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Book Review, Jeri Westerson, Roses in the Tempest

(Disclosure: I won a copy of this book in a giveaway from Westerson’s July 2015 newsletter.)

Jeri Westerson is best known for her Crispin Guest “medieval noir” mystery series, which I discovered a couple of years ago. Having enjoyed those books very much, I was thrilled to hear that she had written a novel set in the Tudor period (which for me is utter catnip). Roses in the Tempest was one of Westerson’s early books, but wasn’t published until 2015, and I admit to being impressed that Westerson set the novel within the context of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. While most Tudor-set novels tend to focus on Henry, his wives, or his court, Westerson does a fantastic job of showing how Henry’s policies had real and often stark consequences for his people. The novel centers on two characters, Thomas Giffard and Isabella Launder. Thomas is the son of the local nobleman, who befriends Isabella, the daughter of a yeoman farmer, largely because she is the one person in his life who refuses to defer to him. Isabella eventually joins the Benedictine priory at Blackladies, and the novel traces Thomas and Isabella’s relationship as they cope with the changing circumstances of Henry’s reign.

Thomas and Isabella did exist in real life, although the full scope of their relationship has been lost to history. The novel alternates between Thomas and Isabella’s viewpoints—in tone and structure, it reminds me a great deal of Lindsey Davis’ Roman-set novels The Course of Honour and Master and God (both were written after Roses…I just happened to read them immediately before it). Westerson does a fantastic job of conveying the emotional turmoil caused by Thomas and Isabella’s differing class positions, by the upheavals of Henry’s “Great Matter” and the formation of the Church of England, and by corrupt Tudor officials. My only real complaint with the story is that it ends abruptly and doesn’t quite feel satisfying for the reader. In the end, while Crispin Guest will always be my favorite Westerson character, I did enjoy the book quite a bit, and I’d be happy to see Westerson return to the Tudor period in future novels.

(Incidentally, Westerson also puts out one of the best author newsletters out there, and I’m not just saying that because I won a copy of her book. In her newsletters, she fills you in on self-publishing, arcana regarding medieval and Tudor history, and even weaponry. You can sign up here at Westerson’s website.)

Source: Copy from the author

Quick update (4/02/2016): Westerson just sent out her April newsletter, in which she announced that she is working on a new Tudor-era mystery series featuring Will Somers, Henry VIII’s fool.

Book Review, Scott Martelle, The Admiral and the Ambassador

Journalist Scott Martelle’s The Admiral and the Ambassador (published May 1, 2014) is the story of how the American Ambassador to France, Horace Porter, successfully located the body of Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones in Paris and brought it back to the United States. It is an interesting story, particularly as the search for the body proved far more complicated than anyone anticipated, involving searches through multiple French archives, the paying off of property owners, digging tunnels under buildings in search of lead coffins, and forensic analysis of the body.

While the story of how Jones’ body was lost and found is compelling, Martelle unfortunately makes one of the more common mistakes when writing history: he presents us with all of his research in the main body of his narrative. (We’ve all done it—just ask my dissertation advisor…) As readers, we are given almost complete biographies of both Jones and Porter, as well as capsule histories of the naval battles of the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War, and William McKinley’s assassination, among other events. While these do provide context, I would argue that we do not need this much context. Porter, for example, does not even begin to search for Jones’ body until halfway through the book (at almost 50% in my ARC, and not in earnest until 64%).

I would recommend this book for anyone interested in either Jones or Porter, but be aware that you will be doing a lot of skimming to get to the interesting parts.

Source: ARC from NetGalley

When the Messiah Came to America, She Was a Woman

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Highly interesting piece from Longreads, an excerpt from Chris Jennings’ book Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism. Check it out!

Longreads Blog

Chris Jennings | Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism | Random House | January 2016 | 29 minutes (7,852 words)

Below is an excerpt from Paradise Now, Chris Jennings’ look at the history of the golden age of American utopianism, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky. 

* * *

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at. . . .
—OSCAR WILDE

*

Mistaking day for night, they took wing.

At noon, darkness spread across the sky. It was the nineteenth of May 1780, a Friday. On the rolling pastureland of western New England, sheep and cows lay down one by one in the damp grass. As the darkness became total, finches and warblers quieted and returned to their roosts. Above the white pines and budding oaks, bats stirred. Mistaking day for night, they took wing.

The fratricidal…

View original post 7,658 more words

Book Review, Stephanie Laurens, The Lady’s Command (The Adventurers Quartet #1)

I’ve been reading Stephanie Laurens’ books for a long time now, and am well-versed on the Cynster clan and all of their many, many friends. While Laurens is a romance novelist, she has also written several series that blend romance with adventure and mystery plotlines. The Bastion Club and Black Cobra series, as well as the Casebook of Barnaby Adair, tended this way, and her new series, The Adventurers Quartet, seems to also be in this mold.

The other trend I have observed in Laurens’ recent work is that, as she’s moving chronologically out of the Regency and into the Victorian era, her couples are growing somewhat cookie cutter. They now all-too-rationally spend pages analyzing their feelings and making plans, and, while this is Romancelandia, there’s not all that much conflict between the couples. Even the sex scenes aren’t that sexy anymore (what on earth must Devil Cynster think of this?). The couples spend far too much time talking and recapping where they are both emotionally and in regard to whatever problem they are attempting to solve. Basically, strategic planning will get you everywhere, and even the villains will fall into line if you’ve done your research.

The Lady’s Command (published December 29, 2015) is the first book in the new series, and features Declan Frobisher, part of a shipping dynasty and occasional British spy, and his new wife Lady Edwina Delbraith. While their marriage is off to a smooth start, Declan is determined to keep his wife safe at home when he is asked to sail to Freeport, West Africa to investigate a series of mysterious disappearances. (And due credit to Laurens for setting the book somewhere you don’t normally see in a romance novel.) Edwina refuses to be left behind and stows away aboard his ship, and the couple re-evaluates their marriage while they investigate the disappearances, which appear related to the church services of a mysterious and charismatic preacher, Obo Undoto.

I liked this book much better as an adventure story than as a romance, and felt that the kidnapping plot was more interesting than the Declan and Edwina’s (endless) emotional negotiations. To a certain extent, I think this is because Laurens was trying too hard to shove Declan into the mold of her usual overprotective alpha hero and he didn’t quite fit. The reveal of the “villain,” however, was clever, and I loved the characters’ historically accurate response to Edwina’s being drugged with laudanum as no big deal (despite laudanum being an alcohol and opium tincture).

I would say if you would like to spend a pleasant afternoon on an adventure, this is the book for you, but if you want a romance that pushes all of your feel buttons, go back to the early Cynster novels.

(Minor rant: I have to mention the cover of this book…there are some seriously garish color choices, and the models look like they are proportioned incorrectly. I suspect that this, as well as the fact that it looks like the books are less edited than they used to be, is because of Laurens’ change from Avon to Harlequin/Mira as her publisher—the Cynsters Next Generation series had similar issues.)

Source: Copy from my public library

Book Review, Nora Roberts, Stars of Fortune (The Guardians Trilogy #1)

I admit to being a sucker for a good Nora Roberts trilogy, even though I was less than enamored with her last two (Cousins O’Dwyer and Inn Boonsboro). I’ve been worried that Roberts is off her game, particularly as her books are starting to read like pastiches of her past writings. I haven’t been able to get through one of her hardcovers since Blue Smoke, but the J.D. Robb novels are still working for me.

It was with some trepidation that I picked up the first book in her new Guardians Trilogy (published on November 3, 2015), particularly as it appeared to be yet another trilogy involving magic and characters searching for long-lost mystical items (Smart Bitches Trashy Books labels these “ParaNoras”). I was pleasantly surprised, however, to see that there are some new elements here—for one thing, the book is set in Corfu, rather than Ireland or the rural U.S.

As for the plot, there be spoilers below, so beware…

The basic plotline follows six individuals who have been chosen to find and return the three Stars of Fortune to the “Island of Glass” before Nerezza, an evil sorceress, takes their powers and destroys the world. The first book, Stars of Fortune, follows artist Sasha Riggs, who is a seer, to Corfu, where she meets Bran Killian, the hero and a magician, and the other four who are searching for the Fire Star. Without getting too specific, the book describes the search for the Fire Star and the group’s early confrontations with the villain. There is a lot of exposition here, which Roberts handles well, given that she has to introduce six characters and their mission. The downside of this is that the romance between Sasha and Bran felt rushed (Roberts attempts to compensate by having Sasha “see” Bran in her dreams months before she travels to Corfu).

I enjoyed the fact that the characters weren’t the usual bunch of Roberts heroes and heroines—no one, for example, is spending their time obsessively running a business (although I did groan when Sasha drew up an illustrated training schedule late in the book and Bran’s medicine making was described in meticulous detail). The cover design here is far better than in the Cousins O’Dwyer books (which had odd Photoshopped animals), although someone at the publisher needs to do some better editing, as I found several typos. There was also the usual variation on the line “take what I give,” which, as I’ve mentioned in another review, tends to show up in Roberts’ love scenes: this novel’s version was: “This time you’ll take, and taking, you’ll give.” (p. 174)

If you are familiar with Roberts’ books, you already know that she often throws in geeky references to various sci-fi shows into her novels. There are an awful lot of them in this one, and it got to the point where I was assigning characters to their counterparts: Bran as a combination of Harry Potter, Severus Snape, and Roarke from the In Death novels, Riley as Lara Croft, Annika as Luna Lovegood/Wonder Woman, and Doyle as The Highlander. Sawyer also had a compass that acted like a combination Time-Turner/Portkey, and the human villain (barely mentioned until the end of the novel), came off like Lucius Malfoy.

In the end, this felt like an improvement over the previous two trilogies, and I’ll be very interested to see what Roberts does with the rest of the series.

Source: Copy from my public library.

Book Review, Jim Butcher, The Aeronaut’s Windlass (The Cinder Spires #1)

I have long been a reader of Jim Butcher’s books (The Dresden Files, Codex Alera), and was excited to hear that he has been working on a new steampunk series. The Cinder Spires series starts with The Aeronaut’s Windlass (published September 29, 2015), which takes place far into the future in a world where humanity was forced to abandon the earth’s surface for a series of constructed “spires” that range far into the skies. The world is vaguely future-Victorian, with airships and a class-based social structure. Without giving away too much, the book focuses on an emerging conflict between the spires (and, no surprise, the sense that there may be larger forces at work).

So here’s my caveat. While I am all in favor of the steampunk genre being incredibly expansive, I tend to like my steampunk ensconced within the Victorian era, or (as with something like Kate Locke’s The Immortal Empire series) a closely Victorian-inspired alternate universe. So Butcher’s book didn’t quite do it for me as steampunk, despite the airships and noble houses. The book started out incredibly slowly, and if it wasn’t for the talking cats, I probably wouldn’t have finished it. I also wonder if the perspective may have been an issue—what holds the Dresden series together, for example, is Harry’s first-person snark. The constantly shifting POVs in this book got old fast, as did the overly-detailed airship battle descriptions. The plot did pick up enough for me to give it three stars on Goodreads (which in my personal ranking system is “decent but nothing to squee about”). The vibe was a sort of mashup between Terry Pratchett and George R.R. Martin (hell, even “Earth: Final Conflict” if you count the gauntlets), so if that is your cup of tea by all means go for it!

Will I pick up the next book? Yes, but thus far this series has turned out to be something I can pick up and put down at random, rather than the all-night-read-until-your-eyes-burn-fest that Butcher’s other books have been for me.

Source: Copy from my public library

In Which I Get Some Stuff Done

We’ve been enjoying some gorgeous weather for November…seventies and sunny. I managed to get outside to clean out the flower boxes and dismantle our garden, especially as the weather is starting to shift back toward the rain and cold, and the last thing I want to do is prep my bird feeders and garden paraphernalia to move in lousy weather. I have made no attempt at the leaves as yet. Part of me almost doesn’t want to bother this year as we’re moving. I haven’t put the Thanksgiving decorations up yet either. I think this year I may just skip ahead to Christmas at the new house.

Normally at this time of year I’m attempting NaNoWriMo, but this year I actually forgot. And somehow I don’t really mind, which is interesting.

I’m knocking items off of my to-do list pretty quickly, and am surprised I’m not as satisfied by that as I thought I would be. I keep having this low-level buzz of anxiety, even though I now wonder if I’m anxious because I have a lot less to be anxious about these days. Is anxiety actually now a habit?

Ironically, I’m now writing a section on the nervous diseases, anxiety, and neurasthenia in my dissertation. Life. Art. Imitate. Whatever.

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