Book Review, Historical Fiction

I think I’ve mentioned before the Dollar Tree, the local dollar store, has bins of $1 books every summer. I rummaged through the bin to find potential summer reads and The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld was one of those lucky books that found its way out of the bin and into my purchases. It was a hefty tome, weighing in at over 400 pages, a work of historical fiction that could have benefited from further editing and refinement. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and look forward to reading the author’s other works.

The date is September 16, 1920, and the first terrorist bombing in American history hits…New York City. Yes, you read that correctly. September 11th wasn’t the first terrorist attack on United States soil. On September 16, 1920, a huge bomb was detonated on Wall Street near the stock exchange and J. P. Morgan’s bank. Many died, many more were wounded, and the bombing was never solved.  Historians believe it was the work of anarchists, but no one group ever stepped forward to claim responsibility, and the “day that America will never forget” is now a day forgotten by nearly all Americans.

Jed Rubenfield uses this historical event to weave a tale around two interesting characters: Littlemore, a New York City police detective, and Younger, a battle-weary physician who still bears the mental scars of World War I. Added to the plot is Colette, a beautiful Frenchwoman whom Younger loves, and her younger brother, Luc, who stopped speaking after their parents and grandmother were murdered by the Germans when their town in France was invaded.

The bombing is the hinge upon which the plot turns, but there are many subplots.  Colette asks Younger’s help to find treatment for her brother, and the three journey to Vienna to consult with Sigmund Freud, who eventually cures Luc. Colette is obsessed with finding a German named Hans Gruber, who she says is her fiance, but who we find out is anything but a fiance. There’s Madame Curie, the discoverer of radium, a crooked and psychopathic factory owner, three strange Italian women following Colette around, kidnapping attempts, immanent war with Mexico…

If you’re feeling lost reading my summary above, it’s not your imagination. I tended to get lost in the plot myself. The author had too many subplots and intrigues going on, and he ended up summarizing events in huge chunks to get to the “good stuff” and move the plot along.

I loved the Younger-Colette theme and wished Rubenfield had made that the subject of one book, then used the Wall Street Bombing as another book entirely. It would have made the entire book faster-paced and more interesting.

Given all of these limitations, however, I did enjoy the book.  The characters were exceptionally well-defined and interesting, defying stereotypes found often in historical fiction. For that alone, I’d recommend the book.

I’m also a sucker for books set in old New York City.  I love New York City, and grew up in its shadow as well as worked in it for 10 years, and it’s in my blood. Imagining horses and carriages, old Model T Fords, and men in top hats strolling along Wall Street was pure pleasure for me.

3 1/2 stars out of 5, with the extra half a star for the fun characters.

I purchased my copy at Dollar Tree, but if you click the link above, it will take you to Amazon, where you can purchase your copy. I do make a tiny commission on the sale but it does not affect your overall price. Thank you.

 

Book Review, Historical Fiction, Romance

Book Review: The Day the Falls Stood Still

I loved this book. It was clunky in spots, a little sad, but filled with such wonderful romance and history that it captured my attention and I didn’t want to put it down. If you are looking for beach reading this summer, The Day the Falls Stood Still is perfect.

The book is set on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, in the period from 1915 – 1923. Right there I was hooked. How many historical fiction books have you read about Niagara Falls, and Canada? None? Right. That’s because most romance writers like the Regency period, or Victorian times, or ancient times.

Cathy Marie Buchanan really captures the location beautifully in her writing. I’ve been to Niagara Falls twice in my life and love it, although the touristy feel of the place is a little bit of a turnoff for me. On our last visit, my husband and I toured the Canadian side of the falls, and so I personally knew the places Buchanan described.

 

The story follows Bess, an upper middle class girl from the local Catholic girl’s academy, the Loretto Academy. Bess leads a sheltered existence with her striving middle class parents and her wild elder sister, Isobel. Her father works for the Niagara Power Company and the family lives in Glenview, a mansion set among the silver mining families on a big bluff overlooking the falls. It sounds like an idyllic existence, and it is, until Bess’ father loses his job.

After that, the family undergoes heartbreak after heartbreak. Bess’ father starts drinking. Her sister Isobel dies. I won’t tell you how or why, because that would spoil too much of the plot, but it is believable and although sad, not so sad that I didn’t want to keep reading the book.

Bess falls in love with Tom Cole, a local riverman and grandson of the legendary Fergus Cole. The rivermen rescue people and animals swept into the falls as well as fish out bodies from the river. Tom lives off the land and is definitely not in Bess’ social set, but Bess defies her parents and finds an ingenious way to communicate with and eventually meet her lover despite her parents’ objections.

The book winds through the horrors of World War I, with Tom away fighting in the war and Bess giving birth to Jesse, their oldest boy. Bess has to struggle to make ends meet, taking up dressmaking as her mother had done to earn money for the family. The story ends in 1923 with tragedy, but it is a gorgeous love story that feels true.

This is Buchanan’s first novel, and as with any first novel, there are bumpy bits and plot points I wish had been tighter. Tom returns from World War I with what we today would call post traumatic stress disorder, and no wonder – trench warfare and gas attacks are some of the most horrible warfare ever invented. He seems to recover from it rather easily.  Bess’ protestations against his work on the river also seem forced. For someone who flaunted convention to marry beneath her class, she seems to strive for conventionality too much.

Still and all, it is a good book, a wonderful love story, and an entertaining tale. I recommend it if you are looking for an engrossing novel to escape with on vacation. I purchased my copy at a local store, but if you click the link above, you can buy it via my Amazon affiliate link. I earn a small commission on the sale but you aren’t charged anything extra.
Enjoy!

Book Review, Historical Fiction

Book Review: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Oh, how I loved The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.  I’m usually leery of books Oprah recommends, but this time around she was spot-on to recommend this book. It’s a fascinating exploration through history, slavery and feminism.

The narrative follows an actual person, albeit fictionalize: Sarah Grimke, a young woman from Charleston, South Carolina. Born in 1792 to a large, well to do family, her family was a prominent slave-holding family and her father a judge. When she’s 11 years old, her mother presents her with her very own slave as her birthday present.

Can you imagine?

But it’s real. This actually happened.

Sarah is appalled. As a child, she witnessed a brutal slave beating, which caused a speech impediment. She tries to return Handful, known in reality as Hetty, to her parents, but they refuse. Hetty’s mother, the family’s seamstress, Charlottes, makes Sarah promise to free Hetty if she can. Thus begins Sarah’s road to abolitionist, suffragette and amazing figure in history.

The chapters alternate between Sarah’s viewpoint and Hetty’s viewpoint, with each woman showing us a slice of life in South Carolina before the Civil War. Much of the actions surrounding Hetty’s tales contain bits of historical truth, although Sue Monk Kidd, writing in the afterward, is quick to admit that although she conducted extensive research into the people, she had to invest a lot of it, especially around Hetty’s character. Hetty is mentioned in history, but little is known of her true personality.

Sarah herself is a really inspiring person. I’d never heard of her before, but now I want to read an actual biography of her. Before abolitionism was popular, before women’s rights was on the national consciousness, she advocated for both.  Can you imagine how difficult it must have been for her in 1830s South Carolina to be so vehemently against slaver? Or in the American society of the day, when women could not own property and were not given legal status, advocate for women’s rights?

Sarah was a prolific author and a brave woman. She sat among the blacks at the Quaker Church when even the open-minded Quakers wouldn’t do that. She roomed with a black family when her white landlord kicked her out for her “outrageous” viewpoints. She turned down a marriage proposal because her beloved wouldn’t let her continue her studies for the Quaker ministry as his wife.

Oh, how I love this women. I wish I could time travel and meet her. She’s like my abolitionist/feminist Joan of Arc.

The story of Sarah and Hetty’s travails is mesmerizing, and the ending is wonderful. “The invention of wings” in the title alludes to an African fairy tale that Hetty’s mother tells her, and that she weaves into a beautiful story quilt she sews for her daughter to chronicle their family’s history so it is not lost in the mire of slavery.  Sue Monk Kidd deftly handles what could possibly become a clunky metaphor so that we too feel that both Hetty and Sarah have invented wings to fly and soar into history.

Highly recommended book. You can purchase a copy through Amazon by clicking the picture of the book or the link at the top of the page. I earn a small commission on the sale, but it does not affect your price. I borrowed my copy from the public library.

Book Review, Historical Fiction

Book Review: The Queen’s Fool by Philippa Gregory

I really love the various historical fiction series from author Philippa Gregory.  Each book is infused with such period detail that I can visualize the world completely, from the social mores to the clothing, horses and food.  I borrow these books from the public library, and they don’t have the entire series or some are missing, so I read them out of sequence, which is okay – you don’t have to read them in order.  Some, like The Queen’s Fool, stand alone in the Boleyn sequence, so that you can read this book and enjoy it as a good historical fiction, or read it along with the other Boleyn books by Gregory, and it works fine either way.

 

The Queen’s Fool tells the story of Hannah Greene, a Jewish girl who with her father, escaped persecution in Spain.  They pretend to be Christians but maintain their Jewish heritage in secret, lighting a forbidden and hidden Sabbath candle, and networking with other Jews in hiding. Hannah is promised to marry Daniel Carpenter, a good and honest young man studying to be a doctor, but Hannah has earned a measure of independence. She wears boy’s clothing and works with her father in his printing and book shop in London.  Hannah also has the gift of sight, and this gift eventually earns her a place in the court of King Edward as the king’s fool, then upon his death, as Queen Mary’s fool.

A fool during the Elizabethan era did not mean a stupid person. Instead, it meant an amusing person; someone the monarch kept around to bring honesty and humor to the court.  Hannah’s position means she can be honest with the monarch when others must remain as courtiers, flattering and playing politics. Another fool at court, Will, is more like what we would call a comedian today, making jokes during serious matters or to lighten the mood at court.

Hannah is only 13 when three men appear at her father’s bookshop, one of whom is dressed completely in white and riding a white horse. It turns out there are only two men, one of whom is John Dee, the other a highly placed nobleman at court. The third is the angel Uriel, who she sees with her second sight. Dee, the court astrologer, is instantly transfixed by Hannah, and she is pledged to the court so that her mystical second sight can be used by Dee and others to help the Boleyns attain the throne.

Hannah is a woman torn between polar opposites. In politics, she loves Queen Mary, but is torn because she believes Princess Elizabeth will be a better monarch. She is torn between her attraction for Daniel and her attraction for Robert, the Duke at court. She is torn between wanting to be a woman and wanting the independence of a man, and of wanting to remain free and unencumbered but wanting the security of life with Daniel.

I liked this book a lot, and especially the character of Hannah. While she does seem almost too modern for the time period in fighting for her independence, I found her love for both Daniel and Robert convincing, as was her loyalty to Queen Mary and her mixed feelings about Elizabeth.  I won’t spoil the end of the book for you, but there is a plot twist when Calais, the city in France held by the English, falls that I did not like. I found it very contrived. But let’s see if you feel the same way after reading The Queen’s Fool.

I enjoyed this book so much that I went back and borrowed The Red Queen, one of the others in this series, and plan to read more of Philippa Gregory’s wonderful historical romances.  4 stars out of 5 for this one.

I borrowed my copy from the Prince Edward Public Library, but you can also purchase it through Amazon or your favorite online bookseller.