Tag Archives: France

You Never Forget Your First Earl by Ella Quinn (The Worthingtons, #5)

Geoffrey, Earl of Harrington, is clueless. Being self centered and single minded he doesn’t notice what’s happening in the world around him – not unless it directly impacts him and sometimes not even then.

That explains why he was still courting Lady Charlotte Carpenter when she was publically engaged to Constantine, the Marquis of Kenilworth, whose romance appears in The Marquis and I, Book #4 of the Worthingtons series. Any chance Geoff had while wooing his first choice for a wife disappeared when he took off back home to visit an impatient father, the Marquis of Markham, who insisted on micromanaging his son’s London life. Now Geoffrey has just a few weeks to find a suitable bride, a requirement for his job as an assistant to Sir Charles Stuart. His mate must meet certain requirements if she is to accompany him to Brussels. After all, not only does a diplomat’s wife have responsibilities, she also must be somewhat pleasing to the eye (since Geoffrey wants to enjoy his husbandly duties). After reviewing the “short list” of eligible young ladies he sets out to “meet” them at the next ball where he ends up eyeing Elizabeth Turley, best friends with Charlotte. Elizabeth is actually attracted to the stilted, cocky Earl, even though she feels like she is being interviewed for a position instead of being courted. She doesn’t want to appear too eager or marry someone just for the sake of convenience – either his or hers. Unsure if Harrington will come up to scratch, her brother, Gavin, convinces his friend Lord Littleton to provide some competition. Now Geoffrey has to put some effort into what turns out to be a whirlwind romance. With the help of Grandmama and Cousin Apollonia, he “makes a cake of himself”, but Elizabeth is worth the effort. Their passion in the bedroom is a bonus which makes him even more desperate for the upcoming nuptials.

Everything seems to be going well until Elizabeth overhears Geoff talking with his father. She’s devastated to hear her new husband agree that she has all the qualifications necessary to be an excellent hostess, without any mention of the love they had just proclaimed in their wedding vows. So for the rest of You Never Forget Your First Earl by Ella Quinn, Elizabeth decides to withhold her affection from an oblivious husband who is baffled about what he’s done to offend his bride. However, neither has much time to contemplate their marital difficulties since there’s a war gong on, so the two must temporarily drop their differences and rise to the occasion. With a battle as a backdrop, their squabbles seem insignificant and the ultimate resolution, while overly dramatic, does provide a satisfying conclusion.

I have mixed feelings about this Regency Romance from The Worthingtons series (#5). Parts of it were fun (especially when Harrington and Littleton were fighting over Elizabeth), some parts dragged (too much repetition with both protagonists agonizing over their relationship), and some parts were filled with minutia. These little details, which would ordinarily have been annoying, were at times fascinating, as Elizabeth packed up an entire household complete with horses, conveyances, and servants and traveled to Belgium.

Then there’s that one-sided “spat”, where Elizabeth freaked out when Geoffrey didn’t proclaim he had feelings for her on that day she inadvertently eavesdropped. However, if she had thought about it, the idea of love was not something a son would necessarily confide in his dad, especially a domineering man like the Marquis. Her anger should have been directed on the fact that her competency was considered her best feature, as if she were a hired servant.

Elizabeth didn’t need to fret about her abilities because she was a whizz at any task thrown her way. Her talents went beyond her organizational skills, and included the ability to take charge during times of stress and then, mere hours later, appear beautiful and composed at a ball. All this at the tender age of eighteen – a little far fetched, to say the least.

For fans of The Marriage Game series, Geoffrey runs into Septimius Trevor at the solicitor’s office who asks him to touch base with Colonel Lord Hawkesworth while he is in Brussels and remind him to write home more often. While Quinn explores a few details about the battlefront, that is not her main focus, although the anger of the French locals at the interference of the British in overthrowing Napoleon, is well represented.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley who providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

In the past, the mass media has presented only one type of norm, the perfect family situation with a husband, wife, and two to three somewhat “ordinary” children. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t match this utopia, so those on the “outside” are made to feel inconsequential for not meeting this ideal. Recently there has been a turnabout with books, television, movies, and even the news, celebrating a diversity of practices. With this change has come an acknowledgement of the LGBTQ community who continue to fight for a positive affirmation. While we aren’t quite there yet, it’s important that literature for children reflect this dynamic so the next generation grows up with a receptive perception of these “alternative” lifestyles which are actually quite common place. Even more important is to develop a prevailing existence of role models who reflect the reader’s intrinsic sensibilities so that they, too, can proudly hold their heads high without hiding their innate psyches.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang is just such a book. Taking place in Paris where the first mega department store is going to open, the King and Queen of Brussels are visiting their French cousin with their sixteen year old son, Prince Sebastian. The King is pushing for his son to marry, even at this young age, to secure the future throne. He is even being allowed to choose which of the eligible ladies would suit him best, as compared to his parents’ arranged marriage. Sebastian, however, has a secret which he fears will embarrass his family and any future spouse. He loves fashion, and not just any fashion, but women’s clothing – the more outlandish the better! So when he sees an unusual, but creative style garment at his introductory ball, he sends for the seamstress with an eye for such spectacular design, so she can develop similar avante garde creations for himself to wear.

Frances is excited to design for royalty, even if the fabulous dresses are for the prince. Together they go out into society, he under the persona of Lady Crystallia who becomes a trendsetter in the Paris Fashion World, she as his designer. As Sebastian’s fame grows, so does his worries of being discovered, forcing him to distance himself from Frances despite their budding attraction and close friendship. Although she loves Sebastian for who he is, she also needs to pursue her dreams of becoming a noted couturier.

How this tale is resolved is heartwarming, despite some emotional drama. Will his parents reject a son who does not meet their expectations? Can society accept a cross dresser as royalty? Does Sebastian need to suppress the Lady Crystallia inside or can he continue going out in public showing his authentic self? Can he find true love outside the normal aristocratic channels? And can Frances develop avant garde creations using her genuine talents or must she suppress her inner genius and conform to the norms dictated by the rules of French Fashion?

This is some heavy stuff for a graphic novel, beautifully written and illustrated by Wang who is often able to advance the storyline just with her drawings, letting the expressive faces tell the tale without any words. The color pops, the fashion stuns, the storyline surprises, the ending positively resolves a touchy subject. The cartoon like illustrations lend themselves towards middle school, although older students will also appreciate the gender fluid, transvestite subject matter.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn takes her time telling her story, but that’s okay, it’s quite a story to tell. The Alice Network is the tale of three broken people who through a common cause are able to help each other heal their wounds.

A slightly pregnant Charlie St Clair is on her way to Switzerland via a stop in England to take care of her little problem. At least that’s what her mom thinks, but Charlie has a different idea on how to take advantage of the situation. With an address and a mission, she locates a gnarled-handed, disheveled old drunken woman – Eve Gardener, the unlikely key to answering her questions. Somehow Charlie perseveres and convinces Eve to join her quest, not realizing that her guide has a similar goal in mind. Eve’s driver, the Scotsman Finn Kilgore, assists the two unlikely travel companions in their attempt to find the whereabouts of Rose, Charlie’s cousin who disappeared during the horror of the German occupation. Just two years after the war, the motley crew makes their way to France to track down the clues revealed to Eve via her contacts from a mysterious past.

Don’t be fooled. Eve has her own sad tale to tell, dating from her days as a spy in France during the German occupation in World War I. Eve was a part of The Alice Network, an auspicious group of women who used their wits to extract military secrets from the enemy. Eve’s subtle wiles were beneficial while on the job at Le Lithe, an upscale bistro frequented by the top German military brass, facilitated by Rene Bordelon, a self centered profiteer who relished the good things in life and didn’t care if the paying customers were the enemy, as long as his elaborate needs were met.

Quinn alternates between Eve and Charlie telling their back stories until the subplots intersect as their search expands to the next level and truths are revealed. 3/4 of the way through the reader thinks “well that’s it, what more is there”, yet there is so much more to be told. Interweaved throughout the narrative is the budding romance between Charlie and Finn (who must contend with his own demons), with their mutual allegiance towards Eve expanding to an even higher regard for one another as the search continues throughout the French countryside as the three pursue a resolution to past wrongs.

Quinn perfectly masters the intertwining of past and “present” in her fictionalized tale of true events. While the main characters are fabrications used to move the plot forward, the details of the Alice Network and the subsequent capture of its participants are historically accurate. Even more impressive is the clever commingling of truth and fiction to create a flawless story. Whether or not you like any of the three main characters or approve of their actions, this historical novel is a compelling tale difficult to put down in spite of its 500 plus pages. A must read! Five stars.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Despite the spate of novels recently published dealing with the topic of WWII, the subject matter never gets boring. There are so many facets to the war that each book can easily tackle a new concept to explore. In Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly the author utilizes the lives of three intersecting characters to explore the Holocaust, two based on real people and one a fictionalized version representing true events.

Caroline Ferriday is a New York socialite devoting her life to helping the orphans in France. Working full time as a volunteer at the French Embassy in New York City, she assisted individuals in securing visas in order to escape France before the war began. In German occupied Lublin, Poland, Kasha Kuzmerick and various friends and family members get swept up as political prisoners. Sent to Ravensbruck, Kashia and her sister Zuzanna, end up the subjects for a medical laboratory experiment involving battle wounds, which leaves Kashia with a permanent limp. The surgery is performed by Herta Oberheuser, one of the few female doctors in Germany, who was recruited to work at this Women’s Concentration Camp and assigned to perform the operations which permanently maimed or killed the Polish “Rabbits”. Her attitude is fascinating as Herta convinces herself that working for the Nazis is a positive position which furthers the aims of the Fatherland. Yet before the Allies take control, she is involved in a plot to hunt down and murder these covertly hidden patients in order to remove the evidence of her actions. Even at the Nuremberg Trials, Dr Oberheuser still refuses to accept blame for her inhumane behaviors and resents her prison sentence.

The Lilac Girls also explores the after effects of WWII, both immediately following the war and ten years later. Unfortunately, society wanted to move forward and forget the atrocities, but luckily there were many philanthropic individuals ready to help the afflicted integrate back into a somewhat normal life. While this was possible in parts of Europe and the United States, the countries taken over by the Soviet Union, including Poland, went from one oppressive state to another. Caroline, with her connections, is able to find a way to coordinate medical treatment for the “Rabbits” in the United States and encourages the bitter Kashia to find closure.

Alternating between the three female characters, Kelly integrates fiction with information from historical documents to create a realistic scenario. It is heartwarming that women such as Caroline and her mother were able to use their influence for the public good with a focus on those suffering abroad. At the same time, one wonders how Herta could reconcile her actions with her conscience. There is evidence that her outward bravado covered a guilty heart when her visit with a psychiatrist revealed a predisposition for self mutilation (cutting her arm). The fictional sisters were an astute representation of the Polish girls who survived the “Rabbit” experience. While it was heart wrenching to read about their treatment in Ravensbruck, it is a reminder that war can bring out the evil in people, especially when dealing with prisoners of war who are viewed as subhuman. This is definitely not a book for those with sensitive stomachs.

I have several confessions to make. First, I did not necessarily read the chapters in order. Kelly often left a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter and then jumped to one of the other women, but I was impatient and skipped over to the continuation of that particular plot point, then went back to pick up the storyline. I also thought the entire book dragged at times. I didn’t mind the fictional romance for Caroline, but for a book close to 500 pages, I thought some of the irrelevant details could have been eliminated. There was plenty of subject matter without adding fluff. The most compelling part of the book was the girls’ daily trials in Ravensbruck which were both difficult to read and, at the same time, hard to put down. While the therapeutic visit to the United States was anticlimactic, the concluding chapters seemed a fitting way to wrap up the loose ends. I appreciated all the specifics in the author’s note which indicated the amount of research (including interviews and traveling to the various locales) necessary to blend real events with her imaginings, although to get further details about the inspiration for this book you need to go to Martha Hall Kelly’s website. Ultimately, the entire reading experience was worthwhile, especially since I learned something new about the Holocaust. Four stars.

A thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff is a tale of survival for two women, each with something to hide from the Nazis. Noa at sixteen has been seduced by a leering eye and long after the German Soldier is gone she finds herself pregnant and homeless when her unforgiving father shows her the door. Her Dutch heritage, blond hair and blue eyes, allows her asylum in a home which nurtures unwed mothers, the right sort who can contribute their offspring to the utopia fostered by the motherland. Now Noa, once again homeless, finds employment at the local train station, earning a meager keep by cleaning the grounds. It is in this capacity that she discovers a train car full of screaming infants, taken from their mothers and in danger of dying from neglect and the cold elements. Not thinking, she grabs one and runs off through the bitter winter night, collapsing somewhere in the woods from exhaustion. Luckily she is found by some circus folk, whose performers are at their winter quarters preparing for the spring season. The kind hearted ringmaster takes her in along with her (circumcised) “brother” on the condition that she learns to become an aerialist for the trapeze act. Her teacher, Astrid, has her own sad saga. Born into a circus family, she fell in love and married a high ranking German Soldier. Unfortunately her Jewish faith eventually caused a problem for her husband with him being asked to “divorce” his wife. Returning home she discovers that her entire family has disappeared and the circus disbanded. Her carney neighbor, Herr Neuhoff, is still allowed to perform, providing entertainment in selected locations throughout Europe, and she is invited to stay. Adopting a stage name, she continues the career which she had followed since birth, hiding her Jewish heritage within the big top. At first Astrid resents the younger Noa, reluctantly teaching her the ins and outs of an act which normally takes years to develop. Eventually though they form a bond, protecting one another from an outside world which threatens harm on a regular basis.

Don’t expect a feel good story, this is, after all, the era of Nazi Germany where everybody’s life is in danger for one reason or another. However, the trappings of the circus make this tale somewhat unique and anyone who has been lucky enough to attend such a performance will be fascinated by the particulars of the daily doings necessary to run the show. The tale is alternately told from the viewpoint of the two female characters, but despite the interesting setting and some details based on true events, I felt the plot dragged at times with too many repetitive reflections of the angst facing the two women. While there is a lot of movement, especially towards the end of the book, there are also long drawn out passages where nothing important seems to be happening. This is a 300+ page book which could have been edited down and tightened up to make for a fast paced more enjoyable read. Three and a half stars

A thank you to Netgalley and Mira Books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Forbidden Knight by Diana Cosby

Forbidden Knight by Diana Cosby is a sweet little Scottish Medieval Romance, short enough to read in an afternoon, long enough to be chockful of action. Mistress Alesone MacNiven is under the protection of the rightful King of Scotland, Robert the Bruce, when she comes across a group of men on horseback. Not sure if they pay allegiance to Bruce or his mortal enemy, Lord Comyn, she sends a masterful warning shot with her arrow, barely missing the heart of Sir Thomas MacKelloch. Leary of each other’s intentions, Thomas binds the maiden to keep her from escaping so he can verify her story of being the King’s healer. Once truths are revealed, the two find themselves on the way to safety in Avalon to avoid a disaster which would tear Scotland apart. Each has a series of secrets which affect their outlook on life and both feel a growing affection which doesn’t fit into either of their future plans. The road is not easy, not just because of the tough terrain, but also because the enemy is on their tail, and anyone who helps them also becomes a target. While this Medieval tale is full of violence, it is tempered with love as Sir Thomas and Alesone both attempt to reconcile their pasts. Although this is Part 2 of the Forbidden Series, you don’t need to have read the plot of Book1 to gain an understanding of the moral codes of the times.

Although well written and despite the exciting fight scenes, there was a little too much repetition in the intimacy department as the two lovers agonize over their feelings and despair that this is a romance which can never happen. With a lot of teasingly passionate moments, in the end there’s a nice twist which promises a happily ever after in spite of their doubts. The historical background regarding the Knights Templar and the strife over who will rule Scotland is an added plus.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

We all know that King Henry VIII was obsessed with his legacy which is one of the reasons he ended up with six wives. It also led to England’s break with the Pope who refused to annul Henry’s first marriage. When the King died, his only son Edward became the new King of England at the age of nine, with the crown being controlled by a series of “advisers” whose chief purpose was to line their own pockets, profiting from pilfered land and the titles and funds associated with those properties. Whether King Edward VI, at the age of fifteen, died of TB or was poisoned is still up to conjecture, but immediately prior to his death he signed a proclamation naming his cousin, Lady Jane Grey and her progeny, next in line to the throne in order to keep his older half sister, Mary, from taking control of the country. Mary had different ideas about the succession, imprisoning Lady Jane and eventually beheading her for treason. Jane’s total term as Queen lasted only nine days. Queen Mary I, a devout Catholic, sought revenge for her father’s persecution against the priesthood by beheading self proclaimed Protestants, earning her the title of Bloody Mary. After five years on the throne, Mary died childless, possibly of ovarian or uterine cancer, and her younger half sister Elizabeth ascended to power and ruled for forty five years undoing the damage of Mary’s fanaticism by encouraging the Protestant Church to grow and flourish.

Many writers have replicated these events in books and various theatrical events. However, when three YA authors got together, they decided it would be fun to create an alternative interpretation of these historic events and present an irreverent version of the fate befalling the Tudors in the 1550’s. Instead of dealing with a religious conflict in My Lady Jane, the authors, Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, elected to bestow an alter ego to the population, allowing select individuals to have a separate “personality” in the form of an animal. These Edians were discriminated against by the Verities – those individuals who did not have the shape shifting gene.

In this fantasy, King Edward barely manages to escape a death by poison, changing into a kestrel and flying to safety. Lady Jane finds herself married to Lord G who is a horse by day, while she morphs into a ferret each night. Using their animal forms, the two are able to allude their executioners. Filling in the blanks with real and imaginary details, the three authors painstakingly paint an absurd portrait of love, romance, betrayal, and conflict as Edward seeks a path back to the throne. Unfortunately, the fantasy portion is in direct conflict with reality, so they also need to develop an imaginative conclusion which somewhat coincides with the realm of possibility.

The readers can tell the authors had a good time ad-libbing an amusing variant to English history. They did their research, visiting such locales as the Tower of London and interviewing historians about the sequence of events. They even threw in some salacious tidbits, such as the scandalous behavior of Lady Jane’s mother running off with the horse master, which sounds like fiction, but is actually true. Unfortunately, I found the entire book too silly for my taste, and at times annoying, especially since the plot dragged on and on for close to 500 pages. While I normally have a sense of humor, (I enjoyed Spelled by Betsy Schow, a twisted version of The Wizard of Oz) and am no stranger to books featuring shape shifters or alternate paths (Think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith), this book fell short.

Now don’t let me keep you from reading this novel. There are many who loved the premise and its implementation (it was even voted the Goodreads Choice Award for Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction in 2016), I’m just not one of them. However, kudos for introducing a whole generation of readers to the little known historical event where Lady Jane Gray served a brief stint in the monarchy of England. So for finding a unique way to educate the average reader – three stars. (If you want to read a superior fantasy, although not written to be humorous, that involves animals and humans – please check out Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy).