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Confinement
Confinement
by Katharine McMahon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, 19 Sep 2009
This review is from: Confinement (Paperback)
Confinement is the second of Katharine McMahon's books that I've read. The Rose of Sebastopol wasn't a particular favorite, but I decided to give the author another try with this book. I was disappointed again.

This novel is one of McMahon's earlier novels, reprinted just this past year. It centers around a girls' school called Priors Heath, and splits time between the 1840s and `50s, and the 1960s, `70s, and `90s. In 1849, Bess Hardemon arrives at Priors Heath, a rather Brontean institution, to be a teacher, eventually struggling up through the ranks to become its headmistress; in 1967, Sarah Beckett is a student at Priors Heath, later returning to be a teacher herself.

Confinement constantly jumps forwards and backwards in time. Just as the author gets you comfortably settled with one story, she immediately jumps to the other. There are a lot more subtle ways to deal with time shifts such as these, and McMahon doesn't really know in this novel how to do them. And the characters are a bit hard to understand, too. For example, Imogen's brother Lawrence is twice-divorced, a failure at his career, and not particularly good-looking, so it was hard for me to understand why Sarah was so attracted to him. It was also difficult to understand her friendship with Imogen, too, when the girls were so different.

The author also introduces a lot of ideas, but they're half-formed: educational reform, women's rights, etc., are all touched on but never elaborated. Many women in the 19th century turned to teaching/governessing because it was the only option, apart from marriage, that was available to them; it's ironic, then, that to escape her marriage and gain a bit of independence, Sarah becomes a teacher. I enjoyed the idea of the book; I just didn't enjoy how it all was presented for the reader.


The King's Mistress
The King's Mistress
by Emma Campion
Edition: Paperback

47 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended, 18 Sep 2009
This review is from: The King's Mistress (Paperback)
The King's Mistress is an enormous book, in terms of both physical size and scope. Covering the period from 1355 to the 1380s, this novel is the story of Alice Perrers, mistress to King Edward III. Upon her marriage to Janyn Perrers, Alice finds that her husband has connections to the Dowager Queen Isabella, a woman who once incited rebellion against her husband. After her husband's disappearance, Alice enters the royal court, valued by Queen Philippa for her knowledge of textiles, capturing the attention of King Edward in the process. It's pretty amazing, too, how closely Alice's life parallels that of Troilus and Criseyde--in fact, she even suggests that Alice was in some part the inspiration for Chaucer's poem.

Alice sort of has a Bad Reputation, fabricated by her enemies at court and fostered over the years. Certainly in Emma Campion's Owen Archer mysteries (written as Candace Robb), Alice really doesn't come off very well, so it was interesting to me to witness how the author handles her narrator in this book. In The King's Mistress, Alice comes alive, as an outsider in an atmosphere where she has many enemies. From her early marriage to Janyn Perrers up through her death, Alice narrates her story, proving herself to be a strong, courageous woman, even though she had few options.

It's a long book--nearly 550 pages and a large trim size, and it's taken me a while to finish. It's a tough novel to categorize, primarily because it's so huge in scope. There's some fabulous character development here, as Alice grows from being a naïve young wife to the canny mistress of a king, feared and detested by all. And yet, it's clear that she doesn't have many options--as she says over and over, when had I a choice to be other than I was? From the moment she catches the King's eye, purely by accident, she also catches the enmity of other people at court, not the least of which is the King's son, John of Gaunt.

And yet this novel isn't a "woe is me" whine-fest about how other people are jealous of her; instead, Alice comes across as a woman who didn't want the life into which she was pushed. At the same time, though, I'm led to wonder about Alice's behavior: she's not totally an innocent in all this, flattered by and welcoming of the King's attention. Alice is a complicated character, at once a loving mother and shrewd lover, companion, and business partner to King Edward. It's a well-researched novel, too. It seems as though the author does expect her reader to know about John of Gaunt's affair with Katherine Swynford (it's referred to several times in passing), but since they're more or less minor characters, it doesn't matter so much. It's a shame that this book isn't more widely available; it's excellent and I highly recommend it.


Cleopatra's Daughter
Cleopatra's Daughter
by Michelle Moran
Edition: Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another strong one from Michelle Moran, 14 Sep 2009
This review is from: Cleopatra's Daughter (Paperback)
Selene is one of the children of Cleopatra and Antony. After her parents' deaths, Selene and her brothers are sent to Rome, where they become a part of the court of Octavian (later Augustus). It's a brutal and unmerciful world in which Selene finds herself, and our narrator finds herself adapting to Roman culture in order to survive.

In this novel, Michelle Moran does for ancient Rome what she did for ancient Egypt; she brings the time period and place alive for her readers. I always know with Moran's novels that I can get a lot of historical accuracy; and while I don't know much about ancient Rome, I could definitely tell that the author has researched the heck out of her subject matter. In comparison with Moran's other two novels, I enjoyed Cleopatra's Daughter more than The Heretic Queen, but not quite as much as Nefertiti. Moran's writing really sucks her reader into her characters' story, and Cleopatra's Daughter is a fine example of this.

What I didn't particularly care for was the narrator when she was younger; Selene's "voice" at the beginning of the novel is a little too mature for a ten year old girl. Also, I'm a little puzzled as to why this is being marketed as YA, though; although Selene is a teenager for most of the book, the story is definitely an adult one. But aside from these qualms, I definitely enjoyed this book, and look forward to reading more from Michelle Moran in the future.


The Street Philosopher
The Street Philosopher
by Matthew Plampin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.14

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow, 14 Sep 2009
This review is from: The Street Philosopher (Paperback)
Thomas Kitson is a journalist, sent out the Crimea in 1854 to be the junior correspondent for the London Courier. The Courier team includes the senior correspondent, Richard Cracknell, a loose cannon who has an affair with the commanding officer's wife and pens scurrilous pieces for the newspaper; and Robert Styles, a young illustrator who quickly becomes disillusioned by the war. The war, culminating with the battle of Sebastopol, is interchanged with a second story line, in Manchester two years later, when Kitson is a social commentator for a local paper (a "street philosopher"), and trying desperately to run from the past. What, exactly, happened out in the Crimea?

This is one of those "unputdownable" books. I read it nearly in one sitting, on an airplane ride back to the States after vacation. I needed a distraction from the 300-pound gorilla groping his girlfriend in the seat next to me, and this book was perfect towards that end. I was glued to this book from start to finish, reading on and on to find out what would happen next.

At first, I thought I wasn't going to like the shifts in time--usually they don't work so well, but here they're done subtly. There are quite a lot of battle scenes, but the author's descriptions of them are particularly well-done. The author clearly knows his mid-nineteenth century history, but he doesn't overburden the reader with his knowledge, instead allowing the reader to take things in gradually. At the same time, the mid-nineteenth century, both in the Crimea and in Manchester, comes alive for the reader.

The story, too, is very well-written, and the plot unfolds gradually. There are hints of the unspeakable things that happened in the Crimea, but they aren't revealed until much later. The plot is complicated, and sometimes leaves the reader with more questions than answers, but not overly so. What a thoroughly entertaining novel.


Shields of Pride
Shields of Pride
by Elizabeth Chadwick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, 15 Aug 2009
This review is from: Shields of Pride (Paperback)
Set in 1173 during the rebellion of Henry II's sons and wife, Shields of Pride is about Joscelin de Gael, illegitimate son of William de Rocher and a mercenary soldier. Quick to anger, he feuds with de Rocher's jealous sons. He meets Linnet de Montsorrel, widow, and they marry, although it is not until later that they fall in love.

Shields of Pride is one of Elizabeth Chadwick's earlier novels, and at about 360 pages, it's also one of her shortest. Unlike many of her novels, this one doesn't cover a large time span; the action in this book is tightly-packed. I've now read seven of Chadwick's books, and I have to say that I'm still hooked on them. The author really has a talent for sucking her reader into the story and not letting go until the last page has been turned. Shields of Pride is a little more romance-oriented, but excellent nonetheless. I don't know if Joscelin and Linnet were real people (they probably were), but I found myself really rooting for them, even as family conflict threatens. The historical detail is exquisite; you can really picture the time period and the people and feel as if you were there. In all, a great read, about the collision of past and present, and the ability to move into one's future.


The Time of Singing (William Marshal)
The Time of Singing (William Marshal)
by Elizabeth Chadwick
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another hit for me!, 4 July 2009
The Time of Singing is the story of Roger Bigod. The story opens in the 1170s, when Roger is a young knight. At the court of Henry II, he meets Ida de Tosney, one of Henry's mistresses, who he later marries. Over the years, as Roger takes on more responsibility as justiciar during Richard's reign, Roger and Ida's marriage is tested to the limit. Also added in to the mix is a bitter inheritance dispute between Roger and his half brothers. The novel covers a period of roughly 20 years, up until the death of Richard I in 1199.

Once again, Elizabeth Chadwick hits it out of the park, with a real, vivid story set against the political background of the 12th century, fraught as it is with intrigue and danger. As EC mentions on her Living the History blog, Roger's life closely paralleled that of William Marshal (if you read and enjoyed Chadwick two books about him, you'll be as pleased as I was to see that William plays a medium-sized role in The Time of Singing).

Unlike William, however, not much is known about Roger's life, so Chadwick had the additional challenge of piecing together parts of the story based on what little is known. She succeeds in this tremendously, combining historical fact with a little bit of invention sometimes that fits in with the characters. I really enjoyed reading about Roger and Ida's marriage, for good or for worse. They're the kind of couple you find yourself rooting for, even as they deal with the tough stuff. I always love when novels get you emotionally involved in that way. Chadwick's novels are always well-researched, and I know that I can expect a high level of historical accuracy from her books.

I've sort of developed a crush on Roger. He's always able to deal effectively--and generously--with adversity, as witness his interactions with his half brothers or William Longspee (the latter is an arrogant jerk, but Roger, God bless him, still manages to find something nice to say about him). In all, a fantastic novel with fascinating characters. I can't wait to read EC's next book.


The Warrior's Princess
The Warrior's Princess
by Barbara Erskine
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A little disappointing, 20 Jun 2009
This review is from: The Warrior's Princess (Paperback)
I usually love timeslip novels like this. A first-century Celtic princess's life parallels that of a modern-day woman, who escapes to Wales to avoid someone who attacked her in London. Later Jess, the modern-day woman, goes to Rome, partly to escape her attacker (who followed her to Wales), partly to research Eigon's story. I thought I couldn't go completely wrong with a premise like this. The premise is good, but the execution of the book falls far short of my expectations

I enjoyed the historical part of the novel, but it took me a while (about 300 pages) to get in to Jess's story in the present day. You really have to suspend your sense of disbelief at this book, peppered as it is with too many coincidences and deus ex machinas to save the day to count. It's lazy writing, in my opinion. And although Erskine conveys Jess's sense of panic at being stalked really well, through the first 200 pages or so, I found myself thinking, "OK, I get it now, can we move on to the more interesting parts of the story?" Some of the supporting characters were also a bit confusing; at times, Jess's friends seemed to believe her story, but at others, not.

In addition, the dialogue in the modern-day story is a bit stilted; native English speakers I know of use contractions while speaking, and they don't use the passive tense (as in this sentence: "you are looking at me as if I am mad"). I noticed that often, the author would use the same phrases and descriptions over and over again (a number of the characters wear open-necked shirts, and in a couple of scenes, Jess kicks off her sandals--in the middle of sidewalks in Rome in the middle of summer, in order to relax her feet.

About two thirds of the book focuses on Jess, which is a pity, because the story really belongs to Eigon, the woman in the past. I think the novel could have been better had the author focused on this historical parts of this novel. I found Eigon's story to be much more compelling, although I never really understood Titus's motivations ("he's evil" doesn't quite cut it in my book). But I really liked the historical details; clearly, the book is well-researched, and I enjoyed learning about Roman Britain. Another part of the book that I enjoyed was the author's exploration of religious traditions; I thought she weaved the ancient Roman gods, Christianity, and Druid beliefs into the story very well. I also loved the suspense factor of the book.

According to the author's note at the end of the book, historically, not much is known about Eigon--it's not even clear if Eigon was a man or a woman. That's one of the more interesting parts of the story, in my opinion, and I would have loved to see the author flesh that out a bit more. As it is, the book is about 200 pages too long. The Warrior's Princess is the first Barbara Erskine novel I've read; and while my opinion of it wasn't stellar, interestingly enough, I'm willing to try more of her books in the future. Maybe this one just wasn't for me.


Daughters Of The Grail
Daughters Of The Grail
by Elizabeth Chadwick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not her best, but still..., 14 Jun 2009
This review is from: Daughters Of The Grail (Paperback)
Set in France in the early 13th century, Daughters of the Grail (previously published as Children of Destiny) features the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heresy. Bridget, while not a Cathar, is a healer who is wanted for heresy nonetheless. Her story is intertwined with that of Raoul de Montvallant, a Cathar sympathizer. The story continues in the next generation with Magda and Dominic.

I'd studied the Cathars in school, but it's been a while, so I was glad for the opportunity to have my memory refreshed. While I didn't enjoy Daughters of the Grail as much as I've enjoyed some of Chadwick's other novels (her earlier books are heavier on the romance than the history), I did enjoy the story, especially in the second half of the book, when Magda and Dominic's stories took over. There is, however, great character development, and this novel is well-researched, as Chadwick's books always are. I wasn't too keen on all the "visions" that the characters kept having, and had a hard time keeping track of that was real and what wasn't. On the other hand, Chadwick's descriptions are excellent, and the scenes at the end are so horrifyingly real that you feel as though you're actually there watching it all happen. For more on the Cathar heresy, read the first two pages of the author's note at the end before reading this book.


The Winter Mantle
The Winter Mantle
by Elizabeth Chadwick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love and betrayal in 11th century England, 29 May 2009
This review is from: The Winter Mantle (Paperback)
Set in the years after the Norman Conquest, The Winter Mantle begins with the Waltheof and Judith, one an English captive and the other a Norman and the niece of William of Normandy. They should hate each other, right? They marry for love (or lust), though not all is a bed of roses. The story continues on into the next generation with their daughter, Matilda, and Simon de Senlis, a young Norman knight.

Chadwick's historical fiction is always top-notch. She really knows how to transport her readers back into another time, into the lives of people who jump off the page, even though they've been dead for hundreds of years. I love how she makes the reader become emotionally invested in her characters, even though you might not like them--Judith certainly isn't my favorite of Chadwick's heroines, but I really got involved in her story. According to Chadwick's note at the end, it's been popularly believed that Judith held some responsibility for betraying her husband to William, but the author handles this detail very well, I thought. And Waltheof is certainly no William Marshal, but I was sympathetic towards him, too.

Another thing I love about this book is how well-researched it is. Chadwick probably spends more time and exerts more energy researching her settings and people than other authors do, and it certainly shows here. The Winter Mantle covers thirty years of history, but Chadwick doesn't skimp on anything to give her readers a sweeping novel about love, hope and faith. I have a copy of The Falcons of Montabard on my ever-growing TBR pile, and I have about a half dozen more EC books on order.


Mariana
Mariana
by Susanna Kearsley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

43 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing, 20 May 2009
This review is from: Mariana (Paperback)
In Mariana, Julia Beckett moves from London to Greywethers, a house in the country that has seemingly called out to her for years. She begins having "flashbacks" of sorts, to when she was Mariana Farr, a young woman living during the Restoration. Not only does Julia live the life of her predecessor, she actually is Mariana, feeling her feelings and thinking her thoughts.

This is the second Susanna Kearsley novel I've read (after Sophia's Secret, which is fantastic, too), and let me just say that she's won herself another fan. The world of the late 17th century is portrayed in painstaking detail, and Kearsley's modern-day world is just as meticulously described. I've said this about other split-time novels, but it so often happens that books like this one sacrifice the modern-day narrative for that which takes place in the past; not so with this book. Mariana sweeps you off your feet from the very first page.

What I also like about Susanna Kearsley's books is that her endings are never strictly "happy," per se (sort of a weird way of thinking, I know), but there's always the potential for happiness. This sort of ambiguity works, in a strange way; you never know what, exactly, to expect. I can't wait to read more of Kearsley's novels; I've recently tracked down used copies of Named of the Dragon, The Shadowy Horses, and Seasons of Storms. It's too bad that Kearsley's novels aren't more widely available; she's a great writer who knows how to tell a good story.


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