Saturday, May 30, 2015

480 (2015 #37). The Last Anniversary

by Liane Moriarty

Thirty-nine year old Sophie Honeywell is still single, and surprised to hear from her former boyfriend Thomas Gordon, especially after their awkward breakup just before he was ready to take her to Fiji to propose.  He tells her his great aunt Connie has died and left Sophie her quirky house on tiny (fictional) Scribbly Gum Island in Australia.  Veronika, Thomas' sister and Sophie's former friend, is not too happy about that.

Thus Sophie gets to better know all the few but related year-round inhabitants of the island - Connie's sister Ruth, Thomas' cousin Grace and her handsome husband Callum and their baby Jake, and Thomas' parents Margie and Ron.  Oh, and of course Margie's mom and the grandmother of Grace, Thomas, and Veronika.  That would be Enigma, the famous baby of the "Munro Baby Mystery," whose parents disappeared and left her behind in her crib in their house on the island, to be taken in and raised by Connie and Rose.  Since then, the family has made good money from tours and special events related to the "Mystery."

Complications ensue with Grace's post-partum depression and seemingly-uncaring mother Laura, Margie's weight-loss program, and Sophie's efforts to find the dream man Connie hinted would be perfect for Sophie.

I've read a number of books now by Liane Moriarty, and so far, I like this one the least.  It's mostly because there are a few short chapters where a couple of characters are having a conversation, and those characters are not identified.  Sometimes you can guess who they are from the context, but many times I found myself puzzled as to who was speaking.  I found Grace's behavior to be very disturbing, and the "mystery" was rather predictable.  The last anniversary of the title is the setting for the climax of many of the conflicts in the book.  Even though this book was not too great, I'd still read another by Moriarty.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

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

Saturday, May 23, 2015

479 (2015 #36). The Tapestry

by Nancy Bilyeau,
read by Nicola Barber

I requested this audio book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program because:

1) I love audiobooks, as I have a 40-minute-each-way commute each workday,
2) I love historical fiction, and
3) I love reading about the Tudor era.

This book sounded especially interesting because it was NOT about the typical subjects - Henry VIII, his wives, or his children.  Instead, author Nancy Bilyeau has as her protagonist a fictional woman, Joanna, a former Dominican novice, from a real aristocratic family, the Staffords.

While this audiobook could stand alone, I found I enjoyed it more when I finished the first book in the series, The Crown, which I borrowed from the public library and started reading shortly after I started listening to this.  I think it would have been even more helpful to have read the second book in the series, The Chalice, before reading this one, as there were many more references to events in that book which might have been more clear in this third novel with the background of reading the second novel as well.

In addition, the second novel has been spoiled a little bit for me now as well, in that I have a pretty good idea of what happens in that one.  Thus, I would definitely recommend reading the first two books in the series before reading this one.

That being said, I enjoyed this book.  The tapestry in question is one that Joanna has been commissioned by Henry VIII to weave, as he has appointed her tapestry mistress.  This brings her from her peaceful home in Dartford, where many of the nuns and novices from the former priory have settled, back into the dangers and intrigues of the court.  Joanna apparently knows too much, and someone is trying to kill her.

As tapestry mistress, she meets the artist Hans Holbein the Younger, and gets to travel to Brussels in search of more tapestries for the king.  Learning about this art form was a highlight of the book.

Bilyeau weaves in many other Tudor era personages - Henry VIII of course, his fourth wife Anne of Cleves and fifth wife Catherine Howard (the latter a friend of Joanna's), Thomas Cromwell, and Bishop Gardiner, among others.  Joanna also interacts with other even less well-known real people like Thomas Culpeper - a gentleman of Henry VIII's Privy chamber and another friend of Catherine Howard.  Bilyeau doesn't have any of them doing anything too out of character, which keeps the story believable.

British voice talent Nicola Barber has a beautifully feminine and cultured voice, and was quite believable as Joanna.  She also does well with other voices, even male.  At times I had to listen to sections more than once, but I believe that was due to some of the complexities of the plot (particularly with all the alchemists of the era referenced, such as Agrippa and Paracelsus), as well as my lack of familiarity with the previous two installments in this series.

I did not know much about alchemy or tapestries of the period before listening to this book, so once again, good, well-researched historical fiction has inspired more learning for me.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This audiobook was received from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.  It will be donated to my university library.]

Friday, May 22, 2015

478 (2015 #35). At the Water's Edge

by Sara Gruen

I had high hopes for this book, since I loved Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, and from its description, this appeared to be historical fiction.  Alas, World War II is only a backdrop, and it's really a (rather bad) romance.

Madeline (Maddie) Hyde, her husband Ellis, and their friend Hank are spoiled, clueless Philadelphia socialites who go to Scotland at the height of World War II to search for the Loch Ness monster.  Ellis' father, Colonel Hyde,  was accused of faking photos of the monster years earlier, and when Ellis makes the mistake of making fun of his father at a party, he is financially cut off.  He and Hank decide to photograph the monster themselves and get back in the Colonel's good graces.

Ellis (especially) and Hank are despicable characters who annoy the locals, especially with their expectations of being waited upon.  Maddie eventually learns to be of some use and even makes friends with the two women, Maggie and Anna, who work at the tavern/inn where they stay.  She's also drawn to the mysterious operator of the inn, Angus.

There's not much history in this book (although some of the details about blackout blinds, bombing shelters, and rationing are interesting), and not much about the Loch Ness monster either (what there is adds some fantasy elements to the book).  While Maddie's character develops a little, I still found her to be wimpish, and the romance was not believable at all.  This book was a disappointment all around.  Pretty cover, though.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

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

Thursday, May 21, 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 debut author Nancy Bilyeau with some freedom with her main characters (which also include a local constable, Geoffrey, and a Dominican 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

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

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.]