Saturday, August 6, 2016

Sandlands, by Rosy Thornton

I would imagine that it must take a very special creative ability to put together a book of short stories that holds the attention of readers who normally love their novels long and involved. The secret to a successful compilation of short stories under one cover must be that each individual narrative tell its complete story in what would normally be one chapter of a regular novel. It must draw the reader in and keep them there, and include character and story line development in a matter of just a few pages. Rosy Thornton has successfully mastered this art in Sandlands. Each story's end was like closing the back cover of a full novel. I had that satisfaction that comes from a good read over and over again in reading this book.

Each short story in Sandlands reveals some aspect of Suffolk life. The only way I am familiar with this part of England is actually through a series of detective stories written by Elly Griffiths, so this was an interesting way of rounding out my education, so to speak.  Ms. Thornton brings the Suffolk countryside to life in each and every story.  Nature is an ongoing theme throughout the book, and each story hits on a different aspect of life in this part of the country. Stories of flora, fauna, history, family, generations, myths and legends, war and peace, witches and the occult, are covered in individual and engaging ways. There are certain locales, like Silly Hill and The Ship tavern that run in and out of the narratives, and the stories on the whole give the reader an excellent feeling for what life is like here, both past and present.

My favorite stories revolved around generational themes, especially those drawing on the history of the area during World War II. Each taken on its own merit engages the reader into thinking about things that seem magical and make-believe, but in this corner of the world, might actually be possible.

It's a highly recommend from this convert to the short story format.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave

The two conflagrations that defined the first half of the last century have become my new reading fodder. I've read Erik Larsen's brilliant send up of the sinking of the Lusitania, Dead Wake (highly recommend by the way), a few historical fiction pieces from post WWI, including Jennifer Robson's After the War is Over and Moonlight over Paris (two more I highly recommend) and have just finished this amazing effort by Chris Cleave, an award winning British novelist who captures the essence of war time 1940's  London as if he were there, and his readers right along with him.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven is, at the surface, a love story.  Mary North, daughter of an aristocratic family, feels the call of service when World War II breaks out in Europe, and signs up for what she thinks will be an active role in keeping the home front safe. She is, instead, assigned the task of filling in for teachers called up to fight. At the age of 19, she is asked by her supervisor and lover, Tom Shaw, to establish a school for the children left behind in the evacuation from London. These children are the "undesirables," unwanted by the country folk asked to house them, and she gladly takes on the task. When her efforts run up against the London Blitz, it spells dire consequences for all.

At the same time, the story follows Alistair Heath, Tom's roommate, who joins the British Army, spends time fighting in France and after a hasty retreat brought on by the German insurgence, finds himself stationed on Malta, during the siege which lasted from 1940-1942. Starved and injured, he can't forget the one girl who wasn't his to remember.

The juxtaposition of the Blitz with the siege, and the devastation wrought by both is the backdrop to the social lessons Cleave imparts with his writing. Race, friendship, and class are all fair game here. And through his characters, Cleave very cleverly asks these questions: Is there any positive outcome of war? Does it change society? Does it make people more tolerant, more open to differences among them? More willing to forgive? More willing to help and get involved?

Cleave's flowing prose and anecdotal phrases make the reader stop, think, and try to answer those questions. This is the perfect example of a novel that is, on the surface, an arresting fictional account of a few lives during a very trying period of time, but is in reality, a more thorough dissertation on humankind's tolerance for hate, evil and war.


Highly, highly recommend.



Thursday, November 5, 2015

Cold-Hearted Rake, by Lisa Kleypas

Like Lisa Kleypas' return to both writing historical romance and Avon books, her publisher in 1992, to my return to her new historical romance series and her latest novel, I feel like I've come full circle. Back in 2007, some new friends decided to start a long distance book club. I won't bore you with our original mission. Suffice it to say that the first book undertaken was a Lisa Kleypas romance, and before too long, discussions via email, Skype and other means of long ago technology were put to use to pick apart and discuss this author's earlier efforts. She's remained a favorite of mine since, not only because she can certainly write, but because she was truly a catalyst in cementing a long-lasting circle of friendship.

Cold-Hearted Rake, set in Victorian England, is the story of Kathleen, Lady Trenear, and Lord Devon Ravenel, the new Earl of Trenear, who inherits after Kathleen's first husband inconveniently dies after three days of marriage.

Kathleen, brought up by the highest sticklers in polite society, has very distinct and non-negotiable ideas about mourning and proper behavior. With the responsibility of her three younger sisters in law on her shoulders, she is faced with the very real possibility of losing her home. And when her cousin by marriage arrives, preceded by his reputation as London's most notorious rake, her fears reach new heights. Devon has no plans to put the estate back in financial order at first. Disheartened by his inheritance at the end of nobility's golden era, and burdened by his change in lifestyle, Devon must make a decision.  When confronted with the reality of Kathleen and his cousins, his tenants and staff, he is reminded of the responsibility that is now his, whether he wants it or not.

Against the backdrop of their burgeoning attraction, Devon and Kathleen, with help from Devon's brother West, each change and reform enough to begin to make a success of the burden they have taken on. The tale is not without its conflicts. There were parts of this story where I could honestly say I didn't like either of the protagonists. Kathleen probably took the brunt of that more than Devon. She's just so rigid, bossy and opinionated at times. And Devon, who does live up to the title of the book, does not get a pass; not until well into the novel. The changes in both these characters, when they do come, are hard won, and you are all the more appreciative for it. And like the long ago book we read in 2007, no one can write a love scene like Lisa Kleypas.

With the added tie-in to her next in this series, Marrying Mr. Winterborne, there's plenty here for her fans to appreciate. I foresee a sequel for West Ravenel and the twins, Cassandra and Pandora, as well. I'm happy to follow this new cast of characters wherever Ms. Kleypas decides to take them. Welcome back! Highly recommend.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Heroes Are My Weakness, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

This wonderfully quirky novel is the newest release by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Mix a semi-gothic story line with slightly damaged, yet attractive protagonists (one of whom is a ventriloquist), an isolated island setting and hardy, resourceful islanders, and you have a recipe for a fun, fast, late summer read.

Annie Hewitt has come to Peregrine Island to preserve a bequest given to her mother by her ex-stepfather. Annie must occupy Moonraker Cottage, a small house located on the grounds of the much larger Harp House, for at least 60 days a year in order to keep it. Having no other visible means of support, except her puppets, and no place to live, she comes to the island following her mother's death. She never expects Theo Harp, a childhood nemesis and possible psychopath disguised as a Stephen King-type novelist, to be in residence in his family's home. As teens, Annie was convinced that Theo tried to kill her, and nothing since then has changed her mind. When she's again drawn into Theo's circle, she begins to question her past and when things start to take a sinister turn, she turns to first Theo, then another childhood friend, Jaycie, for answers.

The mystery of the story pulls you in, but it's the characters that keep you coming back for more. Annie and Theo are drawn perfectly as two people committed to finding the worst in each other. We are allowed to watch that all slowly change, as secrets from the past are revealed. Jaycie and her mute daughter Livia, along with the Peregrine islanders are all an important part of the narrative.

Ms. Phillips signature humor is definitely evident. There were some lines in this novel that actually made me laugh loud enough to be heard in the next room. You'll know them when you read them. If you're in the mood to end your summer on a highly suspenseful, romantic and funny note, this is your Labor Day gem. Highly highly recommend.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Memory of Violets: A Novel of London's Flower Sellers, by Hazel Gaynor

After reading The Girl Who Came Home, by the same author a year or so ago, I promised myself that if Ms. Gaynor wrote another historical fiction novel, I would run, not walk, to get my hands on it. A Memory of Violets is a worthy new addition to her repertoire.

The novel is the story of Matilda Harper, a young woman from the Lake District who has nothing to lose by leaving home in March of 1912 to take a position in London at Albert Shaw's Training Homes for Watercress and Flower Girls, also known as the Flower Homes. The Flower Homes are a group housing arrangement for poverty-stricken crippled and orphaned former flower sellers. The residents produce beautiful, life-like artificial flowers to sell for charitable causes. Tilly arrives and takes up her position as assistant house mother to twelve girls. Through a chance meeting on the train to London and a seemingly random room assignment, she is drawn into the mystery of two sisters, flower sellers both who were separated years ago. One made her home among the residents of the Flower Homes, while the other was presumably lost forever.

What transpires is the clever interweaving of historical fact and fiction (Albert Shaw's character is based on real-life British philanthropist John Groom). Tilly's character has a connection to the Flower Homes that she could not have possibly imagined. And the story of the two sisters becomes Tilly's story as well.

With clever dialogue, well-written prose, engaging characters, hints of supernatural intervention and many good and unpredictable twists and turns in this novel, Ms. Gaynor has presented her narrative in a heartfelt way. You can tell that this is a well-researched and well-loved topic for this author. The descriptive detail brings both the Victorian and Edwardian era to vibrant and fragrant life.    Released by William Morris in February of 2015. Highly recommend!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Tide Watchers, by Lisa Chaplin

After a career of writing contemporary romance novels under a pseudonym, Lisa Chaplin's debut historical novel under her own name is a gem. The Tide Watchers is a quasi-fictional exploration of Napoleon Bonaparte's long rumored attempt to invade England via the English channel in the late winter of 1803. Coming on the heels of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, this story is especially timely and engaging. As a fan of this time period in British and Continental European history, I was thrilled when the opportunity to read and review this novel was presented to me.

Duncan Aylsham, Commander and King's Man (spy is an apt term), is sent on a mission to find the daughter of his mentor, Sir Edward Sunderland. Lisbeth Sunderland, in direct defiance of her father's plans to arrange a marriage to a baron's heir, hastily married Alain Delacorte and ran off to France with him. Not knowing Delacorte's true nature, origins and purpose, she is brutalized at his hands and is forced to live apart from him and their newborn son. Duncan tracks her down and in rescuing her, comes to respect her for her intelligence, cunning and capability in outsmarting her husband and her enemies. While fleeing France, the two are caught up in a dangerous and ingenious mission to save Britain from invasion.

Chaplin seamlessly injects real-life historical figures into the narrative. At times, I had trouble remembering who was fictional and who was not, and this is by no means a criticism. It made the book come alive for me. We are introduced to Bonaparte and his minions, all cogs in the wheel of the vast changes sweeping France and Europe at that time. There are various representatives of Whitehall in their official and unofficial capacities. We also meet Robert Fulton, the American inventor, as both he and his inventions become an integral part of the plot's narrative.

We are therefore introduced to spies and counter-spies, double agents and other characters who are thrust into the roles necessary to protect their country and the people they love. Georgiana Gordon is one, as are Alec and Cal Stewart, Duncan's half brothers, forever coming to Duncan's rescue when he needs them the most, despite Duncan's repeated attempts at pushing them away.

Besides a great swashbuckling tale of intrigue, double crossing, military might and sheer courage, The Tide Watchers brings us gentler lessons in the importance of family, however one can define the term. Duncan's relationship with his brothers, his father's family, his perfidious adoptive father, and Eddie Sunderland, his mentor, are all examined. On Lisbeth's side, there is an exploration of her relationship with her parents, especially her father, away most of the time on King's business as she grew up. And yes, there is romance, but it is not the main emphasis of the story. All of this adds a nuanced level to this novel that would keep anyone turning the pages, even those of you who are hard-core romance readers. There is something for everyone here, and I guarantee no one will close the back cover disappointed.

My greatest find is a book that leads me to feel that I've learned something when I put it down for the last time. The Tide Watchers leaves me with that feeling. Pair intricate, intelligent prose with exceptional story-telling highlighting characters that are hard to forget, and you have a story more than worthy of your time.  I can hardly wait for Ms. Chaplin's next foray into historical fiction. There are several characters here more than capable of carrying their own stories and I look forward to reading them. Highly, highly recommend!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy, by Julia Quinn

There are times when I'm swayed by popular opinion, when I feel that we should be moving this blog in a more literary direction. That the books of the genre that I most enjoy to read and review should be supplemented here by more "literary" works. And then I go and read a book like The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy. And once again, I am reminded that historical romance is indeed, quite literary enough. 

Sir Richard Kenworthy travels to London to procure a wife. It's not for money, or for status and definitely not for love (at least not in the way we think) that he decides to do this. But we don't know that. And neither does Lady Iris Smythe-Smith. Yes, that's Iris of  the Smythe-Smith musicale fame. More on that later. 

Sir Richard begins a full court press to win Iris' hand after he spots her playing cello in the infamous annual musicale, and when he succeeds after one week and one compromising kiss, they marry by special license and make their way to Maycliff, his estate in Yorkshire. The reader is led to believe that the rush behind Sir Richard's courtship is brought on by his desire to save his estate. The truth, however, is much more insidious. And while Iris suspects that something is not quite as it seems, she at first puts aside her intuition and reservations. What neither Iris nor Richard count on becomes the one thing that may hold them together when the truth finally comes out. And when the truth does surface, in the best confrontational scene I've read in quite some time, be forewarned.  Sir Richard is not what he seems, and shows it in some shocking ways. The change in him catches Iris, and Ms. Quinn's audience by surprise. When he then asks Iris to make the ultimate selfless sacrifice for the sake of his family, we are left breathless. What will Iris do? And no, I'm not going to tell you. Not even a hint. The plot twists will be enough to keep you turning the pages until the only thing left is your sigh of satisfaction and the thought that you'd prefer this story to never end. 

Julia Quinn started using the annual musicales as a plot device in her earlier novels (the acclaimed Bridgerton series) but her quartet of books featuring the cousins of the Smythe-Smith family, and how they, one by one, have found love, are the best of her efforts in my opinion. And this book tops them all. Family loyalty, angst, betrayal, and ultimately, love, all wrapped up with the humor present in all of Ms. Quinn's novels, make The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy quite worthy of your time. I loved this book and I highly, highly recommend it. It is definitely this genre at its best.