Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Yard by Alex Grecian

The Yard by Alex Grecian

Summary from the publisher:
Victorian London is a cesspool of crime, and Scotland Yard has only twelve detectives—known as “The Murder Squad”—to investigate countless murders every month. Created after the Metropolitan Police’s spectacular failure to capture Jack the Ripper, The Murder Squad suffers rampant public contempt. They have failed their citizens. But no one can anticipate the brutal murder of one of their own . . . one of the twelve . . .When Walter Day, the squad’s newest hire, is assigned the case of the murdered detective, he finds a strange ally in the Yard’s first forensic pathologist, Dr. Bernard Kingsley. Together they track the killer, who clearly is not finished with The Murder Squad . . . but why?

This book first came to my attention via a lovely ad in Shelf Awareness, and I was immediately intrigued. I’ve always been fascinated by the early days of the police force, be it Scotland Yard or New York’s finest (and if you are interested in the latter, you must read the fantastic The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye), and this had the added interest of being set directly after the Ripper murders, when London was still reeling and morale at the Yard was extremely low. By the time I got to the part about a serial killer targeting police, I was sold.

And this book delivers. Grecian really captured the ambiance of Victorian London, from the wealthy neighborhoods, to the underbelly of the East End, to the rundown dwellings of the underpaid members of the Murder Squad. He also gave a great sense of the public’s attitude towards the police and how that contempt led the murderer to undertake a sort of vigilante justice. But the most fascinating part, for me, was watching the Murder Squad solve the case without the methods we take for granted, such as fingerprinting, which, at that point, was not an accepted science, and the sequestering of evidence—there was a moment where someone almost made off with the murder weapon that had me on the edge of my seat.

The characters are also absolutely winning. There was a fearful moment at the beginning where Day and Hammersmith’s paths felt slightly divergent, but Grecian brought them together masterfully, and I really loved watching them come into their own. Day, Hammersmith, and pathologist Dr. Kingsley make a great team that I will happily follow through future cases.

This was a solid debut mystery that had me riveted all the way through. I can’t wait for the next installment in the series!

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The Queen’s Vow by C.W. Gortner

The Queen’s Vow by C.W. Gortner

I’m a huge fan of C.W. Gortner. His book on Juana of Castile, The Last Queen, was so fascinating and well-written and brought humanity to a historical figure that I, like most, only knew as “La Loca.” Imagine my excitement when I learned that his newest book would once again tackle the house of Trastamara in the form of Juana’s mother, Isabella of Castile.

I’ll admit that I delved into this book with a bit of foreboding. As a history student, I can’t help but associate Isabella of Castile’s reign with her more infamous decisions: the Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Reyes Catholicos, etc. I also knew of Isabella’s other characteristics from various works of historical fiction: her ruthlessness when it came to defending her throne, the fact that she was out fighting battles more than she was with her children, the infidelities of her husband. Even though I knew all these things were coming, I was curious to see what the author’s research brought to bear on this story, and whether it would be at all apologetic.

The Queen’s Vow covers a broad expanse of Isabella’s life, from the loss of her father in childhood, to the years spent in fearful exile while her incompetent half brother ruled the country, to the bloody civil war that ended with her accession to the throne of Castile, to her marriage with Fernando of Aragon that finally united Spain, to the Reconquista. Throughout, we see how Isabella evolved from a pious young girl who had accepted her fate as a political pawn to the fierce monarch who put everything aside for the sake of Spain. Her adolescence is a particularly fraught period, as she was thrust into a debauched court and had to quickly learn how to handle the various factions that would see her succeed or fall, and the years where she and Fernando fought to solidify their hold on Spain were equally precarious. The final chapters wind down everything beautifully, so that you almost sigh with relief.

As with The Last Queen, Gortner does a masterful job of telling both the historical and human story of Isabella. I knew very little of the years preceding her reign, and it helped me understand why she fought so hard to maintain the crown once it was hers. It was fascinating to meet all the people who influenced her, from her mother, with her obsession with regaining the family glory, to her husband Fernando, who helped her shape foreign policy in more ways than one, to her confidante Beatriz, who taught her how to look at the world from a man’s perspective. And her childbearing years were very interesting: I had no idea she’d suffered bouts of infertility and miscarriages, and there were echoes of her daughter Catherine’s future plight of irregular periods and the inability to bear a healthy male heir, although Isabella did manage to give birth to a sickly son who lived to ascend to the throne for a short time.

The Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews is a moment that readers may have difficulty with. This Isabella struggles with the issue, while Fernando is more easily convinced by Torquemada and the other ecclesiastics and agitates for action. She tries to hold off and limits the Inquisition’s persecution to suspicious conversos, but outside forces are too strong and, after the completion of the Reconquista, she is more or less given an ultimatum. In the end, as with everything, Isabella decides that she must do what is good for Spain and that, in turn, she must save the country from heresy, even though she recognizes the Jews’ worth. In the afterword, Gortner explains that he undertook extensive research into Isabella’s personality and how she and other monarchs viewed the world at the time before he arrived at his interpretation of events. He emphasizes that he’s not attempting to apologize for her actions, but also points out that she was a fallible human being who believed Christianity was the only faith, and that she likely knew of the consequences of her decree. While I didn’t find this interpretation to be apologetic and thought Isabella’s motives for her decisions were abundantly clear, I did have a bit of a hard time reconciling this part of Isabella with the one I knew from my history lectures. It did not at all detract from my enjoyment of the book, rather it left me thinking long after I finally closed the cover.

This book lived up to every one of my expectations. A well-researched and transporting read.

I will leave you with an important note from the author, as delivered in the afterword:

Every year, thousands of Spanish greyhounds known as galgos are abandoned, maimed, or killed after a brief hunting season. Many dedicated rescue groups and individuals, both in Spain and abroad, are fighting to end the abuse of the galgo, one of Spain’s most enduring symbols of nobility. To learn more, please visit galgorescue.org and baasgalgo.org. Thank you for caring.

As the proud mom of a rescue dog, I could not agree more with this message.

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Overseas by Beatriz Williams

Overseas by Beatriz Williams

Summary from the publisher:
When twenty-something Wall Street analyst Kate Wilson attracts the notice of the legendary Julian Laurence at a business meeting, no one’s more surprised than she is. Julian’s relentless energy and his extraordinary intellect electrify her, but she’s baffled by his sudden interest. Why would this handsome British billionaire—Manhattan’s most eligible bachelor—pursue a pretty but bookish young banker who hasn’t had a boyfriend since college?

The answer is beyond imagining . . . at least at first. Kate and Julian’s story may have begun not in the moneyed world of twenty-first-century Manhattan but in France during World War I, when a mysterious American woman emerged from the shadows of the Western Front to save the life of Captain Julian Laurence Ashford, a celebrated war poet and infantry officer.

Now, in modern-day New York, Kate and Julian must protect themselves from the secrets of the past, and trust in a true love that transcends time and space.

Readers, let me ask you: have you ever read a book that makes your heart hurt in the best way possible? Where you grow to love the characters so much that they’re the last thing you think of when you go to sleep and the first thing you think of when you wake up?

That is Overseas.

Let me say right off, this is not a historical novel. It’s more of a romance with elements of magical realism, and it requires some suspension of disbelief, which, for me, wasn’t at all difficult because I was so completely immersed in the story that I didn’t find myself questioning the plausibility of the whole thing, rather I wondered how the events of the past affected Kate and Julian’s future, and whether those things were going to catch up to them. Alternating between Amiens in 1916 and Manhattan in the present day also allowed the author to maintain some seriously high stakes, and the last 50 pages were particularly harrowing.

The characters are also wonderfully engaging. It was so easy to identify with Kate as she reeled with the knowledge of Julian’s past and then fought to maintain a balance between her independence and Julian’s protectiveness and wealth. And Julian is definitely going to perpetuate my unrealistic expectations in men, although I did like that he had his own flaws and that Kate called him out on them.

I can see readers getting a little confused about the how and why of the time travel and wanting more of an explanation. It made sense to me, and as the characters don’t fully understand how it works, I was able to accept the explanation we got. The author is very open to questions, so contact her via her website (linked above) or on Twitter if you want to know more.

I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for a story of epic, consuming love, with some interesting little twists. For me, it was the ideal way to kick off the unofficial beginning of summer.

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Summer Wanderlust: My favorite books to bring on my travels

I usually get a major case of wanderlust in the summer. Sadly, I don’t always get to satisfy it, but on those occasions where I managed to get away, choosing which books I wanted to bring was right up there with planning my outfits (okay, maybe higher than planning my outfits). On my first trip to England, I happily hauled my massive hardcover copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and The Oxford Shakespeare to keep me company (I needed the latter for class! I swear!), and I might have made a few purchases while I was there, too. I went to Italy the following summer with The Historian and the next HP installment adding a good five kilos to my luggage, and even though they nearly caused me to wipe out on the cobblestones in Florence, they were well worth the evening hours I wiled away reading them. When my friends and I took our epic trip to England and Italy two summers ago, I was mindful of the amount of times we’d be changing locations and limited myself to a single book: a paperback of Bocaccio’s The Decameron. We ended up being so busy that I didn’t make it beyond the first page (sorry, Giovanni). I kept this in mind when I put together my packing list for Ireland and, again, took only one book, the very exciting Grammar for Smart People. By the time I reached Killarney, I was into my second reading and wanted to fork out an eyeball. I hadn’t taken into account that I’d be traveling solo during the low season, when things closed earlier for lack of tourists, and that without my friends, my evenings would generally be wide open (thankfully, a benevolent soul left an old Victoria Holt novel at my hostel in Dublin, so my eyeball was saved).

After I got back from my Ireland trip, I commenced on a search for the perfect books to read while traveling. My criteria were pretty simple: a) the book had to be portable (i.e. paperback, or a really short hardcover), and b) it had to be something short that I could get lost in for a quick stretch of time. And, dear readers, I’ve found them! These are my top three favorites, and please tell me which books make it into your luggage too!
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