Historical Fiction: Beheld, by TaraShea Nesbit

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ of 5

Was there a murder on the Mayflower? Maybe. But without doubt, a murder did occur in Plymouth Colony, ten years after its founding. That crime is the vehicle upon which TaraShea Nesbit builds a story that blows America’s long standing myths about the “godly” Pilgrims clear out of the water.

Nesbit’s two protagonists are women, Alice, the wife of Governor William Bradford, and Eleanor, married to indentured servant John Billington. On a daily basis, all must grapple with a myriad of unfamiliar dangers as they try to establish successful lives in a strange new environment. In spite of the pious religious ideals espoused at the meeting house, the identical socio/economic tensions that existed in Europe continue to cause tremendous strain in the new world. Bradford is responsible for allocating land allotments to all colonists, and does so with an uneven hand. With every new wave of incomers, tensions multiply, and when the elites conspicuously fail to assuage them, the first murder of a colonist by a colonists occurs.

The story plays out in alternating chapters, essentially mini-autobiographies, narrated by the educated, refined Alice Bradford and the working class Eleanor Billington. In spite of their status difference, as women, each of them is virtually powerless in this society, as their experiences make clear. Through their words, we watch conflicts take root that grow so innate that they continue to dominate America today.

Nesbit’s research for her novel appears sound and deep, and her prose is evocative. Read this short but compelling book, and watch the the cloying myth of the noble and selfless puritans finally shatter.

Historical Fiction: Rags of Time, by Michael Ward

                                      
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thomas Tallant is a promising young spice merchant who has a lot going for him. After all, he is personable, intelligent, and handsome, his father owns a thriving spice business, and he enjoys working in the family trade. Returning to London from a buying trip to India, however,  he is shocked to find the city in a chaotic state. The religious and political struggles that will eventually explode into civil war are growing increasingly violent, and King Charles is too busy fighting with Parliament to intervene.  Expecting to return to business as usual, Tom soon finds himself named the prime suspect in the bizarre deaths of two business rivals. As the evidence mounts against him, he becomes desperate to clear his name, aided only by his best friend and a beguiling young woman whom he has only just met. 



Tom’s search for justice gives us a broad view of London society in the 1630’s – how to engage a Thames wherry man, attending opulent parties alongside powerful courtiers, political intrigue, crowded prison cells swamped in muck, tricks of the trade in falconry, the terrible inequalities of class.Ward clearly  knows how to research for historical detail. Particularly memorable sequences include “shooting” London Bridge; the descriptions of “taking the clergy” while pleading in a court of law, and of training falcons to hunt in pairs, were also diverting. The murder case itself is satisfyingly intricate. The thinness of the evidence against Tom makes one wonder how the accusation could be taken seriously, but because thr charges were made  by persons of influence, it was. (Some things never change.)

If you’re wondering what “rags of time” means, check out the poetry of John Donne. If you’re interested in murder mysteries set in historical times, check out Rags of Time.



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Historical Fiction: The Secret Supper, by Javier Sierra

 

 

 

My rating: 4 of 5 ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

 

The Secret Supper is  a mystery that involves my favorite topics, Renaissance art, Italy, religious history, symbols, codes, and conspiracy theories. It’s fashionable to bad-mouth The Da Vinci  Code on literary and religious grounds, but I enjoyed both book and movie, and I don’t rely upon novels to formulate my religious beliefs. The plot of the Secret Supper is in the same genre, focusing on DaVinci’s  other masterpiece, the Last Supper. Although much of the outstanding  art of the  Renaissance  was commissioned by the church to illustrate its orthodox teachings, many painters used artistic license to express ideas of their own. The Last Supper was highly controversial during its own creation, and The Secret Supper suggests what  some of those less mainstream ideas might be.

Chief inquisitor Agostino Leyre is dispatched to Milan to discover whether persistent allegations of heresy concerning Leonardo’s work are true. Father Agostino takes up lodging at the very monastery where The Last Supper is being created, but before he can launch a proper investigation, he must first solve a cryptic riddle that was provided by the accuser, the mysterious Soothsayer. Large segments of the story therefore involve learning about signs, symbols, codes, and numerology, during which the narration devolves into tutorials about hidden secrets and meanings.  The slower chapters are relieved by action sequences involving street scenes and  nefarious murders. It came  as a surprise when the history of the maligned Cathor religious movement became central to the plot, in quite a credible way. Less successful were the portrayals of Leonardo as having purely mystical intentions, and of a young Sforza countess as a direct descendent of Mary Magdalen.

Recommended for readers who enjoy complex mysteries and  intellectual puzzles, but not those who are super sensitive about religious dogma.

Books About Books: The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett

The Bookman’s TaleThe Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Books about books always grab my interest, and the addition of an English setting and a Shakespeare controversy made The Bookman’s Tale a must read. The story plays out along three different timelines, one contemporary, one Victorian, and one Elizabethan. All three involve the 1558 play Pandolfo, by Richard Green, which is widely accepted to be the source for A Winter’s Tale.

Nerdy American protagonist and ultimate bibliophile Peter Byerly, still reeling from the death of his wife, relocates to England, hoping to resume his career as an antique book dealer. When he happens upon a volume of Pandolfo, which contains marginalia that appear to have be written by Shakespeare himself, Peter can’t believe his luck and sets out to confirm its authenticity. This could have been a compelling adventure, full of danger and intrigue. And there is some of that. The problem is that the two back stories, relating the history of the owners of the Pandolfo volume and the history of Peter’s love affair with his wife, continually impede the momentum of the central premise. The historical details are about Pandolfo are interesting enough, but the love story is so schmaltzy that it swamps the mystery.

The Bookman’s Tale contains a lot of material that appealed to the bibliophile in me, but the book is more romance than  mystery .

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Historical Fiction: The Taster, by V. S. Alexander

The Taster


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been several years since I last picked up a novel about the horrors of WWII, but this particular plot drew me back to the genre. Magda Ritter, though not a Nazi sympathizer, needs a job, and following a rigorous vetting process, is chosen to “go into service” for Hitler. Expecting to be a house servant, she is appalled and terrified when selected to be one of the crew of fifteen women who have the great honor of “testing” Hitler’s food for poison before each of his meals. From that moment, Magda is in a state of perpetual anxiety, frightened that each bite might bring about her death. Residing at the Berghof, the Fuhrer’s eastern headquarters, means protection from the dangers of war and plenty of good food. It also means constant surveillance by the SS, and perpetual worry over whom among the staff can be trusted. Everyone harbors secrets, any of which might prove to be deadly.

What this novel does exceedingly well is portray the terrible uncertainties that pervade “ordinary” life in fearful and extraordinary circumstances. As Magda goes about her work, she gradually learns about the unthinkable atrocities inflicted by the Nazis on the populace, and as she comes face to face herself with some of them, it becomes possible for the reader to experience through her the horrific stresses that descend upon those who are powerless to foresee, control, or even avoid them. It is this position of utter helplessness under constant menace, a circumstance that most of us rarely, or perhaps never, have to experience, that provides a glimpse into the lives of countless German citizens trying to survive during the final year of the Nazi regime.

The general public is always presented by the media with a sanitized version of war. The Taster presents slivers of the truth, based upon the memoirs of one of Hitler’s tasters.

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Historical Fiction: Before I Met You, by Lisa Jewell

Before I Met You
My rating 4 of 5 stars

Splitting a story between two parallel time frames has become a popular convention in historical fiction, and Lisa Jewell does that seamlessly in Before I Met You. The novel opens on the island of Guernsey when young Betty meets her aging but still glamorous grandmother, Arlette, at her crumbling clifftop mansion. Betty will stay on as caregiver as Arlette slips into dementia and dies several years later. Arlette’s will leaves a small inheritance to her granddaughter, and intriguingly, a much larger one to an unknown individual named Clara Pickle, who lives in England. Betty decides to move back there to try to locate Clara.
From this point forward, Betty’s story, set in 1995, will mirror Arlette’s, which took place in the 1920’s. Both are romantic tales involving two young women setting out for adventure, struggling to start building lives of their own in Bohemian Soho. Both find low-paying jobs and cramped flats, and both will become enamored of two famous musicians. In chapters alternating between the jazz age and the age of heavy metal, Betty and Arlette each have experiences they never imagined. Both will have to make difficult choices. One of them will face heartbreak, the other, a happier resolution. Arlette’s story is the more compelling, mainly because of the verve and color that infuse her era and the genuine charm of her love interest. Betty’s, which bogs down from time to time, is enlivened by her search for the elusive Ms. Pickle, who turns out to be a lovely example of characterization. The book’s conclusion is truly edifying. Quite often, novels that feature very young protagonists fail to capture my interest, but, particularly in its second half, Before I Met You managed very well to do so.

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Historical Fiction: Green Darkness, by Anya Seton

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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I first read and enjoyed Green Darkness years ago while working my way through the novels of Anya Seton. Like most writers, she penned a single masterpiece, The Winthrop Woman, a brilliant piece of historical fiction. Having discovered my copy of Green Darkness at the back of a bookcase, I decided to give it another go, as it’s set in one of my favorite places and eras, late Tudor England.

Seton is skilled at recreating historical times in her books, and GD is no exception. That was the most impressive feature of this novel. With respect to characterization, it can’t hold a candle to The Winthrop Woman’s remarkable Elizabeth.

The protagonist here is Celia Marsden, the theme is thwarted love, and with religious zealotry and doctrine of reincarnation driving the plot, the experiences of 16th century Celia are replayed in the life of 20th century Celia. 16th century Celia is by far the most colorful of the two, and as she is unrelentingly headstrong and self absorbed, she is the creator of her own fate, about which we have a strong inkling from the opening chapters.The 20th century reincarnation of Celia is more mature and reasonable, but also less compelling. As important to the story is the physician, a wise, learned, and compassionate man who plays a large role in the fates of both women, and it is fun to figure out which other historical characters have counterparts in the future.

Though occasionally melodramatic, Green Darkness held my interest throughout, and while I enjoyed this “reincarnation” of the novel a bit less than the first time around, I’m glad, nevertheless to have revisited it.

 

Do you believe in reincarnation?

Historical Fiction: The Gown, by Jennifer Robson

The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel piqued my interest following the  two recent royal weddings in England, which must have required prodigious feats of planning and organizing. Queen Elizabeth II’s own wedding took place seven decades ago, when she was still a princess and her country was grappling with the myriad deprivations caused by WWII. Discovering that the story was told from the points of view of the embroiderers of the wedding dress clinched the deal, and I raced through this fascinating book, enthralled by the details of the experiences of the ordinary women who created this most important gown. The narrative unfolds in two far apart years and places, London during 1947 and Toronto in 2016.

Norman Hartnell functioned as couturier to the royal family during the 40’s and 50’s, and he and his army of seamstresses and embroiderers would create Elizabeth’s top secret wedding dress, with much stress and drama along the way. One of these skilled embroiderers was a real life French refugee named Miriam Dassin, who later in the century would become world renowned as a talented textile artist. Miriam, who features prominently in the book’s historical narrative, will also play a role in the 2016 segments. The second is the fictional Ann Hughes, who takes her in as flatmate. Through their eyes, the reader experiences the making of one of the world’s iconic textile creations, the struggles of commoners during this prolonged era of deprivation, and the contrast between their lives and those of the aristocrats that cross their paths.

The modern narrative focuses upon a bequest made to Heather Mackenzie by her grandmother, a parcel of exquisite embroidered and beaded flowers. Her Nan had emigrated to Toronto from London in 1947, but since she had never mentioned embroidery to Heather, what was the purpose of the bequest? Her attempts to solve this mystery lead her to England and France, where she will serendipitously encounter Miriam Dassin, who had worked alongside Heather’s grandmother at Hartnell for a brief time.

Friendship, family, romance,  struggle, betrayal, and glamour all coexist in the pages of The Gown, which is well worth reading by those with an interest in textiles, history, WWII, and the endless ways in which humans can make lemonade when life hands them a lemon.

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Historical Fiction: At the Water’s Edge, by Sarah Gruen

At the Water's Edge

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When the water referenced in book’s title turns out to be Loch Ness, my interest is immediately piqued. In this particular novel, set in the final year of WW II, a pair of wealthy, 4F buddies, Ellis and Hank, set off for Scotland to find and film the famed monster, thereby redeeming their reputations as cowards and making their own mark on history. Hank has governments contacts, who improbably agrees to find them passage in an official convoy. Ellis drags along his socialite wife, Maddie, who quite rightly is terrified to cross the u-boat infested Atlantic. One of this book’s liveliest, most interesting passages recounts a u-boat attack and its aftermath, and serves to define the personalities of the three main characters, establishing Maddie as protagonist.

The spoiled, entitled trio are appalled by their quarters at the tiny country inn on the shores of Loch Ness, and rather oafishly, Ellis and Hank are openly disdainful toward the staff and the paltriness of food made scarce by rationing. From the moment of their arrival, a series of mildly comical events ensues (their outrage when the chambermaid fails to unpack their belongings, their bumbling attempts to spot Nessie, the staff finding ways to retaliate for their arrogance). Vivid descriptions of Loch Ness, wartime deprivations, and the culture and folklore of the area enliven the narrative. Toward the middle of the plot, Maddie is left alone at the inn for days at a time, and it is then that Maddie begins her journey toward self awareness and compassion, responding to the courage and kindness of the locals as they cope with the trials and fears of survival during wartime. Though a bit heavy handed, this is the central theme of At the Water’s Edge. Toward the end, the narrative descends somewhat into melodrama and romance, but it is heartening to see Maddie’s life grow much richer and more meaningful.

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Historical Fiction: The Witch of Willow Hall, by Hester Fox

The Witch of Willow Hall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The year is 1821. Boston’s prominent Montrose family has left town under a cloud of scandal, relocating to their stately “summer home” in New Oldham, a mill village in northern Massachusetts. Mrs. Montrose has been crushed by the shame of it all, but her husband is quite detached from everything but his new business venture. The three sisters make the move, but their brother remains behind, apparently oblivious to scandal. Their attempts to settle in to their new home is narrated by Lydia, the middle sister, who maintains a close bond with  Emeline, the youngest, but deeply resents  willful, Catherine, the eldest, whose behavior lies at the root of their problems. Lydia herself is quiet, studious, and sensitive. She has noticed with some trepidation that when she grows angry, strange things that she cannot explain occur; Mrs. Montrose, who is descended from a victim at the Salem Witch Trials, promises to explain all in due time.

From the moment she steps inside Willow Hall, Lydia feels a deep sense of foreboding, and the story she tells is romantic in some aspects, but deeply tragic in others. Having led a sheltered life, her viewpoint is that of a young adolescent, so the novel reads  like a coming of age tale for young adults. She is quite willing to grant legitimacy to  the supernatural events that occur around her, even though they make her fretful and fearful. Lydia’s emotions are amply described, but I did not find that they transferred to me as I read. The prose is competent, but here and there colored by anachronistic phrases (i.e. “I lost my cool” or I’m lousy at this”) that spoiled the mood. As for characters, they were types — the spoiled young heiress, the cad, the snide townspeople, the bored invalid aunt.  I was also puzzled by the book’s claim on the cover that  it takes place two centuries after Salem, when 1821 is only 130  years from the date of the trials.

I would recommend The Witch of Willow Hall to young adults rather than to readers looking for richer historical content.

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