“A Want of Kindness” by Joanne Limburg

33271065If I have a weakness when it comes to books, a fail-safe fallback genre, it is historical fiction. Specifically historical fiction based on queens and kings. Specifically based on queens and kings of England. Show me a queen on a cover or in a blurb and I will read that book.

It is not, therefore, at all surprising that I was excited to read Joanne Limburg’s A WANT OF KINDNESS.

To make it even more appealing, her story is centered on Queen Anne of England. Queen Anne, if you don’t know, is not like either Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, Queen Mary, or the wives of Henry VIII who were queens who did not rule. Queen for only five years, her reign was neither glamorous nor marked by controversy nor long enough to qualify for Hollywood films. She was the second oldest daughter of King James II and she succeeded the William III, who had ruled jointly with her sister, Mary. She was the last monarch from the House of Stuart, as she died childless. Childless despite at least seventeen pregnancies and only one child, a son, surviving as far as age 11. She was married from 1677 until her husband’s death in 1708. So her story is one of tragedy, on the whole, and yet the beauty of a reportedly loving marriage despite so much tragedy.

This, perhaps not surprisingly, does not make the sort of thing Hollywood believes it can make money on. And, to be honest, it probably can’t.

It’s really too bad.

I first learned about Queen Anne in my college English history class, and even the professor talked about seventeen pregnancies and no children. And then we moved quickly on, because Queen Victoria was coming after some Georges. I have thought about her sometimes since, wanting to know more but never wanting it badly enough to search out a biography. I’m a terrible history buff sometimes!

But this book, this fictionalized account of Queen Anne’s life from her childhood to her ascension, is really quite incredible. Possibly because, despite not having the glitz, glamour, intrigue, and longevity of the more famous queens, she lived in an incredible time. She was at the center of religious upheaval. She had seen her father, her uncle, and her grandfather struggle in their reigns. She witnessed wars with France and Spain and the Netherlands.

So Limburg’s fictionalized account Anne’s life is not what can usually be read about queens and kings. The intrigue is not romantic. She never had affairs, though it could be argued from her letters – actual things Anne wrote that Limburg uses to illustrate the story – that she had something bordering on romantic love for Sarah Churchill. She tried to do good, for herself and her family, for her country, and for all. And she succeeded, most of the time, even if it never really seems like it. And the reason it never really seems like it is because she never gets her happy ending. Never gets the things she wants more than any other.

Queen Anne deserves more recognition as an important part of British history. She truly is one of the most tragic, yet interesting rulers of England I have read about. And Limburg’s portrayal makes her all the more fascinating and charismatic.

If you have a weakness for this genre, and don’t mind a distinct lack of bursting corsets and illicit rendezvous in shadowy corners, this book is a definite Must Read.

(I received a copy of A WANT OF KINDNESS through NetGalley and Pegasus Books in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“Mad Miss Mimic” by Sarah Henstra

I freakin’ love this book! And I am so sad it only took me two days to read it! I’m going to read it again, no doubt about it.

But onto the details first…

Sarah Henstra’s MAD MISS MIMIC is about one Leonora Sommerville who lives in Hastings House with her sister and her doctor brother-in-law in Victorian era London. Leo, as she prefers to be called is seventeen and her older sister is desperately trying to marry her off despite the facts that she suffers from selective mutism, stuttering, and outbursts of mimicry. Naturally, Dr. and Mrs. Dewhurst decide the bad doctor’s business partner, the future Lord Rosbury, is the perfect match for the unmarried sister – he needs a pretty wife who won’t say much, after all.

This does not work out, for anyone.

As you might expect.

Dr. Dewhurst is perfecting the art of morphine, on the poor of London who suffer terribly at his hands, while keeping his wife dosed up on laudanum. The future Lord Rosbury is arguing for a ban on opium after getting very rich already on importing opium into England. Leo figures she really ought to get married to someone who doesn’t mind her speech problems, of which her sister is absolutely horrible about, so she resigns herself to a life as Lady Rosbury.

But then…

Somebody keeps blowing things up in London and killing people, all related to the potential opium ban. And Leo begins to suspect that Dr. Dewhurst and her future husband isn’t all it seems on the surface. So, with the help of Tom – the lockpick, pickpocket, mechanical genius who is working against the partnership already, she begins to investigate.

And the twist there? Tom loves Leo and Leo loves Tom.

All the wrong social circles, though, of course.

But there is drama, there is suspense, there is medicine, there is mystery, there is history, there is romance, there is angst, there is love… and everybody should read this book!

(I received a copy of MAD MISS MIMIC through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“Even In Darkness” by Barbara Stark-Nemon

I’m a sucker for World War II fiction. There really isn’t any other way to put it. That being said, I was very excited to get into Barbara Stark-Nemon’s EVEN IN DARKNESS. The story she writes is one of those tricky historical fiction ones that are based on actual events, in this case her great-aunt Klare’s experiences during World War I, World War II, and the years in between.

This balance, I’ve learned from reading a lot of these books, can be delicate because the author must keep true to historical fact, keep true to the characters who were real and who were important, and keep a narrative going that makes everyone want to keep reading.

Stark-Nemon does that well in this story.

The places her great-aunt existed, including Thereseinstadt, are described in ways that I have read them described before but not with the intense detail that might leave the narrative lacking. The focus is kept solely, for the most part, on Klare Kohler and what she sees as she goes from an eighteen year old girl with the world at her fingertips to a survivor of Nazi death camps and beyond.

Honestly, the thing I wanted more from the story was a longer, more detailed note at the end. Stark-Nemon referenced her family and how they survived but she didn’t mention Ansel Beckmann, the Catholic priest who figured so heavily in the story and who I am not sure was even real, or details on Bernhardt Steinmann and Melisande Durr, who were heroes in the story. I want to know more about them. So, basically, I want a non-fiction accounting of this story too.

And that, it seems, makes it an excellent book.

“Summer of My German Soldier” by Bette Greene

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

“Time to get going on my ambition. It’s not the only one I have, but it’s the only one I work at.”

Exciting news, fellow readers!

I have, inadvertently, just read one of the most banned books of the 2000-2009 era in school libraries! Summer of My German Soldier came in at #55, according to my Wikipedia-ing for background to use in this review. I am rather proud of this accidental discovery, and the reasons for my pride and happiness are many.

First and foremost, as evidenced by the photo of my book it is not a new book. No, I got this book in fourth grade – and I was in fourth grade before 2000. I remember it was fourth grade because it’s even marked with a reading level grade five, age eleven and up and I was not at those milestones when I got it. I don’t remember exactly why this book called to me. Possibly my mother had introduced me to Anne Frank. What I do remember is this – I loved this book. I scoured the library for the sequel (which I may look for again because I only remember it being beyond my understanding at the time). I made sure I did not lose this book when we moved. This book has never not been on my bookshelf with all the other books I love.

And that is the second reason for my reader joy – it’s been a years since I read Bette Greene’s pre-teen novel, though I did read it a couple times between fourth grade and now, and I still love it. Just enough time passed that I forgot just enough that I was able to rediscover passion for the story of Patty Bergen in the four days it took me to read this book.

“Cruelty is after all cruelty, and the difference between the two men may have more to do with their degrees of power than their degrees of cruelty.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I can see what people might use for grounds to ban this book on; child abuse (physical and emotional), the use of the n-word among other racist things, a twenty-one year old man declaring love – in words alone – for a twelve year old girl, religious intolerance…

However, I do not believe in banning books. Certainly not on the grounds that they accurately portray history in a fictional setting, and that would be the story of this book. 

In case it isn’t clear, Summer of My German Soldier takes place during World War II. It is set in a small town called Jenkinsville, Arkansas. Patty Bergen is the daughter of the only Jewish family in town. They are wealthy enough to employ a housekeeper named Ruth who is African-American. There is a POW camp for German prisoners on the outskirts of town.

If we compare that to history, we find that:

  • small town Arkansas was probably not the most open-minded place in America for Jewish families to live
  • African-Americans and white people did not live in the same parts of town, especially in the South, during the 1940s
  • white families often employed housekeepers and staff who were not the same color as them
  • the n-word was a part of daily language, for better or for worse
  • there were POW camps for German prisoners of war all over the United States during World War II
  • it was not necessarily seen as against the rules or against the rule of law to use a belt on your daughter when she did not do as you wanted her to do

In essence, the truth hurts sometimes but it is still the truth. To paper over truth because of modern sensibilities is to ignore what mistakes were made, and risk the mistakes happening again.

“Maybe you’re right, but maybe, just maybe, we all have an enormous capacity for believing in anything that will provide us with a bit of comfort.”

“I’ve found this here a cold world, a mighty cold world, and a man and a woman, well, they needs a little comforting ‘for they freeze to death.”

This book should be read, not banned.

In any case, the summary of the book is more than why people might wish to ban it.

Patty Bergen’s parents are rich, on the comparative scale of Jenkinsville, and they do not particularly care what she does so long as she does what they expect her to do. Her mother’s mix of hyper-criticism of her looks and total lack of interest in her is heartbreaking. Her father is obsessed with no one ever seeing fault with him or the world he has created, so much so that he uses a belt on her for playing with a poor boy but buys her the finest steaks. Until a prisoner escapes from the POW camp, Patty’s only real friend is the family housekeeper, Ruth. It is Ruth who gives her the nuturing she craves and needs, and she substitutes Ruth for her parents with such intensity that she prays the prayers Ruth teaches her rather than the ones she learned at synagogue.

Patty hides the escaped prisoner, seeing it not as treason but as an act of kindness. It is obvious that it is a kindness she wishes someone would show her if she ever got away from her parents. She is able to see the prisoner, Anton, as a young man away from his home and his family and in need of help. And he sees her not only as a means to an end but as a kindred spirit who will look past labels and see the honest truth of anything and everything.

Summer of My German Soldier is a story of three different people, as different as possible in that time and that place, sharing a tiny spot in time during which their beliefs, their values, their hopes, and their dreams are called into question. 

Now I really want to go to Paris… in 1889…

  • The book: To Capture What We Cannot Keep
  • The author: Beatrice Colin
  • Dates read: September 28, 2016 – October 21, 2016
  • Where to get it: Amazon (on November 29, 2016)

25901561.jpgI’m gonna be honest here, I requested an ARC of this novel for three reasons; 1) it takes place in Paris(!), 2) it is historical fiction – i.e. the stuff I live on, and 3) the cover looked like the covers on a lot of “must-have” books that I’ve been too cheap to buy in recent months. See? Honesty.

Anyway, that third thing on the list is the lucky, if silly, reason I found myself getting lost in Beatrice Colin’s lyrical, fantastic novel of love, mostly unrequited in Paris, France as it was during the years that Eiffel Tower was being built for the World’s Fair in 1889. Sometimes it really does pay to be cheap and stubborn.

It is the story of Caitriona Wallace, a thirtysomething widow from Scotland who, because widows in the 19th century had few prospects, takes a job as chaperone to the newly adult niece and nephew of a Scottish engineer as the brother and sister leave for a tour of Europe, as the children of the wealthy did then. Alice and Jamie Arrol are essentially as I expect wealthy kids of their era were – a whole lot of spoiled and just a little bit naive. The fourth person who makes the story is Emile Nouguier, who is an actual historical person – an engineer and architect who was one of the designers of the Eiffel Tower.

Books are nothing without characters to care about (love them or hate them, so long as you feel them) so they are what makes or breaks a story for me and, god, did Cait, Alice, Jamie, and Emile make this story for me.

Let’s start with the siblings. You would be forgiven for worrying that spoiled rich kids could come across as annoying cliches, especially in the realm of historical fiction. The Arrols do not. Perhaps it’s because Colin writes them with a slight air of being proverbial fish out of water, and more “nouveau riche” than cushioned by centuries of wealth, but both Alice and Jamie struggle mightily to balance the world they want to live in with the world they do live in. Alice is perpetually obsessed by making a good marriage, and there is even a line where her uncle tells Caitriona that she’d marry a lamppost if it asked her, but she is still a girl at heart, one who wants to have fun and toe the line and figure out who she is before she marries. She might not always recognize those things but, through Colin’s writing, it is easy to see that she is really an ordinary girl. Alice’s brother Jamie, a few years older, can also be seen as typical – the young man who wants to impress not only the nearest eligible female but his uncle and the older men in his world. Jamie’s struggles with this are almost tragic, it’s clear he’s got little interest in his uncle’s ironworks but he knows he should so he manages to secure a job, that he fails at rather spectacularly, working on the Eiffel Tower when he, Alice, and their chaperone returned to Paris to live. Likewise, he is driven by the urges of young people everywhere and, much to his very real shame, he ends up designing a room at the famed, and real, Le Chabanais brothel to pay off his debts.

Caitriona and Emile are the opposites of Alice and Jamie (and it should be noted I only just Googled Emile and discovered he was real so I cannot say how… true to life Colin wrote him). She married who she was supposed to marry, and suffered terribly for it. He never had any interest in marrying, despite his mother’s desperate wishes, and kept a mistress he was misguidedly, to put it mildly, enamored with. He was, to be fair, more married to his work. And then Emile met Caitriona by chance and Beatrice Colin managed to write one of the least cheesy, most beautiful loves-at-first-sight I have ever read. The novel is the story of them not being together. They travel parallel with one another, occasionally intersecting as Jamie decides Emile is the man to marry his sister – irregardless of neither Alice nor Emile wanting that, and finally pulling apart when the shame that an amateur historian knows came with being a woman in the late Victorian period.

Maybe there’s a happily ever after, maybe Cait and Emile find each other again. Maybe there’s no happily ever after, maybe he stays married to his work and she does just what Victorian widows were expected to do.

You’ll have to read this breathtaking book to find out!

(I received a copy of TO CAPTURE WHAT WE CANNOT KEEP through NetGalley and Flatiron Books in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “Tidewater: A Novel of Pocahontas and the Jamestown Colony” by Libbie Hawker

BBW2016_twitter_0.jpgJust in case anybody didn’t know this… don’t believe Disney when it comes to your history!

Now, granted it’s been a long time since I say Disney’s “Pocahontas” and granted I am reviewing a “based on true events” sort of historical fiction book – it is that in part because there is precious little in the way of recorded history for this time period in American history, I realize I might not have much better to offer. But I think I do.

Reading Libbie Hawker’s incredibly detailed and researched, down to a glossary of terms and a pronunciation guide for the words Pocahontas would have known, made me think. It made me look up parts of history I thought I knew. It taught me things I never expected to learn. And it made me want to read more about Pocahontas and the Jamestown Colony, and read this book again. It isn’t just “history” either, it is also a story. Hawker is incredibly adept at giving personality and substance to what could be obscure details and descriptions of dugout canoes. Her words made me feel like I was in Jamestown and in Werewocomoco.

That is what a historical novel is supposed to do.

And I felt things for this story. I wanted it to end well for them, though I knew how it ends. I want them to be happy, to find love, and to find peace. I cared.

(I received a copy of TIDEWATER from NetGalley and Running Rabbit Press in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “The Second Mrs. Hockaday” by Susan Rivers

We are no longer blessed with innocence, nor do we deserve to be. Paradise may have been lost, but paradise is a bad bargain. It costs too much. It conceals serpents, and is littered with graves.

Being a history nerd, and proud of it, there isn’t any historical fiction that I’m not willing to try so when the chance to request this novelization of events during the Civil War came up, I took it with much excitement. And I am just as excited to have read it now that I’m finished.

It was a strange arrangement at first, a novel comprised entirely of letters and diary entries, with an occasional legal statement thrown in, and I did wonder if that could properly tell the story of Placidia Hockaday. I didn’t wonder for long.

Because all doubts were washed away the more I read.

Placidia, the “second Mrs. Hockaday,” is not a pampered daughter of the Confederate South in the way that Scarlett O’Hara was – and it is sort of impossible not to compare her to Scarlett. And yet it’s hard to doubt that Susan Rivers was not influenced by Scarlett as she wrote Placidia. Placi28110868.jpgdia grows up on prosperous plantation that is kept working by slaves. When she marries Major Hockaday, after a single day of knowing each other, she moves to his home – which is kept working by slaves. But Major Hockaday makes few appearances in the story because he returns to the war days after the wedding. In his absence, the teenage Placidia is forced to manage the farm and the slaves on her own. And she does, coming to think of everything she knew – even the things she thought of her beloved father – in an entirely different light. For the better.

Until events she cannot control threaten to shatter her, sending her deep into a reclusive world of shame and depression that leads to the legal statements. But Placidia is strong and she survives it all, and more.

THE SECOND MRS. HOCKADAY is a story war and slavery, yes, but it is also the story of perseverance and determination. Of being able to hold your head high no matter what anyone says or thinks, because you know best what your own life is. And of self-discovery and learning as you live, being willing to see things in a different light and try to change them if you cannot accept them.

**The copy I read was an advanced read copy. The final book has a publication date of January 10, 2017 and I will buy it.**

(I received a copy of THE SECOND MRS. HOCKADAY through NetGalley and Algonquin Books in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)