Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Review Tuesday: "Under the Same Blue Sky" by Pamela Schoenwaldt

In Pamela Schoenewaldt’s latest novel,Under the Same Blue Sky, she seeks to bring social injustice to light through the eyes of quiet but defiant heroine Hazel Renner. As the daughter of German immigrants, she is raised with the benefit of a rich cultural heritage and a love for learning. But she is also saddled with the expectations of her doting parents–they expect great things out of her. Perhaps she should become a physician, her mother posits. Yet Hazel wants more out of life. She longs to escape the industrial landscape of Pittsburgh and join the artistic avant garde of early 20th-century Paris. But then World War I breaks out and her dreams are dashed. Almost overnight, Hazel’s parents become “Huns” and their successful hardware business is the target of shameful vandalism.

For Hazel, the war is the impetus she needs to unravel the truth of her birth and strange childhood memories. This journey leads her first to serve as a teacher in a small town outside Pittsburgh. There she encounters a Spanish American War veteran with mental problems. Through the lens of modern science, the reader can see that the man suffers from PTSD. Yet he is cruelly segregated from local society and ends up the victim of his own inner demons and the townspeople’s prejudices.

Later, Hazel becomes the secretary of a wealthy German aristocrat turned art dealer. As they work to rescue priceless items from the Motherland, she has the opportunity to fall in love with an old friend. But her happiness is short-lived as her employer is ridiculed and reviled for his ancestry, her father is claimed by the deep depression he experiences, and her lover becomes a pilot for the American Armed Forces. Hazel’s inner strength shines through these challenges. The reader is impressed with the notion that Hazel is truly good without being saccharine; she bears the weight of those around her with quiet fortitude, but still longs for true happiness amidst the strife. Her journey takes her far from her fretful beginnings. The end result is not what she pictured, but Hazel learns that empathy and love, in spite of the circumstances, can conquer all things.

Under the Same Blue Sky is wonderful, moving novel (I cried) that takes a whole new look at a setting that is familiar in the historical fiction world. I highly recommend it.

**This review is an excerpt from a feature article that I wrote for the Historical Novel Review.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Guest Post: AJ Mackenzie "In Search of the 1790s"

Joining us today is AJ Mackenzie, author of the new novel "The Body on the Doorstep" which is now available for purchase. Thanks for joining us today, AJ! 
In Search of the 1790s
‘The past is a foreign country’, L.P. Hartley famously declared in The Go-Between. ‘They do things differently there.’

Standing on the Dymchurch Wall and looking out over the English Channel towards France on a bright sunny spring morning, that statement never seemed more true. Behind us, a golf course lay serene in the sunshine. People strolled along the beach, children picked up seashells, dogs barked as they ran in the shallow surf. All was blissful and peaceful.

Things were a bit different in 1796. Britain and France were at war, and Britain faced the threat of imminent invasion. Rebellion was brewing in Ireland, and there were real fears it would spread to England too. The Romney Marsh smugglers, who for decades had carried silk and brandy and lace across the Channel into England, now had other more sinister cargo: secrets, and spies.

The Marsh itself was a different place too. The flat fields were fit for little but grazing, and the people were poor. It was probably poverty that led many of them – most of them – into smuggling. It was, as Reverend Hardcastle says at one point in The Body on the Doorstep, easier to list those members of his parish who were not involved in smuggling, than those who were.

Opinions among modern historians differ about the smugglers. Some see them as entrepreneurs, others as criminal gangs akin to the mafia. The real truth is probably somewhere in between, but there is no doubt that the smugglers were armed and dangerous. The penalty for those convicted of smuggling was death, and both men and women were hanged for this crime, every year.

People were poor, life was cheap. The Marsh was also malarial, and many people suffered from ‘marsh fever’. People in the uplands of the Weald of Kent knew this and shied away from the Marsh, feverish and unhealthy in summer, bitter and windswept the rest of the year. Evil in summer, grievous in winter, and never good, was how one proverb of the day put it.

Standing on the Dymchurch Wall that day, it felt like the peace of the day was an illusion. The real Romney Marsh lay underneath. The real picture was one of those centuries of hardship, of trying to wrest a living from the poor ground and the unforgiving sea, of defying danger and death to run smuggled goods into the country so the wealthy of London could have their luxuries; all against a backdrop of war, espionage and invasion.

That is the Romney Marsh we saw as we stood in the sunshine that morning. We hope that in The Body on the Doorstep, you will see it too.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Review Tuesday: "Newport" by Jill Morrow

It's Review Tuesday again and today I bring you a novel that I read last year during the great review drought of 2015.

Newport is a riveting historical fiction with elements of romance and mystery set in the early years of the Prohibition era, the novel unfolds over a couple days in the summer colony of Newport. Bennett Chapman has called his attorney Adrian De la Noye to his waterside mansion in order to re-write his will. Chapman is on the cusp of marrying Catherine Walsh, a woman half his age.
Adrian and legal assistant Jim arrive to discover many guests: Nicholas and Chloe, Chapman’s spoiled children, and Amy Walsh, Catherine’s niece. But Adrian is stunned to discover Catherine is the lost love he has done everything to forget. As Adrian and Jim sift through dark secrets, they must determine if Chapman is being directed by his long dead wife or just demented.
Newport is a richly drawn novel of changing social mores where the past has everything to do with the present. The characters are well-drawn, while the present action unfolding against past deeds effectively tells the story. The plot does lag a bit in the middle before picking up steam to the conclusion. Nonetheless, lovers of well-crafted historicals will enjoy Newport.

**I reviewed this novel for the San Francisco Book Review.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Review Tuesday: "These Shallow Graves" by Jennifer Donnelly

Happy Tuesday to you all!

As you know, today is Review Tuesday, which when I say that in my mind, it's in a sonorous voice and it echoes. Yes, I am short a few. :-)

Today I bring you my review of Jennifer Donnelly's These Shallow Graves. Have I ever mentioned my absolute and undying love for Jennifer Donnelly? I have been a major fangirl since I picked up her first novel The Tea Rose during finals weeks in college and it's a major miracle that I didn't fail because all I wanted to do was to read that novel. Donnelly has since moved on to other subjects including a dual-period novel entitled Revolution and a teen series focusing on the myths surrounding mermaids, so when I saw that she was publishing a new Victorian era novel, I was super stoked. These Shallow Graves is geared towards young adults but it still a wonderful novel that captures a lot of the grit of Gilded Age New York that was featured in her first novel.

The story follows Jo Montfort as she longs to test the glittering restrictive world of her birth. As one of New York’s elite, she has been raised to marry the perfect gentleman and have babies; but what Jo really longs for is to pursue her love of journalism. Her world is rocked when her father is discovered dead, a supposed suicide. Not believing her father capable of such a thing, Jo teams up with newspaper reporter Eddie Gallagher to uncover the dark secrets lurking just out of sight. She will risk her heart and social oblivion to discover to the truths that threaten to challenge her perfectly planned existence.

Jennifer Donnelly truly excels at historical fiction, whether it be for adults or teens. While These Shallow Graves is geared towards young adults, it will intrigue adult readers as well. At first the heart of the mystery seems easily solved, but as Jo and Eddie continue to uncover pieces to the puzzle, the real truth becomes further obscured. Descriptions of Victorian New York really give the novel its flavor while the characterizations are equally wonderful. So many female protagonists in today’s historical fiction are not in sync with the realities of their time periods. Jo Montfort is very aware of her place in society and the constraints upon her as a woman. She is constantly barraged with who she is and how she should act, which reminds the reader of how life used to be. But Jo is wonderfully smart and courageous, and though she challenges the establishment, she does it with grace and deportment.

I definitely recommend These Shallow Graves and basically anything by Donnelly so pick up a copy today.

**This review appeared the Historic Novel Review in February 2016.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Review Tuesday: "The Visitant: A Venetian Ghost Story" by Megan Chance

Hello all!

I know it has been many months since my last post and I hope you will forgive me. There have been many changes at Casa Wilson including a new job and a move to Charleston, SC so things have been a tad bit crazy.

Despite being busy, I have managed to fit in a few good books, so I'll be posting reviews in the coming weeks. Today, however, I bring you my review of The Visitant by Megan Chance. I was a big fan of An Inconvenient Wife which Chance published a few years ago, so I was eager to read this one when it was offered for review through the Historical Novel Society. Chance really excels at creating flawed characters--it's a talent that many authors don't even attempt to master.

The Visitant: A Venetian Ghost Story follows a disgraced Elena Spira to Venice in 1884 as she seeks to redeem her family. She carries many secrets with her, and must work to keep them hidden as she attends the ailing Samuel Farber. She has been tasked with keeping his secret safe, and nursing him to health so that he may return to America for an arranged marriage. He proves to be a truculent patient, and Elena must fight him and the dark forces residing in the crumbling Casa Basilio, all while evading the alluring stares of the casa’s owner, Nero Basilio.

Megan Chance is one of the few accomplished historical fiction writers specializing in Gothic novels. The Visitant evokes everything that is wonderful in the genre: secretive characters, an old house, and of course, ghosts and demons. In many ways it echoes Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Chance excels at drawing the reader into the plot without giving much away, which leaves one guessing right up to the end. She also has created wonderfully nuanced characters in this novel. Elena, Samuel, and Nero all at times seem despicable, and yet they evoke sympathy. Elena is riddled with guilt over her past decisions and yet she longs to set free to live life as she sees fit. Yet she becomes embroiled in an ill-advised romantic relationship with Nero, who is all charm and deception. It is heartbreaking to see her realize the truth only to discover that she has given her heart away to the wrong person yet again.

The Visitant will keep you reading and guessing to the very end. I definitely recommend this one--curl up with a glass of wine (or in my case, a glass of whiskey) and prepare to be enthralled.