Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Midwife's Tale by Sam Thomas

Title: The Midwife's Tale
Author: Sam Thomas

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th Century / York / Midwife / Murder Mystery / Conspiracy / War / Thriller)
Publisher/Publication Date: Minotaur Books (1/8/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: Yes!
One-sentence summary: A midwife and her surprising assistant deal with civil war, mysterious assailants, a murder, and pregnant women in 17th century York.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: No. I feel terrible, but it reminds me of a homemade self pubbed thing -- I can't tell if the woman is animated or a photograph -- and it feels so dark. I'm squinting for detail.

First line: On the night I delivered Mercy Harris of a bastard child, the King's soldiers burned the city's suburbs and fell back within its walls to await the rebel assault.

Do... I love the robust section of webpages the author has dedicated to the historical midwife who inspired this novel?: YES. Inspired by a will beginning with “I, Bridget Hodgson, of the City of York, Midwife...”, Thomas has spun a wonderful novel, but I love seeing how much of Bridget was based on fact.

Do... I dislike the cover?: YES. But the author wrote a great post about working on the design, and he clearly likes it, and his comments kind of swayed me.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you enjoy historical fiction that tackles real people and the less sexy side of life.

Why did I get this book?: I'm a sucker for midwives!

Review: It's no secret I love historical fiction that doesn't focus on royals. I love seeing women's work portrayed realistically, and heroines who have some oomph without being anachronistic. Sam Thomas' The Midwife's Tale might have a kind of 'yawn' title, but the book is wonderful.

Set in York, 1644, in the middle of the first English Civil War, the story follows Lady Bridget Hodgson, a midwife of means. (This surprised me at first -- I didn't realize 'gentry' had jobs like this, but what do I know?) Her sister's maidservant arrives looking for work, and the young woman is shockingly adept at skills Bridget finds deeply alarming.

Any attention she might have to focus on Martha, however, is distracted when she learns her friend Esther has been arrested -- and sentenced to burn -- for the murder of her husband. Bridget is sure of Esther's innocence, Martha less so, and the two women embark on a campaign to solve the murder while avoiding getting murdered themselves. (War, plus unsavory figures from the past.)

Pretty much this whole book worked for me. It had a lovely mix of action, descriptive narrative that made for armchair time travel, and evocative characters who felt real.  I need to say a little more about the characters: while I love me some feminists, I hate historical fiction heroines who are too feisty and flouncy for their own good. In Thomas' Bridget, I found a heroine who was strong and knew her place -- she was well-born and had money -- but who also had prejudices and biases of the time (she was wicked unsympathetic to unmarried pregnant women, for example.).

Thomas based his novel on a historical Bridget and her assistant Martha, which made the story all the more interesting to me. I'm no expert on 17th century York, so I can't say whether any historical details were messed with or inaccurate, but the world he presented to me was fascinating, alien, and compelling.  I wouldn't want to live there, but I enjoyed this visit.

I read this book in about a day -- it has a marvelous first line that hooks you: 'On the night I delivered Mercy Harris of a bastard child, the King's soldiers burned the city's suburbs and fell back within its walls to await the rebel assault.' -- and every time I thought I ought to put the book down, I wanted to read just one more chapter. And then I finished, le sigh.

A wonderful historical fiction debut, and a great (what I believe is a) standalone novel.  Hist fic fans will want this one, and those who think all historical fiction is heaving bosoms and insta-love should give this one a try -- it represents what I love best about the genre: someone's alien world and alien life made resonant and real.

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GIVEAWAY!


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Midwife's Tale to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 1/25.

26 comments:

  1. This sounds wonderful. Book you read in a day is the best. I love it when I do that.

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    1. That's my favorite part of vacation, just reading all day! The transition back to real life -- and reading in chunks -- is rough!

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  2. I enjoyed reading this one as well and have to agree about the cover. I was almost swayed to not read it based on that alone. Glad I did read it though. Great review!

    Kimberlee
    www.girllostinabook.com

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    1. I agree, Kimberlee, I too almost passed until I saw it was from Minotaur.

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  3. I'm very interested in this book, thanks for the giveaway!

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  4. This one sounds interesting and nice to hear that the woman character is not a royal. It is nice to read about everyday life!

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    1. Yes -- I'm all for escapism, but I love seeing how ordinary people might have lived/felt.

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  5. I don't love the cover, either. LOoks like it's trying too hard to be Vermeer-esque.

    Since you love fiction about midwifery, did you read a book from a couple of years ago called The Midwife of Venice? Set in either 16th or 17th century, can't recall.

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    1. No -- but I have it! It's one of those owned-but-haven't-yet-read beasts -- I'm excited for it -- and was then. Thanks for the reminder -- I'll dig it out!

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  6. This was an excellent read, and one of my favorites of the past few months. I also loved Lady Hodgeson and Martha, and thought that they were very realistic and intrepid without being weak. I am so glad that you loved this one! So many reviewers are giving this one positive glow, and I hope that makes more people read it. I also think your review was one of a kind, and totally absorbing and excellent, Audra. Thanks!

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  7. I must tell you that the cover really turned me off to this one. I will sometimes read a book with an ugly cover but only after countless bloggers have raved about it.

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    1. Consider this that rave! It's so worth it -- don't let the cover put you off!

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  8. I'm not big on historical fiction, so I'll have to think about this.

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  9. I also loved this book, but have to agree about the cover. I got my copy from netgalley and I think I would have steered clear if they didn't give it to me for review. Glad they did. Wish it was a series though, I miss Martha and Lady Hodgeson.

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    1. Margaret, I had a dream in which there was a sequel, and I was so happy!

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  10. This isn't my cup of tea, but the cover looks a bit amatuerish.

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  11. I really can't wait to read this one, so I guess it's a good thing it's next up for me :-)

    Great review!

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  12. I've wanted to read this one. I'm glad it's so good.

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  13. This sounds a really good read.

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  14. This sounds great - I have to admit that I have not read too many historical fiction novels set in this time period. I will definitely be looking into this one.

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  15. Great review Audra! I also enjoy a work of historical fiction that does not focus on the royal families once in a while. It is nice to get history from a different point of view.

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  16. Audra, I can't thank you enough for stopping by my blog so that I can discover your amazing space here.
    I love everything about it! the way you review books is so thorough and captivating. I can't wait to explore your space more

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  17. Love the sound of this book. And I have to agree, as much as I love reading about historical royalty, that reading about the everyday person or hero is awesome.

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  18. This book sounded interesting to me but I didn't have the time to get in on this tour. I love reading books about non-royal characters - especially if you get into the gritty world. Thanks for the review.

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  19. Wow, what a great review! I shall have to look into this book, though I admit that I think the title is lame. I feel like people should stop being so lazy with the titles! It's so hard to tell the difference between The ___'s Tale titles. In fact, I had this confused with another book I read and enjoyed when I saw the title, but now I recall that one was called The Wet Nurse's Tale.

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