Reading Updates

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Historical Fiction Notebook's new intern sorts through the To Be Read pile. 

Just a quick update on this past week's reading. I'm working on a couple of non-fiction books - including research on the Nazi occupation of Paris for a writing project. I'm also reading an advance copy of the 10th book in the Maisie Dobbs series - I won't be able to post a review here until it's released in March. So far, it's ok - I'm looking forward to finally getting caught up with the Maisie Dobbs series so that I can start Charles Todd's Bess Crawford series. I figured I couldn't handle two historical mystery series featuring WWI nurses at the same time! 

I've also got other longstanding advance copies - The Secret Keeper, The Painted Girls - that are waiting to be read and I know they'll all go out the window in a little over a week when "A Future Arrived" - the final entry in The Passing Bells trilogy is released! 

So that's my reading weekend - how's yours going? 

Review: Elegy for Eddie

Sunday, January 20, 2013


Early 1933. To the costermongers of Convent Garden - sellers of fruits and vegetables on London's streets - Eddie Pettitt was a gentle soul with a near-magical gift for working with horses. So who would want to kill him - and why? 

It's been some time since I reviewed a book in the Maisie Dobbs series here. It was almost a year ago that I first wrote about my love for the initial books in the series - "Maisie Dobbs," "Birds of a Feather" and "Pardonable Lies." Then my reviews tapered off - partly due to my busy schedule while reading some of the middle books in the series but by the time I reached "Among the Mad" and "A Lesson in Secrets," I was less than enthusiastic about reviewing these books. 

I found myself wondering why I enjoyed them - the mysteries are often thin, with very few twists and turns. Winspear has tended to resort to familiar tropes rather than fresh characterization - the much-beleaguered Billy, Maisie's assistant and Priscilla, her flustered best friend. You can count upon Maisie to be bossy to those around her, for the detectives at Scotland Yard to be staggeringly dense and always getting in Maisie's way - and everyone drinks a lot of tea! I suppose I keep coming back for those quiet moments that show what life was like in London between the wars. I love the slow but steady development of Maisie's character and the fact that she doesn't always do what's likable or right or even makes sense. She feels like a real person, living a life at a real pace. She struggles with her relationships and she tries to do what's right but like most of us finds a way to bungle even that. 

Fortunately, "Elegy" is a return to these main themes. This ninth entry in the series finds Maisie returning to the streets of Lambeth, her childhood home to solve the unexplained death of an old neighbor. I've always enjoyed the way Winspear has set up Maisie to straddle two worlds - the working class and the posh upper-class - and the things she observes along the way. That element works particularly well in this case. I also enjoyed her self-reflection and her doubts about her partner, James Compton. I almost find myself skipping over the "investigation" parts of the novel to get to the "good" parts about Maisie's life and the growing threat posed by Germany's Chancellor and the ways the English chose to perceive that threat - or ignore it. 

For those unfamiliar with the Maisie series, I would strongly recommend going back to the beginning of the series and starting there. While Winspear manages to weave in back story, I now think these books are best enjoyed as one long saga of a woman's life in Britain during WWI and beyond. The mysteries are somewhat incidental while the growth and development of the main character are the primary reason to keep returning.

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 

Review: Ashenden

Friday, January 18, 2013

When brother and sister Charlie and Ros discover that they have inherited their aunt’s grand English country house, they must decide if they should sell it. As they survey the effects of time on the estate’s architectural treasures, a narrative spanning two and a half centuries unfolds. We meet those who built the house, lived in it and loved it, worked in it, and those who would subvert it to their own ends. Each chapter is skillfully woven into the others so that the storylines of the upstairs and downstairs characters and their relatives and descendants intertwine to make a rich tapestry. A beautifully written novel full of humor, heart, and poignancy, Ashenden is an evocative portrait of a house that becomes a character as compelling as the people who inhabit it.

It's funny how a book can sometimes find you during just the right set of days. I usually read one book a week and end up starting a new one over the weekend. Last Sunday, having finished all of the available books in Phillip Rock's "Passing Bells" trilogy and craving more books along the lines of "big English country house" stories, I remembered that I had an advance e-galley of yet another book marketed to Downton Abbey lovers.

As much as I love Downton Abbey, the comparison to Ashenden isn't fair and I suspect will lead many readers to underestimate and even pass over this gorgeously written novel-in-stories. The novel begins quite slowly with  the rather-underwritten brother and sister Charlie and Ros who have just inherited the over two hundred year-old house from their childless aunt. I actually started this book a few months ago when I first received it and didn't continue due to my disinterest in the first chapter. Fortunately, I pressed on this time around and got to the second chapter that goes back to the construction of the house in 1775. I expected a kind of Edward Rutherfurd gallop across history but instead felt as though I was reading a very good collection of short stories, all loosely linked by place and poetic connections across time.

Wilhide wisely doesn't overdo the genealogical connections between stories, breaking up the ownership of the house while subtly alluding to the passage of time and generations. The main treat here is the beautiful writing, each story somehow capturing the language of each time from 1775 to 1844 to 1909 to 1976. The stories are a good combination of bitter and sweet and have a breathtaking sense of the passage of time and both the permanence and impermance of life. The writing was quietly poetic without being over-bearing, such as in this passage set in 1966 "Lavender clings to laundered sheets folded on the cedar shelves of linen closets. Vases of velvety roses sit on tables polished with beeswax. On summer evenings, the sweet perfume of nightscented stocks drifts through open windows...."

I happened to be reading this book during a time of incredible stress and upset at work - it was a very real comfort to come home to these stories and contemplate a deeper sense of life. As with any collection of short stories, there are weak moments. Oddly enough, I felt the book sagged a bit in the 1909 and 1916 sections - precisely the time periods that Downton Abbey fans would be interested in.

That's a small quibble about what is already one of my favorite books of the year - almost certainly a book that I'll want to buy a physical copy of and set on my bookshelf alongside other beloved novels.

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.

Review: Circles of Time

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A generation has been lost on the Western Front. The dead have been buried, a harsh peace forged, and the howl of shells replaced by the wail of saxophones as the Jazz Age begins. But ghosts linger—that long-ago golden summer of 1914 tugging at the memory of Martin Rilke and his British cousins, the Grevilles. From the countess to the chauffeur, the inhabitants of Abingdon Pryory seek to forget the past and adjust their lives to a new era in which old values, social codes, and sexual mores have been irretrievably swept away. Martin Rilke throws himself into reporting, discovering unsettling political currents, as Fenton Wood-Lacy faces exile in faraway army outposts. Back at Abingdon, Charles Greville shows signs of recovery from shell shock and Alexandra is caught up in an unlikely romance. Circles of Time captures the age as these strongly drawn characters experience it, unfolding against England's most gracious manor house, the steamy nightclubs of London's Soho, and the despair of Germany caught in the nightmare of anarchy and inflation. Lives are renewed, new loves found, and a future of peace and happiness is glimpsed—for the moment.

As I mentioned last week, I ordered "Circles of Time" even before finishing "The Passing Bells," the first book in Phillip Rock's WWI-era trilogy. Time didn't disappoint. Picking up only a year after the ending of the last book, Time is consistent in tone and continues with the same set of characters who are connected in some way to the Earl of Stanmore and his home Abingdon Pryory.

The faults and finer points of "The Passing Bells" are repeated in "Circles of Time." Rock has uncanny sense of the time, immersing the reader in the feel of the world without ever resorting to cliches. He has a talent for set pieces linked to specific historical moments and there are several in "Circles" - from journalist Martin Rilke's visit to the troubled British occupation of a new Iraq to his chilling visit to Munich, center of the new Nazi party.

This is also the problem with "Circles" - it's finest moments focus on Rilke. When Rock diverges to Lady Alexandra's second forbidden romance or to any of the lesser engaged characters such as Lord Stanmore or Jacob Golden, the narrative founders. I appreciate the attempt to provide a broad spectrum of post-war life in Europe but the wandering focus dilutes the power of the book's stronger parts.

I'm particularly struck by the quality of Rock's writing. It doesn't have a bit of flash or ornate poetry. If anything, I barely notice his style. The more I read, the more I've come to appreciate an author who doesn't draw attention to his/herself, who approaches a story and characters straight-on. I find this approach particularly effective in historical fiction, giving the effect of real life rather than some historical play.

Although the passage of time has dictated that the younger generation will be the focus in the next book, I'm eagerly awaiting the February 5th release of the final book in the series, "A Future Arrived." 

Review: The Passing Bells

Monday, January 7, 2013


The guns of August are rumbling throughout Europe in the summer of 1914, but war has not yet touched Abingdon Pryory. Here, at the grand home of the Greville family, the parties, dances, and romances play on. Alexandra Greville embarks on her debutante season while brother Charles remains hopelessly in love with the beautiful, untitled Lydia Foxe, knowing that his father, the Earl of Stanmore, will never approve of the match. Downstairs the new servant, Ivy, struggles to adjust to the routines of the well-oiled household staff, as the arrival of American cousin Martin Rilke, a Chicago newspaperman, causes a stir.

But, ultimately, the Great War will not be denied, as what begins for the high-bred Grevilles as a glorious adventure soon takes its toll—shattering the household's tranquillity, crumbling class barriers, and bringing its myriad horrors home.

I didn’t know quite what to expect from “The Passing Bells.” The comparisons to Downton Abbey drew me in but the potboiler description on Amazon and the cheesy covers from the original 1970s release almost kept me from requesting it for Christmas. I thought I might be getting myself into a John Jakes-type saga with thin historical value. Fortunately, I did request it – “The Passing Bells” is one of the best novels I’ve read about the Edwardian Era/WWI. I’m certain that almost all readers will find something to love in this well-written and surprisingly moving novel.

The first 150 or so pages are pure Downton Abbey territory – so much so that I found myself wondering if Julian Fellowes has read the book. There’s the noble Lord Stanmore, who follows the old ways and keeps his emotions in check; his beloved American wife, the Countess and their eldest daughter Lady Alexandra who is concerned with gowns, parties and finding a husband but who will develop much more depth and character as the story progresses. Book One introduces all the main characters, including the Countess’ American cousin, Martin who has traveled to Europe to make his name as a writer.

The pace is slow, suited to the way life was lived in the summer of 1914 and, like Downton Abbey, we move between upstairs and downstairs, seeing the very clear class differences. Rock does an admirable job of working the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand into conversations, allowing the reader to understand how the people of 1914 viewed far-off foreign events without the benefit of hindsight. In one of my favorite scenes in the book, we follow two main characters through London as war is declared – it’s a sweeping, emotional moment that captures the excitement of the young who didn’t know how the war would change their world.

Book Two focuses on the war experiences of several main characters and makes for an abrupt shift in tone. The battle scenes are intense and graphic – in clear contrast to the leisurely pace of Book One. For a time, it was difficult to keep track of all the different storylines and locations. I felt as though I was reading two completely different novels set next to each other. Book Three starts in 1916 and begins to unify the tone of the novel. Rock never really settles on one lead character – his style is intensely cinematic, like a camera lens moving in and out to focus on particular moments during the war.

I did find myself far more interested in his male characters than in his female characters – the women aren’t as interesting and well-developed – and his handling of the three central romances in the book could be described as somewhat juvenile. The scenes dealing with relationships stray close into embarassing romance-novel level prose.

That said, I was always engaged in the story and raced through the last half of the book in about a day. The tone of the characters’ speech, the period details, the progression of their emotions as the war worsens always felt true to life and the close of the novel is absolutely devastating. I immediately went over to Amazon and ordered the next book “Circles of Time” so that I can find out what happens to the characters in the 1920s and will be hard-pressed to wait until February 5th when the final book in the trilogy “A Future Arrived” is released.

Downton Abbey Reading List!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

In honor of the premiere of Downton Abbey, Season 3 here in the U.S. this Sunday, I'm reposting this excellent link to librarian and famous book reccommender Nancy Pearl's Downton Abbey Reading List!

If you haven't read any of Pearl's fantastic Book Lust books go out and find them now - they are so much fun to look at!

I was already aware of several of the books on the list - Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series and Juliet Nicholson's "The Perfect Summer" are among my favorites. I'm hoping to get started on Charles Todd's "A Duty to the Dead" at some point this year. I'm also currently reading one of the entries - "The Passing Bells" by Phillip Rock, the second of my Christmas gift reads. I'll post a review here shortly.

Review: Dominion by CJ Sansom

Saturday, January 5, 2013

1952. Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. As the long German war against Russia rages on in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule: the press, radio and television are controlled; the streets patrolled by violent auxiliary police and British Jews face ever greater constraints. There are terrible rumours too about what is happening in the basement of the German Embassy at Senate House. Defiance, though, is growing. In Britain, Winston Churchill's Resistance organization is increasingly a thorn in the government's side. And in a Birmingham mental hospital an incarcerated scientist, Frank Muncaster, may hold a secret that could change the balance of the world struggle for ever. Civil Servant David Fitzgerald, secretly acting as a spy for the Resistance, is given the mission by them to rescue his old friend Frank and get him out of the country. Before long he, together with a disparate group of Resistance activists, will find themselves fugitives in the midst of London's Great Smog; as David's wife Sarah finds herself drawn into a world more terrifying than she ever could have imagined. And hard on their heels is Gestapo Sturmbannfuhrer Gunther Hoth, brilliant, implacable hunter of men . . . (from Amazon UK)

"Dominion" is the first of my Christmas 2012 reads and a much-anticipated entry on my wish list. Unlike the rest of Sansom's excellent Matthew Shardlake series set in Tudor England and "Winter in Madrid," his stand-alone novel set during the Spanish Civil War, "Dominion" is not available in the U.S. I was excited to recieve it as an (expensive) Christmas gift ordered from England and started it immediately.

As Sansom readers may expect, "Dominion" is much more similar in tone to "Winter in Madrid" than to the Shardlake series. At times, I found the even-tempered, almost inscrutable protaganist and even some of the supporting characters reminding me of the undercover spies in "Madrid." The action moves slowly, with almost the first third of the book introducing new characters every chapter or so along with their detailed backstories and richly imagined psychological histories. Sansom keeps things surprising through careful pacing - we're in an alternate England after all and it's fascinating to learn bit by bit by how different things turned out because of one decision made by Winston Churchill on a May afternoon in 1940.

I don't know enough about the political situation in 1940s Britain to judge his view of how things might have played out if England had surrrendered after Dunkirk but the world he creates feels so true to life and so heart-wrenchingly real to the characters that I had remind myself I was reading alternate historical fiction.

At 569 pages, "Dominion" does feel a bit overwritten. Sansom loves showing the same scene from multiple perspectives even when it does very little to advance the plot or the readers' understanding of the characters. I was always engaged by the story but finished the book feeling curiously distanced from their ultimate choices and fates. I felt as though I'd spent a great deal of time with them but not very much had happened. The richly imagined setting and constant "What Ifs" kept me from being disappointed. I don't regret asking for this book for Christmas but I would reccomend Sansom fans wait until it comes out in the U.S. or when Amazon offers less expensive copies. Other readers should turn to the very enjoyable first book in Sansom's Shardlake series, "Dissolution" to get a better sense of his work.