Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Review: The Girl Who Came Home: A Novel of the Titanic by Hazel Gaynor

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; First Edition edition (April 1, 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 0062316869
  • Source: Publisher

Fourteen individuals from a small Irish village left their loved ones behind as they embarked on a journey to New York City via the RMS Titanic. A new, better life was awaiting each of them upon their arrival.  One of these individuals is Maggie Murphy, a seventeen year old woman who is bittersweet about leaving her home and her beau, Seamus.  When disaster hits, Maggie is one of the two survivors from this small Irish village.

When she awakens in New York City, without any knowledge of how she gets there. Maggie attempts to banish all thoughts and memories of what happened that horrible night  the Titanic  struck an iceberg. Her friends and loved ones were separated from her in the rush to evacuate. She is haunted screams of victims, the vision of those less fortunate than her, frozen in the frigid ocean waters.

Seventy years later: Chicago. Grace Butler has returned home to help care for her mother after her father’s sudden death. In doing so, she’s given up her hopes of a future in journalism, at least temporarily. When she’s given a once in a lifetime opportunity to write for a major paper, Grace must come up with a unique feature story that will impress the editors. Thanks to her great grandmother, Maggie, she gets that story.

Reluctant to discuss her past all these years, Maggie opens up to her niece and shares with her stories and journal articles of what transpired upon the Titanic, both before and after the disaster.  In doing so, both women, reflect upon how few chances we each get in life, and how important to savor each day as if it is your last.

Novels surrounding the horrific events that transpired around the sinking of the Titanic are certainly not unique, especially after the centennial anniversary just a few years ago. Yet with The Girl Who Came Home, Gaynor gives us a unique perspective, a fictionalized account based on actual individuals.

While this title didn’t grab my attention immediately, after a few patient moments of reading I became captivated, unable to tear my attention away from the story of Maggie and others who thought they were embarking upon journey leading to a happy and successful life.

That’s not to say this is a dark and dreary story; it is actually quite the opposite. While the story of what transpired on the Titanic  is devastating, what comes next for the survivors (even decades down the road), is wholly hopeful and heartwarming.

The Girl Who Came Home is a must-read for fans interested in the story of the Titanic, as well as readers seeking a unique spin an event forever etched in history. Highly, highly recommended.

 

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for providing me opportunity to participate in this tour. Please be sure to check out the other stops in the tour!

 

Review: The Island of Doves by Kelly O’Connor McNees

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley Trade (April 1, 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 0425264580
  • Source: Publisher

Susannah Fraser was promised a happy life with her husband, living in one of Buffalo’s finest homes. Instead, her home is a prison filled with physical and mental abuse. While all of her material needs are met, the life she is leading is a mere shadow of the life she’d hoped for. Susannah assumed that the abuse went on unnoticed. but when she is approached by a woman with promises of help and escape, Susannah can’t say no.

The journey to safety isn’t an easy one. She must leave everything she owns behind and travel by steamboat to the remote Mackinac Island. There, she meets Magdelaine Fonteneau, a woman who has made quite a life for herself as a fur trader. Magdelaine has offered her services to help women like Susannah escape abusive marriages. She calls each of these women doves; Susannah is the first of three to successfully make the journey. Magdelaine’s past is riddled with pain and loss and the unexpected friendship that forms between the two women allows them both to see the hope that life has to offer.

While the storyline in The Island of Doves is not a unique one, the strong and engaging characters are what make this novel an engaging one. Both Susannah and Magdelaine come from vastly different backgrounds but that doesn’t stop the two women from connecting and forging a strong friendship. Susannah thought herself to be helpless, so used to having others do things for her that she feared she was unable to forge a life alone. In turn, while Magdelaine has formed a strong and caring relationship for the young girls she teaches on the island, she has yet to be able to form such a close bond with her own son. So used to having those she loves taken from her, she pushes him away, afraid to lose yet another loved one. This isn’t intentional; it isn’t until Susannah points out her behavior that Magdelaine reflects upon the choices she’s made in life.

All in all, McNees has created a wonderfully addictive and heartfelt read in The Island of Doves. Her books are of a genre I typically do not read, yet I find myself looking forward to each and every book she publishes. Highly rewarding, highly recommended.

Audiobook Review: While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell

  • Publisher: Tantor Media; Unabridged,MP3 – Unabridged CD edition (February 20, 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 1452667896
  • Source: Personal copy

When Elise Darliss’ mother falls victim to the pox, Elise flees her home on a farm and seeks employment as a maid at the castle. It doesn’t take long for her to rise up the ranks from chambermaid to a private maid to the queen herself. The castle quickly becomes more of a home than her place of birth ever did, and for good reason. Growing up, she felt her life so separate and far from that of the castle. As she grows older she matures into a fine, respected lady, a far cry from the life she had before. She forms friendships and bonds with individuals in the highest echelons of the royal family, learning that her life in the castle is one that is earned and deserved.

The reader (or listener, in my case) follows Elise through her life in the castle. War, disease, and power struggles fail to hold Elise back when it comes to protecting those that she loves. Rose, the daughter of King Ranolf and Queen Lenore, becomes Elise’s sole passion in life. Her youth, her vitality, and her innocence are the sparks to warm Elise’s heart.  When Rose’s fate is threatened by the King’s evil aunt, Millicent, protecting her life and securing her future becomes Elise’s obsession.

Blackwell’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty adds great depth and intrigue to the story we all grew up hearing.  Gone are the stories of magic and spells, replaced with horrific tales of power hungry individuals willing to do anything to obtain their spot on the throne.  The growing role and importance of women in places of power added a uplifting, modern spin to this age-old tale.

As I’ve stated many a time before, I’m typically not a fan of retellings. With that said, I have made it a mission of mine to step outside my comfort zone and embrace these retellings as they seem to be appearing quite rapidly. Some have been met with success, others with a less than desired outcome. In the case of While Beauty Slept, however, I was thoroughly impressed with the changes Blackwell made to the story. She added a modern, mysterious spin that had my attention from the start.

Adding to this experience was the dynamic narration by Wanda McCaddon. Elise starts out as a young, uncertain chambermaid and evolves into a well-respected lady of the court. This is directly reflected in the tone of McCaddon’s narration, the listener sensing the growing maturity and self-confidence in her voice. Additionally, McCaddon’s narration would change with Elise’s age, reflecting the change that comes to one’s voice with the passing of time and age.

Although  While Beauty Slept is portrayed as a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, I personally viewed it as a wholly unique and original story with bits of homage to the classic fairy tale. Readers apprehensive about reading or listening to a fairy tale need not worry. For me, this novel had more characteristics of a historical fiction/thriller than a fairy tale. While the premise captured my attention from the start, it was the vividly drawn characters and unique storyline that captured my attention. Highly, highly recommended.

Review: Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: NAL Trade (March 4, 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 0451418905
  • Source: Publisher

Laura Kelly is a young seamstress living in 1928 upstate New York. After her father’s death and her own “fall from grace” (becoming pregnant out of wedlock),   the only way Laura and her young daughter, Grace, can survive is by the kindness of others. Unfortunately, this small town has shunned Laura since Grace’s birth, finding it far more difficult to sustain a livelihood.

Just miles away, poetess Edna St. Vincent Millay lives with her husband Eugen. The couple throws outrageous parties, shocking townspeople with her bohemian ways. Edna (referred to as Vincent) becomes entranced with Laura’s talented work and begs her to create an elaborate wardrobe for her. Unfortunately, an act that took place during one of Millay’s elaborate parties has Laura torn between standing strong against Millay’s bohemian lifestyle and the realization that she has to accept whatever work comes her way if she wants to survive.

What Robuck has created in Fallen Beauty is a completely awe-inspiring juxtoposition between two characters: Laura, a fallen beauty, punished by the townspeople after one act of indiscretion; and Millay, a brilliant, carefree poet who seems to have it all…except the love of one man. These two woman, at polar ends of a moral parallel, brought together out of coincidence and convenience. At the surface, it seems as though it is Laura who needs Millay to survive, yet in time Millay discovers she needs Laura just as much, if not more.

The character readers will find most endearing is that of young Grace. I’m certain her naming was intentional, for it is this young girl that brings together so many ailing individuals. Grace’s innocence allows characters to lower the curtain of insecurity that shields them, allowing them to see the life, and love, standing right before them.  Grace is the beacon of hope that so many of the characters in this novel needed to see beyond all the darkness and despair surrounding them.

While this is a fictionalized telling of Millay’s life, Robuck obviously undertook a tremendous amour of research so that she could so expertly capture Millay’s persona. Admittedly, I do not know much about this poet yet Robuck’s vision of this saucy, surly woman has me compelled to know more about her. This is a trademark of Robuck’s talented writing: each and every time I finish reading one of her novels I scramble to learn more about the individual she based it upon.

Robuck has made a name for herself in the historical fiction genre.  While it’s not a genre I read as often any more, each time she releases a new title I make it a mission to read it. She captures everything I appreciate most about this genre and, in doing so, influences a whole wave of new readers to embrace it as well. Highly, highly recommended.

Frightful Friday: Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough

Frightful Friday is a weekly meme in which I feature a particularly scary or chilling book that I’ve read that week.  This week’s featured title is Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough:

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books (January 14, 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 1623650860
  • Source: Publisher (egalley)

The detectives of Scotland Yard are already immersed in the hunt for Jack the Ripper when another serial killer, dubbed the Torso Killer due to his practice of leaving behind a headless body, makes his presence known. The police surgeon, Dr. Thomas Bond, is so overwhelmed with horrific images of the dead that he turns to opium for some relief.

It is in an opium den that Bond meets a Jesuit priest, searching for someone…or something. The priest gives Bond a chilling and unbelievable explanation for the deaths and the identity of the Torso Killer. Something supernatural and horrific is at force. At first, Bond is quick to dismiss him but as the bodies begin to pile up, he begins to wonder of the priest is correct in his claims.  The more he investigates, the more Bond believes that he knows the identity of the Torso Killer, an individual quite close to his circle of friends.

Based on an actual series of killings that took place during the reign of the Jack the Ripper killings (but obviously didn’t receive nearly as much coverage!), Mayhem is a brilliantly executed blend of crime procedural and supernatural fiction. I’ve been intrigued about the Jack the Ripper killings for as long as I can remember so it’s no surprise that this book grabbed my attention.  There are quite a few portions of the book in which the reader must suspend disbelief, but this is to be expected in a novel of this sort.

Mayhem is certainly not a book for the weak of heart (or stomach), but fans of Victorian crime fiction and the supernatural are certain to be enamored by Pinborough’s truly skilled writing. She so expertly captures the essence of Victorian London, making it quite easy for readers to slip right into the rich atmospheric setting.

I’ve been a fan of Pinborough’s writing for some time, particularly her Dog-faced Gods Trilogy, largely due to her ability to combine two of my favorite genres: crime fiction and supernatural/horror.  Her writing introduced me to a whole host of talented UK horror writers and for this I am forever thankful.  If you have not checked out her books I highly encourage you to do so! Highly, highly recommended!

Review: The Kept by James Scott

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (January 7, 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 0062236733
  • Source: Publisher

Set in 1867 at an isolated farm in upstate New York, Elspeth Howell, a midwife, returns home to find her husband and four of her children brutally murdered.  Before she is able to locate her remaining son, she too becomes a victim of gunfire. She survives thanks to the aid of Caleb, her surviving son,  who hid in the pantry while the farm was under attack.

Twelve-year-old Caleb nurses his mother back to health and, after fire decimates their home, the two embark upon a journey in search of the men responsible for destroying their family.

I’ve intentionally kept this summary short as to not give away too much of the novel’s premise. Upon reading the publisher’s full summary myself, my initial perceptions about the novel ended up being completely different than what actually transpired. While this is not necessarily a fault, I did find myself confused as I read, expecting something completely different.  So, what is this novel about? To me, it’s a novel about a mother and son and the things they discover about themselves and one another after a tremendous tragedy.  The journey they embarked upon together was far beyond just physical, but mental and emotional as well. Young Caleb is forced to grow up far faster than he should and, during the journey, uncovers secrets that alter his perceptions of himself and his family.  Elspeth is forced to face and overcome her own inner demons herself, a painful past of lies and deceit that are now hitting her full force.

The Kept is certainly not a light novel, but one that will encroach upon your life, taking your emotions prisoner, forcing readers to approach moral decisions and implications that are dark and devastating.  What this author has crafted is a brilliant masterpiece, a novel so eloquent and beautifully crafted, despite it’s morose tone.  This is a novel that will make you think, long and hard, about the characters’ decisions, closing with an ending that will leave you speechless, stunned by the realization of what has transpired in the pages beneath your fingertips. Highly, highly recommended.

Review: Rising Sun, Falling Shadow by Daniel Kalla

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Forge Books (September 24, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 0765337649
  • Source: Publisher

*Note: This is the sequel to The Far Side of the Sky. It is recommended that you read this book first.

1943 Shanghai: Over 20,000 Jewish refugees seeking safety in Shanghai are forced by the Japanese to move into a “relocation” camp, a one-kilometer area known as the “Shanghai Ghetto.”  Dr. Franz Adler and his new wife, Sunny, struggle to run the city’s only hospital for refugee Jews. The Adlers struggle to keep their family united, always fearful of being discovered by the Nazis or Japanese. Due to the internment of British and American citizens, Franz’s pregnant sister-in-law, Esther, is separated from her husband, Simon. While Simon is able to evade capture, the life he is forced to live in hiding is less than desirable.

While Franz tries to find the best in their current situation, Sunny cannot get over her father’s death and is desperate for revenge. Unbeknownst to Franz, Sunny joins in an underground resistance group.   Franz’s daughter, Hannah, barely a teen herself, struggles to be recognized as more than a young girl. This struggle puts her directly in harms way and she becomes involved in a smuggling ring, carrying contraband into restricted areas.  Meanwhile, Franz struggles to treat the injured refugees with minimal supplies, under the watchful eye of power-hungry individuals who would like to do away with the hospital and the Jewish refugees…permanently.

Kalla creates an incredible and terrifying world in Rising Sun, Falling Shadow. While the premise seems dark, an underlying element of hope and love of family is what stands out most to this reader. Additionally, although this is the second book in a series, the characters introduced in the first novel continue to grow and develop, becoming genuine individuals that readers will connect with and become attached to. Watching the family go through these numerous struggles, overcoming despite the highest of odds, is endearing and heartwarming.  What stands out to me most of all, however, is how little we as American citizens know about this torture and cruelty that transpired in Shanghai. We are all aware of the Nazi occupation in Germany but I am shocked to admit I was unaware of the atrocities that took place  against those struggling to seek refuge outside their homeland.

I genuinely do recommend that you do start with the first book in the series before starting this one. While it can serve as an adequate standalone, you will miss out on a great deal of character building and development by leaping right into Rising Sun, Falling Shadow. It’s a dark part of our world’s history that at times, is quite difficult to swallow. That said, what Kalla has created in this series is incredibly endearing, hopeful,  and ultimately, wholly rewarding. He doesn’t inundate the reader with overwhelming amounts of historical facts, instead focusing on the individuals who experienced it. Highly, highly recommended.

 

#Mx3 Review: Delia’s Shadow by Jaime Lee Moyer

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Tor Books; First Edition edition (September 17, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 0765331829
  • Source: Personal Copy

Delia Martin is a wealthy young woman living in early 20th century San Francisco.  She holds a unique gift; she can see, and communicate, with spirits of the deceased. She’s returned to her home, certain that it holds an explanation for the powerful spirit that follows her. Referred to as Shadow, this woman is unable to verbally communicate with Delia, yet is desperate to lead her to something. Shadow haunts Delia’s dreams with flashbacks of a serial killer from nearly three decades ago, eerily similar to a serial killer now terrorizing the bay city.  Delia’s return to San Francisco isn’t an easy one; she is haunted by those who died in the great earthquake of 1906.  Delia, like so many others, lost her family in that quake, a disaster that forever altered the great city.

Delia’s return to San Francisco is timely; her best friend, Sadie,  is due to be wed in six weeks.  Her fiance, Jack, and his partner, Gabe, are the lead investigators on this new rash of killings. Delia lends her “talent” to the case, soon learning that the spirit that haunts her can provide valuable information to aid in the investigation.  When the killer gets personal, threatening both Delia and Gabe, it becomes even more imperative to uncover his identity.

Delia’s Shadow is an intensely captivating novel, capturing the essence of San Francisco at the turn of the century.  Moyer draws out her characters well, unveiling them as strong, yet also emotionally damaged, individuals.  The great quake destroyed so many families in the city, not a single person left untouched by its decimation.  This sense of loss adds a bit of humanity to each of the characters. Despite their loss, they continue to live in the city they love, living their lives despite their great loss.  Perhaps it is this loss that powers them through the investigation, desperate to prevent the deaths of others.

Moyer does something unique with this novel.  It is told in dual narration, alternating between Delia’s and Gabe’s perspective.  Additionally, Delia’s perspective is told in first person while Gabe’s is in third.  Initially, this took me off guard but ultimately I understood that it is Moyer’s intent that it is Delia’s character we must truly understand, and her first person perspective allows the reader to do so.

It’s hard to categorize this novel into one genre.  While Delia’s gift, and the pervasiveness of spirits, adds a supernatural feel to the novel, I feel the mystery aspect is the one that stands out the most.  Adding the historical aspect to it, Delia’s Shadow is a novel destined to be appreciated by a wide range of readers.  Moyer is an author new to me and I am looking forward to more from her. A true talent, one that obviously takes a great deal of care and commitment to her novel. Highly, highly recommended.

2013MX3

Review: The Last Camellia by Sarah Jio

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Plume (May 28, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 0452298393
  • Source: Publisher

The beginning of the Second World War is eminent. Flora, an amateur botanist, works in her family’s bakery in New York City. Times are tough; her father is often approached by those he owes money to. So, when she is approached by a man offering a large sum of money in return for Flora’s assistance, she cannot possibly turn it down. She soon learns that the man who hired her is part of an international ring of flower thieves. Flora’s task: to infiltrate an English manor an obtain the last surviving specimen of a camellia plant known as the Middlebury Pink. She gains access to the home under the ruse that she is there to serve as a nanny for the children of a widower. Their mother died mysteriously over a year ago. The children, still suffering from the loss of their mother and the near abandonment by their father, are desperate for structure and stability. It doesn’t take long for Flora to bond with them and the other staff at the manor. In doing so, she uncovers a series of dark secrets surrounding their mother’s death.

Fast forward to the year 2000. Addison is a garden designer working in Manhattan. Her business thriving but, due to a threatening past that haunts her, agrees to join her husband, Rex, to an English manor recently purchased by his parents. Livingston Manor is the perfect escape she needs. The lush, yet overgrown, camellia orchard is full of deep, dark secrets. As she begins to explore the manor under the watchful eye of Mrs. Dilloway, Livingston manor’s housekeeper, Addison discovers that it is more than the orchard that holds a secret past.  As she attempts to avoid her own past that has come flooding into the present, Addison reveals a mystery surrounding the enchanting last camellia.

The Last Camellia isn’t the first novel I’ve read by this author but, by far, it is my favorite. It combines attributes of novels I’ve always been drawn to, including a rich gothic setting and a deep, dark mystery. Additionally, Jio creates to incredibly well-developed characters in Flora and Addison. While Addison’s past is a bit more jaded than Flora’s, both characters are genuinely attempting to do what is best, putting aside their own feelings and needs in order to provide for others. While I felt we learned a bit more about Flora than Addison, both women were truly remarkable characters I found myself rooting for.

The setting Jio creates at Livingston manor is breathtaking. From the sprawling grounds to the dark, and elusive orchards, readers will be instantly immersed in the setting, feeling as though you are walking through the grounds yourself. The manor itself seemed absolutely gorgeous, full of hidden rooms and chambers. The perfect setting for a mysterious death unsolved for over half a century.

Fans of mystery and historical fiction will be certain to adore this novel as much as I did. I cannot wait for Sarah’s next novel, Morning Glory, due out in September!

Thank you to TLC Book tours for providing me the opportunity to participate in this tour!

Read my reviews of Sarah’s other books:

Review: The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (June 11, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 0062112244
  • Source: Publisher

In Simon Van Booy’s most recent masterpiece, he explores how characters that are seemingly unrelated are tied together, responsible for one another’s fate.The one thing that ties each of these individuals together is a seemingly insignificant act of kindness, an act that might have immediate meaning but instead developing in intensity as time passes. Like the phenomenon known as the butterfly effect, the actions of these characters have resounding effects and repercussions. Based on actual stories, this novel spans quite a bit of time, from New York in 1939 to World War II France, fast forwarding seven decades later to England and Los Angeles in 2010.

The characters are what truly bring this novel together into one truly brilliant piece of art. Hugo is a former German soldier, forever disfigured by war. Decades later, he continues to atone for his crimes. Martin works in a retirement home, Hugo is the most recent resident. Amelia is in her twenties, blind, searching for love as she works to create programs that benefit the blind at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. John survived after his B-52 plane crashed over France, eventually joining the French resistance. Initially, this large magnitude of characters may appear confusing but the joy is in discovering how the lives of each of these individuals are intertwined.

Van Booy’s true skill is the magnitude in his brevity. In just a few short words, he can provide more meaning than what another author may provide in pages of detail. Each sentence is clearly well plotted out, each and every word has a purpose and meaning.  The revelation of each of the characters involvement in each other’s fate isn’t readily revealed; Van Booy provides his readers with a treat in devouring his eloquent prose as they pull away the veil of illusion that separates them.

I honestly do not think any other writer could have accomplished what Van Booy has done in The Illusion of Separateness. The premise is not necessarily a new or unique one, but Van Booy’s execution of these interconnecting story is what makes this novel so profound. In just a few short words, he evokes an overwhelming amount of emotion, bonding reader to character instantaneously. We forgive the characters for any crimes or ill-actions in their past, instantly developing a feeling of sympathy and adoration for what they have endured and for the gift they have given to one another.

The Illusion of Separateness, like all of Van Booy’s work I have read, has quite a profound effect on my life. Despite the fact that we all may have times in which we feel insignificant, each of us have some sort of impact on the world, be it big or small. It is up to us to decide just how large our footprint on the world will be. It is this sort of thinking and contemplation that truly outstanding writing evokes from me. Thank you, Simon Van Booy, for reminding me to strive farther and reach higher.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for providing me the opportunity to review this title. Please be sure to check out the other stops in this tour.