Louise Fletcher is a dairymaid in 1790, and a reasonably content one at that; she has a purpose in life, and a purpose that she’s actually good at. Then the hand of fate steps in and she finds herself a lady’s maid to a Captain’s daughter, Rebecca Handley, soon to be engaged to a gentleman and move to London. But first, Harwich, a port on the Thames where all manner of folk wind up, and where her brother vanished a few years ago, called to the sea like all Fletchers. Alongside Louise is Luke, a boy pressed into service in His Majesty’s fleet, at first miserable but who gains his sea legs and his skills as time goes on. These two stories intertwine in surprising ways as the novel goes on.
Reviewing this book without giving the story away is going to be a real challenge, but I’ll give it a shot. It’s definitely one of those books that you should let take you without much prior knowledge from the story. I didn’t expect what was coming, especially in the second half of the book.
Unfortunately, the book did fall prey to the fact that I just don’t really like this period in history and I like stories set on ships even less, if that’s possible. The beginning and end of the book felt too long; the middle really picked up and became excellent but sank back after the main revelation. I actually liked what the author did with the plot and the two main characters. It added a different spin on the story and gave it a new dimension of meaning. If you read the book, you’ll understand – it put me into a perspective that I had never experienced before and I thought it was worth reading for that alone. The plot twist is very reminiscent of Sarah Waters, as many other reviewers have said, and it’s not a surprise that Waters was Worsley’s mentor during her degree.
Worsley is also an exceptional writer, and the prose throughout the book shows this brilliantly. The settings are evocative, the characters’ feelings leap out from the page, and the narrators are distinct. Louise’s sections are told to a certain “you” which doesn’t take long to discern, while Luke’s are simply told from his perspective. It feels a very literary novel, carefully crafted, meticulously written, but unfortunately in this case lacking the spark that I needed to fall in love with it. This is very much a like but not love book.
Still, particularly if you enjoy Sarah Waters, you may find that She Rises is worth your while. I know I’d be keen to read more by Kate Worsley in the future.
All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.
Catherine Bailey, intent on writing a book about villages affected World War I, visited Belvoir Castle to investigate the extensive archives kept by the ninth duke, John Manners. To her dismay, she found that John’s journal abruptly ended in June 1914, just when his unit was about to enter the fighting. When she read his correspondence, she found the same gap, and on further investigation, found three complete gaps in otherwise comprehensive archives. She was so curious that she kept looking and the result was this book, a mystery unwinding into a fascinating picture of a still-privileged aristocracy hovering on the brink of change.
This is a book that actually took me by surprise. I’d read the first few pages a while back and didn’t feel compelled to continue. I have to be in a certain kind of a mood for a mystery, and I never felt that the time was right. When I finally did persevere, though, I found an absolute gem of a book. There are actually 3 mysteries, which are the gaps in John’s life, and Bailey does an excellent job of keeping the reader wondering about what’s happened while slowly revealing a picture of an aristocratic family which simply no longer exists.
The book is structured with chapters that are fairly short. A number of them end in cliffhangers, so that as a reader I was compelled to go on and read more to see what the author would find next; I actually read most of the book on a train and it was the perfect distraction to make a long journey seem much shorter. More than waiting to find out the mysteries, though, I was fascinated by the world which Bailey revealed. John’s life, and that of his parents and siblings, is still full of aristocratic excess, but crisis and change is very clearly on the horizon. When he is young, his family is virtually untouchable, yet by the time the first World War is over, this world is simply gone.
The amount of influence the family has – and believes they have – is incredible, and some of the strings pulled to get some of the events in the book to happen are almost difficult to believe now. Bailey quotes copiously from the letters and journals she finds, which helped me feel like I was digging through the archives with her. The way she slowly reveals John’s character and the events that shaped his life gave a feel for how she must have experienced the unveiling of his character; overall I thought it was an excellent way to keep me invested and reading. It’s also worth mentioning that this is a really quick and easy read for non-fiction; Bailey’s writing is smooth and easy to read, and her detective story makes the book feel like it could be fiction.
I’d definitely recommend The Secret Rooms and now I’m eager to read Bailey’s first book, Black Diamonds, too.
I received this book for free for review.
Erika von Kessler is a diva with big dreams; though she’s well into her twenties and married, she secretly longs to leave her husband and travel to Italy where she might become the star she believes she is destined to be. Her businessman husband Peter’s fervent desire to have a child, and her seeming inability to conceive, have only caused her to long even more to leave him. Fertility doctor after fertility doctor have failed to help her conceive, until the couple go to Doctor Ravell, a Boston specialist who has reportedly worked miracles in an age before artificial insemination was regularly practiced. Ravell is immediately captivated by Erika and, eventually, she by him, until their lives and ambitions become woven together.
This was not a book that sucked me in right away. In fact, I didn’t actually like the characters. Perhaps realistically, they are all very selfish in their own ways, very human and particularly flawed, but that certainly makes them hard to understand. Erika’s struggle for a child dominates the beginning of the book; it infuriated me, I must admit, when her husband refused having his sperm sample analyzed and then Ravell found out that the “fault” lay with him, not her – I find this difficult to articulate but I intensely despised him after his arrogance allowed him to go on blaming his wife for something that had nothing to do with her, when in reality it was a burden they could have borne together.
In some ways, despite the fact that I didn’t like her much, it’s easy to understand Erika’s struggle, which was particularly indicative of the early twentieth century. Her ambitions are greater than the life she has, and she is forced to contain her talent in a world which expects her to be happy as a wife and mother. Although some women are, she isn’t made for that role, and because she doesn’t fit the mold, she has to do something extreme to achieve her own dreams. Still, she doesn’t do so without any emotion, and her eventual choice is one that does in fact devastate her. I may not have appreciated the “romance” within this book much, but I can’t fault McDonnell’s characterization of these characters.
Yes, the “romance”. I really did not feel that much about any connection between Erika and Ravell. I did not like a huge number of their actions and I honestly didn’t get where the romance came from. Ravell has a complicated relationship with his gynecological patients, given he’s also having an affair with another one when the book opens, and there is some insight in how they could feel some level of intimacy towards one another. But … I just wasn’t convinced.
Anyway, the book is actually quite well written and cleverly structured, with different phases of Erika’s life mapped out with different sections of the novel, of which there are six in total. Some of the scenes are beautifully written, and I found those in Trinidad, in the jungle, to be particularly appealing, almost as though I could feel the sand and the breeze and the warm nights. I think McDonnell could be a phenomenal writer, and it’s impressive that this is her first book – it’s just a shame I didn’t relate more to the characters in this very character-driven novel.
I received this book for free for review.
Lady Margaret Chattan knows that she’s the only person who can stop the curse that’s been plaguing her family for generations. Decades ago, Fenella Macnachtan cursed one of Margaret’s ancestors for leaving her daughter Rose to marry an English girl, causing Rose to kill herself. Both of Margaret’s brothers have fallen in love and, as the curse dictates, fallen ill shortly thereafter, with one of them near death. As the only girl born to the Chattans since the curse, Margaret is special, but as she heads homeward to Scotland, she knows that she has no idea on how to save her brothers’ lives. Then, a horrific freak accident takes the lives of nearly everyone escorting her, leaving Margaret untouched and rescued by the Macnachtan family, the very clan who have fostered the destruction of her own. Little does Margaret suspect that the head of the family, Heath, is an honorable man who has been admiring her from afar for years.
Having read The Scottish Witch a few months ago, I’ve been eager to find out how the so-called Chattan curse is defeated. It had to be; this is a series of romance novels, after all, and killing off the heroes very shortly after the books have ended just wouldn’t happen. So I was looking forward to reading about Margaret, who has spent years of her life being pursued and fighting off that pursuit, convinced that love is not the course for her, and Heath, who has little in his mind beyond how to save his family’s ancestral home. The added touch here is that of course Heath saw Margaret years ago and was captivated by her beauty, so finding her in the midst of a carriage wreck is not the first time he’s confronted by her.
I really liked this romance, though; I think sometimes the curse makes it a bit too convenient for the couple to be together, but they have chemistry. It just means that the author can write that they feel as though they’re meant to be together while still having it work within the plot, rather than either of them ever really having serious doubts about their relationship. It’s fortunate that the couple works, because I think it could easily have felt forced. The magic element isn’t too bad, either. Again, it’s something that could have felt off very easily, but it works well within the context of the book.
A quick, engaging read, The Devil’s Heart is a good choice for historical romance fans who don’t mind a little bit of magic in with their love stories. I would recommend checking out the first two books too, though, as it’s very nice to get the back story to these characters before we find out how the curse is resolved.
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George is living out the fairly boring life of a middle-aged divorced “good guy” until one night he hears a strange noise outside his house. He finds a crane, her wing pierced by an arrow; he saves her and she flies away. The next day, a beautiful, somehow old fashioned woman called Kumiko appears outside his print shop, and he falls in love with her almost immediately. George’s adult daughter, Amanda, is mystified and somewhat jealous, living out her own life as a single mother with a small child and feeling as though she’s never quite fit in. In small, significant ways, Kumiko starts to change their lives, but never quite lets them into her own.
A re-telling of a Japanese folk tale, The Crane Wife felt to me like an odd mix of beauty and disappointment. In parts of the book, like the actual stories of the tiles, I felt that I could feel the gorgeous writing and meaning I’d found in Patrick Ness’s other works shine through. In most of the book, though, I felt disappointment, as something I’d expected to love fell apart with every page.
Perhaps this book just fell prey to the fact that I really don’t much like stories set in the “real world”. I may be the only person who just didn’t appreciate the fact that George is relieving himself in the middle of the night when he hears the crane on the very first pages of the book. I can, in a way, see how Ness was trying to juxtapose the ordinary with the fantastic, by bringing George right into our world with one of humanity’s most basic needs alongside the crane’s mysterious call and appeal. I can see that, but it’s something that I wasn’t looking for, and so the book hit a wrong note with me immediately.
Plus, the book is insistent on the fact that George is a good, nice guy. He’s one of these nice guys who seems to vaguely feel like the world owes him something for being nice; he has infinite female friends but he’s just too nice for any of them to love him, and his ex-wife actually says this in the course of the book. I don’t like this stereotype; the world doesn’t owe anyone anything and I actually think that there are plenty of women who would love a nice guy (I married one, after all). I also felt that, as the book went on, he actually proved more or less that he wasn’t really that nice a guy.
Much of the book also felt a little bit like it was trying too hard to say something meaningful. Patrick Ness’s other books are incredible and subtle; A Monster Calls affected me so much that I never actually managed to write anything about it because if anything I felt too much. With this book, I honestly just felt distanced from the characters and the story, almost as though I could see how the weaving was meant to affect me without it actually happening.
That’s not to say it’s all bad; I found some beautiful passages within the book, and I almost felt as though the interludes about the woman and the volcano could have worked as a short story on their own. Here’s one that I marked:
Her hand is raised, ready to fall, ready to end this torment, which she will admit, if only to herself, is as bad for her as it has ever been for him. She loves him and it is impossible. She hates him and that is impossible, too. She cannot be with him. She cannot be without him. And both are burningly, simultaneously true in a way that grinds the cliché into dust. (210)
I actually appreciated the message that we need to trust, to believe that those we love will love us back. But I think some of the meaning of the book slipped through the cracks for me.
I wanted to love this book, but it just didn’t happen, and in the end, I feel more disappointed by that than anything else.
I received this book for free for review.
Princess Harueme has lived her life in the shadow of Japanese emperors. In the winter of her years, though, she needs to leave court and head to a convent, where she already knows she will die. Compelled to fill empty notebooks, Harueme begins telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a cat who has lost her family and her fudoki due to a horrible fire in the middle of her city. As the story progresses, Harueme intertwines the tale of her own life with Kagaya-hime’s, and we slowly learn about these two women and their individual struggles.
I never doubt Ana when she recommends a book and this is one I can specifically trace back to her recommendation. I could not resist the idea of this cat-turned-woman story. Even so, as with so many books, it sat on my wishlist until a friend bought it for me, and then I finally read it – and, of course, I loved it. It immediately drew me in with the tale of a tortoiseshell cat who loses her entire family and just barely survives the fire; it’s sad, but poignantly written, and it felt just pitch-perfect. The book remains just that perfectly and magnificently written.
This story of intertwined women shines so brightly and has so many things to say about life that I’m not even sure I can review it properly. It’s one of those books that illuminates things that I hadn’t necessarily thought about, but in a way that stuck me as perfect.
Perhaps some quotes can illustrate this better than I can:
What man, what lost love or deceased kinsman is worth death? The space in my life that my half-brother once filled is now an aching icy pain, like the hole left after a tooth is pulled, and I am dying in weeks or months – and yet I still fight for life, as every mouse does, until the final beak-blow. The grace in tragedy is not to succumb, but to fight on. (87-88)
It’s such a beautiful book. I loved the format with the story of the two women, I loved Kagaya-hime’s cat-like sensibilities, I loved Harueme’s thoughtful reflections on her life gone by. It’s a book to make me wish I was more articulate so I could explain better just why it appealed to me. I haven’t read The Fox Woman which is Johnson’s first book, but I wish that I had, as I’ve read that the books are connected in small ways. In a way, though, I’m glad, because it’s an excuse to read this book again.
Domei once told me that he missed war.
“How can you?” I asked, shocked.
He was drunk and more candid than usual: he slurred as he spoke. ” I have never had such good friends.”
“You are surrounded by people who love you,” I said, “and no one is dying here.” How could war be better than this? Than me?
“We are all dying,” he said. “We just forget that when nothing is trying to kill us.” (233)
Very highly recommended.
Seraphina has spent much of her life refusing friendships and hiding herself from those who might get close to her. Why? Because she is half dragon, would be considered an abomination by almost everyone she knows, and cherishes her relative freedom from prejudice and prosecution. The love between her parents was forbidden and she has already overstepped her bounds slightly by taking a job in the royal court, helping with the orchestra and giving the Princess Grisselda music lessons. The peace between dragons and humans is an uneasy one, however, particularly when dragons can take human form, indistinguishable from real humans if they fail to wear their bells. Both dragons and humans are wary, and it would take just one powerful rebel to tip the balance.
Seraphina is a book that completely surprised me. I don’t know why – I bought it because I’d seen many praising reviews of it around the blogosphere, so I knew, objectively, that I might like it. But subjectively, it didn’t actually appeal to me that much. I didn’t feel like reading a book about dragons, the cover didn’t broadcast to me that I would like it (although why I’m not sure – on a closer look it’s actually lovely), and YA is not my favorite genre. I bought it when it was on the Kindle Daily Deal, as something that I knew I should try, but had no particular plan to read it. And then I was on the train on Friday, I’d finished the last book I was reading (Widow’s Web by Jennifer Estep), which had ended on a slightly low note, and I just had no idea which book I wanted to read next. For whatever reason, Seraphina called to me then, so I opened it.
It wasn’t even love at first few pages. In fact, I found it difficult to get into, and if I wasn’t sitting on train with nothing else appealing to me much, I might have wandered over to my bookshelves and chosen something else. But I stuck with it, because I had twenty minutes to fill. And then I fell in love with it, and found myself absolutely glued to the Kindle until I finished. I loved it even more because it blind-sided me and I expected not to like it; instead I found an absolute gem. The book has a fantastic, multi-layered world, deep characters, and a plot that races along and managed to surprise me at the end.
I simply adored Seraphina. I loved that the book took prejudice head-on and showed that this tough, brave, sensitive, clever, gifted girl is someone that most of the population around her would hate if they knew her true nature. They adore her, but how easily that could change, and how worried she is despite that affection – this is a worry that is justified but this book is a perfect example of how well fantasy can teach us about our world, too. I even loved how Lucian Kiggs, another significant character in the book, shares some stigma with Seraphina because he’s a bastard, but in a totally different way. We could also talk about how much I loved the romance and how utterly perfect it was, but that really just capped off a book that was already spectacular.
This is the book I wish I’d read instead of all of those disappointing YA fantasy books I did read. Highly, highly recommended.
Mary Mallon is an Irish immigrant simply doing her best to get by in a difficult world. At the turn of the twentieth century, few jobs are open to older women, but Mary has found her calling as a cook. By the time she hits her fifth decade, Mary has cooked for some of Manhattan’s most prominent families. But sickness follows her everywhere she goes, though she barely realizes it; after cooking for a few weeks, the family is inevitably hit by an illness that kills one or more of them. Mary never puts together the pieces, but others do, and soon she’s accused of spreading typhoid around New York and killing two dozen people.
Like many people, I’d heard of “Typhoid Mary” before; Mary Mallon was the case which helped doctors realize that seemingly healthy people could be carriers of illnesses. Imprisoned for a large chunk of her life to prevent her from spreading typhoid, Mary’s case spawned the discovery of numerous other healthy carriers and spurred us towards hygiene controls that prevent diseases spreading in quite the same way. But I’d never really thought about Mary as a person before, or what it must have felt like to realize that you’d been spreading illness when you really just wanted to make a living and cooking delicious food.
That’s the dilemma that faces Keane’s fictional version of Mary. While she’s convinced – at first – that she could never be the cause of the harm that has befallen these families, that little niggling doubt enters her mind. But that doubt isn’t enough for her to give up her livelihood, and that’s what Mary Mallon ends up imprisoned when others with her condition are allowed to go free, just not to spread their illnesses. What Keane does is give us a woman who is surprisingly convincing in her decisions, even when they’re bad. We can see how she fell into getting in trouble, how the doubts preyed on her mind but she refused to believe them, and even why she kept on working and making people sick.
When I first picked up this book, I was a little bit perplexed; very shortly after the beginning of the book, Mary is imprisoned and caught for her “crimes”, and goes fighting all the way. It seemed as though there was no real lead-up and no background, but what actually happens is that the background comes later. We understand her past in the context of her future, which was a great way to actually structure the book for those who might not know who “Typhoid Mary” was. It gives us context and only later do we see how she actually became a cook and fought for that job, understanding the background of the story once we get an idea of where it’s going. Towards the end of the book, chronological events fall back into order, and thus we finish it with a full sense of who Mary is.
I really enjoyed this book; it put a catch phrase and person on the fringes of my knowledge into full perspective and delivered a great story at the same time. I’d definitely recommend Fever to those interested in historical fiction.
All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.
Catherine the Great is an iconic female monarch, known even to those who have never glanced at Russian history. Her reign ushered in something of a golden age for much of Russia, symbolized by cultural and physical expansion, the effects of which were felt for decades after her reign had concluded. In this biography of Catherine, Robert K. Massie covers the entirety of her life, from her origins as a relatively modest German daughter of a prince, through her disastrous marriage to the heir to the Russian throne, until her death as one of Russia’s greatest rulers.
Massie’s biography looks intimidating, at almost 600 pages long in hardcover in my edition, but his narrative of the flow of Catherine’s life is incredibly smooth and easy to read. I actually managed to read a lot in one sitting and in parts it could almost read like fiction, which makes this a very accessible non-fiction read. I can imagine most readers enjoying this if they have an interest in imperial Russia and Catherine’s long reign. Massie also makes Catherine easy to relate to; he draws from her letters and her own memoirs to try and build her character and explore how she might have been feeling through her life.
I didn’t like that there seemed to be little connection to Massie’s sources aside from the originals, though, and the notes aren’t marked in the text, which I didn’t like either. A lot of the start of the book is based on Catherine’s memoirs, which means that we have to take her word for the way that things happened, and I’d have liked some sort of evidence of external sources corroborating what she says. In reality Massie consulted a lot of sources, but it’s really hard to see what’s coming from where. It made it difficult for me at least to trust what he was saying.
That said, though, I liked how comprehensive this book was and how well it was structured. It roughly follows Catherine’s life chronologically as the book is separated into sections, but each chapter within those sections tends to deal with just one subject. This made it very easy to follow what was happening in Catherine’s life at any given time, but also allowed the author to delve deeper into each subject. As I said earlier, it’s very easy to feel sympathy for Catherine, and the frequent quoting from her memoirs and letters helps us as readers feel as though we are actually learning about the real woman. Because Massie starts at the beginning of her life, we can understand some of the motivations she’s had for later actions. In addition, Massie never passes judgement on her for any of her actions, which makes him a valuable biographer for a woman who often gains undeserved negative press for the number of “favorites” she had (when male monarchs did the same without any note).
He follows the shifts in her political focus easily, too, and traces how the relative enlightened idealism of her youth is crushed by the realities of ruling a country, an aspect of the book that I found particularly fascinating. But again, he doesn’t pass judgement on her; he doesn’t judge her for her inability to free Russia’s serfs, for her eventual censoring of the press after the French Revolution, or for any of her other political actions which don’t particularly match up with current beliefs. Catherine’s actions were not always ones that we would agree with, but Massie leaves it to readers to decide, without attempting to influence them. I found this quite valuable.
A riveting biography, Catherine the Great is a complete picture of the last, and greatest, female monarch of Russia. For anyone who enjoys history, this book would be an exceptional choice.
All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.
The count and countess of Provence had four daughters. A normal medieval family might have been disappointed that they didn’t have any sons, but not this one, because not only can these girls inherit, they can also be manuevered into place to become queens of countries across Europe. Marguerite is first, sent away to marry the French king, where she finds herself dominated by her mother-in-law and unable to exercise her own intellect. Then Eleanore is escorted to cold and rainy England to marry the “old” English king Henry III. Beatrice and Sanchia don’t gain their status as queen until well after marriage, but each have a husband chosen to benefit the family. Throughout their lives, the sisters work together and sometimes against one another, whether or not they choose to obey the family motto, “Family comes first”.
For me, this book got off to an excellent start. I liked the relationship between the sisters as they were young, and the different ways that each sister adapts to her new life as a married woman. Because of the difference in ages, the marriages are staggered, so for a good portion of the first half of the book events are new and fresh. Each sister grows up and adapts to her marriage and husband differently, so that we get a great feel for each of their personalities and their struggles. It’s also nice to read something which focuses so clearly on the relationships between powerful siblings in a historical context and how ambition can put a huge wrench in the best of intentions.
Unfortunately, after the sisters were all married and settled, as often happens, the book started to lag. I can never really blame the author in these situations because, quite frankly, most women’s lives in this period, even those of queens, had the same cycle of pregnancy and birth which (for me at least) just doesn’t make for that exciting a story. In general, a queen gets pregnant, has a baby, and then hands the baby off to someone else. Occasionally one of them is separated from and then longs for her children, and Marguerite in particular has a dramatic time going off on Crusade for years and saving her incompetent husband, but I think the whole book lost a little bit and I struggled to get back to it. Plus, because there are four sisters, there are a number of scenes where the sisters get together and fight about various things, all of them being stubborn and none giving any ground. Beatrice is the main culprit here, as she spends most of the book longing for her sisters’ love and trying to win it and then coming up against a wall. It felt repetitive, even though there were still things going on in the wider plot.
I also think the book suffered because Eleanore and Marguerite were the more interesting queens – Sanchia and Beatrice married younger brothers who took crowns elsewhere and it is fairly clear that they hadn’t done much which was significant or left a huge historical record. The author’s hands are tied in these cases, of course.
Perhaps my expectations were too high, but Four Sisters, All Queens left me a bit cold after a promising start. Still a good prospect for someone who is looking for a book about powerful women and the relationships between them in medieval Europe.
I received this book for free for review.