Friday, May 22, 2015

477 (2015 #34). The Crown

by Nancy Bilyeau

I read this book because I was sent the third book in the series in audiobook format to review.  I was not sure if I needed to read the first two books in the series to understand the third, but decided to borrow this first book anyway when I found it on my local library's shelves.

The Crown takes place in Tudor England beginning in 1537, just before Henry VIII's son Edward is born.  However, it's very different from other historical fiction set in this period, much of which (by Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory in particular) features real historical figures as the main characters.  One problem with such books is that it's hard to have your protagonists do anything that would be considered "out of character" for that historical person.

Instead, this book (and series) focuses on an invented character, Joanna Stafford, a member of the (real) disgraced noble Stafford family (although her parents are also fictional).  Joanna is a 26-year-old novice in a Dominican convent (Dartford Priory, a real place), and many of the minor characters in the book are more important historical figures, such as Bishop Stephen Gardiner.

This provides author Nancy Bilyeau with some freedom with her main characters (which also include a local constable, Geoffrey, and a Dominicn friar named Edmund).  While I don't think a Dominican novice would have had quite as much freedom to act and speak her mind as Joanna apparently does, especially in THAT era, I do think nuns have more spunk that the average person might think (speaking of my experience with my own aunt, a nun).  Thus, her actions and behaviors were somewhat believable.  I grew to really like and care about the character Joanna.

The plot has been described by others as a bit of a cross between Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and Philippa Gregory's Tudor-era books, in that there's a mystery for Joanna to solve, as well as some romance. She is supposed to find the apparently-magical crown of Ã†thelstan, a real tenth-century English/Anglo-Saxon king, although the crown of the title is the author's invention.  As with all good historical fiction, this has prompted me to learn more about this period of history.  Bilyeau helps with the inclusion of a two-and-a-half page bibliography at the end of the book.

For me, though, the strength of the book is its highlighting of the effects of the English Reformation, particularly on the Catholic convents and monasteries of that era, and what life was like for Catholics at that time.  Being Catholic myself, I get rather tired of most Tudor-era fiction that paints Catholics as fanatics at best and traitors at worst.  Instead, Henry VIII is definitely the bad guy in this book, and not just because of the way he treats his many wives.

A well-developed female protagonist and the different, religion-oriented emphasis on the Tudor era will keep me reading (or listening to) this well-researched series.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

Saturday, May 09, 2015

476 (2015 #33). The Widow of the South

by Robert Hicks

This book has been on my TBR list for a while.  There really was a "Widow of the South," and she really was Carrie McGavock, a main character in this book.

Debut author Robert Hicks had been involved in the preservation of Carnton plantation and of Franklin, Tennessee, the settings for this novel.  Carnton, the home of Carrie and her husband John, was the site of a Confederate field hospital during the Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864.

The novel begins in 1894 with Carrie and her former slave, Mariah, walking through the cemetery at Carnton where nearly 1,500 battle casualties are buried.  Then she is approached by an old soldier she knows.

The story then moves back 30 years to the day of the battle.  Hicks excels at describing the setting, as well as the battle from the point of view of individuals participating in it or witnessing it.  This is "Book I" in the text, and it takes up about 100 pages.

"Book II" is the immediate aftermath of the battle, when Carnton serves as a field hospital.  Carrie has been in a depressed state for a number of years over the deaths of three of her five young children, but serving as a nurse seems to snap her out of that.  She focuses in particular on one wounded soldier named Zachariah Cashwell (who is completely fictional), who has to have his leg amputated.  Inexplicably, they fall in love with each other, but Cashwell is ultimately taken away as a prisoner.

"Book III" takes place in 1865-66, and the last few pages of the book return to 1894.  The author's note at the end of the book is especially helpful in sorting out truth and fiction, and has photographs and paintings of Carrie, her husband and children, Mariah, Carnton, and the cemetery.

2005 article said Hicks "centered his book on a fictional relationship between McGavock and ... Cashwell because he knew little about the plantation mistress. He says that he didn't intentionally change McGavock's story, but at times he just didn't have all the facts to fully tell it."  While this is certainly understandable and acceptable, there were aspects of the relationship I did not find realistic.

Besides the McGavocks and Mariah, Hicks incorporated other real people into his story, such as Nathan Bedford Forrest (in the postwar years) as himself, and Tod Carter (aka "Mint Julep") as Will Baylor (aka "Cotton Gin").  The sentimental tale at the end of the novel about the grave of James Wilson Winn is apparently true.

All in all, I liked this novel, and it has sparked an interest in learning more about the McGavocks, Mariah, and Carter, as well as the Battle of Franklin, and visiting the sites mentioned in the book.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Thursday, May 07, 2015

475 (2015 #32). The Last Wife of Henry VIII

by Carolly Erickson,
read by Terry Donnelly

Of the three historical romances by Carolly Erickson that I have listened to so far, this one has been the best, but only because the narrator was pretty good.

Once again, the author has main character Catherine Parr doing something I felt was too out of character for her to do, just as she did with Tatiana Romanov in The Tsarina's Daughter, or Josephine Bonaparte in The Secret Life of Josephine.  In this case, it's the idea that Catherine Parr - otherwise presented as a rather intelligent woman - would risk being caught having an affair with Tom Seymour while she was married to Henry VIII, even if Tom was the love of her life.

Unfortunately, nowhere in the audio or print book does Erickson clarify what is fiction and what is not, nor even identify the book as a "historical entertainment" (or what I like to think of as historical romance).

The reader, British actress Terry Donnelly, is a good choice in this case, as the characters in the book are also English, and listening was a pleasure.  However, this was the last audio version of this author's books at my public library, and I don't think I'm going to bother reading any more of Erickson's other books there.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Thursday, April 30, 2015

474 (2015 #31). What Alice Forgot

by Liane Moriarty

What might happen if you hit your head while working out, and came to only to learn that you'd "lost" ten years of your life?  That's what happens to Alice, pregnant with her first child, only to find it's ten years later, she's thin, she has three children, and her husband Nick, the love of her life, has left her.

As in Liane Moriarty's The Husband's Secret and Big Little Lies, this book also tells its story from the viewpoints of three main female characters.  Besides Alice's point of view (written in third person, from both age 29 and age 39), there were journal entries to her psychiatrist from Elisabeth, Alice's sister, dealing with infertility issues; as well as letters to a (dead) former flame written by Frannie, the "grandmother" to Alice and Elisabeth.   These didn't add much to Alice's main storyline, other than to help clarify what drove Alice and Elisabeth apart, and shed some light on their goofy mother (now married to Nick's father). They made the book a bit longer than it needed to be.

However, I loved the premise of this book, and the dialogue, especially that of Alice with her children - the children she doesn't "know" because she doesn't remember them.  The younger Alice is upbeat and optimistic - and rather horrified to learn how much she has changed (mostly NOT for the better) in the last ten years she "missed."  Of course, her memory slowly returns, and the ending is rather predictable, but getting there is compelling, even with the not-so-necessary side stories.

Best quote in the book:   "Early love is exciting and exhilarating. It's light and bubbly. Anyone can love like that. But love after three children, after a separation and a near-divorce, after you've hurt each other and forgiven each other, bored each other and surprised each other, after you've seen the worst and the best - well that sort of love is ineffable. It deserves its own word." 

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This e-book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Sunday, April 26, 2015

473 (2015 #30). The Pirate's Bed

by Nicola Winstanley,
illustrated by Matt James

This is a fantasy picture book about a bed separated from its pirate owner in a shipwreck.  The bed has some interesting experiences for a while, but then becomes lonely.  I loved the ending of this book!

Nicola Winstanley apparently wrote this book to encourage her toddler son to stay in bed at night.  She uses some vocabulary that will be above the intended audience for this book, so I think it would be best for a read-aloud (or a bedtime story).

Matt James illustrated the book using acrylic paint and India ink on board.  The illustrations are busy and colorful and look like they could have been done by a little boy (such as scary-looking sharks or whales with lots of teeth), which is fitting for the story.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[I received this hardbound edition from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be added to the curriculum collection at my university library.]

Saturday, April 25, 2015

472 (2015 #29). Rebound!

by David Borges

Pickings were kind of slim in the February batch of Early Reviewer books for LibraryThing, and I've learned I have to request at least three books to have a chance of getting one.  This was my third choice book.

I put it on the list because my son was a graduate student at the University of Connecticut (UConn) at the time of their 2013-14 championship season, and he has been a longtime basketball player and fan.

Unfortunately, I just couldn't get through this book, and gave up after the first six chapters (52 pages out of a total of 189).  I'm not a sports fan, and there is just too much detail for me in this book.

Author David Borges is a sportwriter, and to his credit, he provides eight-and-a-half pages of footnotes at the end identifying sources for many of the quotes in his book.  There are also twelve pages of black-and-white photos about 2/3 of the way through the book.

Perhaps this book would be better appreciated by a UConn alumnus or sports fan, or a basketball fan.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[I received this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to a UConn grad and basketball fan - my son - to enjoy.]

Friday, April 24, 2015

471 (2015 #28). The Revelation of Louisa May

by Michaela MacColl

The Revelation of Louisa May is a young adult historical fiction novel set in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1848, when future author Louisa May Alcott is almost 16 (not in 1846, as stated in a misprint in the author's note in this advance reader edition).

Louisa's father is trancendentalist Bronson Alcott, and his philosophy states that he will not work for others.  Unfortunately this means the family has no money, so author Michaela MacColl takes a real but little-known incident, Louisa's mother "Marmee" (Abigail "Abba" May Alcott) accepting a summer job running a "water cure" hotel in New Hampshire.  (Another misprint - in reality, it was in Maine, not New Hampshire).

Youngest sister May goes with Marmee, and oldest sister Anna is away working.  Louisa stays behind to take care of her father and fragile younger sister Beth.  The family's home, Hillside (called Wayside by a later owner, Nathaniel Hawthorne), was (truly) a stop on the Underground Railroad.  Louisa's worries about not being able to write while her mother is gone are compounded by the arrival of a new "package" - an escaped slave named George.  George is being pursued by a fictional slave-catcher named Finch, who has a history with Thoreau.  Finch winds up dead - and Louisa tries to figure out who killed him.

Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in Concord at the same time, and they (along with Emerson's wife Lidian) are also characters in the book.  I liked the interweaving of these real persons and locations (such as Wright's Tavern and Walden Pond) that I actually saw on a recent trip to Concord.  I learned some more about the true characters of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott.

It isn't necessary to have read Little Women before reading this book, but having done so, MacColl treats such readers to relevant quotes from that novel as the openings to each of her chapters.  Although I could have done without the murder mystery and Louisa's romance, these elements might attract MacColl's target young adult audience and encourage them to read that classic and learn more about Concord and its famous authors.  A list of suggested readings is at the end of this book.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[I received this advance reader's edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]