Friday, April 18, 2014

The Winter Siege by D.W. Bradbridge

Title: The Winter Siege
Author: D.W. Bradbridge

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th Century / UK / Murder Mystery / English Civil War)
Publisher/Publication Date: Electric Reads (10/1/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A cheese merchant slash constable has to deal with murders amidst the drama of guild politics, an approaching army, and the return of his old flame.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Eh -- it's not my thing but it's done well enough.

I'm reminded of...: James Mace, Sam Thomas

First line: The small group of horsemen pulled up in front of the imposing sandstone towers of Kinneil House, allowing the riders to survey the scene in front of them.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like historical mysterious with meaty locales and rich ambiance.

Why did I get this book?: It got great reviews the first time it went on tour.

Review: I enjoy historical mysteries but must say my favorites are often set during times of war - Sam Thomas' Bridget Hodgson (17th century), Janice Law's Francis Bacon (WWII), Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther (WWII), to name a few. The ordinary horror of murder becomes increasingly meaningful amidst so much other death, and touches on the best and the worst of humanity.

I was intrigued by this book after seeing nonstop raves for it following the first HFVBT for it. And since I adored J. Boyce Gleason's Anvil of God, another other fan favorite, I decided to take the 480+ page plunge with this one.

It was so worth it.

Featuring the same tense wartime era and enclosed urban locale as Thomas' series, this novel takes place during the winter of 1643/1644 during the English Civil War.  Set in Nantwich, Cheshire, the story is told by Constable Daniel Cheswis, a cheeseseller and salt works owner.

Clocking in at 488 pages, this is a brick -- but it doesn't read like it. In fact, if I was told that in addition to the murder mystery plot and the war time stuff, there was also rich details and subplots featuring the cheese selling business, the drama of salt guilds, and the political press, I might have passed, but Bradbridge makes the pages race.

A warm and sympathetic everyman, Cheswis' concern for his community guides him, even if it's a task he's rather not perform.  But when faced with not one but two murders, possibly political, both involving friends and family, he finds himself having to navigate the thorny world of politics as well as keeping the peace in the increasingly tense town.

Courted on one side by the parliamentary army to keep them apprised of details, the royalist-leaning families of Nantwich are quick to remind Cheswis that they will be around long after the army leaves, urging him to drop any political investigations.  Worse, an ex-flame from his childhood appears with her power-hungry printer husband, who is happy to print and distribute inflammatory papers in support of whichever group takes control.

Even though there's a thread of political drama, this isn't a politics-heavy novel; despite the wartime atmosphere, it's not a war novel, either.  It's a delightful historical novel that draws from the very rich mess of the era, and presents a slice of life that is both ordinary and exotic.  The drama of the arduous (but interesting) process of investigating the crime is balanced by enough interpersonal excitement to keep the story from feeling rote or familiar, and I hung on every page.  Highly recommended -- can't wait to see what Bradbridge releases next!

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Winter Siege to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US, UK, and Canadian readers only. Ends 5/2.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Title: The Frangipani Hotel
Author: Violet Kupersmith

Genre: Fiction (Short Stories / Contemporary / Vietnam / Vietnamese-Americans / Cross-Cultural Experiences / Supernatural Themes / Folk Lore)
Publisher/Publication Date: Spiegel & Grau (4/1/2014)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Nine chilling and atmospheric short stories about Vietnam.
Reading Challenges: E-book, NetGalley & Edelweiss

Do I like the cover?: Love it. It reminds me of 'Boat Story', the piece that opens this collection.

I'm reminded of...: Aimee Bender, Elizabeth Hand, Sara Maitland, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

First line: The only photograph I have of my father doesn't show his face., from 'Reception'.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, stat!

Why did I get this book?: I'm a short story fan.

Review: I loved this volume of short stories, right from the first page. Reminiscent of Aimee Bender, Elizabeth Hand, Sara Maitland, and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Kupersmith's stories have that wonderful mix of mood, slightly supernatural-y elements, and lovely language you just want to pluck out and savor.

These nine stories are set in Vietnan or in Vietnamese-American households in the US. Most have an undercurrent of creepiness to them due to a vaguely supernatural or paranormal element, usually due to creatures from myth and folk lore.  They're about family -- and the mysteries in families -- or one's identity.  They're about the power and danger of stories and questions.  They're flat out awesome.

I don't know if I can pick a favorite from the collection, as I adored each one as soon as I finished.  Kupersmith quickly evokes sense of place and characters in a few sentences, but nothing ever felt rushed or quick.  There's both mood and plot in every piece.
Our muddy patch of the world was already shadowy and blood-soaked and spirit-friendly long before the Americans got here. (p56)
I inhaled this volume in a night.  Apparently Kupersmith is writing a novel, and I cannot wait for it.  Given this taste of her style of writing, her novel is going to be incredible.

Highly, swoon-i-ly recommended.  Those who aren't wild about short stories should give these a try -- each story has a satisfying arc and a fabulous ending.  Short story fanatics will obviously want to get this collection.  Anyone who wants an armchair escape and a brush with something ghostly and otherworldly, this is your book.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Frangipani Hotel to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 4/25.




Monday, April 7, 2014

The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal

Title: The Anatomy Lesson
Author: Nina Siegal

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th Century / Amsterdam / The Netherlands / Rembrandt / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Artist)
Publisher/Publication Date: Nan A. Talese (3/11/2014)
Source: Edelweiss

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A day in 17th century Amsterdam, immortalized in a Rembrandt painting.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, Netgalley & Edelweiss

Do I like the cover?: Adore it.  The image at the top is from the painting in question; the hand is also from that painting and is a huge part of the story; the doctor is named for tulips.  Such a brilliant design.

I'm reminded of...: Kathryn Harrison, Ami McKay, Louisa Young

First line: At the first toll of the Westerkerk bell Adriaen Adriaenszoon bolts awake in a dank stone jail inside Amsterdam's town hall.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.

Why did I get this book?: The cover: I was seduced by it!

Review: This slender novel -- just 288 pages -- is a rich, emotional look at love, ambition, the human soul, the creative impulse, the last immortality of art. And yet, despite the lofty themes, it's a wholly accessible, can't-put-it-down read-able novel with a handful of unforgettable characters and one devastating day.

Inspired by Rembrandt's massive painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the novel takes place during the day of Dr. Tulp's anatomy lesson.  The narrative shifts between seven voices and point of view, but rather than distract and dilute the tension and the story, this serves to provide a dense, captivating experience.

We meet Adriaen 'Aris the Kid' Adriaenszoon, a criminal who, after his hanging, will be used for the anatomy lesson; Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, an ambitious Dutch doctor who conducts the lesson; Flora, the pregnant country girl who hopes to prevent her lover's execution; Jan, a curio collector who also moonlights as an acquirer of medical cadavers; René Descartes, who will attend the dissection in the course of his quest to understand where the human soul resides; and the twenty-six-year-old Dutch master painter himself, who feels a shade uneasy about this assignment. And in the twenty-first century, there is Pia, a contemporary art historian who is examining the painting.

Each voice is so clear, their arc so well delineated, that the myriad of characters doesn't muddy the plot nor lose the reader.  In fact, the story is made more rich by the variety of viewpoints.  I was unfamiliar with this painting and the circumstances surrounding it, but Siegal articulates the technical aspects of the painting's design and layout as well as the (likely fictional) events leading up to it in such an engrossing way, I couldn't put this book down for anything but work.  (It also makes me yearn for more novels about specific works of art!)

Highly recommended -- a really fantastic debut.  For those who like novels about art, or historical novels that feature more ordinary people, this is a must read.  Fans of lightly literary works will want to pick this up, too.  You can read an excerpt at the publisher's website.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Winner!

It's been crazy hectic in my personal and professional life, so apologies for the delay in getting this up!  But I have a giveaway winner at last!

The winner of The Debt of Tamar is ... Susan C.!

Congrats!  If you didn't win, be sure to check out my open giveaways (both open internationally!) -- more coming next week.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Interview with Ruth Hull Chatlien

Earlier this week I reviewed Ruth Hull Chatlien's fabulous novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, about the American belle who married one of Napoleon's brothers. Her life verges on the unbelievable, and I inhaled this novel in a few days. I'm excited to share my interview with the author, so read on to learn more about the book and what she does when she's not writing.

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

When I was ten, I started writing a historical novel called The Unknown Patriot. It was a combination of a spy story and Romeo and Juliet. During the American Revolution, two young lovers named Rebecca and Thomas were kept apart because their fathers—Boston merchants—had fallen out over political differences. Rebecca’s father was a Tory, while Thomas’s father favored independence. The young couple decided to meet secretly. Thomas was also approached to act as a courier for an American spy who communicated only by letter and called himself John Q to keep his identity hidden. The final manuscript was about 120 pages long and took me about six years to write.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I like to start each writing session by rereading what I did the day before and maybe making a few changes. Doing that helps get me back into the flow of the story. If I’m really stuck on something, I like to take a long walk outdoors and let the physical activity clear out the cobwebs from my mind.

Was The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte the original title of your book?

Yes, the title came very early in the process. There is a famous quotation by the real Betsy that I used in the novel: “Tell the emperor that Madame Bonaparte is ambitious and demands her rights as a member of the imperial family.” In addition, as I read through Betsy Bonaparte’s collected letters, I realized that she often used the adjective ambitious to describe herself—and to distinguish herself from many of her acquaintances. She was well aware that she wanted much more than was typical of the other women she knew.

When did you first learn about Betsy Bonaparte, and why did you want to tell her story?

My husband and I were great fans of the Horatio Hornblower television series in the late 1990s. Then in the 2000s, we discovered an additional four episodes that we had never seen because they were produced much later. The last of those featured Jerome and Betsy Bonaparte. Despite my familiarity with world history, I didn’t know that Napoleon’s brother had married an American. When I looked up the facts on the Internet, I discovered that Betsy’s real life was far more interesting than the snippet shown (and distorted) in the television show.

One of things I wanted to do with the book was to portray Betsy in all her complexity. She’s someone who’s easy to dismiss as a stereotype. Older interpretations of her life focused on the romance and the injustice of Napoleon’s opposition to her marriage, while many modern historians disparage her because of her vanity, ambition, and obsession with rank. I think either interpretation is too simplistic. I wanted to create a more nuanced portrayal that showed both her flaws and her strengths, the qualities that make people want to shake her and the qualities that make people want to give her a hug. Even when I disagreed with her choices, I felt that it was my task to show why she made the decisions she did and how they grew out of her own values and goals, not mine as the writer.

As you were writing The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

I think the scene that surprised me most occurred in Chapter Twenty-Seven. I had taken great care to depict Betsy’s son Bo as an even-tempered child who did his best to please his mother so I was shocked that, as I was writing the scene in which he learns that his tutor must leave him, he suddenly began to throw a tantrum. I tried to backtrack and start over, but Bo just would not play the scene any other way. After thinking about it for a while, I realized that I hadn’t done justice to the insecurities the boy must have felt because of the precarious status of his parents’ marriage.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I like to read of course, but I also have many interests not related to books. I’m an artist (in fact, I did the portrait of Betsy that we used on the cover). The two media I work in most are colored pencil and oils. In addition, I’m a knitter, a gardener, a doting owner of a 9-year-old schnoodle, and an avid football fan.

Read any good books recently?

I recently read Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle, which I enjoyed immensely. It tells the story of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. Fremantle is adept at plotting and characterization and she does a good job of demonstrating the personal qualities that caused Henry to marry Katherine despite her seeming disadvantages (she ha already been widowed twice). The descriptions offer enough period details to ground the reader firmly in the historical place and time without bogging down the prose. I think Fremantle is a promising new voice in historical fiction.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Chatlien for her time and thoughtful responses. You can learn more about her and her book at her website and connect with her on Facebook.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

To Live Forever by Andra Watkins

Title: To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis
Author: Andra Watkins

Genre: Fiction (Speculative / 1970s / New Orleans / Mississippi / Historical Figures Fictionalized / Child Narrator)
Publisher/Publication Date: World Hermit Press (3/1/2014)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A young girl is saved from a predatory man by the stuck-in-limbo ghost of Meriwether Lewis.
Reading Challenges: E-book

Do I like the cover?: I uh-dore it. Clean, sharp, eye-catching.

I'm reminded of...: Cass Dalglish, Michael Williams

First line: A drop of sweat hung from the end of my nose.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.

Why did I get this book?: The set up was too bonkers to resist!

Review: The premise of this book is completely bananas, and I mean that in the best way.

The ghost of Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame) is on his 13th and last mission to redeem his soul when he's sent to 1977 New Orleans. Tasked with helping Emmeline, a 9-year old girl who was just sold by her prostitute mother to the highest bidder, he agrees to help her find her father.  They're pursued by a murderous judge who is convinced Emmeline is the reincarnation of his beloved wife -- and worse, as Merry discovers, the judge is a lost ghost like himself, and a dark figure from Merry's past.

To return Emmeline to her father in Nashville, Merry treks the Natchez Trace -- a 400+ mile long trail that runs from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee -- which is also the site of his mysterious death.  The journey transforms them while providing many moments of danger and excitement for the reader.

Despite the crazy setup, the story works, and works well. Alternating viewpoints between Merry, Emmeline, and the Judge, Watkins manages to make this credulity-straining premise feel believable and real.  There's some philosophical wrestling that makes this lightly literary but doesn't get so ethereal as to lose the emotional oomph from Emmeline's plight.  The Judge is unabashedly malevolent while Merry struggles to be the best kind of (ghost) man he can for Emmeline's sake.  Emmeline herself shifts between childishness and too-early maturity and provides the real emotional hook of the story.

Watkins walked the entire Natchez Trace in honor of the book's debut and her passion for the place shines through in her writing.

While not precisely historical fiction -- the novel is set in 1977 -- it has a sense of place and time from our ghostly characters that inspired me to start googling the moment I finished.  If you like adventure stories with strong young women and you don't mind a little paranormal-ness, consider this one.  It might sound odd, but I promise there's a lovely emotional payoff along with some eye-opening details about Meriwether Lewis and the first governor of Louisiana (a double agent, as it turns out!).  

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of To Live Forever to one lucky reader -- a paperback copy (US) or ebook (US/international). To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 4/18.




Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte by Ruth Hull Chatlien

Title: The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte
Author: Ruth Hull Chatlien

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 18th Century / Bonapartes/ Baltimore / Marriage / Historical Figures Fictionalized / Marriage / Motherhood)
Publisher/Publication Date: Amika Press (12/2/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The life of Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon's brother Jerome.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it captures the flavor and era of the novel.

I'm reminded of...: Liza Perrat

First line: Taking the footman's hand, eighty-five-year-old Betsy Bonaparte gingerly alighted from the carriage and readjusted her voluminous skirts.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.

Why did I get this book?: Couldn't pass up a Bonaparte hist fic!

Review: While I'm a fan of Josephine Bonaparte, I actually know very little about the Bonaparte family, so I jumped on the chance to read a novel about her sister-in-law. With the Bonapartes, I anticipated some drama, but I had no idea what I was getting into when I started this fabulous novel.

Baltimore belle Elizabeth 'Betsy' Patterson longs for more than the life as a merchant's wife, and as a child, is told she's destined for royal courts. When Napoleon Bonaparte's dashing younger brother Jerome appears in Baltimore, both are immediately smitten with each other. After a passionate courtship, they marry, and Betsy finds that being embroiled with the Bonapartes comes with a greater cost than she anticipated.

I'm being purposefully vague because I don't want to ruin any of the (historical) twists of the novel; if you, too, are unfamiliar with Betsy Bonaparte, don't google her -- just settle in and start this novel. I probably gasped aloud at least once a chapter -- the events of Betsy's life are shocking and surprising and make for a delicious novel.

Chatlien's writing is easy and reads quickly, although there were a few times where I wished the pacing had been tightened up, particularly early on in the novel during Betsy's childhood. However, once Betsy meets Jerome, the story races, and I found it impossible to put the book down.

While Betsy occasionally frustrated me with her life choices, she's portrayed sympathetically and with affection, and I couldn't help but like her. The numerous secondary characters, including the many famous 18th century American and European figures who crossed paths with Betsy Bonaparte, are evoked neatly and warmly.

The historical details are just wonderful in this book. I've never 'visited' 18th century Baltimore so this was a particular treat; Chatlien manages to evoke era and place in an effortless way, without the dreaded infodump.

There's a detailed bibliography and discussion questions included in this volume, although there was no Historical Note, sadly.

For Francophiles, this is a must read, as well as those who like historical novels about ordinary people coming up against the impossible (in this case, Napoleon Bonaparte's will!). A lovely, fast reading novel of a young American woman coming of age at an exciting time, caught up in a love affair that seems doomed from the start. I'm looking forward to Chatlien's next offering!