Book Reviews

Book Review: IN FARLEIGH FIELD

FarleighTitle: IN FARLEIGH FIELD
Author: Rhys Bowen
Publication Information: Lake Union Publishing, 2017
Pages: 398
Source: Kindle First selection
Genre: Adult – Historical Fiction, Mystery
Warnings: Light torture, references to war violence, light sexual content
Rating: 4 stars
Recommended For: People who think Downton Abbey could’ve used a little more espionage.

World War II comes to Farleigh Place, the ancestral home of Lord Westerham and his five daughters, when a soldier with a failed parachute falls to his death on the estate. After his uniform and possessions raise suspicions, MI5 operative and family friend Ben Cresswell is covertly tasked with determining if the man is a German spy. The assignment also offers Ben the chance to be near Lord Westerham’s middle daughter, Pamela, whom he furtively loves. But Pamela has her own secret: she has taken a job at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility.

As Ben follows a trail of spies and traitors, which may include another member of Pamela’s family, he discovers that some within the realm have an appalling, history-altering agenda. Can he, with Pamela’s help, stop them before England falls?

(Summary from Goodreads)

I found IN FARLEIGH FIELD very enjoyable thanks in large part to the strong resemblance it bore to Downton Abbey, one of my favorite shows. Like Downton, it was set in a large country estate and followed the exploits of an upper class family during wartime.

The book follows multiple points of view as the Westerhams and the people in the nearby village wait for the surely inevitable German invasion. While some of the characters grated on me – Dido, the second-youngest daughter, particularly – I really enjoyed reading the chapters from Pamela, Ben, and Margot’s points of view (which was, fortunately, most of them). Phoebe, the youngest daughter, was also a delight and I would’ve loved more chapters from her point of view.

Central to the story’s plot is a mystery – who is the soldier who parachuted into the field at Farleigh, and who was he trying to contact? I figured it out pretty early on, but I cared about the characters enough that I didn’t really mind too much. I also loved the world Bowen crafted, both the upper class dinner parties and the intelligence bureaus Pamela and Ben worked for.

Verdict: Predictable mystery made up for with solid characters and setting.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: THE MADMAN’S DAUGHTER

MadmanTitle: THE MADMAN’S DAUGHTER
Author: Megan Shepherd
Series: The Madman’s Daughter, #1
Publication Information: Balzer + Bray, 2013
Genre: Young Adult – Historical Fiction, Gothic, Retelling
Rating: 4 Stars
Recommended For: People who don’t mind feeling uncomfortable the entire time they’re reading.
Warnings: Animal Cruelty, Violence

Sixteen-year-old Juliet Moreau has built a life for herself in London—working as a maid, attending church on Sundays, and trying not to think about the scandal that ruined her life. After all, no one ever proved the rumors about her father’s gruesome experiments. But when she learns he is alive and continuing his work on a remote tropical island, she is determined to find out if the accusations are true.

Accompanied by her father’s handsome young assistant, Montgomery, and an enigmatic castaway, Edward—both of whom she is deeply drawn to—Juliet travels to the island, only to discover the depths of her father’s madness: He has experimented on animals so that they resemble, speak, and behave as humans. And worse, one of the creatures has turned violent and is killing the island’s inhabitants. Torn between horror and scientific curiosity, Juliet knows she must end her father’s dangerous experiments and escape her jungle prison before it’s too late. Yet as the island falls into chaos, she discovers the extent of her father’s genius—and madness—in her own blood.

Inspired by H. G. Wells’s classic The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Madman’s Daughter is a dark and breathless Gothic thriller about the secrets we’ll do anything to know and the truths we’ll go to any lengths to protect.

(Summary from Goodreads)

THE MADMAN’S DAUGHTER was simultaneously a quick read and a dense read. It was a relatively fast-paced mystery, but it also dealt with a lot of questions of morality in science. It made for an interesting dynamic.

I love how complex Juliet is – she’s intelligent and longs to escape the shadow of her father’s scandal, and yet she also longs for his approval. And then there’s also the war in her heart between Montgomery and Edward, with each boy representing a different side of her – Montgomery the innocence of her youth, and Edward the darker side of her she’s not sure she wants to give into.

While I think the love triangle was well done – both boys were compelling for different reasons – I wish it had taken more of a backseat since it felt like there were times it dominated the story. There were a few times I wanted to slap Juliet, because GIRL. THERE ARE FEROCIOUS JUNGLE MONSTERS TRYING TO KILL YOU. SERIOUSLY.

Speaking of jungle monsters, the setting is fantastic, from our brief glimpse of Victorian London at the beginning to the ocean and eventually the jungle. It was very atmospheric and, in the case of the jungle in particular, helped to add to the suspense of the story.

The only thing I would caution is there is a bit of animal cruelty in the book, and it’s described in some detail. It’s in a scientific context, but still. I had a hard time with it, and I’m not particularly sensitive to it, so.

TL;DR: An atmospheric gothic mystery with a compelling leading lady; an atmospheric setting; and a love triangle that occasionally detracted from the story, but was generally well done.

Book Reviews

Review: Belle Epoque

belleTitle: Belle Epoque
Author: Elizabeth Ross
Genre: Young Adult – Historical Fiction
Publication Information: Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2013

When Maude Pichon runs away from provincial Brittany to Paris, her romantic dreams vanish as quickly as her savings. Desperate for work, she answers an unusual ad. The Durandeau Agency provides its clients with a unique service—the beauty foil. Hire a plain friend and become instantly more attractive.

Monsieur Durandeau has made a fortune from wealthy socialites, and when the Countess Dubern needs a companion for her headstrong daughter, Isabelle, Maude is deemed the perfect foil.

But Isabelle has no idea her new “friend” is the hired help, and Maude’s very existence among the aristocracy hinges on her keeping the truth a secret. Yet the more she learns about Isabelle, the more her loyalty is tested. And the longer her deception continues, the more she has to lose.

(Summary from Goodreads)

I had a hard time getting into this book initially, but after taking a break, I was hooked. I don’t know if it was just the mood I was in when I started the book, or if things just clicked for me in the second half, but ultimately, Belle Epoque was a powerful story of a girl realizing her own worth.

I love how 1880s France came to life. The glittering life of the aristocracy seemed extra-glittery through Maude’s eyes, and the bohemian stuff reminded me of Moulin Rouge!, one of my favorite movies. Also, I really liked Paul – Maude’s musician friend – as a character, although his romance with Maude fell flat for me.

And Maude. Oh, Maude. I had such a love-hate relationship with her, although more emphasis on the love because I could understand her choices, and I really felt for her by the end. There were so many times I wanted to slap her upside the head, especially as the story went on and she got sucked more and more into the aristocratic lifestyle. At first she joined the agency out of desperation – between going home to have her self-esteem crushed, or staying in Paris to have her self-esteem crushed but at least being paid for it, her choice made a lot of sense. However, we see over the course of the story how much Maude comes to love the aristocracy, and not just for the luxury: this is the first time in her life she’s felt accepted, and it’s not a feeling she’s eager to let go of. And by the end of the story, Maude comes to realize that the only person who needs to accept her is herself. And that is what makes this book so powerful.

It changes you, losing someone so important as a child. I had no mirror of love telling me I was beautiful or special and could achieve anything. After my mother died, that mirror was gone. And I lived without that echo of love and confidence until I found it, once more, in Paris.

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: Mistress of Rome

MistressTitle: Mistress of Rome
Author: Kate Quinn
Series: The Empress of Rome, #1
Genre: Adult – Historical Fiction
Publication Information: Berkley Trade, 2010
Age Recommendation: Adult

Thea is a slave girl from Judaea, passionate, musical, and guarded. Purchased as a toy for the spiteful heiress Lepida Pollia, Thea will become her mistress’s rival for the love of Arius the Barbarian, Rome’s newest and most savage gladiator. His love brings Thea the first happiness of her life-that is quickly ended when a jealous Lepida tears them apart.

As Lepida goes on to wreak havoc in the life of a new husband and his family, Thea remakes herself as a polished singer for Rome’s aristocrats. Unwittingly, she attracts another admirer in the charismatic Emperor of Rome. But Domitian’s games have a darker side, and Thea finds herself fighting for both soul and sanity. Many have tried to destroy the Emperor: a vengeful gladiator, an upright senator, a tormented soldier, a Vestal Virgin. But in the end, the life of the brilliant and paranoid Domitian lies in the hands of one woman: the Emperor’s mistress.

(Summary from Goodreads)

So, having started this series with the third book (oops), it was nice to go back and read this one. While reading the books in this series in order isn’t strictly necessary since they are very much self-contained stories within the larger arc, it was nice to get some backstory behind the major players in Empress of the Seven Hills.

I loved all of the characters, except Lepida, who was generally an awful person. I guess there were reasons for this? But she was so awful, I didn’t care. I mean, I even liked Domitian more than her, and Domitian wasn’t the most sympathetic character, so there’s that. But everyone else, though, was great. Little Vix stole the show for me (which was fantastic because I loved him so much after reading the other book he’s in), and I loved how sassy the Empress was – an impressive feat after being married to Domitian for 20+ years.

I think the only problem I really had was Marcus’s motivations for wanting Domitian dead. I understood why all of the other characters wanted him dead, but his motivations were never really clear. Ultimately, though, that was a small problem in comparison with the sheer awesome that was this book, and didn’t deter me from being obsessed with this series in the slightest.

If you like a healthy blend of Ancient Rome, political intrigue, and romance, this is definitely a book for you.

Rating: 5/5 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: Cleopatra’s Moon

CleopatraTitle: Cleopatra’s Moon
Author: Vicky Alvear Shecter
Genre: Young Adult – Historical Fiction
Publication Information: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2011
Age Recommendation: Middle School & High School

Selene grew up in a palace on the Nile under parents Cleopatra and Mark Antony – the most brilliant, powerful rulers on earth. But Roman Emperor takes the country and princess to Rome. She finds herself torn between two young men and two possible destinies – until she reaches out to claim her own.

(Summary from Goodreads.)

This was an interesting read, since I haven’t read a lot of YA historical fiction set in Ancient Rome. For the most part, it was done really well, and I found it to be a multi-layered yet accessible read.

The settings – Egypt and Rome alike – came to life vividly without getting too bogged down in details. The political aspect – the tenuous relationship between Egypt and Rome during this time period – was especially well done, giving us a good look at the relationships Augustus used to build up his empire and maintain his hold on his client kingdoms. We also got a good picture at just how much of a pawn Cleopatra Selene was, something that was heightened with the contrast between her status and her struggle to regain control of her mother’s kingdom.

I thought most of the characters were developed well, with the exception of Julia. She came across as a spoiled brat, which would’ve been fine, except I could see no reason for it aside from being a brat for the sake of being a brat. I also could’ve used more development with the romances. Marcellus, I understood as just a political thing, but Cleopatra Selene never really dwells on it – she mentions her endgame but doesn’t think about it outside of that. (For example, what would the potential consequences be of getting involved with him?) As far as the romance with Juba goes, I understood that to be genuine, but we don’t really get to see much of them together, so that one fell flat for me.

Ultimately, though, I enjoyed Cleopatra’s Moon. It would be a good fit for historical fiction lovers, as well as people who enjoy political intrigue.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Book Reviews, Debut Author Challenge

Debut Author Challenge: A Mad, Wicked Folly

AMWFTitle: A Mad, Wicked Folly
Author: Sharon Biggs Waller
Genre: Young Adult – Historical Fiction
Publication Information: Viking Juvenile, 2014
Age Recommendation: Middle School/High School

Welcome to the world of the fabulously wealthy in London, 1909, where dresses and houses are overwhelmingly opulent, social class means everything, and women are taught to be nothing more than wives and mothers. Into this world comes seventeen-year-old Victoria Darling, who wants only to be an artist—a nearly impossible dream for a girl.

After Vicky poses nude for her illicit art class, she is expelled from her French finishing school. Shamed and scandalized, her parents try to marry her off to the wealthy Edmund Carrick-Humphrey. But Vicky has other things on her mind: her clandestine application to the Royal College of Art; her participation in the suffragette movement; and her growing attraction to a working-class boy who may be her muse—or may be the love of her life. As the world of debutante balls, corsets, and high society obligations closes in around her, Vicky must figure out: just how much is she willing to sacrifice to pursue her dreams?

(Summary from Goodreads.)

I loved this book. The fact that it was about the women’s suffrage movement caught my attention since I don’t see much of that in YA, but then there was so much more to it – all of the art history (which was also fascinating, especially as a person who doesn’t know much about 19th and 20th century art), the social aspect, and the fact that Vicky’s story of pursuing her dream and trying to find her place in the world transcends time periods.

The Edwardian Era is one that fascinates me because the dynamic of old meets new really jumps out at you – there were all of these social movements going on – women’s suffrage being an especially major one – but then we seen a lot of classism still as the rich try to maintain the old world order. That was one of the primary conflicts in this book, and I think Waller did a great job portraying that. Vicky really just wants to be an artist, and she has to decide how far she’s willing to go to pursue her dream. As a woman with a painfully old-fashioned father, her choices are limited: she has to marry a man she doesn’t love just so she can escape her father’s control, or she has to completely cut herself off from her family.

I loved watching Vicky’s confidence grow throughout the course of the book. The suffragettes played a crucial role in this – showing Vicky what the world can be, and also helping her stand up for what she believes in. They also helped show her just how important her voice is, and I was definitely Team Vicky by the end.

The only thing that really bothered me was how Vicky was so sure she’d talk her father around, all evidence to the contrary. I appreciated how brave she was in taking a stand, but she also never really contemplated the possibility that he would say no. There’s a line between demanding to be taken seriously and being unrealistic, and I just wasn’t entirely convinced that Vicky was on the former side.

A Mad, Wicked Folly is one of my favorite books of 2014. It’s rich with historical details and has a heroine whose journey will make you feel empowered at the end. Also, it has an adorable and sweet writer-boy, and what more can you want?

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

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Book Reviews

Review: The Queen’s Vow

VowTitle: The Queen’s Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile
Author: C.W. Gortner
Genre: Adult – Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 2012
Age Recommendation: Adult

No one believed I was destined for greatness.
 
So begins Isabella’s story, in this evocative, vividly imagined novel about one of history’s most famous and controversial queens—the warrior who united a fractured country, the champion of the faith whose reign gave rise to the Inquisition, and the visionary who sent Columbus to discover a New World. Acclaimed author C. W. Gortner envisages the turbulent early years of a woman whose mythic rise to power would go on to transform a monarchy, a nation, and the world.

Young Isabella is barely a teenager when she and her brother are taken from their mother’s home to live under the watchful eye of their half-brother, King Enrique, and his sultry, conniving queen. There, Isabella is thrust into danger when she becomes an unwitting pawn in a plot to dethrone Enrique. Suspected of treason and held captive, she treads a perilous path, torn between loyalties, until at age seventeen she suddenly finds herself heiress of Castile, the largest kingdom in Spain. Plunged into a deadly conflict to secure her crown, she is determined to wed the one man she loves yet who is forbidden to her—Fernando, prince of Aragon.

As they unite their two realms under “one crown, one country, one faith,” Isabella and Fernando face an impoverished Spain beset by enemies. With the future of her throne at stake, Isabella resists the zealous demands of the inquisitor Torquemada even as she is seduced by the dreams of an enigmatic navigator named Columbus. But when the Moors of the southern domain of Granada declare war, a violent, treacherous battle against an ancient adversary erupts, one that will test all of Isabella’s resolve, her courage, and her tenacious belief in her destiny.

From the glorious palaces of Segovia to the battlefields of Granada and the intrigue-laden gardens of Seville, The Queen’s Vow sweeps us into the tumultuous forging of a nation and the complex, fascinating heart of the woman who overcame all odds to become Isabella of Castile.

(Summary from Goodreads)

Two things about The Queen’s Vow stood out to me right away: the setting and Isabella’s voice. I got the sense right away that I would see a quiet sort of strength from Isabella, which are exactly the sorts of characters I love. I also knew the setting, Castile, would be very atmospheric, and I wasn’t disappointed in this. Castile came to life, making it easy to see why Isabella would fight so fiercely for it.

Isabella was a complex character. In the first part of the book, she’s torn between doing her duty and doing what she wants – although what she wants isn’t clear initially because she probably isn’t even sure what she wants, since she’s always been told what to want. I loved watching her journey toward figuring that out. And once she did figure out what she wanted, she wasn’t afraid to fight for it, while still being concerned about her people. I found her internal conflict about instating the Inquisition and expelling the Jews to be especially compelling, and I really wish the Inquisition had been played up more since it was such a big deal. In this book, it mostly sat in the background of the main conflict of retaking Castile. I feel like the Inquisition is wrapped up pretty closely in everything else that was going on, so it would’ve been nice to see, especially more of the consequences of Isabella agreeing to it.

The other characters were pretty well-defined, also, especially Fernando, who had the whole male superiority thing going on, yet had a lot of respect for Isabella. I also loved Isabella’s relationship with her younger brother, Alfonso, although I do wish her relationship with her older brother, Enrique, could’ve been developed better, especially since she spends so much time in conflict with him. I think that could’ve added to the tension since initially Isabella tried to get along with Enrique.

One major issue I had with the book was how much time it covers. The book starts in Isabella’s early years with her struggle first to survive at Enrique’s court, then to escape it and live life on her own terms. Once that happens, though, and she becomes queen, the book completely shifts tone and focus to her struggle to unite Castile in the midst of civil war, as well as reclaim lands in Granada from the Muslims and remake Castile as a Catholic kingdom. It really felt like two entirely separate books, and I feel like it might’ve been better if it had been that way, especially since there was so much that could be added to both halves of the book.

If you’re interested in oft-vilified lady historical figures and you’re looking for a more sympathetic portrayal of them, The Queen’s Vow is a good example.

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars