Tag Archives: Historical Romance

The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

It is misleading to say that The Unbinding of Mary Reade (please note the extra “e”) is based on historical facts since the author, Miriam McNamara plays fast and loose with the so called “truth”. Yes, Mary Read, Anne Bonnie, and Calico Jack Rackham were pirates together, but the timeline is ignored leading to a misleading narrative. What is true is that the illegitimate Mary Read was brought up disguised as her half brother Mark so as to financially benefit off her “grandmother” with the proceeds of her deceit supporting her mother. Eventually she joined the British Military and fought against the French in the Nine Years War. Mary married, settled in the Netherlands, and ran an inn, but after her husband’s early death she once again took up the role as a man and ended up on a ship traveling to the West Indies which was taken hostage by pirates who she gladly joined. She accepted the governor’s pardon in 1718-19 and became a privateer, basically a pirate for the crown, but the ship mutinied and it was at this point she joined the pirates Calico Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny (who also was disguised as a man). Eventually both their true identities were revealed. Ironically, Anne’s father had unsuccessfully forced Anne to take on a boys identity in her youth to hide the fact she was his illegitimate daughter.

While in the book McNamara portrays the two female pirates as roughly the same age, in fact, Mary Read was thirteen to fifteen years older. Of interest is the gender fluid nature of both these female buccaneers who seemed to take pleasure from men but were rumored to have an intimate relationship with each other as well, switching back and forth between the sexes as the situation dictated. That they were fierce fighters is not in doubt, shown by their efforts to hold off the invaders intent on taking them captive, although they were eventually outnumbered and captured because the male crew were too drunk to fight. Both ladies were “with child” so spared the fate of their male counterparts who were hanged for high treason. While Mary is believed to have died of child fever in a Jamaican prison (buried April 28, 1721), Anne was luckier, possibly rescued by her influential father, William Cormac, ending up in her birthplace of South Carolina.

As you can see, Mary’s life was actually quite fascinating, but the author somehow found a way to make it mundane. I had to force myself to finish this book, which seemed to drag on and on.

Back and forth between 1704, 1707, 1717, and 1719 alternating between the locales of London and the Caribbean, the backstory comes too late, leaving the reader confused as to exactly what is happening. Ultimately, the intriguing details of the lives of these two rebellious woman are not used to their best advantage. There was too much tell, not enough show, with the author too often describing the events rather than putting the characters in the midst of the action.

However, this book’s one saving grace is bringing Mary and Anne to our attention and I suggest a look at A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, published in 1724, which provides the basis of many of the myths surrounding this fascinating period on the high seas.

Two stars and a thank you though both Netgalley and Edelweiss for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

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Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Everyone in Brooklyn was a Dodgers fan at Ebbots Field, at least until the team moved to Los Angeles. If you lived in this borough of New York City from 1951 to 1952 you probably attended Brooklyn College (my father did) and spent time at Coney Island eating a hot dog at Nathan’s. The sand was hot, the ocean cold, the beach was so crowded you had to stake out a good spot, but it was home.

In Brooklyn you lived in a building, often in tiny apartments, saving up money to move where you could have a plot of land of your own. (Actually our apartment was large, inherited from my grandmother who was the original tenant – gotta love that rent control). Having a house with a yard was a dream which every child carried in their heart (and we had to move to a suburb in Buffalo to get that house).

Despite being a large, crowded city, the neighborhoods kept life intimate. You knew the people in your building and the vendors in the local shops, mainly family owned. Yet in between was the busyness of Brooklyn which carried a flavor not found in the surrounding small towns in upstate New York.

Being a diverse metropolis, the rules were a little different. While the various ethnic groups congregated amongst themselves, the shopping centers had to be open to all, whether Irish, Italian, Jewish, Hispanic, or Black, especially here where so many immigrants settled after making the trip across the Atlantic.

This is the city where I was born (at the Caledonia Hospital on Caton Ave). It’s not necessarily the exact place described in Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, but my childhood occurred a few years later. (My grandparents were also born in Brooklyn, but their folks came over from Eastern Europe at an earlier, even more desperate time in the late 1800s). Yet, the feel is recognizable.

Enter Eilis Lacey, an Irish immigrant from the small town of Enniscorthy, who is sponsored by Father Flood in her move to his Irish Parish. He sets up a room for her in an Irish Boarding House with 5 other Irish girls, and arranges for a job as a salesgirl at Bartocci’s, a local department store. Then when Eilis gets homesick, he signs her up for night classes at Brooklyn College to earn her certificate as a bookkeeper, a subject she studied back in Ireland. She meets a nice boy at the Friday Night Dances at the Parish and her life seems perfect, but “stuff” happens.

Eilis is the type of person who goes along to get along. She’s from an era and a culture where women don’t have much of a say in their lives. They are obedient children who marry, keep house, and have children of their own. Ellis seems to go with the flow, unable to speak up when events spin out of control forcing her on a path which she isn’t sure is the right one for her. Her first job back in Ireland is at a local grocery store and the owner simply sends for her, unasked, when she discovers Ellis has a talent for figures. Rose, Ellis’ older sister, arranges for her to travel to America, and “surprises” her with the “fait accompli”. Her behavior at the rooming house is dictated by the owner, and her free time is guided by her housemates. It takes feigning an illness to get out of the Friday night dance, since Ellis doesn’t have the courage to outright refuse to go. Even her beau decides when their relationship should go to the next level and she just guesses that this is okay, although in her heart she is unsure. Fate seems to be her guideposts, and the tide of life sweeps her along its path to the next steps on the most convenient road.

I’m not judging, since her life doesn’t seem to be a hardship, one just wonders what “might have been” and the author even gives us a taste of that before he pulls the rug out from under the reader and has circumstances steer Ellis’ direction back on track.

A delightful and easy read on a bygone era in a beloved (for me) spot. Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

Since The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton is a murder mystery of sorts, it’s difficult to summarize without resorting to spoilers. Suffice it to say that daughter Laurel Nicolson witnessed her mother Dorothy murder a man when she was sixteen and now that her elderly mom is on her death bed, the sixty plus year old daughter decides this is her last chance to discover the truth. Her brother Geoffrey, a babe in his mother’s arms, was celebrating his second birthday, so he only has a vague feeling that something untoward happened on that date. Now, fifty years later, Laurel decides it’s finally time to clue him in so they can work together to figure out the details of their mom’s past.

Moving back and forth through time, from the present (2011) to the strife of wartime London (1941) to life as part of a loving family with five children (1961) and various years in between, the plot unfolds giving us bits and pieces of the tale – like a giant jig saw puzzle which has just enough blank spaces so that the big picture remains unrecognizable. Unfortunately, it takes way too many pages to discover the truth, and not until the disconcerting ending does the story finally come together.

While there are some obscure clues at the beginning of the book, by the time their relevance is revealed we’ve forgotten the details. With a slow start which doesn’t pick up until much later in the narration, I feel the main problem is the characterizations. The self absorbed Dolly is just plain unlikeable and at times her actions are despicable. She’s not the only one portrayed in a bad light. Laurel, a famous actress, is not a warm and fuzzy figure, even if the reader is sympathetic to her quest. Her numerous siblings are one dimensional, although the quirky Geoffrey has been fleshed out a bit. While the main focus was developing the convoluted plot (there’s a lot of tragedy along the way providing some sort of logical explanation for the evolving action), I felt more time should have been spent providing some depth to the secondary personalities. In my mind, any book over four hundred pages needs to justify the extra length and despite the surprise ending, this one fell short.

Four stars (just barely and only because of the “twist”) but it could have been so much better with a little tweaking.

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.

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).

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

I suppose the question must be asked if passion really exists. Not a flame which burns long enough to last through a one night stand, nor a longing which disappears after six months, but a love which transcends time and distance and continues even after death.

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende Is a novel fraught with angst as two parallel love stories unfold, each full of obstacles with must be overcome in order to find fulfillment. Our tale begins at Lark House, a retirement home in the San Francisco Bay Area where octogenarian Alma Belasco resides. A rich eccentric with a secret past, she has eschewed all her former lavish existence and lives relatively humbly in a small cottage at the home continuing her silk screening avocation, now a hobby. Yet a mystery surrounds her puzzling disappearance for days at a time. Where does she go and who sends her the weekly orchid and the perplexing double enveloped letters?

Then there is Irina Basili who is barely able to eek out an existence assisting at the home and washing dogs in the evening so as to afford the rent at the overcrowded boarding house where she resides. She, too, has a secret past which she holds close. Alma hires Irina to help out and, as a bonus, Alma’s grandson Seth visits more often, not only to see his beloved grandmother, but also to spend time with the woman who has captured his heart. The smitten young lawyer takes it upon himself to write Alma’s memoir with the help of Irina who assists him in deciphering clues into the secrets of his grandmother’s past. Alma watches over the two, approving of Seth’s love choice and encouraging them both to find happiness together. Additional characters are added into the plot as slowly the secrets are revealed giving the reader an understanding of the motivation behind each character’s actions.

From the annihilating destructive results of the holocaust to the dehumanizing confinement at the Japanese Internment camps to all the devastatingly forbidden secrets, Allende explores the various stages and types of love found amidst the joys and sorrows of a life well lived. Going back and forth from the present to past events, with interspersed letters from Alma’s Japanese Lover, Ichimei Fukuda (the gardener’s son from childhood days), giving further clues as to the author’s intent, the reader unravels the events which have affected the fate of both Alma and Irina. It is hard not to feel empathy towards the two as tragedy affects the trajectory of their lives. While we always hope for happy endings, there is a bitter sweet flavor as the story concludes with a touch of magical realism, yet we wouldn’t have it any other way. Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Atria Books for providing an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The Engagement Bargain by Sherri Shackelford

While the premise of The Engagement Bargain by Sherri Shackelford is compelling and the plot has several exciting and/or amusing moments, the author fails to deliver a cohesive novel. It starts out strong, opening with Caleb McCoy and his sister JoBeth Garrett visiting Kansas City in 1884, specifically to see Anna (daughter of famed Suffragist Leader Victoria Bishop) speak on Women’s Rights. Caleb, a veterinarian, finds himself in the right place at the right time when he hears a gun shot and sees Anna collapse in a growing pool of blood. When the doctor can’t be found, Caleb is the one to clean the wound and stitch the woman up. Caleb now feels a responsibility to protect Anna from further harm, so he doesn’t complain when the desk clerk lists the invalid as his fiancé on the hotel register so she can maintain a low profile while the shooter is sought. Anna, despite her wound, is a capable, resourceful woman, while Caleb is portrayed as a shy man. Both are passionate about their life’s work so it is not surprising that they feel a connection towards one another. However, Caleb is used to small town life, while Anna was brought up surrounded by wealth and trained to be independent. The two lifestyles would never mesh, yet each carries a growing bit of love within their hearts, despite their dissimilar backgrounds.

Anna starts out as a strong, fearless woman but as the story progresses her personality becomes more domestic. Caleb, although handsome, is introverted and inexperienced with women, but as the plot develops he becomes more daring and heroic. Caleb is surprisingly enlightened, supporting the idea of women’s rights, based on his veterinary experiences with abused animals.

The main problem is that too much of the book is taken up with rueful thoughts of “I think I love you, but we aren’t right for each other” from both parties. There is just too much introspection and not enough action. Shackelford also has a problem with pacing. The set up takes a third of the book while the climax is over in a couple of pages. This is the fourth book in the Prairie Courtship series, so some of the characters have been previously introduced, but when Caleb brings Anna to his hometown of Cimarron Springs, there are too many townspeople interacting without enough background to easily assimilate the information. Hopefully these characters were rounded out in one of the other books, since the villains responsible for all the strife in this story are thrown at the reader without much explanation, making the resolution of the plot confusing.

While it was admirable to focus on the topic of Woman’s Suffrage, the portrayal of Anna’s mother, did the cause no favors. If anything, it promoted the idea that the leaders of the suffragists were self centered, arrogant, and pig headed. By making Victoria Bishop insufferable, it took away from our sympathies towards the movement. However, real life leaders, such as Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were extolled and the first elected female mayor in the United States (Susanna Salter from Argonia, Kansas in 1887) was eluded to when in the epilogue Anna becomes mayor of Cimarron Springs. Sherri has a brief note at the end of the book covering some information on the history of the vote for women encouraging the reader to do more research on the topic.

Perhaps the most glaring error is the misleading title. Anna never actually agrees to pose as Caleb’s fiancé, it’s just assumed by the townsfolk after a series of misadventures (including the actions of a playful goat). It’s over two thirds of the way through the book before Anna graciously accepts the situation.

All in all a disappointment, especially since all the elements were present to create a great story.

2 and a half stars. A thank you to Netgalley and Love Inspired Books for sending me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.