The English Wife by Lauren Willig

The English Wife by Lauren Willig

english wifeThe year is 1899. The Van Duyvils are an extraordinarily wealthy and established family in New York. One night, at a holiday party, there is a murder… or is it a suicide?

The newspapers whip the public into a fury with their sensational headlines. They ask, ‘Who are the Van Duyvils and who is the new English wife?’

And there, our story begins.

Lauren Willig has created a lovely mystery/historical fiction with snappy dialogue and enough layers to keep readers guessing to the very end.

I loved Janie Van Duyvil, one of the main characters in this tale “There were times when she wished she had been born a male, that she might make her own way, that she might marry as she pleased and live as she would.” loc 45, ebook.

As she desperately tries to piece together the clues to find the murderer, Janie also comes into her own and begins to stand up to her tyrannical mother.

“It is her marriage,” Georgie pointed out drily. “Surely, she has some say.” “If you can think that, you haven’t met my mother.” loc 1179, ebook

I also enjoyed the role of the press in this story. James Burke is a reporter for ‘The News of the World.’ He wants to get the scoop on the murders. But, part of his job, is to sell papers. “The man had the gall to widen his eyes in innocence. “We prefer to call it investigative reporting, Miss Van Duyvil.” “I call it scandal-mongering, pure and simple.” loc 252, ebook.

My favorite scene is when Janie goes to ‘The News of the World’ building and readers get a glimpse into the crazy newsroom. “There was an undeniable energy to the room, the clacking typewriters, the shouting voices, that put energy into her step and color in her cheek.” What fun.

Willig seems to have a handle on what makes reporters tick. She even captures the gallow’s humor that they use to maintain their sanity. “Will it appear in an illustrated supplement in The World?” “Not unless there’s a body hidden there.” Mr. Bruke grimaced. “Sorry. In the newsroom, we… well, the worse it is, the more of a joke we make it. It’s a way to get through the day without being sick.” loc 2765, ebook.

Recommended for readers who want to lose themselves in a mystery with some romance along the way, The English Wifemay just fit the bill.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance digital copy of this book. Reminder: the brief quotations in this review may vary from the final printed form.

Thanks for reading!

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Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

yearofwondersYear of Wonders tells the story of Anna, a servant to a pastor, and how she emotionally and physically survives the plague while the majority of her village falls ill around her.

I was enthralled. I listened to the audiobook on my daily commute and it was fantastic.

You get the very real drama of life in a small village mixed with the the despair that must have accompanied the plague. There’s finger-pointing, people taking advantage of other’s need and, above all, the need to rationalize why all of the deaths were occurring.

My favorite part of this book was when Anna stopped in the middle of her hectic life to reconsider how she viewed God. She uses common sense reasoning to pick apart why a deity would allow such tragedy to occur and then wonders why the young are taken rather than the old.

She comes to the conclusion that what’s happening is a biological thing rather than a divine thing. Then, once she has that straight in her mind, she’s better equipped to handle everybody else’s irrational responses to the plague without being bogged down by her own.

Anna is a great heroine. She has her flaws- a flirtation with opium addiction to dull her grief and a crush on someone else’s husband- but she tries to be a good person. Mainly, she’s just overwhelmed by what’s going on and wants to feel loved and safe.

She cares for the ill, helps an orphaned child hold on to her family’s lead mine and tries to help her village keep body and soul together.

The ending of Year of Wonders was incredibly shocking to me, but in a good way. Geraldine Brooks stayed true to her characters but took the story in such an unexpected direction, that I had to turn it off for awhile to absorb what I had just heard.

Highly recommended for book clubs or people who love historical fiction. Year of Wonders is wonderous indeed.

Vivaldi’s Virgins by Barbara Quick

Vivaldi’s Virgins by Barbara Quick

vivaldiVivaldi’s Virgins is a sparkling historical fiction about Anna Maria dal Violin, one of the orphans trained to perform music for the well-fare of the souls of Venice in the 1700’s.

One of her instructors is Antonio Vivaldi, who is called “The Red Priest” because of his fiery hair: “I heard and then watched Maestro Vivaldi climb the stairs. He has been my teacher- and one of the very few men who has ever seen my face or spoken to me- for nearly half of my lifetime. I was only a girl of eight when, newly ordained as a priest, Antonio Vivaldi, native son of Venezia, was hired by the governors of the Pieta to be our master of the violin.” pg 2

Only girls are allowed to perform music in the Pieta. They are kept separate from the general population and all men, except for the priests who are their instructors, to maintain their purity. “Our lives are arranged so that every piece of every day and night is fit together into an intricate mosaic of music and study and prayer. But it is only a counterfeit of real life. We have no more reality in the world than the trompe l’oeil floor tiles of the church have depth or height.” pg 85

There is drama among the children through their interactions and competition with each other and some of their instructors, who are either nuns or priests. “Whoever says that girls are kind has never lived among them.” pg 13.

Anna longs to know who her family was, but that is a secret kept by the nuns who watch over the children. She spends much of her time trying to figure out how to learn more about who her family may be.

Anna also strains against the restrictions placed on her because of her gender in the 1700’s. The government only allows the female musicians from the Pieta to perform in public if they remain in the cloister. If they choose to marry, they have to sign a contract to promise not to perform or pay an exorbitant amount of money to the orphanage to pay for their childhood musical education. “It is one of the great injustices of this fair city. And it has made me dream sometimes of other cities- of London and Paris and Vienna, where, I’ve heard, female instrumentalists have actually been welcomed, from time to time, on the performance stage.” pgs 145-146.

During these struggles, Anna forms true friendships with other foundlings in the Pieta. “When I think of who my companions will be in Hell, I feel rather glad that I will be going there. It will be filled with those I most well and truly loved.” pg 150

I learned a lot about 18th century Venice in this book and Vivaldi. All that I knew about Vivaldi, before reading this book, was that he liked to use a bunch of stringed instruments in his compositions.

It makes so much more sense when I discovered who it was he had been composing for.

Recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction, books about composers or stories about troubled childhoods.

Thanks for reading!

An Ancient Evil (Stories told on Pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, #1) by Paul Doherty

An Ancient Evil (Stories told on Pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, #1) by Paul Doherty

anancientmysteryAn Ancient Evil is a charming historical fiction based loosely on the premise of The Canterbury Tales.

In the introduction, a knight tells a story to a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. “My tale begins hundreds of years ago, just after the great Conqueror came here. So, gentles all, your attention as I describe these horrors sprung from the very pit of Hell.” pg 6.

In the story within the story, a menacing prologue introduces the reader to Sir Hugo, who buries alive the leader of a group of evil magic doers and burns the rest of his order. The evil leader who is buried alive doesn’t seem that upset about the whole thing. Which is weird.

Fast forward a couple hundred years into the future.

Sir Godfrey and a clerk, Alexander, are tasked by the king of England to discover the truth behind a series of mysterious and grisly murders in Oxford.

They are assisted in their task by Dame Edith, a blind anchorite who is known for her exorcism talents. ‘Sir Godfrey, whoever the killers are, we are about to enter the Valley of Death, but,’ Alexander couldn’t resist gentle banter, ‘we have your sword, my brains and the prayers of Dame Edith.’ ‘I think we might need more than that.’ pg 64.

I enjoyed this medieval, just a bit too bloody to be called “cozy”, mystery.

The characters are layered. The author drops enough hints to lead the reader towards the bad guy without giving the game away.

It reads a bit like a Nicholas Cage movie. We’ve got a battle between good and evil with some paranormal stuff and swords thrown in.

“Dame Edith tapped the side of her head. ‘Sir Godfrey, you are a soldier. You, of all people, should realize that a man is what he thinks he is. What causes one man to be a coward and another to be a hero? After all, they may be the same flesh and blood. They may even be brothers from the same womb. It’s what they think.” pg 170.

I also enjoyed the details about medieval life that are sprinkled throughout.

Recommended for readers who enjoyed The Thief Taker by C.S. Quinn or Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin.

Thanks for reading!

The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal

The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal

littlewoundsThe Kingdom of Little Wounds is about a seamstress, a nursemaid and a royal family haunted by illness. It is a, sometimes very, adult tale about secrets, sex and power.

Confession: I picked this one out at the library for the cover.

I saw it and thought, “This must be a young adult fantasy of some kind about a princess who works magic with needles.” Sometimes it’s nice to indulge in a pleasant escape from the world.

So, this book is nothing like that.

In the afterword, Susann Cokal describes her work as “a syphilitic fairy tale.” There’s nothing wrong with that. It just really wasn’t what I expected and wanted it to be.

This tale has rape and madness to it. There’s also some torture, severing of body parts and other pretty gross stuff that goes on.

It is definitely geared towards an adult audience. Librarians, please put it in the proper collection. It is not young adult.

The main characters, Ava and Midi, are likeable but powerless. “I truly would like to think I’m in the middle of a fairy tale, facing the period of hardship that precedes a triumph. But I am not a likely heroine.” pg 9, ebook.

The king, Christian, is ridiculous and controlled by his courtiers. “Have you found any… any culprits?” Sir Georg hesitates, and the favorites tense. Who will be blamed? A Lutheran? … Or perhaps some cousin with a tenuous but plausible claim to succession – someone who should be removed for the health of the court anyway?” pg 77, ebook. Notice how they are unconcerned with justice.

Alliances and power shift quickly in this story like the tide. The characters never know who they can trust. “We are all, of course, in service of the Crown and King. Who is known for being liberal with his gratitude, no matter what the rank of the creditor.” I recall something my mother used to say: Be wary of a promise without a clear price.” pg 131, ebook.

Also, in the afterword, Cokal shared that a piece of this story, the appearance of a star, actually happened in Europe in the late 1500’s, early 1600’s. “The new star has put all of us off balance. We’ve always expected things to change down below, in the canals, the streets, and so on, but the heavens have been constant in our memory. This star shines even in the daylight, as if to drive away the sun. It is so bright that it seems heavier than the rest; we have the impression that if we were to stand on tiptoes, we might touch it.” pg 192, ebook.

Recommended for readers who aren’t bothered by dark themes and are in the mood for a “syphilitic fairy tale.”

Thanks for reading!

The Spy by Paulo Coelho

The Spy by Paulo Coelho

thespyThe Spy is the story of Mata Hari, told first in her voice and then from the point of view of one of her male admirers.

Paulo Coelho isn’t at his best in this novel.

He prefers and excels at metaphorical stories. For example, in this tale, Coelho has Mata Hari comparing herself to the nightingale that impaled itself on a thorn to grow a bright red rose for a young man in love.

I get what he was reaching for- but I think this tale would have been told better through details rather than metaphors.

Also, it’s so short. The audiobook was only a couple hours long.

It wasn’t nearly long enough to do Mata Hari’s life justice.

I first learned about the fascinating life of Mata Hari in Inspired!: True Stories Behind Famous Art, Literature, Music, and Film by Maria Bukhoninia. There were enough unbelievable things that happened in Mata Hari’s life to make a compelling historical fiction.

Sadly, this didn’t quite fit the bill for me.

If you’re going to read a Coelho novel, may I recommend The Alchemist. (Which is also a novel people love or hate. I fell on the side of love.)

Thanks for reading!

The Revenant by Michael Punke

The Revenant by Michael Punke

therevenantThe Revenant is a fictional tale based on the real life account of Hugh Glass, a trapper who was attacked by a grizzly bear and then left for dead by the men who had been left to care for him.

This story is so gripping. From the explosive opening moments until the very last page, the reader is practically swept up into the action.

Not only are the men in The Revenant struggling with each other, but Nature herself has a huge role in this survival tale. If the characters aren’t freezing, they’re starving or looking for a safe place to sleep.

This is a particularly excellent read for a cold winter night with a cup of something hot to drink near your elbow.

This would have been a five star read except for the ridiculously unsatisfying conclusion.

It felt like The Revenant suddenly turned from a survival/adventure/revenge story into a tame morality play.

I realize that it is a morality play the whole time, but with all the action and nail-biting tension, it doesn’t “feel” like one until the ending- which I won’t ruin for you, except to say that it was very lame.

My husband read a version of this story called Lord Grizzly when he was in college so, while I was into this one, we were comparing notes on the differences between the two works.

Although varying in small details, the major arcs were the same. I felt as if The Revenant did a better job of building the tension than Lord Grizzly but we both agreed that the ending to the story (in both books) was a let-down.

If you enjoyed reading The Revenant, you may enjoy The Knife of Never Letting Go. Though not based on a true story, it shares the traveling-through-the-wilderness feel and tension of this book.

I received a free copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads. FTC guidelines: check!

And thanks for reading!