Latest HNS Review: Escape from Paris by Carolyn Hart, and current reads…

I am currently reading Liza Perat’s Wolfsangel, the second in her historical L’Auberge des Anges series. I have just begun, so I cannot comment except to say that Liza is back in formidable style- her writing captivates and her story draws you in…

Escape from Paris

By

Escape from Paris is romantic suspense set in Occupied Paris in 1940, right before Germany declares war on America and the French resistance begins to coalesce. Two American sisters, Eleanor, who is married to a Frenchman, and Linda, risk their lives to save downed British pilots from the Nazis. But with watchful eyes everywhere and the Gestapo on their trail, each airman they save puts them in even greater peril…

This is a publication of the original uncut manuscript from 1982 (the first published version had cut 40,000 words), with a new introduction by this prolific author. Escape from Paris manages to pull in aspects of the German occupation from many angles: the doomed Jews of Paris, the trapped airmen who parachute into France, the fate of American expatriates under the occupation, and the cold-hearted calculatedness of the Gestapo.

The beginning of the novel feels confusing with switching points of view and different storylines, but when the plot finally blends into one cohesive storyline – that of the British pilot Jonathan and the two sisters – the plot rushes ahead, is easy to follow, and left this reader breathless. Don’t expect a neatly wrapped up conclusion from this book, but go along for the ride.

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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 http://kfordk.com/, 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.

Next up for review…

The next book up for review is Spirit of Lost Angels by Liza Perrat. I am overwhelmed by the beautiful cover design and the pleasingly thick paper in this POD book. It’s gorgeous to look at and luscious to handle, and although I’m only 50 pages into it, the writing is drawing me in, strongly. I am looking forward to curling up with this book when my daughter falls asleep tonight!

The series  “From Mainstream to Indie” is ongoing.  Please contact me if you know of any authors who would like to speak on this topic.

Review: Vivaldi’s Muse by Sarah Bruce Kelly

 

What a pleasure to have found an enjoyable self-published work of “pure” historical fiction (“pure” meaning, to me, the imagined lives of true historical figures)—my favorite type of story!  Vivaldi’s Muse is as professionally written and well put together as any mainstream-published novel of this type. This engrossing novel explores the life of Annina Giró, protégée of the prolific Baroque composer, Antonio Vivaldi.  The story is set in sparkling 18th-century Italy and skillfully depicts the cutthroat world of the operatic performer and the fickle musical tastes of the time…

Annina always wanted to be an opera singer, and when she meets Antonio Vivaldi when he is in residence in her hometown of Mantua, she knows exactly where she wants her future to lie. She aims to achieve that goal even as she experiences hopelessness, abandonment, and a destructive rivalry between herself and her professional nemesis, Chiara. Ultimately, through the help of a generous but lascivious benefactor, Annina is able to follow her dreams to Venice and beyond, but must pay a hefty price for these dreams…

Author Sarah Bruce Kelly brings the musical world of 18th-century Venice alive. The author herself is a professional musician and scholar of music history, and one couldn’t imagine a more suitable author to write this book, as the love and passion for her subject is deeply embedded in this story. The fine details about the business and the art of the opera, the portrayal of Venice herself as a major character, the affecting and sensitively rendered descriptions of Vivaldi and Annina and their evolving relationship, as well as the strong sense of atmosphere and foreboding, have been well executed, allowing everyone—not just aficionados of Vivaldi’s music or the opera—to enter into this private world.

Annina’s victimization by and the intense and vicious rivalry with Chiara is faintly reminiscent of the relationship between Chiyo and Hatsumomo in Arthur Golden’s wonderful Memoirs of a Geisha. The animosity between the rivals kept the level of tension in the story high in Memoirs, and does the same for Vivaldi’s Muse. This reader would  have enjoyed learning more in depth about Chiara—what made her act so abominably and with such commitment to Annina’s downfall..

The author also adroitly illustrates the extroverted, hot-headed nature of the Venetians, as exemplified in this humorous exchange between gondoliers witnesseJd by Annina and her sister Paolina:

 “Bauko!” shrieked one gondolier, “you idiot! You’ve wrecked my boat!”

“Ti xe goldon!” rejoined the other, “you ass! It was my right to enter the canal first!”

Fury mounted and they reviled each other as the offspring of assassins and prostitutes.

“Spawn of a bloody executioner!”

“Bastard of a hideous whore!”

Fists waved and pounded into palms, and faces contorted. With a vehemence that would make the devil blush, they each defamed the other’s female relatives down to the remotest cousin. Finally, his passion spent, one of the men calmly gathered his oar and gave the other the right of way. (p 54)

What wonderfully descriptive writing!

In fairness, I must mention a few minor distractions that I noticed in the text—one being that the writing occasionally glides quickly over events in a “talking rather than showing” manner. I do realize that the number of concerts or events covered in this time period were substantial and that, given the size of the book at over 400 pages, something had to give, but I did find this device a bit distracting.

I found very few—perhaps four or five—typos in the book, but they were significant enough to draw me out of the story for a few minutes each. I think one more copy edit would correct that problem. And finally, there are moments in the novel when a modern phrase slips in, something so out of character for the 18th century that I had to pause. For example, the phrase “now she was talking” (taken as contemporary jargon rather than a literal phrase) on pg 242 was a bit of a shock. Another was on pg 269: “’Blast,’ he thought, ‘the party is underway!’” I don’t know if this Briticism was used in 18th-century Venice…

Despite these minimal distractions, I highly recommend Vivaldi’s Muse. Once again, I don’t understand why a mainstream publisher would bypass an engaging work like this one. With professional marketing and a snappier cover design, this delightful and absorbing novel would be an irresistible find on any bookstore shelf.

Vivaldi’s Muse by Sarah Bruce Kelly. Bel Canto Press, 2012, 437 pp, paperback, 978-0983630401

Disclaimer: A copy of the novel was sent to me gratis from the author.

A few more notes on Oleanna

The review of Oleanna is up on the HNS website; the link is http://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/oleanna/

To expand a little, I was touched by this book, by it’s very poignant starkness. As I wrote in a twitter feed: “Oleanna: a gentle tale with quiet depth, atmospherically stark yet richly detailed like the culture and people of Norge herself. Beautiful.” The prose was simple yet expressive; no fancy writing gimmicks or extraneous details, but every word was carefully chosen.

So many themes were touched upon in such a delicate and understated manner:

-a woman’s place in society (just as in Eucalyptus and Green Parrots);

-having choices or living for duty;

-the rural vs. urban society theme;

-women’s suffrage; and

-the struggle of continuing on and coping after being left behind.

Some of these themes were expanded on more than others, but the novel gave a satisfactory overview of what was going on in Norway at the time. I do wish the history had been explored in a little more depth, integrated a  little more robustly into the story, as this is a time period and a situation I  (and I’m sure many readers) know nothing about and have not seen any HF set in before. However, too much historical material would have ruined the ambiance of the novel, so I say this with reservation.

The cover is absolutely appropriate and quite lovely. The layout needs work, however- what looks like double spaced text (but the author informed me that it’s not) is a bit distracting, the footnote on pg 140 needs an asterisk, and the footnote on pg 170 is in the middle of the text (needs to be moved beneath the text).  There are a few typos. HOWEVER, these are truly small details, and I only say them for a possible benefit when reprinting.

Overall, I recommend Oleanna. I truly enjoyed this tale and still experience flashbacks of some of the scenes from the book.

Review: Forbidden Places: Penny Vincenzi

Apologies for disappearing so completely–it’s a challenge to remain on schedule and on track when one’s hormones are wreaking havoc with one’s mind! Eighteen weeks pregnant and counting. And this novel was perfect reading during the time when I was at my lowest with morning sickness and all the other ailments of the first trimester. I have found each of Penny Vincenzi’s novels to be absorbing and page-turning reads, but this one takes the cake.

One of my favorite subgenres of historical fiction is the family drama, so…Add to that the trials and tribulations during WW2. And add to that the setting being the English home front: men off fighting the war, women pining away and dealing with food rationing and bombing, outgoing Americans “invading” with their money and chocolates…This is the story of three women and their relationships, and how the war impacts who will survive and who will thrive.

I have read many excellent WW2 family dramas, a few I have already reviewed here, and Forbidden Places ranks up there among the best. Yes, the focus is of course on the wealthy, spoiled upper crusties (and I admit-I like to read about what I am NOT haha) but this one branches out a bit to include the impact of a few lower-class characters who punch a hole in the ever-so-perfect-on-the-surface lives of the rest of the cast. What I find so endearing about Vincenzi’s books, this one being a prime example, is the revelation of the imperfect lives behind the perfect exteriors and circumstances. Not that this is a new technique in literature by any stretch of the imagination,  but Vincenzi does it extraordinarily well. She brings these hoighty-toighty personas back down to earth, showing her less privileged readers that all is not well behind the walls of those stately English homes. In Forbidden Places, she touches on the themes of  both physical and emotional abuse, as well as the topic of adultery (and understandable adultery at that) all under the looming backdrop of war.

The novel’s plot, although seemingly predictable at the beginning, is actually quite suspenseful. Vincenzi manages to twist the plot so the reader is convinced she knows what is coming and then has the rug of certainty pulled out from under her.  The prose flows quickly and is chatty, and informal, making the book easy to slide into from the first page and remaining captivating all the way through. The characters are engaging, true-to-life, and multidimensional. A thoroughly enjoyable novel, one of my favorites this year.

Forbidden Places

Penny Vincenzi

To be published in the US on October 14, 2010

512 pages

Overlook Hardcover

978-1590203569

Review: Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

The word that came to mind as I was reading this lovely and touching debut novel is “introspective.” This is a quiet, inward-looking, thought-provoking gem of a book. Delicate, yet strong; tender, yet harsh in its reality.

Russian Winter is richly plotted, hopping seamlessly in time between Stalinist-era Russia and contemporary Boston, Massachusetts. The plot revolves around Nina Revskaya, a once-revered ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet and a defector from post-WW Stalinist Russia, who, throughout the course of the book, must come to terms with her dramatic and troubled past. She desires to rid herself of poisonous memories by auctioning off her exceptional jewelry collection—symbols of her past—but instead finds she is forced to relive the years that led up to the horrendous events and decisions that marred her soul. Intertwined in Nina’s drama are Grigori Solodin, a Russian professor whose past revolves around a jewel that perfectly matches Nina’s collection and a secret that continues to allude him, and Drew Brooks, a young, lonely American associate director at the Boston-area auction house at which Nina decides to hold the auction.

In Nina’s telling of the past are interwoven the heartbreaking stories of those closest to her, and their fates under the Stalin regime: Victor Elsin, the poet who captured her heart; the Jewish composer Gersh, who dangerously flaunts his disdain for the stifling of the arts in his beloved country; and Vera, Nina’s closest friend and most lethal enemy.

I turned the pages of Russian Winter as silently and steadfastly as the heavy Russian and Boston snowfalls Ms. Kalotay describes. Pages, like snowflake crystals in a blizzard, fell to one side, one after the other; I was unable to stop until the mass of the book shifted from weighing heavily in my left hand to the other. It was easy to drift into and out of these opposing worlds—the modern, affluent United States with its security and comforts  and the stark, heavy claustrophobic atmosphere of Stalinist Russia. The story was infused with Nina’s love for her home country, and for the joy she was able to capture in the midst of the fear and hopelessness; meanwhile the reader is guided gradually, subtly, and gracefully through the darkening and crushing of human souls, the slow degradation of hope and pride in what you thought you once loved…the dawning of the uncomfortable truth that was Russian Communism. This subtlety, infused with power, is quite a feat of writing and one I admire tremendously.

Not only is this book a masterpiece of a novel, it is a work of art as well. It is about the arts—the freedom of arts in this country and the competitive Soviet rigidity that produced some of the best athletes and ballerinas in the world. The story is a testimony to the ultimate price that Russia paid, in the form of senseless deaths and defections, for forcing these creative souls into cages, prisons of the mind and heart.

In my eyes, the following quote aptly describes the overall sentiment in Russian Winter: “But it was also true that the internal world was an expansive one, always growing, full of possibilities that the real one did not necessarily offer.” (270) Soviet paranoia may have sought to control the outer world and attempted to exterminate the internal spark of life, but the human need to create art, in whatever form, remained unassailable. When bleakness overtakes you, when the inevitability of tragedy rears its ugly head, the beauty of poetry, of song, of dance…of memory still remains.

Russian Winter, Daphne Kalotay, to be published in September 2010, Harper, $25.99, 480pp, 978-0-06-196216-5

Review: Sentimental Journey by Jill Barnett

Published by Pocket Star

February  2002

(From April, 2002) I didn’t expect to love this book. But after reading the glowing HNS reivew, I simply had to take a chance.

“In a time when ordinary people became heroes, they lived hard, loved hard, and fought hard: Kitty Kincaid must rely on her wits to survive capture by a deadly enemy in a faraway land….U.S. Army officer J.R. Cassidy lives for dangerous missions — but rescuing Kitty nearly costs both their lives….Charlotte Morrison does a man’s job, flying planes to Britain’s RAF — while her heart is all woman, and torn between two lovers….Red Walker, a small-town mechanic, dares to leave his familiar world and fight for his country….Flying ace George “Skip” Inskip carries a burden from the past that only love can heal….On burning sands, in blue skies, and under screaming Nazi bombs, they make their personal journeys. But when fate unites them in a place where duty comes first, they can no longer live only for today — not if they want to see tomorrow.” (from amazon.com’s product description)

This is not the type of novel I typically crave (lengthy, complexly plotted medieval stories with intricate character development, awash in historical detail and description); no, this was clearly written for a mass audience with a more simplistic use of language. (after reading the author’s blog, I discovered that she was purely a historical romance writer up until about the time she wrote this book.) HOWEVER, Sentimental Journey was light, fun reading with a heart! That’s the bottom line. Actions defined the characters, for the most part, making the plot a fast-moving hurricane–combine that with the short chapter lengths (similar to Elisabeth Luard’s Emerald), and  this was one of the fastest reads I’ve ever accomplished. I simply couldn’t stop! The action scenes made my heart race and the sex scenes were titillating, all wrapped up in the constantly looming cloud of  heartbreak and fear that was a staple of the second world war. I didn’t realize how affected I truly was until the final page when I found myself bursting into tears.

This WAS a “sentimental journey” back in time to the days when good clearly fought evil, men were soldiers with a purpose, women struck out on their own, and honor and courage were everything. This was the heyday of the swing bands, cherished patriotism, romantic suffering, and sacrifice. Simplistic, maybe, but Ms. Barnett described America in the 1940s exactly as I had imagined in my romantic little head. Sentimental Journey felt comfortable, like coming home.

Review: Emerald by Elisabeth Luard

Emerald by Elisabeth Luard

Akadine Press (September 2000)

573 pages

978-1888173628

What if the Duke of Windsor and Mrs. Simpson produced an illegitimate child? What would this child’s life have been like?

Emerald is the fictional account that answers these questions. As a child of this particular union, Emerald would have to be a strong, tough soul, and this is how she is portrayed: tough, yet sensitive, handling events thrown at her by invisible forces with strength and dignity, trying to control the tumultuous, unpredictable world swirling around her as best she could. Her parents, on the other hand are not illustrated in quite so flattering a light: Mrs. Simpson, avaricious, cold, and calculating; the Duke (of course the ex-King Edward VIII), weak-willed, helpless, and pitiable for being entangled in this woman’s snares. The characterizations were emotionally provocative: full-bodied, three-dimensional fictional and nonfictional creations, each having his or her own strengths and weaknesses and all boasting reasons for their actions. Even the most disagreeable of characters were understandable.

Emerald’s tale is beautifully told, engrossing, and–on occasion–heart-wrenchingly sad. The story twists and turns boldly with a deliciously unpredictable plot. The author displayed a wealth of knowledge, obviously based on meticulous research, writing convincingly about everything from details of the lives of the English aristocracy and how they hid their secrets, to clandestine operations during WW2,  different facets of Mexican culture, high-fashion society in Paris, the perfume and cosmetics industry, life on the Hebrides Islands, to insect biology. Truly astounding! And even better…the research neither overwhelmed nor undermined the strength of the story, rather it subtly enhanced the plot.

Two functional features  enhanced my reading pleasure as well. First, the book was divided into short chapters of five to ten pages, which I found easier to tackle than long chapters. Even though the events or just ruminations, of one day were split into several chapters, each chapter encompassed a complete thought or a singular event, which in turn led to the next, related, thought or event. Second, the straightforward yet engaging style of writing kept me turning the pages.

My single niggling criticism is that I was left musing over some missing explanations after I finished the book. Why didn’t the royal couple want their daughter back? Why was Anstruther so insistent that Callum and Emerald be permanently separated? Why did he do everything in his power to keep them apart? Why did he control her life anonymously, covertly setting up her marriage to the flagrantly homosexual Tom, for example?

Despite a few unanswered questions, I have only this to say about Emerald: What a story!!! Read it!!! Now!!!

Review of Wild Lavender by Belinda Alexandra (From January 3, 2008)

It’s been many moons since I discovered a story that touched my senses and emotions and enveloped my mind utterly. Readers who shared my enthusiasm for The Bronze Horseman by Paulina Simmons recommended Wild Lavender, and I began reading with a sense of skepticism. Horseman was as close to perfection as a novel could get in my eyes, so how could any another book possibly live up to my inflated expectations?

Wild Lavender is initially set  in 1920’s France and continues through the Second World War. As is common in lengthy family sagas, the plots are divided into “before the crisis” events and  “during the crisis” events. The former is Simone Fleuriere’s (the daughter of lavender farmers in Provence) struggle to make something of herself and her life, to overcome the adversity of destitution and dependency on people with very small hearts. The latter revolves around her decisions and tribulations during the war in occupied France.

This book took my breath away. I inhaled the the lavender’s fresh aroma, experienced Parisians’ fear during the occupation, and empathized with Simone’s trials. She is a a fully fleshed out, multifaceted character who pulsates with life. She is heroic in the sense that she puts her life on the line for others, even for pets who are tossed heartlessly out on the street, and handles her own heartbreaks with quiet, if sad, dignity.

I love WW2-era dramas–perhaps, living through a time when I am not personally affected by or asked to sacrifice for the turmoils surrounding me (and enjoying a relatively peaceful existence in the midst of the insanity), I long for a time when all were united in a singular purpose against a black-and-white enemy.  Just as Horseman brought alive this singularly united (and divided) WW2-era Leningrad, Lavender brings WW2-era Paris to life. It is not as mind-blowingly intense as Horseman, which may be a relief to those who don’t enjoy spending nights awake reliving the horrors of Leningrad, but enough passion and suffering is expended in this book to claim a spot in your mind for a long time after you have turned the final page. It is a lengthy novel–over 500 pages–perfect for cold winter evenings, and is what the Brits call a “thumping good read.” I hope, if you decide Wild Lavender is for you, that you enjoy it as much as I did.