Review: Hiddensee by Gregory Maguire

Review: Hiddensee by Gregory MaguireHiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker by Gregory Maguire
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy, historical fiction, mythology
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on October 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the author of the beloved #1 New York Times bestseller Wicked, the magical story of a toymaker, a nutcracker, and a legend remade . . .

Gregory Maguire returns with an inventive novel inspired by a timeless holiday legend, intertwining the story of the famous Nutcracker with the life of the mysterious toy maker named Drosselmeier who carves him.

Hiddensee: An island of white sandy beaches, salt marshes, steep cliffs, and pine forests north of Berlin in the Baltic Sea, an island that is an enchanting bohemian retreat and home to a large artists' colony—a wellspring of inspiration for the Romantic imagination . . .

Having brought his legions of devoted readers to Oz in Wicked and to Wonderland in After Alice, Maguire now takes us to the realms of the Brothers Grimm and E. T. A. Hoffmann—the enchanted Black Forest of Bavaria and the salons of Munich. Hiddensee imagines the backstory of the Nutcracker, revealing how this entrancing creature came to be carved and how he guided an ailing girl named Klara through a dreamy paradise on a Christmas Eve. At the heart of Hoffmann's mysterious tale hovers Godfather Drosselmeier—the ominous, canny, one-eyed toy maker made immortal by Petipa and Tchaikovsky's fairy tale ballet—who presents the once and future Nutcracker to Klara, his goddaughter.

But Hiddensee is not just a retelling of a classic story. Maguire discovers in the flowering of German Romanticism ties to Hellenic mystery-cults—a fascination with death and the afterlife—and ponders a profound question: How can a person who is abused by life, shortchanged and challenged, nevertheless access secrets that benefit the disadvantaged and powerless? Ultimately, Hiddensee offers a message of hope. If the compromised Godfather Drosselmeier can bring an enchanted Nutcracker to a young girl in distress on a dark winter evening, perhaps everyone, however lonely or marginalized, has something precious to share.

My Review:

Hiddensee is about the creation of a myth. Or perhaps it’s a myth itself, and just includes the creation of an entirely different myth.

And it’s a story wrapped around a fairy tale. It begins with the Brothers’ Grimm, off in the distance, collecting folktales for future sanitization into fairy tales. It ends with a fairy tale, the story of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, just in time for this Christmas season.

But mostly Hiddensee is the story of a boy, who begins as a foundling in the midst of a folktale, and who drifts through his long life to become the toymaker who makes the Nutcracker, and gives it to his goddaughter.

Dirk, who is initially just Dirk and not even Dirk Drosselmeyer, spends his early years in a remote woodcutter’s cabin in the Bavarian forest, raised by an “old man” and an “old woman” who he knows are not his parents.

It’s a simple life that comes to an abrupt end, when it is time for the old man to teach the boy the job of woodcutting. Or so it seems. It is possible that either the boy killed the old man by accident, or the old man killed the boy on purpose. But either way, someone was supposed to end up dead.

Instead, young Dirk begins his travels with an adventure. On his way to the nearest village he finds himself caught up in the story of the “Little Lost Forest”, forced to choose between order and chaos, between life as a hermit or life among people, and between the mythological figures of Pan and the Pythia. It’s a decision that colors his entire life – even if he spends most of it never really making a choice of his own.

Until the Christmas night, late in his long and often passive life, when he gives his dying goddaughter the gift of the original Nutcracker. The old toy contains a piece of Pan’s knife – a tiny bit of magic and the start of his own adventures, so long ago.

In the magic of Christmas, or perhaps the magic of the Nutcracker, or even a little bit of both, young Clara witnesses the great battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King – and her life is saved.

Escape Rating C+: I have a ton of mixed feelings about this story. The Nutcracker, of course, is a holiday classic. But I have to confess that I am not as familiar with the story as I might be.

And I’ll also confess that I have never read Wicked, which may not have been the author’s first book, but which is certainly the book that made his reputation for taking stories that everyone knows and giving readers a look behind the curtain to see what happened before the story. Or after it. Or while the more familiar story is going on elsewhere.

Hiddensee certainly fits in that tradition. And readers who either love the story of The Nutcracker, or who are fans of this author’s work, will probably eat this one up with a spoon.

As a story on its own, Hiddensee didn’t quite gel for this reader. Dirk may be the protagonist of the book, but he is a character who has little to no agency in his own life. He doesn’t act. He doesn’t move the action forward. He drifts, and things happen to him and around him. He reacts, and sometimes he doesn’t react very much. Certainly never very forcefully.

But, as little as Dirk takes any control of his own story, the story of what happened to him definitely pulled me along. Each individual chapter felt like a tiny story of its own, and I felt compelled to read from one to the next in spite of the passivity of the hero of the story.

However, I got to the end and wondered if there shouldn’t have been more. The Nutcracker tale itself, while it is the crescendo to the entire tale, also felt a bit tacked on. It’s not Dirk’s story at this point, it’s Clara’s. And there is a certain sense that it was all a dream. Or that it all happened in a dream.

It’s not quite real, which seems true for much of Dirk’s life.

There were so many fascinating ideas that were briefly touched on within the confines of this story. I’d love to have seen more about the Little Lost Forest and the Pan and the Pythia. It felt like there was a terrific myth in there that always hovered just out of reach. Just as it was for Dirk during his life.

Perhaps that was the point. Hiddensee is a haunting tale, but I just expected more.

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Review: Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

Review: Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather WebbLast Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War I by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Hazel Gaynor has joined with Heather Webb to create this unforgettably romantic novel of the Great War.

August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes—as everyone does—that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafes of Paris.

But as history tells us, it all happened so differently…

Evie and Thomas experience a very different war. Frustrated by life as a privileged young lady, Evie longs to play a greater part in the conflict—but how?—and as Thomas struggles with the unimaginable realities of war he also faces personal battles back home where War Office regulations on press reporting cause trouble at his father’s newspaper business. Through their letters, Evie and Thomas share their greatest hopes and fears—and grow ever fonder from afar. Can love flourish amid the horror of the First World War, or will fate intervene?

Christmas 1968. With failing health, Thomas returns to Paris—a cherished packet of letters in hand—determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past. But one final letter is waiting for him…

My Review:

Last Christmas in Paris is a bittersweet tale of World War I. Much of that bittersweet flavor is in the title. It’s not so much last Christmas in Paris, as in we spent last Christmas in Paris, although the protagonists certainly did, as it is, this is our last and final Christmas in Paris, because we shall not pass this way again.

The heart of the story is correspondence. Most of the story is told through letters, and occasionally telegrams, between Tom Harding and Evie Elliott, with occasional letters between Evie and her best friend Alice, Evie and her brother Will, and Tom and his father, and eventually between Tom and his father’s business manager.

What we see through their four years of letters is that life changes people, and that life in war changes people all that much more.

At the beginning, in those glorious and naive first months of World War I, Tom and Will volunteer to go off to war. Everyone thinks it will be over by Christmas. Christmas of 1914, not Christmas of 1918 as it nearly turned out to be.

Evie, Will’s younger sister, is stuck at home in the gilded cage that was wrapped around all young women of the upper classes prior to the war. She wants to volunteer, to do something for the war effort, and she is old enough to do so. But her parents won’t LET her, and at the beginning, that means everything.

So she stays home, badly knits gloves and socks, and begins her correspondence with her brother and with Tom, who has been a friend to them since childhood.

Will is an indifferent correspondent at best, but Tom certainly is not. Evie has plans of becoming a writer, and Tom had begun studying English literature at Oxford, with plans of becoming an Oxford don. His father wants him to buckle down and take over the family newspaper, the London Daily News.

But all hopes and dreams and plans are set cock-eyed by the war as it drags on, and on, and on. And eventually drags Will Elliott into its maw, spitting out his bullet-riddled corpse.

Tom and Evie go on. Their letters become each other’s lights in very dark places, as they pour out their minds, hearts and souls to each other over the months and the miles. They tell each other everything, except that somewhere amid the ink and the paper, they have fallen in love with each other – if not long before.

But as peace finally begins to fill the horizon, all the decisions that have been delayed by the war must finally be reckoned with. And all the secrets that have been hidden come to light.

Escape Rating A: Last Christmas in Paris is a beautiful story from beginning to end. It is also ultimately a sad story, but appropriately so.

Epistolary novels such as this one are difficult to write. There is no omniscient third person who sees all and has the ability to tell all. Even if they don’t always do so. In a novel that consists nearly entirely of letters, we see events as they happen, but only what the writer chooses to tell the intended recipient. If they don’t put their thoughts on paper, we don’t know what they are – unless they put them on paper to someone else.

So we know how Evie feels, not because she tells Tom, but because she tells her best friend Alice. And we can only guess about Tom’s feelings, because he is so very careful not to tell Evie what is in his heart. But what he does tell her is heartbreaking, because Tom tells Evie as much as the censors will allow about the true state of his war. And it’s hell.

So much hell that he is eventually hospitalized for what was termed “shell shock”. Amazingly, he recovers, as much as anyone could, and returns to the front. We now know “shell shock” as PTSD, but that in his time it was considered a “weakness of moral fiber” is enough to make the reader weep.

We also see what many considered the breakdown of the social order from Evie’s perspective. At the beginning, her life is completely restricted by her parents. But as the war goes on, Evie escapes from those restrictions, first by volunteering as a postal worker, then by writing a controversial newspaper column on women’s perspectives of the war, and finally by volunteering for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and going to France herself to serve as a telephone operator and secret war correspondent.

Between Tom at the Front and Evie on the Home Front, we see the horrors of war in all their destruction. And it’s brutal in one way or another no matter where they are.

But as I said in the beginning, this story is bittersweet. Not from the contents of the correspondence itself, but from the perspective of when the letters are being re-read. Bracketing each year of correspondence, we have a framing story. It is 1968, 50 years after the end of the war. Tom Harding has set himself the final task of re-reading the correspondence, and returning to Paris for Christmas, one last time. He is dying of cancer, and Evie is already gone.

We find out what happened to Evie as the letters progress. The reader experiences some of those letters with a certain amount of bated breath, as it is more than possible that they didn’t manage to have their happy ever after before it ended. There are so many points along the way where things nearly go smash, and we don’t discover until nearly the end what really happened.

The story is beautiful and quite absorbing. It’s a great book to read if you don’t think you have lots of time at a time, as one can read just a few letters and feel like one has absorbed so much. But I would sit down to read just a few letters and find myself coming up for air at the end of an entire year’s worth of correspondence. I could never resist reading “just one more”.

As much as I loved this book, I kept having the niggling feeling that I had read some of it before. It certainly reminds me Fall of Poppies, last year’s wonderful collection of World War I romances, two of which were written by the co-authors of Last Christmas in Paris. It also reminds me of bits of Jennifer Robson’s lovely World War I stories, as well as a bit of the side plot of one of the later Maisie Dobbs books.

If you love World War I stories, miss Downton Abbey, or just want to read something to commemorate the upcoming 99th anniversary of the end of the war, celebrated as Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, and as Veterans Day in the United States, Last Christmas in Paris is a gem of a book.

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Review: Away With the Fairies by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Away With the Fairies by Kerry GreenwoodAway With the Fairies (Phryne Fisher Mystery #11) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #11
Pages: 241
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on August 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

It’s 1928 in Melbourne and Phryne is asked to investigate the puzzling death of a famous author and illustrator of fairy stories. To do so, Phryne takes a job within the women’s magazine that employed the victim and finds herself enmeshed in her colleagues’ deceptions.

But while Phryne is learning the ins and outs of magazine publishing first hand, her personal life is thrown into chaos. Impatient for her lover Lin Chung’s imminent return from a silk-buying expedition to China, she instead receives an unusual summons from Lin Chung’s family, followed by a series of mysterious assaults and warnings.

My Review:

It feels as if Mr. Butler, Phryne Fisher’s butler and general factotum (particularly as portrayed in the TV series) , must be the direct ancestor of Summerset, Roarke’s majordomo in the In Death series. Or at least that’s what got me picking up Away with the Fairies, the next book in my Phryne Fisher series read, as I searched for comfort reading in the anticipation and wake of Hurricane Irma.

The murder victims in Secrets in Death and Away with the Fairies are also surprisingly similar. Both are women who operated in the gray areas that surround respectable journalism for their times. And both of them had an unhealthy interest in other people’s secrets, and the power that came with possessing those secrets and being willing to use that power.

And that’s what ultimately got both of them killed. It also makes neither of them a very sympathetic victim.

The victim is so unsympathetic in Away with the Fairies, that the case of Miss Lavender’s death isn’t even Phryne’s primary concern during the story. Instead, her sometimes desultory and often parceled out investigation into Miss Lavender’s seemingly unremarkable life and slightly puzzling death serves as a distraction to keep Phryne from her growing concern over her missing lover, Lin Chung.

His trip to China to purchase silks for his family business has gone on much longer than he planned, and Phryne’s dreams of his body being food for rapacious vermin are a disturbing message that something is very, very wrong. A message that is confirmed when Phryne receives Lin’s severed ear and a request for ransom from the pirates who have captured him. Phryne marshalls her best resources, in this case Bert and Cec, to find out everything that can be found about South Sea piracy, and prepares to rescue Lin, even if she must take on the pirates herself.

She’s more than capable of defeating them, single-handed if necessary. Just as soon as she knows where to hunt them down.

But Miss Lavender’s death niggles at her. The more she and her agent, in this case the resourceful Dot, discover, the more motives she finds for the woman’s death. It seems to have been inevitable that someone would finally bump her off, the question is, who managed to do it?

Escape Rating B: This was my second hurricane book. I was having no luck concentrating on anything more serious, or anything where I wasn’t already intimately familiar with the world within. As much as I love to really sink my reading teeth into good and deep worldbuilding, this just wasn’t the time.

When I’m looking for comfort read, I always turn to Phryne, and am swept away – if not quite as far away with the fairies as the victim in this case.

A bit of the story in Away with the Fairies reminded me fondly of Murder Must Advertise from the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Just as Wimsey infiltrates an advertising firm to investigate a murder, Phryne inserts herself into the ladies magazine where the victim and many of her suspects work. While Phryne never pretends to be anything other than who she is, she does conceal her profession as a detective until someone else lets that cat out of its bag.

Just as in yesterday’s Secrets in Death, the victim is a nasty piece of work – albeit on a much smaller scale this time around. She was always poking her nose into other people’s business, and using the knowledge gained to elicit small rewards and small revenges. It is amazing that she lived as long as she did, considering that her life was spent in two relatively small worlds where everyone knew her and ended up disliking her at best and fearing her at worst.

Her signature eccentricity about drawing and writing about fairies never felt fully explained or fully realized. It certainly made her stand out, and it also provided her with a modest living as a writer and illustrator, but it was so excessive that it felt as if it needed a bit more explanation, especially when combined with Phryne’s discovery that the profusion of fairy paraphernalia that overwhelmed the public areas of her apartment was not replicated in her private spaces, which were neat, orderly and most of all, uncluttered.

Having recently re-watched the first season of the TV series, the difference between the TV and literary versions of this story stand out even more clearly. The subplot revolving around Phryne’s concern for Lin Chung and her subsequent rescue of him are completely scrapped in the TV version for the weaker and much less compelling murder investigation. And even though I understand why, the story definitely loses something in translation. The story is much stronger in the book. Miss Lavender’s case was too slight and inconsequential to carry the whole story, and it’s better here where it doesn’t.

But I am always happy to visit with Phryne. And I look forward to reading Murder in Montparnasse, the next time I need a comfortable little murder. To read about, that is.

Review: The Long Way Home by Kevin Bannister + Giveaway

Review: The Long Way Home by Kevin Bannister + GiveawayThe Long Way Home by Kevin Bannister
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Fireship Press on September 15th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Set in the turbulent times of the War of Independence, 'The Long Way Home' follows the lives of Thomas Peters and Murphy Steele who are friends, former slaves, fellows-in-arms and leaders of the Black Brigade. Their real-life story is an epic adventure tale as they battle bounty hunters, racism, poverty and epidemic in their adopted country after the war.

'The Long Way Home' has resonated with readers around the world as an unforgettable account of courage, hope and determination triumphing over despair and injustice. Thomas Peters, thoughtful and charismatic, and Murphy Steele, strong and impulsive, lead their followers on an inspirational search for a place where they can be free.

My Review:

History is generally written by the victors. In the case of the American Revolution, that means that the successfully rebelling colonials wrote all the history books, and the British officials and those who were loyal to them end up as footnotes in a history that conveniently ignores their courage and bravery.

Just because they were on the wrong side of history does not mean that they did not exhibit those qualities. Even if that fact is not convenient for the narrative as written by those victorious rebels.

The story in The Long Way Home is one of those inconvenient narratives. Thomas Peters and Murphy Steele were inconvenient heroes of the American Revolution, because they fought on what turned out to be the “wrong” side, for select definitions of both wrong and even side.

The British, just as the Union did in a much later and even bloodier war, offered freedom to any slave able to reach British property and willing to fight for their cause. Thomas and Murphy, both escaped slaves, managed to reach a British warship and take the “King’s shilling” and enlist – even though relatively few actual shillings ever changed hands. After multiple harrowing escape attempts, they had finally succeeded, enlisting in the British Army to fight for the freedom that was promised them.

They became members of the Black Brigade, a small fighting unit of escaped slaves turned soldiers, and participated as combatants in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. And even though the Loyalist cause was eventually lost, their search for freedom never ended – even as the retreating British Army shunted them from New York to Bermuda to Nova Scotia, always promising enough tools for them to make their own future, but never quite delivering.

Until, at last, they took their freedom into their own hands once again.

Escape Rating B: Although The Long Way Home is historical fiction rather than true history, it feels very close to the truth of the events that it relates. Peters and Steele were heroes, just on the wrong side of history. But then, the right side of colonial independence would have left them in chains. For them, the British offered their only option, and they seized it with both hands – wrapped around the stock of a bayonet.

The story is told from Murphy Steele’s perspective, and that’s where a lot of its fictional element comes from. History records what he did, but not what he felt. That’s where the author’s interpretation comes in.

But the history that he saw, that he made, is one that deserves to be remembered – and has been lost. The Black Brigade really did exist, really fought, really left the U.S. for Canada, and then, kept going. That it does not even have a Wikipedia entry of its own does not mean that these men and what they did are not important, because they were, and they still are.

The author uses rather spare prose to convey the thoughts, feelings and actions of Murphy Steele, the life he lived and both the hardships and the joys he experienced. It’s a style that works for the character, as of the two men, Thomas Peters was the one who spoke, and inspired, and Murphy was the one who acted first and seldom regretted those actions. They were a powerful team.

For reasons that had nothing to do with the book itself, this wasn’t what I was in the mood for. But once I got into the story, and once that story past its first harrowing steps through their first escapes, punishments and brief periods of attempting to settle for a life that no one should ever have been asked to settle for, the story pulls the reader along through war, flight, despair and ultimately a kind of triumph.

This is history that should be much better known than it is. The Long Way Home is an excellent start to making that happen.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of The Long Way Home to one lucky US/Canadian commenter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: The Daughters of Ireland by Santa Montefiore

Review: The Daughters of Ireland by Santa MontefioreThe Daughters of Ireland by Santa Montefiore
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: family saga, historical fiction
Series: Deverill Chronicles #2
Pages: 576
Published by William Morrow on August 15th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Ireland. 1925.
The war is over. But life will never be the same...
In the green hills of West Cork, Ireland, Castle Deverill has burned to the ground. But young Celia Deverill is determined to see her ruined ancestral home restored to its former glory — to the years when Celia ran through its vast halls with her cousin Kitty and their childhood friend Bridie Doyle.
Kitty herself is raising a young family, but she longs for Jack O’Leary — the long-ago sweetheart she cannot have. And soon Kitty must make a heartbreaking decision, one that could destroy everything she holds dear.
Bridie, once a cook's daughter in Castle Deverill, is now a well-heeled New York City socialite. Yet her celebrity can't erase a past act that haunts her still. Nor can it keep her from seeking revenge upon the woman who wronged her all those years ago.
As these three daughters of Ireland seek to make their way in a world once again beset by dark forces, Santa Montefiore shows us once more why she is one of the best-loved storytellers at work today.

My Review:

In this second book in the Deverill Chronicles, following last year’s marvelous The Girl in the Castle, the focus shifts from Kitty Deverill to her cousin Celia, as the ownership of Deverill Castle falls out of the hands of the original line and into Celia’s collateral branch – with its better luck and greater fortune.

At least until the fall of 1929, when everybody’s fortunes take a plunge into the depths of the Great Depression.

The story here is still seen through the eyes of the three young women, those daughters of Ireland that we first met in The Girl in the Castle. In that first book, it was Kitty’s story and Kitty’s castle. But times have changed, and now it’s her cousin Celia in extremely proud possession of the family seat.

But the Deverills are cursed, or at least their castle in Ballynakelly in County Cork certainly is. And that’s where the infamous luck of Celia’s father’s, as well as Celia herself, finally crash to the rocks.

As the story begins, Celia has just bought the burned out castle, with her husband’s fortune and a bit of her father’s as well. She throws herself into the restoration with abandon – as well as oodles of Pounds Sterling. She intends to recreate Castle Deverill as she thinks she remembers it from her idyllic memories of her childhood – but it’s much more of a re-imagining than a re-creation. It’s Celia’s vision of what it was, not what it actually was. The heart and soul are no longer quite there.

Just as she is on the brink of believing that she has brought everything back to the way it was, only better of course, her entire world goes smash. While she has been swanning around Europe, buying every expensive trinket that caught her fancy, her husband has been in a state of quiet desperation, watching his fortune disappear into the Stock Market Crash. And rather than face the music, he kills himself. Completing the ruin of all Celia’s hopes and dreams, her father dies scant months later.

And she discovers that her father was not quite the man she thought he was. That underneath his devil’s charm and his devil’s luck, there was a man who danced with the devil to get what he wanted. Celia, in a welter of disillusionment and grief, sets out to discover the truth of the man she revered all her life.

What she found, and how she found it, allows Celia to discover the woman she was meant to be – that underneath her very feathery little head lies a brain every bit as intelligent and ambitious as her father’s. But with a lot more heart.

Escape Rating A-: Either they don’t make them like this anymore, or it’s been a long time since I’ve sunk my teeth into such a juicy family saga. The trials, tribulations and machinations of Downton Abbey have nothing on the Deverills – and this saga isn’t over yet.

The Deverills would be an interesting family (read that as fascinatingly dysfunctional) even without the compelling historical backdrop – but with the major historical events swirling around them – their reactions make for great storytelling.

In The Girl in the Castle those events were the Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence, as the Anglo-Irish Deverills found themselves on both sides of the Rising, while trusted, in the end, by neither. In this second book, The Daughters of Ireland, the action has moved from the tragedies of the immediate post-WWI period to the next great upheaval – the Depression. And the clouds of WW2 are already gathering on the horizon.

The story in the end is about family, the trials and tribulations, the triumphs and failures, the fissures and the ties that bind – even if sometimes that binding feels like a straitjacket.

As the story began with the childhoods of the three women, now we see them in their 20s and 30s, living with the choices they made long ago, and all of them facing the regrets of the roads not taken. Just at the point where it seems that one of them has found an easy road, instead of facing the envy of the others, they find tragedy instead. Triumphs are always brief, while the tragedies seem endless.

Although parts of the story follow Kitty’s and Bridie’s perspectives, this is Celia’s story. At the beginning, she is not a particularly sympathetic character. She’s not nasty, she’s just selfish, self-centered, and self-indulgent. The universe revolves around her, and her husband and father have both conspired to keep her in a very well-upholstered little bubble.

The person she becomes after it all crashes down around her is much more interesting, and much more capable, than anyone imagined – including Celia herself. Her transformation carries the reader along from London to Ballynakelly to Johannesburg, and it’s the making of her.

Whether it also turns out to be the saving of her family from ruin is the story that we shall discover in The Last Secret of the Deverillswhich may have an entirely different title by the time it reaches these shores. But whatever the book is called, I bet that last secret is a doozy.

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Review: Death Before Wicket by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Death Before Wicket by Kerry GreenwoodDeath Before Wicket (Phryne Fisher Mystery #10) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #10
Pages: 232
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on July 4th 2017 (first published 1999)
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Phryne Fisher is on holiday. She means to take the train to Sydney (where the harbour bridge is being built), go to a few cricket matches, dine with the Chancellor of the university and perhaps go to the Arts Ball with that celebrated young modernist, Chas Nutall. She has the costume of a lifetime and she s not afraid to use it. When she arrives there, however, her maid Dot finds that her extremely respectable married sister Joan has vanished, leaving her small children to the neglectful care of a resentful husband. She rescues the children, but what has become of Joan, who would never leave her babies? Surely she hasn t run away with a lover, as gossip suggests? Phryne must trawl the nightclubs and bloodtubs of Darlinghurst to find out. And while Phryne is visiting the university, two very pretty young men, Joss and Clarence, ask her to find out who has broken into the Dean s safe and stolen a number of things, including the Dean s wife s garnets and an irreplaceable illuminated book called the Hours of Juana the Mad. An innocent student has been blamed. So there is no rest for the wicked, and Phryne girds up her loins, loads her pearl handled .32 Beretta, and sallies forth to find mayhem, murder, black magic, and perhaps a really good cocktail at the Hotel Australia."

My Review:

I’ve been reading the Phryne Fisher series, in publication order, as time permits. Meaning whenever I either need a comfort read or discover that I’ve otherwise bitten off more book than I have time to chew, as happened this week.

Most of the books in the Phryne Fisher book series were used as inspiration for episodes of the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Death Before Wicket is one of those that were not filmed. (The others, for those keeping score, seem to be Flying Too High, Urn Burial, The Castlemaine Murders, Death by Water, Murder on a A Midsummer Night and Murder and Mendelssohn.)

I’m fairly certain that the reason that Death Before Wicket wasn’t tackled is that while the crime is set in a university, where the academic politics have gotten exceedingly but recognizably vicious, the entire background revolves around cricket, specifically Test matches in Australia in the 1920s. Cricket as a sport seems to be impenetrable to those not brought up loving the thing, which would include most Americans and anyone outside the Commonwealth countries. And I’m not sure about even the Canadians on this score. No pun intended.

So while the mystery that Phryne has to solve is as much fun as ever, the background, including her reason (or excuse) for traveling from her Melbourne residence to Sydney, may leave some readers more than a bit puzzled. Including this one. I skimmed over the cricket games. As many times as I’ve seen cricket in the background of plenty of mysteries and dramas set in England, I have no clue how the game works, or why.

But as lost as I was amongst the cricket fans, the academic parts of this mystery were as convoluted as ever. The politics at the University of Sydney were as vicious as anything Kissinger intended with his famous quote, “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” At this University, that viciousness leads to theft, disgrace, kidnapping, embezzlement and eventually, murder.

Someone broke into the Bursar’s safe and made off with a whole bunch of items, none of which seem to be worth all that much. The books were stolen – not the library’s books, but the college’s account books, and the poor bursar is so befuddled that he can’t recreate them. And of course there’s an audit coming. A rather pretty Book of Hours is missing, as are the professors’ exam books for the upcoming finals. At a college, that’s probably the prize worth stealing. Except that there are two other items missing. One is rather small potatoes, a set of garnet jewelry belonging to the Dean’s wife. Garnets are semi-precious, fairly common, and generally not worth a whole lot in the grand scheme of thievery.

But the prize among the missing items is a bit of papyrus from ancient Egypt, that just might contain the secret to where Cheops is really buried, since the poor pharaoh is not in his magnificent pyramid. Or it might contain the text of a potent Egyptian curse, the possibilities of which have the local occult community positively salivating. Translating the text might be the key to which professor gets his research funded. Or it might be all of the above.

It is up to Phryne to sort through all those tempting and treacherous possibilities, before someone loses their career or their life. And it’s a near-run thing, but Phryne, as always, is up for the job.

Escape Rating B-: There are lots of reviewers who will say that this is one of Phryne’s adventures that can be given a miss, unless one is either a real fan or a terrible completist. As I’m certainly the latter, and possibly the former, I picked this one up in its proper order. I’m not sorry in the least, but I found the academic setting of the mystery to be perhaps unintentionally hilarious. Academia in the 21st century is not quite as it was in the 1920s, but some of underlying insanity isn’t all that different either. Enough similar that I found enough bits reminiscent to carry me through. If you are looking to start Phryne’s series, do not, on any account, start here. Start with Cocaine Blues. There’s a reason that the TV series also opened with that one, as it introduces everyone and everything.

But speaking of Cocaine Blues, I did miss Phryne’s regular cast of irregulars. This story is set in Sydney, not Melbourne. While it was fun to watch Phryne navigate a new place and gather a new, albeit temporary, set of friends, allies and lovers, I missed her usual gang, particularly in this mystery, Bert and Cec. As did Phryne.

On the other hand, Dot, left to soldier on as Phryne’s only trusted aide in this adventure, did have her chances to operate solo a bit and to shine.

Part of the solution to the mystery involved a certain amount of involvement in the local occult community, particularly its less savory denizens. In order to get to the bottom of the morass, Phryne herself has to deal with and perpetrate a certain amount of mumbo-jumbo, some of which went a bit over the top. Belief is, as Phryne herself says, a powerful thing. That she manipulates others’ belief in the supernatural in order to find the solution is not surprising, but that she herself nearly trips over into it felt a bit unnatural for her character.

One final note. While the Phryne Fisher series is set in the 1920s, the first book was published in 1989 and the series is still ongoing. While the settings feel true to their time and place, Phryne’s attitudes feel singular for her own time, and perhaps owe more to the time in which they were written rather than their setting. This has been true across all the books so far, and also in Death Before Wicket. One part of obscuring the mystery involves a professor who is being blackmailed because of his homosexuality. Phryne does not care who anyone has sex with, and neither do at least some of the faculty. But if it ever becomes public, the scandal will at best ruin the man, and possibly land him in prison. As much as I prefer Phryne’s attitude of acceptance, and her tolerance in this and many other things, I wonder how true her attitude would have been, even to a woman in her singular position. Which doesn’t change the fact that I love Phryne and will happily read any and all of her adventures.

I’m looking forward to going Away with the Fairies, the next time I need a reading break!

Review: A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang + Giveaway

Review: A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang + GiveawayA Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, historical fiction, historical mystery
Pages: 350
Published by Lake Union Publishing on August 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Just beyond the Gilded Age, in the mist-covered streets of New York, the deadly Spanish influenza ripples through the city. But with so many victims in her close circle, young socialite Allene questions if the flu is really to blame. All appear to have been poisoned—and every death was accompanied by a mysterious note.
Desperate for answers and dreading her own engagement to a wealthy gentleman, Allene returns to her passion for scientific discovery and recruits her long-lost friends, Jasper and Birdie, for help. The investigation brings her closer to Jasper, an apprentice medical examiner at Bellevue Hospital who still holds her heart, and offers the delicate Birdie a last-ditch chance to find a safe haven before her fragile health fails.
As more of their friends and family die, alliances shift, lives become entangled, and the three begin to suspect everyone—even each other. As they race to find the culprit, Allene, Birdie, and Jasper must once again trust each other, before one of them becomes the next victim.

My Review:

At first, it seems like this story is about the party. An engagement party, in New York during the Gilded Age, among the upper crust. A young socialite dies, and everyone wants to sweep her death under the expensive carpet and chalk it all up to an accident. Even if, or perhaps especially because, it isn’t.

But once the focus moves outward, from the singular death to its effects on three young people attending that party, the action shifts into high gear. Suddenly, it’s not about the party, or at least not just the party, any longer.

As we watch our young protagonists (they are all 18) grow and change in the wake of this event, and in the process of their investigation into it, it seems to be about everything but the party. We become involved with them, their worlds, which were once the same but are now divergent, and the mystery expands.

Until it contracts, and we’re back, surprisingly, to that party, only nothing was quite as it seemed.

A Beautiful Poison is a murder mystery, and, it is also a coming of age story. And it’s a story about friendship. And love. Definitely about love.

All three of the protagonists are 18. And although all of them either are about to or already have embarked upon their adult lives, their relative youth and inexperience definitely factor into the story.

At first, is seems like Allene’s story. And also at first, Allene’s story seems like that of a typical poor-little-rich-girl, a bird in a gilded cage that yearns to fly free, even though her sheltered upbringing means that she has no clue what that freedom might cost.

Her friends are all too aware of the cost. Both Jasper and Birdie used to be members of Allene’s charmed inner circle, until tragedy shoved them out and away. And Allene, firmly under her parents’ thumbs, as rich girls were a century ago, let it happen.

Jasper’s parents committed suicide – after his father lost all their money. In the intervening four years, Jasper has lived with his alcoholic, agoraphobic uncle, supported them both, and put himself through college as a janitor at Bellevue Hospital, borrowing textbooks over the weekend in the hopes of someday going to medical school.

Birdie has fallen even lower, as women had many fewer financial opportunities. She and her mother were upper-caste servants in Allene’s household, serving as lady’s maids and dressers to Allene and her own mother. Until Birdie’s mother was suddenly and inexplicably turned out of the house without a reference, forced to take Birdie with her. Hazel is now a prostitute, while Birdie keeps the little family afloat, a family that includes her 4-year-old sister, by being one of the dial-painters in the clock factory.

Birdie knows that her time is running out, and swiftly. She knows she’s dying, although she doesn’t know why. Birdie sees Allene’s invitation to the engagement party as her last chance to get back into Allene’s inner circle, in the hopes of saving her little sister from their mother’s fate. Allene just sees it as an adventure, and a chance to spend time with her besties before she is immured in marriage to a wealthy man who will undoubtedly grow up to be just like her father. Her cage door will lock forever, and this is her last chance to fly free.

As Allene, Jasper and Birdie investigate the original shocking death, more bodies pile up. People around them are dying, and in each instance, they find a note left behind, with only two words on it, “You’re welcome”. But who is welcome for what?

Time is running out, but so are the potential victims. Especially when the influenza epidemic sweeps through New York and nearly takes them all with it – before their amateur investigation is complete.

Escape Rating B+: This story is a circle. It starts with the party, and it ends with the party. But at the end, everyone’s perspective on those events has changed. And their world is a much different place than it was at the beginning.

Once the story moves outward, away from its initial focus on Allene to encompass all three protagonists, it moves at the same cracking pace as the progress of Birdie’s cancer, which is rapid indeed.

Birdie is one of the “radium girls” who painted clock faces with bits of radium that glowed in the dark. As did they before they died. There are books about real-life cases just like Birdie’s, including this year’s The Radium Girls. Those cases led to the first workplace regulatory legislation. It would have been much tidier in some ways for the author to have included the solution to Birdie’s death as part of the story, but radium wasn’t isolated as the cause until well after her death. Instead, her predicament becomes one of the many red-herrings in the mystery.

Upon finishing the story, it felt like the coming of age aspect was more important than it seemed at first, just as all the characters turned out to be much deeper than they seemed, especially Allene, who was rather shallow and self-absorbed at her engagement party. Allene and Jasper grow up during the course of the story, and they discover who they are and what they are to each other.

One of the things that they discover, surprising for both them and the reader, is that as much as this story is about love, it is not a love story. Allene and Jasper do not end up with each other, at least not as anything more than friends. Whether that is because their roads have diverged too far, or whether it’s because they are better as “family” than lovers is up to the reader to decide. But it felt right.

But the story is still about love, and what we will do for love. No matter what the cost, there are times and circumstances where no price is too high.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of A Beautiful Poison to one lucky US/Canadian commenter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams

Review: Cocoa Beach by Beatriz WilliamsCocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on June 27th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The author of A Certain Age transports readers to sunny Florida in this lush and enthralling historical novel—an enchanting blend of love, suspense, betrayal, and redemption set among the rum runners and scoundrels of Prohibition-era Cocoa Beach
Burdened by a dark family secret, Virginia Fortescue flees her oppressive home in New York City for the battlefields of World War I France. Driving an ambulance for the Red Cross, she meets a charismatic British army surgeon whose persistent charm opens her heart to the possibility of love. As the war rages, Virginia falls into a passionate affair with the dashing Captain Simon Fitzwilliam, only to discover that his past has its own dark secrets—secrets that will damage their eventual marriage and propel her back across the Atlantic to the sister and father she’d left behind.
Five years later, in the early days of Prohibition, the newly widowed Virginia Fitzwilliam arrives in the tropical boomtown of Cocoa Beach, Florida, to settle her husband’s estate. Despite the evidence, Virginia does not believe Simon perished in the fire that destroyed the seaside home he built for her and their young daughter. Separated from her husband since the early days of their marriage, the headstrong Virginia plans to uncover the truth, for the sake of the daughter Simon has never met.
Simon’s brother and sister welcome her with open arms and introduce her to a dazzling new world of citrus groves, white beaches, bootleggers, and Prohibition agents. But Virginia senses a predatory presence lurking beneath the irresistible, hedonistic surface of this coastal oasis. The more she learns about Simon and his mysterious business interests, the more she fears that the dangers surrounding Simon now threaten her and their daughter’s life as well.

My Review:

This didn’t turn out to be quite what I expected, but I don’t know why. The book does match the blurb. More or less.

It also reminds me more than a bit of Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca, if Rebecca wound itself up on the Florida coast during Prohibition.

The story of this Cocoa Beach is set loosely within the sequence of Williams’ other novels. They are all set in Prohibition-era America and feature at least some of the same set of wealthy and ill-fated people. In the case of Cocoa Beach, the heroine of this story is Virginia Fitzwilliam nee Fortesque, the sister of Sophie Fortesque, one of the heroines of A Certain Age.

You don’t have to read all the books to feel part of each individual one. It’s more that the characters know each other and mention each other than that the main characters continue from one to the next.

Back to Cocoa Beach. This is a story that is told in two time frames, but by the same person. In the book’s present, Virginia is in Florida, dealing with her late husband’s estate after his death in a rather suspicious house fire. This is 1922, so forensics as we know them are pretty minimal. The body was burned beyond recognition, and identification was made through use of artifacts found with the body. It’s an ID that feels shaky from the beginning.

The second story is also Virginia’s story. It is her version of events during World War I, when she first met her late husband Simon Fitzwilliam. At the time, she was a volunteer ambulance driver and he was a surgeon with the British Expeditionary Forces. Through Virginia’s eyes, looking back at a past that was not so long ago but that happened before so much personal trauma, we see Simon charm the rather innocent Virginia into his life, his bed and eventually into marriage, in spite of her reservations every step of the way.

Because we see these events only through Virginia’s eyes, and because Virginia in the end has a great many doubts about Simon’s feelings and Simon’s motives, we as readers also end up doubting whether any of what Virginia thought she saw in him was true.

Simon really has been keeping secrets from Virginia. His life situation is never quite what he says it is. And his unwillingness to let her know just how big a mess his life really is provides just the wedge for someone, Simon’s brother Samuel, to get Virginia to doubt everything about Simon and her relationship with him.

And those doubts and fears ruin her marriage, and very nearly take her life.

Escape Rating B-: There’s a lot of Gothic creepiness in the swamps of Florida, and there’s a lot of Gothic creepiness in this story as well. Throughout the story, there’s a strong sense of looming menace hovering over Virginia, and it’s very definitely real. Someone really is watching her and someone is definitely out to get her.

This is also a story where all the narrators are completely unreliable. Simon tells a whole lot of lies of omission, and while in the end his reasons make sense, he definitely sows the seeds of his own destruction with those lies. Virginia is an unreliable narrator not because she deliberately lies, but because she is simply unable to see when others lying to her, so she bases her thoughts and decisions on the lies she has been told. And everyone else in the story, with the exception of Virginia’s two-year-old daughter, is living one kind of lie or another right before her eyes. And she never seems to suspect a thing that she really ought to.

So much of what goes wrong in Virginia’s life, which is what makes this story, is that instead of asking Simon for an explanation of a whole lot of things, she simply believes what Samuel tells her and runs away. Over and over and over. She never confronts Simon with what he’s supposedly done, or what he has supposedly not said. Or both.

I think that this is the place where readers will either understand why she did what she did or wonder what she was thinking. If she was thinking, which she probably wasn’t. She continually takes one side of the story and runs with it, and away, and never looks for the other. That she does love Simon and did marry him and yet always believes whatever Samuel tells her without checking into it at all struck this reader as a lie too far. But the whole story hinges on Virginia falling for the same pack of lies over and over and over again, even when the voice inside her own head is telling her that something isn’t right. Which, of course, it isn’t.

I loved A Certain Age, and was really hoping for more of the same with Cocoa Beach. Instead, I ended up with Rebecca. And while I enjoyed reading the story while it was going on, the ending left me flat.

Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah PerryThe Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, large print, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 432
Published by Custom House on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890's, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.
They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners' agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.
Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.

My Review:

While it is a pity that those of us in the United States had to wait over a year for this book to make it across the pond, The Essex Serpent is well worth the wait. This is a book to sup slowly and savor long.

The Essex Serpent, in spite of its provocative title, does not contain an actual serpent. But the metaphorical and philosophical serpent we meet within its pages turns out to hold more wonder and terror than any real drake might have done.

This is also a meditation on the various types of love, and on finding one’s soulmate in the most surprising of places.

The beginning of this story takes place far from Essex, its serpent, or anywhere the twain might meet. (Although there is a serpent) It begins with the release of Cora Seaborne’s heavy chains, and the story for the most part follows her as she explores what it means to be a relatively free woman in the last decade of the 19th century.

Cora is wealthy, and her friends and acquaintances have always believed that she had it all, at least by 19th century definitions of all. But her life hid a deep, dark, secret. Her husband was an abuser, not just physically, but also emotionally. His joy was in breaking Cora and cutting her into tiny emotional pieces, while making certain that the physical bruises didn’t show. His death is her release, even though she finds herself questioning how she will manage without him, and her fear of him, ruling her every move. She also feels a huge and guilty joy at the same time.

The answer turns out to be relatively easy, and terribly difficult. Cora is still in her early 30s, healthy and now independently wealthy. As long as she is willing not to care what society thinks, and she most definitely is, she can do what she wants.

And that brings Cora, her very strange son and her housekeeper/companion to Essex to investigate the re-appearance of the legendary Essex Serpent. Cora is an amateur (or dilettante) paleontologist. She hopes to find in the Essex serpent a long-lost dinosaur. She wouldn’t be the first.

Instead she finds the Reverend William Ransome, his wife Stella, and their intelligent and well-adjusted children. In the Reverend she finds a soulmate. Not in the romantic sense, but in the sense of the type of love the Greeks called Philia, that of deepest friendship. They each have the kind of mind that needs another to take spark from, and in each they find the person with whom they can share anything and argue anything while still remaining the absolute best of friends.

Their biggest, deepest and most cutting arguments revolve around the eternal questions of faith versus science. Ransome is a man of faith, but is also well-educated. Cora has lost her faith, or has put her faith in science. Perhaps both.

And the reappearance of the Essex Serpent tests everything. While Cora hunts for a scientific explanation and Ransome looks for a rational one, he sees the extremes of behavior manifesting in his village as emblematic of a loss of faith. For those who truly believe in G-d, there is no need to assign evil to spirits rising from the ocean.

In his parishioners’ behavior, Ransome sees the kind of hysteria that created the Witch Trials. But as his world crumbles around him, he finds that his own faith is wavering. Friendship and love may not be enough to sustain him through the trials ahead.

Escape Rating A-: This is a story that asks the reader to immerse themselves in its world and live alongside of its characters. The serpent of the title is not a monster to be slain, unless one considers it as the monster that lives in every human heart.

Instead, we travel along with Cora as she tries to discover who she is now that she is no longer a puppet with her strings cruelly pulled, and we meet the people who fall into her peripatetic orbit. Without realizing it, Cora collects people. And the people she collects are fascinating.

Ransome and Cora collect each other, and in ways that neither of them expects. They defy each other’s expectations at first and second meeting – each expecting the other to be typical of their position and class, instead discovering a like mind over their rescue of a half-drowned sheep. They experience that emotion that is like falling in love, but isn’t, as they discover that they match each other’s minds. And it is a beautiful and intense friendship that doesn’t threaten Ransome’s marriage to his beloved Stella.

There’s a lot about collecting in this story. Cora collects people, quite possibly as a way to keep loneliness and introspection at bay. But her son Frankie also collects little treasures, in a way that makes the 21st century reader think of him as autistic. And as her world falls apart, Stella begins collecting things to prepare her for her own sad journey.

And the little village collects reasons and signs and portents, and attaches all of them to something evil out in the water. And even though there is nothing really there, the actions that are caused by their belief are very, very real.

Like the water, the reader sinks into this world, and does not emerge easily. And I’m not doing this book near enough justice. Read it for yourself and see.

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Review: The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer

Review: The Scribe of Siena by Melodie WinawerThe Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, time travel
Pages: 464
Published by Touchstone on May 16th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Equal parts transporting love story and gripping historical conspiracy—think The Girl with a Pearl Earring meets Outlander—debut author Melodie Winawer takes readers deep into medieval Italy, where the past and present blur and a twenty-first century woman will discover a plot to destroy Siena.
Accomplished neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato knows that her deep empathy for her patients is starting to impede her work. So when her beloved brother passes away, she welcomes the unexpected trip to the Tuscan city of Siena to resolve his estate, even as she wrestles with grief. But as she delves deeper into her brother’s affairs, she discovers intrigue she never imagined—a 700-year-old conspiracy to decimate the city.
After uncovering the journal and paintings of Gabriele Accorsi, the fourteenth-century artist at the heart of the plot, Beatrice finds a startling image of her own face and is suddenly transported to the year 1347. She awakens in a Siena unfamiliar to her, one that will soon be hit by the Plague.
Yet when Beatrice meets Accorsi, something unexpected happens: she falls in love—not only with Gabriele, but also with the beauty and cadence of medieval life. As the Plague and the ruthless hands behind its trajectory threaten not only her survival but also Siena’s very existence, Beatrice must decide in which century she belongs.
The Scribe of Siena is the captivating story of a brilliant woman’s passionate affair with a time and a place that captures her in an impossibly romantic and dangerous trap—testing the strength of fate and the bonds of love.

My Review:

The Scribe of Siena is a time-travel whodunnit, or possibly howdunnit, wrapped inside a romance, and filled with plenty of scrumptious details on life in Medieval Italy, just before it all went pear-shaped.

Beatrice Trovato begins the story as a 21st century neurosurgeon, and ends it as a 14th century scribe. That’s quite a journey, and the beauty of the story is all in how she gets there.

We begin with Beatrice at her home in New York, just beginning to think that her career, while it has its compensations, is also consuming her life. She seems to be on 24/7, because even when she gets a rare day off, there’s always someone who desperately needs her life-saving skills.

Beatrice has a gift, not just for neurosurgery, but also for empathy. She occasionally just “knows” what’s wrong with a patient before the alarms start going off. She’s also more than a little too wrapped up in her work.

And then everything changes. Her beloved brother dies in Siena, Italy, of a heart attack. She’s always known that Ben had a congenital condition, but she also thought they’d have more time. Time she never seemed to make because of her demanding calling.

But Ben was in the middle of his own calling. He was a scholar who tracked the course of medieval epidemics. And he was looking at something potentially groundbreaking about the spread of the Black Death in Siena in the 1300s.

Now he’s dead, and Beatrice finally takes that often imagined trip to Siena to deal with his estate, and possibly pick up the pieces of his research.

The chase enthralls her. Beatrice, who almost followed Ben into historical research, revives long-abandoned skills, and finds herself caught up in the hunt. She falls in love, both with the city of Siena and with its storied, and possibly contentious, past.

And on the hunt for Ben’s elusive quarry, she finds the diary of a 14th century painter who lived at the time of Ben’s research, and may have left behind clues to the mystery. But more than anything else, Gabriele Accorsi imbued his diary with a sense of himself. A sense that Beatrice’s empathy grabs onto and uses to propel her back through time, to Gabriele’s side.

There she must make a life for herself, a lone woman in a medieval city, while she desperately hopes that she can find a way back to her own time before the quite literal oncoming Plague reaches Siena.

But instead of finding a way out, she finds a way of life that fulfills her as the 21st century never has. As she falls in love with both the man and the place, she fears that all is already lost. The Black Death is coming for Siena, and there is nothing she can do to stop it, or to protect those she loves.

Escape Rating A-: If you put Somewhere in Time, Outlander, The Girl With a Pearl Earring, Doomsday Book and Household Gods into a blender, you’d get something like The Scribe of Siena. You might also need to add a bit of Brother Cadfael or Crispin Guest for a bit of spice (and bodies).

Time travel always involves a bit of handwavium, and this book is no exception. That aspect of the story reminded me of Household Gods, where a commonplace object facilitates the time travel back. And also a bit of Somewhere in Time, where a common object of the modern era draws the protagonist forward again.

But the harrowing description of the time travel experience itself feels drawn straight from Outlander, as do the romantic aspects of the story. Beatrice, like Clare, is accidentally pulled back into the past and forced to make a way for herself against seemingly impossible odds. Where Clare marries to provide herself safety, Beatrice finds work as a scribe. It’s a career that both provides a reasonable living and causes trouble. Much as Clare does.

Beatrice also falls in love, but the relationship between Gabriele and Beatrice is very slow-building. She may be a 21st century woman, but he is a man of his times. He loves and respects her, and therefore wants things done properly, even if they must wait for all of the ceremonies to finally take place.

Ironically, even though both Doomsday Book and Scribe of Siena feature a heroine who goes back to the time of the Black Death, the way that the plague is handled is very different. In the Doomsday Book the heroine lives through the Plague in all its heartbreaking detail, and that’s where a lot of the empathy in that story comes from. In Scribe, the heroine escapes the Plague by accidentally sending herself back to the future where modern medicine can cure her. She returns to 14th century Siena in the winter after the Plague has temporarily passed, and is now immune. But she doesn’t experience the cataclysmic deaths first-hand.

The other piece of the puzzle in this story is the historical mystery, which is more of a historical conspiracy theory. The Black Death hit Siena especially hard, even for an epidemic which cut the population of Europe in half. The theory that Ben Trovato was attempting to prove was that political forces deliberately sent Plague carriers to Siena in an attempt to break the back of this ascendant city and let a different one rise in its place. It’s a fascinating idea, and Beatrice finds herself on the wrong side of powerful figures in both the 14th and 21st centuries as she strives to prove what happened. It gives us a glimpse of both 14th century power politics and 21st century academic politics, and while both are fascinating, neither are pretty.

In the end, whether readers will fall in love with this story rests with Beatrice. It is her perspective that we follow from the 21st century to the 14th, and it is through her eyes that we see this brave, old world. I felt for her journey, and in the end I believed I understood why she made the choices that she did. If you do too, you will love this book.