Saturday, May 30, 2020

#BookReview: The Jane Austen Society: A Novel by Natalie Jenner

Genre
Literary Fiction

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DESCRIPTION: 
Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England's finest novelists. Now it's home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen's legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen's home and her legacy. These people―a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others―could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

A powerful and moving novel that explores the tragedies and triumphs of life, both large and small, and the universal humanity in us all, Natalie Jenner's The Jane Austen Society is destined to resonate with readers for years to come.

REVIEW: 
Natalie Jenner's The Jane Austen Society was an unusual pick for me. I am naturally drawn to novels with heavier subject matter and more complex political themes, but something in the premise caught my eye, so I decided to try my luck.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, it should be understood that I am not a Janeite. I have read some of Austen's books, and I have a working knowledge of her life, but I do not go weak in the knees at the mere mention of Mr. Darcy. This makes me something of an anomaly among the reviewers who have offered comments on The Jane Austen Society, but I think my neutrality on Austen allowed me to assess Jenner's work from a different angle than those harboring a pre-existing passion for the classics and their creator.

Having said this, I admit I enjoyed the time I spent with Jenner's debut. I feel the novel falls to the lighter end of the historical fiction spectrum, but I thought the book offered a lovely portrait of village life in the wake of World War II. The fact that Jenner's cast is multi-generational also brings something special to the story as their diverse reflections and perspectives showcase the universal appeal of Austen's work and how fans come to understand it differently each time they visit it.

I enjoyed Evie Stone and delighted in her effort to catalog the Knight library, but I fell hard for Dr. Gray, Adam Berwick, and Adeline Forrester. Publishing trends favor stories that focus on younger leads, but I found the older members of Jenner's cast far more intriguing. Their stories are predictable, but the emotional nuance of their arcs more than make up for the general lack of ambiguity.

The only character I did not like was Mimi Harrison. I do not know if she was a late addition to the novel, but she struck me as out of place. Almost like she was shoehorned into the story on the heels of #MeToo to give the novel contemporary relevance. I do not wish to imply that theme unimportant or her character lacking, just that I did not feel either inherent to The Jane Austen Society and wish Jenner had held both in reserve for another release. 

Comparatively speaking, I feel The Jane Austen Society falls somewhere between Fowlet's The Jane Austen Book Club and Shaffer's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The book is a little slow in terms of pace, but I thought it delightfully heartwarming and look forward to reading Jenner again in future.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: May 30, 2020
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Saturday, May 23, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with author, Steven A. McKay

Genre
Historical Fiction

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To begin, please tell us a bit about yourself and your books. 
Thank you for having me, I’m excited to answer these questions! I’m 43, been writing since 2013 and I’m married with a couple of great children. When I’m not writing I love playing guitar and listening to heavy metal (and Jethro Tull). My first book was Wolf’s Head, and since then I’ve written quite a few novels and novellas. My latest full-length novel is called LUCIA, and that was bought by Audible so you can only find it there for the first 12 months. It tells the story of a young girl taken into slavery by the Romans and I’m extremely proud of it as it’s not like my usual books at all.

As a writer, what attracted you to historical fiction?
I think it’s all the heroic or inspiring deeds and people we imagine populating our past – men and women like Odysseus, King Arthur, Jane Eyre, Anne S. Cuthbert, and so on. There’s something very romantic, yet still grounded in reality, about those people so it offers the reader escapism without straying too far from our current existence the way fantasy or sci-fi does. It’s also fun to research a period in history, find some interesting events and people, then mould it all to suit your own vision. I find it fascinating to discover things like, for example, the medieval monks in Selby Abbey got into trouble for drinking, fighting and fornicating – that’s the kind of thing that makes a great story!

How would you describe your style of storytelling? 
I like to keep things rolling along without lots of unnecessary waffle – generally, there should be something exciting happening regularly, be it a fight or a chase or a plot twist or whatever. Some historical fiction authors feel the need to show us all how much research they’ve done, so they’ll describe armour, or clothes, or the wine-making process or something in minute detail. Certain readers enjoy that, but I’m here to tell an entertaining story, not take you back to school. I do research everything, and I put a lot of time and effort into making my books as accurate as possible that way, but, ultimately, I want to tell an exciting tale that moves readers. That is my goal with every book I write.

Who, if anyone, inspires you as a writer?
Because I do so much research these days, I don’t have a lot of time to read fiction anymore. People like Bernard Cornwell, Ben Kane, Douglas Jackson and Tolkien were who inspired me originally to start writing myself. More recently, I broadened my horizons with Audible and listened to some audiobooks which were not my usual fare – Daphne Du Maurier became a HUGE favourite, I loved her Rebecca and Jamaica Inn in particular. And I also loved Jane Eyre. Those stories – with wonderful female heroes – were what inspired me to write LUCIA. It’s good to try new genres!

Your first novels, The Forest Lord series, centered on the legends of Robin Hood. Were you intimidated tackling subject matter that is so well-known? 
No, not really. I thought it was a bit of a blessing that so much of the story was well known, as it meant I had a kind of map to lead me along. Obviously I fleshed it out using my own ideas and characters, but there were certain things in the old legends that HAD to be in there in one way or another so it was a little easier than having to make everything up myself. At the same time, looking at what other authors had done with Robin Hood made me happy, as they were all working along similar lines, similar time frames, similar characters – I went back to the very first, original ballads and tales and realized they were quite different. They were set in Yorkshire for a start! That meant I could stay close to the original legend AND be different to modern writers and movies and such, so that was great. It makes my books stand out I think.

Of the characters in this series, which was your favorite and why? 
It has to be Little John. He’s funny, honest, good-natured, loyal, likes a drink, and stands nearly seven feet tall so he kicks all kinds of ass! I always listen to heavy metal when I write and John is definitely a guy who embodies that culture - he is very “metal”. There are so many really cool characters within the Robin Hood mythos though and I had a LOT of fun bringing them all to life and putting my own spin on them. I’m quite proud of the Sheriff of Nottingham and Yorkshire too – he’s not the usual “baddie” you find in the legend, and he kind of became more real, and more interesting, as the series went on.

Your second series, Warrior Druid of Britain, took a different direction. Historically speaking, did you find it challenging to transition from Medieval Britain to Roman Britain? 
Not really. They are fairly similar when it comes to things like food and technology. Going from, say, modern day to medieval would be hard because society is SO different. But 14th to 5th century isn’t a huge jump in many ways. As always, I did a lot of research (which never stops) to make sure I’m getting things right but, honestly, although historians no longer like the term “Dark Ages”, they were called that for a reason. There’s not a lot known about certain aspects of that period and that’s excellent for a fiction writer, as it means I can make lots of things up and no-one can tell me I’m wrong! Of course, there’s still people who want to say “druids didn’t do this” or “druid’s didn’t believe that” but come back to me when you have proof. No-one knows for certain what these people really lived like and that really opens up the imagination and lets a writer be creative.
Overall, in terms of characters – it doesn’t matter what year it is, people are much the same. We live, love, laugh, cry, feel jealousy, hatred, pride and so on.

The power of the old Gods plays a significant role in this series. Why did you feel this material so important? 
Religion played a huge part in daily life back then and I personally find it really interesting that they had all these different gods and goddesses. It wasn’t a case of, “Here’s a book written by God, you’ll read it and believe that and nothing else.” In those days people were allowed to believe in whatever they liked, and they saw the druids as representatives of those old gods. Of course, Christianity began to find a foothold around that period and it’s interesting to look at the struggle between the old ways and the new. We know who won in the end, but why? While the country was seeing huge change thanks to the departure of the Romans and the influx of the Dalriadans and Saxons, religion was also drastically changing. The battle between the old gods and Christianity was as important – probably more – than any other in the formation of what we now call Britain.

On a more personal level, whether you believe in one God, or ten, or none, the world is a strange place and sometimes things happen that can’t be explained by normal means. Magic, miracles or misperception – it always makes for an interesting tale. My druid isn’t of the “fantasy” type – he’s no Gandalf or Allanon who can shoot blue fire from his fingers. The magic in my books is more “real”, more subtle, and leaves space for the reader to wonder what’s actually happening. Sometimes, letting the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks is the best way to do things, as fans of HP Lovecraft will know.

Faces of Darkness, your newest release, is a standalone set in 1328, but it takes inspiration from a real unsolved case from the 1980s. Why did this case capture your attention and was it difficult reworking the context to a historic setting? 
The case of Cindy James is just so strange. For those who’ve never heard of her, Cindy claimed she was stalked for years, suffering many horrific attacks in the process and eventually being found dead. I don’t want to give away too much, but I just felt like she needed some kind of closure as, to this day, no-one really knows what happened to her. So I tried to do that in Faces of Darkness. It was a little difficult to put the case into a medieval setting because back then they didn’t have things like phones for people to make harassing calls on and that was one of the most sinister aspects of the real case (listen to her answerphone message if you want to be really creeped out!). But I think I managed to tell a decent version of the story while also bringing a satisfying resolution for the reader.

I did think about setting it in the 1980’s, making it my first “contemporary” story, but I felt like Friar Tuck and Little John would be the perfect characters to solve the mystery. Readers have really enjoyed it so I will probably write more along similar lines and using the same characters.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of your work? 
I really just want people to be entertained and escape the real world for a while, especially now when we’re all frightened and in lockdown. Sometimes I throw in little things that might make people want to look a bit deeper and I think my books all have this, perhaps quite childlike sense of “everything will be alright in the end”, but that’s good. We all need hope and, despite all the terrible crap some of my characters suffer, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.

For all of us!

Monday, May 11, 2020

#BookReview: In Search of Brigid Coltrane by Seamus Beirne

Genre
Historical Thriller

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DESCRIPTION: 
A lazy Sunday afternoon of fishing on an Irish lake suddenly turns into a nightmare of flight and terror when Peter Coltrane and his fourteen-year-old daughter Brigid stumble on a gruesome execution. The chase is on when the assassins find out that they have been discovered. In his small motorboat, Peter leads them in the falling darkness through the hazardous channels of the boggy terrain where they finally find refuge and think they are safe. However, the next morning, Brigid has vanished.

The ensuing rescue mission leads Peter into a Gordian knot of political and religious intrigue involving the Blueshirts--an Irish Fascist group--including Major Adler, a Nazi agent; Abbot Jonathan, the rheumy-eyed abbot of a local monastery; and Kincade, the ruthless enforcer. A shared objective unites them all: silence Peter Coltrane.

Peter must race against the clock to save Brigid. But will good trump evil, and at what cost?

REVIEW: 
I came to Seamus Beirne’s In Search of Brigid Coltrane on the heels of a public reading. I’d no experience with the author, but his depiction of the Magdalene laundries tickled my imagination. I purchased the title soon after and quickly lost myself in Beirne’s authentically Irish voice and unique brand of storytelling.

For me, In Search of Brigid Coltrane falls somewhere between Max Allan Collins’ Road to Perdition and Andrew M. Greeley’s Nuala Anne McGrail series. Beirne blends a compelling emotional storyline with an intense conspiratorial arc, then binds them together with an array of fascinating historical detail.

There’s also something to be said for the cultural undertones of the narrative. Beirne is Irish by birth, and I feel his firsthand perspective transcends his writing. His nuancing is subtle, but there’s a natural fluidity to it, a fact particularly noticeable in the cadence of his characters’ dialogue.

An engaging story beginning to end, In Search of Brigid Coltrane proved difficult to put down. A compulsively readable and recommended historical thriller.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: March 26, 2019
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Sunday, May 10, 2020

#BookReview: The Fire and the Light: A Novel of the Cathars by Glen Craney

Genre
Biographic Fiction

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DESCRIPTION: 
She will defy the most powerful pope in history.

As the 13th-century dawns across Occitania, a brash, charismatic viscountess named Esclarmonde de Foix champions her persecuted pacifist faith and shocks the Church by publicly debating its greatest monastic minds.

Centuries later, she is still revered as the Cathar Joan of Arc.

Spiritual upheaval shakes Latin Christendom. In Rome, Pope Innocent III plots to crush a growing dualist sect that preaches Christ's mission has been corrupted. In the Holy Land, warrior-monks make a disturbing discovery. In southern France, roving troubadours sing of a Holy Grail that offers salvation through the intercession of a worthy lady.

And in the foothills of the Pyrenees, war clouds approach Esclarmonde's hunted heretics, who protect an ancient scroll containing shattering revelations.

Declared outlaws by the Church, the Occitan knights who defend Esclarmonde's family and followers determine to make their last stand atop Montsegur, a haunting mountain keep that protects a sacred treasure. Their heroic resistance against the papal and French armies evokes the legendary defiance of the Jewish rebels against the Roman legions at Masada.

Myth and history collide in this sweeping saga of crusading fanaticism, courtly romance, knightly valor, and monastic conspiracy set during the infamous Albigensian Crusade.

REVIEW: 
To be perfectly blunt, Glen Craney’s The Fire and the Light is a story I didn’t know I needed. I wasn’t familiar with the history that inspired it, and I had no idea what to expect when I approved the purchase, but the novel struck a chord just the same and held my imagination captive beginning to end.

Esclarmonde is an elusive historical figure at best, but I enjoyed Craney’s take on her legacy. From wisps of rumor and fractured footnotes, he created a compellingly nuanced and multifaceted woman whose steadfast devotion transcends the text. The Fire and the Light is a weighty piece of historical fiction, but Craney’s decision to explore the Cathar sect and Albigensian Crusade through the experiences of this singular character humanizes the material in a profound and powerful way.

Another thing I liked about this book was its portrayal of Vatican politics. Until this period, crusading was considered a penitential exercise against non-Christians. Pope Innocent III, however, expanded the scope of these campaigns to counteract Christian sects who challenged the authority of the Catholic Church. This pivotal gear shift placed the Cathars directly in Innocent's crosshairs and ushered in a brand of persecution that would characterize Europe for centuries to come. The intensity of the material could have easily overwhelmed the narrative, but Craney’s deft handling of his subject matter creates a fascinatingly palatable and addictive portrait of the period. The history is shocking and violent, but it translates well, even to those encountering the material for the first time.

The Fire and the Light is a breathtaking story of an oft-overlooked event. It is an engaging narrative with a brilliantly imagined heroine at its helm. It is the kind of book that keeps you up at night and haunts your imagination long after the final page. Highly Recommended.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: July 13, 2019
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Saturday, May 9, 2020

#BookReview: Psyche Unbound by Zenobia Neil

Genre
Historical Retelling
Erotic Literature
Mythology

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DESCRIPTION: 
The celebrated beauty of Roman princess Psyche has enraged Venus, the Goddess of Love and Beauty. As punishment, Psyche is left naked on the beach to be sacrificed to a monster. When Cupid, the God of Love, swoops her up and flies her to the monster's palace, Psyche mistakenly wraps her legs around his waist, looks into his eyes, and falls in love.

Blindfolded and tied to a bed, Psyche awaits the monster, vowing to be brave as she faces death. Yet when the monster arrives, he marries her on the condition she never see his face. As she grows to love her shadow husband, she can't stop thinking about the God of Love. Consumed by curiosity, Psyche breaks her promise by lighting a lamp. Awaking in a rage, and furious with her betrayal, her husband banishes her from the palace.

Psyche begs Venus for another chance at love. Unmoved, Venus demands Psyche perform three impossible tasks. If Psyche succeeds, her husband will return. If she fails, she will be condemned to death.

Can Psyche satisfy Venus and win back her true love?

REVIEW: 
Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to note I do not read a lot of erotic lit. I have flirted with the genre on and off over the years. Still, I identify almost exclusively as a reader of historical fiction, and that is how I approached Zenobia Neil’s Psyche Unbound.

Psyche Unbound is essentially a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth. God and mortal fall in love, their bond is tested, promises are broken, and a vengeful and jealous goddess offers a path to redemption. This path takes the form of a series of impossible tasks, each designed to drive Psyche to despair. Thematically, the myth explores love, trust, betrayal, and redemption, all of which are paralleled by Neil in Psyche Unbound. The author, however, puts a unique twist on the tale, adding a sensual component to the mix while aligning sexual confidence and experience to Psyche’s developmental arc.

Neil’s work is not for everyone, those who can not palate eroticism should look elsewhere for their next read, but I found this take on the classic intensely creative. Neil understands the danger of repetition and liked how she diversified the action of each encounter to keep her audience engaged. What stood out to me, however, were the tonal shifts of her sex scenes, especially as the novel progressed to Venus’ tasks. Neil's passion for antiquity transcends the text and while she puts her own unmistakable spin on it, I could not help but appreciate the care she took in tempering her voice to compliment the themes of the original story.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: February 12, 2020
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Friday, May 8, 2020

#BookReview: Charity Girl by David Blixt

Genre
Biographical Fiction

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Social Media
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DESCRIPTION: 
A gripping sequel to the bestselling novel What Girls Are Good For, following the real-life reporting of undercover journalist Nellie Bly!

Fresh from her escape from the madhouse on Blackwell's Island, undercover reporter Nellie Bly investigates the doctors who buy and sell babies in Victorian New York. Based on real events and her own reporting, this novelette follows Nellie Bly as she asks the devastating question - what becomes of babies?

REVIEW: 
Bly is known for penning Ten Days in a Madhouse, but Charity Girl showcases the struggles she faced as an investigative columnist despite professional success. Bly made her name on Blackwell's Island, but fame didn’t open every door and didn’t guarantee either print space or final editorial approval of her submissions. I’ve no idea where Blixt intends to take this series, but I like the arc this novelette hints at and hope professional frustration plays a role in future installments.

Bly, however, isn’t the only strong woman Charity Girl has to offer. I delighted in Blixt’s complex portrait of Sister Irene and how he used her as a foil for Bly. The refined nuance of their interactions allows both to shine without sacrificing their individual integrity. Blixt's admiration for both women is unmistakable, but his recognition of the differences in their outlooks and experiences brings a unique note to the narrative.

Finally, I'd be remiss in failing to note Blixt’s research and the treasure trove of letters it uncovered. I can’t imagine how the author felt reading these documents for the first time, but I was profoundly touched by his decision to include them. Reading these accounts put me directly in Bly’s shoes and communicated the intensity of emotion that drove her investigative work. More than that, however, these letters gave a voice to a generation silenced by shame and circumstance, a demographic often marginalized and forgotten in the broader context of our nation's history.

Though written as a sequel novelette, Charity Girl packs a punch all its own. I read the books in order but feel this short can be just as readily appreciated as a standalone. Highly recommended and not to be missed.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: April 21, 2020
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