming and a welcome refuge for its many guests.

The plot and subplots move along smoothly, integrated so well that when the many threads come together towards the end of the book, the conclusion feels natural. There are plenty of surprises along the way, as well as a fun storyline featuring a dog named Clarissa. While there is much to enjoy in this novel, there is a serious undertone that gives it depth, as several characters must face some truths about themselves and the way they've chosen to live their lives. Daisy especially has to decide whether to hold on to the past or let it go and begin anew with a man who appears ready to dedicate himself to her and her alone. They never fail to make me care and, dare I say it, even grow a little along with her characters .

So, for those of you who are looking for an entertaining, emotionally satisfying read, I highly recommend you seek out Staying at Daisy's.

Teresa Basinski Eckford

This review first appeared on my Thoughts from Lady Tess blog on April 12, 2011

Review - To Defy a King by Elizabeth Chadwick

Each and every time I read a book by Elizabeth Chadwick I am certain she has written the perfect book that cannot be topped. And each and every time I read her next book, I find I am wrong. Such is the case, once again, with To Defy a King, published this month by Sourcebooks Landmark. Twenty years ago, Ms. Chadwick won the Betty Trask award and launched her historical fiction career. Since then she has moved from strength to strength, especially over the last few years with her novelized accounts of the lives of real people who played their parts in the history of medieval England.

In To Defy a King, the author weaves a rich tapestry from many threads, recounting some of the most important years in the life of Mahelt Marshal, daughter of the famed knight and warrior, William Marshal. Married while still a girl to a man ten years her senior, Mahelt leaves a household where she is loved and where her mother is respected for her brain as well as her lands and child-bearing, and finds herself at the mercy of her strict father-in-law, Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk. Fortunately, her husband does not share his father's opinion of women and soon they form a strong, loving bond that will be tested time and time again as Mahelt finds herself torn between loyalty to her family and loyalty to her husband.

England in the early 13th century is ruled by King John, a ruthless man who takes what he perceives to be his and proves an intractable enemy, especially when thwarted. His barons grow increasingly unhappy and many rebel, seeking to force some form of restraint on their sovereign. It is against this background that Mahelt and Hugh build their marriage, only to see it threatened by a mistake in judgement that ends with their son as a hostage.

The heart of this book is Mahelt, a woman true to her time, yet still strong and vibrant, and far from perfect. That is part of her charm - she makes mistakes and proves to be headstrong and stubborn. Hugh is a more than a match for her, honourable and strong, but also a fallible man forced at times to choose between his wife and his filial and political obligations. Together they pick their way along a treacherous path that could see them lose all in order to stand up to a man they believe is not fit to rule.

Far from being overshadowed by Mahelt and Hugh, the other central characters are equally well depicted, with their own strengths and foibles. One of Ms. Chadwick's many talents is the ability to create concurrent supporting storylines which complement the main plot while also following their own arcs. My favourite one is that which follows Hugh's tense relationship with his half-brother, William, Earl of Salisbury, who is also half-brother to the king, illustrating as it does the rivalries and jealousies that exist between men who want to like each other but can't.

As always, the historical background is impeccable, full of glorious detail. Ms. Chadwick has a knack for knowing exactly which historical tidbits to highlight in order to paint for her reader a living picture of the past. Without resorting to gadzookery, she imbues her dialogue and narrative with medieval words and cadences that sound natural, drawing her reader ever deeper into a near perfect recreation of the turbulent era.

The further I read into this wonderful novel, the harder it was for me to pull myself away. So when you curl up with it, be sure you have a few hours to won't regret.

Teresa Basinski Eckford

This review first appeared on my Thoughts from Lady Tess blog on March 20, 2011

Review - The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

For years, Ms. Kearsley has enthralled readers with her tales of love set in the past and the present, in which her characters experience time travel through a variety of means. Her most recent book, The Winter Sea, published in the US by Sourcebooks in December, first appeared in the UK two years ago under the title Sophia's Secret. It is another fine example of her talent for transporting her readers to times past and holding them there, wishing the story wouldn't end.

Historical novelist Carrie McLelland travels to Scotland to do research on her latest novel set during the attempted invasion by the Old Pretender, James VIII, in 1708. Once there, she experiences deja vu and decides to take a cottage in the village nearby Slains Castle, the setting for her book. Her story flows from her fingertips, both exciting and frightening her. Not only has she not ever written so quickly, but she discovers she knows details of the period and its events she has never researched. And once the story starts to emerge, she finds she can't stop it, not even when she meets a local historian who has her questioning her nomadic lifestyle. It soon becomes clear that somehow she has tapped into the memory of her ancestress, Sophia Paterson.

Scotland past and present comes vividly alive in this superior piece of historical fiction - the rugged countryside, salty sea air and rich heritage are the perfect setting for this tale of love, loss and destiny. Carrie and Sophia are both engaging heroines, lively, impulsive and determined to follow their hearts, while the men they love, Graham and John prove to be heroes in every way. The secondary characters, from old Jimmy and his vain son Stuart to the Dowager Countess of Errol and the treacherous Duke of Hamilton, add depth to the plot without overwhelming the central stories. For those who love historical detail, there is plenty of it to revel in, yet never does it appear to be too much or smack of history lectures. Readers will find themselves flipping the pages eagerly, desperate to find out what happens next.

If you're a fan of historical fiction, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Winter Sea, curling up in a chair and losing yourself in it. You won't regret it.
Teresa Basinski Eckford

This review first appeared on my Thoughts from Lady Tess blog on November 30, 2010

Review - The Making of a Gentleman by Shana Galen

The Making of a Gentleman is the second in Shana Galen's Sons of the Revolution series and picks up the story a few months after Book One, The Making of a Duchess (which I reviewed in June) concluded. Readers of Book One will remember that Julien needed to rescue his brother Armand, who'd been locked away in a French prison for twelve years. As a result of his imprisonment, he has lost the ability to speak and interact with polite society, so Julien and Sarah decide to hire someone to help him. What they don't tell Felicity Bennett, a well-educated woman in need of a position, is that her pupil is a grown man. Felicity has a secret of her own - a reprobate betrothed who is blackmailing her to free her from their marriage agreement.

Their first meeting leaves them both shaken, but drawn to each other and Felicity decides to stay to help Armand, despite his peculiar ways and haunted aspect. For his part, Armand finds Felicity is the one person who can touch him without pain and soon finds himself needing to be with her as much as possible. When a threat from his past resurfaces, he is even more desperate to protect this woman who is helping to free him from the prison of his mind. But will her past be the undoing of them both?

As with Making of a Duchess, Ms. Galen has brought together an engaging heroine and a tortured but noble hero in a rivetting story with lots of twists and turns. The setting is impeccable, with just the right amount of detail while the characters, major and minor, sparkle. It's wonderful to see Julien and Sarah's relationship continue, yet they don't overwhelm the developing romance between Armand and Felicity. The pacing is perfect as the narrative moves between Armand and Felicity and the subplots involving their secrets.

My only quibble is that one plot point involving Felicity drags on for just a little too long, but this was merely a minor annoyance as the rest of the story is fresh, intriguing and full of the right combination of romance and adventure. This book was a delight from start to finish and I can hardly wait to read the concluding volume which promises to bring all three brothers together again. I highly recommend that fans of historical romance find and read this book.

Teresa Basinski Eckford

This review first appeared on my Thoughts from Lady Tess blog on October 10, 2010

Review - The Dark Rose by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

While reading this second book in the Morland Dynasty saga, I remembered why I got hooked on the series the first time I read it almost thirty years ago - the characters. The Dark Rose carries on the story of Robert and Eleanor's brood, focussing on their great-grandson Paul and great-great grand-daughter, Anne, know as Nanette. Paul is married to a woman he does not love and finds happiness in the arms of another, who gives him a son out of wedlock with whom he has a trouble relationship while Nanette goes to Court and serves both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Parr, sharing in their tragic lives. The lives of the other members of the family are interwoven into the story.

As with The Founding, there is lots of historical detail and the characters observe and particpate in some of the major events of the Tudor period, including Henry VIII's split with the Catholic Church, the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the resulting Pilgrimage of Grace. Once again, Ms. Harrod-Eagles captures the period atmosphere, especially the social and political tensions, yet her story does not come across as a history lesson. Instead it unfolds at a absorbing pace that keeps the reader turning the pages, eager to know what happens next.

Paul himself is not the most endearing of characters, yet this is another of the author's strengths - making us care about people who have characters flaws. His son Adrian is even more difficult, yet again, the reader has some sympathy for him, despite his less than stellar nature. Nanette's story is one that many women from the higher classes during that period experienced seeing the Tudor court from the female point of view is always interesting and she is very engaging and believable. Even Henry VIII is portrayed as a real flesh and blood person and not as the caricature he has become for so many who think of him only as a fat old man who cut off the heads of his wives.

I read this book in less than a week, and loved being swept away by the Morland family and their story and when I closed it, I was eager to start the next one in the series. So why not pick up up The Dark Rose this month from Sourcebooks Landmark and, like me, lose yourself in this wonderful work of historical fiction.

Teresa Basinski Eckford

This review first appeared on my Thoughts from Lady Tess blog on July 8, 2010

Review - The Making of a Duchess by Shana Galen

It's always refreshing to read a historical romance set in a slightly different time period. Published this month by Sourcebooks, Shana Galen's The Making of a Duchess is set in 1801 England, after the Treaty of Amiens that saw a temporary cessation of the Napoleonic Wars. Sarah Smith, a governess, is horrified when her employer proposes she spy for England, but when he threatens to turn her out onto the streets, she agrees. Sent to the home of Julien Harcourt, duc de Valère, a French emigré, she poses as Serafina Artois, a friend of the duc's family who no-one has seen since before the Revolution. The Foreign Office suspects Harcourt is carrying English secrets to his homeland on his frequent journeys across the Channel and Sarah must find proof. In reality, Julien is searching for his long-lost brother, Armand, who he and his mother were forced to leave behind when they fled their home during a peasant uprising in 1789.

Julien's mother hopes for a match between Serafina and her son and is delighted by the young woman who arrives, but begins to suspect there is more to the situation when Sarah's social gaffes mount. Nervous that she'll be caught and unprepared for the many social situation she faces, Sarah works quickly to find the necessary information that will set her free. But when she and Julien are caught in a compromising situation and marriage is called for, Sarah learns her employer expects her to follow through. What will her new husband think when he learns he has married an orphaned governess? And when she learns that Julien is no spy, can she work with him to outwit her employer? Or will they both perish?

Ms. Galen has fashioned a believable love story between two sympathetic characters. Though I found the story a bit slow to get going, once Sarah and Julien started working together and fighting their attraction for each other, I was hooked. Julien is a perfect hero - handsome, kind and considerate, yet tortured enough to have a dark side he can't always control. Sarah is more than a match for him, quickly overcoming her inital intimidation to stand up to him. Her character development from nervous young woman to confident duchess is delightful to follow. They soon learn that together they are stronger and their love for each other is genuine and brought to life vividly.

I loved the historical details, the social interactions at the various public events Sarah and Julien attend and the steadily increasing pace of the story as pressure mounts on Sarah and Julien to prove his innocence. But what I appreciated most was the author's skill at advancing the story without falling back on clichéd devices. At one point I thought for certain she would go one way with the plot and was so happy when she chose instead to go with a more believable way that did justice to her protagonists. Also, there are a couple of little plot points that I figured out quite early, but this did not detract from the story and my feeling is the author meant for her readers to make these discoveries well before her characters do.

So if you love well-written, historical romance with lots of detail, interesting and engaging characters and plots with twists and turns, I highly recommend you pick up The Making of a Duchess.

Teresa Basinski Eckford

This review first appeared on my Thoughts from Lady Tess blog on June 1, 2010

Review - Rumor has it by Jill Mansell

Are you looking for a good beach read this summer? If so, you can do no better than Jill Mansell's Rumor has it (Sourcebooks Landmark), in which the heroine, Tilly Cole learns that what you hear isn't always the truth. Having been dumped by her boyfriend, she decides to up sticks and move from London to rural Gloucestershire to be near her best friend, consignment shop owner, Erin. To support herself, she takes a job as a personal assistant to Max, an interior designer with a precocious teenager, Louisa and a devastatingly handsome best friend named Jack Lucas. Jack has a reputation as a ladies man and Tilly has no intention of adding herself to his list of conquests, but circumstances throw them together, allowing her to see a different side of him. Soon she finds herself fighting her attraction to a man everyone tells her will break her heart even as he proves himself to be more than a shameless womanizer.

There are several sub-plots featuring Tilly's friend Erin, her boss Max and his former wife and a hunky teacher at Louisa's school. They add depth to the story without overwhelming the main plot, while reflecting the overall theme of appearances not always reflecting the truth. Ms. Mansell's talent lies in her ability to create quirky, sympathetic and compelling characters about whose fate the reader cares and creating storylines for them that highlight their particular personal journeys. Serving as background, small-town life is portrayed in all its gossipy yet close-knit glory, with just enough physical detail to ground it in reality. I could see the pub, the country lanes and Jack's house in my mind while I read.

Ms. Mansell's accomplished prose strikes just the right balance of narrative and dialogue. North American readers will occasionally encounter British expressions they don't understand, though in general the context makes the meaning clear enough. The story moves along quickly, as Tilly's dilemma deepens and her friends find themselves equally challenged by life's unexpected twists and turns. Are some of the situations in which our heroine finds herself a little far-fetched? Sure! But that's the fun of fiction.

As with other works by Ms. Mansell, I read this one almost compulsively, always reluctant when forced to set it aside to tend to the more mundane aspects of my life. Here's hoping you get to lose yourself in it on a gorgeous sunny day, when you have nothing but time to indulge in a moreish book.

Teresa Basinski Eckford

This review first appeared on my Thoughts from Lady Tess blog on April 28, 2010

Review - The Founding by Cynthia Harrod Eagles

This classic in the historical fiction genre, the first in a series ranging from the 15th through the 20th centuries, is being re-released by Sourcebooks thirty years after it was first published in the UK. I read at least the first 10 books in the series during my teens, so was eager to revisit it when given the chance to review the Sourcebooks edition.

It was all I remembered. Rich in historical details, populated by compelling and very real characters and a true page-turner. Set in Yorkshire, The Founding begins with the marriage of Robert Morland and Eleanor Courteney. She is a reluctant bride, already half in love with Richard, the dashing Duke of York. He is the sole heir to his father's Yorkshire holding, built up by hard work and determination. Though the match falters at first, with Eleanor determined not to give in to her lowered circumstances and Richard too shy to stand up to his formidable bride, soon enough they come to an understanding and settle into a comfortable marriage.

Within a few years they have a brood of children, a burgeoning wool business bolstered by Eleanor's ambition and torn loyalties as the Wars of the Roses begin. Though a Lancastrian by virtue of her Beaufort guardians, Eleanor's true allegiance is to the House of York. Soon enough they both have to choose once and for all which side they will support. That decision does not come without a price as battles ensue, leading to losses on both sides.

Eleanor is the heart of this story, her strength and resilience are what holds the family together. But the secondary characters, especially Richard, are equally well-drawn and central to the appeal of this book. Ms. Harrod-Eagles makes you care about them and their lives. There is much to both cheer for and shed tears for as Eleanor and Richard's children, grand-children and great-grandchildren come of age in an era well-known for its political and social turmoil.

Fans of historical fiction will delight in the many small details of every-day life woven into the narrative. I especially liked the portrayal of religious devotion as something natural and matter-of-fact.

On a few occasions the prose does seem a little stilted, but for the most part it pulls the reader into the story and moves along at a comfortable pace. The main characters participate in many of the central historical events of the period, ensuring that for the most part the reader experiences them rather than just hearing a recitation of facts. Only once does the author slip in this, with the events surrounding the seizure of the young king by the Duke of Gloucester. Even so, she is a skilled enough writer to pull off this "info dump" with aplomb. Overall I was transported back in time and was disappointed when this volume of the series reached its conclusion.

For those with an interest in medieval history, be aware that this is a very Yorkist story, with a sympathetic portrayal of Richard III and his reign. If you are partial to the Beaufort/Tudor side of the story, this might not be the book for you. However, you will miss out on one of the true cornerstones of historical fiction of the late 20th century. I look forward to rereading more of the Morland saga in the coming years.

Teresa Basinski Eckford

This review first appeared on my Thoughts from Lady Tess blog on March 25, 2010

Review - Pendragon's Banner by Helen Hollick

Let me begin this review by saying that over the last two decades or so, I've not read much Arthurian fiction (unlike my husband) - mostly because I hate the ending of the story, however, I could not pass up the opportunity to review the middle book of Helen Hollick's Arthurian trilogy, Pendragon's Banner, published by Sourcebooks Landmark. And I'm very glad I did. Ms. Hollick's fresh take on the story has all the familiar elements, along with some new twists.

Set three years after Arthur has been declared king, Pendragon's Banner focusses on his efforts to maintain his rule, in the face of treachery and plotting by Morgause and the jealousy of those over who he now rules. Rebellion flares in different parts of the kingdom and Arthur must find a way to defeat his enemies without losing the love and loyalty of Gwenhyfar.

I will admit it took me a few chapters to become fully engaged in the story, but once I was, I had to keep reading. Ms. Hollick's pacing is ideal, her writing vivid and engrossing as she draws you back through the ages to an era of violence, danger and lust for power. Her world-building is subtle, yet effective, with well-placed historical details and just the right combination of modern and period language without descending into the dreaded gadzookery.

Her characters are full of life and well-drawn, real people rather than stereotypes. Arthur especially impressed me, being such a difficult character to write. A legend based on a historical character, he is the hero of the story, yet still a man - balancing the two sides cannot be easy, yet I was able to cheer for him because he was first and foremost a man of his era. A good man, yes, but no saint, one who had to make difficult decisions and face the consequences. His love for Gwenhyfar is genuine, yet true to his era, he does not remain faithful to her.

Gwenhyfar too is a complex character, a woman in love, a mother, a sister and a queen. Through difficult circumstances she must play each role with care and Ms. Hollick's portrayal is both deft and convincing. I had little trouble believing in the different sides to Arthur's consort and genuinely enjoy her role as both his greatest supporter and biggest challenger.

The secondary characters are equally convincing, even Morgause who is truly evil. In the hands of a less sure author she could have degenerated into the female equivalent of the moustache-twirling villain, yet she does not, a sure sign of skilled characterization. The only character who did not really resonate for me was Morgaine, and that may be because her time to shine will come in Book Three.

What affected me the most was the intensity of the story. At times I did have to put the book down (though it still only took me about six evenings to finish) because I was so overwhelmed I could not continue. It's often said you don't ever want a reader to put a book down, but I think, as both a reader and a writer, that it's a testament to the writer's talent if the reader becomes so involved emotionally that they need to take a break. Even more telling is that when I finished this book, I wanted to read the third as well, regardless of my aforestated misgivings about reading Arthur's story.

So if you're looking for a new series about King Arthur, I highly recommend you pick up that by Ms. Hollick. I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Teresa Basinski Eckford

This review first appeared on my Thoughts from Lady Tess blog on November 8, 2009

Review - Every Secret Thing by Emma Cole/Susanna Kearsley

Journalist Kate Murray is surprised when a man approaches her on a London street, saying they need to meet and talk about a long-ago murder. She's even more surprised when he tells her she has her grandmother's eyes. Minutes later, he is dead, the victim of a hit-and-run.

Spurred into action, Kate decides she must find out what murder he was referring to and how he knew her grandmother. But after the old man's nephew, then her own grandmother are killed, she realizes things are more complicated than she'd thought. On the run and in disguise, she heads to Portugal, where the man's past lies, tied up with the British Secret Service and war-time espionage.

I LOVED this book. It was one of those I didn't want to end. The mystery is deftly plotted, with plenty of twists and turns while Ms. Cole's multi-dimensional characters, past and present, keep the plot moving at a swift pace without sacrificing depth. War-time New York and Lisbon are brought to life with just the right amount of period detail. The contemporary settings, including Toronto and Whitby, ring equally true.

Kate is a believable heroine, well-motivated and easy to cheer for as she unravels the past while trying to keep herself alive. Deacon, her mysterious informant, is gradually revealed as a man of integrity and loyalty, one who made a supreme sacrifice for the woman he loved.

I think what impressed me most, though, was the way the author dropped subtle hints throughout the story. Some of them I picked up on, others I didn't. It was a fascinating read, trying to keep up with the various threads and waiting for the next clue to be revealed. At one point near the end, a big coincidence threatened to pull me out of the story, only to be explained in a unique and plausible manner, another testament to the writer's talent.

The movement from present to the past and back was handled deftly, told through the eyes of several different characters. A lesser author might not have been able to handle such a device, but Ms. Cole succeeded brilliantly. Each was distinct and added key elements to the plot.

I highly recommend this novel to anyone who loves mysteries, stories set in WWII or just a damn good read. A copy will most certainly find its way onto my Keeper Shelf, alongside my other SK titles. In fact,
I'm now reading the latest book by Ms. Cole's alter-ego. The opening chapters of The Winter Sea promise another enthralling read from this talented Canadian author.

Teresa Basinski Eckford

This review first appeared on my Thoughts from Lady Tess blog on October 15, 2008

Review - March by Geraldine Brooks

Readers of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women will remember that throughout the classic tale of four young girls growing up during the Civil War, the father is absent. In her book, Ms. Brooks imagines what his life was like while he was away from his family, serving as an army chaplain. We meet him following a major battle, during which he tried, but failed, to save the life of a young soldier. Wracked by guilt, he goes in search of those who survived, only to discover his unit has taken shelter in a house he first visited as a young, and very different, man.

This revelation precipitates the first of many flashbacks, in which we learn about how he made and lost a fortune, met and fell in love with Marmee and the work they did in support of the Abolitionist cause. The flashbacks are interspersed with his narrative about his work on a Union protected plantation being run by a Northerner employing freed slaves, where he teaches the workers to read.

We also watch as he struggles to write letters home without revealing the horrors of his situation and how he tries to comes to terms with certain actions he committed in his past. The story intersects with the events in Little Women from time to time. Seeing Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy from another point of view is fascinating, as are the glimpses of a very different Marmee from the one created by LMA.

March himself is loosely based on Louisa's own father, Bronson Alcott (Little Women was semi-autobiographical), though his occupation as a chaplain is purely fictional. Having read bios of LMA and some of her non-fiction, I recognized those elements while reading the novel.

Her descriptive prose and natural dialogue ring true to the period while the balance of past and present is superb. Flashbacks can dominate a book, yet hers only serve their intended purpose, adding depth to an already complex and tormented protagonist.

Nor does she stint on historical detail - especially in the battle and hospital scenes. Readers with a weak stomach have thus been warned, but I urge to you forge ahead with this book regardless. The violence and gore are never gratuitous and are in fact necessary to experience the full power of the story.

If you're looking for an absorbing read, full of history and human emotion, pick up this book and lose yourself in it.

Teresa Basinski Eckford

This review first appeared on my Thoughts from Lady Tess blog on July 29, 2008

Review - The Time Thief by Linda Buckley-Archer

Second in the The Gideon Trilogy, The Time Thief also works well as a stand alone novel. As a fan of time travel books, I was eager to read this one and am glad that I did. Twelve year old Kate has just arrived back from 1763 England, where she and her friend Peter were trapped. Though happy to be home, she is torn by the fact she promised Peter she'd never leave him. But he was left behind when the evil Tar Man hitched a ride with her to the 21st century.

Determined to rescue her friend, she convinces his father to help her and together they journey to the 18th century. Unbeknownst the them, the settings have been changed and they end up in 1792, encountering a grown-up Peter, who hides his identity from them. Even worse, their time machine has been damaged and the one man who can help them is in Revolutionary France.

Adventure and intrigue abound as Kate, Peter and his father set out to find and ultimately rescue the scientist they believe capable of mending the machine even as the Tar Man adapts quickly to the 21st century and discovers the means of his transport from the past. Soon he schemes to use it to his advantage, putting into motion a series of events that threatens not only Kate and Peter, but their entire world.

Replete with historical detail and flavour, this book certainly does take the reader back in time. Kate is the heart of this story and will appeal to both girls and boys, while the plot twists and turns, keeping the pages turning at a remarkable pace. Readers young and old will thoroughly enjoy this rollicking tale of hide-and-seek through time.

© Teresa Eckford, 2008

This review first appeared in the May 2008 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - Bewitching Season by Marissa Doyle

This delightful debut by Marissa Doyle bodes well for her career as a writer of Young Adult novels. Set during the months just prior to Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne, Bewitching Season follows the adventures of apprentice witch Persephone Leland and her twin Penelope.

The girls' governess, Miss Allardyce, a powerful witch, disappears the week before the London Season begins, leaving the girls without her guidance during their coming out. Determined to find her, they join forces with their younger brother Charles, family friend Lochinavar Seton and the Allardyce family, on a search that leads them into the depths of Kensington Palace where they encounter an evil courtier with nefarious plans for Princess Victoria.

All the elements sure to appeal to teenage readers are here: a handsome young man, pretty dresses, balls and a mystery to solve. Add the historical setting, beautifully drawn with just the right amount of detail, and the romance, with the aforesaid handsome young man, and it's a hard tale to resist. The plot rolls along, alternating between the debutante balls and the gloomy palace.

Persephone is a wonderful heroine. Though talented at her studies, she lacks the confidence of her sister. Throughout the story she learns much about herself and those around her. This coming-of-age aspect adds depth to an already charming romp, broadening its appeal.

The other characters are equally appealing and well defined, firmly rooted in their era. I especially liked young Charles, who bounded along with just the right combination of enthusiasm and boyish charm.

From the very first page, this book had me hooked and it will join other favoured novels waiting to be shared with my nieces when they're older. Very highly recommended.

© Teresa Eckford, 2008

This review first appeared in the May 2008 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review -The Sixth Wife by Suzannah Dunn

Set during the reign of England’s Edward VI, Suzannah Dunn’s fictionalized account of the final two years of the life of Henry VIII’s last queen, Katharine Parr, is a delightful read. Told from the point of view of Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk, it follows Katharine’s marriage to Thomas Seymour through to its tragic end.

Catherine is a lively narrator who doesn’t hold back her opinions and finds herself drawn deeper into her closest friend’s life than she ever imagined. Through her, we see Katharine the Queen and Katharine the woman. But we also learn about court life, political intrigue and about Catherine herself, former ward of Henry’s younger sister, Mary.

Do not let the modern language fool you; this novel is steeped in history, with key period details adding depth and tantalizing glimpses of major historical figures of the era, including both Princess Elizabeth and Jane Grey. The characters are true to their times, drawing the reader into their lives as the story rolls along at a good pace.

It is a tale many readers know well, yet seeing through Catherine’s eyes makes it new and different. It is her story as much as the queen’s. Though not always a sympathetic protagonist, she is an effective one, giving the novel energy without overshadowing Katharine, its true heart. Together they dispel some of the myth of the oppressed woman in history, while at the same time reminding the reader that before modern medicine, childbirth was one of the most dangerous things a woman could experience, whether born well or not.

I found this book hard to put down, so ably did Ms. Dunn cast her literary spell. Readers who love the Tudor period, women’s history or just a jolly good yarn should pick up this splendid example of historical fiction.

© Teresa Eckford, 2008

This review first appeared in the May 2008 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

This wonderful gem has convinced me to put Geraldine Brooks’s other novels on my to-be-read list. Set both in the mid-1990s and during various other points in history (1940s Sarajevo, 19th-century Vienna, 17th-century Venice, 15th-century Tarragona, and 15th-century Seville), it tells the tale of a Haggadah saved by a Muslim librarian in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, and is based on an actual event.

Hanna Heath is the conservation expert sent to Sarajevo to restore the precious book. During her work she discovers artifacts caught in its pages and binding, sending her on a mission to discover its past. Interwoven with her quest are historical vignettes that illustrate how each of the recovered artifacts came to be part of the Haggadah.

While Hanna’s story is interesting, the lives from the past that we glimpse are the heart of this novel. Each one pulls us in, involves us and adds depth to the Haggadah’s history. From the young Jewish Sarajevan freedom fighter to the enslaved African painter, the characters and their stories come alive. As the book’s principal heroine, Hanna grows and changes, learning about her own past while uncovering the mysteries of the artifacts.

The historical details are plentiful and specific to each period, both enlightening and enriching. I learned so much reading this book, and it is clear Ms. Brooks did a great deal of research. The one slight quibble I had was that at times the scientific and technical details pulled me out of the narrative.

Delightful to read, Ms. Brooks’s prose will appeal to all readers with its easily accessible literary voice, employing period language that doesn’t overwhelm. She moves from first to third point of view, depending on the characters, yet the shifts are so effortless the reader barely notices.

An emotionally absorbing read, very highly recommended for all.

© Teresa Eckford, 2008

This review first appeared in the February 2008 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - The Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

This sequel to Ms Donnelly's first novel continues the story and fills in details of what happened to the brother of The Tea Rose's heroine, Charlie Finnegan. Set in early 20th century London, it also tells the story of aristocratic India Selwyn Jones, who defies her family and fiancé to pursue a career in medicine and practise in the slums of Whitechapel.
Charlie has become known as the notorious gangster Sid Malone, and though he plays the part with alacrity, deep down inside, he longs to escape the life. Circumstances bring Sid
and India together, sparking a romance that will force each of them to make changes in their lives neither ever imagined. Though it's the second in a proposed trilogy, it also stands alone. 
Fiona and Joe from The Tea Rose also appear frequently as Fiona continues her quest to reunite with her brother, over Joe's strenuous objections.

Rich in period detail, social history and remarkable characterization, Ms.Donnelly's fast-paced and engrossing book will have you turning the pages late into the night. Politics, love, hate and passion clash and carry the tale forward as Sid and India struggle to find a way to be together.

East London's notorious streets and grinding poverty are characters in their own right, taking the reader deep into the lives of those who ground out a life and living there.
Quality historical fiction that both entertains and informs is what every reader of the genre craves and this novel does both.

My one quibble is that India, like Fiona in the first book, is a little too perfect, which gets tiresome from time to time. However, the other strengths noted above more than make up for this and I highly recommend The Winter Rose to anyone who loves losing themselves a book.

Review - The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne

Set in 1802 France and England, this tale of espionage and passion has all the elements of a good historical romance. French spy Annique Villiers has a mission. So does Robert Grey, Head of Section for the British Secret Service. They meet in a dark prison cell and join forces to escape. Little does Annique know that Grey’s mission is to capture her for the information she holds. Their battle of wills soon becomes a battle of their hearts.

This debut novel is one many readers will enjoy. The heroine is spirited, the hero terse and tough, yet tender. Settings come alive and the action moves at a good pace, while secondary characters add depth without taking away from the protagonists. Various plot twists are incorporated with ease and believability.

All in all, a good read. I only wish I had enjoyed it more. The one element missing for me was any real understanding of the hero’s internal motivation and conflict. I never got a handle on him.

That said, his well-plotted, historically based novel is a nice change from the many Regency stories dominating the market.

© Teresa Eckford, 2007

This review first appeared in the February 2008 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Monday, October 01, 2012

Review - Desperate Duchesses by Eloisa James

Lady Roberta is determied to escape her unconventional life with her father and his mistress by marrying the Duke of Villiers. To that end she journeys to London to visit her distant cousin, in the hope she will bring her into Society. Jemma, a lady of scandal only recently returned from France, agrees. But it is her brother Damon who takes the most interest in Roberta, with predictable results.

A Shakespearian scholar in her other life, Eloisa James is an accomplished and witty novelist with a keen sense of character, pacing and romance. Roberta is no simpering miss while dashing Damon is delightfully direct in pursuit of his love, even as she insist she loves another. The secondary characters are equally unique, yet don't seem out of time for the period, which is depicted in all its decadence. A subplot about chess is well integrated into the main story.

Though Roberta's devotion to the cold, pompous Villiers grated, there was little else to detract from pure enjoyment in this sparkling tale of love set in Georgian London. Highly recommended.

© Teresa Eckford, 2007

This review first appeared in the November 2007 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - The Spy Wore Silk by Andrea Pickens

Set in Regency London, Ms. Pickens' first book in a series about female spies trained by the government follows Sienna, a former London street urchin as she searches for a traitor amongst the members of The Gilded Page Club, a group of male book collectors. Her most obvious suspect proves to be her most valuable ally.

Ms. Pickens is a talented writer. Her characters are real, the setting is beautifully drawn with just the right amount of historical detail while the dialogue snappy and period appropriate. Though a tad slow to start, the story itself soon moves along at a decent pace.

I did not, however, really enjoy the book as I found the plot and its various devices not particularly to my taste. There was too much focus on the sexual games the heroine played with those she was investigating, which somewhat diminished the developing love story. Nor could I truly accept the notion that the heroine and her fellow spies could be so adept at so many different accomplishments.

For readers of historical romance, however, who enjoy tales of fighting women and the men who love them, this book is worth adding to your reading list. © Teresa Eckford, 2007

This review first appeared in the May 2007 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - The Rules of Seduction by Madeline Hunter

This engaging novel, set during the reign of George IV, features an honour-bound hero and a penniless heroine, brought together in a marriage of convenience after his aunt buys her family's home.

As always, Ms. Hunter has woven a lively and engaging tale of love full of plot twists and brimming with sparkling dialogue. Hayden and Alexa spar verbally as they fall in love, each working to overcome believable barriers to their happy ending. They are far from stereotypical, each with strengths and weaknesses. Of special note was Alexa's side career as a milliner, an element that added depth to both her character and the story. The secondary characters are equally well realized, with stories of their own, yet never do they threaten to overshadow the protagonists.

Georgian England is well depicted, brought to life with small details and carefully chosen prose evoking the era, while providing a lively backdrop for the well-paced story of romance, mystery and a touch of humour. I laughed out loud on several occasions.

Fans of historical romance would do well to pick up this delightful novel and make room for it on their keeper shelf. I know it will reside on mine.

© Teresa Eckford, 2006

This review first appeared in the February 2007 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - A Day of Small Beginnings by Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum

In early twentieth century Poland, Itzik, a young Jewish boy kills a Polish Catholic and runs to the graveyard for cover. There he wakens the spirit of a childless woman who vows to protect him. She helps him travel to Warsaw, then America where he marries and has a family. Years later his son Nathan and granddaughter, Ellen return to Poland for both business and personal reasons, where they learn about what drove their Itzik to his new life and the reasons behind his rejection of his religion. Friedl's spirit is present throughout, a linking element that helps Nathan and Ellen understand their faith and the past.

I found this book difficult to read at times because the paranormal component overwhelmed a little too much at the beginning and then later, because the son's story moved quite slowly, with lots of dialogue that went over the same ground. Once the author moved into Ellen's story, it became easier, both because the characters were more sympathetic and because there was more action. In the end, the story came full circle, wrapping up in a satisfying way.

On a wholly positive note, the author's setting is vibrant and detailed, taking the reader to Warsaw, Krakow and the countryside in between. Her voice is quite unique and at times the prose is a little passive, but at others quite poetic. Her descriptions of the sights, sounds and tastes of Poland, especially the architecture, music and the food work well for the most part, especially as they're seen through the characters' eyes as they come face to face with their heritage.

Readers of Eastern European ancestry will find this intriguing novel of special interest, but anyone searching for something different yet engrossing might want to add this title to their To be Bought list.

© Teresa Eckford, 2006

This review first appeared in the February 2007 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - Queen Of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore To The French Revolution by Caroline Weber

This biography with a twist follows the life of Marie Antoinette from her childhood in Austria to her execution in France, concentrating on how she influenced clothing and fashion during her reign.

Weber supports her engaging narrative with plenty of primary source material, bringing the French court to life from the socially inept young Louis to the charming Fersen and the queen's favorites.

But Antoinette dominates the story, coming into her own during the Revolution as she fights to keep her family alive, refusing to bow to those determined to rid the country of the monarchy. It's clear that, while attempting to present the facts in a neutral manner, Weber sympathizes with the queen, as evidenced by her many references to the dirty clothing of the sans culottes.

As I had an Advanced Reading Copy in which the colour plates weren't provided, my enjoyment was somewhat diminished - seeing the plates would have been helpful, as Weber refers to them often.

While left-learning students of the Revolution might find the book too Royalist for their liking, those interested in Antoinette and her life will likely enjoy this in-depth study of her life and influence on the world of fashion.

© Teresa Eckford, 2006

This review first appeared in the February 2007 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - Duchess: A Novel of Sarah Churchill by Susan Holloway Scott

This wonderful fictional biography of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, by Susan Holloway Scott, whisks the reader into a period rife with intrigue, love, sex, war and religious strife. Told through Sarah's eyes, Duchess: A Novel of Sarah Churchill, follows her life from her first days at court in the 1670s until her return from exile just before the death of Queen Anne in 1714.

There are so many reasons to recommend this book, from its myriad believable characters, ably drawn setting, polished and fluent prose, to its ability to totally immerse the reader in the past. We watch Sarah grow from a young woman of ambition and inner strength to a political and social leader at Queen Anne's court. Her success didn't come without sacrifice, petty rivalry or danger, especially when she and her husband throw their support behind the rebellion against James II. The reader experiences it all in glorious detail.

Ms. Scott's in-depth research is clear from her setting and plot, yet she doesn't overwhelm the reader with minutae, while her clear prose evokes the language of the period without falling into the realms of gadzookery. Readers will also find that the story moves along at a fine pace. Sarah recounts those events of most importance to her and it is interesting to note how she moves through time more quickly as her relationship with Anne begins to crumble.

What ties this book together, though, is the love match between Sarah and John. Despite many separations due to his military career and their somewhat divergent views on politics and child-raising, the reader never doubts the depth of their love and the strength it gives them, both individually and as a couple.

Readers looking for a true escape into the past will want to add this book to their collection and their keeper shelf.

© Teresa Eckford, 2006

This review first appeared in the November 2006 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - The Stone House Diaries by Robert C. Moore

In Robert C. Moore's second novel, he covers the history of Niagara Falls, NY from the turn of the nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries, using characters from several periods who have connections to a stone house and a diary written by one of its first inhabitants.

The first section is one of the longest, and is presented as the diary mentioned above, kept by a young man who enrols in the American army to fight in the War of 1812. From there we see the city change to tourist attraction, a source of power and finally, a city in decline fighting for renewal.

Though the author structures his novel well, his execution is lacking. The first part is violent with far too many military details for a general reader to appreciate. Further, he slips in and out of first person point of view, sometimes hopping back and forth between paragraphs. The later sections are told in third person, but the head hopping continues, breaking up the flow of the narrative.

The awkward prose, while very descriptive in places, slows the pace further. But by far the biggest problem with this novel is the characters. From the young infantryman who kills in cold blood to rid himself of a romantic rival to the 1960s disgraced soldier-turned-activist who then seems to learn nothing from his experience, the people brought to life in this novel lack true development.

I also found a significant historical error - the author seems under the impression Ottawa, Canada existed under that name in the early 1800s. It wasn't given that name until 1855 and during the war of 1812 it was a very small settlement indeed.

Alas, this book is one with limited appeal for those with a genuine interest in New York history.

© Teresa Eckford, 2006

This review first appeared in the November 2006 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - Against a Crimson Sky by James Conroyd Martin

In this sequel to Push Not the River, Martin continues the story of Anna Berezowska and her family as they struggle to survive the upheaval of the division of Poland and the Napoleonic Wars, plunging the reader into an era of violence, heartache and stolen moments of joy.

Early on, Anna marries Jan Stelnicki, her long-time love. Soon their happiness is shattered when he takes up arms in Napoleon’s army, leaving her at the mercy of a corrupt official who claims their son is at the centre of a Masonic plan to resurrect the Polish monarchy. This thread is central to the rest of the story and its many subplots, including one highlighting Anna’s ambitious cousin, Zofia Grońska, and Zofia’s lover, Paweł Potecki.

Martin’s main strength lies in his characters. Each one is a real person; even the less savoury ones have at least one redeeming feature. Anna and Zofia dominate the book, as well they should. In times of war, women must find inner strength to carry on with life at home or risk losing everything, and in this the cousins succeed.

Another of the author’s strengths is his ability to recreate the past. Never once did I question his setting, so convincingly does he blend period detail into the narrative. Though the pacing in the first part is rather slow, it picks up soon afterwards and never flags. I was busy flipping pages, eager to know what happened next. This despite the sometimes awkward prose and annoying tendency of main characters to address each other by their first names (something few of us do in everyday conversation). I also deplored the stock interpretation of Empress Josephine.

Those reservations aside, I believe readers will revel in this engrossing tale of courage, family loyalty, and the Polish nation.

© Teresa Eckford, 2006

This review first appeared in the August 2006 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart

Set in Ontario, Canada, Jane Urquhart’s latest novel is both contemporary and historical, though the rather disturbing prologue doesn’t make it clear in which period she is starting. Then we meet Jerome, a young photographer/artist living on Timber Island in Lake Ontario while working on a new project until a grisly discovery drives him from the island.
            A year later he encounters Sylvia, an unusual woman who has sought him out to ask about the corpse he found. Their meeting at first is tentative, but soon they bond in their quest to know more about the man whose life ended so hideously on the icy lake. Sylvia lends Jerome her late lover’s notebooks, which tell the story of Timber Island and the life of his ancestors.
            The reader then travels back in time to early 19th century rural Ontario and the busy timber trade. Andrew’s great-great grandfather built a booming business, but in many ways neglected his children and it’s their lives that touch us the most. The story then returns to the present and resumes its exploration of Sylvia and Jerome, bringing it to its conclusion.
            Ms. Urquhart’s simple yet elegant style paints vivid pictures in the reader’s mind, bringing both her characters and their settings alive. The protagonists also impress, with their unique traits and appealing personas.
            What gave me trouble was the feeling this was two books crammed into one. Sylvia’s story was most interesting, yet its conclusion left me feeling cheated, especially one twist that’s never fully explained. The historical storyline also feels rushed towards the end.
            None of this is to say the book isn’t worth reading. Ms. Urquhart has fashioned engrossing tales of love, loss and memory, ones that resonate. I only wish I could have read them as separate novels.

© Teresa Eckford, 2006

This review first appeared in the August 2006 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - By a Lady: Being The Adventures of an Enlightened American in Jane Austen’s England by Amanda Elyot

This time travel novel tells the tale of C.J. Welles, a New York City actress who is transported back to 1801 England when she steps backstage during an audition for a play about Jane Austen. There she meets with misfortune, from which she is rescued by a widowed countess who claims her as her niece. Throw in a handsome nobleman, his snobby aunt, and an appearance or two by Miss Austen herself, and the stage is set for romance and adventure.

While there is much to enjoy in this novel, including a tour of Georgian Bath and glimpses of future characters from Austen novels, I found the execution a little wanting. The point of view bounces from head to head, so often that at times I wasn’t sure who was telling the story. Add to that some kitchen sink plotting, more telling than showing, and a variety of historical inaccuracies. The latter were particularly frustrating, especially when the hero tells of his wife being sent to the Bastille in the 1790s – a little difficult, since it was destroyed during the summer of 1789.

C.J.’s hero, the Earl of Darlington, is likable enough, and it’s easy to understand their mutual attraction. The romance storyline works quite well, with enough believable conflict to make the reader root for the pair.

Despite its problems, I expect many readers will enjoy the world the author creates and appreciate the fish-out-of-water adventures of the 21st century heroine coping with early 19th century surroundings and attitudes. The story moves along at a good clip, the supporting cast is well-drawn, and there’s a fun twist at the end.

 © Teresa Eckford, 2006

This review first appeared in the May 2006 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Review - Per Olov Enquist's The Book about Blanche and Marie

Set in Paris during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this quiet novel is a work of art. With every word, every phrase, the author draws you deeper and deeper into the world of Blanche Wittman and Marie Sklodowska Curie.

Blanche was a young woman who first spent more than a decade in the Salpêtrière Hospital, where she served as a public model for Professor J.M. Charcot’s demonstrations of techniques to cure women of hysteria by hypnosis. After the professor’s death, she became Marie’s assistant in her lab, and fell victim to the radiation, resulting in multiple amputations.

The novel centres on notebooks belonging to Blanche, in which she explores the nature of love through her own and Marie’s experiences. But there is so much more. The author himself appears to be narrating much of the story, so we learn about his own life as well. He circles back to certain themes and incidents, slowly building to the resolution of a question raised in the mind of the reader early on. We meet a cast of interesting characters and become part of their world.

The story starts slowly enough, with the death of Blanche, then flashes back, with the aid of the notebooks, to tell how she came to live in an apartment with Madame Curie. From there the reader journeys through the hearts and souls of these women, neither of whom was lucky in love for more than a short time. Despite the pervading sadness, the narrative seduces the reader and celebrates the lives of two very unique women and their friendship.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

© Teresa Eckford, 2006

This review first appeared in the May 2006 issue of The Historical Novels Review

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Review - One Night of Scandal by Nicola Cornick

Widow Deborah Stratton needs a temporary fiancé to keep her father from forcing her to return home or marrying her to her cousin. Lord Richard Kestrel, sees a chance to win the fascinating woman hes since his disastrous offer the year before to make her his mistress.

In this second entry in her Bluestocking Brides trilogy, Nicola Cornick delivers another charming tale of love and intrigue in early 19th Century Suffolk. Richard is a spy, and soon he and Deb are caught up in they mystery of identifying the traitor in the Midwinter Villages, while Deb battles her desire for Richard, certain the secret she hides makes her unworthy to remarry.

Ms. Cornick's books are always an enjoyable read, and this one is no different from her delightful characters, believable setting, and page-turning pacing to the clever subplots running through the series. Without overwhelming minutiae, the author recreates the period and its society through small details and language. The romance itself is lovely the conflict is believable, and true to the period.Very highly recommended for those who love Georgian period romance.

© Teresa Eckford, 2006

This review first appeared in the February 2006 issue of The Historical Novels Review

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