Review: The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie

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Set against the lavish backdrop of the French Court in the early years of the 18th century, The Sisters of Versailles is the extraordinary tale of the five Nesle sisters: Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne, four of whom became mistresses to King Louis XV. Their scandalous story is stranger than fiction but true in every shocking, amusing, and heartbreaking detail.

Court intriguers are beginning to sense that young King Louis XV, after seven years of marriage, is tiring of his Polish wife. The race is on to find a mistress for the royal bed as various factions put their best foot – and women – forward. The King’s scheming ministers push Louise, the eldest of the aristocratic Nesle sisters, into the arms of the King. Over the following decade, the four sisters:sweet, naive Louise; ambitious Pauline; complacent Diane, and cunning Marie Anne, will conspire, betray, suffer, and triumph in a desperate fight for both love and power.

Not a whole lot is ever commented on the Nesle sisters, my understanding is because there isn’t a whole lot of information about them (as opposed to Louis’s more famous mistress Madame du Pompadour). This romp pits the sisters against each other and highlights the complicated relationships between aristocratic families. No one marries for love and everyone sort of tolerates everyone else on a good day, but most importantly no one can be disgraced even though everyone is doing highly immoral things. Losing face is somehow different though. Louise is the oldest sister, a bit dim but kind and loving. Pauline is aggressive, angry and jealous yet also the most politically astute of the girls. Diane is jolly and not terribly cunning. Marie Anne is beautiful and bored and has a cruel streak. Louis XV is a weak, rather unlikable man who moves from a prude to a truly debauched ruler. It’s the women you’re concerned with.

I enjoyed the story itself and the relationship (always strained) between the sisters. My biggest complaint is that sometimes the characters were a bit uneven, particularly Marie Anne. On the one hand you’re told that she liked to torture small animals as a child and get hints of her truly cruel streak, on the other her affair with Louis is couched more in terms of survival than her actually trying to viciously displace Louise. It felt curious whether I should go with the foreshadowing that she was cruel or the actual events as they are laid out.

4 out of 5

Review: Deception on Sable Hill by Shelley Gray

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It’s mid-September of 1893 and Eloisa Carstairs is the reigning beauty of Gilded Age Chicago society. To outsiders she appears to have it all. But Eloisa is living with a dark secret. Several months ago, she endured a horrible assault at the hands of Douglass Sloane, heir to one of Chicago’s wealthiest families. Fearing the loss of her reputation, Eloisa confided in only one friend. That is, until she meets Detective Sean Ryan at a high-society ball.

Sean is on the outskirts of the wealthy Chicago lifestyle. Born into a poor Irish family, becoming a policeman was his best opportunity to ensure his future security. Despite society’s restrictions, he is enamored with Eloisa Carstairs. Sean seethes inside at what he knows happened to her, and he will do anything to keep her safe-even if he can never earn her affections.

I have read all three books in this series and liked the other two quite well. Unfortunately for this one it’s the weakest of the group. More’s the pity because separately Eloisa and Sean are likable characters and I probably would have liked them a lot more together if most of their time wasn’t spent pining over how wrong they were for each other socially and Sean fretting over ever leaving Eloisa alone or unsafe. And that’s the biggest issue with the book I had, all of the male characters spent 90% of their time lecturing the women about how they should never be alone anywhere at any time and treating them like children. There is a faint effort made to impress that the women are independent or the men realize they are being over bearing, but it’s so brief it doesn’t undo the rest of the impression of the male characters. For a passive character Eloisa is very likable and I wish more of the book had focused on her efforts to get involved with charity work and deal with her social circle.

The book was a fast read and I didn’t dislike it per se, but I found myself wishing the story would go a different way than it did and focus on some different aspects of the events in the plot.

3 out of 5

 

Review: The French Executioner by C. C. Humphreys

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It is 1536 and the expert swordsman Jean Rombaud has been brought over from France by Henry VIII to behead his wife, Anne Boleyn. But on the eve of her execution Rombaud swears a vow to the ill-fated queen: to bury her six-fingered hand, symbol of her rumoured witchery, at a sacred crossroads.

Yet in a Europe ravaged by religious war, the hand of this infamous Protestant icon is so powerful a relic that many will kill for it… From a battle between slave galleys to a Black Mass in a dungeon, through the hallucinations of St Anthony’s Fire to the fortress of an apocalyptic Messiah, Jean seeks to honour his vow.

I very much enjoyed this book. This is one of those books that is nonstop action with a rag tag team of misfits going against all odds and as such had a tendency to become a bit wild with all the coincidences and crazy events that the characters seemed to stumble into repeatedly (a slave galley AND St. Anthony’s fire AND Anne Boleyn’s ghost AND an Apocalyptic messiah AND a Black Mass…well you get the idea). But the over the top action makes for an exciting read and I ended up reading the book very quickly accordingly. If you just sit back and don’t think “wow these characters sure have witnessed like every salacious and exciting thing this time period had to offer” it’s a fun ride. This book is more adventure tale than staid historical fiction. And that’s not to say the author hasn’t done their homework. The events they’ve added are historically accurate and interesting in their own right. One of the better historical adventure novels I’ve read.

4 out of 5

Review: The Brethren by Robert Merle

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The Périgord of sixteenth-century France is a wild region on the edge of the reaches of royal authority-its steep, forested valleys roamed by bands of brigands and gypsies, its communities divided by conflict between Catholics and converts to the new Protestant faith, the Huguenots.

To this beautiful but dangerous country come two veterans of the French king’s wars, Jean de Siorac and Jean de Sauveterre, The Brethren-as fiercely loyal to the crown as they are to their Huguenot religion. They make their home in the formidable chateau of Mespech, and the community they found prospers, but they are far from secure-religious civil war looms on the horizon, famine and plague stalk the land, and The Brethren must use all their wits to protect those they love from the chaos that threatens to sweep them away.

The Brethren is an interesting type of book. I understand the series is very popular in France with it just now being translated into English (I believe the author died several years ago). The book follows the early life of Pierre de Siorac, second legitimate son of one of the “brethren”, two brothers in arms who made their fortune during various wars. Jean de Siorac marries a woman unfortunately Catholic, a major source of trouble between herself and her Huguenot husband. The book is odd in that there is no real plot. It simply moves from one episode to another in the life of young Pierre. He sagely notes the religious turmoil and violence of the time around him, but his main concern is his own family trials and tribulations. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. It was very readable, but there was no movement of plot that really impelled me to finish it quickly. I will probably read more of the series, but it is definitely a family saga more than a rollicking adventure.

4 out of 5

Review: Spindle by Shonna Slayton

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Briar Rose knows her life will never be a fairy tale. She’s raising her siblings on her own, her wages at the spinning mill have been cut, and the boy she thought she had a future with has eyes for someone else. Most days it feels like her best friend, Henry Prince, is the only one in her corner…though with his endless flirty jokes, how can she ever take him seriously?

When a mysterious peddler offers her a “magic” spindle that could make her more money, sneaking it into the mill seems worth the risk. But then one by one, her fellow spinner girls come down with the mysterious sleeping sickness…and Briar’s not immune.

If Briar wants to save the girls—and herself—she’ll have to start believing in fairy tales…and in the power of a prince’s kiss.

A fairy tale retelling set in the Industrial era, the author hits her facts well describing the time period and how factory life was for young women working in them. Blending a good deal of magic as well in the story this is a version of Sleeping Beauty that doesn’t really play out as an actual retelling, but more of a spin off OF the fairy tale. Briar isn’t really Sleeping Beauty, but her situation is tied up in the original story.

This isn’t perhaps the page turner of an adventure, but it is a good romance with a lot of good historical details and serious treatment of the time period. I enjoyed the book and it was a fast read.

4 out of 5

Review: Frostblood by Elly Blake

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Seventeen-year-old Ruby is a Fireblood who has concealed her powers of heat and flame from the cruel Frostblood ruling class her entire life. But when her mother is killed trying to protect her, and rebel Frostbloods demand her help to overthrow their bloodthirsty king, she agrees to come out of hiding, desperate to have her revenge.

Despite her unpredictable abilities, Ruby trains with the rebels and the infuriating—yet irresistible—Arcus, who seems to think of her as nothing more than a weapon. But before they can take action, Ruby is captured and forced to compete in the king’s tournaments that pit Fireblood prisoners against Frostblood champions. Now she has only one chance to destroy the maniacal ruler who has taken everything from her—and from the icy young man she has come to love.

I always go into a book really wanting to like it and I’m fond of books that have cliched characteristics (good wins in the end, the couple gets together, etc). This book I sort of on the one hand liked the author’s writing, but on the other the plotting and characters felt uneven to me. Ruby is a harsh, emotionally volatile human and Arcus is generally devoid of visible emotions, yet somehow without much explanation they fall passionately in love. I guess I should buy into that romance like most other cliched ones, but something about it all felt a bit off. Maybe it was Arcus having a distinct lack of emotion that made it feel weird. Maybe it was not understanding why the two would be attracted to each other.

The second issue is Ruby magically becoming a winner in the gladiatorial ring only through the deus ex machina of being possessed by the evil embodiment of a god. I was actually more intrigued by the side character of the shifty, militant noblewoman who seemed to have her own reasons for manipulating the situation. Hopefully there is more of her plot in the next novel in the series. It just felt like Ruby speedily accomplishes her mission and abruptly ends in a showdown with the king. I don’t know. I wanted to like the book, but I’m left with just hoping the series will get better as it goes.

3 out of 5

Review: The Reader by Traci Chee

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Sefia lives her life on the run. After her father is viciously murdered, she flees to the forest with her aunt Nin, the only person left she can trust. They survive in the wilderness together, hunting and stealing what they need, forever looking over their shoulders for new threats. But when Nin is kidnapped, Sefia is suddenly on her own, with no way to know who’s taken Nin or where she is. Her only clue is a strange rectangular object that once belonged to her father left behind, something she comes to realize is a book.

Though reading is unheard of in Sefia’s world, she slowly learns, unearthing the book’s closely guarded secrets, which may be the key to Nin’s disappearance and discovering what really happened the day her father was killed. With no time to lose, and the unexpected help of swashbuckling pirates and an enigmatic stranger, Sefia sets out on a dangerous journey to rescue her aunt, using the book as her guide. In the end, she discovers what the book had been trying to tell her all along: Nothing is as it seems, and the end of her story is only the beginning.

Having heard nothing about this book I didn’t really have any expectations going in, but it ended up being one of the best YA I’ve read this year. Not only is it diverse, but the YA take on the high fantasy tone works perfectly. The structure of the novel is also unique as the conceit is that books are magic and Sefia has a book that has EVERYONE’S story in it. Because of that, reading the actual book is an adventure because you have to question, what book are YOU reading? This is billed as the start of a series and I’m very interested in where it goes.

5 out of 5

Review: The Fragrant Concubine by Melissa Addey

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China, 1760. The Emperor conquers Altishahr, a Muslim country to the west of his empire and summons a local woman from his new dominion to come to the Forbidden City as his concubine.

Meanwhile in the market of Kashgar a girl named Hidligh is kidnapped by Iparhan, a woman scarred by the Emperor’s conquest of her homeland and bent on vengeance. Iparhan offers her a deal: Hidligh will become the Emperor’s concubine, living a life of luxury. In return she will act as Iparhan’s spy.

But when Hidligh arrives in the Forbidden City, she enters a frightening new world. Every word she utters may expose her as an imposter. Iparhan is watching from the shadows, waiting to exact her revenge on the Emperor. The Empress is jealous of her new rival. And when Hidligh finally meets the Emperor, she finds herself falling in love…

To be honest I wasn’t expecting much from this book. I had seen a favorable review of it on Historical Novel Society, but the cover had a self published look and the title seemed a bit lurid. I was pleasantly surprised that it ended up being a very solid historical novel about an obscure historical figure with the added bonus that the author ended up blending the two different legends about this woman to make something that, if farfetched, was at least plausible. While it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that Hidligh is able to quickly master all of the arts that a wealthy Chinese concubine would have been trained from birth in such a limited time, it is believable that she might have been given a pass being that she was foreign. Hidligh is happy with her place, a concubine who isn’t jealous, but who truly does love the Emperor. She’s a product of the time period and culture and she doesn’t expect to monopolize his affections. In fact, the jealous Empress who does covet his love ends up destroying herself for that very reason. The Empress, a terrifying figure, ultimately becomes pitiful as her attempt to oust Hidligh from the palace proves to be her undoing.

The bigger villain is undoubtedly Iparhan. Her determination to gain revenge turns her into an unsympathetic monster, one who terrifies Hidligh and ends up using even those who still love her. Maybe I should feel sorry for Iparhan, but her cruelty makes it impossible. There is nothing admirable in her all consuming plot for revenge. She is cruel and destructive to everyone she comes across and in the end has no one to blame but herself.

4 out of 5

Review: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

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When Amaterasu Takahashi opens the door of her Philadelphia home to a badly scarred man claiming to be her grandson, she doesn’t believe him. Her grandson and her daughter, Yuko, perished nearly forty years ago during the bombing of Nagasaki. But the man carries with him a collection of sealed private letters that open a Pandora’s Box of family secrets Ama had sworn to leave behind when she fled Japan. She is forced to confront her memories of the years before the war: of the daughter she tried too hard to protect and the love affair that would drive them apart, and even further back, to the long, sake-pouring nights at a hostess bar where Ama first learned that a soft heart was a dangerous thing. Will Ama allow herself to believe in a miracle?

I was surprised by how much I actually enjoyed this novel. When Amaterasu meets the man who could be her grandson, the tragic story of what transpired between her, her daughter, and an enigmatic doctor slowly starts to unfold. I couldn’t really fault many of Amaterasu’s actions. While the motives were wrong (and that is what haunts her), keeping her sixteen year old daughter away from a much older married man who seduces her and has shown a penchant for being a lady’s man doesn’t seem like bad parenting. I struggled to sympathize with the doctor at all. While I think we’re supposed to sympathize with him to some degree, I really could find nothing likable. Sure he raises Hideo, but I think that has more to do with his guilt over the position he put his mother in. And his ongoing feud with Amaterasu seems to reveal that he never understood the initial hurt he did to her (and then she had to watch him doing to her daughter, in her mind). Are we supposed to forgive him because he claims he really was in love with Yuko? Would the whole situation been avoided if Amaterasu had been honest with her daughter in the beginning? Is Hideo really Amaterasu’s grandson? There are many questions left in the end, but the point isn’t so much getting answers as it is becoming reconciled that life doesn’t always give you the answers and sometimes it’s up to you to choose what you believe.

5 out of 5

Review: Secrets of Sloane House by Shelley Gray

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One woman’s search for the truth of her sister’s disappearance leads her to deceit and danger in 1893 Chicago.

Rosalind Perry has left her family’s rural farm in Wisconsin to work as a housemaid at Sloane House, one of the most elegant mansions in Gilded Age Chicago. However, Rosalind is not there just to earn a living and support her family-she’s at Sloane House determined to discover the truth about her sister’s mysterious disappearance.

Reid Armstrong is the handsome heir to a silver fortune. However, his family is on the periphery of Chicago’s elite because their wealth comes from “new money” obtained from successful mining. Marriage to Veronica Sloane would secure his family’s position in society-the lifelong dream of his ailing father.

When Reid begins to realize that Rosalind’s life may be in danger, he stops thinking of marriage prospects and concentrates on helping Rosalind. Dark things are afoot in Chicago and, he fears, in Sloane House. If he’s not vigilant, Rosalind could pay the price.

I’ve read the third book in this series and while I enjoyed that one, this is the better book in terms of plot. Rosalind is desperate to find her missing sister and starts working in the same house she had been in an attempt to find clues. It’s perhaps a bit unbelievable that she’d be able to get hired on at her sister’s employer so easily, especially with no previous experience. That being said, the actual mystery of what happened to her sister is well carried out as is the characterization of Reid, who is a kind man in an unusual social situation with his family being new money. His interaction with Rosalind causes her more problems with her employer than it fixes, but Reid’s kindness is in character. The novel is a fast read and one of the better additions to the inspirational fiction genre.

4 out of 5