Category Archives: Book Reviews
WOLF WINTER by Cecilia Ekbäck is amazing. The mood is atmospheric, and the setting—far northern Sweden in 1717—is unique in my reading experience. The book is a historical thriller, but there are so many cultural, psychological, and even political layers underlying the story, that in many ways, it felt more like a literary novel.
Maija, her husband Paavo, and their two daughters have come from Finland to their uncle’s old homestead in Lapland. Almost immediately, the oldest daughter, Frederika, discovers a mutilated body high on the nearby mountain when she takes the family’s goats up to pasture. Maija and her daughter are pulled into trying to solve that crime and unearth the many dark secrets of their new community even as they fight to survive the most brutal winter in Sweden’s history. As events unfold, Frederika discovers her own supernatural gifts and must choose whether to use them.
TAN by David Lawlor is a solid adventure / war story. The pace is quick, there is plenty of action, the plot has twists and turns. If you want a quick read set during the Irish War of Independence—and one with a pro-Irish slant—you’ll probably enjoy it. But the book has weaknesses. I thought the characterizations were disappointingly black and white. The book is populated with good characters and bad characters without much of the complexity that most humans display.
I was also disappointed to see that the book had errors that should have been caught before publication. I found many punctuation mistakes and several typos—such as the character of Eoin suddenly being called Eon. And there were distracting misused words: cygnet ring instead of signet ring; heap of slack instead of heap of slag, and others. No published work is ever completely clean, but there were more issues than I would expect from someone with this author’s experience.
The Secret Language of Women by Nina Romano is such an unusual and exotic story. Lian, a half Italian-half Chinese woman, falls in love with Giacomo, an Italian sailor whose ship is patrolling the waters around China during the violent Boxer rebellion of the late 1890s when Chinese nationalists tried to drive all foreigners from their country. In such a difficult situation, the lovers’ lives are endangered simply because of who they are, and their relationship only places them in more jeopardy. I don’t want to say anything more about the plot for fear of giving too much away. But what I loved most about the novel was the way rich aspects of both Sicilian and Chinese culture are interwoven into the story and the way these two very different people realized they are kindred spirits.
I recently finished The Painted Girls and gave it five stars on Goodreads.
Although on the surface about ballet and art, this book certainly shows the underside of Paris. Three sisters, whose father is dead and whose mother cares only about absinthe, live in grinding poverty and dream of finding a way out. Each tries to make it as a ballet rat (young dancer), with varying success. Of the two oldest girls, Antionette is a strong and insolent fighter who falls in with a boy of bad character. The other, Marie, comes to the attention of Edgar Degas and models for him as a way to earn extra money. Each makes questionable choices that she must struggle to overcome. I was moved by the book’s ending.
When I attended the Historical Novel Society convention in June, I heard a panel that included Diane Haeger, who also writes under the name Anne Girard. Her discussion of her novel Madame Picasso intrigued me, partially because it’s set in a fascinating time period and partially because it—like my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte—tells the story of a bold, clever woman who isn’t widely known today.
The novel recounts five years in the life of Eva Gouel, one of Pablo Picasso’s early lovers. The daughter of Polish immigrants, Eva wanted more from life than an early marriage and a domestic existence. In this way, she reminded me a little bit of my own Betsy Bonaparte. Eva moved to Paris without her parents’ knowledge or permission and eventually got a position as a seamstress at the famous Moulin Rouge. It was in this milieu that she came to know Picasso.
The book effectively portrays Eva’s complex personality. When it came to her job, she was determined and at times daring. When it came to her love life, she was generous and supportive of the man she adored. The psychological portraits of Picasso is also quite interesting; Girard portrays a more vulnerable and giving man than the Picasso of legend—although one that is every bit as arrogant!
The settings add further interest to the book. Seeing backstage at the Moulin Rouge made me feel like an insider for a day, and I loved the chapters that covered Picasso’s painting excursions to various locales in France and Spain.
I don’t want to give too much away about the development of the two main characters’ relationship except to say that it did not disappoint. I thoroughly enjoyed this historical novel and give it five stars.
I was fortunate to meet the author Stephanie Dray at the Historical Novel Society convention in June, and today I am pleased to participate in the cover reveal for America’s First Daughter, which she wrote with Laura Kamoie.
In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.
From her earliest days, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still. As Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate in the wake of her mother’s death, traveling with him when he becomes American minister to France. And it is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of revolution, that she learns of her father’s liaison with Sally Hemings, a slave girl her own age.
Patsy too has fallen in love—with her father’s protégé, William Short, a staunch abolitionist intent on a career in Europe. Heartbroken at having to decide between being William’s wife or a devoted daughter, she returns to Virginia with her father and marries a man of his choosing, raising eleven children of her own.
Yet as family secrets come to light during her father’s presidency, Patsy must again decide how much she will sacrifice to protect his reputation, in the process defining not just Jefferson’s political legacy, but that of the nation he founded.
STEPHANIE DRAY is a bestselling and award-nominated author of historical women’s fiction. Her series about Cleopatra’s daughter has been translated into six different languages, was nominated for a RITA Award and won the Golden Leaf. As STEPHANIE DRAVEN, she is a national bestselling author of paranormal romance, contemporary romance, and American-set historical women’s fiction. She is a frequent panelist and presenter at national writing conventions and lives near the nation’s capital. Before she became a novelist, she was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the stories of women in history to inspire the young women of today.
LAURA KAMOIE has always been fascinated by the people, stories, and physical presence of the past, which led her to a lifetime of historical and archaeological study and training. She holds a doctoral degree in early American history from The College of William and Mary, published two non-fiction books on early America, and most recently held the position of Associate Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy before transitioning to a full-time career writing genre fiction as the New York Times bestselling author of over twenty books, Laura Kaye. Her debut historical novel, America’s First Daughter , co-authored with Stephanie Dray, allowed her the exciting opportunity to combine her love of history with her passion for storytelling. Laura lives among the colonial charm of Annapolis, Maryland with her husband and two daughters.
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The first word that comes to mind to describe this novel is “fun.” I enjoyed it immensely. I don’t usually read ghost stories, so I was surprised how much I liked this one. The premise in intriguing: it combines the modern story of a retired woman, grieving the lost of her mother, with a century-old murder story. The two stories intersect because Cora, the modern protagonist, encounters strange happenings wrought by a vengeful ghost.
The book is structured like a sandwich, a beginning modern section, a central historical section, and an ending modern section. Cora makes a discovery near the end of the first section that leads naturally into the historical part of the story. One of the things I liked best about the novel was Cora herself. I immediately warmed to her. I thought her relationships were believable. Her marriage to Cisco and her friendship with Frannie felt real and lived-in. The writing also has an easy flow to it. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this story to anyone who likes mysteries, paranormal stories, or historical fiction.
Four women, with little in common except their ties to a Catholic women’s college in Chicago, are called together by Sister Mark, the nun they all adore. Diane is a successful journalist tentatively recovering from an event that shattered her life. June is a skilled carpenter, uncertain how to be feminine enough to find the love she craves. Pat is the earth mother, an optimistic artist and craftswoman who raised seven children on her own after her husband left her. Ruth is a powerhouse CEO, who tells herself that she needs no one, not even the man she once loved and thinks of still.
Why has Sister Mark brought these former classmates together? Their alma mater, Shorelake College (a fictional version of Mundelein College) has closed and been taken over by nearby Rockbridge University (a fictional version of Loyola). Sister Mark has asked the women to make plans and raise funds to convert the mansion that was the emotional heart of the campus into a woman’s center.
As they struggle to carry out this vaguely defined mission, the four women embark on a journey of discovery—unearthing their own inner truths and finding joy in unlooked-for friendships. Fitzpatrick portrays the complicated nature of women’s relationships with each other with nuance and insight. And in contrast to many women’s novels, this one gives the male characters their due, portraying them as real and complex people rather than stereotypes to promote the author’s agenda. The vividness of the setting will delight anyone who knows the Windy City, and many readers will relish the clever turns of phrase that sprinkle the narrative. All these details add up to an enjoyable debut novel.
The Secret of Jeanne Baret is a young adult historical novel that tells the fascinating story of a French girl who embarks on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure: disguising herself as a boy to take part in a scientific expedition and, hopefully, to become the first female to circumnavigate the globe. The story is well researched. Jeanne (disguised as Jean) travels to many exotic locations, meets people from a fascinating variety of cultures, and as she assists her master with his work, learns that she has a real flair for botany. I think this book could be a wonderful way to show girls how exciting science can be.
I had one minor issue with the story. At the beginning, Jeanne is very happy and thinks that she has achieved exactly what she wanted, so the early chapters didn’t have quite as much tension as I expected. Later, several complications arise: she makes an enemy among the crew, she narrowly escapes having her true identity revealed, and she even starts to fall in love with someone who has no idea she’s a girl. These plot twists help the story really move along. So I’d advise readers not to be fooled by Jeanne’s apparently perfect situation in the beginning. Keep reading. Once the action gets going, it doesn’t let up.