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Review: My Notorious Life by Madame X, Kate Manning

my notorious lifeAnn “Axie” Muldoon is an Irish girl poor in money but rich in family, with a mother and two beloved siblings. When she, Dutch, and Joe meet a philanthropist intent on saving children, she finds her young life spiralling deeper into poverty, this time without the people she loves, as her brother and sister are left behind in Illinois with adoptive parents. Now an orphan, Axie is taken in by a doctor and midwife, learning a trade that will rescue her from the poorhouse but set her up for an infamy her young mind can’t imagine.

Loosely inspired by the life of Ann Trow Lohman and set in mid-nineteenth-century New York City, My Notorious Life by Madame X is a brilliant historical novel rooted in actual fact. While Ann Muldoon didn’t exist in real life, children were taken from their parents in New York City and sent to the midwest to be adopted. Midwives – particularly those who performed abortions – were persecuted for the smallest of visible crimes, as was anyone doing anything perceived immoral in a similar way by the male lawmakers of the time. And Ann Trow Lohman did make an absolute fortune as Madame Restell, midwife and seller of contraceptive medicines under a different name. These historical events, combined with Manning’s gripping storytelling and evocative scene-setting, resulted in an excellent read.

Though Axie is a midwife, her practice is secondary to the relationships that make this novel. This is not only with Charlie, her husband, but with her mother, the midwife who teaches her the trade, the cook who cares for her, her only friend as a girl, her lost brother and sister, and finally the women she cares for and helps in desperate circumstances. Throughout the novel it’s clear that she firmly believes that she is doing right by these women, helping many of them out of a situation they cannot handle, or doing her best to help them avoid pregnancy altogether. As a modern reader it seems obvious that her medicines won’t always do the job she’s advertising, but she doesn’t know that, and she sticks fiercely by the women she’s caring for even at risk to herself, more than once. This, combined with her vulnerability, made me love her. She’s by no means perfect, struggling constantly with the idea that people might love her and pushing against them as a result, and she certainly does some things I wouldn’t personally agree with, but she’s strong, loyal, and ultimately admirable.

Axie also gives women early term abortions, which is discussed in detail. She is a midwife, first and foremost, but it is certainly a huge component of her working life, because women need her for so many reasons. They are too poor to feed another child. They have been raped. Their lover, who was full of compliments and kind words, will not marry them. Their families will disown them and they will live on the street. She says that she wishes the men persecuting her for helping women found themselves in some of the same situations that the pregnant women who approach her do; she’s certain that if that was the case then laws would be different. How depressingly little has changed in this respect in many parts of the world, even with the advent of birth control and women’s rights, which makes this novel resonate even more strongly with a modern reader.

And then there is Axie’s relationship with Charlie, which is never easy but had my romance-reading heart in thrall to the book more than once. From the rooftop of an orphan train to a prison cell to a 5th avenue mansion, their love story is never boring and, although it isn’t the focal point of the novel, so well done.

This book was so much more than I was expecting – a deeply powerful, fantastic novel which reminds me once again that I do love historical fiction. Well worth reading and highly recommended.

I received this book for free for review. All external book links are affiliate links.

Book Thoughts: Beatrice and Benedick, Marina Fiorato

beatrice and benedickWe might all know the ending to the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, but how did they meet? Throughout the play it’s clear they have a history and Marina Fiorato has taken it upon herself to imagine what that history might be. From their first summer together through the ten years it takes them to reunite, this is a love story woven in and around Shakespeare’s wonderful play.

Much Ado About Nothing is the first play that taught me that Shakespeare could be for me. It was the first Shakespearean play I’d ever seen performed live by professionals (there have been more now, I assure you). I went to see it in the Globe, with a group of friends I had never met before. It was amazing. I loved the entire experience and it’s something I simply can’t get enough of. So it’s entirely possible that this book had a little too much to live up to and maybe it isn’t surprise that I didn’t like it all that much.

My previous experience with Marina Fiorat0’s books hasn’t been the most positive, either. I read The Glassblower of Murano a few years ago and while it was okay, it didn’t blow me away. I feel similarly about Beatrice and Benedick. I would probably not have picked this up on my own as a result, but it arrived as an unsolicited review copy. The book itself is beautiful (yep, I judged a book by its cover) and the connection with the play made it something I chose to read and looked forward to. To be perfectly honest, the book didn’t really capture me until we got to the part Shakespeare had already written – and it’s not always the best idea to mess with someone that is already so wonderful. The misunderstanding that leads to their separation was certainly Shakespearean in nature, but it frustrated me, using a common theme of two romance characters failing to talk to each other as a reason for years of suffering.

There’s also that awkward juxtaposition between the years-long story of the main characters meeting and the very few days that make up the play, as usual with Shakespeare. It just doesn’t fit together that well. The pacing feels off and rushed in the latter half because the author suddenly has to speed up the pace of events, instead of spreading them out over a summer or several years. There might be a reason there aren’t many novelizations of Shakespearean plays.

Overall, I felt it was okay, a book I didn’t mind reading, but not a book that will stay with me as I know the play will. Perhaps I shouldn’t compare, as it’s a different medium, but it is hard to come up against Shakespeare and not be found wanting.

I received this book for free for review.

Review: Red Winter, Dan Smith

red winterKolya is a deserter. He and his brother have left their Red Army unit, disgusted and uncomfortable with the atrocities they have been committing in Russia in 1920. On the way back to his family, Kolya’s brother Alec dies, and Kolya lives for nothing but the chance to spend the rest of his life with his wife and children. But the village is empty. There is no sign of anyone, no hint of what’s happened to them except a legend told by an old woman. Kolya sets off on a desperate trek to find them, through frozen wilderness and into the heart of the army he left behind.

This landed on my doorstep as an unsolicited review copy with a cover that, to be perfectly honest, didn’t appeal to me all that much (okay, not at all). Nor did the cover slogan, “The only thing that matters is blood”, and I think both are doing the novel a huge disservice. I decided to read it because the description sounded interesting and because I’ve been fascinated with Russian history for more than half of my life. The decision I made was the correct one, because behind the bland cover and needlessly violent words was a book that I genuinely enjoyed.

First of all, the setting. Russian wilderness in the grip of coming winter leaps out from the page. The season is perfectly chosen – winter is choking the countryside just as suspicion gone mad is choking the people with fear. Everything feels cold, closed-off, and terrifying. Smith’s writing helps this come alive; it’s easy to be really scared for these characters because there is no hint of what might happen next. Anyone could be an enemy, even your friend, because that’s exactly the attitude that the leaders are using to scare the many, many peasants into submission.

Kolya himself is an excellent character. He’s committed many wrongs and justified them in his head, just like all of the other soldiers, but he wants to make things right. He has finally seen what matters in his life and when he goes to find it, he can’t. It could drive him mad but instead it makes him more determined, although tinged with an edge of despair. I liked both the idea that Kolya was redeeming himself and his admirable drive to find his family. He doesn’t try to do everything; he’s not a superman. He just wants to save the people he cares about, and to me this seems a very human reaction. We perhaps would all like to end every atrocity in the world, but at this point he has to understand what is and isn’t possible and accept it. And this is why the sentence on the cover annoys me – what really makes Kolya move is his family, not “blood”. I worried about what happened to them for him.

The story itself is well-paced. Endless trudging through a frozen forest could have easily become boring, but the actual journey keeps throwing obstacles in Kolya’s way, both good and bad ones, that help inform his plan. It probably does qualify as a thriller, with plenty of exciting scenes and a few fights, but the overall impression the book gave me was quieter than that. Its strengths were in the cold, quiet nights, the air of suspicion and uncertainty, the crunch of hooves moving through a freezing, silent forest.

In conclusion, I really liked Red Winter. I would suggest it to those who enjoy historical fiction, especially if you’re interested like me in the dangerous times when societies are changing or in Russia.

I received this book for free for review consideration.

Review: A God in Every Stone, Kamila Shamsie

a god in every stoneIn July 1914, Vivian Rose Spencer is a twenty-two year old young woman who has finally been given permission to go on her first archaeological expedition. In the shadow of coming war, she falls in love and is forced back to England, where her life seems on hold until she’s not sure how it can continue. At the same time, Qayyum Gul is fighting in the war, losing an eye at Ypres. He and Vivian meet once, unaware how their lives will change around each other, until fifteen years later their fates are united again in the search for a historic artifact and a second fight for independence.

This review has been difficult to start writing. I didn’t feel the way I expected to after reading this book. Burnt Shadows was powerful. It left an impression on me and it took a long time to get out of my head. I mean, I read it nearly five years ago and I still have feelings about it. By contrast, I finished A God in Every Stone towards the end of July and I’m struggling to recall any feelings I had towards it besides indifference.

I think part of the reason I didn’t appreciate it so much was because I didn’t get on very well with the main character. Viv irritated me. Unfortunately I think I am one of those readers who generally has to at least sympathize a little bit with the main characters in a book to actually enjoy the book itself; this isn’t always the case, but I couldn’t really recover from a decision she makes towards the beginning of the book. The very beginning of the book seemed like it would be perfect for me – an archaeological expedition, a burgeoning love story, and the shifting uncertainty caused by the approach of war. Because Viv’s expedition is comprised of her and Turks and Germans, I initially thought this would be a book which demonstrated how people are just people, no matter what country they come from.

It kind of is, but doesn’t really get there. The characters in the book are certainly people with all the flaws inherent in that and I spent most of the end of the book worrying about the fate of one particular character, but I suppose in the end it just didn’t connect with me. Which is a shame, because a lot of people seem to think highly of it. Shamsie is a beautiful, skilled writer with a real talent for getting into her character’s minds and evoking atmosphere. It makes me feel as though I missed something, but for me it did fall short. As you can probably tell, it’s difficult to articulate just why, and I don’t think I’ve succeeded in this review.

I would still look forward to Kamila Shamsie’s next book with eagerness, but I would recommend Burnt Shadows before A God in Every Stone.

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Review: Hild, Nicola Griffith

hildSeventh century Britain is a harsh world, comprised of petty kings and their domains, haunted by the frequent spectre of war. Little Hild is born into this world as the daughter of a prince, her mother prophesying before her birth that she will be the light of the world. But Hild’s father dies when she is only a child, throwing her world into uncertainty. Her mother, and then she, schemes to keep their rightful place, and Hild becomes a seer for her uncle, King of Northumbria. Not only does she have to handle difficult and uneasy politics, but she also has to deal with the regular struggles of any young girl growing into a woman.

The author for this book has done a lot of research into the period and it shows. She freely admits that she’s completely made up the vast majority of Hild’s story – it is fiction, after all – but the surroundings and the life that Hild lives are entirely possible for a girl in seventh century Britain. She is the seer of just one petty king in a Britain full of them. They each hold one piece of what is now a whole, but that is not treated as a foregone conclusion in the slightest. I liked reading about some of the smaller kingdoms, including Alt Clud, which was actually in Vanished Kingdoms, a book I found incredibly interesting nearly a year ago, about kingdoms and provinces in Europe that have since been forgotten.

As for Hild, all this means is that she has to keep Edwin’s favor but at the same time weigh what might happen if one of the other kings surge in power and she’s no stranger to battle. Because she is a seer, and not just the king’s niece, she has to endure a huge amount of danger and uncertainty.

At the same time, though, Hild is very clearly a teenage girl, and even though the world she lives in doesn’t at all resemble our own, she’s easy to relate to. This book really spans her childhood, from when she can’t even speak to the moment when she becomes a woman and in charge of her own destiny – at least, as much as she possibly could be. She grows and we understand where she’s come from and where she thinks she’s going, even when she’s not sure.

This book’s storyline spans the conversion of Christianity, which I found fascinating. The bishop, Paulinus, is a missionary and it’s his job to convert Hild’s people. The king in Kent is of course the first to be converted and then Christianity spreads across the island. The book thus has to deal with the reconciliation of pagan beliefs with Christianity; how to get these people to decide to be baptised and then how to compromise in order to keep them Christian. Hild doesn’t stop being the king’s seer even when she has to be baptised. She remarks with surprise at the time that she hasn’t burned and she’s still herself and her visions are given just as much credence as they were before. She still fits, even though the world around her is changing and adapting.

I read Hild slowly – it’s not a fast read – but it’s a book worth spending time with. Hild’s world is very unlike our own and it takes some getting used to, but the reward is an intricate, cleverly written story and a worthy heroine as its star. Recommended, especially for those who already enjoy historical fiction.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Review: Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims, Toby Clements

kingmakerIt’s 1460. Katherine is a young nun, caught outside her English priory by a group of rampaging knights during the Wars of the Roses. Her life is saved by a slightly older monk, Thomas, but her reputation isn’t. Not only has she spoken to a man, but her closest friend has died under suspicious circumstances, and Katherine finds herself expelled from the priory. Under related circumstances, so does Thomas, and these two young people find themselves with nothing and nowhere to go in the middle of a bloody civil war, fleeing from a knight whose mission is to kill them.

We’ve reached a bit of a saturation point with the Wars of the Roses, or at least I have. There are so very many books floating around about the Woodvilles, Richard III, Edward IV, the Princes in the Tower that it’s actually overwhelming, and no longer all that interesting in fiction. These royals have been considered from virtually every angle and it can seem like there isn’t anywhere new for fiction writers to go. Clements goes completely against that trend and focuses his novel on two ordinary people instead, who are simply caught up in what is wreaked by those who rule. In doing so, he creates something that is much more innovative and, ultimately, retains its interest in an over-saturated market.

In altering his focus, Clements allows us to take a completely different perspective on the war. Thomas and Katherine don’t really care who wins the war. They don’t even know what’s going on sometimes, though they do know the man who’s caused all of their troubles. They do their fair share of fighting and they even meet some of those figures about whom so many authors write. But this is a more personal struggle, viewed from a different level. They’re loyal to minor lords and it’s a member of the minor nobility who plagues them throughout the book. Everything else is more or less incidental, even though they travel across the Channel and back and feature in a few of the major battles fought during the war.

Both characters are sympathetic; I especially liked Katherine, but I wanted both of them to survive and thrive as best they could. Their personal struggles can easily strike a chord with readers; both have to find their way in a world outside the priory. They had assumed they would be there for their entire lives, but instead find themselves not only in a war but challenged with moral questions they never expected to encounter. The responsibility for killing people, the exposure to an outside world of sin, the fight for revenge; it’s very human.

Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims took me a while to read because it’s fairly long, but I enjoyed it, getting wrapped up in their struggles and experiencing a little more what the other side of the Wars of the Roses would have been like. Recommended.

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review consideration.

Review: The Chalice, Nancy Bilyeau

the chaliceJoanna Stafford has been cast out of Dartford Priory with her fellow novices and nuns thanks to the dissolution of the monasteries, but she’s still attempting to live quietly with her five-year-old cousin, Arthur. Fate won’t let her, though; an unexpected visit with relations who have been restored to prominence embroils Joanna in a plot that threatens the very heart of the nation. Even as she attempts to move past her previous life with a man who loves her, she can’t escape the threads of prophecy that wind themselves tighter and tighter as England’s future grows murky.

When I started this book, I’d somehow missed that it was a second book in a series – my own fault for not reading summaries or synopsis of any kind! The author does a good job of filling us in on the missing history, but I would highly recommend reading The Crown first so you don’t miss anything even if by accident.

That aside, though, I really liked this book, to my surprise as generally Tudor fiction doesn’t do it for me any more. Joanna is great as a main character and has a perspective unlike any that I’d read before. She has two struggles in this book; the first is against the prophecy which attempts to dictate her life and the second is to actually find what that life should be after her life in the priory. She’s a very religious girl by nature and by education and her inclinations in that way color her interactions with other people.

I liked the way that the prophecy was interwoven into the story. One of the things that is difficult to grasp for a modern mindset is that, in the medieval period at least, “magic” was often stuck in with religion without people struggling to differentiate between the two. I think this is starting to change at this point in time, but the prophecies around Joanna don’t really conflict with her faith. The messages from the prophets are a gift, not a curse, although Joanna grapples with what they actually mean she must do. The implications of them are interesting albeit extremely unlikely from a historical perspective.

Probably the only thing that annoyed me about this particular book was the love interests. Joanna is clearly a novice in the ways of love as she is with the church, and she never expected to have romantic contact with men. The dissolution of the monasteries changed all that. Joanna is now not only beautiful, but she’s an eligible romantic interest, and two men have feelings for her; Geoffrey Scoville and Brother Edmund, a former monk. Because I had no real background without reading The Crown, I wasn’t able to see how these relationships developed, and I think that affected how I perceived them in this book. Plus, I felt like one in particular pretty much forced himself at her more than once when she wasn’t too thrilled about it, which meant I was not his biggest fan.

Still, though, I really enjoyed reading The Chalice and I can only imagine that I’d have liked it even more if I’d read The Crown, too. I definitely recommend that you start there, but it looks like Nancy Bilyeau is an author to watch.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Review: One Night in Winter, Simon Sebag Montefiore

one night in winterAndrei Kurbsky’s father was exiled to a labor camp and he and his mother have spent the last few years in Stalinabad. In 1945 Russia, everyone is under suspicion, and with Andrei’s chequered family history, it seems like a small miracle that he’s been accepted into Moscow’s top school – where Stalin’s own children were educated. Andrei finds himself rubbing shoulders with the children of film stars and top governmental officials, developing a crush on a girl called Serafima, who is one of the most sought-after teenagers in the school. He is swept into the Romantics Club, where several of the students re-enact scenes from Eugene Onegin, one of Pushkin’s most famous plays. But when two of the teens end up dead, Andrei, Serafima, and their friends, just children, land in Lubyanka prison, subject to the brutal interrogation methods that could end up destroying them and their entire families.

If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to have the state watch your every move, and arrest you on the slightest provocation, this book is one to read. It perfectly evokes the atmosphere of suspense and suspicion that haunted every single person in Moscow and in the rest of the Soviet Union. Any false move – even one that isn’t false – and prison awaited, along with the potential for exile to a labor camp where many suffered, including in this book Andrei’s father. For an idea of what this was like, I’d go read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – unforgettable. But this book covers instead the questioning, the wondering, and the suspense. No one was immune, not even these children.

Montefiore has written previous histories of Stalinist Russia, including biographies of the man himself, so he’s clearly done his research on the period which makes it easier to trust what he says. This is a surprisingly suspenseful novel; it’s easy to genuinely worry about Serafima, Andrei, and the other teens and children who find themselves in prison without being quite sure what they’ve done. The back story is revealed slowly, so we know Serafima has a secret from nearly the beginning of the book but aren’t sure what it is.

What I really liked in particular was the contrast between the children’s and some of their teacher’s love for what might be termed old Russian culture and the suspicious, derelict city of Moscow. Russia is still suffering the effects of the war and Stalin’s paranoia only increases as he ages; meanwhile in school, the teens admire the romance of Pushkin’s poetry and adore the teacher who shows them how life in the country used to be.

I really liked One Night in Winter; it’s a readable, tense, suspenseful account of what life may have been like during Stalin’s dictatorship. It has multiple threads of romance and mystery throughout, as well as a sincere homage to Russian culture. Recommended.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Review: The Arrow of Sherwood, Lauren Johnson

the arrow of sherwoodWhen Robin, Lord Locksley, arrives home from four years on Crusade, his family is astonished. His fiancée has become engaged to someone else, his mother has re-married a sheriff, and his estates have become entrusted to his young nephew, who has become the ward of the Viponts, one of the most dangerous families in Nottingham. They believed he was dead. Alive, he has to fight to regain what should be his by right. In doing so, he realizes that the Vipont family has been mistreating many of the lowborn families he grew up with; taxes are extremely high and the Viponts are closely allied to the Count of Mortmain, or John, King Richard I’s younger brother, who rules the country while his elder sibling is imprisoned in Germany. Justice is subverted and new laws are created to benefit the lords, not those who suffer under their leadership. Robin is convinced that something needs to be done, and as a lord without any of the benefits of lordship, perhaps he’s the one to do it.

The Arrow of Sherwood is written by a trained historian and it really shows in the best possible ways in this book. There are details which make it clear that this isn’t a tale of modern people in fancy old dresses or a gritty hack-and-slash which shows that the Middle Ages must have been brutal; instead, it’s somewhere in the middle, with scenes at court and scenes of battle and thievery. Johnson recaptures what sort of person Robin Hood might have actually been and the book’s realism, in my eyes, is a huge selling point and definitely set it apart. It’s also a bonus that this isn’t a book about the Tudors or the Plantagenets; it’s a realistic re-imagining of a legend and for that I couldn’t help but appreciate it hugely.

The book is well-written and takes us through Robin’s journey, which is fraught with twists and turns as he struggles with the almost insurmountable authority of the Vipont family. The book gives a really good idea of how much local families were stuck with each other; there are only so many people who have authority within a given region and if one person is higher up, that’s it for everyone else. Justice was a red hot iron pushed into your hand; if it was infected, you were guilty, and if it wasn’t, you were innocent.

The only issue I had with it was actually understanding the feasibility of the set-up behind Robin’s rescued prisoners. Towards the middle of the book we essentially have an entire “hundred” of people in a forest, masked as a leper colony, but one that no one ever finds except a couple of peasants and Marian and Elaine. In addition, Robin is juggling double identities and really doesn’t seem to lie very well. I had a difficult time believing he’d be able to keep the secrets with which he is entrusted and I didn’t understand why none of the Viponts ever think to follow Robin on his travels like some of the more minor characters do. The set-up seemed too convenient, although perhaps this is again just my modern brain not actually understanding the scale of a forest.

Definitely recommended for those who enjoy fiction set in the Middle Ages and, even though Robin Hood is a well-known legend, for something a bit different than the masses out there.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Review: The King’s Damsel, Kate Emerson

the king's damselYoung Tamsin Lodge, heiress, is sent from the arms of her loving stepmother into the tumultuous world of the Tudor court as a teenager. She quickly realizes that her best option to progress in life is not to mourn for what she’s lost, but to seize the opportunity to gain the influence of powerful people. Her guardian places her as a lady of honor to Princess Mary, who Tamsin grows to love, but as the dynamics of power at court shift, Tamsin has to choose her loyalties carefully and decide what’s best for herself, her family, and her kingdom.

The King’s Damsel is a book that should appeal immensely to fans of historical fiction. It’s a richly written, intriguing story of a fictional girl trying to make her way best through a very hostile Tudor court. She’s hampered by her own ignorance, due to her upbringing, but she’s earnest and she tries hard to make a difference. She encounters a huge number of genuine historical figures and indeed has some basis in historical fact. Unfortunately, it was not a book that I personally enjoyed very much, due to three reasons.

The first, which is most certainly not the book’s fault, is that I still haven’t recovered any sort of desire to read fiction about the Tudor court. I overdid this years ago and it seems the desire to actually read these books has not come back. There are a few works of historical fiction which have risen above this, but I didn’t find this to be one of them.

The second is the fact that the back cover gives away practically all of the story, which I’ve actually omitted from my own summary above. I really dislike when this happens; a crucial plot point in the last third of the book really shouldn’t be on the back cover. I’m guessing someone, somewhere thought the book wouldn’t be as appealing to potential readers without this detail, but I spent most of the first 2/3 of the book waiting for that to happen.

The third reason is that I didn’t really get on board with the romance, which seemed too cursory and unrealistic given the actual status of the people involved. I wasn’t really convinced by it, and it didn’t help much that the book skipped years with mostly not much happening. I understand that maybe much didn’t happen, but it didn’t help power the book along at all, and it was a little hard to imagine how a romance happened if the key figures only saw each other once a year. A year is a long time.

The book is only 300 or so pages long and took me 5 days to read, which for me kind of demonstrates how disinterested I was in it. A lot of that probably isn’t the book’s fault – looking elsewhere, it’s had pretty good reviews. It is likely that this book, and this series, might suit someone who is still keen on Tudor historical fiction. But that someone isn’t me.

I received this book for free for review.