By Marcia Allen
Technical Services & Collections Manager
Those who devour historical fiction will well remember one of 2009’s best books, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. To no one’s surprise, the book was destined for prestigious awards, among them the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. The reasons for praise were many: Mantel’s writing manages to bring to life a distant time period and to enliven characters long gone except in history books. Reading her prose is a lively immersion into the drama and customs of 16th century royal England.
Wolf Hall is the first of a trilogy that follows the life and career of Thomas Cromwell. The story begins with a grim look at his brutal childhood and works its way to his role as successor to Cardinal Wolsey during the reign of Henry VIII. As the story is told from Cromwell’s point of view, readers get both a compelling story and an intimate character study of a complex individual. All of this occurs against the backdrop of Henry VIII’s romance with Anne Boleyn.
But history shows us that Anne’s reign was doomed early on. Much as Henry was quick to fall for her, he quickly lost interest, and Anne’s failure to deliver a living son was a catalyst. That’s the focus of author Mantel’s new book, and second part of the trilogy, Bring up the Bodies.
The story begins shortly after the execution of Thomas More. First queen Katherine of Aragon languishes in exile. Cromwell is a favored confidante for King Henry, but he walks an uncertain path, as do others who counsel such a volatile leader. Henry is disappointed in Anne’s aborted pregnancies and has recently noticed the shy manners of Jane Seymour. He has already begun to weigh variables in dissolving his second marriage.
What makes this second volume just as compelling as the first is partly a matter of the author’s expertise in conveying the richness of the time period and partly a matter of her gorgeous use of language. Consider, for example, Cromwell’s thoughts when he visits the ailing Queen Katherine:
“If she (the queen) is ill in the night, perhaps she dreams of the gardens of Alhambra, where she grew up: the marble pavements, the bubbling of crystal water into basins, the drag of a white peacock’s tail and the scent of lemons. I could have brought her a lemon in my saddlebag, he thinks.”
Another equally compelling feature of Mantel’s writing is her uncanny ability to make the reader a silent witness to dramatic historical events. Toward the end of this book, Mantel recounts the boasting of musician to the queen, Mark Smeaton, who claimed to know the queen in intimate terms. The reader can feel the tension, as Smeaton’s questioners, Cromwell among them, realize that they have found the loophole that will free Henry from his burdensome marriage. The reader also senses the horror that this idle boast will bring upon Anne and her court.
The concluding passages of the book speed through the hurried trials of those convicted of treason. Mantel’s handling of those details immerses the reader in the brutality of the times, of the fate that awaited those who dared offend Henry. And the retelling of the actual executions is so vivid, so realistic, that readers can but cringe.
I have to confess that I read this book in only a day or two, which would seem to indicate that it’s fairly short and fairly simple to read. This is not the case. This is a complicated tale with multiple layers of nuance, a story that dedicates five opening pages alone to its list of characters. My haste to read the book is due to its hypnotic nature: it is just that well written. I am eagerly awaiting the third volume of this outstanding trilogy, which promises to put Cromwell into dangerous conflict with his unpredictable monarch. I urge you to get lost in the pages of Bring up the Bodies.
Filled with lyrical descriptions and fascinating characters, Kate Hepinstall’s Blue Asylum tells the story of Iris Dunleavy, a plantation owner’s wife who is convicted of being a “lunatic” and is sent to an asylum in Florida during the Civil War. There she encounters a group of vivid characters, including both residents and staff of the asylum. Iris meets Ambrose Weller, a Confederate soldier haunted by his experiences in the war. As her story unfolds, Iris reveals the circumstances under which she was convicted. As she fights to retain her independence, her strength and spirit confuses the asylum doctor and their disagreements reflect the conflicts in the war surrounding the idyllic asylum. As she begins to love Ambrose and hopes for a life outside the asylum, Iris wonders if they can ever be free of their pasts. This is a story about ordinary people caught up in the terrible effects of the Civil War. The poetical style, an unusual setting, and rich details combine to make Blue Asylum an exceptional novel.
Ciro and Enza, two Italian immigrants, find each other and a future in Adriana Trigiani’s epic historical novel, The Shoemaker’s Wife. in 1905, seven year old Ciro and his brother, Eduardo, are left at a convent in Italy by their distraught mother who can nolonger care for her sons. Her husband had died in America while trying to make a new life for his family. The nuns become their substitute mothers and Eduardo takes to the religious life, while Ciro wants more from life. He meets 15 year old Enza when hired to dig the grave of her little sister in a nearby mountain village. Their attraction for each other during this difficult time begins a love relationship that spans many miles and many years.
Adriana Trigiani spent twenty years writing this story that tells the enchanting love story of her grandparents, who came to America. The hardships they endure as they search for a way in this country are overcome through their determination to succeed and strength of character. The historical details of the Metropolitan Opera House in the early twentieth century, and Enza’s relationship with Enrico Caruso for whom she sews costumes and cooks traditional Italian delights add to the delight of this story.
Gwendoline, Lady Muir has long been known for her cheerful disposition in spite of her widowed status. Lord Trentham, Hugo, is a former soldier and grumpy recluse who only emerges once a year to gather with fellow war survivors. When Gwendoline experiences a moment of vexation, causing her to undertake a more ambitious walk than usual, she trips and badly twists her ankle. The imposing Hugo is nearby and ignores her protests to scoop her up to carry her back to the manor where he’s visiting. Their forced companionship leads him to question his original impression of her as a silly, vain woman and leads her to question whether she is really as content with being a widow as she originally thought. In The Proposal, Balogh creates another sweeping Regency romance that you won’t be able to put down till the very end.
What would you take? When the Soviet police come to take her family away, fifteen year old Lina has 20 minutes to pack to leave her home in Lithuania. She chooses a few clothes, a family photograph, and drawing paper and pencils, leaving the loaf of bread cooling on the counter. She cherishes her treasures, but can’t help wishing she had also brought the bread. She and her mother and little brother are shipped to Siberia packed in train cars, always worrying about and missing her father. Through the book more and more of their dignity is stripped away as they experience horrible hunger, cold, and back-breaking work under the watchful eye of the completely unpredictable Soviet police force. But in the midst of this extremely grim story, we also get glimpses of the humanity that Lina and her fellow prisoners cling to; moments of sharing, kindness, and celebration together. And through it all, Lina draws with whatever she can get ahold of including dirt and ashes. The other prisoners smuggle bits of paper for her to use, having seen her special gift for expressing the truth of their experiences.
Between Shades of Gray brings to light a part of history that is often neglected. Powell’s story examines the basis of what it means to be human, expressing the best and worst of those in difficult situations, equally present in the police as in the prisoners. The subject matter is somewhat grim, but Lina’s determination to live and draw and the moments of kindness add enough light to make it a truly rewarding read.
Gritty and atmospheric, The Little Russian, grabbed me and held me in the early twentieth century drama that Jewish Russians experienced. Vacillating between the horror of pogroms where Jews were massacred, to the lifestyle of a very wealthy grain merchant, we follow the story of Berta Alshonsky.
As a child, Berta tastes the pleasures of money while staying with wealthy relatives in Moscow. She is sent back to life in the Ukraine, Little Russia, as a grocer’s daughter in a small hamlet when she is no longer needed as a companion to her cousin. A wealthy grain buyer falls for Berta and life is easy once more until her husband’s secret life as an arms smuggler is revealed. Berta makes the fateful decision to stay in the Ukraine with her children when her husband flees to America. The tumultous war time and lost love reminds me of the epic Dr. Zhivago. Berta’s courage and determination to find her husband are tested in her fight for survival and protection of her children. This first novel for Susan Sherman is an impressive beginning.
Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor Napoleon III in France in 1852. He began to modernize Paris in an effort to boost the French economy. With the aid of Prefect Baron Haussmann the streets were widened, the working class neighborhoods were moved to the outskirts of the city, and parks were constructed. Paris during this controversial time in history is the focus of Tatiana de Rosnay’s newest book, The House I Loved.
Through letters to her beloved husband, Armand, who died ten years earlier, Rose Bazelet tells the story of the home she moved into when she first married. Her husband’s family home was on rue Childebert, a narrow street in a traditional neighborhood of shops and two story houses. Rose immediately falls in love with the home and with Armand’s mother. The years pass and Rose raises her children there and nurses Armand until his premature death. As she deals with his death, Rose develops deep friendships with the neighbors and shop owners. She spends many hours each day with the flower shop owner who rents space from the Bazelet family property. Napoleon’s hazing of surrounding streets is dreadful and worrisome, but the location of their house so close to the church surely will protect them from the demolition.
More and more the surrounding streets are ruined with the impending progress and Rose must decide what to do and where to go. Can she leave the house she loves?
A Wedding Kiss can be life-changing. Keara’s father has just gambled their farm away and gone to jail accused of murder. In desperation, she approached Elam Jensen with an offer of marriage. Elam’s wife died of smallpox a year ago, and Keara has been helping take care of his children. A marriage of convenience becomes much less convenient when Keara and Elam share their first kiss on their wedding day! It becomes more than they expected when God Shows them what He really has in store for their lives. A mysteriously injured visitor shows up unexpectedly on their wedding day. Will her private battle draw them into deadly danger?
Visit Eureka Springs, Arkansas, in 1901 and discover what excitement and romance await along the White River Hollow.
by Kim Vogel Sawyer
Song of My Heart takes us to Kansas in the day of prohibition. Sadie needs to provide for her family while her step-father is recovering from a mining accident in Indiana. Cousin Sid encourages Sadie to come to Goldtree, Kansas, to accept a job at the local mercantile. But, it’s the added bonus of being able to sing in the Opera House that convinces Sadie to take the offer. Sadie is happy with her new positions in Goldtree until, Asa, the opera house owner, wants her to sing questionable tunes for a new crowd. Because Sadie doesn’t want to let her family down she feels pressed to do a Asa says.
In the meantime Mayor Hanaman hires Thad, a wanna be preacher, to rouse out the moonshiners before the growing town is brought to ruin. Of course, Sadie and Thad are attracted to one another, but when Thad hears Sadie practicing bawdy tunes and also appears to be involved in the moonshining business, all romancing is cancelled.
Kim Sawyer brings us another good read you won’t want to miss.
Madame Emma Delagardie has become a poetry heckler. Augustus Whittlesby thought that he had created the perfect cover when he started using ridiculously effusive poetry to send coded messages back to England from Napoleonic France, until he began experiencing heckling in the form of Emma. He’s tired of outrageous clothes and being thought of as an idiot.
Emma, an American emigre, lost her husband four years earlier and has done her best to earn the label of “merry widow.” But her parties, paste jewels, and ever-flowing champagne are her attempt to cover the grief for a husband that she only came to appreciate when it was too late.
Fate forces Whittlesby to deal with the biggest annoyance in his life when he needs to find a way to get an invitation to Napoleon’s house party and Emma’s commission to write a masque for the occasion is the only possibility. Spending hours together, writing and laughing, makes both of them wonder if appearances aren’t always what they seem. Augustus has a difficult time focusing on the mission and begins to question if it is worth the sacrifices he’s made for the good of his country.
The Garden Intrigue by Lauren Willig is another outstanding installment in The Pink Carnation Series, but works on its own just as well. Rollicking dialogue, humorous espionage, and a delightful romance make for a great read.
Occasionally I find myself in a reading rut. Usually it is because I have read something so wonderful that I want the story to go on and on. After finishing just such a book, The House at Tyneford, I found myself in this situation. Consequently another historical fiction novel about World War II found its way into my hands, The Girl in the Blue Beret.
This story is told from the perspective of a retired airline pilot reliving his past as a downed B-17 bomber pilot rescued by the French Resistance.
Marshall has lost his wife and now he has reached retirement age for the airlines. As he tries to fit into this new world his past rises up to prominence and he decides to return to the crash site in Belgium and see what can be remembered and rediscovered of such a significant time in his youth. His search leads him to discover several of the people who risked their lives for him, including the sweet young girl with the blue beret. Their stories of courage as they struggled with hopelessness and loss bring new meaning and change to Marshall’s world. This story was inspired by the real history of the author’s late father-in-saw.
The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons is one of those atmospheric novels that transports one to another age and creates a desire for the story to never end as we are caught up in another time. Elise Rosa Landau is one of the privileged Jews in Vienna. Her Mother is a famous opera singer and her father an accomplished writer. Hitler is coming to power and life as they have known it is on the brink of disaster. Her parents are hoping for a visa to escape to America, but Elise must get out of Vienna some other way.
Elise posts a refugee advertisement in the London Times:
Viennese Jewess, 19, seeks position as domestic servant. Speaks fluid English. I will cook your goose. Elise Landau. Vienna 4, Dorotheegasse, 30/5.
She receives a letter in return from the housekeeper of Tyneford House who has been instructed by Mr. Rivers to offer Elise a position of house parlor maid, He will sign the necessary visa application statements, providing that she stay at Tyneford House for a minimum of a twelvemonth.
This is the beginning of a new life for Elise and her family. A life of tragedy and grief but also love.
The emotions of the characters, rich descriptive details of the beautiful coast of England and captivating story of life struggles for all classes during World War II create a wonderful novel.
by Susan Meissner
Marielle married a wonderful man, Carson, a widower of five years with two young children. She agreed to live in his previous wife’s family home, along with Adelaide the matriarch, “for the children’s sake” and to take care of Sara’s grandmother. It may not be the most comfortable of conditions but, Marielle did love the children and cared very much for Adelaide.
Holly Oak was an historical mansion in Fredricksburg, Virgina, that had survived the Civil War. It was rumored that Adelaide’s Great Grandmother, Susannah, was a spy for the Union Army and that Holly Oak was haunted. The truth of the stately mansion is told through Susannah’s letters written to her cousin in Maine during the war. Susan Meissner brings her characters alive and there is evidence that she has done much research before the telling of A Sound Among the Trees.
I must say that the cover and title of this book almost prevented me from reading it. Even I was slightly abashed to be caught reading this. But I’m glad I overcame my embarrassment because it’s a great story.
Rob MacGregor is traveling to pay homage to the new king. As the future chief of his clan he takes his responsibilities seriously and doesn’t have the time for romance. But when a dying soldier uses his last breath to ask MacGregor to save Lady Davina Montgomery from a burning tower, he cannot refuse.
Davina has lived in a convent all of her life for the sake of her own protection, but as a new king is crowned, even the convent can’t keep the forces of evil from chasing her down. She tries valiantly to defend her home, even as she sees all of those she loves being killed. With all those she trusts laying bleeding on the ground, she has no choice but to believe in the powerful warrior who scoops her into his arms and carries her away.
With Ravished by a Highlander, Paula Quinn spins an adventurous tale of love and treachery, fleshing it out with historical detail, political intrigue, and two captivating characters.
by Serena Miller
Katie Calloway flees her Georgia home with her 8 year old brother, Ned. Harlan, Katie’s husband, wants her dead so that he can marry a rich widow and rebuild his war torn plantation. He blames Katie for letting the Union soldiers burn down the home that his grandfather had built. While Harlan is gone, Katie takes his horse and his money to get as far away from him as possible.
In Bay City, Michigan, Robert Foster is looking for a cook for his lumber camp. When he tastes Katie’s apple pie, he offers her the job. Katie believes the lumber camp deep in the Michigan forest is the best place to hide from Harlan. Although the work is hard, the accomodations are sparse, and the injured camp cook, Jigger, doesn’t want her there, Katie gets to do something she loves. The lumbermen greatly appreciate her cooking, which is something Harlan never did.
While Katie’s boss is a perfect gentleman and extremely handsome, Katie is still married. She is determined to keep her place as cook for the seven months as she agreed. But then she must find another place to work, because it is just too hard to be near Robert.
This was a fast read, maybe because I just couldn’t put it down. The lumbercamp was a new experience and the extra’s that Serena Miller added, a starving sqaw & infant, Roberts sister & kids, made the journey with Katie fun. If you like Kim Sawyer, Lauraine Snelling, Mary Connealy, or Karen Witemeyer you’ll like The Measure of Katie Calloway.