Tag Archives: historical

A Noble Cunning: the Countess and the Tower by Patricia Bernstein

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This novel is based on and inspired by the real life bravery of a Scottish countess in 1715. Her name was Winifred Maxwell, Countess of Nithsdale. She saved her husband from certain death by smuggling him out of the Tower.

The character in the book is Bethan Glentaggert, Countess of Clarencefield. When she was a child, her family fled to France with King James II (A Stuart king) when William of Orange and Queen Mary (Stuarts) took the throne. Her family was Catholic and lived in exile for many years. She married at age 27 and moved to Scotland with her husband. They lived happily for a while, having three children, but eventually, when the first Jacobite rebellion (to restore James to the throne) occurred, her husband joined in, taking many of his tenants with him into battle.

With the rebels’ loss at Preston, her husband was taken prisoner and held in the Tower of London awaiting trial. The countess sent her children to safety and traveled to London to try to save her husband.

We, as readers, make the journey with her. Through a terrible winter storm. One of the worst in years. The author did an excellent job with the descriptions and the travails of the trip. A lesser woman might have given up. The countess had to leave her companion at one point and continue on her own. As a modern day woman, I can’t even imagine how scary that was—first, with the weather and then when alone, worrying about cutthroats and robbers. A woman alone was very vulnerable, but she persevered.

Once she arrives in London, she visits her husband in the Tower and gets him legal counsel to try to fight the treason charges. She also tries to plead to the king to let him go free. She hatches a back-up plan to try to save him if the legal case doesn’t go well.

The book was full of historical details and the author did an excellent job of painting the reader a picture of the era. It was as if we were there with the intrepid countess in the snow and in the Tower. The feeling of fear she felt for her husband and what would happen to him read very real.

The only disappointment I had with the book was the ending. I wanted more information about what happened when the countess joined her husband at the culmination of her brave and daring plan. I guess I’ll have to read one of the books in the bibliography at the end of the novel to learn more about the real life lady who took on the British establishment.

Review – Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton

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This is a fictionalized story based on the very real kindertransport trains and ferries taking Jewish children out of Nazi Europe. The real woman who convinced Eichmann to allow the first 600 children to be transported to London, when England agreed to provide visas for them, was named Geertruida Wijsmuller. She saved a large number of Jewish children’s lives, first by taking two and three, and sometimes as many as ten, out of Germany and into the Netherlands. She started doing this in the mid-1930s. The situation became more urgent after Hitler invaded Austria. Many countries closed their borders and refused to allow Jewish people entry visas. Tante Truus, as she had the children call her, worked with some highly placed people in England to pressure their parliament to allow children to be evacuated and held in two summer camps until foster families could take them in. After the war, she was granted Righteous Among the Nations status.

The story in this book centers on two families. One a wealthy Jewish chocolatier who has a wife suffering from cancer. They have two sons, Stephan and Walter. The other, a barber, a Christian grandfather who has a widowed daughter-in-law with two daughters. One is Zofie-Helene and the other Johanna. Their mother is a journalist who is very outspoken against the Nazis.

The story starts with both families living their normal lives and Zofie and Stephan becoming close friends. She’s mathematically gifted and he’s interested in being a playwright.

The chapters alternate between their stories and the story of Tante Truus and her rescues of small groups of children and the dangers she faces in that endeavor.

With Truus in the Netherlands and the others in Vienna, I wondered in the early parts of the book how she was going to help them being as they are quite a ways apart.

When Germany annexes Austria with not so much as a shot fired and seemingly overnight, Stephan’s family’s life undergoes a massive change. His father is taken to a camp and he goes into hiding as he is of an age where the Nazis want to inter him in a camp as well. His brother is only five and, at this time, they were not taking children that young to the camps.

Zofie’s mother, a Christian, eventually gets taken by the Nazis due to her unwelcome stories pointing out their conduct which she won’t stop writing even though she is pressured to do so. The two girls are left with their grandfather.

The story unfolded at a good pace. Some of the parts were very hard to read. The author depicted the utterly senseless cruelty of the Nazis and their adherents very well. It always amazes me how terribly awful these people could be to other people. And how the population turned on people who had been their friends and fellow citizens just days prior.

The author also did a good job showing the fear and terror of the ordinary citizen and why so many didn’t speak up to try to stop the atrocities they witnessed. A great part of the population was cowed and if they spoke up, they would be punished severely as well. Some of them tortured and murdered merely for voicing an opinion—or for nothing at all, even an imagined slight.

It was a harrowing read but one I recommend for several reasons. One, the story of the main characters in Vienna seems to be a reflection of what a lot of families went through during this time. Two, the story of Geertruida Wijsmuller is a story of how one person can make a massive difference in the lives of so many. One voice, one brave soul, she saved so many and gave them a chance at life and that is amazing. And third, with the seeming resurgence of some of the awful ideas the Nazi’s had, this is an important read. We must never, ever, let these things happen again and the author of this book makes what happened to Jewish people, as well as anyone who disagreed with the Nazi ideals in that time, all very real and relatable with the characters she created.

This one is well worth a read.

Rizzio by Denise Mina

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This story about the murder of David Rizzio, the private secretary of Mary Queen of Scots was a quick read. A much fuller picture of what happened that night and the days to follow than I’d read previously

What the conspirators put the poor man through was brutal and violent. The terror he must have experienced was gut-wrenching even reading about it more than 460 years later. Queen Mary’s fear for her life as well as her child’s and the way her own husband tried to force her to have a miscarriage was awful. Imagine spending a whole night and day thinking you’re going to be killed any moment and there is no escape. And that your husband is part of the plot to kill you and your child. Such a savage era in history.

Of course, in some places, life can still be vicious and this retelling of the events of that night in 1566 reminded me that some people still live in places where such violence can be a daily occurrence. This reader counts herself lucky that she can read about such horrors without the kind of fear people face both in the past and in our time.

This killing boiled down to two things in my opinion—(1) an immature, jealous husband who was dissatisfied with his lot in life as consort, not king in his own right and (2) the greed and avarice of courtiers who saw this as their chance to take what they wanted and get rid of Mary. They played right into Darnley’s fantasy of being king and used that for their own ends with no intention of giving him his heart’s desire. A lot of nefarious people in Edinburgh.

The author here clearly researched the time frame extensively. I had not read about Henry Yair and his murder of Father Adam Black on the same night. That was an interesting part of the story I had not heard about before. Fanaticism seemed rife in that era for sure.

I can’t say I liked the book as it was a terrible, terrible time in Scotland’s history, but I did learn a lot and appreciate the author’s work in fleshing out this story. It was well-written and, as it was also brutally truthful, it was a heartbreaking read. 4 stars.

Bluebird by Genevieve Graham- a Review

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I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

This story starts out in Belgium in WWI. The heroine, Adele, is a nurse in an army hospital. These women were called Bluebirds because of their uniforms of light blue and white. Adele has been there for a while and has been able to keep her distance from the injured men she helps treat. The nurses are encouraged not to become personally involved with the patients and Adele works hard to not get attached..

Then a tunneler named Jeremy is brought in wounded severely and requiring a lot of care. These tunnelers were vital to the war effort and spent all their time underground setting explosives to aid their comrades who were fighting above ground.  Jerry’s brother, John is also a tunneler and saves Jerry from an explosion by the enemy and makes sure his brother is brought to the hospital. The nurse assigned to Jerry is Adele.

At first, due to his injuries, Jerry can’t talk. Adele spends time with him reading to him and chatting. They draw close, but eventually, Jerry heals and heads back to the front and they lose contact.

Both Jerry and Adele are Canadian and from the same general area of Ontario. When Jerry returns home with his brother, he tries to find Adele but is unsuccessful and fears she died in Belgium. Adele is likewise sure Jerry didn’t survive.

The story follows each of them as they rebuild their lives. This part of the book seemed to drag a bit. Honestly, a lot of the story was slow moving and it took me many days to get through that middle part.

The action eventually picked up after the two of them found their niches in the world. Adele went to work for a local doctor. Jerry and his brother entered the dangerous line of work of running illegal alcohol to the United States during prohibition. This was when the book picked up the pace.

Run-ins with a former friend turned enemy brought a sense of urgency to the plot and this reader enjoyed the new quicker pace of the tale.

It was obvious the author delved deep into research of the era, including the nursing corps of Canada in WWI, the tunnelers of that war and the prohibition era dangers to the smugglers and competitors in the business. There were a lot of intriguing parts such as the various ways the rum-runners got their liquor across the border to sell it, including all the ways they hid bottles in the automobiles. It was also interesting to learn about the way the restaurants in Canada offered free liquor if the patron ordered food as a way to get around the laws in place. This reader wasn’t familiar with Canada’s laws during prohibition, so a lot of the information was new. The author was deft at sliding in the historical details without making the story read like a history lesson.

Overall, the book was good and well-developed. Parts were slow, but I enjoyed the characters and the real history of the times being artfully inserted. I’d recommend this one. 4 stars.

Burke and the Pimpernel Affair by Tom Williams- A Review

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I enjoy historical tales and chose this one to review based on the year it was set. This book was part of a series, but it doesn’t need to be read in order in my opinion. It was easy to figure out who everyone was and the adventure in this story was self-contained. The setting was after the French Revolution era and into the times of the England/France wars with Napoleon.  The main characters, James Burke and his sergeant, William Brown, were sent from England to find the leak in the English spy network. Many of the agents working for England were going missing on the route from the channel to Paris.

Brown went into France with a group of French patriots whose mission was to sabotage certain enemy strongholds and one who was to distribute anti Napoleonic propaganda. They were to take the circuitous route into Paris, moving from safe house to safe house.

Burke followed behind them to be the lookout on the ground to figure out just where the leak or unsafe house was located.

Adventure ensues as the reader follows the route of the group as well as Burke. Some tense moments were in store on the road to Paris.

The story also contains scenes with the French spymaster, Fouche’ as he plots from his office and plans his tortures of any prisoners he can get his hands on. He’s especially interested in any spies from England.  

As the tale unfolds, dangers are around every corner. The action becomes intense and without spoilers, it’s hard to say much more. Suffice it to say, there were many times this reader was on the edge of her seat.

The author did an excellent job recreating the scenes of both the countryside and Paris of the era. I could almost smell the putrid streets of the city and the woods in the country. His descriptions of the interiors of palaces, cottages and the prison were also well done. The labyrinth of the office building/archives/prison was especially well done. The description of the darkness and many passages heightened the anxiety of the parts of the book that took place there.

A very immersive tale that I think was well executed and enjoyable even through the harrowing parts.  Four stars.

A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein- a Review

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I got this book from Barnes and Noble when they had all their hardbacks on sale for half-price after Christmas. I really racked up that day as I had a gift card and some cash gifts to spend on me and book stores are my jam.

The cover of this book drew me in immediately. I like the Tudor era and have read a lot of both fiction and nonfiction set in that time period.  This one was fiction and about Christopher Marlowe. A lot of the story was clearly historically inaccurate, but that didn’t take away from the tale at all.

The author placed Kit in interesting situations, including the plot with Babington and Mary, Queen of Scots.  I liked that she did that as it made the history of the time period (with artistic license, of course) more vivid, especially with the description of the beheading of the prisoner queen. It was visceral for the reader and emotional for our protagonist.

One of the things that made me sad and hurt a lot for Marlowe was the way he was treated by the people he was recruited to work for as a spy. They were unkind and basically treated him like he was less than human. It was as if they had no idea he had feelings and loved ones. All they wanted was what they wanted with no regard for him as a person. I imagine that part was definitely historically accurate. Him being in the corridors of power must have really rankled with some of the people who deemed themselves above him. The class system was in full swing—as I’m sure is still true in some areas of the world but it hurt my heart to read how badly he was treated when all he wanted to do was help his country and he kept his loyalties to the crown even in the face of this terrible treatment.

The author, Allison Epstein, did a marvelous job in making this time period come alive. In some passages, I could swear I smelled the stench of the streets, the pubs and the jail cell. Dingy, dark alleys evoked creepiness and the castles with candles and stoic, cruel men were easy to visualize as well. The memory of Fotheringay Castle with its dead queen on the floor, bloodied and surrounded by beads of her rosary lived on in the mind of our protagonist as well as this reader.

Overall, this was a good story. I can’t really say I enjoyed it due to the sadness and the way poor Kit was treated. And, we all know how Marlowe’s life ended, so reading the book with that inevitable ending in mind, I’d have to say that even though it was not a pleasant read, it was compelling and I’m glad I picked it up. I recommend it as a must-read, but be ready to be appalled by man’s inhumanity to man…even in a work of fiction.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, A Review

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Set in 1950 in Mexico, this book appealed to me initially because the cover is so beautiful and because I’ve loved gothic tales since I was a young reader. I have to say, the book did not disappoint. It definitely lived up to the promise made by the cover. It was creepy and had just the right touch of horror.

The author is very adept at descriptions. Her moldy, genteel, neglected manor house was sufficiently sinister and so easy to picture with the atmospheric way the author detailed the wallpaper, the darkness of the place, the shadows and the crumbling textures of the various rooms. Not much electrical light in the house and the use of candles and lanterns added to the eerie atmosphere.

The inhabitants of the home were also well-drawn. The patriarch of the family the heroine came to stay with when she was concerned about her cousin was utterly horrific and macabre. The way the author conjured him and his smelly breath and scent of decay was absolutely divine (if you like creep-tastic descriptions).  I could almost smell the nastiness rolling off him. It was deliciously horrifying.

One character I loved to hate was the female resident of the house—not the heroine’s cousin, but the mother of the only remotely normal person (and that’s saying a lot) in the house. This woman was awful and just completely unkind to the heroine. No talking at dinner, controlling her son, controlling the heroine’s cousin and just being an all-around hateful person. I wanted to smack her.  

The story itself had traditional elements of the gothic genre as well as a lot of horror elements. It kind of reminded me of the movie Crimson Peak–at least in the descriptions of the manor house that had fallen into disrepair and neglect.  Mold and mushrooms were a big theme in the story and I don’t think I’ve ever been so unsettled by mushrooms in my life. I loved it, though.

A sense of foreboding which is essential to gothic stories was seeped into every page after the first chapter or two. The dawning horror the heroine faced built in a fabulous manner and by the last few chapters, I was on edge for her and wondered how the author was going to resolve the dilemmas our heroine found herself in.

I usually figure out stories really early on, but this one had some twists and turns I didn’t see coming and I really enjoyed that. All in all, this was a great read. Not sure I want to eat any mushrooms after that, though.  🙂

Over the Hedge by Paulette Mahurin, A Review

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This one was hard to read for a number of reasons. The main one, of course, was the brutality of the subject matter. This book was harrowing and, often times, turned the reader’s stomach as to the behavior of human beings who took joy and pleasure in harming other humans. The Nazi regime created many monsters. The one question that will forever haunt me on the atrocities of the acts on Jewish people is did the regime create these monsters or were so many already lurking in society and they were freed and allowed to run rampant based on there being no consequences (at least during those years when the evil was in power)?

The heroes and heroine of this true to life story were amazing and awe-inspiring. That two of them were Jewish themselves and risked it all to save children is admirable. They didn’t hide away, though who could have blamed them if they had? The fact they survived and made a difference as long as they did was remarkable. Henriette Pimental and Walter Suskind were truly angels on earth for the children they helped to escape and give a chance to live. Johan van Hulst, the professor who started it all, was also a brave man to not sit back and allow innocent lives to be destroyed. It’s terrible that they weren’t able to save more, but those they did save were reward enough. Every life that went on was a victory.

This was a tale that everyone needs to read even though the subject matter is tough.

The two faults I found with the book was it was hard to tell if it was a fictionalized version of facts or if it was a true and accurate telling of the actual events. The tale moved from almost reading like a text book to dialogue and dramatization. In places it was dry and then it would segue to an almost novel-like approach. The cover states it’s a novel, but it was hard to tell by the actual text. The other fault was the paragraph formatting. It may have just been in the ARC copy I have, but the formatting was disjointed throughout. Hanging sentences that joined up after an inserted return all through the copy made it hard to read properly.

I can’t say I enjoyed the book, but it definitely made an impression. The author did a good job in showing the reader just how awful and harrowing the residents of the Netherlands had it in WWII. What a terrible time and place for so many to have to endure. I’m sure it was hard for the author to write as it was definitely hard to read.

The Gilded Shroud by Elizabeth Bailey

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This story set in the 1790s was intriguing and a solid read. The heroine (a widow) becomes a companion to a dowager marchioness when her nephews she was helping raise left for school. Her brother wanted her to stay on with him and his wife but the heroine wanted an adventure and the job was temporary as the dowager marchioness’ regular companion was recovering from a broken leg.

Our heroine definitely got her adventure. Pretty soon after she arrived at the home of the dowager, the current marchioness was found dead in her bed—strangled. And the kicker? The lady had been heard to be arguing loudly, in the middle of the night, with her husband, the marquis. The marquis ordered his carriage and horses shortly after the argument was heard and that morning when the body is discovered, he’s nowhere to be found. Maybe he absconded to France where he has a second home? Or did he run elsewhere after killing his wife?

The heroine, a sharp lady with a keen mind, sets herself the task of finding the murderer—she doesn’t know the marquis but with the family in disarray over their fears for his life if he’s found and convicted of his wife’s death—to say nothing of the scandal—she feels she needs to pitch in and assist the marquis’s younger brother in the task of clearing the marquis’s name.

The dowager is a plucky lady too and won’t tolerate anyone treating her as if she’s elderly and incapable of being in on the unmasking of the villain. She plays a big role in the book and I liked that she wasn’t shunted aside.

As the investigation ensues, the reader is caught up in the clues with the three main characters. I confess, I figured out who did it early on, but still enjoyed the story and how the author tied up all the parts and loose ends. A bit of romance thrown in as well made this an enjoyable read.

The Blitz Bus by Glen Blackwell

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I received a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

This middle grade book is a good one for children to learn about the London Blitz and WWII days of 1940. The main characters, Jack and Emmie are in modern day London and Jack is assigned to write an essay about the London Blitz and how a lot of children were evacuated to the countryside during that time. Meanwhile, in Emmie’s drama class, they are acting out the children leaving their parents.

Jack has a hard time envisioning the city at that time and is kept back at school that afternoon to finish his paper,, making him almost late to meet his friend Emmie. 

When they are finally on the bus headed home, they look out and see a shop they haven’t seen before.  In the window is a mannequin who has a gas mask.

Exiting the bus, there is a large unexplained bang. It’s raining and they take shelter at a tube station. Everyone is dressed differently than Emmie and Jack. There are cots set up in the station. The two children think they’ve stumbled onto a film set. Until very real bombs start falling and they find themselves in the middle of an air raid.

They make friends with a boy in the shelter, but don’t tell him they have somehow come from another time period.

The adventure really begins here. Jack and Emmie discover food lines, cratered buildings, rationing, bombs, anti-aircraft balloons, air raid shelters in yards, and, as well, have to hide from authorities. They fear spies are around and being taken for spies themselves with their modern items like Jack’s calculator. They find some help from their new friend, Jan, a boy from Poland.  

Even though I am nowhere near the age for middle grade stories, I enjoy them and this one was particularly good. The fact that the children were studying this era in school and couldn’t imagine how people were living and then were transported there is very educational—yet done in a fun way—A lot of interesting historical facts came through in a way that entertains and would have a younger reader on the edge of their seat worried about the two protagonists and how they would solve their problems as well as how they would be able to get back to their own time period.

The only thing I would have liked to be added to the story would be an epilogue of the children finding the friends they made in the 21st century when the friends were elderly. That would have been a fun ending. Overall, I was happy with the story and would recommend it to the middle grade age group as a history lesson full of interesting reading that will hold their interest.