Review: The Fortune Hunter

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


In 1875, Sisi, the Empress of Austria is the woman that every man desires and every woman envies. Beautiful, athletic and intelligent, Sisi has everything - except happiness. Bored with the stultifying etiquette of the Hapsburg Court and her dutiful but unexciting husband, Franz Joseph, Sisi comes to England to hunt. She comes looking for excitement and she finds it in the dashing form of Captain Bay Middleton, the only man in Europe who can outride her. Ten years younger than her and engaged to the rich and devoted Charlotte, Bay has everything to lose by falling for a woman who can never be his. But Bay and the Empress are as reckless as each other, and their mutual attraction is a force that cannot be denied. (from Goodreads)

I read and enjoyed Goodwin's previous novel "The American Heiress" and was very much looking forward to this novel, set in an unusual time period and about a historical figure who is never covered. The "peg" of this story is that the Empress Sisi was the Princess Diana of her day. Unfortunately, "The Fortune Hunter" provides only tantalizing glimpses of this sad, enigmatic figure in favor of a more traditional courtship plot. There are only occasional forays into the point of view of the Empress -we don't even see her at the end when everything has been resolved

I did speed through this book, enjoying the fast-narrative and Goodwin's ability to move among a wide range of character viewpoints. She has a wonderful feel for the passive-aggressive tone of society dialogue and I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes with Queen Victoria! You don't get to see her at this stage of her life very often in historical fiction. 

But I did not feel an emotional connection to any of the characters and was not convinced of their emotional connections with each other. The plot often feels as though it has been twisted to appeal to 21st century readers - from the cliche happy ending that feels unbelievable for such shallow, selfish people to the horribly stereotyped sassy gay best friend who props up the middle of the story.

I would recommend this novel to readers who are looking for a novel that is closer to historical romance than mainstream historical fiction. This reads as a romance that has a vague association with facts and uses the historical setting and figure as a jumping-off point for the story.

Disclaimer: I received an advance e-galley from the publisher for review. 

Review: A Triple Knot

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Joan of Kent, renowned beauty and cousin to King Edward III, is destined for a politically strategic marriage. As the king begins a long dynastic struggle to claim the crown of France, plunging England into the Hundred Years’ War, he negotiates her betrothal to a potential ally and heir of a powerful lordship. But Joan, haunted by nightmares of her father’s execution at the hands of her treacherous royal kin, fears the king’s selection and is not resigned to her fate. She secretly pledges herself to one of the king’s own knights, one who has become a trusted friend and protector. Now she must defend her vow as the king—furious at Joan’s defiance—prepares to marry her off to another man.  In A Triple Knot, Emma Campion brings Joan, the “Fair Maid of Kent” to glorious life, deftly weaving details of King Edward III’s extravagant court into a rich and emotionally resonant tale of intrigue, love, and betrayal.(from Goodreads)

Back in my early teens, the Middle Ages were my reading sweet spot and I was so familiar with the Plantagenets they felt like family! I had Sharon Kay Penman to thank for my obsession and soon enough I had read a novel for at least every royal wife and princess from about 1100 on through to the time of the Tudors. I know I must have read about Joan of Kent at some point. I mean, Jean Plaidy must have written about her - am I right?

A quick check reveals that yes, she did - a novel that spawned this classic cover:

I will admit to owning this!

Why am I going into my teenage obsession for the Plantagenets?

Because quite honestly, I think that those days are now gone. I thought it would be fun to return to those times and a chance to read A Triple Knot seemed like the perfect opportunity. Unfortunately, it did not grab and hold my interest. I found myself continually confused by all the Edwards and Phillipas - and that's never a good sign, given how many books I've read set in these times.

I really wanted to like Joan but she came across as a bit generic, a bit too much like the "childhood to old age" princesses I'd read about in so many other novels. Most of all, I was looking for a sense of the time or language that captured the feel of another world and I just didn't get that this time around.

These comments come with big disclaimers - one, I read this book during a crazy time at work so my brain was a lot more fried than when I was a teenager, sitting in my bedroom, chowing down on snacks and with all the time in the world to get lost in a book. Two, I burned out on princesses awhile ago - they lead fairly predictable lives. Campion does her very best in unraveling the hidden motivations and secrets behind Joan's marriages but it wasn't enough to keep me engaged.

So sadly, this book did not work out for me but I think it will work for many others looking for an introduction to Edward the Black Prince and Medieval marriage negotiations and gowns and Great Halls and all of those things I used to love about reading the Plantagenets.

Disclaimer: I received an advance e-galley from TLC Book Tours. 

Review: The Visitors

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Sent abroad to Egypt in 1922 to recover from the typhoid that killed her mother, eleven-year-old Lucy is caught up in the intrigue and excitement that surrounds the obsessive hunt for Tutankhamun's tomb. As she struggles to comprehend an adult world in which those closest to her are often cold and unpredictable, Lucy longs for a friend she can love. When she meets Frances, the daughter of an American archaeologist, her life is transformed. As the two girls spy on the grown-ups and try to understand the truth behind their evasions, a lifelong bond is formed. Haunted by the ghosts of her past, the mistakes she made and the secrets she kept, Lucy disinters her past, trying to make sense of what happened all those years ago in Cairo and the Valley of the Kings. And for the first time in her life, she comes to terms with what happened after Egypt, when Frances needed Lucy most.(from Goodreads)

Books like The Visitors are why I don't like assigning ratings in reviews. At various points, I could have rated this book two stars or four stars (on a scale of five). Nothing about this book really works like it should, the cover description is somewhat misleading, character motivations are not always consistent; there are at least three different novels stuffed into one and yet the book is overly long by a hundred pages or so. Did any of that affect my enjoyment of the book? Not at all. 

I have so many thoughts about this book that its difficult to know where to start. I suppose the most important part for potential readers to know is that while the book mainly focuses on the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, I wouldn't really say that the book is about that or even does a very good job of showing the reader the actual discovery. 

Beauman makes the odd choice of looking at that time through the eyes of 11-year old Lucy and in many ways, this choice boxes her in. We get a lot of background on Egyptology and the insular little world of British expariates in Egypt from Lucy and her friend Frances. The girl's observations are far, far too sophisticated for children of their age and the adults include them in parties and discussions in a way that I doubt would have actually happened in the 1920s. So we end up reading a lot of info-dump heavy conversations between people. That said, Beauman nails the feeling of a little world of upper-class people and their jealousies and small intruiges. I never bored of the tea parties and dinners and sailing on the Nile and felt like I was immersed in that world. 

Just when I started to feel comfortable, Beauman yanks Lucy out of Egypt and back to Cambridge to meet the woman who will become her new stepmother. This is more or less where Novel No. 2 begins - the story of a heartbroken girl  on the cusp of growing up and her difficult relationship with a young, replacement mother figure. Parts of their relationship worked for me but there were changes in the relationship that made no sense and happened far too quickly. But the little psychological details of the relationship and the barbed dialogue kept me engaged. This section reminded of a Sarah Waters novel - all oppressive, over-heated English houses and dark undercurrents of anger and jealousy. 

Then - once again - we're yanked back to Egypt and finally to the discovery of Tut's tomb in Novel No. 3. Unfortunately, Lucy only observes from afar when the tomb is finally discovered and I found myself longing to be in a novel narrated by Lady Evelyn, the daughter of Lord Carnarvon who financed the search for the tomb. She appears on the fringes of scenes but has a weighty emotional sub-plot that doesn't receive nearly enough attention. 

All of this related in flashback by an older Lucy in what is more or less Novel No. 4. In the beginning, she is clearly grappling with unpleasant memories and an unsavory secret related to the discovery of the tomb. After hundreds of pages, the revelation of the secret was definitely a letdown for me. I was far more interested in the final 75-100 pages in which we find out what happened to Lucy in the rest of her life after the discovery of the tomb. This is Novel No. 5 and it was an interesting one - set in 1930s and 40s London and full of that pre-war atmosphere and filled with all sorts of potential given Lucy's personal and professional lives. It bears only a passing connection to the the discovery of King Tut's tomb but it's still a very interesting section. 

And then somehow, all too soon and yet after a very long wait, the novel is over. I closed the book confused but most of all pleased that I had stuck with it. What will remain with me is the beautiful writing, the passages set in Egypt at night in silence as Lucy reflects on death and loss, the subtle connections between the treasures of Tut's tomb and the possessions that Lucy accumulates throughout her long life; the exquisitely detailed setting of 1920s Egypt. The Visitors is a strange, sad novel that I'm glad to have read.

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy from the publisher for review consideration.

Author Event: Jacqueline Winspear

Saturday, July 12, 2014

I was thrilled to see that Jacqueline Winspear - one of my favorite authors - was scheduled to give a talk at the bookstore near my apartment last Monday night. I'm finally getting around to writing up my notes from the talk, which was in support of her newest release, a book I enjoyed immensely and reviewed here: The Care and Management of Lies

Winspear - who is also the author of the Maisie Dobbs series of mysteries set in 1920s and 30s England - is clearly quite popular here in DC. The room was packed when I arrived half an hour before the talk started and bookstore staff were working to wedge even more chairs into the reading space. I ended up standing but it was well worth the effort to hear Winspear talk about the long-ago inspiration for her first stand-alone novel: 

  • The original inspiration occurred decades ago when Winspear was in her mid-20s and working at an academic publisher. For fun on the weekends, she helped a friend run a jewelry and antique table on Portobello Road in London. While looking for antiques to sell, she discovered an old book. 
  • Titled "The Women's Book," it was a kind of all-purpose handbook for the modern woman of the early 20th century, containing chapters on everything from how to treat servants, raise children, furnish a home and seat a dinner party. It also contained chapters on suffragettes and how a woman could prepare for a career in freelance writing or teaching. Winspear opened to the title page and discovered an inscription - the book was given to a young bride who got married in June 1914 - one month before the beginning of the Great War. 
  • For years, Winspear wondered what happened to that bride and what it was like to begin married life when the world was about to change so dramatically. Did her husband enlist? Was he conscripted? Did he come back home at war's end? 
  • Winspear braided these question together with ideas about how the soldiers on the front stayed in touch with home - through care packages of food and letters. All through Lies, soldiers escape the horrors of war by remembering their women back home and the food they cook that calls to mind home and warmth and safety. 
As someone who loves finding inscriptions in old books, it was wonderful to hear about the origins of the novel. You can tell that that inscription stayed with Winspear and grew powerfully in her imagination. 

Of course, Winspear is also the author of the popular Maisie Dobbs books and she had some updates on that front:

  • The next Maisie Dobbs book will come out next spring and she says there are at least 2-3 books remaining in the series. 
  • Winspear mentioned in passing that she had spoken to Rebecca Eaton, the executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre - a lady in the crowd immediately jumped on this, asking if that meant that the Maisie Dobbs series is being made into a mini-series. Winspear laughed and said no while also noting that Masterpiece Theatre isn't "the only game in town" and that other British production companies are around to produce TV shows of a similar vein. 
  • Sadly, Winspear said that there would be no follow-ups for the characters in Lies. But she does have another stand-alone novel on the "back-burner."

Politics and Prose films their events - it usually takes about a week for the video to go up on their multimedia archive. If you'd like to watch the Winspear event, you should be able to view it by Monday, July 14th. 

Summer Reading

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first man to die there. It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he's stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he's alive--and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to get him first. But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills--and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit--he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?(from Goodreads)

It's been a very long time since I "surprise-discovered" a great read. I tend to read literary fiction, historical fiction and non-fiction and this was completely out of my wheelhouse. I gave it a shot and almost stopped reading after the first three chapters - what is up with all this math? I was terrible at math in school and this seemed like a bad flashback. But I kept with the book and all of a sudden I could not stop reading. I'm serious - the details, the switches back between Earth and Mars, the humor!!! I devoured the rest of the book in less than a day. I will be recommending this book to everyone - especially those who think that they don't "get" science and math. "The Martian" is an old-fashioned adventure that is a better thrill ride than any ticket to an action flick!

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy from the publisher for review. 

We Were Liars by e. Lockhart
A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.
We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart. (from Goodreads)

Oh boy - this book has seriously discouraged me from going out of my comfort zone to read different genres of books. Other than The Hunger Games, I've never read any Young Adult books. After all of the buzz in the publishing industry and the debate online about adults reading Young Adult books, I wanted to try one and see what all the fuss was about. I chose this book because its gotten a huge amount of buzz - and now that I've read it, I'm not entirely sure why. The writing is super-earnest and self-indulgent. The characters are paper-thin and the whole book is predicated on a plot twist that is fairly easy to guess about half-way through. I'm actually pretty disappointed that I spent any of my reading time on this one.

New Bremen, Minnesota, 1961. The Twins were playing their debut season, ice-cold root beers were at the ready at Halderson’s Drug Store soda counter, and Hot Stuff comic books were a mainstay on every barbershop magazine rack. It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year-old Frank Drum it was a summer in which death assumed many forms. When tragedy unexpectedly comes to call on his family, which includes his Methodist minister father, his passionate, artistic mother, Juilliard-bound older sister, and wise-beyond-his years kid brother, Frank finds himself thrust into an adult world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal.(from Goodreads)

Everything about this book is familiar - from the Stand by Me meets To Kill A Mockingbird vibe to the big plot "twists" at the end. I put that in quotes because I can't imagine a reader not being able to figure out these twists several chapters ahead of time. But you don't read this kind of book for plot - this is the kind of book that's all about setting and theme. You read it for characters like Gus, the decent emotionally wounded veteran who hangs around the soda fountain dispensing advice and the forbidden railroad tracks at the edge of the town that attract the young narrator and his little brother into all sorts of trouble. Looking back forty years later, the narrator does a lot of telling instead of showing. There was some potentially powerful moments that lose some of their oomph due to this decision but somehow I still could not stop reading. I sped through the book in about a day and a half and I think that's a credit to the world Krueger creates - you immediately feel at home in that small town with all of its secrets. 

Review:The Care and Management of Lies

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

By July 1914, the ties between Kezia Marchant and Thea Brissenden, friends since girlhood, have become strained—by Thea’s passionate embrace of women’s suffrage, and by the imminent marriage of Kezia to Thea’s brother, Tom, who runs the family farm. When Kezia and Tom wed just a month before war is declared between Britain and Germany, Thea’s gift to Kezia is a book on household management—a veiled criticism of the bride’s prosaic life to come. Yet when Tom enlists to fight for his country and Thea is drawn reluctantly onto the battlefield, the farm becomes Kezia’s responsibility. Each must find a way to endure the ensuing cataclysm and turmoil. As Tom marches to the front lines, and Kezia battles to keep her ordered life from unraveling, they hide their despair in letters and cards filled with stories woven to bring comfort. Even Tom’s fellow soldiers in the trenches enter and find solace in the dream world of Kezia’s mouth-watering, albeit imaginary meals. But will well-intended lies and self-deception be of use when they come face to face with the enemy? Published to coincide with the centennial of the Great War, The Care and Management of Lies paints a poignant picture of love and friendship strained by the pain of separation and the brutal chaos of battle. Ultimately, it raises profound questions about conflict, belief, and love that echo in our own time. (from Goodreads)

I expected good things from Jacqueline Winspear when I heard that she had written a stand-alone WWI novel. After all, she's the author of the Maisie Dobbs series, featuring a female detective in 1920s and 30s England whose cases often deal with the after-effects of the Great War on English society. As the Maisie Dobbs series reached its conclusion in its tenth book, you could sense that Winspear had a much bigger story to tell and felt constrained by the detective genre. 

Lies is that book and more - it has the feel and passion and assurance of an author who has been saving up her best writing in service of a set of characters. It is my first (and so far only) five star fiction read of 2014 and I can't recommend it highly enough. 

Lies does not go in the now-familiar post-modern direction of WWI novels that highlight the nightmarish intensity of battle and the nihilism of the characters caught up in the conflict.  I'm thinking of some very fine novels such as Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy and Wake by Anna Hope.   

While I've enjoyed WWI novels that take this angle, I've always felt that its a reflection of how those of us in the late 20th-century/early 21st century view the conflict rather than how the people of that time experienced it. Lies reads and feels much truer to that time because Winspear constructs a straight-forward, third person, past tense narrative. It's almost as if an author of that time is observing the people around her and writing about it. 

I absolutely adored this approach - it takes an incredibly talented author to get out of her own way, to resist the temptation to make everything fraught with detail. Instead, I was there with Tom and Kezia and Thea - and that made their suffering so much more real and painful. The characters worry about little things and get on with their own lives while the war goes on in the background. They react to crisis like normal people, not as though they are reacting to History with a capital H (a major pet peeve of mine in historical fiction). 

I loved the kaleidoscopic approach -- through a variety of characters, we see the fighting in the trenches and the women back home on the farms and the young women volunteering as nurses and the older chaplains ministering to the dying. We see the little things that matter - the memory of a home-baked cake and the pleasure of receiving a letter from a loved one. I can't think of any other historical novel that gets the domestic details of life back then so right. 

Every time I thought that the novel was going to go for the predictable plot twist, it did not. There was so many times when I thought - oh boy, here comes the "surprising" death or the spot where one major character will betray another - because honestly, that's what happens so many times in these types of books. It's almost as if you can hear the author saying - okay, I'm four chapters in and my how-to-write books says I have to "up the stakes" and make these characters do this. Winspear listens to the characters and lets them tell their story. 

I will almost certainly be re-reading this book as we start to move through the centennial anniversary dates of the Great War this summer. I can't think of a better tribute to the men and women who lived through that awful time then to revisit the quiet beauty of this novel. 

Winspear is giving a reading at the bookstore near my apartment next week - I can hardly wait to meet her and hear more about the writing of this incredible book. I'll be sure to blog about it - so stay tuned!

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book from Harper Collins in exchange for an honest review. 

Best of 2014, First Half

Saturday, June 28, 2014


Welcome to the first half of 2014 - it's been an odd year. I went through a reading slump in the spring. I've started and abandoned many books. I've read a lot of different types of books and yet there have also been a lot of great books that will be life-long favorites. I think my reading taste is growing and changing more than it has in past years. It will be interesting to see how the next six months pan out!

Five Star Fiction

The Care and Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear
(Review coming next week on publication day)

Five Star Non-Fiction

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Four Star Fiction

Four Star Non-Fiction