Island of the Swans by Ciji Ware
Re-issued in its original full length, this acclaimed and bestselling romantic historical novel by award-winning author Ciji Ware tells the true story of passionate and flamboyant Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon (1749-1812). In love since childhood with Thomas Fraser, when she hears that he’s been killed in America, she marries the Duke of Gordon with disastrous results. But Fraser, very much alive, returns to England to claim her love.
In addition to telling a heart-wrenching love story, Island of the Swans also paints a fascinating portrait of a powerful and controversial woman and the tumultuous era in which she lived. Patroness of poet Robert Burns, advisor to King George, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Jane Maxwell was a towering figure in her own time and is an unforgettable heroine.
I can’t flat out say that I hated Island of the Swans; for me, Ciji Ware’s vivid descriptions of the political and social scene in 18th century Scotland, England, and America saved the book from utter ruin. This was one of the most frustrating books I’ve read in a long time, because it focused on an epic love story (much in the tradition of Anne Easter Smith and old school Rosalind Laker), and the characters spent the entire book whining and fighting and pining to the point where I just wanted to scream. It was unfortunate, because Jane Maxwell Gordon, Duchess of Gordon, was clearly a fascinating character as a rival of the Duchess of Devonshire, and I loved reading about her exploits in recruiting soldiers for the wars in America and France and in getting votes for William Pitt the Younger. However, these events didn’t figure nearly as prominently as the times where she was either moaning about her lost love or worrying about seeing him when she found out he was in Scotland. It got old. Fast. And there was no pay off for all the agitation; in fact, I’m still agitated!
I don’t regret reading Island of the Swans, but I was definitely hoping for a different book.
The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene
The Last Time I Saw Paris was not what I expected it to be, in the very best sense. Lynn Sheene tells the incredible story of Claire, a woman who flees from New York to Paris after her past catches up with her. She arrives with the sole intention of meeting up with her lover and living the glamorous life, but walks into a country on the brink of war instead. In exchange for identity papers, Claire reluctantly begins working for the Resistance. As she sees the effects of the Nazi occupation on her now beloved city, she becomes more involved in Resistance activities and falls in love with her contact, a British spy. When he is captured, she risks everything to make sure he is returned to her.
The most fascinating element of The Last Time I Saw Paris is Claire’s journey from a materialistic, amoral socialite to a woman of bravery, compassion, and heart. She goes from using her survival instinct simply to further herself to using it to save those she holds dear. Best of all, the transformation doesn’t happen overnight, which makes it all the more believable.
Ms. Sheene also brilliantly captures the fear and uncertainty of occupied Paris and the Parisians’ attempts to continue living in the face of such horror. The scenes in the countryside are also well written and more than a little brutal. The moment when Paris is liberated was particularly exhilarating to read; the relief the characters felt rushed through me as well.
The Last Time I Saw Paris is an absorbing World War II novel with a touch of romance and a ton of character development. I congratulate Ms. Sheene on a strong debut, and I look forward to the next!
The House by the Fjord by Rosalind Laker
Rosalind Laker says in her biography that she is married to a Norwegian and lives in an old farmhouse there. Her latest novel is a love letter to her adopted country.
When Anna, a young war widow, decides to journey to her husband’s homeland, she keeps insisting that it’s only going to be for a short visit. Slowly but surely, she becomes enchanted by the beauty of the Norwegian landscape and heals from the shock of widowhood. Still, she prevaricates, even when her father-in-law’s lawyer, Alex Ringstad, tells her that she’s inherited a house. When Anna meets her father-in-law at Christmas, he gives her the journal of the original owner of the house, Ingrid. As Anna reads the journal, she realizes she can’t leave Norway without seeing the house so vividly described by the vivaceous Ingrid. The fact that she and Alex have been seeing each other also makes her stay until the spring. Once she sees the house, something finally breaks in her, and she realizes that Norway has become her home and that she’s learned to love Alex, and she decides to stay in Ingrid’s home.
Ms. Laker describes the landscape so vividly that you could be there, and she writes about the local customs and attitudes with endearment and respect. You can see how the environment can be healing for someone who has had a sorrow as great as Anna’s.
This is not really a story with a lot of conflict; it’s more about depicting daily life in Norway, with all the normal bumps in the road, so don’t be surprised if you can see where this story is going from the beginning. That said, The House by the Fjord is a thoroughly enjoyable read, particularly under the covers on a cold night.
The Second Duchess by Elizabeth Loupas
In a city-state known for magnificence, where love affairs and conspiracies play out amidst brilliant painters, poets and musicians, the powerful and ambitious Alfonso d’Este, duke of Ferrara, takes a new bride. Half of Europe is certain he murdered his first wife, Lucrezia, the luminous child of the Medici. But no one dares accuse him, and no one has proof-least of all his second duchess, the far less beautiful but delightfully clever Barbara of Austria.
At first determined to ignore the rumors about her new husband, Barbara embraces the pleasures of the Ferrarese court. Yet wherever she turns she hears whispers of the first duchess’s wayward life and mysterious death. Barbara asks questions-a dangerous mistake for a duchess of Ferrara. Suddenly, to save her own life, Barbara has no choice but to risk the duke’s terrifying displeasure and discover the truth of Lucrezia’s death-or she will share her fate.
I loved every moment of The Second Duchess. It was the perfect mix of historical fiction and mystery, with a tiny bit of romance mixed in. Barbara of Austria was an honest and a likeable protagonist, and it was great to watch her and Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara, investigate the death of his first duchess, gain respect for one another, and fall in love in the process. Ms. Loupas evokes the period and the setting beautifully, and I especially liked how she depicted the political machinations of the Ferrarese and the Florentine courts, particularly the far reach that these leaders had. And things got wonderfully suspenseful towards the end. A beautifully crafted debut novel.
Secret of the White Rose by Stefanie Pintoff
The murder of Judge Hugo Jackson is out of Detective Simon Ziele’s jurisdiction in more ways than one. For one, it’s high-profile enough to command the attention of the notorious new police commissioner, since Judge Jackson was presiding over the sensational trial of Al Drayson. Drayson, an anarchist, set off a bomb at a Carnegie family wedding, but instead of killing millionaires, it killed passersby, including a child. The dramatic trial has captured the full attention of 1906 New York City.
Furthermore, Simon’s assigned precinct on Manhattan’s West Side includes the gritty Tenderloin but not the tonier Gramercy Park, which is where the judge is found in his locked town house with his throat slashed on the night before the jury is set to deliberate. But his widow insists on calling her husband’s old classmate criminologist, Alistair Sinclair, who in turn enlists Ziele’s help. Together they must steer Sinclair’s unorthodox methods past a police force that is so focused on rounding up Drayson’s supporters that they’ve all but rejected any other possibilities.
I enjoyed Secret of the White Rose, but not as much as the first two Simon Ziele books. The subject matter of foreign anarchists was fascinating, the mystery was absorbing, and, as always, Ms. Pintoff captures old New York City perfectly, but I felt like I lost the characters a bit in this one and that the story could have been pushed just a little bit further. I’m still very much looking forward to the next installment, though, particularly after the way this book ended.
Aha! She lives!
Sorry I fell off the radar. I started my internship two weeks ago, and between that and my other jobs, the only thing I have free time for is sleeping. It’s more than worth it, though, because the internship is everything I hoped for and more, and I’m learning a lot and am keeping very busy. I’m actually going to be writing a blog entry for the Penguin website about my internship experience, so once it’s done, I will post a link.
I’ve been reading quite a lot, both for work and for pleasure, and I’ve been itching to get back to this blog. However, my lack of free time means it’s hard to sit down and write a long review. So, for the duration of the internship, I will be cheating a bit by stealing my book synopses from Goodreads before adding my own thoughts. It’ll take me much less time to put a review together and will allow me to update a lot more frequently. Which will make me happy.
How is everyone else?
A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell
Crime reporter Hannah Vogel steps into Alexanderplatz Police Station thinking that it’s going to be a normal visit to catch up on the weekend arrests for her column in the Berliner Tageblatt, when she glances at the walls in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead and sees her brother Ernst’s picture.
So begins Rebecca Cantrell’s incredible debut mystery, A Trace of Smoke. And things just escalate from there.
Hannah decides to refrain from telling her friend in the police or her colleagues at the newspaper that Ernst has been murdered until she gets a clearer idea of who the killer might be. This takes Hannah on a journey deep into Berlin’s underbelly as Ernst was an openly gay nightclub singer with a very powerful lover. As Hannah unearths more details of her brother’s life, she realizes that he was involved in a situation that, if revealed, could destroy the Nazi party. And then there’s the small matter of a street urchin named Anton who turns up on Hannah’s doorstep and insists that he’s her son…
It’s hard not to get deeply involved in this book. Ms. Cantrell vividly channels the physical and political atmosphere of Berlin in 1931, and it’s easy to picture the places that Hannah visits and feel the tension in the air. The scenes at the El Dorado nightclub are particularly well written, and the scene where the Nazis protested in front of Wetheimer’s department store because the owners were Jews made me a little emotional. The multiple depictions of soldiers and their homosexual sons also captured the attitude of the time very well: homosexuality was something to be done behind closed doors at some club, and soldier fathers literally beat the principles of “manning up” and doing your duty into their children.
The characters are also extremely well written and accessible, especially Hannah, who is my favorite kind of protagonist in that she’s smart, caring, and honest, but she also has her moments of blind fear and stupidity that alternately have me cheering her on and yelling at her to watch out. The moral dilemmas that Hannah encounters are also extremely heavy, and the fact that the solutions don’t come easily to her made me respect her as a character and Ms. Cantrell as a writer.
The ending is one of those cliffhangers that leaves you unable to contemplate reading anything but the next book in the series, just so that you can make sure everyone is alive before you learn what happens next. I can’t wait to get my hands on A Night of Long Knives!