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Two for the Price of One

The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is on another blog tour, and there are two reviews on offer today.

The first is at Unabridged Chick. You can read it here.

The second is at A Bookish Affair, and you can read it here.

Plus, there is an interview with me at Flashlight Commentary here.

What a great way to start a new month! (And no, this isn’t an April Fool’s joke.)

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Book Review: Queen’s Gambit

Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle tells the story of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. For several reasons, she is an unlikely choice of bride. Katherine is no unmarried maiden when they wed. Henry is actually her third husband! In addition, Katherine is not young; when she marries the king, she is thirty-one (considered middle-aged in the 1540s). Her age makes her a surprising choice for a man who is desperate to sire more sons to secure the Tudor possession of the throne.

Fremantle does a good job of demonstrating the personal qualities that causes Henry to marry Katherine despite her seeming disadvantages. She can be sensible and tactful, yet she is also intelligent and brave. For example, she is not afraid to beat the king at chess. In a court full of sycophants, that honesty and courage make her stand out in the king’s eyes.

As Fremantle interprets Katherine, however, she is not always prudent. Between the death of her second husband and the offer of marriage from the king, she is swept away by passionate love for Tom Seymour, even though her first impression is that he’s too glib and self-regarding to trust. Much of the tension of the novel derives from Katherine’s fear that Henry will somehow learn of this prior love. After all, other queens before her have been sent to the block for unchastity and infidelity—real or imagined.

Several secondary characters added greatly to my enjoyment of the novel. My favorite of these was Katherine’s servant Dot, who is unschooled yet wise, observant, and fiercely loyal to her mistress. Dot’s longing for the court musician William Savage provides romantic interest during the chapters when Tom Seymour is out of the picture.

Fremantle is adept at plotting and characterization. Her descriptions offer enough period details to ground the reader firmly in the historical place and time without bogging down the prose. I can honestly say that I much preferred this book to the last one I read by Philippa Gregory, whom many regard as the queen of Tudor fiction. I’m looking forward to many more good reads by Elizabeth Fremantle.

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Review at Jorie Loves a Story

There’s a new review of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte at Jorie Loves a Story. I couldn’t find a reblog option, so you can get to her blog by clicking here.

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New Review of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte

The Copperfield Review, an online journal for historical fiction, just published a new review of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. The reviewer gave it five quills (their equivalent of stars).

While you’re at it, you might want to check out other pages on the journal. Editor Meredith Allard has put together a great publication for lovers of historical fiction.

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Book Review: The Wreck of the Columbia

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Imagine looking forward to a midnight steamboat excursion on the river, only to have your plans disrupted because your employer is late coming back from an errand and you don’t get off work in time. You go to bed bitterly disappointed . . . and later wake up to the terrible news that the boat sank in the river and several of your friends and acquaintances have drowned.

The tale of a young woman who experienced such a shock is the dramatic opening to the book The Wreck of the Columbia by Ken Zurski. The Columbia was a steam-powered, paddlewheel, riverboat. At its last inspection, it had been called the safest boat in western waters, but on July 5, 1918, it suddenly sank in the Illinois River and broke apart. Of some 500 passengers aboard the vessel that night, 87 died.

Zurski has resurrected this story from the forgotten pages of history. His well-researched account includes profiles of many of the passengers aboard the steamer that fateful July night as well as a brief history of steamboats and the towns of Pekin and Peoria, which were most affected by the disaster. He recounts the heroic attempts to rescue the people who were trapped in the wreckage and later to salvage the bodies so they could be returned to their families for burial. Zurski goes on to explain the investigation into the causes of the sinking and the legal proceedings that followed. The account also contains several brief tangents to help people better understand the time period in which the accident happened.

One nice touch to the book is that each chapter opens with a photograph of a person or object of interest to the story. The images help put a human face of the disaster.

I think this book has a wide appeal. People interested in the history of the early 20th century, the Midwest (especially Illinois), and transportation should find it fascinating. And, of course, the book is a natural for anyone who’s been fascinated by the history of the Titanic or Lusitania. While the death toll from the sinking of the Columbia was much smaller than either of those two tragedies, it still made national headlines, and it had a devastating effect on the town of Pekin.

My major complaint with the book is that it doesn’t have an index. The stories of some of the passengers are told in installments in different chapters, and when I hit the later parts of those stories, sometimes I wished I could easily find the earlier mentions. Still, it was an engrossing history, and I highly recommend it.

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Book Review: Beautiful Ruins

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I made it halfway through The Beautiful Ruins without being sure I liked the book. It tells a very nonlinear story, whose chapters jump back and forth in time and focus on different characters. Normally, that doesn’t bother me, but I was exceptionally tired and distracted when I began reading this novel, and I had been looking for something less demanding. Yet, the story pulled me in anyway.

The many characters in this narrative include Pasquale Tursi, who in 1962 is the twenty-something Italian proprietor of a bare-bones inn in an inconsequential coastal fishing village. He dreams of building creating a beach before his hotel and a tennis court up in the cliff wall to attract American tourists.

Dee Moray is a beautiful American actress who has a bit part in the ill-fated film Cleopatra. She has come to Pasquale’s inn to wait for her lover because she thinks she is dying.

Michael Deane is a producer on that film. We see him again fifty years later at the end of his career, which has degenerated into the production of meaningless reality shows.

His present-day assistant Clare left academia to try a shot at the movie business. She’s made a deal with fate: either she finds one great pitch by the end of the week or she’s leaving to for a more serious job. She’s also trying to decide whether to leave her boyfriend, the gorgeous but vacuous, porn-addicted Daryl.

Another episode of the novel presents a chapter of a work-in-progress (written over the span of decades) by Alvis Bender, who wanted to write a novel about his experiences in Italy during World War II, but who can’t seem to stop drinking long enough to do so.

And then there’s Pat Bender, a punk rock musician with an electrifying stage presence but a talent for hurting himself and the people he loves, and Shane Wheeler, a man who thinks he can redeem his life by pitching a movie based on the doomed Donner Party.

Amazingly, all these disparate stories are connected. They coalesce in the last half of the book in a way that not only makes sense, but is moving and redemptive. I found it a stunning tour de force. Beautiful Ruins was one of the pleasanter reading surprises I’ve had in a long time.

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Book Review: Skinner’s Drift

I had not heard of Skinner’s Drift by Lisa Fugard until a friend gave it to me. It’s set in South Africa of the 1990s—after apartheid has ended and while the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is looking into old crimes. Eva, the main character, has been living in the United States since shortly after her mother died. Now she has come back to her homeland because her father, a white farmer whose land borders the Limpopo River, is dying. Once there, Eva has to face the past she fled from and its terrible secrets. The book held my attention even though I had to break halfway through to read something else for a deadline. If anyone has an interest in South Africa given the recent passing of Nelson Mandela, this book might be an intriguing place to start.

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Book Review: The Hare with the Amber Eyes

The book I’m reviewing today is unusual: part history, part genealogy. The Hare with the Amber Eyes traces a collection of netsuke through several generations of a family.

But first things first. What are netsuke? A netsuke is a miniature Japanese sculpture that was used as a sliding bead on the string of a container such as a pouch or box. They were intricately carved from wood or ivory into a variety of forms: fruit, animals, tiny human figures.

Edmund de Waal, a British ceramic artist, inherited this collection of 264 netsuke from an uncle who was living in Japan. De Waal grew fascinated with the tiny, beautiful little objects and spent over a year tracking their history within his family. The collection was amassed by Charles Ephrussi, one of the sons of a wealthy Jewish banking family that originated in Odessa but had migrated to Paris and Vienna. Charles lived in Paris, where he was known as an art connoisseur during the period of early Impression and the second empire. He never married or had children, so his collection was passed on to a nephew who lived in Vienna.

For me, the Vienna section of the book was the most interesting: the story of a socially prominent and fabulously wealthy Jewish family during the days leading up to the German takeover of Austria in the late 1930s. It shed a new perspective on a well-known story. The book also documents what happened to the family during World War II and how the netsuke collection miraculously remained in the family’s possession even as the Nazis confiscated everything else of value they owned.

I recommend the book strongly to lovers of both political and social history. It was beautifully written and a fascinating read.

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Review: A Sunset Finish

I recently finished reading the novella A Sunset Finish by Melinda Moore. The genre is speculative fiction, one I don’t read very often. However, I enjoyed this brief book. I read it in a PDF review copy, but Amazon lists the e-book edition as 65 pages. (I don’t think it’s in print format.)

Violinist Stephanie Minagawa has just arrived in Albuquerque to play with the orchestra there. Stephanie struggles with self-doubt, depression, and a difficult relationship with her mother, and this move is an attempt to start over. Unfortunately for Stephanie, the first time she plays her violin in New Mexico, it explodes because the arid climate has dried it out too much.

Her stand mate with the orchestra refers her to an instrument repair shop, and when Stephanie arrives, that’s when things really start to happen. As soon as she walks inside the shop, Stephanie sees strange colored lights and figures made of smoke, but when she mentions this to the people at the shop, they grow uncomfortable and refuse to answer her questions. Stephanie and Bruce, the young man who will repair her instrument, quickly realize they are strongly attracted to each other, but each carries wounds from the past. And the unresolved conflicts from the past—Stephanie’s depression and dangerous spirits somehow linked to Bruce—eventually threaten Stephanie’s life.

In addition to the intriguing plot, one thing I like about the story was the vivid but not overblown descriptions. Moore also does a good job giving details of the characters’ back story and revealing them when the reader needs to know. I thought the chemistry between Stephanie and Bruce was conveyed well. Moore also works in just enough of Stephanie’s Japanese beliefs and Bruce’s Native American beliefs to help the reader understand the story, without launching into dry explanations. In one especially nice touch, several chapters open with haiku, supposedly written by Stephanie herself.My one quibble with the story is that at times, Moore isn’t precise enough in her scene setting. At least twice, I was surprised to suddenly learn that more people were in a room than I had thought. These moments of confusion pulled me out of the story needlessly. However, that was a minor flaw in an otherwise enjoyable read.

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Book Review: America’s Fool

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I recently read America’s Fool: Las Vegas & the End of the World by Jay Amberg, which was a fun read. The book is a thriller set during the Obama administration, probably in the first year or two after the Great Recession.

Andy Wright is a TV reporter who is more of a pretty-boy personality than a hard-core journalist. While in Las Vegas to film a series of stories about how the recession hit the city, he goes hiking in Red Rock Canyon. When a hailstorm kicks up, he takes refuge in a cave and falls down a rock chimney, landing in a chamber with a hidden cache of mysterious canisters. As he inspects them, something stings him from behind, and he passes out. The next thing he knows, Wright wakes up by the side of a road on the other side of the ridge where he had taken refuge—to discover that a beautiful, female Iranian doctor has found him and is attending to his bruises. If that’s not strange enough, when Wright gets to his feet, he notices there are no tracks—none at all—to hint at how he got to where he is.

The series of mysteries nags at Wright, who has grown more than a little disillusioned about how glib his career has become. He and his producer, Maggie McNamara, start looking for answers, and at first, discover more questions. Who is Dr. Fereshteh Raisani, and how did she happen to come along a little-used road just when Wright needed her? And who is Nick Larson, the solitary desert wanderer that Wright meets when he goes back to find the motorcycle that got left in the desert when he had his accident?

Little by little, Wright and his producer uncover a terrifying plot. Joseph Wengelt, the fanatical leader of a religious cult that lives on a compound in the Mojave Desert, has decided to summon forth the “Day of the Lord” upon sinful, apostate America by unleashing the most virulent poison ever invented. He is aided in his plan by an ignorant white supremacist and a cold-blooded security officer who dreams of establishing his version of constitutional government. Wright and McNamara remain hampered by what they don’t know. When is the attack supposed to take place? What are the targets of the conspiracy? Do they know for certain where all the canisters of poison are—and if not, will their investigation trigger a pre-emptive strike?

America’s Fool has well-drawn characters and vividly described settings. It was a fast-paced read that kept me enthralled during a long afternoon of sitting in a hospital waiting for tests—despite the noise of the ubiquitous television and the chatter of patients and medical personnel at the nearby reception desk. I think that’s a pretty strong recommendation.

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