Review: The Secret Daughter of the Tsar

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A compelling alternate history of the Romanov family in which a secret fifth daughter—smuggled out of Russia before the revolution—continues the royal lineage to dramatic consequences. In her riveting debut novel, The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, Jennifer Laam seamlessly braids together the stories of three women: Veronica, Lena, and Charlotte. Veronica is an aspiring historian living in present-day Los Angeles when she meets a mysterious man who may be heir to the Russian throne. As she sets about investigating the legitimacy of his claim through a winding path of romance and deception, the ghosts of her own past begin to haunt her. Lena, a servant in the imperial Russian court of 1902, is approached by the desperate Empress Alexandra.  After conceiving four daughters, the Empress is determined to sire a son and believes Lena can help her. Once elevated to the Romanov’s treacherous inner circle, Lena finds herself under the watchful eye of the meddling Dowager Empress Marie. Charlotte, a former ballerina living in World War II occupied Paris, receives a surprise visit from a German officer. Determined to protect her son from the Nazis, Charlotte escapes the city, but not before learning that the officer’s interest in her stems from his longstanding obsession with the fate of the Russian monarchy. Then as Veronica's passion intensifies, and her search for the true heir to the throne takes a dangerous turn, the reader learns just how these three vastly different women are connected. The Secret Daughter of the Tsar is thrilling from its first intense moments until its final, unexpected conclusion. (from Goodreads)

I struggled with the review for this book. Readers looking for a fast-paced, "what-if" partially set in Romanov Russia, will find this a fun, light read - a kind of "Da Vinci Code" for Nicholas and Alexandra. Unfortunately, I feel like I'm awash in multiple time period/family secret/real story behind the history type novels and I think this was just one too many for me. The multiple-time period structure has been done enough times that a book cannot rely on an obvious plot twist. If the multiple time-period structure reveals a lot ahead of time (and your big twist ending is pretty obvious) then the reader ends up expending a lot of effort reading chapters that set up things they already know. It's all in the careful balance of handing out clues vs. giving away too much. 

Even with obvious plot twists, the overall premise of Tsar  might have even worked with interesting writing or vibrant characters. Instead, supporting characters come and go - their only purpose is to serve as a plot device. There's not a whole lot here that differentiates amongst the three different time periods or even gives a sense of historical detail. I'm even willing to brush aside some of the improbabilities in the servant-Empress relationship that forms the center of the book and the motivations of historical characters who act in odd, not fully explained ways. But I was shocked when I accidentally hit the progress button in my e-galley copy and found that I was already 70% through the book. Not a whole lot had happened up until that point - I honestly thought the story was just getting started. The pacing of the book is set-up, set-up, no payoff. 

I hate giving unfavorable reviews to first time authors - particularly an author who clearly loves the time period. I also know that in today's publishing environment a good idea like this one (did Nicholas and Alexandra have a fifth daughter?) will be quickly turned around by a publisher due to the demands of the market. I'm sure that others will find a lot of enjoyment here but I unfortunately just cannot recommend a book that is all premise and no execution. 

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

Review: The King's Grave

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The mystery of who Richard III really was has fascinated historians, readers and audiences familiar with Shakespeare’s dastardly portrait of a hunchback monster for centuries.  Earlier this year, the remains of a man with a curving spine, who possible was killed in battle, were discovered underneath the paving of a parking lot in Leicester, England.  Phillipa Langley, head of The Richard III Society, spurred on by the work of the historian Michael Jones, led the team of who uncovered the remains, certain that she had found the bones of the monarch. When DNA verification later confirmed that the skeleton was, indeed, that of King Richard III, the discovery ranks among the great stories of passionate intuition and perseverance against the odds.  The news of the discovery of Richard’s remains has been widely reported worldwide and was front page news for both the New York Times and The Washington Post.  Many believe that now, with King Richard III’s skeleton in hand, historians will finally begin to understand what happened to him following the Battle of Bosworth Field (twenty miles or so from Leicester) and, ultimately, to know whether he was the hateful, unscrupulous monarch of Shakespeare’s drama or a much more benevolent king interested in the common man. Written in alternating chapters, with Richard’s 15th century life told by historian Michael Jones (author of the critically acclaimed Bosworth - 1485) contrasting with the 21st century eyewitness account of the search and discovery of the body by Philippa Langley, The King’s Grave will be both an extraordinary portrait of the last Plantagenet monarch and the inspiring story of the archaeological dig that finally brings the real King Richard III into the light of day.

This is a difficult book to review because each reader will come to it with differing expectations. Are you new to the story of Richard III? Do you know only the stereotypes borrowed from Shakespeare and passed down as truth? Or maybe you're like me and a bit more familiar with the Wars of the Roses and the last Plantagenet king. If you're a historical fiction fan, you've probably read Sharon Kay Penman's epic biographical novel on Richard III, The Sunne in Splendor (and if you haven't read it, find it and read it - now!). I also followed the dig for Richard III's grave fairly closely through blogs and the British media. I was enthralled by the idea that after five centuries, the world might learn something new about Richard III. 

So I came to this book with big expectations and was not terribly interested in a rehash of the "Ricardian" (the Richard III society) arguments. They've got me already - and they've got Penman to thank. I don't exactly sign on with the rosy view of Richard as a champion of the common man, an early adopter of Jeffersonian democracy with a sensitive personality straight out of a 21st century definition of manhood. I actually would like to see someone give Richard the benefit of the doubt going the other way. Being a Medieval king was not easy and the behavior we would like to find in Richard to confirm the prejudices of our own time and perspectives would have gotten a man killed back then. I'm far more interested in why Richard III - of all the brutal, scheming Medieval kings - has come down to us as the monster. After all, we've got plenty of options. What about John, who murdered family members and was forced to sign the Magna Carta? Or Edward I who suppressed the Scots and the Welsh? And even Richard's own brother, Edward IV managed to kill family members and get away with it. I wouldn't e terribly surprised if Richard III did kill his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. I just don't think that makes him any better than the kings before and after him. 

I doubt that Phillippa Langley, the co-author of this book, would agree with that statement. I give her a world of credit for fighting through a bureaucratic maze of permits and fundraising to make the dig happen. But this book is very clearly on one side and more then 50% of the book is a straightforward biography of Richard III and a recap of the Ricardian arguments for a reversal of his bad reputation. I was hoping to hear much more about the dig itself, the details of how the archaeologists did their work and determined the different digging sites. As a longtime reader of Romanov history, I'm also a sucker for grave site reconstructions and DNA testing (who wouldn't be, am I right?). Unfortunately, those issues are skimmed over here. 

I did appreciate the glimpse into Langley's state of mind during the dig. She took an enormous risk and it was fun to travel along with her on an ultimately successful journey. Since this is more or less the "official" account of the dig, I think this book is a worthwhile read. It was still a lot of fun to see the planning process and the doubts and the arguments, knowing that it would all work out in one of the most incredible historical discoveries of this century. If you're prepared to revisit the familiar Richard III story, then you will have great fun with this book. 

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

Review: Jane Austen's England

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Jane Austen, arguably the greatest novelist of the English language, wrote brilliantly about the gentry and aristocracy of two centuries ago in her accounts of young women looking for love. Jane Austen’s England explores the customs and culture of the real England of her everyday existence depicted in her classic novels as well as those by Byron, Keats, and Shelley. Drawing upon a rich array of contemporary sources, including many previously unpublished manuscripts, diaries, and personal letters, Roy and Lesley Adkins vividly portray the daily lives of ordinary people, discussing topics as diverse as birth, marriage, religion, sexual practices, hygiene, highwaymen, and superstitions. From chores like fetching water to healing with medicinal leeches, from selling wives in the marketplace to buying smuggled gin, from the hardships faced by young boys and girls in the mines to the familiar sight of corpses swinging on gibbets, Jane Austen’s England offers an authoritative and gripping account that is sometimes humorous, often shocking, but always entertaining. (from Amazon). 

This is the third (and final) book in a kind of themed haul I received from the library at the beginning of September. While on the waiting list for this book, I discovered Ian Mortimer's "Time Travelers' Guides" and more or less traveled around England in chronological order from the 14th century (Guide to Medieval England) to 16th century (Guide to Elizabethan England) to the late 18th/early 19th century with this book. 

While the husband and wife pair writing this book do not quite have Mortimer's writing talent, I still enormously enjoyed this birth to death look at life in the days of King George III and William IV. Technically, only a bit of this time period is actually the "Regency" time period we associate with Austen's novels and this insight helps unlock the book - because Jane Austen's England is very much a time in transition. While many of Mortimer's sections about law, medicine and travel in Medieval and Elizabethan England remained the same, the Adkins are working in a time very much affected by the Enlightenment and the coming Industrial Revolution. Even the people of that time were aware of old traditions (sometimes observed in villages for hundreds of years) slipping away. 

It was a time when (like now) people sat at coffee-houses and liked to be seen reading newspapers or working on a writing project; a time when a young governess wrote to a friend wondering why women were not allowed to become scientists and a time when housewives eagerly read how-to manuals on raising toddlers and cooking a good meal. 

But it was also a time when "press-gangs" roamed the streets, kidnapping young men and forcing them into naval service; a time when the wealthy could afford to replace their rotting teeth with the teeth of soldiers killed on the battlefield of Waterloo and a time when a man observed the weather by noting that the rain would stop soon because his cat had used both of her paws to clean her ears. 

I was particularly interested in this book because I know a bit about my ancestors in England who were alive at that time. I've always been curious as to why they chose to leave England for the United States in 1819 (shortly after the end of the War of 1812). The brutal details of life for the lower classes make it pretty clear that a trip across the Atlantic was not that much of a risk in the grand scheme of things. 

But, I never expected to read a story about a young boy with an alternate spelling of my (unusual) last name who lived in Yorkshire (where my ancestors lived). The boy suffered away in the mines of Yorkshire starting when he was seven years old and was crushed to death by a mine cave-in when he was twelve. Obviously, he wasn't my direct ancestor but it was chilling to see the same last name and know that he was probably related to my ancestors in some way. 

The Adkins' make good and liberal use of contemporary sources to tell their story, starting with marriage and childbirth and then moving through the life cycle on to illness and death. At times, they seem unsure of how to build a flowing narrative - subjects are dropped with no warning and a new topic introduced without context. The contemporary sources are sometimes used a bit too heavily when it would be far more useful to receive some background from the modern writers. I would also caution readers not to come to this book seeking an account of the daily life of Jane Austen. While Austen's letters are often quoted in this book, her presence is more of an organizing device to look at daily life during a particular time period. 

That said, this book is an extraordinary accomplishment that I will certainly buy and dip back into for many years to come.