Review: Death Comes To Pemberley

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

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It is 1803, six years since Elizabeth and Darcy embarked on their life together at Pemberley, Darcy’s magnificent estate. Their peaceful, orderly world seems almost unassailable. Elizabeth has found her footing as the chatelaine of the great house. They have two fine sons, Fitzwilliam and Charles. Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live nearby; her father visits often; there is optimistic talk about the prospects of marriage for Darcy’s sister Georgiana. And preparations are under way for their much-anticipated annual autumn ball.
Then, on the eve of the ball, the patrician idyll is shattered. A coach careens up the drive carrying Lydia, Elizabeth’s disgraced sister, who with her husband, the very dubious Wickham, has been banned from Pemberley. She stumbles out of the carriage, hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered. With shocking suddenness, Pemberley is plunged into a frightening mystery.

I so badly wanted to like this book - it seemed like the perfect marriage of the Jane Austen everyone loves with an historical mystery.  As I catch up on my reviews from January 2012, I find that I can barely remember this book and it's only February!

There's nothing inherently wrong with the plot or character development - James clearly has a good handle on the beloved characters from Pride and Prejudice and introduces them in a succinct opening chapter that recalls Austen's own voice. I also loved that the mystery revolved around Lydia and Wickham - who doesn't doubt that they continued to get in trouble after the events in P&P?

From there the mystery plods along with Darcy more or less fulfilling the role of investigator and main protagonist, although Elizabeth gets her moments in the supporting plots. Unfortunately, the action is anything but taut as the initial arrival of the police and resulting inquiry drag along. By the end of the book, it felt as though James had long ago run out of story and felt the need to pad the action to put together a full-length novel. I felt that the focus on a lower-class family living on the grounds of Pemberley was an interesting attempt to bring a different societal perspective into the world of Austen but ultimately weakened the feel that the reader is actually revisiting Austen's characters. In P&P we see only a limited view of life - Austen's famous "bit of ivory" - and for all its limitations this viewpoint makes the characters and their world seem all the more real.

I would recommend "Death Comes to Pemberley" to true P&P fans who can overlook a weak plot in favor of spending more time with their favorite characters. Those who prefer a stronger mystery or sense of place should skip the book or at best wait for a library copy.

More new books!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

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After last week's bonanza of six egalleys, I'm lucky enough to follow that up with five new egalleys and a hard copy galley this week! I definitely have some reading and reviewing to do over the next few months - hopefully I can keep up! (All summaries are from GoodReads).

Sacrilege by S.J. Parris Hard copy galley Release Date - April 10, 2012
A gripping historical thriller set in sixteenth-century England and centered on the highly secretive cult of Saint Thomas Becket, the twelfth-century archbishop murdered in Canterbury Cathedral.
This is a bit backwards for me as I haven't read the first two books in the series but have long wanted to give it a try!

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones  eGalley  Release Date - May 1, 2012
It's rural England, just after the turn of the last century. Charlotte married Edward Shift after the sudden death of her first husband, Horace Torrington. They live at Sterne, the home they are in danger of losing due to a financial crisis, with Charlotte's 3 children: Emerald, Clovis and Smudge. On the day of Emerald's birthday party, a terrible train wreck occurs on a branch line and the stranded passengers seek refuge at Sterne. Among these passengers is Charlie Traversham-Beechers, a sketchy figure from Charlotte's past. This unusual guest list makes for an unforgettable birthday celebration for Emerald and an evening of the past literally coming back to haunt Charlotte.
I love the whole Downton Abbey/country house feel of this novel and have heard very good things about Sadie Jones.
The Last Romanov by Dora Levy Mossanen  eGalley  Release Date - April 1, 2012
For almost a century, Imperial Russia has captivated the imagination- the ruthless execution of the royal family, the disputed survival of the heir: it's a cinematic chaos that the masterful Dora Levy Mossanen unravels for her readers. Taking readers deep into tarnished grandeur, The Last Romanov follows Darya, a wise old beauty whose time spent with the Imperial family has haunted her entire life. When the murderous events unfold, Darya is plagued by the prophecy made by the Empress's advisor, Rasputin. She must find the missing Tsarevich Alexis Romanov and restore the monarchy or risk losing her own life. 
After the disappointment of Kathryn Harrison's Enchantments, I'm hoping this will be a better Romanov novel.
The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani eGalley  Release Date - April 3, 2012
The majestic and haunting beauty of the Italian Alps is the setting of the first meeting of Enza, a practical beauty, and Ciro, a strapping mountain boy, who meet as teenagers, despite growing up in villages just a few miles apart. At the turn of the last century, when Ciro catches the local priest in a scandal, he is banished from his village and sent to hide in America as an apprentice to a shoemaker in Little Italy. Without explanation, he leaves a bereft Enza behind. Soon, Enza's family faces disaster and she, too, is forced to go to America with her father to secure their future.
There's nothing better than a big sprawling novel about immigrants set in the 19th century! I'm also intriuged by the cover.

The Queen's Vow by C.W. Gortner  eGalley  Release Date - June 12, 2012

No one believed I was destined for greatness.

So begins Isabella’s story, in this evocative, vividly imagined novel about one of history’s most famous and controversial queens—the warrior who united a fractured country, the champion of the faith whose reign gave rise to the Inquisition, and the visionary who sent Columbus to discover a New World. Acclaimed author C. W. Gortner envisages the turbulent early years of a woman whose mythic rise to power would go on to transform a monarchy, a nation, and the world. 
Gortner is well-loved on this blog and his new releases are always welcome! I don't think I've read a novel about Isabella since Norah Lofts' "Crown of Aloes" when I was thirteen years old.


Review: Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

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St. Petersburg, 1917. After Rasputin's body is pulled from the icy waters of the Neva River, his eighteen-year-old daughter, Masha, is sent to live at the imperial palace with Tsar Nikolay and his family-including the headstrong Prince Alyosha. Desperately hoping that Masha has inherited Rasputin's miraculous healing powers, Tsarina Alexandra asks her to tend to Aloysha, who suffers from hemophilia, a blood disease that keeps the boy confined to his sickbed, lest a simple scrape or bump prove fatal.
Two months after Masha arrives at the palace, the tsar is forced to abdicate, and Bolsheviks place the royal family under house arrest. As Russia descends into civil war, Masha and Alyosha grieve the loss of their former lives, finding solace in each other's company. To escape the confinement of the palace, they tell stories-some embellished and some entirely imagined-about Nikolay and Alexandra's courtship, Rasputin's many exploits, and the wild and wonderful country on the brink of an irrevocable transformation. In the worlds of their imagination, the weak become strong, legend becomes fact, and a future that will never come to pass feels close at hand (from Amazon)
Where do I start with this book? It's quite rare for me to dislike a book so strongly and yet keep on reading. Some part of me believed that the book could not possibly maintain such flat characterization and plot development for the length of an entire novel and yet it did. Moreover, the book managed to be amateurishly detailed in terms of historical content, incredibly insulting and unrealistic in its depiction of the Tsarevich Alexei (who is inexplicably referred to as Aloysha for the entire book) as well as dull and confusing. It read as if the author had paged through Massie's "Nicholas and Alexandra," decided it was a good story and decided to write the novel with no further research.
The conceit of Rasputin's daughter befriending Nicholas and Alexandra's only son and keeping him entertained with stories from their families' intertwined histories is an interesting idea. Unfortunately, Harrison can't seem to decide whether she is approaching the concept through magic realism or as a straight-forward historical novel. What are clearly meant to be "lyrical" passages of storytelling come across as self-conscious and strained. Harrison's prose never reaches gorgeous enough heights to justify her flights of fancy.
I was particularly offended by small historical mistakes as well as the gratuitous, grossly-detailed scenes of relationships between characters. I'd initially been quite excited to see this new novel pop up on Amazon and was thinking about buying it. Fortunately, I received a free copy through NetGalley - Enchantments ended up being a waste of my time but not a waste of money.

Maisie Dobbs - my new favorite historical mystery series

Monday, February 20, 2012

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While waiting for my flight back home on New Year's Day, I sat in the airport and quickly scanned through my blogroll. A picture from a post at Historical Tapestry caught my eye - of a cover with a classic London scene rendered in the style of the 1920s and 30s vintage travel posters I love so much. My new Kindle enabled me to immediately check out the first chapter of Maisie Dobbs - the initial offering in a mystery series featuring a young female detective who uses new theories in psychology and deductive thinking to solve crimes. But I quickly discovered the books are about a lot more than solving crimes - they delve deeply into the changing class standards in England in the first half of the 20th century and the emotional impact the Great War had on men and women.
As of now - in mid- February - I've read the first four books in the series - Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, Pardonable Lies and Messenger of Truth. With the upcoming release of Elegy for Eddie - the ninth book in the series - that means I'm only halfway through.

The first Maisie Dobbs book remains my favorite in the series so far. It opens with Maisie beginning her detective business in London and encountering a mystery that forces her to confront her unresolved past. In an extremely strong middle section, the book takes us back to a Downton Abbey-style manor house and Maisie's girlhood as a precious housemaid who manages to catch the eye of her employer and win the time and money to study and prepare for college. The final section loops back to the "present" of 1929 and resolves a long-buried source of pain in Maisie's life. The mystery definitely plays second fiddle to a compelling portrait of class distinctions and warfare.

Birds of a Feather continues to focus strongly on the psychological impact of the Great War as does the following book, Pardonable Lies. However, by the time I started on Messanger of Truth - set in 1931 - the continual return to issues raised by the Great War seemed a bit tired. Maisie herself also started to grate on me. I love that her character is uncompromising and deeply flawed but Winspear seemed to be making her almost too bitter and standoffish in the fourth outing.

I found the next two books in the series at a used bookstore and have them waiting on my shelf. I know that I'll definitely return to the series after a break and a quick perusal of reviews tells me that some of the issues with Maisie's character and the plot obsession with the Great War will begin to dimish in favor of her growing independence and fears over a second World War.

The books read quickly and create an extremely vivid picture of 1920s and 30s London in my mind. I would recommend them to both mystery lovers, Downton Abbey fans and those who enjoy their historical fiction with strong female leads.


New Books!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

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Thanks to my Kindle and NetGalley, I have the following ARCs and look forward to reviewing them over the next few months. All summaries are from publishers' descriptions on NetGalley or Amazon:

Abdication by Juliet Nicholson  - May 22, 2012

From critically acclaimed historian Juliet Nicolson comes a glorious debut novel that brings to mind the film The King’s Speech, set in 1936 London about secrecy, tumultuous love, and a king torn between public duty and private desire.
I'm really excited about this one - Nicholson's "Perfect Summer" and "The Great Silence" are two of my favorite books! 

Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison - March 6, 2012

St. Petersburg, 1917. After Rasputin's body is pulled from the icy waters of the Neva River, his eighteen-year-old daughter, Masha, is sent to live at the imperial palace with Tsar Nikolay and his family-including the headstrong Prince Alyosha. Desperately hoping that Masha has inherited Rasputin's miraculous healing powers, Tsarina Alexandra asks her to tend to Aloysha, who suffers from hemophilia, a blood disease that keeps the boy confined to his sickbed, lest a simple scrape or bump prove fatal.
Two months after Masha arrives at the palace, the tsar is forced to abdicate, and Bolsheviks place the royal family under house arrest. As Russia descends into civil war, Masha and Alyosha grieve the loss of their former lives, finding solace in each other's company. To escape the confinement of the palace, they tell stories-some embellished and some entirely imagined-about Nikolay and Alexandra's courtship, Rasputin's many exploits, and the wild and wonderful country on the brink of an irrevocable transformation. In the worlds of their imagination, the weak become strong, legend becomes fact, and a future that will never come to pass feels close at hand
Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland - Coming out in PB

It's 1893, and at the Chicago World'sFair, Louis Comfort Tiffany makes his debut with a luminous exhibition ofinnovative stained-glass windows that he hopes will earn him a place on theinternational artistic stage. But behind the scenes in his New York studio isthe freethinking Clara Driscoll, head of his women's division, who conceives ofand designs nearly all of the iconic leaded-glass lamps for which Tiffany willlong be remembered. Never publicly acknowledged, Clara struggles with herdesire for artistic recognition and the seemingly insurmountable challengesthat she faces as a professional woman. She also yearns for love andcompanionship, and is devoted in different ways to five men, including Tiffany,who enforces a strict policy: He does not employ married women. Ultimately,Clara must decide what makes her happiest-the professional world of her handsor the personal world of her heart.


The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons - Out now in paperback

It's the spring of 1938 and no longer safe to be a Jew in Vienna. Nineteen-year-old Elise Landau is forced to leave her glittering life of parties and champagne to become a parlor maid in England. She arrives at Tyneford, the great house on the bay, where servants polish silver and serve drinks on the lawn. But war is coming, and the world is changing. When the master of Tyneford's young son, Kit, returns home, he and Elise strike up an unlikely friendship that will transform Tyneford-and Elise-forever.


Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage by Hugh Brewster - March 27, 2012

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage takes us behind the paneled doors of the Titanic’s elegant private suites to present compelling, memorable portraits of her most notable passengers.  The intimate atmosphere onboard history’s most famous ship is recreated as never before. 



A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson - May 22, 2012

It is 1923. Evangeline (Eva) English and her sister Lizzie are missionaries heading for the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar. Though Lizzie is on fire with her religious calling, Eva’s motives are not quite as noble, but with her green bicycle and a commission from a publisher to write A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, she is ready for adventure.
In present day London, a young woman, Frieda, returns from a long trip abroad to find a man sleeping outside her front door. She gives him a blanket and a pillow, and in the morning finds the bedding neatly folded and an exquisite drawing of a bird with a long feathery tail, some delicate Arabic writing, and a boat made out of a flock of seagulls on her wall. Tayeb, in flight from his Yemeni homeland, befriends Frieda and, when she learns she has inherited the contents of an apartment belonging to a dead woman she has never heard of, they embark on an unexpected journey together.
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar explores the fault lines that appear when traditions from different parts of an increasingly globalized world crash into one other. Beautifully written, and peopled by a cast of unforgettable characters, the novel interweaves the stories of Frieda and Eva, gradually revealing the links between them and the ways in which they each challenge and negotiate the restrictions of their societies as they make their hard-won way toward home. A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar marks the debut of a wonderfully talented new writer.

Review: The Pretender by Mary Morrissy

Friday, February 17, 2012

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Why should a Polish factory worker claim to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II? The novel unwinds smoothly in time, from Virginia in 1978 to post-First World War Berlin and finally to a childhood in rural Poland at the turn of the last century. There is something of Miss Havisham in the demeanour and behaviour of the first Anastasia--"a magnificent relic, a holy totem", whose life has been "as volatile as the century itself". She is almost deaf and imperiously selfish, with "a corrupted memory". She has been saved from herself by a former history professor with a "genealogical envy" for her Romanov past, who marries her to enter a royal dynasty. He not only dotes on her but more importantly believes in her  (from Amazon UK).


A few months prior to reading “The Pretender” I read Greg King and Penny Wilson’s fascinating nonfiction book “The Resurrection of the Romanovs.” Paired together, these books give insight into the reasons why a Polish farm girl would claim to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia and why influential people and members of Europe’s Royal families would choose to believe her.

Morrissy divides her story into three parts in distinct time periods with a prologue and epilogue in yet another time period. From Anna Anderson living in squalor in Charlottesville, Virginia in the early 1980s to the Berlin asylum where Fräulein Unbekannt stayed in the 1920s, back again to Franziska Schanzkowska in WWI Berlin and then finally to a Polish village in the early 1900s. Somehow, this backwards-reeling timeline works as the reader gains a deeper and deeper understanding of this mysterious woman. Unfortunately, some sections worked better for me than others – the 1920s section was enough to pull me in with its examination of the psyche of the mad women living at the asylum. The WWI section was vividly detailed and gives the reader the most sympathetic and engaging Franziska/Anna. I was a bit put-off by the weird mysticism of the village section and felt the climax of the book that gave a root reason for Franziska/Anna’s trauma was labored.

As some other reviewers noted, the Prologue and Epilogue with their depiction of the marriage between Anna Anderson and Jack Manahan were some of the most compelling parts of the book. I wish that Morrissy had delved more into that relationship but understand her limitations due to the structure of the book.

 Readers interested in the Anna Anderson mystery and WWI Europe should make an effort to seek out “The Pretender” and should definitely follow it up with “The Resurrection of the Romanovs” – a brilliant piece of historical sourcing, detective work and psychological insight.  

Update and welcome to 2012!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

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This is just a quick post to say welcome back! I had a busy year of travel in 2011 - after my six-week trip to Kabul, Dubai, Istanbul and London I ended up going to Tunisia for three weeks followed by quick trips to Paris and Istanbul (again). It looks as though this year will be much quieter with just travel around the U.S. this summer for my job.

That said, it looks like I will be able to post a lot more often on here and get back in the swing of reviewing. The last time I posted I was in the midst of a C.J. Sansom binge - I strongly encourage everyone to check out these books. Even if mysteries aren't your thing, these books have as strong, compelling lead character and fantastic descriptions of Tudor England.

In 2011 I also enjoyed Pamela Schoenewaldt's "When We Were Strangers," a moving account of an Italian girl's immigration to America in the late 19th century. I also finally got my hands on all of Stephanie Cowell's fabulous novels about artists and musicians - even though I think her latest Claude and Camille is her best, I also devoured "Marrying Mozart" and "The Players; A Novel about the Young Shakespeare."

I love Russian history so I was bit disappointed in Andrew Williams' award-nominated "To Kill a Tsar." I was initially drawn in by its atmospheric depiction of 1880s St. Petersburg but the plot and characterization felt thin.

2011 was the year of the historical mystery for me - I read several books in Tasha Alexander's and Anne Perry's series - both set in the last half of the 19th century in London.

Finally, I returned to one of my old favorites - Sharon Kay Penman and her new book "Lionheart." In my early teens, Penman had no peer in my eyes in terms of historical fiction. This turn disappointed me as her Richard the Lionheart seemed inscrutable and the book itself seemed hopelessly stuck in repetitive camp scenes with very little drama - even for the Crusades! I hope she will return to full form in the sequel.

So that's that - on to 2012. I've already read 18 books and that's mostly due to my lovely Christmas gift of a Kindle Fire! I never thought I would be the e-reader type but I adore my Kindle. I love being able to download old books from the Internet Archive, read sample chapters from Amazon and instantly buy books and have them delivered. Here's to another great reading year on Historical Fiction Notebook.