Goodreads: The Fire
Series: Northwest Passage #4
Source: Received from author
Published: August 2013
Twenty-two year old Kevin Johnson has dreams of going to grad school, but first plans to give himself a well-deserved vacation on an old family estate. His ancestors harbored a time travelling secret, however, and soon Kevin finds himself in the midst of the Great Fire of 1910.
The Fire returns readers to the magical world of John Heldt’s Northwest Passage series, a place where the past intersects with the present and characters have the ability to change not only their destinies, but also the destinies of the people they love. Though the plot may seem familiar from previous installments of the series, the characters make the story their own. Smart, caring, confident, and thoughtful, these are people with whom readers can feel comfortable, like talking with friends.
Though the cast proves varied and each character possesses enough depth to stand on his or her own, even when they appear only infrequently, the three standouts are protagonist Kevin Johnson and the two women he comes to love. Kevin, a recent college graduate, may seem at first a standard college kid– naively optimistic and perhaps a little overconfident–but he also shows real maturity, a trait not often granted to his age group. In fact, he sometimes seems meant to travel back to 1910, not because it is in his genes but because he seems so seriously focused on working hard, making a career, and building a family. And here we all thought millenials were entitled narcissists glued to the Internet.
The two women who help Kevin clarify his goals in life are Sadie and Sarah, respectively an orphan determined to better herself and a clever schoolteacher attempting to forge her own way. Though both find themselves drawn to the handsome stranger in town, neither ever falls into the trap of building their identity around the man they desire. Even Sadie, less confident in her abilities and charms than Sarah, continues to work toward her own dreams, apparently knowing that vision is very attractive indeed. Their intelligence, dedication, selflessness, and kindness inspire Kevin, so that their friendships are mutually beneficial. Even if you are not a fan of love triangles, this may be the literary relationship you were looking for–the one where the players already know themselves and do not expect someone else magically to complete them.
All this plays out against the charming background of 1910 in the western United States. Kevin jumps back in time from the year 2013, so readers get to experience the thrill of exploration through his eyes–it is a little like walking into Diagon Alley for the first time. Horses still draw wagons, men and women alike observe strict social codes, and the old red light district is actually in operation. Even as Kevin delights in the novelty, however, he comes to realize that the past is not strictly idyllic–women experience pressure to leave their careers for marriage and do not yet have to vote. Also, Kevin happens to know from history that the nation’s largest wildfire is about to rage through the town.
Fans of history, time travel, and romance are all sure to find something to please in The Fire. Filled with vibrant characters determined to live life to the fullest–even if that means changing the course of history–the book by turns delights, surprises, and touches. Readers will be eager to follow Heldt on his next literary journey.
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Goodreads: The Second Mrs. Giaconda
Chosen as an apprentice to Leonardo da Vinci, young Salai cares only about ways to make easy money to support his father and sister. Then Salai meets the Duchess Beatrice, a woman ignored for her plain features, but who has a beauty that shines from the inside. Their friendship will help inspire the painting of one of da Vinci’s greatest masterpieces.
E. L. Konigsburg begins her book by proposing to explain the origins of the Mona Lisa–that is, she wants to explore why Leonardo da Vinci would deign to paint the portrait of a woman considered unimportant in society. The story that follows, however, focuses very little on the Mona Lisa. In fact, the book ends just as the inspiration for that painting appears. Instead, the story follows the budding friendship of da Vinci’s apprentice Salai with the new bride of the Duke of Milan, Duchess Beatrice. It contains no coherent plot, but only fragmented episodes that suggest a desire to impart to readers the importance of inner beauty through the depiction of Beatrice’s sense of fun and discerning artistic tastes (despite her “plain” features).
With no clear story arc, the success of the book rests on how well readers respond to the relationships of the characters–primarily Salai and Beatrice’s friendship, but also Salai and da Vinci’s understanding. Unfortunately, however, I found these a bit flat and not wholly believable. Salai and Beatrice’s friendship seems based primarily on the boy’s youthful adoration of a beautiful and charming woman; Beatrice humors him because she is bored and feels unloved. Salai’s attempts at friendship, however, tend to take the form of “witticisms” that are more often mean than funny and that frequently target the duchess’s own family. Perhaps the duchess unofficially adopted the boy as her personal fool, but I still had difficulty believing that she would so willingly endorse the insulting tongue of an apprentice.
Meanwhile, I think Beatrice was somehow supposed to be the glue that binds Leonardo, Salai, and herself together in some sort of understanding circle of love and beauty–mostly because she loves culture, art, and music, and da Vinci responds to her discerning tastes. Clearly, however, Beatrice is replaceable to da Vinci, or perhaps only significant as a personification of beauty and not as a person. Her relationship to him remains largely professional and her lasting contribution to him is a warning to Salai that the boy must help his master continue to be wild and creative. That is, she ultimately becomes nothing more than a catalyst to help inspire Salai to help da Vinci find genius.
Salai tells readers that he and his master are close, and I suppose we must take his word for it, since we do not see how da Vinci interacts with many others. Even Salai, however, remains at a distance, watching his master struggle through insecurity and doubt, and sometimes anger and impatience, as he takes on various commissions. The final message seems to say that da Vinci was not really knowable to anyone because he was too removed–not just because of his genius, but because he was afraid of getting hurt. It is hard to understand, then, just how Salai’s carefree nature supposedly inspired the artist to be more daring in his own work. The final image of the book is merely that Salai discovers a woman reminiscent of Beatrice whom Leonardo should therefore paint, and I had to question whether Konigsburg was actually suggesting that Salai’s life’s great work was approving this commission. I expected him to do more than identify a Beatrice look-alike (and I expected the Mona Lisa to be more than a replacement for some other woman, too).
In the end, the story presents itself as not only disjointed and fuzzy about its trajectory, but also as unnecessarily preachy. Because the characters fail to illustrate the message the author wishes to impart, the authorial voice intrudes a lot (mostly through Salai) to talk about inner beauty and personality layers and making others recognize the hidden treasure inside. I felt as if the author both recognized the weaknesses of the work and wished to hide them, and as if she did not trust her audience to “get it”. I was hugely disappointed with this attempt by the author of The View from Saturday.
Goodreads: Violins of Autumn
D-day is near when seventeen-year-old Betty Sweeney – alias Adele Blanchard – parachutes into German-occupied France. From that moment onward, Adele helps the Allied underground wreak as much havoc as possible upon the Germans to weaken their forces before the Allied invasion comes.
Violins of Autumn is a very good work of YA historical fiction, which is rare enough on shelves covered with paranormal romance and dystopias. The author notes in her afterward that she spent seven years researching and writing the book, and it is obvious that she put a lot of consideration into the range of emotions and experiences young agents might face. The story captures the optimism and sense of adventure that comes with covert work for a good cause, as well as the ever-present fear of capture, failure, and loss of loved ones. It brings readers into a world of secret meetings, coded radio messages, and Nazi prisons. There is a constant sense of suspense and gravity without the story every getting overbearingly dark.
One of the best parts of the book is the relationships among the characters. It is a bit disappointing that we can’t witness certain characters interacting with each other more often, but the nature of their work realistically keeps them apart for significant lengths of time. Still, the relationships feel genuine and several of the characters are endearing in their own way. Woven among the established relationships is the reality that trust is a gamble, necessary but often dangerous. Furthermore, the author spends some time giving the Germans moments of humanity. Though they are the enemy for most of the book, some personal encounters highlight the fact that they, too, are humans with stories.
This book is worth reading, especially for anyone interested in historical fiction focused on characters in their teens and twenties. It has a good story and good characters, and it successfully transports readers to another time and place.
Goodreads: The Enchantress of Florence
Summary: A blonde-haired foreigner arrives in the court of the Mughal emperor Akbhar claiming he carries a secret that will kill anyone who hears it—save Akbhar himself. His tale spans decades and continents, following the life of the princess Qara Koz, whose decision to forge her own destiny caused her name to be erased from the annals of history. The foreigner’s tale captivates not only Akbhar, but also the entire capital—but is it true?
Review: In The Enchantress of Florence, Rushdie mixes history, legend, and fantasy to create a story breathtaking in its scope and imagination. Although the narrative seems to build slowly at first, each word is like an exquisite jewel woven into an increasingly intricate tapestry; readers will find themselves drowning in the depths of a story so rich, so sensual, and so luscious that the plot could stand completely still and the beauty of the world Rushdie has woven would still ensnare them. Though the story ostensibly revolves around the titular enchantress of Florence, Rushdie is the true enchanter here.
Perhaps best classified as magical realism, the book seamlessly blends the fantastic and the factual, playing with the readers’ suspension of disbelief. Because some of the most outrageous claims are actually rooted in history, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction; the readers experience the confusion of the characters as they desperately try to untangle the threads of the foreigner’s tale to discover the truth of his journey. As his words begin to take on a reality of their own, however, the question arises: if lies can create so much beauty, is it still worth searching for the truth?
The Enchantress of Florence is a rare treasure among books, one that will make readers want to slow down to savor it, rather than rush through to discover how it ends. It casts a spell with its unique sense of the absurd, as well as its acceptance of that absurdity as a condition of life. Like the foreigner’s audience, readers may find themselves unwilling to break the enchantment.
Goodreads: Beau Brocade
Summary: King George’s troops scour the countryside of Derbyshire for traitors after the failed rebellion led by Bonny Prince Charlie. Falsely accused of siding with the pretender, Philip, the young Earl of Stratton, hides on the moors until his sister Lady Patience can deliver to London letters that prove his innocence. The man who accused Philip, however, remains hot on his trail. Only one man can help the Earl and his sister outwit their adversary, but dare they place Philip’s life in the hands of the notorious highwayman Beau Brocade?
Review: Beau Brocade should please fans of Orczy’s better-known work The Scarlet Pimpernel as it contains many of the same elements—a beautiful young aristocrat with her brother in danger, a dashing hero with a double identity, and a ruthless villain who will stop at nothing to catch his prey. Although the plot is unlikely to catch any readers by surprise, it proceeds apace—the majority of its interest lying in the budding romance as well as the various tricks played upon the villains by the audacious Beau Brocade. As is usual with Orczy’s books, the characters carry the story; hating the villains is almost as fun as cheering on the protagonists.
Beau Brocade has immediate reader appeal as he functions as a slightly more questionable version of the Scarlet Pimpernel–a man who lives outside the law, but who steals from the rich only to give to the poor (and always while wearing the latest fashion). Thus, although Orczy takes care to draw attention to his chivalry, his boyish laughter, his zest for life, and his ability to win the loyalty and love of all the poorer folk in Derbyshire, an air of mystery surrounds him; if this man is so noble, what crime in his past forces him to hide upon the moors like a common thief? That nagging doubt plays into his relationship with Lady Patience, who finds herself attracted to his honorable qualities but fearing to lose her heart to a man who could betray her for personal gain.
If Beau Brocade is the Scarlet Pimpernal (or perhaps a better parallel can be drawn to Blakeney’s ancestor Diogenes, hero of The Laughing Cavalier), Patience obviously corresponds to the Pimpernel’s love interest, Marguerite. Fortunately, however, she lacks that lady’s talent for falling captive to her enemies every so often so they can more easily blackmail the hero. I admit I had high hopes for Patience. Her brother thinks highly of her intelligence and good sense, and early on in the story she takes the initiative to discover his whereabouts and formulate a suitable plan for his recovery. She, too, quickly discerns the identity of their hidden enemy and takes various precautions to attempt to elude his clutches. By the end of the story, however, she finds herself unable to resist the relentless plots of her adversary and meekly places herself in the hands of the hero. Admitting one’s weaknesses and deferring to another’s strengths indeed counts as good sense. Even so, I wish Lady Patience had had a few more opportunities to exhibit the intelligence she clearly possesses. She has the ability to take stock of a situation much more quickly than anyone else in the story and tries to use this to her advantage. For some reason, however, things never work out in her favor, which leads to the sense that Beau Brocade is forever rescuing her–even though I think they would work remarkably well together as a team.
I thought the villain of the story was particularly notable, especially in light of comparisons with the Scarlet Pimpernel’s main adversary, Chauvelin. I suspect Chauvelin can gain the sympathy of readers much more easily, especially considering the implication in various adaptations (such as the musical) that he and Marguerite were once a couple. Chauvelin’s defining trait, after all, is merely his obsession with capturing the Scarlet Pimpernel–an understandable one considering his precarious position in the new hierarchy of the French Revolution. As book after book progresses and Chauvelin always loses, he increasingly becomes more pitiable than threatening. The villain of Beau Brocade, however–well, there’s a villain for you.
This villain lacks all honor, all chivalry, all trace of any finer trait. Perversely, however, he acts always with the intention of winning the hand of the Lady Patience in marriage. His love turned to obsession paints the picture of a truly warped mind–one so far gone that he would hurt the one he claims to love simply to possess her. He may not be threatening physically, but he is truly terrifying psychologically. One can almost see him tottering on the brink of madness. Even more terrifying, he retains the ability to enlist others in his cause–solely because of his place in society.
Though I am a fan of Orczy’s Pimpernel books, Beau Brocade still surprised me with the depth of its characterization (often hidden behind seeming stereotypes), the gripping nature of its plot, and the general feel-good quality of the story overall. If you like dashing heroes, scheming villains, and a good romance, Beau Brocade is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.
Goodreads: Isabel: Taking Wing
Series: Girls of Many Lands: England
Summary: Isabel Campion longs to go on adventures to foreign lands like her older brother, but she knows even as a young girl that her society expects her to take care of a household. Even so, she dares to sneak out of her house and see the objects of her dreams—a play at one of the local playhouses. Disappointed and angry, her father punishes Isabel by sending her away from home to live with her aunt, a woman who has a reputation for being good and holy. On the way, however, bandits ambush Isabel and her escort, leaving the girl alone in the forest. She will to use her wits and courage to survive, but she lives in a man’s world and that means disguising her gender as she travels toward safety.
Review: I remember being very pleased when American Girl branched out into global cultures with their Girls of Many Lands series. Along with my friends, I attempted to collect and read them all, learning in the process about different times and places. The books are designed for older readers than the American Girl books, so that those who enjoyed Kirsten or Samantha growing up could continue to have stories about strong females trying to find their places in the world. American Girl really emphasizes that we are all more the same than different, all searching for the same things across history.
When I found this book at a used book sale, then, I had to pick it up so I could pass it on to some other young girls looking for stories with strong role models—but not without rereading it first. Reading a book from one’s childhood can sometimes prove disappointing if not almost traumatic. Too often the book does not grow with the reader. Even so, I wanted to see if these books were as cool as I remembered and, what is more important to me now, if they were as educational as they look.
I clearly did outgrow this book in the sense that the book did not provide as much of a plot as I would have assumed. The back promises action and adventure—bandits and travelling actors, oh my!—but they make less of an appearance than I would have liked. I understand that the author glosses over the bandit episode to make the violence less upsetting, but I longed to see more of how the actors lived and worked. All too soon Isabel passed from their company and back into her own world. Even there, I found less information about hawking, medicine, and the threat of the plague than I would have expected.
Young girls will readily identify with Isabel and, I have no doubt, eagerly follow her adventures. The imaginations of children have a knack for filling in any gaps the author might have left in the plot. As an older reader (and as someone concerned with education), however, I was disappointed by the lack of historical information. Dalton provides enough information that readers can orient themselves in 1592 London, but more detail would have really brought the world to life. Mentioning Will Shakespeare as an up-and-coming playwright just is not enough. Hopefully, however, Isabel: Taking Wing can whet the appetites of readers so that they continue to learn about the magic and the drama of Renaissance England.
Goodreads: The Crimson Thread: A Retelling of Rumpelstiltskin
Series: Once Upon a Time
Summary: In 1880, Bridget and her family move from Ireland to New York in search of a better life. They are unprepared for the squalid conditions of their new home and the widespread prejudice they face, but Bridget’s father always makes the most of every situation. His optimism and imagination look as though they might lead his family into trouble, however, when he promises his wealthy employer, head of a giant textile company, that Bridget can create the world’s most beautiful dresses. Bridget will have to deliver, or she and her father will both be fired. Fortunately, a mysterious man from her neighborhood seems willing to help her—but for a price.
Review: Weyn creates a unique fairytale retelling in The Crimson Thread by utilizing the genre of historical fiction. Readers get the benefit of the interesting, slightly foreign setting of 1880s New York while seeing how “magic” might happen in real life. In fact, the only times true magic enters the book—the opening and closing statements by a mysterious fairy historian—are its weakest moments. It is much more interesting to see Weyn translate fairytale moments like “spinning straw into gold” into a real world setting.
The historical accuracy might not be all that it can be; some of the details seem off. Yet Weyn does hit many of the major issues of the era, including xenophobia, crowded tenements, sweatshops, child labor laws, and more. Readers experience the big picture of the time period, which is probably what will stick with them, rather than details about the prices of food. Also, the point in a book like this is most often the characters and the plot. The setting is important, but often as the backdrop to the actions or as the machinery that influences their lives. Bridget’s concerns about working conditions matter because they lead her to make certain life decisions. And these are the types of facts that Weyn gets right.
The story itself will lead readers through a maze of emotions as they sympathize with Bridget and her family upon their arrival in New York, hope for their success, and cheer for what triumphs they earn. The characters Bridget encounters during her journey are similarly diverse, hailing from all nations and walks of life. Even more interestingly, there are two love interests—but this is not the average love triangle. Both men seem like attractive and viable options, and readers will stress over Bridget’s decisions before finding satisfaction in her fairytale ending.
The Crimson Thread is a creative addition to the Once Upon a Time series. Weyn introduces her readers to the magic of the ordinary and to the good in every bad situation. Her book is about hard work and hope, and readers will love learning along with her spunky heroine Bridget.
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Summary: Foote chronicles the 1862 battle of Shiloh through the eyes of the men who fought it.
Review: Shelby Foote brings the battle of Shiloh to life through the eyes of the men who fought it. He alternates perspectives between Union and Confederate soldiers ranked high and low in order to depict the fighting as it appeared to the men on the ground. This approach makes the book stand out from typical accounts of the fighting, which tend to give a big picture, complete with the battle plans of the commanders. In Shiloh, no one really knows exactly what is happening, only what he sees, and readers get to share in the confusion. Through fiction, Foote strips away the dehumanizing aspects of history such as commentary on weapons or tactics and focuses instead on the men made history happen.
Foote does an excellent job on highlighting the contributions of a diverse group of men. Within a short volume, he portrays privates, officers, heroes, and cowards. Historical figures such as Johnston , Beauregard, and Grant make appearances, always speaking lines that they actually said in real life. As a historian, Foote cannot help but throw in some educational facts along with these appearances. Perhaps somewhat unrealistically, several of the narrators ruminate on the past lives of their commanding officers, explaining their rise to fame and offering up human interest bits such as how they proposed. These asides always prove interesting, however, and do no damage to the main plot—the battle of Shiloh.
Foote also takes care to portray both sides, Union and Confederate, fairly and accurately. He never gives the impression that he intends to glorify the South or vilify the North, or vice versa. Good men and bad exist on both sides of the lines, and Foote does justice to the fact; his characters are men first and foremost, not mere representatives of a cause. Only in his depiction of Nathan Bedford Forrest does Foote find himself unable to maintain a completely objective viewpoint. His admiration of the man shines through two separate protagonists, both of whom celebrate the man’s genius and daring.
History comes alive in this fascinating novel.
Series: River of Time #2
Summary: Gabi and her sister Lia return to fourteenth century Italy, where Gabi feels she has left her heart. But she must find a way to convince both Lia and their mother that staying in the past would be the right decision for them all.
Review: Cascade is a fun read following very much in the footsteps of Waterfall in both plot and style. Readers who enjoyed the fast-paced, somewhat episodic nature of Waterfall, in which Gabi repeatedly finds herself in danger and in need of rescuing by her attractive Italian suitor, will find a plethora of similar scenes here. On the bright side, Gabi is starting to show a little more sense and occasionally follows Marcello’s advice, thus keeping herself out of what would clearly be even more trouble.
Zita wrote the review for Waterfall and did not mention what I find to be very unrealistic “teen” dialogue. Gabi uses numerous idioms such as “the whole enchilada” in the first book, and continues to do so here, albeit to a slightly lesser degree. I have decided to find this amusing, and so will continue to read the series ready to chuckle at what are apparently Gabi’s attempts to sound cool. Interestingly, her thoughts are in this “teen lingo,” while her actual dialogue is pseudo-medieval, and she rarely gives a sign of what must certainly be a struggle to translate her modern thoughts to medieval words. She may have to change “breakfast” to “break my fast,” but she never lets slip any of the slang that frequents her head.
In terms of Christianity, the themes are also as light in Cascade as they are in Waterfall. Gabi prays a little more, but I think she still have a little way to go until her words become entirely sincere. She often gives the impression that she is talking to God because, hey, it’s the Middle Ages and everyone is doing it. Or she is just always facing the constant threat of death, so she might as well give asking an almighty God for help a try. It will be interesting to see how her faith progresses.
Overall, I think this series is enjoyable. It has lots of action, two attractive guys, and a great setting. A fun summer read.
Goodreads: The Lieutenant’s Whistle
Source: From author in exchange for review
Summary: The year is 1916 and Europe is at war when young Henry Braddock volunteers to be an ambulance driver in France. Though the United States is still officially neutral, Braddock finds a friendly assortment of countrymen transporting wounded at Bar-le-Duc. He also finds the lovely Kyla Laurens, a Scottish nurse whom fate keeps putting in his path. Braddock has no shortage of adventures in France as he courageously does his part for the war effort, hones his skills as an amateur reporter, and lives through the joys and trials of falling in love in the midst of a war.
Review: Author Fred Stemme’s love of historical detail is evident from the first pages of this book. He faithfully describes uniforms and illustrates how to crank up the engine of an old car while weaving in French phrases and the definitions of relevant vocabulary. Though the detail seems a bit overbearing at first, it eventually gives way to a rich portrait of what life looked like for the medical volunteers of the Great War. The reader can soon appreciate the sense of getting lost in the world Stemme creates – full of cigarette smoke and poker games, sleepless nights at work on the road, and stolen moments with the nurses when the captain isn’t looking.
The story itself builds slowly. At first, it has the sense of a history book written in narrative form, with individualized characters and dialogue but no definite sense of plot. This, in itself, is intriguing and even engaging but not particularly suspenseful. But the plot builds as the story progresses, and the second half of the book is particularly interesting and full of unexpected twists that are nonetheless believable in context.
Though The Lieutenant’s Whistle is primarily told from Henry Braddock’s point of view, a substantial portion is written from Kyla’s perspective. So, the reader has the benefit of peeking into the daily life of a WWI nurse and hearing the heroine’s side of the story. Stemme does a good job of working from the two perspectives, and it definitely adds to the book.
The Lieutenant’s Whistle is a good read for genuine lovers of history and those in search of a gentle romance set in the middle of war. It is a valuable glimpse into a part of WWI that is not often talked about – namely, volunteer ambulance drivers – and is an entertaining and informative work that is worth the time it takes to read.
Published: February 2012