Review: The Midwife's Tale

Saturday, March 30, 2013

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It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to be burnt alive. Convinced that her friend is innocent, Bridget sets out to find the real killer.
Bridget joins forces with Martha Hawkins, a servant who’s far more skilled with a knife than any respectable woman ought to be. To save Esther from the stake, they must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes Bridget and Martha from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways of its poorest neighborhoods. As they delve into the life of Esther’s murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a deeply sinister secret life, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand. (from Amazon)

So I've had mixed luck with two recent historical fiction releases that received good reviews on blogs and led me to seek them out. My first read - Shadow on the Crown - turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. I didn't have as much luck with The Midwife's Tale. I don't think the jacket blurb does the book any favors by comparing Thomas to Arianna Franklin and C.J.Sansom. This is an adequate murder mystery with characters and a setting that show a lot of promise for future works - but this is not a book with the depth of other authors working in the field of historical mysteries.


I was particularly struck by the strange pacing - the whole book seemed to fly by but the tempo was off. There was no build-up of suspense or careful tracking of clues. There was a flurry of murders and then a resolution. I picked up the book largely for its' time and setting - English historical mysteries are almost always set in London and since my ancestors lived in Yorkshire during this era, I thought it would be fun to read. Unfortunately, there was no real sense of place - just one awkward expository conversation when the two lead characters talk about the layout of the city.

I was also interested in the concept of a mystery unfolding inside a city under siege and the tension between Royalist and Parliamentarian forces. An author like C.J. Sansom would know how to inject a lingering sense of dread in his characters and make the siege itself a character. There were large chunks of this book when the characters seemed to completely forget their own situation and then mention it out of the blue - as if Thomas suddenly remembered that he needed to keep that plot point going.

As many readers have noted, the information about midwives is one of the more entertaining parts of the book and I enjoyed learning about this element of 17th century life. Thomas was also quite good at not making his lead character too modern - she often remarks in passing on beliefs and values that seem odd and outdated to modern readers.

I don't think The Midwife's Tale is a bad book by any means but I certainly wouldn't encourage readers to seek it out when there are so many other good historical mystery series out there.

Review: Shadow on the Crown

Sunday, March 24, 2013

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In 1002, fifteen­-year-old Emma of Normandy crosses the Narrow Sea to wed the much older King Athelred of England, whom she meets for the first time at the church door. Thrust into an unfamiliar and treacherous court, with a husband who mistrusts her, stepsons who resent her and a bewitching rival who covets her crown, Emma must defend herself against her enemies and secure her status as queen by bearing a son.

Determined to outmaneuver her adversaries, Emma forges alliances with influential men at court and wins the affection of the English people. But her growing love for a man who is not her husband and the imminent threat of a Viking invasion jeopardize both her crown and her life.


I made the mistake of dismissing this book when it started to pop up in lists of upcoming historical fiction. Something about the generic cover with the now obligatory faceless woman led me to dismiss the book as just another "queen" novel. It was only when I started to see glowing review after glowing review all around the blogging community that I reconsidered. 


I'm very glad I did. There are so few historical novels with lead female protagonists that have not been done to death (Helen Hollick did reach this territory first with her novel "The Forever Queen") and I appreciated the opportunity to spend time in Saxon England with Emma, future mother of Edward the Confessor. Throughout the book, I kept remembering my visit to Westminster Abbey a few years ago and the opportunity that was given to all members of the Christian faith who wished to pray in the holiest part of the Abbey - we were allowed back into the small room that surrounds the tomb of Edward the Confessor. In a world of museum pieces behind glass, it was incredible to me to have the opportunity to sit a few feet from the grave of an English king who lived ten centuries ago. His tomb looked impossibly ancient; more like a tree or a rock that had always existed in that spot. 


It's a great credit to Bracewell - a first-time novelist - that this poorly documented and almost incomprehensible time in our own modern mind feels quite real but also quite clearly aligned with unfamiliar values and mores. At times, Crown is very dark. The warfare and treatment of women at that time is not glossed over. Some readers may feel uncomfortable with these graphic depictions but these scenes aren't prurient - they're for a purpose. Emma undergoes severe mistreatment at the hands of her husband and Bracewell details that abuse unflinchingly so that we understand the stakes of Emma's survival. 


I wasn't too fond of the romantic subplot that gave Emma a small measure of hope in her unrelentingly cheerless and unsettled existence. The relationship felt contrived and wasn't developed enough to justify the incredible risks the two characters took to be together. Ultimately, it didn't bother me too greatly as that element of the book stayed a sub-plot and since we know so little of Emma's life, Bracewell didn't go directly against documented historical facts in creating the relationship.  


Emma herself is the great strength of the book. She is true to her time - a powerless woman who never anachronistically fights to be heard but who nevertheless works in her own quiet ways - observing, building alliances and remaining strong in the midst of a treacherous court. It was quite enjoyable to read of new battles and fears and to see England on the verge of becoming a real kingdom while still very much a collection of squabbling regions, counties and fiefdoms. 


Bracewell writes clean, streamlined prose. She wisely tells the story from the viewpoint of four main characters: Emma, her husband Athelred the Unready, his son and a lady in waiting at the court. The shifting perspectives emphasize the constantly changing stakes in the fight for power and lend an almost thriller-like pace to the plot. 


Crown is the first in a trilogy on the life of Emma of Normandy and this installment ends with the birth of her first son, Edward the Confessor. I was so engaged by her life story that I cheated and went online to read about the rest of her life. Fortunately, this is just the start of Emma's eventful life and I'll be eagerly awaiting the next books in the series. 






Review: Passion

Sunday, March 17, 2013

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In the turbulent years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, three poets—Byron, Shelley, and Keats—come to prominence, famous and infamous, for their vivid personalities, and their glamorous, shocking, and sometimes tragic lives. In this electrifying novel, those lives are explored through the eyes of the women who knew and loved them—intensely, scandalously. Four women from widely different backgrounds are linked by a sensational fate. Mary Shelley: the gifted daughter of gifted parents, for whom passion leads to exile, loss, and a unique fame. Lady Caroline Lamb: born to fabulous wealth and aristocratic position, who risks everything for the ultimate love affair. Fanny Brawne: her quiet, middle-class girlhood is transformed—and immortalized—by a disturbing encounter with genius. Augusta Leigh: the unassuming poor relation who finds herself flouting the greatest of all taboos. (from Goodreads)

I always hesitate to start a Jude Morgan novel. I hesitate for many reasons: because his idiosyncratic voice will invade my imagination, changing my own writing for some time; because I know that the depth and breadth of his historical vision will require a greater reading effort on my part (this is no light historical mystery I can finish in a day or two) and because I know that ultimately, when I turn the last page, it will be impossible to choose the next book I want to read. Nothing will measure up. 


Passion is the third Morgan novel I've read after first discovering his book Charlotte and Emily about the Brontes and then buying a Kindle edition of The Secret Life of William Shakespeare when it hadn't been published yet in the U.S. I loved both of those books but according to the reader's guide in the back of my edition, Passion was Morgan's dream project that he worked on after completing some light Regency romances mimicking Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. For lack of a better word, Morgan's passion for the topic definitely comes through here. 


Some readers will almost certainly be turned off by this book and Morgan's writing style. Morgan writes at the pace of life. Readers looking for a traditional narrative - a beginning, middle and end or a rise, fall and return will not find any familiar structures here. People just live their lives and when you close the book, you feel as though their stories with the poets they loved have come to an end but the women are still off living their lives. 


Morgan has an incredibly unique writing style. In the space of one chapter you can find a range of forms - from a monologue to a scene written in the format of a play (just dialogue and stage directions) to a Jane Austen pastiche that openly borrows and rewrites some of her most famous opening lines. There are even times when the narration switches from past to present tense and then back again and from first to third person and then back again. Writers beware - this is incredibly tricky stuff to pull off. Most of the time, Morgan succeeds and it's rare when one of the tricks in his toolbox turns into a gimmick. 


The way Morgan brings to life the language and feel and texture of the time is truly incredible and the sense of depth and breadth in even minor characters is an incredible accomplishment. I'm not even interested in Regency England but I was there, I felt it - I was in the carriages and the rented houses and the ballrooms. I knew each and every woman just by the way she spoke and saw the world. They really do exist apart from and alongside the men - their perceptions are given more room than the writing of Ode to a Nightingale or Childe Harold. Now some readers may feel cheated as the subtitle claims this is "a novel of the romantic poets" not a novel of "the women who loved the Romantic poets." I didn't because I felt that I'd been given a complete picture of life for women of that time. 


Fanny Brawne really does get a raw deal here - she and Keats don't come in until almost the last 100 pages and their love is quickly glossed over. Compared to the time we spend with Caroline Lamb, Fanny and Keats are barely mentioned. Oddly, their relationship seems the healthiest to me, the one relationship that is a true partnership, a matching of minds, souls and personalities. I wonder if the lack of space in this 534-page novel was due to the fact that it's easier to write unhappiness then it is to depict love and happiness. 


In the case of the other three pairings, Morgan doesn't do as good a job convincing us of why these pairs love each other or - at the very least - feel passion for each other. The reader is just supposed to assume that it had to happen. Every other emotion is brilliantly brought to life - boredom, mania, fear, disgust, affection - and he convincingly ages each woman through childhood, young womanhood, marriage, motherhood and beyond. 


The way Morgan brings to life the language and feel and texture of the time is truly incredible and the sense of depth and breadth is an incredible accomplishment. I'm not even interested in Regency England but I was there, I felt it - I was in the carriages and the rented houses and the ballrooms. I knew each and every woman just by the way she spoke and saw the world. They really do exist apart from and alongside the men - their perceptions are given more room than the writing of Ode to a Nightingale or Childe Harold. However, some readers may feel cheated as the subtitle claims this is "a novel of the romantic poets" not a novel of "the women who loved the Romantic poets."


Ultimately, the epic vision and beautiful writing redeem the novel's faults. Passion will take its place on my bedside bookshelf alongside my favorite of the genre. About halfway through I started turning down page corners so that I could return to a favorite passage. Good thing the book is beside my bed - I have a lot of favorites to look back on. 

Review: The Crown

Saturday, March 16, 2013

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JOANNA STAFFORD, a Dominican nun, learns that her favorite cousin has been condemned by Henry VIII to be burned at the stake. Defying the rule of enclosure, Joanna leaves the priory to stand at her cousin’s side. Arrested for interfering with the king’s justice, Joanna, along with her father, is sent to the Tower of London.
While Joanna is in the Tower, the ruthless Bishop of Winchester forces her to spy for him: to save her father’s life she must find an ancient relic—a crown so powerful, it may possess the ability to end the Reformation.
With Cromwell’s troops threatening to shutter her priory, bright and bold Joanna must decide who she can trust so that she may save herself, her family, and her sacred way of life. This provocative story melds heart-stopping suspense with historical detail and brings to life the poignant dramas of women and men at a fascinating and critical moment in England’s past. (from Amazon)

I passed on The Crown when it came out last year, strongly put off by the comparisons to Dan Brown and Philippa Gregory. I feared committing to another insubstantial historical mystery. I didn't want to get into another story of a mystical relic and a prophecy that predictably changes the protagonist's life. I picked it up again because of the rave reviews its sequel, The Chalice has been getting in the blogosphere and I thought I'd give this new series a try. 

The Crown overcame most of my prejudices, largely (I think) because I read it in about a day and didn't end up devoting too much reading time to this ultimately entertaining but possibly forgettable novel. The successes in this novel are largely due to the well-written main character Joanna Stafford, a well-born young woman living in Tudor England who has chosen to become a novice at a Dominican Priory just as Henry VIII is ordering the dissolution of the monasteries. Joanna is unlike most historical heroines in that she is strong but not feisty, intelligent but not overly confident and very much focused on the spiritual matters of life in a way that is not often examined in historical fiction despite the central role religion played in people's lives until just before our own time. I appreciated Joanna's character a great deal - she struck me as a very real young woman who has made decisions with the confidence of the young and I think I'll return to Bilyeau's series to see how she matures and contemplates the consequences of some of those decisions through inevitable change. 

I also appreciated the depiction of Henry VIII's court. As any die-hard historical fiction fan knows,  it's incredibly difficult to make this well-trodden period seem fresh and new. Authors risk caricature as soon as they introduce well-known characters like Cromwell, Katherine of Aragon and Princess Mary. I almost hear myself groaning every time one of these well-known figures gets trotted out onstage. Bilyeau wisely focuses on the secondary players of that time, namely the Duke of Norfolk and Bishop Gardiner to keep things fresh. 

The mystery itself is interesting but nothing terribly special. There are the usual red herrings, final showdowns and role reversals. It's a credit to Bilyeau that I hadn't figured everything out too far ahead and the various plot lines are not all neatly wrapped up in one confrontation. There are some surprises at the end that seemed to come out of nowhere and are explained far too quickly. But the end of the book finds Joanna in a very different situation than at the beginning and I'm interested to see how Bilyeau handles these changes in subsequent books. My hope is that her already fine writing gets even better and that the plotting of the mysteries follows. 

Review: The House of Silk

Monday, March 4, 2013

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London, 1890. 221B Baker St. A fine art dealer named Edmund Carstairs visits Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson to beg for their help. He is being menaced by a strange man in a flat cap - a wanted criminal who seems to have followed him all the way from America. In the days that follow, his home is robbed, his family is threatened. And then the first murder takes place.

THE HOUSE OF SILK bring Sherlock Holmes back with all the nuance, pacing, and almost superhuman powers of analysis and deduction that made him the world's greatest detective, in a case depicting events too shocking, too monstrous to ever appear in print....until now.

I have a nameless library book sale attendant to thank for bringing this novel to my attention. He wasn't the type of person who is noisy or aggressively nice. He was just a kind soul - the type who loves reading so much that he wants to hear all about the books you love and help you find some more. When I mentioned an interest in historical fiction and mysteries, he immediately told me about a new Sherlock Holmes mystery that he'd put out on the front shelf that morning. He kept mentioning the fact that he'd just put out the book and what a nice new paperback it was - as if the book had been waiting for me. When I grabbed it off the shelf and came back to his desk, he sighed and said "Oh good, it was still there." 

I know the feeling - when you love a book that much it's tempting to buy up all the copies you can find. It's almost as if finding a new copy will allow you to read the book again for the first time. 

Now as much I loved reading Arthur Conan Doyle as a kid and enjoy the current BBC series, Sherlock Holmes is not exactly tops on my reading list. I took another look at it and realized that although I'd already bought all the Christmas presents I needed for my father, it wouldn't hurt to throw one more book into the box of books he was already getting (my love of reading is genetic). 

"House of Silk" is billed as the first new Sherlock Holmes mystery authorized by the Conan Doyle estate. Knowing how much my father loved the originals, I thought this might be a bit of a risk to give to him. It seems that he did enjoy it because he kept emailing me and asking me if I'd read it. I hadn't planned on it but apparently this book wanted me to read it! 

I managed to read it in almost one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed it. The Holmes and Watson were true to my memories from the originals, the London setting was vivid but not overdone and the language and feel of the time spot-on. While I'm usually terrible at figuring out mysteries, this one came a bit too easy for me - the plot consists of two mysteries nestles within one another and I had the second one figured out almost immediately and the first one about halfway through the book. I'm not sure if this means I'm starting to get good at solving mysteries or if the clues were a bit too easy. 

But the in Sherlock Holmes isn't in the mystery but in the interaction between the two lead characters and and the things that Holmes see when no one else does. Those elements are handled perfectly here and provided a nice Sunday of reading. 

I never would have thought it at the time but that nameless library attendant was very right! 

A Royal Saturday

Sunday, March 3, 2013

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Apologies to all who came here and got redirected to one of those horrible generic sites that show up when a link is broken. My web hosting service - who shall remain nameless - took forever to renew my annual domain name registration.

All's set now except that it's the weekend and I have a terrible end-of-winter cold. Sinus headache. Scratchy throat. The works. Since it's 30 degrees and windy out this isn't such a tragedy. I suspect that the cat secretly wishes I was always sick so that he can curl up next to me on the down comforter and take a several hours-long nap. So that's exactly what happened yesterday and I happened to pick William Kuhn's "Mrs Queen Takes the Train" off a stack of backlogged advance reading copies to keep myself occupied since moving was too painful and - more importantly - would have meant disturbing the cat.

It turned out to be the kind of day where I read that in one sitting and then went straight on to Alan Bennett's "The Uncommon Reader." For readers unfamiliar with these books, both imagine their way inside the head of  Queen Elizabeth II and find her acting out uncharacteristically in her old age. It was illuminating to read both in one day and see how a good writer handles an idea and then what a really good writer does with it.

Kuhn's Queen Elizabeth is instantly charming if a little too much like the grandmother who tries very hard to be modern. She practices yoga and is attempting to teach herself how to use "Miss Twitter." Despite these attempts to keep up with the times, the Queen increasingly finds herself slipping into sadness and questioning the meaning of her life. One day, she slips out to the Royal Mews to feed her horses and decides to keep on going to Scotland to see her decommissioned yacht Britannia, site of some of her happiest memories. Members of the Royal Household pair off into different groups to pursue the Queen, each with their own back stories, relationships with the Queen and dynamics with each other providing the main interest. The result is a sweet if predictable journey with each of the pairs ending up just as you think they'll end up with each other and even the Queen's journey doesn't really hold many surprises. The last twenty or thirty pages attempt to find some larger meaning for the whole story through a very clumsy use of a performance of Shakespeare's Henry V as a plot device.

At 120 pages total, The Uncommon Reader is just a novella but its characterization of the Queen feels much truer to life. Rather than getting to close to her thoughts, the reader is held at a distance and that somehow seems a better way of getting at the Queen's personality than Kuhn's attempt to make her loveable. This Queen Elizabeth wouldn't dream of doing yoga - her idea of crazy misbehavior is to borrow a Nancy Mitford novel from the Westminster mobile library she encounters one day while walking her dogs. Never a curious or voracious reader, the Queen suddenly discovers an insatiable desire for books and knowledge. There are fewer characters in Bennett's take on Buckingham Palace but they're far more memorable, from Norman the kitchen boy who shares the Queen's love of reading to Kevin, her Private Secretary, who does everything in his power to preserve the status quo.

Bennett wisely realizes that the trick of making the Queen seem like a real person is just a trick and getting inside her head is far more interesting if it can be used as an opportunity to ask what it means to live an extraordinary life and to show how very quickly people can become threatened by other's curiosity. Ultimately, the Queen's love of books lead to a memorable crisis point that holds a lot more surprise than Kuhn's final chapters.

I'm glad I read both books in one day. They were a very fun, very British way of getting over a head cold.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of "Mrs. Queen Takes the Train" from the publisher for review purposes.