Review of Revolution Baby by Joanna Gruda

revolution-baby-joanna-gruda-128x200Julek is literally a child of the Revolution. After the Polish Communist Party decides in 1929 that Comrade Helena Rappaport may indeed carry her baby to term, but not raise him, Julek begins his journey from family to family, relatives to strangers, boarding school to summer camp, Poland to France to the USSR and back, all the while telling his story with humor, irony, and wry honesty. He grows up with different sets of parents, lives his formative elementary school years in a Communist orphanage in France, where he pulls pranks and gets into scrapes like any eager young school boy. When he is called back to be with his mother in Paris during the German occupation, he adds the job “secret agent to the Resistance” to his already long and varied resume.

Not a sad tale at all, Julek’s story (based on a true story of the author’s father) is a lesson in resilience and optimism. Armed with biting—but never painful—sarcasm and the ability to see the humor in most things, he makes his way gracefully though both his unstable life and this volatile period in the 20th century, allowing the observer to view events with his childish innocence, even while that innocence is being swept away.

Revolution Baby was obviously written with a passion that can only come from a personal connection to the story. The language in this wonderful piece of literary fiction (in its translation at least) hits the mark: clear and descriptive, never too wordy, dry, or dull. If you are seeking a page-turning summer read, I can’t say this is for you, as there is much to digest between the sentences. It is best taken slowly, savoring the innuendos and subtle political barbs along with Julek’s extraordinary adventures. Recommended.

From the HNS November issue. Revolution Baby, by ,

Historical Fiction Daily-for anyone obsessed with the genre

A daily online newspaper of all the historical fiction news, compiled by Richard Lee, founder of the Historical Novel Society (in other words, our guru!) can be found at It’s basically a time-saver. News comes first to Twitter, but you’d have to follow a huge number of accounts and watch them pretty constantly to keep up to date. Instead, our news spotters do this for you, and all you need to do is click on the link. (from the HNS website)

I’d like to embed this paper into the main page of my blog, but how in the world to do that is beyond me. I’ll keep trying to figure it out.

Review of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

ice creamI don’t generally use the term “riveting” in my reviews, as it has become so common amongst reviewers that it has turned cliche. However, I am at a loss to find another word that describes precisely how absorbed I’ve been in this novel over the weekend. When I steal every moment for a quick fix, forget where I am while the page is open, and take the book in the bath, for crying out loud- well, that’s the definition of riveting.

Our heroine, the brash, sarcastic, and rather unscrupulous Malka Treynovsky, flees the pogroms of Russia for a new life with her family in the heart of immigrant New York in 1913. Life in the golden land is not what her family expects, and soon Malka ends up orphaned, disabled, and nearly thrown into an institution. The same Italian ices peddler who disabled her also takes her in, but Italian family life is no easier than Jewish tenement life on Orchard Street, and Malka, renamed Lilian, survives by adaptation, observation, and pure gumption. Despite betrayal and manipulation and hardship, Lilian marries Albert Dunkle, a stunningly handsome yet illiterate friend of the family, and together they create the Dunkle Ice Cream Company. The consequences of Lillian’s choices and the effects of the instability of her childhood shape who she later becomes: “The Ice Cream Queen of America”–the maven of delectable deliciousness, pioneer of industry innovations and creations, with a grandmotherly television persona. Behind the mask, however, the fame, the riches, the manipulations, and paranoia from the past eventually cause her world to founder….

This novel is many things. It is a character study of self-destructiveness; an examination of the rags-to-riches personality; and a story of the early 20th-century immigrant experience in America. It is a social commentary on the evolution of American consumer and pop culture. It exposes the cynicism behind ruthless marketing campaigns, and the cutthroat competition even in such a “happy” field as ice cream production or children’s television.

Lillian Dunkle’s voice is loud and brash–one can hear the full-blown New York accent in her words. She addresses us personally, not afraid to throw her harsh realities and judgements directly in our faces. “So sue me” is her favorite phrase and becomes her catch word throughout the book, defending actions that she KNOWS were not proper, yet believing in her right to do them anyway. I didn’t know how to feel about Lilian: her circumstances were horrifying, her trust in family had been shattered, and yet…in some ways she was a victim of her own making. A complex character, she is.

Gilmans’s writing is superb–not for one moment did I, the reader, feel alienated from a scene or tossed out of time and place. Each settling was utterly absorbing (and at times made me squirm in discomfort). The novel spans 70 years, from 1913 to the Second World War all the way through the 1980s, and it is clear the author has done her research because of the subtle integration of historical elements into the flow of the narrative.

I came across The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street while at Book Expo America this year, searching through the list of historical fiction on offer. I stood in the signing line for at least 45 minutes, but everyone was good-natured and excited, and when I got closer to the front I discovered why: true to the theme of the book, the marketing campaign for Gilman’s novel was grand! Each person was given a huge Haagen-Dazs ice cream bar (choice of three flavors offered by a woman in a 1950s candy-striped smock!)  to enjoy while we waited for our 30 seconds of discourse with the author and a signed hardback copy.  When you read the book, you’ll understand the significance of that gesture. I thought the marketing was brilliant….especially after being on my feet for 8 hours in a crowded convention hall!

The copy I have just reviewed is the signed hardback from BEA. I am reviewing it of my own volition, with no urging from author, publisher, etc.

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman, Grand Central, hb, $26, 505pp, ISBN: 978-0-446-57893-6

Pondering Italy today…

I’ve traveled to many places in Europe but Italy, sadly, had never been on my agenda; I’ve just never gotten that far south. My domain has been Scandinavia and northern Europe, but as I’m starting to be exposed to new ideas and fresh faces, new places happily follow.

A plethora of historical fiction is set in Italy, and from my research, most of it comprises three fascinating periods in Italian history: ancient Rome, the Renaissance, and the world wars. I am drawn to the following picks because of the added human dimension to historical events and personages, like the destruction of Pompeii, various Roman emperors, the incredible amount of artistic talent unleashed in such a small country, later tales of royalty and decadence, and the civilization and climate of various areas of the country.  Historical fiction is my mode of learning about history and culture, and if I were to plan a visit to Italy, I would busily prepare myself by reading theses highly recommended adventures through time and place:

first manThe First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough: A towering saga of great events and mortal frailties, it is peopled with a vast, and vivid cast of unforgettable men and women — soldiers and senators, mistresses and wives, kings and commoners — combined in a richly embroidered human tapestry to bring a remarkable era to bold and breathtaking life. (Goodreads)


I, Claudius by Robert Graves Historical novel set in 1st-century-AD Rome, published in 1934. The book is written as an autobiographical memoir by Roman emperor Claudius. Physically weak, afflicted with stammering, and inclined to drool, Claudius is an embarrassment to his family and is shunted to the background of imperial affairs. The benefits of his seeming ineffectuality are twofold: he becomes a scholar and historian, and he is spared the worst cruelties inflicted on the imperial family by its own members during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula. (Goodreads) The television series is fantastic, too. 

venusPompeii by Robert Harris set in the ancient doomed city, tells of a young man’s rescue attempt.(Goodreads)

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone: Fictional depictionagony of Michelangelo (Goodreads), with insights into the Medici family and the culture of Italy. (Goodreads)

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant: turbulent 15th-century Florence, a time when the lavish city, steeped in years of Medici family luxury, is suddenly besieged by plague, threat of invasion, and the righteous wrath of a fundamentalist monk. (Goodreads)

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner:  An absolutely fabulous historical novel told from the point of view of Catherine de Medici, one of the most maligned women in history. The parts dealing with her childhood are set in Italy; the rest in France. (Goodreads)

leoThe Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa: A sweeping saga of Sicilian society during Italian unification in the 19th century. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s tumultuous portrait of royal life in Sicily during Italy’s unification and transition was originally rejected by publishing houses roomand finally released in 1958, after his death. It’s now considered one of the greatest works of Italian literature. (Goodreads)

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster: E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel offers a glimpse of mysterious and romantic 19th-century Italy. (Goodreads)


For history buffs, I have recently been made aware of an app designed especially for families traveling to Italy (by an awesome father-son team ), designed to teach history while having a good time. The website is Gumshoe Tours, b7c712e254ac4edf779c1b64acdcb5fcand the creators have completed tours of both Rome and Assisi, with hopefully more to come. There is also an attached “Life in Italy” blog by one of the  creators, an American who has lived in the country for some time.

So read and play, and tell me all about it when you return!

HNS Review of The Last Banquet and upcoming reviews…

The Europa rep at BEA raved about this novel, therefore I simply had to read it…how could I not?  And here are my conclusions:

the-last-banquet-jonathan-grimwood-143x200Jean-Marie d’Aumout’s sharply distinctive and intelligent voice narrates his life story spanning 18th-century France, from desperate poverty to the viciousness of boarding school for destitute aristocratic boys, to military academy, marriage that brings fortune and titles, and beyond, to face his own demise. “Our lives are built almost entirely on a foundation of events colliding,” D’Aumout philosophically states, as he ponders the unlikely chain of events that comprise his life.

D’Aumont rises to fame guided by his exceptional sense of taste and eagerness to explore flavors without regard to social taboos. A primal desire to sample all the world offers guides him in his journey through the rise of the Enlightenment, the war with Corsica, and the fall of the aristocracy in the French Revolution. He is a man of great intellect, with an undisguised disdain for the degenerative decadence of Versailles, comparing the “underlying sourness” of the food at the palace with its corruption; corresponding with the likes of other great minds of the time – Voltaire, de Sade, and Benjamin Franklin, for example. But he is also lover, husband, and father, with a fondness for rescuing exotic creatures that earned him the title Lord Master of the Menagerie.

The Last Banquet is a bold gastronomic adventure (one not for the squeamish, however), a quest to fully live before the passage of time and history stamps out the flame. Written with just the right combination of rumination, contemplation, and startling – at times shocking – action, the prose is seductive and sophisticated. Jean-Marie D’Aumont is an ingenious human embodiment of the age of reason, with an at times morbid streak of scientific and intellectual curiosity, matched by a profound and masterful understanding of the human condition. Another fine work of literary fiction from Europa Editions. Highly recommended.


The next two books I’ve taken on for the HNS (to help reduce the orphan pile!) are Escape from Paris by Carolyn Hart, a reprint–sort of because it includes the entire text, some of which had to be cut for the first edition–of her 1986 WW2 thriller; and The Daring Ladies of Lowell, a drama set in the mid-ninteenth-century Massachusetts textile mills. I have also received Liza Perrat’s second novel, Wolfsangel, set in the French village of Lucie-sur-Vionne, this time during the German occupation of France in 1943. I am excited for this one, and will write a full review here.


Happy reading!

Historical fiction at Book Expo this month…

It’s Book Expo America season once again, and I’ll be heading to NYC in less than two weeks. A copious amount of historical fiction will be offered this year and I am looking forward to meeting with publicists of some of the independent presses I work with, attending a few educational sessions, especially one called “All’s Fair? Book Reviewing and the Missing Code of Ethics.” Ethical and intelligent book reviewing on blogs just happens to be one of my interests…LOL. And then there’s the speed dating for book clubs session, which I find very helpful for locating historical novels that are targeted for a more specific audience. As always, I’ll bring my rolling suitcase and will pay out extraordinary amounts of money to ship home all of these books…

A couple of historical fiction novels have caught my eye as either having the perfect elements of an absorbing tale to sweep readers away, or by falling into the category of being “outside the mainstream” themes…

hild-beaWith its stunning teal cover, Hild looks to be a good old-fashioned HF prototype; just the perfect mix of biography, history, and fiction in a popular historical place and time, Anglo-Saxon England. (literary biographical novel of St. Hilda of Whitby in 7th-century England, from a multi-award winning writer.  To be released in November)




Iceland is not a location I have seen portrayed  in HF-mainstream or Indie-and I am intrigued by the premise of Burial Rites,  about a woman accused of murder in 1829 Iceland, based on a true story. It is one of the books I may talk about during the panel “Off the Beaten Path: Reading and Writing Outside of the HF Mainstream” at the U.S. HNS conference coming up in June. I’ll write more about that later.


tan-beaAmy Tan’s new offering, The Valley of Amazement, follows three generations of women from 19th-century San Francisco to turn-of-the-century Shanghai and after, and looks to be a familiar and comfy treat for historical family saga fans.





The Mountain of Light, an epic novel about diamond hunters in Victorian India, piques my interest, too, as I amsundaresan drawn to stories set during the time of the British Raj. This locale and period seems to have dropped off the popularity scales lately–it might be that this older trend is now attempting to revive itself…


For details on publishers’ booth locations and signing schedules, see Sarah Johnson’s annual BEA post at (book descriptions borrowed from this post).

Indie Fever Reading Challenge!

Indie Fever

Thanks to Darlene Elizabeth Williams of, I found out about the 2013 “Indie Fever” Reading Challenge. Not only will participation force me to read faster than I otherwise might have, but here is another chance to spread the word about quality Indie fiction. I wish I had more time to read, because I would have entered at the “fanatic” level (28 or more Indie books), but as my current situation prevents fanaticism, I have entered at the “lover” level, hoping to rise perhaps to the “expert.” This will be grand fun! You can find a link to other participants’ blogs at

THEREFORE, the next book up for review is Requiem, by crime author Bill Kitson’s HF-writing alter ego, William Gordon. It seems that Mr. Kitson has chosen a publishing route similar to that of Joan Druett, who was interviewed back in July: simultaneously self-publishing and working with a mainstream house (Hale). I would like to continue our series “From Mainstream to Indie” with an interview with Mr. Kitson, if he is amenable, at some point.

This looks to be a rags-to-riches (and perhaps back again) family saga–the first in the Byland Crescent series–following the fortunes of the wealthy entrepreneur, Albert Cowgill, and his family. The drama takes place in Northern Yorkshire in England from 1878 through the First World War. Appropriately, with the next season of Downton Abbey having just begun on Sunday, Requiem looks to be another sweeping family saga for book lovers to indulge in–we shall see. Mr. Kitson has a personal blog at

Review: The Concubine’s Gift by K. Ford K.

The Concubine’s Gift is a gift indeed.

Concubine's giftBernice Babbitt is a model citizen of Valentine, a conservative small town in Nevada—whose economy ironically revolves around a brothel. Bernice may be the conservative, inhibited, and self-critical daughter of a reverend on the outside, but she is curious, perhaps even a little obsessed by the idea of sex. She is an avid collector of erotic female memorabilia, fascinated by anything of a sexual nature. Her dueling natures surface when she discovers a forgotten jar of make up powder in her newest acquisition, a lacquered make up case, once the possession of Blissful Night, the most famous concubine in Hong Kong (Blissful Night’s story is the “historical” element in the book). Bernice, of course, cannot resist trying on the powder, and she finds that she begins having visions of other people’s sex lives.

The content of The Concubine’s Gift may be explicit, but is never inappropriate. In fact, the novel portrays the most respectful approach to sexuality I have seen in the media in a very long time. It is a story, ultimately, about the power of sexuality when used to heal, not wound; but it is also a cautionary tale of the dangers of living ones’ fantasies, the consequences of treading where one should never have stepped….It comments on the risks of bringing what one may learn about others into the light. Some recipients of Bernice’s advice are given new life, new breath, a freshness to deadened lives, and creativity, and some discover the black depths of addiction, the searing pain of loss…delving into the unknown is a risky business…

The underlying element of fantasy that pervades the story—the powder’s magical qualities and its origin— is a wonderful mystical touch that gives the reader a sense of Eastern spirituality without plunging her or him into disbelief.  The premise is well done—it flows, it works, and it keeps the reader engaged.

I love the wise and witty tone of this book; it is sarcastic while serious. Funny and earnest. Flamboyant yet down-to-earth. And the language is very accessible. And what an eclectic crew of characters inhabit the town of Valentine: Trinket, a café owner with an insatiable love for men . . . Mrs. Lin, the antiques dealer who sells Bernice most of the contents of her “collection” and firmly believes she is a reincarnated European countess . . . the love-obsessed and emotional homosexual Harold . . . the hypocritical, bullying leader of the bordello’s opposition, described as “a bulky man, who likes to walk into rooms sideways . . . ” (the humor in this book is a bit Monty Python-esque, with it’s unexpected juxtapositions) . . .

As for the packaging, the book was well edited, although I found four or five typos. My only suggestion would be to change the cover design. The bright orange cover may be eye-catching, but not in a positive way, in this reader’s opinion. An image of the beautiful antique make up case instead of the current image of the concubine might portray the theme of the book more accurately and add an air of allure for reader.

I flew through the pages—as you can see by my prompt review! I truly loved it. I can see why it had to be self-published, as the content and topic is definitely off the beaten path of the mainstream, and would likely be perceived as controversial (a conception I would disagree with, as the theme is so tastefully handled). The Concubine’s Gift is yet another example of the best of Indie publishing. If the theme is to your taste, I highly recommend this novel.

The author’s website is, where you can read her thoughtful blog posts and find updates about her upcoming works.

The Concubine’s Gift by K. CreateSpace,  2011, 230pp, pb $9.99, ISBN 978-1466287570

DISCLAIMER: The author sent me an autographed copy in exchange for an objective review.

Coming Up Soon: Review of Liza Perrat’s The Spirit of Lost Angels

I am nearing the end of The Spirit of Lost Angels and hope to post a review before I go to London for the HNS Conference next Thursday. I will definitely blog from the conference about all the wonderful participants, the panel sessions, and the medieval banquet on Saturday night. I, along with Sarah Johnson (Reading the Past) will be attending Margaret George’s talk at the Tower of London on Monday evening. There is so much to do still before I go!

After completing Lost Angels, I will be shifting the schedule a little to read Kim Zollman Rendfeld’s The Cross and the Dragon, “a tale of revenge, sacrifice, and enduring love set in the Kingdom of the Franks during the beginning of Charlemagne’s reign”*– Sarah Johnson has just interviewed Kim Rendfeld on her blog, Reading the Past, and it makes for some fascinating reading about the author’s thinking behind the writing of the book. Visit the page here:

Thus, the October review will be The Cross and the Dragon. Thank you to the author for going out of her way to send me a printed copy of her book at my request.

*quote from Sarah’s interview



Interview as Helen Hollick’s “Guest of the Day”

Thanks to Helen for giving me the opportunity to tell my story. It was fun to write this interview, but I was absolutely stumped by the dinner guest question (pressure to perform in front of all the conference attendees) and Helen picked me up and dusted me off, thank goodness! Enjoy!

On another note, I am way behind in the Battle of the Book Review Blogs and voting closes on Monday, September 3…if you’d care to vote, please go to

Thank you to those readers who have voted for The Queen’s Quill; you’ve made my day!