Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Published 1992 (1st Edition), Viking, ISBC 978-0-00-725055-4, 872 pages

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel tells the stories of Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins, three major players during the French Revolution commencing 1789.

About ten years ago, after a lifetime of forcing myself to read every book I started, I made a pact with myself not to waste time on a novel I was not enjoying.  There are so many novels awaiting me, I decided I'd much rather be reading something pleasurable.  After all, reading time is much coveted in a busy life.

I have previously read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which took perserverance to get past the first 100 pages.  Once I had accomplished that, I did truly enjoy the book.  I thought the same might happen with A Place of Greater Safety.

Hilary Mantel has a unique writing style, which can be difficult to assimilate and often dissuades readers.  Several of my friends mentioned they could not "get into" Wolf Hall.

At page 384 of A Place of Greater Safety, I admitted defeat.   I just could not see attempting to understand a further 500 pages, when I was still completely lost at page 384.  Mantel's goal (if I even have this right) was to interpret each of the three main characters personalities rather than the horrific events that took place at the time.  For instance, the fall of the Bastille seemed hardly the major occurence it was.

Mantel changes points of view so frequently I sometimes had to reread to figure out which character was currently highlighted.  All of which took me completely out of the book.  One character's point of view might be one paragraph long and then, suddenly, you are thrust into a different point of view consisting of several pages.  Another disconcerting tactic was referring to the reader during narrative.

The novel seems to be one of telling, rather than showing through action and dialogue.  I felt absolutely no connection to any character.

I acknowledge the French Revolution had an immense cast of characters and the political factions are quite confusing.  This novel did nothing to help me understand this tumultous time in French history other than the common people were starving and bread prices were out of reach.  This I already knew.

An online search of reviews reveals mixed reactions.  Some felt A Place of Greater Safety was an exceptional book; others found it erractic and incomprehensible.

I leave to the choice up to you.

My rating:  * (Not recommended)

Friday, December 16, 2011

CAPTIVE QUEEN A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir HISTORICAL FICTION REVIEW

Published 2010, Doubleday Canada (a division of Random House), ISBN 978-0-385-66708-1, 473 pages

Captive Queen, a Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine, is the third historical fiction novel written by acclaimed biographer, Alison Weir. Her recent historical fiction novels include The Lady Elizabeth (Elizabeth 1) and Innocent Traitor (Jane Grey).

Having read her two previous historical fiction novels, I expected the same excellence in her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine, indisputably one of the most fascinating women of the 12th century. Unfortunately, the first approximately 250 pages disappoint.

Captive Queen begins when Eleanor at 28 years old meets 19 year-old Henry FitzEmpress, the future King Henry II of England, at the Court of Louis VII of France, Eleanor's spouse. Louis is pious to the extreme; in fact, so pious the possibility of begetting a son by Eleanor, who has already birthed two girls, is remote.

An annulment of Eleanor and Louis' marriage is quickly arranged and, almost just as hastily, Eleanor and Henry are married. Thus begins about 200 pages of the sexual escapades of Eleanor and Henry, who are madly in lust. I found the first half of this novel more concerned with their bed romps than any substantive historical occurrences.

Thomas Becket figures prominently in this novel and is viewed by Eleanor as an adversary. His martyrdom profoundly affects Henry but, by this time, a distance has grown between the spouses that precludes Eleanor providing comfort.

Eleanor hears rumors of Henry's infidelities, which he considers the normal activities of a healthy male and she believes the ultimate betrayal, and struggles to accept the fact that Henry, indeed, has been unfaithful.

It is not until Henry falls madly in love with “Rosamund the Fair” and Eleanor accepts their marriage is over in all but legality, does Alison Weir start to focus on the political aspects and machinations of Eleanor and her sons to gain the power their father continually denied them, whilst Henry is forced to fight against his rebellious sons as well as maintain control of his far-flung domains.

From this point on, Captive Queen fulfilled the expectations I had of Alison Weir. This is an author who has researched and written extensively about various historical royal figures, including a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor's fierce determination to ensure her sons receive their inheritances leads to Henry incarcerating her for 15 years. Her imprisonment only ends when Henry dies and her son, Richard the Lionheart, comes to the throne.

The underlying theme of Captive Queen is an intelligent, ambitious woman who finds herself no less trapped by her marriage to Henry than to Louis VII. She might have possessed the physical love Louis VII was incapable of for a period of time, but, in essence, she is as powerless and at the mercy of Henry as she ever was with Louis. It is the truth of the times. Women were subjugated by men, even the fascinating Eleanor of Aquitaine, who experienced a far less restrictive life until her incarceration than any other woman of the era.

Historical fiction novels I recommend about Eleanor of Aquitaine are Duchess of Aquitaine by Margaret Ball (exceptional) and Sharon Kay Penman's When Christ And His Saints Slept (this book completely hooked me on this author - highly recommended), Time and Chance, Devil's Brood and cameos in Here Be Dragons and Lionheart.

I would prefer to allocate Captive, Queen, A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a 3 star rating for the first 200 pages and a 4 star rating for the remainder of the novel. But, seeing as novels are rated as a whole, I have given it:

Rating: ***1/2 Stars (Above Average)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Secretum by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti. Historical Fiction Novel Review

Polygon, Translation copyright 2009 (First Published in Italian in 2004; English Paperback Edition Published 2010), ISBN 978 1 84597 146 4

Secretum is the sequel to Imprimatur written by wife and husband, Monaldi & Sorti.  Once again, their combined expertise in religions and music enhances the plot of this historical fiction novel.

The young apprentice at the Inn in Imprimatur is now a grown man, with a wife and two young daughters, who works his fields and as a servant for his neighbor, Cardinal Spada.

Curiously, I've read both books and nowhere have I found the name of the former apprentice.  He is the sole narrator of both novels, but other characters never address him by name, calling him "boy", "young man" and other general terms.  Not that this is a detractor, but I just realized this as I type. I have no clue as to the apprentice/servant's name after over 1,200 pages!

After 17 years of silence, Abbot Melani reappears in his former reluctant co-conspirator's bedroom and pays him handsomely to write a memoir of the week. Melani dangles dowries for his daughters to ensnare him.

Like Imprimatur, Secretum is mired in conspiracies that will enormously impact Europe, dependent on the outcomes.  It is July 1700, a year of the Roman Catholic Church's Jubilee and the imminent demise of both the ailing Pope Innocent XII and Charles II of Spain, who has no heir.

Pilgrims invade Rome en masse and corruption among the officials escalates as they take advantage of the hapless pilgrims.

It is also a time of celebration for Cardinal Spada's family; his nephew is to be married and dazzling entertainment and dining is planned for the wedding week.  Abbot Melani is the Cardinal's guest.

Abbot Melani has written a treatise for the eyes of his master, the Sun King of France, which is stolen and the bookbinder who bound the treatise murdered.  Thus begins the story of a bizarre subculture with convoluted rites and language, a madwomen with a prophesy represented by three gifts, a 40 year unrequited love, a musical Dutchman who quotes obscure verses from classic literature, a devious catchpoll, spies, conniving Cardinals angling for the Pope's position and placement of candidates on Spain's throne and a forged signature.

At stake is the future of all of Europe.  Monaldi and Sorti once again utilize their formidable knowledge and writing skills to weave an engrossing, detailed theory of what could have been rather than what is accepted as historical fact.

Secretum is a novel that keeps you on your toes, guessing at clues and producing twists that only make sense in the finale.  I did find I had a harder time tracing the various threads throughout Secretum than I did with Imprimatur.  This fault could lay with me as I had to interrupt the book twice, once for Lionheart (review is on the blog!) on a 2 week library loan and then a book for my book club.  This is  definitely not a historical fiction novel you can pick up and put down.

Rating:  *****(Exceptional)

Friday, November 11, 2011

the Distant Hours by Kate Morton. Historical Fiction Novel Review

Simon & Schuster, Inc. Published 2010.  ISBN 978-1-4391-5278-2; ISBN 978-1-4391-9934-3 (ebook)

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton follows a formula similar to that of her earlier novel, A Forgotten Garden.  Unfortunately, The Distant Hours, did not capture my interest to the same extent.

Edie grows up an avid 19th century Gothic novel reader in a quiet household as an only child after her young brother's death.  Her most treasured novel is "The True History of the Mud Man.

She is not particularly close to her parents, who never recovered from their son's death, but this seems to only bother her in the sense that awkwardness reigns in their relationships.  Edie's long-term relationship with her boyfriend has broken up and she delays telling her parents dreading the "resignation cross Mum's face as she realized the maternal code required her to provide some sort of consolation...".

While at a Sunday dinner at her parents, a "lost" letter arrives for her mother.  It was written 50 years previously by Juniper Blythe, who hosted Edie's mother as a child at her family's home, Milderhurst Castle, during WW II evacuations from London.  Edie's mother is not forthcoming with details about the letter, her evacuation and stay at Milderhurst Castle or, for that matter, pretty much anything regarding her past.

The Gothic novel aficionado has become an editor for a small publishing company.  A prospective client calls and Edie is sent out to meet with him.  As chance has it, she gets lost on the way back to London and happens upon a signpost for Milderhurst. While in the village, she further discovers the author of her beloved "The True History of the Mud Man", Raymond Blythe, was the patriarch of Milderhurst Castle until his death decades earlier.

Unable to resist, she takes a tour of the castle and meets Raymond Blythe's three eccentric spinster daughters who have lived all their lives at Milderhurst.  When she is assigned to interview the Blythe sisters for a commemoration edition of "The True Story of the Mud Man" celebrating its 75th anniversary, Edie has legitimate cause to probe into the Blythe (and her mother's) history.

The Distant Hours is told from different viewpoints throughout the book.  Edie and the three Blythe sisters are the focal character point of views, although other minor characters have cameos.

At 560 pages, I often felt the novel lagged and bogged down.  A condensed version might have presented the same key points without leaving the reader impatient for the novel to move on with the story.

Another aspect lacking in this novel was Edie's emotions.  What emotions she did display and develop almost seemed contrived in order to "qualify" her character as a changed woman.  The golden rule of novels is the hero or heroine must always show that he or she has transformed in some positive way by the finale.

An easy read for those seeking a lengthy novel that doesn't demand a huge investment of recall.

Rating:  *** (Good)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman. Historical Fiction Review

G.P. Putnam's Sons (Penguin Group), Published 2011, ISBN 978-0-399-15785-1

Sharon Kay Penman originally said Devil's Brood would be the last in her series of the Angevins.  However, research she compiled compelled her to tell the story of Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, in her lastest historical fiction novel, Lionheart.

General historical consensus concludes Richard I was a warrior King with superior battle skills, possessed an uncanny skill at surviving combats where he put himself personally at risk and was cold-blooded.

Lionheart is the story of the Third Crusade.  Saladin holds Jerusalem and Richard, now crowned King of England, takes up the Cross and swears an oath to retake Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims.  For three years, he gathers money and supplies and, finally, in July, 1190, after reaching an accord with King Philippe of France to share the spoils equally, the journey towards the Holy Land commences.

Richard trusts Philippe not at all, but even he is not prepared for the betrayals and intrigues that will decimate the army that set out with a holy cause and a willingness to die to achieve their goal.

Lionheart is chock-full of battle scenes with the Scarcens with gains and losses on both sides.  Saladin and his forces are on equal footing with Richard I and his battle strategies.  In spite of their opposing objectives, a mutual respect is born.

Lionheart reveals Richard I in a different light; Although he is shown as fearless, reckless, an exceptional strategizer and, in one incident, as heartless and bloody - for which history has never forgiven him - he is also portrayed as compassionate, has several friends, values family bonds (an amazing aspect considering the terrible actions of his immediate family towards each other), enjoys teasing and is capable of love.

These attributes are displayed by his love for his sister, Joanna, who accompanies him on the Crusade and his tender, if not loving, attitude towards Beregaria, his Queen.  His fiercest attachments seem to be for his cousins and nephew who fight alongside him, encourage him, support his decisions, agonize with him over losses, through necessity support a deed which forever mars his memory and nurse him through bouts of quatrain fever.

Lionheart is not just about Richard I. Penman has an immense cast of characters, of which only two are fictionalized.  I must admit I had trouble at times keeping track of who was who, especially the crusaders.  Allegiances were fickle and it was sometimes difficult to remember to whom a man had sworn his fidelity.

Penman includes sub-plots which involving Joanna, Beregaria, the wife and daughter of the Cyprus king Richard deposed and the fictional Mariam.  The fears and deprivations these women suffered along the road to the Holy Land are given prominence.

Sharon Kay Penman is in my Top 5 of Most Favorite Authors.  She most certainly did not disappoint with Lionheart.  Lionheart took me on a crusade as no other historical fiction novel has.  The novel flows seamlessly with minute details almost as if Penman was actually present on the Third Crusade.  After reading Lionheart you will have a different outlook on whether the Third Crusade was a dismal failure and Richard a barbarian. This is a mark of an excellent researcher and novelist.

In her Author's Notes, Penman acknowledges her general view of Richard I was unfavorable until she dug deeper into both Christian and Saracen chronicles and realized there was more to the man than blood and ruthlessness.

Penman is currently working on her second novel regarding Richard I, A King's Ransom.  I can hardly wait!

Rating:   5 starts ***** (exceptional)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks. Historical Fiction Review

Warner Books. Published 2005.  ISBN 0-446-50012-7; ISBN 0-446-57882-7 (lg. print)

The Widow of the South is Robert Hicks' debut novel.  This historical fiction novel is based during the American Civil War, in particular, the bloodiest battle of the war, at Franklin, Tennesse, where over 9,200 men were casualties or died.

Robert Hicks based Widow of the South on the true story of a woman, Carrie McGavock, who played a pivotal role after the Battle of Franklin. 

Carrie is a emotionally damaged woman who has suffered great personal loss in her life.  As the novel commences, she is essentially a recluse mourning her losses.  The Battle of Franklin is about to change her entire life.

Her plantation, Carnton, is taken over as a field hospital for wounded Confederates soldiers who have been claimed as prisioners of war by the Union Army.  Gruesome operations and desperate dying men in need of compassion and comfort force Carrie to face life.

Carrie becomes attached emotionally to one of the prisoners, Zachariah Cashwell, even though she is married.  This unrequited relationship dominates throughout the novel.

Times passes and, finally, all the soldiers in her home have either passed away or been taken by the Union Army.

Carries tries to initiate a social life in the town, but finds great difficulty in connecting with others.  A prominant citizen, portrayd as a heartless businessman who will do anything for the sake of money, decides to plow the field where approximately 1,500 soldiers lie in shallow graves to plant crops.

This is untenable for Carrie and through a series of events arranges for the soldiers be dug up and reburied in a grove on the Carnton plantation.  She and her ex-slave keep a meticulous diary of each man's burial site.

This historical fiction novel has a great premise, but the author didn't quite make the characters come alive.  I found it difficult to understand their thought patterns and conversations.  Much of Carrie's and Zachariah's actions and thoughts were vague and left me wondering.  This, unfortunately, kept jerking me out of the book to reread passages in an effort to fathom what was happening.

Curiously, it is the author's notes that finally allowed to me to connect with Carrie McGavock.  Hicks provides a summary of the Battle and its importance, besides the horrific loss of life under the command of General Hood, to the conclusion of the Civil War.   He quotes from letters and memoirs of commanding officers.  A biography of Carrie's life, portraits, pictures of the plantation house and the cemetary are included.

Robert Hicks might be better suited to writing a biography than historical fiction.  His author's notes proves he is capable of conveying facts in a compelling manner, however, his fiction writing does not achieve this goal.

Rating:  ** (Okay)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones. Historical Fiction Review

Beaufort Books, Published 2008, ISBN-13:  978-0-8253-0518-5 (alk. paper); ISBN1-10:  0 - 8253-0518-7 (alk. paper), 341 pages

The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones is her debut novel.  This historical novel commences in 619, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, with 6 year-old A'isha Bint Abi Bakr unknowingly enjoying her last day of freedom outside playing with her friends and dreaming of her future as a Bedouin warrior.

That same day, her mother announces A'isha is under the dictates of purdah, confined to her home until her wedding day to preserve her honor.   Her mother tells her "...a girl's honor can easily be stolen.  If you lose it, you might as well be dead."

It is not until A'isha is 9 years old that she discovers she is to be the child-bride of Muhammad, Prophet, Messenger of God, founder of islam and 41 years A'isha's senior.  Threats to Muhammad's life cause the Believers to flee to Medina and establish a new community with the hopes of one day regaining control of Mecca.

A'isha is an ambitious girl with dreams of freedom.  Alas, her life proves to be more challenging than expected.  Her precious freedom dwindles as she battles against new and traditional customs, is consumed with jealousy over her many sister-wives, attempts to win her husband's favor, overcomes her childhood fantasies and thwarts political conspiracies.

The Jewel of Medina follows A'isha until she is 19 years old, when 62 year-old Muhammad dies. 

This book may be difficult for some due to the oppressive environment in Muhammad's harin and the polygamous marriages.  In the Jewel of Medina, Muhammad has a revelation that no man shall have more than 4 wives, although, he, himself, had 13 wives/concubines.  The novel argues both sides of the coin:  he took so many wives to cement political treaties or he was a lustful man who could not resist a beautiful woman.  Either way, I was uncomfortable with this.

Men had ultimate power over women.  Perpetual confinement to the parents' home, slavery and the right of a deceased husband's family to take children away from the mother permanently also did not sit well with me.

It might be all and well to say these circumstances existed centuries ago but, the truth of the matter is, women still experience extreme constraints in today's world.

This historical novel may be controversial in nature, as it depicts the life of Muhammad.  Indeed, the author experienced major setbacks to publishing The Jewel of Medina.  It took much publicity and outrage regarding the original publisher's decision not to proceed with publication because of political issues before Beaufort Books backed The Jewel of Medina.

I have quite mixed feelings about this book.  It bothered me on several levels, yet it was informative about the birth of islam and 7th Century Arabic world. 

Rating:  ** (Okay)

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Help (A Novel) by Kathryn Stockett. Historical Fiction Review

Penguin Books, Published 2009. ISBN 978-0-425-23220-0, 522 pages

The Help by Kathryn Stockett was chosen by a member of my book club as our assigned reading.  At first glance, being a historical fiction buff, I thought I'd have to grit my teeth and wade through it.  Another lesson on not judging a book by its cover.

The action in The Help commences Jackson, Mississipi in 1962, but I'm going to stretch the 50 year qualification rule.  After all, what's a year in the grand scheme of things?

The Help is told through the eyes of three protagonists:  Aibileen and Minny, black maids to white society women, and Skeeter, a white woman with a burning ambition to enter the world of journalism. 

Skeeter is already somewhat of a odd-ball in white society, because she finished college and is still unmarried.  Marriage is a relentless pursuit by white society ladies; college a means to meeting the prospective husband.

Aibileen has raised 17 white children during her long tenure as a maid and endured slurs without a murmur.  The final insult is when her employer, Elizabeth, insists a bathroom be built in a shed outside her home for Aibileen's use to prevent dangerous diseases inherently carried by black people infecting her family.

Minnie, however, is not a character who takes kindly to innuendos or outright besmirchment.  She has lost many employment positions due to "sassing" her employers.  In fact, because of the Terrible Awful (you'll understand the importance of these words when you read the book), Minnie is virtually unemployable.  Luckily, for her, a white woman considered trash by the society ladies hires Minnie.

Skeeter, challenged by a New York publisher to write on an innovative subject, decides to write a book about what it is like to be a black maid to a white woman.

The principal antangonist is Hilly Hollbrook, a white lady despot who is determined to keep black maids "in their place" and fellow society members under her thumb.  One whiff of Skeeter's project would have disastrous results for Skeeter and black maids alike.

This leads to me to the only problem I had with this novel; the vapid society ladies that surround Hilly.  Her every word, decree and hand signal is obeyed without question.  Surely women possessed minds in the 1960's.

One of Skeeter's biggest obstacles is finding a black woman willing to tell her story.  Aibileen, after much persuasion, becomes the first black maid to talk to Skeeter; a task Aibileen finds difficult, to say the least.  Aibileen convinces her best friend, Minnie, to be the second.

The Help is the tale of Skeeter struggling against seemingly insurmountable odds to publish a book that crosses the line, especially in Jackson, Missippi, and the black women who make the book possible.

Kathryn Stockett empathetically conveys the intense dread these black women suffer in fear of retribution for telling their stories to Skeeter.  The Help is an emotional, poignant and, sometimes, funny novel, which will shock you that such circumstances existed a mere 50 years ago.

I especially recommend you read Kathryn Stockett's essay, Too Little, Too Late, at the end of he novel.

This is a great book for book clubs (especially now the movie has come out) or for anyone who truly wishes to understand the circumstances and realities black people faced in the Deep South in the 1960's.

Rating:  4 Stars **** (Excellent)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Darlene Williams Top Historical Fiction Novels (Part II)

Has your summer been crazy and somehow disappeared into the ether?  Mine has.  However, I have still been busy reading and researching amongst summer activities.

I must admit the research for the next edition of Top Historical Fiction Novels was more difficult than I anticipated.  I visited several libraries, only to find many of the novels I expected on the shelves disappeared over time.

Nonetheless, I was able to locate some worthy titles for you to check out.  Again, in no particular order, another 20 historical fiction novels I consider merit inclusion in the top historical fiction novels list:

21.   The Great Stink by Clare Clark
22.   The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark
23.   The Return from Troy by Lindsay Clarke
24.   The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
25.   The Glass of Time (quasi-sequel to the above) by Michael Cox
26.   Hadrian's Will by William Dietrich
27.   Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
28.   In The Company of a Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
29.   The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
30.   Life Mask by Emma Donaghue
31.   Slammerskin by Emma Donague
32.   The Book of Eleanor by Pamela Kaufman
33.   Book of Negros by Lawrence Hill
34.   The Moonlit Cage by Linda Holeman
35.   In a Far Country by Linda Holeman
36.   Bedlam by Greg Hollingshead
37.   The Josephine B. Trilogy by Sandra Gulland
38.   Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland
39.   Bluebird or the Invention of Happiness by Sheila Kohler
40.   Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

I am continuing the research rather painstakingly by scouring nearly 5,000 historical fiction novel titles listed on my local library's catalogue.  So, keep an eye out for the next edition of Top Historical Fiction Novels in the near future.

In the meantime, I have about 100 pages left to finish on Kathryn Stockett's "The Help", 144 pages of "From Sea to Shining Sea" by James Alexander Thom and an enormous tome written by Paul Anderson, "Hunger's Bride, A Novel of the Baroque" (1300 pages), awaits.

Somewhere in there, I am going to cram a 2 month historical research course in preparation for my first novel.

Sleep, well who needs that!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Imprimatur by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti. Historical Fiction Review

Published 2002 Italy; Published Great Britain 2008 by Polygon; ISBN 978 1 84597 105 1; 649 pages.

What a historical fiction novel!  Rita Minaldi is a religions history expert and her writing partner, Francesco Sorti, is a musicologist, both attributes heavily emphasized in Imprimatur.

Originally published in Italy in 2002, Imprimatur was then boycotted by Italian publishers.  The concept which develops through this historical novel was considered too controversial.  That's as much as I can reveal about the boycott without giving away the plot.  The book was, however, later published in Great Britain.

This is an incredibly well-researched historical novel.  You truly are transported to Rome, 1683.  You smell the filth, suffer the woes and subjugation of the lower class, are disgusted by the level at which human beings are forced to earn their living, are surprised by characters' underhandedness and lack of compassion.  The characters are permitted to feel terror and other emotions many authors are fearful of imbuing their characters with.  On occasion, a wry sense of humor emerges.  All in all, the characters are developed with imperfect human natures, such as every human being possesses.

I could go on forever about the research invested in this book.  One form of research that stands out particularly in my mind are the medical potions and treatments of the day.  The authors integrate conflicting medical options of the day seamlessly into the prose and dialogue.  All I can say after reading this historical novel, is I'm glad I live with today's medical technology!  Perhaps history is responsible for the saying "If it doesn't kill you, it will cure you".

The majority of the activity in Imprimatur takes place between from September 11 and September 20, 1683.  The novel wraps up with events between September 20 and 25, 1683, in 1688 and on September 16, 1699.

On September 11, 1683, the Locanda del Donzello Inn is invaded by men of the Bargello who quarantine 9 guests, the owner and an apprentice.  The novel is written in first person though the eyes of the apprentice.  A French lodger, Signor di Mourai, dies in the inn that morning from an unknown cause.  Fear of the pestilence is extreme in Rome and no mysterious deaths are dealt with lightly.  Accordingly, everyone in the Locanda del Donzello Inn is under guard and quarantine until the authorities deem all risk has passed.

Nobody is who they portray in Imprimatur.  Secrets abound and are teased out, in a number of ways, until the very end of the novel.  This is one novel where the ending is completely unexpected.  While you are busy suspecting one inn guest, another takes you by surprise.

The authors allow the apprentice boy and, Abbot Melani, secret spy of King Louis IV of France, fallacies as they race against time to solve a mystery that could change the entire history of western culture.  That last sentence may sound dramatic, but the authors have written this historical novel with such authority and plausibility that no need to suspend disbelief is required.  A few times they are sent off on wild-goose chases, which gives the book more credibility.

Monaldi & Sorti plumb the depths of all the lodgers' personalities and show us both their favorable and unfavorable traits, without heavy emphasis on either.  The reader is permitted to make their own decisions as to whether faults are forgivable in accordance with the morals of the time.

Imprimatur is a lengthy novel, but no worries.  The authors keep the threads consistent throughout and insert enough reminders through natural dialogue that the reader never feels lost.

It's been a long time since I've read such a phenomenal book.  Highly recommended.  There are 2 sequels to Imprimatur, Secretum (which I own) and Veritas (which I intend to own), that follow the further adventures of Abbot Atto Melani..  I read Imprimatur in paperback; I was unable to locate it in e-reader format.

Rating: 5 Stars ***** (Exceptional) 

Shadow of Colossus (Seven Wonders Novel) by T.L. Higley

B&H Publishing Group, Published 2008, ISBN 978-0-9-54-4730-9, 278 pages

The Shadow of Colossus is set on the Island of Rhodes, 227 BC, during the seven days prior to the great earthquake that brought the enormous statute of Colossus to its knees in the aftermath.

The protagonists in this historical novel are Tessa, a hetera (courtesan) to the wealthy politician, Glaucus, who holds considerable sway in Rhode's politics.  Glaucus is an cruel man, who abuses both Tessa and Persephone, his daughter.  When Glaucus dies in an unfortunate accident, Tessa sees a way to escape her destiny.

It has been 10 years since her mother sold her to the madam and, to maintain her sanity, she has repressed all emotions, desires and hopes.  In essence, she is a woman of stone, devoid of feelings.

Hetera are leased from a madam and, if the hetera is particularly desirable, men pay a price to wait in line to acquire her.  Tessa realizes that, once it is discovered Glaucus is dead, she will be given to the next highest bidder.  She is desperate to escape her destiny and contemplates suicide; however; her hunger to live in freedom proves stronger.

On a night she returns home after spending hours contemplating "opening her wrists", she is attacked in the street by a man.  Along comes the other protagonist, Nikos, who saves her from violation.  Nikos is on Rhodes in the guise of a dockworker.  After he rescues her, she hires him as a servant in Glaucus's household.

A political battle rages on Rhodes.  It is one of the last democracies in the Greek Islands, but there is one man, Spiros, who would have it different.  He is determined to become sole ruler of Rhodes and sets in motion events intended to sway the major politicians to his point of view.  He will stoop as low as murder to accomplish his aims.

Spiros is the next man in line to own Tessa.

Glaucus and Tessa are scheduled to leave in one week to travel to Crete to attend a symposium on membership in the Achaean League.  Tessa is an intelligent woman who Glaucus relied upon for astute political  opinions.  She has often spoken in his place.  If she can masquerade as Glaucus's "voice" until the ship leaves for Crete, freedom will be hers when she boards the ship.  Her accomplices in this scheme are Nikos and an elderly Jewish servant, Simeon.

The frequent use of italics for characters' thoughts were distracting and, quite frankly, drove me nuts.  I personally feel heavy use of italics indicates an author does not trust the reader to have enough intelligence to grasp concepts.  One could read just the italics in this novel and understand the entire plot and characters.

Within the first chapter of this historical fiction novel, I felt fairly certain how the book would end.  There was one plot twist within the novel and it was not one to make you gasp.  This was an entirely predictable and unsatisfying read.  I had no investment in the cardboard stereotypical characters.

With apologies to Harlequin Romances fans, this book would be more suitable for that genre than historical fiction.  I could not suspend disbelief to embrace that a "woman of marble" could melt in 7 days to a woman of faith, love and desires.

Unfortunately, this historical novel is not one I would recommend.

Rating:  1 star * (Poor)

Note:  Book was read in e-book format.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

the Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. Historical Fiction Review

Washington Square Press,  A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. (originally published in 2008 by Allen & Unwin, Australia), Published 2010 in the US, ISBN 978-1-4165-5054-9; ISBN 978-1-4165-5055-6 (pbk); ISBN 978-1-4165-7206-0 (ebook).

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton defies definition by genre; however, as the majority of events in the novel take place in the early 1900's, I am taking the liberty of categorizing it as a historical novel.  It is just such a darn good read that it would be a shame for historical fiction buffs to bypass it.

The Forgotten Garden is a generational novel that travels though the lives of a great-grandmother, grandmother and great-granddaughter.  It commences with the mystery of a little girl who is placed on a ship to Australia in 1913 by a lady whom she knows only as the "Authoress".  The Authoress disappears immediately after hiding the child aboard ship and is never seen again.

A dockworker discovers the waif roaming the docks in Australia carrying a small white suitcase.  He decides to bring her home intending to locate the child's family.  As years pass by, the child, Nell, becomes part of the dockworker's family.  At 21 years old, she is engaged and ready to embark on a new chapter in her life.

The dockworker, feeling a heavy moral obligation to tell Nell the truth of her origins, takes Nell aside at her 21st birthday party and relates how she came to be regarded as a family member.  Nell is shattered.  Everything she thought she was and who she felt she was is destroyed.

Nell calls off her engagement and moves to a small oceanside village, where she becomes the village curiosity with her eccentric habits.  The urge to discover who her real parents were overcomes her in the 1970's and, through clues, in particular, a fairytale book, contained in the little white suitcase, she travels to England to  unravel her enigmatic past.

Whilst in England, she is unable to completely unearth her ancestors' identities, but purchases a small cottage in the Cornwall that has a secret garden where she has a flash memories of being with the Authoress and her papa.

Fully intending to return permanently to England after she wraps up her affairs in Australia, Nell's plans are foiled when her dissolute daughter drops off Nell's granddaughter, Cassandra, for a "short stay" and never returns.

Nell raises Cassandra and, upon Nell's death, Cassandra inherits Nell's estate, which includes the tiny white suitcase.  Cassandra has recently lost her husband and young son in a car accident and makes a spontaneous decision to travel to England to attempt to finally resolve the riddle of Nell's parents.

With the assistance of Nell's notes from her visit to England, the fairytale book and local characters, Cassandra begins to penetrate Nell's history.

Kate Morton easily takes the reader from England to Australia and back to England seamlessly through the eyes of the focal protagonists.

This book started out as my "car book".  I always keep a novel in the car for when I have to wait at appointments.  I became so involved in the story, the book came into the house where I could not put it down.

I have already purchased Kate Morton's The House at Riverton, which is written in somewhat the same vein.  I hope to enjoy it as much as The Forgotten Garden.

Rating:  4 Stars **** (excellent)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Darlene Williams Top Historical Fiction Novels (Part 1)

I recently reviewed goodreads Top 100 Historical Fiction books.  I found I had read only 43 out of the 100.  After 40 years of reading, I felt my score should have been much higher.  Part of the problem was some historical fiction books listed are novels that do not technically qualify as historical fiction.

I'm not about to deny novels, such as Les Miserables, The Counte of Monte Cristo, Tale of Two Cities and Jane Eyre, are phenomenal books; they are.  I encourage everyone to read the classics.  They just, unfortunately, do not fall within the historical fiction genre.

To be termed a historical fiction novel, the novel must be written at minimum of 50 years after the time or event in question.

I decided to put together a list of my top historical fiction books.  It is likely going to be a long list, so I'm going to break it down into separate blogs.  I suggest you print the blogs and save them as references for your next historical fiction novel choice.  I have a list on my desk of about 40 books I want to read.  Each time I see an interesting title, I add it to my list.

So, with no further ado, here are my Top Historical Fiction Novels - Part I - (in no particular order):

  1. Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George
  2. The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George
  3. Helen of Troy by Margaret George
  4. Mary Queen of Scott and the Isles by Margaret George
  5. Elizabeth I by Margaret George
  6. Earthly Joys by Phillipa Gregory
  7. Virgin Earth by Phillipa Gregory
  8. Fallen Skies by Phillipa Gregory
  9. A Respectable Trade by Phillipa Gregory
  10. The Constant Princess by Phillipa Gregory
  11.  The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory
  12. The Boleyn Inheritance by Phillipa Gregory
  13. The Queen's Fool by Phillipa Gregory
  14. The Virgin's Lover by Phillipa Gregory
  15. The Other Queen by Phillipa Gregory
  16. The Red Queen by Phillipa Gregory
  17. The White Queen by Phillipa Gregory
  18. This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson
  19. Ironfire by David W. Ball
  20. Poison:  A Novel of the Renaissance by Sarah Poole

    If you haven't read these books, check them out and see if they grab your interest.

    I am not starring these books, as they may be been read years, if not decades, ago.  To review them now would be unfair unless I reread them.  I am categorizing my top historical fiction books by author to minimize the research time required to unearth the hundreds of books I have read.

    Meanwhile, so many novels await my attention!  I'm about half-way through Imprimatur by Monaldi & Sorti.  If this historical fiction novel doesn't sag in the middle or have a dissatisfying conclusion, it's looking like the rating is going to be great.

    Look for more Top Historical Fiction Novels in the upcoming weeks as I continue to research authors and titles.

    Monday, June 13, 2011

    10 Facts About Myself

    Today's blog is definitely off topic about historical fiction novel reviews.  A friend challenged me to publish a blog including 10 facts about myself.  So, here goes:

    1. I abhor snakes.  I will, and have, run away from dead snakes.  On a recent bike ride with my husband, I asked him to tell me the curled up thing on the side of the road was a really thick green shoelace.  He quite cheerfully replied, "No, it was a snake."  No help there.
    2. Rats are tied with snakes for extreme phobias.  I grew up in a city with ditches that teemed with rats.  When we were moving into a new home, I parked my car on the road, next to a ditch, so the moving truck could park in the driveway.  Staring complacently, as if it knew my fear, was a rat on the other side of the ditch.  If I could have found another home within the hour, I would have.
    3. I spent the first 35 years of my life trying to conform to the definition of "normal" (I can hear the laughter already) and the last 13 years of my life reveling in the discovery of who I am and who I can be aspire to be.  Let's just say, I'm not normal and I'm perfectly okay with that.
    4. I am a writer (okay, that one was obvious), half-marathon runner (14 to date), endurance cyclist, singer (I sang my first solo performance 2 weeks ago so I feel I've earned that title) and gardener.  Great stress therapy, but, in actuality, a therapist would probably be cheaper.
    5. I just received an invitation to my high school graduation 30 year reunion.  Fortunately, I'm riding 200k on my bike for charity that weekend.  Definitely the lesser of the 2 evils.  I will feel much younger doing the bike ride.
    6. I am the mother of 21 and 24 year old sons (now that makes me feel old), a daughter, a wife, an auntie and niece.  I love all my roles.  My children are under strict instructions, however, that I am not to be a grandmother before I hit 50 and only after I have chosen their wives.  Does laughter mean: "Yes, Mom"?
    7. I have lived my entire live surrounded by males.  I am an only daughter and the mother of sons.  At least my dog is female.  
    8. I am stubborn as all hell and have no intention of changing my attitude, sometimes to the consternation of my husband.
    9. I didn't start talking until I was about 3 years old.  Apparently, I haven't stopped since.
    10. I am blessed with the most wonderful, supportive friends and family.  I thank God for all of you. xoxo

    Thursday, June 2, 2011

    Exit the Actress, by Priya Parmar Historical Fiction Review

    Exit the Actress, by Priya Parmar.  Historical Fiction Novel Review

    Touchstone, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., Published 2011, ISBN 978-2-5391-7117-2 ( ISBN 978-4391-7118-9 (ebook)), 325 pages.

    Exit the Actress is Priya Parmar's debut historical fiction novel.  The central character is Eleanor Gwyn, an oyster girl who won a position as orange girl at the King's Company Theatre.  From this lowly occupation, Eleanor ascended the stage, after a great deal with training, with incredible success (and a few flops) and, ultimately, become the mistress of King Charles II of England.

    Priya Parmar chose to write Exit the Actress in a unique style, interspersing Eleanor's (who preferred to be called "Ellen", but was dubbed "Nell" or "Nelly" by theater patrons and the press) journal entries with London Gazette Gossip Sheets penned by the mysterious Ambrose Pink in flowery language ("Cherish it, my petals!"), Official Notations for Privy Council Meetings written by Secretary of State Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington, correspondence between Charles II, his beloved sister, Minette, and his mother, Queen Henrietta Maria and letters between Eleanor's grandfather and great-aunt.

    In addition, recipes, such as Venetian Ceruse and Plague Water, from the Lady's Household Companion are inserted at appropriate times in the plot.

    Many peripheral characters inhabit Exit the Actress.  Ellen's mother, Nora, sister, Rose, her grandfather, Dr. Edward Gwyn, her great-aunt, Margaret, and the ghost of her long deceased father, Thomas, cause deep concern for Ellen for both their well-being and financial support.  She is horrified by her mother's alcoholism and her sister's prostitution.

    The King's Company actors Theo Bird, Nick Burt, Charles Hart, Peg Hughes, Teddy Kynaston (the last cross-dressing stage actor in England), John Lacy, Becka Marshall and  Thomas Killigrew (manager) and John Dryden (playwright) are prominent in Ellen's life and she considers them her "theater family".  When crises arose, theater family meetings were called to determine resolutions.

    Finally, royalty and courtiers who were involved intimately in Ellen's life were:
    • Charles II;
    • his wife, Queen Catherine of Braganza;
    • Ellen's nemesis, Barbara Castlemaine;
    • Charles Blackhurt, Earl of Dorset and Middlesex;
    • Sir Charles Sedley;
    • George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham; and
    • Johnny Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.

    Thankfully, Priya Parmar included a list of characters at the front of Exit the Actress; otherwise, I would have been lost with the numerous characters.

    Exit the Actress chronicles Ellen's life from the time she is 12 years old until she is pregnant with her first child by Charles II and stages her farewell performance.   Priya Parmar imbues Ellen's well-known love of living life to the fullest, singing, dancing, acting outrageously and surrounding herself with the Wits of the day (also referred to as the "Merry Gang" and "Bad Boys").

    Where Exit the Actress differs from many historical novels about Ellen is that she is attributed with emotions not commonly associated with her.  Doubts, self-recriminations, strong principles, her fierce ambition to remain independent, her desire to love the man, Charles II - not Charles the King - her refusal to participate in political intrigues and her loyalty to her family and lovers.

    During her lifetime, Ellen had three lovers, all named Charles:  Charles Hart (actor), Charles Blackhurst (Earl of Dorset and Middlesex) and King Charles II.  She remained faithful to each of her lovers during the relationships, even continuing that faithfulness after the death of Charles II until her own death two years later.

    George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, spent prodigious amounts of money to groom Ellen as Charles II's next mistress in hopes of promoting his own position at Court.  His cousin, Barbara Castlemaine, did nothing to gain him further royal rewards, so he put all his hopes (and money) into Ellen.

    Priya Parmar infused Exit the Actress with a wry sense of humor.  I often found myself smiling or chuckling at acerbic thoughts and comments by various characters.  "Taxes, Charles, taxes create revenue.  This should not be difficult for you to grasp.  You are king - rule, for God's sake!"  (Letter from Queen Henrietta Maria to her son, King Charles II.)

    Although the format of Exit the Actress may be somewhat unconventional, I found it a delightful read.  The ancillary letters, gossip sheet, etc., made it possible to gain insight into events of the day that Ellen could not reasonably have known or, if she had, included in her journal entries.

    The author fictionalized Ellen's journal entries.  The only extant documents related to Ellen Gwyn are some rather exorbitant accounts for clothing and shoes.  However, the characters and events (i.e. plague and Great Fire of London) described in his historical novel are factually based.

    Rating:  4 Stars **** (Excellent)

    Thursday, May 26, 2011

    The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, by Shona MacLean. Historical Fiction Review

    Penguin Books, Published 2008, ISBN 978-0-14-317008-2, 291 pages.

    Shona MacLean's debut historical fiction novel, The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, is set in Banff, located in the Scottish Highlands.  The author, who holds a Ph.D in History from the University of Aberdeen, makes her home in Banff.  Her obvious love for her home town and historical knowledge of Banff shines in this novel.

    Narrated in the voice of Alexander Seaton, the entire novel encompasses less than 2 weeks in March, 1626.  

    Alexander Seaton is a young man with aspirations to become a minister.  He successfully completes the requisite education and procedures in becoming a minister until the last challenge:  the final trials when he is judged by the large local landowners and kirk session (the minister and elders).  It is at the final trials that devastating evidence against Alexander's suitability as a minister is presented by a neighboring laird.

    Alexander subsequently experiences a 6 month period of debauchery and drunkenness, which earns him several stints on a public stool as penance.  Further self-shame ensues.

    I had difficulty with Alexander's relentless self-condemnation until I did some research and realized an educated man graduated from divinity school would indeed believe himself damned and worthless during this era of Scottish history.

    It is important to understand Presbyterianism had a strong hold in Scotland at this time and religious beliefs were strictly adhered to.  In the Redemption of Alexander Seaton, a baillie and his session clerk scour the town day and night seeking residents who violate principles of morals and faith.

    Although King Charles 1 of England and Scotland is less inclined than his predecessor to actively seek out witches, witchmongering is still alive and well in Banff, as is later depicted in the novel.  It is a time in history when superstitions and accusations were actively pursued with devastating results.  Undesirables were often formally "run out of town" and not to return "upon pain of death".   "The vulnerable and friendless were well advised not to call attention upon themselves in times of ill fortune".

    Denied his opportunity to practice as a minister, Alexander accepts a position as undermaster at the grammar school.  Word of his failure to pass the final trials and ill-behavior is soon well-known throughout the kirk and Alexander experiences ostracism by his fellow townspeople with the exception of a few loyal friends, who include the local doctor and music master.

    On a Monday night, after drinks at the tavern with the doctor and music master, a storm of furious proportions rages as Alexander makes his way home.  He passes a fellow traveler who hails Alexander and then falls to his knees in obvious distress.  Alexander ignores the supposed drunk and his own conscience and goes to his bed.

    The next morning, the traveler is found dead sprawled across Alexander's desk amid vomit.  It is soon learned the deceased is Patrick Davidson, the apothecary's apprentice.  Hence begins the mystery.  Alexander's friend, music master Charles Thom, has long held an affection for the apothecary' daughter, Marion.  Marion, however, has developed an attachment to Patrick Davidson.

    Charles Thom is imprisoned on suspicion of murdering Davidson, who supplanted him in Marion's heart.  Alexander Seaton feels it is the will of God that he exonerate Thom and, thus, becomes involved in a web of intrigue, suspicions and the need to locate a rare source of poison.  Seaton single-mindedly devotes himself to his mission.

    Murders - present, past and future - populate The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, further fueling already heightened superstitions.

    Woven into The Redemption of Alexander Seaton are several characters:  elite citizens, town whores, beggars, a servant girl impregnated unwillingly by her master, a wild hermit woman and deceased wives.

    Shona MacLean seamlessly and artfully incorporates emotions, political intrigue, setting, events and crucial background into The Redemption of Alexander Seaton.  She keeps you turning pages as she keeps you in suspense for the next tidbet.

    An excellent debut novel in which Shona MacLean keeps the reader firmly planted in 1626.  I will definitely read her next novel, A Game of Sorrows (released March, 2010), once again featuring Alexander Seaton.

    Rating:  4 Stars **** (excellent)

    Tuesday, May 24, 2011


    I received a Kobo eReader from my husband for Christmas.  While I love the portability and lightweight features, especially when traveling, I discovered the tried and true method of reading the first 3 pages of a prospective historical fiction novel was no longer an option.  This was my benchmark for deciding whether a HF novel stayed on the shelf or came home with me.

    Now, I am developing another strategy before I spend money on a historical fiction novel.  I began reading historical fiction reviews.  I prefer reviews other than Amazon or Chapters/Indigo.  After all, they are in the business of selling digital books and have a vested interest in presenting a historical fiction novel in the most enticing light.

    I read, on average, one novel each week, unless it is a particularly lengthy epic.  After almost 4 decades of reading HF (a passion since my mother brought Little Women home from the library when I was around 10.  In fact, I was so in love with the genre, I spent several months shortening  my middle name, Elizabeth, to "Beth" in honor of my tragic heroine.), I certainly believe I have the experience to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    If you are looking for reviews of romance historical fiction, you won't find them here.  If you want honest, perceptive reviews of quality HF novels, this is the blog to visit. I used to believe that, if I read the first chapter of a novel and hated it, I had to finish what I started.  No longer.  If a HF novel is abysmal, it's not worth my time to read it or your time to read a review.

    Not all the HF novels I read are great.  If that's the case, the review will reflect that.  The vast majority will rank as good, excellent or exceptional as I have gained expertise in assessing novels and authors.

    I am also a writer.  I began with creative writing, turned to technical freelance writing for several years and, recently, returned to creative writing.  No, I have not published a book (yet).  This minor detail does not detract from my credentials, however.  I understand plot, character development, conflict, setting, theme and the myriad of other components contained within a historical novel.  I write on a daily basis.

    I frequently research details after reading a historical fiction novel to find out more information or, even, how closely the novel follows generally accepted history.  After this many years of double-checking, I have a fair amount of knowledge.

    Reviews will be rated on a scale of  1 to 5 stars, as this will make comparisons with other reviews equitable.

    First up in a few days:  The Redemption of Alexander Seaton.

    Hope to see you then.